Part 5: Triangle, The Alchemist's Illusions

Chapter 46: Proposition

Linza had requested to borrow the madame’s private area of the veranda, the same place that she had first met Grun, and the madame had obliged with a knowing smile.

Linza had arrived a bit early, wanting to be sure to be there first, and also too nervous to do much of anything else.

The sun-warmed breezes of the ocean rippled over the veranda and through her hair. That was much of why she’d wanted to do it here. The sun and the ocean lent her their expansive calm.

Had the day been stormy, she would have taken it as an omen and called off the whole thing. She still found herself ever so slightly wishing that a sudden squall might overtake the blueness of the sky and release her from what she was about to do. 

But just as the estate had no such rule against staff relationships, the sky did no such thing.

Tanyth arrived first. They wore a violet suit, their hair braided down and around one shoulder, strands loosed from the edges to frame their face. Linza suspected they had tapped into their masculine energies for assertiveness.

They looked more cheerful than Linza had expected, which either meant that they had not inferred her true purpose or that they had become much better at lying.

“Linza!” they said as they waved. They came to sit across from her, leaning back in their chair and looking unbothered. “I’ve missed you, this past week.”

“I had a lot of thinking to do,” she said.

“Did you reach any conclusions?” Their facade wavered. Despite their best efforts, they looked very interested in her response.

She hesitated, hoping that at least one element of the day’s timing would work in her favor. 

It did. Tanyth turned towards the sound of the door opening and to the sight of Grun ducking under the doorway, which did not admit his full height. He wore tailored trousers and no shirt, his hair caught up in a bun.

They looked at each other.

Then they looked at Linza.

Linza waved Grun over to sit down.

Tanyth’s facade slipped another inch, and they looked concerned. “I didn’t realize this was…”

Grun grinned smugly and folded his arms as he sat. He dwarfed the little chair, just like he dwarfed Tanyth. “I daresay that’s the point.”

“You know what’s happening?” Tanyth said.

“I reckon we are about to hear a verdict,” Grun said.

“A verdict? What about?”

“Well, she can’t very well tell us if you’re prattling, can she?” Grun met Linza’s eyes. It was a challenge. She held his gaze.

Tanyth glanced nervously between them.

Linza took a deep breath. She was regretting her decision to be sober for this. “What’s happening is… you’re on a date.”

“A date?!” Tanyth said. “Is someone— doesn’t that mean that someone—”

Grun still looked at her with his even eyes, his slight smile. He seemed to already understand.

“All three of us,” Linza said, trying to keep her voice steady.

“Like a competition?” Tanyth squeaked.

Grun laughed. “If it were a competition, you wouldn’t be here at all, little bird.”

Linza was nearly offended on Tanyth’s behalf, but Tanyth just looked startled. They were all request and no command. In any contest, Grun would dominate, it was true.

And that was the exact thing that Linza had been struggling with. If she put forward an ultimatum to the two of them, she knew that no matter what she asked, no matter what she clarified, Grun by his nature would seize the prize. Tanyth, by their nature, would defer.

It would be an experiment that undermined its goal by its very design.

Her primary mistake had been looking to a competitive evaluation for answers.

Linza cleared her throat. 

They both looked at her.

“We, all three of us, are here to go on a date with each other. To see… if we all get along. Together. The three of us.”

Grun’s grin deepened.

Tanyth pressed their fingers to their lips. “I’m still not quite sure I…”

Grun reached over and cupped Tanyth’s cheek in his hand. Tanyth’s hand fell to the table and their eyes turned fully up into Grun’s.

“I believe,” Grun said, “that the lady is asking if we can get along. Do you think we can get along?”

Tanyth nodded emphatically.

Grun leaned down and kissed them tenderly. They melted into his embrace.

Linza’s heart raced. This was all going so very much faster than she had expected. Was Grun mocking her? Yet, would she really have invited him here if she thought he would?

He broke the kiss after a moment, and Tanyth hung upon him.

He looked to Linza. “Now, I am sure you are making some very scientific observations,” Grun said.

Linza nodded.

“How do you feel? Jealous? Excited?”

“Yes,” she breathed.

“Hm, that means the experiment must continue.”

“Does the experiment continuing mean you’re going to kiss me again?” Tanyth said.

“Only if you want me to,” Grun said.

Tanyth threw their arms around Grun’s neck and pulled themselves up into him.

Grun caught their waist and pulled them close.

Linza was feeling very good about her decision to ask to borrow the private veranda.

Grun had been right that she was too quick to defer to another’s happiness. But what had halted her every attempt to follow his advice was that, in the end, there was not so crisp a line between others’ happiness and her own. She was right to cut out abuse from her life, and she would do better at it.

But she was also right to take Grun’s words and find her own way.

Because holy shit was this turning her on.

Tanyth was floating, basking in the glow of attentions finally requited.

Grun was hungry yet tender, his erection already throbbing under his trousers. Whether he did it for her enjoyment or Tanyth’s or for theirs both, Linza did not quite know or care. All her cares evaporated in the growing heat between the three of them.

It was Tanyth who broke the kiss next. They cupped Grun’s cheeks in their small hands and smoothed the edges of his beard. “This is… just yes… but I have to…”

They had the demeanor of a drunk needing a stop in the wash room, especially as they extricated themselves from Grun’s arms and stumbled onto the veranda. But then they threw themselves into Linza’s arms and pressed their lips against hers. 

Linza’s butterflies exploded into flight. It was the sudden vent of wants left unsaid, the snapping of a leash and the rush of freedom.

To want, to crave, to hold, to heal.

Her selfish wish was that a selfless affection could flow between the three of them.

Grun came up around behind her, kissing her hair, her cheek. His lips on her neck, her shoulder.

Her wish came true.

Tanyth tucked their cheek against hers and she nestled into their neck, kissing them there.

“W-where there any s-stipulations on the use of the veranda?” Tanyth asked.

Grun’s hands found Linza’s breasts as his tongue traced the curve from the tip of her shoulder to her temple.

Linza moaned. “We have it for the hour.”

“Always so prepared,” Grun said, tipping her head back with his hand and kissing her again.

Tanyth stood and hastily kicked off their trousers, nearly tripping as they did.

Linza giggled through the kiss, and Grun pressed into her even more fiercely.

His hand pressed between her legs, and she moaned.

Tanyth’s hands found their shaft as they considered their options.

Linza wiggled and Grun leaned back, allowing her to strip her shirt off over her head and unbutton her skirt.

Grun’s trousers were struggling to contain his massive erection. He unbuttoned them and sighed with relief as he freed his member to Linza’s eager affections.

She could fit little more than the head of his shaft in her mouth, though Grun didn’t seem to mind her limits. He groaned happily and his knees shook.

Tanyth came to sit next to her, their hands finding Grun’s balls. “Do you want him inside of you as bad as I do?” Tanyth said.

“Most definitely,” Linza sighed. “But that’s going to take a lot longer than we have here.”

“When in doubt, cock worship?” Tanyth offered.

Linza leaned over and pecked them on the cheek. “You read my mind.”

Any of Grun’s previous machismo vanished as Linza and Tanyth lavished attentions upon him. He quivered and groaned—he gasped and his eyes pleaded.

He eventually ended up back in his chair, Linza and Tanyth kneeling between his legs.

They took turns between his shaft and balls, stroking and licking and moaning.

He shifted, rocking his hips towards them.

Linza broke from his tip for a moment. “Just so you know, he likes a rim job.”

Tanyth’s eyes lit up. They brought their attentions lower. “Ooooh, you took a bath right before this, didn’t you?”

“Y-yeah,” Grun said, “Never hurts to be… nnnngh… prepared…”

Tanyth brought their tongue enthusiastically to Grun’s perineum, licking eagerly.

Linza worked his shaft with both hands and stroked the underside of his head with the flat of her tongue. Already she was treated with another sweet drop of pre-cum.

Tanyth dropped a half an inch lower, and Grun’s voice caught.

Then Tanyth dropped a little lower, and Grun’s moans deepened, his whole body quivering with anticipation.

His shaft throbbed, his pleasure gifting Linza with more pre-cum.

Tanyth dropped a little bit lower.

“F-fuck! T-Tanyth I’m so close… if you get any closer than I’m really gonna… huh…”

Tanyth took that as an invitation to apply their enthusiastic oral attentions directly to Grun’s rim.

Grun’s back arched, he bellowed a moan, and his balls tensed at his base as he catapulted into climax.

Linza swallowed him greedily, the stroking of her tongue pulling even more out of him.

Both she and Tanyth knew how to read him, and they both eased just as pleasure turned to sensitivity.

Grun heaved a full-body sigh and looked up at them, but he seemed more enthused than sated. “Alright, who’s next?”

“Linza, of course!” Tanyth said.

Linza shook her head. “Nope. Tanyth.” She grinned a little wickedly. “I want to see how quickly you can make them pop.”

Grun sat up and dipped his head at Linza. “As you wish.”

Tanyth flushed red, and they trembled with anticipation, their own erection throbbing. “It’s only fair, I couldn’t impose, I—”

Grun dropped to his knees and stood Tanyth up in front of him, then took Tanyth’s entire length into his mouth.

Tanyth’s protests melted into a moan of abject pleasure.

With a practiced rhythm and genuine desire to please, Grun worked over Tanyth’s length.

“F-fuck… this feels like… like fucking it feels… nnngh so gooood…”

Grun tilted his head to wink at Linza.

Her own heart fluttered out of her chest. She dropped back to her chair and kicked off her soaked underwear. Her whole body was thrumming even before she pressed her fingers over her vulva. She gasped at the pleasure.

This spurred Grun on.

That sent Tanyth even deeper into their spiral of bliss, and both of those things together especially fanned Linza’s heat, which escaped in further gasps, and so on.

Round and around, they climbed.

Grun started stroking himself, the moans of his own pleasure mingling with the pressing heat of his mouth as he enveloped Tanyth.

Tanyth anchored their fingers in his hair lest they fall over, and they let Grun push and push them towards climax.

Linza watched them, capturing every curve and angle and note into memory. The arch of Tanyth’s back. Their braid unraveling. Grun’s hand around their hips, fingers reaching fully around one cheek of their ass. The droplets beading and then falling from Grun’s tip, as he slowly stroked himself.

Linza’s own moans deepened. She was getting close.

Within a moment, Tanyth was hanging from the edge, totally at Grun’s mercy.

And then Linza realized. Grun hadn’t really been trying to make Tanyth come as fast as he could, though he had certainly put on a show of it.

What he was really doing was holding Tanyth at the quivering edge as long as he could. Timing it all for Linza. An offer that the three of them might climax together. Simultaneous orgasm was hardly necessary for pleasure, and perhaps a bit overrated. But Linza had to admit, it was really really hot.

The realization of what Grun was doing for her pushed her over the edge as much as the sight of it did.

As she screamed her pleasure, totally forgetting that on the veranda they could not be seen but they certainly could be heard, Grun unfettered his efforts.

As Linza’s mind returned from the brink of sanity to the throbbing waves of pleasure, Tanyth groaned and collapsed over Grun’s head, wrapping their arms around his neck.

Grun swallowed, the ripple of his throat sending another trickle of pleasure down Linza’s spine.

And then Grun came, his moans making Tanyth gasp, his cum in thick white spurts across the wood and Tanyth’s feet.

Tanyth shook, leaning against the table and waiting for their senses and balance to return. They laughed as they saw their feet.

An idea sparked in Linza’s mind, a suggestion from the character of the orcish woman that she had summoned for Grun, and she voiced it.

“If it pleases,” she crooned at him, “Do clean up the mess you’ve made of poor Tanyth.”

The complete deference on Grun’s face astounded Linza as he eagerly bowed and licked his spend off of Tanyth’s feet.

Tanyth gasped, tensing at what might have been ticklish, their shaft throbbing to hardness again.

Linza had intended that Grun might use his shirt or something, but this was way better.

Finally, Grun looked up at her. “Have I pleased?”

“Yes. And we’ll get a rag for the rest. I don’t want you licking the floor, you kiss me with that mouth.”

He seemed to take that as an invitation, surging to his feet, scooping her up, and doing just that, plunging her into the heady musk of his sweat, the bitter taste of his seed on his tongue.

That nearly drove her into another frenzy, except for one thing—she couldn’t quite breathe. Reluctantly, she reluctantly put a hand to his chest. 

He leaned back.

“Okay, okay, I need to catch my breath.” 

He relented, and she folded into his chest.

Those next minutes trickled softly like sand through an hourglass. The ocean whispered. Their hearts slowed. They all silently reflected on what had fallen away, and what still was.

They stirred, then dressed again.

Linza carefully straightened Tanyth’s shirt, her fingers lingering at their waist.

Grun playfully untucked Linza’s shirt, and as she stopped to fix it, he flipped up her skirt and grabbed her ass.

They left the veranda and went for dinner, talking easily and laughing long into the night.

Part 5: Triangle, The Alchemist's Illusions

Chapter 45: Imagination

The madame had said little more on the topic and Linza hadn’t pressed for more. She’d returned to her apartment earlier in the day than usual and she turned over those words. She was supposed to use her imagination? How?

Everything given probably meant that she was supposed to share how she felt. But she still didn’t know how she felt!

Nothing taken meant to not presume how Tanyth or Grun were feeling, but Linza felt that they’d been pretty clear. She was sure that clarification would help, but she didn’t know what to clarify until she knew how she felt.

Having fun seemed impossible until she sorted this out… but perhaps that was where she was going wrong.

So, she was supposed to have fun and use her imagination.

Well… She could think of one thing that fit that bill, at least.

Feeling a bit uninspired, Linza turned to the offerings of her past self, the growing collection of erotic scenes and story snippets that she’d been working on for the past few months.

Still feeling in an analytical mood, she started by editing a few of the newer pieces. 

Yet the words slipped under the surface of the mind, familiar and yet forgotten as they were, and stirred the same feelings that had inspired them.

Still, she kept to her task. It was a strategy, a like corking wine while it fermented. She let the flavors evolve, the pressure build.

She didn’t hurry herself. She needed to marinate.

An hour and then another easily slid by.

And as she checked the clock and realized that she really ought to be getting to bed, her heart thudded in her ears and her sex ached and her small clothes were totally soaked.

She slipped between her sheets and then slipped her fingers between her own folds.

Her heat flared with the sort of sudden rapture only possible through this level of anticipation. And that heat melted her inhibitions like wax inside a furnace. She plunged into the depths of her subconscious imaginings, finally unafraid of what she might find.

Grun was there first. He was dressed as he had been at their dinner, trying to look bold, yet still blushing. She wrapped her arms around him from behind—he melted under her fingertips. Then he overtook her and filled her with his girth.

Then, Tanyth. All pastels and flowing. Never really on the top, never really on the bottom. A dance of equal partners. Her touching herself, them touching themselves. Them in her mouth, her under their tongue.

Grun, steady and forceful as a drum line.

Tanyth, light and warbling like a melody.

She brought the comparison closer, switched back and forth more rapidly.

Riding Grun and licking Tanyth.

Tanyth wrapped around her and Grun inside of her.

Grun moaning and Tanyth gasping.

Until it was all at once, the steady drumbeat pounding through her and the melody like air all around.

Linza clawed at her sheets as her back curled and her body melted into pleasure. There was the gasping climb, the peak of sensation, the groaning echoes and the lingering afterglow.

And then finally, as the tide came in and the waves carried her out into an ocean of rest, she finally knew what she wanted.

Part 5: Triangle, The Alchemist's Illusions

Chapter 44: Advice

Between Wyn’s advice and a full night of sleep, Linza determined that what she wanted to do was ask the madame for her advice. If the madame advised her to avoid workplace relationships altogether, then Linza would have a plausible excuse to skirt the issue and maintain her friendships with both Grun and Tanyth.

She and the madame met the first day of each weekend in the madame’s office.

The office was part of the madame’s apartment, which occupied the entire top floor of one of the taller buildings on the seaside end of the estate. There was a balcony all the way around it that afforded an incredible view of the ocean. 

With all the windowed doors propped open, the ocean air flowed easily through the cozy apartment, bringing the smell of salt and seaweed. 

Linza and the madame leaned over the heavy wooden desk and reviewed the estate’s accounting books, which were all scrupulously kept. Linza would be able to contribute eventually, but she still had very much to learn. The kingdom’s tax laws were far more complex than she’d imagined, especially since ‘sexual services’ were taxed differently than ‘regular’ services. The madame had crafted a whole art of determining exactly which services could be classified as ‘regular’ (a lower tax rate) vs ‘sexual’ (a higher tax rate) and Linza was seeing how very clever it was that so many of the estate’s most expensive and sensual experiences were not explicitly ‘sexual’.

Their sessions were right before afternoon tea and the madame usually invited Linza to stay. This was Linza’s favorite part. Without any particular effort, they always got onto some interesting topic and Linza always learned something life-altering.

This time, as they settled down for tea, she said, “Would it be alright if I asked you some advice?”

“Of course,” the madame said, “I daresay that’s an express purpose of our arrangement.”

Right. Why did Linza feel like she was imposing when that was literally the premise of their relationship? The madame probably even liked getting asked for advice. Linza certainly enjoyed it when her own was solicited.

As briefly as she could, Linza explained the situation.

The madame’s eyes glittered knowingly. She said, “Follow the rules.”

Linza bit her lip. She’d been hoping for more, but perhaps this was a test. “Everything given, nothing taken, have fun?”

The madame nodded.

“I thought there might be specific rules about… workplace relationships?”

“No. I’d considered it. But I’ve found over the years that those three rules have always covered everything that’s come up.”

Well that might be because, Linza thought, those rules are sort of vague and far-reaching.

“But, for you, I’ll add one more piece of advice.”

Linza sat up a little straighter. “What’s that?”

“Use your imagination.”

Part 5: Triangle, The Alchemist's Illusions

Chapter 43: Personal Attack

Linza and Wyn sat across from each other at the table in Wyn’s dining nook.

Wyn looked through the notebook and quirked an eyebrow at Linza. “You were certainly… thorough.”

Linza bit her lip. “They’re so different, it’s like… how do you choose between steak and strawberry cake? It barely even makes sense as a question…”

“Well, maybe you just need to—what do you call it, ‘increase your sample size’? See if that helps you figure it out.” Wyn waggled her eyebrows suggestively.

Linza put her head in her hands. “I think they might be mutually exclusive. I can’t just walk up to each of them and say, ‘hey, I’m gonna fuck each of you as an experiment, try to pretend this isn’t an interview!’”

“Why not?” Wyn said.

Linza groaned. She wasn’t in the mood for Wyn’s teasing.

“No, I mean it,” Wyn insisted. “Why not?”

“You’re serious?!”


“B-Because— I just, I can’t! That’s too… too…”

“Too cold?”

It was something like what Linza had said about Wyn when they’d agreed to end the ‘relationship’ part of their relationship.

Linza blushed. “I just, it’s not… it’s not me. I don’t think I could even really enjoy it with either of them, not knowing… if… I don’t know.”

Wyn chuckled. “That is where you and I differ, my friend. I’m getting second-hand hot-and-bothered just thinking about two lovely suitors vying for my attention.”

Linza buried her face in her hands. “It’s so embarrassing!”


“I don’t know.”

“Nuh uh, you’re answering me. You did this to me before and I’m doing it to you, now. Why do you feel embarrassed?”

Linza couldn’t argue with that. She was usually the one cajoling Wyn into introspection. She’d just have to deal with the taste of her own medicine. “Because I’m ashamed.”

“What’s there to be ashamed of?”

“I can’t believe either of them would actually love me and I’m scared that when they figure it out, I won’t be friends with either of them.” Linza’s voice caught in a ball of tears. She held her breath.

“Aw, c’mon, Linz.” Wyn scooted around the table and hugged her. “You’ve cried in front of me plenty of times. Just let it happen.”

Linza sniffled. “H-how stupid am I if I’m crying because two people like me?”

“Would you call me stupid?”


“So don’t call yourself stupid.”

And so Linza relented. She was so tired of thinking that she just let herself cry, and feel the feeling of crying, Wyn’s shoulder against her cheek. And finally, she stilled.

Wyn handed Linza a handkerchief and Linza attempted to return to a semi-decent state.

“Linza, you are basically the easiest-to-like person I’ve ever met,” Wyn said.

Linza snuffled. “That’s just because—”

Wyn leveled a scolding finger at her. “Don’t you dare.”

Linza pouted. Then she cracked a smile.

Wyn put her hand to her hip. “Don’t you think that if you were some fundamentally unlovable person, I’d have kicked you to the curb ages ago? You know I don’t fuck with bullshit.”

Linza chuckled. “I do know that.”

“See, you call me brash,” she said as she tapped the side of her nose with her finger, “but doesn’t that make you all the more confident that I actually like you? It’s you I have to worry about, sometimes. Whether you’re actually telling me how you feel or whether you’re just pandering to my feelings. My feelings are that I want to know how you feel, alright?”

Linza grinned wryly. “I wish I knew how I felt.”

“I think you would if you’d stop drowning it out with how you think you should feel.”

“I feel personally attacked.”

“Good, I am personally attacking you.”

Ugh, fine. I just don’t know what to do next.”

“You’re gonna eat this dinner I put in front of you that you hardly touched. And then you’re going to go home and get a whole night of sleep because you get so much grumpier than you realize. And then you’re gonna go walk on the beach or paint with only blue or cut off all your hair or do something moody until you finally hear whatever inside of you is screaming how you feel, mkay?”

“Okay, okay. You’re right. But for the umpteenth time, I’m not cutting off all my hair,” Linza said.

“Just a trim?”


“But you’d look so good with it short.”



“I thought I was supposed to listen to my feelings!”

“Just for those other things. This is different, because I’m right this time.” Wyn smirked.

“You are insufferable.”

“I love you too, Linz.”

Linz rolled her eyes and shook her head. “What did I ever do to deserve you?”

“You tell a mean dad joke and you look rad in an oversized sweater, what can I say?”

Part 5: Triangle, The Alchemist's Illusions

Chapter 42: Analysis

At work the next day, Linza shirked her duties and spent the day at her desk with her notebook.

She did the only thing that she could think to do.

Linza analyzed the problem.

She started with things that she wanted from a relationship. The list included; ‘hot sex’, ‘hand holding’, ‘talk about politics’, ‘okay if I masturbate without them’, ‘listens about day job’, ‘might want to meet my family’ and so on.

Then, she flipped to a pair of fresh pages and underlined Grun at the top of one and Tanyth at the top of the other.

Grun’s pros included; ‘hot’, ‘nice’, ‘confident’, ‘good listener’, ‘bookish’

Grun’s cons included; ‘gets angry’, ‘not comfortable with my hedging’, ‘might be pretending to be nice’

Tanyth’s pros included; ‘cute’, ‘charismatic’, ‘lots of fun’, ‘great teacher’, ‘artsy’

Tanyth’s cons included; ‘flighty’, ‘afraid of commitment’, ‘might get bored of me’

The exercise took Linza’s entire work day, and by the time she was finished, she felt much more certain.

She was absolutely sure, in fact, that she had no idea what she was going to do.

She was going to have to talk to Wyn.

Part 5: Triangle, The Alchemist's Illusions

Chapter 41: Riptide

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.

Grun laughed.

“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?”

“I… what?”

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.

Linza winced.

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?

Part 5: Triangle, The Alchemist's Illusions

Chapter 40: Drafts

Linza raced up the hallway of the administrative building and into an empty classroom, slamming the door behind her and leaning against it as if a lion had been right on her heels.

Her heart raced, her breath came in shallow gasps.

Even after Linza’s breath should have returned to normal, it didn’t. Minutes later, she still leaned against the inside of the door, hyperventilating. 

Was she having a panic attack? They were common enough around finals at JSMI, but school had never gotten under her skin in this way. Leave it to her to have iron nerves through the hardest curriculum at JSMI and then fall apart because two people were being nice to her at the same time.

She hardly deserved either of them.

Then again, wouldn’t Grun say something about how she was being meaner to herself than she’d be to anyone else?

Grun, who had been so challenging and brash and irritating… and yet so calming and kind. She had so much more in common with Tanyth, they’d been quick friends, but their anxiety sent hers into an even more violent whirl.

Linza finally steadied enough to notice which classroom she’d ended up in. It was the same one as their calligraphy lesson. The ink called out to her from the cubbies on the wall, and she pulled out a sheet of paper and tried to write through what she was feeling.

Her shaky hands nearly tipped the ink pot over when she dipped her quill, but her first draft didn’t really need to be legible, anyway.

She filled the paper. Then squished more in the sides. Then turned over the back.

She covered two pieces of paper with cramped scrawl and yet still she was no closer to finding the right words.

The door groaned behind her, and Linza whirled.

It was Grun, back in his leather shorts and humming a song. He stopped short as he saw her. His eyebrow quirked, and his wry half-smile sent Linza’s stomach churning even worse. 

“You don’t look happy to see me,” he said.

“No, not at all!” She forced a smile. “Just surprised! What are you doing here?”

“I was coming to practice.”



“Oh! Really?”

Grun laughed. “Really. What, you don’t think someone like me would actually enjoy calligraphy?”

Linza grinned wryly. “I’d be a total idiot if I thought that.”

He winked at her. “Don’t worry. I’m used to it. Comes with the ‘territory’.” He flexed and patted his chest with an open hand.

Linza snorted a laugh.

Grun stepped closer, noticing Linza’s quill and paper. “You practicing too?”

Linza gulped. “Oh, it’s nothing.”

“Oh yeah?” He sidled over. “I’m sure whatever it is, it’s already perfect several times over.”

She snatched the pieces of paper up off of the table and balled them up, even as wet ink streaked her palms. “It’s private,” she squeaked. Making a scene like that made her want to shrivel up and disappear, but it was way better than Grun seeing anything she’d written.

“Alright,” he said. “I won’t pry.” He sounded like he wanted to, though. “Lucky I caught you. I forgot to ask earlier. What do you want to do tonight?”

“I’m feeling a bit ill, actually.” If she couldn’t hide her anxiety, maybe she could play it off as food poisoning or something.

Grun’s expression was skeptical. “If you don’t want to, you can just say so. I’m a big boy. I can take it.”

“No!” Linza said. “No, it’s not that. I really do feel ill.”

“Hm. Too ill to get dinner with me?”

She nodded. She’d hardly be keeping anything down.

“Too ill for a walk on the beach?”

Linza hesitated. Grun’s steady presence was calming, and the ocean always helped clear her head… Spending more time with him was idiocy, digging herself into a deeper hole, but… suddenly, she was afraid to be alone with her thoughts. 

Linza nodded. “That’d be nice.”

Part 5: Triangle, The Alchemist's Illusions

Chapter 39: Confession

The setting sun washed the estate in golden light as Grun kissed Linza’s cheek and headed towards his shift for the evening.

Linza floated up the stairs to check the illusionist schedule, then realized she wasn’t on it at all. Skipping her day job had warped her sense of time. So, Linza drifted back down to the courtyard, debating whether to stay at the estate for a pastry or to head home.

Then an enthusiastic bundle of lilac frills shattered her inner peace.

Tanyth beamed up at her. “Linza! You busy?”

Linza froze. A broad smile crossed her face to mirror Tanyth’s, but she didn’t feel any of its mirth.

“I’m free, actually!” she said, surprised at how cheerful she could sound even while she was starting to panic.

“Great! Tea?”

“Sure!” Even as Linza turned to follow Tanyth, she silently cursed herself. Couldn’t she just say, ‘Oh I’d love to, but I ought to get home’. She willed herself to say, ‘Oh, I just remembered,’ but her throat tightened around the words. Enjoying her time with Grun felt like betraying Tanyth, so the least she could do was to be available for tea.

Tanyth didn’t seem to notice Linza’s angst. They said, “I was glad about Grun setting up our calligraphy lesson. I had just been thinking it had been too long since you and I hung out!”

“It really had been!” Linza said, voice smoother than it had any right to be, with how her heart was racing.

“Speaking of which, how was your ‘date’?” They grinned teasingly, calling back to Linza’s earlier protests. 

Linza’s throat tightened again. Admitting how much fun she’d had was sure to crush Tanyth, but she also couldn’t bring herself to speak ill of Grun. Linza took a breath to speak, but her silence was already too long, and her words fizzled.

Tanyth laughed. “That bad, huh? Alright, I won’t torture you for the details. Except… I totally will. But, tea first!”

Linza finally breathed again as Tanyth bounced on ahead. If Tanyth jumped to their own conclusions, then she was hardly responsible. But what would she say when they pressed for details? Maybe they’d be distracted by the time the two of them got their tea and settled in.

They sat at a little table on the balcony lined with ruby velvet. Linza opted for a lavender green tea, hoping it would calm her nerves. Her hands shook, and the teacup rattled against the saucer when she accepted it from a waitress in a ruffly orange dress.

Tanyth tipped back their rose milk and gulped half of it down, and as the cup clacked back into the saucer, Tanyth’s smile was gone.

Linza’s body went still, like a mouse caught in a beam of light. Whatever Tanyth was about to say, she wasn’t sure if she could bear it. But she couldn’t do anything but quietly wait, either. Why was she this way?!

Tanyth fidgeted with the edge of the table cloth. “So… um… I… I realized something this week, after our calligraphy lesson.” Their bosom swelled with a deep breath. “Everything given. I wasn’t entirely honest with you, before. When I was training you and we did your illusion exercise… I know I never said anything but… I should have. I realized this week…”

You realized how shitty it feels when someone knows you like them and they just ignore it for ages? Linza thought.

Tanyth swallowed. “Oh, you can see why I struggled to say anything before!” They put their hands to their cheeks. “I saw that you loved… Well, I felt the same— I cared for you too. Care for you. In the way— I think— you wanted.”

Linza blinked. This wasn’t what she’d expected. At all.

Tanyth soldiered on. “I didn’t say anything because I was a-afraid that… I’ve always been afraid that… well, I don’t like being pinned down. I-in a relationship sense. And I assumed that… that was what you would want. And… I don’t know if it was fair of me to assume that. And I guess I realized this week, well… you and Grun seem to get along. And I thought, what am I so afraid of missing out on that I’d risk missing out on getting to be with— I mean if you wanted to— Well, you must have thought me terribly cold, and— I never even asked your or said anything— I understand if you’re upset.” Tanyth finally took a breath. “Are you upset?”

“No,” Linza said quickly, “Of course not.” But it was as much of a lie as her smile had been.

Tanyth’s eyes brightened like the sun emerging from behind a cloud. “I’m so glad to hear that!” Tanyth reached out and put their hand on hers on the table.

The butterflies returned all at once, a whole swarm, inside of her and around her and blurring her vision and fluttering in her brain.

Tanyth took another deep breath. “Would… would you like to go on a date with me?”

“Oh! R-right now?”

“Well… how long are you free for?”

“Oh, um, n-not very long, unfortunately.” She wasn’t sure how long she could last at the cafe without completely falling apart.

“So… another time? Or…” Tanyth’s eyes welled with hope, their breath waited for her answer.

“Y-yeah, I’d like to,” Linza said. It was true, regardless of whether she actually went out with them or not. She offered what she hoped was a reassuring smile.

Tanyth beamed. “That’s great! I… I’m really glad. Y’know, I was worried…” They glanced down, tucked a strand of hair behind their ear. “I was worried you’d really hit it off with Grun.”

Linza took a long drink of her tea, if only to have something to hide her face. “Mhm.” 

Fortunately, Tanyth didn’t seem to have noticed. “Are you free tomorrow?”

“I’m not sure, I’ll have to, um, check with Wyn, she and I had something planned.” Linza liked to think of herself as an honest person, except the lies came so easily when she needed them to.

“Right! Yeah, just let me know.”

Silence stretched between them. Linza wasn’t sure she could string together another sentence, let alone prompt the next conversation topic.

“I um…” Tanyth said, “I actually have my next shift soon.”

“Oh, yeah! I should let you go. I have some errands, anyway.”

They parted ways at the front of the cafe, Linza walking quickly to nowhere except the opposite direction as Tanyth.