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Essek is expecting Verin to come get him at the airport. It’s almost a tradition, by now ― every time Essek comes home for Christmas Verin tells him he’s not coming to get him, but then he does, always in Essek’s car, even though Essek told him never to drive it years ago. it’s a good tradition, one he likes. 

That’s why it’s such a surprise to see Caleb waiting for him, his face lighting up when he sees Essek.

“Oh, Caleb,” Essek says, surprised. It’s not a greeting ― it’s almost nothing. Essek closes his eyes, for just a second, just to make sure that he is not making Caleb up. He is still there when he opens his eyes, smiling fondly at him.

“Essek,” he whispers with a smile. His accent is as thick as it has always been, and he stays standing up, doesn’t try to hug Essek like his friends would. Essek aches. “Your brother sent me in his stead, something came up with your mother.”

“Mhm, terrifying words,” Essek mutters, and Caleb lets out a chuckle. 

“Didn’t seem bad, just urgent,” Caleb says, and he does touch Essek as they start moving, a hand next to his on the suitcase until Essek allows him to carry it, their hands growing further apart as their steps guide them towards their parking lot. “Though with your mother that’s hard to know.”

“Indeed,” Essek mutters. He does not care, not really, but the silence, if companionable, is stifling, so he asks, “How are your friends doing?”

“Yasha and Beau finally started dating two weeks ago,” he updates, amused. “It took them a decade, so I don’t know if I should be happy for them or just straight-up exhausted.” 

“You’ve been exhausted about them for at least nine years, I think you can be happy for them for about a month before the exhaustion returns.”

“You’re probably right. Beauregard hasn’t even started oversharing about their sex life yet.”

Caleb stops next to a random car, gets his keys out. It isn’t until he is popping the trunk that Essek asks, “Whose car is this?”

“Mine.”

“You finally got a car?” He’s surprised, but he sounds teasing, too close to flirting. 

“Oh, not you too.”

“I’m sorry if the person whose car you borrowed during all of high school―”

“I had a license before you did! I drove you around a few of times―”

“Once you made me drive you two towns over when Beauregard realised that she had been giving me the wrong directions for half an hour, and then we got lost―”

“I insist that getting lost was your fault.”

“And then I let you drive―” 

“You were exhausted! And you’re awful at driving in the dark for someone who can see in the dark.”

“And you almost crashed my car!”

“But I didn’t,” Caleb says, in a final tone of voice, finally putting his suitcase inside the trunk. 

Caleb is smiling, now, and Essek feels giddy with it as he sits in the co-pilot seat, waits for Caleb to go in too. Caleb sits, looking comfortable behind the wheel, and then he turns around and looks at Essek and he can feel his resolve crumble, as Caleb’s hand slides up to the back of his neck and drags him in for a kiss. 

“It’s good to see you, Essek,” he mutters, breathy, between kisses.

“Likewise,” Essek says, leaned forward in a way that’s already making his back ache and not caring at all. 

***

Their relationship happened in secret.

It will always be funny to Essek, the fact that The Mighty Nein, the biggest gossips Essek has ever known, didn’t realise he was seeing one of them. They were a horror for professors and students alike, they uncovered every lie they could find, and yet they never managed to see that Essek would make out with Caleb under the bleachers after Yasha’s football games. Caleb let Essek know, once, that even if it was ‘casual’, that Essek could tell The Mighty Nein, if he ever wanted, and Caleb would not mind. Essek never did.

They were never a couple. They never dated. They held hands while they studied, they sneaked kisses in the library, they had sleepovers, they were monogamous, and Caleb would climb up Essek’s window if he fought with his father, just to make him feel better. They did everything a couple did, but they never said “I like you”, nor “I love you”. They never talked about their relationship. It lasted for almost three years ― three weeks after the beginning of the 10th grade up until a couple of days after graduation. 

Though saying that it ever stopped is maybe just a lie Essek is telling himself.

***

“I’m gonna park at my parents’ place,” Caleb informs him, as they approximate their old street. “Because I asked your brother to move your car, but I doubt he did it.”

“I can almost assure you he has not.”

Caleb lets out a brief laugh through his teeth. His hand stops holding Essek’s as they enter the street, and Essek would feel worse if he hadn’t seen how meticulous Caleb is about parking.

He looks through the window as they pass the houses. The same Christmas decorations as always are up, and Essek’s house is the only one not decorated, also as always. Essek will never understand why his mother insists that he comes back for a holiday that they don’t even celebrate, but both her and Verin are given vacation time every year around the same time, and he supposes there is a time where they must hold a family reunion.

“You’re gonna be staying with your parents the whole time, right?” Caleb asks, like it is not what happens every year.

“Of course.”

Caleb frowns for a second, and Essek knows he’s commiserating with him. “You know where my place is. You know where my key is.” He gets out of the car, gets Essek’s suitcase out himself before Essek’s feet can touch the sidewalk. “Come over whenever.”

It is a nice offer. Essek knows it doesn’t come from a hope of hooking up ― though they would end up there, surely ― but from a genuine worry about Essek’s well-being. “I might take you up on that.” 

***

They met during Essek’s first week in their high school, and it was Jester’s fault.

“Hi!” She offered her hand to him, and he almost didn’t take it, but he had promised himself he would try to have friends for at least a week, and it was still Wednesday. He couldn’t just walk away, so he shook her hand. “I’m Jester, it’s very nice to meet you.”

“I’m Essek.”

“Oh, that’s a pretty name!” She took out her phone, texted something, too quick about it for Essek to consider it rude. “You are on the magic courses, right?”

“Yes,” Essek answered, as politely as he could. 

“Good! We were wondering if you could do us a favor ― it’s very small, really, and we’ll provide the components for the spell ― but we’re trying to steal back an object from the principal’s office for reasons I can’t disclose and we need to make everyone believe the door is locked for the day so no one can accuse us of stealing it.”

Essek stopped to think about it. “Was it taken unfairly?”

“Oh, yes! My friend was carrying it around when we got caught doing something else, and the principal was so mad he had no proof we had been doing something that he took it! So now we’re trying to get it back for him as a surprise. Wanna help?”

Essek thought for a second that he might regret this, but it didn’t matter. “Why not?”

***

“Essek?” Verin screams when the door closes behind him. Essek doesn’t dignify that with an answer, walks inside and puts his suitcase in his old room.

“Hello, mother,” he says. He doesn’t hug her, doesn’t give her a kiss. “It’s good to see you.”

“You should brush your hair,” his mother says instead of greeting him. “Your father hasn’t arrived yet.”

“I’ll see him tonight, then,” Essek says. He is not looking forward to that, but it is unavoidable, with his current life choices being what they are. “How is work?”

“Busy,” she says, and then doesn’t add anything to it. No explanation about Verin having to abandon him in the airport to help her, even though he’s obviously already back home. It’s as tense as he expected, and it barely changes when the door of Verin’s room opens.

“Essek! I just called your name.”

“I didn’t hear it.”

“Ah, doesn’t matter. Mother, I’m taking him out to the café that opened a few weeks ago, I think he’ll like it. We’ll be back for dinner.”

He starts pushing Essek out the door, two hands on his shoulders. The door closes behind them as Verin keeps pushing him, and Essek lets him, amused and a little worried.

“Did you miss me that much?”

Verin slaps him on the shoulder, now walking beside him. “What is going on between you and Caleb Widogast?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

***

The plan worked. Not flawlessly, but it did, and after running away while Beauregard tried to get him to hide because he shouldn’t get detention because of them, Essek decided that these people ― these loyal, unusually competent, unstoppable people ― and he might become good friends. 

“Caleb!” Beauregard screamed. The library was empty, the librarian a woman who used to take long smoking breaks, and Essek was the only one who had been allowed to come with Beauregard, while everyone had left to get smoothies. “Essek helped us get back your books.”

One of his classmates was sitting on a desk. Essek knew that the name of the person they were helping was Caleb, but ― “I thought your name was Bren?” 

“It’s an inside joke,” Beau said. “But now that you’ve committed crimes with us you should call him Caleb too.”

He looked at Caleb, who just nodded while he grabbed books. “Ah, thanks, Essek. You can call me Caleb, of course.”

“Well, it was just a favor. I’m sure you guys will help me with any infractions I want to commit in the future.”

“Dude, of course,” Beauregard said, too excited about it. “Can you imagine if I got kicked out the first month of classes? My parents would freak out.”

“Don’t get kicked out,” Caleb said, a cat suddenly jumping on Beauregard’s shoulder. “You want to go to college.”

“I don’t give a shit about college,” Beauregard said, and it was probably a lie, because she kicked Caleb under the table.

Caleb looked at Essek like he was the most patient man in the universe, just for dealing with Beauregard, and he was sharing an inside joke just with him. Essek smiled at him, and vaguely wondered how much trouble he was in.

***
“I know you two used to date back when we had just moved here,” Verin says, like they aren’t out in broad daylight, like they couldn’t be heard by anyone. Essek shushes him urgently, and Verin rolls his eyes, but when he continues speaking, it’s lower than before. “I came back home early a couple of times and you two were just making out with the door open. Today when I asked him if he could pick you up he just looked―”

“I think you are making things up,” Essek starts.

“And also I didn’t say anything at the time, but last year I saw you two kissing in your friend’s backyard,” Verin ends. 

Essek raises an eyebrow in silence, and he takes a second to consider if he’s taking a gamble. They did kiss in Jester’s backyard, after everyone had gone inside to keep drinking and they were the only ones left in the hot tub, Caleb naked and Essek only letting his feet in the water. It had been only once, for just a second, but anyone could have seen. Did Verin, though?

Verin must realise what Essek is thinking about, because he adds, “That blue girl’s house, the hot tub. You were wearing a pink sweater for some reason I don’t understand.”

“Jester knitted it for me,” Essek answers automatically. “She waited until I complained about being cold to give it to me so I couldn’t refuse it.”

“Yeah, that will do it,” Verin says, then keeps looking at Essek in silence until they sit down in the café. 

“It’s nothing,” Essek says, in the end. “We’re not dating. It’s just ― something that happens.”

“It’s been going on for quite a while for something that just ‘happens’,” Verin says, like an accusation, but Essek just lets out a dry chuckle.

“It has, hasn’t it?”

***

“Your room is amazing,” Caleb whispered, apparently impressed by his research table. “Though I’m afraid sleeping with all the fumes can’t be healthy.”

“I open a window while I work,” Essek said. “I’m not an animal.”

Caleb made a little noise, an acknowledgment of his point, and kept reading over Essek’s notes. It was only the third week of classes, but they had a test soon, and they had decided to exchange notes. Essek hadn’t liked studying with Caleb’s friends ― they were too loud about it ― but Caleb was only distracting because of how handsome he was, and that was not his own fault.

Frumpkin was laying on Caleb’s lap, and Caleb looked comfortable as he focused. Essek had barely looked over his notes ― and he knew Caleb’s notes were amazing, because he always added anything he hadn’t had the time to write during class in the afternoon, and his memory was spotless. He was just too distracted.

Caleb pointed at something in Essek’s notes, asked, “What does this say?”

Essek got up to stand beside Caleb, a hand on his shoulder. It was a calculated move, just to check what Caleb’s reaction would be, and Caleb tensed a little but not in a ― bad way. 

“Where?” Essek said, leaning down, and he never did discover where, because that made their faces be close together, and after a second, he asked, “Can I―”

“Yes.” Caleb snapped his fingers and Frumpkin disappeared off his lap, so he could kiss Essek better, and then they were both just standing up by Essek’s desk, kissing. It was uncomfortable in the way first kisses could be, and wonderful in the way first kisses could be. Essek’s hands were two sweaty for him to know where to put them, and Caleb’s mouth was closed against his, and it’s still one of his most precious memories.

***

He goes to Caleb’s place that night. He takes a bottle of wine, trying to be polite, but his main objective is to distract himself and he hasn’t warned him he was coming, so it’s still too impolite for who Essek is supposed to be. 

“Essek,” Caleb said, surprised. He probably hadn’t expected Essek to take him up on the offer, even though he had meant it. “It’s good to see you.”

He always says that.

“It’s good to see you too,” Essek says, offering him the bottle of wine, and Caleb takes it, amused.

“I told you years ago to stop bringing wine when you came over to our places.”

“And I told you years ago that I was stealing it from my parents anyway.”

Caleb guides him to the kitchen, puts two glasses on top of the counter. “Did they do something?” 

Essek closes his eyes. He thinks of his father yelling at him that he is a disappointment for not having gotten promoted yet, even though he is fine with his job, even though he would leave if he got a promotion, because that would mean doing less research and making more decisions. He thinks of every discussion they’ve had along the years about this, about the Empire company that offered him a job that would leave him half an hour away from Caleb.

“Don’t they always?” He takes a sip of his wine, and lets the weight of Caleb’s hand on his comfort him.

***

There was only one time they almost talked about it. It was their last year of high school, and they were sitting under the bleachers together. They had managed to escape the others in The Mighty Nein, who had been playing some sort of hide-and-seek game that they were too old to be playing, and that Essek would have participated in if he hadn’t preferred to spend time with Caleb.

“Where are you going to be studying next year?” Caleb asked, almost shy, their hands touching. They had been holding hands minutes before, but Caleb had gotten up to get his phone from his backpack, and their hands had only managed to brush against each other, but they hadn’t intertwined yet, though Essek was sure that it would happen eventually.

“I’m not sure,” Essek muttered. “I’d like to stay in the Empire, I think.”

Caleb looked at him, a small smile on his face. “Really?”

“Well, what would I do without all of you?” The honesty hurt his throat, but Caleb’s face was worth the pain, the way he suddenly squeezed Essek’s hand and rolled over in the grass, almost laying on top of Essek as he kissed him, first on the cheek, then, carelessly, on the lips.

***

They didn’t go to their prom. Essek was angry at his father, at the time, for some reason that he doesn’t care to remember, and he was chaperoning. So Essek rented a tux, told his father he’d see him there, and then spent his entire prom in his car, sitting on top of Caleb’s lap. 

“Will you want to go in at some point?” Caleb asked, his head resting against Essek’s shoulder. They had been making out a while ago, but Essek hit his head on the car’s roof and they got distracted, keeping up the closeness but stopping the kisses.

“Probably not,” Essek admitted, and he could see Caleb’s shoulders drop a little. He was about to ask, to do something about it, when Caleb’s lips made their way to Essek’s neck.

“That’s fine.”

By the time they had calmed down enough that Essek could drive, it was late, late enough his father would probably scream at him. Essek didn’t care. “Hey,” he started, almost too low to be heard in his nervousness. They had almost arrived at Essek's driveway. “Do you want to go get ice cream this weekend?”

He didn’t expect Caleb to smile like that. It was soft, and it made Essek feel helpless. “Of course.”

***

Essek hates Caleb’s room. It used to be full of pictures of his friends, when he had just moved in, The Mighty Nein decorating it when he hadn’t wanted to, but they have all been taken down since, and a room that is empty except for his bed is all that is left.

He barely thinks about it, though, as Caleb guides him to the bed. The glasses of wine have been left almost full on the counter, and Essek has missed him too much to care.

“You should stay the night,” Caleb says, hands unbuttoning Essek’s shirt. “Will it be a problem, if you do?”

He thinks of Verin, who is probably waiting for Essek to come back, and then of his parents, who won’t care if he does or doesn’t. “I can stay,” he says, batting Caleb’s hands away. 

Caleb lets him get undressed, a soft smile on his face. “Good,” Caleb says. “We’re all having lunch tomorrow?”

It’s a question, it’s an offer. It’s a way of finding out his boundaries, getting all that Caleb wants for the holidays out of the way before they have sex, so Essek knows what’s on the table. “If you want me to,” he whispers against Caleb’s lips, a naked leg pressing against Caleb’s crotch, “I will even go to Jester’s small holiday party and stay the night.”

He wants it to be a joke, but it lands too serious, too sincere. “I want you to, but that’s a lot to ask for.” Caleb’s hand is on the small of Essek’s back, and he uses it as leverage to pin Essek against the bed, to have the freedom to get his pants off. 

“I’d do a lot of things just because you want me to,” Essek says. It’s dirty, and it’s honest, and he doesn’t know which one he intended. Caleb smiles at him as his underwear slides off his legs.

“Would you, now?” Caleb says, but he must not expect an answer, because he bites Essek’s thigh immediately after. Essek raises an eyebrow instead, because he knows he cannot be trusted with words right now, and Caleb mirrors his expression for a second before getting his dick between his lips.

“Ah, I missed―” He makes a cut-off noise, interrupts himself, and he doesn’t know if he was going to say ‘this’ or ‘you’.

***

The ice cream was good. Caleb’s company was better. Caleb’s foot kept tapping his, softly, and Essek let him every time, peacefully. “I have to tell you something,” Essek started.

Caleb’s face was pink, and Essek did not know if it was the lighting of the store or Caleb’s cheeks. “Ja?”

Essek slowly inhaled, and Caleb’s hand grabbed his, reassuring. Essek thanked him internally. “I’m not going to be studying here next year. I’m returning to Xhorhas”

Caleb didn’t say anything, just frowned. “But you said―” 

“I know. I know what I said. I just changed my mind,” Essek said. He was too afraid that if he said more Caleb would see through the lie, so he stayed silent when he looked at him, expecting him to say more.

He sighed, in the end. “You will be missed, friend.”

‘Will be missed’, not ‘I’ll miss you’. “We’ll still see each other, sometimes. We’ll still be friends.”

It was their third year of college, by the time they saw each other again. Essek had not returned their first year, exhausted and trying to get used to living in a country that, even though it was where he grew up, he had not visited since he was fourteen. Their second year he did come back, but he was told that Caleb had stayed on campus. Something about breaking up with a girlfriend, who Essek hadn’t known about, but that was not surprising.

Caleb looked exhausted. It was the only thought running through Essek’s mind when he saw him, bags under his eyes and an almost permanent frown on his face. Caleb had never been a very lively person, but he had been ― content, if not happy. That was not a person who was having a rough time in college, it was a person who was having a hard time in life. 

“Caleb,” Essek said, instead of commenting on everything he was thinking about. He kept his arms by his sides, and Caleb did too, though he did offer him the smallest of smiles.

“Essek. It’s good to see you, friend.”

It didn’t sound like a lie. Not a whole truth, either, but Essek would take what he could get, with Caleb. “It has been a while.” Two years, and Caleb’s behavior and appearance seemed to have changed completely. “How are things doing?”

He must have sounded as worried as he felt, as he intended not to sound, because Caleb made a dismissing hand gesture. “I’m fine, I’m fine. School is hard.” 

“It is,” Essek agreed, easy. He had no right to ask anything of Caleb, least of all explanations. He kept that thought in his mind, softly caressed it and then tossed it to the wind with his care. “We should meet up. We’re both studying magic, I’m sure we can share stories.”

The amount of time it took for Caleb to answer almost made him rescind the question, turn around and leave, but then Caleb smiled softly. “Of course, we can swap horror stories. You should come over, tomorrow.”

***

He wakes up in Caleb’s arms. It’s happened before, but Essek doesn’t remember when the last time was, probably a few years ago. He enjoys the warmth for a second, two, an entire minute before he kisses Caleb’s cheek. 

“I’m gonna make breakfast, do you want anything?”

Caleb’s arms squeeze around Essek’s waist. “No.”

“You want nothing? Or you want me to stay?”

“Yes.”

Essek laughed softly, but indulged Caleb, if only for a minute. It was early, they had time.

***

He woke up in Caleb’s arms, after being invited for dinner. He wondered vaguely if Caleb’s parents knew that it had been more than a sleepover, but decided it didn’t matter. Caleb’s parents liked him.

The sun was already up, and it was not good on Essek’s eyes. He was about to get up and pull the curtains when he saw them, the scars on Caleb’s arms. They were ― some of them were fresh, some of them weren’t. They had a magical essence to them, and all of them measured exactly the same. They couldn’t be self-inflicted.

He thought of Caleb’s exhausted face, of the way he had immediately fallen asleep last night. He was still thinking about it when Caleb woke up, a sleepy smile directed towards him.

“Good morning.”

“Good morning,” Essek said, distracted. 

He could see the moment Caleb saw his scars. The moment he looked at Essek, and he realised Essek had seen them too, and decided to act like nothing was wrong. 

“Do you want to get breakfast?” Caleb asked, reaching for his shirt, and Essek’s brain was working too fast to be able to answer. “I think I might get something sweet, for a change―”

“Caleb,” Essek said, heartbroken, and Caleb inhaled sharply.

“It’s nothing,” he snapped. Two seconds after, his face fell, and he called Frumpkin, who showed up on his arms. He was apologetic, when he spoke to him next. “Do you want to go to that bakery Jester likes?”

It was an olive branch. “I’m still worried about you,” he said, and then, when Caleb’s shoulders tensed again, he let out a defeated sigh. “Of course we can go to the bakery.”

***
Lunch with The Mighty Nein in a restaurant is always dangerous for his dignity. Essek hopes they won’t get kicked out, this time, though it’s always an option. It’s always fun, when they do, but it’s usually best avoided.

“Essek!” Jester says. She puts her arms out for a hug, which she always does these days, and Essek indulges her, if only not to create a scene in a restaurant. “I didn’t know you were in town for the holidays.”

“I always visit,” Essek reminds her. He looks around the table, and it is ― slightly less tense than it was a couple of years ago. Last year seemed to finally put them all back to square one, and even Beauregard’s poisonous staring has stopped.

“I know, but we don’t always see you,” she complains. “You should come have dinner with us at the small holiday party this year! Last year you only came to the big one, so I could barely talk to you.”

He knows he shouldn’t, but he looks at Caleb. For just a second, but he does, and their eyes meet, and he says, “It would be an honour.”

***

He went straight to Beauregard. 

Maybe Jester would have been a kinder option, but Caleb didn’t seem like he needed kind, he seemed like he needed someone who would scream at him that they cared. And Beauregard had always been the best at that job.

“Can I talk to you?” He asked her. They were in the library, because even now she still spent hours there when she wanted to avoid her parents. She looked up at him, confused, but nodded.

“Is everything okay, dude?”

“I―” He let out a shaky breath, and Beauregard looked even more panicked. “You have to convince Caleb to drop out.” 

“Eh ― what?”

Essek inhaled. He considered for a second hiding some of the truth, but ― “I saw Caleb’s arms. They are full of scars. There is magical leftover all over them, like there had been some kind of arcane object shoved inside. It’s dangerous experimentation, and he is obviously not doing it to himself.”

Beauregard asked him a couple more questions, and Essek answered on autopilot, and her face was falling with every passing moment. “I thought he looked exhausted, but―”

“I know,” Essek said. Beauregard squeezed his shoulder, tight, but enough that it kept him grounded.

“I’ll talk to him.”

It didn’t work, not at first. The screaming match was live-texted to him, by Jester, who didn’t know what was going on but had heard his name being mentioned. He didn’t see Caleb again that year, but two months later he received a text from Beauregard that said ‘he dropped out finally hes staying w/ veth and family’ and then ‘he said to tell you and to thank you and im saying this but you should call him if you wanna’. He didn’t call, but he breathed normally for the first time in what seemed like ages.

***
“You know,” Beauregard says, a mug filled with wine on her hand, a fluffy robe on top of her dress shirt. The small holiday party it’s always more of a big sleepover than anything else, and the fact that she’s still wearing shoes only speaks of how early in the evening it is. “I hated you after that one time you asked Caleb out and then told him you were leaving, but you’re not that bad.”

Essek’s heart stops. “What?”

“You know, when you invited him for ice cream and held hands and had a wonderful date, but then you just told him you were leaving forever.” 

Essek’s mouth opens and closes. He is sure he looks ridiculous, like an idiot. “That was not a date.”

“Yeah, well, we guessed after that it wasn’t supposed to be, but―” She stops herself, shrugs. The mug brushes her lips, and she barely wets her lips with the wine before she says, “I still blamed you, for a while, even though Caleb said it was his fault he got his hopes up.” 

Essek closes his eyes. To some extent he has always known that he broke Caleb’s heart just like he broke his own. That the separation came with consequences that neither of them like to think about. This, however ― having to confront all the ways in which he messed up ― makes him feel tender, like an open wound. Exposed. 

“I always thought,” he says, carefully, because he is unsure of what Beauregard knows, of what Caleb has told and what Caleb has hidden, “that spending time with him was worth the hurt it caused us. I spent all of high school knowing my father was going to make me leave eventually but loving him too much to stop.”

“Jesus fucking Christ, man,” Beau says, and raises her mug to him before taking a big gulp.

***

Essek isn’t proud of what happened the year after that. He isn’t. The Christmas after Caleb dropped out, Essek went over, and they both apologised, even though Caleb has nothing to apologise for, and Caleb thanked him way too much, and it was good. It was like being back in high school. Then a year went by, and during that year― 

Essek had no excuse, other than the fact that he was tired of the limitations of his job.

He loves magic ― it is the one truth about him, it is what intertwined his destiny with Caleb’s. Magic is the reason why he stays in Xhorhas even though every day he asks himself about what Caleb is doing. 

That’s why it was so annoying that they kept stopping him from experimenting on old magical artifacts. That’s why he kept getting artifacts from, and giving them to, the people who knew what was happening to Caleb and didn’t stop it.

***

“I have one question to ask you,” Beauregard says. Dinner isn’t ready yet, because Jester burned it and Caduceus had to jump in to help, so now they’re all just spending time together until whenever it is done. “And I want you to be honest.”

“Sure,” Essek says, with no intention of following through if he doesn’t like the question.

“When you found out about Caleb’s scars, was it because you two were fucking?”

They hear a loud noise coming from the glass door, Fjord stumbling to the porch. “I wasn’t expecting that.”

“Dude, you ruined my momentum,” Beauregard complains.

“Well, it’s not my fault you casually ask about people having sex, now―”

“It wasn’t casual! It was a very serious moment, and you―”

“Yes,” Essek says. His wine is in a shot glass, but he still takes a sip of it, while Fjord and Beauregard both turn around to look at him.

“For real?”

“Yes.”

“You know, he has a job interview soon, with some company that has its sister in Xhorhas,” Fjord says.

“No, wait, fuck that,” Beauregard says. “Let me see if I understand. You two had a weird emotional thing in high school where you held hands way too much―”

“We also kissed.”

“What the fuck.” She doesn’t let him answer. “And then you didn’t see each other for some years, and then you saw each other during Christmas and said ‘we can keep fucking, no strings attached, but let’s put our Christmas lights together in a box, I’m sure they won’t get tangled together’. And so you two kept fucking, but only during the holidays.”

Essek takes another sip of his shot glass of wine. “Essentially.”

“Dude,” she says, and when Jester finally calls them in so they can have dinner, she just keeps whispering it, again and again.

***

Essek lost the trust The Mighty Nein had in him after working with who he worked with. It wasn’t directly with the man who basically tortured Caleb, but it was with the wizards on the board in the university, who knew. 

The Mighty Nein warned him, and he kept working with them. 

It was ― Caleb was the one who sat him down, who told him that they knew. That he was hurt by his actions. Every time he remembers the conversation, Essek feels it like an out-of-body experience, like it had been related to him. Caleb told him that he knew knowledge was important to him, but that he was helping the people who raised teenagers to be soldiers. That they had hoped that the knowledge of what the board accepted from Ikithon would make it stop, but it hadn’t. That The Mighty Nein might not invite him to hang out for a couple of years, because they didn’t know if he could be trusted.

He probably couldn’t. Even then, the next year arrived, and Caleb and Essek ended up hooking up again.

***

Caleb drives him to the airport. Verin offered, but Essek told him not to. They manage light conversation during the drive ― their plans, what Essek’s co-workers might be up to, the duration of the flight ― but then Essek quiets down when Caleb starts parking, and Caleb does, too. 

“I’m going to miss you,” Essek says. It’s loud, in the silence of the car. It’s like a kid popping a bubble, suddenly surprised at the consequences of his actions. Caleb isn’t saying anything, so Essek adds, “I always miss you.”

“Essek―” Caleb starts, and stops. He looks like he is running through all their possibilities in his mind, and Essek lets him, doesn’t try to stop it even as he grips his own thigh, trying to quiet his anxiety. “We’ll never be in the same place.”

“You do not know that,” Essek scoffs. 

“I do. I do, and so do you. You love Xhorhas―”

“I’m unhappy in Xhorhas.”

“You’re unhappy here, and I’m not.”

“Do you expect to spend your life here?” Essek asks. He can see Caleb squirm under his gaze, and knows that he is going to lie in his answer. He doesn’t let him, says, instead, “I’d come back if I could be with you.” It’s like he’s putting his last card on the table. He has nothing left to offer, nothing left to admit. 

“It’s been a decade, Essek,” Caleb whispers. “We’ve hurt each other. You expect me to believe you wouldn’t resent me if you had to come back to a town you hate just to be with me? Close to the father you hate and the mother you barely speak to?”

“Yes,” Essek says. “I wouldn’t lie to you about my feelings, Caleb.”

Caleb’s eyes leave his, drop to Essek’s hand. He doesn’t touch him, doesn’t move. “I cannot trust that.”

Essek inhales softly. He nods, just once, jerking his head, and then grabs the door handle. He still doesn’t move, not planning on running away. “I’m sorry for bringing it up, then.”

“Essek―” Caleb starts. Hopes build up inside Essek before he can try to stop them, but all Caleb adds is, “don’t apologize.”

Essek doesn’t look at him, and he opens the door, now. “Good luck with that job interview, Caleb.”

***

It took years before Essek regained their trust. It started with Jester, but ― that’s not important. Maybe Essek shouldn’t think so much about the past, anyway. 

***

The letter arrives three months later. It is a surprise, and the moment he opens it, his eyebrows go up, and his hand is on the phone. 

“Oh, hey, Essek,” Beauregard’s voice says. “I think this is the first time we talk on the phone, and we’ve known each other for, like, a decade.”

“Do you actually want me to go to your wedding?” Essek asks, interrupting whatever she was saying. 

“Dude, you got an invitation.” 

“That means nothing.”

Beau clicks her tongue, an unpleasant noise. “Yeah, Yasha and I want you to come. You’re our friend. We don’t talk enough, but you usually make good gifts and we have fun with you.”

Essek wants to keep asking, but he just lets out a breath. “I’ll come.”

***

The wedding is a mess, but in the way only The Mighty Nein can do it. Essek laughs harder than he has in months, and he almost lets Jester convince him to dance with her, and uses magic to stop the chocolate fountain that’s falling to the ground, and he is thanked profusely. 

“You didn’t say hello,” Caleb whispers, his voice near his ear when Essek is taking a minute away from everyone.

“You are a part of the wedding party. I didn’t think I was more important than the brides.” Essek looks down at his empty glass, and considers it the perfect excuse as he points towards the bar with it. “If you’ll excuse me―”

“Don’t do that,” Caleb says. Essek stops where he stands. 

“Is there anything you need of me?”

“You are doing that thing where you are too polite around me, I hate it. We taught you to be rude, don’t take it away from me.”

“Well, I did not want to make you uncomfortable.”

“I get that,” Caleb says, and then, looking around them, checking that no one can see them, kisses him. “Hello, friend.”

Essek kisses him back. He is not above making out with someone at a wedding, which is not a fact that he knew about himself, but is happy to find out. “You said this wouldn’t work.”

“I know.” It is said between kisses, and Essek has to pull himself away to hear the continuation. “I think I was wrong. I’ve been working in Xhorhas often and all I can think about is seeing you again.”

“Caleb,” Essek says, as steady as he can. “I’ve been in love with you for a decade. It would be nice if you could specify what you mean with ‘seeing me again’.”

“That I, too, have been in love with you for a decade.” Essek knew. The intensity of their feelings was never an issue, that was everything else. Still, hearing it makes Essek smile like a fool. “And I think we should try to date.”

Essek opens his mouth, but instead of answering, he just kisses Caleb again.

“Is that a yes?” Caleb asks, amused, the moment Essek’s mouth leaves his lips. 

“Yes, I want to date you.”

For a second, he thinks of what they will need to do to make it work ― travel more, communicate better ― but then Caleb’s hands press them closer, and Essek decides to plan later.

They have time.