It had never been difficult for Caleb to explain away affection.
Everyone had motives, thoughts that formed their goals and drove their actions. Taking anyone but children and animals at their word was something Caleb still struggled with.
After spending months with this group of wild lunatics, he was slowly learning how to read and anticipate them. Find their motives.
Molly was very demonstrative with his physical affection. It seemed to make him feel secure in his own skin. Maybe not his skin… Mollymauk seemed incredibly comfortable in that. It went deeper. Safe in own his mind, perhaps?
Yasha bore most of the brunt of the touches, allowing Molly to re-braid her hair in the mornings and lean into her side during slow moments. Once, Caleb had stumbled upon the two of them hugging in such a sincere way that his eyes pricked, and he turned on his heel and left the shabby inn’s room without pause. No one spoke of it come morning.
Yasha herself was more practical with her emotions, bringing small gifts back whenever she deviated from the party. A favourite snack here, a shiny bauble there, once a very beautiful leather book-- nothing extravagant enough to give herself away, and only ever one gift at a time. It made Caleb think someone in her past had not returned as faithfully as she forced herself to.
So this too was a measure of making oneself secure. The glimmer of selfishness in the actions made it easier for Caleb to trust them.
It wasn’t real affection, it was preservation of self. Of one's security.
Beau wasn’t as big a puzzle as she wished to paint herself. She hated being told what to do. She would lash back against anyone who tried, and was much calmer and more casually vulgar when someone didn’t try to tell her the way she was doing things was wrong. Caleb had taken to reminding her to lace her boots properly every morning so he wouldn’t have to hear her call him ‘hot stuff’ again.
Jester had been a little harder to comprehend. She was fierce, proud, and incredibly vocal in all things--especially affection and flirtation; a clearly performative element that kept all eyes on her. But only what she wanted you to see. In many ways she was more talented in sleight of hand than Molly, or even Nott. She kept her hardships buried deep.
Nott was the easiest. Caleb knew her the longest. She needed him as much as he needed her. Her affection came from gratitude and safety, treating her as a real person granted him her trust and loyalty. It was an easy equation, he just didn’t calculate in how much it would, in turn, affect him. He found himself wanting Nott to enjoy his company. Wanting her to mean it when she said he was her friend, that she liked him. He liked her too.
There was only one real puzzle yet.
Caleb couldn’t find Fjord’s motives.
He liked to take a leadership role, that was clear. Some element of providing and caring for people pleased him but--
But the nicknames. It just pushed the whole thing over the top.
For Nott, he almost understood. Caleb could hardly fight off the urge to call her putzig sometimes.
But sweet pea seemed to be stretching it, just a tad. Nott had been visibly taken aback, and then overjoyed in quick succession after the name slipped out. Fjord had been scolding her about is miscalculation in her plot to steal some tapestry off a lord’s wall, but had sensed the need to reassure her when she started to look a little cowed.
So, he had called her sweet pea.
And then later, bug, and then grabby, and then possum. Nott ate it all up, beaming at every new term. It stirred something in Caleb’s chest that might have been jealousy. He wasn’t particularly sure which direction it was going in.
Jester had all sorts of nicknames thrown her way; jinx, trick, kid, even once Caleb had heard Fjord call her cabbage.
Molly got an array of bird names that suited any situation. Fjord seemed to normally fall back on turtledove, which struck the right note of irony and fondness that made them both comfortable.
Beau seemed to make it clear she was the one to give nicknames to Fjord and not the other way around. Caleb had heard more variations and combinations of the words ‘man’, ‘hunk’ and ‘beef’ than he had in his entire life in the last five months.
Yasha got off the easiest by far, her name got shortened to Yash’ and it was left at that. The first incident when Fjord had called her peach hadn’t gone well for anyone involved or in the general vicinity.
“What’s got you so in your head, darlin’?”
Caleb looked up from where he had been staring at the open book in his lap sightlessly for the last twenty-eight minutes. The fire was roaring a few meters away at his back, the rest of the party gathered around it, singing some horrible song and filling the night with an almost drunken sense of camaraderie.
He blinked up at Fjord who was standing over him, arms crossed, eyebrow raised, and the barest suggestion of a smile tugging at the corner of his lips. The fire’s light painted over his broad angles and lean lines. The smell of fire smoke drifted on the same breeze that wafted through the tall grass, his own hair, and then Fjords’, pulling at them both.
Normally, it was so easy to dismiss affection. Find the motivation, find the history, find the real feelings under someone’s porcelain mask and everything can be explained away.
But Fjord. Fjord felt like a different matter entirely.
“I am just thinking of travel plans.” Caleb lied.
Fjord nodded and gestured to the spot beside Caleb questioningly. Caleb nodded a little too quickly and Fjord sat on his sleeping roll, lifting his eyes after he was settled.
“You and Nott thinking of heading out?”
“What?” Caleb couldn’t help the indignant tone slip into his voice.
Fjord sat up straight, “I just mean-- You were lookin’ restless and the fight today was really bad, you came close to--”
Caleb raised his hand and Fjord stopped talking. Caleb covered his mouth and thought too long about what to say next. Fjord didn’t make a sound, but he did shift a little, the fabric under him rustling in the dark. Caleb could hear Nott and Jester crowing with laughter at Beau’s impression of the flesh gollum they had fought off earlier that day. Molly and Yasha were murmuring together, sewing Caleb’s overcoat back together from the rips said flesh gollum had seen fit to tear into it.
Caleb dragged his eyes up to meet Fjords and lowered his hand.
“Nott loves being with you all. I would never take her from that.”
Fjord nodded for a moment, maintaining eye contact. Caleb new the question was coming, but that didn’t mean he had an answer.
Caleb looked up into the night sky, the canopy branches spread dark fingers over his view, flickering orange, gold, red by the firelight. He couldn’t quite see the stars.
“I would not take her from that.” Caleb repeated, softer this time.
“Caleb, if you ain’t happy here--”
Fjord inhaled. “Oh.”
“I am happy here.” Caleb lowered his gaze from the sky. The night was warm and the breeze switched directions, bringing with it the scent of some flower Caleb didn’t know.
“Well I’m glad to hear that, sugar. I can think of quite a few people who are pretty pleased with our current arrangements.” Fjord caught his eye by ducking into Caleb’s line of sight. He slowly and deliberately smiled, “Including me.”
“Why do you do that?”
They both blinked, surprised at how blunt Caleb had been.
“Uh… Do what?” Fjord said, after waiting for Caleb to speak and losing patience. “Reassure people?”
“No, no that’s clear enough-- you want people to feel comfortable because that’s how you feel comfortable. I mean the nicknames.” Caleb might as well-- he was in it now.
Fjord was silent for a long time, just looking at Caleb. “You’re awful confident in your analysis.”
Caleb shrugged and pushed his hair away from his face. He said nothing.
“They ain’t nicknames.” Fjord said, his voice low and rumbling. It reminded Caleb of thunder, the electricity of a storm. “They’re endearments.”
“And what is the difference between a nickname and an endearment.” Caleb asked, voice level. Fjord crossed his arms. Then uncrossed them and pinched the bridge of his nose.
“They just-- They just are.” Fjord gestured broadly with his hand, smacking into a nearby bush. “Nickname is something you call someone and endearment is--”
“An expression of affection. Yes. I understand that. But--” Caleb waved his hand and leaned a little closer, tilting his head to the side. “--why?”
Fjord glanced over his shoulder, double checking on everyone else. They were all consumed with each other. Beau had clambered up on Molly’s shoulders and they were acting out the gollum attack.
Nott had put on Caleb’s coat and was miming firing off spells. Jester laid ‘passed out’ on a rock and Yasha let out a roar before throwing herself bodily between the recreated flesh monster and Nott, who was swearing in German about being out of spells.
Caleb blinked as Yasha wrapped Nott up in her arms and rolled them both out of the monsters’ reach. Jester popped up, miraculously awake, and yelled “and then Fjord kissed him and they professed their undying love for each other and ran off into the bushes to--!”
Yasha straightened up and patted Nott on the head, “I’m not doing that. Sorry, little one.”
Nott waved her hands in front of her, stuttering about how it was just fine, that wasn’t really how she remembered the fight going anyway.
Caleb also didn’t remember the battle taking quite that direction.
But Fjord had leaped bodily in front of Caleb, that much was true. His eyes wandered back to Fjord’s, who was already looking at him.
“You askin’ me why I express affection?” Fjord jerked his thumb over his shoulder, pointing at their party members who were still laughing and trying to wrestle Molly and Beau to the ground. “That’s why. Because I like these people. I like you.”
Caleb felt his eyebrows draw together.
Fjord snorted and fell back onto his bed roll, landing on his elbows. A smile slid across his face. “That ain’t supposed to be a brain-teaser. That there is an unbiased fact.”
“Hm.” Caleb kept his mouth shut.
The crickets were loud tonight, lightening bugs toured through the campsite. One got too close to Nott and surprised her, making her yelp. Jester proposed that whoever found the exact bug that spooked the goblin would be given some sort of reward. The camp emptied for all but Yasha who called over her shoulder that she was going off to get more firewood.
Her footsteps faded quickly and Caleb wondered when she would be back.
“Do you want me to stop?” Fjord asked, after sitting up again.
Caleb fought the urge to look down at his own hands. Rough and flaking with gollum blood, he needed to wash them before they ate.
“Caleb?” Fjord watched Caleb stand and quickly followed his movement.
“I’m going to get started on dinner.” Caleb raised his hands, “Got to clean these first.”
He walked toward the stream they had found when picking a camp. Fjord followed him.
“Do I take this as a yes or a no, Caleb?” A hint of frustration had snuck into Fjord’s tone. Caleb wasn’t used to having that directed at him. That was the third time tonight Fjord had said his name. It still hadn’t stopped giving Caleb a jolt. Fjord hadn’t called him by exclusively his name in the last three months they had all been traveling together.
It was all these endearments. These expressions of Fjords ‘real affection’. Dear when they had been trying to decide how much coin they could spend on new gear and Caleb was holding the purse strings a little too tight. Hun when Caleb had gotten a little too excited in a bookstore, arms piled so high with books he had tripped over his own feet and Fjord had caught his arm. Doll came out when Fjord was particularly sleepy and affectionate, especially when Caleb was bringing him food.
Sometimes when particularly drunk, or with less blood than really mandatory in his body Fjord would smile a dopey smile with soft eyes and softer hands, reach out for Caleb and call him handsome.
They reached the stream. Out here Caleb could see the stars and the moon, still low to the horizon line. The water rushed and tumbled over stones, filling the air with the soft sound of running water. Caleb knelt and washed his hands.
Fjord leaned against a nearby tree, silent and frustrated.
The blood curled off his hands and was carried down the stream, swirling away from his pale skin. The water was freezing cold and a sobering reminder of the ending of summer waiting in the coming weeks. His hands started to numb, but Caleb still didn’t remove them.
He swallowed. “I don’t want them to stop.”
“Pardon? I can’t hear you over the water--”
Caleb stood up and turned around, locking his gaze on Fjord’s. He straightened his back and shoulders. “I don’t wish for them to stop. These endearments. I like hearing them.”
Fjord stepped closer, eye contact unbreaking. “Oh. I… Right. Okay.”
Caleb shivered. It was cold without his overcoat and his wet hands. That was the singular reason for the gooseflesh on his arms and the tremor in his hands.
Caleb was good at explaining away affection. But this was harder. This wasn’t just affection.
He could feel his heart beating. The sound of the pounding drowned out the water behind him. He took a step closer to Fjord.
Caleb was not brave. But he was impulsive.
Fjord kissed him back without hesitation. As soon as Caleb got close enough Fjord had reached out and pulled him the rest of the way. Instantly, Caleb was warmed. It felt like his chest was glowing. Fjords big hands shifted against Caleb’s thin shirt, rucking it up slightly, leaving Caleb’s skin hypersensitive to the touch and temperature.
Fjord kissed him with a single mindedness that told Caleb just how long those endearments had been Fjord asking for exactly this.
Fjord drew back. One of his hands had travelled up Caleb’s body and now was cupping his cheek, warm and steady. Caleb eased his eyes open, feeling the smile on his lips, just under the phantom feeling of Fjord’s kiss.
“So, we keep the endearments?” Fjord asked, voice impossibly lower than normal. There was an insecurity in his eyes, nothing deep but asking for reassurance.
“Yes, my love.” Caleb said, quiet. Fjord’s hand shifted so it could comb through Caleb’s hair. They smiled at each other.
Caleb wanted to kiss him all over again.
So, he did.