"You know, when I said we had a habit of taking in strays, this was not quite what I meant."
Caleb eyed the filthy wad of fur and claws skeptically, torn between reaching out to it, or reaching for the hand towel by the sink. Essek had, of course, placed the kitten on the table as if that was the perfect place for a dirt covered cat to be.
To his credit, Caleb wasn't entirely sure the drow had much experience in homes that had animals in them at all. Sprinkle and Frumpkin had not been the standard affair, and for their time in Rosohna, the Nein hadn't really gotten to peek in other homes. It was possible that cats were not nearly as common there as they were in the Empire.
"Isn't it? Because the cat hair I plucked off my mantle this morning implies you have, at the very least, let the creature at the back door in this house once."
Caleb pursed his lips, knowing he'd been caught. Stealth had never really been his strong suit, after all. And he'd never thought to learn prestidigitation previously.
"Just once. It was raining."
The desire to pet the kitten, who mewled at him so very sadly, won. Setting down his pen, Caleb scooped the stumbling mess into his hands, curling it close to his chest where he could both comfort and inspect the wad of black fur and debris.
"This week has been nothing but clear skies." Essek quirked an eyebrow, smug grin on his face. "But I am not complaining. Simply explaining that I couldn't leave it out front the bakery by itself when I knew it could be cared for here instead, even if only temporarily."
Ah. A foster kitten. Tempting.
"We could find it a home, once it's been cleaned up and with a few good meals in its belly?" Caleb didn't bother to look up as he spoke, thumb smoothing the soft but dirt filled fur on the tiny animal. It had been some time since he'd seen a kitten small enough to have blue eyes still, nevermind one so skinny and in need of comfort.
"Yes, of course. Just for a little while."
A fun little song and dance of words, but they both knew how this worked. They knew each other well enough to see right through that promise of only a temporary inconvenience.
It took three days for the stray at their back door to find itself inside again.
Essek didn't say another word about picking cat hair off his clothing.
"That is.... not what I was expecting when you messaged earlier."
Caleb tried to keep himself from just outright laughing at the image before him as he hung up his coat. He had papers to grade, but perhaps those could wait until after he inspected the new house guest.
Essek looked up from where he sat on the floor, a bundle of feathers and wings wrestling his hand.
"What were you expecting?"
"You said a kitten. I expected a kitten." Caleb set down his bag and leaned down, hand pushing white bangs aside so that he could press a kiss to his partner's forehead.
"He is a kitten." Essek insisted, though his grin was nothing short of mischievous. At least he'd gotten better with showing the tells of his jokes in the past few years...
"A fancy one, that they had locked in a cage much too small for him to stretch out his wings."
"Ja, the wings are the part I'm referring to. Cat's don't have wings." It hurt his knees to stay perched as he was for long, and Caleb found himself sinking down the rest of the way to join the drow and the new addition on the floor. Floor time was important anyways- he could always go for a little floor time after an afternoon at a desk.
"Are you sure? Because I'm pretty certain this cat has wings."
Caleb sighed, leaning his back against the couch as he watched Essek tease the kitten, touches playful as he grabbed at tiny paws, letting the kitten catch him on occasion before pulling his hand back. For someone with little to no cat experience prior to the last stray kitten, Essek had seemed to pick up 'how to kitten' fairly easily.
"None of the hanging plants will be safe if he has a penchant for chewing leaves like the last one you brought home."
"I think I can come up with something. A shield, perhaps?" Essek stole a quick glance before he was distracted once more by playbites to his fingers. Caleb could see the appeal to a cat with wings- they were very pretty. And no cat ought to live a life in a cage, after all.
"I'm sure you could." He looped an arm over Essek's shoulder and found himself smiling as he felt the weight of him leaning into the motion, though not enough that he'd have to remove the animal from his lap.
"Three cats I think might be the limit for this house, though. We need to be able to keep our space somewhat under control."
Yeah, he'd said that with the last one too.
Not his most thrilling lecture to date, but thankfully that day’s students had questions for him he could answer and not risk getting anyone into trouble. A couple stragglers were still waiting for his attention when Essek's excitable voice entered his mind, as clear as if he were standing next to him. Well, he knew it was the sound of excitement, but most other people might not have been able to pick up on the subtle difference in tone.
"Are you home and are there any, um, meats available? If you are not home could you get some? I may have picked up a-"
Ah. Word limit. For all the times he'd teased Jester over the years, it seemed Essek was not immune to running his mouth when excitedly casting Sending.
Careful not to interrupt the student in front of him's question, Caleb held up a single finger, signaling he needed a moment.
"I'm at the school, finishing a lesson. I can pick some up if need be, but for what purpose? What did you find?"
Knowing he'd have to wait on a response, he nodded to the student, who was now looking at him in bafflement.
"Sorry about that, private message. You may continue."
The student did try to, but not a few moments later there was a familiar figure entering the open classroom doorway.
Disguises really only worked so much when you'd spent extended time with a person, and Essek had cycled through so many by this point, Caleb couldn't find it in himself to encourage changes in some of the usual ones. Besides, he was a little fond of this particular disguise.
"What is that?"
He felt bad for leaving the student after he'd just told them to continue, but whatever the fuck was in Essek's arms clearly demanded more attention.
"It is not."
"It is. I even asked for a second opinion."
Caleb pursed his lips, eyes darting from the spiny creature Essek was trying to keep hold of, back over to the two lingering students who seemed equally as interested in the outcome of whatever had just been brought into a classroom.
"I ran out of low level spells. It was teleport here, or spend the night on an island with Jester and Fjord." Essek explained, shoulders sagging. It was incredibly endearing that in this disguise, his floppy firbolg ears and tail sagged with him, almost sheepish. Though, with the knowledge of where Essek had teleported from, combined with the lack of available spells, Caleb had a feeling that genuine exhaustion played into that body language as well.
"Ah, it is alright. We'll make it work and... well. I suppose this makes 4, now doesn't it?"
He did not miss the way Essek eyed the two students distrustfully, and did his best to convey that these two were safe.
"And perhaps you can help me answer these last questions of the day?"
He nearly dropped the cat. The not-a-cat, because there was no way that was actually a cat.
They managed to dodge introductions, but Caleb was reasonably sure that was only because both students were so distracted (and delighted) by the creature Essek had brought with him.
Fate always had a funny way of timing things for the two of them.
When Essek found it becoming harder to avoid detection, Caleb had conveniently also mused one too many times that week that perhaps the quiet little house in Rexxentrum was beginning to get a little too cramped with two wizards, four cats, and a fully functioning laboratory complete with teleportation circle.
A few years in Nicodranas might do them some good, anyways. Caleb did always enjoy their visits, he could teleport in to the school easy enough to continue with his lectures, and more importantly, Essek wouldn't be consistently around a big busy capitol. Not that he would allow Essek to take the blame for their need of relocation…
A larger home with more free space was a welcome change, even if it meant limiting how often he could create the tower. In theory, a larger physical home didn't require the additional demiplane anyways.
Caleb was also hopeful that they wouldn't have to move their little family again immediately, considering how displeased all four cats were with the process. Especially once Essek returned home one evening carrying a bucket with what would become cat number five.
"We really ought to narrow down what does and does not make a cat." Caleb sighed, watching his partner attempt to contain the monstrosity in the kitchen sink.
Essek seemed to have learned how to handle rambunctious kittens like a professional by this point. Honestly, he seemed rather fond of it, and who was Caleb to deny him the simple joy of caring for a creature that would love him back unconditionally.
"So where did you find this one?"
"You don't want to know."
Judging by the strange extra appendages and their prehensile nature, combined with the extra limbs... Somewhere in Xhorhas seemed incredibly likely. Though, the bucket he'd brought it home in was a curious method of transportation.
"I was assured by a local that they do learn to control the bit of acid leaking that comes from," Essek gestured to the ends of the tendrils that had initially caused Caleb's first double take with the creature, "whatever these are. But the first few months they are as stumbly as any other young animal."
"Acid." Caleb hummed, moving to lean his hip against the counter next to where Essek stood, rinsing what looked like tar off the mostly unbothered creature. "You may regret that soft heart of yours when it leaks on your books."
"I'm sure I will."
Caleb had to admit, the face on the animal was feline, so perhaps Essek deserved credit with the assessment of Fancy Cat this time.
"Though not as much as I'd have regretted leaving it alone in a tar pit, I'm sure."
If the drow minded the way Caleb watched him, heart full of affection and smile fond, he certainly didn't speak up about it.
For a while, the dynasty became relentless in their search for Essek and it was eventually determined that the safest place for him to be each night was inside the tower, despite the initial hesitations.
This caused a couple problems early on, most glaringly being the fact that teleporting to and from Rexxentrum each day to teach required the use of the same amount of energy as the tower. Caleb was capable of two teleports, or one and the tower, if he wanted to have enough disposable spells left over for teaching.
There was the possibility of using official teleportation circles, but that did make tracking where the professor lived easier from within the empire. It left somewhat of a paper trail, and was less than ideal when romantically involved with a fugitive.
Which led to the fairly odd and unwieldy option of Essek being the one to teleport Caleb to work each morning.
"As much as it is a bother, it is also a delight." The drow had insisted to him while handing him a neatly packaged lunch to take with him. "I can see why Yasha enjoys this. The domescity of it all."
"I dislike that it limits you in your traveling." Caleb said with a heavy sigh, accepting his meal and pressing a quick kiss to Essek's temple. "But I do like knowing I'll see you before work each morning."
"Exactly. That part is pleasant." His smile was soft, fond as he let his hand linger at Caleb's side. "I needed to slow down anyways. Spend time at home, reading or in a garden."
There was some truth to that. Essek had found himself with more and more close calls lately, all of which had happened while he'd been traveling near the borders of the empire. He needed his disguise less, but the chance of being recognized as himself was increased instead.
It had certainly been more than once that Caleb had received frantic 'Are you alone? I think I'm being followed' messages. And with magical limitations being what they were, one well-placed counterspell could prevent his partner from returning to him.
That had been a terrifying thought nagging in Caleb's mind for months.
Nicodranas was neutral territory and Essek would not be without aid entirely should someone see through a disguise. Veth and Yeza lived a short walk away, Jester and Fjord frequently were in port, and Yussa was a last resort. There were options, should he get into a situation.
"You will get into a lot less trouble, as well, while you're not running off every few days."
"You're not wrong."
"Maybe this will keep you from bringing home additions to the family." Caleb gestured to the two cats who had followed them to the lab. He'd been too distracted to shut the door and now he'd have to shoo them from the room before Essek sent him to work.
"Is that a challenge?"
He didn't bother to stop the laugh in his chest, shaking his head fondly. He did so very dearly love whenever Essek's sass caught him off guard. Though, he hadn't meant his amusement to somehow be encouragement.
A week later found Caleb unsure if a two headed cat technically counted as two separate cats. Their established rules of 'what is a cat' hadn't covered that possibility.
"I once read somewhere that if you want to be reminded of something at the same time of day, every day," Essek spoke without looking up from his book at the kitchen table, "Feeding a cat at that time is a way to make sure you will never forget to do that task as long as that cat lives."
Caleb sighed, drying his hands from the sink as he turned to face him.
"They do keep very good time when it comes to meals- dear, she's burning the-"
Essek moved quickly, shooing the flaming mass away from the additional books he'd placed on the table top as distractions for no less than two cats. They wouldn't lay on the book he was currently reading, if he provided them their own. Unfortunately, the newest addition had a habit of producing flame on occasion, and the house was far from fireproof.
Caleb handed off the damp hand towel, which was used to gently pat down the crispy book.
"As I was saying-"
"As you were saying-"
The two wizards met each other's gaze, amused and not wanting to talk over each other.
"If we feed all the cats at seven thirty, they will all be out of the tower by the time you recast it. We won't have any repeats of the Thaddeus incident," Essek finished, setting the now damaged tome back down on the table.
Caleb couldn't withhold the soft laugh that bubbled out of him. Ah, yes, The Incident. There had been so many lost feathers, and so much forlorn yowling as if they'd chosen to upset the creature on purpose.
"I've never seen him look so offended, as if it wasn't entirely his own fault for refusing to come down. The tower cats also warned him."
"There's a reason that one got named for Beau and not Yasha, despite the wings."
He did have a point, though. It would be an addition to their daily routine that would be easy enough to make, as well.
"We could certainly try it. I'm sure we'll see which of our cat's is the worst at keeping time quickly enough."
The eighth cat had been less Essek bringing it home and more Luc having deposited it into Essek's lap, and the drow not wanting to upset the boy by telling him it couldn't stay. Veth might not think so, but Caleb was certain that of the two of them, Essek was the bigger push-over of an uncle. Besides, even Luc seemed to have picked up on just how much of a natural Essek seemed to be with herding cats.
Though, that task became a little more difficult when it turned out the kitten Luc had handed off was capable of blinking from floor to floor of the tower.
The ninth cat was both a surprise and not. Despite having been the one to free him from his obligations, Caleb hadn't figured that Frumpkin would choose to use that freedom to pop in and out of their home as he pleased.
Essek had not been surprised at all, suggesting that perhaps for all the hassle the fey cat had been put through during his service, he's also gotten a lot of love that had inspired him to stick around anyways.
He'd earned several teary eyed kisses from Caleb for that line of reasoning, which the drow did not protest in the slightest.
Nine cats was a lot. But not something the two of them couldn't handle, even if it meant a lot of additional adjustments to how both of them went about their daily routines. Adjustments such as additional books set out on floors to occupy cats rather than the creatures insisting on sitting on top of the book either wizard was trying to read. Or the need for a larger bed.
There was something terribly endearing about going to bed each night and one by one, each feline finding its way to the room as well. Not every cat got along well with the others, but they could tolerate one another enough to share bed space.
For as much as Essek had previously seemed to enjoy wandering, the down time of laying low in the tower each night didn't seem to be as bothersome if he had feline company. It perhaps wasn't ideal, but at the very least made for some pleasant, peaceful years of Caleb catching the drow having hushed, one-sided conversations with the smaller members of their bizarre family.
Frumpkin, naturally, appeared to be the best listener.
Additionally, Caleb found himself incredibly thankful that regardless of what was going on in the world, each day would be bookended by sleeping and waking next to Essek, heart full of love and most of the bed occupied by cats.