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Where Beauty Softens Grief

Chapter Text

Caleb Widogast was a man who enjoyed order, organization, stability. He had been running Dancing Lights Vintage and Antique Wares for five years now, in a quaint, quiet corner of Zedash filled with locally-owned boutiques and cafes and art galleries. For the past four and three quarters years, their shop-neighbor had been a children’s bookstore run by a kindly older couple. But when they’d decided it was finally time to retire, none of their children wanted to take over the store, and their doors closed for the last time a few months ago.

The building was re-opening today, and Caleb wasn’t sure how he felt about the new tenants. He was not a conservative person by any stretch of the imagination— he was a gay man living in the artsiest district of a big city, for the gods’ sakes— but he’d caught a few glimpses of the two individuals moving in, and he had some reservations.

He didn’t care that the man was a tiefling, or that the woman was six feet tall clad in all black and combat boots. It was really the face tattoos that made him… well, nervous made him sound a bit more judgmental than he liked to consider himself. But tentative. Cautious.

He could hear the tiefling calling out orders to the movers about where to place furniture. He didn’t sound bossy, per se, but he was loud and exuberant, which were probably the two last words Caleb would use to describe himself or his ideal neighbor. He hoped things would quiet down once they were all settled in. The walls were thin, and he didn’t want the peaceful atmosphere of his store to be compromised.

Nott emerged from the back room of the shop, her little arms laden with two large cardboard boxes. Caleb grabbed the top one and dropped it on the counter, and Nott stood on her tiptoes to push the other one up next to it. Her claws pushed through the fronts of her canvas high-tops as she did so.

“I found lots of good stuff this time!” she proclaimed.

“And you purchased it all legally, ja ?”

“Of course!” she replied, feigning offense. “I would never— well, not again. Any time soon.”

Caleb couldn’t help but chuckle a bit as he dug through the boxes of estate sale and flea market finds. Most of it was in decent condition, nothing a little bit of basic transmutation couldn’t bring back to good as new. There were even a few books, which he carefully set aside to pour through later.

“They’re for selling, Caleb,” Nott reminded gently, from her cross-legged seat on the shop counter.

“I have to check them for quality and damage, you know that,” Caleb said.

Before Nott could rely, the bell on the shop door rang out and they both looked up to greet the customer.

It was the tattooed tiefling from next door.

“Hello there!” he called over to them. “Are you the proprietors of this fine establishment?”

“We are,” Caleb said tersely. “You are moving in next door, ja?”

Oh, yes, you noticed!” the stranger replied. “I thought it would be nice to get to know our new neighbors.” He was walking— or rather sauntering— up to the counter. Caleb had only gotten a few fleeting glances at him through the glass windows of the storefront before, and that hadn’t been nearly enough time to register just how much was going on in this man’s look.

His being a lavender tiefling would be enough to make him stand out in a crowd, but apparently that wasn’t enough for him. A tattoo of a peacock swirled up his neck and all the way around the right side of his face, and numerous other tattoos, mostly flowers and abstract geometry, filled nearly all the exposed skin from the sleeves of his white v-neck to the backs of his hands. A bright magenta and amethyst scarf, embroidered with metallic silver and gold alchemical symbols, draped around his neck, clearly for style rather than warmth. Golden rings adorned his horns, ears, and fingers, causing him to sparkle like some sort of iridescent insect as he moved.

All in all, he stood out almost comically against the backdrop of the antique store’s muted, sepia-toned interior.

Caleb noted these observations in the time it took for the stranger to make his way from the door to the counter. He hoped that he hadn’t noticed the appraising stare, but his smug grin suggested otherwise.

“My name is Mollymauk Tealeaf,” he said, holding out a many-ringed hand with fingernails painted glittery black. “Molly to my friends.”

Caleb shook it and replied, “Caleb Widogast. Nice to meet you, Mollymauk.”

“Oh, you don’t know that yet,” Mollymauk said. Caleb was now second-guessing whether that smug grin was an expression or just the way this man looked at all times.

Caleb wasn’t sure how to respond to him, so luckily Nott piped up, “I’m Nott. I work here with Caleb.”

“Oh, hello there!” Molly said, shaking her small clawed hand. Seeing him react so calmly to meeting a goblin did ingratiate him a bit to Caleb. So many people treated Nott with thinly— or not at all— disguised fear or disgust when meeting her, and Molly seemed genuinely unbothered by the situation.

“What kind of store are you opening?” Nott asked. She was still sitting on the counter, so she was nearly as tall as the other two for the moment.

“It’s not a store, exactly,” Molly replied. “It’s a tattoo studio. My dear friend Yasha and I were based at a studio in Rexxentrum, and we traveled all around the country doing guest spots at other shops, but we decided it was finally time to do our own thing.”

“Oh, well, congratulations.” Caleb had never been great at feigning enthusiasm, and Molly seemed to pick up on this.

“Not a tattoo fan, then?” he teased.

Caleb felt a blush rising in his pale cheeks. “I have nothing against them on other people, but they’re certainly not for me.”

“That’s fair,” Molly laughed. He seemed to be enjoying teasing Caleb rather than actually taking any offense at his words. “ This —” he gestured to his face and arms— isn’t for everyone, I know.”

“They are quite well done, as pieces of art,” Caleb said. He was remembering a conversation he’d had at The Traveler’s Blessing, his favorite coffee shop and bakery in the neighborhood. Jester, a friend of his and the effervescent owner and pastry chef, had given him a good-natured lecture about being friendlier to people. Apparently he came across as, in her words, “kinda snooty” and “uhhh a little bit bitchy sometimes.”

Molly brushed his fingertips across the snake on his right forearm. “That’s kind of you to say. There are a lot of people that aren’t so open minded as you.”

Caleb offered him an awkward smile that felt more like a grimace, which Molly returned with a jovial laugh. “Well, it was nice meeting you, Caleb and Nott,” he said. “But I should be getting back to the studio. Yasha may be about three times as strong as me, but it’s still rude to make her do all the work. I’ll see you around, I’m sure.”

With that, he spun on the golden heel of his boot and made his way back out of the store.

“Well,” Nott said as the door chime signaled his departure. “He was a lot. I like him, though.”

Caleb hummed noncommittally.

“Oh, come on now. I saw how you were staring at his face. You hardly ever make that much eye contact.”

“Nott, he has bright red eyes and a giant peacock tattooed on his face. It’s kind of hard to look anywhere else. Don’t try to read things into this that aren’t there— I’m the one with an anxiety disorder, after all. Stressfully overthinking everything is my job.” He offered her a gentle smile, which she returned. He used to be so ashamed of his diagnoses, and of the time he had spent in inpatient facilities because of them, but he was getting better about that, slowly. And he knew Nott liked that, liked when he could smile and make jokes about the things that used to tear him apart.

Besides, a self-deprecating joke was easier than admitting that Molly really was quite charming and handsome underneath all that flash and shine.

“Do you think he’ll be a good neighbor, at least?” she asked. Caleb’s progress was good, but she didn’t want to push the joke too far.

“I guess we’ll find out,” Caleb replied. He was already flipping through the first book from her latest haul.

 

 

Molly stood on a footstool, three nails held between his lips, as he began hanging the hardware for a large gold-trimmed mirror.

“I could help with that,” Yasha offered, coming to stand next to him with her thick arms crossed.

“Thank you, but I am a capable and independent person,” Molly replied. The nails fell out of his mouth as soon as he opened it to speak.

She picked the nails up and held them out one at a time as he hammered them in place. “Sure. So how were the, uh, antique people?”

“Nice enough. The one guy’s pretty much what you’d expect from someone who owns an antique store. A bit stuffy and incredibly awkward, but in a pretty adorable way, really. The other is this precious little goblin girl. I was expecting y’know, a ninety year old married couple or something, but I think I prefer these two.”

“And they were okay with all this?” She waved a hand around Molly’s whole look, then out at the studio.

He laughed. “More okay than most, which is all I can ask for. I think you’d like Caleb, the human guy. He’s all quiet and somber too.”

“I’m not somber,” Yasha argued unenthusiastically.

It was Molly’s turn to sarcastically reply, “Sure.”

He finished with the last nail and Yasha handed him the elaborately framed full-body mirror to hang. She passed it off like it weighed nothing, and Molly tried not to wince or shake as he slowly positioned it above the hardware and slid it into place.

“Perfect!” he exclaimed, hopping off the stool to examine his handiwork.

“It’s for customers to see their new ink, not you to preen in,” Yasha reminded as he checked his hair and did a little spin in front of the mirror.

“There are no customers here. We’re not even open yet,” he replied, leaning in close to check on his eyeliner. “Was my makeup seriously this smudged when I went over to meet Caleb?”

She rolled her mismatched eyes but smiled fondly.

Chapter Text

Caleb woke at precisely 6:30am without an alarm, as he always did on work days. Frumpkin promptly hopped up onto the sheets next to his head and began meowing in his face, punctuated by little headbutts.

“I know, I know,” Caleb murmured, his voice hoarse from sleep. “ Es ist Frühstückszeit , I know.”

He gently moved Frumpkin aside so he could roll out of bed. The cat followed him, meowing the whole time, as he opened the blinds to let the slight amount of morning sun in.

Down in the small kitchen-slash-dining-room-slash-living-room, he dropped a scoop of food in Frumpkin’s bowl and poured himself a bowl of cereal. The apartment was actually just the two upper floors of their shop’s building- this cramped multi use space in one floor, and his and Nott’s bedrooms and bathroom above. It wasn’t the most glamorous setup, and the brand-new, ultra-modern lofts that kept popping up in this area put it to shame, but it had been Caleb’s home for five years, and Nott’s too for a couple years by now. It was comfortable, and familiar, and all the things Caleb liked.

It was quiet at this hour; Nott wouldn’t be up for a while, just in time to open the shop at 10. He flipped through his latest read as he ate his cereal and Frumpkin munched his food. It was a truly awful romance that Jester had insisted he read, even lending him her own copy of it. He should have known better than to agree after Tusk Love , but he rarely turned down a book that was being freely offered.

Finishing his cereal, he tossed the paperback onto the coffee table and went back upstairs to get dressed for the day. He decided halfway through pulling on a beige turtleneck that he should treat himself to some coffee and a real, hot breakfast today. Sometimes, eating a bowl of cold cereal alone at 7am just didn’t cut it.

He shrugged on a worn brown blazer that Jester and Nott insisted was way too big for him, but he argued was comfortable, and made his way out of the apartment and towards The Traveler’s Blessing. The line was fairly long, but most of them were commuters so the tables were fairly empty.

As he neared the pastry display where he would place his order, he noticed two familiar figures seated on one of the couches in the cozy, fireside lounge area of the shop. One was a common sight at The Traveler’s, a handsome half-orc named Fjord who was a regular here and a friend of Jester and Caleb.

Next to Fjord was none other than Caleb’s new neighbor, Mollymauk. He was gesticulating wildly as he told some story that Fjord was laughing at.

“Aaay, Caleb!”

Jester's greeting pulled him out of his daze. Watching Fjord and Molly had created a… a weird twist in his stomach. It wasn’t jealousy about either of them, at least not in the traditional sense. But seeing just how vibrant and cheerful Molly was when dealing with someone as charismatic and handsome as Fjord made Caleb acutely aware of how awkward their own meeting had been. He hadn’t made Molly laugh like that a single time in their conversation— it was all forced smiles and pitying chuckles, not this full-body laughter.

“You seem sad,” Jester said. “More sad than usual, I mean. Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” Caleb said with a terse smile.

“Okay, if you say so,” Jester replied, already making his order before he placed it. “You know I’m really really good at making people feel better, right? You can always talk to me about anything!”

Caleb accepted his medium black coffee before Jester scurried over to put a sausage egg biscuit in the toaster.

“I’ll keep that in mind if there’s ever anything I need to talk about,” he said. What he didn’t say was, You’re very nice, Jester, but years of professional therapy haven’t fixed me yet so I don’t know what what talking to my barista friend will do for me . He didn’t say that, though the thought burned at the back of his mind.

He accepted his meal, and after he had already paid with spare coins from his pocket, Jester handed him an extra pastry bag. “They’re really good, I promise,” she said with a smile.

He offered her a small smile and a murmured “Vielen Dank , Jester,” before heading to find a seat. He had long since stopped trying to get her to accept payment for these extra treats.

As he was getting ready to sit down at an empty table by the window, he heard Fjord’s familiar baritone ring out, “Hey, Caleb! C’mon over here!”

He pretended to be surprised at Fjord’s presence and walked over to the lounge area. “Hi Fjord. Hallo Mollymauk.”

Molly waved enthusiastically at him. “Long time no see! How have things been in the last, oh, fourteen hours or so?”

Molly and Fjord were seated on the central couch of the area, so Caleb curled up on the nearby recliner, perching his food on his knees.

“Oh, you can—” Molly began, gesturing to the space between him and Fjord on the couch, but stopped when he saw that Caleb was already comfortably curled up and settled in.

“Caleb ain’t really a cuddler,” Fjord explained breezily. Caleb shot him a nod silently thanking him for saying that instead of Caleb sometimes freaks out when strangers touch him .

“Now,” he continued, “I hear you and Mollymauk are already buddies.”

“Oh, ja . We spoke yesterday,” Caleb said through a mouthful of cream cheese danish.

Molly smiled at him. Caleb wasn’t sure if it was friendly or threatening. “Yes, Caleb and I are best friends now!”

Caleb thought maybe he was being mocked, but he couldn’t tell for sure. Molly was all flash and flounce and smoke and mirrors— it was nearly impossible to get a read on him, especially for someone as inept at reading people as Caleb. So he just forced an awkward smile and took a bite of his biscuit.

Fjord turned to him. “You know that tattoo I’ve been thinking about gettin’? The sailor-type one?”

Caleb nodded, even though he had never heard Fjord mention it before. Fjord must have talked about it to a lot of their friends, and Caleb didn’t want to make him feel bad by saying he was left out of that.

“Molly and I were just talking about it. He had some pretty good suggestions how to keep it from being too cliché."

Molly playfully put a hand on Fjord’s thick bicep. “And if we keep talking about it too much, I’ll have to charge you a consultation fee, darling.”

Fjord blushed a bit on his pointed green ears. “My apologies, I didn’t mean to—"

But Molly was laughing with a good-natured smile. “I’m kidding. Mostly.”

Caleb watched the two of them continue their conversation while he finished his biscuit. He couldn’t quite decide how he felt about Molly. He was friendly, for sure, and seemed genuine enough. But he was also very tactile, constantly touching Fjord’s arms in a way that wasn’t strictly flirtatious, but would make Caleb intensely uncomfortable if he were on the receiving end of it at this point— he didn’t mind his friends touching him, but strangers were another story. And he was loud , frequently making other guests look up from their phones and books and newspapers to find the source of sudden laughter.

Caleb was so engrossed in his thoughts that he almost didn’t notice Molly getting up to leave. “It was good running into you again,” he said as he stood. Caleb blinked as he was jerked out of his contemplation and stared up at Molly in silence for a moment while he registered what he’d said.

“Oh, ja ,” he eventually said. “Good seeing you.”

Molly offered him one last smile before exiting the shop in a swirl of brightly colored fabric and pointed purple tail.

“Glad you’re making new friends,” Fjord said when Molly was gone. “He seems nice enough.”

Caleb nodded as he chewed on a syrupy-sweet pastry.

“Oh, I meant to ask you!” Fjord said, seeing that Caleb didn’t seem super intent on talking about Molly. “The usual gang’s going to Pride this weekend. You in?”

“Of course!” Caleb said through a bite of pastry. His heart fluttered at the invitation— he, Fjord, Nott, Jester, and their other friend Beau went every year, but Caleb hadn’t heard anything about it from any of them yet, and he’d been getting worried that for some reason, they’d booted him from the group or didn’t want him to come this year. “Always.”

“Great! I think it’ll be a good one this year,” Fjord exclaimed. Then he glanced down at his phone and hissed, “Shit. I’m gonna be late if I don’t hurry on outta here. Who in the hells signs their kid up for a 9am swim class anyway?”

Caleb laughed and bid him goodbye. He enjoyed the last few bites of pastry before thanking Jester one more time and heading back towards Dancing Lights. As he passed by Molly and Yasha’s studio, he slowed down and examined the storefront. The front left window had a large vinyl sign proclaiming the name “Fletching and Moondrop Tattoo Studio” in a style that wouldn’t look out of place on one of the vintage circus posters that Nott occasionally found. There were also printouts of various tattoo designs hanging in the windows, and the displays that used to hold books were now filled with all sorts of trinkets and oddities, from crystal balls to decorative swords to assorted taxidermy.

But what caught Caleb’s attention the most was the hand-written sign taped on the door, above their usual hours-of-operation sign. It was a plain piece of paper taped to the glass proclaiming, “We will be closed THIS SATURDAY for #PRIDE!!” It was written in sharpie and adorned with crayon drawings of waving rainbow flags.

At that moment, Caleb became acutely aware that he was being watched. He realized with a start that Molly was perched behind the shop counter, and seemed to have just noticed Caleb standing outside. He waved enthusiastically, beckoning him inside.

Caleb glanced around to make sure Molly wasn’t actually waving at someone else, but the sidewalk was empty except for him. So he awkwardly stepped inside.

“You’re a friend of the business, Caleb,” Molly proclaimed as he entered. “And friends don’t have to stare in from the outside.”

Something about that hit Caleb harder than he was ready for. Obviously Molly meant it in a literal way— Caleb had, after all, been looking in from outdoors— but it reminded him of so many of the conversations he’d had in therapy, about feeling like an outsider in his own life, with his own friends.

Molly gave him an inquisitive look but didn’t ask  anything aloud.

“The decor is coming along nicely,” Caleb said, standing stiffly near the counter and looking around.

Molly came out from behind the counter and flipped the remaining lights on. The store technically didn’t open for a few more hours, so Caleb felt a bit guilty barging in like this.

“I just noticed the sign on your door and wanted to talk to you about it,” he blurted out before he realized what he was saying. He knew Molly and Yasha were new to Zedash, and maybe they didn’t have anyone else to go to Pride with yet.

Molly’s expression shifted as Caleb mentioned the sign. It was the first time he’d seen the tiefling look serious, even bordering on angry, and it made him nervous. His mouth stumbled to find the words that his brain was trying to put together.

“What about it?” Molly asked, his voice low and suspicious.

Caleb's brain felt like it was stuck buffering, trying to process Molly's words and formulate a response at the same time, but unable to do either. So when Caleb didn't reply in a normal amount of time, Molly narrowed his eyes at him and said, “Look, Yasha and I are queer as fuck, okay? And we’re your next door neighbors now. You’re going to have to get used to that. If you have a problem with us, whatever, hate us all you want. But I would suggest keeping it to yourself and getting on with your life.”

Caleb’s nerves were taking over and his mind was careening out of his control, desperately trying to translate the static of Molly’s voice into comprehensible words. He felt his cheeks redden and his palms grow sweaty and everything felt a little bit hazy and too loud and too bright. He wanted to tell Molly that no, he had it wrong, Caleb wasn’t mad about the sign— quite the opposite. He wanted to say that he didn’t hate Molly or Yasha or himself or anyone for their sexuality, not anymore, not after years of unlearning the things that had been drilled into his mind as a child. But the chaos in his brain stopped him from articulating these thoughts, so he just stood there, fists and jaw clenched, shaking a bit.

Molly watched him, and Caleb knew he was mistaking the fear and sorrow for anger. Most people did.

“Get out of my shop, Caleb,” Molly said quietly.

Caleb wanted the cry. He wanted to apologize. He wanted to explain himself. He wanted to yell at Molly for being a presumptuous asshole. The mix of stress and anxiety and hot coffee and sweet pastries made him want to puke his guts out.

Instead, he turned and put his hands on the door, ready to leave. His eyes were dull as he turned to Molly and managed to say, “I was going to ask you if you and Yasha wanted to come to Pride with me and my friends. But if you’re this judgmental, you can go alone.”

He stormed out the door and Molly called something after him, but his mind was too loud to hear it. He’d tried being outgoing, compassionate, reaching out to new people, all things his friends and his therapists had been telling him to do for years. And this is what it got him.

As he unlocked the front door of the Dancing Lights and pushed inside, Nott looked up from shelving some new merchandise.

“Are you okay?” she asked. After getting a good look at his hunched posture and hollow face, she growled low in her throat and said, “Who did this to you? Who hurt you?”

“It’s nothing,” Caleb choked out. The combination of forcing himself to speak and having Nott see him like this broke through the wall he’d constructed in his head, and a few tears streaked down his face. He wiped them on the back of his hand and strode straight into the back room. The door slammed behind him louder than he’d intended, and he slid to the floor with his back against a storage shelf.

Nott gave him a few minutes of solitude before the door creaked open. She sat down on the concrete floor in front of him and said, “Do you want to talk about it?”

Caleb shook his head, but then the words started falling from his mouth. “I fucked up, Nott. Like always, I fucked up so badly. I tried to be nice but I’m not good at that, I’m a fucking garbage person who can’t even have a normal conversation without ruining everything.”

“You’re not a garbage person, Caleb. You’re wonderful and smart and one of the best people I’ve ever met.”

He knew that Nott meant to make him feel better. But he also knew the words were lies and she was just saying these things to make him stop crying like a child instead of a godsdamned thirty-three-year-old and he was not wonderful or good and was, in fact, terrible and awful.

She reached out tentatively for his shoulder, pausing to give him a chance to say yes or no. He shook his head, so she retracted the hand. She was so patient with him. Why was she so fucking good to him?

“I just need a minute. I’ll be okay,” Caleb murmured, his accent thick and voice ragged.

“Alright. You come get me if it gets worse, okay?”

Caleb nodded. It didn’t count as a lie if you didn’t say it aloud, right?

Nott left to take care of the storefront while Caleb tried to calm himself down. He took deep, even breaths with his eyes closed, focusing on physical sensations instead of the chaos of his mind. The concrete was cool under his hands and through his worn-out khakis. The air was a bit musty from wares that hadn’t been cleaned yet, and it smelled faintly of old books. It was quiet except for the sound of Nott speaking to a customer out front.

He recognized both voices, and his stomach dropped. Counterpoint to Nott’s shrill squeak— which was slowly turning to a yell— was the indeterminate yet unmistakable accent of Mollymauk.

Caleb pressed the heels of his hand into his eyes, as if he could put the tears back where they came from. He took a deep breath and stood on shaky legs. His trembling hand struggled to grip the handle of the door but he managed to get it open and step out.

Nott was standing up on the counter, yelling down at Mollymauk, who seemed to be apologizing profusely and asking to see Caleb. He noticed Caleb emerge before Nott did, and immediately stopped speaking to her.

She turned and saw Caleb, then cried, “I’ve told him to leave but he’s not going.” She faced Molly again and said, “We don’t open for another ten minutes. You’re technically trespassing. I’ll call the fucking cops, I’ll—"

“That’s not necessary,” Caleb said, his voice strained and low. He gestured for Mollymauk to follow him into the back room, and the tiefling obliged.

Nott gave him a concerned look, but didn’t try to stop either of them. Caleb pulled the door closed and stood in the center of the small storage room with his arms tightly folded over his narrow chest.

Caleb's chest was tight with fear, but he did his best to ignore it. Healing hurt, healing required taking risks and facing fears and making a conscious effort to do the things that made him want to run. So he would talk to Mollymauk, and try to fix things between them before they broke forever and he lost a potential friend.

“Look, I’m sorry,” Molly began. It was hard to read emotion in his flat red eyes, but his voice sounded genuine to the point of distress. “I shouldn’t have snapped at you like that and I definitely shouldn’t have assumed your intentions.”

Caleb gave himself a moment to make sure he’d properly processed Molly’s words. “And I am sorry for barging in and making you scared that I was angry or hateful towards you.”

Molly shook his head. “No, you have nothing to apologize for. I shouldn’t have let my past dictate the way I treat you like that. You came to me out of kindness and generosity and I treated you like shit. I’m trying to be a better person than… than I used to be, and today wasn’t a good job of it.”

Caleb laughed, a dry, humorless sound. “I guess we’re both just fucking disasters.”

Molly smiled warmly at him. “I guess so. I’ll try to be less of one from here on out, okay?”

Caleb uncrossed his arms. “I would say the same, but my therapist says not to make promises that I’m not able to keep.”

Molly narrowed his eyes as the corner of his lip quirked up. “Did you just make a joke?”

Ja, I guess so.”

Molly laughed, and it wasn’t as free and happy as with Fjord this morning, but it was relieved, and a bit of the tension dissipated from the room. Caleb said, “Well, I’d better get out there and make sure Nott hasn’t called the police.”

“Oh, yeah, I guess I should let you run your shop anyway,” Molly said.

Caleb poked his head into the dingy staff-only bathroom to make sure he didn’t look like a complete madman. His eyes were still a little puffy and red, but he hadn’t cried too much and didn’t look much worse for wear than an average day.

“My offer still stands, Mollymauk,” Caleb added before they left the back room. “For this weekend. It’s a good group of people, if you want to join us.”

Molly laughed again, this time incredulous. “You’re still inviting me after how I treated you?”

“You don’t have to if you don’t want to—“

“Yeah, no, I want to. I just kind of figured you’d never want to see my face again after this morning.”

Caleb wanted to say that he understood being hyper-cautious when random people brought up his sexuality, understood that Molly must have been through some shit to have that kind of knee-jerk reaction. But he also was emotionally exhausted from the past ten minutes, and knew that neither of them was in the mood for another vulnerable conversation, so instead he shrugged and said something he knew would lighten the mood. “What can I say? You have a nice face.”

Finally, finally, Molly laughed loudly and genuinely at something Caleb said. “That I do, friend. That I do.”

Caleb still felt high-strung and tense in his chest, but it was far better than it had been just a few minutes ago. He'd talked to Molly and it had actually gone well. He had to admit he was surprised.

They emerged from the back room to a suspicious glare from Nott, but she seemed to calm when she saw that Caleb was doing better. Molly walked over to her and held out a hand. “Thank you for not calling the cops on me,” he said.

She cautiously shook his hand. “Don’t give me another reason to.”

"Believe me, I don't plan to." Molly gave Caleb one last smile before heading for the door. “See you Saturday!” he called over his shoulder with a wave.

“You’re seeing him again Saturday?” Nott asked after he was gone.

Ja, I invited him to come to Pride with us.”

“Oh yeah, that’s this weekend!” she exclaimed. “I’ve got to pick up my shirt from Jester.” Then, coming back to the present moment, she demanded, “Wait, why did you do that? What did he do to you? I haven’t seen you that bad in a while.”

Just then, the door chime jingled and a few hipster-looking twenty-somethings entered the shop, chattering cheerfully.

“I’ll tell you later,” Caleb said, making sure the tears were clean from his face before greeting the customers as cheerfully as he could muster.

Chapter Text

“What do you think, Frumpkin?” Caleb asked his cat, standing in front of his dusty, tarnished full-length mirror. “Festive enough?”

Frumpkin made a soft murrp sound and hopped off the bed to twist around his ankles.

“I’ll take that as a yes.”

Caleb’s wardrobe didn’t really lend itself to an elaborate look for Pride, or any other day of the year. He preferred neutral tones, beiges and navy and grays. They didn’t clash with his hair or draw attention in crowds.

Today he was wearing a vintage t-shirt that had come in with a large clothing lot someone had sold them months ago. It was a plain white ringer tee with brown trim and a faded, retro-style rainbow wave across the front. He’d also replaced his boot laces with rainbow ones that Beau had given him. It was the most color he’d worn… probably since last year's Pride.

When he got downstairs, Nott was cooking eggs and bacon while standing on a step-stool to reach the stovetop.

“This smells wonderful,” he said truthfully as he sat down at the small table. “I hope you plan on sharing.”

“Of course!” Nott said. “I’m living up to my shirt.”

Without his asking, she spun around to reveal what she was talking about. Her black t-shirt read across the front, in apparently hand-painted, glittery white letters, “I Love My Gay Wizard Son”.

Caleb dropped his head to his arms crossed on the table to hide the grin that split his face. They often joked in their group that Nott was Caleb’s “mom,” the way she always looked after him and made sure he fed himself and went to therapy and got enough sleep even on bad days. The jokes used to hurt, to remind him of his real mother. Now he often joked about it himself.

“Jester made it,” she said.

“That does explain the glitter.”

They discussed their morning’s plan while eating breakfast. Once they were done, they set out to meet their friends at the agreed-upon subway station. Caleb wondered idly if Molly and Yasha really would show. He’d gotten their numbers and added them to the group chat, so they knew the plan, but he still worried that Molly had only agreed to this to make him feel better after how things had gone down the other day.

But to his surprise, the two of them were already standing with the rest of the group near the top of the stairs down to the subway station. Yasha was still in mostly black, but she had rainbow ribbons braided into her hair and her belt was adorned with colorful studs instead of plain silver ones.

Molly, of course, had gone all-out with his outfit. He was wearing a blue, pink, and purple t-shirt that had been over halfway shredded into fringe, showing off his heavily tattooed torso. Various ribbons and scarves in the same colors were tied around his horns and tail, glitter and paint adorned his skin, and his blue-trimmed hot-pink athletic shorts barely covered his whole ass (not that Caleb was looking at it, definitely not). It was an absurdly tacky look, and Caleb would have been disappointed with anything less.

Fjord waved at them, and Molly paused from tying one of his extra bi pride scarves around the half-orc’s wrist.

“You’re a wizard?” was the first thing Molly said upon seeing them approach.

Caleb nodded. “ Ja . I specialize in transmutation.”

“Okay, let’s stop this conversation right here. I can’t stand this kind of nerd shit this early in the morning,” Beau interrupted. “Nice shoelaces, by the way.”

Caleb bumped her shoulder with his as they all headed down the station stairs. “The person who picked them out was tacky and tasteless, but I think I make them work.”

She rolled her eyes at him, and he’d known her long enough to understand that as a compliment.

They all swiped their subway passes and hurried onto the train that had just pulled into the station. Caleb stayed close to the middle of the group, shielded by the others. He didn’t like people staring at him, and they definitely attracted attention racing across the platform in their colorful outfits.

He didn’t mind that it was obvious where they were going. Not anymore, not for years now. The first time he’d made this trip with this group, he’d been dressed in a plain pair of jeans and a simple black t-shirt— he hadn’t wanted to be easily identifiable. Of course, Jester had been there, so by the end of it he was covered in glitter and confetti with rainbows pointed on his cheeks anyway. He’d still enjoyed himself. It was an important step in his healing, and he always looked back on it fondly.

He slid into a seat next to Nott, with Molly standing clutching the overhead bar in the aisle next to him. Jester sat behind him, and he immediately felt something tugging at his hair.

“Why are you doing?” he asked.

“Making you beautiful!” she replied.

Nott looked over and saw whatever she was doing and exclaimed, “Oh, let me help!”

Caleb sat still and soon realized they were braiding fake flowers into his hair. He reminded himself to get a haircut soon.

After they finished, Jester leaned around him and held up a makeup compact with a tiny round mirror. “See? You look great!”

Caleb examined the colorful flower crown they’d braided into his hair. “It’s… fun.”

“If you hate it that much, we can take it out,” Jester pouted.

Nein , I like it,” he said, surprised by the truth of his own words.

“It’s so cute!” Molly said, reaching down and running a hand over his red hair and the flowers. Caleb froze and tensed down into his shoulders.

Nott saw Molly touch Caleb without warning and began, “Wait—”

Caleb interrupted, “Mollymauk, please do not touch me without asking first.” It was always hard for him to make this demand of new people, but apparently it was important for him to “set boundaries” and “vocalize his discomfort instead of staying quiet to protect others’ feelings.” Or so he’d been told.

Molly immediately retracted his hand at Caleb’s words. For a second Caleb thought he might be angry— after all, Nott and Jester had just been playing with his hair with no protest— but he just said, “Shit, I’m sorry. I won’t do it again.”

“Thank you,” Caleb muttered.

They reached their destination, and the others had to almost drag Beau and Yasha out of their seats— the two had paid attention to nothing but each other for the whole ride. Molly elbowed Yasha in the ribs and waggled his eyebrows at her, but she pretended not to notice him.

As soon as they emerged onto street level, they could hear the sounds of voices and music and cheering just a few blocks away. There was a microphone-amplified voice but Caleb couldn’t identify who was speaking. Fjord’s ears perked up, though, and he exclaimed, “I think that’s High-Richter Dolan speaking!”

When the rest of the group stayed quiet, he elaborated, “Y’know, the first openly gay high-richter in the history of Zedash?”

There were a couple “oh”s of recognition, and Beau drawled, “Of course you’d know that kind of government shit. Fuckin’ goodie two-shoes.”

The two of them broke off into an argument that faded as soon as they reached the bulk of the festival. Caleb scooted closer in to the middle of his friends, and Nott stayed by his side. He liked being here, and he liked being with his friends, but if he could avoid too much physical contact with strangers, that made things even better.

The day passed in a fast-paced blur. They wandered around the festival area downtown, and Molly tried to get Caleb to dance at every possible moment, despite the others telling him it was futile. The music was loud and the food was greasy and the streets were crowded, so by all means Caleb should have hated the whole thing, but he couldn’t wipe the smile off his face.

He watched as Beau kept awkwardly looking away whenever Yasha noticed her staring, and vice versa; as Molly dropped silver and gold into the donation boxes at nearly every charity booth; as Nott rode around on Fjord’s shoulders so that she could actually see what was going on.

At one point, just before the parade started, Molly pulled him away— with a gesture, not a physical grab— into an opening in a dancing crowd in front of a deafening electronica concert. “Show me your best dance move,” Molly yelled over the music.

Caleb stood still.

“Oh come on!” Molly said.

“I don’t know!” Caleb said, blushing and fiddling with his sleeve. “I’m not—”

Molly held out both hands. “I can show you, if you’d like.”

Caleb stared at the proffered hands for a moment. He wanted to have fun and join in the festivities. He also wanted to melt into the hot summer asphalt before making a public fool of himself.

He reached out and grabbed Molly’s hands.

Molly smiled wide at him and said, “Okay, just copy what I do.”

He pulled him from side to side by the hands, keeping an arms length distance between them. Caleb tried to copy the movements of his feet, but ended up more or less shuffling around in place.

“Does this even count?” Caleb shouted over the deafening music.

“Totally!” Molly replied. “Do a spin!”

He released one hand and lifted the other up, and Caleb awkwardly shuffled in a circle under Molly’s raised arm.

Molly pulled him a tiny bit closer and doubled over laughing. “You’re beauty and grace incarnate,” he said through the fits of giggles. Caleb looked around, half expecting to see crowds of people laughing at him and his terrible dancing, but literally no one was looking in his direction. A bit of the tightness in his chest loosened.

“Maybe I just need a demonstration,” Caleb said. “What’s your best dance?”

Molly grinned devilishly, released his hands, and began twirling around Caleb with grace and poise and just enough hip gyration that he would have looked right at home in a strip club. Or what Caleb imagined a strip club to be like based on movies— he’d never been to one.

Molly finished one last loop around a blushing Caleb and reached towards his hands again. Caleb took them and stepped closer. “Come on, sway with me,” Molly said.

It was nice, moving to the music with Molly. He first felt a bit like an awkward middle schooler at a school dance, but he ever so slowly relaxed into Molly’s arms. They still weren’t pressed close to each other, but it was closer than Caleb had been with an attractive new friend in a very long time.

Did he think Molly was attractive now?

He shook those thoughts from his head and looked up into Molly’s eyes. For a brief second, Caleb wished he could match the seductive dancing Molly had done earlier, to sway and grind with him and pull him down into a kiss. But then he looked away, and scanned the crowd for the others. “We should get going,” he said, pulling Molly towards their friends by the hand.

“Oh, yeah, the parade’s starting soon,” Molly said, running his thumb over the back of Caleb’s hand where they held onto each other.

By the time the festivities were over, the sun was nearly set and all seven of them were exhausted, sweaty, and sitting on a low concrete wall in a small park away from the slowly dissipating crowds. Caleb finished off a water bottle with a deep swig and tossed it into a nearby recycling bin.

“That was fun,” Molly sighed, lying flat on his back atop the wall. “Smaller than Rexxentrum’s, but it certainly packs in all the energy.”

Caleb sat down on the sidewalk with his back against the wall. “What do you mean, smaller? How can an event possibly have more people than that?”

Molly just laughed.

“It’s getting late,” Caleb sighed. “I should probably be heading home.”

Molly sat up and said, “Now, going home is of course an option, but—” he raised his voice to make sure everyone could hear him— “I’ve got a brand new apartment here that’s never seen company, so if any of you lovely people want to hang out with me after this, you’re very welcome to.”

Caleb was tired, but he also didn’t want this day to end. He fiddled with the hem of his shirt and weighed his options. While he considered, Fjord said, “Just to be clear, when you say ‘hang out,’ you mean ‘hang out,’ right? That ain’t some kinda code for an orgy or some shit, right?”

Molly laughed and whipped his tail around. “I promise you that’s not my intent, but hey, if the night leads us there…”

After a few minutes of deliberation, they all decided to go back to Molly’s place for at least a little while.

Caleb wasn’t sure why he was nervous on the subway ride there. It just seemed like an oddly intimate thing, spending time in someone’s personal space so soon after meeting them. He was pretty sure he’d known Jester and Fjord for nearly a year before they’d come over to his apartment.

Molly signaled them when the train arrived at his station. They all piled out onto the mostly empty platform and followed Molly out the correct exit. His apartment building was less than a block away from the station, and it looked like an industrial warehouse from the outside.

Molly swiped a security fob on the outside door to the building, then led them to the elevator up to the sixth floor. “That’s me on the end,” he pointed out, hurrying down the hall to unlock his door.

Caleb wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting from Molly’s home, but what he saw inside made perfect sense. The apartment wasn’t huge, but the high industrial loft-style walls allowed for tall windows that looked out over the city skyline. The decor looked something like a cross between a classic circus caravan and a cathedral. It was an explosion of textures and colors and Caleb had no idea where to look first. There were plants growing out of animal skulls on bookshelves next to arcane tomes and old DVD box sets, tapestries of about a dozen deities interspersed with concert posters and art prints and taped-up Polaroids. Like Molly himself, there was almost an incomprehensible amount of visual information going on at once, yet somehow it just worked , because it was Molly and he was weird and he was allowed to have a pinup of a lingerie-clad woman next to his finely made Bahamut tapestry, simply by virtue of being himself.

“Welcome to my abode,” Molly said, twirling around the center of the living area. The fringe of his crop top whirled like a circle skirt. “Make yourself at home. I’m going to order us some cheap delivery from this wonderful Xhorhasian spot down the street. Then who wants some weed?”

“I knew there was a reason I agreed to this,” Beau sighed as she flopped down across the couch. Jester pulled a pillow out from under her used it as a cushion to sit down by the coffee table.

The others followed suit, squeezing onto the couch around Beau or settling into cushions on the floor. Once Molly finished ordering their food, he plopped down on a pillow between Caleb and Yasha.

He held something out to Caleb, who accepted it without thinking.

“Guests always smoke first,” Molly said, as Caleb realized he’d been handed a small, ornately crafted glass pipe.

Caleb turned the object in his hands, examining it closely. He liked the bright colors spun into the glass, but he had only the vaguest idea what to do with it.

He noticed Molly expectantly holding out an engraved silver Zippo at almost precisely the same moment that Molly realized Caleb was thoroughly confused. “Oh, do you not smoke? You don’t have to, I just said ‘weed’ and everyone zoomed over here, so I assumed…”

“I never have, but I’ll try it,” Caleb said.

“You sure?” Molly checked. “You’re more than welcome to if you really want to, but I’m not going to, y’know, peer pressure you or any of that juvenile shit.”

Ja, ja, I want to try,” he said with more conviction. Today was going to be a day of firsts for him, he decided. First time dancing in public, first time going to an afterparty instead of going straight home, first time doing recreational drugs. “So how do I do this?”

Beau and Fjord cheered, and Nott, sitting between them, elbowed them both in the ribs.

“You sure your books aren’t going to judge you for going out and doing drugs instead of staying home and reading them?” Beau needled. “Your teakettle won’t get jealous of Molly’s bowl?” This earned her another sharp goblin elbow to the side.

Caleb ignored her and followed Molly’s instructions as the tiefling guided the glass shaft to his lips. No, no, “shaft” had to be the wrong term, Caleb thought—

Molly flipped the lighter and held it to the bowl. “Okay, just take a deep breath.”

Caleb did as he was instructed and held in the breath for a few moments before slowly exhaling, like when he meditated. The heat burned his lungs, but not as badly as he’d been expecting.

The others clapped and Caleb blushed as he passed the pipe onto Jester. “This is what my therapist meant when she told me to ‘make an effort to enthusiastically embrace new experiences,’ right?”

This earned him a chorus of laughs, and he couldn’t fight off a small smile. He knew it was too soon for the effects to have hit him, but he already felt pleasantly calm and hazy just from his tired contentment with the day.

The food arrived right as the pipe had made its way twice around the table, and by then Caleb was feeling a wave of hunger settle on him. Molly spread the boxes and plastic containers around the coffee table, then passed around paper plates.

Caleb had never had Xhorhasian food before, but his stomach was rumbling as he dug into some sort of rice-based dish that smelled delightful. It tasted every bit as good as it smelled, and he piled his plate high with bits of half a dozen different sides to try along with it.

The conversation flowed from a recap of everyone’s favorite moments of the day into questions about Molly and Yasha’s time as traveling tattoo artists. Caleb tried to listen, since he was quite interested in learning more about Molly, but his mind was foggy and his stomach was full and his head felt somehow floaty and heavy at the same time, and before he knew it, he was leaning on Molly with his head on his shoulder. Molly’s arm started to wrap around him, then paused. Caleb took his hand and pulled it so he was holding him around the waist. It was warm and comfortable and he was tired and stoned and content. He could happily stay in this moment forever, he decided.

The group didn’t leave Molly’s apartment until nearly midnight, and only then because the subway stopped running at one. Molly said goodbye to everyone as they filed out the door, except Yasha, who was crashing on his couch for the night. As Caleb stepped past him, he said, “I hope I haven’t corrupted you too completely, darling.”

Caleb offered him a smile and found himself sidelined by the urge to kiss him full on the lips. “I don’t believe that. I think you’d delight in my corruption.”

Molly just grinned enigmatically, then more gently said, “Text me when you get home, okay? You seem fine but I know this is your first time being high, so it would make me feel better to know.”

Caleb nodded, warmth spreading through his chest at Molly’s words. The concern was unnecessary— Caleb had just taken a couple small hits hours ago and felt almost back to normal now— but just the fact that Molly cared enough to worry made his heart ache.

They exited the building in a quiet, tired huddle. “Can’t you like, teleport us all home or something?” Beau asked him as they waited on the subway platform.

Nein . That’s powerful magic that I don’t have the training, energy, or components for.”

Beau grumbled something about “the point of a wizard friend anyway” and collapsed onto a bench.

When the train arrived, they filed on and Caleb was too tired and happy to care about the dubious looks they got.

It was well past midnight by the time he collapsed onto his bed. He couldn't remember the last time he’d stayed out this late. College, maybe, for the brief time he’d been there. He wriggled out of his jeans and t-shirt, then curled up next to Frumpkin. He was asleep in minutes.

 

——

 

After the door closed behind his new friends, Molly flopped onto the couch and rested his head on Yasha’s lap.

“You like him a lot, don’t you?” she asked quietly.

“Hmm,” Molly grunted. He didn’t need to ask who she was talking about. “I think so.”

“He seems nice.”

“Too nice for me?”

Yasha shook her head and a rainbow ribbon fell loose from one of her messy braids. “I didn't say that. I think he’d be good for you.”

“But would I be good for him? Good enough for him? You saw what happened when he was trying to invite us to Pride. I gave him some sort of anxiety attack or something the third time we spoke. He’s a sweet, sensitive guy and I’m a fucking cannonball on fire with more baggage than a passenger jet.”

Yasha toyed with one of the charms hanging from Molly’s horns. “He talked a lot about therapy and recovery. He must have some baggage of his own, and he’s trying to work through it. Maybe you could learn a thing or two from him.”

“So I teach him how to dance, and he teaches me how to be a functional adult who can handle their fucked-up emotions? That hardly seems fair or healthy.”

“I’m not saying you should treat him like a therapist. What I mean is, you might have some shared experiences. You might get each other in ways other people don’t.”

“Hm. Maybe.” He sat up next to her and continued, “But that’s enough about me and my ever-disastrous love life. What was going on with you and Beau?”

Yasha averted her eyes. “I’m going to bed now.”

Molly laughed as he headed towards his bedroom. “Sleep tight and have sweet dreams.” As he was about to close his door, he poked his head out and added, “Of Beauregard!” before ducking back in to avoid the pillow hurtling at his face.

In the refuge of his room, Molly tossed off his crop top and shorts and changed into a baggy t-shirt and boxers. He sprawled out across his bed and stared at the ceiling, wondering how he’d fallen so deeply and quickly for a man like Caleb Widogast.

Chapter Text

It was a good thing that Dancing Lights was closed on Sundays, because Caleb didn’t roll out of bed until nearly noon. He awoke with a yawn that was followed by a wave of nausea gripping his stomach. He groaned and rubbed at his eyes, which felt a couple sizes too big for his face, all tight and sore. Apparently he’d either smoked more than he’d realized last night, or it just didn’t agree with him as well as he thought. Probably both.

He was pulled from his self-pity by a faceful of fur as Frumpkin started head butting him and meowing loudly.

“Oh, entschuldigung, I’m late for your breakfast, aren’t I?”

Frumpkin mrowed, and Caleb pulled on sweatpants and a tee to run down and feed him. As the cat happily munched away, Caleb lay down on the couch and pulled out his phone while he waited for his stomach and head to settle down. He had over a dozen notifications, mostly photos from Pride sent to the group chat. There was one sent just to him from Fjord, of Molly holding his hands on the dance floor, while Caleb smiled up at him. The message with it simply read, “u seemed happy yesterday”.

“I was,” Caleb typed. Then he deleted it and sent instead, “I am.”

He saved the photo to his phone and tapped to zoom in on his and Molly’s faces. Fjord had captured a moment when Molly was smiling down at him with a warmth and contentment that Caleb hadn’t experienced in… far too long to think about.

He could have lain there all day staring at that picture, but he smelled like death between the time spent sweating in yesterday’s hot sun and the smoke from last night. So he forced himself to head upstairs in preparation for a shower.

As he dug through his dresser for something comfortable, he couldn’t shake Molly from his mind. He missed and craved contact as much as he avoided it, which always left him in these awkward jumbles of nerves and frustration and regret that he wasn’t braver. The memory of Molly’s hand on his waist as they sat together on the floor sent sparks down his spine.

Quickly making my up his mind, he tossed the clothes down by the door and closed it, double checking that it was locked. He pulled off his pajamas and slipped out of yesterday’s underwear, lying naked on the bed. His heart was pounding as he slid a hand down his own bare torso, towards his hips. He knew it was illogical and absurd, but he felt as though if he did this, Molly would just know next time they saw each other.

Caleb pushed those thoughts away and closed his eyes, recalling the hypnotic way Molly had swung to the music, his warm bright smile, the feeling of his arm around him and his weight against his side. He grew fully hard under the ghosting of his own fingertips as he imagined that comforting weight here in his bed, on him, under him, inside him as he rolled on top of Molly and rode him hard and Molly was telling him now good he felt and how beautiful he looked and Molly was a perfect wreck under him, dark curls splayed like a halo on the pillow and kiss-bruised lips and sweat glistening like glitter on his muscles—

Caleb couldn’t form coherent thoughts for the final moments before he came all over his own stomach and hand. He hadn’t realized he’d bitten down on his free fist to stop from crying out, but now that it was over he was glad he did.

His body relaxed into the bed as if his bones were made of gelatin. He felt so good, so content that he couldn’t even bring himself to feel guilty for imagining his friend like that, not yet.

He sighed and draped an arm over his eyes, blocking out the light. There was a time when he would have felt so ashamed of what he’d just done— pleasuring himself to the thought of a man, while recovering from a high nonetheless. But he had put that behind him years ago now, had gotten better about letting himself feel good.

When he felt the unpleasant coolness of drying come on his skin, he rolled out of bed stumbled over to his desk to wipe himself off with tissues. Once he was passably clean, he re-dressed in his pajamas and headed for the shower.

The water helped clear his mind of the late-morning, post-orgasm fog that clung to it. It couldn’t clear the images of Molly.

By the time he finished showering and returned to his room, he had a notification from Molly on his phone. “yesterday was fun!!! thanks for inviting me,” the message read, followed by every color of heart emoji available.

Caleb typed and deleted about ten responses before settling on, “You made it even more fun. Thanks for everything”.

Mere moments later, Molly replied, “it was my pleasure!!”— Caleb had to take a moment to recover from Molly talking about his pleasure before reading on— “you’re a lot of fun for a guy who wears beige turtlenecks ;)”

As Caleb was formulating his response, another message came in from Molly. “i’m kidding. about the turtlenecks not the fun”, followed quickly by “u got home ok last night tho??? i didn’t hear from you”.

Caleb’s stomach dropped. He’d promised to let Molly know he’d gotten home safely, but he’d been so exhausted that he’d collapsed straight into bed and forgotten. He immediately replied, “Yes I got home fine!! Sorry I didn’t tell you, I was very tired”.

“ok good!!” The reply was almost immediate. Then his phone vibrated several times in succession as Molly sent, “so ur first high was ok??” then “ur really cuddly when ur stoned lol” then “still gotta figure out how to get you to dance for real tho”.

Caleb responded, “Sorry if I got too clingy. Also you saw me dance, and it wasn’t pretty”.

There was no response for a few minutes, and Caleb used that time to go downstairs and throw together a sandwich for lunch. When his phone finally buzzed again, he dropped a slice of bread mid-mayonnaiseing to pull it out of his pocket. “ur dancing was fucking adorable caleb. also never apologize for cuddling, im such a slut for cuddles. also also are u doing anything rn? im just chilling at the studio for walk in hours”.

Caleb sat back in the kitchen chair and absently chewed a piece of lettuce. That wasn’t an invitation, exactly, but it was damn close. Not quite close enough for him to be comfortable inviting himself over to Molly’s shop, though.

“I’m relaxing at home, recovering from yesterday LOL. The store is closed today,” he sent.

A quick reply came in, “i was asking u if u wanted to hang out with me caleb darling”.

Caleb blushed as he read the message and replied, “Oh ok!! Well if you’re just chilling I could come down and join you.”

“come down? do u live in ur store????”

“Sort of, above it technically.”

“oh cool i didn’t know that”

As Caleb typed out his reply, Nott squeaked from the bottom of the stairs, “What are you blushing about?”

Caleb jumped at the sound of her voice. “Oh, hallo Nott! It is nothing, I’m not blushing.”

Nott crossed her arms and frowned. “Yes, you are.”

“Really, it is nothing, I promise.”

She rolled her big yellow eyes. “You’ve got it bad for him, don’t you?”

“No, he’s just a friend!” Caleb said, too defensively, clutching his phone too tightly to his heart.

“M-hmmm,” Nott replied. She seemed to have picked up in the fact that Caleb didn’t even bother asking who she was talking about. “Just be careful with a guy like him, okay?”

“Of course, I’m always careful and use protection,” Caleb said, trying to end the conversation quickly.

Nott grimaced at that response but continued, “You know that’s not what I’m talking about. It’s a good thing to do and all, but not what I’m talking about. What I mean is, he’s all, you know, loud and weird and touchy and stoner-y and—”

“Nott,” Caleb interrupted harshly. “You don’t have to worry about me. I’m a grown man and you’re not actually my mother. I don’t need a lecture about having a crush on a boy who has tattoos and smokes.”

There, he’d said it out loud, that he had feelings for Mollymauk. He’d called it a crush like some teenager, but he’d said it.

Nott crossed her arms. “I know I don’t have to worry about you, but I’m gonna do it anyway.”

Caleb couldn’t help but laugh, though it was tinged with sadness. “You know, my actual mother could have learned a thing or two from you, I think.”

She smiled at him, a bit wryly. “Just make sure you look out for yourself, okay? I’ll be gone for a couple days for a flea market in Alfield.”

He nodded and took a bite of his BLT. He’d been so distracted by his conversation with Molly that he’d forgotten to toast the bread, but he wasn’t paying close enough attention to care. Nott hurried away down the stairs, and Caleb was only a few minutes behind her heading over to Molly’s.

When Caleb entered the shop, Molly was seated on a high stool behind the main counter while Yasha was tattooing a client toward the back of the space.

“Caleb, darling, you made it!” Molly exclaimed, stepping forward to hug him, then letting Caleb close the distance between them. It was a casual, friendly gesture, like the “bro-hugs” (as Jester put it) that Beau and Fjord did. But Caleb leaned into it and held Molly close for the brief moment.

He tried not to think about the images he’d conjured earlier this morning, of Molly looking utterly debauched in his bed.

Molly, of course, was unaware of these thoughts, which somehow made Caleb feel even guiltier for having them.

He followed Molly behind the counter and sat down on a stool next to him. “So, are you just waiting for someone to walk in and want a tattoo?” he asked.

“Yup!” Molly confirmed. “We’re still so new here, our books aren’t totally filled with appointments yet. They’re filling up quick though.”

They talked about the previous day and Molly’s old tattoo shop in Rexxentrum and what it was like running an antique store for nearly an hour until two half-elven girls entered the shop. The younger-looking of the two had several tattoos visible on her arms and calves. “Hi!” she greeted cheerfully. “You’re open for walk ins today?”

“Why yes we are!” Molly replied, and they began discussing the tattoo she wanted, with input from her friend. Caleb tried not to be invasive in the conversation, but he kept an ear open to what they were saying. He managed to piece together that this girl had been following Molly on Instagram since he was working in Rexxentrum, and was a “huge fan” of his work who had been “super super excited” to hear that he’d opened shop here in Zedash.

Once they’d picked a design from Molly’s art book— “flash sheet,” he thought they’d called it— Molly turned to Caleb with an apologetic smile. “Hate to boot you out so soon after I invited you over, but I’m afraid I can’t bring a random person back to this young lady’s session.”

Ja , that’s fine!” Caleb said. He was disappointed, but he’d known that a client could have interrupted them at any moment, so he tried to just be glad he’d gotten as long as he had. They said their goodbyes and Caleb exited the shop. He wandered around the nearby streets for a while, enjoying the quiet summer Sunday. He eventually settled down on a park bench and pulled out his phone. Molly’s conversation with the woman in the shop had sparked a burning curiosity in him.

He didn’t have an Instagram, or any other social media account, so he just googled “mollymauk tealeaf tattoo artist instagram” and hoped for the best.

To his surprise, it actually worked. He opened the first result and was greeted by a grid of images underneath a description which simply read “Artist, wanderer, troublemaker,” and a profile picture of Molly with his head turned so that his peacock face tattoo took up most of the frame.

He scrolled through the images, most of which displayed brightly colored, freshly finished tattoos. There were a lot of animals, flowers, and arcane symbology, all in vibrant colors, ranging from small pieces on inner wrists and ankles to full sleeves and large, intricate images filling entire backs. Caleb took a closer look at a few of them that caught his eye, mostly ones featuring arcane symbols.

Interspersed throughout the tattoo pictures were occasional images from Molly’s life, with an unsurprising amount of selfies thrown in. The most recent post was a series of images from Pride. In the corner of one, he noticed himself from behind, walking next to Fjord, who had Nott on his shoulders. He hadn’t even realized Molly was taking pictures throughout the day.

A few posts back was a picture of Molly that made Caleb’s breath catch in his throat. He was lying on his back on his couch— Caleb recognized the fabric— with no shirt on, his mess of curls surrounding his head and horns, and a lascivious grin on his face. It very nearly matched the mental image Caleb had constructed to jerk off to just this morning, but it was right here in front of his face, for anyone on the internet to see. It was captioned, “Sorry for the lack of tat posts lately!! You all are the best, this move to Zedash has been crazy lol”.

Caleb frowned, trying to understand how someone could post a half-naked selfie and not even acknowledge it in the caption. He almost opened up the comments on it out of morbid curiosity, but he scrolled down and saw that the first one was “daaaamn daddy, lookin good” followed by a string of emojis that he’d never be able to look at the same way again, and decided to put his phone away instead. That comment made him first angry that some random person online was saying those things to Molly, then guilty for getting irrationally mad at someone for having the exact response Molly must have been looking for when posting that picture, then less guilty about fantasizing about him, if he was willingly putting these images out into the world. It was a lot of emotions to go through in the span of a couple seconds.

Caleb made his meandering way back to the shop and settled down in the back, surrounding himself with boxes of wares that needed to be fixed or cleaned.

It was a meditative process for him, channeling his arcane abilities into these everyday objects— clearing rust from old signs, reattaching broken pieces of clockwork, turning faded paintings vibrant again. He kept his spellbooks and toolbox of components near at hand, working uninterrupted for several hours. He only took a break when his stomach began rumbling with hunger.

After eating some several-day-old leftovers from the fridge, Caleb settled in for a quiet night of reading. It had been a long, hectic weekend full of way more social interaction than he typically cared for, but he had enjoyed every moment of it.

When he finally went to bed that night, he fell into a sleep filled with dreams that were quiet and warm and lavender.

 

----

 

The half-elf girl, whose name Molly now knew was Ayda, sat patiently still as his needle buzzed into her skin. They’d chatted while he had gotten the stencil ready, but there was a lull in the conversation as he gauged how she was handling the pain. She seemed to be doing fine, and soon she asked, “So, who was that guy you were talking with when we came in? Was he your boyfriend?”

“Ayda!” her friend reprimanded with a you-can’t-just-ask-that kind of expression on her face.

“No,” Molly laughed. “Not yet.”

“Yet?” Ayda said. “You gotta lock that down, man. He’s cute! He looks like he could be in some hipster indie band or something.”

“He’s a pretty big dork. I’m not sure he could even tell you what a hipster is, or name a single indie band. He just owns a vintage store, so he’s got the look down.” Molly smiled fondly to himself as he worked his way through the outline of the tattoo, an intricately patterned snake on her upper arm.

“Well, you’d never know looking at him,” Ayda laughed. “You better snag him before some actual hipster does, though. This area’s getting more and more gentrified every day; soon there’ll be microbreweries and boutique consignment shops on every corner, and he’ll be snatched up like hotcakes.”

Molly chuckled, “Like organic, small-batch vegan hotcakes.”

But despite his joking, the thought of Caleb with another man hurt him more than he was expecting. He wasn’t possessive by nature and had even been in open relationships in the past, but this was different. He’d kind of just assumed that he and Caleb would eventually end up together after the events of yesterday and last night, but he realized that with a man like Caleb, nothing was definite in terms of relationships. It wouldn’t go like it normally did with Molly’s partners. He would have to make the first move, and be clear in his intentions, because gods knew Caleb wasn’t going to take the initiative.

And maybe it was just the rush of new feelings hyper-romanticizing everything, but he did want to be with Caleb, for real, or at least give it his best try. Not a one night stand or friends with benefits or fun-while-it-lasts kind of relationship like Molly usually found himself in, but a real, honest-to-gods romantic relationship. He wanted to know what Caleb looked like the in the glow of the morning sun. He wanted to laze a whole day away watching shitty TV reruns on the couch with him, wanted to go for walks in the park and hold his hand and let him know he deserved all the good things the world had to offer him. Shit, I’m getting old and boring, Molly thought wryly. But maybe a little bit of boring wouldn’t be a terrible thing for him.

He’d start by asking him out to dinner, he decided.

Chapter Text

Things went more or less back to normal after that weekend. Caleb arose at the crack of dawn on Monday and restocked the shelves with his newly repaired wares, a little lonely without Nott’s familiar presence.

School was out for the summer, so weekday traffic to the shop was a little higher than normal, and the crowd skewed a bit younger. There was a group of college-bound kids looking for dorm decor, a gaggle of teenagers who spent a formidable amount of time in the vintage clothing section and took enough pictures of each other trying stuff on that Caleb told them they weren’t allowed to photograph anything they weren’t buying. The crowds kept him busy, and for the first time since he’d met him, Caleb wasn’t thinking about Mollymauk every five minutes.

During a quiet moment around lunchtime, Caleb took out his phone to check the hours on nearby takeout spots. When he opened his browser, however, the open tab was still on Molly’s Instagram page. The page refreshed and he saw the half-elf girl’s tattoo, a snake with intricately stylized scale patterns curling around her upper arm. Idly he scrolled down to some of the older posts, looking especially for pictures of Molly himself. Most were selfies, generally with a sultry smile and bedroom eyes. As if Caleb had ever doubted it, he was now positive that Molly knew every bit how pretty he was.

One picture in particular caught his eye, because it showed Molly from an angle he couldn’t possibly have taken himself. He was seated backwards on a chair, arms crossed on its back and legs spread wide to accommodate it. The camera was angled in a way that emphasized his upper back and the triangular eye tattoo that looked fresh in the middle of his shoulders. The caption thanked someone named Gustav for being a “great mentor” and giving him such a beautiful “parting gift.”

As he scrolled past this and through the other images, he realized how very little he knew about Molly, at least in terms of his past. That alone didn’t bother him, they’d known each other less than a week, but the fact that the story of his life had apparently been played out for random strangers just reminded Caleb of what an outsider he was. He flicked the screen a couple times to see how far down it would scroll, and the pictures he landed on appeared to be from a couple of years ago.

If not for his distinct purple skin and horns, Caleb would hardly have recognized Molly. His hair was shaved in a tight buzz cut above an un-inked face, his eyes were dark and sunken, and he looked at least fifteen or twenty pounds lighter, which was not good considering how lean and lithe he was now. But he was still smiling his wide, fanged grin and wearing glittery eyeliner and throwing peace signs at the camera, so Caleb had no doubt this was his Molly.

He made a mental note to try and find out more about this old Molly next time they spoke.

He tucked his phone in his pocket and headed out the shop door, flipping the “Out to Lunch; Be Back Soon” sign.

 

——

 

He thought of texting Molly several times throughout the rest of the evening, but he could never think of a better conversation starter than a dull “Hey, what’s up?” and the last thing he wanted to do was remind Molly how boring he, a turtleneck-wearing, book-hoarding antiques peddler, was.

They must have been on the same wavelength, though, because that evening, Caleb heard the normally dreadful sound of the door chime ringing five minutes before close, and looked up to see Molly striding over to him.

“Hi. When do you get off work?” he demanded, leaning against the counter next to the register.

“Er, now, pretty much,” Caleb replied.

“Good. Same. Let me take you to dinner.”

Caleb almost recoiled in surprise. Had Molly just asked him out? On a date? “I. Uh. Okay, ja, sure,” he said, his mind reeling. “Just give me a minute to close down.”

Molly hopped up on the counter and waited patiently while Caleb locked up the front of the shop, closed out the register, and switched the main lights off.

“What’s good around here? I’ve eaten like four meals at The Traveler’s Blessing in the past few days and while Jester is a darling and her baking is divine, I was thinking something a little less sugary, a little more sit-down,” Molly rambled as Caleb finished up.

“My favorite Zemnian restaurant is just a few blocks from here. We could walk,” Caleb suggested.

“That sounds wonderful. Is it fancy? Am I dressed appropriately?”

“It’s not fancy at all. You’re never dressed appropriately for anywhere, though,” Caleb ribbed.

Molly ran his hands over the spikes, patches, and pins of his cutoff denim vest. “So judgemental,” he gasped in mock-horror. “Lead the way.”

Caleb led him out the back of the shop and down the alley back onto the street. They walked and chattered jovially the few blocks to their destination, which was an unassuming little mom-and-pop restaurant tucked between two larger clothing stores.

“It doesn’t look like much, but it’s the most authentic Zemnian food you’ll find in Zedash,” Caleb explained.

“It looks so cozy!” Molly exclaimed.

As soon as they entered, the old man wiping down tables looked up and greeted Caleb in rapidfire Zemnian. Molly watched in fascination until Caleb put a hand on Molly’s shoulder and said, “This is my friend Mollymauk. He’s new in town and I wanted to make sure he knew where to get the best food.”

The man shook Molly's hand and introduced himself in a much thicker accent than Caleb’s. They were seated at a booth by the window, with a candle flickering between them. The small interior meant there were just a few other patrons, so everything was quiet and calm— another reason Caleb preferred this place.

“So, what’s good here?” Molly asked, looking over the menu (thankfully in Common, he’d been worried for a moment).

“Everything,” Caleb replied.

“Well, then, I guess I’ll get this kid’s chicken finger basket,” Molly teased.

Caleb laughed. “If that sounds good to you, get the chicken schnitzel with spätzle. It’s kind of like the grown up version of that, if you must put it in such terms.”

“Those absolutely cannot be real foods you just named,” Molly said. “Oh, wait, no there they are. Well, I guess I have to get that now.”

Caleb rolled his eyes but smiled softly down at his menu. He normally got the sausage platter when he came here, but he knew there was no way he could psychologically handle eating a plate of the world’s most phallic food while sitting two feet away from Mollymauk. He decided that a goulash would be a safe enough choice instead.

When the waiter returned, Caleb ordered both their dishes in Zemnian.

After the waiter departed, Molly leaned closer across the table towards Caleb, whose heart started fluttering in his chest. It had been a long time since he’d been on a date, too long.

“I… I’m not good at this whole emotionally vulnerable thing,” Molly said, averting his eyes. It was the first time he’d been the one to break eye contact with Caleb, not the other way around. “But look. The other day—” his voice dropped even lower— “I didn’t mean to, uh, freak out on you like that. I feel just fucking terrible about the whole thing, and I…. I guess I just want to be sure that we’re okay. That you’re okay.”

It was like a plane crash and a car fire at the same time in Caleb’s mind. Here he’d been naively thinking that this was a date, but it was actually just a fucking apology. Molly didn’t want to go out with him, he wanted to assuage the guilt of giving him an anxiety attack. The realization washed over him like a punch to the gut.

“I’m fine,” Caleb said mechanically.

Molly watched him in silence for a moment. “Your thousand yard stare and sudden aversion to eye contact say otherwise.”

Caleb’s fists clenched on the table and he didn’t feel hungry anymore. “If you were feeling guilty about that, you could have just apologized. You didn’t need to do all this, tonight and Pride and going back to your place and—“

“Whoa, whoa, whoa there Caleb,” Molly interrupted. “Slow down, darling. I didn’t do those things because I felt guilty, I did them because I wanted to, and they sounded fun, which they were! I like spending time with you. That’s why I want to make sure we’re all good. So we can keep spending time together, and so you know I’m someone you can talk to when shit gets bad, instead of being the one to cause the bad shit.”

Caleb stayed quiet while he processed Molly’s words. He was nervous and it took longer than usual. “Why?” was all he could manage in response.

“What do you mean?”

“Why do you like me? Why do you want to waste time on me? You’re the most godsdamned interesting man I’ve ever met, and my idea of a fun Friday night is reading antiquated spellbooks alone. Why the fuck would someone like you ever be interested in someone like me?”

Molly watched him with an unreadable expression. “I don’t think I’m the person you think I am,” he said, brow furrowed under his horns. “I’m not some fun, carefree fucking manic pixie dream boy here to make your life more interesting. I’m a screwed up mess of a person too, okay?” He stopped, apparently considering his next words carefully. Caleb let him think as he digested Molly’s words, the anger and self-loathing embedded in each one. It was an uncomfortably familiar tone, one he’d heard from his own lips a thousand times.

“Okay, there’s no point hiding or talking in vague metaphors,” Molly began quietly, yet with an intense determination. “I used to be a pretty fucking shitty person, okay? And I’m not proud of him, that— that person I used to be. He was selfish and childish and didn’t care about hurting people or himself and—“

Molly was starting to get choked up as the words spilled out, and he pulled his hands back to wipe at his eyes. At that moment, the waiter returned with their food and set the plates down in front of them. “Enjoy!” he said, as Molly turned his face away so he wouldn’t see the tears as he muttered, “Thanks.”

Once they had some level of privacy again, Molly continued, “To make a long and shitty story short, a few years back I got in a really bad car accident and I know it sounds stupid, like some kind of made-for-TV movie, but it was kind of a wake up call for me. I was really fucked up, like I had serious brain damage and shit on top of the physical stuff, and apparently I was legally dead or something for like two minutes before they got my heart going again.”

Caleb noticed Molly running his hands along his forearms as he spoke, and realized there were countless jagged scars obscured by the tattoos.

“I was in physical therapy for months and sometimes I couldn’t even remember my own name because of whatever was going on with my brain. And you know what? The whole godsdamned time this was happening, Yasha was the only person who bothered to visit me in the hospital or help get me to PT or even just spend time with me. It made me realize that so much of my life had been wasted with shitty people who didn’t care about me once I couldn’t party or fuck or get high with them anymore. So I decided to make a change, started hanging out more with Yasha and her friends, quit doing hard drugs, focused on my art.”

Molly stabbed his fork into his schnitzel and took a bite, continuing through the mouthful of food, “It’s been tough, cutting off basically my whole old life, but it’s been good. I want to surround myself with good people now. And you, Caleb? You’re good people.”

Caleb’s mind reeled trying to catch up with everything Molly had said. Finally, he said quietly, “Mollymauk, I don’t know who you used to be, but I know who you are now, and if you feel some sort of affection for me, I may not understand why, but I will accept it with joy and honor.”

Molly took a deep breath and closed his eyes, not wanting to start fully sobbing in public. “Yeah, I do feel some sort of affection for you, Caleb,” he said, almost laughing through the tears. “Definitely… definitely some kind.”

The rest of the meal was quiet and tense, but not angry. They both were lost in thoughts that they didn’t trust themselves to begin spilling in a public place.

After they were finished and had paid, they began the walk back towards their shops. “I guess you’ll be wanting to get home soon,” Caleb said as they neared a subway stairwell.

Molly shrugged. “The night’s still young. And that’s the wrong line anyway.” He reached his hand down towards Caleb’s, then stopped, remembering their conversation on the train. But Caleb reached over and took his hand, running his thumb along the back of it.

Caleb stared into his eyes and found an emotion he couldn’t quite place. “Do you want to come back to my place for a while?” he offered, cheeks and ears burning.

“Yeah, I’d like that a lot,” Molly replied with a smile.

They walked hand in hand back to the shop, and Caleb led Molly up the back stairs into the apartment. “It’s not quite as impressive as yours, I know, but it’s home,” he said as Molly looked around the small living room.

“My apartment’s a mess. Yours is so cute,” he said, poking at the little potted succulents on the windowsills and running his hands over the spines of the volumes on the numerous mismatched bookshelves.

Caleb grabbed his hand and pulled him down onto the couch. “Do you want to talk more about what you were saying before, about who you used to be?” Caleb asked.

Molly shrugged. “I don’t know what more there is to say. I used to be a piece of shit, and now I like to think I’m a fairly okay person. It’s still a process, though. I’m still healing, and sometimes I forget the things I’ve learned, like how I treated you last week.”

“I’ve treated people terribly in the past, too,” Caleb confessed. He hated talking about his own past, but Molly was opening up to him, and if this budding new thing between them was going to grow into anything, he needed to be honest. “I was raised in a very, um… they would say ‘traditional,’ I would say ‘bigoted’ family. I went to a strict private school that enforced these ideas as well, and I was taught from a very young age that there are only certain acceptable ways to live life. I learned to treat people who were ‘different’ like there was something wrong with them. I learned to hate myself before I even was old enough to know myself.”

He leaned over and wrapped his arms around Molly, burying his face in his chest. The contact was good, warm and grounding and solid. He could feel Molly’s tiefling warmth and could smell incense and candles and smoke on the fabric of his shirt.

Molly murmured into his hair, “Oh Caleb darling, anyone who could do that to you must have been an absolute fucking monster.”

“Maybe they were. I’m just glad I’m healing,” Caleb replied in a low whisper. “I’m glad I can hold you like this without hating myself. I am afraid of the way I feel about you, but only because I’m scared that soon you’ll realize I’m terrible and you’ll walk away and I’ll never see you again.”

Molly turned him in his arms so they were looking at each other. His red eyes glistened with tears. “Don’t you ever worry about that. I’m the terrible one here.”

Caleb pulled him closer. “That's not true, Molly. I could never think that about you. I don’t care what you’ve done in the past. I know you now , and you’re kind and generous and wild and fun and you make me very happy, and that’s still not something I feel all that often.”

Molly buried his face into Caleb’s hair. “You’re quiet and calm and forgiving. I made you have a fucking breakdown the day after I met you and in return you invited me into your life. You gave me a second chance, and I’m trying not to blow second chances any more.”

Molly held close to him for a moment, then pushed back to look into his eyes, a mischievous grin spreading across his face. “Unless—”

Caleb groaned. “Don’t say it, Mollymauk.”

But Molly was already speaking over him, “Unless you want me to blow you!”

Scheiße, Molly, we were having a moment!” he cried, laughing as he buried his face in his shoulder.

“I told you I ruin everything,” Molly said.

Caleb rested his forehead against Molly’s. “Mollymauk, why have I not kissed you yet?”

“I don’t fucking know,” he replied.

Caleb closed the distance between then, and then their mouths were pressed together and fingers tangled in each other’s hair and Caleb’s whole world shrank down to Molly, the way his lips felt and his tongue tasted and the weight of his body straddling Caleb’s hips.

They stayed intertwined until they were breathless and red-lipped. They ended up flat on the couch, with Caleb draped over Molly. He tried not to think about how similar this was to his fantasies. He focused on the realness of the moment, the fact that Molly was actually here with him, not just in his head. It still felt surreal, even as they tangled into another deep kiss.

Caleb lost track of time as they lay in each other’s arms. They settled into a comfortable rhythm as they made out in earnest.

“Caleb?” Molly said breathlessly after they broke apart again. “Should we move somewhere more private? I don’t want to traumatize Nott if she walks in.”

“You don’t have to worry about that, she is gone for a couple of days.”

“Oh, well that’s convenient.” Molly looked up at him through his long lashes. He opened his mouth as if to continue, but then he seemed to change his mind and fell silent.

“What’s wrong?” Caleb asked.

“Nothing,” Molly said.

“You’re lying.”

“I’m not. I’m just wondering.” Molly idly traced his hands up and down Caleb’s sides as he considered his words. “I know you have, I guess some hesitations about being touched, and you seem to be okay with me touching you now, which I’m very thankful for, but I was was wondering, um—”

“I like sex, if that’s what you’re asking,” Caleb interrupted bluntly. “Not hookups or one night stands or anything casual like that, but with, um, committed partners, it’s something I enjoy quite a bit.”

Molly nodded in understanding and his horns scraped against the old floral fabric of the couch. He winced at the sound.

Caleb traced his fingers over the fabric to make sure it wasn’t torn. “Maybe we should move elsewhere. Nott’s not going to walk in now, but I don’t know how she’ll feel about coming home to a shredded couch.”

He stood up and grabbed Molly’s hands to pull him to his feet. Molly kissed him. “Are you taking me to your bedroom, Caleb?”

Caleb nodded.

Molly said, “You mentioned not doing casual hookups. So this wouldn’t… wouldn’t be that?”

“That is not my intention. If it is yours, please tell me now.”

“It’s not my intention either.”

Caleb stepped forward and pinned Molly to the wall, kissing his lips and jaw and neck. Molly snaked his tail around Caleb’s waist and held him close.

“We’ll make it upstairs eventually, I promise,” Caleb said between kisses. Molly chuckled and nibbled at his ear.

As promised, after a time they stumbled and kissed their way up to Caleb’s bedroom, and somewhere along the way his tattered jacket and Molly’s denim vest ended up on the floor.

Caleb closed the door behind them then shoved Molly back against it, returning his attention to kissing and biting and sucking at his exposed skin. Molly moaned into his hair and squeezed his ass and Caleb could have died happy in that moment, but then Molly spun them both around so that he was pinned to the wall, and he realized that that this night was only going to get better.

Caleb fumbled with the hem of Molly’s tank top, so Molly stepped back a moment to pull it up and off over his horns. Caleb let out an almost embarrassing whine as their contact was broken, but then moments later he had a shirtless Mollymauk clinging to him, and everything was wonderful again.

Molly’s skin was soft, and warm from arousal and the summer night. Caleb could feel the raised lines of scars on his back and chest. As he began kissing his way down Molly’s peacock tattoo, he decided he wanted to trace every single image on Molly’s body with his lips and his tongue. But before he even made it halfway down the peacock, Molly was tugging at his shirt and growling, “I want to see you naked, Caleb.”

Caleb could not resist an order like that. He nodded and pulled his shirt off while Molly made quick work of his fly before slipping them down over his ass and letting them pool at his ankles. Caleb tried to do the same with Molly, but his pants were tight and there was something going on with his tail that was keeping them up.

“Lemme get them real quick,” Molly muttered, stepping back and undoing some sort of extra button on the back to free his tail. Then he began peeling the jeans down his legs, not in a sultry, strip-tease kind of way, but more of a hopping around one foot at a time, tail whipping wildly for balance way, while he stumbled around the room.

Caleb leaned back against the door and covered his mouth with his hand in an attempt to hide his laughter.

“This isn’t funny,” Molly said, grinning broadly, as he shook his foot out of the last pant leg and tossed the jeans aside. He stood in the middle of Caleb’s room, hands on his hips, in nothing but his black boxer briefs and white socks. “Okay. I’m ready.”

No amount of coy hand gestures could have hidden Caleb’s wave of laughter. “Mollymauk, you are the most absurd man I’ve ever met.”

“What? You don’t think I’m sexy? Not impressed by my seductive stockings?” Molly demanded in mock-offense, placing one foot up on Caleb’s bed and gesturing to his tube sock.

Caleb walked over and put his hands on either side of Molly’s face. “It is a testament to your sexiness that I still want to suck your dick after this.”

Molly’s cheeks shifted under his palms as he smiled. “I guess I can take the socks off first.”

Molly sat down on the edge of the bed and did just that. Caleb knelt down on the floor in front of him, pushing his knees open gently while staring up at him wide-eyed. Molly reached forward and brushed the hair out of his face with his fingertips. “You have the bluest eyes I’ve ever seen, Caleb Widogast.”

Caleb hooked his fingers into the waistband of Molly’s underwear. “There’s no need for such flattery. I’m already on my knees.”

Molly bent forward to kiss him. “It’s not flattery. It’s an observation.”

Caleb sat up a bit to return the kiss. Then he settled back onto his heels and, with bated breath and bit lip, pulled Molly’s underwear down his thighs.

Molly was already hard— Caleb had been able to feel that since before he was out of his jeans. He grasped it at the base and decided it was the prettiest cock he’d ever seen. It was a deeper purple than the rest of Molly at the head, and while it wasn’t exceptionally large there was a thickness and curve to it that Caleb knew would feel amazing inside him.

He came back to the present moment and released Molly’s cock to reach over and fumble around in the top drawer of his nightstand. “Do you mind?” he asked, holding up a wrapped condom.

“Of course not,” Molly said gently, brushing another lock of hair out of Caleb’s face.

Caleb tore the wrapper open and rolled the condom down Molly’s length, then wasted no time licking a long stripe from the base to the tip.

Molly gasped and Caleb could feel the muscles in his abdomen tense. He repeated the motion one more time before wrapping his lips around the head. He slowly took more of Molly into his mouth as he relaxed into the motions, and he soon fell into the steady, repetitive rhythm that made him enjoy sucking his partners off so much. He found it almost meditative, but at the same time incredibly stimulating, especially with Molly being so vocal above him.

“Fuck that feels good,” Molly gasped, letting his head fall back between his shoulders. “Caleb— ah!”  He took a second to recover his posture after Caleb sucked him down to the hilt and held him there for a moment. Then he returned to rambling praise as Caleb continued his ministrations.

Caleb wanted it harder, wanted Molly to grab him by the hair and fuck his face until his throat felt raw and his eyes teared up. But it had been a long time since he’d done this, and the last thing he wanted was for Molly to feel guilty for accidentally hurting him. So he stayed in control and let Molly lay back and enjoy it, which he seemed perfectly content to do.

Right as Caleb’s jaw was beginning to ache, Molly’s hand flew to the back of his head and he gasped, “Fuck, I’m so— I’m gonna fuckin’ come—“

Caleb took Molly’s length into his mouth one last time, then pulled his lips off with an exaggerated pop and slid the condom off, leaning back and working Molly’s precome-slickened cock with his hand. As promised, Molly finished moments later, painting thick white stripes all over the colorful tattoos on his stomach as he cried out in pleasure.

Molly flopped back onto the bed and ran his hands down over his face. “Holy shit, Caleb. You’re like… fuck. I mean, your mouth. Good job.”

Caleb laughed and wiped the spit from his lips and chin with the back of his hand. He could listen to Molly praising him for the rest of the night, even if it was mostly incoherent babbling. Instead, he stood up and grabbed a handful of tissues to clean up Molly’s stomach.

Once he’d been wiped down, Molly pulled Caleb on top of him before rolling both of them over and holding himself up on his elbows over Caleb. “May I return the favor?” he asked as he kissed his way down Caleb’s neck.

Caleb kissed the tip of his head, on the curls between his horns. This was going to be a good night.

Chapter Text

Caleb awoke to the sound of shrieking. He frowned, sitting up abruptly. He first registered Molly’s naked body curled up next to him, his chest rising and falling slowly and his fingers twitching with a dream. Then the shriek repeated, and his mind had cleared enough sleep-fog to identify the sound of Frumpkin angrily pawing and yelling at the door.

He kissed Molly’s forehead, hopped out of bed, and opened the door while stumbling into a pair of sweatpants. A very irritated Frumpkin greeted him with a yowl, so he scooped up the cat and murmured affectionately as he carried him downstairs, “I’m sorry you had to sleep downstairs in your cat bed instead of in my person bed, you spoiled brat.”

Frumpkin relaxed in his arms— apparently he was forgiven. Any last remnants of annoyance disappeared as Caleb dumped a scoop of food in his bowl.

Caleb hurried back upstairs. He ducked into the bathroom for a few minutes to clean himself up before quietly slipping out of the sweatpants and crawling back in bed next to Molly.

As careful as he’d been, his motions were enough to stir Molly from his sleep. He cracked open a single red eye and squinted up at Caleb. “What are you doing up this early?” he croaked.

“It’s 7am on a workday. That’s not that early.”

Molly groaned and pulled Caleb in close. With his face half buried in Caleb’s hair, he said, “Don’t remind me about work. I want to stay right here in this bed and keep cuddling you and kissing you and fucking you for the next, oh, six months or so.”

Caleb turned in his arms and kissed him gently. “Only six months?”

Molly chuckled and kissed him again. “I like the way you think, darling.”

They made out sloppily and sleepily, growing slowly hard as their hips ground together in lazy gyrations.

Molly’s cock rubbed against the soft skin at the seam of Caleb’s hips, and he would have been content to stay like this until Molly came all over him, but he hadn’t spent that time cleaning himself up for nothing.

Bitte, Molly, I want you to fuck me,” Caleb gasped against his peacock tattoo.

Molly let out a strained moan. “Are you sure?”

“Of course I’m sure. Why did you think I was out of bed before? I’m sure and I’m very, very ready for you to get started.”

“Caleb, you’re perfect,” Molly said as he stared down at him.

Caleb averted his eyes and reached over into the drawer in his nightstand, pulling out a condom and a small bottle of lube. “I as a person am far from perfect, but my ass is pretty close.”

Molly cackled gleefully. “Oh darling, please keep talking dirty.”

Caleb blushed and reached down to unroll the condom onto Molly’s length.

“Aw, don’t tell me that was a one-time thing,” Molly whined when Caleb didn’t continue talking.

“I don’t normally get truly obscene until I’ve got a cock buried in me,” Caleb said with a shy smile.

Molly kissed him deeply as he fumbled one-handed to open the lube and squeeze a generous amount onto his fingers. He spread it around as he tapped Caleb’s legs and said, “C’mon, open up.”

Caleb spread his legs and angled his hips to give Molly easy access. He normally was meek and embarrassed about this part of the process, but today he was so eager for Molly that he would do nearly anything that was asked of him, especially if he kept using that calmly authoritative voice.

Molly’s slicked-up fingers found Caleb’s hole and one began slowly and gently pressing inside. Caleb sighed and relaxed into the mattress, enjoying the slight stretch. It was nice to have something other than his own fingers or a silicone toy inside him. It had been far too long, and Molly had wonderfully dexterous fingers that he moved at a tauntingly slow pace, until Caleb was writhing underneath him and begging for more.

Molly obliged him, gently adding another finger. He was taking things more slowly than Caleb normally liked, but Caleb didn’t mind right now. This was their first time, and they were both still a bit sleepy, and it was a quiet, rainy summer morning that was perfect for slow, lazy morning sex.

Caleb gasped as Molly slid both fingers in harder and curled them forward.

“You okay?” Molly checked.

“M-hm,” Caleb groaned. “I’m good. Very very good. Please do that again.”

Molly did as he was asked, fingering and spreading him and brushing his prostate until Caleb was clinging to his back and incapable of forming sentences beyond gasps of “Gods, yes Molly, yes yes yes, please don’t stop, bitte, Molly, bitte , I need you—“

When Molly removed his fingers, Caleb whined and dropped back onto the pillow. “You ready for me?” Molly asked, palming his own cock.

Ja, Mollymauk, bitte ,” Caleb gasped.

“I think I know what that means, but could I get it in Common just to be sure?”

“It means ‘yes, please.’ Or ‘fuck me senseless right now,’ depending on context.”

Molly leaned down and kissed him. “Thought so. Just checking.”

Caleb bit his lip as Molly pressed slowly into him. He had taken his time preparing Caleb and poured on plenty of lube, but his cock was a little thicker than his fingers had been. Caleb enjoyed the bit of burn, though, and lay back with a blissful, hazy smile as Molly bottomed out inside him.

“Gods, Caleb,” he growled.

This was one of Caleb’s favorite parts about sex— seeing his partner completely lost in the moment, enraptured in pleasure that Caleb gave them. He pulled Molly down by the back of the neck and kissed the tip of his nose. “You can start moving now, bitte. Please.”

Molly nodded and took a moment to reposition himself over Caleb. Then he pulled almost entirely out before thrusting steadily back in. Caleb gasped, and Molly repeated this torturously slow motion several times before slamming his hips forward quickly.

Caleb let out a strangled yelp, and Molly paused, starting to check that he was okay. But Caleb was already groaning, “Fuck that’s good, do it again, please don’t stop Molly—“

So Molly resumed this faster rhythm, and Caleb felt like he was melting into the sheets as pleasure enraptured his mind and filled his body and he was unable to think about anything but the way Molly felt deep inside him.

Caleb could have been happy to just lie there and let Molly pound into him, but there was an image in his mind that he needed to make real.

While Molly was fully buried inside of him, Caleb wrapped his thighs tight to Molly’s waist and rolled them both over, so he was sitting on his lap. He stayed still there for a moment, his hands wandering the rainbow expanse of Molly’s tattooed chest.

Molly fell back against the pillow with a delighted grin.

The reality of this moment was so much better than Caleb had imagined. No amount of lazy fantasizing could have constructed the brightness of Molly’s eyes or his gentle hold on Caleb’s thighs or the way a couple of dark curls stuck to the sweat on his forehead.

Caleb lifted himself up slowly, keeping a close watch on Molly’s face as he did so. He smiled to himself as he saw Molly’s eyes close and his plump lips part ever so slightly. He looked so peaceful and happy, and Caleb’s heart lit up knowing that he was the one making him feel this way.

Caleb raised and lowered himself straight up and down a few times, re-familiarizing himself with the motions. It had been a while since he’d done this, and it took a few moments for his muscle memory to kick in. When he finally hit his stride, he couldn’t fight off a loud moan as Molly slipped in and out of him, fingers tightening on the meat of Caleb’s pale thighs.

When Molly began thrusting up to meet Caleb’s hips, he was completely gone. He gasped and cursed in Common and Zemnian and he wanted to watch how Molly was reacting but that took a level of thinking that he was currently incapable of. All that mattered was that Molly was inside him and his moans were filling Caleb’s ears and he felt so good and so full and for these few moments, the bad thoughts couldn’t cut through the good.

Caleb ground his hips down onto Molly’s in a smooth figure-eight while absently tugging his own cock. The mix of sensations was almost overwhelming, and he didn’t want this moment to end— there were so many things that he still wanted to do with and to and for Molly, but he didn’t have the time or stamina for all of that in this one morning, so he just relaxed into the pleasure as he reached his climax and painted Molly’s stomach and chest with glistening white streaks.

Fueled by the sight of Caleb on top of him, Molly was close behind, finishing with a deep growl before slumping back into the sheets. “Fuck,” was all he was able to gasp.

Caleb slipped off his softening cock and flopped down next to him. “ Ja. I agree.”

Molly pulled him close and kissed him. “I wasn’t expecting you to take control like that. It was… really fucking hot.”

Caleb blushed. After riding Molly’s cock and covering his stomach in come, that was what made Caleb blush, Molly complimenting him.

They lay in silence for a few minutes, letting their bodies come down from their orgasms and their breathing return to normal. Finally, Molly traced his fingers up and down Caleb’s arm as he said, “I guess we should get cleaned up. I have an appointment this morning, and I probably shouldn’t meet with a client looking like I just got fucked.”

Caleb sighed. “You’re probably right. Do you think we can shower together without going in for a round two?”

“It’ll take a mighty effort, but I think I can handle it,” Molly replied. He tossed his tied-off condom in the trash can by Caleb’s desk and followed him to the bathroom.

Caleb stepped into the shower and pulled Molly in after him. Molly was used to a big, modern standing shower that could comfortably fit two (or three if you really tried), so Caleb’s clawfoot porcelain tub was an unexpected challenge.

Caleb dragged a washcloth down Molly’s chest and abs to wipe away the last traces of come. “You’re very beautiful,” he said, thinking out loud.

“I know I am.”

Caleb laughed. “I’m glad.”

By some miracle, they managed to finish their shower without going at each other again. As Molly stood in front of the steamed-up mirror combing out his curls, Caleb paced by the tub rubbing his hair dry with a towel. There was something calming and familiar about doing these morning rituals with Molly beside him. He could get used to this, used to waking up next to Molly and getting ready in comfortable silence together, because while the sex had been great and he definitely wanted more of that, this right now was home.

He walked up behind Molly and draped his arms around his waist, resting his scruffy chin on his shoulder.

“I’ve grown very fond of you very quickly, Mollymauk.”

Molly turned his head to peck Caleb’s cheek. “I’m very fond of you as well, Caleb.”

They stayed like that for a few more moments, then Caleb released Molly’s waist and wrapped a towel around his own hips. “I’m going to go get dressed. Take your time though, I’m not rushing you out of here.”

“I should be rushing,” Molly laughed. “I have an appointment to get to soon. Though the one-minute commute does give me some wiggle room.”

Caleb returned to his room and left the door open while he dressed. Molly joined him moments later.

“Hey, my jeans are fine but could I snag a clean shirt?” he asked.

Caleb’s heart fluttered at the idea of Molly wearing his clothes. “ Ja , sure!”

As he began digging through his drawers, the fluttering ceased a bit. Of course Molly wouldn’t want to wear one of his drab gray button-ups or a brown sweater— he was a walking kaleidoscope of color, not a boring nerdy wizard.

“Something wrong?” Molly asked as he bunny-hopped around the room trying to shimmy back into his distressed skintight jeans.

Nein ,” Caleb said, his hand closing around a fistful of white fabric. He tossed his vintage rainbow pride t-shirt to Molly.

“Aww, thank you!” Molly exclaimed, recognizing the shirt immediately and clutching it close to his chest. “I promise I’ll give it back eventually.”

He tugged it carefully over his horns and stepped in front of the mirror to examine himself. The shirt was a comfortable fit on Caleb, so it clung pretty tightly to Molly’s slightly larger frame. Caleb wasn’t complaining, though, and judging by his pleased expression, Molly wasn’t either.

“One of these days, I’ll take you shopping and teach you how to wear color,” Molly said, looking past Caleb into the open drawers of neutral-toned clothes.

“I do wear color. I have a couple pairs of blue jeans. Even a nice hunter green button-down for fancy occasions.” Caleb smiling tauntingly.

“You probably can’t tell because I don’t have pupils, but I’m rolling my eyes at you right now.”

Caleb loved how easy it was to laugh and smile around Molly.

Molly shrugged on his vest and checked his pockets for his wallet and phone. “I’ve gotta get going. I wish I didn’t, but you know. Life and my career and shit.”

“Of course. May I walk you out?”

Molly smiled wide. “Aw, such a gentleman.”

Caleb fidgeted with the frayed collar of his black polo. “You flatter me.”

He led Molly downstairs to the ground floor. They stood under the dim incandescent light of the back room and Caleb stood up to kiss Molly. It wasn’t as intense and passionate as last night or earlier this morning, but there was a comfort and ease to it that hadn’t been there before.

“Thank you for giving me a chance, Caleb,” Molly said.

Caleb kissed him again. “And thank you for giving me a blowjob.”

Molly laughed into the kiss. “You’re funnier than you give yourself credit for.”

Caleb held both Molly’s hands where they hung at his sides. “This has been really good, Mollymauk. And I mean everything, not just the sex. Spending time with you, getting to know more about you. I know that it’s hard rebuild yourself, to be the person you want to be instead of the one everyone expects you to be, and I’m still struggling at it, but you give me hope that getting better is possible.”

Molly pulled him into a tight embrace, burying his face in Caleb’s hair. “I’m still knee deep in my old bullshit, but I’m trying, too. So how about we try together?”

Caleb nodded against the crook of his neck. “ Ja ,” he murmured. “Let’s try.”

After one last kiss, Molly left the room and headed next door. Caleb stood in the back room for an indeterminate amount of time, processing the events of the past day.

He’d found someone who was patient and honest with him, who understood the difficulty of healing, who was odd and a bit of an outcast and didn't mind that Caleb was too.

As Caleb worked through the familiar routine of opening the store for the day, he didn’t even try to fight the smile on his face.

Chapter Text

“You what ?” Beau demanded, her brows high above her pale eyes. “Are you fucking serious right now?”

When he’d first met her, Caleb would have mistaken Beau’s tone for anger, but he’d known her long enough to understand that she was just genuinely curious.

“I am,” he replied.

“Good for you, Caleb. I’m happy for the both of you,” Fjord said.

“Is he your one true love? Are you going to get married? Is his dick pierced?” Jester demanded in rapid succession.

The four of them and Nott were gathered behind the counter of The Traveler’s Blessing. It was late, well past closing, and the cafe was dark and empty except for their small group and a couple lights above them. It had been a while since they’d hung out like this, and Caleb was enjoying it. Or at least he had been until he’d finally confessed that he and Molly were together, prompting this barrage of questions.

Nott scowled at Jester. “You heard him, they’ve barely been seeing each other a week. Caleb’s not some trollop who already knows what his dick looks like.”

There was a moment of pause, then Caleb said, “Surprisingly it’s not pierced. Very purple, though.”

Everyone but Nott burst out laughing, and Fjord high-fived him.

“I’m so proud of you,” Jester sighed.

Nott didn’t look angry as much as confused. “Caleb, we’re roommates . I think I’d notice if you had Molly over or stayed the night at his place!”

Caleb hopped up onto the counter next to Beau. “I told you, we had a date when you were gone in Alfield!”

Beau playfully punched his shoulder. “Fuckin’ on the first date? Nice job, man.”

“Are you sure you’re not moving too fast?” Nott asked. “You normally take relationships a bit slower…”

“I’m sure. He makes me very happy.” This seemed to comfort Nott, and she nodded her barely-hesitant approval.

Caleb was blushing furiously by this point, but his friends were all being supportive in their own odd ways. He’d been nervous about this part for days, afraid of being forced to choose between his longtime friends and his new boyfriend— he didn’t want to have to make that decision, to even think about it.

“Now we just need to get Beau and Yasha on a date!” Jester cried. Caleb was glad for the shift in everyone’s attention, though he was sure he hadn’t heard the end of it. He was content to listen to Jester’s increasingly elaborate plan to get Yasha and Beau together, and occasionally duck aside as Beau tried to kick at her.

His phone vibrated in his pocket, and he checked it to see a message from Molly reading, “we’ll be there in a minute!!”

Caleb responded, “Great, we’ll meet you out front.” He blushed as he looked at the text conversation, knowing that just a swipe or two up was a series of nudes from Molly, when he’d been feeling “especially pretty and generous” last night. Caleb had never received nudes before, never really had wanted to, but gods damn did that tiefling know how to work a full-length mirror, phone camera, and a few bits of black lace.

He shook his head to return to the present moment and said, “Molly and Yasha are almost here.”

The group headed out in front of the cafe and Jester locked up behind them. They could see the distinct forms of their friends moving towards them on the mostly-empty sidewalk a block or so down.

When they got close, Caleb stepped forward to greet Molly with a quick peck on the lips. Molly draped his arm around Caleb’s shoulders and grinned brightly. “So you finally told them?”

Jester immediately squealed, “I just wanna say, you two are like the cutest couple ever. Hey Yasha, isn’t it great that Molly has a boyfriend now? Are there any particular martial arts instructors that you’ve met recently that you think are really attractive?”

Beau groaned and stepped behind Fjord while Yasha frowned at Jester. “Um, I don’t… what?”

“Let’s go, we’re gonna be late,” Fjord said, trying to keep the peace before Beau started throwing punches at Jester.

Molly left his arm loosely draped around Caleb. It wasn’t a possessive gesture, just a casual way to be close to him. Caleb smiled to himself as they made their way towards the local indie theater that was doing a special midnight showing of Fjord’s favorite classic horror movie, The Creature from Labenda Swamp. This was the kind of normal, quiet moment he couldn’t have pictured himself enjoying even just a few years ago. But the summer air was warm, Molly’s arm was solid and grounding around him, their friends were laughing and joking.

And, in this moment, Caleb was happy.