“To the Nien!”
“Oh uh, toast!”
Essek holds up his cup, cheering with a nod and smile. Beau and Fjord drain their cups and slam them on the wooden table. Thankfully they are in Caleb's tower and not at a tavern where such aggressive behavior towards property would have surely upset the proprietor. Veth is already refilling her cup from her flask. Jester chugs her milk, Caduceus takes a slow sip from a steaming mug. Yasha drinks steadily without a rush in the world. Caleb, at Essek’s side, reaches over, tapping his glass to Essek’s before taking a healthy swig.
“Glad you had the time to join us, Herr Thelyss.” Caleb speaks mostly into his tankard, eyes glancing over to Essek.
“I appreciate the invitation, Herr Widogast. It seems the night is going to be very interesting.” Essek gestures to the raising rowdiness from combined sources, the Nein and the cheerful music from the cat band that started. The inclusion of the Zeminian honorific is worth the surprised expression. Even if it only lasts the briefest of moments.
“You don’t know the half of it Essek! We’re getting Five-Drink-Caleb tonight!” Beau laughs and excitedly thumps Caleb on the chest.
“Five Drink Caleb?” Caleb shakes his head as soon as Essek gives him a raised eyebrow, amusement clearly in his eyes as he waits for an explanation.
“Ah, nein —” In the tower Caleb is hardly as reserved, safely with the Nein and Essek allows for the first set of his walls to lower.
“No! You promised we’d get shit faced. Come on man." Beau flops down in her chair, dramatically slouching then throwing her head back in exasperation.
Caleb frowns, looking down into his glass like it contains secrets he means to extract at any cost. Then he nods to himself and up ends the glass. Essek watches his throat work as the amber liquid disappears behind curiously pink lips.
“ Nur funf .” Caleb holds out a hand with all five fingers extended glass now half full. With solemnity, he curls the pinkie inward. “Five drinks.”
“Booooo,” Beauregard calls, elbowing Fjord to join her. He seems a little hesitant to heckle Caleb, but Beau’s pointy elbows dent his morals and he joins in to save his ribs. The two throw mild taunts to get a raise out of Caleb. Essek opens his mouth to say something in Caleb’s defense—surely the man knows his own limits, surely his friends know that—but Caleb blows a long, curiously relaxed sigh and settles back into his chair, immune to the rowdy pair.
He’s smiling. Not one of those small, tight smiles that don’t reach his eyes, or the small barely there smiles appearing when he thinks no one is looking, but something a little looser and truer. Surely the alcohol hasn’t properly worked its way into his system so quickly, perhaps the ritual of the situation has unwound something in his fellow wizard. Very specific components to summon this smile carefree smile, a more relaxed Caleb, and Essek would be a liar if he said he wasn’t intensely curious of the full outcome. He takes another sip of his own drink, longer than the first, and looks sidelong at Caleb.
“She’s just being troublesome.”
“Being awesome you mean!” Her smile is wide, the widest Essek has seen, and the widest Caleb has seen in a long while. He rolls his eyes and nods along.
“Yes, yes Beauregard. You are awesome.”
“Cheers to that!” She clangs her cup into Caleb’s, the liquid sloshes out and onto the table top and down his front.
“Ooo! Party foul!” Jester points from across the table. “First to spill, has to finish.”
There’s a heavy recluent sigh from Caleb. He puts his hand up and begins drinking.
“Chug! Chug! Chug! Chug!”
Cheers erupt when Caleb sets the glass down heartily with a grin. His first drink fully consumed. The wet splotch on Caleb’s front vanishes. Essek wraps his hand back around his glas,s a trail of violet arcane energy dissipating at his finger tips.
The tension in Caleb is nonexistent after a short time. He’s talking with his hands and slipping into Zemnian mid sentence. He’s excited and free with his motions. And affections. Essek goes still as a crystal when Caleb places a hand on his forearm. He can feel the heat from the touch through his sleeve. Are all humans this warm? Or maybe just Caleb. An inferno contained within him. Another curiosity Essek ponders.
“Essek are you listening?”
“Enraptured,” Essek says, lying. A little. He’s certainly paying attention , but not following, exactly. He wonders if he can get away with casting something to let him follow Caleb’s Zemnian under the table. Would that be rude? Would it be ruder not to? Essek runs his thumb along the rim of his glass as he tries to decide.
“You’re empty!” Veth squeals.
Caleb hunches a little, snatching his empty glass to his chest. His eyes narrow at Veth, uncharastically suspicious. She makes a gesture— gimme, gimme —and with some reluctance Caleb hands her the glass.
Instead of filling it from her flask, she goes to the keg of beer Beauregard had tapped at the beginning of the night. Caleb relaxes somewhat, then holds up his hand again, curling two fingers down with a wink.
He accepts the glass, clinking it against Veth’s flask, and turns back to Essek.
“Ah, wie sagt man ,” Caleb gestures with his precariously full glass. He realizes his mistake, and drinks down two fingers of the beer to give himself room to gesticulate. “ Es gibt , I mean to say, it seems curious that mages in the previous age were able to leverage dumanacy for their own ends, but that it was lost to all but the Dynasty after the divergence.”
“Maybe it was new enough then to escape proper codification in the chaos,” Essek sighs, shrugging one shoulder. “Wizards are a jealous sort, after all.”
Caleb narrows his eyes, taking another sip from his beer. His intensity is enough to put Essek on edge, enough to make him take another long drink from his glass to buy himself time to think of something else to say.
“You have not been particularly jealous, all things considered.”
Essek chokes on his drink. He coughs, once, twice, then Caleb’s hand is thumping between his shoulders, clearing his lungs by force.
“Ah, a good faith effort and all that,” Essek wheezes, only seconds before Beau notices him.
“Essek’s out!” she fairly screams, and before he can protests, his glass has been replaced.
The deep rich wine reflects his befuddled face back at him.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had such great service.” He looks to Caleb to resume their conversation and it’s almost as if he was looking at the sun. Caleb’s smile is blinding, his attention on Veth. She is discussing with him an idea she has for a new type of bolt for her crossbow.
Essek has known the group for some time and has spent more time with Caleb in particular showing him the complexity of dunamancy. They had many discussions but never has Caleb been so animated and excitable. Of course outside the successful completion of their spell. Now Caleb engages everyone with an ease he had yet to experience.
It's endearing. The red headed wizard alight with words and smiles. Relaxed in the environment, a home of his own creation, and the company of those he trusts the most. Perhaps one he shouldn't….
There’s nothing good at the end of that train of thought, so Essek reaches for his glass to drown it away and finds it gone. Instead within reach is the glass Caleb had been drinking from. Empty.
"Gotta keep a firm grip on what's yours now that Caleb's two drinks in." Fjord set a glass in front of Essek.
"Veth's sticky fingers rubbed off on our friend here." Fjord lifts his drink to point at Caleb and Beau heads bent together. Around them are at least four different drinks of various fullness. None of which are what either started the night with."No one's drink is safe."
"So it seems."
"I've been meaning to ask," Fjord drops himself into a chair, "what exactly does a Shadowhand do?"
Luckily the glass and a half settled in his gut hasn't muddled Essek's thoughts. He navigates the murky waters of what his role within the Bright Queen’s court entails. He's important but not that important. Capable but with well defined limits. Fjord is polite and doesn't press. They both acknowledge what isn't being said.
"Caleb daaaaaance with me!" Jester has Caleb's hand clasped between both of hers to tug him out of his seat. He's resistant only long enough to empty one of the many available options at hand of beverages. He flashes a grin and his hand at Beauregard, three fingers pressed into his palm.
“Are we waltzing, Blueberry?” Caleb asks, lifting his arm up to give Jester room to spin into the open space that will be serving as a dance floor.
“With this music?”
But Caleb starts humming a melody loudly, and a few others start clapping to keep time. The musical cats adjust accordingly. Yasha vanishes, then reappears with the single most intimidating string instrument Essek has ever seen.
The waltz quickly devolves, Jester talking Caleb into a few too many extra spins, and once they’ve both lost the thread Yasha and the cats give up on even the pretense of keeping up with the piece Caleb had been humming as the pair dissolve into laughter and clumsy attempts to keep their feet.
A little jeering and coaxing peels Fjord away from Eseek’s side, and then Fjord is singing a lively and raunchy shanty for Caleb and Jester to dance to instead. Yasha’s playing shifts to something simple and fast to accompany Fjord’s low voice, and boots on the floor provide percussion. Even Essek finds himself tapping his foot and clapping.
Caleb seemed to know what he was doing before, moving with a delicate precision through the dance, but he’s having a little more trouble keeping up with Jester’s (almost certainly improvised) movements. Rather than being frustrated or embarrassed, he’s just laughing and moving with enough enthusiasm to make up for the lack of grace.
Jester starts dragging the others up, pulling Beau and Veth out of their chairs, even getting Caduceus to join her. Essek thinks he’s going to escape, but Jester seizes his hands and lifts him bodily from his chair with a disconcerting ease.
“C’moooon, Essek, show us a Dynasty dance!”
“I’m not—I don’t really—”
“Do you need a partner? I’m sure Caleb wouldn’t mind.”
It is impossible to tell if Jester’s grin is meant to be guiless or predatory, and in the moment he’s trying to decide both which one it is and how transparent he’s been, she winks and whisks him forward.
Her deft hands shove him towards Caleb. He stops himself from slamming into Caleb by planting a foot down. But his momentum is swooped up by hands clasping his and spinning him then halts jarringly. He's pressed against a solid warmth. His arms are arranged while his view focuses. When it does, he’s looking up at shining blue eyes and freckled cheeks dusted pink. This close to Caleb's exuberance is exhilarating. The smile on his face bursts open when a light pressure on his back pushes him forward. Caleb steps away, Essek can do nothing but chase after him.
They fumbled at first. Essek stiff and unyielding. Caleb laughs and shakes their arms together, connected by their hands, to loosen them. A quick demonstration of the footwork and they are off. Caleb takes him around the room with wide steps. He signals spins by raising Essek's hand. A quick and determined learner, Essek falls into step.
"I knew you'd be light on your feet." Caleb winks at him. He doesn't give Essek a chance to respond in any way more than a bark of laughter.
"Allow me to show you just how light." Essek switches the grip on their hands. He twists and dips under Caleb's arm. Now side by side hands clasped to their fronts and backs, he shows Caleb the steps. Caleb picks it up quickly. Like with all lessons Essek's gives him. They spin in front or behind each other to a rhythm of their own. The elation in Essek's chest, the slide of arms and hands over his, the closeness, it all adds a spring to his steps.
Caleb’s laughing when his feet trip over themselves. Essek moves quickly to catch him. They end in a dip, Essek holds Caleb aloft from the hard ground, breathless, looking into each other's eyes.
Beauregard has a row of little glasses lined up on the table, filling them by one careful, continuous pour from a bottle Essek hasn’t yet seen. Essek pulls Caleb upright again, and lets his hands linger, just a little.
“Caleb, Caleb, do the thing! Quick!”
Beauregard is wiggling her fingers over the glasses with an excited look. Caleb walks over to the table, slipping free of Essek’s fingers, and Essek has to be careful not to let his disappointment show on his face. Or to reach out to recapture the loss.
Caleb circles the table, seeming to be glancing down sightlines. Finally, he chooses a spot, and his hands begin to move. Essek recognizes the cantrip, sees the lines of magic gather along Caleb’s fingers. With a bit of flourish, a thin gout of flame springs from his fingertips, catching the vapors over the glasses.
Each glass has a slightly different colored flame, a small rainbow burning on the table, and apparently having seen this trick before, hands dart out to grab their intended glasses.
There’s one remaining, with a flickering purple flame.
“Don’t be a little bitch, Essek, c’mon,” Beauregard calls.
“It’s on fire ,” Essek snaps, incredulous.
“Yeah, it’s dope,” she replies, tipping her glass up and drinking the contents in one go. She sets her glass back on the table, upside down this time.
There must be some trick to it, or she’s simply willing to commit to her ploy so long as it gets him to go along with it, but she seems unharmed. As do the others, who drink and line their glasses up with Beau’s. Essek looks to Caleb, who’s suddenly composed, nearly solemn, face is betrayed by the gleam in his eye, and he drinks his shot. He’s not as sly as Beauregard though, and Essek sees him exhale and extinguish the flame before it could do something disastrous, like catch his beard on fire.
With a dramatic exhale, Caleb holds his hand up, curls all four fingers down, and sets his glass down with a soft thump .
Primly, Essek takes the shot glass meant for him, blows out the flame and sips the liquor, ignoring the snickering and booing.
It’s awful .
Well, when in Vasselheim, he thinks, and drinks the rest as quickly as possible, just to get it over with. He can’t help pulling a face and shaking his head, but Caleb claps him on the shoulder, so maybe it was a little worth it. Essek curls his fingers through an abbreviated somatic gesture and floats the glass to join it’s brethren on the table, and gives Beauregard the most unimpressed look he can muster.
“Wizards, man, always showing off,” Beauregard laughs, unphased. Essek straightens just a bit as Caleb leans forward to Beauregard, an almost sinister smile on his face.
"That is nothing." He stands quickly and his hands grab and sweep in the air, pulling threads no one can see. The tower responds to the motions. Disks floating above the ground appear, six each a different color. His arms continue to conduct the magic in the air, much like the dancing earlier a gratefulness distractions Essek to the transformations around him until colored lights snap into place creating a lane of sorts, pulsating in time with each other to give the intention to be followed but Essek doesn't understand what's supposed—
A whoop from Caleb is all the warning they get, he leaps onto one of the disks and shoots down the lane.
Jester is next shouting in delight, Veth follows suit a second later. Beauregard is stunned for a breath before punching Fjord in the arm.
"Loser does 100 extra pushups!" She makes to jump onto a disk but Fjord grabs her arm and yanks her back to propel him ahead.
"Sucker!" Fjord takes off.
"Asshole!" Then there's only two disks left. Yasha and Essek look at each other.
"Give them hell." Yasha gestures to the silver disk.
This was very impressive. Magics used in such a creative manner. But he'd be damned if he was out classed.
"Oh, I intend to."
“Have fun,” Caduceus says mildly, making a show of getting out the ritual items he uses to heal.
Caleb has the headstart, but despite the spellwork all being his, he seems to be a little unsteady on his feet. They seem to be moving at a rapid clip between the lights, and dramatically slower out of them. Essek thought he saw Caleb casting something like Haste as he was constructing his incantations.
Well, luckily he still has his own focus on him.
He quickly casts the spell, not on himself but his disk. He’s delighted when it responds, speeding up, but has to immediately duck to avoid the wild haymakers flying between Beauregard and Fjord as they try to knock each other off their respective disks.
They’re both briefly distracted when Essek manages to dart between them, and Beau uses the opportunity to kick Fjord off his. There’s a flash, a swing of a sword, and suddenly Fjord is Flying back up, bumping Beau as he goes.
With her usual manner being what it is, it’s easy to forget that Jester is essentially sober, but Essek is reminded as she expertly navigates Caleb’s track of lights. They spiral up in elaborate loops and twists and they cut a line up the tower.
Veth, on the other hand, is absolutely hammered, but holding on via some uncanny reflexes. And perhaps a judicious use of Spider Climb.
A high, almost manic laugh draws all their attention to the front where Caleb is looking back at them.
"Up we go!" Essek catches the motions and shift of the air just in time to crouch down on his disk and redistributes his weight and cast his own spell. Caleb rockets up to the ceiling. As he goes up he and his disk slowly rotates until the disk is closest to the ceiling and zooms off. Essek grins, Cable’s noodling with dunamis fantastically displayed.
There are four distinct yelps as the group races forward and plummet in the wrong direction. They scramble to right themselves as they fall upward.
"You and your gravity bullshit Widogast!" Fjord shouts as he tries to right himself from his short flight allowing to get back to his disk in time. Jester heaves and flips herself to correctly land on the ceiling. Veth casts a spell and starts to drift a bit slower than the rest. Beau kicks her disk to catch in a hand and slides along the wall before starting to run along it, disk swinging along like a giant shield.
The racers speed past a Caduceus who is watching from below. He waves at them, enjoying their enjoyment.
The gravity shifts again but this time everyone is prepared. Now though is when Jester has decided to add to the fun. A giant lollipop appears in her hands and she points ahead of Caleb. The ground floor raises up at an angle just in front of Caleb. A surprised and wide eyed Caleb tries to brace himself as he goes up the ramp and into the air. More ramps of different sizes appear at various spots on their path. Essek eyes them, calculating. A wicked grin crosses his face as he casts his own haste spell speeding up a larger ramp. Cheers and whoops fall behind him as he flies through the air. He lands a bit roughly but he's directly behind Caleb now.
“You sound jealous!” Caleb calls over his shoulder.
Which is a mistake, because that’s when a second Jester appears, resummons her holy confection, and swings at Caleb. She knocks him sideways, but a quick cast has him flying back up to meet his disk.
That’s when Yasha appears.
Much like Beau was a moment ago, she’s holding her disk and flying, though not by magic. No, she’s using a pair of faintly glowing, snow white wings.
Whether or not that’s cheating, well, Essek isn’t going to bring it up. Not when he’s about to cast Slow on her and take his chance for the lead while Caleb’s sufficiently distracted.
Caleb, the clever bastard, must have had the same thought, because just as he scoots around the illusory Jester, he feels a magic not his own catch both him and his disk, nearly sending him tumbling forward.
Now there’s an arcane knot, his and Caleb’s magic layering and weaving and attempting to cancel each other out. Essek should have been paying better attention to the details when Caleb first summoned the disk and laid out the spells, because if he accidentally dispels the wrong magic the disk might vanish and then he’d certainly lose.
Feeling petty, Essek reaches back and, even though it feels like casting through thick mud, catches Caleb in a gravity eddy of his own.
Just outside of the lollipop’s reach, though, because he’s not quite that miffed.
And he's a smart man, knows which battles to pick. Most of the time. And he needs only to displace one person in order to win.
He times it carefully. A blast of cold hits everyone. At the end of the lane a pile of snow drops from nowhere and creates a bank.
"Sorry, Widogast." Caleb's brows shoot up in shock turning away from the pile of snow to see Essek's sly grin still on his face. Two spells and Caleb's disk is gone but he's still in the air. His velocity sends him straight forward. His windmills his arms to no effect. Essek crosses the finish line, he doesn't see who follows him immediately, he watches Caleb flounder and disappear into the snow with a soft thud.
There's so much laughter it echoes within the tower, amplifying it.
A brief snowball fight later they all return to the table another round of shots in front of them. Caleb holds out his hand and wiggles all five fingers at Beauregard.
"You fight dirty Thelyss. I knew you were scrappy."
"Ja. They always underestimate us wizard types."
"As if it isn't justified. Caleb a stiff wind nearly knocks you over."
Caleb puffs up.
“I think I’m sturdier than all that now.”
“Are you though?” Beauregard asks. “I mean, you’ve definitely gotten much better at not getting stabbed. Or gored. But I think that’s different.”
“I’ve seen you punch many, many things. It’s not a hard technique to reverse engineer.” Caleb gestures at Beau with the half drunk shot in his hand, crucially spilling not a drop.
“Fuck you, my punches are art!”
“Wait, Caleb, I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen you throw a punch,” Jester chimes in, oh so sweetly.
“Oh, we don’t mind looking out for our precious casters—Lebby, Essek, Deucey, Fjord .”
“Go fuck yourself, Veth,” Fjord grumbles (“Fuck me yourself, you coward!”). “I’m plenty strong. I read the book and everything.”
“It was a good book,” Yasha says in an undertone.
“Book?” Essek asks, glancing around the table, but no one seems to have heard him.
He likes books. He didn’t think of Yasha as much of a reader. Is that unfair? That’s probably unfair. If she likes books, maybe he should find her a book. She’s very intimidating, but also very nice to be around? She’s not as loud as the others. Except Caleb. Caleb’s just the right amount of loud at the right times. Sceneries of Caleb being loud at the right time flash across his mind.
“Beauregard, what was in this drink?” Essek asks.
“Booze?” she replies, nonplussed. She tips back the shot glass, she again places it upside down on the table, peering into it.
He feared as much. He's not one to indulge frequently and most definitely not in mixed company. A smile curves across his face, the Might Nein have slipped under his skin and made a home in his heart. He could never doubt it. But was he worth it?
The argument has escalated in the moments Essek was lost in thought, and now tables are being moved again. Caleb is joined in the shoving, his glass now empty but still clutched in his hand for some reason.
"Alright put'em up."
"Put the mug down Caleb!"
"What is happening?"
"Oh, uh, um, a tussle." Caduceus leans forward happily looking on at the excitement.
Essek watches as Caleb, Fjord, Beauregard, and Jester set up some sort of ring using the furniture, then Caleb and Fjord meet in the center with their fists up. Essek is immediately displeased. A wizard relies on their hands to cast spells. Why would Caleb risk his skills in such a way? Perhaps there are rules?
He's off kilter from the motion immediately. Fjord gives a chuckle, easily dodging the fist coming at him. Caleb stumbles but rights himself.
Beauregard sits on a chair backwards. “Don’t fully close your fist. You’ll break your hand.”
It’s a bit concerning, Essek isn’t sure if he should step in or not. He takes a final sip from his glass, turning away from Beauregard as she dispenses fighting advice.
“May I?” Caduceus nods, pouring him a cup of tea.
“Wise move, friend. Especially with what’s about to come.” The puzzled look on Essek’s face isn’t given any further clarification, just a simple nod to those in the ring.
“Break his nose Caleb!”
“Put your weight on the balls of your feet.”
“Break his fist with your face!”
The two circle and take swipes act each other. Fjord doesn’t put much if any strength behind his strikes. Caleb tries and fails continuously. Essek searches for any advice he might have, given his numerous childhood squabbles with Verin.
“Ach, ich kann nicht, ein Moment! ”
Caleb immediately begins tugging at his clothes, wrestling with his scarf and tunic and then the linen undershirt. Essek leans forward, watching intently, as Caleb divests himself of half his clothes. He’s standing there (swaying, actually, swaying quite a lot), glowering at his own shirt, all cream skin, freckles, and pink battle scars.
A lot of battle scars. Essek feels some way about that, but he drinks his tea and tries not to think about what Caleb must look like, fighting bandits and demons and, and sea monsters , apparently. Essek has very few scars of his own, but then he supposes he’s no battle mage.
There is the question of why Caleb took his shirt off to consider instead, but Essek tries to steer clear of that too. Perhaps it’s an empire custom to doff one’s garments when— what did Caduceus call it?— tussling.
“Well, Caleb, we all know how frightening—” Fjord starts.
“Blinding!” Beau interjects cackling.
“Frightening,” Fjord continues. “Your pectorals are, but I thought you were teaching a class on—”
Caleb throws his shirt in Fjord’s face, and where Beau or Yasha or even Jester probably would have followed up, Caleb heaves one kick at Fjord’s shins and then zips the other way.
“Grab him!” Fjord lunges, spitting out a curse, Caleb spins back. Fjord’s head snaps to the side when a hand that should have been loosely in a fist is too loose and a loud SMACK bounces off the walls.
Jester gasps, covering a wide smile with her hands. Veth and Beauregard throw their heads back with laughter. Fjord blinks.
“Did you just slap me?!” Fjord holds onto Caleb’s wrists but another sharp quick kick to his skin makes him drop them. “You asshole! Shit, someone—!”
Caleb bolts. Beauregard dives after him.
“Runn gingerbread mann run!”
She catches his leg and wraps her arms around his ankle but he still tries to run. Where to, Essek doesn’t know. He’s pushing away from the table when a hand on his shoulder stops him.
“It’s best they tire themselves out.” Caduceus tips his head to the scrambling pair. Beauregard trying to hinder Caleb while he attempts to keep running, dragging her on his leg with him. And they do. At least Caleb gives up. He’s on his back after many attempts to continue on, Beauregard's limbs firmly wrapped around his legs.
“Let me go!”
“No, you'll take off!”
“Liar! You always bolt.”
“I can barely stand up. Let me go.”
“Promise you won’t run for it?”
Caleb only gives a grunt of agreement, that Beauregard foolishly takes as an acceptable reply. She slowly starts to disentangle their limbs. Caleb stays on his back. Beauregard reaches down and offers a hand to Caleb.
Caleb heaves himself up, using his weight to off balance Beauregard, and runs.
Essek can’t say he remembers the last time he saw Expeditious Retreat in action, but Caleb seems to be making good use of it.
“I forgot he does this!” Beauregard growls.
“Door! Someone get the door!” Caduceus calls, standing, his keen eyes following Caleb’s trajectory.
“Got it!” Jester cries, disappearing and reappearing in front of the iris, with both arms held out in a wide, defensive stance, as if she means to grab Caleb. Beauregard is giving chase again, and seems they may have him, but he takes a hard right turn, forcing Beauregard into something of a gymnastic leap to avoid crashing into Jester.
Caduceus' involvement is all the permission Essek needs to intervene. He sets his tea aside, and before Caleb can get out of range, casts Levitate , lifting him a few inches off the ground and arresting his progress. A quick Misty Step lets Essek put hand around Caleb’s flailing wrist.
“There, now he’s—” Essek starts.
“Gotcha! ” Beauregard shouts, tackling Caleb in the air. Essek has to quickly adjust to keep them both aloft, but doesn’t manage to stop the rotation caused by Beauregard’s sudden addition of angular momentum.
They are sent off spinning, Caleb clutching onto Essek, Beauregard once again wrapped around
Caleb. It makes for a closeness Essek was not expecting. Half of which he has no complaints about.
But with Beauregard on the outside her weight keeps the rotation from slowing.
“I have him. Let go, Beauregard!”
Their trajectories split. Beauregard lands with a hard thump, her shouted curse punctuating the impact. Without Beauregard holding onto his limbs, Caleb is flailing for more security. An arm snakes around Essek’s waist, the other up to cradle the back of Essek’s head, and pulls them flush, one of Caleb’s legs slips between Essek’s. Essek’s mind blanks instantly. The spells drops. They land hard, sprawling out. Caleb tumbles to a stop laughing the entire time.
There’s no stopping Essek’s own laughter. The other’s are on them by the time they need to take a breath.
Caleb’s escape fully thwarted, draws everyone back to the table. Caduceus puts tall glasses of something not alcoholic in front of everyone. After he puts one infront of Caleb, he gives Essek a wink. More tales are told, jokes are made, and the cheer and joy cannot be stopped. But it does slowly start to taper off. Hearts content and at ease. Spirits singing their final song of the night, calling those who drank most of the night to sleep.
Essek had a hand on Caleb the entire way back to the table, and kept it on him as the group moved to the more comfortable environs by the fire. Just in case Caleb tried to run again. He’s still humming under his breath, murmuring something that rhymes, so it feels like a distinct possibility.
There’s no other reason. None at all.
As some of the others begin to disperse for the night (or simply make themselves comfortable where they fall) Caleb drops another glass onto the low table.
“Where did you get that ?” Essek asks in an undertone.
Caleb only smiles a wide, cat-like smirk and tucks himself closer to Essek.
“Mm, cold,” Caleb mutters.
“You could get your shirt,” Essek offers half-heartedly, even as he’s lifting his arms around Caleb. For warmth, he swears to himself. It would be awful if Caleb caught a chill.
Caleb grumbles something unintelligible, then worms even closer, somehow clambering over Essek and landing sprawled in his lap. Essek freezes in place, emitting a soft, undignified squeak, and Caleb nuzzles under his chin.
He promptly passes out.
Trapped. He’s trapped. Essek scans the room for any form of guidance. Beauregard was last seen thrown over Yasha’s shoulder making their way to their room. Fjord is seated on a couch, head resting over the edge, mouth open, something a similar color to Caleb’s shirt under it. Jester is happily tucked into his side, head resting on his chest. Veth was one of the first to leave and has been absent for some time. Caduceus is the only one left standing, something Essek wasn’t expecting. He’s draping a blanket over the couple on the couch.
“Ah, if you could,” Essek adjusts to sit up, “I can—”
“No, it's best if you just stay there. Caleb prefers not to be moved once settled. Much like his feline familiar.”
Another blanket is draped, a foot stool is pushed within range of Essek’s legs, and with that, Caduceus bids him a good night.
He could move. Physically or by the use of a spell, he could take him to his room. It’d be the proper thing to do, given his predicament. Not that he’s in the company of people who care about what is proper. He decides instead to seize the opportunity presented to him.
Caleb’s warm breath is on his neck, his weight comfortably along the entire length of his body. The lights in the tower are low. The shadows along Caleb’s face are soft. Despite the weight, the press of another body is strangely comfortable. This specific body especially.
Essek pulls the blanket up over Caleb’s shoulders, tucking it in place. Brushes a few strands of hair away from his face, letting them slide through his fingers. He had it tied at the beginning of the night, but that looks to be another casualty of the drink.
It’s gotten tangled in the excitement. It’s been a long time since Essek allowed his hair to be long, and the infuriating daily ritual of untangling it was the primary factor in that decision. Essek, without thinking, begins to gently card his fingers through Caleb’s hair, patiently working through any knots he finds.
Caleb grumbles, shifts slightly. Essek freezes, thinking he’d woken him, but Caleb resettles without truly waking. Essek breathes a sigh of relief. He’s not sure what he would have said if Caleb had woken while his fingers were in his hair. Not sure what would be worse— that it would be welcome or unwelcome.
Either possibility seems fraught, full of places for Essek or misstep or fail. Right here, in this hazy moment, the flipped coin still in the air, feels safer.
Apprehension isn't a common occurrence for Essek. He schemes to the point of most if not all possibilities are surmised. As of late though, with this group, this fire bright wizard, he's become more and more aware of how little he can bend with this group. For once he truly doesn't mind. In any other circumstance he wouldn't accept it. Fingers gliding through auburn hair, he thinks of how far things for him have come.
Caleb shifts once more, the blanket slips, showing his freckled shoulders. It's as easy as breathing to get lost in the constellations across the shoulders that bear such weight. A heaviness Essek also knows intimately. He caresses along the freckles arm to the lattice of scars along his forearm. His touch becomes as soft as a whisper. He doesn't know how these were formed. He doesn't know the story. He will in time, he's certain he can wait. But he has his theories. And his simmering anger at anyone who would harm towards the man in his arms. Essek presses his face into the fire hair. Focuses on the warmth and the softness of his skin to keep any darker thoughts from forming.
He finally slips into a slumber, content and safe, opting for a longer form of rest.
Something is touching his hand. Slow and even strokes over his fingers to the back of his hand.
His hands .
Essek goes from the pleasant drifting of near wakefulness to completely alert. It takes a moment of frantic blinking for him to remember where he is, to remember he’s as safe as it’s possible for him to be, to remember why there would be someone close enough to touch his hands.
“I woke you,” Caleb says thickly. “Sorry.”
“Quite all right,” Essek says on reflex. His mouth feels as if it’s coated in cotton, and it’s not entirely to do with the drink the night before.
Caleb is still in his lap. He is awake and presumably sober and still in Essek’s lap.
As if sensing Essek’s thoughts, Caleb sighs, pulling his hands into his own lap.
“If I move, I think I’m going to be sick.”
“Please don’t be sick on my legs,” Essek says weakly.
Caleb shakes his head, then groans, then slumps back. He gestures in the air vaguely, then one of the many cats appears, trotting up with a tail held high, then sitting primly on the floor.
“Hair of the dog, bitte ,” Caleb says. “Essek?”
The thought of more alcohol puts a knot in Essek’s stomach. He feels only moderately awful, and most of that is a stiff neck.
“Water. Just water. Please.”
“Suit yourself,” Caleb murmurs, as if he’d said something absurd.
Neither of them move. Caleb drifts, dozing for moments, coming to with a sigh or hum. The smell of food cooking slowly around the room, keeps Essek fully awake. A cat trots to them, a tray balancing on its tail.
“Forgive me.” Caleb murmurs with a smile at Essek’s surprise grunt.
“For being as, Beauregard and Jester so often point out, a squishy caster,” Essek shifts under Caleb to move them both, “you are very bony and sharp.”
Ignoring the vibrations from the laughter coming from Caleb, Essek drinks half the glass of water in one go.
“For indulging me last night.” Caleb’s morning beer mostly gone as well. “It is not often I get to… enjoy myself to such a degree.”
“It was a welcome change. Thank you for letting me be a part of it.”
While there’s little to no space between them, their faces had maintained a respectable distance to drink from their glasses and talk without exposing each other to their morning breath. That distance diminishes with each beat of their hearts.
“I hope you’ll have me again.”
Caleb brushes his nose against Essek’s, “Always.”
The kiss is just like the rest of the morning so far, warm and soft, a hit of beer. A welcomed gift.
“Oh thank fuck. Finally!”
Essek makes an entirely undignified noise and jerks away. He is caught between the impulse to flee and to glower at the interrupter and so does neither. Caleb is leaning around him, managing a fairly dark look, so Essek resigns himself to being frozen with his cheeks and ears burning.
“Go away, Beauregard.”
“Not until Fjord pays up.”
Essek can hear her grin. He begins contemplating what that could mean for his immediate future. Then he begins doing the math for a Teleport . There are other, entire continents free of Beauregards. Surely he could land he and Caleb in a habitable slice of one.
“ Fuck off , Beauregard.”
“Nope,” she replies, popping the p sound.
“Have it your way, then.”
And with that, Caleb wraps his hand around the back of Essek’s head and pulls him down.
If the first kiss was a soft question, the second is a shout from a mountain top. Caleb, with nothing but his lips and his tongue and the careful application of teeth, manages to drive every single solitary thought from Essek’s head.
Later, Essek will wonder where he learned to kiss. Later, Essek will wonder if he’ll have enough chances to learn.
Now, he is content to let Caleb lead this dance.
“You guys are fucking gross.” Beauregard's voice now coming from a different direction. "Put a shirt on."
"Well done." Caduceus' low voice fills the air. Without Caleb blocking his view, the furbolg standing near is revealed. He's wiping his hands on an apron fastened smartly around his waist.
"Food’s about ready. Sure you lot could use it." He announces loudly over his shoulder, disappearing back into the kitchen.
"Ah, forgive me if that was too much."
"You forget I have a younger brother." Essek tilts Caleb's face up toward him. He presses a kiss to the corner of his mouth. "I am familiar with the measures it takes to get rid of a troublesome little shit."
Finally the pair heave themselves, careful of elbows, sharp hip bones, and groins, up to their feet.
At the table Fjord has his head in his hands. Jester munches away on some pastry, all the while rubbing small circles on his back. Beauregard's grin sits firmly on her face. The clatter of plates pulls it into a grimace. Plates carried by cats start to appear. At the head is Caduceus.
"What are you waiting for, dish it out." Veth groans.
"Did you learn your lesson?" Caduceus asks the table of his mostly hungover friends.
A resounding "Yes, Caduceus." Goes out in varying degrees of misery.
"I don't believe any of you." He sets down the plates.
Plates are passed around and after being passed from one hand to the next, each piling something on it, one ends up in front of Essek.
There's far too much food for him to eat. Some of it he doesn't recognize at all. He's drawn away from puzzling out what and how to eat the food in front of him, by a foot hooking itself over his own.
Caleb is busy tucking into his meal, chatty with Veth about coming up with schematics and how to weave spells into them. These rest are eating commenting on various point of the previous night.
"At least Caleb fell asleep on Essek. He wouldn't be mean to him."
"You are exaggerating. I am not mean."
"Yes you are, Cay-leb! So mean!"
"It's true Caleb. After six drinks, you are a hateful creature if woken up."
"Glad I could be of service." Essek says, a little nonplussed. He turns and arches one eyebrow at Caleb, who’s chewing carefully on the greasiest sausage Essek has ever seen. Mean is not the word he’d have used to describe Caleb this morning.
“You were a little mean this morning,” Beauregard says.
“You were a little bit not minding your business,” Caleb replies.
“You weren’t ,” Essek adds. The foot around his pulls a little, and somehow the movement is distinctly approving. Caleb is meeting Beauregard’s gaze and there’s a silent fight happening. A vicious smile curls her mouth and she says,
“Fjord, by the way, you owe me fifty gold.”
“Fuck you, no I don’t, what for?”
“I caught Caleb and Essek, sitting on the couch, K-I-S-S-I-N-G!”
There’s suddenly a lot of noise for a bunch of hungover people, catcalls and congratulations. It makes Essek’s temples pound, his cheeks heat. But it also makes him smile, in a reflexive way he can’t seem to stop. Caleb is trying to seem impassive, an attempt to get them to lose interest, but there’s a pleased gleam in his eyes and a hand creeping over Essek’s knee that gives him away.
Perhaps the residual alcohol has damaged Essek’s impulse control, or perhaps it’s the energy of his—his friends, but Essek leans over and places a quick kiss on Caleb’s cheek. The cheers and groans are strangely gratifying, but not as gratifying as the pink blush that paints Caleb’s cheeks.
Drinking with the Mighty Nein has been an unqualified success.