Just a short one this month, as I’m still very busy finishing up our crowdfund fulfillment, but I would never neglect our loyal newsletter subscribers. Thank you for being with us through our long hiatus, and enjoy Sterling!
Sterling was in his office, trying to make a rota for a shift change for the guard, and was failing.
It wasn’t sleep deprivation. He’d been sleeping very well, in fact, resting in the knowledge that he was being useful and doing what was right, and that he was never far from a friend. It wasn’t boredom—on the contrary, he’d give anything to focus on the task at hand.
It was just a strange feeling. He felt itchy and uncomfortable in his own skin. It reminded him of how he felt before he’d met his Gang, wandering alone and full of anger and shame.
Minus the anger and shame, of course. What was it?
Sterling looked up to the door to find Knowles leaning inside, hanging onto the door frame. Sterling straightened in his seat. “Yes, Sargeant?”
“Do you happen to have that rota yet?” Knowles asked.
“Ah. No. I…” It wasn’t really appropriate to bare his soul to Knowles, even if they were likely to handle it with their customary easygoing aplomb. “I’m not feeling well. Apologies.”
“We still have a couple days before we need it,” Knowles said casually. “If you need to leave.”
“Perhaps that’s wise,” Sterling said, standing. He certainly wasn’t getting anything done today. “Anything else need doing before I go?”
“I don’t think so.” Knowles gave Sterling a pat on the shoulder as he passed them. “See you, Captain.”
“Er…yes.” Sterling kept walking, leaving the guard house for the castle grounds, thoughtful. The shoulder touch. That was…something.
Ah. This was what Fina had brought up before. He needed…he needed a hug.
Well, that was embarrassing.
Rather than go back to his quarters, Sterling went for a walk. In the days after the goblin curse, his friends had made a point to touch him. Nothing overly demonstrative, like that first hug, but Velune asked for a hand frequently when traversing the woods, or Betty would throw an arm around his shoulders, or Fina would lean on him or nudge him or sneak up on him and muss his hair, which was at first infuriating and then a sort of game. Meltyre was one to offer hugs proper, when meeting or parting, as consolation and celebration. But it had been too long since Sterling had spent any kind of time with his friends, apparently, if the itchy restlessness under his skin was any indication.
It was Sterling’s wont to simply…do without. It wasn’t technically necessary, and he didn’t need a hug. He could be stalwart and independent. He could stand alone.
The main problem was, now having had a taste of something better, he didn’t want to.
His walk took him to the practice archery range. There were no guards practicing at this time of day, which meant that most of the people there were nobles and other hobbyists.
And, he realized with some cheer, Meltyre’s sisters. Sterling circled the range and walked up one of the boundary lines to watch.
Lydda, Min, and Seri were chattering along at their teacher, a retired guard that Sterling believed was named Denner. Denner seemed a bit overwhelmed, but gradually wrangled the girls into a line, and had them, one after another, fire off an arrow.
Sterling smiled. Each of them missed.
“It’s enough to make you want to invest in plate armor, right?” said a voice behind him.
Sterling half-turned, and found Meltyre, sitting on a bench with a book unopened in his lap. He had a fond look in his eye.
“You’re welcome to borrow mine,” Sterling said, taking a seat next to his friend.
“I think I’d look like a kid playing dress-up,” Meltyre laughed. “Thanks, though.”
The image struck Sterling as so funny that he decided he needed to draw it. “Do you have a piece of paper I can borrow?”
Meltyre raised his eyebrows curiously. “Yeah, sure.” He dug a scrap of paper out of his pocket, checked both sides, and handed it off to Sterling. “Why?”
Sterling took a nub of pencil out of his pocket and sketched out a Meltyre, drowning in plate mail. It didn’t take long; he showed Meltyre. “What do you think?”
Meltyre burst out laughing, and Sterling treasured it. Meltyre never used to laugh like this before; it was good to see him so happy.
“Oh gods,” he gasped. “Okay, never show this to my sisters.”
“It’s a deal.” Sterling tucked it into his pocket.
“What brings you out here, anyway?” Meltyre said, trying to catch his breath a little. “You’re—” He coughed suddenly, wheezing a bit. “Gods, sorry. You’re usually in the guardhouse this time of day.”
“Oh.” Ah, now this was the rub, wasn’t it? “Well.”
“Well?” Meltyre prompted.
“It’s all a bit…horrible,” Sterling attempted.
Meltyre’s customary worry returned, wrinkling his brow. “What do you mean? What’s wrong?”
“Not horrible,” Sterling corrected hastily. “Not unbearable, really. It’s silly. Or at least, it makes me feel silly.”
Meltyre leaned away from his friend, which was no good at all. “What are we talking about here, Sterling?”
Sterling knew he was blushing with embarrassment, and he dearly hoped Meltyre hadn’t noticed. This was harder the longer he blathered, he realized. “I just…I could use a hug.”
“Oh! Uh, yeah, sure!” Meltyre hesitated, and then spread his arms. “I can help.”
Sterling did not hesitate—he embraced his friend, and his skin felt like his again.
All too soon, Meltyre loosened his grip, and Sterling released him promptly. “Thank you.”
“Of course.” Meltyre looked puzzled, but not unpleasantly so. “Did something happen?”
“Nothing I can think of,” Sterling said, leaning back on the heels of his hands. “I think these things just build up.”
“I know what you mean,” Meltyre muttered, and turned back to look at his sisters, who were each shooting off their last arrows. “You don’t have to feel silly about it though. It’s…it’s okay to ask.”
Sterling felt very appreciated by his friend. “Thank you. I’ll remember that.”
Denner managed to confiscate the bows of the girls and dismiss them all, but they stayed chatting on the range while he left them to collect arrows.
“Hey, if you need a little more, I have an idea,” Meltyre said, presently.
Sterling surveyed his friend with some suspicion. What precisely did he mean? He didn’t seem nervous. “What is your idea?”
Meltyre smiled with a little mischief and called out, “Hey, girls?”
His sisters looked up—Lydda waved, Min called back, “Hi, Sterling!” and Seri giggled.
Meltyre pointed at Sterling. “Get him!”
And Sterling didn’t have time to do anything more than stand before the girls swooped in, hollering their little battlecries, and bowled him off his feet. And then everything was a pile of laughter and joy, and Sterling felt like himself.