Essek’s not quite sure how he’s gotten here.
“Beau, you already chose truth you can’t change now!”
Honestly, ever since meeting the Nein he’s been asking himself this question every day. It must be the universe playing cruel tricks with him. There’s no other explanation.
“But your question is shit! I don’t want to answer it. Hey, Caduceus you agree right? We shouldn’t make people answer stuff they’re uncomfortable with!”
“I think you should answer Jester’s question.”
Beau lets out a frustrated groan as she leans back into the couch cushions, face tilted upwards. Essek’s couch. In Essek’s living room in Essek’s house. They’re all sitting around the table that’s filled with pastries that Essek had ordered after the Mighty Nein had announced their return to Roshona via Jester’s message.
Essek squeezed on a couch between Caleb and Jester. The latter had sprung up to point an accusing finger at Beau.
“You see, we all agreed to this game so now play it!” Jester had a huge grin on her face, her little fangs poking out and eyes sparkling with mischief.
“I’ll cast zone of truth if I have to.”
Another groan. Finally, Beau tilts her head back to look at Jester, brows furrowed in frustration. She slowly looks at all the other figures seated around the table. Yasha was sitting beside her, Veth and Fjord were on the couch left to Essek’s and Caduceus sat on a stool opposite to them, ready to get up and make tea at a moment’s notice, if need be.
“You’re all shit friends,” Beau huffed out. “Alright, yes, I walked in on my parents having sex once and it was the worst day of my entire life!” Beau throws her arms up in a motion of defeat. She looks at Jester, brows furrowed.
“See,” Jester sits back down, “this wasn’t so hard was it? Now you can spin the bottle,”
Jester points to the empty wine bottle in the middle of the pastry filled table. They had all helped finish the bottle, apart from Jester and Caduceus.
Essek muses that this bottle was probably to blame for this game of Truth or Dare they had all agreed to. It had actually been Beau’s idea. Essek had drunk a glass or two already, feeling brave enough to engage in the Mighty Nein’s silly antics.
“Essek, we’re friends and friends play silly games together,” Jester had said as she leaned closer into his personal space. “It’s going to be lots of fun!”
He remembers Beau’s and Veth’s shouts of approval. Remembers Fjord’s quiet protest and Caduceus confused expression.
“Games are always a good idea,” he had said.
Essek had then looked at Caleb, almost instinctively. Whenever he grew nervous or didn’t know how to react to the Mighty Nein he’d always look to Caleb. And as he looked, he was met with a soft smile.
“Sounds like a good way to get to know each other,” Caleb had shrugged before continuing to eat the cupcake he’d been holding.
Maybe Essek had thought in that moment that this had all been a conspiracy against him.
Beau’s sudden shout jolts Essek out of his thoughts. He comes back to see all eyes on him. Beau’s opposite to him and her eyes are wide, her smile triumphant.
“Oh?” A small breath escapes Essek as he looks at the bottle, its neck pointing straight at him.
“Alright, alright this is great!” Beau rubs her hands together. “What do you choose?”
Essek drinks the last drops of wine left in his glass, thoughts already racing in his head. He can’t choose Truth, can he? It’s too risky, too much possible avenues to disaster. Knowing Beau, she’ll hone in right onto where it hurts.
Essek’s been trying to be more truthful, trying to gain their trust. Slowly. Steadily. But there’s still so much left unsaid, still so much darkness. Oh, and now he’s spiraling, because this is exactly what he’s not supposed to do, thinking how to keep more secrets and now they’re all staring.
“Dare.” Essek finally says, his voice barely louder than a whisper.
Beau visibly deflates. It’s obvious she had wanted to ask him a question. But this was the best course of action right now.
“I knew you’d choose dare,” Veth commented. She didn’t sound mad but something else carried in her voice, something Essek couldn’t place.
Suddenly, Beau clapped her hands together, a noise so loud it made Frumpkin, who had been sitting on Caduceus’ lap, jump and run back to Caleb.
“Oh, sorry Frumpkin,” Beau apologizes before returning her attention back to Essek. “I dare you to take off your top.”
Essek’s eyes go wide as immediately protests erupt from all sides immediately.
“That’s too much, Beau! You’re being mean on purpose!” Jester shouts.
“I don’t see how this would be fun for any of us.” Fjord huffs.
“We shouldn’t make him do anything he’s uncomfortable with.” Caduceus muses. (“But you just said the opposite to me!” Beau countered.)
“You can surely think of something else, right Beau?” Caleb asks.
The Mighty Nein, they think Beau just blurted out the first embarrassing idea that came to mind but Essek doesn’t believe that. Beau’s smart, she knows how to poke people right were it hurts and just as expected she managed to find Essek’s spot. She saw how he always hides behind his cloak, connected the dots and went right for the offense.
Well, if she wants a fight, she can have a fight. Essek’s the Shadowhand and he didn’t climb to that position without winning even the most subtle of power struggle.
He had disposed of his mantle early in the evening, leaving him with only his fitted shirt, which he now calmly unbuttons, ignoring all the shouting around him, which died down as all eyes in the room turned to Essek.
His gaze was low, making sure not to look anyone in the eye, acting nonchalant, as if he was undressing in private. And Essek was calm, mostly. It takes a lot to make him truly nervous. Although feeling Caleb go completely still next to Essek, imagining his blue eyes fixated on Essek’s body. Well, that did make his heart flutter and his stomach churn.
He made quick work of the buttons and with the most grace he could muster, trying to keep his hands from shaking. He undresses, revealing a sheer silk draped blouse, which he doesn’t take off. He folds his taken off shirt neatly, hanging it over the backrest next to his coat. Then he leans back, crossing his legs and looking triumphantly at Beau.
Head held high, Essek chuckles, “You’ll have to do better than that.”
Beau doesn’t answer as her eyes narrow. She lets him win, this time.
“That’s a beautiful blouse. I like how it sparkles.” Yasha’s voice is as soft as the little smile on her lips.
Essek looks down at his blouse, and nods. “Thank you, Yasha.” It does indeed sparkle slightly.
As he then leans forward, to spin the bottle, the relative silence is pierced by Jester’s high pitched shriek.
“Oh. My. Gosh. ESSEK!”
He quickly moves his head to look back at Jester, who’s clasping her hands in front of her mouth, eyes wide and staring at his back. It is then that Essek finally realizes his mistake.
“Your tattoo! It’s beautiful!” Jester squeals.
Essek quickly leans back again, pressing his back against the cushions, shoulders and mouth tense.
“Where did you get it?” Jester’s up in his face, forgetting about his personal space. Veth and Beau had sprung up too, talking rapidly.
“Essek has a tattoo?”
Essek can also see Fjord’s eyes on him, wide in disbelief. Then he looks to his left, to Caleb, whose eyes are wide too, with shock or something else, it’s hard to tell.
Essek can feel his ears becoming warmer as the attention singles in on him. He tries to calm himself before clearing his throat.
“Maybe, next time the bottle chooses me, I’ll answer your question.”
And as if nothing had happened Essek spins the bottle, this time not leaning forward as much.
Jester groans in displeasure but her mood changes the moment the bottle neck lands on Caduceus. Essek asks him what his favorite pastry is (“lame,” shouts Beau) and from there on the game continues in its normal chaotic way. Lots of shouting and ridiculous questions.
Now that the attention’s off of Essek, he can breathe easy again and enjoy the game and even laugh from time to time. But he does notice Caleb’s lack of reactions. He’s had the pleasure of only having to answer one question (Have you ever eaten something off the floor? – Come on, of course I have.), but besides that he’s been awfully quiet. Essek tries not to, but he can’t help but wonder if maybe he did something wrong. Did Caleb feel uncomfortable sitting next to Essek now?
The thoughts nag at the back of his mind until finally, the bottle lands on him again. The group cheers as Essek rolls his eyes and chooses ‘Truth’. No use in hiding right now, they’ll get it out of him eventually.
It had been Fjord’s turn and he looks visibly uncomfortable as the girls cheer him on to ask Essek the question they’ve all been dying to ask.
“Admittedly, I am quite curious about it myself.” Fjord scratches the back of his head. “So, what is the story behind your tattoo?” “The one that we haven’t even seen, except for Jester and Caleb,” Veth chimes in.
Essek sighs, shifting in his seat. His eyes keep darting around, before they settle on his empty wine glass in front of him.
“It’s nothing too interesting, honestly. A bygone memory of a time when I was still close to my brother.”
“Wait, you have a brother?” Fjord asks. “How many more secrets do you have?”
“It’s less a secret and more that we haven’t breached that topic yet,” Essek explains, more to himself then the others. Fjord is right, there’s still so much they don’t know. Essek just hopes they can see that he’s trying to open up, as hard and scary as it is for him.
“Anyway, we were young and stupid,” Essek continues. “Two Drow brothers on their first life and a strict overbearing mother? We were bound to lash out and so we did. One evening we decided to go adventuring outside of Roshona.” Essek chuckled, remembering the shenanigans they got up to.
“Verin, my brother, he was so much younger back then, but it didn’t keep him from talking up as many shady individuals as he could. One thing led to another and an older adventurer, a half-orc, offered to tattoo us. For free, even. Now I realize he just wanted to fuck with us.”
“He saw the chance and he took it.” Beau laughed let out a loud laugh. “I would’ve done the same.”
“It’s a bit embarrassing,” Essek wraps his arms around himself and sinking more into the plush couch. “but I definitely passed out halfway through. I don’t even remember Verin getting his tattoo. All I know is how we eventually decided return home and the huge racket our mother caused when she eventually noticed our bloody backs the next morning.”
Essek couldn’t help but smile to himself, telling this ridiculous story and so did the Mighty Nein. Soft laughter filled the room, some louder than others.
Beau chuckled. “I seriously can’t believe you were a rebellious teenager.”
“I had about three days of rebelling in me.” Essek raised a cocky eyebrow. “Any more and my mother would’ve disowned me.”
“I think you did a bit more rebelling than that.” Caduceus finally spoke up. “Stealing the Beacons seems pretty rebellious to me.”
“You’re right Cad!” Beau shouted. “Essek is totally still in his rebellious teenage phase!”
Essek let out a sarcastic ‘Ha.Ha.’ as Beau wiped the tears from her eyes, amusing herself on Essek’s cost.
Ignoring the clamor from Beau and Veth, Yasha turned to Essek. “I would love to see that tattoo. If you would show us, please?” And as imposing and scary as Yasha could be, she was nothing but soft and mild in her request.
Essek shrugs his shoulders and then slowly turns around to reveal his back to the group. He reveals the picture of a moth, on the upper part of his back, it’s wings open and filled with stars and planets. Beneath it there’s the moon, bright and beautiful surrounded by 10 smaller moons, in its separate stages of life as it circles the planet. It is simple, in black and white, with clear, precise lines and strong contrasts between the darks of the dark moth and the brightness of the stars and moon. There are also several lines connecting the moth, the planets and the moon.
“It’s so beautiful, Essek.” Jester exclaims. “One day I’ll be just as good as the guy who made this!”
Essek quickly turns around and takes his mantle from behind him and putting it on. He feels a little too exposed and the weight of the mantle on his shoulder is enough to comfort him a little. No one comments on it, as they’re talking about the tattoo.
“It’s wonderful craftsmanship.” Fjord nods, hand resting under his chin, obviously deep in thoughts.
“Have you ever met the Half orc again?” Veth asks and Essek shakes his head. “Ah shit. I would’ve loved to know what the meaning behind it is.”
“That’s a good question!” Jester bounces a bit as she turns to Essek. “What do you think it means?”
“I-uh,” Essek stammers. “I haven’t really thought about it.” He lies. He had thought about it many times, especially as of lately, with several theories in his head but none that he likes.
He can see Beau narrowing her eyes again and opening her mouth to speak when Jester rises to speak again.
“Caleb, are you alright?” They turn to look at said wizard, who’s been quiet throughout the whole exchange, absetnmind4edly petting Frumpkin. “You don’t look so good.”
Caleb takes a second before he answers, eyes starring forward, not really focusing.
“Ja, I don’t think I do. Excuse me.” He slowly stands up, holding the cat in his arms. “I think I need to go to the restroom really quick.”
Essek wants to point and show him where to go but Caleb has already darted upstairs, leaving an uncomfortable silence behind.
“Maybe the pastries were bad?” Beau asks.
“Nah, I think they were delicious!” Jester claims. “He probably just had a bit too much to drink. We’ll look after him in a bit.” The blue Tiefling jumps up from her seat and does a quick twirl.
“I think we should help Essek clean this up and then go home to sleep, right?”
The group nods as Caduceus and Yasha stand up, to start and bring the pastries to the kitchen.
“Ah, the little game was lots of fun, but I think Jester is right.” Beau stretches as she gets up. “But I think we went a little overboard. Sorry Essek.”
“No, don’t apologize it’s fine. I just hope I didn’t do anything that made you guys uncomfortable.” Essek, too, stands up, grabbing the ends of his mantle and wrapping it tighter around him.
“Don’t sweat it.” Beau waves her hand and grabs the empty wine bottle. She thinks for a moment and then speaks. “Maybe you should look after Caleb? See if he’s doing okay? We’ll clean up.”
Jester nods in agreement and just as Veth opens her mouth Jester interrupts her, shoving Essek towards the stairs. “Don’t worry, Essek, we won’t steal anything from your kitchen.” And with that she hops back to the table to help clean up.
Essek, just as he was told, heads up the stairs. Confused, as he’s sure there’s something he’s missing tonight. Something he didn’t catch. But no matter how much he wrecks his brain he can’t think of anything that might have happened to leave Caleb unwell. Was it really the Cupcake? But the others are fine.
If not the Cupcake, then surely, it’s himself. Essek. He undressed and who knows, maybe Caleb felt uncomfortable with that. Sitting as close to Essek as he did.
The thoughts didn’t stop, as Essek’s brows furrow and he unconsciously starts to float again. He was upset. The thought of Caleb being uncomfortable with Essek or, even worse, repulsed by him, made Essek want to cry.
His shoulders slouch and his ear droop a little and Essek decides, that no, he’ll look after Caleb in a bit but first he needs to compose himself again. He needs a breather and most importantly he needs to dress himself again. So instead of turning towards the restroom, at the end of the stairs, he turns towards his room, passing his study. The study in which he’s spent so many evenings with Caleb working on spells. He stops in front of it and realizes:
The door is slightly ajar, and light is filtering through the slit.
Could it be? Essek steps closer, reaching out his hand to the open door. His heart can’t help but beat faster as Essek peeks his head inside only to spot his favorite wizard sitting by their study table, a few candles lit and a book in front of him.
Essek stops himself from floating and with a shaky hand opens the door, slowly, and steps inside the circular chamber. He quietly closes the door behind him. Caleb doesn’t seem to notice. Only as Essek takes a few hesitant steps forward and Frumpkin, seated beside the book, looks up and meows at Essek’s arrival, does Caleb finally startle and look up at Essek.
“Oh, Essek, I’m sorry, I- “Caleb stumbles both over his words and the chair as he stands up, trips and barely catches himself. Essek instinctively took a few steps forward, arms open wide, trying to catch Caleb from falling.
But Caleb doesn’t fall and Essek’s hands are stretched out and he feels stupid for it. So he composes himself, back straight, arms wrapped around himself and mantle over them.
“Are you alright?” He asks but his voice is more croak than anything. His heart’s stuck somewhere in his throat, beating rapidly.
The candles cast a warm light onto Caleb’s face, as he stares at Essek, mouth opening and closing like a fish out of water. The light flickers and it casts beautiful shadows onto his face, accentuating his sharp jaw and cheekbones, as the light illuminates his fiery red hair. The way Essek sees it, Caleb is the most beautiful human to have graced this horrible world. He’s a light in Essek’s life and maybe finally his tattoo has a meaning.
Essek’s the moth and just like a moth he’s drawn to the light, as it shines bright and warm and eventually it’ll burn him. What a fool he was.
He shakes his head, shooing away his needless thoughts, turning his attention to Caleb. Who still hasn’t answered. His eyes don’t meet Essek’s. No, they wander up and down his torso, only partially covered by his cloak. Briefly stopping in a place before darting around again.
It takes much of Essek’s willpower to speak up again. He briefly motions to the book on the table with one arm. “You can have the book, if you want.”
That seems to break Caleb out of his thoughts. His eyes snap up to Essek’s face briefly before turning to the book.
“Ah, Nein. I just needed a quick distraction from – from my thoughts.” Caleb’s right hand wanders up this ear, kneading it a bit before turning his head back to Essek. This time his eyes slightly hooded, thoughtful as his gaze rests somewhere around Essek’s neck.
“The distraction’s not worth much now.”
Essek raises an eyebrow in question but Caleb doesn’t see, seemingly deep in thought again.
Caleb fidgets with his fingers, breath steady but heavy. Essek’s unsure what’s going on. Wonders if he’s in a bad place right now. Wonders if Caleb even wants him here right now, seeing him obviously out of it.
“Can I help you?” Essek takes a small step forward. The candlelight catches part of his mantle and Essek’s face. It catches on his silver earrings and eyes.
“Ja, I think you can.” Caleb’s eyes regain focus and he finally looks Essek in the eyes. His gaze is piercing, intense and heavy. Essek’s breath hitches involunteraly.
“Can I see your tattoo again?”
The request catches Essek off guard and his eyes widen. He was ready for a lot. Ready to leave this room, ready to argue, even ready to comfort if need be but this? What a curious request.
“Yes. Yes, of course.” Essek stammers a little. “If that’s what you…wish.” He trails off as Caleb, with a few strides, closes the distance between them. Suddenly exuding a confidence that Essek hasn’t seen the whole evening. A focus, focus on Essek. Caleb nods. “Ja, I want to see it.”
Essek’s hands are clutching the collar of his mantle, shaking. He looks up at Caleb, his face now mostly cast in shadows as he has stepped away from the candle, closer to Essek, closer to the dark.
And then Essek remembers how to move and remembers his training and how to fake it ‘til you make it. So, he slowly unclasps his mantle, with less grace than he did back in the living room. His entire body is shaking, small tremors. And he can’t bear it, can’t bear looking into Caleb’s eyes as he undresses. It’s too much, even for him, the Shadowhand. Because with Caleb he’s just Essek, afraid and hopelessly in love Essek.
The mantle falls with a heavy thud, gathering around their feet. Without looking up Essek turns around, hands to his chest and back slightly hunched.
He can see Caleb’s shadow moving, feels him come closer.
Essek closes his eyes and clenches his teeth, trying to keep his body in check.
“It’s breathtaking, honestly.” Caleb murmurs.
Relieve washes over Essek. So, it’s not him that made Caleb feel unwell. At least not in the way Essek had thought. It’s not his body and it’s not his tattoo. It feels silly to him, to care so much about it but he can’t help himself, can’t help the smile creeping up his lips.
“May I touch it? Touch your back?”
Caleb’s voice is oh so soft, but it simultaneously alights a fire in Essek. Makes him catch his breath and clench his fists.
“Sure, you may.” Essek whispers. “Just don’t scratch me. Or hurt me otherwise.” It was a joke, a bad attempt to diffuse the situation. But it’s all Essek could do.
As Caleb whispers a “I would never hurt you” Essek feels his warm hands on his shoulders and carefully, slowly, Caleb pushes the blouse just a little off his shoulders, opening up the V neck at the back more.
And then his fingers touch Essek’s back and it feels like sparks on his skin as Caleb traces the lines of ink. The stars and moon. Essek can’t help but shiver with every touch, with every spark. He’s reminded of the forehead kiss, reminded of the way it made him burn so bright it hurt. How he couldn’t concentrate for days afterwards.
It’s similar now but multiplied with every touch. A thousand prickles. A thousand stars imploding on his skin.
Caleb just mutters “beautiful” over and over again, with every new shape he traces. And then his finger traces down Essek’s spine and it’s the most wonderful feeling in the world. Then Caleb’s other hand joins as both now rest at the sides of Essek’s back and he shivers, and he whimpers quietly and surely Caleb must notice. Notice what a pitiful figure Essek is right now.
And then Caleb’s quiet for a heartbeat, for a breath’s moment, and then warm lips kiss meet Essek’s skin, right between his shoulder blades and Essek swears, he’s dying. Swears he’s going to suffer a heart attack and then he’ll finally be freed of this, this torture and simultaneous heaven on earth.
“Du bist wunderschön.” Caleb mutters. Essek doesn’t understand, but something in Caleb’s voice makes Essek turn his head around.
He meets Caleb’s eyes and oh no. Oh no. Caleb’s looking at Essek, as his flushed face, his open and vulnerable eyes. Caleb’s face, too, is flushed and his brows are furrowed, but his eyes are soft, and his lips are smiling.
His lips. Essek doesn’t want to, but he can’t stop staring. He still feels the sparks that Caleb left behind on his back and his warm hands on his sides. And he wants nothing more than to kiss the wizard in front of him. Kiss him until Essek finally dies.
And for a moment, just the flutter of butterfly’s wings, it seems as if Caleb wants the same. But then the warmth leaves Essek’s side and Caleb picks up the mantle to wrap it around Essek, who’s unmoving. Staring.
“Danke.” Caleb smiles and takes a step away from Essek. “I forgot myself there for a moment. I hope you can forgive me. Gute Nacht, Essek.” And then he sighs softly and walks to and out the door leaving Essek behind, mind and heart racing.
Does he feel the same? And Essek, he doesn’t even want to let himself hope but it’s too late. The little flower is beginning to bloom.
“Am I allowed to hope?” Essek asks a loud and all he hears is a “Meow.” From Frumpkin atop the table.
And Essek could swear the cat’s eyes were glowing ever so slightly or did he just imagine it?