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you can't become if you only say what you would have done

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"And of course you can't become if you only say what you would have done
So I missed a million miles of fun"

Steal My Sunshine - LEN

 

 

“Let’s DO THIS!” Beau bellowed at the top of her lungs, face contorted into some sort of Halloween mask pastiche as she lifted her hands, fingers clawing towards the sky, tensing every muscle in her body. Though the yell held, her poised body twitched and in a flash she busted forward at full speed pushing between Fjord and Molly towards the door of the first ‘room’. Above it, the light had just gone green, buzzing it open. Letting out their own, high pitched ridiculous battle cries, Jester and Veth took off after her.

Ears covered, Caleb shook his head. Just over the prolonged screams, he could hear Molly’s atrocious, unrepentant cackles, his friend doubled over at the waist in mirth. His friend.

Caleb sighed, trying not to think about that particular distinction, and started towards the door where Fjord and Yasha were already waiting. The Zhelezo in charge of them was smirking as he let them in, shutting the door behind Molly, who was wiping at his eyes, only mostly recovered from the bought of laughter. The joy in his face, clear and sunny like the sky above them, made Caleb’s heart race, and he looked away quickly, hoping that Mollymauk wouldn’t be able to tell.

“Yasha,” Beau was saying, looking up at the course before them. “This is the best birthday ever. I fucking love you, just so much, babe.”

“I know,” Yasha said, wrapping her arms around Beau from behind, still blushing as she did. “I love you, too.”

That was how it had all started, Caleb considered, his mind streaking back through time to the moment that Yasha had explained her idea for Beau’s big birthday bash, begging everyone to come if they could.

“It’s like an obstacle course at the Zhelezo Armory. You use teamwork to make it through. And you are meant to pretend that there are, like, zombies and stuff coming after you. I guess,” Yasha had bumbled. “And I just want to do something super special for Beau, you know? Now that we are…” Caleb could not forget the beaming smile Yasha’d been unable to control as she thought the word. “Dating.”

Though he hadn’t really wanted to accept, Beau was his friend – practically his sister – and he wasn’t about to actually pass on her big birthday bash. She’d been so happy ever since Yasha had gotten up the gumption to give her that godawful poem, since they’d finally gotten over themselves and made out, then went out.

So, Caleb was happy for them. Genuinely happy. So too, of course was Fjord, with Jester and Caduceus, just…more subtly. It wasn’t Beau and Yasha’s fault that their newly kindled romantic bliss only highlighted just how utterly impossible it would ever be for him to have the same thing. Because there was no universe in their dimension or any other where Mollymauk Tealeaf would ever look twice at him. Which is why it was so completely unfortunate that the two of them had to be such wonderful friends. Torture of the most acute sort, to see him practically every other day, to feel the constriction of his heart at every glance and yet be completely unable to do anything about it without risking the bonds which held their friend group together.

Besides, Caleb considered, looking down at himself in his laser eyes cat shirt and ripped jeans, what would Molly want with a nerdy bookworm who liked to stay at home? It just wouldn’t make sense. And it probably would fall apart in the long run, he reminded himself. You’re just keeping yourself from even more agony. He’d just stay in the room above the Brenatto’s garage forever with Frumpkin and be the cool bachelor uncle to Luc and whatever other kids they would inevitably have.

“Alright now, everyone circle up!” Fjord called out. “This is a teambuilding course, not a free for all. Beau, we all know that you could parkour the shit out of this place in like, six second flat. But if we’re all gonna run like fuck from those zombies, then we’d better get a game plan together, because,” he looked up at the poles and wires with exaggerated trepidation. “I’m not entirely sure that I’ll actually survive a zombie apocalypse if this is what it would take. You might have to leave behind as a sacrifice.”

Beau rolled her eyes and pulled out of Yasha’s gentle hold to sock Fjord in the shoulder. “You’re such a dummy. Jester would never leave you behind and in the real world, Caduceus would be here with us and not at work, because his work would be like, ground zero. And he wouldn’t let us leave you behind either.”

Fjord’s eyes narrowed playfully at her implication, but he let it go as the conversation for how best to approach the test ensued. Caleb took a moment to focus his attention on the set up, independent of their discussion. It was set up to mimic electric poles and powerlines, running along a chain link fence, save that there was a timber which crossed the fence, some seven, maybe eight feet above their heads, and then a shorter one, something closer to six and a half feet, with a platform atop it, which would serve as their avenue up. Additionally, there were the water barrels, which they had to take with them, as ‘supplies’ to complete the challenge.

“Moonweaver, but am I glad Yasha told me not to do my nails.”

Caleb practically jumped out of his skin. In the middle of his musings, Molly had somehow sidled up next to him, appraising the scene in a similar manner, though with obviously different designs.

“Ah, ja, I do not think that would have been terribly helpful for this circumstance.”

With a half grin, Molly chuckled. “Certainly not.” There was a pause, where Caleb didn’t know what to do, and just kept staring up at the platform. “You alright?” Molly asked, ducking his head around to look up at Caleb comically. “You’re not getting heatstroke are you?”

“Goodness, no. Whatever gave you such an idea?”

A single purple finger suddenly appear in his space, the pad pressing delicately against his cheek. “’Cause you’re flushed, is why. You want a water? Jester’s got an extra in her bag, and I think Yash does, too.”

“Ah, no thanks,” Caleb swallowed hard. “That is… just my complexion.”

Even as he heard Molly snort, Veth called out to them, diverting his attention, and Caleb breathed deeply as the finger left his cheek.

This was going to be a long day.

“Alright!” Jester was saying when he and Molly had both joined them. “So here’s the deal. First, Beau will go up and then Veth, Fjord and Molly. Yasha will lift the barrel up to them. Beau and Molly, you will help Fjord across the beam, since you are both very nimble, and then Fjord will take it across and go down. Then Veth crosses, and Fjord helps her down. Caleb, Yasha will help you and I up and then, she will come up and we will all go across to the other side! Sound good?”

Beau hadn’t quite waited for the end of the spiel. Already having hauled herself up the pole onto the platform by the end of the first sentence, she was hanging one handed, doing pull ups and periodically glancing back down at Yasha, who was giving her indulgent smiles and thumbs up though the entire speech. By the end, Fjord was halfway through helping Veth to Beau, who’d scrambled onto the platform seconds before. “Picture perfect, Jessie,” Molly replied, sauntering over to Yasha. And Caleb couldn’t help but agree. Clad in maroon drawstring booty shorts and a white crop top that read “I don’t think I’m hot shit, I know it”, Molly made a very pretty picture indeed. Unable to remove his eyes from the graceful display before him, Caleb watched as Molly nimbly clambered up Yasha’s back and onto her shoulders, where he rose to his feet and then stepped up to the platform in one fluid movement, his tail swishing enticingly.

Next time, he would ask Jester if he could go up first. They’d only just begun, and already Caleb wasn’t sure he’d make if through another room if that was to happen on every occasion.

“Caleb?” Yasha looked at him inquiringly. “You ready?”

“Oh, um. Ja. Danke.”

Up he went then, with Yasha’s laced hands as a boost. As soon as he was seated on the platform, there, once again, was Molly, balanced precariously on the beam, where he stood, bent down, his hand proffered.

“Across we go, Mister Caleb.” Tremulously, Caleb let his hand fall into Molly’s who grasped him firmly and helped him up onto the beam. “Step lively then.”  

Don’t think about it, Caleb reminded himself, and then allowed Molly to lead him over the beam.

“You’re a natural, Caleb.”

“You’re too kind to me, Mister Mollymauk.” Caleb shook his head. “I am not nearly so graceful as you.”

“Grace is learned,” Molly said as they stepped onto the other platform. “Natural talent is raw and more interesting.”

“You humour me.”

“Maybe.”

Caleb sat down and swung his legs over the edge, dropping down into the gravel below, Molly following close behind and Yasha on his tail. Jester let out a whoop when they’d all hit the gravel. Almost immediately, the door buzzed open behind them. Beau threw on arm around Fjord and the other around Caleb.

“See? No problem! You guys survived.” Her grin turned devilish. “Ready for number two?”

“As I’ll ever be,” Fjord replied, skeptical. Caleb chuckled, and let her lead them out of the space and into the hallway.

The Zhelezo cleared his throat, and their raucous bunch eventually quieted enough to hear him.

“Congratulations. You made it through the first room, and in record time. For this second room, you have your first special challenge. Only one person may speak the entire time. Pick your person now, and you may begin.”

“Beau,” came the chorus of voices, Caleb’s included. It would be interesting, for sure, to see if they could all manage to fulfill the challenge in record time, the way Beau was hoping, but they all knew one another well and worked together fluidly. It would just be a matter of their more vocal members being able to keep their mouths shut. Caleb glanced over at Veth who was sucking in her lips comically, and Jester, beside her, with her hands clasped over her mouth.

“Alright,” Beau shrugged. “Let’s go then. Gotta beat that timer!”

As they filed in through the door, which had buzzed open, Molly knocked into Caleb a bit, playfully, and sent him a dazzling grin.

Caleb pushed a close-lipped smile back and was rewarded by a catlike gleeful squint from Molly, which scrunched his nose adorably. Thank goodness they could not speak to one another, because if Molly had tried in that moment, Caleb wasn’t sure anything intelligible would have come out.

The second challenge was an enormously tall and flat wooden ramp at a steep angle, at the top of which was tied a rope that barely came down a quarter of the way. Another water barrel was in the corner. As Caleb rounded the structure, he could see that there was a stand in the middle, large enough for maybe two people. There was an equally steep ramp on the other side, but no secondary rope.

“Okay cool. This is how we’re gonna do things. Fjord?” Beau pointed at the rope. “You’ve gotta grab that. We’ll brace your feet from down here until you can get the rope to pull yourself up. Then we send up either Molly or Caleb. Who’s got longer arms?”

Caleb sighed. Both he and Molly pointed to Molly.

“Guess that settles that. Cool. Then, when we have the two of you up there, we’ll have Yasha work on getting the barrel up. The instructions say we have to carry it down, too. We can’t just drop it. So when you get the barrel up, just get Yasha down and you can keep it up there until Jester get’s over, because Jester’, you’re strong than I am and-“

Beau continued on, but Caleb stopped listening. He would just… walk around until he was needed. It wasn’t as though there was a reason for him to just stand and stare at Molly’s ass, and his long, toned legs as he scaled the structure. No reason at all. In fact, considering the….heat of his gaze, it would frankly be impolite. Perhaps…Perhaps he would just turn around and face the corner and pretend that he wasn’t dying of embarrassment.

And it also wasn’t as though there weren’t plenty of other things Caleb loved about Molly aside from his ass and legs. He love Molly’s laugh, and Molly’s gentleness, and Molly’s well… everything.

He loved and detested Molly’s everything.

“Cay?” A whisper came from behind him. “Are you alright? Is it a heights thing? If you’re scared, that’s alright.”

Wheezing a laugh, Caleb shook his head. “Later. I will tell you later. Suffice to say it is…unimportant.”

Veth glared at him, as though doing so would wring some extra information out of him, but he mimed zipping his lip and turned around, hoping against all hope that Molly would be up in the stand by the time he did.

By some grace, he was lucky enough to have turned at just the right moment.

In short order, they were all across before the buzzer once more, Beau chomping at the bit to know if they had broken the record for the room or not as she headed straight for the door, that time not so much as waiting for any of them to catch up.

The next room was interesting – there were no extra challenges, but it involved moving boards over chain and then climbing through a hanging tire to make the rest of the ‘bridge’ on the other side, all without ever touching the ground, or dropping the boards. Once – just once – they had to start over. Yasha was too broad for the angle she’d attempted to go through the tire at, jostled the board when she attempted to back up and, to extensive groaning from the other side, she’d thrown her hands up in their air in defeat, packing up the boards and heading to the start once more.

More than once, he felt Molly’s eyes on him, so he made a show of asking Beau for one of her extra waters, just in case Molly tried to make a bigger deal out of his concern. They were waiting on Fjord to cross, when Caleb noticed that Veth was watching him too.

But not just him.

Caleb pulled the water bottle from his lips and looked at her as innocently as possible, as if to say ‘what?’, but she scowled and darted off to cheer Fjord on as he paused, wiggling frantically, two boards from the end of the line.

When his feet hit the ground, he dropped dramatically to his knees and shook his fists in the air. Laughter was contagious, and soon the whole group was moving towards the door once more, but Veth hung back.

“He was watching you, you know,” she said softly. “While you were drinking the water.”

“Ah, Molly was concerned earlier that I might get heatstroke.”

Veth’s eyes narrowed. “I never said who ‘he’ was. Caleb Florian Widogast, do you have something you need to tell me?”

Blustering, Caleb huffed and looked away, but it was to no avail, for his cheeks were aflame again.

“You like him. Don’t you? Like, like like him.”

This was not the conversation he’d imagined himself having during Beau’s birthday party. It was useless to lie to Veth – she always knew, the way any mother did, when he was hedging his answers, so he simply pursed his lips and nodded, curtly.

“Don’t say anything. I don’t want to ruin today.”

“But! He was watching you, Caleb!”

“Ja, well, he was concerned and we’re going to leave it at that. This is Beau’s special day. Please, I do not want to ruin it.”

Veth rolled her eyes at him, but acquiesced anyways. “On one condition. You talk to him. You make a point of it. I’ve noticed, someone else is bound to, and then it will be a problem. So let’s not make it more of one, okay? You’re a big boy, Caleb. Go get you a hot tief.”

If Caleb could have sunk into his shirt, shrunk into a kitten and disappeared, he would have, happily. Sadly, such a feat was impossible, so instead he only sighed. It seemed, lately, that that was all he ever did. Sigh.

Veth was skipping ahead of him and out the door, humming a little as she went, entirely too pleased with herself for Caleb’s liking, but he followed anyway.

They’d both missed the instructions for the next room, and by the time they entered, Yasha was already instructing the group on the best way in which to complete it. A wall – taller than Caleb’s eyeline, completely barred any view of the other side. Jester was hanging over it on her stomach.

“Okay! So here’s what we need to do!”

In short order, they’d used the boards as counterweights for one another, sending each other across the threshold to the mirroring wall, and then, one by one, scrambled over.

“How many more rooms?” Molly asked the Zhelezo as they exited.

“Four. Now it is time for a break. Please head out towards the ropes course where your things are. Hydrate and stretch out before you complete the final set of gambits.”

The words were obviously well rehearsed, but the fellow was amicable enough that they came across less board and more pleasant – it had to be quite the show, Caleb considered, to watch their antics from the observation deck above the rooms.

Upon entering the break area, Beau pulled out one of her water bottles, chugged half of it and dumped the other half over her head, before flopping down on the gravel and just laying there, looking up at the sky. Caleb settled down beside her. “Having a happy birthday, schwester mein?”

“The best.” She propped herself up on her elbows and turned to look at him. “Hey, thanks for coming. I know this isn’t really your scene, but it, uh, it means a lot that you came anyways.”

A genuine smile broke across Caleb’s face. “There is very little I wouldn’t do for you, Beauregard. You know that.”

“Yeah, when I have a dead body to get rid of, I’ll let you know.”

The conversation halted, and Caleb took a moment to lay back beside her, shutting his eyes. Through the thin skin of his eyelids, the sun glowed a red and magenta miasma. The air was warm, but the breeze was cool against his sweat-slick skin. Before they went back in, he’d have to redo his ponytail, but for the moment, all he wanted to do was lay there, breathing in the heady scent of vegetation and dust.

“So…” Beau said after a moment. Caleb cracked open an eye to glance at her. “What’s up with you and Molly?”

He closed his eye again. “I do not know what you are talking about.”

“Liar. Are you two like, secretly a thing and you haven’t told anyone yet? Are you dating? Or did you two just f-“

“Beauregard.” He ground out her name, keeping perfectly still. “Molly and I are not anything. There is nothing ‘up’.”

A telltale puff of air met his ears. “Yeah. Sure.” She said quietly. “You keep telling yourself that. God, you’re repressed, aren’t you? That’s what this is. You’re crushing on him.” A breathy laugh. “You know, talking to Yasha? Best damn thing I ever did. Take it from me, Cay, don’t waste any time. What’s the worst that could happen?”

Precisely a million and one different terrible scenarios entered and fled Caleb’s brain at once. “He refuses me and it drives a wedge between all of us and then we are no longer friends.”

There was a shifting in the gravel. “Caleb, for someone who’s supposed to be smart, you’re really fucking dumb sometimes.”

He sat up then, and found her looking at him with an uncharacteristically soft expression.

“It’s not worth it.”

“What isn’t?”

“Making him uncomfortable.”

Roughly, Beau reached forward and clapped him hard on the shoulder. “Caleb, did you ever consider that your happiness is just as worth it to try?”

He had. It must have shown on his face, because Beau shook her head, making an exasperated sound as she did. “What if you’re making him unhappy by not saying something? And then you’re unhappy, too, and it’s just twice the bad vibes. So, please, for Molly, if not for yourself, or even for me. Just, do it for Molly. Because it’s really fuckin’ obvious that something’s wrong, Caleb. And it’s probably freaking him out worse than any sappy romantic confession or shit ever will.”

“Fine.” Caleb stood. “I will, but not until later. I do not want to ruin your party.”

“Hey,” Beau looked up at him, leaning back to capture his gaze. “If he breaks your heart, I’ll beat him up, Yasha or no Yasha.”

Unable to help it, Caleb groaned. He smacked both hands to his face and dragged them comically slowly down his cheeks. “This is exactly why I do not want to do this. You want me to say something, I will, but you and Veth had better keep your button noses out of it!”

Grinning, Beau hopped to her feet. “Knew Veth had to be in on it. Thanks for the confirmation, Cay.”

“Ah, fuck you,” he tossed his hands in her direction, but there was no real heat behind the words or the gesture. “You are a menace.”

“You bet your boney ass I am. Hey.” She nudged him in the ribs with her elbow, indicating the place where Molly and Yasha stood, near the cement walls of their course structure. “They keep glancing over here. Wonder what they’re talking about…”

“With any luck? Anyone but me.”

Beau laughed. Threw her head back and positively guffawed. All eyes turned to them and Caleb only stared back bewildered as Beau positively lost her shit.

When she could breathe again, Beau leaned forward, hands on her knees, head hanging down, before glancing up at him. “Fat chance.”

Sometimes, Caleb just did not understand Beau. Not in the least.

The next room post-break was fascinating. Upon being allowed in by the Zhelezo, they faced what was little more than a sold cement wall, save for the two tunnels about five feet up.

“Oh!” Veth called out, excitedly. “This is a good one for me! Someone boost me up! I wanna army crawl.”

That time, Caleb was rather quicker on the uptake, lifting up his best friend so that she could wriggle her way though the space. It wasn’t too long of a tunnel, before she peered out on the other side.

“Aright! Reporting! We’re gonna need to pass the boards through here. There’s two right? Looks like we’re going to have to leave the broad one and switch the other two back and forth as we go through. This one he said was time halved on the counter, right? So, someone get Jester in the other one and pass me up a board. Then, Cay, you come in after me.”

Caleb stepped aside as Yasha walked up with two of the board. “Oh.” She surveyed the circumference. “Will my shoulders fit in there?”

“Do not worry, Yasha,” Caleb patted her hand. “I think you will do just fine.”

Boards passed through, Veth disappeared from sight and Caleb, at her previous declaration, hauled himself up and in.

On the other side, he saw what she’d meant. There was no board for him at the moment; to his right, Jester was busy crawling over hers, propped between the mouth of the tunnel and a single post in the middle between the two, down which the larger board had been propped to make a ramp leading to the ground.

“I will pass you the board when I get to the post, alright, Caleb? We have to each do it for one another! Isn’t that neat?”

“Yeah! It means we can leave Fjord behind!” Veth bellowed, hands cupped around her mouth. From behind him, Caleb heard a concerned and muted “What did she say?!”, and there was a cackle of laughter from the right, where Molly’s head was now poking out of the other tunnel.

At least this time, Caleb thought, he would not be stuck in such a perfect position to stare at Molly’s….assets.

One by one, they made it through, before the expeditious time limit was called.

Beau sent high fives all around, elated. “That’s every challenge so far, guys! We’re the best fucking team.”

“Oh, I didn’t know that was a team sport.”

All eyes turned to Yasha, whose face was carefully blank, markedly innocent.

“What? Did I say something?”

Jester and Molly giggled conspiratorially, and Fjord just groaned before heading back to the door.

Caleb did not stay to watch as Beau pulled Yasha down for a very thorough, very heated kiss, but he did hear the narration which accompanied it.

“Oh Beau!” Molly said in a soft, dark voice. “I am so glad the zombies didn’t get you!”

“Oh Yasha!” Jester replied with exaggerated anguish. “I’m so deeply madly in love with you, if I were a zombie, I would eatyourface aurrrrghhhghhghgh!”

There was a grunt, a surprised yelp in quick succession with a thump, and finally, the sound of at least two bodies hitting the ground.

Jester!” Molly snipped.

Instead of watching what was surely an endearing sight, Caleb left the laughter behind and followed Fjord through the door to get a peek at the next room before the rest.

“Rule for this room,” the Zhelezo said, “Only those over 5’5” get to talk.”

A look of malicious glee overcame Fjord, and he jaunted an eyebrow. “That’ll teach Veth to conspire to leave me behind.”

Caleb peeked through the door, ignoring his friend while they waited for the rest to catch up. There was a raised platform onto which they would step, and another raised platform quite a ways away, and a third, even farther from that, arranged in the shape of an L. Two boards, one with a split at the top and another with a thick rope through a hole at the top. The Zhelezo cleared his throat and Caleb bashfully shut the door.

“Once again. Only those over 5’5” get to talk. Have fun.”

Instant groaning came from Beau, Jester and Veth, all of whom did not meet the requirement, but they filed orderly-like into the room.

“Okay!” Caleb said. “I think that I actually understand what is going on here. We will have to use counterweight to create bridges from one platform to the next. And Veth, you are going to be our secret weapon. Here is how it will work.”

Caleb explained, miming how the board would stay flat enough if Yasha, Jester, and Fjord stepped on one end and held the rope taught, while Veth would inch out onto the end, essentially held up only by the strength of her friends. The other board would be passed to her, and she would slot the notch around the rope and level off the other end onto the mirroring platform. The hardest part would the last person, who would have to hold both boards up with the rope as they crossed and everyone else stood on the other side to weight that board down.

Then, they’d do it all over again to reach the third platform.

Halfway through, Jester slipped, despite Fjord desperately reaching out a hand for her, and they all rushed back over to start again, Beau grumbling very loudly, though careful not to form any actual words.

They made it, just.

The minute it was over, Veth let out a whoop. “That was so cool! I was like…a ninja! Just darting across boards like that!”

“You were irreplaceable, Veth.” Caleb smiled. “We could not have done it without you.”   

“Damn right you couldn’t!”

As they headed off towards the other room, Molly sidled up next to him. Again, Caleb felt his breath run short and his chest constrict. “Hallo, Molly. Are you having fun?”

“Positively oodles, dear. You?”

“Ah, ja, actually.” And it was true, they were having fun. There was something to be said about the spirit of teamwork and self-competition that Caleb had always had a flair for. “It is brainwork as much as it is physical strength and grace.”

“You’re looking better. Not too hot anymore?”

“Oh, um. No, I am feeling well. I had one of Beau’s water bottles at break.”

“I saw. What was that all about, by the by. You are Beau, I mean. It looked like whatever you said broke her.”

Shoulders stiff, Caleb frantically grasped for something to say, but came up short, mouth opening and closing like an idiot.

“I-uh, shite. I don’t mean to say that you’re not funny, Caleb! I just.” Molly ran a hand through his hair, pushing back curls from off his forehead. Still too stunned to say anything, Caleb stood dumbly, watching him. “Well, you don’t joke a lot. So I just…wow yeah, I’m going to just, um…” And with that, Molly picked up the pace and walked away.

As if rooted to the spot, Caleb simply watched him go.

“Hey!” Veth’s head popped around the door. “You coming?”

“Ah, ja.”

The second to last room were a set of elevated make believe “railroad tracks” that stood parallel to one another. In the room were only three boards, which they used to juxtapose in a zig zag across the gap between them. No one over 5’5” was allowed to speak, but to Veth’s elation. There had been only one new rule – all the boards needed to make it to the other side with the last person across.

Success was achieved in short order, but not without the awkwardness of being right before Molly in the crossing order. With neither able to say anything, they exchanged silent and stilted glances until dropping into the gravel where they then went each to opposite sides of the open area and waited for the rest. Once Yasha was down, Molly went instantly to her side, speaking in soft tones together with her and throwing him surreptitious glances that Caleb pretended not to notice. He looked instead at the ground, running the toe of his trainer through the gravel.

“What’re you drawing?” Jester asked when she was across. “Is it a dick?”

“No, it is Frumpkin.”

“Cool. I’mma draw a dick and put Beau’s face on it.” At that, at least, Caleb laughed, which caused Jester too as well.

Another task complete, the headed to the final room, which they had been assured was the most difficult of them all. Beau was practically foaming at the mouth with excitement, and if the Zhelezo had gotten out of the way a second later, he’d have been barreled over in her rush.

“The time on this room is longer than the others. The record? 7 minutes. Good luck to you all.”

And with the utterance of that challenge, he shut the door.

Caleb looked up at an intensely tall wooden wall into which had been cut grooves every few feet as hand and footholds. There was a rope tied off on an anchor loop at the top, and a water barrel siting at the base along with several propped beams. Around the side, a sheer drop with a small platform onto which was connected, and a bridge made of a series of looped chains.

Beau whistled.

“Well shit.” Fjord, eloquent as ever. “Here does nothing. Hands in, team?” He stuck his arm out, palm down, but everyone else just stood and stared. “No? Guess not. Caduceus would have done it with me. You’re all fuckers.”

“Well Caduceus is not here and we are wasting time!” Caleb strode forward, clapping a hand on Beau’s shoulder. “Beauregard. It is your birthday. And on this day, will not be eaten by zombies. Let’s win this.”

Fjord rolled his eyes, but Jester gave a cheer, before kissing Fjord’s cheek, and then started forward.

“Careful Fjord, Caleb might just replace you as face of this organization yet,” Molly said as he swanned on through, slotting his hands into the wall grooves.

“But we’re not in an organization!” Fjord’s complaint was met with further chuckling, but Caleb’s attention was…elsewhere. The only thing that saved him from the excellent view of Molly was Beau’s very sharp, very forceful elbow catching him in the ribs. At loss for air and doubled over, she threw her arm over his back and leaned in.

“See?” she whispered. “That was a compliment. Now, get you head out of your ass, Caleb. Live a little.”

“Alright!” Molly called from where he was now seated, perched precariously on the top of the wall, one leg propped up, the other hanging over the edge, his tail flicking back and forth behind him. He looked utterly at ease. Criminally so. “Send up someone else. Let’s get those light on their feet over first. This’ll take balance and poise and the more people we get over quickly, the better off we’ll be.”

Precitably, Beau and Veth sprang up, Molly staying at the top to help Veth drop down to the other end, even with the rope, considering her height. Yasha and Fjord handed him up a few boards, which he then passed back down so that the other two could begin building the bridge. It was clear, with the length and size of the boards, that they would have to be laid in a particular order, so as to avoid as much swaying as was possible – but there weren’t enough boards that every chain could be connected. It was, indeed, the most difficult challenge of them all, but Veth and Beau tested their set up without incident and before long, Jester had been sent across as well.

“Alright Caleb, you’re up!” Molly called.

The grooves were smooth, thankfully, with no chance of a sliver. Molly’s hand extended as he neared the top and gratefully – attempting not to think too much about it – Caleb wrapped his grip around Molly’s wrist, and felt Molly do the same. Together, they managed to get him up. From the ground, and watching the ease with which Molly was sitting on the wall, Caleb hadn’t thought too much of it. He’d walked and crawled over a variety of boards that were barely resting on various surfaces already that day, so it shouldn’t have been so nerve wracking to sit atop the wall.

But it was.

Caleb didn’t let go of Molly’s hand, cling desperately as he attempted to find his balance.

“Caleb, you alright?”

“Ah, just a little wobbly. I do not know how you can just sit there like it is nothing.”

“Practice dear.”

Twice that day, he’d called Caleb dear. But then Molly called everyone dear. That didn’t stop his heart from fluttering.

“Take your time, okay?” Molly asked, peering at him earnestly. “You’re fine, Caleb. I’ve got you. I won’t let you fall.”

From the ground, where their conversation went unheard by prying ears, Jester called up. “Woooooooo! The zombies are coming Caleb! Hurry up! Or they will get us!”

“He’ll get down there when he’s good and ready Jester!” Molly called back. “Hey, Caleb, when you’re ready, I’ll help you down myself. There are no hand grooves on the other side, just the rope. And if you don’t think you can manage it, we’ll go back down the front together, alright? No questions asked. The zombies get both of us or not at all, alright?”

For the first time, he didn’t blush, mostly because he was too busy making sure he stayed exactly where he was meant to. “That is very gallant of you, Mister Mollymauk.”

“Just making sure you’re okay.”

Of course. Of course that was all. Caleb took a deep breath. “I am ready. I will go down to the platform.”

“You’re sure? No one will be upset if you don’t.”

Caleb met Molly’s gaze, saw there sure pure intent that he couldn’t help but swallow. “You have promised me that I will be alright. I would hate for the zombies to get you. Together or not at all, is that not what you said?”

“I certainly did.” Ruby red eyes brightened. “Alright. So, this is what we’re going to do.” He reached down and lifted the rope. “You take this and hold tight. I’ll keep your other hand. Now, swing your legs over the side. Still good?” Caleb gave a nod of assent. “Alright. Now, lean in towards me. You’re going to brace your forearms on the top and inch the rest of your body over, so that you’re like, doing a chin up. And from there it’s only a foot drop. So you hold the rope and I’ll lower you down. Sound good?”

“Ja.”

“Alright, here goes.”

Altogether, it was over in a matter of seconds. As promised, Molly’s grasp did not waver and before long, Caleb was situated on the platform below.

“There. Right as rain. You’ll be okay the rest of the way?”

“Ja,” he replied again, and Molly hesitated for a moment before nodding and swiveling back over to the other side.

“Alright, next up! Fjord! You’re gonna help me ad Yasha get that barrel over!”

Without too much trouble, Caleb navigated the ‘bridge’ that the girls had made and found himself once again standing in the gravel.

“Good job, Cay,” Veth said, patting his arm reassuringly. Jester, too, came in to hug him. Beau only gave him a smile.

Yasha came over next, with the barrel, then Fjord. Both of them had close calls on the bridge, and Caleb thought it was a good thing that they were not expected to get the barrel over the bridge too, or they most assuredly would have failed the challenge. Nearly out of time as it was, Molly nimbly made his way down and across to much cheering and fanfare.

That time, when Fjord proposed a group hug, everyone accepted.

“TIME!” The Zhelezo called over the megaphone. “Congratulations! You’re the new record holders. Six minutes, fifty seconds.”

“Fuckin’ YEAH!”

Beau’s cry was almost at another decibel, and Caleb pulled back just a little, only to be pulled back in instantly as the group shuffled up and down in a half jump, half hug, all ridiculous motion. It was hot and sweaty and loud and Caleb loved every moment.

Eventually, as such things, were wont to do, they broke apart and headed back around towards the break area, where all their things were situated, packing up and guzzling water. Caleb and Veth had carpooled, considering that he was still living above her garage, and Beau and Yasha had brought Molly, which left Fjord and Jester who had taken her brand new convertible. The summer season was rapidly coming towards a close, but it was still nice enough on the coast to eek a few more days out of their bundle of summer pastimes. The evening would be spent at Caduceus’ place – or well, it could better be said that it was Caduceus and Fjord’s place, soon to include Jester as soon as she was back in Nicodranas for good after having been remote working for Artagan all over the coast. The three of them had sort of fallen together in a beautiful way, Caleb mused, watching as Jester played with Fjord’s hair when he bent over to retie his shoe. Beau and Yasha were still new and exuberant with their affection for one another, but there was a quiet happiness to Fjord, Jester, and Caduceus’ relationship that Caleb appreciated in equal measure. The same sort that existed in Veth and Yeza sometimes, when Veth didn’t think anyone was looking.

Someday, he was sure, Beau and Yasha would have that same quiet resilience. Relationships all that would stand the test of time and trials.

And undoubtedly, Mollymauk would find someone just as wonderful. Just as suited to him. He had to. Only the best will do, Caleb thought to himself, for Mollymauk Tealeaf.


“No!”

“But Molly-“

“I said no, Yasha! He’s just…I can tell that he doesn’t feel the same way. And I’m not about to ruin anything anymore than I already have.”

“Ruin what? You didn’t ruin anything.”

Molly threw his head back against the headrest, letting the slipstream of wind blow past him. Beau’s jeep was about as little vehicle as she could possibly have made it. It had no doors and no roof, totally open to the elements save for the roll cage. In Molly’s opinion, it was the best sort of vehicle. Edgy, and fun, and totally open and free, considering that she’d tricked it out for off-roading. It also made it hard to hear when people who were well meaning but insistent were yelling at you over the roar of the wind. 

“I told him he wasn’t funny!” Molly yelled back after a moment. “I’m so STUPID!” He yelled it to the empty sky, the puffy little clouds, the bird circling far overhead.

Momentarily, Molly thought he caught a snippet of Beau’s laughter, but it was gone before he could be certain. They turned right, and the speed limit changed, luckily, (or unluckily, as the case may have it, Molly considered) Beau slowing up enough that they could hold a proper conversation.

“The only thing that make you stupid is that you refuse to talk to him.”

“I talk to him plenty.”

“You know that is not what I mean, Molly.”

Molly sighed. “I know.”

“This has been going on for longer than Beau and I. I think you are going for some sort of, uh, record or something.”

That time, Molly was sure he heard Beau snort.

“Hey, peanut gallery, if you’ve got something to say, say it to my face.”

Beau spluttered. “I can’t! I’m driving you idiot!”

“Promise me you will say something.” Yasha had shifted in her seat to look back over her shoulder at him more completely. “I want you to be happy, Molly…”

“I am happy.” It wasn’t a lie. Life was pretty wonderful. He wanted for nothing, had the best of friends, of family… Life was excellent and he loved every single minute of it. But he loved most the scant minutes he’d spent holding Caleb’s hand that day. Instantly, he felt ashamed. Caleb had been half terrified, and Molly was thinking only of how nice it had been to hold his hand.

“But you could be happier, Molly. I want that for you. You are my everything.”

Beau paid no never mind to that  softly tender declaration – she was Yasha’s heart, after all, and that was enough for all three of them.

“In my own time, Yasha. I promise.” He held up his pinkie for her to clasp with her own and they shook on it. “Sorry Beau, for being dramatic and shite on your birthday.”

"It's okay, Molls. I forgive you your rampant stupidity. Birthday girl's prerogative."

The rest of the drive was blissfully free of conversation. Beau hit the radio not long after her last statement and Molly took to looking out the window as the coastline blew past. Yasha wasn’t wrong. He would be happier. He would be…well…there wasn’t a word he knew that could describe just how happy it would make him to be able to take Caleb’s had anytime, utterly and complete unprovoked. To have Caleb squeeze his hand back. To be able to smile and know that Caleb understood what it meant when he did that.

You’re the light of my life, Caleb Widogast, and you haven’t got a clue.

By the time they made it back to Caduceus’ place, the sun was getting to that point in the sky where the oncoming of sunset is inevitable. They had maybe two hours of good daylight left before the tree line devoured the sun, speckling its remnant through the trees and Molly desperately wanted to take a swim in the pool before it was too cold and they all end up smooshed in the hot tub.

By some luck – well, likely not luck, since Beau was a lead foot – they made it to Caduceus’ first. The minute they were inside, Molly took his bag into one of the guest rooms to change. The fact that they were going to be swimming had caused him great consternation, so there were several suits to pick from in his bag. Being early meant, of course, that he could feasibly get changed and already be lounging seemingly lackadaisically by the poolside by the time Caleb and the other arrived.

At least, that was what it should have meant.

In reality, after Molly’d stripped, he stood looking at his choices for a full ten minutes, debating the merits of each. One, alluring sexy, good complimentary colours with his skintone. The other…well, the other was mostly a joke, but they’d certainly invite very close scrutiny from a pair of eyes that he very much desired to have locked on him a good majority of the time, if possible.

Molly clenched his fists, feeling ridiculous. It wasn’t likely that Caleb would look anyways, but, if he was going to, it would be out of curiosity, not attraction and if that was the most Molly could get, well…he’d take it.

He stuff the other suit into his bag with the rest of his clothes, and pulled on the one that remained, turning to look at himself in the mirror.

It was – predictably – a speedo. Oh gods, even I think I’m predictable, Molly considered as he adjusted the lines on the suit. The base colour was a bright highlighter yellow/green, over which was a leopard print. And on top of that, various pairs of cartoon eyes in various bright colours. He’d bought it as a joke, mostly because of the whole ‘eye’ aesthetic he had going on. Initially, he’d planned to just snap a photo and send it to Jester for laughs, but even if it was totally trashy, the colours were fetching and well, one could never have too many speedos. They served best to allow him to show off as much of the fine art of his body’s canvass as possible, in addition to highlighting other…assets.

Sighing, Molly ran his hands back through his curls, shaking them out a bit, grabbed his bright red sunglasses, and threw on the beach cover up – and why did they call them that, when they covered up precisely nothing? – before heading back into the main area of the house.

Caduceus was in the kitchen, working away at something with Beau. An appetizer dish, it looked like. Stopping to peer over Beau’s shoulder as she arranged cheese and crackers, chips and salsa, Molly slinked an arm around to snitch a chip. Beau, however, was faster. Quick as lightening, she slapped his hand out of the way.

“Dude! You’re gonna ruin the whole thing before I even get to put it out on the patio. Just grab a drink and go outside and catch the last rays of the sun or whatever while you still can.”

Smirking, he did as she asked, stopping by the fridge to claim a hard lemonade for himself. “You want me to grab you anything while I’m at it?”

“Uhh, sure. There’s wine in there, that’s for Yasha and I. You can put it on ice and take that out.”

“Done and done.” He stuck his drink under his arm, grabbing the wine bottle with one hand and holding the fridge door with the other. Casually, he went about setting everything down on the table so he could uncork the wine. “So…everyone else here yet?”

“Yeah, they’re already outside.”

Well, so much for making an impression that way. But a good entrance could be just as good if not better of an impression.

And he so very desperately wanted to make an impression.

“Molly?” Beau called over to him. “You hear what I said?”

“Hmm, no, dear. What?”

“Knock ‘im dead.”

Molly flushed, scrunching his nose in her direction, but no sharp words found his usually quick tongue. He gathered up his drinks and went to the sliding door, nudging it open with his toe and closing it much the same way.

Turning the corner, Molly surveyed the scene for a moment. Everyone was indeed present, likely having changed in other rooms while he’d been busy agonizing like an idiot. Veth was on a lounge chair, watching the pool with careful concern. Jester and Fjord were in the pool, batting around a ball, while Yasha and Caleb were tossing around bocci balls. It was impossible to miss him, blinding white against the backdrop of green. His bright blue trunks came just mid-thigh, and Molly had to remind himself to breath at the sight of a light copper dusting of hair on Caleb’s belly.

“Ahem! The party had arrived, everybody!” Molly held up the drinks, the long sheer of the black coverup tickling his thighs as he did. “I’m taking orders, so let me know what we’d all like. Beau’s working on the appetizers.”

“Excellent!” Veth called out, pumping a small fist into the air. “A nice glass of wine on a later summer night. Excellent.” A splashing came from the pool and her head instantly riveted to the noise. “Jester don’t dunk Fjord so help me!”

“Sorry!”

Gosh, but Molly loved his friends. His heart welled with it, moreso than usual, considering especially what he intended to do. Because he did intend to do it. At the right moment. The perfect moment. When the lighting was right, and the evening had grown into twilight, and the last shafts of sunlight sparkled in the water, and Caleb was breathless with laughter…

Blinking rapidly, Molly banished the image and quickly went to the table to set out his things.

“Ah, hallo again, Molly.”

Molly whirled at the sound of his name in Caleb’s dulcet tones. “Oh! Caleb. Hi!”

“Would you like help with the rest of the drinks and glasses? I have Yasha’s order, and we need some glasses for the wine…”

“Sure, let’s just check on Fjord and Jester.” Deliberately, he slid the coverup off his shoulders and draped it over the back of a deckchair before making his way over to the pool. Please look at me as I go, please, please. “Hey! Splash Squad! What do you want to drink?”

“Oh hey, Molly!” Jester floated over to the side, Fjord beside her. “Your suit is really fun!”

“Thanks.” Well, at least someone had noticed it.

“I will have lemonade please!”

“No problem. Fjord?”

“Uhhh, can you mix me something?”

Molly put a finger on his sunglasses, dropping them a half inch down his nose so he could peer over them. “Do I look like Beauregard to you?”

“Fuck no.” Fjord laughed. “Fine, just grab me a hard lemonade.”

“That’s more like it.” Please be looking. Molly turned.

If Caleb had been looking, he wasn’t at that moment, instead preoccupied apparently with the pattern on Jester’s towel. Pushing aside his disappointment, Molly forced a smile. “Alright, we’re set. In we go?”

“Oh, Ja. Let’s.” Caleb coughed a bit as they rounded the corner of the house. “I heard Jester compliment your suit…I ah…what is supposed to be on it?”

Something like trepidation rushed in trills through Molly’s chest. Why, he wasn’t sure. It made no sense – obviously Caleb had been looking, and listening carefully. Which was what he’d wanted, wasn’t it? And yet, the nerves were only compounded.

“Oh, well, you know. It fits with the whole ‘eyes’ thing.” He tapped his hand over the red tattoo on his hand. “I just thought the cartoon eyes were funny.”

Caleb nodded haltingly. “It’s….ah…a good colour on you.”

Mentally, Molly facepalmed. Should have worn the other one. Now he won’t take you seriously. And oh, but that was a new thought. Wanting to be taken seriously. As a general rule, Molly didn’t much care what people thought of him, but now?

Caleb’s opinion mattered more to him than anyone else’s, in a surprise twist. Two years ago, he’d have chastised himself for caring so much about what someone else thought. But he liked Caleb in a way he’d never liked anyone else before, and he already knew what sort of person Caleb was. His good opinion, well…it really mattered. Because Caleb was smart and kind and quiet and Molly…well, he was everything Caleb wasn’t. Not that there was anything wrong with that, per say. But it made things more difficult, for sure.

“I’m sorry, but I think it is my turn to ask – is everything alright?”

When Molly looked up, Caleb’s blue eyes were wide and wondering, and Molly could have sworn he almost swooned away right then and there. “Just thinking. Maybe it’s a little ridiculous.” He waved his hand in an erratic gesture. “The speedo, I mean.”

Caleb’s shoulders shrugged up. “I don’t know. Maybe it is ridiculous, but I like it. It is funny. You are very self-aware. It takes a strong person to make a joke about their own fashion sense and wear it so well.”

Unable to contain his surprise, Molly’s eyes bugged out and he stopped walking. “You really think so?”

Suddenly, a hand was covering the lower half of Caleb’s face as he stroked down his well-trimmed beard. “Um, yeah. I do not say things I do not believe.”

“Oh. Well. Thank you.”

“You are…welcome.” Caleb reached the door first, pulling it aside. “After you.”

Inside, Beau was just sliding a plate from the table to the top of her head, one arm laden. “Caleb, don’t move, I’m coming out with this shit and I won’t be able to get the door.” She quickly grabbed one last platter and, impeccably balanced, strode past them out the door. Caduceus, watching her go, was just shaking his head. “I could have helped. She insisted. You two grabbing drinks?”

“Yes. Indeed.” Molly went straight to the fridge. Anything to lessen the awkwardness he felt from before. “You need any more help?”

“No, I think I’ve got it here, thank you, Molly.”

There was the light clink of glassware, and Molly knew that Caleb was silently across the room, raiding the cabinet. What was he thinking about? What went on behind that quiet, slightly awkward, nerdily gorgeous façade?

Resigned, Molly admitted to himself that he might never know. Arms full of the requested drinks, he turned to wait. Caduceus was nowhere to be seen. Of course he knew. Molly grimaced. Everyone knew by now, he was half sure.

Well, except Caleb.

“Got everything, Caleb?”

“Yep. We can go. I will get the door.”

Outside, the air was changing. It felt good – refreshing – and Molly was getting desperate to jump in the pool to hide his utter mortification at his entire everything. Caleb was still quiet, perhaps unsettled by their earlier conversation, or maybe just embarrassed…

“Hey Caleb?” Gods, you’re stupid, you’re stupid, just say something. Anything! Just-

“Ja?”

“I-“

Molly opened his mouth. Closed it. Opened it again. Caleb watched him closely.

He couldn’t do it.

“Thanks for help with the drinks.”

“Oh. Right. No problem.”

What. A. Disaster.

Wordlessly, they set down drinks, on the table. Beau, it appeared, had made it there without issue, as all of the platters were still in one piece and artfully arranged as she’d been capable of making them. Fjord and Jester had abandoned the pool for snacks and took their drinks eagerly.

As soon as he was free, Molly beelined for the pool, took a running leap and jumped in.

It was an above ground pool, one of the oval kind with aluminum struts all along the exterior. So, it was deep enough to jump in, but Molly’s butt still hit the bottom, sending him careening back upwards at a rapid pace. Spluttering he whipped his head up out of the water, sopping hair slapping back against the nape of his neck, curls gone.

The water was incredible, sluicing over him like a baptism from every embarrassing thing he’d said and done in front of Caleb that day. Blinking away the water, he looked up, unintentionally. There was Caleb, staring back.

It took Molly all of a moment to plunge back under in shock. That time, he held his breath as long as he could, swimming the length of the pool a time and a half before he resurfaced. Ultimately, it could have been nothing. He might not have been watching. Maybe it was just an excellently poorly timed coincidence.

Definitely.

Had to be.

When he swam back towards the group, Caleb’s back was to him, but when he turned just a little, bearing his silhouette, his cheeks were pink.

It’s just the weather. It can’t mean anything. Don’t get your hopes up.

Molly’s hopes, regardless, went up.

“Hey! Who wants to play chicken?” he called out. The whole point of this had been to put himself on display, and he wasn’t about to let the nerves stop himself from doing so. He’d done it earlier, even if the challenges served as an excellent distraction from his secondary goal. “Yasha, Beau, Jester, get you butts in here! I want to play chicken!

Only Veth’s response was negative, but soon, the three girls were splashing their way into the pool with him.

“Alright. Jester, I’ll go on your shoulders, Beau on Yasha’s and then we’ll be about a fair height to one another.” Rapidly, they set about getting organized, both Yasha and Jester slipping under the water so that he and Beau could most easily get onto their shoulders. When they were both stood, a little wobbly, but held securely by Jester and Yasha each, Molly stuck his tongue out at Beau, flickering it a little in time with his tail, like a predator. “You reading for this Lionett?”

“You’re gonna eat shit, Tealeaf!”

Below them, Yasha and Jester were giggling.

“Hey! Fjord! Put that lifeguarding to use and play ref, would you?” he called out. “Veth, Clay, and Caleb can award style points afterword.”

Fjord with an exaggerated sigh, did as asked. “Alright. On three. One! Two! Three!”

Instantly, Molly felt Jester surge through the water, and his outstretch hands laced with Beau’s as they tousled about gleefully.

“Hey, Tealeaf.” Beau whispered, almost too quietly for Molly to hear over the splashing and the cheers from the sidelines and below. “I win this, you have to go right over to Caleb and ask him out the moment you come back up for air.”

“You’re on. And if I win, I buy you an all-expenses paid spa day for you and Yasha next weekend. All inclusive.” Which, well, he’d already gotten her the certificate as a present, but she didn’t need to know that until she opened the card.

“No fair! Jerk!”

“Now you have to really decide what you want more.”

“I. Want. You. To. Get. Your. Head. Out. Of. Your. Ass!”

Molly bit his lip, struggling against her for the upper hand. A wave kicked up unexpectedly, catching her in the face and for a split second, Beau shut her eyes. It was enough. Trusting Jester to keep him up, Molly pull the full force of his weight against Beau and jostled. Down she went to much cheering. Up she came to much spluttering, expression a dark glower.

“Winner!” Fjord called out. “Beau, nice job. Molly played dirty. I’m awarding him a foul for that, so that's going to be negative 2 points from his 'style points', whatever the hell those are.”

“I’ll give you playing dirty!” Beau called out, lunging for him. Her hands connected with his chest and he slipped back from Jester’s shoulders, landing in a pancake in the water behind them. Bobbing there, he gave a few choking laughs as he coughed from the water.

“HEY!” Fjord called out. “Foul on you too, Beau. Minus two points!”

“Alright,” he managed after a moment. “How’d we do?”

“Hmmm.” Veth was standing on her lounge chair, arms rested on its pillowing her chin. “Well Beau gets at least three points for sheer vicious ferocity.

“Molly should have another three points for seizing the moment.” Caleb threw in. “That’s called initiative.”

Fjord appeared to be mentally tallying, even though it was unnecessary. “Alright. Caduceus, you’re tie breaker. Who wins?”

“Huh?” Caduceus looked up from whatever had had his attention. “Oh, points. Well, I’m going to give my point – points? Are we giving multiple points? Is there a system for this? – I give Molly two points because he was brave enough to go up against Beau and Yasha and managed to win. Is that good?”

Fjord chuckled deeply. “You bet it is, babe. Alright, Molly’s the champ! Sorry Beau! Maybe next time.”

“But it’s my birthday!” she cried, indignant, face contorting into a pout. It was not an expression that Molly saw cross her face terribly often, and yet, there it was. Part of him was thrilled, and another part…If he’d have lost, would he have had the gumption to do it? To rise from the water and proclaim himself a fool in love with Caleb Widogast until the sky fell and the earth crumbled?

Ultimately, it didn’t matter. He’d won, after all, and so his revelation was still his own to reveal where, when, and how he so chose. It was freedom, to be sure, but almost more daunting than having to fulfill his bargain with Beau.

Only he was left to hold himself truly accountable for sharing the truth of his feelings. All he really wanted to do was clutch them together into a tight ball, and place it lovingly and gently behind the bars of his heart and keep it there a while longer, safe and protected from the inevitable rejection.

Not that his friends would let him. That much, at least, was now acutely clear.

Wrinkled and ready for the last dregs of sunlight, Molly climbed out of the pool and snatched one of the many towels from where they hung on the deck’s fencing, drying himself off before making for the table. Maybe another drink or two and he’d have the courage.

No…he’d get really foolish if he did that, and he didn’t want to be stupid in front of Caleb for a declaration like that. If he was going to say anything at all, then he wanted it to be perfect. Absolutely and completely perfect.

Snitching Jester’s lemonade instead, Molly took a sip and stuffed two of those stupid round crackers in to chase it, like some sort of mock lemon pie combination.

Swallowing, he turned to Caduceus. “Crackers are the work of devils, gods I could eat like, all of these by myself. Why do you by such tempting morsels?”

Perplexed, Caduceus just shrugged. Beside him, Veth reached up for one of the mini-sausages that Jester had brought. “Well, you’re a tiefling,” she said with a gleam in her eye. “What’s wrong with devils’ food?”    

Tossing his damp curls, Molly managed to keep crumbs from spewing unattractively from his mouth as he tried to keep from laughing. “Nice one. Hey, Veth?” he asked, noticing Caduceus move away. A quick look behind him confirmed that Yasha and Caleb had picked back up with their Bocci ball game, and the rest were in the pool.

“What’s up Molly?”

“How did you and Yeza get together?”

Veth blinked owlishly, then, her soft brown eyes narrowed into a pointed glare. “Why?”

“Just curious.” He shrugged, trying to look nonchalant. If Veth’s skeptical expression was anything to go by, he’d failed. “You don’t have to tell me. It’s just, well, you two are so great together. It’s too bad he couldn’t make it out here today with Luc. You know we all love them just as much as you, right?”

One of her small, warm hands found his wrist, holding it gently. “I do know, Molly. Thank you. I’m sure Yeza equally wishes he were here with Luc instead of at scouts – less children here.” As if on cue, Fjord screamed shrilly as Jester popped a ball up out of the water into his face. “Well…I suppose the difference is negligible. At any rate, I’m very glad you all love them so much. I don’t know what I’d do…you’re all my family, too.” She paused, looking up at him with such fondness that Molly didn’t know what to do with himself. From the beginning, Veth had been the most suspicious of them all – she had a lot to protect, after all, and been hard done by. Her nerves had been duly warranted. “Yeza was dared to kiss me. And well, we discovered we both liked it a lot. And the rest is history.”

Mentally, Molly slapped himself silly.

Irony so painful, I can feel it.

“Oh. Um. Thanks for telling me.”

“Any…particular reason for asking?” Once more she had him locked in her sights. Slipping his hand from her grip, he reached for the platter of sugared water chestnuts wrapped in bacon.

“No, just didn’t think I’d heard the story. It was that simple, huh? One kiss, like that, bing, bang, boom?”

Veth snickered a little. “Sure. Something like that. Bing, bang, boom. But in all sincerity, it took time, and conversation, you know. All the stuff that comes with any relationship, romantic or not. Nothing’s that easy. If it was…well, it might be nice, but it feels good to work hard at the things you want. And I’d gladly work hard for Yeza every day. Does that make sense?”

Heaving a breath, Molly nodded. “Yeah. It does.”

“Good.” She grabbed a few grapes, finishing off her plate of cukes and mini sausages. She bit one off the toothpick ferociously and chewed, staring at him intensely before swallowing. “Now that that’s settled,” she started, before jabbing the toothpick in Molly’s direction. “If you hurt my boy, I’ll personally guarantee that you won’t wake up the next morning. Capisce?”

Molly’s jaw dropped. “I-“

“Just nod.”

Instinctually, he did as he was told, and nodded.

“Good. Now, go get ‘im before the night’s out, or we’ll all be disappointed on Beau’s birthday, and we’d be bound to catch hell for that, and you don’t want me taking it out on you.”

“He…” Molly swallowed. “He likes me?”

Veth glowered, popped another mini sausage in her mouth and walked away.

“Great.” He just barely resisted throwing his hands in the air. “That was so not helpful.”

Perturbed, Molly took his little plate and went back up to the pool, sitting with his legs dangling in while he noshed, making conversation with the others to keep his mind off of things. Eventually, Caduceus left the pool to go work on dinner, and Jester made off to help him. Half an hour passed in a blur. They’d started up another pool volleyball game and were several rounds in by the time that dinner was called. The smell of roasted pineapple, eggplant, and plantain mingling with the Marquesian peanut sauce for the pork roast was positively heavenly, and for the second time that day, Molly’s primary thought wasn’t on Caleb. The grumbling of his stomach and the water of his mouth precluded it.

It was half eight, and the sun was officially low enough to be hidden within the treeline. Caleb was starting the firepit while the rest helped themselves to the spread and by the time Molly noticed Caleb head towards the table, there was only one empty spot left.

Right beside him.

The fates – or his friends, or both – had converged.

“There’s a seat right here, Caleb!” Molly called out, before realizing that he’d only stated the obvious. “You still have a drink?”

“Ah, ja, I am good, thank you,” Caleb replied, settling in.

“Alright! Everyone’s at the table now, so listen up!” Beau called. As usual, she was perched in her chair, as if ready to spring out of it right onto the table in case of an impromptu brawl. “We’re going to eat and make merry and all that jazz, and then there’s key lime pie which is to die for, so lets all just preemptively thank Caduceus because holy shit dude.” A few scatted whoops and claps went up, save from Caleb, who knocked on the table, curiously. “And after dinner, then I’m opening presents. And when that’s done – hottub, bitches! So says birthday girl. Alright, thank whatever gods you feel like and then thank Caduceus again and lets dig in!”

Chaos descended over the meal, as was typical of a meal between all of them. Settled, Molly turned to Caleb.

“What’s with the knocking?”

“The knocking? Ah!” That wrung a genuine smile from Caleb, and Molly almost missed the explanation because he was so busy looking at Caleb’s adorable dimples. “It is a holdover from school. In the Zemni regions of the Empire, students knock instead of clap. I think because it makes less overall noise? I do not know. Now it has become habit.”

“Anything else interesting like that that you did in school?”

“We did not raise hands. Only a single pointer finger. Like so.” Caleb lifted his arm, other finger curled. His forearm flexed and Molly couldn’t stifle an appreciative sigh. “So that the views of others near us were not blocked.”

“How very polite of you, Mister Caleb.”

“Anything else you would like to know, Mister Mollymauk?”

Yeah, when will you call me Mr. Widogast-Tealeaf? Molly cleared his throat and the unbidden daydream. “Is there anything else to know?”

“Hmm, well, we do not start counting on our fingers with the index? We use the pointer.”

“Fascinating.” Sweet Moonweaver, he was useless at this. “Thank you for sharing. I like hearing about all the special things you do in Zemni. I think I’d like it there. When was the last time you were home?”

Caleb looked down at his plate, setting fork and knife to work at the pork roast. “Well, it has been some time. I did not really think I had a reason to go back. But perhaps, someday, I will have to play tour guide for you? ‘Mister Mollymauk Goes To Zemni’. I would be happy to show you my homeland, if you are genuinely interested.”

“Of course! I am.” He inwardly cringed, tempering his exuberance to reply again. “Of course I am. I don’t say things I don’t mean either, Caleb.”

The smile Caleb gave him then was so endearing, Molly wanted to cry. “You are very kind, Molly. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

After that, Molly let them both eat, listening more to conversation than participating in it, not really in the mood. All the same, he kept stealing glances at Caleb, who never quite seemed to be looking at Mollymauk, and yet…

He just couldn’t be sure.

Pie was served, and still Molly agonized, all the way through to the presents. Beau glared at him when she opened her gift and he gave a simperingly evil smile, which she returned with spite. A new beanie, tickets to the boxing club, a leatherbound copy of the History of Fighting, and a cross-fit gym subscription later, Beau had set aside all her many gifts, and they’d all dispersed to the hot tub.

Which was just where Molly hadn’t wanted to have ended up. Hadn’t he admonished himself earlier that day, promised that he wouldn’t find himself squished into the hot tub with all his friends and Caleb, there, so terribly unbearably close and yet still so completely out of reach?

At least, unlike dinner, they weren’t seated next to one another. No, this time, they were facing each other and it was all Molly could do not to devour Caleb with his eyes, pale skin healthfully flushed with the heat of the water.

Yasha leaned over, her hair tickling over his shoulder. “Please, Molly,” she whispered. “I can’t stand how unhappy you are making yourself over this. You are not yourself at all tonight.”

“It’s not the right time.”

“What’s not right about it?”

That was a hard question to deny. The light was stunning. The warm glow from the fire gave a bright flare to the subtle blue dregs of twilight, and the air was spotted with the bright zings of fireflies as they drifted lazily over the lawn. Even the scent of the evening was inviting. That combination of pool chemicals, open flame, and dew-dampened grass.

“For one, we’re not alone. Now give it a rest, he’s looking.”

Yasha shook her head. “Molly, he’s always looking. You just never see it.” His breath caught at her words, but she did as he asked and sat back up, leaning to the opposite side to whisper something to Beau before laying a few gentle kisses to her girlfriend’s jawline.  

Across the tub, Molly eyed Jester and Veth whispering together while Fjord rested his head against Caduceus chest, dozing. Caleb, between the sets of two, sunk low into the water, until his head was under, hair saturated. Molly watched the copper tones of his hair swirling in the aquamarine light of the tub.

Stunning.

There wasn’t a thing about him that wasn’t positively stunning.

Eventually, Caleb broke the surface for breath. He was dripping wet, red in the face and instantly, every thought in Molly’s stupid inappropriate brain traveled south. Taking a cue, Molly submerged himself the same way, holding his breath hard, only a few bubbles escaping here or there, in hopes that it might help.

When he came back up, it was clear that it hadn’t.

“Molly! You and Caleb need to go in the pool now!” Jester reprimanded. “You are not supposed to go under the water in the hot tub! It’s bad for you! Go jump in the pool.”

“Jester,” Caleb started. “I do not think that that will-“

“Go! Do it! Now!”

“Alright.” Her hands were on her hips. “Go on then.”

Molly whined. “But it’s going to be cold.”

“That’s the point, silly.”

Sighing, Caleb turned to Molly. “Shall we just get this over wi-“

But before he could finish speaking, a hand jostled him forward into Molly roughly and they both lost their footing, tumbling over the edge in a mess of limbs. The water, which had before seemed so wonderful, felt positively frigid after the hot tub and the gentle breeze. Against his chest, Molly could feel Caleb wrapped close to him from how they’d fallen, heart rabbiting in his chest. Altogether, only a scant moment passed where they were under, but it was the closest in living memory that Molly had ever been to Caleb, pressed together as they were, and every single millisecond felt like the passing of an age.

What was the importance of air, when Molly could feel the beating of Caleb’s heart against his own chest, quick and warm and close?

Too soon, they surfaced, more quietly than Molly anticipated. They were facing one another in the water, Caleb blinking rapidly, face contorted still with surprise at the dunking. Absently, Molly could hear Veth’s concerned screeching in the background, and Jester’s apologetic tone, and laughter, but none of it mattered. There in the flickering light of the distant fire, droplets glinted where they spotted Caleb’s cheeks and clung in his eyelashes. Beautiful... Molly's heart felt like it was held in a vice grip, every emotion he'd hidden there ready to bust forward.

Finally. The moment.

“My gods, you’re beautiful by the firelight,” Molly said. Except, instead of words, all that came out was a burble and splash of pool water, filtering from his open mouth, the words utterly lost in the deluge.

And then the real kicker. Caleb stifled a laugh.

Despite the fact that he was shivering, Molly blushed furiously in mortification and surged towards the edge of the pool. Anything to outrun the evidence of his indignity.

“-could have gotten hurt! Are you alright?” Veth was waiting for them at the edge of the pool, alternating mothering looks with mothering glares at Jester, who stood shamefaced behind her.

“We’re both fine,” he reassured her, hauling himself out of the water. “Can’t say the same for my pride.”

“Well, if that’s all…”

“Some sympathetic ear you are.” And rather like a cat, he thwicked his tail at her, spraying her with water. Perhaps it was disingenuous of him, knowing what he did, but it wasn’t as though he’d doused her or anything. Sulking, Molly simply stood, dripping chilly water and listening to the fading laughter of the rest of the group.

Suddenly, a towel was draped gently over his shoulder.

“I do not want you to get cold. Erm,” Caleb pushed his hair away from his eyes. It stuck up a little weird. “Well, any more than you are. I am sorry for laughing.”

Caleb. Whatever god had devised his birth, Molly gave thanks at that moment. “Thanks. And uh, it’s okay. It was pretty funny. I’m just a little…mortified.”

For a moment, there was silence. Caleb just…stared, towel-less and shivering by then too, and Molly waited, feeling awkwardly on display and not in the way he usually liked. It looked a little like Caleb was trying to say something, but the words just weren't coming out.

“Caleb?” Molly gave him an inquiring glance. “Are you okay?”

Caleb’s shoulders sagged, leaving him looking oddly deflated. “I-, ja. I’m fine.”

Now or never. Just- Just-

In one fluid motion, before brain could catch up with body, Molly moved into Caleb’s space, his hands reaching out to cradle Caleb’s cheeks and bring him in for a kiss.

Molly didn’t notice his towel hit the ground. Every ounce of pent up desperation and adoration he had hidden away all those years he funneled into the kiss, a rather chaste press of the lips, if passionately delivered. And when he’d thorough poured his heart out, Molly broke for breath, resting his forehead for a moment against Caleb’s.

Beneath his hands, Caleb stood stock still.

Molly took it like a gut punch. Backstepping, horrified, Molly wished he could take it all back, wished he could tear his gaze away from Caleb’s froze shock.

“I am so sor-“

The words, for the second time that night, went mangled and unspoken. Caleb’s arms were around him, Caleb’s lips pressed to his, Caleb’s terribly talented hands tangling in his hair, beneath it all, relief flooding him, Molly melted into the hold, kissing back just as thoroughly.

Caleb less pulled away and more stopped kissing him, just breathing with Molly, who was more than content to stay there. The world around them was quiet, and he got the uncanny feeling that their friends had suddenly made themselves scarce.

“Caleb.”

“Molly.”

“Hi.”

Caleb chuckled, and Molly, who could feel it resonating against him, trembled. “Hallo.”

“I feel really stupid right now.”

“Well, then, you are in good company, because I am an idiot.”

“Can I kiss you again?”

“Bitte, please do.”

They stayed there, kissing softly, unhurried, until their teeth were chattering, and they rushed together, holding hands, down the steps of the deck to the fire, where the swing bench had been situated at some unknown point, two towels waiting on the cushion.

Without speaking, they dried one another off. Every other moment, Molly would look up at Caleb, who was looking back, and they would both smile, mutual relief and joy shining in their faces. His heart was light, floating. His tail kept curling around Caleb’s calf when he wasn’t specifically minding it. How could he have ever considered keeping the way he felt a secret?

“Gosh, you’re so worth it, Caleb.”

“Pardon? I am worth what?”

Molly laughed, helpless under Caleb’s curious stare. “Everything. You’re worth everything.”

“Good, because I think you are worth everything, too.”

Finally, dried off and warmed, they sat down on the swing, sides pressed together, hands clasped, heads resting at a tilt against one another.

“All I could think about for half of today was how nice it was to hold your hand. And it wasn’t even your hand!” Molly said after a while, staring at where his lavender hand covered Caleb’s pale one. “I was holding your wrist, but it was still the best thing I did all day.”

“Oh? Are you not sure that this is much better?”

“You know what I mean.”

Molly felt Caleb smile. “Ja, I do. I spent most of today looking at your ass. Hardly becoming behaviour.”

“You did?” Molly sat up excitedly, his tail thrashing at their feet. “Really? I’d hoped you would. Oh! I mean – “

“If it helps, I have always hoped you would look at me that way too. But I promise, I like you for more than your ass. You are always so kind, and considerate when it matters, at least. That is rare, Mollymauk. Please, never loose it.”

Unbidden, Molly’s eyes burned, and he furiously willed away ridiculous tears. “How're you so wonderful? You’re smart and clever; you never sound ridiculous when you talk. And you think I’m kind and considerate?! Ha! Beau’d argue. So would Fjord and Veth.”

“Don’t demean yourself,” Caleb sat up, lifting a hand to brush Molly’s damp curls from his forehead. The tender action stole his breath, and the stupid tears pushed back. “I do not want someone like me. You are carefree, and I am not. You are vivacious, and full of the most incredibly potent willpower. These are traits to be envied in anyone, whether you know it or not.” Caleb’s chest rose and fell rapidly, but Molly only noticed peripherally. “Mollymauk, I love you for who you are.”

Love.

Molly stopped breathing, blinked hazily, blinked again. Pinched his leg. Breathed again.

The moment that Caleb’s expression shifted, Molly knew he’d finally realized what he’d said. “Oh, I-“

“Shh.” Molly put a finger to Caleb’s lips, slid his hand up to cup Caleb’s cheek. “I love you, too. We’ve known each other a long time, and I’ve lusted over you for most of it, liked you for almost as much, and loved you for long enough. “Besides? I thought neither of us said things we didn’t mean, Mister Caleb?”

“No indeed, Mister Mollymauk. Then, I will say it again. I am in love with you.”

“Good, because I’m in love with you, too. Are we dating now? Is this how it’s supposed to go?”

Shrugging, Caleb shook his head. “I think this is exactly how it is supposed to go.”

 

The night wore on. No one poked their heads out to bother them, and they spent the evening alternating between kissing and talking, mostly about nothing and everything. Caleb kept the fire warm, and Molly kept Caleb warm until the moon was quite high, and they were both yawning too much to kiss or hold conversation.

“Mmm,” Caleb mumbled. “We should get to a bed.”

Even Molly was too sleepy to raise his brows archly at the phrasing. “All the guest rooms are probably taken. But I saw Fjord-“ he paused to yawn widely. “Had the tent set up. You think they anticipated this?”

“Mhmm. I think…they probably had bets…going.”

“Probably.” Caleb was sagging against him then, his breathing soft and heavy. But when Molly snuck a glance, Caleb’s eyes were still open, reflecting the firelight. “Come on, dearheart. Let’s put the fire out. What do you say to a night under the stars lying next to me?”

Sleepily, Caleb smiled, warming Molly from the inside out. He squeezed Caleb’s hand gently. Once. Twice. Three times.

I love you.

Caleb squeezed back four.

I love you, too.

“Yes.” Caleb leaned in to kiss his cheek. “I say ‘yes’.”