Caleb doesn’t often look at himself in mirrors, or at least not extensively, but as he surveys his new clothes for the evening he is deeply impressed. “You have outdone yourself, I think,” he says over his shoulder. Jester, who is carefully laying out his cape and gloves, only makes a noise of agreement.
On the eve of the new year they’ve gathered in Port Damali for the festivities, since a break in bad weather means they can spend a few days here while Fjord also conducts more research (and interrogations) into Sabian’s most recent movements. Having persuaded themselves into an invitation to a swanky party on the marquis’ personal ship, they are all taking the time to make themselves as gorgeous as possible. Jester has even taken time to weave little sapphires into Caleb’s hair, which she has pinned neatly at the nape of his neck.
Part of him worries as usual about Essek, who did not seem particularly interested in attending such festivities, but that isn’t unusual for him lately. He still cannot manage the simplest cantrip, nearly two months later. Still absently tries to heat his cold tea or waves his hand to lift something off a tall shelf. Though Yussa and Allura (and his own research) have told him his magic will return in time, a gloomy affectation has taken over the previously haughty condescension, and everyone misses him all the more.
“We should make sure he has fun tonight,” Caleb says, not needing to specify. Jester steps up beside him and loops her arm through his. He likes the way they look in the mirror together, her resplendent as always in a high-necked periwinkle gown that follows the lines of her body, and him in a close-cut double-breasted three-piece black suit, the pocket square and inside lining of his jacket sapphire-blue. His overcoat is long, glittery black, and embroidered in blue starbursts at the edges. He feels regal.
“He’ll have fun,” she reassures him, squeezing his arm. “At the very least, we can maybe get him drunk. He has more fun when he’s drunk.”
“While not untrue, I don’t know if that’s the best course of action at the moment.” Caleb turns to pull on the gloves she’s laid out for him—solid black—and his cape—black embroidered in blue. “Though perhaps he will enjoy the caviar and canapés. Are we ready, Frau Lavorre?”
“We are, Herr Widogast.” She giggles. “I sound so stupid saying that, don’t I?”
“Not at all, you are lovely as always.”
They walk down the short hallway together to another room, where Jester knocks before opening the door. Yasha and Beau are just finishing up, looking stunning in a black gown with a plunging neckline and a narrow, burgundy velvet suit respectively. They compliment Caleb’s hair in such a way that makes him stand a little taller, feeling light and pleased by the attention. They’d all spent time, separately, at the nearby spa; Caleb doesn’t think he’s ever been so clean and oiled and powdered. He hopes Essek will at least appreciate the finery of it all; his months of exile have made it clear he highly dislikes irregular bathing.
“Yo, have you seen Essek yet?” Beau asks Caleb, in a way that gives him a dozen potential thoughts in his head. She clearly thinks Caleb is going to enjoy whatever it is. He and Essek have been slow together—very slow—but he knows enough to picture more in his head.
“Not yet,” he says. “I have been making myself pretty.”
“Prettier,” Jester corrects.
“You do look very pretty,” Yasha tells him, gently touching the jewels in his hair. “This is a nice look, I like it.”
“Thank you,” he says, now looking at himself and Yasha in a mirror. They also look quite nice. She notices and drapes her arm over his shoulders, leaning her head against his. “You, of course, are a vision. A slightly terrifying one.”
“Isn’t she?” Beau says, letting Jester pin a black rose boutonnière to her lapel.
“You too,” Caleb tells her. “You look like you could easily kill a man and enjoy it, it is a nice look.”
They gather the invitations on the table and move into the room at the end of the hall from this one, admiring Caduceus’ new brocade jacket and Fjord’s impressive new overcoat.
Then they are at the smallest room on the floor. Caduceus knocks. They wait.
The door opens. For a moment, Caleb thinks—naturally reaching first for the worst option—that it will not be Essek on the other side, that for some reason Essek is not here or has never been here or will never be back again. In the second it takes for recognition, his heart aches.
But it is Essek, always in his usual drow form now, looking at them all with his performative smile and head held high, though they know him well enough now to see that he is nervous. His hair, longer than it’s ever been and fully shaved underneath, is piled on top of his head and pinned in place with pearls. He’s narrow in a long sleeveless tunic of cream-and-gold brocade, cut high and deep on the sides, a pair of cream gloves covering his arms up to the elbow; the single-finger handflower style he prefers in his clothing emphasize his long, elegant fingers, nails painted light gold. His leggings, also cream, show off his thighs and knees and calves in precisely the opposite way from everything he’s ever worn before. He wears shoes on his feet, Caleb knows, but they are quite uninteresting compared to the rest. He returns his eyes to Essek’s eyes, which are looking right at him, as if waiting for approval.
Jester gasps. “Essek, oh my gosh, you are so beautiful!” she sings, wiggling at him in a movement of uncontainable joy. Caleb squeezes his hands together behind his back and takes a slow breath. Looks him over again. And again.
“As are you,” Essek says to Jester, bowing to her and then the rest of them. “Caduceus, you made an excellent call on the brocade. I am pleased with the fit.”
Yes, so is Caleb.
“Isn’t it great?” Caduceus grins at him. “You look wonderful, man, you really do. I’m so glad you went contrasting instead of dark.”
“Did you three match your hair on purpose?” Yasha says, looking from Beau to Fjord to Essek. “I feel like there’s a theme...”
“Team Undercut,” Beau says, raising her hand for high fives. Essek is a bit late with his, but he participates, which is the important part. Caleb doesn’t think he’s moved this whole time.
Essek’s eyes seem to be taking Caleb in one glance at a time, more covert than Caleb’s own obvious appraisal. Feeling as though he’s seeing him in a new light, Caleb steps forward and offers Essek his left arm, etiquette ingrained enough to help him overcome his speechlessness.
Essek, perhaps having anticipated that Caleb might take such an approach tonight, curls his arm neatly in consent, standing much closer than he usually does in front of the rest of them. He finds himself briefly distracted by the dusting of gold powder on Essek’s eyes, the slight sheen of it on the middle of his lower lip. Even his jewelry, Caleb realizes, the small hoop in his septum and his many ear piercings and cuffs, the band around his left thumb, the dainty chain bright against his throat, are gold as well instead of the usual silver. He looks radiant and exposed, like a star. He smells like honeysuckle. Caleb...really likes it.
They walk downstairs as a group and out the front door, into the inky night filled with sounds of revelry and the scent of the sea. As they wait for a group of acrobatic performers to slink by, Essek squeezes Caleb’s arm. “Look,” he says, holding his free hand out, palm up. As Caleb watches, a minuscule cloud of sparks appear before fizzling out. “I tried before you all came to retrieve me.” His voice, always soft, is even softer here with a gentle pleasure of someone deeply relieved and experiencing hope for the first time.
More thankful than he cares to admit, Caleb lifts Essek’s hand to his lips, kissing his knuckles. “Excellent,” he says, emotion cracking through. “I had no doubt, but it is nice to see.”
“It isn’t much.” And it really isn’t, in the grand scheme of things, particularly from a man who literally reached into time for more power to obliterate the connection between Lucien (and, accidentally, Caleb and Beau,) and the Eyes of Nine on the Astral Plane.
But Caleb knows what it’s like to have everything and then nothing. He smiles. “All you need is a spark.”
Essek smiles up at him in return, folding himself against Caleb’s chest in a motion simple as anything. “Thank you,” he says. “For not doubting.”
Breathing in deeply the salty night air, Caleb squeezes him and shuffles him gently along when it is time to move. He keeps an arm draped over Essek’s shoulders, pace slower than the others but finding that he doesn’t care, enjoying instead the current moment wherein Trent Ikithon will never hurt him again, Lucien is dead, and the Eyes of Nine are no longer (as far as anyone, including the gods, know) a threat. Essek is...well, not warm, but willing. Why shouldn’t he enjoy nice things sometimes? He has certainly earned it by now.
“You are in a good mood,” Essek says, glancing at him with curious eyes. “What is on your mind?”
“A lot and not very much,” Caleb admits. “In part, I am thinking that I quite like the look of you in this. Particularly the lower half.”
Essek has mostly stopped being as nervous around Caleb, but it occasionally flares and he is reminded that Essek is over eighty years his senior but the entirety of his experience with intimacy exists almost completely between them. Caleb, who doesn’t have much more on him as far as partners go (two to one), did have an...energetic, creative youth. Essek has not asked for details beyond being curious if Caleb has done this or that, usually after he and Caleb have just done this or that, or Essek has found out this or that even exists. There hasn’t been much. So far, yes, Caleb has done this and that.
Essek tilts his head and asks, with no change in inflection, as though they are discussing the clear weather, “What is your favorite part?”
Caleb keeps his voice even, but he does squeeze Essek, just a little, bumping them closer. “That assumes there is only one.”
“So you’re saying there are many.”
“Ja. You knew that.”
“I hoped you’d like it.”
“I do like it. And what of my attempt to impress you?”
Essek glances at him, his smile tilting at the edge. “There is a lot of cloth, but you are certainly...ah. A sight.” He pauses. “Quite fetching.”
“Good,” Caleb says, drawing Essek from one side to the other to avoid stumbling revelers. They are far from the others now. Caleb has half a mind to duck into an alley and smear the gold on Essek’s mouth a bit, but he doesn’t. There is time.
They reach the dock a little after the other Nein, who are a few people ahead in a line waiting to be allowed in, talking loudly about what the food will be like. There are several people lined up alongside the ship, clearly partygoers taking smoke breaks, long pipes issuing forth sweet-smelling smoke. Essek, a knockout even on his bad days, gets double takes. Appreciative murmurs. Someone squares their shoulders as though planning to approach before discussing it with some others, ultimately declining with a sharp head shake as if to dislodge a bad idea. Caleb places his hand high on Essek’s back and coaxes him closer before murmuring in his ear.
“You are already being eaten up with eyes,” he says, enjoying the way Essek tilts naturally into him. “A new record, I think, but I know you usually don’t care for it. I can make it clear you are unavailable, if you like.”
“Am I unavailable?” Essek says, almost too quietly for Caleb to hear. The words aren’t coy; Essek’s face is too serious for that. He seems...curious. Encouraged, maybe. And a little uncertain.
“Well,” Caleb says conversationally, “I don’t know. Would you like to be?”
“I don’t know. What are the benefits?”
At this Caleb throws his head back and laughs. “Oh dear, Herr Thelyss. Such things you say. For starters—” He touches Essek’s chin with light fingers, tilting, then takes his mouth in a quick, possessive kiss. Essek is frozen in surprise. He says Caleb’s name in one quick breath. The sound of it is euphoric—Essek very rarely calls him by anything but his last name, and even then infrequently. His first name is a treat. So Caleb kisses him again, slower. Open-mouthed. Only Beau’s catcalls stop him. “For starters, there is that,” Caleb says demurely.
Essek only stares at him, sufficiently flustered.
“I can’t believe they’re the make-out-in-public type,” Jester says loudly. “What the fuck, Fjord, are we the only ones who aren’t gross?”
“Jester,” Fjord says gently, “don’t be silly. Of course we are.”
“Hey,” Caduceus says.
“And Caduceus,” Fjord says, just as gently.
The four people in line splitting the group move away at this point, glancing at them all as though they are not ready to be at a party in which these strange folk are invitees. Caleb takes Essek by the waist and gently pushes him forward, enjoying his clumsy stumble and the way they bump together. If he tries, he can almost pretend this is a very different life in which his nights are always this fun and this freeing.
Once they’re within distance, and Essek has allowed Caleb to manhandle him around a little more, they all move forward in line as a group of six ahead of them heads up the gangway. Caleb cannot believe they haven’t even gotten inside yet. The cold night air invigorates all of his senses.
“You know, I think technically Caduceus is everyone’s boyfriend,” Yasha says, as she looks at Caduceus with a thoughtful expression. “Very reliable. Good cook. He can fix some things.” She pauses. “That’s what boyfriends are for, right? Not really my. Area.”
“He also compliments you and means it,” Jester says, looking over at Fjord and nodding approvingly. “So yes, Caduceus is a boyfriend.”
“Thank you,” Caduceus says, genuinely happy. “That’s nice. All nice things.”
Essek is facing away from Caleb so Caleb can’t see what he might think of this conversation. But he can see Beau, who can see Essek, and who has no problem watching Essek with hawk eyes and pouncing on anything she sees.
“So,” she says, “Essek.”
“Oh no,” Essek says.
“Leave him be,” Fjord says, giving Beau a stern look. “Look at the poor man, just give him a night off.”
Beau’s childish sputter of betrayal is made all the better with her stunning makeup and suit. “He was just making out with our wizard!”
“Yes, but no,” Fjord says. Then, “We give him shit in private. It’s the polite thing to do.”
Essek puts a hand to his face and sighs.
Caleb squeezes his hip. “You wanted this,” he says.
“Fuck,” Essek says, for the first time. Caduceus stops laughing long after everyone else does.
Inside it is much warmer, the lights are soft and low and floating, the music conducive to close dancing. Essek has said before that he is not a true dancer, since Dynasty dancing is done in lines without any touching at all, precision and choreography prized more highly. The music is always slow, the steps measured. Rarely is one out of breath. The Empire and the Menagerie Coast do things quite differently, he says, and Essek very much does not do those.
But he is here dancing with Caleb now, nearly in the shadows and away from the more prominent couples, letting Caleb teach him step by step a simpler version of what is being displayed with prowess nearby. Though Caleb first began by showing Essek how to lead, Essek stopped him. You are the expert, he’d said. I am happy to follow.
Normally very quick, Essek struggles with the movements despite their simplicity. They do not come naturally to him, his feet ill at ease on the ground and his discomfort with being touched—relaxed for the Nein, and most especially Caleb—means he isn’t used to how his body is supposed to fit against Caleb’s for the purpose of movement and rhythm. He’s not malleable enough to repeat more than once, always stumbling over himself.
“Perhaps I should have someone step in,” Essek says, one elegant arm curled over Caleb’s shoulder, the other lightly bent with palm against palm. He puts space between their bodies, and even in this light, Caleb can tell Essek is blushing deeply.
“You aren’t used to having to practice things, are you,” Caleb says, not letting him slip away. He takes his time with each of the four movements, letting Essek get used to the feel of hip against hip, thigh to thigh, all the way down to their feet. “You are so intelligent that many things are easily understood by you, and when they aren’t, you do not care to know them.”
Essek purses his lips, losing his frame as Caleb coaxes him into trying again to the music. He seems to resist arching his back, which the dance demands on the third step. “I did not ask to be examined tonight. If you expect me to do this, be quiet. I’m counting.”
He is marginally better when he concentrates deeply, but then he loses the integrity of the dance, the way it should feel. Caleb can’t help but to smile at the clinical dissemination of what is supposed to be a passionate overtaking and turns them closer to the other dancers. Half the fun is weaving in and out, which is possible with a very good leader.
“Oh no, please,” Essek says, instantly stepping on Caleb’s foot instead of alongside it.
“Don’t think. Don’t think about it. You know what to do. Just look at me.”
Essek does. Caleb draws him closer, one hand high on Essek’s back. He brings them in almost as if to kiss, then uses his body to tell Essek’s what to do—how to stretch his leg here, bend it there, sweep this way. Essek’s eyes are intense on Caleb’s. There’s a moment when Caleb changes up the rhythm a little, swings Essek a little more exuberantly than before, but Essek follows him and falls back into his arms without missing a beat. Caleb carries them around the floor in time with the others, flowers swirling down a river. He is reminded distinctly of the way they have shared knowledge together, both leaning on the other, trusting the other, at the right moments for the greatest outcome. If Essek is still nervous he doesn’t show it, his smile mirroring Caleb’s in softness and exhilaration. He seems to be genuinely enjoying himself, even laughing once when Caleb twirls him around and he doesn’t stumble.
The dance finishes in a flourish, Caleb supporting Essek’s back and dipping him low to the floor. There is polite clapping. Caleb watches as Essek breathes unevenly, his body heavy with trust in Caleb’s arms, one hand on the back of Caleb’s neck and the other pressed over his heart. He’s trembling. When Caleb straightens them, however, it is enough time and space for Essek’s spine to straighten again, his shoulders held squarely. Caleb wants to put hands all over him. Make him butter again.
“That was,” Essek says, “interesting.”
A different dance starts up, slower and more stationary. More couples join the floor, including Fjord and Caduceus, who seems to also be learning the steps. Caleb persuades Essek with a kiss to the cheek and laced fingers to stay where they are.
“You will like this one,” he says, taking Essek’s hand and draping it across the back of his neck again.
Essek’s cool fingers touch lightly at Caleb’s hairline. He smiles, relaxing little by little back into the sway of music. “Okay,” he says, and there’s something in his eyes and his open expression that makes Caleb’s stomach clench. He doesn’t think he’s seen it before. He’s never seen anything like it before. “You can show me.”
They do some mild gambling after that in a magic-dispelled room, Essek particularly skilled at dice and Caleb impressing him in return at cards, standing close to one another and giving both playful encouragement and arrogant condescension. They win and lose gold several times over, making polite conversation with the marquis, who compliments their dancing skills. Marvelous once you warmed up, he says. A true display of passion and talent. Essek rarely takes his eyes off of Caleb, who feels distinctly seen and admired. Twice he touches Caleb just to touch him.
“We could dance again after if you want,” Essek says, leading Caleb into a side room that is available for use of the balcony. They both need a break from the heat and compression of the dark wood and velvet ship interior. Essek leans against the railing, backed by the lantern-lit water and star-dappled sky, his posture relaxed and unreserved. He eyes Caleb’s approach with interest, doesn’t resist when Caleb presses close to him, reminiscent of their first dance.
“There is also magical face painting, apparently,” Caleb says, bracketing Essek’s waist with his arms, hands on the railing. Essek licks his lips. Caleb watches his mouth. “And I believe we should imbibe more of marquis’ expensive alcohol, to show we are truly grateful to this invitation he did not know he had given us.”
Essek twins his arms around Caleb’s neck, rising up to kiss him full on the mouth. His kisses have changed a little. Dancing, it seems, taught him something. “The fireworks will be soon.”
“Oh, will they?” Caleb says, raising an eyebrow. It gets him a real laugh. Essek kisses him again, again. Caleb loses himself for several long moments, caught up in these new sensations they’ve never shared before, either because they had too much going on and couldn’t risk the distraction or because Essek, in true elf fashion, did everything very slowly. This feels a little elicit, like breaking a previously never broken rule.
Essek moves his kisses to Caleb’s jaw, his exposed neck. He’s never done this before. It’s about all Caleb can think: Essek has never done this before, either to him or anyone. “You could also take me back to the inn,” Essek says in his ear.
Now Caleb is the speechless one, his grip on Essek tightening. “Could I?” he says at last.
“It sounds like I should.” He could get him out of that tunic. The fabric, while beautiful, is heavy to hold a certain shape and must be chafing. “Yes. I should. Let’s go.”
He teleports them to Essek’s room. Essek, who definitely did not expect that, starts to laugh. “And you say I use my magic extravagantly.”
“I had a pressing need,” Caleb murmurs, kissing him again in hopes he can continue Essek’s good mood and not let his usual inhibition get in the way. Alone now, with nothing but settling wood around them and a quiet white noise outside that represents the carousers, Essek is all over him with an exuberance borne of intense longing. He needn’t have worried about Essek returning to his usual constrained self.
“You know,” Essek says, curling fingers in Caleb’s hair and deftly plucking the sapphires, setting them on the dresser, “Dynasty dances are sometimes considered foreplay.”
“Oh dear,” Caleb says, untying the laces holding Essek’s tunic together at his sides, half amazed that Essek is letting him. “That sounds terrible.”
Essek loosens Caleb’s hair from its pins and sets those on the dresser too. “After foreplay comes sex.” He uncoils his own hair as well; it falls to one side.
“And our dance tonight?” Caleb asks. “What comes after that?”
“I am new at your dances.” He slips out of the tunic with a shift of his shoulders, and it splits wider at the neck and falls, the inside lined with soft layers of linen. “I don’t know what comes after that.”
Caleb exhales slowly, the reality of the moment hitting him like a sack of bricks and making him temporarily stupid. Essek is still wearing the gloves. All his jewelry. His soft pants and leather slippers. There is consent in the way he moves, his fingers reaching to unfasten Caleb’s cape, and though he seems nervous the energy of it is anticipatory; he lets Caleb kiss him thoroughly, making one soft noise. When Caleb eases their bodies together, not unlike before, he is ardently gratified to feel Essek’s cock hard against his thigh. The brocade hid so much, it seems.
Here, Essek balks. Not as much as usual, but he stops Caleb’s wandering hands and shudders out a breath. “Ah...what...are we doing?” The rise and fall of his chest is quite fast.
Caleb hums in thought as he peels the gloves off, revealing more of Essek’s lustrous skin. Then he cups Essek’s face and kisses him. “We are doing whatever you want,” he says, searching his eyes for anything he might have missed.
“I don’t know,” he swallows, “what we could...I don’t know what my options are.”
“The key to knowledge is discovery.” He nips Essek’s bottom lip, earning himself another noise. “As you should know, if you are any sort of student at all.”
Essek blinks at him, his eyebrows fully raised, current countenance all the more appealing for it. “Are you being cheeky with me? Now?”
Caleb takes a step back, Essek nearly reaching out to bring him closer before stilling his hand. Half naked, smooth everywhere Caleb can see, Essek is so clearly aroused it’s almost too much for Caleb to bear—how dare someone with a mind like his also look like that. But he focuses on undressing himself, to match Essek’s current state. Stands fairly straight, and, despite specifically telling himself not to, folds his arms over his chest and looks down at the floor. He’s never felt like much of a prize, at least not physically. But he’s also never much wanted to be one either. Finding the words to explain himself are difficult, so he merely shrugs as if in apology.
Essek doesn’t move. Then he does.
He touches first at Caleb’s chest hair, which is surprising. He obviously has seen the scars, and there is a reason Caleb used to hide them—they are grotesque, with deep gouges almost to muscle, and have frightened children. He still tries to keep his sleeves down around Luc. But Essek is more interested in trailing gold-painted fingers through the ginger curls.
“We don’t have much in the way of body hair,” Essek says. A wave of honeysuckle fills Caleb’s nose. “I wondered what it felt like.”
“What else did you wonder?”
“A lot.” He touches Caleb’s forearms now, but only to pull gently, coax him to unfurl. His eyes are on everything else Caleb exposes, which he then touches with gentle fingertips. Low on his stomach, Caleb’s muscles twitch. “I’ve seen you in...comfortable situations. But I never touched you. I always wanted to, every time.”
Caleb closes his eyes when Essek rises up to kiss him, surrendering to a gentleness that isn’t often directed toward him. Essek holds him and kisses him and strokes his beard. Whispers, accent practiced, «I’ve got you. Don’t hide from me. Show me what we can do.»
For a few moments, Caleb follows while Essek leads, kissing when kissed, touching when touched. Pulling himself away from his dark memories is always hard, even when he has every incentive to, like now, arms filled with the eager body of an untouched drow. There’s a moment, after some kissing and petting and dance-like rubbing, where Essek’s knowledge ends. His movements turn less sure of themselves, his hands hovering near the buttons on Caleb’s pants before falling away.
Caleb blinks, and it’s as if he can clear the fog, see the present moment in better detail. Essek is...he still isn’t warm, but he isn’t as cool as he typically feels. He’s flushed all over, deeper violet than his usual blue-slate, obvious when not contained only to his cheeks. Any hesitation he has now is only because he doesn’t know how to proceed, not because he doesn’t want to.
“Take off your shoes,” Caleb says, voice low with need. He almost switches to Zemnian, where he feels more confident in situations like this.
Swallowing, Essek toes off his shoes and pushes them away, along with his crumpled tunic, before standing in front of Caleb again. He’s a little shorter in his bare feet, cock delineated visibly in the soft fabric of his pants before he holds his hands there, shy. Caleb steps back to pull off his boots so they are closer to height. Wearing stockings, he pulls those off too. With a wave of his hand, they join the rest of his clothing and then Essek’s.
Essek studies him as thoroughly as he does anything he’s interested in, absently worrying at his lower lip with his teeth. His gaze is intense. He waits for more instructions. Show me what we can do, he’d said. Nearly quadruple Caleb’s age but with so little in the way of intimate experiences, he has to wonder what Essek was like as a child, a teenager, if he ever found anyone who made him feel anything like this.
“So often,” Caleb says, reaching out and taking Essek’s hands, “you are the one teaching me. You used to make me feel inadequate, but now I enjoy your competency and knowledge. You must know you are sexiest when you’re at your most arrogant.”
Essek doesn’t seem to be breathing, letting Caleb play with his fingers but too frozen to play back. “I...no, I did not know that.”
“Oh yes. It interests me to see what you will be like when you are arrogant in the way you make me feel.” He takes one of Essek’s hands and puts it to his chest, over his heart, letting Essek flex fingers in his chest hair for a moment before pushing his wrist down, down, until Essek can clearly feel Caleb’s own hardness, straining, hidden visually only by the complicated folds of his trousers.
Essek makes a noise. He presses. Caleb exhales. Lets Essek explore him with eyes wide with wonder. “This is what you do,” Caleb tells him. “This is what you make my body do.”
The pounding of his heart is loud in his ears, and he counts a hundred and two beats as Essek traces him from base to tip, palming the length, expression changing from something close to fear to interest and now, after a whole minute, the intense curiosity that allowed Caleb to recognize his attraction in the first place. Essek’s fingers trace firmly over the head of his cock and he exhales shakily.
“There is much we can do just like this, because you are new and I might as well be so it won’t take very long, but I think you are of the opinion that learning should be in stages, yes?”
“Usually,” Essek says, and he surprises Caleb by pressing against him, angle accurate on the first rut of his hips. The feel is nearly electric, so much so they both sigh and clutch at one another, Essek strung finely tight. Caleb starts pushing him toward the bed.
“You have the right instincts,” he tells him, Essek falling in an artless spread when he hits the edge of the low mattress. “I thought we might start with the building blocks, so you can see what it will be like but under a controlled environment.”
Understanding the lingo but not how it might be applied, Essek looks up at him. Nods. “Show me.”
Caleb nudges him further up, reclining him against the pillows; his knees are tight together until Caleb coaxes them apart. He settles himself between thighs that close around him in intermittent squeezes that don’t seem to be well controlled and kisses Essek’s neck, very much aroused by his delightful trembling and short quick breaths. He kisses to relax him by giving him something to familiar to focus on, which works well until Caleb pushes his hips forward more, down, in, and grinds his cock to Essek’s.
Then, Essek puts nails in Caleb’s back, his words in Undercommon when he grits them out. Caleb understands more and oh and the lilt in his own name. He understands the word that means something like sweeting but more...important. Reverent.
“Have you ever touched yourself?” Caleb asks. “Have you ever come?” He braces his hands on either side of Essek’s shoulders, his hips mimicking sex in exactly the slow way he personally likes. Essek, panting, doesn’t respond, hooking one slim leg around Caleb’s back and squeezing them closer and harder together. They grind in quick, rough movements for a moment before Caleb pulls back, stilling, Essek’s whine deeply gratifying.
“Stop that,” Caleb tells him. “This will be over too soon if you do that. Besides, you didn’t answer me.”
“I have satisfied urges that weren’t productive,” he says at last, trying to get Caleb to simulate fucking again with a sharp roll of his body. Caleb acquiesces with a sigh. “But it has been...many, many years...I have lost count...Caleb...”
Essek is a mess beneath him, pulling at him, both legs around him now, his hips losing rhythm as his breathing increases. Caleb holds him and rolls over onto his back, Essek following with a confused noise. Now reversed, Essek braces his hands on Caleb’s chest, looking down at him with unfettered surprise and splayed knees. Caleb shifts them both until they slot together, pleased when violet eyes flutter but don’t close.
As expected, Essek is slow with something new, his hips still as he takes in everything first with his eyes, straightening his back and frowning a little as he works to understand this in context with what they did before, clearly cataloguing in his scintillating mind every movement and what it has led to. Caleb raises his knees to give Essek something to lean against, which he’s surprised by but seems to like, if his shudder and sigh are any tell. Caleb laces their fingers together. Shifts with his hips until they get into a rhythm, one Caleb is familiar with. He wishes they didn’t have any clothes on. He could make this really good if they don’t have clothes on.
Each moment that passes, each breath and oh, ah is tense and hot, Essek unbelievably easy—of course he is, this new for this long. Caleb, focused on the quaking of his body and realizing that this is about to end, sits up with one arm around Essek’s waist and the other braced on the bed, grinding together like his life depends on it. The orgasm takes Essek by surprise, tosses his head back and pulls a longer, louder noise from his throat, a gasp, a whimper like nothing Caleb’s ever heard. It makes him clutch at Caleb’s shoulders enough to hurt. He’s stronger than Caleb has always thought, and he wonders what else Essek has held back.
“You seemed to like that,” Caleb says softly, still throbbing himself and trying to capture in his mind what Essek looks like here, body sweaty and boneless, gold dust smeared, his expression unrestricted in the most intimate way. Essek finally meets his eyes and gives a slack-mouthed nod. He shudders, his hips pushing down against Caleb. There is a distinct difference in them now, Essek softening as Caleb only swells.
Kisses are shared, Essek slowly rousing into clarity now that he’s sated. He watches Caleb with the intense eyes of someone who has found a new favorite fascination. “How do I return the favor?” he asks, putting his hand to Caleb’s stomach, then down, between them, to rub his palm against Caleb’s trapped cock. “Can I do this?”
«You can do whatever you want,» Caleb gasps, losing his control of the situation. He wants nothing more than to let go, but now that the opportunity has arrived, he’s having trouble allowing it to complete. He’s always been his own worst enemy, in so many ways.
«Do you mean that?» Essek asks, still and waiting.
«Yes. Whatever you like.» Either it will work or it won’t, he tells himself. Might as well try.
Essek slides off him but doesn’t go far, maneuvering Caleb’s legs around him until he’s kneeling between Caleb’s thighs, both hands pressing against his cock, feeling him, his touch too much and not enough at once. Caleb traps him with a squeeze of his thighs, head falling to the side, his heart ratcheting up again. Being the object of attention under the ministration of someone who is as naturally thorough and inquisitive as himself makes him dizzy, his whole body responding in tightening of muscle and shaking limb. Clearly learning to continue what he’s doing when Caleb makes a specific noise or movement, Essek, previously uncertain, is certain now. He murmurs to Caleb in Zemnian, encouraging him, and when Caleb thinks he definitely might be able to come, Essek surprises him by unbuttoning his pants and—
Essek’s strange coolness is more apparent now than ever before, his hand light where it touches bare, hot, responsive skin. Neither of them are breathing.
«This is okay?» he asks, and Caleb can’t articulate even to himself how much he enjoys hearing his own language. Sometimes he forgets that they don’t necessarily need to use Common when alone, now that they are overlapping two more languages together. Next time, Caleb tells himself, he’ll use Undercommon.
«Everything you do is okay,» he sighs, eyes on slim indigo fingers wrapped around his cock. The first half dozen strokes push him right to the edge, despite a brief awkwardness, but Essek’s palm over the sensitive, exposed head, his Zemnian compliments (nearly too much in themselves, about how attractive and well-made he is), all surge together until Caleb teeters right on the fine line of falling before crashing, hard and messy, as he comes all over Essek’s hand and wrist, his own bare stomach. He doesn’t realize he’s gone silent until he recognizes it in the room, the same sounds from before seeming louder now in the absence of Essek’s panting and his own low, aching moans.
Caleb pushes Essek’s still-exploring hand away, stomach twitching in response. «Too much,» he says, strangely pleased by the curiosity. «Maybe later.»
Essek looks up at him, the ribbons on his hand, then, long and curious, at Caleb’s spent cock. «When?»
«Not soon enough for you, I think.» Rolling his eyes with fond pleasure, Caleb waves his fingers in a triangle-ellipses in the air, murmurs, and cleans the come from his body, gesturing toward Essek to do the same, but Essek surprises him by jerking his hand away and slapping his other over Caleb’s mouth to prevent the incantation from completing.
«What are you doing?» he asks, accent imperfect as he tries more words in more sentences than he usually does. It’s terribly sweet, the trying.
Caleb holds up his hands as if in surrender. Essek lets him speak. «If you haven’t noticed, you’re a bit, ah. Defiled.»
Essek tilts his head. Says the word but incorrectly. He doesn’t know defile or its conjugations.
Caleb can’t help the amusement that creeps into his smile and reaches for Essek’s hand again—having to coax him into giving it—before swiping his tongue on one delicate smeared knuckle, salt on his tongue. “Defiled.”
A wild blush spreads on Essek’s face, all the way down his neck. He says quick words in Undercommon (Caleb realizes he will need to practice a lot more), and when Caleb tries a second time to get the mess off his skin, Essek again pulls away.
«No,» he says. «Leave it longer.» He’s even more embarrassed than he usually is—mortified, maybe—but he seems strangely defensive as well, and...possessive over the moment. Wanting to hold himself in that space where Caleb marked him, where Essek literally drew passion out of him. Then, «I want to remember this.»
«Right,» Caleb says, chuckling. «You are the sweet one.»
«I don’t mind being sweet with you.» He eyes his hand again. Caleb knows he’s going to do it, but he still catches his breath when Essek swipes a tongue at his wrist, pauses, and frowns.
«Not what you expected?» Caleb asks, endeared beyond his previous comprehension. Yes, Essek is licking Caleb’s come off his skin. He can still be precious at the same time.
«No,» he says, slow and careful, «but I had not thought to expect...anything.»
«Awful?» Caleb asks, striving for casual but feeling strangely like he’s the most serious he’s been all night. He manages not to close his arms or fold himself away. Essek is still in the post-orgasm moment, and Caleb doesn’t want to take anything from him.
Essek looks up at him with furrowed brows. «No. Interesting.» He softens a little. «It is you. It cannot be awful.»
It’s another fifteen minutes of conversation (Caleb grateful to be allowed to tuck himself away early on) wherein they discuss, strangely or not strangely at all, a transmutation book Essek has just finished at Caleb’s behest, before Essek is ready to clean up. First, he tries the same incantation as Caleb, his finger movements much more elegant and practiced, his own words for the spell different—Undercommon—but nothing happens.
«Next time,» Caleb says. «May I?»
Essek nods, his sadness in slumped shoulders and the loss of some good mood. When he’s clean, Caleb sits up and curls both arms around him, kissing him slow. «Don’t think about that,» he says, mindful to speak slower than is natural. Essek is doing well, but he’s still learning. «Think about this. Think about me.»
«You are...» He sighs against Caleb’s mouth. «I don’t know the words.»
«Use your language,» Caleb murmurs, and finds it interesting, in the moment, that if he could he would pause time and stay here until he had his fill; he’s always wanted to reverse or speed up, never simply fixate on the good moments. «I will try to understand.»
«I am much too shy,» he says, cupping Caleb’s face in his hand. «Allow me to practice yours instead.»
They kiss a little more until Essek slides off him in one smooth movement and walks quietly to the dresser across the room. Caleb watches, his back as smooth as the rest of him, lightly muscled in the soft way of those who never had to use their bodies to work or fight. The leggings emphasize the curve of his ass, something Caleb finds quite enjoyable. He doesn’t get to see it much.
Then Essek peels the leggings off, treating Caleb to several long seconds of unbroken twilight skin. Since Essek doesn’t say anything, neither does Caleb, but he definitely utilizes his memory to burn a copy in his brain. When Essek lifts his arms to slide into a silk sleep shirt, Caleb knows for sure he has a small patch of white under each arm, as well as at the base of his cock. His mouth is dry.
Essek returns to him, sitting on the edge of the bed, his shirt riding up to expose an exciting several inches of thigh. Caleb shifts so he can ogle him more easily. «I think you all know,» Essek says, Caleb thrilling more and more at each sentence that doesn’t return to Common, «that I have been...sleep. Ah.»
«Sleeping,» Caleb confirms.
«Sleeping, yes. I can’t...» He waits, eyebrows raised.
«Trance.» Caleb sits up and picks up Essek’s hand, kissing the back of his knuckles gently. «Yes, we know. You are very cute when you are sleeping.»
«Only once.» Caleb kisses his wrist, his shoulder. Essek shivers but doesn’t pull away. «You did not respond to two messages. We were concerned. I checked on you.» He smiles. «You snore, a little.»
Essek looks vaguely disgusted for a moment, which surprises Caleb, who assumed he’d be embarrassed based on prior experience. «I hate sleeping. It is too deep. I don’t know what is around me. It takes too long. Noises are made. It is not dignified.»
Caleb thinks for a long moment. «Perhaps you would enjoy it more if you had a partner.»
Essek blinks slowly at him with his lace lashes; it’s the only gesture he makes, but the lofty angle of his neck gives it some of his usual arrogant attitude. Caleb loves it.
«Don’t make that face at me,» Caleb tells him. «Let me sleep here with you tonight. I don’t sleep as deeply. You can trust me. Think about waking up with me. That is nice, yes?»
As if realizing another option, Essek gives him a tilted look. «And we can—again?»
Caleb smiles at him, fingers light on Essek’s chin for a moment. «I am unable to, but if you want, I can show you something else.»
Nodding, Essek leans into Caleb, hand curving around the back of his neck. «Please. Yes.»
After Essek learns how important oil is to handjobs, after Caleb has changed into a shirt similar to Essek’s and Essek is clean again, after they are curled together and Caleb has his head over Essek’s heart, they play with each other’s fingers and recite vocabulary. The mediocrity of it makes Caleb’s voice a little rough at some points. At others, he can hear Essek’s heart speed up.
He’s just beginning to move into more arcane words—which is what Essek really wants, for some old Arcanum books he has copied but can’t understand—when he gets a whispering Jester in his head.
Hi, Caleb! I bet you are having a really good time right now, so we won’t bother you, but are you safe? At the inn?
He silences Essek with a finger to his lips. «Good evening,» he starts, then clears his throat. “We are safe at the inn. I...will be with Essek tonight.” Essek sighs. “I hope you don’t get lonely without me. Good night, Jester.”
«Not all twenty-five words are needed,» Essek says, and Caleb is pleased that he’s finding ways to practice numbers as well.
«She sees it as wasting the spell otherwise,» Caleb explains, fond.
Essek repeats ‘wasting.’ Caleb translates. Kisses him. Dispels their candles until they are deep in darkness, only a sliver of light from the beneath the door and some fireworks sparking in the window to give them anything to see by.
Caleb realizes something in a shock of understanding, shifting to brace himself as he looks down at Essek, still and relaxed but completely hidden in darkness. «You can see me in the dark, can’t you?»
«Yes,» Essek says, his voice closer than before. «The colors are, ah...gray colors, different kinds. I cannot see your hair is red.»
«But you see me fairly clearly, yes?»
«I missed the z...words.»
“Fairly clearly.” He realizes he’s cultivating for himself a learned response, and doesn’t think he minds getting excited when Essek speaks Zemnian.
«Oh yes,» he says. «Very much so. You should kiss me more. Before sleeping.»
As Caleb leans in to do just that, Essek stops him with a sigh. «Jester.» He mimics Caleb’s pronunciation, which is...pleasant. Then, “I appreciate the concern, Jester, but if anything were to happen, we would of course be safe. Sleep well.” At Caleb’s look, Essek sighs again. “Caleb...is...a nice...young man.”
«Oh boy,» Caleb laughs, «she will definitely burn another one to send right back. You have done it now.»
«You said!» Essek exclaims, with more energy than Caleb thinks he’s ever heard outside of...some new things. Then he groans. «I want to be sleeping.»
«Plenty of time for that,» Caleb says, settling close to him again. «Let’s see if you kick like Caduceus, hmm?»
Essek kisses his cheekbone, surprising Caleb in the darkness as the one who cannot see in it, and they wind down together; the sound of fireworks at the water’s edge remind him of thunder.
Right as Caleb is about to drift off, Essek exhales forcefully. Then, after a pause, “Jester. Hello again.”