Afloat - YavenaVerman - Octopath Traveler (Video Game) [Archive of Our Own] (2024)

Chapter 1: Awake

Chapter Text

Of all the things Gabriella could've seen herself doing during a regular day at her riverside abode, pulling a man out of said river wasnotone of them.

Yet here she was, out of breath and groaning as she hauled an unconscious man with pale hair and a purple poncho inside her house. The door had opened with a mighty slam, scaring her poor cat out of its wits. Every step caused more water droplets to flick across her floor. Gabriella winced as she more or less dropped the man onto a free spot in her reading nook, not only because she could've been more gentle, but because she already knew her blankets would smell of river moss for three washes at minimum.

But that was the least of her concerns as she spotted things she'd missed before: dozens of raw red scrapes covered the man's fair skin, the worst of all being a huge gash seeping scarlet blood across his stomach.

Gabriella exhaled and dashed towards her meager apothecary station. She was a lot of things—a gardener, an apothecary, a cook—but she was no master of any of them.

That didn't mean she wasn't going to try, however.

With conviction in mind and her mortar and pestle in hand, Gabriella seized her herbs and went to work.

For what seemed like ages, the only sounds to be heard were the grind of her tools and the water trickling outside the windows. Gabriella's patient was scarily quiet; the only way she knew he was alive was the rise and fall of his chest.

It took everything she had to recall the lessons her grandmother once taught her—which herbs were for congealing wounds, the ratio of herb paste to water, whether to heat the mixture over the stove or leave it at room's temperature. Gabriella found herself wishing she'd paid more attention to those bygone lectures… not that she'd ever say so aloud, for fear of her grandmother's ghost laughing at the admission.

But finally, a paste resembling a healing salve was prepared. It wasn't perfect, and in fact looked like someone had spilled noxroot all over her hands, but it would serve well enough. Gabriella took a deep breath and lifted the man's purple poncho, underneath which his white shirt was already soiled.

The gash was certainly an angry one. Based on the jagged pattern, it had been caused by the rocks at the bottom of the river…

Which meant the man must not have simply fallen into the river. The water was too deep. No, he must've fallen from somewhere high up…

"Did you fall from the Cliftlands?" she whispered. "If so, how are youalive?"

But as soon as the thought emerged, she shook her head. No one could survive a fall like that, least of all this man who, quite frankly, was thin enough that a stiff breeze might bowl him over.

It also wasn't as if his origins mattered in any way. Gabriella had always served the injured who stumbled upon her doorstep without prejudice. The only thing that mattered now was her putting the paste to the man's wound straightaway.

With three careful fingers, Gabriella smeared the medicine into the crevices and cuts of the man's skin. He didn't move much to signal awareness of her actions: only a twitch of the eye here or a sharp breath there.

As the seconds passed and the greenish paste began to take effect, the angry wounds were no longer quite so red. The outraged color was fading, subsiding, turning to pink instead. The blood was already lessening, which would thankfully spare Gabriella's blankets from being both drenchedandstained.

With her job largely done, Gabriella exhaled and started replacing her equipment in their usual spots. Her mortar and pestle reserved a special space upon her working desk, her jars of herbs were closed and put back upon the shelves… yet as she cleaned up, she couldn't stop herself from curiously observing her newfound patient.

He was young, to be sure—much like herself. His nose was small, his lips thin; if Gabriella had run past him in a busy market square, she might've overlooked him entirely… were it not for the pale color of his hair, which gleamed with hints of silver as the sunlight fell upon his face.

Gabriella exhaled and continued to put away her things.

It was quiet for long moments after. Her chores attended to, Gabriella elected to study the watercress she had accumulated from a traveling apothecary not a week beforehand. Only the tiniest tinkers of glass or the general rustle of papers could be heard for an hour, then two, until—

"The hell?"

Gabriella gasped and whirled around. The man was awake… or, as awake as a man in his condition could be. He was clearly conscious enough to note his unfamiliar surroundings.

Swallowing hard, she returned to his side.

"It's all right," she said slowly. She nearly winced at the sound of her own voice; since it was only Gabriella and her cat in the house, she didn't talk all that often, which meant she likely sounded horribly grating on the ears. "Don't move too much. You are wounded and sapped of strength. You can rest here."

The man's hazy gaze flickered towards her. His eyes were not yet open enough for Gabriella to note their color.

"Name," he said. It wasn't exactly stated as a question.

She blinked. "Gabriella."

He nodded. The gesture was lethargic, but steady. "Ella. Right. 'm Therion. Thanks."

And with that, his eyes fell shut again.

Gabriella found herself staring at him for another long moment. He was clearly asleep; his deep breaths disturbed the longest curls of his pale hair.

She bit the inside of her lip. It had been a very long time since she'd had a patient that needed to stay overnight, not since her grandmother had passed the previous year. It could be dangerous, letting an unknown stranger stay in her home…

But something told her he wasn't a threat. His wounds were severe enough that any movement would be limited for a few days, likely much longer. And even if he did try something untoward… at least Gabriella knew where the knives were.

That would be good enough. With one last look at her passed out patient, Gabriella seized her magnifying glass and returned to the watercress on the table.

The next four days passed in steady routine. Therion would wake perhaps once or twice a day, beyond groggy on each wakening, and Gabriella would insist that he eat something to keep up his strength. No matter what she brought him, he would eat it with gusto—while he usually preferred to eat alone, his plate was cleared every time. The only word he usually said as she gathered the dishes was, "Thanks," before he would lie down and fall back asleep.

In truth, even though he was usually sleeping, Gabriella would start when she saw Therion in her home. Her house was far away enough from the nearest village of Clearbrook that a trip to gather groceries or supplies would take hours without a donkey or a horse, neither of which she had.

All of that was to say, Gabriella was unused to having company.

Yet to his credit, Therion was a good house-guest. On the rare occasion he was sitting up in bed or lounging beside the window, nursing his wounds, he would always nod in greeting and would not get in her way. If the sunlight draped through the windows and became too hot, he would neatly fold his purple poncho and take care to keep it within his own space. Whenever the cat approached searching for scritches, he seemed only too happy to oblige. On the fourth day, once he had enough strength to stand, he even made it a point to stumble into the kitchenette and place the dinnertime dishes next to Gabriella's washing basin instead of letting her collect them, as she had done before—and then it was Gabriella's turn to simply say, "Thank you," before letting Therion lie back down to resume his rest.

It was surprising that even with another body in her home, her revered silence hadn't really changed. Gabriella had always valued privacy and peace; it was the main reason she hadn't moved to Clearbrook after her grandmother had passed, even though many of the villagers had offered her a place at their table.

Indeed, all that really changed during the days was that sometimes, she would have a curious audience whenever she would be studying her herbs and reagents.

But on the fifth day, Therion finally spoke. "You're a quiet one, aren't you, Ella?"

Gabriella nearly jumped at the sound of his voice, so invested had she been in drawing the petals of the thistletop flower she'd held in her hand. With a somewhat accusatory glance, she said, "You're one to talk, you know. This is the most I've heard you speak since I pulled you out of the river."

"Fair enough."

Silence settled again, mostly because Gabriella wasn't exactly sure what else to say. She prepared to turn back to her plant, dipped her quill into her ink bottle—

"So… what, no questions, no 'who are you,' 'where do you come from,' 'what do you do to get by?'"

Ink splotched onto Gabriella's page. "Do youwantme to ask you those questions?" She firmly and finally set down flower and quill alike.

Therion scoffed. "Hardly. I'm just… not used to it. I thought you'd be curious."

"I am. Immensely, I'm afraid. But I have made it a rule of mine never to question patients who come through my door." Gabriella stood from her stool and crossed towards the southern window, opening it to allow a fresh breeze through the house. "If you wish to share anything of yourself, then that is your prerogative."

The next silence that settled was a contemplative one. Gabriella stood ahead of the window, waiting for the riverside breezes to usher in a bit of respite from the sun's rays.

"D'you think I could go outside?"

That prompted Gabriella to turn around. She was both surprised and not surprised at all to see Therion already standing. A wistful look was being shot outdoors towards the river-bend, and it was obvious why. She would be shocked if he didn't have cabin fever.

And yet… even though there was no danger whatsoever in the countryside, Gabriella couldn't help but worry about Therion's state. He was only five days into recovery, after all. One wrong move, and that stomach wound would reopen—and then the man would be back at square one, and she wasn't sure if she had the herbs on hand to treat such a mistake.

"I'm not sure that's a good idea, Therion," she said slowly. She bit the inside of her lip at the flash that ran through his eyes. The sorrowful look reminded her of a kicked puppy. "If something aggravates that injury of yours, then…"

"I know the risks. I'm willing to take them." Therion shuffled forward and leaned against the wall beside the window. He turned his eyes to the picturesque riverland just beyond; a wistful look overtook him, whether he meant it to or not. "I'm not used to sitting in one place for so long, Doc."

Gabriella decided to purposefully ignore the title that he had bestowed her with and chose instead to give her patient another once-over. He hadn't struggled much to move forward, and he didn't seem to be restraining a grimace at the effort. Either Therion was a master at handling pain, or he and his body were far too stubborn to let a wound even of this caliber hold him down… and based on her few interactions with him thus far, Gabriella had a strong inkling that it was the second.

"Finish your physical?"

Therion's drawling voice snapped Gabriella out of her assessment. She was only mildly annoyed to note the right side of his lip was curling upwards as if he wanted to smile, but was keeping himself in check.

"Oh,all right," she finally conceded. One hand extended towards a cane she kept by the entrance. "But only if you accept a little help."

Therion's eyes narrowed as he beheld the cane. For the first time, she found herself noting their color: green, but tinged with grey.

"I'm injured, not old," he said.

Gabriella raised an eyebrow. "The riverbank often washes close to my home, which muddies the grass and causes treacherous footing. The worst of the gashes upon your stomach has yet to heal, and likely won't for some time yet. If you were to fall face-first outside my door and make yourself prone to infection, I don't have the necessary herbs to combat said infection."

The soft lapping of water over stones crashed into Gabriella's ears as surely as Therion's ensuing silence did. He seemed to be debating his options—the storm within his face told her he was a proud man, loath to accept assistance from an inanimate object such as this… yet healsoseemed to note the precarious position he was in.

And when he glanced at Gabriella from the corner of his eye, he knew damn well that he was either going outside with the cane, or not going outside at all.

"Fine." Therion snatched the cane from her, glaring at it in distaste. "It'll be good practice for thirty years from now, at least."

Gabriella couldn't help but laugh at that—there wasn't a single wrinkle upon Therion's face, which, she had to admit, was quite easy on her eyes. "You won't need a cane for at least forty."

"Well that's a relief."

With great thought and purpose, Therion strode past the door. He made a point to bonk the cane against the doorframe on his way out—perhaps to remind it who was in control, Gabriella thought with a smile and a shake of her head—and stopped short.

"Something the matter?" she asked.

Therion was quiet. It was a beautiful day, as it was not yet the full throes of summer. Each of the trees outside was in full bloom, some sporting delicious peaches, some bearing flowers of white or pink. The nearby river provided a soft breeze that calmed any overbearing heat; the road just down the hill was completely devoid of any travelers.

"I hear ducks," he finally said.

Sure enough, somewhere down the river was the familiar quacking of the ducks that Gabriella liked to feed whenever they came close. Based on the sound of it, they were on their way to her little river-dock, likely hoping for corn meal or halved grapes. She had grown so accustomed to their symphony, she hadn't even noticed them until Therion brought it up.

Gabriella couldn't help but smile. "Yes, they like to visit from time to time."

Therion sighed. "Hooray…"

"I'm sorry?" She stepped forward, hands on her hips. Try as she might to look imposing, Therion just seemed amused. "What's wrong with my ducks?"

He shrugged—and promptly winced as he aggravated one of his yet unsealed injuries. "They're just… little feathery rats," he grumbled as he massaged his shoulder. "I'm not fond of them."

"Well, perhaps they aren't fond of you, either."

"I know they're not."

Despite the lingering danger of the ducks to the south, Therion took additional steps into the open. He tilted his head towards the sky and, for the first time that Gabriella had yet seen, a small smile crept across his face. A deep breath flew past his lips as he said, "It's nice here. Not crowded like in towns."

Gabriella couldn't help looking at him. Therion wasn't a tall man, but the way he stood, straight as an arrow, as the wind brushed through his hair made him seem so. It was the first time she saw him poised with what looked like confidence… more often than not, he was hiding within that purple poncho of his.

She was so wrapped up in her observation of him that she didn't even notice Therion continuing down the hill. It was only when she heard him ask, "Are you coming?" that she realized she had been staring so obviously.

The request caused Gabriella to stop short and stammer, which only served to return that wretchedly amused look to Therion's face.

"I… did you want me to come with you?" she finally managed to ask. She wanted to hide her face, which was growing ever hotter as Therion appeared closer and closer to laughing. "I would've thought you wanted to be alone."

He smirked, a gesture that looked only too natural on his lips. "Well, if I end up falling on my ass down this hill, I don't see anyone else who'd be able to patch me up. Right, Doc?"

"You don't need to call meDoc," grumbled Gabriella. She huffed and crossed her arms, all too aware of how defensive this made her seem. "You can just call me Gabriella."

"I like Ella better."

"Most people just call me Gabi."

"I'm not like most people."

That was an understatement, and no mistake. Gabriella sighed, her shoulders slumping in preemptive defeat, as she engaged Therion in yet another silent standoff. His fingers were drumming along the oak wood of the cane, yet the look in his eyes was one of expectant patience.

Upon hearing Gabriella's ensuing silence, however, Therion grinned and said, in an all-too-purposeful sing-songy voice, "You can introduce me to your feathery raaaats."

"Myducks,thank you! And they have names, I'll have you know." Gabriella stormed forward and, before she could even realize what she was doing, forcefully seized Therion's arm and started guiding him down the muddy hill. "And as payment for my life-saving services, you're going to memorize every single one."

"Oh, the horror. Should've let me drown in the river."

But outside of his deadpan banter, Therion didn't fight as she led him to the pier. And, despite his previous play pretenses, Gabriella couldn't help noticing how actively he learned and memorized every single one of the ducks' names.

Chapter 2: Accost

Chapter Text

While the beginning of their time together started out in relative silence, Gabriella soon realized she was learning something new about Therion with each rising and setting sun. He still wasn’t the most talkative sort, but as she told him old stories of her growing up in the Riverlands, he began to respond with shenanigans he used to get up to when he was a child. It was still near impossible to glean anything traditional out of the man—for instance, where he was born or what he did for work—but little snippets of knowledge were certainly better than none.

“I tend to get around a lot,” Therion said in response to Gabriella’s admission that she had never traveled out of the Riverlands. “I’ve seen the Coastlands a fair amount, as well as the Highlands, the Frostlands, and the Cliftlands.”

Gabriella leaned forward, fascinated. “You have been around Orsterra.” A thought flew through her mind, a flash of a memory: the sight of Therion floating in the river, lips slightly agape, as he began to sink underneath clear waters. “Do you mind if I ask you something?”

“Tut-tut, what about your rule of not asking questions?”

She scoffed at the playful look within Therion’s eyes. “You can make one exception.” It was only after she received a nod of confirmation that she dared to ask, “When I saw you in the river… the wound on your stomach could’ve only been sustained by crashing into the rocks laying at the bottom of the water. Had you… fallen from the cliffs of the Cliftlands?”

Therion sighed and set down the red apple he’d been tossing up and down. His fidgeting was another thing Gabriella had come to notice about him; Therion liked to have something to do with his hands, as simply sitting still was a chore for him. “Fallen… yeah. Let’s go with that.”

Even though Gabriella wasn’t quite sure what he meant, Therion didn’t seem intent on elaborating further, and she had already asked her one question. To ask anything further would be to break the rules she had laid out for herself long ago, and worse still, prying too deeply would risk losing Therion’s trust.

So she let the matter lie, and brought the conversation back to her hometown instead.

Before long, three weeks had passed since Therion had first been dragged out of the river—and as Gabriella was baking a peach cobbler for them to share, he made sure to mark the occasion with the words, “I’m surprised I haven’t annoyed you to the point you’ve kicked me to the curb yet.”

His offhanded tone only made her laugh, the way it usually did. Her knife snaggled through the peaches, eventually hitting the wooden cutting board with a dull clunk. “You haven’t annoyed me at all, Therion.”

“Oh, really? Even when I forget to take the cane outdoors with me?”

That made her reconsider. It was true, more often than not, Therion would ‘forget’ to take the cane with him whenever he would traipse outside, much to her consternation. Thanks to his little ploys, he was probably setting back his healing by another week.

Gabriella shook her head as she quartered another ripe peach, the juices of which splattered across her table. “That’s just you being ornery which, I figure, comes with the territory of harboring you. And even with that minor footnote in consideration, I’d hardly let you leave without knowing your wound is fully sealed.”

“You apothecary types have the patience of saints,” he drawled. Then, a pause. “I do have one question for you, though. What’s the cost gonna be for all this care?”

Gabriella glanced to Therion over her shoulder. He seemed fairly lackadaisical about the question, which was rather unlike the people who normally came to her door needing healing. Most of her patients in the past had been unfortunate souls who could only spare a pittance if they so wished to spare it, but the expression Therion wore signaled he was anything but a destitute soul.

“Nothing,” she answered. She shrugged and turned back to her peaches. “I do not charge for my services.”

A brief silence. And then, “Nothing? You’re a damn good apothecary. You could charge people at least twice what a regular quack would.”

The praise seemed effusive, which was surprising from Therion. Gabriella felt a well of color begin to trail up her neck as she responded, “That’s kind of you. But I’d rather simply help people for the sake of helping them. My friend Alf—”

f*ck.

Gabriella blinked as a raucous thundering suddenly erupted behind her: the rustle of fallen books and pages, a hiss from her cat, a thud, and then Therion muttering, “Ooph,” as he hit the ground. Not that he was there long—he scrabbled across the floor on his hands and knees and swiftly concealed himself beside the tall wardrobe, where he was out of sight.

It took a moment to realize what had occurred, and another moment afterwards to understand there must’ve been a reason behind it. When Gabriella’s gaze fell upon the window, she noted two men in red and purple uniforms ascending the hill towards her home.

Her eyes fell again upon Therion, largely concealed by the shadows of the wardrobe. His lips were pressed tightly together and his eyes were filled with distaste. Something gleamed within his hand, though what it was, Gabriella could not say.

There was obviously a poor relationship between the incoming strangers and her current patient—but it was not as if Gabriella would risk Therion’s safety. No apothecary worth their salt would put their charges in harm’s way.

She crossed towards the door and swung it open, startling the two men who had been just about to knock upon it. They were fairly tall, and each of them were clad in full armor and had weapons strapped to their belts.

“Apologies for startling you,” she said, taking care to smile prettily. “How can I help?”

The lines in the men’s faces softened; good. Gabriella’s grandmother had taught her that as a young woman with a pretty face, an easy way to diffuse dangerous situations was to play along with whatever they wanted.

“Good afternoon, miss,” said the taller of the two men. “We’re looking for someone: a man with white hair. He was wearing purple garb. Have you seen him?”

Gabriella paused, furrowing her brow together in mock confusion. “White hair… I’m afraid not, unless you mean a man with blond hair. I did treat a blond-haired man’s wounds about a week ago, but he didn’t have any clothes in purple colors. He left three days ago.”

As she spoke, Gabriella took care to observe the men ahead of her. She did not get a good feeling about them… just the gleam in their eyes was enough to tell her they were not men of the law, and that went without mentioning the colors of their uniforms. The guardsmen of the Riverlands were clad in silver and blue, yet these men wore purple and red checkers.

“I see. Which way is the town of Saintsbridge? We suspect our man took refuge in a city, and Clearbrook seems too small a town for his liking.”

Gabriella pointed westward, along the main road and a fork to the left. “Saintsbridge is only a day away by foot.”

The man nodded. “Many thanks. Might you have any supplies you’d be willing to spare for travelers?”

His request immediately confirmed Gabriella’s suspicions that these men were not official soldiers. No indeed; official soldiers were not legally allowed to request aid from citizens, at least not in Riverlands territory. That meant these men were hired swords, or worse—criminals disguising themselves as reputable officers.

Still, she knew she couldn’t exactly refuse them in the event they became violent. Taking care to keep her smile upon her face, she said, “Allow me a moment.”

She whisked back into the house with a deep breath, not even daring to spare a look towards the wardrobe where she knew Therion was hiding. Men such as the ones at her door were frightfully skeptical, and would surely not take kindly to her deception if it were to be discovered.

Gabriella wrapped a loaf of bread that she’d baked earlier in the morning within a checkered cloth, seized a wicker basket, and placed the loaf inside. As she returned to the doorway, she said, “I know it’s not much, but it’s what I can spare. You are also welcome to take some ripe peaches or oranges from my orchard, though if you please, leave the red apples. I have many neighbors who have said they would die for my apple pie, and I’ll need every apple I have to meet demand!”

That was an outright lie—Gabriella hated making pies. She much preferred cakes.

But she didn’t want these deceitful soldiers taking any of Therion’s favorite fruit.

“We’re much obliged, miss,” said the first soldier, who bobbed his head and swiftly took the basket from her hands. The metal of his gauntlets was a jarring feeling against her skin; she relinquished the basket as quickly as she could. “Have yourself a nice day.”

With that, the two began sauntering towards her orchard. Gabriella watched from the doorway as they admired her six little fruit trees; they plucked one, two, four, eight, ten fruits from the branches… far too many for any two soldiers to need in one day. But it was better to placate them and have them leave without issue than it would’ve been to put up a fight, sad as she was to let them take her beautiful peaches.

At last, however, the soldiers waved jovially at her and started down the hill towards the main road. It was only once she observed them take the western fork that Gabriella warranted it to be safe. She stepped back inside and shut the door behind her, letting the lock fall with a soft click.

One glance towards her feet told her she wasn’t the only one who had been skeeved out by the soldiers’ presence. Whiskers was arching his back as he hissed at the door, orange fur standing on end.

“You can come out now,” Gabriella called softly.

It was silent for a moment or two… and then, the lightest shuffle and creak of her floorboards said that Therion had heeded her words. He stepped forward with a curious look twisting his sharp features. “Why did you do that?”

Gabriella blinked, surprised by the hesitancy of his voice. “Do what?”

“Lie for me.” He leaned against the wall, once hand pressed to his stomach, and grimaced. “You could’ve let them take me. It would’ve been safer for you had you done so.”

“And sacrifice the wellbeing of my patient? Hardly,” scoffed Gabriella. She stepped forward and gently guided Therion into sitting within her reading nook once again before removing his hand and observing his injury. “It looks like we might need to apply another salve, I think we ruined the last coat—”

“You don’t need to do that. I’ll be fine.”

Gabriella huffed and glared at Therion, who was looking almost guilty. “Therion, I am going to be very plain with you. I am helping you because I want to and not because I need to, and seeing as you are my charge, I am going to protect you howsoever I can for as long as you are under my care. Do you understand?”

Therion appraised her for a long, languid moment. His eyes drank in the fortitude within her face, the way her hands rested upon his side.

And finally, the little curl that often occupied the right side of his mouth returned. “Well, that’s the last time I underestimate the dedication of a good apothecary.”

“I should hope so!” Gabriella laughed. “Now hold steady while I mix up another salve, won’t you?”

He did as he was bade as Gabriella turned towards her apothecary bench—and as she began gathering the ingredients she needed for his next treatment, she could feel rather than see Therion’s smile grow slightly wider.

Chapter Text

Therion continued to gain strength over the following week, which was a miracle in itself for how deep the gash on his stomach had been. Gabriella was meticulous about checking up on his progress at least three times a day, not that he ever let her hear the end of it. More often than not he would refer to her as “Doc,” and of course he continued calling her Ella rather than the monikers she was used to.

It would’ve been a lie to say that she wasn’t fond of the name Ella, however. Therion had a way of speaking that made it seem all too natural, and just like she was with his presence, so she was getting used to her newfound nickname.

By the best of Gabriella’s estimations, it would take anywhere from another three to five weeks for Therion to be fully healed. She figured she could’ve gone into Clearbrook and asked Alfyn or Zeph for help, seeing as they were both the village’s official apothecaries and her close friends, but… she didn’t want to bother them. No, they had far too much on their plates as it was.

Gabriella could handle this.

As the days turned hotter, Therion more and more often wished to go outside, not that Gabriella could blame him. The cool waters were enticing, and try though he might to convince her of his dislike of them, he began sneaking extra snacks to give the ducks. Whenever he wasn’t at the pier, he was using fallen branches to whittle wooden sculptures. He had amassed quite a collection by the time another week had passed; little oak horses and cats lined Gabriella’s windowsills, the sight of which never failed to make her smile as she passed.

“You could probably open your own shop with your carvings,” she said one day, as she prepared a fresh fruit salad for them to have as a midday snack. “You’re skilled enough.”

Therion shrugged. “You might not have noticed since I’m just so charming, but talking to people isn’t exactly my forte.”

Gabriella couldn’t help but laugh at that assessment. It was true, Therion was quick-witted, yet his tongue was too sharp for his own good, and would likely dig underneath the skin of those who didn’t have the patience to know him better. “Well, that’s why you hire someone to do the talking for you. Then you can just make the sculptures.”

“We’ll see.”

Even though she knew that was just a code word for ‘no,’ Gabriella couldn’t help smiling as she continued slicing the fruits—

“Your knives are dull. Got a whetstone?”

She paused. She had noticed over the prior few months that it was getting harder and harder to chop up her produce, yet had not truly given the matter much thought beyond that. “No, I… suppose I don’t.”

Therion got to his feet and stretched, though he took care not to aggravate his torso. “Hold on. I’ll be right back.”

“Wait! Where are you—”

Yet Gabriella could get no further before Therion had swept through the front door, and without the cane she requested him to use, no less. Whiskers chittered from the sofa and darted out the door after him, orange tail swishing as he went.

For a long moment, Gabriella simply stared after the door. She should’ve been pleased with the fact that Therion was obviously feeling strong enough to impulsively whisk out of bed and down the hill, yet all she could think was that Whiskers would miss the man once he was gone. In truth, she didn’t like the thought of being alone in the house again, either…

It was only a few minutes that he was gone, yet throughout all that time, Gabriella could only stand and stare at the place where her patient had just disappeared from. She was alarmed to think that without him there, the space was looking empty.

“By Dohter, you’ve only been here for five weeks,” she whispered to herself. “Cynical, ridiculous man that you are…”

Yet she’d still adapted to his presence, and there was no use in pretending otherwise.

When Therion returned, he strode through the door with Whiskers draped across his shoulders. “I’m back. Found a good rock that could be an impromptu whetstone, and yes, I’ve already sanitized—hey.” He stopped short upon noticing the thousand-yard stare that Gabriella was trying and failing to keep at bay. “You okay?”

Something in his voice changed with the question. Gabriella finally turned to face him, her thoughts all but drowning out his words. She couldn’t believe how accustomed she was to his presence; even worse, she couldn’t believe that she would miss him once he was gone. She had never truly missed anyone in her life, and yet…

“Yes,” she said, knowing that the answer was pathetic in and of itself. “I’m fine.”

“Hmm.” Therion’s brow furrowed; his eyes darted across Gabriella’s face once, twice, three times. His concern was obvious, and that made it no less endearing. “Go sit down. I’ll handle this.”

Without waiting for her response, Therion gently set Whiskers upon the ground—the cat seemed less than pleased to have lost his perch—and took hold of Gabriella’s hands.

Despite the countless times that Gabriella had touched him while checking up on his wounds, that was due to medical necessity. It was part of the transaction that had been their meeting: she would take care of him, as was her obligation as an apothecary.

But this was different. Therion had never reached out to her while she tended to his injuries before, but here, his hands were surprisingly careful as his fingers relieved the hilt of the knife from her palm. He escorted her towards a nearby chair, his other hand floating upon the small of her back as they went.

Gabriella was thankful for the seat, because by the time she was sitting, her head was spinning, and it wasn’t due to the incoming summer heat. She could only stare as Therion turned his back and started sharpening the knife he had relieved her of; his movements were quick yet methodical, as though he had done plenty of the like before.

For a few minutes, the only sounds were those of the chirping birds outside, the soft shink of the stone sharpening the knife, and the incessant purring of Whiskers lounging at Therion’s feet.

“You know how to handle a dagger,” Gabriella ended up saying. “You wield it with a practiced hand, you know how to service one… I suspect that means you know how to use it for its intended purpose, too.”

If her words struck a chord in him, she couldn’t see it—but the sound of metal against stone abruptly stopped. “I thought you didn’t ask questions of your patients, Ella.”

There was no missing the uncharacteristically soft timbre of Therion’s voice, yet there was something underneath it, too. Something that, try as she might, Gabriella could not discern.

“You’re right. I don’t,” she replied. “But it wasn’t a question. Just an observation.”

They each paused for a long moment. A breeze flew through the house, brought in by the river—it was just strong enough to rustle some of the flyaway strands of Therion’s hair. “I see.”

If there was more he wished to say on the matter, he didn’t.

Before another few minutes had passed, Therion had progressed from sharpening the knife to cutting the fruit that Gabriella had started. Peaches, apples, oranges; her grandmother had found fruit tree saplings off of traveling merchant carts over the years, but only in the last five years had the orange tree begun to produce fruit. With luck, within the next five years, Gabriella would be able to add a cherry tree to her little orchard.

“I hope you realize I’m taking your cat when I leave,” Therion said suddenly.

She blinked and realized that Whiskers was gently nuzzling Therion’s ankles. His purring had only grown louder as the minutes had passed—but the sudden realization of what Therion had just stated left a hollow place in Gabriella’s stomach. She didn’t want to think about him leaving…

“By Dohter’s left ass-cheek you are,” she somehow managed to retort. When Therion glanced at her over his shoulder, she made a point to raise an eyebrow and cross her arms over her chest. “I’ve raised that cat from a kitten to the five-year old orange loaf he is today. You’ll take him with you over my dead body.”

Such an impassioned decree was only met with a languid sigh. “And here I thought I was starting to grow on you…”

Gabriella pursed her lips. That comment was a question without the question. Despite her lifestyle lacking much casual conversation, she knew well enough the game of language and how people attempted to gather information.

This was Therion asking, in his own way, what she thought of him.

And strangely enough, she didn’t mind answering him honestly. They had known each other for five weeks now, after all, and Gabriella found herself thankful for his company. “I’d say I hate to admit that you are, Therion, but… saying I hate to admit it would be a lie.”

Even though she fully expected a smartass retort, as was Therion’s usual wont, what she heard next caused a warmth to settle within her chest.

“I’d say I hate to hear that, but I don’t hate it at all.”

Chapter 4: Appreciate

Chapter Text

Something changed in the way Therion looked at her from that day onward.

Gabriella couldn’t see it within his face, as the man was infuriatingly adept at concealing his thoughts a vast majority of the time, but still she knew it to be true. It was something in the air that lingered between them; beforehand, it had been hesitant, or maybe even scrutinizing.

Now, however, the silences that lasted between them held a semblance of warmth. It was as though finally, Therion was truly beginning to trust her… which, Gabriella thought with some amusem*nt, was rather ironic considering she had been the only thing standing between him and death for the prior weeks.

Yet as another three days passed, Gabriella noted that concern often lined the sharp features of Therion’s face whenever he thought she wasn’t looking. The figurines he whittled during those days were unpolished, as if he were distracted. While Gabriella wanted to help him, she did not wish to pry… so she simply pretended as though she didn’t notice at all.

It was on the thirty-seventh day of Therion’s stay, while Gabriella was preparing a special dessert to celebrate the last of his minor wounds officially healing—though that stomach laceration still needed a little more time and a few more coats of powerful salves—that he asked her a question.

“You don’t know anything about fighting, do you?”

Gabriella carefully placed the metal pan within her stove-oven. If she was lucky, the cake would rise without issue, even though she was running a little low on flour. “I can’t say that I do. Many of the boys who grow up here become soldiers simply so they can get out of town, but… my interests always lay with healing wounds rather than causing them.”

With the soon-to-be-baked cake safely nestled within the heat, Gabriella turned to face Therion again. Her smile grew wider as she noted his usual slouched posture. The familiarity of the sight was reaching the point where she could see him even behind closed eyelids, in the very same position he was lounging in now. It surprised her how comforting the image was.

Therion nodded, but a scowl twisted his lips. “I was worried you’d say that.”

The comment made her blink. “What? Why?”

“The world’s a dangerous place.” Therion rose from his seat and reached down into his boot. “You need to be prepared for anything, especially if you keep living out here alone.”

When he straightened up once again, Gabriella was shocked to notice a small dagger within his hands—one that wasn’t his usual whittling knife. Therion dexterously twirled the weapon through his fingers, surely a gesture he’d performed a thousand times before, before extending it to her, hilt first.

Gabriella’s gaze flickered between the knife and his expectant expression. Something in her knees grew weak as she protested, “Therion, I…”

“Let me teach you.”

The offer was an unexpected one, and one that Gabriella was not immediately sure she wished to take. Her grandmother had always kept a knife in her bedside drawer for safety, but she had never officially trained in how to wield it. Thus, neither had Gabriella.

“Just to defend yourself. I don’t like the thought of anything happening to you,” said Therion, and suddenly, his voice had lost some of its usual edge. He took only one step forward, yet those few centimeters seemed to bring him so much closer. “Please.”

The simplicity of that final word caused Gabriella’s constitution to shatter and break apart, a stained glass window littering the floor of a cathedral. Biting the inside of her lip, she took the dagger with hesitant fingers. It wasn’t as heavy as she feared it’d be.

“Come on,” Therion said next. He trailed towards the front door and opened it, allowing summer sunlight to bathe the entryway of her home. Hearing the door click open, Whiskers immediately woke up from his nap with a noisy chitter and darted outside to attend to his many cat-like activities.

The way the sunlight illuminated Therion’s silhouette made Gabriella freeze in place. Subtle rays of white highlighted the brightness of his eyes, while the shadows underlined the sharpness of his jaw. She could hardly see the familiar landscape of the trees or grass waiting just beyond the doorway. All she could see was him, waiting for her to approach and take his extended hand… and for some reason, the only thought that crossed Gabriella’s mind, over and over as if they were rolling waves, was that he was so very beautiful.

With a short exhale and a prayer that she wasn’t wearing a stricken expression, she crossed the room to follow, slid her hand within Therion’s, and allowed him to guide her into the orchard.

It was nearing the midst of the summer months, which meant the heat was starting to settle in, and the humidity of the neighboring river wasn’t doing them any favors. Even as Therion paused underneath some of the shadiest trees, he exhaled sharply and said, “Too bad we aren’t a little further north.”

He swept the poncho off his shoulders, throwing it across a low tree branch to hang. It was not often that Therion doffed said poncho, yet each time he did, Gabriella found herself admiring him even though she knew she shouldn’t. She blamed at least part of that on the neckline of his white shirt, which dipped low on his chest.

“First thing you need to know about knives: don’t let go of it. Ever.”

Gabriella giggled at what seemed such an obvious piece of advice and was about to make a smart remark, but Therion raised a hand to cut her off before she could.

“I know it sounds silly. But when you’re in a life-or-death situation, there’s no telling what you might do. I’ve seen somebody panic and throw it in a desperate attempt to escape, and it cost them their life.”

Such a comment was sobering in and of itself. The smile faded from Gabriella’s lips.

Therion didn’t pause. “Second thing you should know: knives aren’t like other weapons, where you can parry or attack at range. They’re quick, and they’re deadly. If you swing at someone or if someone swings at you, one of three things is going to happen. You’re either going to block the blow, you’re going to avoid the blow, or you’re going to get stabbed.”

A cool breeze wafted through the air, brushing Gabriella’s wavy hair ahead of her face. She pushed it back behind her ear impatiently. “You’ve… been doing this a long time, haven’t you?”

He nodded. “Yeah. Which is why I’m doing this.” Therion stepped forward; for the first time, Gabriella realized the knife that had previously been in his hands had disappeared. “Try to stab me.”

Gabriella’s blood ran cold. “What?

“Try to stab me.” Therion repeated the command as easily as he might describe the weather. “I need to see what you do in an untrained state.”

Her knees grew weak; the soft mud underneath her soles seemed to reach up to swallow her whole. “Therion, I—I can’t—what if I hurt you?”

Therion laughed aloud, startling Gabriella out of her wits. The sound echoed throughout the open air, to be swallowed by the surrounding trees and brushes. She had never heard him laugh like that before, so… unrestrained. In fact, she hadn’t yet heard him laugh at all.

It was incredible; while she was timidly and even painfully out of her element, Therion seemed so at ease issuing instruction, she could only be fascinated by his confidence.

“You won’t hurt me,” Therion promised, a crooked grin crossing his face. “And even if you did… I can count on you to patch me up. Right, Doc?”

Much as she wanted to bark at him to stop calling her that already, Gabriella couldn’t bring herself to do it. That facetious curl to the right side of his mouth continued growing, and there was so much light behind his eyes. It was a stark contrast to the first few days she had come to know him, when he was so withdrawn and lifeless.

She wanted to hold onto this, as long as she could.

Gabriella exhaled and took another deep breath, filling her lungs, her diaphragm. With a strength she didn’t expect to use, she rocketed forward on the balls of her feet, dagger in hand. Therion’s smile grew as she came closer, and then—

She yelped as her wrist was tightly seized and her own momentum was tossed against her. Gabriella flew in a half-circle, coming dangerously close to flying into one of her peach trees, before being pulled close again by Therion’s other arm.

All of that motion came to an abrupt halt; Gabriella’s heart stopped even swifter than her body had as she realized she was all but pressed up against Therion’s chest.

“Not bad,” he said, nodding in approval. “I see you kept my first point of advice in mind.”

When he gestured to her hand, Gabriella blinked. The knife was still in her palm, only inches away from Therion’s collarbone. With a gasp, she turned the blade away from him, pointing it towards the soft dirt instead.

“The biggest note I could give you is that you poised your knife-arm too far from your body. That made it easy for me to grab your wrist and turn your speed against you. Next time, make sure you keep your weapon closer to your chest.”

As each second passed, Gabriella was growing more and more aware of the fact that Therion hadn’t let her go yet, and that he seemed in no hurry to do so, either. “And what—what happens if I end up here in a real fight?” She wanted to smack herself for how weakly her voice escaped her lips.

Therion hummed to himself. “Do whatever you can to free yourself. For example, right now, you could headbutt me, ram your shoulder into my ribs, or stomp on my foot. If all else fails, you could also knee me in the balls, but I’d very much appreciate if you didn’t.”

The knife in Gabriella’s hands fell limply to the grass as she burst into laughter. She didn’t know why she was laughing so hard, but she was, and her ribs were beginning to hurt from the lack of a solid breath. Eventually, Therion, chuckling himself, had to lower them both to the ground so she wouldn’t fall and take him with her besides. But Gabriella simply couldn’t help it—the crass comment had been so unexpected, and combining the silliness with all else that had occurred in the last few minutes, she was even beginning to feel lightheaded.

As the laughing fit began to subside and Gabriella wiped the tears from her eyes, she suddenly realized—it had been so long since she’d gotten to laugh like that. It was another detriment to the way she had lived, all her life… there was no one around to share memories with, no one to say something so outlandish that it would bring her to tears.

Gabriella swallowed, pushing past the last spurts of giggles, and looked into Therion’s eyes. He was only growing brighter by the minute, and she could look at him forever.

“You are a ridiculous man,” she finally contented herself with saying. As the wind revisited the orchard, a piece of Therion’s hair fell ahead of his eyes. Gabriella took it upon herself to gently brush it away, fingers careful as she returned them to her side.

“Yet you’re putting up with it,” he retorted. One hand squeezed her shoulder, the yellow fabric of Gabriella’s dress bunching up within his palm.

“Of course I do. I happen to—”

But Gabriella stopped herself short, swallowing back a gasp. She couldn’t believe she had been about to say—it would’ve been stupid—beyond stupid—to utter what thought had infiltrated her mind.

Therion blinked at her sudden cutoff, clearly curious as to what her words might’ve been. But he did not press, he did not pry; he simply rose to his feet and extended a silent, expectant hand.

Gabriella took it and, with the aid of his strength, staggered back to her own feet. She glanced up into Therion’s face, worried that her near slip of the tongue might’ve caused the brightness in his bearing to fade… but she needn’t have worried. The way he was looking at her, with something reminiscent to a tenderness it had been ages since she’d last received, banished the last of her uncertainty.

“Try again,” Therion said. He returned the dagger to Gabriella’s palm and finally began to take a few steps backward, the shadows of the leaves falling across his face. “There’s no way in hell I’m leaving you without knowing you can defend yourself.”

She nodded. “Right.”

And, taking care to keep her knife-arm a little closer to her body than before, she dashed forward.

Chapter 5: Acquire

Chapter Text

Training sessions occurred once a day, every day for the following ten days. Gabriella was surprised by how quickly she was becoming accustomed to the feeling of steel in her hand; it both impressed and frightened her to realize that even considering the subject matter, she was a fast learner.

It wasn’t hard to see Therion was pleased with her progress, either. Ever since they started training in the orchard, he had begun wearing a specific look of approval that manifested most severely within his eyes. Gabriella could always see it in the slight creases that formed, as if he were about to smile—the only other moments he wore that look were when he was munching on one of the red apples he’d picked from her orchard.

Once another week had gone by, however, Gabriella was forced into an unfortunate truth. Her stock of alchemical ingredients was rapidly diminishing, and was in fact on the verge of dangerously insufficient for the final doses of Therion’s treatment. And that was without mentioning her food stores—sure, she was able to grow most of her vegetables and fruit in her backyard garden, but produce didn’t account for everything…

Despite her concerns, Gabriella did her best to keep them hidden from Therion. She made sure to count her preserves early in the morning before he had awoken, and planned meals in advance so he wouldn’t see her hesitate or seem uncertain. She could always tell when he was watching her; it was something about his gaze, his green eyes even sharper than his wit.

And most unfortunately for her, he was a perceptive man on top of it all.

"You need to get to the market, don’t you?” Therion asked one morning, as he and Gabriella were eating breakfast. “You’ve had that furrow to your brow so long now, it’ll end up a permanent wrinkle soon.”

Gabriella sighed and simply nibbled at another strawberry. She knew there was no use denying it. It had been quite the task to prepare full, nutritious meals over the last few days. Her grandmother had taught her how to make supplies go as long as possible and that had certainly helped, but still…

“It’s fine,” she replied. Her fork tines pierced the next bite of scrambled eggs. She wished she’d conserved a little more salt the previous month so they wouldn’t be so flavorless now. “We’ll be okay.”

Therion raised an eyebrow and repeated, “We?”

“Well…” Gabriella paused, noting the genuine surprise within his eyes at her statement. Her face grew hot. “Your wounds are getting better, that’s true. If you wish to go, you’d just need to take some spare bandages and—”

“Don’t get off topic.” Therion tapped the table and set his fork down. “And don’t bullsh*t me. You’re running low on stuff, aren’t you?”

There was no escaping such a piercing gaze. Gabriella inhaled deeply and tried not to shuffle in her seat. “Yes. I suppose I am.”

Therion nodded, having clearly expected the answer. “Well, that lays out my daytime plans, then.” He stretched, just as he always did after finishing a meal—he had regained most of his usual strength now that the stomach laceration he’d sustained had transformed into little more than a white scar. Within the next few days, he wouldn’t need Gabriella anymore… if he still needed her at all.

The realization made a stone drop into her stomach. Gabriella couldn’t imagine laying eyes on her little reading nook without seeing Therion huddled within the nest of blankets he’d arranged for himself there. She had grown so used to his presence in her orchard or down at the river-dock, not always by her side, but always in view. Whiskers had only grown more affectionate with Therion over time, too; more often than not, the man had a little orange shadow trailing after him.

“I’m not just gonna leave you with no supplies after you dragged me out of the river and let me bum in your house for seven weeks.” Therion’s words were coarse, yet the tone of his voice was anything but. He reached out and took the empty breakfast dishes from the table. “Let me take care of the supplies. Where’s the nearest town?”

Gabriella took a deep breath and nodded towards the front door, far beyond which her hometown was located. “Clearbrook is an hour or two to the east on foot, but if you’re lucky, you might stumble on some trading merchants traveling the main road.”

“Right. Got a list of what you need?”

It took a number of minutes to scribble down all of the supplies that Gabriella was running low on, but with Therion’s help, she managed to account for the vast majority of it: flour, salt, sugar, oil, butter, jams, pickles—

Therion whistled through his teeth as his eyes trailed the list. “I’ve put you through the wringer, haven’t I?”

Gabriella shook her head. “I wouldn’t say that. I’ve been eating, too.”

“Right, but these medicinal supplies of yours…” Therion paused. Gabriella knew there were no less than a dozen different types of herbs and reagents that needed replacing, and she also knew she wouldn’t be able to afford restocking them all.

“I know. But I’m most concerned about these.” Gabriella swept forward, her shoulder lightly nudging Therion’s own, and began circling four of the listed herbs: essence of grape, addlewort, sleepweed, and curious bloom. “These are the main components of the salves I’ve been making for you, and I want to send you off with more whenever you decide to go…”

The last few words only just eked out of her mouth. Instead of allow her sentence to end on such a pitiful note, however, Gabriella forced a smile across her lips.

Something changed within Therion’s face at her admission. The usual sharp angles and the creases around his eyes softened: there it was again, that look. Gabriella had become adept at noticing it, but she still didn’t know the reason he wore it in the first place.

“I’ll get them all. Swear on it,” he finally said.

Gabriella couldn’t help but laugh lightly. “Not with this stipend, you won’t.” She swept towards her work desk and rummaged through its top drawer. There were only two hundred and seventy-three leaves to account for, but it would have to do. After withdrawing every last leaf in her possession, Gabriella seized Therion’s hand, carefully opened his fingers, and deposited her money into his palm.

Therion’s eyebrows raised so high, they were almost lost in the slight curl of his hair. “I was planning on procuring all that you need on my own. What guarantee do you have that I won’t just run away with what you’ve given me?”

“Well… you haven’t done it yet,” she answered, both honestly and immediately. “And that’s without saying I don’t think you would do that.”

“What makes you so sure?”

The question was a fair one. Under any normal circ*mstances, Gabriella would’ve needed to think long and hard about an honest answer. Because in retrospect, what she was doing was absolutely foolish; it wouldn’t have taken too much effort for Therion to pretend that he was a decent man throughout the time he had been living under her roof. For all she knew, he could’ve been waiting for this exact moment—and now that he had gathered both his strength and her trust, he could simply run off into the sunset and leave her in a most precarious position.

But therein lay the answer to the question he had asked.

“I trust you,” she said.

Therion sighed and drawled, “Then you’re waaayyy too trusting. You hardly know anything about me, Ella.”

“I know enough.” Gabriella accosted Therion with a serious look and refused to let him shy away. “I know that you have a quick mind and a sarcastic sense of humor. I know that you are skilled in the blade, and that you’ve been a fighting man for most of your life. I know your favorite dessert is honeysuckle cake, that you’ve drifted from town to town, that you like cats, and that despite your efforts to pretend otherwise, you care deeply about the people who enter your life, no matter what capacity they meet you in.”

Throughout her ramblings, Therion had seemed exasperated, curious, and somewhat amused all at once. Yet the moment Gabriella finished saying the words ‘you care deeply about the people who enter your life,’ his face fell completely.

“I…” He stopped. Swallowed hard. Then he slowly began to shake his head. “You’re going to get yourself hurt one day, believing in people like that.”

He sounded so sad that Gabriella felt her chest tighten. Without thinking, without meaning to at all, she placed a hand upon the side of his face. Therion’s eyes fluttered closed, yet he neither leaned into her gesture nor shrank away from it. Seeing such a vulnerable plaintiveness fall upon him, all Gabriella could think was how, in this moment, he looked every bit as alone as she feared she would be once he left.

“Then perhaps one day, I will get hurt. But for now, with you… I choose to believe in you,” she murmured.

Her words did not garner an immediate response. In fact, Therion was so deathly still, he might have been mistaken for a statue. Gabriella stood ahead of him for what seemed like ages, her palm and fingers still delicately resting against his cheek. There was very little she dared to do for fear of frightening him half out of his wits; he seemed like a deer peering into a hunter’s eyes, and there was no telling what he would do once either of them moved.

Seven and a half weeks it had been since she had first seen him afloat in the river, but Gabriella was no better at reading him now than she had been on day one.

The cord finally snapped; a sharp breath flew past Gabriella’s lips as Therion tightly seized her wrist and pulled it forwards. He kissed the palm of her hand so quickly and so lightly that Gabriella might have believed she imagined the entire interaction.

“I’ll be back by sunset,” said Therion.

And before Gabriella could unscramble her thoughts to form a coherent response, he had whisked out of the front door and was lost to the early morning light.

Afloat - YavenaVerman - Octopath Traveler (Video Game) [Archive of Our Own] (2024)

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