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“Misrule. Ceasefire has been declared. Return to the capital without delay.”

“Noted.”

-------------

It took the Lords of Misrule three weeks to make their way back through the lines of battle to Ghor Dranas. The march was grim. Hard on everyone except Jester – the Traveller keeping her from the exhaustion of travel. Despite arriving road-weary and drooping, the five members of Misrule were summoned immediately into the presence of Lady Estirwhyr. She looked tired herself and greeted them with something between a smile and a grimace.

“Captain Fancypants. Good to have you back.”

“It is good to be back, but we are all really really tired, so can this wait until tomorrow?” asked Jester. She was not drooping like the others, but she was still tired and would need to give the Traveller plenty of thanks before bed tonight for their safe travels.

“Not exactly,” Lady Estirwhyr said, with her smile leaving her grimace. “We are in the process of brokering peace with the Dwendali ---”

“What?!” Molly exclaimed. “We are so close to circumventing them! Nott was right there for Korhast and his team to take. Without her, they will fall . . . Something happened to Korhast.”

It was not difficult to read her face.

“Nott got the drop on them. We still don’t know how. She outright killed Korhast and the rest were rounded up and captured.” Lady Estirwhyr paused for a moment to rise and walk over to her drinks cabinet. “I know you did the set up, and I do not believe the leak came from you. Not everyone feels the same, given Beau’s . . . past allegiances.”

They stood in silence for a moment as Estirwhyr poured drinks and passed them around.

“Korhast is not the only reason for the peace talks,” Estirwhyr continued after reseating herself and taking a sip. “The Widowmaker was not as . . . distracted . . . as we had hoped. Gefta made the call that he could take Astrid. And he even managed to kill Astrid before it all went belly up. The Archmage burned him down after he was worn out from fighting her.”

“D’ya think the Widowmaker arrived late?” asked Fjord. “Or did he set Astrid up?”

“Definitely a set-up, or at least he didn’t care enough to save her. If he was close enough to block Gefta’s escape, he could have stepped in and helped her. I don’t buy this nick of time bullshit. Not to mention, our people found enough of her remains burned out on the field that he can’t be wanting to resurrect her.”

“So,” said Molly, blinking at her blearily. “We are down two mages and they are down one.”

“Unfortunately, the two we lost were the last who could even give that bastard pause. We have no counter to his firestorms. We must sue for peace.”

“Well this is lovely and all,” said Molly, running a hand down his face, shoulders drooping. “But why could this, frankly, wonderful news not wait until morning?”

“Both sides are pushing for a marriage to seal the peace,” said Estirwhyr. “The royals all have cold feet and are stating incompatible ages as the reason. Three days ago, some brilliant person proposed a marriage between the finest war heroes of our two nations.”

“Was that sarcasm?” asked Fjord.

She frowned at him.

“It wasn’t. It’s actually a good idea. We have angled for Archmage Widogast, but they have angled for a member of our legendary Lords of Misrule. We don’t have any wizards worth their time anymore.”

The room was silent as the five Lords of Misrule stared at their superior officer. She took in their tired but shocked looks.

“I wanted to tell you as soon as I could,” Estirwyr said, rubbing her eyes tiredly. “I know you have taken plenty of shit out there fighting for us, but ---”

“He is a monster,” Yasha stated.

“Yes. Yes, he is. But if all I need to do is marry one of you to him to keep him from burning this whole Empire to the ground, I will drag you kicking and screaming to the altar myself!” She looked them in the eyes one after the other, her face serious. “I told you now so that you would have a chance to think on it while you rest. We will discuss it more on the morrow.”

The Lords of Misrule looked to one another, a bit stunned. Fjord made the first move, giving a bitter chuckle and downing his drink.

“Hope you sleep well m’lady,” he said giving her a mocking salute with the glass before placing it on her desk and stalking out. The others all wearily followed his lead, soundlessly heading to warm beds with cold thoughts to keep them company.

-----------

The Lords of Misrule gathered the next morning in the middle of their private barracks. They hadn’t always been private, but the war had been harsh.

“We have to marry the bastard,” said Beau, with shoulders slumped. “We can’t let the war keep going. Gotta do it.”

“It isn’t ‘we’ exactly,” said Molly, delicately. “One of us. And I’m guessing Estirwyr told us early so we’d have the opportunity, nay the privilege, of choosing which of these lambs is sent to the slaughter.”

“Well, I’m out,” said Beau. “Sorry, but I think I’m still technically one of theirs.” She shrugged her shoulders up defensively. “Not that I’m scared or squeamish or anything . . .”

“We know you are not,” said Yasha. “I would also prefer it not to be me. I mean . . . I am not . . . you know.” She ended it with a vague hand gesture.”

“Not straight?”

“Too angry?”

“Prone to just wandering off.”

“Socially awkw---”

“Thanks guys,” said Yasha, the irritation in her voice and eyes undermined by her small relieved smile.

They stood for a moment awkwardly.

“Now I don’t mean this to be a burden on you two,” Fjord spoke up, gesturing at Molly and Jester. “But I ain’t that . . . comfortable . . . with these sorts of things at the best of times.”

“The best of times involving a woman?”

“Right, Molly.”

“Well don’t you worry your chaste little head,” Molly said, patting him on the shoulder. “I’m sure myself and Jester can sort this one out. Isn’t that right Jester.” Jester, when he turned to face her, was drawing little circles on the ground with her toe, pointedly not looking at him.

“AAAActually,” she squeaked. “I, um, I would really, really, really appreciate it if you could cover this one Molly.”

“But, I thought. I mean. You are so proud of your mother, and all that?” Molly had gone from cool and calm to jerky and flustered in just moments.

“Well, I know. I know. She is the best lay ever, and I am really, really good at it,” her eyes flicked across to Fjord. “But, if I’m so good at it. Well, what if he wants it all the time. I just don’t want to do that. Besides, I don’t think the Traveller would be happy with me staying in one place for all that time. Because he really likes it when I go places, but people’s wives mostly have to stay home, but it wouldn’t even be home properly like Nicodranus.”

Molly put his hand on her shoulder to stop her. After a moment she looked up at him and met his eyes.

“These are good points you are making,” he said, gently. “But there is no certainty that either side will allow a barren union. Well, Xhorhas will.” He smiled grimly. “If they do allow it, I will take this one for the team. I mean, chances are he is straight, and I will be off the hook after the first night.”

“But you like sex,” said Yasha, after a moment.

“Not as much as I like the idea of peace and not seeing burned out fields of dead men.” They all stood in sombre contemplation for a few beats. “But, with that sorted. My friends! Breakfast probably awaits somewhere in this miserable keep. And then we can go enlighten our fair lady.”

At Molly’s prompting they did their best to shake of their trepidation, and just enjoy their first proper breakfast in too long.

Chapter Text

He had a reputation. The Firebrand, the Widowmaker, Inferno. They said he was cold, ice at the heart of a firestorm hot enough to melt plate armour. They said that if you looked him in the eyes, you would freeze to death. Or that you would burn. Or your mind would break. He walked in the hushed silence of murdered conversations. He had saved the Empire. Everyone agreed he was a hero, but they also feared him. The war had raged for ten long years, long enough for his reputation to grow. Long enough that parents on both sides scared their children into obedience with stories about him. They would say: “If you do not go to sleep, the Archmage will hear you and come a’knocking” or: “If you do not help about the house we will have to sell you to the Archmage for him to use in his spells” or, worst he had heard: “If you play with fire the archmage will see you burned. All fires belong to him.” At first, he had hated it, but hoped at least those in the Empire would stop when they realised that he needed to do this to keep them all safe. Despite Nott’s best efforts to spread rumours of his good deeds they did not stop, and Caleb still hated it. Now, though, he was certain he deserved worse.

He had done a thousand things wrong, a thousand things right. He had lived and breathed the war, and often it had felt like right and wrong had lost themselves in the fray. Now, hopefully, in sealing the peace he would be getting something right. A message had been sent two weeks into the peace talks: “We want this sealed with a marriage. No royals, between war heroes. They are asking for you. Agree or disagree.” He had agreed. Anything to end the slaughter.

They were to be married in the temple of Erathis, the Lawbearer, on the first day of Summer, and it was decked out for the occasion. An avalanche of pale flowers lined the sills of the stained-glass windows. The sun painted the interior red, blue, and green. Caleb was not, however, exactly in the mind-set to admire the beauty of the surroundings. He stood frozen by the altar while the last of the guests filed in, silently screaming in abject mortification inside his head. His dress uniform itched but if he moved to scratch or adjust the cuffs he would begin to fuss, then pace, then run. He closed his eyes for a moment as the room fell into a waiting hush. I am here to make things right, he thought. Not to run away. The urge didn’t even waver. He opened his eyes and fixed them on the arch above the door as the music began, taking deep and even breaths in an effort to quell his nerves.

Wedding day nerves. It was almost laughable really. He knew more than nothing about the figure moving down the aisle towards him, thanks to Nott, but he did not know them. If they knew anything about him, they would know he was a monster. As it was likely to be either Jester or Mollymauk of the Lords of Misrule, there was no question. They were the team the Xhorhasians primarily sent to clean up the messes that Nott made, but that did not mean they had not seen his messes. He and Nott had crossed Fjord (conservative and likely very straight), Beauregard (a monk, and primarily interested in women), and Yasha (conservative, and seemingly interested in women) off the primary list. Only he and Nott would have bothered to make a primary and secondary list of the five potential matches.

Whoever it was had reached him and moved to stand, modestly looking down, across the small wedding altar from him. He transferred his gaze smoothly across to a pillar just to the left of their hood.

“Likely not Jester,” Nott’s voice observed, coming from somewhere just inside his ear. “She would be more . . . outgoing. DON’TYOUDAREREPLYTOTHISMESSAGE.”

Caleb felt his face twitch to wince at the quiet yell inside his head, and quickly schooled his expression. He just had to hold it together. The priest began to talk about the joy of the peace that this union was to bring. Nicely circumventing any talk of love.

“I still don’t have eyes on Misrule,” Nott messaged. “Not likely Yasha though, given the size. Again, do not reply.”

“And now,” announced the priest. “The ceremony of mantles.”

Caleb took his cue and stepped to the side, so the altar would not be between them for this bit. To be honest, it wasn’t worse than a military parade. But you are never exactly the one on parade at the military parades, the traitor voice in his head whispered. Now everyone is looking at you, and only you. He wished fervently that his anxiety would shut up, as he stepped forward to remove his spouse-to-be’s hood.

Purple.

Mollymauk.

Well this suggested that that the Xhorhasians weren’t after a lasting peace. Unless they placed more stress on adoptions than here in the Dwendalian Empire. It was a lot easier to consider the political ramifications of the match than to consider the fact that Mollymauk was stepping right up into his personal space to put the second wedding mantle on him. Better to consider the facts than to consider that Mollymauk, the Bloodhunter, smelt of something floral and light. As a Bloodhunter, he was subject of a great deal of rumours. Nott had only been able to confirm a scant few. He was – he was moving back to beside the altar, and the priest was looking at him, Caleb, pointedly. What are you doing Caleb? he thought at himself. Just hold it together man.

“Okay,” said Nott’s voice, in his ear. “Just hold it together. We can do this. Mollymauk is far from the worst scenario. Donotreplytothismessage”

Caleb stiffened slightly. If Nott had noticed, it was only a matter of time before everyone else did. The next part was the exchange of trinkets – a Xhorhasian tradition. He had chosen a ring with tiny gold roses in a thin strip along the band. Chosen in the hopes it would be androgynous enough in style to suit any member of Misrule. Mollymauk held his hand out for the ring when he saw it, and Caleb couldn’t help but notice the design came close to matching some of the fine detailing around a snake tattoo the tiefling had running down his arm.

Mollymauk produced a locket from beneath his mantle, and Caleb leaned forward to allow him to put it over his head. The tiefling moved forward then hesitated. Caleb frowned as seconds passed.

“Do you think,” Mollymauk whispered, from too close by. “Just maybe, you could put out your hair?”

It took Caleb a second to process.

“Sorry.”

He felt like an idiot as he stopped the flames dancing in his hair. Mollymauk gave a tense smile as he looped the locket’s chain around Caleb’s neck, which Caleb caught in his peripheral vision. Great, thought Caleb. What a way to convince your new husband you aren’t, in fact, a horrifying beast. Have actual fire in your actual hair. He spent the next few minutes, as the priest explained the significance of the vows and the blood-pact, with his thoughts trailing into horror as he considered the significance of hair to the Xhorhasian people.

“Starting the vows, Caleb. Donotreplytothismessage”

Nott’s voice dragged him back to the present ordeal. He was able to repeat the vows after the priest without his voice shaking, or stuttering. Though he suspected he sounded flat. He pricked his finger on the ceremonial dagger and passed it to Mollymauk. There was the distinct possibility that the Bloodhunter had some way of messing with the pact, but he had been assured that if the pact was tampered with it would not bind him. With the amount of Xhorhasian blood on his hands, he really shouldn’t care either way. The tiefling’s tail was lashing, billowing out his wedding mantle, and he looked grim enough that Caleb was pretty sure that the blood-pact would be just as binding for him. Caleb felt magic and divine forces swirl and lock on him as the temple’s cleric took the dagger and completed the binding of the pact. And just like that he was a married man.

“You may kiss your husband!” Declared the priest, waving his hands. Caleb dutifully leaned halfway over the altar. Mollymauk gave the barest indication of moving forwards, before making an odd gesture with his hand. Caleb frowned. He gestured again, then leaned in slightly.

“Your hair!” It was more a stage whisper this time, and Caleb could hear murmurs from the audience. Titters. Laughter. He clenched his jaw, closed his eyes, and focused on his breathing until his anxiety and flames died down. When he opened his eyes, Mollymauk was too close to avoid eye contact. His eyes were solid red for just a moment, before his lids shut and then they were kissing and then Mollymauk was pulling away briskly. Caleb focused back on the pillar. He didn’t need to think about how soft Mollymauk’s lips were, or how long his eyelashes. The priest presented them to the gathered guests as a wedded couple, and Caleb moved his eyes from the pillar to the arch.

Now he just had to make it through the reception.

Chapter Text

Molly nearly collapsed as he entered his dressing room. He had about an hour before he was expected to show his face for the wedding feast, and holy shit he needed that time. He sat on the chair with his head in his hands. He wasn’t sure what was worse: that Widogast was terrifying, or that he was actually damn good looking. He jerked as the door opened, relaxing again when he recognized Jester. She and the rest of his friends filed in.

“You look like shit,” said Beau, blunt as always.

“I feel like shit. The man had fire just, just in his hair. Like it was nothing.”

“Weell it probably wasn’t real fire,” said Jester. “Real fire would probably burn him. Magic or not. I mean. And then he wouldn’t have any hair at all. Which would probably be more accurate.”

Molly frowned. The Xhorhasian people saw hair as the expression of one’s soul, but Jester was skewing that all wrong. He was about to correct her when Yasha interceded.

“Baldness doesn’t mean a person has lost their soul. Just that it is hidden. It is more telling seeing that his soul is on fire.”

“Okay, but was he staring at you in a good way or a bad way that whole time, though. I have a bet with Beau that it was in a good way.”

“Now, what,” Fjord interjected. “Is a ‘good way’ in this scenario?” Molly was glad he didn’t have to say it himself.

“Well, I mean. Like puppy eyes? Or like he is really, really, really, guilty! Or if he looked at you like Beau looks at Yasha!”

“I don’t want him to want me, or love me,” said Molly. “And he was looking past me like I wasn’t even there for the most part. Like the Empress’s personal guard when they are on duty. Fucking blank.”

“Pay up, Jester.”

As Jester began to argue that ‘blank’ wasn’t good or bad, Molly went away behind the screen to get changed. He felt sick. He had spent the entire journey to Rexxentrum fluctuating between panic, resignation, and delusional hopes. He had just spent nearly an hour directly across from the cause of all his anxiety and had found nothing in the image to comfort him. The man was, at best, cold. But, it seemed to Molly, the coldness of Widogast during the wedding had merely been hiding the man’s rage. He could think of no other reason for the mage to have actual fire in his actual hair. And while, fair enough, he may be feeling rage at being forced into a marriage, Molly had heard too many stories about husbands turning on their spouses simply because times were less than brilliant. While the blood-pact forbade killing or maiming, there was a great deal of shit it didn’t cover.

“You alright there, Molly?” asked Fjord. Molly blinked, realizing that he had been doing nothing for a good while.

“Yeah. Yeah, I’m fine. Just spaced out.” He took a few deep breaths in and out. “Actually, guys. I’m not actually. I’m not fine.” He still had his pants on, so he came out from behind the screen to look at them directly. “I just married a monster. What the fuck is my life?”

They obviously didn’t know what to say. A small bitter part of him thought that, of course they didn’t know what to say. They had all just said they wouldn’t do it first. Of course, Molly will do it, they must have thought, he'd sleep with anyone. He quashed the thoughts hard. It was bad enough hating his husband, without letting himself hate his friends too.

“Fuck man,” Beau broke the silence. “It’s shitty, I know. But just do your best to keep it together while we get evidence he is cheating on you.”

“She’s right,” said Fjord. “It won’t exactly be forever. One way or another we will take him down.”

“I’ll do my best,” said Molly. “I just . . . Why couldn’t it have been someone else. Why the fucking Widowmaker.” He shook his head and retreated back behind the screen. At the very least he could look fabulous for the reception.

Chapter Text

Caleb paced in the hall, waiting for his new husband to arrive. So that he could go into a room full of people. Who would all stare at him. And would all want to talk to him to say some fake congratulations and pity him up close. And he didn’t in any way deserve their pity. Mollymauk was beautiful and, according to Nott’s resources, had a heart of gold. Even if Mollymauk hated him, he still had more from the marriage than he deserved. Mollymauk was the one everyone should be pitying.

“Psst!”

“Yes, Nott.” Caleb didn’t even bother looking around for her. She could hide better than shadows at midday.

“Come over by the third pillar.”

He stopped his pacing to obediently lean up against the prescribed pillar.

“I have bad news and bad news, Caleb.”

“I hadn’t expected anything less. Is it at least enough to call off the reception, my friend?”

“I would have called that good news,” said Nott, a little reproachfully. “I went and listened in on the Lords of Misrule, and they are plotting against you.”

Caleb nodded. That was to be expected really.

“How are they plotting against me, though?”

“They think you will have an affair. But the other bad news is that you have convinced them that you are . . . really mean.”

Caleb smiled a little to himself. Nott hated when people were mean to him. He had no doubt that the Lords of Misrule had been calling him every name under the sun in that dressing room.

“You need to turn on the charm at this reception thing,” Nott continued. “You are going to be having to . . . you know . . . tonight. It won’t be fair on either of you if he is terrified of you.”

“You give good advice, my friend, but—” He broke off as he caught sight of Mollymauk coming down the hallway towards him.

Well, the man knew how to dress to make a statement. He had tight pants, a sinfully tight waistcoat, frankly excessive sleeves, and some sort of half-cape. All in green, black, violet, and gold. His horn jewellery was gold, set with emeralds, and he had more strung through the complicated braids of his hair. He walked with a smooth swagger that was . . . unsettling, Caleb decided. The whole ensemble was garish, but it was also obviously meant to be. Caleb wasn’t sure what to do about it. He finally decided to set his eyes on a gold chain next to the man’s left cheek, as Mollymauk reached him.

“Husband,” said Mollymauk, with what Caleb suspected might have been a self-deprecating smile. “So good to see you again. Shall we go in?”

No, definitely sarcastic.

“Y-yes,” said Caleb, after what he knew was too long a pause. “Ah. Would you . . .” he closed his eyes for a moment to pull himself together. “Do you want to take the lead here? It was my part at the wedding, and it would look good to share it. For the peace. Ja?”

There was a long pause. Mollymauk just stood there motionless, until Caleb was seriously wondering if he had already fucked everything up irredeemably. Finally, Mollymauk blinked back into action.

“Sorry, yes of course,” said Mollymauk, a little too brightly, perhaps. “Just one thing. If you don’t mind me asking? Why the fuck is your hair on fire?”

“Ah. Ja. That. That is just me, ah, forgetting?” Caleb ducked his head and shifted his feet about a bit, before he caught himself. He found the gold chain with his eyes. “I, ah, get nervous and it is an old habit.”

“Nervous?”

Caleb closed his eyes and took a long breath before reopening them.

“Ja. Not every day I get married.” He gestured to the door. “Shall we go in?”

Mollymauk looked hard at him for a moment longer, before offering his arm. Caleb took it and together they headed into the dining hall.

“Good work, Caleb! See, you can do the charm thing! Now just feed him and dance with him and it’ll be fine. Donotreplytothismessage.”

-----------------------------------

Widogast was nervous . . . Molly wasn’t at all sure what to do with that information. He took a moment to glance at his husband’s hair. It still flickered, though it wasn’t nearly as bad as when he had been asking Molly to take the lead. Molly had been freaking out – and thank heavens the fire hadn’t meant rage. He would have been burned to a crisp for his tone. But the fucking Widowmaker, the Firebrand, destroyer of armies was having wedding day nerves. The worst bit was how damn relatable it made him. Molly shook his head and tried to focus back on the room and the entertainment.

Long tables had been laid out in an elongated U shape. The wedding party was seated at the bottom of the U, and the entertainment was taking place inside it. Four pretty half-elves were performing a tumbling set with another to the side playing a sort of flute. As he watched one of their number crouched down so another could spring onto his shoulders. As the first stood up, the other sprang into a double flip with a half-twist, landing in the crossed arms of the other two. Molly cheered enthusiastically along with the rest of the guests.

As the music picked up and the acrobats sped up their routine, Molly stole a look across at his new husband. And wasn’t that a thought. Husband. Widogast’s hair was still on fire, though he seemed … well not perfectly relaxed, but certainly calm and in control. Molly took a breath, steeled himself, and leaned over.

“They seem pretty good,” Molly said, in what he hoped was a carefree and cheerful tone. “I did some acrobat stuff myself once, and I was shit at catching.” Oh shit. Overshare. Widogast glanced at him with a small frown before turning back to the performance.

“Ja. Nott told me,” he replied. There was a pause as Widogast reached for his glass. “Was it … fun?” He took a sip, with his eyes still on the acrobats.

“Yeah, it was pretty great,” said Molly. Which didn’t keep the conversation running at all. Thankfully another series of quick and dangerous looking manoeuvres from the acrobats inspired applause. Unfortunately, his mind was both frantic and blank all at once when it came to continuing the sorry excuse for a conversation. “I wasn’t too bad at the sword stuff.” He quickly took a bite to clearly indicate the conversation ball was now in Widogast’s court.

And Widogast was looking at him again. With what seemed like a slight blush. Which was when Molly realised how that could sound. He nearly choked.

“Ah. Sword stuff?” Widogast’s tone was polite, distant, disinterested even. Either his mind had not, in fact, gone there, or he was most definitely not interested in Molly in that way. The blush could have just been the heat. Having your head on fire probably made things stupidly warm.

“You know, juggling, dancing, generally waving them about and being flashy,” said Molly. He had never been more self-conscious in his life. “I’m a pretty flashy person, you know. For all that I don’t have fire in my hair.”

Widogast frowned, the fire went out, and he looked about to say something, but the music and all surrounding conversations came to an abrupt halt. They both turned to the entertainment in time to see the acrobats fling the smallest of their number impossibly high into the air, where she performed a complicated looking double flip and turned into a brightly coloured bird of some kind just before she would have hit the ground. The bird flew high, and trilled the final refrain before turning into a half-elf once more and tumbling dramatically into the waiting arms of her friends below. The room erupted with applause and the halting conversation was forgotten.

--------------

The food was good, and so was the entertainment. He would have to remember to thank the organiser who was sensible enough to leave so little time for talk. Every false “Congratulations!” and pitying smile grated. He knew he was doing the Thing where he unsettled people. Even the most insular of the Dwendalian guests would spend more time exchanging pleasantries with Mollymauk than they did with him. He wished Caduceus had been able to come, then hated himself. The cleric was, after all, burying people that he, the Widowmaker, had killed. In the end, he just did his best to pretend to enjoy the entertainment until the inevitable drunken cries began to go up about the bedding.

The cries in this case were fairly restrained, in that they were largely taken up by only the very drunk or the menagerie coast division. And, oddly, the other Lords of Misrule. The vibrant blue tiefling, Jester, was the one to bodily lift Mollymauk from his seat and begin dragging him out of the hall. Mollymauk himself was laughing and protesting about his cake. Caleb was about to gather up the neglected dessert, to maybe win some points with his new husband, when someone cleared their throat.

“Um, I think I am meant to pick you up,” said a tall, pale woman … Yasha. She made no move towards him.

He had frozen.

“One of your customs?” she asked after a moment.

“Ah, ja. Well more a Dwendalian thing in general than Zemnian per se,” said Caleb, trying not to shuffle his feet. No one else at this party seemed about to dare lay a finger on him. As much as he didn’t like the idea of being manhandled by someone plotting to get him executed, now he thought about it, the idea of him walking himself to his marriage bed because everyone feared and hated him was worse. “I am probably meant to be picked up. How would you like to do this?”

She seemed to think for a moment.

“Okay,” she said, after a moment. She stepped forwards and before Caleb could really react she had him across her shoulders like a dead deer. Which was about the point where he realised that he had been actually drinking quite a bit while watching the entertainment and avoiding talking to his new husband. The world spun a little. Thankfully Yasha did not seem at all interested in bouncing him about like Jester was doing to Mollymauk. She did however quickly catch up to the riotous crowd who had decided to drag the newlyweds to their bed. Yasha had apparently broken some sort of very important social barrier in picking him up, because the press of people all seemed to think it was a good idea to slap various part of him while yelling advice into his ear.

When they finally made it to the room and were let down on the bed Caleb was well and truly done for the night. Someone with a bright orange coat began to try to yank off his boots, while someone else was dragging at Mollymauk’s coat. Drunken magic is a bad idea, whispered a small voice in his head. Someone with a stuffed bird in their hair pitched in to help with his other boot. Fuck that, and all of this. He cast a quick cantrip.

“Get out. Now. Leave. Or burn.” He didn’t do it loud, he did it quiet and close. A whisper with slight vocal distortion to make him sound monstrous. The room went silent, then people began to run. Not everyone, but those who didn’t run certainly didn’t take their time leaving. Except the Lords of Misrule.

Yasha was standing across from him looking like she was seriously considering crushing his skull between her hands. He was half lying down on the bed with his boots half off and his spell components tucked in a pouch under him. Well this couldn’t exactly get worse. He let himself flop backwards onto the bed and stare at the ceiling. He really was tipsy.

“That wasn’t cool you know!” Jester’s voice was heavily accented, Nicodranus if he recalled rightly. “We were just –”

“Actually, I agree with the Widowmaker, it was kind of going a bit far,” said Mollymauk from the other side of the bed. Caleb winced at the casual use of his nickname. “They tore the lining in my coat. Do you have any idea how much work went into this?”

“Give it here,” said Jester with a sigh that sounded longsuffering. He heard the quiet sounds of a mending spell.

“And we know exactly how much work went into it, you didn’t stop bitchin’ the whole way here.” The drawl made that voice Fjord’s. There was a pause. It was probably awkward for everyone less drunk and tired than Caleb.

“Well I am sure my darling husband is in the process of concocting a truly hideous spell to cast on you all, and hasn’t just fallen asleep,” said Mollymauk, in the tones of someone seemingly well aware of the real temptations faced by drunk wizards. “Can you all, and I say this as your dearest friend, piss off? Some of us still have work to do.”

Caleb couldn’t help but groan at the reminder. Something poked his leg, and he lifted his head. It was the monk. Beauregard.

“We’re going now. Hurt Molly and I will personally make your life a fucking misery. Understand?”

“Ja. Yes, I,” He wasn’t quite sure what reassurance he could actually give. “I will try not to.”

She frowned at him for a moment, before following the others out the door and closing it behind them. With that, it was just him and his husband.

Chapter Text

And now all he had to do was fuck the Widowmaker. Simple. Easy as pie. Maybe he should mash up some pie, or egg, or something and pretend he contracted a horrible disease on the front lines. Maybe he could just lie down and pretend to sleep. Make it tomorrow’s problem. But that will only give you more time to stress. Well. Fuck. True. He’d just have to put his best foot forwards and make the most of it… He really shouldn’t have drunk so much.

A pair of muffled thunks came from the other side of the bed, starting Molly from his thoughts. He looked over. Widogast was sitting up and beginning to undo his complicated necktie. Molly found himself fascinated with the man’s fingers.

“Um, so I guess we are doing this then,” said Molly. Widogast didn’t respond. “Well, no time like now then. I’ll just strip myself off over here then.”

Silence. Teach him to hope for marital perks.

“How do you want to do this? I mean it isn’t as simple as the old P and V, and I think the pact requires us to be on the same page… so where do you draw the line?”

Well that got Widogast’s attention. His hands stopped undoing his buttons, and he turned to face Molly.

“Well, ah, yes. I did discuss this with Nott, and we concluded that simply … jerking? … each other off should be sufficient.” Widogast’s voice was cold, detached, and he wasn’t quite making eye contact. “Of course, that does depend on whether or not you believe it adequate?”

“Oh, that sounds just fine darling.” It didn’t. It sounded as cold and uninviting as putting his bits in a snowman. But he had to concede that orgasming with someone else’s hand on his dick counted as sex rather than masturbation.

“Shall we just go ahead and get ourselves started, or are you interested in some… foreplay.” Molly allowed for a dramatic pause and pretty much purred over the last word. Maybe the snowman would thaw? Widogast’s expression didn’t change, though the flames in his hair flickered higher.

“Foreplay will not be necessary. Let’s just get this done as efficiently as possible.”

Nope. For all that little flames still flickered in the man’s hair his attitude was cold as ice. Fuck. He looked away to hide his disappointment. And his fear. If Widogast was as cold as this with everyone, if he didn’t even like sex at the best of times, well he was trapped in a sexless, loveless marriage.

“Sorry buddy,” he mumbled a little drunkenly to his crotch. “Looks like the fun’s over for us.”

-------------------------------------

Caleb had no idea what he was doing. He was drunk, half undressed, and unbelievably embarrassed about this whole affair. Talking it over with Nott had been simple in retrospect. Somehow, he had thought that they would go from dinner to lying down jerking each other off with nothing in between. He had had a vague idea that they would undress, but not this awkward standoff. Sit off. And now that he had tried to save them both from some embarrassment by refusing to attempt foreplay, the man was apologising to his dick in the most miserable voice.

And now Caleb only needed to get his pants off, and Mollymauk was still pretty much clothed. It seemed like it would be odd to get completely naked before his partner, but undoing his laces was the only thing his hands had to do other than cast anxiety cantrips. Given Mollymauk’s reaction to the hair, throwing magic around did not seem like the best idea. Not to mention you are drunk.

“Maybe get undressed?” That seemed cold, like an order. Caleb could tell it was poorly put the moment it left his lips. “Not that I … your clothes are nice … Just … maybe your dick would be happier?” he ended rather desperately.

Mollymauk looked at him, just for a moment, like he was about to respond with a joke. Then he visibly shut himself away, and just smiled a little as he turned his attention to removing his boots. Well a smile wasn’t nothing. But Caleb found himself wishing he knew what Mollymauk had wanted to say. Before he remembered his fear. The conversations Caleb had half heard between Mollymauk and well-wishers at the feast had suggested that the man had a sense of humour as gaudy and wonderful as his clothes. He found his mind wandering off, wondering what it would have been like to meet Mollymauk and Misrule before the war. Maybe things would have been different? Maybe not, he knew painfully well how bad he was with people.

He let his mind ponder while the rest of him fell into his bedtime routine. He tucked his boots away, folded his dirty clothes, (a task that took him slightly longer as he was both drunk and very particular) and cleaned himself up. By the time he turned back to the bed he had almost managed to forget that he had an audience. Well not really. More “come to terms with”. Really it wasn’t that much different than with Nott. Except for the sex. Well yes. Sex.

“I would ask if you see something you like,” said Mollymauk, at which point Caleb realized he had been staring at nothing for a while. “But it’s kinda obvious that you don’t.” Mollymauk glanced pointedly at his crotch. Definitely not like sleepovers with Nott.

“Sorry, I was just thinking.”

Somehow that just seemed to make Mollymauk even more unhappy.

“Well maybe think about something else? I’m tired, and we shouldn’t keep the peace waiting.”

Mollymauk was unhappy, and Caleb had no idea how to make it better. The whole situation was just the worst. He was not the best with people when he wasn’t tired and drunk and awkward. He tried to just focus on his husband rather than the bitter thoughts. There was a naked tiefling in his bed, and if he ignored the dissatisfaction clearly being expressed and just focused on the mad riot of tattoos and scars across his body, just maybe he could get through this. The tattoos, surprisingly, helped. For all their brightness, they had an order to them.

“How shall we, ah, arrange ourselves?” he managed to ask.

He had no idea how Mollymauk’s face reacted, but the man shimmied up the bed and lay on his side.

“Just lie here, on your side, and we should be good for access,” Mollymauk said, patting the bed next to him.

Chapter Text

Molly let himself close his eyes for a moment, as the Widowmaker joined him on the bed. This was not what he had expected. There was none of the fire, none of the heat, that had appeared in the man’s magics on the battlefield and in his fucking hair. None of the command Molly had expected from a man who had been given charge of whole armies. On the journey here Molly had ramped himself up, imagining how this night could go. Even when he had miserably contemplated marriage to a man who hated sex with other men, he had imagined frustration or rage driving the Archmage to take charge and get things over with. To push him up against a wall, to hold him down and use him, to use force so Molly didn’t have to really participate.

His expectations had been met largely with dispassion, coldness, and courtesy. He was being asked about things, and he didn’t quite know what to do. He opened his eyes to see his husband’s face close to his.

“May I touch you?” Widogast’s hand hovered above his hip.

“I thought we were going to get ourselves worked up first?” Molly tried to sound teasing. Not half an hour ago he had been on board for some heavy petting, just some silver lining to this whole mess. Now he wasn’t so sure. His drunken haziness and the small amount of enthusiasm that the crowd had managed to work up had both seemingly abandoned him.

“Ja, that is true … I will just, ah.”

Widogast closed his eyes and his hand… yep. He was now touching himself. The flames in his hair died. A small frown crinkled above his nose. It was… it was weird. Molly had no idea what to think or how to feel. And it was rapidly becoming apparent that he was in danger of being left behind.

“Well, for Empress and Empire I guess.” He muttered to himself as he took his dick in his hand.

Widogast’s amused snort startled him enough that he forgot to close his eyes. His husband was actually smiling. His eyes were still closed so Molly took the opportunity to study him even as he teased his dick to an appropriate state of erectness. And now he couldn’t help himself, his bloody sense of humour.

“Attenshun!” He stage-whispered, mockingly, at his dick, mimicking a particularly loud sergeant Jester had been struck by the day before. She had showed him her drawing of the man as a grumpy manatee before the wedding to cheer him up.

Widogast’s smile twitched and his shoulders began to shake. His eyelids flicked open and, for a moment, their eyes met, before he flinched his away.

“You can’t do that!” said Widogast through giggles. “We have to… you can’t just go making jokes. That’s not ---”

He sounded so damn shocked. He had stopped moving his hand.

“Don’t stop!” Molly tried to sound overly serious despite his own giggles threatening to take over his voice. “You’ll lose all your progress, and we’ll be back to square one.”

“Ah, ja.”

Apparently, his husband had thought he was serious, because he rapidly composed himself and closed his eyes once more. The small frown was back, and his hand was moving over his dick methodically. And Molly found himself once more alone with his thoughts, which were not conducive to erections. They had kind of had a moment, which was hopeful. Widogast did have a sense of humour, which was hopeful too. But that hope floated fragile on a sea of memories of burned and bloated corpses and horror in the eyes of survivors.

He just had to focus on the now. His husband’s eyelashes were a vibrant copper where the lamplight caught them. His lips were pink and, while not full, well proportioned. His cheeks were turning pink, and his breathing was speeding up. And then he made a slight moan, just softly, and Molly’s dick was fully interested. And another problem rapidly became apparent.

“Not to interrupt, but I am interrupting. Fuck. Do you have oil or something?”

Widogast’s eyes flicked open. He looked beautifully dazed.

“Ah, ja. In the … I’ll get it.”

His husband had a bedroom voice. Good to know. He returned with a jar of a buttery substance that smelt floral and, after scooping out some for himself, handed it over to Molly. Who couldn’t help but watch as his husband slicked it down his cock. Well getting turned on was no longer a problem. He busied himself with applying a generous coating to his own dick and fumbling to get the lid back on the jar. He had just finished putting it to one side and turned to get back down to business when that bedroom voice interrupted.

“Are you, ah, um, ready to… be touched?”

Well now he was. He nodded and reached out to his husband’s hip. Widogast flinched.

“Sorry.”

“Sorry.”

“Can I?”

“Ja, and I can?”

“Yes, fuck.”

And Widogast was straight down to business, hardly hesitating over the slight anatomical differences. And he was a fucking quick learner. Molly heard himself moan as his fingers teased him just below the head of his cock, and almost immediately Widogast adjusted his strokes to tease him just there. Molly was caught off guard, fumbling clumsily to provide an even stroke in return. Just when he settled on a pace enough to add in some twisting motions, his husband upped the pace and added a little thumb action over the head. Fuck. Molly could feel the shivering pleasure beginning to chase its way up his back.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, yes. Fuck, just … ah” Molly’s voice was soft in the dim room.

Molly felt slightly embarrassed about coming this undone but couldn’t bring himself to really care. His husband was making small aborted moans and gasps and was moving into his hand. Molly couldn’t keep himself from grabbing Widogast’s arm with his free hand as he felt his orgasm closing in.

“Close.”

“Ahh … ja. Mmmm. Me too.”

Then it was a race, Molly sped his hand, as he felt the hand on his cock take a firmer grip. Teasing was seemingly abandoned in favour of chasing orgasm, and Molly was caught off guard. The pleasure took him and he could care about nothing else for several long moments.

“Bitte…” Widogast’s broken, pleading, fucking bedroom voice dragged Molly back to the present. He quickly resumed his strokes, all the more aware of every obscene sound as the pleasure faded from his body. Widogast clung to Molly’s hip as he came, and fuck if he didn’t look good doing it. He gave a couple more strokes before letting the other man go.

Widogast took a few minutes to settle his breathing and come down to earth, but Molly didn’t really feel like hurrying him. This could be nice if it weren’t for everything. Molly rolled onto his back as his husband loosened his grip on his hip. Pity he’s a monster, pity this is forced, pity, pity, pity. Molly closed his eyes just for a moment, to chase the thoughts out of his head.

-----------------------------------------------

Caleb felt pleasantly hazy. Not horrific, he thought lazily. Maybe he could like me? Maybe we could… Caleb laughed quietly at his thoughts. He was a fool, but he was not going to be fool enough to think this meant anything more than it was. He could feel the magic of the pact wrapping itself close around him, sealed by blood and now by sex. That was all it meant.

He was just trying to think of something to say when he heard a quiet snore from Mollymauk. He hadn’t even noticed his husband’s eyes close, but that was okay. Caleb dragged himself out of bed to fetch the cloths and water to clean up their mess. He carefully warmed the water and did his best not to wake Mollymauk as he cleaned them both up. He tried to be matter of fact about it, to avoid dwelling on the fact that some of his cum had landed on Mollymauk’s tattoos. He didn’t want to do anything wrong, and he didn’t want to remember this as anything … more.

By the time he was done, and had put things away, and folded Mollymauk’s clothes, and had put Mollymauk’s boots neatly by the foot of the bed, there wasn’t much left in his head but tiredness. He only hesitated a moment, wondering if he should go sleep somewhere else, before the alcohol and exhaustion caught up with him and he crawled back into the bed and fell asleep next to his new husband.

Chapter Text

Molly woke up alone in a strange room, in a soft bed that smelt faintly of flowers and sex. Sunlight drew lines across the room from between thick curtains. For a minute or two it was glorious. Then he remembered exactly whose bed it was. He jerked himself up and looked around the room. He was alone, which was both nice and … disappointing. The night before hadn’t been horrific, and Widogast had been … unexpectedly nice. A little bit of Molly wished that he had stuck around until morning, because, as it was, he had no idea what to make of his new husband.

He was distracted from his train of thought when he turned his head, looking for his clothes, and felt his scalp begin to seriously protest. He had forgotten to take his fucking hair down before… falling asleep. And now it just hurt.

He needed a mirror. There didn’t seem to be one in the room. Slipping out of bed he made his way over to the door off to the side, where Widogast had fussed with his clothes last night. The room behind it appeared to be a dressing room, or a small study. There were shelves and rails about half filled with clothes and books, a small stool in the corner, a jug and basin on an ink stained table, but no mirror. There was something just slightly off about the picture, but he was currently too distracted by his screaming scalp to investigate.

Without a mirror he would just have to do it by feel. He sat on the stool and began the painstaking process of finding all the pins and ties. His hair had tangled and mussed in the night, so some of the pins were falling out, others had buried themselves, and his hair had tangled onto his horn jewellery in several places. He was swearing up a storm when he heard a call from the next room.

“Molly! We have pastries!”

Jester skipped around the corner with a smile and had the audacity to laugh at his predicament.

“Not fucking funny, Fancypants,” he grumbled.

Captain Fancypants to you!” Jester protested, her mock sternness ruined by the careful way she placed the covered plate of pastries on the table. And by the sugar and crumbs all around her mouth. “I’ll get Yasha to help you.”

Molly found himself smiling as she skipped out of the room and began yelling for Yasha. This whole marriage thing might be shitty and confusing, but his friends were here, and they had the peace they wanted. To be fair it would be nice to know what this ‘peace’ thing was all about. From the moment he had crawled from his grave without memories and wandered into Yasha’s care there had been war. The others had always talked about what they wanted to do when the war was over, and it had grown awkward on the road to Rexxentrum. He hadn’t been able to figure out how to tell them that he had never made plans for things to do in peacetime because he just couldn’t fathom it. Now he supposed he would just do whatever his husband wanted to do.

“Silver linings,” he muttered to himself.

He was missing his friends and they hadn’t even left yet.

“Found her, Molly!”

On hearing Jester from the other room, he did his best to compose himself. No need to look melancholy and bring everyone down. The expression on Yasha’s face when she came through the door suggested that he hadn’t done a very good job.

“Jester said you wanted me to do your hair?”

“Please.”

Molly allowed his hands to drop and let his eyes shut for a moment as Yasha’s gentle hands took up the task.

“You have taken the ties out of a couple of your honour braids, want me to fix them?”

“Please, Yash. There wasn’t a mirror.”

They managed another minute of quiet before Jester couldn’t stand it any longer. To be fair he hadn’t expected so much restraint from her.

“Soooo. How was it then?” Jester said in her most wheedling gossip voice.

Molly felt himself tense and forced himself to relax.

“It went swimmingly my dear. How could it not? I’m fabulous.” Molly did his best to sound confident and flippant. Jester wasn’t buying.

“You know she was a complete mess last night,” Yasha murmured. “Beau got her on the ground and I had to sit on her to keep her from storming back in here and insisting on taking your place.”

“Just ‘cause he turned out to be pretty,” his joke was forced but Jester, in turn, forced out a laugh for him.

“It wasn’t as bad as Yasha is making it sound,” said Jester. Yasha must have made a face at her because she looked down and continued in a much smaller voice. “I just felt bad, and the Widowmaker had just been all scary and we just left you. I mean, I know you told us to leave,” she said cutting off his protest before it even left his lungs. “I just didn’t like leaving you there alone with him. I’m supposed to be the Captain. And I let you down.”

Molly caught himself before he just told her it was okay. They had all learned, early on, that if you told Jester that something was okay she would just believe it. Those things could fester, and Molly had felt hung out to dry.

“Nothing bad happened.” Better to be honest and give her room to make it up to him. “He didn’t hurt me or threaten me. We actually shared a joke or two –”

“You did!”

He frowned. He didn’t want Jester making some fucked up romance out of this in her head.

“Yeah, they were shitty jokes, but we laughed. He is a fucking person,” he didn’t mean to sound quite so upset about that. “I mean… he’s not… he was a bit cold and formal, but he was courteous.”

He wasn’t sure what else to say. Jester looked sceptical.

“That doesn’t sound bad,” said Yasha, as she patiently worked on his hair. “But it doesn’t sound good either.”

“I just don’t know how to feel about it all. Quite frankly it would be easier if he was just the monster the reports make him out to be all the time. I’m going to get whiplash.”

“So he did do something bad!” Jester had her eyes narrowed, her hands on her hips, and her tail whipping.

“That’s the thing!” Molly cried. Yasha grabbed one of his horns to keep his head still, and he toned it down a bit. “That’s the thing, well fuck… I think he even cleaned me up after I fell asleep. So what am I meant to do about the fact he was nice to me, but I saw Yarron River run red and black with blood and corpses? It just doesn’t… well…”

He sighed and ran his hands down his face.

“As long as he stays nice to you, that’s good,” said Jester.

Molly shook his head as much as Yasha would allow, but he needed a change of conversation more than he needed to figure things out just now. He pointed to the covered plate.

“So what pastries did you get me.”

Jester wasn’t stupid, but she let him have this one and took the cover off the plate with a flourish. As she launched into a description of each offering, Molly did his best to live in the present, to enjoy the sweet painful relief of his freed scalp and the rich taste of butter on his tongue. He could figure things out later.

------------------------------

Nott carefully positioned the rose on top of the pile of clothes on the bed. Caleb had only sent her with the clothes, but she knew Molly was fond of flowers and that her boy was oblivious. From the sounds of things, the bedding wasn’t the complete disaster that Caleb had convinced himself it was. That was good. She was fond of Molly and the other Lords of Misrule, she just needed to figure out how to convince them that Caleb, the real Caleb, not the one people made up in their heads, was super wonderful.

Lost in her schemes, she nearly got spotted by Beau on the way out of the room. Fortunately, her instincts kicked in and she twitched herself into a sliver of shadow. Her cloak was enchanted but she still needed to be careful. The monk seemed tired and angry, more so than usual, and Nott found herself torn between following her into Caleb’s rooms and tracking down Caleb to report back. Caleb took priority, and besides, they would all be traveling together after lunch. She could find out then.

------------------------------

The last of the wagons were loaded and they were heading out. Caleb had checked and double checked everything and yet he still felt anxious watching so many of his books head out without him. It was only 10:47am and the honeymoon party proper was not going to be leaving until after lunch. Whether or not they would catch up with his books would depend entirely on how fast Mollymauk liked to travel.

He sighed at the thought of his husband. This whole thing was a mess. Mollymauk had woken him in the early hours of the morning pleading aloud in his sleep. His face had been scrunched up in fear, and Caleb couldn’t help but imagine himself the source of it. He had nudged Mollymauk half awake, enough that he seemed to fall back into an apparently peaceful sleep, before getting up to start the day. Nott, of course, had protested that he could have been dreaming of anything. But given he had inadvertently stolen his husband’s clothes in his early morning packing spree, he very much doubted he was in favour anyway.

He ran his hand through his hair and made his way in to the stable complex. Rather than dwell on things he couldn’t change he might as well busy himself inspecting the horses or some such.

He quite liked horses but, unless the king had been deliberately hiring stammer sufferers, the servants found him a bit much. After spending half an hour terrorizing the stable hands (and some of the horses when his nerves got the better of him and his hair started up), he decided he was better off giving up and finding a quiet spot to run through his spells again.

The main library proved to be occupied by a group of young ladies discussing some recent novel, which had sounded interesting, but they stopped talking as soon as they saw him and waited for him to leave. His own rooms (according to Nott’s latest report) were the site of an impromptu Lords of Misrule meeting, and so were not an option. He was chased out of the military wing by two of Nott’s Lieutenants and his own secretary who insisted he should be doing honeymoon stuff instead of ‘working’. The whole palace in general was packed with guests from the wedding, and he failed to even find an alcove in a back hallway unoccupied. By the time lunch was ready he was in a truly miserable state.

“Psst. Caleb.”

“Nott?”

“Why did Thom tell me you were snooping about the offices?”

Caleb couldn’t help himself, he looked about for where his friend might be hiding. He levelled a glare at a suspicious potted plant.

“I was just trying to find a place to read. And those… those…” he made an annoyed sound in his throat rather than actually be mean to Nott’s underlings. “kicked me out and said I should be honeymooning.”

“Can I just ask, and I don’ mean to be rude. Why are you talking to a plant?”

Caleb froze, and tried to resist the urge to bolt. He turned.

“I was, ah…” he frantically searched for an excuse. “I have a spell to talk to people far away.”

He tried a smile at the half-orc, nothing to see here, while pinning his gaze to the man’s left cheek. Fjord didn’t quite seem to buy it, for a moment, then he smiled back and gestured towards the doors of the dining room.

“Our friend, Nott, said there was going to be a lunch laid on here for us all? Do I just go in or are we waiting for something? I’m just not sure of the etiquette of this sort of situation and wouldn’t want to offend.”

“Friend? Ah, ja.”

“Nott does seem mighty attached to you?”

“Ja, she is my friend, I am just a little surprised that you would say she is yours.”

Fjord looked like he was about to say something, but then paused. He scratched his chin but it seemed obvious to Caleb that he was getting a message. Especially when he coughed to cover up a reply.

“Well, it’s just polite you know? We are at peace now, and we, I, have known her, of her, for a while. Seem odd to just call ‘er an acquaintance” said Fjord eventually with a shrug.

It was one of the most piss-poor cover-ups Caleb had seen in a while, but then it hadn’t really been directed at him. Something to follow up later with Nott.

“That is fair. Yes, you can just go in. It is only a private affair,” said Caleb, doing his best to maintain the air of pleasantry.

“You know, we were kind of expecting a lot more feasting,” on the surface Fjord seemed pleasant, but there was something off. “Not that we are complaining, mind, we were rushed round quite a bit before the wedding proper. It’s just … we figured there would be less privacy after the peace?”

Fjord was fishing for some sort of confirmation. Caleb was not the best with people, but he was nonetheless good at politics. It was just a matter of motive and patterns. He frowned slightly.

“I know Xhorhas weddings have feasting both before and after the wedding day, but it was established that we would be following Xhorhas traditions up to the ceremony and Dwendalian afterwards,” from the looks of it, this was news to Fjord. “It was decided that there should be a honeymoon. Strictly speaking, Mollymauk and I are supposed to be shut away from the world for at least a month, just the two of us.”

He tried to make it sound like a joke, but Fjord didn’t seem to take it that way. The half-orc’s face fell into a glower.

“Not going to happen” growled Fjord in a low tone as he stepped past Caleb and wrenched open the door to the dining room.

Caleb was left alone with the distinct impression that he had messed up badly in some ill-defined way. He let himself pace, while he tried to keep his thoughts from spiralling down into misery and self-hatred. It wasn’t working.

“Nott,” he hissed, trying to keep his voice down so that Fjord wouldn’t hear from the next room.

No response. He tried contacting her with a message cantrip. No response. Apparently, she’d left after coaching Fjord. She wouldn’t have gone had she seen how badly that had ended up. It did raise the question of what Nott was so busy with.

He was halfway down the hall when he realised that he had forgotten to turn in his pacing. At that point the thought of going back and having lunch was just too much. May as well just go… he couldn’t think of anywhere else to go for a moment. One last look from the parapets. He knew he was running away from his problems, but the war was over. Just for a little bit, maybe, he didn’t have to face everything.

In a quiet, albeit windy, spot on the outer wall, he summoned Frumpkin and buried his face in his fur.

Chapter Text

Molly was pissed. Everything had been going fine. Well not one hundred percent fine, but not terrible. The pastries had been good, Yasha had gotten his hair down and untangled, but then Beau had burst in and blurted out that he had to do this ‘honeymoon’ thing. And that his darling new husband had already packed everything in carts, because he’d apparently just decided they should do this ‘honeymoon’ in some godforsaken place a few hundred miles away.

They had only been in Rexxentrum for a matter of days before the wedding. Molly had been rather looking forward to seeing the sights, exploring the city, buying things, avoiding being on a horse or wagon for a month or two. But according to Beau, even if they stayed, everyone was expected to ignore them because of this stupid ‘honeymoon’ custom.

Then his husband hadn’t even the decency to show his face at the private lunch that Misrule had been instructed to attend. Molly and Beau had worked each other up until they’d both been ready to yell obscenities at the most powerful wizard on the continent – to the point that Jester had been trying to talk them down as they had marched to the dining hall. Instead of finding a wizard, they had only found Fjord. Who’d said that he thought Widogast was waiting just outside and that the Archmage had seemed really possessive of Molly. Lunch had been spent analyzing the conversation that Fjord had had with the Widowmaker and wondering what the hell he had planned.

Now they were all waiting in the courtyard on their horses, ready to go. Molly could feel the saddle sores already starting just from sitting there. The sun was beating down, there was no shade, no breeze, and no fucking Widogast.

“Maybe we should just go without him?”

They did him the decency of seriously considering the suggestion. Beau heaved a sigh.

“It’d be a political nightmare,” she said. “The Dwendalian’s would take it as a slight. As much as I hate fucking waiting here for him, it’s better than watching the Inferno burn kids.”

They all made noises of assent, then fell back into silence. The horses stamped, and the flies buzzed. Molly could smell the earth baking. After another minute or two, Jester started humming to herself. He couldn’t help but grin at the tune: a crude marching song that had a fair few things to say about the Widowmaker. A verse had been added shortly before they left Ghor Dranas about his tardiness at the Astrid/Gefta showdown. It seemed apt here.

While Molly was still too angry and nervy to sing, Fjord and Beau started through the verses in low voices. After a bit Yasha even began lazily tapping out the beat on her thigh. If any Dwendalian’s made it into earshot, he was pretty sure this would cause a political nightmare. He pulled out his cards and began to shuffle them and let his mind drift.

He jerked back into the present, out of memories of blood and fire, when his friends suddenly stopped singing. The Widowmaker strode into the courtyard. He was in full uniform with, and Molly blinked at this, a cat on his shoulders. The cat didn’t really make the Archmage less imposing, simply more fey. The man didn’t acknowledge Misrule in any way, he just made a beeline for his horse and mounted up.

“Rude,” Jester muttered in a voice just loud enough to carry.

The Archmage looked at them as if he was looking through them. Detached.

“Caleb just got caught up sorting out his spells for the journey,” said a rough and reproachful voice. Molly wasn’t the only one to start, surprised by the small dark figure who had managed to get into the brightly lit courtyard and up onto a horse without any of them noticing.

“Shit, Nott! You know you can let up with that sneaky bullshit now we aren’t at war.”

“Nott does what she has to to survive,” Widogast didn’t even look at Beau as he reprimanded her. “I am sorry to have kept everyone. Shall we be off?”

“How’s about ya give us a little bit of a fucking explanation for all this?” said Molly. Even as the words slipped out, he felt his anger wain a little and fear take its place. Nonetheless, he powered on. “Meaning no disrespect of course, but this morning was the first I heard of this ‘honeymoon’ bullshit.”

Widogast just barely glanced at him.

“Ja, I know. I did not make the decision, so I just thought you had been told.”

“Can’t you just unmake their decisions? You’re the fucking Archmage. We only just got here.”

“Ja, I am the ah … fucking Archmage,” Widogast took his cat from his shoulder with one hand as he turned his horse to face them easily with the other. “But, I am the Archmage of War. Not of peace. The King thought it would be easier for everyone to embrace that peace with me, at least, out of the public eye. There are those who will already be speculating about this marriage, saying it is a sham.” He looked over at Molly. “Best to give people as little fuel as possible for old fires, ja?”

Molly looked away. It made an unfortunate amount of sense, which made it harder still to hold onto his anger.

“Is there an Archmage of Peace, then?” asked Jester after a moment.

“There is. Now anyway. It is a new thing. I have a reputation,” said Widogast with a small smile. “That was, ah, I believe the first feast after you arrived. It was to celebrate the handover.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah, we probably missed that fact on account of how none of you arseholes bothered to tell us anything.”

They pretty much all tensed, Fjord visibly wincing, at Beau’s tone. And her words. But the Widowmaker’s lips twitched as if a smile was close to breaking free.

“They are pretty terrible, ja,” the amusement was clearer still in his voice. “I am very lucky to have Nott. I am sorry you were not told all of this, but Nott did think you would prefer to remain together? Mollymauk must come I’m afraid, but if any others of you wish to stay behind it is not too late to send a message to the wagons for your things?”

This suggestion was met with a chorus of noes for which Molly was grateful. Widogast gave a tight smile.

“Well, shall we go? It would be good to leave the city proper before nightfall.”

He didn’t really wait on an answer, just nudging his horse forwards towards the courtyard’s gate. Nott fell in behind him, a small shadowy figure on her small shadowy horse. It was a bit inconvenient; it felt silly to glare at Widogast’s back over someone else. It wasn’t often they met anyone who could put up with both him and Beau with good grace. Rarer still that they managed to be so infuriating about it.

-------------------------------------

They made poor time getting out of the city. Jester seemed endlessly distractible, and Mollymauk was nearly as bad. After the third stop to let Jester catch up, Caleb made the mistake of messaging Nott and asking her to run interference. He had not felt up to confronting Misrule again, not when they had made it so clear that they blamed him for the miscommunication and the shambles their departure became. On reflection, confronting them and having Mollymauk and Beauregard yell at him again would have taken less time than Nott’s ‘attempts’ to control Jester. Her strategy basically consisted of recommending shops further along the route, which only delayed and then exacerbated the issue. She then outright started a competition with Beauregard and Mollymauk to see how many people they could reverse pickpocket while they waited for Jester to finish shopping at each stop. He only barely kept her from making it into a drinking game.

He really needed to have a talk with her about Fjord’s ‘friends’ comment.

They ended up between the outskirts of the city and the next village with the sun setting. Caleb sighed and slowed his horse to a standstill next to a field of cows. He braced himself and turned to his companions.

“Do you want to go on or stop for the night?” he asked. “We are still a fair few miles from the next inn.”

“Boo! Booo!”

“Jester!” Fjord glanced at Caleb. “With all due respect, Captain, your shopping did slow us down.”

She stuck her tongue out at Fjord.

“But it’s his fault we left late, and,” Jester glanced at Nott. “I suppose it isn’t his whole fault we had to leave. But it was our last chance to see Rexxentrum.”

“Can we at least pick somewhere that isn’t a cow field?” asked Beauregard, her shoulders drooping.

“Maybe we can ask in at one of these farms?” suggested Mollymauk. Then he frowned. “Unless that ‘honeymoon’ thing forbids it.”

“If it did then you wouldn’t be allowed in an inn, though,” said Jester. “Does this mean you have to sleep outside everywhere?”

“The Widowmaker didn’t pack tents,” said Yasha.

Caleb winced a bit at the nickname. The rapid-fire conversation ground to a halt at Yasha’s announcement, and they all turned to look at him.

“So, I’m not only banned from all inns and houses, I also have to sleep under the stars? What if it rains?”

“You are not banned from inns, Mollymauk. People will simply interact as little–”

“We don’t even need inns,” said Nott, and Caleb could have sworn she slurred a little. “Caleb is amazing at magic! He can make a whole, a whole house out of nothing.” She waved her arms in the air for emphasis.

She had definitely been drinking.

“How big a house?” asked Beauregard.

“Bigger than me! Huge!”

“I should hope it would be bigger than you,” said Mollymauk. “Will it fit all of us?”

“Ja,” Caleb sighed a little. “It will fit everyone, and the horses, but you would have to be willing to trust my magic.”

They paused to consider. Beauregard and Jester who had seemed, just moments before, interested in Nott’s proposition, had lost their excitement and looked resigned. Fjord looked as if he were considering it. Yasha and Mollymauk were both difficult to read.

“What the hell,” said Mollymauk, after just a moment more. “We’re married, flesh and blood, so what’ve I got to lose?”

“I could be using this as a ruse to imprison you in a pocket dimension for all eternity.”

“Caleb!” Nott sounded scandalised. “He’s joking! He doesn’t mean it, he just has a terrible sense of humour.”

Caleb shrugged, keeping a straight face. He was only half joking. It would be, quite frankly, idiotic for the Lords of Misrule to trust him enough to enter a magical pocket dimension created by him. There were too many loopholes in the marriage terms, and besides, he was only married to Mollymauk. The Mollymauk in question narrowed his eyes at Caleb.

“Are you using this as a ruse to imprison me for all eternity?”

“Nein.”

“Nine?” asked Jester, quickly echoed by everyone (including Nott).

“Ah, it means no.”

“I could punch him,” offered Beauregard, cracking her knuckles. “Make sure he’s telling the truth.”

“Do and you die,” said Nott. Suddenly she didn’t sound particularly drunk or at all friendly. “If any of us get hurt or disappear on this trip, the war starts over, and I’m reasonably sure none of us want that, but if you – any of you – hurt my boy, I’m not gonna hesitate.” she looked them in the eyes one by one. “I have never lied to you. Any of you. Caleb won’t hurt you or imprison you. Now, he’s going to make us his magic house because the light is nearly gone and I, at least, want a soft bed tonight.”

Caleb let himself smile a bit at Nott’s defensive tone. And then began reaching for components and his spell book. He wasn’t fond of doing this spell for strangers, though he had done so more than once trying to rescue troops from overrun positions. More often than not the soldiers had had their last meal in Caleb’s magical house. He was far better at killing people than he was at saving them.

“Your lantern, Nott.”

He dismounted and walked to the side of the road, while she scrabbled in her pack before joining him. He was just setting up his miniature ivory door, when he was interrupted.

“Just before you begin,” said Fjord. “There’s something that’s been bothering me all day, and I’m sure it’s nothing, but … well. Given how much rides on us all staying alive, why don’t we have guards?”

The rest of the Lords of Misrule made various noises of agreement. Caleb blinked at them. Yet another thing they hadn’t been told.

“You and Nott are the honour guard,” he ran a hand through his hair. “I admit, I was a part of those negotiations. I pointed out we should have as small a guard as possible to show that it is now peacetime. Then I sent the wagons and servants ahead of us. I don’t like having people trail around after me for no reason.” He gave a rueful smile. “I am not good with people, and this way there isn’t an international incident when Beauregard threatens to torture me.”

“Hey, I didn’t say I was going to torture you,” Beauregard protested. “I just make people tell the truth by punching them.”

“Ja, those are completely different things.”

“They are! It’s monk shit. Not ….” She made a noise in her throat, and Caleb could tell that the joke had gone sour on her just as it had done for him a moment before.

He just shook his head and turned back to the spell. They all had too many scars to joke easily, too many caused by him. He focused on placing the small piece of marble and tracing the lines of imaginary architecture in the air to avoid falling down the rabbit hole into memories.

He vaguely heard some conversation behind him, and Nott replying to something, but he kept his focus on placing everything just so. There were seven of them, and the ten horses. He had not asked Misrule how they liked their beds so he guessed. He cringed a little as he completed the spell. The whole place would speak volumes not only about what he liked, but also about what he thought of everyone else. And unlike the distressed and wounded soldiers, Misrule were sure to notice.

He shook his head a little and stood up from his crouch. The familiar door was heavy looking dark oak and cool to the touch. He only hesitated a moment before opening it. Without looking at the others, he collected the reins of his horse and led her inside.

Chapter Text

Molly felt all off kilter and twitchy. He had no idea what his emotions were doing today, or what to think. Nott, unsurprisingly, had fit right in with the Lords of Misrule. While it was a little creepy how familiar she was with them all, even making a point to show Yasha where to get the best flowers, she had smoothed things out. Widogast had basically ignored them all, reading a book or petting his cat a little apart from them every time they stopped. He had obviously been paying attention, just not engaging because he did step in to tell Nott that they shouldn’t turn reverse pickpocketing into a drinking game as soon as the idea was broached. And he hadn’t even suggested that they stop completely, only that they focus on one game at a time. It was hard to remain constantly angry with someone willing to put up with their antics with good grace.

And now that he wasn’t outright angry, Molly had pretty much agreed to step into a strange magical spell. Just to prove to himself that he wasn’t scared. You are such an idiot, said the little part of him with the functional sections of brain. Widogast had conjured a sizable wooden door from next to nothing, and just led his horse through it as if it were the most normal thing in the world. Jester was already running around it to see what the other side looked like, and Nott was urging her horse through, into the indistinct golden light.

“Don’t take too long to make up your minds,” she rasped. “The door disappears when Caleb closes it.”

“It’s like a picture,” said Jester. “It just goes away side on, and it’s the same on the back as it is on the front.”

“Well, no point keeping my husband waiting,” said Molly. He dismounted to lead his horse through. A bit of him hoped someone would stop him.

“Well, fuck it,” said Fjord, and Molly heard him getting down off his horse too.

“Sure! Let’s just go on in to the Widowmaker’s happy fun magic house!” Beau sounded sarcastic, but Molly knew it wasn’t the ‘I’m going to stop your idiocy’ sarcasm so much as the ‘I’m coming too, so I can mock your idiocy and punch us a way out’ sarcasm.

He braced himself and stepped through. The indistinct golden light clarified in a moment into a large and ornate room, with marble flagstones, carved stonework, and detailed frescoes. It was like stepping into a palace designed by someone who usually worked on temples. The room was lit by floating golden globes with detailed silhouettes of unicorns and dragons cut into them, and the light spilled out with a faint golden tint, warming the room despite the proliferation of stonework. The ceiling was painted to look like the sky between the ribs of the vaulting. On closer inspection the friezes and frescoes were all either pastoral or wild but peaceful scenes. It took a moment or two to spot the various doorways nestled amongst the architecture like grumpy pigeons on a rainy day. Even the double-doors inset in the wall in front of him were dwarfed by the elaborate carved pillars and panels around them.

“I, ah, can never seem to get the entryway to be less...”

Molly started. Widogast had come from a side room while he had been staring like a country bumpkin.

“Come again?”

“The, ah,” Widogast waved his hand at the walls. “The magic insists on this sort of extravagance.”

The last word was said in the same way someone might say ‘soiled undergarments’. Molly felt himself thrown still further off-kilter.

“Are you actually the Archmage?”

Was? … What?”

“Last I checked Archmages were all about extravagance,” said Molly, just as his horse crowded into him through the door. “Shit! What? Fuck!”

The horse was unhappy, and nearly lifted Molly off his feet as he tried to calm it down. Apparently it hadn’t liked standing in-between here and there. And given Fjord came through the door as soon as it moved out of the way, Molly was pretty sure some additional persuasion had been involved.

He nearly fell over from shock, when a pale, faintly glowing, mostly transparent, grey figure came and took the reins from him. Another was divesting Fjord of his reins.

“What in—”

“They are servants that come with the house,” said Widogast, and Molly could have sworn he sounded amused. “When they are not doing anything they will be… unobtrusive.”

As the rest of the Lords of Misrule made their way in, the grey figures plucked the reins and lead ropes from their hands and led the horses through the archway off to the side.

“They are freaky, is what they are.”

“Ja, I still – I still haven’t definitively figured out what exactly they are. The spell is old and some areas are still indistinct. For instance, I can adjust most of the rooms to almost any purpose and appearance, but this foyer needs to be constructed with marble or the spell does not work,” said Widogast, moving his hands to illustrate. This was the most animated Molly had ever seen him. “I suspect an accent on the size modifiers dictates the number of servants, but there are numerous sigils that are still a mystery. The spell as I found it had some of the room variations described, but I still have yet to discover any means of adjusting total size, so if I want it smaller I need to define doorless rooms in the basic set up. As far as I can tell there isn’t an actual reason for a hard limit on the size as there is for the time limitations, because dealing with unreal factors tends to be very economical on the effort front—"

Widogast froze suddenly, and blushed – actually blushed – as if he had been caught doing something childish.

“Ah, sorry, you are probably not interested in all that,” said Widogast. “The dining hall is straight ahead. I need to check on the other rooms.”

Molly wasn’t sure what to say. Then, as he watched Widogast hurry after the horses, he wished he had said something. Why do you even care? He thought to himself.

“He’s definitely a wizard,” said Beau, clapping him on the shoulder. “Remember Gefta’s info dumps? Fuck, those were bad.”

“Gefta never felt the need to apologise,” said Molly, a tad vaguely. He shook himself. “Shall we go see what delights are on offer further in?”

There was a chorus of yeses. If there was one thing they had all learned over the years, it was that food was never to be turned down, and the possibility of food was to be thoroughly investigated. Unlike regular troops, they had never had the luxury of supply lines. Jester narrowly beat him to the double doors, and threw them open with a flourish.

Inside was a sizable room that virtually screamed military mess hall. There was only one long table in what appeared to be oak, well made and unstained and for a moment Molly was at a loss as to what had made him think ‘military’. But the table had benches rather than chairs, and there were no carpets or rushes on the plain stone floor. The walls were bare wood, unadorned except for plain sconces filled with magical lights, and to one side was a counter set into the wall filled with food. In the far corners were two stands of wood and brass, and it only took a moment for Molly to realise that they were designed to hang regimental colours. Usually mess halls had a fair few more tables, old and stained, and were constantly filled with the sound of a busy kitchen and unhappy chefs the other side of the counter, but the stark, utilitarian feel of a mess hall nonetheless permeated the room.

There was just enough military for it to feel familiar, but it was just orderly enough to feel deeply wrong. It was a picture of what obsessively finicky officers sometimes demanded, but could never hope to achieve.

“Military,” said Yasha, from behind him.

“Hells, yes,” said Fjord. “But it’s—"

“Too perfect,” said Molly.

“Yeah, too perfect. Weird.”

“I don’t think it’s going to bite, though,” said Jester, bearing down on the food. “Ohh! There’s proper fruit and roast meat looking stuff!”

Molly frowned. Jester usually only forced her cheerfulness when she was sure that someone was really fucking sad, or angry. Or when she was sad or angry, but she generally tried to avoid drawing attention to herself when that was the case. So it was usually for Beau or Fjord. As he wondered which of them might have caused the cheerfulness plague, Beau wandered over to check out the spread.

“Wow,” she said. “He’s even included the standard-fucking-issue metal plates.” She picked up one and checked the bottom. “Dwendalian army stamped no less.”

She tapped it with her fingers twice, then flung it at him. He just barely managed to bat it out of the air.

“Fuck you! You nearly got me in the throat!”

“Stop moping then, arsehole.” Beau tilted her head at Jester, who was pretending to find their exchange hilarious.

Molly cursed himself internally. Of course he had caused a cheerfulness plague. He had been so careful to project a carefree attitude to Jester right up until the wedding, it only made sense that he would be a dumbass and forget to keep it up afterwards. He sighed internally, and put on his best fake smile.

“It occurs to me that, as the legal husband of the creator of this … quite frankly frightening attempt at military perfection, I am your host this evening.” Molly bowed to his friends with gratuitous flourishing, before bounding over to the food. “We have here dinner, for your eating pleasure. A meal fit for gods. We have meat, another meat, and I think this might also be meat. We have roasted this thing, and whatever that is.”

“Asparagus,” said Yasha, with a small smile that said she knew exactly what he was doing.

To be fair, they probably all knew. But Jester couldn’t try to cheer him up if he went full flamboyance on her. Sometimes he wished that he could just be the person he often pretended to be. Carefree, happy, mischievous, fun. If he ever woke up in a shallow grave again, he hoped he would remember to have fun and damn the consequences. But for now he would play the part until they all forgot how fucked he was, and maybe if he pretended hard enough…

He made his way through presenting the rest of the dishes. Mainly as this, that, or the other thing, but he got cute with Fjord and Jester about the seafood and pastries respectively. It might have been predictable, but he figured predictable was what they all needed. By the time they sat down to eat everything felt a touch more real, more normal.

The food itself was excellent, easily rivalling the wedding feasts. There were Xhorhasian staples of stewed rice and smoked rabbit sausages, alongside dishes from the Menagerie Coast, and less familiar dishes from deep in the Dwendalian Empire. None of it felt entirely familiar to any of Misrule, except perhaps Jester. It was all too good. Even in Ghor Dranas itself, food of such high quality was rarely served during wartime and certainly never in a mess. And for Molly wartime was as long as he could remember.

Except for their first few exclamations of delight, and Jester’s insistence they try some of this or that, they ate in relative silence.

“If this is the taste of peace,” said Molly, eventually. Breaking the quiet, as he leaned back slightly and loosened his belts. “I can certainly support it!”

“Not sure your clothes will,” said Fjord, smiling like a lazy cat.

“Yours look closer to going,” said Beau, poking Fjord just below the ribs. “He at least takes care of his. When was the last time you did any of your own mending.”

“Or washing for that matter,” added Jester.

It was odd to think he wouldn’t be sharing a tent or room with Fjord anymore. No more quiet conversations about clothes, and religion, and the difference between right and wrong. For a moment, Molly felt adrift as if all his friends were becoming intangible even as they sat in front of him. Or that he was becoming nothing as they were pulled away. The conversation kept on around him easily, as if he could just disappear and no one would notice.

“Hey! Molly this is Nott. I am talking to you with magic. Come over to the food window, stealthy-like. Youcanreplytothismessage.”

He pretended to rub his nose.

“I know it’s magic. Just, why?”

There was a pause, and Molly covered his weird espionage by joining in the laughter at something Jester said which he only half-heard.

“You were having fun being the host, and Caleb doesn’t want to do it, and I have the room keys. Youcanreplytothismessage.”

Molly excused himself, and took his plate over to the food window. The previously empty kitchen the other side was now occupied by a small goblin and a bunch of semi-translucent cats.

“That’s fucking weird.”

“What’s weird?” called Fjord.

“The servant things are apparently cats when they aren’t needed.”

“Well, shit.”

“I don’t think they are actually cats, Fjord,” said Jester. “You will probably be okay, and if you get sick I can heal you.”

As his friends set to discussing the pros and cons of magic cat servants, Molly surreptitiously leaned in to Nott.

“What?” he hissed.

“Keys.” she replied. She began sliding them across the table at him. “Caleb has your rooms off the main entrance. To the left. They are all personalised, just let me or Caleb know if you want anything different next time.”

The keys themselves were apparently personalised. One, in black iron, had a grip shaped like an anchor, another, made of rose gold, had etchings of tiny daisies. He was momentarily inclined to think the rose gold was for him until Nott had produced one shaped like a snake holding an emerald, its pattern matching his arm tattoo. It was … a bit odd. His tattoos had been a way to fill his emptiness with something, anything, when he woke with no memories. They defined him, but in a way they were meaningless. All the other keys symbolised things his friends loved: the sea, flowers, pastries for Jester, and even a fucking key made to look like lock picks stuck together for Beau – probably alluding to her penchant for breaking into places. You’re over thinking things again, said the rational part of his brain. Besides, why do you even care? He was just fucking morose tonight.

He shook himself out of his thoughts and blinked. So much for asking Nott for directions to the washroom, she was nowhere in sight. Like as not, she had left as soon as she had delivered her messages and he had turned his attention to the keys. Well, it would give them all an excuse to explore.

The show must go on. He absentmindedly tapped the counter three times for luck and put his host face back on, before turning back to his friends.

Chapter Text

Molly was definitely faking being happy, but Jester wasn’t entirely sure what to do about it. If she tried to be enthusiastic about stuff, he would just double down and they would both end up drunk in a mud-filled tub with matching tattoos again. And he wouldn’t be any happier underneath. If she tried to take him aside for a heart to heart he would just spout some bullshit and say he just needed to let loose and they would end up covered in mud, drunkenly chasing pigs around a sty. Only very occasionally did that get to the root of the problem and actually help in the long run. Jester sighed. She was well aware that they were all pretty fucked up from the war and everything, but Molly’s ‘fake it until you make it’ approach to trauma just made it so difficult to help him.

And now that he had managed to get a hold of the keys to their rooms, he was faking it harder than ever.

“And this,” said Molly, as he flung open a door in the ornate foyer. “Is the way to our glorious accommodations!”

It was his third attempt at figuring out where they were meant to go. It had been nice to confirm that the horses were well taken care of, though, and she hadn’t quite managed to keep herself from giggling when Molly tried to dramatically fling open a locked door. The wide hallway he revealed this time looked a lot more promising. The dark wood floor was only visible at the edges, as a red and gold carpet ran down its length. The walls were painted with red and gold roses on a cream background, and the ceiling was white and stamped with a repeating geometric motif. The carpet’s swirling and scrolling patterns didn’t seem to repeat and she had to close her eyes for a moment to chase away memories of blood and fire, so she missed hearing Molly’s comment on the decor. The effect overall seemed to her one of increasing order, with the floor seeming to represent the Hells and the ceiling the higher planes. It was a common enough understanding of things, it just happened to uphold a conception of divinity and the superiority of order that she fiercely disagreed with.

The red hall was not particularly long, and it clearly had doors along its length as well as a door at the far end. The doors closest to them, across the hall from one another, seemed likely meant for Yasha and Beau. The one on the left was plain silvered wood, with delicate floral carvings around the frame to match Yasha’s key, while the door to the right was simple enough but had a line of cobalt-soul blue around the edges. Molly skipped forward to between the two doors, and turned to face them with yet another flourish.

“Here we have personal, personalised rooms for our dear Yasha, and that fucker over there.”

“Fuck you too!”

“Sorry, I’m taken,” said Molly straight back. While he didn’t miss a beat, his smile was awful fragile.

“Let’s see what’s in the rooms!” Jester knew her cheer sounded a little stilted. Usually she would join the ribbing, but usually Molly was a lot less close to breaking. It was times like these that she wished she were a different sort of cleric, like the ones in temples that were all gentle and liked helping people and were good at it. Yasha seemed to be on about the same page in this case, though, as she went over to the floral door and tried her key.

“It fits,” she said, then swung open the door. “It’s … nice.”

Given Yasha had called a haystack filled with ticks, and a campsite overrun by fire-ants ‘nice enough’ and ‘not bad’ respectively, it didn’t exactly mean much. Jester crowded up behind her to get a look. It was … pretty. Sort of. The delicate floral bordering continued inside, and there were tiny pastel blue and pink flowers painted on the walls. The grey and dark blue carpets on the lighter grey floor kept everything subdued despite the colour. The furniture could best be described as solid, though serviceable also sprang to mind. It was also mostly grey. Yasha wandered over to the chest of drawers where a vase of flowers matching those on the wall was perched. She touched them gently and turned to them all, surveying the room.

“I like it,” she said.

“This is fucking bullshit!” yelled Beau from the hall.

Jester turned to find Beau with her door open and Molly leaning bent in half convulsing in still-silent laughter.

“This is not funny.”

“It –It so so so is,” wheezed Molly, his giggles apparent in his voice. “It’s so you.”

“Fuck you.”

Jester peered past them. The room was probably at most a quarter of the size of Yasha’s, and held only a small bed and a small bed-side table. The walls were whitewashed and plain. There wasn’t so much as a rug on the floor.

“It looks like a cell,” she said, turning to give Beau her best ‘hard look’ face. “Did you do something to annoy Widogast?”

“No. I mean I did sort of get annoyed at him, but …” Beau sighed. “This is the sort of room monks get at the Archives. He either doesn’t know I hate that bullshit, and he thinks he can get me to, I don’t know, miss home? And go back to them. Or he wants to punish me for betraying the empire.”

“Do you miss it?” asked Molly, but the amusement in his voice made it clear he thought he already knew the answer. Beau didn’t dignify the question.

“So, either he’s messing with us, or he jus’ doesn’t know us as much as Yasha’s room seems to suggest.” said Fjord.

“Only one way to find out,” said Molly, and Jester joined him to chorus: “Open more doors!”

The next pair of doors led to a large washroom area, and to Jester’s room. Which was a lavish mix of bright pink, white, and gold. It failed, however, to be at all cute. The furniture was pretty much the same heavy-set design from Yasha’s room, just in white and gold with a little carving around the edges.

Fjord’s room was next, and he seemed to have Beau’s problem. The room was small, and obviously designed to mimic quarters at sea. It even had the obnoxious creaking and the repetitive wet slapping of waves against the side of the ship. And it rocked. It didn’t look like it was doing it from the door, but as soon as someone entered they would feel the waves rolling beneath the hull. They spent a good while just walking in and out testing the noise and the rocking, while Fjord sat on the edge of the bed looking gloomy.

Molly’s room came last, and while Molly himself was a bright vibrant peacock of a man, the room was like a peacock had been tastefully taxidermied and displayed in a dark wood case. The floors carpeted in rich teal patterned in dark blue lines, the bedspread was quilted in rich silks of purple, blue, and green, and the walls were a complementing shade of dark blue with a feathery patterning in gold. The same sort of furniture as was in Yasha’s and Jester’s rooms appeared again, this time in dark wood. While it was in some of Molly’s favourite colours, it was just far too subdued. The room was not the sort of peacock that would tear up a formal garden and leave tea-parties in disarray after his visit, it certainly wouldn’t be so gauche as to make a racket at 4am because it wanted to get laid. It was more the impression of a peacock than anything real.

“I don’t think he really knows any of us,” said Jester, as she tested the bounce on Molly’s bed. “This just isn’t bright and clashing enough for Molly, Fjord’s is just like he knows you were a sailor–”

“I can’t sleep in there,” said Fjord.

They all nodded.

“I sure as hell don’t want to sleep in mine,” said Beau.

“Well if Beau shares with Yasha, then Fjord can have her room,” suggested Molly. “I would say share with me, but, you know, married man.”

And he was back to looking all small and uncomfortable. Without thinking too much she just launched herself at him and hugged him tight.

“We’ll get this fixed, I promise,” she said to him and her whole team. “And I’ll talk to him tomorrow about changing the rooms. It was kinda nice of him to try to make them like this, right? So it isn’t all bad.”

“Yeah,” said Molly, patting her on the back a touch awkwardly. “And at least he got the colours right.”

“For you.”

“Fuck off to your monk cell Beau.”

“Nah, that’s Fjord’s monk cell now.”

Jester pulled back from the hug, relieved that Molly was still up to swearing at Beau.

“Are you alright sharing with her Yash?” asked Fjord. “I’d real appreciate not having to sleep in that cabin.”

“Otherwise, he can share with me!” Jester was careful to play somewhere between innocent enthusiasm and innuendo.

“Beau can sleep with me,” said Yasha and as they collectively oohed and made kissy noises she clarified “Ah, share my quarters. Beau can share with me.”

They all collapsed into giggles except for Yasha, who just stood there getting progressively redder in the face, until Molly took pity on her and told them they were being mean. It only fell a bit short as Molly was still giggling and Yasha began to protest that they weren’t mean.

They didn’t talk for much longer before peeling off to go to their rooms. Jester felt a little bad leaving Molly on his own, but at the same time her presence was probably just forcing him to pretend to be cheerful. Her own room felt lonely and cold. Her pack dropped by the bed looked like a lost dog in all the white, a dirty mongrel. The pink bedspread reminded her a little of home, but not in a good way. She needed a window, but there wasn’t one. She closed her eyes and breathed deeply until the tightness in her chest eased. She couldn’t let herself panic just yet, one of the others might come to ask her something, Molly might come to talk about his feelings and it wouldn’t be fair to make him deal with her panicking.

When the tension eased a little she pulled out her sketch book, and propped herself up against the cushions on the bed. She had been waiting all day for a good moment to draw Nott riding that fat pony, with her legs basically sticking straight out. It didn’t take long to lose herself in the familiar rite of drawing out her day, and as she did so she told the Traveller about it. He would have liked the reverse pick-pocketing, and she felt a confirmation somewhere in the back of her head that he had indeed, and her re-arranging shelves in so many shops. As she was trying to figure out how to draw their rooms, or this mansion she leaned back and looked up. She laughed out loud. There in the top left corner of the room, right by the ceiling, was a little door to the Traveller in dark green against the white and gold. Unexpected.

He might not have gotten everything right, but Jester was pretty sure the fearsome Widowmaker was a lot more like them than his reputation suggested. She drew him with a cat face and a dead peacock, and felt the Traveller’s happiness to her bones.

Chapter Text

Caleb awoke with his mouth tasting like sour milk, and the slow ache of a tension headache. It wasn’t unusual. Nor was the cat nose right next to his left eye. Frumpkin thought it was funny to wake him up by placing his damp (probably deliberately wetted) nose on Caleb’s eyelids. He’d been doing it for years. Caleb pushed him to the side so he could sit up, and absentmindedly scratched the fey cat behind his ears and along his cheeks. They had been together so long their responses to one another were automatic. Idly Caleb wondered what it would be like to wake up to someone else, rather than Frumpkin’s wet nose or Nott’s scruffling. Just someone different, softer, the scent of flowers rather than cat or goblin musk, pale pink hair across a pillow… Caleb shook himself out of his reverie and hastily began getting ready for the day.

He managed to finish dressing and packing his books before the servants arrived with his breakfast, without thinking of … inappropriate… matters more than twice. The trouble was there was precious little else to think about, everything was pretty much okay according to Nott’s final report the night before, troop movements were out of his hands, his only serious assignment was making sure the Lords of Misrule were happy. Especially Mollymauk. But now, whenever he thought about happiness, he remembered low laughter and a soft smile that did not belong to his new husband. What is wrong with you? He put down his cutlery, and stared at the ceiling. You were done with this nonsense a year ago, why re-hash it now? He sighed. He knew he was a fool, he just wished sometimes that his folly wouldn’t hurt so much.

“Headaches again?” rasped a voice from the door.

He didn’t bother to look. He had yet to hear anyone mimic Nott’s voice convincingly, and had difficulty imagining anyone who’d really want to.

“Ja, and thinking of … things.”

“Sex with Molly?” He started and looked at her wide-eyed, as she climbed onto the seat next to him. “We could do the ‘I Tripped and Fell’ if you wanna get up close. Or ‘Momma Bear Nott’ for the long game.” She grabbed a piece of his bacon and chewed with a thoughtful expression. “That’d probably work real well. They are a contrary lot. We could even pull a ‘There’s Only One Bed’ but properly.”

“Nien!” Caleb winced at how frantic he sounded. “Sorry, I mean. I was not. I was not thinking of Mollymauk.”

Nott blinked at him, and he tried to look reassuring. He failed, and after a moment a look of soft realization swept across Nott’s jagged features.

“I thought you were over that,” she said in as gentle a tone as she could manage. “He isn’t going to… and anyway you’re married now.”

“I know. I think I just… I wish Mollymauk were more like him.”

“Really? Really?” said Nott indignantly. “You don’t even know Molly yet! He’s fun, and outgoing, and–”

“–Loud.”

“And kind! And generous! He juggles for refugees, and always has a pocketful of food for the street kids.” Nott climbed onto the table so she could look down at him disapprovingly. “He might be an idiot sometimes, but he is probably the best of them!”

“I thought you liked Jester,” Caleb said in his meekest tone.

“I do like Jester, she is the best too!” yelled Nott, stomping her small foot dangerously close to the bacon, before continuing in more reasonable tones. “But, Jester doesn’t always know when to stop being… trouble. Not that Molly doesn’t get into trouble plenty, but… well. Remember Zadash, when they snuck in to meet with the Gentleman about supplies?”

“And Jester tipped everyone off to their presence by trying to give the Pelor statue a humorous beard and glasses. Hard to forget.”

“She does that a lot. It’s something to do with her god.”

“Painting statues with beards and glasses a lot, or makes conspicuous trouble a lot?”

“Both. Anyway, Molly only pulls real stunts when he thinks it’s safe.”

“Fjord called you his friend. Why?”

Nott frowned at his sudden change in topic. Doubtless she wanted to pester him more about his relationships, but the thought that Nott might have engaged in traitorous actions had plagued him much of the afternoon and evening before.

“We got to know each other. You read my reports,” she sighed and climbed down to her seat. “Things got weird a time or two. It wasn’t like your war, with troops and uniforms and lines on a map. It was just us, sometimes others, but mostly just us going back and forth. We didn’t kill each other because then the dead would have been replaced by someone new, and unknowns are bad in our games. Sometimes that extended to me stepping in against a common foe.”

“That wasn’t in the reports.”

“It was. I just hid it. I ‘took advantage of the situation to ensure an optimal outcome’. You taught me that one.”

Caleb wasn’t sure what to say. His mind raced in circles trying to put together a risk assessment and damage control. She didn’t push him, and instead turned to continue demolishing the bacon. He had done worse, doubtless, if anyone found out what he had done to Trent or the others, if anyone realized it added up to more than shady political manoeuvres… But Nott had more than one strike against her already because she was a goblin. If anyone found a reason to call her loyalty into question, and they killed her, he would burn everything to the ground. And he wasn’t sure he could keep going afterwards, if there would be anything left, so that couldn’t happen. He had to anticipate the breaking points.

“I’m not sure if everyone would agree that helping the enemy could be anything but treason, Nott,” he said carefully.

“I’m not an idiot. I spelt it out to the king and the need to knows, and got the go ahead,” she paused a moment, and reached out to place a tiny clawed hand on top of his human one. “I’m not going to get killed, Caleb. Don’t worry.”

He frowned at her hand.

“How was I not a ‘need to know’?”

“Different wars. You were already caring too much about the people you had to kill, no sense making you feel bad about it in a whole ‘nother way.”

He almost protested, but instead he shook his head and sighed. She had a point, and she knew him well enough to know she had won this argument. She turned back to the bacon, scoffing a couple more rashers, before reaching for the boiled eggs. He made a gagging sound as she cracked one open to spread the soft yolk over the rashers, and she grinned at him.

“It’s good!”

Das ist widerlich,” he told her, scrunching up his nose. “Disgusting.”

She made a show of dangling the yolk covered bacon over her mouth before slurping it down messily.

“In other news,” she said, licking her claws. “Misrule have been compiling a list of requests for next time they spend a night here.”

“How bad?”

“Fjord hated his.”

“But that was one of the most accurate?! I checked!”

“And Beau hated hers,” Nott continued, ticking them off on her fingers.

“But—”

“Jester and Molly seem to each have a long list of improvements they want, but neither declared an outright hatred,” she continued over his protests. “Yasha said she liked hers, and hadn’t asked for any changes when I left.”

“What changes did they want?”

“I’ll leave that to Jester. You’ll actually have to have a conversation. It’ll be good for you,” she said with a mischievous grin. “I’m done here, so I’ll go hurry them out. Don’t be too long.”

She paused at the door.

“Want me to get your horse?”

“Ja. I’ll just…”

She left while he stared into the middle distance. Nott was his best friend, but she could be cruel sometimes in the name of kindness. He had no idea how he was going to manage a conversation with Jester. He reached, as he ever did in times of crisis, for his spell book and notes.

Caleb’s primary spell book, by now, had undergone so many additions and adjustments, with sections rewritten and stitched in and others torn out, that the covers held their contents like an elderly lady might hold a dead bird. His brown leather notes case had no such pretensions at book-hood and held all his mundane knowledge in a secure and orderly manner. Side by side the two looked incongruous as a pair, like they were owned by two very different people. The delicate care Caleb took with his spell book, as he turned to his pages of notes on the Magnificent Mansion spell, made it clear the tome was its owner’s favourite.

He took his time reviewing the basic spell parameters, and the areas he had established the limitations for, as well as the modest alterations he had experimented with in the past. His memory was perfect, but he avoided trusting it overmuch. Trent had hated him relying on his memory, and he had seen too many young and cocky wizards self-immolate over the years of the war to risk more than a few days between refreshers with his spell book. If he was going to be figuring out anything new while travelling it paid to check all the details.

That done, he opened the note case and browsed through the details he had gleaned from Nott’s reports. Jester was high-energy, outgoing, and a capable people person. Her mother was a famous courtesan in Nicodranas. No records appeared to exist of Jester before adulthood, which was strange. How she ended up in Xhorhas was uncertain, but she was one of the original three members of Misrule, and officially became Captain Fancypants after a year. He presumed that the Xhorhasians were aware that Fancypants was an assumed name but had just decided to go along with it. She was a cleric of the Traveller, and made her own pamphlets. He had gleaned several pages of notes on the Traveller from various pamphlets Nott had recovered from the field over the years. Unpredictable but not unkind. And Nott would have warned him if she knew Jester planned to yell at him.

Done with his notes he re-packed and asked a servant to check if everyone had left the mansion. It had been nearly an hour, but he didn’t want them to know he was snooping. When the servant confirmed he was alone, he swiftly made his way across the foyer to check Misrule’s rooms. The furniture was still in place in each room and there were no signs that anyone stringently objected to any of the décor. No one had slashed or broken anything, anyway. Fjord’s quarters had that unlived in look peculiar to disused bedrooms. Overall it was reassuring. He had probably just tried too hard to show off with Fjord’s room, that was all. He could deal with it. He was already formulating adjustments in his head as he headed out to join everyone and collapse the mansion.

 

Outside, the day was clear and bright. The slight breeze held the sweet scent of slowly-warming grasses, and the more pungent odours of grassy excrement, leather, and horse. Caleb was acutely aware that he had kept everyone waiting for longer than he had intended. He nodded to them, and muttered a ‘goodmorning’ before turning to mutter incantations and make impressive gestures. In truth, the Mansion spell was quick and easy to dispel, but it was one of the basic secrets of wizarding in times of crisis that nothing should be allowed to look ‘easy’. Astrid had beaten it into him when they were first on assignment together, back when the war had first started. He did his best to ignore the clenching of sorrow in his chest that accompanied memories of his old friend. They had hardly been friends at the end, but he still regretted it.

He finished the needless incantation with a simple twist of will which broke the anchors holding the construct to reality. The door simply disappeared. Doubtless Astrid would have been upset at him for not using some sort of illusion to make it seem grander. A puff of smoke, a twinkling sparkle in the air after the door was gone, the tinkle of mysterious bells. She had made a habit of wasting her strength on such things when she was with troops. Sending her out to face Gefta in the company of a strike team had pretty much sealed her fate. He didn’t regret sending her out, he regretted losing her long before that; he regretted the way the world had twisted her. The way it had twisted him. He shook his head and composed himself. He had plenty to deal with today without borrowing troubles from the past.

He retrieved his horse from Nott and mounted up. No one seemed particularly interested in talking, but that wasn’t unusual in the morning when on a march so Caleb did his best to think nothing of it. He took the lead down the road with Nott at his side.

They reached the village of Peasickle at twenty three minutes past ten in the morning. Nott had fallen back to talk with Misrule and Caleb felt exposed at the head of their small band. The village had, to Caleb’s mind, a classic war-worn look. While the place wasn’t outright dilapidated it gave the impression that it had too many walls and not enough whitewash to go around. Most people would be out in the surrounding fields, but there were a fair number of elderly and crippled people doing hand-crafts at doorstops. He couldn’t help but wonder how many had been crippled in his campaigns. All of them seemed intent on avoiding looking at him.

“Is that really necessary?” a voice hissed from next to him.

Caleb started slightly, and his horse jigged underneath him in response. Mollymauk had come up beside him, while he was distracted by the basket-weavers, and was looking at him with an almost offended expression.

“You’re scaring them,” Mollymauk continued, gesturing at Caleb’s head.

It took Caleb a moment to realize that he meant his hair. Then he felt like an idiot. He dispelled the cantrip.

“Ah, sorry,” Caleb said. “It isn’t intentional… I mean, it’s a habit. It just… I just do that.”

And now you sound like an idiot, pointed out the small overly observant part of himself.

“How? I mean you weren’t doing it before?”

They were speaking quietly, but Caleb could detect a tension in Mollymauk’s voice and face, which seemed to suggest urgency. He looked back at the Lords of Misrule, and saw they looked, for the most part, grim. Jester, however, gave him a small smile and a surreptitious thumbs up. He was baffled.

“Why is it important?” he asked Mollymauk quietly, then winced when he realized how he sounded. “I mean, I do not want to frighten people – that is not intentionally. That is…” he sighed and closed his eyes to take a moment to figure out how to explain it. “I am not imposing,” He gestured down at himself. He had been in the field enough that he didn’t look overtly bookish, but he was definitely slender and delicate rather than broad-chested and well-muscled. “So when I took command, I needed a way to make sure my troops respected me. One of my friends helped me develop this spell for when I was on parade or when I needed to impress people… I just got into the habit of using it too often.”

Some of the tension had leaked from Mollymauk’s face and shoulders. He looked thoughtful.

“So… now you use it just around people in general?”

“Ah, ja.”

Caleb could feel himself starting to blush in embarrassment.

“You’re doing it again,” Mollymauk pointed out, looking amused now.

Caleb looked down at his horse, and willed the magic away. Mollymauk’s amusement was so much worse than his tense anger or fear. Without looking up he urged his horse into a trot, and hoped desperately the other man would take the hint and fall back.

Apparently he could take a hint, and he didn’t follow. Caleb found himself a ways out ahead of everyone else which was nice at first, but when the acute embarrassment began to wear off he began to realize that Mollymauk would surely be relaying what had passed between them to his friends. And Nott was back there, and she would probably be trying to be supportive.

As the lunch hour approached, Caleb found himself dreading even turning to check how far back Misrule was. When he heard the sound of a horse making its way up the line to join him, he had to suppress the desire to urge his horse on to a quicker pace. Running away would just make him look even more foolish. He looked across, hoping against hope to see Nott, instead Jester grinned cheerily across at him.

“Hello!” she said. “Molly says you just do the fire thing so people won’t talk to you.”

“Ah...”

“You are doing it now. A lot,” she said, looking at his hair.

He fixed his eyes on the base of her left horn, and willed the magic away. She kept looking at his hair.

“You, ah, wanted something?” he asked after a moment.

“Did you like having sex with Molly?” she asked.

There was an outraged splutter from somewhere behind them, and Caleb looked down at his hands feeling his face turning bright red.

“Yay,” she cheered, clapping.

He looked back up at her, confused. She was still looking at his hair.

“He definitely does it when he’s embarrassed,” she called out to everyone.

“Fuck you, Jes,” Mollymauk called back, and Caleb silently agreed.

“Was that all you wanted?” Caleb asked her a bit tetchily. His embarrassment was fading rapidly to annoyance at her blithe attitude to his discomfort.

“Nien!” she said brightly. “I have,” she paused for effect as she pulled out a piece of paper. “A list!”

He didn’t respond to her triumphant show.

“Basically, while we really really liked how you tried to make our rooms nice for us. Well, I mean Beau thought it was super creepy, but I liked it. You didn’t get everything right.”

She seemed to expect a response, so he nodded.

“So we made a list this morning of all the things we thought would make things better, you know…” she trailed off.

“Go on.”

“Only if you want to. I mean I didn’t mean to offend?”

It took a moment for Caleb to figure out he was glaring at her. He closed his eyes for a moment, and silently agreed with Nott’s assessment that Mollymauk was the better tiefling to be married to.

“I’m annoyed that you deliberately tried to embarrass me in order to elicit an unconscious response that I have expressed embarrassment about,” he told her. “That wasn’t kind.”

She shook her head in agreement.

“It wasn’t, I’m sorry,” she said meekly.

Caleb had no idea if she was being serious, or mocking him for his telling off, or if he had scared her. He hated this. He sighed and ran a hand down his face.

“I am, however, interested in knowing how I can make things more comfortable for you.”

Then maybe you’ll all focus on yourselves rather than me, he added in his head. She brightened again, and it was like nothing had happened to upset her in the first place.

“Well. The list. Let’s see. Fjord first, because that was completely wrong. We all nearly died in a ship-wreck a few years back and Fjord can’t sleep below-decks anymore. He does still love the sea and boats, but not cabins, so I was thinking maybe some blue walls with pictures of the ocean and seagulls—”

“You were thinking? What did he ask for?”

“Oh, he just wanted a room that wasn’t a ship cabin. Which I didn’t think was helpful, because there are a lot of things a room can be besides that.”

Caleb nodded in agreement. How Jester could fluctuate so effortlessly between casual cruelty and genuine thoughtfulness was odd. He wondered if it had something to do with the nature of her god.

“So, seagulls. In pictures only. I think he liked Beau’s bed? He slept in her room- she hated hers too. But he wasn’t really invested in telling me what sort of softness he likes. I think a chest at the end of the bed with a salt water distressed look would be appropriate. He also likes the smell of nutmeg. He dislikes cats, because he is allergic, so maybe if the servants don’t look like them?”

Caleb clicked his fingers pointedly and summoned Frumpkin to the front of his saddle.

“So that’s a no. Can they sort of avoid him maybe?”

“Ja, I think we can manage that.”

“So Beau doesn’t like actual monk stuff a lot of the time. She just does it so she can punch things hard, but I think she can punch things hard because she hates the monk stuff so much. So she wanted a room like Yasha’s, but I think she would want it more in soft browns than greys, and with less flowers. Maybe a motif like this?”

She pulled out a sketchbook and flicked through the pages to find the one she was looking for. She held it up to show a simple flowing design bordered by straight lines. He couldn’t help but notice a drawing on the opposite page that could have been him with a cat face holding a dead peacock of all things. It seemed to be his uniform for sure.

“Ja. Is that meant to be me?”

It was her turn to blush, and she hurriedly pulled the sketch book away.

“Maybe.”

“Why am I holding a dead peacock?”

“Um, well, that is the next on the list. Molly’s room! It was all too neat and matching and sort of dead, you know?”

Caleb didn’t know, but he nodded anyway.

“He needs clashing colours and lots of sparkly things and he likes pictures of the Platinum Dragon – I think it’s because he is really sparkly. And I think he would like a bedframe of wrought iron that looks all frilly but is really hard. He likes contradictions.”

She looked at him like she expected something, so he nodded in a way he hoped looked more thoughtful.

“Well, then there is me. I think the furniture was too heavy, you know. It needs to be more slender and elegant. And you went a little overboard on the pink, it doesn’t need to be everywhere. Can you do a window? I really really want a window. Maybe a dark ceiling? Dark green, trailing down into the white via a design like this,” she pulled open her sketchbook again and showed him a vine-like pattern. “I loved the door you did, by the way! Can you do more? Ohh we could have a game, where you put lots and I try to find them all! That would be fun. Now where was I? Doors… windows! Can you do windows?"

“I have no idea. It sounds interesting.”

He was barely resisting the urge to pull out his study materials while she talked.

“Well if you can, Yasha loved her room, but she wanted some way to know what the weather is outside. She worships the Storm Lord, and she doesn’t want to miss seeing a storm. And I think that’s everyone. So, can you do it?”

“I can certainly try, there are some difficult bits… many difficult bits,” he said, then saw her disappointed face and hurried to add: “Difficult is good. I like adjusting spells, figuring out limits… I’m not so good at the carpentry though. So you will have to be careful with more delicate looking furniture.”

He had no idea why he added that little detail. He had spent the whole evening before hoping they wouldn’t notice, and now he had just told Jester outright. She looked at him quizzically.

“You’re very different to what your reputation makes you out to be.”

“Well I don’t actually go about killing people at random, if that’s what you mean.”

She had the decency to laugh at his terrible joke, but she still looked at him like she had decided he was a puzzle to be solved. He couldn’t imagine she would like what she found if she did figure him out. But there were more pressing matters to consider than Jester’s assessment of him.

“Shall we stop for lunch? I can get started on those adjustments…”

He didn't wait to hear her answer. There was a promising looking field just ahead that he steered towards, his mind already taken over by the thought of windows. He vaguely heard Nott complaining that they had broken him, but he had heard her jokes about his tendency towards hyper-focus before and paid them no mind. He set to work setting up a small study area around himself on the grass, and Nott brought him something to eat. By the time they packed up after a long lunch Caleb was happier than he had been in a very long while. He had figured out a possible way of making windows in the Mansion show the outside world and now, with his makeshift travel-desk strapped onto his saddle, he was confident he could get the furnishings sorted before evening as well.

Chapter Text

As his friends filed out after their inspection of his new and improved room, Molly flopped back onto the bed and stared up at the canopy. There were constellations traced across a good two thirds of the fabric, while the rest was taken up by a sunburst design. The feathery reds and golds of the sun trailed over into the cold dark of the night sky, tempering its suffocating velvet void but unable to overwhelm it. It was gorgeous and he loved it. And he had no idea what to do about it. Jester had talked to Widogast, so he had expected his room to be less blah, but not spot on. Not this wondrous decadence full of small but perfect details. He hadn’t caught everything she’d told Widogast, but he had seen her drop the list absentmindedly as she pulled out her sketchbook to show the wizard something for Beau’s room. He certainly hadn’t requested most of these changes, but he was reasonably sure Jester was behind some of the additions. She had suggested the bed – he’d caught her mention of wrought iron from where he’d been riding – but she surely couldn’t have given this much detail. He couldn’t remember if she had shown Widogast her sketchbook while talking about him…

He held up his hand to look at the stars between his fingers. They hung blank in their dark sky and, for a few moments that trailed off towards an eternity, nothing felt quite real. He’d had one conversation with his husband during their ride. It had been tense and he’d dreaded starting it, but then it had been… nice. Except he’d said something wrong and Widogast had ridden off. And then when he told everyone what had passed between them, Nott had told him off for embarrassing her ‘boy’.

Molly sighed and rolled over, burying his face into the silk and furs of the bedding to block out the world so he could just think. He just didn’t know where he stood with all this. Widogast’s reputation set him up as a towering, merciless figure, more than likely to lash out at anyone who irritated him. So far Molly found the man to be a quiet, perhaps anxious fellow, who was maybe a little grim but, all in all, very tolerant. He’d put up with a lot from them all already: himself and Beau getting grumpy and threatening, Jester messing about with shops and… being deliberately embarrassing just that morning. So far Fjord and Yasha hadn’t done much to offend, that Molly knew of, but he got the impression that Widogast would deal with their antics with similar good grace. As a travelling companion, after two days together, Molly had to admit he was pretty promising.

Rumour certainly liked to exaggerate, Molly was well aware that some people firmly believed he himself drank the blood of demons to maintain his magics. He had, admittedly, said that was the case to several (perhaps more than several) people over the years. So it seemed that his husband had done much the same, at least with the hair thing. But his reputation wasn’t only built on an absentminded cantrip, he wasn’t called the Inferno or Firebrand in hushed whispers because flames flickered in his hair. The man who had spent all afternoon with an ink-stained board strapped to the front of his saddle, wrestling with some sort of complicated clip arrangement to keep his notes from blowing around in the breeze, was the same man who had burned entire Xhorhasian villages to the ground. Then again, all the Xhorhasian wizards they had spent time with over the years also tended to mess about with notes whenever they could. There was, nonetheless an incompatibility, Molly was sure of it. Perhaps it had more to do with the way he had blushed and ridden off when Molly had started to tease him, or the way he had put ink through his hair and had laughed at himself – just a little – when Nott had pointed it out. Figuring out how the Widowmaker didn’t fit with his reputation wasn’t helping and mulling it over why it wasn’t helping promised more problems like a swamp full of innocent looking logs promised giant crocodiles. He propped his chin up on his hands to look around the room again.

Elements of yester night’s décor were still evident about the room, but now there were slashes of gold and silver across the walls in an oddly marbled effect. A giant tapestry of the Platinum Dragon flying in the midst of a storm dominated an entire wall, and the large mirror on the opposite wall ensured that it would be eye-catching wherever in the room he stood. It was nearly overwhelming, worked in a variety of metallic and polychromatic threads with tiny gems sewn into odd places. He rolled his way around awkwardly to look at it in the ornate mirror. He stared blankly for a moment still caught in the trail end of his thoughts, trying to recall if the other wizards he had known had ever seemed quite so at home on horseback, out in the weather. When he finally focused on the image in the mirror he spluttered unattractively in surprise. He was glad no one was present to hear him choke on his spit, but he had no idea how they hadn’t noticed the tapestry was different in the mirror. It was still Bahamut flying, but in the mirror he flew through clear skies, peace clear in all the lines of his body.

“Fuck me,” Molly whispered to himself.

A quick inspection seemed to indicate the tapestry was the only thing changed in the mirror. Molly pulled a few silly faces at himself – ostensibly to check the figure in the mirror was really him. It was, and he shook his head at his own folly. This was all very nice, but it showed he was well out of his depth and sinking fast. Everything in this room reflected his love of contrasts and of symbols stripped of meaning. Widogast – Caleb, he corrected himself. His name is Caleb – obviously had his measure, but Molly was still fumbling about with no idea how to deal with his new husband. While he was busy mulling over the contradictions in what he knew of Wi— of Caleb and getting nowhere, Caleb was busy figuring Molly out and doing just fine it seemed. It was a decidedly uncomfortable realisation; in the games Misrule had always played, knowing the other side could mean the difference between life and death. He took another look around the room. Given the games weren’t quite over yet, it looked like he had a lot of catching up to do.

It occurred to him that Nott had always been fond of the honeypot play when it came to dealing with him. He smiled a tad grimly to himself, and touched the gilding on the mirror frame. No harm in enjoying it a bit though, he just had to figure out how the bars where set and where the door was.

He could start with enjoying the hot water, though. He headed out to badger his friends into trying out the baths with him.

------------------------

So far, the bed had collapsed (to be fair she had jumped on it to check how sturdy it had turned out) and she had found a total of seven small Doors to the Traveller. So far. Jester figured she could still sleep on the mattress and she was partway through drawing a redesign of the bed, with input from the Traveller, when a knock came at the door.

--------------

The window was very odd. The perspective hadn’t made sense to Yasha initially, but Beau had figured out that it was because the window was showing the sky from the ground so it was like she was looking up even though it felt like she was looking out. They had all wondered at it, and the others had debated how it worked. Now she was alone and able to think her own thoughts, she still found it just as disorienting looking out but really up at the clouded night sky. She would miss seeing a storm rolling in, boiling in grey and silver glory across the sky, with skirts of rain sweeping across the farmland, but she would be able to see if there was one overhead and look up into its heart. She wondered if the rain would fall through the window, or splash onto the panes, or… she didn’t really know what other things might happen. Magic was bewildering. She touched the glass for a moment, watching the stars flicker in and out, alternately consumed and birthed by the blank darknesses of the clouds. A small gentle smile settled itself in familiar lines across her face. The window was weird and odd, but also wonderful in its own way. It felt like the whole world outside had become the sky.

“Do you like it?” she whispered.

She stood for a moment as if waiting for an answer that never came.

“Maybe he can do two windows? One to look out and one to look up … These flowers on the frame are new. Did you see them?”

There was a quiet knock on the door, and Yasha jerked her hand away from the carvings guiltily and spun around. Molly opened the door without waiting for her to answer his knock, and swept in with Jester trailing behind.

“Bath time, Yash,” he crowed. “I need you to do my hair.”

She just nodded as her heart ached, and went to gather her things. She still had Molly, and Beau, Jester and Fjord. She just had to keep them all together and safe, that was all.

----------------------------------

The room was too big, the bed was too soft, and everything too brown. And too green. And too cream. She hated to admit it, but she was desperate for some cobalt blue and for something less squishy. The entire floor was carpeted for fucks sake. She wasn’t sure she’d be able to sleep on it without feeling like she was sinking into the ground. The bed certainly wasn’t an option. Beau sighed loudly and straightened her back. Her whole room was just too soft and soothing and she couldn’t meditate for shit. Every time she tried to just exist in the present, she found herself pissed off at the… the luxury of it all. And more pissed off by the fact that her brain kept reminding her of the monk cell from yesterday, and how much better that would’ve been.

Her knee started jerking up and down in an irritated motion. She blinked her eyes open. It wasn’t working. She was pretty sure that this whole magic house thing was created new each time, and if it wasn’t, well the Archmage was probably rich as fuck. She got up and started to do her moving meditation, targeting the dresser.

She had just attained a perfect sense of balance, peace, and oneness within herself, and finished demolishing the bed, when there was a rapid knock at the door. Molly flung it open as she turned to answer, and so she caught his look of shock as he stared at what she had done. Her comfortable sense of peace fled, and a familiar faint sense of shame crept in.

“What the fuck do you want?” she asked, wiping the sweat from her face with her arm.

He visibly pulled himself together. No one could bounce back from a shock quite like Molly, in her experience.

“I take it you want to bunk with Yasha again…” he said suggestively with a grin after a only a moment or two, and she could see Yasha peering in from the hall.

“Fuck you. I was – fuck. I can sleep in here.”

She crossed her arms and scowled. Even after everything that had happened she still couldn’t bring herself to admit to them that she wanted to meditate.

“In here?” Molly asked, looking pointedly at the debris. “How?”

Yasha pushed in past him and smiled a bit at Beau. She felt the usual odd fuzziness in her chest at the sight of it.

“I’ll help her clear a space,” Yasha said over her shoulder to Molly. “You two head on to the baths.”

“But my hair—”

“I’ll catch up. You’ll be a while anyway.”

“Well, have fun!” said Molly, artificially brightly as if he was taking a hint.

He winked at Beau before whisking away down the hall, calling out to Jester as he went. Beau wished they’d stop trying to push her and Yasha together. She looked across at her friend and shook her head.

“No clue,” she said, gesturing towards where Molly had been. “Wanna help just move the bed bits to the side? Not the slats though, I was going to sleep on those.”

“I can do that.”

They set to work, and Beau tried her best to keep her thoughts pure. This was just another one of those cases where her own brain pissed her off. Yash had explained everything years ago, as soon as she had realised Beau was mooning after her seriously, and Beau respected that. She punched the bed-post she had been trying to prop against the wall. Yasha looked over.

“Just, wouldn’t stay, ya know,” Beau explained lamely, brushing off the splinters.

Yasha smiled a little and slammed the bits of cabinet she was holding against the wall. It was impressive, and a little scary. And very… impressive.

“I can see the appeal” said Yasha, smiling a bit more. “Maybe we could get the Widowmaker to make us a whole room just for this.”

“Yeah, maybe.”

Beau looked down at her hands. She knew she shouldn’t be doing this but she was.

“You going to the baths after?” she asked. “I know I need one. Worked up a bit of a sweat, you know.”

“Were you… were you meditating? Doing this I mean? Or did you want to talk about something? Just, the others will be at the baths.”

“Nah, just meditating.”

“Did it work?”

“Yeah, yeah it did.”

Beau took a moment to close her eyes and recall the sense of balance and peace that she had reached not that long ago. She let herself relax and let go of her internal turmoil for a moment. She smiled at Yasha.

“While we’re asking for that room, we should remember to ask where you can get those flowers from the carvings. The ones you really thought she’d like?”

Yasha gave her a look awash with a cruel mix of joy and sorrow, and Beau felt her heart breaking for her friend all over again, just a little.

“I’d like that,” she said.

Beau nodded and, leaving the remainder of the debris to Yasha, turned to start laying out the boards for her bed. She was so screwed up, but she had long ago decided she was done hurting Yasha just because she was a fuck up.

“Want me to do your hair,” she asked. “You know, as a friend.”

It was a tad awkward, but Yasha looked glad about the offer, so it was fucking worth it.

“I’d like that, too,” she said, then frowned. “But the others will start—”

“Fuck them. We know we’re just friends.”

Yasha smiled properly then, without a trace of her familiar sadness.

“Yeah, fuck them.”

-------------------------------------

Fjord had just about dozed off fully clothed when a knock came at his door. He blinked his eyes open and lazily stared at the ceiling, his mind pleasantly hazy and blank.
The knock came again, louder and in the rhythm of the ‘Ruby of the Sea’ shanty.

“Fjord!” called Jester through the door. “I know you’re in there! Are you sleeping? I’m going to open the doooor!”

Fjord smiled to himself. Consume, breathed the voice in his head. He ignored it, and got up onto an elbow to face the door.

“Come on in, Jes,” he called.

She opened the door and bounced in, just as vibrant as ever. More so, she probably had some plot going on.

“We’re all going to have baths!”

He blinked.

“We? Everyone, all together? Why?”

“It’ll be like going to a bathhouse! And it will be a good team building exercise. And we can make sure you don’t fall asleep and drown.”

“I breathe water now, Jes. I can’t drown.”

Consume. The voice was always more insistent when he was tired. And when he was around Jes. Still no reason to listen.

“Come on,” Jester wheedled, “we’ll miss you and it’ll be weird if you’re the only one not there.”

“Have you invited Nott and Widogast then?” he asked in as innocent a tone as he could muster without laughing at her.

She frowned at him, and put her hands on her hips.

“It’d serve you right if I did! Actually maybe I should?”

“What? No!”

“Well we do need to get closer to them…”

“Maybe. But not that close Capt’n,” he said as he dragged himself upright.

A bath would do him some good, and maybe – just maybe – he could keep the mad schemes to a minimum. Provoke. He was, after all, the sane one.

Chapter Text

Frumpkin woke him with a wet nose on his eyelid, and he gently swatted at his familiar with a groan. He’d stayed up far too late fussing with the Mansion spell and he wrestled his way upright to the hissing of pages sliding off the bedspread. His room was in an uncomfortable state of disarray, with so many of his careful piles and arcane arrangements just so slightly out of kilter. Everything he had stacked on the bed was in a hopeless muddle, with half of it on the floor. Nott would probably just tell him it served him right for falling asleep at his desk again and making her put him to bed. He let himself smile fondly at the thought as he rubbed Frumpkin behind the ears.

His momentary contentment didn’t last long. He still wasn’t sure where he had gone wrong with the windows. Jester’s had ended up showing what had first appeared to be a large hedge obstructing any sort of view, but had turned out to be, on closer inspection, a bird’s eye view of a forest canopy. Neither option was comforting. There were no hedges near the Mansion, and the forest they were about to enter had a great deal more fir and pine than the one visible through the window. Either the window had anchored to a distant point on the material plane, or it was showing another plane altogether. He had no idea whether or not Yasha’s window was having a similar issue, only that the stars appeared mostly the same. The clouds had kept him from identifying any constellations which could have helped him place it.

As he got up and pulled on his uniform, his mind set back onto teasing out the possibilities. He was at his notes in earnest when Nott came in to give her morning update and insisted on clearing the table and getting him breakfast. You’re just a useless piece of trash, murmured his self-hatred, you can’t put yourself to bed, you can’t get yourself breakfast. He did his best hide his train of thought from Nott and focused on carefully cleaning his quill and stoppering his ink and tidying his notes to avoid conversation as the servants brought in a feast with far too much bacon and sausages. Nonetheless, it was Nott’s old arguments he relied on to quell the sick bubbling of self-loathing in his chest. It was just Nott. They looked after each other. It was okay to rely on her because he kept her safe. That doesn’t make you less useless, it just means you pay your nursemaid. He stared blankly at the wall and just tried to breathe evenly.

“Caleb, how many sausages do you want? Three or four?” Nott croaked from the table.

“Two.” Even to his own ears his voice was flat and distant.

She’ll try to make you feel better even though you don’t deserve it. And it’ll make her feel bad when you don’t. He gritted his teeth and willed shut the doors in his mind that those thoughts crept through. He wouldn’t hurt Nott. Not today. Not again.

He painted on an easy smile, and turned to where Nott was loading two plates.

“I don’t think I need six pieces of bacon either.”

“If you’re not eating another sausage, you certainly do!” she mock glared at him and waved a serving fork. “We’re on a march, so who knows when we’ll eat again?”

“This Mansion comes with a feast every night and every morning, and if I cannot muster the strength to summon it we have bigger problems than a food shortage.”

As Nott fell in to argue that maybe he’d lose the strength to cast if he didn’t eat enough, and he argued back that he had been days without eating before without issues, he felt a little better. Ultimately he had provided the food and the bed. Nott had just helped him to them that was all. And he was too busy talking with Nott to pay attention to his internal rebuttals to that argument.

When Nott had left to arrange the traveling party, the world went grey again. Days like this were hardly uncommon for him. Weeks like this were hardly uncommon, especially if Nott happened to be away on a mission. He could either allow the self-loathing to encompass him, to remind him of everything he had done, or he could let the world turn to ashes and numbness and keep functioning. He knew it wasn’t healthy. It made him worse, made him weak in the ways that mattered most. The worst of the atrocities he had committed... the world was easier to burn if it already felt like ashes. If Caduceus were here he would get an ear-full about avoiding his problems, a mug of tea, and somehow after an hour or so the world would come back to life. He wasn’t quite sure if that was healthy either. As it was, he had the problem of the Mansion’s windows to keep him occupied until this mood passed. Hopefully Nott would attribute his distance to him focusing on research.

He sent a servant to notify him when everyone left and set to organising notes and memorising where he was. He found he had to be more careful of his memory when he was like this, so he only noticed that the servant had returned when Frumpkin nearly stuck his tongue in Caleb’s eye. He absentmindedly petted Frumpkin for a few moments before he remembered what the servant had been sent to do.

Yasha’s room was neat, and close to how he had arranged it. He made a note that she had moved a chair to face the window. The window itself was showing the blue sky of day, which indicated that it might well be showing the material plane nearby. Sky colour and day cycles varied across the planes of existence so at the very least this narrowed it down.

Stepping into Jester’s room, Caleb froze as he felt his lungs drop into his guts. The bed had broken. There it lay like the carcass of some dead beast, testament to his so-called skills. He closed his eyes and tried to find his way back to the ashes. He reminded himself that he was a wizard not a master carpenter and he had warned Jester. The panic, nonetheless, threatened to overwhelm him for a couple of long moments before the world clicked out of place once more. It was fine. Jester’s window was showing the forest from the night before now lit by the sun rather than the moons, but the light differed from that apparent in Yasha’s window. He made a note of it and moved on.

Mollymauk’s room had turned out well, and it looked more lived in than it had after the first night. Apparently taking the first evening’s attempt as a base and applying a multitude of the adjustments he had developed for Nott had been a good idea. He would need to make inquiries as to whether or not to put the room onto Nott’s tapestry cycle.

Fjord’s room had been used, and Caleb was vaguely glad that he couldn’t really feel embarrassed about his first attempt when he was like this. He didn’t see anything to indicate changes needed to be made, but he suspected Fjord was not one to make changes unless he was comfortable. Jester would likely know.

When he opened the door to Beauregard’s room, the world that had been distant and grey at his fingertips came rushing back. He had no idea how he ended up on the floor. He couldn’t… he couldn’t… Worthless! He couldn’t think, couldn’t figure out what he had done wrong. And there was no way back to the distance and numbness. The memory hit him without warning.

Trent stood behind his chair facing Bren.

“You are weak, Ermendrud. Weak and worthless, ever since you put down those traitors.”

Bren kept his eyes straight ahead, careful to show no reaction. Either this was a test, or a preamble to something worse. It was best to keep his responses in check until he knew just what Trent had planned.

“You broke down and cried,” Trent sneered at the thought, before focusing back on Bren. “We need to know that you won’t break. I don’t doubt, now, that there’s a coward hiding behind those eyes of yours, I just need to know for sure that my training has worked.” His hands clenched, bleaching his knuckles white on the back of the chair. Bren carefully remained impassive as Trent went on. “You must never tell anyone that you killed your parents, not me, not Astrid, Not Eodwulf. No one. Understand?”

“Yes, Master Ikithon.”

Caleb remembered clearly the cold clenching of realisation in his guts, and felt it again sitting in the doorway to Beauregard’s room. He didn’t want to remember.

“You need to tell us what you did,” said Astrid in pleasant tones.

“When? Where?” Bren knew he sounded desperate and they hadn’t even started properly. He knew how this game was played, he had been the pleasant questioner often enough.

“We’ve been through this. We,” she gestured with her free hand at herself and Eodwulf, “don’t know the details. But Trent says you did something weak, something bad, something unforgiveable. Now you need to tell us what it was.”

Astrid’s voice was pleasant all the while she slid the needles slowly under the fingernails on his left hand. Bren didn’t bother trying not to scream. It was better by far for them to think he had a low pain threshold. He needed to get out, but the pain made it hard to think.

“I’ll tell you,” he gasped. “I was down in the lower city—”

He felt Eodwulf’s truth spell wrap around him, and the pain made him helpless to resist.

“Start again,” instructed Eodwulf in a gentle voice. “And tell us the most unforgivable thing you have ever done. Specifically.”

“Then we can stop,” added Astrid. “Do you really think we want to do this?”

Even in his pain-addled state Bren noticed that Astrid made it a question not a statement. She wanted to hurt him. There was nothing he could say with the truth spell in place, so he clenched his jaw, and said nothing.

Caleb managed to pull himself out of the memory, and found himself curled into a ball against the doorframe. He clenched and un-clenched his hand, trying to keep his mind blank even as he still felt the memory of needles in his nail-beds. It didn’t work.

Eodwulf held up a collar carefully inscribed with familiar sigils for both pain and truth. They had all been taught them, but Eodwulf was the one with the true flare for enchantments. The collar hung on his two fingers like an eclipse.

“Before I put this on you, do you have anything to tell us?” he said, his eyes tired.

Bren shook his head. His words had deserted him in his pain and now it felt like his mind was filled with silver sigils for pain and weird constellations. He felt the brush of Eodwulf’s roughened fingertips against his neck as his friend latched the collar tight. The pain raked across his mind moments later and the constellations fragmented into pieces.

There was barely a moment’s reprieve before Caleb found himself in the next memory, and then the next. It wasn’t just the pain he remembered. He remembered the sick feeling when Eodwulf whispered to Bren that he had a hole in his memories as he was exchanging devices. When, in a careful back and forth, he found that Astrid thought herself an orphan. He remembered in vivid detail how it felt to have his world fall apart around him, how it felt to break so fully but in a way no one around him even noticed.

He was just coming free of a memory when he felt Nott’s clawed hands on his arm and face. He flinched violently.

“Caleb! It’s okay. It’s okay. We’re here,” said Nott, and her voice was a blessed contrast to the smooth, honeyed questioning of his old friends.

“What happened? Are you okay? We heard screams…”

Caleb froze at the unfamiliar voice, until the present seeped back in. Jester. He tried to gather himself, to gather his voice, to put on his front. It wasn’t coming back fast enough. It had never been this bad before. He lost awareness of his surroundings enough trying to bring the shards of his mind back into order that he flinched again when he felt Jester lean against him.

“Easy,” she said. “I’m just going to be next to you like this. I’m not going to grab you.”

He managed to nod.

“Is Nott okay grabbing you like that?”

He nodded and shuffled himself about enough that Nott could hug him properly. He buried his face in her hair.

“Okay. Okay, okay, okay, okay…” it sounded like Jester was talking to herself, so Caleb didn’t try to respond.

She began to rummage around and he lifted his head to watch. He twitched a little as she held up her sketchbook to him with a triumphant grin. For an instant he saw Eodwulf again with the collar. When he blinked back to Jester her smile had faded into concern.

“Easy, it’s okay,” she said quietly. “I’m not going to hurt you.”

She sounded like she was talking to an abused animal. He supposed he was in a way. Just a beaten empire mutt too stupid to run away. He didn’t know how to hide the old fear that was welling up inside him, so he just held Nott tighter and looked at Jester wordless.

“I thought I could show you some pictures,” said Jester. “I draw everything to the Traveller, and when I get scared, especially by memories,” the look she gave him then was astute, “I look over all the things I drew about the happy times.”

She opened the book and began to show him pictures, seemingly at random. There were a lot of unicorns in the margins, people being hit over the head by lollipops, and drawings of Jester eating lollipops. Jester’s narration moved swiftly from comforting to enthusiastic, and she seemed to have little concern for any sort of secrecy. It was, again, very close to overwhelming but it meant he didn’t have much space to spiral back down into memories. Nott asked to see more drawings of herself and so Jester obliged, pointing out little shadowy figures hiding in various scenes (often holding a flask).

Gradually Caleb found his voice and asked questions about the pictures, and then about the stories Jester told about her squad, and then, finally, he asked about the destroyed room.

“Apparently,” the doubt was as clear on Jester’s face as it was in her voice, “Beau felt like coming up with a new kick move.”

“Ah.”

“But I asked Yasha, and Yasha thinks she was meditating by breaking things and she asked for a room of things for them to just smash. But I also think that Beau doesn’t like things too soft, because when I came in this morning, she was just sleeping on some boards. I mean, the carpet would be softer, right?”

Caleb blinked.

“I thought she didn’t like the monk room?” he asked hesitantly.

“Beau doesn’t know shit,” said Nott. “Especially when it comes to herself.”

Jester nodded, as if Nott had imparted the wisdom of the ages. Caleb looked across at the destruction.

“So it wasn’t because I…” he felt disgustingly weak even for asking, but he felt too tired to try being strong.

“No,” said Nott and Jester in chorus.

“Was that what set off the memories?” asked Jester in her gentle voice. “You don’t need to say what you remembered, but if broken furniture will set you off I can tell Beau not to do it. You don’t need to make them a room to mess up either. I don’t like prisons at all, and rooms without windows, especially if they’re small, can make me remember bad things.”

He looked her in the eyes for just a moment out of surprise. She was not acting at all like he’d expected. The treaty was still so fragile, and she had recognized his weakness and offered up her own rather than take the advantage. He floundered, unsure of whether to trust her or to play on her misunderstanding.

“It wasn’t the broken furniture,” he said, eventually. “It was… I made too many mistakes.”

Jester nodded solemnly at his confession, even though he had confessed next to nothing. Though, if she were anything like Caduceus…

-----------------------------------

Molly paced back and forth in front of the door. Fjord, having taken pity on Molly’s poor horse and taken it off him, was standing off to the side holding all the horses like he was willing to wait eons for Jester and Nott to return. It grated nearly as much as the wait itself.

“You’re gonna wear a ditch in the road. Idiot,” said Beau.

She was wiping the sweat from her brow and reaching for a waterskin. She and Yasha had been sparing for ages while they waited.

“The Captain went in nearly an hour ago! How are you all so calm?!”

He didn’t mean to shout, or throw his hands in the air, but he hated when they were like this. It reminded him of when he’d had next to no memories and only instinctive responses to things. It felt like everyone else knew what was going on and they just weren’t telling him. He liked to know what to expect.

Unfortunately, his friends didn’t respond to his outburst by being any less calm. They knew him too well. He sighed.

“Sorry. Sorry, I just feel like you all know more than me.”

“We know what you know, Molly,” said Fjord. “If worst comes to worst we wait here for the spell to end this evening. I trust Nott far enough to believe her on that point.”

“And if a window broke and they have been sucked into another plane?” asked Molly. “We lose the portal when the spell ends. What if they’ve been attacked by something?”

The possibilities had been plaguing Molly since moments after Jester and Nott headed through the door. Usually he was a lot less paranoid, and a lot more inclined to hold the horses like Fjord when Jes went off to do her thing. But he remembered Widogast’s joke about extra-dimensional imprisonment clearly. His biggest concern was that this was a trap to get his Captain out of the way. If Nott had been playing a twisted honeypot scheme with her talk of starting a detective agency… It was awfully convenient that a mystery had cropped up almost immediately.

“Molly,” his head jerked up at Yasha’s voice. “I don’t think we can help them if things have gone that wrong.”

She had a horrible point that he didn’t want to acknowledge. As he stared at her blankly, Beau walked over with her staff on her shoulder.

“Molly and I’ll just go check there aren’t any nasty shits chewing on our friends,” she said clapping him on the shoulder and steering him into the door. “You two wait with the horses.”

It finally clicked into place, and he felt bloody foolish. Of course the sparring had been a way to keep Beau occupied, and now he’d handed her an excuse. He opened his mouth to suggest maybe waiting a little longer just as he was pulled into the mansion. Beau, immediately on entering the foyer, covered his mouth with her sweaty, foul-tasting hand before a sound escaped. She held a finger to her lips, and cocked her head. Listening.

He didn’t hear much but she pointed to the door to their wing of the Mansion, and made a few curt gestures to indicate they should loop round to either side of the door. He moved silently into position, holding his mouth so his even his breath barely made a sound. He pressed himself against the wall and listened as Beau made her way around.

Jester was talking happily about spotting Nott at the wedding, drinking behind a pillar with half a leg of ham next to her. He shared a puzzled look with Beau. She looked about to break cover, so he held up a hand. Something was wrong, he just couldn’t quite place it yet and it could be a charm spell. Nott said something quietly that he didn’t quite catch through the roughness of her voice, but it sounded indignant. He smiled a little. Then Widogast spoke. He sounded… fragile. His accent was thicker than Molly had ever heard it, and he was quietly asking about one of Jester’s pictures by the sounds. Molly had heard voices like that many times before. The first time had been when they had killed the slavers that had taken Jester, Fjord, and Yasha. The other prisoners, the ones who had been in the breaking rooms the longest, had sounded like that. Like they expected to be hurt. It hadn’t really hit home until the night, a week later, when Jester had woken from a nightmare and she had sounded like that too.

Looking across a Beau, he could see her coming to a similar realization. Concern furrowed her brow as the conversation in the next room continued. It was very clear now that Jester’s enthusiasm was the sort she used when people needed help and she had no idea what to do. It sounded like it was working though. Wi—Caleb was sounding less scared and more confident with each back and forth. And then he asked, in tones again as fragile as a first frost, why Beau had trashed her room. And Molly was in front row to watch the expressions on Beau’s face as Jester tried to explain Beau’s random violent outbursts. Nott’s addition was gold, and he could almost have laughed except Beau looked like she was on the verge of tears. Her face was scrunched up in something like annoyance, but he knew her too well. He made a mental note to take her aside and talk a little and, as they listened to Caleb quietly explain it wasn’t the furniture being broken but the thought of failure that had caused him to break down, Molly made a mental note to maybe talk to his husband a bit too.

As Jester perkily suggested finishing looking through whatever sketchbook she had out, Molly gestured to Beau that they should leave. The last thing they wanted was Fjord and Yasha stumbling in thinking they had all ended up in some dragon lair or something. They ghosted out silently into the late morning. Apparently their faces were bloody grim because, on seeing them, Yasha drew her sword and began to storm towards the Mansion purposefully, and Molly only just had the presence of mind and foolhardy bravery to grab her.

“They’re fine, they’re fine,” he said quickly, only a little embarrassed that she dragged him a stride or two before stopping.

“Yeah, they’re fine,” said Beau, and her angry-glum tone drew raised brows from Fjord.

“Why the faces then?” he asked.

Molly considered his answer carefully, before deciding he couldn’t be fucking bothered lying about it.

“It would seem the Widowmaker has been through some stuff. Nasty stuff. And Beau trashing her room reminded him of it. Jester and Nott are comforting him.”

He felt emotionally drained just contemplating it, but the look of shock and re-calculation on Fjord’s face was nearly worth the hundred whispered conversations this would spark. And their plans would have to change, because they were fucking suckers for broken people of just this variety. And they didn’t really have a good Plan B for if Plan A: Prove the Widowmaker Has a Thing For Goblins didn’t work – let alone for if they didn’t want to do it. Yasha interrupted his racing thoughts.

“What kind of nasty stuff?”

“He didn’t say. Just said it was about having made a mistake.”

“So maybe it was something he did? He burned the wrong people?” said Fjord.

“He sounded like… fuck. He sounded like he was scared. Like Jes after she got herself locked in that storeroom a few months back,” said Beau, pacing.

“Well, shit.”

What do you want to do, Molly?” Yasha asked, turning to him.

“Me?”

“You’re the one married to him.”

Molly wanted out. He wanted to leave all this complicated political bullshit behind and go back to travelling from city to city, place to place, with his friends. At the same time he couldn’t condemn someone to death if they didn’t deserve it, and death was the penalty if they followed through with Plan A. The fucking Inferno, the Widowmaker who had burned Xhorhas so mercilessly, he could go hang, but this Caleb with fear in his voice asking why Beau didn’t like her room…

“We… fuck,” he rubbed his hands up and down his cheeks. “We drop the Plan for now. We get close and figure out what happened, and come up with something new from there.”

Making things up on the fly was their specialty, but this felt to Molly a lot more like free-fall than flying. It was only really their third day of the Plan and now he’d abandoned it in favour of no plan at all. For the first time ever he felt a pang of sympathy for Lady Estirwhyr. For the first time ever the most serious ramifications of abandoning the plan came directly back to him. He just wished there was a way to know exactly what those ramifications were before they hit him in the face.

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When Caleb finally brought himself to leave the Mansion it was nearly time for lunch. Logically he knew they should just invite everyone back in and eat in the Mansion, but he didn’t want anyone coming back in. He wanted to dispel it as soon as possible, so he could start again. Fortunately Jester and Nott seemed willing to ignore the fact he was condemning them to a lunch of travel rations, and he was too drained to really dwell on what a piece of work he was. Jester promised to come up with an explanation for what they had been up to, which also neatly ensured he wouldn’t really have to talk to everyone.

He wasn’t sure what he had been expecting, as he stepped out into the sunlight, but it wasn’t what he saw. The horses were hobbled and half untacked a little ways away. There was a small fire set and it seemed they had just interrupted a delicate argument between Fjord and Yasha regarding how best to cook some sort of bread. Mollymauk and Beauregard were sitting together in the grass cross-legged with their eyes closed. Even as he watched, Mollymauk’s tail thumped across Beauregard’s shoulder, and she responded by rabbit-punching him in the ribs.

“Hello! We’re here!” called Jester.

Caleb felt a blush rushing up to his face and quickly turned and started making arcane gestures towards the Mansion’s entrance.

“So I take it time was moving different in there, then?” asked Fjord casually.

Caleb frowned slightly. He had expected more… concern, more fuss.

“Yes!” Jester’s enthusiasm at being given an easy excuse was a little too obvious in Caleb’s mind. “We were only in there for a little bit, but now it’s lunchtime.”

“You won’t be hungry then,” said Mollymauk lazily.

Caleb felt himself locking up in fear they’d be found out and forced himself to continue his little misdirection. To his relief, Jester argued admirably that it was time for her morning snack and Nott claimed that Caleb hadn’t had enough breakfast either. No one suggested returning to the Mansion to eat, and he dispelled it with a final small flourish.

When he turned around Beauregard was still meditating, but Mollymauk had moved over to join Yasha and cut cheese for a lunch that looked like it would consist of flatbreads, chutney, smoked sausages, and hard cheese. Jester and Nott were settling down seemingly intent on making flower-chains and beginning to discuss travel plans with Fjord, who was cooking the bread in a small pan. It was a domestic scene that was almost too comfortable, and Caleb felt oddly envious watching it.

Seeing him standing and watching blankly, Nott waved him over to sit by her. He sat cross-legged on the ground, feeling out of place with his uniform and his worn-out soul. He summoned Frumpkin to his lap and pulled out his spell-book to re-check the Mansion spell. After a couple of minutes Nott stood up and began threading flowers in his hair without stopping her argument with Jester about the wisdom of visiting Hupperdook. While he knew he should stop her for appearances sake, it was quite nice and he just couldn’t be bothered. He tensed a little when Jester started on his other side, but she was gentle and continued repeating the word “Hupperdook!” incessantly and enthusiastically to any arguments against going. He let himself relax and tried his best not to worry about how easy all it was.

Chapter Text

The next two days passed awkwardly. The Lords of Misrule did their best to be personable, making a concerted effort to get to know Caleb better. Molly suspected that they were coming on a little strong, but it was a lot easier to be friendly now they’d scrapped the plan to arrange his death. Jester led the charge for the most part, but Molly wasn’t too far behind. Where Jester focused on drawing amusing things to show Caleb and Nott, Molly stuck to reminiscing about their exploits and making up admittedly outrageous stories. More than half the time Caleb ignored him, and Nott got upset more than once about his… stretching of the truth but, as the days passed, Molly was sure Caleb smiled more at his tales. It was all about warming up the audience, and he had plenty of time on his hands.

They travelled slowly, taking their time and stopping often to take in any vaguely interesting piece of scenery. The land tended to be greener and more pleasant than Xhorhas’ dangerous marshes and harsh grasslands. The trees here rose around them in shades ranging from the deep green of pine needles to the pale of new oak shoots. While Molly loved Xhorhas, there was something about this side of the Ashkeepers that seemed so much more vibrant, more alive, less corrupted. Though, even these deep woods held signs of battle.

On the second full day of their journey through the forests outside Nogvuror they came upon an unwelcome reminder of the ten long years of animosity. Initially it seemed they had come across a pleasant grassy meadow, and Jester had flung herself off her horse, calling for a picnic lunch. She only made it a few feet into the grass before she stopped, shock-still. Molly watched her reach down and pick up a caved-in skull. She stared blankly for a moment or two before letting it tumble from her fingers. She turned and strode quickly back to her mount.

“Battlefield,” she said in a numb voice.

They didn’t say anything; there wasn’t much to say. As they rode on Molly took in the broken tree stumps doubtless mimicking the broken bones about their roots. The grass was verdant and fought for space with wildflowers in blues and whites. Bees hummed in the warmth, and birds and small animals rustled amongst the bones. It wasn’t actually a bad place for the dead to slumber, and he got the impression that they did just that.

He couldn’t recall a battle in these woods, but there had been so many over the years. The broken trees suggested magic, and Molly couldn’t help but glance over at Caleb as they neared the treeline once more. The man looked stoic, grim, and perhaps tired. It was hard to know how much he was projecting onto him, or how much his ability to read people was still impaired by stress. Molly did notice that he wasn’t the only one glancing at Caleb, which probably explained his hair catching alight again. Molly shook his head slightly and gave up trying to read him. There were too many contributing factors, too many unknowns still, and he couldn’t really afford to just guess. There was no skipping town if he put his foot in it on this one.

The silence continued uncomfortably for a few miles, until Beau couldn’t stand it any longer and rode ahead to ‘look for a lunch spot’ with Yasha. Nott took the opportunity to begin grilling Jester and Fjord about how that relationship was progressing. At Nott’s prompting Caleb joined in to ask for the basic history between the pair and Molly threw in his two coppers but found he couldn’t really focus on the discussion. The wildflowers in the dead meadow kept sneaking back into his mind, and they in turn invoked the memory of Caleb, the Widowmaker, riding along with wildflowers in his hair. It had been such an incongruous picture: the Archmage with his maroon military robes, all stiffly edged in heavy gold embroidery, wearing soft blue and pink flowers laced in a near wreath around his head and a fragile look on his face. The pair of images, the meadow and the man, tangled over each other in his head laying claim to a sense of profundity he wasn’t entirely sure they deserved.

Beau’s return shook him from his musings and he threw himself into lunch preparations and his storytelling. By the time they mounted back up after the meal, he’d managed to get Caleb to laugh, a quiet chuckle, at a story about seducing a dragon. The story was even mostly true, though, to be honest, he was basing their dragon-hood on rather tenuous evidence.

By the time they were ready to stop for the night, the ‘get close to Caleb’ plan seemed to be going better than ever. He’d even taken Fjord aside to talk about what he wanted in a room and, though Molly could only hear one word in three, it seemed like the two of them really hit it off. Fjord even summoned his falchion to show off, which, perhaps, wasn’t the most sensible thing he could have done, but Molly had to admit it’d worked. Caleb had become animated discussing the nature of magic, and various things that Molly couldn’t follow from back where he was riding with Beau.

As they entered the now familiar door to the mansion Beau surprised them all by stopping Caleb before he could disappear into his wing.

“So, ah, you wanna come eat with us?” she asked in the defensive tone she reserved for when she was being nice.

Caleb’s gaze skipped rapidly over them as a ghostly servant took his horse.

“I, ah,” Caleb paused and gathered himself like an owl ruffling its feathers. “If you don’t have any objections?”

Molly felt certain from the dour tone that Caleb was really hoping for some objections. Bugger that. He wasn’t about to leave Beau hanging, not when she’d put herself out there despite her endless and nonsensical fear of rejection. He pranced over to throw an arm around the Archmage’s shoulders, carefully ignoring Caleb’s flinch.

“I’m sure none of us have any objections,” Molly told him with a grin and a stage wink at Nott. “You should see the food they have in this place. Absolutely divine.” He began steering him towards the mess. “Seriously, the salmon is to die for. And the pastries… well! Last time they had genuine cinnamon bear-claws like they only make in Nicodranas…”

The flattery seemed to be working. Molly caught the small curve of the lip which surely indicated suppressed pleasure. He rambled on as they all piled into the mess and Nott took over as soon as Molly was distracted putting together his own plate of food. It was kind of adorable how she sat Caleb down and insisted on getting him a plate. Probably pretty sensible given how they all crowded about at the buffet. Nott dodged between them, artfully avoiding Jester’s barging and Beau’s elbows to snatch at the plates. Molly couldn’t help but note how she carefully loaded Caleb’s plate with as much meat as she could while he asked for some roast vegetables or salad from the table. He also noted that Jester was piling a suspicious amount of shrimp onto her plate, so he made sure to grab a couple of large bunches of grapes.

“We’re absolutely mad!” he told Caleb as he disengaged from the fray and brought his plate over to the table. “Want a grape?”

“Ah, ja. Is it always like this?” Caleb asked, his eyes a little wide.

Molly looked back at his friends. Jester was trying to bodily tackle Yasha away from the desserts, while Beau was prodding Fjord with the head of a roasted duck while making quacking noises.

“Leave some for me Yash!” he called over. He was pretty sure she was only taking so many eclairs to get a rise from Jes, but it paid to be sure. He turned back to Caleb with a self-deprecating smile. “Pretty much always. Well, sometimes we do pretend to have manners. But when it’s just us? Yeah.”

“Ah.”

“Welcome to the Lords of Misrule. You’ll get used to it.”

Caleb looked down at his hands twisting together on the table. He didn’t seem ecstatic, but he didn’t seem outright offended by the idea of being a part of their group. Molly couldn’t really blame him for being hesitant given the noises coming from behind him, but he had hoped for something a bit more… well, happy. They had been putting in a lot of effort over the past couple of days, and he’d been pretty sure they’d made progress.

After a minute or so Caleb looked back up, serious, and leaned forward as if to say something. Molly leaned in. Just as Caleb opened his mouth to speak, there was a slight thump as Nott put Caleb’s dinner down and slid it in front of him, and the sudden tension was broken. Caleb turned to thank Nott and Molly was left wondering what he’d almost said.

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Dinner with Misrule was… interesting. All soldiers liked food, especially good food, nearly as much as they liked sleep. Both were uncertain commodities during a war. So, he could hardly blame them for their enthusiasm when it came to eating. The food fight between Jester and Mollymauk was a bit much, but he wasn’t the only one who abandoned the table to wait it out by the wall. Fjord gave him an apologetic smile.

“They do this sometimes. It shouldn’t take too long,” Fjord said.

Caleb watched as Nott dove under the table to grab a fallen grape, before darting out to sling it with unerring accuracy at Mollymauk’s nose.

“Ah, Nott can get this way, too,” he replied, letting himself smile back in the direction of the half-orc.

And, with that, he ran out of conversation. His mind wasn’t exactly blank, it was just that all of his questions seemed inappropriate. Yasha, leaning on the wall the other side of Fjord, didn’t seem inclined to help the conversation at all, and so they stood in silence. As the silence continued, his discomfort grew. The way Fjord shifted his weight suggested that he was uncomfortable, too. Caleb was just about to say goodnight and leave, when a handful of shrimp and mashed potato came arcing towards them. He barely had to think about his shield spell to raise it, and the food splatted wetly on the magical barrier. The battle froze as the mash slid down to the floor. They turned to look at him.

“Sorry!” called Nott and Beau in unison.

“Perhaps that’s enough playing with food for tonight?” said Fjord in a friendly tone, though Caleb detected a slight edge under it. He’d extended his shield to cover all three of them in time and it was clear that some of the food would’ve hit Fjord if he hadn’t been so quick with his casting. Fjord looked over at him. “Thanks for that, by they way. Much appreciated,” he said, gesturing at the decaying magic.

“You’re welcome,” Caleb replied, ducking his head.

Nott called for servants to come and set the room to rights, but it was apparent that they wouldn’t be able to simply return to their meal. The battle had left food strewn across the table and no plate had gone untouched in the fray. It was chaotic and disgusting. Apparently, that wasn’t enough to keep Misrule from picking through the scraps. Nott he expected it from, but he cringed internally as Mollymauk fished a shrimp out of the gravy boat and dropped it into his mouth with every show of enjoyment. Caleb wrinkled his nose.

“I’ll arrange a supper to be taken to your rooms,” he said, taking the opportunity to retreat from the mess and Misrule both.

“But you need to check the windows,” protested Jester.

He hesitated only a moment.

“I can come by later? If that is okay with you?”

While it would mean having to interact again, he really felt the need to take some time to himself right now. He had been riding with them all day, and they just didn’t seem to stop. Just please, a moment of peace, he begged silently.

“Oh, well, that would work,” Jester smiled brightly. “Can supper be more pastries?”

“Smoked sausage?” asked Fjord, and Yasha nodded.

“Cheese,” added Mollymauk.

Caleb looked to Beauregard expectantly, but she just shrugged.

“What they said.”

He nodded.

“I’ll get that sorted.”

He carefully resisted the urge to run out of the room, instead turning and walking at a measured and dignified pace. He conveyed the supper order to a servant on the way to his own quarters, and felt slightly guilty at making it seem as though it would be time consuming. He shook his head as he made it into his bedroom and let himself relax. He needed this. He flopped face forward onto the bed and clicked his fingers to summon Frumpkin.

Chapter Text

His room was gorgeous once again, and, when he returned from his bath, a platter of cold meats, cheeses, breads, dips, and pastries was waiting for him. If they kept eating like this, they’d all be the size of houses within the year. Then again, that depended on whether or not the magical food was really real. It tasted real enough, though, and Molly revelled in the decadent feel of eating rich foods mostly naked, laying out on the silken couch in only the equally silky and nearly sheer robe he’d found in his closet.

The robe was a rich deep blue decorated with delicate embroidery of flying cranes and cherry blossoms. He wished he could take it with him out of the Mansion, but he’d had that all clarified when he asked Caleb for a wardrobe. He certainly had not expected the clothes Caleb made for him to be like this. He’d just wanted something soft and comfortable to wear about the place, and everything of his matching that description had been packed off in the wagons.

He was idly wondering what the story was behind the robe, how Caleb had come across the original or if it was a manifestation of some fantasy, when a knock came at the door. He quickly arranged himself to appear the very picture of decadence, grabbing the prettiest looking cream-filled pastry to bite into when whoever it was came through the door, and called out:

“Come in, darling!”

He was trying for sultry as the door opened and he went for a bite, so he probably looked tormented by indigestion when surprise at his guest interrupted the performance. Caleb stood frozen in the doorway, obviously shocked at the picture Molly had painted. Molly swore internally in infernal and sat up, dropping the pastry back on the platter. He tried to look respectable.

“Y-you, ah, you were expecting someone else?” Caleb asked with flames flickering brightly in his hair.

“Yes, but…” Molly stopped himself and tried to figure out how to explain it. Caleb, bless him, waited patiently. “I wasn’t expecting someone in particular, just… it was a joke between friends.”

Caleb’s face had gone blank, and Molly had no idea whether the explanation had worked or just made things worse.

“I, ah, wondered if we could talk?” Caleb asked after looking at Molly for what seemed to be a moment too long.

“Of course.”

Molly was torn between whether to revert back to the excessive and sexual play-acting he liked to put on for his friends, or whether to act demure given he’d already put his foot in it. You really fucked that one up, muttered his sensible self. He’d just handed Widogast a pretty juicy piece of evidence which could be used to construct an adultery case. He settled on somewhere between playful and serious as he gestured for Caleb to take a seat, relaxing his hold on his robe and reaching for a piece of cheese.

“Help yourself,” he offered.

Caleb shook his head, looking serious and perhaps nervous.

“I am here to ask about,” Caleb paused and took a breath, “about you and your friends being…” He waved one hand in the air with a frown.

“Slightly unhinged?” Molly guessed.

“Nien. Ah, friendly. But very much so.”

“Why wouldn’t we be?” asked Molly brightly, innocently, and Caleb answered his smile with a frown, not quite making eye contact.

“Because I am the Widowmaker, scourge of Xhorhas, and have killed thousands upon thousands of your people.” He said it as a matter of fact, without anger or shame.

Molly blinked slowly. This was a hell of a lot more serious than he had anticipated, and his mind raced as he tried to figure out a response. Somehow, he didn’t think it was a good idea to say they were all being nice because of the little breakdown over half of them had been privy to – people could do funny things when they felt like their secrets were exposed. And, if he was being honest, he couldn’t really say he didn’t care about the blood on Widogast’s hands. He tried for a middle-ground.

“We’ve all done things in the war…” he began, before fumbling his words when he saw the disbelieving look on Caleb’s face. “I mean, well, I am aware that. Well—”

“I am aware that your contribution – what you did to support Xhorhas – was significantly less bloody.”

“But you’re a person,” Molly blurted out.

Caleb blinked at him, and Molly felt his cheeks darken. At this rate, he was pretty sure he’d never be taken seriously by the man ever again. Talk about stating the fucking obvious in the weirdest way possible . He found himself jiggling his knee up and down, and then his tail started up which just made everything worse. He wasn’t entirely sure where to look, other than not at Widogast. The embarrassing silence went on for a minute or an eternity until Molly finally realised that Caleb was probably waiting for an explanation.

“I just mean, well, you’ve been pretty nice to us? It’s only reasonable—”

“Nott’s lieutenants don’t invite me to dinner. I’ve known them for years and travelled with them numerous times,” said Caleb, looking frustrated. “Besides, it isn’t that you” – he waved his hand about like he was trying to find the right words – “talk to me. Tolerate me. It’s, well, inviting me to eat with you. And Jester drawing me things. Constantly. And you trying to tell me stories. And I’m reasonably certain that Fjord isn’t nearly as interested in wizard magic as he pretended to be this afternoon.”

Caleb fell silent, closing his eyes and obviously gathering himself after his outburst. Molly adjusted his robe a little and frowned.

“That’s what making friends is,” he said quietly. “to get to know someone, you have to spend time with them. That’s how it works.”

“Nein.” said Caleb forcefully, and Molly sat back a bit. “No. That is not what you are doing.” He stopped and took a deep breath, before looking back at Molly. “I am not that much a fool. You have no reason to be my friend, but, if you fancy yourself as such, then stop this. You say I have been nice to you? What you are doing now is not nice.”

Caleb looked genuinely upset before he schooled his features. Molly opened his mouth, about to double down on his friendship claim, but Caleb shook his head and stood up.

“Goodnight, Mollymauk,” he said, inclining his head to Molly before turning to leave.

“Well, goodnight then, I suppose!” Molly called to his retreating back as the door closed.

As the door closed Molly flopped back across the couch. His appetite had disappeared, and he was back to feeling morose about everything. In truth, he hadn’t been lying about trying to be friends, and it rankled a bit that Caleb had just dismissed that possibility. Then again, they had been deliberately trying to get close to Widogast so they could come up with a plan to get Molly out of this marriage business. There were definitely ulterior motives, so he couldn’t really blame him for thinking there was something fishy going on.

Molly sighed dramatically – just to hear himself – and stared at the ceiling. Caleb had tried something different with it, and so it was coloured in shades of pale blue and pressed with a pattern reminiscent of ice on a window pane. Molly wasn’t sure he liked it, but he couldn’t help but appreciate the effort. And that was part of the problem. The more effort he’d put into befriending Caleb, the more he found he liked him. There was, undoubtedly, a sense of humour hiding under all the uptight sternness, and he got along surprisingly well with all of Misrule. The effort he had put into perfecting this Mansion thingy was not insubstantial and Molly couldn’t fathom how that could be self-serving. If anything, he should’ve accused Caleb of coming on strong first.

He was half inclined to storm across the Mansion to make a rebuttal, but he couldn’t think of how to put into words what he half-felt half-thought. Not in a way that would make sense; it didn’t even make clear sense to him. Not to mention the door to Caleb’s wing was surely still locked up tight. He just had to take the critique and tell the others that they needed to back off for a bit. He hated to think how Beau would take it.

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While he was pretty sure that he had made his point well enough, to Yasha at least, Caleb was still dreading facing Misrule the next morning. Jester hadn’t been waiting to show him round the rooms unlike the last two mornings, and, Caleb was vaguely uncomfortable about how much he had missed her enthusiasm. You don’t deserve friends, and you certainly don’t need more false friends, he told himself as he took one last look at the foyer of this iteration of the Mansion. One thing this overly friendly thing had been good for was new ideas about things to try with this spell. He hoped that his conversations last night hadn’t cut off that stream of inspiration. He hoped they wouldn’t hate him more for accusations. He hoped a lot of things really. There no way to know for sure how things had changed except going out to face the music.

Caleb gathered himself, carefully donning a countenance of stern indifference, one that he usually used for inspecting troops, before striding through the front door into the copse of trees beyond. His companions were waiting with their own cultivated looks of bored indifference. For the most part, anyway. Jester was trying, but instead of looking detached, she looked like a kicked puppy. As guilt weaselled its way up his throat, he turned to complete his daily farce of dismissing the portal.

“You know, if you didn’t like the pictures you could have just told me?” Jester said quietly from behind him, just as the door vanished.

Caleb tensed, then forced himself to relax. It had occurred to him that this might happen, he’d just hoped that it wouldn’t.

“I do not mean that I did not like your pictures, Jester,” he said as he turned to her. “I just do not think that you draw quite so many for your friends.”

Even fixing his gaze off past her right shoulder he could see her frown slightly. And then her eyes narrowed, and he felt a pleasant sense of dread. It was the same sort of feeling he got when Nott said she had an amazing surprise for him. It would be anticipation rather than dread except for the possibility that the future might include variously: embarrassment, first-hand; embarrassment, second-hand; destruction of property; excessive amounts of paperwork; and, on one memorable occasion, grievous bodily harm. He hoped against hope that Jester’s look wouldn’t touch on any such possibilities.

“So, you admit you liked the pictures,” she said, with a sly smile.

That seemed relatively safe.

“Ja. I liked them. You are a very good artist. Just not, you know, the excessive amount you have been drawing for me.”

“So that means you liked the dicks I drew!”

There was something about the way she said it, the delight in her voice, that mitigated the embarrassment somewhat. He felt a smile twitch at the corner of his mouth even as the blush rose.

“I, ah… they were very… educational. Ja.”

Jester laughed aloud and, from behind her, Beauregard snorted loudly. Just like that, the tension was broken. Fjord made a joke about seeing Jester’s dick as Caleb mounted up and the conversation fell into a relatively easy pattern around him. He glanced across at Nott as he led the party out, and she gave him a surreptitious double thumbs up. Unless he was much mistaken, she was confirming that Mission: Just Tell Them They’re Making You Uncomfortable was an unprecedented success. He let himself bask in the relative peace and quiet of victory.

While there were a few hesitations and odd silences over the course of the morning, they were far more bearable than being singled out by everyone for special treatment. He was relieved that Misrule had, apparently, taken his words to heart and had stopped laying it on thick. He would’ve even liked to be left out of things even more than he was. Midway through the morning, Yasha had ridden up next to him to ask about a flower he’d included in the carvings decorating her room. While he answered Yasha happily, doing so opened the floodgates. In practically no time at all he was being included in travelling games that, he was pretty sure, Jester and Mollymauk were just making up as they went along. At least it didn’t seem like he was being given preferential treatment: if anything, Fjord and Nott were the ones being alternately victimised or raised up by the Game Masters.

They made it to Nogvurot just before midday, and shortly after a misty rain decided to make a nuisance of itself. It draped the town in a coverlet of murky damp, lending a gloominess to the buildings which further added to the general misery of the place. Like so many settlements this side of the Empire, Nogvurot had been heavily scarred by the war. The fresh repairs stood out even more in the damp, and Caleb had to keep himself from grimacing at the reminders.

“Cayyyleb,” called Jester, not at all affected by the gloom. “Are there any cool shops in this town?”

“Or anywhere we can wait out the rain?” asked Fjord, more sensibly.

“Out of the rain would be good,” said Mollymauk.

“Yeah,” said Beauregard, with her arms folded in damp discomfort.

“Ah, there is a good inn with a room. A tavern room, I mean,” said Caleb. “Or there was when I was last here. The Cozy Cup, I think it was called.”

“Lead the way,” said Fjord with some enthusiasm.

Caleb nudged his horse into a trot and followed the map of his memory. It wasn’t far to the inn, which was, thankfully, still standing. They made enough of a racket trotting into the stable-yard that they didn’t have to call for a hand with the horses; the two stable-boys were taking reins and coins as quickly as they could dismount.

Inside the inn, a fire compounded the damp in the air, making the large room feel oppressively humid rather than dry. Nonetheless, it was better than the chill running hand in hand with the rain outside. There were only a few customers at the well-cared-for tables, and they fell silent as he entered. Doubtless, they recognised him. His uniform was as notorious as he was; he was the only person entitled to wear the maroon robes of the Righteous Brand mages with gold embellishments. The fearful attention of the bar patrons reminded him again of the benefits of travelling incognito. Unfortunately, this was one trip he couldn’t afford to make in his tatty old travel coat.

Mollymauk came up beside him and surveyed the silent room.

“Well! This is a dour place,” he said. “I think that table by the bar will do us. Get the first round would you, Widogast?”

He patted Caleb on the shoulder as he went past, and Caleb stared after him. At least until Jester came past and he realised he wasn’t moving. He made his way to the bar itself and ordered lunch and a round for everyone in the tavern room.

As he counted out the coins, he glanced across at the table his party had claimed. It’d taken no time at all for them to get settled. As he watched, Mollymauk shook his head vigorously chiming the ornaments on his horns and dashing water from his hair all over Beauregard. She responded, predictably, by punching him in the ribs while they all laughed. Caleb looked back at the bar and tried to ignore the faint longing under his ribs. Just like the robe last night, it wasn’t for him.

“I, ah, can bring the drinks out to you and your friends, m’lord,” said the barkeep.
Caleb blinked at him.

“Ja, that would be good,” he said. “My wagons came through here, perhaps a couple of days ago. Or, at least, they should have. Did they leave any word?”

The barkeep swallowed visibly, and his already nervous demeanour became almost comically exaggerated.

“Ah, I’m not… that is…” he turned to one of the other patrons. “Geffric! Run out and fetch the Archmage’s man, would you.” He turned back to Caleb. “Best you hear it from your own, m’lord.”

He sounded so scared and hopeful that Caleb suppressed his irritation and just nodded.

“I’ll just… I’ll just go and get your lunch,” he said and hurried off into a back room.

Caleb couldn’t help but notice, when he turned back to the room at large, that Geffric wasn’t the only patron to have left while his back was turned. The room was empty except for his own group and a pair of old women knitting in the back corner. He tried not to take it too personally and went to join Nott and Misrule at the table.

“Your hair – it’s on fire again,” said Beauregard with a nod to his head as he took a seat. “Kinda, scared off all the other customers.”

He unwound the cantrip without looking at her.

“It seems that something has happened to the wagons,” he told them, partly so they’d have something other than his lack of self-discipline to talk about.

“Those would be the wagons with all our stuff, and all the wedding presents?” asked Mollymauk.

“And my books. Ja, those wagons.”

“Are we talking magic books, or are we talking just regular books, like, cook books or something?” asked Fjord.

“Some of them could be used in studying the arcane, some are mundane. Either way, I do not want to lose them.”

“So, what do you think happened?” asked Jester, excitedly. “Do you think it was bandits? Or did the wagons catch fire? But then there were people with them who could just put them out…”

Caleb held up a hand and waited for Jester to stop her speculation.

“We will hopefully find out when Geffric comes back with one of my people. Until then, perhaps we hold off on the speculation?”

Geffric arrived back before either the drinks or the food made it to the table. As he helped a slight brown-haired human man with bandaged legs through the door, Mollymauk hopped the bar and began pouring out beers. No one made any move to stop him, so Caleb said nothing and made a mental note to leave a few more coins behind when they left. After watching for perhaps a little too long, he turned his attention away from Mollymauk’s easy moments and back to Geffric and the new arrival. The brown-haired man Caleb recognised as Philip, one of the party he’d sent with the wagons. Whatever had happened to the wagons, Philip had the look of a guilty man facing the gallows. He was too injured to bow but tried anyway, causing no small amount of fumbling on Geffric’s part which Caleb ignored.

“What happened?” Caleb asked bluntly.

After some apologising, and Beauregard fetching a chair for him, Philip launched apprehensively into his tale. The wagons had had an easy run through the forest to Nogvurot, and they had used a bit of the money Caleb had given for the purpose to stay in an inn. No one had been acting suspiciously, but, when they set out the next morning, they were stopped at the outskirts of the town by a band of armed folks and a masked figure in flashy robes. The ‘bandits’ had ordered them to get down from the wagons and walk back into town. The wagon guards put up a fight, and the ‘bandits’ killed two of them. Those who could run, ran from the fray, and Philip himself crawled into the roadside ditch. After further apologies for his cowardice, that Caleb tried not to be irritated by, Philip concluded his story saying that he had watched the supposed ‘bandits’ take the wagons away from the main road and that everyone else had left town rather than face the Widowmaker.

Caleb found he couldn’t really blame the wagon crew for running. He had a reputation for being hard on deserters, but if they hadn’t run they would have died like the other two. He should have made it clear to them that he expected them to keep themselves safe. Just more blood on your hands. As Jester healed Philip’s leg, Caleb weighed possibilities.

“So, this masked figure, were they a spell-caster?” Fjord asked Philip.

Philip nodded adamantly.

“Yes, for sure. His eminence sent us with spell-scrolls and stuff to use, but the masked one just fizzled everything we threw at them,” Philip replied.

Fjord turned to Caleb with a raised brow.

“You have enemies with that kind of power here in your Empire? Or is this person from further afield?”

Caleb nodded absentmindedly. It was most likely a Dwendalian, and probably a Cerberus Assembly Archmage. He had arrangements with Shadycreek Run and Mollymauk was a reasonably secure promise of peace with Xhorhas. Unless Xhorhas was falling into disorder. Whoever was behind the attack, he needed to send some messages. If it was as he suspected, things were moving faster than he’d anticipated. He excused himself from the table, ignoring the looks, and went across the room to cast Sending somewhat privately. His first message was for Caduceus.

“Caduceus, are you at Greyheart? Did my books arrive safely? Be aware the wagons were attacked at Nogvurot.” He paused a moment, trying to decide how to finish. “we are well but are travelling slow.” I miss you.

It took a moment or two before he heard Caduceus’ languid reply.

“Yeah, Caleb. Yeah, I got back yesterday. Everything is fine. We put the books in the library. Take your time and stay safe.”

Caleb felt the tension in his shoulders ease. Knowing that his most critical research materials were safe, and hearing Caduceus’ voice again, made everything feel less messy. He let himself bask in it for a little bit before getting on with his next Sending.

Chapter Text

Molly was desperately curious about what spells Caleb was casting over in the corner. He’d just gone distant and oddly focused before heading off to sit by himself, but at no point had he seemed really surprised about Philip’s tale. He hadn’t been nervous talking to the man either. At least, his hair hadn’t re-ignited and he had been terse but not hesitant in his speech. It promised a different side to Caleb Widogast, one that Molly had been carefully trying to avoid thinking about. He stared over at the Archmage, tapping one finger on the table thoughtfully.

“He’s Sending messages,” said Nott.

Molly hummed, distracted, and turned to her, blinking slowly to conceal his agitation.

“What was that?”

“He’s Sending… you know. That thing Jester does to talk to people far away? He’s doing that. Probably telling the King and other high and mighty folks that there’s been foul play.”

“How do you know I can do that?” asked Jester with a playful frown.

“I’ve seen you do it.”

“Setting aside the whole set of questions that raises,” Fjord began even as Molly opened his mouth to ask Nott when exactly she’d seen it, “are we going to be dealing with this theft ourselves? Or would it be more appropriate to send some Dwendalian folks to sort it out?”

“We deal with it ourselves,” said Jester immediately.

Nott nodded.

“Pretty sure Caleb and I would be going anyway, but we might need some backup,” she said.

Something about Nott’s tone made the hair on the back of Molly’s neck prickle. There was an air of deadly certainty to her that was at odds with the excitable misfit she’d been playing these past few days. He glanced over at Caleb again, oddly uncomfortable with where this might be heading. If they did find the people who stole the wagons, he doubted it would be pretty. Nott had taken down Korhast singlehandedly, and Widogast… the strategy for dealing with him at the end of the war had boiled down to ‘stay out of his way’.

“Do you have any idea who might be responsible?” Nott was asking when Molly dragged himself back to present concerns.

“We tend to be the lovable rogue types, so—”

“Bullshit,” said Nott with narrowed eyes, cutting Fjord off mid-sentence. “I was at the coast, you know. I had to follow your trail of disaster all across that fucking ocean. And let me tell you, you guys left a lot of enemies behind.” She took a large swig of her beer. “Could be that wizard in Nicodranas. He still hasn’t forgiven you for drawing that door.”

“How would you know that he hasn’t forgiven us?” Molly asked trying to sound comically suspicious rather than disturbed. They had been under the impression that they’d managed to shake Nott off their tail by that point.

“Caduceus mixes his tea, I’m drinking buddies with his butler, and Caleb has been trying to convince him to do a collaboration for years.”

“So, it’s unlikely to actually be him, given you’re friends with him and whoever it was stole your things, too. Just saying,” interjected Beau. “Also, who’s Caduceus?”

“Caduceus is our secret weapon. You’ll meet him when we get to the keep. Unless he has something better to do, which is entirely possible. Yussa might be friends with Caduceus, but he wouldn’t let a thing like friendship get in the way with screwing you guys over. He had to ask Caleb for a hand with scrubbing that door off.”

“He isn’t Caleb’s friend?”

“They’re wizards,” said Nott, as if it explained everything.

In some ways, it very much did.

“Whoever did it is willing to risk the peace over this,” Mollymauk pointed out, perhaps redundantly. He just didn’t want this escalating, and Nott seemed on edge. “Can we just all agree that we, us just here, have no plans to screw each other over?”

Jester gave him an appreciative, albeit tight, smile.

“We didn’t steal anything, and we don’t agree with whoever did,” she assured Nott.

Nott nodded solemnly.

“Caleb and I are not trying to screw you guys over.”

As she said it, Caleb, finished with his muttering and waving and magic shit, got up to join them. Molly tried not to pay too much attention to how, even in the absence of the cantrip, the firelight seemed to twist itself through his hair dancing in glimmers of metallic red. He also did his best not to notice how damn assured and in control Caleb seemed. Molly had spent the days since the wedding carefully unpicking the meaning of Caleb’s mannerisms, and, while he’d figured out he was pretty shit at it, he’d reached the point where he was pretty sure the man had a lot of anxiety just under the surface. He had been sure. Now, though, if he had to pick something Caleb was hiding, he’d have to go for arrogance. The suddenness of the change made little sense, and Molly was finding it bloody confusing certain other ways, too. He had no business looking that good just walking across the room.

Was? What is happening?” Caleb asked, as he took a seat next to Nott. “Are we being accused of foul play?”

Something about the way he asked it suggested he found it unlikely. Molly narrowed his eyes and cut to the chase:

“Why are you being so calm about this?”

Caleb blinked, apparently surprised. Molly found himself doubting it was genuine.

“Why am I so calm?” he frowned, and for a moment Molly swore he looked unsettled, but then the moment passed. “Whoever has stolen our things was seen by Philip here. He can give us a general direction. There will be signs of their passing. And, if we are unable to find them using more mundane means, I have this.”

He reached into a pocket in his robe and drew out a vial. It contained a honey-gold liquid that had the consistency of oil and floating suspended in the oil was a thin sliver of dark wood. It looked pretty arcane.

“So, that’s some kind of tracker?” asked Beau.

“Ja,” Caleb said, and gave her an impressed look as if they couldn’t all have inferred that from what he’d said.

“So, just throwing this out there, why don’t we just use that right away?” she asked.

“We do not want to notify the mage that there is a tracking spell unless we truly need it. Otherwise they may dispel the enchantment or simply do away with the object it’s attached to.”

“Ah. Good point.”

Molly was pretty sure he wasn’t the only one feeling foolish. Not only had he been on board with Beau’s suggestion that they just use the tracker right away, he was also vividly reminded of some of the issues they’d had with tracking in the past. Odd to think that they were more willing to depend on magic than an archmage.

The lull in the conversation was interrupted by the barman finally emerging with some lunch. The fare consisted of bowls of passably tasty stew, pickled cabbage, hard cheese, and bread. The bread had a grittiness to it that spoke of a bad millstone. Out of a strong sense of loyalty to his teeth, Molly set his to one side. Across the table, Caleb had taken the interruption as an opportunity to pull out a map of the area, and a well-worn and much amended spell book. A slight frown furrowed his brow as he delicately traced the lines of low roads across the map with one hand and dipped his bread in the stew with the other. Molly found himself fascinated, though by what exactly he wasn’t sure. Caleb looked up, and their eyes met momentarily. Molly jerked his quickly away, covering his staring by asking Jester brightly what Misrule’s plans were.

“Oh! Yes!” she said equally brightly, giving Molly the unsettling feeling that while he’d been watching Caleb, she’d been watching him. “We are of course going to help Mr. Caleb get everyone’s things back.”

“That will not be necessary,” Caleb murmured, looking back at his map. “I doubt they made it far, and you can look at the shops here while we’re gone.”

“Boo!” “Bullshit!” said Jester and Beau at about the same time.

“We’re coming, too,” Jester went on with a frown. “It’s our things as well as yours.”

“And maybe he’s trying to skip out on this honeymoon thing,” said Beau. “Just saying, it’s awful convenient.”

Molly kicked her under the table. She glared at him and then blinked, realising what she’d just said. She mouthed a ‘sorry’ at him, and Molly covered his face with one hand so that he wouldn’t have to watch Caleb politely ignore the interaction. Trust Beau to accidently argue that they shouldn’t take the excuse to just skip out on this awkwardness.

“If you insist. This may well be a very powerful mage, so please try not to get killed.”

“What about you?” asked Fjord in his puzzled enquiry voice. “You used a few spells over there, and they tend to take a toll.”

Caleb gave a grim smile that seemed a little feral around the edges.

“I understand your concern. If I were alone I would be more hesitant. As it is, Nott and I will play Wounded Bird or—”

“Fluffer Nutter!” yelled Nott, waving the hip-flask she’d been using to augment her beer in the air.

She seemed rather sloshed.

“Nein, not with the books. Hard Winter?”

“Stoned’n’Boned!”

Caleb frowned at her.

“Which was the… oh, I think I know. That might work.”

“Perhaps you’d like to share what that means with us?” asked Molly, intrigued by the exchange.

“If you insist on coming with us, you’ll see,” said Caleb.

He looked almost troubled at the thought, which just made Molly still more curious. This would be the first time seeing the Widowmaker in action up close. As Jester began asking the more sensible questions about their hunt, whether the horses were coming, or Philip, and what sort of lead the wagons might have, Molly picked at his food deep in thought.

Whoever this thief was, they’d managed to counter all the magic Caleb had sent with the wagon team. And yet, Caleb, the man who’d had a breakdown over Beau messing up her room, didn’t seem concerned that his magic had failed to keep the wagons safe. As he discussed the merits of horses with Jester, Fjord, and Yasha, he seemed… confident. Then there was the fact he kept hinting that the wagons wouldn’t take long to find. The wagons had at least a full day and a half’s lead on them. Molly began tapping the table again, stealing a glance at Caleb. The arrogance was definitely there, no doubt about it. This is a success for him, not a failure, Molly thought to himself. It rang unnervingly true. Something Caleb had planned was unfolding. And two people had died for it already.

They didn’t take much longer with their lunch, and Molly found himself too troubled by his speculation to join in much with any of the conversation. As they headed out, he noted that Widogast tipped the barkeep generously despite the terrible service. What’s more he tried to leave the money surreptitiously, so it wasn’t a display to gain favour. He’d sent two men to their deaths but was needlessly generous to a scared barkeep. Of course, the barkeep might have been an informant, but Molly doubted it. He’d been shaking badly bringing the plates to the table. Just another odd discrepancy in Widogast’s behaviour.

The rain had just started to clear as they mounted up, but the grey skies promised more drizzle to come. Molly didn’t really feel in the mood to cheer everyone up. He took the rear guard with Yasha instead. He was getting a sick feeling in his stomach that something was wrong, like he’d missed something obvious and it was about to get his friends hurt.

As they left Nogvurot, he rode closer to Yasha.

“On a scale of one to ten, how fucked do you think we are?” he asked quietly.

“Why would we be ‘fucked’?”

“Well, he’s obviously not the anxious, tortured soul we thought he was,” Molly hissed, gesturing towards the front where Widogast was riding.

He didn’t need to think about how Caleb’s military uniform fit so nicely around his shoulders. He huffed impatiently at himself. When he turned his attention back to Yasha, he found her looking at him like he’d said something she really needed to unpack. It reminded him strongly of when he’d first been learning to string his words together.

“Why would we be ‘fucked’ because he is not currently anxious or hurting?” she asked patiently.

“He’s obviously…” Molly fumbled for the right words. “I’m pretty sure this whole wagon thing is part of a plan. He’s not bothered about it like with the whole room thing, and he’s being all, you know, focused and in charge. I’m not…” he dropped his reins and rubbed at his temples, frustrated. “I just think that there’s something going on, and it might well be like the Plan we had.”

“Molly?” Yasha said quietly, looking towards the front of their short column of riders.

“Yes, Yash?”

“You know I get anxious talking to people?”

“Yes.”

“And that I get sad sometimes, too, because of things that happened to me in the past?”

“Yeah,” Molly was starting to see where this was going and felt even more like an idiot.

“And you know that if someone stole my flowers, I’d hunt them down and slaughter them and call down the Stormlord’s fire to turn their bones to ash without hesitation?”

“Yes,” he said meekly.

“And you know that I wouldn’t be anxious or sad while I did it?”

“Yes.”

She turned to look at him again.

“People can be more than one thing. People I was once friends with killed Zuala. They didn’t stop being themselves to do it, it was just a different part of them coming to the surface,” she said, looking immeasurably sad. “And just because someone has been hurt doesn’t mean they can’t hurt others. We hurt people all the time.” She paused to let her words sink in before going on. “I think Caleb is many things, but I don’t think he’s going to hurt us.”

“You don’t have the best history with judging people, Yash.”

“I take people as they are. You make up stories about who people are –” she held up a hand to silence his protest with a faint smile at her lips “– you are good at it most of the time. You just miss the obvious things when you’ve decided on a story.”

He huffed with mock indignance and was glad when she smiled. She wasn’t always the best at picking up when people were joking. She had a point though. He’d spent all the years of his life turning his innate inclination to jump to conclusions about people into an art form. He absentmindedly reached for his cards and began to shuffle them. He’d heard Caleb’s pain, seen his anxiety, and jumped to a half-baked conclusion. The problem was, he wasn’t sure how to fit all the new impressions he had of Caleb together with the old ones to form a coherent story.

He spent most of the afternoon, when it wasn’t raining, staring at Caleb’s back and drawing random cards from his deck. All he really figured out was that Caleb had a good tailor and a lovely set of shoulders. Molly had moved up the line after a couple of hours so Beau could ride with Yasha, and so he’d been nice and close when Caleb’s horse shied at a random puddle and Caleb had had to strain to rein it in. Seeing his husband’s shoulders tense like that had put the proverbial cat amongst the pigeons in Molly’s muddled brain. He hadn’t been at all helped by the fact that he had pretty clear memories of what Caleb looked like under his clothes. The cards he drew at random just seemed random and, as the sun began to fall behind the silvery clouds, he gave up and tucked his cards away.

“Glad we didn’t stay behind in the town!” he announced with false cheer to the group at large.

“Molly!” Fjord hissed. “Did you miss that we’re getting close?”

Molly slapped his hand across his mouth, mortified. They were hunting down a dangerous magic user and he’d been spacing out mooning over Widogast’s bloody shoulders.

“Sorry,” he whispered through his fingers.

Fjord shook his head but didn’t say anything further. He didn’t have to. Jester was riding at the front and it had become obvious over the course of the afternoon that she was really trying to make sure Wisdogast took Misrule seriously as a combat team. His comment about staying to look at shops had clearly stung. Molly had just undone a fair bit of her hard work with his thoughtlessness.

Up ahead, Widogast held up his hand to signal a halt. As they all reined in their horses, he dismounted and ran his fingers along something on the narrow muddy road. Jester dismounted to join him.

“What is it?” she asked quietly enough that Molly had to lean in to hear.

“Magic, I think,” said Widogast, just as quietly. “I need to cast something, it will take about ten minutes. Rest the horses?”

Jester nodded solemnly and turned to give them the hand-signs to take a break. As Molly loosened his horse’s girth and noseband, he tried to avoid following Caleb’s elegant movements out of the corner of his eye. Putting his horse onto a long-rein so it could nibble at the grass by the roadside, he joined Beau where she sat on a low pile of stones.

“How long do ya think it’ll take for Jes to forgive me?” he asked in a hushed voice.

She raised an eyebrow at him.

“Sixty to seventy years depending on whether or not you figure out how to shut the fuck up.”

Molly winced. He’d have to figure out some meaningful way to apologise when they were finished with this. He did his best to sit quietly and watch his horse eat sweet clover while they waited for Caleb to finish his incantation.

When Caleb finally fell silent, Molly found himself holding his breath. After a few moments the other man gave a small sigh of relief.

“I think it is alright,” Caleb said in normal tones. “Jester, if you would gather your people? We need to settle on a plan of approach.”

Molly blinked a little at the respectful delegation. If he wasn’t mistaken, Widogast was supporting Jester’s claim to command, which was something most Xhorhasian higher-ups, in his experience, failed to do – often with spectacular repercussions. As they all gathered around, a huddled double circle of people and horses, Molly found some small part of his fears allayed by that show of respect.

Widogast frowned at them all and ran his hands through his hair.

“I am not familiar with how you work, so I am going to assume you can take the part of a strike team,” Caleb said. “There were traps on the crates sent in the wagons, and the magic I can detect here is from those spells. The source is close to five hundred feet in that direction.” He pointed along the road and towards a copse of trees. “Some of the traps may still be active, some may not have been triggered, and there may be an ambush waiting. There might even be nothing. Nott and I will go first, as we are familiar with these traps. Under no circumstances touch anything we have not touched.”

Something about his expression reminded Molly of his stiff formality at the wedding. As they waited for him to continue, flames began to flicker in his hair and Molly was slightly shocked at how relieved he was to see that small sign of nervousness. None of them commented on the flames, but Jester broke the silence.

“How would you like us positioned?”

Caleb glanced up at the copse and then back at her.

“Nott and I will do Wounded Bird, so whatever your formation remain as far away and as quiet as possible whilst still in line of sight. I might appear injured, but don’t break cover unless Nott gives the signal.”

“The signal?”

Caleb turned to Nott, expectantly.

“I’ll just yell ‘Fjord’ really loud,” she said.

“Why my name,” asked Fjord.

“We will need your help,” she said with a shrug, and began checking her crossbow.

“No, but you could use anything—”

“It does not do to question genius,” said Caleb, solemnly.

Molly gave a surprised bark of laughter, before he remembered they were trying to be quiet and covered his mouth to muffle his giggles. Caleb gave him a stern look and shook his head in disappointment. It took Molly a moment to realise he was hiding a smile and joking – actually joking – but when he did his giggles became uncontrollable. Jester’s look of actual disappointment just made things worse, so he excused himself with a helpless wave to go bury his face in his saddlebags and calm down.

It took him an embarrassingly long time to stop. When he managed to compose himself, he found the horses hobbled and everyone waiting for him with various looks of amusement and disappointment.

“It really wasn’t that funny,” Beau said as he re-joined them.

He shook his head at her. It was hard to explain, especially since the only explanation he could give would spark questions he didn’t want to answer. He knew it had only been a bit of banter, but he’d wound himself up so much that when a little bit of the tension was released it all went, along with his dignity.

“Ready?” Caleb asked.

Molly nodded, along with everyone else. Caleb nodded back at them and muttered something in a language Molly didn’t recognise and made a small hand-gesture. Between one blink and the next, Caleb was gone and a large barn owl was standing in the road where he’d been. It seemed to explain the bird in ‘Wounded Bird’. The owl gave a small squeaking screech and half hopped, half walked to a clear space to launch itself into the air.

“Nott’s gone, we need to catch up,” said Jester quietly, and she cast a spell herself which made the world around them fall into a hush.

They moved forwards quietly, aided by the spell, carefully keeping an eye out for danger. Just as they reached the trees, Molly watched the owl drop from the skies into the middle of the grove. The tension in their small group spiked. Something was beginning. Beside him, Yasha began clenching and unclenching her hands.

They heard Caleb talking to someone up ahead, and they moved as swiftly as they could to find a vantage point. They were careful, advancing in low crouches to remain obscured by the undergrowth. As such, the first thing they noticed was the smell. There were dead things rotting in the sun. Molly felt sick as nervous anticipation crawled up his spine.

Between one step and the next they found their vantage point. Caleb was standing in a clearing, and it took a couple of breaths for Molly to understand what he was seeing. Four large wagons had been brought into the clearing and it was clear the thieves had thought to begin looking through their prizes. Several crates lay open on the ground and more bags, chests, and boxes had been unloaded.
In the middle of it all stood Caleb Widogast with fire in his hair and icy blue energy curling around his hands, and he was talking to someone trapped in stone from the waist down.

All around them were corpses. Most looked melted or burned, but others were worse. It looked as if some had been blown apart, with fragments of flesh through the trees along one side. Several had simply been turned to stone. There were a cluster of body parts suspended in the air on the far side of the clearing shorn apart along clean lines like they’d been sliced up with an impossibly large razor and set in a jelly. As Molly tried to piece them together in his mind, trying in vain to count how many had been caught in that particular trap, he realised the pieces were twitching and pulsing. Sickened he looked away, and towards the speaker. At which point, he realised that they weren’t trapped in stone; their lower half had been turned into stone.

“—You think they won’t find out?” they spat. “Release me, or they will hunt you down like the dog you are.”

“They don’t care about what happens to you, Lyran. You know that,” said Caleb gently, with a sad shake of his head.

“Well then I can help you fight them,” said Lyran, turning from threatening to pleading with all the speed of insincerity.

“I don’t care what happens to you either, Lyran.” Caleb replied, just as gently.

They snarled some spell-phrase and the world curled in on itself for a moment before Caleb said something equally unintelligible and a blue and gold flare cut through the malevolent magic. He looked unperturbed by their outburst.

“What did you come here for? I won’t ask again, Lyran.”

“Fuck you, war-mutt,” they snarled before beginning another incantation.

Before they could finish, a bolt snapped into their eye and they slumped forward, twitching spasmodically. As they were stone up to their waist, they could only slump so far, ending up in an obscene parody of a bow. There was silence.

The world held its breath as the magic slowly faded from Caleb’s fingertips and his shoulders slumped. He sighed and the flames in his hair flickered out.

“You can come out, just mind you don’t touch the bodies,” he said to the air in front of him.

“You didn’t even try to look for us,” grumbled Jester as she broke cover.

She was trying to lighten the mood, but Molly could see how her eyes skittered over the corpses. He tried not to look at the suspended pieces as he made his way into the clearing.

“I have spent too long with Nott to look for hidden people,” Caleb replied to Jester, but he sounded solemn.

“Who were they?” Molly asked.

“Archmage of Conscription, Lyran Karos,” Caleb said. “I’m not sure how much you heard, but this seems to have been a move by one of the factions within the Cerberus Assembly.”

Molly got the feeling Caleb knew more, but he had more pressing concerns. An eye, suspended amongst the body parts was blinking at him from over Caleb’s shoulder.

“Could you?” he waved his hand at the tableau and swallowed hard.

Caleb grimaced, and turned to undo the magic holding the pieces in place. They dropped to the ground in a cascade of nauseating thuds and wet slaps. Once they were on the ground the twitching, thankfully, stopped.

“This will take some time to clean,” Caleb said looking around. “I will set up the Mansion for you a little way over, away from all this.”

“We can help,” offered Yasha.

Caleb gave her a small smile.

“It wouldn’t be safe for you, but I appreciate the offer. Perhaps you could fetch the horses while I construct the Mansion?”

He might have just been talking to Yasha, but they all took the opportunity to leave the clearing and return to the world of the living. Looking around at the grim and sickened faces of his friends, Molly doubted any of them would be sleeping tonight, no matter how nicely Caleb made the beds.

Chapter Text

Caleb waited until Misrule had passed out of line of sight before he let himself take another look around the clearing. The crate holding his romance collection had been opened and the books inside would doubtless be in a mess from the rain. Nothing seemed to be missing, but the damage was far from ideal. He absentmindedly rubbed at the tension in his neck as he turned to Lyran’s corpse. There wasn’t all that much he could spot worth salvaging, but he muttered out a quick incantation to Detect Magic. It wouldn’t do to let Nott get caught in an arcane trap set by Lyran to take posthumous retaliation.

“Is it safe?” Nott asked, emerging from under the nearest cart.

“Amulet, ring, and spell book…” he replied absentmindedly, narrowing his eyes at the glimmering threads of magic twisted around Lyran’s throat. There was something… odd. He held up a hand to keep Nott from launching herself at the pretty buttons on Lyran’s collar and walked around the corpse to try to get a better look through the residue of his own spells.

The strange knotted threads of magic were buried deep in their neck and glimmered like mercury in the fading light as they moved, curling slowly downwards. It looked all the world like an enchantment and he would have guessed some form of geas, except such a spell would usually disperse almost immediately after death.

As Caleb watched, the strands of enchantment wove their way down over Lyran’s shoulders and through their back. Just as his spell to detect magic began to fade, the strands lost their glow, turning a sick dark grey and green. Necromancy. Caleb stepped back in horror, frantically trying to recall what he knew of the forbidden art.

As his mind fumbled to figure out a course of action, Lyran’s body twitched. Caleb’s eyes met Nott’s and they shared a moment of panic. Lich, murmured Caleb’s inner researcher, they've figured out how to become a lich, and you’re already tired from casting. Frantically, he reached out to try and untwist the threads he had seen but Lyran kept twitching. The effort of trying to dispel the magic burnt along his arm and he took another few steps back groping for his least favourite casting pouch. He heard the twang of Nott’s crossbow and saw the corpse jerk.

As Nott scrambled to load another bolt, Lyran pulled their body upright. They chuckled. They took a hissing breath in. They pointed their finger at Nott and spoke a single word laced with magical command.

“Die.”

Caleb watched in horror as a deep green and yellow smoke poured from Lyran’s mouth and twisted rapidly towards Nott. He recognized the spell. A command spell with a singular purpose, almost impossibly powerful. Trent had used it once, only once, to kill an officer who had failed to bring them a prisoner for questioning. He frantically attempted to counter the spell, drawing together threads of will and magic in a practiced hand movement. He fumbled with his casting pouch just as he closed the circle of his counter-spell, and felt his gut drop as Lyran’s spell continued to sinuously glide through the air and wrap around Nott’s small form. The moment etched itself into his brain, freezing the horror of that small slice of time even as everything happened too quickly for him to react.

Nott jerked, lurching forward, but stubbornly remained alive and, with grim determination and only slightly shaking hands, let loose another bolt to sink into Lyran’s chest. Relief shuddered up Caleb’s spine, but he had no time to enjoy it. His fingers found the clay seal he was seeking by its familiar crest, and he pulled the disk out and broke it on his knee in one smooth movement. The sharp crystal inside glinted in the setting sun. Lyran began another incantation, her attention still focused on Nott. Caleb shoved up one sleeve and jabbed the crystal into his arm gritting his teeth against the burning pain spreading rapidly through his veins from the wound. He dropped the rest of the broken seal to pull out his lodestone and dust.

Lyran released their spell and Caleb watched as Nott tried to turn it back on the lich. She failed, and her scream scraped across his own pain as he brought his spell to bear on Lyran. They tried to counter him, but he had the spell channeled through the crystal. He felt it rip apart his wrist as it splintered under the pressure. Lyran’s lower half, petrified as it was, disintegrated dropping the rest of them onto the ground.

Nott, recovering, dropped her crossbow and yanked her dagger from her belt. As she raced to the fallen lich and Caleb pulled a pinch of lime from a component pocket, Misrule joined the fray. Beauregard reached them first, slamming her heel down on the lich’s throat, before throwing herself into the air to land on Lyran elbow-first. Without missing a beat, she rolled onto her knees and rapidly punched their head three times. Nott joined Beauregard to stab the lich through its broken ribs. As Mollymauk and Yasha caught up with their companion, Lyran choked out a snarl and Caleb felt his guts writhe and his heart fall out of rhythm for a moment. By the looks of it, he wasn’t the only one to feel the effects of whatever spell the lich had come up with.

As he stooped to grab some dirt, he heard the lich muttering their next spell – a Dimension Door, he guessed – and threw out another counter before they could escape. As the counter-spell spilled down his arm, the crystal splintered further, shards sliding deeper into his flesh ramping up the pain. He struggled to breathe. As Caleb staggered and fell to one knee, Mollymauk drove his swords, glowing with some sort of magical energy, through the lich’s head and heart.

Caleb’s protest died on his lips as he watched Mollymauk pull his swords out of the lifeless form with the smooth tug and effortless circular swing back into a fighting stance which spoke of long practice. The issues of lichdom and phylacteries vanished, and there was only the burning and tearing pain of the crystal clawing its way into his chest and Mollymauk standing over the corpse scanning the forest for further threats. As Caleb watched, Mollymauk flicked his hair away from where it had fallen over one eye and met his gaze. Something that might have been concern creased his brow before Caleb found the wherewithal to tear his eyes away and look for Nott.

Jester had her. She was curled up on the ground and Jester had her hand on her shoulder. Healing. Caleb tried to stagger over to them but found the ground unsteady and his legs felt like lead. Purple hands caught him.

“Woah, there,” said Mollymauk gently.

“Nott…” Caleb gasped out, having difficulty thinking around the pain now the immediate threat had been dealt with.

“Easy, easy,” said Mollymauk, gently catching his wounded arm and hissing between his teeth as he got a good look at it. “Jes, need you over here now!” he called.

Caleb tried to stand, tried to get to Nott, but Beauregard caught his other shoulder and pushed him back down. He vaguely heard her cursing as he tried to look round her for Nott. She’d been hurt…

The pain overwhelmed him. Everything slipped out of focus as he felt the deep sickening pull of the Weave trying to drag him in. Vaguely he heard Nott, felt her hands on his face, and felt a faint sense of relief through it all. She was okay.

Gradually the agony faded, becoming thrumming rather than tearing. He was able to choke back the next scream as Nott used her pliers to slide another fragment of potential from his arm.

“Back with us now, I see,” said someone in lilting tones from his other side. It took a few moments for Caleb to recognize Mollymauk. “Do you need a break?”

Caleb shook his head frantically.

“Nein! No, bitte. Please. Get them out. Get them out!” his voice rose in desperation even as he felt Nott continuing to steadily pull the shards, and he squeezed his eyes closed tightly.

Only when she had pulled out another three fragments did he begin to feel the divine healing magics Jester was steadily weaving. He also became aware that Beauregard was holding down his wounded arm for Nott to work on and he had Mollymauk’s hand grasped in his other hand, holding on far too tightly. As the pain eased he became awkwardly aware that everyone’s attention was solely on him. He tried to free Mollymauk, but the other man ignored his loosening grip.

“Have I missed any, Cay?” Nott asked as gently as she could.

He took a moment to think through his growing embarrassment, flexing his fingers to see if there was anything left to tear under his skin.

“Ja, I think that’s all,” he gave her a weak smile. “I should be able to get up now.”

Beauregard, took the hint, but she looked concerned even as she let him go. Mollymauk, on the other hand, stood in one sinuous movement and pulled Caleb to his feet without letting go. Caleb had to actively pull his hand away to get the other man to release it. Mollymauk made a little unhappy noise, which Caleb desperately tried to ignore, staring instead at Lyran’s corpse.

“Just give him a moment,” said Nott to the rest of the party. “Those fucking things take a lot out of him.”

“What are they, exactly?” asked Fjord.

Caleb tried to ignore him, too. He needed to figure out what had happened to Lyran.

“They’re sort of condensed magic? They make spells better but hurt like nothing else,” explained Nott as she patted Caleb’s leg comfortingly. “My husband makes them for him.”

There was the usual hint pride in her voice as she mentioned her husband.

Jester gasped loudly, Mollymauk made a choking splutter, and Caleb glanced up at Fjord in time to catch him with his jaw dropped.

“I didn’t know you were married, Nott,” said Yasha, seeming unperturbed.

“Well, I am,” said Nott frostily, folding her arms. “And you don’t all have to look so shocked about it!”

Caleb smiled a bit at that. It’d only been in recent years that Nott had gained such confidence. When she’d revealed her marriage to him, she had spent a great deal of time reiterating the fact that she’d looked different when Yeza had married her.

“It’s not… we’re just…” Mollymauk seemed to be having difficulty finding his tongue.

“Does your husband know you’re travelling around with Caleb, though?” asked Jester.

Something about the way she asked the question had Caleb turning to her frowning.

“Why would she need his permission to do her job?” he asked.

Jester blushed, which confused him further.

“Well, it isn’t the work exactly… I mean…” she bounced her index fingers together and looked at the ground where she traced patterns in the dirt rather than answer.

The silence extended awkwardly, until Nott broke it with a gasp of indignation.

“You did not! You thought…” Nott spluttered, while Caleb tried to catch up with her.

“To be fair—” began Mollymauk, and that was enough for Caleb to realize.

“You thought I was having an affair with Nott,” he said, almost toneless in his own shock.

“You two are awful close,” Fjord pointed out.

“She’s like my sister!” Caleb cried, just as Nott burst out with: “He’s my son!”

Caleb turned to blink at her, but she just shrugged at him. Well, that’s something to talk about later. He wasn’t sure he could deal with much more today. He was feeling the usual shaky exhaustion that came from using the crystals and he still needed to deal with a dead lich. He let Nott explain Yeza to Misrule and went to take a closer look at Lyran’s corpse while shaking his head. Misrule thinking he was having sex with Nott – that would take a while to sink in.

What was left of the archmage-turned-lich was pretty mangled, but he gritted his teeth against his weariness and cast another Detect Magic. Echoes of pain trilled up his arm, but the threads of the weave became visible once more. There were only the faintest traces of dispersing necromancy marking their short-lived lichdom, and he sincerely hoped that meant there wasn’t a phylactery hidden away somewhere. He knelt down and began to cast Identify on the amulet around their neck, ignoring the chatter around him.

As the spell finally broke and pooled knowledge of the amulet directly into his mind, he hissed through his teeth at the accompanying reminder that he’d overdone the magic today.

“Should you be doing that?” Mollymauk asked from over his shoulder.

Caleb flinched, surprised, before reaching down to pull the amulet from the corpse’s neck.

“Ja,” he said to Mollymauk, as he stood up. “I should be doing this. Liches are usually anchored by something other than just their bodies, and they can rebuild themselves if their anchor is not destroyed.” He held the amulet up to get a closer look at the glyph work. “This was an odd case. A very odd case from everything I have read. It looked as if the magic that brought her back was bound to a geas…”

He trailed off, studying the makeshift phylactery. It resembled, in truth, more a fragment of a phylactery compared to the only other example he’d seen in person. The other thing bothering him was the fact that Lyran Karos, a mediocre mage at best, had suddenly managed to cast one of the most powerful spells he’d ever seen.

“So, ah, is that what it’s bound to?” asked Mollymauk.

Caleb resisted the urge to turn to him. He sounded far too close to begin with and Caleb didn’t need to see any of the soft concern he was hearing in Mollymauk’s voice. He kept his eyes on the phylactery.

“It’s delicate. Spells upon spells, to hide the necromancy in the lower layers.”

He hesitated a little longer as the amulet spun in the dim light. He knew it would hurt, but his curiosity got the better of him. He braced himself and dispelled the vanity spell obscuring the more complex work beneath. He heard Mollymauk swear as he staggered under the effort, and felt the other man catch him as he began to crumple.

It took a minute for his head to clear enough to realise he was being held up by Mollymauk, and that this meant he was now pressed back against the chest he’d been doing his best to avoid thinking about. Which meant this was technically the closest he’d ever been held by his husband. Which also meant that Mollymauk would not be happy about him remembering the tattoos, or the way his robe had pulled sideways the other night to… Caleb shook his head a little and tried to focus on the fading pain rather than the handsome man who was just being nice and didn’t at all deserve to be objectified. Caleb felt cool metal brush the soft skin just behind his ear as Mollymauk leaned closer still.

“Maybe casting magic is not the best thing for you right now?” Mollymauk murmured into his ear.

Caleb failed to suppress a shudder. The point of Mollymauk’s horn dug closer for a moment before it was pulled away. Caleb rather desperately tried to find his feet as he began to blush hotly.

“Sorry,” said Mollymauk, taking one hand from around Caleb’s chest to brush his fingers at the spot where his horn had pressed. “They’re getting a little long, I forgot.”

Caleb lurched himself forward, away from the gentle brush of fingers against his sensitive skin, away from his compromising position against Molly’s chest. Unfortunately, not away from his own embarrassing imagination and perfect memory. Matters weren’t helped by the certainty that Molly had been reluctant to let him go. Again.

A nearby scream spun him round, scattering other considerations. He wove together the magics for a Firebolt one-handed without thinking, searching for the source of the scream. Next to him, Mollymauk had his swords drawn and glowing with power.

“He has Tusk Love!” Jester squealed from halfway inside the crate of books.

Mollymauk dropped his swords to catch him as he let his Firebolt fizzle and slumped. By the looks of things, they weren’t the only ones who’d thought they were being attacked. Beau and Fjord were in fighting stances across the clearing where they were piling bodies. And pieces of bodies. A glance to the other side proved Nott had readied her crossbow, standing on top of a wagon. The only person other than Jester who didn’t seem perturbed was Yasha. Which was a good thing given she was carrying an unopened crate to a wagon. Caleb sincerely hoped Nott was double checking everything for them.

“Maybe don’t scream when you aren’t being attacked, Jes?” said Mollymauk, though he didn’t sound hopeful about her taking the advice on board.

“Sorry!” she shouted to everyone in general as Caleb got his feet back under him. “It’s just Caleb has the best books! You have the best books, Caleb!”

“Ah, ja,” said Caleb awkwardly. “But the water damage will take some work, I’m afraid. Please don’t try to open them.”

“Oh, I have Mending, see!”

Jester held up Tusk Love and, with the light fading fast, Caleb just had to trust that it was now undamaged as she flopped it open. Mollymauk must have felt his tension, because he gave Caleb a squeeze that was probably meant to be comforting.

“She is actually really good at mending things,” he stage-whispered to Caleb.

He managed a wan smile, though, truly, he was trusting that Nott wouldn’t let them fuck anything up at this point. He was holding on by a thread and Molly being so helpful was just fucking him up further.

“I need to sit down,” he told Molly, too tired to bother pulling away again.

“Shall we go over to the wagons, away from the body?”

Caleb shook his head and just let his knees give out. Molly gave a humph of surprise but kept him from hitting the ground hard. He needed to figure out the phylactery before he could rest. He began tracing another Identify ritual out in the dirt in front of him.

Mollymauk grabbed his hands gently.

“Is this really necessary?” he asked. “I don’t mean to question your archmage-ness, but you’re bleeding out your eyes and nose, and I get the feeling that doing magic is really fucking you up right now.”

Caleb looked at him for a long moment, trying to find the words to explain. A task that would’ve been easier had his tired eyes not decided to focus on Molly’s lips.

“I need to know how this works, so I can stop it.”

“Yasha has a sword that can break magic items easy as pie.”

He looked like he was about to call Yasha over but stopped when Caleb shook his head vehemently.

“I need to know. Lyran shouldn’t have been able to do that. They were a mediocre caster at best. If not for the war, they would never have made archmage. I need to figure out what magics they’ve been working with, who they’ve been working with.”

I need to know if Ikithon has found a way out.

Caleb closed his eyes and breathed carefully through the panic that threatened to overwhelm him. He felt Molly release his hands, and a little bit of him regretted it. He opened his eyes and focused back on the ritual without another word.

Chapter Text

After all the battles he’d seen, he still felt vaguely sick seeing Beau and Fjord carrying bits of people to stack on a pyre. He hoped he wouldn’t be sent to assist when Nott found out what a terrible job he was doing looking after her boy. Sure, he’d managed to catch the wizard a couple of times before he’d keeled over, but now here he was just standing around while the man hurt himself. Molly shook his head, picked up his swords and slid them into their scabbards after a quick check that the magic had burned them clean. He supposed he wasn’t really someone to point fingers when it came to hurting oneself to get a job done. He wasn’t above bleeding himself a little just for a prank, even. But there’s a difference between scratching your arse and tearing it to pieces, he thought to himself as he watched Caleb sway slightly whilst weaving his ritual.

With nothing else to do, Molly began to pace back and forth behind Caleb, watching the elegant swirls the wizard created with his hands out of the corner of his eye. Even with Lyran’s corpse just there, it was better than watching the rest of the bodies being cleaned up, and he didn’t want to attract Nott’s attention by looking at the wagons. Something about the confident way Caleb moved his hands reminded Molly of a concert he’d seen years ago with a lady who’d had no voice but whose face and hands had been so eloquent they’d moved him to tears. He only noticed Nott when she grabbed the edge of his coat and pulled him to a stop.

“What the fuck are you doing,” she hissed in a low voice when she had his attention. “Casting messes him up after he uses the crystals. Why is he still casting?”

“How the—” she tugged hard on his coat and put a long knobbly finger to her lips, and he stooped down to whisper to her. “How the fuck was I meant to stop him? And why are we whispering?”

She glared at him for a long moment.

“What’s he doing?” she asked, eventually.

“He’s trying to figure out how the lich business works. Apparently, things were a bit weird?”

He knew he was fishing, but Nott seemed distracted by her worry, so it was as good a time as any to try to figure out what they weren’t being told.

Nott frowned at Caleb’s back.

“It was weird…” she muttered before turning back to him with a stern look. “You’re switching with Jester. At least she has some healing spells for when this breaks all over him.”

Her look brooked no argument, though he had to wonder why he even felt one rise to his lips.

His switch with Jester involved a full briefing on the traps. Caleb and Nott had apparently trapped every inch of the wagons that the servants weren’t able to reach. They’d seemingly spared no expense, and little thought for the poor bastards who might be caught in the damn things. Nott explained, with a worrying amount of pride in her voice, how she and Caleb had devised a system whereby mundane traps could spring magical traps in a cascade and Molly felt even more sickened hearing about it in academic detail whilst standing amidst the aftermath.

Nott was cut off partway through explaining how he could recognise the spring-loaded acid traps that were primed to go off when the crates were shaken, by a high keening whimper cutting through the air. They both turned to see Jester catch Caleb’s slumping form with divine magics already wrapping around her hands. Something twisted in Molly’s chest seeing her brush Caleb’s hair back. He ignored it and turned back to Nott who was watching the scene with a worried frown. Like a mother hen, he thought to himself. He nudged her.

“If the traps go off when the crates are moved, what would’ve happened if one of the wagons had its axle snap? Or if something were to crash into them?” he asked.

She waved her hand at him dismissively, her eyes not leaving Caleb.

“Caleb had them stuck in place with magic. Nothing could go off unless the shields—”

“Yasha!” Jester’s cry cut Nott off mid-sentence.

Before Molly could react, the goblin had dashed to Caleb’s other side. Molly headed over, too, at a deliberately casual pace, his tail lashing the air behind him. He arrived a step ahead of Yasha and couldn’t help but wince at the trails of blood drying on Caleb’s face.

“Told you, you shouldn’t do it,” he said, shaking his head, dramatically disappointed, at the Archmage.

There was a long pause as Caleb looked at him blankly and Molly started to feel uncharacteristically self-conscious, then the other man smiled shakily.

“Ja, ja you did tell me,” he shifted slightly and took a pained breath, “perhaps one day I’ll listen to good advice.” He shifted his attention to Yasha. “I have heard you are able to destroy magical items? This amulet needs to be obliterated.”

“I can do that,” said Yasha, cautiously taking the amulet from his fingers and laying it on the ground.

They watched in silence as she drew her blade in one easy movement. Grasping in firmly in both hands, she only hesitated to be sure her angle was perfect before she plunged the blade into the phylactery. As it shattered like crystal dropped on flagstones something smelling like putrefaction and looking like a trick of the shadows fled. To Molly’s right, Caleb sagged in relief.

“That was super gross,” said Jester, and Molly could tell she was dying to ask questions but too respectful of Caleb’s exhaustion to impose.

After hearing about the traps, Molly didn’t feel like being so generous.

“What the fuck is going on?” he asked, looking back and forth between Nott and Caleb.

Nott glared at him while doing her best to keep Caleb mostly upright, then sighed glancing at Lyran’s corpse.

“There is some… dissent within the Cerberus Assembly,” she said carefully. “We can talk about it more in the morning.” She turned to Yasha. “Could you carry him? We need to set up a camp. Jester, can you put the lid on the books? The rest can stay as it is another night. Molly, tell the others not to move Lyran’s body.”

There was something in her voice that had them hopping to it like regular soldiers. It was easy to forget, sometimes, that the alcoholic little goblin had routinely commanded elite strike teams and had once taken charge of an entire garrison. This was not one of those times.

Molly relayed the message to Beau and Fjord, who bitched about how hard not burning everything at once would make their lives. He dodged Fjord’s attempt to rope him into helping with the excuse that he had to wrangle the horses and ran to catch up with the camping division. Nott and Yasha settled on a spot in the pasture outside the grove and Molly caught up to them with horses in tow just in time to be sent to fetch water.

“I’ll help!” called Jester from the other side of a horse, before pulling the saddle off. “You’ll need some muscle to carry it all.”

As she stepped into view to flex her arms, her tail clearly signed that she wanted to talk to him in private. Probably not to praise him. He nodded, resigned, and began collecting the empty waterskins.

They were only just out of earshot of the camp when Jester suddenly barged sideways into him, causing him to drop half the waterskins.

“Soooo,” she began in wheedling tones, “you seem to be getting close to Widogast.”

He frowned at her as he picked up the waterskins.

“What do you mean by that?” he asked, innocently.

It wasn’t his fault Caleb had a nice back and appreciating it didn’t mean anything. He tried to ignore the memory of feeling the other man pressed back against him. It felt wrong to have enjoyed that – wrong on so many levels.

“I’m not blind Molly. You went right to him—”

“Hey! He was hurt, and he’s technically on our side.”

She frowned back at him, then sighed obviously changing tack.

“I don’t mean to say you love him. Just that you’re getting attached.” She held up a finger to stop his protest. “I’m getting attached, too. And I know I don’t need to warn you about this—”

“Nott’s honey traps?” he interjected, trying to break away from the serious tone of the conversation.

Jester nodded solemnly.

“Nott’s honey traps, exactly. As much as we like them, we need to be careful. This could be some big political mess, if that was an archmage of the Cerberus Assembly, and getting involved in that…” she shook her head.

“You think it might not have been an archmage?”

“I think there’s something off about this lich business, and Nott knows you have a thing about killing undead.”

It was something to think about. Molly began walking towards the stream again, trying to straighten things out in his head. After a while he shoulder bumped Jester.

“Do you think Widogast is a good person?” he asked quietly.

She gave the question some thought before answering. They were halfway through filling the skins before she broke the silence.

“I don’t think there really are any good people. Not really. People are just people. Sometimes they do good things and sometimes they do bad things... If there really were good people, the war wouldn’t have gone on for ten years.” She paused before continuing. “I don’t think, and I could be wrong, but I don’t think Caleb is dangerous to us. Not directly anyway.”

Molly nodded slowly, pretending to buy it. She could tell he was unconvinced and grinned.

“Look at it this way,” she said. “If he had anything bad planned for us, he probably wouldn’t care about us liking him.”

“What if his plan hinges on us liking him?”

“Then he’d be trying to be likable.”

Sometimes Molly wished he could borrow Jester’s mind, just to see how it worked. He finished filling the last waterskin and loaded Jester up. She gave him a tense smile as he finished.

“What has you so worried about him anyway?” she asked.

He sighed and stared into the middle distance, but no clear answers popped out of the darkness.

“I don’t know,” he began and then stopped himself. If anyone could figure it out it was Jester. “I thought he was cold and dangerous, then that he was awkward, then maybe a bit broken, then maybe… I don’t know, then today he was sort of cold again, and dangerous. Very, very dangerous.” It all fell out in a muddle, and he knew it made him sound like he had the social skills of a cabbage. “Yash pointed out that people can be more than one thing,” he went on before she could laugh at him. “It’s just been a bit of a wild ride, and I just want to know if I can… trust him I suppose.”

Jester didn’t laugh; she looked thoughtful.

“So, like with Nott, but worse?”

“Worse,” he said instantly, then took a moment to consider. “But, like with when she started to leave us presents? Yes. I feel like if I make the wrong call I might get us all killed.” Or worse, just one of you and the rest of us’d all know it was my fault.

Jester gave him a tight smile and bumped her shoulder against his.

“Alright,” she said. “I’ll make the call. We trust him like we trust Nott.”

“You don’t—”

“I am Captain here. You trust him like you trust Nott. Understood?”

It was her ‘leader’ voice, and there was only one answer he could give. He nodded, even as guilt at abdicating responsibility burned in his throat.

“Aye, Captain. Understood.”

As they made their way back to camp, he wished he didn’t feel so relieved.

Chapter Text

Nott found herself rudely awakened by a stream of freezing air as Caleb squirmed his way out of the bedroll next to her. She growled and jabbed him in the calf with a claw before curling up into a tighter ball. Caleb mumbled something that sounded like an apology and the blankets were dropped down again leaving her in a warm cocoon.

Just as she was drifting off, Caleb let in the cold again – peering in at her with a sleepy but contrite look on his face. She narrowed her eyes and considered violence.

“I can’t find my boots,” he mumbled quietly. “Sorry.”

She growled a little more but crawled up to stick her face out into the chilly pre-dawn air. He shivered next to her, so she sacrificed her arm to drag his cloak out of the layers of the bedroll and hand it to him. It didn’t take long to spot his boots, and given her arm was already cold, she grabbed them too and dumped them in his lap.

“Danke,” he murmured quietly as he pulled them on.

As Nott fussed with the blankets to make up for the loss of Caleb’s cloak, and as he stumbled his way sleepily towards the trees, Fjord caught her eye from where he sat near the embers of the fire ‘keeping watch’. He made a few faces at her, gesturing after Caleb. She pretended to be confused, and after a bit he got up and came to kneel next to her bed.

“Where’s he gone off to?” he whispered.

Nott weighed her options. It was very tempting.

“I have no idea,” she rasped back.

Fjord looked supremely unconvinced.

“I can send a message and ask?” she offered.

“You do that.”

She made a show of finding her piece of copper wire and twisting it carefully before whispering into her palm:

“Caleb! Everyone here is panicking, and they’re about to go looking for you. Pleasereplytothismessage.”

Fjord gave her a dirty look.

“Nott,” Caleb sounded exasperated, “you know what I…” he sighed. “I am watering the trees, Nott—”

The spell faded before it caught what were doubtless his empty threats. She gave Fjord a bright smile.

“He says he’s planning to turn you all into mice and set Frumpkin on you.”

Fjord narrowed his eyes.

“That’s a lie.”

It was too easy and too early, so Nott relented.

“He’s gone to piss on a tree, Fjord. What else would he be doing?”

Fjord frowned at the tree-line.

“He shouldn’t go alone.”

“Why not?”

“What if someone gets the jump on him? Throws down a silence spell and just…”

Despite her confidence in Caleb she felt her blood run cold. Fjord had a point, given that Caleb would still be worn out… She scrambled out of the bedroll, grabbing her cloak from the top of the blankets and slipping into its shadows.

“Woah, woah, woah. Hold up there, Nott,” Fjord whispered, grabbing for the edge of her cloak.

“What do you mean ‘hold up’?!” she said, her voice rising along with her panic. “You just said Caleb could be out there being kidnapped! Or killed!”

“Hey, look—”

She turned from him, and then remembered the wire in her hand. She quickly cast message again.

“Caleb! Are you being attacked? Are you in danger? Do you need me to come and get you? Replytothismessage.”

“What? Nott? No, no. I am just coming back; I am alright”

She let her shoulders drop in relief.

“What the fuck is going on?” Beau asked in a sleep-roughened voice from where she was crouched over her bedroll.

“Seconded,” called Molly, who was standing with one of his swords drawn, scanning the field around them.

“Well—” began Fjord before Nott cut him off in order to preserve the truth.

“Fjord told me someone was attacking Caleb, but I checked and he’s fine,” she told them.

“Where is Caleb, even?”

“He’s just over there,” Nott said, pointing.

Even with the assurance of his answer to her message, it was still a bit of a relief to actually see him returning through the darkness moments later. The tightness in her chest and throat eased, and she glared at Fjord. He had no right to go scaring people like that.

“Where the fuck did you go off to?” Beau called out to Caleb as he approached.

She sounded like he’d personally offended her by daring to leave the camp’s dim light.

“Beau!” Jester admonished lazily from where she was cuddling back into her blankets.

She, at least, wasn’t overly dramatic, unlike the rest of her team.

“I see you weren’t joking, Nott,” Caleb said as he got close enough to make them out with his human eyes. “I was…” he made a vague gesture towards the trees, “you know.”

“I don’t.”

Nott couldn’t tell if she was being deliberately obtuse or not. With Beau it was a fifty-fifty at best.

“I was avoiding being one of those mages,” Caleb tried.

“Now I’m confused,” said Molly. “You weren’t going for a piss?”

Caleb directed a frown towards the tiefling.

“Ja, I was? How is that an emergency?”

“Apparently, Fjord was winding Nott up. Some wizards don’t pee?”

Caleb rubbed the bridge of his nose and went to sit on their bedroll and take off his boots.

“Some wizards,” Caleb gave a pained sigh. “Some wizards find it inconvenient to, for instance, leave their warm bed to take care of business. Instead, they just do it where they lie and clean it with a little Prestidigitation.”

There was a long pause as everyone reflected on this information.

“Wow,” said Beau after a while.

She still looked a little blank as she pulled off her goggles and shook her head. To her left, Molly broke into a fit of laughter, which was soon echoed by Jester and Fjord. It didn’t last long, but Nott caught the genuine smile on Caleb’s face as he began to climb back into bed.

“Well, as tempting as it is to ask you to take care of my business, I think I’ll head to the trees,” Molly announced, pulling his coat on as Jester’s giggles died down.

“Ja, that’s good. I don’t think I’m up to much casting just yet anyway,” Caleb replied, glibly and a tad sleepily.

Nott felt hopeful, hearing him sound so at ease. She turned to prod Fjord in the thigh and nod after Molly’s retreating back.

“Shouldn’t you go with him? Make sure he doesn’t get attacked? Have a quick perv?”

He gave her a peeved look before shaking his head and going after Molly and Nott stuck her tongue out after him before taking off her cloak, readjusting the blankets, and crawling back down to curl herself behind Caleb’s legs. It took a while, but eventually his shivering stopped, and she drifted back off to sleep.

-----------------------------

Jester awoke to the smell of sausage and mushrooms sautéing. She kept her eyes closed and enjoyed the chill air against her face and the domestic sounds of someone else putting together her breakfast. Unfortunately, her mind woke up faster than she would’ve liked and insisted on reminding her that they could be attacked at any moment. She stretched, opened her eyes, and put on her captaineering face.

Molly and Fjord were tackling the breakfast duties, which meant Yasha and Beau would be on water and clean up duties. Which, predictably, left Jester with the crummy job of packing as the last to rise. Except there were now two other people in the group. Two people who also weren’t up and about yet. Jester smiled mischievously, captaineering forgotten, and scrambled to get out of bed.

Just days ago, she wouldn’t have dreamt of teasing the Dwendalian Archmage of War. Now, though… now she was pretty sure he was fair game. He might be standoffish, but he seemed to like being liked by them. Fair game. She righted her skirts and changed her stockings and underclothes while she considered the best way to wake Caleb and Nott.

It wouldn’t do to shake them awake. Or make herself or her friends targets. Jester rubbed her side thoughtfully, frowning a little. She’d learnt her lesson in that respect, she just wished Fjord could let it go.

After a minute or two of further consideration, she invoked duplicity and sent her double to lean over Caleb’s face.

“Jes, what are you up to?” Fjord hissed at her from over the fire.

She just winked and finished casting thaumaturgy through her duplicate. The ground around Caleb’s bedroll began to shiver. She began to cast again.

“I am awake, Captain Fancypants,” Caleb whispered just loudly enough for her to hear, but it was too late.

The spell took effect and her duplicate opened her mouth and the sound of a landslide tumbled out.
There was a hideous, though muffled, scream and halfway down the bedroll a small struggling mountain formed. Nott fought her way out of the blankets, still screaming, yanked out her crossbow, and began pointing it around the camp with a wild look on her face. Jester collapsed into giggles.

“Ja, ja. Very mature. Nott, it’s fine, we’re safe,” said Caleb putting his hands up in a calming gesture, but he didn’t sound all that put out. If anything, he seemed a little amused in a tired sort of way.

Dispelling her thaumaturgy and duplicate, Jester tried to look contrite even as her giggles still bubbled in her chest. Nott glared.

“You two are on packing duty, so I thought you’d better get up,” she told them as seriously as she could.

Molly snorted loudly, shaking his head. Jester scrunched up her nose at him. It wasn’t like he wouldn’t have done the exact same in her position, if he’d been able to that is. Actually, he’s probably still being weird about Caleb, she thought considering the tension in his shoulders. Nott stamped her foot to regain Jester’s attention.

“Caleb nearly got kidnapped and you think it’s funny to wake me up like that!” she cried.

“I nearly got kidnapped?” Caleb asked, puzzled.

“Fjord was just messing with you, Nott,” said Jester.

“I was not!” protested Fjord in his ‘I’m the only sensible person’ voice. “I was just pointing out that it’s dangerous to leave camp on your own.”

Jester’s good mood evaporated. Fjord had a point. The peace was meant to have fixed that, but here she was, realising that she really did need to pee even as memories of being snatched skated across her mind darkly. As much as she was coming to really like Caleb and Nott, she couldn’t bring her pot out in front of him. And Yasha and Beau were still gone…

Yasha and Beau were still gone.

A hand clapped down on her shoulder and she jumped, the only thing that kept her from running was the familiar smell of Molly as he invaded her personal space and clacked their horns together.

“None of that, now,” he murmured into her ear.

Nott and Fjord were arguing, so it seemed Molly was the only one to notice her lapse. She gave him a tight smile and pulled away.

“Thanks,” she whispered back, before raising her voice. “I think things might be burning?”

“Shit!” he said, flinging his hands in the air and rushing back to the fire, all drama.

Fjord and Nott’s fight fell apart with the rush to save the breakfast and Beau and Yasha arrived back with water after a few more minutes. Jester managed to discretely snag Yasha as a ‘bear’ buddy before breakfast was served, but her mood for the morning was well and truly soured. At least Yasha never felt the need to talk her through it. No one in the camp commented, but Jester stuck her tongue out at Nott on her return to cover for her nervousness. She didn’t want them noticing how she was rubbing her Traveller’s door with the pad of her left thumb over and over. Better they think she was making a point to support Fjord.

She certainly didn’t feel like having the inevitable, and very necessary, conversation. Nonetheless, she steeled herself. She was the Captain, and she had a duty. She waited for everyone to get their food and start eating before she made her opening gambit.

“Soooo, Cayyyyleb, you were going to tell us about everything?” she said, pressing her index fingers together with her plate on her lap, trying to look winning.

Caleb looked up from his plate with a sigh. He really did still look super tired.

“Ja, I, ah, well…” he breathed out through his nose and tried again. “That person back there was Lyran Karos the Archmage of Conscription. It seems like they were after my research materials—”

“Why did they want your smut collection?”

“Ah, ja, that was… I labelled that research to, ah, trick anyone who wanted to steal it.”

He was blushing slightly as he fumbled his explanation and it made Jester feel a little bit better about the whole day. She was willing to bet half those books had been research for the wedding.

“So, you didn’t want them stealing your romance novels?” she asked innocently.

He narrowed his eyes at her.

“Ja. That is it,” he said.

She narrowed her eyes back at him playfully for just a moment before breaking back into seriousness.

“Why was an Archmage of the Assembly stealing your stuff, and why did you expect them to?” she asked.

“Why, indeed?” said Caleb, looking bitter. “I am going to trust you now, all of you, and I ask that you respect my trust and this new peace.”

He paused, waiting until they all responded with nods. He nodded back.

“The Cerberus Assembly is unstable. Dangerously unstable. We lost so many in the war and the more recent appointments… we have been scraping the bottom of the barrel for a while.”

“So, there’s a bunch of weak-ass mages going around as ‘Archmages’, how does that lead to what happened yesterday?” Beau asked with her usual morning aggression.

Caleb just took it in his stride, nodding at her as if she had asked a brilliant question and not just interrupted to hurry him to a point. Jester appreciated it.

“These mages are not all weak. Some were initially passed over due to their… well. Their personalities were not all suited to leadership or responsibility. Some are very intelligent individuals who the old guard kept out of power and away from powerful magics for good reason.” Caleb shook his head, looking frustrated. “The king insisted that leaving positions empty would make us look weak, and now they are filled by selfish and treacherous people. Power-hungry wizards who will play foolish and dangerous games.”

He paused again, and Jester heard the Traveller chuckle in the back of her mind.

“I had heard rumours of research materials going missing, and rumours of factions forming within the Assembly” Caleb continued. “So, I arranged to leave the capital as soon as I could and took precautions to secure my belongings.” He smiled and shrugged. “I did not expect Lyran to be so blatant in their attempt, nor anyone for that matter.”

“And you aren’t in a faction?” Fjord asked with only a hint of skepticism.

“Nein. No factions for me,” Caleb smiled just a little and his hair burst into flame. “I am too scary. And I’m thought of as ‘old guard’ at this point.”

Jester felt herself smile despite her anxiety. If nothing else, the fact that he hadn’t had his hair on fire all morning seemed like a clear sign they were getting somewhere.

“The real problem,” Caleb went on, “is the fact that Lyran had an amulet that turned them into some sort of lich. That shouldn’t have happened. It shouldn’t have been possible. They were never that powerful, and some of the spells they used after coming back…” Caleb shook his head. “Lyran couldn’t get out of a petrification curse, they had no business knowing a Power Word of that magnitude.”

“So, what do we do now?” asked Beau. “Go back and deal with the rogue Assembly? Or track down where this amulet came from?”

“Neither,” said Caleb firmly. “We send word and continue on our way.”

Misrule looked at each other then back at Caleb dubiously. He sighed again and looked down at his hands.

“I cannot take charge of the Assembly without being seen as a warmonger and a threat to this new peace and thereby to the Empire. Tracking down this necromancy would be seen as meddling and undermining the Archmages whose duties involve dealing with these things. I cannot step into this without risking what tenuous order there is left. My hands are tied, and I would rather be as far away from the politics as possible, given that is the case.”

It made sense, but Jester was discomforted by the fact that the Traveller was most definitely paying attention and seemed to find it all very amusing. She just had to hope he’d let her in on the joke.

“That seems pretty complicated, but I suppose it makes sense,” she said as much to her team as to Caleb. She had faith the Traveller would tell her if she was making a big mistake trusting Caleb. “How dangerous do you think this trip is going to be?”

He looked thoughtful, like he was doing calculations in his head.

“I can think of only two more who might think to take action against me,” he looked to Nott and she nodded in confirmation. “And only one of those would try to interfere with our journey.”

“And you didn’t think this was something we should have been told?” asked Molly, somewhat sharply.

Caleb shook his head.

“I honestly didn’t think this sort of thing would—”

“You trapped the wagons, which sort of suggests you thought something would happen.”

“I anticipated some attempt at theft, not an Archmage of the Assembly descending upon them. And I was not, and I am sorry, but I will be honest, I was not inclined to tell these things to people who were so lately my enemies.”

Caleb took advantage of their silence to start to shovel down his breakfast, clearly indicating he wasn’t interested in more questions, and for all her misgivings, Jester could take a hint.

“Okay, we should just have breakfast, and…” she ran out of steam.

There was so much to consider that she’d been enjoying not having to think about. Would they travel in disguise, or cross-country? Should they travel in two groups using bird calls, or as one? Should they take the carts, just the horses, or go on foot?

“Jes, you need to eat,” said Fjord, nudging her. “We can sort it all out after.”

She smiled at him and tried to focus on her plate, rather than on all the things that could go horribly, horribly wrong.

Chapter Text

Caleb excused himself from the packing in order to finish dealing with Lyran’s remains. In particular, their spell book. Unfortunately, he was still wobbly on his feet from his efforts the previous day, and, when he tripped on a small tuft of grass and nearly fell over, Mollymauk insisted on accompanying him. It put him in an odd mood. On one hand, it fit with Misrule’s apparent policy of not going anywhere alone, on the other, Caleb could still remember the feeling of Mollymauk holding him up. It didn’t help at all that the crystals gave his memories an ethereal quality. He was tired enough that he could feel the pull of his hair cantrip before he cast it, so he stilled his hand and let the spell fade. He picked up the pace and hoped that Mollymauk would leave the silence between them alone.

He did. In fact, he trailed a few steps behind Caleb like a lost kitten or a discreet professional guard. Somehow, ‘kitten’ seemed to fit the colourful tiefling better in Caleb’s mind than ‘professional’ or ‘discreet’. Nott’s notes and Mollymauk’s sword-work made ‘kitten’ imperfect as well, though. Caleb glanced back surreptitiously. Mollymauk seemed as troubled by the underbrush as he was walking down the streets of Rexxuntrum. He lithely twisted to avoid a thorn bush and stopped. At which point, Caleb realised he’d stopped walking and his sneaky glance had turned into a stare. He gave Mollymauk a nod, trying to pretend he’d just been waiting for the other man to catch up, and continued on. Maybe a cat? he thought as he battled his way through a sticky green creeping vine, but cats don’t have red eyes; maybe a peacock like his tattoos? But they don’t follow things…. He really needed to sleep, probably for a week, and get a new brain. One without obsessive tendencies. One good with pathfinding as well as knowing cardinal directions would also be good.

Eventually they made it to the clearing. Caleb covered in small green seed casings, tired, and grumpy, and Mollymauk looking like he’d just been on a stroll through a pleasant flower filled meadow. I hate him, Caleb decided, surprising himself with his own certainty. The target of his ire had the gall to turn to him and smile brightly.

“That green kinda goes with all the maroon,” he said, with more than a hint of suppressed laughter in his voice.

He is an actual devil, here to torment me for my sins, Caleb thought, his tired brain unable to come up with a suitable reply. He turned away from the other man to survey what was left of the most recent of his sins. There were only a few bits and pieces left to be loaded onto the wagons, and he was pleased to see his books had been covered. What was left of the ‘bandits’, with the exception of Lyran, was piled, mostly burned, in a heap. He appreciated Misrule’s attempt, but there was only so much that could be done with the deadfall of a smallish stand of trees. Caleb made a mental note to burn the rest, and made his way to Lyran’s corpse.

It was covered in dew, washed out, with the gashes and punctures more watery than bloody, now, and infested with flies. Ignoring the raven picking at their face, he settled himself down to cast Detect Magic the slow way.

“Is it your raven?” Mollymauk asked, coming up next to him.

The raven took a step or two away and croaked at Mollymauk as Caleb shook his head. After peering at the tiefling for a moment longer the raven went back to its feast.

“Pretty fucking bold bird, then. And it doesn’t bother you?” Mollymauk asked, gesturing at the corpse.

Caleb broke away from the beginnings of his ritual to look at the other man. Mollymauk was frowning at the raven, his lips twisted in distaste. Caleb looked, actually looked, at the bird. It was pecking at the flesh around the hole Molly’s swords had made. Lyran’s eyes and lips were already gone, red holes drying where the soft flesh had been ripped away. Flies buzzed. The air was sickly with the sweetly fetid smell of rotting flesh. He felt nothing.

“Ravens have a right to the dead,” he said eventually. “I have seen their flocks darken the fields too many times for this to bother me.”

The memories threatened the edges of his consciousness, but he shoved them away to focus on his ritual.

Apparently Mollymauk had nothing else to say, and Caleb was able to finish the casting and see the lines marking the ring and spell-book that he’d expected, and no others. He let out a sigh of relief and reached over for the ring. To his side, Mollymauk made a slight noise of disgust. Caleb silently agreed and braced himself to cast identify as quickly as possible.

Even braced, he hissed through his teeth in pain when the spell broke and he felt the threads of the weave pull through him. The knowledge the spell bled into his mind distracted him from his pain. It was a Ring of Mind Shielding, a very useful accoutrement, with a disturbingly familiar pattern to the enchantment. He could still remember the debates between Eodwulf and Trent about whether the mind shield was a necessary feature of the soul trapping qualities of the enchantment. How one of Edowulf’s gambits for freedom had ended up on Lyran’s finger was a mystery. One that was entirely solvable if the ring had done its job and Lyran’s soul chose to stick around.

Getting it off their corpse wasn’t going to be pretty. Caleb felt around the finger. While it wasn’t entirely rigid, it was swollen, and the ring wasn’t budging. He looked up at Mollymauk.

“You want me to cut it off for you, don’t you?” the other man asked, looking vaguely ill.

“If you could? I, ah, it could be useful?”

Why he was suddenly nervous asking Molly to perform such a mundane task was a mystery. He got out of the way and took the trouble to shoo the raven off a little when Mollymauk kept looking over at it. His squeamishness was a clear reminder that the two of them had lived very different lives and, as Nott had pointed out, through two very different wars.

Molly, nonetheless, de-fingered the corpse quickly and with minimal mess. He might just be more used to doing that sort of thing to the living, murmured Caleb’s cynical side. Arguably Caleb was better at that side of things, too. He just preferred the silence of the dead.

Not that Lyran would be silent if their soul was in the ring.

Mollymauk handed him the finger and its still-attached ring with a wrinkled nose.

“You have no idea how much I hate corpse juices,” he said holding his hands out in front of himself like he wished they’d drop off. “It’s fucking disgusting.”

Caleb hummed in agreement and squished the ring off the finger, dropping the digit on the ground.

“Would you mind?” Molly asked, giving his outstretched hands a small flick.

“Would I mind what?”

“Cleaning my hands?”

Caleb frowned. It was a reasonable request. He just, somehow, didn’t feel like obliging. His reluctance almost certainly had to do with Mollymauk’s demanding tone. He held the ring up and made a show of inspecting it.

“Please?” asked Mollymauk.

He was now trying to look pitiful. Caleb just frowned at him some more, before turning his attention back to the ring.

“Pretty please?”

Caleb blinked at the hesitance and looked over to catch hints of fear crawling onto Mollymauk’s face. The realisation hit all at once that he was behaving like a right arsehole to someone who’d been very kind and helpful. And for what? To make a point about being a high and mighty wizard?

“Ah, ja! Sorry,” he said, stumbling a little over the words. “I was, ah, thinking.”

Mollymauk didn’t seem to buy the lie but the mounting tension left his shoulders.

“Hold this,” Caleb said, pressing the ring to his palm. “Things are a little trickier with people, so please hold still.”

Caleb took his hands in his, and tried to focus on how disgusting they were at the moment rather than anything else. He carefully traced the necessary lines and muttered the spell wincing as it took effect. He closed his eyes for a moment as a wave of vertigo struck.

When he opened his eyes, he found Mollymauk looking at him strangely, his hands warm and dry.

“You okay there?” he asked.

“Ja.”

Caleb took a step back, pulling his hands away. Mollymauk gave him a small squeeze before letting him go, and Caleb did his best to cover up his confusion by running his now-cleaned hand through his hair.

“I… c-casting is more difficult after…” he waved a hand rather than finish, internally mortified at how flustered he was.

“Yeah, I’m getting that impression. Anything else you need to do?”

Caleb tried his best to ignore the possible notes of concern in Molly’s voice and turned his focus back to the matter at hand: Lyran’s spellbook.

He wanted it.

“Are you any good at figuring out traps?” he asked Mollymauk as he crouched next to the body again and began carefully moving the layers of clothing with a convenient stick.

“Nope. Not a hope. Beau’s pretty good at it. Or Nott.”

Caleb looked up.

“Do you want to go and fetch one of them, then?”

“Not a chance,” he said glibly making a show of leaning over the corpse to get a better look. He wrinkled his nose again. “Nott would skin me alive if I left you here by yourself.”

“She’ll do worse if you let me get killed because I set off a trap.”

Mollymauk pointedly ignored him.

“Are those maggots?” he asked, aghast, after a bit more hovering.

Caleb looked at the ground, so Molly wouldn’t see his grin.

“Ja,” he said in a serious scholarly voice. “It is unusual to see them on the body so soon after death, but necromantic magics have been known to speed up the life cycles of decomposition agents, up to and including insects.” Mollymauk turned away and began to make gagging noises. “It is the most likely reason for Lyran’s currently juicy state, which you so astutely noted earlier.”

“Oh, gods.”

“There has also been some speculation that the ‘magical residue’ of necromantic magics can be detected by corvids, explaining the reports that such birds visit battlefields affected by necromancy in greater numbers. Unfortunately, the reports of greater numbers remain unverified.”

The raven skipped closer, giving a small croak, as if it knew he was talking about it. It hopped around the corpse to snatch at the ground.

“Don’t look now, Mollymauk, it has the finger,” Caleb deadpanned.

Molly groaned, staggered a few steps away to cough at the ground dramatically. The raven flew up into a tree to investigate its prize. With a half-concealed smile, Caleb focused back on what he was doing. Lyran’s spellbook was in an inner pocket of what was left of their robes. While traps weren’t likely, he had no desire to set off any mundane ones his Detect Magic spell would have failed to find.

“Was that funny to you?” asked Molly from behind him, sounding both choked and outraged.
Caleb concentrated on peeling the robe away from the spellbook.

“Ja.”

“You… Archmage Widogast, you have a terrible sense of humour.”

The mock hurt in Mollymauk’s voice was just too much. Caleb carefully withdrew his prodding stick and curled up in an undignified fit of silent laughter.

His laughter ended pretty swiftly, as his more sensible side reminded him that Mollymauk was not his friend, and that he was inviting problems being so familiar with him. He shook his head to clear it and turned back to his careful extraction of the spellbook.

“You have a surprisingly weak stomach, Mollymauk,” he said to the other man, largely to avoid cuing him in to the darker path his thoughts were trailing down.

“Yes, well, we didn’t have all that much to do with the dead after rot set in. Not regular army.”

Caleb blinked and looked back at Molly. He had a serious expression on his face, without a trace of his earlier disgust only a hint of sadness around the corners of his mouth. Apparently, Caleb wasn’t the only one who’d been joking. Turning back to the corpse, he gently ran his trap-finding stick over the bottom of the pocket, before beginning to push the book out.

“I dealt with a lot of this,” he said quietly, half unsure why he was saying anything. “In the early years, before I was an Archmage, I was set to burning the dead at least as often as the living. Keeping disease at bay at the front...”

He carefully picked up the spellbook and prestidigitated away the slime, grimacing at both the pain and the memories.

“I got used to it.”

He handed the book over to Molly, without really looking at him, and rolled up his sleeves to get to work burning the dead.

-------------------------------

Gods. Why did he have to roll up his sleeves?

Molly had been trying really hard to be sensible about this; trying to approach Caleb logically and treat him with the same friendliness he extended to Nott. But Nott didn’t roll up her sleeves and begin casting spells that really put her forearms to work. He watched the wizard’s forearms flex as his fingers wove a complex pattern in the air and jumped slightly as fire poured out of Caleb’s hands and washed over Lyran’s remains. It only lasted a few seconds and Caleb began to cast again, even as the corpse caught.

The smell, which had already been bad, worsened and Molly resisted the urge to gag for real. It was enough to distract him from his staring. He tucked the spellbook under his arm and the ring into a pocket, not liking the way Caleb was swaying.

He was reasonably sure, as he stepped up and placed a steadying hand on Caleb’s shoulder, that he was just doing it to be helpful. Just making sure the wizard didn’t topple over into his own fire. He wasn’t being weird at all.

Caleb cast his fire spell a few times, and if it weren’t for the smell and the small pained sounds the wizard made whenever he completed a casting, Molly was pretty sure he’d have enjoyed watching the wizard work. A small guilty part of him insisted he did anyway, and he did his utmost to ignore it.

As he finished his final spell, Caleb leaned back against Molly’s hand just a little before he pulled away and turned around. He’s still unsteady, he was just catching his balance, insisted his rational side even as an insane gremlin part of him began reminding him of how it’d felt to hold the wizard the day before, insisting that that shudder and this lean were connected in some libido driven conspiracy.

“Ah, thank you, Mollymauk,” said Caleb, not quite looking at him. “We should finish off the rest and then see if Yasha can help load the wagons.”

“Are we taking them with us?”

“No, that would be, ah…” he looked like he was searching for the right word.

“A nightmare?” Molly offered.

Caleb smiled, and Molly resolved that he would masturbate as soon as an appropriate opportunity arose. He was obviously already feeling the effects of marriage-related sexual repression. It was the only reasonable explanation why he felt a fluttering in his stomach seeing the Widowmaker smile at him.

“Ja, a nightmare. Can you imagine Nott in charge of a wagon? She has a history.”

Molly chuckled at the idea. He could picture Nott standing at the reins with her flask out, yelling orders at the horses. It probably wasn’t accurate.

“What kind of history?”

“That is her story to tell,” said Caleb looking rather awkward before setting off to cast his fire spell at the half-burned pile, and Molly had to wonder what he’d done wrong.

---------------------

The burning didn’t take long, and Molly was kind enough to lend him a hand when the casting began to affect his balance. He just couldn’t figure out what he’d done to deserve it. It wasn’t even the weirdly false niceness Misrule had been trying after Jester helped him pull himself together after his breakdown. Mollymauk seemed utterly genuine in his joking with him.

Theories half formed and blurred in his tired brain as he ‘supervised’ the loading of the wagons and Mollymauk ‘helped’ Yasha. Ideas percolated as they rode back to Nogvurot to leave orders for the collection of the wagons and hire of guards with Philip and Mollymauk teased Nott with a card reading. He was down to three vague notions and swaying a little too much in the saddle when it came time to stop for the night and he was too tired to really figure out what they were.

When Molly caught him when he lost his balance after casting the Mansion he was too tired to care that he enjoyed it. And when he finally stumbled to bed and shut his eyes to the memory, his pessimistic side was too tired to protest.

Chapter Text

Molly dreamt:

He was lying stomach down on a soft bed while someone traced their fingers softly down his spine. It was warm and curiously distant. He couldn’t pin down the sensation so he simply let it drift over him. They began tracing outward in spirals over his shoulders, and he remembered Caleb’s spell casting, the way his hands had moved.

Caleb was tracing sigils across his back and up over the nape of his neck. He shuddered feeling a dull curl of pleasure and anticipation in his gut. He tried to focus on the sensations, but they remained tantalizingly vague. Caleb’s hands found their way, in swirls and strange lines, down to Molly’s sides and over his hips. One moved to draw small waves around the base of his tail and Molly moaned.

Someone gripped his horn and yanked his head sideways. He saw a green cloak and a pointed chin, and the pleasure shattered.

He was lying in his bed in Caleb’s Mansion, frozen in fear, and looking up at the stars of the canopy. He couldn’t move and he knew there was something in the room with him. A breathy chuckle came from his right and he closed his eyes. It didn’t help.

“Hello, Mollymauk,” said the Traveller. “It’s been a while, hasn’t it?”

“You can’t be here,” Molly managed to bite out past his terror.

Everything in him was screaming at him to stay still, to avoid drawing its attention. He couldn’t move.

“Of course I can be here, my dear boy. That wizard has been so kind, giving me so many doors in.”

Feeling sick Molly opened his eyes, above him, at the edge of the starry canopy, was a small door glowing green.

“But that is beside the point. I am here because I have a need of you for something.”

“The Moonweaver—”

“Oh, she won’t save you from me this time!” The Traveller laughed. “We had a nice chat about it. In fact, this is right up her street.”

Molly tried to breathe past the panic in his throat. The last time had nearly ended with him stuck as a horse, and horses tended to die quick in Xhorhas.

“The wizard, your husband I believe? Calls himself Caleb Widogast these days. He’s been playing games.”

The Traveller paused. Molly’s mind raced.

“You want me to stop him?” he asked hesitantly.

The Traveller laughed.

“No, no, no! I have been enjoying his games. I need you to do two things: firstly,” a green faintly glowing hand appeared just about Molly’s face to count off the two tasks, and scared as he was Molly found it patronizing. “You are to ensure the wizard doesn’t try to drag my Jester into his games. She has more important things to do.”

“Why can’t you just tell her not to?” Molly asked a little desperate.

“I am not an idiot, and neither am I cruel. I would not tempt my little Jester like that.”

Molly could hear the frown in the Traveller’s voice and winced. Great plan: antagonise the fucking god holding you at his mercy. Brilliant.

“Secondly,” the hand in front of Molly held up another finger forming a rude gesture. “You are to reward this wizard for his hard work.”

Molly frowned.

“How do you want me to do that?”

The hand in front of him booped him on the nose and the Traveller laughed.

“That’s where that Moonweaver of yours had a few ideas. I’ll leave you to them.”

The world fell apart and reformed.

He was standing up against a wall, hands flat against its rough stone. His momentary bewilderment faded quickly as Caleb ran his hands down his back. Molly shuddered as the distant sensations the Traveller had chased away swamped back in like an estuary tide. Caleb’s fingers wrapped around the base of his tail and tugged gently and Molly fell forward against the wall with a moan.

He wanted.

He felt Caleb pressing up against his back. Felt his breath against his neck. His lips pressing in sweet kisses at his nape. One of his hands curling through his hair. It felt so warm, so achingly slow, so fucking good.

But it was all so intolerably distant.

He tried to push his hips back, to find Caleb’s, to find something solid. It was like moving through deep water. For a moment he felt Caleb’s hand tracing the curve of his horn. He tried to move his head.

The dream shredded apart.

He awoke shaking and aroused, his dream all jumbled up in his head. Hesitantly, he wriggled his fingers. He could move. He untangled his horn from the pillow that’d caught it, grimacing a little as down began spilling out the tear, and rolled himself onto his back. Even in the dark he could make out the autumnal leaf patterning of the canopy, reassuringly the same that he’d gone to sleep under.

Briefly he contemplated having a wank, then dismissed the idea. It felt wrong with the terror from the Traveller’s visit worming its way back through his waking mind. His head was in a jumble; he was confused as hell, and the only certainty he could grasp was that he fucking hated divine intervention.

He rolled his way out of bed and grabbed one of the least revealing dressing gowns from the closet - it wouldn’t do to give Beau a conniption by wandering the halls naked – and went to take a bath and, hopefully, clear his head.

Chapter Text

“Here kitty, kitty, kitty—”

“I really don’t think that’s… well, shit.”

“Hello! My name is Jester. Can you please invite Caleb to dinner with us?”

-----------------------------

Caleb had just kicked off his boots and sat down to another night deciphering Lyran’s spell book when the servant butted its head against his leg. He frowned down at it and pushed his chair back from the desk.

Was?”

The servant reformed itself into a vaguely human figure.

“The blue one has requested your presence at dinner,” it said in the usual blank tones of the Mansion’s servants.

Caleb blinked. The invite was unexpected to say the least. Misrule had been on edge for the last couple of days since the wagon incident, and the night before they’d definitely been dissatisfied about his refusal to simply teleport them to Greyheart. He’d been under the impression they all still resented him for that – Mollymauk, in particular, had spent the day unusually quiet and frowning across at him when he thought Caleb wasn’t looking. Which had not been fun given they’d been positioned together in the middle of the formation for their own protection.

“Ask the blue one if she intends to yell at me about teleportation again,” he instructed the patiently waiting servant after another moment’s thought.

He wasn’t entirely sure why he was considering joining them in the first place, but he didn’t want to go to simply be yelled at. Even if he did deserve it for endangering them all.

He turned back to the spell book.

---------------------

“We promise not to yell at him. Is he reading that book again? He can bring it with him if he likes?”

“He is reading a book. I will tell him.”

----------------------------

The servant jumped onto his desk to get his attention, interrupting his annoyed muttering about Lyran’s notation practices, and he made a mental note to look in to whether the Mansion’s servants could learn behaviours and retain them between one casting of the spell and the next. He could do without them learning bad habits from his familiar. He picked up the purring servant and placed it on the floor before waving at it to shift forms.

“The blue one said they promise not to yell at you, and you may bring your book,” it said impassively.

Caleb sighed and leaned back to stare at the roof. If Nott was behind the invitation, she’d be disappointed if he didn’t attend. On the other hand, if Misrule where simply inviting him to be polite but expected him to decline… He shook his head. Misrule were already unhappy with him, so he would be best to keep Nott on his good side.

“You can let them know I will join them for dinner.”

-----------------------------

“The Master will join you for dinner.”

Jester clapped her hands, delighted.

“Tell him that we look forward to seeing him again, and that Molly has missed him, and that Nott already has a plate of food for him.”

She turned back to Molly where he was busy choking and spluttering while Yasha patted him on the back. She propped her chin on her hands and smiled sweetly. He’d been acting weird all day, and she planned to get to the bottom of it.

----------------------------

The servant nearly tripped him as he walked out the door by winding its way between his legs. He caught himself on the door frame and cursed it in Zemnian under his breath as it re-formed itself.

“The blue one says that they look forward to seeing you, that the painted one has missed you, and that the button lady has food for you.”

It still had the same toneless voice of all the servants, but Caleb felt certain it was making fun of the whole situation, laughing privately to itself. He should have come up with something other than cats. He nodded to the servant.

“You can go,” he said.

It shifted back into its cat form and trotted past him into his room to curl up on the bed. He watched for a minute or two as it squirmed itself down into a comfortable position contentedly and felt himself smiling. Maybe cats weren’t so bad. Turning away he summoned Frumpkin to his shoulder and turned his cheek into his familiar’s usual headbutt greeting.

He spent most of the short walk across to Misrule’s dinning hall petting Frumpkin and avoiding thinking too much about facing everyone. Outside the door, he put Frumpkin back onto his shoulders and braced himself. It can’t be worse than the first time, he thought and pushed the door open.

Inside Misrule and Nott were seated sensibly around the table, with their food all respectably plated. It would’ve been reassuring except for the fact that they all turned to the opening door. He fought down the mortification and made his way over to Nott’s side. He was halfway across the room when Mollymauk looked away, obviously unsettled, and Caleb realized that he’d done his hair cantrip again. Willing the flames away he slid into the empty seat next to Nott and fought the urge to look down at the wood grain and pretend he was alone.

“Thank you for coming, Caleb,” said Jester, and he blinked at her. Something about her tone seemed serious. “I am now calling into order the first meeting of this new party.

Mollymauk and Beauregard both groaned aloud, and Fjord glared at them.

“It makes sense. You should listen to your Captain,” he said, nudging Beauregard with his elbow.

“The first thing we need to do, guys, is pick a team name,” Jester went on after levelling her own hard look at Mollymauk and Beauregard.

“Can we not still be the Lords of Misrule?” asked Yasha.

Caleb gave her a small smile. It seemed foolish for them to change their name just because he and Nott were along for the ride this time.

“The Lords of Misrule doesn’t really include Nott and Caleb,” Jester said. “Sorry. I talked to the Traveller about it and he thought it would be a good idea, too.”

At the mention of the Traveller, Mollymauk jerked his head up and his tail whipped about rather wildly. Jester sighed heavily.

“That was one time! Can you just let it go?”

“He… he almost turned me into a horse for good, Jes! Me! A horse!”

Caleb felt his eyes widen as he looked between the pair. Jester’s tail had started to whip about under her skirts like she was an angry cat.

“He didn’t mean to!” she argued, and Molly spluttered incoherently. “I mean, he didn’t mean to upset you! He just—”

“Guys! Guys! What the fuck? We’ve been over this,” said Beauregard, grabbing Mollymauk’s shoulder and waving her hand over at where Caleb and Nott were sitting. “Jester, if you want this meeting to happen, maybe you shouldn’t scare your new favourite wizard away by yelling at Mollymauk in Infernal?”

Caleb frowned at the table top and dismissed the cantrip again.

“Don’t worry about them, they just do this sometimes,” said Fjord a patronizing tone, and Caleb clenched his jaw and suppressed the urge to do something foolish.

He was starting to miss their fear.

“I am not worrying, Fjord,” he said, directing his glare at the scar on the half-orc’s eyebrow. “I have had plenty of experience with Infernal. I was just unaware that Jester’s god liked turning people into horses.”

Nott patted his elbow while Fjord raised his hands and Mollymauk swallowed nervously grabbing his tail to bring it under control. Caleb let his breath out slowly through his nose. It would be nice if his husband weren’t the only one still afraid of him.

“It was just one time when we needed to get out of a place super quickly and we didn’t have enough mounts,” said Jester in the quiet after Caleb’s outburst. Then she gathered herself up and smiled again. “But we do still need to come up with a name.”

Her resilience was truly remarkable.

“And a leader,” rasped Nott. “If we’re a new group, I think Caleb should be the leader.”

He twinged his neck turning to her and winced.

“Nein. I should not…”

“Nein!” Jester echoed with gusto that made him wince further and hunch down a little as he rubbed his neck.

“I am glad you agree, but perhaps we can go back to the name?”

“Maybe we can be the Mighty… something?” proposed Fjord, and Caleb could nearly forgive him for his earlier patronizing.

“The Mighty… Nein?” said Yasha, tentatively.

Caleb lowered his head into his hands as Jester gasped and Nott’s clawed hands scrabbled at the table in excitement. He tried not to exist as everyone except himself and Yasha tried out the name “The Mighty Nein” at various (mostly loud) volumes.

There didn’t seem to be much point in protesting.

As everyone began to settle down, and Beauregard and Mollymauk started squabbling, Caleb took the opportunity to start picking at his food. Absentmindedly, he pulled out Lyran’s spell book to read while he ate. He was halfway through a jumbled mess that might have been an Unseen Servant spell when Jester began to choke loudly.

She hadn’t stopped by the time he finished the page, so he conscientiously looked up to see why no one was helping her and found everyone looking at him. Again.

“Now that I have your attention,” Jester said, haughtily. “We have more business to attend to.”

He leaned down to Nott.

“I thought she was choking…” he murmured, and Beauregard sprayed her drink across the table.

Mollymauk began to outright cackle and, for just a moment, their eyes met across the table. Caleb quickly jerked his away, feeling oddly warm as Molly wiped his eyes and curled up around his giggles.
He looked across at Jester to distract himself from how suddenly flustered he’d become. She gave him a small frown with pursed lips and narrowed eyes.

“Why didn’t you try to help if you thought I was choking?” she asked.

“Fjord is… I thought he was…” Caleb ended the half-hearted explanation with a shrug.

He was pretty sure she wasn’t actually mad. She seemed to have the best sense of humour of all of them.

“Well, now I have your attention: when do you think you’ll be able to teleport us?”

She’s also not nearly as distractible as she seems, remarked the observant bit of his mind not invested in scrambling together an explanation.

“I, ah,” he began, very aware that everyone was now paying attention. “It would be better if we didn’t teleport.”

“How so?” asked Beauregard.

“The longer we take to get to Greyheart, the longer before the honeymoon starts—”

“And you don’t want to fuck Molly again?” Jester asked as if he’d said he never wanted to pet Frumpkin again.

He couldn’t help but notice how Molly looked away and his tail began to flick. Try as he might, he couldn’t figure out what he’d done in the past few days to scare him so much. Not when Molly had been so kind to him right up until last night. And it wasn’t like he’d been up to doing much more than lean against a wall and tell Jester he wouldn’t teleport them. He hadn’t been the one raising their voice.

“I…” he sighed. He didn’t want to compound this new issue with Mollymauk by suggesting he wasn’t desirable or by saying he wanted anything from him “The longer it is before the honeymoon ends, the greater the chances are that people in Rexxentrum will have forgotten about me. Or at least the longer it is before the King can call me back to that shit storm.”

There was silence as they stared at him, and he very deliberately turned back to his plate of food.

“So,” said Fjord, as Caleb took a bite. “You’re going to risk our lives to avoid having to deal with this Assembly mess?”

As he chewed, Nott gave him another reassuring pat.
“Trust me,” she said to Fjord and the rest. “It would be much, much more dangerous in Rexxentrum. I was part of assessing the risk and it’s unlikely that we’ll be attacked directly on the road.”

Caleb swallowed his mouthful.

“Ja. And if things get worse…” Caleb shook his head.

“You two make it sound like the Dwendalian empire is falling apart?” asked Beauregard, sounding unusually hesitant.

Caleb closed his eyes and sent a quick prayer to the Raven Queen before looking back at his companions.

“Please do not tell the Kryn. Please do not re-start the war.”

“Fuck,” Beauregard breathed shocked.

“Agreed,” said Molly.

Jester reached across and took Caleb’s hand.

“I promise we won’t tell,” she said, and he wished he could simply believe them.

It felt like he was stepping of a cliff without Featherfall.

“Let’s just stay out of it, alright?”

They all nodded their assent and, with sombre faces, turned back to the meal.

Chapter Text

It’d been two days since the dream and Molly was still at a loss. Caleb had fallen into some middle ground between intimidating and earnest and Molly was doing his best to trust it as Jester had instructed. Unfortunately, trusting Caleb just left the obsessive bit of his brain that specialized in paranoia to mull over divine intervention and how it would feel to hold Caleb when the man wasn’t killing himself.

He jerked his eyes away as Caleb turned to look at him. He was thoroughly regretting his decision to jerk off the night before. It hadn’t helped at all. He’d just spent all morning stealing glances at the Archmage’s hands. He stared down at his own hands and tried to think of something other than the memory of ghostly fingers tracing sigils across his back.

“Ah, Molly?” Caleb asked, uncertainly.

Molly composed himself and turned with a bright smile. Probably too bright by the frown on the wizard’s face.

“Yes, dear?” The endearment slipped out, and Molly mentally kicked himself.

Caleb blinked a bit in surprise before frowning in concentration again and Molly found himself a little bemused.

“Do you think… I mean, would you like to visit Hupperdook?”

Molly opened his mouth, then paused. Hupperdook wasn’t exactly the place to go when hunted by archmages and their assassins. Especially not when the Lords of Misrule had caused ample chaos within those particular walls.

“Maybe some other time?” he said, eventually.

Caleb nodded and raised his voice to call out to Jester who was taking point.

“Ah, Captain Fancypants? Did you still want to go to Hupperdook?”

Jester glanced back then scanned their surroundings. The road was currently quiet and the only other person in sight was a single cowherd in the distance with his slow chewing charges but Molly appreciated her wariness. She raised her hand to signal a stop and gestured with her tail that they were to gather round.

“Why are you bringing up Hupperdook?” she asked Caleb as soon as the rear riders joined them.

He seemed a little taken aback by her irate tone but Molly had been expecting it. He hid his smile. It would be interesting to see how Caleb would get on.

“We are coming up to the crossroads, ja? We should reach them soon.”

The wizard seemed baffled by Jester’s sudden hostility and Molly felt for him. It was like being bitten by a friendly pet rabbit.

“I was more wondering why you didn’t mention that you wanted to go last night when we were talking about our route?” said Jester, obviously frustrated.

While Jester was well known for suffering fools on a good day, she never did well when she had to remain on edge for days on end. Not when there was next to nothing they could do about it: no antics, no real plan – just waiting for an ambush. The last few days had been a hell of tense boredom for everyone.

“You didn’t mention Hupperdook last night, though?” Caleb said with just a hint of a question in his voice, still looking puzzled.

Molly suppressed the inappropriate urge to laugh. Caleb had been deep in his books all dinner, so while he’d absentmindedly corrected the name of their destination a time or two, Molly was willing to bet the wizard had had no idea what the conversation was about.

“I think… I think Caleb was reading,” Yasha told Jester in a comically awkward aside probably meant as a genuine attempt to keep the peace.

Caleb hair flickered into flame, and Molly was interested to note his cheeks reddening.

“Ja, I was reading,” he admitted, nearly matching Yasha’s awkwardness. “But I do not think it would be the best idea to travel to Hupperdook if you…” he waved a hand in an unenlightening gesture, and then sighed. “Hupperdook would be good to delay our arrival at Greyheart, but you are not enjoying yourselves anymore.”

Molly frowned a little. It sounded a lot like Caleb was blaming himself.

“Personally, I wasn’t going to be able to do much in Hupperdook,” Molly said. “So maybe we keep it as a detour for any return to Rexxuntrum? Your new husband desperately wants to party in Hupperdook so you must oblige even if it will delay your return a few weeks?”

Caleb looked at him with surprise and something else. Molly swallowed and gave him a smile, wishing he didn’t feel so fluttery and off-balance.

“A few weeks?”

Molly grinned at him.

“Alright then, I’ll see if I can keep it going a whole month.”

Beau snorted.

“Bet you give up in less than a week,” she said.

“Not with our lives at stake,” Molly replied with mock indignation, placing his hand on his chest. “For your sakes I shall sacrifice myself to wine, dance, and mind altering substances. I shall eat only the finest foods and wear only the finest silks to save you from the evils of this place.”

“I can only imagine the evils you’ve been ‘saving’ us from all these years,” said Fjord, shaking his head.

“So much evil,” Molly told him. “So much.”

“Right,” said Jester, clapping her hands to draw their attention. “No Hupperdook for now, we head to Bladegarden as we discussed last night. Now, let’s move.”

They meekly returned to formation, except for Nott who rode forward to talk with Jester. Molly sighed. He missed riding with his friends. Caleb seemed intent on ignoring him for the most part, and hesitant when they did talk. Not that Molly was really helping things in that regard. The dreams and the Traveller had been tumbling through his head for days now, and he had yet to commit to any plan of action.

He took a quick glance over at the other man and then looked down at his hands again. He wished he could actually read palms. Maybe then he’d know what to do. As it was, he felt more self-conscious than he’d ever been in all his short life.

One thing was certain: Caleb was attractive. Handsome, good sense of humour, caring… and dangerous, confident, good with his hands, Molly squeezed his eyes shut and tried to steer his mind into safer waters. Fully clothed waters.

“Are you alright?” Caleb asked him with just a hint of hesitance.

See! Not confident, Molly told himself a touch desperately, before turning to his companion with as much composure as he could manage.

“Yes! Perfectly fine!” he said, before mentally kicking himself for sounding like he was lying or demented.

Caleb looked at him for a long moment, which Molly found even more unsettling.

“Can I ask you a question?” Caleb asked eventually.

Molly nodded, not wanting to open his mouth and put his foot in it. Caleb nudged his horse closer, closing the gap. Molly looked down at the strap tying his water-skin to the front of his saddle to avoid focusing on anything potentially incriminating.

“Er, does your… does your tail do that because you are scared?” Caleb asked him in a low voice.

Molly jerked his head up, eyes wide, and grabbed behind himself at his tail to still it. He felt his cheeks heating up. Fuck. He scrambled for something to say.

“Everything alright there, Molly?” Fjord called out from behind them, voice full of concern.

Not very genuine concern. Molly contemplated murder. He released his tail to turn and glare.

“Of course everything’s fine!” he snapped. “Why wouldn’t it be?”

Fjord had the grace to take the hint and shut up. On reflection, he was just lucky that it hadn’t been Beau. He turned back to where Caleb was watching the exchange with a carefully blank expression.

“My tail just does that,” he told him, gracelessly.

“Ah, I see,” said Caleb in a carefully neutral voice that made Molly wish he could disappear.

“I have been… that is, I thought I might have done something to upset you, to make you so stand-offish,” Caleb went on, giving a self-deprecating smile. “Nott said I should just ask what it was?”

“Um, no. Nothing. You’ve been… yes.” Molly fumbled.

He had no idea what his face was doing, but his horse decided to step closer to Caleb’s and their knees touched for a moment before they both corrected their mounts and he was pretty sure that would be added to the list of stupid things to think about before falling asleep.

“Ah, I’m not sure I understood your answer,” said Caleb after a moment. “Are you afraid of me?”

“No,” said Molly quickly, before taking a moment to consider his words. “I mean, you are scary powerful with the magic.” Molly wiggled his fingers comically in Caleb’s direction and was delighted by the small smile he got in return. “But Jester trusts you won’t use it against us, so no, I’m not scared of you.”

“You trust me because Jester trusts me?”

“Yeah. She’s pretty good at reading people. I mean, I am to but I’m a little close to this one,” Molly confessed.

Caleb’s cheeks turned a little pink and he looked away, and all the conclusions Molly felt the urge to jump to just proved that he couldn’t trust himself to read anything where Caleb was concerned.

“So you have been upset about the Lyran incident these past few days, then?” Caleb asked after a few long seconds of silence.

“No, I haven’t… I’ve been having something of a crisis of faith,” Molly confessed, looking away.

It was a mostly accurate statement. A crisis of whether to seduce his husband in order to please the Traveller and the Moonweaver or to risk their ire by remaining celibate. He couldn’t even lie to himself and pretend he hadn’t been interested before his midnight visitor – his guilty enjoyment at holding an exhausted Caleb upright had haunted him nearly as much as the dream.

“Do you want to talk about it?” Caleb asked, awkwardly, after another, stilted, moment.

Molly shook his head.

“Not that sort of crisis, I’m afraid”

Though if you could be an absolute scumbag it’d make my decision a hell of a lot easier, he thought privately.

“Well, I hope you figure it out,” said Caleb, being the complete opposite of a scumbag.

Molly gave him a tight smile, and Caleb returned it with a friendly nod as he widened the gap between their horses once more and pulled out a book. Molly resisted the urge to find something else to talk about. The conversation had been limping badly; it was a kindness to let it die.

He fished his bag of jerky out to give himself something to do other than watch the scenery go by. Not that he didn’t like seeing new things, it just took so long for the next new thing to come along when there wasn’t anyone else to talk to. He lasted only about ten minutes before he decided to take another gamble on Caleb. He steered his horse over and held out his snack bag.

“Want some jerky?” he asked.

“What?” said Caleb, absentmindedly, looking up with a bewildered expression like he’d just been woken from a dream. His eyes focused on the bag. “Jerky? Ja, thank you.”

He reached over to take a piece from the offered bag even as he turned back to his book.

Molly waited but Caleb didn’t seem interested in talking. He remained focused on his reading, even when Jester signalled for them to up the pace for a stretch. Molly had to appreciate his dedication.

As they came up over the next rise, planted fields unrolled before them in a warm green and yellow quilt. Jester signalled to slow for the gradual descent into the valley. Molly only recognized the area by the imposing presence of the walled Crossroads Inn looming over the blackened ruins of the town which had once thrived around it like a great spider newly emerged from its latest shed. The ruined town now seemed at odds with the neat fields, but it hadn’t always been. Last he’d seen these lands, the fields had been burned barren and filled with the bones of the fallen and the clear memory was a sobering reminder of what their journey was all about.

He looked across at Caleb, and caught the wizard looking over at him. The other man turned away quickly like he hadn’t expected to be caught.

“Looked a lot different last I was here,” Molly told him quietly, trying to avoid reading too much into that look.

“Ja.”

“Surprised that it’s all so… fixed.”

Caleb turned back to him with a curious look, his tension fading into a frown. He shook his head.

“We needed the farmland so we didn’t have much choice. Convert the battlefields to farmland or starve.”

“Not much farmland in Xhorhas,” said Molly, looking back to the fields with a grimace. “Nothing like this.”

He remembered the blight they’d carried to the Marrow Valley clearly enough. They had seen the ripples of fallout for years, and now the Dwendalians were ploughing up their own dead to keep starvation from the door. For an instant, at the side of the road not six feet ahead of his horse, he saw the ghost of what he’d done. The starved Halfling girl with flies where her eyes had been lay at the edge of the roadside ditch, just as she had when they’d ridden for Zadash one spring after releasing the blight. He locked his eyes on his pommel and breathed deeply until the sudden panic faded.

He jumped when he felt a warm hand grab his forearm. Caleb was looking at him with genuine concern, his horse squeezing their legs together.

“Are you alright?” he asked Molly quietly.

Molly looked at him blankly, taking too long to process his words before nodding hesitantly. It took a minute or two before he could find words.

“Just remembering,” he said eventually, his voice rough to his own ears. “Sometimes I just wish I could start over again and leave everywhere I went better than I found it.”

Caleb gave a humourless chuckle and shook his head.

“I think most of us wish something along those lines.”

He gave Molly’s arm a squeeze before letting go, and Molly was struck by how the afternoon light made it look like he had ruby dust and fire wound in his hair. His fading distress tangled with the fluttering of attraction and his arm felt heavy with the memory of Caleb’s fingers. The Moonweaver’s suggestions tangled in the forefront of his mind. Anything to chase away the shadows.

“Do you need me to ask Jester to call a stop?” Caleb asked him, his voice gentle.

Molly swallowed hard.

“No, I’m – I just need some time.” He forced a smile. “What’s your book about, anyway?”

Caleb widened their riding distance again with a slight blush on his cheeks and hesitantly started explaining that it was a love story featuring wishes. Molly jumped on the distraction, desperate to keep Caleb talking, to keep the shadows of his past away.

An hour later Caleb had nearly convinced Molly that he read smutty, smutty novels for the carefully researched details the authors liked to embed therein. Molly had fallen into the swing of things and was feeling more himself than he had in weeks as he carefully teased the hell out of the wizard. Not even the empty eyes of the burned out buildings fazed him. Not one bit. He leaned forward over his pommel and rested his chin on his hand.

“So you’re telling me the only reason you know that amazing mansion spell is because you read about it in a romance novel Nott stole from Jester.”

“Ja. Exactly. Though I should be clear, The Bard’s Beloved did not contain the spell itself – just the note that the spell existed. Unless you know what you do not know, you cannot find anything out except by accident.”

“And on the scale, how smutty?”

“… eight.”

Molly cackled.

“Jester! Jester!” he called. “How smutty on a scale of one to fourteen would you consider The Bard’s Beloved?!”

“I never—” she began to call back, before being cut off as a bolt slammed into her side.

The shock hit Molly at the same moment as a bolt slammed itself between his ribs.

He went with the impact, allowing it to help him off his horse. The pain was sickening, but adrenaline spiked his bloodstream, coming to the party not a moment too soon. Holding his breath to avoid choking on his own blood, he drew his swords and brought them flaring to life with practiced taps along his collarbones. All he had to do now was figure out where the attack was coming from.

Looking across between his horse’s legs he spotted Caleb on the ground. He felt a flash of worry and was relieved when, seconds later, the Archmage rolled himself over to face Molly, seemingly unharmed if a bit dishevelled. As he watched, Caleb put something in his mouth and pointed over at him, muttering. Molly felt fear shoot through him, winding around him alongside the spell. For a fraction of a second it all became clear: Caleb and Nott had planned all this to get Misrule out of the way so that they could restart the war and the slaughter. Then Caleb’s voice cut across the yells of their companions and Molly’s racing thoughts.

“Go!”

Then the spell took and everything slowed down. His muscles tingled, twitching. Molly recognised the effects of a Haste spell, for all that he’d derived most of his experiences of it from the potion form. Relief washed through him and, alongside it, savage anticipation.

His friends were in danger and he’d just been given Haste. He grinned bloodily. The bastards weren’t going to know what’d hit them.

Chapter Text

Caleb tried to ignore the look of fear that flashed across Mollymauk’s face as he cast Haste. Now was not the time to ponder why he’d expected anything else, so he mentally quashed everything down and focused on maintaining the spell and identifying his targets. Rolling to his feet, he calculated: the buildings around them were abandoned, burnt out mostly, but there was movement in a window. He had his shield up just in time to deflect the incoming bolt, and returned fire with a quick cantrip. Assessing his available options, Caleb dashed to the wall of the occupied building and crouched down. The crossbowman would have to lean out awkwardly to take another shot, at which point… well.

In the roadway, the horses began to panic as Fjord’s mount screamed in pain at a crossbow bolt sinking into its neck. Cantering away, they stripped Caleb of cover between him and the other side of the road. It was less than ideal. Mollymauk raced towards the nearest building in a streak of purple and gold, rather than towards Jester and her healing spells, and Caleb hoped he had a potion up his sleeve as he disappeared through the door.

The world fell out to a comfortable distance as Caleb reached into his component pouches. Life was simple again. He had the bat guano and sulphur in hand when armed men poured out of a building a few doors down and headed towards where Fjord was dragging Jester towards cover. Fjord threw out blasts of strange tearing energy at the frontmost and he staggered but kept going. Caleb’s Fireball took them unawares but left four standing untouched by the flames. Caleb cocked his head to the side a little. Something had given them immunity to fire, which was interesting. They were also alerted to his presence, which was inconvenient.

As they ran towards him, he reached into his sleeve for the pouch he’d prepared alongside his memorisation of the spell. They were close enough that he could clearly see their expressions of horror when his Chain Lightning rolled into them. As their attempts to scream around their clenched jaws gurgled into the soft exhales of crumpling death, Caleb had to wonder who’d arranged this ambush. Sure, the poor fools might have had fire immunity or something to help them be quick on their feet, but… surely an antimagic field trap of some kind was called for when going after a mage of his calibre.

Even as he considered their assailants’ ineptitude, the yells ceased. Better than nothing I suppose… he thought to himself as the blanket of silence enfolded him. He hadn’t even seen the caster to counter it, which demonstrated some skill on their part. The crossbowman overhead leaned out an took a shot which sliced through Caleb’s outer thigh, leaving a nasty cut. He gripped hard on his spell, focusing on Haste rather than the pain, and was gratified to see a body fall from the upper story of the building opposite and Mollymauk leaping after it in a blur of blood and blades. The tiefling hit the ground in a graceful roll and was up on his feet and moving again before Caleb could blink. He ran across to the door next to Caleb, and took a moment to pause, grinning with blood on his teeth, to say something that was swallowed by the silence. Turning with a flare of his coat, he was gone again.

Caleb lurched to his feet. With Mollymauk speedy, his options were limited. With the silence, he was crippled. He made his way along the wall towards Fjord and Jester and out of the Silence spell. Really, they should have tried harder to keep him inside it.

He was in the process of putting together another Fireball to throw off the archers pinning who were Yasha down, when Jester burst out of the alley Fjord had dragged her down moments before. As Fjord stumbled out after her, she turned and gestured in a circling motion at the ground. A swarm of humming insects rose up obscuring the entrance and the sounds of people calling out in pain and surprise.

“What is it?” Caleb called to Jester.

Turning, Jester began running his way, and Fjord only took a moment to fling out some more Eldritch Blasts before following suit.

“A whole bunch of guys, some magic too!” Jester yelled between gasps.

It was less than ideal for them to group up, but Caleb gave the gesture for them to fall in behind.

“Get everyone together on me asap,” he said as Jester went past, and he turned his attention to where the insects were rapidly disintegrating in a Dispelling. He took cover in an entryway and waited.

After six breaths Jester’s pursuit spilled out around the corner in a predictable en masse scatter standard to the apprehension of mages. Caleb waited in his cover, risking the shots, until the rearmost were within range. Then he spun out. Two bolts struck him immediately and he staggered but managed to release his Prismatic Spray across the attackers. For a moment he felt a counterspell attempt drag at the weave he’d gathered, but the rainbow of light sprang out from his hand in opaque rays regardless. Within the near blinding cone of the spell men and women screamed and died. He felt nothing aside from the sickening wrongness of the bolts in his flesh.

The two foremost soldiers on the opposite side of the road had been outside the range of the spell. He looked across at them dispassionately, and one dropped his sword and bolted. The other raised her crossbow, determined. He raised a shield to deflect her bolt and sent a Firebolt in her direction. It didn’t kill her outright; he hadn’t really meant it to. Instead of running, however, she took another shot which grazed his arm and he retaliated with a Scorching Ray that finished her off. He felt nothing.

He turned to find Misrule in a running retreat towards him. It was obviously bad. Yasha had Mollymauk in her arms and Jester was running alongside with her hands giving off a divine glow. Caleb felt a whisper of guilt at the realisation that his concentration had fallen at some point, before he managed to pull himself back into logical blankness. He didn’t have time to care. Beauregard and Fjord were attempting to hold off another twenty soldiers at least. Caleb measured his distances and timed his fireball carefully to disrupt as many as possible.

Burn it all, whispered a dark part of himself. Burn them all. Just stay here and burn it down and you won’t have to care anymore.

He attempted to drop another fireball into the soldiers, but a Counterspell tore it from his fingertips. His eyes found the enemy mage at the same moment a bolt from Nott’s crossbow did. He caught a glimpse of her making her way along the dangerously unstable rooftops before she ducked out of view again.

As Yasha reached him, he countered another attacking magic user who tried to fight fire with fire. Nott staggered the mage with a bolt, and half-fell, half-climbed down the façade next to them before reloading. Caleb took a calculated risk and finished off the magic user with a vicious Scorching Ray that powered through the other’s attempt at a Counterspell. As the final two of his companions turned and sprinted for them, Jester yelled something in infernal and a tower of flame sprang up between them and most of the attack. Screams mingled with the crackling flame and, for a fraction of a second, Caleb felt like he was somewhere else. Snapping back to the present as Fjord was tackled from behind, Caleb traced the basics of his Bladegarden circle in the air and dragged them all away from the crossroads.

---------------------

One moment they were in the middle of battle, the next they were in a quiet room with rough whitewashed walls and an ugly worn rug on the floor. In between was a woozy, nausea-inducing fragment of nothingness, and Molly could hardly blame Yasha for staggering and setting him down rather more roughly than he might have liked. There was the sound of cursing and, behind Yasha, Beau and Fjord struggled with someone on the floor. Even bloodied as they were, they seemed to have matters well in hand.

Across the room Caleb rummaged in a shoddy old set of draws, pulling out what looked like a bunch of healing potions before slumping back against the wall. Molly winced at the sight of the heavy bolts sticking out of the wizard’s shoulder and side.

“Caleb?” Nott rasped, sounding worried, as Widogast stayed slumped staring into the middle distance without doing anything.

There was a short delay before he acknowledged her and shook his head a little. Fire began to play in his hair. Then he began to pull out the bolts, muttering something under his breath as he pulled out each one and drank a healing potion to close the wound. He didn’t seem to feel the pain and it struck Molly that there was something very wrong in how Widogast was behaving. He looked over at Nott, who was frowning but keeping her distance.

When he looked back to the wizard, he found Caleb looking at him and there was something missing in the wizard’s gaze. It was like the look a dire wolf had as it decided whether or not you were worth the trouble. Widowmaker, he thought, Inferno, Firebrand. Fear snuck back into his mind, and he stayed very still.

After a long moment the Widowmaker pushed away from the wall and took another potion from the top of the dresser before walking across the room to kneel next to Molly. He resisted the urge to scramble backwards. Somehow, he got the impression that the fire in the wizard’s hair currently had nothing to do with nervousness. The Widowmaker gave Molly an empty smile and handed him the potion.

“Sorry about dropping haste,” he said with every indication that he was contrite.

Molly nodded as he meekly took the potion. If not for the time they’d spent together, Molly was pretty sure he’d have believed it. As it was, Widogast’s apparent honesty seemed hollow and creepy.

“Little hand here?” Beau called from where she was holding the soldier down.

“Ja,” said Widogast turning and heading over.

He crouched down next to Beau and her captive and yanked the young man’s face up off the rug by his hair. Molly winced. The angle of the man’s neck could not be comfortable.

“Hello, I am Archmage Caleb Widogast,” Caleb began in the sort of pleasant tone that made it clear ‘pleasant’ was not the only option. “What is your name?”

“You’re not—”

“You’re not seems like an odd name to me. Would you like to try again?”

“Fuck, you,” gasped the captive.

Caleb’s shoulders tensed a little, then he sighed.

“Nott,” he began, keeping his attention fixed on the captive, “could you please bring me a healing potion? I may need one soon.”

The young man looked like he was going to be sick.

“Now, shall we try again?” said Caleb, his pleasant tones unwavering. “What is your name?”

“H-Herman Metroc,” he said, shakily.

Widogast immediately let him go and stood to walk over to the drawers. The captive swallowed audibly, and Molly caught the scent of urine drifting over. Herman seemed to recognize that the Widowmaker’s dulcet voice hid something sharp underneath.

“Jester, did you need any medical supplies?” he asked as if he was merely inquiring as to whether she wanted another helping of salad at dinner.

“What the fuck, man?” Beau asked, interrupting Jester before she’d got a word out. “Where are we? What was that? Why did you only ask his name and that’s it?”

Caleb frowned at her and handed Jester a potion.

“We are in a safehouse. We were ambushed by an unknown force, but we are now many miles away from that location and so are no longer threatened. We have plenty of time to get Herman comfortable and ask him more questions. Does that answer your questions?”

“No! Kind of! But—”

“Nott, do you have rope to tie Herman up with? Just so Beauregard doesn’t feel she needs to keep sitting on him?”

“I think Beau wants to know why you’re acting so weird,” Jester said, sounding a little uncertain. Molly gave her a sharp glance and, noticing, she covered her pain and uncertainty with a happy smile. “But thank you for saving us out there, Caleb! You were super good at it! I mean, there were so many of those guys…” she trailed off at Widogast’s blank look.

“I am not ‘acting weird’. Everything’s fine.”

“He’s an imposter!” yelled Herman from where Nott was tying him up. “He isn’t the real Widowmaker!”

Molly frowned at the man’s accusations. It was an interesting theory. Nott yanked his head around and hissed in his face, silencing him.

“Are you an imposter?” Beau asked.

Caleb shook his head.

“No, but I am very much interested in finding out who has been suggesting such things.”

While Caleb’s tone rang true, it had gone from pleasant to neutral and his gaze was cold where it rested on Herman. Molly shuddered just a little. He found himself reminded of stories whispered fearfully in barracks and mess halls about the Widowmaker and torture. Good as he was himself at interrogations, he never exactly enjoyed watching them and it seemed he’d secured himself a front row seat for the truth.

“I don’t think I want to watch this,” said Fjord, echoing Molly’s thoughts, as Nott finished tying Herman up and Beau helped her prop him in a sitting position against the wall.

“I don’t, either,” said Yasha.

Caleb nodded.

“Nott can disarm the traps and show you to the sleeping quarters. Please stay inside the house and preferably upstairs. We should avoid inviting more trouble before we’re ready for it.”

Nott gave Herman a pat on the cheek and hurried to the door where she fiddled with the latch a bit before opening it.

“Best you all follow me and don’t touch anything,” she said, before taking an oddly exaggerated step out into the hallway beyond.

Molly seriously contemplated following, and Jester indicated he should with the tip of her tail as she trailed behind Yasha. Unfortunately, it didn’t seem like a good idea to leave Beau and Widogast alone with Herman. If the wizard went overboard and Beau disagreed – and she often disagreed with people – they could very well need an imposter archmage if no one was present to stop her. He shuffled himself back to lean against the wall, resting his head back against it with his eyes closed. He was pretty sure he’d hear if everything went to shit, and smell the burning flesh, and hear the prisoner pleading for mercy. He’d have plenty to live with without looking.

After a long moment in which he could clearly imagine Beau trying to stare down the Widowmaker, he heard the mage’s robes rustle as the man walked over to Herman.

“Hello, Herman.” The pleasant tones were back, honeyed silk. “You have said I am an imposter, and I do not wish to waste our time debating it. I simply wish to know: who told you that I am an imposter?”

Molly had to hand it to the Widowmaker, he had a nice voice and made it sound like the easiest thing in the world to tell him what he wanted to know. Herman apparently had more pep left than Molly and remained silent. After about two minutes, he heard the distinctive sound of Beau thumping her staff on the floor and he could picture her glaring at Herman. Widogast made a sound of frustration.

“Beauregard, please. There’s no need to threaten him like that,” said Caleb sounding offended and yet kindly. “Herman probably doesn’t understand any of this. He was probably trying to do the right thing.”

“I am!” Herman said emphatically. “You- you aren’t the real Archmage Widogast! You’re just a Xhorhasian stand in.”

“As I said, I am not going to dispute that right now. I just need you to tell me who told you that. And when you think about it, the only way that person would be in trouble for telling you would be if I were the real Archmage Widogast.”

Molly raised an eyebrow to himself. The logic in that argument seemed a little flawed. Herman’s silence seemed to agree.

“But you could slander him to the king in your disguise?” he pointed out eventually.

Widogast sighed.

“But if that were the case, surely I’d have stayed in Rexxuntrum to whisper lies in the King’s ear? What did they tell you happened to the real Archmage Widogast, anyway?”

“They- he…” Herman trailed off.

The patient quiet extended for a while, finally interrupted by a heavy sigh from Beau.

“I- I mean, I don’t know,” Herman blurted, obviously prompted by Beau’s intimidation tactics.

“They didn’t claim someone had killed Archmage Widogast? Or captured him? Or even that I ran from my arranged marriage and so was replaced by the King with an imposter?” Widogast asked all worried gentleness.

There was a pause, then Caleb sighed.

“I have reason to believe that you are bespelled, Herman. So, I am going to cast a spell on you that will hopefully remove the charm. Now I understand that you might have a hard time trusting me given what you have been told, but I ask that you do your best to hold still. This is a countercharm and absolutely nothing harmful.”

Molly had to blink his eyes open and look at the ceiling to keep from nodding off to the sound of Caleb’s reassurance. He took a peek over and it looked like even Herman had been half convinced. The man sat carefully still as Caleb muttered his spell and his eyes fluttered closed for a couple of seconds as a soft red-gold glow enfolded him then vanished. When his eyes opened again they went wide.

“It was a lie…” he breathed.

Caleb nodded.

“Yes. I need to know who told it to you.”

“His lordship Archmage Fabian Wyrlund came to us himself with some of his students and said… he said that you’d been replaced with a Xhorhasian imposter and we should do our duty and stop you all.”

“And it seemed like the right thing to do.”

Herman nodded.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “Please… please don’t kill me. I have kids.”

“I won’t kill you. These Xhorhasian’s might have other ideas, however.”

Herman looked, horrified, between Beau and Molly. Molly smiled and waved.

“Mollymauk, can you please fetch the others? With Fabian getting in this deep, it would probably be best to sleep in the Mansion tonight. Sorry.”

Molly frowned at his apology.

“You shouldn’t apologise for putting us up in fancy quarters. What do you mean to do with Herman here, though?”

“Oh, I can make an extra room without too much trouble.”

His answer just made Molly frown more. He had a lot to think about. He levered himself up and headed to the door. Just before he went through to look for the rest of his friends he turned back to where Caleb and Beau were standing over Herman looking at one another.

“Caleb, what would you have done if it wasn’t a charm, and he hadn’t talked?” he asked.

Widogast looked at him with his head cocked slightly to the side with that same dire wolf expression.

“I would have asked if Beauregard wanted to punch the truth out of him. If she did not, I would have tortured him.”

Feeling unreasonably sickened, Molly nodded and left the room.

Chapter Text

Nott hesitated at Caleb’s door. The look on Molly’s face when he’d come to tell them Caleb was casting the Mansion had left Nott worried. She’d pinned a lot of her hopes on Misrule, and especially Molly, being able to understand some of the… trickier sides of Caleb. It hadn’t looked like Herman had been tortured but, from the way Molly’d been acting, that possibility had certainly been laid on the table. And that possibility had obviously left him shaken.

Which meant that Caleb would either still be playing the professional or having a breakdown on the other side of the door. Cautiously, she raised her hand and knocked.

“Come in!” Caleb called, his voice muffled but obviously calm.

Nott braced herself and opened the door.

The first thing Nott noticed was that Caleb had adjusted his room configuration. The usual wooden floorboards had been replaced with plain stone, partially covered by a large rug with a geometric design in grey and cream. The simple white walls were now deep blue with climbing vines in copper, though, for the most part, the walls were covered by bookshelves and maps, anyway. A large map of the Dwendalian Empire dominated the right wall, and Nott frowned at it as she crossed the carpet to the desk that dominated the room. The desk was more ornate than usual, large and heavy and heavily carved and gilded, but it did have her familiar height-adjusted chair next to it. Caleb was standing behind the desk, carefully unpacking his inks and papers from one of the many hidden satchels in his robes, seeming calm and unperturbed. Nott suppressed the temptation to open the door in the left wall that likely led to his bedroom to snoop on the changes he may have made there. Instead, she dragged her chair over to face opposite him and clambered up.

Then she waited and watched.

When Caleb finished unpacking he began to carefully arrange things across the desk, then re-arrange them, then re-arrange them with hands beginning to show a slight tremor. He glanced up at her, then back down.

“Report,” he bit out.

She pulled her pack around, reaching inside, as she put on her working voice.

“Misrule and Herman are settled and taking dinner in their rooms,” she said, as she pulled out her jar of assorted buttons and emptied it over his desk.

They both reached out to catch the buttons racing towards the edges.

“I believe they’ll be getting an early night,” she continued, with a pointed look at the holes in his robe where he’d been hit. “With Jester’s healing magic and the potions, we should all be fully functional come morning. I will look into restocking, and replacing what was lost with the horses, tomorrow first thing. I recommend we stay here at least another day. You said Herman had a conspiracy theory? I’d like to make sure it isn’t being widely disseminated.”

Caleb nodded thoughtfully as his fingers busily sorted the buttons on the desk.

“That seems sensible,” he said, quietly. “Do you have contacts here who can smuggle Herman back to his family? Without Fabian getting wind of it?”

Nott nodded.

“Of course,” she said, when he didn’t look up to see her gesture.

After a few more minutes of silence, she scuffled her chair closer to the desk, so she could lean over and begin ‘sorting’ the buttons as well. She deliberately misunderstood his categories and managed to elicit a small smile from him as he began to correct her ‘mistakes’ and attempt to out-sort her. She found herself grinning, too. He didn’t have the dexterity to win.

After a bit, she gave him a breather from her erratic sorting, reaching for her flask.

“Beau seemed to think you were pretty kick-arse back there,” she said, in as casual a voice as she could manage.

Caleb froze for a fraction of a second, then kept sorting. She watched him intently.

“I think all of them really appreciate what you did—”

Caleb made a disbelieving noise in his throat without looking up. Nott narrowed her eyes.

“I’m just a little worried that they might… misunderstand—”

“What is there to misunderstand?” Caleb asked, with a cruel twist to his lip as he interrupted her. “I kill people. I torture people. I am still myself doing these things.”

She knew all the cruelty was directed inwards, but that just made her like it less.

“You and I both know what you’re doing,” she growled back at him, and he blinked and jerked back as if she’d hit him. “Caddy says—”

“I know what Caduceus says,” said Caleb, closing his eyes. “But this is not helping.”

She sighed. All the little bits of emotion she’d managed to draw out were rapidly vanishing. She wished she were better at this. But you’re not, so stop trying to be, she told herself sternly.

“Do you want me to explain some of it to the others for you?” she asked, more gently, and he opened his eyes to look at her again. Studying her with that heart-breaking blankness on his face that sometimes made it feel like he didn’t recognise her.

“Ja, that would probably be good,” he said, eventually. “But don’t lie to them.”

She nodded. They could argue later, when he was more himself, about whose truth she told.

Caleb turned his attention back to the buttons, and Nott turned hers to her flask for a little bit. She figured that if he was allowed to be numb then she should be allowed to get there, too. She watched him carefully sorting as she sipped and just felt sad. When it became apparent that her sadness was increasing by the minute and the only numbness she felt was in her cheeks, she tucked her flask away. As she did, Caleb looked up at her.

“The buttons do help, Nott,” he said, quietly. “Will you…?”

His question trailed off, but his gesture at the unsorted pile was clear. She smiled as the drink made it easier to believe him, and began sorting again in a slightly more haphazard fashion. And when all the buttons were sorted, she silently proposed a different system for a re-sort by nicking from the established piles, and he quickly picked up on the pattern and joined her. By the time Nott’s stomach protested and they packed away the buttons to make room for food, a little of Caleb’s usual softness had returned to his eyes and Nott felt hopeful that maybe it wouldn’t take so long this time.

-------------------

Molly flopped backwards onto his bed and frowned at the canopy. The fact that it was unchanged – that nothing in his room had changed since the last iteration of the Mansion – bothered him. He ran his fingers up and down one of his honour braids and tapped the end of his tail against his ankle as he debated whether or not to talk things over with someone.

Yasha would probably tell him off again for suggesting that Caleb should only be one thing, even though that wasn’t even what he was worried about. Not really. It was more about how cold and distant he’d seemed. With the lich-archmage-person, Caleb had been worried about Nott, and determined, and… Molly swallowed and tore his mind away from his over-worked memories of how Caleb had felt against him.

Jester would probably tell him he needed to trust more and that his worries were dumb. They were dumb. It wasn’t like he’d have worried about Beau punching Herman into telling the truth. It wasn’t as if they hadn’t tortured people before. Molly rolled himself over onto his stomach and heaved a sigh into the mattress.

Beau would tell him off for putting Caleb on a pedestal in the first place, given the Archmage’s reputation. She’d look at him like he was a fucking idiot and say: ‘you married a killer, get over it.’ Which was hardly fair, because it wasn’t like he’d had much of a choice.

Fjord… well. Fjord would probably listen and be sympathetic. And the whole time Molly would be highly aware that Fjord was intrinsically linked to a crazy evil serpent demi-god who had a direct line into his head. Hard to complain about a wizard who only seemed to be a killing machine some of the time to someone who had to deal with the demands of a kill-happy monster all of the time. Molly sighed again into the soft blankets.

The problem was that, even playing it in his head, it was clear he didn’t have a leg to stand on when it came to pulling out some sanctimonious bullshit. He flopped himself back over and got up to rummage in the closet again. The problem is, you just want to complain, accused his sensible side. He held up three of the dressing gowns, comparing them and pointedly ignoring his supposedly sensible side. You just wanted him to be worried about how you got hurt, it continued, snarkily. It was times like these that Molly really wished his perceptiveness about people didn’t extend to himself. In retrospect, he had to admit it’d stung to see no real concern on Caleb’s face, but also, looking back on it, Caleb hadn’t really shown much concern about anything. Molly threw the dressing gowns over onto the bed and fished out a few more.

The dressing gowns were bugging him the same way the room was bugging him. They were all exactly the same, down to the loose stitch on the sleeve of the red silk number. Every single time his room had been carefully and thoughtfully altered, until now.

There was a hesitant knock on the door. He cocked his head a moment, counting through possible visitors, before giving up, throwing the dressing gowns on the bed, and going to open the door.

It was Beau, looking troubled.

“Why, do come in,” he said, with a broad grin, upon seeing her expression.

He opened the door wide and she glared at him in playful suspicion as she went past. The set of her mouth undermined her attempt at joking. In the back of his mind, Molly wondered if she could see his worry through the playful teasing just as easily.

He closed the door and gestured for her to take a seat on the couch. He draped himself over the armchair and levelled a faux-seductive look in her direction. He momentarily regretted having asked the servants to take the remains of his supper away; there had been a bunch of grapes that would’ve suited this moment perfectly.

“Tell me, what brings a woman of your… capabilities… to my quarters at such a time o’ night as this?” he asked.

Her glare failed to last the sentence, falling off into worry instead.

“Something’s up with Widogast,” she said, bluntly.

His own smile fell away, too, and he swung himself around to sit on the seat more sensibly. She gave him a small appreciative smile.

“He went pretty fucking cold back there,” she went on, her hands twisting together in her lap – a little move learned from Jester that nearly brought his smile back. “I know that we’re really not, like, better or anything. I know that. But still, he went pretty fucking calculating.” She took a deep breath and looked him in the eyes. “I had some training, a long while ago, where they taught me how to shut away my emotions, my worries, my petty concerns, and all those bits of me, in order to get a job done. You lock it away and just focus on what needs to be done. You understand?”

Molly nodded, slowly.

“Sounds, kinda – sounds like what some people do in stressful situations. Just more?”

“Yeah, pretty much. Just the monks think it’s good to take the time to do it about important decisions, to make sure you’re thinking logically. But if you do it too much it can… fuck up your internal balance? It was something like ‘true knowledge requires acknowledgement of the self and the world’ bullshit.”

“I need to remember that for a card reading,” he said with a sage nod, earning a snorted laugh. “But, correct me if I’m wrong, you’re worried Widogast is doing this thing?”

She nodded.

“Yeah, but I’m more worried he might be stuck in it.”

Molly looked at her and she looked at him. After a careful assessment, he decided to go out on a limb.

“Your room is the same, too, isn’t it?” he said.

“Yep. He doesn’t change it much, but it’s always different. And I checked the entry where he’s been cycling through Dwendalian religious festivals in the friezes.”

“To be fair, we were just in a fight—”

“—Which took place at the end of the day, by which point he’s usually figured out most of the changes.”

“Herman has a room.”

Beau snorted derisively.

“He has a fucking monk cell. Widogast chose to change next to nothing, he chose to reuse yesterday’s template.”

Molly frowned at her. The thing about Beau was that she was observant and smart. Jester’s conspiracy theories were more his level. When Beau got on them, he generally got left in the dust.

“So, you think Widogast chose to use yesterday’s because he’s suppressing his emotions?” he tried.

She flung her head back to sigh dramatically in frustration and ended up cracking it onto the wooden carving on the back of the couch. He snickered as she swore and rubbed the back of her head. She frowned at him.

“I think Widogast is trying to send us a message.”

“A little ‘remember me as I was, not as I am’?” Molly proposed, sarcastically.

“Fuck you,” said Beau. “He might be. We already know he’s fucked in the head, and I think he knows it, too. Don’t fucking joke about him trying to do damage control.”

Molly held up his hands. He hadn’t really meant it how it’d come out. It doesn’t matter how you meant it, it’s how they hear it that counts, his brain supplied, helpfully digging up the snippet of advice he’d given once to Beau.

“I didn’t mean it like that, Beau,” he said, and she looked unconvinced. He sighed. “Look, I was pretty freaked out by his handling of the whole Herman thing, I won’t lie. But I got back here, and it’s all the same as it was, and I thought about things, and now I’m a bit worried.”

Her look softened a bit and she uncrossed her arms. Fuck it, he thought.

“Look, a few nights back, the Traveller dropped by,” he began, and Beau sat forward. “He said Caleb’s playing a game and I have to keep Jester out of it and not tell her about it.” He paused considering, then barrelled on. “He also asked me to reward Widogast by having sex with him… so, I’ve been a bit on edge with all of that, but things were starting to work out when suddenly we’re attacked and Widogast goes all empty-murder mode.”

“Shit,” she breathed. “I hadn’t thought about how empty he must’ve seemed to you.”

Molly froze as panic suddenly wrestled with his lungs. It’d been there, waiting. Waiting for him to see it clearly. He tried to swallow, to curl up on himself, to hide from the realization.

Caleb was looking at him and there was something missing in the wizard’s gaze. he stayed very still, but the Widowmaker pushed away from the wall, anyway, and took another potion from the top of the dresser before walking across the room to kneel next to Molly. He gave Molly an empty smile and handed him the potion.

“Sorry about dropping haste,” he said with empty eyes.

And then it was Molly, in his memory, looking back at himself with empty eyes and an empty smile and there was nothing, and no air, and he couldn’t breathe.

Sudden pain across his cheek brought him back to the present.

Beau was leaning over him with a grim look on her face. As he focused on her she lowered her hand to his shoulder.

“You need to breathe,” she told him. “Like this.”

He focused on following her exaggerated breathing and ignored the little voice in the back of his head howling that all he was, was mimicry.

He just kept breathing until he could shakily bring himself to raise his hand to grip Beau’s arm. She squeezed his shoulder a bit tighter. It helped.

“I’m still not clear on your conspiracy reasoning…” he managed to say, albeit shakily.

Please, just talk to me. Don’t leave me.

She grabbed his chin to force him into eye contact, then breathed exaggeratedly deep, slow breaths until he followed her again.

“Keep it up, and shuffle over,” she instructed, pushing him sideways in the chair to sit down.
The chair wasn’t really made for two people, so she ended up mostly sitting on him. Molly took her up on her unspoken offer and wrapped himself tightly around her, which caused a few issues with his horns. After a little rearrangement, they got comfortable and Beau began to talk:

“After, you know, the busted room shit, I started paying more attention,” she began, in her bolshie, unapologetic tone which usually indicated she had regrets. “Just trying to figure him out, you know, putting the pieces together. He’s definitely got a professional face and a private face, but that was already sort of a given if you really think about it. We’ve met like five people, ever, who’re exactly as their reputation makes them out to be. Even Lady Estirwhyr has her orphanage—”

“That isn’t entirely true,” Molly interrupted. “I’m pretty sure we’ve met a hell of a lot of people who’re right arseholes through and through.”

“I’m not…” she sighed. “I’m talking more about the higher-ups. People who other people have decided to put into positions of power. Who’re the sorts of people we’ve made it our job to blackmail with all their private shit.”

“Fair.”

He had to admit, when she put it like that, they should’ve done more to figure out the truth behind all the Widowmaker rumours.

“So, I started paying closer attention,” Beau went on. “And there’s the obvious stuff like the fact that he likes cats and reading, but also the less obvious stuff, like how he changes things in the Mansion and how careful he is with his things and how much he likes encryption. Anyway, he goes from being all happy and shit with you to casting some fucking well-placed fireballs – not unusual for us – but we get back to this safe-house place and he’s…”

She hesitated, and Molly raised his head a little.

“It’s okay,” he said, hoping it wasn’t a lie.

She took him at his word

“We all went from fine to fighting to picking up the pieces, except that he wasn’t picking up the pieces, he was all blank.” She sighed. “What bothered me was that his interrogation – he was right away at the finger chopping mindset… or rather, he seemed to have the same way of holding himself all the way from heat of battle to heading off to his room here. No shoulders dropping in relief, no celebration, no… sorry. Anyway, I found that nothing had really changed here, and got to thinking about what might’ve been going on in his head, and then I thought about how he liked picking apart Lyran’s notes.”

“You’re a fucking terror,” Molly murmured, into her shoulder. “What are your conclusions from your creeping?”

“Fuck you,” she said, but there wasn’t any sting. “I just think the lack of change is meant to be… some sort of hint to us. Reassurance?”

“That’s what I said,” Molly muttered, and snuggled a bit closer.

“If you fall asleep on me, I will punch you,” Beau warned, and Molly smiled.

“But you’re sooo smart and comfy,” he protested as sleepily as he could without laughing.

He could tell without looking that she was glaring.

“Well, it has been quite obvious to everyone that the smarts are what really do it for you,” she said, in the kind of voice that indicated she knew she was laying down a trump card.

He scrambled to push her off and stand up, making outraged noises the entire time. A little bit of him wasn’t even acting. It was mortifying that she’d noticed.

“How could you!” he eventually gasped out, hands on his hips while she curled in the chair laughing. “I have… the Traveller—”

“That,” she made a hand motion in a mockery of his anxious tail movements, “that’s not ‘the Traveller’s making me’.”

He made an annoyed noise but couldn’t keep a grin from breaking across his face.

“I’ll have you know that the Traveller cheated!”

“How did the Traveller cheat?” she asked, wiping the tears from her eyes.

“He got the Moonweaver on his side and they sent me sex dreams!”

“Oh gods…” Beau gasped, before doing an excellent impression of someone overwhelmed by Tasha’s Hideous Laughter.

Molly pouted to more peals of laughter, though, truthfully, it felt a hell of a lot better to have told someone about his predicament. And once Beau finished laughing at him, he was pretty certain she’d have his back when it came to figuring everything out.

-------------------------

Beau sighed and slumped against the wall as Molly’s door closed. She certainly hoped her half-arsed conspiracy theory turned out to have a seed of truth in it, because Molly was worse off than she’d thought. The fucking Traveller back at it again. She itched to get her hands on the bastard, again. Given time, she was sure she could find something he wouldn’t enjoy.

Then again, she could still clearly remember the sounds he’d made in her head when she’d strangled him last time. The memory still made her wish that she could wash her brain out with soap.

Shaking her head, she went down the hall to Jester’s room, opening the door without bothering to knock.

It was dark, and Beau was about to leave when Jester rolled over in bed.

“Beau?” she asked sleepily.

“Yeah,” Beau said, going inside and carefully shutting the door behind her.

“How was he?”

“Pretty shit. You were right, it was the whole… thing.”

Beau couldn’t see for shit, but she heard Jester sitting up, and could just imagine her wrapping her hands around her knees.

“I just wish he’d talk to me about it,” Jester said, frustration and regret evident in her voice in equal measure. “I know I’m not the best cleric, but I am his captain.”

Beau shrugged.

“Sometimes we just open up differently to different people,” she said. “If it’s any comfort, I find being the whole ‘shoulder to cry on’ person fucking awkward.”

Jester laughed a little.

“Sorry, I just had this picture of Yasha going all momma bear. I was talking to the Traveller about it and I don’t think Caleb… I think Caleb does things he thinks are necessary, even if he doesn’t want to.”

Beau nodded slowly, weighing her options. The words were right there, but common sense intervened. They had enough to deal with without pissing off Jester’s god as well.

“I can buy that,” she said, instead, before stretching and yawning. “I’m off to bed now. Goodnight, Jester.”

“Goodnight, Beau.”

As she left the room and made her way to her own bed, Beau sent a silent little prayer to Ioun. If gods were going to get involved, she felt she deserved a little extra guidance to untangle this knot.

Chapter Text

Molly jerked awake as something soft batted at his face. A thrill ran through him and he scrambled for his knife before he even opened his eyes. There was a soft thud of something hitting the floor next to the bed and he had his blade out and ready along his collarbone before he woke up enough to realize he was in the Mansion and that whatever had hit him was no longer attacking. As he scanned the room for a threat, a slightly ghostly cat leapt onto the foot of the bed – one of the Mansion’s servants – looking disgruntled in a way only a cat could. Molly sighed and lowered the knife.

“What is it?” he asked, somewhat irritably.

The servant reshaped itself into a creepily featureless humanoid, seated cross-legged on the covers.

“The master and the blue one desire your presence in the eating room,” it said, expressionlessly.

Molly nodded, and rubbed at his eyes with his free hand. All in all, he figured, the servants would be less creepy if they stayed as cats.

“What time is it?” he asked the creature.

It cocked its head to the side ever so slightly, as if curious about the question, and Molly narrowed his eyes. Curiosity seemed at odds with all the blank emotionlessness the servants generally showed.

“I do not understand the question,” it answered him, its voice still devoid of any life.

Molly frowned. He was willing to bet the servant creatures were a lot more aware than their voices let on, so it seemed a little odd that it didn’t understand time. He had to admit, though, he wasn’t really all that knowledgeable when it came to the intricacies of magic.

“Are the others eating?” he tried, instead.

“Yes,” it said, its head still tilted ever so slightly to the side.

Molly nodded and reached over for the scabbard of his knife to put it away. The servant didn’t seem to take the hint and stayed as it was, seated on the bed.

“Ah, thanks,” he said to it, giving a little wave to indicate it should leave.

It looked at him blankly.

“You can go,” he told it.

It looked at him for a few more seconds before turning back into a cat and beginning to wash itself. It seemed that that was as good as he was going to get. He tossed his belt towards the door, managing, to his own delight, to get it to loop perfectly over the handle, before getting out of bed and looking for his clothes.

---------------------

About a quarter hour later he was dressed in what he hoped were his washed and mended clothes and not just copies, and standing outside the dining hall door. It’d be just his luck, though, if his clothes did end up disappearing when he stepped outside. He’d spent the walk over wondering whether the mending would carry over or if it would come apart due to being a product of the spell, despite his lack of understanding of complex magical theory, all to avoid thinking too hard about facing Widogast again. He wiped his palms on his breeches and composed himself, checking his coat was hanging just so, then opened the door and swept inside.

His companions were seated at the table, and only Jester and his husband had the decency to look up as he entered. He cleared his throat.

“I have arrived!” he announced, lifting his hands into an orator’s pose.

Beau flipped the bird in his general direction without looking up, but everyone else was decent enough to give him a smile and a good morning as he made his way over to plate himself some breakfast. He tried to avoid thinking too hard about how much Widogast’s good morning reminded him of the creepy servants.

The bacon at the buffet was cold and the eggs had gone clammy, so Molly stuck to the fruits and pastries. He dithered a little, until he realized his tail was swishing steadily back and forth in a most indiscreet manner. It was nervousness, whatever Beau might claim. He willed it into stillness and turned with another carefree grin to plonk himself down at the table next to Jester.

“You sent for me, my darling Captain?” he said as he got himself settled and flicked his hair back from his face.

Jester smiled up at him, and playfully poked him in the side.

“I thought you ought to get up before the Mansion dumped you out all naked on the floor,” she said, matching his teasing with her own.

Molly really did love his friends.

“That isn’t quite how it works,” interjected Caleb, sounding a little concerned or, perhaps, earnest, and they both turned to him. “The Mansion can last a full twenty-four hours.”

“But would it spit Molly out naked if he was still sleeping?” Jester asked.

Caleb frowned and hesitated before answering.

“Had Mollymauk slept for more than sixteen hours I would have had a servant check on—”

“But if he was still asleep?”

“Then, ja, he would have been expelled from the entrance in the state of dress he was in at the time. But that is not something that would happen outside of extreme circumstances. The servants take care of the needs and ensure the wellbeing of everyone in the Mansion, and wellbeing includes seeing to it that guests are prepared to leave in good order.”

Molly felt his lips twitch up in a smile. The wizard still seemed a little off, a little distant, but it was nice to hear that he retained his pedantic streak when it came to his magic. He leaned his chin on his hand.

“So, do you instruct them on how to take care of our… needs? Or is that written into the spell?” Molly asked, with a twitch of his brows, unable to help himself.

For just a fraction of a second, Caleb seemed flustered and… something else Molly couldn’t pick. Then the look was gone, and he was back to his stern mask.

“Their desire to serve appears to be a part of the spell, but they do require instruction when it comes to more specific duties.”

“Wait,” said Beau, looking up from her book at the other end of the table. “Are you saying… Molly are you asking if the… actually, I don’t want to know.”

Molly threw a grape at her. Apparently, she was going to be insufferable now she had an inkling about his predicament. She caught the grape and threw it back at him. He caught it in his mouth, raising his eyebrows at her cheekily as he bit down. Fjord and Nott cheered, and he gave a little seated bow and flourish. Beau’s disgusted look was nearly as sweet as the fruit.

“Order, order!” Jester called, before Beau could find ammunition, settling them down. “Mighty Nein, now that Molly has joined us, we can talk about what we’re going to do next.”

“Um, I have a question?” said Yasha, with one hand slightly raised. Jester nodded to her. “Where are we, actually? I think I missed it yesterday…”

Molly gave her an encouraging smile but refrained from his thumbs up with Caleb watching.

“We are in a safe house in…” said Jester.

“In Bladegarden,” Caleb supplied. “In the lower city. I will need to talk with officials here about the ambush before we leave.”

“How long will that take?” Jester asked him.

“I can do that today, and we can leave tomorrow. Or we could stay longer if you would prefer?”

Jester looked round the table for input and everyone else shrugged, Molly included. He couldn’t really see much reason to stay in Bladegarden. Unlike Hupperdook, it’d never been particularly interesting. Even when the front lines had been further towards the mountains, and troops had taken leave in the city, it’d been unappealing. Soldiers just wanted to get drunk and forget, but they made it very obvious what they were doing, making them poor drinking partners for a Xhorhasian spy looking for a good time. Molly had a hard time enjoying himself knowing that he was responsible for the misery of those around him.

“I could do with some new clothes, though,” he said, after a little more consideration. “Even with the laundry here, I’d like to have more than just the one shirt. By the way, I was wondering if the repairs on these will hold once we leave the Mansion.”

Caleb’s eyes flicked down to his shirt then away and a small frown formed between his eyes.

“The – ah, ja – the repairs should last so long as the damage could be fixed by a Mending spell.” He hesitated as if he was about to say more but, instead, fell silent.

Molly avoided looking too hard at his own disappointment or the fact that, when Jester clapped her hands for attention, she looked extra perky.

“I think we could all do with a bit of shopping!” she said. “Nott, will you come with the shoppers or go with Caleb? Caleb, did you need us to get you anything?”

Nott looked across at Caleb as if she were trying to confirm something.

“I’ll be taking Herman to some friends of mine,” she said, and Molly suspected she hadn’t found what she’d hoped to find in Caleb’s expression.

“I do not need… actually, some high-quality paper and ink – the sort suitable for spell inscriptions – would be very much appreciated,” said Caleb. “I can,” he fumbled a little reaching into a pocket, “I can give you this, but I don’t have much in the way of coinage. It was in my saddlebags.”

He held up a large diamond, and Jester immediately began to make grabby hands across the table. Nott made a disapproving noise.

“That was for Caduceus,” she muttered, and Caleb glanced over at her then frowned down at the table.

“Jester is a cleric. There is little point in me keeping this hidden away from her. Besides, Caduceus loses them.”

Molly felt a surge of curiosity at the mention of the mysterious Caduceus. But Beau beat him to the punch.

“So, you’re giving diamonds to your ‘friend’ Caduceus?” she asked, and Molly raised his brows at her accusatory tone.

“Ja? He is a cleric and they can be used to—”

“I know what they can be used for,” Beau interrupted. “Sorry, I was just a little… you know, the peace and all,” she finished lamely and waved a hand in Molly’s direction.

Molly wished, really hard, that he could just sink into the floor. The surprised expressions on Fjord and Yasha’s faces, combined with Caleb’s lack of embarrassment as he glanced across the table at Molly while handing the diamond to Jester, were the worst. He was suddenly confronted with the horrifying and belated realization that, while he’d been Beau’s wing-man, she’d probably never actually played wing-man for anyone other than Fjord. And Fjord was, well, Fjord.

“Anyway,” Jester began in an obvious attempt to bring everything back on track and cover for Beau’s awkwardness, “we will get you paper and ink. Was there anything else we need to buy?”

“I’ll get horses and general travel equipment. I know someone,” said Nott.

“What about teleporting?” Molly asked, pulling himself bravely from the pit of despair. “After what happened, surely it’s a risk to stay on the roads?”

Caleb sighed.

“We do need to, even more so now, delay our possible return to Rexxentrum. Also, I have something to check on closer to the border. After I have checked it, then we can teleport and lie about having travelled by horse.”

“What do you need to check on?” Fjord asked.

“Some spells at an old battlefield.”

Molly could tell Caleb was hiding something and considered prying for a moment before deciding otherwise. Fjord had no such sense.

“What kind of old spells,” he asked. “Just a bit curious about such things, as you know.”

Caleb seemed to consider answering carefully, but Fjord’s silver tongue and sincerity obviously swayed him.

“There are seals locking away a great evil. Something one of the Archmages bound there early in the war. I need to make sure that no one has been fool enough to tamper with the bindings.”

The concern in Caleb’s voice had Molly and Beau glancing at each other. What the fuck is worrying the emotionally repressed wizard? he tried asking her silently with just his eyes. It looked very much like she was silently asking him approximately the same thing.

“You know about sealing spells?” Fjord asked, still gently curious, but Molly wasn’t the only one to shoot him a warning look.

Caleb probably noticed but was too polite to show it.

“Ja, I know a few. Mostly old ones.”

“Oh?”

“I was sent out looking for old magics as a student and, well, methods of binding were popular Pre-Divergence,” Caleb gave a slightly crooked smile. “Much of what I found was fragmentary. So perhaps it would be more accurate to say that most of mine are inspired by old ones. It was necessary to fill in the gaps.”

“I’m guessing that was no mean feat…” said Fjord, obviously angling for more.

Unfortunately, Caleb just nodded to him and turned back to Jester. It was a move oddly reminiscent of Lady Estirwhyr or the Bright Queen herself, dismissing Fjord’s line of inquiry before actually revealing anything of note. Though, on second thought, Molly had to admit it wasn’t uncommon for Fjord to push people too far – he’d just been around Lady Estirwhyr enough that she’d perfected dealing with him.

“I would suggest wearing disguises,” Caleb said to Jester. “I’d rather not have anyone track us to this particular location. I will be using one myself. The anti-magic fields play havoc with any magical means of disguise, and so I have a store of bits and pieces you can use here in the safe-house.”

Jester nodded solemnly.

“We can do that. We are specialists.”

Nott snorted derisively, and Jester stuck her tongue out at her.

“We are!” Jester protested.

Molly nodded in agreement behind her putting on his best faux-earnest face and causing Nott to splutter into the most awful giggling sound. It sounded like an asthmatic puppy trying to find its mother. A demonic puppy. Jester caught on and turned to glare at him. He switched to ‘innocent’ and she stuck her tongue out at him and he batted his lashes at her.

“We should really coordinate our shopping though,” Jester said, as she turned back to Nott, and Molly winked at Fjord.

As the discussion about what to buy began in earnest, Molly snuck a glance over at Caleb. The wizard didn’t seem nearly as bad as he had the night before, and, truth be told, Molly couldn’t fault him at all for his actions. Sometimes there were benefits to having creepy, solid-coloured eyes. He nibbled on a pastry and pretended to pay attention to Beau’s listing of the illicit goods she wanted added to Nott’s shopping, all the while surreptitiously inspecting Caleb. Not bad at all, he thought to himself as he watched the wizard absentmindedly tracing something on the table with his finger while listening to the conversation with a small, attentive frown.

Then, Caleb looked up, his blue, blue gaze meeting Molly’s then drifting across his face, and Molly had to fight not to give himself away. Shit, fuck, he looked over to Beau, trying not to blush or react in any obvious way to Caleb's attention. Beau was fucking right, he realized. I’m fucked.

Chapter Text

As Caleb smeared mud on his face to go with the worn old coat he’d picked out for his disguise, he had to wonder a bit at how Nott had always claimed Misrule stuck out in any town they entered. Watching them getting ready, they seemed to be well practiced at putting together some exceptional disguises. They were gathered the small main room of the safe house. Mollymauk was sitting on a rough stool, looking critically into a small silver mirror and putting finishing touches on some sort of grey, powdery make-up he’d used to cover every inch of his exposed skin. He fluttered a brush coated in a similar substance in a slightly different shade along his cheekbones, making them appear at a slightly different angle. Every step in the process made it look less like he’d painted himself and more like he’d turned into a completely different tiefling. Jester, over on the other side of the room, had turned herself a deep true-red and was helping Fjord turn himself into a human-looking colour. They were all astoundingly good at it.

Still trying to recall the exact wording of Nott’s reports, Caleb turned back to sorting out his component pouches into the ragged coat’s pockets. His usual robes had extra pockets. Many extra pockets. Trying to fit the number of separate component pouches into the old coat itself wasn’t going to work, but he did need to decide what he needed readily available and what he could tuck under his shirt. He took his time, listening with half an ear to Misrule’s chatter and stealing glances over at the progression of Fjord from half-orc to mostly human. It made him feel, if anything, emptier inside, like he was standing outside someone else’s warm home looking in. He didn’t want to go in, didn’t want to intrude, it wasn’t his place, but it did make the cold grey of his mood harder to bear. And yet, he couldn’t bring himself to hurry his sorting or find an excuse to leave.

As he finished repacking his belt and buckling it under his coat, Beauregard rapped her knuckles on the table next to him.

“Do you need help with your… you know?” she asked, waving her hand at her face.

He shook his head.

“Nein, this works.”

She snorted in obvious disbelief.

“It’s a lot of mud, but last I checked you were kinda famous in these parts – especially in these parts,” she pointed out.

Caleb was aware of the rest of Misrule turning their attention to him, and felt a fleeting appreciation for the fact that he was feeling so disjointed from everything. It made it easier to smile at Beauregard rather than wilt self-consciously.

“No one recognises me here - least of all here,” he told her, perhaps a little louder than necessary so their audience could hear. “They recognise the robes and the fiery hair and the horses and the stories. They recognise a hero of the Empire. They do not recognise a smelly beggar who limps along muttering to himself.”

As he finished he realised his smile had faded to little more than a twist of the lips, so he stopped bothering and turned to snatch the last of his component pouches from the table. He heard Jester say something about what he’d said being “so sad” to Fjord, before Fjord cleared his throat in a pointed manner. Caleb turned back to him.

“Say, if that’s the case, it’s pretty impressive,” said Fjord, slightly awkward. “We get dressed up in all this stuff and still get ourselves in trouble. But, I am curious: how’re you planning on getting into the keep as a beggar? They don’t let just anyone in there at the best of times.”

Caleb frowned around at them. Even Beauregard had had something done to her face which made her eyes look a different shape.

“How do people recognise you like…?” Caleb asked, ending with a gesture encompassing them all.

Nott snorted loudly from near the door.

“They might look different, but they’re still the Lords of Misrule,” she said derisively. “They still act the same.”

Misrule made various noises of protest and Caleb found himself smiling a little at how much they seemed to care for Nott’s opinion.

“Okay, okay,” Nott said eventually, holding her hands up in defeat. “That wasn’t entirely fair. If Fjord is on his own he can be pretty good at being someone else.”

Fjord grinned, while the others continued their protests until Nott held up her hands again.

“Okay, okay, okay. Beauregard does a creepily good Tracy, but it’s always Tracy so it isn’t really a disguise so much as an alter ego. In all seriousness, two or more of you together and you stick out like sore thumbs.”

“Nott?” Caleb interjected through the inevitable chorus of protests. “When you have said in the past that the Lords of Misrule are incapable of convincingly going undercover, was that simply because you know them so well? Will anyone other than you notice them on their shopping trip?”

Nott paused and cocked her head to the side, considering the question, before shaking her head.

“I think they’ll be fine,” she said, then shuffled her feet in a way that Caleb recognised signalled guilt. “Actually, some of that there in the reports might have been… exaggerated?” she looked at the floor. “I didn’t want anyone thinking I was bad at my job and… well, I am a goblin.”

“Wait, hold up,” said Mollymauk. “When you say exaggerated, which way did you exaggerate?”

Nott shrugged at him, and then gave a bit of a cheeky smile.

“Sometimes I’d say you were really crap at disguise, so it’d seem like I was super good at spotting your disguises, and sometimes I’d say you were rubbish at setting traps and espionage and fighting and seducing folks and stealing,” she waved her hand around a bit to imply everything else. “But I generally said you guys were the best at running away.”

Instead of protests this time, there was silence. Beauregard eventually broke it.

“Wouldn’t that make you seem crappy at your job, too? I mean…”

“They sent other people after you a couple of times and those reports were more flattering,” said Caleb, carefully assessing his options in case Nott had gone too far. “And, yes, those reports did make Nott seem like the superior counter-intelligence operative, though more often than not they led to the demotion of the person or persons sent in her stead.” He looked at Nott who still had a little bit of a guilty hunch to her shoulders. “I really would have rather you told me about your… concerns,” he told her, quietly.

“Different wars,” she muttered, and there was something regretful about the way she said it.

“Not to butt in, but you never did say how you planned to get into the Keep in your beggar disguise, Caleb?” said Fjord, brightly.

Caleb frowned slightly. For all he knew he wasn’t in the best head-space to talk with Nott about her insecurities, it seemed a little excessive for Fjord to run such obvious interference. Caleb pushed away his stirring concern to deal with later. He pulled out a copper meal chit to show them.

“I have this,” he said. “It grants me access to the midday veteran meals which are put on at the Keep not far from a servant’s entrance.”

“And when the servants kick you out?” Beau asked.

Caleb grimaced slightly. It seemed foolhardy to enlighten them, but since their goodwill could prove valuable, he relented.

“The Keep is not fully encompassed by an antimagic field. There are places where I can still cast this,” he cast his hair cantrip. “The servant’s entrance I plan to use is one of those places. And that should ensure I am taken to General Yismere rather than thrown out.”

------------------------------

Standing alone in a crowd of broken men and women, with a worn wooden bowl, outside the Keep kitchens, Caleb had to cling hard to his plan against the bleak horror that whispered through the blank fog enshrouding his mind. The crowd was loud with old friendships forged in fire and Caleb kept catching mentions of the lost – friends made in battle who’d never come home. A woman with an old bandage around her face stumbled thickly through words to a friend who was missing an arm. An older man with one leg leaned gingerly on a crutch, and Caleb could smell the sores in his armpit where the wood had chafed the skin. They were all too thin, too dirty, too broken. He kept his eyes down and his muttering insensible and tried to ignore the piece of him that insisted he was a monster for feeling so little when confronted with his crimes.

“Hey,” came a voice, as a hand found Caleb’s shoulder and he didn’t need to fake his flinch.

He looked over an found a large lady with burn scars slick across her cheek looking at him with a kindly smile.

“I haven’t seen you here before,” she said, in a voice matching the smile.

Caleb fixed his eyes on her scar and didn’t need to fake the blankness in his eyes either. He kept mumbling his nonsense under his breath and she frowned and glanced around them.

“Need a little space, maybe?” she asked, as she began to steer him out of the crowd towards the grey stone of the Keep proper.

As he limped along with her, he calculated and clutched his food bowl more tightly. She pushed him down to sit next to the wall, deftly helping with his staff as she sat next to him.

“I’m not going to try to steal your token,” she said gently, probably noticing his grip. “And they won’t be serving for another half-hour at least. I’ll help you get back in line when that happens, okay.”

As she fell silent next to him, Caleb’s mumbling slowed and stopped. Manipulation is like setting a pit trap in the woods, Ikithon’s voice murmured in the back of his head. Sometimes, something unexpected will fall in. Does a good hunter let such windfalls escape? Caleb remembered clearly how dutifully he’d responded at the time. And it was good advice, a part of him thought and considered how easily he could ask this woman to fetch him the food and, while she was gone, slip unnoticed through the small door that was now little more than ten feet away. The dirt in front of him offered no answers, nor did it help against the sensation that he was now falling back towards himself.

“You know,” began the woman, “I find it helps to consider the little things, just to get by from day to day. I look around at stuff and think about it.” She patted his arm a little clumsily, and Caleb realised he was shaking. “So, I look at something like that wall and think how long it must’ve taken to build it and where the stones might’ve come from and how stones feel against my fingers… It helps me breathe you know.”

She fell silent again and Caleb’s tongue felt thick and his eyes pricked as he remembered Caduceus’ gentle words and the warmth of his cups of tea and, as he tried to pull forward the memory of the firbolg’s scent of bruised leaves and musty dark soil, another skipped ahead of Jester and her sketchbook and mundane life turned into something more in her recounting, and the world came painfully back into focus. He swallowed and tried to breathe evenly, reaching over to the veteran to grip her arm in a desperate attempt to steady himself. You still have a job to do, he thought and tried to focus on something other than his guilt.

“Breathe, friend. It’s okay. I’m here, I’ve got you,” she said, obviously realising something was wrong and Caleb bit back the urge to laugh slightly hysterically.

Caduceus and Nott would probably call this the opposite of wrong, regardless of how it felt to go through it.

“How did… how did you get burned?” he bit out, partly to stop her comforting litany.

“Wrong place at the wrong time,” she said, her voice suddenly flat. “We were being overrun and the wizard put down a firewall to cover our retreat, but I was too far out and got hit by it.”

Memories flickered through his head, all the times he’d covered retreats, all the times he’d used Firewall and heard the screams.

“What happened to you?” she asked, interrupting his indexing.

I don’t actually know what hunters do, good or otherwise, he thought to himself and lifted his gaze from the ground to look her in the face.

“I suppose I cast Firewall too many times,” he told her, hoping she’d see the regret. “I’m not… I do not deserve your kindness,” he said, shaking his head.

As he moved to stand up, she grabbed his upper arm and pulled him back down.

“That Firewall saved my life and the lives of my friends,” she said, earnestly. “Don’t be sorry for it. Just ‘cause you were a wizard doesn’t mean you don’t deserve to eat here.” She shook her head, an unreadable look on her face. “Hells, you probably saw ten times the horrors in that shit storm than any of us.”

Caleb looked at her.

“What is your name?” he asked, after a long moment.

“Lorna Brookwise. Yours?”

“Caleb Widogast,” he said, and she gave a quiet huff of surprise. “I’m here to talk to General Yismere, but I couldn’t afford anyone finding out.”

Her look hardened, and he was very glad they weren’t in an antimagic field. His fingers itched to trace Mage Armor.

“What’re you planning to talk to the general about,” Lorna asked, the threat in her voice not particularly veiled.

Caleb resisted the urge to run, instead committing to his gamble.

“Some people attacked myself and my husband – the Xhorhasian I married to seal the peace, that is – at the crossroads between here and Hupperdook. They were waiting for us, they were well trained they had mages, and they were Dwendalian. Someone is threatening the peace and it is not I.” Caleb grimaced. “Besides, if I so much as looked like I wanted to restart the war, Yismere would cut me down and dump my body down the garderobe.”

Lorna relaxed just slightly at that, and Caleb made a mental note to congratulate Yismere on the trust she’d managed to foster.

“I will do everything in my power to prevent another war,” he told her quietly, hoping she could detect the honesty in his voice. “And, Lorna, I was not pretending before… well I was a little, but not when we sat down here. I-I want you to know that.”

He looked away, not wanting to see how she responded to him admitting his instability. She lightly touched his shoulder.

“Do you need any help?”

“You’ve already helped,” he said, and pulled out the meal token and handed it to her along with the bowl. “Find someone who needs these, and… try not to tell anyone? It would be best if the gossip mill did not twist this into some Xhorhasian attack.”

She nodded and, this time, let him stand, handing him his staff and standing herself.

“Thank you, for this,” she said touching her scarred cheek. “But please keep this,” she gestured out at the crowd, “from happening to anyone else.”

He swallowed hard and nodded.

“I’ll do what I can. I promise you,” he said, before heading to the servant’s door to slip inside.

Now he just had to hope that Yismere would be so easy to convince.

-------------------------------

Molly had been transported to Elysium. And it’d only cost him two silver pieces for the privilege. Only two silver pieces to browse a whole warehouse of clothes and trinkets and weird things all sorted into bins in some unfathomable system.

He’d found a particularly promising bin full of fine wool and fur coats and was in the process of excavating to the bottom when he was interrupted by a tap on the knee. Looking round he saw Nott looking fucking creepy with her porcelain mask on.

“Where’s everyone else?” she asked, her rasp evened out by the muffling of the mask.

Molly shrugged.

“Who knows? They didn’t think two silver was worth it.”

“Two silver?”

“To get in?

“Oh,” said Nott, and it was pretty obvious that she hadn’t paid. “Well, do you know… wait. You paid to get into this place.”

“Of course.”

“It’s just a barn with a bunch of old clothes? Or do you just get to pick any you want now?” Nott’s eyes lit up with the speculation as she looked around.

“Nope!” Molly said, brightly. “I still have to buy anything I want, but I can look at things and try them on.”

Nott levelled a sceptical look at him.

“You paid two silver pieces so you can buy things. That is…” Nott shook her head, apparently at a loss for words.

Molly grinned.

“There’s probably a coat made entirely of buttons under here somewhere, you know,” he said, and she gave him a disgusted look.

“You know most merchants will find it for you themselves.”

“But where’s the fun in that?” he asked and pulled out a blue coat that looked like it might fit Fjord.

It had a swan design embroidered in silver thread across it and mother-of-pearl buttons. He considered the coat for a long moment before deciding against it. Fjord could be so very insecure about odd things. Picking it up had revealed another interesting sleeve which he leaned in to fish for.

“How long have you been here for?” Nott asked, as he dragged his new find out.

He hummed as he considered the sizing of the dark green woollen monstrosity before tossing it to the side and going for another rummage. Nott prodded his leg again.

“How long?” she asked again, and Molly frowned at her for a moment until her words sank in.

“Oh, um. We had an early lunch and then came here? So, however long that’s been.”

“It’s mid-afternoon, Molly.”

“How did you find me, anyway?” he asked as he moved on to the next bin.

This one looked like it was dressing gowns in shades of red and gold, and the first one he touched felt like silk. He made a noise of approval and set to sorting them into stacks.

Nott suddenly yanked his tail, which hurt a fair bit and caused him to make a noise embarrassingly like a yowl.

“… are you even listening to me?” she asked with a glare.

He considered his options.

“No?” he admitted hesitantly.

She glared some more and tapped her foot.

“Sorry,” he offered. “Caleb’s been making me dressing gowns in the Mansion, so maybe he’d like one?”

Distracting her with Caleb was worth a try to avoid being stabbed somewhere sensitive.

“He makes you dressing gowns?” Nott asked with suspicion heavy in her voice.

Not the ideal response, he thought and hunched his shoulders slightly.

“Yes? I asked him for something comfy to wear about the place.”

“How many?” she asked with narrowed eyes, and Molly felt like he was somehow only digging himself deeper trying to get out.

In for a copper, in for a gold.

“Lots?” he said.

“Describe them,” she demanded, flatly.

“There’s a nice soft blue one in, I think, goat’s wool. A light grey one in quilted silk with green ivy embroidered trim. You know these change every time he makes the Mansion, right?”

“I’ve seen your room. Keep going,” Nott hissed.

“Okay, okay,” he said, hands up in surrender. “There’s a rather dashing black silk in patterned fabric with a black fur trim—"

Nott made a noise in her throat.

“Any skimpy ones?” she asked, sounding dangerous.

“Y-yes? A rather sheer one in dark blue—”

“I’m going to kill him. I’m going to… I’m going to do such things!

“What?” he asked, puzzled, and instantly regretted it as she turned her attention back to him.

She unhitched her crossbow and waved it under his nose.

“Those dressing gowns are mine! Never ever ever wear them ever again. Ugh!”

Molly blinked, bewildered.

“What?”

“He’s been using all my stuff to make your room, and now this?!” She waggled her crossbow some more, and Molly felt himself go cross-eyed. “Those are for me and Yeza! Ugh! Which ones did you wear? Which ones?”

Molly felt dawning realization wash through his mind like the urge to vomit washed through him when he was hungover – cold, heavy, and irresistible – as the meaning behind Nott’s horrified anger began to fall into place. He felt his own horror dawning and gently pushed the tip of her crossbow down away from his face.

“You mean… all those robes… that wasn’t…”

“That wasn’t what?”

“Um, you have an awful lot of dressing gowns, Nott,” he pointed out rather than get into any of his personal confusion.

“It’s a collection,” she said, defensive and still suspicious.

Then realization swept over her rough features.

“You thought he was being – being…”

“Suggestive. Yes, well a bit,” Molly admitted, uncomfortably. “I mean, he always makes my room so nice and then he fills my closet with skimpy dressing gowns… it makes a man think.”

“Stop thinking,” she ordered, punching him on the hip before narrowing her eyes again. “I mean, stop thinking about my dressing gowns. And most of your room is jumbled up bits of my room so you can stop thinking about that, too.” She huffed out her nose and stepped back looking away. “But he wouldn’t have been giving you copies of my things if he didn’t like you.”

“Why would he be copying your things?” Molly asked; it was just one of a number of sticking points, but it was the weirdest.

Nott looked back up with a frown, then sighed.

“Magic isn’t easy, and he’s done it in a few of the other rooms too. Mostly yours, though. He’s been figuring out how to put my collections into the mansion for a while, so I don’t need to keep it all, and, well, pretty much all the nice stuff he’s figured out how to make in the Mansion is mine.”

Molly cocked his head to the side as he processed.

“So, the tapestries…”

“My tapestry collection.”

“The quilts?”

“My collection, at least the ones in your room. I think Yasha has had some that Caleb came up with.”

“The couches?” Molly asked a little desperately, and Nott paused.

“…Not so much. Some of the fabrics they’ve been upholstered with, though, definitely.”

“Well.”

“Sorry,” said Nott, and patted him on the knee.

Molly blinked at her and made an effort to compose his face. He just wasn’t made to cope with such betrayals.

“He is making an effort,” she said when he didn’t respond, and he nodded vaguely.

She patted his knee again.

“Now, tell me which ones you’ve worn, so I know what I need to burn,” she said, firmly.

Chapter Text

The courtyard outside the kitchens was close to empty when Caleb finally emerged from the door back into the afternoon light. A dour looking assistant was in the process of plucking ten or so chickens near the wall where the wind wouldn’t disturb the feathers too much, and some children were playing with some dried horse apples nearby, squealing and running from each other as they threw them about. It was all pleasantly normal, pleasantly carefree, and Caleb limped his way across to the gate, muttering, with a slightly hopeful feeling in his chest. The general had listened and agreed to the important bits, and – importantly – disagreed when Caleb had pushed too hard for her allegiance. He wasn’t so arrogant as to think he could make the best offer of any member of the Cerberus Assembly, but the general had been reassuringly adamant. Any better offer would have to be foolishly generous.

As he mused, he muttered, and dodged out of the way of carts and horses and guards who directed hard looks his way as he limped down towards the lower city, where they thought he belonged. With the greyness and shakiness of earlier largely lifted, Caleb could appreciate the optimistic feel Bladegarden had taken on since his last visit. People were smiling openly in the sunlight, talking to one another, and even sitting out in the sun relaxing – a far cry from when the city was under siege, with the skies dark and fear stalking through the streets.

On the way to the safe house, he stole into a bakery and got something for lunch when the smell sparked the memory of Nott nagging him to eat. The halfling man behind the counter frowned at him as he looked over the displays, but was patient when Caleb fumbled counting out his coppers. It was only after he’d left that Caleb noticed an extra pastry had been slipped into his bag. As he sat down at the side of the road to eat, he considered how he might repay the man – the gesture had been misguided after all. As he walked through the lower city he deposited the extra pastry into a genuine beggar’s bowl.

The safe-house was empty when he returned, dark and chill and unwelcoming like a dream of someplace long lost. He leant his staff by the door, laid his coat over the back of a chair, and sat down heavily. It had been quite the two days. He scrubbed his face with his hands and felt his stubble rasp against his palms. Quite the couple of weeks, actually. He leant back in his chair and looked at the ceiling. There were quite a few spiderwebs texturing the shadows around the beams, and he briefly considered cleaning them away before he thought better of it. It was by far more the spiders’ home than it was his. Inevitably his thoughts drifted back to the Lords of Misrule. Back to his marriage. And back to Mollymauk. They had been an unknown factor, and now he was getting attached. The battle at the crossroads had certainly proved their mettle. And they trusted you, he thought, still with a touch of bewildered wonder, despite how often that thought had occurred to him since they’d arrived in Bladegarden. Perhaps with a little more wonder now he was… more himself. It felt wrong to smile over the memory of Misrule running towards him to be evacuated, especially since he was pretty sure he’d managed to disturb them with his treatment of Herman. And Mollymauk certainly didn’t seem trusting when you cast Haste, he reminded himself to quell the warm glow in his belly.

As he sat back up and set to rubbing the muscles in his thigh, tight from a day of feigned limping, he heard the downstairs door open and close, then the sound of muffled conversation in familiar voices. Nott and… Mollymauk. And, oddly, no one else.

As they came through the door into the safe-house proper, Caleb could tell something was wrong. Nott looked quietly furious.

“Ah, where is everyone?” he asked, hesitantly.

Mollymauk dropped a large bundle of clothes on the floor and flopped down into a seat, an unreadable expression on his face, and took a cloth to begin wiping off his makeup.

“No idea,” said Nott, drawing his attention back to her as she drew herself up to her full height. “Caleb Widogast! We need to talk.”

He opened his eyes wide at her dangerous tone. It was one she very rarely used on him, and it suggested he’d done something she wanted explained very clearly.

“Ja… what is it?” he asked, glancing at Mollymauk who gave him a humourless smile.

Apparently, Nott didn’t see this as an issue that demanded privacy.

“You!!” she began, outraged. “You!!! You gave him my dressing gowns!” her finger jabbed out in Mollymauk’s direction and he gave a little wave.

“You mean… ja? I used copies of your collections…” he trailed off at her dark look.

“Those were for me and Yeza!”

“They were copies, though,” Caleb said in a small voice, hunching his shoulders.

His attempt to mollify her looked like it was working, until Mollymauk chimed in.

“Even if they were copies, it’s still kinda weird. Some of those were rather… racy.”

Caleb blinked then looked back at Nott, then at Mollymauk, then back at Nott. Previously unconsidered possibilities clamoured for his attention. He was hardly unaware of the nature of Nott’s dressing gown collection, he had, after all, painstakingly described each and every one in arcane sequences so they could be included in the Mansion spell. Somehow, he’d just assumed that she, and Mollymauk for that matter, used only the comfortable end of the spectrum and the rest were for admiring. The memory of Mollymauk wearing the blue silk dressing gown with delicate cranes and cherry blossoms flashed to the forefront of his mind. In hindsight, that should have been a clue. The idea of Nott seducing Yeza in some of the dressing gowns didn’t bear thinking about.

He was pretty sure his cheeks were close to combusting.

“I-I I didn’t think…” he managed to say, his voice sounding pinched to his own ears.

“Didn’t think? I am a grown woman, Caleb! And a married one at that! What did you imagine I was collecting sheer dressing gowns for?”

“Well, they were pretty…” he paused to drag his mind away from the images his over-active imagination was trying to throw at him. “You have one hundred and ninety-two dressing gowns, Nott, and most of those aren’t sized for you outside the Mansion. I did not imagine you actually meant to use them all. But I am very, very sorry that I misunderstood.”

He did his best to look humbly contrite and Nott sighed, the tension leaving her small form.

“Okay, maybe not all of them,” she admitted. “But I certainly had plans for some of them, but now I have to burn them.”

“They were copies, Nott, and besides I’m sure he wouldn’t have—”

“I did,” Mollymauk interjected.

Caleb looked at him, speechless, as his mind short-circuited. Mollymauk grinned cheekily and Nott made gagging noises.

“…ah-um-well…” Caleb tried, and looked rather desperately back over to Nott. “I, ah, I can see to it that the wardrobes are separated from now on, if you don’t mind him keeping the ones he’s… worn.”

The flustered feeling taking over his chest almost made him long for the return of the grey mood he’d woken up to. Almost. Mollymauk’s muffled laughter as he bent double and pointed at Nott’s renewed look of outrage was… nice.

“Keeping the copies that is?” Caleb asked, in an attempt to head off Nott’s next outburst.

“… I suppose,” she said crossing her arms. “How many are we talking?”

“Thirty-nine.”

“Really?” Mollymauk managed to say through his stifled laughter, sounding surprised.

Nott directed a glare at him, then turned back to Caleb.

“If he hasn’t worn them, I want them back,” she said, firmly.

Caleb nodded.

“I can add them into the Mansion tonight so that you two can go through them and figure out which have been worn. I really am very sorry, Nott, I’m just not good at coming up with these things without references.”

After studying him a moment longer she walked over to pat him on the knee.

“It’s okay,” she said, and sighed. “I probably could have mentioned something when I saw you were using my other collections.”

“I was meaning to ask: what do you mean by references? How does it work? Can I have collections, too?” asked Mollymauk in a barrage.

Caleb looked back over to where Molly had picked up his cloth again and was trying to wipe off the makeup on his hands but seemed to be just smearing it around. Before he could think too hard, Caleb went over and took the cloth from him. Mollymauk let him take it, looking a little wide eyed.

“I, ah, that doesn’t seem to be working. If I may?” Caleb asked, a little hesitant.

There was something about the way Molly was looking at him that had him feeling still more flustered.

“Um, yeah?” Mollymauk said, sounding a bit hesitant himself.

Caleb took Mollymauk’s hands in his own and focused on carefully casting a version of prestidigitation that would remove the makeup alongside the dirt accrued across a day wandering the streets of the city. He let his gaze trace across Mollymauk’s features as the spell washed the grey away. Just checking nothing was missed, he told himself and tried to ignore the fact he knew he was lying as he felt himself warm at the sight of Mollymauk’s cheeks darkening.

“Ah, thank you?” said Mollymauk, sounding a vaguely strangled, and Caleb realized he was still holding his hands.

As he began to move back, but before he could let go, Mollymauk twisted one of his hands to grip Caleb’s and raise it to his lips.

“Thank you,” Mollymauk murmured, in far more sultry tones, and then pressed his lips to the back of Caleb’s hand.

It was… unexpected. Caleb wasn’t quite sure how he was still breathing, and he found his gaze locked on Molly’s lips as the tiefling let his hand drop and wet his lips with his tongue. After another age in which it dawned upon Caleb that Molly was blushing a great deal now, too. And then Molly stood up, knocking his chair over as he did so, and gave a flamboyant bow.

“I am, I do believe, eternally in your debt,” he said to Caleb, turning what Caleb was almost certain had been genuine flirting back into teasing. “I would have been forever grey if not for your mighty wizardry! How can I ever repay you?”

Caleb was also reasonably sure there was a little more to the question, and momentarily considered pursuing it – if only to see how far Mollymauk could be thrown off kilter – before thinking better of it. He pulled himself together as best he could.

“You could, ah, you could show me the references for your collection?” Caleb said, struggling to keep his tone even and hide his own fluster. “If you show me items you want to have in your room in the Mansion I am able to use them as references to recreate the object in… in a sort of arcane script. I have a good memory for them, but I also keep paper versions so that collections are never lost.”

The look Molly gave him was careful, and his tail continued to swish in a manner that Caleb was rapidly coming to understand did not indicate fear.

“So… I show you things that I want and you’ll make them for me in the Mansion?” asked Mollymauk, the teasing seemingly gone, replaced by a sort of wonder. “Anything?”

“More or less?”

The grin Mollymauk gave him made him wonder if he’d regret his answer sooner or later.

“Now that’s sorted,” said Nott from the corner where she’d finished unwinding her bandages, and Caleb was glad that he wasn’t alone in his slight startled jump. “Do you need time to re-order the mansion so that we can sort out the dressing gowns?”

Caleb tried not to shuffle his feet at her knowing look.

“Ja, I should- I should get onto that.”

He gave a quick glance over at Mollymauk to give him a small nod before leaving the room and retreating to the small study. He had plenty to think about – even though he was sure thinking would only make things worse.

------------------

Mollymauk wasn’t sure whether to be glad Nott interrupted or annoyed. He absentmindedly brushed his fingers over where Caleb had traced the lines for his spell as he turned to look back at Nott. Who very clearly understood what had just transpired as she raised her brows at him.

“On a scale of one to fourteen,” he began, as he righted his chair so he could slump back down into it, “how obvious is it?”

“I think he actually spotted it this time,” Nott replied, walking over to pat him awkwardly on the knee.

He dropped his face into his hands and groaned.

“If it’s any consolation, you are married to him,” Nott said, gently.

He raised his head enough to meet her eyes and then dramatically dropped it back into his hands with another, louder, groan of anguish. Being married didn’t change the fact that he’d just acted like a complete fool and revealed his… his crush in the most transparent manner possible. Or that Caleb hadn’t seemed to be affected. He did blush though, the hopeful part of him pointed out, and he was definitely looking at your lips. He risked another peek at Nott, who was staring at the door Caleb had exited, delicately nibbling her lip.

“Nott, can you be honest with me?” he asked.

“Mostly,” she said without looking at him, still vacantly patting his knee.

“Do you think Caleb might—”

He was cut off by the sound of the lower door opening and the loud arrival of, at the very least Jester. He grabbed Nott’s hand earnestly.

“Please don’t tell them,” he whispered, urgently, just before the door to the room slammed open.

He hastily dropped Nott’s hand and snatched up his bundle of purchases and set to untying them as Jester swept in in a swirl of red, followed by Beau and Fjord, arguing about whether throwing stars were worth a damn, and with Yasha filing in behind them.

“Oooh! What did you get, Molly?” Jester asked, as soon as she saw what he was doing.

He was more than ready to gush about his purchases and avoid worrying about his own nonsense, so he began to regale them with his shopping saga, holding up his purchases and delighting in his friends’ reactions. Jester squealed in delight at the pale pink chemise he’d bought her, and Fjord seemed to appreciate his restraint when Molly told him about all the things he hadn’t bought him. Inevitably, though, the story wound around to Nott finding him, and the dressing gown debacle.

“Caleb gave you dressing gowns?” Jester asked, suspiciously excited, just as he started to explain the misunderstanding.

He patiently looped back to how he’d asked Caleb for something comfy to wear around the Mansion, and tried to ignore her knowing look.

“Wait. How would you fit Nott’s dressing gowns?” Beau interrupted to ask, when he had just managed to get his story back on track.

He gave her a dirty look, and had a go at explaining what Caleb had said about the Mansion and collections. He suspected he didn’t do very well, given Nott’s couple of incredulous snorts at his attempts to elaborate. He glared at her, and launched back into describing their standoff, and the priceless look on her face when she figured out what Caleb had been doing.

“D’ya think Widogast would be open to adding stuff for us, too?” Fjord asked, with a small frown and serious look that made it clear he hadn’t been listening to the hilarity Molly had been trying to recount.

“I give up!” Molly said, flinging his hands in the air. “Yeah, sure, he’ll add whatever. He’s gone through to one of the rooms.”

“Aww, Molly! I’m sure Fjord didn’t mean to interrupt,” Jester wheedled, and Molly nearly gave in, before scrunching up his nose at her and shaking his head.

“Too late. You guys ruined my story and now you’re not invited to the show.”

“What show?” Jester and Nott asked simultaneously in completely opposite tones.

Molly winked at Nott.

“Caleb’s making all the dressing gowns that’ve been through my wardrobe appear in the mansion tonight, and we’re sorting out which ones I’ve worn and get to keep,” he said. “But now none of you are invited!”

“Um, Molly,” said Yasha, uncertainly. “Can I come see the dressing gowns? If that’s alright with you, too, Nott?”

Nott couldn’t hold her grumpy expression in the face of Yasha’s gentle earnestness.

“I suppose you can come,” Nott conceded.

Molly grinned as Jester, predictably, began her protests. With any luck, his friends chaperoning would keep him from making a complete fool of himself, again.

---------------------------------

Caleb wasn’t entirely sure what to say when all the Lords of Misrule followed him to the room he’d set aside for sorting out Nott’s collection. He’d spent his time in the study feeling fragile and overwhelmed and at a complete loss as to what to do next. He’d sent two short messages out, which if everything played out as he anticipated, would result in Fabian’s ruin, but it hadn’t helped him feel any more in control. None of his uncertainty had abated by the time he’d had to show his face again in order to set up the Mansion. Mollymauk had still looked just as wonderous as when he’d left. Perhaps it’ll be a good thing to have the rest of Misrule watching the sorting, he thought. It might keep his attention off you. As nice as that attention had been, he knew for sure he wouldn’t be able to keep it together if Molly decided to kiss his hand again whilst wearing the dark blue robe.

He hesitated at the door a moment, before gesturing for them all to come in. The look Molly gave him as he went past made him feel like his tongue had been glued to the roof of his mouth. He closed the door behind everyone in a bit of a daze.

Turning to face the room, he frowned. He had anticipated Mollymauk trying on some of the clothes on, and so had left room for that next to a large table suitable for sorting and the three wardrobes, but he hadn’t anticipated that there’d be so many in attendance. Anticipate or die, a memory whispered, and he could feel himself beginning to freeze up.

“Here, kitty, kitty!” Jester called at what Caleb hoped was the top of her lungs.

Her being capable of being any louder didn’t bear considering. A servant came trotting through the closed door seconds later and shifted into humanoid form in front of her.

“You called?” it asked.

“Yes!” said Jester. “Can you please bring us a bunch of chairs or cushions or both for us to sit on?”

“We need seating for four more people,” Caleb interjected to save them from disaster.

Nonetheless, he smiled a little at Jester and gave her a nod of thanks. Even if she hadn’t noticed his fragility, she’d still neatly circumvented his spiralling thoughts. He started to wander over to the wardrobes while they waited for the servant to come back, but Mollymauk bet him to it, and flung open the doors with a quick grin and a wink over his shoulder that could have been directed at anyone. There was more than a touch of drama in the way he plucked out a handful of hangers seemingly at random and swooped their contents across the table

“Shall we begin?” he asked the room at large, posing and giving a sweeping, sultry look.

Molly’s enthusiasm was met with a chorus of excuses and reasons to delay from his friends and Caleb couldn’t help but smile at their teasing while he ducked his head and made for the table, hoping no one noticed whatever silly look had made its way onto his face. At least as bad as with Caduceus, he thought, as he got himself situated with a notebook while Molly protested his friends’ attitudes. Nott clambered onto her chair next to him and gave him a knowing look that he tried to ignore.

As the seats arrived, the Lords of Misrule stopped their arguing to arrange them around the clear spot. Once they got comfortable, Jester led them in a chant of “Show! Show! Show!” and Mollymauk began to sort through the dressing gowns on the table.

“Only the ones you’ve already worn,” Nott growled at him.

He gave her a calculating look and selected a delicate white robe with lace sleeves and silver embroidery. Nott made a wordless sound of outrage and distress.

“And you are… you are sure you’ve worn that one?” Caleb asked on her behalf, trying not to think too hard.

“Of course,” Molly purred, brushing his fingers over the lace.

Then his face did something complicated as he looked from Caleb to the lace then back up. Taking a step back from the table he undid his belt and, watching Caleb intently, he unlaced his shirt, before pulling it off over his head. Caleb swallowed hard as Molly’s tattoos were revealed, and he remembered with absolute clarity how they’d looked on their wedding night. Molly winked at him as Jester and Beau wolf-whistled at him.

“Can’t risk catching the lace,” he told them before turning back to Caleb.

Caleb looked away, down to his notebook, trying to remember how to talk.

“Ja, a, ah, a good idea, though not entirely necessary given these are copies,” Caleb managed to say.

It was easier to think when looking at the woodgrain of the table rather than the delicate lines of Molly’s tattoos. He picked up his quill and began to note down the white lace as Mollymauk’s. He focused on writing as neatly as possible, and Mollymauk only hesitated a little longer before he turned back to his actual audience.

Nott nudged him, smearing his ink a little, and Caleb gave her a Look.

“I had plans for that,” she whispered. “You know how much Yeza likes lace on me.”

“Nein, I did not,” Caleb whispered back. “And I didn’t want to know,” he added.

She gave him a Look of her own.

“Well, the least you could do is pay attention. Someone should appreciate it.”

Caleb’s protest, that Misrule all seemed to be enjoying it going by their “ooh”s and “ahhh”s, died when he glanced over to where Nott was pointing. Molly was holding his hair up to show off the delicate silver jasmine embroidery across the back of the robe, and Caleb could see the suggestion of back tattoos through the fine fabric across his shoulders. He wanted to touch them. Badly. He looked back down before he could be caught staring by anyone other than Nott.

There were only thirty-nine dressing gowns in total. His eyes flicked back up to where Molly was posing, smoothing his hands down his sides gracefully. He looked back down and began to write out more details to distract himself from his own imagination. Only thirty-nine, he thought to himself, slightly desperately, and he can’t have worn them all.

--------------------------

As Misrule began chanting “Next!” Molly swished back to the table to pick another robe. They were nearly done, and Nott was still glowering at him, and Caleb was still acting all as professional as a dressmaker. If not for the look on his face when Molly had taken off his shirt, and the slight flush of his cheeks, Molly might have believed his act. If it is an act, muttered his pessimistic side. Could have just been second-hand embarrassment at you making a fool of yourself. He took his time picking through the stack, stealing glances at Caleb. Embarrassment or not, he wasn’t blank anymore, which was a relief.

At length, under Nott’s watchful eye, Molly had to concede there was only the brushed green flannel dressing gown left of the ones he’d used. It was disappointing, if only because he’d have liked to end with something racy. He shrugged and pulled it on.

“This is it,” he said to Nott, as he ran the soft edge of the fabric between his fingers.

Caleb looked up to take in the robe, carefully studying it as he had done with all the others, and Molly shoved down the urge to do something stupid to pull his attention away from the robe and onto him.

“Show us!” Jester called from behind him, and Molly jumped a little, realising he’d been staring.

“Coming,” he said, spinning on his heel, a little disappointed by the lack of a satisfying swish from the garment.

As he showed off the rather dowdy last robe, he couldn’t help but wonder how horrified Jester would be if he told her she’d stopped him making a fool of himself. He gave her a mischievous smile and a wink that had her narrowing her eyes at him. One day, when this had all blown over, he’d probably tell her, he decided. Until then, he’d just have to swear Nott and Beau to secrecy.

Chapter Text

Caleb lay on his back, staring at the ceiling, with Frumpkin fast asleep curled into his side. It was twelve past three in the morning, and he knew he should be sleeping, but his brain wouldn’t shut up and let him. He kept thinking about checking the seals, of how in a little over two days he’d be standing once again at the site of his hollow triumph. And he also kept thinking about Mollymauk. How Mollymauk had looked at him, how Mollymauk had moved, how Mollymauk had sounded.

When he tried to dwell moodily on the eternity of torture he’d condemned his former teacher to – to sketch out a plan of how to deal with an insane Trent Ikithon if he had been freed – the memory of Molly knocking over his chair, all flustered, would sneak in, and he’d find himself smiling like a fool and no closer to sleep. If he let his mind wander, and ponder on the feeling of Mollymauk’s hands in his, and Molly’s arms wrapped around him, he found himself tense with anxiety at the thought of Ikithon walking free, and freely able to take away everything Caleb had been working towards. The memory of what had happened when Trent had found out about Astrid teased at the edges of his mind despite Caleb’s steadfast attempts to suppress it.

By the time morning arrived, he’d at least figured out how he felt towards Mollymauk: grumpy. He couldn’t say he hadn’t slept - his internal ramblings had a fairly hazy quality at times in his memory - but it certainly felt like he hadn’t had a wink of worthwhile sleep. He stood in the ornate foyer, feeling like complete rubbish, waiting for his companions to drag themselves from their breakfast, and resisting the urge to pace.

When they finally emerged, all looking bright and perky, with Jester in the lead laughing at some joke, he had to remind himself that it wasn’t fair to take his foul mood out on them. He did glare at Mollymauk, though, because the man had no right to look so swish and confident and gorgeous when Caleb felt like shit, and it was all his fault. Mollymauk saw the glare and flinched, looking away and down, and Caleb felt like even more of a garbage person. He made a show of checking his pockets rather than deal with apologizing, knowing he’d just end up snapping or grumping and making it worse.

Jester must have detected his mood, because she didn’t try to drag him to look at the rooms, and ushered everyone out to get started on their disguises. As they all filed out, Nott gave him a sharp look, and he let his tiredness show for just a moment. Her look gentled, and she patted his hand wordlessly before following Misrule out.

He closed his eyes, and reminded himself he had a job to do. He could deal with everything else later.

----------------------------

As Molly slathered thick grey make-up over his arms, he tried his best to ignore the ice in his gut and the wizard undoing his Mansion spell. He was so focused on not paying attention that Jester’s hands joining his startled him.

“You’re making it way too thick, Molly,” she loudly scolded him, before leaning in closer to whisper. “Why the long face?”

“Your Traveller’s decided to turn me into a horse slow this time,” he retorted, composing himself a little.

Her eyes flicked across to Caleb, and Molly, helpless against the suggestion, looked, too. The wizard was just concluding his ritual and, given he’d rolled up his sleeves, Molly couldn’t help but notice how his forearms shifted with the movements of his fingers. He swallowed hard, and looked away.

“Caleb seems pretty tense this morning, don’t you think?” Jester remarked, apparently oblivious to Molly’s mood.

Molly busied himself with sorting his powders and brushes.

“Hey, Caleb!” Jester called over, as she grabbed Molly’s face and began smearing the base coat over his cheeks. “Are you in a bad mood?”

“Ja.”

“Whyyyyy?” Jester asked, in the wheedling tone she reserved for bad moods.

Out of the corner of his eye Molly saw Caleb’s face shift from stern to exhausted for a beat, before the other man composed himself again.

“I did not sleep.”

Molly had to close his eyes to save them from Jester’s carelessness in make-up application, but he could clearly picture the annoyed, mothering look on her face when she made a disgusted sound at Caleb. Her disgust at having to look after people was only really matched by her stubborn insistence that it was one of her duties. Molly couldn't help but smile fondly.

“Why didn’t you sleep?” she asked.

There wasn’t any sound from the wizard, but Jester made a peeved noise and Molly risked trying to open one of his eyes. It was a mistake. Almost immediately the base coat found its way into his eye, and he spent the next few minutes swearing and blinking while Jester told him he was a big baby and should have known better.

By the time the stinging had died down, Caleb was long gone, and Nott was looking at him with a pensive expression. He gave her a wink and turned to wipe his hands on a rag. Picking apart Caleb’s bad mood could wait; it was time to have his revenge: Jester needed a base coat, too.

-------------------------

The transport Nott had arranged turned out to be an old cart drawn by a pair of tired looking bullocks, each as miserable looking as the other. The vehicle had several very obvious patches and the front axle had an iron bar support half-covering a serious looking fracture, but it was, nonetheless, stacked high with cages of chickens. Caleb stood next to the cart, looking nearly as miserable as the bullock as he stared at the cages. Molly walked over to stick his finger through the bars of one of them, trying to pet a chicken.

“Why are there chickens?” he asked Caleb in a deliberately casual tone, without looking over.

Caleb made a slight huffing sound Molly couldn’t decipher.

“We get the cart on the condition we deliver the chickens. Nott is not always the best at negotiating these things.”

The chicken pecked Molly hard on the knuckle, and he yanked his hand back and rubbed it, frowning.

“I mean, the chickens give us a fairly legitimate cover for leaving the city,” he argued out of a vague sense of loyalty to Nott.

“Maybe they would, if we weren’t delivering them to the butcher four streets over,” Caleb said, dryly.

Molly glanced across at him and found him frowning back. He was just opening his mouth, to try and make a joke, when Jester burst out the door, her disguise finally impeccable, and froze seeing the cart. They both turned to look at her, and she looked at them, then looked back at the cart.

Nott strolled out, ducking under Jester’s frozen tail, and clambered up the side of the cart into the driver’s seat. She took a swig from her flask and tugged her hood further forward.

“Don’t just stand there,” she growled. “Climb on, and let’s get going.”

“Where?” Jester asked, still unusually taken aback.

“To Ashguard.”

“No, I mean where do we sit?” Jester clarified, waving her hand at the cages.

Behind her, Fjord emerged, shook his head at the cart and turned to go back inside. Beau turned him back around and started pushing him towards the cart with a hand on his back.

“There’s room,” Nott said, though it was more a mutter. She patted the seat next to her. “Caleb, you’re up with me.”

Caleb shook his head slightly and clambered up next to her. Molly frowned a little, then turned to his friends.

“We can always stretch our legs?” he said with a winning smile. “Have a nice little walk? Nott purchased the cart from a dying man whose one wish was for someone to complete his quest to deliver these sacred chickens, here, to a place a couple of streets over. And, while they’re being unloaded, we can hunt down a bakery to buy something for lunch.”

Jester’s dubious look brightened at the mention of a bakery, as he’d known it would. Even Fjord looked a little less put out. Molly slapped the side of the wagon twice and Nott yelled for the bullocks to g’yup.

As the cart began to move, Molly turned, walking backwards, to begin to properly weave the tale of the poor dying farmer and his chickens for his friends. Partway through, as he paused for laughter, a quiet voice spilled into his mind.

“Danke,” Caleb whispered. “Nott appreciates it.”

Molly resisted the urge to turn, and forced himself to keep going and ignore the fluttering in his chest. Just because he was a lovesick fool didn’t mean he had to act like one.

-----------------------

The cart was the worst. Even with the chickens unloaded and the cart-bed swept, the whole thing still stank like chicken shit. The only person who didn’t seem to mind was Caleb, who’d moved to the back and promptly fallen asleep shortly after they’d left the city.

Unfortunately, Molly’s friends had decided they couldn’t be too careful, and he’d been sentenced to stay in the cart with Caleb while Nott manned the reigns and everyone else walked in a loose guard formation. Which meant they avoided the smell, and Beau felt she could complain loudly about her feet and how good he had it whenever they stopped for a break. She didn’t seem to care that the cart had uneven wheels, rough wood, and stank – according to her, he was living in luxury. And when Caleb had woken up, Molly no longer had the consolation of getting to watch him sleep.

As the cart found another set of particularly rough bumps, he was reasonably sure his spine would never be the same again. He watched the scenery, farms ploughed into old battlefields like bandages over grievous wounds, and felt bored and guilty. He sighed loudly.

“You could talk to Nott,” Caleb remarked, not looking up from his spell-book.

Nott snorted.

“No, he can’t,” she said. “You two are on your honeymoon. Besides, I’m driving.”

Caleb frowned, but Molly could see a blush forming on his cheeks, matching the one he could feel rising to his own face. Nott was not subtle. He quickly looked back at the fields of barley, trying to make the rhythmic slap of his tail against the side of the cart seem deliberate. Boredom, nothing more.

His attempt at pensive reverie was broken by a sudden, sharp pain in his tail that had him yelping loudly, and set his eyes watering. He grabbed for the errant limb, cursing as he found the line of splinters from where he’d carelessly dragged it along the stupid, nasty wood of the crappy cart.

“What happened?” Nott asked, having twisted in her seat to frown at him.

“Splinters in my tail,” he explained, pitching his voice so it’d carry to all his friends who were, doubtless, worried sick by his cries of pain.

Nott turned back to her driving after making what could, generously, be construed as a sympathetic noise. Caleb didn’t seem to have even lifted his eyes from his book.

Feeling hurt in more ways than one, Molly set to his own first aid in a very pragmatic and not at all sulky fashion. He managed to get two of the horrible little slivers out with just his fingers, but after ten fruitless minutes cursing at the make-up and his stupid tail, which was getting rather sore from his squeezing, he began digging through his bags for a needle and a rag.

He’d found a rag, but was still searching for the fancy sewing kit he’d purchased, when Caleb cleared his throat softly behind him.

“Ah, Mollymauk, would you like some help?” Caleb asked.

Molly spared him a glance, and winced as his now abused tail hit the side of the cart again. He huffed his breath out through his nose, and turned back to digging through his bag.

“How do you think you can help?” he asked the wizard, a touch petulantly.

Then he froze, as he felt one of Caleb’s hands catch hold of his tail.

“Well, I can do this for one,” Caleb said, from closer than Molly had been expecting, and Molly felt the wizard’s other hand tracing over his tail gently.

As Caleb murmured something that could have been magic words, Molly felt his brain lock up and his ability to think proper thoughts grind to a halt. It was far, far too close to a dream come true.

Caleb’s thumb brushed over the skin just below his tail tip before gently letting go, and Molly had to take a long moment to remember just how to breathe normally. Eventually, he regained enough wherewithal to realize that the wizard had just removed his make-up. He flicked his tail around to inspect where the splinters had gone in, partly to delay turning around, partly to keep it under control, and partly so he didn’t keep anticipating another touch. As the wagon went over another bump, Molly remembered himself.

“Thank you, um, yes,” he said, and mentally kicked himself for the tarnish on his tongue. “Much appreciated,” he added, just as lamely.

“Ja, well, have you a needle or some tweezers? Prestidigitation is not the safest spell to try to use on things embedded in the skin, and I did not think you would like me to risk your piercings,” Caleb replied, sounding a great deal more put together.

Well, he would wouldn’t he, Molly told himself a tad sternly. He was just being nice and helping. He focused back on finding the sewing kit.

“I have a needle in here somewhere,” he said, and resisted the urge to be stupid and stick his arse into the air in a comical fashion to try and fish a flustered response from Caleb and cover his real desire with a parody.

Even with his dexterity, there were some things better not attempted on a moving cart if he didn’t want to injure himself, and his pride, more.

At length, he found the small inlaid case of the sewing kit wrapped in one of his new shirts. He made a triumphant noise and held it up for Caleb’s admiration as he stuffed everything back inside his bag and closed it one handed. He turned to find Caleb reading again and threw himself back down into a seated position, frustrated. He sighed again, loudly, and gently opened the case and selected the sharpest-looking of the three needles, before setting to work digging out the rest of the splinters.

Chapter Text

He knew he shouldn’t have touched Molly’s tail – he’d known even before he’d reached out. Ophelia Mardun may not have taught him how to read tiefling tails with any accuracy, deliberately changing her motions every time they’d met, inordinately pleased with how she could throw him off balance, but she had explained that tiefling tails were delicate. The skin had to be thin to compress as it did when the tail curled, and Caleb felt slightly guilty remembering her touch on his inner wrist as he watched Molly grouchily digging out his splinters.

Touching him like that had been a miscalculation. Caleb turned his attention back to his spell book and did his best to refocus on reviewing the terms of Immolation and the spell’s constraints. He didn’t need distractions, and he certainly didn’t need to be encouraging them.

-------------------------------------------

That evening, the Mansion was problematic. A slight adjustment he’d made to the window in Jester’s room had resulted in the formation of a devouring void. It moved slowly enough that they’d been able to avoid any real danger, but it had resulted in him having to re-adjust a number of his calculations and cast the Mansion twice more to make it habitable. The looks Misrule gave him did not help in the slightest.

By the time he’d finished checking the safe version, his jaw hurt from clenching it so tightly, and he wanted nothing more than to sleep. He declined Jester’s invitation to dinner and made his way to his room to collapse face-down onto his bed.

Five minutes later, he got up to remove his spell-pouch from where it was digging into his hip, and gave in and actually got ready for bed. The routine helped and, when his head finally hit the pillow, he was infinitely more tired than he was frustrated. He didn’t even need to think of sleep before it washed over him.

----------------

He was dreaming, he knew it by the way the sky couldn’t decide how light it was, and by the lack of smells. He remembered the scent of cold stone and dust clearly even while he waited, enshrouded in darkness, inside a dream of a memory. He heard the soft Kryn footfalls and the muffled shift of armour as he waited behind his rock for them to pass. He knew he had to put the Wall of Fire in place, to cut off Gefta from his guard, but he couldn’t remember how. The sounds of marching continued as he tried to scrabble for his components and couldn’t find the right ones, couldn’t remember the right ones. He reached for his spell-book and flipped it open, only to find it wasn’t his spell-book at all.

The last of the soldiers passed by the other side of his hiding place and he panicked. Dropping Tusk Love, he stepped out to cast something – anything – and froze. The Kryn soldiers who had screamed in his Wall were the Lords of Misrule. Molly was smiling at him and Jester laughed and opened her mouth to say something, and then a Wall of Fire sprang up and they began to burn and scream. Trent was at his shoulder.

“I have to do everything, it seems,” he said.

Caleb turned, his confusion waring with horror and rage, and Gefta cast Hold Person. It was out of order, it was all wrong. He remembered burning the rest of his escort, and Trent beginning the incantation before Gefta had been able to react. Trent turned slowly, like he was in the classroom about to correct a student’s manners, like he had all the time in the world. He began the incantation, but Caleb couldn’t remember it correctly and Trent fumbled with the words. Gefta looked over at Caleb and gave a gentle smile.

“Too late,” he said. “Always too late. But that is how you like to do things isn’t it?”

He reached out and his incantation made no sense, the way he moved his hands didn’t work, but Astrid was screaming anyway, and Caleb couldn’t move. He had no choice but to watch her burn again, as Gefta shook his head in disappointment. Then there were only ashes, and Caleb could move, could try to cast something. He reached for his component pouch but, when he looked up, where Gefta had been, Caduceus stood with a solemn, understanding look on his face.

“I suppose it’s my turn now,” he said, and gave Caleb a small smile. “I wouldn’t want to get in the way.”

Caleb did nothing, said nothing, and Caduceus began to burn anyway, his expression unchanging in the flames.

He struggled his way out of sleep, panting in panic and covered in sweat. He stared blankly into the darkness of his room and shook for a long while, until he remembered himself enough to summon Frumpkin and bury his face in his fur.

-----------------------------

The sun was bright, though not particularly warm, when Caleb took the reins from Nott and steered them off the main road to the Ashguard, and up an overgrown track. He remembered the track as being more well-used, less green, and more the greys and browns of rubble and thick mud. The reins under his hands were rough and cracked, but the bullocks hardly needed them. He remembered the reins under his hands as supple and well cared for his last visit. He’d been riding at the head of a column of soldiers, leading them to the Riftway Pass through the dark of the Kryn. Everything looked different under the light.

Behind him, Nott struck up a quiet conversation with Mollymauk – discussing fortune-telling and other rambling topics – and Caleb paid it little mind. He breathed in the smell of rocks in the sun, and let his magic dance in his hair, and resisted the urge to review his spells again. He breathed out slowly. The last two days of tension, of this visit growing closer, had been a struggle against old, remembered fear. He couldn’t remember a time he hadn’t felt sick to the stomach at the thought of returning to the site of Ikithon’s imprisonment. But you’re not a child anymore, he thought firmly. And you’ve won the war.

He smiled to himself at the thought and the sound of Mollymauk explaining his cards to Nott. I wonder what Ikithon would make of you now, his curiosity murmured in defiance of his nerves. For once he wasn’t seized by terror at the thought, and his smile widened to consider it. Ikithon’s discreet knife, swanning about with fire in his hair, having killed and crippled everything his master had worked towards. But he had ended the war. He had killed wizards who had driven Ikithon to desperation. He resisted the urge to reach for his spell-book and ran through his most deadly spells in his head, instead. He knew them. He remembered.

He remembered.

The foothills were steep, and the hardy grasses that had once blanketed them in gold and green were grey tatters in the darkvision granted by his transmuter’s stone. The dead tree at the switch of the trail stretched like a frail, starving hand begging the sky in vain. Day had not visited these hills in more than a year, since the Kryn had pushed the front forward halfway to Bladegarden. Their mages were deft and lethal. And Ikithon was desperate.

Bren looked across at the man he was about to betray and considered signalling for another stop. Trent was trying to keep his breathing low and quiet, but the hills were taking their toll on the older man. He hadn’t really had much of a reason to do his own dirty work for a long while. And now he was out doing the sort of job Bren usually found himself sent on, Ikithon seemed old and frail. Less the sort of monster the ancient bindings were meant for, more like just another person driven by fear and hope.

The tree had been shattered in a storm, years ago, and only the trunk still stood at the turn in the road. Caleb drew the reins in to rest the bullocks and Beauregard’s poor feet. The worst part of the trip was always the memories.

-----------------------------

The narrow road they’d turned onto was stony and steep, and riding in the cart turned from merely unpleasant into one of the worst experiences of Molly’s life. At least when he’d broken both his legs jumping out a third-floor window and had had to crawl half a mile to find Jester, something had been messed up badly enough that he’d barely felt anything. The wagon felt like it was trying to deliver all the bits of pain he’d missed feeling over the years. Not even talking with Nott could distract him from the fact that it felt like he’d developed actual bruises on his backside.

They hit another rock and his teeth clacked together mid-sentence.

“Why??” he moaned in despair, rather than pursuing the conversation about lace-making quirks any further.

Nott took a sip from her flask then passed it over. It was full of whiskey that burned unpleasantly and tasted more of silver than of smoke and peat. Molly hoped it would prove numbing.

“I don’t think paving this road has really been a priority. I think they thought it’d slow down any attacks through the Pass,” Nott said conversationally as he drank.

She seemed wholly unperturbed by the constant jostling. It wasn’t fair.

“I was sort of more asking why it’s necessary to check these thingies,” he waved a hand.

He did know, loosely. It wouldn’t do to let some abomination go free to avoid a little discomfort, but it seemed like a good opportunity to fish for information like he’d been asked to.

“Those thingies are complicated arcane seals,” Nott clarified, and Molly raised his brow teasingly.

“I’ve seen seals, and I’m not sure how arcane those fish-dogs can get.”

Nott looked a touch bewildered.

“Fish-dogs?” she asked.

He knew Beau and Fjord would probably have at him later, but, just in the moment, he found that it was far more important that he explain seals to Nott than try and get her to explain how, exactly, they might find themselves fucked when they made it to the Pass.

-----------------------

They stopped for the evening about an hour short of the entry to the Pass, with the sky turning deep blue and purple. Sharp and rugged foothills offered little in the way of comfortable campsites, and Caleb was glad he now had the Mansion to shelter in. The trek he’d made with Trent, they hadn’t slept, had pushed on up the road to set the ambush, had arrived exhausted to trace their sigils onto the rocks. After that, his sporadic visits to check had involved sleeping on the side of the road, rocks digging into his hips and shoulders and the ground leeching at his warmth, while he looked up at the cold stars and dreaded facing what he’d done.

Now, though, he could draw a spell out in the air with his ivory door and marble, and create for himself and his companions a pleasant home, safe from attack, safe from any darkness making its way down out of the mountains. He took extra care with the spell, very aware that he’d spent the day a little distant and of his failures the night before. He added very little, taking more complicated elements back to versions he could be sure were stable, but did his best to add the variations Jester had tried to distract him with at lunch.

As the door formed at the edge of the road, Caleb turned to find that his companions had already unhitched the bullocks and gathered their things. He found himself hesitating; he knew he didn’t have to say anything, and he wouldn’t have, had they been any other group of soldiers sent to guard him, but his eyes drifted over to Mollymauk and he steeled himself.

“I, ah, I would like to thank you all for your tolerance with all of this,” he said, his gesture taking in the cart, the sharp stones of the roadway, and the door to the Mansion. “I know it is neither comfortable nor reasonable, when there is so small a chance there will be anything of note. So, thank you – for… for humouring me.”

He turned away as soon as the last words left his mouth, not really wanting to see their reactions, and entered the Mansion. He did his best not to hurry, so he wouldn’t look like he was running from them, and hoped they wouldn’t notice he’d moved the door to his quarters closer to the entrance to make his escape. He really didn’t need them trying to help.

------------------------------------------

Nott’s knowing looks while they ate breakfast together grated. Caleb hadn’t slept any more soundly than he had the night before last, and the stress and lack of sleep were taking their toll on his temper. He dreaded to think what hole he might dig himself into with Mollymauk. Thinking about Molly was like thinking about an itch: it only made it worse.

“What?” he asked, grumpily, as Nott raised her brows slightly at whatever expression he’d had on his face.

“Nothing,” she said, in such a way that made it clear she meant ‘everything’.

He sighed loudly and gave her a pointed look.

“You know what I mean to check here; what I am worried about,” he said.

“And I know you’re worrying for no reason,” she said, pointing at his plate with her fork to indicate he should eat. “You are an amazing wizard, Caleb, and even if someone broke him out, he’d be well insane by now.”

“There were many things I did not know back then—”

“—but have any of the things you’ve learned since given you reason to doubt the binding spell?”

“And,” he continued, pointedly ignoring her logic, “he was arguably insane before he went in, and he managed to mess me up just fine.”

“Caleb.”

He sighed.

“I know I’m not being reasonable, Nott. It’s the spell and finding the ring on Lyran – I can’t not check.”

“I know,” she said, putting down her fork to lean bodily across the table and take his hand. “It’s only that I haven’t seen you so stressed about checking in… in ever.”

“I do not like feeling like a fool. I do not like revealing even this little piece to them. I do not like that even now he demands my attention. And, yes, I do not like how this marriage has… complicated my life.”

She patted his hand, patronising in her reassurance, and he glared at her, feeling more and more like a grumpy cat.

“In a few hours we’ll have checked the Pass, and then you only need to worry about how to woo Molly,” she said, all maternal certainty.

He wrinkled his nose at her.

“I think you might have forgotten that I am not Luc,” he muttered, and tried to go back to his breakfast.

He was certain nothing good would come from trying to keep the conversation going. At least if Trent had escaped, he could focus on that rather than analysing the subtle hints that Molly might be interested in something more than a political alliance.

Nott let him eat in peace for five minutes and twenty-three seconds before she casually pushed her plate away and turned to him again.

“Speaking of my son and husband, who I am looking forward to seeing today, are you looking forward to seeing Caduceus again?”

It was an unexpected topic, and Caleb couldn’t help but feel vaguely suspicious.

“Ja, it will be good to see him. And Wulf, if he’s about.”

She looked at him carefully, before nodding.

“That’s good. And where will Molly be sleeping?”

Caleb nearly choked as her tactics became all too clear.

“Nott! I love you, but this is… this is…” he struggled to find the right words. “I do not need you to try and sort my relationships out for me.”

“I just don’t want to deal with you mooning about again is all,” she said, a touch defensively.

He held up his hand formally.

“I solemnly swear to not moon about as I did that one week, many years ago, that is in the past and not at all reflective of who I am today.”

“I can’t tell which of your mooning sessions you’re referring to,” said Nott, flatly.

“I do not moon, Nott.”

“You moon all the time, Caleb,” she said right back. “You mooned over Caduceus, you mooned over Ophelia, you mooned over Wulf, you mooned over Astrid, you moon over new books, and new spells and there was that soldier one time, and I’m pretty sure you mooned over a couple of the Kryn fellows who threw new spells your way. You moon all the damn time.”

Caleb had no idea how to respond. He was tired, grouchy, and felt befuddled, and here Nott was confronting him with the truth as she saw it. It was mortifying, partly because it spoke volumes about how she interpreted his pensive silences, and mostly because it rang uncomfortably true to him, too.

“I do think it’s a bit cute,” she said, seemingly to console him when he didn’t respond, though Caleb didn’t find any comfort in being found ‘cute’. “I just don’t think you should let Jester see you mooning over Molly. It’s bad enough with Molly being so obvious.”

Caleb almost didn’t catch the end of her sentence, and it didn’t really compute in the dawning horror of imagining Jester’s possible responses to him seeming interested in Mollymauk. He wasn’t sure if her approval or her disapproval would be worse. Probably not a good sign that you care either way, he thought to himself. You’re definitely attached.

“I’ll try to keep it to myself,” he said, weakly, after his contemplation.

Nott snorted, amused, and clambered down from her chair.

“I’m off to get everyone organised,” she said. “Finish eating and do your spells. Take all the time you need.”

“Ja, ja, I know,” he said, halfway between annoyed and touched.

She gave a mocking salute and smile as she left, and he felt slightly better about the day ahead.

--------------------------------------------

The path widened at the small plateau that marked the entry to the Pass proper. The way was narrow and treacherous enough that no permanent fortification had ever been built to defend it, though lines of low stone rubble and raised earth marked the ruins of temporary fortifications which scarred the land in jagged ripples. The cart had finally given up the ghost – one of the wheels had disintegrated a good two miles back down the road – so Fjord and Yasha stood holding the bullocks who were being remarkably accepting about the packs that had been haphazardly lashed to their backs.

As the rest of their party explored the area and pointedly ignored him, Caleb painstakingly uncovered the swirling lines he and Trent had spent hours etching into the rock and cast his Detect Magic. As the spell locked in, he sighed in relief. The lines of the binding stood out strong and clear despite how the rock had cracked with the passage of time – the spell wasn’t meant to be fixed materially into the rock, but that didn’t mean Caleb didn’t worry. He rolled up his sleeves and set to work laying out the Identify variant he used to check the binding.

--------------

Molly was doing his best to give Caleb space, but it was damned hard when the man looked all tired and mysterious and rolled up his sleeves to cast spells. Of course, he wasn’t the only one with an inordinate interest in what the wizard was doing. He tapped Beau on the back of her neck with his tail.

“You’re staring,” he whispered.

“Fuck yeah, I’m staring,” she whispered back. “He’s got some great big bad bound up here that he won’t tell us about. And he isn’t sure that it can’t get out. Someone needs to record this.”

“D’ya think it’s something like that earthworm brother of Fjord’s thingie?” Molly asked, unable to help himself.

She shook her head.

“If that’d got out. Well. I think we’d have heard a bit more about it.”

“What have you heard?”

She gave him a long look, before leaning in close.

“So, this Pass has been used a lot – I mean, we’ve used it before, Nott has used it. Dynasty and Empire scout central highway, right. But he said battlefield, and there haven’t been many pitched battles up here, especially not with mages. I got Jes to send some messages the other night, and no one can recall a big Archmage incident up here where anything summoned or whatnot appeared.”

“So, you don’t know shit?”

She glared.

“The Bright Queen remembered that Gefta defeated an Archmage up here and made a valuable contact within the empire. And then she forbade us from pursuing it further or mentioning it.”

Molly couldn’t help but glance across at Caleb.

“Don’t,” Beau warned.

He gave her a Look, vaguely annoyed that she’d think him fool enough to poke that anthill with a ten-foot pole. A turncoat Archmage would defend his secrets viciously, and if Caleb wasn’t the contact then his reputation suggested he would make it his job to root out the contact quickly and efficiently.

“Doesn’t really tell us much about the binding thing, though,” he whispered after a while.

Beau shrugged and walked over to kick at a stone. He frowned after her, but he knew that Beau had her limits when it came to half-cocked speculation. She’d tell him when she was ready.

-----------------------------

When the Identify spell washed the certainty into his head that the seals were as strong as ever, and Trent Ikithon was still bound in the trap that he’d broken his own rules to fall for, it was as if a weight had fallen from Caleb’s shoulders. For all that he still had the problem of Lyran becoming a Lich to deal with, somehow it was easier to face nameless necromancy than the man who’d controlled him for so long.

Standing from where he’d drawn out the spell, he turned to find Nott, and when she grinned back at him he realised he had a silly smile on his face. He breathed in, smelling the grass and rock and growing things warm in the sunlight, and it felt like the war was actually over. A little bit like he’d won.

“He’s still there,” he told Nott, elated, more to say it out loud than to inform her of something she could already see so clearly on his face.

“Told you!”

“Yes, you did. And now we can go home. Just let me…”

He trailed off as he began to sort out laying down a Teleportation Circle. Now that he’d checked everything, the plateau was rapidly losing its charm. He wanted to go to bed and sleep for a week. He wanted to walk into his library and smell the books. He wanted to read and study and not have to worry about the world for a little while. He wanted to, maybe, sit down and have a conversation with his new husband. He wanted to go home.

Chapter Text

The teleportation circle led to a large room with a smooth stone floor inset with the corresponding teleportation circle in what appeared to be platinum. In contrast to the expense of the circle, the walls were plain dark wood hung with three large tapestries in simple colours that clumsily depicted pastoral scenes. The roof of the chamber was not particularly high, and was plastered in white between dark beams. A double door, large enough to lead a horse through, seemed to be the only way in or out. Molly took it all in as he walked out of the circle to give his companions room to step through and, as Fjord appeared leading one of the bullocks, he took the liberty of opening the door to give them a bit more room.

The door led outside, into a small meadow surrounded by dense looking forest. There was a twittering of unseen birds in the trees and a startled rabbit, frozen for just a moment at the opening of the doors, dashed off to some hidden burrow. Molly scanned the trees carefully for anything out of place, for any sign of scouts or ambushers, before stepping out to make room for the bullocks.

The scene was idyllic, and Molly found himself having a hard time trusting it.

“Not exactly what I expected” Fjord said, as he led the bullock over to a thick area of grass.

Molly raised his eyebrows at him.

“No kidding,” he said, as Yasha filed past with the second bullock, followed by Jester. “I mean he’s understated, but I didn’t picture him as a cabin in the woods fellow.”

Fjord chuckled.

“This is when you find out you have a life of subsistence farming ahead, Molly. Say goodbye to your nice boots and fancy clothes.”

Molly glared at him and opened his mouth to fire off a retort, before he was cut off.

“Subsistence farming has its moments, and you can still have some nice clothes” Caleb said, as he stepped out into the sunlight. “But it can be hell on boots,” he admitted.

For a moment, Molly lost his words as the sun lit up the red and gold in Caleb’s hair and the teasing smile on his husband’s lips froze every thought in his head. He was silent a beat too long, and Caleb’s smile faded, and he shifted is weight uncertainly.

“We do not actually have to be farmers,” Caleb said, glancing over at Fjord. “I was joking.”

Molly could feel Beau’s suppressed laughter from twenty feet away.

“I- yeah, I figured it was a joke, I just. A thought just occurred to me is all,” Molly managed, only just managing not to wince at his own awkwardness. “Where is the house anyway?” he asked to cover up his ineptitude.

“Oh, of course,” Caleb said, having a quick look around. “You haven’t been here… I keep my teleportation circle outside my main defenses, as I’m not overly fond of unexpected visitors. It will be a half-hour walk, I’m afraid. I forgot to contact Caduceus and have him bring us horses.”

Caleb’s apology seemed charmingly genuine and certainly didn’t warrant Beau and Jester’s groans. Molly frowned over at them and Beau stuck out her tongue in response.

“Well, the sooner we start, the sooner we get there,” Fjord drawled, his usual charming and practical self. “Lead the way, Archmage.”

Molly was sure he detected a slight blush on Caleb’s cheeks when Fjord called him ‘Archmage’ and he looked carefully between them, slightly worried. As Caleb strode forward to take the lead, walking into the trees at a point indistinguishable from any other, Molly took the opportunity to sidle over to Nott.

“psst!” he hissed out of the corner of his mouth.

She narrowed her eyes up at him.

“Sure, I am, but what of it?” she said, defensively.

He blinked blankly at her until it processed.

“What?” she asked, impatiently.

“I just wanted to quickly ask whether you knew if Caleb was interested in anyone… you know?” he whispered.

“Other than you?” she asked, and he winced at the flatness of her tone but nodded. “He had a thing for Caduceus, but that wasn’t going anywhere. Sometimes he still mopes. Be nice.”

It hadn’t been what he’d expected, but he retained the wherewithal to nod respectfully before he stood upright, again, and rubbed at the small of his back. He just had to hope that Fjord hadn’t decided to adapt the Plan.

“We’d better catch up,” he said down to Nott, before setting off toward the forest where everyone had disappeared.

Behind him, Nott took a thoughtful sip from her flask. If she wasn’t much mistaken, Molly was pulling a Jester over Caleb. It’ll certainly be interesting to watch, she mused, before shaking herself from her reverie and heading off to inform the guards of their arrival.

---------------------------------

Shortly after Molly caught up to the rest of his friends, they found their way to a clearly defined path through the woods and Jester insisted that they resume their defensive formation. He and Caleb had the privilege of leading the bullocks in the center while everyone else fanned out alert for danger. Molly was not happy. Now that they didn’t have the cart, Molly’s feet hurt and his arse and back still ached from the jostling, so every step was a quiet misery. Conversation was pretty much impossible: the bullocks either walked between them, or they had to walk with their shoulders nearly brushing in the middle of the road wrestling the bullocks to keep them from stopping to eat whatever vegetation they could reach. The bullocks walked between them, and they walked in silence.

They were half-way there by Molly’s count, when Caleb abruptly drew his bullock to a stop, and Molly’s decided to obediently stop as well.

“Jester, do you have any bandages?” he called out to Jester, where she walked ahead with Yasha.

“Yes, why? Do you need one? Because I can just heal you,” she called back, turning back to them and sounding about as puzzled as Molly felt.

“Ah, ja, I need one. Or two. Just for my arm. I don’t need healing,” Caleb said, which made even less sense.

Jester didn’t seem inclined to question further and walked over to them to begin digging through her pack. While her narration of her journey through her possessions was amusing, it wasn’t particularly comforting that it took her so long to find essential medical supplies. At length she held two bandages up, triumphant, and Molly watched, slightly perplexed, as Caleb took the two rolls and began to wrap his left arm over his sleeve. As the wizard fumbled with the ties, Molly saw an opportunity and cut Jester off to step in and help.

“Need a hand,” he said, hitting somewhere near the suave mark, as he took the end of the bandage from Caleb and began to tuck it under.

“Ja, thank you, Mollymauk,” Caleb said.

Molly felt a thrill run up his spine at being so close, with Caleb right next to him, looking at him, and remembered at the last minute to keep his tail in check. Beau was bad enough, he didn’t need the rest of his friends teasing him too. He took the second bandage from Caleb, and mentally kicked his tongue into gear.

“What’re these for anyway?” he asked as he began wrapping the next one around the wizard’s arm, taking the liberty of touching his wrist to turn his arm to a better position. It was something mundanely intimate, but managed to feel breathtakingly meaningful at the same time. His tail was not under control.

“Hmmm, oh,” Caleb responded, sounding a little distracted, before he tore his gaze away from Molly and pointed up into a tree next to the path. “my friend needs somewhere to land.”

A large grey owl perched in the branches, looking at them intently. It sort of ruined the delicate intimacy of the moment.

“You have a pet owl? Or your friend is an owl?”

“Ja.”

Molly narrowed his eyes in Caleb’s direction, but the other man didn’t seem to be paying him much attention, anymore. Molly suppressed his frustration at having ruined a perfectly good moment, and tried to pay attention. Caleb was looking at the bird, sadly, remorsefully, and Molly reconsidered his questions. Shaken, he finished tying the bandage and stepped back.

“Thank you,” said Caleb, quietly, as he stepped away.

Then he held his arm up, and the owl swooped down silently to land on the offered limb. Molly swallowed hard looking at the bird. He’d been uncomfortable with shape-shifting since his brush with equine-hood and he hoped really hard that whoever the owl was could turn back. Something about the look on Caleb’s face said otherwise.

As Caleb began murmuring to the bird in what sounded like Zemnian, Molly looked around for Nott. She was, he’d found, a reasonably good barometer for Caleb’s moods. When he finally spotted her, at the edge of the road, the solemn, almost disapproving, look on her face didn’t seem like a good sign. He wandered over to crouch next to her.

“What’s with the bird?” he asked quietly out the corner of his mouth.

Instead of answering, she took his hand and led him back over to Caleb. She cleared her throat loudly.

“Wulf,” she said, clearly addressing the bird, which turned its head to her. “May I introduce Mollymauk Tealeaf, Caleb’s new husband.” She waited a few beats, as if looking for a response. The bird fluffed its feathers slightly, but otherwise did nothing. “Mollymauk, meet Wulfric, the Archmage of Antiquity.”

Molly looked at the owl. The owl, Wulfric, began to preen the feathers on its shoulder.

“Was he always an owl?” Molly asked.

“Nein,” Caleb said. “There was a… mishap. But he… he still has his good days.”

Molly swallowed hard, feeling ill.

“Right,” he said, glancing over at the bird again, before turning to wrestle with his bull’s head. “Shall we go on?” he asked.

As he led his bullock along, not waiting for Caleb’s almost surprised response, he tried to pull himself together and not let it get to him.

------------------------------

Eodwulf’s talons were digging into his arm, through the bandages, and Caleb could feel his blood beginning to soak the fabric. Even so, he stood looking after Mollymauk long enough that Wulf had to prompt him to move by nibbling his finger. He gave his old friend an absentminded head-scritch, before finding him a perch on the packs carried by the bullock.

As he did his best to encourage and bully the beast into moving away from the greenery in order to catch up to Mollymauk, Caleb wondered about his abrupt shift in mood. The tiefling had seemed almost a little flirtatious helping wrap the bandages, and Caleb wished he’d been paying enough attention to know what’d changed that.

He frowned after Jester, and considered Messaging her to ask, before thinking better of it. Things were awkward enough without her taking an interest. And her and Nott combined on this? He shuddered and focused back on the task at hand – getting the bullock to move.

He had just committed to leaning his full weight on the lead rein in an attempt to drag the bull away from its patch of greenery when Yasha cleared her throat a few feet away from him.

“Would you like a hand with that?” she asked, quietly.

Caleb nodded and quickly handed the lead over. Fjord, when he glanced over, raised his hands apologetically and looked as if he was embarrassed to be seen witnessing Caleb’s struggle. He looked, back the way they’d come before Caleb could figure out a way to reassure him. Instead of using the lead, Yasha went to the beast’s head and put her fingers in its nose, and the bull made a mournful noise as she gently but firmly redirected its attention.

“They, um, they should really have nose rings because their necks are too strong for just a halter to work,” she said over the bullock’s head, as she got it walking.

“That, ja, that makes sense,” Caleb replied, when Yasha began to look even more awkward.

They walked in silence for a bit, and, after some brief uncertainty, Caleb found the quiet comfortable. When the bullock got to moving at a reasonable pace, Yasha took her fingers from the its nose, and he surreptitiously cast Prestidigitation to clean them for her. After a little while longer, he broke the silence.

“I think I might have upset Mollymauk,” he admitted.

The fact that they still hadn’t caught up – still at least fifty feet behind him – suggested as much. Yasha hummed a little in agreement.

“He doesn’t like the thought of being turned into something else,” she said, her usual quiet tones sounding a little sad. “I don’t think it was anything you did.”

Caleb nodded and looked over at Wulf. Truth be told, he didn’t much like the thought either.

His friend was obviously sleepy, his feathers puffed out and his neck non-existent. He had doubtless been woken by the alarms on the teleportation circle, and probably wanted to go back to his rest. Caleb reached over to give him a gentle stroke.

“Wulf, my friend, this cannot be comfortable for you. Sleeping on a bull’s back,” he murmured in Zemnian. “Why don’t you fly over and let Caduceus know we’re here, and head back to your roost? I’ll still be here for many nights to come.”

Wulf gave a rumbling hoot and shook himself a little. The pointed look he gave Caleb was indecipherable, but he took to the air a moment later and winged his way towards the Keep. A little bit of Caleb wanted to slip his skin and take to the air too, but he doubted that would help with Mollymauk’s fears.

-------------------------------------

Caleb’s home slowly began to show itself through the thinning trees like a coy mistress offering only one glimpse at a time. Then, turning another nondescript bend in the path, the whole picture was laid out in front of them. Molly stopped in his tracks to drink it in, his bullock instantly turning its attention to the grass.

In front of them stood a middling sized keep, set into a somehow artificial looking field of wild flowers. The flowers filled the six hundred feet or so of clear land between them and the walls with a riot of colours, and Molly pitied any archer who might have to pick a target out between them. The keep itself was built into a steep and treacherous looking mountainside – the peaks of what he was sure must be the Ashkeepers rising abruptly around the valley in which they stood. A waterfall fell rather prettily into a large stream near the farthest stretch of wall.

There was something wrong with the whole scene. He’d nearly put his finger on it when there was a call from behind him.

“Ah, Mollymauk—”

“Molly, you need to move your beast.”

Molly glanced back to see Yasha, leading the second bullock with Caleb walking next to her, smiling and shaking her head slightly and gesturing with her free hand at how his bull had ended up blocking the way. He began to try and wrestle it back into motion, succeeding eventually through bribery by offering it a bit of grass indistinguishable from the rest it’d been eating. When he looked back again, Yasha was frowning at the keep.

“Mollymauk, please don’t let it eat the flowers,” Caleb said, with a slight worried frown on his face.

“I remember this place,” said Yasha, ignoring Caleb, and Molly looked back at the keep again too.

As he tried to place the keep, he heard the wizard make a disgusted noise, and the munching sounds of the bullocks were cut off by a pair of slightly sickening wet sounds and the lead rein vanished from his hand. He looked around to see the bullocks gone, and Caleb picking a small tortoise up from next to Yasha. He looked up and saw Molly watching and turned bright red in embarrassment.

“Sorry. Sorry, I didn’t think. I just didn’t want them eating the flowers. I… um.”

He stepped around Yasha to pick up the tortoise from next to Molly. Clutching the animals to his chest, he visibly gathered himself and faced Molly directly.

“I am sorry, I did not think of your reservations,” he gestured vaguely towards Molly with a tortoise, before he realized what he was doing and stopped. “This is only a temporary spell, and it will reverse itself after an hour. They are not stuck this way.”

The reassurance was both embarrassing and endearing. Molly shook his head.

“You know, I’m pretty sure I hurt my shoulder dealing with those. Why didn’t you cast that nifty spell sooner?” he said, glibly, to cover his nervousness and affection.

“I could’ve done it, too!” called Jester, from where she’d walked a little way ahead with Beau.

“Then why didn’t you is what I’m asking?!” he yelled back.

She stuck her tongue out at him and he shook his head in exaggerated disappointment. Even if she was only covering for his insecurity to avoid censure, he appreciated it. Turning back to Caleb he found the wizard watching them intently, something calculating in his expression.

“Well, then. I have cast the spell now. Shall we?” Caleb said, much more composed, though he did gesture with one of the tortoises again.

Molly gave him an elaborate bow, giving the other man a cheeky look over in the process.

“After you, my dear,” he said, trying for just a touch of sultry amongst the teasing.

Caleb looked at him a little longer and then stood up a little straighter and drew haughtiness around himself like a cloak.

“Of course,” he said, sounding every inch an arrogant archmage.

As he strode forward, he broke the illusion by stopping to show Jester the tortoises, but it’d already done its job in making Molly weak at the knees. Yasha jolted him out of his mooning putting her hand on his shoulder.

“Five years ago, we went in there to extract Meriyas,” she whispered in his ear.

He remembered.

It hadn’t looked so pleasant back then. He wondered if they’d managed to get the blood out of the stonework. He wondered how well Jester remembered.

Numb and off-balance, he followed Jester, Beau, and Caleb as they approached the gates. Glancing behind, the grim look Fjord’s face said he remembered, too. Looking back at Caleb up ahead, he wondered how much of what they’d seen had been at his orders.

He wondered what the man would say, if he asked about it.

The dark trailing of his thoughts was interrupted as the gates ahead of them swung open and he was confronted with the unexpected sight of a pink haired grey firbolg dressed in delicate cream and turquoise. Their clothes, finely, though unusually designed, draped and flowed around their impressively tall form, accentuating their near-gauntness rather than concealing it.

“Caleb!” the firbolg boomed in a deep and deeply happy voice, as they stepped forward with their arms stretched wide and a joyous look on their face. “It’s been a while.”

Molly wasn’t sure what to think when Caleb off-loaded the tortoises into Jester’s arms and strode over to embrace the firbolg. It seemed like such an abrupt shift, and even from behind, Molly could see the tension bleeding out of him. Caduceus, he thought as he went to take one of the tortoises off Jester.

“Probably Caduceus,” Jester said out of the side of her mouth.

Caleb leaned back from the hug, and Molly couldn’t help but note that he seemed reluctant to let go.

“Caduceus, my friend” Caleb said, as happy as Molly had ever heard him, and Jester made an affirmative noise in her throat. “Has everything been well?”

“Of course, Mr. Caleb,” the firbolg began. “The gardens—”

They were cut off by a high-pitched wailing that resolved itself into the word ‘Momma’ as a very small child sprinted out the gate, dashing past Caleb and Caduceus. Just as Molly started to wonder if he should catch the kid as they ran past, a brown-skinned halfling woman with black hair and modest dress stepped out of the flowers and caught them up in an embrace and spun them round.

“Luc, my sweet boy, Luc,” she said, in Nott’s voice.

And then Caleb was leading Caduceus over, with a silly smile on his face, and Molly did his best to pull himself together.

“Caduceus, meet the Lords of Misrule,” Caleb said, gesturing around at them all. “Jester, Mollymauk, Beauregard, Fjord, and Yasha. My friends, this is Caduceus Clay, my good friend. He looks after things for me, sometimes.”

Caduceus held up his hand in a small wave, a dopey smile on his face.

“Hello there, nice to meet you all. Now which one—”

“Ah, Mollymauk,” Caleb said, with an embarrassed little gesture in his direction, before Caduceus could finish his question.

Caduceus looked him over, his smile never wavering, and nodded slowly before leaning down to Caleb’s ear.

“I think he likes you,” Caduceus rumbled, in a whisper that didn’t deserve the name, and Caleb’s cheeks turned a little pink.

Mollymauk closed his eyes at Jester’s little squeak of glee and Beau’s snort from behind him. Pushing himself forward he offered his hand to the firbolg.

“A pleasure to meet you, Mr Clay,” he purred.

Caduceus blinked slowly.

“Oh, that’s nice,” he said, as he took Molly’s hand, and Molly had to wonder what exactly he was referring to.

It was a touch unnerving.

“Caleb!” screamed the child, dashing over, and Caleb turned to pick him up and swing him round.

It was charmingly domestic, and Molly nearly forgot he was still shaking hands with the firbolg, letting it go a little too long. He’d never seen Caleb smile so much before. Caduceus didn’t seem to mind, he was looking over at Caleb as well, and smiling dopily. Molly was caught off-guard when Jester bunted him sideways to shake Caduceus’ hand and ask him if he’d heard of the Traveller. Beau was still frowning slightly with her arms folded near the back, while Fjord lined up to say hello, and so Molly joined her. The halfling with Nott’s voice bustled up to Caleb to take Luc and tell the excited boy about her ‘adventures’.

“Never picked him for the domestic type,” Molly remarked quietly to Beau.

She hummed slightly.

“Caduceus seems a bit… you know?” he tried.

That got her attention.

“For someone a bit… you know, he seems to have you fucking picked,” she muttered, turning slightly to hide her mouth from onlookers.

Molly frowned over at the firbolg. He was smiling the same lazy smile and nodding to Fjord as if everything was wonderful.

“What do you mean?” he asked Beau.

“Don’t think Nott was joking when she said he was their secret weapon.”

He shook his head slightly and shrugged, snatching another glance. He wasn’t sure what she or Caleb saw in the man, but he supposed he’d have time to figure it out.

Chapter Text

Caleb’s new friends seemed like a nice enough lot to Caduceus. Miss Jester was quite uneasy about Greyheart; though she’d still tried to sound cheerful when she’d introduced herself, her eyes had kept glancing up at the Keep. It had been distracting enough that he’d initially missed what she’d been telling him, but he was pretty sure, now, that she’d not been talking about being a traveller herself. Her accent was hard to follow, but there was a certain reverence to the way she said ‘Traveller’. Mr. Fjord had cut her off before he could ask her about it when they’d been at the gate, and now they were all busy asking Caleb all about his home, but he figured there’d be plenty of time to talk later.

His first impression of Fjord was that he seemed like a careful fellow: careful how he spoke, careful how he moved, careful where he looked. Even when they’d made their way inside, to the informal siting area, Fjord had remained carefully polite and focused on everyone else’s comfort rather than his own. He sat carefully in one of the comfy chairs, paying attention to Caleb, and, very courteously and deliberately, not staring at Caduceus in a way that was almost distracting. Caduceus did his best to focus on setting out the teapots and cups, as he waited for the kettle to boil, and ignore the not-stare on one side and the stare on the other.

Mr. Mollymauk was most definitely staring; he had barely stopped since they’d shaken hands. Mr. Mollymauk didn’t seem to like him much, which was a shame. Caduceus tried directing a smile his way, as he made his way over to the fireplace just in time for the kettle to begin bubbling, and Mollymauk narrowed his eyes and flicking his tail about in what Caduceus guessed was a brooding manner. It was a bit odd; Caduceus wasn’t used to being disliked – patronised, certainly, but not disliked. At least not without really knowing the person; he had a sibling or two who could probably be said to dislike him on occasion. Caleb likes him though, he thought to himself as he lifted the kettle and poured it into the three waiting teapots, and that’s good, seeing as they’re married. Caduceus had noticed Caleb stealing glances over at Mollymauk in that particular way of his that indicated he was lovelorn. A small bit of Caduceus missed that; most of him was happy that the whole marriage deal had worked out.

“Caduceus,” Caleb said, breaking off his account of how he’d been given Greyheart, “Did we have any pastries?”

Caduceus frowned in thought as he carefully put the lids on the pots.

“Nothing fresh, other than today’s bread. I made some pinwheel things with spinach a few days ago, but I’d have to check if they can be revived,” he answered, slowly. “I’d be happy to put something together if you’re feeling peckish?”

“Ja, well, the Captain here is fond of pastries, which is why I asked, but we have all walked a ways so I dare say food would not be amiss.”

His careful explanation was accompanied by serious near eye contact look which said, very clearly, that Caleb was trying his best to make a good impression. It was really nice to see. Caduceus gave him a nod and sniffed the steam from the teapots.

“I’ll just wait for this to brew a bit, and get it poured, then I’ll go rustle something up,” he replied, before taking a deep breath in and letting it out slow.

Caleb followed his lead and relaxed a bit, before he turned back to his tale. The conversation hummed around Caduceus for a while, as he focused on organizing the cups, and he couldn’t help but notice that there was something bright and sharp about the way Caleb’s friends were asking about the place. When he interrupted by beginning to distribute the tea, Mollymauk broke from his glower long enough to look somewhere between relieved and grateful. They reminded him an awful lot of the mourners he’d looked after back home.

“This one’s a Thelyss,” he murmured gently for everyone while he poured Beauregard’s cup.

“As in the Xhorhasian Den? That Thelyss?” she asked, quizzically, as she watched him carefully set the pot down.

He nodded as he handed her the cup.

“Kesyral and Imira Thelyss to be exact, I’m particularly fond of their plot. The brew ends up with a light sweetness to it that pairs well with the lemons that border Thelyss."

“You knew Imira Thelyss?”

“Oh, I wouldn’t say that. I just maintain the plots.”

Beauregard looked taken aback, but that wasn’t unusual.

“Plots as in graves?” Mollymauk interjected, leaning forward and looking up and down between Caduceus and his cup.

Caduceus gave him a patient smile.

“Exactly,” he said.

Chapter Text

Molly looked down at his tea, and back up at the firbolg. It was good tea, but he, nonetheless, hesitated.

“Right, right, okay then,” he babbled, half under his breath, his voice sounding a little empty and shocked to his own ears. “You are using the bodies of my Xhorhasian countrymen to grow your tea. Right.”

“I suppose… yeah. I mean we’re all just dead in the end and it doesn’t really matter, but yeah. Xhorhasians,” Caduesus said, his slight smile unwavering, as he continued to pour. “My family has been doing it for generations.”

“You’ve been killing Xhorhasians for generations to use as fertiliser?” Beau asked, with her eyebrows heading up into the zone that indicated the only reason she wasn’t punching was her disbelief about the bullshit being spouted.

“Oh, we don’t kill people,” Caduceus said, and then paused and frowned in thought. “Well, my family and I don’t usually kill people. Huh. I don’t actually know if my family ever killed people, other than my sister. She definitely killed those guys. Hmmm. Anyways, well, Mr Caleb and Mrs Nott have killed people. I have, too, but generally I just lay folks to rest: care for the graves and see that the earth remembers them…”

Caduceus trailed off, staring into the middle distance with his slight frown, and sipped his tea thoughtfully.

“Caduceus is from north of the Empire. His family has tended the Blooming Grove there for generations,” Caleb said, moving over to take the teapot from Caduceus’ unresisting hands. “It is a tradition there, the tea is a way of remembering those who have passed.”

“Way to drink to your victories I suppose,” said Beau, putting her cup down on the side table roughly, the tea sloshing across the wood, so much thinner than blood.

Caleb sighed heavily, and Molly marked with some interest how he glanced over to in his direction and Jester’s as if looking for support, before he shook his head and put the teapot down next to the fire.

“It was not a victory. None of this is a victory,” Caleb gestured around at the castle and at Molly. “I have blood on my hands, you cannot pretend not to know this. I do not lightly—”

“I think the tea is really a way to make sure something good comes of someone’s end. I mean, they aren’t really there anymore, so it doesn’t matter if they were good and did good things, or if they were bad and did bad things. Just, something real is coming from what’s left,” said Caduceus, looking around at them all. “Sorry, was I interrupting?”

“Nein. It is fine,” said Caleb, the turn of his mouth painting the lie. “I am very tired from checking the seals and the travel. Can you and Nott get everyone settled, Caduceus?”

“Yeah, sure. I can do that. Do you want me to bring dinner up later?”

“Ja, that would be good.”

Without looking at anyone else, Caleb turned on his heel and left.

“Huh, that’s weird,” said Caduceus, looking after him.

Fjord practically pounced on the remark.

“What’s weird?” he asked, with gratingly faux nonchalance.

Molly raised his brows at him, and he surreptitiously flicked a ‘fuck off’ gesture with his fingers in Molly’s direction without breaking eye contact with Caduceus. The firbolg rubbed at his chin, thoughtfully.

“Well, he sort of went the wrong way,” he said, with a wave towards the door next to Yasha. “His room and the library are closer through there.”

They all looked over at Yasha who shrugged and sipped her tea, and shrugged again at the faces they made at her.

“It’s good tea,” she said, simply.

------------------------

The rest of the day consisted of lunch, dinner, and, between them, a brief tour of the open parts of the castle, during which Molly couldn’t help but note how many doors where left closed and unexplained, nor could he help but note that Beau was also paying attention to the fragmentary nature of their journey. They had politely declined Caduceus’ offer to be shown around the graveyard, postponing it to another day with no intention of following up. They’d spotted Caleb in the library, but he had been busy scribbling some sort of notes and pouring over a large and daunting looking tome. Caduceus hadn’t wanted to disturb him, so the door had been closed again before Molly had had a chance to shape words around the way the sunlight hung upon his husband’s shoulders, let alone say anything.

After dinner, a meatless and Caleb-less meal, barely attended by Nott, whose absence over the afternoon was explained in a hurried rush of words about Luc and Yeza, and then repeated after she’d nicked sweets for her son, they’d been gently but firmly deposited in their various bedchambers with an open offer of another tea if they couldn’t sleep. Molly had no intention of drinking any more tea, so when the door closed he’d resigned himself to an evening of actually sleeping. They’d found Caduceus to be a worryingly perceptive man, and Molly didn’t want to risk being caught in the hall and made an offer he couldn’t refuse.

His room was slightly smaller than the one he’d had in the magic Mansion, and much, much plainer. The bedcurtains were plain, but thick, cloth in a dull, cheap shade of green. The blankets on the bed were saved from mediocrity by virtue of being largely comprised of furs that seemed well-tanned and well-cared for – supple rather than crinkly to the touch. The bed itself was on the upper end of plain, with the posts carved in a basic pattern and nicely finished, and the mattress at least able to pretend its feathers were down. The rest of the room matched the bed. A plain but well-made chest sat at the end of the bed, a closet was against the wall, a wash table next to it, and a couch was awkwardly positioned near the fire, just slightly too big for the room.

Molly missed the Mansion, with all its careful personalisation and luxury. He missed it even more when, as he stripped for bed, he managed to step on a needle embedded in the dull rug near the fireplace and stub the littlest toe on his other foot against the chest. The mirror over the wash basin, he found, was polished silver that hadn’t been polished for a while, so he could barely see what he was doing as he tried to fix his hair for bed. Between that and the whirring of his thoughts as they flashed over everything Caduceus had said and back to Caleb’s anxiety then relief at the old battlefield, his joy at being greeted at the gate, and his short-lived speech about victory and blood, Molly found himself in an uncomfortable mood.

As he flopped backwards onto the bed, and found it about equal to the feel of flopping back into a drift of autumn leaves, he found his mind largely alight with curiosity. Sure, there were still the pangs of uncertain jealousy and the sting of Caleb’s dismissal at tea, but for the most part he wondered what was going on in Caleb’s brain: why he’d been evasive when Jester had asked about the Keep’s history, why he’d been so determined not to explain the seals, what he’d been working on in the library. And then, as he crawled under the covers, he inevitably wondered about what Caleb’s room was like, and why they weren’t sharing a bed despite the importance of the peace. Admittedly, there don’t seem to be any servants to gossip about it, he thought, and wondered again at the lack of them. One creepy firbolg was not nearly enough to keep a castle of such a size running.

Molly was just drifting off, hazily wondering whether they’d be having to take turns cooking and what Caleb would look like working in a kitchen, when the sound of his chamber door creaking open sent a rush of freezing fear through him. Ever so slowly, he reached for his swords where they hung on the bedpost, doing his best to make no noise. Over his breathing, he heard light footsteps slowly making their way to the curtains, and he curled one hand around his reach blade. Whoever it was paused for a long few seconds, and Molly was torn between the desire to reposition himself and the desire to remain silent. The figure ran their hand down the fabric of the bed-curtain, slowly, and Molly got his legs under him carefully. The hand lifted and then returned, gliding down the other side of the fabric with fingers splayed wide. Molly’s mind raced through the possibilities. It wasn’t his friends- they were dicks but they weren’t this creepy; the halflings were out, by the size of the hand, and so was Nott; the firbolg probably had larger hands, though it was hard to be sure in the dark, and the creepy fit; the thought of it being Caleb freaked him out, and he initially dismissed it, but his brain kept coming back to it. It would be your luck, after all, his pessimistic side pointed out.

As the hand made its fourth pass, Molly gathered himself, swallowed, and put on a sleepy voice:

“Mmh, who’s there?”

The hand froze and withdrew. There was a pause.

“Is that you, Beau?” Molly asked, trying to keep up his charade despite the feel of his heart in his throat.

“You shouldn’t be here,” said a thickly accented voice in barely more than a whisper.

Molly froze. It sounded like Caleb, enough that for just a moment Molly mistook it for his husband and lost his ability to compose a response.

“You should leave,” said the voice again, and Molly heard the door creaking shut.

“Run,” it insisted, and Molly heard the door click closed.

He swept his curtains back and drew his Reach Blade in a paired movement, only to find the room empty, the mystery speaker gone. He still got up and searched the room thoroughly to be sure and, when he was satisfied he was alone, he pushed the chest from the end of the bed over to block the door. After a moment’s thought, he re-stoked the fire, for the warmth and the light, and took a few minutes to even out his breathing.

Despite the fire, the chill of the chamber eventually chased him back to bed, still shaking slightly and thoroughly spooked. He kept his sword in hand, under the blankets, his palm sweaty and his grip periodically tightening and loosening. After a few minutes in the claustrophobic silence of the bed, he arranged the curtains around the bed so they parted slightly, so he could see the door from where he lay. Sleep was a long time coming.

----------------------------

When morning came, Caleb found himself torn. On one hand, he had become accustomed to seeing Misrule in the mornings, to seeing Molly, but on the other hand, it had become pretty clear that they were not pleased at being housed in a Keep that had been used as a war prison, and that they were not happy that he’d been involved. And how long will it take before they find out just how involved? Then how will they look at you? he thought to himself, then, sighing heavily, he turned towards his library. They’d probably figure it out in the next few days, and, until they approached him about it, he’d stay out of their way. He had plenty of work still to do.

------------------------

He’d wanted to ask Caleb about it, but it soon became apparent that the wizard wasn’t going to be making it to breakfast. Rubbing his hands over his face, pretty sure he looked like shit, he turned his attention to Caduceus, who was humming to himself as he fried something on the stove.

“Caduceus? Have you ever seen any ghosts around here?” he asked.

Caduceus stopped humming and tilted his head to the side. Jester grabbed Molly’s arm and began to shake him side to side.

“Have you seen a ghost!?” she asked with her eyes wide.

Beau snorted, and Molly glared at her.

“It was either a ghost or some really creepy dude,” he said, somewhat sullen, and Yasha patted his shoulder on his other side. “Whatever it was, it opened my door and messed with my bed curtains, said some creepy shit about how I should go away, and left.”

“And you didn’t stab it?” Beau asked, incredulous.

“Unlike you, I don’t go around lashing out randomly,” Molly said, primly, folding his arms in a mockery of Beau. “I waited to see what it’d do, and it left.”

“Yeah, there have been a few ghosts, but mostly the ones that are still here keep to the gardens,” Caduceus said, bringing the pan over to the table and beginning to fill their plates. “The ones that come inside can be… angry, I suppose. Let me know if it comes back and I can deal with it.”

He seemed so well-meaning and gently earnest that Molly couldn’t help but smile at his offer, and a little at the freaked out look on Fjord’s face.

“I’ll let you know,” he said.

“There are ghosts in the gardens?” Jester asked, propping her chin on her hand.

As Caduceus began to tell them about the ghosts, in a rambling fashion, Molly wondered if he should mention the fact that the ghost had a Zemnian accent. Looking over between Fjord and Jester, he decided against it. The last thing he needed was his friends deciding that Caleb was being a creep. It was bad enough finding out he lived in a haunted prison-castle.

------------------

It happened again a week later.

Molly had almost managed to stop thinking about the strange incident from the first night, distracted by treks in the nearby mountains and valleys, the ghost hunts in the garden, playing wild games with Luc and Nott, and figuring out the mysteries behind the locked doors. And, of course, being distracted by Caleb’s noticeable avoidance. He spent his days holed up in his library, or his study – wherever that was – and the few times that Molly had been able to talk to him, he’d been hard to read. One moment he seemed almost flirtatious, certainly happy to see Molly, the next his face would fall into worry, and he’d make his excuses and leave. It was maddening, and so Molly made it his mission to keep himself and everyone else entertained, if only so he could distract himself from the worried tightness in his chest.

Exhausted from a day of moving beehives and processing honey, he’d fallen thoughtlessly to sleep only half under the blankets. At first, he groggily thought his cold shoulder had woken him, until he heard the sharp click of his door opening and the sound of the hinges slowly screaming open. He wasted no time grabbing his swords and crouching ready on his bed. The footsteps approached, and Molly didn’t bother trying to feign sleep.

“Who are you?” he asked, trying not to sound afraid.

There was a deep pause.

“You shouldn’t be here—”

“You said that last time,” Molly said, frustrated and freaked out in equal measure, glaring at the curtain. “Last I checked I was meant to be here; this is my room.”

He waited, and a hand stroked the curtain in front of him. Molly prepared to stab whoever it was.

“Something isn’t right with him,” the voice slowly said, taking its time over each word. “He will find you, and he will take you apart, and he will kill you. You should run.”

Molly forced himself to breathe steadily, and, after a few seconds more, he heard the sound of footsteps leaving and the door closing. Swallowing, he pulled the curtain aside to find the room empty. He pushed the chest back across the door, and added the couch to the barricade for good measure.

He’d fought ghosts before. They tended to be distraught and dangerous things, for the most part, and the thought of one being concerned for his safety… Molly sat on the edge of the bed in the dark, his swords unsheathed at his side, and waited for the dawn.

-------------------------

Caleb nearly ran headlong into Molly, turning the corner to head to the library. After a hurried and automatic apology, he noticed the swords and the tired look in Molly’s eyes.

“What is going on?” he asked, stepping back to look between the drawn swords and Molly’s distressed expression.

“There’s a ghost,” Molly bit out, sounding as exhausted as he looked.

Caleb gently took his arm and led him into the library.

“Have you mentioned it to Caduceus?” he asked, as he closed the door behind them and checked the wards.

Mollymauk nodded tiredly, then hesitated.

“I told him the first time, and he said to wait and see if it happened again.”

“And it happened again.”

“Yeah,” Molly said, and slumped down into a reading chair. “I haven’t told him about it yet, though. I just…” he looked up at Caleb as if he was trying to figure something out, “Did anyone from the Zemni Fields die here?”

Caleb frowned.

“Ja, I suppose, there were soldiers from all over stationed here, and the prisoners did not go quietly.”

“So, a dead guard might be warning me? Nice,” Molly said, looking like he thought it anything but nice.

“I can check the records for you, if you would like? But, often, the kindest thing to do is to lay them to rest as quickly as possible,” Caleb said, with a nod to Molly’s swords.

Molly blushed slightly and began to awkwardly work them back into their scabbards.

“Do you have a description of the ghost? I know they are not always… visually coherent, but anything you remember might help.”

Molly stilled for a fraction of a second then finished putting his sword away before slumping back in the chair and draping his forearm across his eyes. Caleb tried not to admire him too much, given his apparent distress, but suspected he failed.

“The thing is,” Molly began, sounding defeated, “I haven’t actually seen the ghost. It just comes into my room and touches the curtain and says things like ‘go away’ in a Zemnian accent, and leaves. I haven’t opened the curtain while it’s there.”

Molly shifted slightly, and Caleb was pretty sure he was flushing in embarrassment under his arm. Which was fair, given he’d failed, twice, to identify someone coming into his room. A troubling thought occurred to Caleb.

“Have you mentioned the Zemnian accent to anyone?”

“No,” Molly said, and sighed heavily. “I didn’t want anyone thinking it was you.”

He took his arm away from his eyes and Caleb flinched his gaze away from Molly’s defeated look.

“Ah, ja, that – that is probably for the best,” he managed, suddenly very aware of how intently he’d been focusing on Molly’s lips. “It, ah, it wasn’t me… I mean, just to be clear.”

“I figured,” Molly said, sounding slightly amused.

Caleb risked another look, before heading to one of the shelves of bound castle records to fiddle with their spines.

“I’ll, ah, I’ll look for things here, if you have a chat with Caduceus? We should be able to get this sorted."

“Of course,” Molly said, with a faint rustle that indicated he’d stood. “I take it I’m dismissed?”

The faint bitterness prompted Caleb to turn around. The look on Molly’s face was inscrutable.

“On a different note, husband dear, why aren’t we sharing a bed? People will talk?”

Caleb froze, his mind going fuzzy for a moment, before his wits caught up to the runaway cart of imagination.

“Well, I-I think people would talk more if we… if we did that,” Caleb fixed his eyes on Molly’s left horn, wishing he could ignore his peripheral vision. “Can you imagine Jester?” he added, a tad desperately.

Molly’s expression fell into a nose wrinkle.

“True that,” he said, before composing himself again, and giving Caleb a wink. “But as soon as she starts mentioning it, we are agreed we will be doubling down?”

“Doubling down?” Caleb asked, a touch faintly, dreading that he already knew what it meant.

“Of course, it’ll be fun. Promise.”

Mollymauk didn’t give him a chance to catch his breath and respond, before he whisked out the door, closing it with a flick of his tail. Caleb leant against the shelves and tried to think of what he’d been meaning to do, of anything but what Molly might have just promised.

Eventually, he managed to gather himself enough to pull the right records, and made a note to check on Wulf that evening.

------------------

It was three nights later, three nights of being vaguely embarrassed about having inconvenienced Caduceus, three nights of him sleeping in the smaller room across the hall, when the door opened again. Molly had his swords in his hands before his eyes were open. As the hinges creaked, he flung open the curtains, ignoring the tearing of fabric as his blade caught momentarily. The figure in the doorway stepped forward. He looked like a human man, tall and muscular, in his prime, clothed in robes of some sort. He cocked his head at Molly with a frown and there was something wrong with his eyes.

Before Molly could say anything, a bright light spilled past the intruder. Caduceus wandered into view the other side of the doorway holding his staff up, with the crystal at the top playing the part of a miniature sun. Molly winced at the brightness and the intruder lifted his arm to cover his eyes, and turned making an odd, inhuman noise in his throat.

“Ahh, Eodwulf. Hello there,” Caduceus said, without a trace of sleepiness or surprise.

Molly wondered, madly, if the firbolg was even capable of surprise as he lowered his swords hesitantly. Caduceus dimmed his light somewhat.

“Have you been introduced to Molly yet, Wulf?” Caduceus asked after a moment longer of awkward silence.

Wulf shook his head and glanced furtively across at Molly, before turning his eyes to the floor, his shoulders up like a child expecting a scolding. His eyes, in the light, where a startling deep blue.

“Well then, let me introduce you two,” Caduceus said. “Mollymauk, this is Wulf. Wulf, this is Molly. Mr Wulf is an archmage, too, like Mr Caleb. Mr Mollymauk is Caleb’s new husband, Wulf.”

Molly resisted the urge to comment on Caduceus’ ‘Mister’ use, and, instead, stepped forward and offered Wulf his hand.

“I think we did meet before,” he said a touch of sharpness to his cheer, “but you were an owl at the time. Was it Wulfric or Eodwulf?”

Caduceus frowned a little in thought.

“Lots of official-looking stuff calls him Wulfric, but Caleb always calls him Eodwulf, so I’m not entirely sure, actually,” the firbolg admitted, and Wulf nodded, still looking at the ground.

Molly moved his hand closer, a little at a time, to edge it into his periphery. Noticing it, Wulf looked up at Molly, quickly, as if startled, and stared for a breathless moment, before reaching out and taking it.

His handshake had something frantic to it, the grip uncertain, his eyes flickering about. Molly did his best to try to convey some of the warm reassurance Caduceus was so good at giving off.

“Well, it’s nice—”

“You should leave,” Wulf said, abruptly, cutting Molly off. “You need to run, before you start to scream. He’ll find you. He’ll find you. He’ll find you—”

“Easy there, Wulf,” Caduceus said over Wulf’s frantic warning, gently patting the man on his shoulder. “Everything is going to be just fine. Caleb’s home now, did you know?”

“Caleb’s home?” Wulf asked, releasing Molly’s hand and turning to Caduceus, something unreadable in his expression.

“Yes, yes he is. Would you like to come see him, seeing as you’re feeling better?”

Wulf looked at the floor then back up and nodded. Molly swallowed his own disturbance and put on a gentle, supportive smile.

“Well, nice meeting you, Wulf,” he said, cheerily, as Caduceus guided the man towards the hallway.

The man didn’t look back, but Molly found himself staring at where he’d been for a long while afterwards.

Chapter Text

Caleb jerked awake at the quiet knock on the door, and hurriedly wiped his mouth and dabbed at the damp patch he’d left on his notes.

“Hello?” he called, after a few seconds of composing himself.

The door opened carefully, and Caduceus made his way in, Wulfric in tow.

“Hello, Caleb. Working late?” Caduceus said, a knowing look in his eye.

Caleb shifted his sleeve to cover the drool patch, though he was fairly certain he was too late. He nodded, a tad guiltily, and turned his attention to Wulf hoping to change the subject. His old friend had his eyes fixed on the floor. It was a sleepy couple of moments before Caleb remembered himself, and discretely cast Disguise Self as he stood and made his way around the desk.

“Turns out Wulf was trying to say hello to Mr. Mollymauk, is all. I thought he might like to see you while he’s up and about,” Caduceus rambled, with one hand rubbing comforting circles on Wulf’s back.

“How are you, Eodwulf?” Caleb asked softly, taking a gamble on Common for Caduceus’ sake.

Wulf looked up at him sharply, and then relaxed a little. Caleb kept his expression carefully gentle as Wulf looked him over. It hurt a little that his old friend had become so poor at seeing through illusions, even when the illusions were constructed to keep him safe from the memories that haunted him.

Eventually Wulf nodded, before glancing furtively at the door and leaning in towards Caleb.

“There are Xhorhasians in the castle,” he whispered, seeming worried. “I tried to tell them to leave, but they haven’t, and—”

“It’s alright, Wulf, they’re friends.”

“But, Caleb—”

“I’m here, Wulf, and they are friends.”

Caleb moved in to grip Wulf’s shoulder reassuringly, sparing a tired look of gratitude for Caduceus who just gave a sad smile.

“Wulf, you do remember me, don’t you?” Caleb asked, focusing again on Wulf.

Wulf’s trailing gaze found its way back to Caleb, and he nodded slowly.

“Bren. Of course, of course I know you,” Wulf said, before frowning slightly. “You should be careful, sneaking around at night. He might find you.”

Caleb sighed, feeling a little defeated.

“It’s alright, he isn’t here right now. There is only me,” Caleb gave Wulf a tight smile. “I saw him going out, so we should be fine for tonight at least.”

“I thought I saw him…” Wulf trailed off, distractedly, staring towards the desk.

“I was just disguising myself, that’s all. So no one would know I was sneaking around after lights out.”

Wulf blinked at him, then grinned, looking heartbreakingly himself again.

“Pretty good plan, for a farmer’s son” he said, and gave Caleb’s shoulder a light punch. “Where have you been anyway?”

“I had to go to Rexxuntrum. There were peace talks, and now we are in a ceasefire. The Xhorhasians are here to make sure us mages don’t go out making trouble.”

It was close to the truth and there was something approaching comprehension in Wulf’s eyes as he nodded slowly.

“The soldiers all left a few weeks back,” Wulf said, after a moment, a hint of a question in his voice.

Caleb nodded.

“Ja, that was because they need to be stationed elsewhere for the time being.”

“I’m guessing you two will be wanting some tea while you catch up with each other,” Caduceus rumbled, causing Wulf to startle. “You’re alright, Wulf. Anyways, I’ll go make you some and bring it up.”

Caleb silently thanked the Wildmother for letting him borrow Caduceus, and steered Eodwulf over to the chairs by the fire. Wulf took a moment to get himself organised in his chair, obviously uncomfortable being unable to perch. Caleb took a moment to stir up the embers and add a log, giving Wulf time to settle, before he took his own seat.

“How- how was your trip?” Wulf asked, a little uncertain, but still enough to make Caleb smile.

It wasn’t often that Wulf was up to having a conversation.

“There was summer rain, but for the most part it was pleasant. I ended up getting plenty of practice with that Mansion spell, and—”

“What Mansion spell?”

Caleb hesitated, then dismissed his worries and fished out his spell book, moving his chair over to next to Eodwulf’s. It, blessedly, didn’t take long to refresh Wulf’s memory of the spell, but they both missed Caduceus’ coming and going, discussing the implications of the window additions and the carpentry limitations. It was… nice. To relax, to pretend for a while that they were on equal footing again, that there wasn’t anything wrong, that they’d grown up into the wizards they’d dreamed of being before everything had gone awry and the world had sunk its teeth into them. Sitting by a fire late at night, drinking tea and discussing spells.

Eventually Caleb had to lean back and work the crick out of his neck. Eodwulf laughed at him.

“You’re getting old, Bren,” he said with a grin, and Caleb laughed, too, for all that Wulf had no idea.

“You are too, Wulf, for all your muscle-bound advantages,” Caleb grumbled, and put another log on the fire. “That reminds me, I found one of your rings.”

“Which rings?”

Caleb paused, then barrelled on, fishing out the ring in question.

“Mind Shield, I believe,” he said, handing it over to Wulf. “Do you recognise it? And do you have any way of knowing whether there is a soul caught in it.”

Wulf turned it over between his fingers for half a minute before pulling out his own worn spell book and beginning an incantation. In the soft burst of magical energy, he looked every bit the confident young mage he’d once been. He kept staring at the ring, turning it in his fingers, for a while after the spell was done, before handing it back.

“I gave it to Lyran, a long time ago. She thought I loved her, and I… I used her. I had no idea she kept it.” He paused, staring into the distance of the past, before shaking his head ruefully. “How did she die?”

“She tried to steal my books.”

Wulf laughed in a sudden burst, before covering his mouth and looking embarrassed.

“Sorry, that wasn’t… well. It’s just, of course you’d kill someone trying to steal your books. It’s so you.”

“Danke, Wulf, but the traps did most of it.”

“Your traps, or the gob—Nott’s traps?”

Caleb sighed out through his nose in mock exasperation.

“Mine,” he admitted. “Though, Nott set the triggers.”

Wulf chuckled some more, and Caleb tried to look serious despite the grin breaking through.

“I take it you really didn’t love Lyran,” Caleb said, as Wulf’s laughter died away.

“No, I beat her to this post. She hated my guts, so I’m probably not the best one to talk to her. Though, if you need her scared out of the ring… that’s a different story.”

“Actually, I did want to ask: can a person become a Lich if their soul is bound up in that ring?”

Wulf blinked in surprise, before shaking his head, and Caleb felt somewhat reassured.

“Not at all, not at all. Lichdom, in all my reading, focuses on the preservation and perversion of a soul. The ring holds a soul as it was the moment its bond with its body is severed. Why a Lich?”

Caleb launched into a more thorough explanation of Lyran’s death and re-death, getting up to fetch his notes partway through, and it was nearing dawn before their discussion drew to a close. Their tentative conclusions were worrying, though they’d need further delicate investigation before they could be acted upon. Wulf sat back and rubbed his face tiredly, sighing.

“A pretty mess you’ve found yourself in,” he said, with a sad smile across at Caleb.

There was an astute look in his eyes that Caleb didn’t like. He carefully set to cleaning his pen, avoiding the inevitable.

“Ja, a pretty big mess,” he admitted, vaguely. “My own fault though."

“Bren… you are Caleb, aren’t you?”

Caleb closed his eyes and sighed.

“Ja, I am,” he said, then opened his eyes again and focused on carefully packing everything away. “When did you remember?”

“About an hour ago,” Wulf admitted, and Caleb felt desperate hope rise in his chest. “I just wasn’t sure, and, well, Liches are serious. Are you making me forget?”

Caleb shook his head a touch frantically but didn’t look up.

“I’m not sure… I don’t remember much. I believe you. I know you did something… can you at least tell me why?”

Caleb finally looked up and confronted the lost look on Wulf’s face, the confidence he’d had talking magic over the evening had fallen away. There was nothing left in him of the aggression of his youth, of the bitter politicking, and the half-serious rivalry. But he was still astute enough that every time he figured it out, and every time he made himself forget.

“I- I don’t. Wulf, I’m not sure. I didn’t want to lose you, too, but…” Caleb trailed off helplessly.

“What did I do?” Wulf asked, after a beat or two of silence.

Caleb blinked. It was a new question. He tried for honesty.

“You were planning to have me killed.”

Wulf snorted, and shook his head.

“And here I am alive. You were always the sentimental one, Bren.”

Before Caleb could find the words to respond, Wulf was crumpling and twisting, his eyes reshaping and his face flattening. Feathers drifted up through his skin like they were caught in an updraft. In seconds, an owl hunkered in the chair, fluffing its feathers out sleepily.

Caleb put the notes and writing case back over on the desk, and tried and failed to find his bracer. Sighing at his own foolishness, he gentle approached the owl and held his arm out to it.

“Come on, old friend. I’ll take you to the window, so you can wing your way to your roost before dawn, hmm?”

Wulf fluffed his wings and stepped onto Caleb’s forearm, his talons innocently digging into the flesh beneath. Caleb gave him a gentle scritch above his beak, as he hoisted him over to the window to let him out, and reflected that it was a good thing Wulf never held onto his misgivings as an owl. Caleb would be cleaning a trail of blood out of the carpet as it was.

As Eodwulf silently swooped down to bank around the courtyard in the pre-dawn light, Caleb watched from his study window, idly putting pressure on his puncture wounds. Always the sentimental one… Caleb shook his head ruefully. Almost everyone who’d have agreed with Wulf had found themselves dead. He latched the window and turned to begin cleaning up the blood.

Chapter Text

Breakfast was already underway when Molly made it down to the informal dining area set off to the side of the kitchen. Caduceus was standing at the stove cooking rounds of dough in a pan. The table already had a stack of the resulting buns, with butter, jam, and some sort of mushroom and leek concoction. Jester had a plateful of the bread already, and was industriously slathering it with jam, while discussing possible activities for the day with Fjord, Yasha, and Luc. Beau was sitting, slouched with her chin on one hand, watching Nott, in her halfling form, attempt to get Luc to eat his breakfast with a sleepily amused expression that was a definite contrast to her usual grumpiness. She’d really taken to the kid, and Molly had to wonder if she regretted not knowing her own little brother. Nott and Yeza both gave him a little smile and wave as he slumped into a seat and stared at the spread, longing for bacon.

“Another haunting?” Beau asked, raising her brow.

Molly yawned as he nodded, half covering his mouth with the back of one hand, while he began filling his plate with the other.

“Turns out it was that owl guy, Wulf, all along,” he said, tearing one of the buns in half, and taking a moment to savour the fresh bread smell. “Turns out he’s pretty messed up.”

“How so?” Jester asked, mumbling around a mouthful of bread and jam.

“Oh, well, I mean, being all creepy and giving fucked up warnings and that shit.” Molly waved a hand in the air vaguely. “Real messed up. Caduceus took him off to see Caleb.”

He noticed Nott looking at him with narrowed eyes, and he gave her a shrug that just had her glaring harder. She opened her mouth to say something, but stopped when Caduceus came in with another platter of the buns and took a seat next to Molly.

“What is the matter with Wulfric, Caduceus?” asked Jester, leaning across Beau, while the firbolg got himself settled.

Caduceus shrugged.

“Whatever happened, it was before my time, so I’m not all that sure. Caleb kind of blames himself, though,” he said. “But Wulf isn’t going to hurt you, he just gets a little confused sometimes.”

“Wulf told me that- he told me that he turned himself into an owl, but he would get in trouble if he turned me into one, too. But he promised that he would show me how to do it if I keep practicing and stuff,” Luc said, scrunching up his nose at the idea of studying. “Caleb says flying is super cool, but he won’t turn me into a bird, either.”

The betrayal in the boy’s voice had Molly barely able to suppress a grin, and Nott’s concerned look wasn’t helping.

“Turning into things is not fun or cool, Luc,” she said in the most motherly tone Molly had heard yet. “You should focus on growing up into a proper halfling, and eat your mushrooms.”

“But, Mum—”

“Eat, or no climbing with Beauregard.”

“Dad—”

“Listen to your mother, Luc.”

Luc’s shoulders sunk in defeat and he half-heartedly prodded at his vegetables with a glum expression. Nott raised an eyebrow at him, and he wrinkled his nose and began to eat.

“Race you,” Beau said to him, hunkering over her own plate in an exaggerated manner.

Luc took her up on it, and Beau let him win by only a narrow margin. They both ran out whooping and yelling about climbing stuff, without bothering to take their plates to the kitchen. Molly had to wonder whether half Beau’s enthusiasm about hanging out with Luc had to do with the number of chores and responsibilities she got to skip out on.

It was hard to mind when she seemed to be having so much fun, though.

Molly took advantage of Beau’s exit, and slid the jam his way while Jester was distracted. While he slathered his bread with a liberal quantity, Fjord adjusted his seat after the whirlwind, and cleared his throat in an apologetic fashion.

“Not to beat a dead horse or anything, but why was Wulf warning you off, Molly?” he asked.

Molly shrugged and looked to Caduceus, who seemed to be preoccupied with dribbling honey into his tea, and then over at Nott, who sighed heavily.

“Wulf isn’t…” she paused, searching for the right words. “Wulf isn’t quite right in the head.”

“What happened to him? I mean, you’ve been with Caleb for ages…” Molly said, curious.

They were all looking at Nott and Nott looked back at them, her jaw beginning to tighten.

“Your people— The Kryn Dynasty is what happened to Wulf,” she said, eventually, and then looked down and away. “We got word of weapon plans, something involving the Gates, and Caleb asked Wulf to be a part of the team sent in to deal with it. I got Wulf out, what was left of him anyway, a few months later. Caleb still blames himself.”

“Oh,” Caduceus said, looking up. “I think you did tell me that. It’s why he doesn’t like bags, isn’t it?”

Nott nodded, looking uncomfortable, and Yeza gently patted her on the arm. Molly had to wonder at how Caduceus managed to be so very unflappable about literally everything.

“But that doesn’t really explain why he’s warning Molly about someone?” Jester said, tapping her cheek with her index finger.

Molly leant over and stole Caduceus’ tea while he seemed distracted by Jester’s question.

“He isn’t always in the here and now, so he might think Molly is someone else,” Nott theorized.

Molly sniffed the liquid in the cup as he shrugged.

“He knows I’m from Xhorhas, that’s what he based his whole warning on.”

Caduceus had definitely noticed Molly’s theft, but looked patiently amused more than annoyed. Molly took a sip and swirled it around his mouth. It tasted pretty normal, tea-wise. Nott looked even more uncomfortable about the line of enquiry. Jester was making heavy eye contact with her, her lips pursed, and the goblin-halfling squirmed in her seat.

“I think it probably has to do with Wulf not liking the torture much,” Caduceus said, breaking the tension, and taking his cup gently from Molly’s hands. “He’s never done well finding the prisoners here, and he might not understand that you aren’t another Dynasty captive.”

Nott’s ‘shut-up shut-up’ look seemed to be water off a duck’s back to Caduceus, who was nodding to himself as if he’d figured it all out.

“Torture?” Fjord asked, his polite surprise well feigned.

“Oh, yes. I suppose no one’s mentioned it. Greyheart is – hmm… ‘was’, now – a prison for people captured in the war. And sometimes they were tortured here.”

“We don’t talk about it around Luc,” Nott snapped, glaring at them.

Molly ignored her and turned to Caduceus, who met his eyes calmly and sipped his tea.

“Did you like the torture?” Molly blurted, unsettled.

Caduceus frowned.

“That was more Caleb’s area, I just took care of the dead.”

Nott spluttered, and Molly heard Yasha’s quiet “oh” and someone dropping their knife onto their plate, as he struggled to rationalize what he’d just heard. The pink haired man in front of him took another sip of his tea, and watched Molly with a calm, knowing, expression.

“Caleb tortured people?!” Jester squeaked.

We knew that, Molly thought, as he watched Caduceus nod. We always knew that. He’s the Archmage of War. We saw the prisoners, we heard the rumours – what right do we have to be surprised now? Nonetheless, he felt a sick sinking in his gut: the return of the dread that had plagued him on their journey to Rexxuntrum. Nott thumped her fist down on the table, grabbing their attention.

“Caleb did what he had to do. And don’t you dare –” she leaned half over the table to wave her finger as near as she could get to under their noses “– don’t you dare try to hold that against him. I know what you’ve done, and you don’t have a horse to sit on.”

She took a deep breath and sat back down as they all looked at her, somewhat dumbstruck.

“Sorry about that, sweetie,” she said to Yeza, patting his forearm, before giving Molly a half-embarrassed look. “Sorry about the h-word, Molly. I just don’t want you making him feel bad about it.”

“But, Nott, he imprisoned and tortured people…”

Nott narrowed her eyes at Jester and the blue tiefling held up her hands in surrender. Fjord opened his mouth, but shut it again when he got a share of the look.

“Um, you know, um, maybe we should talk about something else?” Yeza offered into the quiet. “Ah, so what is everyone planning to do today?”

They collectively took the lifeline and the tense little halfling man slowly relaxed as they began to plan another walk out to one of the small neighbouring valleys. As they debated the merits of traveling on foot or by horse, Caduceus quietly handed Molly a cup of tea, inclining his head and giving a small shrug when Molly looked at him questioningly.

“You didn’t seem to like it all that sweet,” he whispered, and then turned to stir his own cup again, looking contented.

Molly shrugged and let the conversation sort itself out around him, too. He had plenty of thinking to do.

----------------------------

By afternoon, the storm clouds that had kept them from putting their breakfast plans into motion had rolled in and the storm had set to work like an industrious washer-woman, soaking, slapping, and shaking out anything that made the error of being outside. The castle wall could barely be seen from the keep, so heavy was the deluge. The scant few inhabitants of this lonely house had resorted to hide-and-go-seek to stave off boredom - incongruous companion to the thunderous downpour and the haunting screams of the wild wind that it was.

Molly was Seeking, and having no luck whatsoever.

He’d made his way, room by empty room, up to the third floor and couldn’t help but feel there had been more locked doors along the way than he remembered. Locking doors was against the rules, so he was feeling justifiably frustrated. He was in the middle of twitching aside the tapestries of the hallway, when a small sound of surprise, barely more than a huff of breath, caught his attention. Molly looked up and found Caleb standing, holding a mug cradled in his hands, just past the turn into the next hall, the surprise on his face rapidly shifting toward puzzlement. Molly found himself abruptly reminded of both his breakfast conversation and how charming Caleb looked with a bit of stubble darkening the rather perfect line of his jaw.

“Ah, hallo?” Caleb said, after they’d both stood looking at one another for an uncomfortably long time.

Molly realized he was still holding the edge of the tapestry, and let it go.

“Hello, Caleb,” he replied, searching for something more to say. “Are you playing?”

“Playing?”

“Hide-and-go-seek. I’m seeking.”

“In that case I have been found, which, to my mind, immediately undoes my chances of winning if I do decide I am playing,” Caleb’s amused intensity left Molly at a loss, and he was sure the other man noticed.

Molly pulled himself together, despite the unfairness of it all, and sauntered over to adjust Caleb’s collar. He couldn’t help but notice how the wizard froze so very carefully, and Molly gave him a winning smile.

“Well, seeing how I’ve found you… perhaps you could help me out?”

It was a bit gratifying to see the flames dancing in Caleb’s hair as the poor man swallowed hard.

“Help, ah, help you find everyone else?”

“Of course,” Molly said, letting his smile drop just before he turned away.

When he turned back and leant against the wall, pasting another smile on his face, he was gratified to spot the slight flicker in Caleb’s stony expression.

“First, though,” Molly said, falsely bright, “I did have a couple of questions for you. If you don’t mind?”

Caleb nodded stiffly, and there was something a touch hunted in his eyes. Molly tapped a finger against his lips, pretending to think and watching the way Caleb’s eyes followed the movement.

“Did you turn Wulf into an owl?”

“Nein!” Caleb responded, adamant. “who told you… you already knew the answer, didn’t you?”

Molly hesitated, then nodded.

“Ask me questions, things you want to know, and I will be honest. But please stop playing games, Mollymauk,” Caleb said, and there was something sad in the way he said it that had Molly complying.

“Did you enjoy the torture?”

“Nein, I did not,” Caleb looked away, towards the wall, but his voice was raw with honesty. “But I did torture people, your people. I do not expect you to- to look over it, or forgive me.” He glanced over at Molly and gave him a slight smile. “Rest assured, I will not forgive myself.”

Molly sighed and shifted his feet.

“It was war—”

“But that does not make it right,” Caleb interrupted. “Did you want to know anything else?”

“Why is Wulf warning me to run?”

Caleb shook his head and it was a long few minutes before he seemed to find enough voice to answer.

“He- I hurt him badly. Your people turned him into an owl, but turning him back… and I… he had plotted to kill me, so I did not trouble so much to be gentle.”

“Wasn’t he your friend?”

“Ja, ja, he was, and is,” Caleb said, and gave a bitter chuckle. “Doubtless friendship means something different to you, but he is what I have.”

Molly couldn’t find anything to say. The sadly serious look on Caleb’s face had stolen his words as surely as heartbreak and, as Caleb dropped his gaze to the floor, Molly resisted the urge to reach out.

“I am sorry, Mollymauk,” Caleb said, quietly. “I cannot say I am a good man, that I am anything but a monster. The flowers beyond the gates cover the graves of your countrymen, and I cannot change that. And I cannot change the fact that we are wed now, but I will not force you to keep my company.”

For a moment, so fleeting Molly was unsure of it, Caleb met his eyes. Then he turned and left the way he’d came, leaving Molly, paralyzed by indecision, staring after him.

-----------------------------

Caleb wasn’t even sure what he was doing in his study again, as he stumbled over to his chair and sat to put his head on the cool surface of his desk. He was tired, he’d written his letters, and clarified the problems he’d been having with his Polymorph endeavour. He needed to go and eat something, and find a book to read, and go to bed, but all those options would involve leaving his study and risking another encounter with Mollymauk.

He groaned aloud at the thought.

Of all the possible scenarios he’d been tumbling about in his brain, the conversation he’d just had was near the top of bad ways to have to deal with Mollymauk finding out. He’d been secretly hoping that they could just exchange letters; that way he could have had time to figure out what Mollymauk was thinking.

He lifted his head a little to bang his forehead against the desk a few times and curse his foolishness.

In hindsight, he wholeheartedly regretted how he’d ended their talk. It’d be just his luck if Mollymauk decided to just go back to Xhorhas, now that Caleb had as good as confirmed he was happy with it. And why, oh why, are you not happy with it? he asked himself, frustrated. He tried his best to ignore the clear answer that stood out in his mind. Misrule were an inconvenience, a necessary one, but they complicated things. You like them, and you like Molly.

He didn’t feel like thinking, and with a muttered word and a quick tracing of the familiar lines of Polymorph, he didn’t have to.

Moments later a large Bengal-spotted cat spilled down onto the floor and padded over to the cat-bed in front of the fire.

----------------------------

The problem with taking a cat-nap was that it only lasted an hour and he didn’t always have the wherewithal, as a cat, to plan his shift back. And he didn’t always remember to lock the door.

It was mortifying to find himself a human again, curled on top of the cat bed, with Mollymauk watching him with some interest from one of the chairs nearby. He awkwardly climbed to his feet, tried to straighten himself, and did his best to ignore the fact he was blushing furiously.

“You make a cute cat,” Molly remarked, as he shifted to loop one of his legs over the arm of the chair.

Caleb swallowed hard and looked away.

“I presume you’re here to take your leave?”

“What?”

The genuine puzzlement had Caleb turning around. Molly cocked his head to the side.

“I’m here because I’ve decided you’re a melodramatic ass who is avoiding his responsibilities,” Molly stated, and Caleb narrowed his eyes.

“What responsibilities are you talking about?” Caleb asked, just moments before realizing that Mollymauk could be referring to sex.

“…and is it so really hard to make it down to dinner? Really? If this goes on much longer, Jester is going to get experimental,” Molly finished and threw his hands into the air, and then looked at Caleb and frowned. “Did you listen to any of that?”

“Ah- ja. I just…” Caleb shut his eyes tight, torn between hope and frustration. “Did you not listen to anything I said in the corridor. I don’t- I do not deserve your affections. You should not miss me.”

He opened his eyes to see Molly blink calmly, his easy smile fading somewhat.

“You have tortured and killed my countrymen. Well, I have done the same to yours.”

“I don’t think it’s really comparable—”

“My friends and I introduced the grain-blight that doomed thousands to die slowly of starvation. My hands are hardly clean. How can I possibly condemn you, with that on my conscience? Rest assured, we are all arseholes here.”

“Nein, you took orders, I gave them.”

“You imagine we couldn’t disobey? That we didn’t choose somehow?” The twisted look of regret on Molly’s face was achingly familiar. “You don’t like what you’ve done, I don’t like what I’ve done. Stop hiding away from us. Stop pretending your sins are somehow greater than ours.”

Caleb wasn’t sure what to say, and as he dithered, Mollymauk sat up straighter in the chair and ran his hands over his face, making a noise of frustration.

“That wasn’t exactly how I thought this would go,” he admitted, much of the fire gone from his voice.

Caleb took a seat in the other chair and fiddled with his cuff, before looking back across at the tiefling.

“How did you expect it to go?” he asked.

Mollymauk took a breath in and looked away, over at the dying embers of the fire, and hesitated. His tail curled itself back and forth in a manner that had Caleb raising his brows. He did say it wasn’t fear…

“I-um. I thought I might find you moping and would tell you to come to dinner. And you were going to agree,” Molly said, his voice pitched slightly high, and his cheeks seeming a touch darker.

The room was darkening around them with the rain drumming at the panes on the windows, and in the fading light Molly looked worn, like an old painting mellowed by its aged varnish, but he also looked very real, and very touchable. Caleb cast Dancing Lights to distract himself but couldn’t help but notice how Molly seemed to watch his hands or how he licked his lips.

Caleb tried to focus on arranging the lights as he thought of something intelligent to say. Something that didn’t have to do with how much he wanted. Mollymauk made a slightly frustrated noise, and Caleb started slightly. Molly shifted, stood gracefully, and gave him an indecipherable smile.

“In for a copper, in for a gold,” he said, as he took the scant two steps over to where Caleb was sitting.

Caleb could barely breathe, his concentration on his spell holding by a thread, unsure he could bring himself to imagine what Molly could possibly be thinking.

“May I?” Molly whispered, as he leaned in close, one hand propping his weight against the back of the chair, the other hovering by Caleb’s jaw.

Caleb knew, somewhere in the back of his head, that he should try for eye contact, but his gaze was utterly arrested by the proximity of Molly’s lips. He managed a small, shapeless sound and a nod.

Then Mollymauk was kissing him, his lips soft and warm and gentle, and his spell shattered in the back of his mind and the lights went out. His hands found their way to the folds of Molly’s coat, as the other man drew back only enough to make the first kiss distinct from the next. His hand ran along Caleb’s jaw and down to his shoulder to twist in his shirt, and Caleb tugged him closer still.

A small part of him wondered what he would do when he needed to breathe, more of him light-headedly insisted he was getting enough air in the tiny, soft gasps between kisses. He focused on kissing, future awkwardness be damned, and ventured to introduce a little tongue to the equation and the affirming sound Molly made thrilled through him.

The quiet sound of the door opening, clearly alien to their own softly, intimate noises, was like an ice bucket of water thrown over them. They both jerked back.

“Uncle Caleb!” Luc yelled, preferring his form of echolocation to taking the time to look around the office.

Caleb gently pushed Molly back, so he could get up, avoiding looking too hard at how rumpled he’d made his husband.

“Found you, Molly!” Luc yelled, as Molly stood upright, and Caleb winced.

“Luc, is the yelling really necessary?” he asked, as he quickly set himself to rights.

“We were playing hide-and-go-seek,” the boy said, sounding more miffed than contrite. “But now it’s dinner, and Uncle Caduceus says you have to come.”

Caleb raised his brows at Molly, and Molly grinned back.

“Oh yes,” he said. “Caduceus is on my side, now.”

Caleb sighed heavily, as Luc laughed and started running around the study yelling dinner at the top of his lungs and Molly grinned at him like a cat that had got the cream.

“It seems I have no choice. Dinner it is.”

Chapter Text

When Molly and Caleb finally made it to the dining room, they made a pretty picture. Molly was looking smug as all hells, with just a hint of worry at the edges, and Caleb, trailing behind, was staring at Molly in something akin to disbelief. Beau could only shake her head slightly in her own disbelief at Molly’s grin and wink. Whatever he’d been up to, he was asking for trouble making it so obvious. Jester was watching them closely, like a cat watching two stupidly unobservant mice.

“Glad you could make it,” Beau said, tilting her head to draw Molly’s attention over to Jester. “Where did ya find ‘em, Luc?”

“They were in Caleb’s study, which wasn’t fair because I’m not allowed to play in there.”

“Doesn’t sound fair at all, kid. Kinda sounds like they were trying to screw you over.”

“Not quite, your—” Molly hesitated, as Nott cleared her throat – “my dear. Not quite. Perhaps we might have come up with some diabolical plan, had Luc not found us, but…” he put his hands up and shrugged as he took a seat and began serving himself salad.

Caleb slunk his way over to take a seat at the head of the table, avoiding eye contact more than usual, and Beau suppressed the temptation to whistle. Fun as it was to tease Molly, it didn’t seem the most sensible idea to mock whatever he was working out with his husband. Not with the Traveller involved, and not given her other plans.

She let the dinnertime conversation wash around her, while she puzzled over the best way to get Molly alone. If there was one thing she knew about Molly, it was that he preferred to jump right into things without looking too hard. As he turned aside Jester’s hints with inuendo, he kept glancing over at Caleb, and his tail was telling quite the story. Beau could tell Jester was barely suppressing her laughter, playing dumb for him. Caleb was doing an admirable job ignoring them both, striking up a conversation with Fjord and Luc about magical principles. Beau tapped her index finger against the table.

“Copper for your thoughts?” Caduceus asked, from next to her at the foot of the table.

Beau quashed her desire to glare, instead, smiling a little like Fjord insisted. The firbolg smiled back, his ears drooping down making him look that much more dopey. A thought occurred to her and she leaned in a little, trying not to be overheard.

“Just considering whether to save Caleb from Molly, you know?” she whispered.

Yasha blinked at her from across the table, but didn’t look inclined to interrupt and no one else seemed to hear. Caduceus frowned.

“What do you mean by that?” he asked, and Beau barely kept herself from sighing in relief when his voice was as quiet as hers.

“I mean,” she began, and spared a quick glance down the table, “Molly came in looking like he’d made a move, and Caleb didn’t seem… comfortable. I’m worried Molly will push things tonight and scare Caleb off.”

Caduceus chewed his lip in thought for a moment.

“You mean sex, don’t you?” he asked, eventually, sparing his own glance down the table. “That’s a complicated one.”

“Yeah, but does Caleb seem like the sort to just leap without looking? ‘Cause Molly is, and I don’t want this to all fall apart on him. This means something to him.”

Caduceus pulled back, looking vaguely uncomfortable and the most focused that Beau had ever seen him. She let him think and shovelled some food into her mouth, only to nearly choke when Yasha leant in towards them both.

“Beau, do you want me to talk to Molly?” she asked, and Beau felt a pang of guilt at the worry in her eyes.

Nonetheless, she nodded.

“I was going to try and ask him to help me with some mending tonight, but he’ll probably listen to you more.”

Caduceus leant in as well, with an oddly determined look.

“I can talk to Caleb after dinner,” he whispered. “I’ll find out if things are moving too fast and then I’ll let Molly know.”

“We’ll distract Molly tonight, and you look after Caleb. Deal?” Beau asked, beginning to feel rather obvious, with the three of them crowding at one end of the table with their heads ducked together.

Caduceus and Yasha whispered their assent and Beau brushed off Nott’s suspicions by claiming they were planning a surprise. Then it was just a matter of waiting for dinner to finish and getting her timing right to head Molly off at the pass.

-------------------------

Molly knew he was a mess, and that he was dithering, but dinner had removed the misty veil of immediate desire and he was starting to think too hard. It hadn’t helped that Caleb had stonewalled him as soon as dinner had started, talking instead to Fjord and Luc about magic. He’d been left to deal with Nott’s knowing looks and Jester’s eager curiosity, and both had left him with sour doubts.

The kiss hadn’t felt like Caleb had just been putting up with it, but Molly didn’t feel nearly so secure as he had been when he’d basically been in the wizard’s lap. He chased an errant crumb around his plate as Luc was ushered off to bed, and the lecture on magic devolved into more stilted small-talk. He’d nearly gathered his wits and nerve back together when Caduceus ambled over.

“Caleb, mind if I have a word with you after you’re done? I have some things to talk to you about, and we never did confirm the greenhouse design,” he said, as if he wasn’t ruining everything.

Caleb looked over at Molly before he turned his attention to the firbolg, something breathtakingly hopeful in his eyes for just that moment. Molly felt his heart speed up, anticipation suddenly curling in his lungs.

“Perhaps we can talk in the morning?” Caleb asked Caduceus, sounding as innocent as a lamb. “I was thinking of heading to bed early – I was up all last night.”
“Oh, I don’t mind, I can talk with you while you get ready for bed. It is important.”

Caleb looked back over to Molly, just a quick glance, before dropping his shoulders in defeat.

“Certainly, Caduceus, shall we?”

Caleb stood and gestured for the firbolg to take the lead. Molly saw his hand raise to his mouth as he left the room, and Caleb’s voice whispered in his ear.

“Sorry, Mollymauk, I do not know how long this will take. Did you- do you want me to find you when I am done?”

Molly didn’t know where he found the wherewithal to cover his mouth to whisper his answer, but he did – stammering a hasty assent into his hand. The astute and slightly dreamy look on Jester’s face suggested that his efforts had, however, been somewhat in vain. She was just opening her mouth to ruin Molly’s evening when a hand clapped down on his shoulder. He jumped a couple of inches and turned to glare at Beau.

“What?” he growled, disgruntled.

“I need you to help me mend some things tonight,” she said. “And Yasha wants to talk to you.”

“I’m busy.”

“Not for this you’re not.”

Molly shook off her hand and stood up, taking a quick glance around the room. Nott and Yeza had departed to take Luc to bed and have some ‘alone time’ as Nott carefully put it in her son’s hearing. Caduceus had gone with Caleb, so it was just Xhorhas in the room. Nonetheless, it felt odd to switch over to talking as if they were on different sides again, to planning things behind their new friends’ backs. Let alone the possibility of magical eavesdropping.

“Beau, what could you possibly have to mend? We’ve been here nearly two weeks,” he hissed, trying to convey his full annoyance as quietly as possible.

He hated to think how things would go if Caleb couldn’t find him when he finished having his talk. Beau took her own quick scan of the room, before stepping in close.

“There’s a door, downstairs. By my calculations there’s a pretty large room behind it. Caduceus or Nott have always been hanging around. Tonight, Nott is getting it on with Yeza, and Caduceus is distracted with Caleb. Jester” – she paused momentarily to wink at their captain – “has agreed to distract Caduceus as well, and now she can get Caleb, too. There won’t be a better chance.”

Molly stared at her, then at the wall behind her. Her argument made sense. He gave up.

“I could distract Caleb,” he offered.

“You’re my lookout.”

Both of them ignored Jester’s slight delighted noise Fjord’s thumbs up. He gestured towards Yasha and Fjord, helplessly.

“We can’t break anything, and you’re the only other one who’s any good at locks. Fjord is taking care of Nott and Yasha is going to look for Wulf. Besides, it looks like Caleb might forgive you your curiosity at this point.”

“Not bloody likely,” he muttered under his breath, before pointing at Jester. “Keep him distracted, because I just told him to come find me when he was done.”

Beau made a slight choked noise, but Jester nodded seriously and flicked the ‘all good’ signal with her tail. Molly knew he’d be put through the wringer by her later over it, but she’d keep it together for the plan. Just have to hope she doesn’t try to talk to Caleb about it, he thought, as he watched her hurry off. It didn’t bear contemplation. He turned back to Beau.

“Let’s get this done.”

------------------

The dark, underground dungeon, carved into the rock, held a cold dryness that felt like it could suck the life out of someone. Molly shuddered slightly as he leant against the wall, keeping watch while Beau swore at the lock. He couldn’t help but wonder how many people had died down here, in agony, far from home, far from the Luxon. He shifted his feet and pressed himself a little closer to the rock. He wanted to be fucking Caleb, not contemplating his place in these dry dusty corridors.

There was an audible click accompanied by a satisfied sound, as Beau finally beat the lock.

“Traps?” Molly murmured, out the corner of his mouth.

She stood to start feeling her way around the frame with the trap finder – little more than river-rock that had been enchanted, but worth more than its weight in diamonds. It remained inert, and Beau opened the door and slipped inside. She left the door ajar, and Molly stepped across to cover the slight opening. So far, their distractions seemed to be holding, but that was no reason to be unprofessional.

The image of Caleb finding Molly’s room empty rose unbidden in his mind. He wasn’t sure what was worse: Caleb not finding him, or Caleb not looking in the first place. He just had to hope like hell that Jester kept the wizard distracted without giving him second thoughts. He shifted impatiently and took a peek into the room that Beau had decided was so important.

Shelves stretched out in the greys of his dark vision in orderly lines. It was something like a library, but instead of books, the shelves seemed to be filled with soft looking bags. Beau was carefully scanning the room with the trap-finder, and Molly suppressed his curiosity and turned his attention back to the corridor.

About ten minutes later, Beau tapped his shoulder and gave him the signal to come inside. He closed the door carefully behind him then turned to find Beau looking grim.

“What?” he whispered.

The rows of shelves looked disapproving. Beau shook her head slightly and walked over to the nearest. She tossed him one of the bags. It was soft fabric, and there was something soft and light inside. He glanced at the tag, but it looked like gibberish to him, then opened it.

Inside was hair, pale as moonlight, and just as impossible a find. He gently closed the bag and returned it to the shelf, taking another down. More hair. He swallowed and looked down the row, at the hundreds of bags. He looked back at Beau, his mind blank and ringing, and wished she didn’t look so comical in her goggles.

“Hair from the prisoners,” he whispered.

She nodded in confirmation. Lines of returned prisoners, all shaved and shamed, marched through his memories and down the cold, dark lines of shelved and labelled bags.

“What kind of magic takes hair?” she asked.

She couldn’t have expected an answer, not from him, but Molly couldn’t help but consider what he could do with blood. He looked around the shelves again and shivered.

“Was there anything else?” he asked, his voice hoarse.

Beau nodded and led him to the back of the room. There was a clear space with a table, and on the table were two metal chests with geometric designs etched into their sides. One had Beau’s lockpicks next to it, her case of thieves’ tools rolled open on the table. She gestured to the other.

“I checked for traps. Thought we could have a race,” she said, and the stilted way she said it suggested a slight mis-truth.

Molly could hardly blame her, he felt uncomfortable in the room with company.

“I don’t have my full kit,” he admitted, taking place behind the second chest. “And you’ve already started.”

She took her picks out and held them up to him with a wry grin. He dug around for his tools, and took a moment to drag her case to sit between them.

“On three?” Beau asked.

He nodded, and she counted them in. The lock was more complex than he was usually comfortable dealing with. It took him three tries just to count the pins, the knowledge of what was in the room settling heavy around him. He kept dropping the second as he tried for the third, and in his frustration began to branch out with Beau’s spare tools.

He was contemplating the chisel when Beau rapped her knuckles on the box in front of her to signal her success. He bowed to her and her expertise, and joined her to see what was inside.

“What’s betting it’s more hair?” he said out the side of his mouth.

She punched him on the shoulder, and then lifted the lid.

They both stood and stared a while.

Eventually, Beau took her tools and opened the second chest.

“There’s another one,” she breathed.

Molly managed to get his limbs moving enough to stumble over and join her.

“How do they have two… it isn’t…” he trailed off.

“He must have found it. It isn’t set like the other one,” Beau replied, numbly, her hand still on the lid.

The second piece of Luxon, slightly larger than the carefully set one in the first chest, pulsed innocently in the rumpled blue velvet lining of the box. Molly reached out his hand, before thinking better of it and turning to look at Beau instead. What he could see of her face beneath the goggles said she was also feeling fairly sucker-punched.

“What do we do?” he asked, though he already knew the answer.

They needed to take the Luxon home.

Chapter Text

He did his utmost to compose himself as he strode briskly along the halls back to his quarters. Caduceus, thankfully, didn’t try to make conversation as he trailed half a pace behind; they walked in silence.

By the time they reached his room, Caleb had managed to mostly calm down, even though he had no doubt in his mind that Caduceus knew exactly what he was doing. Caduceus was too observant not to have noticed exactly how flustered he’d been over dinner, too observant not to have noticed how often his gaze had wandered. Which led to the cringe-worthy conclusion that Caduceus probably meant to have some sort of Talk. With annoyance warring with embarrassment, he held open the door and waved Caduceus through, trying not to be too brisk – hurrying Caduceus, often as not, led to the firbolg slowing down to make sure his point was getting across. As he carefully closed the door behind them Caduceus hummed and, somehow, it sounded apologetic.

“I do want to confirm some things about the greenhouse,” he said, and Caleb could hear the ‘but’ waiting patiently in line.

“You didn’t think it could wait until morning? A greenhouse-related emergency?”

Caduceus smiled, scrunching up his nose – a soundless laugh – and wandered over to lay a fire in the grate.

“Perhaps not an emergency with the greenhouse,” he admitted, as he knelt. “I more wanted to check in with you about Mister Mollymauk.”

Caleb sighed loudly, so Caduceus was sure to hear despite being faced the other way, and pinched the bridge of his nose as he tried to figure out the best way to approach the matter. Mollymauk was complicated. As with everything else, Caduceus didn’t seem to feel the need to hurry the silence, and Caleb stared blankly at his back as he carefully adjusted the tinder. The possibility that the kiss, that the understanding, that everything was just part of a political manoeuvre had not escaped him. It was very likely that Mollymauk had come up with some sort of plan that hinged on currying his favour. But the fact remained: he wanted him anyway, or at least wanted to pretend it was real for a little while.

“I know it isn’t real,” Caleb murmured quietly as Caduceus stood and dusted off his hands.

I could have trusted it to be real with you, added the small part of him that didn’t know how to let go. He let his gaze skitter across Caduceus face, without meeting the other man’s eyes, and went to slump down heavily on the couch.

“How do you know that?”

Caleb sighed, again, and put his face in his hands.

“How can it be real?” he asked, muffled, before sitting back and looking into the middle distance just past Caduceus’ ear. “Even if he has decided it’s no matter what I have done to his countrymen, I am still not really…” he flapped a hand absentmindedly as he searched for the right words. “I am not interesting in his way.”

“You’re really interesting, Caleb. You know all kinds of things.”

Caleb levelled a flat look in his direction, but Caduceus didn’t drop his poker face.

“I am a book-loving wizard with no hobbies and hardly any talents outside reading and spell-craft. There is no world in which someone like him would find someone like me interesting without some underlying motive.”

“Isn’t being married to you an underlying motive?” Caduceus asked, after a moment’s pause of consideration.

Caleb couldn’t tell if he was being facetious or not.

“I have tried to make it clear that he is under no obligation to find me interesting simply due to the marriage.”

“So, you think he has some other motive?”

The crease between Caduceus’ brows was as endearing as ever, and Caleb felt a pang of guilt at the thought. He cleared his throat.

“It could be they mean to recruit me to their side, or that he wants to lull me into a sense of security and copy my spell-book when I’m not looking, or—”

“Or he could just want sex,” Caduceus mused, nodding slowly in perfect seriousness.

Caleb spluttered, and Caduceus blinked at him.

“It doesn’t have to be something complicated, does it? I don’t think he’s allowed to have sex with anyone else, and so, if he wants it, he’ll need to seduce you.”

Caleb felt hot, and tried to gather himself, even as his mind skipped back to another memorably frank conversation with Caduceus, the gentle but firm way he had made sure there would be no future misunderstandings between them, and embarrassment burned in his throat.

“That is correct, isn’t it?” Caduceus asked when Caleb failed to respond.

He managed to nod.

“There is… there is that possibility.”

“And you’re in the same position, too,” Caduceus continued. “So, he might just want to have sex with you, and you need to decide if that is something you want. Seems to me like that’s the first thing you need to decide.”

Caleb made an annoyed sound in his throat, and shook his head slightly at his friend.

“I had already decided that, Caduceus,” he said, and Caduceus hummed dubiously. “I have not, perhaps, decided whether I want to fool myself about it being anything more, just yet.”

Caduceus softened at that, and Caleb fixed his eyes over on the bedpost so he wouldn’t end up with another memory of Caduceus’ pity seared into his mind. The couch sank next to him as the firbolg sat down, and Caleb tried to stay still as Caduceus put his hand on his shoulder.

“Caleb—”

Caduceus was interrupted by an arrhythmic knock at the door. Caleb flinched, eyes wide, as the possibilities raced through his mind. The idea of Molly being included in the current conversation was horrifying. The knock came again, followed by the door clicking open.

“Hello, it’s Jester!” a distinctive voice called out. “The door just opened by itself, so I’m coming in!”

“Okay, Jester,” Caleb called back, with the heavy suspicion that his assent changed nothing.

Jester was only very slightly better than Mollymauk. A snake of worry uncoiled itself to warm on the rocks of his anxiety as Jester entered with a bounce in her step and a knowing smirk on her face.

She curtsied.

“Archmage Widogast; Mister Clay.”

“Captain Fancypants, what can I do for you?”

“I wanted to talk to you. To you both. About very important things.”

Taking his nod of acknowledgement as permission, she dragged his reading chair over from its usual place by the fire. They sat in silence, watching her as she positioned the chair in several different spots, muttering to herself about the pros and cons of each, before settling on one slightly to the left and at an angle. She took her time seating herself, arranging and rearranging her skirts and her tail. Suspicion slithered out to join worry.

Eventually, Jester broke the silence.

“It’s about you avoiding us, Caleb,” she said in a small voice that Caleb couldn’t really interpret.

Before he could say anything, Caduceus cleared his throat.

“Ah, yes, I was meaning to bring that up, too,” he said, shifting a little.

Caleb pinched the bridge of his nose.

“I have a great deal of work to do—”

“Do you, though?” asked Jester, her eyes narrowing. “Because I thought you were supposed to not be working, because you are the Archmage of War and there isn’t any war anymore.”

“I am trying to figure out a way to- to help Nott,” he said, frustrated.

“But you worry her when you lock yourself away,” Caduceus pointed out. “There should be a balance.”

“Nott needs help?”

They both looked at her and Caleb sighed, weighing matters in his head.

“Nott… Nott was once a Halfling. I am trying to change her back – I have made some progress, but not enough. I think I might have something, but I need to work on it some more…” Caleb paused, assessing Jester’s worried expression. “Please do not tell her, I do not like to get her hopes up.”

Jester nodded seriously.

“I won’t tell, but you do need to spend time with everyone. Molly has been…”

“Oh, we were just talking about Mollymauk,” said Caduceus, brightening.

“You were?!”

As Caduceus began to explain his thoughts on the subject, Caleb pulled out his spell book and began to deliberate on which he should prepare come morning. His attempt to huddle behind the walls of his selective hearing was undermined by an insidious worm of hope, and he couldn’t help but hear Jester’s eager speculations. She thought Mollymauk was falling in love, and her detailed explanation of tiefling tail movements made Caleb’s mouth go dry as his mind flickered from memory to memory. Her arguments were persuasive.

After a half-hour of the pair going back and forth over his head, Caleb dropped his pretence of not listening.

“Jester,” he interrupted, before she could finish her plot summary of Tails Entwined. “Why do you want Mollymauk to be in love with me?”

“What do you mean?” she asked, looking genuinely puzzled.

He closed his spell book gently and tucked it away.

“I mean, and I do not mean to be self-deprecating, but I am not exactly the best person for someone to be in love with. I have many flaws and have done many terrible things, so why do you want your friend to love me?”

He watched her carefully as her face fell in thought, Caduceus nodded beside him.

“You don’t join us for dinner. That could be considered a flaw,” said Caduceus, and Caleb gave him a sharp look.

Sometimes it was infuriatingly difficult to tell when Caduceus meant to be joking.

“It is certainly a flaw; I study too much,” Caleb told him, watching carefully for the firbolg’s tell.

Caduceus’ lip twitched upwards slightly on the right. Damn him, Caleb thought as he felt his own lips twitch in amusement. Before Caduceus had the chance to continue to undermine Caleb’s serious point, Jester spoke up.

“I suppose some of it is that I think people who are married should be in love,” she said, still frowning slightly. “But I also don’t want Molly to be unhappy, and he was just so worried that everything was going to be terrible.” She focused on Caleb. “I don’t think you are nearly as bad as we thought you were going to be, and so I want him to be happy, and he is happy when he’s in love.”

“Just because I’m not as dreadful as you imagined does not mean that I am a good person.”

“But you are, sort of, the only person he’s allowed to fall in love with now,” Caduceus pointed out, as he stood and went to put more wood on the fire. “So, it’s sort of the best option if he falls in love with you.”

“Nein,” Caleb said and shook his head emphatically, even though Caduceus couldn’t see. “He can fall in love with anyone, I will not quibble, so long as he’s discreet.”

“If he can fall in love with anyone, then he can fall in love with you,” said Jester, tilting her chin up. “And it isn’t very nice to have to be discreet in love, because then people find out and read all the love letters out in public. Anyway, you can’t pretend you aren’t in love with him.”

Caleb blinked at her, taken aback.

“My feelings are not the point,” he said, surprising himself with his own composure. “Whether I love him or not doesn’t change the fact that I’m a poor choice of person to love. It doesn’t change the fact that you should not be delighted if he is, as you claim, falling in love with me.”

Caleb swallowed and looked into the middle distance next to her chair as he tried to rationalise away the awful feeling in his chest. Jester’s quiet sigh did not make it any better.

“I’m not sure I follow,” Caduceus said, as he returned to his seat. “I thought you were trying to be clear with Mollymauk about your flaws, right?”

“Ja.”

“Well, he’s an adult. Surely, he can make up his own mind about who he should love? And I think Jester has been pretty clear that she wants Mollymauk to be happy, and she thinks being in love makes him happy.” Caduceus’ pause was like a storm waiting for an unknowable signal to drop its downpour. Caleb braced himself. “So, really, I think this is more about what you want, Caleb.”

Caleb hesitated. He stalled.

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“I mean, do you care about his motives? It just seems to me that you need to decide if you want him to love you or not, rather than worrying about whether you deserve his love.”

“But why wouldn’t you want someone to love you?” Jester interjected, looking genuinely baffled.

Caleb suppressed the urge to sigh yet again, and rubbed at his eyes.

“I was talking with Caduceus before you came in, and I was worried about Mollymauk’s motives. About your motives, Captain Fancypants. I am well aware of how love can be used to manipulate people like myself, I just haven’t figured out what you might want yet.”

Jester did an admirable job of looking taken aback, of spluttering incoherently, while Caduceus raised his brows at Caleb’s gambit. Caleb waited.

“We don’t – we don’t want anything from you!” she burst out once she found her tongue. Caleb looked doubtfully at her and she settled herself deeper into her seat. “Well, I mean, we do want peace. But we don’t have any assignment beyond that.”

Caleb didn’t shift his doubtful look, but Caduceus hummed and nodded next to him.

“You truly think I am about to believe that you have no assignment? That your espionage is done? That you aren’t all here, right now, keeping watch over one of the larger threats the Dwendalian Empire has to throw at Xhorhas?”

Jester sighed in something that sounded like defeat and Caleb settled back in his own chair.

“I’m not going to lie to you. I have been sending reports back to Rosohna, but we don’t have any real mission. We haven’t been assigned to fetch anything, or find anyone, or plant evidence, or any of it. This is meant to be a break from that, because Nott is here, and she will likely stay here as long as we do, so we don’t have to worry about her being anywhere else.”

“We have other agents.”

“So does the Dynasty.”

“So Mollymauk’s motive—”

“I don’t think we need to go into that just now, Caduceus,” Caleb said, cutting the firbolg off just in time. “You have both given me a great deal to think about, and I would like to be alone with it now.”

“I did have to ask about the greenhouse, though.”

Caleb shook his head adamantly and stood to get the door.

“It can wait. There is no such thing as a greenhouse emergency.”

He was halfway to the door, and Jester halfway through a useless protest of her own, when there was another knock at the door. This knock was firm and steady, and Caleb was not at all surprised to see Beauregard standing in the hall when he opened the door. She looked worried.

“Have you seen Molly?” she blurted as soon as she saw him. “Or Jester, for that matter?”

“I have not seen Mollymauk since dinner, but Jester is in here. What is—”

He was cut off by her bodily barging her way into the room. He made no move to stop her, frowning and closing the door as Beau began to explain herself.

“Molly is meant to help me with my mending tonight,” she began, pacing in a short line in front of Jester. “I can’t find him anywhere. Not in his room, nowhere.” She paused to shake her head. “And his bag is gone.”

Jester made a small noise in her throat, stood, and began to put the chair back where she’d stolen it from. Beauregard made no move to help her, instead pacing with the restless energy of a spooked horse.

“His bag is gone? What do you mean?” Caduceus asked, his brow creased in worry.

“Molly keeps a small bag packed for a journey in case of a quick departure. He hates roughing it, and that’s his compromise.”

“If it’s gone, he might be gone,” Jester blurted, face pinched in worry as she gave the chair a final pat.

“Why?” Caduceus asked, and Caleb mentally agreed.

It made no sense. Mollymauk had agreed to meet him, had agreed that Caleb would go find him…

“No idea,” Beauregard bit out. “But… that Wulf guy has been bothering him. Warning him to leave.”

Caleb took a breath, and then another, closed his eyes and opened them again.

“Caduceus, please find Wulf,” he said, his voice steady though he was not. “Beauregard and Jester, if you can look for him in the castle, I can attempt to scry for him.”

“Okay,” Jester said, pulling Beauregard by the arm. “I can do that too, so if you have trouble finding him, just let me know.”

Caleb nodded, his mind racing as they left. Eodwulf was damaged, but he was still an excellent enchanter. He could have found some sort of reason to plant fear in Mollymauk’s mind. He paced as his thoughts skittered from one possibility to the next, until they settled enough for him to attempt the spell. He sat down in his favourite chair, finding it still slightly warm from Jester, and fixed his eyes on the fire as his hands found the jewelled mirror he favoured as a focus for the Scrying spell. Fixing his mind on Mollymauk, on his laugh, the sound of his voice, the way he absentmindedly played with the jewellery on his horns, Caleb looked down into the mirror, said the words, made the gestures, and dropped into the darkness between things.

Chapter Text

Jester grabbed Beau by the arm as soon as they’d rounded a corner, or she tried to. She missed the target as Beau turned to face her, the worry she’d been showing in Caleb’s presence not at all abated. Jester’s stomach sank.

“We need to move quick,” Beau began urgently. “Sorry, we didn’t have time to consult. We found two beacons, Luxon beacons, and we couldn’t put everything back the way we’d found it.” She paused, and Jester could almost feel Beau’s panic stretching across the space between them, sinking into her skin. “Molly’s the decoy; we go up the cliffs with the beacons while they’re distracted with him.”

“Okay, okay, okay, why didn’t you just ask Caleb about the beacons? Get Molly to convince him to give them back?”

Beau let out a shaky breath.

“They were in a room filled with bags of hair from all the Xhorhasian prisoners who were kept here. Bags and bags. Didn’t really get a ‘sit down and talk with me’ vibe from it.”

She shifted her weight from foot to foot, and Jester had to quash the urge to mimic her.

“Okay, okay. Fjord and Yasha?” Jester asked, trying to focus on the problem at hand, rather than distractions and alternatives.

“Fjord’s packing everyone. You need to send a message to Yasha.”

Jester closed her eyes a moment and forced the information back through her mind.

“Two beacons?” she asked with her eyes still closed.

She heard Beau still shifting her feet impatiently.

“Yeah, two. One wasn’t set or anything. Like it’d been dug up somewhere else.”

Jester sent a silent prayer to the Traveller. Then, in the amused non-answer of his silence, she cast Sending to Yasha.

------------

Molly ran, and, as he ran, he wished that he had a horse. It would’ve taken too long to saddle one, and horses struggled in dense forests, but at least on a horse it’d have been someone else’s legs doing the hard work. It was easier to think about his legs than the plan. The screaming in his thighs had died into a numb looseness as his muscles had realised that they were in it for the long-haul, but he was breathing hard, and knew that he was going to be reaching his limit soon.

After another panting minute, he left the path and dropped his pace, switching his tactics from speed to stealth. Smoothly dodging the grasping tendrils of the undergrowth, trying to leave as little trail behind him, he decided to keep the path to his right in the vain hope that that way he wouldn’t get too lost. All the while he waited for the tell-tale orb of light that would indicate a Scry spell.

The damp of the dripping leaves had soaked through his clothes to grip his shoulders, and he’d started to seriously doubt his sense of direction when he felt the slightest bit of pressure at the back of his skull. It vanished before he could will it away, and a small golden orb appeared just slightly to his left. The Scry spell. Molly suppressed his relief, and avoided looking directly at it. Instead, he put on his best worried and furtive looks. Given his regular, every-day saunter attracted the attention of guards at least half the time, he was pretty certain his ‘caught red-handed’ impression would work on Widogast. Just gotta hope that the Widowmaker has a gentler temperament than the average Crownsguard when he realizes he’s been had, Molly thought to himself, and funnelled that anxiety into his expression. Fumbling slightly clambering over a fallen tree, he looked behind himself with all the apprehension he could muster. Pretty sure he’ll make you regret that he can’t kill you, he let himself think, even as he felt the delicate trust that he’d built on next to nothing tearing in his chest. The trick to acting was to think your way into not acting at all. The trick was to believe it. He swallowed hard, ducked his head down and clutched his bag to his chest as he walked on.

--------------

When Caleb jerked back to himself from the Scry, his heart was racing, and he had to rest his forehead on his knees for a long moment. Too long a moment. The thought of Molly’s face, the fear and desperation, and Caleb’s own knowledge of what he was running into, chased through his mind. He sat back up, shaking his head trying to focus his thoughts, and pulled out his spell-book. His fingers were shaking as he turned the pages, and he wasn’t entirely sure why. His Teleportation spell jumbled itself in front of his eyes. He hadn’t reviewed it for days, and now he knew he couldn’t trust his memory. He couldn’t afford to fail.

His hands moved as quickly as his thoughts as he snapped the book shut, tucked it away, and reached for his cocoon. He could fly as quickly as he could draw a circle, and he wouldn’t have to consider, quite so much, what he might find when he reached Mollymauk. As he cleared his mind, snatching in vain for a fragment of greyness to bury himself in while he tried to focus on Polymorph, there was a hurried knock at the door.

He considered not answering, just going to the window and flinging himself out into the air, but before he could act on the thought, the door opened and Caduceus hurried in, pulling a distressed Eodwulf along behind him by the wrist.

“I found him, he was downstairs,” Caduceus said, looking decidedly worried.

Caleb glanced from them to the window and back, deciding. Chaffing at the delay, he stalked across the room to where Wulf shrank from him.

“What did you do?” he asked, biting out each word against his anxiety and old, banked rage.

Wulf shook his head, mute, and Caleb made a frustrated noise in his throat.

“What did you do, Wulf?” he asked again, no gentler.

“I don’t—”

“What did you do to Mollymauk?”

“Who?” Wulf asked, pleading and bewildered, knees crumpling in fear.

Caleb looked at him and found the blankness he’d been trying to grasp.

“The purple tiefling, Mollymauk. From Xhorhas,” he said, his voice dangerous and dangerously level.

Wulf knew the tone well. He tried to pull himself from Caduceus’s grip and the firbolg let him go. As he crawled backwards, Caleb advanced.

“Caleb—” Caduceus began, a slight warning in his tone, but Caleb held up his hand to silence him.

“What did you do?” he asked again.

“They- they took them,” Wulf whimpered and scrambled for something in his tunic. “They took them. M took them.” He pulled out a sheet of paper and held it out, shaking.

Caleb snatched it from him, and read.

Sorry. I know I was snooping but I cant let you keep these. I just cant.
-M

Caleb felt cracks form in his deep calm and clenched his jaw tight, trying to hold it together while everything spiralled out of control. He didn’t have time.

“They took the beacons,” Wulf whispered, and Caleb jerked his head up, realising how long the silence had stretched. “I can’t find them, I didn’t know, I’m sorry.”

Caleb stared blankly at Wulf, curled in on himself in guilt and terror, then over at Caduceus, who was watching him carefully.

“Take care of him, please,” Caleb asked the firbolg. “I’m going after Mollymauk. I’ll bring them home, Wulf.”

It took a matter of seconds to reach the window and unlatch it from its frame. Less than six to climb up and mutter the spell to turn into an owl. And then he didn’t have to think about trust and pain and delicate webs of possibilities and plans torn down to tangle into unknown and broken shapes. He just needed to find Molly.

-----------------------

Beau tilted her head from one side to the other, stretching out her neck, as she shook out her arms. The raw cliff-face at the edge of the courtyard was painted greenish-grey in the dark-vision of her goggles, and extended up into the endless darkness of the clouded night. The drifting, misty rain glinted across the courtyard, making everything dangerously slick and messing with her ability to see. She bounced on the balls of her feet as she considered her approach.

“Don’t have an awful lot of time, Beau,” Fjord said, from where he stood holding the rope and the heavy piton.

Beau snorted and stalked over to him to grab the end of the rope.

“I’d like to see you try it,” she muttered, her voice sounding too loud in the still air.

“You’ve seen me fall on my arse plenty. Not sure why you’d want to see it again.”

Beau couldn’t help but smile at that, and tucked the piton he handed her through the back of her belt. Giving him a cheeky salute, then pushing away her nervous energy in favour of grim focus, she took two steps back, and set off running.

----------

As soon as the small Scry globe vanished, the tension in Molly’s shoulders eased a little. He took a minute to lean against a tree and just breathe and empty his mind. Unfortunately, too many of his wild mental acrobatics had struck against a bell inside him that had called out ‘truth’. It was true that if Widogast came after him, and the others got away with the beacons, then the wizard was going to be upset. It was true that Molly would be the only one left for him to be angry at. It was true that the wizard had tortured people in the past. It was true that the blood magic binding them would not prevent Widogast from hurting Molly if he decided he wanted to. It was true that… It’s true thinking about this is not helping, Molly thought, and scrubbed his face with his hands. Caleb isn’t that bad.

Caleb and his earnest caution, his small smiles, and his spells. Caleb who’d never once been a speciest git, and whose best friend was a goblin. Caleb who had kissed him back…

Molly pushed himself off the tree and began walking again. Whatever happened, for now he just needed to avoid getting caught for long enough that Beau got the head start she needed. What mattered was getting the Luxon home.

--------------------

Beau was around halfway up the cliff, fighting against gravity, when her foot slipped. She caught herself, wrenching her shoulder, and twisted her feet back under her to run on. Her breathing was harsh, but she pulled it into her chest and wrapped it up with her thoughts and her self, and then breathed it all back out again. Centred and blank, she ran on.

Reaching the narrow ledge that formed a treacherous trail over the shoulder of the mountain, Beau rolled herself to a standstill, feeling her shoulders bruise [from] bleeding off her unnatural speed so quickly. Gritting her teeth, she searched for a solid stretch of rock, as far back from the edge as possible. In the dark, and with the rain beading on her goggles in spite of their enchantments, she couldn’t be sure of her choice, but she made it anyway. She used the heel of her palm and all the focus she could muster to drive the heavy piton deep into the rock. It only took another few seconds to tie a neat bowline knot, and drop five ball bearings to signal it was secure.

Pressing herself against the face of the rock, she watched as someone – probably Fjord – tested the line with three sharp tugs. The piton held, and continued to hold as the rope went taut with someone’s weight. Then came the long minutes of waiting. Waiting to see her friends make it up to her, or to hear them slip, the rocks tumbling, and the sickening thud as they hit the ground. She hated waiting.

-----------------

As Caduceus carefully latched the window, Wulf began to laugh – a frantic sort of giggle that begged the world for everything to just be a joke. Caduceus turned to him slowly, careful to make no sudden moves, to keep everything gentle and calm, and found Wulf curled up around his knees, his hands clenched in his hair. Caduceus made his way slowly across to the fire, busying himself with prodding it and giving Wulf’s panic time to run its course. The giggles slowed, and when Caduceus looked around, he found Wulf watching him with something painfully wise and sad in his expression.

“You know, sometimes I forget they’re the same person. Can you believe it?” he asked Caduceus, as he took his hands from his hair to wrap his arms around his legs, his shoulders still shaking slightly. “He’s always so nice until he gives himself a reason not to be.”

Caduceus nodded, and carefully put the poker to the side, leaving the fire to go sit on the floor next to Wulf. He made it in time to catch the wizard around the shoulders as his laughter collapsed into sobs. After a little while, Wulf uncurled enough to cling to Caduceus, and turn his face into his shirt. Caduceus ran one hand in comforting circles along his back and waited.

Eventually, the sobs, too, died. Wulf lifted his head and looked carefully at Caduceus.

“I know you,” he said after couple of seconds. “You’re C-Cad… Caduceus.” He closed his eyes, brow furrowed in thought, and Caduceus hummed a little and waited. “You’re Caduceus. Bren was angry, why was Bren angry?”

He opened his eyes again and gave Caduceus a pleading look.

“Mollymauk went missing,” Caduceus explained, then, at Wulf’s baffled look, he cleared his throat and tried again. “Mollymauk, who he married to make peace with Xhorhas, ran away, and he thought you had scared him off.”

Wulf frowned down at his hands, and Caduceus didn’t hurry him – just kept rubbing little circles along his back.

“Purple… there was a purple tiefling from the Dynasty… but I didn’t hurt him,” Wulf looked back at Caduceus, and then realisation dawned. “There was a letter – he took the beacons – Caleb has the letter?”

“You showed him the letter,” Caduceus said, nodding.

“I showed him the letter and he flew after the… Mollymauk,” Wulf leaned back a little against Caduceus again.

Caduceus hummed a bit more as Wulf settled, making plans to negotiate Wulf into having a cup of tea before he inevitably retreated into his owl form. Wulf would need as long as possible to process what Caleb had done.

“There was a letter,” Wulf muttered, leaning his head against Caduceus’ upper arm and beginning to make circles of his own with one finger on the firbolg’s knee. “There was a letter in the open boxes, and Caleb went after Mollymauk.”

“Yeah, he flew out the window.”

Wulf tensed slightly, his finger stopping for a moment.

“Does Bren know where I found the letter?” he asked, moving his finger again, but this time tracing stars.

“I think so?” Caduceus murmured, trying to be calming.

Wulf made a dissatisfied sound, and sat up a bit.

“But he went after Mollymauk, the one who wrote the letter?”

“Yeah? He was worried, because they’re married now,” Caduceus tried to explain, but Wulf shook himself a little and huffed.

“But what about the beacons?” Wulf asked, turning to look at Caduceus directly.

Caduceus could see things working themselves out in Wulf’s mind, as the wizard pieced a strange puzzle of his own together, and waited for the explanation. Wulf made an annoyed sound.

“The boxes were open, the door was open. I remember. That, at least, I remember. The theft wasn’t hidden, and there was a letter.” Wulf paused, but when Caduceus didn’t look any more enlightened, he went on. “The letter was a taunt, so Bren would go after him. And if he’s an owl, he won’t think. Someone else has the beacons.”

Wulf clambered to his feet, trying his best to look determined, though Caduceus could see something lost still haunting his edges.

“Okay,” Caduceus said, as he stood up. “Mollymauk came with some friends, so we could go ask them if they know anything and we can get this all sorted.”

For a fraction of a second, Wulf looked relieved, and then he hid it again behind his determination.

“We find the beacons, and then put them back, and then Caleb won’t be angry anymore,” he said, and shook himself like a bird shaking out it’s feathers.

Caduceus nodded, giving Wulf the reassuring smile he so obviously needed, and led the way through the door. Caleb is not the only one whose anger should be feared, Caduceus reflected, feeling his hands tremble and the hair on the back of his neck ruffle as he led poor Wulf through the halls. If Mollymauk’s friends were trying to steal Wulf’s beacons, he fully intended to make them regret it.

----------------

As the rain grew heavier, Mollymauk stopped to catch his breath. The land had begun to slope upwards, in a way he didn’t recall it sloping down along the track in. Pulling his sodden hair back from his face, he looked around in vain for something to give him bearings. The clouded sky was mute, and the trees closed in, their shapes intelligible in the greyscale of his darkvision. Scrying won’t help him much if you’re deep in the forest, he thought to himself, bitterly. It’ll all just be trees, and they all look the same. Great plan. He scuffed his foot along the half-exposed roots of a nearby tree, then froze at a slight tremor in the ground.

He was looking at the tree, watching it carefully for movement, when the mandibles of the creature closed around his upper thigh. He couldn’t think to scream, just gurgled his surprise as the sharp edges tore through his trouser and skin indiscriminately. It let go to drag itself up out of the ground, but as he reached for his swords, it clawed at him, following his scrambling retreat. Then, as he struggled his blades from their scabbards, catching himself against a tree, his eyes met the creature’s.

They were small and dark, like jewels, and all the world beyond them faded. There was nothingness, dark grey and bewildering, and beyond the nothingness, all he could feel was pain.

Chapter Text

The rain was misty, obscuring his view of the ground, while still being enough to drench his feathers. The effort of remaining airborne, and the cold of the mountain night, caused his joints to ache. With the pain and exhaustion, the urgency of his search began to slip from his mind. As he reached the area of forest he’d thought to begin with, he landed heavily on a branch and shuffled into the scant shelter near the trunk of an oak. Industriously preening the water from his sodden feathers, he considered his next move. None of the trees that he could see seemed likely to offer any more shelter than his oak, but the pressure in the air promised heavier rain to come. He shook himself, causing his own small shower, and shivered slightly when some of the water tricked through to run along his skin, beneath his down. He needed to get somewhere warm and dry. Peering through the night hopefully, and readying his wings for flight, it occurred to Caleb that he could make his own shelter if he turned back into his human form.

He fluttered heavily to the ground, and shifted back even as he touched down. As his ability to think like himself clicked back into place, he swore in Zemnian for a few seconds before he gathered himself enough to cast Dancing Lights. Orienting himself, glad that owls, at the least, had a good sense of distance and direction, he set off in the approximate direction of the perimeter. At the very least he could warn the umber hulks to watch for Molly, and to refrain from killing him.

So long as they haven’t already, he thought, before he could stop himself.

Gritting his teeth against his mounting exhaustion, and trying not to recall, ever so clearly, umber hulk hunting practices, he sped up his stumble through the undergrowth. He didn’t have much time.

-----------------------------

Beau was just helping Yasha over the lip onto the narrow ledge when her vision went bright green, as her goggles were overloaded by light. And then, Yasha’s grip on her forearm vanished. She heard Fjord’s sound of surprise, and managed to wrestle her goggles off moments before the ground shifted, becoming smooth before thrusting up at an angle that launched her out into freefall.

Supressing her panic, she found a target – Caduceus and another man, a human with dark hair and a face twisted into something like anguish, falling nearby at a much slower rate than herself and Fjord. Fumbling in her robes, she dropped her first throwing star, but her second found its mark. Blood sprang from the gash in Caduceus’ cheek, and she heard Jester’s scream above her. It wasn’t, perhaps, the most ideal result.

Caduceus twisted to cast a spell over towards Yasha and Jester, as they fell, and she heard Fjord yell out a Counter, only to be Countered in turn by Caduceus’ friend. And then the stranger turned to Jester and spoke a word of power that Beau felt in her gut. She couldn’t see enough of Jester to know if she was okay.

Fjord’s hand found her arm, and he opened a rift, a Dimension Door, and tried to drag her through. Instead of the usual shift in perspective, there was a blow like having a door slammed into them, and they were still falling. Though not for long.

Beau managed to twist herself and roll as she hit the ground, pushing her momentum through her ki and out to dissipate into the ground. Fjord wasn’t so fortunate, and Beau heard him break as he landed. A glance was enough to confirm her fears, and a sob escaped her as she stumbled over to figure out how to keep him from dying. The ground beneath him was dark with water and blood, and his bones glittered like broken glass where they’d torn their way out of his flesh. As she fumbled out a potion to pour down his throat, another pair of crackling thuds marked Jess and Yasha returning to earth.

There was just time enough to hear Jester groan, and for Fjord to take a proper breath before the world was engulfed in flame.

Beau dropped and rolled whilst focusing on dragging the heat in, through herself, and dispersing it through the cool stone beneath her. Even as she pulled herself in and stood back up, she knew. She kept her eyes up, watching the slow descent of Caduceus and his friend, trying to ignore the too familiar smell of burning hair, of pyres and loss. The mage tried something, to push her into being something else, and she pushed it away. Locking her eyes to Caduceus’ she put her hands on the back of her head and knelt.

“Save them,” she said, her voice cracking slightly. “I surrender. Save them.”

Caduceus’ feet touched the ground, but he made no move closer. No move to aid the still smoking shapes that Beau was desperately trying not to look at.

“Save them,” she whispered, even as she willed her tears not to fall.

The mage nodded at Caduceus, then looked over to her. His eyes were wrong.

“Do not resist,” he said, and held up his hand.

He sounded like the Widowmaker, a Zemnian accent.

This time, she didn’t resist as his magic pulled her out of herself and into the honest incomprehension of a beast.

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Molly pulled himself out of the baffling nothingness after what felt like a small eternity and managed to close his eyes and activate his swords with quick cuts along his collar bones. His strikes, however, were wild. The creature, in turn, was deft, and quick with its relentless slashes. Frustrated and feeling the blood freely flowing out of too many wounds, Molly reached out, through his blood, and into the creature, feeling it for a fraction of a second, and using his strange power to bind it into place.

Then he ran.

Into a tree.

He opened his eyes, swearing and stumbling, and tried again. The undergrowth hissed across his legs, clawing at his wounds, and the rain grew heavier. He knew he was bleeding out. He could feel the blood he was leaving behind like a trail of breadcrumbs for the wild beasts to find him when he inevitably collapsed. The ground beneath him rumbled faintly, and he tried to will himself to speed up.

He didn’t even know where he was going anymore.

Giving in to necessity and slowing to a stop, he pulled around his satchel, to dig out his bandages and a potion. He drank the potion first, grimacing at the taste, then relaxing into the healing it provided. Then he began to bandage the worst of what was left. His usually dextrous fingers felt clumsy in the cold and damp, as his mind insisted on conjuring the image of a fog of blankness chasing him. He struggled to control his breathing and focus on one thing at a time like Beau did.

Focusing on bandaging and not on the bug monster, who could take his mind away and kill him if it caught up, proved to be a little like trying to focus on telling fortunes while Jester tried to cheat at cards the next table over. The certainty that his future held grievous bodily harm was somewhat distracting.

The faint vibrations rising through the ground did not help at all.

Considering all available options carefully, he opted to climb a tree.

----------------------

The night was dark, but the trail of blood stood out like a ribbon of light in his mind’s eye. It smelt deliciously savoury, and his stomach rumbled again as he considered its tones. The hunger was swiftly followed by worry, as he recalled his hunt was for a friend. There was too much blood. His hunting companions hummed back and forth, and he hurried on.

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His blood was still dripping at a worrying rate, and he felt cold. Just the rain, he told himself, and wished he believed it. The sound of claws on bark and the rising of chittering hums of the creatures to one another below had him clenching his fingers hard around the hilts of his swords again. Fixing his gaze on the next tree across, he waited for the sound of claws to get closer.

Only one chance; have to do it right, he thought, and wished he didn’t know it was a lie.

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They were climbing a tree when he arrived, and Caleb was glad he retained the wherewithal as a Giant Weasel to realise he needed to shift back. As he regained his human faculties, the humming language resolved itself into interpretable patterns. They had his quarry up the tree, and were trying to get it down for him. Even as he stepped forward and adjusted his throat to manage the umber hulk tongue, switching his lucky stone to Dark Vision, there was a cacophony of swearing from the umber hulks around the tree, and the sound of breaking branches a little way off.

Caleb joined his guards in jogging to the base of another tree, where a bloody and exhausted tiefling dangled about forty feet up, clumsily trying to hook his foot up and over the branch he’d caught on the way down. Caleb took a moment to ask the umber hulks to stand back, as Molly clambered to a more secure perch, then turned his throat back to normal.

“Mister Mollymauk,” he began, trying to keep all his recent worries and frustrations from his voice. “What are you doing?”

Molly visibly jumped and then relaxed, giving a small laugh. Caleb cocked his head at the bitter note.

“Just taking an evening walk,” Mollymauk said, his eyes still closed, taking no pains to hide the lie.

Caleb considered his options for a long moment, and Molly’s swords stopped glowing. For a painful second, Caleb thought he’d lost consciousness, but then he cleared his throat.

“I’m sorry,” he said, his damaged chest lending a sickening bubbling to the edges of his voice. “I’m sorry, but we had to. I don’t… just, please. Lock me in the dungeon or whatever, just…”

As he trailed off, Caleb found himself spiralling as the framing of Molly’s escape clicked into place with Beau’s mending and the letter. How he’d been played for a fool. Pulling himself together, he pulled out his copper wire, twisted it, and traced the out the Sending spell to Wulf.

“Eodwulf,” he murmured in Zemnian, his regret chasing his tongue. “I found Mollymauk, and owe an apology. The Beacons are not here. Find the other Xhorhasians to find the beacons. You cannot be blamed.”

The response came almost instantly.

“I figured it out, Bren, and we have the beacons safe. Caduceus is keeping the thieves alive, and I will find out how they got in in the morning."

The fierce pride in Wulf’s voice negated the sting at being slower than him to realise Mollymauk was a decoy. He let out a slow, even breath, reordering his thoughts, before looking back up to where his husband was bleeding out perched in a tree.

Telling him his friends had failed, Caleb decided, could wait until they were somewhere both drier and warmer.

“Do you think you can climb down?” he asked instead.

“And be attacked by bug monsters? No, thanks,” Molly replied, and coughed wetly.

Caleb frowned, and tapped his fingers on his leg.

“I did not prepare healing magics,” he warned, when Molly remained resolute despite Caleb’s attempt at judgmental silence.

Molly only leaned his head back against the trunk of the tree.

He will die soon, wizard, rumbled Grggalldj. You said you did not want that.

Caleb sighed and tapped a ‘thank you’ to the umber hulk in rough code against a tree root, and then raised his hands to gently weave a Sleep spell around Molly. The Tiefling dropped his swords moments before he began his slow tumble sideways, giving Caleb plenty of time to cast the Featherfall spell to bring him safely to the ground.

------------------------

Molly awoke to clean sheets and the scent of dried roses. A careful inspection revealed he was both intact and naked. Encouraged somewhat at not finding himself still drenched in blood on a pile of flea-ridden rags in the corner of a cell, he pulled himself up on his elbows to look around. The curtains of the bed were drawn back, and he found he was in his room, same as before. All quaint furniture and rural tapestries. The window was open, and a cool summer breeze played about his shoulders, encouraging him to hunker back down under the blankets. More importantly, though, a pink and grey firbolg was watching him from the chair next to the bed with an unreadable expression on his face.

Molly tried not to pay any mind to the faint disappointment that uncurled itself at not seeing Caleb, and gave Caduceus his best innocent look. Caduceus sipped his tea. After a minute more, Molly gave up and flopped back down.

“No one ever believes it, you know,” he said conversationally to the drapery above him. “I’ve had guards even decide to arrest me on suspicion even without having done anything, and not just on this side of the Ashkeepers.”

“No one believes what?” Caduceus asked, and his confused tone was much more familiar than his expression had been.

“My innocent look, the one that I put on so people know I haven’t done anything criminal.”

“But you stole the Beacons…”

Molly heaved out a theatrical sigh, sacrificing his arms to the chill outside the blankets to gesture dramatically.

“I had to, though,” he said, attempting to sound piteous. “It was practically a sacred duty.”

“A sacred duty,” Caduceus repeated, flatly, and Molly whipped his head to the side to blink in surprise at him.

Grim judgment from Caduceus was like being savaged by Jester’s miniature unicorns, all the more unpleasant for it having been unexpected. Molly tried again, making his eyes big and his lip tremble.

“A sacred duty,” he reaffirmed, with a delicate tremble in his voice. Pure honesty. “Both to the Luxon itself and to my friends who depended on me.”

There was a flicker in Caduceus’ expression at the mention of his friends, and Molly dropped the act not caring if Caduceus thought it meant he’d been lying.

“My friends?” he asked, leaning forward in his worry.

“I think you need to talk to Caleb,” Caduceus said, frowning at his tea.

“What?”

The firbolg just hummed and resettled himself while Molly sat up, feeling his panic rising. Before Molly could decide between shaking Caduceus by the shoulders or throwing his tea away, the other man made a short gesture and cast Sending.

“Caleb, ah, Mollymauk is awake and I think it would be best if he spoke with you about what happened. He seems – and there goes my tea. Okay. Was that really necessary?”

“What is going on?” Molly bit out, one hand clenched in the sheet barely still preserving his modesty, the other waving in the air.

Caduceus blinked at him and rubbed his chin, slowly. Molly clenched his free hand into a fist, feeling wild. And then Caduceus said something, muffled in the magic it contained, and Molly sat back on the bed heavily, shoulders relaxing, as all his anxiety, fear, and frustration drifted away.

“We’re just going to wait for Caleb to get here,” Caduceus said, sounding patient as ever.

Molly felt a little like he should be worried about the unusual hardness around the other man’s eyes, but he couldn’t quite grasp the fluttering ribbon of feeling.

“I was just worried about my friends,” he said, instead. “If anything happened to them…” he trailed off and adjusted the sheet in his lap.

Caduceus said nothing, so Molly watched the door and waited. The spell wore off before long, and Molly began to fidget. He knew Caduceus knew the spell had dropped. He kept his eyes on the door.

When the latch finally clicked, Molly flinched and his mind went blank, what plans he’d pulled together scattering like mice. Caleb walked in, looking more than a little haggard, his gaze straying about the room like a cat. When it smoothed past Molly without stopping, Molly mentally kicked himself for not, at the least, flaunting his bare torso. His self-admonishment was to no avail; he remained unable to decide on how he should approach the impending conversation even as Caleb quietly asked Caduceus to fetch tea. He had nothing as the human took over the chair and cleared his throat staring blankly at the opposite wall.

“The Beacons were recovered,” he said, and Molly felt his heart lurch in dread.

Caleb’s eyes flickered over to him and he realised he’d made a sound.

“Your friends were, ah, captured,” Caleb continued. “They still live.”

Molly collapsed forward over his knees in relief, something between a sigh and a sob bubbling out. As he gathered himself, he felt a tentative hand flutter about his shoulder, and it took everything not to freeze. It left as softly as it had come, and Molly heard Caleb huff a breath out through his nose.

“Why did you do it?” he asked, quietly.

Molly uncurled himself, still at a loss, he took a moment to re-find the words.

“They, the beacons, are a part of the Luxon – the patron god of the Dynasty,” he began, then stopped and pulled himself closer.

“I know,” Caleb murmured, watching him carefully.

The fragile distance burned.

“I couldn’t leave them in your dungeon, we had a sacred duty to get them home,” Molly continued, soldiering on and wishing he had Fjord’s deft touch. “It was… imperative."

“You couldn’t ask?”

Molly scoffed, finding a touch of the day before’s boldness.

“You didn’t hand them over in the peace treaty, and you want me to believe you’d just give them over now?” he asked, his teasing more than half-serious.

Caleb shook his head.

“I need them here a little longer,” he admitted. “But had you asked, I could have explained.” He paused a long moment. “Your friends nearly died. From what Caduceus said, had Beau not surrendered, they would have.”

Molly felt sick.

“Beau surrendered?” his levity was a lie.

“Ja, the others had fallen. She let Wulf Polymorph her so Caduceus would heal them. She is not happy.”

“She wouldn’t be,” Molly muttered, trying to smile through his shock, through the thought of the cliffside and what falling might have looked like.

Caleb’s hand fluttered up, almost reaching out, but stopping when Molly looked over. He felt oddly like laughing at the picture they made. He breathed deep instead.

“Why do you need the Luxon?” he asked, trying for genuine and not shaky.

Caleb made a small, considering noise, and frowned back over at the opposite wall. Molly waited.

“Things are not stable,” Caleb admitted, eventually. “The Cerberus Assembly is falling apart, and I need something to convince your Dynasty not to re-invade when they realise.”

“You mean you plan to give back the Beacons to stop the war happening again… why didn’t you just end the war with them in the first place? If you know how important they are?”

Caleb barked a bitter laugh.

“What?” he asked, turning to Molly again. “Turn up in Rosohna and just hand it over and say, ah, ‘please stop the war, Leylas’? Even if she had stopped, especially if she’d stopped, King Dwendal would have kept pushing. He would have seen it as a… a retreat. A weakness. And If I had told him, ‘Hallo, we have an artefact that they want back, it can grant something close to immortality and control time’ they would only have fought harder to keep it.”

Molly hated the logic, but he knew too much of the scheming of the warmongers on both sides not to understand it.

“So now your plan is to turn up in Rosohna and just hand them over and say, ah, ‘please don’t restart the war, Leylas'?”

Caleb laughed again, and it sounded a little more genuine. He shook his head a little.

“A little bit, I suppose,” he said. “But now most of my side who knew about them are dead, so I am a, ah, a bit less likely to be killed as a traitor.”

“What about the hair?”

Caleb shuffled slightly and glanced at Molly’s hair. Molly refrained from touching it, but felt himself warm as he realised it felt clean, too.

“That is a part of it, too. I started that so that prisoners could be returned. I convinced the King that it would more severely impact Xhorhasian morale than simply killing them.”

“It did,” Molly said, flatly.

Caleb looked down at his hands.

“Those who couldn’t be returned are in the Beacons,” he whispered, and Molly couldn’t help but believe his regret. “No children for miles around, except Luc, and he was born elsewhere.”

The magnitude of what his husband was saying sank in slowly. Caleb waited, fidgeting with his cuff, but, otherwise, patient. Slowly the next question he had to ask before he could just let go and kiss the Widowmaker formed in his mind.

“You mentioned the Cerberus Assembly…”

“Ja.”

“You mentioned it before, too, saying you couldn’t interfere with faction things…”

Caleb hummed the affirmative, and Molly noted the building tension and hoped for the best.

“You have this big plan to keep the Dynasty from invading when it falls, but you don’t have a plan to keep it together?”

Caleb closed his eyes and frowned, somewhat pained, before he opened them and looked back at Molly.

“I have no plan to save the Cerberus Assembly,” he said, and paused. “If you or your friends let any of this be known, it could be disastrous.” He laughed a little, bitter again. “You already have enough to pull this down, I should have gone ahead and redoubled the interior defences against you…”

“Why didn’t you?”

“Nott insisted you’d get yourselves killed, and that would have raised its own set of difficulties, or you’d take more defences to mean I had something important hidden here.” He sighed. “Regardless, I need you to swear what I say, what I have said, what you know… swear it will not go beyond these castle walls.”

Molly blinked a little at the trust, not many looked at him as the sort to keep his word, but he held up his hand and solemnly swore. Caleb looked at him carefully, and finally nodded.

“I do not have a plan to save the Assembly,” he admitted slowly. “I have one to destroy it.”

Chapter Text

The Greyheart Keep dungeons were extensive. The Keep had been originally designed as a prison, and the years had only added extensions and improvements to those elements of the Keep designed to detain and intern. The majority of the cells had been built back into the rock of the mountain, carved out of solid stone, without even the mockery of freedom that windows could offer. They were barely large enough to lay down in, with a scant pallet on the floor to sleep on and a bucket to shit in. The doors were made of heavy wood and iron, and had vicious spikes on the inside to prevent prisoners from attempting to break them down with brute force. Locks were augmented with heavy bars, and a small hatch in each door allowed prisoners to be checked on or harassed by guards as said guards’ whims demanded.

There had only ever been three break-outs from Greyheart, and none since the Widowmaker had been gifted the Keep. The two most recent had required the outside help of a skilled espionage team: The Lords of Misrule. Their help from the outside was no longer a possibility.

The Widowmaker, though, more accurately, Wulf, had added globes of perpetual daylight and a lacework of Silence enchantments to the dungeon. Neither of these additions improved the experience of prisoners. The silence was oppressive, and the light was maddening. Even the most dedicated worshippers of the Luxon broke under the endless day.

Jester curled herself tighter in a corner of her cell, with her eyes tightly closed against the knowledge of where she was, and the memories. She rubbed at her wrists, over and over, to reassure herself there were no manacles, no iron binds, no one yanking on the chains to drag her out, no hand in her hair other than the Traveller’s. The Traveller, himself, was torn between visiting vengeance upon Mollymauk for ignoring his instructions and remaining at Jester’s side, helplessly stroking her hair. He could feel the Wildmother hovering, watching him, and snarled silently.

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The first thing Nott did when Caduceus told her what had happened the night before was check on Caleb. It was a habit more than anything, but she was glad she had. He’d been fragile and distant, his jaw clenched against the perceived betrayal of his new friends. It’d taken some effort to drag him towards resignation and forgiveness, and she planned, even as she’d berated Caleb and Wulf, to give Caduceus his own stern telling off.

Then she’d collected Jester’s paints and notebooks, and Luc’s paints for good measure, and headed to the cells.

When she opened the door to Jester’s cell, after painstakingly unbarring it – cursing all the while, into the silence over the arrogance of tall people – she found her friend curled into a tight little ball, her chest moving in the jerky motions of sobs. For a fraction of a second, Nott caught a glimpse of a dark green cloak, and she gave a grim nod of greeting.

Leaving the door wide open, she began to lay out her small burdens, arranging the paints near the walls, and the sketchbooks near Jester with her favourite case of inks, pens, and brushes. She took her time, the weight of the Traveller’s attention heavy against her back, and carefully made sure everything was properly laid out. She missed her flask and the courage of alcohol.

When she was finally finished, she took one of Jester’s filled sketchbooks and gently prised Jester’s hands away from her wrists to wrap around the book. As she felt the tiefling tremble, and saw her tears, Nott felt a worm of rage in her chest. Caleb, she decided, will be getting another talking to. Then she walked to the furthest point away from Jester, took Luc’s paints, and began to paint the wall.

--------------------

The feeling of hands, rough and small, on her wrists froze Jester in terror. She kept her eyes tightly shut and kept praying to the Traveller to save her, to make them go away, to get her out. Her hands were pulled apart and wrapped around something leathery and oblong. It took a minute or two for her tired and overwrought brain to figure out it was a book. And then she smelt paint. A soft chemical odour as familiar as the smell of a campfire, or her own sweat. Carefully, she opened her eyes.

Nott, tiny, green-skinned, and all odd knobbly edges, wearing a bright yellow dress, was painting some sort of mural onto the flat, grey stone wall. And the door was open. Jester didn’t move. The whole scenario screamed trap. She struggled to control her breathing, and watched, and waited.

It soon became apparent that Nott was not very good at painting. She was, however, enthusiastic. As she jumped erratically to reach further up, paint dripped and ran over what she’d already painted, leaving Jester only the vaguest idea of what the picture was meant to be. By the blue being smeared at the top, and the green at the bottom, it seemed like some sort of landscape. She felt the Traveller’s amusement ease into her mind and felt herself smile. Carefully, she sat up and opened the book Nott had given her.

It was her sketchbook from the wedding. There was the manatee military man, who’d been yelling so earnestly at the troops on parade, and the poor young soldier who’d dropped his spear. A page over was the picture of Nott telling off the poor lanky spy who they’d caught snooping through their things. She’d only imagined it, which was probably why she’d drawn Nott as little more than a ball of rage about ankle high on the human spy. The picture of Mollymauk telling the spy off, next to it, was true to life, and so more in proportion. Jester felt her lip tremble slightly at the thought of Molly. A tear wrinkled the paper at the bottom of the page. She had no idea what had happened to any of her friends.

Carefully, with shaking hands, she picked up the small box of pens and ink, and one of the other sketchbooks that Nott had brought. She wrote, with a shaking hand:

Did the others survive?

Then she tore out the page and folded it into a paper dart. She didn’t feel like moving from her corner, though she couldn’t help how she kept glancing at the open door. The dart hit near the goblin’s head, and Nott jumped. Jester looked away as she unfolded it, not wanting to see any of her fears confirmed.

She flinched a little as Nott took her pen from her grasp, and knew her eyes were wide. Panic still fluttered in her chest, and to cover it she leaned forward to watch as Nott wrote out her reply.

Everyone lives. I haven’t checked how Fjord is doing in his cell, yet. I figured he’d want me to get you first. Caleb’s pretty pissed at you all. So’s Caduceus. Molly got a proper room, because Romance and “he apologised”, but Wulf wanted you guys in the cells and Caleb didn’t say no.

Nott stopped a moment to stretch her hand out and look reassuringly at Jester. It probably would have been more effective if she’d had less teeth or more lip.

Wulf turned back into an owl, so he probably doesn’t remember.

She paused again and bit at what lower lip she had. It looked painful.

I do need you to promise not to run away or cast magic at people. Just hear Caleb out?

Nott offered the pen back to Jester. She tried to pretend to consider things, to look like she cared what she promised, but the world outside the cell beckoned from the open door. Her assent was smudged in its haste. Nott took the pen back.

Let’s go get Fjord, then.

Chapter Text

Mollymauk’s wide-eyed astonishment was only to be expected. In the pregnant pause, Caleb stood and began to search the room for a dressing gown for him rather than continue struggling to avoid looking too hard at Mollymauk’s bare torso. It was, at least, a distraction from the magnitude of what he’d decided to reveal. As he opened the chest at the end of the bed, Molly finally found his voice.

“You are planning to… Why?” he asked. “And what are you looking for?”

Caleb glanced over, and quickly averted his gaze. Unfortunately, he could still see, clear in his mind’s eye, the image of Molly leaning towards him a little too far for the limited modesty granted by his bedding. He swallowed and tried to ignore the blush he could feel rising in his cheeks.

“I, ah, I am looking for a dressing gown for you,” he said.

There was a quiet “oh” from Molly and he heard a rustle of readjusted bedding. Caleb did his best to focus on the fabric in front of him. He tried to steal from you and ruin everything, he reminded himself sternly, as he began to sort.

“There should be a black one near the top,” Molly said, after a beat.

Caleb wrested out the nearest clump of black fabric, and shook it out to find it was, indeed, some sort of robe.

“I would have thought you’d be the type to take better care,” he murmured, and then cast a quick Prestidigitation to ease out the wrinkles.

Molly made an unattractive noise, and Caleb glanced across to see his nose wrinkled in amusement.

“I do, that’s where I’ve been putting the stuff that needs mending,” he said, and held out a hand, making grabby motions.

Caleb averted his gaze rather than follow the line of Mollymauk’s body down to where his other hand was occupied preserving his modesty, and handed him the robe.

“Doesn’t Jester have the ability to mend things?”

“That spell does tears, and cuts, and things – not embroidery or adjusting the length of sleeves,” Molly pointed out, and there was the sound of silk rustling and the slight crinkle of old furs. “See?”

Caleb looked back, and Mollymauk flapped the ends of the sleeves in his direction, showing off how they engulfed his hands. Caleb couldn’t help his smile, and shook his head while he closed the chest.

“You should get Jester to try to help with those furs,” he said, standing and returning to the seat by the bed. “But, ah, your other question was about why I am—”

He was cut off by a jaunty knock on the door and frowned. It sounded a lot like Jester’s knocking.

----------------

The cells had sucked, but they hadn’t been the worst Beau had ever found herself in. They’d been clean for starters. The lack of drunken creeps was also a bonus. The silence, however, and the light had been beginning to grate on her by the time rescue arrived.

She’d been expecting a tiefling, but hadn’t expected Jester. Jester had opened the door dressed in an uncharacteristic, plain smock which had jarred Beau with the memory of the fire, but she’d been smiling. Given Beau had put ‘saving Jester’ down on both her ‘Most Important’ and ‘Worst Case’ mental lists, it’d been an unspeakable relief to see her happy and alive.

Now though, some of the cracks were beginning to show, and Beau struggled to remind herself that punching people was not going to solve their problem. Their first stop after the cells had been to visit their rooms for clothes. Jester had put on her favourite dress and now kept smoothing one hand along her skirts whilst her other had a death grip on her second favourite symbol to the Traveller. As they marched towards Molly’s room, Beau gave in, and fell in beside Jester.

“You okay?” she asked, and frowned at her own briskness. “Not that, you know, you have to be, or anything,” she added quickly.

“Oh, I’m okay!” Jester said, perkily.

Beau levelled a flat look in her direction, but she wasn’t paying attention.

“So those cells, man…”

Jester tensed, stopped, and began to turn, and suddenly there was a blindingly sharp pain in Beau’s arse.

Her cry of “fuck!” joined a general kerfuffle as Jester turned past her and Fjord said something, but Beau wasn’t paying attention. Her hand found the end of a crossbow bolt.

“What the fuck, Nott!” she yelled to the general vicinity. “What was that for?!”

“What do you think it was for?!” Nott yelled back, as she dodged Yasha’s attempts to grab her.

Beau was just opening her mouth to yell back, when she realised and instead slumped against the wall.

“Jes, I need healing,” she said, making sure to whimper piteously.

It always paid to play it up.

“What did Nott mean, you know what you did?” Jester asked, suspiciously, reaching out, but not beginning the healing spell.

Nott darted between them to hide from her pursuit on the other side of Beau. Fjord lifted his hands in defeat and gave Beau a quizzical look as he began to deescalate the situation. Yasha glared for a few moments more, before giving in to Fjord’s protests and Nott’s defiant righteousness. Beau wrinkled her nose and used the distraction to cover thinking up a lie.

“Either she’s talking about me being an idiot and getting us into this mess, or it’s payback for when Luc fell out of that tree a couple of days back,” she turned to Nott, and gave her a Look. “Not really the time for payback, fuck, but sure.”

Jester bought the story enough to pull out the bolt and cast a healing spell which took away most of the pain. She also mended the hole in Beau’s clothes, which was nice. Unfortunately, Beau still had to suffer the wet and sticky feeling of her blood-soaked clothes slapping and sliding against the back of her thigh with every step all the rest of the way to Molly’s door.

She limped along half-heartedly planning her revenge, but mostly worrying about Jester. And then about what the fuck the Widowmaker was going to do about them. Somehow, Nott’s reassurances on that front had not been at all reassuring. Her jaw hurt from clenching it and her thigh was beginning to cramp from the exaggerated limp when they finally arrived at Molly’s door. Jester didn’t even hesitate, just gave a chipper knock and opened the door. Then she stopped in the doorway and squealed.

“Ah, hallo Jester?” Widogast said from somewhere deeper in the room, and Nott darted forward, squeezing between Jester and the door frame.

“I let them out,” she declared, in a determined tone. “You should have known better.”

“Ah, ja, come in. If that’s alright with you, Molly?”

Beau pushed Jester forwards, even as Molly gave his assent, and fought, momentarily, for the door with Fjord. They both lost when Yasha crammed them both through at once to get them out of the way.

As she rubbed her shoulder, and Yasha and Molly met in the middle of the room to embrace, Beau quickly scoped out the room. Nothing had changed since she’d last seen it, excepting there were less clothes strewn about and Caleb Widogast was seated in the chair next to the bed. Beau frowned.

“Why wasn’t Molly thrown in the cells?” she asked, folding her arms.

Fjord gave a small embarrassed cough, and she glared at him. He side-stepped closer and leant over.

“I don’t think Molly’s wearing anything under that robe,” he murmured.

Beau’s eyes went wide, and she looked back and forth between Caleb and Molly speculatively. She wasn’t sure she could quite believe it, but she did believe she’d get a better explanation by looking like she did. Caleb was quick to take the bait.

“I could not… I couldn’t risk putting my husband in a cell,” he said, shaking his head at them. “If anyone found out…” he shrugged.

“But you could risk throwing us in there?” Beau queried.

“Ja, you did steal from me. And he did not.”

“But when it comes to the peace, the Dynasty is more likely to go back to war over you having the Beacons than anything,” Jester pointed out pragmatically. “So, really I think you let him sleep in here because you like him.”

Beau noticed that while Caleb looked closed off, neutral, Molly was looking a little wide eyed and Yasha had stepped back and was looking curiously at him.

“Of course, I let him sleep in here because he is my husband,” Caleb said, in deadpan tones. “It had nothing to do with him being nearly dead when I got him back here, and then finding that Caduceus had tired himself out healing a group of idiots who thought it was a good idea to steal from me.” Caleb sighed heavily and waved his hand to extinguish the flames that had started playing in his hair as he’d become more heated.

“Molly, you nearly died?” Yasha asked into the quiet.

Molly wandered over to the bed and flopped backwards onto it. Beau thanked Ioun that he remembered to hold his dressing gown closed.

“I ran into a bunch of bug things—”

“Umber hulks,” Caleb corrected.

“—Umber hulks,” Molly continued. “They were fucking horrible, and messed me up.” He lifted his head and frowned at Caleb. “They didn’t attack you, though?”

“Ah, nein, they did not. They are our guards. As are the purple worms they raise.”

“How in hell did you manage to arrange that?” Beau asked, letting some of her doubt into her voice.

From what she recalled of Umber hulks, they were not a cooperative species even amongst themselves.

Caleb just shrugged and sat back in his chair.

“It’s a long story,” he said, and looked over at Jester. “But it is probably a good thing Wulf and Caduceus caught up with you before you stumbled across a worm nest.”

“What do they even—”

Beau’s question was cut off by a knock on the door, and Caduceus opening it with a tray in hand. He stopped in the doorway and blinked solemnly at them. Jester waved but he didn’t acknowledge her, just nodding to Caleb.

“I’ll get more tea,” he said, as he turned around again and left.

“Do you think he hates us, now?” Jester asked, sounding sad, and Beau felt guilty all over again.

Jester had been enjoying spending time with another cleric. Now, Beau’s stupid plan had ruined it.

“I doubt he hates you,” Caleb said, sounding tired, as he neatly cut short Beau’s guilty musings. “His siblings have, doubtless, done worse. But please do not try again.”

“Why do you even have the beacons?” Jester pressed, putting her hands on her hips.

Molly sat up, and promptly lolled onto his side in what he doubtless thought was a sexy pose, and began to pay more attention. Caleb tapped his fingers on the arm of the chair, his gaze skittering across them all before returning to Jester.

“Are you asking what I am using them for? Or how I came to have them?” he asked, carefully.

“Both.”

“Wulf is the Archmage of Antiquity, and one of his duties is to keep artefacts like the Beacons safe. He left them in my care when he went to Xhorhas, and when he came back… changed, I moved him and the Beacons here.”

“He seems to take his duties pretty fucking seriously,” Beau interjected, rubbing the back of her neck. Caleb gave her a blank look. “Just saying…”

“Wulf does take his charge seriously,” Caleb agreed, and Beau hated the dismissal beneath his words. “As to what I might want with the Beacons: I want to give them back to the Dynasty. I am just waiting for the right, ah, the right time.”

“And when might ‘the right time’ be?” Fjord drawled from his post by the door, raising his brows dubiously.

Caleb tolerated the question, though Beau could see his jaw clench, doubtless in rancour at being challenged. She didn’t buy the calm forgiveness he was trying to sell: the man was a wizard, after all.

“I am waiting for word that the Dynasty have noticed the infighting escalate between members of the Cerberus Assembly. I am hoping that the return of these will be enough to prevent a—a renewal of the war.”

“Wounded as I am to know my husband thinks so little of me, I have to agree it makes sense to have additional insurance with the Assembly all…” Molly said, finishing with a dithery wave of his hand.

Beau frowned.

“How long?” she asked. “Are we talking months, or years, or never if they don’t notice enough for your liking?”

Caleb looked over at her, his eyes serious.

“Days or weeks,” he said, and they all tensed, all looked at one another unsure of what to say. “I only ask that you are not the ones to tell them. If word comes from here, and the Dwendalian spies will find out, I will be a target,” Caleb continued, and his worry was clear. “If I am a target, the Assembly may band against me and, in doing so, will not fall.”

“You want them—”

“Ja,” Caleb interrupted without so much as looking in Fjord’s direction. Instead, he looked between Jester and Molly, as he went on. “The Assembly, as it is, as it has been, does not work. It shelters and—and permits horrors. I want it gone, but I need you—I need you to be patient.”

“You have my word,” Molly said, and Beau made a mental note to give him shit later about how his tail curled.

“We can be patient,” Jester said. “Just don’t expect us to wait forever. Or go back to the cells.”

“Nein, no, I—you can just do as you were before all this. Nott—”

“I’ll keep an eye on them,” the little goblin lady rasped from over at Molly’s closet. “You need better dressing gowns Molly.”

Beau frowned as Molly went with Nott’s prompt and swept himself, and Jester, over to bemoan his clothing options. She hoped against hope that he’d managed to get more out of the wizard in whatever private conversation they’d had before everyone had arrived. The wizard in question gave her a small tense smile when he saw her watching him and made a bee-line for the door. She was considering intercepting when there was another, clumsier, knock. Caleb opened the door and deftly switched places with Caduceus and his full tea-tray, making good his escape even as the firbolg looked after him confusedly. Turning back to Fjord and her, his confusion sank below a slow, easy smile.

“I take it everything’s sorted then?” he asked.

---------------------

Molly knocked on the door, and waited, trying not to fidget. His plan, he knew, was audacious, and he had no idea what he’d do if it didn’t work.

He was just tired of the new status quo. It was really just a worse version of the old one. He was tired of Caleb avoiding them – avoiding him – and tired of falling asleep alone with just the memory of a kiss. Two days of settling back in, of pretending everything was normal until tensions eased, of finding things to do while Nott tried to herd them about as a group so she could keep her eye on everyone, of boredom, had been quite enough.

When the door opened his eyes immediately locked on to Caleb’s lips, and it took an embarrassingly long moment to drag himself back to his plan. He was halfway through licking his own lips when he realised what he was doing, and that Caleb was, undoubtedly, looking at his mouth.

“Ah, I was wondering,” Molly began, and Caleb’s eyes met his for just a moment before skittering away, leaving him breathless. After another attempt to collect himself, he tried again. “I was wondering if there was a particular reason you’ve been avoiding us?”

He put his hand to the door, with just enough pressure to remind Caleb that he was still holding it half-closed, and tilted his chin just slightly before smirking and blinking slowly. All the while, he desperately hoped he’d read things right.

He’s probably just trying to think of an excuse to get you to leave, whispered his self-doubt, when Caleb just stood there frozen, staring into the middle distance. Molly, pointedly, ignored his anxieties.

“Well?” he purred, raising his brows and lifting a hand to toy with his hair.

Caleb licked his lips, and Molly found himself, once again, fascinated.

“Are you—I—is that one of Nott’s?” he asked, sounding just a touch frantic, and gesturing generally at Molly’s chest with an embarrassed movement of his hands.

Molly blinked at him, barely supressing his delight, and looked down at the delicate red dressing gown, taking his hand from his hair to smooth down across the embroidered cream flowers, whilst endeavouring to feign surprise.

“I don’t think so,” he said, frowning as adorably as he could. “I’m pretty sure it’s from Bladegarden.”

He looked back up in time to watch Caleb’s attention follow his hand, and felt a giddy thrill of anticipation run from his tail to his throat. He pulled his hand back to toy with the cap on his horn, before he could give into the temptation to reach out and run it along the rough stubble decorating Caleb’s jaw. It was almost unfair how effortlessly attractive his husband was.

“I think you had best come inside,” Caleb said, eventually, as his eyes found their way back to Molly’s lips. “It doesn’t look very warm.”

He opened the door properly and gestured for Molly to enter, and Molly did his best to saunter in sexily, without letting his tail lift the back of the robe too much, or, Moonweaver forbid, hit Caleb.

The room was warmer, for which Molly was, indeed, thankful. Considering his options, he draped himself across the chair by the fire, the one Caleb had sat in on the evening of the kiss. He heard the door click closed, and he felt another thrill of delight. Caleb took his sweet time to cross the room and perch awkwardly on the second chair. He looked, unfortunately serious. Molly frowned less prettily at him, and had another go at trailing his fingers down along the embroidery. The wizard’s eyes followed along for a few long seconds, and then he visibly flinched and looked somewhere past Molly’s face. Molly did his best to squash his rising anxiety and disappointment as Caleb cleared his throat.

“Ah, are you… Mollymauk, are you…” Caleb let out a frustrated huff of breath and closed his eyes. “Mister Mollymauk, do you mean to seduce me?” he asked.

“What do you think, Mister Caleb?” Molly purred, feeling a rush of renewed hope.

“I think that you have admitted to teasing your friends like this,” Caleb pointed out, his eyes still closed. “I want to know if you are simply being friendly, or if you mean this to be an actual seduction?”

Is it working? Molly asked inside the privacy of his own head. Somehow, he didn’t think Caleb would appreciate anything less than a true answer. He braced himself.

“Yes,” he admitted. “I am here to seduce you, husband dearest.”

Caleb blinked open his eyes and Molly did his best to look fetching, alluring, winning, as his husband looked him over. Caleb licked his lips, and Molly took no pains to hide how he watched the small movement.

“In that case…” Caleb murmured.

He stood and doffed his outer robe, and Molly forgot how to breath for a moment as he rolled up his sleeves. Then he turned and, painstakingly, put some more wood on the fire.

“Is that really necessary?” Molly found himself asking in more everyday tones.

As nice as Caleb’s back was, Molly felt a little miffed at being ignored.

“It is very necessary,” Caleb assured, his accent a little thicker, his voice a little deeper.

He stood back up and turned to face Molly, looking him up and down again, assessing. Then he brought his hands together and shifted them in a complicated little motion, making the smallest little breath of sound as he cast some sort of spell. The seat under Molly warmed pleasantly, and the surprise of it dragged his gaze away from Caleb’s clever fingers long enough that he flinched in surprise to look up and find Caleb had closed the distance between them.

“I wouldn’t want you to get cold,” he said, softly.

He set one hand against the back of the chair, and leant in. Molly raised himself up to meet his lips, just the barest brush before Caleb was pulling away again, stepping back. His lips were parted ever so slightly, and a flush was on his cheeks, and Molly couldn’t gather enough thought to figure out how the whole situation had twisted so much.

Caleb began loosening the ties on his shirt, then stopped, frowning in thought. Molly had just gathered the wherewithal to frame a question, when Caleb pulled some wood and string from the pouch at his belt and cast another spell. The wherewithal left him, and he just did his best not to outright drool.

“I, ah, I have summoned an Unseen Servant,” Caleb explained. “One moment.”

As Caleb closed his eyes again and a slight frown formed between his brows, Molly couldn’t help but recall how he’d looked on their wedding night. He carefully repositioned himself and tried to regain some self-control.

“I think that should work,” Caleb said as he opened his eyes again, and smiled softly at Molly. “Now, shall we begin?”

Chapter Text

Caleb paused in momentary indecision as he considered what to do next. He had plans. He’d been making them since they’d kissed, and he’d had half-baked ones before then – idle musings and embarrassed hopes. It was simply a matter, now, of deciding on the right one. Molly’s tail wound back and forth sinuously over the arm of the chair, and Caleb made his decision just as Molly cleared his throat.

“Were you waiting for me to start?” he asked as he shifted his tail to make a show of lifting his chin.

Caleb did his best not to laugh when Molly lost control of the limb, seconds later, as he closed the distance between them. It was actually quite nice to have a clear and obvious gauge of Molly’s arousal, for all it made being in his vicinity slightly hazardous. His tail did call for a change in plan, however, as Caleb didn’t trust his own dexterity enough to try to catch it as it lashed about. Instead, he reached out to cup Molly’s chin and bring their lips together again.

This time he lingered over the kiss, taking the time to explore the soft yielding of Molly’s lips beneath his. When he drew back to take a breath and prop his knee on the edge of the chair to save his back, Molly let out a breathy sigh that sent a shiver of delight down his back. When he leant in again, his free hand finding the back of the chair, as his lips found Molly’s, the tiefling ran his hands up into Caleb’s hair. The feeling of his nails pulling gently across his scalp had Caleb groaning into the kiss, but, seconds later, when Molly’s hands curled into fists, he pulled back against the sudden panic.

Molly resisted a little, enough that, when he did let go, Caleb stood and stepped away, turning so he wouldn’t have to worry about what his face was doing. It wasn’t… it’s fine, he told himself, suppressing the urge to just leave. He started to pace.

“I’m guessing that was a ‘no’ on the grabbing front?” Molly asked, and Caleb turned, slightly too quickly, to face him.

He’d sat up in the chair, slightly more demurely, and one of his hands made a fruitless show of holding his robe closed. He looked gently concerned as he cocked his head slightly to one side. His eyes were very red in the firelight. Caleb looked away.

“Ja, sorry, no, ah, no grabbing,” he muttered, as he continued pacing away his restlessness. “And, sorry, I did not ask you?”

“Hmmm, oh, yes. Grabbing is fine, though, that said, pull the horns not the hair,” Molly said, from his chair, and then made an odd snorting noise that had Caleb looking at him again. He looked rueful and shrugged. “Just thought we’re not that good at giving each other cues for what we like: you didn’t mind me all over you the other evening?”

Caleb turned away from the other man’s curiosity and tried to frame an answer. Recalling, in vivid detail, how, exactly, he’d felt about Molly’s hand along his jaw and clutching his shirt did wonders for shifting his panic back into desire, but very little for his ability to shape an answer. He suspected that attempting to define the parameters as he would with a spell, wouldn’t really be appreciated by his husband.

“That was… it did not feel so much like you were controlling me,” Caleb said, eventually. “I suppose, ja, I was hedged in, but I did not feel trapped – like I could not stop you – not that I wanted to stop you.”

Molly made a small noise of approval, and Caleb stopped his pacing to watch him. There was a certain delight in watching Mollymauk sink back into his seductive mode.

“I think I can work with that,” Molly purred, after turning in the seat again to hook a leg over the arm of the chair. “Just tell me if I’m being too much, and I’ll stop.”

Caleb smiled, even as he resolved to examine how he’d unconsciously placed his trust in someone who’d stolen from him at a later date.

“You can ask the same of me,” he said, and looked away from the temptation before him. “While we are talking, Molly, was there anything in particular you had planned for tonight?”

“I planned to seduce you, nothing else on the schedule.”

“I mean,” Caleb said, trying not to sound frustrated as he distractedly focused on Molly’s tail, “did you have any particular acts in mind?”

Caleb had to wonder if it hurt Molly at all, to have his tail slap against the side of the chair so hard. He dragged his attention away from the errant limb and back to Molly’s face. Which was, it seemed, something of a mix of startled desire and delight. Caleb considered closing the distance to kiss his softly parted lips, but the cold memory of hands in his hair chased away the urge. As Caleb began to seriously consider returning to his pacing to give Molly time to think, Molly shook himself and licked his lips.

“I hadn’t really considered… I mean, I had considered, I just hadn’t considered…” Caleb raised his eyebrows, and Molly narrowed his eyes in a glare. “I did have a dream that you pushed me up against the wall and fucked me from behind.”

Caleb swallowed and tried to ignore the images thrown at him by his own imagination. He wanted to tease.

“That seems rude,” he pointed out. “I just, without any warning, pushed you against the wall, tore off your clothes, and fucked you.”

Molly’s glare continued on strong.

“I was already naked and willing. You traced your magical symbol thingies across my back, and so, no, you didn’t just fuck me.”

Caleb considered the evidence, especially Molly’s tail, and recast Prestidigitation to warm the chair. Molly swallowed hard, his tail thwacking against the side of the chair, and then made a show of seductively rearranging himself. It was… gratifying.

“Was I casting a spell?” Caleb asked, and hoped Molly wouldn’t pay too much attention to how his voice sounded.

“I don’t think so,” Molly murmured. “But, how would I know?”

Caleb managed a nod. Then he looked away from where Molly’s new position, hugging one knee to his chest with his other leg still draped over the arm of the chair, caused the robe to gape and frame a tempting expanse of inner thigh.

“I am still not sure your, ah, fantasy is something we can do today,” he said to Molly’s right horn. “I believe that takes some… preparation. I think there is a spell, but I would need time to prepare it—”

“You think I’m not prepared?” Molly asked, and Caleb wasn’t sure where to look. “Though this robe doesn’t have pockets, so I am hoping you still happen to have some lubrication around.”

Caleb desperately wanted to kiss him, but his brain kept up its litany of questions and plans. Some of them felt important

“Ja, I have… I d-did want to, ah, but…” he closed his eyes and pulled himself together. “Whereabouts was this wall? My servant will have my bedchamber ready by now.”

“Oh, weren’t you a confident one?” Caleb could hear Molly’s smirk in his voice, and blinked his eyes open to see it. “I am curious, though,” Molly went on, “What was it you wanted to do?”

Caleb cursed his fascination with Molly’s parted legs and tried to focus, instead, on his tattoos.

“I was considering something more… oral,” he said, distractedly, before looking back up to his husband’s lips.

“We could do that, too,” Molly said, sounding slightly amused, but reassuringly breathless.

Then he began to trail a finger along his lips and Caleb’s thread of restraint broke. He closed the distance, only hesitating enough to grab Molly’s hand and pull it out of the way, before he pressed their lips together again.

------------------------

When Caleb finally kissed him again, Molly moaned in muffled delight. He’d been pretty sure that he hadn’t quite ruined everything, but it was nice to have it confirmed. As he parted his lips to deepen the kiss, he curled his free hand in Caleb’s shirt – it seemed like a better idea than curling it around the back of Caleb’s neck – and slid his foot down to the floor so that Caleb could lean in even closer. When, instead of freezing or pulling away, Caleb sucked and then gently nibbled Molly’s lower lip, Molly struggled not to grin into the kiss and, thereby, ruin everything. It felt like winning.

And when Caleb ran his tongue across Molly’s lips, Molly forgot, for a while at least, his plan to undo his husband’s shirt. The slick slide and scrape of their mouths unwound all other urgencies beyond the slow escalation of lust. At least, until Caleb saw fit to suck on Molly’s tongue and Molly couldn’t help but consider Caleb’s breathless confession. And consider what that mouth might feel like on his cock. Twisting his hand, he dragged Caleb’s down to hinge of his thigh, and gently pulled back from the kiss to gauge Caleb’s response.

Caleb also pulled back, something of a question in his eyes, and Molly found his husband looked utterly and delightfully debauched, with his hair still in disarray from its earlier ruffling, his lips bright and wet, his cheeks pink, and his eyes dark with desire. He was also, still, far too clothed. Caleb’s eyes drifted down his body, to where his hand rested next to Molly’s quite obvious erection. Molly placed his hand on his own leg to run over the fabric of the robe which was now framing rather than concealing his cock. Caleb slowly traced one fingertip down the soft seam of Molly’s thigh.

“Did you want something in particular?” he asked, his voice barely more than a hoarse murmur, and Molly nearly moaned at how fucking fantastic he sounded.

Instead, he swallowed hard and found his words.

“You mentioned wanting to try something… oral?” he asked, trying for sultry and gratified by how Caleb’s eyes flicked from his cock to his face and back down again.

Caleb licked his lips, then pulled his hand away briskly. Molly snatched his hand away from Caleb’s shirt and was about to begin damage control when his husband got down on his knees, and Molly just gaped.

“I— I think I need a cushion,” Caleb admitted after a moment, frowning slightly as he shuffled in place.

After another moment of shuffling, and Molly staring at him, he levered himself up and got the cushion from the next chair. Once he had his back turned Molly unfroze and dumbly rearranged himself, so that he was sitting, legs spread open, on the edge of the seat. He was just rearranging the skirts of his dressing gown, so they half covered his thighs and framed him nicely, when Caleb dropped the cushion at their feet.

“Just try not to grab me,” he said, sounding uncertain and looking a touch distracted.

Molly resisted the urge to reach out, and instead made a show of taking the arms of the chair in a death-grip.

“I’ll just hold on to these here,” he said, with an overconfident smirk that had forfeited him oral sex in the past.

It was enough to earn him a small smile, as Caleb got back onto his knees. When the wizard returned his focus to Molly’s cock and ran his hands slowly from his knees up and over his inner thighs, Molly’s smirk vanished into soft anticipation. The slight, soft frown of concentration on Caleb’s face made something in Molly’s chest feel tight, and, seconds later, when he leant down to place a kiss just at the base of his cock, Molly couldn’t help but shiver and clamp his tail tight around the back of the chair. Caleb glanced up at him.

“Let me know, ah, let me know if you like anything in particular,” he said, gently running the back of one finger back and forth over the soft skin of Molly’s balls.

Molly only managed a strangled note in his throat as he nodded a touch frantically.

And then Caleb turned his attention back to Molly’s groin, and began to kiss his way up Molly’s cock. And Molly felt like the anticipation was just about to kill him when Caleb finally sank his mouth down over the head of his cock, hot and soft and wet. Molly moaned aloud, clenching his hands tighter on the arms of the chair, and, as Caleb began to move his tongue, exploring, he had to fight to keep his hips still.

When Caleb began to suck, he lost the battle, his hips shifting up in a small and desperately aborted motion. Molly groaned at the sensation as Caleb brought one hand up to grip the base of his cock and bobbed his head down to meet it. He couldn’t stop the slight shifting of his hips or his panting moans, and he really didn’t want to. Caleb was a very quick study: making small adjustments and responding to Molly’s encouragement without hesitation. A change of pressure, a slight additional twist of his hand, and Molly made an undignified squeaking gasp, and then he didn’t stop, Caleb just kept making that slight twist with each movement.

Molly wasn’t sure exactly when Caleb’s other hand left his hip, but, when he noticed the motion of his shoulder, and felt his choked moan around his cock, he lost track of his breathing. He struggled to swallow, and to keep his hands to himself.

“Close,” he managed to gasp, and Caleb looked up his eyes dark and soft with pleasure, before pulling away.

There was the softest sound as his lips left him, and his lips were wet and soft and gently parted as he panted, but his hand didn’t stop moving. Either hand. Caleb made the smallest noise in his throat, and Molly lost control, and there was nothing that mattered beside the pleasure that crumpled him forward in his seat and had him gasping out an incoherent expletive.

Vaguely, he heard Caleb echo his sentiment in Zemnian, before taking away his hand and resting it on Molly’s thigh, gently running his thumb back and forth over the soft skin. Molly gradually caught his breath and shakily ran a hand along one of his horns, as he took in the sight of his husband kneeling between his legs, trousers undone and cock still out and still hard.

“Fuck,” he said, as it sank in that Caleb hadn’t cum. And that he’d stopped touching himself. “Fuck, that was…” Molly struggled to find a compliment that would encompass the fucking joy of Caleb’s mouth without sounding like a lie. “That was… fuck. Do you—would you like—” he made a vague gesture towards Caleb’s groin.

Caleb blinked at him, and it was odd to see the wizard looking like he was struggling to think straight.

“Ah, that, um, that depends. Do you still want to… do your thing?” Caleb asked, and Molly shuddered at the rasp in his voice.

“Fuck yes,” he breathed. “I’m no one trick pony.”

“Ja, gud. Well, I do not— I do not trust I won’t be,” Caleb said, with an oddly shy smile.

And then he cast a spell, the cleaning one, and Molly’s post orgasmic haze faded slightly in the face of renewed desire at the thought of having Caleb’s fingers along his back.

And then Caleb rested his head on Molly’s knee, his shoulders sinking in a sigh. Molly longed to run his hands through his husband’s hair, but the worming worry when Caleb did nothing more helped him refrain from his usual stupidity.

“Everything alright?” he asked, hands hovering as he tried to keep his voice light.

“Hmmm, just a little overwhelming,” Caleb muttered, not looking up.

“Anything in particular?” Molly asked, carefully. “We don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do,” he added, just to be clear, though, it felt a little selfish to say when he was the one who’d already had his fair share of fun.

Caleb shoulders began to shake, and Molly, panicked, patted him hesitantly on the shoulder. Then Caleb began to laugh aloud, shaking his head against Molly’s leg.

“Nein, it isn’t— I don’t want to stop,” he said, laughter still bubbling in his voice. “You are just too…” he lifted his head and waved his hands in a general, uncertain gesture, and Molly raised his brows. “Too, ah, sexy. It is, it’s the way your breath catches when I cast spells, and how you move when you like something I say.” He smiled and looked away. “It is very… flattering.”

“I can’t be the first person you’ve met with a magic fetish,” Molly teased, barely able to contain his delight at the implication Caleb almost orgasmed from watching him.

Caleb looked at him, suddenly serious.

“Not the first,” he said. “But usually they are wizards. It makes the duels very… awkward.”

It took a fraction of a second to realize Caleb was joking, and then he laughed. Caleb smiled, and Molly wondered if anyone else had ever found his smile so distracting.

“But now, Mollymauk, I can’t be the first person you’ve met with an interest in your tail?” Caleb asked, a touch of amusement in his question.

Molly was careful to not let his face drop, as he considered how to answer.

“Not the first, no,” he said, and, from Caleb’s frown, he suspected he didn’t sound nearly playful enough. As Caleb opened his mouth to say something, Molly cut him off. “People can be pretty rude about it though. I mean, do you get people throwing spells at you just to see you cast?”

“I think I’m too scary,” Caleb said, and set his hair alight with a wave.

It wasn’t quite so appealing when he had something unpleasant on his mind, but it did do something. His tail patted against the chair. Caleb didn’t look at it.

“People try to grab my tail, pull it, stroke it out of nowhere, just generally be dicks.”

“Ah, I am sorry,” Caleb said, quietly, and stood, turning, and began to fix his clothes.

Molly felt his chest burn.

“I didn’t mean you,” he tried. “You’ve been really, well, I wouldn’t have really picked you as a tail guy…”

“I grabbed your tail when you had splinters in it, and I do watch it to mind your thoughts,” Caleb said with a kind of abruptness that painted his confession as if he deemed his slights mortal sins.

Molly sighed and fixed his robe.

“It isn’t the same. You’ve never made me feel like I’m just a blank thing taking my tail from place to place.” He got up and joined Caleb, wrapping his tail loosely around the other man’s waist, playfully curling the tip down over Caleb’s groin. “You are more than welcome to touch it,” he purred.

Caleb stiffed at the contact in more ways than one. Then he trailed his fingers along Molly’s tail, and Molly leant his chin on his shoulder, careful of his horns, and moaned into his ear. Caleb turned his head, his eyes wide and lips parted, and Molly was glad he was quick enough to twitch back and prevent an accidental goring. He let Caleb see in his face the pleasure he was causing with the gentle stoke of his fingers, and when the wizard started to draw wizardly patterns, his moan was far more genuine.

When Caleb stopped and stepped away, Molly almost didn’t let him, his tail unconsciously locked in place.

“Sorry,” he said, contrite, as he realized, and his tail whipped back.

Caleb turned to face him, and Molly was relieved he didn’t seem distressed, but his hands still hovered. Caleb frowned at him for a moment, before realization swept in.

“Oh, yes, ah, that was okay. You didn’t… it wasn’t hands. I just thought we should make our way to my bedchamber, now? Some lubrication would be nice, ja?”