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Walking in a Winter Wonderland

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It ’s somewhere towards the end of Misuthar when the chill in the air finally starts to produce snow. Soft, delicate flakes make their way down to land on the group’s heads as they ride along, causing Nott to duck under the wagon’s cover, hissing, and Jester to gasp in delight, sticking her tongue out to catch them.

They swirl gently at first, dusting the landscape around the Nein with a gossamer coating of white, but as the wind picks up and the snow grows thicker, everyone quickly realises the need to hurry towards shelter.

Their goal had originally been to stay in the heart of town, arriving before the festival crowd came and filled all the rooms, but in the end they feel lucky to spot the tiny lakeside inn about two miles before their destination. The lake already sports a thin sheen of frost across its surface, and the wagon-wheels are only just still able to find any traction on the road as they pull in, clutching their winter clothes around them against the cold. Caduceus immediately sets about providing food for both their own group and the few souls sitting huddled around the fireplace.

~

The next morning, they rise to find the storm has mostly passed, the snowfall back to just a light dusting, but the deep and pristine blanket laid down throughout the night still covers everything in sight.

Molly sits at the breakfast table long after they ’ve all finished eating and takes in the sight of the Nein over the rim of his steaming mug of tea, his tail curled high in the air behind him.

He ’s missed this, even if the time passing for him was technically much shorter than the period of grief the group had had to contend with. By Caleb’s estimation, he was only just clawing his way out of the earth again by the time they’d set a course to return to Nicodranas and reunite Jester with her mother, but it had still been a long few weeks spent on his own in Zadash, waiting for them to return from their accidental life of piracy, even with its excellent bathhouse cushioning the blow. As he never misses an opportunity to point out, it’s hard for a newly resurrected person to make his way in the world when somebody’s stolen all his coin, Beau .

He grins as he watches the monk slumped upside down in an armchair near the fire, her legs dangling over its back and side - she ’s never met a chair she wants to sit in sensibly and today is no exception apparently - as she bemoans the lack of anything to do.

It’s like, we had plans, man!” She throws a hand out wide to smack across Fjord’s arm. He visibly tries to pretend it didn’t hurt. “The fuck am I supposed to do for entertainment around here?”

Think Jester ‘n Nott are buildin’ an igloo out back if ya don’ mind losin’ a few fingers to the cold.” He sinks into a chair himself, letting out a sigh and closing his eyes to feel the warmth of the fire. “Or you could help Caduceus in the kitchen,” he adds absentmindedly. There’s a strong chance of him falling asleep in that chair and waking to something Jester drew on his face. When Beau lets out an exaggerated groan, he just smiles.

Molly ’s grin widens and he calls over to her: “Yasha’s upstairs polishing her sword - I bet she’d love some help. Or, at least an enthusiastic audience.” He makes sure to waggle his eyebrows. “It’d be just the two of you…”

Man, fuck you.” She laughs, but still gets to her feet and stretches briefly. She can’t quite hide the way her eyes flicker towards the stairs now that he’s mentioned the idea. “Gonna go tell ‘er her best friend’s a dick…”

Tell her something she doesn’t already know!” Molly sing-songs as Beau passes, swaying side-to-side and not quite avoiding the flick she aims at his tail.

She flips him off over her shoulder, but doesn ’t even bother to hide the small upturn of her lips. It’s a wonder what dying for a bit can do for your relationship with someone.

Speaking of which , he thought, his gaze landing on Caleb. The wizard had been practically vibrating with impatience the entire journey, enticed by the possibility of speaking with a scholar of the arcane who ran the town ’s library, and was known to keep a number of rare tomes on the shelves. Sadly, his plans had been thwarted by the two feet of snow outside, and he now sat by the fire - idly sorting through his spell components as his cat purred atop his shoulders - with a distinct pout on his face.

~

It ’d obviously been a shock to the entire group to walk into the Leaky Tap those several weeks ago and find Molly reading cards for his supper, but Caleb's reaction had been the hardest to gauge.

Beau had been first. She stood stock still for a moment, then marched up and punched him square in the jaw, knocking him back against the bar before throwing her arms around him, pretending she wasn ’t crying.

Joining her almost instantly was Yasha, or at least he'd so assumed from the crushing pressure around his ribs and the mane of dark hair his face was suddenly buried in. The comforting familiarity of her smell as he breathed in nearly took his knees out from under him. Gods he ’d been so worried about her - even after a harrowing chat with the Gentleman confirmed that he’d been the only casualty of Shady Creek Run - but there she was, all in one piece and sobbing gently into his hair. He rubbed a reassuring hand up and down her back and whispered an apology for scaring her.

Jester was next to spot him and he felt himself jerked away from the other two to be spun, lifting into the air in a whirlwind of blue and delighted squeals as she babbled at him, slipping between common and infernal in her excitement.

No sooner had his feet touched the ground again than 40 pounds of goblin leapt from a nearby table, screeching his name, to latch onto his back and cling. She dropped to the floor and scrambled back towards the door, calling over her shoulder to tell him to stay right there .

Yasha ’s arms were back around him then, with Beau and Jester laying a hand on each of his shoulders, when Fjord cleared his throat and approached. Of all the reunions, it had to be the most awkward, as it mostly consisted of Fjord apologising for his own kidnapping and effectively blaming himself for what happened.

I’m only going to say this once, Fjord, so listen closely,” Molly replied to him. “That’s bullshit, and nothing was anyone’s fault, but consider yourself forgiven if you need to.”

(He did, however, give the man plenty of shit throughout the night about absorbing his magic sword, because what the fuck, Fjord? )

He ’d then been introduced to a new face - and a fascinating one at that. Caduceus Clay stood head and shoulders above the rest of the group and radiated nothing but gentleness and calm as he explained to Molly who he was, and how he’d come to travel with the group. They gathered around a table while he filled Molly in, his steady voice softening the blow of even the most harrowing events the group had gone through, and it was there that he first looked up and locked eyes with Caleb again.

Nott had dragged him through the door, shrieking “Caleb! You won’t believe it! Caleb!” for all to hear, and he’d fallen in behind her, seeming amused but bewildered at her level of enthusiasm. Then he’d spotted Molly.

His entire body had stiffened, the colour draining from his face, before he ’d summoned up a facade of being alright, rushing over, clapping Molly on the back and offering him Frumpkin for comfort.

That night he ’d reunited with the Nein, the ongoing series of stolen kisses and uncertain touches he and Caleb had shared before his death had hung heavy in the air between them. Somewhere between the third and fourth round of drinks, he noticed the man slip out to the alley beside the bar, and moved to follow.

Outside, Molly had paused in the archway of the door, not quite committing to his exit. He watched as Caleb slumped back against the brick wall at the side of the inn, letting his head fall back onto it with a thunk as he took several long, slow, deep breaths. They misted thickly in the midnight air, one of many signs of the time Molly had missed out on; the dappled sun of early autumn had become the darkest depths of winter while he was gone.

Not for the first time, he let out a sigh about it. Two years of life wasn't nearly enough time for the seasons ’ changing to have lost any novelty, and here he’d been denied the better part of two of them.

If I could’ve picked a better reunion for us, I would have,” Molly said conversationally, beginning to slink out into the alley. “I didn’t mean to startle you all, just popping up when you went for drinks some random evening…”

Caleb didn ’t turn his head, but huffed out a short laugh, the smile not finding its way to his eyes. “I don’t imagine there is any way to return from the grave without causing some degree of upset.”

You’re right there,” Molly replied with a shrug, easing himself closer but telegraphing his movements. “I’ve had bloody weeks to think about how I’d do things if I spotted you first; still hadn’t come up with anything decent.”

What was your best one?” Caleb still wasn’t quite looking at him, but he was talking. “Out of curiosity.”

Honestly?” Molly chuckled and leaned his back against the wall, shoulder an inch from Caleb’s. “Scaring the hell out of whoever I saw first and letting them break it gently to the rest.”

Caleb ’s head snapped around with a sharply raised eyebrow. It had earned him some eye contact at least; a little victory.

I said I hadn't anything good yet!” Molly couldn’t help but laugh. There was a mild edge of hysteria to it; it’d been a wild night. A wild few weeks if he were being honest.

A silence stretched out between them, not necessarily tense or awkward, but far from comfortable either.

So,” he started, trying for a breezy tone. “I have to ask - did you miss me?”

He felt more than saw Caleb tense beside him.

It has been a hard few months without you, Mollymauk Tealeaf,” Caleb replied after a few moments, back to not looking at him, but seeming to savour the taste of Molly’s full name on his tongue. “The group— we… have grown closer, but suffered too. We lost our direction for awhile there, I think, after… after everything.” Another pause, as he seemed to consider how much truth to give away. “The group has missed you terribly.”

And you…?” Molly couldn’t help himself prying further.

I did not go anywhere - they had no time to miss me.”

I think you know what I meant,” Molly said, turning into Caleb’s space and bracing an arm against the wall next to his head. He drank in the sight of Caleb’s face, the line of his jaw, those startling blue eyes that still wouldn’t meet his own. For all the tension between them at that moment, he couldn’t help but take it in greedily, like he’d been starved for months. “You’re far too clever to play this dumb, darling.”

I am part of the group, am I not?” There was something almost defiant in Caleb’s tone. “And… I was no exception, much as I might have expected to be.”

I think that’s the most flattering thing anyone’s ever said about me.” Molly’s eyebrows were raised and every appearance of a sardonic grin was on his face, but somewhere deep within him - in a soft and vulnerable place that he didn’t often like to visit if he could avoid it - there was a sharp pang of hurt.

It wasn ’t like he’d expected to be grieved for as a tragically lost lover - what had been building between them was still far too nebulous and tentative for that, and Caleb was a cautious man with his feelings besides - but the idea that Caleb had barely expected to feel loss over him… He tried his best not to let on how badly that stung.

Caleb seemed to sense it anyway, or at least felt some need to explain himself.

You must understand, I-I told myself from the beginning to avoid becoming attached to any of you. Told myself it was more than likely not all of us would survive, or stay together for very long.” He spoke with a wry twist to his lips that spoke of an unfortunate prediction having come true. “This ragtag pile of assholes we have assembled, though…” he continued, scratching absently at his beard, his hands not seeming to know what to do while he said his piece. “Are very talented at finding their way under your skin. You, more than anyone.” Caleb let out a sigh and let his eyes fall shut, his head falling forwards onto his chest. “I suppose I was fooling myself, thinking I might still have the benefit of that distance, but it did not become clear to me until… afterwards.”

Another silence extended between them.

It is a mistake I have been trying not to make twice, but I am not a brave man.” Caleb’s small laugh was bitter again.

I could help with that, maybe,” Molly said, leaning in. He halted a fraction of an inch away from Caleb’s lips, so close he felt warm breath across his face, waiting for some sign of permission.

Their lips met for the barest moment and there was a surge, both of them hungry for something they ’d thought they wouldn’t have the chance for again.

But

Ah. Nein.” Caleb and pulled away and shook his head.

That’s ok,” Molly reassured him gently, setting aside a new ache somewhere in his chest to deal with later, when he was by himself. “Always said you could tell me if you wanted our… thing to stop. And I meant it.” He stepped back a little and ran his hand through his hair. “Or, I guess now it’d be ‘not wanting our thing to start again.’ Going and dying probably counted as putting a stop on it.”

Yes, and I found myself quite angry at you for it, if the truth were told.”

Molly tried not to, but couldn ’t help but feel a small sense of satisfaction at the information. It was gratifying to be missed.

Is that why…”

I… don’t know.”

There ’s yet a nother long silence, Molly was almost turning to leave when

I think I am just… Part of me is waiting for the other shoe to drop, ja? You’ll need to give me some time.” Caleb finally met his eyes for a brief moment before his gaze drifted down to Molly’s hands, a small smile playing around his mouth now. “It’s good to see you back on your feet and causing trouble though.” He clapped Molly on the shoulder and then moved to go back inside. “Things were not the same without you.”

Molly couldn ’t help himself, he had to ask: “So that’s not a Forever no, then?”

Caleb didn ’t look back over his shoulder, but spoke clearly. “I told you I am fond of the idea of second starts, ja ?

With that he hurried inside.

~

Some time’, in the end, turned out to be closer to ‘later that night’, as Molly discovered when he heard a crisp knock on his door. He assumed it was Fjord - back very prematurely from his midnight walk with Jester, likely because he’d forgotten something - but found himself quickly pressed against the wall with the long-lost feeling of lightly chapped lips against his own.

Molly let out an almost involuntary whine and pulled their bodies even closer, his tail whipping into a coil around Caleb ’s calf. Gods , he ’d missed this feeling. He’d missed being alive like this.

Well hello there,” he purred, delighted, as Caleb slid over a little to nip at his jawline, grasping around blindly with his hand to lace their fingers together. Molly used his other hand to tip Caleb’s chin, bringing his lips back firmly onto his own, capturing them again, feeling the hunger behind every insistent press and the low rumble of a moan building deep in the other man’s throat.

Finally they broke the kiss, panting, forehead to forehead, the only sound in the silence their shared breathing.

I couldn’t sleep for the thought of you, Mollymauk,” Caleb whispered, voice sounding desperate and broken, bringing a hand up to cup Molly’s cheek. “I was fooling myself to think I could stay away for very long; that I could have you back and not… not have you…”

Molly hummed as Caleb moved to mouth down the line of his neck. “Y’know, Fjord’s extremely lucky he ’s out right now.” As Caleb ran a hand through his hair and he dragged his claws gently but firmly down the length of Caleb’s back. “We’d be putting on quite a show for him, and I don’t know if I’d be willing to stop.”

A laugh pushes a warm wave of air across his collarbone that makes Molly shiver.

One thing I imagine he didn’t miss in his time without a roommate,” Caleb said, then let his voice drop low as he moved to whisper in Molly’s ear. “But what makes you think I was not well aware the room would be empty for us?”

He nipped on Molly ’s ear as he pulled back, and Molly’s brain short circuited for a moment. This wasn’t quite the same Caleb he left. There was a new degree of confidence there, bigger than what had been growing in him before. It delighted Molly. It excited him.

And just how long do you think that walk will take them?”

Caleb smirks. “I am a fan of calculated risks.”

~

That first night hadn ’t been much beyond desperate rutting as the two of them tried to work out the grief, the tension, and the weeks (or on Caleb’s side, months) of uncertainty and time apart; as they explored and found a rhythm together, whispered confessions and tear-filled words passing between them, wrapped in the safe blanket of the darkness, until they fell asleep entwined.

The morning light had brought a new softness to everything. Molly lay watching the first dappled rays of sun caress the planes of Caleb ’s face, as he lazily let his fingers drift up to do the same. They shared a conspiratorial chuckle at the sight of Fjord’s still-empty bunk across the room - what it might mean Fjord had seen or heard on his return, to cause him to find his night’s sleep elsewhere - and as Caleb’s face relaxed, Molly saw an odd peace in his expression that he had never seen before.

Besotted’ was a word Molly had heard employed before only by bards and poets, not one he’d usually use himself, but as he lay there, staring into newly softened blue eyes and seeing the shy upturn of Caleb’s lips, it felt like the only word that could be right for how he felt.

I… fear I could get used to this,” Caleb murmured in the quiet. Birdsong was the only other sound around them and it felt as though they were the only two people for miles around. “Very quickly, in fact, if I were to allow myself.” He paused a moment, eyes flickering away. “That is… if you were alright with that arrangement…”

Darling,” Molly said, and he could feel a grin threatening to grow until it split his face in two. “I’d like nothing better.

~

The morning light had also brought awkwardness, mostly in the form of Nott demanding to know why Fjord had stormed into the room last night, muttering curses under his breath, and slept in Caleb ’s vacant bed instead of his own.

Jester, being within earshot, had a look of utmost glee spreading across her features, and from then on, there was no chance of keeping it any sort of secret.

It hadn ’t taken long from there for them to bloom into a real bona fide couple, and Molly doesn’t think he could be happier.

Caleb is still very reticent about displaying too much affection in public - worried as always about drawing too much attention to himself - and Jester has still yet to miss an opportunity to let out an exhilarated squeal when she spots the slightest hint of romance, but in their alone time they ’re growing hideously domestic.

Nothing like dying for a few months to remind a couple how short life could be, he supposed. They ’ve certainly gone past the idea of wasting time.

~

Drawing himself back to the present, he notices Caleb packing up his books and wrapping up as if to head outside.

Please don ’t tell me he’s going to try

As if on cue, Caleb announces his intention to brave the snow and visit the town ’s library.

Alone? Ya sure that’s a good idea?” Fjord asks.

I doubt anyone else would find the library’s contents worthy of the trip.” Caleb continues to wind his threadbare scarf around his neck and pull on the lumpy hat Nott had knitted for him a few weeks ago. “I was wondering though, if I could borrow that bottomless bag of yours? The one you found in the sour nest? I fear my books might get wet in the snow, and if I’m allowed to borrow some, they may be very heavy.”

Sure thing, Caleb,” Fjord replies, still looking a little dubious, but he wanders upstairs to retrieve the bag anyway.

Please don’t die for the sake of the books, love,” Molly calls over from the table, eyeing up the holes in Caleb’s coat. “They’ll still be there tomorrow.”

And I likely will return there tomorrow as well - I’ve heard it’s very well stocked,” Caleb takes the bag from Fjord with gratitude when he returns, shrugging off his coat again to remove his book holsters and stow them inside. “And I have travelled farther in worse conditions out of necessity. I have fire and a magical bubble to retreat to, in the worst case.”

Alright then,” Molly announces, standing and clapping his hands together. “When do we leave and where did I put my scarf?”

Caleb chuckles. “Honestly, liebling , I have no need of a babysitter and you ’ll be bored within minutes once we arrive.”

Truuuuue,” Molly singsongs, pulling his coat off the back of his chair and settling it on his shoulders. “But I hear there’s a gorgeous little bakery in the centre of town. I owe Jester some doughnuts and I could do with stretching my legs anyway.” He spots Beau descending the stairs with Yasha in tow and loudly adds: “And who knows, if the weather takes a turn for the worst, we might need to share body heat!”

She pretends to gag as he waggles his eyebrows, and Caleb ducks his head with a grin and a blush.

Wow, Molly. Wow.” Beau rolls her eyes and pushes Caleb towards the table. “Get him out of here before I’ve to listen to more, c’mon.”

Molly ducks around her, flicking her ear affectionately as he goes. “Just grabbing something warm and I’m out of your hair, you have my word.”

~

A few minutes later finds them fording a path through the deep snow on the road, breaths misting in the air and the whole world seeming empty and silent apart from them.

Molly lets his tail swish behind him, safe from frostbite inside a long and colourful cozy, also knitted by Nott; she ’d taken to the craft like a duck to water, keeping her hands busy producing things for the group. He looks over to where Frumpkin is making up for Caleb’s inadequate scarf by wrapping around the man’s shoulders and he gives the little cat an appreciative nod.

Get much snow back home?” Molly isn’t sure what the climate around the Zemni Fields is like, so it might be a silly question, but he trusts Caleb not to make fun of him.

A decent amount, yes. We were reasonably far north.” Caleb’s expression is far away as he thinks back. “My mother used to seal our boots with beeswax, so it couldn’t soak through our feet and freeze us. She would use it on her hands too; they were always so soft…” He trails off, mouth turning down as his thoughts seem to sour.

Molly offers him a lifeline, bumping him gently with his shoulder and changing the subject. “I never asked: What d’you think’s in these books that you’re willing to wade through all this for, anyway?”

The look Caleb gives him is a knowing one, but grateful too. He begins slowly - laying out a few theories, a few far-fetched hopes - but quickly gets into the swing of it, and by the time they ’ve passed the next road-marker he’s smiling again, fully occupied.

~

Unfortunately when they reach town, the library is firmly shut for the storm - nobody in their right mind being willing to brave the weather just for books - but the bakery is doing a roaring trade. The warm, friendly glow seems to be drawing people from every corner of town, and the air is filled with the scents of cinnamon and sugar, rosemary and crushed garlic, honey and jams, and hot crusty loaves of bread, fresh from the ovens.

Molly pulls Caleb over to the window, where children have crowded around to get a peek at the doughnuts as they gently turn golden brown. A cheery woman in an embroidered apron stands by with an appraising look, judging just the right moment to flip them. Someone else, presumably her wife, wanders by with an enormous tray of bear claws and steals a quick kiss as she passes.

Inside, the smell is somehow even more heavenly. Molly gently parts the crowd to make way for Caleb behind him, and when they finally make their way to the counter, he hands over as much excess gold as the young girl there it is willing to accept for their order. Into Fjord ’s borrowed haversack he piles three loaves of bread to accompany the stew Caduceus had been planning for dinner; a dozen doughnuts for Jester; a handful of sweet tarts for Nott’s spellcasting; a bear claw for each member of the Nein as well as one for the innkeeper; a fairy cake iced to look like a flower for Yasha; and then a paper bag that he’d just asked to be stocked with ‘your best surprises.’ Behind him, Caleb pipes up to ask if they could have two smaller loaves of bread that are still hot from the oven.

These, it turns out, are to demonstrate something Caleb seems very excited for: bread mittens.

Molly looks on, with complete bewilderment, as Caleb gleefully demonstrates how to use a fresh loaf of bread to heat your hands, as if it isn ’t one of the most deeply sad things anyone’s ever shown to him. He keeps that to himself though. The list of things that bring joy to his lover’s face is criminally short, and Molly’d bury himself alive before doing anything to make it shorter.

Besides , he thinks as they walk along, tearing pieces off their loaves to eat, he ’s not wrong about it keeping your hands nice and toasty. First time I can feel my fingers today.

~

It ’s about half-way back, taking what they’d imagined to be a shortcut across an open field, when Molly really feels himself starting to flag. Much as he’s enjoyed the trip and the company, he’s breathing hard, somehow managing to be both sweating and chilly at once from the exertion, and if he’s being honest, he’d kill for a place to sit down. Not to mention the wind biting his cheeks raw and the fact that his legs are killing him from having to trudge through the deep river of snow.

He glances over at Caleb and sees he isn ’t doing much better but, true to form, the man is choosing to suffer in silence, preferring to pretend that limits are things only other people are allowed to have. Molly doubts the poor bastard would stop for anything short of near-death if left to his own devices.

Fortunately, Molly doesn ’t suffer from that particular issue.

He spreads his arms wide and lets himself fall backwards into the cushioning blanket of white beneath him, letting out a long groan at the relief of taking the weight off his feet.

Schatz, what are you doing?” Caleb’s quizzical face appears above him.

Leave me here, darling,” Molly murmurs, letting his eyes close and savouring the feeling of not having to move, even if the trade-off is the deep chill already starting to creep up from beneath him. “’m not walking any more - my feet hurt.”

Ja, and they will hurt a lot more when they get frostbitten,” comes the exasperated-but-fond reply from above, accompanied by a hand tugging at his shoulder. “Come on, get up.”

Make me.” Molly opens one eye, just enough to catch the reaction, and sticks out his tongue. He grabs the snow under his hand into a loose ball and lobs it gently at his boyfriend.

As predicted, he gets a very adorable eye-roll.

You are a child. An enormous purple child,” Caleb scoffs, but he’s trying to contain a smile as he reaches down to Molly again.

Molly closes his eyes again and makes a show of getting comfortable, despite the fact that his ass is slowly going numb.

The expected hand on his shoulder never comes. Instead a wave of cold scatters across his face and the surprise draws an undignified squeak out of him. Molly ’s eyes snap open to see a fiendish grin spread across Caleb’s features as he retreats, as well as dusting of loose powder that’s been swept over him where he lies.

Feeling his whole self light up at the delightful new twist in events, Molly scrambles to his knees with his tail whipping around behind him, already packing more snow into his hands.

I think that counts as an act of war, don’t you Frumpkin?” he calls to the little tabby still draped around the back of Caleb’s neck. Frumpkin makes a displeased noise, eyeing the snow all around with suspicion. “Exactly! The first blow has been struck!” he pronounces grandly, standing up the rest of the way with a spring and punching a fist high into the air. “To battle-stations!”

Caleb is giggling - actually giggling ! This is the best day of Molly ’s life - as Molly skitters off to the side and tosses his first snowball. “Whatever will get you moving again, mein liebling .

It devolves from there, snowballs being lobbed back and forth as they advance gradually across the field. Frumpkin very quickly decides he wants to be elsewhere and nips Caleb ’s ear insistently until he’s poofed back to the feywild.

It ’s just the two of them then, and it becomes surprisingly competitive. After a few solid hits, Caleb burns a spell-slot to bring Schmidt in as back-up, ignoring Molly’s protests about cheating. Suddenly he’s having to take evasive manoeuvres, dipping and ducking as makes a beeline for the trees at the edge of the field.

One of Molly ’s throws scores an unfortunate direct hit to Caleb’s face, and the volley of snowballs pauses while he spits out snow, giggling again and leaning his weight on his knees. “ Liebling ! There was a wet leaf in that - I nearly swallowed it!

I’m sorry, love.” Trying not to laugh too hard himself, Molly puts his hands up in a gesture of surrender and wanders over. “Let me kiss it better.”

Mollymauk, you don’t need—”

Molly raises his eyebrows.

Ah, that is… Yes. That would be nice,” Caleb says with an embarrassed smile, eyes darting off to the side. Molly decides to let him pretend the flush in his cheeks is just from the cold if he needs to.

They come together for a quick chaste peck first, and stay in each other ’s arms then, staring into each other’s eyes. Bringing a hand up, Caleb palms a handful of snow firmly onto Molly’s cheek with a mischievous smirk, making him squawk.

You!” Molly’s mouth gapes and he points accusingly, but he can’t contain the laughter bubbling up in him. He hugs Caleb again and presses their noses together “That was a cheap shot, Widogast.

I saw my chance and took it,” Caleb replies shamelessly, softening it with a gentle kiss.

In the pause, they both notice how long the sun has dipped on the horizon, and decide to make more direct progress back towards shelter.

~

They stumble through the door to the inn, supporting each other, frozen and snickering with their heads pressed together. Their hair is a mess, soaked in patches by the melting snow they ’d ended up covering themselves in, and their clothes aren’t much better.

Nott immediately scurries across the room to fuss over Caleb, and Molly uses the opportunity to briefly break away, take off his gloves, and press his frozen hands directly onto the back of Beau ’s neck. She lets out an indignant yelp and swipes at him, only just missing as he’d been prepared to dodge quickly.

He makes it up to her by passing around the assortment of pastries before he pulls Caleb upstairs to dry off and change. He ’s looking forward to feeling his extremities again.

~

When they return, Caduceus has just emerged from the kitchen with an enormous pot, looking deeply pleased with himself. The smell wafts over to where they ’re standing at the bottom of the stairs, and Molly isn’t ashamed to admit he lets out a low whine. He hadn’t realised just how hungry he was, and the thought of hot food is making him so happy he could cry.

They settle in around the cheerfully roaring fire, the entire group, a large deep bowl and a generous chunk of bread each, and the room falls silent except for a chorus of pleased moans. At his first mouthful of the stew, Molly feels soothing warmth diffuse through him and settle deep into his bones. It ’s thick and hearty, filled with an assortment of winter vegetables magically created by their clerics just that afternoon. Caduceus’ herbs have lent it a heavenly blend of flavours, and its rich savoury taste, soaked into the bread, is a delight at the end of their trek home.

He curls into Caleb, both of them sharing the one armchair, holding tight to their bowls and each other. They ’re still shivering slightly as they wait to fully warm up, but deeply comforted being in each other’s company. Frumpkin snuggles in between them, back from the fey realm.

Beau wanders over and drapes a blanket over them, pulling the top half fully over their heads as she complains that nobody should have to see them being so grossly smitten with each other. Molly pulls it down and then tight around them - sticking a tongue out at Beau and receiving the same in return - before he presses a soft kiss to each of Caleb ’s frozen cheeks.

He puts their empty bowls off to the side and then rests his head on Caleb ’s shoulder, gazing around at their group as he feels his eyes begin to drift shut. They’re sitting around the fire in twos and threes, some of them starting in on their third helping of dinner, some of them under blankets or wearing thick woollen jumpers - all of them safe and sound. All of them happy, here together. Molly feels a deep yet quiet rumble building in the back of his throat and a purr of his own joins the one Frumpkin’s making in his lap.

Caleb makes that sound he makes - the one of surprise and abject delight - whenever Molly starts to purr, and snuggles him in closer. He falls asleep to the sound of Caleb ’s heartbeat, of their friends softly chatting and the fire crackling, completely and absolutely content.