“The Doctor… implied that he and I are… friends.” Larch looked down, not looking at Mallory. In fact, she seemed to not know where to look.

“Eh, you two have been friends for a while, you’re just now realizing it.” Mallory chuckled, making light of it and trying to encourage Larch that she was likely in better standing than she thought.

Now Larch did look at her. “Mallory, he thought I was racist! I did not… I assumed that eliminated several options.”

Mallory shrugged. “I mean, fair. But he was wrong and you pointed that out. He thought you were racist, you thought he couldn’t be trusted, both were mistaken, you both got over it, you’re friends now. Right?”

Larch furrowed her brow. “…I am… better,” she said tentatively. “But… I must continue to work on it. I would not have him… mistake my intentions again. And I believe I may be slightly unwell at times under specific circumstances.”

Now she had Mallory’s full attention. “Unwell? What’s wrong?”

“…At times—again, under specific circumstances; I am by no means incapable or unable to be a part of the team—my memories or nightmares… blur with reality.”

Mallory nodded slowly. A vision of that damned were-wasp Helen Petley flashed through her mind for the briefest fraction of a second. “I know that feeling… a lot.”

Larch nodded, but hesitated, seeming to chew on her words. “…Apparently the Doctor does as well. He said he… understood. About my… inability with regards to the deception. The… the restraints.” Larch again looked away, shoulders stiff.

Mallory put a hand on Larch’s shoulder. “I wouldn’t be able to do something that hit so close to home for me, either. It was wrong of us to ask you to. I’m sorry that we did that.”

“I am not offended,” Larch protested with a quick shake of her head. “You… did not know. I did not—do not—wish for anyone to know. I am Larch Thorngrasp. I have earned my second name. I… am trying to move past… this. Poorly, I believe.”

“It’s a process,” Mallory said in what she hoped was a soothing tone. “It can’t, shouldn’t, be done all at once.”

“…It would be easier,” Larch muttered.

Mallory gave a small nod of agreement. “Yeah. But then it comes back to bite you later. It’s healthier to go slower… process it, be more thorough. Like… eating and digesting a meal. Not a very pleasant one, but still.” Feeling her flask at her side, she held it up with a smirk. “Or like a drink. Definitely don’t wanna drink it all at once. It’d be too much and then, well, you’d regret it in the end.”

Larch sighed. “You are probably right. Too much water at once can drown the plant. Still, I… wish I was better.”

Mallory inched closer, slowly wrapping Larch in her arms. She felt Larch’s hands awkwardly patting her back. “You’re already amazing. I have faith in you… you’ll get there.”

“I… I… Mallory. What sort of offerings would please your god?” It was a subject change, and a bit of an odd one from Larch.

Mallory tilted her head. “Since when do you care what he thinks?”

“I am stubborn and arrogant, but not stupid, and I can generally admit when I am wrong when provided evidence to that point.” The shaman shrugged. 

Mallory smiled. Though Cayden had advised her not to ask Larch about the matter, she couldn’t stop her mind from running wild with theories. “I’m so tempted to ask what actually happened in that office,” she admitted. “But, to answer your question… helping someone enjoy themselves. Helping someone see the bright side. Or… forgetting their worries, for a little bit. Not the unhealthy ‘escape your worries by drowning them in alcohol til you destroy yourself’, but you know… a little bit of respite. Alcohol can be used to celebrate, to soothe… that sort of thing.”

Larch frowned for a moment. “I have to… actually do something? I was hoping some sort of gift might work, like the heart of a king stag for Erastil. I am not good at any of that.”

“You know what they say… actions speak louder than words. Come and just… share a drink with me. Let it soothe you. Meditate if you like. It’s meant to be kind of a reflective thing anyway, since one of the sayings of Caeden’s followers is, ‘may he show us wisdom in the bottom of a mug.'” She pulled out her key to the High Bar.

Larch’s frown deepened. “Are you sure? I am not… generally good company. I am aware I can be abrupt and abrasive.”

“Au contraire, my friend. I actually… really enjoy your company.”

Surprise was writ plain on Larch’s face. “You- you do?”

As the two women headed toward the High Bar, Mallory continued. “You’re inspiring, honestly. We’ve both been through some stuff, and I know and respect the kind of strength that comes from that. I didn’t have anyone else to look to, who’d been through such traumas. I guess you didn’t either. We each have found our own way to deal with it.”

Larch still looked a bit surprised, but slowly nodded her head as they approached the High Bar’s front door. “I… suppose, yes. I’m hardly an inspiration, though. Your heart is much stronger than mine.”

Mallory, just about to insert the key, paused at this. My heart is stronger than hers? I’m not so sure about that…

“I… uh… thank you. That really means a lot to me,” Mallory stammered. “I just… I really do find your strength inspiring though.” She unlocked the door and opened it for Larch.

Once they were inside, Mallory lit a few lights and got her supplies in place. As she worked, she glanced over her shoulder at Larch, who was pulling herself onto a bar stool. “So, really, why ARE you wanting to make an ‘offering’ to Cayden? It’s the second time you’ve asked about doing so, if I remember right.”

“Knowledge is often uncomfortable or even unwelcome,” Larch said after a pause. “That does not make it untrue.”

“Hmm. True enough.” Once she had her supplies in order and made Larch’s drink—tea, of course, hot and strong—she slid it across the bar to her friend. “So, this is me asking. But I don’t want to pressure you to tell me. You don’t have to… I’m just curious. I have been ever since it happened. But if you’d rather, just focus on meditating, reflecting, whatever you like.”

Larch furrowed her brow in apparent consideration as Mallory made a drink of her own. “I have been… ‘meditating and reflecting’ on it, with varying degrees of success—or lack thereof—for several months,” Larch finally said, reaching into her pack and pulling out a small sachet of herbs, which she added to the tea. “It has not gotten any easier to bear. I do not know if I should expound on it at this moment.

“Even having… come to terms with the truthfulness of it,” Larch continued, “and considered the angles carefully, logically… it is a painful, unlikely hope, and would be so even if things weren’t complicated. And they are, for all parties involved. It would be… selfish, to speak of a thing when I do not know it, or what I am going to do with it. Yet it exists, and so… I have to figure it out somehow. The long and short of it is, I was made aware of something by your god. I would have preferred blissful ignorance, but…” She shrugged. “…here we are.”

“Hmm. Well, could I maybe help you figure it out? Or is it something you really have to do alone?”

Mallory’s mind raced with possibilities, all the strange theories coming back to her. Some unlikely connection between Larch’s and Doc’s pasts was her current guess, perhaps fueling her initial distrust of the man.

“Your advice may be helpful,” Larch said slowly. “It is an entirely foreign subject to me, and I do not have the least idea in how to approach it. But it is also… very personal. Moderately humiliating. Definitely infuriating. Fragile and full of hope as a baby bird, and just as easily -even likely- to be crushed. I think I must do most of it alone, for -as they say- `it’s not you, it’s me,’ and I have to deal with that if I am to proceed.”

Mallory nodded slowly. The sordid past theory was likely out, at the mention of hope. A subject foreign to Larch? And somehow caused a shouting match in Cayden’s office? “Hope is a delicate thing,” she said slowly, “and should be jealously guarded. Sometimes it’s… hard to hope, isn’t it?”

She opened her hand and closed it a couple times, staring into her palm. Hope, she thought to herself. Like that first time… She shook her head, shaking away the thought for now, and looked back at Larch. “I believe in hope though. And… purpose. But not coincidence.”

Larch sat still. She had been a veritable vault on personal matters. Why should this be any different? If Mallory was going to make any progress, she would just have to take a guess and show Larch how far off the mark she probably was. Maybe then the shaman would actually explain it.

So, what was her theory? The weird idea of their pasts being connected seemed less likely now. But Larch had mentioned hope. An impossible hope, likely to be crushed. Probably something deeply personal to Larch. Mallory could only think what might cause her to get so emotional if Cayden had slipped a note to her. Something so deeply personal to Mallory would be… something to do with her parents.

“If I had to guess,” Mallory ventured tentatively, “from what you’ve told me so far… I’m guessing maybe someone you thought to be dead, might still be alive. At least, that’s the sense I get from the clues you’re giving me. Am I warm?”

Larch blinked. “No,” she said flatly. “And forgive me, I do not mean to be cryptic or make you guess, as if this is some sort of game. I truly do not wish for others to know at the moment. It might not be a kindness toward them.”

Mallory nodded. At least now Larch could see how little she really was seeing of the matter. “I understand. But it’s a… a hope? And you worry that it’s a… cruel hope? A… hopeless hope?”

“Possibly both,” Larch said, grasping her teacup with both hands and fidgeting with it. “I do not wish to… ask for what cannot be given. An apple tree will not produce plums.”

Mallory pushed back from the counter and walked around to the front side of the bar, climbing into the barstool next to her, her own drink in hand. “I’m listening. If you want to talk it out.”

“I… do not know,” Larch said, still staring at her teacup, even as she sipped from it. “I am…. Flower calls it ‘undersocialized.’ Unusually polite of her, that term.” She hesitated. “A hypothetical. What would you do if… Say you have a pet dire tiger. It is habituated to people, but it was hurt badly by them as well. You are keeping it as a pet. You do not know where you stand with it, not really, because it cannot speak, though you can interpret some of its actions as tolerant to friendly. It may feel affection for you- maybe it even seek you out, take naps in your bed with you.” She sighed, taking a deep drink of her tea. “But it is what it is: an incredibly dangerous apex ambush predator with a mind entirely unlike yours due to those characteristics. Even if you love it, is it capable of loving you? Also consider that you have been mauled by one before, and while this one has not, it has absolutely killed and eaten humans.”

Mallory chewed her lip in thought. Was Larch talking about Doc? It sure sounded like it, but she wasn’t sure what to make of the “pet” analogy. And as far as she was aware, Doc and Larch had not shared a bed, and Mallory worried about Larch’s potential wrath if she insinuated as much. She decided to stick to the analogy Larch had laid out. “Well, I suppose I would find someone who can bridge the gap… who can speak with animals, to find out exactly where I really do stand with it… and… establish an understanding of sorts. Even a wild animal wouldn’t attack for NO reason. If I better understand what it needs, what it expects, then I could… be safer around it, no?”

This still made no sense to Mallory, and she felt lost. “I… I don’t know how this relates back to hope,” she said. “Or to whatever that business with Cayden was. But I do know that while hope is fragile, it’s… really stubborn, and very difficult to kill completely. That, and… purpose. Purpose and hope seem to go hand-in-hand, I find.” Now it was Mallory’s turn to look down at her hands. She opened and closed them a couple more times while staring into her palms.

“What it needs and expects,” Larch said slowly, thoughtfully, “I suppose I am already working on that. But I may not want to be safe, not anymore, and that… frightens me, a little. Keeping a dire tiger for a pet is, after all, reckless and foolish, both of which can describe me at times in this. …I believe you are correct- about purpose, and hope. I have my secondname because of it.” A pause. “What if it does not need, technically, your love… what if it definitely does not expect it? Would that be… an error?”

“Yeah, I didn’t have any hope for… a while after what happened to my family,” Mallory said with a pang of sadness. “But something happened that helped me learn my purpose, and I found hope there too. As for the analogy, well… Different creatures have different needs and… values, right? Depending on their… instincts, I guess.”

This would be a lot easier if we weren’t talking in obtuse metaphors, Mallory thought. But she’s told me enough now that I think I can come out and say it without ending up as mulch…

“Um… just to help me understand a little more clearly,” Mallory asked, watching for any sign that she should run, “are we talking about a certain medical professional in this supposedly hypothetical scenario?” She quirked a friendly smile as she asked.

Larch froze.

Jackpot. Now to pray she doesn’t kill me. Let’s be real, if she decides to, there’s no stopping her. So… better let her know I’m on her side here.

Mallory shrugged. “I mean, I can see that happening. It’s… a more sensible pairing than me and Rhodia, I think.”

Larch’s shoulders sagged for a moment. And in that moment, she looked harrowed and exhausted. To Mallory, it seemed, her guarded walls were at last coming down. “It is not a more sensible pairing. I do not—did not—trust or appreciate… alchemists… for my own reasons. And yet…” She suddenly whipped her head around to look straight at Mallory, her green eyes shining fierce under the glasses. “But you cannot say anything, Mallory. Nothing, do you understand? It would be entirely selfish to demand anything of his heart when I do not entirely know my own. The likelihood is that he cannot give it anyway… and I do not wish to make him… uncomfortable.” Mallory nodded, but Larch insisted. “Promise me.”

Mallory turned to face her fully, raising her right hand in a solemn oath. “I promise, Larch. Not a word. Not a breath, not a hint, not a knowing look. You have my word.”

Larch exhaled slowly in relief. “Thank you.”

“Of course,” Mallory answered, finally feeling more at ease herself. “It hardly deserves thanks. What are friends for?”

“Unfortunately sharp guesses in this case,” Larch said dryly, a hint of a smirk tugging at the corner of her mouth. Then she sobered. “Mallory… you have known him for… a while, yes?”

“I guess so,” Mallory replied with a shrug, taking a sip of her drink. “I used to wait his table here when he came in using this place as a space for his clinic.”

Larch blinked. “Really?”

“You didn’t know?” Mallory asked with a chuckle. “I was a waitress here when it was the Meat Grinder, under Lenard. We started this whole adventuring thing when Escanor came in one day looking for people to take care of a ghoul infestation in the woods outside of town. All of us just happened to be here that day. I was a waitress, and Doc was just a regular customer here. But he’d come in, sit at his usual table…” She pointed to the table. “…get his usual, and do quick patch-up work on anyone who came in needing it. Heibarr was still thought to be cursed by people not in the know, so… there wasn’t a lot of town to speak of at the time.”

Larch was silent for a moment. “I see,” she said simply. “In that time, has… has he ever expressed any…” The shaman’s ears flushed red. “…interest beyond the scientific in anyone? Ever?”

“Hmm. It’s rare, at least,” Mallory thought out loud. “But… I think so. It can be… hard to see. He frames things in scientific terms because it’s… it’s what he knows, I guess. But read between the lines, and he’s actually… very kind and considerate. I think he’s a good man. Confused, and had an awful childhood by anyone’s standards… and maybe his definition of ‘good’ is too technical, leading him to deny it on some technicality. But his heart, I think, is…” She looks away for a moment. “Well, he may be in denial, but I do think he’s a good man. I think he cares more than he lets on.” She cleared her throat. “BUT… knowing myself, I tend to see the good in everyone. Perhaps to my detriment. Maybe it’s a bit naive of me. I wonder if maybe I’m even a bit delusional about it sometimes.

“I guess what I’m trying to say is, even when he takes a supposedly scientific interest in someone, I still see it as a personal interest. He just doesn’t know how to express it in any way besides scientific.”

Larch nodded slowly, seeming to agree with the sentiment. “I am… also unsure. The things he has done before—and admitted he does not regret—are… but I think much fault lies at the feet of this Urvine. And while I am under no illusions as to what he is… he genuinely wants to help people. There is something there, in that. And… logical warnings have had no effect on my idiot errant heart thus far, unfortunately. The rest of me yes, but not that. Or perhaps we are both fools. I am certain the actual possibility of… something with someone has never crossed his mind. I am equally certain he doesn’t consider himself capable of that emotion. He told me once that the very basics of his nature are fiendish. That he leans towards cynicism, destruction, and believing that the quickest way to a humanoid’s heart is…”

Mallory nodded, saying it along with Larch. “…just under the rib cage with a sharp edged blade with a minimum length of 2 feet.” She chuckled. “Yeah, I remember him saying that. I’m not sure how much stock to put in words like that. Maybe he’s just pushing people away, trying not to form an attachment. I don’t blame you though for pondering the possibility of… something with him.”

Shit.

Mallory caught herself, too late, and felt the rush of heat surging through her face. She averted her eyes from Larch, unsure whether to say more.

Larch tilted her head at Mallory. Then her eyes widened… and narrowed. “I thought you and Rhodia…?”

“I… I guess I’ll just be straightforward so you know where I stand. I knew Doc before I knew Rhodia. But… call me shallow if you like…” She instinctively looked around, as if Doc might somehow be lurking close by, and lowered her voice to almost a whisper. “Whatever I might think about him as a person, I… I could never kiss that… face.” She suddenly whipped her head around to face Larch, eyes wide as she realized what she had said. “Larch, I’m not proud of that… of thinking that way. It feels shallow of me and… please, please never tell anyone I said that.

Larch just shrugged. “I apparently want to. I am discovering taste is quite personal. We shall keep both secrets, yes?”

Mallory nodded, returning to her explanation. “There are things about him I like, but there are several deal-breakers for me too. So I let any interest I might have had in him drop. Then I met Rhodia. And sure, she’s beautiful. But… we mix about as well as oil and water. Frankly you’d probably be better with Rhodia than I would. At least you know more about nature. I’m too much of a city girl for her, and she’s more fickle than a spring breeze. There’s literally zero chance of it working out.”

Larch’s eyes relaxed as she let out a breath, shrugging her shoulders. “His mouth is simply… a mouth, to me, I suppose. It’s not precisely beautiful, but then, neither am I. And… I rather like it. I wish he would go maskless more often… I cannot… he is The Doctor, not anyone else, unmistakably so with that mouth. It’s… reassuring. Mostly, I wonder about the pain it caused him. Or causes.

“I am relieved to know you have moved on,” she continued. “Frankly I do not think I can compete with you.” Mallory shot her a skeptical look, though Larch didn’t seem to see it, staring into her teacup. “And even if I could, I do not relish the thought. And in any case, I do not intend to seek a mate with someone who is likely uninterested at best. Even if I did, it would take a lot of planning to find the right gifts.” She paused, then suddenly fixed Mallory with another stare, eyes narrowed. “He… he was uninterested in you. Right…?”

At this, Mallory felt a rising surge of laughter and was unable to suppress it. After laughing out loud, Larch’s narrowed eyes studying her, Mallory shook her head. “Larch, he had no idea I’d even entertained the thought. You are the first person to know. I doubt even Cayden knew, and he could read my mind.”

“Didn’t stop him with me,” Larch muttered, returning to her tea.

“Besides,” Mallory said with a smirk that grew into a grin, “you and I competing could only end in one way. With me as mulch in your wagon.”

Maybe… maybe it would be okay for me to just ask now, she thought.

“So what was that thing with Cayden about anyway?”

Larch sighed, deeply. She reached into one of her pockets, then slapped a piece of paper onto the bar. Small, much crinkled and traveled. Familiar. The note on the vodka bottle.

Just ask him out. Guys are too dumb to notice. ~CC

Mallory’s mouth fell open. She blinked, replaying it all in her mind.

So then that means… But… so the yelling was just…

“Had it not been for this,” Larch fumed, gesturing at the note, “I likely could still be in blissful ignorance. You can understand my… well. Anyway… it is what is.”

“Well… I’m trying to retrace it in my head now,” Mallory admitted. “So… the… shouting match was… you telling him to mind his own business? And that it would never work? But… you were blissfully ignorant of what, exactly?”

“No… I was incensed that he could possibly think such a thing, given my…” She trailed off, gesturing with her hands, sighing as she struggled to find the right words. “As I said, I do not generally… ‘vibe,’ to quote Glaz, with alchemists. There were pieces of those points as well, but to me at that time, actually being attracted to one would be… monstrous on my part, and a betrayal of all that I had worked for. I simply assumed that my… memories, my nightmares, were what was causing my… awareness of him. And I am not whole or healed yet.” Another sigh. Then, dryly, she added, “You begin to see my difficulties.”

Mallory allowed herself a small chuckle. “All this time, I was wondering what you and a god could possibly have to yell at each other about, and here it was just that he was trying to help with your love life.” She smiled at Larch. “I’m a little jealous.” When Larch opened her mouth to reply, Mallory held up a placating hand. “But yes, I do see your difficulties. And healing takes time. But you don’t necessarily need to be fully healed to find love. I think he’s doing some healing of his own… Maybe… you can heal together?” She shrugged. “Big grain of salt on my advice though, okay? I don’t have any real experience with all that stuff.”

“…I would settle for killing Urvine, bringing our Doctor his head on one platter and his research on another, and… being, perhaps, friends. He is so difficult,” she muttered. “Calling me a friend. Giving me that painful hope. What an ass.”

Mallory chuckled again. “The nerve!”

“It would be easier to comport myself if he was… I did not think that he would ever consider me anything more than a colleague—and a weird one, given that my behavior thus far has made him think I’m racist and attempting to ‘work past’ it.” She shook her head as she poured more tea into her cup. “It’s… a painful hope, to think he could be… fond of me. When I thanked him for his… assistance in Rookwarden, and offered to do something in return, he said that you said that friends don’t track favors. He actually offered to… to make a physical therapy training plan for my arm, when he saw it.”

Mallory smiled, hearing her words come back like that. “Heh… I forgot I had said that. Look, I think he only got the racist idea because you weren’t really communicating, and he has no idea that anyone ever could be fond of him. And I say I’m not experienced in love, but he’s even less so. You wouldn’t look at him, so he had to assume something. Even I thought you were just avoiding looking at him because of… what he does to himself, and his nature being so… unnatural. I did start catching some of the vibes later on though, as to why you weren’t looking at him. Which, by the way, that ‘behavior’ is not social ineptitude. That’s…” She shrugged. “We do that. People just do that when we’re not sure how to talk to someone… which is usually when we like them. Don’t kick yourself for that. It’s normal.”

Larch shook her head. “No, it’s not that. I have difficulty with eye contact because it was almost beaten out of me. That is a topic I do not wish to visit at this time. It should also be mentioned, however, that he does not help,” Larch said, clearly aggravated, the red in her ears staying. The shaman ran a hand through her hair. “Running around with his shirt off all the time, as if I don’t have enough problems…”

Mallory nodded, a mischievous grin crossing her face. “Yeah, I can see how that wouldn’t help.” The smile fades. “But… I’m so sorry you were… I’m sorry for what you went through, Larch. I completely understand not wanting to talk about that. I’ll try not to give any reason for it to come up again.”

“Thank you… I… Someday. One problem at a time, however.”

Mallory nodded again. “Can I ask you something? Hopefully not something that’ll cause trauma.”

“You may ask. I reserve all rights about my answers, however.”

“When did you first realize you could… do special things? Healing mainly, I guess.”

Larch paused. Then, not looking at Mallory, she said, “I begged the spirits to curse a man… for his women and children to burn in fire, for his works to blacken and wither, for all that he loved be taken from him, as he had taken from others. There was more, but… regardless… The next day Flower came out of the ground where I buried her.”

“Oh…” Mallory paused, looking down at her hands again, remembering. “And she taught you to use healing magic?”

“No. They made the mistake of teaching me to read and not locking the library windows, third floor aside. At the beginning, I was… wild. It hurt, actually. Healing took more effort to learn than most of my other magicks. Flower did help, but it took both sources of knowledge.” She fixed Mallory with a concerned look. “Are you well? You stare at your hands sometimes.”

“Yeah, I’m fine. I know there’s different powers behind our healing. It… causes a certain sensation for me when I use my healing powers, and it’s become… important to me, I guess.”

Larch tilted her head, curiosity piqued. “Oh?”

“Here. It’s easier to show you.” Mallory turned to Larch and put a hand on the shaman’s arm. As though Larch was critically injured and about to die at any moment, Mallory closed her eyes and focused all the healing power she could muster, willing her caring concern into energy… lots of it. With a ragged breath, she opened her eyes. “Now… feel my hands.” She pulled her hand away, turning it palm up for Larch as her hand trembled, shaking uncontrollably.

Definitely interested now, Larch took Mallory’s hand, feeling the shaking, but also the unnatural heat coming from Mallory’s palm.

“Interesting,” she remarked. “Is this normal for you?”

Mallory nodded. “When I was little,” she explained, “in the time between escaping Isarn and eventually coming to Heibarr… when I was growing up alongside Bailey and her brothers… I didn’t… have much hope for the future, after what had happened. Well… Bailey, her brothers, and I were playing together and she took a nasty fall. She was doing some silly stunt kids do, and it went terribly wrong. She banged herself up really bad. Arms and legs all scraped up, her chin was busted open, her tongue was bleeding… She was crying so hard. Johnny went running to get Jose, and I stayed with Bailey. I laid my hands on her shoulders to try and soothe her. Then I hugged her close, with my hands on the back of her neck, and… she stopped crying. Then she was confused, and said it didn’t hurt anymore. Soon we realized she was healed. And when I pulled back from her, my hands were blazing hot, and shaking, hard. Like they are now. I put them into cold water, and they were still blazing hot and shaking, for almost an hour.

“It was the first time I’d healed someone,” she continued. “But at first, all I knew was that my hands wouldn’t stop shaking and felt like they were on fire. It didn’t occur to me for a while that that was even related to Bailey being healed. I just thought… I thought there was something wrong with me. But in time, I found… purpose. And, after that… hope.”

She smiled and closed her hand, still shaking. “When I heal someone, my hands still feel hot… and they still shake. Usually with more exertion, the more powerful healing, and so on. But when that happens, it reminds me of that feeling of purpose, of hope. Maybe that’s why I’ve managed to stay sane through it all. Because every time I heal someone, I’m reminded of that same feeling… and reminded that these little, delicate hands of mine can do great and wondrous things. And I believe they were made to. As are yours.”

Larch smiled. “You flatter me. I do not think I am as much as all that. Regardless… I understand, though I have no experience with that particular phenomenon. My magic comes through my connection with Flower and my other spirits. Though, now that you mention it, I did not start growing the vines until this year. Maybe it’s equivalent?”

“Maybe,” Mallory said with a shrug. “Do they feel like they’re growing more when you’re using your power a lot? Maybe you feel them a little in your hair? But… yeah. It happens in battle, though of course everyone’s attention is elsewhere, including mine. Sort of makes sense given the beams of light I can shoot sometimes, heh. All the heat in my hands.”

“I honestly haven’t looked. Maybe I should get a mirror…?” Larch wondered out loud, and then winced. “For all the good it may do. Ah well. Your beams of light are quite effective.”

“Oh, I meant, maybe you’d feel them in your hair or something.” She chuckles. “Ah… thanks. I like them. Your thorns are incredible. Oh, one more question. There’s one thing I still don’t quite get. Why are you wanting to make an offering to Cayden? For his… blessing on your… endeavors, I guess?”

“Oh. No. I don’t need a god for that. Whether… we work or not is up to the Doctor. However, I did yell at a god. He was rather patient; nonetheless, it was undeserved,” Larch said. 

Mallory chuckled, sliding off her bar stool and collecting their empty mugs to clean up. “That’s completely fair. Still, for what it’s worth, I stand by what I said… that took guts.”

“Guts had nothing to do with it,” the shaman replied, standing and stretching. “Rage, on the other hand, well. Still, thank you. I was not thinking clearly, and I was also rather lucky, but thank you.” She smiled a bit back.

“You’re lucky it was Cayden, yeah,” Mallory laughed, coming back around to the front of the bar. “I just…” She chuckled again, at herself this time. “You just looked really awesome. Totally fearless. Someone who isn’t afraid to call anybody on their crap, no matter who they are. That’s how it looked to me anyway.”

“Oh,” Larch said, faintly pink. “Well… I’m not. I am actually quite a coward in some respects. But maybe one day I will live up to your ideal.” Larch gave Mallory a half bow.

Confused and not truly understanding the gesture, Mallory returned the half bow out of politeness.

Larch smiled a bit again, a crooked smirk at the corner of her mouth. “Mallory, surely you know you are in fact the leader of this warband. Your praise means… a good deal, actually, to me.”

That took Mallory by surprise, and she realized it showed as she blinked in shock, mouth half open. “I… am? Huh… I… guess I am. And your praise means a lot to me too.”

“Well, it’s not me, the Doctor, or Glaz. Bolke might be good at it but does not want it. Miri has her own people and, frankly…”

“Just no,” they both said together.

“It’s simple logic,” Larch said with that grin growing a bit, pushing up her glasses.

“Yet another title that feels strange to wear,” Mallory said quietly. “You’re not wrong. But it still feels… weird. A ‘war band.’ Hm. I guess it just makes me think of brave, experienced warriors, and I’m… well, I don’t think I’m that. I was curled up in a little ball after the aboleth, if you recall. I lost count of how many times I thought of quitting in the early days of this… adventure of ours. Thought of it again after the aboleth. I…” She looked down at the floor, and at herself, feeling suddenly very small, and her voice shrinking to match. “I’m really afraid of dying, honestly,” she murmured. “Not of what comes after death… I’m just afraid of getting there. I don’t feel brave. I don’t feel like someone who would be leading a ‘war band.’ You know?”

“Incorrect,” said Larch, taking a step forward, her voice more assured than in the entire conversation they had had about the Doctor. “You have the most important ability of all: that of perseverance. Reckless courage is easy. Fleeing a fight is easy. As Flower once said, the simplest and hardest thing of all is simply to keep going and survive.” She looked at Mallory pointedly. No one could deny that Mallory had done that, at least. “If you were ill-suited to the task, I would not have allowed you to remain leader either. A poor leader endangers everyone, and I have work to do. I don’t have the luxury of death!” Her grin was on full display now. Was that a joke?

Mallory looked at Larch, long and pondering. It took a moment for her to chuckle at the joke, so much time was she taking to process Larch’s words of wisdom. Finally, she nodded slowly. “Thank you. You’re… you’re so kind. And… Flower’s words are wise. I agree. I… I guess I can lead with confidence… most of the time. They call me their conscience, so I let them know what I think… and they follow it. But then something like an aboleth shows up and I just want to crawl under my covers and never come out. During that fight I was just praying I’d see home again.”

She paused. A long sigh. “I mentioned clearing out a ghoul infestation for our first job working together. One of them got a hit on me with… something… and it… paralyzed me. I couldn’t move a muscle, and I was badly hurt. I was completely helpless, and it could have gotten a coups-de-grace on me right then. Our first time out, and I nearly died. I don’t even remember who hit it… but someone hit it before it could finish me, and it… exploded. It literally exploded rotten corpse guts all over me… and my mouth was open, because I was screaming! I spent the next two days in a bath. Thought I’d never get rid of the stench and the taste, even though it was just in my head after a while.” She made a face, shuddering, and suddenly craving another drink as if the wretched taste was coming back to her. “I… had only taken the job for a little extra money. I nearly didn’t take the second one. And during that second one, I just kept telling myself I was going to end up dead if I didn’t stop this nonsense.

Another long sigh before Mallory continued. “But then there’s the flipside. Sometimes I feel completely confident. Too much, probably. The day before we encountered the aboleth, I felt like we owned the River Kingdoms. I was reveling in how far we’ve come, and me in particular. From being some homeless, helpless orphan girl… to the apparent leader of some band of weirdos who hold great sway over this whole area.” She tsked at herself. “Maybe I needed a good humbling.”

As she snuffed the lights and they stepped outside, Mallory locking the door behind her, Mallory suddenly remembered something else from that first job. “Oh, by the way… after the zombie blew up its guts all over me, and I was screaming and crying and everything else… one person came over to check on me.” She slowly smiled and gave Larch a wink. “And I think you can guess which one. He’s a good man, Larch. Even if he won’t admit it.”

 

Author Rann
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Game: Pathfinder
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