Mollymauk Tealeaf is sitting on the porch of the little house in the heart of these woods, tail swinging along with his legs, red eyes blinking happily in the sunshine. He’s holding a cup of iced tea, condensation dripping down its sides and onto his hand. Caleb can hardly look at him without his chest twisting into complicated knots.
“You seem nervous,” Molly calls without turning to face him. Of course. “I don’t bite unless provoked, promise.”
Caleb sighs and departs from where he’d been haunting a spot near some trees. He thought the shade had covered him, but they’ve all been rather hyper-aware of each other here. “I am not planning to provoke you,” he says, walking nearer.
Molly shifts to leave some space next to him, tea put down to eventually leave a ring of water on the porch. The wood is warm beneath his thighs when Caleb sits, and it creaks and moves when Molly goes back to his swinging. The feeling is strangely intimate.
“You’ve been avoiding me.”
Caleb frowns. Can’t deny it. “Maybe a little,” he says. “You’ve been letting me, though.”
“Maybe a little,” Molly echoes. He seems heart-light, content despite the accusation. “Intimidated by my dashing good looks?”
“Something like that.”
Molly huffs a laugh. “Funny that your magic was what stuck with me. Should’ve been your sense of humor.”
“What sense of humor,” Caleb replies flatly.
Expectedly, Molly laughs again, this one fuller. “It’s okay if you didn’t miss me as much as the others. I won’t tell.”
What Caleb doesn’t say is that he is afraid sometimes that he missed Molly most of all even though he knows he didn’t deserve to. Caleb does not know why Molly was so hard to shake, nor why Caleb tried so hard for so long. Molly was the ghost lingering in the corners of all of Jester’s paintings. The music in the breeze when they landed somewhere beautiful. Not a person. Not someone to miss, but a landscape of possibility. Now he is simply a man—an extraordinary one, but one that will die again someday. Should it be before Caleb, then Caleb will have to miss him again. The thought is sobering.
“I killed my parents,” Caleb says after a moment. “When I was young. I was made to believe it was necessary. I know you wondered what I was hiding back when we first met. That was… well, it was the bulk of it.”
Another long pause. “Ah,” Molly eventually answers, and then— “How young?”
“Too young,” Caleb answers. It tastes like ash in his mouth, but it doesn’t weigh on him like it used to back when— a lifetime ago, it feels like, so long that it’s almost like speaking about a dream. Molly’s eyes are curious, alive despite their flat monochrome. Life is too short, Caleb thinks, to carry things so heavily anymore. Look at this. Look at what happened. You can never know anything for certain.
Molly simply nods. “And you were worried to tell me? The others know, I assume. From what I’ve heard, you all did a lot of happy sharing time without me, and then later… I have snatches, you know. He woke up and I was there too. Not always, not clearly, but I was there.”
“We guessed as much,” Caleb says, though the confirmation needles at him in a fashion not unlike regret. “And I was not worried to tell you. It is merely strange to be telling you anything at all.”
“I’ve always been strange,” Molly snorts. “Nothing new there, surely.”
Caleb cracks a wry smile. “Some of it is new.”
“Us.” Caleb waves a hand vaguely at the forest around them. Inside the house, Fjord and Beau are laying out their own plans. Caduceus is in the graveyard. Jester is likely with him, or else strolling, maybe collecting flowers with Yasha. Veth is slated to return tonight, and Essek… Essek said he would return. Caleb can only trust his word. “So much is new, Mollymauk. Just days ago you did not remember your own name or ours. And in the time before that— I worry that I am not the man you knew.”
Molly grins at him. “Is that all, then?”
“Mollymauk. It is not so simple.”
“Are you apologizing for your happiness?”
Caleb frowns at him, and frowns harder when Molly just smiles wider and leans in to press a thumb right between Caleb’s brows, smoothing out the wrinkled skin. His touch does not burn. Caleb does not flinch away from it.
“Listen,” Molly says, “take it from someone who died and became a captive in their own body to a super-monster and his friends. If all of us had to be sure of who we were, I’d be shit out of luck.” The breeze picks up, and the splatters of leaf-shade across Molly’s face begin to flutter. “If anything, you make much more sense now than you did then. All of you, really. You came into yourselves. Hell, Nott isn’t even Nott anymore. It’s enough to make a tiefling regret dying sometimes.” He pretends to dab at tears in his eyes.
Caleb does not participate in the joke. “We tried,” he says, voice rougher than he would like for it to come out. “We really tried, Mollymauk. Many times.”
“And you succeeded eventually, didn’t you? Look at me, I’m right as rain.”
What Caleb can’t say is I have been avoiding you because I am still mourning you.
The mood of this conversation was a tempestuous sea at best, but the waves of solemnity buffet against them again when Caleb sighs, long and tired. “I’m surprised you remember much of anything.”
“As am I. Hell, I’m surprised you were even willing to risk bringing back that— that thing for me. You couldn’t have known it would be me that opened these gorgeous eyes. It wasn’t an easy choice, I’m sure. And anyway, I thought you’d have let me go by now. Emotionally at least.”
“Do you wish we had?”
Molly scoffs. “Do I look like I wish that?”
Caleb pauses. Watches the dappled sunlight play along his hairline, the energy in his fingers, which dance in his lap like he can’t bear to stay still for even a moment. “You do not.”
“There you go. Smart boy.”
Caleb does not flush, but it is a close thing. Among the things he had not forgotten, front and center is Molly’s ability to throw him. Caleb did not always fluster easily. There is something here that makes him want to duck his head. To see if Molly will tilt his chin up with a gentle hand and keep speaking to him like he won’t break.
“I can hardly believe this,” Caleb admits, just above a whisper.
Molly hums a lazy agreement. “Absurd, isn’t it?”
“The best things are.”
Molly hops up then, coat swishing decadently around him. He stretches his arms over his head before turning back to Caleb and holding out a hand. “Walk with me, Mister Caleb? Which, we need to talk about nicknames. I’m very proprietary, you know. And you let my— my replacement call you that? I’m hurt, truly.”
“He is not your replacement,” Caleb says easily. He takes Molly’s hand with less ease, shoving down the tremble that shivers through his whole body at the contact. Caleb does not say, I haven’t been avoiding you. I’ve been avoiding this. This is the part of him that’s greedy. The part of him that was so sure he’d moved on until faced with Mollymauk again. The way Molly takes up space, demands attention, sees things others don’t. In the span of weeks, Caleb learned to drown in that attention, no matter how uncomfortable and overwhelming it had felt at times. After, with less hangups, less secrets, less grief, Caleb had been sipping air, but it all feels different now. It’s been mere days and Caleb is already underwater once more.
Molly huffs disbelievingly, though he doesn’t seem genuinely upset. “Walk with me,” he repeats, and begins dragging Caleb along without waiting for a response.
They walk in silence, another new thing. Molly had always seemed sensorily inclined, but he’s even more so now that he’s back from the dead. When the sun hits his face, he tilts his head to meet it, a smile dancing across his lips. When a breeze passes over them, he flexes his free hand against the gusts like they’re marvels. His wonder is contagious, and Caleb finds himself paying attention to the forest too. The first time he was here, it was in bad shape, but now the landscape blooms in lush greens, warm browns. Every now and again they spot clumps of flowers, and Caleb makes a note to tell Yasha about them, though she has found other places to harvest from.
It’s nearly thirty minutes later when Molly finally stops, lets go of Caleb’s hand, and leans against the trunk of a tree a few yards away. He raps his knuckles against it. “This is a healthy tree,” he says. “Healthier than even the others in the same grove. Good, old wood. You can tell by the bark pattern, see?”
Caleb squints at him. “You’re bullshitting me.”
Molly laughs, high and tinkling. “Well, it’s only bullshit if it’s not true.”
“Mollymauk,” Caleb replies. He tries to sound admonishing when the truth is he simply wants to savor the shape of Mollymauk’s name in his mouth. He’d say it a dozen more times in a row if he could. He did, that first night. Over and over. Mollymauk said empty and Caleb couldn’t stop himself from saying Mollymauk, Mollymauk, not anymore.
Molly’s answering smirk is lazy, tilted. “Caleb. Come here.”
Caleb steps forward hesitantly. One foot and then the other until he’s standing in front of Molly and those glittering eyes.
Molly’s hands come to his waist and pull him one more step closer. At this distance, Caleb can see the faint scars crawling up his chest—not the neat lines of a bloodhunter, but the jagged tear where Lucien had pulled this body apart before they managed to put it back together. The touch is electric, a live wire.
“Will your brain short out if I kiss you?” Molly asks.
His voice is smug. Caleb feels his own eyes go round like coins as he stutters over a response.
“That a yes? I don’t mind, honest.” Molly waits anyway, hands sure, gaze steady, for Caleb to get himself together.
Caleb does, eventually, get himself together. “Yes,” he says, and then, “wait, no. It— you can. You could.”
“I could,” Molly echoes, gifting one more flash of a toothy grin before he leans in, tugging Caleb towards him to meet in the middle.
It feels like an open door after months of knocking. Like a song that was stuck in his head finally played aloud. You, thinks Caleb, Mollymauk, I only avoided you because I did not trust myself with this. What a foolish worry. Around them, the forest ripples with another gentle breeze, ruffling Caleb’s hair just as Molly gets a hand in it. Everything is sunshine. Mollymauk is a supernova. He is alive. Caleb places a hand against the side of his neck just to feel the pulse and can’t help the quirk of a tiny smile.
“Still thinking?” Molly pulls back to ask, cockiness coloring his entire posture. All this time, everything that happened, and he still wears it so well.
“No,” lies Caleb, so he doesn’t have to say I am thinking of you, of you.
Just of you.