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Enjoy It While You Can

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The ocean is more than Molly can describe. Both Jester and Fjord described what it looked like on a beautiful day — light sparkling on the waves, the feeling of warm sun on your back and a cool breeze on your face, the call of fishermen and seagulls both searching for fish in the shallows — but it’s overcast today. It’s still beautiful. The waves are iron gray with silver caps like moonlight on treetops. The air smells like oncoming rain with a hefty tang of salt. And it goes on forever. It goes on forever like land goes on forever, except you never think that way about land because at least the topography changes once in a while. The sea is just…the sea.

Molly adores it.

They take the long way to Nicodranas, driving their cart along the beach. It’s slower in the soft sand, but they aren’t in a rush. Not to get to the city, at least.

“Last one in buys the first round!” Molly shouts as he takes off towards the water.

At least two sets of footsteps thunder behind him. From the whooping, Molly knows Jester is among them. The footsteps that are catching up are probably Beau’s. Molly strips as he goes, but before he drops Summer’s Dance he uses it to teleport himself forward thirty feet.

“GODSDAMMIT MOLLY YOU FUCKING CHEATER.” Beau’s voice is far behind him, but the anger rings loud and clear.

Molly laughs. “You should have been faster!” he calls back. He has to slow down to take off his boots and pants. It doesn’t lose him his lead. However, he’s up to his knees by the time he realizes how cold the water is and it makes his whole body tense. His tail curls tight against his back. He’s waiting for the shock to wear off when a war cry grows louder behind him. Beau barrels straight into him, knocking them both into the water.

Beau’s shout becomes high pitched. “Shit this is fucking COLD.”

Molly snorts salt water out of his nose. It stings his eyes and disorients him as he tries to get to his feet. “Yeah, it is.” He wants to be mad, but it’s hilarious. Besides, the water is fascinating. He’s used to river currents pulling him in one direction while he’s trying to wash or relax. This water pushes and pulls at the same time. It’s as steady as breathing and as calming as a lover’s heartbeat.

The calm is broken by Fjord and Jester charging into the water as well. Jester is a ball of energy and joy and she plunges into the sea like she's jumping into the arms of an old friend. Fjord hesitates at first and everyone stops to watch him. He lets the water wash over one bare foot. When that doesn’t melt him or make him pass out, he summons the falchion in his hand. The sword does nothing but reflect the dull daylight. Fjord remains conscious, to his and everyone else's relief. He dismisses the sword and plows forward into the deeper part of the water for a swim. He’s still wearing most of his armor, which is confusing at first, until Molly remembers it has that enchantment that helps him float. It hasn’t really come in handy until now.

Three figures remain on the beach. One is short, one is average-sized, and the third is fairly tall, though by his own admission he’s small for his kind. Nott is cowering behind Caleb, who is staring out at the water with awe. Caduceus is making his way down to the water, but more slowly, the way he does everything.

Molly wades out a little deeper, until the waves reach up and caress his outstretched fingertips. He turns back to the beach and playfully splashes water in their direction. “Which one of you is buying the drinks, eh?” he calls out.

Nott shouts back, “Round’s on me! I’m staying with the cart!”

“Suit yourself. Caleb? You coming in?”

Caleb continues to stare for a moment. Step by step he walks towards the water. Much like Molly did, he discards his clothes as he goes. Molly traces the tip of his tail coyly along the surface of the water. It’s not as graceful as he’d like since the surface is always moving, but Caleb doesn’t normally respond to flirting anyway, regardless of whether it’s sincere or teasing. Instead, he walks into the water as though in a trance, past Molly and Beau and Jester, out to the deeper water, where he vanishes below the waves for a moment before emerging in a calmer area, floating on his back.

"We can see your weenie!" Jester calls out.

They can, but Caleb looks so serene that Molly doesn't want to spoil the moment for him. He shushes Jester and pointedly turns his eyes back to the land.

Caduceus is technically the last in the water. It takes him a while to take off his armor and delicate robes, even longer because he pauses now and then to examine a pretty rock or shell on the shore. Molly had seen him naked in the baths back in Zadash, and he has put on a few subtle pounds since then. He’s still gaunt and scrawny, but the milk and lavish city food have padded the space around his ribs a little. He shivers at the cold, but like Caleb he submerges himself as soon as he reaches deep enough water. His pink hair billows around him until he resurfaces, at which point it clings to the side of his head and shoulders.

"This smells weird," he says. "I really like it." He dips his head back under the water to blow bubbles. Some gets into his nose so he rears back and coughs it up, but he never loses his delighted smile. Molly has known the firbolg for a few weeks now, and he’s still fascinating. He’s so hard to read, which is saying something. Usually Molly can glean a few things from a first glance, but considering his first glance at Caduceus was after his resurrection, Molly’s priorities were elsewhere at the time.

According to Beau, Caduceus barely batted an eye when Caleb “flipped his shit” and shouted — half in Common, half in Zemnian — about all the things the surviving members of the Mighty Nein had done to get him there. Molly wished he could have seen that. He couldn’t imagine Caleb so furious, but then again, if Molly had rushed the body of his friend on the back of a druid towards the nearest cleric for four days and had to not only empty his pockets to bribe the guards to let them pass with a mysterious bundle on the back of their “horse” but also haul that bundle over three sets of fences to get to the cleric only to be told “Eh, maybe,” then he would have lost his cool too. Molly’s memory picked up shortly after, coming to on his unfurled tapestry with two unknown firbolg above him in addition to his three friends and Keg.

Now here they all are, in the ocean of all places. They haven’t even known each other three months — or three weeks, in Caduceus's case — and already they’ve done so much together. They’ve had downtime for relaxing, and Hupperdook was an experience Molly will never forget, but this is the first thing they’ve done that feels like a break, even if they are technically here on business. With his body acclimated to the cold, Molly swims further out. Fjord still hasn’t gone crazy or started spewing out gallons of salt water. He looks happy, which is good. He was shaken up after the rescue mission at the Sour Nest. Molly did his best to keep Fjord’s spirits up, and it’s a relief to see a smile on his face again.

“Hey Molly, how’re ya likin’ it so far?” Fjord asks.

“It’s great,” Molly says. “Fuckin’ massive, too. How far have you sailed out here?”

Fjord shrugs. “Not as far as it goes, but pretty far. Heck, to get to Port Demali you’d have to sail that way for weeks.” He points in what seems like a random direction to Molly, but he does it with such surety that Molly trusts him, as he usually does. There’s nothing out that way, though. More ocean, maybe a couple of boats, but no land. Then again, the land is weeks away by boat, apparently.

“I’d love to see it someday.”

“I’d love to take you there.” Fjord’s smile fades into something more serious. “Now, Molly, I wanted to talk to you before… Well, let’s just say I know your history with…being entertained by certain people when we stop at places like this.”

Molly grins mischievously. “Or being entertaining to certain people, as the case may be.”

Fjord looks away for a heartbeat or two. He clears his throat. “Yeah, well, you might want to hold off on that here, if you can. Especially with a certain certain person.”

Molly feigns innocent ignorance by way of tilting his head with a confused pout.

Fjord sighs through gritted teeth. “What I’m saying is, for the love of god, please do not put the moves on Jester’s mother.”

Molly laughs. “Oh, you don’t have to worry about that. I know how to handle myself around attractive people, even the notoriously attractive. After all, nobody has figured out which of our little band I have a crush on, have they?” He gives Fjord a wink and his most charmingly secretive smile. Fjord blushes immediately. Molly dives under the water, chuckling to himself.

Having his eyes open under the water is irritating, but Molly can see Caleb’s shape floating on the surface and he wants to stay out of sight until he gets there. Caleb is still lying with his arms outstretched. As much as Molly likes the idea of Caleb getting some peace and quiet, the opportunity for a harmless little prank is too tempting. Molly swims under him and tries not to disturb the water too much. He turns so his tail can lightly caress Caleb’s back. Caleb immediately lets out a sharp word in Zemnian and flails. The water isn't too deep, so Caleb is able to find his way back to the surface, sputtering and snorting and cussing. Molly laughs and leads him to a place where they can both stand firmly with their heads above the water until Caleb has recovered.

From the beach, Nott shouts, “Is Caleb okay?

Molly waves to her. “Perfectly fine. Minor encounter with a sea monster.”

Nott brandishes her crossbow. “I’ll turn it into a salty pincushion!

“I meant me, dear.”

“Oh.” Nott lowers her crossbow. A seagull lands nearby to pick at seaweed along the shore. Nott raises the crossbow again, slowly, sneakily. In an instant, the seagull has a bolt sticking out of its side. It flaps its wings franticly a few times before keeling over. Molly feels bad for the poor thing.

They’ve all avoided asking The Question, which is surprising. Beau almost asked once, during a watch on their way back to Zadash. Molly figures they were either so happy to have him back or were so focused on planning the rest of the rescue mission — or recovering from it — that the answer didn’t matter at the time, not until it was too awkward to ask. Molly knows what he’d say anyway: the truth, for once.

He doesn’t remember being dead this time. Not that he remembered the first time either, but this time he came back, well, himself. No Lucien or Nonagon or mindlessly rambling “empty” shell that looks like him again, just Molly. It wasn’t instantaneous. He didn’t blink with a glaive in his chest only to reopen his eyes in a strange temple. All that comes to mind when he tries to think back to that indeterminate period of darkness is something that reminds him of wings. He knows a little about the Raven Queen, as he knows a little about everything, but he doesn’t think this was a raven, not exactly. It was wings and…and…

A wave of salt water splashes into Molly’s face. Caleb is pulling his hand back for another assault. Molly immediately dives to avoid the attack. He wraps both arms around Caleb’s waist and plants both feet in the sandy sea floor to lift him up. Molly savors every sensation. The grit between his toes, the current against his skin, the warmth of another living body in his grasp, even the sting of the salt in his eyes and the dizziness of holding his breath for too long. He wouldn’t be feeling these things if not for his friends.

That’s it.

Wings and a longing for his friends.

That’s what death was.

The Mighty Nine enjoy their time in the water until the sun goes down, and what a gorgeous sundown it is. No one enjoys it more than Molly. He was always a “live life to the fullest” guy because he never knew when whatever bargain got him out of that grave would expire. Now he does it to show gratitude. His friends gave him his life back, and he intends to thank them by loving every moment they stole for him.

Until those wings come and take him where they can’t reach him anymore.

Chapter Text

It takes some monetary convincing, but they manage to get into Nicodranas from the wharfs rather than forcing themselves to take their cart all the way to the main gates. Half of them walk the streets in disguises. Jester, of course, has to hide her identity because of the trouble she caused so she makes herself look human. Caduceus, driving the cart, also decides to look human by mimicking the build and dress of the people they pass, and Molly has to admit he’s kinda hot with his pink hair tied back. Speaking of hot, Caleb hasn’t changed his face, but he has created the illusion of a cleaner, more expensive outfit with a high collar and ruffed sleeves. He holds himself with the air of imperial aristocracy, and Molly is more than a little aroused by the display. Nott, on the other hand, disguises herself as an older rotund dwarf woman in a muumuu, looking like the casual chaperone of their group.

The city is gorgeous and fascinating. The docks themselves swarm with people working to load and unload ships. There are massive cranes laden with crates. Molly stares at them, marveling at how something so spindly-looking can do so much. A gorgeous lighthouse stands against the edge of the sea a ways away, which catches Caduceus’s attention because it’s carved to look like Melora, his matron deity. The streets are lined with flickering lights that become fancier the further they progress into the city, the air is full of the smell of various dinners being cooked in homes and inns yet there are spices and scents Molly can’t identify, and of course Jester is giving them all a guided tour, though she’s mostly addressing the crimson weasel she has named “Sprinkle”.

“Over there is the best place to get beads and costume jewelry and stuff; you can barely tell it’s all cheap fakes. We are definitely stopping at that bakery tomorrow and getting doughnuts because, holy crap, you guys will not believe how many kinds of doughnuts they have there. Sprinkle, I don’t know if they have anything you would like but we can ask. Oh, and there’s a shop down that way that sells like, journals and sketchbooks and stuff, but I don’t know if they have book books. Caleb, you can go check that out if you want.”

Jester has been her cheery self since the rescue. Just like she hasn’t asked Molly The Question, he hasn’t asked her what it was like in the time it took to come get them. Fjord and Yasha were both noticeably different for a couple days, with Fjord talking about how it was all his fault and he would have understood if the rest had continued on without him. Molly’s only remark on that was, “Don’t soil that silver tongue of yours with bullshit, friend. Even death didn’t stop me from coming for you, and I’d do it again if I could.” Of course, there is no guarantee he’d get another chance to come back. He didn’t feel comfortable talking about that kind of stuff with the rest of the group, but the only one he did want to talk to was Yasha, and as soon as the first thunderstorm they passed rolled by, she rolled on with it. He knew that was how she coped, but he misses her nonetheless.

The Lavish Chateau is hard to miss, even without Jester’s excited prancing. It’s not as broad as some of the inns they’ve stayed at, but although Molly only counts three floors it looks rather tall. Its pale blue walls shine in the warm colorful light from its stained glass windows, each of which is rimmed with gold paint and hung with blue velvet curtains. The closer they get the more distinctly they hear soft music playing from inside. Molly can’t keep the delighted grin from his face.

“You really grew up here?” he asks.

Jester nods with a grin of her own. “Yep! Those are my mom’s rooms, up there.” She points to the top floor. There’s a balcony Molly knows from Jester’s story. Molly can only imagine what it must be like to live in a place like this. If he didn’t have a need to constantly travel, he would gladly settle down here for the aesthetic alone.

While the others take the cart and horses to the stables and check their weapons, Beau puts a hand on Molly’s shoulder and jerks her head to one side to indicate she wanted to talk.

“What’s on your mind?” Molly asks.

Beau takes a deep breath. “Look, Molly, I don’t want to tell you, like, how to be you and stuff, but—”

Molly rolls his eyes. “Let me guess? ‘But pleeease don’t try to fuck the Ruby of the Sea’?”

“Uh, yeah, that.”

“Don’t worry about that. Fjord already gave me ‘the talk’. However, while we’re on the subject, I know she’s probably not the burly quiet type and she doesn’t have as much, shall we say, ‘barbaric charm’ as you like, but how about we make a deal? I won’t try to fuck her if you don’t.” Molly smirks impishly as Beau’s face turns a shade of red noticeable even in the dim light from nearby windows. He punches her affably on the shoulder then follows the rest of the group.

That’s two members of the Mighty Nein Molly has made blush today. He wonders if he can get everyone else within twenty-four hours. Caleb would be no problem; all Molly would have to do is murmur the right words in his ear and lightly touch him somewhere innocently intimate and he’d blush redder and hotter than any flame he could summon. Nott he’d have to get drunk first if he wanted to make it easy on himself, then tell her she was probably the hottest woman at the bar enough times for her to believe it. Jester would be a challenge, given her upbringing, but Molly could probably come up with something. Caduceus seemed impossible; even when Jester was at her most candid and described the plot of Tusk Love in detail to him, all he had said was, “Huh, that’s sweet.” Molly will get him though, somehow.

The interior of the Lavish Chateau is even more luxurious than its exterior. The high ceiling is crisscrossed with rafters that support ornate chandeliers. Each table is adorned with shimmering silk cloths and has a platter of fine cheeses with fruit and bread. The stairs to the upper floors curve into two stairways draped in plush carpets. There are two bars, both stocked with bottles that glisten in the candlelight, and it all looks remarkably expensive. Molly feels for his purse to estimate how much he could possibly afford before it’s empty.

Jester helps them find a table then runs upstairs to talk to her mother, leaving the rest of them to sit and pass the time. Caleb leans across the table to Molly. “Now Molly, erm, I don’t want to be presumptuous here, but—” Caleb lowers his voice, “—keep in mind that Jester’s mother is a bit of a higher class than what you’re used to and her clientele is far more selective, so—”

“I already talked to him about it,” Fjord interrupts.

Beau sits with her arms crossed. “Yeah, me too, except Fjord beat me to it.”

“Oh.” Caleb is already blushing a little. It’s too easy. Molly will wait for his next chance.

Instead, Molly turns to Caduceus. “Have you ever been to a brothel before?” he asks, already knowing the answer.

Caduceus’s human face is even harder to read than his firbolg face, since at least in his true form his ears will occasionally waggle and belie some form of emotion. “No. Is this one?”

“It’s more like a hotel, I’m guessing,” Fjord says.

“Yeah, brothels tend to be more, y’know, sketchy,” Beau says. “They’re still pretty nice, ‘cuz it’s hard to get in the mood in a shithole, but this place is like, way way fancier than any brothel I’ve ever been to.”

Molly waggles his fingers in a so-so gesture. “I’ve splurged on some high-end companionship before. Never could afford something on this level, but I’ve been kicked out of one or two places after sneaking in.” He smiles at the memories. He almost convinced that one lovely half-elf duo to give him a discount before his charm spells on the rest of the staff wore off. They’d been negotiating that he couldn’t have them both for less, but he could choose one or the other, and the time it took him to make that choice is what got him into trouble.

“If you don’t mind me askin’,” Molly says to Caduceus, “do you…you know, have a preference?”

It takes a moment for Caduceus to answer. “A preference for what?”

Molly shrugs. He explains it the first way that pops into his head. “If someone offered you a hot dog or a taco, would you want one over the other?”

“I’m…not really sure what either of those are.”

“Meat,” Nott says. “Usually meat.”

“They can make tacos with beans though, right?” Beau says.

Caduceus frowns. “I don’t eat meat, but I like beans, when I can get them.”

This will truly be a challenge. Molly steeples his fingers. “I’m going to be blunt. If you were to pick someone to have sex with, would you prefer they be one gender or another?”

Caduceus thinks it over. He tilts his head ever so slightly to the left and his nose wrinkles to one side then the other a couple times. “I mean if it’s for reproduction you’d obviously want them to have compatible biology for that, but I don’t think that’s what a brothel is for.”

“It isn’t,” Fjord says. He shoots Molly a look telling him to drop the subject. Molly shrugs with a little smirk to reply that it was worth a shot.

They order drinks while they wait for Jester or her mother to appear. Nearly everyone settles for wine or fancy liquor, which Caleb offers to purchase even though it costs nearly thirty gold. Molly grabs a fistful of gold from his pouch and orders the most complicated yet delicious drink the bartenders can concoct. He is not disappointed. The masterpiece presented to him has three kinds of fruit slices around the rim, and he isn’t sure he knows what they are. The beverage itself has a gradient of color from deep red to creamy white. One sip and Molly can already feel the buzz tingling through his head.

“I want more of this,” he says.

“You’ve got it,” Nott points out. “It’s there in your hand.”

“I know. I want a gallon of it. At least.”

Molly is about to get up and order more when Jester comes bouncing down the stairs. “She’ll be down soon! And she says she’ll arrange rooms for all of us here.” Jester beams. “I told you guys she’d set us up with something nice.”

Fjord nods. “Thank you, Jester. Will we be allowed to talk to her after the show? I’d like to thank her, too.”

Jester nods. “She’s really looking forward to meeting all of you. I just got done telling her about all of you guys and she says she’s really looking forward to seeing you in person, because I’ve sent her drawings and stuff but that’s not the same.”

“Do you know any of the people here?”

“Well, I know that bartender and that bartender and—”

“No, I mean any of the patrons.”

The room has filled up in Jester’s absence. Molly has been occupied with watching the bartender make his drink and barely noticed. He glances around the room as Jester does the same. She shrugs. “A few of them have come to heard her sing before but I don’t know any of their names.”

“Okay but what about—” Fjord’s question is cut off as the music goes silent and the candles dim to a dull red glow.

It is clear where all the light had gone. It has concentrated in the pale golden eyes of the stunning tiefling woman who is descending the stairs. Her fingers trace along the railing. The train of her purple satin dress cascades behind her with each step, like a plum-colored waterfall over six or seven stairs. Her dark hair is a flow of curls down her shoulders, accentuated by the curl of her horns. Molly has met only a handful of other tieflings, but none of them had horns so elegant. He wishes he had horns that swept out to the side like hers; he could fit a lot more jewelry on them, including some fancy dangling accessories.

She opens her mouth to sing. Whoever would describe that as singing was being too plain. It’s as though she has taken these notes and words from when they were first created and is presenting them to the crowd in their perfect form, unblemished by the voices of amateurs who have since soured them or the dulling effect of repetition. The very room brightens and darkens in time with her voice. Molly wouldn’t dare solicit this wondrous woman for anything as base as a quick night of physical pleasure. He can see why her clients pay well for her company and seek it often. Even Sprinkle the weasel sits up and pays attention to the spectacle.

The show ends with thunderous applause. The Ruby exits as gracefully as she entered. She waves and smiles at the audience, sending a special smile towards her daughter. The lights return to normal when she is out of sight. The Mighty Nein all turn to Jester.

“That was amazing!” Nott exclaims.

“I’d heard rumors,” Fjord says, “but I never thought anyone could be that talented!”

“Yes, a wonderful performance,” Caleb says.

Molly tries to come up with his own praise that won’t sound cliché or understated. He is distracted by the sight of a man trying to go up the stairs. He’s well-dressed, but the clothes seem out of place on his burly frame. Nearby, a pair of bodyguards watch, hands hovering by their weapons. A guard comes forward to stop the man, who causes a small fuss before being grabbed by the shoulder and dragged to the door. The bodyguards follow him out.

“Who is that?” Molly asks.

Jester frowns. “I don’t know. Probably someone who wanted to be my mom’s client but isn’t allowed.” She lowers her voice. “Some guys get reeeal bitchy when they find out she’s fully booked.” She nods, and her eyebrows furrow at something.

Beau glances around the room. “Was it just me or did the lights go all weird while she was singing?”

That brings the glowing smile back to Jester’s face. “That’s my mom’s thaumaturgy.”

“Isn’t that something you have?” Fjord asks.

Jester nods emphatically. With a wave of her hands she dims the light of the candles. Chairs scrape against the floor as people turn hastily to watch the stairs.

“Keep your pants on!” Jester exclaims, returning the lights to their normal level.

“Guess they were eager for an encore, eh?” Molly says.

They briefly discuss the performance and Jester’s past in this place — which she confirms is essentially a hotel. A few minutes later, someone comes down the stairs to tell them, “The Ruby will see you now.” Jester excitedly ushers her friends up towards the rooms where she grew up.

Molly sees an opportunity and takes it. As they ascend, he lays a gentle hand on Caleb’s shoulder. “Maybe you should drop that disguise,” Molly murmurs. “She might cancel all her other appointments to be with a man like you. Even if she finds out you’re not as wealthy as you look, she wouldn’t be able to keep her hands off you. I know I barely can.”

As expected, Caleb’s expression goes completely blank and his face turns an endearing shade of red. Molly gives him a playful kiss to the top of his head then takes the stairs two at a time to give the poor man some room to breathe.

Three down, three to go.

Chapter Text

The first thing the Ruby of the Sea tells the Mighty Nein is, “You may call me Marion, if you prefer. Thank you for keeping my darling Sapphire safe.”

Jester gives her mother a hug. “Mama, I forgot to introduce you to someone.” She reaches into the hood of her cloak where Sprinkle has started using for naps and pulls out the crimson weasel.

“Oh, how precious!” Marion exclaims.

“This is Sprinkle. We bought him from this guy who had a cart full of animals.” Jester’s tails thrashes excitedly. “Oh Mama, you should have seen! They had this adorable little puppy who could poof from one place to the other and I wanted him soooo much but then I decided I would just get Sprinkle.”

Molly had talked her out of it. The same vendor had a peacock for sale. Everyone in the Mighty Nein expected Molly to buy it. He would have, but then he thought about what would happen if he died again. He couldn’t leave the others to take care of his pet. He had discouraged the rest from getting pets as well, especially the Blink Dog, but Jester had to have that weasel. The vendor’s cart had moved away a hundred feet or so before she chased after it waving her handful of gold begging to buy him. At least Beau had listened when Molly said living things should never be bought as an impulse purchase. He couldn’t imagine the chaos that would ensue if she actually got that owl.

“He’s absolutely adorable,” Marion says. “May I hold him?”

“Sure, Mama!” Jester hands the weasel to her mother. Sprinkle looks around sniffing for a moment then relaxes as Marion pets him. Jester taps one of her horns. “He likes sitting on my head sometimes. Maybe he’d like your horns, too.”

Marion smiles excitedly. “Oh, alright. Let’s see.” She lifts Sprinkle and sets him down on top of her head. Sprinkle tries to shimmy down Marion’s right horn to perch on the outstretched portion, but decides against it and merely settles down in the space between her horns. “How do I look?” Marion asks.

“Like you’ve got a weasel on your head,” Beau says.

“You two kinda match, though,” Caduceus points out. “I mean, as the name suggests his fur is more crimson but your skin has a paler shade, like a good strong fermented tea. I like it.”

Marion looks confused for a moment until Jester says in a loud whisper, “This is the guy who makes tea out of dead people.”

That doesn’t entirely put her at ease, but Marion smiles politely and says, “Thank you.”

With that, Jester officially introduces everyone in the Mighty Nein, since when they walked in all Jester said was, “These are my friends!”

Fjord, ever the charmer, kisses Marion’s hand when she offers it to him. Beau clumsily does the same and Molly shakes his head in amusement. He has been thinking about this introduction for the past few minutes and he knows exactly how to make a good impression.

Molly deliberately positions himself to be introduced last. When Marion holds out her hand to him, he takes it delicately and makes a sweeping bow. In Infernal, he says, “The most soulless demons of Hell would weep holy tears in the presence of your beauty.” Then he kisses her hand and smiles. Infernal is a harsh language by nature, but he tried to word the compliment in as gentle-sounding phrasing as he could.

Marion blushes ever-so-slightly, her red cheeks darkening subtly. She wasn’t even on his list, but Molly will accept this as another victory. “You’re too kind,” she replies, also in Infernal.

Jester balls her fists and stamps her foot. Her tail is sticking out straight behind her. “Oh my god Molly stop flirting with my mom!” she exclaims in Common. Her blue cheeks are a shade of purple that makes her freckles appear pale by comparison.

Molly’s smile becomes a grin. That’s two unintended successes. “I wasn’t flirting, merely offering a compliment.”

“It’s alright, Jester,” Marion says. “He was the portrait of a gentleman.”

“He looks nothing like the Gentleman!” Nott says.

A gentleman, not the Gentleman.” Molly pauses. “Though I could look like the Gentleman if I wanted to. I think I’ve got blue pigment and some fake facial hair in my disguise kit…”

Marion chuckles, but there’s something hesitant to it. “What are they talking about?” she asks Jester.

Jester rolls her eyes innocently. “Oh, you know, he’s this guy…that we work for…sometimes…” She wrinkles her nose in thought. “Actually, he said he knows a guy out here somewhere. Maybe he’s come through Nicodranas before? He’s like, this tall, blue—”

“And he’s always wet,” Nott interjects. “Every time we see him! It’s really weird! Like he just got out of the shower or the sauna or something.”

With that, Marion freezes entirely. Her eyes glaze over. “Does he have dark hair?” she asks. “With a little patch of chest hair right here?”

“He does!” Jester says. “Do you know him?”

“I might. Or, at least, I know someone who looks like him.”

Jester pouts. “Was he a nice guy or did he bother you?”

Marion smiles wistfully. “He was very nice. Charming, dashing…” She sighs with a soft giggle. “He always wore rings on every finger, but he gave me one when he left as a token of his promise.”

Something clicks in Molly’s brain, like a lock he didn’t know he was picking finally giving way. He checks to see if anyone else has had this epiphany. Fjord is staring hard at Jester. Beau is frowning in concentration at Marion. Caleb is looking around the room, but he’s watching the conversation out of the corner of his eye. Nott doesn’t appear to have caught on, and Caduceus is…well…Caduceus.

Marion reaches out to touch Jester’s hand. “I told you about Babenon before, didn’t I?”

That’s when Jester gets it. Her eyes go wide. Her jaw drops. “But— But that’s not— He’s not the Gentleman, right?”

Molly can’t hold it back anymore. He bursts out laughing. He laughs until he can’t stand up anymore, until tears soak into the collar of his shirt. Everyone is staring at him and he doesn’t care because this is so fucking funny to him. When he can finally breathe again, he cackles, “You— Your dad— Hahahaha, heh— Your dad is a crime lord we just happened to get involved with because— Hehehe— Why do we even work for him?” He snorts and dries his eyes on his sleeve. “And here I was ready to put money down that The Trickster was your father, but no. Nooo, this is much better.” He bites his lips to keep from laughing again. “And he has our blood! He’s tracking us! Good gods, I wonder if Cree could tell…”

Marion gives Jester a puzzled look. “What is he talking about?”

Jester is purple in the face again. “Shut up, Lucien. We don’t know if he’s my dad or not.”

Molly puts a hand to his chest in feigned offense to hide the fact that he is actually annoyed that she would call him by that name. He coughs to hide a few more chuckles, then stands back to watch how everyone else is processing this. They’re all looking at Jester now. Beau’s eyes are wide and she’s jostling Fjord’s arm as though trying to get him to see what she’s seeing. She doesn’t have to, since Fjord is standing with his mouth agape. Caleb is making that face where he tilts his head to one side and squints ever so slightly. Nott is looking to Jester in confused wonder.

Caduceus speaks up with a big smile. “Wow, what are the odds?”

“Holy shit,” Beau says. “Hooolyyyy shit. What if he is though? What if that’s why you can like, do some of the things you do? Like how you’re never cold? Maybe you get that from him because he’s always sweating!”

Fjord clears his throat. “I think that’s just a water genasi thing.”

Beau nods. “Oh yeah, right, right.”

“But Jester,” Fjord says, “is there a way we could prove this? I mean, maybe it was another genasi. How can she know it was the only one we’ve met?”

Jester pouts pensively, her tail curling and uncurling. Then her eyes light up. “I have drawings of him! In my sketchbook!” She fumbles for her bag. “I drew him for the Traveler. You can tell me if it looks like the same guy.” She flips to the right page and holds it out to her mother. There is a small caricature of the Gentleman dripping water all over the floor. On the same page Molly notes a sketch of Cree holding up a ball of blood, along with a quick scribbled note saying, “Who the hell is Nonagon?”

Marion studies the drawing. “It…it could be him…but I don’t know.”

Molly rests his temple against one finger. “Let me get my disguise kit. I’m sure I could make myself look like him.” As he digs around in the heap of trinkets he has amassed as souvenirs over the years, he grumbles, “Don’t know if it’ll be that great of a likeness, though. If only I were like the rest of you and…and could…change my face…” Molly drops his bag and slaps his palm to his forehead.

There is a moment of silence in which Fjord, Caleb, Nott, and Jester all exchange a look.

“How the hell did we all forget we can magically disguise ourselves?” Fjord asks. He pinches the bridge of his nose, sighs, then transforms himself into the Gentleman.

Marion gasps, one hand covering her mouth. “That is him!” she says with genuine longing and affection in her voice. “That is my Babenon! Older, yes, but oh, he is still so handsome...”

Molly remembers the way The Gentleman kissed Ophelia when they were reunited. Clearly the man has a thing for tieflings, which makes Molly wonder if he could possibly seduce any information out of him about his fling with Marion. However, not only does he think the Gentleman doesn’t swing that way, but if he is Jester’s father, then he’s off limits.

Fjord is clearly uncomfortable with the way Marion is looking at him. It’s odd to see the Gentleman’s normally suave expression give way to awkward bashfulness. “Can I change back now?” he asks. With agreement from the group, Fjord mutters gratitude under his breath and reverts to his normal half-orc form.

Jester grabs her mother by the hands. “That’s my father? You’re sure?”

“Yes!” Marion is beside herself with joy now. “You’ve met him? You know where he is?”

“Yes, he’s in Zadash! You said my dad came from the ocean!”

“That’s what he told me. This is the same man though, I am certain.” Marion cups Jester’s cheek. “Who else could have given me such a beautiful child?”

Caleb speaks for the first time since this all began. “Well, now we know where she gets her complexion from.”

Jester bounces in place. “We can take you to go see him if you want! It’ll be so romantic!”

The delight in Marion’s pale gold eyes dims. She withdraws somewhat. “Oh, no, I can’t— I couldn’t possibly leave—”

“Then we can tell him to come here! I’ll send him a message right now.” Jester takes a step back so she can concentrate on her spell. Her hands are shaking regardless. “Oh my gosh oh my gosh, Mr. The Gentleman, is your name Babenon?”

“Babenon Dosal,” her mother says, a little of her hope returning.

“Yeah, Babenon Dosal?” Jester speaks faster with every word. “Did you ever go to Nicodranas and meet the Ruby of the Sea and did the two of you ever have like a romantic—”

“Woah,” Molly says. “You’re definitely past the twenty-five word limit. He probably heard half of that.”

“Maybe that’s enough,” Jester says. “He can at least tell me if that’s his name or not.”

They all wait. Marion glances around as though expecting him to appear out of thin air. After a minute, Beau asks, “Anything yet?”

“No.” Jester’s tail whips side to side. “Shit. Oh, and I’m out of spells for today so I can’t even send him another. …Unless…” She pulls out her Pearl of Power. “Nobody better need any healing until tomorrow.”

“You should also say who you are,” Nott says. “And that he can reply to the message.”

“I’ve sent him messages before. He knows who I am.” Using the Pearl, she tries to contact him again. Molly holds up one hand to help her count, crossing the other arm across his chest to prop his elbow against his wrist. “Hello, Gentleman. This is Jester.” She looks at the floor while she thinks. “Could you please reply yes or no if you’ve met th—” Jester looks warily at Molly’s hand, “—the Ruby of the Sea.” Molly keeps his hand up because by his count she has five more words, so when she starts talking again he keeps counting. “Was that twenty— SHIT WAIT FUCK GAAAAH!”

Everyone in the Mighty Nein laughs. Marion giggles as well, but she’s still watching Jester with rapt anticipation. Jester shushes everyone, then waits. There’s nothing for a moment. Suddenly Jester’s eyebrows dart up.

“‘That’s pre…preposterous.’”

Marion sighs. Her face is crestfallen. “Maybe it was a little hasty to assume…”

Jester shakes her head. “No no! That’s what he said! But he said it the way Fjord says he’s had lots of sex before.”

All heads turn towards Fjord, who is blushing from head to toe and stammering quietly. “I never— I— I— Jest— It’s—”

Molly walks over and claps Fjord on his shoulder. “Jester, look what you’ve done; you broke him. He’ll be like this all night.” However, the mood of the room has Molly feeling more impish than usual. “After all, you should have seen him when he found out I sleep naked. Now he rushes to be in bed early and sleeps with his back to me.” He rolls his eyes and adds to Marion, “The charisma of a dragon and the temperament of a virgin priestess.”

Marion smiles. “I know the type.”

Fjord is as still as a statue but the heat coming off him is so strong Molly can feel it through his armor. Molly pats him on the back affably. “Take it easy, sailor, we’re just teasing.”

Jester taps her foot at Molly, arms crossed and a glowering pout on her face. “Molly, this is serious. What if the Gentleman is really my dad?”

“Jester,” Marion says. “I truly believe this man is your father. Maybe he…he doesn’t love me anymore, or maybe he never truly did, and he doesn’t want anything to do with me, but I did love him, and he did give me you, so for that I am grateful.”

“Oh, Mama.” Jester hugs her mother. “He does have a lot of sex. We’ve seen it. Well, I mean, we didn’t see him having the sex, but we’ve seen him with other women and he is definitely having sex with them.” She rubs at one eye. “I was hoping when I found my dad I’d find out he had been true to you forever.”

Marion smiles and strokes Jester’s hair. “I wouldn’t mind if he slept with other women,” she says. “It would be nice if he remembers me and part of him still loves me, just as part of my heart will always belong to him, but it’s not important. It’s been decades since we saw each other. Of course he has probably moved on.”

Nott pipes up, “How many decades has it been?”

“Don’t answer that,” Jester says hastily.

Marion chuckles. “Long enough that I had given up searching for him in the crowd, but recently enough that I remember him clearly.”

Jester huffs out a sigh. “Boy, I wish we could get him to come to one of your shows. He would definitely make that Algar guy leave you alone.”

Fjord, who has finally snapped out of his bashful stupor, asks, “What Algar guy?”

“It’s not important,” Marion says.

“He’s this guy that keeps scaring away her clients because he wants her all to herself,” Jester says. She puts her hands on her hips with a huff. “What kind of person would be so selfish he’d threaten other people just so someone would fall in love with him?”

Molly bites his tongue. He glances at Fjord, who seems none the wiser. The charisma of a dragon, the temperament of a priestess, and the perception of a corpse. Molly has been meaning to have a little talk with Jester about her behavior. With recent circumstances, he felt it was not the right time. Now is not that time either.

“Do you want us to kill him?” Nott suggests.

“Oh, no, please, it really is nothing for you to be worried about,” Marion says.

“But Mama, he’s bad for business.” Jester snaps her fingers. “I know! We can tell him you have a disease and he should stay far away from you!”

Marion chuckles uneasily. “Darling, that would be bad for business as well…”

“Oh, right. Oops.”

Caleb says, “Perhaps we don’t need to kill him, only rough him up so he knows he is not welcome here.”

“Nothing that could tarnish my reputation, please.” Marion sighs. “No, I’m afraid there’s nothing to be done.”

“There is something,” Molly says. He’d been contemplating asking the Gentleman to lend them some assassins just to send a message, but he has a better idea now. “If anything it would protect you in the long run. What if we let this guy know you have someone keeping an eye on you? Someone with a lot of power who doesn’t like hearing that your business is being interrupted?” He grins. “Someone with an entire army of criminals and lowlifes at his fingertips?”

There are mixed reactions from the Mighty Nein, but Beau asks, “What exactly did you have in mind?”

Chapter Text

It took some convincing and some workshopping, but the Mighty Nein have their plan for getting Algar out of Marion’s life. The plan won’t go into effect until early the next evening, so they spend the morning traversing Nicodranas. Fjord wants to know who is after the orb in his chest — or is it in his sword now? Molly isn’t sure what happened there — and the best lead he has is to ask if anyone knows this Marius LePual guy. He, Jester, and Beau head to the Open Quay and the Restless Wharfs. Caleb, Caduceus, Molly, and Nott head to the market district to do some shopping.

Caleb, of course, sniffs out a real bookstore within an hour. It’s not the place with journals and sketchbooks Jester mentioned, but he still doesn’t find what he’s looking for. There is a cat in the shop, which delights Caleb. He immediately summons Frumpkin to go play with it. After some searching through the shelves, Caleb buys a history book and a smut book. Molly buys him another book he showed interest in, a hefty tome about magical creatures of the known planes.

“You’ll probably read it all in one night,” Molly told him, “but at the very least you can chuck it at people if you run out of spells.”

The little smile on Caleb’s face is worth the price of the book. “You’re right, I will be finished with it in a couple of days, but it is useful for other things than being ‘chucked’ at people. Perhaps someday we will encounter a creature from this book, and then we’ll be ready.” Molly hadn’t thought of that. Caleb is certainly a clever one. Clever and closed off. Beau seems to know what’s going on with him, and naturally so does Nott, but if he’s not ready to share with the rest of the group, that’s fine by Molly, as long as none of his secrets suddenly bite them all in the ass.

Caleb offers Molly the smut to read in exchange for the monster book. Molly flips through it to be polite before handing it back. “You’re free to tell me what happens in it,” Molly says. “Frankly I find imagination to be better in these cases.” He flashes Caleb a devilish grin. Caleb’s face goes blank, save for the pink that spreads up from under his beard. He clears his throat before hurrying away with his new books clutched to his chest and Frumpkin trailing behind him. Molly chuckles. It really is too easy to get Caleb flustered.

They also make a detour to this one weird tower. Molly thinks he’s imagining it at first, but the others confirm that it does, in fact, get bigger the closer you get towards it.

“I can do that too,” Molly says under his breath. He couldn’t not make that joke, but Jester isn’t here to appreciate it. He’ll tell it to her later. He plans the delivery of it in his head while Caleb walks around the tower looking for a door. Nott offers to break in through a window. The windows are too high up, though, even if Molly tossed her up while he stood on Caduceus’s shoulders. Molly gets bored quickly and eventually encourages the others to move along. Oddly enough, Caleb is the first to agree.

They meet up with everyone else at the Lavish Chateau in the early afternoon. Caduceus found a seaweed vendor and walked away with an odd-smelling bundle that he was excited to try in his tea. Nott contained herself well in public and only stole one person’s purse, and even then it was because they were shouting about the price of some fruit despite seeming well-off enough to afford it and Nott decided they were grumpy enough to steal from. Molly had found a jeweler who specialized in body piercings and who had a few pieces designed for tiefling horns. He bought two, one thin chain of tiny green, blue, and purple beads with a silver drop the size of his pinky nail dangling at the end, and one gaudier gold hoop studded with various fake gems.

Fjord and the rest had had a successful search. However, the most surprising thing they bring back with them is Yasha. Molly breathes a sigh of relief and hugs her. “What the fuck are you doing in Nicodranas?” he asks.

“I had dreams. Visions.” Yasha gently pats him on the back as her way of reciprocating the hug. “I saw an island, and I knew I had to go to it. I came here looking for a ship to take me there.”

Jester is bouncing with excitement. “Oh man you guys we met this really cool Tortle guy named Orly and he’s got these cool tattoos and an eyepatch and his shell is a bagpipe and he has this accent that’s all like, ‘Ah’m much uhblaiged to meet y’all.’ I really wish you guys could have met him!”

“Best part,” Fjord interjects while Jester takes a breath, “is that he knows Marius. Says he hangs out around the wharfs at midnight. I say we go there tonight.”

“Y’know, after we deal with Algar,” Beau says with a grin.

Fjord’s good mood immediately sours. He agreed to his part, but grudgingly. Molly stifles a laugh. He, on the other hand, is looking forward to tonight.

When he first proposed this plan, everybody had doubts about it. “It’s simple,” Molly had said. “We lure Algar into a private room, then we present ourselves as representatives of the Gentleman and tell him that our employer doesn’t appreciate scum like him driving away the Ruby’s clients.”

The rest had all brought up fair points, such as the fact that Algar probably didn’t know who the Gentleman was and the issue of getting him into a private room in the first place. What they eventually decided was that they would tell him the Ruby of the Sea finally agreed to meet with him, except it would be Fjord disguised as Marion so Marion would never be in danger in case he got aggressive. Then Fjord would drop the disguise and tell him to make himself scarce.

“Why does it have to be me?” Fjord had asked when the unanimous vote elected him.

“It can’t be Jester, or he won’t take her seriously because she’s family,” Caleb had said. “And it can’t be me because, come on, do I look like an intimidating guy to you?”

“I’m going to politely decline because, well, uh, to be honest I’m not a hundred percent sure what’s going on here,” Caduceus said.

“And it can’t be me because I can’t make myself look that tall,” Nott added.

Molly had patted Nott on the head. “Also you’re too intimidating. Once you dropped the disguise he’d shit himself.” With a grin he added, “Or maybe he’s secretly into goblin girls and he’d obsess over you instead.” He fell to his knees and held his arms out to her. “Oh, small beauty, how could I love a Ruby when such a flawless Emerald exists?”

Nott covered her face with her mask, but the blush engulfed her face to the point where she couldn’t hide it. Thus, Molly was left with two party members that he needed to cross off his list, and his self-imposed twenty-four hour limit was coming to an end. He had tried a few times during the shopping trip to get some sort of rise out of Caduceus. The firbolg remained unflapped.

“Wait, what’s going on?” Yasha asks.

“I’ll explain in a moment, dear,” Molly says. “Right now, it sounds like we have a fair amount to celebrate. With drinks.”

“Maybe not the ones here,” Beau says, her nose wrinkled in a mild grimace. “They’re super fancy and super expensive and I just wanna get drunk.”

Jester takes them to a smaller bar close by, which was also near one of her favorite bakeries. The air is thick with the smell of cinnamon. They share a round of drinks, get Yasha caught up on everything, then pick up some baked goods for the walk back. Molly buys a sweet roll the size of his face that oozes with sugary glaze and some kind of fruit jam. It’s one of the best things he has ever tasted. He also has a bite of the doughnut Jester offered him. He could definitely taste the cinnamon, and it was good, but he wants more sweet rolls. He wonders how it would taste paired with that drink they’d made for him at the Lavish Chateau…

Speaking of Jester’s home, the time they told Algar to come meet “the Ruby” is swiftly approaching. Fjord drags his feet the whole way back from the bakery, but Beau and Jester take him by the arms and hurry him along while assuring him he was going to do great.

“You’ve disguised yourself as a woman before, haven’t you?” Jester asks.

“Yeah, definitely seen you as, like, an old lady or something,” Beau adds.

Fjord clears his throat. “Yeah but they weren’t— That’s not the same as— I’ve never been a…a…” He clears his throat again. “A courtesan before.”

Jester groans in frustration. “You don’t have to actually sleep with him. You just have to get him into the room with the door shut behind him. Quit being such a big baby.”

The return journey is a little easier after that, but not by much. Marion seems to share Fjord’s nerves, since when they get to her rooms on the third floor, she’s pacing back and forth anxiously petting Sprinkle.

“You promise you won’t hurt him?” she asks. “I appreciate what you’re doing, I really do. It’s just—”

“Mamaaa,” Jester interrupts. “Don’t worry. We’re just going to scare him, and then he’ll go tell the other creeps you’ve got someone keeping an eye on you so they won’t bother you too.”

“Yeah, we have no plans to physically rough this guy up,” Fjord says. “If he were threatening you, maybe, but he’s only being vexatious, so we’ll go easy on him, so to speak.”

For some reason Molly hears the word “vexatious” weirdly and it reminds him of that sensation of wings. A sad smile. Family. Longing for friends. But Molly is with his friends again, even Yasha, who have been like family to him. Why does he feel like he wants to go back to somewhere else? He goes to stand by Yasha while the rest go over the plan one more time.

“I’m glad you’re back,” Molly says.

Yasha shrugs. “Don’t know how long I can stay.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know, visions and whatnot.” Molly sighs. Then he remembers his personal challenge. He holds back a mischievous smile. “Beau’s glad you’re back, too, though.”

“…Oh?”

“Oh yeah. You should have seen her when she found out you left again. Said ‘Every damn time I want to make a move on her she fucking disappears!’” Beau had never said this out loud, but it was clear in her scowl that morning.

Yasha stares at Beau. A hint of blush is already coloring the ridges of her cheeks. Then Beau notices her looking, smiles awkwardly, and looks away, though she glances back a couple times. That does it. Yasha’s pale skin turns as pink as snow reflecting a hazy winter sunrise. Now Molly has only one last target left. He has an idea, though it’s a bit extreme and he has to act quickly.

Fortunately, Fjord gives him the opening he’s looking for shortly thereafter. Marion and Jester are trying to teach him how to act seductively, and he’s simply not getting it. He’s clumsy and shaky and keeps mumbling apologies when he gets something wrong. He also keeps picking at his teeth and Jester has to constantly slap his hand away.

“It’s really not that hard, Fjord,” Jester says with a huff. “You just gotta do a little of this… And a bit of this… And maybe some of this.” Jester struts sensually around Fjord, swaying her hips and occasionally brushing against him with a wink. How Fjord is not picking up that she is actually flirting with him is mind-boggling to Molly. True, she’s supposed to be acting, but the way she touches him and the looks she’s giving him are anything but ingenuine.

Molly immediately steps in. “Jester, darling, remember what we talked about? Fjord’s a delicate boy, you can’t go making him all flustered like that and expect him to retain any information.” He pretends to scan the people in room before snapping his fingers and pointing to Caduceus. “Mr. Clay, if I could borrow you for a moment?”

Caduceus smiles. “Yeah, sure. What do you need me for?”

“Just a little demonstration. C’mere.” Molly turns to Fjord. “Now, since you can’t speak without giving yourself away, you have to let your hands do the talking. He’s going to ask why you’re not saying anything, so try doing this…” Molly gets as close to Caduceus as he can without pressing himself against the firbolg’s body. He reaches up to put one finger across Caduceus’s lips. He has to stretch a bit to do so while still looking sexy. Looking over his shoulder to Fjord, Molly adds, “Then get him into a vulnerable position so he’ll be less likely to fight back once he finds out you’re not actually the Ruby of the Sea.” Molly takes both of Caduceus’s hands in his with a sultry flick of his tail. “By the way, don’t forget you’ll have a tail,” he tells Fjord. “They’re very useful.”

“They really are,” Marion agrees.

Molly leads Caduceus to a chair and motions for him to sit. Caduceus takes his seat blithely. “Then,” Molly says, “to get him right where you want him…” Molly sits sideways on Caduceus’s lap and feigns imbalance. Caduceus puts a hand on Molly’s back to steady him. Seated, Caduceus is a much easier height to summit. Molly puts his arms around Caduceus’s neck, pulls himself up, and kisses him full on the mouth. Caduceus is stunned, whether by shock or by his general good-natured indifference it doesn’t matter. Molly slips him a little tongue, and while Caduceus doesn’t reciprocate, Molly swears he can feel the hand on his back gripping him a little tighter.

Jester and Nott jeer from off to the side. Beau mutters a quiet, “Holy shit.” Fjord says, “…Yeah, I’m not doing that.”

Molly slides back down Caduceus’s torso, letting his hands trail over the soft fabric of Caduceus’s shirt. His ribs are still too prominent. Molly might have to treat him to a big dinner one of these days. He shrugs to Fjord. “Well, it’s an option.” Then he pats Caduceus on the face and says, “Thanks for being a good sport.”

Caduceus is staring straight ahead. He mumbles, “You’re welcome.” Molly searches for any other kind of reaction. He notices the insides of Caduceus’s ears — which are sticking straight out at a downward angle and quivering slightly — and the tip of his nose are a darker shade of pink. Molly takes that as a victory and silently cheers. Based on the angle of sunlight coming in from the windows, this time yesterday they were out in the water and Molly had made his first victim blush. That’s everyone in the Mighty Nein plus the Ruby of the Sea in twenty-four hours. Molly could die happy at this very moment.

However, there’s work to do. One of Marion’s attendants knocks on the door. “Madame? Your visitor is downstairs.”

Everyone in the room freezes. “Shit, he’s early,” Fjord hisses. “Okay guys, let’s…” He takes a deep breath to compose himself. “Let’s do this.”

Chapter Text

The Mighty Nein move to a room on the second floor that has been left available for them. There’s a walk-in closet with a curtain covering the entrance that most of them use as a hiding spot. Nott, however, is hiding on the bed behind the illusion of a large fluffy pillow, her crossbow at the ready. Beau helps Fjord do some meditative breathing techniques to calm himself. Fjord picks at his teeth again, which looks to anyone else like the Ruby of the Sea is biting her nails. Jester dashes out of the closet to slap his hand away from his face, then grabs Beau by the wrist and pulls her into hiding with the rest.

“You’re gonna do great!” Beau says over her shoulder.

Everyone arranges themselves around the edge of the curtain, except for Caleb who is leaned against the opposite wall and watching through Frumpkin’s eyes as the cat peers out from under the bed. Jester is crouched on the floor, Beau is peering over her, Molly is pressed against the wall with one eye closed so he can better focus with the other, Caduceus is leaning over all three since he has to stoop to fit anyway, and Yasha stands behind them all, preferring to simply listen.

Someone knocks at the door. Fjord strikes as seductive of a pose as he can manage, which isn’t too bad, actually. Jester mimics her mother’s voice and calls out, “Come in!”

The door creaks open. Algar is wearing a similarly ill-suited outfit as he was wearing when the group first saw him. It seems as though all his clothes are a size too small, but he wears them anyway because they look fancy. It does, however, emphasize the fact that he’s no scrawny pushover. He has a broad chest and thick arms, and for a moment Molly thinks of Lorenzo. Molly clenches his fist.

“My dear sweet Ruby!” Algar exclaims, rushing into the room. Fjord takes a hasty step back then puts his fingers to his lips. The real Marion would have done it with more grace. Algar stops anyway. “Ah! Right.” He turns and closes the door to the room. They’ve accomplished that much, at least, now if only Fjord can get him into the chair…

Algar reaches his arms out to Fjord as he swoops in for an embrace. Everyone in the closet sharply inhales as one. If Algar touches Fjord he’ll realize it’s all an illusion. Fjord ducks to the side, and manages to do so in a way that almost seems coy. Algar thinks so, apparently. “Oho, still playing hard to get? You invited me here, so I know you want the same thing I do. Why don’t we stop playing games?” He starts to undress.

“Wait!” Jester calls out in her mother’s voice. Beau hisses at her.

“What’s this?” Algar says, looking from Fjord to the closet and back.

“I’ve taken up ventriloquism,” Jester says. “How am I doing?”

Jester had suggested this plan earlier, but it was shot down because of how risky it sounded. Molly grabs Jester’s tail with his own and gives it a sharp tug. Jester tugs back.

Algar chuckles. “Quite impressive, though I doubt that’s why you called me here?”

“Oh please,” Jester says. Fjord struggles to react quickly and gesture accordingly. “I’ve been practicing so hard. Could you sit down and watch for a while?”

There’s a pause so silent and heavy that it’s as though everyone in the room has stopped breathing. Algar takes a step backwards towards the door. “Perhaps I misunderstood…”

Fjord puts a hand out to stop him. Molly can’t see the exact expression on his face, but Fjord unties the sash of the nightgown he’s “wearing” to reveal the sexy underclothes beneath it.

Algar grins. “Or perhaps I didn’t.”

Fjord gestures to the chair. Algar advances on him, unbuckling his belt as he goes. Fjord moves closer to the chair.

“Why so quiet all of a sudden?” Algar asks teasingly. “Did you misplace your voice?”

Beau puts her hand over Jester’s mouth before Jester can say anything. Molly yanks her tail again. When he looks up, Fjord has his hands up defensively while Aglar is trying to pull him into his arms.

“I love you, dear Ruby,” Algar says. “I need you to be mine. I won’t rest until you are.” Fjord is all but fighting him off. “Come now, we don’t need to dance this dance anymore. You love me too, I know it. Let me show you…” Algar knocks Fjord’s hands away and closes the space between them.

A splash of sea water strikes the drawn curtains of the window. “I’d back the fuck up if I were you,” Fjord says. His gruff voice sounds even stranger coming from Marion’s mouth as Marion’s voice sounded coming from the closet. He has his falchion in one hand and his other crackles with dark energy.

Algar jumps back immediately. “W-What is this? What’s going on?”

Fjord extends the falchion so the point is under Algar’s chin. “Take a seat, and I won’t hurt you.”

“It’s a trick! A trap! Help! Someone help!” Algar dashes for the door, but as he reaches for the handle a crossbow bolt sinks into the wood a few inches above it. Algar whips around to search for the source. The big fluffy pillow is still in place on the bed. Molly checks how the others are reacting. Yasha is craning her neck to see through the curtain, Beau and Jester are practically holding each other, and Caleb’s fingers are extended like cat claws though his eyes are still pale. Molly looks straight up, and Caduceus is looking down back at him.

“I said, sit.” Fjord twists the hand holding a spell and the energy burns a brighter yet darker shade.

Beau taps Jester frantically. “Your thaumaturgy!” she hisses. “Use your thaumaturgy!”

“Hu— Oh! Right!” Jester puts out a hand. Molly can barely hear the whispers she conjures, but he can tell they’re coming from Fjord’s vicinity. Algar pales, staring agape and cowering. Then with shaking steps he moves to the chair and sits down.

Fjord smiles. It makes Marion look sinister, menacing, the complete opposite of the kind and gentle woman the Mighty Nein met the night before. “Good. I appreciate your cooperation.” He lets the spell he was holding fizzle.

“Wh-Who are you?” Algar stammers.

“Well, clearly I am not the Ruby of the Sea,” Fjord says. He drops the illusory disguise. Algar scoots back in terror. Fjord is by no means as intimidating as a full-blooded orc, but he is noticeably taller than Marion, and the switch from red to green skin in this lighting is jarring. His eyes, strangely, don’t change much. Molly always considered Fjord’s eyes to be some kind of light honey brown, and yet from here they appear almost yellow, serpent-like.

“What do you want from me?” Algar trembles as he reaches for his coin purse. “Whatever it is you want, you can have it, but please don’t hurt me.”

Fjord smirks with a light chuckle. A chill runs down Molly’s spine. “Y’see, Algar — yes, I know your name — I work for a certain…gentleman who supports the ‘illicitly industrious’, like the Ruby of the Sea. Word reached him recently that an obstacle was preventing her from continuing her work. My employer sent me to deal with that obstacle.”

Algar jerks his head from side to side, searching the room. “There’s more of you here, I know it. Who else? Show yourselves!”

Everyone in the closet looks at one another. Without a word, Caleb opens his side of the curtain and steps out, both hands up in surrender. Unfortunately, this closes off the crack the rest were using to watch. “Ja gut,” Caleb says. “You caught me. I wasn’t supposed to come out unless you proved to be uncooperative, but I couldn’t resist fucking with your head a little back there.”

Molly plans a “coming out of the closet” quip for later. For now, he gingerly reaches out with his tail to try to pull the side of the curtain open again. Jester notices and adds her tail to the effort. Together, they regain their view of the room. Caleb is standing with his hands up, somewhat blocking their view of Algar.

Algar laughs nervously. “This is some kind of joke,” he says. “Did this one pull you off the street to help him? What’s going on?”

Caleb’s hands catch ablaze. Algar flails with a squeak of alarm. “What is going on, mein Freund, is that you are thorn, a pest. We are pest control. We aren’t exterminators necessarily, buuut…” Caleb extinguishes one hand and reaches into his pocket. Molly catches a glimpse of something on his fingertips before Caleb moves that hand across his face. “I suggest you be honest and let us know if it has to come to that.”

The parts of Algar that Molly can see relax. “I love her,” he says. His voice has the familiar tone of someone under a charming spell. “I need her. She’s so beautiful and I can’t bear the thought of other men touching her.”

“That’s kinda her job, though,” Fjord says.

“It shouldn’t have to be. If only she could see that I can provide for her, that she doesn’t need to debase herself by cavorting with those perverts, then she would love me, too.” Algar lifts his left arm. The sleeve falls back enough to reveal something glinting underneath that Molly can’t make out. “I have a powerful ally under the city,” he says. “So long as I control him I can give her whatever she wants, if only she’ll say she is mine. If you let me go to her, show her, then she can give up this life and finally be happy.”

Jester’s tail twitches in a way that makes the curtain flutter. Fortunately, Algar does not appear to notice. Beau puts her hand over Jester’s mouth again.

“You mentioned an ally,” Fjord says. “What ally?”

“I don’t have to tell you that,” Algar replies.

Fjord looks to Caleb, who shrugs. “Technically he doesn’t,” Caleb says. “I only asked if we would need to kill him to make him fuck off.”

“You said he had to be honest.”

“And clearly he honestly doesn’t have to tell us who this ‘ally’ is.” Caleb relights his other hand. “But I’m sure we could get him to talk eventually.” He pauses. His head turns about an inch towards the fluffy pillow on the bed, then he extinguishes his hands. “Never mind, he’s not worth the effort. All we have to do is get him to promise he will drop this sick obsession, unless he wants us to continue where we left off at a later date.”

Algar shifts in his seat. “I only need a few more weeks to woo her, and then she’ll—”

“Oh for fuck’s sake,” Fjord interrupts. “I was just on the receiving end of your ‘wooing’ and I can tell you flat out that that is not how you get a woman like her to like you.”

“I’m going to have to concur on that,” Caleb says. “Honestly Fjord showed some restraint. I know a few women who would have ripped your head off it you tried that on them.”

Molly glances over at Yasha with a smile. Yasha’s eyes are narrowed and her jaw clenched, but when she notices Molly’s smile the corner of her mouth twitches upward in response. Molly is also smiling because of all the members of their group, Fjord and Caleb are the most awkward and clumsy flirters — Keg might have given them a run for their money, but hey, it worked on Beau somehow — and yet they’re trying to give romantic advice. Considering that this guy’s idea of “wooing” is “be extremely needy and aggressive until she says yes”, even they seem like masters of seduction by comparison.

Fjord takes a few steps closer to Algar, still holding his falchion. “If you’d ever actually talked to the Ruby of the Sea you’d know she’s perfectly happy in her current situation. She doesn’t need you to ‘save’ her from her job. But since we were sent to save her job from you, that’s what we’re gonna do, one way or another.” He dismisses the falchion so he can grip both arms of the chair and lean over Algar. “Leave her alone. Find someone else who actually likes you, and not someone who just puts up with you because they don’t want to start any trouble.”

“Keep in mind we will be watching,” Caleb says. “You have seen how we can disguise ourselves. That means anyone you pass on the street might be one of us, or one of our associates.”

“That’s right,” Fjord says. His form shifts. Algar’s reaction confirms Molly’s suspicion; Fjord has changed his face to mirror Algar. “We can be anyone.”

Caleb also changes into a copy of Algar, who whimpers wordlessly. The room is silent for a moment, aside from Algar’s noises of distress. At last Algar breaks. “Alright!” he exclaims. “Alright, I’ll— I promise I will leave the Ruby to her…work.”

“Good choice.” Fjord straightens and stands aside. “Now get out.”

Algar sprints for the door. He stops briefly at the sight of the crossbow bolt still sticking out above the handle. With one final panicked look around the room, he makes a hasty exit.

When the door slams shut, everyone comes out of hiding and Fjord and Caleb drop their disguises. Jester bounces with delight. “Oh man! You guys really got him. I almost disguised myself too and popped out just to fuck with him.”

“I think that would have been a bit much,” Fjord says. His demeanor has completely shifted. His shoulders are relaxed and the harsh expression on his face is gone, though his eye color still appears more yellow than anything else. Molly isn’t one to judge on unusual eye color, but it occurs to him that Fjord never mentioned what the other half of his half-orc lineage was. Given that he claims to be an orphan, that’s not surprising. Molly’s interest is definitely piqued regardless.

“Can we trust that he’ll actually keep his word?” Beau asks.

Caduceus nods in his slow sure way. “He seemed pretty shaken by the thought of you two following him in disguise. Any time he wonders if he’s crossing a line he’ll assume you’re nearby and — hopefully — make the right decision.”

Fjord breathes a sigh of relief. “I am so glad that’s over. Now we can focus on finding out who this Marius guy is.” He smiles to Jester. “But first, let’s go tell your mom the good news.”

Chapter Text

Marion is relieved to hear of the Mighty Nein’s success with Algar. “I’m so happy there was a peaceful solution to all this,” she says, scritching Sprinkle between his ears. “I was afraid our security would have to hurt him one of these days. As you said, this is much better for business.”

“Glad we could be of help, ma’am,” Fjord says.

“Please, let me give you some gold as a token of my gratitude.”

Fjord puts up his hands. “You don’t have to do that. You’ve already helped us by giving us a place to stay.”

Marion turns to Jester. “What if I gave you some gold and you can share it with your friends? Say, three hundred?”

Jester’s eyes go wide. “Mama! You don’t have to give us that much!”

Her mother shrugs. “Consider it your allowance for the next few months.”

“Well…okay, if it’s my allowance…” It didn’t take much to twist Jester’s arm. The gleam in her eyes betrays how delighted she is by the offer. She might even actually share some of that with the rest of the group.

Molly reconsiders that judgement. Jester has been more of a team player since the Nest. Perhaps it’s out of solidarity to, not only those who saved her, but to Fjord and Yasha, who went through it all with her. Or maybe it’s because with Caduceus on their team she is free to play around with her spells during combat more. She does seem to appreciate having the firbolg as an ally.

Then there are the other opportunities he brings. On their way up to Marion’s rooms, Jester had walked beside Molly with a big grin and whispered, “I didn’t get to say anything earlier but oh my gosh you totally made out with Caduceus!

Molly had grinned back. “So I did.”

“What was it like?”

Caduceus was walking ahead of them at the time. One of his ears was angled slightly back in their direction. Keeping his voice low, but not too low, Molly replied, “Maybe you should try it yourself and find out.”

Jester squealed and pranced excitedly up a few steps. “It was really good, wasn’t it?”

Molly shrugged. “A tiefling never kisses and tells.”

“I’d tell you if someone was a good kisser.”

“That’s probably because you’re only half-tiefling, dear.” Molly had smirked as Jester wrinkled her nose in a grumpy pout.

That little jab hit her harder than Molly thought, or it had tipped a decision she was already making, because once Jester has graciously accepted her mother’s offer, she says, “Mama, I want to try sending a message to the Gentleman again.”

“Oh?” Marion’s expression is hard to read, but she continues petting Sprinkles.

“Like, yesterday I kinda threw a lot at him at once. And I think Zadash is far enough east that maybe it was later in the day and I woke him up or something. Can we try to contact him tomorrow morning?”

Marion thinks a moment, face still carefully guarded. “If that is what you want, then I would be interested to hear his reply.”

Jester gives her mother a hug. Marion pats her tenderly on the head. “If he is my dad, I just want to know why he didn’t come back,” Jester says. “When I first left home I thought maybe I’d go live with my dad, but I like being with these guys. Someday maybe I can earn enough gold to buy my own house and he can come stay with me.”

Marion giggles softly. “That sounds lovely.” She sighs. “And I must admit, I am…also curious about some things. We can discuss it tomorrow.”

Beau nods. “For now, we gotta worry about this…LePool? LaPwaal?”

“Pretty sure it’s pronounced ‘LePual’,” Fjord says. “And we can talk about that over dinner.”

“Let me buy that for you, at least,” Marion says. “Go downstairs and tell them that whatever you want, it’s on me.”

“Why thank you,” Molly says with a courteous bow. “You do serve some excellent cheeses here.”

“The finest,” Marion says. Her smile is so much brighter with this irritation off her conscience. Molly wishes he had enough money to buy an evening with her so he could spend it making her laugh.

As the group heads downstairs, Caduceus stops Molly at the top of the landing. Even though Molly had flirted with Caduceus on a few occasions and he hadn’t seemed repulsed or intrigued by it, he had concerns that Caduceus would be upset by his little stunt earlier, and braces himself for the worst.

“I’m sure you know why I want to talk to you,” Caduceus says.

“I think I do, yeah.” Molly smiles apologetically. “I was just having some fun, that’s all. Wanted to put on a show for Fjord.”

Caduceus nods. He doesn’t look angry, nor does he look like he completely buys that excuse. “I don’t think Fjord found it as amusing as you did. I was fine with it, though, for the record. Haven’t been kissed like that in a while and, well, frankly it was more enjoyable than the last time. Still would have liked a heads up.” Before Molly has a chance to mentally digest that nugget of information, Caduceus continues, “So keep in mind that certain members of the party are, uh, a little sensitive to things and might not appreciate if you’d tried that on them, yeah?”

Molly stares up at Caduceus for a moment, processing. There’s something in the firbolg’s eyes that makes the hair on the back of Molly’s neck prickle. Caduceus is an impressive sight on his own, but those eyes…

“And by the way,” Caduceus adds, “I like you too, just not that way.” He reaches down with one broad hand to cup Molly’s cheek affectionately before he walks away.

Molly puts his fingertips to where Caduceus touched him. “Fuck, that was kinda hot.” If Caduceus hadn’t preemptively shot down his advances, Molly would have turned up the charm so hard that night just to see where he could take things. Mr. Clay was one step ahead though, as he often seemed to be. Molly takes a deep breath then hurries to catch up with the rest.

Dinner is delicious and decadent, the way Molly likes it. He keeps an eye on Caduceus, who doesn’t regard him more than he does anyone else at the table. Fjord is doing most of the talking. He’s going over what they should tell this guy when they get there, how they can convince him to tell them what they know, what to do if he gets aggressive.

“We are going there to talk, okay?” Fjord says. “I’d almost say we should leave our weapons here, but we all remember what happened when we tried ‘just talking’ to that Crick feller.”

“I don’t think I remember that,” Caduceus says with genuine confusion. “When was that?”

“And also isn’t ‘Crick’ a slur?” Jester asks.

“Yeah, okay, maybe, I dunno. Um, Caduceus, there was this, uh, spy…guy—”

“Pretty sure they’re called ‘the Kryn’,” Jester says.

Fjord drops his head into his hands. “Fine, we fought one of the Kryn in the sewers once because he wasn’t as keen on talking as we were, and even after we let him go he still got captured and killed.”

Caduceus nods. “Ah, I see. Well, I can calm him down if he gets spooked or anything.”

“Good. That’s good. We want information, and we can’t get that if he’s dead.”

“Ummm, actually we can,” Jester points out. “Both Caduceus and I can Speak with Dead.”

Fjord’s head goes back into his hands and he rubs his palms against his temples. “Okay, but let’s not go there with the intent of killing anyone, alright?”

Everyone agrees with that. Before Fjord can continue, Marion comes and joins them at their table. Jester is perfectly happy making space so her mother can have dinner with them.

“I wanted to thank you again,” Marion says. “Because of you, I now feel comfortable being out in the open like this.”

“Oh, Mama.” Jester hugs Marion tight. “That guy really was an asshole. I wish we could have gotten here sooner.”

Marion pats Jester’s head. “I’m glad you were able to come at all. I thought you’d be out having wild adventures on some distant corner of the continent.”

“I was, though. But then our adventures brought us here.”

“Yes, so you told me. I hope that goes well for you.” Marion casts a glance at Fjord.

To help Fjord avoid an awkward conversation and for the sake of his own amusement, Molly asks Marion if she has any stories of “wild adventures” Jester might have gotten herself into as a child. Marion admits there are a few that should not be discussed where strangers can hear, but otherwise she gladly talks about Jester’s younger years. Jester is embarrassed at first, until she gets a chance to tell certain stories from her own perspective. Then she and her mother are laughing and reminiscing while the rest sit and listen.

It occurs to Molly that Jester is the only one of their group who would talk openly about their childhood, or their past in general. Beau has alluded to having shitty parents, Fjord said he was an orphan who used to get teased, Nott didn’t like her goblin clan but won’t give details as to why, Caleb won’t give details about anything, and Yasha…is Yasha. It took weeks of gaining her trust before she would tell Molly anything other than that she was from Xhorhas and had no intention of going back any time soon. Caduceus will tell half-stories here and there when they pertain to a conversation, but no one had really asked him about his past. Molly doesn’t really care, frankly, since Caduceus was fairly isolated and there couldn’t be anything too bad following him. The rest of them, on the other hand…

Marion excuses herself after about an hour. There’s still time before midnight, so everyone sort of drifts their separate ways after dinner. Molly heads up to the room he’s sharing with Fjord and Caduceus to polish and sharpen his swords. He didn’t have time that morning and he wants them ready if it comes to a fight. He doesn’t want it to. If he could charm his way through every situation like he used to in the carnival he would. However, out here, in this new life as an adventurer…mercenary…errand-runner-who-specializes-in-danger…whatever they are, most things end on the edge of a blade than on a good word.

Summer’s Dance is a true beauty. Molly cherishes it as one of the finest things he owns, if not THE finest. The tapestry is nice, but the tapestry isn’t magical, as far as he knows. The periapt is the most expensive thing he has ever bought, but it didn’t save him in the end, now did it? Besides, if Summer’s Dance is made of real gold, and those are real jewels, then it must be worth at least ten times what he paid for the necklace, maybe even a hundred times more. Thinking back to where they found it, the case was trapped, so whoever put it in there knew it was valuable. Doesn’t matter how much it would cost, though, since he has absolutely no intention of selling it any time in the future.

Molly takes more care in sharpening Summer’s Dance than he does with his old swords. Those are flashy, but ultimately replaceable if he could find the right materials. With Summer’s Dance he carefully draws the whetstone over the blade, almost lovingly. He hasn’t hired any “companions” since his resurrection. Everyone expected him to run to the first whore house he passed, and he had thought about it, but he found more pleasure in getting absolutely shit-faced with the group. He was getting better at reducing their hangovers, and the damage he took from that healed faster every time.

Speaking of which, he tested Summer’s Dance on himself. A quick slash against the back of his neck, so light he barely felt it and yet the golden sheen was streaked with blood when he withdrew it. At his will, the blood lets off sparks, crackling with blue energy. That was new. The night after they had raided the Sour Nest, a night where everyone agreed they felt more powerful in their victory, Molly had wondered what more he could possibly do. There was that tug in his mind, like an intrusive thought telling him to break a fragile glass or throw himself off a high place, but as always these thoughts told him to attempt feats of magic. Soon after joining the Mighty Nein it told him to try making his blood radiate light, and so it had. Sleeping in the emptied Nest, he contemplated what else his blood could do. He thought of Yasha, passed out beside him, and her connection to the Storm Lord. Maybe she would like it if he could wield lightning, too.

Someone knocks on the door. “Molly? You decent?” It’s Fjord.

Molly wipes off Summer’s Dance. The lingering energy makes his fingers tingle. “As decent as ever.”

“…Are you at least wearing pants?”

“Why don’t you come in and see for yourself?” Molly asks, arranging himself in a facetiously seductive pose.

Fjord’s growl is barely audible through the door. “Molly, come on, I just want to lie down for a little while.”

Fine. I swear by the orb in your chest that I am clothed.”

The door opens. Fjord peeks in first, then fully enters. “Thank you.” He glances at the set up Molly has on the floor. “Praying over your swords?”

“Polishing them, for now. Prayers come later.” Molly’s prayer has changed recently. It used to be “Whatever I’m doing, let me do it well.” Now it’s “Whatever you let me come back for, let me overcome it.”

“I haven’t really done anything with my sword,” Fjord says. “I don’t know if it even needs polishing.”

Molly shrugs. “It might like a good rub down once in a while.” He keeps his tone subtle, but he watches to see if Fjord caught the double entendre.

As always, Fjord is oblivious as fuck. “Would it? D’you… D’you think it thinks?” Fjord furrows his brow in concern. He holds out his hand and with a splash of seawater he summons his falchion. A few drops get on Summer’s Dance, so Molly quickly wipes them off with his rag. “Sorry,” Fjord mumbles. He’s examining the falchion. That damn eye in the hilt is creepy. It looks like one of Fjord’s eyes, though, just more unsettling because it’s staring out from a place where it wasn’t before. Fjord checks that, too. He turns the blade over in his hands, watching it as it watches…whatever it’s looking at.

Molly pats the ground beside him. “C’mon, you can borrow my whetstone.” He shakes his finger at the falchion. “If that thing infects it with some kind of curse or makes it make my swords smell like salt water, you’re buying me a new one.”

Fjord chuckles. “Yeah, alright. Thanks.” He sits besides Molly and takes the whetstone from his hand. He’s delicate about it, barely letting their skin touch. Molly thinks about what Caduceus said. Could Fjord be…? No. As funny as that would be, and as much as Molly would like it, no.

“You did well today,” Molly says.

“I hope so,” Fjord says. “I don’t want that guy bothering Jester’s mom anymore.”

Molly grins. “Speaking of the Ruby, what was it like being her?”

Fjord grips the whetstone with white knuckles and a dark color in his cheeks. “Terrifying.”

“Yeah, that Algar was not prepared to take ‘no’ for an answer.”

“I held out as long as I could, though. I wanted to change back into myself the moment he shut the door, but I also didn’t want to ruin the plan.”

Molly shrugs. “Not every conman can pull off every con. You improvised and succeeded, and that’s what’s important.”

If Fjord had panicked and abandoned the plan while working for Gustav and Desmond, it would have taken months for any of them to trust him again. Yasha hadn’t done well in her test. Fortunately she was a good bouncer when she acted like herself. Molly, on the other hand, had done quite well in his first con. He had been shaky at first, the way Fjord was, but he had the support of the carnival and the townsfolk were more than happy to believe he was reincarnated Marquesian royalty. The gifts they had showered him with, the lavish rooms they prepared, and — unnnff — the sheer amount of sex he got during that job… It was no wonder where he got his taste for opulence.

Fjord clears his throat. “Well, I guess we’ve proved that being a woman isn’t my strength. Good news is we’ve got some damn strong women on our team already.”

“Can’t argue with that.” There’s a few minutes of silence while they work on their swords. Molly isn’t in the mood for silence. “Nervous about tonight?” he asks.

“Yeah.” Fjord runs the whetstone along the edge of his falchion. His eyes are glazed in concentration.

The falchion still has the dark appearance of the assassin’s blade Fjord…ate. It’s almost like the shadow of a scimitar, except the blade is a little straighter and it has those ghastly barnacles on it. Molly likes his swords better. He picks up Summer’s Dance and continues polishing it. The jewels shine back at him. If swords do think, then Summer’s Dance must be happy that Molly keeps it looking so beautiful. Fjord’s sword reminds Molly of him; it’s not what one would call majestic, and clearly it has been somewhere that left its mark, but it’s still quite the sword. It does seem like it doesn’t need anyone to maintain it, but Fjord needs something to occupy him for now and this at least feels productive even if it’s pointless.

“So if your sword looks different because you ate someone else’s sword,” Molly says, “does that mean it’ll keep getting bigger and meaner the more swords you eat?”

“I don’t know. And I don’t really want to explore that.” Fjord tests the tip of the blade with his thumb. He tilts his head then leans in close to focus on it with the whetstone.

“Does everything you swallow go into the sword?”

Fjord frowns. “No. And I don’t want to explore that either. Besides, I don’t…it’s not that I eat the swords or whatever, they just get…y’know…consumed.”

“Still goes into you first.” Molly digs a fleck of something out of the setting around what might be an emerald. “But, as someone who has had a blade in his chest, I can see why you wouldn’t want to stick any more in there.”

Whatever frustration or focus etched the lines in Fjord’s face, it quickly melts to melancholy and guilt. “Molly, I’m so sorry that happened to you. You didn’t have to. The rest of you should have left us behind.”

Molly rolls his eyes. “We’re not having this discussion again. Of course we were always going to come after you. Doesn’t matter if Tiamat herself took you, you’re our friends. You are my friend. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my short time it’s that you don’t abandon someone when they’re in trouble, especially an ally.”

Fjord half-smiles. He hasn’t looked at Molly this whole time. “Thank you. I hope one day I can deserve that sort of friendship.”

Molly playfully slaps Fjord with his tail. “Like I said, we’re not talking about that.” He rests his elbow against his knee and props his chin against his fist. “Do you need a hug?”

“No.” It’s too quick of a response. Despite the finality in his tone, Fjord darts his eyes towards Molly long enough to give reasonable doubt.

Molly grins. “Do you want a hug?”

“I— Thank you, but…”

“…But what?”

Fjord grits his teeth. “What for?”

“What do you mean, ‘What for?’ For gods’ sakes, it’s a hug. You hug the people you like when they need a reminder that someone cares about them. Or because one or both of you wants it. So, do you want — and/or need — a hug?”

“You promise it—” Fjord clears his throat. “It’s just a hug, right? Not like…like…” He mimes something that reminds Molly of his moment with Caduceus. He’s trying so hard not to blush and failing so spectacularly that Molly can’t help but laugh.

“No surprises, I promise. I wasn’t lying about having pants on, was I?” Molly gets to his feet and holds out his arms. “Get over here, sailor.”

With some hesitation, Fjord sets down the falchion so he can push himself up. He takes a few awkward steps in Molly’s direction.

“Ugh, I swear you can be worse than Beau and Caleb combined.” Molly beckons with his hands still outstretched. “It’ll be over soon and you’ll feel better afterwards. C’mon.”

Fjord finally walks into the hug with his arms slumped forward to sort of hold Molly by his sides. Molly puts one arm around Fjord’s waist and uses the other to pat Fjord on the back. Though he doesn’t want to be too sappy, Molly also tries to convey through the pressure and positioning of his hug that he does genuinely care. He cares that Fjord is on edge now that he’s close to learning more about his powers. He cares that Fjord has been more distant and quiet since the Nest. He cares about Fjord in general, the way he cares about everyone else, yet in the way Fjord needs to be cared about. Theirs is a band of outcasts. Someone has to care.

The door opens. “Oh. Am I uh, interrupting something?” Caduceus dips his head to see under the doorframe. “I can come back later if you two were having a discussion or something.”

Fjord was out of Molly’s arms the instant the handle turned. Shame. He had been relaxing into the hug and Molly wasn’t done yet. Fjord straightens himself to address Caduceus. “You’re fine, Caduceus. Was there anythin’ you needed?”

Caduceus ducks into the room. The ceilings of the Lavish Chateau are high enough for him to walk around comfortably. The doors, not so much. “I was in the mood for some tea but the kind I want is in my bag. Would you two like to join me? Castala family. Good people, good tea.”

Molly remembers that tea. A mug of it was put in his hands shortly after his resurrection. First there had been Caduceus’s face, pale as mist with a cascade of pink tumbling down towards him. Then a wave of some glowing crystal on the end of a staff which made all the nerves in Molly’s body tingle, like it was rapidly removing the fatigue after waking up from a deep sleep. His friends were there, plus Nila the firbolg, and as soon as Molly sat up he was almost knocked down again by an exuberant Nott. Caleb had told her to let Molly have space to breathe. That was when Caduceus gave him the tea. The very first word Molly said was “Thanks.” It was far better than “Empty” and at least he could remember everything. Almost everything. Enough that when they all asked, “Are you…you?” he could answer definitively that yes, he was.

Fjord politely declines the tea. “I’ll take some,” Molly says. “After all, if you’re getting your kettle out and everything, better to do it for more than just yourself, eh?”

“Oh, they have the hot water downstairs, but I sampled some of their tea leaves and I prefer my own.”

“Huh,” Fjord says. “Didn’t think they served tea here.”

“I guess that’s why their selection is so poor,” Caduceus says. “No one ever asks for it.” He has that smile on his face. It looks permanent, as though it’s just the way his face always was and always will go back to when he’s at rest. Even a few times when Molly has been up for the night watch he has seen Caduceus smile like that in his sleep. Other times, though… And in those deep eyes Molly can see the way he’s looking at the two of them. Not angry. Not worried. Just observing. One day Molly will understand this firbolg. Maybe.

Molly puts on his own smile. “Well, best not let that hot water wait any longer. Let’s go. You coming, Fjord? You don’t need to drink, but it’s company if you want it.”

Fjord glances down at his falchion. “No. I’ll stay here, but thanks.” To Caduceus he says, “Quick question.”

Caduceus tilts his head. “Yes?”

“Do you think swords, uh, feel better after you polish them?”

Caduceus thinks for a moment. “My staff shines brighter when I polish it. The wood appreciates being taken care of, too. I don’t know about swords though, especially ones like yours. Whoever gave it to you might like that you’re taking care of it.”

Fjord freezes up for a heartbeat. “I…never thought of that. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” Caduceus retrieves the small packet of tea from amongst his belongings. Molly follows him out of the room with a quick check over his shoulder. Fjord is settling back onto the floor and reaching for the whetstone like his life depends on it.

Molly worries about Fjord sometimes. Fjord has endeavored time and time again to be the team’s moral anchor, but it’s not easy. Each of them is broken in some way, searching for the missing piece to make them whole again. Sometimes the search for those pieces makes them do desperate things, keep dark secrets, act on dangerous impulses. When the Iron Shepherds broke their team in half, Molly had put his life on the line put it back together. Even when they were reunited, a few new chips had broken off. Now Molly worries about what lengths Fjord will go to in order to keep himself from breaking further, and that those methods might shatter him in the end.

Chapter Text

The mission begins dangerously; they have to wake Yasha from her post-dinner nap. By now the group knows that anyone who tries to wake her while she’s snoring runs the risk of facing her with her wings out, or at least getting roared at. She has the uncanny ability to wake up shortly before her turn on watch, evidenced by the fact that she’ll stop snoring half an hour or so earlier, but otherwise the Nein know to let her sleep unless it’s important.

Fortunately, Molly has six more months of experience with her than the rest. He leans over her sleeping body, kisses her on the head, and murmurs, “Whenever you’re ready, we could use some extra muscle.”

Yasha’s snore turns into a cantankerous growl. Her purple eye opens enough to glare at him. Molly smiles back, waving his tail good-naturedly. Yasha opens her other eye as she pushes herself up to a seated position. “We going?”

“If you’re coming with, then yes, we are.” Molly sits next to her. “Have I mentioned I’m glad you’re back?”

“Once or twice.” Yasha rubs the drowsiness from her eyes. She says nothing more, but it’s different from her usual silence. There’s anticipation in the air. Molly dreads that she wants to ask The Question. She won’t. He knows she won’t. She might surprise him, though. There’s no telling what her time with the Iron Shepherds did to her. To dispel the tension, Molly scoots close enough to give her a one-armed hug. She pats him on the back then goes to gear up for the night.

If there were any people out on the streets of Nicodranas that night, they might have paused in their tracks to watch the odd troupe of outsiders making their way towards the docks. Half of them are back in their disguises, but they still look like a group of people who have no business being together other than the fact that they’re all the oddest looking strangers in town. Everything is quiet, though. The shops are closed, the populace is asleep, only the hiss of steam and the occasional patrolling zolezzo break the calm stillness of the night, and the Mighty Nein go unchallenged.

As they approach the docks, Caduceus puts out a hand to stop the group. “I see something,” he whispers.

Molly follows Caduceus’s line of sight. There’s a dark figure darting between crates a few hundred feet away. Based on the description Fjord gave them — which he got from a Tortle, apparently — this looks like the guy they’re after. He’s a lithe half-elf with fair hair cut short on one side with the rest swept up in a sort of wave. He’s also trying hard not to be seen.

Their quarry is spotted by someone other than them, however. A pair of zolezzo call out to him, hands on their weapons. The Mighty Nein duck behind a building. Caleb sends Frumpkin out ahead to assess the situation, one hand gripping Beau’s shoulder to ground himself while he’s blind. Beau puts her hand over his. Those two are adorable sometimes.

“He’s coming out of hiding,” Caleb murmurs. “He has his hands up. …Now he’s talking to them, very friendly. Ah, he’s passing them some coin. I can’t quite make out what they’re saying…but I think they’re letting him go. Ja, ja they’re walking away.”

Caduceus peers around the corner. “Yeah, looks like some guy is walking up from the ship to meet Marius. There are some—”

“He’s meeting some other people from one of the ships,” Caleb interrupts. It’s not his fault. He couldn’t hear Caduceus. Molly is willing to bet all the jewelry on his right horn that Caleb would apologize profusely if he knew what he had done. Caleb is understandably preoccupied. His lips pull back in a wince. “The one coming out to meet LePual has seen Frumpkin. He…does not look like a nice person.” He blinks a few times. His eyes return to their usual blue. He slides his hand off Beau’s shoulder. “I couldn’t hear what they were talking about. One might guess it has something to do with your mysterious orb.”

Fjord nods. “Thank you, Caleb. Orly didn’t say Marius comes here to meet people.” He pulls the note that brought them here from his pocket. “They're probably here for their 'gift for the captain', but it doesn't sound like this Avantika person planned to come themselves. Are you sure Frumpkin can't get closer? I'd like to know what they're saying without barging out there all like 'Hey! What are you guys talking about?'”

Beau taps Fjord with wide eyes. “Hey! Doesn’t your armor let you like, float and move quickly in the water and stuff? Could you sneak into the water and swim under them to do some spy shit?”

“Great idea,” Fjord says. “Everyone wait here. I’ll signal if y’all need to jump in, okay? And remember, we’re here to talk.”

The group nods in agreement. Fjord smiles. He creeps off as quietly as he can. Molly and the others watch him as far as they can until they would have to give away their position to keep him in their line of sight. Everything seems fine until…

pkRSSSHH

Though Molly has never heard it before, there is no mistaking the sound of a half-orc who tripped off the edge of a pier and belly-flopped straight into the water below him. Caleb grabs Beau’s shoulder with such sudden force she’s nearly knocked sideways. Though his eyes are milk-white once more, they’re darting back and forth in a panic.

“They definitely heard that,” he hisses. “They’re looking for what made the sound.”

Molly sifts through his mind for any previous con he could use to get them out of this mess. He’s painfully aware of each passing second so he picks the first one that doesn’t require too much preparation. He scratches himself hard on the forehead until the blood seeps into his fingernails. There’s no dirt on the damn wood and stone of the dock. Improvising, he mutters an apology that Caleb can’t hear before spitting into his hand, moistening a patch of dirt on Caleb’s coat, then smearing the resulting muck onto his wound. He doesn’t have a mirror to check, and there’s no time to ask, but hopefully he looks like a guy who got thrown face-first out of a tavern. He loosens his clothes to add to the ruse and staggers towards the dock.

“LePual!” he shouts. “Is that you, you no good swindler?”

The cloaked figure with LePual immediately turns to him in a defensive position. They turn back and speak sharply to LePual, who puts up his hands and cowers. The cloaked figure calls out, “Who goes there?”

This would have been better with Nott’s flask, but Molly keeps up the drunkard act, raising his voice to be too loud, even for this distance. “I’m here for that fucker. Bastard cheated me at cards and didn’t even have the decency to buy me a drink afterwards.” Molly spits on the ground. “Y’gonna give me my money back, LePual? Or am I gonna have to take it off your corpse?”

There’s another hushed and harsh exchange between the lead figure and LePual. Molly’s heart races in his chest to the point where he’s truly swaying on his feet from light-headedness. The figure raises his fist. Three bows appear from under three cloaks up on the ship, their arrows all pointed at Molly. He sobers up from the rush of adrenaline. It’s not enough. He manages to dodge one. The other two hit him in the stomach and shoulder.

Molly scowls. “Now that’s just fucking uncalled for.” He reaches for Summer’s Dance, but he recalls how long they spent establishing that they weren’t going to hurt anyone unless it was necessary. The sword is a bit much. Molly has other tactics. He walks closer to the water to be in range and reaches out a finger towards the closest archer. “Ṯ̸̨̈̽͠r̸̗̫̿̿̔y̸̪͛̀ ̷̨̊͛t̵̲̽ḫ̴̨̹̐̉a̴̝̾͗t̴͖̬̑̈́ ̶̘̳̎a̶̬̰͒̅ͅg̵̗̲͕̐̇a̸̛̲̺̚͝i̶͙͒n̸͚͋͛̓͜,̶̳̮͑̈ ̶͕͈͗w̷̺̳̯̑̍̂h̸̡͕̀̅͛ë̶͓͇̔l̷͇̖̝̆p̴̱̰͓͗” he rasps in Infernal. Pain flares in the familiar spots all over his body, but it’s worth it. The archer screams and clutches at his eyes.

The leader lowers his fist in confusion and fear. “Kill it!” he shouts.

‘It’? Molly pulls out Summer’s Dance and his regular scimitar. The desire to retaliate he can understand, but ‘it’? Fucker needs to learn his manners.

Two more arrows fly in Molly’s direction. One is poorly aimed and Molly barely has to move aside, but the other one hits him in the hip as he tries to jump out of the way. It fucking hurts.

Before Molly can use Summer’s Dance to get right up in the leader’s face, there’s a boom of thunder that shakes the wooden planks beneath his feet and sends plumes of water spraying up from under the dock. Fjord appears beside LePual. He says something to him and holds out his hand, but LePual shies away from him. Once the shock of Fjord’s arrival wears off, the cloaked figures on the ship draw their weapons and advance.

A giant glowing lollipop appears over the water. Jester, Yasha, and Beau come charging up. Molly glances over his shoulder. Caleb has moved into position, his hands already moving in arcane gestures as magic coalesces around him into armor. Nott is nowhere to be seen, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t nearby. Caduceus is standing off to the side and Molly can’t make out the look on his face, but he doesn’t appear to be doing anything. Molly swiftly chops off the shafts of the arrows sticking out of his body then joins the fray. Beau has already used that unnatural speed she has sometimes to dash past the leader and move toward the ship.

“What happened to nonviolent discussion?” Fjord shouts.

“They fucking shot me!” Molly shouts back. He swings Summer’s Dance at the leader.

The leader brings up his own sword to block the blow. His hood falls back enough to reveal a half-orc face with large tusks and a menacing gleam in his eyes. He shouts to the figures on the ship. “Burn everything! Leave no traces!”

That doesn’t sound good. Fjord calls out, “Someone do something about that!”

Beau is already on it. She runs up the ramp but is blocked by one guy while another dashes out of sight. “Could use some help!” she yells as she ducks out of the way of a sword.

Molly starts to concentrate on Summer’s Dance again, but the leader interrupts with a slash to Molly’s arm. The pain shoots down to Molly’s hand and he nearly drops his carnival glass sword. He looks up to Beau just in time to see a red and brown blur streak along the dock and up onto the ship. The blur solidifies into Caleb.

“What the shit?!” Beau exclaims. Her opponent is also taken off guard. Beau uses that opportunity to punch the guy in the face.

A grunting shout brings Molly’s attention back to his own situation. Fjord is swinging his falchion at the leader. The strike hits. Molly slashes three times. The first hits the leader’s armor at a weird angle and glances off. The second Molly makes with his left hand and catches the guy on the ribs. As the leader recoils Molly tries again with Summer’s Dance and sinks the blade half an inch into his arm.

Molly bares his fangs in a triumphant snarl as the leader yelps. “Yeah, doesn’t feel good, does it?”

As the leader is about to retort, he is struck by a flash of light. Molly wonders which of their clerics fired that, but the information isn't at the top of his priority list since this guy is winding up to strike at him again.

“Molly!” Yasha comes in swinging her greatsword at the leader. He too distracted to do anything about her and the blade hits him square across the back. He falls to his knees.

“Stay down!” Fjord commands.

The leader looks like he’s going to get back to his feet. However, a shimmer of magic passes over his body and he freezes in place. “Did it work?” Jester asks.

“Yeah, I think you got him,” Fjord says. Just then, a crossbow bolt lodges itself into the leader’s abdomen. “Good shot, Nott!” Fjord says in the direction it came from.

The archers, however, have not given up. Even the one Molly blinded draws his weapon again. And they’re all aiming at Molly. The blind one misses, but the other two hit.

Molly cries out in frustration, “What the fuck is your problem?”

Fjord gestures back down the dock. “Molly, fall back. Get to Caduceus.”

Caduceus is where everyone left him. He’s clutching his staff in both hands, but his ears are tucked down so hard against his head Molly can barely see them. Molly has never seen him scared before. When they fought the ettins in the gorge he kept a level head the whole time, and those were far more intimidating than a group of possible pirates. Then again, Caduceus had spotted them before they could ambush the group and made the whole experience more manageable. Now their plans for peaceful negotiation have gone out the window so quickly, and there is so much happening, Molly isn’t surprised that Caduceus is overwhelmed.

But this time the Nein have the upper hand in numbers and strength. They can end this, get Marius, and everything will be fine. Jester’s lollipop is dealing with the archers, the leader is incapacitated, and Beau and Caleb have probably finished off the guys who were supposed to burn everything by now. They should wrap this all up and be on their way.

Molly turns to the archers. One is already nocking his bow, so Molly targets him. “Y̶̲̎ǒ̶̮͙ͅṳ̷͙̈̐͝r̸̳͑̈ ̷̨̰̒͠a̸̽͌͜r̷͓̋̓ṟ̸̽o̵̠͐͒̾ŵ̸͕͂s̷̼͍̾͑̏ ̵̲̿a̷͕͘ͅr̶̿̓͠ͅe̵̤͉͘ ̴̺̗͉͆̃́l̷͖̄i̴͙̩͂̇̍k̷̲̹͑̈́̕e̵̤̋ ̸̥̣̈́y̷̟̖̟͝ȏ̴̠̍ư̶̝͈̜r̶̳͒ ̸̡̺͍͋ć̴̮ǒ̶̧͕̠̈́c̶̱̼̬̃̏k̴̹̈:̵̛͓͖̠̏ ̴̙̊̄ͅṕ̷̬̅í̷̺̩̮̏t̶̥̍i̴̛̗̗ḟ̸̨͍̉̈u̶̪͆͂̆l̸̨̳̼̚l̵͎͕͓̏͘ÿ̶̜̥̮́̾ ̶̻̓̈́͘s̴͔̣̥̈́k̶̨̙̖̎̇͆į̷̞̗̒̇͝n̷̘̫͛n̷̩̘̞̏y̵̢͇͘ ̸̣̟͈̂͘ā̵͖͎̉n̷̻̠͆̾d̷̮̈̈́͠ ̷̛̠̫̕w̶͆͜e̷͚͖̬̓͂̋ã̵͖̯̤̚k̶͎̮̑͝.” The archer hesitates, but ultimately doesn’t seem phased by the Mockery. “Shit,” Molly mutters. He has one last intimidation tactic. He cuts the back of his neck with Summer’s Dance. The golden blade comes alive with blue electric energy.

Another one of the archers gets a crossbow bolt to the shoulder. The lollipop whacks him in the back of the head. A burst of redish-orange light indicates that wherever Caleb is he’s setting something on fire. Jester runs up onto the ship to help.

“Yasha, take out the rest of them,” Fjord says. “We can take it from here.”

Yasha looks to Molly. Molly nods. “Go have some fun,” he says. “I’ll be okay.”

With that settled, Yasha charges up after Jester. Fjord holds the edge of his falchion under the other half-orc’s chin. Molly does the same with Summer’s Dance. “Listen here,” Fjord says. “I didn’t want it to go down like this. We honestly came here to talk, exchange information. You guys didn’t have to go and be—”

There’s no time to react to what happens next. The magic holding the leader down fades. Even though he gets hit by both Fjord’s and Molly’s blades, he still lunges to his feet and drives his sword up into Molly’s stomach. Molly staggers backwards. He’s alive, but he’s losing a lot of blood. Fjord whips his sword around in one furious swipe and the leader’s head bounces onto the dock.

Caduceus. NOW.” Fjord glares at Molly, one finger pointed back to land. However, Caduceus isn’t there. “What the… Um, okay, Molly, could you go find Caduceus, please?”

“On it.” Molly turns and jogs back to where he last saw the firbolg. He’s exhausted, dizzy, and it feels like that sword hit something important. He can’t even jog for long because it makes him cough, and when he does he coughs up blood.

There’s a sharp pain in his back. Molly has a split second to realize he’s falling. His last thought is to try to fall onto his side so the arrow shafts won’t get whacked further into him. He doesn’t know if it works or not, because everything fades to nothing before he hits the ground.

Chapter Text

Everything is dark and numb. Molly is vaguely aware of a new ache in his back. He can hear his heartbeat in his ears. It slows, distorts, until it sounds like…like…

Wings.

Molly doesn’t want to have to go through this again. He knows what a resurrection spell costs. They’ll either drain their pockets to pay for it or blame themselves for not being able to bring him back again. If he could move he would put his arms up to ward off the oncoming wings. He can’t see anything, but he feels the presence approaching.

A light sensation on his cheek, like a brush of fingertips or a gentle kiss. “Hey buddy. I know we had a good time together, but your friends still need you.” The voice is soft and familiar. It’s a man. In the fading light of his mind’s eye Molly sees the shadow of what might be a half-elf. His first thought is of Gustav, but the build is different, and Gustav didn’t have massive black wings. The shadow smiles. The rush of wings hastens back into a heartbeat. “C’mon, Molly. Time to wake up.”

Molly comes to with a gasp. There’s another arrow in his back, right between the ribs. “Ugh, rude,” Molly mutters.

“Molly!” Caduceus has reappeared. He falls to his knees and applies a healing spell. His hands are shaking. “I’m so sorry. Mr. Fjord said we weren’t supposed to hurt anyone, but then—”

“It’s okay.” Molly reaches up to pat Caduceus on the arm. “You didn’t abandon us. That’s good.” As he pushes himself up the periapt around his neck swings forward. Molly notices the glow in its gem right as it fades. “Thanks,” he says to both his saviors. He looks around the dock. It doesn’t look like he was out for too long. The major difference is that Yasha has gone into a wings-out rage and she’s rampaging across the deck of the ship. She cuts down one archer with a swing of her sword then continues on to the other two.

Shouts from nearby draw Molly’s attention. A small cluster of Zolezzo are running towards their pier. Molly counts three torches, but there are at least two others in the group. The Mighty Nein are ahead in the fight, from what Molly can see, but they might not have the strength to fight off the local guards as well, nor would it benefit them to get on the law’s bad side. Molly picks up his swords and uses Summer’s Dance to will himself toward the oncoming Zolezzo.

There are six of them, and none look amused by the sudden appearance of a tiefling in their path. One of them draws his weapon.

“Who are you?” the Zolezzo demands. “What’s going on here?”

“Thank the Mother you’re here,” Molly says. He’s not sure if Melora is the main deity of Nicodranas, but there’s a lighthouse shaped like her, so she’s the first one he thinks to invoke. “My friends and I came here looking for our crewmate and these brigands attacked us!”

The Zolezzo mutter amongst themselves, looking from one another to Molly to the chaos on the ship to Caduceus still crouched on the ground looking utterly out of place. Their leader turns to the rest and says, “You two, hold him. You three, come with me.”

The two he indicated flank Molly. “Sheathe your weapons,” one says.

Molly throws his head back with an exasperated groan. Nobody trusts him tonight, it’s terrible. He does as he’s told and allows the Zolezzo to put him in manacles while the others go to investigate the fight. “Y’know,” Molly says, “if this had happened a few months ago, I’d be more upset. At this point I’m getting used to manacles. In fact I think I’m developing a thing for them.” He winks at the cuter of the two Zolezzo.

“Found yourself in trouble with the law recently, have you?” the cute one asks.

“Oh, trouble is a relative term. I mean, look at me. I’m full of arrows and my friends are getting the shit beaten out of them by pirates. Certainly more troublesome than being short on cash on Tithing Day. Still, beats the time I got thrown in jail for flirting with a magistrate’s wife.” In a loud whisper, Molly adds, “He was jealous because I’d already slept with him the night before.”

Both Zolezzo stare at him in disbelief. “You sure like to talk,” the cute one says. “We should send you to Felderwin. You could fertilize the entire Tillage with the bullshit coming out of your mouth.”

“Fine. Then I won’t tell you how a slew a giant spider by insulting it to death.” At least that one was true, as far-fetched as it sounded.

There’s no response. Molly watches the other four Zolezzo join the fight. Fortunately it’s clear which ones are the pirates and which ones are the Mighty Nein. The Zolezzo try to break everyone up. Molly wants to shout for his friends to stop and show they mean no harm. But then one Zolezzo goes up to Yasha, and she isn’t in a great mood. She turns to him with a roar and swings her blade at him. That draws the others, including the leader who had stopped to talk to Fjord. Soon three of them are trying to subdue her, and both the Zolezzo watching Molly sprint into action, dragging Molly with them.

When they pass Caduceus, the firbolg jogs along with them. “What’s going on?” he asks.

Molly struggles to keep pace and turn to Caduceus at the same time. “I dunno. Was hoping you knew.”

Caduceus shakes his head. “I stopped knowing what was going on about five minutes ago.”

There’s a splash somewhere nearby. Molly looks around to see what caused it, but he gets yanked along before he can make anything out. Fjord stands at the edge of the plank, watching the chaos on the dock with trepidation. The Zolezzo stop short next to him. The less cute one asks, “Are you with these people?”

“If you mean her, yeah.” Fjord picks at his teeth. “Molly, do you know how to snap her out of this?”

Molly cups his hands around his mouth as best as he can with his wrists shackled. “Yasha! Those guys are on our side! Leave them alone!”

“I got this,” Caduceus says. He waves his hand and mumbles something Molly doesn’t understand. Yasha’s wings fade. She lowers her sword. The three Zolezzo tackle her and put her in manacles, but she does nothing to stop them.

Nott dashes out from her hiding spot. “Where’s Jester?” she demands.

Fjord pales. “I don’t know, I didn’t see her.”

One of the Zolezzo on the deck runs to the opposite side of the ship. “Carl fell into the water!” he exclaims. “He was fighting with one of them and they fell overboard!”

Everyone on the dock rushes up onto the ship. Sure enough, the water is churning as armored hands flail and claw at the surface.

“Oh no, Carl!” the Zolezzo leader exclaims. “He can’t swim!”

Fjord whips around to stare, his eyes wide but his brow furrowed. “What do you mean he can’t swim? How can someone who guards the docks not know how to swim?”

“That’s why he does land patrols instead of the sea patrols!”

There’s a handy length of rope that the Zolezzo toss down to their comrade. Jester is nowhere to be seen. That is, until her body floats to the surface. Unmoving. Nott screams.

Fjord immediately dives into the water and grabs her. He gets her head above the water. No response. “Jester? Jester, wake up.” There’s panic in his voice. He gently shakes her.

Nothing.

“CAD!” Fjord’s bellow is like a second clap of thunder. He wraps his free arm around the rope. “Pull us up! NOW!

With everyone pulling together, they get Fjord and Jester up onto the deck. Nott dances nervously on her toes, moving back and forth between approaching the edge to watch the progress and darting back away from the water. When Fjord hoists Jester up over the edge Nott grabs her and pulls her over the railing. Caduceus is right there with a healing spell. There’s no change. Fjord puts both hands over her chest and pushes down a few times.

“C’mon, Jes. Breathe.” Fjord leans down to blow air into her lungs. Molly doesn’t know if he’s imagining it or if Fjord’s lips linger on Jester’s a split second longer than necessary. He pushes on her chest again then his mouth is back on hers. Jester jolts awake and coughs water into Fjord’s face.

“Jester!” Nott exclaims. As soon as Jester sits up, Nott throws her arms around her. “Thank the gods, you’re alive!”

Jester hacks up more water. “Ugh, yeah, I’m fine.” She glares at Carl. “This asshole tackled me! We fell into the water and he kicked me down to the bottom and I accidentally inhaled. Then I tried to swim back up and he pushed me again!”

“I’m sorry, very very sorry,” Carl stammers. “I was in a panic because of that…that scary woman, and I lost my balance. I can’t swim, and I thought you were trying to drag me down!”

Fjord pats Jester on the back. She coughs a few more times and pulls a soaked handkerchief from her pocket to blow her nose. “You okay, Jes?” Fjord asks.

“I’m fine.” Jester smiles a bright yet shaky smile at Fjord. “Thank you for saving me.”

Beau and Caleb emerge from the inside of the ship. Fjord assures the Zolezzo that they’re okay. Everyone gets put in manacles regardless, including Marius, while the Zolezzo figure out exactly what happened.

Fjord does most of the talking. Beau, Caleb, Jester, and Caduceus contribute a statement or two each. Molly doubts they’ll believe anything he says at this point, and keeps his mouth shut. He sits next to Yasha while everything gets sorted and they chat quietly to each other.

As it turns out, the captain of the ship and his crew were wanted for acts of piracy. They had bribed their way into port for this meeting, which gets a few dock workers in trouble and puts some points into the Mighty Nein’s favor for stopping them. There was even a bounty on half the crew, which they are told they can collect in the morning. Eventually Marius figures out he stands a better chance of survival with them and changes his story to fit theirs. This is the only time when Molly chimes in.

“This is why I never liked you, you rat. The minute you think the rest of us are in trouble you turn tail and pretend you never knew us, but when the money’s good you come running back. Gentlemen, if you’re going to throw anyone in jail tonight, please make it him. It’ll save me many a future headache.”

No one goes to jail except the crewman of The Mist that survived. The one who was trying to destroy the ship’s documents has several broken bones and some burns and the two remaining archers are battered and bloody. Jester and Caduceus heal them enough to turn them in then provide healing for everyone else, Mighty Nein and Zolezzo alike. Coupled with Caduceus being his ever-pleasant self, they manage to come off as genuinely well-intentioned people who found themselves in an unfortunate situation where they had to act defensively. After a stern talking-to about taking the law into their own hands, they are set free to go along with Marius.

“You and I are going to have a good chat tomorrow,” Fjord tells Marius. “Meet me at the Lavish Chateau just after sun-up, got it?”

Marius chuckles with a nervous grin. “And why should I?”

Fjord holds up the hilt of his falchion. “Because I have what Avantika was looking for.”

That does it. Marius’s eyes go wide. He nods fervently. “Tomorrow. Lavish Chateau. Sun-up. Yes. See you then.”

As Marius turns to run home, Caleb steps into his path. He holds up the “lucky rock” he toys with sometimes and presses it to Marius’s forehead. Molly has seen him do this before. This is going to be funny. Caleb stares at Marius like he can see into the half-elf’s soul. He mutters a few words as he maintains his intense expression. “There. Now I will know if you try to run away or tell any other pirates about us. And I will be able to find you, like that!” He snaps for emphasis.

Marius is already shaking. Caleb’s little performance gets him cowering. “I’ll be there!” he squeaks. “I-I-I won’t tell anyone, promise!”

Caleb nods. “Then we shall see you in the morning.”

Molly waits until Marius is out of sight to laugh. “Caleb dear, didn’t you try to convince us yesterday that you’re not the intimidating one in the group? For fuck’s sake, soon we won’t be able to go anywhere without at least one person recognizing us and pissing their pants when they see you.”

Beau and Jester both snort. Even Fjord chuckles as he rolls his eyes. Caleb, on the other hand, locks up. His eyes take on that glassy “No one’s home, leave me alone” look. It hasn’t come up recently, but Molly recalls that Caleb doesn’t like the thought of being recognized, or noticed at all for that matter. Whatever he’s on the run from, if it could reach him all the way out here then perhaps Molly should try to figure out what it is. At the very least he can keep an eye out and warn Caleb if there might be someone dangerous around.

Nott takes Caleb’s hand. “Don’t listen to him, Caleb. I think you’re very charming. He’s just jealous because you’re even scarier than his Devil’s Tongue when you want to be.”

Molly barks out a laugh. “Oh no, you’ve figured it out! Caleb, all this time I’ve been wanting you to teach me how to be like you. Please oh please oh pretty please.” He bats his eyelashes at Caleb with his most stupidly cute smile.

Caleb doesn’t respond, but his eyes come back into focus. It’s something. However, if Caleb had ears like Caduceus then judging by the expression on his face they’d be hanging low enough to hit the floor. Why is it that so few races have body parts for expressing their feelings? Tieflings and dragonborn have their tails, firbolgs and tabaxi have their ears, Kiri had her feathers, but humans and all those others just have regular body language. It’s not impossible to understand, but it could be easier.

There’s one more bit of good news before they all turn in for the night. Caleb and Beau managed to stop the one guy before he could burn everything and they stuffed Caleb’s many pockets with as many documents as they could grab. Fjord skims through them with delight.

“This is great! These are maps to where this Avantika was planning to go! This letter says this ship was supposed to meet hers in Inkclaw Reef after they came and got the ‘Cloven Crystal’. That’s actually not far from here. If we can hire a crew, we could go there ourselves!” Fjord pauses. He looks around the group. “That is, if it’s what you guys want to do.”

Beau shrugs. “I’m kinda curious as to how this turns out.”

“Yeah,” Jester pipes up. “And you’ve been wanting to learn about where your powers come from. Sounds like this Avantika might know things.”

“Frankly I’d like to get as far from the war as possible,” Molly says. “Also I’ve never been sailing before. Could be fun.”

Nott raises her hand. “Does that mean we would have to be out on the water for a long time?”

Fjord nods. “Yeah, days. Maybe weeks.”

Nott shudders. “Y’know, I’ll stay here. I can hang out with Jester’s mother, keep an eye on the cart and the horses, see you guys when you get back.”

“We’re not going to abandon you here, Nott,” Caleb says. “You will be safe with us.”

“We can tie a rope to you,” Jester says. “So if you fall off we can pull you back up. We can even make the rope short enough that you’d never touch the water.”

“But…” Nott looks to Fjord. “Didn’t your ship sink?”

“Uh…well, it did, but that was sabotage.” Fjord leafs through the pages again. “This does seem time sensitive. I want us all to be one-hundred percent okay with it, but there isn’t much time for discussion. We can talk in the morning, when Marius comes by.”

Molly yawns with a stretch. “I’m gonna cast my vote as ‘sure why not’ right now and sleep in tomorrow.” He scratches at the holes in his clothes where the arrows hit him. He’ll have to get Jester to mend them again. “I think I’ve earned it.”

“You and Jester both,” Fjord agrees. “We all need sleep for now. Tomorrow, we’ll plan.”

- - - -

Molly dreams he’s in bed with a gorgeous dark-haired half-elf. Black feathers are scattered over the mattress. Just as things are getting interesting, the half-elf points out a thread coming from Molly’s chest that ascends into the sky. Molly hadn’t noticed it, but now that he has he is filled with dread. He looks up. There is only a void above him. A porcelain-white hand reaches from the void and tugs on his thread. Molly is yanked upwards. There is nothing around him but the hand and his thread.

Whispers filter into the void, followed by images and insight into things Molly never knew existed, and yet he has always known. This knowledge has always been inside him, waiting for him to remember. There’s something out there, something he can’t see but he feels the shape of it like an echo. Molly cries out in agony as pain blooms across his body. The eyes on his skin are bleeding. The blood doesn’t run; it pools and spreads until he’s covered in it. It’s in his mouth. It’s in his eyes. He’s choking on it.

A flash of light. Within its overwhelming brilliance there’s a shade of amethyst. The blood that was growing cold now burns. The thread snaps. Molly falls.

And falls.

And falls.

Molly jolts awake, flailing to grab hold of something. Every nerve in his body is on edge. With some chagrin he notices one of his nails has torn a hole in the bedsheet. There aren’t any bloodstains, though, only patches of sweat. That’s a relief. He’s alone in the room, which isn’t so nice. He lies back and catches his breath. He’s already starting to forget what had him so frightened. It was something to do with the “memories” he has sometimes, he knows that. Wherever they come from, he wishes they would stay there. They’re no fun at all and they just remind him of things he tries hard not to think about.

The door opens. In walks Caduceus. He smiles at Molly. “Ah! You’re already awake. That’s good.”

Molly wills himself to breathe normally again. “Good morning, Mr. Clay.”

“Good morning. Big news.”

“Oh?” Molly sits up. “Do tell.”

“Jester’s mother bought us a ship.”

Molly’s jaw drops. “Are you fucking serious?”

“Not only that, it’s the one from last night. Apparently she knows some people who know some people, and since they had already taken all the incriminating stuff off, it was just an empty ship with no owner, so now we own it.”

The lingering tingle in his limbs makes Molly wonder if he’s still dreaming. “So wait, Jester’s mom paid the people who took the pirate’s ship to let us have it?”

“Well, while you were asleep Fjord and the others had a talk with that LePual fellow and there was an agreement that we’re going to go meet this Captain Avantika so we can…um…” Caduceus furrows his brow and waggles his ears. “Actually I’m not sure what the goal is, but Fjord was talking about hiring a ship, and Jester told her mother, and then her mother bought us a ship to use, so that’s nice.”

“That is…very nice of her, indeed.” Molly rubs the crust of sleep from his eyes. “What time is it, by the way?”

“After breakfast, but not lunch yet. If you’re hungry I’m sure they can make you something downstairs. Jester’s mother is also paying for the rest of our meals while we’re here.”

Molly lets out a low whistle. “Damn, okay then. I’ll be right down.”

Caduceus joins him for a light brunch. At least, Caduceus’s meal is light. There’s no shortage of interesting fruits and vegetables in Nicodranas, as well as other exotic fare, and Molly wants to try it all before they move on. Caduceus has a small bowl of sliced fruit, while Molly’s plate is piled with cooked meats, soft cheese, glistening jam over mouth-wateringly fresh bread, and also a few pieces of fruit that he doesn’t know the names of because the exact wording of his order was “Surprise me.”

Jester, Beau, and Yasha come downstairs and join them. Molly asks for details and it turns out that, yes, the Ruby of the Sea did in fact buy them a fucking pirate ship. Jester had gone to try to contact the Gentleman with her again, which didn’t work out so well. When Jester lamented that maybe she wasn’t cool enough for the Gentleman to think she was his daughter, that got her and Marion talking about Fjord’s plans to meet Avantika, and Marion offered to fund their expedition.

“I told her to save her money, since we’re getting that bounty today,” Jester says. “But she wanted to help so she wrote a voucher that Fjord can take to this guy that she had me Send a message to and that guy says we can have it.”

Molly washes down his mouthful of food with a swig of fruit juice. The sweet tang is like electricity in his cheeks. He’s disappointed that he’s almost full when there’s still so much on his plate. “So we’re doing this then?”

Jester nods with a big grin. “Yep! Fjord left a couple hours ago to buy the ship, collect our bounty, and order supplies. We should be ready to go by tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow?”

“Yeah,” Beau says. “‘Cuz, like, we didn’t go to jail, but that doesn’t mean the law actually likes us, and Fjord wants to go meet Avantika ASAP, so the sooner we get out of here, the better.”

“And what are you going to do, Yasha?”

Yasha shrugs. “Come with, I guess.”

Molly tilts his head. “Didn’t the Storm Lord want you to go somewhere?”

Another shrug. “I saw an island. I don’t know which one. Could be the one we’re going to.”

They sit around and talk a while longer. Caduceus eventually excuses himself to go upstairs and prepare. Shortly after, Fjord returns. He says a lot of things that sound like his errands went well, though Molly detects a hint of anxiety behind the excitement. Then there’s the look in Fjord’s eyes when he glances at Molly. The others have it, too. They’re all avoiding The Question again, he can feel it. He wasn’t even really dead this time. They’ve all been in the same situation. The fact that they all get more skittish when it’s him is irksome.

Yasha also decides she’s going to go pack her things, and Molly immediately offers to go with her. Up in the room she’s sharing with Beau, they have time to talk about everything that’s happening. Molly does most of the talking, as usual. He talks about his concerns that Fjord doesn’t know what he’s getting himself into, that none of them do. That was never something that stopped Molly from doing things before, but in this case they might actually be getting into something dangerous.

Yasha’s response is, “Well, this group has dealt with plenty of challenges and we’ve all survived so far.” She pauses. Molly knows what she’s thinking and he also knows she won’t say it out loud because she knows he already knows she’s thinking it.

To change the subject Molly playfully elbows her. “Hey, maybe we should strike out on our own and go look for this island you’re supposed to find instead?”

Yasha raises one eyebrow. “Why?”

“Well, we don’t know how long this quest of Fjord’s is going to take, and I want to make sure you’re going where you need to go.”

“Um, thank you, Molly, but like I said, we could already be going there.”

Molly turns up the cute. “Pleeease?”

“Molly.” Uh-oh. It’s her stern-yet-concerned voice. She’s onto him. “Why don’t you want to go with the others?”

Molly’s tail lashes from side to side as he thinks of an answer. He could layer on the bullshit. He could dodge the question. He could lie his teeth off. But Yasha doesn’t fall for his deceit anymore these day. “Because,” is all he says.

Yasha crosses her arms and looks at him expectantly.

“Okay, fine.” Molly folds his own arms with a pout. “I don’t think I want to be around them, for now. You and I can go off, have some adventures, then meet up with them like you always do somehow and see if we want to join them again.”

“This is because of last night, isn’t it?” It’s hypothetical. She knows him too well. It’s why he wanted to go with her in the first place. “As I recall your vote was ‘sure why not’. What changed?”

Molly winces. “Sort of. Look, I just…had time to think and now I want to do my own thing, but I don’t want to be on my own, you know?”

Yasha nods, but she doesn’t seem satisfied with that answer.

“I don’t like that they look at me and see the man who died. Who keeps dying, apparently. Seriously, can I go one battle without getting knocked out?” Molly rolls his eyes and shakes his head. There’s another confession welling up in his throat. He wishes he could swallow it, like he usually does. At this point, though, he might as well say it. “I had a dream last night. I can’t even remember it clearly, but…I woke up scared. It was like the old nightmares I used to get. I know someone went into the dirt before I crawled out of it, and, thanks to Cree, I have somewhat of an idea why, but that makes it worse. It means there is a reason I have those intrusive thoughts. There is someone or something out there that knows what I am and why. And, well, one of these days I’m going to have to die for good because of—” he gestures to the red eyes hidden in his tattoos, “—you know, and I… I don’t think this group will let me.”

“And you think if you come with me I’ll let you die?” Yasha puts a hand on his shoulder. “Molly, you’re my best friend. If anything happened to you I’d…I’d…” The blood vessels in her eyes pulse black for a heartbeat until she regains her grip. “I’m not a healer, but I’d find a way to save you.”

Even Yasha doesn’t understand. It’s disappointing. Then again, Yasha has a history with death. He gets why she doesn’t want to go through that again. His mind flashes to Beau and he wishes the best for both of them. Beau — that pessimistic, sarcastic, asshole of a monk — has a tender side she rarely lets out. He saw it when the animal vendor passed them. She practically melted over those tiger cubs and that puppy. As bleak as her worldview is, she wouldn’t let him go either.

There’s only one person in their group who might be able to see Molly’s reasoning. Molly has some questions for him anyway. He pats Yasha’s hand. “Okay, think it over, though. I’d be happy to go with you, if you feel like striking out on your own again. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go talk to Caduceus.”

Chapter Text

Molly walks into the room he’s sharing with Fjord and Caduceus. They’re both there, Fjord sitting on the makeshift bed he’s crafted on the floor and Caduceus sitting on the room's sole bed he’s been sharing with Molly. Fjord appears startled by Molly’s entrance, but Caduceus keeps talking.

“Either way I think you’ve been doing alright. A few scrapes here and there, but that’s to be expected.” Caduceus nods to Fjord before turning his attention to Molly. “Hey there.”

“Hello,” Molly says. “Hey, Fjord, mind if I talk to Caduceus for a bit? Alone?”

Fjord narrows his eyes. “What do you need to talk about?”

“If it were your business I would have invited you to the conversation.” When Fjord doesn’t move, Molly locks eyes with him and start to undress, starting with his pants.

“Gah!” Fjord exclaims, putting one hand up to shield his eyes. “Geez, okay, I’m leaving.” Under his breath he adds, “Needed to go talk to Beau anyway…”

When it’s just the two of them, Caduceus smiles to Molly. “What can I help you with?”

Molly puts his hands in his pockets. “For starters, I’d like to know what you meant when you said no one had kissed you like I had in a while.” Starting with the weird question. Maybe he was stalling, maybe he wanted to get that out of the way before they got lost in the heavy stuff. Didn’t matter. It was out there now.

“Ah.” Caduceus adjusts himself to sit up straighter and folds his hands in his lap. “Y’see, the people who came to visit my family were almost always there because of tragedy. In addition to handling their dead, we also provided…comfort.” A muscle under his eye twitches, but he’s still smiling. “Some people just needed a cup of tea or a nice meal, some needed a hug or a shoulder to cry on, and some people…had more, uh, intimate coping mechanisms.”

That was not the answer Molly expected. He figured maybe Caduceus had had a crush on someone years ago that didn’t work out for whatever reason. He didn’t think his family had offered that as a service. His jaw drops. “Did you fuck people to help them grieve?”

Caduceus wrinkles his nose. “What? Oh, no. No no no no. We drew the line there. I meant they wanted to be held or cuddled. We had a bed specifically for that and everything. Well, it was more of a couch, but it was pretty big. Either way, some people need to feel close to someone nice when they’re sad, y’know?” His expression sours, ears drooping low enough to nearly touch his shoulders. “I did have one person try to cross the line with me and…I didn’t like it. I reacted, uh, a little hastily. They were firmly asked to leave after that and I was… My family decided it would be better if I stuck to making tea and lending an ear when needed.”

“Damn. I’m sorry that happened to you.” Molly sits on the opposite end of the bed. “I um, was going to ask you something else, but now that you’ve brought it up…”

“…Yes?”

Molly fidgets with the edge of the bedsheet. “Has… Did you ever comfort someone who…who grieved for the loss of their own death?”

Caduceus stares into space for a moment. “Can’t say that I have.” His eyes turn back to Molly. They have that look in them, as though they’re watching something happen inside Molly that he can’t see himself. “Ah.” Caduceus nods. “I understand.”

“…You do?”

“Sure. Life has its cycle, and going against it is…uncomfortable, I suppose. The Mother gives us the ability to revive people whose work is incomplete or who are killed unfairly, like you, but sometimes, even when it’s not your time, you consider yourself more prepared for death than for whatever fate has in store for you.” Caduceus hangs his head. “Perhaps it was your time, or perhaps you would have preferred that it were. I should have asked beforehand if this was what you wanted, but the others were, uh, rather insistent on having you back, and I did see you in my visions, so…”

Molly’s tail perks. “Did you now?”

“Well, not exactly you, I suppose. I saw this.” Caduceus gestures to the side of his neck. “A peacock feather with a red eye. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to bring you back until they unfurled that tapestry and I saw it on you. I thought—” He cuts off then strokes his short beard. “Time will tell, I suppose.” He looks back into Molly’s eyes. His gaze isn’t quite as piercing, but it still sees more than what’s right in front of him. “But for now we have to deal with our situation the best we can. I’m guessing I intrigued you when I mentioned ‘intimate coping mechanisms’?”

“I’d be lying if I said no.” Molly adds to himself that Caduceus would have known he was lying, too. The truth might get him something nice this time.

Caduceus nods with a smile. “I think we have some time before either of us is needed elsewhere. Is that alright with you?”

“Absolutely.”

Caduceus pulls off his shirt. His elbows make things somewhat awkward, but seeing his lean stretching torso and his long pink hair tumbling out of the shirt when he finally gets his head through is still a treat.

“Should I take my clothes off, too?” Molly asks.

“If that makes you more comfortable,” Caduceus replies. “I just took my shirt off because, well, uh, not that I don’t think you’d be careful, but I really like this shirt and I’d rather not have to repair it if your horns tear a hole in it.”

Molly shrugs. “That’s fair.” He takes off his shirt as well anyway. Nothing like some good skin-to-skin contact. Or is this skin-to-fur? He’s looking forward to finding out. “How do you want to do this?”

Caduceus smiles. “I generally leave that up to the other person. After all, they know what will make them feel better more than I do.” He scoots over on the bed to make room. “I could hold you, you could hold me, you could put your head on my chest, I could put my head on yours, it’s up to you.”

It’s like being in a brothel, but with cuddling. Molly likes that idea. He has a few other ideas. “Why don’t we…start…with…” The issue is he isn’t sure which idea he wants to do first. He taps one finger against his cheek pensively. “Considering the size difference, why don’t you hold me first?”

“Alright.” Caduceus rolls to lay on his side. He props himself up on one elbow and uses his other hand to sweep his hair out of the way.

Once the both of them figure out a suitable positioning, Molly aligns himself full-body against Caduceus, his forehead and the front of his horns resting in the thick pink hair on Caduceus’s chest. Caduceus holds Molly close. The rest of him isn’t furry, not really. It’s a short fine fur, not as velvety as a horse’s and not as fluffy as Frumpkin’s, but it feels nice against Molly’s skin. It’s warm as well. Molly is used to being the most warm-blooded person in a group, but Caduceus radiates a comfortable heat. Perhaps this is why so many people ask for hugs when they first meet Caduceus. They can tell by looking at him how nice it is to be close to him like this.

Caduceus gently cups the back of Molly’s head in his large warm hand, his fingers weaving through Molly’s hair from the base of his neck. He gently scritches in small circles. Molly reflexively melts. The tingles radiating from Caduceus’s touch spread down his spine and put every nerve at ease. He hums a moan of approval.

“Yeah, this is popular,” Caduceus says softly. He continues for a few quiet blissful minutes before asking, “Do you mind people touching your ears?”

“Nn-mn. Go for it.”

The tingles stop and Molly’s head goes cold as Caduceus moves his hand. It’s disappointing for a brief moment. Then Caduceus starts tenderly rubbing Molly’s ear. Molly lets out a more solid moan and nuzzles Caduceus’s chest.

“I guess you like that, huh?”

“Mmmmmmmnnf.” Molly wants to tell him to never stop. He could lie here in Caduceus’s embrace and enjoy his touch until survival requires him to get up and find food. Even then he’d rather someone bring him the food so he doesn’t have to leave. As he’s pondering who he’d most like to appoint for that task, Caduceus moves his hand again. He weaves most of his fingers back into Molly’s hair, but his thumb massages the base of Molly's horn. No one has done that before. Molly can’t see why not because it feels so oddly satisfying.

“Is this okay?” Caduceus asks. “I’ve known a few deer who enjoyed it, especially during shedding season. Didn’t know if horns and antlers were similar that way.”

“Feels good,” Molly says. “Didn’t know there were many deer who needed emotional support.”

Caduceus snorts a soft laugh. His breath ruffles across the top of Molly’s head. “You don’t need to be under emotional duress to like being touched. It’s perfectly natural to cuddle and rub and sleep against one another. Even solitary animals like it once in a while.” His thumb goes still against the base of Molly’s horn and his fingertips resume their scritching. “You don’t strike me as a solitary animal.”

Molly sighs contentedly. “No?”

“Nah. You like the comfort of a big group. Strength in numbers. But you’re still…ah, what’s the best way to put this…” Caduceus trails off in word and action for a moment. He picks back up once he regains his thought. “Outwardly independent. That’s it. You like pretending you can handle things on your own because you’re hesitant to make emotional connections. You’re drawn to other people who have those connections, though.”

Molly could have argued against that. He could have told Caduceus he had no idea what he was talking about. He wasn’t there when they had to kill Kylre, when Toya awoke screaming in his arms. He wasn’t there when they woke up and all they could find of half their party was a smear of blood in the grass. But Caduceus didn’t say Molly was incapable of making those connections himself, only that he was hesitant, and considering how much pain Molly felt when any of his friends were in danger, was it any wonder he would want to protect himself from that?

Caduceus’s hand slides away from Molly’s horn. It caresses down his neck and shoulder, delicate yet inquisitive. “Can you feel these?” Caduceus asks.

“Feel what? Oh. The scars? No, not really.” They itch when they’re fresh, but he has so many now that he barely notices them.

“Have you tried healing them?”

“I mean, they’re already healed, aren’t they? That’s what scars are. They show where you’ve healed.”

“My mother could remove scars.” Caduceus presses his fingers along the scars a little harder, but still gentle. “It wasn’t why people came to our temple, but she could still do it. Came in handy with so many children, what with us running around and playing in the woods all the time.”

Molly chuckles. “I can imagine.” All he can do is imagine. He never had a childhood. He had no brothers or sisters. A family, yes, but no one to play childish games with. He isn’t sad about it. Frankly if anyone ever came up to him and addressed him as “brother” or “son” he would be terrified. It was hard enough bullshitting answers to Cree. No way he could do that with someone who thought they’d grown up with him. No, this life was much simpler and he wanted to keep it that way. In fact, there was only one major regret that came to mind…

“Do you think I could try healing one of yours?” Caduceus says. “Not all, just one. It’d be nice to know if I can.”

“Just one,” Molly says. He pushes himself away. It’s as uncomfortable as getting out of a hot spring into harsh winter air. He lies on his back. His fingers trace the jagged patch of pale skin on his chest. “Could you get rid of this one?”

Caduceus props himself back up on one elbow. He places his hand over the scar. His palm has no fur, just regular skin. It’s warm and the pressure feels good regardless. Molly would be aroused if he weren’t thinking about how he got that scar.

“It’s pretty big,” Caduceus says. “Nasty too. I could try, but I don’t know how much of it I’ll get.”

“I trust you.”

Caduceus nods. He closes his eyes in concentration. The warmth of his hand takes on a different tone. The edges of the scar itch. Molly shuts his eyes as well and wills the damn thing to at least get smaller. He wonders if this will be like one of Caleb’s spells where he has to sit there and cast for ten minutes to do it properly. From what he’s seen, clerics’ spells work faster, but then again he’s never seen a cleric try to heal away scars before.

It definitely hasn’t been ten minutes when Caduceus declares himself done. “That’s the best I can do, for now.” He pouts with a sigh. “Should have drawn around the edge of it before I started. I’m not sure if that did anything.”

“It did,” Molly assures him. “See? This part here used to have a kind of spiky edge to it, but now the border is smoother. And this part used to jut out a little more.” The difference is subtle, but Molly has stared at that scar enough times to know some of its details. He had thought about incorporating it into a tattoo, but he’d be willing to let Caduceus remove it. At this rate it would take weeks or months. However, a few minutes a day with Caduceus’s hands on him doesn’t sound awful in the slightest.

Caduceus shakes his head. “Maybe someday I’ll be able to do it. My sisters were learning how. I do what I can.”

“You can do plenty,” Molly says. “I could never do some of the stuff you do. And you’ve never been out adventuring, yet you’ve been able to keep up with our lot of maniacs fine so far. I would have been fucked without you last night. I’m really glad you came along with us.”

“I’m glad you came along and got me.” Caduceus’s ears and nose are a darker shade. Molly is sure now that’s how he blushes.

Molly gestures for Caduceus to lay his head on his shoulder. “We’ve still got some time, if you want.”

Caduceus smiles. Once again moving his hair out of the way, he snuggles up to Molly, head on his chest. He has to tuck his legs in to remain on the bed, but Molly is accommodating. He’s no stranger to sharing a bed with long-legged partners. He does like them tall, after all. His tail curves up from between his legs to twine around Caduceus’s. He kisses the top of Caduceus’s head. Caduceus takes Molly’s hand and kisses it in return.

Molly smiles as he relaxes into the bed. One arm around Caduceus’s shoulders, he strokes his hair with the other hand. It’s fuzzy where Caduceus keeps it shorn short, but the rest of his hair grows thick and tangled like pink ivy vines. He has a pleasant earthy smell to him. It’s not the smell of dirt — which still makes Molly’s chest feel too tight sometimes — but after a few deep breaths to really get a sense of it he determines that Caduceus smells like a forest after an autumn rain, a combination of sweet decay and persisting life mixed with the last warm breeze before winter.

This is exactly what he needed. The Mighty Nein have grown more comfortable around each other, but nowhere near as comfortable as Molly’s carnival family were. On cold nights they’d all pile into one tent for warmth if they had to camp on the road. No one had issues with spontaneous hugs or playful punches or just being in one another’s personal spaces, if all involved parties were in the mood for that. Then Molly was introduced to sex and he found a whole new way to take pleasure in someone’s company. That’s sort of what’s happening now, except they’ve skipped forward to the part where they’re quietly basking in each other’s presence after a shared intense experience. He’s mildly disappointed there was no sex — Molly has seen the firbolg in all his glory a few times and hnnnng — but he understands and respects Caduceus’s boundaries.

There’s still the question Molly came here to ask. He doesn’t want to ruin this moment with somber conversation, and Caduceus sort of answered already. He mentioned he “should have asked” if Molly wanted to be raised or not. Perhaps that means, if it came to that, Caduceus would prevent the others from bringing him back until he had confirmed with whatever remnant of Molly there was to communicate with that he’d rather not be dead for now.

Caduceus also said he saw something like Molly’s tattoo in his dreams. Molly isn’t one to put faith in destinies. “Destiny” is a word people use to feel better about the way things turn out or to excuse the means to their ends. If there’s one thing Molly has learned telling fortunes in the carnival, it’s that people love putting the responsibility of their futures on anyone or anything other than themselves. Caduceus has faith, though. He trusts these “messages” from his deity, and it is an odd coincidence if nothing else. Still, there’s nothing to say that Molly’s part was anything more than bringing Caduceus and the Mighty Nein together, and that now that that’s done he’s free to be as alive or dead as he chooses to be.

Living is fine for the time being. He has a belly full of fine food, a soft bed beneath him, and a warm body against him. He kisses Caduceus again then closes his eyes to better savor the sensation. Caduceus’s head is heavy on his chest, but not in an unpleasant way. He takes long slow breaths that Molly tries to match. Every exhale is a caress of warmth against Molly’s skin. His presence is soothing. All the tension Molly had when he walked into the room has gone elsewhere, repelled by the calm that follows the firbolg wherever he goes. If only Molly could stay like this, if his life could be only this until the end of his days…

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Someone knocks on the door. “Are you two, uh… Am I interrupting anything?”

Molly wants to snap that yes, Fjord is indeed interrupting something. Caduceus lifts his head and says, “No, you can come in.” To Molly’s relief and delight that’s all the moving he does.

Fjord enters and immediately balks at the sight before him. “Oh. I thought you said you weren’t…um… I can come back later if you’re, uh…”

“No, you’re fine,” Molly says. He beckons Fjord in. “There’s more room on the bed if you want to join.”

Caduceus smiles. “Yeah, come on. It’s really nice. We’d be happy to have you.”

“N-No, I came here to…uhhh…” Fjord clears his throat. “Beau and I are going out to look for crew members and, since Caduceus is such a good judge of character, I asked him to come with. We were gonna head out soon so…” He reaches up to pick at his teeth, but the moment his finger passes his lips he freezes then jerks his hand back down to his side. “You don’t have to come if you…would rather stay here. But if you are coming remember you’ll need to disguise yourself first. Beau agrees that folks around here would be kinda freaked out since they don’t get many firbolg in these parts, if any at all.”

Molly snorts. All the more reason Caduceus should meet new crew members exactly as he is. There’s no better way to study a person’s character than to watch their reaction to something bizarre. “I take it I’m not invited on this outing?” Molly asks. “After all, we’ve seen what happens when I try to play human.”

Fjord shrugs apologetically. “Yeah, sorry. We’re short on time and it’ll be easier to gather a quick crew if we don’t scare half of them away first.”

“Oh yes, what an absolutely terrifying pair we’d make.” Molly carefully nuzzles his cheek against the top of Caduceus’s head, doing his best not to get any of his jewelry caught in Caduceus’s hair while never taking his eyes off Fjord. “The lavender devil and the pale giant. No one in their right mind would sail with us.”

“Molly, I didn’t mean it like that.” Fjord sighs. “It’s fine. Beau and I will be back later.”

“Wait, I said I’d come and I’m coming.” Caduceus sits up. Before he leaves the bed he rubs Molly’s ear tenderly one last time. Molly looks up at him, silently begging him not to go. Caduceus flicks his eyes towards Fjord. “They need me. We can pick this up again later. I still need to work on that scar.”

“Okay.” It’s not okay, but for selfish reasons. Caduceus is right, and so is Fjord. The Zolezzo are already wary of them. Best not to stick around too long. Fjord and Beau need all the help they can get to gather the best crew on such short notice. Besides, even in a human form or whatever, Caduceus has that pleasant aura that can put people at ease. Molly wouldn’t be able to resist being kind of an asshole — or at least more of an asshole than Beau normally is — just to weed out the other assholes. Doesn’t mean he isn’t sad to see Caduceus walk out the door behind Fjord.

Molly lies there for a little while longer. He absentmindedly rubs the glaive scar. He can feel it more against his fingertips than he can feel when his fingers move from the regular skin to the scar. Hopefully Caduceus can get rid of it over time. The scars he gave himself have become part of his aesthetic. This? This is a reminder of a past mistake, a failure. He bitterly wonders if it would be like the damn eyes and refuse to take ink if he tried to tattoo over it.

Speaking of lingering and unwelcome parts of his past, what if someone came and took him in the night the way the Shepherds took the others? What if those people Lucien was in charge of — the Tomb Takers or whatever their name was — ran into him and tried to use him for the power Lucien clearly wanted? Molly growls. He wishes he had never met Cree. True, he always suspected there was someone out there who knew who he was before he was…well, himself. He didn’t think it would be anything like that. Nicodranas is probably the safest place for him. Anywhere far away from where the carnival found him is the safest place for him. The Mighty Nein will go back to the Empire someday, but Molly could hop on any ship headed to a different continent. There were plenty of other adventuring parties that could use another sword or two. It wouldn’t even have to be a permanent change, just long enough to let things cool down and show the others that they can get along without him.

Caduceus’s talk of destiny still irks him. Molly doesn’t want to think about his future that way. It doesn’t exist yet. There’s only the present. Molly can control the present. Caduceus knew they were coming though. There are strange things out there. Even in his short span of experience, Molly has learned this better than most. If there is any chance he could have some warning, or maybe some insight…

Molly pries himself out of bed. It takes some digging in his pack, but soon he retrieves his Tarot deck. Any good fortune teller knows not to do readings for themselves. Still, one question won’t hurt.

“What’s to stop me from running off right now and finding some other group to tag along with?” After a second of thought he adds, “Other than Yasha.”

Molly pulls a single card from the deck. He frowns at it. “Bah. You don’t know what you’re talking about, you pile of pressed pulp.”

The Arcanist. The image shows a hooded figure holding a spellbook in one hand with the other hand reaching upward, a swirl of glyphs pouring from their fingertips. Molly has read this card so many ways for so many different people. He doesn’t even remember what it was supposed to mean anymore. Something about creativity, he thinks. The first place his mind goes is not where it’s supposed to. The visible features of the figure on the card show a neatly trimmed and forked brunette goatee and darker skin. It’s not Caleb. It can’t be Caleb.

“Fuck, it’s Caleb.”

Molly sits down and stares at the card. Any other member of the Mighty Nein he would gladly sleep with at the first indication of interest — except maybe Nott since she clearly has some dysphoria issues that can’t be fixed with a night of pleasure and it might actually make things worse — but Caleb? Caleb has too many cracks, too many breaking points that were clearly broken before and are barely held together for the sake of function. He hates himself and wants to be proved wrong about it but at the same time he looks for reasons that any proof is fake. He would see a proposition from Molly as mockery, a cruel joke. And if Molly left — if Molly died — Caleb would attribute that to his own failure and use it to bolster his self-loathing.

Molly sighs. He rests his face against his palm. He twirls the card in his fingers. “Shit.” He thinks back to when Gustav and the others found him. He was broken then too. They took him in, treated him well, gave him a new purpose. If anyone else had discovered him that day, lost and empty, who knows what they would have filled him with. Caleb never found anyone to fill the broken cracks, or if he did then they were cruel to him, indifferent at the very least. Molly can’t fix him, but if he sticks around, maybe he can give Caleb the power to let those cracks heal into scars. Caduceus might be able to help him with those scars, too. The whole group can. After all, putting Molly together was a group effort as well.

The card goes back into the deck. Molly almost pulls another. He’s halfway through it when he reconsiders. He’s had enough introspection for today. Best to leave things where they are before he digs too deep and discovers something that should be kept buried. He winces at the choice of words. His dream from last night still haunts him. If the deck has something to say about that, then Molly may never pull a card ever again.

Molly quickly exits the room. He needs to ask Jester where a tiefling can get decent drugs in this town. If he’s going to be stuck on a boat in the middle of the ocean for a week or two, it’ll be best if he’s at least halfway out of his mind for the duration.

Chapter Text

Jester answers with a cheery, “Come in!” when Molly knocks on the door to the girls’ room.

Molly walks in and is surprised to see Caleb already there. What’s more surprising is that he’s clean. There’s the unmistakable smell of damp skin and soap in the air. Caleb is sitting dourly in what looks like one of Marion’s robes while Jester fusses with his hair. The brush in her hand also resembles one from her mother’s vanity table.

“Oh hi Molly!” Jester says. She holds her arms out to present Caleb like he’s her latest masterpiece. “Look! He finally got a bath!”

Nott pipes up from the bed, “I don’t like it.” She has her arms crossed, her shoulders hunched, and there’s a disapproving pout in her lower lip. “It doesn’t suit him. He looks like a completely different person.”

He doesn’t really. Sure, his hair gleams a brighter shade of red now, and with the dirt gone from his face it’s more evident where the real freckles are, and not only does that shade of blue bring out his eyes but damn he looks good in that robe with the front open just enough to show off a patch of coppery chest hair, but Caleb is still Caleb. No amount of water and soap can take away the melancholy etched in his face. It reminds Molly of Desmond, except instead of colorful makeup Caleb uses filth to hide it in public.

Jester tugs at a knot in Caleb’s hair, making him wince. “When was the last time you brushed your hair?” she asks with a frown.

“I…honestly don’t remember the last time I even held a brush.”

“Ugh, Caleb you need to take better care of yourself.” Jester wrinkles her nose as she pries some of his hair apart with her hands. “We can also get you a shave. They’ll use a real razor instead of a big ass sword. Yasha did a pretty good job with it last time, though.”

Molly walks up to the chair. “She’s got surprisingly steady hands.” He gestures for Jester to give him the brush. “But I was always better with hair.”

“Really?” Jester examines him briefly. “You hair does look great like, all the time.”

“Thank you, dear.”

Jester passes him the brush. Caleb glances over his shoulder with a curious yet cautious expression. His hair isn’t as long as Toya’s, but there are thick frizzy clumps that need as much care as her fair hair did. Molly gently works at the damp knots from the bottom up. He doesn’t know if they were always like this or if Jester did something to get them this tight. They’re not the worst he has dealt with either way.

“I don’t think he needs a shave,” Molly says. “Of course, it’s up to Caleb.”

Caleb shrugs. “I don’t need one. If there’s a shaving kit on the ship I could give myself one if it becomes necessary.”

“There you have it.” Molly takes a moment to appreciate his view. There isn’t much skin exposed, in fact Caleb has his hands tucked into his sleeves so no part of his arms is visible. The bottom of the robe is parted over one knee, however. The light coming in through the window illuminates the fuzz on his leg to the point where it looks like he’s glowing. “So is this new look permanent?” Molly asks, nodding to the robe. “It’s a good color on him, but I don’t know if it’s fashionable for the open seas.”

Jester shakes her head. The few pieces of jewelry she wears make quiet clinking sounds. “Nope! I had his clothes cleaned too! They might be ready by now, actually. I’ll go check.”

“I’m coming with,” Nott says. “I know what components go in which pockets.”

“Nott?” Caleb says. “I-I er, um…I’ve actually been thinking of reorganizing some things. Could you please just sort my things by which spells I use most often?”

Nott’s ears twitch. “I’m not sure I remember what goes with what spell, but I’ll do my best.”

“I know you will.” Caleb smiles at Nott. Even his smiles are sad. Molly wishes he knew who had done what to Caleb. As reluctant as he was to test the limits of his powers, there were a few things Molly got the feeling he could do to those people that might be cathartic.

Molly continues to work out the tangles in Caleb’s hair as carefully as he can. When the door shuts behind Nott and Jester he asks. “So, how did she convince you to wash up so thoroughly?”

Caleb slumps in the chair. “She charmed me.”

“It is hard to say ‘no’ to that face.”

“No, I mean she used Charm Person. Didn’t even notice until it wore off.” Caleb goes quiet, the worrisome kind of quiet.

“She didn’t mean any harm by it,” Molly assures.

Caleb sighs. “I know. She said she wanted me to smell nice before we had to be on the ship together for…however long this journey takes. I just wish… Bah, egal.”

“No, what were you going to say?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“I most certainly does. If there’s something you need, it’s always best to ask. Worst case scenario is the other person can’t help you.”

The worrisome quiet returns. “It’s fine,” Caleb says flatly. “Really.”

Molly scritches Caleb’s head the way Caduceus did to him. A soft whimper escapes Caleb’s chest. “Caleb, dear, you can tell me anything.”

A heavy pause. “Are you trying to charm me, too?”

“Not like that, no.”

“Then what are you doing to my head? It feels…odd.”

Molly stops immediately. “Thought you’d like it, sorry.” He goes back to brushing Caleb’s hair. “Did you want braids?” he asks in an attempt to change the subject. “I’m somewhat out of practice, but I used to be really good at them.”

Caleb doesn’t answer. Molly’s heart drops. He’s about to claim it was a joke when Caleb quietly says, “You can practice if you want to.”

“Yeah?”

Caleb nods. “Just make sure you take them out before Jester or Nott gets back or they’ll want me to have them all the time.”

Molly laughs. “I’ll see what I can do. First I have to get it all untangled. I’m not hurting you, am I?”

“Oh, no no. It’s fine.”

“Okay. Tell me if I am.” As much as Caleb needs his boundaries broken once in a while to prove it’s not the end of the world, a little tenderness won’t kill him either.

Molly makes short work of the rest of the tangled mats in Caleb’s hair. He brushes it until it’s completely smooth and then some. The hair is still damp, but Molly finds it’s easier to braid like that sometimes. He weaves a few quick thick braids to get back into the habit. Satisfied with his work, Molly combs them out with his fingers before starting on a smaller one.

“Where did you learn to braid hair?” Caleb asks.

“You learn things in a traveling carnival,” Molly says. As with many things, Molly learned this from Toya.

They were both the quiet ones in the earliest days of Molly’s memory. Toya had recently come from a tough life on the streets and Molly was…not as empty as he had been, but wary of the world nonetheless. Skittish, cautious, confused more often than not, simultaneously amazed and intimidated by all the color and noise of the carnival. Toya was small and quiet, also uncomfortable in this new environment. She talked to Molly, though. Kylre had already taken a liking to her and followed her nearly everywhere. Sometimes Toya would just sit and chat with Molly while Kylre sat keeping watch. In retrospect, Molly should have listened to the little voice inside him that didn’t trust Kylre, but he had a lot of little voices in his head at the time and he didn’t like any of them. Everyone else vouched for Kylre and eventually Molly got used to him. However, Kylre’s hands were too clumsy for delicate work, so Toya taught Molly how to braid her hair the way her mother used to.

Caleb’s hair is thicker and shorter than hers was. Molly manages to get about a dozen braids into it. They’re good braids, but they don’t look right on him. Jester and Nott might disagree with that opinion, so Molly undoes them after a few seconds of simply admiring his own handiwork.

Molly tells Caleb a few stories about his time in the Fletching and Moondrop Traveling Carnival of Curiosities while he works. Some of them are even true. Caleb is a good listener. He doesn’t say much, only adding a few “Uh-huh”s and “Oh”s and “Interesting”s to the conversation. He does so in the appropriate places, though.

Caleb finally speaks up after Molly has his hair back to normal. “Could you…erm, that is, if you don’t mind, uh…c-could you do that thing you were doing earlier?” He gestures with one hand, mimicking the motion of Molly scritching his head. “It was…odd, but…a good odd.”

Molly grins. “Sure.” He can’t do it exactly the way Caduceus did it to him because his nails are too long. Apparently he does it well enough because Caleb relaxes back into Molly’s fingertips like a cat enjoying his owner’s affection. In his relaxation, Caleb has let his gesturing arm droop to the side without adjusting the sleeve of the robe. It’s at that moment that Molly realizes he has never really seen Caleb's arms without the bandages, and if he had then he wasn't paying attention. He thought maybe Caleb burned himself during his early days of learning fire magic, but he doesn’t see any scars like that.

That doesn’t mean there are no scars. It’s faint, but the light catches the skin on Caleb’s wrist in just the right way to reveal the sheen of a thin yet rough pale line. It could be nothing. It seems old. One of the less obnoxious intuitive voices in Molly’s head tells him there has to be significance. Why else would Caleb keep his arms covered in bandages when there’s no wound? What else could they be hiding?

The problem with damp hair is that it develops knots easily when agitated. Molly’s fingers get caught in one. He retrieves the brush to fix it. Caleb readjusts himself to sit straight-backed in the chair again. Once the knot is untangled, Molly continues to brush Caleb’s hair, though every few strokes he runs his free hand over Caleb’s head to both smooth the hair back and also pet him, in a sense.

“Thank you,” Caleb murmurs. It’s so quiet Molly isn’t sure he was meant to hear it.

Molly sets down the brush then puts his hands on Caleb’s shoulders. “Mister Caleb, may I confide something in you?”

Caleb is tense beneath Molly’s touch, but he nods. “Of course, Mister Mollymauk.”

Molly kneads Caleb’s shoulders anxiously. He’s about to bare one of his broken pieces. Perhaps it’ll help Caleb deal with his own. It helped with Yasha, all those months ago. “I’d rather not be resurrected next time I die.”

There’s a moment of that worrisome silence, broken by an incredulous, “Wie bitte?” Molly doesn’t know what that means, but Caleb sounds upset.

“Look, I appreciate the effort that has gone into keeping me alive. I do. However, I think that effort would be better used elsewhere.”

Caleb turns in the chair. He stares up at Molly with a gleam like panic in his eyes. “But I— we need you. You are part of the team. You are our friend.”

Molly lets out a long sigh. “Yes, well, hopefully that means you’ll give me a good funeral, when the time comes. Maybe have Caduceus turn me to mulch and use me to—”

“No.” There’s a fiery force in Caleb’s voice. His jaw is quivering. The back of the chair creaks under the might of his grip. “No, we are not going to let you die. We have two perfectly capable clerics. You’ll be fine.”

“Caleb, listen. I don’t doubt that, but…accidents happen. I’m not smart like you. I’m not strong like Yasha or Jester. Beau does more damage with her fists than I do with my swords sometimes. I usually end up getting hurt by my own powers to the point where I’m one hit away from death.” Molly folds his arms. “Speaking of which, I didn’t ask for these powers. Someone made a bargain for them, and it backfired. Now they’re gone and I have them. They wanted…I don’t know, to be stronger, or to have an advantage for…something. And whatever that something is might catch up to me one day looking for whoever wanted these powers. I don’t want any part of it. So if I fall in battle, and…and it’s something a quick healing spell can’t fix, promise me you’ll leave me there.” He wills himself to maintain eye contact, even though he can feel the pain in Caleb’s eyes like Lorenzo’s glaive. “Please.”

Caleb stares back. His eyes are such a nice shade of blue. It’s a pity they’re clouded by conflicting thoughts. He’s frozen like a statue, except for little twitches in his face that tell Molly all he needs to know. Caleb will keep his secret, but he may not fulfil that wish.

Voices and footsteps approach the room. Molly stoops to kiss Caleb on the forehead. Caleb flinches, but does not pull away. His breath is coming out ragged. The whites of his eyes are turning pink. Molly wants to scoop him into his arms and hold him the way he held Caduceus earlier. He wouldn’t take back what he said, but he could tell Caleb he has no plans to abandon him or any of the others. He could hold Caleb until some of his pieces realign and heal back in place. Caleb wouldn’t like it at first, since he generally shies away from restricting physical contact, but if anyone would benefit from “intimate coping mechanisms” it’s Caleb Widogast. Molly only has time to offer a small reassuring smile before Jester and Nott reenter the room carrying all of Caleb’s stuff.

Jester pouts. “Aw, I was hoping you would have like, done his hair up in little bows or something.”

“Caleb doesn’t do bows,” Nott says matter-of-factly. “What he needs is flowers in his hair.”

With a gasp, Jester says, “I know the best place to get flowers! They have plants from all over Western Wynandir and sometimes they even have ones from Marquet!”

“That sounds like a fantastic idea,” Molly says. “Nott, you should absolutely go out and buy Caleb some exotic flowers. Take Yasha with you. You know how much she loves flowers, too.” Yasha would be thrilled to have flowers from a different continent for her collection. Uneasy as he is about his own future, Molly did make a promise that he’d help her take them back. He has to stay alive — and out of trouble — until then, for her sake. He wishes he could tell Caleb that. However, aside from the fact that he and Yasha made that pact in secret, he has already heaped enough on Caleb’s mind for now.

Nott saw Yasha downstairs so she goes back down to talk to her. Caleb takes his things from Jester with a quiet mutter of thanks before skittering back to his own room. Molly takes the seat he just vacated. Jester plops herself down on the edge of the bed.

“So, how has your day been, Molly?”

Molly shrugs. “Can’t complain. Been resting up after last night. Speaking of which, are you okay?”

Jester shrugs as well. “Oh, I’m fine. Everything turned out alright, didn’t it? And now we get to be pirates!” She makes a mean face and holds up one hook-like finger. “Aren’t you excited?”

“Absolutely. You know I love a good adventure.”

Molly is about to ask the question that brought him here in the first place when Caleb’s voice fills his mind. “Molly, whatever you’re afraid of, we’ll face it together. I know what it’s like to feel uncomfortable with your powers but you’ve been using them for good. This group is better because you’re in it. Please don’t give up.”

Jester tilts her head at Molly. “Are you okay?”

Molly puts up one finger. He cups his hands over his mouth the way he has seen Caleb do when he casts his Message spell. “Darling, I never said I was giving up, merely pointed out I should be low on the resurrection priority list if it came to that. I’m not about to let you all loose in the world without me to be your moral compass. I love you too much to leave you.” It’s fortunate that they’re using Common. Nearly any other language, he would have to specify whether he meant “you” as in the whole Mighty Nein or “you” as in just Caleb. He wouldn’t have been able to choose.*

With that out of the way, Molly arranges himself in a relaxed pose on the chair. “Sorry about that. Caleb wanted to tell me that he hopes you never force him to take a bath ever again. Scared he’ll lose his fire magic if he gets wet too often.”

Jester narrows her eyes at him with a sly smile. “Did he really say that?”

Molly shrugs. “Essentially. I told him you only had his best interest in mind”

“Well it’s not healthy to be so dirty all the time. My mama said if you never wash the dirt off eventually it gets under your skin and makes you sick.”

“I didn’t need to be told to take baths. First time I got in one I never wanted to get out.” At least, that was the first time at a public bath he can recall. Bo said they washed the dirt off him after they found him and he wasn’t fond of it. Ornna claimed Molly hissed at them when the water first touched his skin, but Desmond said Molly was most likely just startled by the heat. Molly’s only memory from that day is of voices that didn’t sound threatening and waking up under a heap of blankets.

Jester swings her feet over the edge of the bed. “Molly, can I ask you something?”

“What a coincidence,” Molly says. “I was going to ask you something.”

That takes Jester off guard. “Well…what were you going to ask me?”

“You wouldn’t happen to know where to get drugs around here, would you?” Molly notes her blank expression and adds, “Or at least cigarettes. I just really need something to take the edge off while we’re at sea. I’m not used to confined spaces for more than a day or two.”

“Oh. Um…” Jester bites her lip in thought. “I don’t know about drugs, but I think I know where you can get cigarettes.”

“That’ll do. So, what were you gonna ask me?

Jester fidgets with one of the strings on her belt. “Um, you like girls and boys, right?”

Molly nods. “And a some things in between, on occasion.”

“So…as a guy who likes guys…how do you get a boy to like you?”

It's a little more complicated than that, since Molly wouldn’t call himself a “guy”. He opted not to settle for a gender when he was crafting his identity — though he accepts being seen as male because then his partners expect a cock and he still exceeds their expectations — but that’s a conversation for another time. This is a moment Molly has been expecting for a while, and especially after last night. There’s one issue he needs to address first. “Well you don’t use Charm Person on them,” he says, folding his arms with a furrowed brow.

Jester smiles sheepishly. “He wasn’t going to take a bath otherwise!”

“Did you ask?

“He said he got a bath when he went in the ocean the other day. That doesn’t count! I told you it’s not good for him to go so long without a real bath!”

“Maybe, but it still wasn’t fair. He’s a grown man and should be allowed to make his own decisions.” Molly frowns. “Did you ask more than once or cast it after the first ‘no’?”

“Um…it was after the third or fourth ‘no’…”

Molly rubs his eyes with one exasperated hand. “Okay, lesson one about getting guys to like you; they are all fucking idiots but they are allowed to be fucking idiots so long as they don’t gravely hurt themselves or others. If a guy tells you ‘no’ more than once and you still think he’s making the wrong choice, let him. He’ll figure out the consequences of his actions and he’ll remember how you tried to help him. If you force him to do something he’s uncomfortable with, he’s going to have a hard time trusting you, let alone liking you.”

Jester hangs her head in crestfallen shame. With genuine remorse she says, “I’m sorry. Is he really mad at me?”

“Shaken up. He’ll be fine, but don’t be surprised if he avoids you for a little while.”

“Oh no…” Jester rests her chin on her fists. “I just wanted him to be less stinky.”

Molly gets up to go sit next to her. He pats her on the back. “Like I said, you make your mistakes, you learn from your mistakes. Never do that again unless there’s a majority agreement from the group that it’s the right thing to do, okay?”

“Okay.”

“Great. Now, about getting men to like you: aside from the fact that they’re all complete idiots, the most important thing to remember is that they want people to want them. Doesn’t matter if it’s as a friend, a lover, or just as a handy person to have around, men want to be wanted.” Molly could add that they also don’t want to be manipulated into doing things so they’ll be wanted, but he feels he has driven that point home. He just can’t shake the expression on Caleb’s face when he told Molly what Jester had done.

Jester frowns. “Then do you just tell a guy you like him and then he’ll like you back?”

Molly shrugs. “Eh, not quite. Again, some guys are so godsdamned stupid they don’t know how to handle their feelings. Take Algar, for example. Your mother wasn’t mean to him when she turned him down, I’m guessing. She has her reputation to keep, after all. And Algar mistook that common decency as a subtle hint that she secretly loved him. In his mind, all he had to do was ‘save’ her from her clients and she would throw herself at his feet to shower him with gratitude and affection until the end of his days.” Molly sticks out his tongue in mock disgust. “Which, of course, showed he knew nothing about your mother except that she’s the most beautiful woman in the world.”

Jester’s expression flips to a beaming smile. “She really is.”

“But suppose some guy liked you,” Molly says. “Now, you’re beautiful, and adorable, but you’re also clever, funny, talented, spirited, fierce, I could go on and on. If you liked this guy and asked him what he liked about you and all he could say is ‘I like you because you’re beautiful,’ he doesn’t really like you. He likes being wanted by a beautiful woman, but he doesn’t care or doesn’t know about all the other things there are to like about you.”

“Aw, shucks Molly,” Jester says, putting her hands to blushing cheeks.

Molly grins. “So if you want a guy to like you, be your wonderful self where he can’t help but notice. And to show you really like him, pay attention to him. Let him know what makes him special. Compliment him on the things no one else compliments him about. Such as…oh, I don’t know, ‘I like how thoughtful you are,’ or ‘You did really well in that fight,’ or ‘Your tusks are growing in nicely.’”

Jester nods along until Molly brings up tusks. At that, she wrinkles her nose in a frown. “I wasn’t talking about Fjord.”

“Weren’t you though?” Molly asks through his broad grin.

Jester pouts indignantly until it’s clear Molly isn’t backing down. She slumps her shoulders with a sigh. “Okay, fine.” More meekly, she adds, “Do you think he likes me, though?”

“Jester dear, if he doesn’t like you by now then he’s not worth the effort. Although, keep in mind that men are remarkably dumb, and Fjord is about as block-headed as they come in terms of noticing other people’s feelings.”

“Then how am I supposed to know?” Jester asks, flinging out her arms in frustration. “‘Cuz like, he kissed me last night, but it wasn’t a kiss kiss, he was saving my life, but he saved my life! That means he likes me at least a little, right? And maybe he’s been wanting to kiss me for a while but he was too nervous. He’s so nervous all the time when it comes to girls. We don’t even know if he likes girls!”

Molly shrugs. “No harm in asking. Just a caveat though: if you don’t make a move soon—” Molly smirks in delight at the thought, “—then I will.”

Jester gasps. Her tail whips out straight behind her. “You wouldn’t!

“Hey, you’re not the only one to notice what a handsome charismatic man he is, and you won’t be the last.”

“We don’t know if Fjord’s into guys either!”

Molly snorts. “Darling, I have never let that stop me before. Unlike some people, when I see something — or someone — that I want, I go for it without hesitation. In this case I’ve held back because I could see you were interested, but you can’t call dibs on people.” He flicks his own tail teasingly. “You wanted my advice, I gave it to you. I also told you what you need to hear. My gift to you.” He stands and gives her a sweeping bow. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have an errand to run, so if you’ll tell me where I can—”

“Wait!” Jester interrupts. “I had one more question.”

“Yes?”

Jester grins that mischievous grin of hers. “Do you have a crush on Caduceus?”

Molly chuckles. “Would you charm me if I declined to answer that?”

“…no.”

“Good. You’re learning.” Molly simply shrugs. “He’s cute, kind, gives excellent hugs, great cook, a little naïve, but aren’t we all at some point? I wouldn’t call my feelings for him a ‘crush’ necessarily, since by those standards I’d have a crush on quite a few people.”

Jester squeals and kicks her legs in excitement. “I knew it! You liiiike him.”

“I like you too, dear,” Molly says with a wink.

“And I like you, Molly.” Jester says it like it’s the winning statement to end an argument, complete with a self-satisfied nod. Perhaps she didn’t pick up on the subtext or perhaps she chose not to acknowledge it, but at least she’s not making it awkward. That’s one of the many reasons why Molly likes her. If she weren’t so hung up on Fjord he might entertain the idea of liking her even more. He could, however, possibly talk the two of them into a threesome. That would be something, and it would finally get the two of them together while giving Molly a treat for his trouble.

For now, he’s content to find treats of a different nature. Jester gives him directions to the shop where he can buy cigarettes. He’ll ask around while he’s on the town if there’s anything more substantial available. If not, they are going to be confined to a ship for who knows how long. There are plenty of stories of two — or more — people developing romances after being in such proximity for extended periods. Perhaps it’s time for another personal challenge…

Chapter Text

The shop Jester sent him to turns out to be a general store in the more well-off side of town. The prices are a little steep, but Molly buys enough loose tobacco and rolling papers to — hopefully — last a month for only a bit of silver. There’s still a handful or two of gold in his pocket. He isn’t going to be buying anything out on the ocean anyway, but there isn’t much else here that catches his fancy. He tries the subtle approach of asking the shopkeep where he might find something “more substantial” than tobacco, but after some back and forth he ultimately has to flat out ask if the man knows where he can get drugs. The shopkeep can only provide rumors, or so he says, which is a start at least.

It’s a half hour walk to the address mentioned. Molly gets lost twice and ends up asking directions from one of the few people who don’t stare and move to the other side of the street when he walks by. The lovely lady happily points out where it is, and he isn’t far. From the way she talks about it, she’s a regular customer.

“Do you know if they sell anything…interesting?” Molly asks.

“Oh, as much as any apothecary does,” she replies. “Perhaps more because some of his shipments are from overseas.” Then with a knowing smile she adds, “Of course, if by ‘interesting’ you mean ‘interesting’, all you need to do is ask.”

Molly grins. “Magnificent. Thank you so much.”

The apothecary is a hole-in-the-wall establishment smelling distance from the sea. Molly passed a nicer one further inland, but this definitely looks like the kind of place to get illicit substances. The wood is weathered, the paint on the sign is chipped, and there’s only one window besides the one on the door and it’s essentially a porthole with curtains. The interior, however, is cozy and smells great. Everything is neatly arranged on shelves and there are a few floor displays. Molly’s nose leads him to one of them. There’s an assortment of oils and fragrances. Molly picks one up to sniff it.

“Hey! Get out of here!”

Molly looks up. Standing in the doorway to what seems like a rear storage room is a dark-haired man in his forties with rectangular glasses perched on a thin nose, behind which is a pair of scowling eyes. “I beg your pardon?” Molly says.

“I don’t want any devils in my shop! Shoo!”

“I’ve got gold. I intended to spend a lot of it here.” Molly holds up his purse.

The man’s brow furrows tighter. “Are you deaf? I said get out!”

This is clearly a lost cause. Molly puts back the vial he was holding and turns on his heel with a huff. He makes a rude gesture with his tail on the way out.

Molly is at a loss for what to do. He could go back in and bullshit his way into buying drugs, but after last night he’s hesitant to try that plan. He could ask a passerby to go buy them for him, but that might get him in more trouble. The best solution he has for now is to take a walk. It’s a nice afternoon and there’s bound to be another shop that’ll take his money.

After fifteen minutes of aimless wandering, Molly spots a familiar trio. They spot him too, since it isn’t very hard to do so.

“Hey, Molly,” Fjord says. “What brings you all the way out here?”

Molly shrugs. “Wanted to stock up on some things before we left. Heard they had what I was looking for around here, but it turns out the guy running the place is a fucking prick and he wouldn’t even let me look at anything, let alone buy it.”

Caduceus is still in a human disguise. It’s cute. He has changed it a little since he used it on their way into the city. His hair is in that ponytail Molly likes, but the color is more faded red than soft pink. His skin is darker and there are a few scars on his cheek, giving the impression that he’s used to working outdoors in rough conditions. His clothes are better suited for work as well. Fjord probably gave him tips on how to present himself to other sailors. Even with this disguise that smile is the same, warm and friendly and the longer Molly looks at it the more relaxed he becomes.

“What were you trying to buy?” Caduceus asks.

“Some stuff to keep me entertained on the ship. Never been confined in a small space for that long and I don’t think I’ll like it.”

Fjord nods. “Yeah, cabin fever’s a bitch. What exactly did you have in mind? Maybe we could help you.”

Molly curls his tail innocently. “Well…to be honest I was hoping to find decent drugs.”

“And?” Beau asks.

“And this one apothecary was brought to my attention, but, like I said, it’s run by a prick who.”

Beau narrows her eyes. “Which apothecary? Want me to go talk to them?”

“You gonna talk with your mouth? Or your fists?” Molly asks with a smirk.

“Eh, could be either, could be both, depends on how much of a prick he really is.”

Fjord groans. “Beau, no. We are not spending our last day in Nicodranas bailing you out of trouble for beating up some random guy.”

“Ugh, fine. I’ll just talk talk to him. You said we’re basically done, right? It’s okay if I go with Molly for a while?”

“Yeah. You’re fine.” Fjord turns to Molly. “We’ve got most of the important positions filled. We found that tortle we met the other day and he’s going to be our navigator, talked to Caleb last night about him being quartermaster and he said he’d be okay with that, Caduceus is gonna be the cook, and speaking of Ducey, he has been tremendous help in this endeavor.”

Caduceus nods. “There were a few people who were looking for easy money but weren’t actually going to put in any work.” A rare frown appears on his face. “If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s people who don’t pull their weight.” The smile returns. “The crew we have so far is good people. And I’m excited to be the cook. This is gonna be great.”

Beau follows Molly back to the apothecary. She fills him in on Fjord’s plans. They’re going to have a team meeting over dinner to finalize things, then set sail during high tide in the morning. The ship they have is built for speed and hopefully they’ll be at Urukaxl within a week. Fjord ordered three weeks’ worth of supplies for a crew of about twenty, Mighty Nein included. The three of them had found ten people with the necessary skill sets and availability to join them. It all sounds like the sort of logistics that would have bored Molly out of his mind if he had tried to help. Fortunately they’ve got competent people who have minds for this sort of thing so Molly can focus on doing what he’s best at.

“This is the place,” Molly says when they arrive.

“This shit hole?” Beau curls her lip. “This looks like the kinda place where they sell you rat shit and tell you it’s chocolate chips.”

“Y’know, you’d think by now you would have learned things aren’t always what they seem, but okay. The inside is actually pretty nice, and someone did tell me they had ‘interesting’ stuff for sale.”

Beau sighs. “I’ll see what I can do.” She stomps towards the door, then halts. “What exactly did you want?”

Molly thinks for a moment. “Something that helps you relax and feel good at the same time, like alcohol without the awful parts. Get enough for…I don’t know, two doses a day for three weeks? At most? If you can’t get that much it’s fine, but if you want any for yourself...”

“Okay, got it.”

“Oh! And there’s this display of oils and fragrances. Pick me up something that smells good.”

“…Okay?” Beau reaches for the door handle.

“Wait! And ask if they have incense.”

“Geez, Molly. Are you saying that we’re all gonna smell like shit after a week on this boat or something?”

Molly rolls his eyes. “It’s for Caleb. You know he’s always out of the stuff.”

“Oh, right. Well, here I go.” Beau braces herself. She pouts her mouth to one side. Right before she steps in, she unties her hair. The door shuts behind her. Its window is blocked by a curtain and Molly can’t see what’s going on.

Ten minutes pass. Fifteen. Twenty. Molly strolls around the block a few times, never letting the apothecary out of his sight for long. He’s getting worried. Beau said she was just going to talk, but that’s not really her strong suit. Molly slaps himself in the face for agreeing to this. He should have asked Fjord to do it, or go with her as a supervisor. She hasn’t been kicked out, yet, though there’s no telling if that’s because she’s behaving herself or because she has the poor shopkeep pinned against the wall with one fist cocked until he gives her what she came for. There’s no sound of commotion inside when he presses his ear to the door, which is good. He paces the building and eventually sets up against the side wall to discreetly see how much money he has left.

Beau comes around the corner in a trance, a paper-wrapped bundle tucked under her arm. Doesn’t look like she’s been in a fight, kinda. Her hair is still down and her eyes are wide and cast towards the ground. Molly waves to get her attention. She blinks at him, then walks over and tosses a small clinking bottle at him. Molly barely catches it.

“Got you these. Don’t take them on an empty stomach and never take more than three per day.” Beau holds the bundle between her knees so she can furiously tie her hair back up. Her eyes glaze over in something like panic.

“…Are you okay?” Molly asks.

“Huh? Wha— Yeah. Yeah, I’m fine.” The way her voice cracks on the first ‘Yeah’ is enough to sow doubt, but then she hisses to herself, “Who the fuck is Traci?

Molly examines the bottle. It’s small enough to fit in his hand, but large enough that his fingers don’t touch when they wrap around it. Inside there are many pea-sized rough spheres. The bottle itself is tinted green so he can’t tell what color they are, but they appear mottled. “So what do these do?”

Beau shrugs. “I told him I wanted stuff that took the edge off when you’re bored or bummed out but doesn’t make you bounce off the walls or anything. He said these are great for ‘opening the mind to the beauty in a dull world’, whatever that means.” She holds up the bundle. “Also got a fuck-ton of incense and two bottles of that oil for you. One is sandalwood and the other is…some kind of floral blend? He was making suggestions and I just kinda went with it. He didn’t seem like a prick. Kinda pushy, but that’s just how some people are when they want you to buy stuff.”

“Yeah, well, you’re human. He wouldn’t sell anything to me because I’m a ‘devil’ and he doesn’t want that sort of customer in his shop.”

What?” Beau clenches her fists and hunkers into a defensive stance. “Why didn’t you tell me? You know I fucking hate bigots! Ugh, I would have been way meaner to him if I’d known.”

“Which is one of the reasons I didn’t tell you,” Molly says. “That, and I’ve heard worse. Some people are just grumpy fuckers, and it lost him a customer.”

“But then I went in and bought stuff anyway! Maybe I should—”

“Beau, no. It’s fine. I was going to spend way more than you did, I guarantee it. It’s still a loss for him. Let it go.” Molly holds up the bottle. “Want to go test these out?”

They follow their noses to another bakery. This one isn’t as nice as the one Jester took them to, but the scent of cinnamon is unmistakable. It’s run by a lovely older couple, both women, one half-elf and one dwarf. Molly strikes up friendly conversation with them and Beau only groans with impatience twice. The half-elf at the counter has them wait because her wife is going to bring out a fresh batch of lemon bars once they’re done cooling.

“It’s her specialty,” she says with a glow of pride. “They’re the first thing we sold here, and while they have lost some popularity over the years as we’ve expanded our menu, they’re still the best lemon bars in the Open Quay.”

“We’d love to try some,” Molly says. “Wouldn’t we, Beau?”

“Yeah. Sounds great.” Beau is a work in progress. Molly knows her well enough now to know how thick her tough exterior is. He isn’t sure what exactly is under it, but there are moments when he can tell something is peeking out, like a small fuzzy creature in the shadow of a thorn bush with its claws and fangs out so it will blend in better. It’s there now, in the way she’s acting aloof and uncaring, yet Molly sees the way she watches the two bakery owners. There’s a curiosity in her countenance, mixed with a furrowed brow and a subtle frown.

They leave the bakery with a paper bag full of doughnuts, croissants, and several lemon bars. Molly takes a bite of one. The sweet tang of citrus hits the roof of his mouth with the same tingle he gets when he turns his spilled blood to lightning. They’re the perfect texture, not too chewy but not so soft they fall apart. “Beau, you have got to try one of these,” he says through his second bite.

Beau takes one from the bag and nips off one corner. “Not bad,” she says.

Molly throws his head back and suppresses an exasperated groan. It’d be too easy to chide her for her stoicism. He chooses a different approach. “If you could settle down like that, what would you want to do? Not bake lemon bars, I take it.”

“Eh, never was much of a baker. Or a cook. Or anything ‘domestic’.” Beau takes another bite. She chews slowly and quietly as they walk. “I don’t think I want to settle anywhere. I like what we’re doing. This whole traveling from place to place, doing missions, helping people, uncovering secrets, it’s cool. Maybe someday I’ll get bored and try something else, but by then I’ll probably have a better idea of what I want to do. What about you? What would you do?”

There is no settling down in Molly’s future. There can’t be. His life will end one of two ways, and he’s already had a taste of one of them. The other is a fate far worse, and it’ll definitely find him if he stands still long enough. Still, he can dream. “If I had to settle down in one place forever? I’d want to live on the outskirts of a town in a place where the seasons are obvious. Some places it’s rainy and cold all year, some places don’t have enough plants for you to notice the seasons, but I want vibrant springtimes and colorful falls and maybe a river nearby that gets icy along the banks in the winter but is great for swimming in the summer.”

“Legit,” Beau says. “And what would you do in this paradise of yours?”

“Perform, probably. I love to entertain. Travel and explore the nearby landscapes. If I were to pick up a craft I might try my hand at tailoring. Or maybe woodcarving. Ooo, or I could raise chickens.”

Beau snorts. “Chickens? Sounds…quaint.”

“Have you ever met a chicken? They have no respect for the laws of man. It’s great. And some of them are gorgeous.”

“Heh, if you say so.”

They find a quiet place near the water to sit and eat their pastries. Once their stomachs are full they take a pill each. While he waits for his to kick in, Molly rolls a cigarette. Not a thick one, but it gives him something to do. Beau asks for one too. Molly takes his first drag right when he feels a tickle in his palms. Relief washes through him. He exhales the cloud through pursed lips and watches the smoke dance away in the sea breeze.

“Gods, I needed this.” Molly can get by without intoxicants fine. Life itself can be a high if you live it right. However, sometimes it’s good to get fucked up and leave the worries of being a responsible person behind for a little while. Maybe it’s the pill, maybe it’s the scenery, maybe it’s both, but Molly couldn’t be happier to be anywhere else right now. If only Yasha or Caduceus were here to snuggle up against, that would make it perfect. Or both. Nnnf, both would be the most perfect.

Beau smokes her cigarette in silence. Whenever Molly turns to look at her she’s barely moved. Her eyes are locked on the horizon, though they don’t appear to be focused there. Her only movements are to bring the cigarette to her mouth and to take it away when she exhales.

“Copper for your thoughts?” Molly asks halfway through his own cigarette.

There’s no response for a moment. Then she blinks and her eyes turn to Molly. “Remember when you realized you never had a childhood?”

“Oh yeah. What about it?”

Beau’s gaze returns to the sea. She takes another pull of her cigarette. Through the smoke she says, “I don’t think I really had one either.”

Molly stares as the information processes through his now tingling brain. “Okay, you keep mentioning shit like this, and normally I don’t care because it doesn’t matter, but if you’re gonna bring it up a lot without actually talking about it, that’s a problem.”

Beau shrugs. “I just mean the childhood I went through wasn’t really for me. It was my parents making do with what they had.”

“…I don’t follow.”

With a sigh, Beau readjusts from sitting cross-legged to perching on the balls of her feet. “My parents were…superstitious. My dad especially. He asked this traveling fortune teller if he would have a son to carry on his name and they said yes, but then I was born. Not what everyone was hoping for. My parents gave me the name they would have given their son, but then they treated me like a doll or some prized livestock they hoped to sell off someday. I could have taken over the family business if they gave me the chance. I was smart, I had a knack for negotiating, but no. No, no. They put me in frilly dresses and tried to get me to be their perfect little daughter so I could marry the perfect son-in-law and then he could have the business, maybe.”

Molly snorts. “Another reason I’m glad I never had parents, either.”

“Like I said, mine were making do with what they had. Except I hated it. They didn’t care about what I wanted. They had this whole plan that probably would have worked great with any other kid, but they had me. Eventually they let me handle some of the bookkeeping — and I was good at that, real good — but…let’s just say I wasn’t the best option for finding them a good son-in-law. They still weren’t treating me like me, because all they wanted was the me they had in mind the moment I came out without a dick. I lashed out, like teenagers do, except the stuff I did was more illegal and involved…ahem, stealing from the family and selling the goods for profit, so they had me fucking kidnapped and taken to the Cobalt Reserve. I get it, they weren’t the only shitty ones in this relationship. I can be shitty too, sometimes.”

“Oh can you? I hadn’t noticed.” Molly can’t help himself. The combination of the pill and the cigarette has lowered his already paltry filer.

Beau narrows her eyes. “I get it, I’m not the most pleasant person to be around, but then…” Her shoulders droop, but her scowl remains. “Then I got a letter. My mom had another kid. A boy, finally. The prophecy came true. Woo-hoo. Great news for them because they get to start over. And the best way to start over? Pretend your first try never happened.” She takes a pull of her cigarette. The lit end seems to burn hotter, though perhaps that’s because her eyes are smoldering with anger. “They made it pretty clear that we should go our separate ways.” She chuckles darkly. “Wouldn’t be surprised if they named the boy Beauregard, too.”

Molly is temporarily distracted by the sparkle of the afternoon sun on the waves. He never had a family by blood. What Beau is talking about is a foreign concept to him. He doesn’t know how to respond to everything she’s told him. When he snaps back to the moment he says the first thing on his mind. “No, yeah, you were right, your parents are shitty people.”

“They really are.” Beneath the anger there’s sadness. Even in this state Molly can hear it. It’s the fuzzy creature in the thorn bush. Someone drove it out of its home so now it lives in the one place it feels safe, even if that means no one else can come near it.

“Do you need a hug?” Molly asks.

“Nah, I’m good.”

“You sure?”

“Yep.”

Molly doesn’t believe her. He’s nearly finished his cigarette. He doesn’t know if he wants to roll another one so they can sit and talk some more or if they should get going. Their outing can’t end like this, though. They can’t walk all the way back to the Lavish Chateau with this hanging between them. He takes a long draw.

“I say fuck ‘em. They had their chance and they missed it. In my experience, family is the people you choose it to be, not the people you’re stuck with because of something as arbitrary as birth. They could have chosen to have you, Beau, as you are, in their family. But they didn’t. We did, and we’re better for it. You’re a pain in the arse, but you get shit done.”

Beau laughs with a single “Heh.” She finishes off her cigarette and crushes it into the ground. “Thanks, Molly.”

“You’re welcome.” Molly gets to his feet, stomps out his cigarette, and holds his hand out to Beau. “Come on, we’re going shopping.”

“Shopping?” Beau asks with a grimace.

“Yes, we’re both going to go out and treat ourselves to something nice. I saw a place on my way here that does hair and nails and I don’t know about you but something needs to be done about my nails.”

Beau takes his hand to pull herself up. “I think I’m alright. I keep mine short.”

“Oh, I’m sure you do.” Molly grips her hand long enough to examine her nails. They are short, but they’re rough. “Wouldn’t hurt to get them cleaned up, though.” Noting her scowl he adds, “You don’t have to, but I’m going to, and I’d appreciate the company.”

The salon is back in the Opal Archways. Molly insists they look for a thrift store or something like it in the Open Quay first. Beau is the one who spots it first. Her exact words are, “Does that place look like it has the kind of crap you want?”

It’s a shop called Tideborne Treasures. The sign show a chest full of sundry items carried on a wave. There are a few tables with crates of things outside, each labeled with a different price. Molly trots over to check them out. Inside each crate is a haphazard assortment of items. There are worn-out books with water stains, frayed handkerchiefs, dented brass cups, single shoes, the sort of things one might find in a trash heap. Nott would love it.

Inside there are more crates, though these are more organized. A set of stairs goes to a second floor which is simply a balcony that wraps around all four walls, which themselves are lined with shelves of odd items. The first floor is filled with racks and racks of clothes. Perfect. Beau follows Molly through the door. Her nose wrinkles.

“Smells like a ditch in here.”

“You can find fascinating things in ditches,” Molly says. He goes to the nearest rack of clothes and starts rummaging through it.

“Can I help you?” Molly should have guessed, and all he needs to hear is the high-pitched voice that comes from around waist-height to confirm it. He turns to the sound. Standing ten feet away is a goblin, though a well-off looking goblin, as far as goblins go. She’s wearing a nice pale blue dress, though the fabric might be pale from age. Her hair is stringy and glints in the light from the vast windows, but it’s pulled up into a nice bun.

“Simply browsing your wonderful wares,” Molly says. “I’m setting sail in the morning and I’m looking for some suitable clothes for the journey.”

The goblin steps forward. Her eyes sweep up and down Molly’s person. “Yes, wouldn’t want to sully that marvelous coat with too much salt and sun. Is that real silk?”

“As real as the horns on my head.”

“May I?” she asks, reaching out one bony hand. Her nails are long, but neat, not like Nott’s claws.

“Yes, but be gentle.”

The goblin picks up one coattail and rubs it between her fingers. She traces the fine embroidery with wonder in her large yellow eyes. “Where did you get such a beauty?”

“Acquired it in my travels. Used to belong to wealthy magician, but one day his magic drove him mad and he gave away all his possessions. I was lucky enough to get the coat.”

The story goes over well. She doesn’t seem to guess it’s all bullshit. Beau might. Molly turns his eyes to where he saw he last. She’s not there. She’s examining something in a different rack.

It’s a coat. One sleeve is mostly missing, but otherwise it’s a fine coat. Not as good as Molly’s, of course. It’s a dusty plum color with gold trim and buttons to match. The remaining sleeve has a broad cuff that folds over the way the high collar does. It has signs of wear and tear aside from the missing sleeve, though nothing Jester couldn’t magically mend.

“Ah,” says the goblin shopkeeper. “That one was damaged in a brawl some months back. I hemmed it as best I could and held onto it in case I had a one-armed customer someday.”

“How much?” Beau says.

“For that? Well, due to its state and the fact that its previous owner traded it for cheap, I’d say…one gold piece.”

“Done.” Beau pays the goblin then holds up the coat to Molly. “Cut the other sleeve off.”

Molly ponders the request. He’s still high, and clearly so is she, but he can do this. He pulls out Summer’s Dance. The goblin coos in awe at the gleam of the blade. “Okay,” he says. “Hold steady.”

Beau frowns. “Molly, I swear if you cut my arm off I will kick you to death.”

“Then don’t move.” Molly lines up his strike. He’s not even sure if this will work. He aims away from the shoulder. On a mental count of three, he swings. Summer’s Dance passes through the fabric like it’s barely there. Gods, he loves this sword. The newly cut sleeve is a couple inches longer than the other, but Beau is already tucking in the excess.

“Do you have a mirror?” she asks. The shopkeeper points to one off to the side. Beau dons the coat and admires her reflection. “I’m going to need a hat.”

The goblin’s ears perk up. “Oh! I have a lovely assortment of hats upstairs. Come with me.”

While Beau picks out the perfect pirating hat, Molly peruses the racks. Many of the clothes are somewhat damaged or well-worn or stained, but he finds a few interesting things. His left arm is heavily draped with potential purchases by the time Beau makes her choice. The winner is a black wide-brimmed hat with a plume of dark feathers on one side. Molly’s chest flutters sourly for a heartbeat and he isn’t sure why.

“How do I look?” Beau asks, turning one way and the other and striking a few poses.

“Absurd,” Molly replies. “Those shoes absolutely do not go well with that coat. We’ll have to go find some proper boots.”

Beau’s eyes go wide. “Yeah! Boots for stomping around the deck, making sure everyone’s doing their jobs, and I can put one foot up on the railing and look all majestic…” She tries to demonstrate on the railing of the stairs, but it’s too high. She stumbles backwards. Somehow she only trips down one stair and manages to look graceful while doing so. It would have been funny to see her fall flat on her face, but the truth is she’s too dexterous, even when buzzed.

The goblin wrings her hangs apologetically. “I’m afraid my selection of boots isn’t the best. I have many single boots, and some pairs that aren’t in the best condition.”

“Hmm… No offense, but do you know of anywhere else that sells them new?” Molly says. “Actually, hold that question. My arm is getting tired. How about I pay for these first?”

Molly buys five shirts, two pairs of loose pants, and a few bracelets and baubles he found on a display by the window. It costs him about as much as Beau spent on her coat and hat, plus he slips her an extra gold so she can keep up the good work. The goblin shopkeeper, who finally introduces herself as Flots on their way out, is delighted by his large purchase. She gives them directions to a few places that have some of the other things Molly wanted to buy today. Molly promises that the next time they’re in Nicodranas he will absolutely be back to see what else has washed up into her shop.

The rest of the afternoon is dedicated to walking through town, stopping into places that look interesting and leaving with a new item or two. Beau finds a place that sells thrown weapons and spends a fistful of silver on shiny deadly things. The boot shop is hesitant to allow Molly in at first, but Beau vouches for him and even tries to pay for his boots, though Molly ends up buying both their pairs in gratitude for her help with the apothecary. By the time they reach the hair and nail salon Molly has bought some stuff for himself but also gifts for the rest of the party. A few of the baubles from Tideborne Treasures are for Nott, for Jester he gets some spools of brightly colored ribbon, he gets Fjord his own whetstone so he won’t have to borrow one next time he polishes his falchion, he makes a special trip into an herbal market to buy Caduceus some exotic teas and spices, Yasha doesn’t really need anything but he gets her a bottle of wine they can share later, and while two of the shirts he bought are for Caleb if he wants them Molly also has something particular in mind and searches every possible shop until he finds it. Beau doesn’t question him about it, though she rolls her eyes whenever he tries to describe it to the shopkeepers.

Despite her previous attitude, Beau does agree to get her nails done. That might have had something to do with the attractive woman who does them for her. Molly limits himself to one snide remark about that before focusing on enjoying his own manicure. It’s been so long since he took a spa day. His hair is getting long. He almost asks for a trim while he’s there, but he remembers how good Caduceus looks with his pulled back and considers how Caleb would look if he did the same and he ultimately decides he wants to grow his out more.

The sun is barely a gleaming smudge over the sea when they return to the Lavish Chateau. The colorful windows are all alight. Once again the smell of dinner from various establishments fills the air. The pill Molly took wore off an hour ago but he’s still in good spirits. Beau hasn’t taken her coat and hat off since she bought them and she seems quite pleased with herself. She hangs back about fifty feet from the Lavish Chateau’s door.

“Hey, Molly?”

Molly stops and turns to her. “Yes?”

“This was…cool. Thanks.” No sass, no sarcasm, and she’s not even trying to disguise it as a backhanded compliment. Beau is genuinely thanking him for the time they spent together.

Molly smiles. “You’re welcome. Thanks for tagging along on my shopping spree.”

Beau adjusts her new coat. “Yeah, well, not like I didn’t get anything out of it.” And there it is, back to the façade of being too cool to care. Too late. Molly has seen behind the thorns. She cares. She even cares about him. Old habits tell Molly not to like her for it, but he does. A little. Enough.

“Shall we go make the others jealous they didn’t come with?” he asks.

Beau pulls her hat down into what is probably supposed to be a fashionable angle. Molly doesn’t tell her it actually looks silly. “We shall,” she says.

Chapter Text

Molly and Beau are just in time for their dinner meeting. A message from Jester enters Molly’s mind halfway to the stairs.

“Molly? Are you guys almost back yet? Fjord wants to talk to everyone and, um, especially Beau. Please let me know. Uh… Does ‘uh’ count—”

It takes effort to not reply. The spell tugs at him, expecting an answer. Instead he hops up the stairs as fast as he can while laden with his purchases so he can knock on the girls’ room door. Jester answers and her eyebrows shoot up when she see it’s him.

“Wow, that was fast.”

“I found a Scroll of Teleporting while we were out,” Molly says casually.

The shock of belief passes over Jester before she scrunches her face at him. “Did you really?”

Molly laughs. “No, I was downstairs when I got your message. Let me drop off my things and I’ll be ready.”

Caduceus is the only one in the boys’ room. He smiles to Molly. “I take it your shopping went well.”

“It did. Got you something.”

“Really?” Caduceus leans forward, glowing with excitement.

“Mhm.” Molly rummages through his many bags until he remembers he put the packet in his personal satchel. “Here you are. Marquesian tea and something called fusaka. They told me it’s a popular spice over there.”

Caduceus sniffs both the tea and the fusaka. The later makes him pull back and blink a few times, his ears flared out in surprise. “Wow,” he coughs. “That’s strong.”

“Can you use it?”

“I’ll see what I can do. Thank you very much, Molly.”

“You’re welcome.” That fusaka stuff was expensive. Molly managed to haggle down the price, but only because he bought so much tea. “And how was your day out?”

Caduceus beams. “It was great,” he says. “Really great. Terrific.”

“Why’s that?”

“Half the people we talked to said the island we’re going to is cursed. Supposedly there’s some kind of cult that lives there and they’ve been mutated into something unnatural. The jungle, too.” Caduceus sounds genuinely happy. His ears are pointed straight up and the tips are quivering.

“Um…that’s…wonderful?”

“It is! Maybe what’s happening there is like what’s happening to my home. Maybe this cult was dabbling in some kind of magic that corrupted the land and it affected them as well. If we find out who or what they were worshiping, it could give me some clues on how to save my temple.”

Now Molly gets it. “Oh! That is good news!” He gives Caduceus a congratulatory hug. The firbolg embraces him back and lifts him off the ground. A tickling rush tingles through Molly’s stomach. He lets out a spontaneous laugh. With his feet back on the floor, he asks, “And I take it you and Fjord found enough people to round out the crew?”

Caduceus nods. “There were a couple other people we were thinking of hiring, but Fjord says we could only afford so many supplies, and there’s only so many beds on the ship. Some guys could sleep on the floor, but I don’t even know how Fjord does it. His back must be in terrible shape.”

Molly’s tail curls and uncurls. “About that… I don’t know how big the beds are, but…um…did you want to keep sharing one? On the ship?”

There’s that all-seeing look again. “If that’s what you need, then sure.” Caduceus’s smile becomes deeper, adding crinkles around the corners of his eyes.

Molly turns on his own intuitive gaze. Caduceus needs this too. It’s clear in the angle of his ears and the shift in his posture when he answered. It was there when he left the bed to go with Fjord and he reached out to touch Molly one last time. Even the way he hugged him just now is different than usual. Caduceus is lonely. He’s a physically affectionate person stuck in a group of closed-off individuals, half of whom flinch at the mere mention of a hug. It’s not just Molly who benefited from their “intimate coping mechanism”. Caduceus is trying to cope as well. Molly gives him another hug. Caduceus’s grip takes on an appreciative tone.

“Thank you again for the tea,” Caduceus says, resting his cheek on the top of Molly’s head.

“I’m glad you like it.” Molly pats him on the back then reluctantly pushes himself away. “I got gifts for everyone else, too.”

Caduceus’s ears perk. “Well, that’s very thoughtful of you. There were some things I saw today that I thought of getting for people, but uh, I don’t think I know everyone’s preferences yet.”

“Don’t worry about it. You contribute to the group in your own way.” He doesn’t have to bring this up, but Molly is still somewhat bitter about it. “Fjord shouldn’t have made you change the way you look today. They’d find out what you really look like eventually. It would have been better for you to be yourself. You’re honestly not even intimidating. You’re just tall. Now, if you were a tiefling and you were that size, then you’d probably be fucking terrifying.”

“Really?” Caduceus strokes his beard with one eyebrow cocked. “Huh. Only one way to find out.”

“Wait, find out wha—”

Molly barely has time to comprehend what’s happening in front of him, then suddenly he is staring up at a seven foot tall tiefling, possibly eight foot tall including the horns. The tiefling has ashen skin, like Caduceus’s fur but smokier. His hair is long and blood-red, and it spills down from between two black horns that curve up and to the sides with inch-long sharp protrusions like spiked antlers. His tail has similarly sharp ridges that go from its base to halfway down its length, similar to the ones on Molly’s tail except larger and more angular. His eyes are also akin to Molly’s in that they are a single color punctuated by a faint shadowy pupil and barely visible iris, though rather than red these eyes are a gleaming amethyst that matches the crystal in Caduceus’s staff. Caduceus’s flowing clothes are gone. This towering tiefling is dressed shoulders-to-toes in dark leather armor strapped across a lean chest and thick tight muscles. He smiles, and it would be a pleasant smile were it not for the imposing fangs.

“How do I look?” Because Molly knows Caduceus, he can tell that he’s trying to sound sinister by lowering his already deep voice, but damn it’s effective.

Molly’s face burns. He quickly pulls his coat shut under the pretense of folding his arms as he surveys this new disguise. It does nothing to cover the smoldering shade of fuchsia that Molly knows his face is right now, but at least it prevents Caduceus from noticing that he’s also stiff as steel. Hopefully.

“Um…” Molly’s voice cracks. He clears his throat. “That…that is definitely scary. B-But it works.” He swallows. “Yep. That works.” The initial shock wears off. He grins. “We gotta show everyone! Come on!” He grabs Caduceus by the hand. Under the illusion it’s still soft and warm, though it has the outward appearance of long thin fingers with wicked nails at the end. Caduceus allows Molly to pull him out into the hallway, where their first stop is the girls’ room. Molly knocks fervently on the door.

“Yeah yeah, we’re coming,” Beau answers from inside.

“No, it’s not that, but hurry up and see this before we get kicked out!” Molly exclaims.

A moment later the door opens. Beau rolls her eyes and stops halfway through. In a blur of muscle she’s crouched with her fists up. “What the fuck is that?

Caduceus waves cheerily. It’s so fucking bizarre to watch. “Hi, Beau!”

Caduceus?

“Holy shit!” Jester shouts. She bolts off the bed and comes running to the door. Her jaws drop and her cheeks darken. “Caduceus is that really you?”

“Yeah, it’s me.”

Beau looks from Caduceus to Molly and back, sputtering. “Wha— Why— How— What— WHAT?

Yasha approaches calmly yet cautiously. “This is…new,” she says.

Molly is positively giddy. “All I said was he’s not scary, he’s just tall, but if he were tall and a tiefling he’d be scary. And then THIS happened!” He squeals through his grin. “Is this great or what?”

“I’m gonna go with ‘or what’,” Beau says.

Jester nods, her eyes wide. “Caduceus you are definitely waaay scarier like this, but like, in an awesome way.”

Yasha shrugs. “I’ve seen worse.”

“Has Fjord seen this?” Beau asks.

“Not yet. Where is he?”

“I dunno, I thought he’d be in your room.”

“Well, he wasn’t, but do you want to come to Caleb and Nott’s room with us?”

“Yes!” Jester bounces out into the hall and goes to knock on their door.

Caleb opens it a crack, not enough to see what’s happening. Something small and white is sticking out of his hair, but Molly can’t tell what it is. He doesn’t care at the moment either. He bites his lip in anticipation of Caleb’s reaction. “Hello, Jester,” Caleb says. “Did you need something?”

You need to see this!” Jester points to Caduceus.

The door opens wider. Caleb pokes his head out. There are several white things in his hair. He looks down the hall and immediately staggers backwards. “Scheiße!

“What is it?” Nott scrambles out. At the sight of Caduceus she screams and reaches for her crossbow, which is currently not in its holster, thankfully.

“Oh wow,” Caduceus says. “I didn’t think it would be that bad.”

“…Herr Clay?” Caleb clutches his chest. “Gods, I thought Molly had summoned a demon.”

Thudding footsteps on the stairs herald Fjord’s arrival. With him is Blude, Marion’s minotaur bodyguard. They both draw their blades at the sight of Caduceus. “What is that?!” Fjord yelps.

Caduceus immediately drops his disguise. His ears are hanging low and he’s more hunched in on himself. “I don’t think I liked that very much,” he says.

Fjord sighs with relief and dismisses his falchion. “Fuck’s sakes, Ducey. Don’t scare me like that.”

Blude still has his weapon out. “Everything is okay then?”

Jester skips over to give him a hug. “Yes, Bluuude, thank yooou.”

Molly explains one more time how this all happened. Caduceus apologizes to Blude for the commotion. He’s visibly upset by everyone’s reactions to his disguise to the point where Molly almost tells him how sexy it was. Almost. Instead he rubs one hand on the small of Caduceus’s back to comfort him.

“We could use that, though,” Fjord says. He has that gleam in his eye, the one that usually precedes a stupid plan full of bravado and unforeseen consequences. “In battle, or if we’re trying to intimidate someone. I mean, I nearly shit my pants just now, not gonna lie.”

“But Fjord,” Jester says, “you and Blude were going to attack him. What if he uses that disguise and all it does is make everyone want to kill him?”

“Would they?” Caduceus asks. His ears tremble and there’s a worried wrinkle in his nose.

Molly grins devilishly at Fjord. “And furthermore, wouldn’t standing near that make you look even punier by comparison?”

Fjord scowls. “I’m not—” He growls a sigh. “Fine. Never mind, then.” He crosses his arms with a pout. Good. Serves him right. It’s almost unfair that Fjord has such an easy button to push. Molly knows better than to poke at Fjord’s insecurities all the time, but it’s a good way to put him in his place when he’s being a bastard. He doesn’t throw a tantrum about it the way he has in the past, stomping his foot and insisting he’s not “small” or “puny” he’s just “fit” or some other synonym that sounds less demeaning. His lower lip bulges, however, which Molly recognizes as Fjord running his tongue over his tusks the way he does when he wants to pick at them.

Jester puts her hands on her hips. “Fjord isn’t puny,” she says. “He’s the perfect size.” She walks over to hug Caduceus. “And you’re perfect just the way you are, too. You are very nice and sweet and fun to be around.” She looks up at him with a grin. “But for a tiefling you were super fucking attractive.”

Heat spreads across Molly’s face again. Good to know he wasn’t the only one to appreciate that disguise. He can’t think about that right now. Nope. Definitely can’t think about being pinned to the bed beneath that massive frame, or the fact that someone that size could probably take his cock on the first try, or what Caduceus’s cock would look like as a tiefling, or…or…

“I’m actually gonna agree with Fjord on this one,” Molly says. “First time I saw it I almost pissed myself. Still think I could at the mere memory. Gonna head to the toilet. I’ll meet you all downstairs.”

Good gods, walking when he’s this hard is uncomfortable, especially since he’s in a rush. He sighs with relief when he locks the door to the little room behind him. He pulls his pants down over his hips.

“You honestly couldn’t wait?” he scolds himself. “I thought you knew how to behave yourself around friends. Ugh, whatever, I guess it has been a while...”

A short time later, Molly emerges. He feels much better. At the same time, he knows he shouldn’t be associating Caduceus with that kind of activity, especially if they’re going to share a bed on this journey. Yes, it was lovely to cuddle with him earlier, and yes, if a tiefling like that ever solicited him Molly would be on his knees before the end of the question, but Caduceus isn’t like that. Molly would probably have more luck seducing Beau. Ew, no. As if he’d ever want to. He presses his palms over his eyes. The pressure is enough of a distraction that he can steer his mind off that course. They’re setting sail in the morning. Is he ready?

After a quick detour to his room to pick up everyone’s gifts, Molly descends to join the rest of the Mighty Nein for dinner. Caleb still has little white things in his hair, which Molly now recognizes as flowers. Most of them are tiny white clusters of flowers Molly has seen but doesn’t know the name of, though here and there Nott has woven a snowdrop or two into some loose braids. Beau has her new coat on. The sleeves look better than they did before, and it seems Jester has mended the rest of its wear and tear as well. Molly thought Beau only liked that coat because every idea felt like a good idea on those pills, but no. Apparently her taste is just like that.

The table in front of Fjord is covered in papers. “Oh good,” Fjord says when Molly sits down. “We can start.” He clears his throat. “Okay, guys. I wanted to thank you all again for agreeing to this. I’ve read over the documents Beau and Caleb acquired — thank you both again, by the way — and it sounds like this Captain Avantika isn’t the sort of person you pick a fight with. Our ship doesn’t have any cannons anyway, so our best option is to parlay, be real friendly, just exchange information and see what we can learn.”

“We tried that last night,” Beau says. “It didn’t work.”

Fjord frowns. “No, it did. We got what we needed, and then some. And it’s a good thing we killed the previous captain of this ship. From what I’ve gleaned, Jawgrasp was a mean son-of-a-bitch with some kind of magic that they don’t describe in detail. What they do specify is that he wasn’t supposed to leave any witnesses. He was going to kill Marius as soon as he got the sphere. We saved a man’s life and took out some bad people in the process.”

Beau, once again, has to be the pessimist. “And what makes you think this Avantika won’t have us executed the minute she finds out what we did?”

“We have what she wants. We can be helpful. I can pretend I’m looking for the same thing she is. If we find it and it’s dangerous, we can kill her and get the hell out of dodge. Our ship is fast. Might take some fire on the way out, but I’ve seen what this group can do and I’m confident we’d be okay.”

Fjord talks for a little while about the crew they hired that day, what jobs they’ll all be doing, what the members of the Mighty Nein can do to help run things, all peppered with jargon that Molly doesn’t understand but Fjord clearly does and that’s what matters. Molly is more focused on enjoying his food. Caduceus is a good cook, but they won’t have quality like this for the next few weeks. He takes large bites to savor the texture and small bites to prolong the flavor, with sips of his new favorite mixed drink in between.

Eventually the topic comes to living quarters. Fjord shifts through his papers until he finds a hand-drawn map of the ship’s interior. “This is the general crew quarters. Some of us can sleep there if we want to. As the captain, my room is here, but I can share it if we need the space. Otherwise there are a couple rooms with two beds and a handful with one.”

Caduceus points to one of the single-bed rooms. “Molly and I can take this one. It’s close to the kitchen — er, galley — which is good for me, I suppose.”

“Uh…Caduceus, that room only has one bed.”

“I know.” One of Caduceus’s ear flicks casually. “We’ve been sharing one so far. Like you said, we need to think about conserving space.”

“Yeah, but…” Fjord’s eyes dart from Caduceus to Molly and back. His lower lip bulges again. Molly suppresses a smirk. Perhaps his suspicions are correct; Fjord might be struggling with some unacknowledged attraction to men and he’s jealous of how Molly is around Caduceus. Fjord puts his hands up. “Okay. We’ll go with that for now and you can decide when you see the room.”

“Nott and I will also take a single room,” Caleb says. “We are quite used to each other’s company by now.”

“And I don’t mind sleeping on the floor,” Nott adds.

The women decide to take their usual arrangement as well, in a room with two beds. Beau asks if she can steal a hammock from the crew’s quarters to put in their room. Fjord, already drooping with his face propped up against his palm, agrees with a resigned tone. Beau pumps her fist in triumph.

“I fucking love hammocks,” she says.

Fjord rubs his eyes and inhales sharply. “While we’re talking about you, Beau, there was something I wanted to ask you.”

“Yeah?”

“There is one crucial position we didn’t fill that I think would suit you well.”

Beau narrows her eyes. “…What’s that?”

Fjord straightens in his chair. “How would you like to be first mate?”

Beau’s eyes snap back open. Her jaw goes slack. “Me?”

“Yeah, you. First mate has to keep the captain in check and the crew in line. Can’t think of a better person for the job.” Fjord holds out his hand with a smile. “So how ‘bout it?”

Molly doesn’t think it sounds like that good of an idea. The job of first mate — from what he understands — should go to someone who knows how to sail, or at least someone who has been on a fucking ship before. Then again, the Mighty Nein isn’t much for doing things the way they’re supposed to be done. None of them is really qualified for any sort of leadership position, except maybe Fjord. As captain, Fjord has a point; he needs someone who can keep an eye on him. Beau’s always standing back and observing things, making judgements. She’ll know when he’s getting out of line and needs a firm smack upside the head, and she’ll actually give him one, too.

At the moment, Beau is acting like the one who just got smacked. Under the wall of stoic brambles are flashes of excitement, confusion, and hesitation. Her eyes sparkle in the light from the overhead candelabras.

“Sure!” Beau finally exclaims. Her face breaks into a beaming grin. “Yeah, that sounds awesome!” She shakes Fjord’s hand so vigorously that Fjord’s own smile curls into a grimace of pain. “Oops, sorry.”

“No worries.” Fjord flexes the fingers of his damaged hand. He uses the other hand to pick up his mug of beer. “We’re fuckin’ doing this then. Cheers!”

An echo of “Cheers!” passes around the group as they knock their drinks together.

Molly heaves his sack of gifts up onto his lap. “Then I guess now is the perfect time to hand out preeeseeents,” he says in a sing-song voice.

Jester gasps with joy. “Preseeents?

“Yes, but you get yours last.” Molly winks and sticks out his tongue. Jester sticks hers out right back at him. Molly sticks his out further. She does the same. They lean in at each other, tongues extended as far as they can go. Molly waggles the forked tips of his to show off, since she didn’t inherit that from her tiefling half and hers is just plain except for the fact that it’s indigo. Jester blows a raspberry at him. A fleck of spit hits him on the cheek. “Okay, fine,” Molly concedes with a playful pout as he wipes it off. “You get yours first.”

As expected, Jester loves the ribbons Molly bought her. Everyone expresses their appreciation for their gifts. Molly doesn’t give Yasha the wine, or even tell her that’s what he got her. He simply says he has a surprise that they can enjoy together later. Yasha nods with a knowing smile.

The gift Molly is most apprehensive about giving is the one for Caleb. He hands the shirts to him first. “I got you these so you can spread the stink out and maybe make it easier to always have something clean to wear,” he says. He’s teasing. Caleb, for all his dirt, doesn’t smell as bad as some true beggars Molly has known. He suspects something in Caleb’s fiery nature burns off the worst of the smell whenever he uses his magic.

Caduceus interjects, “I think Mister Caleb smells fine.”

“Well, I did have a bath today,” Caleb says. “I, um… It occurred to me that I should have one…um…before going into such close quarters with everyone.” Molly notices the way Caleb’s eyes are decidedly not looking in Jester’s direction. Caleb blinks and busies himself examining the shirts. They’re both light and loose with long sleeves that have a small string on the wrist that can attach to a loop on the shoulder and keep them rolled up above his elbows. One is white and the other is a shade of blue similar to the robe he was wearing earlier that looked so good on him. “Thank you, Mollymauk,” he says. His smile is subtle, but the gratitude is in the softness of his eyes as they actually make contact with Molly’s for a moment.

Molly grins. “And I got you one more thing. Just a little something I spotted on my way out of the store and figured you could use.” He ignores Beau clearing her throat to cover a short laugh two seats over. He sets the item on the table in one of the few spots not occupied by food and drink.

It’s a belt with an assortment of pouches ranging from two large enough to hold a fist to a series of tiny sheaths Molly could barely fit his pinky into. The owner of the shop told him the belt was popular with explorers and cartographers who needed to keep their hands free but also needed easy access to things like compasses and spare quills. There’s even a hook to hold a canteen or water skin. The pouches aren’t arranged by size, so the belt looks somewhat awkward, but Caleb is definitely a “function over form” type anyway.

“Figured it’s hot where we’re going,” Molly says. “You’re not going to want to wear your coat all the time, but this way you can have your spell components with you.”

Caleb notices there’s something already in some of the pouches. He opens them with his brow furrowed in bewildered curiosity. His expression gradually switches to amazement as he unpacks the small bricks of incense Beau got from the apothecary. “Oh, wow… I— You didn’t have to—” He takes a deep breath and smiles. “Thank you, Mollymauk.”

“That’s only some of it,” Molly says. “The rest is in my room, but I thought this would be fun. And you can actually thank Beau for the incense. She’s the one who bought it.”

Caleb turns to Beau, though his gaze is still on the belt as he opens each pouch. “Thank you, Beauregard. And thank you again for the belt, Mollymauk. It’s perfect.”

Molly waves his hand. “Like I said, just something I saw and thought you’d like.” He saw it after visiting five different shops and asking if they had one. It was the sort of thing he knew had to exist somewhere because Caleb couldn’t be the first to need one, but damn was it hard to explain. Everyone suggested he buy a bunch of pouches and tie them to a regular belt. That would be too bulky, and Caleb would have to fumble with the string every time he needed to pull something out. These pouches have buttons that easily open and shut. He’s so glad Caleb likes it. It takes effort not to grin like an idiot every time Caleb toys with it.

Some further business is discussed over the next hour or so, but mostly they focus on dinner and conversation. Fjord fills Beau in on some of her other duties as first mate, and from what Molly hears Beau should actually be able to do them well. Jester attempts to make amends with Caleb by offering some of her ribbons to decorate his new belt and even color code the pouches by what’s in them. Caleb accepts on the condition that he get to choose the color code, and she’ll have to wait until he knows what will go where. In the meantime he summons Frumpkin and allows her to give him a pretty pink bow. Yasha shows Caduceus the flowers she has added to her book after her trip to the shop with Nott. Caduceus recognizes a few of them and is delighted to learn the names of the ones he doesn’t. Molly watches Yasha and Caduceus between glances at Caleb. He had contemplated taking another pill with dinner, but seeing his friends so happy gives him a similar light and giddy feeling that warms his heart.

Molly ascends the stairs at the end of the night drowsy, satiated, and head spinning gently from his third glass of alcohol. Caduceus, who only drank fruit juice, puts a hand on his back to help him to the washroom. He’s even waiting outside when Molly finishes getting ready for bed to escort him to their room.

“Thank you, Mister Clay,” Molly says, patting the firbolg’s fuzzy hand.

“Any time.”

Fjord is already tucked into his bedroll with his back to the bed. He does that every night, and when Molly remembers why he feels his stomach tighten. Caduceus doesn’t mind the fact that Molly sleeps naked, but after today Molly isn’t sure that’s a good idea. All three of them have had to deal with morning wood around each other since that just kind of happens and they all know it. Now Molly was hoping to do some more cuddling, which would be made quite awkward by a sudden erection. Wearing pants to bed wouldn’t necessarily stop that from happening, but it would help conceal it.

Molly takes his time removing his jerkin so he can weigh his options. First, he could sleep the way he always does, naked and giving Caduceus some personal space, but he’s itching for some more intimacy. Second, he could wear some form of pants to sleep, which might provoke suspicion, but would make cuddling a little more comfortable. Third, he could go to bed naked, cuddle with Caduceus, and hope that the underclothes Caduceus wears to bed will be enough to prevent him from feeling anything inappropriate. Then there’s always the option of telling Fjord he’s willing to swap places so Fjord can sleep on a soft surface again, but that means absolutely no opportunity for cuddling and he would have to sleep on the floor. Molly curses his own involuntary attraction to Caduceus’s tiefling form and his mind’s inability to stop fucking fantasizing about it.

It’s the look Caduceus gives him as the firbolg settles into the bed that breaks him. There’s timid expectation in his eyes and it’s so sweet and so inviting that Molly can’t turn him down. He slips out of his pants. This will be a test. They’re going to share a bed on the ship and he has to know he can keep his urges in check. This is in no way Caduceus’s fault, so Molly has to be the one to learn some self-control.

A good portion of Molly’s self-control vanishes the instant Caduceus puts an arm around him to pull him close. Fortunately, the act is innocent enough that he can tell his sex drive to cool it, but the rest of him is hungry for touch. The fantasies of pleasuring Caduceus the tiefling give way to fantasies of all the ways he and Caduceus the firbolg can snuggle. They resume their first cuddling position, with Molly’s face warmly nuzzled in the soft pink hair on Caduceus’s chest. He puts his own arm around Caduceus’s lean waist. To his utter delight, Caduceus scritches his head again. As thanks, Molly rubs light circles on Caduceus’s back. If he weren’t right up against him Molly might have missed the quiet hum of content, but since Caduceus practically has his chin resting on the top of Molly’s head, Molly feels it in his horns.

“Good night,” he mumbles.

“Good night,” Caduceus replies through a yawn.

“G’night,” Fjord grunts.

Molly almost reminds Fjord that he’s welcome to join them, but he knows Fjord won’t do it. Besides, now that he’s cozy and confident that there won’t be any incidents, Molly decides to be selfish and keep Caduceus all to himself tonight. Then he fully realizes he’ll get Caduceus to himself every night while they’re at sea.

Molly falls asleep smiling giddily into Caduceus’s chest.

 

Chapter Text

Molly awakes with the sweet musky scent of fur in his nose. There’s an odd sensation in his tail. It takes a moment for him to process what’s happening. Caduceus still has his arms around him, and Molly’s tail is wrapped around the one across his lower back. The end of his tail is twined through Caduceus’s fingers and he’s rubbing it between his thumb and forefinger. Molly isn’t sure if Caduceus did that or if his tail arranged itself like that in his sleep. Either way, it’s a good feeling. A really good feeling.

Too good.

Oh no.

Molly pretends he’s stretching in order to angle his hips away from Caduceus. As much as it hurts, Molly briefly delves into the parts of his memory that are full of confusion and fear to quickly quash his erection. It’s been ages since he paid attention to the whispers, but the ache hits him deeper the longer he thinks about those early days. His cock shrivels back up into him in response. With that settled, he snuggles harder into the comfort of Caduceus’s body. The warmth drives away the chill those memories sent along Molly’s spine and into his heart.

“Good morning,” Caduceus says. He squeezes Molly’s tail affectionately.

“Good morning to you.” Molly disentangles his tail, also pretending it’s because he needs to stretch it. He does, but that’s not the half of it. He can only take so much before his arousal surpasses his willpower. “That was the best night’s sleep I’ve had in a long time.”

“That’s good.” Caduceus rubs Molly’s back, then freezes. “Oh, shoot. I just remembered I was going to work on your scar last night.”

Molly pats him. “It’s okay. Last night…a lot of things happened. Your mind was somewhere else.”

“Yeah, I guess.” Caduceus’s fingers trace a pensive pattern on Molly’s skin. “Was I really that scary as a tiefling? You are Jester aren’t scary. Not to me, anyway.”

“Like I said, it was the combination of being a tiefling and huge. You know how Caleb made Beau massive that one time and we were all like ‘Well, shit’? Imagine if I were a foot taller than you. And you had no idea who I was.”

Caduceus thinks for a moment. “Huh. You make a valid point.”

Molly regrets asking before it’s out of his mouth, but he can’t stop himself from saying, “Why don’t you do it again? I’ll tell you the scary parts so you can decide if you want to keep them if you need that disguise for something.”

“Okay.”

Then Molly is facing the armored chest of Caduceus’s tiefling disguise. It’s odd because he can feel fur beneath his palm. He scoots away, grateful for the bedsheet over them both that offers privacy from the waist down. It truly is bizarre to see Caduceus’s expression this tiefling’s face. What’s even more bizarre is that one of his horns passes straight through the pillow into the bed, yet Molly can still see it. Trying to comprehend it gives him a headache, but turning his eyes elsewhere provides different problems.

Molly fights the heat and color trying to creep up onto his cheeks. He looks into the tiefling’s crystalline amethyst eyes. Caduceus is definitely in there. The ears are shorter and more pointed, the nose is thinner, and his mouth is a different shape to accommodate the fangs, but the way his brow is set and the kindness of his countenance remain the same.

“Show me your teeth,” Molly says. He bares his own teeth with his lips pulled back as far as they’ll go to demonstrate.

Caduceus mimics him. To anyone else it might look like a vicious snarl, but Molly can see the concern as Caduceus waits for his appraisal.

“You made your fangs bigger than they need to be,” Molly says. “See mine? They’re narrower and don’t touch my bottom gums. What you’ve got is good for intimidating people, but if that’s not your goal then you can make them smaller.”

Caduceus nods. He closes his mouth and licks his lips. “What else?”

“The horns. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a tiefling whose horns had spikes like that. Again, great for being intimidating. Looks very demonic. A little too demonic. I like the shape, the way they curve up like that. Very nice. That can stay.”

“And the eyes?” Caduceus asks. “Are the eyes too much?”

Molly snorts. “Your eyes are the least scary thing about you. They’re gorgeous. Never seen anyone with eyes like that. I don’t know if that’s because no one can have eyes like that or if I just haven’t met them yet. But no, they’re fine.”

“Anything else?”

“Eh… It’s really just the height. You can make yourself shorter though, yeah?”

“I can appear shorter, yes. I can’t actually make myself shorter. I mean, maybe I could if I really tried, but, uh, I don’t think so.”

“Well there you have it. If we wind up somewhere where you need to be disguised as a tiefling, you can look like this, but more…normal-sized.”

Caduceus nods with a smile. Fuck, why does the smile turn Molly on as much as anything else Caduceus’s tiefling form does? “Okay, I’ll keep that in mind. I’m, uh…I’m gonna change back now, if there’s nothing else.”

Stupid impulse after stupid impulse, yet somehow Molly never learns. He takes Caduceus by the back of the head so he can pull himself forward and kiss him on the forehead. It’s still odd that he sees skin but feels soft fuzz against his lips. “You don’t need to be afraid to look like this. I’m not. You also shouldn’t be afraid of looking like yourself. You’re a perfectly lovely person no matter what you look like, but I prefer you when you’re comfortable with your appearance.” And he shouldn’t be afraid of associating Caduceus with this form. He’s never going to use it, and the boundary between him and Molly in his usual guise is set. They are friends, even if their friendship is more physical than with the others. Molly wouldn’t dare risk that for something as stupid as his libido. He can behave himself.

Caduceus drops his disguise. His smile spreads wider. This smile makes Molly’s heart swell instead. “Thank you,” he says. He glances down at Molly’s chest. Molly prays he doesn’t look further. “Want me to work on your scar?”

“If you want to.”

Molly digs at old painful memories again so he can get up and grab his disguise kit. Using the narrowest brush that’s generally for painting on freckles and wrinkles, Molly marks the edges of the scar as best he can for reference. Caduceus places his hand over it carefully so the make-up won’t smudge. Molly lies back and relaxes. The warmth of the spell feels good. It’s like a mug of spiced wine fresh off the fire after being outside in the cold. Molly wouldn’t mind doing this all day, but Caduceus only has so many spells and there’s no telling what he might need to do later.

Now that they know where the scar’s borders were when they started, it’s much more obvious that the healing is working. Molly suggests that Caduceus simply got better at it after the first time. Caduceus seems quite pleased with himself either way. After Molly wipes off the make-up he doesn’t want to get out of bed, so he slumps himself across Caduceus’s waist, tail flicking lazily at his ankles.

“They’re not going to leave without us,” Molly says. “We can stay here a little longer.”

Caduceus’s stomach rumbles under Molly. “I might agree with you, but I’d like some breakfast before we go. Fjord left about half an hour ago, and I’m not sure what he’s up to, but uh, I guess if he hasn’t come to get us it means we’re not late for anything.”

“Great. Five more minutes then.”

Five minutes turns to ten, at which point Caduceus’s stomach growls insistently. Caduceus is as reluctant as Molly to end their cuddle session, but food is important. “Later,” he promises, patting Molly on the cheek.

“Later,” Molly says. He kisses Caduceus’s hand to confirm that he’ll hold him to that promise.

While Caduceus gets dressed, Molly gets his new pairs of pants and adds a tail hole into both of them. The edges are frayed, so Molly pulls out his sewing kit to tidy it up.

“I’ll be down for breakfast in a minute,” he tells Caduceus. “Order me some eggs and those really good biscuits with gravy they have.” Molly’s mouth waters at the thought. To save time he only works on the pants he’s going to wear today, a burgundy pair loose enough to be breezy but not so baggy that the fabric bunches up when he walks. He isn’t as meticulous with his stitches as he usually is. It’ll serve. It feels alright when he puts them on. The hole isn’t out of place, the edges don’t tickle or irritate his tail, and the hole isn’t so wide it exposes any of his ass. He pulls on one of his new shirts and hops downstairs to eat.

Marion has joined the group at the table. She and Jester have their chairs up against each other so they can sit directly side-by-side. Jester is leaning against her mother while she devours a stack of pancakes and Marion elegantly enjoys some toast. There’s a space set up for Molly, between Caduceus and Yasha. In that space is a plate of glistening eggs, fluffy biscuits, and heavenly-smelling bacon. Next to the plate is the little boat of gravy and a crystal glass of juice.

“Thank you, Mr. Clay,” Molly says as he slides into his seat.

Caduceus swallows his mouthful of fruit. “Actually, Miss Yasha had already ordered for you by the time I got here.”

Molly smiles to Yasha. “You know me so well, dear.”

Yasha huffs a short laugh. “You’re really not that hard to figure out.”

Shh!” Molly whispers loudly. “Don’t give away my secret!” He grins and gives his best friend a hug. She pats him on the head then returns to wolfing down a mound of eggs and hash browns.

As with dinner, Molly takes time eating his breakfast to better appreciate it while he has it. The eggs are perfectly seasoned. The biscuits melt in his mouth. The bacon is a bit more crisp than he would like, but who cares, it’s bacon. He wraps up two pieces and puts them in his pocket for later, flashing a smile at Beau. Beau suddenly realizes the opportunity in front of her and similarly stows away her remaining bacon.

Molly is wiping his plate with the last half of his last biscuit when Marion raises her glass. “May you all have a safe journey, may the winds always favor your sails, and may your return be heralded with joy.”

Fjord raises his own glass. “May the land be good to you in our absence.” He says it like it’s the expected response for such a toast. Jester raises her glass too, and soon they all do. Molly leans over the table to make sure he clinks his glass with everyone else’s. Caleb originally just clinked his against Nott’s and Beau’s, since they were directly on either side of him, but Molly made the effort to stretch over and reach him. It took some tail-flailing to keep his balance, which didn’t look all that dignified. As always, Caleb’s smile was worth it.

“Is there anything else I can do for you before you go?” Marion asks.

“Thank you, but you’ve already done so much,” Fjord says. “If anything, we should be askin’ you how we can repay your hospitality.”

Molly clears his throat. “Um, actually, I was going to ask if I could get a bath before we go?”

Fjord gives Molly a look, but Marion smiles. “That won’t be a problem,” she says. “I assume it will be a quick one? You are leaving while the tide is high, after all, yes?”

“Oh yes, I just need to wash my hair one more time. It’s the one downside of adventuring, really. You never know when you’ll get to properly wash your hair again. Despite that, Jester manages to wake up looking fantastic every day.”

Jester grins from ear to ear. Marion chuckles. “You’re too sweet.” She adds to Jester in quiet Infernal, “You might have two gentlemen courting you.”

“Mama!” Jester hisses back, also in Infernal. “He’s right there!

Molly flashes a smile that shows off his fangs. “That was more a compliment to her parentage,” he says, once again trying to make his Infernal sound softer. “For some, beauty is effortless, a gift shared from mother to daughter.”

Marion smiles back, a hint of maroon on her cheeks. “Trick-tongued creature,” she says teasingly. She switches back to Common for the benefit of the others. “A bath is easy to arrange. If the rest of you would like one, that won’t be any trouble.”

Jester glares daggers at Molly. Molly flicks his tongue at her to show it’s all in fun. It’s so rare he gets to practice flirting in Infernal. He tried with Ophelia Mardun and…it didn’t go well. The first time the Nein had met her, Molly was sleeping off his resurrection back at the temple, watched over by Caduceus and Nila. After they had the whole team back together and were ready to escort her to the Gentleman, Ophelia had congratulated Molly on his recovery. Apparently remarking to her in Infernal that “Neither a blade nor the sting of love can wound me for long” was not the best idea. She had laughed at him then avoided him for the rest of the trip. Jester teased him for it all the way back to Zadash.

Caduceus takes Marion up on the offer of an extra bath, though the rest all politely decline. Marion summons one of her nearby attendants and tells them to get the Chateau’s baths ready. Molly had used them once their first night here. They weren’t as impressive as the ones at a bathhouse, but there were three private rooms with a large copper tub each, all equipped with an assortment of soaps and lotions. Molly pops a pill while his stomach is pleasantly full and by the time the bath is ready his extremities are tingling.

The hot water feels amazing. Molly submerges himself. He lies at the bottom of the tub and watches the bubbles from his nose rise to the surface. The calm silence of the water presses into his ears. His hair drifts around his horns like grass blowing in the breeze. The best part is that when he wants to get out, he can. The water doesn’t hold him down like dirt, it doesn’t press onto his lungs and choke him, it just lets him float back up and breathe in the fragrant steam and cool air that he can feel in his blood. Water is so nice.

Despite the drugs urging him to relax and enjoy the moment, there’s one fragment of clarity in his brain that is aware he doesn’t have all day. On his way upstairs Fjord had hissed at him that if it came down to losing high tide or losing him, he’d let Molly find his own was to Urukaxl. He was lying, of course. Molly could tell. Still, best not to piss off the party by making them wait for tide to rise again.

Molly loses himself again temporarily as he washes his hair and revels in the sensation of his fingertips massaging his scalp. It reminds him of Caduceus. Caduceus is taking a bath. Caduceus could fit in this tub with him, maybe. Molly hasn’t taken a bath with someone pressed against him in so long. Cuddling with Caduceus is like taking a bath, except he’s bathing in comfort and fur and platonic intimacy. The Mighty Nein should form a cuddle pile one of these days. Preferably naked…

Focus.

Molly finishes his bath. Once he’s dry he puts his clothes back on and returns to their room. Fjord’s stuff is gone. Caduceus’s is neatly packed. Molly’s is a bit scattered from trying to find his disguise kit earlier. He tosses his belongings into his bags, keeping out what he needs to prepare himself for the day.

Molly intends to make a fabulous first impression on the new crew. It won’t be something he can keep up during the whole trip, nor will he have much reason to, but looking his best puts him in a good mood and he wants to be bright inside and out when they set sail. He brushes his hair and buffs the velvety coating on his horns until he shines. The jewelry he took off for the bath goes back on, plus some additional bangles and baubles for his horns, tail, and wrists. His coat goes over his shoulders and he adjusts the hood so it sits neatly at the nape of his neck. He stands in front of the mirror with his makeup, deciding what he wants to do with his face. Vivid eyeliner and shadow to make the red pop. Balm on his lips to make them glisten. A touch of powdered color on his cheeks to bring out his bone structure.

Molly admires his reflection for a minute or two. He truly is a sight to behold. It doesn’t matter if people love him or hate him, he knows he’s gorgeous. He winks at himself in the mirror. Did Lucien ever make himself up like this? Doubtful. Lucien probably kept his head shaved because he couldn’t be bothered to even brush his hair.

“It’s mine now, fucker,” Molly says. “You abandoned it, I got it, and I’m making the most of it.” He flips the mirror off and saunters away with a confident swagger in his hips and a carefree swish of his tail.

Caduceus returns from his own bath as Molly is gathering his bags. His fur is brushed from head to toe and smells like cedar. Molly had personally gone with the soap that smelled like cinnamon and oranges, because damn it when you have the opportunity to smell delicious then you fucking take it. Caduceus sniffs him and smiles.

“Wow, never seen you done up like this. It’s nice.”

Molly bows. “Thank you, dear. You cleaned up well yourself.”

Caduceus runs his fingers through his long damp hair. They get stuck halfway through. “Well, you had a point about not knowing when we’d get a chance to have a real bath again. In case you haven’t noticed, I uh, I have a tendency to shed when I’m too dirty, so…yeah.” He inhales deeply. “Plus now I smell nice, which is good.”

“Very good.” If Molly hadn’t just spent so much effort on his makeup he would happily lean his face into Caduceus and bask in his scent. Instead he blows Caduceus a little kiss. “Better hurry up and get dressed. High tide doesn’t last forever.”

Caduceus comes downstairs only a few minutes after Molly. He’s wearing his armor, which strikes Molly as odd, but he’s also wearing that quaint straw hat of his. In the meantime, Jester and her mother have hugged no fewer than eight times, Caleb has had Frumpkin patrolling at Nott’s side to keep her from stealing anything, and Beau has been walking around in her new coat, hat, and boots practicing her first mate strut. Molly has watched all of this with Yasha, occasionally exchanging an amused glance with her.

With the whole Nein assembled, Fjord says, “Is that everyone, then? Alright. Let’s move out.”

They all say goodbye to Marion on their way. A few people at the tables watch with awe and confusion. Molly gives Marion a sweeping bow and a wink. She shakes her head with a smile. It is then that Molly notices the creature hanging off her shoulder.

“Jester,” Molly says when he catches up to her. “You left your weasel.”

Jester slumps her shoulders. “Sprinkle is going to stay here with Mama.”

“But you love Sprinkle!”

“I do, and I love Mama too and I’m going to miss them both, but I’ll be happy knowing they’re with each other. I don’t want Sprinkle to get hurt and I don’t want Mama to be lonely.”

That’s fair. Molly had thought buying animals was a bad idea in the first place, but Jester had brightened so much when she got that weasel. And Molly was looking forward to all the antics that thing would get up to on the ship. Oh well. He’ll have to be the one to get up to the antics and make Jester smile.

It’s a long walk to the docks. Molly sees so many places he wants to shop at when they get back. Hopefully this adventure of theirs is going to end in some form of reward. It’s not like Molly can’t survive on a meager budget, but his recent lifestyle of being able to treat himself weekly or even daily rather than whenever he scrounges up a handful of silver is amazing.

There’s their ship. It looks larger in the daytime. It will probably feel small after a few days. Molly is so glad he had Beau get him those pills. The one he took after breakfast should last him a little while longer. He’s not sure if it’s real or an effect of the drugs, but the water look like a shifting field of diamonds. It’ll be nice to sail on that.

Jester suddenly screams. It’s a happy scream, but it makes Molly jump nonetheless. “Oh my gosh oh my gosh she didn’t!” Jester dances in place with an excited squeal.

It only takes a quick look to see what has her so excited. On the side of the ship in fresh bold letters is the name Sapphire of the Sea.

“Something she and I discussed last night,” Fjord says. “I figured since The Mist had a bad reputation, we’d want to change the name. This—” he points to the ship “—was your mother’s idea.”

Jester flings herself at Fjord and hugs him tight. His cheeks turn a darker green. That might have something to do with the strength of Jester’s hugs and the possibility that he can’t currently breathe. They’re both adorable.

The Zolezzo have come to see them off. The back of Molly’s neck prickles. They haven’t done anything wrong, technically. Everything on the ship is paid for, the crew are all good people, so why should they need law enforcement here? Another reason why Molly dislikes lawkeepers: they always try to stick themselves where they aren’t needed. Fjord deals with them, once he’s free from Jester’s grasp. He presents their papers while the rest make their way onto the ship.

It’s a fine day. There are thick clouds on the horizon, but directly above them it’s little patches of fluffy white on a backdrop of gorgeous blue. The air is warm and the breeze is cool. The tails of Molly’s coat snap behind him like banners in the wind that blows across the deck. He follows the others down to deposit his things in his new room.

Fjord was right. It is a small space and the bed looks barely big enough for one. Molly grins. That means he and Caduceus will have to snuggle extra close in order to fit. He wants to cuddle right now, while he’s a little high and in good spirits. However, he still hasn’t met the crew and he is not smudging his makeup before that. No. He can wait. Hopefully.

He can’t.

“Caduceus,” Molly says when the firbolg enters the room. “Let’s make sure we can both actually fit on this. Y’know, before we settle in and someone else takes a double room.”

Caduceus is his usual accommodating self. “Okay.”

For the sake of his makeup, Molly rolls up his sleeve to rest his cheek on his bare arm and has Caduceus be the big spoon. They can, indeed, both fit, and there’s even enough room for them to lie side-by-side if they don’t mind rubbing shoulders while they sleep. Molly doesn’t think that’ll be a problem.

The issue is the length of the bed. Caduceus has to either lie with his head up to the wall or with his feet hanging over the end. There’s a chest for their belongings in the room. Molly doesn’t mind keeping all his things in his bag so he folds his bedroll on the chest and pushes it against the foot of the bed. It’s a few inches shorter, but with the bedroll Caduceus can at least rest his heels on it.

“Thank you, Molly,” Caduceus says with a big smile. “That’s very kind of you.” He gives Molly a careful hug and a pat on the head. Molly beams.

Caduceus heads to the kitchen while Molly makes his way back upstairs. The hired crew have arrived. Some are loitering around the deck and some are still filing up the ramp. Everyone’s heads turn to Molly as he emerges. He lifts his chin with pride.

“I didn’t know we were bringing ‘entertainment’ with us,” one crew member scoffs.

“I’d rather they have brought a woman,” another says.

“…Is that not a female? Them tieflings are strange.”

Molly gives them both a sultry smile. “I’m flexible. Makes me very entertaining, however I chose to be.” While the men are staring at him, trying to figure out what he means, Molly launches himself into a series of cartwheels. His hands slip on the third one, but he manages to roll into a split. It hurts, and his sword belt is digging into his hip. Nonetheless he throws his hands in the air with a flourish. A few people clap.

Yasha comes and helps him up. She turns to the men who were heckling him. “But as far as ‘entertaining’ goes, he’s spoken for.” Then she gives Molly a hefty slap on the ass. Molly curls his tail around her wrist. The sailors murmur amongst themselves. Yasha tugs his tail and leads him off to the side. “You okay?”

“Fine. Didn’t expect to be mistaken as a prostitute, but frankly I’ll take it as a compliment.”

“You do look…very attractive, I guess.”

Molly gives her a one-armed hug. “Thank you, dear. And now they all think I’m your bitch, which is fine by me.” He grins. “You don’t mind if I see people on the side, do you, love?”

Yasha shrugs. “Eh. So long as I get first dibs and you don’t catch any diseases, you can do what you want.”

Molly kisses her cheek, leaving behind a faint mark that catches the sunlight. “This is why I love you.”

Yasha tousles his hair, then smooths it flat. “Love you, too.”

Heavy footfalls catch Molly’s attention. Ascending onto the ship is a person Molly has only heard of, but no description could properly prepare him for the sight. The eyepatch, the shell, the pipes protruding from his back, are all very impressive, yes. What really draws Molly’s interest and delight are the tattoos. Fjord shakes hands — claws? Molly isn’t sure how to describe what this astounding entity has at the ends of his arms — with him and says a few things, to which the tortle nods.

Molly rushes over as soon as Fjord walks off. “Holy shit your tattoos are amazing,” he gushes.

“Uh, why thank yeh,” the newcomer says. “Yours are mmm— mm-mighty impressive as well.” He holds out his…hand. “Orly Skiffback, navigatuh.”

“Mollymauk Tealeaf, Molly to my friends, entertainer.”

Orly nods. His leathery skin creaks with every movement of his neck. “I do a fair bit of entertainin’ myself,” he says, patting a sack under his arm.

Jester told Molly about this. He grins with excitement. “So I’ve heard. Well, I’ve heard about it. I’d love a performance, or even just a preview. I used to travel with a musician and I miss it terribly sometimes.”

“Well, uh… I suppose I cou—could play a little somethin’…” Orly takes a thin pipe that hangs off the bag under his arm and blows into it. The bag inflates. Orly squeezes it and a cacophony erupts from the three pipes on his back. Everyone in the vicinity startles at the sound. After the initial chaos, Orly tames the notes into a proper song. Molly has heard bagpipes before, but he’s high enough that this is utterly fascinating to the point where he forgets the fact that he’s even on a ship for the duration of the short piece.

Molly applauds when it ends. “Bravo!” he exclaims. “Bravo, sir!”

Orly dips his head in a shallow bow. “Thank yeh kindly,” he says. “Good to know there’s sommm— someone who ‘preciates good mmmusic ‘round heyuh.” He picks up the satchel he had dropped in order to play. “Nnn-now if’in you’ll excuse me, I’m off to mah quahtuhs.” The tortle shuffles away, leaving Molly flabbergasted and enthralled until Yasha comes to collect him.

Jester comes up from below deck and wastes no time in preaching the word of the Traveler to the crew members. Molly sits and watches with Yasha as she greets each of them and hands them one of her pamphlets. A few stragglers rush up onto the ship. The poor guys — a human, a dwarf, and a half-elf — are bombarded by mixed messages as Fjord tries to scold them for being late but is interrupted by Jester skipping over all smiles and cheer and welcome. Beau comes to join Fjord in standing with a stern look at the men.

“When the captain says you’re supposed to be here at a certain time, then you’re gonna be there on time, got it?” she says. She glares, arms crossed, biceps flexed to accentuate the muscles.

The half-elf stammers, “Sorry Captain…uh…Captain…”

Fjord locks up for a moment. “Uh, Captain…Tusktooth.”

Tusktooth? Molly nearly falls off the crate he’s been sitting on laughing. He knew from stories that ship captains often took a nickname, or earned one on their travels. Why, oh why, did Fjord think he needed to be called ‘Tusktooth’? Molly cackles to Yasha, “He doesn’t even have tusks!”

The new crew members also appear confused. Beau flares her nostrils at them and takes a menacing half-step forward. The three of them bow their heads respectfully. “Yes, Captain Tusktooth.” “Sorry, Captain Tusktooth.” “Won’t happen again, Captain Tusktooth.”

Molly won’t undermine Fjord in front of strangers, but fucking hells, the moment he and Fjord have a moment of privacy he is going to taunt him mercilessly for this.

Captain Tusktooth himself gives the order to raise the anchor and lower the sails. Beau stomps around the deck repeating the order at the top of her lungs. The ship heads out to sea. Molly goes to the front of the ship to watch the waves break before them. The whip of wind through his hair and clothes inspires him to dance.

There’s music in his head he can barely hear, a mixture of bagpipes and fiddles and the whistling in his ears. He’s not even sure what he’s doing; he’s just moving his legs with his arms outstretched but it feels like he’s flying. Like he has…

Wings.

The light on the water flashes like the gleam of a dagger, of a smile, of dark eyes that have seen so much and yet there’s still a hint of mischief in them. In the pain and darkness they were hope. A promise not so much spoken as understood that he would see his friends again, one way or another.

And now he’s here. With his friends. On a ship. Flying. Dancing.

Jester joins him while their friends watch, amused and confused. Eventually the drugs wear off and he’s still feeling great, though the salty air in his eyes had made them run and now his makeup is all smeared, which isn’t so great. He wipes his face with a handkerchief from his pocket and ponders the trip he just went on.

Everyone takes the afternoon to unpack and explore the ship. Molly and Yasha spend some time with Caduceus in the kitchen. Some of the food Fjord purchased is meat, and Caduceus neither knows how to cook it nor can he even taste it due to his vows. Yasha isn’t the best cook, but she has enough skill to make meat into something edible. Together they craft lunch for the crew and come up with plans for dinner.

Molly likes watching them get along. Yasha isn’t used to dealing with people taller than her, but Caduceus is such a sweetheart. As they cook, Yasha tells him a little about her experience as a hunter. Caduceus is more concerned about the lack of edible plant life in her homeland than he is about her killing animals. He tells her about the different herbs and berries and root vegetables that grew in abundance around his home thanks to the Wildmother’s blessing. Molly has nothing to contribute to the conversation except bullshit, which Yasha will recognize and Caduceus will see through no problem, so instead he offers his services as a taste tester. It turns out to be a far better use for his mouth.

After lunch Fjord invites the rest of the Mighty Nein to his room. It’s at least three times the size of Molly’s and Caduceus’s room, but in addition to the bed it also has a large desk and the walls are lined with shelves, most of which are empty. There’s a map on the desk.

“This is our destination,” Fjord says, pointing to a cluster of small shapes on the map. “We’ve got two options: take the main trade routes, which are safer but don’t actually go directly to Inkclaw, or take a more direct route, which is faster but more dangerous.”

“Dangerous how?” Jester asks.

“Well, the Zolezzo have patrol ships along the trade routes to help out any ships that might have taken damage or that were attacked by pirates and…other things.”

Nott trembles. “‘Other things’?”

Fjord’s face falls in something like guilt. “Y’know, there’s…stuff…that lives in the ocean… Uh…kinda nasty stuff…”

“Monsters?” Nott cowers at the edge of the desk. “Monsters that attack your boat and pull it down into the water?” She starts to hyperventilate. Jester kneels and gives her a hug. It helps, though Nott’s yellow eyes are still wide with fear.

“Now, there are stories,” Fjord says. “I’ve never come across anything like that myself, but then again the ships I worked for stuck to the trade routes. If this ship had its old name and we were flying its old colors I’d say yeah, avoid the trade routes because we’d get more trouble from the Zolezzo mistaking us for Jawgrasp’s crew than from anything else. We don’t have that problem now. But also, y’all didn’t sign up for this when we decided to come to Nicodranas and I know there were other things we wanted to do, so maybe we should take the shortcut and try to make this quick.”

Molly shrugs. “Well, Captain Tusktooth, at this point I think our main objective is staying out of the war, and as far as I know the Xorhasians don’t have a navy. Some travel on the seas might be our best option for now.”

Fjord nods, though his expression is a little sour at the way Molly said “Tusktooth”. “That is true…”

“Besides,” Jester says, her arms still around Nott, “technically this is our ship and we can do whatever we want with it. We can go all over the Menagerie Coast, or at least make a trip to Port Demali and visit your home, Fjord.”

The notion brings a swirl of mixed emotions to Fjord’s eyes. “Maybe. I mean, what else do we have going on?”

Caduceus clears his throat. “Uh…I realize I’m the newest member of this group and uh, maybe this isn’t such a priority compared to what the rest of you are doing but um, I…I kinda have things I need to…to look into. Answers to find.” He’s frowning. His ears are drooped. It’s heartbreaking. Molly steps around Yasha to give him a hug. Caduceus lays a grateful hand on his shoulder.

“Of course!” Fjord says. “No, don’t worry about it, Ducey. I promise, after this trip, we’ll take you wherever you need to go.”

“Well, that’s the problem.” Caduceus’s fingers gently clench into Molly’s coat. “I… I’ve been waiting for a sign, and first there was the lighthouse… then all these stories about the island being cursed… but I don’t know. Things have been…quiet. I might know more when we get there, but otherwise… I… I…” He heaves a resigned sigh. “I just don’t know.”

Yasha reaches over Molly to pat Caduceus on the arm. “Signs are tricky. Sometimes you get a lot all at once, and sometimes you don’t get any for a long time. They always come, though. I’m sure you’ll be fine.”

Caduceus smiles. “Thank you.”

They put it to a vote. Caleb, Nott, and Molly all want to take the longer, safer route, but everyone else is in favor of the shortcut. The compromise is that they’ll take the trade routes back.

If we make it back,” Nott mutters.

With his makeup ruined and cleared away and nothing else on his schedule, Molly has almost no excuses to not cuddle with Caduceus after the meeting adjourns. Any other excuses he might have get thrown out the window because he can sense Caduceus needs cuddles, immediately. Caduceus follows him back to their room, untying his armor as he goes. With the door closed he sets the armor aside and curls into Molly’s chest the moment Molly lies down. His hair flows across Molly’s shoulder, filling the air with the scent of cedar that mingles with Molly’s own citric cinnamony aroma. Molly gently rubs his ear. It’s velvety on one side and silky on the other. Even if this didn’t feel good for Caduceus — which, judging by the pleased humming, it does — Molly would do this all afternoon because he likes it.

“You’ll be fine, dear,” Molly says, keeping his voice soft. “We’ll be back on land before you know it, and you’ll get your sign when you’re ready for it.”

Caduceus exhales a deep breath, ruffling the fabric of Molly’s shirt. “Melora is also the goddess of the sea, so…I don’t know. She could have a sign out here for me as well.” He toys with the hem of Molly’s sleeve. “I wonder if my sisters are having any luck.”

“Maybe they are. Maybe we’ll run into them somewhere out there. Probably not out here, but as you’ve probably noticed, we don’t stay in one place for too long. Even if we don’t find them we might find someone who knows where they went.”

“Maybe.” Caduceus nuzzles into a more comfortable position. “Is it okay if I close my eyes for a bit? I’m… I feel kinda tired, suddenly.”

“Of course, sweetheart.”

“Just…wake me up when it’s time to make dinner, okay?”

Molly strokes the short fuzzy hair above Caduceus’s ear. “Okay. Get your rest.” Yasha used to take naps like this, back in the beginning. The sadness drained all her energy until she could barely stand. The rest of the carnival either chided her for being lazy or left her alone, but not Molly. Molly could remember the taste of being lost, being alone, of needing something or someone to fill a hole that was still so empty. He hadn’t known what to say to her, so he simply kept her company during those exhausted moments until she felt comfortable enough around him to rest her head on him. They’d become the closest friends in the carnival soon after.

The rocking of the ship lulls Molly into a brief doze of his own. When he opens his eyes again he feels heavy with warmth. The light in the little round window across from the bed has shades of yellow and pink. A tingle runs through his spine at the thought of his first sunset at sea. But Caduceus is still asleep and the bed, while hard and lumpy compared to the one at the Chateau, is cozy enough that it takes a tremendous amount of effort just to raise one hand and pat Caduceus on the wrist.

“Hey,” he murmurs. “Time to get up.”

Caduceus blinks open his bleary eyes. He stretches, pressing into Molly with his lean bulk. “Thank you,” he says. There’s deeper meaning in his words. Molly acknowledges it with a nod then drags himself onto his feet.

It really is a gorgeous sunset. After dinner Molly runs back down to grab the bottle of wine he bought for Yasha and the two of them sit on the deck, passing it back and forth as they watch the sky.

“No storm clouds,” Molly remarks.

Yasha shrugs. “Not sure what I’d be able to do about it if we ran into any.” She takes a long swig. “So, you and Caduceus, huh?” she asks, passing the bottle back.

Molly chuckles. “It’s not what you think.” He takes a sip. It really is good wine. He should have gotten more.

“No, I get that. He doesn’t… He doesn’t strike me as the type who is into the same things you are.”

“Eh, not really. But there’s more to me than drinking and fucking.” He passes the bottle back.

“I know. I think this is good for you.”

“Do you?”

Yasha knocks back another swig. “Sure. You hate being alone. I feel bad when I have to go away sometimes, but I knew you were with people so I figured you would be okay. Now you’ve got…” Yasha waves her empty hand in a large gesture. “You’ve got all of that to keep you company. It’s good.”

Molly smiles. “It’s good for him, too. For the same reasons, I think. He had a big family, and it was an actual ‘I am related to these people and have lived with them for all my life’ family. They all vanish one by one, leaving him by himself. It’s a wonder the poor guy didn’t go crazy.” He gestures for the bottle and Yasha hands it over. He swishes the wine in his mouth before he swallows it. “Ahh. Anyway, he needs someone to be close to, and good luck trying to get any of this lot to step up for the job.”

“Jester likes hugs.”

“Eh, Jester’s a bit much.”

Yasha cocks an eyebrow and smirks. “And you aren’t?”

“I’m a fucking delight.”

“So is she.”

“Yes, well, no one really taught her subtlety.” Molly puts up a finger. “And before you say a damn thing, yes, I can be subtle when I want to. I just prefer…being me. And the me I can be around Caduceus is the me who is respectful, gentle, and uninterested in making things awkward.” Molly puts the bottle to his lips and mutters, “I can appreciate that he’s beautiful without fucking him...” before taking another sip.

“I knew it. You’ve got another crush.”

Molly passes the bottle back. “And what if I do? Chalk it up with all the others. Not my fault we fell in with a group of gorgeous messes who are as charming as they are frustrating most days.”

Yasha shakes her head with a soft laugh. “You always did fall in love too easily.”

“I’ss not love.” The wine is getting to Molly’s head. His self-preservation instincts kick in. He has to be careful what he says, but he can’t lie because Yasha will know. “Yes, I care about them, and I like them, and I’ll cuddle who I fucking want. Fuck you.”

Yasha slaps him affectionately on the back of the head. “Fuck you too.” She takes a drink then asks, “But if either of them were into that, would you rather fuck Caduceus or Caleb?”

Molly gets to his feet. “That’s it. We’re done. Nice chatting with you. Good night.”

“Or Jester?”

Molly walks away. “I said good night.”

“Fjord?”

“Enjoy the wine!” Molly exclaims with a wave, not looking back at her. He blames the alcohol for the hazy heat in his face. Yep. It’s just the wine. Nothing else.

Molly sits in his room polishing Summer’s Dance until it’s time for bed. He prays to the Moonweaver as he does. The Moonweaver commands followers to pursue their passions, forge their own paths, which Molly has tried to do since he gained a sense of himself. His path is with these people, and his passion is helping them. He also has his carnal passions, of course, but he’s not entirely selfish. He prays to the Moonweaver, asking for light to show him the proper way to behave and for shadow to hide the feelings that the others can’t know he has.

When the only light in the room is from the flickering lantern on the wall, Molly puts his things away and gets ready for bed. It has been a long day and he’s tired, not to mention a little sore from his acrobatics earlier. Caduceus comes in as Molly is undressing.

“Going to sleep?” Caduceus asks.

“Yeah. You?”

Caduceus smiles. “That was my intention, yeah.” There’s a glow about him, something brighter than before. It’s in his eyes and the way he isn’t so hunched as usual.

“Feeling better?” Molly asks.

“Yeah. Yeah, much better. Jester sent a message to Nila. She and her family are still looking after the temple while I’m gone and she says everything is okay so far.” Caduceus sighs, the corners of his mouth still upturned. “The maples will be all gold by now. I used to love sitting between their roots and watching the leaves fall. Maybe Nila’s son will instead.”

Molly’s heart flutters with sympathy. He misses the color and splendor of the carnival much the same sometimes. “You’ll see it again,” he says. He gets into bed, leaving an obvious space for the firbolg. “For now, you have some hope.”

Caduceus nods. “I do. Thank you.”

After a short time Caduceus joins Molly in bed. He burns one more spell to do some additional healing to Molly's scar. It is definitely smaller than it was when they started. Molly requests the role of the big spoon, despite their size difference. He wants to hold Caduceus, though, make him feel safe and assured that he’s in the right place. Caduceus happily complies. He's tall, but scrawny. Molly barely has to stretch to get his arm up and over into an embrace. He nuzzles through the waves of cedar-scented hair to kiss the top of Caduceus’s head.

It’s not love, Molly tells himself. It’s just what they need.

Chapter Text

By far, the best thing about this bed is Caduceus. Molly’s back and shoulders are stiff when he gets up. A few twists of the head crack half the bones in his neck. It wasn’t as bad as sleeping on the ground or in the back of the cart, but after the bed at the Lavish Chateau it might as well be.

Caduceus seems to be okay. He also stretches and cracks his back once his feet are on the floor. “I’m thinking blintzes for breakfast,” he says.

“What are you gonna put in them?" Molly asks, mouth watering at the possibilities.

“I dunno.” Caduceus’s puzzled pout turns to an optimistic smile. “But I’m gonna find out.”

The blintzes end up filled with honey and dried apricots. Molly is used to them with cheese or fresh fruit and cream, but these are still delicious. The crew enjoys them as well. Molly also finishes off the pocket bacon he stashed away yesterday morning. By this point it’s essentially limp jerky, but pocket bacon is still bacon. It’s also funny watching the crew mutter in confusion amongst themselves wondering where the fuck he got it from.

At some point the conversation turns from the food to comparing tattoos. The dwarf who arrived late the previous day shows off a new one he got recently, a compass but instead of the cardinal directions it’s labeled with “Home”, “Adventure”, “Danger”, and “Profit” and the needle is pointed between “Adventure” and “Profit”, or so he says. It’s all written in Dwarven and Molly can’t read it. Molly stops listening to Jester telling Nott and Beau about the jellyfish bloom she and Fjord saw the night before and joins the sailors to show off his own body art. The others are uncomfortable with his presence, but he asserts himself nonetheless.

“I don’t remember getting the moon because I was heavily drunk that night, but I got the sun soon after because there was just so much space for it and it felt right, you know? The All-Seeing Eye boosts my ability to read the cards — got that from an artist who lived in the middle of the Labenda Swamp who only accepted gems and crystals as payment. Oh, and I get a new flower every time a ‘hired companion’ swears they’re giving up the work because no customer will ever be worth the money the way I was.”

A few guys shake their heads and roll their eyes at his bullshit, but some hang on Molly’s every word. “And what about the peacock?” one asks.

Molly strokes that tattoo with a wistful gaze into the distance. “It’s so I’ll never forget…” He then refuses to elaborate because sometimes the best stories are the ones the audience has to make up for themselves. His tattoos do all have meaning, other than hiding up the eyes. The snake is for the twins, the sun and moon are for Gustav and Desmond, some of the flowers are for Yasha, and so on, but no way in any of the hells is he going to tell these strangers about all that.

Orly puts his impressive collection on display as well. What strikes Molly’s interest is when Orly points out how many he gave himself. His tail wags in excitement. The glaive scar doesn’t need a tattoo over it anymore, but he had had some ideas that he could put elsewhere on his body. Seems like Orly can only do black ink tattoos, given what Molly sees. That’s fine. He can ask for line art then get the color done elsewhere, if they run across a parlor with that capability. But what to get…

The morning is relatively uneventful. Molly helps with the washing up in the kitchen, both as something to do and to keep Caduceus company. He does seem happier today, though there’s nostalgia in his smile and his ears are angled back a bit. Molly cheers him up with some stories. Some are true, most are not, but Caduceus likes them all the same.

“My father knew a lot of stories,” Caduceus says. “Especially ghost stories. Those were my favorite. We used to sit outside at night and listen to him. It was great, really great.”

That gives Molly an idea. “We could do that tonight,” he says. “I mean, what else have we got to do? We all come from different places. I’m sure everyone’s heard at least one ghost story the others haven’t.”

Caduceus lifts his ears until they’re almost straight up. He grins. “Really? Oh, wow. I’d love that. Do you think they would?”

Molly shrugs, but his smile is assuring. “I’ll talk to them.”

Everyone else likes the sound of a ghost story night. Well, everyone except Fjord.

“Gee, Molly. Much as I’d like to hang out with everyone, I uh, I do have…stuff to do. Y’know, captain stuff.”

Molly whacks him playfully on the shoulder. “Come on, Tusktooth. The ship won’t fall apart if you take some time off.”

Fjord shows his teeth in what was probably supposed to be a smile but comes off more as a grimace. “A captain has to inspire confidence. He can’t do that if he’s sitting around shootin’ the shit while everyone else works.”

“…Fjord, are you scared of ghosts?”

“What? Me? Nah. No way. Pfft. No.” Fjord laughs it off, but there’s an edge of anxiety in his expression.

Molly folds his arms and smirks. “Fuck me, you’re a scaredy cat.”

“No I’m not.” Fjord is doing that thing where he tightens his chest and sticks up his lower lip, but despite the hard line of his brow, the whites of his eyes are more prominent than usual. He’s definitely nervous.

“You do realize we’ve beaten ghosts up before, right? In that place the Gentleman sent us to?”

“Yeah,” Fjord squeaks. He clears his throat. His voice is lower when he continues. “Yeah, of course. That’s why I’m not scared. It’s no big deal. Like I said, I’m just…busy.”

Molly bends over with a wheezing laugh. “Oh Gods, what is the crew gonna do if they find out that Captain Tusktooth, the one who’s supposed to lead them through dangerous waters to a fucking cursed island, is scared of a few stories?

Fjord scowls. “I’m not, and even if I were that doesn’t mean— I can still—” He pinches the bridge of his nose and sighs in exasperation. “Molly, please, can— Could you not? I’m already… Look, I might show up, but I’ve got things to do, alright?”

Molly puts his hands up. “Alright, alright. If you say so.” That’s enough teasing for now. Fjord does seem a bit haggard. Molly wonders if he even slept at all last night. He examines the half-orc more closely. Aside from the discomfort about ghost stories, there’s something in his posture that suggests he’s consciously holding himself up, like he’s aware of the new weight on his shoulders and he’s overcompensating with a façade of strength. Beneath that there are shadows under his eyes, pale blotches over the knuckles of his clenched fists, occasional shifts in his jaw as he grinds his teeth.

“Thanks for the invite, though,” Fjord says, shying away from the sudden scrutiny.

“Yeah, sure. Any time.” Molly puts his hand on Fjord’s shoulder. “Make sure one of the very important captain things you do is get some rest, okay? You can’t run a ship if you pass out and fall flat on your face.” Okay, just a little more teasing. “Otherwise you might knock your teeth out and then you’ll really need a new nickname.”

Fjord groans, but there’s a hint of a smile in the corner of his mouth. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

“See that you do.” Then Molly pats Fjord on the cheek a few times, making Fjord wince. “See ya around, Tusktooth.”

Molly doesn’t care if Fjord gets scared by ghost stories. He cares if he’s taking on too much too soon and runs himself into the ground. Or, runs himself into the ocean floor? Molly isn’t sure how to adjust certain figures of speech that imply being on land. Either way, he wishes Fjord would take him and Caduceus up on the offer to cuddle. It might help him relax. Not to mention the fact that he would really, really like it. He spent more than a few nights as Fjord’s roommate wondering what it would be like to roll over and snuggle up with him, except now that Fjord is the captain and gets his own room, that’s not gonna happen. Caduceus is a more than sufficient cuddler, though, so he’s not that disappointed.

Those thoughts and concerns get temporarily pushed aside when Molly walks out onto the deck and notices something out of place. The last he had seen of Beau was her complaining to Caleb about being on watch because “It’s all just blue and it’s boring.” Even when Molly brought up the ghost stories to everyone she had barely changed her tone to say she’d rather do anything besides stare at the water all day. Now she has resumed her strut among the crew and there’s something perched on her shoulder. It’s a big fucking owl.

“Where the fuck did you get that?” Molly exclaims.

Beau reaches up to pet the owl. “It’s Frumpkin! He’s on loan. I told Caleb how I kinda wished I’d bought that owl from the pet vendor, but caring for it would’ve been a pain in the ass. As thanks for, uh, getting him that incense and shit, he’s letting me have Frumpkin for a week, or however long it takes us to get to the next port.” She strikes a bold pose. “Do I look badass or what?”

“What.”

“I said, do I look—”

“I heard you,” Molly interrupts. “I was going with the second option.” Deep down he’s a little jealous. He got Caleb way more gifts than Beau did, and did Caleb ever offer to let him borrow Frumpkin? No. Not that he would have a reason to want Frumpkin for anything, but still. He hoped Caleb liked him enough to at least ask. There must be something else, but Beau is hard to read. He narrows his eyes at her. She returns the glare.

“The fuck you starin’ at, Circus Boy?”

Molly smirks. “Someone who looks like they lost a bet with a druid who is way too hung up on the Raven Queen. Or who has a weird thing for birds, I dunno.” He gestures to indicate the floof of black feathers on her hat. “Seriously, are those dyed or did they pluck the world’s biggest sassiest raven for that hat? Ugh, I don’t know why I let you leave the shop with that thing.”

Beau adjusts her hat and glowers at him with her lip curled. “You’re just jealous because they don’t make hats this cool for people with big…stupid…overly-pierced horns like you.”

Molly suppresses a laugh. Instead he clutches his heart with a feigned look of agonized betrayal. “How— How dare you insult my horns? How could you stoop so low to mock what is arguably in the top ten things about me that are the most fabulous? Maybe even in the top three?” He shakes his head in woe, specifically hard enough to make his many baubles jingle. “Shame on you, Beauregard. Shame on you.”

Beau merely responds with her middle finger. Frumpkin fluffs his feathers. Molly reaches out to pet him. Beau takes a step back but Frumpkin leans down into Molly’s touch. Molly scritches between his ears the way he would when he’s a cat. Instead of purring, Frumpkin closes his massive eyes — one at a time, which is unsettling but fascinating — and ruffles his feathers while making soft warbling chirrups.

“Heh. Caleb might have loaned him to you, but Frumpkin still likes me better.” Molly takes some triumph in that. He wonders if Caleb is looking through Frumpkin’s eyes right now. The wizard is nowhere in sight, though his turn on watch isn’t over yet. In case he might be watching, Molly winks with a little kiss in the owl’s direction.

Caduceus comes up from the galley and calls everyone in for lunch. The smell makes Molly’s stomach growl as soon as he goes below deck. Today Caduceus and Yasha have prepared some kind of stir fry, both with meat and without, that is served on top of the bland cracker-bread things Fjord called “hardtack”. It’s delicious, and Molly vaguely recognizes some of the flavor. It tastes the way that spice he bought for Caduceus smelled. His tail curls with delight that Caduceus is making use of his gift. He smiles to Caduceus with a mouthful of food. Caduceus dips his head in gratitude and returns the smile.

Jester and Nott offer to help Caduceus and Yasha with the dishes this time, which leaves Molly without a real plan for his afternoon. He’s not sure he needs one of the pills yet. A cigarette or two might do the trick to pass the time while he comes up with something else to do. It occurs to him that the crew might want some cigarettes once they realize he has them. He rolls as many as he can fit in one of his pants’ pockets and heads back up to the deck to smoke.

Sure enough, Molly gains a great deal of popularity before he even finishes his first cigarette. He was never one to give anything away for free, but when they offer him money but he refuses. He wants things. It’s an adequate form of amusement, watching them turn out their pockets or dash away to find something to trade. Molly exchanges a total of ten cigarettes for a small whistle, a silver chain, a bandana, two wooden beads that were braided in a man’s beard, a fishing hook, and a few lines of a song from one guy who had nothing else to offer but a fistful of coppers.

Beau comes and asks for a cigarette as well. Molly smirks. “Okay, I’ll trade you two cigarettes for that absurd hat.”

What?” Beau clutches her hat, aghast. “First off, I told you, this is an awesome hat, and second, fuck you!”

Molly shrugs. “Well, if you’re not willing to trade...” He lights up another cigarette, takes a long draw, and exhales with an exaggerated blissful sigh.

“I’ll fucking trade,” Beau grumbles, reaching for her pockets. “Just gimme a sec...”

“Wait.”

“Wait?”

“Wait.” Molly grins mischievously. “I know what I want in exchange.”

Beau narrows her eyes. “What?”

Molly takes another pull of his cigarette. “I will give you three cigarettes, if you slap Yasha on the ass.” He bites his lip and snickers.

The look on Beau’s face is worth a cigarette in and of itself. She stares at him, mouth agape, color spreading across her cheeks. She sputters, “I— Wha— I’m not gonna— Grrr…“ She glances over to where Yasha is leaning against the railing, watching the clouds with Caduceus. They seem to be having a pleasant chat.

Molly holds up three cigarettes and cocks an eyebrow. “One little slap. You know she can take it. And she probably won’t punch you in the face for it.”

Beau swallows. “Godsdamnit Molly I hate you so much.” She turns and walks over as quickly and casually as her boots allow.

Caduceus notices her coming and waves. Yasha barely has time to react before Beau winds up her hand and WHACK. The sound is audible even across the deck. Yasha freezes, eyes wide. She glances over to Molly, who has one hand over his mouth to stifle his laughter. Beau says something too quiet for him to hear, but from her posture Molly guesses she’s making up some excuse that doesn’t sound pervy or pathetic.

Yasha draws her sword. Everyone who has stopped to watch this takes a step back. She twirls one finger. Beau stands still for a moment, then turns to face away from her. Yasha nods to Molly with a wry smile. She raises the sword, flat edge aimed right for Beau’s ass. Beau scrunches her face in a preemptive flinch. Yasha swings the sword, but stops a few inches short. From there, she takes one hand off the hilt to pat Beau gently on the butt.

Molly loses it. Beau is a shade of red that clashes horribly with her coat and her expression is a hilarious mix of bewildered, relieved, and aroused. Molly laughs until his stomach hurts. By then, Beau has stomped back over to him, still blushing but now she’s just plain pissed.

“There,” she spits. “I fucking did it. Ya happy?”

“Ecstatic.” Molly wipes the tears off his cheeks with the meat of his thumb. “Gods, she is going to get me for that, but it was worth it. Speaking of which…” He hands over the promised cigarettes, plus a fourth. “That was good enough to earn you something extra,” he says.

Beau snatches them out of his hand. She holds one out to him. “Light me up, you little shit.”

Molly clicks his tongue in disapproval of her rudeness, but he pulls out his tinderbox nonetheless. He thought maybe she would stay and smoke with him. However, he’s not surprised when she sulks away as soon as her cigarette is lit. He finishes the one he was working on, then wanders off to find something else to do.

That something finds him instead, in the form of a one of the crew members — Molly hasn’t bothered to learn their names nor does he plan to — coming up to him. His shoulders are hunched slightly and there’s a wary yet weary glint in his eyes. “You, uh, you mentioned at breakfast that you read cards?”

“I do, aye, when they speak to me.”

The crewman, who is an older half-elf with sun-bleached hair pulled back in a messy bun, fidgets with a silver piece. He holds the coin out to Molly. “Could you possibly do a reading for me?”

Molly never charged that much from the likes of him. His rates shifted based on what he thought the person could afford, ranging from a single copper to the one time he charged five silver from a haughty well-dressed woman who only wanted to know if her pursuit of a married man would be fruitful. Those were the sort of people who would pay anything to be told what they wanted to hear. This poor fellow doesn’t look like he has more to his name than the clothes on his back and the strength in his arms.

“We can talk payment later,” Molly says. “But yes, I can do a reading for you.”

They go to the dining table, since Molly doesn’t trust his cards out in the open sea air and he doesn’t want to bring a stranger back to his room. They pass a pair of other crewmen who follow with curiosity. Molly wonders how many new trinkets he can add to his collection by the end of the day.

The deck is still intimidating, after the card Molly pulled the other day. He used to draw a card on occasion just to nudge him towards one decision or another, but that was the first time he did it since his resurrection. He already knows he’s going to sleight-of-hand certain cards into place for this guy. His concern is what other cards will show themselves.

Those fears prove completely valid. As he talks to the small gathered crowd and distracts them from looking at his hands while he shuffles, one finger slips and sends two cards skittering onto the table facedown. Molly almost leaves them there. He gingerly picks them up, trying hard not to wince. His tail flicks in agitation at the sight of a familiar colorful swirl of glyphs. It’s the damn Arcanist again. He growls under his breath and braces himself for the second card.

The Tower.

Molly’s heart clenches. Most people assume the Death card is the worst card in the Tarot deck. Caduceus would approve of its actual meaning: change, renewal, letting go of what is past. It’s not even close to the nastiest card among them. That honor belongs to the Tower. It was one of those cards whose significance was clear even to those who had never laid eyes on a Tarot deck before. The tower displayed on it is asunder, split in two by a lightning strike with the upper half burning as it falls. At its kindest it meant emotional upheaval. At its cruelest it meant utter destruction.

The blond half-elf clears his throat. Molly blinks back to the task at hand. “Sorry,” he says, flashing a grin. “Sometimes the cards are chatty.”

“You didn’t look happy with what they had to say,” the half-elf remarks.

Molly slaps himself on the thigh with his tail. His smile remains fixed. “Ah, well, the cards don’t always bring good news. Frankly they can be a bit sarcastic at times.” He wags his finger at the deck. “Now you be on your best behavior for this nice man,” he scolds. “I can already tell he’s a fine individual and he doesn’t deserve any of your sass.”

The reading goes well. The half-elf wants to know if his wife and children will be okay in his absence. Molly makes sure the Goblet card winds up in his spread. The cup in question is shown overflowing, which can mean someone has taken on too much, or — as he explains it to the half-elf — bounty is assured. The half-elf is grateful for the news. He tries once more to pay Molly with his silver piece, but Molly turns it down.

“Don’t know if you’ve heard, but I generally don’t deal in coin,” Molly says.

One of the two crewmen who came to watch was also the one who traded his fishing hook for a cigarette. He nods. “It’s true.”

Instead, Molly accepts a pristine mollusk shell from the half-elf’s personal collection. The interior is gorgeous, the colors gradually fading from white to silver to blue to the black of its rim. “This is more than enough,” Molly says. “In fact, should you ever want another reading, consider it paid for.”

The half-elf thanks him again. He walks away with a straighter back and a more confident step than when he first approached Molly. Molly does readings for the other two as well, earning himself a handful of sweets and a spool of thread. The thread reminds him that he never finished stitching up his new pants, so he bids the crewmen farewell and returns to his room.

Caduceus is taking the afternoon watch and Molly has the room to himself until after dinner. It feels simultaneously smaller yet larger without Caduceus there. There’s so much empty space, but the walls seem closer together. It’s uncomfortable. Molly focuses on his work to ignore it. He has time to be careful now. The tail hole he hadn’t gotten to previously looks much better now than the one he did in a hurry. He takes those pants off and sits half naked on the bed fixing them up.

The silence allows his mind to wander. At the moment, that’s not something Molly wants it to do. He keeps thinking back to the Tower card. It could have been a coincidence. The thing about Tarot cards is that it often doesn’t matter which wind up in the reading; their interpretation is broad enough that it can be bent and shaped to fit whatever appeals to the person getting the reading. Most people always have something in their lives that relates to each card, and Molly can use his observations and their reactions to the illustrations to give them some kind of satisfactory answer. The Tower is tricky in that its meaning is clear, but it can be read as a past tragedy that still haunts the person, a current source of dismay that brought them to the reading, or a future disaster for which they should prepare. Combined with the Arcanist — also a coincidence, it has to be — Molly isn’t sure how to interpret it. Nothing he comes up with is good.

Caleb. What is it about Caleb? Secrets generally don’t bother Molly. The Moonweaver is all about letting people keep secrets. Some truths just aren’t meant for the light of day. Beau knows something, though, something important. Jealousy simmers in his chest. He knows he’s a trustworthy person, but of course his proclivity for bullshit makes him seem sketchy. It should be the other way around, in his opinion. People who are quick to tell the truth shouldn’t be trusted with secrets. People who know how to dodge a question are excellent for confiding in. He wants Caleb to trust him. He wants Caleb to like him. They’ve had their moments, bits of banter or friendly interactions where Caleb’s projected indifference drops long enough to give Molly hope. Maybe someday… someday they’ll…

There’s a stirring between Molly’s legs. He brandishes his needle. “Hey you,” he hisses. “Stop that. It’s bad enough you were doing that at Caduceus. Caleb is off the table until further notice.” Unfortunately that conjures an image involving Caleb, a table, and their clothes scattered on the floor beneath it. Molly holds the needle lower. “I said stop it. Do I need to sew you to my thigh to keep you out of trouble?” The problem recedes, for now. “Good. No more of that. Going after any of them is a bad idea, but Caleb especially. You can have fun next time we come across a brothel or something. I’m sure they’ll have at least one redhead.” Resuming his stitching, he adds, “Besides, could be the disaster in his future is getting attached right before I die, again.” He doesn’t want to think about that. He’s safe out here, as far as he knows. Focus on the present. He jabs himself in the leg with his needle. There’s a brief spark that snaps him out of his other thoughts. He pours all his focus into sewing.

Dinner can’t come soon enough. However, Caduceus decided to experiment with the ship’s stock of pickled vegetables and it isn’t really to Molly’s taste. He eats enough to not be hungry anymore. There will probably be refreshments during their storytelling later, so he isn’t worried about it.

They all gather on the deck once it’s dark enough for stars to dot the eastern sky. Caduceus brews a big pot of tea. Caleb summons his little lights to mimic a campfire. Beau sits so she is neither next to nor directly across the circle from Yasha. Yasha is sitting next to Molly, and she doesn’t say a word about earlier but Molly can feel her thinking. He offers her a simple grin and a shrug. She narrows her eyes with a smirk.

The storytelling begins. Caduceus starts them off with his favorite ghost story, which he claims is a true story from when his family’s temple was first built. Caleb tells some Zemnian scary stories from his childhood. Yasha doesn’t know many ghost stories but she does know Xorhasian legends meant to warn people from straying into certain areas. Jester tells the story of a forlorn ghost who waits by the sea for her beloved’s ship to return, though the ship had sunk in a storm and was now a ghost ship that could be seen on misty nights with the beloved sailor standing at the prow, eager to get home to his dear one. Nott tears up and Jester gives her a hug.

Molly has heard quite a number of spooky stories during his time on the road, so when it comes to his turn he tells them all The Tale of the Terrible Tinkerer of Tal’Dorei. It’s about a disgraced aristocrat who made a deal with a demon to gain forbidden knowledge on how to create horrific weapons, and who went on to slaughter their way across the country in search of wealth and glory.

“And you may wonder how I know all this,” he finishes. “It’s because…that demon they dealt with…was my father!

“Bullshit,” Beau exclaims. “You don’t even have parents!”

Molly huffs. “Yeah, well, the crowds at the carnival didn’t know that. Used to get good gasps out of them with that line.”

“He did,” Yasha says. “Gustav would have him tell that story if there was an issue setting something up and we needed a distraction. Molly’s a really good storyteller.”

Beau snorts. “Guess all those lies you tell are great practice.”

“Oh, forgive me, I forgot you were the paragon of honesty and openness.” Molly curls his lip. “Seriously, it wouldn’t hurt to develop a sense of whimsy.”

“Yeah, no, I’ll leave that to you. One of us has to be the sensible one.”

“Great. Good plan. I nominate Caduceus.”

Caduceus, who hasn’t really been following their snark battle, swivels his ears in confusion. “Wait, what?”

Beau growls. “Ugh, fuck off and die, asshole.”

Molly is about to retort when he notices the drastic shift in energy around their circle. Some of them won’t look at him. Some of them won’t stop staring. Beau stammers an apology, which makes things worse.

“Guys, come on,” Molly says with a smile. “What do you think I’m gonna do? Keel over dead because Beau was obnoxious to me? If that were the case you would have had to revive me over a dozen times by now.”

The joke doesn’t go over well. Jester pulls her knees to her chest and wraps her tail around her ankles. Nott clings to her side. Caduceus was unfazed initially, but upon looking around their group his ears fold down and back. Caleb is still staring; he’s not making eye contact with Molly, but he’s staring in his direction. Molly knows he’s thinking about their talk at the Chateau. He wants to blurt to Caleb that he doesn’t want to die, not again, not after all they went through, and definitely not here and now because of something stupid Beau said.

Footsteps approach across the deck. “Hey guys,” Fjord says. He takes a seat next to Jester. “What did I miss?”

Silence.

Fjord glances from person to person, brow furrowed. “Uh…guys?” He turns to Jester. “What’s wrong?”

Jester sniffles. “Nothing. Just…a sad story.”

“Oh, okay. Didn’t know we were telling sad ghost stories.” Fjord pats Jester on the shoulder. “Sorry I couldn’t be here sooner.”

Molly gets up. This is too much. They were having such a good time and now it’s ruined. Even if he could convince them to go back to the stories, this would loom over them for the rest of the night. He won’t be the ghost whose presence they fear. “Come to think of it, I’m pretty tired,” he says. “I think I’m going to turn in for the night.” He drains his tea and sets the cup down by Caleb’s lights. “You all have a lovely evening. I’ll see you in the morning.”

He’s not going to be able to sleep. No matter what other thoughts he tries to distract himself with, his mind goes back to their faces. He should have stayed. He should have kept telling jokes until they started laughing. He should have shown them that death doesn’t bother him. Molly always knew the circumstances of his existence were too strange for him to have a long life, but being with them made the time he had so wonderful and he was thankful that they gave him another chance. The situation was just too awkward. Even so, he plays out what he would have said if he hadn’t left, how he could have made things better, but it’s too late.

It gets so bad Molly decides to pop two pills in order to shut his brain up. He has only ever taken one at a time, but Beau said the danger was just in taking more than three in a day, right? And that they shouldn’t be taken on an empty stomach, but dinner wasn’t that long ago and he drank tea, so that’s something. He does stretches and attempts to walk on his hands from one side of the room to the other until the tingle in his palms kicks in.

The world goes fuzzy. Molly stumbles into bed and pulls the covers up to his chin. At some point he’s vaguely aware of Caduceus coming in. A wall of warmth envelopes his one side. In the darkness there are soft lips against his forehead. Molly mumbles something that might be words. Shortly thereafter, he drifts into unconsciousness.

- - - -

How did they get on the ship? Where is everyone else? There’s no time to wonder, no time to think. He needs to hide. They can’t find him.

Molly squeezes himself into the nearest smallest space, stuffed between crates in the kitchen. He has to be quiet, stealthy. That’s not who he is. He’s loud, he’s colorful, he’s open and free.

Maybe that’s how they found him.

He clutches the pendant around his neck. He prays to whoever will listen to help him. Moonweaver. Platinum Dragon. Storm Lord. Melora. The Traveler. Someone please save me. Don’t let them take me. Please please let the others be okay.

Where is everyone else? He can’t remember where all their rooms are. He can’t even remember how he got here. He just remembers hearing Cree’s voice and panicking. Where’s Caduceus? Where’s Fjord? Caleb? Jester? Beau? Nott?

Yasha?

Where’s Yasha?

Yasha will find him. She always does. Every time she left she always came back. No matter where he is, she finds him. He squeezes his eyes shut and prays. Yasha, please, find me before they do.

Molly peeks open one eye. He looks down. A red eye opens on the floor. It weeps blood. The bright crimson trickles through the grain of the wood. He scampers back, but there’s nowhere to go. Another eye opens. Another. Another. Nine red eyes, all staring, all bleeding.

“He’s in here!”

No. No, go away. Please. Please someone help me.

It’s the blood. She can sense the blood. They’re getting close. They’ve come for him. They’re going to take him away. He reaches for his coat to pull it over him and maybe hide another second longer, long enough for help to arrive.

It’s not there.

There’s only a filthy linen shirt, tattered dirt-stained pants. Nothing else. He’s alone. Scared.

Empty.

His coat is gone.

His tattoos are gone.

Mollymauk Tealeaf is gone.

Long live the Nonagon.

He snaps awake. He feels weightless, like he’s drifting away. He digs his fingers into the bed. Every nerve in his body tingles, on edge. He’s panting. The pillow is damp beneath him. He jolts up. There’s a dark spot on the pillow. He touches it with a shaking finger. Tears. It’s tears. He’s crying.

The snake on his arm stares up at him. At least that’s there, but he doesn’t like being in that glaring gaze. He tucks that arm under him. He’s aware of the other eyes on his body. Are they watching him? Is someone watching through them? His heart races in his throat. He chokes around it. The tears burn.

The bed moves beside him. “Hey, are you okay?” A large warm hand gently touches his shoulder. He twitches into a tight ball. No, now is not the time to remember that. Go away. Stop thinking about it. Stop…please…

Crouched on the side of the road. A loud rumbling wagon, so colorful, so beautiful, and yet all he feels is fear, pain, the ache of walking for days, getting away from…something. People speak to him in soft voices, others speak sharply, mistrusting. Who is this dirty starving tiefling?

Who is he?

“What’s my name?”

The bed creaks as the weight on one side shifts backwards. “Um, Molly. Or am I supposed to say ‘Mollymauk Tealeaf’?”

“No. No, not what you’re supposed to say. What. Is. My name. Say it.”

“Your name is Mollymauk Tealeaf, and you’re worrying me.”

Molly rolls over, seeking the comfort of Caduceus’s warmth. He finds the furry chest and presses into it. He coughs up a sob. His throat is too tight. He can’t breathe. Not again, please, not again…

“Molly, hey…” Caduceus holds him close. “It’s okay. You had a bad dream.”

That’s all it was, yet Molly can’t stop crying. Gods, when was the last time he woke up crying? When was the last time he cried like this at all? During a bad trip, most likely. That’s what this is; it’s another bad trip. Drugs come with warnings for a reason. He shouldn’t have taken those pills, not a double dose, not before bed, and not on an empty stomach. He needs to come down.

Caduceus rubs little circles on Molly’s back. It helps. Being alone would have been terrible. Molly hates waking up alone on good days. Waking up alone tonight would have broken him. He might have screamed. He still might. He doesn’t feel well.

“Help me,” he whimpers.

“It’s okay, I’ve got you.” Caduceus says some other things Molly can’t understand. The warmth of his body changes. It takes on a familiar magical aura. The tension melts away. The fear fades. Molly still feels like shit, but he’s more relaxed about it. “What happened?” Caduceus asks.

“Took something before bed I shouldn’t have,” Molly says. He has to tell that much truth, at least. Clerics can cure stuff like that, right? He can, but he was always reluctant to do it on himself since he already has to bleed for it. Caduceus knows he takes drugs. He even gave him some mushrooms that made him see impossible colors once, back at the temple while they waited for everyone to come back from Ophelia’s. That was a far more enjoyable experience than this. He presses himself harder into Caduceus. He’ll make everything better. He always does.

Caduceus cups the back of Molly’s head. His other hand makes a quick gesture behind Molly’s back as he mutters another incomprehensible spell. An unseen brightness pours from Caduceus’s palm into Molly, down along his spine, diffusing into his blood like warm water. The sickly ache in his chest dissipates like a shadow in the sunlight. “Better?”

“Mhm.” A few last tears escape Molly’s eyes. He sniffles and exhales the breath though a clearer throat. “Thank you.”

“Do you want to talk about it?”

Not with him. Caduceus wouldn’t understand. There was some discussion of Molly’s past after his resurrection when Nila and Keg were confused about all the questions his friends were asking, but they kept it vague. Molly appreciated that. They don’t know it all anyway. Yasha knows the most. He wants Yasha. She’s not here. Caduceus is here. He’s here and he’s warm and affectionate and caring and Molly adores him for it. But he can’t talk about this to him.

“No.”

“Do you want to talk about anything? Or would you rather try to sleep?”

Molly nuzzles into the patch of pink he has started to associate with platonic pleasure and relaxation. “Sleep.” It should be better now. The drugs are out of his system, it seems. Unless it wasn’t the drugs that brought the dream. Caduceus’s first spell is wearing off. The fear is coming back. Molly adjusts himself to bury his face in the long thick hair that still smells of cedar under the scent of salty air. Caduceus will keep him safe. He relaxes a little, enough, just enough.

It doesn’t last long. Right as Molly is fading back into the darkness of sleep, Caduceus sits up abruptly. He looks up in the direction of the deck, ears flared out and quivering.

“Something’s wrong.”

Chapter Text

Caduceus immediately gets out of bed and grabs his armor.

“What do you mean, ‘something’s wrong’?” Molly asks, also getting up and pulling on clothes. He strains his ears to listen. There are quick heavy footfalls on the wood above them, but he can’t make out much more.

“We need to get upstairs.” That’s all the information Caduceus gives him. Molly straps on his sword belt and follows him out.

There are shouts above them. Caduceus runs down the hall, pounding on the others’ doors. “Mister Caleb! Miss Beau! Miss Yasha! Everyone upstairs, now!” It’s strange to hear such intensity from Caduceus. The rest think so, too, since they all come out of their rooms with worried expressions. Then they notice the stampede of crewmen being herded downstairs by Beau.

“Harpies!” she cries.

The Mighty Nein charge up onto the deck. In the darkness there are shapes swarming the sails. Caleb has the belt Molly gave him on over his sleeping clothes. He takes something out of one pocket, rubs his hands, and four glowing lights appear. They illuminate half a dozen winged creatures. Fjord has his falchion out, bellowing a challenge to the harpies. A few brave deckhands are trying to hoist the sails before they take too much damage. Two harpies swoop down to attack them. One gets batted away. The other manages to snatch up a hapless man in its talons and starts to fly off with him.

Beau runs up and launches herself at the creature. She misses the harpy, but grabs hold of the flailing sailor. Their combined weight is enough to drag the harpy back down onto the ship. A third harpy lands on one of the upper decks. Molly is already moving towards it. It flares its wings and opens its mouth. A haunting baleful song cuts through all the other noise and commotion. The sound creeps into Molly’s head like an intoxicant, drawing him in. His mind has already been fucking with itself tonight, though. He’s not about to let this piece of shit get in there.

Molly whips out Summer’s Dance. He uses it to get himself within striking distance. With utmost grace he slashes his upper arm to make the blade radiate a blazing light before swinging it at the harpy. He slices into its wing, then attacks again and just manages to hit it in the chest as it tries to dodge away. Its face contorts in pain and fury, but it keeps singing. It is further illuminated by the sudden appearance of a giant lollipop right above it. The lollipop smashes down onto its head. A second later a loud ringing knocks it back. It staggers, song growing fainter until it collapses, still and silent.

From behind him, Molly hears Jester cheering. “It worked! It worked! That never fucking works! Woooo!”

“Good job!” Molly calls back. “But there’s still more of them!” He turns and vaults over the railing to rejoin the main fray.

The buzzing catches his attention first. In the light of Caleb’s spheres Molly can make out the glistening carapaces of Caduceus’s pet beetles swarming around one of the harpies that is trying to carry off the crew. It screams and flies away. One blast of dark energy hits it in the back, followed by another that strikes it in the shoulder and cripples it. It flaps its other wing in desperation, but it can’t stay in the air and crashes on the deck. Yasha is right there with her sword out. She hacks into the harpy with a war cry. The harpy twitches for another few seconds as the beetles consume it, then it too falls still.

“Get these fuckers off the sails!” Beau shouts.

There are three harpies in the air, all persistently tearing the sail apart. Caleb waves one hand up at them, a pristine white feather between his fingers that he swirls in a deliberate shape. Two of them let out terrified shrieks and flee. The other dives down to join the remaining harpy that Beau is trying to punch to death.

Molly feels the magic building up in his mouth, swirling around his tongue. He feels — he knows — that he can force both harpies to focus on him and only him. The impulse overtakes him as the voiceless whispers in his mind guide him. As much as he detests the sensation of losing control, there's not much else he can do. He calls out a long string of insults in Infernal, some of which don’t even make sense but it doesn’t matter because it’s working. The harpies turn to him. The one engaged with Beau shrugs off his charm, but the other changes its trajectory and comes for him with its talons out. Molly just keeps on insulting it.

“Yo͜u̷͞r ͟͢f̸͜a̕t̛͟ḩ͏er͠ ͏w҉ą͘s͟͝ ̛͝a͞ ̢͢c͘͞h̢͜͢ic̢͢ken̡͟-f͠͞u̴͠c̷͟k̶e̛͟r͘͜!͝ ̷W̷̛͝e̴͝'͘r̕͝e͜ ̕ģo͏̧i͘ng̶ ̕to̶͢ e̕at͟ ͞you ̴͝fo͞͏r ̨͜͜d̸͢͟i̡n͏̧͝n͟͝e̵̡r̷ ͢a͞n̨d̸̴̕ m̷͢a̶kę̛҉ ̷̵̢a b͘a̴s̛͟k̵͝et̴̕ f҉r̸ơ̢̡m͟ ͡͡y̴ou̸̶r̡̕ ̴͢҉b͏o̢nes!͘͜ ̵̸͢Y̕͝ǫu̧r̴ ̵͞͞h͏̶a̴̧i҉r̡̨͝ ͏i͡s̶ ͞a̸n̴͟ a̡͞b̡͟͝s̷͜͞olų͠t͘҉͘e̢ ̡͏m͢e͞s̷s͏!̕͝ ̛W̛͘h҉o͘ ̵͞d͝҉͝i̶̸d ͞͝y̴͡͠o͝u h̷̕a͘v̵͡͏e ̢̕t͡o͜ ̵͡p͢i̷̡s̡s̡ ̛͢ǫ̛ff͢҉͞ ̷͞͏t͡o̕҉ ͡͏g͘͞ȩ̵̢t͟ ̷c̷̴͡u̶͞r̶̨̛s͟e̴̸͞d҉ ̵͏̧t͡o̵͜͟ ͏̧b͘͜ę ͏t̡̛h҉̡a̛t ͟u̸̡͟g̵̕l͢y̶̨?̷̴͡ ̴̵̡Į'̡͞d̛ ͞s͟͠ay̶ '͞Go̡ f̴͞ưc̡͘k̨ ̸̡̨y̶o͜u̢͢͝r̛͜s͠el̨̛f͜' ̡͡b̴̡͟u̵̡͞t͞ ͞t͡҉ha͜t ̨m͟͏̛i͟g̵͜ht̶ ̡̨͝b͞͞e҉͞ ̵̶̛t̴̷̛oo̷͢ ͝ş͡ev̷͢ę̴͢r͝e̵̵͘ ̨o͜҉̢f ̢̧͝a̢̧ ͞p҉u̷͠͡n̴i͠s͡h̷͠m̶e̶̡̛n̶͜҉t̨͡!̵͠ ̸̧G͘͟ęt̷̛ ͟o͞ve̶҉r̸̨̨ ̵̷her͟͞e̕ ̨͏s̷͜o͠ I͠ ̷͝c̢a̴n̷̨ ̨͜p̛̛͠l̷̨͠u̢͘c͟͢k̷͡ y͘͠ou͜ ̕͡a͟n͘͜d̵̨̡ m͜a̶k̷e͞͏̢ ̷B̨̢e̢͡͡a̡͝u͝ ̴͝a҉n̶̨o͏̷ţ̧h̷͜e͟r ̢̕͟o̕͠͞n̷͝e̵͞ ̶o̴̕͢f͡ ͞t̛͝h͢o͟s̸̢e̷͠ ̴g͏̕͡aud̴̛͜y͡͠ ̨͢͠a̴̴wfu͞l͟ ҉͜h̕͢͞a͢͜ţ̷͘s͡!̨”

The harpy sinks its claws into his shoulder. Molly swings Summer’s Dance, but the harpy knocks it out of his hand with its wing. He can’t even move his other arm to draw his scimitar. All the while he doesn’t stop ranting at it. He’s vaguely aware of a flash of light off to his side. A crossbow bolt hits the harpy holding him in the chest, then another. It flaps hard enough to pull Molly a few feet off the ground.

There’s a sudden wave of heat as a burst of flames scorches the harpy from one side. It drops Molly then lands ten feet away. Its feathers are on fire. It lashes and writhes and tries to put itself out, but it's no use. Molly looks to Caleb. The wizard has one hand out to the harpy, but he’s looking back at Molly with fear.

The harpy’s screeches as it burns to death cause everyone on deck to cover their ears. Everyone except Caleb. Caleb collapses to his knees. His eyes stare down at the wooden planks beneath him. Even after the screaming stops he sits there, blank.

Empty.

Molly’s heart damn near stops. The anxiety he felt when he woke up from his nightmare is a mere nuisance compared to his soul-wrenching concern now. Caleb did this once before, so long ago. Molly promised there would be time later to deal with whatever was going through his mind, but they never did. He hadn’t cared enough back then. He didn’t know Caleb well enough to see how broken he was. He could tell he had issues, sure, and that they were connected to fire, but it hadn’t come up again. It slipped his mind, buried beneath all the other red flags in Caleb’s behavior. But having been shaken by the ghosts of his own past not twenty minutes ago, Molly can see now. There’s pain, so much pain, so much that Molly feels it in his own chest, gnawing at his mind, robbing him of his senses as he succumbs to it.

Caleb, fight it.

Molly rushes to his side and kneels right next to him. He wraps his tail around Caleb’s waist and nuzzles his forehead into Caleb’s hair so he can speak directly into his ear. “Caleb, it’s okay. You’re fine. You did good. It’s not happening again. You’re here with us. You don’t have to worry. You’re okay. Everything’s fine.” Molly puts his hand on Caleb’s opposite shoulder to pull him against his chest for a quick reassuring hug. He releases him with a kiss then gets back to his feet. Give him room to breathe.

Caleb stirs. He looks up at Molly, mouth open with a slack jaw as he takes ragged breaths. He’s silent, but his eyes speak volumes. Within that gorgeous blue Molly can hear the all-consuming pain, the fear, the sorrow, and somewhere beyond that there’s something else. Molly strains to listen. It’s confusion, regret, pleading, madness…

“Caleb?” Nott runs up. “Caleb are you okay?”

The connection breaks. Molly feels it snap against his heart the moment Caleb turns his eyes away. “I am fine.” Somehow Caleb’s accent sounds thicker. “A little dizzy, that is all.”

Nott eyes Molly warily. Molly shrugs with a little smile. Nott turns her nose up at him then goes back to checking on Caleb. It’s clear Molly is no longer needed, or wanted. He realizes the rest of the commotion has died down. They’ve managed to put out the fire on the smoldering corpse before it could spread to the deck. The final harpy lies at Beau’s and Fjord’s feet, its face beaten to a pulp and the falchion sticking out of its throat. Molly retrieves Summer’s Dance and walks over to Yasha, who’s cleaning the harpy blood off her sword.

“That was fun,” Molly says brightly, clutching at the puncture wounds on his shoulder. “I wonder what else the sea has in store for us?”

Yasha glances up towards Caleb. “What happened?”

Molly shakes his head. “Who knows? Clearly there's some trauma going on there, flashbacks, but...” He growls a sigh. "I wish he'd tell me."

“Really? You're not really the type to want people's backstories.”

“Yeah, well, maybe I’m getting old enough that…I dunno, pasts mean something to me now.” Eugh, that’s an awful thought. He never had cared about the past before, especially not other people’s. That was mostly because he didn’t have a past of his own, but now he…does? His body has a past, that much is unfortunately clear. He has things that can haunt him now, too. He doesn’t like it. Perhaps that’s why he has developed such an interest in Caleb lately; out of all of them, Caleb seems the most affected by his past, and now Molly is beginning to understand what that’s like.

Caduceus provides healing for Molly and the two deckhands who were attacked by the harpies while Jester does her best to magically mend the tattered sails. Molly keeps checking on Caleb. Nott and Beau are sitting with him, and he seems better. Once he glances up and notices Molly staring at him. Caleb quickly lowers his head. Nott turns and scowls protectively at Molly.

The rest of the crew make their way back up from below like a flock of startled sheep. Orly cranes his neck to survey their surroundings. “Everythin’ okay up heyuh now?” he asks.

“For the most part,” Fjord says. “We’re gonna be limping a little until we can get the sails fixed up, but we’ve been making good time so far.”

Jester waves from up on the mast. “Guys, there miiight be a problem.”

“What’s that?” Fjord calls up to her.

“Well…I need lodestones to cast my spell and, um…I just ran out.”

Only about a quarter of the damage is fixed. The rest of the ruined sail flaps limply in the breeze. It’s definitely not taking them anywhere. A wagon could easily pass through the largest hole. Molly wonders what would have happened if Caduceus hadn’t sounded the alarm when he did. They might be down a few crew members as well as a sail.

Fjord assess the sail with crossed arms and a furrowed brow.  “We can sew it up in the morning,” he says. “For now, we’ll do our best to sail west, away from the cliffs. No telling if there’s more of them out there.” Molly can’t see any cliffs, but Fjord knows this area far better than he does, so he trusts his captain’s judgement. The crew all seems eager to avoid any further dangerous encounters as well.

It wasn’t a terrible fight, all things considered. With the adrenaline wearing off, Molly regards it more as a further interruption of his sleep. The pale line of the eastern horizon is showing the first signs of an oncoming dawn, but full daylight is hours away. There’s time to rest. He trudges back to his room, nodding to Caduceus on his way to let the firbolg know where he’s going. He’s exhausted now. Everything that had been keeping him awake before has given way to a weary ache. He forces himself to stay up long enough to clean Summer’s Dance and wipe the residual blood off himself, then strips and throws himself back into bed.

Caduceus returns shortly thereafter. “You okay?” he asks.

Molly rubs at his shoulder where the wounds used to be. “Fine. Thank you again.”

“Ah, no problem.” Caduceus unlaces his armor. “I put one of the bodies in a barrel to decompose. I’m excited to see what will grow from it. I’ve never grown anything from a harpy before.”

“…Have you ever seen a harpy before?”

Caduceus pauses for a second. “Huh. No, I guess not. No wonder I’ve never grown anything from one.”

Molly chuckles. Caduceus is adorable sometimes. Well, most of the time, but then sometimes he’s incredibly so. He watches as Caduceus removes his armor and pulls off his shirt. His darkvision barely picks up the color in his hair from what little starlight comes through their window. Even in these muted shades, Caduceus is a treat to look at. But not in that way. No. Caduceus doesn’t do that way. Doesn’t mean Molly can’t appreciate beauty when it snuggles up behind him.

“Think you’ll be able to sleep?” Caduceus asks. His voice rumbles pleasantly against Molly’s back. Molly wants more.

“Mmmf, maybe. I’m curious though. What is the craziest thing you’ve ever fought at your temple? Like, I get that there were dire beasts in the woods, but what about…I dunno, vampires? Ever fight a vampire?”

“Hmmm…” Caduceus strokes down Molly’s arm to intertwine their fingers. “No, never even seen a vampire.”

“Not even a ghost vampire?”

Caduceus shrugs. “Nope. Um…my aunt killed a werewolf once, though.”

What?

“Well, she had this little silver knife she used for cutting plants and she stabbed it in the heart with it. I was too small to help at the time, but she and my parents hauled it off the temple grounds and dumped it in the woods. I’m sure something got a nice meal out of it.”

Molly grips Caduceus’s hand to express his delight. “Wow. Your family sounds amazing.”

Caduceus sighs. “Yeah, they are.”

“You miss them, huh?”

“Mhm.”

Molly rubs Caduceus’s forearm with his free hand. “You’ll see them again soon. We’re gonna go to this cursed island, you’ll learn some things, then you can go from there. When you get home maybe your sisters will be back and you can compare notes and find a solution.”

Caduceus holds Molly tighter. “I uh, don’t know if it’s that simple. At some point I should head east, I think. They were going to head east. If they’re not there, maybe they’re back already.” He nuzzles his chin against one of Molly’s horns. “It will be nice to get back to work. I miss my home.”

It’s at that moment that Molly fully realizes that someday Caduceus won’t be traveling with them anymore. He knew it was going to happen, but it hadn’t really sunk in until now. It feels like someone is pinching his heart. This is precisely why he tries not to make attachments unless he knows they’re permanent. He’s generating too much of a past.

There’s still a future to look forward to. They’ve got this crazy adventure they need to finish together, then the Mighty Nein will accompany Caduceus wherever he’s going. No way they’re letting him make the journey alone. It’ll be a nice break after so many stressful events. They’ll be Caduceus’s escorts, help him with his research, go spend time at the temple, meet the rest of the Clay family if any of them are back, Yasha can pick so many flowers, and then…then…

Molly scrunches his face. He digs at the corner of one eye. His fingertip comes away wet. He shouldn’t be thinking about this. It’s the future. Anything can happen. Caduceus could be with them for years, even if that does mean he’ll be missing his home and family the whole time…

“You okay?” Caduceus asks.

“Yeah, just had an itch.” Molly doesn’t know why he bothers lying to Caduceus. His bullshit never worked on him. If he tells the truth, Caduceus is going to say something sensible that will make Molly feel better, or that’s meant to. That’s what Molly doesn’t want to hear. He doesn’t want to be relieved or happy when he finally says farewell. There’s always going to be a part of his heart that’s pink and gray and lights up at the sight of interesting plants. Regardless of when it happens, he’s going to miss the fuck out of Caduceus. He presses back into Caduceus’s chest and clutches his hand tighter.

“I’m going to miss you, too,” Caduceus says.

Fuck. He’s good.

Caduceus kisses the top of Molly’s head. “I’m not going anywhere just yet. We’ve got plenty of time. If the Wildmother calls me home, I’ll go, but for now my place is here, helping all of you and keeping my eyes out for a sign.”

All Molly can think to say is “That’s good.” He brings Caduceus’s hand up to his lips for a kiss. Caduceus reaches out one finger to stroke Molly’s jaw. In that simple touch he conveys reassurance, affection, comfort. Molly is never going to find another person like Caduceus. It’s unfortunate, although Caduceus is right; they’ve got time. Molly closes his eyes and places all his focus on the present. The future can wait, and in this moment the past is meaningless. He has Caduceus, and Caduceus has him. That’s all that matters.

- - - -

The sail is down on the deck when Molly emerges from below in the morning. Several crewmen are stitching it back together. There are a few patches where it looks like they’ve given up their own sheets to cover the holes. Fjord stands off to the side watching them work. Does he ever sleep?

There’s still time before breakfast, so Molly grabs his sewing kit and gets to work. It becomes clear fairly quickly that his needles and thread aren’t suited for the sail’s fabric and the extent of the damage. One of the other crew members offers him their own needle and twine.

“Your stitches’ll pop open the second the sail fills,” he says. “And even if they didn’t, they’d get worn down too quickly. Use this.”

The twine is coated in something that makes it thicker. It feels strange between Molly’s fingers, but he gets used to it. He’s thankful Gustav and the others encouraged him to learn how to sew. The crew still gives him wary looks from time to time. Once they realize he’s skilled with a needle they let him work. The ones he traded cigarettes to accept him easier than the others. Molly smiles to himself. He likes being helpful.

Molly is ravenous and his fingers are exhausted by the time the sail is finished. If he ever finds the rest of that harpy nest he’s going to slash them up like they did to the sail in retribution. At least they killed four of the fucking pests. And Caduceus got a corpse to play with, so that’s nice. Furthermore, when the sail goes back up, Molly takes pride knowing which parts are fixed because of him.

“Great job, everyone,” Fjord says. “I’m sorry we had to go through all that last night, but we’re only a few hours off course and I promise we’ll take the trade routes home. Now go eat up; you’ve earned it.”

Molly wolfs down two helpings of breakfast. Even Yasha seems taken aback. “What?” Molly asks through a mouthful. “I’m not allowed to enjoy a well-cooked meal?”

“…You sure you’re okay?” Yasha asks.

It’s about last night, after he got up and left their storytelling circle. Molly swallows. “Yeah, I’m great. Worked up an appetite during the fight and haven’t been able to satisfy it until now. Pass me the sauce, would you dear?”

Yasha takes her eyes off Molly just long enough to locate the bowl, then hands it to him silently. He knows she’s worried about him. He’s a little worried too. Things have been strange since his resurrection, as much as he tries to pretend they aren’t. He’s still trying to be a good person, still looking out for the group, still keeping all their spirits up best he can, but there’s no denying his journey has left deeper marks on him than he cares to admit.

Death was annoying. That’s his first reaction when he tries some retrospection. He knew it was coming and the worst part of that whole day was the fact that he had been so useless in that damn fight up until then. Nothing had been going right, almost as if he were doomed to fail from the start. At least Beau got away. They all did. Lorenzo made his example. Lorenzo got what was coming to him. Fuck him. But Molly never expected to come back. He thought death would mean his borrowed time was up and that’d be the end of things. He had done good, had fun, left his impression on the world, and that was fine. But he was well aware that from this point on his life was a gamble. Like the flip of a coin or the roll of a die, one wrong move, one slip up, and not only would he be gone again, there was the chance something else would come back instead if the Mighty Nein attempted another resurrection. He couldn’t put them through that. He wanted them to remember him as happy and chaotic and fabulous until the end. That end might not come for a while, but a growing anxiousness in his chest knows that it will come.

Molly wonders if Caleb has a similar feeling, and if it’s not about death, then what? He glances down the table. The burnished copper hair is easy to spot. Caleb is wearing the blue shirt Molly got him, and he looks even better in it than Molly imagined. Except, of course, for the half-dead expression as Caleb picks delicately at his food. Nott says something to him and he takes a bigger bite, but it’s clear his mind is elsewhere. Molly sends up a silent prayer to the Moonweaver that Caleb can find a way to heal.

The next couple hours are relatively uneventful. Beau makes a clumsy attempt at an apology for the night before. Molly can tell it’s sincere, but he doesn’t want to draw that kind of attention to her remark.

Stopping her before she rambles something unapologetic, Molly says, “Look, before it got all weird I was going to retort that I’d love to die in the middle of fucking, so would anyone like to volunteer to help? It…probably would have gotten weird after that anyway, but at least it would have been funny.”

“So…you’re not mad?”

Molly laughs. “Why would I be mad? You and I both know we don’t mean half the insults we throw at each other, and the ones we do mean are more…eh…friendly criticisms than anything else.”

Beau crosses her arms with a scowling pout, but there’s no ferocity in it. It’s a front, the brambles hiding her true vulnerability. There’s a hint of curiosity to it as well. “You consider us friends?”

“I said we were friendly.” Molly mimics her pose. “But yeah, your hat isn’t that atrocious.”

“Heh.” There’s a smile at the corner of Beau’s mouth. “And you’re not as much of a shady grifter as I thought you were.”

Molly grins and holds his arms out. “Do you want a hug?”

“No.”

“Worth a shot,” Molly says with a casual flick of his tail. “Now get going. There’s probably some bastard who needs you to remind him to do his job.”

Beau straightens into her first mate posture. “Damn right there is.” She marches off towards the nearest cluster of deckhands. Molly chuckles and rolls his eyes. Her people skills are getting better, but she has a long way to go. Perhaps he should ask Yasha to loan Beau her book of manners and etiquette, if she can trust Beau not to lose any of the flowers pressed in its pages.

Molly is in the middle of lounging on the deck enjoying the warm late morning sunshine when he gets a message from Caleb in the back of his mind.

“Mollymauk, if you are not doing anything, I would like to speak to you.”

Molly responds immediately. “Of course, darling. I’ll be right there.”

Caleb is in his room, the one next to Molly’s and Caduceus’s. He’s sitting on the bed, elbows propped on his knees with his hands clenched in front of him and his head bowed. Nott is beside him. She frowns at Molly when he enters, but it’s not as aggressive as usual.

“Molly.”

“Nott.” Molly bows to Caleb. “You summoned me, and here I am. Not as fast as Frumpkin, I’m afraid, but I do what I can.”

Caleb barely raises his head to acknowledge Molly’s presence. “Danke.”

There’s a moment where none of them speaks. Molly stands in the doorway, a light buzz of anticipation coating the inside of his chest. He doesn’t know exactly what Caleb wants to talk about, but the fact that he wants to talk at all is surprising. He’s so reserved, so guarded, and Molly can see him struggling to put that aside. There’s tension in his shoulders, conflict in his eyes, and several muscles in his face tic as he thinks.

“Nott, could you please go stand guard outside?” Caleb asks. His voice has that stiff cadence to it like he can barely remember how to speak Common.

Nott gives him a sad sympathetic look. “Are you sure you want to do this?”

Caleb nods, not meeting anyone’s eyes. Nott lingers a few seconds more at his side, then heads out of the room and closes the door behind her. Silence hangs heavy in the air like rain-soaked cobwebs. Molly doesn’t want to move until it’s dispelled, but he knows it’s not his place to do that.

“Mollymauk…” Caleb is quiet. His fingers twitch and flex and drum in the air nervously. He puts one hand to his mouth then rubs it along his scruffy jaw. “Molly there are things I have not told anyone in a long time. I… I told Beau and Nott most things, but not all of it.”

Molly walks up to sit on the ground an arm’s length from Caleb. He curls his tail into his lap to show he’s ready to listen. “What things?”

Caleb lifts his head so his tragically beautiful blue eyes can look into Molly’s. “S— Secrets. Terrible secrets.” He’s trembling. Molly has an urge to reach out and lay a comforting hang on his leg, but he knows Caleb would flinch away from his touch. “I don’t know how much you know. Clearly you’ve figured some things out. There’s one secret…” He clenches his jaw and swallows. “There’s one thing I have not spoken out loud in years, and…and I want you to know it.”

“What’s that, dear?” Molly keeps his voice low. He leans in, looking up at Caleb with full attention.

“My name.” Caleb is shaking harder. He presses his fists into his knees. It doesn’t help. He takes a deep breath and says, “My name… was… Bren… Aldric… Ermendrud.”

And then Caleb — Bren? — tells Molly everything.

Chapter Text

It’s a lot to take in. Molly sits with his knees pulled up to his chest and his tail gently tapping the ground in contemplation. Of all the questions he has, there’s one that rises above the rest.

“I take it you don’t want me to call you ‘Bren’ around the others, but do you miss that name?”

There’s a moment of pondering quiet. “I… I prefer ‘Caleb’, from you.”

“Then ‘Mister Caleb’ you shall remain.” Molly smiles. A memory stirs. “I am satisfied, Caleb Widogast, for now.” His smile becomes a grin. “I believe in second starts, and from what I’ve seen you’ve done well with yours so far.”

Caleb’s expression softens. The corners of his mouth pull up despite the pain that lingers in his eyes. Molly shifts forward onto his knees. He scoots over to Caleb, puts his hand on the back of his head, and gently pulls him down to kiss him on the forehead.

“Thank you,” Caleb murmurs.

“Thank you for telling me.” Molly scritches Caleb’s head a little. “I swear by the Moonweaver that your secrets are safe with me.”

Caleb lets out a deep shuddered sigh. He reaches for the bandages he took off and goes to rewrap his arm. Molly catches his hand.

“Wait. …May I?” Molly gestures with his eyes at the scars. Caleb clenches his fist, then nods. Molly gingerly holds Caleb’s arm in one hand and with the other he caresses his fingertips over the jagged pale marks. Caleb twitches with a soft grunt. He doesn’t pull away. These scars are so different from Molly’s. Molly’s are straight and shallow from simple cuts. These… These are deep, these are old, and they go beyond Caleb’s skin. His very sanity is scarred from what that fucker did to him.

Impulse takes over. There’s too much going on in his heart for his head to work. Molly lifts Caleb’s arm and presses his lips to a nasty scar just below Caleb’s wrist. Caleb tenses.

“What are you doing?” Caleb asks.

“I’ve heard kissing a wound can help it heal. I’m…what, fifteen years too late? But still, worth a shot.” Molly leans down for another kiss. That makes Caleb yank his arm back.

“Is this a joke to you?” Caleb clutches his unbandaged arm to his chest. His face is creased with lines of anger and agony. He hasn’t shed a tear this whole time, but he looks close to it now. The whites of his eyes are turning from pink to red, making the blue seem shallower as all the pain is brought to the surface. “It isn’t funny.”

Molly cocks his head. “No. No it isn’t. What happened to you is the furthest possible thing from funny.”

Caleb’s jaw quivers. “Then why…” He trails off and whips his head to the side to avoid Molly’s eyes.

“Because I care about you, Caleb.” Molly puts both his hands on Caleb’s legs. “Darling, it’s clear you’ve been suffering this whole time. It’s not fair. You don’t deserve it.”

Caleb looks even closer to crying. “Don’t say that.”

“Why not? I mean it.”

“Maybe you do,” Caleb says with seething acid in his voice, “but that doesn’t make it true. I’m a murderer, Mollymauk. I’m worse than a murderer.”

Molly digs his fingers into Caleb. “No you’re not. That wasn’t you.”

“It was.”

“No, it wasn’t. That was Bren. You are Caleb. What that child did was not your fault. Bren did what he did because an awful, despicable man — and I use the term ‘man’ loosely — controlled him and tortured him and twisted him into a weapon. And then you woke up. You woke up and broke his hold. Just like I woke up in the ground with Lucien’s powers and no memories, you woke up in that hell with Bren’s powers and Bren’s memories. You chose to become someone else, and that someone else is fucking wonderful, if you ask me.”

Caleb shakes his head. He covers his face with his hands. “It doesn’t work that way. It was me. I did it. I did it because I wanted to. I. Am. A monster.”

“So what?”

Caleb peeks through his fingers. “‘So what’?”

“Yeah. So what? I still say that wasn’t you, because the you I know is kind and thoughtful and good. You would never do something like that.” Molly rubs his hands on Caleb’s legs. “You help people. You’re a valuable part of our team. You claim you’ve been ‘using’ us, but we’ve benefited from your presence so much that frankly I think you’ve earned whatever help you need from us.” He holds his hand out, palm up, and nods at Caleb’s arm.

If it weren’t for the hard thud of his heart against his chest Molly would think time had frozen. Even the ship doesn’t feel like it’s moving. Caleb stares at Molly’s open hand for an eternity. Molly remains firm. It’s okay if Caleb doesn’t want this, but Molly wants it badly enough that he’s willing to try.

Eternity ends. Caleb slowly lowers his arm into Molly’s grasp. Molly lets out the sigh of relief he didn’t realize he was holding. Rather than pull Caleb to him, Molly dips his head to tenderly kiss each and every scar. It takes a while. There are so many. By the time he finishes he’s practically sprawled in Caleb’s lap. He puts his forehead to Caleb’s chest. Caleb’s heartbeat vibrates against his horns, fevered and strong.

Light pressure on the back of his head. Caleb is stroking his hair. Molly smiles uncontrollably, somewhat glad Caleb can’t see his face right now. Through the warm feelings of compassion and empathy a wicked thought sparks. Now is not the time for that, though. It may never be, and that’s okay.

Molly pushes himself up to be eye-to-eye with Caleb. “Do you feel better?” he asks.

Caleb sighs. His shoulders relax. “Besser, ja.” The blue in his eyes is clearer now. Somehow they are the afternoon sky and the evening stars at the same time. It takes every fiber in Molly’s being to not lean forward and kiss him. He’s so used to cuddling with Caduceus and being able to kiss him innocently whenever he wants that it’s a reflex at this point. He doesn’t have that kind of relationship with Caleb, much as he’d like to, and it’s best not to overwhelm him. And yet Molly can’t bring himself to move further away. Caleb smiles one of his sad smiles, though it’s not as sad as usual. “I’m glad you see good in me.”

Molly beams back, tail swishing happily an inch above the floor behind him. “There’s a lot to see.”

“If you say so.” Caleb doesn’t sound convinced, but it also doesn’t sound like he wants to keep arguing. He adjusts himself to move back enough to regain some personal space.

Molly still has Caleb’s arm in one hand. He rubs his thumb on Caleb’s skin. “Caduceus can remove scars. It takes a while, but honestly it’s not a bad experience. He’s working on one of mine, the big one. If you don’t want these anymore you can always ask him.”

Caleb scratches at a scar near his elbow. “Thank you, but I’d rather not let anyone see these.”

“You don’t have to tell him how you got them. You know him. He doesn’t care. He’d—”

“I said no, Mollymauk.” There’s a hint of harshness in his tone again. Caleb takes his bandages and begins wrapping his arm. “Frankly I don’t even know why I told you.”

“Because you like me.”

Caleb freezes. He glances at Molly from the corner of his eyes. Molly grins and waves his tail the way Frumpkin does sometimes, casual flicks from side to side but with a playful flourish to show he’s happy at the thought. Caleb clears his throat and continues his wrapping. “That I do, I suppose.” He wraps more slowly, pensively. “And because you have a point. We are somewhat similar. We both have powers that are the results of someone else’s choices and we are both trying to avoid things from our pasts related to those powers. The difference is you cannot remember what you’re running from, whereas I remember all too well.” He shakes his head and resumes his normal pace. “I promise if we ever encounter what you’re running from, I will help you deal with it.”

Molly sits back on his heels. He folds his tail across his lap and kneads it with his thumbs. “I don’t know if I can help you, or if I even want to. I mean, changing time and reality? I get why you want to, but then you wouldn’t end up here, with us. With me. Even if you remembered everything from before you changed it, there’s no telling if this could even happen again.” He thinks about how things would have gone if the Mighty Nein never formed. The carnival would still disband after the Trostenwald incident — Gustav was the only responsible adult in that group and with him in jail the rest would have eaten each other — and Molly and Yasha would have to find something else to do, if they didn’t wind up in jail themselves. It would never be as good as this. “As rotten as your past is, your present isn’t so bad, is it?”

Caleb doesn’t answer. He secures the end of the bandage then inspects his work, making little adjustments here and there.

“I can help you keep this secret, though.” Molly puts two fingers over his mouth. “I swear these lips will never betray you, or the Moonweaver can let them fall off right now.” He pauses. Nothing happens. He raises his hands in a shrug. “There you have it, then.”

That brings the hint of a smile back. “Thank you,” Caleb says.

“Any time.” Molly pushes himself to his feet. He plants one last kiss on the top of Caleb’s head along the way. “I’ll go tell Nott she’s relieved of guard duty.” He heads for the door.

“…Mollymauk?”

Molly turns immediately. That sound, so subtle yet so beautiful. It’s a soft hope in Caleb’s tone that sends Molly’s heart racing. “Yes, Mister Caleb?”

The hope is in Caleb’s eyes too. Fucking gods, his eyes are stunning, even when they’re struggling to stay on him. “Thank you also for… for everything. You have been…so kind to me, even though I doubted you and mistrusted you for…so long, too long.” His face falls enough to bring Molly’s heart crashing down with it. “I know you said you…you wouldn’t want to be brought back if you…if you had to be, again, but…” He clenches his jaw. “But we want you with us, and I h-hope it never comes to that. Once was awful enough. I— We don’t want to lose you.”

Molly feels a ghost of himself rush back to the bed, scoop Caleb into his arms, and pour all the love and care he has into Caleb’s broken cracks to make him whole again. He stands, tail curled against his back to ground him, not knowing what to do. He has to leave, that much is obvious, but he should say something. Anything. Not the truth. Never the truth. The truth is painful. Caleb’s truth came out of him like pulling a quiverful of arrows from his chest. Molly’s truth, accepted or rejected, would sting from being told too early. Caleb is smart, and Molly is blunt, so perhaps Caleb already knows and he simply agrees that that truth should not be spoken. It hurts.

“I’m not going anywhere, darling,” Molly says with a little bow. “Someone has to teach you all how to lighten up. My work is far from done.” Then he goes through the door, dragging his ghost kicking and screaming behind him.*

Nott is sitting in the hallway, arms wrapped tightly around her chest. She gets up when Molly closes the door behind him. “So you know, now.”

Molly nods.

“What else did he tell you?”

His name, for one thing. But it’s not his name. It’s not his name the same way "Lucien" isn't Molly’s name. A promise was made to the Moonweaver. That promise will be kept. “What he told you and Beau.”

Nott narrows her eyes. “You were in there a long time.”

“Was I? It didn’t feel that long.”

If Molly ever had a mother, he guesses Nott currently looks the way one would when she scrutinizes her son’s ill-reputed friends. It’s almost intimidating. “He trusts you,” she says. “If you hurt him, I’ll make sure you regret it.”

Molly smiles. “No need to worry about that. Never was one to kick a man when he’s down, and unfortunately down seems to be Caleb’s perpetual state.”

Nott’s expression softens. “Yes. He… He has been through so much…” Her ears twitch. “Did he tell you about…about what happened after the ambush?”

Molly folds his arms. His tail tucks against his inner thigh. “Beau told me. You guys wrapped me up and rushed me to find a cleric, and when Caduceus said he might not revive me Caleb threw a fit.”

Nott shakes her head. “No, not that.” She fidgets with the sleeve of her cloak. “Caleb… Whenever we made camp, Caleb never left your side. He kept watch over your body. He even slept with his head on you one night. He said… He said he wanted to be there in case you needed to get out. Even when you started to stink he acted like you were going to wake up any moment and be scared that you were trapped.”

Molly’s heart sinks into his stomach like a heated stone. “Why didn’t anyone tell me?”

“Caleb made Beau swear she wouldn’t. ‘If we get him back,’ he said, ‘I don’t want him thinking I went crazy.’ But I don’t think he was crazy. He would have been, if you… if we had to leave you in Mr. Clay’s graveyard.” Nott looks down at her feet.

“If Caleb made Beau swear not to say anything, why are you telling me this?”

Nott smiles ruefully. “He didn’t make me swear it.” She rubs one eye with her palm. “I thought maybe he would have told you. He cares for you so much, even though he won’t show it. He cares about this whole group, but he… He tries to stay detached. There have been so many times I was afraid he would leave, and I’d have to go with him, but he stays, and I’m glad.” Her smile becomes warmer. “He likes you. Very much.”

Molly isn’t sure what to do with this information. The ghost of him that’s used to getting whatever it desires claws at him, begging to go back into that room and hold Caleb the way he holds Caduceus, but tighter. He can’t. This is a secret. It’s one that fills him with a dizzying fluttering sensation and also leaves a pit in his stomach. Caleb…

It isn’t until Nott steps in front of him that Molly realizes he has started walking back to Caleb’s door. “Please, Molly,” she says. Her eyes are wide, nearly taking up her whole face, filling it with maternal concern and fear. “Please don’t tell him I said that. I— I think it’s best if you just go. I’ll take care of him from here.”

Molly nods. He can’t speak. He’s going to throw up. He’s going to scream. He’s going to cry. Something is going to come out of him if he opens his mouth, and worst of all, it might be the truth.

There are three places he can go. First, he can go curl up in bed and think about what happened, what he learned, but he would drive himself mad with want and need if he couldn’t go back to Caleb and tell him how he feels. Second, he can go to Yasha, and while he can’t explain why he’s upset she’ll know that he is and she’ll be there to loan him her silent strength. And then there’s…well, Molly is already on his way there.

The kitchen smells amazing, as always. The air is warm with the scent of something savory, something with carrots in it, perhaps. Caduceus is stirring something in a large pot. He smiles at Molly as he comes in. The smile fades.

“What’s wrong?” This is why Molly came here. He didn’t have to say anything. Caduceus can read him so well now, maybe even better than Yasha can. And there’s something Molly wants from him that he doesn’t feel comfortable asking from Yasha at the moment.

“Caduceus? Can… Can you do that hug where you pick me up?”

Caduceus gives Molly a deep look, ears folded down, then nods. “Sure. C’mere.” Molly practically runs into his arms. Caduceus lifts him off the ground, but one arm supports him across the hips. Molly grips him with his legs and wraps his tail around Caduceus’s waist. It reminds him of the way he held Toya the night they killed Kylre. No one had ever held him like a child before, because he never was a child. Yet here he is, clutching Caduceus’s chest while the firbolg murmurs in his ear, “It’s gonna be okay.”

Is it? Now Molly knows why Caleb is the way he is, but he also knows he is not the person to fix him. He’s a barely functional fool who is only happy because one day he decided he would be. That’s not something he can pass on to Caleb. He can’t tell Caleb to push all that trauma aside and start over again. He can’t tell him to forget the one thing that has been driving him forward since he broke free from the asylum. He can’t even tell Caleb he loves him because there are so many connotations to that word and half of them would put too much pressure on Caleb to reciprocate feelings he probably isn’t ready to have.

What sort of love does Molly even have for him? For all Yasha’s teasing he’s not sure what kind of love he feels for…anything. Sure, he’ll throw the word out as a compliment, “I love your outfit,” “I love this music,” “I love the design on this,” but saying it to people has always felt…awkward. He loves his friends the way he loved his carnival family, perhaps even more because he’s not sure anyone in his previous family other than Yasha would have tried so hard to bring him back. He loves the many delights of the world, and a few of them can only be found in Caleb’s eyes, his smile, his cleverness and — on the rare occasions he finds it — his confidence. But is that love?

With a painful raking sensation in his chest Molly realizes he has never truly loved someone before. Yasha talked about love a few times, how it binds you to a person in a way that seems like you were always meant to be, how it makes you feel stronger yet more vulnerable at your beloved’s side, how the loss of it is the worst feeling in the world. Molly has never experienced that, as far as he can remember. Passion, he knows. Affection. Desire. Trust. Care. Empathy.

But love?

Molly holds Caduceus tighter. Caduceus squeezes him in return. Gods, Molly needs a cuddle so badly right now. But is that all Caduceus is to him? Cuddles? No, it’s more than that. He takes comfort in Caduceus’s presence, misses him when he’s not there, likes making him smile and laugh and feel safe. Is that love? Now he’s gone and gotten himself confused. What is this? What are these feelings he has for the man who brought him back from the dead? What are the feelings he has for the man who put so much effort into giving him that chance? What does he feel for any of them? Is he even capable of a love that deep, or has his lifestyle up until this point left no room for him to ever have that?

Would he even live long enough to appreciate it if he found it?

Caduceus nuzzles Molly’s shoulder. “Hey, it’s okay. Breathe.” He inhales deeply, chest pushing Molly up into his embrace. Molly inhales with him. His breath rattles amongst the tears burning in his throat. Caduceus exhales and pulls Molly closer as his chest settles. Molly chokes. “Do you need to go lie down? I can douse the stove for a bit and come with you.”

“I— I don’t know.” Molly is having an existential breakdown. He hasn’t had one of those while sober in years. He needs to take one of those pills. He learned his lesson after last night, though. “I think I need to eat something.”

Caduceus hums in understanding. It resonates and vibrates through Molly’s body. It’s soothing. “Some comfort food coming right up.” He tightens his arms for one more second, then sets Molly back on the floor. “In the mood for anything in particular? I uh, don’t really have much, but I’ll see what I can do. I think I’d enjoy the challenge.”

Molly takes a seat on a nearby barrel next to the counter. His tail twists up around his wrist. “I… No, no preference. I’m sure whatever you make, it’ll be perfect.”

“Aw, thanks.” Caduceus stirs whatever is in the pot, sets up his kettle for tea, then busies himself sorting through his ingredients and pulling certain ones up onto the counter.

“Is that lunch?” Molly asks, nodding to the pot.

Caduceus shakes his head with a smile. “Nah, that’s dinner. Vegetable stew, the way my grandmother used to make it. She’d let it sit all day and drop in some extra things when she wanted. Really lets the flavor settle in.” He cocks his head to one side. After a moment of thought he grab a jar and sprinkles some of its contents into the pot. He nods in satisfaction. “Some things you can make in a hurry, and that’s fine, but some of those things are better if you give them time to become something more…robust.”

Molly doesn’t know if it’s a coincidence or wisdom from the Wildmother or what, but somehow that was the sort of advice he needed to hear. Maybe he hasn’t been in love before. Okay. He’s not even three years old yet, and he never stayed in one place long enough for any of them to really stick. He could probably only list the names of five or six towns the carnival had ever visited, so when would he even have had time to fall in love? Now he’s with these people, and they’ve given him more time. He always felt like his time was borrowed, borrowed from someone or something who would demand payment at some point. Now his time was given. It’s a gift. It’s not one he thought he would ever deserve, but here he is. They have two capable healers on their team who can keep him away from death, and he can protect them in return. Perhaps with this chance he will have time to let his relationships simmer into something more.

But if he falls again…

Will he be the one who gets back up?

The kettle bubbles and whistles. Caduceus pours some of the boiling water over a bowl of oats then adds some tea leaves to the kettle and lets them steep. “Is this about last night?” Caduceus asks.

Molly weighs how much he can say. Caduceus will know if he’s lying, but he has new secrets to keep. “Sort of,” he replies.

Caduceus mixes honey and raisins into the oats. “Whatever you were dreaming, seemed pretty nasty.”

“Yeah, well, at least I didn’t cough up any seawater.” Or blood. Molly tentatively recalls bits and pieces of the dream, like dipping his tail into water he knows is scaldingly frigid but he might have to dive in anyway. His heartbeat speeds up just thinking about it. He was so scared, and then…

A familiar powdery woody scent reaches Molly’s nose. Caduceus is closing a jar. He sets the bowl in front of Molly. There’s a dusting of cinnamon over the oatmeal. The smell reminds Molly of Nicodranas, of picking out pastries while already planning which ones he’ll get next time he goes to that bakery. His stomach growls.

Molly watches the steam rise from the bowl before taking a bite. It’s hot, but as a tiefling that doesn’t bother him as much. The sweetness of the honey and the gentle spice of the cinnamon meld pleasantly on his tongue. He sighs. “I haven’t had nightmares like that in a long time. Not since I…wasn’t really me yet, back when I was figuring things out. Everything was understandably confusing for me and…and there were these…voices? Maybe? Eh, not really. Impulses. Flashes. Things I couldn’t have known if I’d actually just crawled out of the ground as a completely new person. They scared me because I didn’t feel like they belonged to me.

“Then I found out about the Moonweaver. From there I figured out that if I didn’t want to be a certain way, then I didn’t have to be. So I made myself into someone who wasn’t scared, not like I had been. I woke up every day astonished that I was still me anyway, but I chose to make something of myself that I liked, that made me happy. I bullshitted myself into believing I would be like that forever. Or, at least until it all ended, which could have happened at any moment, so I enjoyed every second I got.”

Caduceus nods. “That’s a good response to fear, not letting it stop you from being happy.” He pulls out some cups for the tea. “Have you had any nightmares since those days?”

“No,” Molly says with emphatic confusion. “Never. Not since I decided I was going to ignore everything that I didn’t want to be. It…took some time to make everything else shut up, but it worked.” He pokes at a raisin with his spoon. “Then I died, and…some things came back.” In some ways this was harder than being in Jester’s Zone of Truth. Then, he had said things which were technically true, with the right wording. Here, Caduceus will notice any little tell that gives away when he’s lying by omission.

It all started in that damn grave, so to speak. He was little more than an animal when he woke up, driven by self-preservation and the need to keep moving away. It took a while for him to gain some notion of what he was getting away from, and he could understand why. The visions he had, the knowledge locked in his blood that seeped into his fresh mind, they followed him into his dreams and there was no escape. He was aware that the things he was seeing had happened to “him”, or at least they were things his body had experienced, but it seemed like a terrible life.

Molly had hidden his powers from the others once he realized what he could do. He can’t remember the first time he used them exactly because he chose not to remember. He just remembers being scared. The fact that he could do magic wasn't the issue. All of them had strange talents; that's why they were in the carnival. None of them had to hurt themselves to make their magic work, though. They didn't get strange visions of using those powers to hunt...things. He was a freak amongst freaks, and he didn't want them to drive him away so his powers wouldn't turn on them. Shortly thereafter the carnival ran into a secret cult of the Moonweaver, a clan of elves who had been worshiping her for generations before the Empire made it illegal. They were the ones who told him there was another way, that he didn’t have to be afraid all the time, that the Moonweaver understood how terrible the truth can be and that it’s okay to set it aside and become someone else. The moon does not always show her face, and sometimes when she does she outshines her little sister until it’s like there is no second moon. Lucien is Molly’s second moon. If he, Molly, puts himself out there until that’s all people can see, then maybe Lucien will stop haunting him.

Or so he hoped.

There’s a cup of tea on the counter beside him. Molly mutters his thanks and takes a few more bites of oatmeal before sipping it. The warmth settles in his stomach and radiates from there. Caduceus sits on the crate beside him with his own cup. His warmth spreads across Molly from the outside. It’s a good feeling. It puts him at ease. He still doesn’t want to talk about his past.

Then again, if Caleb can find the courage to tell Molly all the things he did, then Molly can tell Caduceus some things.

Molly starts with, “There used to be a person named Lucien…”

It’s a heavily abridged version of the truth. Molly touches on the major things, like when he accepted Mollymauk as his name, how he channeled his powers of insight for good with his Tarot cards, meeting the worshipers of the Moonweaver, but he leaves out a lot of the mental and emotional turmoil of his metamorphosis. What’s important is he crawled out of the dirt as a worm and became the colorful joyous butterfly that he wanted to be. Never mind what happened in the cocoon. Caduceus nods at the metaphor.

“That uh, does sound like quite the process,” he says. “I’m impressed you did it so quickly.” He takes Molly’s hand in his. “Butterflies don’t really have long lifespans. I know you think you don’t either, but just like everyone else in this group you have a purpose to fulfill. I’m…not sure what it is, but then again I don’t know what mine is exactly either. We’re all going to figure ourselves out together. I think this group is good for one another. We can all help. You’ll get where you’re going, and we’ll be there for you every step of the way.”

A smile gradually spreads across Molly’s face the longer he looks into Caduceus’s kind knowing eyes. Maybe this isn’t love, but the sensation in his heart right now is warmer than tea, sweeter than honey, and more relaxing than any drug he has ever taken. Love, like gender, seems to be a word that doesn’t have a solid definition. Everyone has their ideas of what it’s supposed to mean, but ultimately it’s up to a person on an individual level if they want to call something that or not. Molly knows what he is and what he feels, and sure he’d have a hard time describing it to someone else, but it fits him. It fits like his fingers fit between Caduceus’s as he squeezes the firbolg’s hand.

“Thank you.”

Caduceus beams. “Any time.”

They sit and drink tea together, mostly in silence. Caduceus gets up a couple times to stir his stew and set things up for lunch, but he always comes back to Molly’s side. To avoid talking about himself, Molly asks what Caduceus thinks will grow from the harpy’s body, and if there’s any way of guessing what will grow from a particular kind of corpse. He only partially pays attention to Caduceus’s answer because he’s either finishing his food or relishing the enthusiasm with which Caduceus talks about mushrooms and herbs and all that. Even if certain topics didn’t interest him, Molly always liked seeing people get excited about their work. He sees it in Caduceus now, or in Fjord when he talks about sailing, in Jester when she talks about the Traveler, in Caleb when he talks about books…

Molly opens his mouth to ask if Caduceus has any thoughts on Caleb’s breakdown after the fight when he hears a familiar prancing pattern of footsteps approaching.

“Hi Molly! Hi Caduceus!” Jester whirls into the kitchen with a cheery wave to them both. “It smells really good in here.”

“Thank you, Jester,” Caduceus says with a smile. “Vegetable stew, family recipe.”

“Mmm, delicious.” Jester peeks over the edge of the pot and takes a deep sniff. “Ahh! Can I have some?”

Caduceus shrugs one shoulder. “Well, it’s not quite done, but you can tell me if it needs anything.” He ladles out a little into a third cup for her.

Jester blows on the stew to cool it before taking a sip. Her tail flicks upward in delight. “Oh man, that’s pretty great. Um...I don’t know what I’d add to it.”

“In that case, what it needs is time,” Caduceus says with a nod. “Would you like some tea?”

“Hmm…no thank you.” Jester plops onto the crate Caduceus was using as a chair. “So, what were you guys talking about?” She glances up at Molly out of the corner of her eye and bites her lip.

Molly smirks at her. “We were discussing what Caduceus hopes will grow out of that dead harpy he stuffed in a barrel to decompose last night.” If that doesn’t kill whatever romance novel notions she has about his relationship with Caduceus, he doesn’t know what will.

Jester pulls a face, but her smile remains. “Gross! What do you want to grow on it, Caduceus?”

“Ah, well, I uh, I’m kinda hoping for some sort of seasoning. Y’know, something to add more flavor to dinner.” Caduceus gestures vaguely around the kitchen. “I mean, I’ve only got so much and I don’t know how long we’re going to be out here, so the food might have to be bland after a while if I don’t find something else.”

Jester nods. The chain hanging between her ear and her horn jangles softly. In a loud whisper she says, “Just don’t tell the crew where you got it.”

Caduceus smiles back at her. “Oh, no, I’ve learned that uh, people out here are kinda squeamish about that sort of thing.”

“And what have you been up to today, Jester dear?” Molly asks.

Jester kicks her heels against the crate, thumpthump thumpthump. “Oh, just sort of hung around, drew the fight in my sketchbook, had a little chat with the Traveler — well, technically I did all the talking and he just listened, but I’m sure he was there.”

If Molly hadn’t seen Jester cast spells that only clerics can do, he would still be highly doubtful that the Traveler even exists. Even then, he’s not sure the Traveler is what Jester thinks he is. So far her beliefs haven’t caused any trouble beyond the occasional harmless shenanigan. Molly is all for harmless shenanigans. And if her faith is helping her deal with what happened to her at the Sour Nest, then she can talk to the Traveler as much as she wants.

The three of them discuss the harpy fight, but there isn’t much to talk about. Somehow Caleb never comes up. Jester is more excited that Toll the Dead finally killed something, but she also expresses concern that Caduceus’s beetles haven’t been getting enough to eat.

“I mean, if all they’ve had is one harpy for like, a long time, don’t they get hungry?”

“Oh, they’re quite adept at finding their own food,” Caduceus assures. “Sometimes they just eat the ones that have died in the staff. Keeps it from getting too cluttered in there.” The way Caduceus talks about stuff like this so casually is morbidly fascinating. Molly can only image what his upbringing must have been like. He does want to meet the rest of the Clay family to see if they share Caduceus’s outlook, but he’s still hesitant to give up his bedfellow so soon.

At some point Jester remarks that maybe if Orly had played his bagpipes really loud at the harpies it might have confused them or scared them off. That takes Molly on a train of thought that reminds him of something he wanted to bring up with Jester. He had been thinking about it idly during their storytelling circle, though he became understandably distracted before he could ask her.

“Jester darling,” he says. “This is a bit off topic, but while I have you here, there’s something I wanted your help with.”

“Of course, Molly. What is it?”

“Well, I think it has been entirely too long since I’ve gotten a tattoo. Enough has happened in my life recently that it deserves commemoration. Thing is, I’m not sure what to get. Would you mind lending me some of your artistic expertise?”

Jester lights up immediately. “Sure! Let me get some paper and you can tell me what you had in mind.”

“I’ll come with you,” Molly says. “Been sitting on this barrel long enough that my tail is cramping up.” He gets to his feet and stretches his tail this way and that. He flicks it to lightly bat at Caduceus’s leg. “Thank you again for the snack. It was delicious. Really perked me back up.”

Caduceus smiles. “I’m glad. Sometimes a good meal is the best medicine.”

Molly nods with a smile of his own. Caduceus is such a good healer, even without magic. If nothing else, Molly’s death brought him to the Mighty Nein. Molly takes some comfort in that. With one last look into the firbolg’s soft eyes, Molly follows Jester out while Jester rattles off her own ideas for his new body art.

 

Speaking of art, enjoy this lovely piece by m-ollymau-k!

(Speaking of art, check out this lovely piece by m-ollymau-k!)

Chapter Text

Designing a tattoo with Jester turns out to be more fun than Molly expected. After politely turning down her suggestions of a unicorn, a smiley face on his butt, or a bowl of fruit where one banana is distinctly dick-like, Molly takes her ink pen and sketches out one idea that he had. Even though he’s not that bad of an artist, compared to Jester’s drawings it looks like he just found out what a pen was this morning. He manages to get the point across anyway. It’s a shield cracked in half but held together by eight cords.

“It’s because… Well, you know, that’s essentially this group in a nutshell. We’ve all got things that could have broken us for good, but we keep it together anyway. And we help each other, too. I was thinking maybe each cord could look a little different to represent each member of the group, or do you think that’s too much? Maybe I’ll get a tattoo for each of you over time, but I want to start with this.”

Jester puts her hands to her cheeks and juts out her lower lip in a heartstruck expression. “Oh, Molly, that’s so sweeeeet! I love it!”

It’s also a bit of insurance, just like all his other tattoos. If he ever wakes up and he’s not…Molly anymore, his memories will live on across this body’s skin, like Lucien left himself in its blood. And maybe if the next mind to awaken is an empty one, it can piece together what meant most to Molly and try to pick up where he left off. He likes to think he’ll leave a better story to tell than Lucien did. Hopefully if Lucien comes back — though Molly prays with all his heart that that never happens — he might think so, too.

For now Molly is having a wonderful time with his fellow tiefling as they refine the design of the tattoo. After half an hour and a dozen sheets of paper they decide that having so many cords looks too chaotic and out of place among the other elegant tattoos Molly already has. They settle for instead making the shield broken into eight pieces and held together with a silken sash that loops around it a few times.

“Ooo! Ooo!” Jester claps her hands excitedly. “The sash could be thicker around the middle here and say ‘The Mighty Nein’ on it!”

“Um, maybe…” It would certainly help Molly get back to the group if they were ever separated and he couldn’t remember them. Then again, it took him ages to learn his letters the first time and he can still barely understand most written words. If he woke up and all he had to reconstruct his memories was his tattoos, he probably wouldn’t even recognize that the sash said anything at all. It would only look like more shapes. “We can leave space for it and I’ll decide if I want that after the rest of it is done, okay?”

Jester pouts slightly. “Okay…” She gets another piece of paper and draws it that way. While Molly contemplates this version she also doodles a fluffy cloud around the shield. It’s an improvement, somewhat. It might even help the new tattoo blend in with the old ones.

Molly pulls off his shirt to show her what he means. “See, aside from the All-Seeing Eye, all my tattoos are connected. If it goes here—” Molly indicates a spot on his ribs below his right arm, “— then the motif could continue into the clouds or whatever and it’d look pretty nice.”

“Like this?” Jester picks up a paintbrush, dips it in her ink, and draws the flowers of his arm transforming into clouds down his torso. The cold ink feels weird and it tickles, but in an oddly satisfying way.

This also presents a new and exciting possibility. Molly dashes back to his room to grab his disguise kit, startling a few deckhands who are heading upstairs from their quarters. Jester shares Molly’s delight at the thought of using him as a canvas. She gets to work recreating their design on his body. While her face is scrunched in concentration and her hands move with the steadiness of a mountain, her tails flops around with all her repressed energy. The silver cuffs at the end clank merrily on the hardwood floor.

It takes fifteen minutes, almost all the pale gray body paint in Molly’s kit, and a few breaks so Molly can put his arm down to rest, but then Jester steps back with a grin. “I like it!” she declares.

Molly twists to look at it. The shield is about as large as his hand, but with the background the “tattoo” takes up almost the entire right side of his ribs. Jester holds up her mirror so he can see it better. She did a good job matching the existing style. The flowers she drew changing into the cloud are a little different from the ones on his arm, but since that’s a bit much to ask from Orly Molly was going to just get the shield for now anyway.

“I like it too,” he says. “Want me to paint something on you?”

Jester prances in place. “Yes yes yes yes! Please!

Which is how Yasha and Beau managed to walk in on them while Jester had her dress undone so Molly could paint a hamster unicorn on the back of her shoulder. She was otherwise modestly covered, but that didn’t stop them from getting some bemused and confused looks from Jester’s roommates.

“…Do I even want to know what’s going on here?” Beau asks. She still has Frumpkin the owl perched on her shoulder, and somehow he also looks bewildered by the situation.

Jester shrugs in a way that won’t smudge anything. “Just some fake tattooing.”

Molly nods and angles himself to show off Jester’s art. “Want one?” he asks.

Yasha stares at the shield for a moment, then shakes her head. “No, thank you.”

Beau wrinkles her nose and raises her eyebrows in curiosity. “I might want one. Except it’s lunchtime. Also, Molly, wanted to talk to you.”

“Yes?” Molly says leaning his elbow on Jester so he can prop his chin on his fist. In case Caleb is watching through Frumpkin’s eyes, he smiles warmly at the owl. His heart still twinges with need and concern. He wants to talk to Caleb again, but it’s too soon. He has to think about what he’d say so it comes out right. This is not the sort of conversation he can bullshit on the fly.

A snap of Beau’s fingers brings him back to attention. “Eyes over here, Circus Boy. I know he’s awesome, but you haven’t done a watch shift yet. Do you want the afternoon watch today or the night watch?”

“I could do the night watch,” Molly says. Last night he was too focused on listening to his friends’ stories or fighting harpies to appreciate the world around him. He did note that the moonlight on the ocean was lovely, but he wants to know if there’s a difference between staying up for watch on land and staying up for watch at night. “Who else is taking that shift?”

Beau crosses her arms. “Fjord.”

Really? Has he ever not been on watch this whole trip?”

“No. I think it’s because…” Beau casts nigh imperceptible glances at Jester and Yasha. Frumpkin appears to do the same. “Y’know, he’s taking this captain thing seriously. Wants to set a good example or some shit like that.”

Molly nods, not only in response to what she said, but to acknowledge what she didn’t. Fjord was on watch the night the Iron Shepherds came. He’s dead set on never failing to protect their group again. Molly had a hunch this would happen. He hasn’t had much chance to talk to Fjord during their journey. Being on watch with him will give him a good opportunity to figure out how close to his breaking point Fjord is.

Jester sighs. “Poor Fjord,” she says. “I really wish there was something we could do to help him relax. He has been super stressed this whole time, but he won’t talk about it. I’m worried about him.”

Molly bites his tongue. He’s sure there at least one thing Jester could do to help Fjord…”release some tension”. Either she hasn’t made a move yet or it was subtle enough that Fjord didn’t get the message. Then again, Jester could sit naked in Fjord’s lap and it would still be too subtle for him to notice. That might be something else Molly has to bring up with Fjord later. He has a few theories…

“I told him to get some sleep this afternoon,” Beau said. “Well, I told him if he didn’t go pass out in bed willingly I’d knock him out myself. But hey, so long as he gets some rest, right?”

Yasha shrugs. “Maybe you should have knocked him out anyway. He said he wanted you to be first mate to keep him in check, didn’t he?”

“Yeah, but I don’t want to be that asshole.”

Molly can’t pass it up. “Of course not, not after you put so much effort into being this asshole.”

Beau scowls at him. There’s a hint of amusement though. “Well, we can’t all be natural-born assholes. I’m a professionally trained asshole.”

Molly grins. “Glad you finally acknowledged my talent.” And glad they’re back to their usual bickering. If Beau had felt so embarrassed after last night that she stopped talking to him — or worse, tried hard to be nice to him — Molly would have been supremely annoyed.

Yasha clears her throat. “I’m…just going to leave this here then go get some food. Molly? You coming?”

“Let me finish this and I’ll be right there.”

“Okay.” Yasha puts her flower-pressing book on her cot and leaves with Beau.

Molly puts the last touches on Jester’s hamster unicorn. It’s hard to get the mirror at an angle where she can see it without twisting so much it obscures the artwork. Eventually she sees enough of it. Her tail bounces with delight.

“It’s adorable!” she exclaims. “I really like that you added the little sparkles.”

“That’s what that paint is for,” Molly says, putting everything back in his disguise kit. “I would have done the whole thing with it, but I only have so much.”

“That’s okay. I really like it.” Jester hugs him. “Thank yooou Mooolly.”

Molly fans and blows on the paint until it dries. Jester pulls her dress back up. The hamster unicorn’s head peeks up over the ruffled top of the sleeve, just as Molly wanted it to. He smiles to himself with pride all the way to lunch.

All eyes are on Molly when he walks in. He “accidentally” forgot to put his shirt back on before leaving Jester’s room. A few of the crew make astonished remarks about his new “tattoo”. The first thing Molly does is sidle up to Orly and show it to him.

“Orly, friend, how much would it cost to get the line art for this done? Or at least for just the shield?”

Orly lowers his head with the usual creaking sound of his leathery neck. He examines the complexity of the many cracks and the sash’s folds and curves with his one eye partially narrowed. “That’s uh, that’s quite the tall orduh, even without the, uh…” He waves his claw at the added background. “Mm-mmmight take me some time, but then again I might suhprise mm-mahself. Let’s say…five silvuh per hour?”

“Deal.” Molly intends to tip him well, regardless of how long it takes. Maybe some of the details will get lost in translation from pen ink to needle ink, but if Orly can tattoo himself that well, then Molly has utmost faith in the tortle’s skills.

Lunch is another joint effort by Caduceus and Yasha. It’s boiled potatoes loaded with spices and diced vegetables, as well as some cooked minced meat that people can mix into the potatoes if they want any. Molly detects some fusaka in with the potatoes. He is so glad he got that for Caduceus. However, given how much food Caduceus has seasoned with it, his supply might be running low. Molly only bought a few ounces. When they get back to Nicodranas he’s going to get Caduceus a whole pound of the stuff.

Molly keeps an eye on both Caleb and Fjord during the meal. Caleb seems alright. He’s more engaged with his food than he was at breakfast. He doesn’t look up at Molly at any point, as far as Molly can tell. Fjord does a couple times. Molly isn’t sure if he’s imagining things or if Fjord is looking less green than usual. Bo used to look like that after he had finished puking up whatever he had drunk too much of that night. Hopefully Fjord isn’t sick. He might just be tired. When he catches Molly’s eye he gives him a smile. It’s a shallow smile. Molly definitely needs to talk to him later. That’s two conversations he needs to plan. It’s giving him a headache.

When lunch is over Beau practically drags Fjord from the table. She nods to Molly as a reminder that he needs to get his rest as well. Molly isn’t accustomed to sleeping during the afternoon, but he knows that if he’s going to be up all night it’s for the best. It’s so rare that he gets a chance to catch up on rest for a watch. Usually it’s a matter of setting up camp, taking his shift on guard or asleep, then packing up the next morning and off they go. Molly likes the pace of sailing, even if it’s a bit boring. And there were so many islands on that map. If they didn’t have so much on their to-do list he would want to sail to all of them.

Jester brings him his shirt from her room and thanks him again for her hamster. It has smudged a bit by now, so he helps her clean it off. She does the same for him, though there’s a lot more to clean. Eventually Molly gets his scimitar and scrapes the paint off with the blunt edge. It doesn’t get everything, but it gets enough to make it easier to wipe away with a damp cloth. As much as Jester prefers taking the offensive in battle, Molly can see why she became a cleric. She scrubs him with enough force to be effective but with a measure of gentleness so it doesn’t hurt him. She’s a very caring thoughtful person. Fjord is a fucking idiot for not taking her up on her many invitations for romance.

It’s hard to fall asleep without Caduceus snoring in his ear. He had the same issue when he started rooming with Fjord. Yasha was a sound snorer herself. On the road with the carnival, it was the silent nights in their tent that were the bad ones. It meant Yasha was lying awake, lost in her memories. Molly would scoot close enough to drape his tail over her legs or shoulders if he didn’t sleep right up next to her so she would know she wasn’t alone. Fjord didn’t snore. He was good company, though Molly did have concerns he would wake up in a puddle of sea water some nights.

Now the sea is just outside. It crashes and splashes against the wall of the ship. The wood around Molly creaks as the ship rocks in the waves. It’s not the same as Caduceus or Yasha snoring, but it’s something. Molly bunches up some of the sheets to one side so it feels like someone else is there. He falls asleep imagining it’s Caleb.

It feels like he has barely drifted off when Beau comes knocking at his door. Molly checks the window. It’s definitely close to dinner time. Last night must have been more exhausting than he thought. He appreciates the dreamless sleep. That’s what he’s used to, albeit not so suddenly. He feels like he could sleep another hour if he closed his eyes again. He contemplates yelling at Beau that he’ll be up when he’s up, but then he remembers what’s for dinner. That soup is probably perfect by now. Fighting the post-nap grogginess, Molly gets dressed and hustles to join the others.

The soup is more than perfect. It’s the best thing Caduceus has made thus far. Molly thinks about their discussion earlier and all the things he wants to say to Caleb. Caleb seems neither better nor worse than he was at lunch. Maybe Molly could talk to him before he has to go out on watch. He still doesn’t know how to approach the subject other than, “Caleb, darling, neither of us is good at talking about our feelings, but clearly we both care more than we let on and I’d like to be more open about it with you.” It’s a good start, though he might have to reveal that he knows what Nott told him, and that could upset both of them. Upsetting Caleb would hurt more than anything, but a close second to that would be a pissed off Nott using him as target practice.

As much as he would like to get that out of he way, Molly is definitely talking to Fjord later and there’s only a chance he would have his thoughts together enough to talk to Caleb after dinner. He mulls over the key issues while enjoying his second bowl of stew. They’ll be at this island soon. Fjord is probably excited and nervous about that. He has a lot of new responsibilities on his shoulders as captain, but he has handled it well so far. Nothing too terrible has happened except the harpy attack. Fjord got them back up and running without much delay. But speaking of delays, either Fjord or Jester has to acknowledge what’s going on between them. Whether he notices her flirting or not, Fjord did save Jester’s life after she nearly drowned the other day. Molly might be overinterpreting things, but he could have sworn there was extra tenderness and desperation when Fjord breathed life back into her.

Yasha and Molly help Caduceus do the dishes again. Yasha keeps giving Molly odd looks. He’s not about to add a third talk to his to-do list, so he merely smiles back at her to show that he’s alright. He isn’t, but that’s not important. He’ll get through it. He always does. Caduceus has helped him tremendously these past few days. That might be why she’s looking at him like that. Molly doesn’t change anything about the way he chooses to act around either of them. She can read into how close Molly stands to Caduceus or how many bad jokes he tells to make Caduceus laugh or whatever she wants as much as she wants. Molly will still be Molly.

Caduceus offers to work on Molly’s scar before watch. Molly accepts with no hesitation. Some good touch before trying to deal with Fjord will be nice. They go back to their room for a little privacy, and because it’s more comfortable to do this with Molly lying on a soft surface.

Warmth tickles Molly’s ribs as Caduceus channels his healing energy into the ever-shrinking patch. Molly closes his eyes so he can relax and simply enjoy this. No other thoughts. Deep breath in, long breath out. Deep breath in, long breath out.

What does Caleb do to relax? Read? Pet Frumpkin? He doesn’t have Frumpkin right now. Maybe he snuggles with Nott. Except Nott doesn’t seem like the snuggling type…

Wait, no. Now is not the time for thinking about that. There’s time for that later. He promised there would be time for that later. He promised…

Deep breath in, long breath out. Deep breath in, long breath out. Focus on the warmth. Focus on the mild itch of healthy skin replacing dead scar tissue. Focus on his skin. He’s excited for his new tattoo. They really are all so broken, but together they can protect one another. Bonded by the silken sash of…friendship? Love?

Gods, no, not that train of thought again. Deep breath in, long breath out. Deep breath in…

Even their journey together has broken them. Fjord, Jester, and Yasha will carry the trauma of the Sour Nest with them forever, unless there’s a spell that can heal away bad memories too. Molly would like one of those. Caleb needs it most of all.

Caleb, broken from losing his family, his mind, his trust in anyone who wants to help him, manipulated to the point where he can’t even trust himself.

Nott, broken by the hatred of her own kind and therefore herself, she and Caleb share that self-loathing though her relationship with him is…odd, to say the least.

Jester, broken in such subtle ways that it’s easy for her to hide, but the isolation of her childhood took its toll on her.

Fjord, broken by betrayal that robbed him of the life he worked so hard to build and then thrust into a life he wasn’t ready for.

Beau, broken by her own family’s betrayal, by their endless expectations and by their abandonment when she couldn’t meet them.

Yasha, broken-hearted, dealing with her own exile, forever in mourning, trying every day to be better, but every night she remembers.

Caduceus, broken yet hopeful, led by his faith as he drifts the sea of fate in search of answers, and even then his faith has wavered more than once.

And then there’s Molly, broken from the moment he drew his first breath…

“Okay, that’s it for now, unless you want me to cast it again.”

Molly opens his eyes. Deep breath in, long breath out. He’s cold. He sits up. The scar is half the size it used to be, or so he thinks. Caduceus is pleased with his progress. He looks so good with that hint of pride in his smile, the sparkle in his eyes, the perk in his ears. The warmth returns to Molly’s chest as his heart beats with adoration.

“Thanks, Caduceus,” he says. He brushes a wayward wave of pink hair back up and over Caduceus’s ear.

“My pleasure,” Caduceus replies. It really is. He loves helping people so much. The adoration in Molly’s heart burns brighter.

The last of the twilight is fading outside their window. It’s time for the night watch. “Try not to miss me too much,” Molly says with a playful flick of his fingers on Caduceus’s chin.

Caduceus smiles. “Oh, I’ll be fine. I’m used to sleeping alone.”

He shouldn’t be. Molly doesn’t want him to have to be alone. Beau will kill him if he abandons his watch shift though. And he still has to talk to Fjord. The thought makes him want to stay here with Caduceus even more. Nothing he can do about that. He has to contribute to their group. It’s only fair. He gives Caduceus a parting grateful kiss on his cheek. The warm fuzz feels good on his lips. The rub on his ear that Caduceus gives him in return feels better. As much as he wants to avoid confrontation in favor of basking in this intimacy, Molly puts his shirt back on, grabs his sword belt, and heads up onto the deck.

Beau was right. The sea is boring. The stars are absolutely beautiful, and Molly likes the way their reflections dance on the waves with the silvery light of the nearly full moon, but there’s nothing except for water around them for miles and miles and it’s boring. He doesn’t want to get into another fight, either with harpies or something worse, but even on the road you pass other travelers sometimes. Maybe if they had taken the trade routes they would have seen other ships. But for now it’s just them and the water and it’s so fucking boring.

Of course, Molly has yet to talk to Fjord. He’s not putting it off, necessarily, he just doesn’t want to walk up and list off the reasons why he's worried so Fjord can explain himself. If only it were that easy. However, one of the first things his carnival family taught him was how to read your mark; if you’re gonna convince someone to do something, it’s best to wait for an opening and tailor your approach to appeal to them, otherwise they’ll just brush you off.

Molly says a few things in passing to Fjord during the first half of their watch, but he doesn’t make his move until they’ve been out there for several hours. He spots Fjord leaning on the railing near the front of the ship. The posture of Fjord’s shoulders indicates he’s not just keeping an eye out. Molly walks over and mimics the way Fjord is standing a couple feet away.

“Hey there, Tusktooth,” he says. “Is this the good brooding spot?”

Fjord snorts with a soft, “Hmmf.” He says, “I’m not brooding, I’m thinking.”

Molly waggles his shoulders. “Are you thinking about how tough things are and how exhausted you’ve been and wishing to yourself, ‘Gods, if only things had gone differently, it would have been so much better’?”

“…Okay, maybe a little.”

Molly smirks. “Then you’re brooding, a little.”

“Heh, I guess.” Fjord sighs. “It has been…a hectic couple of months.”

“Right, we’ve barely known each other, what? Three fucking months?” Molly shakes his head. “Feels like I’ve been dealing with you people for half my life.”

Fjord turns to Molly. “Well, if you can only remember two years of your life before you met us, three months probably does feel like a long time to you, doesn’t it?”

Molly simply shrugs. He’s aware there was a before, though he doesn’t know how long that was. When people asked how old he was he’d say any age between eighteen and twenty-five because that was how old this body looked. He’s not sure when its birthday is or how long Lucien had it before he gave it up. The carnival celebrated the day they found him as his birthday. That day feels like forever ago. He has tried to fill his life with however many years’ worth of experiences to make up for all that time that he could have had, and in the process he has put a lot of distance between now and his beginning.

But yeah, these past three months have been packed with more excitement and adventure than half his life, so the distance between now and his beginning as a member of the Mighty Nein feels even greater.

“I’m getting old,” is all he says.

Fjord laughs. “If you’re old, then I’m ancient.” He watches the stars for a moment. “I’m really not, though. I had so much of my life ahead of me, and I was certain I knew where it was gonna go. Then uh…things changed.”

“They do that,” Molly remarks.

“Yeah, they do.” Fjord scratches at his stomach. “Even after I got…the sword, and my powers, I thought I knew what I was supposed to do; learn how to control them, maybe figure out where they came from.” He frowns. “Then…then we found the sphere and I…I… Things changed. Now we’re here. I’m close to finding out more about it, but…I’m not sure I want to know.”

Molly can relate. If someone offered him the chance to find out how he came to be in a grave in a body he didn’t recognize, he’d get out of there as fast as he could and go somewhere to drink until he forgot he ever met that person. “A little late to change your mind, isn’t it?”

“Yeah… Except there’s stuff I do want to know.” Fjord rubs anxiously as the wood of the railing. “I… There’s something I didn’t tell anyone else.” He runs his tongue over his tusks. “One of the letters from Avantika… She…” He takes a deep breath. “She mentions Vandren. And not so much mentions him as… Well, she told Jawgrasp if the Jagentoths had any information about him that he should pay them extra and ‘tell their brutes to catch him and have some fun with him before they deliver him.’” The railing creaks as Fjord tightens his grip on it. His eyes burn. “I knew he had something to do with the spheres, but I didn’t think they knew each other. Either she doesn’t know he’s dead, or…or he survived and he’s in danger. You guys killed the Iron Shepherds, but maybe she knows others like them. If they do to him what the Shepherds were doing to us…” He clenches his teeth and swallows.

Finding his friends in the dungeons of the Sour Nest was one of the worst things Molly had ever been through, possibly even worse than dying. If he hadn’t used Summer’s Dance while sneaking into the place he would have immediately gone into the cell with Yasha before Nott could unlock it. She was cut up and brutalized and it looked like those bastards had fucking stuck hooks in her and hung her up, like she was just meat. And Fjord… Poor Fjord… His injuries weren’t as bad but the trauma had set in. It took a few tries to snap him out of it. Molly had slapped him without thinking and immediately recoiled when Fjord’s only reaction was to shrink his head into his shoulders with resignation. Just the memory makes Molly want to bare his fangs and lash his tail in challenge to anyone who would dare lay a hand on his friends.

“No one could be worse than the Shepherds,” Molly says, bile in his throat. “We gave them what was fucking coming to them and we can do it again.”

“Molly—” Fjord cuts off to rub his face with both palms. “Look, you died because you guys didn’t know what you were getting into. You just wanted us back and you didn’t stop to think. I— I can’t do that. I can’t let that happen again. This Avantika is powerful. She talks about something called… Ukk… Ook… Uk’atoa? I don’t know what it means but it sounds like something she draws her power from. ‘Uk’atoa’s blessing on you,’ ‘Uk’atoa’ will punish him,’ ‘Uk’atoa smiles on us.’ It sounds…familiar, but…” He sighs. “I just got a bad feelin’, is all.”

Molly is barely listening. He hears the concern in Fjord’s voice, but his mind is back on that day, the ambush, the fight, the… the end. It was foolish, and they did try to stop and think, but Fjord’s right. They didn’t take enough time to consider the consequences. Those monsters had somehow taken three of their strongest without a struggle and Keg had warned them, and still they thought five-on-five would be a fair fight. Then Fjord mentions his bad feeling.

“We’re stronger now,” Molly says. “We’re together. We’ve got our orders: just talk unless we have to run. Not saying this’ll be easy, because when is it fucking ever, but we’re all behind you. None of us wants to lose you, either.” He sees an opportunity to bring up another topic he needs to discuss. He takes it. “You do have a certain cheery blue cleric on your side who definitely wants to keep you around.”

Fjord stares blankly at the ocean.

“…I’m sure she has her reasons,” Molly says with a shrug.

Fjord shakes his head and turns to Molly. “Look, I know Jester likes me.” He frowns. “How dumb do you think I am?”

Molly lets his silent smirk say everything.

Fjord narrows his eyes for a moment, then pinches the bridge of his nose and sighs. “Okay, yes, I’ve been acting like I don’t notice when she flirts with me, or the way she talks to me sometimes, but that’s because…because…” He rubs his hand over his mouth. “It wouldn’t work out, let’s leave it at that.”

“Is it because you’re attracted to men?” Molly asks.

“It is not that,” Fjord replies emphatically. Molly notes that he didn’t deny that it might be a factor. “I’ve got a bad history with…‘romantic endeavors’, and Jester…” He trails off. There’s a soft sadness in his eyes. “I like her. I really do. She saved my life, Molly. I— When the Iron Shepherds were trying to break us, I almost caved. They didn’t just beat us up. They wanted to break us inside and out. Some of the things they did and said took me back to…to dark times in my life. Even then, the beatings were worse.

“But Jester was there. She was like a…a sunflower in a swamp. Everything around us was completely shitty, except for her.” Fjord snorts with a tiny smile. “And Yasha. Yasha never made any sound when they…did stuff, just to piss them off. Made them focus on her instead of us. And Jester… She took care of me. They had us gagged and bound so we couldn’t cast anything, but they locked us up together when they weren’t…working on us. Jester would scoot over to me and hum these songs… I think they were songs her mother used to sing to her or something.” He traces a circle around his forearm with one finger. “And she’d hold onto my arm with her tail sometimes. They never did anything about her tail. Our gags were on too tight for her tail to get them off, so she…held me. It was…such a small gesture but it…it meant so much at the time.”

Molly wants nothing more than to hug Fjord in this moment, protect him, comfort him. He takes a step forward. “Then why wouldn’t it work out between you two?” he asks.

“Because.” Fjord digs at the corner of his eye like he’s scratching it. The moonlight gives away the damp smear left behind. “She’s an amazing person. I’ve never met anyone like her. She’s so strong, so bold, so…incredible. Me? I’m a fuck-up. I… I was nobody until the shipwreck. I don’t know why I’m the one who got these powers, of all people. I can’t even explain them without sounding crazy. I can’t— I can’t be the guy she needs. Doesn’t mean I don’t— I— I feel—” He takes a deep breath. More moonlight glimmers at the edges of his eyes. He scratches at his stunted tusks with one fingernail.

Molly bats his hand away, like Jester does but not as forceful. Fjord murmurs an apology then sniffles. Molly closes the space between them, but doesn’t pull Fjord into an embrace despite the yearning ache in his arms. He strokes Fjord’s hair instead.

“Fjord, as someone who was literally nobody just over two years ago, I can assure you, you’re so much more than you think.” Molly leans in to plant a soft kiss on Fjord’s cheek. To his surprise, Fjord turns his head as though his lips are following Molly’s. Is he… Could it be…

Molly’s self-restraint breaks. He adjusts his aim and their mouths connect.

A sensation like a firestorm of golden flower petals passes through Molly. Cuddles and words of comfort and all those other bits of friendly affection he has exchanged with the others were all well and fine, but this… He needed this. He needed to know at least one of them wanted him in return and was willing to show it. And Fjord, dear Fjord, who tries his best for all of them and gets so little in return, he needed this too. They stand there, together, sharing this moment of tenderness between the stars and the sea. Molly weaves his fingers into Fjord’s hair, the pad of his thumb caressing the shell of Fjord’s ear. A warm hand touches Molly’s waist, hesitant at first, then with a gentle grip. If it weren’t for the fabric of his shirt Molly knows he would feel the rough callouses built up over a lifetime of hard work on his skin. His heart pounds a triumphant exuberant beat that fills his chest.

Fjord takes a step back. His hands form incomplete gestures to go with the stammered mumbling coming out of his mouth. “That was— Heh, okay, so— I didn’t— You— But— Haha, wow, um— Hooo, boy…” He clears his throat, eyes darting towards the oblivious members of the crew. “I like Jester.”

“So do I,” Molly says. “But I like you, too.” He crosses his arms and takes his own step back to give Fjord more space. “That didn’t have to mean anything if you don’t want it to. It’s just something I figured would be, uh, cathartic, for both of us. Now we’ve got that out of the way, we can move on.” He grins. “Though, if you want more practice before trying that with Jester, you know where to find me.”

Part of Molly wants Fjord to rush in, grab him by the face, and kiss him again. He completely understands when Fjord just nods and averts his eyes from meeting Molly’s. “I’ll…keep that in mind.”

Molly takes that as a cue that the conversation is over. There’s one more thing he wants to say, so he walks away a few feet then turns back. “Also, if you do need to turn her down, please do it gently. If you hurt her—”

“Let me guess,” Fjord interrupts. “You love her like she’s your sister and if I break her heart you’ll play the big brother and beat me up?”

“What? No. I was going to say that if you hurt her you can probably forget about relying on her for healing for like, a month. Not to mention that she might ‘accidentally’ miss her target with that spiritual lollipop of hers and knock you on your ass in every battle.” Molly grins with a swish of his tail. “What I would do is finally make a move on her.”

Fjord stares at him, first with his brow furrowed, then with wide eyes, then with a jolt of realization. “What do you mean ‘make a move on her’? What do you mean ‘finally’?”

“I told you, I like her. She’s clearly hung up on you though and I do think you’d be good for each other. However, if you’re not interested…”

“But— But you— We just— What?

Molly chuckles. “Remember last week when I mentioned no one in our group had figured out who I had a crush on?”

“…It’s…Jester?”

“It’s all of you, dummy. In case you haven’t noticed this is a very shaggable group.” Molly shrugs. “But you’ve all got your own stuff going on and I know when to prioritize my desires. I’d much rather have you all as friends than start anything that would get awkward.”

“So you and Caduceus…?”

The lie wells up on Molly’s tongue. He could blithely tell Fjord that Caduceus is secretly a kinky sex fiend and they fuck from dusk ‘til dawn, but he doesn’t want to slander Caduceus’s glowing reputation. That’s not something to joke about. “We just cuddle. Only time we’ve both had our pants off around each other is at the baths and that day on the beach. Ours is a…more intimate friendship, yes, but we’re just friends.” Molly flicks his tail and adds, “Doesn’t mean there isn’t room in my heart for seven. Or more. The problem is that beds are generally built for only two or three.”

Fjord swallows. “Oh.”

That should give Fjord something to think about as he finishes his shift. With a wistful hum and a flash of a smile, Molly waggles his fingers in a wave as he saunters off. “Good talking with ya, Fjord.”

For the rest of the night, Molly sits up in the crow’s nest. He smokes a couple of cigarettes, looks for the few constellations he knows by name, tries not to think about seducing Fjord and fails. After some mental debating he decides it’s not a great idea to rub one out up here. He wishes he had his pills, but he needs to be alert and focused. He can’t do that if he’s high. Or pleasuring himself. Maybe he should try to convince Fjord and Jester into a threesome. Nah, too risky. Their group dynamic is finally settling into something that works. Adding sex to the mix would throw everything off again.

Sunrise is a blessing when it finally arrives. Molly was running out of ways to distract himself. Under the soft yellow band of dawn that stretches across the eastern horizon there’s a little puddle of fire. Over the next few minutes the sun emerges from that puddle. It casts its brilliance on the water, turning the previously iron-dark sea to molten gold. Molly leans on the railing of the crow’s nest and watches until the light burns too many spots into his vision. At that point he descends and goes to report to Fjord.

Fjord freezes for a heartbeat when Molly approaches. Molly does his best to be casual, dispel any tension that might gave grown between them.

“Everything’s clear on the horizon, Captain,” he says. “If I’m no longer needed, I’m going to nap before breakfast.”

 “Dismissed,” Fjord says. There’s an emotion in his eyes that Molly doesn’t want to interpret as dismay, but that feels like the right word for it. Even though Fjord was technically the one to go for their kiss, he’s clearly regretting that decision. Fuck. So much for helping Fjord overcome some of his anxieties. Molly went and accidentally added more. There go his hopes that… Rrragh, doesn’t matter anymore. What happened happened. Time to move on to the next thing.

Molly does his best to tiptoe into his room. The door squeaks enough to make him cringe. He silently slips out of his clothes and under the sheets. Caduceus puts his arm around Molly the moment he’s within reach.

“Sorry if I woke you,” Molly murmurs.

Caduceus shifts his body closer to Molly. “It’s okay. Good watch?”

Molly nods. “Good watch.” He yawns. “Don’t you have to be up soon anyway? Get breakfast started?”

“…Do you want me to leave?”

“No.” Molly takes his now familiar place, head tucked under Caduceus’s chin, their legs entwined, his tail snaked around Caduceus’s ankle. “I like this. What we do. It’s nice.” And so unproblematic. Their boundaries are set. No “hanky-panky stuff”, as Caduceus would put it, and that’s it. Otherwise they’re so physically and intimately open with each other. Molly could probably kiss Caduceus right now the way he kissed Fjord and Caduceus wouldn’t mind at all. He’s not going to do that in case he’s wrong, but still.

Caduceus hums in agreement. “It is. As, uh…as used to sleeping alone as I am, I did miss you last night.” He nuzzles one of Molly’s horns. “I’d almost forgotten what it was like to share a bed with someone I care about so much. Even though you’re not a member of my family, I kinda feel like you are at this point. Sort of? It’s definitely different. You’re smaller than anyone in my family, but you’re fun to sleep with.”

Molly will let that pass. Caduceus didn’t mean it with a sexual connotation. “You’re fun to sleep with, too.” Molly has always been a tactile person, and Caduceus is a fantastic source of tactile satisfaction. His fur is soft and warm, his ears are silky and velvety, he’s bony in some places but gaining some padding in others, and his fingers are only still when he’s sleeping, otherwise they’re playing with Molly’s hair or lightly rubbing his back or clutching Molly’s hands. “Thank you,” Molly says.

“Thank you. You’re a good person, Molly. Even more so than you think you are sometimes.” Caduceus hugs him tight. “I’m glad I made the right choice.”

“You really did,” Molly says. And he’s glad that the right person came back. He’d have hated to miss out on all this. If Caduceus could guarantee that no one else would come back, Molly might not care so much about dying in the future. For now, he drifts off into his nap comforted by one single thought.

If he doesn’t wake up, this is an excellent final moment to go out on.

Chapter Text

Molly awakes to Caduceus carefully unwrapping his arms and tail and laying him back down in bed, pulling the covers over him. Rather than rub Molly’s ear Caduceus merely brushes the back of his fingers over it before he leaves to go make breakfast. Molly would get up and follow him, but the bed is still warm and Caduceus tucked him in so nicely. A few more minutes wouldn’t hurt…

The wind sings in the trees above him. The river before him is calm, though he can hear where the current rushes over shallow stones further down. He’s parched. His body is stiff and shivering from sleeping on hard stone all night. He leans down to take a drink. There’s something in— no, on the water. It’s the same color as his outstretched hands, with two patches of color similar to the odd shapes on his skin. He touches the water. It’s just water. The thing on the surface distorts beneath his fingers. He puts his whole hand in the water. Nothing. He pulls his hand out. It’s cold. The water stills and the thing is back to normal. He looks at it closer. It gets bigger. It’s right beneath him. He doesn’t understand.

He didn’t. Now he does. It’s his reflection, but it isn’t. Molly takes control of the dream, the memory. He claws at the image in the water. Light catches the scattered drops. The reflection returns. He can see his own frustration, but it’s not him. That thing isn’t him. He hisses. The reflection bares its own fangs. Molly slams both fists into it. His dirty clothes get soaked. The water calms itself and the reflection is back. There’s no other option. Molly just has to get up and get away. Keep moving. Always moving. Moving away. Getting away. Away… Away from…

Molly opens his eyes. The sound of water is just the ocean outside. He runs his fingers through his hair. Good, that’s there. Tattoos? Check. Jewelry? Check. Swords? Clothes? Glaive scar? All accounted for. He’s still himself. Somewhere deep down he isn’t. The shadow of the second moon casting an eclipse on him.  He shakes his head. Not gonna happen. He’s Mollymauk Tealeaf, damn it. He spent two years keeping himself that way and he’s not about to lose it all because of some stupid nightmares and bad memories. Mollymauk Tealeaf is going to go have breakfast with Mollymauk Tealeaf’s friends, and that’s that.

However, Fjord is among those friends and Molly had almost forgotten about last night. That felt like a different dream. If it was, then Fjord clearly had it too, since he immediately turns his back to Molly when Molly comes to take his place at the table. He’s a little late, but there’s still plenty of food. It’s pancakes with honey today.

Aside from his disappointment that now Fjord is probably going to avoid him for the rest of their trip, Molly notes that Fjord is sitting next to Jester this morning. Usually he’s a few seats over, trying to be part of the rest of the crew. Jester is all smiles. Maybe that kiss was exactly the push Fjord needed to finally open up to her. Hopefully. At least something good will come of that.

But Caleb also still isn’t looking at him. Molly searches for an excuse to get his attention, something near Caleb that he might want so Caleb can pass it to him. He could make an absolute fool of himself and say that the pancakes on the serving platter by Caleb look much better than the ones already within his reach. He’s about to when Caleb gets up and excuses himself, leaving behind a few last uneaten bites.

Molly leans his head on his hand, digging his fingertips into his scalp, and tries to focus on his food. He can’t. His mind has been too prone to wandering recently and he doesn’t like it. He especially doesn’t like the places it’s going. Why that memory, out of all of them? It’s one of the few things he can recall about his time before the carnival with anything resembling clarity. He wasn’t even really aware of himself as a person at the time. Everything he did was motivated by need, except that one moment. In that moment he had seen his reflection for the first time and didn’t know what it was. It’s the first time he can remember feeling curious. It’s the first time he can remember feeling anything, really, other than empty or scared.

And now Molly has new feelings. This is the first time he can remember caring so much for someone else. Yes, he cared about his carnival family, and he has cared for Yasha since the moment they met, but this is…deeper, stronger. He would lay down his life for these friends. He has lain down his life for them. He would do it again if they would let him stay dead. It’s for the best. They don’t know what they could unleash if things go wrong.

No. No no no he doesn’t want to think about that. Everything is going to be fine. He’ll be more careful in battle. The group will protect him. But accidents happen. He’d want to bring any one of them back if they were the ones who fell. Caleb knows what he wants. Caduceus said he wouldn’t try another resurrection unless he knew Molly wanted to come back.

Though it might not be them who try to bring him back. There’s that dream he had the other night, where Cree came for him. If they figure out he’s not Lucien, they might try to fix that. He has a suspicion for how they would do it. The pancakes in his stomach are threatening to make a reappearance. He pushes aside his own unfinished breakfast in favor of some water.

They’re going somewhere dangerous. He can’t let it end like this if he dies protecting the others. He can’t let Caleb hate himself for not being able to prevent it. He can’t let his relationship with Fjord sour from the unintentional tension and embarrassment. He can’t leave Caduceus without someone to keep him company, or leave Jester without a fellow tiefling in the group, or Beau without someone to affectionately antagonize her, or Nott without someone to guide her impulsive vices.

And Yasha, his dearest Yasha. She’ll go mad with grief if he dies. It’ll be even worse if they try to bring him back and she gets a stranger instead.

There’s really no way out of this, is there?

Fuck.

Molly goes right back to his room, gets out the bottle of pills, and swallows one before he throws up from overthinking. He sits with his head in his hands, waiting for it to kick in. He thinks about how far he has come since those first days. Most people wouldn’t have gotten into half the crazy shit he has been through in the past two and a half years, or even the past two and a half months. He’d like to be able to say he survived it all, but he didn’t, now did he?

There were plenty of close calls, most of them more recently, though there were a few times in the carnival when he found a knife to his throat. His powers got him out of most of those predicaments. Finding out he could hurt people just by speaking Infernal at them with the right intent was…funny, in a sense. That didn’t feel connected to Lucien. Jester could do it too, sometimes, but generally when she was angry after someone attacked her. It fit with his personality; talking his way out of bad situations, even when all he was saying was bullshit.

The tingling sifts into his fingers and toes. His shoulders relax. Even the mild headache he had been ignoring fades. This is much better. No, it doesn’t solve his problems, but neither does sitting here worrying about them. Being high and not getting things done is preferable to being sad and not getting things done, in his opinion. At least when he’s high the world feels more interesting rather than foreboding. Speaking of which…

Molly buries his face in Caduceus’s side of the pillow. He takes deep sniffs of the sweet musky scent until his lungs scream for more air. Even then he stays for a few more breaths to prove to himself that he can control this, and because Caduceus smells so damn good but he can’t go around sniffing the firbolg when he needs a hit. A little suffocation is worth getting to enjoy this as long as he wants.

He rolls into his side when it gets so bad his tail starts twitching. For a few minutes he just lies there, two fingers to the pulse on his neck. His blood is still pumping. It wasn’t his blood when this all began, but by now he has bled enough that surely the last of Lucien should have left him, right? Then why, why can Molly still feel him? At least, he thinks he can. He closes his eyes. The blood beneath his skin rushes in its steady bursts through his veins. Every beat feels the same. If there’s a difference between Molly’s blood and Lucien’s, he can’t tell.

And that’s what scares him.

Maybe if he understood his powers better he would know what it is about his blood that affects his mind. They had taken him over again, albeit because he let them, but it was still such an unpleasant feeling. The best person to ask about them would be Cree, but no fucking way is he going to talk to her about anything. He had successfully bullshitted his way through another conversation with her when they collected their reward from the Gentleman. She still thought he was Lucien. She still thought he was laying low until he knew who had betrayed him. She still had the ability to track him, but hopefully she would never have a reason to do so.

Molly thinks about his nightmare. The drugs take enough of the edge off his fear that he doesn’t immediately shy away from doing so. Was that dream a warning, a bad trip, or just his mind trying to make sense of his ever-growing anxiety? Whichever it was, its meaning is clear; no matter how far he runs, how many distractions he tries to lose himself in, or what he does to this body in his attempts to fully claim it as his own, his past is still there below the surface. So long as it’s there, waiting for a chance to reclaim him, he’s not safe. No one around him is safe.

Then there’s that other figure in his dreams, the one with wings. He’s new. Molly can tell he has something to do with his death, but he can’t remember. That’s a better memory to try to dig up than all the others. He taps into the haze at the edge of his mind in hopes that the drugs have somehow unlocked a part of him that he didn’t know he had closed off.

He’s not bad, whoever he is. It’s his relation to death that makes Molly uneasy. He came when Molly fell in battle at the docks. He helped Molly get back up. Molly remembers thinking he looked like Gustav, sort of. Darker. Handsome. Very handsome. A kind voice. They had talked…for a long time? Not that time at the docks, but at some point. The more Molly tries to remember, the more he gets an odd aching in his chest, the longing for friends. Not Molly’s friends. His friends. He misses them. Molly could relate, one of the reasons they got along so well. Or did they? Who is he? Molly gets the feeling he would have to die again to find out, and he’s not that desperate to know. But if he could help...

The door opens. Caduceus stoops in. Molly’s tail tip curls in an involuntary wag. “Hey Molly,” Caduceus says. “Were you about to take a nap?”

“No. Just thinkin’.” Molly stretches and gets out of bed. “I’m bored.”

Caduceus nods. “Me too. I know the sea is also the Wildmother’s domain, but I miss trees. And grass. And solid ground. Miss Yasha has been very nice about letting me look at her flower collection, but it’s not the same.”

Molly nods. “Yeah, Yasha’s very proud of those flowers. She’s going to— uh…” He almost spilled her secret, but he’s not that high. That’s a secret he’ll take back to his grave if he has to. “She’s going to need another book to keep them in at this rate. Um… Speaking of plants though, how’s your harpy coming along?”

“Y’know, I was just about to check on that. Would you like to come with me? It’s uh, something to do at the very least.”

“That it is.” And Molly likes spending time with Caduceus. Caduceus is so nice and soft and pretty. And he smells good. So good.

Caduceus grabs his staff and a few little tools from his bag. Molly follows him down to the storage area of the ship. Aside from a couple crewmen who are checking on the inventory, Nott is down there making crossbow bolts. She has all her equipment spread out on a sheet in front of her. There are several vials and bottles scattered amidst the wood and metal and assorted knives.

“Hey, Nott,” Caduceus says. “What are you making today?”

Nott’s eyes are crossed in concentration as she sharpens the tip of one bolt, her tongue stuck out from between her uneven teeth. “Acid bolts,” she says.

“Ah, sounds good. Let me know if you need anything.”

“Uh-huh.”

The barrel with the harpy has a bold label on it that reads “DO NOT OPEN”. Caduceus pops the lid off. The stench is horrific. The men twenty feet away recoil and cough from the fumes. If Yasha were here she would have dashed to the other side of the room while gagging. Molly holds his breath and peers inside. Aside from the feathers mixed with the rotting meat and bones, the body is hardly recognizable as a harpy. That is partially due to the bluish-green substance growing on it. It’s too stringy to be mold, but it doesn’t look like any plant Molly has ever seen.

Caduceus prods at it with one of his tools, scrapes a bit off, and sniffs it. He nibbles it then runs his tongue over his teeth. Molly’s stomach churns. Caduceus, however, nods with an impressed expression. “Not bad,” he says. “Not exactly good for seasoning, but uh…it’s different. I think it’s some kind of lichen, or uh, maybe algae? Could be a mix of both.” He grins. “I’m excited to see where this goes.”

Before he closes the barrel, Caduceus scoops up a small chunk of the meat for his beetles. They swarm out of the staff, rip it to shreds, then retreat with it, leaving nothing but a wet smudge on Caduceus’s palm.

“That should last them a bit,” Caduceus says, wiping his hand off on his pants. “And now if Jester asks, I can tell her with certainty that they’re getting enough to eat.”

Molly nods, still trying not to breathe. He’s relieved when they get up to the deck and he can clean out his sense of smell with fresh salty air. There’s excitement amongst the crew. Caduceus notices it too. He walks up to the nearest deck hand, an older halfling with biceps as thick as his neck.

“Hey there, Agdi,” Caduceus says. “What’s all the commotion about?”

The halfling smiles. “Word is we’ll be at the reef by the end of the day.”

“Oh. That is exciting.” Caduceus smiles back. “And your leg is doing better?”

“Much better. Thank you for your help the other day.”

The two of them continue making small talk. Molly gets bored and wanders off. He wants to go talk to Fjord, but he’s not sure if Fjord would even let him speak around other people for fear of what he might say. Instead he finds a good spot to sit and enjoy the warmth of the sun. Eventually Jester comes and sits with him. She has been reading that smut book Caleb got in Nicodranas and just got to a good part of the book. For the next hour or so she tells Molly every little detail of the story so far and what she hopes will happen to the characters. She even fetches the book so she can read passages to him. She’s so cute, but it’s very obvious that Molly’s initial assumptions about her were wrong; she might know plenty about sex, but she definitely has never had it herself.

Around midday, Fjord calls the Mighty Nein to his quarters for a meeting. The drugs have worn off by then, but Molly had such a good time listening to Jester that he’s better able to quash his anxiety without them. That is, until they all get into Fjord’s room and the first reaction Fjord has to seeing him is finding an excuse to turn his back to him.

Molly is more than a little heartbroken. He liked their kiss. Teasing Fjord about this would only make it worse, but that’s his natural reflex for dispelling tension. He bites his tongue. He had hoped maybe someday he and Fjord could be the kind of friends who casually flirted and were occasionally physical with each other without actually being partners. They did that in battle sometimes and Molly always enjoyed it — so long as Fjord wasn’t selfishly showing off and leaving him in a bad situation — but now Molly can’t even greet him without Fjord tucking tail and running. He needs to do something about this, but what?

When the entire group has packed into the room, Fjord begins. “As you might have heard, we are approaching our destination. The thing is, Orly says even if the wind keeps up we won’t get there until around sundown. It’ll be one thing trying to navigate the reef as we’re losing daylight, but we would also be meeting up with Avantika’s ship at night. Now we could use that to our advantage, but then again so could they. Plus we don’t want to look like we’re sneaking in.

“So here was my thought: we sail to a part of the reef where it’s shallow enough to drop anchor for the night, but far enough away from the entrance that if anyone comes or goes the way it shows on the map they won’t spot us. However, there is a chance that we can get there with enough time to make it safely through the reef and get to the island before dark, but we’d need more than a little luck and maaaybe some magical assistance. Does anyone have anything that could help move us along? Or would y’all rather us wait until morning?”

Everyone takes a moment to think. Fjord looks to everyone except Molly, though his eyes go to Caleb twice as much.

“I uh, I could make it so some people can walk on the water,” Caduceus offers.

Fjord raises his eyebrows and nods. “Okay, that’s useful. We could have some people scout ahead on foot to help guide the ship or spy on Avantika.” Turning to Jester he says, “And can’t you do something that makes people harder to see?”

Jester chews on her thumbnail. “Um, technically they have to be near me for that to work. I mean, I could go with them, but not if they’re all spread out across the reef.” Her eyes light up. “Oh! I can find things! I could find out where her ship is and—” She cuts off and dips her head apologetically. “Nnnnhhl, except I have to have seen the thing I’m trying to find. I mean, I could try to find something that might be on the ship, but I think the spell just tells me where the closest of that thing is, so unless we know something on their ship that isn’t on our ship, I don’t know if that would work.”

“What if you searched for something like Avantika’s hat?” Nott suggests. “She’s a captain. She’s bound to have a hat.”

“I don’t have a hat,” Fjord says.

Nott turns up her nose. “Well you’re not much of a captain, anyway.”

Molly crosses his arms. “I’d disagree with that. He’s gotten us this far. None of the rest of us could have.”

“Caleb could have. He’s good at everything.”

“Caleb could not,” Caleb says. “Caleb had never seen the ocean before we came here. I appreciate your confidence, Nott, but Mollymauk is right.”

Thank you.” Molly gestures to Beau. “Besides, if you’re scrying for a hat, that atrocity will set it off right away.”

Beau scowls and preens one of the feathers in her hat. She flips him off. He returns the gesture.

Fjord smacks his palms down onto the desk with just enough force to get everyone’s attention. “Guys, come on, focus.” He leans over to put a hand on Jester’s shoulder, causing her tail to twirl happily. “Thank you for the suggestion, Jester. Caleb, don’t you have a spell that makes things go fast?”

Ja, it makes a person go fast. A person. Not a whole ship.”

“Dang,” Fjord mutters. His lower lip bulges as he runs his tongue over his teeth. “Then is everyone okay with dropping anchor once we’re in shallow enough water and waiting until morning?”

The general agreement is that that sounds like the safest bet. Beau offers to lead a small team of scouts to scope out the island using Caduceus’s spell. Fjord says they can wait and make that decision based on how dark it is when they get there.

With that settled, everyone leaves to go back to their own activities. Molly pretends to leave, but circles back. Fjord is the last one in the room. Molly walks back in without closing the door. When Fjord notices his return he freezes in place then bunches his shoulders like a cornered dog who knows he’s about to lose a fight.

“Tusktooth.”

“…Tealeaf.”

“You realize it’s impossible to avoid me forever, right? This ship really isn’t that big and furthermore you’re acting like a child.”

“No I’m not.”

Molly taps his tail on the floor, thinking of the best way to approach this. “Look, I get it. A thing happened, you wanted it in the moment, the moment passed, you regretted it. Seems like a recurring problem with you.” He rolls his eyes. “You think you’d have learned after getting possessed by a ball and shoving it into your chest, but nooo. At least I have your best interest in mind.”

Fjord narrows his eyes skeptically. “Do you?”

Yes,” Molly exclaims, throwing his arms out in frustration. “I just wanted to— to show you some sympathy. I didn’t know you would—” He huffs out a sigh. “You can’t make this go away by pretending it never happened. I tried to end things on a casual note last night and you are the one making it weird now. You understand that, right?”

No response. Fjord retreats further into himself.

Molly takes a few steps towards him. Fjord shuffles away. Molly sighs again with more exasperation, then covers his mouth with one hand and continues his advance. “I want to make a deal,” he says. “You are going to keep being my friend, which means accepting this poor excuse for an apology on my part and not avoiding me anymore, and I am going to keep being your friend, which means respecting your boundaries and helping you when you need it. Sound fair?” He holds out his free hand.

Fjord reaches for his tusks, but realizes it and tucks both hands under his arms. He frees one long enough to shake Molly’s hand. “Deal.” He barely looks Molly in the eyes. It’s something.

“Good. Then have a good day.” Molly strides out of the room, only dropping his hand from his mouth when he knows Fjord can’t see him anymore. That was a start. Time will tell if Fjord holds up his end of the bargain.

Since there’s a chance this endeavor might result in a fight, Molly goes back to his room to sharpen his swords. Caduceus is off making lunch and Molly doesn’t want to be alone, so he takes his things out onto the deck to work. Yasha joins him with her own sword after a little bit. They sit in silence. She’s wonderful company. Molly curls his tail to touch her leg. It stays there until they’re both finished and it’s time to go eat.

Fjord still flinches when Molly walks into the room. Caleb still picks at his food with mild disinterest, even though Caduceus has made some delicious diced vegetable dip for those awful cracker hardtack things. Caleb barely gets enough of it on the hardtack to give it flavor then nips off tiny bites from the corner. Molly feels his ghost get up, sit by Caleb, put his arm around the wizard’s shoulder, and encourage him to eat.

“C’mon Caleb,” he hears himself say. “Gotta keep your strength up or you won’t even be able to lift your spellbooks.” In his mind he sees Caleb smile and take a big bite to please him. “There ya go. It takes effort to starve when Caduceus is cooking, and that effort is better used elsewhere.”

A sudden sharp pain jolts through Molly’s chest. It does take effort to resist Caduceus’s cooking. Even the crew members who were skeptical about having so many vegetables and so little meat in their diet devour the dip with compliments to Caduceus throughout the meal. Caleb is either too depressed to eat — a problem Yasha had when she first came to the carnival — or he is intentionally depriving himself of food. He has been like this ever since he told Molly everything about his past. The pain in Molly’s chest twists around his heart. Caleb admitted he finds little ways to punish himself for his mistakes. Is he punishing himself for telling Molly the truth?

The truth is painful. The truth is dangerous. Molly should have told Caleb to keep his secrets to himself, but he was so curious. He wanted to help. He wanted Caleb to trust him, to let him know the best way to show he cares. He wants to tell Caleb that he… that he…

But if Caleb knows that the part of Molly’s heart that belongs to him is breaking to see him like this, he might punish himself more.

Molly hates this. He feels trapped. There’s nothing he can do without making things worse. He’s on the precipice of a mountain and everywhere he turns there’s no way down without unsure footing or a deadly fall or an uncertain path with eyes watching from the shadows.

He eats enough to fill his stomach then goes back to his room and takes two more pills. To keep himself from thinking, Molly sings the few songs he knows all the words to. They’re songs they used to sing around the fire in the carnival, camped out on the road while Desmond fiddled and Bo kept the beat on his drum. He might have been singing those songs with them at this very minute, if Kylre hadn’t gone and turned people into fucking murderous zombies. They would be up in the northwest this time of year. It’d be freezing. Molly would have a few handfuls of copper and enough silver to jangle in a cup, if he hadn’t spent it all yet. He’d have to listen to Ornna and Gustav fight for the third time that day, squabbling over their route or which acts to perform at their next stop. Maybe he would wander off into the woods and daydream about those lovely people he met in the Trostenwald tavern and wonder whatever happened to them after the carnival packed up and left.

They would also be approaching the woods where the carnival first found him. He would have never met Cree, but he’d still feel uncomfortable traveling those roads again. He would… He would…

It doesn’t matter what he would do. He’s not there. He’s on a ship. The ocean is outside his window. Molly gets up to look at it. It’s so beautiful. It goes on forever. Well, it can’t, there are beaches out there somewhere, but the beach was nice too. Not all endings have to be bad. He can feel the gentle tug of the water around his legs from that day. The ocean is his friend. He waves to his beautiful friend.

There’s so much more to see. Molly can’t possibly see it all from this tiny window. He should go up onto the deck, maybe even the crow’s nest, and then he can see everything. But he can’t go looking like this, all shabby and sad. He rubs a little of the floral blend fragrance Beau got him on his hands then runs his fingers through his hair to comb it out and make it smell nice. He gets distracted smelling his hands for a few minutes. They smell like hyacinth and lilac and rose and lily, with maybe a hint of apple blossom. Molly puts on his coat so he can look as dazzling as he smells then prances upstairs on legs that feel like dust-filled sunbeams.

The clouds are gorgeous. They sit on the top of the sky like kinda blurry caps of foam on a freshly poured mug of beer. They look so soft. Molly wants to take a nap on them. He climbs up into the crow’s nest to be closer to them. There’s already someone up here. It’s the half-elf he did a reading for the other day. He looks nothing like the half-elf in Molly’s dreams. Disappointing.

“Er, uh, can I help you?” the half-elf asks.

Molly points up. “Ever been in a cloud?”

The half-elf tilts his head in confusion. “N-No, I’ve… I’ve never been in a cloud.”

“Do you know how to get up there?”

“…No?”

“Well you’re no good for anything, are you?” Molly climbs back down. He could jump. He would look so cool with his coat flying out like wings. They’re not really wings. He wishes they could be. Then he could go to the clouds. He could go look for the winged half-elf, ask him what the fuck death is all about and maybe find out how he knows him. He’s already back on the deck though. Oh well.

Instead, Molly tries to use the railing between the decks as a balance beam, but he keeps falling off. He can barely walk a few steps on it regularly, let alone do hand springs and cartwheels and other neat tricks. This is no fun. He smells great and he’s all colorful. What’s he supposed to do, sit downstairs where no one can see him and appreciate him? He wants to do something physical and impressive, something like… something like…

There’s a whole ocean to swim in and Molly hasn’t been in it at all while they’ve been out here. How dare he neglect his ocean friend? He looks over the edge of the ship. Doesn’t seem like they’re moving that fast. He could keep up. And if he can’t, his body will get swept out to sea and no one will be able to use it to resurrect anyone. Win-win situation. But if he can swim as fast as the ship, he wants an audience.

Molly gets up onto the railing, clutching a nearby rope to keep steady for now. “Who wants to join me for a swim?” he calls out.

That gets everyone’s attention. “Molly, get the fuck down from there!” Beau shouts from up by the wheel with Fjord.

“Which direction?” Molly asks, leaning back over the water. His feet start to slip. He throws his weight back towards the deck.

“Molly what the fuck are you doing?” It’s Fjord this time.

Molly thumbs his nose at Fjord. “Like you even care! This way you’ll never have to see me again! Won’t that be nice?”

Beau comes running down to him. It’s just like at the beach. She’s going to try to get in the water before he does. Not a chance. He turns to face the water and crouches, ready to spring. His coat flaps in the wind. It’ll act as a sail and carry him far away.

There’s a sharp pain in his back and hips and suddenly he’s moving backwards. He yowls in alarm. The world tips sideways. He lands with a thud on the deck. Ow.

“Molly, what the actual shit were you thinking?” Beau snarls.

“I just wanted to go for a swim, that’s all.” Molly pushes himself to his feet. “I’m bored.”

Fjord and Caduceus and Jester and Yasha are all here now. When did that happen? They all look scared or upset. He was about to do them all a favor. They wouldn’t see it that way, but eventually they would learn. Except Yasha. Oh. She’s about to cry. Molly hangs his head in shame.

Beau grabs him by the horn to tilt his head back. With her other hand she pries open his eyelid. “Godsdammit, Molly, how many pills did you take?”

Molly slaps her intrusive fingers away. “What? None. I’m fine. Mind your own bloody business.”

“Well, guess what? As the first mate, keeping the crew in line is my business. So you’re gonna tell me what—”

“I don’t have to tell you shit,” Molly interrupts, twisting his head to try to break out of her grasp. All he manages to do is pull a muscle in his neck.

There’s a large warm hand on his shoulder. “I’ll take him from here,” Caduceus says.

“You sure?”

“Yeah. I think I know what’s wrong with him.”

Beau nods. “I think I do too. He needs to sober up.” She lets go of Molly’s horn. He staggers back into Caduceus. The firbolg’s arm wraps around his shoulders.

“Molly?” Caduceus says.

Molly tilts his head back to look up. “What?”

“We’re gonna go lie down for a bit, okay?”

Yes. Cuddles would be so good right now. Molly grins. “Okay!” He skips behind Caduceus all the way back to their room.

The door isn’t even closed when Molly flings himself into Caduceus’s chest. Caduceus leans over to shut the door, then weaves his fingers into Molly’s hair. He murmurs something Molly can’t hear. Molly isn’t even really paying attention anyway. He’s too busy rubbing his face on Caduceus’s ribs. They’re so big and bumpy. Something about them makes his head feel tingly.

Except that’s not it. Molly knows this feeling. His reaction time is too slow. He can’t break away before Caduceus finishes casting. The comfortable numbness in his mind is gone. Caduceus fucking dispelled his high.

“Why did you do that?” Molly growls, tail whipping indignantly behind him. “I was fine.”

Caduceus puts his hands on his hips. “Molly, I don’t think you were fine. You were going to jump off the ship.”

Molly winces. “Okay, yes, maybe that wasn’t a good idea, but did you have to—” He gestures at his head.

“Well, if that’s what was going to make you jump off the ship then I wanted to clear your head before you did something else dangerous.” Caduceus furrows his brow. “What’s going on? You were doing better yesterday. Did something happen on your watch?”

“A lot of thinking, that’s what,” Molly says crossly. “And I don’t want to do a lot of thinking anymore. There has been too much of that these past few days and I’m sick of it. I just wanted a few hours of peace and quiet up here—” he knocks on his skull for emphasis “—and you took that away. If you wanted to keep me safe you could have just locked me in here and let them run their course.”

Caduceus sighs and goes to sit on the bed. “In that case, you and I are going to stay in here until these thoughts have run their course.”

Molly scoffs. “I’d rather not, but thank you. I’ll be fine.”

“You keep saying that, but I don’t think you will if this keeps up.” Caduceus frowns. He looks so sad. Molly can’t bear to see him like that. He wishes he could wake up empty again if it means all of this will go away. Considering that even a little makes his chest ache. He must be showing his discomfort because Caduceus slumps his shoulders and looks even sadder. “Molly, I can’t help you if you’re not honest with me.”

The truth hurts, but if that’s what Caduceus wants... “I can’t be helped,” Molly snaps. “And because of that I can’t help anyone else and it’s terrible. I don’t like it.”

Caduceus’s ears droop sympathetically. “Why do you think you can’t be helped?”

“Because.” He wants to lie. Bullshit is always the best defense. Hide the truth so it can’t hurt anyone. Caduceus won’t let him hide it. His keen eyes will seek it out. Molly slips his tail between his fingers so he can fidget with it and comfort himself, soften the blow he’s about to deal. “Because I don’t know what’s wrong. Well, I know what, but I don’t know why so I don’t know how to stop it.”

“Stop what?”

“Lucien. The Nonagon. Whatever it is that...that I took this body from. It wasn’t meant for me. I like it, like having it, but I have this feeling in the back of my head that I shouldn’t have it, that if someone comes to claim it I’ll have to give it back.”

Caduceus looks him over. “It suits you, though. From what you told me, I don’t think you would have ended up in it if you weren’t supposed to have it.”

Molly runs his fingers through his hair. He still smells like perfume. He doesn’t deserve to. “At this point it’s not a matter of whether it belongs to me or not. It belonged to someone else, someone who has friends out there who think he’s dead. If they find out I’m walking around in his body, they’ll try to fix that. For all I know, the ritual or whatever Lucien was casting worked and he might come looking for it. He might even—” Molly reflexively halts before revealing the truth, but he has come this far. “He might even still be in here, waiting. He might be following me, waiting. You deal with dead people all the time. Do souls follow their body? Do they know where it is at all times or anything like that?”

Caduceus thinks. His ears flip back and forth. “I don’t know much about souls. My family’s main concern was making sure the bodies of the deserving were laid to rest peacefully, returned to the Wildmother so they could support new life. I uh, I’ve definitely dealt with ghosts before. Some are…angry about their situation, yes. Death is occasionally difficult for even the dead to come to terms with. They find ways of making themselves known, though. If this…this other person were haunting you, you would know.”

Molly paces. There’s one last truth that might help Caduceus see things the way Molly does. Maybe then he’ll let Molly go, and he can explain to the others why it had to be this way when Molly is gone. He tells Caduceus about his powers, about how he feels like he’s drawing knowledge from somewhere — someone — outside of himself but in his mind. He tells him about how getting stronger scares him, because while it would help him fight off anyone who wants to take him away, it could mean that Lucien’s hold on him is getting stronger, until one day he takes over completely.

“Lucien is dangerous,” Molly says. “I don’t know how or why, I just know that he is. If keeping me dead for good keeps him from coming back, from hurting any of you, then I’d rather they all let me go and stay safe. But I know these people. If I tell them they should be scared of him they’ll drag me into some grand quest to defeat him, or at least they’ll convince themselves that they can handle him if he tries to take this back. But if he does, I won’t be there to die for them again, even though I would.”

“Caduceus,” Molly continues, folding his hands as though in prayer, “promise me you’ll tell them something, anything, to stop them from trying to bring me back. Turn me to mulch. Grow whatever you like in my remains. Whatever you do, don’t let him have this. Especially not if people come looking for him. If that happens while I’m alive and they try to take me, I might kill myself and then you’ll definitely have to mulch me as soon as you can.” Molly presses his palms to his eyes. “All I wanted was to be happy. I wanted them to be happy. Then I fucked everything up by dying. And I keep fucking up. I almost died at the docks, almost got carried off by a harpy, damn near ruined two friendships even though I just want them both to be fucking happy.” He sniffles. “Where we’re going tomorrow...I’m— I’m afraid I’m going to fuck up again, die again, or if not tomorrow then some other time, and they’ll either have to leave me behind — which they won’t — or they’ll try to bring me back and...and it won’t be me.”

Caduceus gets up and pulls Molly into an embrace. “Molly, I wish you had told me all of this sooner. I could tell it was bad, but uh...not this bad. If this is what you were worried about...” He rubs Molly’s ear. “The fate of the soul is the Raven Queen’s domain, but I know you can’t have two souls in one body unless someone is possessed, and I know for a fact you aren’t possessed. I can sense these things.”

“That’s another thing!” Molly says. “There’s this other guy I’ve seen in my dreams and when I’ve passed out. He’s got black armor and black wings and I think he has something to do with the Raven Queen but I don’t know.”

Caduceus thinks for a moment. “And he appears when you have a near-death experience?”

Molly nods. “He told me to get back up. And I think I might have talked to him while I was dead. Not at the docks, I mean when I was dead dead. I don’t know. That whole time is...hazy. Pretty sure he’s a half-elf, young? Cute. Lonely.”

“Huh. So the Raven Queen has a new champion. Good for her.”

“A what?”

“Something my father told me about. The Raven Queen had a champion who fought for her in the living world and served her after his death. My father said he had passed on to rest a long time ago. Apparently she has a new one. Must have happened recently. Well, if the Raven Queen’s champion is looking out for you, your fate must be significant. And if he came to you to tell you it wasn’t your time yet, then it certainly isn’t.”

Molly slinks out of Caduceus’s arms to resume his pacing. “Okay, well, that’s good to know, but what am I supposed to do about Lucien? What if the next time I die it’s not me who gets resurrected? I don’t want everyone to go through the trouble of getting my body out of whatever bad situation we were in and then whoops! You accidentally got the wrong guy, and by the way, he’s a total arsehole.”

Caduceus smiles. “Oh, that wouldn’t happen.”

“How can you be sure? It was his body too, and...and...”

“Because that’s not how the ritual works. You can’t accidentally resurrect the wrong person. When you bring someone back from the dead, it’s not like waking them up. You have to call their soul back, and they have to accept that call. Your friends don’t know that other person, so they couldn’t call to him. The only one they could call back is you.”

“But how can you be sure?” Molly asks. His tail lashes side to side. There’s still...stuff in his head, stuff he didn’t think was his, so how could that come back with him if the others could only resurrect him?

“Because that’s how...” Caduceus folds his ears down and back. He takes a deep breath and lets it out with a soft yet resolute “Hmmf.” The smile never leaves his face, but it becomes more sympathetic. “That’s how it was when they brought me back.”

Molly stares as his mind turns over what he just heard. “Back from where?”

“From death.” One ear flicks. “It’s supposed to be a family secret, but...I told you this morning, I think of you as family. I mean, not exactly, but in a way.”

Molly still isn’t sure he’s understanding this correctly. “You’ve died?”

Caduceus nods with a shrug. “Couple times. Not for long, no. It’s part of our training, as clerics. How can we understand someone’s suffering if we’ve never needed to be healed? How can we honestly assure the living that there is peace after death if we’ve never seen it?”

It strangely makes sense, but that doesn’t make it okay. “So they killed you?”

“Like I said, not for long. First time they just knocked me out for, uh, about a minute, I guess. Next time they let me be for...an hour? Two hours? I dunno, time is weird once you leave this plane. I don’t remember much.” Caduceus looks off into the distance with a fond smile. “I do remember it was beautiful. I think I didn’t want to come back, at first. But I knew it wasn’t my time and I had to come back when they called me, so I did.”

Molly reflexively walks over to Caduceus and wraps his arms around him. Caduceus pats him on the back. “That’s... That’s fucking crazy,” Molly stammers.

Caduceus shrugs. “It’s a hard thing for people to understand. One of the reasons we’re not supposed to tell anyone.” He strokes Molly’s hair. “It also helps us when we need to bring people back. We know what we’re asking the soul to do and what they have to leave behind. Some choose not to return, and that’s their choice. I called to you, with your friends’ help, and you chose to come back to them.”

That only makes things worse. Molly clenches his hands behind Caduceus’s back. “Then why does it feel like...like parts of him came back with me? How do I know he’s not in here waiting to take over?”

Caduceus puts a finger under Molly’s chin and lifts it to look into his eyes. It’s one of his deep looks, the kind Molly can feel down to his core. Caduceus nods. “If you pour tea into a cup, then dump it out and pour in another kind right away, it’ll mix with the dregs from the first tea. If you pour that into a bowl, then put it back in the same cup after you clean it, it still has those dregs. They can’t be removed, but they give the tea a unique flavor. Just because you can taste that first tea doesn’t mean you poured that into the cup again, too.”

“...I don’t follow?”

“I mean you only carry the parts of him that make you you. Without your powers and memories in addition to all the things you dedicated yourself to not being, you wouldn’t be who you are today. It doesn’t mean Lucien is in there, too. For all you know, when he used his powers he felt like someone else was whispering to him as well. I’m not an expert on magic, by any means. You may want to ask Mister Caleb about that. But I do know what it’s like when someone is possessed, and you aren’t. Confused, yes, but it’s all your own. You can only ever be you, Molly.”

Hope stirs in Molly’s chest, a swarm of butterflies all remembering they have wings. “So…so that means…as long as I’m with this group, or anyone who knows me, then no matter how many times I die, they can bring me back? Just me? It won’t be him, or anyone else?” Molly wants to smile. He wants this to be true. It sounds too good, like he didn’t hear it right. He stares into Caduceus’s warm eyes searching for confirmation.

Caduceus nods. He takes Molly’s face in his hands. His thumbs brush the ridges of Molly’s cheekbones. “As long as the living remember you and love you, this body will always be yours, and yours alone.” Caduceus’s face gets closer. And closer. His eyelids flutter shut and he comes closer still. And then…

Something as bright and sparkling as a firework goes off in Molly’s chest when Caduceus’s lips touch his. His tail coils into a spiral. He’s not sure what to do. This wasn’t a situation he thought he would ever find himself in. Fjord was a surprise, but Caduceus? Clearly he’s still high. Caduceus didn’t purge all the drugs from his system. He’s imagining this so he doesn’t have to deal with the truth. None of this is really happening, but that doesn’t mean he can’t enjoy it. He does the only thing his mind can think to do; he kisses Caduceus back.

It’s not a hallucination. Those lips are real. They’re warm like the rest of him, so warm Molly feels like he’s on fire. That might be the blushing. It might be both. Even better, that means everything Caduceus said is real.

With as little warning as it started, the kiss ends. Molly is frozen in place while his mind races to catch up with what happened and his heart struggles to find a steady rhythm.

“Was that okay?” Caduceus asks. His ears are down, but angled forward hopefully. “Jester said I should do that, as ‘payback for the kiss at the Chateau’.” He wrinkles his nose. “She also said I should try to fit my whole tongue in your mouth, but…I really didn’t want to do that.”

Molly doesn’t know what to say. This was unexpected. This was highly unexpected. The last five minutes have all been so…unexpected. He learned that Caduceus has died at least twice, got an answer to the frightful question that has plagued him for weeks, and then that kiss. He thought the one he had with Fjord was good, but fuck.

Caduceus frowns. His ears droop further. “Oh no, I did something wrong didn’t I? Did I? I really don’t know. I’ve uh, I’ve never done that before and…um…” He withdraws his hands and stares at the floor. “It seemed like the sort of thing you needed right now and uh…it was nice, I think, but—”

Before Caduceus can say another word, Molly launches himself up into Caduceus’s arms, grasping him around the neck and wrapping his legs and tail around his hips. Caduceus stumbles back into the bed, but keeps his footing. He laughs and holds Molly to his chest.

“It was a good kiss,” Molly says. “But to be honest I enjoyed what you said more.”

“Ah. I suppose that’s a load off your mind?”

Molly nods into Caduceus’s shoulder. “Absolutely.” For the first time since his resurrection, Molly feels completely content. The fear is gone. The anxiety is gone. The looming shadow that darkened his life is gone. He is free. He has all the time in the world to do whatever he fucking wants. Lucien can’t touch him so long as Molly is with his friends, and he never plans to leave them again.

Caduceus rubs Molly’s back. “Like I said, my family was more concerned with what happened to the body after death than the soul. I’ve fought off a fair amount of wannabe graverobbers in my time. Anyone tries to steal your body, whether you’re in it or not, they’ll have to get through me. …Also, you smell very nice today.”

Molly laughs, though there is one shred of sadness left in his heart; Caduceus won’t always be there to save him. However, by the time he has to go back to his family, Molly will be stronger. The whole group will be. The carnival provided him safety because it was always on the move and tried to stay out of trouble. The Mighty Nein runs into trouble whether they want to or not, but so far they’ve overcome everything, and they’ve become so much so quickly, as individuals and to one another. Even Caduceus, whom Molly has known for less than half the time he has known everyone else, has grown more powerful and has grown closer to Molly’s heart.

“Thank you,” Molly says. His tail whips excitedly. “Hang on, let me down, there’s something I need to do.”

“Sure.” Caduceus crouches until Molly’s feet touch the floor. Molly kisses Caduceus’s hand in gratitude then dashes out of their room.

He doesn’t go far. The door next to his own is closed, so he knocks loudly. “Mister Caleb? Are you in there?”

Footsteps on the other side of the door. It opens enough to reveal a set of familiar blue eyes. “Is something wrong?”

Molly shakes his head. The jewelry on his horns clinks in joyous harmony. “Nothing, nothing at all. That’s what I need to talk to you about. Can I come in?”

“Erm…uh, yes, of course. Come in.” Caleb opens the door and steps back. Molly breezes in with a whirl of his coat. He wishes he could scoop Caleb up into a hug and excitedly explain everything, but Caleb has his shoulders in the “please don’t touch me right now” posture. Caleb scratches his arm. “So…what is this about?”

In his rush to get over here, Molly didn’t actually think about what to say. He steeples his fingers in front of his mouth. He’s so full of energy that his hands are trembling. “First of all I wanted to say I’m sorry. I’m sorry I told you I didn’t want to be brought back if I died. That wasn’t the sort of thing I should have forced you to carry, and the fact that I didn’t know better isn’t an excuse. I’ve known for a while that you’re already carrying too much and I thought… I thought maybe if you knew some of what I was carrying you’d feel…better? Or at least less alone? Doesn’t matter, it was a bad idea, and I’m sorry.”

Molly grins and continues. “But the second thing is you don’t have to worry about that anymore. The whole reason I didn’t want you trying another resurrection on me was that I was scared—” He takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly. “I was scared it might not be me who came back.”

Caleb has had his brow furrowed this whole time, but the crease above his nose deepens. “You mean Lucien? Or did you think you would come back ‘empty’ again?”

“Yes. To both. I didn’t know. I didn’t want to know. I didn’t want any of you to have to deal with whatever it was, especially if I couldn’t be there to protect you.” Molly takes a step closer. He’s at the edge of Caleb’s personal space. Every fiber of his being is screaming to hold him, but he’s getting good at self-control. “But I just talked to Caduceus and he said that so long as you all are the ones to resurrect me, and not someone who is specifically trying to get Lucien or…someone else, then it’ll always be me who comes back. And let me tell you, I have no intention of letting anyone else have all of this.” He gestures to his body with a sweeping flourish of his hands. “It’s mine. It’s mine to do with as I please and I want to be with you, with this…crazy collection of broken pieces that all fit together somehow.”

The corner of Caleb’s mouth twitches. His hands clench and relax and clench and relax. Some of the tension leaves his shoulders. “S-So you— you’re not— We can bring you back? If yyy-you…”

Molly takes another step closer. “Knowing me, I’ll probably find myself on the wrong side of consciousness more often than I’d like, but so long as there are people looking out for me, you can have me for as long as you want.” The pull is too strong. He can’t fight it anymore. “Speaking of wants, Mister Caleb, I would very much like to hug you right now, if that’s okay.”

Caleb’s cheeks slowly darken as he stares at Molly, but then he nods. Molly’s heart sprouts wings and carries him over to wrap his arms tenderly yet firmly around his favorite human. Caleb puts one shaking hand on Molly’s back, and then another. He rests his head in the crook of Molly’s shoulder. “You’re not— You’re not going to leave? You want to stay with us, even though we are…broken?”

“All life is inherently broken from the start,” Molly says. He heard that once, somewhere. He closes his eyes and the darkness has a pattern like raven feathers. “But we get to choose whether we want to fix it or make it worse. I’ve always believed in setting things right, where I can.” He nuzzles Caleb best he can without getting his horn or jewelry caught in Caleb’s hair. “Yes, I’m going to stay. I want to help. I want to make things better. And now I can and you have no idea how happy that makes me.”

Caleb tenses his grip. “M-Mollymauk, liebst du mich?” He speaks so softly Molly isn’t sure he meant it to be heard.

Molly playfully bats his tail into Caleb’s ankles. “Mister Caleb,” he says affectionately, but with a tone of teasing frustration, “I love you, but you know I don’t speak a word of Zemnian. Well, one word, but it’s in our team name and I don’t think we even use it right, so…” He shrugs. “Mind repeating that in Common?”

Caleb goes so stiff in Molly’s arms that Molly is momentarily concerned that someone or something has snuck on board and cast a petrifying spell on him. Molly holds him protectively. Then Caleb starts shivering. It reminds Molly of the time Toya got the flu and he is even more worried. Was it something he said?

“I— I-I-I asked if-f…if you were being hhh-honest.”

Whether he can understand Zemnian or not, Molly is fluent in bullshit. Caleb must have said something embarrassing or impulsive with no intent of translating it. Molly wishes he knew what it was, but he doesn’t want to give Caleb an anxiety attack. Instead, he plays along. “I know, honesty is not my strong suit, but I wouldn’t lie to you about this.” He ruffles Caleb’s hair. “Put me in Jester’s Zone of Truth if you want to be sure.” Hopefully Caleb won’t do that. That spell makes Molly very nervous.

“I trust you.” Compared to his previous stuttered statement, Caleb says this with absolute certainty. His voice is still weak with a slight quaver to it. Molly doesn’t want to leave him like this. If Nott finds Caleb in such a state she’s going to blame Molly immediately. He’s not even sure what he did. He thought Caleb would be happy. From the way Caleb’s arms are clenched around his waist Molly guesses he feels something.

Molly scritches Caleb’s head. “Hey, darling, are you alright?”

Caleb presses his face harder into Molly’s shoulder. Then he releases him and takes a step back. There’s a pink stripe across his nose and cheeks from being mushed into Molly. He swallows. His eyes are saying so much at once. Molly stares into them, hoping to fathom even a fraction of the emotion there. Caleb clears his throat. “I am fine.” He’s not. A smile struggles to find purchase in his lips, but there’s so much in those blue eyes.

“Ah, well, I’d understand if you were disappointed. You’ll have to deal wi—”

Nein!” Fear spikes in Caleb’s expression. “No, Molly, please, I didn’t mean to— to—” He takes a deep breath. “I am far from disappointed. This is wonderful news, of course. But I…” His teeth worry at his lower lip and he scratches a spot on his left arm. A scar, no doubt. “I-I just want to ask…um… Out of curiosity, wh— when you sssay…‘love’, what…h-how do you— how do mean that?”

The swirl of suppressed emotions makes sense now. After all, Molly has been through much the same thing several times over these past few days. He leans forward for just an instant, quick as a wink and soft as a whisper, to place a kiss on Caleb’s lips. “However you’re ready to receive it, that’s how I mean it.” Molly smiles. “And a bit more than that, but I understand if you need time to think about it.”

Caleb’s face goes bright red. He sputters a few things that could be Common or Zemnian or any of the other languages he knows. What catches Molly’s attention is the two emotions that are winning out in their battle for which Caleb is going to express: disbelief and joy.

Molly smooths down a few strands of hair that he accidentally fluffed up on the side of Caleb’s head. “You can put me in the Zone of Truth for that, too. It might come as a shock to you, Mister Caleb, but you are a remarkably loveable person.” The disbelief flares momentarily, but joy is the ultimate victor, making Caleb glow. Molly beams. “Nod if you’re gonna be okay.”

It takes a moment, but Caleb nods. He smiles, meek and soft, but it’s a smile nonetheless.

“Good boy.” Molly pats his cheek. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go remind a few people that they’re stuck with me for the foreseeable future. Glad we had this talk.” He actually doesn’t have plans to tell anyone else, since he hadn’t mentioned to anyone else that he didn’t want to be resurrected if it came to that. However, Caleb clearly needs time to sit and process everything. “See you at dinner?”

Caleb nods again. “Ja. Bis dann.

Molly grins. He flicks his tail into Caleb’s hand as he turns back to the door. When he’s out in the hallway, he leans against the wall and exhales a deep sigh. His heart is racing. That went well. Not exactly the grand sweeping declarations of love one hears about in romantic epics, nor was it an awkward disaster from being rejected. Caleb is a work in progress. The good news is that Molly has the time to see that progress to the end, or if there is no end then at least he’ll be there until Caleb is able to reciprocate anything. He looks forward to that day.

Molly goes to find Yasha next. They don’t have much to talk about, but they don’t need to say things to hang out. They sit on the deck together watching the clouds go by. Molly rests his head in her lap like the old days, his legs sprawled out in front of them. She gently kneads his shoulders with both hands as she looks to the sky.

Beau joins them at some point, but gets up after a few minutes because she’s bored and has better things to do, or so she says. Molly quips that she needn’t have sat down at all. Yasha shushes him. Molly glances up at her with mild amusement, but adds to Beau that if she’s going to be tough of Fjord about taking breaks, it’s a good example if she takes a few herself, short though they may be.

After Beau leaves, Molly says to Yasha, “I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; you can admit you like someone more than you like other people and it won’t disgrace her memory.”

Yasha sighs. “It’s nothing,” she says. “Beau’s a good person. A good teammate. That’s all.”

Molly raises his eyebrows in a “suit yourself” gesture. “It might help you to admit your feelings. Not all at once, but little by little. Been doing that myself lately and…well, okay, some of it has ended poorly, but did you know I’ve kissed three people in two days?”

“Wait, really?”

Molly nods.

Yasha stares for a moment, searching his face for the tells only she can recognize. Molly smirks because he knows she won’t find any. She leans down, her eyes intense with curiosity. “Who?”

“Not telling,” Molly says through a grin. “I’m barely used to talking about my own feelings. I’m in no position to be talking about other people’s.”

Yasha pinches his shoulder hard. He winces, but laughs it off. Yasha shakes her head with a smile and leaves the subject at that.

They arrive at the reef as the sun is vanishing below the horizon. By the time they navigate to a safe spot, the brightest stars have already taken their place in the sky. Beau once again threatens to knock Fjord out if he doesn’t get any rest that night, since they’ll need him sharp and ready in the morning. Fjord grumbles about it, but Beau doesn’t back down.

Dinner is more lively with excitement and nerves than it has been the whole trip. Everyone is talking about what the next day will bring. Molly is ready. For now he his main concern is eating the delicious potato cakes Caduceus made. He checks on Caleb every few minutes. Caleb has regained his appetite and eats no fewer than four of the cakes. He glances over at Molly once, and by the Moonweaver Molly swears he has a real smile on his face.

Caduceus works on Molly’s scar one more time before bed. Afterward he says, “You seem much better now. I’m happy I could help you.”

Molly cups Caduceus’s cheek and smiles. “You’ve helped me so much in so many ways, sweetheart. I hope I can repay the favor someday.”

“I’m sure you will,” Caduceus says. “You already do, in a way. I uh, really appreciate your company. That helps me. Just keep being yourself, Molly. You’ll do great things, and that will be enough for me.”

“Oh, I intend to.” Molly snuggles up into the warmth and comfort of Caduceus’s embrace. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” Caduceus sniffs Molly’s hair. “And really, you smell very good today.”

Molly chuckles. “I know.”

Everything is different now, because it doesn’t have to change. Molly is at peace, or as close to it as he has ever been. He dozes off marveling at how fortunate he is to have stumbled into this strange and wonderful life.

Molly is awoken from his somnolence by something pressing down on the edge of the mattress. Caduceus is already awake, head lifted to greet their visitor. Sitting at the end of the bed is Fjord, stripped down to an undershirt and the pants he wears to sleep. His eyes glow dimly in Molly’s Darkvision with something indescribably endearing and Molly’s heart glows with them.

“Hey,” Fjord whispers. “Um…is…” He clears his throat. “Is it alright if I… Does the offer to join you two still stand?”

“Of course,” Caduceus says. “Where do you want to be?”

“Um…what are my options?”

Molly takes a second to analyze his surroundings. This feels real. He squeezes Caduceus’s hand. Caduceus squeezes back. Molly looks up at the firbolg. “I think he should be in the middle, get the best of both.”

“Good idea,” Caduceus says with a nod and a smile.

“Best if you take your shirt off, though,” Molly tells Fjord. “Trust me.”

Fjord hesitates for a moment, then pulls off his shirt and crawls to the middle of the bed. The two of them scoot apart to make room for him. It’s a tight squeeze, but they make it work. Uncertainty still clouds Fjord’s expression. Molly guides him onto his side so they’re both facing Caduceus. Caduceus pulls Fjord to his chest and Molly snuggles up against Fjord’s back. Fjord awkwardly tries to adjust the arm pinned beneath him, first by tucking it up under his head, then by crossing it over his chest. Caduceus’s long arm reaches over Fjord so he can put his hand on the small of Molly’s back. Molly does the same with his tail across their legs and tucks his own pinned arm up to gently grip Caduceus’s wrist. He puts his other arm around Fjord. Fjord’s pinned hand finds Molly’s and their fingers intertwine.

If the cot were any larger Molly would suggest bringing Caleb into this. However, they’re already as close together as they can get for the sake of all being able to fit as well as for the sake of better enjoying one another’s company. And, oh, how Molly is enjoying the added company. Fjord smells like sea salt and sweat. His body gradually relaxes against Molly’s chest as his breathing slows. Skin feels odd after spending the past few nights cuddling with Caduceus, but it’s a familiar and welcome sensation. Their conjoined hands rest between Fjord’s and Caduceus’s chests. Molly can feel both their heartbeats. Fjord’s is quickened whereas Caduceus’s is as slow and strong as ever. Fjord isn’t holding Molly’s hand too tight, but there’s enough tension in his fingers to prevent them from slipping apart. Molly wonders if his own heart is beating hard enough for Fjord to feel it. It’s dancing in his chest with joy. Fjord must be terrified for tomorrow, but at least he chose a healthy coping mechanism for it. And this means he is comfortable around Molly again. It’s a good thing this day is almost over because if it got any better Molly might not be able to handle it.

“Good night,” Caduceus says. The bass rumble of his voice is tangible even through Fjord’s body.

Molly kisses Fjord tenderly at the base of his neck. “Good night.”

Fjord lets out a deep breath through his nose. It sounds like a strong breeze passing through sails. “G’night.”

This isn’t quite how Molly thought his friendships would turn out, not that day in the Trostenwald tavern and not when he awoke in Caduceus’s temple. Life could certainly be worse. There’s danger and mystery on the horizon, to be sure, but that’s sort of how it’s always been. There’s also more hope on that horizon than Molly has seen in a long time. Molly is going to head towards it with the same reminder he has given himself every day for the past two years:

You never know what tomorrow will bring. Enjoy it while you can.