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    The sensation of waking up, eyes already wide open, is one I think it’ll take me time to get accustomed to. There’s a calm afternoon sky above my head. I’m stripped of my armor and still soaking in water… In a small wooden bucket, soapy bubbles surrounding me. I can’t manage to peer over the edge, but that doesn’t prevent me from guessing I’m back at the tower.

    A pair of hands lifts me up and squeezes -feels nicer than I thought- the water out of me before letting me soak again and rubbing some more soap onto me. “Are you back with me, Cherry?” the new voice of the warlock greets me.

    “Hmm? Yeah, just now…” My mind is still wired to try to yawn, accomplishing nothing. “How did you notice?”

    “I… Wait, that’s indeed a good question. How did I do that?” He lifts me up and turns me around, allowing me to face him. I finally get to see the longer hair he’d spoken about while on our hunt. It’s, uh… cute. “Well, I felt a jolt, and in a manner of speaking, it was as if deep down I knew it was that you woke up. I’m guessing the spell embedded in my lifestream must’ve done it.”

    “Where’s the soldier we brought back?” I ask, wanting to at least make sure this whole operation wasn’t a bust.

    “I put their statuette in stasis as we’d planned, before taking as quick a bath I could.” He scrubs at my left cheek pretty firmly. “...Tenacious… Stain… There we go. I’ve prepared a shovel for a bout of grave digging. At least all the folks I... killed with my own hands are just there for us to take.”

    “So much work ahead of us…” I sigh, and let myself relax in the warlock’s grip. If I’d been told being held gently felt so good, I would’ve turned myself into a plush toy earlier, I joke to myself. Well, I don’t actually mean it, I think. It’s just nice to feel cared for.

    He grimaces, pulling on the brown thread on my left side. It comes out in one motion, frayed and damaged by mud. The exposed, wet filling feels heavy. “How was this in any way passable work…?” he mutters. “This needs to be fixed immediately.”

    I think back to our conversation this morning, a question appearing in my mind. “Do we even care about how beat up the plush toy is, if it’s not actually my body?”

    He shows me a pained expression as he squeezes the water out of me again before turning me away from his face. “...I care, alright? It is what I know you by, it is all I know of your appearance, I… I care.”

    “Oh, uh… Thanks.” The tone comes out more shaky than I intended.

 

    We walk in silence to the tower, the warlock opening the door as he speaks up again. “I am supposing your lack of enthusiasm is more guilt over changing my mind?”

    I let my lack of reply speak for itself.

    “Well...” He searches for his words as he climbs up the stairs. “Is there any world where me caring about more than just myself could ever be a negative?”

    “I guess not,” I concede. “It’s just… you know. Hard. I don’t like that I’m doing this, even if it’s having the best possible consequences, it’s still… Wrong.”

    “Gods, with the acts I committed I easily deserve an execution. If anything, this is mercy on your end, Cherry. Plus, you work with what you get,” he offers with a shrug as we arrive to his bedroom’s landing. He puts me on the table, then fetches a needle, scouring his sewing kit and looking through a few reels of thread. “Sure, it would have been much better had I learned of my mistakes in more… natural ways, let us say. But life rarely lets itself be that convenient. What color should we go for?”

    “Color?” I ask, confused by the sudden shift in the discussion.

    “For the thread, Cherry! Sure, we could simply use a light grey like you have everywhere else, but where is the fun in that? This is the occasion for a bit of sprucing up, of individuality! Some custom work to remember this by.” He pulls out a pale purple, a smile on his face making it clear he was enjoying himself. “I was thinking lilac.”

    I restrain myself from letting out a ‘good gods’ and chastising myself some more for the mental changes. “I really could care less as long as it’s gonna close up the hole.”

    “Then I suppose it is on me to be cheerful right now. Lilac it is.” He grabs the reel, playing around with it in his hand and dropping it next to me. He pulls out the thread and passes it through the needle’s eye, throwing me a glance. His smile grows a bit concerned, as if he’s managed to read that I’m restraining myself from voicing my worries.

    I can only avoid his inquiring gaze for so long before ceding. “How did you know the right words to say, just a moment ago? I didn’t really take you for a philosopher...”

    His expression shifts again to something more pained, as he straightens his back and carefully starts to slip the needle in my fabric. He mutters something, almost whispering. “I was a lonely man, before, Cherry. Do you really think if I was able to keep my thoughts to myself as I pretended, I would have talked aloud when I realized you were alive, yesterday?“

    I can feel my fabric being pushed under the poke of the needle before jerking back once the tip goes through. It’s an odd sensation, but not unpleasant. As the stitching progresses, it’s like a gentle tickling on my skin. “You were lonely? You’re sure this is not the mental changes making you say that?”

    “I definitely was.” He continues his handiwork along as he talks. His touch is precise and caring, his fingers are pleasantly warm. “It explains why I’m so eager to leave this all behind. I was not only a monster, I was also miserable and unhappy. Everything I told you earlier, it was things I knew, but that I refused to listen to because they did not match how I experienced the world. I thought that relationships were for weaker people that are not able to stand strong by themselves; I thought they were crutches and that I did not need them. That by staying alone, I would prove that this is when we humans are at our strongest. After all, I felt like other people were restraining me from achieving my full potential, so it was not hard to imagine that was the case for everyone else. Needless to say, now that you have given me a taste of empathy… I can tell I was wrong.” The hole in my side now closed, he grabs a pair of scissors and cuts the thread after tying it at each end.

    I feel a tentative smile come back to my (spiritual) face. The explanation as to why the warlock is so okay with what I’m accidentally doing to him helps a lot with keeping me from chastising myself. He lifts me to the mirror on his wardrobe. “...This purple is nice, yeah.”

    A smile beams on his face. He fidgets for a second, before calmly asking a question. “May I indulge in something? A compulsion you’ve given me that I’ve been resisting and hiding so far, and that I want to make the conscious decision of giving in to.”

    The combination of the timing, the exceedingly mindful phrasing and the guilty emotions I’ve just been through cause me to let out an almost hysterical giggle. “Eeh, in for a copper, in for a silver… Sure, knock yourself out, whatever it is you’re about to do-”

    I find myself being interrupted by the warlock squeezing me tightly against his chest into a hug that could break ribs, just like I used to give Henrietta. My mind melts into comfy pleasure as I let out satisfied noises.

 

    The warlock ends the hug a minute later with a relaxed sigh, shifting me back into the usual position of lightly hanging from his arms. “Aaaah… Didn’t this feel good, Cherry?”

    “I died…” I reply. “I died and I’m in heaven…”

    It is his turn to giggle… Before we both get interrupted by a war horn coming from the foot of the hill. He doesn’t lose much time before running for the window. “Oh no.”

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