Unusually, all the Roses were asleep in their beds that night, even Larch. Perhaps it was due to everyone keeping their fear and discomfort to themselves for once; there was definitely an air of avoidance about the place. Larch was huddled under his blankets, stretching out his aching limbs and privately regretting spending so many nights crouched in the branches, when he felt a sharp tug on his arm. He opened his eyes and was on the verge of a shout but his kidnapper clamped their hand over his mouth.
“Shut up you idiot! Come with me,” they hissed. It was Lily. He could have mistaken her for Holly, her voice was so uncharacteristically harsh, and her face was contorted in pain. Bleary eyed and confused, Larch stumbled out of bed and allowed himself to be led quietly out of the door. The two hadn’t spoken to each other, or even seen each other, since the misunderstanding outside the elders’ hut, and the more he awoke the more awkward he began to feel. There was little he could do now, though, as Lily’s grip grew periodically tighter and tighter until he felt the sap would burst out of his veins. Eventually, as his eyes became accustomed to the dark, he realised they were heading over to the orchard.
“Why here?” he asked. Lily slumped against the trunk of an orange tree and attempted to glare at him, though a bittersweet mixture of affection and exhaustion rendered it more of an imploring stare. Sweat was running down her brow and her leaves were wilted.
“Why do you think? It’s the furthest spot away from everywhere else,” she replied, panting.
“But why? What on earth is going on, Lily?” Larch’s voice cracked in nocturnal panic as his mind swam somewhere between reality and nightmare. Lily kicked him sharply in the shin. He gasped – no-one had ever known Lily to lash out before, she was renowned as the meekest person you could ever meet.
“I’m having your stupid baby, genius,” she growled. If Larch had thought he was worried before, now he was positively out of his mind. His voice shot up another octave as he twittered with fright, dancing on his toes as if he’d stood on an ant hill. Part of him – part of both of them – had almost not believed that this would ever happen, as if Lily would simply skulk in the shadows and Larch loudly declare his own alibis for the rest of their lives. But that evening pain had begun to bite at Lily and she knew she could avoid it no longer. Every movement of her muscles seemed to her to be a punishment in itself.
“Willow and Oak were right,” she wept, straining. “This is the worst thing that ever happened to me.”
“I’m so sorry!” squeaked Larch, practically drowning in his own helplessness and regret. Despite all her pain, all her resentment, she couldn’t quite restrain a smile at that. Reaching out gently this time, she pulled Larch into an embrace. He closed his eyes and buried his face in her shoulder, both of them straining to be as quiet as possible. He held on for what seemed like an eternity, but eventually he felt Lily relax and sink down.
Letting go and opening his eyes, he looked up at the sky to see the reassuring globe of the moon. Looking down, however, held a far more breathtaking sight. Leaning against the tree, bathed in the silver light, was Lily, holding something tiny and mewling in her arms. Overcome with curiosity, he rushed in to look.
“Wait,” he said, taking a step back. “That can’t be right. It looks like a…”
“Flesh-being. I know.” It was true. Lily and Larch were both as much PlantSims as any of the Roses, yet here before them lay a being clearly made as much of meat as the wolves and the birds. Larch was stunned. He had heard stories about flesh-beings, of course, but again, there had always been a part of him that doubted their existence. It seemed so implausible, a fairytale come to life. He reached out and took the child into his arms. They stared at each other, each one sizing the other up. Then, obviously concluding that its father posed no immediate threat, it relaxed and closed its eyes again. A unfamiliar well of emotion bubbled up in his chest.
“Wow,” he breathed. “My own little mistake.”
“Our little mistake,” said Lily firmly. The three huddled together under the shelter of the orchard trees.
“I’m going to have to find a way to stop Holly from spawning,” she remarked after a while. “This place can’t support nine, we’ll eat it out of the ground. And we’ll have to hide this one. Goodness knows where. Oh dear.” Larch nodded and put his arm around her shoulders.
“I’m still mad at you, you know,” she said, but she didn’t pull away.
“I know,” he replied quietly. Somehow, as if the night’s events had drained every last drop of his emotion, Larch found that all the fight and fear had gone out of him. Utterly content for the first time in his life, he gazed up through the branches, listening to the howl of a lone wolf and the soft flap of distant wings.