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Everything Is Okay and Nothing Is Broken

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The funeral took place on a bright and cold winter day. Dotting the snowy landscape of the cemetery was a humble crowd dressed in black, marching away the grave sight. Some clustered together in groups, others drifted alone or kept respective distance from one another. However it was that they travelled, they shared a common destination: the small chapel, with its peaked steeple flagged on the horizon, and from a corner window, Saga watched the progression trickle in.

The ice in her drink had already begun to melt despite the season. Her hand was too warm, and her skin too flushed from keeping her composure throughout the day. There were people to greet, condolences to receive, and speeches to be made. A clock noisily ticked in the corner of the room she stood alone in, taunting the last remaining vestiges of privacy she had before the Celebration of Life reception began.

There was a surprising level of peace in her thoughts. Her Aunt said that there was relief to be found when a loved one passes after so much suffering. But it was a different kind of sadness that draped over her like a shawl, one that was void of anger or regret, but it still felt cavernous in her chest. Her grandfather is was a great man. It was touching to see how many people had showed up to his funeral. When the notice had been sent out, Saga didn’t think so many people would come. Like the void in her chest, the service felt like a desperate cry to find company among anyone who had shared time with him - as if she could heal the wound by siphoning off of their memories and pretend that they were her own.

Ice clattered against her teeth as she drained the contents in the glass. The rum was a cold burn all the way down her throat, tempering her more wild thoughts of dread. She didn’t know the people down there, not on any kind of personal level. Some faces were familiar, but she needed to be reminded by her father each time someone came to shake her hand.

“You remember so-and-so, don’t you?”

And so-and-so would smile and say something like, “It’s been a long while - why, I don’t think you were any taller than my hip! It’s dreadful to meet you again under such circumstances…”

All of the conversations went like this. Saga would smile, she would nod, she would agree that yes, these circumstances are quite dreadful - but she was thankful they made it to the service. She knows her grandfather would have appreciated it, too.

Despite their true intentions, it had become a script.

A knock disturbed her thoughts. From behind her a door creaked open and her father peaked his head in. “Hey kiddo - everyone is starting to group together downstairs.”

Saga turned and gave him a small smile and a nod. “I’ll be right down, I’m just going to check my face.” Her arms were folded across her chest, one hand still gripping the glass of ice. Her father nodded back and began to retreat before Saga called out. “Hey dad?”

“Yeah?”

“...I won’t be long, promise.”

“Sounds good.” He smiled and left, but the door was ajar.

A strong lump formed in her throat so suddenly she thought she would choke. It shouldn’t be hard to ask how her father was holding up through all of this, but the thought of seeing his mask slip would break her heart. He mourned in his own private way, just as his daughter did. They were quite the pair, able to reserve their sadness. But her father had a genuine kindness in his heart that extended towards others, and Saga...well. She was possessive of the grief.

Moving to a beautiful mahogany mirror, she placed the glass down and assessed her appearance. The winter wind had tousled her hair, and flakes of dried mascara dusted the skin underneath her eyes. She wiped the area carelessly with her fingers and briefly toyed with her hair to tame the flyaways. Stepping back, she adjusted the length of her dress, checked the state of her stockings and gave herself a reassured nod.

“You got this,” she told herself, but her reflection scrutinized her back. “Fine, maybe you don’t. But you’re going to go out there, get it over with, and then get a drink.” Her reflection liked that plan better.

Beyond the door the reception hall buzzed with activity. Buffet tables of finger sandwiches, veggie dips, and fruit were being picked over while people poured polite glasses of wine for each other and traded pleasantries back and forth. Saga melded with the crowd, picking her way across the floor to where her father stood with two glasses. As she joined him, he handed one to her and she was instantly grateful to have something to do with her hands.

The tinkling of silver tapping glass broke the conversations happening across the room, and everyone turned towards them and cleared a space. Her father placed a hand on her shoulder and addressed them all. “Thank you, everyone, for joining us today - I know I’ve already said this to most of you, but it bears repeating: my father would have been floored if he knew how many of you showed up today. As you all know, my father was not the kind of man who desired to be the center of attention, and he would generally think that we are all making far too much of a fuss - but, he would approve of the open bar.”

Soft laughter peeled out quietly from the crowd. But Saga didn’t hear the rest of the speech because the words of love suddenly felt like far too much to bear. Drinking for thirst, her eyes idly scanned the collection of people for her mother, yet she was nowhere to be seen. It was at once a relief as it was infuriating, and she bit the inside of her cheek to compose her impulse to scowl.

“If it’s all right with all of you, I would like to keep this short; my father would be horrified to keep you all from the food and drinks. But I will turn this over to my daughter, Saga, to say a few more words.”

And just like that, dozens of eyes landed on her. Saga was mid-sip and caught off guard by her father’s sudden passover. The alcohol - an overly sweet white wine - nearly seized in her throat, but thankfully she remembered to breathe and not start a coughing fit in front of the whole room. “Sorry about that,” she wiped the bottom of her lip and checked her fingers for any residue wine. “Thought I could sneak a sip in. Like grandfather, like father, like daughter, I guess.”

More laughter greeted her ears, and had a settling affect on her nerves. “Typically at these things you bring up old and favourite memories, but if there was one thing my grandfather really wanted to stress in the months leading up to...well, this,” Saga vaguely waved to the space around them, encapsulating everyone within it. “He would repeat the same thing to me: ‘Saga,’ he would say. ‘I don’t care if they put me in a box or chuck me into the fire-’,” her voice changed to imitate her grandfather’s often carefree and dismissive tone, accented by a heritage Saga never lived. “‘But there has to be an open bar. You can’t expect people to show up if there isn’t an open bar, and I know a few cheap sonnuvabitches who will want me to buy them a drink one last time.’

This time people laughed louder. Saga chuckled with them, finding confidence. “Apparently, you know who he was talking about,” she joked, earning a moment to take another sip from her drink as people hooted in delight and some nudged others by the elbow.

“When I think of my grandfather, I think of his farm in Stardew Valley. I spent every single summer there growing up - and to some of you here today, I would like to report that I did, in fact, grow out of that boy band phase, thank you very much for asking.” An older man near the front guffawed loudly, others joining, and slowly the laughter drifted away. Saga licked her lips and shrugged, a sad smile breaking her showmanship. “I’m incredibly thankful to have spent my summers with him, if only for the chance to have a nice secluded place to hide during my incredibly awkward pre-teen years, and my rebellious teenager years. According to him, I’m now in the crippling debt adult years and I have a nice long decade to ride that out. But one memory always stood out on that farm…”

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“Rum on ice, please.”

The bartender nodded, his hands flying across the bar to turn over a fresh glass, scoop ice cubes, and pour her drink. Saga thanked him, and he moved down the bar to attend to someone else. Left alone momentarily, she pulled out her phone from her small clutch and found a text message waiting for her from her mother.

Thinking of you today.

The scoff was immediate. Tossing the phone down onto the countertop, Saga lifted her glass and swallowed the majority of the contents in one go. Angry and visceral thoughts crashed through her mind, paired with the all-too-familiar disappointment she felt for letting such a small thing get her so worked up.

It was typical of her mother to text when a call would have been more appropriate. It was also typical for Saga to go months without hearing a word from her only to receive a message as insultingly as simple as this to try and bridge the gap. Thinking of you today was this month’s Today is National Daughter’s Day, Like and Share this Image with Your Daughter To Show That You Care from the summer over social media.

Her emails were a staggered display of this kind of digital affection, but no matter how angry it made Saga, it was better than the stilted conversations they had face to face; better than finding money tucked under the tea container; better than hearing it from someone outside of the family how worried she was about her daughter.

Picking up her phone, she tapped out several variations of the same reply:

You should be here.

I’m not thinking of you.

Why are you not here again?

Fuck off.

Okay.

The cursor blinked at her, wondering if she wanted to send it off. Swallowing the last bits of her drink, Saga squinted at her screen before finally erasing it altogether and shoving her phone back into her clutch. This was stupid, and she should really be making rounds. Instead, she looked for the bartender’s attention. What she found instead was an attractive looking guy eyeing her from down the bar.

Great.

She wouldn’t have guessed it was the middle of winter by looking at him. He was sun-kissed with beautifully bronzed skin and warm brown eyes surrounded by thick eyelashes. His hair was of a lighter shade and looked to have been styled with a little bit of product to create a look halfway between well-kempt and effortless. He was wearing a green letterman jacket over his black button-up shirt and trousers, with a grey tie to bring the look together. He was tall, muscular, and he most definitely knew that he was good-looking. When their eyes met, he grinned at her and moved closer, and for a moment Saga considered turning around and walking away. But before she could commit to her escape, he sidled up to her with an elbow resting on the bar.

“Hey.”

Saga silently exhaled the breath she had been holding while every fibre of her being resented this guy just for greeting her. Her eyes went from him to the side, briefly scanning the room to reaffirm that yes, this was a funeral, and yes, this guy was about two seconds away from asking her how you doin’? Once this reality was solidified (and she somehow didn’t either wake up from a dream or was instantly teleported somewhere else), she searched once more for the bartender. “Hi,” she replied shortly.

“Get you a drink?” he offered, pointing to her empty glass.

“No, thanks. I’m one month sober and if my sponsor finds out they’ll take away my coin,” she lied sarcastically, side-eyeing this guy to see if she could scare him off. Instead, he laughed at her and pivoted his body to face the rest of the room.

“One month is pretty good,” he offered, clearly not believing her bullshit but deciding to play along. “So earlier that was just apple juice, right?”

Saga turned her head toward him, her eyebrows furrowed. “What?”

He nodded towards the middle of the room. “When you were giving your speech - you had a drink with you. Y’know...while you were making all the drinking jokes…?”

“Oh,” Saga looked away from him. “Yeah, sure, whatever.”

Seriously where the fuck was the bartender? And how thick does a guy have to be to get that she wasn’t interested? Saga contemplated pretending to answer a call, but then the guy chuckled and said, “I remember when we were kids you would always ask for your apple juice to be poured into a wine glass at the dinner table. The adults always thought it was so hilarious, especially when you would put your pinky out - all proper and ladylike.”

Every muscle in her body stilled, and she looked at this guy with an incredulous expression on her face. When words failed her, he continued on, seemingly oblivious to her near fish-out-of-water gape. “Of course, then you’d get all jacked up on sugar, would say that you were drunk, and spend the next hour belching the alphabet.”

“How…-”

He looked at her, his eyebrows lifting playfully. “Aw, come on, farm girl. You’re honestly saying you don’t remember who I am?”

Pieces shifted into place, like a complex puzzle that suddenly formed a picture. The way he smiled at her now - it had been years, but she recognized it. He was older now, definitely older, but there was the smallest chip in one of his canine’s that was unmistakably familiar.

“Alex? Holy shit, when the fuck did you get buff?!” Immediately her hand struck him in the bicep, her excitement clouding any sense of judgement in greeting an old childhood friend. Her sudden rise in volume drew the attention of the people around them, startled by not only the profanity but that it had come from the ‘mourning granddaughter’. Thankfully her father was nowhere to be seen.

Alex laughed, tilting his head back and feigning to try and shield himself away. “Took you long enough, frog-brain. I’ve been trying to get your attention all night!”

Saga held up a hand. “No, seriously, when did you get buff? Are you wearing padding?” Her hand returned to his bicep, this time poking and prodding and doing her best to try and pry beneath the letterman jacket. “Did you steal this off of some actual athlete? Cause the Alex I remember was a skinny-shit kid with a gap-toothed smile.”

“We were eight!” he huffed indignantly, but his lips continued to pull back into a smile, revealing, Saga noticed, perfectly white and straight teeth. The only blemish was the small chip, which she was quick to point to.

“Still have that chip.”

Alex rolled his eyes and turned his body towards her, leaning more comfortably into their reunion conversation. “Dentist said it’s so minor it’s not even worth fixing. Guess it’s just something to always remember you by.”

She could vividly remember that day, down by the river. Alex had it right, they were eight, and they were spending the afternoon hunting for frogs and other gross things in the river. Alex had showed her that if you smashed a rock against another rock you could find some flecks of minerals inside. So Saga had picked up the biggest rock she had seen, climbed up the highest slope she could find, and-

“Smashed it right in half. One half ricocheted towards the river, and the other half hit you right in the face! Oh my Yoba, I thought I broke your face!” Saga slapped a hand to her forehead, her eyes wide in a horror only an adult looking back would have for their childhood antics. Alex was laughing, his head thrown back and hand slapping the countertop. “Alex, I’m so sorry! Did I ever even apologize?”

“You literally ran back to my house screaming that you broke me and that you didn’t want to go to jail. My nose was busted and my lip was split, and I have this chip in my tooth to remember it all by.” He shrugged, the grin a now permanent fixture on his beautiful face. “So how have you been? I mean, besides this. My condolences, by the way,” he offered quick, as if he would have gotten in trouble to not have said it. Saga smiled and shrugged, deflecting the current circumstances in light of reconnecting with an old friend.

“I’ve been okay. Work is work, play is play. What about you?”

Finally the bartender returned, and just as Saga was about to place her order, Alex held up a hand. “One rum on ice, and one beer, please.” Moving her empty glass out of the way, the two settled into more comfortable positions at the bar, their heads huddled as if to contain their conversation into a private bubble. “Same shit, different year. And, I didn’t steal this jacket off of an athlete, by the way. I joined the gridball team in Junior High and played all the way through school until graduation. I’m on a gap year right now to help out Gran around the house while Grandpa adjusts to being back from the hospital - his health isn’t all that great these days,” he clarified when he saw Saga’s eyebrows furrow in concern.

“But I mean, it’s cool. We got this great Doctor in town who’s looking after him. At first I was worried cause this guy looks like a total pushover, y’know, but when it comes to my grandpa he ain’t afraid to get into the verbal scraps. It’s good for grandpa, keeps his heart rate up. Feel bad for the Doc, though.”

They chatted like this for what felt like hours. Catching up on the missing years and asking about each other’s lives. But while Saga found the stories from Stardew Valley charming, she tended to skirt around the details of her life in Zuzu City. “I work at Joja Corp. It’s a complete waste of my time, but they pay decent and the work isn’t exactly hard. Sometimes someone brings in cookies to the office?”

Alex snorted into his drink. “Sounds like fun,” he replied, his tone dripping in sarcasm. Saga gave him another playful nudge, but otherwise she didn’t say a single thing to disagree. “Are you seeing anyone?” he asked.

She exhaled, looking away from him to toy with the ice in her drink. “Not really. It’s hard to meet people in the city, and everyone is either too focused on their career or they’re trying to get a job at Joja Corp too. The job market has been shit ever since they closed down all of the boutique shops in my neighbourhood. What about you?”

He pressed his lips into a thin line, and to Saga he looked as if he was weighing the question in his head. “I’m on and off with this one girl, Haley. Sometimes she’s cool, sometimes she wants nothing to do with me. I never really know.”

“Sorry to hear that.”

A shrug rolled off his shoulders. “It’s cool, I mean nothing is ever too serious. I think we’re both just bored, to be honest. The Valley can be really small sometimes.” Alex glanced at her mischievously. “Did I tell you that we got a coffee shop?”

Saga shook her head, the grin already appearing on her face when Alex paused to take a drink. “The Mayor nearly had an aneurysm because they wanted to put a sandwich board sign outside their door saying that their coffee was better than the coffee at Stardrop Saloon. He ran them right out of town in less than a week!”

Around them the reception was beginning to wind down, until suddenly someone put on some music and people began migrating towards a dance floor. The playlist, of course, was all of her grandfather’s favourite music, and he had been partial to the music of his era. Saga always adored his taste in music - it called her to another place in time where she could romanticize the world in a layer of sepia-toned optimism. Her grandfather had always been quick to correct her when she travelled down that path, pointing out that every generation has its troubles that the next would never be able to comprehend.

Hearing the songs now filled her with a sadness that until then Alex’s company had managed to chase away. Her end of the conversation felt stilted before grinding to a halt, and she looked down at her drink. Alex’s fingers brushed against hers on the glass, the contrast from the icy condensation to his warm touch making her skin tingle.

“You okay?” he asked, concern showing through his confident persona.

Saga looked at him wordlessly. Maybe it was because she was sad, and the music was lovely, but she thought that he looked beautiful. He was almost as bronzed as she was, but where hers was an inheritance of genes, his came from hours spent outdoors. His eyes were so brown, and when she looked at his lips, he licked them. They were full and flushed. Slowly she drifted her gaze across his strong jawline until she met his eyes and found desire looking back at her.

“Do you want to get out of here?” she asked him, not even waiting for an answer before she finished off the last of the rum in her glass. Alex did the same with his beer, digging into his pockets for some loose coins to toss into the tip jar.

“Lead the way,” he answered.

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It turned out that Alex was a very good kisser. With the rum giving weight to her thoughts, Saga wasted no time in accosting him inside of the coat room. His hands were warm and strong as they roved over every inch of her body, his fingers digging into her sides as he pulled her closer and deepened the kiss. Saga gripped the front of his letterman jacket. She ran her fingers through his hair, down his arms, and underneath his nicely buttoned shirt once she managed to untuck it from his pants. She felt desperate for physical contact; like a hopelessly horny teenager looking for any means to rub up against another person for a quick release.

Alex broke away, his fringe tickling her skin as he trailed open-mouthed kisses down the side of her neck. Saga panted softly, the sound muted in their hiding spot among the thick fabrics of winter coats. “Someone’s going to find us,” she warned, but she would be lying if she admitted that the thought wasn’t arousing.

Alex chuckled in her face, bathing her in the heat of his breath. “Then they’ll have quite the show,” he mused, voice husky and raw. Swiftly he lifted the end of her dress and groped her ass, and it was so mind-meltingly intoxicating that it made Saga kiss him harder and push him further into the coats.

His jacket was halfway off when they were interrupted by the unmistakable sound of someone clearing their throat. Panic seized her like it was a heist. She pulled away from Alex as if she had been electrocuted, causing her to stumble drunkenly in her heels. Lifting a hand to her face, she wiped her mouth, worried that whatever lip stain she had applied earlier was stretched towards her ear. Nervously, she looked towards the opening of the coat room, praying to Yoba that it wasn’t her father who had just discovered her in a very uncompromising position.

As luck would have it, she was looking at a complete stranger.

“Well, the preamble was nothing groundbreaking, almost kind of cute if you’re into childhood reunions. Though you both could use some work transitioning from the warm fuzzy summer memories to fornicating in a coat room at a funeral.”

The woman was all sharp angles and pristine style. She was wearing what had to be a ridiculously expensive pantsuit that brought to mind every single powerful woman fantasy Saga had ever dreamed of, and her heels could have very well been certifiable weapons. Her dark hair was sleek, glossy, and exuded the air of a professional bullshit detector, which perfectly described the almost bored expression she passed between the two before her. Hooked over her arm was undoubtedly a designer bag, and clutched in one manicured hand was the latest smartphone.

Saga’s brain was slow on the uptake. As Alex hurriedly straightened his jacket and zipped up the front of his pants, she stared wordlessly at this woman, trying to determine if she should know her or not. “Who-”

“Jessica Caldwell, attorney-at-law.” A business card appeared out of nowhere in her hand, and she held it out to Saga without taking a step forward. “I am the acting Executor of your grandfather’s will.” When Saga did not move, she waved it impatiently. “Take the card.”

“Oh, right.” Stepping forward, Saga accepted it and admired its crisp white edges. Stamped across it in jet black ink was everything the woman had just told her and a contact number.

Caldwell eyed the coat room, a look of distaste evident on her strikingly beautiful face. “I’ll keep this short: your grandfather has left you certain assets in his will that we need to review. Go home, get some sleep, and I’ll send a car for you in the morning.”

“A car - look, my dad is the one who’s supposed to be taking care of all that-”

“I’m a busy woman with strict instructions, Ms. Tiller,” Caldwell cut her off, much to Saga’s annoyance, and even sounded bored while doing it. “The car will pick you up at 9 am,” she spared a brief glance towards Alex. “I would recommend going home alone.”

Finally Alex had found his voice. “Hey, who do you think you are telling her what to do, anyway?”

The woman’s gaze was piercing. “Attorney-at-law. More specifically, her attorney-at-law, effective immediately.”

“My-”

“9 am,” she reiterated, slipping a gorgeous black coat off of a nearby hanger and draping it delicately over her arm. Turning on her heel she strode out of the coat room. “I’ll bring croissants, you’ll love them.”

The sharp click click click of her steps faded away, and the two formerly horny young adults stood in dumb silence. Alex’s hand touched her shoulder, jarring Saga out of the disbelieving stupor she had been trapped in. Looking over at him, her thoughts suddenly had a clarity that made her shrug off his hand. “Right, well...this was...” Saga trailed off, catching the slight look of hurt that furrowed Alex’s brow. She swallowed and looked away, adjusting her dress and taking a sobering moment to compose herself. “It was really good to see you again, Alex.”

In a blink the look was gone, replaced by a thinly veiled mask of indifference. “You too,” he told her, his jaw setting. Rolling back his shoulders, he gave her a coy smile. “I would have broken your heart anyway,” he told her to relieve the tension in the coat room, and Saga found herself chuckling. Alex found his coat, kissed her on the cheek, and was gone.

Alone, Saga studied the card in her hand. Why would her grandfather give her a lawyer?

Chapter Text

She fucking loved the croissants.

Sitting inside a sleek black city car, Saga stuffed the perfectly crisp and yet oh-so-buttery treat into her mouth, chewing in a delight that did not match the vicious nature of her hangover. All across her bulky scarf was the crumb-evidence of just how many of the croissants she had already gone through. Reaching into the bakery bag for another, she could have coo’ed lovingly at it if the woman her attorney sitting next to her didn’t make her so awkwardly uncomfortable.

“Want one?” she asked, mouth still full. Stretching out her hand, she offered a croissant to Caldwell.

Caldwell had been texting on her phone, but her fingers paused long enough to regard Saga with that same bored disgust she had shown the previous evening. “No, thank you,” she replied curtly and resumed her work.

They were both wearing sunglasses, however Saga suspected that Caldwell liked the pretentious presentation it gave to her outfit (a gorgeous cream-coloured business dress and smart blazer, Saga noticed and did not under any circumstances feel under-dressed in comparison, thank you very much) whereas Saga desperately needed to shield her eyes from the offensive sunlight; it sparkled off of the banks of snow as they drove through the city, triggering the headache that painkillers had yet to dull away.

Grabbing the bag, she crawled to the otherside of the cab and tapped on the divider between herself and the driver up front. Caldwell’s texting came to a stop, and the glass pane silently slid down. “Yes, Miss?” he asked.

Without warning, Saga shoved the bag through the gap. “Want a croissant? Caldwell’s treat-”

“For you-” Caldwell began to criticize, a satisfying amount of surprise inflicting her tone.

“She probably hand-picked them herself, didn’t you Caldwell?” Saga interrupted, grinning maliciously towards the lawyer. Caldwell stared back at her from over the rim of her glasses, her eyes narrowing before her expression relaxed and she turned back to her phone.

The driver looked at Saga through the rearview window. “Thank you, Miss, but I’m not hungry.”

Sinking down into the seat below the window, Saga huffed impatiently. “Who even eats for hunger these days, anyway?” she argued.

“Driver, please put the divider up,” Caldwell instructed.

“No! Don’t leave me back here with her! I think she’s a vampire-”

The window slid back up, her dramatic protests falling on deaf ears. Scowling towards Caldwell, she was met with the woman smirking back at her. Caldwell-1, Saga-0. Their silence returned, agitating Saga further.

“Where are we going?”

“To deal with your assets.”

“Right, but where?”

Caldwell ignored her to make a phone call, her voice quiet but clipped with whoever the poor sonnuvabitch on the other end was. Saga’s annoyance with her grew ten-fold. She could be sleeping right now, she could have checked up on her dad, hell, maybe she would have cleaned out her fridge - a hundred stupid and insignificant tasks came to mind that she could have been doing instead of sitting in a car with a certified stranger driving into the unknown. Add to the fact that Caldwell dogged her questions and Saga began contemplating her tuck-and-roll technique out of a moving vehicle.

Instead she chose to turn her bad mood towards the window, watching the city life as it passed her by. By this hour most business-folk were already at their desks, answering important emails and drinking expensive espresso while they bored their coworkers with the mundane story from their fitness class over the weekend - and didn’t you hear about Becky? They say she slept with the boss for that promotion, but they never asked Becky what really happened, did they?

No, at this hour the only people left in the streets were the creative weirdos that society chose to sweep under their rug; the busker on the corner, the kid with the longboard and the beard that corporate would want him to shave so instead he works at a boutique grocery where his eccentric sense of style is applauded by the survivors of the rat race - I could never do that, I would lose my job - but good for you! The University students who hauled their books in bags ready to rip; the taxi drivers who honked impatiently at them as they tried to cross the street. The city belonged to the outcasts at this hour, and Saga saw them all. She acknowledged every single one of them behind tinted glass and told herself that she was one of them as they whisked past.

Power to the people, lauded the girl covered in crumbs.

Caldwell finished her call. Tossing her phone onto the now empty seat next to her, she pulled out a black leather folio from a different looking designer bag than what Saga saw her with the night prior. She flipped it open, pulled out an elegant pen, and crossed her ankles neatly. “Tell me about yourself,” she said, her cursive just as sharp and pointed as her personality. She crossed her T’s and dotted her I’s with a dramatic flair that Saga could read upside down.

What a vague question.

Stuffing her hands into the front pocket of her hoodie, Saga slouched down in her seat, for all attempts and purposes trying to bury herself into the bulk of her scarf. “What do you want to know?” she asked.

“Where did you grow up?” Caldwell tilted her head and her tone changed a little bit - like she was trying to rub a thick line of pencil to soften its edge.

“Here and there,” Saga answered, shrugging unhelpfully.

“Where’s here?”

“Southside of Zuzu City, near the port.” She scratched at a loose thread in her hoodie, idly rolling it between her fingers and giving small tugs to see if it would unravel.

“And there?”

She sighed, annoyed. “Northern Suburbs, Western Peninsula, sometimes City Centre. A total of one week in Northwest Grotto. Are you getting those down? G-R-O-”

The sound of Caldwell’s pen scratching against the surface of the paper filled the cabin’s tense air as she underlined the locations to break up the page into the next section. “Your father lives near the port, correct? Which means you and your mother moved around a lot.”

Saga smiled, but it was bitter and short-lived. “I tried to convince her to move more East so we could complete the pentagram we were making on a map. For some reason she didn’t like that idea.”

“And what about now?”

“What about now? You picked me up at my place, lady.”

“Yes, what a quaint neighborhood it is,” Caldwell droned, flipping through some of her paperwork.

It worried Saga that for whatever reason she had paperwork, about her, about her life. Her comment only furthered her defences. “Some of us don’t get the luxury of having a parking space for our own private car,” she retorted, feeling her blood pressure build inside of her chest. “We have to make due with wherever we can get in so we don’t become homeless on the streets.”

But if Caldwell was listening to her she gave no indication. “Tell me about your work.”

And it was the shortest glimpse, but in that brief second it was as if the earth had shifted and from the horizon a dark and depressing shadow loomed ever closer; caught in the reflection of her sunglasses, Saga watched the concrete structure pass by, and turned her head to watch it from the window. Joja Corp stood unmoving and unaffected by the citizens of the City that it preyed upon. Right now she should be at her desk, listening about the mundane thing that happened at fitness class that weekend and wondering what did Becky do to get that promotion.

She removed her sunglasses and folded them, but she wasn’t sure where she wanted to put them. “It pays the bills. Puts clothes on my back and food on my plate. Sometimes I get a Christmas bonus.”

“What do you do at Joja Corp?” Caldwell asked, not looking at her as she took her notes. Not seeing how the question physically pained Saga or how she had to turn away from the window.

“Desk job.”

“Elaborate.”

“What does this have to do with anything? What does this have to do with my grandfather’s will or these fucking assets you keep being so vague about?” Straightening in her seat, Saga’s temper flared, angry that the person she wanted to yell at was still hiding behind sunglasses that made it impossible to read her expression - instead she had to look back at herself; the distressed hair, the tired and hungover lines under her eyes, the ugly way her lips now curled into a scream that didn’t have a voice.

Behind her there was a quiet click as the divider came back down. “About an hour, Miss. Traffic is good.”

“Thank you, Thomas,” Caldwell says and the divider goes back up.

“Oh, so he has a name now?” Saga blurted out, trying to redirect her anger to anything she could latch on to. “Or do you just have a thing for calling people by their profession, lawyer?

The sunglasses came off. Saga instantly regretted it. Piercingly cold eyes stared back at her - stared through her - and suddenly every ounce of distaste was laid bare between the two women. Saga read it all; how exhausted she was, how beneath her position it was to follow the direct orders indicated in the will of the dead man who had hired her to do so. So why take the job? Saga wonders.

Caldwell was scrutinizing her, she realized. The folio was now closed and resting on the seat next to her phone, and her hands were clasped in her lap, an air of impatience radiating from her side of the cabin. For several long and agonizing seconds she didn't say a thing at all, she doesn’t rise to the bait to argue with Saga even though she looked like she wanted to. There is a frigid composure to her shoulders that is keeping her in check, calling to a greater need than whatever petty fight Saga wishes to pick.

Finally, she spoke: “Every summer, from when you were an infant until you were sixteen, you spent with your grandfather. For a while you were obsessed with the chickens, then you were obsessed with the cows, and one time you nearly drowned in the river - and miraculously you did not develop a fear of swimming. From the beginning of June until the end of August you were with him, until one year you couldn’t make it, and then another year, and another, and so on until his death this past week. Your grandfather, of course, understood as he was a reasonable man who saw that the custody-battle between your parents meant that sometimes you were around, and sometimes you were not, and when that custody-battle was won by your mother, he knew that he would see even less of you. Then you moved out, you started working, you became more and more busy, and you don’t see each other for a long time. Is this sounding familiar? I have several pages of it in the file that he gave me.”

Saga was silent, looking from Caldwell to the folio. “That’s all in there?” she asked weakly.

“And more. Your grandfather was very sentimental when it came to you. But he was also worried that when he passed he wouldn’t be able to leave something behind for you that would fit into your life. Unfortunately, he’s missing some important details. Absolutely no mention of your work, no semblance of your future goals, not even any current contact information. It’s like you’re this fading memory he had, becoming less and less real as the years went on.”

Her mouth was dry, making it difficult to swallow the racing heart trying to jump up her throat. Blood pounded in her ears with the confrontation of Caldwell’s words, applying a fresh layer of guilt. When she didn’t respond, Caldwell took it as an open invitation to continue:

“So, I did some research of my own. Found where you lived, where you worked, when the funeral service was taking place and where. I’ve been slowly filling in the details, building a profile that fit the granddaughter he spoke so highly of.” Caldwell paused, picking imaginary lint from her dress.

“Well?” Saga urged. “Do I fit the bill?”

“Not really - but most grandparents tend to view their kin through rose-coloured glasses.”

Surprisingly that made Saga smile, and she quickly looked down to the sunglasses she held folded as a means to cover her embarrassment. “He had this way of glossing over the bad things,” she said, her heart heavy with loss. “You could tell him that the world was ending and he would worry about what jacket to wear when it happened.” Saga’s laugh was more air than mirth, wary of the building pressure forming behind her eyes. Clearing her throat, she looked towards the window, definitively changing her tone. “He always went with the same tweed one anyway, the bastard.”

Caldwell actually chuckled. “I know what one you’re talking about.” Picking up the folio once more, she opened back up to her notes. “Tell me about your work.” This time, Saga believed her softer tone.

From the window she can see the sign; green and trimmed with white in bold letters that read: LEAVING ZUZU CITY. They cross over the imaginary boundary, and Saga leaned her head against the glass to try and absorb its cool touch into her skin. The stretch of highway now sprawled before them is as familiar as it is filled with melancholy. Across this concrete she had made this journey dozens of time, but it had been a while. It still felt like going home.

“Saga?”

“Hm?” She looked over to Caldwell who is waiting for an answer. “Oh, right.” Unfolding her sunglasses, she slipped them back on as the morning sun peaked across a crested hilltop and filled the cabin with warmth and light. “I do data entry.”

--------------------

They arrived in Pelican Town a little past 11 in the morning, greeted by the assuring sight of a broken down bus that definitely was forgotten about and was taking up the majority of the available parking just outside the town’s gate. But Thomas was a professional, and he managed to squeeze the car into a spot behind the bus without tipping them into the bank of wild bushes. Caldwell mutters under her breath, and Saga can only discern snippets like ‘ridiculous’, ‘eye-sore’, and ‘post-civilization’. Unbeknownst to the lawyer, Saga eyed her beautiful patent-leather pumps with delight for the amount of trouble they would ultimately bring.

Much like the bus, the rest of the bus station looked abandoned, overgrown, and dirty. The flag sign was covered in ice and snow, making it impossible to read, and gnarled roots threatened to trip the unsuspecting as Saga left the warmth of the car and breathed in the winter country air.

“Thomas, please stay with the car - we won’t be long,” Caldwell instructed, draping a long shawl across her shoulders. The driver gave her a curt nod and quiet ‘yes, Ms. Caldwell,’ before getting back into the driver’s seat. Saga looked at him with envy, imagining the heaters cranked and freedom of radio control.

She didn’t need Caldwell to show her the way. Though she never arrived by bus, the station was a regular feature to Pelican Town. As she suspected, the frozen and twisted roots beneath their feet proved to be problematic for Caldwell, who hissed and cursed and fussed over the state of her heels while Saga laughed mercilessly at her expense. The lawyer glared at her, a genuine flash of annoyance for once, before she gripped Saga’s shoulder and demanded that she be her guide. The two pick their way across, reaching the worn wood of the town’s fence and another signpost with arrows pointing back towards the bus station and one pointing east to Pelican Town.

Saga squinted. Below the two arrows it looked as if there once had existed another, but whoever had removed it clearly had given up; its point was gone and all that was left was a jagged piece of plank with leftover letters obscured by a rusted nail. The letters looked as if they had been scratched off with a vicious stick, thick gouges carving up the words and making its eligibility difficult to read. “Right, this way, then,” she declared with a shrug, her hands buried deep into her pockets and the lower half of her face obscured by her thick scarf. Caldwell had no choice but to follow and Saga suspected the woman did not take well to being directed. Just to be an ass, she walked fast enough to make it harder for her to keep up.

Up ahead a roof began to break through the tree line. Amongst the bare branches icicles glistened in the sun and dripped freezing water onto their heads, but Saga hardly seemed to notice. A strange sensation was feasting upon her insides: painful and wonderful and incredibly sad. As they came closer, she could see the chimney and hear the trickle of moving water. Then the trees began to thin, revealing the splendor of her grandfather’s farm.

“What happened?” A thud in her chest; her heart dropping beneath the curve of her ribs.

The house was in disarray. Age and neglect had tarnished the wood with mildew and dirt - she could hardly see the colour of the paint underneath the green tinge. Next to it there was a mound of earth packed down and dusted with snow, more or less protected by the large evergreen tree crowding the back of the house. Tracks in the ground showed where something heavy had been dragged away, like a crate or something.

Across the field was a wasteland of rotting stumps, crusted ice banks, and chewed up earth. The shambles of a building practically trembled in the gales of wind that whipped through the surrounding forest, sending ripples across the slow-moving parts of the river that wasn’t entirely frozen over. Thick bramble bushes and tall grass peeked out from beneath the layer of snow and left Saga with the impression that the farm had been barren for years - centuries, even, but she knew that wasn’t true.

As she stared, Caldwell released her shoulder and found stable ground. She swung her bag across her arm and retrieved the same folio from the car, flipping it open. Unlike Saga, she wasn’t the least bit surprised by the sight before them. Had she been here before, Saga wondered, or did she just not care? Finding her pen, Caldwell used the capped tip to trail down a handwritten list pinned to a thick stack of documents. “It’s all here, according to his account. One farmhouse, 100 acres of land, one river, one greenhouse.” At this she lifted her head, regarding the decrepit structure beyond the farmhouse with a bored glance. “Well, what’s left of a greenhouse.”

She should have visited more.

Saga’s thoughts swarmed in her head, crashing against each other unpleasantly. She should have made time to leave the city, she should have known that the place was falling apart, she should have helped instead of turning away because it wasn’t convenient to her schedule. Did her father know it had gotten this bad? Did he say anything to her about it? No, nothing came to mind, and there had been plenty of opportunities for the farm to come up. The months they went back and forth to the care home her grandfather died in, not once did they mention the farm. She had assumed it was just a touchy subject for an aging mind, or a burden needing to be forgotten.

Why hadn’t anyone said anything to her?

What did it matter?

The reality check was unforgiving, but it was true. As fast as the panic had gripped her, so too did the unnatural calm that steeled her mind. The farm was in ruin. Nothing she thought now would change that. Saga sucked in the icy air and focused on the lawyer to clear her head. “So there’s a box, I’m assuming?”

Caldwell tilted her head, but didn’t say anything. By now the cold was beginning to seep through Saga’s hoodie, and she shoved her fists into the front pocket to keep them warm and out of the way. “My assets,” she lead, watching to see if Caldwell was following along. “Y’know, the whole reason why we’re freezing our asses off out here?”

“It’s not a box.” She was watching Saga more closely now, making her self-conscious. “All of this is your assets.” Caldwell clicked her pen and held out the folio for her to take, pretending for all the world that it wasn’t an unexpected bomb. When Saga didn’t move, Caldwell physically lifted her hands out of her pockets and pushed both pen and folio into her cold fingers. “I’ve marked where you need to sign.”

“What do you mean 'all of this'?” Saga blurted out, not even looking down to the folio. Her face contorted into an awful half-laughing gesture in an attempt to underplay the returning panic, but she felt caught staring straight into the headlights of an oncoming truck. “I’m pretty sure there’s just some macaroni art in there that I can claim. Are we not talking about macaroni art?”

“We are not talking about macaroni art,” Caldwell confirmed matter-of-factly. She was, unsurprisingly, entirely unaffected by Saga’s strained grasp on the situation. Lifting a hand, she counted on her fingers, “House. Land. Greenhouse. As promised, as delivered. Yours.”

Saga nodded. She thought maybe if she nodded, the understanding would sink in better, except now her thoughts were rattling around inside of her head, making even more of a mess. “Like, I deal with it, yeah? ‘Hey kiddo, looks like I’ve kicked the bucket, but good news! You get to clear out the farm and get all the good stuff before the collection agency!’.” She looked at Caldwell seriously, waiting for her to nod back.

Caldwell did not nod.

“I am not sure if you are referring to my firm as a collection agency.”

Saga threw up her hands. “I’m pretty sure you’re here to collect something cause my grandfather was a farmer, not an extra from Wolf of Wall Street!”

The lawyer narrowed her gaze, now taking offense. “If this is about my fees, your grandfather ensured they were taken care of well in advance of his passing-”

“OH, GREAT. I’M SO RELIEVED FOR YOU.” A gaggle of birds took flight from a nearby tree, just as startled as Saga was by her own yelling. A sudden silence followed, carrying her echo away on wind and water. Her face burned hot from embarrassment, and she pivoted on her heel to storm away from Caldwell, folio forgotten but clutched to her side. Heading towards the river, she kicked at a clump of snow and took some satisfaction out of the wet plop it made falling into the water. Caldwell didn’t say anything to her, which was worse because it left Saga to suffer inside of her own unbidden anger and confusing guilt.

Underneath the glaring misfortune, the land was beautiful. As a child Saga would poke fun at her grandfather for living in an actual postcard landscape; the trees were perfect, the mountains were perfect, the water and the wildlife and the rows upon rows of crops - all of them perfect, all of them cared for by a man who would laugh her shitty jokes. A man who is was a better person than herself.

Across the wooden planks used to connect the series of small islands together, she could make out the tell-tale remains of her summer fort. Behind the greenhouse there was a cave she used to sit inside of during the summer storms and read horror stories by flashlight, pretending to not be scared. There was the same untamed patch of trees and bushes that was never cleared, and she would run through them and make-believe that she was a forest warrior for hours until she was called in for dinner.

All the memories she had built up over the years now stood as relics before her very eyes. In her hands was the paper that made them hers.

Why are you so angry? she asked herself.

A slow-rolling rage answered: This wasn’t part of the plan.

But the plan was broken. It had been broken for months now, years even. The plan wasn’t even titled The Plan because Saga had always assumed she could go back and change it whenever she wanted. The Plan was the fantasy of an idea she hadn’t had yet; it was the placeholder that people in her life said would give her a sense of meaning, of purpose. It would end the listless wandering she had done all her life. The Plan was not The Farm. The Farm was sanctuary.

What was a sanctuary without its gatekeeper?

After a sobering breath, Saga returned to Caldwell. She couldn’t quite meet her eyes, but she held out the folio. “Just sell it.”

The lawyer doesn’t take the folio. “It’s not that easy.”

“Fine, I’ll find a buyer and call you. But I want to sell it. I don’t need to see anything else.” When did her vision become misty? She shook the folio to direct Caldwell’s attention to it, becoming impatient.

The lawyer sighed, sounding exasperated. “Well, you can’t. There’s conditions.”

Saga’s hand stilled and her eyes narrowed, suspicious of her claim. “What conditions?”

“The conditions of the assets. Your grandfather was very specific in his instructions. You can’t sell it, at least right now.”

“How convenient that these conditions come up after I’ve made a decision. Exactly how much of this day was planned? Were the croissants planned?” Saga flipped through the folio, searching for the note that said Give Saga Croissants and The Farm.

Caldwell pinched the bridge of her nose. “The croissants were not planned, I just thought you would like them.”

“Did you think this after stalking me?” Was her profile in here? Was Caldwell even a lawyer? What if she was some kind of Private Investigator or Hitwoman? “Did you see me buy a croissant one day and think, ‘I’ll lure her into my weird car with croissants’?”

“No, I thought ‘croissants make a nice gesture’. Had I known how much you would enjoy them, I would would have filled my entire ‘weird car’ with them - Yoba knows the only time you weren’t being difficult was when you were too busy stuffing them in your face!”

Saga gasped. “How dare you, I am not difficult!”

“Oh, no! This is exactly how I like to spend my day! You are an absolute treat to be around!” Caldwell’s tone dripped with sarcasm as she used her hands to wave about in the air. Funnily, it was the first time since Saga had met her that she looked human. “I’ve always dreamed of the day where I could court a charming young woman around, hand her 100 acres of land in the countryside, and be insulted to my face that a firm I started is nothing more than a collection agency!

They both fell silent, except Caldwell actually sounded a little bit winded by her rant. She curled her fingers in frustration before visibly relaxing until she looked like she only wanted to throttle Saga, not murder her outright. Saga pretended not to see any of this and that examining her nails was super important, except somehow they were already dirty by proxy of being outside and the closer she looked at them the more she disliked it. After several tense seconds had passed, she shrugged and looked towards the greenhouse. “Right. Well...fine. I’m sorry I called your firm a collection agency.”

Caldwell smoothed down the front of her dress. “Thank you. I apologize for losing my temper. It’s not very professional.” Something in her voice made Saga look at her, and she could have sworn she saw the faint traces of a flush bloom upon the lawyer’s sharp cheekbones. But while she was busy scrutinizing her face, Caldwell swiftly retrieved the folio from Saga’s grasp and expertly rifled through its contents. Out of an inner pocket she pulled out a cream coloured envelope that had Saga’s name written on it in all-too-familiar handwriting. “It’s explicitly written in his will that for the first year post-death the farm remains in your name. After that year we can revise your assets and make some decisions.” Tapping the envelope against her other hand briefly, Caldwell practically hesitated in passing it over to her. “He left this for you.”

Whatever its contents contained felt weighted by the thick emotion rising in her throat. Saga ran her fingertips along its edges, feeling the worn fibers of the paper. Her name was printed in all capitals - exactly how she wrote, except his pen strokes looked so firm and assertive to her now in a way she hadn’t noticed before. A single underline, dragged across, and a fleck of ink marking the end. Saga didn’t realize how quiet she had gone, how the world had seemed to become muted, until Caldwell gently said, “you don’t have to open it now. We should head back to the city. We can review the paperwork in the car if you are feeling up to it.” Then she turned and walked away, back towards the path they had come from, taking careful steps in her heels that were unforgiving across the terrain.

Saga watched her go wordlessly, still feeling the envelope in her hand and wondering what it could say inside. She didn’t want to open it now - not after so many emotional outbursts that she hadn’t been ready for. Later, when she had the privacy to grieve, to mourn her loss and try to heal in the broken way that broken people do when no one else was looking. Tucking the envelope into her pocket, she looked around the farm and could faintly smell traces of cigarette smoke coming from an unknown source. Just my imagination, she numbly thought, and she followed after the her lawyer.

Chapter Text

You have 7 new voice messages. Playing first message:

“Hi, Saga. It’s Grant from the office. I just want to check up on you and see how you are doing and offer my condolences. We’re all thinking of you here, so take your time. Give me a call when--”

Message deleted. Next message:

“This message is for Ms. Tiller; I am calling from Jessica Caldwell’s office to confirm your appointment for next week--”

Message deleted. Next message:

“Saga, Grant here. Just wanting to confirm that you’ve done the paperwork for your time off. Tina says--”

Message deleted. Next message:

“Hey kiddo, it’s dad. Haven’t heard from you since the service and thought I would give you a quick call. Hope you don’t mind, I gave Alex your number - I think it’s great that you guys managed to reconnect. Anyway, I’m just leaving my office, I’ll be at home if you want to give me a shout back. Love you. Bye.”

Message deleted. Next message:

“Saga - hey. It’s Alex. Look uh, I know this is kind of weird, but I asked your dad for your number before I left. It was great seeing you! I mean, shit circumstances and - well anyway, give me a call sometime! My number is--”

Message deleted. Next message:

“Saga, it’s mom. I hope you are doing well, I haven’t heard from you in a while. I’m going to be in town for a little bit - we’ll be in the Islands for the rest of winter. We should have lunch. Call me.”

Message deleted. Next message:

“It’s Grant. Call me immediately--”

Message deleted. End of messages.

Chapter Text

Winter in Zuzu City was depressing. The concrete jungle of buildings looked even more bleak under the thick blanket of overcast clouds, and any fresh snow was already black and curled around the edges of the streets. People stayed indoors, and it seemed like each year less holiday cheer was on display. When people walked the streets it was with their shoulders hunched and their body braced against the elements, trying to dart to their destination as quickly as they could. Everyone was stressed with their work and their commute, and they wanted extra shots into their coffee just to make the daily suffering that much easier.

Saga hadn’t left her apartment since the day she returned from the farm. Much like anyone else in the city, she kept her blinds down and camped out on her couch watching horrible television programming just to pass the time. There was the return of that listless numb that had appeared after grandfather died - like a throat gone hoarse from screaming and no more sound could come out. She wandered about her space with little direction, hardly accomplished anything, and ignored her phone when it tried to ring, beep, and flash for her attention.

The envelope was on her small kitchen table, the only evidence that she had been to the farm at all. Every day she walked past it, willing herself not to look at it but she was drawn to the comfort of the cursive that beckoned her by name. The curiosity to know what was inside - and the fear of finding out. Sometimes she picked it up, determined to rip it open or rip it in half, but every time her fingers would falter and she would retreat back to her couch. There she laid curled in on herself until she repeated the process all over again.

On the eighth day of her social hibernation there was a knock on her door.

She had been napping and woke up groggy and grumpy from the interruption. Bundling herself in a blanket, she shuffled across the apartment to the front door to look through the peephole. She sighed irritably. “Tell Caldwell that I’ll call when I’m ready to,” she said to the door.

There was a moment's pause from the other side, then a timid voice called back, “Ms. Caldwell asked that I drop off these papers for you to review. Erm, can I-”

“Is that a bag of croissants?”

Saga watched through the peephole as the young woman curiously look down to her own hands, then look at her through the other side of the lens. “Y-yes. She said they were your favourite-”

“Did she mention the part where she baited me into a car with croissants?”

“U-um, no?”

She opened the door, but the tiny chain bolted to its lock only left a two inch gap. Saga scrutinized the girl, possibly looking crazed since she hadn’t showered in a few days and maybe still had traces of makeup streaked across her face and hair that was perfect for birds to move into. “She does that, y’know. Your boss is nothing but a baked-good-baiter. How many are in there?”

The girl looked younger than herself - probably fresh out of University and working as an intern. Her strawberry blonde hair was swept into a professional looking knot, and the thick-rimmed glasses she wore made her eyes look huge and innocent. She was wearing a modest office dress and a cardigan under her parka, and her stockings were beginning to pill from frequent washes. The bag of croissants were balanced on top of a thick brown folder, and in her other hand was a coffee and her cellphone. She had to juggle to balance the coffee and phone onto the folder as she carefully tried to peek into the bag. “Four?”

“Is that coffee also for me?” Saga asked, just to be difficult.

She shook her head. “I-it’s mine. Do...you want me to get you one?”

Reaching through the gap, Saga grabbed the bag and awkwardly pulled them through, undoubtedly crushing the croissants perfect crescent shape. “Are you like, her errand girl?”

“Assistant,” she corrects, pushing up her glasses by the side before sticking her hand out to Saga. “My name is Sophie.”

Disentangling her herself from the blanket, Saga shook her hand. “Pretty sure that’s the same thing,” she mutters, recalling her own days of being an assistant for various bosses. “How did someone so nice end up working for Caldwell, anyway? You look like, twenty.” Pulling out a croissant, Saga hungrily devoured most of it and talked through her chewing.

“Actually I’m seventeen. I graduated from University about a year ago. I want to be a lawyer and Caldwell is the best in this city. It’s a honour to have her as a mentor.” There was a beautiful flush across her cheeks as she said it, leaving Saga with little doubt that she had meant it.

She shrugged. “Good luck with all of that. Thanks for the croissants.” And with her toe, she closed the door, only catching a glimpse of Sophie’s shocked expression. A second later and she was frantically knocking on her door.

“Ms. Tiller I really need to leave these documents with you!”

“Just shove them under the door!” Saga yelled, already back to her couch and digging out the second croissant. Silence came from the entryway, and she went still, carefully listening to see if she had given up and left. Ten seconds passed, then the folder was scratching across her floor. There was a brief moment of struggle, followed by a tiny thud against the door.

“...it’s stuck,” Sophia said, defeated.

Rolling her eyes, Saga got back up and left behind her blanket. In her pajamas and no-bra, she flung the chain off of the lock dramatically and opened the door, finding Sophie crouched by her welcome mat pathetically. The folder was successfully lodged, and it dragged across the floor, drawing both of their attention to it. Sophie was now scarlet in the face. Saga looked from her to the folder. “Legally, they’re in my possession,” she offered, taking pity on the assistant. “Go back to Caldwell and tell her you were successful.”

Standing up, Sophie adjusted her dress and coat and avoided Saga’s eye, but she nodded thankfully. “H-have a good day, Ms. Tiller,” and she darted down the hall as fast as her sensible flats would take her.

Using a combination of sheer force and cursing, Saga managed to dislodge the folder from her door and dumped it onto the kitchen table next to the envelope from her grandfather. Before she could reclaim her spot on the couch, Caldwell was calling her, causing her to audibly groan before picking up her cell. “So you are stalking me.”

“Yes, I find your very existence fascinating and cannot get enough of you.” The sarcasm on the other end was practically lethal. “You got my folder, then.”

“It’ll make a lovely doorstop.”

Caldwell hummed, sounding distracted and bored. “You missed our appointment. Is that because your shower is broken, or is being unhygenic a new thing you’re trying?”

Saga glanced around her apartment suspiciously. “Are you...watching me-?”

“Because as your lawyer, I am legally obligated to advise you that sitting around avoiding appointments and phone calls was cute maybe six days ago, but I do have more important things to do than telling you to take a shower everyday.”

Saga went silent, scanning her room for any hidden cameras. Moving over to the window, she looked through the blinds and squinted against the afternoon sun, searching the street for a black car parked near her building. “Okay, that’s super creepy. Seriously, are you staking out my apartment or something?”

The lawyer sighed. “No, there’s this amazing thing called texting. Sophie informed me that she managed to drop off the folder. She also mentioned that you looked like a crazy homeless person.”

“Uh, can’t be homeless if I’m in my own apartment, now can I?” she retorted lamely.

“Just look at the things I sent over. I’ll have Sophie pencil you in for an appointment tomorrow. Do I need to send the car over to get you or are you able to function like a proper member of society for a couple of hours?”

“Rude,” Saga mumbled, looking at her nails and seeing their grubby state. Her hair did feel dirty, however, and her pajamas smelled from sleeping and living in them. Giving up, she went over to the kitchen table to stare at the folder and envelope. “...I mean, if you wanna send a car, I won’t object.”

Caldwell didn’t respond right away, but when she did, Saga could almost hear the smile. “Perfect. I’ll have Sophie text you the details.” She hung up before Saga could protest about her contact information being passed around so freely. Tossing the phone onto the table, she slowly sank down into the chair, treating these paper items as if they would burn her to touch.

Enough is enough. Picking up the envelope, she tore into it.

Dear Saga,

If you are reading this, you must be in dire need of a change.

The same thing happened to me, long ago. I’d lost sight of what mattered most in life...real connections with other people and nature. So I dropped everything and moved to the place I truly belong.

I’ve enclosed the deed to that place...my pride and joy: the farm. It’s the perfect place to start your new life.

This was my most precious gift of all, and now it’s yours. I know you’ll honour the family name, my dear. Good luck.

Love, Grandpa.

P.S. If Lewis is still alive say hi to the old guy for me, will ya?

Tears blurred her vision, threatening to fall with their sudden weight. An ache was blossoming inside of her chest, leaving her breathless and in a terrible pain. She re-read the message, memorizing every letter and every comma, as though she could see through the ink to the man on the other side. Near the end of his life his handwriting had gotten clumsy, but these words of love were strong and confident; how long ago did he write this letter? For how long had he been so sure of her to continue his legacy?

The numbness of the past week thawed. She cried and it felt like drowning. Salty tears coated her lips and she had no choice but to swallow them or else risk soaking the letter. She mourned the loss of her childhood, selfishly aware that she was undeserving of his gift. The summers of scraped knees and a thousand tangles in her hair from running free; the evenings around a campfire with fireflies and marshmallows; the depths of the ocean rising up to consume her as she leaped from the edge of the dock. At the centre of it all, a man who toiled the land and planted hope, letting her be a kid just a little while longer.

She was horrified with how pathetic she felt. Wiping her face, Saga miserably set aside the letter and took deep breaths to sober her pain. It was still surprising how much it hurt, and how fast time had slipped away. The first year she couldn’t visit the farm was a muddle of memories that only made her angry to think about now. No, this isn’t about all of that.

Reaching for the folder, she discovered it was full of very serious looking paperwork. The deed was paperclipped to the inside of the front cover, her name officially stamped across every inch of it. The rest looked like some kind of contract or other foreboding legal form she had no knowledge of, and after flipping through a few of the pages she deemed it the responsibility of Caldwell to translate and explain at their appointment.

It was 4 o’clock in the afternoon, but Saga crawled into bed. Her sleep was restless and she frequently woke up weeping. Sometime around 2 in the morning, she finally passed out and dreamed of nothing.

--------------------

The sunglasses were back on, this time to hide her puffy eyes.

It had been four days since she opened the letter, and the moving truck was late. Standing outside of her building, she shifted her cup of coffee to her other hand and fished out her phone, noting the time. Beside her, Caldwell was texting.

“I should have paid the extra coin,” Saga grumbled for the twelfth time.

“It was a scam,” Caldwell intoned boredly, not even looking up anymore.

“Scam or not, it probably would have entice them to actually show up when they were supposed to. This is ridiculous, we’ve been out here for hours!”

At this, Caldwell checks her watch; it’s a beautiful piece that probably had a price tag that would make Saga choke. “It’s been 40 minutes.”

“I have your coffee, Ms. Caldwell.”

The two women turn towards Sophie, who approaches the pair with twin coffee cups in her hand. Her hair is in its usual knot, and she is bundled almost comically in a woolen scarf and parka. Saga noticed that the left leg of her tights is darker than the other, as if it were wet. Caldwell accepts the coffee but doesn’t look away from her phone, and Sophie is flushed in the face in a way Saga suspected isn’t just from the brisk winter air.

“What happened to your leg?”

Sophie looked confused, then to where Saga was pointing. “Oh! I was splashed by a bus.” She smiles and adjusts her glasses, looking a little embarrassed. “The driver didn’t see me crossing the street and there was this big puddle - I thought I could be quick enough…”

Saga drinks her own coffee, enviously looking at Caldwell’s steaming cup when hers had already gone cold. “Did you flip him off?” She asked in a way that indicated this was perfectly normal behaviour, and was surprised by how mortified Sophie looked.

“N-no! Of course not!”

At this Caldwell looks at her tights, her expression calculated. “You’re going to freeze.”

If possible, Sophie went even more red. “I-I’ll be fine, Ms. Caldwell! Really!”

“Saga, don’t you have some tights my assistant can borrow so she won’t freeze? The last thing I need is for her to get sick when we’re working on a important case.”

Saga lifted her eyebrows. “I’m an important case?”

“Don’t be ridiculous. You are a child who requires supervision.”

“Rude,” Saga huffed, then looked over at Sophie. “Tell you what, you trade me that coffee and I’ll get you hooked up.”

Sophie looked caught, glancing between Saga and Caldwell, except Caldwell’s attention was back on her phone and not in their exchange. Reluctantly, she handed over the coffee and watched as Saga regarded the faint print of her lipstick around the rim. “Cute colour. All right, come on up.”

They made their way up to her apartment, Saga having to explain the dire consequences of using the elevator and Sophie having no choice but to try and keep up with her as she went up the stairs two at a time. Inside, she had to rummage through her packed boxes before handing over a pair of red tights with white polka dots. Sophie’s expression fell as she held them in her hands.

“These?”

Saga was attempting to retape the box with the bits she had pulled off. She wasn’t very successful. “Yeah. Why? Don’t like them?”

The other girl blushed again, looking them over. “They’re not very office appropriate.”

“Hey, I’m not the one who got their office clothes dirty - didn’t Caldwell tell you that you’d be helping me move today?”

“I-I thought it was a joke!”

Saga laughed, doubling over to grip her knees. “Caldwell telling a joke,” she wheezed like it was the punchline. “That’s amazing. You are hilarious. All right, bathroom is over there. I’m gonna head back down. Remember not to take the elevator, and oh, if you see Larry from down the hall, do yourself a favour and don’t make direct eye contact. He does not like that.”

Flashing the assistant a grin, Saga left her to it and wandered back downstairs, idly checking her phone as she went. There was a new voicemail waiting for her.

Playing new voice message:

“Hello, Saga, this is Lewis from Pelican Town. Everything is ready for you here at your grandfather’s farm. Now I’m not exactly sure when you’ll be rolling into town, but I’ll stop by in the morning to show you around town and point you in the right direction for groceries and other services you may need. Looking forward to seeing you. Take care.”

Outside, the moving van had finally showed up, and Caldwell was in the middle of negotiating their hourly wage. Watching her in action reminded Saga of when caretakers fed sharks at the aquarium: Caldwell exuded a cold demeanour that made others nervous; she was someone who demanded results and if she didn’t get them she wasn’t afraid to have people dislike her.

It was unfortunate that she was stuck with Saga for a client. But, after the move, Saga didn’t anticipate having to deal with the her lawyer very much, and their hook-and-bait relationship would quickly become a thing of the past.

Caldwell was instructing them how to lift boxes properly when Saga joined her side. The two burly men she had hired looked angry over something the lawyer had said, but they kept any comments they wanted to make to themselves and got to work. Caldwell was back on her phone, her cup of coffee already finished. Saga shoved one of her hands into the pockets of her thick and oversized wool cardigan and greedily drank from Sophie's coffee. “Remind me again how helping a client move is a lawyer thing?”

“As I’ve said a million times, your grandfather left strict instructions for me. I’m simply following them. This is just the last item on the laundry list.” Lifting her head, she regarded one of the men. “There are more boxes upstairs. I trust you won’t drop any of my client’s things.”

He looked between the two women, and nodded, ready to leave when Saga interrupted. She grinned sunnily at him. “The elevator is broken. I’m up on the fifth floor, number 505. Thanks!”

The mover’s expression somehow managed to sour even more. He collected his partner and together they disappeared into the apartment building. Caldwell’s fingers stopped texting, giving Saga a side glance. “The elevator seemed fine yesterday.”

“Oh yeah, landlord fixed it about a month ago. I just like fucking with people.”

She looked at the lawyer with a shit-eating grin, and miraculously, Caldwell was amused. The ghost of a smile threatened to crack through her lipstick. She hummed thoughtfully and returned to her phone.

After about an hour, all of Saga’s possessions were packed and ready to go. She didn’t own a car, and after some further debate back and forth with the movers, Caldwell ensured her passage in the moving truck with them. The two men by then looked entirely fed up with the woman and gave in. They currently sat in the truck ready to go as Saga awkwardly loitered out on the pavement.

Sophie was sweaty from helping move some of the smaller things. Pulling off her scarf, she accepted the briefcase that Caldwell handed to her and left with the instructions to meet back at their office. Caldwell was busy signing the form the movers had given to her to complete, leaving Saga useless and kicking idly at the clumps of snow on the sidewalk.

“They’re to move your things into the house - and you better stress that part, I have no doubt they’ll try to dump your stuff outside and leave. Other than that, everything is taken care of.” Handing Saga the clipboard, she retrieved her own sunglasses out of her bag and slipped them on. By now the afternoon sun was beginning to set, and at its current angle it bounced off of the nearby roof and down onto the asphalt. “You have my card should you run into any legal problems.”

She turned to leave and Saga finally spoke up. “Hey uh, thanks, y’know. For all of this.”

Caldwell paused, regarding Saga as if she was waiting for the other shoe to drop. Scratching the back of her head, Saga shrugged and cleared her throat. “That’s it. Just...thanks.”

“...you’re welcome,” she responded, a touch of softness gracing her voice. With a single nod, she strode away down the sidewalk, already on her phone talking to someone by the time she turned the corner.

Climbing up into the truck, it was obvious that she was going to have to sit between the two muscle men. After some initial awkward climbing and adjusting, Saga settled into the seat and declared ultimate control of the radio. The two men were by then exhausted and gave no protest. It would be a long journey to Stardew Valley, and Saga had the miraculous talent for finding every horrible country song all the way there.

Chapter Text

She woke up the next morning disorientated and dehydrated.

Sunlight was pouring through a window that lacked a curtain; it was bright and cheerful and everything Saga hated about mornings. There was even the sound of birds chirping. When she finally lifted her head off the pillow there was a crusty patch of drool that made the skin across her jaw itch.

The inside of her grandfather’s cabin was almost comically bare. The bed she sat up in was thoughtlessly pushed into a corner, the fireplace was cold and dirty looking, and the television sitting on the floor dated itself by decades in comparison to recent technology. There was perhaps the smallest kitchenette Saga had ever seen, and the majority of her boxes filled in the spaces in between. Grabbing her phone, she groaned when it said that it was 6 am.

Her contemplation of going back to sleep, however, was squandered by her extreme thirst. Tripping over a threadbare rug, she turned on the tap and cupped her hands to drink desperately. The water tasted different than it does in the city; in Zuzu, Saga would have used a filter to keep water in her fridge. But here it was bracingly cold and clear. Splashing water over her face, she roughly scrubbed any remaining traces of mascara from her eyes and used the bottom of her pajama shirt to dry off.

As she was pulling on last night’s jeans, there was a polite knock at her door. Immediately her sense of suspicion, left over from living in the city, caused her to squint at the door and consider ignoring it completely. However after a few tense seconds, the knocking returned, this time a little bit louder. It was times like this she always criticized herself for not getting a bat. Armed only with her wits and her phone, she slowly opened the door.

An old man with a gray moustache and tweed hat smiled warmly at her. “Good morning, Miss Saga - I trust you slept well?”

There was a loud thump that came from the left side of the house. Saga leaned out beyond the front door and saw that a woman just finished unloading a large wooden crate from the back of a truck. As she dusted off her hands, she looked towards the house and gave a warm wave. “Morning!”

Dumbly, Saga waved back to the stranger. “It’s 6 o’clock in the morning,” she stated to the man.

This seemed like news to him. His eyebrows raised considerably. “Is it?”

The woman was now pushing the crate. It must be heavier than it looks, because she practically has to throw all of her weight against it. Her distant grunts and swearing drifted over to the porch. Those bloody birds were going nuts over it, too. Their tweets now became irritated squawking and the branches of the pine tree closest to the house shook with their excited wings. The man, seemingly watching the slow realization of annoyance coming across Saga’s face, chuckled. “Think of us as your welcoming committee - I’m Lewis, Mayor of Pelican Town.”

“Right. We spoke on the phone,” Saga recalled, shoving her phone into the back pocket of her jeans.

“That’s Robin. She’s our local carpenter. Her shop is up on the mountain should you require her services.”

There,” Robin groaned. She was finished shoving the crate and came over to join them. She reached out a hand and Saga felt the rough calluses as they greeted each other. “Honestly, Lewis, I don’t know why you had me remove the damn thing in the first place.”

“What is that?” Saga interrupted.

Robin stuck a thumb over her shoulder. “It’s your drop-off box.”

“If you have anything to sell you can put it in there and I’ll come collect it during the night, in exchange for coin, of course,” Lewis clarified, kind of.

Saga politely nodded, kind of. “Right, things to sell… What exactly am I selling?”

Robin and Lewis exchanged a worried look.

“You’re the new farmer, right? So...farm things?” Robin guessed, actually shrugging at Saga which inspired a look of annoyance from Lewis.

“Crops, materials, minerals, artisan goods...whatever you get up to on the farm to make a profit.”

“Huh. Imagine that.” Leaning against the doorframe, Saga crossed her arms and looked across the farmland. Now that winter had passed, the melted snow revealed just how overgrown and rough everything really was. “I donno, I mean, it’s kind of a dump,” she intoned.

Lewis physically bristled. “This is your grandfather’s farm! Didn’t he leave it in your name?”

Indifference laced Saga’s words. “Yeah. Funny thing is, he was the only farmer in the family. Look, I get where you’re coming from, but I don’t know what exactly I’m going to do with the place.”

The Mayor was red in the face, and Robin gave him a worried look. “Well, I mean… Maybe we should let you get settled in, right Lewis?” Patting him on the shoulder, Robin grinned at him in attempt to lighten his quickly souring mood. “You probably have lots to do. If you need anything, feel free to ask.”

She watched as the other woman awkwardly scratched the back of her head and laugh at nothing in particular. Giving Saga a wave, she headed down the porch steps and paused. “Coming Lewis?”

The man was scrutinizing Saga, and when she met his gaze she was surprised to see...disappointment? As though he were looking for something he would never find, but hoped he could. Saga leaned away from the doorframe, disliking the feeling of being judged. Without another word he turned to join Robin, his shoulders dropping.

Ah, hell. “Mayor Lewis?”

He turned back around. Hesitating, she idly drummed her fingers against the worn wood of the door frame and looked anywhere but at his face. “My grandfather said to tell you ‘hello’ from him.” It sounded every bit as lame as she thought, and her expression cringed when she lacked any better follow up. “In a letter. So. Just fulfilling my granddaughter duties.”

Lewis smiled, but it is sad. It is a smile that says Saga is nothing like her grandfather. “Thank you. I wish I could have had a chance to say ‘hello’ back.”

“I’ll put in a word,” she said, offering a smile. It makes Lewis chuckle, but it sounds strained. Looking towards the truck, she spotted Robin waiting. “Thanks for the box!”

Robin cupped her hands around her mouth. “It’s real fucking heavy!”

Lewis joins her, scolding her foul language, and Robin throws her head back as she laughs. Giving one last parting wave, she climbed into the driver's seat and the two take off down the road and off the farm property. Saga exhaled, melancholy creeping into her chest.

You're an asshole, her empathy scorns.

It’s nearly 7 o’clock. Kicking the front door shut, she stood in the entryway not exactly knowing how to proceed. The sight of her unpacked boxes only caused dread knowing she would have to eventually deal with them. The bed looked inviting enough, but her early morning visitors left a bad taste in her mouth that she wouldn't able to fall back asleep. It was as if she had packed up her entire life and moved to Pelican Town without a single plan or goal.

That was exactly what happened.

Avoiding the duties of the boxes, she rummaged around until she found a clean enough shirt and bra. Instead of showering, she bundled her hair up into a messy knot and headed back outside to assess her options. Outside of the front door to the right was a wood shed built into the side of the cabin, and leaning against the wall was one hoe, one pickaxe, one scythe, one axe, and one watering can. Saga noticed that they seemed to be comparatively clean and new - definitely not her grandfather’s tools. Someone had left them here for her, and she largely suspected that person was named Lewis.

But she didn’t know the first thing about farming. What she said was true: her grandfather was the only farmer in the family. Driven to it, he had told her. When life in the city had become too hectic to handle he had escaped his sanctuary. Of course, Saga had only known him as a farmer. He had made it look easy, too.: till the soil, plant the seeds, water the crops. He hadn’t even bother to really show her anything. If she offered to help he was quick to wave her away and direct her short attention span somewhere else. Maybe he didn’t want a kid to ruin all of his hard work, or perhaps he wanted to keep some aspects of his farm life to himself.

There was a little packet taped to the handle of the hoe: parsnip seeds. “Really angling for a farmer, aren’t you Lewis?” Saga said to herself. Turning them over, she found a note:

Here’s a little something to help get you started.

-Mayor Lewis

Eyeing the expanse of farmland, she shoved the seeds into her back pocket. “Right. Fine. I get it. But I’m telling you right now this is a Bad Idea.”

The wind rustled the trees around her in response.

Now armed with the hoe, the watering can, the seeds, and her phone, Saga spent the morning searching for the best place to start planting. There was so many pieces of wood - far too big to carry - that would require being chopped up. Some of the weeds were so strong that she couldn’t pull them free by hand. And the rocks - Yoba alrighty, the rocks. Clusters of them so dense, it was pointless trying to chuck them out of her way. So instead she worked around them, creating a haphazard plot of tilled soil that looked as chaotic as she felt.

Wiping the sweat from her brow, she reached into her pocket for both the seeds and her phone. “Parsnips, huh.” Typing into her phone, her feeble signal manages to locate a series of videos called Living off the Land and there is even one episode dedicated to basic farming. The host was a very eccentric woman with frizzy-looking hair and a smile that bordered on insanity, but she had a way of breaking every bit of information down into bite-sized pieces and had great examples of what she was talking about. Propping up her phone into a cluster of rocks, Saga sat on her knees and followed everything step by step. An hour later and she even found the woman charming.

Watering, however, was straight up a pain in the ass. Not only was she uncoordinated enough to soak her shoes and jeans, she found that she had to make frequent trips to the river just to refill it. When everything was said and done, she chucked the farming equipment to the side and sprawled out on the ground, exhausted and dirty. Throwing an arm across her eyes, she stayed like that for several minutes.

What am I doing here? Was she really going to pretend to be a farmer? Was that what her grandfather wanted? Okay, so today she planted some seeds, but what about tomorrow? Or the day after? And that big fucking box that Robin and Lewis dropped off. Was she expected to fill it to the brim every single day? It was like everyone was trying to prod her in a specific direction and Saga could feel her heels beginning to burn from the friction of trying to resist.

But why resist?

Why pack up everything she owns and leave the city if she didn’t want a change? It wasn’t because of Caldwell. It wasn’t because of Lewis. It wasn’t because Joja Corporation was evil incarnate-

Yes they are-

It’s was because of something else. Something...new and unexpected for her. It wasn’t the fast-paced career she was making for herself at Joja. It wasn’t the stupid cocktail parties full of people to network with. There was no guy with oil-slicked hair trying to get her to undress by flashing his bank account numbers. There was no shitty apartment with shitty neighbours, no taxis honking at pedestrians, no one-sided snippets of conversation as people yelled over their phones on the train.

All around her was silence.

The slow trickle of the river. The soft whisper of a breeze. The hard and warm earth beneath her. The smell of nature and life free of pollution. Saga drank it all in, greedy and yearning for more. More peace. More tranquility. More room to breathe.

Cigarette smoke curls around her nose. She moves her arm to look around, expecting to see the person responsible, but there is no one else on the farm. Her legs shake as she stands, unused to the physical labour. The smell is faint but undeniable and she traces it to the edge of the property behind the house. There she discovers a marked trail heading further into the woods and up a hill.

Like everywhere else, the path is overgrown. She has to push aside branches and thorns just to make any progress, and with every cut and scrap of nature fighting against her, she vaguely worries about getting lost - except, steadily the path climbs upwards. The trees begin to clear, and she’s able to see more. There is a ridge and the emergence of a wooden fence that looks relatively new. However there is no one else in sight. Frowning, she approached the fence and leaned over. Below she can see the bus stop, complete with broken down bus and the faint outline of tire tracks from when Caldwell brought her here in winter. The road stretches out before her, which meant that currently she was standing on top of the tunnel. If she were to climb over the fence she could sit and dangle her feet.

What is most chilling, however, is the complete lack of traffic. If Saga didn't know better, she would have sworn that Pelican Town was a figment of her imagination. There was hardly any signs to welcome people passing by, no indication that there was anything at all to see. She could see a quarter of a mile straight ahead and not a single vehicle or light looked back at her.

There was also no cigarette smoke.

The breeze up here was cooler, making the hair along her arms stand on end. Though the path was clear and obvious, she couldn’t shake the sensation that something could be watching her from the shadows. Hugging herself, she noticed a collection of cigarette butts littering the ground beneath her shoes. It looked like someone made frequent use of the spot. And at the higher elevation, it was no wonder the smell of it could make it all the way back to the farm.

In fact, from the fence she could see the farm. There was the back of the house and the river running behind it, and she could almost see what remained of the greenhouse. The series of little islands that made up the property, even the parsnips she planted that morning...she could see it all.

Which meant that whoever was up here could see her, too.

Saga jumped when her back pocket started to ring. Fishing out her phone, she squinted at the icon flashing a low signal rate before answering. “Hey dad.”

“Hello, monster!” The voice was warm and full of love on the other end, and it made Saga smile. “How are you?”

“Yeah, I’m good. Sorry I didn’t return your calls - moving and all that.” Leaning against the fence, she was unable to take her eyes away from the easy access to look onto the farm. Her father hummed happily on the other end and dismissed her apology in understanding.

“Everything go okay?”

“More or less - I think I got scammed by the movers.”

He sighed dramatically. “Should have given them the extra coin.”

“That’s what I said! Caldwell only made it worse by going full-lawyer on them. I’m 95% sure my dishes are all smashed.” She began to pick imaginary lint off of her jeans, in need of something to occupy herself with. “Maybe forcing them to listen to country music on the way up was a bad idea.” It was a throw-away comment that earned her the laugh she was looking for.

“Who knows, maybe they have a taste for it now,” he suggested jokingly.

Saga raised her eyebrows. “That pretty much makes me a hero, right?”

“You’re very selfless like that.”

They both went quiet for a moment, and although it was comfortable, Saga anticipated the conversation veering towards a more serious tone. Unfortunately, she was right.

“So how’s the farm looking?”

How long had it been since her dad had visited the farm? She had tried to think about this earlier but was unable to pinpoint a specific year from memory. But there had been a time in both of their lives that they had visited often, and her grandfather’s funeral only made the recollections all the more bittersweet. Saga didn’t have it in her heart to tell him about the farm - not the reality of its state and what had become of it from neglect. She wanted to preserve his memories as he fondly remembered them.

“It looks great,” she lied with a smile. “Grandpa really took great care of the place. The Mayor is really nice, too. And I met the town carpenter.”

Relief punched through her dad’s words. “That’s great to hear! Sounds like you had quite the little welcome committee.”

Emotion strained her vocal chords. Saga ran a knuckle across her forehead and exhaled loudly. “You’ll have to come out and see it for yourself,” she heard herself say, frowning at her own traitorous mouth. “After I get settled, y’know.”

“And get new dishes,” he supplied helpfully.

She laughed but to her it sounded like a sob. “Right. Definitely adding that to my list.” Again they went quiet, but this time Saga could hardly bear it. “Anyway, I should probably go and finish unpacking,” another lie. Tapping her toe against the ground, she struggled against the urge to just hang up.

“Of course. I gotta head home soon.”

“Another late night at the office?”

“Oh yeah, this place is a mess. But, someone has to clean it up, right?”

He was talking about his employees. For years now her father had been struggling with keeping competent workers and weeding out the lazy ones. It came with the business, at least that’s what he always told her. Truthfully, she didn’t know anyone else who worked harder than her father. “Drive home safe, okay?”

“Will do, kiddo. Talk to you later.”

She hung up and her entire body slumped against the fence. There was exactly twelve cigarette butts sitting between her shoes. Twelve that she individually picked up and lined up along the fence. Satisfied that the next time the smoker returned they would understand her passive aggressive message, she turned back for the farm, wondering how hard it would be to plant enough trees to completely obscure the land from any other curious eyes.

Chapter Text

“Holy shit.”

The farming equipment fell with a clatter to the ground, forgotten and dismissed. The earth was surprisingly soft as Saga sank down to her knees, practically sprawling herself face-down just to get closer to the her crops. Poking through the dirt and stretching towards the sky was the very beginnings of her lopsided row of parsnips - tiny and delicate leaves rustling in the spring breeze.

She wanted to shield them and their perfect innocence. “Holy shit,” she breathed, taking in the scent of soil and moisture. Tenderly she poked at the base of the stems to feel how they were doing for water. “I planted you yesterday, now look at you!” Saga grinned and folded her arms under chest to keep herself propped up. “I can’t believe you’re growing already.”

The sun had returned, but with it came the consistent shower of petals and pollen shaken from the trees. Upon their branches sat fat bulbs of flowers, bursting with colour and perfume. The birds who made the trees their homes were chirping in volume, either in cheer or as part of a family squabble. It was still frustrating to wake up to, but as she laid in the dirt Saga imagined that they were complimenting her crops.

She wondered if her grandfather had experienced this. If the first time his crops started to sprout he had been as surprised and excited as she was. He was once a city boy, born and bred, but he never talked about it. Thinking about it now, she realized he must have gone through the same beginnings as she was. And although he now laid six feet below the ground, this idea made her feel closer to him.

Studying the surrounding space, she got back to her feet and dusted off her hands. It was mid-morning, and by the time she finished watering and halfheartedly ensuring a rock wouldn’t crush those precious sprouts, it was the start of the afternoon. She figured that if she could plant parsnips and find success, then a few other crops couldn’t hurt either. Grabbing a backpack from inside, she slung it over her shoulder and lazily set off in the direction of the town.

Much like on the farm, the path was alive with colour and activities of wildlife. From the corner of her eye she saw a grey rabbit dart back down into its underground hovel as she approached. Soft petals of pinks and whites scattered across the ground before being swept into the grass by the changing breeze. Cotton ball pollen danced in the air without purpose. Spring was in full swing in Stardew Valley.

Her walk wasn’t very long, and further down the path she could see the emergence of Pelican Town. The dirt path eventually became cobblestone, and faintly she could hear the distant crash of waves from the ocean. There were gorgeous baskets and barrels of flowers that hung from every lamp post and accompanied every shop doorway; flags and banners in every shade of pastel told her that the Egg Festival was just around the corner. A red cross marked the clinic, and closer towards the Town Square she spotted the infamous Stardrop Saloon. On her right there were stairs leading up a short and grassy hill, and nestled between the clinic and a second shop there was a bulletin board with notices that rustled with the passing wind.

Upon closer inspection she found a calendar. The Egg Festival was taking place a week from now, and curiously it appeared that people had written down each other’s birthdays. Next to the calendar, someone named Gus was asking for wild horseradish and offering payment for delivery. There were other notices, too; an ad for Robin’s Carpentry Shop, and one for the Stardrop Saloon; a poster for a lost teddy bear that was hand drawn by a child; a reminder about garbage disposal and recycling that was almost hidden underneath everything else, forgotten; a band poster that used clip art and wasn’t in any way trying to be ironic.

It seemed that there was some life in Pelican Town, at least according to the board. While she had been looking things over, an older woman with honey-brown hair that was carefully braided and draped over one shoulder was waiting to have access to the board. She smiled politely, but the two didn’t exchange any words. Saga stepped back and watched as she pinned a pink notice to the board. Rather than creepily wait to see what it said, Saga’s attention was caught by the window to her right. There was a handwritten card taped to it that read: SPRING SEEDS FOR SALE!

Inside, the shop was modest and carried a variety of things; there was a small refrigerator and freezer section, and multiple shelves that carried anything from groceries to wallpaper and flooring. If she were being honest, it was almost assaulting to her senses; was it a grocery or a home improvement shop? There was even a dusty bin of computer games that would make great company for her out-of-date television.

Although the man behind the register smiled, no warmth actually came to his eyes. The way he watched her left Saga with little doubt that she was being judged, and his body language carried a tension that suggested he was prepared for confrontation. He was one of those young-middle-aged types. His hair had a tousled look and his glasses were fashionable enough, but he suffered from a baby-face syndrome that reminded Saga of every collegiate jerk from a movie, ever.

Of course, the spinning rack of seeds was located next to him.

Saga made a beeline for the rack. As she spun it, she was relieved to notice that each packet was clearly labelled that they were for spring planting only. However each came with its own plethora of information and instructions, printed extra tiny for good measure. And the variety was overwhelming: parsnips, cauliflower, garlic, beans, kale, potatoes; flowers ranging from tulips to jazz (whatever that was); saplings to plant fruit trees (apricot and cherry). She was in the middle of trying to dissect which ones would be the easiest when the shopkeeper finally cleared his throat.

“You must be the new farmer!”

He sounded pleasant enough. Saga spared him a quick glance and nodded, subtly angling her body away from him.

“Well you made the right choice coming to Pierre’s! We have the best seeds for the best price!” A chuckle followed the statement, either nervous or bordering on small-town hysteria. “It’s nice to see that not all young people run to Joja - you look like you appreciate quality-”

Her fingers gripped the packet of garlic seeds tightly. “There’s a Joja here?” she interrupted.

A dark shadow passed over the man’s face, his mood instantly changing. “Perhaps I spoke too soon,” he said, tone clipped. Aggressively he began to punch buttons on his register, but it didn’t look like he had a particular function in mind. “I suppose it was too much to hope that the next generation understand the importance of a family-run business.”

“I don’t shop at Joja,” she answered dismissively. According to the packet, garlic only takes 4 days to grow.

“O-oh.”

There was an incredibly awkward silence between them. It was universally understood that he had made a right tit of himself, at least, that’s what Saga believed. She decided to ignore him and began tallying up how much the garlic seeds would cost and put back a few of the packets she deemed too difficult to deal with. However it was impossible to ignore the faint sound of giggling coming from somewhere behind her. Looking over her shoulder, she spied a glimpse of a girl with purple hair who was doing her best to hide herself behind a shelf. The none-too-subtle scrap of canned vegetables being used to conceal her identity was also a dead giveaway.

The man, unsurprisingly, was oblivious. “Sorry. It’s just - ever since they came to town I’ve noticed a drop in sales. It’s hard to compete with their always-on-demand guarantee.”

“Whatever,” Saga shrugged, approaching the counter and putting down the seeds. He rung them up and silently there was an exchange of coin and change. Throwing her backpack up onto the counter, she tucked the seeds into a safe pocket, but her attention traveled over to the bigger backpack that was on display to her right.

10,000g.

Ouch. Shouldering her bag, the shopkeep made another try at conversation. “I’m Pierre, by the way. Like the store.”

Is this going to be a thing? Turning her head, she gave one single nod of acknowledgement. “I’m Saga.”

“Yes, I know. You’re grandfather spoke about you all the time.”

A cold dread pooled into her stomach. Readjusting her grip, she feigned a smile and gave a mock salute. “Hopefully nothing too embarrassing. Gotta go.” Her feet felt numb as she exited the shop.

There was a blur of activity in the town square now, all these strangers going about their lives, and non-discreetly they stopped to watch her. Be cool. Be cool. Be cool. With measured steps she walked away from the town and toward where she could see a stone bridge sitting across a river. By the time she reached the middle, her knees were jelly and she had to grip the side for balance.

You look like an asshole, she chastised. Of course people here knew her grandfather. Of course he talked about her - that’s what loving grandparents do.

Watching the flow of water, Saga tempered her breathing. Bit by bit the all-too-familiar embarrassment of her own behaviour came to rest in her stomach. She slouched against the side of the bridge. Maybe the clinic could surgically remove whatever had lodged itself up her ass.

“Hey.”

The girl with purple hair greeted her shyly with a warm smile. There was a certain gleam to her eyes that drew attention to how young she was - she couldn’t have graduated from high school too long ago. Saga stared back at her, waiting to hear the reason why she was interrupting her very important self-assessment.

“My name is Abigail. I couldn’t help overhear you talking to my dad back at the store.”

“You were literally spying on me from the shelves,” Saga pointed out, taking enjoyment in the way the girl suddenly turned scarlet in the face. She wrung her hands in front of her body, but when she noticed that Saga was watching, she quickly put them behind her back and gave her a light-hearted laugh.

“Okay, fair. Totally busted.” She took some steps closer to join Saga on the bridge and watched the river with her. “My dad is an ass. I wish I could say it wasn’t personal, but I’m pretty sure I ruined any chance of him ever giving ‘the young people’ a chance in this town. But hey, at least you’re not the sole focus of his disdain!”

Saga hummed, lifting her eyebrows. “So you’re saying I have competition?”

Abigail giggled, tucking a strand of her purple hair behind an ear. She had a kind of carefree smile that Saga felt herself mimicking in order to look normal. “More like a potential partner-in-crime?” Abigail offered quickly, not sparing more than a few seconds to look towards Saga before finding something else to focus on. “Anyway, I didn’t want my asshole dad to be the first impression you got about Pelican Town.”

“Asshole first impressions are kinda my thing,” Saga answered honestly. Holding onto the railing, she leaned her weight back until her arms fully extended and a nice long stretch burned in her tired muscles. “I’ve already disappointed the Mayor and Robin yesterday.” It’s a casual remark that is quickly followed with a shrug. “I think they were expecting someone...else.”

“I wouldn’t worry about Robin. She’s built tough, like a house. Actually, she built her house up in the mountain. And the Mayor,” Abigail rolled her eyes with a sudden annoyance. “He’s a Mayor. It’s his job to expect a lot of things.” Slapping the top of the stone, she pivoted toward Saga with a newfound confidence. “My friends and I go to the Saloon on Friday nights. You should join! I’ll introduce you to everyone, maybe point out some other familiar faces in the crowd - and the ones to avoid. There’s an arcade and a pool table and a jukebox, and the food isn’t half bad!” She was speaking so fast, and somehow so fluently, like it wasn’t dictated by nerves but rather by her own excitement.

Straightening, Saga was unsure as to how to reject the offer in a nice way. So instead she said, “Sure.”

Abigail’s eyes lit up. “Wow - really? You’re an easy sell!” Laughing, she stepped away from the railing. “Okay, cool. We usually meet up around 5.” Glancing over her shoulder, her posture slumped. “I gotta head back to help close up the shop.” She smiled again - that beautifully sunny smile that should have been offensive to anyone with a shred of pessimism in them. Saga couldn’t look away from it, nor could she ignore the strange way something plucked against her heartstrings. It was annoying.

“Are your friends as nice as you?” she blurted out, halting Abigail’s retreat.

The scoff was genuine. “Sam’s an idiot, but he’s sweet. Sebastian is…” she trailed off, caught by the sight of Pierre leaning out of the shop searching for her. “Shit, I gotta go. See you Friday!”

From the river, a large fish suddenly jumped out of the water. Its body contorted in mid-air, brown scales catching the afternoon sun before plummeting back into the river’s depths. Through the ripples Saga could watch the reflection of the bridge as it stretched and pulled before it settled back into the natural distortion the current created. She wasn’t sure how long she stood there for, just staring at the water, but eventually people started crossing the bridge, making their way in toward the town.

Collecting her bag, Saga trailed behind them, but as most made their way for the Saloon, she veered to the right to until she was hidden behind an oak tree. She was in a small residential area; next to the tree was a lovely looking blue house, however ahead of her was a parked trailer. Judging by the state of its wheels, it had been there for a long time. A small fenced area with a dog house sat out in front of the blue house, and further ahead was the backside of a larger house with a white picket fence and a familiar-looking truck parked along the side. There was litter scattered across the ground; tin cans and junk food wrappers that no one acknowledged. She could see the roof of the saloon, however the rest of the town square was obscured by manicured hedges.

Mentally she tried to retrace her steps to get back to the farm, but she was interrupted by a gentle touch to her arm. Jumping, she sharply turned with a raised fist poised to strike, and Alex quickly held up his hands in surrender. “Jeez, put that thing away before you hurt someone!”

Her fist remained clenched, but her arm lowered just a tad. “You scared the shit out of me!”

He grinned at her, but kept his hands raised. “Why are you hanging around outside of my house?”

Blinking, Saga dropped her arm and regarded the house with fresh eyes. Of course, she recognized it now. It was prettily decorated with the same care that adorned the town, carrying the signature of Alex’s grandmother. “I’m stalking you,” she joked with a shrug, but her embarrassment burned across her cheeks and she avoided looking him in the eye.

Alex shoved his hands into his pockets and tilted his head at her. “Huh. And here I thought you were ghosting me because of what happened at your grandfather’s service.”

Shit. “Just been busy,” she said quickly, shrugging like it was no big deal. “Surprisingly there’s a lot to take care of after someone kicks the bucket. Like...taxes...”

His gaze softened. “Right. No. That makes complete sense. Sorry, it’s just...I left you messages-”

“-yeah, I got them-”

“-I figured maybe you wanted to avoid the whole awkward post-”

“So you still live here, huh?” Stepping away from the tree, Saga surveyed the house and gave it a definitive nod. “Does your grandma still do all the flower arrangements and decorating around town?”

He followed her, taking a moment to rub the back of his head before answering. “Pretty much. She’s got a small committee now - I mean, she’s getting older and I told her I didn’t want her going up the ladders anymore. But the vision is all her.” Alex smiled, obviously proud of his grandmother.

Saga studied him for a moment before looking away, careful to not draw too much attention as she tried to dislodge the clumped emotion rising in her throat. “Cool.”

They both fall silent and it is painfully awkward. Saga thought about leaving, but the extended history between them forces her to stay, either out of some obligation, or more likely, cowardice. Alex doesn’t look at her, and it’s both a relief and worrying. He looks...uncomfortable.

Best not to dig deep on that one.

“Well I should be going-”

“Do you want to stay for dinner?”

Definitely wasn’t expecting that. Saga freezes, her expression caught between a grimace and shock, and it makes Alex laugh. “What?”

“Dinner,” he repeated. Moving around her, he went to the front door, any traces of his previous discomfort nothing but a false memory. “You should stay. My grandma would love to see you, and having guests means grandpa can’t have the TV blaring from the other room. You’d be doing us a favour, really.”

She narrowed her eyes playfully. “Depends. What’s for dinner?”

His grin said he had won. “Full roast dinner, complete with gravy.”

Shit, that sounded delicious. “You speak confidently for your grandma. What if she doesn’t want guests?”

Alex scoffed and unlocked the front door, his body halfway in but still turned toward her expectantly. “Farm girl, I know it’s been a while since you’ve graced Stardew Valley with your presence, but some things are still exactly the same. Come on.”

Taking a deep breath, she gives him a nod before following.

She was instantly amazed by how little things had changed inside the house. There was evidence, of course, of modernization, but overall it had managed to retain the telling features of age: the pictures hanging on the walls were the same ones she had seen time and again throughout her childhood summers, the wallpaper called to a decade of printed foil flowers, the colour combinations ranged from buttery yellow to blush pink with a collection of country wood furniture to fill in the gaps. The carpet in the living room used to be shagged, but years of foot traffic and rearranging of furniture left it mowed and pock-marked.

The wood floors looked relatively new. Saga should know, since she had accidentally carved a fine gash by the front door from when she had dropped a plate of leftovers once upon a time. It was interesting how her eyes immediately began to search for it. Even more interesting when she felt disappointed by its absence.

The delicious smell of meat and vegetables filled the air. Alex led her into the kitchen where updated appliances gleamed back at her in the fading daylight coming in from the windows. At the stove, Evelyn was poking a pot of boiled potatoes with a fork. “Just in time for dinner,” she said to Alex without turning. Her grandson was already digging around in the fridge, retrieving two cold cans of Joja Cola.

“Grandma we’ve got company tonight,” he tells her, his tone changing the way young people often did when talking to a generation much older than themselves.

Turning away from the pot, Evelyn looked at Saga with a curious expression. She wondered if the old woman even remembered her. After several heartbeats, Evelyn’s face broke into a smile. Abandoning her pot, she shuffled across the kitchen and reached for Saga’s hands. “I was wondering when you would visit.”

Evelyn’s hands were cold and covered in age spots, and yet were ridiculously soft. She felt delicate, as if the bones in her hands were hollow and any amount of pressure would cause them to break, but her grip on Saga was strong and commanding. “Hi, Evelyn.”

“George!” She could hear the blare of a television from the next room. “George, Saga is going to be joining us for dinner!” A distinct grunt answered her, but the program wailed on. Focussing back on her, Evelyn swung their hands gently within their embrace. “Did Alex send you our condolences?”

Alex had a guilty look that quickly progressed into a blush. He busied himself with setting the table and placing the two cans of cola down side by side, indicating where Saga would be sitting with him. “He did,” Saga half-lied with a smile. “Thank you. I’m sorry you both couldn’t make it to the service.”

“Oh it’s George’s hip. It always acts up in the winter. The Doctor didn’t want him travelling.” Releasing her hands, Evelyn returned to her stove to adjust a temperature knob. “Alex, dear - why don’t you show Saga where she can put her things down. She looks tired.”

“Sure thing, Grandma.” Winking at Saga, Alex inclined his head out of the kitchen for her to go with him. The walls of the hallway where practically a museum of Alex’s upbringing: the vestiges of the kid she remembered, the pubescent pre-teen with floppy hair and braces, the high school graduate standing proudly in his cap and robe while he clutched his diploma and posed with Evelyn and George. He looked the same, and yet entirely different, and she wondered if when he looked at her he saw the same thing, too.

When he opened the door to his room, Saga audibly snickered.

Adorable gridball wallpaper accented the entirety of the north-facing wall, joined by a large cork board that hosted pages ripped out of fitness magazines displaying beautiful men and women at their peak physical prowess. A bookshelf looked as if it was added as a last-minute idea, its shelves either tightly packed or completely bare. The usual suspects of a guy’s bedroom were prominent as well: the mis-laid socks and dirty clothes, items of interest that didn’t quite make it back to its original home, and a small weight-training set stacked neatly. The wood flooring matched the half-wall wood panelling, and there was a musky scent of body wash and dried sweat lingering in the air.

“I tried to replace the wallpaper last summer,” Alex clarified, looking mildly mortified at Saga’s amused expression while she took everything in. “But the glue is so old that I was damaging the wall pretty bad.”

“I think it’s totally cute,” she assured him none-too-gently and with a devious grin. Wandering toward his bookshelf, she eyed the titles with little interest: they were mostly books on gridball, but she noticed there were some University pamphlets tucked into a thick textbook on business economics. “Thinking about going to University?” she asked, handing over her bag to his outstretched arm.

The tension in the room changed. He avoided her gaze as he placed her bag at the end of his bed and she was just able to catch the sound of his strangled sigh. Holding up her hands, Saga surrendered her question immediately. “It’s cool, we don’t have to talk about that if you don’t want to.”

He smiled at her, his dimples making her stomach flip. “Thanks.” Reaching for his gridball, Alex spun it between his hands before tossing it in her direction. “Did you go to University?”

“Nah.” Studying the ball, she idly passed it back and forth between her palms before throwing it back to him. “Thought about it. Really thought I would, but…” Alex patiently waited for an answer that didn’t come to her naturally, so she filled the gap with a careless shrug. “It’s not for everyone. Besides, I was making some pretty solid bank out of high school.” She grinned roguishly at him as he laughed.

“Let me guess, you were...selling test answers to the Freshmen,” he teased. This time when he tossed the ball, there was a bit more speed. Saga just managed to catch it, barely.

“How dare you,” she scolded, making a show of straightening her shoulders importantly. “It was Juniors. Everyone knows Freshmen can’t afford my prices.” The ball sailed lazily through the air.

This time, Alex didn’t throw it back. He was regarding her with a contemplative eye. “What did you want to do in University?”

“I don’t know.”

His eyebrows furrowed. “You didn’t have a study in mind?”

“No.”

“Did you know what University you wanted to go to?”

“Not really.”

He threw up his hands in exasperation. The tension she had managed to alleviate before returned to the room tenfold, suffocating the conversation into silence. It occurred to Saga that her answers bothered him. That she was being too indifferent on the topic to a person who kept pamphlets tucked inside of a textbook and displayed it on a shelf directly at eye level. Alex didn’t necessarily want to discuss him going to University, but his questions danced around the idea that something was keeping him from getting in.

“Dinner is ready!” Evelyn called from the kitchen.

“Come on,” he said, dropping the gridball onto his bed. Saga followed him back out into the hallway, her insides twisting uncomfortably.

Just say something. Anything. Fix this. But nothing came to mind. All she had in her possession was stupid jokes that wouldn’t make him laugh. Not now, at least. Back in the kitchen, George had been wheeled to the table, but the television was still chattering from the living room. He was sitting in the spot directly across from where Alex indicated for her to sit, his eyes trained toward the sound of the program even though he couldn’t see it anymore. Evelyn was putting down a platter overflowing with a tender pork roast, and Saga’s mouth eagerly began to water.

“Alex, dear. Can you please turn off the television?”

“Don’t touch it!” George snapped. His hands gripped the arms of his wheelchair tightly, and his bushy eyebrows somehow managed to glare even further in the direction of his grandson. “I’ve been waiting all week for that show!”

Alex and Evelyn exchanged a look Saga didn’t understand. The older woman motioned for her to begin helping herself to the food, but she smiled patiently at Alex. “Maybe try to turn it down just a little,” she relented, and Alex left the kitchen. A few moments later and the volume simmered to a dull roar.

George wasn’t having it. He banged his fists against the table, shaking his water glass. “Ridiculous! How am I supposed to hear anything, now?”

“We have company, dear.” Sitting down, Evelyn kept Saga busy by passing her serving dish after serving dish. Not wanting to be rude (and admittedly quite famished), she loaded up her plate with buttery mashed potatoes, thick portions of the roast, brightly steamed green beans and carrots, and a generous helping of gravy. As she tucked in, Alex settled into the seat next to her and cracked open his can of Joja cola but didn’t take a sip.

Swallowing her mouthful, Saga scanned the faces at the table and privately sweated under the tension. “This is delicious, Evelyn. Thank you for letting me join you all for dinner.”

The woman smiled at her while she fixed George’s plate. Saga noticed that she was making sure that none of the items touched one another, leaving porcelain gaps that looked like paved roads between the food. “Not at all, dear. It’s so good to see you again. How is your grandfather’s farm?”

“Absolutely ridiculous,” George grumbled, stabbing at a bean with his fork. A commercial for laundry detergent claimed it could treat grass stains.

“It’s good,” Saga told her, each time the lie getting a little easier. “Exactly how I remember it being.”

Alex was pushing all of his food into one mound, his technique of conquering his plate similar to how workmen shovelled dirt and gravel into a hole. There’s a weatherman in the next room, expect lots of sun this week! Evelyn’s portions are tiny and she is distracted from eating by counting out George’s pills onto the table.

“Lots of work ahead of you, I imagine,” Evelyn continued.

Alex still doesn’t touch his cola. “Is our fort still there?”

“I haven’t checked-”

“I can’t hear my program!”

“George, please. Pierre tells me you were in his shop earlier buying seeds.”

Luck is in your future, a whispered voice promises from the television.

“It’s just a commercial, Gramps.”

“Well I can’t hear it!”

“Take your medicine, dear. Pierre said you bought some garlic. Grows like weeds, you’ll want to make sure you’re diligent in your watering-”

Alex laughs. “Yeah right, can you imagine Saga taking care of garlic? You do remember that she used to eat all of your tomatoes-”

We now return to “Gone Fishin’!” Today we will be discussing river fishing-

“I’m not-”

“-they weren’t even ripe-”

Evelyn goes to take a bite but the fork hovers in front of her. “If you plan on growing tomatoes, Saga, I can give you some tips-”

“I can’t hear my program!”

“Thank you, but-”

“Grandma, Saga isn’t going to grow tomatoes.” Alex sounded so confident, and he’s nearly finished his food. “She’s just here to take care of things since her grandpa passed away-”

“-my condolences, dear-”

“-right, Saga?”

“That’s not what Mayor Lewis told me. He said that Saga is taking over the farm-”

-get yourself a lead bobber, helps with the river currents-

She jumped to her feet, causing her chair to scrape loudly across the tiles. Standing there, she was acutely aware that everyone was now looking at her with varied worried expressions, and that she didn’t have a proper excuse to explain why she was suddenly on her feet. Now you want to look for activity in the water; bubbles are a good indicator of lots of fish activity, so if you can cast your line there, you’ll be reeling in catches left and right. “I’m sorry, I forgot that I promised to call my dad. May I be excused from the table?”

Evelyn blinked. “Of course, dear.”

Trying to appear calm, Saga smiled and left the table for Alex’s room. But once she was inside of his gridball paradise, she felt the full effects of her rage. What business was it to anyone what she was doing on the farm? Was the Mayor telling everyone about her? She began to pace about the room to temper her anger, but everytime she looked at her hands they were traitorous in their shaking. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.

And what about Alex? What was his angle in all of this? Why did he invite her to dinner? That’s not what normal people do to others who treat them shitty and ignore their calls and never return their messages. They don’t extend kindness and pork roasts. Normal people avoided her moved on.

She couldn’t return to the table. The furniture around her made her feel cramped and burdened with questions she didn’t have the answers to. This room was ridiculous by how well it contained everything that made up Alex perfectly; from the socks to the posters to the untouched textbook full of forgotten potential. Her eyes went to her bag resting on Alex’s bed before landing on the window next to his bedside table.

Without thinking, without considering alternative solutions, Saga grabbed her bag and opened the window.

Evening had taken Pelican Town. It was now dark and the air was cool against her flushed skin. It smelled of grass and dew and her own guilt. Chucking her bag out, it landed on the ground with a soft thump. The window wasn’t exactly made for climbing out of, but Saga was already one leg out and straddling the window sill when Alex found her.

“Hey, Saga, my grandma wants to know if you want dessert-”

Bang! “Ow, fuck!” Rubbing her head, she tried to disentangle herself but her weight shifted unexpectedly and now her ass was hanging out for the whole neighbourhood to see. Alex looked confused.

“What are you doing?”

With both hands now braced against the sides of the frame, one foot caught in a bush, and the other nearly hooked around his bedside lamp, Saga considered that perhaps Alex wasn’t being entirely serious, because she thought it was pretty obvious she was trying to escape. Except, he wasn’t finding it funny. In fact, the longer he looked at her, the more visibly upset he became. She wondered if he was going to yell at her, say that she was being rude and stupid (stupid, stupid, stupid), maybe he would even push her all the way out.

But he didn’t do any of those things.

The muscles in his jaw twitched, and his expression changed to passive. He looked like he didn’t expect anything better of her.

Which hurt.

But he doesn’t know you. Not really. Not recently. He only had what he remembered: a girl who threw rocks and ate unripe tomatoes and never came back one summer. Two summers. Several summers.

Slowly Saga lowered herself onto the ground outside. “I’m sorry.”

He met her at the window, and from her angle she could picture him the Juliet to her tragically inept Romeo. “Why?” he asked.

She didn’t answer. He let out a laugh, but it was more of a scoff. This time he didn’t meet her eyes. He just kind of...looked past her, shaking his head like the sum of all the parts was only going to bring him further disappointment. “Just go.”

“Alex-”

“I’ll tell them you have a family emergency.”

Pressing her lips into a line, Saga nodded numbly. “Thank you.” Bending down, she picked up her bag and hoisted it over her shoulder. “...I really am sorry, Alex.”

“Yeah,” he answered, ready to close the window. “Me too.”

Chapter Text

He made sure to close the blinds so that she was left in the dark.

There was a dull throb around her ankle. Lifting her foot, Saga stepped out of the bush she had carelessly squashed making her escape, but the pain lingered and she realized that her sock and shoe were full of thorns. With the feeble light of her phone’s screen, she could make out the perfect Saga-shaped hole she had made in a beautiful rose bush. Sitting next to it, severed and alone, was a single rose bud already blooming in the night. She put it on Alex’s window sill and pretended that made things kind of okay.

Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. The flashlight on her phone wasn’t any better. She tripped and tumbled her way out of Evelyn’s immaculate garden and climbed the stairs leading north out of the town square. At the top she stopped to deal with the thorns, sitting on the top step with her shoe and sock off making little progress as she tried to pluck the barbs from fabric. He hates you now. But that’s not very surprising. Whatever, she told herself stubbornly, childhood friendships aren’t built to last. You see them every now and then, say hello and move on. You don’t get drunk and take them into a coat room at a funeral. You don’t kiss them and grope them and let their stupid smile make you feel normal. You don’t go to dinner at their house. You don’t climb out their window and run away.

Are you done? she asked herself. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid said the anger.

The remaining thorns scratched at her skin as she pulled on her shoe and gave up entirely on the sock. In the darkness she could make out the black shape of the trees and a trail worn through the dirt by years of use. Saga remembered that there was a playground nearby, next to the rundown Community Centre. From there she should be able to track her way back to the farm.

Large and decrepit, the Community Centre remained the town ghost everyone had forgotten about. When she was young, Saga had believed that it was filled to the brim with the supernatural: that there was a hovel of starved and desperate werewolves living inside waiting to eat her alive; that witches got together in the garden to brew their potions and cackle at the sight of children who dared to be out of bed so late; zombies threatened to claw their way from beneath the floorboards, and dark faeries with blood stained teeth would sweet talk her into standing in the burning fireplace.

But now it only looked sad to her. Sad and broken and likely to be torn down. Maybe some millionaire would buy the land and build their ridiculous fantasy home that would dwarf the neighbourhood. Maybe it would just stay here and continue to rot until the earth swallowed it whole. It’s only been abandoned for over thirty years. What was thirty more?

The quiet valley was unnerving the longer she remained outside. There was no noise of a city, or inconsiderate neighbours, or even the distant roar of the highway. Up on the hill she was too far from the ocean to hear its rhythmic push and pull. You’re not creeped out, she told herself as her shoulders hunched close to her ears. Quickening her pace, she could almost see the outline of a swingset. You’re, like, 99.99% sure Pelican Town doesn’t have a serial killer living in the Community Centre.

Oh, but how that 0.01% nested its way into her mind.

“Hey, I’m just on my way home,” she said into her phone loudly. “Yeah, I’m just passing the old Community Centre! I will be there shortly! Thanks for waiting up for me! If you don’t hear from me in ten minutes I probably got murdered, ha ha ha ha!” Pretending to hang up, Saga swallowed. Maybe that was overkill.

She passed by the large oak front doors, but a glimpse of light caught her eye.

It was a small and fragile blink, barely even a flicker, and yet from the corner of Saga’s eye it was unmistakable. When she turned it was gone, only the black windows stared back at her. But there! At the window. A purple then a red. More of a pulsing glow than a light. Soft and weak but it pushed up towards the sill and then sank away. Yellow and then green. And there was a sound: faint and twinkling. She crept close and then closer still. There were thick bramble bushes overgrown and knotted against the building, reeds of grass and ferns that reached her knees and mud that suctioned her shoes. What was this light? She thought maybe it was reckless teenagers entertaining themselves, but the sound. How could she possibly hear it? Her senses strained, it was higher pitched now. Only dogs would be able to make it out if it went any higher. Rattling to the very top of her head, and maybe she was imagining things but the glow was moving like an intake of breath - it hovered then fell and shadows played tricks with her mind.

Because what she saw in the dark room of the Community Centre was not human. It was small, and it was many. About six, to be exact. Tiny - creatures? Couldn’t be any bigger than a baseball. Each a different colour: red, yellow, green, blue, purple, and orange. They bounced and their gelatinous looking bodies wobbled in the air while their tiny legs kicked out. Down they would come - not fast like gravity, but more of a float. And they jingled, as if invisible bells were held in their hands - each shake, each jump, each step was an orchestrated cacophony of sound.

These things creatures seemed to be looking at something. It was difficult to see what it was. Pressing her face against the glass, Saga had barely touched the window for very long before they suddenly scattered toward the door, their faint bodily glows disappearing one by one. On the ground where they had been clustered together was what appeared to be a bundle of paper.

Curiouser and curiouser. The window gave way when she attempted to pry it open. Chips of paint cracked, and a distinct smell of mildew reached her nose. With a noisy creak of wood and rusted hinges, Saga managed to create a gap large enough that she could crawl inside. Raising her phone above her head, she took in the full expanse of the room before her: dirty floorboards that was missing panels, dirt and sun-stained wallpaper that time had stripped into long curls from the ceiling down to the baseboards, a collection of junk - broken table legs and ragged cloth - piled in a corner by the door, and where once there was a light fixture now was a gaping hole with tentacle-like cables dangling without power.

Stepping carefully into the middle of the room, she picked up the paper she had seen the creatures crowded around. It was thick and the edges rolled in on itself into a kind of scroll. Unrolling it, a series of strange shapes and squiggles covered a generous portion of the paper. Gibberish, she thought. But odd. For whatever reason, she wanted to keep it. Rolling it back up, she stashed it inside of her backpack and crawled back out through the window, this time managing to avoid any further thorn abuse along the way.

That was when she noticed the man watching her.

Dark shadows where eyes should be, the unmistakable curl of a groomed goatee. “Interesting,” he said. His voice was something between gravel and a whisper. “It appears that you can see them, too.”

Jumping, Saga crossed her arms in front of her as if she were about to ward off an attack. The man stood about 5 feet away from her. He wore a long dark coat and she couldn’t see his hands. From under the brim of his hat, his eyes gleamed out at her in amusement. It made the hair on her arms stand on end.

“Look, I don’t want any trouble-”

The man took a step back and directed his gaze elsewhere. She realized that his hands were buried deep into the pockets of his coat and that his shoulders were hunched, as though he were uncomfortable - which irked her considering she wasn’t the one who was creeping up on people in the dark and saying things like-

“See what?”

With his profile turned to her, he could be gazing over the sleeping town, but it was difficult to discern what it was exactly he was looking at. “Junimos,” he answered simply, as though it were obvious. “Their desire to hide could leave anyone to believe they are starting to imagine things when you go looking for them. It is not in their nature to reveal themselves unless…” he trailed off, his head turning sharply toward her. “What is your name?”

Nah. Not playing this game. “Someone is expecting me, and I have mace,” she lied defiantly. Gripping the strap of her backpack tightly, Saga set her jaw and tried to look as tough as she possibly could. “You best clear off before I make your night real difficult.”

Surprisingly he took another step back, increasing the distance between them. However he tilted his head now as he observed her - and that’s exactly how it felt, as if she were behind glass or in a cage. “You do not have mace,” he told her plainly. “I apologize if I have frightened you. I was merely paying my respects to the Junimos when we happened to cross paths.”

“Whatever.” Straightening her shoulders, she took care to ensure she could keep him in her line of sight as she started to head toward the playground.

“It is unwise to accept an offer from a Junimo if one cannot read the terms and conditions.”

Pausing, Saga’s eyebrows furrowed, but she remained silent.

He was facing her again, his hands now outside of his pockets but hanging by his sides casually. “It is more unwise to take from the Junimos and leave nothing in return.”

How did he know- “I don’t know what you’re talking about, crazy man.” Did her backpack suddenly feel heavier? No, it must be her imagination. “And I don’t know what a Junimos is, so if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be going home now.”

He chuckled at her. “Junimos is plural.”

Saga stared at him, bewildered. “Thanks for the grammar lesson,” her tone had taken on a sickly sweet note, the kind customer service representatives used to handle difficult clients. “Now if you’ll excuse me-”

“It is difficult to see how you could be related to him. Your grandfather was a kind man who intermingled with the spirit world with grace and honour. But there is something you share, something that the Junimos must have seen, too. I am not in the business of discerning what the forest spirits want from the civilians of Pelican Town. They are private and I abide by their desire for secrecy. However I am compelled to inform you: should you continue to take without giving the repercussions you may face will not only invoke the wrath of the spirit world, but of myself as the sworn warden of this Valley. Take heed, young Saga, your actions have consequences beyond what your mind is capable of comprehending.”

Her mouth went dry and a cold dread coiled like a snake in the pit of her stomach. He did not raise his voice at her, but the underlying threat was more than loud and clear. The backpack suddenly became a leaden burden upon her shoulder, pushing her down to the ground until her knees began to buckle. A strange sensation was crawling across her skin; rough like the bristle of a cleaning brush. If she wanted to run there was no chance, she was pinned by the weight of his stare and the otherworldly whisper filling the shell of her ear.

A sharp tug brought her down to her knees, her hands sinking into the fresh earth upturned by a previous rain. The backpack slipped from her shoulder, crashing down next to her. The sound of the zipper being pried from an unseen force filled the night air. The weight was crushing, her neck ached from resisting until she collapsed and it were as if the air itself weighed thousands of pounds and was pressing her further and further into the ground. Saga gasped for air, her lungs practically screaming in protest as the scroll she had taken shot out of her backpack and into the man’s outstretched hand.

All at once she was released. A sharp inhale brought her into a coughing fit, and she struggled to compose herself once it had started. “What the fuck did you do to me?” she demanded, weakly pushing herself up until she was sitting and staring up at the man, but her energy was spent and moving anymore was exhausting. “Who are you?!”

“Hm. Yes, I should have introduced myself earlier.” He was still holding the scroll, outstretched, as if offering it to her. “My name is M. Rasmodius. I am the wizard who looks after the barrier between this world and the spirit world.”

Psycho, Saga thought. Reaching for her backpack, her fingers shook as she hugged it close to her chest.

“Don’t worry, you will regain your strength shortly. I apologize for using such excessive force, but it is imperative I warn you of what you are meddling with. I assume you do not speak the Junimos native language?”

Saga stared back at him, her mouth agape in anger.

“Yes, I didn’t think so,” he concluded somewhat sheepishly. “I will ensure you are equipped with the knowledge so that you know what you are getting yourself into.” Walking toward her, he faltered when Saga flinched and tried to scoot herself away from him. “I see. Please remain here a moment.”

There was the sound of pressurized air, and then with a distinct pop he disappeared completely. Saga blinked, then scrambled to get back onto her feet. She swung unsteadily for a moment, but already the shaking in her limbs was beginning to subside. Making a run toward the playground, she reached the set of stairs and quickly started to race down them when the same pop brought the Wizard back into existence at the bottom to greet her. Halting, her wobbly legs nearly had her falling down, but she managed to grip the railing and keep herself upright.

“You didn’t remain where you were,” he told her.

Is this guy for real? “How did you do that?”

“Do what?”

“You were up there! Now you’re down here?! What the fuck is going on?”

He mumbled something under her breath. She didn’t hear it, but by now, her nerves were so on edge that it made her mouth reckless. “I’m sorry,” she admonished sarcastically, “I didn’t quite catch that.”

Looking away from her, he hummed quietly and cleared his throat. “I said ‘language’.”

Right. Straightening herself, Saga slipped back on her backpack as a sense of calm came over her to temper her burning rage. This man was a certified lunatic. She needed to stop engaging him and get home. Whatever she saw tonight, clearly she was hallucinating. It was nothing that a solid night with a bottle of rum couldn’t fix, and she wanted nothing more but to get a generous head start on all of that. “I am going home. If you follow me, I swear to Yoba and anyone else who is listening that I will seek to press charges against you. I have a Very Scary Lawyer, and I’ll make sure she puts you in the ground.

He held something out to her. Actually, it was two things. The first being the scroll, and the second being a small vial of greenish-looking liquid. “I understand that tonight has been difficult. Please, take these. When you are ready to seek answers, I will give them to you. I live in the tower southwest of your farm.”

Snatching the items, Saga blindly shoved them into her backpack and shouldered past him. The Wizard practically became a blur in his attempt to stay away from her. Where he had only been a couple of feet away from her, he now stood at several yards. It took all of her willpower to walk toward the edge of town and not look back. But once she reached the border between cobblestone and dirt, she broke out into a full run, and didn’t stop until she was back on her farm and inside of her house.

Chapter Text

From: tina.grass@jojacorp.com
Date: Friday, Spring 5 at 9:30 am
To: saga.tiller@jojacorp.com
Subject: Immediate Suspension Without Pay

Dear Saga Tiller,

This email is to notify you that you are hereby temporarily suspended without pay from Joja Corp., effective immediately, for direct violation of the Employee Standards code of conduct.

On Tuesday, Winter 16 you failed to give notice that you would not be coming into the office, and for the past 16 days have neglected to get in touch despite multiple voicemails and emails from your acting manager, Grant Hanague. While we respect that this has been a difficult time for you, it is inappropriate to not stay in contact with Joja Corp. or request time off as per policy.

You are expected to return to work on Monday, Spring 15. Failure to do so will result in further disciplinary action being taken. A copy of this letter is in your personal file.

Kind Regards,

Tina Grass
Human Resources Manager
Joja Corp. - “Life’s Better with Joja”

Chapter Text

It’s a door. Big. Heavy. Probably made from oak, or some other kind of wood, Saga didn’t know. But it was there, and it was closed. Beyond it happy villagers clinked glasses and shared laughs.

This is dumb. She had been outside this door for ten minutes now. Just kind of...looking at it. Not sure if she wanted to go in or if she could bear the boredom of being at home for another night. You’re dumb. Just go in.

Another minute ticked past.

Behind a small row of bushes was a bench. She sat down on it and wondered why she had never taken up smoking - movies had taught her that moments like this were perfect for keeping idle fingers busy. All she had was a thumbnail to chew on. Saga leaned forward, pressing elbows into knees while her foot began to impatiently bounce up and down.

What if they don’t like me? a small voice asked. What if I don’t like them? a louder voice countered. It made her feel a bit better. She didn’t like a lot of people. What was a couple more? So she lived in a small town, where everyone knew each other, and everyone knew about the farm, and they knew about her, and they had known her grandfather-

Yoba Almighty, what have I done?

Moving here was a Bad Idea. In fact, it was steadily topping her previous list of Bad Ideas. It was becoming the reigning champion of Ideas that are Bad: A List by Saga. What was she thinking? Pelican Town was like living under a microscope - soon everyone would know every single detail about her life-! Pushing her fingers into her hair, Saga gripped for a moment as a nauseating wave of anxiety washed over her. Stop.

Some people were approaching the Saloon. Digging her phone out of her pocket, she pretended to listen to a voicemail until they disappeared inside.

Who cares if no one likes me? She was used to it. Her career job is was built on the very foundation of being hated. It was fine - good, even. It made her valuable part of the team. Go in there, meet their stupid faces, and if it all goes to shit at least there’s a bar.

She checked her phone for the time. 5:45 pm. Pep talk now checked off of her list, Saga scrunched her shoulders up tightly to her ears before releasing the tension and shaking out her limbs. Okay.

A wall of sound practically pushed her back out the door. It was like everyone in Pelican Town was intent on cramming themselves into the Saloon - the floor crawled with people and their conversations. Loud and roaring just to be heard over one another, she was only able to pick out snippets of words as it all washed over her. Between the throngs of people, a girl with bright blue hair expertly drifted to and fro delivering large trays of food: burgers, pizzas, nachos, every grease-infused drunken dream piled high, their cheesy scent mingling with the permanent musk of alcohol.

In the corner a jukebox was plucking away on some upbeat country song, and people were dancing with their drinks clutched tight in their hands. The man behind the bar was busy filling pints and taking orders, a kind smile encapsulating the majority of his face. Saga spotted the Mayor talking to an older woman with a mane of red hair, and the carpenter Robin was busy dancing with a dark-skinned man who looked to be stepping all over her feet.

But nowhere did she see the purple-haired girl she had met on the bridge. Realizing that she was standing lamely by the front door, Saga took in a breath and propelled herself into the cacophony of activity until she managed to squeeze herself between two men at the bar. The one on her left was a little older and drinking a glass of wine. He had dark-rimmed glasses and a well-maintained mustache. The one on her left looked a touch more worn out - his clothes appeared to be stretched and old, with thread-bare seams and faded stains, and he had a deep-set scowl on his face as he drank his beer. Leaning forward, Saga looked down the bar for the bartender and idly drummed her fingers against the counter top. There was a decent display of bottles lining the back wall of the bar - enough to do the trick, but the Saloon wasn’t going to be crafting any high-class cocktails anytime soon.

“What can I get for you?” the bartender asked as he cleaned a glass.

“Rum on ice.”

“Dark, gold, spiced, or white?”

“Spiced.”

“Single or double?”

“Best make it a double, save me the extra trip back.”

The man grinned brightly at her and set to work filling her drink. “You’re new in town,” he stated conversationally.

Saga folded her arms against the bar and sunk her weight against it. “I must have a sign on my back,” she replied, watching his hands work.

The barkeep laughed, garnishing the rim of her glass with a juicy wedge of lime - for whatever reason. “We’re a curious lot, I’ll give you that. My name is Gus, I own the Stardrop Saloon.” Pushing the glass toward her, he stuck out his hand.

Saga shook his hand. “Saga. What’s with the lime?”

Gus shrugged. “Habit, I guess. So, you taking up the family business?”

“Hey, Gus, gimme another,” the man on her right interrupted.

Without missing a beat, Gus poured a fresh pint and slid it toward the man. Saga plucked the wedge of lime from the rim and began to peel the rind away, offering him a non-commital shrug. “Might give it a shot. I’m afraid any sort of farming talent went into the ground with my grandfather. I’m more or less winging it.” The green flesh gave way and she made quick work of eating the pulpy center.

Gus chuckled, refilling the glass of wine for the man on the other side of her. “I recall your grandfather using the same techniques. I’m sure you’ll do fine.”

Running her tongue across her teeth, Saga nodded. The man with glasses pointed to her discarded lime peel. “You must not be getting enough vitamin C to handle eating lime like that.” He adjusted his glasses and gave her a shy smile. Under the light, Saga noticed small flecks of grey along his temples.

She shrugged and gave him a quick smile. “Nah, just like them, is all. I was raised to not waste food, that includes cocktail garnishes.”

“That’s quite impressive - the sour quality of citrus fruits causes most people a lot of discomfort. The health benefits make them very rewarding. Though, I imagine that your dentist might not appreciate what the acid does to your teeth.”

What a weird pick-up line.

“Harvey here is the town Doctor,” Gus introduced with a smile.

Harvey flushed a bright red. “Yes - sorry! I should have introduced myself. I apologize for disrupting your conversation.”

“Nice to meet you, Doctor Harvey.”

“Saga here has taken up residence on her grandfather’s farm,” Gus supplied to the embarrassed man. “I’m sure you two will get to know each other quite well once the monsoon season picks up.”

Her eyebrows pinched. “What happens when monsoon season picks up?”

“Statistically speaking, the rate of catching a cold and the flu increases exponentially. If you ever need any medicine, come by the clinic and I’ll get you sorted out.”

Doctor Harvey smiled at her. It nearly warmed her heart.

“Saga! Over here!”

Turning her head, she spotted Abigail bouncing up and down over in a corner of the Saloon she had previously missed. The girl waved her over and Saga took a quick moment to steel herself against the bar. “Thank you for the drink, Gus. I’m certain we will get to know each other very well.” Reaching into her pocket, she left a small collection of coins on the counter.

Gus smiled and gave her a nod before his attention was pulled away by the blue-haired girl returning with an empty tray. Turning to Harvey, Saga acknowledged him with a solemn nod. “Doctor.”

“Please, call me Harvey-”

“I would never discredit a man’s hard-earned education like that, Doctor Harvey.” Collecting her drink, she briefly clinked glasses with his. “See you around, Doc.”

Taking her first sip, the chilled rum slipped far-too-easily down her throat before igniting the delicious and familiar burn of spice in her chest. Abigail was still waiting for her, a huge smile plastered across her face as Saga picked her way through the people to join her. “How long were you here for? I’ve been looking for you!” Abigail greeted.

“Just wanted to get myself sorted at the bar.”

“Come meet the guys!” Grabbing her hand, she led Saga toward where she could see the previously-promised pool table. Along the left-side wall sat two vintage looking arcade games, and a corridor leading to an ‘employee only’ back room. There was a couch, and a TV that was somehow older than the model she had at home and was mounted up in the corner of the room. Engaged in a game of pool where two guys, one of which, a blonde, was busy fretting over lining up his shot, and the other, with dark hair, who boredly leaned against his cue while scrolling through his phone.

“Just take the shot, Sam,” he intoned.

“I am! I am! I just gotta get this...just...right!” There was the distinct crack of the white ball colliding into a series of solids, sending them to scatter about the table before one of them sunk into a corner pocket. He immediately slumped over in defeat as the other one snickered and slipped his phone away.

Confident, the dark-haired man casually strolled over to the other side of the table. He quickly found his angle and took a shot, toppling two more solids into the pockets. “Too easy.”

The blonde threw his cue down onto the table and gripped his hair in frustration. “I want a rematch!” he declared, pointing an accusing finger.

Abigail rolled her eyes. “Guys, this is Saga! Saga, this is Sam,” she pointed to the blonde, “and Sebastian,” and she pointed to the other one. “Saga is new in town, so be nice,” Abigail reached over to give Sam a shove in the shoulder as he gave Sebastian the middle finger. “I invited her to join us tonight.”

Sam reached out a hand, which Saga accepted. “Nice to meet you, Saga! So - what brings you to Pelican Town? Is it the beautiful beach full of beautiful people? Or perhaps it’s that oh-so-quaint country smell or whatever that the tourists are always going on about? Please, share your story.” Leaning against the table, he folded his arms very seriously and studied her intensely.

A ghost of a smirk threatened to break Saga’s neutral expression. Catching herself, she idly swirled the ice around in her drink. “Oh, you know...death...secret arrangements in a will...a plot of land to deal with... Just...normal things.”

He was nodding along with her as if this all made perfect sense. “Right. Right. Got it. A little morbid, considering I have just met you, but I like how you really brought it all together at the end.” A brilliant smile broke through his expression as he collapsed into a fit of laughter. Leaning back, he flapped an arm toward Sebastian to get his attention. “She’s funny! Isn’t she funny!”

The other guy was already back on his phone, ignoring everyone. “Hilarious,” he supplied monotonously.

“No, but really, what made you decide to move to Pelican Town?” Sam asked, completely unphased by his friends unenthusiastic response.

This time Saga smiled, but next to her, Abigail audibly face-palmed.

“Seriously, Sam?”

“What?” he asked, clearly confused. “Is this one of those questions you aren’t supposed to ask because of manners or whatever?”

“You are so thick, sometimes!” Abigail laughed at him, causing the blonde to look between the two of them and wonder where he had missed the point.

Taking pity, Saga shrugged. “My grandfather died and left his farm to me in the will.”

His bright blue eyes widened. “Wait, seriously? That wasn’t a joke?”

Sebastian sighed impatiently from behind him and used the non-chalked end of his cue to jab Sam in the back. “Are we playing another round or not?”

“Are we getting pizza?” Abigail asked. She still had Saga by the hand and was now guiding her over to the couch to sit down. She was relieved when the girl finally let go of her so that she could take a drink. The ice was melting into the rum, diluting it into a watery excuse of drink.

Sam pulled himself up onto the edge of the pool table, his long legs idly kicking back and forth. “Something with all the meat on it,” he requested, one finger pointed in the air.

Next to her, Abigail gagged. “We need some veggies on it-”

“-filler,” Sam supplied.

“-you always want nothing but meat but it totally ruins the flavour-”

“-that’s a lie!-”

“-balance between toppings is an art form, Sam! I don’t expect you to understand.”

Sam huffed. “Rude. What about you, Saga, what do you want?”

Lifting her eyebrows, Saga looked between the two of them. Spotlight. “I will eat anything.”

“Sebastian, what about you?” Sam asked, leaning back to where the dark-haired man was racking up the balls for another game.

“BBQ Chicken.” With a quick jerk of his hands, he got the numbers on the balls to face upward, as if he had done this a million times before.

“So one vote for BBQ Chicken, one vote for All The Meats Possible, and one dumb vote for Vegetarian,” Sam counted off on his fingers.

“I didn’t say I wanted vegetarian, dumbass!” A cushion from the couch sailed through the air, hitting Sam in the face. “Just put some on your Artery Clogger pizza.”

Gripping the pillow, Sam raised it about his head to strike back at Abigail. “Don’t you ruin my pizza with your pathetic greens! I am a Man! I eat Manly things!”

“Every fucking time,” Saga heard Sebastian mutter from the table as he chalked his cue.

“It won’t kill you to eat some vegetables every now and then,” Abigail argued, preparing to block the cushion with both of her hands. “Then again, all the nutrients might send your body into shock!”

“RUDE!” Sam cried, and the air erupted with the sound of Abigail laughing before immediately being muffled by the impact of the cushion to her face.

Draining the contents of her glass, Saga stood up from the couch just in time for Sam to lunge across the space to continue throttling Abigail, which evidently included tickling her until she shrieked and kicked him away. It was the kind of torture common between siblings, or friends with undisclosed sexual tension. “I need another drink,” she told them, breaking up the scrap long enough for them both to look up at her. “I can order pizza while I’m up.”

Pushing her hand against Sam’s face, Abigail sat up. “You don’t have to do that-”

“-yeah, usually we make Abigail go get it - ow!” Rubbing his chest where Abigail’s elbow had connected, he gave the purple-haired girl a sour look.

“It’s just pizza,” Saga smiled the way that Abigail had when they met on the bridge. Walking backward, she lifted her hands, one holding her now empty glass. “One meat, one veg, one BBQ Chicken.”

Abigail’s eyebrows pinched. “What about you?”

“I’m counting on eating the scraps.”

“If there are any!” Sam got up from the couch and took up his pool cue.

Abigail rolled her eyes. “Not this again - you always make yourself sick-”

“-I do not!-”

Crack! The balls scattered across the table, Sebastian having become impatient enough to begin without a second player. The sound seemed to have the desired effect, because Sam quickly stopped arguing with Abigail to turn and berate Sebastian for not giving him a chance to flip a coin on going first. Seizing the opportunity to slip away, Saga made a beeline back toward the bar. Gus greeted her with a smile, already filling a fresh glass with her double rum on ice and another lime wedge. Doctor Harvey had moved, meaning there was a free stool parked in front of him and Saga readily snagged it for herself.

“Looks like you’re making friends,” Gus commented.

Peeling the skin of the lime wedge, Saga sucked a droplet of juice from her thumb. “More like I’m an audience to watch them bicker,” she said, grinning when it made Gus give a loud guffaw.

“Doesn’t surprise me in the least,” he said, pulling out a worn pad of paper and a stubby looking pencil. “They all went to high school together. In here every Friday night. Good kids, but it’s a shame what some people say about them. I take it you drew the short end of the stick and are placing the order?”

Her eyebrows furrowed a little. “One pizza with ‘all the meat’, one with ‘some meat, but also veggies’, and one BBQ Chicken.” Saga watched as Gus scribbled down the order, noticing that he made some quick amendments - from upside down she saw that he correctly named which one belonged to which. “What do you mean it’s a shame what people say about them?” she asked casually.

The large barman sighed. “Seems to me that any inconvenience this town experiences, they’ll use those kids as a scapegoat. Don’t get me wrong, when Sam purposely mucked up the potluck soup, he deserved the verbal lashing Mayor Lewis gave him. But they’re good kids - never give me no trouble, always polite, always clean up after themselves - even the time Abigail turned 19 and had too much to drink. I reckon she’s real keen on you, too. It’ll be good for her to hang out with someone other than those two boys.”

From down the bar, the woman with blue-hair called for Gus’ attention. “Duty calls,” he said to Saga. She nodded and watched him go, pondering over the tidbits of information he had given her. Finishing the lime, she left some more money on the counter and took her drink back over to the trio.

“Seb, please, have mercy!” Sam moaned. He was practically on his knees, his fingers gripping to the side of the table so tightly that his knuckles were turning white. Abigail was hovering over Sebastian’s shoulder as he lined up his next shot, her eyes wide and darting between the path that the dark-haired man was about to take, and to Sam who watched in abject horror. The white ball gave a smart crack! against the nearest striped ball - ricocheting right into another striped ball, barreling through two more, before finding that sweet, sweet victory as the black 8 ball sunk into a side pocket. There wasn’t a single solid ball on the table.

All at once Sam collapsed. He threw his arm over his eyes as he laid on the floor and faked his own emotional death. Abigail couldn’t contain her giggles, and Sebastian switched his cue pole for taking a drink of water. Reaching toward her, Sam’s fingers curled dramatically. “Remember me, Saga…”

“We just met. Anything of note I should remember?”

His fingers faltered, then flexed toward her again. “Yes. My hair. And my butt. It’s a good butt.”

Snorting, she carefully stepped around him. “Sam the Butt. Got it.”

“That’s not what I meant!” he protested, sitting upright.

“No, no, she definitely got it right,” Sebastian agreed, the hint of a smile ghosting across his lips. But when Saga looked to him to share in the joke, he purposely avoided her eye and turned away.

“Why do we even play this stupid game?” Sam sulked, giving the table leg a half-hearted kick once he was back on his feet. Shoving his hands into his pockets, he had his shoulders scrunched up to his ears, looking every bit a sullen child. “Why can’t you kick my ass in the proverbial sense at Journey of the Prairie King?”

Collecting the balls from around the table, Sebastian barely glanced to his friend. “Because that game sucks and you keep asking me to play pool.”

Abigail playfully smacked Sebastian on the arm. “Hey, I like Journey of the Prairie King!” Looking over to Saga, she crossed her arms. “Do you play anything, Saga?”

All three of them looked toward her as she was taking a generous sip of her drink. From over the rim she looked back at them and quickly wiped her mouth. “Er, not well. I don’t own any consoles or games.”

“Why not?” Sam asked. He was now sitting backwards in a chair with his elbows leaning against the back support, looking at her expectantly.

Taking in a breath, Saga thought for a moment before blowing out her cheeks with a shrug. “Case of being an only child, I guess? No one to play with growing up, therefore no reason to spend the money. Any computer I’ve owned has been second-hand and unable to run basic programs without crashing, so I never developed an interest for gaming.”

“That is the most depressing thing I’ve ever heard,” Sam mourned.

“So what do you all do?” Saga asked, swiftly changing the topic. It caused a kind of energy shift in the room. It was typical for this to happen to anyone within the age demographic of just-graduated-with-crippling-debt to my-first-place-is-a-dump-and-I-can’t-make-rent. Between the three people around her, Saga saw every uncomfortable reaction to her question.

Abigail was the first to answer. “Well, I still help out at my dad’s shop. I used to just clean, but lately he’s been giving me more responsibility, like inventory and ordering. I think he’s trying to groom me to take over the business one day.” She made a face at this and sat down on the couch, motioning for Saga to join her. Sebastian took the seat next to Sam, opting to sit in it like a normal person.

Sam fidgeted with the collar of his shirt. “I work at Joja Mart. Just your friendly neighbourhood stock boy.” He casted a wary glance toward Abigail. It wasn’t subtle and Saga picked up on it immediately.

So she said, “Your dad mentioned that business had changed since the Joja Mart opened here.”

“Yeah, it’s hard to compete with their prices,” Abigail explained. “People come in to browse or talk to my dad, but making sales has gotten next to impossible compared to Joja Mart. Even our regulars don’t buy anything from the store anymore.”

“Do you think you guys will close?” Saga asked gently.

Abigail’s expression scrunched up in thought, or as if she was trying to fight back a different emotion. “I dunno, I don’t really talk to my dad about any of that stuff. He just gets angry and starts complaining about corporate blackmail or something. I’ve learned to avoid certain topics that might set him off.”

Across from her Sam scowled. “Yeah, and he really doesn’t like me coming around,” he muttered.

“Cause you work for the man, now,” Sebastian interjected boredly. Saga noticed that he was back on his phone. She had assumed he was ignoring them, but it appeared that he was listening in.

Sam threw up his hands. “I needed a job and nowhere was hiring! Plus they let me have a flexible schedule. I mean, yeah, I hate it, but I like having money in my pocket more.”

“What about you, Sebastian?” Saga asked.

“He’s a programmer,” Abigail answered for him, which Saga found interesting. Still, her gaze remained on Sebastian to see if he would speak for himself. He didn’t. “Freelance stuff, right Seb?”

He hummed in reply.

Great conversationalist, Saga thought dully.

“So do you know a lot about farming from your grandpa?” Sam asked.

“Not really. But the internet has been a pretty good teacher. Too soon to tell though. Did you know that farming takes a long time?” she deadpanned at the group, earning a laugh from both Sam and Abigail.

“What did you do before you moved to Pelican Town?”

The ice in her glass shifted as it melted down. Condensation coated the tips of her fingers, which she idly wiped off on the leg of her pants while she stalled. “Usual acts of debauchery, I guess. Loitered around, started up an all-girl gang, ran a fight ring. Y’know, big city stuff.”

Sam’s eyes widened. “Dude, an all-girl gang sounds amazing.”

Abigail rolled her eyes at him. “I’m pretty sure she was joking, right Saga?”

“Maybe,” she teased, taking a sip of her drink. “I could be telling the truth.”

As she looked back up, she was surprised to see Sebastian looking back at her. It was hard to read his expression, as he seemed to be very good at keeping a neutral face, but there was a certain gleam to his eye that spoke of amusement.

“I’ve heard about those gangs,” he supplied, his expression shifting into serious contemplation as Abigail and Sam’s heads swiveled toward him. “Allegedly they were more vicious than the mafia.”

Saga nodded. “Mafia were more discreet in their crimes, and typically they have the Mayor and police force under their thumb so they can get away with anything. The girl-gangs don’t care about being discreet.”

Sam and Abigail’s heads swung back and forth between Saga and Sebastian as they spoke. The dark-haired man crossed his arms in contemplation. He was so convincing that Saga half wondered if maybe she had stumbled herself into a lie that turned out to be true. His head tilted at her. “Wasn’t there something in the paper recently about them?”

A trickle of excitement ran down her spine, causing her to lean forward and lower her voice. “Three dead bodies and a note. It said: ‘we will not stop until justice is served’. The bodies were mafia. Some real tough sonuvabitches, close with the Don. The girl-gang had disemboweled them in the Don’s favourite restaurant in the middle of the night. They say that they were missing their eyes.”

Sam’s eyes went wide. “Holy shit-”

“It’s an all out turf war, last I heard,” Sebastian continued for her. “It isn’t safe to walk the streets of Zuzu at night. Both sides don’t care who get caught in the crossfire. The Mayor might even instil a curfew if things keep going the way they are.”

“That’s just the problem, isn’t it?” Saga countered. “You got one side that has all the power in the city, and the other fighting for vengeance. The Mayor can’t do a thing, see? She’s just as caught up in the middle of this as everyone else. The mafia want to win the war, and the girl-gangs are starting a revolt amongst the people sick and tired of living under tyranny. I heard even Joja Corp has a slice in the deal.”

“Wait - how come we never heard of this before?” Abigail asked in a quiet voice.

Sebastian raised his eyebrows. “Because they kill the journalists that run the stories against them. Papers from other cities report on it, but even then it’s heavily biased against the truth.” Looking back to Saga, he added, “I heard that the Don is the CEO of Joja Corp.”

“I believe it,” she breathed quietly, her eyes moving from face to face. Sam and Abigail were gripped in the story. Every now and then Sam would look around, afraid that someone might overhear. “You need to be careful, Sam,” she told him directly. “They recruit from within with blackmail and threats when their numbers start to thin. There’s been rumours going around that something big is about to go down, and when it does-”

“Pizza!” a voice behind them sang. Sam and Abigail practically leaped out of their skin, startling the blue-haired server with a large tray of three fresh pizzas. They were both on their feet, staring down the server with half-wild eyes.

Sebastian was the first to calmly stand up and retrieve his pizza from his tray. “Thanks Emily,” he said politely.

Sam laughed nervously, taking his plate as well. “Emily! You didn’t happen to overhear us, did you?”

Abigail elbowed him in the ribs, her laugh matching his. “Gee, Sam! Way to sound suspicious!”

Emily blinked at them in confusion, offering the last plate toward Saga. “No, why? Were you talking about me?”

“Only about how you are a food angel!” said Sam.

She laughed off his compliment. “So, who’s settling up the tab?”

Handing her plate to Abigail, Saga wiped a bit of pizza grease onto her jeans and stood up. “I can. Need to get more napkins anyway.”

“You’re paying, too?! Abby, where did you find this woman?” Sam cried, mouth already full of hot pizza. His eyes were watering, evidently having burned his mouth.

“Saga, no! We’ll pay-”

“-sorry, can’t hear you, the music is too loud!” Saga called, already following Emily back toward the bar.

Gus was at the register, tallying up a stack of receipts. “Another?”

Saga realized she had left her drink back by the pool table. “Nah. Paying for the pizzas before I forget. How much do I owe you?”

“900g.”

Shit. She reached into her pocket, already knowing that she didn’t have that much, but for whatever reason she was making a show of checking. Counting in her palm, she was 650g short. Guess I’ll have to ask them to chip in, she thought. Way to toot your own horn, champ. Now you’re not only trolling them, but you look like some kind of poor asshole. Saga glanced up, her eyebrows furrowing. Not that there's anything wrong with being poor, she concluded out of social obligation.

“Here.”

From behind, an arm reached toward Gus and dropped coins into his outstretched hand. Looking over her shoulder, Sebastian’s profile came into view as he shoved his wallet into the back pocket of his jeans. Gus punched some buttons into the register and a sharp ringing sound concluded the transaction while the cash drawer popped out. The coins were dropped in, and Saga’s face heated as she stood there stupidly with what little money she had.

“Thanks,” she mumbled, shoving the coins back into her pocket.

Sebastian placed his empty glass of water on the bar and waited until Gus returned to get another. He didn’t look at her, an exact 180 from the way he had intently made eye contact while they had fabricated a tall tale on the fly. One hand was idly tapping the side of the empty glass while the other was shoved into the front pocket of his jeans casually. There was a tinge of blue, she realized, that haloed his dark hair from the way the light shined down from the ceiling. And it looked so soft. Stupidly soft, like, maybe it it was tousled from continuously being touched. It gave him that effortlessly shaggy appearance of carelessness, which of course it did. He wore a dark hoodie, either navy or purple, she couldn’t quite tell, and black jeans.

Leaning into the bar, Saga took her eyes away from him to awkwardly study the bottles behind the bar. “So,” she tried again, “how long until we tell them the truth?”

She was met with a prolonged silence. Thinking he either didn’t hear her, or didn’t care, she began to push her weight back onto her heels when he replied: “The truth?”

“Yeah, y’know...about the whole mafia vs. all-girl gang thing.”

Gus refilled his water and Sebastian gave him a single nod in thanks. Picking up the glass, he raised it towards his lips but paused before taking a drink. “I thought we already did,” he remarked lightly, the corners of his lips almost twitching into a smirk.

Did he just-

He turned and headed back towards Sam and Abigail, leaving Saga to watch him go wordlessly. Imagining things, or are you looking for trouble? she asked herself. No, he definitely had picked up that she was making things up and decided to play along - hell, he even fed her ways to twist the story further. So she wasn’t imagining that he took a certain kind of pleasure in fucking with his friends. Interesting, considering how unresponsive he had been up until that point with her being there.

Her mouth felt parched from being separate from her drink for so long. Stop thinking about this. You’re only here because Abigail invited you. Gus frowned as he checked the amount Sebastian had given him.

“Saga, mind giving this to Sebastian? He overpaid by about 100g.”

“Sure.” She held out her hand and the coins dropped heavily into her palm.

“Thanks, Saga. You go on and enjoy those pizzas before Sam eats them all.”

Leaving the bar, she looked toward where the three friends sat and observed them from across the Saloon: Abigail was trying to put vegetables from her pizza onto Sam’s, Sam was double-fisting two slices and complaining loudly at Abigail, and Sebastian sat between them, quietly eating and ignoring his two friends. Without thinking, she shoved the money into her pocket and went over to join Abigail on the couch.

Without breaking stride in her conversation, she handed Saga a slice, and Sam used his elbow to try and nudge her drink across the table. The pizza was delicious and gooey, but she found herself mechanically chewing through her bites without really tasting anything. Instead she kept reaching for her drink, trying to maintain it for as long as she could through tiny, measured sips.

It was also difficult to keep up with their conversation. It seemed that any topic they were on only lasted a few fleeting moments before being interrupted by some kind of inside joke that would derail everything. Leaving them to it, her mind began to wander back to their conversation about Joja Mart, and more distinctly, the unspoken tension between Abigail wanting to support her dad, and Sam wanting to make a living. If this were a book, they would be the lovers separated by the proverbial corporate tracks, she mused to herself.

Halfway through the crust on her second slice, Abigail suddenly turned and put a hand on her arm, jarring her from her thoughts. “You totally need to hear us play!”

Uhhhh... “Play what?”

“Our band! I rock the drums, Sebastian is on keys, and Sam is our guitar and lead singer!”

“Really?” Her eyes flicked over towards the two boys. “What’s your sound?”

“Er…” Sam rubbed the back of his neck and looked away. Sebastian looked downright irritated at Sam.

“We haven’t really settled on a genre yet,” Abigail explained sheepishly. “Right now we just kind of play a bit of everything.”

“Poorly,” Sebastian corrected. “We play a bit of everything poorly.”

“Hey, c’mon! It’s not that bad! I’m working at getting us a gig!” Sam huffed defensively.

“Oh, really?” Sebastian asked, obviously feigning interest. “What kind of pickup truck do you plan on having us play out of next?”

The blonde winced. “Yoba, that was one time!

Abigail looked at Sam with pity. “It was a disaster.” Turning to Saga, she dramatically whispered, “We’re banned from the ‘Stomp Yer Feet’ festival. For life.”

“Who cares?” Sebastian argued. “I don’t want to be playing for a bunch of rednecks anyway. If Sam would just commit to anything-”

“-I don’t like cutting our options!”

“What options, Sam? All we do is play in your room. Mayor Lewis will never let us play at any of the town events, no one has a car to drive anywhere, and Abigail isn’t old enough yet to get into the clubs in Zuzu. Or are you going to suggest that we start busking on the side of the highway?”

Yikes. Did the air just get colder in here? Sam had stopped eating. He just...looked at the pizza, but his expression was easy enough to read: his cheeks were flushed in annoyance and embarrassment. Abigail was quietly twisting at a napkin in her lap, causing the fibres to fray under the strain. She looked nervous, her gaze darting between Sam and Sebastian, as if this was not the first time this argument has happened. But Saga was most intrigued by Sebastian, who sat cool and detached from the reactions his words caused; like none of it had mattered and they were discussing something mundane. It was only evident in his eyes that there was an underlying anger that threatened to emerge, otherwise his expression was completely passive.

Saga downed her drink, the sound of ice clattering against her teeth the only nearby sound to break up the suddenly suffocating silence. “Anyone else need a drink-”

Sebastian’s chair scraped across the floor as he stood up. Without a word, he dropped his crumpled napkin onto the table and left. Abigail audibly exhaled and Sam began to break apart a piece of crust. Saga looked between them. No one had even attempted to call Sebastian back as he left. They had even blinked, leaving Saga to believe that this, too, was usual behaviour. “Water? Beer? Tequila?”

Abigail ran her hands through her hair and stood up, a bright smile forcefully plastered across her lips. “I’ll go get us some water,” she offered. “Saga, why don’t you and Sam play some pool or something?”

Distraction mode, got it. “Sure, he can totally kick my ass at it, too.”

Sam perked up a little. “Really?”

Standing up, she went over to the pool table and picked up a cue. “Don’t sound too excited,” she teased, earning a grin from the blonde.

Leaping over the back of his chair, he quickly joined her and began to endlessly talk her ear off about how excited he was to absolutely crush her at pool. Which, as Saga suspected, was entirely Abigail’s angle. It were as if the heated conversation hadn’t happened. Sam happily broke the racked up balls and claimed solids, and Saga genuinely tried her best not to entirely suck.

She was much better at bluffing. Two rounds in, she was standing behind Sam as he lined up a shot, and crossed her arms with a shake of her head. “Nah, it’s no good.”

Faltering, Sam looked over his shoulder to her. “What’s no good?”

“Well if you go for that one, you’ll just line up 3 and 6 for me in the corner pocket.”

His eyebrows furrowed, trying to see what she was talking about on the table. Using her cue, she traced out the trajectory over the table. “Are you trying to let me win?”

Sam scoffed. “No way. This is my moment to shine. With Sebastian away, I finally have a chance to reclaim my dignity at this table!” Re-adjusting his posture, Sam hesitated. She waited patiently, pretending to study the state of her nails as Sam repeatedly fidgeted with his cue. Eventually, he moved over to a different side of the table, causing Saga to grin. The white ball struck against a series of her striped balls, finally breaking them away from the tangle of solids she had been trying to navigate around. His own solid ball ricocheted around the table, but didn’t make it into any designated pocket.

“Thanks, Sam!” she cheered, immediately moving into position.

Abigail had returned with the promised waters, which Saga ignored since it wasn’t a proper drink by her standards. Sam glared at her, catching on to what had just happened. “You cheated!”

Placing a hand on her chest, Saga looked dismayed. “I never! Tricked you, on the other hand...yes, I did do that,” she admitted with a devious smile. Returning to her stance, she managed to sink a striped ball into a nearby pocket. Easy pickings.

The rest of the game continued in a similar fashion, except eventually Abigail took pity on Sam and tried to give him tips, which then turned into Abigail and Sam taking turns passing the cue back and forth, effectively ganging up on Saga. Overall, it was a close match, until Sam successfully sunk the 8-ball and won. Their table erupted into cheers, overpowering Saga’s dramatically petty boo’s. With his arms raised over his head, Sam victory-walked around the table, obnoxiously gloating over his win.

“Suck it, farmer! You thought you could trick me and win? In my house? At my table? I am the undefeated champion!”

Abigail rolled her eyes. “It was one game, Sam! And! I helped you win!”

“Fine. We are the undefeated champions! And no one can take this victory from us!”

Laughing, Saga went around the table collecting the balls. “Do I get a chance to usurp the both of you from the throne?”

Abigail checked her phone for the time, pulling a face. “Ugh, not from me. I already stayed way later than I should have.” Tilting her phone, she showed both Sam and Saga that it was close to 10 pm.

Sucking in a breath, Sam grimaced. “Yeah, and I swapped shifts with Shane, which means I have to open tomorrow.”

Shrugging, Saga took the cues and placed them in their standing rack. “Another time, then.”

“Hell yeah! I’ll kick your ass anytime, anywhere!”

They all began to pull on their jackets, and spent another ten minutes outside of the Saloon saying goodbye. Eventually Sam ran off after realizing he didn’t have his house keys with him and would now have to wake up his mother to be let inside. Abigail and Saga watched him go, shaking their heads. A comfortable silence settled between the two, only broken when Saga shoved her hands into her pockets and said: “Thanks for inviting me tonight.”

Abigail beamed at her. “Hey, no problem! You should join us every Friday. I promise it won’t always get so intense. Well, I can’t exactly guarantee that with Sebastian.” The purple-haired girl rolled her eyes.

“Is he always like that?”

Abigail began to lead them toward the clinic, both of them keeping a slow pace. “Not always? I dunno, most of the time I just assume that he doesn’t like me. Sam says I’m crazy.” Tucking her hair behind her ear, Abigail caught sight of Saga’s furrowed brow. “I wouldn’t worry about it. Sam and I like you, and we’re the opinion that really matters.”

Saga shrugged. “Doesn’t bother me.”

The other girl giggled. "I had a lot of fun tonight. And hey, next time I’m treating you to the pizza.”

Feigning innocence, Saga took a couple of steps backwards, preparing to set off for the farm. “I have no idea what you’re talking about, Abigail. I certainly wasn’t trying to buy my way into your group or anything.” Bidding her a farewell wave, she headed out of the town square and along the dirt path parallel to the highway. It was pitch black once she was in the trees, leaving her to once again use the torch on her phone to light her way. Maybe tomorrow she would hunt for a flashlight.

The sound of spring peepers and the occasional owl greeted her from all around - their song loud and clear. It surprised her how much she enjoyed herself tonight. Sam and Abigail had made her feel completely at ease, as if she had known them for a long time. She couldn’t recall the last time she had felt like that, as if she belonged. The city had its conveniences, I wouldn’t be stumbling home in the dark, for one, but like most cities, it could be lonely.

Had she really been this lonely all along and never noticed?

Reaching her farm, the smell of cigarettes made her come to a halt. Irritation suddenly spiked her mood. Making a beeline toward the northern path, she climbed up the hill until she could eventually see the glow from the empty highway below peaking through the treeline. Slowing her steps, Saga crept toward the spot she had found the pile of cigarette butts before, intent on catching the sonuvabitch in the act.

At first she didn’t see anyone. They must have heard her coming and left, or you are a crazy person trying to catch someone who left a long time ago. Except she could still smell the smoke up here, in fact, even more so. Pivoting on the spot, she startled when she spotted them; over on the other side of the wooden fence. They were sitting with their back turned to her, their feet dangling over the edge of the tunnel. Against the streetlight, she could see plumes of smoke being exhaled into the night air. The very sight of it annoyed her.

“Hey!”

The person jumped and immediately looked her way. Staring back at her, Sebastian’s deep set scowl was accentuated by the contrasting shadows on his pale face. What is he doing out here? “You’re stinking up my farm,” she told him.

“Excuse me?”

She pointed to the cigarette in his hand. “You need to find somewhere else to smoke. The smell goes all the way down to my farm and it’s gross.”

His eyes went from his cigarette to her. Expecting that he would put it out and leave, she was surprised to find that he didn’t move, and in fact, he narrowed his eyes into a glare. “No.”

For a second, Saga was dismayed. No? Placing her hands against the fence, she leaned toward where he sat. “What do you mean, ‘no’?”

Taking a purposefully long drag, Sebastian regarded her coolly through the thin tendrils of smoke. “I like this spot. I think I’ll stay.” And with that he turned his back to her, gently swinging his legs back and forth just to be petulant.

“Are you serious?” Saga glared at the back of his head. “I’m trying to ask nicely - I grow things down there! That’s where I live! I shouldn’t have to smell your nasty habit on my property. Hey! I’m talking to you!”

But he was completely ignoring her. In fact, he was now idly scrolling through on his phone, and the tinny sound of music floated through the air. From where she stood, it sounded like some stupid kind of garage band crap, or maybe the speakers on his phone were really bad. Without thinking, she picked up a clump of moist soil that managed to hold its shape and chucked it at the back of his head. Except, she was a horrible shot and it struck him in the shoulder.

“What the fuck!”

Shouldn’t have done that.

A series of expletives exploded from Sebastian, but Saga couldn’t decipher most of it through her panicked thoughts. It appeared that the clump had managed to break apart and that a good portion of it ended up down the back of his hoodie. His body turned sharply toward her and she lacked had enough sense to cross her arms and stand defiantly.

“Did you seriously just throw dirt at me?” he demanded.

Checking her nails, she feigned nonchalance. “Yeah.”

He came towards her. Shit. Shit. Shit. Saga hurriedly backed up and watched as he climbed over the fence while trying to shake out the dirt from his hoodie. She realized now how much taller he was than her, or maybe in the dark it looked as if he was towering, because she certainly felt small and vulnerable in front of him. She concluded that it was stupid to pick a fight, in the dark, with almost a complete stranger.

“You don’t own everywhere around your farm,” he informed her, his tone punctuated with anger. “I don’t control the wind, so if smoke is filling up your farm, that’s not really my problem.”

“What a ridiculously narrow-minded thing to say,” Saga countered, ignoring the persistent voice in her head telling her to shut the fuck up. “That’s like saying, ‘I’m outside of the hospital having a smoke, it’s not my fault that the smoke goes into the window of the cancer treatment ward’,” she said, mocking his voice.

Sebastian held up a hand, in fact, it was the hand that still held the cigarette. “Okay, first of all, that was a terrible impression of me, and second, that is a ridiculous argument! How would someone know if a particular window is the cancer treatment ward?”

“There would be signs, maybe!”

“Well then maybe you should get a fucking sign here. It can say: Warning! Screeching Farm Girl Nearby!

She laughed without humour. “Oh I’ll get a fucking sign, except it’ll have your name on it after I bury your body-”

“-Warning! Violent and Murdering Farm Girl! Beware!

“-you’re a real piece of work, y’know that? It doesn’t take much to be considerate of other people-”

“-oh, wow, really? What are you, a kindergarten teacher?-”

“-no, but clearly you need to attend a class and learn how to be a decent person-”

“-says the girl who literally just threw dirt at me!”

He’s got a point. “Y’know, I almost didn’t believe Abigail,” she started. You just met her, are you really going to throw her under the bus? “She just assumes that you don’t like her, but maybe it’s the giant stick that’s shoved up your ass that’s making you cranky.”

A dark shadow suddenly passed over his face. “You’ve been here for, what? A week?”

“-five days-”

“-and you’re telling me that I have a stick up my ass? You don’t even know me. And you don’t know my friends, so why don’t you fuck off back to wherever it is you came from?” Real anger showed in his eyes this time. He glared at Saga as if she were something lesser, as if she had committed some kind offense in sharing air with him. As soon as she had brought up Abigail, the argument had taken a swift turn from petty and childish to dangerous territory. It made the skin along her arms stand on end.

“Right,” she agreed, all of the heat gone from her tone and replaced by cool indifference. I don’t care if people don’t like me, she reminded herself. “I’ll get on that, then.”

It satisfied her to see Sebastian look momentarily surprised. Like her, he was quick to mask it with his own brand of nonchalance. “Great.”

“Yup.”

“Fine.”

“Mhm.”

Walking backward, Saga watched as all of the fight seeped out of the other man. He returned to his cigarette and turned away from her, except rather than returning to his spot, he began to walk the opposite direction. She didn’t know what that way lead to and made a mental note to explore it someday. Pivoting on her heel, she stormed all the way back down the hill, fuming over his words.

Her boots stomped up the front steps of the house, and the door made a satisfying sound when she slammed it shut. It was only some vague sense of responsibility that told her she should go to bed. As she got undressed she discovered the 100g she was supposed to give back to Sebastian. Studying it under the bedside lamp, she decided that she was going to keep it and spend it on something.

Like a sign.

Chapter Text

The valley, it seemed, was alive with things to forage. It was a pleasant surprise when the next afternoon Saga had found a cluster of wild horseradish growing in the depths of the forest south of the her farm. She collected it all without much thought, but as she made her way back toward the direction of town, she was suddenly greeted by a beautiful woman who delighted at the sight of the green leaves sticking out of her bag.

“Yes! That’s exactly what I was looking for!”

Taller than Saga, and lean with muscle, the girl before her had beautifully long copper hair that was swept into a braid and draped over one shoulder. Soft looking pieces slipping out to frame her slightly pointed face. She looked earnestly at Saga with the warmest brown eyes, her lips stretched into a genuine smile that left Saga disarmed and slow to respond. If her silence was awkward, the stranger didn’t draw attention to it. Leaving her artist pestal by the river, she approached Saga. “I have this recipe I’ve been dying to try, and it calls for wild horseradish.”

Blinking out of her stupor, Saga looked to her backpack that she happened to be gripping dumbly at her side. “Oh, well uh-”

Reaching into her pockets, the other woman produced a fistful of coins and began counting. “How much for, say, five bulbs?”

In the afternoon sun, the gold currency sparkled and filled Saga with a greedy desire. “Sorry?”

“Oh.” She looked taken aback, her fingers closing over the coins. A sudden flush crept onto her cheeks, her eyes looking away as a nervous laugh bubbled to the surface. “Right. You’re probably not selling, are you? Yoba, I got carried away there, didn’t I?” Peeking between the fringe of her hair, she smiled shyly at Saga.

Give her all of the horseradish, a lustful impulse demanded. “I’m Saga,” she introduced casually, taking in the pretty shade of embarrassment that dusted the other girl’s cheeks. “I just moved here.”

Tucking a strand behind her ear, the woman reached forward to shake her hand. “My name is Leah. I live just over there,” and with a thumb over her shoulder she indicated toward the most adorable looking cottage that sat in front of the slow-moving river.

The weight of her findings made the backpack strap dig into her fingers. “You really want to buy some of my horseradish?” Saga asked, hoping Leah had no idea that it was literally growing for free.

“Oh, yes!” she breathed, clutching her hands in front of her chest. “Would you sell some to me?”

“I mean, sure. five bulbs, right?” Setting the backpack down, Saga dropped to one knee and unzipped the bag, carefully pulling out five fat and dirt-dusted bulbs of wild horseradish. Glancing up, she noticed that Leah was watching in open awe. The coins were out once again, and she hurriedly counted them as Saga straightened up with her arms full.

“Would this be enough?” Holding out her palm, she offered 290g.

Play it cool, idiot. “Yeah, that should do,” Saga agreed nonchalantly. They exchanged items, and soon her pockets were lined with easy money.

Leah looked at her new horseradish with open fondness. “Thank you so much! Do you sell other things, too?”

Uhhh… “Sure. I mean, not yet. That is to say, I’m currently growing things. Garlic…” Saga stalled for a moment. “Mostly garlic.”

An attractive laugh came from Leah, filling Saga with a false sense of confidence. “Who doesn’t like garlic? You’ll have to let me know when they’re ready.”

Zipping her backpack closed, she slung it over her shoulder. “What do you plan on making with the horseradish?” she asked curiously.

“A salad,” Leah replied cheerily.

Salad? “I didn’t know there were recipes for salad,” Saga admitted. Her eyebrows came into a pinch, “I mean, the list of ingredients are more or less all you need, right?”

Leah hummed. “Normally you would be right, but this is a recipe off of a foraging blog I follow. Maybe calling it a recipe wasn’t entirely accurate, but it includes a bunch of instructions for beginner foragers like myself to follow - just to make sure we don’t accidentally poison ourselves!”

The corner of Saga’s lips twitched before she could compose her expression. “Buying wild horseradish doesn’t exactly count as foraging,” she pointed out.

Leah’s smile dipped in realization. “Shoot, you’re totally right.” Her gaze turned to the bulbs in her hand.

“All sales are final,” Saga grinned mischievously, delighting in the playful sulk the other woman gave her. She shrugged her shoulders and started to move backwards, preparing to leave Leah to her horseradish and painting. “Let me know if you develop a vampire problem - the garlic should be ready in a few more days.”

“Vampires need to be invited in,” Leah informed her matter-of-factly. “It’s the slimes I’m worried about - little jerks can put a hole through your fence if you’re not careful.”

Saga paused. “Slimes?”

Setting down the bulbs, Leah picked up her paint palette and brush. Looking over her shoulder, she gave a solemn nod. “Little creatures, only so big,” she showed Saga a size no bigger than a baseball with her hands. “They mostly come out at night from somewhere in the forest. Best to just avoid them - they can destroy your shins real quick if you’re not too careful.”

Something niggled in the back of Saga’s mind. Was Leah talking about the same thing that Wizard guy was? What were they called again? “Junimos?”

The air sparkled with the sound of Leah’s laughter. “Don’t tell me you believe in Junimos!”

“Aren’t they the same thing?”

Paintbrush hovering over the canvas, Leah mirrored her mischievous smile. “Junimos are stories made up by mother’s so that their kids stay out of trouble. ‘Don’t go in the forest or the Junimos will get you!’, that sort of thing. Yoba, I haven’t thought about Junimos in years.” Chuckling, she regarded her canvas and expertly dabbed at a corner with a soft blue colour. “Slimes are very much real, I got the scars to prove it.”

But what Leah had described sounded exactly like the Junimos she had seen. Unless… She had been so tired when she got home, she had gone to bed and barely thought about any of it until now. Had she made the whole thing up? But then how would I know about the Junimos? They weren’t the same stories she had been told growing up, living in a city and all - no, those warned her about strangers with candy and dark alleyways. “What colour are slimes?”

“The ones I’ve seen are mostly green - Abigail claims to have seen a blue one once, down in the mines. She’s always going down there,” at this, Leah frowned. “I keep telling her it’s too dangerous. She’s going to get hurt one of these days.”

Saga was hardly listening. Green and blue. But she had seen red, yellow, purple, and orange by the same description. Back at the Community Center, six of them bouncing around a scroll-

“Hey, are you okay? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

Jerking her head up, Saga felt the sweat on her brow cool in the afternoon breeze. Leah was looking at her with open concern. She had set aside her painting materials and was digging around in a small cooler next to her easel. Inside were a couple of cold-looking water bottles, one of which she handed over to Saga. “Here. Maybe you should sit down-”

“I’m good. Thanks.” Taking the water bottle, Saga made a show out of opening it and taking a drink, but her thoughts were spinning inside of her head. “Is there, like, a tower or something around here?”

“Er, yeah. It’s on the other side of the forest and lake over there. It’s been abandoned for years, though. Are you sure you don’t want to rest? You’re awfully pale-”

“It was nice meeting you, Leah,” Saga interjected with forced cheer. “I’m certain we’ll see each other again. Thank you for the water, and enjoy the horseradish!” This time she did not wait to catch Leah’s reaction. Pivoting on her heel, she quickly made her way toward the line of trees that clustered near the edge of the lake. Behind her Leah had called something out, but she couldn’t make out her words over the sound of her pounding heart.

Following the perimeter of the lake took Saga deeper and deeper into the woods. As she walked, small forest creatures darted into bushes and made fusses above her in the leaves. After a while she had the realization that it might have been smart to carry a map, because a lot of the scenery around her was starting to look the same. The land sloped upwards, and she noticed that the trees here became more dense and the foliage wilder. It seemed that no one came this way, and the uncertainty in knowing if she was going the right way almost had her turning around.

Eventually there was a break in the trees, but their tall trunks meant that the area was shaded. How far away from Pelican Town was she? How will you get back? worried the voice in the back of her mind. Slipping out her phone, she checked to see if there was any signal. For a moment the screen looked completely normal, until one by one the icons distorted and disappeared completely. Her stomach gave way to fear and her legs refused to move any further. Was she hallucinating? Maybe she had gotten too much sun. The branches around her swayed in a passing breeze, filling the air with the sound of leaves rustling until it felt deafening to her ears. The shadows grew in size all around her, draping her in a darkness that didn’t match the mid-day sun she had left behind. Closing her eyes, Saga sank down to her knees as nauseated dread overwhelmed her. The wind swelled, tossing her hair around her face and she covered her head with her hands. Everything is okay. Everything is okay. Everything is okay.

The wind stopped and warmth returned to her limbs. From beneath the tousled strands, she saw her arms bathed in the glow of the sun. Pools of light came from above, the trees less menacing somehow and innocent in their roots. It was quiet and almost peaceful, except that her heart was racing so fast she wondered if she was going to have a heart attack. Looking up, she saw a glimpse of a tower not too far from where she sat - just a short climb away, really. Blinking, a single drop of moisture fell onto her hand, making her feel foolish for having been so afraid. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. She swiped at her eyes and held her breath until she was breathing normally again.

When she lowered her hand, a bit of movement from a nearby bush caught her attention. Suddenly something colourful jumped out, but it were as if its body was completely buoyant in the air; tiny arms and legs kicked about while it slowly drifted back onto the ground. A Junimo. Its round little body bounced up and then face planted in front of her. A snort of laughter escaped Saga, who watched as the Junimo picked itself back up and scrubbed down the front of its face.

A quiet chirrup came from the Junimo, but it was unlike any animal sound Saga had heard before. It was halfway between a rubber squeak and a high-pitched bird’s song. Sitting down, the Junimo heaved a sigh and looked up at her expectantly, as if waiting for some kind of response. This one was purple, and a little antenna stuck out of the top of its head; in the shifting shadows, she could have sworn that it was faintly glowing. Another chirrup, this one sounding like a question. Below its antenna, a small scrap was beginning to appear where it had fell.

Reaching for her backpack, Saga retrieved the bottle of water and cautiously poured a little into her cupped hand. Extending her arm, she wordlessly beckoned for the Junimo to approach. The muscles in her body strained to keep still as the Junimo picked itself up and wobbled over to her. She didn’t feel its tiny arms against her skin, but it splashed the little bit of water that was trapped and chirruped excitedly. It was oddly…cute, even if Saga still felt apprehensive being in such close proximity to something that allegedly didn’t exist. The Junimo stopped splashing and looked pointedly toward Saga’s side.

Turning her head, she gave a cry of surprise when another one - this one green - was digging around inside of her backpack. The sound of her shock caused both Junimos to squeak and hide - purple darted back into the bushes in the blink of an eye, while green disappeared entirely into the bag. Saga scrambled on the ground to put some distance between herself and the backpack, her eyes darting around her surroundings in paranoia that more would come. From inside of her bag, a chirrup sounded annoyed. The open flap began to jostle, this tiny creature rummaging through her things.

“Hey, hey!” Crawling on hands and knees, Saga grabbed the bottom of her bag and yanked it toward her, hoping that the green Junimo would jump out. “Get out of there!” The findings of her day toppled out as she violently shook the bag: wild horseradish, spring onions, a variety of mushrooms, and some red berries she wasn’t 100% sure were poisonous or not. There was also her own personal effects: a small umbrella, a makeup bag mostly filled with painkillers and lipgloss, a scattering of tampons and her wallet. A tiny cry came from within her bag as she jerked it once more and the Junimo fell out, clutching the scroll from the Community Center.

Saga stared at the creature incredulously. “Just take it,” she said, hurriedly shoving her things back into the bag. I gotta get out of here. Wrangling the long stalks of the horseradish back in, she climbed to her feet and turned toward the direction she had come from, but the purple Junimo was bouncing up and down in front of her, blocking her path. Gripping her backpack tightly, she retreated and looked for another way, but by now more Junimos have shown up - a rainbow of colour, all chirruping and jumping excitedly. A dreadful sensation of being cornered plagued Saga’s mind. People fear that which they don’t understand. What could the Junimos do to her? Were they dangerous like any other predator?

Reaching for her backpack, she unlatched the small handaxe from the series of loops she used to secure it to the side for easy access while foraging. Holding it now, the axe became a weaponized tool she brandished in her hand with determination. A quiet fell over the Junimos, watching as she raised the axe over her head threateningly. Their jumping seized and their colours became muted within the shadow of the trees.

“I would lower your weapon, if I were you,” a voice called from behind.

Breath caught in her throat, Saga spun around. Emerging from the treeline, the man from outside of the Community Center held up both of his hands in an offering of peace.

“So they’re dangerous?” Saga concluded, the axe wavering for just a moment in her hand before she gripped it tighter.

“Not by nature,” Rasmodius corrected.

His voice was powerful, as if it were emitting from within her chest rather than from his mouth. In the threads of light that filtered through the leaves, Saga saw that his cloak was a rich shade of purple that mistakenly looked black at first glance. He wore a gold necklace that glinted, and his hat bore a symbol similar to the letter S in a circle.

Stepping forward, he kept his hands raised, revealing a series of rings adorning his long fingers. “It is considered a great crime to slaughter a Junimo.”

She exhaled a panicked laugh. “I wasn’t intending to slaughter them. Why are they surrounding me?”

He was coming closer, she realized. Though her eyes were fixed on him, he almost seemed to be gliding across the grass. “Will you lower your weapon?” he asked, a note of pain carried in the words. Saga flinched, but slowly, she brought down her arm. The Junimos remained silent all around them. Extending one hand, he motioned for her to pass over the axe.

If he hurts you, you gave him your only means of defending yourself, a dark thought reminded. Frozen by fear, she hesitated, and surprisingly the man recoiled.

“I will not hurt you,” he whispered.

Did he read my mind? Saga gripped the axe tight, taking a step back. A clear chirrup distracted her from somewhere near her feet. Looking down, the purple one was placing a tiny hand on the side of her shoe, as if it were trying to reassure her.

“Please,” the man begged.

Her fingers loosened on the handle, however she did not let go entirely. A passing breeze moved her hair, creating a momentary barrier between her and the forest around her, offering her a second of peace that conflicted with the stubborn desire to run away. With a jerking motion, she attached the axe to the side of her bag. “I want to leave,” she states, hating how desperate she sounded.

He looked sad. “You haven’t taken the potion I gave you.” It wasn’t a question.

“No,” Saga answered anyway, lifting her chin in defiance. “Honestly, I was hoping that entire night had been a vivid hallucination.”

The man nodded. “You were quite scared. Not as much now.”

“Why do you talk like that?”

“Like what?”

“Like you know things! About me, about how I’m feeling!”

He tilted his head, stroking the short length of his beard absently with one hand. “This bothers you.”

“I don’t know you,” she spat venomously. “I don’t go around talking to strangers in the middle of the night, giving them weird drinks a-and appearing out of nowhere in the middle of a forest!” Shit, her tone was beginning to tremble under an unstable emotion. “It’s bad enough everyone in this stupid valley knows everything they think they need to know about me - I can’t even introduce myself to anyone because they already know!” A dark flush came to her face, ashamed for the proverbial word vomit she couldn’t control. “They already know, they’ve already made up their minds - I mean, which version should I be? The kid they so fondly remember? Maybe a carbon-copy of my grandfather? Am I supposed to be crying all the time because he died? Because that’s what they expect?” The shaking had transferred to her hands, and she clutched them close to her chest. “Why does anyone care?” she asked the man in earnest, her eyes searching him for answers. Hot tears streamed down her cheeks, betraying what little dignity she held.

To her horror, he remained silent. Saga didn’t know what she expected, really. Her chest heaved with the weight of her confessions, finding a peculiar euphoria in venting her frustrations out loud to a stranger who made her nervous. But his silence was deafening and stretched long enough that she was horrified by how vulnerable she made herself become. Swiping at her eyes, she quickly turned to hide her face. “I shouldn’t have left the city,” she muttered bitterly, feeding off of the familiar anger as a way to ground her voice.

“You could have stayed in Zuzu, that’s true. But your path eventually winds up here, even if it has been some time since you lasted visited. Staying would have only delayed the inevitable.”

Saga looked at the man wordlessly, disliking the finality he carried. It pleased her a little to see that he looked uncomfortable - he did not meet her eye and instead focused his attention to the Junimos who remained quiet on the sidelines. Clearing his throat, his posture shifted, lending his shoulder to dip in indication toward the path he had come from. “I find that tea helps clear my mind when disturbances in my arcane study become overwhelming.”

“Are you asking me over for tea?” Saga deadpanned, hoping he didn’t hear her pathetic sniffling.

“If you would like. I am not familiar with what practices are appropriate when one is upset, but I believe hot beverages are commonly offered.”

“What about the Junimos?”

His eyebrows furrowed. “I don’t know if Junimos like tea,” he said in all seriousness.

“No I mean... Nevermind. Lead the way.”

It wasn’t a very long journey up toward his tower - just beyond the trees it opened up once again and revealed wooden stairs that looked to be carved out of the earth rather than laid by hand. Saga kept her head down, watching her feet. What are you doing? she asked herself. Silence was the only answer. Dimly, she became aware of the faint outline of markings that lined each step she climbed. They were just as strange looking as the scribbles inside of that scroll she had taken from the Community Center. Shit! Jerking her gaze up, her pace faltered. I forgot the scroll!

A quiet chirrup brought her attention back to her feet. The purple Junimo bounced at her side, holding the scroll over its head as if it had been waiting for her to remember this entire time. Reaching down, Saga gently accepted it. “Uh, thank you.”

The Junimo chirruped, this time louder and sounding like it was pleased. Saga smiled, and with another little bounce, the Junimo simply faded from sight. Up ahead, the sound of a door being unlatched alerted her that they had reached the tower, and with quickened steps, she hastened to catch up to the man.

The tower rose out of the ground like a sore thumb. From aged stone and crawling vines, it looked as though it belonged inside of a dark fairytale rather than sitting alone and tucked away not far from town. The door that was held open to her was a large and sturdy wall of oak, banded by iron rusted from past rainfalls. Rasmodius hadn’t waited for her, having already disappeared inside. Saga tilted her head to the side. You could still run for it, y’know. Shadows danced across the grass beside the door, drawing her attention toward the sky where miserable clouds blotted out the afternoon sun.

Rasmodius reappeared. “I prefer if you enter before the rain starts.”

“Rain wasn’t forecasted for today-” The unmistakable rumble of thunder cut her off. For some reason, Saga only regarded the man with a less than impressed stare. “You did that on purpose,” she muttered accusingly.

Inside of the tower hardwood floors and dramatic tapestry welcomed her in. A large cauldron (give me a break, she thought sardonically) sat bubbling some kind of substance close to the door. To her right a section of the flooring became uneven, and in fact a shallow dias looked to have been installed and lined with several glowing candles that dripped heavy beads of wax into thick puddles at their base. Some sort of design had been drawn in white chalk, though it appeared to have been carelessly smeared at some point. Bookshelves lined the walls, framed by sconces bright with dancing flame that lit the interior where the roaring fire burning away in an ornate fireplace couldn’t reach.

At a simple table, Rasmodius was pouring tea and indicating for her to sit down. Dropping her bag at her feet, Saga accepted the seat offered to her and placed the scroll down on the table. The scent of jasmine drifted to her senses, drawing her hands to cradle the mug in front of her and pull it closer for warmth. “Y’know, most serial killers don’t go out of their way to decorate so menacingly,” she told him as he settled into the chair across from her. She noticed that he did not have a mug for himself.

“I’m not a serial killer. I’m a wizard.”

This again. Saga briefly rolled her eyes with a nod, giving in to his delusion. “Thanks for the tea.”

A perplexed expression crossed his features. “You haven’t even tried it yet.”

“Look, I’m just trying to be polite, all right? I’m kind of freaked out right now thinking that you are going to sacrifice me to a demon or some shit.”

“Language.”

“For all I know, you could have drugged this tea,” she went on to say. “I notice you aren’t having any yourself.”

Rasmodius studied her quietly for a few moments. “I do not normally consume caffeine at this hour. But if it will put your mind at ease…” Lifting a hand, the scrape of porcelain against wood drew Saga’s attention toward a shelf across the room. Floating toward the table was a single mug, handle-side spinning delicately into his fingers. The teapot that had sat unassuming on the table gave a mild shake before lifting into the air, pouring a stream of tea into the mug before returning to its former spot.

Saga’s mouth went dry.

“Do you want to talk about your frustrations?”

His fingers twisted against his mug. Saga watched them closely, expecting to see something else unimaginable happen, but was disappointed to discover he was merely fidgeting from the awkward question. It was apparent that he was out of his element, which made her feel marginally better.

Shifting back in her seat, Saga crossed her legs and regarded him with a disbelieving look. “Do you want me to?”

Rasmodius thought about this, then shook his head. “Not really. My devotion to the arcane unfortunately has made me inept at lengthy conversations regarding emotional turmoil. It is a sacrifice I have made to maintain peace as Warden of these lands.”

“What does that mean, Warden of the lands?”

He took in a quiet breath - not in shock, but as a way to prepare himself. “In rudimentary terms, it means I am responsible for the balance between this world and the spirit world.”

She raised an eyebrow. “So, ghosts.”

“No, that is a common misconception when one uses the term ‘spirit’. I am talking about the unseen forces that reside in the underbelly of this dominant society. Long before settlers claimed this valley as their home it had belonged to another. For a time they had lived in harmony, but immigration of conflicting cultures ended that peace early on. That is when a warden became necessary to establish balance and order to the chaos.” Lifting his mug, he took a timid sip to test the temperature. “Junimos are forest spirits, often called ‘children of the forest’ from an old wives tale that believed they were the left behind souls of the children who perished during humanities fight to overtake the land from the spirits. This is false information. Junimos are their own beings, and are the original caretakers of this valley. The colonization of this land has pushed them to the very borders, and it is here that they will eventually be lost to time.”

“Wait,” holding up her hand, Rasmodius ceased to speak obediently. “I have about twenty questions about everything you just said, but, what do you mean ‘lost to time’?”

His eyes pointedly went to her mug. “Your tea is getting cold.”

Begrudgingly, she dramatically raised her mug and took a sip. An explosion of exotic jasmine melted onto her tongue, sending warm tendrils of comfort to pool into her stomach, heating her from within. The delicate hairs along her arms stood on end, and her expression twisted into open surprise. “Shit, that’s a really good cup of tea,” she muttered, greedily drinking more and ignoring the way Rasmodius’s lips twitched downward in displeasure of her swear.

“The very threads that tether the Junimos to this world reside within Pelican Town. Living on the outskirts gives them some access to the mysterious origin of their power, but without it they will eventually come to pass and become forgotten.”

“And what happens if they do?”

A dark shadow passed across the man’s face, deepening the lines under his eyes into something that inspired fear in her blood. “Balance will be lost, and chaos will reign.” He placed his mug down with such force that its strike made her jump in her seat. Leaning forward, his voice grew grave. “This cannot happen, for even I am not strong enough to withstand the consequences.”

Saga raised her hands in defense. “Okay, okay, protect the Junimos at all costs, I got it.” Hunching her shoulders, she waited for him to return to his more docile mood, however the intensity continued to burn across the table at her in full force. “What does any of this have to do with me?”

The chair scraped loudly across the floorboards as he rose to his feet. Without looking at her he stalked away from the table and toward the shelf of curious bottles and containers that housed itself close to the cauldron. “It has everything to do with you,” he told her definitively, selecting a tin box from above him and grabbing a fistful of some kind of powder. “A warden is only as valuable as the information he has. It requires a strict discipline to anticipate that which cannot be anticipated, to prevent that which may very well be unpreventable should the warnings go without notice.” Stepping up to the cauldron, he scattered the powder into the bubbling substance, vapours pouring over the edge and transforming whatever liquid it was into a slow swirl. “I have dedicated my life to serve and protect with true neutrality, for in the end it does not matter which world I call home, I am beholden to both and shall not pick sides.”

Tipping a bottle, small droplets that sparkled like a shining sun melded into the concoction, turning it from the vapid green into something close to molten gold. “Man has their champion, and Spirit has claimed their own. The Junimos picked your grandfather years ago, and now look to you to uphold the agreement sworn in blood.”

Blood. Within her veins, plasma and platelets prickled with electricity and ice against tendons and nerves. Before her Rasmodius had become ethereal and terrifying before his creation. There was a swell of wind within the tower that he stood in the vortex of, his long fingers extending into the scorching steam hissing in the air like a pained howl. Beyond the walls, thunder shook at the stones and rain pounded against the roof, an unexpected storm blotting daylight from the windows. He was speaking in a language she didn’t understand - vocal cords strained and tongue moving in vowels that sounded inhuman. Saga could no longer see his eyes through the consuming shadow that clung to the fabric of his clothes.

Jumping to her feet, she grabbed her bag and made a bolt toward the door, but her steps halted in midair, unable to move no matter how much she strained against fingers she couldn’t see. He was beckoning her into the eye of the hurricane, plucking at each strand of muscle inside of her body until she was moving toward him and standing before the cauldron. A plain goblet rattled and shot across the room into his hand, and she watched in horror as he dipped it into the liquid that breathed back at them. Flesh rendered from bone then fused back together as he lifted the goblet, dripping sunlight and flame, toward her.

“Saga Tiller, with this potion you will accept the essence of the forest into your blood, your bones, your soul. You will uphold the value and traditions of those that came before you and walk with the Junimos as equal and protector of this land. This is your sworn duty.”

I will accept. This time it is not him that controls her. From within the goblet, something calls out to her, something that feels all at once familiar and foreign. Reaching through the steam, she does not feel its burn penetrating into her skin, her eyes transfixed on the offering. Seizing the goblet, she drinks heavily, and suddenly she is parched and desperate. Moss coats the inside of her mouth, threatening to choke her, but she swallows it down as tears sting her vision. It is the grass and the bark of the forest, the salt and scent of the sea; thunderous clouds and the warmest of breezes, all soaking into her body in an assault that leaves her paralyzed with stimulants. Dropping the goblet, it clatters to the ground and rolls at her feet, but she is no longer inside of the tower.

A rush of leaves and distant singing fill her ears and her heart, dirt collects under her nails. There is lush forest all around her, spinning her around in a gust of sweet smelling wind that tangles into her hair and renders her breathless. Unexplainable joy she hadn’t felt in years coats her skin, thick as honey, and she’s smiling, laughing, cheering in the light all around her. The aftertaste of the forest mingles on her tongue, but it is home that infuses her senses with a desire to run headlong into the unknown.

The spinning stops with a hand on her head. Rasmodius joins her in the forest, but the light slips away from him, shrouding him in a darkness not scary, but almost… Sad. “Sleep well and dream of peace,” he whispers. Her eyes go wide as he pushes against her head, and suddenly she is falling, falling, falling-!

A sharp gasp brings her back to life, alone and shivering in her bed back at the farm.

Chapter Text

Dear Saga,

Tomorrow we’re holding the Egg Festival in the town square. You should arrive between 9 am and 2 pm if you’d like to attend. You wouldn’t want to miss the annual egg hunt!

-Mayor Lewis.

“Oh yeah, the egg hunt is legit.”

Sprawled out on the grass by the playground, Abigail starfishes under the afternoon sun as Saga reads from the note she had found in her mailbox that morning. It was another beautiful day in the valley, and another successful day making some money. After her meeting with Leah six days prior, Saga had been inspired to collect every single one of the villager’s request from the information board and work her way through them. A lot of coin was made by foraging, but some of the requests remained in her bag as she mulled over where to get them.

Some she would need to grow. Her garlic had come in beautifully, and as promised she had set aside a bundle for Leah, delivered with a strand of twine wrapped in a way that reminded Saga of the artisanal boutiques popular in Zuzu City. The rest of the garlic and her parsnips had gone into the storage bin outside of her house, and true to his word, by morning the Mayor had collected it and left her earnings in her mailbox.

“I win it every year,” Abigail continued, doing absolutely nothing to mask the smug quality of her tone. Grinning at Saga, she shrugged her shoulders. “It’s kind of my thing.”

Stuffing the note back into her bag, Saga raised an eyebrow. “Aren’t egg hunts meant for children? Not exactly a fair competition beating 5 year olds.”

Abigail swatted at her leg playfully. “Other people participate, too! Yoba, I’m not a monster!” Spreading her fingers through the grass, Saga curiously watched her hands as the purple-haired girl combed through the soft strands as if it were a lush carpet. “Besides, there’s a prize if you win.”

“I’m listening.”

The other girl shrugged nonchalantly to tease her. “Nothing more to say, you’ll just have to compete against me and see for yourself,” she flashed Saga a devious grin.

“Tease,” Saga muttered. Reaching into her bag, she retrieved an egg carton she had repurposed to hold the red berries she had found earlier while foraging. By now she knew that they were salmonberries, and they were also ridiculously delicious. Popping a few into her mouth, she held them out in offering to Abigail, who immediately sat up and accepted with thanks.

Chewing thoughtfully, she regarded Saga’s backpack with open admiration. “You’re getting pretty good this whole farm thing, aren’t you?”

Saga faked a scoff. “Are you insinuating I was shit before?”

“No!” Laughing, Abigail reached for more berries, but Saga held them out of her reach in retaliation. “I just mean you’re becoming the talk of the town. Everyone is raving how you keep coming through with the requests they post on the information board.”

A sullen quiet came over Saga. Pushing the carton into Abigail’s hands, she wiped her fingers across the grass before wrapping her arms around her legs. “Yeah, well, let’s just say I’m getting used to people talking about me behind my back,” she muttered bitterly, plucking blades of grass from the ground without purpose.

Abigail rolled her eyes, her soft body coming into contact with Saga as she leaned into to nudge her out of the dark cloud. “It’s a small town, what did you expect? It’s not like you’re the only person they talk about - everyone is under the microscope all of the time.” Eating a few more of the berries, she continued through polite chews, “It’s totally annoying. I won’t give you some bullshit about how you’ll get used to it, but I’m also trying to give you a compliment here, so maybe you can cut me some slack.” Closing the carton, she set it off to the side, “And get these out of sight before I eat them all!”

Tittering birds fluttered in the nearby tree, filling their space with cheerful song. From the playground Saga can see the rooftops of the town square down the hill, and the sparkling hints of the ocean further south. She hadn’t visited the beach yet. A man she had met by the name of Elliott had openly invited her to do so after informing her that he lived in a ‘quaint shack by the sea’. Saga had been struck by how beautiful he was - like a walking, breathing version of the men that adorned the covers of romance novels. Turned out he was an author, made more pointed by the way he had threaded elegant words into praise that made her flush in embarrassment when she delivered the tulips he had asked for.

Most of her interactions had been like this. Greeted by the surprised villagers who openly delighted in being brought the things they wanted. Saga had been quick to assume it was all for show; they asked for these things and I did it for the money, what more was there to get excited about? But perhaps what Abigail is saying is true. Perhaps it isn’t just her, and this town was plagued by Kindness-meningitis and soon she would be infected, too.

All right, let’s not get ahead of ourselves here.

She noticed that Abigail was still pressed comfortably into her side. If she was waiting for Saga to react, she didn’t show it. Her attention was to the sky above them, watching as the birds swooped in and out of the tree in clusters. “Okay,” Saga released, keeping perfectly still to encourage the other girl to stay where she was. Her hair smells like spring. “I accept your blatant worship of my exceptionally brilliant talents. You may continue if you please.”

“I am so not worshipping you!” Abigail cackled in delight, shoving Saga so suddenly it caused her to topple onto her side. Tucking her hair behind her ears, she regarded the farmer with an air of superiority. “It’ll be me you’re worshipping when I win that prize tomorrow.”

Saga huffed out a laugh. “Rude.” Rolling onto her back, she pillowed her hands behind her head, ignoring the way that the bandages wrapped around her right hand rubbed irritatingly against blistered skin. She had assumed that the strange vision of the forest had been some kind of vapid fever dream, but when she had awoke in a panic, the painful ache in her hand had given her a sense of finality.

No matter how much her mind wished to reject the idea of magic, she couldn’t deny the things the wizard had shown her. Though he was awkward and less than a comfort, he hadn’t attempted to ease her into his world. Using magic was just as natural and ingrained into his mind as breathing. Saga recalled the unseen force that had brought her to her knees, only a few steps away from where she laid in the grass now. How he had disappeared and reappeared out of thin air, how the wave of his fingers made teapots and mugs float, or shot goblets from the wall into his hand. Speaking so frankly, stating fact instead of trying to convince her, of another world - the spirit world - struggling beneath the overwhelming compress of humanity.

Did you expect to feel different? a disappointed voice asked. All week she had fretted infront of her mirror, checking every inch of her body for a change. Would she begin to sprout moss, now that she had the essence of the forest inside of her? Would her skin become bark? Could she talk to animals? A thousand ridiculous but pressing thoughts raced through her head, driving her to actively clean and organize the cabin as a means of relief. Nothing had changed, but she wasn’t convinced.

Tilting her head, Saga looked at the Community Center with new apprehension. She would need to sneak inside at some point and deal with the scroll. It made her stomach clench, but her curiosity hungered for answers.

“By the way, what happened to your hand?”

Abigail watched expectantly, laid out next to her. Lifting the bandaged hand, Saga rotated her wrist in the air for them both to see before giving a casual shrug. “Burned it last week boiling water,” she lied with ease, not even causing a batted eye from her companion.

“Jeez, you’re kind of hopeless, aren’t you?” Abigail joked, accepting the shove Saga gave in protest.

“And what about you?” Saga countered, turning her head to look Abigail in the face. “What happened to your knee?”

Sitting up, the purple-haired girl acknowledged the torn hole in her black jeans, through which an angry and nasty looking gash was slowly beginning to heal. The bandage Abigail used wasn’t even big enough to cover the whole thing. “Fell down in the mines. Think it’ll be a cool scar?”

Propping herself up on an elbow, Saga reached for the carton of berries. “Totally, but you gotta pick the scab.”

“Ew,” wrinkling her nose, Abigail gave her head a shake. “It’s still pretty wet and painful.”

“Looking badass can be such a pain sometime,” Saga mused with a grin, popping a berry into her mouth. “Leah mentioned you go down in the mines a lot. She says it’s dangerous.”

The other girl sighed and rolled her eyes. “Yeah, my dad says the same thing. He gave me shit this morning when he saw my knee - made the usual threats about sending me off to a boarding school full of nuns that will ‘straighten me out’.” An uncomfortable silence came from Abigail. She avoided Saga’s eye and ripped out a fistful of grass before chucking it without aim in front of them. The blades scattered in the air and drifted away. “Anyway, it’s an empty threat. He needs me to help run the shop.”

Saga feigned indifference as a means to push past the awkward tension. The wording felt deliberate. Straighten her out... Shrugging, she turned her attention elsewhere. “Every book I’ve read where the main character attends a boarding school pretty much turns into an awesome adventure.” Flashing Abigail a smirk, Saga raised her eyebrows innocently. “Maybe you’re a witch, Abigail.”

Thankfully the other girl laughed. “Bad news for this town, I’ll just hex anyone who pisses me off!”

“Sounds like you have a hit list.”

“Oh yeah,” Abigail began to count off on her fingers, “my dad, for sure; Hayley, because she bullied me all the time growing up; Mayor Lewis, cause he’s always blaming us for stupid shit that happens in this town, and that skeevy Joja Mart Manager,” Abigail shudders. “Total creep.” Smiling brightly at Saga, her tone takes on a cheerful note. “Don’t worry, you’re completely safe from my wrath.”

“Master is a merciful one,” Saga deadpans, placing a hand to her chest, earning a delighted shut up! from Abigail.

They settle back into a comfortable silence, further questions about the mines still taking up space in her thoughts. One of the notes she had found in her mailbox encouraged her to check them out. ’There could be valuable minerals inside’ One or two of the requests she had taken from the information board wanted minerals for a good amount of money. If Abigail went into the mines regularly, she figured she could too. “What’s down in the mines, anyway?”

This seemed to catch Abigail off guard. Blowing out a slow breath, her eyes went wide in thought. “Lots of stuff, really. Tons of rocks and old ladders that’ll take you down deeper. There’s a lot of slimes, too.” A vicious grin took over her face, giving her a somewhat menacing look. “That’s why I go down. The Adventure Guild near the mines pay good money for killing slimes. Plus I get to swing a sword and feel like a total badass!”

“What about minerals and stuff?”

Abigail’s eyebrows pinched, her shoulders shrugging indifferently. “Yeah, I guess? I don’t really do that whole...labour thing.”

“My, how the upper class live.”

“Shut up! That’s not what I meant!”

“Theory confirmed: Abigail kicks puppies and only eats the finest caviar.”

“Oh my Yoba, stop! Not the puppies!”

“This just in: Abigail calls the bourgeoisie ’crass’ and ’uncouth’. Ten years of war ensues.”

“You are ridiculous-”

“-they use cocktail umbrellas as spears-”

“-why do I hang out with you?-”

“-the carnage is terrible, and classy. Several reports of silver cheese knife wounds and scathing witticisms fatally taking many lives.” Pausing, she levelled Abigail with a shit-eating grin, waiting until the other girl erupted into a fit of giggles that left her breathless.

Saga decided she liked the sound very much.

“It’s a shame Sebastian was such an ass the other night. I think you two would get along well,” Abigail tells her.

Her smile drops, replaced with the still burning annoyance from their argument up on the hill above her farm. “Doubt it,” she replies curtly, gathering up the carton of berries and stashing them back in her bag. If she jerks the zipper too aggressively, Saga pretends to not notice. Abigail, of course, does.

Chuckling, she leans back on her hands. “Uh oh, sounds like something happened?”

“He smokes up on the hill above my farm and the smell travels all the way down to my house. I went up to investigate and found him there, and when I asked him to stop he said no. So naturally, we got into a fight.” Yoba, how petty are you? Flushing, Saga ignores the way Abigail is looking at her in amusement.

“Sounds about right,” she assures Saga. “I met Sebastian when I was seven - one of those stupid play dates parents always try to arrange. Sebastian was ten and wanted nothing to do with me, but of course instead of just ignoring me, he purposely broke my charm bracelet I was wearing, so I punched him in the nose.”

Choking on a laugh, Saga instead snorts into her hand. “That’s amazing.”

Abigail makes a face. “I mean, I was kind of crying when I did it, so I definitely didn’t look awesome. And it wasn’t much of a punch, but I did make his eyes tear up, and he apologized afterwards.”

“So you’re saying I should punch him in the nose to earn his respect?”

“No, definitely don’t do that!” Laughing, Abigail shakes her head. “Sebastian is…different, which is totally cliché, I know, but I don’t really know how else to explain it. We both have our own frustrations at home, which gave us something to initially bond over.” Tilting her head, she looked at her shoes with a thoughtful look. “I’m still not 100% sure he likes me hanging around. Him and Sam are best friends, and I think he would prefer to keep it a two-man show, but he has his moments, y’know?” A slow smile crosses her lips, inviting a blush that dusts the peaks of her cheekbones. “In high school I planned this huge party for my sixteenth birthday - I passed out flyers and everything. Hayley, of course, made sure that no one showed up. I didn’t invite Sam or Sebastian. They’re older and already graduated by then, but when Sebastian found out, the two of them showed up at my house and we played video games and ate pizza until we were sick. Sam says it was Sebastian’s idea.”

“Wow,” a contemplative silence fell over them as Saga processed the story. Leaning in close, her eyes narrowed at Abigail questionably, “so how long have you been in love with him?”

“You are the worst!” Lunging at Saga, Abigail tried to tackle her onto the grass, but Saga deftly rolled out of her reach, all the while cackling at the other girls misfortune. “Why are we friends?” she huffed.

Pushing herself up onto her feet, Saga grinned down at her and held out a hand to help her up. Begrudgingly, Abigail accepted. “Don’t know, something about you stalking me and following me onto a bridge to ask me to hang out?” Reaching up, she untangled a bit of grass from Abigail’s fringe. “How could I refuse?”

The blush remains on Abigail’s pretty face, stalled for words. You could just- Stepping back, Saga maintains her grin. “I should go, still have some deliveries to make.” Shouldering her bag, she hesitates before turning away. “Thanks, by the way.”

Abigail’s brow furrows. “For what?”

“For asking me to hang out. I haven’t really had a friend in a while.”

A brilliant smile spreads across Abigail’s lips, brightening her entire face the same way it had back on the bridge, filling Saga with a feeling of warmth. “No problem,” she says cheerfully. “Who knows, maybe I’ll host an all-night video games and pizza party so you and Sebastian can patch things up.”

“I wouldn’t count on it. Besides, I don’t need him as an excuse to spend more time with you.” Winking, Saga lifted her bandaged hand in farewell and left Abigail somehow blushing harder than before.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

 

The same window gave way when she returned to the Community Center that night. Climbing through the gap felt harder this time - snagged through her belt loop, a single rusted nail sticking out of the wall managed to pivot her weight, and instead of carefully landing on the floor, she was momentarily suspended by her hips, hands and feet sprawled against wall and floor like a spider frantically trying to escape its own web. The weight of her backpack slid forward before flipping upside down over her head, further complicating things. “For the love of-” A short riiiiip and a dull thud dropped her to the ground, belt loop surgically removed from her favourite pair of jeans.

Straightening herself, Saga panted from the exertion and muttered a choice selection of expletives under her breath. Turning on the torch from her phone, she glared at the empty room greeting her back. “I know you lot are in here,” she called out to the Junimos, stepping her way carefully through the harder parts of the floorboards. “I will get justice for my pants.” No adorable chirruping called back to her, which was just as annoying than if they had.

Beyond the door was a corridor that led to her right, with an entryway sitting opposite from where she stood. Inside Saga saw the tell-tale signs of what was most likely a kitchen, however the larger appliances had long been removed, leaving dirt-stained outlines against the wall. Next to the kitchen was a pantry, shelves bare and falling apart. Along the hall was more evidence of where life used to be: dark patches of wallpaper where pictures used to hang, scuffs on the floor from old high-traffic areas now covered in a thick layer of dust. Reaching the main common area of the center, Saga saw thick cobwebs that rippled in an unseen draft, she heard the slow drip of leaking water, the forgotten scraps of junk no one had wanted when this place had shut down years prior.

Her light paused on a curious looking hut located next to the fireplace. Here, the floorboards have been removed to reveal the fresh sight of soil. Stones and rocks, no bigger than her own fist, were strategically piled and placed until a functional dome stood at about four feet tall. A roof of fresh leaves were delicately and intricately laced together, and a small hobbit-style hole functioned as the door. Back on her hands and knees, Saga stuck her phone through the gap to look inside. No Junimos.

“Come on, I drank the stupid potion! It didn’t exactly taste all that great!”

The faint dripping came from the gross looking fish tank in the corner. A dense and viscous layer of rot floated on top of the water and gave off a horrible stench. Dragging the collar of her shirt over her nose, Saga quickly walked past it to inspect the rest of the center. A good-sized office with a busted safe didn’t have any Junimos inside, nor did the basement.

Returning to the hut, she sat cross-legged before it, convinced that they would show up at some point. “Guess I’ll just sit here, alone, lonely...all these snacks just going to waste.” Pulling a tupperware from her bag, Saga popped off the top and lightly shook the mixed nuts and seeds inside, like I’m calling a fucking cat. Maybe Junimos didn’t like nuts and seeds, but she hoped that they would at least be curious enough to come check it out. Or, a voice countered, you’re just a lunatic talking to herself in an abandoned building and no one is around.

She passed the time by eating all of her snacks and playing a stupid game on her phone. When her clock read 1:00 am, Saga rubbed at her tired eyes and tossed the phone off to the side. Why am I still here? She should be in bed. If the first half hour had proved to be waste of time, what made sitting on the floor for an entire hour anymore of a valiant effort? Peeking over her shoulder to the hut, she grumbled unhappily and shoved the tupperware container back into her bag. Her fingers brushed against paper, bringing a horrifying thought to the forefront of her mind.

The fucking scroll.

It was crumpled from living in her bag for a week. Smoothing it out on the floor in front of her, she used scrap pieces of floorboard to hold the curling edges down. Her phone beeped irritably at her, warning her of a quickly depleting battery, but Saga ignored it as she looked over the contents on the page.

Weird scribbles.

Screwing her eyes shut, Saga pressed her fists against her forehead and let out a frustrated groan. Am I going insane? she wondered hopelessly, a sick and terrible feeling settling in her gut. Have I made everything up? She had seen a horror movie like that once, where the actress wakes up in a mental hospital, strapped to the bed and screaming about the monsters that had walked in her dreams. It was worse to consider that Saga couldn’t trust her own mind. Fingers dug into the roots of her hair, half pulling and half combing through her mounted worries. Go home, Tiller. Go home and forget all about this-

The scribbles started to make sense. Peeking at the scroll between strands of her hair, Saga’s eye travelled across as though she were reading from a book, and with sudden clarity, words began to form before her. Thoughts jumbled, she quickly snatched up the paper and held it close to her nose, straining against the feeble light of her phone as she deciphered the hidden message.

We the Junimo are happy to aid you. In return we ask for gifts of the valley. If you are one with forest magic then you will see the true nature of this scroll.

A quiet chirrup brought her attention over the edge of the scroll. A familiar purple Junimo was balanced delicately on her knee, its tiny arms waving up at her in uncontrollable delight. This time Saga didn’t flinch or shout in surprise. She fixed the Junimo with an impatient stare. “Now you show up,” she complained at it, watching its antennae droop. Lowering the scroll, she pointed to a particular batch of scribbles. “What does this mean? Gifts of the valley?”

Pointing, Saga followed the direction of its arm to across the room. In the darkness, a yellow and green blob bounced next to one another, beckoning her with squeaks and jingles. As she went to stand, the purple Junimo hopped down and began to dig around in her bag, earning a scoff from the farmer. “You should have come out when I had the treats,” she scorns, amused by the forest spirit huffing back at her in disappointment. Leaving her bag behind, she follows after her two new guides as they take her back to the room she had entered from.

A new scroll was waiting for her on the floor. Picking it up, she was relieved to find that there were no new scribbles for her to translate. Instead, cutely drawn images of foragable items were listed into columns. It lacked any sort of instruction. Some items she recognized as the things she had been collecting the past week. Each column depicted a different season, she realized. Saga recognized the fall items only because in Zuzu City that was when the hazelnut vendors took to the streets, roasting them all day to entice customers with their salty, nutty scent. “So you want me to bring you these items?”

A happy chirrup answered. “That seems really easy,” she admitted, her eyebrows furrowing. Something told her that wasn’t the case. Sure enough, they began to bounce out of the room, wordlessly asking her to follow. This time they went into the pantry, where another scroll rested on a dusty shelf. Once again, adorable drawings organized into columns, this one showing crops. It wasn’t hard to figure out that each of the rooms she had visited would have their own scrolls much like this for her to complete. The only question she had was, “Why?”

Once she was back in front of the hut, the purple Junimo made a grabbing motion for the original scroll that had carried their message. Sitting on her knees, Saga obediently handed it over and watched as it flipped over the paper and pressed its hands onto the blank space. The very tip of its antennae began to flicker with light, and before her eyes, more of the scribbles appeared across the page.

To bring peace and prosperity to the spirit world.

A small collection of Junimos gathered around her, none of them bouncing, just… watching her. Saga frowned at the message, unable to fully understand and yet this solemn silence that had fallen across the tiny creatures pressed the importance of these scrolls into her lungs. With a nod, she agreed to the terms. There was a brief swell of song that felt like running through the forest on a warm summer day before the rain. Saga closed her eyes to it, a smile finding its way to her face as she tilted toward the imagined sun of her mind.

When she opened her eyes, the Junimos were gone and the battery in her phone died. Sitting in the dark, she contemplated the sudden silence and thought of her grandfather. “Guess I need to start growing some real crops, hey grandad?” she whispered out loud.

As she unlocked the front door and left the Community Center, Saga could have sworn she heard his husky laugh on the wind.

Chapter Text

“-right next to our hydrangeas, and when this specific fertilizer works its magic, I’m telling you, the strawberries are sweeter than they were last year!”

“Uh-huh.”

“Caroline uses a half-and-half method-”

“Right.”

“-half fertilizer, half compost from our kitchen. Do you have a compost? You should definitely think about starting one, it works wonders on our garden-”

“Mhm.”

“-and not too much water. I know, it’s real tempting now that the weather is getting warmer, but I’m telling you-”

Her fingers deftly flicked through the packets of strawberries seeds. Despite his passionate topic of choice, Pierre wasn’t paying attention to her; not really, since he certainly hadn’t noticed how uninterested Saga was in his advice. Rather than feign politeness, she considered how many packets she could get with what little money she had brought with her. At 100g a packet, the strawberries were an expensive risk if she were to fuck things up. But their payoff made it tempting - the rest of the season she could be making some solid coin during the height of their popularity, and, it would save her back the agony of turning the soil over and over every time she had to replant crops. Plus, it would cross a gift off of the Junimos wishlist.

“-the most beautiful and delicious pie you will ever taste-”

“100g for seeds is pretty steep,” Saga casually interrupted. Placing the packets down, she fanned them out and considered them with apprehension. “Joja Mart sells strawberry seeds for half the price.”

The shop owner immediately began to glare at her over the thick rim of his horned glasses. “I thought you claimed you didn’t shop at Joja Mart?” he asked icily, any hint of friendliness gone from his exterior.

“I don’t,” Saga agreed, flipping over a packet to read the printed instructions on the back. “I just find it an interesting tactic to markup the cost as much as you have when you’re competing for the same customers.”

His shoulders had become hunched, but now he rolled them back and flashed her a smug grin. “Yes, but our seeds are of better quality. Were you not listening to what I was just telling you?” His condescending tone was infuriating, but Saga lifted her eyebrows and maintained a neutral expression. “Our strawberries have never tasted better, and it’s all thanks to those seeds!”

She tilted her head. “And the fertilizer, and don’t forget the compost you mix it with,” she corrected, watching Pierre’s face colour in anger before she dismissed the slight with a loose shrug. “But see,” leaning forward, Saga pressed into her elbows and showed Pierre the back of the packet she had been studying. “I noticed that these seeds are from the East Coast Isles.”

“If you’re questioning the price because they are an import-”

“Oh, I couldn’t care less that they’re an import. But, if you look a bit closer, you can make out a little logo there, do you see it?” Her thumbnail underlined the near missable green leaf enclosed in a neat circle that was stamped at the very bottom of the packet. Pierre looked at it and crossed his arms, unimpressed with her findings.

“The Green Growers Association, so what? They are a well known and respected group that only proves that those seeds are top quality!”

“No doubt about it,” Saga continued, undeterred. “Taking them on as a supplier, despite the fact that they are based out east, has been incredibly rewarding for small businesses like yourself over the years - after all, they started as a small company themselves. They built their entire career on nurturing small businesses and offering customer service enviable by most factory corporations who simply have too high of a demand to consider the needs of locally owned shops.”

His piercing gaze narrowed at her. “So what’s your point?”

Reaching into her back pocket, Saga brought out her coin pouch and her phone. Instead of counting out the gold she needed, she navigated her way to a news article she had read earlier that morning. “Just that this morning it was announced that Joja Corp is fully backing the Green Growers Association, meaning that these top quality seeds are now available at every Joja Mart across the country. Which also means that Joja Corp doesn’t have to pay the import fee like everyone else. Here, see for yourself.” Handing him the phone, Saga nonchalantly turned her attention to her coin pouch.

From the corner of her eye she watched as Pierre paled at the news. He hurriedly scrolled through the article, his eyes scanning and growing wider as the fatality of this information intensified the furrow of his brow. Sliding 800g across the counter, Saga pocketed her seeds and plucked her phone from his now trembling hand. “Just thought you should know,” she remarked kindly and nodded her chin toward the ghastly pink stuffed bunny sitting on a shelf behind him. “Cute plush.”

Pierre remained silent as she moved away from the booth. As she crossed into the town square where the Egg Festival was being held, she faintly heard him on the phone, demanding to speak to his representative at the Green Growers Association. A viciously pleased smile lifted at the corner of her lips, feeding the all-too-familiar desire to topple the man at the top of the podium. That felt good, didn’t it? pride asked. The blood in her veins hummed in delight yes, did you see his stupid face?

“Don’t you think that was a bit mean?”

Moving past her, Alex lifted a paper plate from the stack at the end of the banquet table. Without paying attention, she had drifted toward the buffet. Before them was every possible egg dish Saga could think of, and even some she had never seen before. And though he spoke to her, Alex refused to make eye contact. He was intently studying how much of each dish he was scooping onto the plate.

When she went to join him, he made a point to stand on the other side of the table. Still mad, but Saga gave him a tilted smile anyway. “Maybe you’re right,” she agreed. “But he really should do more research into his products before making grandiose claims that they are one of a kind.” There was a large cake decorated in the shape and likeness of a painted egg. It looked ridiculous, and she noticed that someone had already carved out a large chunk from the bottom and had attempted to cover it up by placing a vase of flowers of the gaping hole.

Alex did not return her smile. He was occupied with flicking bits of feta cheese from the spinach salad (topped, of course, with sliced hard boiled egg) and using a napkin in an attempt to soak up the dressing mixed throughout. “Pierre is doing his best to stay in business,” he informed her coolly.

Her eyebrows furrowed. “I know that-”

“Everyone here is. It’s been real hard since that Joja Mart opened up.”

She felt steel claws dig into her resolve, and when she spoke, it was defensive. “Right, which is why it’s important that he educates himself-”

“So you just happen to read an article this morning about Joja Corp buying out that Green Growers whatever?” He stabbed his fork into a cherry tomato that had been beautifully arranged on a veggie tray and smashed it into the scoop of egg salad on his plate. His movements were deft but aggressive, and Saga suspected he was imagining her head as the cherry tomato.

Where is this going? “Alex, what is your problem?” The words came out sharper than she had intended. There is a wild beating in her chest. Her heart hammering against her ribcage to the obsessive mantra that was telling her to stop, stop, stop, but her mouth didn’t listen. Children cackled in delight nearby, a jarring contrast to the tension held between Alex’s fingers and the paper plate. “I was only trying to help-”

“Bullshit, you wanted to make him look like an asshole.”

Saga faltered. Alex was staring at her with such an intensity, it was as though he was trying to bury her into the ground. It was a wonder how warm brown eyes could burn so angry. Cocking his head to the side, he regarded her with open disdain. “That’s just what you do, right?” he asked quietly, and it was worse than a shout. Obviously they were no longer talking about Pierre and his stupid fucking seeds.

She swallowed the temptation to joke and dissipate the flames scorching across her body under his stare, but they were suddenly interrupted by a cheerful, “Alex!”

Gliding to his side was an impossibly beautiful blonde woman with eyes so blue it was like diving into the clearest pool on a hot summer day. Sliding her hand up along Alex’s arm, she effortlessly pulled his attention to her with a dazzling smile that said a thousand different things Saga wasn’t privy to. Almost immediately did Alex’s focus change. The deep furrow of his eyes smoothed away and he smiled easily with her while handing over the plate and pressing a kiss to her cheek. Saga could quietly hear him greet her with a simple, “hey babe” before winding his arm around her waist and fitting her against his side.

She giggled and blushed prettily before looking toward Saga as an afterthought. “Oh, hello. Are you that new farm girl?”

The muscles in Saga’s jaw had gone rigid. It felt like invisible hooks were yanking the corner of her lips into a smile that went unnoticed by the woman. She kept busy by running her hand down the front of Alex’s chest like a possessive feline guarding its dish of milk. “Saga,” she clarified and stuck out her hand across the table. “Nice to meet you…?”

“Haley,” the blonde supplied, taking her hand limply and quickly pulling away to turn back to Alex. “I got us a table in your favourite spot,” she cooed into his ear.

Much to Saga’s disbelief, Alex grinned and for all the world had forgotten that Saga was even there. “You’re the best,” he told her, and by the look of her smile, that wasn’t the first time she had heard it, either. It isn’t a display for you, the voice pointed out. You just want to think he’s an asshole cause he called you out. Saga averted her eyes, pretending to be interested in a plate of deviled eggs.

“Let’s go,” Alex said, taking a hold of Haley’s hand and leading her away without a second look towards Saga. The blonde happily followed, but not before looking over her shoulder to give Saga a victorious smirk.

“Bye farm girl,” she called, purposely drawing out her vowels.

“Ugh, she’s the worst.”

Blinking, Saga turned to find Abigail idly munching on a egg salad sandwich. A mixture of relief and panic sat heavy in her stomach. “How long were you standing there for?” Saga asked weakly, discarding her empty paper plate, along with whatever appetite she had.

Abigail’s brow furrowed in confusion. “Uh, I don’t know, long enough to grab a sandwich?” As if to clarify, she held up the sandwich which had a large bite taken out of it. “What’s up? You look like you Mayor Lewis volunteered you for cleanup duty or something.”

Shaking her head, Saga forced life back into her limbs with a practiced shrug. “So that was the Haley, right? The one who used to bully you?”

The purple-haired girl hummed, her attention on the egg-shaped cake. “You cracked the case, Holmes.”

“She seems…” Trailing off, Saga purposely let the silence become strained as her gaze travelled across to where Alex and Haley sat, shoulder to shoulder, occupied in each other’s space completely. “Annoying.”

“Oh yeah,” Abigail agreed with a grin, but it quickly vanished into irritation. “She called you ‘farm girl’, what the fuck is that? I mean, was that meant to be insulting? At least you do something. She’s never had a job.” Finishing the sandwich in two large bites, Abigail shamelessly reached for another and spoke through her chewing. “Meanwhile, Emily works so hard at the Saloon and pretty much takes care of their house while their parents are away. I mean, really. How many times in a day can you change your nail polish before getting bored?”

Saga watched fondly as Abigail swallowed and stuffed the next sandwich into her mouth like it was a method to try and stop the words, but they continued to push through the bits of bread and egg with ease. “Their parents are loaded, I’m talking ‘retire at the age of 30’ loaded. Don’t get me wrong, they are super nice, but I don’t get how Haley turned out so spoiled when Emily is incredibly ambitious and creative.”

“You got some egg there,” Saga pointed to the corner of her mouth, and Abigail hastily wiped it away with her thumb. “So where are their parents?”

“Travelling. They’ve been gone for about two years now, I’ve lost track of where they are.” She goes quiet and contemplates her sandwich with a serious expression. “I don’t know if they know either. There used to be postcards that Emily would show us, but it’s been a few months since I’ve seen a new one.” With that final thought, Abigail shoved the last bite into her mouth and pointed a finger at Saga. “So, are you ready to lose today’s egg hunt?”

Saga casually held her hands behind her back as she rocked forward on her heels. “That’s a nasty assumption you got there, Abigail,” she baited. Stepping forward, she crowded into the other girls space, close enough to catch the scent of her shampoo on the calm breeze. The purple was so vibrant, it made Saga envious of Abigail’s long stresses that curled down her shoulder. “I might just surprise you,” she whispered in her ear, earning a rapid blush from Abigail that spread from her chin to her hairline.

“Are all participants ready for the egg hunt?” Mayor Lewis called from the center of the square.

She leaned away from the other girl, purposely giving her a salacious grin before sticking out her hand. “May the best woman win.”

“Everyone gather around so I can go over the rules!” Mayor Lewis continued.

Taking her hand, Abigail’s grip was firm and assertive. That serious look was back in her eye that said her competitive desire to crush Saga would not be distracted. “You’re on, farmer.” With a sharp jerk, she managed to catch Saga off balance, pulling her in close. “If you’re looking for a surprise, you better not take your eyes off of me.”

Her mouth went dry. Releasing her hand, Abigail beamed at her brightly and left to join the gaggle of villagers taking part in the egg hunt. A curious jolt of electricity ran down the length of her arm from where Abigail’s touch had been - no more than an echo of the unspoken promise she had imparted onto her. An excited energy that buzzed beneath the surface of her skin, threatening to disrupt her collected composure.

“The egg hunt is about to begin! Final call for participants!”

Two children rushed past her legs and wormed their way to the front of the crowd. It came as a bit of a surprise that more people than she had expected were ready to compete. There were a couple of familiar faces in the group, Emily from the Saloon being one of them. Her shock of bright blue hair was playfully styled with children’s hair clips that had bunnies and ducks on them, and her carefree smile suggested that she hadn’t been victim of a bored kid looking to entertain themselves. Saga stood near her and watched from the corner of her eye as Emily waved to where Gus and another man sat at a table.

The rules were simple: find as many eggs in the set amount of time as possible, and win the prize. However, Mayor Lewis chatted on about the history of the festival and the glory of victory, to which Saga easily tuned out. Hovering near the side of the square was Sam and Sebastian. Catching Saga’s eye, Sam gave her a thumbs up and mimicked taking out Abigail with a draw of his thumb across his throat. His smile was infectious, and Saga gave him an affirmative nod to indicate that she was ready to play dirty. Looking to Sebastian, she was surprised to see him staring at her, although it was obvious just how disinterested he was.

“On your mark...get set...hunt!”

Everyone darted off in different directions, catching Saga off guard. She could just make out the sight of Abigail’s purple hair disappearing around the corner of the Saloon before everyone had scattered from the square.

“Come on, Saga! You gotta run if you’re going to beat Abby!” Sam yelled from the side, spurning her into action.

With no real plan in mind, Saga took off for the north side of the square, vaulting herself over a stray chair someone had pushed out from a nearby table. The sound of the other villagers cheering faded away, her focus channelled into finding brightly coloured eggs. There! By the clinic! She grabbed it and only then realized she didn’t have a basket. Of course. Running past Pierre’s, she saw one of the younger kids struggling to reach into a bush to grab an egg. Fuck it, she thought, darting around from the other side and snatching the egg. There was a disgruntled cry of, “Hey, my egg!” that followed her as she ran past Alex’s house and headed for the trailer. Something has to be here, logic dictated, her eyes snapping from one potted plant to a neighbouring patch of grass. Looking up, she spied an egg balanced precariously in the window sill. That makes three.

More competitors ran past, their determined faces beginning to sweat. Saga ran in the opposite direction, checking every bush and shrub until she was sprinting across the town square and dashing around a fence to get to the park. Another egg was nestled at the base of a tree. Juggling the eggs, Saga stretched out the bottom of her shirt and used it as a basket, her chest heaving with her breath. Just then, Abigail skidded to a stop at the entrance of the park. For a moment they locked eyes, but Abigail was the first to break away as she spotted another egg hidden near the garbage can. Saga lunged forward, the precious eggs in her possession rattling dangerously against one another, but Abigail was not only closer, she was faster, too. Pivoting on her heel, she simultaneously scooped up the egg and avoided colliding into Saga, her basket near brimming with her findings.

“I told you not to take your eyes off of me.” The fire of competition made Abigail’s eyes blaze like a setting sun, but the smirk on her lips filled Saga with emboldened resolve and untethered desire all at once. Giving her a mock salute, Abigail took off, fast as the wind and taking Saga’s breath with her.

She ran one more lap around the designated area, managing to find two eggs, before the sharp sound of Lewis’ whistle brought the competition to an end. Doubled over, Saga panted for air, legs spent and trembling while she tried to hold on to her precious winnings. Lewis came over and collected her eggs into what should have been her basket, and walked off to count the final score. Abigail strolled up to her, not a hair out of place, and patted Saga on the back. “You did better than I expected!”

Saga glared at her without heat. “How are you so fast?”

Chuckling, Abigail tucked a piece of hair behind her ear and leaned down to reach her eye level. “Don’t worry, maybe next year you’ll have better luck.” Her grin was smug and well-deserved, because shortly after, Lewis announced that Abigail was the winner. Pumping her fist into the air, she left Saga’s side to collect her prize while everyone else politely clapped to her victory.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

“Here.”

Lifting her arm from where it was draped over her eyes, Saga accepted the water bottle dripping with perspiration. She was sprawled out on the grass next to the town square, trying to muster the energy to go get food, but her legs had become absolute jelly in their resting state. It had been years since she had done any variation of running, in fact, the last time might have been when it was mandatory in gym class. Drinking gratefully from the bottle, Saga watched as Abigail sat down next to her, annoyingly perfect in her composure. “You’re really good at this,” she stated the obvious, earning a laugh from her friend.

“I tried to warn you.”

“No like, freakishly good. Were you on the track team or something? Injected with a speed serum?”

Abigail flushed, melting away any cool visage she had been posturing. “Nothing like that.”

“Secret scientific experiment gone wrong? Mutant genetics?”

“Hey, look! It’s Sam and Sebastian!” Waving her arm, Abigail beckoned the two over. “Hey guys! Anything good?”

The speed in which Sam sat down next to Saga meant that his body had practically collided into her. Balanced in one hand was a plate that was impossibly brimming with every kind of egg-related food that Saga had seen on the buffet table - the other hand was busy stuffing the last remains of a sandwich into his mouth. This, of course, did nothing to deter him from speaking. “Help yourself,” he chewed before focusing intently on Saga. “Oh man, I really thought you almost had her, swear to Yoba. I was like, ‘oh shit!’, but then I noticed that you didn’t even have a basket-” Halting mid-sentence, Sam craned his head over his shoulder to where Sebastian remained standing. “Bro, you want any of this before I eat it all?”

The dark-haired man was busy on his phone and hardly spared his friend a glance. “No.”

Pumping his fist, Sam grinned victoriously at Saga. “More for me. Anyway - what was I saying? Oh yeah! So then I was like, ‘oh no!’, but Abigail was all, ‘I was built for speed’, but you did so good! You nearly had her, I swear!”

Pressing her lips into a line, Saga tried not to laugh. “Difficult to say without knowing the final tally-”

“Six to nine,” Abigail supplied breezily, plucking a carrot stick from Sam’s plate.

Even though she wasn’t eating, Saga still managed to choke. Sam helpfully pounded on her back, but there wasn’t much to dislodge when air was trying to kill her. “Nine?! You got nine eggs in like, two minutes?”

“Built for speed, I tell ya,” Sam confirmed, using a fork to dig into a massive pile of egg and potato salad.

“You owe me 10g, too.”

Looking toward Sebastian, Saga watched as the two boys locked gazes with each other. Sam had the deflated look of defeat. Pushing his plate into Saga’s hand, he fished out his wallet, grumbling none-too-quietly under his breath. A brief flash of gold completed the transaction as Sam slapped the coins into Sebastian’s waiting hand. “Here, take it ya filthy traitor.”

A smirk tugged at the corner of Sebastian’s lips, and he leisurely counted through his winnings before slipping them into his pocket. “Pleasure doing business with you, Freeman.”

Saga’s face pinched. “Did you seriously just make money off of me losing?”

I believed in you, Saga!” Pressing his hands against his heart, Sam fixed her with a serious look. “I still do! Someday you’ll dethrone our tyrant champion and bring peace and prosperity to our sacred Egg Festival once again.”

“Hey!” Abigail cried, kicking a leg at Sam, who quickly shimmied his way across the grass to avoid the strike. “I am not a tyrant!”

“Spoken like a true tyrant,” Sam sniffed dramatically, pretending to shed a tear. “When will the corruption stop?”

With a frustrated growl, Abigail launched herself toward Sam, pummeling into him with flying fists that nearly knocked the plate of food out of Saga’s hand. For one terrifying moment it wobbled dangerously against the tips of her fingers, traction lost and the imbalance of the food nearly spilling the mess of salad and dressing and cake down the front of her shirt. Gripping the plate fearfully, Saga rolled onto her feet and backed away from the impromptu wrestling match, insulting names flying in the air.

Exhaling, Saga stood next to Sebastian. He looked taller in the dark, she realized, despite the fact that he still had about half a foot on her. From the corner of her eye, Sebastian stood a bit slouched and with his hands in his pockets. He barely acknowledged her, in fact, he was outright ignoring her to look at the remains of the festival boredly, the only sign of movement coming from the occasional twitch in his forearms as he fiddled with the contents of his pockets.

The awkward silence was palatable.

Should I apologize? Like it or not, Sebastian was part of the package when it came to Abigail. Her new friend already tried to sell her on the idea that he wasn’t that bad, and yeah, okay, under different circumstances Saga would be inclined to agree. Except that he was annoying, and wasting time on someone who equally wanted nothing to do with her didn’t make much sense. Why bother? Whatever Sebastian’s problem was you literally threw dirt at him and tried to use Abigail against him, you- Saga didn’t want to involve herself. Surely she could be friends with Abigail and Sam and not have to deal with whatever drama Sebastian inspired came with.

But it would make things easier, like the placating smile when someone said something offensive and followed it up with ‘it was just a joke’. She could always double-check when she made plans with Abigail if Sebastian was going to be there, maybe some kind of schedule would be handy, and Yoba almighty was she seriously trying to find a way to work around this stupid boy? Irritation decended upon her, watching without seeing as Abigail and Sam continued to tussle. Who cares if he makes things awkward? Saga wasn’t interested in making things easier, not that she wanted to make things difficult, but why should she put in all the effort if he was just going to-

Ding!

The sound jarred her out of her thoughts. Digging out his phone, Sebastian quickly checked it before slipping it back into his pocket. “Gotta go,” he directed to Sam only.

Pushing a hand against Abigail’s face, Sam suddenly sat up and more or less shoved her onto the ground. “Aw, what! I thought we were hanging out until my evening shift!” Disappointment was written into every line of Sam’s face as he helplessly watched Sebastian shrug.

“My client just dropped the files I was waiting for into my server and I need to finish the project.”

“Yeah but,” Pushing himself to standing, Sam threw out his hands. “You’ve been working on that project forever, I mean, we haven’t even had a chance to play Solarian Chronicles in weeks cause you’re always busy!”

Abigail huffed from her sprawled position on the grass. “Truth,” she supplied to the clouds above.

“Work comes first,” Sebastian stated with finality, effectively silencing any further protests from the two. Tapping a cigarette out of its pack, he placed it between his lips and turned away. “I don’t get scheduled shifts like you do, and I need the money. I’ll see you later.”

Shoulders slumping, Sam watched sadly as Sebastian walked off. “I’ll text you later, then?”

Sebastian didn’t reply, only lifted a hand in farewell before cutting through the town square, headed east. Abigail and Sam exchanged a look, non-verbally communicating something Saga had no hope of understanding. When their stifled silence grew too much for her to bear, she poked at the edge of the cake (now mixing beautifully with the salad cream) and wrinkled her nose. “So, not too sound like I have FOMO or anything, but that’s twice now you guys have mentioned Solarian Chronicles. What is that, exactly?”

Sam gave a scoff as if Saga had the gall to ask if water was wet. “Only the greatest game ever created, period. And I will fight anyone who dares to disagree.”

Wow. “Bit intense for a game, yeah?”

Abigail gave her an impish smile. “Sam takes Solarian Chronicles very seriously,” she explained, patting the spot next to her on the grass for Saga to join them. “Okay, so it’s kind of like a role playing game, where each person plays a character: a warrior, a healer, or a wizard. You draw scenario cards and using your characters skills and stats you try to solve the scenario. Usually by kicking ass.”

“I’m a warrior,” Sam bragged proudly, some of the tension beginning to lessen in his shoulders. Taking the plate from Saga, he scooped a forkful of the cake-and-salad-cream mixture into his mouth. “I solve all my problems by kicking ass.”

Saga smiled, privately feeling victorious that her attempt at distraction seemed to be taking. “Sounds fun. I don’t really know much about role playing games...unless you count the time Timothy Rogers wanted to ‘spice things up in the bedroom’. Turns out Timothy was into some freaky shit. Severe mother issues.”

Abigail and Sam had matching wide eyes. “Were you the mom…?” Abigail started, cut off when Saga laughed.

“Nope.”

Dude,” Sam whispered. “Did he like, dress up?”

Tilting her head, Saga smile turned into a mischievous grin. “So, Solarian Chronicles, huh? Maybe I can play with you guys sometime.”

“I asked Sebastian before, but he didn’t really give me an answer,” Abigail mumbled, nervously looking away from Sam. She turned to Saga and clarified, “Sebastian is the one who runs the games. It’s kind of up to him to decide if he wants more players or not.”

Sebastian. Sebastian. Sebastian. His very name managed to undo the brief control she had in the conversation. Did everything Sam and Abigail do circle back to him? She hummed noncommittally to the information, unwilling to engage any further than to brush it off. Leaning back against her hands, Saga nudged Sam with her foot. “Any good warrior stories?”

It were as if Sam’s face was the sun. Everything changed the moment she asked the question, his expression lighting up and the plate placed off to the side, forgotten. Turns out Sam needed his whole body to tell a story, and that his excitement was near infectious. Saga couldn’t say she exactly understood everything he was talking about, but nevertheless she nodded along and asked enough questions that Sebastian’s name didn’t come up unless in passing. Peeking a glance at Abigail, the two locked eyes and the purple-haired girl gave Saga a knowing look.

The festival around them was dying out. Less and less people remained, and the majority of the food had been cleared away and the decorations were torn down. The three of them must have been talking for hours, judging by the stiffness Saga felt in her limbs from sitting in the grass for so long. But it was easier to ignore. Talking to Abigail and Sam felt natural, and while Saga could crack a joke that would have them in stitches (which was very valuable to her ego), she was elated by how often they could make her laugh as well. Eventually the afternoon sun dwindled into an evening dusk, and an alarm on Sam’s phone interrupted them, signalling that he had to get to work.

They stood in a circle and lazily stretched. While her arms were over her head, Sam took the opportunity to give her a friendly goodbye hug. An unexpected warmth seeped into Saga, hesitating just for a second before awkwardly hugging him back. If Sam noticed, it did not deter him. He grappled Abigail into a quick headlock, messing up her hair with blurring fingers, before releasing her and darting out of the way when she went for a vengeful swing.

“No fair! Why does Saga get a hug and I get a freakin’ noogie!”

Finger-gunning his retreat, Sam gave a wolfish grin. “Couldn’t resist. See you guys later!”

Waving him off, Saga chuckled as Abigail attempted to untangle the mess he had made of her hair. “Want to grab a drink?” she offered in consolidation.

The other girl sighed. “Can’t. I should probably go help my dad take down the booth. He looked pretty cranky earlier, so I figure I’ll do some damage control now rather than later.”

Saga’s stomach clenched. You wanted to make him look like an asshole. That’s just what you do, right?

Alex’s words were an abrasion against her skin. What did he know? You climbed out of a window just to get away from his family- He was only pissed at her because Saga failed to resemble what he remembered of her as a kid. Nothing could go back to the way it was, not really. Seeing Alex again was great, but, her life was different now. And...what? He resented her for it? What did it matter? He was with Haley. On and off, which if that was how he wanted to spend his time, then fine, but it had nothing to do with her. That was his own business to deal with and calling her out was just a way to piss her off, and she wasn’t even sorry for what she did to Alex said to Pierre.

You could have made things easier. There it was again, plaguing her mind with doubt. Yes, she conceded, she could have been nicer to Pierre. But Pierre was fucking annoying and in the end, she would still buy her seeds from him, so it’s not like she single-handedly ran his business into the ground. Right? “What got him in a state?” she asked, hoping to sound nonchalant.

Abigail was wiping the grass from her clothing, seemingly oblivious to Saga’s stilted tone. “I dunno, something to do with one of his suppliers. Happens all of the time, I keep telling him to play nice.” Grinning at Saga, she gave her a playful shove to the shoulder. “I’ll see you around, yeah? Maybe a raincheck on the drink?” And right there, she bit the corner of her lip. Saga stared at the just visible line of white teeth teasing the pink flesh. It was enough to stall her out of her worry.

“Absolutely,” she agreed.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

“Okay: 15 bulbs of garlic, 1 pound of parsnips, 3 pounds of potatoes, 3 bundles of wild horseradish, 150 pounds of lumber, rental of 1 top-quality hoe, and the sworn promise that you will collect all of these materials by tomorrow brings your total to…” Tongue clamped between her teeth, Saga mulled over the calculations in her head. “3000g. Sign here, please.”

Chuckling, Gus accepted the pen held out to him and scrawled his name neatly on the back of the slip of paper Saga planted between them. “You drive a hard bargain, but I appreciate you helping me out,” he said, sliding both paper and pen back to her side of the counter. “Any chance of getting some free pointers with that price tag?”

The problem with drinking anything with ice was that when it melted it diluted the taste. Lifting her glass to her lips, Saga raised her index finger. “You’ll want to plant your seeds about two hands apart from each other, otherwise they’ll get all crowded and it’ll stunt their growth. Or you’ll have one species take over the other.” Draining the rum, Saga pushed the glass to the side and laid her hands out on the counter with her fingers evenly spread and her thumbs just touching. “Like this.”

Gus rubbed at his chin in thought. “Huh. That’s...I hadn’t thought of that. I was planning on having a planter box about 9 by 5 feet.”

“What are you planting?”

“Flowers, mainly.”

Tapping her glass, she waited patiently as Gus refilled it. Instead of garnishing the glass with the lime, he handed the slice directly into her outstretched palm. “I don’t know much about flowers, to be honest. But whatever seeds you’re planting will usually have a guideline on the back of the packaging. There’s also a whole bunch of videos online - my favourite is this one woman who has a show called Living off the Land; she’s a bit out there, but she knows her stuff.”

Living off the Land, eh?” Using a cocktail napkin, Gus made a note. “That’s great. Thanks, Saga!”

She gave him a lazy two-finger salute, drawing her new glass of rum close. Next to her, the scruffy-looking man she had seen the Friday before gave a sudden scoff. “Marnie watches that shit all the time. That woman has the most annoying voice - just you wait, Gus. Two minutes an’ you’ll be running that top-quality hoe through your head.”

Quirking an eyebrow, Saga watched Gus squirm under the mental image. “Please don’t,” she intoned. “I don’t fancy wiping bits of brain off of my farming equipment.” Swiveling in the bar seat, Saga crossed her legs and leaned against an elbow to take a good look at the man. His cheeks were flushed with alcohol, and he didn’t bother looking in her direction in favour of his pint. “I’d appreciate it if you refrained from volunteering my stuff for bodily harm.”

The man chuckled, a dark sounding thing that bubbled into his beer. “Just speaking the truth over here, girl. Don’t pay me no mind.” In one languid swallow he finished the beer and slammed the glass down on the counter. “I’ll take another over here, Gus.”

For a moment, the barkeep hesitated. “I’ll have to cut you off after this one, Shane-”

“Give me a break! You’ve been piling this girl all night with her ‘rum on ice’ bullshit. It’s just a beer, Gus.”

Saga watched their interaction with her eyebrows raised. She had been peeling the rind from the lime slice, but her fingers stilled in preparation for a confrontation. Locking eyes with Gus, the man gave her a nod that said he was used to handling Shane’s outbursts. “It’ll be your sixth beer, Shane. I made a promise to Marnie, and I don’t break my promises.”

Surprisingly, Shane’s shoulders slumped. “Of course you did,” he mumbled. Leaning back, he reached into his pockets and fumbled with his wallet. “Well if you’ll allow me the sixth, I’ll take the sixth. Look, see? I’ll even put the money out up front.”

Never bite the hand that feeds you, Saga thought. Gus dutifully poured another pint. Sweeping his hand across the counter, he collected the money Shane had laid out before retreating to the other end of the bar where the till sat.

Most of the residents of Pelican Town had gone home by now. There was some sad sort of plucky song coming out of the jukebox in the corner, and Emily breezily drifted in the background, tidying chairs and wiping down tables. Without so much as saying so, Saga could sense that sooner rather than later they would be turned out onto the street. Eating the lime slice, she carefully rested the rind on a napkin. “So…Shane, what is it that you do?”

Busy trying to prolong his final pint, the man exhaled loudly. His whole body was nearly liquid against the bar, arms folded so that they could prop his chin up as he gloomily watched the rise and fall of bubbles in his glass. He had a kind of lazy smile on his face when she asked the question, one that didn’t reach his eyes, however he did nothing to acknowledge he had even heard. Maybe he didn’t, Saga shrugged, swirling the contents of her own glass just to listen to the sound of the ice clinking against the sides.

“Why? Y’tryin’ to flirt?” he drawled, the consonants of his voice congealed like honey. Scratching at the incoming fuzz of beard, his fingers then moved into his fringe, tousseling the thick strands.

Rolling her eyes, Saga spoke into the echo of a sip. “Just trying to make conversation.”

This made him pause enough to scrunch his face up in distaste. Leaning into an elbow, his other hand waved listlessly in the air. “An’ why the fuck would you try to do that? We don’t know each other.”

“Typically one gets to know a person through conversation. Shocking as that may be.” Perhaps it was time for her to call it, lest she stumble her way into an argument with a drunk. Pot calling the kettle, the voice giggled, warm and content from rum. Go on, keep at it. Who knows, he might be interesting. Kinda scruffy, a little rough around the edges...could be a wild ride. Shaking her head, Saga pushed the invasive thoughts aside. “I’m Saga,” she tried.

“Yeah. I know.” A bit more frank that time. Sitting up straighter, Shane reached for his glass. “You’re the goddamn talk of the town. Real annoying if I’m being honest.”

Instead of faltering, Saga grinned. “I took over my grandfather’s farm.”

“I know that, too.” His sips were measured and his eyes set forward, like a runner staring down the length of the track.

Undeterred, Saga made herself comfortable against the bar, one hand propping up her chin. “Excellent - now that my introduction is out of the way, we can focus on you.”

Shane paused, finally angling his body to face her in turn. “So you are hitting on me?”

Doesn’t seem like he minds, but Saga didn’t tell him that. “I’m just fulfilling my duty as the new person to ‘try and make friends with everyone’ - or so says Lewis.” Shrugging, she ran the tip of her finger around the rim of her glass. “You could completely lie to me, I don’t mind. Just seems a bit redundant to have drinks and not chat to the person next to you.”

He didn’t respond, but his expression changed to thoughtful. Encouraged by the silence, Saga pressed on. “Ever played Two Truths and a Lie?” When he shook his head, she grinned a bit more. “You state three facts about yourself, but one of them is a lie. After I tell you all the facts, you try to figure out which one is the lie.” Sipping her rum, she eyed him over the glass. “Want to give it a try? I’ll go first, if you want.”

Gus was watching them from down the bar. Briefly, Shane’s eyes went to the barkeep before rounding back on her and giving a nod. “All right, lay it on me.”

“I competed in a beauty pageant just to win free burgers for life at iHob; I have a birthmark in the shape of a well-known celebrity on the back of my shoulder; and one time I claimed that I could tightrope walk just to impress a guy but then had to prove it.”

Shane snorted into his beer. “Those all sound ridiculous!”

Saga’s grinned roguishly. “But which one is the lie?”

Remarkably, he looked to be giving it some serious thought. Saga observed as he mentally recounted her facts, seemingly weighing them on some kind of probability scale, because every now and then he would mutter, “but who would do that?” After several long seconds of contemplation, he finally met her eyes. Saga pretended to have not been watching him by casually sipping her drink.

“Figure it out yet?”

“The birthmark one.”

Without warning she imitated the sound of an aggressive buzzer. Pushing against the bar, she twisted the stool seat around until her back was facing him. Pulling her hair across one shoulder, she tugged the side of her shirt collar down to expose a darkened patch of skin just above her shoulder blade. It was more or less blotchy, but - “See? It’s totally Major Munch!” Looking over her shoulder, she was met with Shane’s deadpan expression.

“Major Munch...like, the cereal mascot? You think Major Munch is a celebrity?”

“Oh, I’m sorry, do you have decades worth of commercial work under your belt?”

Covering his face with a hand, his shoulders began to silently quake. Saga spun back around in her bar seat, her eyebrows beginning to furrow when suddenly snorted laughter began to escape between his fingers. “I met him one time, I’ll have you know. It was at the Zuzu National Exhibition and he was handing out samples of the limited edition Tropical Mayhem marshmallows!” Shane’s snicker turned into wheeze, only further encouraging Saga. Reaching out, she gripped the cuff of his hoodie and gave a light tug. “I waited in line forever to get my picture taken - he complimented my awesome jean jacket with the Her Tiny Horse badges on it!” Her own grin stretched from ear to ear, unable to keep a straight face. “Why are you laughing?”

“That is the stupidest thing I have ever heard!” Dropping his hand, Shane tipped his head back and howled, drawing attention from Gus and Emily, who were politely trying to contain their own chuckles of amusement. Breathing deeply, Shane pinched the bridge of his nose. “Okay, fine, he’s a celebrity. Do I get to guess which of the remaining two is the lie?”

“Absolutely.”

“Okay, tightrope then.”

Saga finished her drink, leaving the ice to continue to melt as she leaned forward. “Right, so here’s the thing about that-”

“-here we go-”

“-Brandon Halter was the hottest guy in high school, so when it came time to start figuring out what everyone is doing after graduation, Brandon announces that he’s going to go to Circus School-”

“-that sounds completely made up-”

“-it was also super surprising, because everyone just kind of assumed he would go off and become like a brilliant Doctor, but it turns out he was totally rebelling against what his father wanted. Everyone thought this was nuts, I mean, do Circus Schools still even exist? So while everyone just dismissed it I figured ‘hey this is my chance’, so I start looking into it-”

“-Circus School. For a guy-”

“-they offer a summer camp before admissions, right? See if you want to commit and all that, so me and Brandon sign up, and now I find out that Brandon is incredibly flexible-”

“-stop-”

“-he’s out there everyday working the aerial silks, the big hoop, the trapeze, and there I am, lady boner and all trying to do a simple baton twirl. So at the end of the camp there’s a Talent Show, and Brandon is a fucking all-star at this point. I thought that if I went with him to this camp we would totally hook up - little did I know how much competition there would be with this one contortionist-”

“-oh my Yoba-”

“-she could do some real freaky shit, I mean I stood zero chance. So I double down; I change my act to tightrope, cause I just spent four weeks watching those losers walk across a wire only two feet off the ground, piece of cake right?-”

“-oh, yeah, sure-”

“-Talent Show comes around, motherfucker this tightrope was 60 feet in the fucking air. I talked a big game to Brandon up to that point: I’m going to cartwheel across that rope, just you wait and see, next thing I know, my ass is climbing that ladder. The whole way up, all I can think is that his dick better be real good if I’m going to all of this trouble. I get up to the top, and thank Yoba they put me in a harness, but now all there’s left to do is fucking walk across a tightrope. And that contortionist? Oh, she’s all cosy with Brandon way down on the ground, I mean I can see them! So I figure: eh, fuck it, right? If I fall, the harness will catch me. So I just do it, right? So I just strut on out, and that’s when I realized that I don’t really so much care how high I was, but shit, I’m pretty fucking terrified about falling. My knees lock right up, and the next thing I know I’m plummeting to the ground. The harness catches me, Thank Yoba, but I’m not exactly a graceful faller: somehow I managed to fucking projectile leap, and that’s when the harness snaps - and I am totally fucking with you right now.”

Straightening, Saga took a moment to appreciate the way Shane clung to the edge of his seat. His blue eyes were blown wide, his mouth parting as pieces of information tried to connect themselves. It was perfect. “Gotcha,” she whispered dramatically.

The spark of intrigue died instantly in his eyes. “Are you seriously saying-”

“-oh yeah, I made the whole thing up. That one is the lie.”

Gus came over, purposefully placing two glasses of water in front of them. “You really had us going there for a second,” he commented, catching Saga’s eyes meaningfully as he pointedly looked toward Shane. Shane, who for one brilliant moment looked incredibly enraged before slamming his hands down on the counter.

“So you’re saying you entered a beauty pageant just to win free burgers for the rest of your life?!”

“I mean, I lost, but yeah I totally did.” Turning to Gus, Saga inclined her head. “My talent was poetry, except not really because I was terrible at it. Got eliminated in the third round, which is way better than I expected!”

Everyone erupted into laughter, and Saga sat, basking in the glow of it. She could hardly contain her smile as she quietly drank some water, parched from her mindless spiel. “Gus, do we have time for Shane to give it a go?”

“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t interested in hearing what Shane could come up with that I don’t already know. Emily, you can head off for the night if you’d like, I’ll close up once they’re done drinking their water.”

“I’m sure I can still surprise you yet, Gus,” Shane mumbled, rubbing his chin in thought.

Emily flipped a chair onto a tables. “Just going to finish up here, if that’s alright with you?”

Drinking water was ridiculously boring, but Saga managed to finish half of her glass by the time Shane was ready. He had a determined look in his eye. “Okay, here it is: I once had to go to the hospital because I ate pizza that burned off the first three layers of my tongue; I once played strip-gridball which gave me a very interesting scar; and more than once my manager has caught me in the back room dancing to Footloose.”

“Good song,” Saga claimed, leaning back to think over her options. “The pizza one is pretty relatable, definitely have done my fair share of damage because I was too impatient - never had to go to the hospital over it, though.” Tapping her fingers against the counter, her eyes drew nonsensical designs into the ceiling above. “You kind of look like the gridball fan type, and I’m almost sure that you’re wearing a jersey underneath your hoodie, so strip-gridball might also be true. Not sure if you’re much of a dancer, though, if I’m being honest.”

Shane raised his eyebrows. “What makes you think that?”

She smiled at him as if it were obvious. “There’s been music playing all night and I haven’t seen even a single toe-tap once from you.”

He grinned at her as if pleased by the attention to detail. “Maybe all the music playing tonight is crap,” he argued.

“I mean, compared to Footloose, I have to agree, but not all of it has been bad.” Falling silent, Saga gave a confirmed nod. “Yeah, I’m going to go with Footloose being the lie.”

He mimicked her buzzer sound from earlier, dislodging a laugh from her throat. “I’ve been written up three times for dancing.”

“Three times?!”

“Yup.”

“And it’s been to Footloose every single time?”

“Every. Single. Time.”

Saga tossed her head back, howling with delight. “Please tell me you’re doing the moves-”

“-from the movie? Of course!”

“I don’t believe it.”

“Definitely not lying, I can steal my employee record to prove it,” Shane declared, taking a large swig from his water.

“Fuck that, I want to see you do it!” Downing the rest of her water, Saga narrowed her eyes at him. “Okay, well my next guess was that strip-gridball was the lie.”

He chuckled some more and shook his head.

“How does that even work?!” Slapping a hand against her head, Saga leaned into the counter, dismayed that she had guessed wrong twice. “And what kind of scar can you get from that?”

His grin twisted into an almost grimace, “A pretty nasty one in a too private of a place. Let’s just say the sprinklers turned on and made running far more difficult.”

“Closing up!” Gus called from the other end before disappearing into the backroom with till in hand.

The two looked at each other, their grins slowly fading to mirror reality. Clearing his throat, Shane was the first to push off his stool and stand up. “Better use the bathroom now,” he mumbled.

“Good plan,” Saga nodded, reading the clock mounted on the wall behind the bar. It was past one in the morning. “I better take off.” Slipping off her stool, she gave Shane a smile. “Thanks for passing the time with me.”

“Yeah it was...different,” he scratched the scruff at his chin and flashed her a grin. “Good, different.”

“Start thinking up some new stories for next time,” Saga demanded, shoving the paper and pen into her pocket before backtracking toward the door. “And Gus, I better see you tomorrow to get your stuff!” she yelled toward the backroom, faintly hearing a ‘will do!’ in reply. With one last lingering toward Shane, she shouldered her way out of the door, stumbling with her own accelerated momentum. Her weight naturally steered her down, feet almost dancing down the short flight of steps in order to keep up, and emerged into the peaceful slumber of Pelican Town.

Cicadas filled the night air with their monotonous song. The smell of blossoming flowers on a cool breeze brought roses, honeysuckle, and hydrangeas to her nose. A scattering of stars above shone brightly, never dulled from the light pollution of a city. Tilting her head back, a lazy smile came over her as she tried to map constellations she didn’t know the name of with her eyes. Perhaps it was the booze that was making her feel so warm and content, but she could almost understand the kind of magic her grandfather had talked about. Not Junimo magic, but, a more personal spell woven into the streets and trees of Stardew Valley, bewitching her mind with grand romantic ideas. Like bicycling through the town to buy fresh bread in the morning, and falling in love on the beach with the full moon. What a sap, she thought with glee, stretching her arms up over her head and feeling the lingering tension in her shoulders give away. You’re just drunk. Come morning you’ll be too hungover for anything beyond a date with the toilet.

A heady moan disturbed the peace.

Dropping her arms, Saga looked around for the source but couldn’t see anyone around. She thought that she had imagined it, except it came again, longer and like a purr of satisfaction. Before the thought had registered, she began to creep toward the fence that sat out in front of Alex’s house, wondering if the dog that was kept inside was the source of the noise. There was nothing she could see through the slats in the wood, especially not without getting her phone out for a torch. Fumbling for her pocket, her finger hovered over the screen, but something else distracted her. Something unmistakably sounding like a name.

“A-Alex-”

There was a quiet shushing noise, more of a whisper, and the rustle of clothing. Tentatively, Saga peered from around the corner of the fence, her breath hitching in her throat. Under the porch light she could see them in full display; pressed against one another, mouths locked in heated bliss. Alex’s strong arms roved over every available piece of Haley’s body he could reach, grabbing handfuls of her ass and her hips, pulling her tightly against him that had her keening into his mouth. Breaking their kiss, he fisted her hair between his fingers, tugging until her head dipped to the side and exposed her neck. Whatever he did with his mouth had her practically whimpering in his hold, her own hands plunging between them where Saga couldn’t see and - oh fuck, Alex’s growl was predatory, creating a suffocating wave of heat that shot all the way from her heart to down between her legs.

She watched with a hunger that reminded her of coat rooms and winter; a desperation growing in her chest that preyed on their intimacy from afar. Heart pounding inside of her ribs, she willed herself to look away and move, but there Alex was, shamelessly undoing Haley before her eyes, and then he was looking directly at her. As if he had known, as if he had felt the way Saga’s eyes were burning into him. Their eyes locked and his expression was beautifully wrecked - pupils blown wide and lust clouding the judgement to stop once they were caught. No - with a deliberate drag of his teeth against Haley’s neck, Alex kept his eyes on Saga, keeping her rooted to the spot.

What are you going to do? he seemed to be asking, no, daring her. Saga chose nothing, the heat stimulating unbidden thoughts made torturous by the sound of Haley moaning his name again. She was raking her nails through his hair now, gripping until she pulled him into a searing kiss, shattering the connection he held with Saga. Twisting, Alex pinned her against the side of his house, his movements frenzied as one of his hands roughly pushed up her skirt, fingers seeking underneath--

“Hey.”

Jumping, Saga turned around, breathless and highly aware of her surroundings. Toward the front of the Saloon, Shane was looking at her questionably, patiently waiting as Saga pried herself away from the fence to stumble towards him. “I thought you were going home,” he said, the furrow in his brow increasing as she drew closer.

She didn’t dare look back, not wanting to draw Shane’s attention to what she had been watching. With flushed cheeks, she let out a shaky laugh, running a hand through her hair to try and temper the flare of arousal building inside. “I dropped my phone,” she lied, holding up the device as if it were proof. “Kinda hard to see without a torch, but I guess I’m too drunk a-and I’ve been bumbling about out here trying to find it. Got it now!”

He tilted his head, watching her with a soft kind of focus to his eyes. For one agonizing split second Saga feared that he knew. That pervert written across her face and he would go investigate the fence. She opened her mouth to continue babbling nonsense, but Shane gave a directional incline of his head over his shoulder. “C’mon, I’ll walk you part way.”

Unlike in the Saloon, their journey through town was made in relative silence. Saga wasn’t sure if it was inflicted by herself or Shane - her own thoughts seared with the mental image of Alex pinning Haley to the wall of his house. Over and over until she could imagine her back up against that very wall and - stop. She needed to get a grip. Chancing a glance toward Shane, she found him either disinterested or preoccupied with his own thoughts. Under the passing streetlamp, the shadows exaggerated the overall exhausted appearance he held, drawing tight lines around his mouth that looked well worn.

“So...strip-gridball,” she brought up, desperate for a distraction.

Shane snorted, a smirk teasing his expression. “I knew you wouldn’t let it go-”

“-are there any kind of set rules, or was this passionately made up on the spot?”

Scratching the back of his neck, Shane surprisingly looked embarrassed. “Oh it was entirely made up. I, uh, was trying to impress a girl, believe it or not.”

“I am shocked,” Saga deadpanned, earning a chuckle. “I’ve never heard of anyone who would come up with a game as a way to get naked with someone they were interested in. Please, do go on.”

Out of the town, their path was darkened by the thickening of trees all around them. Saga could just make out the slow trickle sound of the river that was beyond the treeline and peaked roof of Leah’s place. “It’s pretty simple and was built off of the traditional touch-gridball rules: one item of clothing for each time you were touched trying to make a play. I must have made it too easy, because while she was down to her bra and underwear, I ended up naked pretty fast.” Slowing to a stop by a fence, Shane grinned mischievously. “But, that kind of worked into my favour, too.”

She chuckled, raising her eyebrows and briefly taking in the house they had stopped in front of. “This is you, then?”

“Yeah.”

Nodding, Saga lingered, unsure of how to say goodnight. There was a nervous energy buzzing underneath her skin, fueled by the last remaining vestiges of rum and hormones. Standing with his hands in the pocket of his hoodie, Shane looked tempting under the glow from the porch light. “Did it work?” she asked, receiving a wordless question from him. “Did you impress the girl?”

His smile turned sad. “Yeah. For a while.”

Shit, they were probably together for years and now they’re not and you’re just doing a great job tonight, you useless- “I imagine it was quite the show.”

He didn’t respond. Something passed over his features, a certain spark of an idea that filtered from one side to the other. Soundlessly, he stepped toward her, closing the gap until there was a breath’s distance between him. His breath smelled warm and fizzy like the beer he had been drinking, fanning across her lips enough to make her lick them unconsciously. Shane’s eyes followed the movement, but he did little else to move, simply watching and waiting for her to decide.

It wouldn’t take much. No more than a lean up onto her toes and she could-

Pressing a hand against his chest, Saga steered him back against the fence, a noise of surprise escaping from Shane as his weight settled into the wood. The hoodie was ridiculously soft in the way that continual wear could only cause, but beneath the fabric she felt the steady beat of his heart, pounding against her fingertips, excited but patient. Saga inhaled, breathing him in along with the night air, her eyes taking in the detail of his jaw and beard, wondering how it would feel if he were to put his head between her-

“I should get going,” her traitorous voice whispered. Stepping back, she eyed Shane cautiously as he blinked out of his stupor and straightened his posture. “This was fun, we should do it again sometime.”

The flush on his face wasn’t from the alcohol. “Definitely,” he agreed, seemingly getting a hold on his composure enough to move toward his door. Jabbing his key into the lock, he gave her a lazy wave farewell before disappearing inside.

She stood outside of his house, watching for a time as the movement beyond the door faded, and eventually the porch light was switched off. Saga exhaled, feeling heavy within her own body. She made her way back home, horny and alone, with fucking Footloose dancing around in her head.

Chapter Text

“You had all of your mail forwarded to me.”

”Trim no more than 25% from the total root growth for planting-”

Phone propped up on her watering can, Saga craned her head to carefully watch the clip of Living off the Land she had found on planting strawberries. A green bar hovered persistently at the top of her screen, Jessica Caldwell and a call of 00:07 running. 7 seconds and already the lawyer sounded fed up with her. That was a personal best.

“Yeah,” she confirmed, sinking her trowel into the dirt. “It was going to my dad and I don’t want to bother him anymore than I need to.” Wrestling with the handle, she carved a decent sized hole and shimmied her way down the line to repeat the process.

Over the line, Caldwell’s exhale crackled the connection. “And I assume there’s a good reason why you don’t have it forwarded to your new address?”

Saga frowned at the phone as if Caldwell could see her. “I don’t want it.”

There was another sigh, or perhaps this time it was the rustling of paper. Finishing with her holes, Saga carefully pushed the strawberry seeds into the earth and covered them up. “You didn’t even have it forwarded to my work - this is all redirected to my home. How did you get my address?”

Saga grinned. “It’s amazing what the internet can do.”

Caldwell went silent, then quickly muttered, “Fucking millennials,” none-too-quietly. “I will arrange to have it forwarded to you immediately. Though I thought you should know that you have received a termination letter from Joja Corp-”

“-I thought opening someone’s mail was a federal offense-”

“-they want to sue you for damages.”

Both parties went silent. Saga fell back from her crouched position, ruminating over the words. It never occurred to her that they would have accelerated things so far. Slashing her severance package, that she had assumed was a given, but suing- “What damages?” she asked evenly.

“Company property, for starters. They list that you have in your possession a laptop full of confidential information, among other things. Breaking contract, specifically articles 9 through 14. There is also the matter of the state you had left your projects in, which they claim will be costing the company a sum upwards of 350,000g.”

Sage laughed, hysteria tinging the edges of her voice. “I don’t have that kind of money. W-who would have that kind of money working for Joja Corp.?!” Bolting forward, she snatched up her phone and closed Living off the Land just as the woman was about to review watering care. With a jab of her thumb, she switched her conversation with Caldwell into a video chat. “Caldwell, what the fuck should I-”

Caldwell’s picture came into focus. The lawyer’s eyes went wide, caught off guard that this call had suddenly become visual. Saga noticed right away that she was not dressed in her usual lawyer attire - there was a far more relaxed look about her. Her typically perfectly sculpted hair had flyaways and the ends were beginning to curl. Her face was free of makeup, revealing the fine lines of wrinkles around the edges of her eyes and corner of her lips. She was wearing a silk housecoat she quickly tightened across her chest, glaring at Saga for the intrusion. Slack-jawed, Saga openly gawked. “Are you in pajamas?”

The tips of Caldwell’s cheekbones began to flush red. “I took a personal day.” There was a human-sized flurry of movement just over her shoulder.

Saga gave her a flat look. “You took a personal day, but still called me about work stuff? And is that Sophie behind you? You made her work on your personal day?” The young redhead carefully peeked over Caldwell’s shoulder. She was blushing more furiously than Caldwell, but she was dressed in her worn cardigan and a nice blouse, even though her makeup looked a day old. “You look exhausted,” Saga told her.

“N-no, everything is fine, Miss. Tiller! I-I was just d-dropping off some documents M-Ms. Caldwell requested t-to work from home!”

Caldwell looked irate. Angling the phone away from Sophie, Saga watched as she stood up and began walking about her home. “Do not change the topic,” she chastised the farmer, her glare fixated through the screen. “What is it that you plan on doing about this situation?” Her walls were cream. Every now and then, Saga caught glimpses of slate grey furniture and gorgeous white marble countertops. Eventually she settled at her kitchen bar, pointing the camera so that Saga could only see her and a large window with a fantastic view of downtown Zuzu City.

“The final warning,” Saga recalled, eyebrows knitting together. Minimising the video chat, she started sifting through her emails. “They wrote to me saying that I needed to show up tomorrow, or they would take further action.” With a couple of taps, Saga forwarded it to Caldwell, and a moment later heard it ping on the lawyer’s device.

The sound of an approaching vehicle tore Saga’s attention over her shoulder. Robin’s pickup was pulling up to her farm, kicking up small dust clouds from the tires. Slowing to a stop, the carpenter hopped out of the truck, followed by Gus in the passenger seat. They both waved at her enthusiastically, and Saga did her best to smile and wave back. Wordlessly, she pointed to her phone, and then toward the front steps of the house where she had piled Gus’s lumber. Robin, catching on quick, flashed her a thumbs up and the two went about loading up the truck bed.

Turning back to her phone, Saga looked pale in her own tiny window. “You’re my lawyer, Caldwell. You can do something, right?” She had dropped her voice, using her hands to cup around her phone to try and create more privacy.

Caldwell considered her, and then looked off screen at something - probably the letter. “Are you guilty?”

“What! Fuck no - I mean…yes I have the laptop, but all that other stuff is complete bullshit! Can’t I just return it and you get them to disregard the whole suing thing?”

The lawyer was drumming her fingers against the white marble countertop. “It’s a start. Let’s arrange a meeting for next week. Bring the laptop and any other Joja Corp. property you have. I’ll begin drafting a mediation request.” Looking back to Saga, her eyes narrowed. “But you need to be honest with me, Saga. No more vague answers. As my client, I need to know everything before we sit down with them. Their lawyers are the best of the best - if they want to sue you, I doubt returning a single laptop will make this problem go away. We will need to come up with a plan of attack, and soon.”

Pinpricks of anxiety needled their way into her spine. Saga swallowed, but found that her voice had gone missing. Instead, she gave a slow nod that felt like her head was attached to a rusted hinge. Caldwell’s expression softened just a touch. “You’re lucky I’m a fucking brilliant lawyer. I’ll be in touch.” The call ended, Saga’s screen returning to its home page with a picture of her and Abigail sprawled on the grass by the park, their tongues stained from salmonberries. She felt nauseated, her fingers trembling but there was no time to spend fretting. Standing to her feet, she dusted off her jeans and forced momentum into her bones, joining Robin and Gus by the truck.

The pair were beginning to sweat, the lumber being passed between hands in their makeshift assembly line. “You must be the most popular girl in town with a truck like this,” she greeted them, worried they would see through her false deposition.

The carpenter gave a laugh, pausing to wipe the sweat from her brow with the back of her forearm. Both of them had made the smart choice in wearing thick gloves as they handled the logs of wood. “I really should start charging by the hour,” she agreed, “Make a side business and call it Woman and her Truck Rentals.”

“Since this is the first I’ve heard of this, you’re not going to retroactively charge me, are you?” Gus joked, using what suspiciously looked like one of the Stardrop Saloon rags to mop the back of his neck.

“Only if you sing my praises to all of your patrons. I could even cut you a deal.” Robin winked. “Is this everything that’s being picked up?”

Saga jabbed a thumb over her shoulder. “I’ll go grab the crops and hoe. Can I interest you both in some fine, artisan tap water?”

“Yes, please!” they both chimed.

Jogging up her front steps, Saga disappeared inside of her grandfather’s home. Sitting on the kitchen table in flat pack boxes were the bundles of garlic, horseradish, potatoes, and parsnips Gus had requested. Leaning against her counter was the hoe she was going to loan him, and she nearly knocked it over as she reached into her cabinet to retrieve two tall glasses. The trembling in her fingers refused to let up. Caldwell was going to call for a mediation, which meant that Saga would have to go back. She would have to sit inside of a room with him with corporate lawyers after she swore she would never have to see his face again Joja Corp. again. Nausea became fear. Gripping the edge of the counter, Saga’s weight sagged against her arms. Inhale for 5, exhale for 10, but her heart was pounding in her chest, and she was going to suffocate if she didn’t breathe- Her throat hitched, doing the exact opposite. Cold sweat slicked her skin. She was going to be sick. No, maybe she would pass out. You’re probably going to hit your head and die, anxiety warned.

She moved away from the counter, the entirety of the room stilted and spinning. Faster her heart sped, a staccato beating against her ribs, run, run, run, run- but to where? Hadn’t she already run away? Where else was there to go? They would find her. Best of the best, that’s what Caldwell said. But she could fix this. She had to fix this. They would take and take and they would ruin her just like she had ruined-

A pile of unpacked boxes sat in the far corner.

Find the laptop.

Saga crossed the room on jellified legs. She tore open the first box, flinging blankets and small decorative trinkets onto her floor, but the laptop wasn’t there. Knocking the box from the stack, she moved to the next one. Pots and pans that clattered loudly against the floorboards. Next box: a nest of cables and wires, and maybe, maybe it was at the bottom of this one and she dug deeper and deeper; extra phone charger, the cable for a desktop computer she no longer owned, a pair of speakers that cracked upon impact against a wall, junk, junk, nothing but junk - WHY DID SHE KEEP ALL OF THIS JUNK?

With an angry yell she lifted the box and turned it upside down, all of the contents spilling at her feet and she kicked through it but there was no laptop. Where was it, she needed to find it, they were going to get her and she couldn’t afford to pay them off, she couldn’t ask her father to help, and how was she even going to pay for Caldwell-

“Hey Saga, we’re all finished-”

Her body went rigid. Looking up, Robin stood in the doorway, her eyes wide as she looked at the mess Saga had created. Chest heaving with her panic, Saga glanced down, taking in the wreckage through the eyes of the carpenter. “I-uh...I...I was just…”

Sinking down to her knees, she buried her face in her hands, horrified in being caught. “Sorry, Robin, I was going to bring out water but I got distracted and-”

A gentle hand touched her shoulder. Something so simple, but it was enough to dislodge the tears Saga had been trying to keep away. Robin encircled her within her arms, kneeling down in the mess with Saga and pulling her in close. She smelled like fresh cut wood and fabric softener, and she cradled Saga’s head against her chest until she could hear the steady beat of her heart, strong and even. She was saying something to her, soft and quiet into her hair, swaying their bodies gently from side to side, like Saga was a child. Like Robin was her mother. A choked sound died in her throat, tightening the passageway until it was difficult to breathe without sniffling. Soothing circles were being rubbed into her back, calming away the struggle and finally Saga leaned into her fully. Inhale for 5, exhale for 10. She did this over and over, eventually coming down from the ledge she had been on.

Shame filled in the spaces between her ribs. “I’m sorry.”

Robin shook her head, only loosening her grip when Saga moved out of the embrace. Steading her with a hand on her shoulder, the older woman quietly brushed her hair out of her face and helped dry her cheeks with a swipe of her calloused thumb. “There’s nothing to be sorry for.”

Saga huffed out a laugh. “That was really embarrassing. I wish you hadn’t seen that. It’ll ruin my street cred.” Pressing her fingers into her eyes, Saga rubbed until she saw stars and all of the moisture was gone. Looking at the mess she had made, she idly straightened a box like it made everything better.

“Did something happen to trigger the panic attack?” Robin asked.

Saga looked at her curiously. “How did you know I was having a panic attack?”

The woman smiled sadly. “I’ve had my fair share of run-ins. I can spot the symptoms pretty quick.”

“I mean, I could have just gone mad,” Saga argued for the sake of having something impersonal to say, but the look Robin gave her said that it was a fruitless effort. “I think I...got overwhelmed by the fact that I’m not totally unpacked yet,” she lied, nodding as a way to make it true to herself. “Y’know, trying to find things and they’re not there, and then there’s just this stack that I haven’t dealt with.” Wiping her nose consciously, Saga cleared her throat. “So I figured dumping it out and dealing with it was the best method. Smart, right?”

“Moving is stressful, and you’ve been working hard to get the farm up and running, so it might be a good idea to take a break. Why don’t you go and sit down at the table and I’ll clear this stuff off of the floor.” Rising to her feet, she helped Saga despite her protests.

“No, Robin, it’s fine - really! Just leave it and I’ll take care of it tonight. Seriously, I’m already mortified you witnessed me freaking out, but I couldn’t bear sitting here and watching you clean up my mess.” For emphasis, she gently squeezed the other woman’s hands. “Please?”

The worry line between Robin’s brow smoothed in reluctance. “All right, but only if you promise that you’ll call me if you need anything, okay?” Pulling out her phone, she began to create a new contact under Saga’s name, and entered in her number once the farmer recited it out to her. A short while later, Saga’s phone chimed in her pocket. “There, I just texted you so you can save my number later.” Smiling at her, Robin clapped her on the shoulders. “That’s Gus’s stuff over there, right? Give me a hand bringing it out to the truck.”

Given a task, Saga was grateful to have something to do. After loading the crops and the hoe into the truck, she even made one trip back to finally deliver the water that had been promised. Gus drank gratefully, sitting on the open door of the truck bed, while Robin organized the materials so that nothing would topple over in transit. “Y’know Saga, your grandfather gave me all these plans a long time ago for the farm.” Straightening, Robin jumped off of the truck and dusted her hands off. “I still have them in my workshop. You should come by sometime and take a look - maybe we can see if we can complete some of them.”

Warmth blossomed in her chest, the smile unbidden and growing on her lips. “I would really like that, Robin.” Accepting the empty water glass Gus handed to her, she watched as they closed the truck bed door and prepared to leave. “Thanks for coming by to collect everything. Maybe I should invest in a truck for myself.”

“What - and take customers away from my new side business?” Robin joked, acting betrayed. Giving a wave, the two piled into the truck. “Remember to call me if you need anything! And visit! I’m up on the mountain.”

“Thanks, Saga! I’ll let you know when my project is done so you can come see it!” Gus promised, waving out of the window.

She watched them leave, lingering on the spot even after they turned the corner and she could no longer hear the roar of the engine. Cradling the water glasses against her, Saga’s smile dropped. Back inside of the house, she contemplated the mess she had made, nudging a nest of wires with her toe when her phone chimed again. There was the text from Robin, and a new email alert. Making quick work of saving Robin’s number, Saga opened the email.

From: eugene.beaumont@zuzumail.com
Date: Sunday, Spring 14 at 5:23 pm
To: saga.tiller@zuzumail.com
Subject: none

Saga,

It is time to end your childish tantrum. Your mother is worried. Reach out to her and we can solve your current situation at work.

Regards,
Eugene

The anger was a familiar comfort. Saga tossed her phone onto her bed and considered the mess with new eyes. Setting a box to the side, she collected the wires and made quick work of untangling them.

So this was the new tactic, was it? Why was she even surprised. Of course he would be privy to what was going on at Joja Corp. Her business was his business after all. But using her mother? She would like to say that was a new low, but it was only a matter of time. Eugene Beaumont did not crawl his way from the depths of hell to become Director of the Joja Corp. Board by being nice. It was not a strategy he employed in his backless financers and legions of power-hungry suits. Every step was calculated and weighed and acted upon with a laser’s precision. But turning it personal - that was not really his style. So what did it mean when a shark floated with its belly up?

Methodically going through the boxes, her fingers finally touched something metal and cool. Pulling the laptop out, the Joja Corp. logo soaked in the light shining from the fixture above like an omen. Plugging in the charger, she set it off to the side and continued digging around in the box until she found a USB stick. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, Saga jammed the stick into the laptop and booted it up, her keystrokes sure as she logged in for the first time in a month.

She had always kept her files immaculate. In a series of clicks, she began to copy them over onto the USB, leaving the originals where they lived on the laptop. A progress bar slowly crawled across the screen, counting down the seconds until the next file would take. In the same box she also found the company phone they had issued her, and she plugged that into the laptop, too. The USB stick warned her that she was running out of room. Finding another one, she replaced it and labeled the first one JJ001 in black marker.

From the phone she also took everything: contacts, emails, text messages, memos, photos. Another USB stick: JJ002. By the time she was finished, she had 5 of them. Opening the laptop’s DOS command centre, she scrubbed through various menus and lines of code until she found anything with today’s timestamp on it. Altering it, she closed everything down and leaned back on her hands, triumphant.

When a shark floats with its belly up, it becomes unable to move or do anything at all because of tonic immobility. Until it snaps out of this trance, it is vulnerable to predators. But, Eugene Beaumont was in no way immobile. Playing dead was merely another tactic to get what he wants.

His greatest mistake, however, was teaching his tricks to Saga.

Chapter Text

She shouldn’t even be surprised that Robin’s house is stunning.

Treated logs dappled with growth rings and bloated veins gave the impressive house a thousand eyes to look back at Saga with as she stood under the rain in awe. It was massive, even for two stories. Each log had to be half her height by width alone, stacked and towering, yet nestled comfortably up in the mountains. The tops of the nearby trees either just reached the roof’s peak, or they swallowed it whole and extended further toward the sky. A large garage attached to the house sat to the right, suspiciously looking like it could easily hold six of Robin’s trucks. A small terrace with a telescope laid to the left, a blue tarp hoisted to protect the expensive instrument from the onslaught of rain. Behind it, Saga could see what she could only assume was a separate guest house, all the lights on and glowing in the quickly darkening afternoon. A bed of ferns grew wildly by the front door, not a single flower amongst them, but the leaves so vibrant and green they were beautiful. Hanging above the door was a simple sign that needed no words; carved into the wood was the image of a saw, a perfect signature for the resident carpenter.

There was no annoying bell that chimes when she opened the door. Hastily trying to dry her shoes off on the mat, Saga’s eyes swept across the front parlour. Everything was crafted from wood, perfuming the air with the lived-in scent of forest and domestication. A counter sat almost immediately in front of her, with floating shelves stacked with bundles of rolled blueprints, picture frames, and various tools lining the wall behind it. Planks of wood that were cut and sanded down laid in a bed of sawdust on the counter adjacent, bits of sandpaper and sharp knives haphazardly set aside as though there had been a distraction. To the left was a beautiful sitting area, each piece of furniture carved from different types of wood that ranged from the palest of white to the darkest of brown. The only textile was the welcome mat she stood dripping on, and a simple rug to tie the sitting room together.

Lowering her hood, Saga craned her head toward the corridor leading further into the house. “Robin?”

The the sound of a chair scraping across the ground was soon followed by footsteps headed in her direction. The redheaded woman came around the corner, her eyes instantly widening. “Saga!” Her smile is warm and genuine, but it quickly evaporates into worry. “You’re completely soaked - haven’t you ever heard of an umbrella?”

Saga huffed out a laugh. “Never needed one when I was in Zuzu City,” she admitted, sweeping her arms out in a gesture that invited Robin to completely ridicule her chosen attire. She owned no raincoat, no boots, and no umbrella. Dressed in her favourite pair of jeans, cheap sneakers, and a now soggy hoodie, Saga suspected she closely resembled a drowned rat.

Robin pressed her fingers into her hairline, studying Saga with an exasperated look. “City folks never learn,” she recited. “Here, give me your hoodie and I’ll throw it in the dryer for you.”

“Nah, don’t worry about it-”

“You’re making a puddle inside of my home. Come on, hand it over. Your socks, too.”

Saga unzipped her hoodie, begrudgingly handing it over before attempting to balance on one foot to untie her sneakers. “Do you undress all your customers, or am I just lucky?”

Robin grinned, collecting each item as Saga passed them over. “Most of my customers dress appropriately for the weather,” she informed matter-of-factly. Turning on her heel, she beckoned Saga to follow her down the hall. “You’re going to need to upgrade your wardrobe now that you’re living in Stardew Valley. So far you’ve been fortunate to see our beautiful sunny spring, but it’ll be nothing but downpours from now until the end of the month.” Leading her into the kitchen, she directed Saga into a chair.

“Saves me time on watering,” Saga shrugged, feeling self conscious as she sat down, barefoot and waterlogged at the kitchen table. The tank top she had been wearing under the hoodie was damp, as were the ends of her hair that had escaped out from under her hood. “I’ve always liked the rain, but I’ll admit that I never had to really work in it before.”

“I’ll go put these in the dryer and be right back,” Robin promised, exiting the kitchen and disappearing further down the hall.

Left alone, Saga attempted to brush out the ends of her hair with her fingers, but already the knots were beginning to set in and if she wasn’t careful, Robin would have clumps of hair littering her kitchen floor. Giving up, she pulled the long strands into a messy ponytail and secured it with a spare hair tie she had in her jeans pocket. With her neck exposed, the chill from her damp clothes began to set in. Goosebumps raced down her arms, and she found that no amount of hugging herself was bringing her warmth. Curling her toes against the feet of the chair, she gazed around the kitchen, waiting for Robin to return.

Compared to the front room, the kitchen was small. The table she sat at was covered in a history of cuts, stains, and markings of a life well-used. The wallpaper was a bit dated, but otherwise provided a gorgeous white space to break up the natural wood cabinets and shelves built into the walls. Their appliances were far from new, and if there was any chrome it was covered in fingerprints or otherwise tarnished from over the years. Notes, pictures, and collectable magnets covered the surface of the fridge, and there was too much bread to fit inside of the breadbox. Half of the loaves were secured by a tie, but some were victim of the ‘spin and tuck’ method. The discolouration in the floor were the well-walked trails in and out, particularly toward a door that presumably led to the garage.

There was a lot of life in this kitchen, Saga realized, and it made her uncomfortable with how lonely her grandfather’s house had become. It, too, used to be brimming with life. She recalled summers of arts and crafts at the kitchen table, sticky peanut butter and jam sandwiches, and bubble baths at night before bed. And sound, there was always sound back then; either from the TV that was ignored in the background, or her grandfather humming while preparing dinner. He would regale her with adventures of the valley, using all his strength and energy in his voice, his hands to gesture, his body to act what he couldn’t describe.

Now… Now it was just her.

Gripping into her arms, she battled against the upheave of regret rising in her chest. She hardly spent any time in the house. When she woke up, the most she did was shower and make toast before heading outside to look after her crops or pull weeds. She would wander into town, or through the forest, trying to complete as much as she could from the Junimo list. Sometimes there would be a distraction - someone calling her name, or she would come across Abigail and change her plans suddenly to accommodate the company. At night she only returned when it was time for sleep.

It wasn’t the same home her grandfather had built.

“Here.”

Looking up, Saga quietly accepted the bundle of clothing Robin handed to her. There was a thick pair of wool socks, and a beige sweatshirt that was soft and cosy to the touch. Robin puttered about her kitchen as Saga pulled them on, putting the kettle on to boil and washing a couple of mugs at the sink. The socks were handmade and she wondered if Robin was the one who knitted them or if perhaps they were a gift. The sweatshirt was far too large and Saga loved it. She kept the sleeves long and her fingers covered, the bulk of the hood pillowing against the back of her neck. It smelled like fresh laundry and some kind of mild spice she couldn’t name. When Robin had her back turned, Saga tugged the collar over her nose and breathed deeply, enjoying the strange comfort it brought.

“Hope you like tea. Doesn’t matter, cause I’m making you a cup anyway,” Robin said, grinning over her shoulder. The kettle began to whistle, sounding like an irritated bird on the verge of hemorrhaging. “Yeah, yeah, yeah!” Robin yelled, yanking it off of the hob and pouring into the mugs. The whistling died away into a quiet disgruntled grumble, and the scent of lavender and earl grey filled the air.

Accepting the mug, Saga cradled it in her hands carefully. “Thanks. Your home is beautiful, by the way.”

Sitting across from her, Robin practically glowed at the compliment. “Built it myself.”

Saga set down her mug dramatically. “Are you serious?”

“Yep. I was 5 months pregnant at the time, too. Demetrius hated the idea, but I wouldn’t let anyone else do it. Every contractor we met was a complete idiot and would have charged us a fortune. So I decided to take matter into my own hands. I drew up the design, got a bunch of heavy machinery licenses, and nearly a year later it was complete.” Leaning her chin into her hand, Robin had a faraway look as she reminisced. “I didn’t do it completely alone, mind you. Being pregnant comes with its own limitations, especially at the 9 month mark. Harvey was not happy with me. He was so young back then.”

“That is incredible,” Saga said, watching Robin with a new kind of admiration. “Where did you learn to build a house?”

“Mostly self-taught, if I’m being honest. I tried one of those community college carpentry courses once, but I got impatient with how slow it was with beginners and dropped out. I worked in a handful of workshops and learned a lot from experience, but that was with small stuff like tables, and benches, and stuff.” Lifting her mug, she blew across the tea but refrained from taking a sip. “I drove Demetrius crazy when we were looking at houses. I had a vision, y’know? I wanted to start my own business, but we were having a kid, and I wanted to live surrounded by trees… Not a lot of options when you start getting real specific. I swear, our realtor was ready to write us off, but then she showed us this property and I knew right then that we would have to create our dream home for ourselves.”

Saga lifted her mug, taking a cautious sip that still managed to scald her tongue. “My grandpa built his house, too. But that’s a one-room shack in comparison to what you’ve accomplished.”

Robin laughed. “Oh, I know. I had to hear about it everyday when we moved to town. Your grandpa was a hot commodity, he did lots of things for this town, and I got quite the earful when we arrived and I was establishing my business. Imagine his reaction when I offered to expand the house.”

She smiled, even though it hurt to do so. “You remind me of him,” she murmured, dropping her gaze to watch the swirling contents of her mug. “I remember visiting with my dad when he was building it. He asked me to draw what I thought it would look like, so I had all these different wings with their own separate theme, and an underground labyrinth where my imaginary friends could live.” Why bring this up? Saga clamped down on her lips, forbidding them from continuing, but the memory was a force on its own. A quiet laugh escaped, “He finished that house and I remember being so disappointed. Somehow I got it in my head that he was going to build everything I had wanted, and I remember feeling...angry. Like it was a betrayal. That’s so stupid, I was 4 and couldn’t understand that he was probably just trying to keep me busy while he and my dad visited.”

She swiped at her face, even though she wasn't about to cry. But she wanted to scrub the memory’s imprint from her skin, feeling exposed and miserable in front of someone she hardly knew. Robin hadn’t interrupted her once. She sat across, watching Saga with a kindness in her eyes that didn’t hold any hint of pity. When her silence stretched, the older woman reached her hand out to cover Saga’s. “How many wings are we talking?”

Another laugh bubbled up to the surface, grateful for distraction. “About twelve in total?”

Robin whistled lowly. “That’s quite a project.”

“Thinking back on it now, I could probably combine most of them and bring it down to seven.” Grinning, Saga drank her tea, savouring the warmth as it pooled pleasantly in her stomach. “But it’s true, y’know,” she continued seriously, studying the fraying threads in the cuffs of the sweatshirt. “You do remind me of him. He always needed to do things for himself. The only way to lend him a hand was to just start pitching in without permission. Eventually he would quit complaining and show you how to do it properly.”

“You must have been a real help before he passed.”

Saga faltered. “I uh…” didn’t even come to visit him, you stupid piece of shit- Clearing her throat, she struggled to pitch nonchalance. “You said you had some old plans?”

“Oh!” Straightening, Robin immediately got up to her feet, finger pointing for Saga to remain where she was. “I just dug them up the other day, let me go grab them!”

As she left the kitchen, Saga’s body sagged. Everything hurt again...like it was fresh and new. Guilt for not being here when she needed to be, anger for being so selfish. It consumed her thoughts like a persistently bad storm, lashing out in scorn and factual truths that her conscious couldn’t deny. You weren’t here. After everything he has done for you, you just couldn’t make the time. You’re worthless, you stupid piece of shit. Are you going to do that to your dad, too? What new thing will you say is more important than visiting him? How long until you invite him to see the farm? You barely even told him you were moving. No - you waited until you already packed up your shit and hired the movers. You stupid piece of shit. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid-

“Make room!”

Jarring out of the spiral, Saga just managed to slide the mugs to the side before Robin was dropping several large rolls of blueprints onto the table. Dragging her chair to Saga’s side, the redhead quickly sorted through them, checking her handwritten notes scratched into the corners. “I had tons of ideas for that farm, so I might have gotten carried away and it’ll probably overwhelm you, but we can take it a step at a time. Have you thought about getting any animals yet?”

Saga choked on air. “Er - no. It’s been like, three weeks? I’m just trying to keep my crops alive at this point.”

“Well, when you do, take a look at this.” Uncurling a blueprint, she secured the corners with their mugs. “This is a great starter for a chicken coop. Good for about 4 chickens, and doesn’t take up too much room on your property. You’ll probably want to build a fenced area though so that they can wander around. But at least you can start producing some eggs.”

One by one Robin went through them all, talking animatedly about specs, costs, and pay off. There were plans for Saga to have chickens, rabbits, ducks, cows, pigs, even a stable for a horse. There were plans for farming equipment like silos, mills, wells, and something called a slime hutch. There was nothing that Robin hadn’t thought up of, and her passion for the projects shined as she walked Saga through the logistics of gathering materials and building time. Eventually, she pushed the plans to the side to uncurl a new set.

“These are for the house. Not the ones that I did for your grandpa, mind you, I’ve seem to have lost those along the way - but! When Lewis and I were clearing out the house before your arrived, I took the opportunity to update some of those original plans. We can do it in stages - y’know, start with building you a proper kitchen. I don’t know about you, but that whole one-room concept to hold all of your necessities is a bit too much like squatting, if you ask me. You don’t have to have your bed next to the place you cook.”

Saga worried at her lip, although her head was nodding. It made sense, but there was an uncomfortable weight sitting like a rock in her gut. “I just...he...I mean,” Stammering her way, Saga sighed and laid it bare, “...he built it, Robin. I don’t want to lose that.”

Shame instantly came across Robin’s face. Releasing the blueprints, they noisily curled in on themselves, one even rolling off of the table completely, but she was taking a hold of Saga by the shoulders, her thumbs rubbing through the fabric in comforting circles. “I don’t want that to happen,” she assured, her expression furrowed. “I don’t want you to think that’s what I’ll do - believe me, the last thing I want to do is pressure you into something you don’t want. I respect your decision, 100%! These are just in case you want to continue his vision.”

His vision? Saga looked up at her in question. “He talked about it all the time,” Robin continued, “expanding the farm had been the entire point. It’s just, well… Some of these ideas became a bit too hard to realize when it was just him taking care of it all. It’s probably why he left it to you in the first place, don’t you think?”

It was difficult to swallow around the sharp lump in her throat, and when she spoke, her voice came out rough and unrefined, “He really talked about it like that?” You should have known you stupid piece of-

Robin nodded, her kind smile returning. “He really did. He had some drawings once, you should try to find them sometime. Though I have to admit, some were pretty ridiculous! One time he mentioned a cluster of animal houses by a specific name - what was it, again?-”

“Farmapalooza,” Saga supplied easily, as if it had been on the tip of her tongue and not locked behind a near forgotten memory. Covering her face with her hands, a snorted laugh dislodged itself from between her fingers. “One of my themes was heavily carnival based.” A desperate wash of love flowed through her veins, tainted with the loss of its source. Looking back up, she eyed Robin seriously. “Don’t tell me he was going to go ahead with my ferris wheel idea.”

She grinned. “Luckily I was able to talk him out of that after I described the kind of mess a bunch of chickens spinning around would make.”

The pair went silent, absorbed in separate memories of the same man. Gazing back down at the blueprints, she gently held down a corner in contemplation. “I’ll need to think about all of this. Also, I seriously need to start making some better coin. Unless I can bribe you with garlic?”

“Sorry, kiddo. Garlic may feed my family, but it won’t pay the bills. Speaking of feeding,” glancing toward the clock mounted on the wall, Robin began to stand up. “It’s nearly time to get dinner started. You’re more than welcome to join us, I reckon the rain won’t let up and I can give you a ride back to your farm if it’s still pissing.”

“Oh, I don’t want to be a bother-”

“-I’m literally offering. I’m not doing it to look polite, y’know.”

Under Robin’s pointed look, Saga resigned. “Okay. Do you need any help?”

There was a sudden gleam to the older woman’s eyes. “No take backs. I got a spare apron in the drawer.”

--------------------

It turns out that ‘do you need any help’ was roughly translated, by Robin terms, to a full on cooking event. She even admitted, amidst their elaborate and messy chopping and dicing of dozens of tomatoes, that typically she would opt for something a bit more quick and less hands on. “But, cooking is always better with two people instead of one - that’s what my father used to say,” she explained, sliding the ingredients into a large bot and setting it to boil.

Peeling garlic, Saga passed the cloves to her one by one as Robin finely chopped them with The World’s Sharpest Knife. “What are we making, anyway?”

“My favourite: spaghetti bolognese.”

As if on cue, Saga’s stomach hungrily growled. Robin laughed, making her flush slightly from embarrassment. “Sounds good,” she lamely replied, although she couldn’t help but grin when Robin snorted grossly. “The most I make from scratch is toast. I’ve always been shit at cooking.”

“Yeah this is pretty much the only thing that I can make. Demetrius is more of the chef in our family, but if you ask him to make dinner you best be prepared to wait a long time. He’s a bit of a perfectionist.”

“Sullying my name, are you?”

The two turned around, greeted by Saga could only assume was Demetrius. He was a tall, handsome, and dark-skinned man, dressed for the weather and dripping all over the kitchen floor. Slipping his messenger bag from a shoulder, he gave a wolfish grin as Robin ‘tsked’ at the mess, but nevertheless kissed him warmly in greeting. “Smells great in here,” he complimented, unzipping his jacket.

“You better plan on mopping that up before someone has an accident,” Robin playfully scolded, taking his jacket from him.

Saga picked up a nearby roll of paper towels, suddenly feeling the need to be productive when Demetrius looked in her direction. As she went to clear the puddle, he held up a hand to stop her. “I believe that was very much a pointed instruction for me,” he said, and shifted his hand out into a proper greeting. “I’m Demetrius, by the way.”

Taking his hand, Saga noticed it was warm and calloused. “Hi. I’m Saga.”

Demetrius pointed with his other hand. “Yes, the farmer that recently moved to town. How do you like Stardew Valley so far?” Releasing her hand, he collected the paper towels and ripped off a few squares.

“It’s almost exactly as I remember it from a kid, but it’s definitely different than Zuzu City.”

Robin returned, gesturing wordlessly for Saga to give the pot a stir. “Saga came to take a look at all those plans I drew up for the farm, and she’s joining us for dinner. Can you believe she doesn’t own a rain jacket?”

Demetrius was using his foot to push the paper towels around on the ground. His eyes went to Saga’s form, studying her up and down for a moment as his eyebrows furrowed deeply. “I suppose that explains her outfit,” he trailed off, but his tone sounded vaguely displeased.

She flushed under the assessment. I know I look a bit sloppy, but Robin was the one who offered me these clothes. Unless… Was she wearing Demetrius’s clothing? That was awkward, no wonder he was looking at her so curiously.

Robin smacked Demetrius in the arm. “Go wash up and get Maru, we’re pretty much ready to eat.”

Demetrius went without protest, but as he passed Saga, she could feel his second sweep of her attire. Thankfully, Robin pushed a stack of plates into her hands and instructed her to set the table. Clearing the blueprints, Saga laid out dishes and silverware for four people, herself included. Beyond the kitchen, she could hear the distant sound of commotion from elsewhere in the house. Excited voices suddenly filled the corridor, a distinctly feminine exclamation dominating the exchange.

“-this changes everything, dad! I spent the last eight weeks trying to recalculate my functions, but it turns out that I should have been reassessing my power output! So I took everything apart again, and that’s when I noticed the mistake in my wiring-”

Coming around the corner was a girl almost Saga’s age. She was shorter than her dad, but her resemblance to him was uncanny. Her mocha skin was beautiful and sprinkled generously with freckles across the bridge of her nose, and her dark hair looked like it was kissed by the same shade of red as Robin’s under the kitchen lights. Her eyes were a bright hazel that quickly locked onto Saga with expressive surprise, coming to a sudden halt in both pace and speech. “Oh! Uh, hi there! ...who are you?” she looked to Robin in question, a faint blush appeared on the peaks of her cheekbones.

“This is Saga, remember me telling you about her? She’s joining us for dinner.”

“Awesome! Well, welcome, Saga! It’s nice to meet you, I’m Maru.”

“Everyone take a seat - you, too, Saga. I’m relieving you of your cooking duties.”

Stalling at the side, Saga carefully watched where Demetrius and Maru sat, not wanting to intrude on anyone’s spot. They both settled across from each other, and when Saga couldn’t decide which remaining seat to take, Maru was quick to pat the chair that was closest to the door. “Come sit here!”

Steaming plates of spaghetti and bolognese were placed down before them. Garlic, tomato, and ground beef mingled before Saga’s nose, filling her with a near insatiable hunger. Waiting until Robin joined them, she only began to tuck in once everyone else had. The sound of something sliding across the table pulled her attention away from her food. Robin had pushed a shaker of red chili flakes toward Demetrius, who accepted them happily and began liberally dusting his meal.

“Want some?” he offered to Saga.

Her eyes immediately went to Robin. “Did we forget to add it?” she asked, mentally going over all of the steps Robin had her do.

The redhead laughed. “Not at all. Maru doesn’t like spicy food, and I don’t like it anywhere near as hot as Demetrius, so I just leave it to everyone to control it for themselves.”

“So what’s living on a farm like, Saga?” Maru asked, watching her with expectantly eager eyes.

This kind of reminds me of dinner at Alex’s, she thought, with the hope of not having to climb out of a window later. “It’s fine, I guess. So far I haven’t killed any crops, which I guess is my only job now that I think of it. Can’t say I enjoy waking up at 6 am, but it’s kind of nice to be my own boss, for once.” Twirling an abundance of spaghetti onto her fork, she poised it before her lips. “How about you? What do you do?” and before the chance was gone, she shoved the large bite into her mouth, purposely ensuring she wouldn’t be able to talk.

“Maru is a scientist, like myself,” Demetrius answered, the pride in which he looked across at his daughter matching the warmth in his voice.

Maru breezily scoffed, displacing the praise with a wave of her hand. “I’d hardly call myself that,” turning to Saga, she clarified, “you need to go to school and get, like, a billion PhD’s before getting to call yourself a scientist. I prefer inventor, it sounds way more badass - no offense, dad.” She gave Demetrius a placating smile.

“How am I not supposed to take offense to my only child claiming that my profession does not make me a badass?” Shaking his head, he looked to Robin for consolation. “Honey, are you hearing this?”

“They sure grow up fast,” Robin intoned, giving Saga a mischievous wink.

“Dad is brilliant, and he knows it,” Maru rolled her eyes, but like Robin, her smiles were genuine. “He’s completely obsessed with researching everything about Stardew Valley. What did you do today?”

Setting his fork down, Demetrius’s expression turned pensive. “I was cartographing the series of mines near our house. Lewis informed me that all of the previous records were accidentally destroyed a number of years ago, so I began to wonder if I could document it through specimen evaluation.” He shrugged and picked up his fork to resume eating. “I was merely curious, so today I’ve collected a number of soil samples to examine later.”

Oh yeah, no big deal, Saga thought sarcastically, however her eyebrows raised in acknowledgement. Swallowing, she pointed to Maru with her own fork. “What kind of things do you invent?”

Her eyes lit up. “Mostly gadgets that I think would be useful. I’m going to create the next refrigerator,” she stated matter-of-factly.

Saga’s eyebrows immediately furrowed, but before she had a chance to ask, Demetrius was already clarifying. “Refrigerators elevated all of humanity into the next era of evolution - being able to better preserve our foods without risk of the proteins rotting, or using excess salt, changed the world. What Maru means is that she is striving toward a similar goal.”

“Exactly - and I really think I might be onto something, too!”

Everyone went quiet. Between the three of them, they all beamed at each other with the glow of a supportive family, but Saga merely looked between them before focusing back on Maru. “So...what is it, then?”

The other girl’s mouth turned ‘o’ shaped, her eyes travelling up to the ceiling before her brows pinched in contemplation. “I’m not exactly sure yet,” she admitted, giggling. “Guess I’ll have to keep working and find out, right?”

The rest of the meal passed in a similar manner. Whenever Saga worried that too much focus was being directed her way, Robin was quick in changing the topic to open discussions that fueled passionate debate between Demetrius and Maru. Every now and then, Saga would peak a glance to the redhead sitting across from her, and Robin would meet her gaze with an almost knowing smile. Mysteriously, it had a way of settling her nerves - not once did she seriously consider escaping, and she even readily accepted a second helping of spaghetti.

Eventually, all conversation began to dwindle, and Demetrius was asking Maru if she wanted to help him document the soil samples they had brought in. It was strange to see someone get so excited about dirt, and Saga watched in astonishment as Maru quickly dumped her plate into the sink and all but ran after her father out of the kitchen. Their footsteps and raised voices slowly disappeared down the corridor and was silenced by the closing of a door.

Robin exhaled. “You survived.”

“That was...intense. Not in a bad way - I mean, believe me, I’ve been to my fair share of intense family dinners.” Getting up from her seat, Saga collected the remaining dishes from the table and moved them over to the sink where Robin was busy dishing extra noodles onto a fresh plate. “They’re both incredibly passionate, and like, ridiculously smart. I didn’t understand the majority of what they were talking about.”

The older woman beamed, obviously proud of her family. “I learned a long time ago that sometimes if you time it just right, you can keep them busy with a properly placed ‘uh huh’. Worked wonders for my marriage, and they naturally keep themselves busy. But I know what you mean, it can get a bit much.” Dollaping a couple of spoonfuls of sauce on top of the pasta, she wordlessly pressed it into Saga’s hand. “I think I have enough here for some leftovers if you want. You do have a microwave, right?”

“Oh - thank you, but you really don’t have to-”

“-not saying it to be polite-” Robin repeated, her tone taking on a singing cadence that said it would be a losing battle for Saga to argue. “I’ll make you a container to take home. Why don’t you go deliver that plate to Sebastian for me?”

Her fingers involuntarily gripped the edges of the plate tighter. It was a peculiar sense of dread she felt, almost as if she had been tricked and was now facing the grand reveal. “Sebastian?” she asked, every line in her face tugging in confusion. But Robin had already turned away from her, digging around in a cupboard for tupperware.

“He’s down in his room in the basement. Said he was working, so I didn’t want to bother him, but he’s probably starving by now. Grab a fork from the drawer to take with you.”

He lives here? Her eyes immediately went to the fridge, scanning the series of candid photos that were held by magnets to the surface. In none of them did she see the familiar dour-faced Sebastian that she knew. In fact, not once had he come up in conversation - not even in passing. Oh, is Sebastian going to join us for dinner? No, he says he’s too busy and to eat without him.

Why was her heart pounding in her chest? Grabbing a fork, Saga held it in her other hand as if it stood a decent chance of defending her. This is stupid. So what if he lives here and no one said anything about it? It’s weird, but it’s not any of my business. She’ll go and give him the food and then go home for the night. There is absolutely no reason for her to make this weird.

“Basement stairs are near the front door,” Robin supplied as Saga left the kitchen.

Shuffling in the direction she had come from, Saga reached the front entrance and stared at the open set of stairs leading down. Drop off the food and go. No big deal. She stalled to considerate how little of a big deal it was: so he didn’t like her cause she yelled at him, threw dirt at him, and said some horrible things - maybe one day they would laugh about that kind of thing! Cute, but despite your best efforts, your life isn’t a sitcom. Seeing him at the Egg Festival, he had simply ignored her like nothing had happened. Surely she should be able to do that, too? Unable to hesitate any longer, she crept down the stairs, taking extra care not to spill the plate as her wool socks threatened to slip against the polished wood. Maybe leave the plate, knock, and run away, her four year old self suggested.

A small hallway greeted her, leading in opposite directions. Down the left, there was a door with what looked like a bathroom inside, and in the other direction was a closed door with light bleeding out through the gap in the bottom. Like most basements, the temperature down here was cooler than the rest of the house. Even bundled in the hoodie she could feel the slight chill on the back of her neck. Slowly she approached the door, straining to listen for any signs of life.

Don’t make this weird-

Her knock shattered the ominous silence. Beyond the door, there was a brief rolling sound against the hardwood floors, then, nothing. Drop the plate and run. Drop the plate and run. Drop the plate and- The door pulled open, and Sebastian’s tall form filled the frame. He had looked almost...expectant? Except the expression instantly vanished as their eyes met, and he instead regarded Saga with open dislike. He didn’t say anything, not even a surprised greeting. He was waiting for her to explain herself, she suspected.

The muscles in her shoulders tensed, feeling as though they were crowding around her ears. Throw the plate and run, she thought impulsively, but her body remained rigid and non-compliant. She was the first to break eye contact, staring somewhere around his sternum. With a jerk of her hand, she stabbed the fork into the middle of the spaghetti so that its handle stuck straight out. Clearing her throat, she offered it to him. “Here.”

He raised an eyebrow, a hint of amusement crossing his eyes as he took the plate in one hand. “You do meal delivery now, too?” he asked, his voice a slow drawl of mockery.

Saga narrowed her eyes. “No, Robin told me to bring it down for you. She said you were too busy to join us for dinner.”

Evidently, she already said the wrong thing. A shadow flickered across his face, creating a neutral mask that was difficult to read. “Us, huh?” Turning away from the door, he retreated back into his bedroom and toward a desk stationed in the corner. A loud clatter erupted from where he carelessly put down the dish next to his monitor, not bothering to spare it another glance in favour of returning to his computer chair.

From the door, Saga could pretty much see the entirety of his room: unlike the rest of the house, it lacked the warmth that was built into every detail upstairs. Exposed gray brick ran the length of the walls, separated in half by plain-looking wood panelling, and there was not a single window to be seen. Directly across was a large coffee table with basic seating spread around it, and what looked like some kind of terrain map and game pieces scattered across its surface; next to the door was a worn and aged looking black leather couch, acting more as a dumping ground for clean laundry and crumpled jackets than as a viable option to relax on; his bed was much like hers, in that it was unceremoniously shoved into a corner and the dark duvet was twisted into a mountainous pile of down feathers. Posters were plastered up on the walls, showcasing horror movies and bands she had never heard of - their corners were torn and peeling from the wall, a telling sign of their age.

Slipping a pair of headphones around his neck, Sebastian ignored her and returned to typing on his computer. Near his desk was a bookshelf, stuffed with an impressive collection of books and comics. Balling the excess fabric of the sweatshirt’s cuffs into her hands, Saga awkwardly stood just inside of the room, taking it all in. “Wow, it’s like this room isn’t even attached to the house,” she remarked, glancing his way. The glow from his monitor casts a blue sheen against his dark hair and into his eyes. He was either pretending she wasn’t there, or had already forgotten about her.

He could have just closed the door in my face, but he hadn’t. Seizing the opportunity, Saga ventured further in, doing a slow circle on the spot to take in all of the details. “So, uh...this like a basement suite rental situation, or something?” She didn’t see an obvious door leading to outside. “Most of the ones I’ve been in had their own separate entrance, but I guess Robin’s shop is kind of like an entrance. Probably makes it less weird, right?”

“Why would that be weird?”

She was surprised he even answered her. Shrugging, she crossed her arms, already feeling the chill begin to seep in past the fabric. “I dunno, cause landlords are kind of weird to be around in general?”

“She’s not my landlord,” he stated, tilting his head just enough to look at her past his monitor. “I mean, I pay her rent, but I still call her ‘mom’ most days.”

The tension in her jaw went slack, replaced with a gobsmacked expression that Sebastian greedily enjoyed with a smirk. He disappeared behind his monitor, no doubt quietly laughing at the dumb farm girl who couldn’t put two and two together. Except… There was literally no sign of Sebastian’s existence in the house above. All of the pictures and mementos that were proudly on display told the story of a family of three with no son who dwelled in the basement.

There was a twinge in her gut, familiar and unwelcomed.

“I didn’t know,” she admitted quietly. “So Demetrius is…”

“Step-dad.” The word is hostile and uttered like a curse. She noticed that his typing had seized, waiting for her to say something - some kind of remark, except she didn’t know what it was he expected her to say. His tense silence was near deafening, a voiceless scream warning her to tread carefully.

The tinny sound of music came from the headphones, an indiscernible cacophony that made it difficult for Saga to figure out who the artist was. Nevertheless, the point was clear: it was time for her to go. Turning toward the door, her eyes passed over the only picture frame in the entire room. It sat nestled in the bookshelf, squashed between superheroes and space explorers. From where she stood it was difficult to make out the environment, but the three subjects were instantly recognizable: a mop of dark hair crowded on either side by spiky blonde and beautiful purple.

Suddenly she could see it with perfect clarity. The moment that Abigail opened that door on her sixteenth birthday, and there they stood, capeless heroes, armed with pizza and distraction from being alone. They had stayed all night - that’s what Abigail had said, wasn’t it? They stayed all night, laughing and celebrating with the girl who had nobody else. It was Sebastian’s idea, Abigail explained, tucking a strand of purple behind her ear. Sebastian is different, but he has his moments. That hadn’t been an excuse. Abigail was trying to tell her to that he was important, and looking at this picture, Saga knew that if she wanted to continue her friendship with Abigail, she was going to have to make an effort to accommodate.

It would make things easier. No, it would mean being a better friend.

Coming to a stop, she quietly fumbled over her words before turning back around. “Look - about what happened the other night on the hill…” Sebastian gave no indication that he was listening to her, which was probably for the best, as it made it a little easier for her to say, “I’m sorry - y’know, for throwing dirt at you and for the things I said. It was out of line.”

“Whatever.”

Just like that. Dismissed and expected to take it. Saga stared at the spot on the back of the monitor she assumed his face was, hoping he could feel the heat of her glare. Whatever? What a joke! He made it easy to look like the better person. If there had been one other person present in the room, they would fully agree that what Saga had just done was the right thing and that Sebastian was being a petty fucking asshole.

She should leave it and be satisfied with the higher ground. She should walk away and rejoin Robin upstairs and not waste a single second more down in this basement with someone who was too childish to accept a heartfelt apology.

She should. But she didn’t.

Yoba, what is your problem?” What was so fucking special about Sebastian that had someone as nice and wonderful as Abigail vouching for his innocence? “I’m trying to apologize here, you can at least pretend to consider it.” Her words gave her resolve, encouraging the sick predatory satisfaction she felt warming her gut. There he sat, hiding behind his monitor, too afraid to confront her to her face. How pathetic, she thought viciously. It would be so easy to grind you into the ground, but I’ll enjoy every fucking second of it. Abigail was wasting her time on him, or worse, she just didn’t know better. Maybe living in a small town meant having to forsake common sense for company, and maybe that can change now that I’m here, the voice encouraged.

His laugh was dark and humourless. The wheels of his computer chair slid smoothly across the floor, and he looked back at her with that same expression from before - when they were standing in the dark and she had managed to press down on something that shattered his aloof illusion. He looked at her like she was lesser than him and not worth the effort, but he couldn’t hold back- “Why would I believe anything a liar like you has to say?”

“I’m not lying, Abigail told me about-”

“-leave Abigail out of it.” Final and commanding. The music was gone, and his headphones were now placed off to the side. It seemed Sebastian was finally obligated to focus his attention on her. Rising to his feet, he pointed a single finger toward her. “Everyone else in this town might be falling for your bullshit, but I’m not.”

“What bullshit? What are you even talking about-”

“I heard you,” he cut off, the words held with such a significance that it sent liquid dread through her body. She immediately went silent, panicking thoughts racing through her mind that desperately tried to figure him out, tried to guess exactly what he had heard, and how- “At the Egg Festival with Alex. I heard you two arguing, and I know you lied about what you told Pierre. Joja Mart doesn’t sell strawberry seeds.”

Was that all? Saga exhaled in relief. “So what?”

Sebastian stared at her, looking as though he wasn’t sure if he heard her correctly. To emphasize, Saga shrugged, loose and ready for a fight. His gaze narrowed. “So why lie?”

Looking away from him, her eyes settled back on the photograph just beyond his frame. The stricken panic he had unnecessarily caused was suddenly absent from her limbs, leaving a fluidity in her bones. “I don’t care about Pierre,” she stated, like two plus two was four. “He’s annoying, condescending, and judgemental. I found a way to briefly shut him up.” With another shrug, her eyes met his. “So what?”

He remained silent, contemplating her words, but it was too hard to tell what he thought of them. He looked angry. Tilting her head to the side, she regarded him with aloof interest. “Why does it bother you?”

“I assumed that would be obvious,” he replied. “If you’re lying about something so small, who’s to say you aren’t lying about something bigger? Something worse?”

She couldn’t help but laugh. “You sound paranoid, and you’re blowing this way out of proportion. You didn’t seem to mind me lying when it was with Sam and Abigail,” Saga reminded. “In fact, you lied, too. And you enjoyed it.”

“That’s different.”

Saga quietly scoffed. “Why? Because they’re your friends?”

“Exactly.” Stepping forward, Sebastian’s mouth twisted in displeasure. “They’re my friends, and that was a joke. Threatening Pierre wasn’t a joke, was it?”

Throwing up her hands, she rolled her eyes dramatically. “Now I threatened him?” She hated the way he was trying to put words in her mouth, how he was trying to make her feel bad for what she had done. What was this? Kindergarten? “You seem to be missing the context of what I said, so let me be the one to inform you,”

Sebastian opened his mouth to cut her off, but she held out a hand, impressed when he refrained from speaking over her.

“The company Pierre purchases his seeds has been bought by Joja Corp., meaning whatever cozy deal he once had will seize to continue, effective immediately. They will begin increasing the prices of their products to financially choke small businesses into closing. That’s what Joja Corp. does. It’s what they have been doing for several years. So what you’re saying is that I’m a bad person for warning Pierre? I lied about Joja Mart carrying strawberry seeds, you got me, but there’s a bigger picture here that you’re not looking at.” Folding her arms, she quirked an eyebrow at him. “If you want to shoot the messenger, be my guest. But don’t expect me to lay down and take it just because you’re ill-informed.”

Unfortunately, he didn’t rise to her bait. “Sounds like you know a lot about Joja Corp.,” Sebastian pointed out, crossing his arms to mirror her stance. “Did you use to work for them or something?”

Her body stiffened. “What?”

He moved closer, each step slow and calculated, forcing her to keep her eyes on him, “Seems like you know quite a bit about the inner workings of a major corporation. And the media loves Joja Corp., y’know, since they own every major newspaper in the region, so it’s not like what you’ve described was written about in any articles, or made headlines, for that matter. It could just be speculation, but something about your tone,” Coming to a stop, he mimicked her shrug, “sounds a bit more personal.”

A single foot was all that defined the distance between them. You need to put an end to this, the voice warned in her head. She hoped he didn’t notice the way her fingers involuntarily clenched. Tell him your family was affected by it, the voice panicked, grasping at straws. But what if he asks for more details? Who's to say that he wouldn’t look into it just to prove you wrong? Saga glared at him, submitted to silence under his perceptive stare.

His smirk was malicious. “It’s weird, y’know? I’m pretty good at digging things up online, but even I had a hard time learning anything about you.” Lifting a hand, he rested the tip of his finger against his bottom lip, feigning deep contemplation. “I’ve heard of people who don’t have any social media presence, but it’s like you don’t even exist. Not even an old FaceSpace page. Kind of weird, don’t you think?”

She was losing control of the situation and Sebastian knew it. Not speaking was just as damaging as arguing, but there wasn’t a viable point she could make that would throw him off. Sebastian rooting around for information felt violating, as if he were physically trying to cut under her skin and pluck at her nerves just to make her squirm. His stare on her was intense and difficult to look directly into because he was watching every twitch of her body as though he was cataloging her guilt.

Calmly, she inhaled to clear her mind. “Sorry to disappoint you. It looks like if you want to learn anything about me, you’ll just have to take my word.” A sick rot congealed itself in her stomach, but still, she lifted her chin in defiance. “But you might want to look less obsessed. People tend to talk in this town, and anyone could be listening.” Gaze pointed, she turned away from him to head for his door. “Enjoy your dinner,” she tossed out before leaving.

She didn’t hear him follow her, but just as she stepped onto the first stair, she was stopped by a sudden, “Hey!”

Looking over her shoulder, Sebastian stood in his doorway, one hand supporting his lean against the frame while the other held the edge of his door, ready to close it after her. The neutral mask was back on, making it difficult for her to anticipate what he would say.

“I’d like my hoodie back.”

Looking down, heat erupted across her skin. Sebastian smirked, pleased and victorious as he waited for her response. Suddenly the weird looks Demetrius gave her made a little more sense. She pulled off the hoodie, immediately feeling the chill of the basement against her exposed skin. Flinging it in his direction, she escaped up the stairs, hoping she at least had a decent enough aim to hit him in the face.

Back on the main floor, Saga was already pulling on her shoes when Robin appeared with her now dry hoodie and socks. “Leaving already?”

Saga straightened, immediately collecting her hoodie from Robin’s arms and pulling it over her shoulders. It was still warm, the zipper hot against her skin. Beyond the front door, she could hear the continuous sound of rain falling, nowhere close to letting up. Distressed, she lifted up her hood. “Thank you for dinner,” she said, stuffing her own pair of socks into her pocket.

“Well, hang on, let me go get my truck keys-”

“-sorry, I just remembered that there’s something I urgently need to attend to,” Saga cut off, her feet uncomfortably cramped and cold in her wet shoes.

Robin blinked, concern settling into the furrow of her brow. “Is everything okay?”

The last of her energy was spent in a smile. Accepting the tupperware of leftovers, Saga bid her a final farewell before dashing into the pouring rain; it was difficult to avoid the endless expanse of puddles, but she hardly noticed as she splashed through them and ran down the hill toward the Community Center. Her chest heaved with the exertion, yet the burn of pain was a welcomed distraction from Sebastian’s words. Over and over she played them in her mind, analyzing and careening further into the darkest depths of fear.

There was no doubt that Sebastian would continue to try and dig up information about her. Perhaps unknowingly, he was too close for comfort. Should he ever find out what she did at Joja Corp., she could kiss any hope of escaping it behind. She needed to be better, she needed to head him off at the start before everything came crashing down around her. She needed to do everything in her power to protect herself, because if it got out then that was it, wasn’t it? She would have to pay every coin, every apology, every sin she committed just to get ahead. Everything she had done, and everything she was trying to do to bury it all in the ground wasn’t enough.

Running away wasn’t enough.

Skidding to a halt, her hood fell back as she looked up at the dark and foreboding presence of the Community Center. Pieces of hair had loosened from her ponytail, only to become matted to the sides of her face and her neck under the constant assault of rain. It pelted against her face, hard enough to make it sting. Plumes of breath clouded her vision, each expansion of her lungs aching and stretching thin against ribs that felt restricted within the confines of her skin and if she couldn’t catch her breath-

Then maybe this is it.

It’s time to come clean. Wash away your fears and your sins, become new under the warmth and light that is Yoba, who loves you and will lead the way. Away from the hurt and the violence, away from the disease and the treachery of the fallen man. You are a child in His name, and He will protect you. It is the end of the line, it’s time to get off and begin again.

There was salt in the rain. Closing her eyes to the dark and angry sky above her, Saga tilted her head back and drank in the storm, arms spread and hoping for an almighty embrace she had never felt, yet so many people swore it existed but maybe it didn’t for her. Nothing came. No divine light, no word from above, just the steady and relentless force of nature that provided no answer.

When she was young her mother had tried to find religion a dozen times. When the heartbreak was too painful and the world too harsh, she towed Saga to church and tried to find Yoba in her prayers. While she cried her desperation to the Father, Saga coloured religious stories in the basement with the other children. They tried to teach her about forgiveness, and empathy, and a life free from pain. They tried to show her compassion and love from a bodiless source that already knew everything about her and could guide her on this journey through life, and it all sounded so wonderful that she knew it was a lie. Life was not this fairytale they wanted her to believe in, life was only unfair because it was neutral in its purpose. That’s what she understood. There was no good or evil, there was only people doing the best with what they had.

Her mother tried to find religion a dozen times. Each only lasted for a week before things went back to the way they always did. Whatever hope she had found was short-lived, but she called herself a devout follower and clung to the sentiment with an iron fist.

Saga did not believe in Yoba. She didn’t know what she believed in, really. But in moments of despair, she often thought back to those weeks spent in the church basement with the children who looked at her with sad eyes because she didn’t see what they did, and they pitied her for it.

Dropping her arms, she looked at the dark silhouette of the Community Center.

Her grandfather hadn’t been religious, either. But he went to church every Sunday back when her grandmother had been alive.

Saga didn’t remember much of her, any memory was connected to a photograph her grandfather kept in his wallet. Sometimes she would ask to see his wallet just to look at it and pretend that was like knowing her. She used to tell this picture how her day was, and show it all of her favourite toys and hobbies. Then one day she dropped the picture in the river, and the current whisked it away. She cried as she told her grandfather what happened, so certain that he would no longer love her for losing her grandmother in such a foolish way.

The thing about your grandma is that I see her all the time, he told her. When you love someone and they are no longer with us, you will find pieces of them in the life you had built together. She is not contained within one picture, just as no tree is contained within one branch.

Her grandfather hadn’t been religious, but he went to church every Sunday because it made her grandmother happy.

Inside of the Center, she tracked water and her misery toward the Junimo hut. How did one become happy? All her life, Saga had chased after this notion to a series of dead ends. She thought attending the best school in Zuzu City would make her happy. She thought moving into her own place and claiming her independence would make her happy. She thought having a well paying job, with financial security and career growth would make her happy, but so far it had led her to nothing but numb complacency.

Focusing on grades had been easy. Paying her rent and bills on time had been easy. Keeping her head down and doing the work had been easy. But when she looked up, when she came up over the cloud and saw the bigger picture, it was bleak and dishonest, and the worst part was that she was good at it.

How did one become happy?

Curled in on herself, Saga silently wept into the wet sleeves of her hoodie. She was not the person her grandfather thought she was. The time spent away from him was time spent becoming someone who looked for any means to achieve her needs. She had been ruthless in its pursuit, thinking with every turn that one day she could leave it all behind, and maybe then she could start living the life she had imagined as a child. But it had no shape to it, what she imagined. It was just a feeling, like sitting in front of a fire on a cold winter’s night, sipping hot chocolate and listening to her grandfather tell a story. It was smashing rocks with Alex down by the same river that took her grandmother’s picture away. It was playing in the trees and knowing that she didn’t have to return to reality until she had to go back to the city and her mother.

It was cold and damp in the Community Center, but Saga didn’t care. If Sebastian found out everything, there was no chance he would keep quiet. Everyone would know, and they would be privy to the terrible kind of person she pretended not to be anymore. Some part of that felt like relief, but it was weak and temporary.

There was warmth on her back. Lifting her head, the Community Center was bathed in the flickering glow of yellow light. Behind her, a fire burned in the fireplace. The shimmer of a purple Junimo beckoned her to come closer, and Saga went, accepting the spot offered to look into the depths of the flames. The purple Junimo quietly chirruped, appearing on her knee. She wasn’t cold anymore, though her body ached for a multitude of reasons. There was a heaviness in her chest that was bruising and crushing in its hungry pursuit of despair, and yet she felt hollow, like she had been carved out.

She needed to be better. The time had come to make things right and prove that she was not the person she once was. The problem was that she still lived in that skin and found it difficult to change. The past three weeks she had done everything to fake it, foolishly believing that through pretending she could one day become, but Sebastian was smarter than that. He had seen right through her to know that something was off, and tonight Saga had mistakenly proved him right.

One by one, they were joined by more Junimos, all sitting silent and flickering in colours of red, yellow, green, and blue. They were a strange comfort to her, and within their combined silence, eventually they came to rest on her like the purple Junimo did. They were weightless and didn’t feel like anything at all. Saga wondered that if she were to try to touch one, would her fingers would pass through them entirely?

Somehow she had to fix things. Perhaps being sued was the first step. Once she handed back the laptop and company phone, Joja Corp. would sweep everything under the rug. They will undoubtably make her sign a non-disclosure agreement, and everything she was guilty of doing on their behalf would be passed on to the next person taking her place. The cycle would continue, and more businesses like Pierre’s would suffer for it. She needed to have a plan.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

In a blink she fell asleep. There was no dream, there was no nightmare. It was weightless and blank, without thought or emotion or feeling. When she awoke, she was home, with no memory of leaving the Community Center.

Chapter Text

DING!

Caldwell
I’ve scheduled a mediation with Joja

Caldwell
Friday, Summer 5

Saga
do i have to go?

Caldwell
No

Caldwell
I’m certain I’ll scare them off

DING!

Sophie
Hello Ms. Tiller. This is Sophie from Jessica Caldwell’s
office. Please accept this calendar reminder of your
upcoming mediation with Joja Corp. on Friday, Summer 5

Saga
sophie

Saga
i have your number saved

Saga
you don’t have to introduce yourself every time

DING!

Caldwell
It’s risky to terminate you the day before you
were expected to return

Caldwell
They must be desperate

DING!

Sophie
Oh

DING!

Caldwell
I love it when they get desperate

Saga
sophie just sent me a calendar reminder

Caldwell
Ugh

Caldwell
She didn’t read my text

Saga
k one sec

You added Sophie to this conversation

Saga
hey sophie

Saga
caldwell says i don’t need to go to the mediation

Sophie
Ms. Caldwell!

Sophie
I just received your previous text!

Sophie
My apologies for confusing Ms. Tiller!

Caldwell
It’s fine, Sophie

Saga
so confused

Saga
wat do

Saga
halp

Caldwell
Stop it

Sophie
This is all my fault!

Caldwell
Both of you stop it

Saga
wat do i do now

Saga
i bought my bus ticket

Saga
non-refundable

Saga
i have no money

Sophie
I’ll transfer you money right away!

Sophie
How much was your bus ticket?

Caldwell is typing…

Saga
500g

Sophie
Okay

Caldwell
Saga, stop lying to Sophie.

Sophie, stop falling for Saga’s bullshit.

Both of you, just stop.

Saga does not have to come to the mediation
with me, so please delete the calendar reminder
you created.

DO NOT SEND HER MONEY!

Sophie
Okay transfer is complete!

Sophie
Oh

Sophie
Oh no

Sophie
I’m so sorry

Saga
:)

Caldwell
Do not accept the transfer

Caldwell
Or I will triple my fees

Saga
:(

DING!

mother
Hi, how are you?

Chapter Text

“Who are you texting?”

By instinct she triple-checks that her screen is locked. Hi, how are you? Tossing her phone onto the bed, she turned to find Abigail elbow deep in a large container of rain jackets. “Just my aunt,” she dismissed, joining her on the other side of the container. “Anything good?”

Abigail held up a black pleather jacket with large white daisies printed all over it. “Okay, explain to me again why you have this tub of jackets?”

Near the door, Sam grunts as he drags a second similar looking container into Saga’s house. “This one definitely has a dead body in it,” he pants, sitting down on it. “Maybe this is the murderer’s calling card. Maybe the jackets are for you to wear while you dismember the body.”

“What the fuck, Sam?” Abigail blurted, sharing a concerned look with Saga.

“My mom watches a lot of Unsolved Murders,” he shrugged.

“This is Robin’s doing,” Saga explained, shooing Sam off of the tub to pry open the cover. It was filled to the brim with winter boots. “I went over to her shop the other day and she had to dry my hoodie and socks cause I don’t own any proper rain gear.”

“City folks never learn,” Sam and Abigail mumbled, as if on command.

Saga’s brow furrowed. “Yeah...that’s what she said, too.” Fixing them with a bemused look, she turned her attention to the boots. “Anyway, apparently Lewis collects all of the discarded and donated jackets each year to drop off at some charity in Zuzu, but of course Robin convinced him to drop them off at my place instead.”

Sitting cross-legged, Sam discovered a heavy pair of ski boots. “How can you not own any rain gear?”

“I never needed any in Zuzu City.”

“Does it never rain?” Abigail asked, setting aside several different jackets for Saga to try.

“It does, but everyone either drives, takes the bus, or even use taxis to get around. It’s more common to see people running in and out of cars than it is to see...whatever these are.” It was a shoe, maybe, but it was covered in so much fur Saga suspected it was an accidental taxidermy experiment. Making a face, she dropped it back into the tub. “I seriously hope I’m not stuck with all of this crap.”

“Are you kidding? This stuff is awesome!” Reaching in, Sam untangled a pair of fringed cowboy boots and immediately started to cram his feet into them. Standing up, he wobbled on the three inch heels. “Wait, lemme just-” Bending down, he rolled up his pant legs to below the knee, his calves now proudly on display. “Hey, Abby, is there a jacket that’ll match this in there?”

Snorting, Abigail stood up. “Way ahead of you.” She held up what could only be described as bubble wrap in jacket form. It was bright yellow and tapered at the sides with coattails, and had definitely been advertised as a winter jacket at some point, judging by the feather-stuffed appearance. She helped Sam slip into it, the rubber texture of the material filling the house with the grating sound of squeaking balloons.

As soon as it fitted over his shoulders, Sam struck a dramatic pose. “How do I look?”

Saga shook her head. “Incomplete.” Opening her bedside drawer, she rummaged around and found her biggest pair of sunglasses. Sam tilted his chin up as she slipped them over his eyes, a well practiced pout puckering his lower lip. Grinning, Saga steered him toward the full length mirror hanging on the inside of her closet door. “Perfection.”

With his pinkies raised, Sam lowered the sunglasses to look over the rim at himself, releasing a pleased whistle. “Damn, I look hot!”

“We need pictures,” Abigail declared, and both her and Saga retrieved their phones.

Sam, to his credit, was an incredible model. He simply didn’t care how ridiculous he looked, and it wasn’t long until they were dressing him up in the most fashionably offensive items they could find and documenting it all in an onslaught of camera flashes and video.

“Imagine if we could wear some of these outfits tomorrow,” Abigail giggled, videoing Sam shaking his ass. “Haley would have an aneurysm.” A satisfied smile slowly crept across her face at the thought. “Sam, you should totally sneak something in under your jacket.”

Turning around, Sam placed his hands on his hips. “No way, Lewis would wring my neck - or worse, tell my mom. He’s still pissed about the other day when I was skateboarding through town square. Apparently I’m going to ‘ruin the cobblestones’.” Discarding the wide-brimmed hat he had been sporting, he collapsed onto Saga’s bed. There was a sour look dominating his usual carefree expression as he reached for Abigail’s phone. “Lemme see the pictures.”

Saga watched as Abigail plopped down next to him, their heads huddled together as she swiped through her phone. “What’s going on tomorrow?”

Abigail groaned. “Flower Dance Festival.”

“...this town has a thing for festivals, doesn’t it?”

“You don’t even know!” Sam exclaimed, evidently triggered by the topic. “There’s two every season and participating is pretty much mandatory. One year I refused to go to the Flower Dance, and Lewis threatened to give me community service hours.”

“The Flower Dance is the worst one,” Abigail agreed, sympathetically patting Sam on the back. “It used to just be a Spring dance, but Haley read about this old folk tale where it was a symbolic ‘fertility ritual’ and convinced Lewis to change it.”

Saga looked horrified. “That is archaic.”

“No no, it’s romantic,” Sam intoned with a roll of his eyes. “So now instead of it just being this whatever dance, the guys have to wear these gross blue suits and the girls wear these frilly dresses, and we have to perform a dance routine in front of everyone.”

“Haley makes all of the dresses, of course,” Abigail added. “But ‘somehow’ her’s is always the prettiest and fits the best out of all of them.” The two friends shared identical bitter expressions, their frustrations obvious and palpable. “She even assigns us dance partners. Every year it’s the same, she dances with Alex and the two are ridiculous and good-looking and everyone praises them. It’s like reliving prom every fucking year.

Sam struggled to kick off the boots. “I dance with Penny, who is like, so sweet and nice, right? This girl is a walking saint, but I can tell she hates dancing with me. Every year she looks so miserable, and it’s not like she complains or anything - Yoba, I think it would be better if she did, y’know? We could at least make fun of it, but she just…” he shook his head, gazing across the room at some spot neither Saga or Abigail could see.

Eyebrows pinching, Saga considered the way Sam spoke. His eyes turned downcast, watching his own feet swing gently back and forth as if they had betrayed him. It was clear, even without him saying so, that his issues ran perpendicular to Abigail’s - that his concern was more focussed on Penny’s discomfort than Haley’s unfair treatment of everyone. He likes her, she surmised with a small smile, finding the notion ridiculously sweet. Instead of commenting, Saga kept it for herself, enjoying the second-hand warmth it brought her. “Who do you dance with?” she asked Abigail.

The girl gave a wry smirk. “Sebastian.” Crossing her legs, Abigail leaned her chin into her hand. “He hates the Flower Dance even more than I do. This year we’re totally going to ruin the routine - just you wait and see.”

Sam scoffed. “She says that every year, but at zero hour Abby always chokes.”

“I do not!”

“Last year they decided they were going to do the chicken dance right in the middle of the routine, but when Sebastian started flapping his arms, Abby just kind of froze in place,” Sam told Saga with a laugh. “I joined in, because if Sebastian had to do the community service alone we would never hear the end of it. We picked up garbage for weeks.” Nudging the purple-haired girl next to him, Sam wore a shit-eating grin. “We purposely avoided Abigail’s house and their bins began to pile up. Remember, Abby? Remember how smelly it was? Eh?”

Abigail was bright red, but she laughed nonetheless. The pair of them rested into one another easily, so used to each other’s company that taking up each other’s space required little thought. Saga looked on with envy, despite their unfailing persistence to bring her into their world. When it was just her and Abigail, Saga marvelled at how bodily Abigail was in her affections: some part of her constantly reached out to touch, grab, jostle, or even curl into whatever space was available next to Saga, and while she desperately wanted to get used to it, Saga was always the first one to pull away. It was strange, and sometimes uncomfortable, having someone so upfront with how much they liked having her around - but little by little, it was becoming familiar.

Sam was the same. If he couldn’t reach out, he spoke out, loud and unapologetic and demanding of time and attention to set up the punchline he needed to give. The moments Saga had been privy to his silence were soft and tinged in a sadness she couldn’t identify. Something happened to him in between the gaps, something he worked hard to mask. In the short amount of time she had known him, she learned that Sam craved the constant noise and chaos of change, and left no room for someone to be left out.

“I think you should take this one,” Abigail said, breaking through her thoughts. Looking toward her, Abigail held up a two-toned green rain jacket with a hood. “It’s not the worst thing, and look at how big the pockets are!” She shook it to lure Saga into trying it on.

It actually fit rather well. It was more sporty of a style than she was accustomed to wearing, but as she looked at herself in the mirror, Saga liked the way it hung off of her shoulders and lacked any particular feminine shape. Pulling up the hood, she tilted her head. “Yeah this is totally not bad,” she agreed. “No luck for boots, though. Guess I’ll have to figure out how to get to Zuzu City and buy a pair.”

“Online, bro,” Sam piped up, scrolling once more through Abigail’s photo stream.

“No credit card, bro,” Saga replied. At least not one owned by Joja Corp.

“Ooh, let me know and I’ll totally come with you. There’s a cat cafe that opened up and I need to go snuggle all of them.” Abigail dumped the rejected jackets back into the bin. “Sam, you should come too and we can check out that venue you found online!”

He immediately perked up. “I’ll text Sebastian right now.”

“Hang on - this is turning into a whole thing,” Saga hesitated, her heart already beating erratically at the thought of having to spend a day in Zuzu City - but with Sam, Abigail, and now Sebastian in tow? The sickly voice warned of the disastrous possibilities. Close to Joja Corp., close to Caldwell, close everything I left behind- “I have zero money, anyway.”

“Well, save some up and let us know!” Standing up, Sam draped an arm across her shoulders, cradling Saga against his side. “C’mooon - it’ll be fun! You guys can go do the shopping and cat cafe thing, Seb and I will pass time pretending that we are city-slickers, and then we’ll go to this totally perfect venue for drinks, dancing, and if we’re real lucky, we can even book ourselves a gig!” Clapping loudly, Sam released her to pump a fist into the air. “This is happening - and if we need to go beg people for some money, just say the word and we will do it!”

Looking between the two, both Abigail and Sam sported matching excitement. If you refuse it’ll look worse, the firm voice in her head rationed. Maybe Caldwell will make everything go away and it’ll all be over. Saga thought back on what Caldwell had said. You’re lucky I’m a fucking brilliant lawyer. Letting go and trusting that the situation was under control was hard, but, perhaps she should have more faith.

Maybe she could come out on the other side of this and no one would ever have to know.

An inkling of hope blossomed in her chest. Clinging to it desperately, she nodded her head. “All right. Yeah. This sounds like fun!” The smile became strained as a sudden realization struck her. “Except, I’m pretty much 100% confident Sebastian wants nothing to do with me. But, if you guys are there, then at least he’ll be distracted from hating my guts, right?”

Sweet Abigail, who only knew of Saga’s less-than-stellar moment of throwing dirt at Sebastian, gave her an encouraging smile. “Don’t worry about that.”

Sweet Sam, who knew nothing, looked at the two of them in confusion. “What are you talking about? Sebastian doesn’t hate your guts.”

It would be nice to believe him, but Saga thought of the way Sebastian’s gaze had effectively pinned her to the spot in his room. How he spoke with with the intent to carve her out with each elaborate step closer and Saga did nothing but stand there take it before running away.

Abigail nodded. “Yeah, he definitely doesn’t hate your guts. But this’ll be a great chance for you two to smooth out all of the rough edges! Sam and I can totally give you some pointers if you would like?”

The sun broke through the thick swirling clouds outside, and warming rays of light streamed through the window, bathing the room in a new radiant hope.

Of course, Saga elated, an idea dawning. Why didn’t I think of this before? If Sam and Abigail fed her information, it would become easy to beat Sebastian to the punch, or better, take back control. All she had to do was show Sebastian just how good of a friend she could be, and if nothing else, it would ensure that Sebastian takes the fall should he raise his concerns with Sam and Abigail - who already like her!

So that’s your plan? Be nice and put the blame on him? I thought you were tired of playing that game after the last time-

Sam scratched the back of his head, looking a little uncertain. “This is kind of weird, but, I like hanging out with you so...okay. We’ll help you out.” He grinned widely. “By the time we’re done with you, Sebastian is going to be all, ‘woah, Saga is totally awesome, why did no one say anything! Now we’re BFFs and getting matching tattoos this weekend!’ and I’ll be all, ‘bro, matching tattoos is literally the worst idea I’ve ever heard’. And he’ll be all-”

“Uhh - what is happening to my phone?” Looking down at her phone, Abigail’s eyebrows furrowed deeply and she repeatedly tapped across the screen for a response. Coming closer, Saga tilted her head to take a look.

All of the app icons on Abigail’s phone were digitally crumbling. The back light flickered on and off, each time another pixel dislodged and plummeting to the bottom of the screen as if sand had inexplicably filled the case. Sam pulled out his own phone and turned it towards them: instead of crumbling, his apps waved like ripples across the water, and suddenly swam off of the screen completely. Reaching into her pocket, Saga confirmed that her phone had gone haywire as well; fissure cracks of pressure crystalized in the spaces between the icons. It was just like before - when she had been at the Community Center or when she got lost in the woods, and both times-

She attempted to dispel their fears with a tired laugh. “That happens sometimes - I think there’s a cell tower on the fritz or something that makes my phone go crazy. Once I head toward town it goes back to normal,” she assured with a shrug.

“That is fucking weird,” Sam frowned. “Anyway, I gotta head off. My shift starts in half an hour.” At the front door, he pulled on his shoes.

“I’ll walk with you, my dad is probably wondering where I am,” said Abigail, already tugging on her jacket. When she opened the door, the soothing sound of rainfall filled the interior of the house. Pulling up her hood, she checked her phone again, frowning when the device was still acting strangely. “I’ve never seen anything like this before.”

Saga shrugged, unsure of what to say that wasn’t there’s a magic man in a tower, and when he’s around things get weird. Abigail gave her a hug, and Sam offered a two-finger salute. Once they hopped off of the porch steps, the two started making their way in the direction of the town square, pummelled by the spring rain that refused to let up. Saga watched them go, holding her phone limply in her hand. Once they were out of sight, she pulled up her hood and locked the front door, headed south across the waterlogged planks of wood dicing her farmland into misshapen islands.

Entering the thick tree line, she spotted Rasmodius standing patiently under a tree, annoyingly bone dry.

“Apprentice.”

The title made her frown. “Are you aware that every time you’re near that my phone does this?” she asked him, holding up her phone to show how the cracks had now shattered, destroying the nearby icons.

The wizard looked perplexed as he watched the chaos. “I was not,” he admitted. “Though it makes sense for modern technology to behave strangely around the mystical force of the arcane.” Pausing, he regarded Saga with a questioning look. “Was that how you knew I was here?”

Adjusting the collar on her new jacket, Saga nodded. “Pretty much. It happened the first time we met and you threw me into the ground,” she chided with a practiced side eye glance. To her absolute pleasure, Rasmodius coloured in embarrassment. “What are you doing here?”

He moved out from beneath the shelter of the tree, however not a single drop of rain sullied his coat. “Come with me, there is something we need to discuss.”

Without waiting for a response, he began to lead their trail beyond the edge of her farm and in the direction of the lake that sat nestled between the ranch and the river. Assuming that they were headed for his tower, Saga stuffed her hands into her pockets and kept silent, enjoying the lack of activity a rainfall like this inspired. The air was fresh, but the perfume of flowers was considerably dampened and replaced with the bitter scent of wild grass and peeling bark. Studying the trees, she noted that nothing outwardly seemed amiss, but there was the subtle hint of an undercurrent - movement she couldn’t quite catch from the corner of her eye because when she turned to look, nothing was there. The very branches themselves looked to be reaching toward them under the weight of the weather, latticing a shelter over their heads that created a beautiful archway they walked beneath.

The space around Rasmodius’ body was distorted, like heat rising from pavement. Saga watched, fascinated, as the rain evaporated against the barrier, thus keeping the man dry. But it couldn’t be heat. There was no steam - in fact, as if feeling her scrutiny, the wizard adjusted his coat to pull it closer to his body.

They were completely silent, but after a few minutes they passed the tower and her frown deepened. “Where are we going?”

“You’ll see soon enough,” he promised without looking back.

“How are you staying dry?”

Like her own farm, the lake had a small series of planks to connect the broken up bits of land into useable paths. As they crossed one, a large frog leaped into the water, quickly disappearing into the dark depths. “I am manipulating the particles of arcana around my body to act as a shield,” Rasmodius answered. “It is similar to what your science calls ‘thermal energy’. The vibrations I am influencing move so quickly that the rain cannot pass through it.”

A shield, huh?Without warning, she shoved him. Rasmodius stumbled, able to catch himself just in time before he fell headlong into the water. He immediately reeled to look back at her with a dubious expression, and Saga, to her credit, stared back at him wide-eyed and shocked. “I thought you would block that!”

“You are much larger than a raindrop,” he countered, a certain stress punctuating the words.

“But you said it was a shield-”

“-I prefer to answer your questions than to be subjected to your experiments.” Adjusting his hat, the tips of his cheekbones burned red. “It is incredibly foolish to test magic you do not understand.”

Holding up her hands, Saga grinned sheepishly. “Okay, okay. I’m sorry, I won’t do it again, yeah?”

They held each others gaze uncomfortably, but, eventually Rasmodius muttered something under his breath and continued to lead the way. Waiting until he took several steps, Saga resumed following. “Can I learn to make a shield?”

“That is not what I am showing you today.”

“Sure, not today. But another time?” They came upon an overturned log that looked like the perfect opportunity to test her balance. Climbing up, she held out her arms and walked a careful straight line along the grain in the wood. Focussed on her feet, she carefully avoided a wet patch of moss. “Can you shield bigger things than rain? Like if I were to throw a punch-”

“-please refrain from striking me again-”

“-would you be able to, like, deflect it by ‘manipulating the particles’?”

He came to a pause, considering her question seriously. “It requires a great deal of discipline, but, yes, I could.”

Reaching the end of the log, Saga grinned. “Awesome.” Jumping down, she splashed a puddle and sent water everywhere. “What else could you teach me?”

His gaze went upward, toward the top of the trees and the glimpses of the dark grey sky beyond. She wondered if he saw something different than she did, because as she looked with him, there was little that was remarkable. She was beginning to think that he wouldn’t answer her, the way a parent tried to avoid complicated conversations with children, but to her surprise he responded. “I could teach you a multitude of things, but that is not your purpose as an apprentice.”

“I’m pretty sure that is the exact definition of apprentice,” she pointed out.

“You have mistaken me for the master of your title. You are not my apprentice.”

That hardly makes sense. Who else would she be an apprentice to? Was there someone else that he was going to introduce her to? Was that where he was taking her now? Did someone else in Stardew Valley know about the Junimos and the ‘essence of the forest’? Shouldn’t she be able to sense that kind of thing after drinking that potion? And why didn’t she sense things? It feels like nothing about her had changed, except now she can translate Junimo scribbles into words. He had made it all sound so much bigger than her, but Saga had yet to bear any kind of ‘chosen one’ burden that was abundant in every fantasy-inspired novel she read growing up. What kind of rip-off deal is that? She was disappointed, which was surprising for someone who shirked responsibility like it was a life-threatening disease.

As if reading her thoughts, Rasmodius continued. “The arcane is not something to be desired because of what it can do. It will not solve all of your problems, nor will it make your life any easier.”

“Says the man who is completely dry,” Saga argued, spreading her arms to indicate to her completely wet jacket (which was doing a fine job of keeping her shirt from getting soaked, but that was not the point she was trying to make). “Who doesn’t want to be able to levitate stuff or speak in a totally ominous tone all of the time? It sounds to me like you just don’t want to teach me any of this so that you can be ‘Mr. Magic Man’.”

He looked at her flatly. “I much prefer Wizard.”

“Come on, Rasmodius. I can be a good student!”

He shook his head and turned away from her. “That is not the purpose of your duty.” They were headed toward a clearing in an area Saga wasn’t familiar with. Not even the tallest peak of his tower was visible on the horizon, and beyond a tangle of thorny vines, a rickety-looking bridge crossed over into an open meadow. Without stopping, he stepped onto the bridge. When the sound of her steps failed to follow, he looked back to find her crossing her arms with a shake of her head. “It’s perfectly safe,” he assured.

“I want to know what the plan is,” Saga declared. “You keep saying things like ‘it’s your duty’ and ‘that’s not your purpose’, and that I’m ‘not your apprentice’. So, what’s the plan? Am I meeting someone? Is there some kind of book that I should be studying? Am I seriously not going to learn any magic? How am I supposed to protect the Junimos?”

He heaved a sigh, the first sign she had seen of his patience thinning. She expected him to yell at her, or use excessive force to drag her across the bridge like he had used to pull her toward the cauldron. And, okay, she felt a little bit ridiculous when her muscles tensed as if she would be able to fight him off this time just because it had happened before. If he wanted to, he could make her do anything. But he just stood there, looking back at her with the exasperation of a man not strong enough to continue the fight. Helplessly, he waved his arms in the direction he was taking her. “I am trying to answer all of your questions. You just need to come with me.”

Setting her jaw, Saga contemplated saying no. She wanted to, just to be petulant and difficult and irritate him as much as he was irritating her right then. Instead, she gave into her curiosity, even when her gut warned that this was exactly how she was going to die someday. “...fine.”

With a warning creak, she stepped carefully onto the bridge. It was only then did she consider the very real fact that this bridge was fixed to the side of a sheer cliff, and that to her left was a steep and sudden plummeting drop into the turbulent ocean below. Freezing, Saga’s heart pounded in her ears, drowning out the wizard’s faraway reassurance that it was safe. “Clearly you have more faith in my abilities,” she called with a shaky laugh. “If I take one more step there is a 100% guarantee that I will fall and sink into the bottom of the ocean. That is if I don’t crack my head open on the way down.” The muscles in her legs began to seize, rooting her to the spot. “In fact, I’m absolutely certain there was a ‘do not enter’ sign back there that you conveniently ignored, but, I’m beginning to suspect that I must be a fucking moron for following you this far!”

A sudden wind buffeted against the cliff, causing her to crouch lower toward the bridge. “Saga,” Rasmodius called. He stood on the other side, his hand outstretched, as if this was a dramatic movie and music was swelling to build suspension. “You can do this. It just takes one step at a time.”

“Right - this isn’t a fucking motivational opportunity, here!” Fingers clutching at the wooden planks, she swallowed back the rising bile on her throat, staring through the gaps at the ocean below. “I need to go back.”

“You need to move, you can’t stand there all day-”

“I KNOW. I know, okay?!” She was going to puke from the fear. All consuming and tight, it pinched her lungs so painfully it required far more attention than she had to give just to breathe. Stupid, stupid, stupid- She should have known better. She should have trusted that something like this would happen - that the bridge was safe for one to travel over, but two? Of course she pushed her luck, she pushed everything and now she was stuck on this stupid fucking bridge and was most definitely going to fall and die, and wouldn’t that just be a spectacular farewell? The stupid city girl fell to her death after a guy who claimed to be a wizard told her to. She would become the frightening tale of what happens when anyone does drugs.

The bridge creaked louder. She shut her eyes and braced herself for the fall, digging her nails into the wood so tight that it ached.

“Here.”

A hand touched her shoulder, then gripped her under the arm. With a short tug, she found herself upright and steadied by Rasmodius. He had come back onto the bridge to retrieve her, his coat billowing in the wind, speckled by the rain he no longer tried to deflect. Saga’s limbs wobbled, uncertain like a newborn. She gripped to his arm and lapel, determined that she wouldn’t plummet alone. He looked uncomfortable, as if the physical contact was painful but he stayed through it, offering her a solemn nod. “One step at a time.”

“No, no, please, just-”

He stepped back, pulling her with him. Creak. She held her breath and watched in horror, waiting for the wood to break apart beneath them. Another step. Creak. Another, and another, this awkward shuffle over each plank, and she swore it was a full eternity before they would make it to the other side. Saga clung to him helplessly, begging him to stop, to turn back, until at last her feet touched grass and she crumpled into it, hot tears stinging her eyes. Rasmodius let go of her and offered her space to recover. She couldn’t bear to look anywhere near him, feeling both foolish and angry at him for making her cross the stupid bridge. Swiping at her eyes, she miserably gazed back across the ravine, thinking about how she would have to go over it once more just to get home.

Congratulations, you were afraid of walking. “That sucked,” she complained, exhausted by the journey and no where close to the end. “Why hasn’t anyone fixed that bridge?”

“I made it that way,” said the wizard, back to his normal aloof demeanour. He was dry again, she noticed with annoyance. “Only once a year do I allow the villagers access to this place for what they call the ‘Flower Dance’.” His eyebrows raised with a small shrug that said he was a little pleased with himself. “It is an illusion designed to ward mortals away. Very effective.”

She didn’t like being tricked, even if she wasn’t the first. “You’re an ass,” she muttered, collecting herself back onto her feet. “Why wouldn’t you drop the illusion when we were crossing it?”

Rasmodius blinked, as if she had suggested something mundane. “I told you it was perfectly safe.”

“You’re kidding, right? It looks like a deathtrap, and you and I don’t exactly have the most trusting of histories.” Anger made her voice shake, it also made her want a fight. “At every turn you have used magic to force me to do something. Either pin me to the ground, keep me in place, or force me to drink a potion. Did you think I had fun with any of that?”

He flinched, either at her rising volume or at her words, and stayed silent.

“Do you have any idea what that feels like?” Balling her hands into fists, she dug her nails into the soft flesh of her palm to maintain a composure that was quickly evaporating. “Like you have no control over your body? Like you don’t have a say in what happens? You decided that those things needed to be done, you did them like it was nothing! Like I was just some thing that needed to be dealt with! What is wrong with you?”

Stepping back, he half turned away from her until his profile looked toward the meadow they stood at the mouth of. A deep frown burrowed its way into every line of his face, pulling with what she hoped was the gravity of her words, that by yelling at him she was able to make him see the error in his ways.

“I do not think you are a thing,” he said quietly. “My methods are...extreme, at times, I admit. Sometimes the stress of such responsibility makes me impatient when I see what must be done. I can be dismissive of other people’s considerations, you are not the first to tell me as much.” There was a twinge of sadness, delicately threaded in between his carefully chosen words, so honest that it clashed with how clinical he appeared to be. “I have studied the arcane for so long, I do not know how to speak to others or conduct myself in an appropriate manner. There are things you have yet to imagine, stories that are woven into our blood that need to be played out, and I have seen the end of them, but the beginning is less clear to me.”

“That doesn’t make it okay.”

His frown twitched, and he nodded slowly. “You are right. I am sorry.”

He offered her nothing more than that. His apology hanged in the air between them, and Saga debated with her ego if she wanted to draw out his discomfort longer for revenge, or if she was big enough to accept and move on. The anger curled in her chest, warning that it would stay regardless of her choice. It would always be there, heavy and choking and just below the surface, ready to spread through her ribs and bleed to the surface again and again, as much as it wanted. Taking stock of her situation, she came to several conclusions: the only way back was across an illusioned bridge; he did not outwardly appear to take pleasure in her misery; and she could probably leave at any time now that she yelled at him. Why wait? Leave now, you owe nothing to him. She struggled silently, back and forth on the idea, before eventually she crossed her arms and followed his gaze into the meadow. No, there were still so many questions she needed answers to. “What did you want to show me?”

It was a beautiful clearing, with tall grass, untamed wild flowers, and trees in abundance. This is where the Flower Dance was held, and by tomorrow it would be filled with every villager, dancing and enjoying each other’s company. The view from the edge was gorgeous, the land falling away to the rolling ocean that stretched beyond the horizon. Without word, Rasmodius led them toward a boulder that sat rooted underneath a weeping willow tree by the cliff edge and beckoned her to sit.

“Today is known as Renewal Day for the Junimos,” he began, standing before her like a teacher at the front of the class. “The life of a Junimo is represented by the very nature they inhibit: the grass that grows is mowed by the animals that eat it; the trees around us draw life from the soil and in return, gives us clean air; the ice from the mountains becomes the water in the rivers, and becomes one with the ocean. Where there is a give, there is a take. All is circular, and all is renewed. In terms of the arcane, Spring marks both the life and death of the Junimo.”

Saga made a face. “They all die at once?”

“Not in the way you or I perceive death - humans struggle with the fragility of their mortality because of how final dying is. But a Junimo is the embodiment of nature’s spirit, its very being is pure arcana and energy, and as such never truly dies. When a wizard dies, arcana does not disappear. It is contained within the knowledge and study the wizard used to harness its potential. At the end of a Junimo’s life, the spirit is reunited within nature, and passed on to the infant Junimo taking its place. The Junimo believe in the strict balance of life and death, light and dark, sun and moon; with the passing of a Junimo, another is born. The spirit of the deceased is gifted to the infant Junimo. After much study I have concluded that this is vital to the passing of information: with death comes experience from the passing Junimo, and with birth comes a fresh perspective. This, too, is how they achieve balance in our world.”

Drawing her knees to her chest, Saga mulled over the information. “And this all happens on the same day every year?”

Rasmodius nodded. “Through weather patterns and mapping, I believe I have found a partial explanation for it, but as with most arcana, there is a consistency for chaos and the random. Some things I am unable to discern and they haunt my waking thoughts to the point of madness, but, such is my pursuit for knowledge. While I prefer the intricacies of a mystery, the spirits of the forest are more prone to the whims of emotion and heart. Thusly, their chosen champion is often one who lacks any meticulous skill for the arcane.”

“...which is why you don’t want to teach me magic.”

“Correct.”

The realization sank in her chest, heavy with disappointment. “So they chose me because I am incompetent at magic, and emotional,” Saga surmised bitterly, feeling used. Gripping her knees tightly, her jaw ached as she clenched it.

“Not necessarily. If you recall, your grandfather was their former champion. True, he did not practice the arcana as I do, but in his later years he had developed particular talents beyond what can be taught from a book. As their sworn protector, he was particularly efficient in the use of wards and illusions. He even tricked me a few times.” Casting her a glance, Rasmodius cleared his throat. “I figured it out, of course,” he added quickly, causing her to smirk. “I see that you are disappointed in what I have to say, but, everything always begins with the first step.”

With a wave of his hand, warmth washed over Saga as if she had lowered herself into a luxurious bath. Looking down, her jacket had become dry, though the rain continued to fall. Within the enclosure of the drooping willow branches, all became still and quiet, separate from the world around it. Even the boulder she sat upon was dry and less cold - more body temperature than warm. Lowering her hood, Rasmodius indicated for her to adjust her posture. Crossing her legs, she shifted until reasonably comfortable, and waited for instructions.

“Connecting with nature’s arcana requires patience, stillness, and a mind clear of troubles. Meditating is one example of how you can tap into its vein and hear the needs of the forest. It is in my experience that the majority of mortals struggle with attaining these virtues, however there are some cultures that embrace the practice of meditation more than others. Close your eyes.”

“You’re not going to do anything weird, are you?” she asked warily, eyes narrowing but not quite closing.

“No. I am here merely to guide you to the best of my abilities.”

Closing her eyes, she wrestled with the immediate desire to open them. “Try to relax the muscles in your face; release the tension from your brow, your jaw, and your neck,” he encouraged, voice softer as if he were at a great distance. “For now, work on that. When you feel yourself begin to tense, focus on the areas one at a time. Brow. Jaw. Neck.”

The steady patter of the rain was a soothing distraction. Continuous and unchanging like white noise; easy to discern, easier to forget as she tried to achieve stillness. It was harder than she anticipated to actively relax the areas he repeated. More than anything she wanted to open her eyes and ask one of the millions of questions she still had. “Notice your breathing,” Rasmodius continued, his voice now coming from the other side. “Don’t try to control it, but, follow it through each inhale and exhale, even if it changes. If you find yourself focussing too much on it, settle your brow, your jaw, your neck.”

Thinking about breathing had a curious effect. She could spend an entire day not thinking about it, but the second she did, it became stilted, awkward - laborious, even. The inhale and exhale became forced, mechanical and unnatural. Good for when she was in the middle of a panic attack, but inducing it now sparked the first niggling of anxiety below her lungs. Brow, jaw, neck. Brow, jaw, neck. Was she relaxing these areas enough? What about her shoulders? Why wasn’t he saying anything about her shoulders - she could swear they were somewhere up by her ears, and they felt tight and miserable and maybe she should try to roll them - except she was trying to become still, and rolling shoulders was the opposite of being still. Now she was stuck, the joints rigid against the bone and it kind of hurt? Not being able to move when she wanted, it was like she was bound by an imaginary rope. If she created it, surely she should be able to cut it. Neck, brow, jaw. Neck, brow, jaw. No, that wasn’t the order. Start from the top again. Relax the face, you probably look angry, focus on the breathing, but that was getting a bit difficult, wasn’t it? Now her fingers itched - not to move, an actual itch. Something crawling against her skin and what was it that she had said? Hi, how are you?-

Whap!

“Ow!” Saga jolted on the spot, rubbing the top of her head where Rasmodius had given her an unexpected wallop. “What was that for?!”

“You need to clear your mind, not fill it with useless clutter.” He had been behind her, but now he moved to stand in front of her once more. “Try it again.”

“I was trying!”

“This time, do better.”

Saga glared at him, her hair mussed from massaging the area. “Great advice, that - ‘do better’. Thanks.”

“Less arguing, more clearing. You will never be able to perform your duties as sworn protector if you are busy trying to win an argument with yourself.” There was a break in the dark clouds above, big enough to let diffused sunlight streak the bed of grass between Rasmodius and the boulder. His eyes are amethyst and tired looking, and he tilts his chin to regard her with steeled determination. “I do not expect you to become an expert on your first try, however, perhaps a touch of leniency will be of some help.” Gesturing for her to close her eyes, Saga exhaled loudly and rolled her shoulders up toward her ears, holding it briefly before slumping her posture into a more natural shape. “When you find your thoughts turbulent with unease, focus on the nature you can sense around you: identify the feel of the earth beneath you, the smell of the breeze, the sounds of the forest. Let this lead you away from distractions, follow its breath with your own and give in to its presence.”

Behind her closed eyes she could watch the shifting ribbons of light, warm and comforting against the dull black. They swayed from side to side, a slow waltz dancing to music unheard. She breathed into it, imagining how the droplets of rain on the grass would sparkle and spin sunspots against the leaves and bark of the willow tree above her. She focussed on the rustle of the rain slipping down the delicate wisps of the branches, nourishing the stems of foliage bright green and vibrant, swelling with weight before falling away completely. She could smell the sap like it was a fresh wound; sticky and bitter, an abrasion of orange formed by the crystallization of being exposed to the open air - congealed and hardened into a scab. The rock beneath her was hard and unmoving, uncaring of her presence and unwilling to warm to her touch; it had been here long before her arrival, and would remain long after she was gone. The moss that grew against its side would continue to climb higher, a fur of time that would crawl onto her and root her to the spot if she stayed for too long.

A small bird fluttered its wings somewhere high up in the tree. Following the twisted knots, Saga listened as it called out to its mate, shaking water and the chill out from its feathers, but it was the only one of its kind in the area. It sang sadly, but with the hope that soon its love would return home. A wash of colours shifted behind her eyes, a collection of the things she imagined: the lush green, the rich brown, the stoic grey, the golden sun. She focussed on the beauty of it, following its constant shift and flicker with each inhale, little by little relaxing the strain in her brow, exhale, the breeze soft against her skin and carrying the distant crash of the waves from below. Inhale, her jaw went slack and the bird took flight, taking its song and its loneliness away from her. Exhale, her head became light upon her shoulders, floating and free. Inhale, and she felt the steady beat of her heart in her chest, exhale, it remained constant and strong. Inhale, it reverberated downward and through the rock, exhale, and it pulsed into the wet earth.

A network of threads came to life. Difficult to distinguish at first, but she narrowed her focus to it. Nearly invisible to her mind’s eye, but she could almost sense their presence. Strings no thicker than a strand of hair, blanketing the surface of the meadow; it curled around thick roots and upturned stone; it webbed up to the tops of the trees and draped across the sprawling grass; inhaling light and exhaling energy in time with her - there wasn’t a single area untouched by its splendor, and Saga came into the fold. She could feel its embrace, enticing her to expand her mind and heart. It was patterned and chaotic and beautiful, and she let it consume her, let it lace itself into her skin.

There was only one dark smudge in this network. A bleeding wound that curled the netting away and blackened the nature it touched. It was large and cold and sad, disguised as a human and lingering in the spot Rasmodius stood. Saga frowned, wanting the threads to investigate further, but they no longer followed the whims of her desire. It told her no and moved away, giving life to everything in their surroundings except for the gash of black void that remained centered and unmoving. She looked into it, disturbed by the distant sucking sound penetrating through the wind, dragging and swallowing the broken ends of the webbing in, a rattling breath hungry and wanting. The edges began to blur, distorting and stretching toward her as a sourceless whisper beckoned her in - words impossible to understand, but a certain kind of promise too tempting to ignore. Closer she leaned in, curiosity stronger than the reassurance of the threads trying to plant her to the spot, they yearned to pull her back and she wished she could tell them that it was okay, what harm could looking do?

A thrum of pleasure vibrated within her blood. The void opened itself up wider, a sick and terrible smile with viscous ichor pooling the ground like it was the salivating maw of a wild animal. She reached out with her hand, ignoring the sudden tension of the strings, crying like the misplaced note against a violin. Further she pushed, snapping the threads, fingers stretched and splayed just to touch-

“Enough.”

Eyes flying open, Saga was drenched in a cold sweat. There was a thunderous drumming in her ears, her breath hitched and shaking under the strain of a panic that set her ablaze in electrical heat. She was reaching out toward the wizard, pinned under eyes suddenly dark and angry with her. Dropping her hand, she gripped the sides of the boulder, seized by an inexplicable sense of dread she hadn’t felt during her meditation. Her stomach rolled unpleasantly as she thought of the black void, how alluring it had been and her desperate need to hear the voices clearly. Now it was as if she had woken up from a nightmare she had been paralyzed to, the memory of the warmth and completion of the threads fading in colour and clarity.

Hesitantly, she lifted her gaze toward Rasmodius. He looked the same, uncomfortable yet contemplative, except for the storm that quietly raged behind his eyes. He did not look at her. His body was partially angled away to where he could gaze off to the horizon, back toward the direction of his tower. Hands hidden in the depths of his pockets, the rain continued to cease against the invisible barrier of magic he was using. Wrestling with her nausea, Saga unfolded her legs and swallowed, nervous to speak what was on her mind. Rasmodius was the first to break the silence. “It appears you have made quite the impression.”

She could still see the void, and it had stood where he was standing. “Rasmodius, I-”

“Shh.” Finger to his lips, he silently pointed toward the mouth of the meadow.

At first she didn’t see anything at all except for the grass and the rain in the trees, but, there was a new kind of movement. It rustled in the grass, parting the blades and marching toward the center of the clearing, large leaves held aloft in their tiny little hands as umbrellas. Their colours began to glow as sunset darkened the sky; a soft smear of red, yellow, green, purple, and blue. The Junimos had arrived, walking in a line, their chirrups singing loud and clear. Some of them did not glow as bright as the others. Though they still had colour, it was muted and their antennae were prone to flickering instead of maintaining the steady bright gleam like the rest. These Junimos were scattered throughout, accompanied by another who held their hand and walked their pace. Their song filled her with a sense of melancholy, understanding at once that these are the Junimos ready to depart from the world and return to the threads she had seen.

Without thinking she began to follow them, careful to keep her distance so as to not startle them. Several carried various offerings in the form of small berries, leaves, even smooth stones like those found at the beach. Near the back, an all too familiar purple Junimo spotted her, its chirrup a call of greeting before the green one behind it nudged it forward.

Reaching the center, they circled themselves around, the final notes of their song lingering in the air before the sound of rain filled their silence. A gap remained, large enough for her, and the purple Junimo bounced for her attention. The sight of it made her throat tighten.

“They want you to join for the ceremony,” Rasmodius quietly explained, standing next to her. She nodded, knowing but hesitant to go. He looked to her, eyebrows furrowing. “What is wrong?”

“I feel like I am imposing,” she said, voice strained. “I don’t know anything - what if I mess something up?” Turning her head, she gazed up at the wizard, face twisted with worry. “What if I mess everything up?” she asked, no longer just talking about the ceremony.

“Impossible,” he told her with certainty. “You are their chosen.”

His words settled on her like a weight, at once both a comfort and a burden. She wanted to stay at the edge with him to observe, but, the threads she had seen were already interwoven to her skin, connecting her to the spirit of the forest. They plucked and pulled, encouraging her with the gentle coaxing of warmth she had felt in meditation. Slowly she went, step by step, crossing the divide between watching and experiencing.

She sat with them in their circle, the Junimos silently accepting her presence before the attention was turned toward the middle. One by one, the old Junimos were brought to the center, accompanied by the ones who held their hands. Their frail bodies began to glow warmly in the young night as soft motes of colour drifted off of them, like pollen from a dandelion, and Saga watched with her breath held as the old Junimos seemingly blew away in an unfelt wind. The rest began to sing, this time it is different, it is young and full of hope, it cradles the motes swirling in the air above them until it is impossible to discern one colour from the next. For a second, she thinks she sees the threads, dangling and delicate in the air, but she blinks and the Junimos below lift up their arms to gaze upon the beautiful cloud circling down, like the first snowfall of the season, gentle and full of wonder.

Suddenly she needs to shield her eyes from the intensity of their glow, brighter and brighter, whiter and hotter before it just stops. The song is abruptly cut off, rain ceases to fall in the meadow. The night is clear and the moon full in the sky. The motes are gone, returned to the earth, she assumes, and she wonders if that is the end of the ceremony, but then there is a noise. So soft, so quiet, it is more of a timid squeak. The Junimos in the middle break apart, and through the gaps Saga spots the smallest Junimo she has ever seen, bright-eyed and shy. A cacophony of cheer erupts from the spirits, all of them hopping and jumping, the circle breaking apart so that they can greet and embrace one another freely.

Saga sits stunned, in awe of what she had seen, confused as they begin to circle around her, and those tiny offerings they had carried were now beginning to be placed at her feet. Each one would stop to put their hands on her, still so light that she could hardly feel it. They were thanking her. Smiling, she felt teary and a little bit embarrassed. The purple Junimo she knew so well chastised another Junimo, suspecting it to have caused such a reaction. Saga laughed, accepting all of the offerings with her hands cupped, patient as they piled them into her palms.

Another song started up, jovial and bright, and they began to dance in clusters and as a group. Standing up, Saga pocketed all of her gifts, returning to Rasmodius’ side. “So that’s it?” she asked.

“Were you expecting more?”

“No.” She hadn’t been expecting anything. There was still a part of her that found it difficult to believe any of this was real. But she had seen it with her own eyes, hadn’t she? She had felt something, maybe it was magic, maybe it was nothing more than a waking dream, but she had felt it, hadn’t she? Pressing her lips into a line, she struggled to find a way to explain her apprehension. “Did my grandfather ever…” She recalled the black void, shaped in Rasmodius’ form.

He studied her face as if he was reading lines from a book. Clearing his throat, he shook his head. “What you saw was the physical manifestations of my failures. The same did not happen to your grandfather, and it will not happen to you.”

She lowered her eyes. “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to pry.”

“It would be good to talk about it,” Rasmodius considered, though he looked pained to even suggest it. “A path does not run in a single direction, one can always turn and walk the other way. The same is true for the arcane. I made the mistake of journeying the dark longer than necessary, and it has affected every area of my life since.”

The Junimos looked so happy, nothing more but colorful dots in a sea of green. “Are you dangerous?” Saga asked, her voice small.

“For a while,” he answered sadly, “I am constantly seeking ways to undo the damage I have done, to bring my balance back to neutral and observe without participating.” He went quiet, watching the Junimos with her, unmoving and still. Perhaps it was the end of the conversation, or a subtle hint that she should drop the topic entirely.

But I need to know- “When I saw…it, I heard it say something, something I couldn’t quite understand, but when I focused on it, I was - I wanted to-”

“I know.”

Saga flushed in embarrassment, vulnerable for having been so transparent. Within her pockets, she rubbed the smooth edge of a stone, warming it beneath her touch with repetitive strokes. “Did my grandfather ever make a mistake like that?”

“Once. It is the reason for the state of the Community Center.” Catching her hurt expression, the wizard exhaled through his nose loudly and clarified. “The purpose of the dark arcana is to attract and to corrupt, but it was not through the use of dark arcana that the Community Center is the way it is. Your grandfather had the misfortune of witnessing my struggle and resisted its allure at every venture. He was an incredibly strong-willed man, and he was exactly what the Junimos needed at that time.”

It wasn’t dark magic. Relief lessened the tension in her muscles. She smiled as she listened to someone talk about an aspect of her grandfather that remained a complete mystery to her. A man who had been proficient in wards and illusions, with the moral strength to combat against that very black void she had wanted to reach out and touch. The smile faltered. “What if I’m not strong enough?” What if she wasn’t strong enough to resist?

“You will be.” Sure and confident, Rasmodius turned away from the festivities. “It takes one step at a time.” Raising a hand, he bid her a silent farewell, leaving her with a thousand new questions as with the flick of his coat, he disappeared entirely.

Reaching out, she passed her hand through the air he had been, wondering if there was anyway she could feel the threads, but her fingers touched nothing. With a sigh, she decided to leave the Junimos to their celebration and slip away, but she didn’t get very far until an insistent chirrup drew her attention down toward her feet.

The purple Junimo was on her shoe, watching her expectantly. Chuckling, she knelt down and offered a hand to scoop it up onto her shoulder. “Don’t you want to stay and celebrate?”

Pointing behind her, Saga found that the party had been moved to cluster around her, each spirit jumping and some with the smallest Junimo’s balanced carefully on their heads. As she began her trek toward the illusioned bridge, the broken and threatening visage was washed away by the rain to reveal a perfectly sound structure, complete with rails. She crossed it quickly and looked back, the illusion once more in place to ward away any unsuspecting villagers. Half of the Junimos remained on the other side to sing goodbye, while the other half followed her through the forest. Every now and then a couple would veer off from the path, and she would wait until their glow wasn’t visible to the naked eye, and before she knew it, it was just her and the purple Junimo at the foot of the path leading up to her farm.

Lowering it back down to the ground, Saga knelt and held out her palm, big enough that both of its hands could rest on it. “Thank you for letting me join the ceremony,” she said to it, grinning when it looked at her bashfully and chittered in response. “I’ll do everything I can to be the best protector I can be, yeah?” They shook on it, and with a hop and a jiggle, the purple Junimo disappeared into a nearby bush.

Straightening, Saga looked back toward the path she had come. Without the rain, the moon was bright and clear in the sky, bathing the land in silver and shadow. Closing her eyes, she tried to find it again - just a single thread connected by concentrating on the sounds of the forest, but nothing came to her. When she looked at her phone, everything was as it should be. Not a trace of magic in sight.