The Isle of Poran was a grim and grey place. Most of the time it was completely overcast, with a chilly wind even when the sun was shining. When we got back though, the water mage we’d hired a month ago had arrived, and she’d taken matters into her own hands, leaving us with the first bit of nice weather I’d ever seen on the isle. Amaryllis was eager for me to unlock water magic, mostly so that we could get it leveled and see how it measured up against the others before the big respec, but I begged off, and I guess there must have been something in my eyes, because she relented and said that maybe we should just take a day to relax. I’d wanted more, but I didn’t press it.
Because my life had become an endless series of obligations, there was something that I had to do first.
“It’s been a while, I know,” I said as I walked beside the doe. “Sorry. I had the whole week in the temple, then I wasn’t really sleeping, and … I don’t know.” I still wasn’t sleeping, and I touched the ring on my finger, which would let me transfer sleep debt to another person. It was usable for a thousand hours, roughly a hundred days of not sleeping, and would be worthless to me after that, but it was what we’d scrounged up, a stopgap measure that punted the problem down the road. I kind of wanted to talk about that, how a vital human function had been stripped from me, but it was a distraction from other matters.
“I’ve been thinking about Brownian motion, and how that was maybe something that would help us relate,” I said. “You see, way back in time, on Earth, scientists noticed that little bits of pollen or whatever would have these random movements through the water. In computer programming terms, it was what we call a random walk, just a step in one direction, then a step in another direction, completely random, which gives a little characteristic squiggle if you map it out. Nothing to say that it couldn’t be a straight line, but statistically, that doesn’t happen.” I was silent for a bit. “Of course, knowing that rule doesn’t mean that it’s any less random, it just gives some context to what’s happening. It’s a meta rule. Anyway, they had noticed this about pollen, how it did these random motions that were similar to a random walk, and they had no idea what was causing it, because the pollen or whatever didn’t have moving parts. Eventually some scientist figured out that what might be happening was that brownian motion was the result of that pollen being bombarded by tiny bits of water. It was actually one of the first pieces of evidence that molecules existed. Anyway, I was thinking about that, about the scientist coming up with that theory, and how that feeling of wonder was a little diminished by moving a little step closer to understanding the truth. It was this move from this thing that was unknowable and weird, to this thing that was knowable but still weird. I kind of, I don’t know, get it? Solved games aren’t any fun.”
The doe seemed entirely disinterested in this monologue, which was fair, because my heart wasn’t in it. Sometimes talking to the doe was like this, with an hour or two of me talking about things I was interested in, or that I thought would help us relate, or that I imagined the doe would appreciate, with nothing to even remotely indicate that I was doing anything but wasting our time together. I tried not to be demotivated about it, and I tried not to think about the loyalty ups, but it was difficult, and sometimes, as now, I failed.
“That scientist’s name?” I asked. “Albert Einstein.”
The doe gave no impression that she’d heard me aside from a flick of the ear. Almost none of my jokes or references landed with the doe, which I was used to, but maybe I was just in a mood where everything was more disheartening than it actually should be.
“I had a thought, which was that maybe it was impossible to save you after all.” I didn’t mean it in a rude way, as though she wasn’t doing her part, but maybe it came out like that. I was despondent, that was all, and most of it didn’t even have anything to do with the doe.
The doe looked at me for a moment, flicked one ear again, and then nodded.
“What?” I asked. “Yes, as in, yes, it’s impossible to save you?”
She just gave me a blank look.
“I mean, I don’t know what the hells we would do then,” I replied. “Cherish the time we have, I guess? I don’t know what lesson there would be from that, what moral would be hidden in — I mean, not everything is a moral, not everything is commentary, but if it were true that there was nothing that could be done, if Solace is the last druid that will ever live and our ability to keep you going is basically tied to her lifespan, because I’m not sure that we can do the rebirth ritual thing again,” I was rambling, I knew that I was rambling. “I’m not going to accept that as the correct interpretation, for the time being.”
The doe gave another little nod in my direction, then ate some more grass. That was a lot more input than I normally got from her.
“Shit,” I said. “Well, Solace is kind of pissed, as you probably know, and if there is no solution, if this bottle is just effectively hospice, then I have no fucking clue how to break that to her, and I don’t think that she would accept it, not that she should. I mean, there’s a quest, isn’t there?”
The doe kept eating a particular type of purple grass that she seemed to favor, and I stopped and waited for a moment, because that seemed polite, like when you ask someone a question but they’ve just put a forkful of food in their mouth.
“So anyway,” I said. “Not giving up on that, obviously, just thinking about the possibility that there’s no winning move. I do like thinking about possibilities, you know that about me. It actually fits with the druidic mindset a little bit, not being constrained by what you think to be true about the world.” That seemed like another point in favor of the hypothesis.
I looked out at the lands inside the bottle, at the trees, the animals, the grasses, and the places where invisible wards were helping keep the ecosystem together. We had better instructions on how to take care of the bottle now; when Solace had died the first time, she hadn’t seen it coming, and neither had we, but there were preparations in place, contingency plans in case things went sideways in some way for a second time. It wasn’t clear that we could use Yaxukasu a second time, not when the first time had been such a tenuous thing, not when the locus was involved, and not given how much permanent damage it had done to Solace.
We were still thinking about those things though, imagining the worst case scenarios, so that we would have a skeleton of a plan in place when we needed to hit the ground running. Amaryllis and Grak were both big on worst case scenarios, trying to see the possible failure modes and then pick the low-hanging fruits of preparation.
See the problem coming, be a little prepared, and then things won’t spiral out of control when it happens.
“I had sex with Bethel,” I said. It was the first time I’d said it out loud.
The locus looked at me with its doe eyes, all six of them, then bent her head back down to continue eating grass. As confidants went, at least there was little chance that she would spill my secrets.
“Look,” I said. “I know that druids have a bit of sex magic, so maybe we have wildly different ideas about what sex actually is, and how it should be done, and with whom, but I thought maybe I could talk about it, and we could see where it takes us.” I always pretended that the locus was contributing something, even though the most she ever did was give me little looks that I interpreted however I pleased. That wasn’t nothing, strictly speaking, but it was a lot less than I normally got when I talked to people. In this particular case, I was okay with it.
“I hope you don’t mind,” I said. The doe gave no response and kept walking along beside me. “I know it’s not relevant to, you know, the whole,” I waved my hand in the direction of Loyalty as gained through understanding and companionship. “But I don’t really have anyone to talk to. No one that I want to talk to. I have lots of people that I could talk to, and at least a few of them that wouldn’t make me feel like shit about it.”
We were outside of Bethel, obviously. I’d taken the bottle to the far side of the Isle of Poran, away from the little town full of diplomats and spies, to a place where we could be truly alone for a few hours. It had actually been a huge logistical problem, since Bethel had reconfigured herself using the bottle’s power and had to not just change all her interior dimensions back to normal, but also find places for all the things that she’d accumulated in the meantime. Solace had been pretty gung ho about the plan once I’d suggested it though, and Amaryllis had thought it was probably preferable to have Bethel pare things down anyway. Bethel had grumbled a little bit, but once it was in full swing, she had started to see it as spring cleaning and been much more on board with it. She had given me a questioning look about moving the bottle, but she hadn’t actually said anything. I was asking for privacy from her, but I didn’t know whether the context was clear. Maybe she just thought I was working through some things, which was, at least, true.
“I keep coming back to three things,” I said. “First, she lied to me. Second, she didn’t listen to me when I said no. And third, it was … good. Physically, I mean.” I bit my lip for a moment. “I had always thought that sex was mostly in the head, rather than the body. That was how it was for me, my experience of it. But my head wasn’t in it, and it was just … She was reading me, I think. She made this comment about how people were these fumbling creatures trying to view each other with our limited senses, and for her, that wouldn’t have really been a problem, because so many of the entads have some sensory component to them. The thought of her scanning my entire body all at once, paying her full attention to how I was moving, what I was doing, augmenting the sensations she was producing with her false flesh, it … I can see how someone would like it, on a psychological level. But after we’d finished, I was just swimming in this sensation, this unpleasantness, like I had been reduced down to a machine made of meat. My uncle liked to tickle me, not in a gross way or anything, but I hated it, because he would always say that I needed to cheer up before he did it, and I just had no control over it, there was this spot on my body that tickled, and no one gave a shit that I told him to stop, not until I bit him. And I still fucking hate that uncle, because I think about being reduced down to this stimulus and response without any control of what happened.”
Loyalty Increased: Six-Eyed Doe lvl 19!
I glanced over at the doe. She was looking at me in a way I chose to interpret as sympathetic.
“When I killed Mome Rath, I felt like I was on top of the world,” I said. “And then there was the business with Harold, first at the fake location, then at the real one, but those were at least, if not easy, then something I felt like I had well in hand. I felt competent. But then it was just one thing after another, first the city being terrorized by the creatures Mome Rath brought with him, then the ruling council being dead, then the exclusion zone, and all this garbage with Article 86 … one problem solved, a dozen more created, like some horrible hydra.” I couldn’t remember what the Aerb version of a hydra was, if there was one. Maybe something with dissociative identity disorder? That seemed like a direction I might go.
“It sucks. It just sucks. All I want is phenomenal cosmic powers with no downsides and all my dreams to come true, is that so much to ask?” I laughed, but it was hollow, and I had to remind myself that was okay here, because Bethel wasn’t watching. “I keep asking myself if this was how I DMed, just making everything shittier and shittier, undercutting every triumph with two complications until it’s just this vast, grimdark stew.”
To my surprise, the doe began to use her magic. That wasn’t something that she did often, only a handful of times that I had seen, and usually for pretty minor effects. Of course, the doe was magic, was nearly the incarnation of magic, but when I was walking alongside her, it was possible to forget that. In this case, the magic was on the more extreme end of what I had seen, with plants bursting up around her and flowering instantly, a wild, colorful display of life. Most of the effect was centered around me.
I took a moment to look at the flowers, and then at the doe, and then more, at the bottle around me. My eyes caught on the giant tree in the middle, which had been behind me. It had gone into full bloom, pink and white petals on each of its huge branches, glorious from a distance. As I was looking at it, a wind swept through the bottle, and I caught a delightful fragrance.
“Alright,” I said. “I get it. There’s beauty in this world, it’s not all doom and gloom.” I took a breath and made sure to inhale more of the smell of flowers. “There are things worth protecting. I don’t think I ever disputed that.”
I took a breath and tried to calm myself. That sick feeling had returned a bit while talking to the doe. I could go into my spirit and tamp it down a bit more than I already had, but for a moment I just wanted to experience it, so that I would know what it was that I would be editing away. It had always been strange to me how much the body could be impacted by whatever the brain was doing. Here, the sickness in the stomach felt like it was located at the bottom of the ribs. Maybe I was just unconsciously clenching muscles there.
“So my plan, if you could call it that, was to just go on like nothing happened,” I said. “I would tell Amaryllis at some point, when I had some distance from it, but not the others, because it’s not really any of their business. Keep calm and carry on.” I was still for a moment. “I’m not sure that I can do that. I’m not sure that I should. I was always Bethel’s biggest apologist, when she was scaring people, when she was hurting people, when she was showing us murders or making threats, I was always the one saying, ‘oh, no, you guys don’t understand, she’s just scared and confused, lashing out because that’s easier, because that’s what she knows’.”
I wasn’t going to advocate for Bethel’s destruction, not on the basis of this, but if it ever became necessary, I wasn’t really sure how we would accomplish it. The obvious method was putting up a ward around her. Anti-entad wards were cheap, so long as they targeted one specific entad, so it would just be a matter of having Grak put a ward around her without her knowing about it. That itself would be no mean feat, given that she didn’t need sleep and had a huge sensorium that could grow larger without us knowing, and she was easily capable of hiding her abilities, which she’d done in the past. I was pretty sure that Amaryllis had some kind of plan in place, and had since we’d met Bethel, but I was suddenly quite curious to know the specifics. (And given that Bethel could and did spy on our dreams, I wasn’t sure that even a plan confined to our own skulls was safe from her knowledge. I was thankful that I wasn’t sleeping at the moment, if only for that.)
“I keep trying to see it from her perspective,” I said. Sometimes I went silent when I was with the doe, and thought instead of speaking, letting myself pick back up where it seemed appropriate. “I keep thinking about whether I would have been capable of it, in her shoes. I don’t think I would have. But I come from such a different culture than her, and if I’d been born in different circumstances, I might have turned out differently, still a Juniper, just a different one. A worse one. Back on Earth, there was this time Tiff and I had been having sex,” I felt myself grow awkward just talking about it, even though I was talking to the deer, “And she said, ‘stop’, and I just backed away from her almost at once, you know, uh, disengaged completely, because I had this paralyzing fear that I’d done something I shouldn’t have, that I hadn’t been reading her right, or that this expression of love had gotten deeply and horribly twisted somehow. That was just sort of how I’d grown up, I guess. Maybe the lessons that they taught on the subject were meant for people who weren’t me, because they were these big giant hammers being swung at us, and I think all I needed was a light tap. Anyway. Turned out that she’d said ‘stop’ because we were on her bed and she had forgotten to move her laptop, which she was worried she was crushing.” It was one of those things that we’d thought would be funny in retrospect, but never actually was. “And I think, if I had heard someone say no twice, or three times, or whatever it was, I would have taken a fucking hint.”
We sat in silence for a bit. I tried to relax, but I was thinking about Bethel, then Maddie, then Raven, then Amaryllis, then Tiff, and finally Arthur, or Uther, or whoever he actually was.
“People are complicated,” I finally said.
The doe snorted in response.
“I don’t really understand why you work through them,” I said to her. “I mean, I understand from an outside perspective that there are druids in D&D and this is one possible version of them, with power channeled through a genius locus, which happens to be moveable thanks to shenanigans, but from the internal perspective, I don’t think that I get it. You’re you. What do the humans give you in return? Wait, that’s probably the wrong question, because it’s not actually transactional, and I’m just a filthy capitalist pig. I guess more … why give them that gift?”
I’m not sure what I expected. If the doe could talk, she never had in my presence, and while that was a rule, and a commonality of loci was that they hated rules, it also felt like it was a spiritual rule, one that was core to her, one that made sense outside the frame of frames, as I was starting to think of it.
The doe just stared at me, chewing grass. Maybe she didn’t even know why she had druids. That was certainly possible. I really wanted to make a bunch of rapid-fire guesses, but that somehow felt like a betrayal of the locus, who was, after all, a creature of mysteries.
“I should tell Amaryllis about the Bethel thing,” I said to the locus. “Sorry, my mind keeps going back to it, and I doubt this is anything that you want to hear. Or maybe it is. I know you had a community around you, and maybe they sometimes had to deal with –” I paused and decided that I couldn’t succinctly finish the thought, not to my satisfaction. I was in need of a big, complex word that covered everything that had happened, a word of nuance and subtlety that could convey a hundred things at once, rather than simplifying it all down, but such a word didn’t exist, and I didn’t want to go through it all. “The choice is between Valencia, Grak, and Amaryllis. Maybe all of them eventually, but only one first. Valencia can keep a secret, but I don’t know whether she would get it, because she spent the majority of her life until we met being violated to her very core, and without a devil’s help I don’t know how much she understands, even if she’s been learning fast. With a devil’s help, I don’t really want to think about what would be going through her mind. And we’re not on the outs, not really, but I’m worried I haven’t been a good friend lately, and there was that whole poisonous thing with Fenn.” I shrugged.
“And between Grak and Amaryllis … Grak would probably understand, maybe, where I was coming from, since he ran away from an arranged marriage, and this is kind of, sort of, maybe a little similar.” I took a breath. “But he’s got his own problems, and I’ve been trying to let him lean on me as much as I can. And I don’t know that he’s that good at comforting people, even if he might understand.”
I took another breath and tried to slow my heart down. “My worry with Amaryllis is … it’s worries, actually, just a big ol’ heap of them. I’m worried she won’t believe me. I’m worried she’ll side with Bethel. I’m worried that she’ll ask questions that I have shitty answers to, or that she’ll make me play it out again. Fuck, she might even see it as the problem it is, but decide that I should just make the best of it because we need Bethel, and fighting her is, if not impossible, then really, really difficult. And, I guess, not something that I want to do. I do still think there’s good in her.”
It was shocking to me how quickly my opinion on Bethel had changed.
“I wish I were angrier,” I said. “I wish it were rage instead of this horrible gross feeling. I wish it had been clear cut. I mean, it was, but I wish … I wish I’d fought back more, that there hadn’t been an element of pleasure, that I found her truly repulsive, that there was no question that — I don’t know.” I let out a shaky breath. “I’m so worried that Amaryllis won’t believe me. Or that she’ll have a different interpretation.” I stopped and sat down in the grass, then lay back so I was looking up at the neck of the bottle. “Fuck.”
The doe lay down beside me, and rested her head up against my side. I reached over and patted her, softly. The doe’s hair was fine and soft; the texture varied from day to day.
“I could just edit it all away,” I said. “It’s tempting to just become a different sort of person who isn’t bothered by any of it. Or even someone who … I don’t know. If I could do it over again and be more willing, be the kind of person who could have enjoyed it or wanted it and had it be fulfillment instead of violation, maybe. But I’m not that person. I, you know, I weighed what I thought about it and decided against it, and then that decision was just,” I was clenching my fists, “Just stripped away from me. And Bethel is just flatly stronger than me.”
I let out a breath and tried to relax, and the doe nuzzled me, so I resumed patting her. For all that she wasn’t a great conversationalist, I was taking a fair bit of comfort from her, and from being able to talk without being judged. This wasn’t even remotely helping the cause, I was sure of that, but it was helping me to feel better. We lay there in silence, as I tried to keep my thoughts from racing.
The Isle of Poran was bathed in sunlight, which warmed it up quite a bit. The winds had died down too, so that heat wasn’t stripped from our bodies the moment we stepped outside. I’d come to view the Isle as a nice place, just one where you wanted to go out wearing a sweater, ready to retreat back into the safety and comfort of indoors after a walk. With how much Bethel was feeling like she was unsafe to be in, even when she wasn’t physically present, I was incredibly thankful that going outside for long stretches was a little more palatable.
Most of the Isle of Poran was made up of rocks and crags, all of them pretty smooth thanks to some unknown force of erosion. Between the rocks, there were a few fields of short, hardy grasses. And at one end of the isle, pretty far from both the town and Bethel, out of sight of either, there was a beach.
I wasn’t really sure that it was deserving of the name ‘beach’. It didn’t have proper sand, it just had a bunch of small, irregular rocks, each of them maybe half the size of a pea, most of them black or gray, technically gravel or something like that. When you walked on them, it approximated sand, but it definitely wasn’t actually sand, not in my book. More than that, the whole area with those little rocks accounted for maybe two hundred feet of the coastline of our isle, which was small enough that it was barely worth talking about. Still, it was what we had, so it was what we used.
Honestly, I thought a lot of us going to the beach was just Amaryllis wanting to play at being American for a day. She was, naturally, the one who organized things, and as I helped her set up, I saw more and more things that didn’t really belong on Aerb, culminating in a cooler (popped out of Sable) that I was pretty sure was exactly the same one that my parents had owned. Inside were different pops, wine coolers, and beers, all of them from Earth, and more than that, all familiar brands. For food, we had hot dogs and bags of chips.
“How do you like it?” asked Amaryllis. She was watching me with a slight smile on her face.
“Was this … for me?” I asked.
“I know you don’t want to go home,” said Amaryllis. “But I thought that it might be nice to have some reminders of it, if we’re taking a day off anyway.” She beamed me a smile.
Honestly, as gestures went, I was kind of on the fence about it, but Amaryllis seemed very pleased with herself, and seeing her happy made me happy, so I smiled back at her, and tried to get into the mood.
“You’ll have to let me know the thousand little details that I got wrong,” said Amaryllis. “I was really going for authenticity.”
“No, you nailed it,” I said. I pointed at the cooler. “Though drinking age in the United States is 21.”
“Well, that’s insane,” said Amaryllis. She was still grinning at me, and seemed to be in an uncharacteristically chipper mood, maybe because we were home. “I’m having a wine cooler.”
(A day at the beach was, obviously, a security issue, especially given that we had a few fresh targets painted on our backs. Grak had warded the entire stretch of beach, including what he’d called a shimmer ward to obscure us from sight, which was thankfully one way. No one was wearing armor, but I wore the vambrace that would let me slip into ready mode in short order, and we did bring a lot of our entads, which were close at hand, just in case.)
I think I finally started to relax when people began going in the water. Grak went first, in swim trunks, and made a ward against water that made it look like a hole had been taken out of the sea. I didn’t know how much experience Grak had with water, given that he’d lived underground for so much of his life, but he seemed to take to it, and changed the shape of his wards to make a little bit of a pool set into the sea, one without waves. When he was finished, Solace came to join him, fully nude, and they sat in two feet of water together, looking at rocks.
“Sorry I couldn’t get Solace to wear something appropriate,” said Amaryllis. She’d shown up beside me while I wasn’t paying attention. “Everyone else was amenable.”
I looked around and realized that she was right. It hadn’t even occurred to me that Aerb’s lax nudity taboos probably meant that swimsuits weren’t the norm. All the girls were wearing one kind or another: Pallida was wearing a black bikini that showed off her pink skin; Raven had acquired or requested something much more modest and single piece, which was still as much skin as she’d ever shown; Valencia was wearing a red bikini with thorns embroidered on the butt, which I thought must have been a custom job.
“Do you like it?” asked Amaryllis.
I glanced over at her. She was wearing a skirt and some sandals, with a slightly oversized t-shirt that was revealing a pink strap. That had to have been deliberate, given that our unlimited access to clothing meant you didn’t have oversized clothes unless that was what you felt like.
“You’re very chipper today,” I said, rather than answering her question.
She gave a happy little shrug. “Some good news on a few fronts,” she said. “I promised I wouldn’t talk shop for this outing though. And we’re home, after nearly a month away, back on our own land. Juniper, I know the legal code backward and forward, it’s not a crime to be happy.”
“No, you’re right,” I said. “You’re just usually more reserved.”
“I’m not reserved, I’m focused,” said Amaryllis. “And right now I’m focused on having a good time, because that’s what you said you wanted to do today. There’s no point sitting around on the beach being dour. If we wanted to be depressed about our circumstances and the myriad threats we’re facing, as well as the unpleasant personal aspects of the current trials, we could do that at home, and we could be productive while doing it.”
It took me a moment to realize that when she said ‘unpleasant personal aspects’ she meant Anglecynn and her family, rather than anything that was going on with me.
I let out a breath. “Okay,” I said. “If you’re making a focused effort on being happy, I guess I will too.” I looked at everyone in their swimsuits again. “Just to be clear, is this meant to be enticing to me?”
Amaryllis looked me up and down. “Is it enticing?” she asked. “This is standard fare in America, so far as I know. Are you telling me that this is more sexually enticing than just seeing someone naked? Because that was the other option.”
“It’s hard to explain,” I said. “I don’t think that you would understand. There’s — it’s an element of dress-up, of presentation. I was just asking about intent.”
“Oh,” said Amaryllis. “Well, no. I didn’t think — is it bad?”
“Bad in what sense?” I asked. I looked away from the others and over to her. She was frowning slightly. “I wouldn’t say that it was bad in any sense, I guess, I was just … overthinking things. Misjudging you.”
“There’s some prurient interest,” said Amaryllis, nodding slightly. She was looking intently at the scene in front of us. “You know, I got that from when we went to the bathhouse. I expected it here, at least a little, I just … thought this would fit in better with your mores, not worse.”
“It’s not worse,” I said. “It’s just, when we went to the bathhouse in Barren Jewel, I found that pretty shocking, but I’ve tried my best to understand that it’s Aerb and that’s just how things are done for the most part. But here, it’s … it’s unnatural. And it is for me. It just makes me feel weird.”
“Weird good or weird bad?” she asked, looking me up and down.
“A complex weirdness,” I said. I shook my head. “Sorry, if we’re trying to maximize happiness I don’t think we should be standing around talking about this. Let’s just go for a swim and I’ll forget all about it. I’m in my own head, that’s part of my problem.”
“Okay, a swim, good,” said Amaryllis, returning to her smiling state. She looked down at her outfit, the t-shirt and skirt, and her smile faltered. “Well, whatever.”
She took off her shirt first, then slipped out of her skirt, and finally stepped out of her flip-flops, leaving her in a pink bikini. My breath caught in my throat. She was utterly perfect, from head to toe, with an unmatched grace and power, muscular and feminine, flawless skin, full lips —
The thing about Amaryllis was that I was more or less used to her. You know how you can sit in a room with a weird smell and after about half an hour you don’t notice it anymore? Or how eventually words lose their meanings if they’re said enough, instead becoming this little token linked to a bigger concept? It was like that with Amaryllis. She was beautiful, always, perfectly suited to my ideals, and yet it hadn’t taken too long for my brain to start tamping down on those thoughts. Maybe it was something to do with how the brain was constantly rewiring itself, or maybe it was just that neurotransmitting chemicals were in short enough supply that you couldn’t be in a constant state of shock at the beauty of someone you were rarely far from, but it was relatively easy to forget that Amaryllis was the most attractive person I had ever met.
There were always little moments though, times when something would slip past the giant filter that my brain had been maintaining. My guess was that the brain was just a big neural network, and it had little false positives or false negatives sometimes, so whatever internal mechanism was dulling the impact of her failed, and that led to those flashes. Sometimes it was just that she was wearing something different, or had her hair a different way, or put on makeup, or the light would catch her in a certain way, or she would briefly be in a different position I hadn’t seen her in before, or … a million things really. I always viewed it as the filter getting caught and having to update itself with new data, briefly reconfiguring and giving me a glimpse of what the brain had been trying to hide. It had nonetheless become easier for me to deal with over time, because I could calm myself down quickly by thinking, ‘It’s just Amaryllis, you know this feeling’.
This was something different, not a temporary chink in the filter but a great and gaping hole, a whole class of unconsidered stimuli. I had tried my best to refrain from fantasizing about Amaryllis, both because of how unclear things were between us, because I knew that even if she felt some romantic feelings toward me, it wasn’t sexual, and because I didn’t want to feel like a creep, not when she was my closest friend. For her part, Amaryllis had begun taking pains to not make things worse for me starting as soon as Barren Jewel, a week into us becoming companions. She would change behind curtains or when I wasn’t around, taking pains to keep concealed (to within her understanding of Midwestern customs of concealment). She wasn’t a nun about it, and she wasn’t actively dressing to be unattractive, but it was something she was pretty clearly aware of, and especially after I’d gotten together with Fenn, the physical attraction was something that Amaryllis had silently tried to make easier for me.
The result of that was that I wasn’t prepared. I had no built up tolerance, not for this.
So I stared at her, slack-jawed, eyes moving up and down her body. My heart was hammering in my chest and I could feel a heat rising in me.
(And, because I had multi-threading, I was thinking other thoughts as well, disconnected from the sheer grace and perfection in front of me, but parallel all the same, thoughts about whether Amaryllis had really not known it would have this effect on me, whether the Dungeon Master’s thumb was on the scale again, whether this was an invitation of some sort, deeply coded, or whether I was just making things up in my mind, thoughts about how I had been an idiot for not actually seeing her as she was, then more thoughts about the filters that my brain had been working on so that it could continue to function around her.)
And it took a moment for these feelings and thoughts to have a head on collision with the gutsick feeling I’d had after being with Bethel. They met like a warm front and a cold front colliding into each other, and the result was a roiling storm, unpleasant and fast, and in the aftermath, guilt and shame tainting everything that I had been feeling. I felt like a predator and a hypocrite, unworthy, dirty, unloyal.
“Sorry,” I said, once I had regained some composure.
Amaryllis was watching me. “I can change into something more modest.”
“No,” I replied. “I’m just … awestruck.” That wasn’t the whole of it.
“Well,” said Amaryllis, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear in a way that was heart-stoppingly attractive. “I have activities planned. We’ll go swimming first.” She looked down at herself, then back up at me. “I can change. I don’t mind if you … find me attractive, but if this is going to be –”
“I’ll be fine,” I said, trying my best to mean it. She’d been pretty, she would always be pretty, I wasn’t going to be incapacitated by it, and I would deal with it the same as I’d dealt with it a hundred times before. I had seen her naked, a few times, I had seen her give birth for fuck’s sake, I could tamp down on what I was feeling just fine.
Amaryllis went down into the water, and I stripped off my t-shirt and followed her, trying to feel good, trying not to let the bad thoughts in.