The ruins are quiet, which would be a good thing, if it didn’t mean Essek can hear his thoughts all too clearly.
It’s incredible how much more expeditious their journey is, with just the two of them and Caleb’s prodigious memory. It’s a good thing that there’s apparently no trouble to stay out of, because instead of focusing on Aeor’s dangers, Essek keeps finding himself staring at Caleb.
They only left the outpost early in the morning, and they’ve already retraced their steps to the T-dock without any major accident (for the moment, don’t get too complacent, Thelyss). They haven’t exchanged many words after Caleb asked him if he felt up to risking his life in an active way, instead of waiting for his fate to come to him — to paraphrase just a little. And Essek, caught by surprise, had to go and show his whole hand with a reply that he could have spun as sarcastic, if it weren’t unfortunately clear that he meant it.
The truth is, he really couldn’t think of anything else he’d rather do.
Ever since they left the outpost, Essek has done his best to orbit Caleb without getting too close, mostly because he still has no idea where they stand. Even though they have kept tabs on each other via Sending and Essek keeps an ear to the ground regarding news from the Empire, he and Caleb haven’t really had a proper conversation in a while.
It’s not like Essek doesn’t have his own worries to keep him company during their trek. But it turns out that a generous helping of yearning counterbalances those quite nicely. The only side effect is that he finds himself constantly on the verge of an anxiety attack, even more so than usual. His hands are constantly shaking in a way that would almost be funny, if it weren’t happening to him.
On his part, Caleb has been making his life easier by being absorbed in his own thoughts as well. When he’s not busy making himself ridiculous, Essek keeps a close eye on him. It would be easy to explain away his long, pining glances as him being worried about Caleb’s safety, and it wouldn’t even be a lie.
This is how he nearly ends up floating into a crumbling archway, still partially standing along their path. One moment he’s focused on making sure Caleb doesn’t step into a patch of flesh-eating mold, the next he’s pulled to his right, so swiftly that he would have lost his balance had he been walking.
Before he realises what’s happening, he finds himself facing Caleb, the man’s hands clasping his shoulders. They’re wearing too many layers for warmth to seep through, but Essek swears he can feel Caleb’s body heat, and suddenly he’s hot, too. One gloved hand leaves his shoulder and Essek can’t do anything but watch and hold his breath as Caleb reaches out and pushes his hair away from his forehead.
“Careful,” he says, and Essek keeps perfectly still because he knows Caleb’s hand is lingering longer than strictly necessary, and he’s definitely on the verge of self-combustion, but he also doesn’t want it to end. “We don’t want any damage to come to this clever head of yours.”
That startles a laugh out of Essek, and his paralysis is finally broken. “Maybe it’ll knock some sense into it after all.” The weak joke is made even more pathetic by the way his voice cracks in the middle of it.
But Caleb’s smile in response is warm, almost — if Essek dares to hope — fond, and it makes the skin around his eyes crinkle, which in turn makes Essek wonder how it would feel to run his fingers on those lines. This is only the latest in a series of baffling, confusing thoughts that sparked in his head when Caleb kissed him on the forehead instead of killing him on the spot or delivering him to the Dynasty’s dubious mercy; rekindled since he showed up at the outpost the first time with the Mighty Nein, speaking of trust and the end of the world; and became a roaring fire after he kissed him again when they separated the last time, in the Grove. Sometimes Essek swears he can still feel his cheek burn where Caleb’s lips touched it.
“I would keep that as a last resort. Let’s go now, and be careful.” Caleb turns away, dropping his hand from Essek’s forehead. He barely has the time to mourn its absence before Caleb lowers his other hand, the one that was still on his shoulder, and lets it run down Essek’s arm until he’s holding his hand instead.
It’s fine. Essek only needs one, it doesn’t matter which, to cast his frost cantrip, and lucky for him, he doesn’t need to concentrate to do so.
They proceed quietly and swiftly, with Essek leading the way through the dark patches of the journey, only letting go of each other when they reach the crater so Caleb can cast Fly on himself. Essek does the same, just so he can keep up. He doesn’t want to be left behind; the closer they get to the T-dock, the more Caleb’s silence turns heavier, in some way, as if his thoughts have their own gravitational pull, absorbing all his attention.
The chamber with the runic circle is exactly as Essek remembers it. Looking at Caleb, who seems miles away even as he’s standing by his side, Essek has never wished more to be able to read thoughts. But even if he could, he wouldn’t. He’s going to let the man share what he wants, when he wants, and be grateful for whatever he receives, even if it is just silence.
In the end, Caleb asks him a question without looking in his direction. “Is this still something that you consider?”
Essek, who is looking at him, turns his attention to the chamber. There it is: something his younger self would have done unspeakable things to get his hands on. He did unspeakable things for far less. For a moment, he allows himself to consider it, to look at these low-hanging, succulent fruits and see if his instinct is to reach for them. He waits for temptation’s hold to settle.
Its jaws close on him easily, and with just as little effort he slips away from them.
He still owes Caleb an answer. The man is waiting patiently at his side, no doubt aware or at least respectful of the time Essek needs. When he speaks, he does so slowly, pondering each word. “I have spent my life in the pursuit of the ability to control one's future. And that path has led me to making many mistakes.”
That’s a euphemism if he’s ever heard one, and a corner of his mouth twitches in a self-deprecating smile.
He makes himself go on. “And my interests began to wander to the possibility of fixing one’s past. And since we've found this, I've thought of it often.” He tries to swallow and fails. His mouth is dry. “The possibility of retracing one's lifeline. Adjusting things.”
Exhaling slowly, he drifts deeper into the room, leaving Caleb behind on the doorway, until the runic circle is almost under his feet. His hands are hidden under his mantle. He doesn’t let himself reach out.
“But such pursuits are selfish. For the more you understand time, you understand you cannot see the ramifications of changing such things.”
When he turns towards the chamber’s entrance, he sees Caleb still there, unmoving except for his eyes, which wander around the room slowly, meditatively. They never settle anywhere, and never on Essek.
“Had I found this before I found you, perhaps I may have done some incredible, terrible things with it.” He keeps his voice down, and he has to suppress a shiver when Caleb finally looks at him. Their eyes lock, and Essek wets his lips before he continues. “But I accept my regrets, my faults now, and I'm here, today, with this knowledge, in this moment with you, because of those mistakes.”
His hands ball up into fists under his cloak. He doesn’t know where he finds the courage to say what he says next. Perhaps it’s the impetus of the words that have already left his mouth, carrying him forward like a snowball that turns into an avalanche. Perhaps he just has to say it.
“And, as much as they hurt me, I don't want to change a thing.”
After a moment of silence, Caleb inhales deeply as he steps in, walking up to where Essek is floating, and exhales slowly. It’s a trembling breath. “It’s… it’s a lot.”
While Caleb looks around, Essek doesn’t stop staring at him. “How about you, Caleb Widogast?” He tries to keep the longing from those words, to make them sound like a question and not a Question.
“Well.” Caleb stands tall, but with an almost reverent tilt to his head. They are in a sacred place of sorts, after all. He turns and smiles at Essek, a sad smile. “My lifespan is a little shorter than yours, but for many years I have thought.” He looks at the circle again with an expression Essek can’t define, but that he understands in some deep, dark part of him. Tormented, almost haunted. “I have thought of this very thing.”
And he starts to speak. To him, Essek thinks, at least at first, and then to himself. Essek listens without interrupting, without interfering. These are words that need to be said, and Essek is just beginning to learn empathy, largely by example, so he watches and listens and when the tears come — his, for some reason, before Caleb’s — he lets them fall.
His voice gets softer and quieter, and Essek has to swallow the lump in his throat to ask him, “Will you do it?”
Wherever Caleb’s mind is right now, it’s not here. Quickly wiping his tears from his face with a sleeve, Essek drifts closer. Initiating contact should be easier, by now, but when he’s not high on adrenaline or fearing for Caleb’s safety, he has to overcome some mental resistance before reaching out and taking Caleb’s hand.
From the way he startles at the touch, Caleb was indeed miles away. Essek squeezes his fingers in what he hopes is a reassuring, grounding way. “Will you do it?” he asks again, and at first he doesn’t like the raw, open tenderness in his own voice, but then he realises he doesn’t care. “I will help you,” he adds. Because of course he will. Caleb won’t even have to ask.
When Caleb looks at him, a crease on his forehead and a look of intense disbelief — no, not disbelief — of marvel in his eyes, Essek doesn’t let himself break eye contact. Caleb needs to know that Essek means it. That he won’t change a thing for himself, but he will tear the fabric of reality open if it means Caleb will get some peace of mind.
Caleb’s hand slips from Essek’s as he covers his face, taking another deep breath in. When he lets it out, it seems like the weight of centuries of pain, guilt and regret is settling on him. Essek knows a thing or two about that, and his heart aches in sympathy.
Then, just like that, a decision is made. Caleb reaches into his component pouch without looking. His fist is clenched around something that Essek recognises as dust only when Caleb drags it up his arm. He doesn’t need to hear him mutter the verbal component of the spell to understand what he’s doing, because the ground in front of them starts to collapse on itself like quicksand. The rune circle dissipates gradually and is eaten away, turning into fine dust.
Essek closes his eyes. It takes him a few seconds to realise that the feeling overpowering him is relief.
When he reopens them, Caleb is still focused on destroying possibly the only chance he’ll ever have to go back and fix things. No, Essek thinks, it is the last one. Even if they discover more digging around the ruins, this is not the action of a man who’s going to eat his own words.
By the time the spell runs its course, the room is still full of papers and scrolls. It only takes a flick of Caleb’s wrist, a word, to set them on fire.
Somewhat shakily, Essek exhales. “Good.” Caleb’s hair and eyes are brighter than the flames, so much that it almost hurts to look at him. His mouth is set in a grim line, and he’s never looked more powerful and beautiful. Essek digs his nails in the meat of his palms to keep himself from taking Caleb’s face in his hands. He’s overpowered by the vision of Caleb turning his burning eyes on him, of having this gorgeous man, braver and better and stronger than Essek will ever hope to be, right where he wants him to be, of finding out if his lips are as good at kissing as they are at casting spells.
The image is so real and startling that he has to forcibly shove it out of his mind. “Good,” he says again. And he means it.
Somehow, they walk away from it. Somehow they find a quiet place — everywhere has been quiet so far, which Essek doesn’t trust one bit but he’s grateful for — not far from that room and they settle in for the night.
“I can put up the Tower, if you want.” Caleb is sitting on the hard stone floor, his back propped against an equally hard and cold wall, and he has let his head fall back and his eyes close. He looks exhausted. “Sleep in a proper bed and all.”
Essek, who’s still floating and keeping an eye out for threats, ponders it. “Whatever you prefer. It seems like a waste, for only the two of us.”
One of Caleb’s eyes cracks open. “Yes, but beds.” He props himself upright, stretching and wincing when something pops loudly in his back. “We could try all of them, see which one’s more comfortable.”
His tone is light, but his word choice doesn’t escape Essek, who feels his face become uncomfortably hot. So they’re back to the flirting. Essek would rather have him like this than the disassociated, tormented man he was in the T-Dock chamber a short while ago, but only slightly. “I don’t need a bed to sleep anyway. I don’t need to sleep, period.”
Caleb’s neck cracks when he tilts his head this way and that. Essek winces reflexively, but Caleb sighs contentedly afterwards, so he doesn’t say anything. He’s not an expert in human anatomy. Maybe the cracks and pops are a good thing.
“I’m too tired anyway.” Caleb rummages blindly in his component pouch, but the object he takes out is too small for Essek to see. “Dome it is.”
As soon as the translucent dome comes up, the temperature inside it rises considerably and Essek realises he’d been shivering only when he has no reason to anymore. He takes some layers off before he starts sweating. It’s not until he’s getting rid of his cloak that he notices Caleb’s eyes on him, and he almost drops the garment.
The man hasn’t moved since he finished casting the spell, and Essek feels like a particularly rare specimen under his gaze. “What?” he blurts out, holding his mantle in front of him subconsciously.
Caleb pats the ground next to him. “Could you lay your cloak on the ground? The bedrolls are fine, but an extra layer won’t hurt. It would feel less like sleeping on the floor.”
“I have never slept on the floor.” Essek packed a bedroll just in case, but he was going to hover over the ground while meditating for four hours. Unfortunately, it seems he’s unable to deny Caleb anything he asks, and he thinks they both know it.
“I don’t recommend it.” He scoots aside to let Essek spread his cloak on the floor, then lets his bedroll unfurl on it. While Essek does the same, Caleb shrugs off his coat and rolls it up into a makeshift pillow.
Essek can’t help but notice that their bedrolls absolutely don’t need to be this close. He also realises that Caleb has placed his coat-pillow so that Essek could use it, too. There’s no explicit invitation, only Caleb taking his boots off and lying down with his back to the wall of the dome. Essek fidgets a while longer, taking his sweet time to pull off his boots as well and landing quietly on his socked feet on the edge of his bedroll.
Since Caleb’s eyes are closed, he can study his face, taking in the deep shadows under his eyes and the crease on his forehead that isn’t going away. He wishes he could take the exhaustion that seeps from Caleb and carry it on his own shoulders, in his own stomach. He would do it in a heartbeat.
For now, what he can do is lie down next to him. He tries to keep a respectable distance between them. But they’re still sharing a cloak and a makeshift pillow, so there’s only so much he can do. And there’s nowhere he can go when Caleb reaches out with his eyes closed and his hand lands on Essek’s forearm, trailing up until he finds Essek’s hand and threads their fingers together. There’s no hesitancy, no self-consciousness, and it goes straight to Essek’s heart, which, having been subjected to a lot of stress recently, isn’t equipped to deal with any of this.
He’s too busy trying to keep everything under control to notice when it starts. At first it’s a subtle shaking, a sharp intake of breath followed by another, a shift of Caleb’s shoulders. Essek has yet to close his eyes, but Caleb’s face is more than half hidden in his coat and by his hair, and all in all, Essek is taken by surprise by the realisation that he is crying.
After a first moment of panic, Essek’s gut reaction is overcome by another instinct, equally intense if unexpected. Caleb’s hand in his is slack, so it’s easy to disentangle their fingers and move closer, looping an arm around his shoulders. The initial panic makes a short-lived comeback as he feels Caleb tense under his touch, and suddenly Essek questions everything: is this unwanted? Is he assuming? He hasn’t the vaguest clue what he’s doing, but this seems like something Jester would do in his shoes, so it can’t be wrong, can it?
He lets out a small sigh of relief when a moment later Caleb relaxes in his arms. It’s impossible to mistake his sobs now that they’re this close, and Essek feels his shirt dampen quickly, but he doesn’t care. On the contrary, he feels a strange, inappropriate elation. There’s pride at the thought of being someone who gets to see Caleb like this, someone who’s doing something good and necessary for him. Does this make him a bad person? Enjoying the privilege of being the person Caleb Widogast has chosen to bare himself to?
‘Chosen.’ Essek scoffs at himself. What choice does Caleb have? He takes a long, hard look at himself, comparing himself to the people Caleb surrounds himself with, open and wise and strong. If Caleb could really choose, it would probably not be Essek holding him right now.
Shut your brain down, says a voice in his head that sounds remarkably like Beau’s, and try not to fuck this up.
Empathy. In recent months, Essek has found that it’s not that hard to feel. At first he thought he just wasn’t built for it, but it turns out it’s just a matter of habit. It was always within him, just barely out of reach.
Once he focuses on that, it’s not hard to piece everything together. Essek doesn’t think he has ever felt grief. He never let anyone close enough for the separation to feel like a loss (and his heart sinks when he realises how things have changed now, and what it means for him, and he recoils from the thought. One thing at a time). Caleb has just lost his parents for the second time, and with them his last hope of rejoining them in this life. The muted sobs muffled against Essek’s shirt are remarkably composed for what such a heartbreak might entail.
He pulls him even closer, pressing his lips on Caleb’s hair in what is not a kiss, not really. It’s not the same thing, not by a long stretch, but he allows his heart to open, allows himself to feel Caleb’s pain, and he hopes Caleb forgives the tears that for the second time today roll down his cheeks, disappearing in Caleb’s hair.
It takes a while for Caleb to calm down. Essek doesn’t know how long, and he doesn’t mind. He wants to say something reassuring, or wipe his hair away from his damp forehead, but the fear of doing something wrong paralyses him. So he just keeps holding him until the regular warm breath on his chest tells him that Caleb’s fallen asleep.
The ruins are quiet and nothing can hurt them inside the dome. Overwhelmed and exhausted, Essek allows himself to let his eyes close, sinking into something that’s not sleep, but is deeper than his usual trance, from which he’s unexpectedly roused some time later by a voice that’s not Caleb’s.
HI ESSEK! HOPE YOU’RE OKAY. HOW IS YOUR TRIP GOING? TELL CALEB I MISS HIM! I MISS YOU TOO! I THINK I SAW A MERMAID—
Essek’s heart rate goes down as Jester’s voice disappears. Used as he is to her daily Sendings, he’s still sometimes caught off guard by their unpredictable timing. He smiles to himself as he counts to three, and right on cue—
TODAY BUT KINGSLEY SAYS IT WAS JUST A DOLPHIN MAYBE. BUT DOLPHINS ARE STILL PRETTY CUTE! BE SAFE, LOVE YOU. DON’T DO ANYTHING I WOULDN’T!
The fact that Jester had enough spell slots at the end of her day to Send to him not once, but twice is comforting. “Hello, Jester,” he whispers, as quietly as he can. “I won’t. I’ve never seen one, but I imagine dolphins are indeed cute. I will say hi to Caleb when he wakes up.” Be safe, dearest friend, he adds to himself after feeling the ethereal thrum of the Sending spell vanish from his ears.
With a soft grunt, Caleb moves in his arms. Essek has to fend off a brief moment of anxiety when he realises that he’s still holding Caleb in his arms, and has to remind himself that Caleb wants you here, and if he prefers to put an end to this arrangement, Essek won’t try to stop him.
Caleb stays where he is. In the murky darkness, Essek can see him blink groggily. “Was that…?”
“Yes. She says hello.”
He looks on while Caleb rubs the sleep out of his eyes. It’s such an open display of vulnerability, even more so than crying himself to sleep in Essek’s arms. Something painful and tender unfolds in Essek’s chest as he commits this moment to memory.
“You should go back to sleep,” he murmurs. “It’s not been eight hours.”
Caleb stretches and yawns, but instead of going back to sleep, he asks, “Do you mind if I make some light?”
His voice is a bit hoarse. From the tears, Essek surmises. He doesn’t even let Caleb raise his hand before casting his own light cantrip. A moment later, the dome is filled with a smattering of tiny indigo motes, bobbing up and down and drifting in the air like dust in a ray of sunlight. The light they emit is enough for Caleb to turn and see Essek looking at him with the same wonder Caleb has just reserved for Essek’s Dancing Lights.
Feeling oddly naked, Essek blinks and turns his head towards the top of the dome. His breath catches when he feels a hand on his cheek.
When he looks back, gently coaxed by Caleb, the man starts studying Essek’s face, his eyes taking in his every trait while avoiding his eyes. “I’m afraid I ruined your shirt earlier,” he says.
Essek scoffs loudly, or as loudly as he dares.
When Caleb’s hand moves away, Essek has to force himself not to hold it there. But Caleb just traces his cheekbone with a calloused fingertip, then his jaw. “There is no one else I’d…” he starts before cutting himself off and inhaling. “Thank you,” he says simply, but in such a tone that Essek has to close his eyes to fully take it in.
He wants to say something. He wants to take that hand and kiss it. He wants to kiss him. He doesn’t do any of these things, because he doesn’t know where to start, much less where it would end.
They’re still very close, and Essek’s stomach does something complicated and gravity-defying when he realises that he still has a hand on Caleb’s waist. It hasn’t been a problem so far, but so far he wasn’t aware of it.
He’s mercifully distracted by Caleb’s sigh, and he focuses on him, on the sparkles in his eyes, on the way his hair looks silver under Essek’s Dancing Lights.
“Before we said goodbye,” Caleb says, very quietly, “Veth told me… she told me I had made it to the threshold of the cell I’ve been in all these years. All I had to do was to step out.” He lets his hands fall between them, on the soft material of Essek’s cloak between their two bedrolls. “I think… I think I took my first step today.”
There are still so many things Essek doesn’t know about the man who holds his heart in his rough, elegant spellcaster’s hands. He knows enough, though. He’s not sure, but he thinks touch would be more welcome than its absence right now, so he searches for his hands, holding them delicately between his own. “I believe you did,” he whispers. And then, in the same breath, “Caleb Widogast.”
He waits until Caleb looks at him.
“I am so proud of you,” Essek says. Caleb winces as if he’s been hurt, but Essek recognises that intensity for what it is and holds his hands a little tighter. “I am, and you deserve my pride, for whatever it’s worth.”
Caleb’s eyes are dark when he opens them again and looks at him. So close. Just a breath away. “Essek,” he whispers, and it’s the last thing he says before he falls asleep again.
It takes Essek an hour to calm himself down enough to fall into his trance. The Dancing Lights fade away way before that.
He’s sitting up, cross-legged, floating a few inches above his cloak, when Caleb wakes up. He has already rolled up and put away his bedroll, and his thoughts are too much of a mess for him to read, so he doesn’t have anything else to do but to look at Caleb. It’s a whole process, which involves stretching, yawning and a brazen invasion of Essek’s personal space among other things.
When Caleb blinks his eyes open and turns to him with a sleepy smile, Essek finds that he doesn’t mind.
“Maybe luck will be on our side today as well,” says Caleb as they’re getting ready to go.
Essek makes a grimace in response. He still doesn’t trust the quiet.
In the end, of course, he’s right.
After debating the pros and cons, they decide to go off route. Essek’s maps are still more blank spaces than anything, and they are both intrigued by what else the Genesis Ward, still largely unexplored, could hold.
It happens as they’re exploring B-7. Caleb, who cast Comprehend Languages a while ago, looks at a sign over a closed door and gasps.
Essek, who never wanders far from him, hovers even closer. “What does it say?”
Still looking at the sign, Caleb reaches out blindly to clasp Essek’s forearm. “Library and Archive.”
Essek’s heart misses a beat. He gently pries Caleb’s hand from his arm so he can drift closer to the door and examine it. “Here’s the lock,” he says after a while, wiping centuries of dust off a teal crystal mounted at the center of the door with his sleeve.
Caleb is already next to him, pulling up his own sleeve to reveal the security bracelets they have collected. He angles the teal-coloured one towards the stone, and they wait for the door to open.
And it does. With an ear-splitting creak of stone against metal.
Taking a few steps back into the chamber, Caleb shouts something that Essek can’t hear, between the noise and the hands he’s pressing on his ears. It all happens very fast. Essek sees a mostly dark room at one of the ends of an X-shaped intersection, as well as movement in the periphery of his vision.
He quickly floats next to Caleb as he summons a pearl out of his pocket dimension. It’s not easy, when his hands are shaking so much.
This is Caleb’s second time in Aeor. Essek has been here dozens of times, but always with a scouting party or the Mighty Nein. He and Caleb do have a plan, as vague and open to change as it has to be, given the nature of this place. The frantic beating of his heart replaces the awful noise the door made as it finally opens all the way. And then there’s a low, guttural growl from one of the corridors beyond it.
Halfway through the motion of bringing the pearl up to his own forehead, Essek hesitates. It would be superfluous and unnecessarily sentimental to cast the spell on Caleb rather than himself. But Caleb is quicker than him: his own pearl vanishes in a wisp-like maze of intertwined patterns on his forehead, while his eyes are intent on the Absorber. Always the smart and practical one.
The first part of the plan is: a swift escape is preferable to combat.
While the hunter is still distant enough, they quickly and silently retrace their steps through the corridor they’ve just left, putting all the distance they can. Essek is about to suggest a direction when the creature’s howl makes the words die in his throat.
This is roughly when everything starts to go very wrong.
The noise the door made must have caught the attention of every creature in the ward. Plus, Aeorian Absorbers are not the most intelligent creatures, but they have been created and bred for one thing only. Their pack instinct is strong, and they know to heed the call of their mates.
Essek hears them before he sees two more of them come out of a room they left unexplored. They’re surrounded so quickly that they barely have the time to stand back to back.
“Essek, we got this.” Caleb’s voice is low but firm. Essek might know the ruins better, but combat is his strong suit. Or, at least more than it is Essek’s.
“I bet you wish Yasha was here with you,” he replies, and feels the vibration of Caleb’s laugh against his back.
The second part of the plan is: if combat is unavoidable, cast wisely.
Even though he has picked up a trick or two in his life, offence isn’t his forte. His stomach sinks as the catlike abomination lunges towards him, and he resorts to something tried and true.
Gravity is an old friend, it bends easily to his will after decades of studies. Essek casts swiftly, manipulating the pull of gravity around the monster. The hunter slows down, its claws missing Essek by a hair’s breadth.
He hears an agonised mewling behind him, as well as Caleb wincing. It’s nothing bad: he’s still standing. And yet, Essek feels something fierce and fiery replace the fear inside him.
He doesn’t understand how Eiselcross’ strange and ancient magic works, not really. Those who did are either dead or mad or frozen in time. Essek can feel the tingling and shifting of raw, uncontrolled magic raise its head and tilt its ears towards him as he fastens one end of a magic tether to the creature in front of him, then turns and unspools it until it reaches one of the creatures that have hurt Caleb.
The spell feels slippery and uncertain for a mere second, but it holds. The wild magic goes back to dozing without striking.
Essek is about to let out the breath he was holding when a punch on his shoulder knocks it out of him. “Good boy,” says Caleb, who has evidently picked the wrong habits from Beauregard. “Now cover me, please.”
Essek turns just in time to see Caleb aim a Magic Missile towards the creatures… no, he realises belatedly, towards the ceiling above them. Looking up, he notices the cracks in the stone, and follows them down to the lopsided pillar that’s almost obstructing the passage.
His own spell, a Chain Lightning he’s been practising since his last Aeor stint, hits the untethered creature before it can hit Caleb and bounces off the one next to it.
The creature yelps, but Essek doesn’t have the time to feel satisfied with himself before he’s screaming as well. Aeor’s magic is unforgiving, this time.
There’s pain. Searing, breath-taking, blinding pain, and suddenly he’s on the floor. He knows he should not scream, but he has no control over that.
He doesn’t look up when he hears Caleb call his name. “I’ve had worse,” he says through gritted teeth, just before the first Absorber, the one that’s no longer slowed down, lunges at him.
The pain is different than before. Having fangs and claws dig into your meat and drag you on the floor is somehow more concrete.
He doesn’t see his life flash before his eyes. It would be mostly him sitting somewhere with a book or attending pointless meetings at the Bastion, the only exciting highlights are things he mostly wants to forget until he met the Mighty Nein.
There is a scream, and Essek opens his eyes.
The breath of the creature is on his face, and then it’s not, as the Absorber is yanked back as if by a string. Its maw opens for a moment, but before it can roar, its skull collapses in on itself.
It’s not pretty, and he knows he’s going to have nightmares about this. It’s still the most beautiful sight Essek has ever witnessed.
At least until the corpse of the creature drops on the floor and he sees Caleb behind it, his hand still raised and hell burning in his eyes.
You magnificent thing, he thinks. Maybe he says it out loud. Everything is a bit hazy now.
There’s a loud, rumbling sound. He’s uncertain how much time passes between the moment he blinks — eyes closed, eyes open — and he sees the pillar collapse, presumably burying the one remaining Absorber or at least blocking his path. He blinks again, and he’s being held upright and something smooth and cold slips between his lips. He wants to tell him he has his own healing potions, but doesn’t have the chance.
When the pain finally recedes, he looks up, seeing Caleb’s face is very close to his. There’s a warm hand on either side of his face. “That was close,” Essek stammers.
For a moment, Caleb seems angry, and even though he did nothing wrong, Essek feels chastised. “Don’t. Do that. Again,” Caleb says.
Essek is about to reply that he never had a choice in the matter, but he can’t, because he’s pressed against Caleb’s chest as the man pulls him close, holding him with both arms. Essek gasps in surprise, but he doesn’t fight it. He also barely allows himself to lean into it. The thought of finding comfort in Caleb’s arms is… complicated.
He ends up patting Caleb’s shoulder, more than a little awkwardly. “We should go,” he says. “It’s alright, I’m fine.” His voice is somewhat strangled, and he has to repeat it twice more before Caleb lets him go.
They stand upright, taking stock of the situation and of each other. Essek mourns what once was a perfectly good cloak, and now has a huge and ugly gash on it.
“We’re not going any further for today,” Caleb announces. “And we are sleeping in the tower.”
Essek doesn’t see the point of arguing.
One of the security bracelets seals the door of the empty room they pick. It’s not huge (one of the reasons they chose it), so Essek couldn’t wander far even if he wanted to. He hovers about while he waits, since the room is full of rubble and devoid of anything of interest, but he eventually finds himself leaning against a wall as Caleb finishes the incantation.
He should be irritated by the way Caleb all but hauls him inside and insists on accompanying him to his room instead of just pointing him towards it, but the weight and implications of the words ‘his room’ distract him. “I can trance perfectly well in the library.”
“But you can’t take a bath in there,” Caleb replies, “because you hadn’t asked me to put a bathtub in there before I conjured the tower, and now it’s too late.”
Essek scoffs, mainly at the idea of a tub full of water in a library, even an extradimensional one.
If there’s one thing he’s learned since he met Caleb, it is to take nothing for granted. He had a certain set of expectations for his room. Something pretty — because another thing he’s learned about this man is that he loves his friends without shame or limit, and for some reason he considers Essek his friend — but ultimately functional. Restrained.
When the door opens, Caleb leads him into a garden.
No, not a garden: even though Caleb’s imagination has no limitations, the spell does. It’s more like a greenhouse, but with the illusion of a clear night sky above, reminiscent of the ninth floor. Big, bright globules of amber hover among the vases that line the walls and hang from trellises and arches, their light disappearing intermittently behind the thick, lush greenery as Essek drifts deeper into the room. When he drops the floating spell, his feet land on a thick, lush carpet at the centre of the room, where he sees a comfortable looking chaise longue, numerous pillows, a round glass table and a large padded chest. Against the wall on his left there’s a four-poster with thick velvet curtains and ivy crawling up the canopy.
There’s a distant sound of running water, and when Essek looks through a door on his right he sees a small pool that reminds him of the one in the Mighty Nein’s Rosohna mansion. This second room has a ceiling, and the thick roots of a tree disappear into it, the other end plunging into the pool; the sound Essek heard comes from the small waterfall that originates from the rocks beside the pool.
He doesn’t think the ache he feels in his heart has anything to do with his injuries.
Speechless, he turns towards Caleb, who has the decency not to look smug. “It is quite simple, actually,” he deflects, rubbing his neck. “The plants are not real, of course, though I’m working on it.”
Essek’s mind is blank. “You’re working on it,” he repeats, rather stupidly.
“I’ve been, ah, working on a more permanent configuration, one that isn’t subjected to a twenty-four hours time limit, and that could, hypothetically, feature something like this.”
The very picture of modesty, Caleb shrugs. “If you’re interested, of course.”
Essek blinks. “Are you asking me?”
“Your input is always invaluable.” Caleb looks at him with a small smile, as if he hadn’t just been talking about building a demiplane with Essek’s tastes in mind. “But in the meantime, I meant it. If you don’t like this or want anything changed, next time, let me know before I complete the spell.”
The words leave Essek’s mouth before he can stop them. “I don’t want to change anything.”
If Caleb notices his strangled tone, he ignores it in favour of rubbing his palms against one another. “I’ll have the cats make dinner soon. You’ll know when it’s ready.”
Essek almost stops him, but he needs some time alone with his thoughts. He definitely needs a bath, and he can’t very well ask Caleb to stay around for that. “Thank you,” he says, careful to pack admiration and gratitude in his words, and nothing else.
Still, Caleb hesitates. “You said you feel fine, but if you need help…”
All the blood in his body runs to Essek’s face as he interrupts him again. “I don’t think that will be…” Appropriate. “…necessary.”
“I was going to say you could ask the cats.”
Essek swallows. “Of course.”
“I’ll go, then.” Caleb hesitates for a moment longer, then starts walking past Essek.
Essek tilts his head to look at the canopy of stars, thinking he’s safe, but his space is suddenly, headily full of Caleb when he stops on his way out to press a kiss on Essek’s cheek. “See you at dinner,” he says in a low voice.
Alone, in the middle of the room — of the dream — Caleb has conjured for him, Essek has two thoughts, one after the other.
The first is that he is very much in love with this man. He has known for a while, but here, now, he lets himself feel it.
The second is that Caleb might be in love with him as well.
He has no idea what to do with either of these things.
The water in the small pool is shallow and warm, and an array of bath salts and soaps are neatly arranged on the edge of it. Essek disrobes and sinks eagerly, letting the water come up to his chin before holding his breath and going under. With water all around him, his senses are pleasantly dulled for a moment. He remembers doing this in the Blooming Grove, going as close as he could get to what the Clays called ‘communion’.
The water feels like an embrace. He wonders how it would feel to be held by someone else.
The chest has several clean sets of clothes, which he has no choice but to wear when the cats come around and collect his torn, soiled robes. He looks through the simple and soft garments in all the blues and the greys and the purples, all perfectly tailored. He picks a plum-coloured salwar kameez, enjoying its comfortable plainness.
Dinner is a quiet affair. Caleb must have asked the cats to hold nothing back, because it’s a positive feast for only two people. Essek takes a bite of everything, mindlessly scratching a few cats’ heads when they come by. Not all of them are agreeable, but some of them indulge him. He’s aware of Caleb’s attention the whole time. Essek can’t blame him, because he finds it hard to tear his eyes away from him.
The man’s hair is down, falling way past his shoulders, slightly wavy from the recent bath. His white shirt and maroon trousers are Empire-style, nicely cut but without frills. Caleb has nice shoulders. Essek has never thought about anyone else’s shoulders.
He has to say something, not just because he needs to be distracted before he starts having opinions on the man’s narrow hips or his wrists, but also because it needs to be said. “I hope that today’s… incident hasn’t persuaded you to cut our exploration short. I think the library and the archive we uncovered earlier may be worth our trip alone.”
Caleb swallows a mouthful of soup-soaked bread and cleans his fingers of the crumbs. “No, I don’t want to go away yet. But we need to be more careful in the future. And, Essek.” He reaches across the table, resting his hand not far from Essek’s, with his palm upturned. “It wasn’t anyone’s fault.”
Essek follows the movement and looks at Caleb’s hand, open and still, a silent invitation. His own hand moves almost without him having a say in it, but it hovers over Caleb’s for a moment before touching it.
Caleb’s palm is warm and dry as kindling. Essek feels a sudden nostalgia for warm autumn days he’s only ever read about. Caleb’s fingers are slender, but still thicker than his own. They move to hook Essek’s hand, creating a still, quiet point of connection. Essek doesn’t have to look to know that Caleb is staring at him.
The unspoken between them could fill an entire Aeorian library. Essek thinks about almost dying on that cold floor earlier today. He doesn’t think they did anything wrong or careless, except maybe coming to Aeor alone to begin with. He doesn’t feel guilty, mostly because he ended up bearing the brunt of the attack. If Caleb had been the one bleeding on the floor…
He takes his hand away. “I’m feeling tired. I think I will retire to my room and trance early.”
“Of course.” Caleb straightens his back and takes his hand away from the table as well. “Ask the cats for anything you need when you wake up.”
In the end, Essek has no need to ask for anything. His trance is more restful and peaceful than he dared to hope, and his spirit is soothed in a way that hasn’t happened since his stay in the Blooming Grove. When he fully comes back to his senses, four hours later, he floats down to the library.
He takes off his shoes to curl up on the couch in front of the fireplace with a book. Not one of their recent findings, he doesn’t want to look at them without Caleb. It’s a nautical tome, full of dry, technical jargon, and every diagram and schematic is reproduced in full detail, as far as Essek can tell. His mind is too unfocused to read, and soon he finds himself letting his eyes roam on the pictures as his thoughts wander.
He almost jumps out of his skin when he hears someone clear his throat. The book falls to the floor with a thud, and the cat that was dozing on the other end of the couch chirps in outrage, then jumps down and slinks away on soft cat paws.
“Sorry, Mitzi.” Caleb shrugs when he notices Essek’s raised eyebrows. “I couldn’t sleep.”
Essek wonders if he’s even tried, given that he’s wearing the same clothes he had at dinner. He can picture him all too easily walking up and down his room and then giving up.
When he doesn’t reply immediately, Caleb adds, “Do you want me to go away?”
Essek straightens his back, or does his best, curled up as he is on the couch. He’s doing nothing wrong, he tells himself. Caleb didn’t say the library was out of bounds. On the contrary, he invited Essek to peruse. “This is your extradimensional tower,” he says, a bit waspishly. “Why should you go away?”
With a perfectly serious expression, Caleb gestures at him. “Look at you. You’re positively indecent, Herr Thelyss. Is that a bare ankle I see?”
Essek pulls his feet under him until they’re hidden, ignoring the way it makes Caleb laugh, as well as the effect that laugh has on his suddenly racing pulse. “Might I remind you that I have seen you fully naked and I haven’t made such a fuss?” he replies.
Caleb stops laughing, even though the mirth doesn’t completely leave his eyes. “Oh, so you did look. I’ve been wondering.”
Have you? Essek thinks. Why? But he bites his tongue. Hard. “It was hard to miss,” he says glacially.
It’s supposed to be a justification, not an innuendo, but he realises his mistake too late, when Caleb arches an eyebrow. “Was it, now,” he deadpans.
It’s been a while since the last time Essek felt so much out of his depth. This is a dance he doesn’t know the steps of; he doesn’t even know what it’s supposed to look like. In more than a hundred years, nobody has made him lose his footing quite so much as this man, who has been mercilessly teasing him for days.
It makes him feel uncomfortable. It makes him feel wanted.
Essek feels his nails digging in his palms. It hurts, but it’s better than fidgeting. “What are we doing?” he whispers, almost aggressively, finally meeting Caleb’s eyes.
Whatever their dance was, the music has just stopped. His intensity is met with a level stare. Caleb isn’t smiling anymore, but there’s kindness in his voice when he replies with a steady voice, “What do you think we’ve been doing?”
When Essek opens and closes his mouth a couple of times, the words slipping like fish from his bare hands, Caleb walks slowly to the couch. After a moment, Essek moves a little to the side even though there’s plenty of space. A silent invitation.
They sit side by side in silence for a minute, Essek looking at his hands and Caleb looking at whatever he wants, as usual.
“I’m not used to this… flirting,” he admits eventually. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.”
He keeps his eyes down until he feels a hand under his chin. It’s not holding or forcing him to do anything. Essek could pull back at any time; he’s far from helpless in a general sense, and they both know it. He lets Caleb tilt his face up, and Essek sees him leaning forward with open, hopeful eyes.
“But it is not unwelcome, ja?”
Mortification is probably not what he ought to feel right now, but feelings have never been Essek’s strong suit. Is there a right answer? It would be a stretch to say he’s been enjoying the nerve-wracking experience of being openly flirted at by Caleb Widogast, except that if the man now said he will stop, Essek thinks his heart would break.
“You know,” he murmurs, somewhat helplessly, staring at the space over Caleb’s shoulder.
Still, he doesn’t miss the wry, sad smile on Caleb’s face. “I’ve known for a while. You haven’t been subtle.”
As close as he is, Caleb can’t miss the heat radiating from Essek’s face. No, indeed he hasn’t. He has been wearing his heart on his sleeve, hasn’t he? Not hoping for anything, but not hiding anything either. Offering these feelings to Caleb, without expecting reciprocation or even recognition. It’s all he can do, and even that feels like overstepping.
“I couldn’t help it,” he murmurs, casting his eyes down.
“But.” Caleb moves closer. “I don’t believe I have been so subtle myself.”
Essek feels feverish. His hand is shaking when he brings it up. The hair on the back of Caleb’s hand tickles his pads when he strokes it. You really haven’t, he doesn’t say. Please don’t mistake my hesitation for indifference, he doesn’t say.
When Caleb leans in, Essek, helplessly caught in his gravitational field, does too.
Essek startles when the voice rings in his head, as loud and clear as if Jester were in the room with them. He straightens again, mindlessly putting his fingers on Caleb’s mouth to create more distance between them. After a first moment of puzzlement, Caleb grins behind Essek’s hand. He must have recognised the typical dismayed expression caused by a Jester Lavorre Sending.
I HOPE YOU’RE OKAY! IS CALEB WITH YOU? TELL HIM WE SAY HELLO! HAVE YOU KISSED YET? OH MY GOSH WERE YOU KISSING—
The Sending cuts off, leaving Essek on the brink of a mild breakdown. “Jester,” he replies, confirming Caleb’s suspicions. The man chuckles softly, and Essek momentarily loses the thread of his thoughts. “Caleb says hello as well. We’re both fine. Things are… fine. Be safe.”
He hopes with all his heart that she couldn’t detect the way his voice turned more and more strangled as he spoke, due to the fact that Caleb took his hand mid-sentence, and instead of moving it away, he angled it so he could kiss the pads of his fingers, one by one. If Jester gets suspicious and Sends him another message, he will scream at her.
As soon as he stops talking, feeling the familiar magic aura dissipate, Caleb looks at him quietly. Essek feels on his hand the breath coming out of Caleb’s nose. They give her five seconds before Essek gingerly lets out a sigh of relief. He gently lowers his hand, taking Caleb’s with it, but instead of picking up where they left off, he just stares at Caleb as he waits for his heart to stop pounding behind his ribs.
He feels too fragile for this. Like the next small inconvenience is going to finally be the one that breaks him.
“As much as it pains me to say it,” he says, a sense of nausea actually building up in his guts, “we should talk.”
Caleb sighs. “We should.”
Essek hesitates for a moment, looking at Caleb as he rubs his neck with a frown, Caleb searching for words, Caleb letting his guard down and allowing Essek to glimpse at his open heart again and again. Caleb, Caleb, Caleb.
He reaches out with his other hand as well, taking Caleb’s in a firm grasp.
“You must know that I’m taking this very seriously,” Essek says, because as much as they understand one another, there are things that need to be said. “I’m aware of where we stand. By which I mean, I’m aware of where I stand relative to you. We may not have either the time or the chance to make something concrete out of this, but you must know that my heart, for whatever it’s worth, Caleb Widogast, is yours.”
Essek knows he’s stunned him when Caleb blinks several times while saying nothing. So you know how it feels, now, he can’t help but think, and despite the magnitude of what just happened, despite having just laid the truth of his feelings out in the open without a chance of taking it back, he feels a little more grounded.
When Caleb starts chuckling, Essek finds himself laughing as well, feeling a bit more of his nerves dissolve.
“I wasn’t expecting that,” Caleb says.
Essek bows his head modestly. “I’m a bit taken aback by my eloquence as well.”
“I wasn’t expecting that,” Caleb repeats, “but it is not unwelcome. Not unreciprocated.” As Essek’s heart twitches in his chest, Caleb leans slightly forward. “I feel at a disadvantage, now, Herr Thelyss. My behaviour has been quite silly, these days, and then you go ahead and tell me that.”
Part of Essek wishes the ground would open and swallow him. He holds onto Caleb’s hands instead. “I have not had much practice in my life, but I have been living with my feelings for you for a long time.” He still feels like he’s having to breathe around his swollen heart, but it’s becoming easier and easier. He has stepped over the edge; all he can do now is fall. And gravity is still, after all, an old friend.
Caleb arches an eyebrow. “If you’re trying to tell me this is your first courtship, Shadowhand, I’m sorry to inform you I have a very hard time believing you.”
Essek scoffs. “This is not a courtship. This is…” Human. Honest. Better.
With a smirk, Caleb looks at him and narrows his eyes. “How long?”
He doesn’t have to specify what he means for Essek to understand. “I only realised long after it happened. I can’t tell when it started.”
There’s a short pause, during which they study each other. Holding Caleb’s gaze has always been a challenge, but it’s easier now that he has laid himself bare in front of him — metaphorically speaking.
“Why haven’t you told me before?” Caleb says eventually.
Essek gives him a pointed look. This is unfair, and they both know it. “We both had other issues on our minds. Life-or-death issues.”
Caleb chuckles. “When do we not?”
“Also, as you pointed out, I haven’t been subtle. You knew.”
“That’s not what I was asking.”
“What were you asking?”
“I’m asking, why tell me now?”
Words, words, words. Essek shakes his head. How can he make him understand? “I have no expectations, Caleb. I have never told you because you never asked. Would you have, in my position? But I refuse to deny or obfuscate my feelings. I’m too old for that.” He looks at his own thumbs as they rub the back of Caleb’s hands. “Nothing needs to change between us. I am content knowing that I have your faith and trust.”
“What about my heart as well?” Essek’s eyes shoot up to see Caleb smiling softly. “Because, as it happens, I have expectations. And I want some things to change. Hopefully for the better, if you’re amenable.”
“Ah.” Essek tries to swallow, but his throat is sand-dry. “There are still the eyes of both the Empire and the Dynasty on me. Such changes will be… complicated to figure out.”
“Luckily we’re both very smart.” His confident grin makes him look very young.
“Caleb.” Essek sighs, but he can’t keep a rueful smile from tugging at his lips. “You cloud my judgement in so many ways.”
Essek holds his breath when, almost to stress that point, Caleb brings his hand to his lips and kisses the knuckles of Essek’s right hand, and then his left. “What are you really afraid of?” he asks then. “What’s stopping you?”
At last, an easy question to answer. “The feeling… no, the knowledge that I don’t deserve this. I don’t deserve to just reach out and take something that makes me happy while I myself have caused so much pain to others.”
There’s a short beat, and Caleb lets go of his hands. Essek briefly mourns the loss of contact, but then Caleb moves closer, resting his palms on Essek’s neck, his thumbs brushing the skin behind his ears. Essek closes his eyes, overwhelmed. Not in a bad way, though. Caleb’s touch is never bad or unwelcome.
“Essek, you’ve also helped save the world. The good you have done literally cannot be quantified.”
With his eyes still closed, Essek takes a deep breath. “It’s not mathematics, Caleb, and you know it. The good doesn’t cancel the bad.”
Caleb tilts his head forward as he pulls Essek’s closer, until their foreheads are touching. “And how will your suffering make things better?”
Essek can feel his breath on his lips. “It oddly makes me feel better.” He doesn’t know why he’s still talking, or how. “If I’m unhappy, I feel like I’m paying for what I did.”
“You realise this is very irrational.” Caleb rubs the tip of his nose against Essek’s.
Somehow, Essek is still breathing. “I do,” he murmurs.
“How would you feel if I told you something like that?”
“I would do my best to change your mind.”
“Will you allow me to?” Caleb tilts his head to kiss the corner of Essek’s mouth. “Do my best?”
All Essek can do is to nod against him.
“We always move forward, Thelyss,” Caleb whispers. “I would like to do that with you at my side. However you can, however you want.” He moves his hands slightly, tilting Essek’s face upwards just a bit, just enough so their lips can brush, before murmuring against them, “If you’ll have me.”
Eventually Essek doesn’t feel like he’s falling anymore. As his arms settle around Caleb’s neck, on his shoulders, solid and welcoming, he feels just like that: on solid ground, welcomed. Instead of replying, he moves closer, until he is the one kissing Caleb.
He is kissing Caleb.
He’s aware of the part of his mind which is already calculating the odds. The ways he can make this work, now that he has a new motivation and new priorities. It’s a bit hard to focus on that, though, since his top priority is currently nibbling at his bottom lip, sending a shiver down his spine as Essek melts against him.
Not unsurprisingly, Caleb kisses like he casts: effortlessly, but with extreme focus. Essek is out of practice, but he has a brilliant mind and a scholar’s determination, and he’s used to being the best at what he does.
Still, when Caleb gasps and pulls back, Essek’s heart sinks. He’s about to ask what’s wrong, but Caleb blinks and looks at him, eyes wide with wonder. “Fangs,” he murmurs, tracing his bottom lip with his thumb. “You have fangs.”
Essek is pinned in place by that look. “Is this a good thing or a bad thing?” he asks as soon as he remembers how to talk. His head feels blissfully empty.
Caleb looks away from his mouth and in his eyes, and his smile is mischievous. “Something that should be explored. Thoroughly.”
Before Essek can reply, he’s kissing him again, hungrily, with such impetus that Essek would fall back on the couch if he weren’t holding onto Caleb’s neck.
It’s a full minute before Essek can make himself break the kiss to say, “I’m giving you my spellbook tomorrow.” When Caleb blinks at him, he realises he needs to explain himself. “My spells. All of them. They’re yours. To protect yourself. You’ll copy them and we’ll practice.”
He doesn’t know why Caleb is smirking until he says, “Is it just an excuse to look at me while I cast your spells?”
“That as well,” Essek admits easily.
Caleb inhales and exhales slowly, then presses a hard kiss on his lips. It lasts for a few seconds. “Everything I own and know is yours as well,” he says when he pulls back.
“Thank you,” Essek says, looking in his eyes, feeling drunk on love and more than a little dazed. “I look forward to seeing what we’ll do with what we discover.”
With his eyes full of something soft and beloved, Caleb smiles. “I look forward to us as well.”