Caleb sighed, and tugged at the collar of his shirt. Then he fidgeted with the sleeves of his jacket, ran a hand across his freshly-shaven face, and turned to the blue tiefling on his right with a look of absolute dread.
“Please, why am I here, again?”
Jester rached over to straighten his lapel. “Because Fjord was too scared about our first real date being awkward, so he’s bringing along a friend from work,” she said. “And because I couldn’t ask Beau to be the plus-one, since she’s obviously super in love with Yasha. And Molly’s not her type.” Then a wicked grin bloomed across her face and Jester poked Caleb in the chest and added, “But Molly is definitely your type.”
Caleb rubbed at his eyes. “Ja, I know you think that, but I thought I was here to keep you company. Not to actually find a significant other. Can’t Beau—"
“Do you really think Beau would be able to play nice with a stranger like that?”
Caleb only needed a millisecond to respond. “No chance,” he said.
Jester nodded. “So that’s why you’re here. Just try to have some fun! When was the last time you hung out with someone that wasn’t me or Nott or Beau or Yasha?”
“A very long time, I suppose.”
“Exactly! You need more guy friends. Or guy friends.” She added with a wink.
“Do I really, though?”
“Yes,” Jester said firmly. “Besides, I knew you’d be huddled up in your apartment right now anyways and it’s going to be freezing tonight. Your walls are too thin, and you don’t have enough heating. At least this way you’ll have warm food in your tummy, and warm leftovers to bring back to Nott.”
“I can make fire with my hands, Jester.”
“Can you make food like that, though?”
He sighed, defeated. “Alright, you win. But know that I came here initially for you, verstehst?”
She grinned. “Got it, mister. Now stop talking to me so I can check on my makeup.”
As Jester pulled out a small mirror and began to examine her face with a critical eye, Caleb looked around and tried to sort his thoughts out. The restaurant that Jester had chosen was fancier than he could afford to look at, much less dine in, and it was probably her trust fund and upper-class upbringing that had secured them this table at the top and most glamorous floor of the building, towards the side, where the lights were sufficiently low and gorgeous, exotic plants sheltered them from the other patrons and the live band wasn’t too loud and the faint wisps of candlelight curled around them to add a certain…je ne sais quoi to the atmosphere. Caleb definitely ne sais quoi, since this was more affluence than he’d seen in a lifetime, and no longer remembered how to behave in normal society, much less high society. He prayed that Fjord and his plus-one would be just as out of place as he felt, for solidarity’s sake.
He turned to Jester, who was closing her purse.
“Jester, what should I know about this Mollymauk individual?”
She thought for a moment. “Well, he’s a tiefling like me. He’s a singer at the same bar where Fjord works—”
“—yes, that one. And I think they’ve known each other for a year or two and hang out sometimes, but they aren’t, you know, best friends like you and me.”
Caleb cracked a smile at that. “Their loss, I suppose.”
Jester grinned. “So right. And, hmm…what else…? Oh, Molly says he isn’t magic like we are, but Fjord swears he can make things happen sometimes. He’s also friends with Yasha, since they all work at the same place, and he is very fashionable.”
Caleb’s shoulders sagged slightly. “He is? Will he try to talk to me about clothing? Jester, you had to pick and buy these clothes for me—which I still insist was unnecessary—and I know that the minute people find out that I…prefer men, they ask me for tips and—”
Jester laughed and shook her head. “First of all,” she said, “I wanted to get you nice clothes so you’d stop making excuses not to come with me to fancy parties. And second, you deserve it, Caleb! You always wear that tattered coat around and I know it’s very important to you and you like it, but sometimes you have to dress up a little! And I owe you big time, remember? You doing my schoolwork for me so I could let Fjord copy it is the reason why we even started talking to each other. And besides,” she added, “I’m sure Fjord gave Molly the rundown about you. He’ll probably know to avoid clothes-talk.”
Caleb breathed a sigh of relief. “Oh, good,” he said. “Is there anything else I should know?”
Just as he finished saying that, two figures guided by the maître d began making their way over, one obviously half-orc and dressed in a sharp blue dinner jacket, who gave Jester a little wave as they made eye contact. The other…the other…
The other was a definitely a tiefling, his curling horns adorned with silver jewelry that gleamed in the low light and his skin a smooth, light lavender. He stood a few inches taller than Fjord, and Caleb realized that it was because aside from his insanely low-cut, onyx-colored evening gown with a long slit running down his leg, because aside from his midnight-black and sequined shawl, making it look like the moon and stars were draped across his arms and back, because aside from the glittering silver necklace resting loosely around his very well-defined collarbones, aside from all that, he was wearing a pair of very, very tall stiletto heels.
Caleb sank lower into his chair. His face was on fire. Next to him, Jester leaned in towards his ear.
“I forgot to mention,” she whispered beyond cheekily. “You should know that Molly is super-duper hot, and he’s got more charisma than six bards in a rooftop club.” She gave him a quick pat on the arm. “Good luck. I’m sure you’ll do great.”
And then, with one final smile at the host, Fjord and his plus-one sat down and dinner began.
Oh, thank you, Jester, for bringing along this lovely piece of work.
They exchanged pleasantries, Jester and Fjord beaming all the way like lovestruck idiots. Then she gestured to her left and grinned, “And this is my friend! He’s technically your date tonight, Molly.”
There was a slight flinch from his technical date, and Molly got the idea that under the table, Jester had just kicked him in the leg.
“C-Caleb Widogast,” said Caleb Widogast slightly hesitantly. “Er…it is nice to make your acquaintance.”
Molly stuck a hand out and opened his mouth to deliver a carefully-crafted, glowing introduction full of complimentary flourishes and an unsubtle overtone of flirtatious teasing that would surely get this lovely man in bed with him before the midnight.
But then he caught those dazzling, sky-blue eyes. For the briefest moment they stared at each other, gazes locking, before Caleb’s blush deepened and he quickly looked away.
In a world where Molly was the star singer of one of the most famous live music bars in the country, where Molly was constantly fawned over by adoring fans and the highest-profile patrons, where Molly was praised and revered and treated like a god, where he was smothered with empty promises and superficial gifts by those wanting to say they’d spent the night with none other than Mollymauk Tealeaf, where he was put up on a pedestal and fed to the public and lauded by false lovers as nothing but a shiny trophy, there was something puzzling, something exhilarating, something fascinating, something completely unknown and completely terrifying about the way Caleb’s beautiful eyes were glued to the tablecloth and the way his fingers quivered when they extended for a handshake.
Molly’s mind shut down.
“Teamauk Mollyleaf,” he said, and froze, and immediately wanted to die. He could see Jester’s mouth drop, and Fjord made a small noise of astonishment on his left. He swore inwardly and corrected himself as smoothly as he could. “I meant, er, I meant Mollymauk Tealeaf. But, but my friends call my Molly.”
Caleb took his hand. “Am I one of those friends, then, Mister Mollymauk?”
Molly swore again. Was that charm, or hasty and oblivious banter? He couldn’t tell. His face was starting to heat up.
“I would hope by the end of the evening that you would be, Mister Caleb.”
Friendship? Friendship? Why was that coming into the equation? When Fjord had proposed Molly tag along for the night, he’d thought that at best, he’d spend the night with a nice-looking stranger, or at the very least get a free meal from Jester and make sure that hers and Fjord’s date went well. But this? But this?
Luckily, just at that moment, the waiter came around and Jester launched into a list of what wines and what appetizers they would have, sparing Molly from having to come up with anything else to say. When the man left, looking rather flustered, Fjord took charge of the conversation.
“So, how do you and Caleb know each other, again?” he asked Jester.
She grinned. “Oh, it’s a great story! He’s the librarian in my neighborhood, and one day he walked past while I was doing my homework and saw that I had a bunch of mistakes, so he sat down and started to help! And then it just sort of became a thing, you know, where he would help me out every week. And eventually I introduced him to my other friends, and he introduced me to his, and now we all hang out and watch movies and spend time together and stuff.”
“That’s very sweet,” said Molly, focusing on Caleb. “So you’re a librarian? Do you read a lot?”
“Ja,” said Caleb, and the blush actually faded slightly as he found safe footing. “I read very much, actually. I enjoy books.”
“What sort of thing do you read?” Fjord asked.
“Mostly history and books about magic,” said Caleb. “I, er, was studying to be a wizard for some time.”
“Oh, he’s so good at wizard stuff,” Jester said cheerfully. “He’s amazing, he can do anything!”
“Really, anything?” Molly asked. “Anything at all?”
Caleb’s face went red again. “Jester likes to exaggerate a bit,” he sighed. “I only really know the basics. But I am working on learning more.”
Fjord suddenly perked up. “Where are you thinking of learning?” he asked. “The Academy? ‘Cause I was actually thinking of trying to attend there, one day.”
Caleb shook his head. “No, that is not the place for me.”
Fjord blinked. “How come, if I might ask?”
“Too expensive. And I…I do not agree with the faculty. But if you ever need help studying,” he quickly added, “or would like assistance on the entrance exams, I am happy to provide it for someone important to Jester.”
He smiled. “Thank you,” he said. “That’s a very nice offer.”
“How do you know Fjord, then?” Jester asked Molly, trying to pull him back into the conversation. “You guys work at the same club?”
Molly nodded. “It’s called the Fletching & Moondrop. It’s downtown, overlooks the water, maybe you’ve heard of it? Fjord bartends, and I must say, he’s quite good. Nobody else has the flair, or the knack for pleasing guests.”
“Except for you,” Fjord chuckled. “Molly’s one of the most famous singers in the city. Jester knows.”
She giggled, and grinned. “I have heard a lot about you, before. It’s nice to finally meet you!”
Caleb nodded slowly. “I admit I did not know about this bar, but it is nice to meet you as well. I have never met someone famous before.”
Molly chuckled. “I’m not that famous, dear. Or, at least, I’m famous when I’m running around town doing silly things with silly people. The real me likes to keep a lower profile.”
“Is that why you are here tonight, at this very fancy restaurant surrounded by very fancy people?”
Before Jester and Fjord could intervene, Molly shook his head and leaned in closer. “I don’t know,” he said. “Is that why you’re here as well?”
Caleb, though he did not look up, gave a short laugh. His lips quirked up in a smile. “I suppose you have a point, Mister Mollymauk.”
And as the waiter arrived with their first round of extremely expensive appetizers, Molly decided then and there that he would need to hear that laugh again, and he would need that smile in his life, forever.
Jester had been right about the attractiveness factor, though Caleb was quite afraid to dwell there for too long. And the man definitely had charm, but not in the way Caleb had expected. Surprisingly, he didn’t seem all that talkative, never initiating a conversation and only speaking when the others led. He didn’t ask any intrusive questions, and even stumbled a bit during their introductions. Maybe Caleb’s definition of silver-tonguedness wasn’t the most up-to-date anymore. Later he would ask Jester, or even Yasha. And speaking of…
“It’s funny how our friends are all connected, isn’t it?” Fjord asked between bites of some unidentified dish. “I can’t believe you both know so many people from the Moondrop.”
“I still can’t believe Caleb never figured out how fancy it was,” Jester added with a grin.
Caleb sighed. “I apologize for not being so very in tune with high society,” he shrugged. “But I am glad you, er, Mister Mollymauk, I am glad you also know Beau and Yasha. They are very dear to me.”
“And to me,” Molly nodded. “Well, Yasha is, anyways. You know, when she talked about a scruffy wizard that she’d met through Jester, I had no idea it was you.”
Caleb smiled. “And when she mentioned an old friend who was a singer, I did not know she was talking about you.”
“Like I said,” Molly laughed. “Low profile.”
“You and Fjord should start coming to our movie nights!” Jester said excitedly. “Oh, it’s so fun, and that way you can also meet Nott!”
“Nott?” Fjord asked. “Who’s—”
Caleb, in an extremely uncharacteristic burst of speed, suddenly reached into his jacket and whipped out a wallet that looked like it was made of duct tape and pulled out a strip of photographs. They all depicted a young, small girl in baggy clothing that looked like it might have been Caleb’s. She had stringy, dark-green hair, and in some photos she wore the bottom half of a porcelain mask, but in others, Molly could see her full face, bright yellow eyes and green skin and jagged teeth and—
“Nott’s a goblin?” Molly asked, and Caleb’s stomach suddenly sank. “Well, color me surprised.”
“She is wonderful,” Caleb said firmly. “And my dearest friend. She is family.”
Molly opened his mouth, and Caleb braced himself for what would come next. But the tiefling only grinned brightly and nodded his head. “That’s great,” he said. “I’m glad you two have each other. The Moondrop’s performers are also sort of…unconventional, so it’s nice to see other people who don’t care about things like appearances. I knew Yasha liked you for a reason.”
Caleb blinked, surprised at Molly’s words, and at the warm feeling now settling in his stomach. And then he managed a small smile. “I…I am glad to hear that, Mister Mollymauk.”
There was a moment, where the tiefling sat there in silence. And then his grin got even wider, and he lifted his drink. “Cheers to dear, unconventional friends, then,” he said, and Jester and Fjord also joined in with a clink of their glasses.
Caleb took a sip, then tucked his photos away and resumed eating.
“There’s chemistry,” sighed Jester, rubbing her chin. “But I don’t get why nothing else is happening yet.”
“I really thought Molly would be laying on the charm,” Fjord agreed. “This really isn’t like him.”
“You did say he’s looking for someone, right?” Jester asked.
Fjord sighed. “He’s kind of a tough nut to crack, but he did mention once that he was sick and tired of getting tossed around rich people and he was tired of being arm candy, but then he did three shots and didn’t do anything but sing karaoke for the rest of the night, so I’m not sure. I think that’s a yes, in any case. I just don’t understand why he wouldn’t be trying harder. I mean, he seems to like Caleb, right?”
“Maybe he’s afraid of looking like a jerk?” Jester suggested. “Or maybe we need to give them more hints. Caleb is really smart, but he can also be pretty dumb sometimes.”
Fjord nodded. “Alright,” he said. “Let’s try that.”
Molly fought for something to say. Eventually he settled on:
“So, have you been to this restaurant before?”
Caleb shook his head. “No, er, I have not. Why, have you?”
Molly shrugged. “Honestly, I’m not sure. I might have, before, with someone or another at one point, but I must’ve been too drunk to remember.”
Caleb picked at his plate. “Do you…have frequent paramours, then?” he asked quietly. “That you cannot remember who they are and where you went?”
“Oh, tons,” Molly said lightly. “It comes with the job, you know? You meet plenty of rich people, and they always try to take you to fancy places.”
“I see,” muttered Caleb. “Your past partners have been wealthy?”
“Oh, beyond reason. And famous, usually.”
“And…and you are experienced in, er, romantic endeavors.”
Molly laughed. “I think they thought it was romantic,” he said. “But they should work on their definitions.”
The table fell silent again, and Molly kicked himself. Wasn’t that a good line? Of course it wasn’t, what was he even saying before, what did that mean, definitions—
And then Jester and Fjord appeared in sight, and Molly breathed a sigh of relief.
“Oh, thank the gods, here they are. I mean, er,” he added hastily, “thank the gods that there’s nothing wrong. Right?”
“Right,” Caleb agreed. “Or, er…yes. Wait—right. Yes, that is right.”
They both stared at the tablecloth as Fjord and Jester returned and sat down.
“Sorry about that,” Jester said. “I had an emergency with my dress. But everything is fine and now we can talk again.”
She gave Fjord a pointed look, who turned back to Caleb. “So, er, is it just you and Nott in your…home?”
“Apartment,” Caleb supplied, “and yes. It is us two.”
“It’s really cute,” beamed Jester. “And Nott says Caleb is a great roommate. Better than Frumpkin, anyway.”
“Frumpkin?” Molly asked.
“My cat,” said Caleb, and he took a small sip of wine.
“It’s so nice that you’ve got such a good friend in Nott,” Jester grinned, “and how living together doesn’t change that at all! Sometimes I’m a little bit worried that when I move in with Fjord, things will change.”
“I don’t think they will,” Fjord said gently, and blushing slightly. “I think we’d only get closer.”
“Aw,” grinned Molly. “How adorable.”
“You and Fjord have a good relationship,” Caleb shrugged. “You are close friends, that would only help, ja?”
“You’ve got a good point, but he’s not my friend, silly,” giggled Jester.
“Of course,” Caleb corrected, "your boyfriend."
Molly’s mouth opened, and the words tumbled out before he could stop them. “Are you, er, in the market for one of those?” he asked Caleb. “Boyfriends, I mean. Or, or any kind of significant other.” He mentally kicked himself. “Because, well, I know you’re here tonight, but…”
Caleb gave a small shrug. “Er…maybe? I am, well, undecided.”
“He’s single,” said Jester, and Caleb’s eyes went right back to the tablecloth. “He’s just bad at words.”
“It’s alright,” said Molly with a small smile. “I don’t mind that.”
“Molly, you aren’t with anybody at the moment either, are you?” Fjord asked extremely pointedly. “Isn’t that why you said you’d come with me, tonight?”
Molly’s eyes narrowed slightly. “I’m coming to support you, dear, you and Jester. But, er,” he added hastily, “if there happened to be another interested party, I wouldn’t be opposed.”
Caleb sank into his chair. “Oh,” he said quietly.
“I, er, I mean if the other party was really interested. You know, I wouldn’t want to make things weird,” though, he sighed mentally, things have already gotten there and beyond.
“Molly’s a great person,” said Fjord loyally. “If I didn’t have Jester, I’d definitely have my eye out.”
“And Caleb is super nice, and caring, and very very smart and funny,” said Jester a little too loudly. “He’d be the perfect—”
“Excuse me,” said Caleb, standing up. “I need some air.”
He grabbed his jacket and marched away from their table, towards the large glass doors that led to the open-air balcony seating. They saw him grow smaller in the distance for the briefest moment, before he was swallowed by the darkness beyond.
For a moment they only stared at where he had vanished, and at each other. Jester put her fork down, and Fjord fidgeted slightly.
And then Molly reached for his shawl. “I’ll be back,” he said. “And you two, knock it off, please? I appreciate what you’re doing, but honestly. Just enjoy each other, alright? I’ve got this.”
And then he stood up, and went to follow Caleb.
Molly leaned his arms on the railing, a few feet away from Caleb, and stared up at the moon.
“It’s a beautiful night, I agree, but if you’d wanted to come here and admire it, you only had to ask.”
Caleb chuckled ruefully and shook his head. “I am sorry,” he said softly. “Jester is not always the most tactful, and I think the sudden talk of relationships scared me a bit. Especially when they were clearly trying to set me up with you.”
Molly was surprised by this honesty, and raised an eyebrow. “Why is that, dear? Am I…not to your liking?”
Caleb balked and quickly shook his head. “Nein, no, not at all. Scheiss, no, I mean, you are. Just that...I am sorry.” He ran a hand through his hair. “I phrased that poorly. I just meant that I didn’t want…er…”
He was silent for a moment as he tried to find the words.
“I am a garbage person, Mister Mollymauk. I am not worth much, and I cannot offer anybody much. But you are beautiful, and talented, and well-known. You are very clearly out of my league. I did not want to sit there and listen to Jester and Fjord speak as if we ever had a chance of being together.”
Molly blinked. And then he blinked again. And then he started to laugh.
Caleb whipped around, face pale and eyes confused. “Why…what is so funny, about that?”
Molly leaned on his elbows, put his chin against his palm, and gazed out at the streets far, far below.
“Would you like to know something about me?” he asked.
Caleb raised an uncertain eyebrow. He decided to play along. “Er…ja, sure.”
Molly swept his hand across the city skyline. “I’ve run through this city, Mister Caleb, with every rich bastard, ever upper-class snob that there is, I’m not ashamed to admit that. I’m no stranger to hanging off people’s arms, or having suitors hang off of mine. But none of that shite means anything. And even though I know it, I keep chasing after it because I thought it was the only way I’d ever feel alive. I feel like garbage a lot too, sometimes. I’m tired, Mister Caleb. I’m tired of being chased, and if I’m being completely honest, I’m tired doing the chasing.”
For a few seconds there was only quiet, softened by the distant sound of cars honking and the eternal thrum of city life. And then Caleb spoke.
“Yet you came chasing after me, just now, when I left our table,” he murmured. “Why?”
Molly turned, and met those eyes—the most gorgeous, most sparking blue eyes he had ever seen in his life. This time, they didn’t look away.
He smiled. “Because you’re not some rich bastard trying to woo me,” he said. “You’re not some annoying socialite trying to bend my ear. You’re just Jester’s friend, who is good at magic, has movie nights, and lives with his cat and a little goblin girl in a—no offense—shitty apartment. Maybe you are, as you say, garbage. But nothing you’ve done so far makes me believe you. You’ve treated me more like a real person than almost everybody I’ve ever met. Without knowing anything about my reputation, or about my past, you seem to like me. Or at least you like talking to me, for me. And that’s not something I’ve ever really get that much. But it’s something I’d like to keep.”
“We barely know each other,” Caleb whispered.
“We could change that,” Molly returned. “If…er…if that is alright.”
Caleb’s mouth quirked up into that tiny grin again, the one that, in their short time together, Molly had come to love.
“That would be nice,” he said.
“Bloody brilliant,” breathed Molly. “Thank the gods. I’m really not sure what I’m doing, here.”
Caleb chuckled. “Neither do I. I suppose can figure this out together.”
“I think that’s a wonderful idea.”
Caleb’s smile grew. “But, er, but perhaps we could pick somewhere less…high maintenance, next time? I am not entirely…comfortable in a restaurant as fancy as this.”
“I imagine it was Jester who chose this, then?” Molly laughed. “From what Fjord’s told me, I assume she has—”
He broke off as a sneeze shook his body. He sniffled slightly, and rubbed his arms, and Caleb blanched and quickly shrugged off his jacket.
“Scheiss, I am sorry for not realizing, you must be freezing, Molly. Here, here, take my coat.”
Molly almost protested, but then a chilly breeze blew past and he sneezed again. He gratefully nodded, and let Caleb drape the jacket around his shoulders. And then, to his surprise, the man did not pull away. Instead he wrapped an arm around Molly and drew him in close.
“Here,” he said softly. “It will be warmer this way.”
It was too dark to see, but Caleb’s face must have been blazing red. Molly’s cheeks were beginning to heat up as well, but maybe that was just from the cold. Or, maybe not.
“Thank you, dear,” he murmured, and then realized something.
“You…you called me Molly.”
Caleb blinked. “Did I? Oh, er, I am sorry—”
He shook his head. “Don’t be. Like I said before, my friends call me Molly. And I’d like to consider you a friend. If that’s alright, Mister—”
“Just Caleb, bitte.”
Molly grinned, and nodded. “Alright,” he said, “Caleb it is.”
“Thank you, um, for coming out to chase me."
“Of course,” laughed Molly. “Thank you for letting me chase you.”
He felt the warm hand on his shoulder squeeze slightly, and his heart soared.
“They’re in their own little world now,” she grinned as she passed him a piece of chicken.
“Honestly, Jes, I didn’t think it’d work out. I mean, from what you said, they’re such different people. Molly’s very…flamboyant, but Caleb’s pretty reserved. And Molly’s a lot to handle sometimes.”
Jester giggled. “I don’t know about that,” she said softly. “I think they might have a bit more in common than you think.”
Fjord shrugged. “If you say so, Jes. You’re the expert.”
She nodded, and under the table poked Fjord’s leg with the tip of her shoe. “Oh I definitely am, Oskar. Give it a week. They’ll be stuck together like glue.”
Molly considered the tiny white flakes now lazily spiraling down around them. “So it is.”
Caleb glanced at Molly, and then at the doors to the restaurant, where warm light and distant chatter leaked out onto the balcony.
“Should we go inside?” he asked. “You must be quite cold."
Molly shook his head, and turned towards Caleb. Their faces were inches apart. “Maybe in a minute,” he whispered. “I think I’m alright, for now.”
Caleb studied Molly’s eyes for a few moments, and then nodded slowly. “I think I understand,” he murmured back. “Okay. A few more minutes.”
And, for a few more minutes they stayed, watching the snow fall together, from up on the rooftop over the twinkling city skyline below.