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hearts are too heavy a burden to bear alone

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Caleb Widowgast is the only student to show up to Essek's study hours. Caleb...is not enrolled in the class or the program, but Essek has to be here anyway and Caleb has the book and is determined to learn.

Also he brings Essek coffee every single time and it's never the same but always delicious so Essek doesn't mind explaining the basics or going over concepts between lesson planning in exchange.

Caleb has very pretty eyes.

-

There are two teiflings watching him from the shelves of books directly across the study room he holds his sessions in. One is dark purple, with dangling horn ornaments and crimson red eyes; the other is pale blue with purple eyes and a cute blue bob. Both of them have been trying to hide since he has set up and keep looking between he and Caleb with increasing levels of curiosity.

Caleb hasn't noticed them, perhaps. He doesn't appear uncomfortable, not like he had at the start of their lessons in the beginning of the semester, and he doesn't even glance in their direction as he writes in his tiny, cramped hand in the margin of his book.

Essek won't bring them to his attention, for now.

He drinks his coffee and smiles when Caleb glances up at him. He has strikingly blue eyes and they only stand out more brightly through the dark red strands of hair he has to peek through to find Essek.

"Yes, Mister Widowgast?"

Caleb clears his throat, sits back to reveal what he has written and asks in his soft, thinly accented way; "Could you, perhaps, check this? I don't know that I am completely understanding."

"Of course." Essek slides into the seat next to Caleb, brushes against his arm. He doesn't smile when Caleb does not shy away, but only just. Out of the corner of his eye, the purple teifling leans clean over the waist-length bookshelf to get closer and is yanked back by his blue friend.

"Thank you." Caleb looks at him with those nice eyes, warm and familiar, if not quite inviting just yet.

Essek simply taps the text thoughtfully and begins to check Caleb's work.

-

They exchange numbers because Essek offers his tutoring services in case Caleb has any more questions while he is studying.

He expects the first text he receives to be text-related and to be sent at a decent hour, because Caleb is a proper kind of man.

Instead, it is a text sent close to midnight on a Tuesday and simply says Essek?

He decides to respond only because he imagines Caleb would not be breaking decorum without reason. That, and those damned eyes of his. Essek doesn't appreciate how foolish he acts when those eyes are on him.

He sends a simple yes? in response.

He gets a number of texts barely seconds later in quick succession.

Hello. Apologies for the late communications.

It is only you are the only one who might be able to help me. I have found myself rather stranded and am not above begging for a way home at this point.

How much coffee would I owe you for a ride home from a particularly dark street?

Essek reads the texts, and then reads them again and then stands up from his desk and stretches his arms above his head, feels his joints ache sharply and then crack back into place. His knee aches at being held in the same position for so long. He could do with some fresh air, he supposes.

Send me your location, Mr. Widowgast. I will be there momentarily.

-

There is a human woman sitting on the side of the road with Caleb, the both of them bathed in the only working street light on the block. Essek knows this part of town and knows students often come here to drink and get fleeced of all their money. He has never found reason to come himself, but he can admit that there has always been a sharpness to Caleb that he is sure would taste gritty were he allowed to test it.

Caleb looks so relieved to see him when he pulls up and parks his four-door that he finds himself actually getting out instead of simply waiting for Caleb to get off the ground and come to him. His knee protests but he delays levitating to save time in striding over.

"I am so sorry, Essek." Caleb says before he's even reached he and his friend, face drawn and pale, hair greasy and barely held in his usual tie. His eyes are red-rimmed. His companion has a bleeding nose and a split brow, head resting on Caleb's shoulder.

"Are you well?" Essek dismisses the apology, offering a hand. Caleb hesitantly takes it, allows himself to be pulled up and dragging his friend up with him. It is the first time they've actually touched and it is brief. Caleb is warm and his fingers are rough with calluses.

"Oh, ja," Caleb smiles thinly, "Yes, just...too much to drink for my friend. It has been a...rough start of semester."

Essek hums, but he stills finds himself giving Caleb another once-over before nodding to himself and turning to the woman. "Do you need a hospital?"

"Nah," she grunts and knuckles a fist across her nose, smearing the blood, "I can patch myself up. Thanks, uh, man. For showing up. You're Caleb's, like, nerd friend, right?"

Caleb shoves her roughly with a glower and she pinwheels hard but catches herself on Caleb's shoulder and nearly brings them both to the ground all over again.

"Beauregard." Caleb hisses, "Essek is a professor and he just drove out to the other side of town at fuck-off in the morning to help us. Some respect please."

"Yes," Essek says easily, allowing a twitch of a smile, "I am Mister Widowgast's 'nerd friend.'"

Caleb flushes pink and Essek finds that, somehow, the street lighting suits him nicely.

"You address, please, Mister Widowgast." Essek continues, turning sharply to return to his car. His knee will not thank him for all the movement but he finds he is feeling pleased enough not to mind. "Let us return everyone to their rightful residence for the night."

"Ah, yes, of course," Caleb and Beauregard scramble behind him to follow.

He drives them home in quiet, though it is not too uncomfortable. Caleb has taken the passenger seat and Essek does not turn on his usual talk radio stations because he wants to see if Caleb will attempt to fill the quiet.

He does not, nor does his friend aside from quiet cursing as she attempts to avoid bleeding into Essek's upholstery.

They live off campus, but only just. It is a large house with a tree that reaches far into the sky growing in the back yard, possibly having been touched by druid magic in the recent past to have reached such a size in a college town. It dwarfs the house, despite its not-unsubstational height.

"Thanks, uh...professor?" Beauregard nods at him and then stomps out of the car without a backward glance.

Caleb stays, shifting uncomfortably. His hands are clasped tightly in his lap, though his fingers stroke against each other in a way that Essek thinks would make more sense as motions against a material or pelt.

"I really can't apologize enough." Caleb starts, staring straight ahead, frown tugging severely at his lips, "This is...very inappropriate and I can not thank you enough, perhaps, either."

"You needed help, Mister Widowgast." Essek does not reach over to touch him, but he finds the urge almost difficult to resist. Caleb had never seemed receptive to overt physical touch. They have just barely reached the point where prolonged eye contact doesn't make Caleb too anxious to continue conversation. "Never hesitate to ask me if you need help. A favor from a friend is not something I would begrudge you."

Caleb opens his mouth and then closes it.

Finally, he says, quietly, "Please call me Caleb, Essek. If we are friends."

"Caleb." Essek says gently and Caleb glances at him in that lightning-fast fashion of his, as if he worries he will be caught.

"I meant it about the coffee." Caleb flattens his hands against his thighs and Essek finds himself closing his hands around the leather of his steering wheel in response.

"Your usual will suffice." Essek allows a more obvious smile than before, though he knows the shadow of the car has probably hidden it against his dark skin. "Please do not hesitate to contact me if you have any questions about the text. I'm sure I will find use of you in some way in return that does not end in my overdosing on caffeine."

Caleb seems to relax at the redirect to usual business and he nods shallowly and opens the door to slide out of the car.

"And Caleb," Essek says before Caleb can shut the door. His not-quite-student ducks down to look at him, blinking those soft blue eyes in question. He looks exhausted, but that is not unusual. "I look forward to our next meeting."

Caleb's lips curl up in a smile, slight but genuine. "I, as well, Essek. Gute nacht."

Essek stays parked until Caleb has gone inside and then he silently pulls away and drives home. He does not turn on the radio and he does not return to his desk when he gets home.

He sleeps and does not remember dreaming of blue eyes and red hair and a shy smile wrapped around accented words shaping ancient spells. He wakes rested and class is not nearly as trying despite three papers he is forced to fail for bad effort.

-

A very tall, very muscular woman sits across from him two days later when he is eating lunch at his usual spot in the South Quad atrium.

He has never seen this woman before, but she is striking in her darkness, with her traditional face markings and the sword she wears despite being nowhere near any adventure guilds.

"Hello." She says, voice deceptively quiet.

"Hello." He says politely and sets down his utensils. His salad, unfortunately, will have to wait.

"I just wanted, uh," she frowns and it would be terrifying were he a lesser wizard, "Well. You brought my friends - well, my friend and my girlfriend, who is also my friend, um -"

Ah. Another friend of Caleb's.

"Yes. Caleb and Beauregard. I hope she was able to recover from her injuries."

Despite Caleb's words, neither of them had smelled like spirits of any sort and Essek still has no idea what they were doing in that part of town. Caleb runs with an interesting sort, it seems.

"Yeah, Beau's fine. She's a tough one." The woman grins and it lightens her face, de-ages her eyes for a moment. "Anyway. I just wanted to thank you."

"It was no problem."

"Well, it was nice of you." She stands as abruptly as she had sat and clasps his shoulder heartily, "Caleb seems to like you. I'm glad you're a good sort."

He does not know how to respond to that so he just watches her leave in confusion, salad forgotten.

-

They meet as usual in the library, and a short goblin woman has joined the two teiflings.

Caleb, again, does not seem to notice. He has chosen a seat closer to Essek than usual and is bent over his book, face pinched in thought as he studies. Essek ignores their audience because there is a more interesting subject for him to examine in the man that sits with him. He has far surpassed the class by this point and is a fast learner with a passion.

"Caleb." He says when nearly an hour has passed filled only with the sounds of their writing; his own lesson plans and personal notes and Caleb's study.

Caleb blinks up at him, dazed from broken concentration.

"Your home." Essek says thoughtfully, "It is not a fraternity house?"

"Nein," Caleb taps his pen against his book, "It used to be. A friend owns it now."

Essek hums and finally looks over to meet the intense stare of the goblin, who box jumps onto the shelf in her surprise and then is dragged behind it by a pair of brightly colored hands. When Caleb looks, nothing is there.

"Interesting. Beauregard's girlfriend came to thank me for taking you both home the other day and it made me curious."

"Yasha." Caleb smiles and it is one of the most brilliant ones yet, wide and real, "She is very fond of Beau."

"I gathered." Essek nods, still needing a moment to put himself to right against the brightness of that look. He surprises himself with how easily he is bowled over by this man at times. It is disconcerting how a simple human, powerful as he may be for a human wizard trained in mundane arcane arts, has such an effect on him at times. "And of you."

The smile turns more shy, but no less bright.

"My...family..." Caleb hesitates, stumbles over the word, as if it is unfamiliar, "We are an odd lot. But close."

Essek, somehow, is not surprised by that. It explains, at least, the growing cohort of infernal beings spying on his study session.

"That's good." He says, because it is. He finds it a nice thought, that there are people that Caleb, with his timidness and genius and sharpness all, has found for himself.

He catches wide purple eyes peeking at them moments later and goes back to his lesson plans.

-

A call wakes him at - he checks his clock - 3:54 in the morning.

Somehow, he does not need to check to know who is calling him.

"Good morning, Caleb." He says and has to clear his throat afterword.

"I am deeply sorry." Caleb says in response, regret practically dripping from his words, "Truly, so sorry, Essek, I have no words."

"How can I help you, Caleb." Essek does not sigh as he sits up and rubs at his eyes to force them to focus. He had only gone to bed perhaps four hours ago, after a very intense grading week. He is very tired, to say the least, but has the self control to not take that out on Caleb, who would not be calling for any small reason. He allows himself the fantasy that Caleb is only calling to confess a deep desire for his person and not to make him go somewhere.

"You see," Caleb begins and then launches into a very complicated story about someone named Fjord ("No, not like the car, like Sognefjord,") being stuck six miles out of town with someone named Molly along with a number of regrets and perhaps a lost boat of some sort.

What it boils down to, in the end, is this:

"Would it be at all possible," Caleb says, in that gentle voice of his, sure to be paired with those eyes of his, "If you could save them from their absolute stupidity and bring them home? There's very good food as a reward. Anything as a reward. How can I sweeten this deal for you? They're idiots, but I don't want them kidnapped and murdered."

"Caleb," Essek says as gently as he can while mourning his brief fantasy and also sleep, "They will be neither kidnapped nor murdered. You do not need to sweeten anything for me. I will go pick them up."

"Thank you." Caleb says, relief thick in his voice, "This is the last time I'll call for something like this, truly,"

"It is fine." Essek says and does not believe him as he goes back to silently cursing as he stumbles out of bed. He steps onto air and levitates to his closet to find a robe, not even attempting to put weight on his strained knee at this point in the morning. He has skipped stretches all week and it will come back to bite him soon.

Caleb says nothing while he dresses. Does not say anything until the ding of his car door opening echoes.

"Are you…" Caleb finally says, timid in a way he has not been in quite some time. It makes Essek stop what he's doing, still only half in the car. "Are you very mad, Essek?"

Essek gets into the car, closes the door and turns the key before he is able to answer.

"Of course not." He puts his car in gear, "I told you to call when you needed help. They're your friends and they need help."

"They do." Caleb clears his throat, "Thank you, Essek."

Essek thinks Caleb must realize the power his words hold, for him to use Essek's name as often as he does. Has he realized he need only say Essek's name for him to fold like a school boy with a crush?

"Of course, Caleb. Now, you need to direct me."

Caleb does so. It takes almost an hour, but Essek eventually finds a familiar purple teifling in what appears to be a pair of billowy bloomers and nothing else and a strangely scrawny half-orc with oddly small tusks limping down the highway toward town.

Both fit perfectly into the vision he is building of Caleb's family.

"You must be Molly and Fjord." He says through his rolled down window, in no mood to get out of the car this time. It is chilly in the early morning.

"Professor!" The purple teifling grins wide, "Fancy seeing you here. Picking up the cutest twinks on the block? I'd never imagine it, sir."

"Get," Caleb says furiously through speaker, voice static in his anger, "In the fucking car, Mollymauk Tealeaf."

Molly and Fjord meekly got in the fucking car.

Essek almost feels sorry for them. He cranks the heat as they huddle together for warmth and imagines how he could get Caleb to sound so sure of himself without being on the receiving end of that temper.

This time, he's sweet talked into parking and actually coming in to the large house he has only previously seen the once. He follows the cowering pair into the house, where it is not Caleb waiting with hands on hips at the door, but a very tall firbolg.

"Oh shit." Fjord mutters and gets a pat on the shoulder by Mollymauk.

They get frogmarched upstairs by the firbolg, who is the physical incarnate of I'm not angry, just disappointed. Essek watches for only a brief moment before he is found by Caleb. His hair is in a messy braid, but clean, even if those familiar dark circles are still around his eyes. He looks freshly shaven.

"Hello." Caleb says awkwardly, like they have not been speaking for the last hour and a half.

"Hello, Caleb." Essek says easily.

"You, ah...were promised food. Yes. Would you like breakfast?"

Essek has class in less than three hours. He still needs to return home and change for class, check his email and respond to a number of student questions before class begins.

"Yes." He says and allows himself to be towed by the edge of his sleeve into a large, cared for kitchen.

He meets the rest of Caleb's family over a rather delicious, if simple, breakfast spread of potatoes, eggs and mushrooms. The firbolg, Caduceus, is the cook and, when he comes back down, he pours Essek a special blend of tea Essek has never had the pleasure of tasting before.

There is Nott, the goblin woman, and Jester, the blue teifling, who are both too grumpy with lack of sleep behind a mug of coffee the size of her head and a baked sweet bun the size of her head respectively to be embarrassed about meeting Essek face to face; Yasha is gone but Beau is manning the coffee machine in a thick hoodie about five sizes too large and Caleb is feeding a ginger cat that, somehow, matches his hair exactly. His name, Essek learns, is Frumpkin and he is Caleb's good boy, as far as Essek can tell. When Fjord and Molly join them, looking less chilled to the bone, they thank Essek profusely.

He is pleasantly full and an hour behind schedule when he finally leaves and the sheer insanity of the group has elevated enough that he feels a migraine beginning despite his best efforts. He is not used to this much personal interaction and it is, despite the good company, mildly discomforting.

Still, he is in a fine mood as Caleb walks him out.

"Essek…" Caleb says at the door, the freshly risen sun warming Essek's skin not nearly as enjoyably as Caleb's warm gaze.

"Please do not thank me again." Essek warns, amused. "Your hospitality was more than enough. And I am keeping track of how many favors you owe me."

"You are far too kind." Caleb smiles, "And perhaps worry me with how many favors you are going to have at your fingertips. Aside from that, though. I only would like to say that...I look forward to our next meeting."

"I, as well, Caleb." Essek nods his head, levitating back to his car only once he has basked enough in Caleb's smile.

Caleb watches him and Essek watches back until he no longer can.

-

"Hello Professor Essek!"

Caleb's expression is nearly as apologetic as his voice when he says, "You...remember Jester."

"Of course." Essek nods at her amiably. "How can I help you, Jester?"

"I am here to learn the dunamagic." She says firmly and drops into the seat right next to him. He wants to rub his face.

"Dunamancy." Caleb corrects firmly.

"Bless you." Jester smiles sweetly. Caleb rubs his face.

"You see, Jester," Essek says after taking a moment. She is...very close and it is not a distance he is used to having with someone who is still much a stranger to him. "It is too late in the semester to begin teaching you. If you are interested in learning the history of dunamancy, you are welcome to test into the program for next semester."

"But Caleb did not test into the program." She tilts her head thoughtfully, leaning into his space. He leans back to match, keep what little distance they have between them firmly in place.

"Caleb is a special case." He says firmly.

"Oh, really?" She puts her elbows on the table, smiling wide, "Is it because you like him, Professor?"

"Jester!" Caleb thunders, face going red, "What is going on with you today!?"

"Yes," Essek matches her innocent smile with one of his own, smaller though it may be, "Caleb is pleasant and by far my most gifted student. Maybe he can tutor you next semester, should you test into the program."

"Caleb is pleasant, huh?" She wiggles her eyebrows and stands sudden enough that her chair rocks, "Well, I do not think I am as gifted as Caleb, so I will leave the two of you alone to study together. Very closely." She wiggles her eyebrows again even more aggressively, "Study very hard and very long together, you two."

Caleb puts his head in his hands.

She winks at Essek and then flounces out as happily as she'd skipped in. When Essek looks down, there are two doodled penises on his lesson plans.

"I will leave now." Caleb says into his hands.

"Nonsense." Essek finds himself smiling again, "I think it would be a waste of an evening to leave now. How has your studying been going?"

"You do not have to study with me if you're uncomfortable," Caleb drops his hands and the furrow between his brows indicate that he may be truly upset.

"Caleb," Essek says, "I can safely say that a meddling teifling is not enough to chase me away from our lessons. Come here. Sit."

He rights the chair Jester had vacated, an offering. Slowly, Caleb comes and sits. He has his book in the holster it is always in and Essek flattens his own text to make a point, watches Caleb struggle with himself until he finally lays his own text open to their current lesson.

"When this text is finished," he says casually, "we may be able to move on to actually practicing the spell work. I look forward to seeing you in action, Mister Widowgast."

Caleb makes a high, humming noise in response, refusing to look up from his book. Their arms brush together when Essek settles in to get back to work on his lesson plans and neither of them move away.

In fact, Essek would be willing to swear that Caleb leans in.

-

The spying stops.

The random calls for help do not. On one hand, Caleb does also text to ask questions and, once, simply to wish Essek a good day. On the other, Essek has had most rotations of Caleb's motley crew in his car at odd hours of the day and night more often than he had thought possible. Memorably, he was called thrice in one day because Nott and Caleb were desperately attempting to hunt down a particular book and Caleb was enthralled enough with his potential catch that he deemed it an emergency on par with being marooned on the side of a dark street or highway.

Essek, for the most part, does not mind. More accurately, it could be said that Essek could feel as annoyed as elvishly possible, only for those feelings to melt away upon a look from Caleb's pale eyes or his name in that Zimnian accent. Essek has never had a thing for accents before now. Or blue eyes and red hair.

Or maybe it is simply a thing for all things Caleb Widowgast.

Either way, it is highly pathetic and he can't help even an ounce of it.

-

Their study sessions turn into...more, slowly but surely. Though they have only been meeting like this for a few months, Essek fast finds himself wanting to know more. Wanting to, somehow, share in exchange, if it means more knowledge gained.

He learns that Caleb is actually majoring in General Wizarding with minors in History and Ritual Magicks. He learns about Caleb's friends; that Mollymauk is a performer for the local theater and Jester is a cleric double majoring in New Age Religion and Healing; that Beau is a member of the Cobalt Soul but is taking classes for a certificate in combat training and she and Yasha do part time adventuring for the local Guild; that Fjord is still thinking about what he wants to do with his life but has recently joined Caduceus in worshipping the Wildmother and does water conservation volunteer work, while Caduceus holds small, free classes for people interested in gardening and canning. Nott, Essek learns, is older than most of the others, except perhaps Caduceus, and that she is closer to a mother to Caleb than a friend. She has a husband and a son in another town, but she wanted to return to school and finish her degree in Chemistry so she and her husband could grow their business together. Frumpkin is a familiar, which should not and does not surprise Essek in the least. Caleb seems like a cat person.

Despite all the odds, not a single wheel is owned between the lot of them. They've made do with public transport and walking for the last year after settling in to their studies.

Essek has to wonder how they handled their various emergencies before Essek fell ass over teakettle for their resident wizard. Presumably Uber.

He also has to wonder how he has managed to learn so much about Caleb's academics and the lives of his friends, but so little about Caleb himself.

-

Essek is in class when he glances at his phone to check the time and notices the text.

He still has forty-five minutes left to his lecture and, with finals coming up in the next month, he does not have time to check personal texts when he should be giving his full attention to his students.

He casually taps the notification as he clicks to the next slide and then does not continue speaking because Caleb has sent nothing but an address in one text and pls in another received a minute after the first.

He has a very important decision to make here. He's allowed Caleb to touch nearly every part of his life here, from his rest to his eating habits (he now regularly hosts one or more of Caleb's friends at the South Quad atrium throughout the week). He has not, however, allowed his personal life to impact his teaching. He is a professional.

But Caleb has said please and, even more worryingly, he has said it using lingo, which is...not how Caleb texts. Something is wrong and Essek knows it in his core.

"I am sorry." He clears his throat and shuts down his powerpoint as his class begins to murmur amongst themselves. He has never let a class go early before. "Something of a personal emergency has come up. I am ending class early today. I will be emailing out my powerpoint and notes, contact me if you have any questions. Remember my study sessions if you need help revising. Have a good day."

He slides his laptop and papers into his bag and is out of the room before any of his students.

-

It is still mid-morning. He has another class in two hours, but he isn't really thinking about that because he recognizes the area of that address and knows it as an unofficial "frat row." Why Caleb would be anywhere near there is far behind him, as Caleb has never shown an interest in fraternity life, be it the social circle or volunteer service.

He finds the house within fifteen minutes of levitating to his car and carefully navigating off campus.

It is a strange mirror to the first time he received a text from Caleb. There is no beaten Beau at his side and it is broad daylight rather than night, but Caleb is sitting under a deactivated street light on the side of the road. His head is buried in his arms, legs pulled up tight to his body until he's practically a ball. Even from the car, Essek can see him trembling in the cool wind of the settling winter.

He doesn't bother turning the car off or levitating as he gets out and takes long, uneven steps to Caleb. He drops down, angling his protesting knee awkwardly so he can carefully hover his hands around Caleb's form. They glow a soft white and then green and he feels his stuttering heart begin to slow.

Caleb is okay. He is not dying currently.

"Caleb." He says softly, knows his own accent wraps around the name too intimately for a simple tutor and pupil, or even friends.

Caleb hunches tighter, and it is not the cold, perhaps, that makes him tremble.

"Caleb," Essek says again, still gentle, "I'm here to get you, my dear. Let me take you home."

Slowly, one arm untucks from Caleb, reaches out until it finds the cloth of Essek's shirt and then clasps tightly around it, bunching fabric firmly in his hold.

"Essek." Caleb says, voice rough and ruined. He does not look up, nor does he move otherwise, but Essek is not strong enough to resist touching now. He allows Caleb to pull him closer, let's his arms drape around Caleb's fragile human form and then gathers him into a close, tight hug. Caleb's knees dig into his chest and it is anything but a comfortable embrace, but Caleb sobs and breaks apart right there, tosses his arms around Essek's waist and buries his face in Essek's shoulder. There are hot tears and Essek smells the astringent reek of vomit in Caleb's hair, the stink of panic and fear making it all the more repugnant.

Essek rocks him, holds him close, close, close and doesn't care about getting dirt and asphalt on his slacks or what he is sure is plenty of tears and snot on his shirt.

It must be a, he decides, a thing for Caleb Widowgast, because he has never in his life been so honored to be the one cried on before.

-

He gets Caleb home, eventually. He does not often teleport, but he uses a high level spell to get the two of them and his running car to Caleb's home. He also uses his magic to turn off and lock his car and then unlock Caleb's front door. No one is home as far as he can tell, and he is not sure if that is good or bad.

Essek has now been in the house a number of times. This does not, by any means, make him familiar with it outside of the most basic of ways. He knows where the couch is and he knows enough to summon a glass of water and a cool, damp towelette from the kitchen without much thought.

Caleb's face is blotchy, cheeks red-raw and eyes bloodshot. His nose is running and he accepts the towelette without a word, keeping a tight grip on Essek's hand even as he carefully, methodically runs his face clean. He is no longer crying but his pretty eyes are distant and dull, more gray than blue.

"Drink." Essek orders and Caleb drinks the cool water to the last drop and then Essek summons another glass and has him do it again. Caleb does it without complaint - does not even hesitate. Somehow, that makes Essek's stomach roll.

"Who do I call, my dear?" Essek strokes his cheek, keeps his touch feather light, traces the edge of his jaw until Caleb leans into his touch without being lead to.

"No one." Caleb sounds like he's gargled shards of glass, "Please. Can you stay with me?"

"Of course." Essek says and means it. This is not a request he has it in him to deny.

He leans back into the couch, tugs Caleb until he's comfortably draped across Essek's chest, face tucked into his neck, and let's his arm rest along Caleb's waist. His other hand cradles the back of his neck.

"Does talking help?" Essek asks because what else is he to do? He has no experience comforting. He has no den-siblings and his den is far from this town and far from his heart. He loves them, but not with the familiarity and fondness of Caleb's little podge-podge family. He has no idea what is required of him.

"Tell me what you're teaching this week." Caleb takes pity and gives him a topic.

Essek, nothing else to do, does. He tells him about his lesson plans and his thoughts on exams, about what the students are learning about and how far they are behind Caleb. He feels Caleb relax in increments. He just runs soothing circles into his back, holds his neck and offers his words and his embrace. It is all he has and, in typical fashion, nothing more is asked than his absolute best effort.

He sends an email with a free hand as he speaks, canceling his classes for the rest of the day, and then sets his phone aside.

-

They sit for awhile. Essek knows time at any given moment as if he is a watch himself, it being one of his specialties, but he finds himself too enthralled with the present to have kept track.

Caleb has calmed. He breathes easy, chest rising and falling steadily, heart no longer stuttering. He traces arcane sigils into Essek's chest with no magical intent behind them and Essek takes to guessing the sigil to himself and tracing its counter against Caleb's back.

"Thank you." Caleb says at last, voice weak.

"My pleasure." Essek can only say, because it is.

Caleb huffs in wan amusement. "I would not describe dealing with...this," he motions to himself, "as any sort of pleasure."

"And yet, it is how it was described." Essek counters and squeezes Caleb's arm, "You are not stupid, nor unaware of your effect on me. It is a pleasure."

Caleb flusters and ducks his face.

"I suppose I owe an explanation."

"You owe nothing." Essek corrects, stroking the sigil for transferring energy from potential to kinetic into the folds of Caleb's shirt.

"Can I…" Caleb stops, sitting up fully to face Essek for the first time. He looks drawn and messy, so very human. He looks conflicted and confused, too, and Essek finds himself wishing there was something he could do to ease his mind.

"You have done much for me," Caleb swallows, eyes glassy, "More than I deserve, truly. I don't know why. I can't tell what you want from me. I thought I knew, but you've never…"

Essek almost snorts. Caleb has played into Essek's attraction to him more times than Essek can count by this point, batting his pretty eyes or smiling a certain way to appease Essek when he needs his car.

But Caleb's face is too serious for any joking responses.

Essek can admit that, at least for the first few weeks, he had had not much of an interest in Caleb outside of perhaps a shared night or two. But hours of working through complex spellwork and history, of getting to see more of Caleb's personality and his mind, had deepened the desire into something Essek can honestly say he has never quite felt before for another. At one point, he may have wanted not much more than one thing from this man.

"Right now," Essek decides to say, stroking matted hair off Caleb's brow and out of his eyes, using his thumb to brush dried tear tracks off his cheek, "I would like only for you to feel better."

Caleb's lip trembles and he closes his eyes. He leans into Essek's hand like a cat and Essek does not hesitate to touch him like one, fingers along Caleb's hair and cheekbone in a long, measured movement.

"I smell like shit." Caleb declares, mostly to himself, and stands. "I need to go...shower."

"I will wait for you down here, then."

Caleb nods, once, but watches him for a long moment with those pale, wet eyes before he leaves the room.

Essek...takes stock, once he hears an upstairs shower turn on. He spells his clothes clean and straightens up his hair, runs through a mental checklist of himself. His knee is throbbing, he realizes, from Caleb leaning much of his weight against his leg for the last while, and the crouching about like a youngling. There isn't much he can do for that aside from a pain potion and proper stretches.

He goes to make tea.

Precisely thirty-five minutes later, the shower stops. He sips his tea, leaning against the counter with his feet a few inches off the ground to take pressure off his leg, and waits.

When Caleb returns, he is dressed only in a thin robe tied loosely around his waist, arms crossed but planes of pale skin exposed.

Essek continues to drink his tea.

"I don't know what you want." Caleb says softly, "But if it is this," he motions at himself, "Then you are free to take."

Essek smiles and sets his mug aside.

"What I find myself wanting, Caleb, is not something that I can take. It is something given."

"Tell me what it is, then!" Caleb says with distress, "I thought you wanted me - the way you look at me sometimes is familiar. But you've never made any sort of advance."

"Do you want me, Caleb?" Essek finds himself asking, straightening from his lean and smoothing out the lines of his outfit thoughtfully. "Would you have appreciated my advances?"

"After all you've done for me, you are well within your right-"

"Caleb," Essek interrupts gently, "While you and your friends have certainly racked up quite a few favors with me, I would never expect you to repay them with your romantic interest."

"That is not what I meant!" Caleb shifts, looking frustrated, "I know you wouldn't. That is not what I meant."

"I will say this clearly, then," Essek taps the counter thoughtfully, things shifting into place for him, making the vague picture of Caleb Widowgast and his secrets just a bit clearer, "I have a romantic interest in you. What I desire is to continue spending time with you, however you see fit. I enjoy our time together just as it is, and am happy to remain as friends if that is how you would like it to be. I will not be in any way leveraging the times you have asked for my help or our lessons in order to get sexual favors from you."

"Maybe I want you to." Caleb snaps at him, arms curling defensively in front of him. Essek has not seen much of his temper outside of when he is dealing with his friends, but he can hear it lurking below the words. "Maybe I want you to leverage them."

"Maybe." Essek agrees placidly, "But I will not be doing so."

Caleb looks stricken, like Essek had glided over and slapped him.

"Please leave."

Essek goes.

-

Caleb does not come to their usual study session. Nott, instead, and Mollymauk, are waiting at the table.

Essek nods at them as he sits. There are three students present, as their final projects are beginning to wrap up.

"We need to talk." Mollymauk says when he sees him. One of Essek's students looks intrigued.

"I have study hours." Essek explains as he sits, "I am happy to speak to you afterward."

"This is more important than study hours!" Nott begins, but Mollymauk calms her with a hand and takes a casual seat to wait him out.

Wait him out they do, as he helps his students with final questions or talks project problems out. His time runs over while he is working with his last student of the night but Mollymauk and Nott - one more patiently than the other - stick around until it is just the three of them.

"Now," he straightens up his book and the papers within, "How can I help the two of you?"

"You and Caleb broke up!" Nott points a daggered finger at him, voice high and mighty, "What the fuck!"

"What my tiny friend is trying to say," Mollymauk smiles beautifically, "Is that we want to know why you haven't been around as much."

"It has been," Essek does not need to pause, "Approximately eighty-three hours since I last spoke to Mister Widowgast. We have gone much longer without communications in the past."

"Yeah, well, why have you gone so long now?" Nott doesn't lower her finger, just stabs it wildly in the air again. She is much shorter than him, and sickly thin, but Essek still feels the slightest bit scolded by her scowling face and tone.

"I was asked to leave and did so. If Mister Widowgast would like to speak to me, he has multiple ways of doing so. In fact, we have a standing weekly date," Essek pretends to check a watch he does not wear, "Now, it looks like."

"When Caleb tells you to leave, you don't actually listen!" Nott articulates her words with more hand waving, which Mollymauk easily dodges from his perch next to her.

"I disagree." Essek says simply, "I rather think he has had enough of people not respecting his wishes."

"People not listening is the only reason he told you to leave in the first place! You weren't supposed to actually go for forever! I thought you liked him!"

Essek gives in to the urge to sigh. It is a rare thing he allows himself, but sometimes even he is too weak to contain it.

"Forever is hardly an accurate description." He manages, "It has been, as I said -"

"Listen up, buster!" Nott menaces, exposing yellowing fangs as she snaps at him, "I won't have you both being idiots. If you really like him, you're going to have to understand that Caleb is as dumb as he is smart! He pushes you away when he wants you to stay close and he'll let you float your pretty butt right out the door if he thinks you actually want to go, no matter how much he wants you to stay!"

"Hardly sensible behavior to encourage."

"If you wanted sensible, you've barked up the wrong wizard!" Nott bangs her tiny fist on the table for emphasis, "Caleb is the least sensible boy I've ever met and you should have picked up on that by now!"

"Nott, maybe raking Essek across the coals for doing nothing wrong isn't the best tactic here." Mollymauk tries to assuage her, though not nearly firmly enough to mean it. Essek has a feeling he's come more for the show than to actually be the good cop to Nott's bad.

"Doing nothing is going to lose him his chance, damn it!"

"Nott," Essek breaks in, and tries to show his sincerity as he speaks, "I truly do appreciate your words. They have...shed light on the last interaction I had with Caleb. Thank you."

She opens her mouth to continue but he holds up a hand to stop her.

"But Caleb asked me to go. I have nothing but respect for him and will not disrespect him by ignoring his words. I told him that I value him and now, I am proving that. He will speak to me when he is ready."

"You made him so happy." Nott drops the aggressive stance, eyes big and wide in a way he has never seen from a goblin before. It makes her look much like a child, brutish face somehow mournful, "You made him happy, Essek."

"That is…" Essek allows himself to taste what he wishes he could say before he finishes with, "Gratifying to know. I hope he does reach out to me, Nott. I truly do. I will be waiting."

She just stomps her foot and, with a curse, leaves.

Mollymauk watches her go and then salutes Essek with a finger. "See you when I see you, professor."

"Yes, Mister Tealeaf."

Molly leaves. Essek does not watch him go.

-

Essek does not see or hear from Caleb again up to finals. Fjord and Jester join him for lunch many of the days he eats in the atrium and, on one memorable occasion, Yasha and Beau drop by to bring him rare dried herbs from their latest adventure. Beau tells him, in her own gruff way, that Caleb has buried himself in his exams.

It is a comfort, he supposes. An excuse for why he has not received even a text.

-

Can we talk?

After a month of silence, Essek supposes it is not the worst way to open a conversation. It is the text he sometimes wished he would get, at the very least.

Finals have been over for close to three days and Essek is still growing accustomed to no morning classes. There are still a few weeks before his spring courses begin and he has been thinking of taking a trip into the uncivilized lands to get in a few practical hours and refresh his skills after a full semester of teaching. His queen had been right about teaching dulling his senses.

Now? He sends as a response after deliberation.

Yes, please. Caleb responds within the minute.

It is not yet nightfall. He could do with some fresh air. When he asks about a meeting place, Caleb suggests the room they use for their study sessions and Essek agrees to meet within the hour.

He lives not uncomfortably far from campus and his knee feels fine enough that he thinks driving would be a waste. He levitates, instead, and allows his magic to carry him to his destination.

Caleb is waiting for him, hunched over in his chair. He looks - rested. And clean. He has shaved and the dark circles under his eyes are still there but have lightened.

Essek is...relieved. He has worried, he can admit to himself, and he is pleased to see that Caleb looks healthy.

He stands when Essek enters the room, hands tight against his side and eyes wide.

"Essek." He says, almost a verbal caress. Essek takes a brief moment to look him over properly, take him in. He has missed him.

"Caleb." He nods his head in greeting, "You look well."

"And you." Caleb offers back, shifting from one foot to the other, "How...how was the end of your semester?"

"Uneventful." Essek selects the chair across from Caleb and lowers himself easily, clasping his hands in a relaxed dome on the flat surface. "And yours?"

"Similarly...vacant of interest." Caleb lowers himself back to his chair slowly, worrying his bottom lip, "Your classes were all successful? I suppose that means that you will be moving on to practical application in the coming semester."

"Yes," Essek agrees, "My hours will be the same, but will be taking place in the spell casting gymnasium. You are welcome to join, but there has traditionally been more students attending those sessions than these."

"You would...still teach me?"

"Of course." Essek does not tense his hands together, but he does unintentionally gentle his tone when he says, "I told you that I would not use our lessons against you. I meant it, Caleb. You are welcome to my study session at any point that you wish to join them."

Caleb nods, dropping his gaze to his hands. He's also clasped them together on the table top. Unlike Essek, his fingers squirm in their tense hold on each other.

An uneasy silence descends over the room as Essek waits for Caleb to ask his next casual question and Caleb does not do that. Essek does not mind waiting in the quiet, but he begins to notice when it gets to his companion, fingers twitchier and face twisting into a pinched frown.

"What did you want to discuss, Caleb?" He asks directly, and watches the words hit Caleb like a blow.

"I wanted…" Caleb starts and then stops for a short moment. "I wanted to deeply, deeply apologize for my behavior, Essek."

Essek does not speak, as Caleb looks as if he would like to say more. He does, however, allow a smile when Caleb glances at his face. It is the first bit of eye contact made and it is refreshing to see those familiar blue eyes, even filled with apprehension and remorse.

"If possible, I would like to explain myself."

"You do not owe me an explanation." Essek reminds him and is offered a slow smile in return.

"I know." Caleb says firmly, like he is confirming it for himself, "I know you would not ask me. But I want to. Can I, Essek?"

"I will listen." Essek agrees, because how is he to refuse?

Caleb clears his throat and relaxes his hands on the table.

"I ran into someone from my past while on campus." He begins. "We had a...history. I was stupid enough to allow her to take me back to where she was staying and things did not...go as planned. There were others that I used to know there as well and, to put it bluntly, the reunion was shitty. I, um. I panicked and ran away. And then I threw up a lot. And then I called you."

"I'm sorry." Essek offers sincerely.

Caleb gives him another small smile. "You came. You came and you brought me home and...and I threw myself at you because I didn't want you to go. And I thought that, maybe, if I gave you what I thought you wanted, you wouldn't leave like they did. Would not hurt me, perhaps, like they did."

Essek tries to decide how he wants to respond to that. He slowly opens his hands and slides them toward Caleb in offering and, blinking rapidly, Caleb unknots his fingers and presses his palms flat to Essek's. When Essek strokes his wrists with the pads of his fingers, Caleb shuts his eyes.

"I would not." Essek says quietly and Caleb laughs hoarsely and nods.

"I know. Logically, I know. I knew. But I was...very upset. And I knew you desired me and I just...I just wanted you to stay."

"You could, perhaps, ask, should the need arise again." Essek squeezes Caleb's hands and Caleb laughs again, still rough, and nods hard three times in a row.

"I keep fucking up." Caleb admits, "I want to spend time with you and I end up using you to get around town. I want to...want to ask for more of you, and I end up telling you to leave."

"Learning curve." Essek traces Caleb's veins through his skin, feels his pulse rapid at his wrist, "We all have them. I froze my clock in a permanent time loop when I was still learning my magic. It takes time to perfect what we are learning."

"Or relearning." Caleb swallows, "I...Essek, I am not a stable man. I have a horrible past and hang ups. I lash out when I shouldn't. I will use myself to try to manipulate you. I'm trying, I swear it, but I stumble often. I am easy in wrong ways and not very easy at all in others."

"There is much in my past you are unaware of, too." Essek points out, "Much in my present, I suppose, as well. It may have to remain that way. I could be recalled to the Bright Queen at any moment. I have a job many fear, and for good reason."

"And yet you come in the middle of the night to rescue stranded boys and girls."

"Only for special boys and girls." Essek allows the tease to be voiced and enjoys the way Caleb flushes pink.

"Special, hm?"

"Very."

Caleb twists his fingers into the cuffs of Essek's sleeves and Essek allows it, appreciates the burning warmth of Caleb's skin. He looks forward to finally seeing the magic he can feel thrumming through his skin unleashed.

"You could have had me." Caleb drops his voice, as if giving sound to a secret, "I wanted you to take me."

"Perhaps." Essek carefully maneuvers his hand until he can slide his fingers between Caleb's, clasp their palms together. "But I would rather be given your heart and your mind because you wish to give it than take your body because you thought I wouldn't hold you before using it. I will. As often as you want me to."

Caleb sucks in a sharp breath, eyes going bright and wet. He digs his nails into Essek's skin and holds tight.

"Will you, then?" He asks, voice trembling, "I want you to hold me now and not let me go."

"Then I will." Essek says and stands. "Would you like to come home with me?"

"Yes."

Essek teleports them to his front door, fingers still held tight in Caleb's. He does not let go.

Instead, he sits the two of them on his couch, and he does exactly as Caleb asked and holds him close. He does not let go.

When Caleb kisses him, lips salty with tears, Essek responds gently. They lay together, wrapped up in each other, and learn through their kisses until their lips are numb and their eyes are tired. Caleb is both well versed in the act and clumsy at it, shy and confident in equal measure. Essek takes to the challenge with pleasure.

He still does not let go.

-

"ESSEK, GO FASTER!" Jester screams from where she has shoved her head out of the window.

Essek stares straight ahead at the road in front of him and does not go faster.

"Yasha is meeting us at the northern checkpoint," Beau repeats for the third time since they left, reaching for the map in front of Caleb from the back seat, squishing Nott's protesting form between Essek and Caleb as she does, "She can't stay past sunset so we're going to -"

"Beau, we're fine," Fjord says in his new accent, which Essek has chosen not to question during their time on this trip. "Just relax, we'll get there -"

"Get off!! Get off, I can't breath!!"

"Miss Nott, stop screaming," Caduceus says from where he has been firmly stationed in the back, listing to the side so he can fit comfortably, "I am trying to listen to the wind songs."

"If you want a song, baby, all you had to do was ask. The Mighty Nein play a mean fiddle." Mollymauk kicks at the back of Essek's seat, "You heard the lady, put the paddle to the metal! We got a barbarian to catch!"

"Molly, stop kicking the seat," Caleb hisses at his friend, snapping the map straight menacingly, "We will turn this car right around."

"Shush, Caleb, no one is turning anything around! We are going on an adventure!" Jester howls.

Frumpkin, sitting at Caleb's feet, meows pitifully when Caleb's struggling with Beau's arm causes his carrier to be jostled.

Essek stares straight ahead and remembers that he likes these people usually and that he has been promised a lot of coffee (and also, perhaps, a kiss or two) for this.

He hears Caleb laugh, suddenly, barking and genuine, and - for what he is sure is not the last time - most of his annoyance melts away.

He is going to have to invest in a bigger car.