“We should have gone left back there.”
Molly gritted his teeth and kept his eyes on the ground, following the wolf tracks through the forest as best he could, trying not to let Beau distract him. This was supposed to have been an easy job, something to earn a little extra coin while they were on the road. Farmers had problems with wolves killing livestock. Find wolves, kill wolves, bring back proof of dead wolves, get paid. Simple. The group was stuck in the area for a few days anyway. Caleb was having one of his really bad headaches that Nott said he got sometimes, and the only thing that helped was a few days rest in a dark room, so travel was right out. Nott was staying with Caleb, and the rest of the group, as it were, were killing time. Time and wolves, if they could find the damn things.
“Those other tracks were fresher,” Beau said when Molly didn’t respond.
The good news was, the tracks seemed to confirm that the creatures killing livestock were indeed actual wolves and not dire wolves or werewolves or some other sort of creature. There was also no question of why they were coming down from the mountains either. They were hungry. These days it seemed like everything was hungry. The only problem was that there had been two sets of tracks, at least to start with, and the sets had been going in slightly different directions. Fjord had suggested they split up, a decision that Molly had regretted the instant he had been paired with Beau, instead of Jester like he had hoped.
“Maybe you two can learn to work together,” Fjord had said. “You’ve been sniping at each other all morning.”
“We work together just fine,” Molly had grumbled, because they did. Sure, he didn’t like Beau, but it was the sort of dislike that he was used to, trading insults and subtle jabs at each other without any real actual malice. Usually.
“Are you even listening to me?” Beau asked him now, and there it was, that tone. Molly had heard that same tone from too many damn people over the years, people who had more than him, people who thought that, for reasons of money or privilege or birth, that they were better than him. It got right under skin, made his muscles twitch and his teeth clench. He hated that tone, and it also didn’t help that technically, Beau was right about the tracks, the other ones had been more recent. Still, he wasn’t going to let her have the last word.
“Listen, princess,” Molly snapped as he straightened up and turned towards her. “I—“
“What did you just call me?” Beau’s eyes flashed, and not with the usual annoyance or anger Molly was used to seeing from her. There was something dark there, something dangerous, and Molly realized that he might have just crossed a line that he hadn’t even been aware of.
Beau’s hand came up as if for a slap, and Molly had a spilt second to wonder if it’d be better for him to just take it or to dodge it when her eyes suddenly went wide as she shoved him out of her way with her other hand. Molly stumbled, spitting out a curse, but when he looked up he saw the arrow clenched in Beau’s fist for an instant before she whirled and sent it back the way it had come. There was a high pitched yip as the arrow found its mark, the cry answered with yipping and growling from either side of them. Molly recognized the sound immediately, even before the creatures stepped out from behind the cover of the trees, spears raised. Gnolls.
Molly drew his swords, dragging one across the back of his neck, feeling the little sting of pain as blood was drawn, as his blade became coated in ice. A quick glance told him that maybe they had gotten lucky, if that was the term for it. There only seemed to be two gnolls coming at them, plus whichever one had fired at them from the trees. “Looks like we found ourselves a gnoll scouting party. Think you can handle it?”
Beau didn’t say anything, just drew her staff and spared him a second of a glare before she charged at one of the incoming gnolls. Shit, she must have really been mad at him, but Molly didn’t have time to think about that just then. Instead his world focused down to the enemy in front of him, dodging attacks from both teeth and spear. His eyes were occupied but he kept an ear out for Beau once she fell out of his line of sight, letting the sounds of her staff meeting the gnoll’s spear and her sounds of exertion tell him where she was. From the pained yips he was hearing, Beau was making short work of her foe. Molly on the other hand must have gotten the most nimble of all gnolls, because the bastard kept managing to evade his blades.
“Fucking stay still,” Molly hissed in Infernal as he bared his teeth, and when the gnoll flinched at the sight and sound of him Molly finally, finally landed two blows, one after the other, and the gnoll howled in pain.
“Ha!” Molly grinned. “Luck’s finally changing. How you doing over there, Beau?”
There was a snarl from somewhere on Molly’s left, and it wasn’t from the gnoll, who was yipping and whimpering, sharp, high sounds that hurt Molly’s ears and were cut off suddenly with a resounding crack. Molly had a split second of familiar resentment that Beau had managed to kill her opponent before he had killed his and then he caught movement out of the corner of his eye, saw the gnoll that had fired on them before step out from behind a tree, its own arrow sticking out of its shoulder where Beau had thrown it. The gnoll nocked an arrow, fired. Molly shouted out a warning to Beau even as he dodged out of the way.
A second later Molly heard the sounds that he knew he would be hearing in nightmares for the rest of his life, however long or short that would be. The heavy thunk of an arrow hitting flesh. Beau’s quiet gasp. The sound of a body hitting the ground.
Molly half-turned to look, caught a glimpse of Beau on the ground several dozen feet away, felt a deep pain in his side as the gnoll he had been fighting took advantage of his being distracted. He whirled back to face his foe, bringing his blades to bear, and seconds later there was a dead gnoll at his feet. Molly didn’t even wait for the gnoll’s body to hit the ground before he was moving, stalking towards the gnoll with the bow. There was something boiling in his gut, burning hot and freezing cold all at once, something past anger, past hate. He wondered if Yasha felt like this during her rages, and wondered how she could stand it.
“HOW DARE YOU!” The words ripped their way out of Molly’s throat, and he could almost see the Infernal syllables hitting the gnoll like the weapons they were. The gnoll barked in pain and its next shot went wide. Molly just kept walking, drawing the blade of his other sword across his neck, and now both his swords glittered with ice. He pointed one blade at the gnoll, snarling a curse, and watched as the gnoll’s eyes darkened, as the black blood welled up and dripped down the creature’s face. The gnoll’s next shot didn’t even come close to Molly. The gnoll dropped the bow, fumbled for its spear, but it was too late for that. Far too late. Both swords found their mark in the creature’s torso, sliced downwards, blood flowing in their wake, insides now outside.
Molly looked down at the gnoll who was now only so much cooling meat… and then he was looking down at Beau, with no memory of sheathing his swords or running over to her. She lay on her side, the arrow lodged in her back, and it moved with every too quick, strained, gasping breath that she took. She was shaking, her skin ashen, and when he dropped to his knees beside her he saw her eyes were glassy and unfocused.
A thousand curses came to Molly’s mind and no prayers. “Beau? C’mon Beau, look at me. Stay with me.” Molly took off his coat and draped it over her, and her eyes rolled up to meet his, focusing on him. Talking, he had to keep talking, if he just kept talking, if she just kept listening… “Beau, you’re supposed to catch the arrow with your hands.”
Beau made a sound, something between a laugh and a cough, and there was blood on her lips. “Sorry,” she whispered, and oh gods she sounded bad, her voice a wheezing, bubbling thing.
“You just have to practice more, that’s all. I’ll go find Jester and Fjord and we’ll get that arrow out of you and get you all healed up.” Molly went to stand and Beau’s hand on his knee stopped him.
“Don’t,” Beau wheezed. “Don’t— want to— die alone—“
“Gods damn it, Beau, you’re not going to die!” Molly snarled, as if saying it would make it so. He looked down at her, at her wide eyes, at the tears running down her face. Shit. Shit shit shit. He raised his head and shouted as loud as he could. “Fjord! Jester!” Maybe he was lucky and they were nearby. Maybe they had heard the gnolls. Hells, maybe there were more gnolls nearby and they had already killed his friends and were now on their way to kill the two of them. That was too many maybes.
“When Jester and Fjord get here, we’ll get that arrow out of you with no problem.” Molly’s mind raced. “You wear silk the same as me, yeah? Silk is supposed to make removing arrows easier… somehow.” He couldn’t remember where he had heard that, didn’t know if it was true, but it was words, it was something for Beau to focus on. “Jester will heal you and you will be fine.”
“Liar,” Beau gasped. “Tell—Yasha—I—-“
“No,” Molly said firmly. “We are not doing that. No last words for you. If you want to tell her something you are just going to have to live and do it yourself the next time you see her. I’d lock the two of you in a closet to keep you from dancing around each other but that would be a bad idea on multiple levels.” He looked up and shouted for Fjord and Jester again. Had he heard an answer, or was he only hearing what he wanted to hear?
Beau’s breathing was getting weaker, and her eyes were nearly closed when Molly looked back down at her. “Beau? Beau?” He made a decision born out of desperation. “Hey princess, no time for napping.”
Beau’s eyes opened and focused on his, and there was that hate again. She could hate Molly all she wanted, as far as he was concerned, if it kept her conscious. “Don’t—call—-me that.”
“What are you going to do about it?” Molly made himself smirk at her. “Tell you what. You make it through this, you get a free hit on me. Anywhere you like, as hard as you can make it.”
“Deal,” Beau wheezed, blood on her lips, blood in her smile.
Molly heard a sound off in the woods then, and this time he was sure it was Jester calling his name. He went to stand up, and Beau made a sound.
“I’m not going anywhere, okay? Promise.” Molly stood up. “Jester? Fjord? Hurry, Beau’s hurt!” He saw them then, running through the trees, and the relief at seeing them caused him to shake. No, he had been shaking all this time, and there was a pain in his side that he realized that he had been steadfastly ignoring as he focused on Beau. He was cold too, except for something unusually warm running down his side. He put his hand on the source of the pain, wincing, and when he looked at his palm it was covered in blood. His blood.
“Oh,” Molly said softly. “Huh.” He felt his knees give way as he fell into darkness.
A brief moment of consciousness, or maybe it was a dream. Molly was laying on the ground. There were voices, someone touching him. He opened his eyes. There was Beau, laying next to him, looking back at him. Her eyes were clear now, and her color was slightly improved.
“You almost fell on me when you passed out, asshole.” Beau’s whisper had a catch to it, more than a hint of a wheeze, but none of that awful bubbling sound. There was a lot of emotions underneath those words, but Molly was too tired to pick them all out.
“Almost? Next time I’ll have to aim better,” Molly whispered back, and he closed his eyes again.
Molly rose slowly out of dreams and darkness to the feel of a good mattress underneath him and soft sheets next to the bare skin of his chest, which was nice. He slowly felt down his side until he found the place where the gnoll had stabbed him with the spear, and winced. The wound was closed, but it still hurt to touch, and throbbed when he moved his hand away. There was a scar, but that was of less than no concern to him.
“Molly? You awake?” Fjord’s voice. The half-orc’s accent sounded thick with exhaustion.
Molly turned his head to look at Fjord. “How’s—“ he coughed, his throat dry. “How’s Beau?”
Fjord shook his head. “Jester said that’d be the first thing you asked about when you woke up. Beau’s going to be fine in a few days, same as you. That spear you took went pretty deep, you were lucky it didn’t hit anything important, or I wouldn’t be talking to you right now without some powerful death magic.” Fjord rubbed the back of his neck. “How you feeling?”
“Thirsty,” Molly said. “Nauseous.” That would be the blood loss, he assumed. Healing magic kept you from dying and could close your wounds, but it didn’t put the blood back in your body, really. He went to sit up and winced.
“Hey there, easy.” Fjord helped him sit up, poured him a cup of water from a pitcher by the bed. Molly took it gratefully, sipping it slowly.
“I’m sorry,” Fjord said, looking guilt stricken. “I shouldn’t have split us up, not without at least having a healing potion or something to give y’all in case you got into any trouble. It was stupid, I know, but you two had been bickering all morning and I just wanted some peace, and I was being selfish and—“
“How long have I been unconscious that you’ve worked yourself up this badly?” Molly asked.
“I don’t know,” Fjord said. “Hours. Jester carried you back here. That girl is strong,” There was awe in Fjord’s voice.
“That she is,” Molly said. “Fjord? Don’t worry about the rest of it. Yeah, it was a mistake, but we all lived, so we all get to learn from it. Did you two find any wolves? Did we get paid?” Molly didn’t care about the money per se, but he knew Fjord would expect him to ask.
“Yeah, yeah we got paid,” Fjord said. “Seems almost trivial in the grand scheme of things, but yeah. Be enough to get you some new clothes at least. Your shirt was pretty much a goner, and so’s your coat unless you got a trick for getting blood out of silk.”
“Several,” Molly said dismissively. He finished the cup of water, setting it aside, and took a deep breath before gathering all his strength to try and get out of bed.
Fjord stopped him easily by putting a hand on his chest. “And just where do you think you’re going?”
“Have to see Beau,” Molly said. “Please.”
Fjord just stared at him. “I don’t get you two. You know what Beau asked as soon as she opened her eyes? ‘How’s the asshole?’”
“She really needs to come up with some better insults,” Molly said thoughtfully.
“All you two do is pick at each other, and yet…” Fjord shook his head. “It’s a funny way of showing you care, is all.”
Molly shrugged. “So are you going to let me see her?”
Fjord sighed. “Let me talk to Jester, okay? Just… stay in bed for a few more minutes.”
Molly sat on the edge of the bed as Fjord left the room and managed to pour himself another cup of water even though his hands still had a bit of a shake to them. He needed some food, if he could keep it down, and some actual sleep, but there were some things he’d rather take care of first.
It was Jester who came back into the room instead of Fjord, her normal cheerful demeanor replaced with the exasperation of someone who was having to deal with uncooperative patients. “One day, Molly,” she said as she strode into the room and sat down on the bed hard enough to make him bounce, which hurt. “I just want one day where no one gets shot or stabbed or anything.” She leaned her head on his shoulder, and he reached up and stroked her hair. “You made me worry. Both of you.”
“I’m sorry,” Molly said softly.
“I forgive you,” Jester said quickly, because of course she did. “But now you are wanting to get out of bed, and she is wanting to get out of bed, and I’d rather not do anything drastic like perhaps tie you down, though that might be fun….” Jester trailed off, eyes going a little dreamy for a second. “Anyway, if I let you two see each other for five minutes, do you promise to behave and get some rest and all that?”
“I will never promise to behave,” Molly said, because he knew it would make her smile. “But yes, I promise all the rest of it.”
“Okay then.” Jester stood up and offered him a hand.
Molly tried not to lean too heavily on Jester, but that short walk to Beau’s room felt like an eternity. Fjord was leaving the room as Molly was entering it, and he looked… better. Less guilt-ridden anyway. Molly just gave him a nod as Jester helped Molly into a chair by the bed. Beau was sitting up in bed, looking down at her hands. She looked tired and just a little bit pale, but otherwise nearly okay.
“Five minutes,” Jester said, and then she closed the door behind her and Molly and Beau were alone.
Molly looked at Beau, unsure of how exactly to say what needed saying now that he was actually there. That problem was solved when Beau, still not looking at him, punched him in the arm.
“Ow,” Molly said flatly, as if the hit hadn’t hurt. It had. “Really. I gave you one free hit and that’s the best you could do?”
“Yeah, well, thought I’d go easy on you this once,” Beau said. Her breathing sounded strained. “Consider it a thank you.”
“Thank you for what? I didn’t save your life, that was Jester,” Molly said. “If anything, I should be thanking you for saving my life. You caught that first arrow, after all. Too bad I didn’t catch the second one.”
“Don’t be stupid,” Beau said. “I’d never want you taking an arrow for me. You’d never let me hear the end of it.” She sighed and looked right at him. “Thank you for… talking to me. For not leaving me alone. For not letting me just… slip away.”
“You’re welcome,” Molly said, and meant it.
The sincerity hung in the room, thick as storm clouds. Molly swallowed, choosing his next words carefully. “Right before you shoved me out of the way and caught that arrow? I thought you were going to slap me.”
“I was,” Beau said quickly, and there was that look in her eyes again. It wasn’t just hate, Molly saw, and even the hate didn’t seem entirely aimed at him. There was hurt mixed in there too, and sadness. Molly knew if he stayed quiet, Beau might tell him why she hated being called princess. Maybe it was a nickname her dad had called her, or her mom, and she hated it, or them. Maybe it was something the village kids had called her to tease her. Molly didn’t know and didn’t want to know, not if it made her feel all the things that were there in her eyes.
“Guess I’m going to have to find something else to call you,” Molly said quickly before Beau could break the silence. “Princess doesn’t suit you at all.” It was as close as to an apology as he could come without embarrassing them both.
Beau looked at him for a long moment, then her lips almost twitched into a smile. “Damn right it doesn’t.” Her gaze drifted from his face to his chest, eyes following the lines of his scars. “I ummm, bled all over your coat. A lot. Sorry.”
“Ah well, there’s no hope for it now, I suppose,” Molly said, sighing dramatically. “I mean, I bleed on it all the time, but if you got your blood on it too, there’s nothing for it except to buy a new one.” He smiled, setting her up. “Something even fancier perhaps.”
Beau took the bait. “You’re such a fucking… peacock,” she said, and she was grinning when she said it.
Molly smiled, just a little, leaned back in his chair, closed his eyes, and let her have the last word.