Essek doesn’t process it at first. It’s not until hours later as they sit recovering in Caduceus’ family home, gathered around a large natural oak table in the kitchen of the Blooming Grove, that it begins to hit him.
Jester had died.
Caleb had died.
In front of him. Mere hours beforehand.
In previous fights, seeing his friends injured or passed out had been heart-wrenching enough - in truth it scared Essek more to see any of the Mighty Nein injured than himself. A fact that he is sure his past self would find surprising.
But prior to their trip through Aeor, he only had to contend with the images of injuries and close escapes through second-hand retellings of their adventures from Jester. Seeing them fight to the death in person regularly sent Essek into spirals of anxiety, but this?
He feels a shudder run through him, his shoulders twitching upwards and his eyes closing for a brief second as he lets it pass through him. He hasn’t the forethought nor the energy to conceal it, and knows in an instant that at least some members of the party will have noted his visible discomfort.
They are frustratingly perceptive a lot of the time, and judging by Caduceus’ surprisingly shrewd eye, he guesses the rest of the Clay family may be too.
Sure enough, Jester’s hand is reaching across the table to him, her sweet, concerned face coming into view, as she stretches over and around Fjord to see Essek.
Her fingers brush against his, too far to link hands properly, but she wiggles them, tapping on the table and his fingertips to force him to not be able to pretend he hasn’t noticed that she’s noticed.
“Essek,” She says in that way that is so full of compassion, the way she responds everytime she hears him say something self-deprecating. “What’s wrong?”
Her big, violet eyes are full of kindness and concern, and Essek has to look away almost as soon as he meets them for fear he might cry.
Those eyes had almost stayed closed forever, had almost been dull and lifeless in the body of a blue tiefling that no one apart from the people in this room would realise how special she was.
It hurts to think of it.
“Do you need more healing?” She is asking now, brows furrowing, “you shivered. You’re not still in pain are you?”
At that, Caduceus looks over too, “Who needs healing?”
“Essek, maybe,” Jester replies at the exact time that Essek replies, “No one.”
Essek sighs deeply. Everyone on the table is looking at him now.
“I’m very much okay,” he says, aiming for confident assurance but finding himself having to gulp around the word ‘okay’.
He doesn’t know why, because it’s not a lie.
Physically he is fine, all of them are thanks to Jester and Caduceus - of course he has scrapes and bruises and cuts that will need further healing in the days to come, and of course he’s exhausted, but really he is fine.
And so he’s not at all sure why he suddenly feels the need to throw up.
He looks to his left and sees Caleb looking at him in concern, the other wizard’s blue eyes flitting to where Essek’s hands are clutching around a fine bone china teacup.
Essek realises with a start that his hands have begun shaking, the teacup starting to clatter ever so slightly against the saucer it is sitting on. He lets go of it with a start and folds his hands into his lap instead.
His eyes focus on Caleb’s hand on the table instead, zeroing in on his knuckles so that he doesn't have to meet anyone’s eyes.
Human skin is strange, the almost translucent nature of it. The way the joints are slightly more pink and the way veins are visible through the skin.
He wonders what that hand would look like without the veins full of blood. Without the pulse in the wrist and the flush of a living heartbeat.
He presses a fang into the side of his inner cheek to force himself to look away.
He feels strange, like he’s in a dream, the faces around him slightly fuzzy and the sounds of their voices like static. He focuses on the sharpness of his tooth against his cheek and forces himself back to the present.
“Sorry,” he mutters, looking up. “I’m just feeling a little out of it.”
He supposes a half-truth will be easier to get away with than an outright lie.
Caduceus’ mother - Constance? - nods sagely from her seat across from him. “That’s understandable,” she says, her gaze kind and warm.
He’s caught between his instinct and muscle memory of wanting to float to his feet and his brain being too addled and exhausted to even fully remember how to and before he can even make a decision as to which method of movement he’ll employ he finds his feet tripping over themselves.
His ankles buckle slightly, like his legs weren’t expecting to have to take the weight of his body, but his mind wasn’t prepared enough to counteract the gravity either.
His stomach lurches as he catches himself from falling forward, the sensation like expecting one more step on a staircase to be there filling him.
He rights himself and gives an awkward cough. He feels his ears pressing back against his head in embarrassment and braces himself for laughter from the table behind him.
Instead he sees Caleb already standing up to reach out to him, like he’d immediately been prepared to somehow catch him if he’d fallen.
The thought is simultaneously comfortingly sweet and terribly humiliating.
Jester is looking at him with nothing but care and concern. Which is surprising considering how much she usually loves to see people tripping over and making fools of themselves.
He supposes he really does look too worn down and pathetic for anyone to consider making fun of him. Even Beauregard has her brows furrowed in concern, arms crossed as she surveys Essek.
“Do you need some company?” Fjord says, in his calm, kind way.
They are all so needlessly kind to him that he can hardly bear to look at them.
“No, uh ...I will be fine alone. I am just going to get some fresh air,” Essek replies, forcing a weak smile onto his face, unable to meet any of their eyes.
He ducks his head as he feels his face flush traitorously, moving out of the kitchen and into the hazy twilight air of the grove outside as quickly as possible without stumbling again.
He hears a few more murmurs of concern behind him and moves quicker once he is out in the open, desperately scanning around the surrounding forest for a quiet, private spot.
He barely makes it out of hearing distance of the others before he feels the lump in his throat turn into something more tangible, bile rising from his stomach to burn at his throat.
His eyes start to burn too, and finally tears slip free as he immediately presses the heels of his hands to his eyes in a futile attempt to retain any ounce of composure he has left.
He lets himself sink backwards against a large tree trunk, letting out a deep breath that turns into a sob that he knows he’s been harbouring, tucked away deep into his chest, for hours now. He lets his head tip forward onto his knees, feeling his shoulders shake as the tears keep coming faster and faster, sliding down his cheeks and dripping off his jawline to soak into his lap.
He hasn’t cried like this for a long time - hasn’t really allowed himself to let go and feel the weight of everything for so long. It’s ironic that the place it finally happens is a graveyard. He wonders absentmindedly how many other people have sat in this spot, letting overwhelming grief pour over them, and feels guilty for a second for comparing himself to those who have experienced real loss.
Essek has nothing to mourn. Not really. But as he glances up at the few gravestones half-buried under moss and foliage in his peripheral vision he can’t help but envision Caleb or Jester’s body buried underneath it.
The revivify had worked so quickly, and Essek had been so disorientated and exhausted from the battle that he’d hardly had time to even realise Caleb was dead - truly, truly dead - before he was back. And then their focus had been on Mollymauk, and then Caleb’s arm had been a warm, grounding weight around his neck, and then the Clays had been a colourful, overwhelmingly warm welcome and now …
Now he was finally letting it catch up to him. What if it hadn’t worked? What if the clerics had had no more diamonds left?
What if Caleb - brilliant, intelligent, one of a kind Caleb - had become nothing more than a mote of light floating away from the city in the astral sea.
Out of Essek’s reach. Forever.
The terrible weight of the intensity of the realisation of what could have been, the possibility of a timeline in which Caleb's soul had not returned to his body today is overwhelming.
Essek’s heart aches, physically aches, and he suddenly knows acutely, absolutely, that everything he has tried to avoid for the century he’s been alive has caught up with him now. Without noticing, or meaning to, he has fallen in love with these people, with the Mighty Nein, with his friends, his family and the vulnerability of caring so much for someone and coming face to face with the possibility of losing them hits him like a bolt to the chest.
And as he sits in his quiet corner of the blooming grove and lets the pain wash over him, he realises he’d rather endure any amount of physical wounding than to have to live with a reality in which Caleb Widogast no longer existed.
Caleb is getting anxious.
Essek has been away from the table for a good fifteen minutes now. (Though if Caleb’s really being honest, he had started to grow impatient for his return after only five).
He taps his fingers against the wood of the table in front of him, counting grain patterns in the oak and attempting to concentrate on the story sweet young Clarabelle is telling the group.
Veth gives him a look from her place next to him - her knowing, motherly look that says, “I know what’s going on in that head of yours.”
He sighs and gives her a sheepish smile in return. He clears his throat awkwardly in the smallest of gaps that Clarabelle takes for a pause of breath, a natural lull in the conversation granting him a moment to push his chair back from the table and get to his feet in the most casual manner he can muster.
“I think I might just, ah, go and check on-” he starts, feigning indifference, gesturing vaguely outside like he hasn’t been thinking about it since the moment Essek left the room.
“On your drow friend?” Constance infers, smiling warmly at Caleb. “I do hope he’s alright.”
“Ja, me too,” Caleb mutters, grabbing his coat from where he’d placed it over the back of his chair. “Back soon.”
“Yell if you need us, Cay-leb!” Jester calls after him, and he shoots a thankful smile back at her over his shoulder as he exits the house.
It’s the time of day in The Savalirwoods where the sky turns a different shade every minute that passes and darkness falls at first gradually and then suddenly, all at once. The dusk light is beautiful, gravestones and statues silhouetted against the setting sun. Caleb pulls on his coat, though he barely feels the cool breeze here in the sheltered grove compared to the icy ruins of Eiselcross, and begins to look around for Essek.
He supposes Essek may be enjoying the soft light of dusk, taking advantage of the lack of the burning sun to fully appreciate the blooming grove with his darkvision. Even with no darkvision of his own to speak of any longer Caleb can appreciate the shifting atmosphere of the Wildmother’s haven as the day slips into evening.
Fireflies are beginning to swarm, flitting through the trees, glowing mushrooms and effervescent bugs starting to emerge.
He hopes Essek is simply enjoying the scenery, decompressing after the fight but he knows Essek now.
After everything they have been through together, he is acutely aware of the small tell-tale signs that Essek displays when he’s uncomfortable or upset now: the twisting of his hands together on his lap at the table - an action that would usually be hidden underneath his mantle and cloak - the difference of a real smile to the fake attempts Essek makes, the uncharacteristic stumbling to his feet.
Besides, Caleb himself is no stranger to needing to exit a group situation, to leave a social setting and have a brief moment to himself to panic. He recognises the rising tension that had been bubbling under the surface for the other from the moment they had sat down for dinner with the clays. And he knows, of course he knows, that it is often after the adrenaline has worn off that the panic and shock begins to set in.
He rubs a rough, scraped and grazed hand over his face as he looks around, wandering slowly further into the wooded graveyard of the blooming grove.
“Essek?” he calls out, voice hushed. He knows Essek’s dark elven ears leave no need to shout, and it would feel disrespectful in such a peaceful place regardless.
Caleb is not entirely sure what he had expected, but his heart lurches in his chest in terrible surprise when after only a few moments more of walking, hardly out of sight of the house, he sees the hunched figure of his friend, head in his hands under the canopy of a huge tree.
“Essek?” he says again, concern flooding through him as he picks up his pace and rushes over to the figure.
Essek’s eyes flit up, wide, red-rimmed, focusing on Caleb, tear stains across his plum-flushed cheeks.
Caleb immediately recognises the expression on Essek’s face - he looks horrified; embarrassed to be caught in this way and Caleb knows the feeling of shame that will be rising in Essek’s chest intimately, knows the humiliation of being unable to stop your emotions bursting through the walls of dam after holding them in for so long.
Caleb just wants to hug Essek. Sweet, vulnerable Essek who looks smaller than he’s ever seen him hunched in on himself like this.
Something in Caleb’s heart flutters and floats up to his mouth, a protective instinct that urges his feet to move forward to carry him towards Essek, to be in arms reach of the man in front of him, to be close enough to hold the cracked pieces of him together until he is whole again.
“I’m fine,” Essek is saying, voice cracking as he rubs furiously at his eyes and cheeks, blotting away tear stains to leave splotchy marks across his flushed face instead, scrubbing at his skin and squeezing his eyes shut as though if he just tries hard enough he will be able to hold himself together and will the tears to stop.
Caleb’s heart aches with sympathy as tears continue to roll down essek’s cheeks, slipping relentlessly and uncontrollably past his shaking fingers futile attempt to stem them.
“You are not doing a very good job of lying,” Caleb says softly, moving slowly to crouch in front of him.
Essek is somewhat like a cat, Caleb thinks, the way you must move slowly and carefully towards them lest they become startled and lash out. Cats have a great amount of pride - as they should - and hate to be pitied, and so if Caleb Widogast knows one thing, it is how to approach and gain the trust of a guarded, sensitive creature.
“I am being ridiculous,” Essek sniffs, hugging his arms tighter around his knees and hiding his face in them again, the tips of his ears turning a deeper purple blush in embarrassment.
“You are not,” Caleb replies softly, matter-of-factly. “It is not ridiculous to feel things, Essek.”
Essek lets out a short, bitter laugh that bubbles up into a half-sob. “I have spent more than a century being told that it is.”
Caleb sighs, tentatively moving out a hand to rest on one of Essek’s knees, careful not to startle him. “Well, I am telling you it’s not,” he responds, “and you know I would not lie to you.”
He moves a little closer, ducking his head, doing his best to meet Essek’s eyes with a small, reassuring smile. He gives Essek’s knee a gentle squeeze. “You have had a hard day, schatz. This is nothing to be ashamed of. Truly.”
“Everyone else is coping,” Essek whispers, and Caleb has to strain slightly to hear him. “You and Jester are the ones who stared death in the face and yet here you are, comforting me.” He shakes his head slightly in flagrant disregard for himself.
Caleb pauses for a moment, considering before he speaks, “Well, I know that oftentimes it is much harder to see those you care for in pain and danger than it is to face those things yourself. I count myself lucky I was taking a nap for the last part of the fight.”
The comment is attempted largely to make light of the situation, but to his horror Essek’s face crumples once more, and his shoulders begin to shake.
“Don’t joke about it,” Essek hisses through his teeth around a choked sob, he stares at Caleb, violet eyes an even more vibrant shade of purple than normal from the tears, a look of sheer anguish on his features that clutches in a vice grip around Caleb’s heart.
He really cares. Caleb thinks dully. He really, really cares.
“You were gone,” Essek says between gritted teeth, “you were gone and I would have had to carry on without you. I would have had to return from The Astral Sea leaving behind the only soul I’ve ever truly connected with. I would have had to somehow had to live a whole lifetime knowing I would never see you again, could never talk to you again, could never study with you again, would never get to--”
Caleb lurches forward, arms coming up to wrap around the drow’s small, shaking shoulders. Essek is beginning to hyperventilate, panic in his eyes growing by the second as he works himself up more and more with his words, choking around sobs as he speaks.
“Essek,” Caleb says firmly, and the body in his arms stills, breathing too loud and too fast Caleb cuts off his spiralling words. “Stop. I’m here.”
He tucks Essek’s head onto his shoulder, a hand cupped around the back of his head, holding him close to his chest as he rests his chin atop the crown of his head.
“Shh,” he says, heart cracking open and the fissure growing larger as Essek begins to let out heartbreaking noises against the crook of his neck.
Even in the deck of the ship, that night all those months ago; even in Eiselcross at the Vurmas outpost with lonely and world-weary panic clear on his face; and even earlier today with Fjord, Caleb has never seen Essek break down like this.
“I’m sorry,” Essek chokes out as soon as he gains enough breath back to speak and Caleb holds onto him tighter, rocking both himself and Essek back and forth in the hug.
Caleb can feel the shoulder of his coat getting soaked through and when essek presses impossibly closer, as a shudder passes through him he feels his nose squashed into the side of his neck and damp eyelashes brushing against his pulse point.
It’s strangely intimate to be trusted to hold someone together like this.
They sit together for what feels like hours. Everytime Essek’s sobs die down to apologising futilely once more, Caleb murmurs reassurances and squeezes him tighter, clutching him close as a fierce protectiveness rises, warm like a hearth fire, in his chest.
“I’ve got you,” Caleb whispers into Essek’s messy hair, parts of the white stained with mud and blood and ash. He presses a kiss in amongst the curls and feels Essek shiver in response, a small intake of breath in his arms. He knows there is no point telling the other not to apologise, knows the obsessive need to say the word “sorry” and the shame of falling apart in front of another.
More than anything he knows, with a weighty finality that he hadn’t noticed had been there before, that he would be willing to sit here, holding Essek Thelyss for the rest of his life.
It feels like eons later that Essek finally feels like he might be able to raise his head from Caleb’s shoulder without cracking open from the inside out.
In reality, it is only a few fractions darker in the dusk of the Blooming Grove than it had been before. But Caleb’s coat has a damp patch on it against the neck and Essek sniffles like a child, sheepishly wiping at his nose as he lets out a shaking breath and pulls back.
Essek knows he’ll have to meet Caleb’s eyes at some point. He finds the word ‘sorry’ caught in his mouth again - the hundredth time it has come spilling out this evening, but he forces himself to swallow around it and push it down with the lump in his throat before looking up at Caleb and forcing himself to meet the other man’s eyes.
He almost gasps when he does, for the affection and care and kindness in them is overwhelming.
Caleb’s brow furrows. “Your eyes are so red, schatz,” he murmurs, reaching out to brush a calloused fingertip across Essek’s burning cheeks.
“Really? I thought they were gone,” he replies with a wet half-laugh, his eyes flicking down for a moment before meeting Caleb’s gaze again. He sees the brief flicker of confusion on Caleb’s face for a second before the other wizard is chuckling, smiling so brightly that Essek’s heart could burst.
He’s alive, he’s alive, he’s alive, his heart sings.
Caleb holds his own palm up in response, bare apart from scrapes and half-healed cuts. “Definitely gone,” he says, and then reaches over to wrap his fingers around Essek’s forearm.
Caleb pushes back the sleeve of the other’s cloak slightly as he turns Essek’s hand over, tracing over the pulse point of his inner wrist where just hours beforehand one of many red eyes had been.
“You are getting good at jokes,” Caleb says with a small smile, still with his fingers wrapped gently around Essek’s wrist. “And hugs.”
Essek lets out another small laugh, sniffling as he rubs at his nose once more, all sense of composure and dignity long since lost. “I was very out of practice,” he responds quietly, voice hoarse as he clears his throat. “Before Jester I do not think I had received a hug in years.”
“Nor me, before Nott,” Caleb says, and Essek feels himself suck in an audible breath as Caleb’s thumb begins to gently track back and forth over the sensitive skin of his wrist where an eye used to be, soothing, repetitive motions that ground Essek and calm his pulse, “Practice makes perfect, ja?”
“Ja,” Essek replies, smirking ever so slightly around the emotion tangled in his throat despite himself as he mimics Caleb’s accent.
Blue eyes glint at him in mirth. “That was cute,” Caleb says, poking the finger of his free hand to Essek’s chest. “You should learn Zemnian”.
Essek bites down on his lower lip, contemplating before he gives a small nod. “I think I would like to,” he says after a moment, “perhaps you will teach me?”
Caleb looks down at where his thumb is brushing against Essek’s skin and slowly, carefully, moves to entwine their fingers together until he is holding Essek’s hand.
He squeezes once, and smiles.
“I would love to.”