The Dyes That Bind

“You got us both tank tops…” Brex says, blushing.

“Can’t really do sleeved shirts,” Carris says. “They don’t make ’em for minotaur arms.”

“Orc arms either,” Brex says, then stands in front of a design guide with instructions on how to properly tie-dye your favorite 100% cotton garment.

Aurocshasa Holy Camp is having their yearly tie-dye cookout, but most of the attendees were waiting in line for some freshly-grilled veggie burgers. The Senior Camp Counselor (a high-ranking Paladin) was manning the grill, his “Where’s the Beef” apron snug tight around his middle, featuring a stylized bull head with horns and fur patterns matching his own.

Traveling beyond one’s primary reality has a tendency to knock out your appetite, so Brex politely asked Carris to show him how to tie-dye instead, before he embarrassed himself in front of everyone else for not knowing.

“I’m thinking this one,” Carris says, gesturing with his hand still holding the tank top at one design in particular.

“Bull’s eye?” Brex asks. “Isn’t that a little on-the-nose?”

Carris shrugs. “It’s a good look! What are you thinking? Spiral?”

“What!? No!” Brex says, then shifts his eyes. “Maybe.”

“It’s classic.”

“What if people make the wrong assumption?”

“Is it the wrong assumption, or the wrong person making it?”

Brex sighs. “I just…I have a complicated relationship with spiral motifs. They have to be subtle.”

Carris smiles. “Say no more, I understand completely.”

Brex glares back. “Of course you do.”

“Then maybe a diagonal pattern. Easy to fold, easy to dye,” Carris says.

Brex rubs his chin, “Fine, sure.”

“Ooh, what colors though?”

“Purple and blue, obviously,” Brex says. “It’s symbolic. They’re colors usually associated with thoughtfulness and intelligence, because–“

“I’m more of a red and yellow guy myself,” Carris says, interrupting. “Complements my natural features.”

They poured their dyes into their trays, watching the inky blots slowly swirl into homogeny with the water, then put on their leather gloves.

“The leather thing doesn’t bother you?” Brex says. “Feels like it’d be as weird as wearing orc-skin gloves for me.”

“Cows aren’t minotaurs,” Carris says. “For one, we talk. For two, we have feet, not hooves.”

“Is that all it takes?”

“Do you really want me to go deeper on it?”

Brex grumbles and shakes his head.

They start dipping, and Carris shows Brex how to make sure that colors don’t bleed over each other, especially for the patterns they’re going for. As assertive, perhaps even boisterous, as Carris might be, Brex considers himself thankful for having a patient and careful teacher.

“So, step 1: tie. Step 2: dye,” Carris says.

“What’s step 3?” Brex asks.

“Wait.”

“Ugh.”

They sit at a wooden table near the tie-dye stations. The veggie burgers have only just begun being served, so there’s plenty of time.

“So, I have to ask. What’s it like over there?” Carris says.

“Over where?”

“Over in your neck of the woods.”

Brex blinks in confusion.

“Over in your, uh, reality I guess,” Carris says. “If we’re the same person from different timelines, I just want to know what’s…different.”

“Oh! Hah, I thought you meant like, literal woods,” Brex says, blushing. “It’s…It’s okay, I guess. Politics are bad, but the sorcery is good. Rapid magical and technological advancement. Kind of wild, really. I’m involved with some…committees. How much do you know about ‘where I’m from?’”

“Well, you remember meeting, uh, the first Carris, right?”

“Yeah.”

“You remember going to his Order? Finding out what happened to him?”

“Yes.”

“Well, everything after that, after you declined their offer, I presume…that’s what’s different.”

“Oh! Well I went back to the University and finished my standard education. They asked me to stay on board in their advanced research division and I agreed. It’s been pretty rewarding, but…well, there aren’t many other orcs. Whenever I see an orcish student, I always try to let them know they have my support if they need it, but the faculty doesn’t really understand orcish culture and customs.”

“Do people still ask you if you’re naturally good at sorcery because you have a lot more muscle?”

Yes and it’s awful,” Brex says. “They don’t understand that it’s an equal playing field for all three sentient species, that orcs don’t have extra Resource in their muscles, it’s less densely distributed–Eugh.”

“You know, I still get that too,” Carris says. “Not from the other members of the Order, but…people. They assume that it’s all just being a minotaur. Being big. Which has its advantages, don’t get me wrong, but it’s around the same amount of Resource as an orc.”

“What is different, if I may ask?”

“The spells? Not much. At least, from what I knew of sorcery before I joined the order. Things still work the same way. But you keep a staff with you instead of a bunch of rings in pockets. The staff is inlaid with sorcerous metal and you can attach four or five spells as you choose to it.”

“Is it like a walking stick?”

“No, it’s a proper bonking staff. Really satisfying to sweep the legs when you’re fighting bandits. They don’t guard their ankles much.”

“So does that make you a monk or what?”

“The Order doesn’t really care for labels like that,” Carris shrugs. “We’re just big people shaped like bulls doing good things in the name of Aurockas.”

Brex screws up his face, disappointed.

“We tried the word ‘minomancers’ once. Didn’t test well in rural areas. Most of the places we work are rural.”

Brex gasps. “You’re a country boy,” he says with a knowing smile.

“I am not!”

“Do you work on a farm?”

“No. Well, sometimes. But not if I can help it.”

“Wait, is there milk involved? I don’t want to know if there’s milk involved.”

“THERE IS NO MILK,” Carris says, raising his voice a little too loudly. Someone from the line mentions that there is in fact milk in the community icebox and Carris just thanks them for the clarification, following it with a harumph.

“You don’t just become a country boy,” Carris says. “It’s only been what, four years since I joined? I’m still a nomadic orc at heart.”

“Is it rough staying with the Order? All in one spot for so long?”

“Well, it might be if we weren’t sent to assist people halfway across the world. It’s usually a long, hard journey. Makes coming back feel like coming home again. No matter how long you’ve been away.”

“Can’t say I’m familiar with that feeling,” Brex says.

“I know,” Carris says.

An awkward silence floats between them for a moment.

“Does that make you regret declining?” Carris asks.

“A little bit. You seem happy. Fulfilled. In a lot of ways that I can’t seem to work out for myself.”

“It’s good here. Nice,” Carris says. “It’s a community. We work together. But that means sacrificing your biggest dreams, the ones that you might be okay stepping on people for, even if it means a brighter future. That’s…just not tolerated here. You follow your directions, you help the people you need to help. We’re like…repairmen. And repairmen have a bit of crossover with engineers, but they’re not the same. You…you’re much closer to an engineer. You’re discovering the new things. We’re fixing what’s already here. In a perfect world, we’d be replaced by more efficient spells.”

“Don’t say that,” Brex says.

“But it’s true. We shouldn’t have to do what we do. But the need is there. So we fill it. But filling a need isn’t the same as eliminating it. We’re a bandage, not a cure.”

“That’s…kind of a dark way to think about it.”

“Not dark, realistic. One of the reasons I can keep at it is that I know you’re over there on the other side doing things that push the envelope.” Carris leans forward. “So tell me more.”

Brex looks taken aback. “Well, we were able to modify time itself the other day. Repeat the same second again, just in one room. It was a little bit like deja vu. But with that, we could research the consequences of making specific decisions, or help healers watch how bodies respond to certain treatment methods without lasting damage.”

Carris smiles. “Sounds about right. Makes sense that you’d end up crossing realities, with all that chronomancy nonsense.”

Someone hits a service bell, calling for anyone who wants a second veggie burger.

But the sound resonates with both of them at their core. Something is unsettled within them.

Carris stands up. “Let’s check on the tie dye.”

“It hasn’t even been an hour,” Brex says.

“Well I think we’ve just established that time is a little off-kilter here. Maybe they’re done.” Carris picks up his tank top to find it totally dry. He takes off the bands and unfurls it. “I like it!”

It’s a handsome, sunny, summery design with a warm yellow in the middle fading into a bright red at the edges. He slips off his vest and puts on the tank top. “What do you think?”

“I can’t decide whether it clashes with your beard or matches perfectly.”

“Maybe it depends on the angle,” Carris says, then tosses Brex’s tank top at him.

Brex unfurls it and smiles. The colors are just the right mix of deep and bright to feel luminescent. He carefully unbuttons his own shirt and then puts on the tank top. “How do I look?”

Carris seems a bit melancholy about it. “I think it’s better than mine, actually.”

Brex looks down at his own. “I think it might be. Just my opinion, I mean.”

“You going to take it back with you?” Carris asks.

A bell rings again. But not the dinner bell. A church bell in the distance. Like a clock tower, but it never fades. It only grows louder.

“I don’t know if I can. This whole thing seemed a little too silly to be real.” Brex says.

Carris rolls his eyes. “Just because it’s not permanent doesn’t mean it’s not real.”

“Are either of us going to remember this?”

“Maybe not all of it,” Carris says. “But some of it. Something you think is important.”

The chimes grow louder. The other patrons of the cookout have disappeared. Veggie patties are burning on the charcoal grill.

“If I keep it on me, do you think I’ll wake up with it in my…original reality, I guess?”

“Maybe!” Carris says with a smile. “I’d love to find out.”

The chimes grow louder still, to the point where they start to shout at each other.

“I’ll have to tell you next time. I hope it does. It’ll be a little mystery that’ll lead me back here. Hopefully,” Brex says.

“Hopefully,” Carris says.

They give each other a bright smile before the sound of the chimes swallows them whole.

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