When they are able to have their second proper sit-down, still needing to head further in before they can make camp for a full night, Caleb checks on Beau before walking across the small untouched section of floor they’ve found and settling next to Essek. He’s got his legs folded beneath him and his back bent as he writes in a small, dark green notebook. Caleb is interested in the pen he holds—brass body, gold nib, strange lever on the side.
Once Caleb is beside him, Essek closes the book. With only a peek at what he’d been writing, Caleb recognizes the script as Elvish, has familiarity with the word Aeor, but nothing else jumps out. Essek gives him a pointed look, waiting for Caleb to speak.
“Your handwriting is pretty,” Caleb says. “Or is that the script?”
“Column A, Column B,” Essek says, his usual smile a little muted.
“I suppose when you can practice for decades at a time, you get good at anything you do, ja?”
“Mostly. When the inclination is there.” He looks out toward Yasha, who is checking the perimeter with Caduceus. “For example, I am a poor violinist.”
“You, poor at anything? I can’t imagine it.”
“You, poor at imagination? I can’t imagine it.”
“And what do you know of my imagination?”
The flirting is so natural, Caleb almost wonders if Essek knows that’s what they’re doing. It’s what he’s doing, at least.
“Jester told me of your tower.” Essek glances at him; Caleb can feel it as though it is a physical touch. “You have a…generous imagination.”
Caleb tries not to smile but ultimately fails. He rarely gets a chance to impress Essek, and he thinks he has done so a few times today. “How are you doing?”
At this, Essek’s little heart-shaped mouth frowns. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, how are you doing? Do you regularly traipse about through ancient arcane ruins with a group of bumbling assholes?”
Expression easing, Essek gives an exhale of amusement. “That would be a no. Also, you are not assholes. But I am a little shocked at how well you all perform when you have to fight. The synergy is fascinating.”
“You mean to say we are really good at beating things up together.”
“Yes.” He looks thoughtful for a moment, as he disappears his notebook and pen. Caleb makes a mental note to ask him about the pen later. “It’s the ‘together’ part that was most interesting. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like what Veth, Yasha, and Beauregard did today.”
A screeching sound makes Essek jump, Caleb moving into a crouch in front of him before he realizes the sound was Beau, who was letting Caduceus try a salve on one of her burns. It does not work well. Caleb settles back in his previous position, though perhaps a little closer. He forgets how small Essek is when he isn’t floating, currently looking like one of those fluffy cats who, were you to dump it in water, is actually the size of a baguette. Everything Caleb can feel pressed against him is cloth and fur, Essek’s compact body somewhere deeper inside.
“They are particularly impressive,” Caleb says, picking up the conversation again. “As are you. Willing to fist-fight a giant.”
Essek coughs, the tips of his ears and his cheeks more purple than bluish slate. “When I practice my art, I am not typically doing it to preserve my life. I panicked.”
“You will, unfortunately, learn to move past that while you’re with us, I think.”
“There are worse things,” he says.
“Yes,” Caleb says.
They both fall quiet after that, Essek twisting his fingers over and over again in a way that looks like nervous habit, but the space between them without words feels fairly comfortable, at least to Caleb. He thinks for a moment about a few of the experiences that led to Essek being here right now, and he still has a hard time believing any of them. Seven months ago, they didn’t know Essek even existed in the world, and it’s barely seven weeks since they learned Essek was in fact the traitor but was also, unexpectedly, deeply allied to them now; now Essek is here, his display of magic more beautiful than Caleb could have possibly imagined, his trust in them so strong while being so newly sprouted. His battle instincts need some work, but that will come in time. Caleb feels good at what they’re accomplishing, if they can take such an arrogant loner and turn him into someone who has made it a habit to refer to them as ‘my friends’ in front of anyone they meet.
“You have a protective streak,” Essek says, fluffing his cloak around him and huddling further into it. “Either that or you assume I can’t handle myself. This is twice now a noise has put you into defensive mode.”
“The first bit,” Caleb assures him. “It is habit. You are new, and I worry.”
“Did you worry for Dagen?”
“You’ve met him. Do you think I worried about Dagen?”
Essek looks him over thoughtfully. His eyes are very beautiful, shallow-set and round and a rich, true violet. His lush white eyelashes regularly distract Caleb. “Yes, I think you worried about Dagen. But probably because you forgot to worry about him first.”
“Oh,” Caleb says, “that was unexpectedly accurate.”
He gets a slow-eyed blink and ghostly smile in return, learning that this is Essek relaxed. “So,” he says, rather conversationally. “Using polymorph in such a way was…ingenious. I would not have thought to do such a thing in a fight.”
Ah, here it is, what Caleb has been waiting for since he first flourished a spell in front of Essek. “Thank you,” he says. “Please, continue lauding me for my abilities. I do enjoy hearing it.”
A chuckle. Essek actually leans into him to bump his shoulder, briefly. “It made me realize I need to review what I have and think about alternative applications. I’m not sure if an academic mind is best utilized in a dungeon.”
“Probably not,” Caleb says. Then, thinking he might as well give it a shot, “I’d be happy to review your spells with you to help inform you on those applications. I have much experience in this area. You would do well to heed my advice.”
Essek blinks slow at him again. “Are you trying to persuade me to show you my whole spellbook.” The disbelief is thick in his voice, but he’s almost smiling.
“For alternative application purposes,” Caleb says, working to keep himself from being too playful. He can’t help it, though; sometimes fighting leaves him a little exhilarated, almost carefree. He doesn’t get to experience the feeling much, so he tends to over-drink it.
Essek observes him for a moment. “How about this,” he says. “You show me yours, I’ll show you mine.”
Caleb definitely feels his heart do something in his chest, a roundhouse kick down into his gut or a launch into space, maybe. His eyes drop to Essek’s mouth, which is still slightly upturned at one edge, his sharp little canine hidden. Beau once had a whole conversation to Caleb’s face about Essek’s pointy teeth, and Caleb couldn’t stop thinking about them idly for hours. He knows he has it bad. He has it bad for a handful of people, honestly, another of them in this very room loudly telling Fjord that the Traveler is the best god they’ve got in the group for sure as Caduceus communes with the Wildmother, but something about Essek is painful in a good way. It hurts to want him so much. To want his attention so much. There’s a reason Caleb deliberately goes out of his way to speak to him, when Essek sits on the fringes like a windblown flower—Essek is more likely to be personable one-on-one, and the others are less likely to interrupt them. Caleb isn’t the only one wanting Caleb to kiss Essek, it seems.
“I take that as a no,” Essek says primly.
“Well. What do you want me to show you?”
“What do you want to show me?”
He does love when Essek responds to questions with questions, despite how infuriating it is. Caleb can’t resist what is a clearly coy tone. “Why would you think I wish to show you something?”
Picking up on the play, Essek does flash a tooth now when he smiles. Caleb thinks it would be sharp enough to draw blood, if either of them were eager enough. “How else will you get more praise from me?”
Oh, that’s a good one. Caleb licks his very dry lips. “What would get the most praise?”
Essek’s eyes flick down to Caleb’s mouth, then back up again. The room is warmer, Essek leaning a little closer, Caleb feeling a lot reckless. Essek says, “What is the most technically exciting?”
“Are we still talking about spells?” he asks, voice dropped low as his heart beats a hot racket in his chest.
Essek slow blinks. “What else would we be talking about?” His voice is low as well, in pitch and intensity.
For a moment, Caleb thinks he really doesn’t understand, that maybe this whole time the slight energy he thought he’d been feeling from Essek is actually confusion. To be sure, he says, after clearing his throat, “Are you really as restrained as you seem?”
“In what way?” He hasn’t looked anywhere else but at Caleb, steady, almost smug as he maintains the game.
“Have you ever,” Caleb says, each word deliberate, “fucked?”
Lowered eyes now, some delicate sensibilities affronted. There’s a very weighty pause, heavy between them. Caleb thinks the answer is surely no, but the longer Essek takes to respond, the more his brain starts to short out. The answer is yes, he thinks. Essek has fucked. Or been fucked. Or done something of the sort that is in the realm of fucking. The arrogant floaty hot boy who was so chaste in showing them inches of skin at a time has undressed with someone, been intimate with someone. Used those teeth on the inside of a thigh, maybe. What even is Essek’s type? Is it Caleb? There’s been quite little indication of attraction on Essek’s part, outside of Caleb simply wanting it to be so, the glances at his mouth moments ago being the strongest indicator he’s ever had.
Essek says, eyes still lowered, “What do you think?”
Exhaling through his nose, wanting to be done with the game but not wanting to lose, Caleb says, almost helplessly, “Why don’t you tell me?”
There’s another excruciatingly long pause. Essek does not seem to care that Caleb is combusting. “Would you be surprised to learn that I have had four partners?”
In a way, the frost giants were less of a surprise than that. Finding Mollymauk’s grave empty was less of a surprise than that. The Traveler being a fake god was less of a surprise than that. “Do you actually think I suspected you to have had twice as many as me?”
At this Essek laughs, the unbearable tension between them easing some. Were they somewhere safe with Caleb still feeling this impulsive, Caleb would have kissed him long before now, too stirred by the verbal foreplay. His distrust of Essek is waning, and fast. He wouldn’t have dared indulge these specific thoughts or interactions before Eiselcross.
“Would you feel better,” Essek says, all but saying the words into Caleb’s mouth for as close as he is, “if I said it’s been almost thirty years since the last one?”
“A little,” Caleb says, “as it’s been over a decade for me.” He doesn’t miss the way Essek’s lips slip into a little triumphant smile at winning the game. “Essek.” Faint. Rough.
The moment between them stretches like taffy, and Caleb is almost positive that Essek, his eyes now on Caleb’s mouth with an intensity he didn’t have before, will be the one to kiss first. The waiting for it is maddening. He doesn’t breathe.
“We aren’t alone,” Essek reminds him at last, leaning away now and looking toward their friends. Caleb looks too.
Jester, Beau, Veth, and Yasha all quickly look away, talking loudly amongst themselves in sentences that don’t make sense at all for a conversation. Fjord and Caduceus are sitting quietly together, drinking tea Fjord clearly doesn’t care for and minding their own business.
Caleb knows he shouldn’t, but he says, after a long moment, “Beauregard can read lips.”
Essek is utterly silent and still for five or so seconds as he stares at the still-pretending-they-weren’t-snooping ladies. Then, “Ah.”
Reaching out, Caleb cups Essek’s cheek and turns him until they are meeting eyes again. Essek’s mouth has parted lightly at Caleb’s touch. “You never told me what you want to see in my spellbook.” He drops his hand but he doesn’t want to. Essek’s skin is like velvet. Caleb wants to unwrap him and find more.
“I’d like to see anything in your spellbook,” he says. “You show me one, I’ll show you one.”
It’s a fair trade, one Caleb should take him up on, but the prospect of showing Essek his own work has him oddly shy. “I like that idea,” he says, “but maybe it would be best to do something like that when we are more comfortable and have more time.”
“Of course,” Essek says mildly, an edge of teasing in his tone. “You need to make sure yours will be very exciting.”
Indeed. “Four, huh?” he says, pondering that more closely. “Hmm.” Essek only said partners, which meant the possibilities were endless.
“Are you shaming me?”
Caleb throws back his head and laughs, still feeling buoyant and light. “Of course not. Only trying to imagine who would catch your attention. You don’t seem particularly easy to get.”
“I am less obvious than I think, then.”
“And that means what?”
“Are we playing the question game again?”
Caleb groans, rubbing at his forehead. “Please, no.”
Essek turns completely around, until he’s facing the wall, coaxing Caleb to follow. Caleb does. Behind them, Beau lets out a whine. Essek tips close enough to Caleb that putting an arm around him is the most obvious thing for Caleb to do. “You caught my attention.” He whispers it like it’s someone else’s secret he shouldn’t be revealing.
“When was that?” Caleb asks, enjoying their intimacy enough that he can forget, temporarily, that there are aspects of Essek’s keen intellect that make him very nervous because Essek is currently not affecting the façade of a traitorous mastermind. He’s simply being a young man.
“Do you mean, when was the first time?”
“It’s happened more than once.”
“The first time, then.” He basks in the feeling of being desired, which has a strange power of its own. This should be a conversation shared while undressing one another, but he will take it however he can get it.
“When you and Beauregard walked me home,” he said. “Your interest in my ley line device. My home. If it had been just you, I would have invited you to see my laboratory right then.”
“You’re saying you would have attempted to seduce me with your wizard’s tower.”
“Well,” Essek says, “not that night, but it would have crossed my mind as a thought.”
That is interesting. “Are you often the seducer?”
“I’ve never not been,” he says, his voice especially soft, as though the others might have extendable ears they can launch. “In the sense that, if I wanted something, I asked for it. Most people are intimidated by me, by design. I don’t have to combat unwarranted attention very often.”
There’s an entirely new category of thoughts in Caleb’s head now. He almost doesn’t know what to do with them. “When was the second time?”
Essek laughs. His shoulders shift under Caleb’s arm as he pulls away, touching the tips of his gloved fingers to Caleb’s mouth, briefly. “I’ll have to tell you later,” he says, and he stands before lifting into his typical float. “The others are ready to leave.”
After their third fight, a demilich stirred up when Fjord picked up a jewel-encrusted skull from a nondescript chair, the snow hasn’t even settled when Jester lets out a gasp.
“Essek, you’re bleeding!”
Essek looks down at his hands, his chest, trying to feel for where he might have gotten skewered, but so far he can’t see or feel anything. He’s been a little rocked, though, so he could be delirious with adrenaline and pain. He can’t believe he didn’t get knocked out, if he’s honest.
“Here,” Yasha says, and she reaches out to touch Essek’s face. “Your lip is busted, oh no.”
Jester gasps again. “Oh my gosh, not his mouth! He needs that to kiss!”
Essek lets out a disbelieving breath. This team. Not five seconds have gone by that they’ve been out of danger, and already the well-oiled war machine has broken apart at the joints.
“Is everyone else okay?” Fjord asks, as Caduceus finishes healing Caleb, who is slow to get to his feet.
“I could use a drink,” Beau says, “I dunno about anyone else.”
Yes, me, Essek wants to say, but doesn’t. He’s still not completely comfortable with where he stands with them as a group as he tries to remind himself regularly that they practically begged him to come along, though how much use he’s actually been so far he isn’t sure. It’s clear that while he spent his life in libraries, these folk have taken their knowledge and weaponized it in the field. He is well behind them in this arena, and that is a strange sensation for him indeed. Normally he only feels out of place in…well, any social situation. Essek is a master at following the script of the story, and while he knows a vast amount of stories, these people don’t play by any script. It forces him to do something he rarely has to do: Be himself.
While Caduceus and Jester work on healing the group, Yasha gives Essek a smile and extends her hand. “May I?”
Unsure of what she means, he gestures for her to continue. She touches her fingertips to his mouth, which stings and causes him to hiss in a breath. “Sorry,” she murmurs, as though she’s the one who hurt him. Essek thinks she might be his favorite out of all of them, though he’d never admit to it aloud. The assumption is Caleb is his favorite; he doesn’t see a reason to dispel it. As soon as he thinks about how sweet her eyes really are up close, the pain in his lip fades. “There,” Yasha says. “I can do that much, at least.”
He touches around his mouth, chin. Even the ache in his jaw that rocked his neck on his shoulders dissipates. “Thank you,” he says, hoping he sounds sufficiently grateful. “You are appreciated.”
“So are you,” she says, patting his shoulder before moving to Beau, putting arms around her from behind. Essek rather likes both of them, he thinks. He did not expect that.
After they have inspected the perimeter and feel they are in a sufficiently safe area, they congregate together in the middle of what seems to be a large room of some sort, though without doors or windows, and with only a small, narrow passageway leading north-northeast. Caduceus and Fjord both feel they need to make camp now and take a long rest, while Beau thinks they need to see what else is beyond that passageway before they stop for the evening. Essek stands slightly to the side as he inspects his component pouch, mentally counting what he’s still able to do and how many times he’s able to do it. He doesn’t expect Caleb’s arm around his waist, drawing him into their circle, but there it is. For a moment Essek thinks Caleb is going to keep it there, but he doesn’t. Somehow, he is both disappointed and relieved.
“We very much nearly had to have my funeral just now,” Caleb says somberly, “and Essek, I think, has taken his first ever punch to the face. It’s better if we stop now and proceed tomorrow, unless Dagen has other information for us. We can check in topside first.”
It is, in fact, his first ever punch to the face. He wishes to never repeat the experience.
“Let’s check in with Dagen,” Veth says, “and maybe Beau and I can go down that passageway a little—”
“Bad idea,” Caduceus says; Fjord makes a very distinct, loud noise of agreement. “I think we all need to stick together, and I think we need to settle down before we get ahead of ourselves. We’ve done enough poking about for one day. If we’ve got time, we need to take it, as we may not have it later.”
“But what if there’s a way better area not too far away?” Beau argues. “What if it’s more secure, or safer? We don’t know what’s there, and that means we can’t be positive we are safe here.”
“Let’s check in with Dagen first,” Fjord says, nodding toward Essek, who pulls his heavy, priceless stone from his haversack. “If he says they look good, then we know we at least won’t have to turn back around now.”
“Do we need any supplies?” Jester asks. “Like, anything we could get Dagen to put at the entrance for us that we need to—”
“Not worth it,” Caleb says. “Especially not for them. They need to stay out of sight as much as possible.”
They all turn to look at Essek now, waiting.
“Oh, this is my part,” Essek says, holding up the stone to his mouth and clearing his throat. “Dagen,” he says quietly, speaking against the stone itself to make sure the sound gets through. “We may have found a safe space to rest for the evening. How is the surrounding area? Are you safe?”
The answer comes immediately, a tiny voice issuing from the stone. Essek holds it to his ear to hear better. “Well hello, boss. Things clear up here. Bit of a storm coming through. No visuals on enemy yet. Your folk have been mighty respectful.”
Smiling, Essek relays the entire message word for word. The last sentence has them all laughing, an unexpected tension breaking and making their surroundings feel a little safer, even if it’s only an illusion. Essek never knew laughter could be so important.
The next several minutes involve a considerable amount of arguing, with Beau changing her mind but Veth becoming more convinced that exploring a little farther is the better idea. Caleb tempts them all with his tower if they will make camp now. Fjord and Caduceus like that idea, and Beau asks Caleb for a good bar they can all get drunk in. Yasha says Beau’s ideas are the best. Jester wants to see what’s down the hallway, then get in the tower. Caduceus and Fjord both make multiple checks to look for undead or magical creatures, items, anything. Then Caleb puts forth the suggestion that, perhaps, saving that spell level might be a good idea if this is not, in fact, a secure area. The dome might be smarter, and do the tower when they are more certain of their surroundings.
Finally, Yasha says, “Essek, what do you think?”
He raises eyebrows as they all turn to look at him. “I think you all have good points,” he says diplomatically.
“But what should we do?” Veth asks. “You can speak up more, you know. You’re in this as much as we are.”
The confirmation is…nice to hear. Essek tries not to let himself react visibly to hearing the words. “Well,” he says, considering, “there seems to be a consensus that we are not sure if we are safe here, which is leading to a need to conserve our abilities. I am able to create a…a privacy ward that would alert us to intruders and conceal this area to view. It would ensure as much safety as I think we can ask for at a time like this, while allowing Caleb to erect his tower.”
“Erect,” Beau says.
“Then,” Essek says, trying to ignore her as the women and Caduceus all snicker, “we can make a better plan for tomorrow.”
“I think that decides it,” Fjord says. “Best plan of the night, sorry Jester.”
“Essek,” Jester says, her sad face outrageously put on. “Come ooooon. You aren’t the littlest bit curious what’s down there?”
“I am,” Essek says. “But I am very much more interested in a hot bath.”
“What else?” Caleb asks.
Essek stares at him, unsure if he’s meant to respond to that in front of everyone. The Nein are very comfortable with things like nudity and making out with one another, so their particular social mores seem a bit…different from what Essek is used to. Yasha also looks at Caleb with a similar expression as Essek.
“What do we all want tonight specifically?” Caleb clarifies, rolling his eyes. “Minds in the gutter, all of you.”
“You’re the one straight up asking people if they’ve fucked,” Beau says.
There’s a long silence punctured by Jester’s hysterical laughter.
Caleb has the decency to blush, at least, which he does enthusiastically, refusing to meet anyone’s eyes as he stares up at the ceiling. “Okay, I will say this once. If you want something very specific tonight for comfort, please tell me now before the tower goes up. And if you make any smart jokes, I will do the opposite of what you ask.”
“Just some really good tea for me,” Caduceus says, “like, a lot of really hot water and my very best tea, please.”
Jester says, “Caleb, can we maybe do dinner at a bar or something, like maybe do the Evening Nip or something, where my mama can perform and I can watch my dad watch my mama with heart eyes and we can do some dancing and stuff?”
“Fighting pit would be cool,” Beau says dreamily. “Like, right in the middle of the Nip. We’ll teach Essek some moves.”
“No,” Essek says.
“Caleb,” Fjord says thoughtfully, “do you think you could make the Nip feel and sound like it’s in the Lucidian Ocean?”
“I’ll be happy with some good food,” Veth says. “And maybe a foot rub from a handsome man.”
“Looking like your husband?” Caleb offers.
“Eh,” Veth says, “I’m not picky. As long as it’s not undead, I’m game.”
Yasha requests a pole that can slide from Beau’s room into hers.
“And you?” Caleb asks Essek. “Just a hot bath?”
“Well,” Essek says. “I wouldn’t turn down some comfortable clothes and a bottle of Solvia Groves cognac hors d’âge.”
Beau whistles. “You’re a fancy boy, Essek. Real fancy.”
“Very fancy,” Caduceus says. “I don’t even know those words, so it has to be fancy.”
Essek shrugs. “I can appreciate fine things,” he says, looking at Caleb. Caleb smiles only a little. “I will secure the area, then, if we are decided on what to do?”
They are decided, they say. Essek removes some things from his component pouch, aware of Caleb watching him. He maybe flourishes a bit more than is strictly necessary, elongates his movements, speaks more softly. When the soft shockwave has dissipated, he bows to Caleb.
“Your turn,” he says.
The guest room is nice. Essek admires the painting above the fireplace, of the Xhorhas house with its enormous, improbable tree sticking out, all lit with beautiful floating orbs. Essek sees himself in the painting, holding a bottle of wine, about to knock on the door. He wonders what his life would have looked like if he’d never knocked.
There is a large, round obsidian tub in the next room over filled with steaming water, the air warm and thick with incense, a low couch bearing two large, fluffy towels and a stack of clothes in shades of plum. The nearby vanity holds a large mirror, many small bottles and pots of various cosmetics and perfumes, lit candles, and his requested bottle of cognac with a snifter waiting beside.
Essek pours himself a generous amount first before he undresses, dropping all of his clothes, including his heavy overcoat, in the basket marked ‘Dirty, To Be Washed.’ The clothes vanish and he turns to the tub.
The water is so hot he hisses, setting his glass on the small table angled nearby for this purpose. He sinks down, down, down, before he slips beneath the surface, breath held, and lets all the tension and latent terror fade from his bones before he rises for breath, repeating it a few times to make sure he really has left the rest of the day behind him.
He takes his time and scrubs his feet, his hands, arms, face. Sips the cognac and rolls it around his tongue, looking up at the dark wood-paneled ceiling, half missing home and half thinking that this is home. He washes his hair twice with a luscious, sweet-smelling sand marked for this purpose. Three times the water gurgles, pops, and becomes clear again for him. The temperature never lowers.
By the time he’s out and has dried and styled his hair he feels like a brand new person, almost strong, even despite his aches and still-bruised muscles, and looks at himself in the mirror. His lip isn’t split or bleeding anymore, but there’s a faint shade of purple along his jaw that is a warmer tone than his skin. He supposes he could’ve asked for more healing from Jester or Caduceus, but he likes knowing that what he has is what Yasha gave him, and besides, he finds the bruise is a little thrilling. Proof that he left his room and did something out in the world.
If his mother knew, she might be less disappointed in him. Impressing an Umavi had always been difficult, but his particular mother made the feat all the more impossible.
After he dresses in flowing pants and a flowing shirt and slips his feet into leather slippers, he takes his bottle and snifter and explores the tower with curiosity—the salon, the kitchens, dining room—finding himself marginally worked up about Caleb and his exquisite mind before floating down to the second floor where the others have already congregated and are just starting to eat at a large table left alone by spectral patrons.
They don’t notice him at first, so he waits by the door and watches, realizes that there is a plush empty chair at the table that is probably for him. The room shifts and sways lightly, the sound of ocean water and ocean birds soft with the closed windows. Essek tries not to get sick, takes a deep breath of courage, and approaches them.
“That’s mine, that’s mine,” Jester is saying, stabbing at something Fjord is trying to take with a fork. “Fjord, that’s mine!”
“You had the last three,” Fjord says, stabbing back at her with his own fork before picking up whatever it is with his fingers and popping it into his mouth. “Besides, Caleb can make more, right, Caleb?”
“Caleb can make more,” Caleb says. The empty seat is next to him. Essek slides into it.
“Wow,” Caduceus says, “look at you.”
“Holy shit,” Beau says, leaning across Yasha to look at Essek more closely. “Buddy. You got a sister?”
Yasha whips her head around and appraises Essek. To Beau, she says, “You think one’s enough, or should we ask for two?”
“I don’t have any sisters,” he says. “At least, none blood related to me.”
Caleb says nothing, but he’s looking.
“Essek,” Fjord says, leaning forward. “Your color? Is plum.”
“Thank you,” he says, genuinely touched by the compliment.
“I’m honestly surprised you don’t have people throwing themselves at you all the time,” Veth says. “I’m about to hit on you, and I don’t even feel like it right now.”
Essek sips his cognac. “I would prefer you didn’t,” he says, as politely as he can manage.
They all share dishes together, Jester making sure Essek has a big helping of butterscotch pudding while Caduceus gives him things that have vitamins, minerals, and far less sugar. Essek eats everything they serve him. He even eats all of the pudding, which is sweet and hurts his teeth. He refills his glass and keeps sipping as their demolished dishes are taken away and fresh drinks are served. He feels vaguely as though the drifting of the floor may no longer be only due to the pseudo ocean beneath them.
“Wanna dance?” Yasha asks Beau. “Or do you wanna go a round in the fighting pit?”
Essek looks around and sees that what he thought was the orchestra pit is not, in fact, for an orchestra.
“Oh my god, babe,” Beau says, “come knock me around in the fighting pit.”
As the atmosphere turns even more social and the music picks up pace, Essek finds himself alone at the table with Caleb, who has his big hand around a stein filled with very dark beer, while the unseeing and unhearing patrons around them make it feel as though they are doing something scandalous in public without giving Essek the panic attack that would surely give him. Caduceus and Fjord have decided to place bets on which girlfriend will win the fight while Veth narrates and Jester keeps score by holding up glittery dicks she’s just painted. The Ruby of the Sea croons about mesmerizing eyes undressing you across the room.
“When was the second time?” Caleb asks.
Essek glances at him without turning his chin, smiles, and settles further into the comfortable chair, crossing one leg over the other. He takes a sip, thinking. Two. “The next day, when you all arrived, when I first saw you standing there with your arms across your chest, I don’t think I’ve ever been so nervous before. I was trying to think of what I wanted to say to you, what I could show you without seeming…overeager.”
“You could have shown me anything,” Caleb says, and he makes a motion with his hand that looks like a sharp claw he jerks toward himself. Essek’s chair squeals against the wood as it moves by itself a foot and a half, until he and Caleb have collided together, until Essek can count freckles. Caleb leans on the arm of his chair and picks up his stein, bare forearm flexing, and takes a long swallow before setting it down. His eyes glitter in the way they do when Essek has displayed to him any form of dunamancy. He props his chin up on his hand and gazes at Essek. “Anything at all, and I would have eaten out of your hand.”
“Doubtful,” Essek says, looking down at his glass so he can have a moment to himself. Caleb makes him feel as though his skin is too tight. “At least, not before we completed the spell for Veth.”
“I will never forget that,” Caleb says, seriously. “I’ve never been a part of anything like that.”
“Neither have I. We worked well together.”
“Work. We still do.”
“Indeed.” He stares at the cognac, as though he can will the alcohol to dull his overactive anxiety more quickly. “Caleb.”
“Yes?” His blue eyes are fringed in lashes darker than his hair, his stubble.
“You should come to my room tonight.” It isn’t what he meant to say; in fact, he was going to admit to being nervous. To thinking about the next step he’d like to take, that he hasn’t taken in a while, that he hasn’t ever…no one’s made him feel quite the way Caleb does. He’s never cared about trying to be a good person before. But Caleb makes him want things he’s never wanted. They all do. They’ve changed him. He trusts them. He doesn’t even trust himself.
Caleb stares at him, half-smiling, waiting for Essek to deliver the punch line. Essek only watches the antics in the fighting pit; Yasha is currently grappled by a very flexible Beauregard and is shouting compliments at Beau while struggling to breathe. Jester displays eight sparkly pink dicks that wave like flags in the air. Essek sips, sips, sips, sips.
Finally, Caleb says, “What exactly are you proposing?”
“I assumed that would be discussed later,” Essek says, “but I am suggesting a…cooperative agreement in which we mutually relieve tension together in as…discreet a fashion as possible.”
Caleb drinks his beer until what he sets down is an empty stein. “You are asking me to—to—I am sorry, my brain is breaking, I can’t believe this is happening.”
Uh oh. “Did I…have I stepped too far?”
“Not at all,” he says, quickly. “Only…I think I saw myself in your role, not…the pursued.”
Essek suppresses a smile at that. “Should I pretend I didn’t strike first?”
“Hmm,” Caleb says, considering, then, “No. Come to think of it, I deserve someone to ask me to their room tonight.” His grin has a force behind it that catches Essek’s breath in his throat. “I may take you up on that, I may not. Keep you on your toes.”
Uh oh. Caleb flirting full-force is thunderous. Taking a much larger swallow of cognac, Essek continues until he’s finished what’s in the glass, thinking about liquid courage. Even before he has set the empty on the table, Caleb has refilled it and also received a new beer himself.
“You’re blushing,” Caleb says. “I can finally tell.”
“So are you,” Essek shoots back, ruffled in a number of ways by Caleb’s teasing. “It is easy to tell.”
The drums beating in the next song sound like Essek’s own heartbeat, escaped from his chest. Caleb leans closer again. Essek, after several moments, after Caleb’s eyes flick to his mouth, his bared neck, down the tailored lines of silk hugging his torso, loose on his arms and tight on wrists, then back up to his eyes, doesn’t know what to say so he says nothing. Only watches Caleb, openly admiring his classic Zemnian features and thin-lipped, wide mouth. If he were etched in marble, he’d have the visage of a sad king with a dominating nose and knife-sharp jaw.
“What are you looking at?” Caleb asks.
“Whatever I want,” Essek says.
Caleb smiles. Drinks to that. Leans back in his chair and settles folded hands on his stomach. He has a long, lean body that is still bigger than Essek or anyone he’s ever been with, which has consisted entirely of drow and one goblin.
Part of the elicit privacy Essek and Caleb have had is broken when Beau takes a seat across from Caleb and knocks back three shots of whiskey in a row. “Sorry,” she says breathlessly, blood dripping down her chin as she grins at them. “I know you guys are doing your wizard mating ritual and all, but I have to—dude, you’ve fucked four people? Who?! Who hooked you! You seem impossible to hook.”
Feeling much more talkative than usual, and not nearly as embarrassed as he would’ve been before any of today had ever happened, Essek simply gives her a long look. “If you try very hard,” he says, “you might convince me to answer.”
The hollering he gets for everyone to come here right fucking now is worth postponing whether or not he will be receiving a knock at the door later.
Half an hour after Beau fails to extract any details from Essek, Caleb takes several deep breaths before he knocks on Essek’s door. As before, he has designated the occupant of the guest room with a personal symbol. The previously plain plaquette currently displays an hourglass filling in reverse.
Essek does not make him wait long. The door opens and Caleb enters, shutting it behind himself and taking another breath. He’s had time to think about this and make a pros and cons list. It’s technically a little undecided; there is a lot that makes this a terrible idea. But Caleb has done worse. So has Essek. They do work well together, and Essek’s natural business-first personality makes it easy to see that this will not interfere with any of their goals, regardless of what those may be. With his long lifespan and disinclination toward attachments, Essek has a rather laissez-faire idea of sex that Caleb should’ve realized long before now. He can see how someone with a century of maturity, but still equaling in his culture a young adult barely out of his teens, could have four partners while appearing utterly ascetic. Essek is particular about everything, if the fine embroidery on his clothes and multiple pieces of jewelry speak an accurate story of him. The chosen books and knick knacks in his tower speak the same. He’s particular, and fussy, and as has been pointed out more than once, fancy. He likes to be impressed and impress in return. And everything is slow going for him. Less than a year with the Nein must have really fucked with him, Caleb thinks.
Yeah…he’s firmly in the pro column. He shouldn’t be. But he is. Knowing that at the very least Jester and Beau are vocally supportive makes him feel a little better. If Essek were that kind of bad news, he thinks his friends would let him know.
Expecting Essek to be on the couch, or perhaps at the tea table, Caleb is surprised to see him standing—not floating—in front of the fireplace, looking up at the painting. The silk is almost sheer where it halos around his arms and legs. He’s honestly shorter than Caleb remembers, from the few times Essek dropped his levitation while they were both standing. If he’s taller than five and a half feet, Caleb will be very surprised.
“I was thinking earlier,” Essek says, “of what might have happened if I hadn’t knocked that night. I was so nervous I almost threw up on the walk over.”
“That tracks,” Caleb says, joining him. He can see the fit of the pants on Essek now, snug like his shirt and high-waisted, then loose and draping, then fitted at his tiny ankles. His feet are bare and clean. Without the old-ale stench of the Evening Nip assaulting him, Caleb can tell that Essek did indeed partake in the freesia after-bath powder and rosewater lotion he’d had placed on the vanity.
“You laugh,” Essek says, “but I hadn’t ever in my life gone over to someone’s home like that. I hadn’t ever…sat with a group of friends.” He turns to look up at Caleb, who is struck dumb by those stupid eyelashes. “Can I ask you something?”
A beat. “You can ask me anything.”
Essek looks more nervous than he has the entire time Caleb’s been flirting with him. “Did…ah. Did I do okay today? With everyone. Was I…” He cringes at himself. Caleb reaches out to put an arm around him as if to steady him, curling him in close. The last time he did this, they’d been sitting down and Essek had just given Veth the very first reason Caleb wanted to kiss him.
“You were great,” Caleb says, as sincerely as he can manage, releasing him before Essek has a chance to be uncomfortable with the touch, or before he himself can get distracted and feel for more. Hugging while wearing six layers each of clothing was one thing. Every single muscle and bone and sinew and tendon in Essek’s back and side can be felt, and now Caleb’s a bit fucking stupid with longing. “You were charming and respectful and grateful, as you always are. I was very bad at this too, when we were all new. I didn’t trust anyone but Veth. We had a plan to run if we needed to, actually.” He can’t imagine doing that now. “And then, I don’t know. You fall in love with Jester Lavorre and your whole world changes.”
Essek is quiet as he takes that in, looking up at Caleb, then the painting again. He’s a little awkward about it, but he puts his arm around Caleb’s waist, easing against him. “Nobody’s ever made me feel like she does,” he says. Then he’s got both arms around Caleb’s waist, and Caleb is holding him, reveling in the silky slip of him, trying to reconcile both the cool, heavy-mantled Shadowhand in the Dungeon of Penance and the nervous self-exiled lonely man who drank whiskey-spiked cocoa with this—a very alive, beating body, his weight a shivering pleasure as he eagerly presses himself closer and closer.
Caleb is embarrassed to admit how long it takes him to realize that Essek is hugging him simply to hug him and not as a precursor to more. He hugs back as best as he can, arms around slim shoulders, almost rocking side to side. Essek has very little body warmth that he can feel, even with his face pressed to Caleb’s neck. He wonders if all his skin feels like that. He wonders if the inside of his thighs feel like that.
“When she hugged me upon your arrival at the outpost,” Essek says, muffled against Caleb, “I can’t tell you now how much I wish I would have hugged her back.”
Caleb squeezes him. “Really.”
“Yes. It was all I’d wanted. I had hoped she would do it. I thought, if Jester hugs me, that means she hasn’t given up on me. And then she did. And I was too embarrassed to…I’m always too embarrassed. Too afraid of what others think of me. I didn’t even realize I could be something different until you all showed me.”
Caleb slides a hand up into Essek’s hair at the back of his head, careful and slow, in case he isn’t supposed to. Essek stills his unconscious burrowing for a moment before resuming again, the little movements of his mouth against Caleb’s neck making him think of teeth. His little teefies, Beau called them. Gonna give you a nibble, Caleb.
“That is always how it is when we are trapped,” Caleb says. “Of course you didn’t think to be another way. Who would have showed you?” As it’s a rhetorical question, he says, “Why did you give Dagen your stone?”
Essek pulls back to look up at him now, tilting his head. Caleb has never been this close to him before, in a setting where all he has to do is enjoy himself in well-lit firelight without any distractions whatsoever other than the one he chose.
Essek has freckles.
Very faint, slightly lighter gray than his skin. Flecks of starlight, Caleb’s dumbfounded brain croons. Across his forehead, his nose, his impossible cheekbones. In the space above and below his lip. On his little chin.
“You all trust Dagen,” he says, as though it were obvious. “Why would I not trust him as well?”
“Over your own people.”
“People I don’t know,” Essek says, pressing in such a way against Caleb’s hand that Caleb realizes Essek likes the feel of it. Strands of hair caught in his fingers, he squeezes lightly. Gets a sigh in return, half-lidded eyes looking at him and blinking slow. “I trust you all more, and I trust who you trust.”
Though Essek initiated everything before this (Caleb’s diary, were he to keep one, would need multiple corrections), Caleb is the one who keeps Essek’s gaze and moves to cup his face with both hands, giving him ample time to turn, stop, speak, but he doesn’t, he waits, and Caleb waits a second longer just in case, and then he’s kissing Essek and Essek is on his toes to push against him, arms twining around his neck, body crashing close. They are clumsy with different styles, Caleb wholehearted passion eager to touch everywhere and Essek more controlled, as though there’s an expected script here too and Caleb is way off it.
“How did you imagine this going?” Caleb asks, taking the opportunity to spread his hands wide on Essek’s waist, see how much he can squeeze. It’s a lot. Essek is very compact. The baguette analogy was not wrong.
Essek says, a little rattled with breath, “More slowly,” before kissing Caleb in a way that is not slow at all. His mouth is unbelievably soft, and as Caleb expect, Essek’s eyeteeth have a keen edge that doesn’t quite hurt but could. He keeps his hands mostly on Caleb’s shoulders, occasionally clutching at his suspenders. Though he’s pliant, every touch Caleb gives him elicits a near-soundless breath or a shiver, as though he’s being continually surprised. Thinking that Essek is not the type to allow something to happen that he doesn’t want, Caleb moves to his neck instead, skin cool like he’s been out in a light fall breeze. He can feel Essek’s heartbeat under his lips if he concentrates, which he does, because Essek lets him. Then, Caleb nips.
His back hits the bricks beside the fireplace, winding him briefly. Essek feels like he’s trying to climb him.
“You liked that,” Caleb says, stating the obvious and doing it again, his hands gripping Essek’s ass and realizing that there’s nothing beneath this layer of silk but skin.
They aren’t going to last long like this. At least, Caleb won’t, he’s been too worked up for too long at this point, and the imminence of his death increases every hour, so why not?
He maneuvers Essek back the dozen steps to the couch, rucking up his shirt to get at the waistband of his pants. Skin still cool. Caleb wonders what it would take to warm him up. “Can I do this?” he asks, realizing that he should probably start verbalizing things sooner rather than later.
“Yes,” Essek says, on his toes again to kiss Caleb’s mouth, hard. It hurts a little. Caleb is dizzy with arousal. “You’ll know if you can’t do something.”
He starts when he’s pushed away from Essek as though he’s hit into a barrier and bounced off it, nearly falling away but finding himself pulled right back in again with a snap. “You’ll know,” Essek says.
Caleb’s heart absolutely constricts so tight it takes his breath with it. He doesn’t say anything as he cups Essek’s face and kisses him over and over, with tongue, with teeth, thorough and exploring, learning the particular shape and feel of him before trying to get into his pants again.
Essek doesn’t push him away, but he does put hands over Caleb’s, slowing him down, panting against Caleb’s shoulder for a moment. “What do you want?” Caleb asks.
“I want to come,” Essek sighs.
Caleb did not expect to hear those words; he feels almost weak with them. “How?”
“However I can.”
It’s a lot to work with. Caleb has to restrain himself from thinking too deeply about what could be done first, what he might prefer to do later with less impending doom. Slipping fingers into the waistband of Essek’s pants again, Caleb slowly and neatly pushes them down his hips, pausing every so often when Essek feels too tight, in a bad way, like he’s trying to allow something to happen that he normally wouldn’t.
But Caleb is still in his space, feeling him up, and down, Essek’s breathing restricted, but he stays where he is, hands squeezing at Caleb’s shoulders out of reflex. Caleb kisses him until he’s all but lax against him. Then he manages to get the silk down over Essek’s cock and sit him on the couch in one fluid motion, dropping to his knees and waiting for Essek to catch up.
There’s a moment where Essek instantly covers himself again, his cheeks deeply purple. Then he exhales shakily and reaches for Caleb, who meets him halfway, lips finding lips, and Essek holds there with his mouth chaste and closed, not unlike the way he’d hugged him, as if drawing strength from the touch. When he touches Caleb’s hand and draws it to himself, Caleb’s stomach swoops at bare skin, a cock as proportionate and delicately shaped as Essek is. He pulls back so he can see, wanting a better visual for later, but Essek stops him, shy.
“I’ve never,” he says, “with lights on. We can see in the dark, but it’s less…vivid.”
“Many things are better in the light,” Caleb says. “Like this. Besides, I was going to put my mouth on you. Is there a difference if I can see you or not when I’m going to taste you?”
Now, finally, it seems that Caleb has broken Essek. There’s a very shocked silence. “I figured your hand,” he says at last. “If anything.”
“You don’t want my mouth?”
He’s silent again.
“Essek,” Caleb admonishes. “Don’t make this difficult. Let me suck your cock.”
A shaky laugh in his ear, trembling shoulders like little earthquakes. Essek tells him okay, okay. Says, Yes, okay.
So Caleb does. He begins leisurely, curious about this warmth phenomenon and the lack thereof as he slowly takes all the inches Essek has to offer, his throat pleasantly filled without being unbearable. Essek jerks soundlessly, his hands doing something other than touching Caleb, silk-covered thighs twitching beneath Caleb’s palms. He pushes them apart a little more before taking a breath, thumbs caressing the muscle that jumps here before swallowing him again. There’s a rhythm that he wants to get into, that he’s gotten into before, where he’s intuitively feeling the response of his partner and adjusting accordingly. Essek isn’t vocal like he’d been earlier, but his body is reactive and speaks loudly; Caleb attunes to those individual tremors little by little until he feels Essek briefly touch the top of his head before pulling away.
Encouraged, mouth tight around the head, Caleb makes a noise of approval before suckling intently, tongue lapping, fingers curling around the base and squeezing tight. He never feels quite as powerful as he does when on his knees.
“Caleb,” Essek says, “Caleb, Caleb.”
He’s doing something right. He tries not to do the thing where he changes it all up because he’s too greedy to hear cues. His cock inside his pants is throbbing by now, and he pushes his hand there to give himself some friction to rut against, still not quite believing that with a day that started out the way this one did, it’s ending like this.
Essek puts a hand in his hair and flexes there as he comes, shuddering, the pulses of his body giving Caleb more and more to taste, not as salty as he expected and almost sweet. Aching, Caleb looks up at him and finds that Essek has tossed his head back, neck exposed and chest heaving, expression dazed. His nipples are clearly outlined in the fabric of his cropped tunic, hard in a way they were not before, more evidence of Essek’s hunger. Caleb makes a noise and rocks his hips against his fist, too close to even think of letting Essek help, pushed here because of Essek spent and boneless beneath and above him. His skin is so soft, so fucking soft. Everything about him feels like a dream.
Essek catches Caleb’s cheek in his hand, looking at him with intense eyes, thumb on Caleb’s parted lips before pushing between his teeth and holding his head back a little. “Come for me,” he says, a command Caleb didn’t expect to hear. For some inexplicable reason, before this, Caleb thought he had bedroom Essek understood.
He did not.
Caleb rocks twice more and comes with an open-mouthed cry, his shoulders shaking as he rides through it, a storm in his ears. His head falls back. Essek’s fingers caress his throat.
“You are so good,” Essek tells him, which makes him pulse one more time in feeble response. “You are so good.”
“You should see my spellbook,” Caleb says faintly, rewarded with Essek’s unfettered laugh.
They don’t exactly snuggle, when they’ve magically cleaned themselves up and have put their clothes back in order. But Caleb is stretched out in front of the fire with his head on Essek’s lap while Essek curls fingers through his loose hair, reading about Widogast’s Vault of Amber as Caleb reads about Essek’s personal banishment creation that temporarily kicks the target to a different point in time and never returns them quite to the same spot. He keeps looking at it over and over again in amusement. Temporal Shunt, Essek’s tiny handwriting says, at the top. AKA Time Kick. Caleb finds his heart filling with fondness.
“This is incredible,” Essek tells him, his fingers stilling as he looks down at Caleb with Caleb’s spellbook held between his long fingers. “Caleb. Where did you get this idea?”
“We never said we’d reveal inspiration,” Caleb tells him. “Perhaps next time.”
Essek snorts and returns to reading, resuming his gentle gesture. Once he has read his fill, Caleb gently closes Essek’s book. They never agreed that they could copy the spells; only look at them. Essek meets his eyes after a moment and gives him a genuine little smile, lips pursed. Then he bends for a kiss, which Caleb gives, enjoying the flood of freesia that surrounds him.
“Tell me something about you,” Caleb says, “that you’ve never told anyone.”
Essek raises an eyebrow at him, still stroking his hair. “Are we doing pillow talk now?”
“We aren’t in a bed,” Caleb points out, “so no.” Then, “Tell me.”
Thinking, Essek disappears his own spellbook but does not let Caleb do the same yet. But Caleb does have his attention for the moment, so he lets it slide. He’s trying to see the freckles in the light, but the angle is wrong and Essek’s face is smooth and even. “I write poetry,” Essek says. “I’ve always found it soothing. I particularly enjoy villanelles.”
Out of all the things he could have said, Caleb did not expect that. It brings a laugh out of him as he reaches up and cups Essek’s cheek. “Your mind is an amazing thing,” he says.
Essek kisses his palm. “Now you. Something about you.”
Caleb doesn’t want his traumas to creep in but they do, like ink finding every groove in every finger print. “We have established,” he says quietly, “that I have seen pain, yes?”
Essek traces Caleb’s eyebrows with his index finger, easing some of his tense muscles. “We have established that you have seen far more than most do in a lifetime. Yes.”
“So when I say that my parents were kind and they loved me very much, please know,” his voice breaks, “please know that I mean that with all my heart and it is very difficult to say.”
For a moment, there’s only the sound of the fire, the feel of Essek’s lap beneath his head, Essek’s hands moving over him as though touch is the language he speaks and he’s been looking to talk to Caleb for a while. “Thank you,” Essek says at last. “For this, and for showing me your Vault of Amber.” He looks over the page one more time before closing the book and settling it in Caleb’s hands. “I would like to do this again.”
“Which part?” Caleb asks, twirling his fingers simply and putting his book back where it belongs.
“All of them,” Essek says. “As long as you are amenable.”
He is, he thinks. There are still uncertainties both ahead and behind, an impossible set of circumstances to overcome, and Caleb isn’t positive that they’ll both be standing at the end of it whether apart or not. But he doesn’t have to be right now. There’s always so much to think about, with him, so much that he fusses over and abuses himself over. He’s ready to do things a little differently from here on out, wanting to feel as though he deserves better, different, more. Because he does. Because they all do.
Caleb curls a hand around the back of Essek’s neck and draws him down. His mouth is cool. Caleb wonders what it would take to change that.