[I. HOLDING HANDS]
Essek tentatively reached out to Caleb. The other wizard was sprawled in a tired and bloody heap on the ground, but as Essek’s fingertips brushed his own, he cracked an eye open and grasped the drow’s outstretched hand firmly.
“I feel like shit,” Caleb croaked. He spat blood from his mouth.
“Well, we’re not finished yet.” Caduceus hooked his hands under Caleb’s armpits, who grunted as he let himself be helped up. Essek let go as his friend was hauled up, still stumbling as he was propped unceremoniously against a wall, and Caduceus clasped his hands steadily around Caleb’s upper arms. The now-familiar presence of the Wildmother’s magic made itself known as Caleb seemed to jolt back to life, the smell of trees sharp in the air even in this cavern.
Caleb breathed a sigh of thanks and gave Caduceus a smile and a fond pat on the back as the cleric moved past him. Essek gave a shout of warning as the creature flew through the air again, but Fjord intercepted it even as Caleb moved, scrambling the short distance until he was behind the rock foundation that Essek had been using as cover.
“Be careful,” Caleb said, as if he was not the one bleeding in the dirt just moments ago, and with a shout of warning and a short burst of Zemnian, he peaked over the rock long enough to hurl a fireball. The flames roared, lighting up Caleb’s face as it flew, and Essek felt a deep twist in his chest at the other wizard’s ridiculous, inexplicable, but wholly admirable bravery.
Not to be outdone, he glanced around the side of the rock and mimed the twisting of a ball in the air, hearing the satisfying crunch of bone and tissue as a creature was caught in a miniature black hole, shrieking with agony.
“I’ve got it!” Beau yelled, using the cavern wall as leverage to bring her full weight down on the remaining creature with a loud crack.
Essek’s heart was pounding in his chest and he could hear Caleb’s shallow, ragged breaths as blissful quiet overtook the narrow, rocky path. All the creatures lay unmoving.
“That was very hot of you, baby,” Yasha said, and it was like a spell broke as everyone sagged in relief. Fjord made his way back over from where he had kited to and with a faint shimmer Caduceus reappeared against the wall only a few feet from Essek.
“Healing?” The firbolg asked.
“Much appreciated.” Essek held out his forearm for the cleric to take, and the green flash of the Wildmother’s magic sparked again, reducing any sharp pains to aches and bruises.
“Are you alright?” Caleb looked at him with concern as Essek sank back down beside him. “I saw you get hurt.”
“I’m alright.” Essek forced a smile. “You got it worse.”
“Ah, I’m used to it,” Caleb said, more easily than he should have, and with a grunt he heaved himself to his feet before offering a hand to Essek. Essek took it, though he simply drifted back up to standing. Caleb shot him a look but did not let go, and Essek had to admit that he was pleased with himself for that one.
“It’s been a hell of a month,” Beau said. “But we made it.”
The table mumbled agreement and she drowned her drink with relish.
They were in a busy tavern, crowded and loud, each cupping a drink of their choice and eating from the rapidly decreasing spread of meats and cheese between them. Essek had chosen a beer – the same that Caleb had ordered – and was, quite frankly, deeply regretting it now as he pushed it discretely aside.
They were far from the loudest bunch – everyone was too exhausted for that – but still Essek noticed that servers and other patrons seemed to give them a wider berth as they skittered through more crowded walkways to get to their respective tables instead of passing by the Mighty Nein.
“We’re a colourful group,” Caduceus said to him, perhaps noticing his unease. “Don’t worry, this is a normal amount of staring. Did you want some of my milk?”
“Ah.” Caleb noticed the full stein in front of Essek and turned to him with a grin. “I could have told you you wouldn’t like that one.”
Essek grimaced. “I wanted to try it for myself.”
“Let me get you something else.” Within moments, Caleb had flagged down a server and was in a heated three-way discussion with Beauregard over the various wines this inn had available. Soon the innkeeper joined in, grumbling about entitled adventurers with loose coin, and the volume of the argument only increased.
“It’s fine,” Essek said, though this was unrelentingly ignored in the rabble.
Caleb sat back after having finally persuaded the innkeeper that cracking open one of their prized vintages would not go to waste on the group. “Enjoy yourself. We don’t spend many evenings out like this anymore.”
Essek honestly wasn’t sure he wanted to spend many more evenings “like this” – the tavern was so much, so loud and crowded and unfamiliar, and everywhere he looked the eyes of strangers darted over them judgingly. He saw more than one man trace the outline of their ear as they spoke to their friends, and Essek knew that one of his earrings alone may be worth more than some of these people made in a month.
But most of the Nein seemed to be enjoying themselves, so he fixed on a smile, thanking the server when she returned with his apparently very special wine, and sipped at it graciously. Luckily, he did genuinely enjoy it, and he said as much to Caleb.
“Good,” Caleb said, smiling fondly at him. The rest of the table clamoured for a taste and more cups were poured and shared around. Even Jester tried a sip, though she pulled a face as the sourness hit her.
“Hey,” Caleb said quietly, and Essek followed his gaze down to where he was extending a hand under the table, palm face up. Essek took it. Caleb’s grasp was warm and firm as he squeezed gently. “If you want to get out of here, just let me know. Don’t worry about it. The wine’s on me.”
Essek was filled with a rush of gratitude. “That’s not necessary. But thank you.”
Caleb loosened his grip, enough for Essek to easily pull his hand away if he wanted to, but he found himself holding on.
It became a common thing – Caleb asking for his hand wordlessly by holding out his own, palm up, and giving him a squeeze when Essek reached out for him.
He did it whenever he saw Essek hesitating, either baffled by the bizarre social graces of the Mighty Nein or stressed by the situations they found themselves in, and Essek found it both a useful grounding technique and also simply just a charming gesture. Caleb also tended to reach out in this way to start or punctuate heavier discussions between the two, such as whenever they talked about the past – their childhoods, their regrets – and Essek came to understand it as a gesture of trust from the other wizard.
But more and more, Caleb would reach for his hand when they were just reading or studying together, and he held it for longer, sometimes running his fingers up down and through Essek’s own, or, if they were in private, bringing his hand to his mouth to press soft kisses to the tips of his fingers.
Caleb was a very tactile person. The entire Mighty Nein was immensely intimate with each other in a way that Essek didn’t quite understand – they were often hugging or clasping each other on the arm or simply sitting sprawled into each other’s spaces, knees and shoulders touching, and that wasn’t even getting into the shared baths or crass commentary they slung at each other when they undressed.
They were respectful of his space in general. Jester still flew to him for hugs, but even she didn’t cling onto him the way she sometimes hung off of Fjord or Beau. Sometimes, of course, in the heat of battle, it was inevitable for Caduceus to give him a rough tap on the shoulder or Fjord to pull him along firmly by the forearm as they teleported out of danger, and he similarly did not hesitate to yank Veth suddenly from a crumbling cliff. They joked and chatted with him enough that he was sure (or at least pretty sure) that they liked him well enough, but there was something else, he thought, in the way Yasha could casually grasp Caleb’s chin and tilt his head up to study his beard as if that was a totally fine and normal thing to do.
(“We’ve crawled through the mud and ashes together,” Caleb had said when he’d asked. “We’ve seen each other at most terrible moments, in every single way, and have carried each other through it all.”)
You’ve seen me, Essek wanted to say as he shifted closer to Caleb on the couch, unable to miss how the other wizard’s face lit up a little. He accepted a cup of dead people tea from Caduceus and tried his best to remember the names of all his siblings. He laughed it off when Luc shot him square in the back of the head with a suction cup arrow and offered instead to let the boy bounce around in reduced gravity for a time. He held the line as Beau collapsed, bloody and bruised, and did not run away, even as pain exploded across his left side as he took the last hit for her. See me, see me, see me.
He took Caleb’s hand every time he reached out for him.
“This way,” Fjord hissed, ushering Essek and Caleb around a corner. “Quickly!”
The sound of the bridge crumbling echoed behind them as they hurried, panting, and they emerged on the other side of the tunnel to see that the chasm now gaped openly between them and the rest of their party. Shouts and swears were still faintly audible from the other side.
“We have to go,” Fjord said, his face pale, and Essek could see plainly that he was focused on Jester’s distant figure as she dodged a falling stalactite. “They can hold them off. We just have to deactivate whatever is at the core of this thing. You two can do it, right?”
“Yes,” Caleb said, and he swallowed visibly. He met Essek’s eyes, a grim look on his face, before the three of them bolted again into the dark web of tunnels.
They emerged into a small, sweltering room with a glowing reactor at its core, and Essek wasted no time in trying to identify the type of magic being used. Caleb rushed to the other side, and the two of them circled the machine frantically, calling out ideas to each other as they tested the various methods at their disposal.
The room was growing painfully hot. Both he and Caleb were throwing flashes of magic, bright bursts of orange and purple, and each time the reactor seemed to swell and burn them away angrily.
Fjord stood at the ready, his sword out, watching the entrances to the room, and Essek could see the sweat dripping from him visibly as the room heated up. He wiped his own brow and coughed into his sleeve, finding it increasingly hard to breathe, and he swayed uneasily for a moment before Caleb gave a triumphant shout from the other side of the room – there was another blinding flash before the reactor shrieked and finally went dark.
The tunnels around them quieted, all the shaking and tremors grinding to a halt.
“We gotta go,” Fjord said, and he darted back the way they came without waiting for their response. Essek was the furthest one from the exit and he hurried to catch up with Caleb as they both moved after him.
“Good work,” he said as he pulled close, and suddenly Caleb stopped in the middle of the tunnel and grabbed his arm.
“We did it together,” Caleb said, and he licked his lips. “I really want to kiss you right now.”
Essek leaned in. It was far from the best kiss they’d ever had. It was fast and messy, blood and spit passing between them before Caleb broke them apart. “I’m just – let’s get back to the others. I’m glad we figured that one out.”
“This was nice,” Caleb said.
They stood by the door of the Xhorhaus, lit as ever by the glimmering tree on its rooftop.
“I’m glad,” Essek said softly. “The food was to your tastes?”
“Yes. I can understand how that is one of your favourite soups.”
Essek laughed a little. “It’s a nice place to go. I’m fond of it.”
He had deliberated extensively on where to take Caleb in Rosohna. The café he chose was a more personal choice – it catered more to everyday workers and was quite a distance from his house, but he had visited it frequently over the years while leaving behind his mantle. It was the kind of place where no one gave a second glance at someone eating by themselves, and he relished in his relative obscurity there.
“I was honestly expecting something a little more fancy,” Caleb said, threading his fingers through Essek’s and giving a squeeze, “but I am very glad you chose a place important to you instead of just trying to impressive.”
“I hoped you would understand that.”
“Anything fancy would be wasted on me anyway,” Caleb said with a smile. “I’ve spent too much time eating dirt.”
Essek frowned slightly. It always threw him off, this part of Caleb – this type of joking self-deprecation that seemed to invite neither reassurance nor commiseration. Essek could tell him that he was beautiful and brilliant and would be every bit capable of navigating Kryn high society, but he also suspected that Caleb would not appreciate it.
It was a strange contradiction that they shared. They found themselves trying to be more than just the blades they were raised to be but admired the sharp edges of each other all the same.
“Good night,” Caleb said softly when he didn’t respond. “Until next time.”
“Yes,” Essek said, leaning down for a kiss. “Next time.”
The door of the Xhorhaus had barely closed behind him when the curtains rustled and shrieks sounded from within the building. With a small smile, Essek drifted away and left Caleb to Jester and the Mighty Nein’s brutal questioning.
They were reading. Caleb was sprawled across a loveseat and Essek floated beside him, legs crossed, at perfectly the right height and position for him to keep a hand clasped with Caleb’s. If Essek was being honest, it was a little silly to him – he’d never imagined using gravity manipulation for this – but Caleb had pulled him along, nearly mindlessly, as he moved from the desk to the couch and then eventually lay on his back, never once letting go of Essek’s hand, and he found it unspeakably charming.
Essek’s books and notes drifted around him as he moved from focus to focus, and he was so engaged that he nearly started and dropped his concentration when Caleb suddenly sat up.
“Can I kiss you?”
Essek smiled. “Of course.”
Caleb was still in the habit of asking – something Essek had deeply appreciated when he was initially jumpier and unacclimated to sudden touches – but these days there was rarely any hesitation as he leaned in at the question.
Caleb gave a little hum as their lips met. It started slow and soft, just their lips meeting tenderly again and again, as Caleb wrapped an arm around his waist and pulled him closer.
When they broke apart, Caleb was flushed across his face. Essek licked his lips, sending his study materials away with a flick of the wrist, and leaned in again. They had a spare afternoon. “Should we –”
Caleb pulled him back in immediately, and feeling emboldened, Essek started to nip and suck at Caleb’s lips, taking the bottom one between his teeth until Caleb gave a frustrated groan.
“I can’t ever decide –” Caleb’s breath hitched a little – “who’s the bigger tease between the two of us.”
Essek snorted, a little undignified sound, and Caleb’s face lit up with a grin. Essek quickly chose to continue kissing him before he could say anything else, and he bit at Caleb’s lip now hard enough to draw a sharp inhale.
“It was cute,” Caleb mumbled between kisses, and Essek could feel his smile against his own. “Don’t be shy. I’m fond of you.”
“I am not shy,” Essek said, drawing back a little and furrowing his brows at Caleb.
Caleb laughed a little, his eyes still focused on Essek’s lips. “Sorry, sorry. Don’t pout. Come back, bitte..”
They continued kissing – it was easier for Essek than meeting Caleb’s eyes, now, that he was sure he must be furiously blushing, he could feel the warmth at the tip of his ears – and he brought his hand up to Caleb’s hair, pulling out his ponytail and running his fingers through the strands. It was easier to do this, to touch him, to tug sharply at his hair – not enough to hurt but enough to draw out the little noises from his throat and swallow them, pleased – than to think too hard about how he was letting Caleb past his defences not only to see the hardest parts of him but the softest too.
The world exploded into dials and whorls of pain. Essek was vaguely aware that he must have been thrown into the wall – it felt like his arm was broken, perhaps, and he dared not fathom how much more – and it took all his focus to stagger to his feet, shaking his head as if that could clear the pain.
He tried to – to step into the air, to drift, to leave the ground as was second nature, but each of his footsteps seemed only to continue sending new sparks of pain through his body and he was dazed, confused, squeezing his eyes shut and trying to conjure again the feeling of weightlessness.
A burst of Zemnian and a flare of heat beside him – Caleb was here, his smell and presence familiar still beneath the blood and the dirt – and Essek let himself be half-carried, half-dragged, blindly stopping when Caleb told him to.
“Sorry,” Caleb said, sounding wretched. “I know you must – sit here, I don’t want to hit you, I have to –”
Essek flinched as something seemed to strike the wall just to his left, the shattering boom sending some stone and brick raining down onto him. It was so – he had to focus, he tried to focus on his breathing, though he was aware it was too shallow and too fast – he blinked his eyes open rapidly, but the world felt blurry and far away –
“CADUCEUS,” Caleb roared, but a few moments later it was Yasha who grasped Essek by the back of the neck and shocked him, tiny pinprick pains eating up the larger ones until they were at least manageable.
“Okay?” She asked sympathetically, and he could only gasp and nod as at last his vision cleared and his breathing steadied.
“Thank you,” he breathed, and with a smile and a burst of motion she was back on the battlefield, her sword raised above her as she cleaved into an enemy.
Caleb stood beside him, a grim look on his face as he smeared something across his palms – his casting was always so tactile, his hands a mess of materials and ink – and all the creatures he was looking at seemed to slow.
In the reprieve, he looked down at Essek. “Are you – can you stand? Float?”
Essek drew himself up with a grimace, but with the pain relatively manageable, he had no problem alleviating the burden on his feet and Caleb visibly relaxed as he drifted above the floor. “I’m alright. I appreciate the help.”
He followed Caleb’s gaze to the slowed creatures and this – time, he could do, time and gravity were second nature to him – and he signed rapidly in the air, purple flurries of magic filling his vision until he clenched his fist and the creatures crumpled, their torsos crashing into the floor, and were still.
Forcing himself to be vulnerable, authentic, to relax around the Mighty Nein was something that felt so unnatural to Essek after a century in the Dynasty.
And sometimes he did something like trip over his own feet while walking into the dining hall of the Tower, and it was only the century of his upbringing that let him crush his embarrassment into a manageable ball inside him as he righted himself, plastered on a smile, and continued as if nothing had happened. Wasn’t that just a perfect example of why he’d been floating around everywhere for decades?
Thankfully, the rest of the Mighty Nein didn’t react. Veth had already scurried far ahead into the room, Beau and Yasha were wrapped around each other talking about the results of their sparring session, Jester was pestering Fjord about some new book that he simply must read, and Caduceus was politely looking at the spread on the table and ignoring the flush at the tip of Essek’s ears.
Caleb, from behind, had swiftly shot out a hand in an attempt to catch him, but when that proved unnecessary he rested his hand in the small of his back – a kind, warm presence – for a few moments before thankfully mentioning it not at all.
“Caleb and I made a pact once,” Beau said, ripping apart a piece of bread once they had all settled at the table. “That we would stop each other from being assholes.”
Essek had grown to love the meals like this. They were in between big missions, so they were in no rush and had no other pressing topics. Often during these breaks Essek returned to the Dynasty, to take care of his own business, but this time he had a few spare days and so the Nein clustered around him at the table, full of energy and eager to tell him stories even as they interrupted and antagonized each other cheerfully and endlessly. They were some of the happiest meals Essek had ever witnessed.
“That is not what we said,” Caleb retorted. “We promised to make sure we were only being assholes to other, bigger assholes.”
“Hang on a second,” Fjord said, “I thought we made that pact.”
(Veth chimed in: “Molly said the same to us!”)
“Eh,” Beau said, “Why not both?”
“Wait, wait,” Caleb leaned forward. “Who was first? Who was the bigger and worse asshole, that you had to go and make another asshole pact?”
“Ehhhh,” Beau said. “I mean, it’s okay, we were all sort of assholes at the beginning –”
“I can’t believe it.” Caleb had a huge shit-eating grin. “You went and made another pact behind my back with Fjord.”
Beau threw up her hands defensively. “It turns out it’s hard for two huge assholes, like us, to stop each other from being assholes!”
“You guys did let the eye thing go on for a really long time,” Jester said, her mouth full.
“Exactly.” Beau jabbed at Caleb. “You and I, we trust each other, I know we do. We’re the Empire kids and we are here to fuck things up! And in a good way because we want our home to be better, but you have to admit –”
“– we are fuel to a fire,” Caleb said, nodding in agreement.
“Exactly.” With her point made, Beau sat back. “We drive each other forward. And back when we met –”
“I had a very specific and narrow focus.”
“Yes. You were a selfish bastard, but so was I. So were most of us, but what matters is that we made it here. We made a lot of mistakes at the beginning –”
“I’ve never made a mistake in my life,” Caleb deadpanned, and he glanced sideways at Essek, a small smirk playing at his lips.
“– but we’ve done a lot to be proud of since.”
“Beauregard is redeemed. Now you and I,” Caleb patted Essek on the knee and Essek straightened as the entire table’s attention swung to him, “are this group’s last still-recovering assholes.”
“Fake it until you make it,” Jester chirped.
“Um,” Essek said.
“Hey.” Beau frowned and chucked a piece of bread at Caleb, who swatted at it uselessly. “I’m still an asshole, I’m just also a good person now. Don’t take that away from me.”
“I think they’re trying to say that you’re doing well, Essek, and we’re glad that you’re here,” Fjord said diplomatically, and Essek hurried out a baffled thanks before the table erupted into another flurry of conversation.
Caleb was a talented liar in many ways and perfectly capable of charming or intimidating his way out of occasions at a whim. But Caleb was also painfully, openly, powerfully in love with the people he loved, and he never hesitated to show it, and the problem was that Essek was just too used to reading other people’s moods.
So Essek could feel Caleb just beaming at him from across the room because he was walking to get himself a beverage instead of floating.
“Tea?” Essek asked, and Caleb nodded. Essek busied himself with the process, suddenly far too conscious of the possibility of tripping again, until the kettle he kept in his study whistled and he successfully brought the cups back to Caleb without any trouble.
“I’d like to talk to you,” he said, setting down the cups, “about gravity.”
Caleb raised an eyebrow. Essek reached across the table and grasped Caleb’s hand in his own.
“I almost never walked, even at home,” Essek said slowly. “I mean – I did, sometimes, but it was rarely purposeful. And I know that you and the Nein have taken me walking around you, around the Tower, as a sign of authenticity, and I have tried to do it more because I want to signal to you that I do feel comfortable around you, but instead I feel like I am faking behaviours that I think you like to manipulate you into liking me.”
Caleb said nothing but instead pressed a long kiss to Essek’s hand and nodded for him to continue.
“I don’t know how to not be,” he gestured vaguely at his hair and jewellery, “this, all of this. I was raised this way for so many years and as much as I want to distance myself from the sharp edges of it all, I don’t know who I am without it either. I am changing and growing in ways I never thought possible but sometimes it feels like there is a default I am expected to return to instead of a future version of me that I am working towards. What if – what if I don’t want to walk?
“I am – and I think you will not judge me for saying this – but I am an exceptional student of magic, especially for my age, and existing the way I do in public broadcasts so much about myself that I want to broadcast. And perhaps that is arrogance, and that arrogance is the problem, but it is what I feel.”
Essek punctuated his words with a sharp sigh and frowned. The dialogue had gotten away from him a little and he was self-conscious now, wanting to pull his hand away, but Caleb held tight and looked at him keenly.
“I burned my parents to death,” Caleb said softly. “For years, I did not use magic – I could not – but when I came back to it, I still chose to keep burning. Because I was like you, Essek, I was a prodigy, and proud of it, and I am like you because I am proud of it still, though now it feels wrong to say something like that out loud. I had circumstances that forced me to be invisible and insignificant but even in my lowest moments I still dreamed of magic the world has never known and believed that perhaps I could come to know it.
“These are hard questions that we face, you and I, and we have tackled much of them together. The Mighty Nein is not – I am not looking for some finalized version of you, Essek, and wanting to change does not mean that you are incomplete right now. We both know that a person, a self, is not something so neatly wrapped up and described. You may decide to walk today and float tomorrow and it may very well be arrogance or perhaps a happy whim and these are not the things that define you. But you and I have seen into the fields of possibility and we feel the weight of our choices because we know how heavy they can be. We echo, don’t we, in all our multitudes?
“I hear you when you say it feels like trickery and I thank you for being honest, because it sounds like you want me to know you and so you are afraid you are not showing me the truths you want me to see. It’s complicated – you’re complicated – people are complicated and I know there are no easy answers but I believe now more than ever that we are making slow and steady footsteps in the journey, although the destination may not yet be clear.
Maybe the answer is as simple as this: show the world the brilliant Essek Thelyss but know that Caleb Widogast will think you brilliant whether you shine or not.”
Caleb cleared his throat, looking somewhat bashful but entirely earnest. Essek blinked, then closed his eyes entirely, unable to stop the tears from spilling over.
“I think that’s it,” Beau said, frowning as she tried to flick some blood off of her notebook and only succeeded in smudging it in further. “We don’t have any more questions.”
“That’s more than enough information to go off of,” Fjord said. “More than we usually get, anyway.”
Their prisoner – a young thing, a human probably barely out of puberty, though it was hard to tell under all the grime he had coated on his face and clothes – grunted and bared his blunt teeth at them. “It won’t matter.”
“It will,” Fjord said calmly. “We’re done here.”
He gave Essek a nod. With a small gesture of his left hand, Essek released his hold on the prisoner, and with a more sophisticated rake and twist of his right hand, Essek crushed the prisoner to a pile of bones and guts.
“Um,” Beau said.
“Oh my god, Essek,” Jester said in dismay.
“I thought we were going to let him go,” Caduceus said mildly.
Essek looked around at his companions. “Oh.”
“It’s – it’s okay,” Fjord said, and though he too looked shocked, he held out a pacifying hand to the rest of the group. “We wouldn’t want him to go back to his companions anyway.”
“And this way,” Veth chirped, “we’re sending a message.”
“Dmitri was just a kid!” Jester was upset, though as she made eye contact with Essek across the room, she seemed to soften a bit. “Well, I guess that happened.”
“We’ve done worse,” Beau said reasonably, and that seemed to be enough as the group turned to gather their supplies. Some chatter passed through them – mostly Beau and Fjord, brainstorming plans and ideas with the new information they had, and at some point Veth messaged Caleb with an update – and Essek drifted uncertainly after them as they headed out.
Caleb and Yasha met them at the main entrance. Caleb looked particularly pleased, likely due to the numerous items Yasha held in her arms that gave off a slight magical hum, but he immediately fell into place at Essek’s side once they made eye contact.
“You okay?” He asked softly, one hand on Essek’s elbow. The rest of the Mighty Nein pulled ahead on the path, not-so-discretely giving them some privacy.
“Yes.” Essek hesitated. “We just – we miscommunicated.”
Caleb gave him a long look.
“Don’t let any of them shame you for what you do in a fight,” he said at last. “Trust me when I say every one of us has done many, many questionable things in the heat of battle.”
“It wasn’t – it was after the fight. We had questioned him already.”
Caleb shrugged, a deliberate casualness in the motion. “The Mighty Nein are not in the habit of taking prisoners, are we? We are not spies or politicians, though we have dabbled. We are just,” Caleb mimed a punch,” some very determined people. I think most of us, whether we admit it or not, are more concerned with the big picture than the individual – unless Jester chats them up beforehand.”
“His name was Dmitri,” Essek said miserably.
“Ah,” Caleb said knowingly. “Worry not. She knows your name too.”
They soon caught up to the rest of the group, who had paused in a copse of trees. Jester caught Essek’s eye and walked over, rummaging in her bag and pulling out a lopsided donut.
“I got one of the cinnamon ones for you, Essek,” she said. “Since you don’t like the super sweet ones. It was supposed to be a surprise for finishing the mission, but if you want it now, you should have it.”
Essek smiled. “Thank you, Jester.”
He took the donut, the powdered cinnamon immediately sticking to his fingers, and pulled her in for a grateful hug.
Essek smiled up at Caleb, though he carefully manoeuvred his book out of the way to avoid the other man dripping all over it.
“You should come into the water. The temperature is perfect.”
“It’s so nice, Essek,” Jester wheedled from beside Caleb as she wrung out her pigtails. “You should try it!”
“Essek’s a smart boy with the right idea,” Veth said, her fingers deep in the sand as she wrestled with some crab or another.
“You don’t have to join us if you don’t want to,” Jester added, smirking. “You can just go flirt with Caleb.”
A loud splash sounded and Beau gave a triumphant shout. As they looked over, Fjord emerged, sputtering water.
“Yes, come float with me,” Caleb said, and Essek wasn’t sure if he had genuinely misheard Jester or not.
Essek closed his book. “I’ve never done this before.”
“It’s great!” Jester chirped.
Caleb offered a hand to him with a smile. “I’ve got you.”
“I will save you all when you drown,” Veth said. “And then you’ll have to thank me.”
In the end, Essek chose to keep most of his underclothes on – better than risk burning in the sun, and Caleb assured him that it made no difference if they were just to float around aimlessly. He stepped out from under his umbrella gingerly, gliding over the sand, and soon had to confront an entirely different yet not wholly unfamiliar feeling of gravity as he entered the water.
“Let’s go over here,” Caleb said, striding away deeper into the sea from the opposite direction of where Jester had rejoined the rest of the group in splashing around. Essek floundered a little, unused to this new environment, but followed him as steadily as he could.
Once they were out deep enough, Caleb took a deep inhale and submerged in the water entirely. Essek waited, a little anxious, until he re-emerged, gasping for breath.
“If you’ve never done this before,” Caleb said, treading water, “I think it’s easier if you submerge just your face first. Just put it into the water like you are going to wash your face.”
“Okay,” Essek said, and instead of listening, he too took a deep breath and sank as Caleb did, submerging himself entirely in the water.
He blinked his eyes open, fighting against the sting, and marvelled at the entirely different world he found himself in. The sound of gulls and waves above were now completely missing, and instead the rush of the ocean filled his head. The water was clear enough that he could easily see Caleb join him under the surface, and they locked eyes until Essek was forced to surface, sputtering as he nearly inhaled water instead of air as he tried to breathe again.
“I think if you ever want to die,” Caleb said, brushing stray wet hairs back from his face as he rejoined Essek on the surface, “but you also want to live, you should visit the ocean. It feels like being reborn.”
He dunked himself again, sparing Essek from having to think of a response immediately.
Essek followed him underwater, again and again, and with some cautious experimentation he quickly learned how to adjust his personal gravity to sink or rise in the water. It lent itself to a very different experience and he played with it curiously, experimenting with his own mobility, bursting between one world underwater and another above as Caleb watched him.
When he was satisfied with his experiments, he flipped onto his back at Caleb’s suggestion. Floating like this was yet another different sensation – it was an easy, natural motion, and the sun was warm on his wet skin.
They lay like this for a while, rocking gently in the waves of the sea.
“I understand,” Essek said quietly.
Caleb exhaled slowly beside him. “Yeah.”
The vast expanse of blue sky stretched above them, and they continued to float quietly, at ease, until Jester called for them. They splashed their way back to shore and as they stumbled back onto the beach, Essek reached an arm around Caleb’s waist, pulled him close, and held him tight.
“I am in your capable hands,” Caleb said, spreading his arms wide. He was freshly showered, wearing only his underclothes, and Essek pressed a chaste kiss to his cheek before sweeping into the room. A small box and a garment bag floated in after him.
“We don’t have a lot of time,” Essek said.
“We’ll be fine.” Caleb smiled at him. “Is it odd that I’m looking forward to this? Not to the boot-licking and the schmoozing, but I like seeing you in your element, Herr Thelyss.”
“Don’t distract me,” Essek murmured softly, though he pressed another fond kiss to Caleb’s shoulder as he opened the small box. “Here, this is for your body. It’ll keep you comfortable and fresh for longer.”
Essek waited for Caleb to apply the lotion before handing him another one. “This is for your face.”
The process went smoothly enough. Caleb put his hair up when Essek asked and lifted his arms and tucked his chin to put on the robes Essek had specially commissioned for him. They were relatively standard Xhorhasian formal clothes – the point was to blend in, not stand out – but they fitted him beautifully. Caleb usually wore warm and dusty colours, and the sight of him in a rich, cool indigo was something Essek quietly hoped to see many more times in the future.
“Give me a moment,” Essek said. He had to summon a mage hand to help him unclasp and then carefully lift his own mantle and set it aside on the bed. It sparkled aggressively, as ornate as it was, and Caleb traced it cautiously with a finger.
“It looks heavy,” he said curiously.
“It is,” Essek said, pulling out the next bottles he needed, “but as you know, that is not something that troubles me. I just need some more range in my shoulders.”
Caleb followed him as he walked to the vanity and sat patiently.
Essek carefully oiled and groomed Caleb’s beard, thankful that Caleb complied so easily with every instruction. Then Essek took out powders and brushes and directed Caleb at various points to look upwards, close his eyes, and suck in his cheeks. The contents of Essek’s box – the majority of which was specially commissioned to suit a human, this human – slowly scattered out and around the top of the vanity as he worked.
It was a more minimal look, incredibly subtle compared to Essek’s own elaborately bejewelled makeup, but it smoothed out Caleb’s skin and highlighted his piercingly blue eyes to suit the robes.
“I haven’t done this in a long time,” Caleb said softly, after he blinked his eyes open and turned to study himself in the mirror. “I’m surprised to say I missed it.”
Essek gently nudged Caleb so that he could start brushing through his hair. Magic flowed from his fingers into the brush, exuding a warmth that dried any excess moisture, and with a gesture of his fingers, Essek drew some delicate strings of jewels out of a side pocket in the garment bag and started plaiting them into Caleb’s hair.
“You’re good at this,” Caleb remarked. He met Essek’s eyes in the mirror.
Essek shrugged and smiled. “I have someone beautiful to work with.”
Caleb snorted. “Just teach me later, please.”
“Stay still,” Essek chided, but he smiled. “Of course I will teach you.”
He finished pinning back Caleb’s hair and turned to bring out the rest of the jewellery, intent on showing Caleb the options he had brought, but Caleb rose from the vanity seat and pulled him into a warm embrace.
“Caleb,” he said, laughing as the other wizard kissed his neck. “Don’t ruin all my hard work.”
“Look at us,” Caleb murmured, and Essek followed his gaze in the mirror. “We look so fucking good. The Dynasty will not be able to ignore us.”
Essek smiled, and it was all teeth. He had spent countless hours like this over the past century, getting ready for one event or another and one audience or another, knowing all the while that nothing would stop everyone from smiling mutely to his face and whispering about that young Shadowhand behind his back. He was used to working alone and keeping his secrets close to his chest.
But now Caleb’s grin matched his own. They were a twinned set, two of a kind – clever and powerful and unafraid – and yes, absolutely beautiful together.
[V. HOLDING EACH OTHER]
It was a waiting game. All of the Mighty Nein’s snooping and prep work suggested that the slaver’s caravan would not be making their way through for hours, perhaps even days, but they were prepared to strike at a moment’s notice if their target appeared. Those who were not on watch were loosely spread out over both sides of the ravine, idly passing time on a mild level of alert.
Essek sat with Caleb. He had a hand idly playing with Caleb’s hair, twirling the ends of the ponytail around his fingers. Caleb was quiet, focused on their surroundings, but he tilted his head slightly to give Essek more ease of access and his shoulders were relaxed.
It was interesting. Over time, the more touch became an integrated part of their daily lives, the less clingy Caleb became. It had started out like a necessity – Essek had been unused to anyone touching him and was thus also overly cautious when it came to reaching out for anyone else. He had never wanted to assume the level of familiarity. But he had become far more bold in seizing small moments like this, knowing that they would be welcome or that Caleb would readily turn him aside if not, and in turn Caleb had to ask less and less.
They were still relatively private in their relationship – it went without saying that they did not perform their relationship the same way as Fjord and Jester or Beau and Yasha – but they had acclimated to each other, and Essek now very much liked the way Caleb responded so comfortably to small gestures like the warm press of a hand to his back or the reassuring squeeze of a forearm as Essek drifted by.
When the slaver’s caravan still had not appeared by dusk, Essek and Caleb traded off. Essek now kept his eyes on the dim undergrowth for any signs of movement while Caleb sat half-pressed against him in the dark. Without any light to see by, lest it give their positions away, Caleb quickly looked just as lost in thought as Essek had been himself in the earlier hours. His chin was pressed into one hand, the fingerless gloves he wore given to him by Essek nearly four months ago, as he fiddled idly with the end of his scarf in the other.
Essek’s first ideas of courtship had also brought them some difficulties. He had focused on gifts: he presented to Caleb everything ranging from rare jewels to parchment. The materials and books Caleb had taken gratefully, but the more flashy baubles had been the cause of some friction until Essek understood that Caleb felt he was being bought, or perhaps worse, condescended to. Essek had tailored his gifts to be more personal after that, though often no less valuable, and with some conversation soon Caleb came to understand his genuine intentions.
But mostly what they shared were ideas, not caring for the lines drawn between them of Empire and Dynasty. It was the curiosity, the way they pushed each other to greater heights as students and as teachers and as people. It was in the way Essek was sure Caleb would understand if he talked about the importance of knowledge versus truth and how each was a tool to be used in turn.
A pigeon cooed in the dark forest and they both quietly rose to their feet. Essek led them to their designated spot above the ravine, making sure to stay half a step in front of Caleb so that he could follow in the night, and they crouched by the materials they had prepared earlier. Caleb leaned against him ever so slightly, and together, they waited for the night to explode into action.
Caleb was – generally responsible, of course, and with a good head on his shoulders, but Essek had learned that he rarely turned down a drink if the opportunity presented itself. He was sensible, usually, not having more than one or two if they had other goals in mind, but when the Nein were ready to let loose and celebrate a successful mission, Caleb wasted no time in helping himself to some drinks.
“Ah, it tastes good,” he’d said cheerfully when Essek had once asked if he was sure he wanted another. “And if not, it feels good.”
He’d hummed happily to himself, beaming around the table, and Essek had kept a sharp eye on him but otherwise smiled along as he was swept into singing-shouting sea shanties with Fjord, Beau, and Yasha.
Caleb was often a little unpredictable when drunk – sometimes he was smiling and boisterous and imminently keen to rise to any challenge, whether it be advanced arithmetic or, for whatever reason, arm wrestling matches.
He also tended to be more touchy, spilling into Essek’s lap even in full view of their friends. He would peer up at Essek, checking that there was no discomfort, before pressing sticky kisses into the corner of his lips. It was so easy to indulge Caleb in such moments, pulling him close and petting his hair fondly, until he was lured away to some drunken activity by Veth or Jester.
But sometimes drinking made Caleb quiet, nostalgic, morose. Then it was Essek who would notice the distant look on his face and reach out to pull him close. If it was particularly bad, Caleb would bury his face in Essek’s chest, and that was always the cue for Essek to gently steer him into bed as the rest of the Nein cast sympathetic glances in his direction.
“Do you ever feel,” Caleb said quietly to him one evening, “like we are bound to forgive each other?”
They were tucked in by the fireplace as the rest of the Nein chattered or danced around the dining room in the Tower. Caleb’s face was flush with the alcohol and Essek was fully enraptured with how openly the other wizard was gazing up at him. Essek was two drinks deep himself, but he had a long and steady habit of making sure he kept his wits about him when he drank, and today was no exception.
“I forgive you freely,” Essek said, and Caleb ducked his head as if embarrassed. “But please elaborate, if you’d like.”
“Hmmm.” Caleb pressed kisses along the lines of Essek’s neck as he thought. “Like it must be a fundamental truth that people can change if I want to change. It must be possible for someone to be redeemed if I want to be redeemed. So you must be forgiven if I can be forgiven. We are caught up in one another because we must believe in each other, because for one to fail is for both to fail.
“And,” Caleb continued, his words gently slurred and soft, “do you never worry that we are holding each other back? That we circle each other because we are both the sharp edge, trying not to be, but wondering what the other will think if we become otherwise?”
“I do worry,” Essek said honestly, and Caleb looked up again sharply with a frown. “And I do wonder. But I also genuinely believe. It is not a terrible desire for us to be loved as we are. You’re the one who told me that, once.”
“Are you keeping faith, Essek Thelyss?” Caleb murmured. “My most beloved friend?”
“Faith,” Essek said, pressing a kiss to the top of Caleb’s head, “is best reserved for people – not gods nor dynasties. So yes, Caleb Widogast, I am utterly devoted to you.”
“What if we conjugated it like –” Caleb enunciated the verb carefully, the Undercommon still unfamiliar on his tongue. “Would that have an effect on the spell?”
“I’m not sure changing the tense is useful,” Essek said, tersely, focused on his long sheet of gravitational calculations. “We want the effect to happen at the moment of casting.”
“Yes, but if we can convince the object that it’s already been falling for a long time –”
They were passing the evening much like they had many others. Books, parchment, and ink were sprawled all in front of them. A table nearby had multiple objects on it that had been obviously crumpled using magical, gravitational means. The table itself wobbled unsteadily due to a fissure in one of its legs that had been caused by an unexpected side effect tonight.
Another hour crawled by with little progress, and eventually Essek looked up from his equations with a frustrated sigh. Caleb was stretching out his shoulders across from him, and the warm light of their floating globes threw his tired eyes into sharp relief.
“We know a lot more of what doesn’t work,” Caleb offered wryly.
“It’s part of the process,” Essek said, as much to himself as to Caleb. But he looked back at his work with a frown.
Caleb got up from his seat and made his way around the table. He put his hands on Essek’s shoulders, kneading them softly, until Essek sighed and relaxed into Caleb’s touch.
“Let’s take a break,” Caleb murmured, leaning down to rest his chin on Essek’s shoulder.
Essek sighed again, but he turned and gave Caleb’s temple a kiss.
They moved to one of the couches in the study. Essek sat at one end while Caleb stretched out over the rest of the space, laying his head in Essek’s lap and nuzzling into his stomach. With gentle fingers, Essek pulled out Caleb’s ponytail and combed through his hair, massaging into his scalp while Caleb sighed pleasurably.
“I could do this for the rest of my life,” Caleb said softly.
“Maybe with some results,” Essek said lightly. He tucked some strands of hair behind Caleb’s ear. “But yes, I know what you mean. It’s hard work, but it’s satisfying.”
“Mmm.” Caleb closed his eyes. “Yes, the work – you know I will never say no to the work. But I also mean this,” and he breathed in and out deeply, warming Essek’s skin through his thin shirt.
Essek couldn’t help smiling as he stroked the side of Caleb’s face. “You’re right. The work is all the more meaningful when I do it with you, and I’ve been too curt with you tonight.”
“You look good when you’re focused,” Caleb said, and he took on a sly tone. “And you’ll just have to make it up to me, Herr Thelyss.”
“I will.” Essek traced Caleb’s lips with a thumb. “You have my full focus now, Caleb.”
Essek took his time, pressing slow and gentle kisses to Caleb’s cheeks as he undid the clasps on his shirt. Caleb gave a small shudder as Essek started to move his fingers up and down his bare sides, the gentle ghost of a touch, and arched impatiently to steal a kiss from Essek on the lips instead.
With a smile, Essek helped him out of the rest of his clothes, letting them fall to the ground on or around the couch until Caleb was seated in his lap, entirely vulnerable and fully attentive.
Gods, he was so beautiful. Essek loved to take his time in moments like this – using his fingers to trace the scattering of freckles across Caleb’s shoulders, lightly kissing along the scars on his wrists, mouthing at the hair that grew over his chest and stomach – until Caleb was breathlessly impatient with him.
“You are a terrible tease,” Caleb said as Essek pressed another kiss to the corner of his mouth.
“You like it,” Essek murmured fondly, and at last he reached out and grasped Caleb firmly in his hand. Caleb groaned, a guttural noise that only added to the heat pooled in Essek, and he leaned forward helplessly to rest his forehead against Essek’s own.
They moved eventually from the couch to the bed, Essek carrying Caleb in his arms, and then it was Caleb who would slyly turn his head to the side at the last moment so that Essek kissed his cheek, not his mouth, and Caleb who would undress Essek slowly, slowly, catching Essek’s hands every time they moved up to touch him, until they were both entirely naked and still in front of each other.
“Yes,” Essek said softly. “I could do this forever with you.”