“I love you. And I want to hear you breathe beside me at night, I want to rise alongside you in the morning and I want to trade words and kisses and ideas every hour of the day. I want stupid things. Needless, trivial little things that I have never cared for in my life before, and I want them with you.” Essek felt tears in the corners of his eyes. “I want you and your life of unpredictability. And I will take your past, too. I embrace the chaos of you like I embrace the rest. I want all of it. And I want it, well, for as long as I you care to give it.” Essek admitted. “Forever, if that’s possible.”
“I cannot promise you ‘forever’.” Caleb choked out and Essek noticed his eyes glistening with tears. “I cannot even promise you years. And I am sorry for that. Because if I could then I would do so in a heartbeat. Reckless fool that I am, I would promise you all that. But I cannot even promise you tomorrow. All I can promise is right now, this moment. And that for every moment we are granted after, every uncertain one of it, that I- that I will love you. I know this in my heart that this unwavering, foolish, blind thing will not fade. It will not wither, it will not wane. That is all that I can offer you. That, for every moment that you will have me, that I am yours.”
“By the gods, Caleb. That is- That is all that I want.” Essek felt his breath unsteady. “You say that as though it was nothing. But it is all that I want.”
Caleb Widogast was always a sight to behold.
He had been that day in the Bright Queen’s court, holding Beacon and fate aloft, and during dinner in the Xhorhaus, sending looks of interest and curiosity and even on the Balleater in Nicodranas, speaking harsh truths and words of empathy. And, of course, he had been a sight whenever he had visited Essek’s towers, no matter his intent.
Regardless of where he was or what he was doing, Caleb was an utterly captivating creature. And he had been capturing Essek’s attention, as well as his waking and resting thoughts, for a long time.
Yet, in spite of all this preparation, Essek found himself woefully unprepared for what awaited him that day. What he saw the moment he set foot into the room. Immediately, his eyes found Caleb and as they did, he forgot that anything else existed. The air was punched from his lungs, warmth collected in his chest like it was a hearth and he thought he would begin to shed tears if he was not careful.
Caleb looked back at him, and yes, he was a vision dressed head to toe for their wedding. And as he took in Essek’s appearance, he seemed to be in a similar state of mind.
Time slowed as Essek stood on the precipice, doing nothing, only looking. Dark colors had always made Caleb look refined and those garments were no exception. Over a tunic, he wore a dark vest made of a fine, rich material, trimmed with gilded accents and buttons. Its intricate embroidery seemed to sparkle in the light and the clasps had a distinct Xhorhasian design that went unfairly well with the otherwise Empire-inspired ensemble. A belt sat on his hips, carrying his spellbook – Essek distantly remembered Caleb insisting on it – and below his tunic, dark red trousers dressed his legs and vanished into black boots. He wore no coat, in spite of his love of them, but instead had a cape of sorts. It was draped over one shoulder, shorter in the front and reaching down to his hips in the back, connected to his vest with thin gold chains. All in all, Caleb looked like he had stepped out of a fantasy tale to marry him.
And not wanting to keep his fairytale waiting any longer, Essek took the first step forward, still mesmerized by the person he was heading toward. Who stood there like he had been waiting all his life.
“Tomorrow is the day,” Caleb whispered into Essek’s ear.
Essek shivered at the ghost of a breath on his skin and turned to look at Caleb. They were tucked away under the same blanket, skin bare, hair a mess. “It is,” Essek whispered back.
“Are you nervous?”
“A little.” It was an understatement. The thought of the upcoming ceremony set Essek on edge and lit his nerves on fire. “It is just a little bit nerve-wrecking for me to think that it will not be just us.”
Caleb smiled with empathy and reached out, fingertips brushing over Essek’s cheek before his palm settled gently against it. “I know you are not that comfortable with being very affectionate in front of others. But know that you won’t be judged or mocked for it.”
“I know, I just simply do not see why anyone else has to be a witness to us kissing or speaking so openly about our feelings for one another.”
“I understand. We can skip all that if you want to? I do not mind.”
That didn’t sit right with Essek. He had done his research on Empire weddings. The vows and the kiss were an integral part of the ceremony and he did not wish to deny Caleb that. “No, that is- I would rather we proceed as planned.”
“Alright, if you are sure. No one wants you to be uncomfortable, they only want to celebrate with us.”
“I do recall that, for the longest time they would not grant me peace if I so much as looked at you. As a matter of fact, they still get a little… strange when I display any sort of affection for you.”
“Well, ja. The more you deny them something, the more they want to see it. Ah, and they want to tease us, of course. They are our friends, after all.” Caleb smiled.
Essek couldn’t help but smile back. “I am aware. I merely believe- I feel like I could say more if it was only the two of us.”
“Say the word and we will make it happen. I can think of at least five good excuses right now.”
Essek chuckled. “No, I do not wish to change anything, truly. I only want to… explain my nervousness.”
“Ah. Well if it helps, I am a bundle of nerves, too. And it will not matter to me how little or how much you say, mein Stern. What matters is that you are there. You could speak no words at all and I would be happy, still.”
Essek sighed. “That may just end up happening.”
“Then I will simply have to spirit you away to move on to the kiss.”
“That does sound rather appealing. In fact, I think we should practice for that right now.”
Essek’s focus expanded from Caleb, taking in their shared surroundings.
The room was beautiful. Not enough to draw Essek’s attention away from Caleb, but few things ever could, truth told.
They had discussed where to hold the ceremony and festivities for a long time, deciding on places and then throwing out those decisions. Some places had too much meaning or not enough. They were fitting in some ways but not in others and though Caleb wasn’t a perfectionist in everything, he was a perfectionist when planning events, so Essek had learned. The ideas of demiplanes had been tossed back and forth and, at the very least, the idea of Eiselcross had remained a joke. In the end they had settled on doing it in Nicodranas for a lot of reasons, choosing a small former chapel as a spot to hold a small group of people.
Though they had agreed that they would have to start in the evening, so that Essek was not going to be pelted by sunlight throughout.
The room was filled with flowers and artfully draped fabrics, courtesy of the Lavish Chateau, as well as a slowly moving illusory model of stars, placed before the ceremony by Caleb himself. Really, the Nein had had to almost physically restrain him before he went overboard with magical decorations and stressed himself out over them.
Soft, harp-plucked notes filled the air and Essek’s eyes drifted over to Yasha who met his gaze and offered him a small, timid smile. Between them and all around Essek were people. Their shared friends and loved ones of the Nein, scattered around the room. Caleb and Essek had picked the most important ones to attend. The idea of two separate sides had embarrassed Essek, knowing how his would have looked, so they did not have any separation, only a shared group of people.
Essek’s attention briefly got caught on the windows. Beyond them was a dark sky. Silver moonlight poured in through the windows and mingled with the warm glow of candles. Essek smiled. How fitting.
He looked back over to Caleb, lingered there for a moment and then allowed himself to look at the people who stood up front with him, meeting the gaze of someone who was waiting on Essek’s side on the small elevated podium.
“What are you doing here?”
“Is that any way to greet your brother? Who, let me mention, came all the way from Bazzoxan to attend your special day?”
Essek stared at his younger brother as he stood in the hallway of the Lavish Chateau, where the Nein had been living in preparation for the event. He felt strangely numb. He hadn’t seen Verin’s face in a long time and he was completely caught off-guard. “How do you know about this event?”
Verin looked mildly offended but the harsh lines in his face smoothed over. “That is a bit of a strange story, honestly. I was trying to trance after a really long day when, out of nowhere, this voice popped into my head and told me that I was invited to a special occasion. She made it sound rather threatening, really.”
“Yes, I learned later that that was the voice’s name.” Verin scowled. “You know, you could at least pretend to be happy to see me. We’re family, in case you forgot.”
“I am no longer a Thelyss, Verin.”
“That’s true. But you are still the same arrogant wizard that I had the experience of growing up with. Now quit splitting hairs, it’s always been one of your less favorable qualities.” Verin crossed his arms in front of his chest. “You are really not encouraging my excitement to be here.”
Essek crossed his arms, as well. “Well, I didn’t request your presence.”
“That’s a problem, not an argument. You didn’t even tell me - again, your brother - that you were getting married!”
Essek blushed and he resented it. “You would not have understood. It’s not like the ceremonies in the Dynasty.”
“You will be surprised, but I can actually learn new information. Shocking to you, I know.” Verin sighed. “Your blue Tiefling friend said you would be happy to see me. But if she was wrong, I can head back to my post.”
Right, that was curious, too. “How did you get here, anyway? That trip must have taken weeks.”
“Is that a real question, Mister ‘Teleports a group of strangers around the continent’?” Verin raised an eyebrow.
Essek grimaced. “I am familiar with the means of fast transportation, but you do not possess-“
“There you are.” A gentle, accented voice spoke up and Essek looked over to find Caleb joining the two of them. “Am I interrupting?”
“Not at all,” Verin assured. “Hello, Caleb.”
Essek’s gaze jumped between his brother and his betrothed and his mind made quick work of connecting the dots. “You Teleported him?”
“Ja. It was Jester’s idea. She thought it might be nice to have some other friends, too and we remembered you indicating a sense of kinship with Verin, more than anyone else in the Dynasty.” Caleb hesitated. “Was that a mistake?”
“No,” Verin cut in before Essek had the chance. “Essek is glad I’m here. He simply isn’t that great at showing it.”
Caleb and Verin were both looking at him and Essek rolled his eyes and resigned himself to the truth. “I may be appreciative of it. But only if you behave.”
Verin fit strangely well into the scene, considering that he had required some quick education on wedding customs and the role he was to play in them.
He had always been the type of person who fit well into social situations. For some lightless reason. Essek remembered him making friends without effort, connecting with people at gatherings simply because he wished to and the envy that had risen within Essek each time. At least right then, he had the decency to look a little uncertain of himself.
Past envies aside, Essek was genuinely happy and relieved to have him there. He was there to, after a fashion, bear witness to the union on Essek’s behalf. The existence of such a role was not too different from the Dynasty. Ceremonies, contracts and other agreements – many things required a witness.
Verin gave him a kind and encouraging smile, the sort that was rarely traded between siblings who bickered and fought as much as they did. As they always had. Essek had left mostly everything of his old life behind, out of necessity. But Verin was the only part he would have regretted to loose entirely. And he felt happy, glad, that he had been dragged down there to attend.
Essek’s attention moved back to Caleb and then down at the ground he was walking on. Not floating. It was covered in petals.
He felt a tug at his arm, not to urge him to do anything, just a gentle hold and he found himself reassured and smiling.
Weddings in Xhorhas were barely comparable to those in the Empire.
Which, perhaps, was why, right then, Essek was forced to realize once again just how bad he was at parties. He was bad at attending them, bad at hosting them and, as it appeared, quite dreadful at planning them.
“Okay! So! Which flavor of cake do you want to try first?” Jester asked as she leaned over the table he was sitting at in the Lavish Chateau. She didn’t wait to hear an answer before she withdrew and returned within the blink of an eye with several plates, each holding a slice of cake. “These are only a few cakes. This bakery has so many and all of them are really great. So if you want something specific you really only have to ask. Really, though, you have to get something from them, they make stuff for Momma all the time.”
“Blueberry,” Caleb spoke up from beside Essek at the table. “We don’t even know where we’ll have the wedding, yet.”
“Psh, that’s fine, you can just Teleport the cake wherever. Go on, taste it!” She planted her hands on the table and Essek’s eyes locked onto the glinting metal band adoring her ring finger. But his attention snapped back up to her face. She was looking at him intensely in a way that made Essek feel like each bite he took was going to be scrutinized.
“Jester?” A voice, that Essek had learned belonged to Marion Lavorre, called out.
“Coming, Momma!” Jester called back. “You try the cake, I will be right back!”
Essek sighed a breath of relief. He adored Jester, honestly. But between this and thinking of a location and trying to get guests and decorations and clothes sorted out, he felt a bit overwhelmed.
Caleb chuckled and picked up his fork. “Not quite what planning a Dynasty ceremony is like, I take it?”
Essek looked at him with a smile and he picked up a fork of his own. “It is not as far off as you might think. Less chaotic, but that is, heh, more because I am comparing it to the Mighty Nein, not the Dwendalian Empire.” He watched Caleb pull a plate over to them. “Dynasty ‘weddings’-“ He made air quotes. “-at least for someone of a powerful Den are… a lot.”
“More ‘a lot’ than Jester Sending you three times at two in the morning, insisting that she could wed us in Artagan’s name?”
Essek paused as Caleb smirked. “Touché, my dear.”
Caleb separated a piece of cake with his fork. “That aside, I did not intend for this to be such an… involved affair, believe me.”
“Hm, yes. What was it you said to me? ‘A quiet ceremony, just you and me and the moons above?’”
A blush crept across Caleb’s cheeks. “Plus all of our friends, a cake fit to feed three-hundred people, and enough alcohol to put the populations of both Rosohna and Rexxentrum into a drunken stupor, yes.”
“Funny, I don’t remember that part.” Essek chuckled and reached a hand out to tuck a lock of auburn behind Caleb’s ear.
Caleb hummed. “Ja, you are fortunate to have me to keep track of everything all the time.”
Essek’s gaze softened. “I am truly lucky to have you, yes.”
Caleb smiled, avoiding his eyes. “That goes both ways.” He poked his fork into the piece of cake and held it up to Essek.
Essek accepted the offered bite. He tasted the cake on his tongue and his eyes went wide.
“We must hire that bakery.”
Essek had been told that, traditionally, the father of the bride walks her all the way up to the groom. There were no appropriate fathers or brides present at this particular wedding. So they opted to, instead, have one of the groom’s closest friends walk the groom up to the other groom, who also shared that closest friend with the same, if not more, closeness. Perhaps it bore no semblance of the meaning the gesture was meant to carry, but none of them cared either way.
Jester held Essek much more like family than his own ever had, anyway.
Essek glanced at her. She tried to keep her face neutral for some reason, but failed as she kept sneaking glances and making faces at just about everyone in the room, including Caleb and, as she caught him looking at her, Essek, as well.
She squeezed his arm and beamed at him with one of those smiles bright enough to put the sun to shame. He returned a smile of a more gentle variety as they walked forward. The way wasn’t very long and Essek was grateful for it. Each moment felt magnified, stretched out and Essek didn’t know whether it was because of his nerves, his excitement or the knowledge that this moment meant something, that it was important to him and, more importantly, Caleb.
Jester’s hold was a steadying presence. Comforting and reassuring and, somehow, very kind.
She brought him to the front, walking up the few steps of the stairs. Then she let him go him gently before returning with a vengeance, hugging him so tightly he thought she had broken at least one of his ribs.
He couldn’t help but smile when she released him from the hug before grabbing his arms, instead. She leaned close to whisper. “Go marry your wizard.” Essek gave an affirming nod and she hopped back down the stairs before sitting down beside Fjord, giddy energy still visible in her posture.
For a second Essek was disappointed that they hadn’t let Jester marry them. Though that disappointment was quickly cast aside when he caught glimpse of a weasel on her shoulder.
Essek took in a breath and turned, hoping he wasn’t moving as slowly as he felt, and finally looked at Caleb, who was even more awe-inspiring up close.
Essek had to reign in his emotions. At least enough to talk.
His eyes darted over to the person lingering beside Caleb.
Essek shifted with discomfort. He didn’t appreciate being stared down, especially by Veth. It had been a long time since she had truly resented him, but sometimes he still felt that intensity from her. He didn’t know, really, why she had asked to speak to him alone that day, but it scared him.
“I want to talk to you about marriage,” she finally said, completely out of nowhere.
Essek blinked, his anxieties mixing with confusion. “Ah. Right?”
“Yes. Right. You and Cay are getting married.”
“Yes. I, erm, thought we discussed all the ways you will destroy my person if I were to hurt him. Back when we announced our relationship.”
“Yes, yes, yes, and all that is still relevant and absolutely what I will do to you if you break his heart. But this is not about that. This is about marriage. I feel like there are things you need to know.”
“I see. Well, I have already been thoroughly educated about wedding and marriage customs from Caleb’s home. So I do not see a necessity for this.”
Veth shook her head. “This isn’t about customs, this is about marriage, the long haul, the real deal, the commitment. Because, no offense, I don’t think your mother did much teaching about that, did she.”
Essek was well-aware of Veth’s marriage. He had become aware of it because of awful reasons, after all. “Not particularly, but… these bonds function quite differently for someone of my former status. Or of hers, for that matter. But you don’t have to worry, I’m very committed to Caleb.”
“You know, I’m committed to Yeza. I love him with all of my heart. He was the first love of my life.” She looked wistfully out of the window.
The first? Essek decided not to ask.
“But I wasn’t always fair to him. My point is, you can be committed and in love but marriage needs more than that. Marriage means sticking it out when things get tough. And talking about things when they don’t make sense or don’t seem fair.”
Those things seemed very obvious but Veth was speaking to him with some level of gravity that he could not ignore.
“If you marry Caleb, that means that you are going to be there for him even when shit gets tough. And don’t think that shit won’t still get tough now that the world’s been saved or whatever. Marriage is work. Maybe it’s work that you love, but it’s still work. And time. And not ‘time’ in the way that gets yours and Caleb’s magic juices flowing-“
Essek physically recoiled. Veth ignored it.
“- but in the way that you need to spend a lot of it on a relationship for it to keep working. The bare minimum won’t do.”
Essek still wasn’t sure whether this was a threat, after all, but he ended up giving her a meaningful nod. “I understand.”
“I hope you do.” Veth looked at him sharply again. “Oh, and if you don’t do that, I will chop off your dick and put twenty crossbow bolts in you.”
Veth was in tears at Caleb’s side. She was clearly trying to level Essek a tense look to remind him of the risks of messing up, but it failed to look truly menacing what with the drops pouring down her cheeks.
It wasn’t helping Essek’s case, either, who was already feeling terribly sentimental.
He looked around the room. It wasn’t packed by any stretch of the imagination. There were, of course, the Mighty Nein front and center. Then some of their family, like Yeza and Luc, and Marion Lavorre, who had apparently brought the Gentleman as her date. A few allies of the Mighty Nein were in attendance, as well. Really, the only person who fell strictly into the column of ‘Essek’s guests’ was his brother and his presence wasn’t even Essek’s doing.
But guests, friends, family, or whoever, Essek found himself nervous. Explaining magic or showing off his abilities, or, hells, speaking politics and strategy in front of a group was one thing. Being vulnerable and telling Caleb things that no one else had ever heard him say – to his knowledge, at least – was a different beast altogether.
A hand on his arm. Essek turned to find comfort in bright blue. Caleb raised his eyebrows in a questioning manner, kind smile never abandoning his face. He was asking whether Essek was okay, whether he was willing to proceed.
In their relationship, learning when there was need to let each other leave and take a breather had become a paramount skill.
Essek smiled back at him and inclined his head in affirmation. He was fine. He wanted this. And he didn’t want to wait.
The harp notes faded into gentle silence.
“Are we fucking ready or what?”
“Yes, Beauregard,” Caleb said. “We are fucking ready.”
“About fucking time.”
Between all of them Essek looked at Beauregard. She was doing a daring balancing act, tilting her chair back and holding it on the edges of two legs with her feet on the table. Her arms were crossed.
“Took you long enough,” she said as Jester bounced over to offer her congratulations in the form of spine-snapping hugs.
“Apologies,” Essek replied, when he regained his breath after Jester released him. “For not getting married the moment we met.”
“That would’ve been so romantic!” Jester chimed.
“Weren’t Caleb and Beau dressed as a-“
“Thank you, Fjord.” Caleb sighed. “’About time’ or not, it’s just going to be a small thing and we have decided that we want you to be part of it.”
“Do you, hm, do you intend to do this in the eyes of a deity?” Mister Clay asked.
Caleb shook his head. “Since neither of us follow any god in particular, that would be a bit strange. No, this is more for us, if you understand.”
“I think I do.”
“Okay, but also, I could totally marry you,” Jester cut in. “Not like! Marry you as in get married to you. Because I’m married to Fjord and all that. But marry you like get you two married to each other!”
“Ja, Jester, we know. We were there for Beauregard’s and Yasha’s wedding.”
And what a – for lack of better term – clusterfuck of religions that had been.
“But being married by your fey friend is, well-“ Essek could tell Caleb was glancing at him as he spoke.
“I don’t trust it.” Essek said, curtly, regretting his choice when he saw the pout appear on Jester’s face. But what could he say? Being married under the sign of an Archfey? Essek had no idea what that would even mean.
Jester gasped. “You don’t trust Artie?”
“Will you just have no one there? Will it just be the two of you talking?” Veth asked.
“That would be weird,” Yasha replied. “Would it be like… ‘Do you take me to be your husband?’ Yes. Do you take me-‘ That seems a little complicated.”
“Nein, someone can just do the ceremony without a god,” Caleb explained. “It is, ah, I guess not a ‘wedding’ in the most traditional sense.”
“That tracks with you guys not being the most Empire-traditional example of a married couple.” Beau pointed out. “You got anyone in mind to do the talking?”
“Not really. Someone from the group, perhaps. If anyone wants to.”
Beau nodded. “I’ll do it.”
Essek’s eyebrows shot up. “You? Want to marry us?”
“Yeah. Why the fuck not?”
Several reasons. There was Beau’s still lingering suspicions, the shovel talk she had given him after they had told the others about their romance, and, right, the fact that she didn’t really seem the type to go and wed people. “I suppose there are no reasons. I am surprised, that is all.”
“Just take it as a compliment, Thelyss.”
“That is not my name anymore.”
“Fuck. You’re right. Sorry. Widogast-to-be.”
Caleb started coughing. Essek wanted to melt.
It had taken Essek some thinking to deduce why Beau wanted to marry them. Well, that and the helpful input from Caleb, pointing out that she had been the most vocally against him after they found out about the betrayal. And his estimation was that perhaps she wanted to do something that proved she had set aside those feelings. To him or to herself.
“Alright!” She looked between them. Was that a crease of nervousness in her face? “You all know why we’re here today, it’s to get these two wizards married.”
Essek swallowed. He should have checked in with Beau about what she was going to say. Had Caleb asked? Gods, he hoped Caleb had asked.
“Normally, this is the part, where I mention something about the virtues of marriage or about what the goddesses wanted when they gave us the ability to love or something, but with these two, tradition isn’t going to cut it.”
Caleb hadn’t asked, had he.
“’cause you two are fucking unconventional. But in the best way. I think it’s a rare thing when two people meet and it’s just-“ She snapped. “Pang. Instant chemistry. But you guys had that. I swear to the gods, I didn’t know people could flirt like that over magic and books.”
Essek felt his cheeks heat up.
“Whatever you had going on it kept growing. And then there were some rough spots. Okay, really rough spots, gotta be fair. But you still stand here wanting to get married and spend your lives together by vow. And, call me a sap, I’ll take it, but if that’s not love, then what the fuck is? Two people being so ridiculously drawn to each other that they end up close after all that? And all the stuff that came after? I mean come on.”
Essek ended up smiling to himself.
“So, yeah, we are gathered here today to see the most unlikely and still most sensical couple ever get married. Cause it’s been kinda inevitable and because you guys, Caleb, my brother in all but blood and Essek, my friend and legit member of our weirdass family, deserve some happiness. Now, I know you guys had your own thing prepared. So, Caleb, do you want to go first?”
“Ja, I will go first.” He turned to face Essek more fully and Essek mirrored it. Caleb gently took both of his hands into his own. “Essek,”
“You may open your eyes.”
Essek did. Immediately, he found it hard to breathe. They stood among the stars. Not literally, there was a force of gravity tethering them to some kind of ground. But visually, they stood in a sea of darkness and stars. Much like the ninth floor of Caleb’s tower and yet so very different. Essek peered around, spotting shooting stars and the tinted smattering of galaxies. The ground beneath their feet was invisible except for huge arcane circles with runes and geometric lines drawing patterns that Essek immediately recognized as depictions of spells. Maximilian’s Earthen Grasp and Fortune’s Favor. The first spell Caleb had shown him and the first spell Essek had taught in return.
“This is…” Essek found it difficult to speak. “This is beyond words, Caleb. It is absolutely breathtaking. But why-“
“I wanted to ask you something.”
Caleb lowered himself to the ground on one knee and Essek could hear his thoughts going a mile a minute as he tried to unite the image in front of him with some kind of memory of significance to figure out what it meant.
“I often think on all the times we spoke about potential and the future. And though we both often re-iterated the uncertainty juxtaposing our desires, you and I have made this work for a while now. What we share has brought great happiness to my life. A type of joy I thought myself incapable of expressing or feeling for a long, long time.”
Caleb fished around in one pocket and withdrew something. Essek’s eyes latched onto the hand containing that unknown, still hidden object, watching, not daring to breathe out a word. And then Caleb held up a ring and the memory slammed into Essek’s mind full force. It was- This was-
“I do not hold too much reverence for… ceremonies of a sort. Nor do I have the desire to receive blessings for my choices by some divine entity. But, ah, in spite of that I have found myself thinking, time and time again, about what that could be like, still. To make the promises attached to this, to call you by the name attached to it and be called that same thing in return. I do not crave change for us, but I want this… us, Essek, to be known, in a way. I want to pledge things to you, formally and properly.”
Essek’s heart had surely stopped beating. He was but a ghost.
“So I wanted to ask you, Essek, with the chaos that still presides around us. The uncertainty that will always meddle with our futures and the messy path we call our past… Will you do me the honor of becoming my husband? Willst du mich heiraten?”
Essek stared, his mind wiped blank. He worked his mouth a little but no noise came out.
“Ah, this would not be like what I think you have in the Dynasty. I did some research and it makes no sense. It is more about… joining our lives together by promise and celebrating our bond with our loved ones. Or just having a private, small moment. A quiet ceremony, just you and me and the moons above. I know that in your former home, that that is-“
Caleb fell silent, he looked up at him, bright blue eyes reflecting fake stars. “Yes?”
“Yes. Ja. Yes, Caleb I want to- I will marry you. After- After the Empire fashion, I want to-“ Essek swallowed. “I wish to be called your husband.”
Caleb was holding his eyes in that way that made Essek feel like he was the only person in the universe. Caleb had a talent for that. Essek’s name hung in the air, loud and meaningful, before Caleb continued.
“I have never tried counting all the reasons why what we share should not be working. Or possible. I know that there are many, I know that they are varied. But they have long since become irrelevant. We had a conversation once when we decided to give an unnamed thing a shot and we agreed that things were complicated and uncertain. And I cannot tell you what I expected to come of it, because, that moment, I genuinely did not know.
“We have not chosen easy paths for ourselves. Though I have found that I like mine much more when you are with me on it. You’re a marvel, Essek. Not because of your Dunamancy or your ridiculously intelligent mind and not because of any of the things tacked onto you by a place you don’t call home that you tore off long ago. You are stunning, because you are so full of good and care, though it took you some time to know that.
“You’ve changed. But I do not think that the core, the very thing buried deep inside you, ever did. I think that it was simply allowed to grow and evolve and be seen. And I thank you for sharing that and all those other pieces of yourself with me. I will eternally be thankful to have met you, for all the good and the bad moments alike. And grateful that you chose to let me in and to let me know who you truly were and who you were capable of being. I love you, Essek. I can say that with no doubt, no second thoughts. I love you. And be it for a moment or many years, whatever I have, I want to share all of it with you. And I promise to you that I will do my best to make that happen.”
Essek was lost. In each pause, each sound, each of Caleb’s words. Admissions of love were nothing new. Emotional proclamations, they had traded before, as well. And yet, this speech, this promise, this open and vulnerable desire of Caleb’s, laid bare like that, it was almost too much. But Essek knew that he could not linger, he had to push though, to speak and reply and to offer what Caleb had just offered him in kind.
Essek found his voice coming out strangled and he swallowed hard. He was aware of the stares on him. And though none of them were out to get him, he knew, he still felt scrutinized and judged for the way he might phrase his affections. Though care had come to him more easily than he had once thought, expressing it had not and telling a person who had quickly become the center of his focus just how important he was in front of an assortment of friends was still challenging. At best.
Yet, he knew that Caleb deserved for the affections that he showed so readily to be returned properly, so Essek tried to focus on him and imagined that they were alone, in a demiplane or elsewhere, with only the company of each other.
“The day we met, you shocked me to the core. Back then, I thought that your arrival was the beginning of my end. I’ve realized since that, instead, it was the beginning of something else. Because you brought a spark with you. And that, pardon the play on words, ignited something in me that I did not think myself capable of experiencing. You captured my attention and have stubbornly refused to let go and though I understand what I feel, I am still mystified by it.
“There was a magnetic pull. I was drawn to you from the very start. I tried to resist that pull, very much, for reasons that seem so distant now. But I could not. Each shared thought, spent moment and every other thing that I witnessed you do only made it stronger. I realized that you were one of a kind, Caleb Widogast, and that if you were not my match, there was going to be no other. I realize how exaggerated and illogical that sounds, but logic and reason, I find, do not mesh well with feelings.
“This pull is still there. And it grows stronger each day. Every second that you’re by my side, this force grows. I’ve thought it much like gravity. Except gravity, I could control. And those feelings, this love for you, is far beyond that. I am in love with you. Each part of me is drawn to each part of you and all of you makes all of me a better person. If I am to be in your orbit, your spell, forever, I can imagine no better fate.”
Essek was staring at Caleb, heart pounding in his chest, breath barely there. And Caleb was staring back at him, as if amazed, wondering. Caleb visibly startled and turned to see Veth clearing her throat and holding up a cushion with two rings.
“I don’t really think I have to ask after all of that,” Beauregard spoke up and Essek had almost forgotten that she was there. “But we still have the rings and all, so, Caleb,” Caleb straightened a little. “Do you take this wizard,” Caleb shot her a look but she kept going, “to be your husband in sickness and in health and as a partner in all the shit that life will throw at you?”
“Ja. I do.” Caleb smiled again as he took one of the rings. Essek held out his hand and stared, mesmerized, as Caleb slipped the slim band onto his ring finger.
“Good. So, Essek,” Essek almost flinched at the sound of his own name. “do you take this wizard to be your husband, in sickness and in health and in all the shit that live will inevitably throw at you?”
“Yes, I do.” Essek said as fast as he could, as though the opportunity to do so was limited. He reached out to pick up the other ring and then he returned Caleb’s favor by gently holding his hand and slipping the wedding band onto his ring finger, as well.
“Then, by no power at all vested in me, I pronounce you husbands! You may now kiss each other.”
Caleb leaned in and, tentatively, Essek drew close, too, uneasy still with the amount of eyes set upon them. As Caleb was a breath away there was a rustle of clothing and then it was dark and there was a kiss and Essek realized that Caleb had thrown something over their heads, shielding them from view. Full of love and affection, Essek relaxed and kissed back with the same adoration that he kissed him with when they were, well, truly alone.
There was a myriad of responses, from cheering to something akin to… disappointment as Caleb pulled away and tugged the fabric, his half-cape, Essek realized, away with a sheepish grin. Essek held his hands tightly, once again overcome with just how much he loved him. Essek felt the press of the metal bands against his skin as he looked at him and only then did it begin to sink in that he was staring at his husband.
The man who, by his own promise, wished to share his life with him.
And Essek allowed himself a tear.
“I like this.” Caleb said with a lazy, easy smile on his face.
“What do you mean?” Essek asked, looking up from his book to smile back.
“This. Us. This routine and life we are making for ourselves. I like it.”
Essek’s smile brightened. “Me too.”
They were in each other’s arms again not much later as Caleb guided him through a waltz in a location of his arcane design.
Essek had learned the steps before, not for this occasion, but because Caleb had wanted to teach him and they had both done some brushing up before the event. Essek didn’t fancy himself a dancer, less so when he wasn’t floating, but Caleb made it easy to indulge in something that surpassed the basic requirement of a Dynasty social function.
Around them, others were spinning in a similar fashion, though not everyone’s steps quite passed for a waltz, but there had been no hope of that considering they guests consisted of the Mighty Nein and people they had befriended or were related to.
The music was provided by the spectral cat orchestra of the Nein-Sided Tower. Essek looked up at Caleb, who had a few damning inches on him, and Caleb looked down at him with unguarded fondness.
“So,” he said quietly. “How are you enjoying the proceedings, Herr Widogast?”
A shiver ran up Essek’s spine and he smirked back up. “I am enjoying myself very much, husband dearest. What about you?”
Essek felt Caleb tense and saw a redder hue on his face at the nickname. “Ah, I am dancing with the most beautiful man in the world, if that suffices as an answer.”
“Mh, it does, as I find myself in the same position, paradoxically,” Essek mused. “In fact, I would rephrase it to dancing with the most wonderful person in the world, looks and personality and all of it.”
“That is quite a thesis,” Caleb said as he led Essek into a pose before bringing him back in close and continuing the step.
“It might be, yes. But no worries, I have abundant proof for it. Such as his beautiful smile and his amazing character and, ah, how absolutely ravishing he looks tonight.”
Caleb paused, then grinned. And as the song came to a close they were both smiling and pressing their foreheads together and they must have looked like fools.
“My turn!” Jester chirped almost out of nowhere and she held out a hand to Essek as Caleb and him broke apart.
“Ah, I don’t believe I know the steps to your, er,-“ whatever the hell her dance across the room just moments ago had been.
“You don’t have to know any, I promise! I mean, we can also waltz, but I technically don’t know how to lead, do you?”
“Let us just do your dance,” Essek relented and as Jester tugged him away to presumably spin him into oblivion, he shot a look at Caleb, who smiled as he was being whisked away by Veth, presumably for a similar purpose.
“It is done.” Essek said, determined, but quiet. “I am no longer the Shadowhand, no longer of Den Thelyss. And if I am smart, I will never return.”
The Nein came to him and enveloped him in a tight hug. He met Caleb’s eyes, and the anxiety that had been eating at him for hours seemed to grow quieter. “It will be okay, we’ve got you.”
He knew. He knew they would. And with Caleb’s quest to save his home complete, he felt he could finally rest a bit easier.
“Your husband made this place?”
A while after the dancing, Essek looked to Verin approaching him with what seemed to be a polite conversation starter – or perhaps genuine amazement – sometime after the third toast. Why this many people had insisted on doing toasts, Essek didn’t know, but they all kept the references to his past sins to a minimum, which he was grateful for. “Yes, a while ago, now.” Essek nodded as he took a sip of his wine and looked over at Caleb crouched down and showing something to Veth’s son. “He is really talented.”
“So, I’ve gathered.” Verin took the liberty to sit down beside him, looking over the rambunctious group of people. “I remember when you hated parties.”
“I still do. But with the right company and for the right reason, they are not so bad, I suppose.” Essek took another wistful sip.
“Can I ask you something?”
“You are not going to not ask me something if I ask you to abstain, so please.”
“Is there a real purpose behind this?”
Essek looked sharply at his brother but when he did he found confusion, no hostility. So for the sake of both of them and everyone else in attendance he let it slide. “Well, normally, people from the Empire do this for a myriad of reasons. To be bound in front of their god or to unite their families, for example.”
“But none of that applies to you.”
Essek shrugged. “It makes us- Dare I say, it makes us happy.” He grew tense. “I realize that in the Dynasty that kind of reasoning-“
“You’re not in the Dynasty.” Again, no accusation. “I know I have never been in politics the way you were but, by my estimation, if you are not in the Dynasty or part of the Dynasty, you do not have to adhere to Dynasty expectations.”
“Meaning, in this case?”
“Do what makes you happy, brother.” Verin patted his shoulder in a way that Essek had used to hate. “Smiling is a good look on you. Who would’ve thought?”
For a moment, Essek wanted to thank him and then-
“Better than the collection of Shadowhand-mantles you used to favor, really.”
“You are such a-“
There was a crash and Essek turned to see Jester on the ground, arms aloft, holding a huge tray with a sizeable tiered cake that she was desperately trying to keep from toppling over. None of it seemed to taint her joy.
“It’s time for the cake!”
“Caleb, this is- This is amazing,” Essek said as he stepped inside the tower. “You made this, you- When?”
“Over the course of many months… It is a home, of a kind. I showed it to the Nein before, but I thought I would take this moment to show it to you before we head any further.”
“I am grateful to see it.”
“And you have not even seen your room, come, let me show you.”
They had told everyone not to get them gifts.
So, naturally, everyone had gotten them gifts. They had even pulled Verin into it, telling him it was absolutely necessary as to not offend Caleb’s Empire sensibilities. Essek made sure to correct this assumption when he heard of it, but the presents were already there.
And thus, sometime into the celebration, Caleb and Essek were bullied into opening them.
It was uncanny how good their guests were at gift-giving. That was until it occurred to Essek that everyone had just gone to Jester, Caduceus or both of them for guidance on the matter. Well, perhaps not everyone, but everyone Essek had deemed to be much more like himself at giving gifts – terribly out of their depth.
Essek hadn’t fancied himself a materialistic person before he had met Caleb. But learning with how little Caleb had made do for, well, the majority of his life had made Essek feel properly spoiled.
The Nein’s gifts were not catering to that kind of materialism. They were meaningful, instead, full of love and a clear intent to say what words perhaps didn’t always cover. Even words meant for Essek. There were spell components and tomes, but also an artful masterpiece done by Jester, a specifically crafted tea blend by Mister Clay and several other things that all seemed like a wonderful, warm affirmation of Essek’s and Caleb’s relationship. And validation that he was indeed wanted within their group of friends and accepted as the match Caleb had chosen to spend his days with.
That was except for the liquid that Veth tried to market as a sex potion, which made Essek want to die in shame. That, one of her multiple gifts, had nothing to do with acceptance, Essek thought.
“When did that happen?”
“I mean I always knew you two wanted to-“
Essek wanted nothing more than to hide behind Caleb as he felt his face grow hotter with each uttered statement. He tried to get a read on the mood of the room, the general acceptance of him as their wizard’s romantic partner. But it was difficult as they all stared at him, wide-eyed and, he thought, judging.
“Wait, have you two been fucking?”
Essek wanted to disappear.
Essek had never been one to read the pulse of an event well. He could tell when it was too loud and obnoxious for him, but that was most events from beginning to end.
Caleb’s and his wedding festivities, however, were an exception. He felt wonderfully at ease the entire time and could tell the mood of the room. For hours there was dancing and eating and drinking. Essek was heckled by the Mighty Nein and handled it with bravado, in his own opinion. But both him and Caleb were whisked away by their friends, barely getting a proper word in with each other after that first dance.
There was insistence on several games that were apparently customary at these functions – all of which had to be explained to Verin and himself which made him infinitely grateful for the presence of his brother. Essek couldn’t shake the feeling that at least half of those games were designed to humiliate Caleb and him rather than to celebrate them. But the laughs shared were friendly and warm. Well, until they both assessed each other to be the superior wizard and it provoked the debate of what made one a better wizard – Was it a question about variety of skill or quality of it, for instance? – and the question, while highly interesting to Essek and Caleb, seemed to bore the souls out of everyone else present.
And after that they were, yet again, splitting up to talk to different people. It wasn’t even that there were many guests, it was mostly that Caleb was responsible for the tower that was hosting them all so he wished to take care of several matters himself and it just happened that whenever him and Essek seemed to drift toward each other, something interrupted their meeting.
As the excitement and energy wound down, they finally succeeded at that.
“This is where you went, then.”
Essek turned away from the bookshelves to look at Caleb floating to his level.
“Did the allure of books outweigh that of the festivities?” His feet connected with the floor and he walked over.
Essek smiled. “Perhaps a little. Do not misunderstand, I greatly enjoyed this day, but I found my, shall I say, social reserves, a bit depleted.”
Caleb stopped in front of him, he wrapped his arms around Essek’s waist. “And I thought you had gone and left me so soon after promising to stay.”
“Never.” Essek held Caleb’s face. “I know I am an accomplished liar, but I speak no falsehood when I say that I seek no escape.”
“Wundervoll.” Caleb gave Essek a quick kiss and Essek immediately pulled him back for another deeper one, which Caleb returned with fervor before pulling away. “I thought your social reserves were empty?”
“Mh, but you put no strain on them,” Essek leaned in for another kiss, holding him close and tight. “I might even be inclined to say that you replenish them.”
“Is that so?”
“Indeed, it is. So I imagine I ought to keep you close,” Essek looked at Caleb with a smirk as he let his voice drip into something sweet and beckoning. “As close as you can possibly be.”
Caleb shivered and his grip on Essek’s form grew a bit tighter.
Essek leaned closer to whisper. “If that is something that you also want… my pet.”
Essek leaned back to meet his eyes. “If you are, however, not interested or perhaps too tired-“
“Nein.” Caleb never ceased to blush at Essek’s advances, and really, that was the greatest wedding gift of all. “Do you, er, do you wish to wait for the guests to leave…?”
“Leave? Will the others not be sleeping in the tower?”
Caleb shrugged. “It seems that offer will go untaken. I believe, ah, they want to give us privacy. More so than only a room.”
The smirk returned to Essek’s lips. “What a smart assessment they made. Then I suppose I will practice a little more patience before- before taking my husband to bed. But once it’s only the two of us, you’re mine.”
“Yes, Essek,” Caleb breathed into his ear. “Though, if I may, I am yours at all times.”
“I don’t want to go.”
“I don’t want you to go.”
“I will try to be back as soon as I can.”
“No… no more silences, please.”
“No more, I promise.”
“I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
It was a strange dance they did for the last hour or so of their celebration, as the few people in attendance became even fewer.
As though being caught together would implicate them in a crime, they kept a distance, though they looked at each other after each breath, each moment apart. Contrary to their earlier eye contact, each meeting was filled with intensity and desire. It felt almost clandestine to look at each other across the room and strangely reminiscent of earlier times while still being much of a different game.
Essek couldn’t tell whether the others were picking up on it. Normally, he would have almost been sure of it after the harrowing experience of learning that the Nein had caught his interest in Caleb before – not the full extent of it, thank the Light. But most of them were at varying stages of inebriated or at least tired, so he hoped that they were blinded by their own states of mind.
He didn’t know how to react, then, when Mister Clay shook a snoring, drunk Beauregard awake with the request to vacate the tower to perhaps ‘give Essek and Caleb some time alone’. Only the core members of the Mighty Nein and Essek remained at that point – he still failed to see himself as as integral as the rest of them. Aside from Mister Clay, Jester was the only one who was still fully awake. Her limitless energy and distaste for alcohol gave her the opportunity to give him and Caleb both full-face winks. However that was possible.
Though honestly, no advances or flirting had to be obvious for that to happen.
So they left and Caleb and Essek shared a quiet, long look. Before the tension snapped and gravity pulled them together.
It was possible to kiss and, for all intents and purposes, make out while floating up through the tower. An interesting discovery to make.
There was no chasteness, no softness to be had. Caleb and Essek were all over each other, grabbing and clinging and kissing and pulling. It was almost a disappointment when they reached the seventh floor – their destination.
In spite of the Nein’s reduced need for individual bedrooms, what with some of them pairing up into couples, they had always maintained the setup of one room per person, albeit with larger beds, for several reasons.
This night was an exception. Though Essek had spotted the door to his bedroom, the one to Caleb’s had vanished and instead been replaced with a different one, which contained pieces of amber and what looked like pearls set into the dark wood.
“I see that you have made adjustments.” Essek pointed out, having removed himself from Caleb to only hold his hand. “Were you entertaining certain expectations about where this was going to go?”
Caleb wet his lips. “I may have allowed myself to be a bit… presumptuous.”
“Is that right? Well, then, let us see how right you were to presume.”
Caleb nodded and went over to the door, pulling Essek along. He opened it and Essek stepped through and his jaw went slack as he laid eyes on the room.
Like everything else Caleb did, everything else Caleb was, what he had conjured up for their first night married was utterly amazing. The first room, as Essek could tell it was by the second door and the absence of a bed, was much like the others’ rooms in intent, but beyond them in design. The architecture was a blend of Essek’s former towers and simple Zemnian structures and for all that it should have clashed, by the Luxon, it did not. Sharp points favored in the Dynasty became one with sturdy beams and angles used in the Empire. There were bookshelves and Essek could tell that each book in them was one they had shared. And finally, Caleb allowed himself a stained glass window reflecting an illustration of the moment they met.
The next room was a laboratory and Essek couldn’t help but smile at the thought that Caleb had assumed that, perhaps, they would want to do some magic, which was far from unreasonable. The design from the first room carried over and Essek noted that the walls were cluttered with parchments, notes and diagrams, all showing the work they had done over time.
Caleb then led him to the final room, not saying a word and Essek wondered whether Caleb was ever going to stop overwhelming him and decided that he knew the answer very well.
There was a bed, four-poster, with curtains that looked like they had been woven from a breath, light and thin. Aside from it there were a couple of wardrobes, dark but in that same mixed design. A sizeable chest at the foot of the bed with a smaller one and a familiar, smaller box, on top of it. The large one, Caleb explained, could produce anything Essek thought of. Making all of that pale by comparison, however, was the ceiling. It was an illusion, Essek knew, but it looked like it opened up to a dark starry sky. The stars placed within it casting a ghostly silver glow onto the room that competed with the warm light from the arcane globules hovering in the air.
“Caleb.” Essek stared at him. “This is- This is incredible. When did you plan this?”
Caleb smiled sheepishly. “It is hard to say. Much like my affections for you, it came together overtime. The first thought, I suppose, I had when you looked at me like I meant the world and asked for my time like it was a blessing.”
“The night after we spoke on top of my tower?”
“Ja, that night,” Caleb hesitated. “I thought if I achieved this spell, the Nein-sided tower I mean, I perhaps would want, someday, to have a space for the two of us. To accommodate whatever you and I wished for… together.”
“I am in awe. There will not come a day when you will not amaze me, Caleb Widogast.”
“Ah, I would hate to become a bore.” A beat. “Essek Widogast.”
There was no force in the world that could have stopped Essek from pulling Caleb into another kiss at that, long and deep and meaningful. And desperate, frantic. There was that need to be close, as close as they could be. To touch and kiss and hold and cling and seal their emotional promise with a physical declaration of attraction and trust.
Essek pulled away gently. “I almost feel bad, almost, to make a powerful, creative and amazing being like you serve me… pet.” He smirked as he held Caleb’s chin with one hand, removing the rest of himself from Caleb’s hold. “But I fear I have been waiting far too long to take off all those pretty clothes you put on for me.”
Caleb averted his eyes in submission. “They are yours to remove, Essek.”
“Mh, you are like a gift-wrapped present for me, aren’t you?”
“Then I better start unwrapping.”