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death smiles at us all

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He’s been holding back. He’s been holding back and he knows it, and curses himself for it with every hazy bit of consciousness he has left. He’s sorry, but knows he can do nothing about it now. He still thinks it, though, thinks it over and over again. I’m sorry, Beauregard. Caleb. Nott. Jester. Fjord. Yasha. Keg, even. I’m sorry I couldn’t protect you all better.

He uses the last of his strength to gather a bit of blood and spittle in his mouth, projectile launching it right into the center of Lorenzo’s face. The blood streaks crimson underneath Lorenzo’s eye, and Mollymauk Tealeaf can feel every slight shift of the glaive that pierces him as his vision fades with Lorenzo’s final, brutal twist.

(His memory after that is hazy, but he swears he sees a swirl of black feathers and feels a careful, deft hand grasp his own and help him up once more.)

 

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Mollymauk gasps, sputtering for air as his eyes flutter open. He slams his hands down onto the ground beside him, pushing himself up into a sitting position as he desperately inhales. But there’s air there, fresh, clean air that he gulps in frantically. Fresh, clean air, and murmuring voices all around him.

“Huh?” is all he manages to murmur, his voice hoarse from disuse, before he feels a small impact on his chest and Nott the Brave is gripping his shirt with the strength of someone much larger than she is. Before he can react, something much larger barrels into his back, and he can feel the way Jester trembles as she cries into his shoulder, tears soaking into his shirt.

“You’re back, you’re back, it worked!” she chokes out between sobs. “Y-You’re- I didn’t know if it would work- I don’t- even with Caduceus, I didn’t know if we could- Molly, you’re back, you’re back, and don’t you ever leave us again!”

Nott simply grips his shirt tighter, wordless. The fabric twists in her grasp, and he places an arm gently around her. He grasps Jester’s hand where it clings weakly to the collar of his shirt, squeezing it gently. This only makes Jester wail louder, her shoulders shaking as she buries her face into his shoulder. He plants a few kisses on top of her head, brushing his lips across her horns and her hair and her cheeks. He shifts, pulling Nott closer, but before he can say anything to her, she speaks.

“I-I only… After you died, I tried to stick by what you said, and not steal from happy people.” Her voice is resolute and steady. “And- well, it was for you, but also, there are some really fucking rich grumpy people out there, so. Thanks.”

Mollymauk blinks in surprise, then gives her a small smile. He does. He leans forward and presses a careful, tentative kiss to the top of Nott’s hood, and when he pulls back, he feels a little bit of the tension in her form release.

He looks up, finally, scanning the faces of his friends, his family, and sees tears glimmering in everyone’s eyes. Fjord is unabashedly teary, sniffling quietly, Caleb is misty-eyed, Yasha has tears flowing freely down her cheeks, and he can hear Beauregard’s muffled, choked sobs that she’s trying to stifle behind her hands.

But most interesting of all is that there are two new figures, standing side by side a few paces away from the group. One of them is a tall firbolg fellow with a shock of bright pink hair and floppy ears, and the side of his hair sheared short. He smiles calmly and waves when he sees Mollymauk spot him, and speaks in a calm, soothing baritone.

“Welcome back.”

Molly simply nods gratefully, not trusting himself to speak. Introductions can wait for later.

The other figure, however, is a young man draped in a flowing black cloak adorned with raven feathers. His hair is jet black, a sharp contrast to his pale skin. Pointed ears jut out from under his hair, signifying some elven heritage, and the look on his face and in his dark eyes is bittersweet.

That’s the last that he can see before Fjord and Yasha crumble almost simultaneously, both of them rushing over to wrap Molly in a bone-crushing hug. He rasps out a laugh, and sees Caleb pace over as well.

“Welcome back, Freund,” is all that he murmurs into Molly’s ear as he adds his weight to the pile.

Beauregard still looks pissed, even while she’s crying. There are tears and snot dripping down her face, and she hiccups as she wipes her nose with the back of a clenched fist. “You absolute fucking- mother fucking asshole!”

She winds up, then decks Molly in the arm. It’s not very hard, but she still apologizes immediately after. Fjord doesn’t even have to goad her into it, and he’s in no state to anyways. He’s crying almost as much as Jester and Yasha at this point.

Once Jester, Fjord and Yasha have managed to control their tears (though not quite their sniffling), Molly gestures over to the two new figures. “Who’re they?”

Jester immediately perks up, though she still doesn’t let go of him. “Oh my gosh! We didn’t introduce you! That’s Caduceus Clay, the new guy. He’s a cleric, like me, except that he’s friends with the Wildemother instead of the Traveller! He’s, like, really cool though. I promise. Also,” she whispered, leaning down to stage whisper conspiratorially in his ear, “He gives, like, the best hugs.”

Mollymauk chuckles. “I’ll certainly have to, someday. If, of course, Mr. Clay will allow that?”

Caduceus’ smile is as warm and comforting as earlier. “Well, of course.”

Molly grins, “I like him already,” to which Jester squeals in delight.

“What about the other one, though?” He asks, his eyes flicking to the half-elven man, who’s leaned casually against a tree near where Caleb is sitting. Jester’s brow furrows in confusion, and in worry.

“Other one? Deuces is the only new guy, silly.” Her tone is light, but Molly senses an underlying strand of worry.

He shakes his head, an exhausted smile plastered on his face. “You know what? Maybe I just need some rest. Dying wasn’t too great for my health, you know,” he quips, red eyes gleaming. Satisfied, Jester giggles again before giving him one last squeeze and a kiss on the cheek. Mollymauk hums happily, then retreats to his bedroll in the tent he shares with Fjord after the tearful reunion has ended.

As he settles in, arms stretched above his head and tail carving aimless swirls through the air, he notices that he hasn’t seen the half-elf since maybe an hour ago.

 

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Mollymauk groans as he stretches, reaching his arms above his horns. Why is he sore? He’s literally been dead for months. You’d think that long of a rest might make the bruises a little better, but no.

He pushes himself upright, running a hand through his hair, and glances over to see if Fjord is awake yet.

“AH! What the fuck, man, you scared me!” Molly presses a hand to his chest. “What’re you doing in here? Also, if I may ask, who and what the fuck are you?”

Fjord is gone, but his bedroll isn’t empty. The half-elf from before is stretched out on the bedroll with the lithe grace and danger of a lion lying in wait. He tosses a dagger up, catching it lazily, over and over again, and it glints in the weak sunlight that makes its way into the tent. He tosses it one last time, then catches it and sheaths it in one fluid motion.

“My name is Vax’ildan, and I am the champion of the Raven Queen.”

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Mollymauk raises an eyebrow. “Yes, and I’m Mollymauk Tealeaf, though I’m pretty sure you already knew that.”

 

Vax’ildan nods his assent. Molly continues anyways, taking a deep breath. “I, um. You seem… familiar. Do I know you?”

 

“Ah,” Vax’ildan muses. “I was wondering when you’d ask that. Actually, when you died, I was the one to guide you to the Raven Queen. It’s part of my job, after all, being her dead Champion.”

 

Mollymauk’s mouth is dry, and he swallows harshly. “Dead. So… does that mean that you’re a hallucination, or some sort of necromancy, or...?”

 

Vax’ildan shakes his head, staring up at the top of the tent. “No. I’m here, but only you can see me, since you’re the only one to have died thus far.”

 

Molly nods slowly. “So… you’re essentially my ghost companion for now?”

 

“For now,” Vax’ildan grins.

 

Mollymauk drops his head back onto his bedroll with a sigh. Not undead, but a ghost. That nobody else in the Mighty Nein could see. This was going to be interesting. He turned to face his companion, giving him a winning smile. “So, Vax’ildan, want to go get some breakfast? Jester said that Caduceus is a good cook.”

 

“Vax,” says Vax’ildan. “My friends call me Vax. Also, um, ghostly specter. Champion of Lady Death. So… I don’t really have to eat.”

 

Molly nods slowly, mentally noting the information. That makes sense. “Well, then, I’m at least going to get something to eat.” He clambers out of his bedroll, pushing himself upright, and steps out of his tent into golden sunlight of the morning. Jester, noting his approach, flounces over to him.

 

“Good morning, Mooooooolly!” she sing-songs as she swings and arm around his neck. He ruffles her hair and she beams. “Deuces made breakfast! Want some?”

 

“Absolutely,” he says, trying to muster some of his old swagger, and allows himself to be led over to the rest of the group. It falls a little flat, but Jester accepts it, and to his credit, he was dead less than twenty four hours ago.

 

When he glances back over his shoulder, though, he sees Vax casually wandering behind him. As Jester flirts with Fjord over breakfast, Vax’ildan raises an eyebrow at him and says, “You know, she’s not the only one interested, between the two of them.”

 

Molly nearly chokes on his breakfast.

 

 

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On the way back to Zadash, Mollymauk is gently but firmly shoved into the cart to sit next to Caleb. “I’ll ride instead,” is all that Jester says on the matter, so he accepts it. He leans back, stretching his legs out to prop them on the edge of the cart. He folds one arm behind his head, and pokes Caleb with the other.

 

Scheisse, Mollymauk, you scared me,” Caleb says, and he turns around. The blue-white glow of the spell he uses to see through Frumpkin’s eyes dissipates, and he blinks for a second, reorienting himself.

 

“Whoops, sorry, didn’t realize you were scouting ahead,” Molly says, retracting his arm. “Wouldn’t have disturbed you if I knew.”

 

Caleb brushes it off. “It is fine. What did you need?”

 

He looks so genuinely concerned that for a second, Mollymauk can’t breathe. He remembers, now, why he was so recklessly willing to die for his friends. He loves the Mighty Nein, every single one of them. He just might love one member in particular in … a little bit of a different way.

 

Mollymauk’s never really been in love before.

 

Sure, he’s had flings with some people here and there, he’s had some quality sex and one-night stands, but he’s never really felt romantic attraction before. Speaking of which, how does he even know that this is what romantic attraction feels like? Hell, he’s only been alive for…. two and a half years, minus few months of being dead again.

 

Mollymauk blinks the thoughts away, and answers Caleb with a small headshake. “Just wanted to say hi, sorry.”

 

Caleb reaches out and touches his shoulder, ever so lightly. Molly’s breaths are so shallow that he doesn’t remember what breathing normally feels like.

 

“It is fine, I already told you, Mister Mollymauk.”

 

Somehow, Molly manages to get enough of his breath back to reply. He inclines his head, and says, “I concede to that, Mister Caleb.” There’s a small smile on his face, though, even when Caleb turns forward and looks through Frumpkin’s eyes once more.

 

Caleb almost never initiates physical contact.

 

 

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Caleb almost never initiates physical contact, but today was an exception. He watches as Mollymauk and Jester sit by the fire they’ve made, chatting animatedly. Mollymauk seems to be telling a story; his arms wave in grand gestures, and Jester hangs off of his every word.

 

He glows warmly in the firelight, the reflection of flames dancing in his solid red eyes. Caleb wonders absently if that’s some sort of forewarning, that Molly’s like a fire. If he touches, he’s going to get burned. But maybe that’s something that he’s willing to risk, for Mollymauk Tealeaf.

 

He’s shaken out of his thoughts by a hand on his shoulder, and barely avoids jumping. “Oh, hallo, Beauregard.” He hadn’t even noticed her approach.

 

“If you ever tell him this, I will kill you, but,” She pauses, her voice low and serious, so that Caleb can tell she’s genuine, before she continues gruffly. “I missed him. He’s like a brother to me, and it made me fuckin’ realize that… I don’t know for sure what’s gonna happen to any one of us, at any given moment.”

 

Caleb nods, his eyes still focused on the giggling tieflings by the fire, but his voice is low and clear. “Ja. We need to take care of the others. Especially Mollymauk. I- I do not want to lose him again,” He admits quietly, his auburn brows furrowed with worry.

 

Beau nods, and takes another swig out of the bottle he hadn’t noticed in her hand until now, and claps him on the shoulder. She mutters, “And you need to take care of yourself to take care of the rest of the group. So try- try to do that, alright?”

 

The words are spoken gruffly, and when Caleb looks over, Beau’s gazing pointedly away from him. He smiles, small but genuine, and says, “Thank you, Beauregard. I will do my best.”

 

He hesitates for a moment, but then places his hand on top of hers, patting it gently. Her brand of caring may be gruff, but it’s genuine.

 

“Ugh, okay, enough mushiness for me,” she says, squeezing his shoulder one last time as she stands. The small smile and flush she can’t hide belie her words, but but Caleb decides to stay silent. “Hey! Obnoxious one! Wanna see who can finish one of these faster?”

 

Molly cackles delightedly, raising his bottle. “Hell yeah, unpleasant one!”

 

Caleb smiles fondly as they bicker goodnaturedly.

 

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They arrive back in Zadash around midday, and decide to spend the rest of the day back at the Leaky Tap. Jester pushes together a few tables, and by the time Molly comes back downstairs, his family is chattering and drinking together. Caduceus notices him first, and waves. Molly waves back, grinning.

 

The members of Mighty Nein really are his family. They came back for him, didn’t just leave him alone in a shallow hole in the dirt like the one he woke up in two years ago. He blinks for a minute, dispelling the tears threatening to form in his eyes, ans flounces the rest of the way down the stairs and to the empty chair between Caleb and Yasha.

 

He really does love them.

 

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“Oh, I could really go for a bath right now,” Molly says the next morning, lazily stretching.

 

Jester stops shoveling food into her mouth for a moment, and nods frantically in agreement. “Phab soubs gweot!”

 

“What was that, dear?” Molly asks, trying not to laugh and failing miserably. Jester’s brow furrows as she glares playfully at him, and swallows.

 

“I said, ‘that sounds great.’”

 

Molly nods. “Exactly. I’m a genius. Let’s get going, shall we?” He pushed back the chair and leaps up with a dramatic flourish, leading the Nein to the closest bathhouse.

 

They pay five silver for a group bath, and it’s not until Molly pulls off his shirt in the changing room, aching for the warmth of a hot bath, that he really sees his reflection.

 

The scar is so much worse than he thought it was, so much worse that the others. Thinking of Lorenzo has made him feel like vomiting for the past few days, so he simply doesn’t. But looking at his shirtless reflection in the mirror, he feels the nausea begin to set in. He steps back, almost slipping, before he swallows the bile and calls out quietly.

 

“Hey, uh. Vax? You there?” He’s not too proud of the way that his voice shakes. He doesn’t even know why he’s calling out to someone he’s known for a day, but it feels alright.

 

It’s better than dragging one of the Mighty Nein into this.

 

His eyes are glued to the ground, so he sees Vax’ildan’s boots aa the half-elf steps silently into eyeshot.

 

“I am,” comes the quiet response. “What do you need?”

 

Molly only stares at the ground for a long moment.

 

“How do I go out there with this?” he asks, finally looking up at himself, voice barely audible as he gestures to the jagged line that stretches across his chest and stomach. “If I can hardly handle looking at it, how do I do that to Caleb and Nott? To Beau? They watched. They watched as I pranced out into the clearing and damn well killed myself, and they didn’t have a fucking choice.

 

His voice breaks in the middle of the last line, and he ignores it.

 

“How? You just get it over with,” Vax’ildan says simply, though Mollymauk can see the sorrow and pain in his eyes. “The Raven Queen sent me to watch over you because you’re rare. Very few people are ever brought back from the dead, much less blood hunters under her patronage. You’re unique, your friends know that, and what matters to them is that you’re alive. And you. You are so damned lucky to be alive. You’re lucky- The one with the undercut, she’s like a sister to you, correct? Now listen to me. Listen. I am here, dead, because I traded my soul for my sister’s, and bought her soul from the hands of the Raven Queen, the Lady of Death herself.”

 

Molly’s breath catches in his throat, and Vax’ildan barrels on.

 

“I don’t regret it at all. I would die a thousand times over for her, and a thousand times again. But being here, trading my life for hers, means that I can’t be there with my family- not really, not in the ways that matter. I didn’t get to grow old with the man I loved or the woman I loved-- I didn’t get that, but you. You do. Use it wisely. Don't let this-” Vax prods Molly’s scar, maybe a little harder than necessary “-interfere with you and your loved ones. You are so much more than your fucking scars. You are your generosity, your flamboyance, your kindness. Don’t let something you hate define who you are. After a while, that gets old. Trust me.”

 

Molly swallows hard, watching his own adam’s apple bob in the scuffed bathhouse mirror. “You’re right, but I still hate it.”

 

Vax nods. “A harsh reminder, but perhaps a necessary one. Use it well.” He squeezes Molly’s bare shoulder one last time before turning to go.

 

“Wait, Vax’ildan.”

 

There’s a pause. Then: “Yes?”

 

Molly takes a deep breath. “Thank you, Vax. I appreciate it.”

 

Vax smiles bittersweetly, looking exhausted. “You’re welcome,” he says, and is gone.

 

Molly breathes out, and steps outside of the changing stall. He spreads his arms wide, sketching a bow, and Jester applauds, splashing warm water all over as she does so. Nott throws a cucumber from the provided water from where she’s perched, fully clothed, at the edge of the pool. Beau just scoops some water in her hands and tosses it at him.

 

“Get in, idiot.”

 

Molly laughs, and complies.

 

(On the opposite end of the bath, Caleb sinks down so that only his eyes and the top of his head shows. Molly may have been gone for a few months, but Caleb still finds him just as attractive. Nobody notices except Fjord, who does nothing except raise a single eyebrow.)

 

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Mollymauk presses his face in his hands. He can’t hear Vax’ildan’s pacing, but he certainly hear his sigh.

 

“Then what do you want to do about it, Molly?” The frustration in his voice is clear. When Mollymauk looks up, he’s stopped pacing and is fiddling with one of his three daggers. His fingers trace the engravings on the blade and Molly follows them with his eyes before answering.

 

“I… don’t know. I don’t want to rush him. Hell, I don’t know if he even swings that way! I’m usually not wrong, but I really don’t want to be wrong with him. He can be, ah. Skittish, I suppose. He’s been hurt in the past, and I don’t just want to be the story behind another scar on his heart. I also don’t want to disrupt the team.” He puts his face in his hands.

 

Vax sighs and continues pacing. “Well then, how about this. Do you want to tell him?”

 

Molly nods, not looking up from his hands. “Of course.”

 

“Then you should,” says Vax’ildan simply.

 

“But-” Mollymauk sighs, cutting himself off. He purses his lips, and combs his hand through his hair. “I’m scared,” he admits. “I honestly don’t know how he’ll react, and I don’t want to mess anything up right now.”

 

Vax’ildan simply nods. “Just promise me that you’ll tell him, then. Not today, not right now, but someday.”

 

Mollymauk hesitated for a split second, holding his breath, before he lets it all out. “All right. I can do that.”