“You know, they always send you in for negotiations,” Caleb lets slip, casually, still only a light bed sheet over his body. Essek tenses, minimally, but enough to let Caleb know that he was expecting him to bring up the topic. Hoping he wouldn’t, too. “It's funny.”
“Is it always me?” Essek says, voice barely a whisper, like it always is when it’s just the two of them. He’s casually reaching for a glass of water kept on the little table next to the bed. “I hadn’t noticed.”
Caleb waits until he’s drinking to say, “You know, I’m okay with us using each other for political reasons outside of the bedroom, but it would be nice of you to at least mention it if you are receiving pressure from your government to continue this arrangement.”
He does not think that is the issue, because he would not have waited until after sex to raise it if that had been the case. He, however, hopes that will be enough to shock Essek into revealing the truth.
Essek very slowly returns the glass to the table, not looking at Caleb. “You don’t actually think that’s an option,” Essek scoffs. “I wouldn’t continue to ask you to sneak around every time we see each other here if the Bright Queen knew. And I wouldn’t have sex with you if I didn’t want to.”
“You would,” Caleb dismisses, casually, hoping desperately to be referring to the first point. “But I’ll accept that I don’t think that’s an option, so I still wonder: why has your government been sending you, specifically, every time for the last six months?”
“Five,” Essek corrects, automatically, then makes a face at Caleb’s raised eyebrow. He seems almost frozen for a second, and Caleb knows that he is considering his possibilities, considering all the exits and whether or not Caleb would let him make a run for it. He would, but Essek doesn’t get up. Instead, he puts his hand on Caleb’s cheek and leans in. “Let’s not talk about it.”
Caleb considers the topic forgotten with the rest of the world as their lips meet.
The new Assembly is less corrupt than the previous one. There are less ―no― children being tortured, and there is a conscious effort to offer an olive branch to the Dynasty. There are many positive things the change brought, but there are things that have not shifted.
They are all still as inclined to keeping secrets, for example.
“You know,” Astrid says as she comes in through Caleb’s door, seven in the morning sharp. She looks surprised to see him alone, but continues flawlessly, “most people would come celebrate with their co-workers the night after a rousing political success.”
“Good for those people, then,” Caleb says. He turns around, grabs a cup of coffee for her. She is smart, he will give her that. Every single time they have met the last five months, Essek has stayed over for breakfast, but he left last night, while Caleb was still sleeping, a cool bed all he left behind for him to find in the morning. “I see you’ve decided to use the key I never gave you.”
“If you didn’t want me to steal it, you wouldn’t have left it around,” Astrid dismisses, quickly. “And I did have a good reason come barging in at this time in the morning.”
“Oh, so you will admit that you came barging in? Good to know for future discussions where you will argue that you were nothing but subtle and graceful.”
“Who in the Dynasty are you fucking?” Astrid asks, cutting to the chase.
She doesn’t actually know who, then. Caleb knows enough about her speech patterns, and about the sharp honesty they’ve decided to practice with each other, to know that she would just tell him to stop if she knew. Caleb raises his eyebrows. “A bold accusation.”
“I know I’m right.” She is frowning, by now, but it’s not out of anger. She seems concerned, and puts down her cup of coffee, reaches towards Caleb’s hands. He lets her. “We don’t do that anymore.”
“What, having sex? Because I won’t try to concern myself with your sex life, but―”
“Having sex for political purposes,” she cuts him. “It was fed to us that it might be necessary, but you don’t have to. You shouldn’t. I was hoping that I was wrong, because just because you disappeared every time we invited a cohort from Xhorhas to the Empire and were in a better mood the day after, it didn’t mean that you were having sex with one of them, but it’s gotten to be way too suspicious. Don’t do this. I get how we were raised, but―”
“Astrid,” Caleb interrupts. He can feel the beginnings of a headache forming. “It’s consensual. It’s desired. It’s not political.”
Astrid looks stunned for a second. Caleb wonders vaguely if he should feel offended. Maybe he should let Jester buy him a new coat the next time they meet, after all.
“So you have the bad sense to bring a political enemy into your house?” She accuses. Her frown looks more like disapproval, now, but more like she is scolding Eodwulf and him for a bad plan before joining, not like she actually thinks he’s making a mistake.
“I’m bringing who is hopefully a future political ally into my house,” Caleb says, because the language is important. ‘He is a friend, too,’ he doesn’t add, because just because Astrid doesn’t know about Essek yet, it doesn’t mean that she won’t in the future, and the less threads she has to pull, the better. “They’re just someone I’m having fun with, Astrid. Nothing more.”
“Is it romantic?” Astrid asks, sharp. With anyone else, Caleb would think it’s jealousy, but he knows her too well to think so. It’s worry, laid bare before him. It’s an accusation that he would be stupid enough to fall in love with someone from a country they are trying to end a cold war with.
Caleb shrugs helplessly, because Essek and him don’t label things. It’s way too intense to be just friendly, too dangerous to be romantic. Mostly, it’s stupid. “It’s safe,” he says, instead, and Astrid’s gaze softens. She gets up, starts looking through his pantry.
“Where the fuck is all your food?” She asks. “Bren, all you have is an egg. When was the last time you went to a shop that didn’t sell paper?”
“I was going to have lunch with Beau,” Caleb says. “I’ll convince her to go shopping after. She likes doing my groceries for me, says I never get enough for myself.”
“I’ll go with you now,” Astrid says, putting her arm out for Caleb to hold, and he does, a little awkwardly. “And I’ll go with you to lunch, and in exchange I’ll let you tell Wulf yourself before I convince him to start spying on you so we can find out who you’re wooing.”
Wulf and her together will find out in no time at all. “I can’t wait.”
“Caleb!” An excited voice calls, and there is a blue flurry hugging him before he can see her. “Caleb, it’s been so long!”
There are a few shushes from the people sitting at the tables, but this library has seen worse from them, so Caleb just lets himself be hugged for a second and hugs Fjord, too, when Jester frees him. “It’s good to see you both.”
“It is!” Jester says. Beau told us that she had something to do this morning, but that you were meeting up. I didn’t know Astrid was coming too!”
Astrid nods politely. Her relationship with both Beau and Yasha has grown to what Caleb would almost call a friendship, but she’s always a little bit more awkward with everyone who doesn’t live five minutes away from them. “It was a last minute thing,” she admits.
“She invited herself to our lunch,” Caleb whispers, and he lets her elbow him in the ribs.
“Well, we did too,” Jester jokes, and Caleb can’t help letting out a smile.
“You are all welcome,” Beau says, suddenly showing up next to them. She has a weird expression on her face, a pained smile, but starts guiding them outside. “Let’s have lunch at my place, okay?”
Caleb thinks that he knows what’s coming. He’d chalk it up to paranoia, but he knows who Beau’s meeting was with, so he’s not surprised when she starts whispering the moment they’re alone in her kitchen.
“When were you gonna tell us you were fucking him? For how long has this been going on?”
Caleb considers for a second acting like he doesn’t know what she’s talking about. Maybe if he closes his eyes this won’t be happening.
“What did he tell you?”
“Fuck you, he told me nothing,” Beau says. “He just―he acted like he already knew what I was telling him about the last time the Nein met up. I thought that was weird. I asked him if he had met up with you in private and he got all squirmy. So I’m assuming, but I know I’m right.”
“You are,” Caleb admits, mortified. He closes his eyes. Even like that, he knows Beau is just looking at him, definitely judging him.
“Well,” Caleb shrugs. “I don’t know what you want me to say right now. You know I’m not going to stop.”
Beau thinks about it for a second. “Is it good?”
From Astrid, that question would mean ‘is it worth it?’. From Caduceus, it would probably refer to the overall experience of meeting with Essek to have sex. From Jester, it would probably be a dick joke. But Beau is saying exactly what she means.
“I saw Essek today,” Jester says, happily, when they’re having lunch. Caleb makes a conscious effort not to stop eating completely, knows Beau is trying to act normal, too.
“Ja, he is in town for some negotiations,” Caleb informs her.
“He said that, too!” Jester says. “He looked like he was in a good mood. He let me hug him and all, that hasn’t happened since the last time we all met up in Xhorhas.”
Astrid is looking at Caleb out the corner of her eye, while he desperately tries not to make eye-contact. A year and a half. They kept the secret for a year and a half and in a day it’s all crumbling down.
“Who is this Essek?” She politely asks Jester. The fucker is smart, too, because she knows Jester is the most likely to tell her everything.
“It’s an old friend,” Beau steps in, cutting in before Jester can say anything. She picked up on Astrid’s purpose, then. It’s good, because Beau might not approve of what’s going on, but The Mighty Nein are too loyal to do anything but insult each other, while Astrid might actually try to change the situation. Or she might just find out everything about Essek and then scare the living shit out of him. Who knows, with her.
Fjord picks up on the tense vibes, starts coaxing a story of their travels out of Jester.
Essek is sitting on his kitchen table when Caleb comes back.
“You know, everyone in the group does that all the time,” Caleb says, conversationally, while he puts away the groceries. “Last week I came down and found Beau hanging from my ceiling. I still wonder what she was doing.”
“Good morning,” Essek says.
“Good morning,” Caleb repeats, a little surprised, but trying not to show it. “Did I forget an appointment?”
“No.” Essek sounds miserable. “I just―I think Beauregard knows about us. I thought you might appreciate a heads-up.”
“Too late, I’m afraid,” Caleb turns around. “But I won’t blame you. We were on thin ice, as it was.”
“Ah, that’s okay,” Essek messes with his cuffs. He is fidgeting, in a way that Caleb very rarely sees from him, his mantle nowhere to be seen. “I don’t― I―”
He stops for a second, recompossing himself, and has a confident smile on his face when he says, “I think I might be able to help you deal with the situation this time around.”
Caleb doesn’t answer, lets him finish the sentence, tell him what he means.
“What would you think,” Essek starts, the fidgeting stopped, but still looking like he wants to run away, “if I told you that I’m stepping down as the Shadowhand?”
Caleb inhales, sharply. “That it’s a political murder, and might get you killed for being too suspicious if you aren’t careful enough, what―”
“What if,” he interrupts, “I was stepping down because I’m being offered a position that interests me more. That might still be suspicious, but people will not know towards which side my beliefs lean.”
“You let Beau know about us on purpose,” Caleb accuses.
“It wasn’t on purpose, I just―didn’t see a point putting up a front.”
“Just because you’re gonna be a liaison with the Empire―fuck. Is this why you kept coming here?”
“I was on a trial run. Now, I will be living here.”
Caleb hadn’t been looking at him. He hadn’t realised, but his eyes had been on Essek’s hands, on his arms, on the softness of his hair. They snap to Essek’s face now, absolutely stunned. “Living here?”
“Yes. I’ll be the one communicating any of the Empire’s suspicious activities. In all honesty, they want a spy here, and they hope no one in the Assembly will be opposed to me being an ambassador of sorts here―”
“But you get what you want, which is to be free from their hand.”
It’s a brilliant political move. No one will know if Essek is doing it out of loyalty to the Empire or to the Dynasty, but in the meanwhile he gets to live here, and gets an excuse if, down the line, he wants to retire to live here.
“And also,” Essek whispers, “to be closer to you.”
The volume is low, but the statement is loud. It’s like he had opened all the doors in the room at once, like he had just screamed at Caleb that he loves him―but Caleb doesn’t dare set himself up to be let down.
“What are we doing here, Essek?” Caleb asks, at a loss. “I thought you didn’t want―”
“I didn’t want to get your hopes up,” Essek says, rushed. “None of this was a certainty until this morning. That’s why I left, too―”
“And―This could have gone up in flames if I had made a mistake. You know I care about you in a way I usually don’t. I didn’t want to risk you getting hurt more than I was doing. I know this might be complicated for you, but…” He stops, for a second, blushing, almost childish when a smile shows in his face. “I really like you. I think I could love you, some day. Are your feelings similar to mine?”
Caleb nods, numbly.
“Then, do you want to try?” He offers Caleb a hand. It’s romantic in a way they haven’t allowed themselves to be, up until now.
Caleb takes it. “Even if we keep it a secret,” Caleb starts, because Essek should be aware of all the facts.
“All your friends will know, of course,” Essek concedes. “Including the ones I haven’t met.”
Caleb nods once, twice, then practically throws himself onto Essek’s lap with his kiss, a knee between Essek’s legs on the chair and back bending to be able to reach Essek’s face. He feels desperate with the feeling, too full of caring to be able to verbalise it.
“I take it you’re happy, then?” Essek asks, between kisses, hands on Caleb’s waist. “Because this might be kind of permanent―”
“Good,” Caleb says, with feeling, lets his lips slide down to Essek’s neck and sucks there for just a second, not enough to leave a mark, but enough to let Essek know that he’d like to. That he would, if it weren’t for the secrecy they’ll still have to maintain. “I missed you so much every time you were away.”
“I kept finding myself walking up to your place back home, then realising you were still here.”
“Last month I made you a cup of tea every morning for a week.”
Essek’s laugh muffled when he kisses Caleb’s hair. He pats his butt, weirdly undignified for him. “Get up. I don’t want to see what will happen if I try to carry you to your room.”
He does, holds Essek’s hand as they walk. “How close do you think you can be to my place without it being suspicious?” Caleb is starting to regret getting a place away from the richest neighborhoods in the city.
“Not that much,” Essek says, regretfully. “But we’ll manage.”
Caleb grins at him as an answer, barely lets him get through the door before he has a hand inside his pants. It’s rushed in a way they don’t usually do. They always find at least a couple of hours to be together, calmly, but calm feels wrong today.
“I’ll keep saying we have important business to talk about just so I can see you,” Caleb threatens, hand still stroking Essek. “Don’t you dare believe I won’t.”
Essek’s chuckle is cut off by a moan, then a kiss as he sits down on Caleb’s bed, letting him drape himself all over his lap once again. “You would never be that suspicious,” he finally answers, long enough after Caleb’s words that it takes him a second to remember them.
“It’d be your fault. Seeing you like this will make me reckless.”
He accompanies his words with a twist on his wrist, and Essek doesn’t answer, hides his face into Caleb’s neck instead. Caleb keeps going, but he wants to move him, wants to see him. He spends too long considering whether to do it, and Essek lets out an intelligible mutter and comes all over Caleb’s hand.
He waits for a second, lets Essek regain his wits. He does so slowly, kisses Caleb’s cheek with a lot of affection. “You don’t have to keep warning me about what being with you will be like. I know. I want that experience.”
Caleb doesn’t quite know what to do with that, so he just kisses Essek. He’ll have time to think of an answer, after all.