Larch checked everything one last time.
She was as ready as she was going to get to go home.
Are they safe? Are they well? Did they seek the Ghost Wolves, join them? Or did they strike out on their own to rebuild from scratch? Have they found a shaman of their own? For I am theirs… but I am not there. For the sake of the tribe, they should have one by now.
My home, my people. The cold north wind and the smell of the taiga, the summer wildflowers, the pines.
It had been a long, long time. Years. Even when she was free, she was too busy running for her life to…
…And now here they were.
I never thought I could go home. My heart aches for it… but when I think of home, I also think of Heibarr. Of my house of vines and the Doctor’s hospital, and the blue river running through the town where the swampweed grows, and even the goblin rat farm. Does that make me a traitor?
What is home? And who am I? The Wolves of the Northern Pines do not know Larch Thorngrasp. They knew Leshka.
The Leshka they knew would cut out her own heart and eat it before she admitted to any weakness, let alone for an alchemist.
She buckled the harness on Moosely.
It’s so simple to Glaz. Just talk, he says, as if it doesn’t risk everything. As if I have a snowball’s chance in hell. And if he said no…
Larch Thorngrasp did not cry. But she did swallow around a knot in her throat.
That utter ass. He was cynical, coldly logical, and arguably a little amoral. He would be the first to call himself a monster. He may not even be wrong. He was warm, and thoughtful, and stunningly kind at times, brilliantly intelligent, dry sense of humor… and she was losing her god damn mind.
How would she even begin to bring it up to him?
“Hello, Doctor, a question: do you ever experience romantic or carnal attraction and if so to what subset of beings? Thank you ever so much!”
She closed her eyes.
…And. And yet.
I want him to know. I do not know if anyone has ever… loved him, for himself, as he is, good and bad alike, eyes wide open. I, for better or worse, do. I don’t know why and I am not graceful about it in any sense, but I want to kiss his stupid lipless mouth senseless, and show him my garden properly, and see him do that little head tilt he does when he is interested or fascinated at something and have it be directed toward me. I want him to carry me to bed and not leave.
Of course, this was insanity. But it remained what it was, undeniable, despite her best efforts.
I do not want him to face Urvine thinking he is unloved, even if he is okay with the idea. He is not all Sharpe, Urvine’s tool, his cold obedient creature, though he is more comfortable with that label. He is our Doctor, our Doc, and while Sharpe will always be there… like having a second name, it is not all of who he is anymore.
Could she couch it in scientific language somehow? But what if it sounded like she was trying to study him, like Urvine wanted to? Well, not just like, given that she had no desire to cut him open, but. Still.
Even if I threw all caution to the wind, and really did flat out tell him… I don’t even know if he would believe me. If he laughed, I think I would die.
If he rejected me… I would find some way to continue. Poorly, I imagine, but I will not burden him. Either the feelings will fade on their own or they won’t, and I shall just learn to deal with the pain, like in my arm.
It will be nothing new.
But if I talk to him… how do I go about it?
Logic, Larch. Think. Focus.
One: is he capable of romantic attraction. That is the biggest question. Given his trauma and general demeanor, not to mention his quippoloth heritage, he may not be. You must answer this before anything else. So how?
An idea occurred to her.
It was just plausible enough that she might could make it work, and approached from an oblique angle, rather than head-on.
Perhaps… I could try?
Larch found him as they were getting ready.
She has her wagon and the moose that pull it all prepared; the shaman herself walks, with a small satchel for her own things that aren’t work related. She has mostly recovered from her ritual- the freckles stand out a bit more than usual, perhaps, but there is no pallor to her from the blood loss. The blonde braids in her otherwise chestnut hair and the little green vines that grow there are neatly done, and she has, for some reason, put a wild red flower behind her ear. The glasses hold it in place.
The ripping scar from the scrag above one eye is still new, but it doesn’t look bad, either.
Her green tunic is much the same as usual, with the tattoos and her shaman’s paraphernalia giving her a wilder air.
“Doctor? May I ask you something? Two something’s actually. One has tactical implications, the other occurred to me and is merely curiosity. You do not have to answer if you do not wish. But… I noticed you do not call yourself Amaranth. Do you not like the name? Also… I was- was thinking of Urvine, and other enemies that you may have, and I was wondering if there are any ex-lovers we should worry about. I have read they can be vindictive. It would be good to know if that is the case, so we can prepare,” she said, casually, just like she’d rehearsed a thousand times last night, and ignored her thundering heart as best she could.
This was logical. This was tactical. This wasn’t odd at all. This was a fine thing to ask, the kind of thing a friend would be concerned about. A small question for lead up, the bigger one second. Nice and casual.
Nice and casual.
Doc Sharpe looks up from his inventory, making sure the Hospital was well enough supplied while he would be away. Leonard was right, the place had boomed significantly.
“Amaranth was randomly assigned to me by the orphanage in Kenabres. They go through the alphabet for each orphan without a name, and I had happened to be the first when they restarted at the top. Sharpe always felt more like me.”
He tilts his head at the second question. “Hmm.”
“I am finished packing. Do you require assistance?” She offered, letting him take his time and making a mental note.
“Oh, hmm? No, but thank you! Just trying to classify if any enemies would be considered an… ‘ex-lover.’ Many enemies, but as I recall I’ve never been in a relationship with any of them. No, no ex-lovers that would try to murder me, now that the review is done. At least, I don’t think so.”
“Think so? Did a relationship end poorly?” Larch asked, deliberately casual agian. “What were they like?”
“No, I don’t think so. It was mostly transactional in nature, and relatively cordial. I didn’t usually get to know the- Aha, there you are, I knew I had at least five bottle of iodine.” He picks up a bottle, clearly labeled but apparently placed in the wrong section, and puts it with other similarly labeled bottles.
“Oh, so no mates then. That does reduce the likelihood- unless one wanted to be, and you didn’t? Jealousy is a green monster, as they say.”
“No…? I doubt that sincerely. Ten times was enough to verify the results, double blind study, and with both sexes.”
Larch blinks. “Verify results? What were you trying to determine? Orientation, or emotional capacity, or?”
Be calm. Be calm….
“Oh, if I enjoyed sex. Many of the other people at the shop did, or various forms of it. As I understand many tastes ran to the obscene or violent in their encounters. I was curious, modeled the experiment, and ran the results. After going through the data, I found out, that no, I did not. A facet in some beings that I understand is uncommon but not unheard of.”
“I see.” She nodded thoughtfully, and kept her face neutral.
Not entirely a deal breaker… I find him attractive, granted, but I can manage myself if need be… but it does not bode well for a relationship.
“Occasionally there were members of the tribe who sought out a mate without that intent,” Larch offered. “A partner. They would have each other, even without… such things. But I suppose the environment of the Shop was not conducive to anything like that?”
“Fraternization was strictly prohibited. Plus, everyone was in competition with each other.” He keeps going through the bottles, checking off the list.
And then, to her horror, her mouth moves before her brain, emboldened by the (admittedly surprising) progress so far.
“Would you be interested in that?”
It happens like a train wreck, too fast to stop, and she froze before she MADE herself keep breathing, checking the harnesses on Rutt and Moosely, as casually as she could manage, and putting her hands out of eyeline so he didn’t see them shake.
He pauses, thinking. “I hadn’t considered. That said, it wouldn’t be fair to the other person. My emotional capabilities are… stunted, as I’ve come to understand.”
Bottle, check, do deee do.
“Much like sex, my Qlippoth heritage finds the idea repulsive, but, as we have discussed before, nature does not necessarily make the person who they are, it assists. However, I was also in service to Urvine, who, at best, eschewed those kinds of relationships. Like it or not, he raised me, and instilled many of those values as well.”
He taps his quill to the bottom of the mask. “Perhaps something to explore in the future, if we survive. We are all malleable, after all.”
Oh thank the gods, he didn’t notice.
It wasn’t a yes, by any means. She fought the way her heart lurched unevenly- because it also wasn’t a no, though it made the idea more unlikely.
No wonder he keeps walking around with his damn shirt off. He has no idea how that sort of thing affects others. I am very glad I’ve kept this close to the chest. What if I had tried to kiss him?
Ugh, Glaz was actually right. I’ll never live that down.
“I- I have come to agree with that statement. Sometimes we change in the ways we least expect,” Larch said quietly. “Or even welcome. But the change happens regardless. I have… changed a lot, here, in this group.”
“This is true! Everyone here has, but that’s the fascinating part of life. That’s one reason that Undeath is frankly not an option in my mind. Your mind and soul are theoretically stuck at the time of your Undeath, so while you can learn things, your perspective can’t change. Theoretically. I’ll need to check if there’s actually been studies done.”
Wood and Wild forgive me for loving this absolute moron.
“Well, you’re not wrong. Though I am rather glad you’ve… refrained from going to quite such lengths. I like you as you are. I understand the need for the work,” she added, so he didn’t think she was dismissing his life’s calling. “But still. It would probably skew your results anyways, being undead.”
“Indeed, hm. Something to ponder.” Absently thinking, then he looks back to Larch. “Sorry, did that help tactically? A bit of a tangent we went on there.”
You knew what you were getting into, Larch Thorngrasp. You knew going in who and what he was.
“Yes. I am… reassured,” she said, and cleared her throat to cover the way her voice went just a bit cracky on the tremendous lie.
Then, because if he didn’t get it just now she was confident he never would, she added, “I don’t mind tangents with you, Doctor.”
“Oh, good. A pleasure talking with you as well, Larch. Hmm. Low on bleach, and the cleaning alcohols. I really hope Bolke isn’t drinking those.”
That answered that.
Larch quietly slipped away from where the group was gathering. She needed space, and privacy, and the trees offered both. With the skill of her calling she slipped among them and walked for fifteen minutes until she was sure she was well enough away that she wouldn’t be bothered.
Only there did she sink to the forest floor, draw her knees to her chest, and let the knot in her throat unravel into hot tears that threatened to fall.
I let myself hope. And while it is not a no…
…The idea is so far removed from him he has no concept of it in the slightest. He may not be ABLE to with his racial heritage. He certainly isn’t interested in me the way I am with him.
The one thing I am confident of is his ability to do research. If he has tackled the subject and drawn conclusions from it, chances are they are correct.
There is always the idea that he hasn’t tried sex with me… but that would be incredibly rude. For one, I’m not that special or pretty- I am prickly, scarred, and arrogant, to say the least. And for two, I will not demean who he is in that way. He feels how he feels. I am not adverse to the idea of taking care of myself, especially if it meant something deeper between us could be possible… but that assumes it is possible, and that he would be ok with that. If it’s all truly repulsive to him…
Flower wormed her way into Larch’s arms and started purring loudly, rubbing her face against the shaman’s. Larch sniffle, gritting her teeth.
It hurt. It hurt so bad. Why had she ever fucking asked? Why had she ever hoped?
“It’s not all gone, sprout,” said Flower, as Larch clenched her hands into fists and fought for calm. “It wouldn’t be a typical relationship, but it was never going to be with him. And it wasn’t actually a no.”
“Flower, you know as well as I do that to… pressure him or try to make him be receptive to me- it’s not going to work. Even if it wasn’t a complete no, even if somehow I could have him see- I wouldn’t. He has been forced to be something by everyone in his life until he met us. I want him to be… happy,” she said, croaking on the word and hating herself violently for it. “Even if it’s pursuing the work that cuts his own flesh. Or if it means that I- I don’t mean to him what he means to me. Damn his stupid idiot tiefling bastard mummified heart. And damn mine.”
Her control broke on the last word, and Larch, to her horror, started to cry.
“He’s not going to change just because of me. I am lucky to be his friend, given our mutual circumstances, and he will never see me as anything more because he likely can’t. This isn’t a fairy tale or a bard’s song. Love does not conquer all. I do not get the prince,” she managed through choking sobs.
It was so much easier to hate him. But she couldn’t go back to doing that, either.
“I could try to prove my worth as some sort of partner, but on what grounds? He seemed repulsed at least somewhat by that as well, at least when asked, and he… is competent. Intelligent. Strong. He doesn’t need one,” she said, and her voice broke again through the tears. “At least I didn’t humiliate myself by actually attempting to court him, like I wanted to.”
The rest of it snarls in her chest, a hot ball of pain. There’s nothing other than the tears, until they run out: the ugly gasping for air sort of sobbing that comes with heartbreak.
When they run out, and Larch is dull-eyed with exhaustion, silence settles in the forest.
“…I suppose I should be… less involved. In him,” she said, utterly spent- defeated in a way she has never been before, not even when she was a slave. “It would only be awkward.”
“Well. I mean,” Flower said, carefully, lifting a skin of water with her magic and setting it down in front of Larch, “you don’t actually have to. He didn’t know what you were talking about- he’s not capable, right? So… maybe just do what you want. Don’t court him for real, that’s not polite since he isn’t interested, but… get it all out. You want to help him and do things for him. Well, now you know there’s basically no possible way he can think of you in a romantic context- so you don’t have to hold back anymore. Do the things you have wanted to do, but were scared of, since you didn’t know how he felt. It’s fine because he will assume this is what friends do. You’re not doing it to convince him or anything. And then maybe you can… move on. Or at least feel a little better. ….I don’t like to see you so sad.”
“This is awful. Why do people do this to themselves,” the shaman muttered, taking off her glasses and wiping her eyes. “Lance it, and let it heal, whether it scars or not…”
“Precisely.” Flower nodded.
Larch exhaled, slow and shaky, trying to gather herself.
…What’s one more scar in the scheme of things? I’m used to scars; I’m used to them hurting. Either I will get over it eventually somehow… or I won’t, and I shall simply be as much of his friend as I can, and hide my heart in the shadows. I will do what I can to make sure he feels loved, even if it is the love of a friend. I still believe he deserves that, as we go to face the man who made him. I want him to know. And I am free now in a way, to act as I wish. Flower is right. He will just think these are the actions of a friend. He’s not even wrong, either, for I do not wish to lose what I have worked so hard for in that regard.
I will start with supplies. Numeria is hostile beyond belief. I could… hmm. Yes. I could do that.
Larch conjured water from nothing and splashed herself it with it, using the hem of her shirt to scrub her face with icy liquid until she felt like the red of her nose and eyes had gone down enough to pass inspection. Then she shouldered Flower, raised her head, picked up her glasses, and went to get her things.
If she was going to keep the idiot she loved alive, not to mention the rest of her new found tribe, she had work to do.