Worth the Candle, Ch 94: Grayscale

The month in the time chamber went by quickly and slowly. The ordered schedule that Amaryllis had us on made the days go faster, since it shortened my vision a bit; I was always waiting on the next section of the day, rather than counting the days themselves. But at the same time, those divided chunks of time seemed to drag, especially during the first part of my time in the chamber, when I was working on leveling up any of my skills that hadn’t hit their caps. There were a few occasions where Amaryllis helped with training, which made it more bearable; some of the skills, especially the social ones, were nigh impossible to train up without a partner to practice on.

On my third day in the chamber, I offered to do half of the chores.

“Why?” asked Amaryllis with a raised eyebrow.

“Uh,” I said. “I’m not sure that’s something that you should be suspicious of. It seems sort of like common courtesy for us to have a division of labor, I should have offered from the start, I just thought that maybe you liked doing things your own way. I don’t mind doing drudge work.” I’d been a little uneasy watching her move the giant jugs of water around, but the last time I’d mentioned her being pregnant, I’d gotten a well-researched lecture on women’s health and what was and was not scientifically shown to have negative outcomes for mother and child.

Loyalty Increased: Amaryllis lvl 20!

Companion Passive Unlocked: Symbiosis (Amaryllis)!

“Okay, I’d appreciate that,” said Amaryllis. “Thanks.”

“You know,” I said slowly. “I think there’s been a recent trend of loyalty increases being genuinely insulting.”

Amaryllis lit up. “Really?” she asked. “It finally happened?” I think it was probably the happiest I’d ever seen her; she was practically vibrating with excitement. “The same that Fenn got?”

“Symbiosis, yeah,” I said. “But the loyalty increase leads me to believe that saying I would do some of the drudge work changes your mind about me somehow? That kind of hurts.”

“Sorry Joon,” said Amaryllis. She winced. “Do you want me to take the time to explain it nicely, or can I bask in this for a bit? I’ve been planning for this moment for a while now.”

“Sure, go ahead,” I said. “Let me know if there’s anything you need help with. I helped Fenn a bit, and I’m the resident expert on learning skills without putting in the work.”

Amaryllis gave me a smile, which was quite effective at cutting through the glumness I’d felt at getting a loyalty bump just for offering to do my fair share. We didn’t really need to talk about it; I thought that it probably went back to that first night we’d spent together, when I’d blown off the night’s watch to go train up my skills. I knew that she saw me as someone who wasn’t really willing to put in the work, which I thought was somewhat fair; it was a similar line of thought to the one that Grak expressed, about me thinking that the world owed me something. I was happy to have changed her mind a little bit on that score, even if I wished that it hadn’t needed to be changed in the first place.

As far as the interpersonal side of things went, it was never as intense as on the first day. My primary method of operation was to try not to do things which, in a romantic comedy, would be obvious setups for said romance. That meant nothing that implicitly included physical contact, nothing otherwise intimate, very little discussion of our feelings (which would only have been retreading well-worn ground), and as rigidly platonic of a relationship as possible.

I kept thinking back to what Amaryllis had said about hating herself for feeling the way she did. That resonated with me; I hated myself for the fact that all those precautions seemed necessary. I really did love Fenn though, and whatever it took to keep our relationship strong, that was what I would do.

It made things awkward sometimes; Amaryllis reciprocated the aversion to touch, and sometimes it was obvious to both of us that this was something we were doing. We would reach for something on the table during mealtimes and both pull away before we made contact, like the other was made of lava. We didn’t really talk about it, even when it was awkward like that, which was how I preferred it; we knew where we stood.

I dreamt about Amaryllis from time to time. It always followed a similar theme, with the two of us someplace that wasn’t the suffocatingly small time chamber, and Amaryllis being aggressively seductive. She would say things like, ‘I was built to be everything that you ever wanted, do you want to see how much that covers?’ while touching me, and sometimes I would shrink back, or sometimes I would simply accept that this was happening to me, until I had to talk to Fenn and explain what had happened. I always woke up from those dreams feeling guilty and nauseous, like I had done something wrong.

I didn’t talk about the dreams with Amaryllis.

Amaryllis blitzed through acclimating to her newfound abilities far faster than Fenn had, becoming half the soul mage, bone mage, blood mage, et cetera that I was in a handful of days. She asked me all sorts of questions, most of which I wasn’t able to answer.

“This is amazing,” said Amaryllis. She sat in the lotus position on top of a pillow, having just come back out of a soul mage trance. “I wonder if I’d be able to surpass you.”

“I have no idea,” I said. “Not per the rules of the passive, but I don’t know how hard and fast those are. It’s also possible that you might be able to do more with what you have, which I wouldn’t be terribly surprised by. If skill level translates directly to skill, you couldn’t, but I’m fairly sure that it doesn’t. Some of the techniques I’ve learned have been as a consequence of hitting a new benchmark in that skill, but others have been unlocked by trying new things, or getting information from someone. Sanguine Surge was like that. All I had to do was adapt the technique from Crimson Fist into a jump.” I narrowed my eyes at her. “Don’t try anything too strenuous, and don’t mess with your own soul. Please.”

“I was going to try something,” said Amaryllis. She was almost pouting. “You need direct, physical contact in order to touch the soul of someone else, right? That’s all?”

“Yes …” I said slowly. “You,” I stopped, thinking that over. “You want to give Solace’s soul a peek?”

Amaryllis grinned and nodded. “How many women in the history of Aerb do you think have done that?”

“I mean … most of them wouldn’t have seen anything, right?” I asked. “Babies don’t know anything, I’d figure that embryos would basically be blanks. The bulk souls I’ve looked at have been, anyway.”

“I’m at thirteen weeks, she’s not an embryo, she’s a fetus,” said Amaryllis. “And yes, you’re right, most of the time I don’t think it would be terribly interesting, but it’s an exciting time to learn. Come to think of it, a pregnant soul mage might have been where we got the information that souls don’t appear until the sixth day. I’m not sure I ever questioned that.”

“Well,” I said. “That’s certainly the less horrifying version of how the Second Empire would have come to know that.” I still wasn’t comfortable with the mass production of souls that served as the primary source of power generation throughout Aerb. Instead of oil spills, there were accidents where thousands if not millions of embryonic souls ended up in the hells.

“Well, I’m going to try to find Solace and see what state she’s in, wish me luck,” said Amaryllis.

“Good luck,” I said. I watched as she closed her eyes again, and tried to continue on with my day. Touching the soul of another person had been quite difficult for me. It had taken hours before I’d been able to get in Grak’s to undo what Fallatehr had done to him, and I’d had twice the Essentialism that she was working with, though I’d also been working blind and hadn’t tried at every skill change. I also suspected that getting to Solace might be easier, considering the two of them were in some sense sharing a body.

(The numerical skills were composed of discrete parts, visible inside the soul as a complex sum of everything that fell under that skill, and up close, some tendrils leading off in other directions, which some investigation had shown led to either memories of using that skill, or places where two different skills worked together. There was a lot of room for two people with the same numerical value in a skill to have distinctly different applications of that skill, which in theory gave us some wiggle room for specialization, something that was high up my list of priorities given that both Amaryllis and Fenn had weak versions of the magics available to me.)

Personally, I was working on blood magic. I had already raised it as high as my stats would allow, but there were things that blood mages were supposed to be able to do, and I hadn’t really had the time to sit around trying to figure things out until stepping into the time chamber. Hemokinesis had always been one of my favorite abilities in tabletop games, and I’d made more than one villain from the concept (blood liches, blood zombies, blood portals, and blood bards). On Aerb, blood mages could pull blood from their bodies in order to form a weapon, which seemed like it would be a useful ability in certain circumstances, especially if I could apply all of my blade-bound bonuses to it.

Keeping my blood in my body was comparatively easier, since the blood seemed to ‘want’ to travel through my veins, rather than spurting out all over the place. I made a slit in my wrist, opening the ulnar artery, and tried to maintain the flow of blood while also bringing some of it out. I tried to imagine the flow of blood like a river whose course I was changing, so that it would dip outside my body. I got the loop of blood out two inches from my wrist before losing control of it and getting blood everywhere. I used a bone to close the wound, wiped myself off, then tried again.

An hour later, I’d gotten it up to six inches away while still keeping it steady, but hadn’t been able to trigger a skill message, nor really figure out how I was supposed to translate that into something like a spear. Perhaps more importantly, I also hadn’t gotten a game notification.

“Fuck,” said Amaryllis with a scowl, coming out of the lotus position and stretching her legs out. She looked at me, and the loop of blood that was flowing through the air above my wrist, along with all the blood on the floor and my clothes. “Are you alright?”

“Fine,” I said, bringing the loop back inside me, then closing up the wound with bone magic. “I’m getting somewhere, I think, if a bit slowly. I take it things aren’t going well? It took me a long time, you need some patience.”

“No, it’s not that,” said Amaryllis. “I got in, it’s just … she’s not all there. The thicket of memories is decimated, she’s threadbare on skills, and her values are a mess. There’s none of the conceptual specificity that I see in my own soul.”

“Maybe it takes time?” I asked.

“Or she’s lost a part of herself in the process, and will need to be raised as a child before she can be reunited with the locus,” said Amaryllis. She clenched her fists so hard her knuckles went white. “Shitfucker.” She closed her eyes. “I don’t want to be in here for years.”

“Hey, it’s okay,” I said. “We’ve got your back.”

Amaryllis opened her eyes. “I do appreciate the sentiment, but if we have to raise her, then someone is going to have to do it. If five years old is our benchmark, the point at which she’ll have a proper command of language and possibly be a capable druid, that means that we each need to spend more than a year in here. If I’m not part of the rotation, that would mean more of a burden for each of you. The co-use of the time chamber is already pushing how much can reasonably be asked of the group.”

“If we take turns,” I began, then stopped. “Ah, that doesn’t really work, does it? Grak spent a month in here, then he’s only going to be outside the chamber for a subjective few hours before having to come back in to ride out the rest of the pregnancy.” I sighed. “Right.”

“There’s no way to get a true break in, not without compromising our timetable,” said Amaryllis. She slammed a fist against the floor. “This is bullshit.”

“Could you see if the connection to the locus was still there?” I asked.

“I think so,” said Amaryllis. “I was actually going to see whether you’d allow me to look at your own soul, so that I have something to compare against. Right now I just have myself and her, and she’s highly atypical.”

“Ah,” I said. “That’s … I’m a little leery about anyone looking at my soul, after how things went down with Fallatehr.”

“You didn’t let Fenn?” asked Amaryllis, raising an eyebrow.

“She hasn’t worked on it, to my knowledge,” I said. “She went for blood and bone as soon as she got Symbiosis, then there was all that shit with Fallatehr, and I think maybe she didn’t want to go for Essentialism given how things shook out. I only really use it when it’s wholly necessary, which isn’t often; shifting points around, mostly.”

“Do you not trust me?” asked Amaryllis.

I sighed. “I do,” I said. “But it still makes me nervous. Doesn’t it make you nervous?”

“It does,” nodded Amaryllis. “I never really got a choice to say no, and the link doesn’t seem to go both ways.”

I held out my hand, and Amaryllis moved over to me, close enough to take it but far enough away that the gesture was as lacking in intimacy as possible. I could feel my heart start beating faster, partly from the first physical contact I’d had in a few days, and partly from the idea of her reaching into the core of my being.

It took some time. Our hands got sweaty, and I had to readjust so I wasn’t in such an awkward position. She kept her eyes closed throughout, which was the same as I’d done when I was practicing, since I was trying to block out outside stimuli and focus on the extrasensory perception of the soul.

Eventually I got bored, and picked up a book that was close enough to grab; Amaryllis had been reading through Earth books, and I had set myself to reading through Aerbian books. The book was The Exclusionary Principle, Seventh Edition, which had a number of bookmarks in it. Amaryllis had apparently discovered office supplies from Earth in her first few months in the chamber, and used them extensively, using highlighters and sticky notes with wild abandon. The timeline at the back of the book had been well-marked, and there was a piece of folded paper between the last page and the back cover that cross-referenced the exclusion zones with the information I’d transcribed from my soul.

The cat came into existence roughly a minute after I started reading, as they always did. This one was black with a patch of white at his throat and earthy green eyes, slender and young. When he appeared, he was standing on the pages, but he laid down almost immediately, until I picked him up with my one free hand and laid him in my lap, which seemed a suitable compromise to him. As I read, he would occasionally stick a leg out to idly bat at the pages, just to let me know that he was still there.

The so-called exclusions came in three basic forms, all geographically restricted. The normal exclusions were like the one that covered the Risen Lands, where some kind of magic (or physics) had proven itself broken and been locked off from the rest of the world by some unknown force or entity (through the book, it was simply called ‘the exclusionary principle’, as a way of dodging the question about what was actually happening behind the scenes). Enpersoned exclusion zones were slightly different, as the magic was locked to a single person in addition to the region locking, and entad exclusions were that, but for a magic item rather than a person.

(I was suspicious that the house was part of an exclusion, given its power and the fact that it hadn’t decided to go somewhere else, but I didn’t have enough information to say one way or another. It was something I’d have to ask when I got out.)

If we went to the Glassy Fields exclusion zone, it was entirely possible that I would be able to learn Glass Magic, but it would only work there, and the whole of the exclusion zone was covered in degenerate glass magic, in much the same way that the Risen Lands were consumed with a degenerate, out-of-control application of the necrotic field effect, and the Datura was completely devoid of life, hounded by the thaum-seekers.

The cross-reference of the exclusion zones listed in The Exclusionary Principle with the list as partly divined from the information in my soul showed that there were quite a few more exclusions than anyone knew of. Ice magic wasn’t a lost art, it had been excluded, and the place that it had been excluded to was a mystery. By Amaryllis’ reckoning, we had the answers to a number of enduring historical mysteries … many of them dating back to Uther Penndraig’s day.

My germ of a theory was that Uther had been the cause of most of the exclusions. Because the historical record of exclusions lined up with the numbering of exclusions as written on my soul, it was easy enough to make some guesses in that direction. Ice Magic was “Deprecated, Exclusion #16”, and that meant that it must have chronologically happened after the so-called ‘Invasion of the Ice Wizards’, which had concluded by 4 FE. I wasn’t entirely sure that Uther had been responsible for that, but his historians had written about him climbing the Glacial Minaret to face down the ruling council of wizards, and after he’d defeated them, Ice Magic had become a lost art. Maybe he wasn’t responsible, but he was certainly implicated.

Beyond that, some of the exclusions as listed on my soul seemed like they would only ever apply to someone like me. What would it even mean for a regular citizen of Aerb to have a Custom skill, or to have a Gestalt of two skills? I’d looked at the souls of people outside our group, and when I did, I had to use my own soul as a guide, because they didn’t have things so neatly ordered, divided up into numbered and labeled chunks. And at the same time, some of the exclusion zones must have logically been instigated by people who weren’t, for lack of a better term, player characters. Doris Finch didn’t fit into the same mold that Uther and I did, nor did Fel Seed, or Manifest.

My best guess was that on the game level, exclusion zones were one part worldbuilding (a place where bad things were, with lootable treasure and some kind of hazards, and a logical reason that whatever serious threat was in them hadn’t escaped to eat the world) and one part anti-munchkinry (a way to stop things from spiraling out of control if there was a flaw or exploit). On a practical, in-world level, exclusion zones were an act of Dungeon Master, the most visible thing that implicated a higher power than the five gods everyone knew and, debatably, loved.

(Amaryllis’ own analysis was much more practical. She had a defined list of which exclusion zones we might be able to exploit, plans of attack for each of the Thirteen Horrors (though there were a lot of question marks there), and written in bold, underlined three times, a big warning that we should never do anything that risked one of us becoming an enpersoned exclusion zone, along with all her thoughts on how to make sure that never happened. I wasn’t too worried about that though, given that it had never happened to Uther.)

Amaryllis pulled back from me slowly, letting her hand rest in her lap.

“Did you have fun?” I asked, closing the book. As I did, the cat disappeared from my lap, and the warm spot suddenly felt cold.

A faint frown of concentration crossed Amaryllis’ face. “Can you tell me about Tiff?”

“What would you like to know?” I asked. I felt a faint unease at the question. “According to Fenn, I talk about my Earth friends too much. I sort of thought you agreed.”

“If I have my timeline right, you ended your courtship with her nine months before coming to Aerb?” asked Amaryllis. “I was wondering what makes her so important to you.” She cleared her throat. “You don’t speak about her in the same way you speak about Arthur. There’s warmth toward both, but no reverence toward her. And yet …”

And yet, she was higher up on the rankings, according to my soul.

“I don’t actually trust what the soul has to say,” I said. “I think it’s more complicated than just a strict set of numbers. Tiff … she left her mark on me, I guess. Arthur did too, I don’t mean to say that he didn’t, but she was … there was a period where all I was doing was thinking about her. I was obsessed with her, and she was obsessed with me, and … I have this idea about brains, and how they work, which is that you can wear patterns into them if you think about the same things often enough, or with enough intensity, and I definitely did that with Tiff. When we broke up — when we, I guess, drifted apart, it was this second loss coming on the heels of the first one, which … I’m going to sound like an absolute fuck, but maybe it hit me harder? Not because I cared about her more,” though I did, maybe, considering that I was sneaking around with her behind Arthur’s back, and if you’d asked me the day before his accident, maybe, I don’t know, I would have definitively chosen her, “But it was all my fault, what happened between us, even if it didn’t entirely feel like it at the time.”

I could feel myself on the verge of tears, and wiped at my eyes. They were old wounds, but there still wasn’t as much scar tissue over them as I’d have hoped.

“I still don’t understand,” said Amaryllis. “You keep pushing for us to go for Arthur, you don’t want to return to Earth, it’s … I do want to understand you, even if we’re just going to be friends, and I think this is one of the pieces I might be missing.”

Even if we’re just going to be friends. I wondered why she’d chosen to say that, or whether it had been conscious on her part. “I don’t know,” I said. “The thought of returning to Earth to see her just leaves me hollow, because even if we could reconcile, we’d never get back what we had, I screwed things up too badly for that, it would be like a sequel that no one asked for, trying to recapture the magic of the original.” I wasn’t sure that would parse for her, but it was what made the most sense in my head. “But with Arthur …” I trailed off, as my mind involuntarily drew the parallels. “Fuck.”

“It’s not going to be the same,” said Amaryllis, finishing my thought. “He won’t be the same person.”

“I still need to find him,” I said. “Maybe even more, if he was … if he changed. Do you understand that?”

“I do,” replied Amaryllis. She folded her hands in her lap. “You know that if she was more important to you, no one would blame you for that?” asked Amaryllis. “I wouldn’t judge you for having your first love matter more than a friend. Fenn wouldn’t either.”

I felt a chill go through me at the thought of saying, out loud, that I’d cared more about Tiff than Arthur. “I know,” I said. “It’s just not … true, I don’t think.” Even admitting that I didn’t think it was true, leaving open the possibility it was, felt like a stab to the gut. “I’m devoting myself to bringing him back to life, aren’t I? What more does anyone expect of me?” I could feel my voice catching slightly. “Am I supposed to feel constantly guilty about enjoying myself sometimes? Should I have just stayed in a depressed fog forever?” My cheeks were growing warm. Amaryllis’ face was placid, and I knew her well enough to see that she was controlling her emotions. “I was a good friend to him.”

“I know,” said Amaryllis. “I wasn’t saying that you weren’t.”

“Okay,” I said. “Can we just … talk about something else?” I pointed down to the book in my lap. “You made a lot of notes, was there anything in particular you wanted to draw my attention to?”

“Sure,” said Amaryllis, taking the book from me. “If you see here, I’ve marked down all of the potential possibilities for exploitation,” she said. When the cat appeared, her hand was already moving toward it, and she absentmindedly pulled it from the pages and brought it to sit in her lap. It was the same cat, black with a patch of white; each book was associated with its own unique cat, the same every time. “You can’t take magic out of the zones, to the best of our current knowledge, but you could potentially use them as manufacturing bases, importing raw goods and exporting finished products made with that specific magic. That’s mostly banned by imperial law though, with a few exceptions, and imperial law might be something we finally start paying attention to in the near future.”

We talked about that, for a time, and I eventually began to cool off, the throbbing anger and nausea eventually fading into the background as we focused on the problem at hand. We had sandwiches for lunch, which were my contribution to cooking, piled high with a variety of deli meats, cheeses, and vegetables, which was how my dad used to make them. Amaryllis made me heat up her meat in a pan before putting it on the sandwich, because of something called listeria. It seemed a little bit overly cautious to me, but I did as she said rather than be subjected to a lecture on the intricacies of maternal health.

Conversation at mealtimes was usually focused on something other than plots, plans, and training, though we often circled back. Amaryllis talked a bit about horticulture, and the seeds that we could get from the backpack, some of which would allow us to grow plants that weren’t native to Aerb. I was a little worried about introducing invasive species, which led to me talking about one of my favorite tabletop adventures, in which plants harvested from a forgotten dungeon and sold by the party on a different plane served as the seed for an adventure as the plants grew out of control in their new home.

“So,” said Amaryllis toward the end of the meal, during a lull in conversation. “How long do you think it will take you to get over Tiff?”

I stopped chewing and looked at her. A few things occurred to me at once: first, that she had waited until now to ask that question, when she’d have the easy out of moving to alone time, second, that she had probably been thinking about that question for awhile, and third, that her interest in the question wasn’t really about me, it was about her. How long will it take me to get over you?

“I don’t know,” I said, once I’d finished chewing and swallowing my food. I felt like an idiot for not seeing the parallel before. “Maybe she’ll always hold a place in my heart. That doesn’t mean that I can’t move on, it just means that there’s some baggage for any new relationship.”

“Okay,” said Amaryllis, tone light and casual, “Just curious.”

Looking back, that might have been when she’d started making plans.

On the morning of our eleventh day together, Amaryllis was in an unusually chipper mood. She’d elected to make a full English breakfast, which she’d apparently read about somewhere. Cooking it was a challenging task given the size of the kitchen and lack of hot surfaces. It was my first time having blood sausage; I wasn’t particularly a fan.

“Any cause for the good mood?” I asked, when her slight smile hadn’t seemed to abate.

Amaryllis hesitated for a moment, chewed some bacon, and smiled at me. “Will you promise to be calm and relaxed about it?” she asked.

“Um,” I said. “I can’t really imagine what you’d have done while we were trapped in a small room together that you would need that kind of assurance from me.” I swallowed. “Have you seen Pulp Fiction yet?”

“It’s on the list, I haven’t gotten to it,” said Amaryllis. “Maybe we can watch it tonight.”

“Anyway, maybe my natural reaction is going to be that I’m not calm and relaxed,” I said. “I can promise to try, but we’re not one hundred percent in control of our own emotions.”

Amaryllis gave a small cough. “About that,” she said. “I’ve been spending some of my discretionary time looking at my own soul, I’m sure you’ve noticed that.” I had; unless you were trying to hide it, the soul trance was pretty obvious.

I froze in place. “What did you do?”

Amaryllis pursed her lips. “I’m over you,” she said.

“What … you went into your own soul and changed … what exactly?” I asked.

“You said that you would try to be calm,” said Amaryllis.

“Yeah,” I said. “Sorry.” I took a breath. “Monkeying around with your soul like that seems really ill-advised, and more than that,” I paused. “It’s a violation of self.”

Amaryllis seemed to consider that. “I disagree,” she said. “Self-modification is an inviolable right. I used a tool that was available to me to fix a problem that I had. It’s not natural, but the natural way — who knows how long that would have taken?”

“Tell me, specifically, what you did,” I said. I could feel my blood running cold.

“It took a deep dive into the social aspect of the soul, but I was eventually able to find the lever for romantic and sexual attraction. All I did was reduce them both down to nothing. I’m fairly sure that it’s confined just to you, and it’s entirely reversible.” She gave me a gentle smile. “Joon, you don’t have any idea how good it feels. It’s like a pressure that’s been lifted off me.” She hesitated slightly. “I know that to some extent you reciprocated. I think I can help show you where to make the change, if you — if this doesn’t help alleviate things on your end.”

“But it … it was part of you,” I said. “You can’t just — the soul snaps back, it trends toward being what it was, to permanently accomplish what you want to do –”

“You told me that you dial down the Level Up attribute every morning,” said Amaryllis. “A temporary solution that you can keep reapplying without significant cost is, de facto, a permanent solution.” She pursed her lips. “I hadn’t really known how you’d react, but I didn’t think you’d take it this poorly. I thought you would be upset about the risk inherent in making changes, but,” she stopped. “You know that I’ve been looking at Earth pharmaceuticals, right?” asked Amaryllis. “The production processes are ridiculously beyond what we can do, but there’s a huge wealth of information for me to mine, and with the lack of regulatory frameworks for such things throughout the empire, we could make an absolute killing. So I’ve done my reading, and I know what it’s like on Earth. There are pills for all types of mood control and emotional correction. Postpartum depression is a known condition on Aerb, we call it maternal neurosis, but our treatments are decades behind yours.” She crossed her arms. “Would you feel the same way about me taking fluoxetine or sertraline, if I ended up with postpartum depression?”

“You came prepared,” I said. I tried not to sound accusatory. “Give me a second to think.”

“I’m done with breakfast,” said Amaryllis. “I do have things that I need to do.”

“I don’t want to let this lie,” I said.

“It might be better if you’ve had some time to think and reflect,” said Amaryllis. “You’re right that I came to the conversation prepared. I thought about what you might say, while I was working on fixing myself, and after, when I was waiting to broach the subject. If your reaction is an emotional one … I don’t want you to take this the wrong way, or think that I’d think less of you, but if you wanted me to be in love with you, if you wanted perpetually unrequited love, and that’s the source of your objection, then you have to realize that you don’t have a leg to stand on.”

I swallowed and nodded. I still had a bit of my breakfast left to go, but I’d lost my appetite. Amaryllis moved over to her desk and began looking through some books, leaving me to clean up.

Later that night, after a day spent avoiding each other as much as possible in a four hundred square foot room, we continued our conversation over a dinner of roasted rabbit and peas. Amaryllis was a far better cook than I was, which was usually reflected in her choice of meal. After I’d taken to doing my share of the cooking, she’d stepped it up a bit, though I wasn’t sure whether that was because she had something to prove, or because she had more time for involved meals.

“Okay,” I said. “I think I know what my objection is, besides the selfish one of wanting you to want me, which, if I’m being honest, applies to some extent.” It stung a little bit to say that out loud, but I thought she would take it in the spirit of honesty in which it was intended. I wasn’t sure that I would have revealed the same to Fenn.

Amaryllis nodded. “I wanted you to want me too,” said Amaryllis. “I’m trying to keep that in mind, because right now it feels like idiocy or lunacy or both.”

“I’m not going to say that it’s logical,” I said. “Actually, I’ll go so far as to say that it’s blatantly illogical to want to have a difficult interpersonal problem in your life, but it’s still a bit how I feel.”

“Because there’s a part of you that wants me, despite your relationship with Fenn,” said Amaryllis. “And that’s despite the fact that I no longer have a shred of interest in you in that way.”

“You don’t have to be mean about it,” I replied. I crossed my arms, then felt like it was too defensive of a gesture and uncrossed them. I silently wondered whether there was ever going to be a time in my life when I didn’t have those awkward moments.

“I’m sorry,” said Amaryllis. “It’s just … perhaps I should change myself back to the way I was and we can continue this conversation. I might be able to better articulate my decision as it felt when I made it. I can assure you that the choice will be the same either way.”

“Okay,” I said. “I think I would prefer it.”

It took her fifteen minutes, and her rabbit grew cold while I waited. I finished my meal, eating quickly, as I tried to prepare the argument that I was going to use. From what we’d been able to figure out, the Debate skill was mostly catered toward structured debates, two sides that had rigorously prepared for an argument with facts and figures assembled and ready to deploy. That was based mostly on the abilities that it was keyed to (KNO primary, CHA secondary) and some comparative analysis of how fast it leveled up when I was trying different methods to grind it. I wished that I had some facts and figures on hand to persuade her, but even if I’d pulled from an Earth book, I didn’t think I’d find anything to back me up.

“Done,” said Amaryllis. She let out a breath that was just short of a sigh and looked down at her cold food, which she began to pick at.

I sat in silence and watched her, waiting for her to speak her piece. I could only vaguely remember where we’d left off; I’d had enough time for my mind to wander.

“I had a very specific fantasy,” said Amaryllis. “I would turn out the lights, and then you would slip into bed with me, and I would ask you what you thought you were doing, and then you would say that — that you’d made a mistake, that you should have chosen me. And I would protest, but I’d still be enjoying the feeling of your body pressed against mine, our faces just inches apart, smelling you — did you know that I like the way you smell?”

“No,” I said softly.

“It didn’t start as a fantasy, it started with me thinking about what I would do if you tried something like that, and somehow it got away from me,” said Amaryllis.

I refrained from telling her that I’d had the exact same experience. At the back of my mind, I could recognize something amusing about two people worrying that they wouldn’t be strong enough to resist the other, and both having a fantasy that the other would come to them. It wasn’t actually all that funny though.

“I’ve convinced myself that I probably like kissing,” said Amaryllis. “In my fantasy, that’s as far as it goes, just the sensation of your hands on my body, and your lips on mine, as we share this bond together, temporarily forgetting that there are any barriers to separate us.” She frowned. “And sex, I imagined that you would be slow and patient, gentle and yielding, and somehow you would awaken something in me, and I would be fixed.”

“That’s not how it works,” I said. “That’s … a male fantasy.”

“But it might be true for me, if I was meant for you,” said Amaryllis. She was staring at me with her piercing blue eyes, as though she wanted to believe that what she was saying was true. It made me uncomfortable, in the same way that Fenn giving me free rein over her soul had made me uncomfortable. I wanted Amaryllis to be her own person; it was one of the primary things that I liked about her.

I couldn’t even say, ‘no, surely you wouldn’t be an exception to the general rule’, because our existence was so strange you had to accept things like that as a possibility. And if she was meant for me, then surely I was also meant for her? And couldn’t we be keyed to each other? Was it so ludicrous to think that I was literally the only person in existence who could make her horny or bring her to orgasm, when there were godlike powers in play that might have been twisted enough to make that true?

“It’s awful,” said Amaryllis. She closed her eyes. “These feelings, getting in the way of work being done, getting distracted by being in the same room as you, not being able to sleep without the spell because otherwise I’ll be up all night tossing and turning.” She opened her eyes and looked at me. “It might be one thing, if we could reciprocate, but we can’t.”

“Yeah,” I said. “We really wouldn’t be good together.”

“That’s horseshit,” said Amaryllis. “We have our points of friction, I know that, but even in the short time we’ve known each other, we’ve come away better for it. We would complement each other, help each other, talk and listen. The only reason either of us ever pretended that it wouldn’t work out between us is that it would be easier if that were true. We would make an amazing couple. And if you weren’t able to fix me, if my flesh was still unwilling, I’m pretty sure that I can reach into my soul and fix myself that way, until I wanted it as much as you did.”

“Amaryllis,” I began, but I didn’t know what to say. I wasn’t sure that she was right about what a hypothetical relationship between us would look like. I was starting to get the impression that she felt more strongly about me than I felt about her, which was a little bit heart-breaking. There was that part of me that awoke at the sight of a pretty girl in distress, and it was telling me that it was entirely within my power to make all of her heartache go away — but I wasn’t about to let thoughts like those get the better of me.

“Alright,” I said. “If you want the strongest argument I think I have at the moment, then whatever you feel for me is an expression of yourself, it’s part of who you are. Something like postpartum depression isn’t, that’s just hormones swamping you, or the chemicals in your brain misbehaving, and I know that’s a matter of definition, but … you can’t just go modifying essential parts of you like that, changing things at the core of your being.”

Amaryllis’ face fell, then turned to something like disgust. “Juniper, you’re one of my closest — my only friends, but whatever there is between us, it’s not essential. I elect not to let it define me.” She closed her eyes, and had the slack face of someone in a soul trance just a few seconds later.

I got up from the table and climbed up to the top bunk, where I made my bed. I felt like I should have seen this coming. The Dungeon Master had said as much to me about going in to change Amaryllis’ soul. At the time, I hadn’t paid it much thought, just more needling me by presenting a solution he knew I wouldn’t go for, but in retrospect, maybe it was a hint of things to come. I wondered how far in advance I could have made the prediction, if I were smarter — if the game wasn’t limiting me from reaching my true potential because it wanted me to have more or less the same personality.

I spent some time thinking, and being angry at a variety of people, including myself, until eventually sitting in my bed alone became so boring that I pulled back the curtain and climbed back down.

Amaryllis had put the table and chairs away, and gotten the couch ready for movie time. She was sitting with her hands on her knees, staring at the wall where the movie would play.

“I wasn’t sure that you would be joining me,” said Amaryllis. “I greatly prefer watching movies with you to watching them alone.”

“Because I’m good company, or because I can help to explain things?” I asked.

“Both,” said Amaryllis. “It’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail tonight.”

“Oh, neat,” I said. “I think I’ll become about three percent more intelligible after you’ve seen it.”

“I was in the mood for something light,” said Amaryllis. “Does this fit the bill?”

“Uh, sure,” I said. “There’s a fair amount of death and mayhem, but it’s played for laughs. I think you’ll like it.” I sat down to join her on the couch. I was aware that she was an alien person now, with something removed from her, and from our relationship, but she was making an effort to be friends, and if I wasn’t going to change her mind about how she should be treating her soul, then I would follow her lead.

Amaryllis stuck out her hand. “Friends?” she asked.

“Friends,” I replied, shaking her hand and trying not to think too hard about what she’d done.

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Worth the Candle, Ch 94: Grayscale

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