We were in the gold room where everyone
finally gets what they want, so I said What do you
want, sweetheart? and you said Kiss me.
- Richard Siken, “Snow and Dirty Rain”
When the time comes, he greets him like an old friend, arms flung wide. “There you are!” says Molly, and Caleb’s heart leaps into his throat at the sight of him.
It has been so long. He walks forward, and Molly’s arms wrap around him, and the ache sloughs off his old bones just like that.
“I’ve missed you!” laughs Molly, twirling him around. Caleb doesn’t stop his own laugh, bubbling out of his chest, up his throat, past his lips. He’s missed him so. “Gods, I’ve missed you and everyone else so much.”
“Put me down, Mollymauk,” says Caleb, and Molly complies, setting him down as gently as possible. A tattooed hand comes up, rests against Caleb’s cheek. “I have missed you too.”
Molly smiles, and leans in—
The first time he sees the boy—for he is only a boy, in truth, as they all are in this war, huddled together in a trench with fifty other smelly, sweaty, fearful boys—the first time, the boy is holding a cigarette between soot-stained fingers. God only knows where he took it from. A dead man, thinks Caleb. No shortage of those here, and dead men have no need of cigarettes where they are going.
The boy catches him staring and smiles, softly.
He hadn’t realized there was anything soft left in any of them.
“Aren’t you a sight,” says the boy, tapping on the cigarette. Embers fall to the ground, burning brightly before they’re smothered by the mud. Caleb scrambles closer, because the boy’s a sight too and he wants to drink him in, before the war burns him out, burns them both and smothers the embers under mud and dead bodies. “I don’t have any more cigarettes, before you ask. Stole this one, you see.”
Of course he did. Caleb huffs out a quiet laugh and says, “I don’t suppose you’re willing to share? I have not had a good smoke in some time.” His memory offers: smoke curling out of his mouth, the night he was shipped out here. Nott leaning against his side, saying, but you’ll come back, right?
I will come back.
“For someone with eyes like yours, of course I’ll share,” says the boy, and he passes the cigarette over. Caleb fumbles with it, somewhat, fingers trembling from the bitter cold, but he manages eventually. He breathes in the smoke and breathes it out, watches the smoke puff out and curl into aimless figures. “What’s your name?”
“Marie,” says the boy, and Caleb huffs out a laugh. “My parents wanted a girl. Very badly.”
“Is that why you’re here?” says Caleb.
“Not really,” says Marie, with a shrug. “I was drafted.”
“I enlisted,” says Caleb, thinking of faded posters on brick walls, his parents’ pride, Nott asking him to come back.
“God, you poor bastard,” says Marie, sympathetic. He reaches for his cigarette again and says, “When I get out of here, you know what I’m going to do?”
“Hm?” Caleb hands his cigarette back to him, watches the end of it glow for a moment before Marie breathes out the smoke.
“Join a circus,” says Marie, with a bright grin, eyes like stars in the dim light. “I’m very flexible. I could be an acrobat, easy, or maybe juggle swords. Or, ooh, tell fortunes.” He huffs out a laugh. “I’m good at bullshit, I’d be best at fortune-telling.”
“Are you?” says Caleb.
Marie tilts his head towards him, and there’s something sly about his smile now, something almost like a promise. It makes Caleb’s heart hammer against his ribcage, a dangerous beat. “I could show you,” he says, almost crooning. “Give me your palm, I’ll do a reading.”
Caleb debates this internally for a few moments, before he sighs, relenting, and holds his hand out. Marie sticks the cigarette in his mouth—it makes him look ridiculous, frankly—and for the next ten minutes proceeds to tell Caleb about the future he sees for him: the wife and three kids (Caleb does not like girls, and the only kid he can stand is Nott), the white house with a picket fence (they can’t afford a picket fence), the roast chicken waiting for him when he gets back home (when, like it’s a certainty).
“I could almost believe you,” says Caleb, afterwards. “Although you were missing a couple things.”
“I could do a more thorough reading,” says Marie. “Come with me?”
Caleb goes, and—
(Dear Mrs. Weiss, we regret to inform you that on the night of July 16, your son Caleb was killed in action…)
The first time Molly sees the warlock, it’s in a cell somewhere in Westruun, and he’s chained up like a dog to the wall. It’s a sickening sight, and it’s enough for Molly to pick the lock of the cell door as discreetly as possible before he lets it creak open, just loudly enough to wake the man.
Well, that and the promise of a couple hundred gold coins from some very desperate adventurers.
The warlock startles, and blinks up at him. His eyes are bloodshot from lack of sleep, and he stares at Molly like he’s just seen a ghost, rather than a lithe half-orc rogue. “Who—”
“Mollymauk Tealeaf, at your service,” says Molly, with a grin, exposing tusks. “The Margrave’s strict as hell, isn’t she? No, no, don’t move just yet, the collar’s been magicked, but I know how to deal with that.” He flicks out a small knife and goes to work on the collar, and in a flash the damnable thing falls away with a clatter to the ground.
The warlock’s hand flies up to his neck, and he blinks at Molly. “Oh,” he says. “What—What are you doing here?”
“Your friends hired me,” says Molly. “You know, big red tiefling sailor, nervous little gnome girl, very rude drow elf, humongous monk woman, and your twin the tricksy one.”
“That would be Jester,” says the warlock, resigned. “My name is Caleb, by the way.”
“Oh, such a pleasure to meet you, Caleb,” says Molly, brightly, pulling him to his feet. “Come on, we’d better get moving. The guards are going to wise up to the fact that the very nice elven man who left them cookies laced the cookies with something extra.”
“What did you do?” says Caleb, horrified.
Molly pulls him out of the cell and says, “I made their days more interesting! As well as indirectly caused the stench of their bathrooms to worsen, but they deserved it.”
And Molly pulls him out to freedom, and for a moment when the light catches on Caleb’s hair, he half-thinks he sees red hair and blue eyes, instead of Jester’s blonde hair and green eyes. Then Caleb turns back to him and squints at him.
“Huh,” he says.
“Huh, what?” says Molly, clicking his heels together. The world slows down around him, and he winds an arm around Caleb.
Whatever Caleb says is lost to the wind, as Molly pulls him away from the jail and into the sunlight, where a motley group of adventurers waits.
(The last time is two years later: there’s a dragon flying above them, and Caleb is dying in his arms.
“Come on,” says Molly, desperate, “come on, come on, Caleb, you magical bastard, just hold on, Nott’s coming—”
“Oh, liebling,” Caleb coughs, a trembling hand pressing into Molly’s hair. It’s wrong, it’s all wrong, this shouldn’t be happening, this can’t be happening. “I’m—I’m so sorry—”
“No, don’t say that—”
“I wish we—I wish we could’ve gotten it right,” says Caleb, wistfully. “We almost did. They—They were good years.” And he pulls Molly’s head down, so gentle, so slow, trembling all the while. “I love you,” he whispers, and kisses Molly, ash-stained lips pressing against Molly’s. He tastes copper on his tongue, mixed with ash and dirt.
Molly feels it, the moment Caleb’s heart finally stops.
When Nott finds him, he’s still got Caleb’s cold body in his arms.)
He sees the gladiator from afar—the dark curls, the cocksure smile, the way he plays to the crowd like a born showman. He comes closer, closer, and the gladiator turns to see him, seems to almost smile when he does. His heart beats fast against his chest.
His friend calls him back, and he has to tear his eyes away from the nameless gladiator. He goes.
A week later they will drag the man’s body out of the arena, bloodied and broken, and he will not think of him again.
(This is a lie—he will always wonder of what could have been.)
My dearest, Mathews,
Philadelphia has been hellish. It’s a very big place, yes, and of course you say I should be glad that the damnable redcoats have even allowed me to have free reign of the place, but the fact remains: it is very nearly the closest thing this mortal realm may have to hell. And considering the kinds of dreams I have been graced with lately, I know what I speak of.
I was able to receive your latest missive from the courier, with only minimal spatters of mud and blood. I also happened to hear word from a mutual acquaintance of a certain colonel trying to challenge you to a duel, although whatever for I couldn’t imagine. Did you poke our poor ham too hard at last, and without me to witness? I am offended, well and truly, that you did not think to include such an incident in your letters. I specifically asked that you do as such. You know I like to hear you, and hear of you. To deprive me of these tales is tantamount to highway robbery, and you, bandit that you are, have made off with far too much of me already. It is only fair that I have some of you in return.
I am doing well enough, despite the hell named Philadelphia and the redcoats. I was able to acquire, for a shilling and tuppence, a well-decorated hat, the likes of which have never before graced the head of a Continental soldier. I believe I shall be the talk of the army when I am released back into the war, and can safely fly to your side.
I dream of you, do you know that? I dream that you are a magical thing, destined for something bright. I can already hear you and Jester laughing at me even as I write, but I say it anyway: I dream of you wreathed in flames, so bright I can barely stand to look at you. You are something else, my dear, and I thank god everyday that I, and only I, know you so well to know this. I know that, when this war is done, you may resume your studies in law—but I ask that you consider an assistant, at least. I submit myself for a thorough examination, but I believe you will find me an excellent candidate and a worthy assistant for your needs as a lawyer, for I already know you, and am trained quite well for your purposes. Who knows? You may even outdo the ham in our camp, with my help.
I miss you terribly. Send my regards to Jessica and Nora, as well as Lieutenants Bowman, Ford and Yardley. Enclosed for Nora is a brass button that I stole from one of the redcoats—she may find it a worthy addition to her collection. Please tell Yardley and Bowman that I have not ceased the search for socks they can stuff in sensitive areas, but can the latter please quit in harrying the courier pigeon so much.
(There is a grave in New York, after the war. There is a group gathered around it, a funeral held in the rain, and soon only one man stands at the grave.
“Nelly?” says Lieutenant Ford. “You okay?”
“You go on ahead, I’ll catch up,” says Nelly, not looking up. He hears Ford’s footsteps squelching in the mud, and waits until it has faded away, out of earshot. Then he takes his hat off his head and kneels down on freshly-turned earth, runs his hand over the edge of the gravestone.
Above, he thinks he can hear the cry of a dragon. A knot in his chest twists, painful, as though someone buried the point of a glaive in it.
“Caleb,” says Molly, “you asshole, the war was almost over.” His vision blurs until the name carved into the stone swims, rearranges into a more familiar name. “Why did you have to go first, this time? You could’ve just waited. You could’ve just waited.”
No answer. Nothing but the wind, blowing past his ears, and the rain falling down on him and the grave.
“We almost had it,” says Molly, into the air, into the sky. “We were almost there.”)
Caleb catches sight of a man in the audience, bright-eyed and handsome, and feels the Tug. Capital T richly deserved here, because Caleb has been around playwrights and actors well enough to know when something is suitably dramatic enough to deserve the capital letter. This, perhaps, is one.
The man is tall, dark hair pulled back, skin a little darker than most Caleb’s seen around. Fastened around his neck is a beautifully-embroidered cape, which is enough of a sign that he does not quite belong here in the Globe, among the commoners that like to cram themselves in—but he leans forward with an interest in his eyes.
Caleb catches the man’s gaze with his own. For a moment, he half-sees red eyes instead of brown, horns instead of a hat.
He gives his all in that night’s performance, and when everyone applauds, the man in the cape claps the loudest.
They catch each other outside the theatre, and the man says, “My name’s Mollymauk, by the way.”
Caleb freezes in place, having taken off the costume and the crown of King Lear. He is only himself now, small and weak and cowering, and this man could be dangerous to him. Actors with specific proclivities are common, Caleb has had a few nights with some of his friends in his time, but this man is different. There’s something about him—
“I won’t hurt you,” says Mollymauk, taking his hand. He sounds sincere, and suddenly Caleb realizes: they’re just the same height. “Unless you want me to, in which case I would still try not to hurt you too badly.”
“What do you want?” Caleb hisses.
“Your name, for starters,” says Mollymauk. “And—I do believe you were looking at me, during the play.” He actually preens a little, and in the dim torchlight, Caleb catches sight of painted peacock feathers decorating the side of the man’s neck. “Were you?”
“I don’t see men like you around often,” says Caleb.
“Merchants?” says Mollymauk, wryly. “Your friend Will is a merchant himself, and I daresay you see him often.”
“He doesn’t dress as you do,” Caleb shoots back, gesturing to Mollymauk’s cape. “You’re more garish than I am, in the play.”
“Garish!” says Mollymauk, sounding more delighted than he really ought to. God, this is the man he’s being Tugged towards, by fate or destiny or whatever Will might say is ordering him about. “You’re not the first one to say that. Very well—if you want, you can take it off me.”
Caleb stares at him. “Now?” he says, flabbergasted by the man’s brazenness.
“In my room at the nearest tavern, of course,” says Mollymauk. “Come with me, Master…”
Caleb sighs. “Caleb Walters,” he says.
Mollymauk squints at him. “Huh,” he says, and tugs him away from the theatre.
(They do not meet again, after that night. Mollymauk takes a ship out of England, searching for fortune, and finds nothing but a watery grave.
Caleb doesn’t know this until he’s thirty-nine, pushing forty, and he drinks just enough that when he wakes up, he’s in another place entirely.
Mollymauk—purple skin, tattoos, horns and all—kneels down next to him and says, “Did you really just drink yourself to death? I expected that of Nott, yeah, but you?”
“What the fuck,” says Caleb, pushing himself up. “Mollymauk! When did you get here? I thought you had years in you yet.”
“Ships and storms don’t mix well, apparently,” says Mollymauk, with a huff of breath. He still has the cape he wore in this life, although it’s wetter now, and he irritably wrings out some water from the edges. It’s almost comical, really, how annoyed he looks that the state of his cape at his death has carried over into this in-between world. “We could probably rate this better than the last one. At least we actually met.”
Caleb sighs. “Next time, I suppose,” he says.
“Next time,” says Molly, ducking in for a kiss. A tail curls around Caleb’s midsection and pulls him in closer. “We’ll get it right.”)
This is how to get it right:
First, fuck up. Lie to your college roommate, best friend, first maybe-love for years, and let him leave when he finds out. Lie to him again. And again. And again. The guilt that kicks in your ribcage is an old and familiar friend by now, anyway.
Second, try to knit something back together out of the mess the two of you have made of your friendship. This requires drinks. (Try not to run into your other first love.)
Third, if you’ve run into your other first love—
Pull yourself out of the rubble. Recover for a long time at a convent, slipping in and out of consciousness. Dream of another time, another place, someone named Molly, someone named Caleb. Remember that they almost, almost had something good.
Climb through a window and almost give your best friend a fucking heart attack.
“Hi,” says Matt, gingerly stepping into his apartment once more. He’s internally debated this moment over and over, tried to figure out the best way to break the news, but this is—well, unexpected, to say the least. He’d only wanted to sleep a night here, he hadn’t counted on Foggy opening the door at the same time he landed on the fire escape, in full view of whoever’s coming in.
“I’ve fucking lost it,” says Foggy. “I knew I was already losing it when I started dreaming of having purple skin and tattoos and a tail. Now I’ve gone completely nuts.”
“You haven’t,” says Matt. “I, um, Foggy, I—”
“You were dead,” says Foggy.
“Yeah,” says Matt. “Not really, no. I was in a coma, though—I only just got out of it.” He cocks his head to the side, taking in Foggy’s smell—sweat, alcohol, cheap department store cologne, cheap shampoo. “I would’ve called ahead, if I could’ve, but I kinda lost my phone at Midland Circle.”
“You are the world’s biggest fucking asshole, Matthew Murdock,” says Foggy, but he’s walking forward and engulfing Matt in a hug. God, Matt’s missed these hugs something fierce, although a tiny little part of him, influenced maybe by Stick and maybe by someone named Caleb, hates that he misses them so much. “Never do that again! God, Matt, please. I really, honestly thought—”
“Sorry,” says Matt. “I’m so sorry.”
“I’m so glad you’re back,” says Foggy. “I’m so glad you’re alive, because I thought about this, I really did—”
And that’s the last thing Matt knows before Foggy’s crushing his lips against Matt’s, tasting like the remnants of cheap alcohol and mouthwash, too-sweet coffee and too-salty popcorn, even lipstick, a little bit. Matt’s too stunned for a moment to even think, but he’s quick enough to kiss back.
It’s familiar, even right. It ignites a low heat in Matt’s stomach, and he slips his hand into Foggy’s hair and half-expects to find horns, or something.
Foggy breaks away, much too soon, and Matt whines when he does. “I’m pissed at you,” he informs him. “Just so we’re clear. I will absolutely yell at you later for letting yourself get buried under a fucking building.” He drags Matt into a hug again and says, muffled, into his chest, “But, god, Matt, I’m just glad we get to do this right, this time.”
“Yeah,” says Matt, and for a moment he thinks of snow, blood on snow, and a coat stained dark with blood. It won’t happen this time, either. He’ll make sure of it. “Yeah, me too.”