The last sliver of the sun tinted the sky blush pink and the water the deep purple of wine. Linza and Grun walked along the strip of wet sand at the edge of the lapping waves.
Walking felt nice. She could breathe, at least.
They chatted about the weather. Linza recounted the story of the one and only time she’d attended a JSMI beach party. Grun shared that his mother was an orc general, his father a human librarian. His father had raised him after his mother returned to the orcish tribe lands.
Grun confessed to being a natural challenger, competitive from even a very young age, but nowadays he put that energy towards helping others where he could.
“That’s really lovely,” she said.
“Now, you, on the other hand.” He poked her upper arm. “You do way too much for other people.”
“It’s fine! I enjoy it.” And wasn’t it appreciated? Needed, even?
“You need to stick up for yourself more.”
Linza folded her arms. “I don’t like you telling me what to do.”
“Yes! Exactly!” He clapped her heartily on the back.
Linza stumbled forward. After she caught her balance, she turned and lunged at him. She may as well have shoved a brick wall.
“Whatever,” Linza grumbled, even as a genuine smile tugged at her lips.
They eventually turned around and headed back towards the estate. Linza wasn’t any closer to figuring out what she was going to do, but at least she didn’t feel queasy anymore.
Her relief was short-lived. As they stepped up the boardwalk towards the estate, Tanyth strolled down the other end. When they saw Linza and Grun, their eyes widened and they bolted like a startled cat.
Linza may have been able to play it off if she hadn’t frozen in place.
Grun’s eyes flicked from Tanyth down to her, but she couldn’t bear to look at him. A sudden chill gripped her spine, and she wrapped her arms tightly around herself.
Shit. This was exactly why she wanted to hide from both of them until she figured this out.
Grun said, tone measured, “Does your personal issue have anything to do with Tanyth?”
Linza nodded. Her attempts at controlling the situation had gone terribly. She may as well be honest and let them both conclude that she wasn’t worth the trouble.
“It’s… probably best for all involved if you tell me what’s going on,” Grun said.
There was a subtle edge of irritation in his voice.
Whatever anger he had for her, she deserved it. “Tanyth trained me when I first got here, like they did you. We got close and… I thought I… well you know how it can get and… I was fond of them. I thought they didn’t reciprocate. They just told me this afternoon that… that they did, the whole time. And you and I, we seem to be— I mean, I’m enjoying—”
Anxiety gripped her throat, choking any further attempt to explain.
Grun’s posture was tense, his fingers in his beard. “Well,” he said. “What do you want?”
“I don’t want to hurt either of you,” Linza breathed. “I don’t want to hurt anyone.”
He shuffled, as if stifling a stronger reaction, then said, “No, what do you want?”
“That’s the truth! I don’t know. It’s confusing.”
“If it’s confusing, then isn’t it clear?”
Grun frowned, searching for words. “I just mean… if you’re not sure, then doesn’t that mean you don’t want it?”
Linza’s chest ached. “No, I… Grun, I’m just not a sure person. Every decision in my life, all the best ones I’ve ever made, I doubted a hundred times. Moving away from home, going to JSMI, taking the job here, g-going to dinner with…” Linza mustered up the courage to look at Grun, but the rest of her words caught in the lump in her throat.
He took a breath to say something, then paused.
She could see the thoughts run by under his furrowed brow, hastily sorted. She was sure that a younger Grun would have blurted something that would have destroyed her. But this Grun took the extra moment. Finally, he grunted. “I… feel very differently, of course. I’m very sure I like you. I’m very sure I’d like to be with you. I’m very sure that I only want to be with you if you’re very sure you want to be with me.”
Linza treaded water in her mind just to stay above a spiral of anxiety. But she managed. “That’s very reasonable.”
“So, what does that mean?”
“I think it means… that… I’ll need some… time.”
“Time to decide if you like Tanyth better?” Grun said.
Grun’s shoulders dropped an inch, and his face softened. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”
Linza chewed on her lip. “No, it’s fair… but it’s not that. I need time to see if… if I’m even a functional enough person to… I don’t think I deserve nearly this level of… I have some stuff to work through, I guess.”
Grun hesitated, then said carefully, “However much space you need, I respect that. But let me say this. You’re clever and bright and talented and gorgeous and sexy, and it makes me so mad that anybody would think otherwise, including yourself. And if Tanyth can’t tell you that straight up, then do they deserve you?”
Linza could hardly let herself hear Grun’s words, lest she burst into tears. Though would that really be so bad? To have Grun’s warmth around her, to lean into his chest… Linza wanted that, wanted to unravel, but she remained frozen.
Grun offered her a soft, wry smile and a hand on her shoulder. “Looking forward to your answer. Find me when you’re ready, but I’ll respect your space otherwise.” Then he turned and walked up the boardwalk to the estate.
Linza turned back towards the ocean, stumbled towards the fringes of the waves, and collapsed into the sand, shaking. Her thoughts had turned into a riptide, pulling her under.
He was right. Of course he was. She should know what she wanted. She should expect herself to be treated better. She didn’t deserve him.
But then he’d spoken exactly to that. He’d seen her, he’d called her out on it. And he hadn’t shamed her. He’d just told her she was wrong. Matter-of-fact.
His words were a life preserver, and though she bobbed under the waters of her self-doubt, she re-surfaced.
And then there was Tanyth. Tanyth didn’t break her mind in this way. She and they were more similar. Dancing around the issue. Afraid to speak to it outright. Sensitive, softer.
If Grun was the heat of the sun, brilliant and intense, then Tanyth was the comfort of the shade, the dappled patterns of light that swayed and mesmerized.
Where Tanyth was variety, whimsy, exploration, energy, Grun was a bold, straight line, surging unstoppably towards his goal.
She loved them both.
She wished that they loved each other and not her. Then, she wouldn’t have to lose one or both friends.
And yet, Grun had spoken to that, too. Did she care so little for her own happiness that she could only find it second hand?
What did she even want out of a relationship? What did it even mean to her?
Would it be like with Wyn? Burn bright and hot, but then dim to the comforting heat of friendship? Or go out entirely?
Or could one of them be the perfect gem, which could hold the light forever without fading?