The Highest Form
The path under her feet was familiar, as was the climb up the steps cut into the cliff.
Morveren adjusted the bag over her shoulder as she ascended, the familiar sight of the northernmost temple of Charity coming into view as she rounded the corner. She'd always stayed there, although she had often made the trip across the bay to the other building for her medical studies back when she was younger. Built of weather beaten granite and shining with a fresh coat of whitewash, the temple looked homely rather than imposing, the red and white striped lighthouse set behind it adding the effect.
Too her left as she approached, she could see the initiates hard as work in the herb gardens, gathering the medicinal supplies they would need for the oncoming winter and the onset of cold and flu's the hospices would no doubt be treating. A couple of them gave her waves as she approaches, and she raised her hand back in greeting. She had few friends at the temple, but many acquaintances, although admittedly not from their lack of trying. Charity were a friendly lot, and it had been her that kept them at arm's length, as she was wont to do. Old habits died hard. They seemed to understand, especially the ones who had been there when she first arrived. She'd caused a bit of a stir in the temple; a filthy, thirteen-year-old girl with stringy hair and hollowed out eyes, who left destruction in her wake. Her explosive temper and tendency to lash out had caused a lot of smashed items in her first year at Charity. Strangely enough, it just seemed to make them want to help her more, something she'd struggled to understand at the time. She hadn't been used to kindness.
She'd found her place, gradually, helping sail the boats in the harbour; running wild on the beaches and climbing the rocks; snaffling as much food as she could from the kitchens (the hollows in her face had started to fill out slowly, and her ribs became less visible). She'd started her training, and learnt to mix herbs and heal wounds; worked in the hospices with her grandma, tending to the sick and injured and finding a deep peace in it.
And then of course the war.
She turned sixteen just after her first deployment. She was a Zennorite, and Zennor had had different rules about enlistment. Her father had come with her, knowing if he tried to stop her, she'd just run away.
Her mother had been right. Getting close to people just meant it hurt more when you lost them.
"Hey Grandma," she said, smiling as the white-haired lady emerged from the temple.
"Welcome home, darlin'," the woman said, and Morveren found herself enveloped in a warm hug. Her body tensed, on automatic, but she forced herself to relax. "I'm so glad you're home."
"Thanks Gran." She slid out of the hug and gave her grandmother a wan smile.
"Look and you, don't they feed you in that army? You're skin and bones! Get inside you, and have a cup of tea."
"I'm fine Gran, you don't need to fuss." Morveren followed her inside, down the hall towards the Fealoke family's private quarters. She dumped her bag in the hallway, and followed her gran towards the living room.
A tall, curly haired man was sitting on the sofa, and looked up when they entered. "Heya Morv."
"Hey cuz," she said, flopping down on the sofa next to him. "How're you doing?"
"Not too bad, yourself?"
This year I saw a woman's chest get blown open by a grenade; I saw my friend mutated into a cyborg's puppet and held him in my arms as I put him down; one of my dearest friend's fell to a sniper because I wasn't there to help him….
"I'm doing okay," she said. Her cousin gave her gran a sly glance, and they both smiled. "What?" she asked.
"We thought…well. We got you something. A little kind of…welcome home present."
"You really didn't need to do that." Morveren could feel her face heating up.
"No, but we wanted to." Her grandmother went into the kitchen. "Close your eyes."
Hesitantly, Morveren obeyed. After a moment, something warm and soft, and squirming was deposited in her lap.
She did so, and felt her body stiffen. There was a puppy on her lap, a beautiful white puppy with black ears and a black patch over its eye. It made a little squeaking sound and burrowed into her lap.
"He was found abandoned and needed a good home. We've been looking after him for a week or two and thought that maybe it would be good for you to have a little friend."
She could hardly hear her grandmother's voice over the roaring in her ears.
"We'll look after him when you're away, of course; although we weren't sure if you'd stay in the military now that Zennor has been liberated. We're toilet training him, and he's a sweet little boy, he…"
A gunshot. A yelp.
Her mother's voice. Sometimes the weak need to die so the strong survive.
A slap across the face. Attachment is weakness Morveren. You should know better. It's just a runt.
Her grandmother fell silent, looking surprised. "I…we just thought…"
"There's no point. It's just going to end up dying sooner or later anyway." Morveren's voice was hard and flat. She deposited the squeaking bundle of fluff on the sofa, and stood up. "I should go unpack."
She snatched up her bag and headed to her room, sitting heavily on her bed, putting her head in her hands and trying to breathe.
"Why are you always feckin' like this?"
She looked up. Her cousin was standing in the doorway. "Go away."
"Yeah. That's right. Shut me out. Just like you do everyone."
"Get out my feckin' room," she snapped.
"I don't bloody get you Morveren! It's been seven years, and all we've ever tried to do it help, and all you've ever done is push us away."
"There's not point me having a bloody dog, I'll be deployed again, soon enough."
"Why? Why do you keep going back? You're what, twenty? You've got your whole bloody life ahead of you. Stay here, find a nice girl, or boy, settle down and build a fecking life, why don't you?"
She let out a snort of laughter, even though she felt more like crying. "Yeah, right, because that's going to happen."
"It might do, if you just gave it a chance!"
"Yeah, because someone could totally love me, right?" Her laugh was bitter. "Someone's gonna look at this shit show and think; 'hot damn, I've always wanted some scarred girl with a shit ton of trauma in my life!' Get real. It's a good night when I don't wake the whole temple up fucking screaming."
"Well maybe if you stayed home and talked to us about shit, you'd help yourself get better," he snapped back. "Instead you lock yourself away in your room, or do a shit ton of paperwork, or spend all your time at the hospice."
"This isn't my home." The words leapt from her before she could stop them, and she could see the hurt flicker across his face.
"It could be. If you wanted it to be."
She just shook her head. "It doesn't work like that."
"Only because you won't let it. Why don't you just fucking let someone in for once Morv?"
"I let people in." She folded her arms.
"Yeah? Like who? Oh, let me guess. Your army buddies."
"They're my fuckin' family," she snapped. "The only family I've ever bloody had!"
"NO THEY'RE FUCKING NOT!"
She flinched back, his voice ringing round the room.
"We're literally your bloody family Morv! We're blood! Why won't you fucking act like it?"
Because then it will hurt less for you when I die.
"Just get out."
"Virtues…" he stared at her as if he couldn't quite believe his eyes. "You know, you're a real fucking bitch, Morveren Tregereth."
"I said GET OUT!" Her boot sailed past his face and slammed into the doorframe. He gave her a parting look of disgust and turned on his heel, walking away.
She slammed the door shut after him and snatched up the nearest thing she could find and threw it at the wall. There was a smash, and she found herself staring down at the beautiful vase her Grandmother had got her for hr eighteenth, now in pieces on the floor.
"FUCK!" she screamed, collapsing to her knees and scrabbling at the pieces. She'd gathered half of them up when there was a scratching sound at the door.
Her knife was out before she had time to think, and she spun towards the door. There was another scratch, followed by a whine. Slowly, she lowered the knife and pulled the door open.
A small ball of fluff trotted inside, sniffing her feet.
"Oh no. Fuck no." She bent down to try and pick him up, but the puppy bounded out of her reach, trying to hop up onto her bed.
"Look little…dog thing…this isn't your room. Not your bed."
The dog managed to jump up onto the bed, and spun in a circle before making himself comfortable.
"Nope. Not happening."
The dog let out a little yawn, and looked up at Morveren, wagging his tail.
She reached down and awkwardly scooped him up, holding him under her front legs. "Out."
She walked to the door and set him down outside, but before she could shut it, he'd padded back in, blinking up at her with big brown eyes.
He let out a happy bark, sniffing at her bag.
She groaned and went to pick him up again, and he hopped away, before letting out a yelp and beginning to whimper.
"Oh shit. Oh no, oh no…" Morveren dropped to her knees, picking up the puppy's paw, where a broken shard of vase was sticking out. "Shit. I'm sorry, I'm sorry…"
The dog whined, and licked her fingers, his tail still wagging, looking up at her with forgiving eyes.
"One sec. One sec…." she yanked her med kit out of the side of her bag, pulling out her bandages. Tentatively, she pulled the shard from the dog's paw, wincing as he yelped and nipped at her hand disapprovingly.
"Sorry, sorry…" She stemmed the flow of bleeding with a bandage, waiting for it to slow before applying some biogel from her pack, and a bandage over the top. "Is that better?"
The puppy licked her fingers again and butted his nose against her hand. He tested his weight and hopped back up onto her bed.
She rolled her eyes, but decided it was probably the safest place for him whilst she cleared up the broken vase.
"Fine. You can stay there for the moment. But don't get used to it."
She woke soaked in sweat, her t-shirt sticking to her back. She gasped for breath, the sound of her panting filling the room as she sat up, her damp hair hanging around her face like limp seaweed.
She wiped a hand across her eyes angrily. Boris again. His eyes staring at her. The hole in his forehead from the sniper round.
"Fuck," she whispered. "Calm down, Morveren, you stupid bitch."
She swung her legs out of bed and padded down the still, silent hallways. She poured herself a glass of water and leant against the counted, drinking it in small sips. She'd managed not to scream, thankfully. She didn't want to wake up half the temple, for what would have been the hundredth time.
When she'd managed to steady her breathing, she slowly headed back down to her room, shutting the door behind her with a solid click. She clambered back into bed, pulling the duvet over her. A moment of stillness. Then something licked her face. She jerked back, her eyes flying open. A happy snuffling sound came out of the darkness, and then a small, soft body was snuggled up on the crook of her arm. A happy bark. A rough tongue against her cheek, wiping away the tears.
"Fine. One night," she mumbled, closing her eyes.
She ended up sleeping with her door open, after that, just in case he decided to visit.
"He's coming along nicely."
Morveren glanced over her shoulder at her grandmother's comment. The two of them were repotting greenweald plants in the greenhouse whilst the dog chewed on a piece of rope Morv had knotted up for him.
"'Spose." Morveren shrugged noncommittally. "He's annoying. He follows me around everywhere."
Her grandmother, who had seen Morveren sneaking the dog tid-bits at the table, and found her granddaughter curled up around the small animal every morning, just smiled. "What a little pest."
"Yeah." The dog ran up to Morveren and dropped the rope at her feet. "Look, I'm not throwing the fecking rope for you, ya little shit."
The dog wagged its tail.
She gave in after about five minutes of this.
"You'll look after him?"
"I'm walk him every day, pet."
Morveren nodded, a hand absently tickling the dog's ears. "Not that, you know, he's my dog or anything."
"Of course not, love."
"I just like to make sure animals are looked after."
"It'll be nice to have some space from the little monster. He's ruined half my socks."
"Are you sure you want to head off to this…new galaxy, Morv?"
The dog let out a little whine.
"I...it's just a diplomatic mission, Gran. It'll be fine. I just….my time with the 109th isn't done. Not yet."
"Will it ever be?"
Morveren looked down at her knees. "I don't know. People always need a medic."
"Are you sure it's not just because you're scared to try and build something here?" Morveren's fist clenched, and her grandmother reached out and took the balled-up hand, smoothing the fingers out one by one. "It's hard to connect with people, especially after everything you've been through love. I get that. I know it'll take time. But I hope to see you try one day."
"It's not like I'll ever have… like…a life. I'm not going to get married or have kids or any of that shit."
"Maybe not. But that's not all there is. You could train to be a doctor. Make friends."
"I have friends."
"I know love. But…some your own age. Some here."
"They wouldn't understand."
"Maybe. But you'll never know that if you don't give people a chance."
"I need to pack."
Her Grandmother sighed. "Be safe, little darlin'."
"I'll try, Gran."
When she left, the dog kept sleeping in her room, carrying one of her socks around with him and growling at anyone who tried to take it.
She was tired as she walked up the steps cut into the cliff. The sun was setting as she reached the top, and the auburn light dazzled her; which meant that she could pretend she didn't see the look of horror and pity on her Grandmother's face when she saw her.
"Does it hurt?"
The dog was curled on her lap as she rubbed behind his ears. It had been ten minutes before he'd stopped jumping up at her and running around her in circles, his tail wagging so hard it seemed like it might fly off.
"A bit. I've got a shit-ton of painkillers though. And Tensoon's gonna make me a new one. He's a Vrede, so it should be good."
Her grandma's eyes lingered on Morveren's new eyepatch. "I thought they said it was a diplomatic mission?"
"Yeah, well, they were wrong as fucking usual."
"Were there…many casualties?"
Morveren felt her breath catch in her throat. For a moment she saw Rask's smile, heard Hawkin's stupid, annoying laugh, heard Silver's voice joined with hers in an old Durgan song.
"Yeah." Her voice cracked slightly.
The dog was soft and heavy on her lap, and she realised, suddenly, that she'd never been loved unconditionally, the way he loved her.
"Are you okay, Morv?" The girl took a deep shuddering breath. "Morv?"
No. That wasn't true. Her grandmother's blue eyes were soft and gentle and full of the warmth and acceptance she'd continued to offer Morveren for so long.
"His name was Ullr Rask, and if I'd had an older brother, I think he would have been like him. He had a smile that lit up his face, and a sarcastic comment for everything, and he would sit with me round the campfire and fuck around. He died in my arms as I tried to hold his guts in and told him I'd save him."
She could feel the wetness trickling down her cheeks as the words and the pain she'd caging in began to spill out.
"And there was Hawkins, Jeffrey Hawkins, and he was a fucking arsehole, but he was our arsehole, and he used to flirt with me and make Anya tell him off. I watch him die behind enemy lines, knowing I wouldn't reach him in time, but wanting to anyway. And there was Silver and she was so goddamn brave and took so many stupid risks which paid off again and again until they didn't. She had a little smirk and a beautiful singing voice and I wish I'd known her better than I did. And there was…"
A wet nose was in her face, and a warm tongue was licking away her tears. And then her grandmother's arms were around her, and she smelt like earth, and flour from her baking, and a soft, floral perfume. Her cardigan was soft against Morveren's face as she cried into it.
She had never been held by her mother. Not properly. Kensa Tregereth had only displayed affection when she wanted something. Every instinct fought against the touch, but she felt herself relaxing into her grandmother's arms and letting herself sob.
The three of them sat in the empty kitchen, the dog sandwiched between the girl and the woman, licking and nuzzling them both.
They wound up on the kitchen floor, Morveren's head against her grandmother's shoulder as the woman stroked her hair in a way no one ever had. The dog lay across Morveren's lap and, after a year of avoiding it, she finally thought of his name.