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gravity, heresy, and other quiet pursuits

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“I have not, ah, experimented much with it,” Caleb admitted, his gaze flicking away, glancing over shelves, the spines of books, and finally down to the floor, his shoulders oddly set. 

He had stilled, remained where he stood just a few paces shy of the small table in the middle of Essek’s study where he’d led them to a stop. Just a few paces shy of Essek.

They were accustomed to one another’s quiet company, when those lingering excuses for lessons drifted to a gentle, indeterminate end; when Caleb wouldn’t quite make his polite offer to see himself out and Essek wouldn’t quite ask him to. And so they returned to their appropriate ends of the table, or couch, or library, carrying on with their respective work in companionable silence. 

And Essek would sit and stare at whatever text was before him without seeing, running his fingertips along the outside of his own thigh under the table, still a burning line where Caleb had been pressed to his side just minutes before. And contemplate the echoes of his body heat, and pretend to focus on anything else. 

Essek hummed his polite acknowledgement. “I cannot imagine you had adequate time nor space for such things, that far north,” he excused, carefully neutral. 

Caleb inclined his head to the side, almost a shrug. Not quite. 

He didn’t hazard a step any closer.

The distance between them ebbed and flowed. Essek knew this. It expanded across continents and contracted again, always again. Inexorable, inescapable, Essek had yet to find the outer limits, either in time or space, of this gravitational field in which he found himself trapped. Of course it was Caleb who would come and go in orbit through his world, but it was Essek who felt like looking at the man was staring into the Luxon damned sun.

And so Essek kept his glance cautious, hesitating to coax the low candlelight of his study into something more useful for human eyes so that his fleeting attempt to catalogue the unfamiliar tension between Caleb’s shoulders and in his brow might go unnoticed.

Caleb drew in a slightly deeper breath, exhaling slowly. Still avoided meeting Essek’s gaze. 

Uncomfortable, he identified, a tentative guess that seemed too obvious, too unhelpfully nonspecific. He set the observation aside. 

Anxious? Essek hoped he had no cause to be, not here. That thought clenched like a fist inside his chest, worry working its way up into his throat. 

Something he had done? Something the Nein had not shared about their journey to Eiselcross? Only questions he had no hope of answering followed.

But Essek’s eyes caught the way Caleb fingers toyed with the ends of his sleeves, eyes dancing across the neat stacks of parchment and tomes decorating the table top without truly seeing them. Like his usual curiosity had abandoned him. 

“Caleb?”

Caleb visibly shook himself free of his thoughts a belated moment later, his eyes finally lifting to meet Essek’s, that keen focus and startling blue like shattered stained glass piercing right through him.

Distracted

The conclusion came as a surprising relief.

Ja,” Caleb exhaled, the corner of his mouth trying at a polite smile as he inclined his head to the side, slightly less than agreement. “It was… as you say. Yes.”

Graviturgy. He was meant to be good at that. A prodigy. Yet this distance, a few feet, felt insurmountable somehow. And it ate away at that place in his chest softened by Caleb’s mere presence in a way he could not fashion words for, much less admit to himself.

Essek shoved his mind’s tangent aside. He raised an eyebrow. “But?”

Caleb shrugged, glancing away before his gaze returned again. Searching for the right words? Or not eager to share. Essek cursed himself silently for pressing.

“But it reminded some of the others a bit too much of the Hap– of the Archmage’s Bane, and I was, ah, encouraged strongly, you could say, not to tinker with it.” Caleb danced around the details, his eyes alight with that strange mix of fondness and annoyance he so often wore in speaking of his friends. Their friends. Though beneath even that, something weighed on him heavier.

“I see,” Essek chuckled. He returned his eyes, though not his full attention, to the contraption in his hands of which they spoke, already put through the basics of simple Identify and Detect Magic spells, which while not revealing all its mysteries, revealed enough to make the comparison to Halas’s domain almost humorous. “I assume you explained this little trinket holds nothing of an arcane nature in common with your ‘Happy Fun Ball’?” he teased gently. 

It pulled a slightly abashed grin, soft at the edges, to Caleb’s lips. And fragile warmth uncurling behind Essek’s sternum.

“You would assume correct,” Caleb said, clearing his throat. “But I, well,” he sighed, his gaze flicking away again, a skittish thing to hold and keep—something Essek found more and more he desperately wanted. “Perhaps I let my curiosity, ah, my stubbornness, get the better of me one too many times while we were up there. To… less than desirable consequences,” Caleb admitted with a grimace. He ducked his head slightly. “I do not begrudge them for their –” He paused, exhaled, mulling the words over carefully. “I have shaken their trust in my judgement a bit when it comes to these things, but that is fair, I –”

He was wrong; it was so easy, too easy, to bridge that space between them. Caleb’s words faltered on his tongue as he felt Essek’s fingers, gentle, nudging his chin up to look at him, soft surprise written in the dark pools of his eyes, in his faintly parted lips, breath caught in his chest.

“If they know you half as well as I do, Caleb Widogast, and I believe they do,” Essek chastised softly, because he had seen Caleb at his most confident, at his most competent, and something about this admission was crushing. Was unacceptable. “Then surely that is an incorrect assessment.”

He let his hand fall back to his side, suddenly too conscious of the fact it was all too easy to let it stay, or worse, to move closer. Essek cleared his throat. 

“Impulsivity and curiosity, even curiosity at its absolute worst bounds,” he insisted, “are two very different things. The former has been known to get even the most experienced arcanists into trouble, but anyone who knows you can see that you, my friend,” he offered with a small smile, “are thankfully only plagued by the latter.”

Essek tried not to let his eyes linger for too long on Caleb’s throat as he swallowed, tongue darting over his lower lip, his eyes landing over Essek’s shoulder to focus on nothing in particular. 

“I, ah,” Caleb began, a faint rasp entering his voice, “have been known to make a calculated risk or two.”

Essek smiled, a fledgling thing, but Caleb pulled it from him alarmingly easily. “How else would true discovery be made?”

Caleb’s eyes flashed with something warm and indecipherable, gone again just as quickly. “How else, indeed,” he echoed quietly.

Essek forced his attention back to the small, delicately crafted metal contraption he had placed on the table before him. Whatever was vying to occupy Caleb’s thoughts that evening, it wasn’t this, whatever it was the Mighty Nein had pulled from the belly of Aeor. Picking it up once more, Essek turned it over in his hands, as though he had the mind to study it rather than the wizard that had just gifted it to him. 

Gifted it to him. The act settled strangely with him, unsure how to categorize it, how to respond. But it bloomed, soft and fragile, vining between his ribs and expanding in his lungs. As interesting a sensation as the object itself.

And it was interesting, Essek would admit: a sphere surprisingly heavy for the size of his fist, built of shifting metal plates in a near crystalline structure, inlaid with silver runes and shards of either glass or gemstones or both, and humming with magic as though touch alone had brought the ancient bit of mechanical and arcane construction to life.

Essek couldn’t help but glance back up at Caleb, the soft glow of the distant candles ringing the room casting him in a faint, warm light that suited him terribly, his auburn hair flickering almost copper, even the low swoop of his eyelashes caught in that enchanting light. 

It was selfish. But Essek decided against willing the light in the room brighter. 

He took a deep, cleansing breath. Focused. “You said you believed you understood the basics of how this worked?” Essek prompted, hefting the orb slightly higher as he called Caleb’s attention back to it.

“Ah,” Caleb started, blinking, his expression lifting, the strange mood that had settled between them lifting with it. “Yes, I believe so. Though I, like you say, have not had a proper space to fully test it either.”

Essek could have asked a dozen questions, but opted instead to stand back and watch, allowing Caleb to pluck the sphere from his open palm. More surprising than his sudden focus, his renewed interest, rather than retreat again, rather than move around to the opposite side of the table, Caleb stepped up beside him. 

If Essek leaned closer over Caleb’s shoulder as Caleb began fiddling with moving joints that he hadn’t realized existed on the construct—if he let his eyes flicker between the puzzle of delicate metalwork Caleb twisted in his hands and the enraptured expression that took over the fine lines of Caleb’s face, the concentration that tugged at his brow, the way he worried at his lip between his teeth—Essek would berate himself silently for it later. 

It was Caleb’s sharp, shallow breath more than the gentle click and humming sound that came from the device in his hands that made Essek straighten and focus again on the sphere. Its metal plates had shifted apart, rotating such that the latticework of fragmented crystals and translucent gemstones set within the thin metal bands moved to the outside of the sphere, which had itself expanded to twice its size, its arrangement of colors defying both pattern and reason. 

“Fascinating,” he murmured, trying to lean in closer, but Caleb quickly set it on the middle of the table atop a small base that had emerged from the shifting silvery plates and bands which were still moving, rotating slowly about the sphere. 

“Just wait,” Caleb breathed, his hand settling at Essek’s elbow, tugging slightly, the suggestion he step a few paces back from the table with him. 

Essek followed, saying nothing when Caleb’s hand stayed on his arm, a forgivable oversight as a strange excitement touched both their nerves, uncertainty and curiosity palpable as this ancient bit of expertly conjoined machinery and magic purred to life after centuries lost to the ice. Essek watched with no small amount of interest as, with a gentle flicker, a low light began to emanate from the core of the slowly rotating sphere, illuminating the menagerie of colorful shards and the silver scrollwork inlaid between them. 

Caleb’s rapt attention snapped to Essek suddenly, and, pressed close to his side as he was, there was barely a breath between them when Essek turned, blinking, to face him. “Do you mind if I–” Caleb began, gesturing vaguely at the room. 

He hadn’t finished his request before Essek nodded, torn between the rare sky blue of Caleb’s eyes and the lights display beginning to take form around the sphere on the table. 

With a word murmured on an exhale and a wave of his free hand, Caleb made the decision for him, snuffing the candles around the study and plunging them into darkness. 

Into what would have been darkness. 

Essek found his breath caught in his throat.

Against the dark backdrop of the high ceiling and arches of his study, a veritable cosmos burst into existence. 

Stars, an impossible number—some of them pinpricks of light seemingly as distant as those in the night sky, some Essek mistook for planets at first as they floated by, their dusty gold surfaces near enough to touch—danced through the galaxy taking form around them. Pulsing pinks, greens and golds of massive nebulae morphed hazily in their far away corners, blanketed by that sea of stars. Slowly rotating solar systems of shifting colors, yellow suns orbited by gradients of shimmering purple and blues celestial bodies and the asteroid belts caught in their orbits, swam through a space which made Essek feel both impossibly miniscule and immense, the universe expanding before and behind and around them. Swallowed them, standing frozen in the middle. 

Essek felt, heard, Caleb’s shaky breath, his grip tightening on his upper arm. His voice, when he spoke, came out barely a whisper. “Oh, I did not expect… This is…” 

“Beautiful,” Essek breathed, impossible to pick where to settle his gaze, letting it drift back to Caleb instead. Caleb, his eyes wide open in wonder as he tracked the illusory celestial bodies drifting by them, lips parted on bated breath, pale skin glowing with the warm light of a nearby sun. Radiant himself, Caleb looked like he belonged among them, stealing what shallow breath Essek had managed to retain.

Ja,” Caleb started again, nodding. He swallowed, turning to look behind them, searching for their shadow, Essek realized, the way his mind still ticked somehow amid all this inexplicably endearing. But there was none to be found, the two of them entirely encompassed by the gradually spinning galaxy which filled the study to the brim. 

“Impressive,” Caleb breathed. “If I did not feel the floor beneath me, I– I–” He swallowed. “This would be quite, immersive. I don’t think I have words for it. This is no mere light show.”

“No, it is not,” Essek agreed. Hesitant, he lifted his hand to reach for the nearest star caught in its invisible current, letting his fingers ghost across its surface. He met no resistance, indeed felt nothing at all, save for Caleb’s warmth pressed into his side, his own sun, caught in his gravity and leaning in even closer. But much to their delight, the star shimmered at his touch, pulsing softly in response, and spinning ever so gently as Essek rotated his hand. “Remarkable. Not purely illusion either.”

 

“Not at all,” Caleb said, breathing in deeply. “I did not expect it to be so…” Caleb seemed about to add something, but hesitated, biting his lip again, worry line etched deep between his eyebrows.

Essek felt a smirk tug at the corners of his lips. He nudged Caleb’s side. “Second thoughts on giving it to me?” he teased, only a joke, though Caleb’s eyes snapped back to his, going impossibly wider.

Was? No, nein,” he stumbled over himself to reassure, “I– I have no use—no need—and even if I did I still– I still want you to–”

Sensing he’d misstepped, Essek moved his hand to the back of Caleb’s shoulder. Acting on instinct more than reason left him wanting for a clear idea of what he was doing, but it felt right. “I meant you no distress,” he apologized, “I was only– I’m sorry. I understand.”

Eyes locked, the brilliant blue meeting Essek’s own pale lavender, something spoken in that wordless push and pull though Essek feared what, Caleb’s shoulders slowly fell. He swallowed, eyes dancing away to mingle in the ocean of stars twinkling around them. 

“It is beautiful,” Caleb agreed quietly. 

Essek felt himself nod, watching as a slowly drifting solar system washed Caleb in soft purple and yellow light. “It is.”

“Pretty things,” Caleb murmured, an explanation, “things without much, ah, use,” he decided on the word, frowning. “They tend to get… to get lost or, or broken, with us. Or forgotten in the bottom of Jester’s bag,” he said with a weak smile. “I wouldn’t want that, for this,” he breathed, almost somber, finding Essek’s gaze again. 

Essek nodded once more, understanding well enough, though suddenly unsure of what exactly Caleb was speaking of. “I can certainly keep it safe for you,” he offered, hesitant, unable to help but feel that he was testing the waters between them somehow with the open expression Caleb was treating him to, and that tone he took, not sure he’d heard it before. “If that is what you require.”

“You misunderstand,” Caleb said, closing his eyes for a moment before continuing. “It’s yours. Keep it. Do what you will with it. It’s not meant to return a favor or, or anything like that. It just… it just is what it is, and, if you want it, it’s yours.”

Essek took a slow breath, trying not to let the mess of conflicted emotions and uncertain conclusions flicker across his expression. But by the way Caleb was looking at him, turning further into him, backlit by a spinning galaxy of celestial bodies, he didn’t know how successful he was in that endeavor. 

“You are sure?” Essek asked cautiously, studying Caleb’s face for something, hesitation maybe, he didn’t know. “This is,” he gestured to the slowly rotating sphere, streaks of multicolor light bursting forth from gaps in the metal plates and inset crystals. “This is pre-Calamity. It’s… it’s precious.” 

 

Caleb laughed, light and breathy. “It has been around for a while, ja,” he agreed, smiling at Essek as though there weren’t a myriad of stars swimming through the air around them to look at like that instead. “But I am sure.”

Warmth bloomed behind Essek’s sternum, a deep flush he was never more thankful vanished in the dark creeping across his face. For one moment, the next, he stood rooted in place, words he didn’t know how to form on his tongue, sure that there was something he needed to say, to do. That Caleb had put something in his hands, a decision, an admission, and Essek was fumbling it. “I… thank you,” Essek breathed, swallowing. “I will,“ his voice wavered, and he steeled himself, “I will treasure it.”

Caleb smiled, reaching between them to find Essek’s hand, squeezing gently before letting it slip away. “I am glad,” he said, bowing his head, words imparted like a secret in the warm space between them. When he looked up again, a wry smile hooked one corner of his mouth, his eyes sparking with unshared humor. “It is beautiful,” he agreed once more, eyes darting around the constellations encircling them, weight hovering at the end of the sentence, something left unsaid. 

Essek narrowed his eyes, feeling like Caleb was about to destabilize the gravity around him again. “Yes?”

“Mmh. A shame though, that it isn’t quite accurate.”

Essek blinked, confusion drawing across his brow. “What is wrong?”

“Look here,” Caleb said, and suddenly he was pulling away, moving, partly having to feel his way around the furniture of Essek’s study, swallowed by darkness and dizzying, shifting light. Essek followed, stumbling over his own feet, a soft sound of surprise slipping past his lips as he felt Caleb reach back and take his hand suddenly, tugging him along. 

“What, ah, exactly is the problem?” Essek asked, unable but to smile to himself as Caleb ducked and weaved between slowly moving celestial bodies as though he couldn’t walk right through them on their path to whatever it was he took issue with, his eyes fixed intently on a mass of constellations.

“Here,” Caleb pulled Essek to a stop beside him, glancing between him and the cluster of nearby stars floating just out of reach. “You would assume the device, the center,” he said, indicating toward the still rotating sphere sitting on the table, “bears the position of our solar system in this, this projection, no?” 

“I– I would think as much,” Essek agreed, surprised by Caleb’s keen interest in astronomy, suddenly. “I do not know from what other perspective whatever craftsmen who fashioned this would have designed it. Unless,” he noted, “it is purely an artistic rendering, and not meant to replicate our plane at all.” 

“I considered that,” Caleb said. “But look here, here,” he indicated, pushing himself up onto his toes, squeezing Essek’s hand as though he had a hope of balancing him, and reaching as far as he could to point toward a near spherical nebula cloud, billowing outward blue and silvery at the middle. “That is called the cat’s eye nebula. It is real, and positioned just to the left of Carina Minor, which seems accurate to me. See?”

Essek chuckled, “I see,” taking his hand back from Caleb and resting it at the small of his back when his balance wobbled. “Though forgive me,” he added, “I am not much of an astronomer these days. Which constellation are you –”

Caleb dropped back to his feet, only leaning into his touch as he did. He looked back to Essek, and his words died in his mouth. 

“Stand here,” Caleb instructed, as though he didn’t notice, suddenly moving to stand behind Essek, hands going to his waist, a gentle but insistent pressure as he urged Essek a step to the side to where Caleb had stood the moment before, his chest impossibly warm against Essek’s back, each exhale tickling at the back of his neck. Essek found his own breath catching in his throat again for an entirely different reason, thankful Caleb couldn’t see his expression falter as it did. 

“I’m– I’m here,” Essek almost choked. He cleared his throat quietly. “What am I looking at… here?”

Humming something to himself, Caleb rested his chin on Essek’s left shoulder, matching his eye line. Looping an arm around Essek’s shoulders, Caleb pointed over his right, guiding his eye to the particular constellation he’d identified. Essek could only pray to gods he lodged no faith in that Caleb couldn’t feel how he nearly leapt when the hand still resting at his hip moved, Caleb’s thumb brushing up and down, almost an idle gesture. Comforting maybe if it didn’t make his ears burn, flushing violently as a shiver tore down his back, his focus shattered. 

If he’d been levitating himself, he would have crashed to the floor. Whatever Caleb was saying about parallel lines and stars in the shape of a gods damned cooking instrument, all in that low murmur in Essek’s ear, was nearly impossible to follow. 

“Mhm,” Essek nodded in vague agreement, hardly trusting himself to speak. 

Caleb exhaled slowly, his chin resting just that much heavier on Essek’s shoulder. Reluctant, almost, when he stopped away, the gentle pressure of Caleb’s hand lingering at his side the longest before that too fell away. That, or perhaps Essek was projecting.

“So,” Essek tried again, his heart making a dutiful effort to escape his chest, falling back on decades of practiced court etiquette to wrangle back some semblance of control. “We can agree it is intended, or at least close to, a realistic replica.” He surprised himself with how steady he managed to sound.

“I think so,” Caleb agreed, still studying the stars above them, his smile soft.

Did he even know what he was doing to him?

Essek’s heart clenched, a dull pain in the hollow of his chest. 

He almost missed his warmth at his back, even the unexpected hand at his side. Warred with himself over whether he was allowed to, Caleb’s words, the gift, that strangely vulnerable expression, all of it spinning like these celestial bodies around his head. 

And Caleb… Caleb just let it wash it over him. All of it.

“And so, these seem distorted,” Caleb said, motioning to the blurred glowing shapes hovering around their knees. “I think this is meant to be Eridian, the westerly star,” he continued, crouching down by a hazy, shifting cloud of blues and purples with a bright flame of orange shining through, currently attempting to float through one of Essek’s armchairs. “Fjord told me about it. But it should be closer to these over here,” he lamented, pointing to a cluster of large stars floating nearly beneath the table. 

Essek took a slow, measured breath. And a step forward. Focus. This, at least, he could do. An error in astronomical models. An imperfect illusion. Not his specialty, necessarily, but a welcome distraction. 

Carefully, he crouched beside Caleb, examining the star closely. It’s outline was blurred, yes. The image strained in a manner the rest of the illusory bodies were not, their slow movement stalled as though meeting resistance. Essek watched as Caleb dragged his fingers though the gold and purple haze, motes of golden light like star dust trailing after them, the image flickering as though it might dissipate altogether. 

Caleb’s eyes flicked up to meet his; Essek surprised himself with the realization he had already been looking. Caleb just raised an eyebrow. “It was within the depths of a city which fell from the sky,” he mused, almost to himself, as if he weren't meeting Essek’s gaze directly. “It could be damage to the physical mechanism. Internal, maybe. Though I would expect any damage to such a delicate instrument would cause broader distortions.”

“I would expect that too, yes,” Essek agreed. It was impossible, being the sole subject of that focus for that long. He pushed himself back up to his feet, tearing his eyes away. 

Caleb followed, unperturbed. 

He swallowed, searching for something else to keep his attention and settle that nervous energy buzzing under his skin. A problem to fix. So fix it, he nearly hissed to himself. 

He took a moment to survey the illusion with a more critical eye, examining its outer edges of the galaxy where the light began to fade, tracking the pattern of its gentle rotation. The device, the center of the projection, had a small base at the bottom, and indeed the table, even themselves as they moved around it, didn’t seem to interfere with the illusion which sprang to life around it. Though it struck him as odd, a detailed, ostensibly accurate model such as this neglecting its vertical axis. 

“Or,” he offered, the thought accompanied by that familiar jolt of realization, as close as he ever felt to genuine excitement, a hypothesis begging for experimentation, “this is merely not the room it was designed to fill. Or not similar enough to it.”

Without thinking he glanced back at Caleb, seeking out with his eyes the second it clicked, the moment that quick mind of his grasped it too. Caleb’s gaze went distant, his brow furrowed, until but a second later, slowly, his eyes widened. “Oh,” he whispered. “Oh, that seems rather obvious, doesn’t it…”

Disappointment

That had… not been the desired effect. Essek felt that sliver of excitement and the energy that surrounded it drain down through the floorboards. He feigned consideration, trying to… he didn’t know what, smooth ruffled feathers? “Perhaps not so obvious,” he offered.

Caleb gave him a flat look, crossing his arms and leaning his hips back against the table. “Patronizing now, mein freund? How unlike you.”

Essek froze, but there was a faint quirk at Caleb’s lips, a challenge in the slight tilt of his head, and some of that familiar warmth uncurled between his ribs again. Ah. No harm done then. He shifted a step closer to avoid the path of a slowly encroaching sun. “That was nothing,” he disagreed, allowing the sharp edge of self-satisfied smirk to curl at the corners of his lips. “You will know when I am being patronizing.”

“You enjoy being correct too much,” Caleb said with a smirk, turning his back on him to examine the still shifting sphere in the center of the table, crystal shards and gaps in the rotating plates shining through with colorful streaks of light, in a way that felt very much intentional. “And I,” he sighed, shaking his head, though Caleb could still hear the smile in his voice, “the fool.” 

Against his better judgement, Essek drifted the rest of the way forward, patting Caleb's shoulder ever so consolingly. “My dear,” he offered, a near purr, and gods, this was easy, why did Caleb make it so easy? “You would have gotten there eventually,” he said, still grinning conceitedly when Caleb lifted his chin to meet Essek’s gaze.

Arschloch,” Caleb swore softly, so much so it hardly sounded the insult he knew it to be, and narrowed his eyes at him, fond and exasperated both, a halo of stars spanning the dark behind him. Why did he have to look at him like that? Even when he was being a proper bastard. Why did he have to look like that?

“Allow me to make it up to you?” Essek heard himself ask, suddenly too soft, too genuine, all without his permission.

Caleb cocked his head to the side just so, his eyes searching, lips caught parted halfway to whatever he’d been about to say before those words came tumbling out of Essek’s mouth. “How do you suggest?” he asked, that low, faintly rasping quality returning to his voice, his eyes catching the shifting light beautifully. 

What had he just told Caleb about the dangers of acting on impulse?

Essek swallowed, his mouth dry suddenly. He held his hand out to Caleb, not trusting himself to speak. 

Wordlessly, a smile flickering at his lips, Caleb took his hand. 

Essek pulled him up to his feet. 

Walking backward a step, another, amber light diffusing around them gently as the stars scattered in their path, he tugged Caleb along until coming to rest what Essek deemed a suitable distance from the center of the projection. 

“Here, I think,” he murmured, catching a curious light in Caleb’s eyes, that sharp curl still making a home at the edge of his lips. 

“What is ‘here’, exactly?”

What was it Caleb said, about calculated risks?

Wordlessly, Essek placed his hands on Caleb’s shoulders and nudged, urging him to turn. Caleb raised an eyebrow, but it took nothing more than a gentle push for him to acquiesce, spinning in place until Essek stood at his back, hands still resting on his shoulders, grip tighter than it needed to be so as not to let his hands shake, both of them facing the device at the center of the galaxy rotating around them. 

“There is a very easy way to test this hypothesis,” Essek explained quietly, drawn just that much closer, his eyes dropping to Caleb’s throat as he swallowed, impossible not to note how his shoulders tensed, a faintest shudder working down his spine as he exhaled. 

It wasn’t too late to step away. To apologize, he reminded himself, pre-formed excuses already hovering at his lips.

“Which hypothesis is that?” Caleb breathed, holding out only another second before curiosity got the better of him and he turned his head, trying to peer at Essek over his shoulder. 

And oh, he made an attractive profile, nearby rose and amber-hued nebula casting him in a pool of warm light, radiant amid a sea of midnight blue and flecks of starlight. He couldn’t help but follow how Caleb’s eyes flicked down, hooded, his mouth a soft curve that Essek tried not to linger on, suddenly aware of just how narrow the space between them had become.

“Easier to show you, I think,” he said, words coming to him unbidden, little more than a whisper. He shifted forward until his chest bumped Caleb’s back, impossibly warm, looping his arm around Caleb’s middle before he could allow himself to think better of it and beginning to draw arching geometric designs through the air with his other.

But gods, did he choose that moment to think better of it.

His heart had never stopped racing. Could Caleb feel it? A mistake, undoubtedly, this was a mistake. Whatever courage he’d summoned bulked. He froze, doubt crashing over him like so much cold water, the beginnings of the incantation on his lips freezing with him.

Selfish, his mind supplied him so helpfully, indulgent, tempting, a terrible idea, and complicated, so ungodly complicated.

The spell didn’t require that they stand so close. He hadn’t shown Caleb this spell, he didn’t know that. No, that was worse, he decided. He was too smart not to see right through that. He could have put in more effort and expanded the radius around himself. He could have provided Caleb his own gravity well. He did not need to be so close, to touch, to speak so closely that he could feel Caleb’s shaky exhale against his lips –

One of Caleb’s hands closed over Essek’s, which lay flush against Caleb’s ribs, squeezing gently. Caleb’s eyes were dark, lingering low, his head still turned to glance back at Essek from the corner of his eye. The pale curve of Caleb’s neck, strained, was washed in cool blues, each breath shallow, measured, drawn through slightly parted lips. 

“Then show me,” Caleb requested simply, and Luxon help him, he wanted to.

The words of the spell tumbled from his mouth all too eagerly, resuming tracing familiar runes though the air without hesitation. Dunamantic energy already welled up beneath them, a gradual pressure change starting around their knees as gravity began to weigh upon them less.

Caleb held very still, making no effort to track the runes and gestures of an unfamiliar spell, closing his eyes instead, brow furrowed, taking in the sensation as Essek slowly lifted his hand, and the pressure stabilized. An inverted feeling of weight distributed evenly around them, the very eir becoming buoyant, lifting slowly, until the floor fell away from their feet, and they were floating. 

Oh,” Caleb gasped as he opened his eyes again to see that Essek had targeted the still shifting, rotating sphere with the spell as well, lifting it level with them, the three rising, and the massive swirling galaxy of stars and migrating solar systems, hundreds upon hundreds of glowing celestial bodies, rising through the dark with them.

They only came to a stop nearly ten feet off the floor, still only halfway to the high ceiling of Essek’s tower, where the image projected and slowly morphing around them had enough space to expand in every direction. The walls and floor of the study fully vanished into an endless night sky, seeming to all their senses now an impossible distance littered with stars, near and far in every direction, above and below and around them. 

Caleb’s hand tightened over Essek’s, his arm still wrapped around Caleb’s middle from behind. He reached back with his other, fingers winding tightly into the material of Essek’s shirt as though he might drift away from him, a ragged breath leaving his chest, frozen as he took in the expanse. An impossibility, this man clinging to him amid the stars. Surely some sort of heresy, how it sounded to hear his name falling breathless from Caleb’s lips.

Caleb gave him no indication that he would try, but still Essek warned, “Don’t go too far,” heat rising to his face as Caleb shifted around in his arms to face him. “The– the, ah– the radius of the spell is centered on myself, and, I would...  hate for you to fall,” he finished quietly, glancing down and away.

Caleb blinked, his eyes dark and wide, mouth caught in a silent ‘oh’ as he processed the information, gaze flickering over Essek’s face, barely inches of space between them, and yet, it had so quickly become the center of Essek’s attention, the entire scope of his world, the rest of the universe be damned. 

“Right,” Caleb breathed, moving slowly now, attempting to turn slowly in Essek’s arms to face him, though without a point to anchor, without leverage, he set them gently spinning. Endlessly endearing, the slight frown that pulled across his brow and mouth as he huffed at their predicament, still figuring out how the spell worked.

It pulled a shallow laugh from him. “Just, try not to –” Caleb inclined his head to look down at the void below them, his forehead nearly coming to rest against Essek’s. “– move so much,” Essek finished, swallowing. 

Caleb stilled against him, their legs tangled together where they drifted, and Essek felt Caleb relax back into the strange sensation, doing a better job of letting the spell support him than Essek himself, for all his experience, and all the thrumming tension though his every fiber. “That would… that would somewhat ruin the moment, I think,” Caleb added. “Falling. I know we haven’t left your study. I know it’s only a short distance to the floor. But gods,” he breathed, eyes lifting back to Essek’s, “look at it.”

His heart was in his throat. This would kill him. It would. “It is… a lot,” he landed on for lack of anything more articulate, earning himself a faint smile tugging at the corner of Caleb’s mouth.

“So you’ve, what exactly, neutralized gravity around yourself?” Caleb asked in that low, politely prying manner of his to which Essek had no defenses.

“Ah, yes, very astute.”

“And on the sphere?” he asked, inclining his head to the side where the streaks of multicolor light emanating from the faintly humming device remained the only indication that they were in the midst of an illusion. 

Essek felt his face grow somehow even warmer, embarrassment making his already racing heart skip over itself. He tried to look away, finding nowhere to look at all that Caleb didn’t already occupy, fingers winding into the front of Essek’s shirt, the faintest drag up the front of his chest, smoothing over his rumpled collar. “Th– the number of objects and people I can target is limited,” he explained quietly, excuse falling flat even to himself.

Caleb just nodded sympathetically, humming his understanding, conceited smile only growing. “Of course.”

“Of course.”

Essek cherished the privilege of seeing that smile, annoyingly self-satisfied or not, more than any god, any Luxon, not even half as bright. 

“I think it’s quite amazing…” Caleb began, gently knocking his temple against Essek’s, head bowed beside his, his hand settled warmly at Essek’s collar. The edge of his thumb dragged softly against the bit of exposed skin at the hollow of his throat, sparking, his every nerve on fire, reminding him of the permission to touch that Essek wanted so desperately, granted by that implicit intimacy. 

His hands settled at Caleb’s hips, drawing him just that much closer. They were pressed nearly flush already, Caleb’s other hand splayed across the small of his back, their legs still loosely tangled together.

Caleb’s head tilted to the side just a fraction, his nose brushing Essek’s cheek, slow exhale curling warm against his neck, and then he was kissing him. 

The first press of Caleb’s lips against his was warm, as soft as he’d ever let himself imagine. He let his eyes fall closed, let his head tip back—too easy, irresistible—the idea of pulling away like fighting gravity, when all Essek wanted was to give himself over to it. 

The light pressure of Caleb’s hand at his collar shifted up to cradle the side of his jaw, thumb sweeping over his cheek, fingertips just barely threading through the short hair at the nape of his neck. The tender gesture pulled a soft, almost wounded sound from Essek’s chest; it was unexpected, so gentle it ached, like pressing at bruises Essek didn’t even know were there. 

He felt Caleb’s answering smile curl against his lips, pressed into it, his fingers digging harder at Caleb’s waist, breath coming sharper than it had any right to be. Caleb gasped into his mouth when Essek caught his lower lip between his teeth, tugging gently. He responded in kind, his tongue brushing along the seam of Essek’s mouth, exploratory, seeking permission, pressing deeper, his tongue teasing behind his teeth when Essek yielded under it.

His skin was on fire, Caleb’s hands and lips leaving a burning brand everywhere they touched him. Heart racing nearly out of his chest, there was a roar in Essek’s ears that he didn’t realize was his own pulse. It was overwhelming, heat and want and Caleb, kissing him. He forced a breath into his lungs, felt Caleb’s hand at the small of his back shift, fingers dipping beneath the tail of his shirt, a barely there brush of his fingertips against bare skin that had heat coiling low in his belly. 

Essek whined, arching closer. He heard himself as if from underwater, distant and unfocused. Smothered Caleb’s quiet chuckle, biting at that damnable grin, gasping as Caleb’s hand smoothed up his spine beneath his shirt, sudden shock of it racing like lightning through his threadbare nerves, exploding like so many constellations bursting into existence behind his eyes –

And they were falling. 

Caleb yelped as gravity suddenly returned to them, Essek flailed, and they crashed together, plummeting through a seemingly endless void for a few feet that moment after Essek’s concentration on the spell flickered and failed. Instinct more than reason returning to him, he had a new spell on his lips, but Caleb had already reacted, hissing the words to Feather Fall not a moment before they crashed into the floorboards. 

They landed lightly, Essek on his back, Caleb on his front, and half over top of him no less, catching his weight on his hands and knees. The sphere, however, Essek realized with a groan, was not so lucky, slamming into the table top with a heavy, dull thunk, the illusory cosmos around them suddenly vanishing, and rolling to the floor, only coming to a stop against the base of a nearby bookcase.

Essek cursed quietly with what little breath he had, grimacing at the sound and sudden loss, sure that the delicate, ancient need he remind himself, bit of machinery and arcanum had shattered beyond hope of repair.

Caleb, apparently of the same mind, stared after it, wincing to himself. And yet, even where it rested, the silvered gears and metal plates still whirred, closing tightly in on themselves once more, the crystal core hidden away and the object once again lying inert—apparently, none the worse for wear.

“Huh,” Caleb exhaled, distinctly impressed. “Another surprise.”

“Well,” Essek said, doing his best to collect himself, lying there on the floor. “Not the first time it has fallen from the sky… this time without a city around it…”

Caleb huffed, inclining his head in acknowledgement. He pulled his eyes away from the device, looking down at Essek still beneath him, mirth written across his face. “No. Hopefully the last though.”

Essek groaned, pained, lying there on the floor of his dark study, the full force of his embarrassment slamming into him like a charging moorbounder. He turned away, barely resisting the urge to cover his face, to disappear entirely. “Sorry,” he muttered, never so thankful that with his only human eyes and the dark, Caleb couldn’t see the deep purple shade blooming across his face. 

Caleb only laughed, unrestrained and real, dropping onto his side on the flood beside him, curled into Essek ever so slightly. “Do not apologize,” Caleb managed, still chuckling, his grin overtaking his expression. “I am very flattered.”

Essek scowled in protest, throwing Caleb a mournful look. “Please,” he panted, “please forget this ever happened,” certain that he would die then and there, never to rise from the floor of his study if this was going to be something Caleb would loft over his head.

Caleb’s quiet laughter abated, his smirk not quite leaving him, but his eyes softening at least. “Oh,” he said, tone low, shaking his head slightly. Gingerly, slow enough that Essek could pull away if he wanted to, he felt Caleb’s fingers curl around his wrist laying at his side. “I do not think I can do that,” he murmured, sliding his grip down to take Essek’s hand, their fingers loosely intertwined. “I do not think I want to do that.”

“How about,” Essek tried again, swallowing around a lump in his throat, skin still resonating with the echo of Caleb’s body heat. He wanted, he still wanted, and Caleb had stripped back too many layers for him to bury that need back inside his chest. “How about just the last part then?” he tried, voice rising uncomfortably in a question. 

Caleb huffed, amusement flashing in his eyes. “I will not tell a soul,” he offered, “if it is your pride for which you fear, Liebling.” Essek glanced across to face him at the unfamiliar word, searching his expression, but finding only soft fondness. Enough to make his heart ache. “That is not quite in my character anyway…” 

Essek couldn’t pull his gaze away if he tried. Though he didn’t try. “No,” he agreed, a quiet sigh. “Not quite in your character.”

Caleb pushed up onto his elbow, loose wisps of hair that had escaped its tie falling into his face, a pleasant pink tint coloring his cheeks, working down his throat and disappearing into the collar of his shirt.  “If it is not something you wish to repeat, however…” 

“Only that last part,” Essek was quick to correct, a little breathlessly, watching how the admission managed to bring an even darker flush to Caleb’s face. “The rest of it… I quite liked the rest of it.”

Caleb hummed his approval, his fingertips tracing over Essek’s knuckles, drawing idle shapes against his skin. “I am glad,” he murmured, smiling faintly to himself. 

“Perhaps not on the floor though,” he admitted bluntly. 

Caleb laughed again. Essek was growing to like the sound. “No,” he agreed, pushing himself up to his feet and offering Essek a hand up as he rose. “Not on the floor,” Caleb echoed, taking the opportunity to tug Essek in close, dragging a thumb over his still damp lower lip as Essek’s breath hitched, coaxing him ever so easily into another lingering kiss.