When Caleb and Beau fight, it’s the second time this new group of theirs has really felt like the circus.
That’s what Molly whispers to Yasha, after, and her mouth quirks but she’s looking across at Beauregard with the strangest expression. “Yasha,” Molly says, and again, “Yasha,” before she’ll meet his gaze.
“You’re—are you worried about that thing? What Cali said, about the cult?”
“No,” Yasha says.
“Well, don’t be.” Molly hunches his shoulders, crosses his arms. “Fuckin’ cultists. Do you think we give off a stench? Pheromones or the like? Seems like they're following us, these days.”
She huffs a quiet laugh and kneels to collect her things. Everyone else is too, now, wincing and limping to gather their bags and their spoils. It’s late, Molly realizes. He hadn’t felt it through the adrenaline of the fight and the strange vertigo of watching that argument happen.
“You know, what I serve,” Yasha says, barely more than mumbling and not looking up, “there’s no controlling that. I have to give up control. I couldn’t do it otherwise.”
Molly raises an eyebrow. She doesn’t see, but he knows she knows.
“What Beau said—it was interesting. That’s all.”
“Mm. You should go talk with her about it.”
“You don’t agree?”
Across the room, he can see Caleb, back pressed to the wall and shoulders hunched. He’s muttering at—not with—Jester, Frumpking winding between his feet over and over and over again like a Mobius strip of fluid orange feline. Nott stands off to the side, bent over her own bag, pretending not to be watching as well. She catches Molly’s eye—then her lip curls and she darts away.
Funny little thing. She’s the most like one of the circus: a real instigator, bless her.
“I like you,” he hears Caleb say, slightly louder and more forceful in response to whatever Jester has interjected. “I wanted to keep you back, with me and Nott. Safe.”
Jester is not of the circus. A performer, sure, and delightfully committed to calling a spotlight onto herself at any and every opportunity. But she’s not quite canny enough, not in the right ways. Not angry enough either.
Fjord comes swinging down the rope—which now has knots tied into it at intervals, forming a rough ladder. “All clear up top,” he says. “Should be good to climb and rest the night. Caleb, you set the alarm?”
“Ja,” says Caleb, staring at a point somewhere over Fjord’s shoulder.
Jester clasps her hands to her cheeks. “You must have been such a good sailor, Fjord,” she croons, and Fjord flushes and beckons her over.
Before climbing up, she glances over her shoulder at Caleb, just once. Then she sets her jaw and begins to climb.
Yasha’s next, with Kiri clinging to her shoulders. When their feet are just disappearing up into the darkness, Fjord scans the room, assessing, and says, “Caleb?”
The air goes still; Molly finds himself holding his breath.
Caleb shakes his head. “I’ll stay here.”
Beau sighs heavily from the other side of the room. “Caleb—”
“I’ll stay here.”
There’s a charged silence. Molly seeks out Fjord’s face in the dim light—he doesn’t have the poker face he thinks he does, though perhaps he’s got the rubes convinced. Molly can see through it, which is also how he knows that, for all his secrets, Fjord means no harm. And now, Fjord looks back and forth between Beau and Caleb, one cheek hollowed like he’s biting at it.
“Beau,” he says, and gestures at the rope.
Beau hisses out a long breath. “Fine,” she says. “Fuckin’ fine,” and she crosses to climb. Not a single muscle moves in Caleb’s face.
Nott bleeds out of the shadows to curl her fingers in Caleb’s coat. “I’ll stay with Caleb,” she says.
“Nott, no,” Caleb says, and then kneels down, back to Molly and Fjord, and begins to whisper rapidly. The shushed sound of it is almost too similar to the gentle lapping of the water in the hole, and Molly can’t even begin to make it out. He thinks maybe he hears the word underground.
After a minute, Nott nods, and shoots a sour look at both Molly and Fjord. She disappears up the rope as soundlessly as ever.
That leaves Fjord, Molly, and Caleb, now sitting down on his calves in the dirt. He doesn’t seem to notice the standstill. After a moment, he lifts a hand and places it against the rough stone wall. He leans forward—lists, really—like it’s all that’s holding him up, now that Nott is gone.
Fjord looks at Molly, and Molly—waves him up the rope.
I’ve got this, he tries to communicate, even though he absolutely doesn’t.
He shouldn’t be doing this. He knows that. Fjord probably knows that, but he climbs up anyway, an easy hand-over-hand that doesn’t even pause for the knots in the rope.
There are a lot of reasons Molly shouldn’t be doing this, including the fact that he has a sum total of two years of experience in interpersonal relations. But the most important reason is that, while he may like Caleb, he’s fairly certain Caleb doesn’t like him. Isn’t at ease around him, certainly. Which makes him the person least suited to be down here right now—and yet.
He tries a step forward, scuffing his feet noisily in the dust on the ground.
Caleb flinches, turns, knees brushing up more of the dust in faint white clouds. He takes in the empty chamber, then lifts his chin and meets Molly’s eyes.
“Is there something you would like to say to me, Mollymauk?”
Yes, in fact: stop being so interesting. Caleb is too interesting. Molly finds himself watching him all the time.
“I’m staying as well,” he says instead.
Caleb squints. “That’s unnecessary.”
“Oh,” says Molly, and he crosses to his own bag, abandoned in a dark corner, “I don’t think so.”
Flint and steel and tinder. They must have something that can hold a flame, as well. If they don’t, they can message Yasha to throw some wood down. It’s cool in the chamber, and will only get colder as the night progresses. The walls reflect with the faint, rippling movement of the water. It’s too dim—he can see Caleb, but Caleb likely can’t see him, and Molly’s not here to make Caleb’s night more stressful. Rather the opposite.
There’s a handful of WANTED posters at the bottom of his bag with his own face on them; he crumples them up and puts them in a jar with the handful of tinder, some spare cloth, and some oil. It’s messy but it catches, and when he raises the jar, the clear orange light reflects off of Caleb’s wide blue eyes watching him. It lingers, heavy, in the shadows under them.
“There you are,” Molly says nonsensically.
Caleb’s mouth goes thin. He slumps back against the wall and draws his knees up into his chest; Frumpkin nudges his little head against Caleb’s arm. “What do you want, Mollymauk,” says Caleb. “I’m not going to run, if that’s why you’re here. I think you’ll find I wouldn’t get very far.”
“You can’t be down here alone,” Molly says. He skates by the second part of what Caleb said, because, honestly, what the fuck. He knows Caleb is smarter than that; Caleb should know that he knows by now. “Your alarm is all well and good—very impressive, saves all our lives, etcetera—but if something nasty comes up out of that hole, you’ll be fish food before anyone makes it down the rope. Better to have company. And who wants to be alone on a night like this?”
He gestures dramatically as if up at the sky. Bare rock stares back down at them.
“Me,” says Caleb shortly.
Molly drops his hand. “You don’t get what you want very often, do you?”
And that—that, somehow, makes Caleb laugh. It’s a small, crackling thing, and not exactly happy, but it does seem genuinely amused. The light catches in his pale eyelashes, nearly iridescent.
“No,” Caleb says. “I don’t, do I?”
He pulls Frumpkin into his lap and scoots over, just slightly.
Molly can work with that. He places the jar between them and turns, slides down the wall, scooping his tail out from under himself just as he reaches out the ground. The moment he’s off his feet they decide to tell him how much they hurt, and so does the rest of his body, all the exhaustion and aches of the day hitting him at once. He blows out a breath and drops his head back against the wall.
“Are you alright?” says Caleb.
Molly blinks one eye open to see Caleb inspecting him, brows drawn together just slightly in the tiniest of tells.
“As well as can be expected,” Molly says, and Caleb hums agreement. He buries his hands in his cat’s fur, dirty knuckles tightening and relaxing, tightening and relaxing. Frumpkin rubs his nose against Caleb’s thigh, then stretches long, flicking his tail against Molly’s knee.
Molly cracks open his bag again, hunts through it until he finds the leather waterskin he’s been carrying since they left the city and a small fabric bundle of spices he’s been carrying since long before that. Unscrewing the cap releases a sweet, fruity smell, chasing the headier scents of blood and earth that surround them away. He takes a pinch of spice and adds it to the waterskin.
One sip burns down his throat and clears his head; he licks his lips and offers the waterskin to Caleb. “Here,” he says. “It’ll warm you right up.”
Caleb takes it cautiously. Their fingers do not brush. He makes a soft sound as he tastes the wine.
There’s a stretch of old black fabric in the bag as well—part of a cloak, perhaps, some relic of the circus. The fabric is densely black; when a bit of it spills over Molly’s lap and trails over the little lamp, it almost smothers the light entirely. But there are little moth-holes near the hem and the light—the light shines through, beams against the reds and blues on Molly’s chest like a small sun.
And, oh, there’s an idea.
They work in silence: Caleb on the waterskin, and Molly on the fabric. The water-reflection wavers blue against the walls, and bluer still in Caleb’s eyes when Molly glances up periodically. Caleb stares out at the wall across from them, a dull expression on his face.
A few minutes pass, and then Caleb clears his throat. “I will not run,” he says, the words coming out in an awkward staccato burst, “but I do not think you all will want me around for much longer. So.”
Molly fumbles his knife, tearing a hole much too big. “What?”
Caleb looks up the length of the rope, slowly and deliberately, into the darkness beyond. “You’re a gambler, Molly. You make bets. What do you think they’re talking about up there?”
“Five gold says they’re not talking at all. They’re probably all sleeping like babes—which you should consider, really. I don’t mind taking first watch.”
Something, some exhausted kind of ferocity, crosses Caleb’s face, dragging his mouth into a crooked, unhappy line. He almost looks like Nott, with his lip curled like that. He tugs a wire out of his pocket with a flourish. “Would you like me to ask?”
Molly stares. Not out of shock, or fear, or anything like that. Molly stares like he’s always staring at Caleb, because Caleb is always doing things like this, and it is just—fascinating. He’s fascinating. In his anger, he’s almost a showman. It’s the excess of it, the blazing honesty that bursts out sometimes against the backdrop of his usual careful, quiet quiescence. He doesn’t know it, but he’s spectacular.
Molly licks his lips. “If you’d like to ask Yasha for some firewood, be my guest. I’m not averse to huddling for warmth, but I suspect you would be.”
He thinks, maybe, Caleb goes a little red. But that might just be the wine. Frumpkin reaches up with one small paw and bats at the end of the wire.
“No one’s getting rid of anyone,” Molly says, holding Caleb’s gaze for just a moment longer before releasing him, looking back down at his handiwork. “I rather like having you around, in fact.”
“Is—is that so.”
“Mm. Keeps things interesting.”
Caleb exhales, almost a laugh. His fingers slide through Frumpkin’s fur in Molly’s peripheral vision. “I would prefer them somewhat less interesting.”
His voice catches.
Molly pokes another small hole into the fabric and allows him the silence.
After a moment, Caleb clears his throat again. “I do not regret what I did.”
“Nor do I,” says Molly, the words as cheerful as they are honest. “She was a sweet thing, but I didn’t trust her a whit.”
“Please. I don’t trust any of you. Why would I trust her, for a sad story, a charming stutter, and nothing more?” From the corner of his eye he can see Caleb watching him. “Trust is a gift, not a given.”
Caleb nods slowly.
“Which is also why,” Molly says, “I won’t be angry at you for not telling us when you kept the bowl. And I’m certainly not angry at you for not trusting Cali. I’d be the worst kind of hypocrite for that.”
There’s a pause, and Caleb reaches out with one hand, hovers his hand over the open mouth of the jar. The fire inside stretches up, licks of flame darting and playing around his fingers, almost like Frumpkin reaching for the wire.
“And are those the only reasons to be angry with me?”
“I suspect that's it with Fjord and Jester, respectively. Perhaps angry’s not the right word. Beau…” he pauses to really think about it. Beau is Beau, first and foremost, and it’s not his instinct to sympathize with her. She’s a bit too sure of her own rightness, with too little right to be so assured. But people have reasons for what they do, and it seems to him maybe she needs to believe that she isn’t responsible for the actions, good or bad, of others. Just as Caleb needs to believe that he is, it seems.
Caleb hums. “Yes. Beauregard. If she—” and he chokes a laugh, another, like he had when he was holding the bowl, like it’s hurting him but he can’t help it. “If she wants me gone? The others will lean her way. And she’d be right to. She’d be right to want me gone.”
“Beau doesn’t want you gone. Beau wants you to be less complicated, because she’s young, and she’s only just learning to deal with her own complicated.”
Caleb stares at him, pupils huge in the dark, mouth open. Shock, maybe, or reaching for words. He closes it—opens it—and says—”You’re rather wise under all that noise, Mollymauk.”
Molly twirls a hand and bows, still seated. When he straightens, he flicks the fabric in the air, makes it billow from his grip at the corner. “Here we are,” he says. “Look at this.”
Caleb raises a single brow.
“Watch,” Molly says, and carefully lowers the fabric over the jar—slowly, so that the flame doesn’t extinguish. The holes poked into the black are big enough to keep air entering the jar at the top. And the black is dark enough, dense enough, that the jar only barely glows—by contrast, the space around them dims to almost nothing, save for beams of brilliant warm light that shoot out to the walls and ceiling, lighting them up like stars against the watery blue and black.
“Oh,” says Caleb softly.
Even in this new dark, Molly’s eyes are keen, so he sees the little things: the way Caleb’s mouth falls open, then curves up; how the lines at the corners of his eyes crinkle. The look on his face is something like wonder.
“Beautiful,” says Molly, because he is a creature of the theatre, and he knows a romantic beat when he’s in one.
Caleb’s mouth quirks even closer to a smile.
“It is,” he says, because he’s Caleb, and he has no idea.
“Caleb,” Molly says, then has to pause, catch his breath, figure out what it is he wants to say. He hadn’t meant to say anything. There was too much he wanted to say. He sorts through his thoughts like shuffling cards until he has something resembling meaning in front of him.
“Yes, Mollymauk?” says Caleb.
“You’re very smart. What you did today was smart. Not the kind of intelligence you get from books—that’s the smarts you get from surviving. And we all know that, alright? It’s not what Fjord would have done, or Beau, but it’s what you did. And it was smart, and for that, I have your back.” Molly’s mouth is very dry. He wets his lips and takes a breath. “It might have made me trust you a little more, as a matter of fact. If that means anything to you.”
Caleb is staring at him once again. Caleb is holding his gaze—it’s not Molly, this time, keeping him there. Molly is the one who couldn’t glance away if he tried. Caleb’s eyes are very blue, bluer in the watery light of the chamber, and there’s a cluster of flickering stars around him—one over his shoulder, one just beside his ear on the other side. And he’s looking at Molly like he’s the wonder in the room, now.
“It does,” Caleb says. “Mean something to me. It does.”
They’re turned almost towards each other. Molly can feel the charge in the air, but that, that he doesn’t trust. Caleb is a man who has been starved. The kindness must be headier than the wine.
“I don’t think Beau was wrong, per se,” Molly says. He hesitates, then reaches out, touching just his fingertips to Caleb’s forearm where it rests in his lap, over Frumpkin. “But you weren’t either. And… I don’t think many people have been gentle with you.”
Some pain tears at Caleb’s face; he closes his eyes.
“Could you go ask Yasha about that firewood, please,” he says.
Molly’s stomach turns over. He’s stepped too far, as he sometimes does. That’s fine. That’s the nature of circus and kin. “Of course,” he says, and rises, knees creaking.
He’s brushing dirt off the backs of his thighs when fingers brush his, just gently, just for a moment. Tangling and then gone.
“Thank you,” Caleb says, almost soundless.
Molly pats his own leg, like he would Caleb’s hand if it were still there.
“Keep a weather eye,” he says, and then heads toward the dark.