Caleb wakes to ash in his mouth.
He comes to with an awful, hacking cough, spluttering and wheezing as his lungs seize in his chest. He sits up, hands bracing on his knees, and coughs and coughs until he tastes copper on the back of his tongue and the edges of his vision start to turn black. It hurts, tugs at his ribs like there’s wire pulling through them, and his lungs and throat and mouth feel like they’re full of soot and ash and dust, like he’s buried in it, and by the time he’s finished wheezing enough that he can start to catch his breath again his lap is full of piled white-grey ash.
He cannot tell how much of it he coughed up, and how much of it was there from before.
Caleb coughs again, and lifts a hand to wipe it across his mouth as he raises his head to look around. The sky above him is dim, the sun nowhere to be seen behind the thick grey clouds that hang heavy overhead, but there’s still enough light to see by. Even if there wasn’t, the still-smouldering embers that surround him are all the indication Caleb needs to know exactly where he is. The light they cast catches on what gold thread is left on the sleeves of his uniform, glinting off his lieutenant’s embroidery, and between the embers and the smell in the air and the endless drifting, gathering ash and soot Caleb is left with no illusions of where he has found himself.
This is his battleground.
He desperately wants this to be a dream, but he cannot tell if it is.
He doesn’t want to move yet, but at the same time he wants to flee. He knows that he should move, knows that the silence of a battleground is no place to find rest, but he desperately does not want to. He is tired, exhausted and drained and his ribs ache like they’ve been pounded on with rocks and every bit of him calls out for rest and slumber and the comforting darkness of sleep, at the same time that he wants nothing else than to run and run and run until every thought of war and magic and fire is far, far behind him. He wants to curl up in the ash, pull the tattered remnants of his coat over himself, and drift away and sleep until the ash covers him as well.
But he can’t.
He has to move. He can’t just lie here and be consumed by ash, despite what half of his brain is screaming at him to do, and so he slowly, slowly, forces himself to his feet, and starts to walk.
The battleground around him is haunting in its familiarity. The air is full of smoke and soot and ash and Caleb cannot see to the horizon, cannot see for how far this battleground stretches, and it terrifies him.
He has to walk. He has to move. He has to get away, has to somehow leave this place and find his way back to… to wherever he can go. To whatever town or village or hamlet is nearest. To some place of peace, where he can cast off his uniform and his rank and forget the war and forget fighting and just be Caleb again, and never hear anyone call him sir of lieutenant for as long as he lives.
He looks down to his feet and can barely see them beneath the drifting ash.
One foot in front of the other. It’s so simple. It’s so easy. Pick one foot up and put it down and then repeat. Caleb lifts a foot, puts it down. Lifts his other foot, puts it down. Repeat. Foot up, foot down. Foot up, foot down. Move forwards. Move on. He turns all his attention to walking, so that his mind cannot linger on the charred corpses heaped around him.
He walks and walks and walks, stepping over bodies and bones and endless drifts of ash, watching as it swirls through the air like snow in the wake of his steps, and it its only then, is only when he takes a breath and feels the ashes settle in his mouth that he realises that they do not cling like ash, paper-fine and dusty, but like bone.
There is no ash in his mouth.
Ash does not cling like this.
Caleb drops to his knees suddenly, sees in his periphery as plumes of ash rise around him – it is not ash, it is bone, this is all ash and bone and embers and you are drowning in it – and retches. He coughs and heaves until his very bones are sore from it but nothing comes up, nothing but more ash and soot and he feels like he’s choking on it, like he’s drowning, he can feel it slipping down his throat and settling in his lungs no matter how much he coughs and he’s dizzy, he can’t breathe, his throat is raw and his stomach is twisted and his hands are shaking, trembling against the ground and he can feel tears cutting tracks through the grime on his face.
He coughs and heaves and retches until he’s in danger of passing out, and when he finally stops out of sheer necessity he breathes again, in great sobbing gulps and gasps that barely seem to pull any air into his lungs at all. He can taste the bone-ash on his tongue, feels how it clings like mud (and he remembers reading that somewhere, that to identify a rock from an old bone you touch it to your tongue because rock will not change but bone will coat your tongue and turn to paste).
He coughs again and lifts a hand to wipe it across his mouth, smearing spittle and bone-paste and Gods know what else on the sleeve of his uniform. He has to get up. He knows that he has to get up. He doesn’t know how far he has yet to travel, but every step he takes is a step closer to the edge of the battlefield, a step closer to just being Caleb again, and he needs to move.
Caleb shakes his head, feels ash and soot and dust drift off his hair and shoulders, and forces himself back to his feet.
One foot in front of the other, he reminds himself. Just like marching. One foot, and then another, and you can walk for miles, you know you can, you’ve walked in terrain far worse than this so just keep on going, keep on going and don’t look up, don’t look around, don’t look at the battlefield.
It is your battlefield, Caleb.
He knows the voice that speaks in his mind. It settles cold and insidious inside his head without ever seeming to pass via his ears, and he recognises it all too well.
He stumbles forwards, feels something crunch beneath his foot, and looks down into a soot-blackened skull. The eyesockets gaze up at him, unseeing and empty, and when he moves his foot again the whole corpse shifts, resettling as he frees the ulna he just shattered under his boot.
These are your corpses.
“They are not,” he whispers, and barely hears his own words. He can’t stop looking at the burned corpse beneath him. He shifts his head, catches a glint of silver at the corpse’s neck, and feels his bones grow cold. It’s a tiny thing that he spotted, but it freezes him in place all the same; it’s a little locket, neatly and carefully engraved with vines and flowers with a tiny clasp that Caleb knows opens at a push to reveal two pictures. He knows the pictures that line the insides of the locket; he had seen them when Garres had been on watch with him and they’d been passing a bottle of beer back and forth, talking about home and the war and who was waiting for them, who they would go home to when it was all over, and Garres had fished inside his uniform and pulled out the little locket and shown it to Caleb and told him how’d he saved up to get the silver for it, had saved up the money for the tiny, tiny watercolours of himself and his best girl, had told Caleb that when all this was over he was going to take his warmage’s pay and go home to his town and find his girl and propose to her and now…
And now, that can never happen. Caleb feels bile rising at the back of his throat again.
These are your men, lieutenant, the voice murmurs, and Caleb cannot look away.
“I know,” he whispers.
You killed them.
You led them into battle and you killed them.
“I know.” Caleb shakes himself, takes a breath that is more ash and bone than air, and starts walking forwards again. He doesn’t know where he’s going. He just knows that he has to get away, but the ash is ankle-high and it’s hard to walk, is hard to see through the debris drifting in the air, and he makes it barely three yards before he stumbles again and falls back down to his knees amongst the ash and embers and bodies.
You did this.
“Get out of my head.” He’s shaking, trembling, anger and fury and terror mixing in his veins and all of it directed inwards. He knows this voice.
So many cut-short lives.
You know I can’t, Caleb.
It is his own voice that speaks to him from the back of his mind, and he will never be able to pull it free from his skull.
Caleb shuts his eyes, and the soft sounds of the battlefield fall silent around him.
Breathe. That was the most important thing he could do now – keep on pulling in lungfuls of air, over and over again, ignoring the ash and the soot and the way his lungs want to spasm with fear and terror and panic. Ignore the tear tracks on his face, ignore the fire he can feel coiled around his heart and in the palms of his hand. Ignore every memory that pushes its way into his mind.
Caleb ignores it all, and he breathes.
He does not think of his platoon. He does not think of his men. He does not think of their fear before the battle, of his fear, of his false confidence and bravado because he knows this battleground is not in their favour. They are too open, too exposed, and warmages are not armoured well, they can’t be, they have nothing but the uniforms on their backs and the spells beneath their skin and now he can hear the enemy approaching, he can see them and Gott, he was right, he was right and it’s terrible and awful because they are trapped and they cannot get out and this is how we all die.
He does not know why he was the only one to live.
He does not know what sin he committed to deserve it.
Caleb squeezes his eyes shut tighter, breathes in through his nose and out through his mouth like he was taught to, and fists his hands so tightly he can feel his nails splitting open his skin. His heart is racing but he forces himself to stay calm, to stay in the present, to listen and be aware and to push everything aside for later.
Gradually, his breathing becomes easier. Gradually, his hands lose their tightness, and he can feel the blood start to gently run down his palms when he forces his fists to relax. Gradually, he becomes aware of the sound of his own breath and the battlefield again.
It is then that Caleb hears the footsteps walking up behind him.
In the space of a second he’s on his feet again, hands alight and warcaster’s stance taken. It’s reflex, training: habit so strong it overpowers everything else, and he can feel the flames licking and curling beneath his skin and turning his hands soot-black as he spins around to face the enemy before he realises that-
And then sharp pain flares across his cheek, and Caleb is not on the battlefield anymore.
There is no more ash in his mouth.
His blinks his eyes, blinks again, and barely recognises his surroundings. He’s underground in a large, dark cave, lit in distant corners by dancing, shimmering lights that he barely recognises as his own, and there’s a lavender tiefling standing opposite him, red eyes burning as bright as the embers.
Caleb knows him. He recognises him.
He does not think he recognises himself.
“Hey!” Mollymauk says, and Caleb blinks again. “Back in the game. Time for that later.” There’s a pause, and it’s just enough time for Caleb to start catching the breath he hadn’t noticed he’d been holding before Molly speaks again. “You alright?”
No. No, there is no way that he’s alright, and he knows that Molly can see it. But this is not the time or place for breakdowns.
“Alright.” There’s a swirl of motion before him but Caleb doesn’t react to it at all, can’t seem to move his lead-filled limbs even when Molly leans in and presses a quick kiss to the centre of his forehead, and then there’s another swirl of colour and motion, and Molly is gone.
Caleb doesn’t know how long he spends staring blankly ahead, eyes unseeing and unfocused. He’s still looking at the corpse that he made but can’t move himself to look away – he’s barely aware of the position of his own limbs as it is, is barely aware of himself, and he thinks it would take a manticore to move him from this position.
He feels like he isn’t there.
He’s not… anywhere. He’s not on the battlefield anymore but he’s also not in this cave, and he’s not even sure if the cave is real. He’d thought the battleground was but it wasn’t, and now he thinks this place is real but it might not be, and it really should concern him more than it does that he can’t separate reality from his own memories but he simply cannot bring himself to care.
Distantly, he thinks he hears someone saying his name. It sounds quiet, muffled as though underwater, and he can barely make out the shape and sound of the words that follow through the sound of the fire crackling inside his head.
He doesn’t look, doesn’t react. He can’t. There’s no him left to react.
There’s movement, motion – a hand pressing against his arm for the space of a second, and it’s light and barely-there but it’s just enough for Caleb to start drawing back inside his skin like the touch was acting as a focus-point.
“Hey,” says a voice, and he blinks, thinks he recognises it as Beau’s. The voice continues. “You alright?”
He hears himself reply, but doesn’t remember planning to say the words. “Mm, ja.” It’s distant. It’s so distant. Beau’s voice is muffled and Caleb’s own voice is muffled and there’s absolutely no thought behind the words he said, no intent. He’s responding on absolute autopilot, saying what he needs to say to appease her. His unfocused eyes take in the vague shape of Molly standing before him, a resplendent swirl of lavender and red and blurred, patterned fabrics that Caleb can’t distinguish from each other. He can’t quite make out the expression on Molly’s face. He’s not sure he wants to.
He doesn’t want Molly to be worried about him.
As it is though, he can’t tell if Molly is worried or not; when Molly speaks his voice is level, calm and gentle with no trace of concern and he’s so, so easy to listen to, muffled as he is.
“Later,” Molly says and Caleb blinks, hears the words go in one ear and feels them fall out of the other. “There’s time for that later.”
“Yeah.” He’s not there. He’s not present.
“Come on,” Molly says, and Caleb distantly feels hands wrapping gentle around his arms, a hand pressing warm to the small of his back. “Let’s go get some sunlight.”
After they get back to Alfield, after Caleb brings himself back to the present enough to respond to the group’s questions, to assure them, to lie and lie and lie some more, he is the furthest from okay he has been in a long time, he finds himself in a room in an inn, sitting on a bed with Molly beside him.
He doesn’t entirely remember getting there. He has some vague memory of walking, of the feeling of hands wrapping gentle around his arms, of voices and conversation and there was maybe something to do with a jar, but that’s it. He’s not sure how he got to the inn. He’s not sure when he got to the inn, and he’s very unsure as to why Molly is sitting next to him now, watching him with an expression that Caleb can’t quite interpret.
“It’s the evening,” Molly says abruptly, and Caleb jerks a little at the unexpected sound. “If that helps.”
It does. Weirdly, it does.
Caleb has been coming back to himself piece by piece since they left the mines behind but he’s still not entirely present, and with the curtains drawn over the room’s single window he realises that for the first time in a long time he’s not actually aware of how long it’s been since the sun set. It’s… unnerving, to say the least. For as long as he can remember Caleb’s always been able to know where the sun is in the sky without thinking about it, and to not have that knowledge now unbalances him more than he’d like to admit. He feels off, twisted up and yet entirely hollow like he’s being torn between two planes, and the longer he sits in silence the more he feels memories start slipping back in around his mind.
He looks down in his lap, twists his fingers together. You are here, he tells himself, and doesn’t believe it. He is here, in this room, with Mollymauk beside him and candlelight shining amber on the wooden furniture and there are embers in the air and on the ground and the air is thick with soot and ash and it is settling in his lungs and his bones and his hands are burned and black with soot and he did this, he did this, this is his battleground and his men and his corpses and-
“Hey,” a voice says abruptly, and Caleb snaps out of his trance. He blinks, and the drifting soot and smoke and embers vanish, to be replaced instead by Mollymauk’s face.
“Hey,” Molly says again, and lifts a hand to snap his fingers just in front of Caleb’s face. The amber glow of the candles glints off the rings on his fingers, and they look nothing like embers. “Hey now, none of that, alright? You stay in the here-and-now with me. You can have your flashbacks later.” One of Molly’s hands finds Caleb’s in his laps and takes it, the touch gentle enough that Caleb could free his hand at a moments notice if he so wished.
The touch is unexpectedly welcome. Caleb is not a touchy-feely man by any standards, but he’s surprised by how nice it feels to have this, to have a single point of contact and warmth with no expectations attached to it. He turns his hand, still not looking Molly in the eye, and laces their fingers together before squeezing once, gently.
When Molly squeezes his hand in response Caleb feels something in his chest flutter.
“You with me?” Molly asks softly, and Caleb nods. From the edge of the vision he thinks he catches the wry smile that Molly casts his way. “Can you answer with words?” There’s no judgement in his question, no tone that would imply an order hidden in the words. They’re presented as a simple, straight-forward question and nothing more, and after a moments contemplation Caleb swallows and speaks.
“Yeah,” he says. His voice sounds rough, hoarse like he’s been swallowing sand, but it’s still a voice, and it seems to make Molly happy.
“Good,” Molly says with a smile, and he brushes his thumb against the back of Caleb’s hand. The touch is warm, soft and gentle, and it pulls Caleb’s attention towards it like a beacon. “It’s a lot easier when you’re not non-verbal, y’know?”
“Can you say words that aren’t ‘yeah’?” The same tone again; gentle, calm, judgement-free.
Caleb pauses. “… I can.”
Molly’s smile widens, and Caleb finds the corners of his mouth twitching in return. “Good,” Molly says, and the praise makes something warm settle deep in Caleb’s chest. He doesn’t know what to do in response to that feeling so he squeezes Molly’s hand again, and feels his shoulders drop by millimeters when Molly squeezes back.
He never thought he’d find Molly’s presence so comforting. The tiefling had arrived in his life in a loud, rambunctious, snake-oil-salesman riot of colour, and the colour is still there but Caleb’s almost amazed at how much of the loudness is gone. Molly’s been nothing but quiet and calm with him since the incident in the mine, careful in a way that skirts along the line of treating him like he’s glass but never quite crossing it, and it’s nice. It’s very nice. It’s nice to be treated like this, to have things made simple without feeling like he’s being patronized, and Caleb knows that he’s going to have to find some way to thank Molly for everything later.
For now, he’ll just focus on listening to what Molly asks him.
Caleb glances up, watching Molly from beneath the hanging strands of his hair. Molly catches his eye and gives another one of his lightning-quick smiles.
Caleb can’t help himself. He smiles back, and is still smiling when the next question comes.
“You think you’re gonna sleep tonight?” Molly asks, and Caleb feels his smile drop instantly as he looks away. It’s an easy question to answer.
“Alright. Do you want me to not-sleep with you?”
Caleb frowns a little at the phrasing, but when he looks back Mollymauk’s eyes are free from their usual teasing, flirting edge. Whatever he means by ‘not-sleep’, Caleb can see that he’s completely serious about it.
And his expression must give some of his confusion away, because a moment later Molly sighs, and strokes his thumb against the back of Caleb’s hand. “I mean,” he says, “That if you’re not gonna sleep someone might as well keep you company, you know? Keep the nightmares and all that at bay.” There’s a level of understanding to his voice that Caleb recognises – Molly, like himself, knows what it is to have memories that only shake themselves free at night. “And you gave most of us a proper fright down in the mine, so the others are probably going to want to check in on you.”
The thought is immediate, more reflex than conscious action – Caleb doesn’t want people checking in. He doesn’t want their concerned looks, doesn’t want their smothering comfort, and most of all he doesn’t want them looking at him like he’s some awful, broken thing. He knows those looks, knows them only too well, and he hates them for the truth that he can taste behind them.
He doesn’t realise that he’s hunching in on himself, silent and staring at their joined hands, until Mollymauk’s hand squeezes his own again.
“You can say no,” Molly adds softly, after several more long seconds of Caleb’s silence. “You can say no, and I’ll go. Sometimes company isn’t what people want. I get that.” A pause. “I know that. If you want to be alone tonight just say so, and I’ll tell the others, and we’ll all, y’know, leave you in peace.” There’s another pause. Caleb still doesn’t answer. “Caleb? Do you want to be left alone?”
He doesn’t know.
Because… on the one hand, he doesn’t want company. He doesn’t. He really, truly, desperately doesn’t want for anyone else to be in this room with him, not Fjord or Jester or Beau or even Nott, even though he’s somewhat certain that her presence will help calm him anyway. He doesn’t want them to see him like this, doesn’t want to feel their gazes with the knowledge that now, even if they do not know what exactly happened to him, they now have some small clue. He doesn’t think he could stand it.
He misses Frumpkin.
Frumpkin’s presence would be comforting. Frumpkin would be all the company he would need. But Frumpkin is not here, so instead he has to decide how much he trusts his new travelling companions.
He doesn’t think he trusts them enough for this, and he does not want company.
But on the other hand…
On the other hand, having Molly around has helped, undeniably so. Caleb’s definitely not settled, is nowhere near free of the memories that still curl around his mind like spider-silk, but somehow Molly’s presence has helped keep them at bay, and Caleb can feel them starting to fade. It’s an unexpected feeling – whenever this has happened before (and it does happen, as much as he hates to admit it) he’s had to face the memories at some point. Normally they overwhelm him moments after the event, just like they did down in the mines, but unlike in the mines normally there is no one to pull him out of them. Normally he drowns in ash over and over and over again until he comes to with tears on his face and bloody fingernail cuts on his palms and Nott fretting over him, wide-eyed and worried. This whole event has been a change from everything he knows, and now he doesn’t know what to do.
Well, that’s partially a lie.
He knows one thing.
“I don’t want to be left alone,” he says, and feels the words scrape in his throat. “But I do not- I do not want everyone else to be here either.”
“That’s alright,” he hears Molly say. “Who do you want to be in here with you?”
A pause. A breath. “You.”
“Alright,” Molly says, and he presses another kiss to Caleb’s forehead as he stands up, letting their joined hands hang in the space between them; Caleb’s tether back to reality. “You just sit tight – I’ll go tell the others not to wait up on us, and we’ll see how you feel in the morning.” He glances down to where their fingers are still tangled together. “You going to let go of my hand?”
“…I’d rather not.” It’s more of a whisper. Caleb’s not even sure if Molly heard him until he replies.
“You’re going to have to at some point.”
“…Afraid you’ll drift off?”
Caleb can’t help it – his head snaps up to look at Molly at that, eyes narrowing slightly, because yes, that is exactly what he’s afraid of.
“You know any songs?” Molly asks abruptly, and it’s such an odd, unexpected question that it actually startles Caleb enough to make him drop his frown.
“Any songs?” Molly repeats, “Like The Hedgehog’s Jig? The one that goes la-LA-la-LAA-la-la?” He hums a few bars of a jaunty tune, and gives Caleb an expectant look. “Stuff like that?”
“I- I think so.” He hasn’t had much cause for singing, not in a long time, but he still remembers some songs. “Yes.”
“Great! Pick one, and while I’m gone try singing it backwards.”
That’s baffling. Caleb frowns at him, and Molly flashes a grin.
“Start on the final word, and go backwards. Trust me.” There’s a pause, and his grin loses its playful edge. “It’ll keep the memories at bay until I get back and you can hold my hand again. It’s always worked for me.”
Caleb supposes it’s worth a shot.
“Okay,” he says.
Molly’s suggestion works, and it works well. Caleb’s halfway through the third verse of Mondaufgang by the time the tiefling returns to the room, one of his books open on his lap. He hadn’t stopped murmuring words to himself the whole time he’d been unfastening the book from its holster – even now he feels dangerously close to memories, but the reversed song requires enough of his attention that he can’t let his mind start sliding towards them. The book is more to give him something to do with his hands, some way to rid himself of the nervous energy that’s built up in him since they got to the inn, and between the sigil-laden pages and the stop-starting of the backwards song he’s sure he’d give a decidedly strange impression to anyone who entered the room.
Well, a strange impression to anyone but Molly.
“I see you took my advice,” he says once the door shuts behind him, walking over to the bed and sitting down next to Caleb again. “Did it work?”
“It did,” Caleb replies softly, glancing over at him. “Thank you.” Mollymauk’s red eyes are less unsettling now – before, when Caleb had first come back from his memories, they had reminded him so strongly of burning embers that he could barely stand to look at him. But now, though they still remind him of smouldering coals, they seem… warmer. Softer. Less like embers and more like the rich red of expensive, beautiful inks. It’s nice.
Molly is nice.
Caleb blinks, and looks away. Now is not the time to be thinking that, not in the way that he is. Molly is nice, yes, but he is- Caleb is- they are friends. We are friends, he reminds himself, and presses his hands against the pages of his book as if he could somehow press his feelings into the pages and never be troubled by them again.
Alas, if such a spell exists he has not found it yet.
Instead, he turns his attention to the spells that do exist. The curves of the letters and the strokes of the sigils are well-known to him, comforting and familiar, and he’s quick to pick up where he left off, humming quietly as his gaze scans across the words. This is good. This is comfortable and safe and Caleb feels settled, feels good and relaxed and like he can finally breathe easily again.
Or he does, until he feels a weight settle on his shoulder and flinches so hard he nearly flings the book across the room.
“What are you reading?” Molly asks, and Caleb feels half the tension drain out of his body when he realises that the weight is just Molly resting his chin. He clears his throat, gesturing with his free hand at the book on his lap.
“Cairon’s Transmutations and Rituals,” he says, and Molly hums. Caleb can feel the sound of it through his shoulder. He feels he should say something in the way of explanation. “It is- it is for Frumpkin.”
“Hmm,” Molly hums again, and he shifts a little, makes himself more comfortable where he’s draped over Caleb’s back like some sort of ridiculous, extravagant blanket. “Read it to me,” he says, and Caleb blinks.
“This book,” Molly says, waving a ring-bedecked hand at the tattered pages, “Read it to me.”
“Because I like the sound of your voice, and it’ll give you something to focus on. Harder to let your thoughts wander when you’ve got a tiefling poking you if you stop talking.”
Caleb can’t help it – he cracks a small smile at that, the first once since the manticore, and nods. “Alright.” He skims over the page he was reading, and then starts flipping back through the book – he wants Molly to at least be able to follow what he’s saying, even if he doesn’t understand the practise of it, and waits until he returns to the start of the chapter to start reading.
“Find familiar,” he begins, “Is, despite what the name may suggest, primarily a summoning spell.” He doesn’t need to read all this again – with a memory like his Caleb already knows the entire chapter off by heart, and had only really been looking for a particular bit of this chapter to double-check his own memory before attempting to bring Frumpkin back. He doesn’t want to make a mistake and have Frumpkin come back as an octopus. He wants his cat back.
He wants his cat back, and he wants to sleep, and he wants to forget so, so many things.
He also, very quietly, thinks he might want to press closer to Molly. Molly’s already pressed against his back about as closely as is physically possible, but Caleb doesn’t care for physics in this moment. Molly is warm, and shockingly comfortable to have draped over his back, and his weight is settling and comforting all at the same time and Caleb wants.
He’s not entirely sure what he wants, but he knows it has something to do with Molly.
He doesn’t dwell on it. He pushes the thought from his mind, and turns as much of his attention as he possibly can back towards the book in his lap. After a few more minutes of quiet reading he feels a pair of arms start to snake around his stomach, and doesn’t flinch this time. They feel nice, in an unexpected way.
“Is this okay?” Molly murmurs from his shoulder, and Caleb finds himself nodding. It’s more than okay. The weight on Molly’s arms on his belly make him feel secure, much like how the weight of Molly draped across his back feels like it’s keeping him tethered to the ground, to the bed beneath them.
“It’s okay,” he says, and Molly hums again.
“Good. Did you know that you’re quite comfortable?”
Caleb did not know that, and he flushes. “I- I did not.”
“No one ever tell you? Shame.”
Caleb doesn’t know what to say to that, and after a few moments flustered, uncertain silence, he goes back to his book.
Only to get poked in the stomach by Mollymauk a few minutes later.
“You stopped reading,” Molly says by way of an explanation. “I told you I was going to poke you if you stopped reading.”
He did say that, Caleb accepts. “Fine,” he says, but it comes out less grumbled than he’d intended, and significantly more amused. “Do you poke everyone you hug?”
“Only those I like,” Molly replies, and Caleb can hear the grin in his voice. It makes him flush harder as well, this knowledge that Caleb is, apparently, someone that Mollymauk likes.
He’s quite grateful that Molly can’t see the colour his cheeks have gone.
Caleb clears his throat, and tries to remember where he’d been before he’d been too flustered to keep reading aloud. Ah, yes, there…
“’The transmutation circle,’” he begins, “’Should, under ideal circumstances, be drawn two feet in diameter…”’
Caleb feels Molly’s chest expanding with his even breaths against his spine, and feels himself settle a little more. This is easy. This is good. He knows this, knows this chapter so well he could read it with his eyes shut. And it’s… boring.
He has Mollymauk pressed warm and close against his back, and everything is boring by comparison.
Caleb loves his magic. He really, truly does – it’s been a constant companion of his, something he’s always been able to fall back and rely on no matter what, and he loves to read and he loves to learn and he especially loves to read and learn about his magic, even if he’s reading and learning things he already knows, but now, suddenly, it’s dull. It’s mind-numbingly, achingly dull, and Molly’s presence shines like a beacon in comparison.
There is something Caleb would much rather be doing than just reading. Something he’s sure would settle his mind even further.
He takes a deep breath and then, abruptly, snaps the book shut.
From his shoulder, Molly makes a small sound of confusion. “Caleb?”
He doesn’t know what to say. He doesn’t even know what he’s thinking. He’s calmed a lot since the mine but it still feels like there’s three separate trains of thought swirling around his head. His memories are quieter now but still present, but overriding them now, overriding everything, is a much, much louder thought.
I want to kiss him.
Caleb picks up the book, hands trembling slightly, and places it to one side.
“Caleb?” Molly asks again, and this time Caleb can hear a hint of worry in his voice. “You alright? You with me?”
“Yeah.” Yes, yes, he is. Completely.
“Alright. Mind if I ask what you’re doing? You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to, of course.”
Caleb shakes his head. “No, no, you can ask. I-“ He pauses, swallows to wet his suddenly dry throat. “I think- I want to…”
He trails off, and lapses back into silence. I cannot say it. He has no idea how it’ll be received, has no idea if Mollymauk even feels the same way. Hell, he has no idea if Molly even likes men or not, and that should really be something that he learns before he says any of this.
The weight against his back suddenly vanishes, and Caleb slumps slightly in its absence, only to be supported again a moment later as Molly moves to sit next to him instead, turning slightly so that he’s facing Caleb as best as he can on the narrow bed.
“Caleb,” he says seriously, and Caleb doesn’t look up at him, doesn’t feel like he can. “It’s alright. Whatever you want, it’s alright. I’m not going to judge you for anything. You got that?”
Caleb nods. His heart feels like its beating too fast for his body and blood to keep up. “I want-” He cuts himself off, falls silent again, and Molly does not move to fill the silence hanging in the air. He just waits, quiet and calm and patient by Caleb’s side.
When Caleb speaks again, the words are almost inaudible. “I think I want to kiss you…”
He can’t look up. He can’t look up. He can’t look and see Molly and see the look he can only imagine is on Molly’s face and lose this, lose this closeness and comfort and strange, nebulous friendship that he’s developed with the tiefling. He can’t lose it.
So he doesn’t tilt his head up, doesn’t look at Molly, and then he spots a flash of purple in his vision and feels a hand pressing light and gentle under his chin to tilt his head up, and he looks back at Mollymauk before he can talk himself out of it again. It is much easier to let Molly move him than it is to do it himself.
“Are you sure?” Molly asks, looking at him with dead seriousness in his eyes, and Caleb nods. He has said his piece. The words are in the open. There is no point in hiding now.
“Yes,” he says, “Yes, yes, I am.”
There’s a long moment in which Molly just looks at him, his eyes searching over Caleb’s, and Caleb does his best to look back, to keep his gaze level and steady and certain. He wants this, and the more he thinks about it the more he realises that he’s wanted this for a while. And he does feel like himself, finally – his memories of the battlefield feel distant now, distant enough that he can touch on them in passing without them consuming him, and he knows that this place, this room, is real.
He knows that he is real, and he knows that Molly is too. So he looks Molly in the eye, does his best to calm his racing heart, and waits.
Thankfully, he does not have to wait long.
“Not gonna lie,” Molly says, and the grin he flashes Caleb is so sharp Caleb thinks he can actually feel it cutting through the tension that hangs between them, turning everything simple and easy again, “Not gonna lie, but I’ve kind of been wanting to kiss you for a while too.”
Caleb surges forwards, and presses his lips to Molly’s before he’s even entirely aware of what he’s doing. The kiss is messy, uncoordinated and containing far too many teeth and not nearly enough softness for what Caleb wants, what he craves, but he doesn’t care. It’s perfect. It’s awful.
He loves it.
He feels himself smiling, grinning, and manages to pull himself away for a moment before diving back in, pressing kiss after kiss to Molly’s lips. He feels one of Molly’s hands move to settle on his waist, his palm warm and perfect on Caleb’s hip, and kisses him again for it.
“This isn’t a healthy coping mechanism,” Molly murmurs against Caleb’s lips, and Caleb laughs softly, curls a hand through the hair at the base of Mollymauk’s head.
“I know,” he says.
“We’re gonna have to talk about this.”
Caleb laughs again. “Yes,” he agrees, and fits his lips to the curve of Molly’s throat. “Later.”