Shorts

Christmas Moonshine (Part I)

The bells on the door jingled merrily as Ruth pushed in from the cold. She had taken the long way home, as much to enjoy all the Christmas lights as to put off her inevitable arrival at her cold and empty home. This shop had caught her eye, with the window display of antique nutcrackers and Christmas-themed nesting dolls. Somehow, she hadn’t noticed it before.

She was greeted with a wave of warmth, the smell of cinnamon and juniper, and floor-to-ceiling shelves of seasonal antiques. Christmas carols crackled from a vintage record player next to the door.

“Welcome, deary!” called an old woman’s voice from the back. “Do let me know if you have any questions.”

“Will do,” Ruth called back, but as she stepped around the shelf to properly greet the woman, she found another equally tall shelf behind it. The delightful array of miniature rocking horses, little birds, and glistening glass ornaments quickly distracted her from her concerns of politeness.

Ruth browsed, finally feeling some warmth in her bones again. She lost track of how many shelves there were in the little shop, each packed with innumerable wonders. 

A cuckoo clock chimed at the end of the aisle, and Ruth’s heart rose with the merry little tune and dancing children, then sunk as she saw the time. She really did need to get going. 

As she stepped to go back up the aisle, she saw something she’d missed before on a shelf she’d passed. A cheerful little plush black cat, no doubt hand-knit, wearing a big red Christmas bow.

Glee bubbled in her heart. She’d hardly decorated at all, and here was something that would bring some Christmas cheer to her dreary apartment all without any tree or effort.

Ruth picked up the little cat and stepped towards the cuckoo clock, not sure if she remembered which way the woman’s voice had come from. She nearly jumped as she came around the end of the aisle and found the shop’s counter right there.

A plump old woman with white hair wearing a red velvet dress sat knitting behind the counter, upon which a black cat slumbered. 

“Hello deary,” the woman said, looking up from her knitting. “Find what you were looking for?”

“Y-yes,” Ruth said. “My apartment’s a bit empty this year, a-and—” She realized as soon as it was out of her mouth that there was no way to make it not sound pathetic. “Well, this fellow seemed like some quick Christmas cheer.” She held up the knit cat and hoped she looked cheerful.

The old woman’s eyes twinkled. “Ah, yes. Quite unlike the inspiration, I’ll have you know.” She tilted her head towards the black cat on the counter, who peeled open one yellow eye, surveyed Ruth, then returned to sleeping.

“You made it?” Ruth said.

The old woman nodded. “Most things in here I did. I have this shop as much as a place to put everything as to sell it!”

Ruth then noticed that there was a little doorway behind the counter, and sure enough, it was covered with all kinds of tools—paints, wood shavings, other balls of yarn, and more.

“Well, everything’s so lovely! I’m surprised you can keep the shelves stocked.”

The old woman smiled and shrugged. “This place doesn’t get as much foot traffic as it used to.”

Ruth thought that was odd, since she’d thought this part of town was doing quite well, but as she was far from an expert on local economics, she just offered an apologetic look. “I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Oh! Don’t you worry about me. I like it that way, honest. Just me and Obbie here.” She inclined her head at the cat.

“Obbie, that’s a fun name.”

“Short for Obsidian, but as you can see, that’s far too noble a name for this goofy little grump.”

Ruth found a real smile tugging at her lips. “Well, Obbie is a dashing model, if nothing else.”

“That he is,” the woman said.

“Do you have any Christmas plans?” Ruth asked, before realizing that she might have to return the answer.

“Ah yes,” the old woman said, “and they’ll look quite a lot like this. I’m a bit of a, oh what do they call it…”

Witch’ stirred in Ruth’s mind, but she had no idea why she’d think such a rude thing about such a nice woman.

“A spinster,” the woman finished. “That’s the word.”

“Do you ever get lonely?” Ruth asked.

“Me? Nah, Obbie keeps me good company. And now he’ll be able to keep you company, too.” The woman tipped her head at the knit cat.

Ruth turned to look at the cheerful face and big red bow. She could already imagine feeling a little less lonely with the little knit cat perched on her dresser. A genuine smile found her. Ruth nodded to the woman. “Yes, I quite agree.”

The old woman smiled warmly. “Anything else I can help you find tonight?”

Ruth shook her head.

The old woman nodded, then wrapped up the cat in a paper bag. Her eyes twinkled. “One more thing.” She ducked into the next room and returned with a little glass bottle. “One of my other hobbies. Call it a freebie.” She shook the bottle, then dropped it into the bag with the knit cat. 

“What is it?” Ruth asked.

The old woman winked. “Moonshine. You’ll have to tell me if it’s any good. I used to be quite the cook, back in the day.”

Ruth would have immediately believed that the old woman had experienced prohibition first-hand. While she tried to do the mental math of whether that was even possible, the woman finished arranging the bag.

Obsidian stood and stretched, sniffed at the bag, then jumped off the counter and wandered off into the shop.

The old woman shook her head. “See? What a grump.” She handed Ruth the bag. 

Ruth blinked and reached for her purse. “Oh, what do I owe you?” In her enthusiasm, she’d forgotten entirely to check the price tag—something both her boyfriend— her ex and her mother would have loved to berate her for. And one of the reasons that she was not presently traveling to visit either of them.

“Hm? Oh, you already paid, deary,” the woman said.

“D-did I?” Ruth said.

The woman nodded warmly and chuckled. “It’s late, happens to the best of us. Be sure to bundle up all the way before you head out.”

Ruth nodded as she pulled on her gloves. “Merry Christmas!”

“And to you too, deary. Just be sure to wish Obbie a happy solstice on the way out, if you don’t want the old grump to hiss at you.”

Ruth nodded and turned towards the labyrinthine shelves, not sure how she was going to find her way out. But while it had taken her more than a half an hour of browsing—and she would have sworn dozens of shelves to get to the counter, she only walked by four on the way out.

And she nearly jumped as she spotted Obbie sitting on top of the record player by the door, staring directly at her with two gleaming golden eyes.

Ruth gulped. “Happy Solstice, Obsidian.”

The cat jumped off the record player, purred, rubbed against Ruth’s leg, and then disappeared into the shelves again.

Ruth stepped out into the cold before the cat could change his mind and come back to hiss at her, then headed home.


Continued in Part II

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Shorts

Christmas Dinner (Part I)

A fire crackled merrily, illuminating the dining room of the old Victorian mansion. Evergreens and red baubles trimmed the fireplace, gold velvet banners softened the walls, and the chandeliers twinkled with dozens of candles. Outside the frosted windows, fresh snowflakes swirled.

The smell of roasted turkey and caramelized sweet potatoes drifted around the twelve diners at the long oak table as they chatted, jabbed, and laughed. They were dressed to the nines in two-piece suits and seasonal pocket squares—even (especially) the two women. The attire was a touch more modern than the mansion itself, but still a hearkening to Christmases past. One should expect nothing less from the vintage-obsessed Main Street Cigar Club. They usually went all out for Christmas, but this year they hadn’t had to lift a finger—just their wallets. When a ‘Magical, Victorian Christmas Experience’ had popped up in the local charity auction, the vote to put the club’s funds toward it had been unanimous. 

The event company that owned the mansion had nearly all five-star reviews, though details were sparse. Common themes were ‘indescribable’, ‘beyond what I could have imagined’ and ‘downright magical’. The first three courses had not disappointed, nor had their hosts for the evening.

There was a tall, slender man in a prim tailcoat of ruby velvet, standing quietly by the door, watching the merriment with cool grey eyes, always available but never overbearing. He need only incline his head at the other host, a short, plump woman in an emerald silk dress, and she understood what was needed next and would cheerily bounce to it, her ringlet curls flouncing on either side of sparkling brown eyes, her ample cleavage nearly escaping the cling of the silk. They had introduced themselves as Elden and Rosie as they had first welcomed the guests into the warm air of the mansion.

One of the quieter guests did privately think to himself that it was a bit quaint—yet charming, in the end—that despite the overall elegant and high-end feeling of the event, the two hosts had chosen to wear (impressively natural) pointed ear prosthetics to fashion themselves as elves.

The true reason for the hosts’ appearance was, unbeknownst to any of their guests, that they were in fact elves. The promises of ‘magic’ were quite literal. Though, perhaps ironically, Christmastime was the only season where they disposed of the glamours and disguises for their ears and wore them as they naturally were.

The six-course meal, three courses of which had now been plated and served, that seemed as though it would have required a kitchen staff of half a dozen to pull off, was in fact accomplished by Elden’s innate magics. Rosie was his apprentice, not yet qualified to use her magic with guests, so she went about any mundane tasks that remained.

One that she attended with the utmost faith was quietly topping off each guest’s glass of wine. When the woman nearest to the fireplace thought to herself that Rosie must be moving with supernatural subtlety, she was correct. No glass dropped more than half full, even as empty bottles lined up against the kitchen wall.

Rosie poured out the last of her carafe into the glass of the man whose pocket square was folded into the shape of a tree, and then glided into the quiet of the kitchen to uncork another bottle. She hummed a carol to herself as she lifted a little red crystal vial and poured in a generous splash to this latest bottle.

As she placed the vial back in its spot, the faded label twisted into the beam of a candle’s light, and made clear the outline of a heart and the letters V and D.

Rosie froze, her cheeks flushing bright red as her trembling fingertips pressed to her lips. She left the bottle of wine, snapped up the vial in a tight fist, smoothed out the front of her dress with a shaking hand, and stepped back into the room, pausing at Elden’s side, where she was barely taller than his elbow. Even without stooping, he heard her quiet whisper with perfect clarity:

“Elden, might I speak with you in the hall a moment?”

One of his pointed ears swiveled down towards her, but his eyes remained focused on the guests. Though it would appear that he was doing little, he was actually deeply focused on watching every guest’s littlest reaction, sifting through every whisper, all for clues on what foods might best delight in the next course.

“Is it important?” Elden said, his voice as cool and smooth as the ice skating pond behind the mansion.

“Would I interrupt you for anything else?” Rosie hissed through her cheery smile.

Elden took a slow breath—more to clear his head than to signal his exasperation, Rosie had recently learned—and then followed Rosie into the hallway.

Once they were in the dim quiet, he kneeled in front of her, lest he worsen her anxiety by towering over her. This was one reason that Rosie had fought so hard to become Elden’s apprentice—despite his aloof and sometimes bizarre nature, he was really quite kind.

“What’s the matter?” he asked.

Rosie took a deep breath. “I-I’ve made a mistake, I…” The words caught in a tangle in her throat. What if Elden fired her for this? What if this would be the last time she got to entertain humans, when she’d made such a terrible mistake? The honor of entertaining humans was sacred to fae, and nothing had made her more honored than this opportunity, and—

Elden’s hand on her shoulder dispelled Rosie’s clouded thoughts.

“Whatever it is,” he said, “we can figure it out together.”

Rosie nodded, but all she could manage past the brink of tears was to extend the near-empty red crystal vial towards Elden.

Elden took it up in his slender fingers and turned it towards the light, then quirked an eyebrow at Rosie as the corner of his mouth twitched.

But not towards a frown, as Rosie had feared—but towards a smile!

“Let me make sure I understand,” Elden said. “Instead of infusing the guests’ wine with a Potion of Merriment, which has the effects of increasing the appetite and the sensation of flavor to divine heights, you’ve instead been dosing the guests tonight with our Valentine’s Day concoction which is…” Elden looked at her expectantly.

“An extremely potent aphrodisiac,” Rosie squeaked.

“And just so that I fully understand,” Elden continued, “While we would normally put just a single drop of the Valentine’s Day concoction into an entire bottle of wine, you’ve been dosing this as if it were a Potion of Merriment, so something like ten times the dose?”

Rosie winced and nodded.

“How did this happen?” 

“I f-forgot that Christmas wasn’t the only red bottle.” Rosie squeezed her eyes shut, bracing for punishment.

But instead, Elden laughed. And not just a wry chuckle, which was the most she’d ever seen from him. He laughed from his core, deep and full, and the sound filled the air with the memory of a hundred dozen Christmases, centuries of mirth and mischief, warmth and whimsy, and every candle in the house burned a shade brighter.

Somehow, Rosie’s shame melted away, and she found herself laughing too. When Elden finally settled, his blue eyes still twinkling like a starry sky, Rosie said, “So you’re… not going to fire me?”

“Oh, heavens no. Dear Rosie, we have guests to attend to, and I will need your help.” Elden grinned wide enough to reveal his pointed canines and the predatory gleam in his eye. “I have an idea that will ensure our guests have a delightful night, that will be appropriate penance for you for this little slip-up, and that will keep the Convention from levying anything more than a nominal fine. Does that sound agreeable?”

Rosie’s heart pittered like the hooves of a reindeer yoked to a sleigh, ready to run, eager to work, waiting only for her master’s ha. Her cheeks warmed again, but for a different reason. She bit her lip and nodded.

Elden handed her the red crystal vial. “Good thing you didn’t use it all,” he said. “You’ll want to drink that.”

Excitement tingled all the way down to Rosie’s fingertips and toes, and she obeyed.


Continued in Part II

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Part 6: Denoument, The Alchemist's Illusions

Chapter 54: Epilogue

Linza continued studying under the madame. At her day job, she was expected to put in her time just like everybody else until she worked her way up to a halfway decent salary. But at the estate, her talents were acknowledged. Leveraged. Useful. Appreciated.

The madame offered her a job working full time on administration, which did not preclude her from her night job either.

She’d discussed it only briefly with Tanyth, but they’d so immediately tried to beg and convince her to take the offer that she’d had to dismiss their advice as overly biased.

She’d talked it over at length with Grun. She told Grun what she liked and didn’t like about her day job. He helped her uncover everything that was irrational about her resistance to this potential change.

Would she be wasting her degree? Not if she’d be making more money (which, she would be, especially with how successful the sex toy enterprise was becoming).

Would this job be less stable, would it vanish out from under her? Not likely, but if it did, she’d manage.

Would she ever be employable as an alchemist again if her primary work history was estate administration?

Grun’s answer to that had been her favorite of all.

“If you want to be an alchemist that badly, you’ll just found your own lab.”

“How in the world would I do that?” Linza said.

“How in the world could you not? Linza if there is one thing that I know about you, it is that when you figure out what you do want, not a thing on this earth can stop you.”

So, she accepted the job.

She quit the lab.

She cried in the doorway of her little apartment, now empty after Grun had helped her move everything to her new quarters at the estate. She wasn’t quite sure why she was crying, but she let herself do it anyway. Grun put an arm around her shoulder and didn’t rush her.

She eventually found words. “I’m glad for what’s next but… I’ll miss it.”

“Isn’t that how it always is, a new chapter?” Grun had said.

Linza remembered how many chapters Grun himself had started, and she found his hand with hers. “I’d like to visit your father, sometime. See the library, and everything.”

He smiled. “I’d like that too.”

And then he had picked her up and carried her down to the empty floor and fucked her there. They wrapped each other tight, their moans echoing around them like ghosts of all their pleasures past, bidding them fortune and farewell.

 One last fond memory as the final page turned and the new chapter began.

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Part 6: Denoument, The Alchemist's Illusions

Chapter 53: A New Venture

Linza had invited Grun and Tanyth over for dinner at her little apartment. She’d hardly been able to contain her excitement throughout the meal. 

“I have presents for you two!” Linza dashed over to her desk and returned with four parcels, paper boxes tied with red string, just like at the estate bakery. Because they were boxes from the bakery. She’d thought it would be cute and on-theme (these were treats, after all) but also it meant that she didn’t have to spend any extra money. She was still trying to save all that she could towards her student loans.

There was a large one and a small one for each of them, and they both opened the large one first. 

Their eyes widened with delight. Each package held a piece of carved stone. There was a thick bulb, a thin stem, and then an arced base.

“Is this what I think it is?” Grun asked.

“What do you think it is?” Linza said.

“I think it goes in my ass?” Grun said.

Linza laughed. “Yes, it goes in your ass.”

“Hell yeah, this looks amazing!” Grun turned over the plug in his hand.

Tanyth’s eyes were just as wide. “Linza, you shouldn’t have!”

“It’s really not a bother,” Linza said.

“But— your loans!”

Linza blinked. “What about them?”

“These are expensive!” Tanyth looked genuinely worried.

“They didn’t cost me anything, actually. It’s all cast-offs so it’s free.”

Now Tanyth looked confused. “Wait… you… you made these?”

Linza blushed. “Y-yeah. It was really no trouble.”

Mercifully, Tanyth opened the second and smaller gift before grilling her further, revealing a little stone blue bird while Grun unwrapped a jade boar.

The bird for Tanyth, since they were all about experience, variety, sensation. Like a bird, if they were not migrating, not flying from place to place, they would not be themselves. 

The boar for Grun, who was headstrong, steadfast and reliable. He had helped her face her fears and make peace with them. And, of course, the cute little tusks.

She’d meant to say out loud why she’d picked each animal for them, but her voice escaped her as she saw the genuine wonder in their eyes. 

“Linza, how did you make these?” Tanyth said.

“It’s just a bit of minor alchemy. I get these scraps from the stone cutters downtown—they usually make things for fancy buildings, rich people, y’know. And then I transmute them into wood, carve them, and then they revert to stone.”

Tanyth’s eyes were wide. “You’re a genius!”

Linza blushed. “Well, I hardly invented the idea. It actually started as a homework assignment, but it was carving wood to make precise iron gears for complex machine works. Once I started my art classes, I had the idea of doing something cute with it.”

Tanyth shook their head. “You’re still a genius. You’d have to be able to do alchemy and art to come up with something like this, and you are literally the only person I know who can do that.”

Linza opened her mouth to say, ‘but you don’t know very many people outside of sex workers’, but Grun raised his eyebrows at her with a look of mother-hen scolding and she paused. “I’m really glad you like them.”

“Seriously though, Linz,” Tanyth gently set the bird back in its box and picked up their plug. “These things are expensive because usually you have to get a stoneworker or a glassworker to commission them.”

“I’m sure somebody’s thought of this before,” Linza said.

“Then why are they so expensive?!” Tanyth said. “Let me tell you, the circle of people who are university-trained alchemists and the circle of people who make sex toys rarely overlap.”

Linza considered that. Tanyth seemed to be right. There were plenty of other magical users on staff, many of whom were formally trained, but they tended to be clerics, enchanters, and illusionists. Linza was here because of her illusion skills, but that hadn’t been her primary field of study. It did seem like a rare combination when Tanyth pointed it out. 

An idea bubbled up from the back of Linza’s mind. “Well… these aren’t that difficult to make. You can do them even faster with a proper lathe. And I bet you could even… I’ve seen some clever things with making negatives and molds. Turn stone to iron, pour that around another stone carving, then you have a stone negative. Then you can take that negative, turn more stone to iron, melt that down, pour it into the mold, and so on.”

“How many do you think you could make like that?” Tanyth said.

Linza grabbed a quill and notebook from her desk and started jotting down numbers. She made a few broad guesses, but they’d be more than adequate for the exercise. Tanyth contributed the knowledge of how much dildos and plugs usually cost, plus a guess of what they could still charge for them if they added significant volume to the market.

Linza triple checked her math, sure that she’d made some mistake.

Because if her math was right, she’d be able to pay off her remaining loans in less than a year. 


The madame was thrilled to hear of Linza’s idea and mobilized a whole network of connections and favors to start the wheels of a new enterprise in motion.

As Linza had hoped, the lathe easily produced any symmetrical shape. Bulbs and rippled shafts, plugs and dildos alike. The madame sourced a carpentry shop that was happy to help lathe as much transmuted wood as Linza could produce.

But they didn’t stop there. Linza’s whittling origins inspired her towards some more fanciful designs. She hand-carved knotted cocks and curling tentacles. Other artists at the estate joined in, contributing veiny shafts and flower buds.

That the material could be transmuted back to wood at any time opened up new possibilities for trial and error, fine-tuning without risk. Lots of testing was required. The result was a diverse range of imaginative and effective toys.

The madame stocked shops at the estate with the new toys, incorporated them into experiences, hosted a few giveaways, and soon there was more demand than they could keep up with. They could have charged more, even as much as had been the status quo before they opened the shop, but Linza and the madame agreed that it was important to both of them that the toys remain accessible to someone of middling budget. So, the wait list grew.

Other alchemists eventually caught wind and cashed in on the trend. But, it never cut much into the estate’s sales. Firstly, Linza had ensured that the estate had gotten to market first. But more than that, the competing products were just bland. They lacked imagination.

And Linza had imagination to spare. 

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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.”

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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?!”

“Yeah.”

“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!”

“Why?”

“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?”

“No!”

“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?”

“No!”

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

“Nope.”

“C’monnnn!”

“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?”

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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.

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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?

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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.”

“Practice?”

“Calligraphy.”

“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.”

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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. 

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