The surface of Garl’s world is different to how Daniel remembers; perhaps it’s a different season. First off, the sky’s a different colour, now much closer to a pale yellow than the orange it was before. The fungal trees have changed colour too, from the speckled off-white shade they were before to a dark grey-brown colour almost like mud. At the base of the trees are what’s left of the skin-eggs, now hollow remnants having presumably hatched whatever it was they were incubating. The whole place feels a lot less alive than it did; which is rather odd, given that it wasn’t very alive to begin with.
Daniel picks themself up off of the floor where they tumbled into the world, dusting the ash from their clothes. They squint at the unexpectedly bright lighting, the glare encroaching on their vision like an unwelcome guest. It takes a moment for them to get their bearings, but once they’ve done so they point themself north, or at least what passes for it: there’s no sunlight here, and probably no magnetic field either, so “north” here is really just a matter of convention. In reality, they’re using the “grain” of the reality-weave to navigate, but conceptualising it as a compass helps a little.
Navigating this way isn’t exactly infallible. All sorts of things can distort reality in ways you don’t expect; Daniel’s only seen a small number of such things, but they’re sure there are others they’ve yet to notice. Nevertheless, this technique leads them to a part of the forest that’s vaguely familiar, and they eventually manage to find the tunnel leading to Garl’s garden-lair. It takes them about twenty minutes of subjective time, but who knows how long that is for their real body?
Daniel spends another twenty minutes navigating the tunnel, using stray mushroom-vines as handholds to avoid slipping on what begin as rocks but soon turn into mud. Going down’s easier than going up, of course — you have gravity on your side — but going down safely is not so straightforward. Daniel does their best to remember that their body here is an illusion, but that doesn’t stop them from shaking nervously every time the going gets awkward. Illusory pain is still pain, after all. Eventually, they get to the bottom of the tunnel, finding themself at the mud-slick edge of the murky pool in Garl’s garden. The creature itself is nowhere to be seen, though.
Daniel sits down by the pool, in the mud — they’re not so fussed about cleanliness when it’s not their real body — and gazes into the dirty water. All over the cavern, water trickles in from other subterranean water sources, dripping from the ceiling and the walls and creating ripples that distort their reflection. Daniel reminds themself that it’s more like a reflection of a reflection.
Daniel grabs a nearby stone and tosses it into the water, closing their eyes and picturing what they want to see. When they open them again, they watch the ripples clear, resolving into the familiar features of their face. Familiar, but this time different as well.
The most obvious change is the hair. It’s not exactly longer, so far as they can tell, but it’s styled differently, which is to say that it’s styled at all. Strands of hair that used to hang limply from their scalp are now shaped, curving around to form a gentle frame for the jaw. Their face is subtly different too: the nose and chin are more softly shaped, and their cheeks are slightly more plump. Every aspect combines to form a visage that’s recognisably them, but unmistakably feminine.
Excitedly, Daniel gropes their chest — no thoughts given to dignity, here — but they’re disappointed to find it’s as flat as usual. Too easy, they guess.
“Ah, Penny!” Garl’s amiably inhuman voice comes from behind. “You’re back.”
Suddenly caught off-guard, Daniel finds themself blushing furiously, hurriedly straightening their clothes as they stand up. They’re aware that it’s silly of them to be embarrassed — after all, Garl’s said as much that it doesn’t really get human genders — but it’s hard to shake the human reaction even in the face of something so inhuman. If it’d been anyone else (except maybe Michelle) they’d never hear the end of it. They turn to face their host, smiling weakly.
They mumble: “Hi.”
Garl smiles, insofar as it can. “I’ll just go and fetch some tea,” it says, crawling on its four legs into one of the smaller adjoining caves. “I might have some Battenberg,” it calls out. “Would you like a slice?”
Doesn’t that need eggs? Daniel ponders Garl’s latest culinary paradox for a moment before pointedly driving the thought from their brain. It takes them another moment to remember that it’s rude not to answer a direct question.
“Yes, please!” they call back. They can’t be sure, but their voice might sound different? They don’t dare hope.
Garl returns to the main cavern of their garden with a table on its back, teapot in its right hand and a pair of teacups in its left. It takes a moment for Daniel to spot the Battenberg: it’s also on the creature’s back, along with a knife and two small dishes. It’s as comical as it is terrible, like a clown with claws.
Or maybe just a clown. They can be pretty creepy on their own, can’t they?
Garl moves to set the table down first, before realising that it doesn’t have any free hands: between its six limbs, two are carrying tea paraphernalia and the remaining four are required for movement. It holds out the hand with the teacups, beckoning to Daniel.
“You wouldn’t mind holding these a moment?” it says, apologetically. “There’s a good girl.”
Daniel takes the cups, one in each hand, as their head swims with a sudden joy that’s not entirely welcome. Victorian male chauvinism probably isn’t the kind of thing they ought to be celebrating, especially from a creature as terrible as this one, but it’s hard not to be happy to have their gender acknowledged with so little ambiguity.
Garl uses its now free hand to lift the table off its back, placing it carefully on a patch of ground that looks slightly drier than the rest. Daniel puts the teacups on it once they’re sure it’s not going to fall over, and the creature sets the teapot down in the middle with one hand as it reaches for the Battenberg and saucers on its back with the other, like some kind of self-unloading pack mule.
The aroma of the tea is evident even before Garl pours, very different from the citrus scent of the Earl Grey from last time. It’s a warm, floral scent that reminds Daniel of springs and summers from years past.
“English Rose,” Garl says, by way of explanation. “Hope that’s alright by you?”
Daniel nods, trying to look politely surprised, and Garl lifts the teapot carefully, pouring first into Daniel’s cup and then into its own. As Garl sets about cutting slices from the Battenberg, Daniel’s holding the teacup up to their nose, breathing the scent in deeply: in and out, in and out. It’s a comforting ritual, and not one they’re going to abandon just because they’re in another world that may or may not be real. Once they’ve let it cool down for a while, they carefully take a first sip. It’s heaven.
The cake is heaven as well. Daniel’s slice is gone in far too few bites; they wonder if it’d be rude to ask for seconds. They sip their tea in civilised silence for a while, and Garl does the same.
“Would you like another slice, my dear?” Garl asks.
Daniel nods in reply, a weak smile playing on their lips. They swill the tea in their cup as Garl cuts two more slices of cake, wondering how best to phrase what they came here to say.
“How do you make the tea?”
It takes Daniel a moment to realise that they’re the one that spoke, and not someone else. That wasn’t the question they wanted to ask, though it’s a perfectly valid one.
“I mean,” they clarify, “tea needs certain conditions to grow, right? And the cake needs eggs and flour, and the bread needs flour too, butter needs milk… how do you get it all here?”
Garl clears whatever it has that serves as a throat.
“To be honest,” it says, “I make it from scratch.”
“Scratch?” echoes Daniel. That could mean a lot of things.
“Well,” it continues, “tea does need the right climate and soil to grow, you’re right about that, and there’s not much of that round these parts. Sometimes I make the tea leaves out of stuff I find lying around, but most of the time I weave the flavour into the water directly. It’s not so hard when you know what you’re up to.”
Daniel looks at the dirty water in the pool. It looks pretty unappetising. “Where do you get the water from?”
“I shouldn’t worry,” Garl says, apparently reading Daniel’s expression. “You’re not going to catch anything from that. Even if you were here for real, which you’re not, the germs and miasma of my world don’t affect the creatures of yours. Wouldn’t even know how.” It smiles.
“So,” Daniel says slowly, “I’m an illusion, and so is the tea?”
“That’s pretty much as good a way as any to put it,” Garl replies, nodding sagely. “Except so far as it’s all made from stuff I can eat and drink, of course.” As if to demonstrate the point, it takes another sip.
Huh. They suppose it makes sense.
Daniel swallows, attempting to steel themself for the question they actually wanted to ask. It takes them a while to find the words: they spend the time sipping quietly at the tea, the floral taste dancing on their lips.
They make their second attempt: “Can you teach me about changing, er, myself?”
Garl gives Daniel a look that they can’t decipher, the creature lacking all the facial features usually required for emotional legibility. It’s clear that it’s a look, though: the gaze lingers too long for it to be meaningless.
“I mean,” Daniel continues, “my real self. My physical body.”
Daniel’s aware that a monster’s probably not the best thing to ask about human transformation: it’s unlikely to understand the finer points of the relevant anatomy or biochemistry. On the other hand, it’s not exactly going to judge. Daniel mentally crosses their fingers.
The creature nods assent.
“I believe I can,” it says.