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The Shy Newcomer

Chapter Text

It had been a dreary, rainy day. How very fitting for her mood.  The young woman listened to the raindrops smack against her windowpanes.

Tap. Tap-tap.  Tap.

A second, steadier rhythm was added to the din.

Drip. Drip.  Drip.

A small leak in the ceiling dribbled into an old bucket she had found in her barn earlier that day. It was hardly a permanent fix, but it would have to do for now.

Claire wasn’t the type to brood, but today was different. She had only been in Mineral Town for a few weeks, but she was already starting to have second thoughts about staying.  She knew, however, that she didn’t have much of a choice—the real estate agent had smooth-talked her into giving all up of her money for the run-down farm.  Just thinking about the scheme angered the normally quiet and rational young woman, and it was the only time within her memory that she had resorted to using violence. 

It could be argued that the mayor of the town was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, but he had dared to tease her about the situation. He had the gall to laugh in her face when she admitted that she had moved out of her apartment already and quit her job before actually seeing the property she had purchased.  The pudgy middle-aged man hadn’t expected physical brutality in response to his less-than-polite remarks about her decision-making skills.

He deserved it, Claire gritted her teeth.

Did he really, though? The young woman bit her lip as she shifted on her lumpy cotton mattress.  The farmer rewound the situation in her mind and her face burned with embarrassment that she had brandished her new hammer at him.  What on earth had she been thinking?  The problem was that she hadn’t been.  Being blinded by rage was something people read about in books; Claire never lost her temper.  Her stomach churned as she contemplated this ugly new side of her that she didn’t know existed.  She threw herself down on the bed and stared at the knots in the pine ceiling of her new house, muttering phrases and words of displeasure under her breath.  Perhaps the one she was the angriest with was herself for being so gullible and desperate for something new and exciting in her life.

Is it really too much to ask for? I’m twenty-two and I feel like I’m a dying old woman already…

But she had fallen into a now-obvious real estate trap – believing every word she had read in the advertisement. Simply put, she had been too naïve.

The new farmer liked to think of her initial attraction to the small coastal town as a sort of temporary insanity; the young woman had seen an advertisement in the local paper for the property and had called the real estate company that very night with an offer. Claire had a steady job in the city, but a lingering sadness followed her for as long as she could remember.  It almost felt as if her soul was dying a little bit every day, especially after joining the workforce.  She enjoyed working with numbers – her job at the accounting firm was a big responsibility for someone so young and with a somewhat less than adequate education, and she had been up to the challenge for over a year now.  Besides, her parents had given her something she craved more than anything else in the entire world: some implications of approval and praise.  She should have been elated.  The quiet middle child had set about her life determined to please them, and in doing so, making herself happy.  Things were never that simple, she realized as she grew older.

The heavy weight on the young woman’s heart was a particular brand of loneliness that belonged to people who knew very little of much else. Her insatiable desire for her success in the workforce kept her from connecting well with anyone.  She rarely spoke to anyone outside of the office, although she religiously sent reports to her parents back home via handwritten letters.  Eager for their support, she wished they would reply to her writings, boring as the contents were.  She realized with a sudden and violent sadness the lowly level she had stooped to when she had written a letter to her mother a few months ago about her delight in finding an extra dumpling in her microwave dinner.

That had been the highlight of her week.

Although she loved to cook, she lacked the energy or time to do much of it since she moved out of her parents’ house at nineteen. She had gingerly peeled the crinkly plastic back from an identical meal tray, searching hopefully for a spare dumpling, only to be met with disappointment once again.  It had been sheer dumb luck, a fluke at the factory that processed the meals.  The dumplings, although they were the tastiest part of the meal, admittedly weren’t even that good to begin with; they were rather bland. 

Isn’t there something exciting in this world?

She never would have expected to find the answer to her prayers that very evening as she opened the newspaper to read about the day’s events. She dropped the paper on the floor, letting a small whine escape her lips as she bent over to pick it up.  Claire was too tired to go about chasing after her clumsy mistakes tonight – her fatigue at work had left her scrambling to correct errors all day in her records.  She let out a sigh as she looked at the heap of manila folders bundled up by the television.  It would be a long night of correcting the mistakes she made today…

Her heart pounded wildly in her chest as her throat tightened at the notion of another evening staring at her own errors until her eyes grew bleary with exhaustion. If there was one thing she hated more than anything else, it was failure.  Claire felt another piece of herself slipping away.  She forced the thought and dread out of her mind and willed herself to relax for a moment as she picked up the insert that had fallen from the periodical.  Just a few minutes to read about what was going on in the world, and she’d get back to work.

She looked at the colorful advertisement in her hands and nearly missed her chair as she sat back down, staring intently at the description of a property in a far-off village.

Mineral Town…

A wave of euphoria shot up her spine as she continued to read. She set the ad on her table’s surface, as her hands were shaking so much she was having difficulty making out the words.  A fresh, green property with clean water, crisp air, and opportunity – this was it!  This was the excitement she had been craving.  With trembling fingers, she dialed the number provided. 

Claire had been in a trance as the real estate agent spoke with her over the phone. Yes, it would probably take decades to pay off, but that was fine; she was getting a new lease on life.  It was a beautiful piece of property up in the mountains and had a stream running right along the edge, he explained.  A white-sanded beach off of the ocean was walking distance from her house; she had never even been to a beach in her life.  There were natural hot springs, and the peak of the mountain overlooked the town.  Her house was already equipped with the essentials – they’d even throw in a television.  How could anyone not want to live there?  No, she didn’t have the money for the down payment, but they could work something out.

Her life savings for the down payment? Well, of course, it was a new life after all…  Sell any non-essentials?  Great idea!  She would not let this opportunity pass her by.

I don’t think I’ve ever done anything so stupid in my whole life…

Drip. Tap-tap.  Drip.

The young woman snapped back to reality as she stared around her barren one-roomed farmhouse. It was smaller than her apartment back in the city, and her old home had the convenience of a refrigerator, a shower, and a wardrobe full of clothes.  In the excitement of owning her own farm and getting a fresh new start, Claire had sold off almost all of her possessions so that she could afford the down payment on the property.  While she had written a very businesslike letter to her parents about her move and how nice the farm was, she had left out quite a few details and stretched the truth a bit about the quality of the house.  She was now reduced to the bare essentials.  She had a sad, worn-out cotton stuffed mattress in the corner of her room that rested on a creaky old frame.  An old-fashioned television that received a couple of channels sat on the floor, along with a small table and a few floor cushions.

She absentmindedly watched the drops from the ceiling splash into the pail below. Some luxury farmhouse, she thought bitterly.

Because she had gotten rid of almost everything she owned, this situation left her with little more than the clothes on her back. She suddenly realized how difficult everyday things became to her, such as preparing a meal or taking a bath; she had neither a kitchen nor bathroom in her house.  Claire had never been camping herself, but she almost wondered if this was how people felt when they were “roughing it”.  She gained a new respect for people who had to live this way.

Determined not to be overwhelmed by the implied hopelessness of the situation, she found that she had to be pretty creative to make ends meet. Claire reminded herself every day that this was a new lifestyle from the city, and therefore, she was going to have to learn how to adjust.  For example, the farmer would go down to bathe at the spring late at night and jump in fully clothed for fear of someone walking by.  She would then hang her clothes to dry in her house as she slept.  Claire was sure that she would make enough money for a new set of clothes before cooler weather set in.  Waking up to a damp set of clothes was uncomfortable, to say the least.  She cursed herself every day for not keeping more articles of clothing, but she had needed every last piece of gold to make the down payment.  She alternated between her flannel, her undershirt, and one day when she noticed that not many people walked to the path to the mountains in rainy weather, she only wore her bra under her overalls.  The uncomfortable chafing of damp denim on her delicate shoulders quickly kept her from repeating that mistake, and she realized with embarrassment that someone had walked past her on her way back into the farmhouse.  She didn’t get a good look at them, but knowing her luck, it was probably a man.

Claire also began foraging in the mountains for anything edible. She was used to reaching into her freezer for a meal and she felt a little overwhelmed when she realized that option was no longer available despite the fact that she was working just as hard.  The young woman had discovered where a couple of bamboo shoots sprung up, but she wasn’t all that sure what was edible and what wasn’t; all of this greenery was still quite new to her.  She quickly began dropping weight and lacked the energy to grow many crops.  As her weight fell, so did her mood.  What had she been thinking when she came out here?  The farmer couldn’t help but focus on what she didn’t have.

She tried her best to stay positive. Claire remembered that had also been left with the stables and housing for her animals, but they all stood dusty and empty, save a young horse that one of the fellow farmers dropped by her house a week or so ago for the stable.  She had named the colt Tucker, and she was relieved to find that he was content with eating the overgrown weeds on her farm.  Her hope that the barn would soon be filled with livestock was quickly fading as she realized she could scarcely feed herself, let alone extra animals.  Of course, she also had her loyal puppy, Koro, who was given to her by the real estate agent.  It seemed her poor mood had an effect on her pet’s behavior.  The young dog would quietly sit at the foot of her bed as she stifled sobs, wallowing in self-pity, looking up at her with wide, piteous charcoal eyes.

And that was exactly what she was doing again tonight, she realized as she hugged her knees to her chest. Wallowing.  But it was not only her financial situation that bothered her, or her lack of friends.  It hadn’t even been the fact that the idea of owning a farm now overwhelmed her and she was quickly losing her faith that she would be any sort of success.  All of these things were trivial compared to her main problem. 

It was him.

She had met him on her first day in her new home. Stubborn, yet shy, the young man quickly caught her interest.  The first thing that she noticed about him was the color of his icy blue eyes, although she swiftly realized that he had often hidden them from the world under his hat.  A view of the baby blues was a rare treat, and she had been lucky enough to get a peek on her first meeting.  The very sight of those eyes made her heart pound in her chest – harder than the thudding of metal on metal she heard in the background the day they had met.

The young man worked hard all day with metal and heavy tools and his body showed it. He had a muscular build and a set of strong arms that she longed to get lost in.  Claire felt a certain kind of envy that he was able to work so swiftly, yet she was painfully unaware of the lack of quality in his work.  She didn’t care that he was only an apprentice; she was a beginner, too.  Something about the way he used his anger to fuel his work intrigued her, and she couldn’t keep herself from coming into the inn nearly every evening to visit with him and bring him small pieces of copper ore she found.  If only she could get another glance at those pale eyes, she felt like she could last another day in Mineral Town.

Gray was always fairly quiet. He accepted his gifts with a simple “thank you”, and Claire would find herself staring at him until the both of them turned pink.  She noticed movement out of the corner of her eye in the shared room, so she decided it wasn’t improper for a young woman to come calling on the apprentice in the evening if someone else was living with him.  Gray never had much to say, though, but that was fine; Claire spoke plenty with her eyes and she relished every moment.  They stood in silence together and it was as if time stood still for the young woman.  It was at this time Gray would suggest she go back to the farm.  Claire always silently wished that he would offer to walk her home, but he never did.

Drip. Drip.  Drip.

The rain outside had stopped, but the ceiling continued to leak.

The young farmer sat with her worn quilt wrapped around her as she stared up at the dripping ceiling. It had been three weeks since she had met him, and Gray still avoided using her name very often, making Claire fear for a while that he had trouble remembering it.  How could he not recall her when after a few weeks, he was the subject of a majority of her thoughts?  Claire knew that she should talk to other people and make some friends, but what if no one else could remember her name?  It hurt so much she didn’t want to think about it, yet it was all she could dwell on as of late.

She didn’t want to admit it to herself, but she preferred others to make the first move. Initiating conversation was an extremely stressful task for Claire, and she had struggled with it in the city.  Burying herself in her work had always been her go-to coping mechanism for her lack of social life, but in such a small, tight-knit community, one could not hide forever. 

The blacksmith’s shop had been her first introduction after the mayor, and if she had not caught a peek at those beautiful eyes, she would have been scared off right away with Gray’s cold mannerisms in their first meeting. The apprentice’s grandfather was in the middle of correcting one of his grandson’s errors when Claire entered the smithy and the young man had lashed out at her, demanding that she “kindly get the hell out of” their shop.

“Gray, what has gotten into you?! We do not speak to our customers that way!”

Claire stood in stunned silence as her eyes filled with tears. The young man gazed at her expression and tugged the bill of his cap over his eyes.  “So-Sorry…  I didn’t mean to be rude.  My grandfather was giving me a hard time.  He never approves of any of my work.”  He let out a sigh.  “… I’m ready to quit.  I… feel stupid, you know?”

She thought of her farm as she blinked the mistiness out of her eyes. He wasn’t the only one who felt like an incompetent fool.  She looked up at him and their eyes locked.  Her lips parted in awe as she searched for the words, but they wouldn’t come.  Those ice blue eyes reflected such a fierceness and passion, but there was a sense of loneliness about them.

They were beautiful.

She wanted to get lost in them and her heart throbbed as she clutched her hand to her chest. She decided right then and there that the young man needed to be in her life.  These kinds of feelings didn’t happen every day, after all.  She felt a well of something rise up in her as she turned to him and clenched her hand into a determined fist.  “If you’re really… truly unhappy… like you say you are…” her voice died off as she stared at the floor.  Claire didn’t have an escape out of the situation she was in, but if someone else did…  She only hoped he wouldn’t have to move far away.  “Maybe you should quit,” she offered as cordially as possible.  He should do what made him happy.

The young man’s eyes met hers once again and he was silent for a moment. “Look, I know I started it, but you don’t have to be a jerk about it.  Can you please just leave now?” Gray’s eyes hardened as he ushered her out the door and slammed it behind her.  He had read into her words completely the wrong way.  She could tell from the clattering of tools that the old man was slamming his fist as he resumed yelling at his grandson.  She hurried back to her farm.

Not only had the young apprentice hurt her feelings with his overly guarded attitude, but he had managed to steal her heart at the same time, as strange as it seemed. The very next morning he appeared at her farm with an apology and a few hardboiled eggs he purchased from the poultry farm across the way.  She managed to squeak out a thank you and a wave of relief overcame his features as he headed back to work.

She ate all three eggs in one sitting and they were the most delicious thing she had eaten in weeks. As the nutrients hit her, she felt some energy return and she grabbed her hoe with a new determination.

She couldn’t stop thinking about the young man as she tended to her fields. What was he like?  What did he enjoy?  One thing she quickly learned about him was that he walked every day, almost religiously, to the library at one o’clock. 

Ah, a reader. Claire hardly had the time while she lived in the city to crack open a book on anything that wasn’t related to accounting.  She wondered what kinds of stories he liked to read.  Action?  Adventure?  Mystery?  Every day she visited the young man at the inn, she noticed the stack of books change.  She had read a few of the spines. A Soldier’s Pride, The Tactician, War is Hell…  He seemed very fond of wartime stories.  The young woman couldn’t say she felt the same, but she would be willing to give his recommendations a read for the sake of a chance of bonding further with him.  She noticed that the apprentice read at a rapid pace; he was constantly returning to the library, but it seemed he didn’t always bring his books back with him when he left.  Many times he came in and out with no new books.  It wasn’t as if she was tracking him or anything, but Claire was curious about his strange behavior and she had gone inside one afternoon to see what was so captivating about that library.  She soon learned that it was not what was so interesting, but who was so fascinating.

“Hello. You must be the new farmer,” the librarian smiled politely, adjusting her glasses on the bridge of her nose.  She had a soft, meek voice with a milder accent than most of the townspeople.  The young woman had a very small frame and was short in stature; her shy stance and sloped shoulders didn’t add to her height.

Despite her demure mannerisms, she was, in a word, gorgeous. The woman was dressed in what girls back in the city would describe as “bookish” clothing, but it made her look grown-up and sophisticated.  A soft ribbon tied around her neck reminded Claire a bit of her high school uniform, but the sweater the librarian had paired it with made her look charming and stylish.  Her porcelain skin was contrasted by her long silky black hair that was tied into a loose braid.  Behind her glasses, a pair of soft mocha brown eyes reflected a maturity that Claire longed to have.

It was more than just the young woman’s perceived wisdom that the farmer was envious of. A pair of pale blue eyes was locked onto the librarian and she noticed the beginnings of a smile on the young man’s mouth.

Claire sheepishly nodded and forced a small fake grin on her face, trying not to stare. She was relieved when the young woman continued to speak; the farmer had lost her voice at the sight of Gray.

“My name is Mary, and I am the librarian here. If you have any questions, just let me know.”  Her eyes were kind, and the slight curve of her pink lips was inviting.  “I’m sure that you’ll fit right in here.”  Claire felt herself relax a little bit at Mary’s words.  It seemed she had one of those faces one couldn’t help believing.  Those sincere dark eyes and expressive eyebrows – the librarian could tell her that it was raining grape juice and Claire would grab a bucket and run outside. 

If Mary said she would fit in then she surely belonged here, the farmer supposed. Claire nodded dumbly once again; she was certain she looked absolutely ridiculous to her.  Mary was so put together – her glasses made her look so very clever and smart and her eyes gleamed with experience.

“Ah, and this is my friend, Gray,” Mary gestured toward the apprentice blacksmith, who was standing rather closely beside her behind the desk. The pair had a large book open, and Gray seemed to be marking a spot with his finger.  The young man looked up at Claire.

“Hello… Claire.” The farmer was surprised he knew her name.

“Oh, you two have met already?” Mary smiled, looking between the pair as she weaved her fingers together. The farmer noted with a twinge of jealousy that she had no dirt under her carefully trimmed nails; Claire jammed her hands into her pockets, embarrassed.

The blonde nodded in reply, unable to speak. It was no wonder why Gray was good friends with the beautiful young woman.  In just the few sentences she had heard, a sense of gentle serenity washed over her.  Overwhelmed by the apparent close relationship between the two, Claire reddened.  “W-well, I was just stopping by…  I-I have some work to do, so I’ll stop by longer some other time,” she managed to squeak out as she slowly backed out toward the doorway.

Mary frowned as she raised her eyebrows. It appeared that she was genuinely upset to see Claire leave so soon.  “That’s… too bad.  See you around.”

“Yeah,” Claire’s voice cracked. She turned around and left the building, afraid to look back.

The young woman knew that she was being silly, but she found herself unable to help it. She had run home and thrown herself on the bed, tears streaming down her face.  Why did she care so much about the apprentice anyway?  When did he ever show an interest in her?  Mary seemed like a sweet girl, but Claire knew she was already dismissing her as a friend because of her connection to Gray.  The librarian was intimidating in the fact that she was approachable, if that made any sense.  Of course the apprentice would flock to someone like Mary.  Claire hated her already.  The young woman bit the inside of her cheek as punishment.  She was being stupid; stupid and immature.

Claire’s knowledge of Mary’s existence caused the farmer to lose all desire to go back into town. She spent all of her days at the farm, pouring herself into her work in order to ease her broken heart, and she only went to the village to buy seeds.  Occasionally, Claire would bump into a few of the residents, and they all seemed slightly annoyed that she had been ignoring them by not introducing herself for so long.  The young woman would mumble out a weak introduction and hurry over to the store so that she could buy her seeds and return to the solitude of her farm.

She had grown up in a crowded house with her two older sisters and two younger brothers. Her parents were always very busy, and she had spent most of her childhood by herself, but she still found that she was lonely in her new home. Of course, Koro followed her like a shadow, but it was human contact that the young woman craved.  She was used to working in her busy office, seeing the same people every day.  Sure, they weren’t close, but at least they were people.  She missed her elderly neighbor that lived down the hall in her apartment complex; the widower would make small talk with her and share his leftovers.

Claire drooled. She hadn’t had a hot meal since she left the city.

The ceiling had stopped leaking.

Drip. Drip.

New tears sprang from her eyes and fell onto the wooden floor below as she sat on the edge of her bed. She was hungry, tired, and painfully lonely.  Claire shivered under her blanket and made a silent promise to herself.  Tomorrow, she would take care of this.

Chapter Text

Claire wondered the next morning if her improved mood was genuine or just part of a coping mechanism, but after remembering the misery she had allowed herself to wallow in the night before, she didn’t care about the reason for her raised spirits. Surely part of it was because the rain had stopped and she slept very well the night before, having a deep and dreamless sleep, much to her relief.  With a fresher and clearer mind she was able to realize that it was silly of her to avoid the whole town just because Gray lived there.  Besides, maybe he wasn’t a lost cause after all.  Perhaps Mary was his cousin or a friend of the family.  Claire nodded her head excitedly to this notion; maybe she did really still have a chance.

Exhilarated by her newfound confidence, she practically jumped out of bed. She stepped into her clothes and brushed out her hair as Koro played with her untied bootlaces.  She scratched the dog’s head absentmindedly.  There was a lot she wanted to get done today, and farming was just the beginning of it all.

Claire grabbed her watering can and stepped outside into the fresh spring air, her puppy following her and sniffing along the ground happily for a few moments before he chased after a butterfly. She admired the sunlight gleaming off of the surface of her watering hole for a moment before filling up her watering can and heading out to her plots of turnips and potatoes.  Claire was reminded once again of the simplistic beauty of the wildlife around her.  The air was cleaner here than in the city, and she noticed for the first time that there was no din of traffic and crowds of people talking.  As she poured the water on her plants, she got used to this new ambient sound – songbirds chirping at each other from the branches, the slowly moving river beside her house, and the clucking of the chickens on the farm to the north.  If she listened closely enough, she could hear an occasional animal from the livestock farm to the east, and if she really strained her ears, she heard a rare clank of metal from the forge.  Her heart leapt; she really didn’t live that far from the where Gray worked, did she?

She saw some small white flowers on the top of one of her plants and she was filled with excitement, rushing to her empty barn to grab an old pitchfork she had found there a few days ago. The prongs were bent and the tool had seen better days, but it would certainly work better than attempting to dig with her gloved hands.  She had read the description of the potato plants at the shop and knew that the flowers had heralded that some potatoes were finally ready.  She clumsily raked the loose soil with the pitchfork, careful not to damage the small cluster of tubers and shoved them in her bag, eager to eat them later. 

The potatoes were a welcome change; she was growing rather tired of flavorless bamboo shoots when she didn’t own any seasonings. Preparing foraged food was much different than putting a cardboard tray in the microwave.  It wasn’t that she didn’t know how to cook; in fact, she rather enjoyed it, and she looked at this new life as an opportunity to get back into practice.  In an attempt to give the bamboo shoots more flavor, Claire had once tried adding mashed berries to them and immediately regretted it.  Just remembering the incident caused her to gag.  She smiled to herself.  At least she would have a little more variety for dinner, as soon as she figured out how to cook them first.  The young woman had partially solved her food problem –for the moment, anyway.  What tomorrow brought was a completely different story, and she didn’t want to think about that just yet.

She watered the remainder of her plants- a few plots of turnips that she had grown from seeds- and grabbed her basket, wandering up the mountain trail. She had never ventured too far up the inclined path, as she was often too winded to get very far and she didn’t want to get lost.  Claire looked around her and ripped at some bamboo shoots she saw with a sharp stone.  The results weren’t exactly pretty, as the bottoms of the shoots got shredded, but it was something to eat and something that sold for a little bit of pocket change.  After harvesting a few, her hands began to feel a little sore, so she took a short break.  She had quickly learned while living on her farm how important it was to prevent an injury.  After all, if she hurt her hands, she wouldn’t be able to search for food as easily.

She spied several other things growing in the green underbrush, but she decided to stick with what she knew. The last thing she wanted was to break out in a rash or cut her hands on an unseen thorn.  Still, she looked at the greenery, briefly contemplating going against her instincts.  If there was something in there that was edible…  The young woman quickly shook her head and tugged at another bamboo shoot.  She was a beginner and pretending not to be could cost her.  An upset stomach or digestive issues were risks she wasn’t willing to take.  She already knew she probably shouldn’t be eating so many raw bamboo shoots.

Claire’s stomach twisted in anticipation as she stepped inside of the spring mines. This was where she usually picked up her scraps of ore for shipping, not to mention her gifts for Gray.  She had never really considered mining as a profession before moving to Mineral Town, but after he mentioned that he regularly came here to pick up supplies for the smithy, she was willing to give it a try, especially after discovering an old hammer in her barn. 

Claire swung the heavy tool, reminded once again that her previous desk job didn’t prepare her much for this new lifestyle. The sound of the hammer crumbling away the rocks echoed through the cave, and Claire found herself coughing on the dust she raised.  An old oil lantern had lit her way, but it was still quite dim, and she felt a chill run down her spine as she heard movement in the far corner of the cave.  Surely she was hearing things, she thought with a wry smile.  She gripped the wooden handle of her hammer.

Thump… thump… thump…

The young woman attempted to keep a rhythm to her swings to keep a momentum. She had tried singing songs in the past, but the thought that she might not be alone kept her from doing so.  She took a quick break and wiped her forehead with a handkerchief from her pocket, catching her breath and moving her eyes up to the ceiling, half expecting to see glowing multitudes of bats’ eyes watching her from above.  With a sharp intake of air, she moved the lantern in front and above her, searching for the source of the sound.

Flap-flap… Flap…

Something was in the cave with her – that was for certain. She felt her pulse quicken as she picked up the pace, debating whether or not she should continue her work.  It wasn’t as if she had really found much other than cheap rocks, and she often didn’t find much else.  Claire ignored the sound and continued to work.  If she found some sort of ore, she was certain that Gray would be pleased.  The thought of his smiling face kept her going.  After a long couple of hours, she had collected only a couple of small slivers of what looked like copper.  Raw materials didn’t sell for too much, anyway.  Frustrated at letting herself waste so much time and overcome with exhaustion, she decided not to spend more energy and time on this particular project.

The farmer stepped outside of the dim cave, blinking her eyes as she adjusted to the change in light. The sun had risen to its rightful place in the sky, and its beams danced on top of the spring’s water.  A young woman stood at the edge of the small pond, staring at her reflection.  Claire had normally snuck past her when exiting the caves, either too nervous to introduce herself or not wanting to bother her.  The brunette whirled around and caught sight of Claire.

“Good morning!” Her voice was friendly, but it was a little louder than was necessary.

Claire hesitantly took a step near the girl, her heart sinking as she realized she was required to make an introduction. Her stomach churned with anxiety as she gave her a small wave, immediately flushing with embarrassment.  The woman had already seen her; a wave wasn’t exactly necessary, and it probably made her look awkward and childish.  “G-good morning.”  She hoped she didn’t look as sweaty and miserable as she felt.  Her eyes quickly traveled to her feet; she was certain that she was sizing up Claire and trying to hold in her laughter at her lack of social skills.

“You must be the new farmer girl that everyone’s been talking about.” She played with a long strand of brown hair as her eyes curiously moved over her.  “My name’s Karen.  My father runs the supermarket in town.”

She nodded politely in response. “I-I’m Claire.”

Her lips curled up into a smile, and she noticed they were covered in a pretty shade of pink lip gloss that she was certain she couldn’t pull off herself. “It’s nice to meet you, Claire.  Have you had a proper tour of the town yet?  I’d be happy to show you around.”  She said it in such a genuine, sincere way that Claire was taken by surprise.

Everything about the young woman, from the eccentric blonde streaks in the front of her hair to her strong voice to her stance, emanated confidence. She was immediately intimidated.  Karen was beautiful, but in a much different way than Mary.  Claire got the feeling she had men falling all over her everywhere she went.  Claire really didn’t want to walk through town next to such a confident, attractive woman; it would only make everyone realize how starkly plain and awkward Claire was by comparison.

“Oh, thank you very much, but I am quite busy right now.” She forced a small smile on her face, shuffling her rucksack on her shoulders, as if to convince the both of them that she was indeed busy.

“Maybe tomorrow?” The woman’s green eyes sparkled at her.  Her tone of voice was friendly but it also had a commanding sound to it.

“Er-okay… Maybe.”  She was too afraid to say no; she had a feeling that no one turned down Karen’s requests.

Without so much as a goodbye, Claire quickly walked back to her farm, her stomach in knots. She broke into a run as she entered her property, diving into her house and slamming the door.  She had been toying with the idea of going into town today, but when she gave serious thought to it, it caused her to panic.  She had the intention of introducing herself to a couple of people, but what if she ran into a crowd?  Claire knew that she had been avoiding the town for long enough, but the thought of so many unfamiliar people made her nauseous.  She hated introductions with a passion: the awkwardness, the fake smiles, the forced politeness; everyone would quickly learn that she was a city girl who had no idea how to run a farm.  Questions would be asked and she wouldn’t have any intelligent answers.  She’d be laughed at the same way Mayor Thomas made fun of her for buying the property.  After emptying her basket into the shipping bin, she stepped into her house and threw herself on her bed, holding her stomach.

It would only get worse the more she put it off.

Claire sat up. She was spending too much time pitying herself.  If she wanted things to change, she was going to have to do it herself.  Surely there had to be a place in town that would be safe to start – somewhere she could be herself and not be afraid of others making her feel like a fool for moving here.  A sudden idea gave her a burst of hope.  The gods were always there; they would always listen to her troubles.  No one at the church could possibly judge her.  And because it was likely to be empty, she could limit the number of introductions she had to make at once.  The pastor was sure to make her feel welcome, she reasoned.  After all, wasn’t that part of the job?  Almost giddy with excitement, she headed for the house of worship.

It was a simple building on the far side of town, practically identical to the church she attended as a child—two rows of pews with an aisle in the middle and an altar at the front. She noticed that this particular church was dedicated to the Harvest Goddess.  A small door to the left of the altar was where the confessions were usually heard.  She let out a sigh of relief; she was finally around something familiar.  The young woman quickly turned the knob and entered.  Feeling especially bold, Claire walked past the privacy screen and took a seat across from the pastor, who warmly greeted her with a handshake.

“Hello. My name is Carter.  I am the pastor here at church.  Are you the new farmer?”  He had a serene smile on his face and she wondered if he always looked so calm and peaceful.  Something about his gentle aura caused her heart to slow its pounding.

“Yes, my name is Claire.” She nodded and a small grin appeared.  She quickly straightened her posture, wondering if she gave off the illusion of someone who knew what they were doing.  After all, if she was going to start introducing herself to people, she needed them to believe in her and what she was going to do with the farm.

He relaxed in his chair, leaning back and crossing his ankles. Claire studied his shoes.  While carefully polished, she could see that they were quite worn.  She supposed that in such a small town, the residents didn’t give as much to the church, so it was likely Pastor Carter’s vow of poverty wasn’t a stretch of the imagination by any means.  His polite speech pulled her away from focusing on his footwear.  “It is very nice to meet you, Claire.  If you ever need any help or guidance, I will always be here.”

How good it felt for someone to say that, especially from someone who was struggling financially as well! Claire was so happy she could’ve hugged him.  She noticed that he didn’t have the folksy accent she associated with most of the villagers of Mineral Town and felt a little less alone.  His voice had a very proper-sounding lilt to it, one she associated with the wealthier neighborhoods of the larger cities.  It seemed she wasn’t the only one who had given up what they had always known in pursuit of something different.

“Is there anything I can help you with?” His kind voice sounded friendly, but the slight furrowing of his eyebrows made him look a bit concerned.

Claire’s confidence suddenly deflated and she wiped her clammy hands on her thighs. She knew that she should feel comfortable talking to him, but her voice caught in her throat.

“Is something bothering you?” Carter asked gently. Claire was surprised; he had a much more personable demeanor than her previous priest.

What was the point of coming here if she wasn’t going to talk to him? Claire took a deep breath, her cheeks flushing with color.  “I-I also came to confess.”  She played with her fingers, refusing to look up at him.

He gently closed his eyes and bowed his head that particular reverence that only pastors could achieve. A calming aura filled the room as Claire relaxed.  “Alright.”

Claire suddenly felt her face get hot.  Admittedly, it had been a while since her last confession, and she was grateful he hadn’t asked her how long it had been.  It was hard to tell how priests were going to react to confessions.  While most had been very businesslike with her, she hadn’t lived within walking distance of their church.  Mineral Town seemed like a very close-knit community and she wasn’t quite sure how to become part of it.  “N-no one in t-town… seems to l-like me,” she managed to squeak out.

The pastor was silent for a moment, and then he looked up at her. In truth, it was a bit of an odd thing to make as a confession, but it wasn’t as if he hadn’t heard some strange things in this confessional booth.  He didn’t know much about her, but he had been told that she was very quiet and a bit reclusive.  “Have you been mean or unkind toward them?”

Claire shook her head, her lower lip quivering, looking up at him and into his face for the first time. Her blue eyes were wide as she silently pleaded for help.

The priest’s eyes widened in what looked like shock and he bounced up from his seat, brimming with excitement. Claire watched him curiously; he almost seemed as if he had been inspired.  “Well, I have an idea, Claire.” Carter hardly sounded like he could contain himself, and she couldn’t help but smile at the grin on his face.  His entire expression was lit up and Claire could swear that a heavenly light shone through the stained glass window on his head, casting a glow on his pale brown hair.  She stifled a gasp at the sight.  “There is someone who I would like you to meet.”  He nodded and offered her his hand to help her up.

Claire accepted the hand and he pulled her to her feet so quickly she let out tiny squeal. Something had the priest terribly elated and she couldn’t help but feel her heart pounding as well. 

He let out a small chuckle and patted her on the shoulder. “So sorry, my child.  It seems I got carried away.”

A smile crept across her lips as she shook her head and shrugged her shoulders. Carter didn’t look much older than his mid-thirties and it felt strange for him to call her such a thing.  Perhaps that was why she felt so comfortable around him, she mused.  The closer age made him much more relatable than the elderly priests at her previous churches.  She followed him to the confessional door and he opened the door just a crack, pointing out to the pews before them.

Carter gestured toward a young man in the front pew; he looked around Claire’s age. His shoulders were sloped and he was sunk down in the seat.  Judging from his stare and the way he looked so nestled in, Claire wouldn’t have been surprised if he had been sitting there all day.  He appeared as though he was thinking about something uncomfortable and wanted to sink into the floor; she saw him let out a tiny sigh as he further slouched in the pew. 

Claire was surprised she hadn’t noticed him on her way to the confessional. He was definitely a unique-looking individual, and her first thought was that he was new to town as well.  Claire thought of Mineral Town as a rural area, but he looked even more rustic than the other residents; he looked like an outsider.  His clothing suggested a nomadic life – his hide tunic lined with fur reminded her of photos she had seen in the library of outdoorsmen who lived off of the land.  He had the aura of someone who had experienced a lot in a little amount of time, and his hunched position made him look very small and vulnerable.  She couldn’t get a good look at his face, as his unruly bangs hung in his eyes as he stared down at his feet.  The rest of his hair was tied into a ponytail that was resting on his shoulder.

“Cliff is new to town, just like you,” Carter explained a little too eagerly. “Unfortunately, he is very shy, and he doesn’t attempt to make friends with anyone.  I was wondering if you would try to become his friend; he really needs one, and it sounds like you do, too.”

So this was why Carter had been so excited, she realized as her stomach turned. Claire felt the heat rush to her face at this notion.  Did he really think that after hearing her confess how she struggled getting along with others it would be a good idea to try her hand at befriending someone who was reclusive as well?  Why did Carter make this sound so easy?  Did he really expect her simply befriend someone by talking to them?  She wrung her sweaty hands and gulped.  Conversations were not her strong suit.  What did he expect her to do, waltz right up to Cliff and announce to him that they were now friends?  She had to admit that it would be nice if it were that simple; as Carter had mentioned, she really could use a friend right now…

The young woman peeked out of the slightly opened door. Judging from his appearance alone, she doubted they had anything in common.  What if he didn’t even want to speak to her?  Based on the slight frown on his face, this was definitely within the realm of possibility and Claire didn’t know if she could handle that kind of rejection.  What if he saw that she was just a city girl who didn’t belong here?  If someone who was new to town could already see that she wouldn’t mesh well with the other villagers, how could she ever expect to find her place?  She looked up at the smiling priest and felt that she had no choice at this point; he was practically trembling with excitement.  Swallowing her fears, Claire fully opened the door and stepped toward the young man, her feet as heavy as bricks.

He didn’t look up at her. He seemed off in his own little world, focusing deeply on something.  She looked at his folded hands in his lap and wondered if she was interrupting him from a prayer.  His fingers immediately unlaced and he played with a small polished stone trapped between his palms, running his thumb along the indent on its smooth surface.  Upon closer inspection, Claire noticed that he had a grieving aura about him and was surprised it didn’t immediately repel her; rather, she became overwhelmed with the urge to comfort him.

“H-hello.” Claire’s voice was weak and cracked.  Her cheeks felt warm as she nervously wrung her hands, hoping she hadn’t bothered a possible meditation session.  She certainly had a knack for awkward introductions.

The young man lifted his head to meet her, revealing a pair of deep blue eyes etched in pain. They widened for a moment in what Claire saw as recognition before they immediately went back to the ground and he shuffled his feet.  “Hello…”  His voice was soft but not unfriendly as he rubbed the stone.

Perhaps he didn’t want to talk, she realized with a wave of sadness. However, she found herself glued to the spot, fascinated by the rose colored stone he held, studying the pretty black marbling on it.  “My name is Claire.”  The words slipped out as she felt a small wave of relief for introducing herself.  She slowly gained confidence as she took a tiny step forward.

While it was not as long as hers, she had never known a male with such long hair. She studied it curiously and wondered if he just didn’t like to cut it.  Upon further inspection, she found that it suited him and went well with his heavy eyebrows and face shape.  Her gaze traveled to his eyes.  They were such a deep blue they almost looked indigo.  He was definitely an interesting-looking person, she decided, her curious eyes drinking him in.

“I-I’m Cliff,” he stammered, his face swiftly reddening. He noticed the young woman was staring at him and looked back at her defensively, shrinking back a bit.  “I-is there something on my face?”

Claire shook her head, stumbling over apologies as she realized how impolite she had been.

“I-I’m sorry!” he said a little too loudly as he hung his head, “I-I didn’t mean to come off as rude,” he laughed nervously and looked back down at the floor; it was apparent he had a hard time interacting with people.

Claire frowned; she was certain that her curious eyes hadn’t exactly helped things. She briefly looked back at the confessional booth door and noticed it was still open a crack.  Her throat immediately tightened; it was likely they were being watched.  As uncomfortable as she was at being under Carter’s supervision, she didn’t want to let him down.  She looked back at the young man in front of her and realized it wasn’t just about appeasing the priest anymore.  She wanted to get better at talking to other people, and something about Cliff made her want to help him as well.  “I was just coming to introduce myself,” Claire said gently.

“Ah.” Cliff ducked his head, his cheeks blazing.  His awkwardness gave Claire a small boost of courage.  Someone in town was shyer than she was around others.  Suddenly feeling bold, she took a seat next to the young man in the pew.  She dared to steal a glance at him and noticed his ears were a bright shade of scarlet.  Cliff seemed to be focusing on the stone in his hands and his breathing, and he looked so nervous that she felt bad for introducing herself in the first place.

“Ah… I-I’m sorry…  I…  I can’t breathe…” he admitted, closing his eyes and struggling to control his breath. 

Claire uncomfortably shifted in her seat. She saw a light sheen of perspiration covering his face and she felt guilty for taking a seat beside him.  Introductions could be painful, and they always made her nervous, but his reaction was strong even for her standards.  She could tell from his flushed cheeks and furrowed eyebrows that he was embarrassed at his own behavior.  But this was a church, a place free of judgment.  Claire sat quietly and sent him kind wishes with her mind.  “It’s okay,” she murmured, her voice just above a whisper.  “…  Relax.”

They sat in silence for a few minutes while he slowly breathed in and out. She wanted to give him some kind of reassurance by patting his arm, but she feared touching him would only make things worse.  She watched his calloused fingers work at the smooth stone in his hands; simply observing the slow, fluid motions brought her a sense of peace.

“I’m very sorry about that,” he finally said quietly, startling her a bit. “It’s n-not you…  I-I just get so tense when I talk to new people…”

Claire shook her head. “It’s okay.”  She noticed she had been speaking with the soothing tone she reserved for her younger brothers when they were hurt or upset.

His eyes flicked to her and quickly fell back down to the floor. “I’ve been to so m-many towns now that I’m a nervous wreck when I try to introduce myself to anyone,” he confessed with a sad sigh.

“Oh.” The young man’s statement made her heart ache.  It sounded like he had been afraid to get close to anyone because he moved around so much.  “So… how long have you lived here in town?” Claire ventured.  “I don’t think we’ve met.”

Cliff’s heart sunk. Of course she didn’t recognize him; he had been trying his best to blend in and not be noticed by the other villagers.  He couldn’t understand why such anyone would come up to him, sit down beside him, and try to start a conversation with him in a church, of all places.  “I c-came here a couple of months ago.”

She had noticed right away that Cliff didn’t have a Mineral Town accent, and his inflections were unique to her. Claire wasn’t familiar with the dialect; he must have traveled here from somewhere far away.  She was curious why someone with such a severe case of social anxiety would decide to travel around a lot, but she knew it wasn’t an appropriate question to ask.  Perhaps it wasn’t by choice.

“I just came here this spring on New Year’s to run the farm.” Hopefully knowing that someone else was just starting out as well would make him feel less alone.

“Oh… I-I’ve heard… So, you’re running that farm all by yourself?” Cliff glanced up at her and their eyes met for a brief moment.  He quickly stared at the ground again, reddening.

Claire nodded. Every day she was reminded how large the property was and his words further cemented the fact that things weren’t going to be accomplished overnight.  “Yeah, it’s going to be a big job….”  She hoped she sounded more confident than she felt.

“Well… I wish you luck with everything.” While he gave her a nervous smile, his words were warm and sounded heartfelt.

“Thank you.” She normally would have ended the conversation now, but she found that she really didn’t want to.  Strangely enough, Cliff’s shyness drew her in and she saw a lot of herself in him.  “You’re not the first new person I met today…  I also met Carter and a girl named Karen,” Claire searched for another topic.  Maybe it would inspire him to talk to other people.

“Oh, yeah, Karen…” Cliff seemed relieved that Claire found something they could relate on. “Her father comes here sometimes.”

“He owns the supermarket, right?” She knew the answer, but she wanted to make conversation.

Cliff thought for a moment. “I-I believe so.”  He was silent for a while.  “Carter’s a good man,” he murmured quietly, moving his concentration back to the stone in his hands.

Claire smiled. “He seems very friendly.”

“It’s nice to have someone that you can speak to without fear of being judged… I spend a lot of time here, and we talk a lot.”  His voice evened itself out; it seemed Carter was a subject he was comfortable speaking about.

Claire nodded politely, but she couldn’t imagine the young man being talkative with anyone. “That’s a pretty stone you have there,” she ventured.

He let out a shy chuckle and the sound lifted a heavy weight from her heart as it echoed through the sanctuary. “Carter was nice enough to give it to me.  Rhodonite.  It’s supposed to be good for h-healing…  My roommate actually polished it for me and shaped it into a worry stone.”

“Wow. That’s pretty impressive.  It’s not like anyone can just take a rock and make it shine like that.”

A small frown crossed Cliff’s lips. “That’s part of his job.  You know Gray.”

She was surprised that he didn’t word this as a question and her face immediately flooded with color – half at the mere mention of Gray, and half with pure mortification that she had never really paid enough attention to Cliff in the room when she came to visit the inn to even recognize him. She noticed that a young man was often sitting on the wide windowsill in the far end of the room, but he never said anything, and Gray never made an effort to introduce him; Cliff was merely a blur of movement out of the corner of her eye.  Despite this, the young man’s silent presence in the room was the determining factor in Claire deciding that it was not improper for her to visit Gray’s room in the evenings as there was always someone else present.

“He seems like a really nice guy. That was sweet of him to do that for you.”  She began to wonder what other kinds of skills Gray had.  What if she found a pretty stone and he polished it for her?  The thought of keeping something he had worked on with his own two hands made her swoon a bit.  She could keep it in her pocket and carry it with her wherever she went.  She studied the colors in the stained glass window in front of them and happily swung her feet.

Cliff bit his lip and furrowed his brow, passing the stone back and forth between his hands. “Yeah, he can be nice…”  A small smile came back on his face as he studied the rock.  “He said… you’re a hard worker.”

Claire gasped involuntarily and covered her mouth with her hand. “That’s awfully kind of him,” she giggled.

Gray talked about her? To his roommate?  Claire’s heart pounded.  How many other people did he sing her praises to?  The quiet blacksmith seemed the type to keep to himself, but if he was gushing to his roommate about her…  Did he talk about her before they went to sleep for the night?  Maybe he dreamed about her…  Claire’s face flushed as she twisted a lock of blonde hair between her fingers.

She glanced at Cliff and noticed he was staring at his feet again, but he didn’t look completely miserable. It seemed he had run out of things to say, but Claire had heard all she needed.  “Well, it was nice meeting you, Cliff.”

“Yes, and you as well…”

She stood up excitedly and turned around to look at him. He was already carrying himself a little differently than when they first met; he was no longer slouched in his seat and the flushing of his face had subsided.  While he wasn’t particularly grinning, he seemed much happier, as if a weight had been lifted from him for the time being.  It looked like she wasn’t the only one who had issues to deal with and progress to make.  “I’ll see you around, okay?”

“A-alright. I look forward to talking to you again.”  A shy smile crept across his face as he tucked his stone in his pocket and waved goodbye to her.

Claire happily bounced out of the church, practically skipping to the library, her mind working so quickly her body was having a hard time keeping up.

It was time to pay Gray a visit.

0o0o0o0

It was a fairly quick walk from the church to the library. Claire’s heart fluttered with excitement and anticipation as she double-checked her rucksack for the lump of copper she had set aside for Gray.  She let out a nervous laugh – she was behaving as if the ore would have magically gotten up and walked off by itself.  Biting her lip, she shook her head; she needed to focus on the task at hand.  Her positive feelings dissipated as she reached the door to the library.  This was no time for being clumsy and messing things up.  Moreover, she was determined to impress.  Claire’s shaking hand hovered over the doorknob as she realized the full extent of what she was planning to do.

What in the world am I doing? Am I really going to start a conversation with both Gray and Mary?  Perhaps even flirt with Gray in front of Mary? Am I crazy? I can hardly speak in complete sentences in front of him, let alone in front of them both! This is a foolish idea, and I’m stupid for thinking it up in the first place!  She waited for herself to let go of the doorknob and turn around, heading back for Mystic Acres with her tail between her legs.  Her eyes widened in surprise as she gripped the handle.

She recalled Cliff’s words in the church, his folksy accent echoing in her mind. Gray said positive things about her to other people.  She allowed a smile to reappear on her face.  Why wouldn’t he want to see her, then?

Satisfied with her new resolve, Claire turned the doorknob and swung open the door almost violently and let herself in, refusing to give herself more time to think about it.

She wasn’t sure if she should be relieved with the fact that there was no one in the room. Carefully stepping toward the receptionist desk, she could hear voices from the floor above where additional books were kept.  She immediately recognized one of the muffled voices as Gray’s, and her heart pounded uncomfortably in her chest.  She was aching to climb up the stairs after him, but her legs refused to move despite her entire body humming with excitement.  There was almost something pleasant about being able to hear his voice and not having to feel the pressure of thinking of something witty or engaging to say in response.  Just knowing he was up there brought a warm light to her heart.  Whatever it was he was talking about, he sounded very interested and passionate.

Claire didn’t know how many minutes had passed, or if they were even hours. Her feet remained frozen to the ground as she heard a second voice enter in the conversation, which Claire identified as Mary, the librarian.  Mary had a mild and smooth voice that wasn’t too high, and as much as Claire hated to admit it, it was very soothing to listen to.  Claire’s dreamy state faded as she heard a giggle from Mary followed a soft chuckle from Gray.  Claire never heard him laugh before, and the fact that she hadn’t caused it made her stomach churn with jealousy.  She no longer felt comforted by the sound of Mary’s voice.

All too suddenly the laughter stopped, and the building was silent save the loud hammering of Claire’s heart in her own ears. There were a few murmurs as the floorboards above her creaked and she could hear two pairs of feet coming down the stairs.

She could turn away right then. If she left now and let herself out quietly, they would never know that she had been there.  Although this was a public building, Claire suddenly got the feeling that she was intruding, and she was terrified to meet the pair face-to-face.  The fact that she had remained there for so long made the idea of conversation all the more intimidating.  Despite these feelings, she remained in front of the library desk, unable to move.

Gray and Mary had come back from upstairs, and remnants of their conversation were still evident. The young man had a small smile on his face, and he seemed to be trying to keep himself from laughing.  His friend was holding a thick book that resembled an encyclopedia, and her eyes were glued to him in a way that Claire didn’t like.  Mary’s gaze moved to her new guest and a kind smile spread across her lips.

“Claire! How nice it is to see you!  How have you been?”  She walked behind the receptionist desk, half-expecting her to have a chosen book.  She looked at her curiously as Claire began to wring her empty hands, her cheeks beginning to flood with color.

The young woman refused to meet Mary’s eyes. As determined as she had been to come in here, she quickly found that she was having second thoughts.  The room suddenly felt very small; she swallowed the lump in her throat, her mouth dry.  “Oh, I’ve been… alright.  Busy.”

Her eyebrows rose as she saw Claire’s expression. Her tone softened and became gentle.  “That’s great!  That means your farm must be coming along well, I take it?”

Claire managed a nod, and her stomach did a somersault when she glanced over at Gray. The young man was playfully trying to take the book from Mary by peeling her fingers off of the cover.  She giggled and held the book out of his reach, but her body language showed she didn’t really mind.

“Gray, you should know better than to pick on a girl,” Mary’s voice slightly rose in pitch as she lightly slapped his hands, stifling a giggle.

Claire felt a wave of nausea at this gesture, and her heart stopped for a moment.

They’re definitely not cousins.

This isn’t going well. Not well at all.

“So, what have you two been up to?” Claire tried to remain casual, but her voice sounded strained.  She realized with disappointment that she wasn’t going to win this round, but she was determined to remain civil and still make a good impression.  The young woman shifted her stance, unsure of what to do with her hands. 

“Oh, yes. I was just reading Gray part of the new chapter I have written for my novel,” Mary held up the thick book.  “I’ve got a couple I’m working on right now, and I’m putting together something for a new story.  We were just kicking around ideas for that one, too.”  Her face lit up as she spoke and Claire couldn’t help but feel a rush of envy – Mary looked so genuinely happy when she thought about her writing, and Claire got the feeling that these meetings the two had were nothing new.  She wished she could think of something she and Gray could do together.

“Mary’s an amazing writer,” Gray quickly interjected, and Claire wasn’t blind to the way his pale blue eyes lit up as he gazed at his companion warmly. “I think that she could actually get published someday.”  Mary’s face flushed in response as her eyes shyly traveled to her book.

The look he was giving her made Claire’s heart ache. Her mind stumbled over ideas, none of them forming into proper sentences.  It was over; she didn’t stand a chance and Mary was sure to win Gray’s affections.  Claire’s throat constricted and she feebly searched for the right words to change the conversation around, but none came to mind.  Her vision began to pulse and blur as the room began to spin…

Not again…

“Claire? You look rather pale.  Are you alright?”  The librarian dropped her book on the desk and quickly rushed to her, placing a hand on her forehead.

Claire cringed at Mary’s touch. The last thing she wanted was her pity.  While Claire struggled expressing herself, she still had her own pride, and Mary’s closeness was suffocating her.  “I-I’m fine.  I think I just need to get some fresh air.”

No, not now! If you leave now, then she will have won!

A lump formed in Claire’s throat; she had a feeling that losing this round was inevitable. A stubborn part of her wanted to stay, and another headstrong side of her was screaming to leave the room.  She quickly realized what side she needed to listen to as her heart began to flutter – she needed to get away from people.  Now.

“Shall I walk you over to the clinic?” Mary’s eyebrows raised in concern as she took Claire’s arm.

She wished the young woman would just stop touching her, but it felt rude to say so aloud. She began to tremble as she weakly pulled away.  Surely Gray was going to see her as abnormal.  “N-no.  I’ll be fine.”  Claire didn’t mean for her voice to sound so cold. 

At least I have my dignity. She was determined to walk out of the library with her head held high.  She had the feeling Gray didn’t like weak women.  After all, how could he like someone that couldn’t keep her emotions in check?

Mary’s persistence began to try Claire’s patience. “You really shouldn’t go out alone, even if you just walk home.  Gray, why don’t you go with her?  I’m worried.”

Claire studied the librarian’s expression. Her mouth was drawn into a tight frown and her eyebrows her furrowed in concern.  Claire had to give her credit – Mary was very good at feigning emotions.  There was no way that she could actually be worried about her.  Claire was certain that Mary was holding in cheers and victory cries.  She refused to be patronized by false sympathy.  Her thoughts began to further cloud as she swayed on her feet a bit, determined to hide that she was upset.  “R-really, I think I will be okay.  Thank you for your concern, though.”  Claire could hardly believe her ears.  Was that her own voice rejecting a walk home with Gray?

They both looked at her with a mixture of confusion and concern – it was absolutely unbearable. Before Claire had any idea what she was doing, her feet suddenly unglued themselves from the floor, and she flew out the door, slamming it behind her. 

0o0o0oo0

The moment Claire was outside, she immediately regretted refusing help from Gray or Mary, but she knew that it was too late to go back inside. She would look ridiculous if she went back in and asked for help.  Claire panted as her head swam, continuing forward as her muddled vision spotted a lamp post.  She had dealt with these attacks for long enough to know that she needed to ground herself by bracing against something solid.  She had realized that she had traded the spinning room for a sidewalk that tilted back and forth.  Why did she do that, anyway?  Moreover, why did she let herself get into this state?  Claire had been aching to get a chance to talk to Gray.  Refusing his accompaniment home was a foolish mistake.  She scolded herself as she stumbled along.  She would have gotten the chance to be alone with him.  Claire blushed at the very thought.  She might even be able to get away with holding his arm or leaning against him as he walked her home.  However, something about that approach felt so immature, so foolish. 

Claire felt hot tears slide down her cheeks as reached her destination, leaning her shoulder and head against the lamp post. Perhaps the whole thing with Gray was foolish.  How could she ever get him to notice her?  It was nearly impossible with that librarian around.

Claire’s thoughts were distracted when she heard the noise of feet shuffling across the sidewalk towards her. She hastily wiped the tears away and looked up, terrified at having someone see her in this state.  It was Cliff, the nervous young man from the church.  In his arms, he carried a decorative basket full of large red apples.  The basket was pretty, but shaped awkwardly, and caused him to waddle a bit as he carried it.  She quickly noticed that his depressed aura had dropped for the moment as he looked at her and waved shyly, his lips turning upward.  He didn’t look so gloomy at the moment, and his smile had a pleasant warmth to it.  The young man looked behind him for a moment, and Claire noticed Carter “hiding” behind a tree, giving him a thumbs-up.  Claire rolled her eyes, struggling to regain her composure.  She failed, as her vision was still pulsing and her throat was tight.  She hoped Carter would just go away and Cliff would continue on his way without any questions.

“H-hello, Claire.” His voice was soft, but it was still louder than the volume he used while in the church.  She was too distracted to notice his hands trembling on the basket handle.  He let out a soft nervous chuckle as he made his way closer to her.

“Hi, Cliff.” Her tone wasn’t unfriendly, but she was praying he wouldn’t look at her too closely.  She was still very dizzy and she craved relief from the aching in her heart; she was on the brink of sobbing out loud, and she hardly felt in control.

He tightened his grip on the handle of the basket, swallowing the lump in his throat. “Ah, I was j-just on my way to your place to deliver this basket of apples to you.  They’re from Carter, as a w-welcoming gift.”  The young man nervously rubbed the back of his neck with one hand and the basket creaked loudly.  His eyes widened as he quickly tightened his hold.

Claire didn’t look up at him; her eyes were focused on the ground as she struggled to keep her vision from shaking. She found it strange that it had already been over three weeks since she moved to Mineral Town, and she was just now getting a welcoming gift.  However, it was also true that she had just introduced herself today.  Three weeks in town, and she didn’t really know anyone or have any friends.  Three weeks in town and she still hadn’t gotten Gray’s attention.  The ground blurred as she blinked, a couple of teardrops falling to the cobblestones.

Cliff noticed that Claire’s cheeks were damp with tears, and he quickly dropped his nervous demeanor, setting down his basket and moving swiftly toward her. “You’re hanging on to that lamp post pretty tight.”  He didn’t ask if she was alright, and Claire couldn’t tell if she was grateful or insulted.

She could feel a sob threatening to escape from her throat. She wanted to cry in privacy.  She wanted to scream and tell him, “That’s because everything is going wrong!  No, I’m not okay, thank you for asking!  I’m miserable!  I’m lonely!”  She wanted to run behind that tree and shake Carter by the shoulders and scold him for forcing her friendship with Cliff at a time like this.  She wanted kick over that silly basket of apples and stomp on each one.  Claire took a deep breath, realizing she was probably expected to put back on a mask of happiness and control.

“I’m okay… j-just feeling a little dizzy.” She meant to add that she was going to go home for some food in an effort to keep anyone from being suspicious, but she found herself unable to speak.  Claire could feel her eyes flickering rapidly as she tried to regain herself.

She felt a warm touch at her shoulder. “What day of the week is it?”

She blinked in surprise. “Tuesday.”

“What is the name of your farm?”

She was about to ask why he was asking questions about her, especially when he seemed so shy, but she was distracted by the tug back to reality. “Mystic Acres.”

“Do you have any animals?”

“I have a dog and a horse.” The world slowly came back into focus and she blinked tiredly, realizing how suddenly weak she felt.  An arm was offered to her and she gratefully took it, a bit dumbfounded by the whole situation.  He picked up the basket of apples on the way back as he walked her to the bench outside of the grocery store and they sat down together.  Claire let out a thankful sigh as she leaned back on the wooden seat.  The ground had stopped moving and exhaustion overcame her; she felt like she could sleep right there.

Her companion seemed to have other ideas. He quietly handed her an apple and she accepted it with a weak “thank you”.  She realized how hungry she was as she bit into the fruit and she couldn’t stop the grin from breaking out on her face as she chewed.  Honeycrisp, her absolute favorite.  For that moment, all Claire could focus on was the perfection of that sweet apple.  The lump that had formed in her throat melted away.  All she had eaten for the past three weeks were raw turnips, bamboo shoots, and colored grass.  The crunchy apple tasted so wonderful that she could have cried.  She glanced up at Cliff, who was watching her with interest.  His eyes quickly averted from her to the ground as she caught him looking at her.

She didn’t mind that he had been keeping his eyes on her; she could tell that his gaze was out of concern and genuine care. With this, her worries began to fade a bit.  “Please, take an apple,” Claire laughed.  She bit into her food and swallowed with satisfaction.   “They’re wonderful.”

Cliff took a piece of fruit from the basket and crunched into it eagerly. She noticed his fingers shook a bit as he selected an apple, his eyes widening with delight as he cupped his chosen one in his hands; they were all so large.  “Thank you.”

The two ate in silence for a few minutes. Claire knew nothing about the young man, and wasn’t sure what to talk to him about.  He seemed friendly enough now that he wasn’t brooding inside of the church, but his shyness made her feel like she had to be very careful with her words.

“So… Have you been up to anything interesting since I last saw you?”  She studied the apple in her hands.  She knew it was a weak beginning to a dialogue, but she never thought of herself as much of a conversationalist.

He was eating at a fairly quick speed, but he still finished chewing before speaking. “It’s only been half an hour since you left the church; y-you didn’t miss much.”  He gave her a slight smile.

“Oh.” Claire was shocked at how little time had passed, and she felt a little embarrassed at how out of touch with reality she had been.

“Carter wanted to give the basket to you himself, but you left before he could give it to you. H-he had to go back to the confessional,” he explained as he took another bite of his apple.

Claire noticed that the priest had gone from his hiding place, and she felt a slight pang of guilt in the pit of her stomach. She really had left in a hurry, hadn’t she?  “Oh!  I had to go and see someone,” she quickly explained a little too loudly.  Her gaze quickly went back down to her apple as she bit her lip.

“Gray?” Cliff raised his eyebrows.

Claire’s stomach lurched. “How did you know that?”  She hadn’t talked about him that much at the church, had she?

The young man shrugged and he moved his gaze at the sky, his heavy eyebrows slightly furrowed. “Just a lucky guess, I suppose.”

“Oh.” The particular expression he was wearing left her a bit confused and she couldn’t help but feel a bit of worry bubble back up in her stomach.

The silence between them was deafening. Claire tried to think of something to say, but she was determined not to recall and relive the incident in the library; her panic and emotions had left her very tired.  Cliff didn’t strike her as the type to take much initiative in conversation, and they sat quietly for a couple of minutes.  He turned his focus back on the sky and Claire watched him for a moment.  He suddenly seemed eager to pay attention to anything but her.

“You two seem pretty cl-close, huh?” Cliff gulped, letting out a shy chuckle.

Claire could sense her face reddening by the second. She chose to ignore the worry lines on his forehead; she got the feeling that this was a regular feature for him.  Maybe he was one of those types of people who didn’t let themselves relax and they looked unhappy even when they weren’t.  She had seen and met enough of those kinds in the city, and she sometimes feared that she was one of them.  “Close?  I…  I dunno if we’d be c-considered that…”

“Huh… you see him an awful lot, though...”

Claire laughed a little louder than she meant to at this piece of evidence that she was actually attempting to pursue a love interest. Her blush crept down her neck.  She was in love and she was trying to express that to someone.  When she thought of it that way, her heart pounded in her ears and a goofy smile spread across her lips.  “I guess that’s true, huh?”  The farmer crunched into her apple and began to swing her feet.

When he didn’t immediately say something in reply, her happiness faded a bit. She looked at Cliff, demanding a response.  His were cast downward as he studied the apple core in his hands.  He suddenly looked back up and his wide eyes grew in surprise at her gaze.  He often had the look of a spooked deer, she realized.  “Oh, I-I’m sorry!  I was just thinking…  This basket is kind of heavy.  D-do you need help carrying it back to your place?  I know you’re probably not feeling one hundred-percent yet.”  He looked genuinely concerned as he gazed at the basket.  He nervously twisted the stem of the apple core in his hands.

It was a kind offer, but an unnecessary one. “That’s alright; I think that I am feeling much better now,” Claire admitted, finishing off her apple.

“Panic attacks can be debilitating sometimes.” His voice was quiet as his sad blue eyes met hers knowingly.  “And… it can be hard to keep yourself grounded when you’re a-alone…”

She now realized why he had been asking her random questions when she was panicking and her face flushed with embarrassment. “Yes…  J-just a mild one, though.” Claire wasn’t surprised that he had recognized the symptoms; it was very likely from his body language and mannerisms that Cliff had them more often than she did, but she was shocked that he had the nerve to call her out on it.  Unfortunately, she was not a stranger to them, but they often just left her feeling a little weak.  A good nap would sort things out.

“It looks like we managed to help each other out today.” His voice was soft as he averted his eyes once more.  Claire caught a hint of blush on his cheeks.

Her shame faded. While she wasn’t keen on someone else knowing about her lack of stability, Cliff didn’t strike her as the type to tell others about it.  “I guess you’re right.  Thank you.” Claire gave him a small smile; beneath the awkward shyness, he seemed like a kindhearted person.  “Here, put your apple core in the basket.  I’ll throw them away when I get home.”  She pulled on the handle of the basket and heard a faint creak from the weight of the apples.

“You sure you got it?” Cliff protectively held the bottom of the container.  “I-I… I r-really don’t mind walking you home…  It’s n-no trouble, really…”  His eyes darted toward the direction of Mystic Acres.

She was determined to make it home without any further assistance. In her eyes, Cliff had already done more than enough for her and to expect any more out of him would be rather rude.  “I’ll be fine.”  Claire smiled as she accepted the basket from him.  Her heart had stopped pounding, and she just felt tired.  Yes, a little rest at home was definitely in order.  “Thank you for bringing me the apples…”  She hesitated saying more, remembering his patience and calmness when she was in a state of panic.  He didn’t seem to think any less of her for it – not openly, anyway.  Her heart relaxed a bit.  “And thank you… for your help.”

“Of course. Any time,” he replied as he nodded, and his voice leveled out.

Claire gripped her basket, and she felt relieved that he seemed a little more comfortable around her. He was someone she wouldn’t mind talking to again.  “Will you please thank Carter for me?  I will come by another day to thank him properly.”

“Sure thing.” He gave her a kind smile, and Claire couldn’t help but mirror his expression.

“Oh, and also… Would you tell Gray that I am alright and that he doesn’t need to worry about me?”  When he gave her a slight nod, she couldn’t help but add one extra request.  “Oh!  And… tell Gray that I said hello.”

“Alright.” He averted his gaze back down to the cobblestones and wrung his hands.  “Uh, I-I’d love to hear about your animals s-sometime,” he muttered so quickly it was almost inaudible.

It took her a moment to understand him. “Sure.  I’ll talk to you later then.  Bye, Cliff!”  She was eager to go home and eat another apple.

He looked back up from the ground and shyly waved to her as she headed in the opposite direction. “Bye, Claire!”

As Claire happily waddled home with that awkward basket, she only had two things on her mind: others were aware that she saw Gray quite a bit, and that she was having potatoes and apples for dinner tonight.

Chapter Text

Claire was awakened the next morning to the sound of a knock on her door. In a flurry of movements, the farmer got dressed, brushed her hair, and opened the door.

“Good morning, Claire!” It was the shopkeeper’s daughter.  “Ready for me to show you around town?”

“Good morning, Karen.” Something about the young woman’s smile made Claire feel at ease.  “Please, do come in.”

Karen stepped inside of the small house, staring at the walls and ceiling as if she were at a museum. “Wow.  The realtor really did rip you off.  No other furniture?  This is it?”

Claire could feel herself reddening. “Th-this is it, right here.”

Karen whirled around, noticing Claire’s expression. “Oh, I’m sorry.  That came out kinda rude, huh?  I was just saying that the real estate agent sure is sneaky.  I’ve seen the ad in the paper myself, and they made the place sound wonderful.”  The brunette glanced around the room.  “Don’t get me wrong, your place is nice, but I was just expecting a little… more.”

Claire sat glumly on the edge of her bed, trying to swallow the lump that had formed in her throat. “I know.  But I spent all my savings on this place, so I have no other choice.”

Karen took a seat next to Claire and put a hand on her shoulder. “You can’t think like that.  You spent your money on this place for a new start, right?  Well, you’re going to get a new start.  It’s going to be an adventure.  This is a really nice town, and I’m sure you’re going to love it here.”

Claire found that she wasn’t shuddering at Karen’s touch. “Thank you, Karen.”

Claire stood up abruptly; she had completely forgotten to offer Karen anything. Claire’s eyes darted around her room.  There was an old pitcher on the table she had filled with water from the river outside of her house and the basket of apples sat at the other end of the table.

“Can I offer you an apple, or perhaps some water to drink?” Claire hoped she didn’t sound as pathetic as she felt.

“Actually… I’m not overly fond of apples…”  Karen smiled apologetically.  “Oh, crud.  I meant to bring you a package from the grocery store, but I completely forgot.  I suppose we could pick it up later.  I was planning on taking you to the inn for breakfast if you wanted, my treat.”

“Oh… Are you sure you want to pay?”

Karen laughed; the farmer was overly formal and polite. “Of course!”  Karen beamed.

“Alright.” Claire’s craving for a hot meal won over her fears of looking like a free-loader.

0o0o0o0

Claire couldn’t remember the last time she had eaten a hot sit-down meal. Between her life at the apartment and her new life on the farm, there just didn’t seem to be enough time or effort available to her.

“How do you ladies like the pancakes?” The redheaded grinned at the two, her braid bobbing up and down.

“They’re delicious!” Claire replied, her mouth full. “Best pancakes I’ve ever had!”

“That’s what we like to hear!” The waitress beamed. She paused and studied Claire, who suddenly was becoming uncomfortable with the public setting.  The farmer quickly wiped her mouth and set her hands in her lap.  “So, Claire, we finally get the chance to talk.  I’ve seen you stop by almost every day, but you never stop to chat with me.”  The redhead mock-pouted.

“Oh! I’m so sorry!  It’s just-!”

“Relax, Claire. She’s just teasing.”  Karen finished her glass of apple juice and slammed it on the table a little too loudly.  Karen quickly stood up as she saw a figure coming down the stairs.

Claire whirled around in her chair and felt herself blush.

“Gray! Hey, I need to talk to you.  Here, come sit by us.”  Karen pushed open a chair on the other side of Claire with her foot and he sat down.  Too embarrassed to say anything, Claire stared at the table’s surface and refused to meet anyone’s gaze.

“What’s up? Oh, hi, Claire.”

“H-hello.”

Karen leaned across the table. “Okay, so I was talking to your gramps the other day, and-”

Gray sighed. “I already know where this is going, and he already told me.  You’re going to have to go through Won.  We don’t have the supplies.”

Karen slammed her fists on the table. “Bull!  You guys can make a friggin’ mayonnaise maker.  You can’t tell me you can’t make a simple spatula!  Don’t tell me that’s too hard for even you to make!”

The shopkeeper’s daughter had obviously struck a nerve. “A damn spatula is not going to help you win that contest anyway.  Your dish will fail like it does every year.”

Karen slammed the table again, and Claire was beginning to feel a bit crowded sitting between two people glaring at each other.

“I dare you to say that again. I dare you.”  Karen’s voice lowered to a threatening whisper.

“Look, I don’t have time for this. I’m going to be late for work.  You can ask Gramps for it again, but I doubt he’ll be able to get you one.”  Gray stood up and left without another word.

“DAMMIT!” Karen punched the table one last time and buried her face in her arms.

Claire sat silently, debating whether or not to comfort Karen. She wasn’t sure what the argument was really about, but Claire knew that she didn’t want to get caught between the two of them arguing again.  She was surprised at Gray’s comment on Karen’s cooking, but it was true that Karen was the one who started the confrontation.  She glanced around the room and spied Cliff sitting at the counter eating some porridge.  Ann was sitting next to him, eating the same dish and swinging her feet.

“Sorry you had to see that, Claire.” Karen’s sudden voice made Claire jump.  “It’s just that the cooking festival is coming up, and I am really looking forward to it.  I made a new recipe and everything.  The only problem is that I need a spatula.”

“Well, you work at the grocery store, right? Can’t you order one through there?”  Claire suggested weakly.

One icy stare from Karen made Claire sorry she had said anything.

“I don’t want my parents to find out that I’m getting one. My mother is convinced that I can’t cook, and she makes fun of me every time I enter the cooking contest.  I want to prove her wrong.  I want to show her that I am capable of making my own dish.  Mom and Dad are pretty much convinced that I won’t be good with any of that kind of stuff…”

“Wait, what kind of stuff?” Claire asked curiously.

“Well, you know…” Karen reddened and frowned.  “Let’s go.  Thank you for the food, Doug!”  She waved at the innkeeper.

“I-it was nice meeting you,” Claire politely nodded toward Doug.

0o0o0o0

Karen had walked Claire past the winery and in front of the mayor’s house before she opened her mouth, even though it was painfully obvious that something was eating away at her.

“Housekeeping. Cleaning.  Cooking.  You know…. things that… wives are expected to know how do,” Karen had turned a bright shade of scarlet.  “My parents are convinced that I will be the ditzy wife that doesn’t know how to care for her family.  And who says that I have to be that kind of wife anyway?!   I want to prove to them that I can at least keep from starving to death if I lived on my own.”

“Oh, you’re thinking of getting married, then?”

Karen’s face was nearly purple. “I didn’t say that, now did I?”

Claire hardly knew the young woman, but she knew better than to answer this question.

And it was also apparent that Karen didn’t want to stick around to talk more on the subject. She quickly found her escape.  “Oh!  I forgot that I have to go and get that gift I got for you.  I gotta go to the supermarket, but I’ll be right back!”

Before Claire could reply, Karen had already left, and Claire was abandoned in front of the mayor’s house. And soon enough, Claire heard her name being called.

“Hello, Claire!”

Claire turned around. A young man with long brown hair was coming her way.  He looked a bit more cheerful each time she saw him; Ann must have been able to put a smile on his face.

“Hi, Cliff.” She waved to him and found a smile growing on her own face.

“So, what are you up to?”

“Karen is going to take me for a tour around town today. I guess it’s time I learned where everything is,” she laughed.

“I saw you in the inn earlier…” He shuffled his feet.

“Oh, yeah, I saw you too,” Claire responded.

There was an awkward silence.

“S-so, the food’s pretty good there, eh?” The young man fidgeted with the leather bracers he wore on his forearms.

Claire nodded and grinned. “Very good pancakes.”

“I like pancakes, too. But I prefer savory ones,” he gave her a shy smile.

“I’ve never tried those before. Savory?”

Cliff paused. “Well, that’s what they call them at the inn, anyway…  I’ve always heard them called okonomiyaki.  They’re made with cabbage…  They’re a lot different than sweet pancakes, but they’re really good…  M-maybe you should try them sometime.”

“When I earn more money, I hope that I can eat pancakes every day!” Claire beamed.

“You won’t get sick of them?” Cliff chuckled.

“Of course not. They’re my favorite.”

“Well, if you come to eat at the inn again… M-maybe we could eat t-together,” the young man wrung his hands nervously.

“Yeah, sounds fun.” Claire didn’t know why that thought made her so embarrassed.  What if Gray saw them eating together and he thought they were on a date?  Claire immediately wished she hadn’t agreed.

A smile tugged at Cliff’s lips. “Well, I was just on my way to the church…  W-would you like to come along?”

She did want to thank Carter properly for the gift basket…  “Well, Karen will be taking me around town, so maybe we’ll see you there later?”

“Ah! Oh, right!  I-I’m sorry; you already have plans,” he stammered, looking down at the ground.

“Or you can come along with us, and I can show you around, too. I know that you don’t get out much either, Cliff.”  Karen appeared behind the two with a grocery bag in her hands.

The color drained from Cliff’s face.

“It’ll be f-u-n,” Karen sang, draping an arm around Claire’s shoulder.

“A-alright. I’ll come along.”

As Claire walked between the two villagers down the cobblestones, she grinned as she finally realized something. She had two friends.  Maybe the young farmer wasn’t as alone as she had originally thought.

Chapter Text

“This is the mayor’s house. Thomas is usually hanging around there.  Apparently, he has a job, but I haven’t really seen him do much; I guess he helps out a bit at the next town over because he lost a rock-paper-scissors match and we send him over to the Valley with shipments from the shop.”

“The Valley?” Claire looked at her friend curiously.

“She means Forget-Me-Not Valley; it’s the next town over,” Cliff answered. “It’s a beautiful place.”

“Oh, I see...” She had never given much thought to other towns in the area; Mineral Town seemed so secluded.

“Anyway, Thomas does more over there than he does here. He apparently organizes the festivals here, but I haven’t seen him even do much of that; he’s a slacker,” Karen giggled.

“Isn’t that a little harsh?” Cliff ventured. He bit his lip thoughtfully.  “Arranging festivals can be a lot of work...  You have to make sure everyone knows their part, and then there’s the music and food, not to mention the proper dances…  You have to make sure that the offerings are done correctly…”  He rattled all of this off rather quickly, and it took Claire by surprise; it almost sounded as if he was speaking from experience.

“What kinds of festivals are you going on about? Thomas doesn’t do any of that!”  Karen grinned mischievously.  “You’ll understand once you get used to living here.  I’m sure Claire can tell you what a bum he is.”

Claire stared at the ground. “I really don’t hope to talk to him anytime soon.”

Karen laughed. “So the rumors are true?!  You really beat the snot out of Thomas?”

Cliff’s jaw dropped as he stared at the reddening farmer. “Really?”

Did everyone know about this?! Claire wasn’t sure how to word it without sounding like a bully.  “H-he made fun of me when I had been tricked out of my entire savings for the farm…  I was angry…”  Claire hung her head.

“I-I’m glad that you moved here, Claire.” Cliff said quietly.

“Me too!” Karen threw an arm around the young woman’s shoulders.  “Things will get better.  Don’t worry.”

Claire thought of her cold bed, her bare house. She thought of her fields, sprinkled with mere sprouts.  She wouldn’t have crops for a long time.  Claire would have to live off of that basket of apples until then.  She wasn’t hungry at the moment, but Claire knew what true hunger felt like.  She remembered having nothing but a cluster of wild grapes for three days before she found where it grew.  But Claire looked up at her friends and realized that Karen was right; things would get better.

“Thanks, guys,” Claire blinked the mistiness out of her eyes.

“I wouldn’t feel too proud about beating up a guy like Thomas,” Karen laughed.

“I-I don’t…” Claire frowned.

“Good!” Karen snorted.  “Because it only means that you’re just a little less of a weakling than he is!” Karen jogged off toward the south, laughing.

She couldn’t remember the last time she was teased before today; she liked it. “Hey!” Claire grinned, taking off after her friend.

Not wanting to be left behind, Cliff chased after the two.

The farmer didn’t stop running until she bumped into Karen, who had stopped abruptly ahead of her. Claire was surprised that Cliff didn’t slam into her as well.

“So-sorry! I d-didn’t see that you h-had stopped!”  Their collision had knocked the wind out of Claire.

Karen turned around, strangely calm. “It’s okay,” She smiled.  The three friends looked out over the water silently.

“What’s wrong, Karen?” Claire noticed that the Karen seemed almost as if in a trance.

The brunette snapped out of her reverie. “Oh, sorry, guys.  It’s nothing.  This is the Goddess Spring.  This might sound dumb, but when I was little, I thought I saw a figure over the water here. People say that the Harvest Goddess shows up here, and if she appears for you, she will answer your prayers.  It’s a… special place for me,” she finished quietly, transfixed on the ripples of the water.

“The Harvest Goddess is all around us,” Cliff said gently.

“I know that, but… The fact that she actually appears here is pretty neat, huh?”

Claire stared at the water. It looked like a perfectly normal spring, yet there was definitely something unearthly about it.

“So how about we hop in the hot spring? All three of us?”  Karen winked and roared with laughter by Cliff’s startled reaction.  “Seriously, though, if you haven’t gotten the chance to go in the hot spring, you’re missing out.”

“Do you have to pay to use it?” Claire asked.

She was surprised when Cliff answered this question. “Nope.  I use it all the time.”

“Oh…” She had avoided using it because she thought that there was an entrance fee, and she had been washing in the spring beside it instead…  Claire realized with horror that she had been bathing in the Harvest Goddess’s spring.  She would have to start using the hot spring.

“Claire, you coming?” Karen laughed.

“I-in the hot spring? N-now?”

“No, dummy! Back to town.  I still gotta show you guys a bunch of places… like the winery, and the chicken farm, and the hospital, and the forge…”

Claire’s ears perked up. “Okay, let’s go.”

0o0o0o0

“Here’s my favorite shop! Besides home, that is,” Karen winked at her friends.  She waved at a middle aged man tending to the grape vines, and Claire was a little surprised Karen walked right up to him while he was working.  The man didn’t strike the farmer as a manual laborer.  He wore a tailored vest and bowtie; he hardly looked dressed for tending to crops.  Claire studied him.  He had silver streaks in his dark hair and a strong chin; he had a very distinguished and genteel air about him.

“Hey, Duke!”

“Hi, Karen! Who did you bring along with you today?  Some more customers, I hope?” He gave her a charming smile.

“Maybe. Fresh meat!” Karen chuckled.

“Nice to meet you both. My name is Duke Cava.  Welcome to Aja Winery; I run it along with my wife, Manna.”

“My name is Claire Dumont,” the young woman nodded politely.

Duke reached out his hand to hers. “What a lovely name.  You must be the new farmer to the south.”  He had a suave, pleasant voice and demeanor, and Claire half-expected him to kiss her hand in greeting.

The young woman nodded as she shook his hand politely.

Duke looked over to her male friend. “And you are…?”

“Cliff Yamamoto,” the young man stammered, shaking Duke’s hand.

A flicker of recognition registered in the winery owner’s eyes. “I think I’ve seen your face around here.  You stay at Doug’s?”

Cliff nodded. “Yes.  Since mid-winter.”

“Welcome to Mineral Town, both of you. How would you two care for a sample of our product?” He gave them both a grin.

Everyone in this town was so generous it caught her off guard. “Oh, I couldn’t possibly…”  Claire felt her face redden.

“Oh. I assumed you were of age since Karen brought you here,” Duke’s smile faded a bit.

“I-I’m of age.”

The man eyed up the farmer; he wasn’t sure if he believed her. Claire looked young to begin with, and the baggy work clothes weren’t helping her look any older.  “How old are you?”

“Twenty-two.”

“Oh, well, in that case, let’s go to the wine cellar,” He chuckled softly, leading the way. Karen bounced eagerly after him.

“I’ve n-never had wine before,” Cliff admitted sheepishly to Claire when the other two were out of earshot. “Have you?”

The young woman shook her head. “I would think it probably tastes a lot like grape juice…  Maybe sour?  What if I drink it and I find out I hate it?  I-I don’t want to be rude…  Maybe I’ll just ask for juice if they have any.”

“Oh, good idea. I’m sure he has juice.”  They walked down the stairs together.

Duke’s demeanor had changed as if a switch had been flipped; the winery owner and Karen were pouring rather full glasses straight from the casks, laughing loudly.

“Alright, kids, what do you want to drink?”

“D-do you have any grape juice?” Claire asked timidly.

“Oh, Claire, don’t be a baby!” Karen had already finished half of her glass already and was topping it off from one of the casks. “Live a little!”

“We have juice,” Duke happily poured her a glass. “What do you want, young man?”

“I’d like juice as well.”

Karen rolled her eyes. “You two are absolutely killing me!  Duke, I’m still drinking for them!”

“Oh, no you’re not!” Duke handed the pair their juice glasses and walked over to the cask. “I am!”  He roared with laughter and took a huge swig from his glass.

“I’ve never had fresh juice like this before; this tastes nothing like the processed stuff in the city,” Claire’s eyes widened as she let the juice sit on her tongue for a moment. It was sweet and flavorful, and it was easily one of the most delectable things she had ever tasted.

“It is delicious…” Her friend murmured in agreement as he took a small step closer to her; he’d much rather stand with her than the noisy pair over by the wine barrels.

“Karen’s at the bar a lot at night,” Claire realized. She had seen the woman at the same bar stool nearly every night when she dropped off her copper offerings to Gray.

“Oh, yeah…” Cliff chuckled, taking a sip of juice.  “She’s there quite a bit.  Ann always says she’s their best customer, so she gets treated like royalty.”

“Ann seems really nice.”

The young man nodded. “She really is.  I know I haven’t really lived here that long, but she’s kind of like a sister to me…  A little pushy, though.”  He gave her a shy smile.  “I guess my actual sister was, too…”

“I was never really close to my siblings,” Claire admitted with a small frown.

“Oh… I was…”  Cliff’s voice got quiet and he stared down at his juice.

“So… This is where all of the wine is aged, kids!” Duke appeared behind them with an empty wine glass.  “The grapes in the vineyard are used to make all of our wines.  We have over twenty varieties of wine, and we also make juice.  What do you think of the juice?”

“Amazing!”

“Delicious!”

The winery owner grinned at the pair. “Good to hear it!  This winery is my pride and joy!”

“I thought I was your pride and joy!”  A voice echoed down the stairs.  A woman with dark hair and a long skirt hurried down the creaky stairs.  “Oh, here are a couple new faces.  So nice to meet you!  I see you’ve met my husband, Duke.  My name is Manna Cava; I run the wine shop next door.  Aja Winery was supposed to be a three-person operation with our daughter, but I won’t bother you with that whole long depressing story.  I’m sure Duke has given you a sample of our products, yes?  What do you think?  We work hard at what we do!  I am especially proud of this latest batch of moscato; I think it has the perfect finish.  Karen, dearie, did you get a chance to try it?  If not, have a glass, sweetie.  We always value your opinion, Karen.  Why don’t you two try some as well?  It really is quite delicious!  Once you try our wine, you won’t want to drink any other.”  She gave them a friendly nod.

“This is Claire. She’s the farmer that just moved in a few weeks ago,” Duke introduced her.

Manna’s face lit up. “Oh, yes.  What a pretty young lady!  I have heard that the farm had been under new management.  You have no idea what that means for this town!  Most of our produce is shipped in from the next town over, so it can get a little pricey for us housewives who have hungry husbands to feed!  Work hard, Claire, and I know that your farm will be a great success!  We are all rooting for you!”

“Thank you,” Claire’s heart felt warm, and she was a little surprised when the woman gave her a friendly hug around the shoulders.

“And who is this handsome young man? I know I’ve seen your face around here somewhere.  Are you new, or just shy?”

“That’s Cliff. He’s one of Doug’s boys,” Duke explained.

“Ah, that must be where I’ve seen you. So you live at Doug’s.  You won’t find a nicer inn anywhere.  We sell a lot of our wine to them, you know, we are business partners.  So if you ever want a drink, stop by the inn and think of us.  Or, even better, you can come here to visit me and buy it straight from our shop!” She gave the young man a flirty wink and patted his arm.

“I doubt they needed an entire sales pitch, honey,” Duke laughed. “Karen said she’s taking them to the bar later tonight.”

“Oh, is Karen showing them around town? How sweet of her!  If you really want the inside scoop on what is going on in town, feel free to ask me anything.  I like to pride myself on my knowledge of the goings-on in town.”

“Oh, Manna, you’re nothing more than a gossip, just like Mom!” Karen giggled.

The woman mock-pouted. “You silly girl!  There’s a big difference between idle gossip and knowing the inner workings of a town.  Why, just the other day, Anna told me that Won is selling false good luck charms!  She said she bought one for her daughter to-”

“Manna,” Duke interrupted her, “Why don’t we head upstairs and show them the vineyard?”

“Oh, you haven’t shown them yet? Come on, let’s go upstairs and give them the grand tour!”  She stumbled on a loose floorboard and Cliff swiftly caught her by the arm before she fell.  “Oh!  That gave me a start!  Thank you, young man!  What a sweetheart!  Duke, I thought I told you to nail that board down!” She scowled at her husband.

“I did nail it down!” Duke insisted.

“Well, you didn’t nail it down hard enough; I almost fell!” Manna frowned.

“Are you sure that’s even the same floorboard?” He walked over and stepped on it.  “This isn’t the same one!  I nailed down that one over there!”

“Well, why didn’t you just go through and nail down all of the loose ones?”

“How was I supposed to know there was another one loose?” Duke raised his voice.

“Well, it’s just common sense if you’ve already got the hammer out to go through and do all of them.”

“Well, I didn’t think to do that, now did I? I’ve been busy in the vineyard!”

“Well, we wouldn’t be overwhelmed if Aja were still here, now would we?” Manna’s voice was low and accusing.

“Well, we don’t have that luxury, now do we?!” Duke roared.

Karen swiftly grabbed each of her friends by the arm. “Upstairs.  Now.”  She shoved them ahead of her.  “Thank you, Duke and Manna, for the yummy wine and juice!  See you around!”  She yelled over them.

“Wh-what was that all about?” Claire asked uncomfortably as Karen pulled the cellar door behind them.

“Eh, they argue quite a bit, but they don’t mean any harm by it,” her friend laughed nervously. “They’re nice people, really.”

Cliff was staring at the door with a frown on his face, listening to the yelling, which had rapidly increased in volume.

“Cliff, they bicker all the time; don’t worry about it.”

“They… miss their child terribly,” His voice was soft.

“Yeah… But they always make up before dinner time,” Karen gave him a friendly grin.  “They’re both just a little hot-blooded.  Why don’t we make a quick stop at my place?  I bet I could talk Dad into giving us some free rice balls for lunch.”  She led the way.

Claire followed her female friend, but she noticed Cliff was falling behind, his eyes turning back to the winery several times. She sensed he had that gloomy aura she noticed he had when she first met him at the church.  The farmer slowed down her walking pace so that she could match steps with him.

“Are you doing okay?” She asked softly.

Cliff jumped in surprise. “Huh?  Oh, I’m fine!”  He quickly shot her a small grin, but Claire could see him struggling to hide the ache in his eyes.  Something about Duke and Manna’s quarrel had really gotten to the young man.

She said nothing in response; she wasn’t sure if she could say anything that would help. The grief that emanated from him permeated her own heart and she felt a lump form in her throat.  Claire walked silently by his side.

0o0o0o0

“Here we are!” Karen led the way to the grocery store.  “So, we’ve got your seeds and basic groceries, personal care items…”  She turned around raised her eyebrows in concern.  “Claire, are you alright?  You look like you’re going to cry.”

The farmer swallowed; her throat felt tight. “I’m doing fine,” she insisted and gave Karen a cheesy smile.

“Good; I’m going to get us some onigiri!” Karen walked over to her father behind the cash register.

“I’m sorry, Claire,” Cliff murmured. “I’m okay, really…”  He locked eyes with her.  “I know I can put people off sometimes with my gloominess…  Carter says that I… push people away…”

“I… I just want to be able to help you,” she found herself saying, and her voice cracked.

“J-just hearing you say that already makes me feel a lot better,” Claire could see the relief in the young man’s eyes as he gave her a kind smile.

“R-really?” The young woman’s throat relaxed.  “I’m glad…”

Karen was looking at her two friends with interest. “Are you two going to come over here and get a rice ball or what?”  She handed them each a wrapped bundle.  “I’ve got them packed up.  Eat them now or later, but take one either way.”

“Oh, thank you very much!” Cliff stammered, and Claire nodded emphatically in agreement.

“No problem. Dad just asks that you guys look around the shop for a while and promise to buy something sometime.”

The farmer tucked away her rice ball for later as she wandered the shop and noticed her friend had done the same. She had been to the grocery store a couple of times since moving into town, but there were quite a few things she didn’t notice they sold before, such as stationary.  She’d have to buy some for her next letter to her parents…  It seemed the shop carried some fancy writing instruments as well.

Claire was staring at some lavish feathers locked up in a glass case. “Quills…  They’re all blue…”  The young woman had never written with a quill, but these feathers looked too fancy to use for something as ordinary everyday writing utensils.

Karen laughed. “Three weeks in town and you’re already eyeing up the blue feathers?  You’ve got it bad, girl!  Don’t let the boys catch you looking at them already; you’ll scare them all away!”  She slapped Claire on the back.

Claire was caught by surprise and her head almost slammed into the glass case. “What are you talking about?”

Cliff peeked into the case. “I doubt I’ll ever have to worry about receiving one of these…”  He laughed nervously.

“What about giving one?” Karen teased.

“I… d-don’t think so…” Cliff rolled his eyes, but his face had turned red.

“So they’re given as gifts…” Claire pieced this much together.

“They had the blue feather tradition back in my home town, too,” Cliff was saying to Karen. “It kind of feels nice to know the customs back at home weren’t all completely unheard of.”

“Okay… When do you give someone a blue feather?”

Her two friends looked at each other and Claire was surprised to see that Karen had turned pink. “You mean you don’t know?  Pah, city kid…  Go on, tell her, Cliff.”  She nudged him.

The young man looked back at Karen and sighed. “Fine…  Here’s the way our village elder explained it to the children.  When you finally find someone that truly makes your life complete, it is said that you are visited by the bluebird of happiness.  Giving someone a blue feather represents your desire to share that happiness with them…” He recited, “It means that you want to share your life with them…  How was that explanation, Karen?”  Cliff looked over his shoulder.

Karen nodded in approval and slapped her friend on the back; the young man had loosened up considerably since this morning. “Your elder explained it in a much sweeter way than my mom did.  Mom just said, ‘Don’t be passing those out to any boy!’”  She mimicked her mother and laughed.

It’s like an engagement ring… Claire admired the plumes.  “So they’re for marriage…  Do men or women typically give them out?”

“Wow… You’re a woman on a mission, huh?  I’d say it’s about fifty-fifty.  My mom gave my dad a blue feather, and Rod gave Lillia one.  But, hey, we’ve all got plenty of time to worry about that!” Karen laughed heartily.  “You’re only young once…  Hey, I know where we can go next,” she blushed, hurrying out the door.

Her friends shrugged at each other and followed.

Chapter Text

“Huh… I still half-expect to see it every time I come here,” Karen chuckled as they walked through the gate of the poultry farm.

“See what?” Claire asked.

“They used to have this huge statue erected here.  It’s been gone for years,” she snickered.  “Anyway…”

“Welcome to Chicken Lil’s!” A very pretty young woman hurried over to them, picking up her skirts as she ran over the dirt path. She was the very essence of what Claire defined as feminine; long, flowing curly hair, beautiful clothing, and a childlike face.  “Hey, Karen!  Who do you have with you today?”  She gazed at the newcomers, and her eyes fell on the young man.  “Oh, wait!  I know!  You’re that guy I see up at the spring sometimes.  I’m Popuri!  And you are…?”

Cliff could hardly stammer his own name; Popuri was inspecting him as if he were an animal at auction. She slowly circled him, her eyes moving up and down him shamelessly.  The young man turned bright red and stared at the ground, embarrassed.

“What is that? Deer hide?” She muttered more to herself than anyone else as she stared at his clothing.

“Y-yeah…”

“Ah, this looks soft,” her fingers flew to the fur collar on his tunic. “Is this real?”  He looked so different than most of the other men in town; furs were reserved for fancy women in the city, not shabbily dressed mountain men.  A thinly veiled smirk spread across the young woman’s face.

“Uh, y-yes… I, uh…”  He couldn’t make it any more obvious that he was extremely uncomfortable.

Karen bit back a laugh. “Poppy, don’t tease the kid; he’s shy.”

Popuri ignored her friend. “It feels really nice.  What is it?”  She stared at him, coaxing him to speak.

“Fox…” His voice kept getting softer.

“HEY!” A sharp voice made all four of them jump.  A young man their age with wire-framed glasses and strawberry blonde hair tore across the farm to them.

Karen rolled her eyes. “Rick, don’t get your apron in a twist.  These are just some new folks in town.”

The anxiety on Ricks’ face faded only slightly. “Who’s this guy?”  He asked suspiciously, but his misgivings faded when he saw the look on Cliff’s face.  “Give him some space, Sis!”

Popuri went to stroking her cotton candy locks instead.

“New tenant at Doug’s,” Karen explained. “This is Cliff; he’s harmless.  And this is Claire, the new farmer; also harmless,” she ruffled the bespectacled man’s hair, and Claire noticed that Karen’s fingers lingered for a moment on his pale locks.

“Pleased to meet you,” Claire nodded politely.

The young man adjusted his glasses and held out a hand to shake. “Farmer, huh?  So you must be the one who purchased the property to the south.”  He looked very interested.  “It will definitely be a big job, resurrecting that farm.  But you know what?  Hard work builds character!  I’m sure you’ll do a great job, and I hope we can help each other out in the future!”

“Yeah… me, too...”  Rick shifted into a different mode since his initial introduction to the group; Claire relaxed a bit.

The chicken farmer’s eyes moved to his sister; she was still staring down the strange young man. Rick gave her a dirty look.  “Leave him alone, Sis.  Can’t you see you’re making him uncomfortable?  You need to behave yourself; we’re not little kids anymore.”  He sighed and shook his head.  “I apologize…”

“It’s okay…” The young man smiled politely at Rick, but he looked as if he wished he were invisible.

“Anyway, we specialize in chickens here. We sell to local farms and businesses.  Eggs, feed, chickens, meat…  Anything related to chickens, we can cover.”

Popuri sulked and had moved to inspecting Claire. The farmer could see why Cliff had turned so red; those large eyes boring into her made the famer very self-conscious.

“What did I just say?!” Rick’s voice was stern.

Popuri’s garnet eyes met Claire’s blue ones. “You’re really pretty,” she breathed.

The farmer’s face felt very hot; it was such an innocent, blunt compliment. “Th-thanks…  I think you are, too.”

Rick continued. “So, if you are looking to buy a chicken in the future, keep us in mind.  I’d be happy to show you around the farm and we can check out the-”

“What do you think, Rick? She’s pretty, huh?”

The young man’s cheeks turned pink. “Go into the house if you can’t say anything else!”

“All you want to do is talk about work!” She pouted.

“And all you want to do is talk about nonsense!” Her brother retorted. “Besides, Karen told me last night that she was going to show the new farmer around town.  I plan on speaking to a potential customer about what we have to offer, thank you very much!  So where were we?”

“You were both going to show us around,” Karen didn’t miss a beat.  Popuri’s face lit up and she winked at her female friend.

Rick didn’t waste a moment. “Alright.  Here is the main henhouse,” he threw open the door.

Claire’s ears and nose were assaulted with a one-two punch; she knew right away she didn’t want to stay in here for long. Rows of hens in varying sizes and colors lined the walls; there had to be at least one hundred.  While fascinating, the combination of smells and noises almost gave her an immediate headache.

“These are our egg laying hens!” Rick yelled over the clucking and squawking.  “If you ever want to buy a chicken for your own farm, just see my mom and we’ll set you up with a good hen!”

The farmer stared at the birds curiously. Many were attempting to peck each other.  “They’re not very friendly, huh?” She turned toward Karen, who laughed.

“What?! I can’t hear you!”  Rick called over the noisy birds.

“Never mind her; she’s too quiet for this coop!” Karen spoke loudly.

They hurried back outside, and Claire realized she felt pretty excited after looking at the birds. Despite her initial repulsion at the crowded chicken coop, the idea of owning a few hens sounded quite attractive to her.  After all, she had her own space for them already.

“It was a bit like the village square in the afternoon in there, am I right?” Karen gave the young man a friendly nudge.

A guilty smile spread across Rick’s lips. “You know you shouldn’t say things like that…”

“Oh, you know I’m only telling the truth,” she giggled, bumping his shoulder again.

“Anyway… I’d show you the inside of the shop, but Mom’s not feeling well today.  Maybe some other time.  The next coop over houses our capons, males we raise for meat.  We sell to local towns and Doug’s place.  Tastiest chicken around; hope you’ve had the chance to try some.”

“We love chickens, but we’re not above eating them,” Popuri grinned, “Especially the ones who decide to peck at us!”

“D-Do you sell them whole?”

They all turned in surprise; Cliff hardly seemed the type to have any interest in a poultry farm.

“What do you mean?” Rick asked, adjusting his glasses. “We don’t really do any butchering here, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“Ah… I was just wondering if you sold offal at a discounted rate,” Cliff’s asked shyly.

“Nah, we only sell good stuff here, nothing awful!” Popuri teased, giving the young man a giggle.

“You mean you actually want the gizzard and heart and other organs?”  Karen cringed.

“Hey, some people actually like that kind of stuff. I told you to give it a try, Karen,” Rick frowned at her.  “But Cliff, you could probably ask Doug for leftovers; he’s a big believer in not wasting anything.”

“Thanks, I’ll ask.” Cliff gave him a friendly smile and nod.

Popuri pulled the female farmer off to the side. “Hey, Claire.  Did you know that me and Karen grew up together?”

Claire shook her head, and she felt a rush of jealousy. She never had a steady friend growing up herself.

“Oh, yeah. Me, Poppy, Rick, and Ann used to think we ran this town when we were little,” Karen giggled as they walked down the dirt path.

Cliff waited until the women were out of earshot. “What about day-old chicks?”

The chicken farmer laughed. “You planning on raising them in your room at the inn?  We only sell fully-grown hens, and I won’t sell a live chicken to someone who doesn’t have the proper space to raise one.”

The brunette’s eyes darted toward the trio of girls and moved back to Rick. “I didn’t say anything about them needing to be alive.  It helps, but it isn’t necessary.”

Rick’s eyes flashed with understanding. “For feed, huh?  I thought Doug didn’t allow pets.”

The traveler frowned. “I prefer to think of him as a partner, and I don’t keep him at the inn.”

Rick’s eyes widened; a potential threat had been made known to his mother’s precious farm. “Well, please be careful where you let… him roam, okay?”  His voice was friendly, but his expression was not.

“I know better than to bring him into town,” the brunette sighed. “I promise you have nothing to worry about; we’ve been together for years.”

The chicken farmer caught the flash of loneliness on the gloomy man’s face. “Hey, I’m sorry if I came off as aggressive.  It’s just…  This farm is my life.  I have to prove to my family that I can support them, you know what I mean?”

“Y-yeah…” Cliff’s voice was gruff as he stared at the ground.  “Take good care of your family; they’re the only one you’ve got.”

Chapter Text

“So, here’s the forge. You can buy more farm tools here, Claire.  The owner’s a little intimidating, but he means well.  Just thought I’d give both of you fair warning.”

“I’ve been here already,” Claire replied.

“Me, too.” Cliff nodded.

“Oh!” Karen was a little surprised.  “Well, I guess we can just skip over it, then.”

Claire’s feet remained glued to the ground. She had another chance to speak to the apprentice, and she was not about to let it pass her by.  “W-wait!”  Claire’s hands were sweaty and she wiped them off on her overalls.  “I-it wouldn’t hurt to go in and s-say hello….”

“Alright. If you want to, then let’s go in,” Karen shrugged.

The farmer opened the door with shaking hands and her heart began to pound as the familiar scent of smoldering metal hit her nose.

“Good day,” Saibara greeted them.

“Hello. I’m showing these new folks around town today,” the young woman explained.

Claire’s eyes were already locked on the left side of the room. She watched the apprentice load the furnace with ingots.

“Hello, Mr. Saibara,” Cliff nodded to him politely.

“Hello, young man. Can I help you with something today, Cliff?”

“Actually… I was wondering if you would be interested in another trade,” he asked with a courteous smile.  “I’m really happy with the work you did for me before; I can that tell you train very hard.”

Karen was surprised at the shy young man’s bold offer; the old blacksmith always made his customers pay up front in cash.

Saibara nodded approvingly and a smile crept onto his face. “Most young people don’t understand…  You must practice hard every day; it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been doing it…  I’m also satisfied with the work you’ve done for me.  Alright, let’s talk.”

Karen’s eyes moved over to Claire; she was watching Gray throw ingots into the furnace. “Hey, what are you going to make with all of that?” Karen asked.

Gray looked over at his grandfather. Saibara was grinning and nodding at his roommate while the young man skillfully negotiated with him; they looked pretty engaged.  Gray rolled his eyes at Karen.

“None of your damn business.”

“Hey, come on! Don’t be like that!  What are you making?”  She repeated.

He didn’t look up at her. “I said it was none of your damn business.”

“Quit being an ass,” Karen folded her arms across her chest.

“Why does it matter to you what I’m making? It will just end up in the furnace anyway, right?  It’s not your stupid spatula, that’s for sure.”

“Don’t tell me you’re still angry about this morning! If anyone should be mad, it should be me!”

Claire sighed; this visit wasn’t going the way she had hoped for at all…

Karen caught the look on her friend’s face. “Hey…  Let’s not fight.  Why don’t you show us what you do back there?”

“This is dangerous stuff. Don’t treat it so casually like you’re on a field trip or something,” Gray’s voice was gruff as he turned around and glared at Karen.

Claire was watching the glow of the furnace with wide eyes. “You ever get burnt on that?”

Gray almost scoffed at her, but he found himself unable to. Her eyes and tone of voice were both too sincere.  “Well, that’s why I wear these heavy gloves.”  He took them off.  “But accidents still happen.”

The farmer gasped as he showed her a few burn scars on his hands. “Do they still hurt?”

“Not at all. You can’t tell me you have never burned yourself on something before.”

“Well, I worked at a restaurant in the city for a few years, but I’ve never gotten anything like that…” Claire looked down at her own hands for a moment and frowned.  They weren’t quite as soft as when she lived in the city, and despite the fact that she wore work gloves, she was starting to get calluses from handling her farming tools.

“How did you get that one on your right hand, Claire?” Karen asked her friend.

“I got it slammed in a train door on my way home from work a couple of years ago. I couldn’t write for a couple of weeks; catching up at work was worse than the actual injury,” she laughed weakly.

“Well, I got this scar on my elbow from when I was a kid,” Karen showed off her scar proudly.

“How did you get that one?” Claire asked.

“Something stupid, I’m sure. I think I was climbing a tree with Rick and fell.”

Gray showed Claire a long pink mark on his left hand. “That’s nothing compared to this one.”

“Oh, so it’s a competition now?” Karen teased.

Gray ignored her question. “I got this one when I first started.  I sneezed when I was standing in front of a metal rod that was cooling.  Hurt like hell.”

“What about that one?” Claire pointed to his thumb.

“Ha... Got that one when I was a kid.  I came here to visit with my parents and I saw some copper ingots cooling and apparently I thought they were candy.  Goddess, I was stupid…  Check it out; I only have a partial fingerprint.”  He held out his hand.

Claire took his hand in hers and ran her finger along the shiny scar. “That must’ve hurt so much…  Second degree burn at least, right?”

“I guess. I don’t remember it all that well; I think I was four or five...  Hey, that tickles,” A hint of a smile spread across his lips and his cheeks turned pink.

Claire looked up at him and quickly let go. “Oh, uh, s-sorry!” She stammered, blushing deeply.

Gray shrugged and pulled down on the bill of his cap. “Anyway, hot metal’s nothing to fool around with.  It’s best to keep at a safe distance.  I’m not going to be held responsible for anything stupid you decide to do, Karen.”

“Whatever, we have somewhere else to go to next, anyway,” She turned back toward her other companion, who was still talking to the owner.

“So you’re already preparing for fall, huh?” Saibara asked.

Cliff nodded, and Karen was surprised at how comfortable he sounded talking to the old blacksmith. “Well, it’s never too early to start; I’ve been scouting a lot now that it’s warming up a bit.  I am eager to see what Mother’s Hill has to offer.  I haven’t seen too much yet, but I’m trying to remain hopeful.”

“I’ll have half a dozen ready for you by next week… Why don’t you come over for tea tomorrow morning at seven?  We can talk more then.”

“Th-thank you… I’m honored,” the young man stammered, reddening.

The old blacksmith laughed. “I have a feeling you’ll do just fine in this town.  We could use more polite young men like you.”

Gray rolled his eyes.

“Well, I’ve got work to do; see you soon,” Saibara said, not unkindly. “I will see you tomorrow morning, Cliff.”  He nodded at him.

“Yes. I’m looking forward to it,” he bowed respectfully.

Saibara turned around and shuffled through his tools noisily, focusing on his next project.

“You’re meeting Gramps for tea?” Gray cocked an eyebrow. “Hope you like bitter matcha, and you better drink it real slowly.  He’s very particular.”

“I’m sure I’ll be fine,” Cliff replied, rolling his eyes; he was familiar with the way his roommate spoke of his grandfather.

“Well, you better hope you are. He invited me once for tea, and he nearly flipped the table over because I sat down wearing my hat.  I think I need to be eight parts more wabi and five parts more sabi to meet his standards,” he rolled his eyes, scoffing.

Claire blinked at the young man; the joke went over her head. Karen roared with laughter.

The old man turned back around, distracted by the young woman’s loud voice. “Get back to the furnace, boy!”  He roared.  “I’m going to need steel!”

Gray sighed. “See you guys around.”  He headed back to his workstation.

Chapter Text

“Sheep are really cute…” Claire sighed dreamily as they waved goodbye to Barley and May of Yodel Ranch.

“They taste pretty good, too,” Karen smirked.

The farmer’s face fell. “You’re terrible!”

“She’s right though,” Cliff let out a small chuckle. “There’s nothing quite like slow-roasted mutton; we never got to eat it much back at home.”

The blonde sighed, but found herself laughing. “That’s it!  Neither of you are allowed in my barn after I buy livestock!”

“She won’t notice one little missing lamb, will she, Cliff?” Karen nudged her friend. “I won’t tell if you don’t!”

The young man said nothing, but gave her a conspiratorial wink.

“And now you two are plotting right in front of me!” The farmer mock-pouted. “You two have no shame!”

Karen ruffled the blonde’s hair and Claire let out a giggle. “You are perfectly adorable, Claire!  Raise us lots of livestock for us to eat, okay?”

Seeing the horses, cows, and sheep of the livestock farm had put all of the friends in a cheerful mood. They had finished the southern section of town; Karen led the two up a cobblestone path to the north and stopped at a very official-looking building next to the church.

“This is our hospital. The doc’s really nice.  Let’s go in and say hi,” Karen opened the door and her friends followed.

“We’ve got some new patients!” Karen hollered as they walked into the sterile lobby.

“So, what seems to be ailing you?” The nurse frowned at the pair.

“Oh, no! We’re not sick, w-we’re just visiting,” Claire explained, caught off guard by her concerned face.  “Karen’s showing us around town.”

“Oh, well then, good afternoon!” The nurse had a sweet, motherly air about her although she looked like she was the same age as them. “Welcome.  My name is Elli, and I’m the nurse here.  Pleased to meet you.  Feel free to stop by for a checkup any time.  I also sell over-the-counter medicines.”

“My name is Claire.” The nurse seemed friendly enough, and the farmer relaxed a bit.

“So nice to meet you, Claire and…?”

The young man was distractedly staring at the jars of medicine behind Elli’s desk with nervous eyes. His cheerful mood had disintegrated the moment they stepped through the door, and the sterile room seemed to release a sense of fear in him.  “Uh… I’m Cliff…”

“Well, why don’t you guys go see the doctor and he can register you two as patients? We’ll just get some basic information on you so that when you come here for a real visit, we won’t have to bother with the formalities, okay?”  The nurse popped her head in the doctor’s office.  “Doctor Trent, we have a couple of new residents.”

“Oh, good, send them in,” a deep businesslike voice emerged from the doorway. Elli gave Claire a nod and walked back to her desk.

Karen gave Claire a nudge and the farmer nervously walked into the office, not realizing Cliff had followed her.  Karen stifled a giggle and took a seat in the lobby; the young man looked very bewildered and confused.

The doctor turned around in his swivel chair. “Hello.  Doctor Trent.  Pleased to meet you,” He nodded and shook their hands.  “Honestly, a lot of people just call me Doc.  New farmer, right?” He nodded toward the blonde.

The man had a very serious expression, and Claire got the distinct impression that his face rarely changed. His dark eyes were observing her as well, and the farmer noticed there was a subtle warmth behind them.

“Yes, my name is Claire.” She sat down and placed her hands in her lap. Her friend watched her and quickly followed suit, taking a seat close to her.

“So is this your husband?” Trent pointed at Cliff with his pen.

“Oh, n-no! We’re just both new to town,” the young woman shook her head, flustered for a brief moment.  She stole a glance at her friend and noticed his cheeks were flushed.

“Well, I can’t see you both at once then,” Trent sighed; he thought this much was painfully obvious. “Can one of you wait in the hallway for a moment?  I don’t want to violate any health privacy laws,” he pointed at the door with his writing utensil.

“Uh… S-sure…” Cliff stood up and scrambled out of the room.

The doctor rolled his eyes at the young man and grabbed some forms. “Alright.  I won’t get too invasive today,” he gave her a kind smile.  “I’ll just collect some basic information on you.”

He recorded Claire’s height, weight, blood pressure, and took a sample of blood.

“Are there any ongoing health issues that I need to know about?”

“W-well…” The young woman played with her hands.  “I-I get…”  Her mouth suddenly felt very dry.  She tried again.  “S-sometimes my heart starts racing and I feel dizzy and I have trouble breathing.”  Just talking about it made her feel the symptoms again.

The doctor frowned and scribbled on his notepad. He swiftly picked back up his stethoscope and pressed it to her heart.  “Just randomly?  When does this happen?”

She gulped; he was getting the wrong idea. Surely he thought she had some sort of severe health issue now.  She began to wonder if she should have said anything at all.  “N-no…  I-I’m sorry.  I’m not explaining it well…  I just get nervous and then I feel this way.”

“So it’s anxiety then, huh?” His voice was gentle.

“Y-yeah. Panic attacks.  I had one the other day and had to sit down for a while.  I went home and slept really hard; I was really worn out.”  It didn’t feel like her own voice admitting all of this.  She felt too detached to be embarrassed.

“How often does this happen, and is there usually something you’re doing that triggers them?”

“Maybe one every few days… M-meeting new people makes me anxious…” And trying to get Gray to notice me…

The doctor bit back a grin. “I suppose Karen’s town tour isn’t helping too much with that, huh?”  He whirled around in his swivel chair and dug through the cabinet behind him.  He produced a small amber bottle and opened the lid.  “Here, take a whiff of this and tell me how it makes you feel.”

She took the bottle in shaking hands and gave it a small sniff. Her nose was filled with a sweet floral scent that made her throat and muscles relax.

He saw the relief on her face and smiled; this was what he lived for, after all. “It feels good, huh?”

She nodded mutely and reluctantly handed him back the bottle. He shook his dark head.  “Keep it.  That’s lavender oil.  Try adding it to your soap or just dab some on your pressure points.”

Claire immediately put some on her neck.

“It’s not a medicine, but it will help you relax. Spend some more time with your friends and the social anxiety should subside.” 

“Th-thank you.”

“If the panic attacks get worse, come back to see us. You also might want to consider visiting the church for some counseling.  Pastor Carter is a very kind, sympathetic man.  Why don’t you send your friend back now?”

“Alright. Thank you, Doctor Trent…”  She clutched the small bottle in her hand, feeling a sense of relief and pride in telling the doctor about her anxiety.  She returned to the lobby.

“See? It only took a minute,” Karen was rolling her eyes at Cliff.

“He’s ready for you,” Claire nodded.

She saw that her friend was looking at around the room as if he was expecting something to jump out at him. “A-alright…” He trudged into the doctor’s office.

Claire took a seat next to Karen and the brunette let out an exasperated sigh. “That kid’s never been to a doctor’s office in his life.  Can you believe it?”

The farmer shrugged. It was a little unusual, but judging from his clothing, he looked like he was from a pretty rural area that might not have very advanced medical equipment.  “I wonder what he does when he gets sick, though…”

Karen shrugged.

“Alright, done!” Cliff hurried out of the examination room; one of his bracers had been removed and he had an elastic band around the exposed forearm.  He tucked the unworn bracer under his arm.  “Let’s go.”

“Get back here!” Trent’s voice roared from his office.

Karen caught her friend by the shirt. “What on earth-?”

Trent stepped into the hallway.

“I-It’s BA… neutral…” Cliff muttered.  “I just remembered!”

“That’s not even a blood type,” Trent cocked an eyebrow.

“Of course it’s not!” He laughed nervously.  “I meant…  A…B.  Yes, AB!”

“It’s just a small needle,” Trent held up the syringe. “It will just take a minute.  Besides, I need to know more than just your blood type.”

“… AB neutral,” Cliff repeated, clumsily tugging at the band on his arm, hoping that the addition of the new word held some kind of weight.

Claire frowned at her friend; his emotions seemed pretty erratic today, and she knew it was probably from all of the new people he was meeting. The young man seemed extremely agitated; she could see past his frail smile and his blue eyes were darting around the room in panic.  Perhaps today simply had too much excitement and forced socialization for such a withdrawn person.  “Cliff…”

Karen scowled at him. “Do you want to die if you get a blood transfusion?  You can’t just pick a blood type!”

“Come on, just a small sample of blood,” Trent sighed.

Cliff bit his lip; he wasn’t trying to be difficult…  “Well, if all you need is a bit of blood…”  He reached into his pocket and produced a hunting knife, “Why can’t I just nick myself and you can catch the blood in a cup or something?”

Karen laughed heartily while the doctor’s eyes widened in horror. Surely the young man used the same knife to gut fish.  “That’s not a sterile method at all!  Besides, the needle will cause much less discomfort.”

“I… beg to differ,” the patient mumbled under his breath.

“Come on, he’ll probably give you a lollypop if you’re a good boy,” Karen smirked at him.

Cliff turned toward his other friend and noticed she smelled rather nice. Despite his urge to panic, he felt himself relaxing a bit.  “Did he make you do this, too?”

Claire held up a bandaged arm.

“Oh.” He fell silent.

“Take a seat. Now.”  The doctor was tired of fighting.

The young man obeyed mutely and plopped on the couch next to Karen. She immediately stood up and averted her eyes, wandering over to Elli’s area.

“Don’t look at your arm; look at something else,” Trent ordered, tightening the band on his patient’s arm.

Cliff’s eyes fell on his blonde friend and quickly dropped to the floor with embarrassment. He stared at the tiles on the floor, focusing on the sound of his own breathing.

“There, done. Not so bad, huh?” Trent patted Cliff’s shoulder and swiftly bandaged the arm and removed the band in a fluid motion.

The young man didn’t reply; he quickly covered the bandaged arm with his bracer with shaking fingers and looked up in surprise when Claire took the laces.

“These must be hard to tie yourself, huh?” She gave him a kind smile. As she laced up the arm wear, she noticed for the first time how many scuffs and scars covered the young man’s arms and hands; one scar in particular looked jagged and appeared as though the skin had been stitched together by an amateur at one point.

“Th-thank you…” His eyes moved to the floor and his face flushed.

“That reminds me… Karen, you’re due for your bloodwork soon,” the doctor headed back to his office.

The young woman went pale. “R-right…”

“Don’t put it off again like you did last time. Make an appointment soon,” his voice was stern.

Karen swore under her breath. “Alright.  Bye, Elli!  Bye, Trent!” She dragged both of her friends behind her as she left.

Chapter Text

“I know you’re both familiar with this place,” Karen dismissed it with the wave of a hand as they walked by the church. She turned around to see her male friend heading for the door.  She seized him by the arm.  “Oh, no you don’t!  You’re not going back in there to hide!”

The young man gave a slight frown, but Claire could see the desperation in his eyes; he was on the edge of a meltdown. She could tell that he was aching to sit in his quiet pew.

“Come on. I’ll let you pick the next place,” Karen offered, her expression softening.

“The church.”

He was quiet, but also stubborn. The grocer’s daughter sighed.  “Pick another.”  She folded her arms across her chest.

“Why don’t we go to the church for a quick prayer?” Claire asked gently. Her male friend looked at the farmer gratefully and gave Karen a pleading expression.

The brunette rolled her eyes. “Fine, but we still have other stops to make.  Don’t think you’re getting out of the rest of the tour, Cliff!”

He didn’t say anything in reply, but he opened the door for Claire. Karen raised her eyebrows at them as she followed.

“Oh, there you are, Cliff. I thought maybe you had decided to spend some time with Ann today,” the priest gave his friend a kind smile as the three entered the church.

The color drained from the young man’s face. “N-no…”

Karen began to wonder what about the floor was so fascinating to Cliff; his eyes were almost always drifting there when he was aware that someone’s eyes were on him. When he thought no one was looking, now that was a different story…

“Me and Claire kidnapped him and are forcing him on an excruciating journey through town today,” The young woman laughed.

The priest’s face lit up. “Well, I’m glad that he agreed to go out with someone, at least.  How are you holding up, Cliff?”  The pastor gave the young man a kind smile.

 “I’m doing… okay…”

He could see the young man was struggling a bit; Carter quickly shifted to one of his usual remedies for calming his friend’s nerves. “Well, since you’re all three here, how would you like to listen to one of my stories?”

Claire took a seat beside her friend in the front pew and nodded.

“Oh, alright,” Karen took a seat on the other side of the blonde and smirked.

Once the three friends were looking up at the priest, Carter took a deep breath and grinned. He loved nothing more than an audience, after all.  “This is the story of a perfectly normal family.  The father, mother and their young son lived happily together.  However, the mother got ill and died suddenly.”

Two of the three friend’s faces fell. Karen rolled her eyes.

“It’s just a story,” Carter laughed. “There’s a lesson involved; I want you to think about it…  Anyway, the son was too young to understand, so he asked his father what happened to his mother.  The father knew not what to say, but he told his son that she slept very deeply.  The son became worried and went to get his allowance.  The son asked his father to buy a large alarm clock to wake her up…  Any thoughts about it?”  Carter gave the three friends a grin.

Claire looked at her companions; Karen had a snarky look on her face, and Cliff was staring at the ground, his expression unreadable.

“I think you’ve got a dark sense of humor,” the grocers’ daughter admitted with a grin.

The priest raised his eyebrows. “It wasn’t supposed to be a funny story…”

“You’re saying we should confront our problems,” Claire replied quietly.

Her friends turned toward her.

“If the father had just told the child his mother was dead it would have caused less heartache. Avoiding the issue only made things worse, and now he has to mourn his wife’s death all over again as he explains it to his son.”

“Yes… Dodging the issue didn’t seem to help much, did it?  What do you think, Cliff?”  The pastor turned toward the young man.

“I… I think…”  He was silent for a few moments as he stared at the colors of the stained glass windows.  “Well, I agree with Claire, but I also think that giving something unpleasant a different label doesn’t help things.  Renaming something to obscure it is just as bad as telling a lie.”

“Yes… Perhaps the father learned that avoiding the word ‘death’ with his son failed to solve his problem,”  Carter nodded.

“Ah, I didn’t know you guys were going to get all serious about this!” Karen’s cheeks flushed. “Now I just sound like an idiot!” She pouted, and her voice rang through the large room.

“Well, what do you think the meaning of the moral of the story is?” Carter asked her kindly.

The brunette bit her lip. “W-well…  I agree with them…  I don’t really have anything to add to it…  Except maybe the father shouldn’t shelter his kid so much…”

“These are all great insights,” The priest nodded; he was very encouraged that he had gotten all three of them to make a comment on his story. “And I think that it’s something that all of you can apply to your own lives.”

Claire sat silently, taking in this latest remark by Carter. He was right; she needed to be more proactive about talking to people.  Simply living in the village was not enough; if she wanted to cure her loneliness and social anxiety, she would need to take matters into her own hands.  Not to mention, if she wanted to win Gray’s affections, she would need to be more aggressive…

Her eyes moved toward Cliff. The young man looked deep in thought; it seemed he was thinking about confronting some sort of issues as well.  His expression had gone back to what she referred to as church mode in her mind – eyes glued to the floor, pensive face, a slight frown, and furrowed eyebrows.

“Facing our problems is something we all must do in our own way. There is no one who can do it for you, it must be a willing change done by yourself,” Carter said kindly, returning to the altar.  “But that doesn’t mean that you have to be alone; I will always be here for anyone seeking guidance.”

Claire was surprised when she looked up and saw her female friend approach the altar, giving the priest a hug. 

“Thanks, Carter…” Karen’s eyes were misty.

The farmer’s eyes widened in surprise; the grocer’s daughter didn’t strike her as someone who had problems at all. Karen had seemed so carefree today…

“Yes, thank you as always, Carter,” Cliff nodded at the priest. “I never really thought of myself as a very religious person in the past, but you’ve helped me more than you know.”

The pastor gave his friend a kind smile, and Claire had a feeling that Carter did know.

“Thank you,” Claire echoed, standing up.

“I know that today has been a whirlwind for the two of you, but remain strong. Today’s outing will help you more than you realize.  Cliff?”

“Huh?” The young man was standing up and slinging his bag over his shoulder.

The priest gave him a meaningful look. “I know that today has not been easy for you.  I’m proud of you, and you should be proud of yourself.”

The young man turned a bright shade of red and his eyes returned to the floor. “Th-thanks…”

“Don’t worry, our next stop will be somewhere more quiet, and I promise they won’t threaten to stick you with needles,” Karen grinned. “Don’t worry, we’ve got just one more stop before I take us back to the inn for drinks!”

“And where is that?” Carter laughed, smoothing out his robes.

“The library.”

Claire’s heart jumped.

0o0o0o0

“Wow, we’ve got a full house today,” the librarian smiled at her guests; there was usually only one.

“Hey Mary, you got any books on overcoming shyness?” Karen shot Cliff a meaningful glance. He frowned at her and walked over to a shelf on plant life.

“I actually do have a book on overcoming shyness, but someone checked it out already.” Mary remembered, adjusting her glasses on the bridge of her nose.

Claire’s heart was pounding out of her chest; she was busy trying to figure out what to say to the young man reading in the corner. He hadn’t looked up from his book since they came in.  She dragged her feet over to him.

“So… W-we’ve been seeing a lot of each other t-today,” Claire stammered, wondering if he could hear the deafening throbbing in her own ears.

She seemed to have startled Gray; he jumped a bit. “Hey, Claire.”  He tugged on his cap.  “Still following Karen around?”

“Y-yeah…”

“It’ll be good for you to get a look around town. Cliff, too…  He’s a bit of a hermit; he’s either cooped up in the church or alone in the mountains all day.”

Claire said nothing in reply; she couldn’t form a sentence in her mind.

“So…” He felt her eyes on him; she was still standing there.  He marked a page with his finger and closed his book.  “What kinds of books do you like?”

It was one of those rare moments when he actually asked her a question about herself. Claire wracked her brain.  The young man’s pale blue eyes were distracting.  “Uh… I… um, I like…”  Her mind drew a blank.  “I like lots of books…”  She pondered for a moment.  “Fantasy with a touch of romance.  Nothing mushy, though,” she quickly added.  “I hate romance novels.”

“You sound like Mary,” A smile played at his lips. “She gripes that most romance novels are either trash or smut and she wants to write a proper one someday.”

Claire frowned; Mary probably wanted to use a real relationship as reference…

“Would you read it if she did?” He asked shyly.

“Huh?” She was caught off guard by the odd question.  “Uh…  Sure, I guess…”

He saw the confused look on her face. “Mary’s working on a few books, but she’s too afraid to let most people read them.  I give her feedback, but she wanted me to ask if you would be willing to look at one she’s working on,”  he explained.

Maybe it was a love story about Mary and Gray and she just wanted to rub it in her face, Claire inwardly fumed. The young woman immediately shoved this thought from her head.  When she was little, she had a school friend that would show her silly stories he wrote.  “Yeah, I’d be willing to read some,” she found herself nodding.

“Oh, good,” he smiled. “But don’t sugarcoat anything; she likes very honest critiques.”

“Alright… Wh-why didn’t she ask me herself?”  She couldn’t help but wonder.

Gray reddened. “She… she was too shy to ask you.  She sees that you come by quite a bit and she asked if I would have a word with you about her writing.”  He couldn’t meet her gaze.

“Oh, okay.”

“Hey, Claire?”

“Y-yeah?” Her heart skipped a beat.

“Thanks,” he gave her a small but genuine smile. The young woman’s heart melted.  “Hey…  Why don’t you see what Cliff’s got over there?”

“Uh, o-okay… See you later,” She found herself unable to disobey as she wandered over to the other side of the library, her heart light.  Her male friend was flipping through a book curiously.  “What did you find?”

“Eh, not much really,” he admitted, closing the book and returning it to the shelf.

She studied the spine of the book he put away. “Ah, a book on growing crops!  Maybe that would help me a bit.”  She grabbed it and began rifling through it.  “You looking to grow something?”  She gave him a small grin.

The young man chuckled. “N-no…  I was just curious to see what all goes into farming.  It’s a lot of work, huh?”

Claire nodded. “I still have no clue what I’m doing out there,” she admitted with a chuckle.

“Do any of us ever, really?” Cliff asked quietly with a sad smile.

Claire was taken aback by her friend’s philosophical statement. “I suppose not.”

They stared at each other and burst into laughter.

“Hey, we’ll figure it out together, okay?” He gave her a friendly grin.

“O… okay!” His friend nodded emphatically; she was encouraged with by his enthusiasm. It seemed their time with Carter was just what he needed.  “This book will be my start.  What will be yours?”

Cliff looked caught off guard. “Uh…  I dunno…”

The young man was in desperate need of a good friend, and so was she… “H-how about you sit beside me at the inn tonight?” Claire blurted out.  She knew they’d most likely sit together anyway, but if he knew that she was actively seeking his company, it might make him feel more confident.

“That seems like a pretty simple start,” he started nonchalantly, but the young woman noticed that color was creeping up his cheeks. “I-I mean...  W-we’ve been at each other’s s-side all d-day…”  He fidgeted with his bracers.

Claire frowned; he was already getting nervous again. “You make that sound like it’s a bad thing,” she teased.

“Oh! N-not at all!” He didn’t mean to raise his voice so loud.  “It’s…  a-actually helped quite a b-bit.”

Claire noticed how comfortable she felt traveling in a group today. Karen was their fearless leader, but it felt nice to have someone who wasn’t as outgoing accompany them as well.  “I think it’s helped me, too,” she admitted.  She held up the book on crops.  “So, here’s my start!”

“A-and here’s mine…” He looked at her with a kind chuckle.

Claire’s heart swelled, and she found herself giggling in delight.

“Hey, now! This is a library!” Karen scolded them.  She looked at them with a grin.  “Hey…  Let me in on the joke, okay?”

“Th-there wasn’t any joke,” Cliff admitted with a blush.

“You two just happy? Well, I’m about to make our evening a lot happier.  Check out your book, Claire, and let’s roll!”

-------

“Sir, could we get this lady a Fall Breeze? And for goodness’ sake, Cliff, you’re not a kid; you don’t need to be drinking milk!  Get me and Cliff a beer!”

“You want two straws for that beer so you can share?” Ann giggled.

“Like heck if I’d share with anyone. Make that two beers for me.  I need one for each hand,” Karen laughed heartily.

Ann smirked; Karen was too easy. The waitress turned toward the young man.  “So now you’re willing to go around and check out town, huh?”  She looked slightly annoyed at him and stared at his companions enviously.

The color drained from Cliff’s face. “W-well…”

“I kind of bullied him into it,” Karen grinned at the redhead.

“W-well… I tried to, too!”  Ann blushed and flounced back to get the beers.

Doug slid a drink down the counter to Claire, and she almost dropped it in surprise.

“What’s in this?” Claire timidly turned toward Karen.

“You don’t need to know what’s in it. You just need to know it’s good.”  Karen got her beer and drank deeply.  She ignored the fact that the waitress had slammed the other beer a little too loudly in front of Cliff.

Claire carefully took a sip of her drink. It was sweet, yet tart, and it made her body feel tingly and warm.  She glanced over at Cliff, who sat on her other side.  He had taken a swig of his drink and decided to stick with the milk.

“… Is Ann mad at you?” Claire whispered to him.

The young man sighed. “She will be over it by the end of the evening.” 

Claire got the distinct feeling that this kind of thing happened fairly often between the two.

Karen sighed. “Gimme your drink, Cliff.  If you don’t want it, I’ll get rid of it for you.  Maybe you’d like wine better.  Hey, Doug, get the kid a red wine.  The usual.”

The beverage was handed to a nervous Cliff.

“I can’t believe neither of you have ever had alcohol. I must have found the two most sheltered people in town.” Karen laughed, nudging Claire in the ribs.  “You probably don’t swear either.  Especially you, Cliff, you goody two-shoes!”

Claire gave Karen a strained smile and turned toward her male companion. Their eyes met for a moment; the young man seemed to be uncomfortable with Karen’s words as well.

“Karen, leave those two alone. You could learn a thing or two from them,” Doug’s fatherly side kicked in.

Karen laughed loudly as she slammed down another mug.

“Like what? How to-”

Doug’s stern look caught the young woman off guard and she quickly laughed it off. “Whatever.  Another beer, Doug, it’s been a long day.”

Claire finished her drink and found that it made her very sleepy. How Karen was staying so alert was beyond her.  She looked over at Cliff, and he seemed fine.

“You okay?” The young man noticed Claire’s drooping eyelids.

“I’m fine,” the farmer answered, “Just a little sleepy.”

Karen quickly finished another mug of beer. “Okay, sleepy head, let’s get you home.”

Ann took Karen’s empty mugs. “What?  Karen’s leaving the bar early?  The world is coming to an end!”

“Aren’t you just hilarious? I know Claire’s gotta be up early tomorrow, so I’m walking her home,” the grocer’s daughter explained.

“Well, that’s really sweet of you. Goodnight, Claire.  I hope you stop in town more often.  Maybe we can hang out sometime.”  The waitress’s perky demeanor had already returned.

“Thanks, Ann.” After today, going into town didn’t seem so scary.

“We love to see you at the bar, but don’t you start drinking like Karen,” Doug grinned.

Karen stuck out her tongue. “What is this?  Pick on Karen Day?”  She picked up her bags and stood up.  “Ready to go, Claire?”

The blonde stood up, but not without some effort. “Okay.  Goodbye, everyone.”

The waitress gave her a friendly wave as she carried the empty mugs to the kitchen to wash.

“Claire… I had a good time with you and Karen today,” Cliff said quietly.

“I did, too.”

“We’ll have to do it again sometime. And… maybe you can come for lunch sometime, too… or we could go to the church together.”

Her heart felt full at this request. Someone shyer than her had enjoyed her company enough to want to see her again.  “Yeah.  I’ll see you later.”

“Goodnight, Claire.”

“Goodnight.”

0o0o0o0

The night air was cool, and the breeze made Claire more alert. Claire was surprised as Karen let out a loud laugh.

“I can’t believe I’ve been carrying these bags all day without giving them to you. Here, I’ll let you carry them now.”

“These are for me? What are they?”

“I just got you some basic things from my dad’s store. I made you a little care package.  There’s all sorts of food in there from the shop.  My mom baked you a loaf of bread and added it in there, too.”

Claire quickly blinked away tears; her constant gnawing hunger was something she had been shoving down for the past few weeks. “You didn’t have to do that, really.  And please tell your mother I am very grateful.”

Karen rolled her eyes. “It’s not a big deal.  I only spent like 500 gold on it.”

It sounded like an awful lot to Claire, but she decided to keep her mouth shut. “It still means a lot to me, though.”

“No problem.”

Claire opened the door to her house and turned on the lights. Karen followed her inside as Claire set the bags on her table.

“So, how do you like town?” Karen sat on the edge of Claire’s bed, raising her eyebrows.  “See anything or anyone you like?”

Claire blushed. “What is that supposed to mean?”

Karen played with a strand of hair. “Oh, just saying that maybe there was a certain boy that caught your interest…”

Claire wouldn’t meet Karen’s gaze and her heart pounded uncomfortably in her chest. “I d-don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Karen giggled. “You’re a terrible liar, Claire.”

Claire stared at the floor. “Maybe there is…”

Karen swung her feet. “I knew it!”

“You could tell?” What if she was that obvious to everyone? Claire’s stomach began to churn.

“Sorry, but it’s painfully obvious. And if I were to venture a guess, I’d say he likes you, too.  I could see the way he was looking at you throughout the day.”

They had bumped into the apprentice an awful lot today… “R-really…?  Promise you won’t tell anyone!  Please!”  Claire’s eyes were begging.

“Well, if you don’t tell him how you feel, he’s not going to know. I would imagine he’d be like that,” Karen shrugged.

“I just get so intimidated when I try talking to him with that librarian around!” Claire sighed.

“You mean Mary?”

“Yeah, I thought that you could tell that she has a thing for Gray.”

 Karen’s smile faded a bit.  “Yeah, that Mary…  Don’t worry about her.  I’m sure things will all work out.”

“Yeah… I hope so,” Claire suddenly felt very depressed.  “But you don’t like Gray, do you?”

Karen paused. “I wouldn’t say that I dislike him.  I guess he’s alright; we just butt heads sometimes because we’re too alike,” she admitted.  “I suppose he’s pretty handsome; don’t avoid him because of me.”

“Okay…” She thought she’d feel a little more relieved after admitting her crush…

Karen perked up. “Hey, I had a lot of fun today.  It was the first time I hung out with Cliff, too.  What do you think of him?”

“He seems alright.” The farmer’s mind was still focused on the apprentice.

“Yeah. He’s not too bad-looking either, huh?”

“Sure,” Claire nodded casually, but her face felt unexpectedly warm.

“Ah, those expressive deep blue eyes!” Karen sighed. “If he weren’t so shy and anti-social, he’d be pretty popular with the ladies,” she pretended to swoon, giggling.  “He should probably lose the mountain man getup as well,” she snorted.

Claire bit her lip; she felt a little hurt at her friend’s comment.

Anti-social.

She knew Karen had probably used the word without meaning to sound cruel, but Claire had been called the very same thing by her friends in the city. They had used it in a playful tone as well, and it always hurt her deeply.  It had always been difficult for her to socialize with people herself.  Did Karen see her as socially inept as well?  Claire suddenly wondered if this was how everyone saw her.  This was why she had been so hesitant about going around town in the first place.  But today had been different; she actually had a great time in town.  It had really helped that she wasn’t the only shy person in the party.

Claire felt she could relate to Cliff well. At first glance, they seemed as if they couldn’t be any more different; she was a city girl and he was a rural traveler.  However, something about his presence made her feel less alone.  Perhaps it was that they were both new to town and she didn’t feel like she needed to have all the answers when she spoke to him.  Another reason, perhaps the largest one, was that neither of them was very outgoing; Claire didn’t feel like she had to put up a bubbly, overly cheery front for him like she did with her friends in the city.

“You busy daydreaming about him now?” Karen giggled.

Claire snapped back to reality, reddening. Karen was going to get the wrong idea.  She tried to laugh it off.  “Why?  Are you interested in him?” Claire teased.

Karen roared with laughter. “No thanks; too quiet for me.  I like a guy who is going to push back.”

The farmer thought of Karen and Rick’s playful banter when she showed them the poultry farm. They had obviously been friends for a long time, but Claire was keen on the looks they were giving each other when they thought no one else was looking.

“I’ll just have to break both of you out of your shells. Cliff will be a tough one to crack; he’s even quieter than you,” Karen winked.  “Well, I guess I’m going to head back to the bar.  The night is still young!  I’ll see you around soon, Claire.  And if you don’t come back into town soon enough, I’m going to drag you out again, you hear me?” Karen laughed.

“Uh-huh. Well, I think it’s time for me to go to sleep.  I’ll see you soon, Karen.”

“Okay, goodnight.”

Chapter Text

Claire woke up the next morning with a burst of energy. She got dressed and played with Koro for a bit.  She found that she was laughing again.  The farmer walked to her table and fished through the bags that Karen had left the night before.  Everything in the package was premade and shelf stable, and Claire was grateful because she didn’t have a kitchen to cook anything in.  She ripped a chunk off of the bread and added some honey that she had harvested the day before.  It was so delicious and she was so thankful that she felt tears welling up in her eyes.

Licking her fingers, Claire grabbed her watering can and headed outside.

The field was lined with sprouts, but soon they would be crops. Claire took comfort in this fact as she watered.  Koro ran about in the grass, barking at the squirrels.  This place would be her home now, she realized for the first time, and it actually made her excited.  Claire smiled; after last night, she felt more comfortable about life in Mineral Town. 

And it was all thanks to Karen. If Karen hadn’t dragged Claire out to see the town, the farmer had no idea how long she’d have kept herself cooped up.  She wanted to thank Karen somehow, but she wasn’t sure how to go about doing it.  Claire thought about taking Karen to the bar sometime and paying, but she quickly changed her mind.  There was no way she could afford that, especially with how much Karen drank.  What if she bought a nice bottle of wine at the Aja Winery for her?  That could also prove to be quite costly at her current financial level.  There had to be something she could do or get for Karen that wouldn’t cost Claire anything, and maybe alcohol wasn’t the best idea.  Maybe simply spending time with her and bonding a bit with her would be good enough for right now.

What about spending some time with her at the Harvest Goddess Spring? Karen had mentioned how important the place was to her.  It wouldn’t cost Claire anything.  It was rumored that the Harvest Goddess was fond of flowers; they could go to the spring and make an offering.  The more Claire thought of the idea, the more excited she became.  She still felt a little nervous inviting Karen, though.  While Claire saw Karen as her closest friend, she still felt a sense of intimidation around her. 

And why shouldn’t she? Claire wondered miserably.  After all, Karen was confident, carefree, and she never hesitated to say exactly what was on her mind.  Claire quickly shook these thoughts out of her head.  She was already having problems with jealousy as it was, although the target of her envy was quite different than the brunette.

Mary seemed to be the polar opposite of Karen. She was quiet, reserved, and polite, yet she was on Gray’s good side.  Claire suddenly wished that she knew how to write well.  She wished that she could recommend books for Gray.  The farmer shook her head.  She could write decently, but it was a chore for her.  And while she did enjoy reading from time to time, there was no point in competing with Mary in that field.  Claire would just have to find something else that she and the apprentice had in common.

Claire felt glum as she finished watering her crops. It frustrated her how drastically her mood had changed from the time she woke up.  Maybe she shouldn’t think about Gray for a while.  That would be hard to do since she was heading to the mines next.  Claire had been giving him copper she found in the caves.  She figured that she would give him the copper that evening after she was all finished with her chores.

Claire hurried to the mines and went straight to work. She found three pieces of copper and a bit of silver.  Thinking about giving Gray his present made her giddy.  Her joy was quickly disrupted.  Now that she had been introduced to Cliff, it would be rude to give Gray a present in front of him when she went to the inn this evening.  Perhaps she should get something for Cliff as well? 

Claire bit her lip. She had no idea what the young man liked.  She didn’t have the money to buy him something, so she would have to find something to give to him.  The farmer doubted that Cliff had much interest in ores.  But if she gave Cliff presents, would Gray start to notice and think that Claire was interested in his roommate?  She wasn’t really intending on wooing two men…  The young woman sighed.  She heard the flapping of wings again and what almost sounded like talons scraping on rock.  There must be really large bats in this cave…  She quickly decided a simple hello for Cliff would suffice and she threw more ores into her basket, hurrying out of the cave.  It definitely wasn’t because she was scared, though… really.  She made her way back to the farm, setting aside a piece of copper for Gray.

0o0o0o0

Claire knocked anxiously on the inn room’s door. The blacksmith opened the door, as usual.

“Hello, Claire.”

“H-hello.” Even though the young woman had been visiting on a regular basis, she still got terribly nervous.  She stepped inside.  It was a simple room.  Three beds lined the wall, and a table sat at the side of the room.  She spotted Cliff sitting at the table, and he looked up from his book; it looked like a field guide of some sort.

“Hi, Claire.”

“Hi, Cliff.”

“Cliff was just telling me about your outing,” Gray smiled. “I’m glad that you and Karen showed him around yesterday.  I’ve been trying to get him to learn more about the town for a while now.  Even sweet, perky Ann tried to show him before at Carter’s request, but he refused.  He’s such an unfeeling jerk,” the apprentice teased.

Color rushed into the young man’s cheeks. “I wasn’t trying to be rude to her!”  He was flustered.  “She was just being so pushy about it!  I-I apologized t-to her!”  Cliff paused.  “I was kind of nervous about going into town, but I’m glad we went anyway.”

Claire almost mentioned her own hesitations about going into town, but decided to hold her tongue. “I learned a lot about the town yesterday.”  She wasn’t quite sure what to say. 

The young woman began to reach for the copper in her rucksack, but felt a rush of guilt. Maybe giving gifts to Gray in front of Cliff was a bad idea after all.  Cliff broke the silence.

“Claire, remember when we talked about eating at the inn t-together? Would you w-want to… eat lunch with me sometime after the cooking festival?” The young man stammered, looking at the floor.

Claire’s hands immediately began to sweat. She was glad that he seemed a little more comfortable around her, but why did Cliff have to say these kinds of things to her in front of Gray?

“I’m sorry, but I’m kinda broke right now,” Claire responded numbly. It wasn’t a complete lie…

“Cliff’s a gentleman. He wouldn’t ask a lady out to lunch and then expect her to pay for it.”  Gray beamed, folding his arms.

The brunette’s face turned a lovely shade of burgundy. “But i-it’s not a d-date.”

“No one said it was,” Gray said simply, nodding to himself. He turned toward the farmer.  “Well, what do you say?”

Well, Gray himself agreed it wasn’t a date…

But Claire felt cornered, regardless. Carter was probably putting Cliff up to this.  And why was Gray encouraging the whole thing?  How she wished Gray were the one asking her to lunch, even if it wasn’t a date!  Claire bit her lip.  She knew she wasn’t being fair.  She knew that Cliff was probably nervous about asking her to lunch the same way she was worried about asking Karen to the Goddess Spring. 

“Okay,” Claire responded timidly. “What time do you want to meet?”

“How about a few days after the cooking festival? I’ve been told the inn will be packed with customers the day after, so we can wait until it calms down here.”  The farmer noticed Cliff wasn’t stammering now that he got his answer.

“That sounds fine. I’ll see you then.”

“Alright. Goodnight Claire.”

“Goodnight, Cliff, Gray.”

The young woman left the inn, breathing in the cool night air. She was overcome with relief of how harmless the outing sounded when she thought about it logically.  In fact, she felt so mellow and at ease that she had forgotten all about the ore she was debating about giving to Gray.

 She was in such a good mood that she walked to the grocery store and asked Karen if she would like to meet her at the Goddess Spring the next day to offer wildflowers.  The grocer’s daughter was so pleased that she gave Claire a squeeze.  The farmer took that as a yes.

0o0o0o0

 

Claire was brushing her hair when she heard a knock at the door.

“Good morning!” Karen was perky today and had a bag slung over her shoulder. “Let’s go to the spring!”

“Alright,” Claire smiled and grabbed her own bag.

“I go up here a lot of mornings,” Karen said, leading the way up the trail. “The Goddess Spring is my main stop.”

The pair began picking wildflowers and bundling them into bouquets.

“You know, Carter’s told me that the Harvest Goddess loves wildflowers,” Karen said very matter-of-factly. “You better make your prayer a good one,” she laughed.

Claire knew exactly what she was going to pray for. The two friends dropped their flowers into the water and prayed silently for several minutes.

Harvest Goddess, please forgive me for bathing in your spring. I had no idea, and I meant no disrespect.  The farmer closed her eyes, and the vague vision of a lovely figure appeared in her mind.

Of course you are forgiven, my child. Go forth, and use your farm to bring happiness to the people of this village.

Claire jumped. She had never received such a direct response from a prayer.

“Did you see her?” Karen asked quietly.

The farmer stared at the ripples in the water of the unearthly spring. It was crystal blue, and the waterfall was a constant din that she had blocked out a long time ago.  This was definitely hallowed ground.  “Kind of,” Claire whispered.

“I didn’t get a vision this time, but it happens once in a blue moon. This spring is a very special place,” the brunette stared at the flowers floating on the water.  “What did you pray for, anyway?”

Claire blushed. “I realized I had been bathing in her spring; I was asking for forgiveness.”

Karen laughed heartily and slapped her friend on the back. “Did she show you her wrath?  I’ve been told she can be kind of moody for a goddess.”

Claire felt uncomfortable that Karen was speaking so candidly in a sacred place. “She was very understanding.”

“Well, that’s a relief.” Karen hoisted her bag over her shoulder, pulled out a towel, and tossed it at Claire’s face. “Hot spring time!”

“Really? During the day?  Don’t you think people will pass through here?” Claire reddened, pulling the towel off of her head.

Karen had already removed her vest and shirt as she walked toward the spring. “Come on, no one cares.  There are usually only girls up here anyway.”

The farmer let out a sigh of relief and followed Karen behind the privacy fence and hesitantly began unbuttoning her flannel shirt. She thought of her school in the city, and she typically got changed in the restroom while the rest of the girls had no problem getting changed right in front of each other.  She couldn’t understand how it didn’t bother some people to be naked in front of others.  Weren’t they afraid of someone judging them? 

Claire frowned; she had always been self-conscious about her body, especially since she hit puberty. Now that she was an adult, she was aware that sometimes men’s eyes followed her as she walked past them in the office and it made her a little nervous.  She hated being dragged to the bar by her girlfriends in the city; the looks her group got there were far worse, and she felt awkward that she was the only one in the party who wasn’t actively seeking these glances.

Karen had already stripped down and scrubbed herself. Claire stared down at the ground as she stumbled out of her boots; she was so nervous about undressing in front of her friend that she had made the process as clumsy as possible. 

The brunette finished washing and dumped a bucket of water over her head. “Slowpoke,” she scoffed, balancing her towel on her head and climbing into the water.  She looked up and noticed the uncomfortable look on her friend’s face.  “Come on, we’re both grown women; I don’t care.  There’s nothing to be embarrassed about.”  She stood up in the water, and Claire wished her friend had a bit more modesty.  “It’s only weird if you make it weird, so stop it,” she laughed, splashing the farmer.

Claire quickly got undressed, washed herself as swiftly as she could, and held her towel in front of her as she stood at the edge of the spring.

She didn’t want anyone to see her, not even Karen.

“Are you coming in or not? Come on!” Karen rolled her eyes.

Claire looked around her nervously before setting her own towel on the edge of the spring. She sunk down into the water until it reached her chin.  Karen smirked at her.

“You’re from out west, huh?” She cocked an eyebrow.

“W-well, yeah…” It had been a daylong ferry ride due west to get back to the city, and she was reminded daily how far away she was from what she had grown accustomed to.  She still wasn’t completely used to the concept of an open air bath; she folded her arms across her chest for modesty.

“Oh, no! You have breasts, Claire!” Karen roared with laughter as Claire reddened.  “Seriously, though… relax.  No one’s going to come up here.”

Just as she said those words, a Claire could see a couple more girls were walking up the path together through the cracks in the privacy fence.

“Good morning, Karen, Claire!” Ann walked right up to them; she must have heard Karen’s laughter. “Hot springs, eh?  I’m jealous.  I’d join you, but the inn will be opening soon,” the redhead pouted.  “It must be nice having a flexible schedule, huh, Claire?”

Ann was looking their way, but she wasn’t threatening at all. Claire relaxed a tiny bit.  “Yeah…  Yeah, it is really nice,” the farmer caught herself smiling.

“Well, I’ve come to say a prayer for Mom; I’ll catch you two later,” the waitress winked at them.

“Popuri!” Karen called out and waved to the other young woman.

Claire buried her face in her hands and a new wave of embarrassment washed over her; she wished Karen would just sit down already.

“’Morning, Karen. Hi, Claire!” Popuri seemed cheerful.  “Got room for one more?”

“Sure, come on in! I brought an extra towel.  It was an emergency towel in case I dropped mine in, but I guess I can make an exception.”

“I’ve got nothing better to do this morning,” Popuri commented, washing up and taking a seat next to Karen, and Claire quickly noted that the only one in who seemed to be self-conscious was herself. The farmer calmed down a little and stopped crunching herself into a ball, but her eyes didn’t look up from the steaming water.

“Rick’s still not letting you do much?” Karen frowned.

“No!” Popuri folded her arms and pouted. “I don’t know why he thinks I can’t do anything at all to help!”

“Rick won’t let you help out?” Claire asked quietly, “But I thought your mother was ill…”

“Exactly!” Popuri splashed the water angrily. “He’s taking it all upon himself, and he acts like he’s the one in charge.”

“Well, your father did put him in charge,” Karen reminded her gently.  “I’ll have a word with him.”

“Oh, will you?” Popuri’s face lit up.  “Thank you, thank you!  He never listens to a word I say, but I know he’ll listen to anything you say.”

“Alright, alright,” Karen’s face reddened. “I’ll talk to him later today.”

“My brother’s a big dummy,” Popuri smiled at Claire.

“Popuri, you know he means well,” Karen sighed. “He’s been assigned man of the house, and he takes his responsibilities very seriously.”

“Too seriously.”

“I know, I know. I told you I’d talk to him,” Karen rolled her eyes.

“Well, I’m starting to get pruny; I’m out,” Popuri hopped out and dried off. She flashed a smile at the brunette.  “Thanks again, Karen.  See you guys later!”

“No prob.”

Claire watched the chicken farmer walk away. She noticed that all of her aches and pains had melted away from the hot water.  She rested her eyes.

“We should probably be getting out, too,” Karen sighed, pulling herself out of the water.

Claire was starting to feel sleepy. Her friend reached her hand out to her and she accepted it.

“Let’s go to the bar,” Karen suggested as they were drying off.

“You want a drink this early?” Claire giggled.

“I’m getting us a couple of ice cold milks,” Karen laced up her boots. “It’s the only thing that will do after a hot bath.”

“Alright.” That sounded lovely to Claire.

They got dressed and headed back to town. They took a seat at the bar.

“You know we don’t start serving liquor until evening,” Ann laughed, wiping off the counter.

“Two milks!” Karen ordered. “Ice cold!”

“Oh, that does sound nice,” Ann went to the back and produced two glass jugs and gave one to each young woman.

Claire was amazed to see her friend chug the entire milk in one go. Karen drank in what Claire thought of as a country style; she put one had on her hip and threw her head back.  She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand when she finished draining the bottle.  “Ah, that was refreshing.  I’ll have another.”

“All righty,” Ann went back to the fridge.

Claire was taking a drink of her milk when she noticed a familiar brunette walking down the stairs with a satchel strapped across his back.

“Good morning, Cliff,” Claire set down her jug.

“Good morning.”

Karen swung her feet. “Well, you’ve missed the fun wagon this morning.  Claire and I just got back from the hot springs.  Too bad you slept in; we would’ve invited you, too.  You could’ve sat right between both of us lovely ladies!”

Cliff said nothing, but turned a bright shade of red. He turned to leave.

“Hey, aren’t you going to eat breakfast before you leave?” Karen teased. “It’s the most important meal of the day.  Come on, have a milk with us.”

He shook his head. “I’m sorry…  I’ve got work to do…  I’m out to Mother’s Hill.”

“He rarely eats the food here,” Ann rolled her eyes.

“Okay, see you later,” Karen waved goodbye to their friend.

“Bye, Cliff,” Claire smiled.

“G-goodbye,” he blushed deeper as he whirled around and left the inn.

Karen looked a little too pleased with herself.

Ann had returned with Karen’s milk. “You tease him too much, Karen.  That’s my job,” she smirked.

Claire didn’t see why either of the young women needed to give him such a hard time, but she held her tongue.

“He’s started talking a lot more,” Ann commented to no one in particular.

“Ah, that’s good… We’ll crack him out of that shell…  Well, I think it’s time to head back to the store,” Karen finished off her second milk and slammed a fistful of coins on the counter.  “Thanks for hanging out with me today, Claire.”

“Yeah, I had a good time, too,” Claire set her empty jug on the bar and Ann took it away.

“I’ll see you again real soon!” Karen winked and left the bar.

Chapter Text

“We’ve got a room… But you don’t want to stay, do you?” Ann smirked; this had become her running gag with the farmer.

“Uh, is…?”

“Gray’s upstairs,” the waitress rolled her eyes, wiping down a table.

“Th-thanks…”

The wooden steps creaked as Claire climbed up them. Her feet didn’t want to move; they were heavy as bricks.  It was that golden hour of the day; Gray had come home from the library after work, and it was the perfect time to get a moment alone with him.  She looked forward to this time nearly every night, but it didn’t make her any less nervous.  Surely, Gray had noticed by now that she was actively seeking his attention.  Surely he had to…

She timidly knocked on the door. After a few seconds, she heard heavy boots shuffling and the blacksmith opened the door.

“’Evening.”

“G-good evening, Gray…”

“Come on in,” he stepped out of the doorway. He politely nodded to her and noticed her evening visits were becoming a ritual.

“Th-thank you,” she reddened as he closed the door behind her.

“So, what do you need?” The young man asked her, standing in the corner by the doorway.  She noticed he never sat down when she came to visit, and it always made her feel a little uncomfortable.

Claire adjusted her rucksack; her hands were sweaty and her mouth felt dry. “I…  I just came to say hi.”

“Hello…” He didn’t enjoy small talk at the best of times.

“S-soo… How do you like living here?”  She nervously looked around the room.

“You mean the inn? I use what little Gramps pays me to rent out this place.  It’s not too bad; I get discounts on the food.  The roommate’s pretty quiet and doesn’t hang out here too much, so I’ve pretty much got the place to myself.”

“Oh… I thought you and Cliff were friends…”  She noticed his description of the young man sounded rather cold.

“We are,” Gray shrugged. “You kind of have to be if you’re going to share a bedroom.”

Ah, an opening! We actually have something in common; don’t blow it!  She scolded herself.  “I-I had to share a bedroom with a couple of toddlers when I lived with my parents,” Claire ventured.

The blacksmith looked surprised. “Siblings?  How old were you?”

“A teenager. Two little brothers.”

“Yikes... My apologies,” He tugged on the bill of his hat and a hint of a smile crossed his lips.

Claire’s heart pounded at the reaction. She noticed his warmer demeanor and tried to keep him talking.  “So, how do you like town?”

“Town? …  It’s alright, I guess.  There’s not too much to do around here, but I suppose that could be nice for some people.”

Claire got the distinct feeling he was not one of those people.  “Well, there’s the mine…”  She said boldly as she reached into her rucksack and offered him a small piece of ore she had cupped into her hands.  She had braved the strange sounds of the spring mine for the young man nearly every day.  “… For you,” she blushed.

“A-are you sure you want me to have it?”  Gray was distracted as he saw the bedroom door silently open and he reddened.

Claire was grinning at the color in the blacksmith’s cheeks. Her hard work was finally starting to pay off.  “Yeah…  I …  I know you guys work with ores…” 

Wow, way to state the obvious! She immediately hated herself for her stupid response.

“Well, thanks…” He took the piece of metal.  Claire’s heart gave a flutter when their hands touched in the exchange.  “It looks like good quality…  Thanks again.”

“Y-you’re welcome…” She was lost in his pale blue eyes.

There was a long silence.

The young man blushed deeply and cleared his throat. “So…”

“Yeah…?” She was staring at him dreamily.  She didn’t want to waste a single moment of her precious alone time with Gray. He was blushing…

“Uh… I’ll make something neat out of this someday, okay?”  His hands were shaking as he took the copper to a haphazard pile of assorted things he kept on the floor by his bed.  If there was any order to the mess, Gray was the only one that would be able to distinguish it.

It was at this point that Claire noticed Gray’s roommate was in the bedroom with them. Claire jumped when she saw Cliff and felt her face get hot; she could’ve sworn he was not there when she arrived…  He was sitting cross-legged on his bed on the far side of the room, expertly sharpening a stick to a deadly point with a small knife.  He was catching the shavings in a bowl, and several more sticks waiting to be cut were propped along the side of the bed. 

“Cliff startle you?” Gray laughed.

The young man looked up apologetically. “I’m sorry…  I d-didn’t mean to scare you…”

“W-were you here when I came in?” Claire’s heart pounded uncomfortably in her chest; she thought she had been spending all of this time alone with Gray.  She felt a little angry at the fact that they weren’t by themselves.

The blacksmith grinned. “He snuck in here around five minutes ago.  I’m only now getting used to it; he’s like a ninja a lot of the time.”

Cliff didn’t look up from his work. “I just don’t stomp around like you do,” he said quietly.

“You going fishing tomorrow?” Gray asked him.

This roommate nodded, finishing one stick and grabbing another.

“If you catch any rainbow trout and smoke it for me, I will pay you.”

His eyes widened in excitement. “R-really?”

“Sure; I’ve been craving it since the last time you made some. How much you want for it?  I know you need the cash,” Gray nodded.

“Ah…” The young man felt uncomfortable discussing his financial situation in front of Claire.  “L-let’s talk about it later… Y-you have a guest…  Please… pay me no mind,” he reddened, continuing with his work.

Claire found that she was fascinated by the makeshift spears her friend was creating, but she was more focused on the blacksmith.   Claire had no problem at all fulfilling Cliff’s request; he had, after all, interrupted her time with Gray.

“So… What kind of things do you guys make out of copper?” She asked, picking up where they had left off.

“We actually refine a lot of it and sell it to an artist who lives over in Forget-Me-Not Valley, but we make tools, machine parts, jewelry…”

“Wow… So if I brought you some more copper could you m-maybe… make me… s-something?”  She imagined wearing a piece of jewelry made with Gray’s own two hands and felt weak.

“An ingot is the best you’ll get from me,” the apprentice sighed. “Gramps won’t let me make much else for our customers.  I make other things, but they’re just always thrown back into the furnace…  My grandpa is so hard on me for every little thing!  I can hardly stand it!” He fumed.

“W-well, you are in training,” She reminded him gently.

Gray stared at the floor; he realized this conversation sounded a lot like the one they had the day they first met. He had promised himself that he would not lose his temper with Claire ever again; she had looked as if she was on the verge of tears when he had raised his voice at her at the beginning of spring.  “Well…  Apparently, I make an awful lot of mistakes even for an apprentice…”  He couldn’t help but feel bitter.

“He just wants you to be the best you can be,” Claire offered.

“Thanks… I guess you’re right.”  He folded his arms across his chest and attempted to smile.  He looked out the window and noticed it was sunset.  “…  Don’t you think you should be heading back to the farm now?”  He asked.

Claire’s heart sunk. “Yeah…  I suppose so…” Her eyes moved up to him hopefully.

“See you later.”

Not tonight. Claire’s heart sunk.

The young man on the opposite side of the room had looked up from his spear making. “H-have a good evening, Claire…  I’m… looking forward t-to our lunch together.”  He gave her a friendly smile.

“Yeah,” Claire’s expression mellowed out. “Good night, Cliff; I’ll see you soon.”  She looked over at the blacksmith; she wanted her last word to be with the person she had actually traveled to the inn to visit.  “Good night, Gray.”

“See you later,” he repeated, not unkindly.

As the young woman walked home, she couldn’t decide if she should be proud or disappointed at how the conversation with the blacksmith’s apprentice had gone that evening. As always, there were so many opportunities missed because of her nerves.  She threw herself on her bed and attempted to sleep.  She tossed and turned for hours before finally passing out from exhaustion.

Chapter Text

“Thirty bags of turnip seeds? You sure?  … No, I don’t doubt you… Oh, so it’s a challenge, now?...”  Karen was talking on the phone when Claire entered the grocery store.  She waved to her friend and looked back down at the notes she was jotting down.  She smirked at the earpiece of the phone.  “Honestly, I swear you’re not human sometimes…”

“Looking for anything in particular?” Karen’s father asked.

“I’m ready for more seeds,” she smiled.

“Alright, a smart choice... The money will come right back to you if you do it right,” he gave her a nervous grin.

“I’m going to look around a bit first…” Claire looked at the shelves of goods.

“Sure. Take your time,” he nodded.

“Yep… I’ll have Thomas bring them by tonight when he gets your shipment…” Karen was still on the phone.

Claire was eyeing up some chocolate bars when she was startled by a loud laugh from her friend.

“Okay… Alright.  Talk to you soon, Pete.”  Karen hung up the phone and finished writing up the receipt with a huge grin on her face.  “Dad, I talked him into fifty bags of turnip seeds!” Karen announced proudly.

“He’s paying tonight?” Jeff asked nervously, slouching his shoulders.

“Of course! This isn’t Duke or Thomas we’re talking about.”

Her father perked up. “Alright.  Well, go pull his order then,” Jeff ordered, fixing his posture.

“Be right back, Claire,” Her friend gave her a grin and headed to the storage room.

“You’ll get to his level someday, Claire,” Jeff wrung his hands. “We all have to keep trying hard…”

She wasn’t quite sure who they were talking about, but it sounded like a very established farmer in the area. Claire nodded as a young man stepped into the shop.

“Oh, hey, Cliff.” Jeff looked up from his hands.

“H-hi… Jeff…” Claire noticed her friend looked a little nervous. “How are things going at the shop?”

Jeff knew where this was going. “Pretty good, pretty good…  I’m sorry, but we’re still not hiring,” he said gently, but his insides ached.  He genuinely felt bad for the unemployed young man, but the shop wasn’t making enough income to support another worker.  The shop owner’s gut always hurt when he got anxious.

“I see… Please keep me in mind if you need any extra help…”

“Of course…” The shopkeeper put a hand on his sore stomach and gave the young man a shy smile.

“Hi, Claire,” Cliff gave his friend a nod. She couldn’t help but notice he looked a little disappointed.  “Shopping today?”

“Yeah… Getting more seeds and a couple essentials.”

“Me, too… Well, not the seeds,” he let out a shy chuckle.  “L-let’s shop together.”

Claire noticed that of the two men in the shop, Cliff was surprisingly the calmer of the two. “Okay.  I’ll get the seeds last.”  They walked over to a shelf of goods.

“What do you need to buy?” He asked.

“Hmmm… more soap.   I’m almost out.”  She sniffed a couple of bottles.  “I have to test them all,” she explained with a laugh.  “Which one do you like?”

“… This one.” He held out a bottle of lavender soap, and the young woman wasn’t sure why his face was so red.

Claire opened the bottle and took a whiff. “Ah…”  It had quickly become her favorite fragrance; she had been wearing the lavender oil Doctor Trent gave her daily now.  Her muscles instantly relaxed at the scent.  She smelled another.  “Hey, try this one; it smells weird,” she handed him a bottle.

“What is that?” He laughed.  It was nauseatingly sweet.

“I dunno. It’s called Angel Feathers.”

“It smells like… I don’t even know…”  He chuckled, cringing his nose.

Claire was happy to see he cheered up a bit. “What?  You don’t know what the wings of an angel smell like?” She asked in mock disgust.

“Apparently not.”

“Well, now you know,” she beamed at him.

Karen came back from the storage room with a crate of seeds and set them off in an area designated for pickups. “Phew…  Hey, guys!”

“Karen, what does this smell like to you?” Claire handed Karen the bottle.

“Popuri,” she nodded.

“Potpourri or Popuri?” Claire giggled.

“Both, I guess,” Karen answered, laughing as she handed the bottle back to Claire. “Are you guys just back here sniffing soap?”

“Well… Yeah…” Claire didn’t think of it as odd at all until Karen worded it that way.

“Moonlight Tempest, Eir’s Love, Wild Rain… What is all of this?” Cliff cocked an eyebrow.

“Ah, those were all a part of a series of fragrances. They’re all a little intense for my tastes,” Karen shrugged.  “Especially Popuri’s favorite here.  You wanna smell a good one?  Try this,” the young woman thrust a bottle under Claire’s nose.

The blonde’s eyes widened and she suddenly felt terribly homesick. “Wh-what is that one?”

“Bay rum.”

Claire sniffed it one more time. She was a child again, and her father was giving her a pat on the head to say goodbye before he left for work.  She reached up for a hug, but once again, he was already gone…  She was sitting at the table with her oatmeal and her older sisters were bickering over some boy they went to school with.

“You okay, Claire?” Cliff asked, noticing the look in her eyes.

“Oh, yeah,” the young woman smiled. “My father must’ve worn this fragrance; I got all nostalgic for a moment,” she giggled, swallowing the lump in her throat.

“My grandpa wore bay rum,” Karen nodded. “He said all real men wear it.  Guess you better buy some, Cliff.”

The young man shook his head. “I like this one better,” he handed Claire a bottle and she sniffed.

It was warm and earthy; the scent made her think of fall leaves and toasty comfort. It was a very attractive scent; she nodded in approval.  “Yes…  Very nice.”

“Lemme try!” Karen snatched the bottle and took a whiff.  “Hoofah!”  She gagged.  “Too… planty…”

Planty?  Is that a word?”  Claire giggled.

Karen sniffed it again and had the same reaction. “Ugh!  What is that?  Mud?  Herbs?”

“Patchouli,” Cliff laughed, taking the bottle back and returning it to the shelf.

“It smells like… dirt.”

“Maybe that’s why I like it so much,” Claire thought of the smell of her freshly tilled fields. She was tempted to buy this bottle of soap, but she knew Karen would complain.  She opted for the lavender instead.  “I’ll go with this one.”

“Oh, so you’re actually shopping then, and not just bumming around, eh?” Karen teased.

“We both are shopping,” Claire replied with a nod. She looked back over to the candy she was eyeing up earlier.  She had a small cushion of money after her latest turnip harvest and she had been craving a treat.  “Ah, chocolate…  I’m going to buy a bar…”

“Blah!” Karen stuck out her tongue. “First you like the smell of mud, and now you like chocolate?”

“I love chocolate,” Claire frowned. She thought it was a little odd Karen didn’t care for it; the sweet was very popular in the city…

“I can maaaaybe do a small amount of milk chocolate.”

“That watered down garbage is not chocolate!”  Claire’s eyes flashed at her.

“Whoa, okay, then…” Karen chuckled.

“I can’t remember the last time I had chocolate,” The farmer stared at the variety of candy bars. “Don’t tell me you hate it, too, Cliff.”

“I love it. I haven’t had it in years.”

Claire smirked at Karen. “Let’s split a bar, my treat.  What kind do you want?”

“Y-you sure?” He reddened.

Claire nodded excitedly. “Yeah, let’s indulge!”

The young man shyly picked out a bar of extra dark chocolate.

“I think you made him afraid to pick anything else,” Karen laughed.

“A-actually this is my favorite,” he admitted. “Thanks again, Claire.”

“No problem. We don’t have to share any of it with Karen,” the farmer grinned.

They walked further down the display.

“Well, here’s your stop, Cliff,” Karen laughed.

“Yep.” He hoisted a large sack of salt over his shoulder.  “This ought to last me a while.”

“I should hope so,” Claire laughed. “You like salty food or what?”

“Well, smoking meat and fish takes a lot of salt; I brine lots of things before I put them over the coals. I also use it to tan hides and pelts and then sell them to the merchant who lives off of the beach.”

“Oh.” Claire had never considered using salt for much more than seasoning.  It seemed like her friend had to be creative to make ends meet as well.

“That’s pretty much all he buys,” Karen laughed. “Dad sometimes just calls him ‘That Salt Guy’.”

The young man rolled his eyes. “I see your father is very creative with nicknames…  I guess it’s better than ‘that guy who is always asking for a job’.”

Karen gave him a slight frown as Claire ordered her seeds from Jeff and finished her purchase. “Hey, don’t sweat it.  Someone will be happy to snap you up; you’ll see.”

“Eh… I hope so…  I don’t really have a skilled trade like Gray, Rick, or Trent, though…”

“Well, what kinds of things are you good at?”

Cliff counted out his coins and placed them on the counter, shrugging. He made sure they were out of Jeff’s earshot before he spoke.  “I don’t really have any special skills.  The training I had as a teenager felt pointless at the time, but now…”

The grocer’s daughter and the farmer both looked at him curiously. The color drained from his face; he had said too much about himself again.  He had been finding himself doing this more and more regularly since he moved to Mineral Town.  The young man silently cursed himself.  There was no point bothering anyone else with his problems, he had already made so many people unhappy over the years in other ways...

“What were you trained in?” Claire asked, shuffling her bag on her shoulder. “Fishing?”

He frowned and shook his head. He went fishing with his uncle regularly when he was young, but he didn’t really look at that as training.  The two were only eight years apart in age, but it felt like decades to Cliff sometimes.  Cliff was often a little discouraged at how slow and sometimes unfruitful rod fishing could be; he preferred moving targets and not having to rely on bait, and since he began his travels over three years ago, spear fishing was much more practical anyway.  Ray would laugh at his nephew’s impatience and tell him that a true fisherman learned to appreciate all parts of fishing, including the quiet lulls between bites. 

After failing to convince Cliff into staying, his uncle had decided to leave their hometown as well, claiming he was in search of better fishing spots. Cliff knew better; Ray had left because Cliff had ruined the village for everyone, and surely all of his relatives had been treated like pariahs because of their relation to the foolish boy…  He didn’t want to think about home right now; it never failed to make him feel miserable.

“Well, see y’all around…” He reddened and shifted the sack of salt on his shoulder and headed out the door of the grocery store before his companions said anything.  Thinking about home was making him slip into his home dialect.  He had been mildly teased at the inn a couple of times for doing it in the past.

He hadn’t walked far when he heard his name being called.

“Cliff, w-wait!”

He froze in his tracks; Ray had called his name the very same way the day they both left. This voice was a much higher pitch than Ray’s baritone, though.  He slowly turned around.  “Huh?”

“Why did you take off like that?” Claire asked gently.

He didn’t answer, but looked down at the ground. Had he been that obvious?

“H-hey… I don’t exactly have the best memories of life in the city,” the young woman felt a spring of courage well up in her as she stared at her friend.  “B-but you can use your past experiences to prepare for new ones...  better ones.”  She was a little proud of how profound she sounded for that brief moment.

Claire wasn’t telling him to disregard his past like his friend at the inn did in an attempt to cheer him up; the redhead’s motto was a playful “forget about it” accompanied with the unsolicited ruffling of his hair. Cliff really enjoyed Ann’s company, but her aggressive cheerfulness ended up intimidating and clamming him up more often than not.  He took the bag of salt off of his shoulder and stood pensively.

“That looks pretty heavy; want to take a seat for a moment?” She shyly held out the chocolate bar, reminding him of her promise.

He wasn’t particularly in the mood for talking, but he remembered the agreement they had made at the library. The farmer had only agreed to sit with him at the bar, but both of them knew the implication behind that was much more; they had labeled each other as equals.  The allure of chocolate didn’t hurt, either.  “Okay…”  He followed her to the bench outside of the shop and plopped the bag down.

“How heavy is that thing, anyway?”

“Twenty-five kilos.”

Claire scrunched up her nose; she was immediately reminded how far from home she was. “I’m still not used to the way everyone out here uses the metric system,” she admitted as she unwrapped the chocolate bar.

“Around fifty-five pounds, give or take,” he offered.

“Well, you did that math pretty quickly; I’m impressed.”

The young man shook his brown head and pointed at the bag sheepishly. Both units of weight were posted on the fabric.

Claire let out a giggle as she handed her friend a square of chocolate. “You could have just let me be impressed, you know.”

“Well, I can do rough conversions, but it is written right there. “ He shrugged as he accepted the candy and his face lit up.  “Thank you for the chocolate…  It’s been so long since I’ve had any.”  He realized he had already stopped thinking about home and Ray and ignored the wave of guilt that threatened to come.  He sucked on the piece of chocolate and didn’t regret sitting down at all.  Wonderful, decadent, dark chocolate…  Cliff had really forgotten how much he loved it.  He would have offered to carry Claire’s heavy sack of seeds home with the salt strapped to his back if it meant one more square of the delicious candy.

“No problem.”

The young man had an amused smile on his lips.

She hadn’t spent much time with the man, and this expression was new; she found it made her feel warm inside. “What’s on your mind?” Claire swung her feet, biting off a corner of her chocolate and letting it melt on her tongue.

 “I was just thinking how you lured me over here with food,” he confessed bashfully.  “I was afraid if I called you out on it, you wouldn’t let me have any.”

“Maybe, maybe not,” She grinned. The chocolate was smooth with just the right amount of bitterness; she could have easily eaten the entire bar herself.

“That’s how Ann gets me to talk; she feeds me. I guess when it really comes down to it, I’m no better than the deer I bait,” he laughed.

“Aw, don’t say it like that! You make it sound like Ann is out to get you!”  She giggled.  “Besides, what is it they say?”

“Hm? Who are they?” He looked at her curiously.

Claire ignored his question. “Right! The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach!” She beamed as she handed him a piece of candy and he looked at it thoughtfully for a moment.

Cliff snorted. “I seriously doubt those are her intentions,” he rolled his eyes, studying the logo embossed on the block of chocolate, but Claire caught a hint of color in his cheeks.  “I’m just one of her projects…  It’s kind of like how she’s trying to train Gray to be less of a slob, or, as he likes to put it, ‘less of a man’.”  He popped the candy into his mouth and shook his head with a soft chuckle.

Claire’s heart was stung with an uncomfortable jolt. Cliff had just called Gray a slob.  She straightened her posture and her smile fell.  The young woman was reminded of the uncomfortable position she was in a couple of weeks ago when she had to listen to Karen and Gray argue.  Why was everyone so harsh when it came to Gray?  She suddenly felt herself scrambling to defend the apprentice blacksmith.  “S-some people like a little organized chaos…”  She ventured, her eyes moving to the cobblestones.

Cliff shrugged. “I suppose… but you and I both know Gray’s chaos isn’t organized; you’ve seen his side of the room plenty of times,” Claire caught the tone in his voice and she didn’t like it.

She had seen the apprentice’s pile of assorted objects but never managed to start up a conversation about what they were or what they meant to him. Claire had been in Gray’s room dozens of times and never got more than a polite “Hello” finished off with the ever-dreaded “Shouldn’t you be heading back to the farm now?”  He never offered to walk her home…

On the inside, she was frustrated and confused. Why would someone who had such a quiet, shy demeanor dare to say something so mean-spirited?  On the outside, quite frankly, she looked exactly the same – frustrated and confused; the farmer was never very good at hiding her emotions, try as she might.

“W-well… He’s probably busy doesn’t have the time to clean it,” she replied curtly.

The young man stared at the ground in silence for a few minutes. They were both keenly aware of the tension between them.  Claire wished Cliff would just go away already; she was done talking to him.  She regretted buying the chocolate bar…

The blonde heard the young man let out a quiet sigh; his blue eyes looked up at the clouds. “Carter told me once that the gods gave us faults so that we could learn to help one another…”

Claire’s anger diffused immediately. Cliff wasn’t claiming to be perfect, she realized.  He never had; he had just said that Ann saw him as a challenge.

“He said that the desire to improve ourselves is what makes us different from beasts… But… we have a tendency to only do it when it is convenient for us and the reasons are often selfish.  I… I want to become a better person, but I can’t even manage to do that…  Perhaps I’m lazy…  That’s much worse than simply being unorganized…”

The young woman shook her head; she had stopped by the church a few times a week and had seen the anguish on her friend’s face as he sat in his assigned pew. Often, after having a word with Carter or taking confession, Claire would take a seat beside her friend and they would spend an hour or so in silence.  Some days, they recited prayers together.  Other days, he had no words for her, but she swore when she waved goodbye to him he looked less depressed.  He was trying hard, but he seemed to be having a difficult time seeing any progress in himself.  She had noticed a change just within the past couple of weeks; he seemed to brood a lot less.  “Y-you’re not lazy.”

He gave her a sad smile. “Maybe you’re right.  Not lazy… just selfish.  My fault is that I am the most selfish person I know.”

The blonde turned toward him and handed him a piece of chocolate, shaking her head. “But everyone’s selfish to some degree.  No…  Your fault is that you tend to over think things and get melodramatic.”  She raised her eyebrows and gave him an apologetic smile.

He sucked on his chocolate pensively. “Melodramatic, huh?  …  You know…  I actually tr-try really hard not to let anyone see how I feel,” his voice was barely audible.

The young woman let another piece of chocolate melt on her tongue as she worked on her response. “Exactly.  And you let your negativity stew inside of you and turn it into something far worse,” Claire looked down at their feet.  Maybe she was being too candid with him…

“I suppose you’re right…” His voice was emotionless.  “You know…  You and Carter are the only ones I feel like I can be completely honest with.  Everyone else either keeps their distance or is constantly asking why I don’t have a smile on my face all the time.”

“That’s what my friends in the city would always ask... And I’d get the impression they’d only ask because everyone’s expected to be happy all of the time,” the farmer rolled her eyes.

“Yeah, faking it is exhausting; I gave that up years ago,” Cliff admitted with a bitter chuckle.

“Just… be who you are. Happiness will follow you in time,” Claire handed him another piece of chocolate and took one for herself.

“Huh…” He mulled the words over in her head.  “Do you really think so?”

“Well, that’s what Carter told me, anyway… I think I believe him, though,” Claire nodded.

“I… I want to believe…”

“Then allow yourself to.” She handed him the final piece of chocolate and crumpled up the wrapper, shoving it in her pocket.

Claire had a way of making things sound so simple; Cliff found a smile on his face.

“Carter seems pretty smart, doesn’t he?” The young woman grinned at him.

He nodded. “Smart, yes, but also a little goofy sometimes,” he chuckled, “He’s always practicing his ideas for sermons on me.  Some of them can be a little odd.”

“Oh, you mean like that story he told us a couple of weeks ago?” She recalled.

“Yeah… He’s also getting way too excited for the summer festivals and keeps trying out his ideas for summertime ghost stories on me,” he groaned.  “I don’t think he could even scare May or Stu.”

Claire giggled, but didn’t want to admit she scared easily. “Well, I think I had better head back to the farm and put these seeds in the ground.”  She stood up and stretched.  “I’ve been following the instructions in that book I got at the library and realized I’ve been making things harder on myself than I need to.  I’m going to try to have a good pile of money for seeds once summer rolls around.”

The young man smiled up at her. “I’m glad.  So the book has helped?”

The blonde nodded. “It has blueprints for farm layouts.  I can only do it on a small scale right now, but this summer, I’m going to get serious!”  She pumped her fist.

Cliff stood up. “Cool.  I know you’ll do great, Claire,” he replied with a friendly laugh.

“Thanks!” She beamed.  “And how about your projects?”

Cliff got quiet and shrugged.

“You keep trying hard, too!” Her eyes blazed.

He perked up a bit. “Okay!  Smoked trout and tanned rabbit hides, here I come!” He laughed, hoisting the large bag of salt on his shoulder with a grunt.  “Thanks again for the chocolate, Claire.”

They both knew he was talking about more than just the candy. The open, honest conversation had helped both of them; she owed him her gratitude as well.  “Thank you, too.” 

They went their separate ways as the brunette followed the path toward the inn. Claire shuffled the heavy bag of seeds on her back.  Things were changing; they were growing…

Chapter Text

“So I’m thinking something sweet, yet savory,” Karen pulled on her apron.

It was the night before the cooking festival and Karen had come over to practice a recipe with Claire.

“You do realize I don’t have a kitchen,” Claire reminded her once again.

“Details, details!” Karen scoffed. “It’s just practice, anyway.  The important thing about cooking is that all of the ingredients taste good.”

“I guess I can’t completely disagree with that,” Claire replied quietly.

Karen emptied a grocery bag on Claire’s table. She quickly grabbed a chocolate bar, a loaf of bread, and some curry roux.  She had swiped a hotplate and skillet from home.

“So here’s the idea – a sandwich with melted chocolate inside with a curry spread. I was inspired after your visit to the shop the other day; maybe I should give chocolate another chance.  I think it would be good if we spiced it up a bit.  What do you think?  It would be sweet, spicy, and salty!”

“Uh….” Claire tried her best to keep an open mind.  “Maybe we should taste the chocolate and curry together before you commit to using the whole package.”

“Fair enough.” Karen broke a corner off of both bars and popped them in her mouth.  She immediately spat them out in disgust.

“Maybe if you cooked up the roux first,” Claire offered weakly.

“How do you do that?”

Claire sighed and broke off a couple blocks of roux and dropped them into the skillet filled with hot water.   Karen watched as it slowly melted.

“Did you get the spatula?” Claire asked, surprised that Karen acted like this was all so new to her.

“No, I didn’t. Damn that Gray,” Karen grumbled.  She rustled through the bags for something else to stir with, but produced nothing.

Claire took the curry box and folded it in half to stabilize it. “Let’s give this a try.”  She pushed the sauce around with the stiff cardboard.  It worked better than she expected.  A warm, savory smell filled the room as the curry reached its magical temperature and began to thicken.  Claire tried her best not to drool at the aroma.

“Wow, Claire! You’re awesome!” Karen was genuinely impressed.

“Now let’s try adding some chocolate, I guess.” Claire felt bad to be wasting food.

Karen broke the bar in half, but Claire halted her. “Let’s add little by little,” Claire instructed gently.  “We can always add more chocolate, but we can’t take it out.”

“I guess you’re right.”

Karen handed her a small piece, and Claire melted it with the curry.

Karen dipped her finger into the skillet to give it a taste. “Hey, this isn’t half bad.  It needs more chocolate, though; it just tastes like curry.”

Claire decided to give it a try. Her friend was right.  It was savory, but needed just a hint more of sweetness.  Karen handed her another small piece, but Claire broke it in half.

“Oh, you’re such a chicken, Claire,” Karen laughed.

By the time the sauce was done, the cardboard had become flimsy and useless. Claire turned off the hotplate.

“I guess all that’s left to do is try it with the bread,” Karen reasoned.

Claire hesitantly ripped a couple of pieces off of the loaf. She handed one to Karen, who promptly dunked hers into the sauce.  Claire brushed the bread along the top of the sauce gently.  They both bit into their bread in unison and stared at each other with widened eyes.

“This is AMAZING! Claire, we are GENIUSES!”  Karen exclaimed, her mouth full.  “This is the strangest, most addicting thing I have ever tasted!”

Claire laughed and had to agree.

“How did you learn to cook, anyway?” Karen asked.

“Well, I learned when I was a child; my parents taught me. They wanted to make sure I could take care of myself from an early age.”  Wasn’t that how everyone learned?

“My mom won’t even let me in the kitchen,” Karen tried to play off her frustration. “She thinks I’ll burn it down or something,” she scoffed, “But she never even gives me a chance.  I mess up once, and she puts everything away and tells me I’m helpless.”

“Well, that’s not a really encouraging learning environment,” Claire commented, taking another chunk of bread.

“You’re right, it’s not. I mean, look at what we made together tonight.  Sure, it’s weird, but it’s edible and strangely delicious…”  She licked her fingers.  “It was an experiment…  Isn’t that all life is, anyway?”

“You got real deep there for a moment,” Claire giggled. Karen laughed and shoved her.

“You’re smart, Claire. I like you a lot.”  Karen put an arm around her friend’s shoulders.  “And tomorrow we’re going to kill the competition!”

0o0o0o0

Karen and Claire impatiently waited at the gate to the town square the next morning. Karen spied Rick and his mother waiting and made her way toward them.  Claire saw a familiar redhead waving to her.

“Good morning!”

The farmer walked over to Ann and her father. “Good morning.”

“Are you entering the competition this year, Claire?” Ann asked.

“I’m not really sure,” she admitted, “I don’t really have a kitchen.”

“It will all have to depend on what the theme is for this year, then,” Doug thoughtfully stroked his moustache.

“Themes?!” Why hadn’t Karen mentioned this to her before?

“Oh, yeah,” Ann replied. “The Gourmet will announce a theme and then we have a couple of hours to cook our dish.”

“Wow.” The farmer found that she was very intimidated.  Karen’s culinary skills were already so narrow…

“I can only really make simple things,” Ann admitted. “But I’m willing to give it my best shot!”

“I really don’t have any say in the matter,” Doug chuckled, “If I don’t enter and win, I’ll make the inn look bad!” He looked a little anxious despite his smile.  Claire wondered if he really wanted to be here at all or if he simply felt obligated to enter the competition.

Ann scanned the crowd that was forming. “I asked Cliff if he wanted to come to the festival, but he seemed a bit indifferent,” she sighed.

“Were you eager to show off your skills for him?” Doug teased.

Ann reddened. “It’s not like that, Dad!  He needs to get out and be with people!”

“Well, there’s Carter,” Claire recognized the priest in the crowd.

Ann eagerly looked in Claire’s direction. She pouted.  “But no Cliff.  Carter shows up every year for the free food.  Quite a few people do; there’s Gotz, too.  Everyone gets to eat the leftovers once the contest is over…  That’s actually my favorite part,” She admitted sheepishly.

“Is this competition done in teams or individuals?” Claire wanted to know all the rules.

“Individuals. Why?” Ann looked at the farmer.

“Well, I was going to help Karen with her entry if that was allowed.”

Doug smiled good-naturedly. “Honestly, Karen needs all the help she can get.  And what the Gourmet doesn’t know won’t hurt him,” he winked at Claire.

“Yeah, Karen always gets discouraged during this festival year after year,” Ann kept her voice low. “Her mother keeps telling her not to enter, but she does anyway.  I wonder if she does it just to defy her.”

“She doesn’t.” Claire tried to keep her voice level; Ann’s comment had struck a nerve.  “She’s just trying to prove to her mother that she can do something on her own.”

“Oh.” Ann looked over at the grocer’s daughter.  “Well, I can respect that.”  She smiled genuinely at Claire.  “I hope that the two of you are able to make a great dish!”

“Thanks, Ann!” Claire’s feelings toward the waitress greatly improved.

“It looks like they’re letting us in now,” Doug watched the moving crowd.

Claire made her way toward Karen and her mother in the square.

“Are you really sure you want to do this again?” Sasha sounded exasperated.

“Of course! I think I have a good chance,” Karen’s voice was strained.

A heavyset man stuffed into a loud purple suit waddled up on stage. The crowd fell silent.  “Welcome to the Annual Cooking Festival!  I am here to announce this year’s theme!  The theme is appetizers!  I’ll see you back in the square at noon to judge the dishes!”

The crowd quickly dispersed. Claire followed Karen and Sasha back to their house and into their kitchen.

“I don’t have time to help you with your dish, Karen,” Sasha said curtly.

“I didn’t ask for your help!” Karen’s voice was a little too loud. She turned toward Claire.  “Come on, let’s go to over here and plan what we are going to make.”

“Okay,” Claire was a bit afraid to do otherwise.

Karen pulled her friend to the other side of the room.

“Okay, so I’m thinking deep-fried rice balls on skewers. But we can fill the rice balls with different things…”

“Let’s stick with what we know. We could just cook what did last night,” Claire offered.

Karen cocked an eyebrow. “I think I would classify that as a main course.”

“We could just cut the bread into toast points and present the curry as a dip.”

“Yes! I like that idea!  It’s so much easier!”  She ran to the kitchen to fetch the ingredients and equipment.

Claire sighed.

“Alright, here we are! And I even grabbed a spoon for stirring!” Karen chuckled.

Claire was relieved that Karen’s mood lightened. They worked together swiftly.

“Hey, I think this tastes even better than last night’s!” Karen exclaimed.

Claire smiled, “Me, too, but let’s save some for the judge.”

They made their way back to the square. A few people had come back and were waiting for the judge to return.  Cliff waved and headed in their direction; Claire was surprised to see the shy young man at the event.

“Hello, Claire, Karen,” he seemed a little anxious even in the small crowd.

“Ann’s not here yet,” Claire said to him.

“Oh, right… I only came because Carter told me that you two were competing today, but don’t tell Ann that.”  Cliff’s gaze moved to the ground and he guiltily shuffled his feet.

Karen grinned. “Well I’m glad you did, because we’re going to win with this dish!” she shoved it in her friend’s face.

Cliff’s face lit up at the smell. “Curry?”

The girls nodded.

“Well, then, yes, it’s going to win,” a small smile spread across his face.

“We actually took chocolate and melted it in the curry to make a dip. It’s a delicacy!” Karen looked a little too proud of herself.

“Did you follow a recipe?” He cocked an eyebrow.

Karen shook her head. “It was a happy accident we created last night!  Originally it was going to be a sandwich.”

Claire could see from his expression that he was having a hard time choosing his words. “Well, it will definitely be a unique entry.”  She smiled; he was very polite.

“You’re more than welcome to stay here and watch us win,” Karen beamed.

“A-alright,” Cliff stammered, taking a spot next to Claire.

Claire spied the chicken farmer making his way into the square with his mother.

“Hey Rick!” Karen ran to her friend, carrying the dish, eager to show it off.

With the main focus of her attention now gone, Claire scanned the crowd for any sign of the blacksmith. She wasn’t surprised she didn’t see him; this didn’t seem like his kind of event.

“This is the first festival I’ve attended at this town.” Cliff’s sudden voice made her jump.

“Me, too.”

“I do a bit of cooking myself, but I don’t think I’d be much competition,” Cliff continued. “I do very simple outdoor cooking.”

“Ann said you don’t eat much at the inn…” She remembered.

“I don’t need to; I go up Mother’s Hill a lot,” he sounded a little more confident. “There are a lot of great resources there.”

“Oh, Cliff, I’m so glad you could make it!” Ann beamed and made her way over to them.

“Hi, Ann,” Cliff smiled at the waitress.

“I made french fries,” she grinned at the pair, “And guess whose potatoes I used?”

Claire’s face lit up. “Mine?  Wow, that is so awesome, Ann!  I’m honored, really!”  She managed to say.

“I knew you’d be impressed,” she winked at the farmer. “So how did Karen’s dish turn out?”

“I think we did pretty well. I will be interested to hear what the Gourmet has to say about it.  Karen’s a… creative cook.”

“Well, I wish you luck!” Ann smiled warmly at Claire.

“Thank you, you too!”

“Claire, you make sure Cliff doesn’t sneak away today. I asked him to come earlier to socialize with people.”  She laughed and headed back toward her father.

Cliff reddened. “She makes me out to be so anti-social…”

There was that word again. Anti-social…  “Hey, I’m not the biggest fan of crowds, myself,” Claire offered, and his face relaxed.  She noticed he had a much calmer demeanor than when she first saw him earlier.  “H-hey, Cliff?”

“Huh?”

“I was just wondering… D-did Gray happen to mention anything about coming to the festival today?”

The young man shrugged. “Nah.  I think he had work today.”

“Oh… I thought all of the shops were closed today for the festival.”

The brunette chuckled. “That doesn’t stop Saibara; he didn’t even let Gray go to the horse races last month even though he went himself.  Gray was… not happy…”  He frowned.

“S-So he likes horses, huh?” She noted.

“A lot…  S-Sometimes… I feel like it’s the only thing I have in common with him…  That we both love animals, I mean.”  The young man’s expression turned pensive.

“I have a horse,” She murmured to herself more than anyone else. “A dog, too…”

“And I have a-” Cliff cut himself off. “I have a… fondness… for horses, too.”

Claire looked at him curiously. “Yeah… horses are pretty great,” She nodded politely.

They sat quietly together on a bench and watched more people enter the square. Claire squirmed when she noticed the mayor coming their way.  She hadn’t spoken to him since she purchased the farm.  Cliff sensed his friend’s nervousness and put a hand on her shoulder.

“Good afternoon, Claire and Cliff.”

“G-good afternoon to you, too, Mayor Thomas,” Claire couldn’t meet him in the eye.

“Did you enter the competition today?”

“No, Sir. I came to watch my friend Karen compete,” She said cordially.  She politely left out the fact that she didn’t compete because she had been sold a house that didn’t have a kitchen.

“Ah, well, hopefully next year,” He smiled at her. She nodded uncomfortably.  “Well, I’m sure some of the competitors are using your vegetables.  You’ve made us rather proud.”

“T-thank you,” his compliment caught her off guard.

“Running the farm will take some getting used to, but I know that you’ll be great at it.” He turned on his heel and left.

Cliff turned toward her, confused. “And the last time you talked to him was when-”

Claire blushed. “Yes.”

They both stared in amazement as the mayor slowly made his way up by the stage, chatting with the man in the purple suit. Thomas didn’t say a word about her attack on him the day she moved into town.  She wondered if maybe she wasn’t the first to do something like that…

“Hey, guys.”

Claire’s heart pounded as the scent of oil and smoldering metal hit her nose.

“Ah, you made it, man.” Cliff gave his roommate a nod.  “Saibara let you out early?”

“Yep. I made a passable horseshoe and we had a few rounds of sake to celebrate.  Scoot; give me some space and I’ll sit with you guys.”  Gray commanded, tugging on the bill of his hat.

Claire’s face caught on fire; she was happy to oblige. She nearly slammed her hips into a startled Cliff as she eagerly made space for the apprentice; he was going to sit by her.  “H-hi, Gray.  It’s n-nice to see you.”

“Ah, Claire… you’re always so polite,” He gave her a friendly nod and a hint of a smile crossed his face.

Her heart gave a flutter; the apprentice was in a very good mood today.

“S-So… We were just talking about horses,” Claire explained, turning to face her new bench mate.

“What about them?”

“W-well, we both like them,” the young woman said lamely, playing with a strand of blonde hair.

“Ah, I like horses a lot, too. Great creatures…  I help out at Barley’s sometimes, you know.”

“Oh, really? You must know all kinds of things about livestock, then!” She grinned; she felt much more comfortable talking to Gray in a more open environment.  He seemed to as well.  Gray seemed awfully chatty today, and it was very encouraging.

The young man blushed. “I wouldn’t say that.  I mean, I pull and reset horseshoes.  That hardly makes me a pro at anything.”

“W-well, hey! It’s a start, right?”  She encouraged him.

“Yeah… I guess so,” he nodded.  He readjusted his hat and Claire’s heart stopped when his arm brushed past hers.

“S-So… I’m surprised you came to this festival,” Cliff ventured, leaning forward on the bench to talk to his roommate on the other side of Claire.

“Oh, I usually don’t come, but this year, I had to. I came to watch Karen fail,” He smirked.

Cliff groaned and rolled his eyes, and Claire was surprised at how informal he was around the apprentice, but she quickly remembered the obvious fact that the two lived together. “You are still on about that?”

“It’ll be funny, don’t you think, Claire?” The apprentice gave her a flirty grin and winked at her. “Karen can be a bully sometimes, eh?”

The young woman’s face caught on fire and she suddenly had a hard time figuring out who to pledge her allegiance to.

Cliff frowned, but didn’t say anything. Claire wondered if he was debating to tell Gray that the farmer had helped Karen make her dish.  She was a little curious if Cliff knew that she and Karen were bending the rules a bit; she sat in nervous silence.

“Well, I’m rooting for her,” Cliff finally said.

Claire wondered if she was being asked to pick sides. “I-I think Karen might surprise you this year, Gray,” she said quietly.  After all, she had helped make the dish, and it tasted even better today than it did yesterday.

He said nothing, but his smirk grew.

The Gourmet made his way up as to the stage, and the competitors began submitting their dishes.

“The first dish is Ann’s french fries!” He bellowed.  Ann made her way up to the judging table and watched him sample her dish.

“Hmmm… Very crispy and flavorful. Just the right amount of salt.  Very good.”

Ann beamed and walked back toward her father, braid bouncing.

“Wow, so I guess he just critiques them right in front of everyone?” Claire whispered.

“It would seem so,” the brunette returned.

“This is gonna be good,” Gray’s eyes lit up.

Claire watched nervously as the Gourmet sampled Lillia’s hard boiled eggs, Doug’s pickled turnips, and Sasha’s croquettes.

“And the final dish is Karen’s…” He looked at the plate, confused.

“Chocolate Curry Dip!” Karen boldly stepped forward.

Gray snorted and smugly mumbled a few colorful words, but Claire was too busy concentrating on the judge’s reaction to listen properly.

“Alright…” The Gourmet looked at the food nervously. He took a bite and sat silently for a moment.  The crowd fell silent.  Claire could feel the tension in the air; she found herself clutching Cliff’s arm.

“Hmmm… Very interesting…. The flavors blend together in a unique and exotic way. The toast offers a bold contrast in texture… It’s… kind of good!”

“Heh… Well, what do you know?  The crazy broad actually kind of did it,” Gray folded his arms and gave a nod of approval.

The crowd broke out in cheers. Karen’s face lit up and she strutted back to her mother.  Sasha was unable to hide the pride on her face.  She embraced her daughter.

“And now for the winner! Doug’s pickled turnips!”

Doug made his way up to the judge’s table. “Your dish was truly fresh and delicious, a wonderful taste of spring.  Thank you all for competing!”

“Leftovers are over here on the table!” Thomas hollered to the crowd, and people lined up for the free food.

The trio made their way over to Karen, who had a crowd around her. She may not have gotten first place in the competition, but she had won in her own right.  Claire noticed that her friend was blinking away happy tears, and the farmer’s heart felt full.

The grocer’s daughter caught sight of Gray and stuck her tongue out at him, winking. The apprentice rolled his eyes, but the blonde noticed a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.

“Karen, I’m so glad you dish went over well,” Rick blushed, “I’m really impressed.”

Karen reddened. “Really?”

“Well… yeah. Maybe you can show me how to make it sometime,” he smiled shyly at her, rubbing the back of his neck.

“O-okay!” She waved goodbye to him. “Thank you for your help,” Karen whispered to her friend.

“Don’t mention it,” Claire smiled.

“Cliff, get in line to try it!” Karen ordered. “You said you like curry, right?”

Her friend looked over at the table of food. “It’s already gone,” he laughed.

“Well, maybe I’ll just have to open my own restaurant,” Karen smirked and put an arm around Claire. She looked over at her mother.  “Maybe a food stand inside of the supermarket…”  She laughed heartily at her mother’s expression.

Chapter Text

Claire walked nervously into town, gripping the handle of her axe in both hands. Her hands were sore from holding the tool; she had been chopping wood well into the night until it was too dark to see.  Karen, who was on her way to the spring, caught sight of her and waved.

“You look like a woman on a mission,” Karen’s eyes pored over her friend. The farmer looked, in a word, ragged.  Claire had bags under her eyes, her cheeks were still rosy with exertion, and her pale locks were disheveled.  It was likely the blonde had been taking advice from the book she got at the library a few days ago and had started some big projects on her property.  The brunette pantomimed swinging an invisible axe with a giggle.  “You also look kind of scary carrying that thing around.”

Claire realized she probably looked like an axe murderer in a horror film and laughed; she shifted the tool so that it rested on her shoulder and she found it was much more comfortable. Her arms ached.  “My axe is pretty dull,” she explained, “I’m going to get it sharpened.”

Karen looked over at the forge. “Ah, I see why you look so anxious now,” she smirked.  The old blacksmith wasn’t exactly known for his cordial behavior, especially around the younger generation.  “Saibara doesn’t bite; I promise.”

“He’s not the one I’m worried about,” Claire frowned.

The young woman wondered if the farmer was afraid the apprentice would make a snarky remark or ignore her completely. Karen had a feeling that this second reason was more likely her friend’s fear.  As far as she was concerned, Claire worried far too much about what Gray thought of her.  “Ah, I see.  You’ll be fine,” Karen laughed it off, patting her arm as she headed off to her destination.

Claire recalled the first time she had visited the smithy; it was the first day she moved into town. The handsome young man quickly stole her heart despite the fact that he had been in a bad mood that day and had taken it out on her.  She had surprised herself when she stood her ground instead of getting upset and fleeing from the shop.  Perhaps it was the way Gray was trying so hard to get his grandfather’s approval that her heart went out to him. 

Since then, she had visited him regularly at his room at the inn. She had forgotten weeks ago about her debate over whether or not it was proper for her to call on a young man by herself in the evenings.  Claire tried her best to visit only when she knew Gray would be alone, but when his roommate happened to be there as well, she exchanged a few words with Cliff about her farm in lieu of a gift.  The brunette would give her a polite smile; he seemed satisfied enough with a few moments of her company, however short and formal the young woman forced the conversation into being.  After all, Claire reminded herself, she didn’t want to give Gray the wrong idea.

Claire had only visited Gray a few times at work after that fateful day when he not-so-subtly asked her to leave the shop and mind her own business. He had apologized to her a couple of times after the incident, but she quickly saw that Saibara was a trigger for his angry outbursts.  Gray still seemed a bit embarrassed about their initial meeting; he didn’t talk to her much while he worked.  Claire was content watching his strong arms swing his hammer for a few minutes while she talked with Saibara, not really listening to the words the old man was saying.  She noticed that when he saw that she had her eyes on him, he picked up his pace and swung harder.  The young woman blushed at the very thought.

She was standing in front of the door to the forge. She slowed down her breathing and stepped inside.

Claire was immediately greeted by the scent of smoldering metal and oil; it was the fragrance she associated with Gray. The apprentice was in his usual spot, tending to the forge.

“Good morning,” the old man greeted her, not impolitely. He had picked up on the young woman’s behavior when she came to shop, and, quite frankly, he was a little disgusted that she didn’t seem all that interested in what he had to sell, especially considering she was the one in town who would benefit the most from his wares.  Today she seemed to have a different demeanor, he noticed.

The farmer set her axe on the counter.

“Looks very dull,” Saibara commented without even picking it up to inspect it.

Claire nodded. “It’s not really doing much anymore.”

“Well, you can’t work well without good tools,” Saibara replied. He looked at the blade; it had definitely seen better days.  “You must be cleaning up the farm.”

“Yes.” Claire noticed the old man rarely had any sort of expression on his face, and she was hesitant to say anything more than she needed to.  She didn’t feel that it was necessary to explain the techniques that the library book had suggested; she needed to clear more land to create some of the plots the book described.

“I can have it ready by tomorrow,” he replied, taking the axe and propping it against the wall. “I’ll sharpen it for you for free today, but if you bring me some ore next time, I can make it last longer for you.  Gray will drop it by your farm tomorrow morning.”

“Thank you very much,” she bowed her head; she was surprised the old blacksmith would go out of his way to do anything for her. But there was another reason why she came to the shop; she had seen an advertisement in her mailbox for the livestock products the old man sold.  “I also came to make a purchase.”

“Oh?” Maybe Saibara had been wrong about Claire after all.

Claire hesitated; she had an honest interest in buying a product, but she had also hoped to garner a particular young apprentice’s attention. “Yes.  I was given a horse recently…”

Gray whirled around from the forge, suddenly very interested. “Was it the colt that Barley had?  He wasn’t doing too well.”

Claire nodded. “Barley put him into my care.  I want to give him extra attention, and I was told you might have some grooming tools.”

“That we do,” Saibara produced a comb and set it on the counter.

“Thank you,” Claire handed him her money. She picked up the comb and looked at it curiously; it didn’t seem to really have bristles…

“W-why don’t I come to your farm and show you how to use it?” Gray’s sudden voice startled the young woman. The old man gave his grandson a nod of approval.

“A-alright,” Claire could feel the color creeping into her cheeks. The best she had been hoping for was an interested glance from Gray at the mention of the horse, but she wasn’t about to complain about this fortunate turn of events.

Gray swiftly removed his work gloves, and in a flurry of movements he grabbed a couple of items from a drawer, threw them in a paper sack, and opened the door for Claire.

------

It was a short and silent walk to the farm. Claire wasn’t quite sure what to say.  She knew that the young man liked horses, but she found she was nervous about actually starting a conversation on them; she had next to no knowledge on caring for the creatures.  Koro saw the pair approaching the farm and began to run up to greet Claire, but the puppy shied away when he saw the stranger.

“Koro, you’re such a goof!” The young woman laughed at her dog. “Sorry, Gray, don’t take it personally.”

The blacksmith shrugged; he knew that his cold manner put a lot of people off, and it looked like the dog wasn’t an exception to this, either. He wasn’t particularly fond of dogs, anyway, and didn’t take offense to this at all.  “I heard what he did to Thomas, so I’ll take what he just did as a compliment.”

The farmer turned a bright shade of red. “Well, I’ll take you to the stable.”

“Yeah, let’s see the little guy.” His voice wasn’t as gruff as it usually was and his steps sounded less like stomps as he followed her.

Claire opened the door and Tucker looked up at them. Gray’s eyes immediately softened as he walked up and stroked the colt’s back, exhaling deeply.  “Ah, he looks much better already…  You’ve been taking good care of him.”

“Th-thank you,” Claire reddened; he had a much different demeanor around the horse than he did around his grandfather.

Gray studied the horse’s face and brushed the brown forelocks out of the creature’s eyes as he let out a sigh. He was no stranger to horses, but he was always left breathless at how majestic and beautiful the creatures were, even at a young age.  “What do you call him?”

Claire saw the apprentice’s facial expressions and her heart raced. If only he would look at her like that someday…  Perhaps this horse could be the catalyst for such a dream to come true.  “Tucker.”

The blacksmith smiled warmly at the horse, and his voice was gentle. “Tucker… I like it; it’s a good name.”  He studied the colt for a few moments, running his calloused hands along the animal’s back with a tenderness the farmer had never seen before.  He turned back toward Claire and held out his hand.  “Give me the brush; I’ll show you how to use it.  Let’s just do the basics today.”

“O-okay.” For a brief moment, she thought he wanted her to take his hand; her heart hammered in her chest.  Claire blushed as she handed him her purchase from Saibara.

“This is called a curry comb,” Gray explained. He began making circular motions with the brush and clouds of dust puffed up.  He smiled.  “Looks like he needs it.  Watch out for his sensitive areas or he might nip or kick,” Gray motioned with his free hand and was pleased to see Claire was watching with great interest.  “You’re going to use it to break up dried sweat and dirt.”  Gray unstrapped the brush from his hand and gave it back to the farmer.  “Now you try.”

“Alright.” She began to imitate the motions she saw Gray use.  The young woman wanted to show the apprentice that she loved the horse as well and could be a responsible, hard worker when it came to livestock.

“You have to press harder,” he instructed.

She was taken aback; surely gentleness was the key. She had seen the kind motions Gray used on Tucker and wanted to be able to replicate them.  “B-but I don’t want to hurt him…”

Gray sighed; despite her interest, the farmer had much to learn. “Here…  Feel the pressure I’m using.”  He covered Claire’s hand with his own and guided the brush.  “See?  You’re not hurting him.”

Even though she knew that he was simply instructing her, Claire found that she had to focus the most on keeping her breathing steady; she was so happy she could hardly stand it. The young man’s hand was a little rougher than she imagined it in her mind, and it wasn’t quite as warm, but it was real.

The apprentice caught the look on the blonde’s face and swiftly he removed his hand from hers. “There.  You have a feel for it now.  Give it a try yourself.”  The young man folded his arms and watched her, his face reddening a bit.

Claire debated about whether or not to brush lightly on purpose in the hopes of getting another lesson. She quickly shook the idea out of her head and brushed the horse the way she was instructed; she wanted to impress him.

“Good. Next we have a body brush,” Gray took another brush out of his paper sack and gave it to Claire.  “Use it to brush off the loose hair and dirt; this one’s easy.”

The farmer brushed Tucker and could tell he was enjoying it; she grinned. “I’m going to have the prettiest horse in Mineral Town,” She ventured, quickly focusing her ears on any comment the apprentice may make in response to this statement.

Claire wasn’t sure what she was expecting, but she didn’t get any sort of vocal reply. She looked back over at the young man, though, and he had a genuine smile on his face as he gazed into Tucker’s eyes.

They combed out the colt’s mane and tail, and Gray rolled his eyes and grinned when Claire began french braiding the horse’s mane.

“One more thing,” Gray pulled a metal hook from the bag. “You’ll need to clean his hooves regularly.”  He briefly demonstrated the hoof pick to Claire and let her practice on a couple of hooves.  “Once he needs to get shod, take him over to Barley’s.  I’ll come over to pull and reset him.  He’ll need it done regularly.”

“Alright.” Claire was slowly realizing what a responsibility Barley had placed on her when he brought Tucker to her farm. She would probably need to borrow a book on horse care as well.  She was reminded for the millionth time how overwhelming managing a farm all by herself was proving to be.

Gray noticed Claire’s expression. “Everything will be fine,” he reassured her, giving her a friendly pat on the shoulder.  She was trying, and he could appreciate that.  Gray could see why his roommate had mentioned the blonde farmer several times in the past few days; she was pretty inspiring, whether she realized it or not.  After all, she was just a clumsy city girl attempting to revive a massive piece of overgrown property, but she was still attempting to make it work.  The apprentice supposed he needed to keep trying, too, with his job…  “I’ll stop by and remind you if it’s been too long, okay?”

Her heart leapt at his touch. “Okay… Thank you for all of your help, Gray.” Claire was grateful.

He tugged on the bill of his hat. “I’ll come back over to help you train him a bit if you like.  It will be a while before he’s big enough to ride, but he needs to get used to being around you and learn some vocal commands well before you get into the saddle.”

“Oh, I would really appreciate that!”  She replied a little too quickly.  Claire wanted to say he could come over every day if he wanted to, but she stopped herself.

“You can keep the brush and hoof pick. Consider it a welcoming gift,” Gray shrugged, but his cheeks had a hint of color to them.  He didn’t want to come across as too desperate about wanting to spend time in the stable.

Claire turned a bright shade of red in response. She had just gone in to town to sharpen her axe and buy a brush, but the afternoon had already gone much better than she could have ever hoped for.  “Th-thank you.”

“Okay… See you, Claire.”  His eyes were focused on the colt as he left.

“Bye…”

He left the stable and headed back to work. Claire spent the next few minutes stroking Tucker’s back, reliving the last hour or so in her mind.  She snapped back to reality and silently cursed herself for not seeing Gray to the exit of the farm.

Chapter Text

The town had finally calmed down after the Cooking Festival; Karen had achieved superstar status for a couple of days. Once the festival was over, Cliff was eager to select a day for Claire to meet for lunch, and once a date was set, the young woman found that she was looking forward to it as well.  The farmer finished her chores extra early the day of so that she could play with Koro and spend some time out by the Goddess Spring for a quick yet heartfelt prayer.  The young woman made an offering of wildflowers and asked the goddess to bless her with a positive new beginning.  She wasn’t met with a vision, but a warm feeling glowed in her heart; she had a feeling today was going to be a good one.

She went home to freshen up before her outing, trying to keep in mind not to primp too much. Claire had some casual male friends back in the city, and she didn’t know why she felt a little anxious about having lunch with Cliff.  Perhaps it was because a lot of the time she spent with the young man was in silence.  What had started out with a visit to thank the priest for the gift basket of apples swiftly turned into regular meetings with Carter, and she found that it eased her anxiety quite a bit.  When she finished speaking to the priest in the confessional, Cliff was often sitting quietly in the front pew and would look up at her with those wide deep blue eyes.  Claire wondered if her friend was aware that he had perfected the sad puppy-eyed look; she found herself unable to not sit beside him when they made eye contact.  The young woman would join him in prayer for an hour or so, and on several occasions, she would loosely intertwine her arm with his.  It seemed that a sympathetic touch did wonders for the young man.  She noticed on days when she did this, Cliff would give her a small smile and they would talk for some time. 

They often spoke about some of Carter’s sermons, but on days when he was in higher spirits, Cliff would ask Claire about her farm and its progress; he seemed very interested in both the crops and her plans for livestock in the future. He had once asked how Tucker was doing and she excitedly explained how helpful Gray had been in showing her how to care for the horse; she was too caught up in her gushing about the apprentice to notice that her companion had gone tight-lipped and returned his stare to the carpet.

Claire ran a brush through her hair thoughtfully. Cliff was plenty polite and thoughtful, but he was very quiet sometimes.  She couldn’t help but notice that he never talked much about himself, but the young woman figured it was best not to pressure him; getting Cliff to talk to her about anything and catching a glimpse of that shy smile felt like enough of a reward most days.

Talking to Cliff in the church was one thing; he was comfortable there. This would be their first public outing with just the two of them; Karen wouldn’t be there to act as a catalyst for conversation.  The grocer’s daughter had taken her to the bar the other day and when Claire had mentioned her upcoming plans with the young man, Karen had been very encouraging.  The young woman had given the farmer a warm smile and said that it would be good for the both of them.  Claire decided that it was okay for her to be a little excited about having lunch with a new friend, but getting nervous about it was just silly…

Claire studied her reflection in the mirror as she applied her peach lip gloss and froze in horror as she realized what she was doing; she had already applied a touch of cosmetic rouge to her cheeks. Her face lit up with a natural blush and she hastily wiped off the makeup and returned the cap on her lip gloss.  What was she doing?  Claire silently scolded herself as she cleaned off her face.  She saved her makeup for special occasions, namely, when she went to the inn to give Gray his piece of copper.  The young woman didn’t have the money to purchase new cosmetics, and she shouldn’t be using them so liberally, especially when there was no reason to get dolled up in the first place.

She thought about all of the times she had been in the same room as Cliff, and she worried about all of the silences between them. Would he find her boring if she didn’t know what to say, and then report his findings to Gray?  Claire tried to shake this thought unsuccessfully for some time.  The two had seemed rather chummy at the Cooking Festival, and Gray had encouraged this whole outing…  Maybe the apprentice was having his roommate scout for him to see what she was like…

Yeah, right.  Claire laughed out loud at the absurdity and put on her boots.

0o0o0o0

“Thanks for meeting me here,” Cliff was already waiting at a table.

“Thank you for lunch,” Claire smiled, not without some nervousness, and took the seat across from him.

“Hi, Claire! What can I get you today?” Ann’s braid swished back and forth as she made her way to the table.

Claire looked at the menu hesitantly. She knew Cliff must not have much money himself, as he was unemployed.

“Order whatever you like,” Cliff gave her a small smile.

The young woman felt herself relax a bit. She stared at the handwritten specials of the day.  Doug’s Inn definitely sold a much homier array of foods than she was used to in the city, and if the pancakes she had here earlier in the season were any indication, she could safely order anything she wanted on the menu and be pleased with the result.  “Omelette rice sounds very good,” she finally decided.

Cliff had hardly scanned the menu. “Make that two.”  He nodded, handing the menus back to his friend.

“Well, that was fast,” Ann giggled, accepting the menus. She tucked her pencil behind her ear; there had been no need for her to take notes.  “I’ll bring you guys a couple of cold barley teas, on the house.”

The pair thanked Ann in unison, and that made the waitress laugh harder as she walked away. Cliff turned pink and looked at the floor.

“Hey, great minds think alike,” Claire winked.

A smile returned to the young man’s face. He looked like he wanted to say something.  “After we finish eating, I want to take you somewhere,” he said a little too quickly.

“Alright.” The farmer wasn’t sure what the rush was all about, but she found that his eager words had made her feel a little excited.

Ann returned with the tea. “So what are the plans for today?” She took a seat at their table and propped her elbows on the table, cupping her cheeks in her hands.  Ann’s eyes moved between the pair curiously, and she noticed that her male friend’s eyes were lit up.

“Ann!” Doug craned his head from the kitchen, “What on earth are you doing?  I need you in here!”

“Coming, Dad!” Ann rolled her eyes and stood up with a sigh; surely she was going to get a scolding for not behaving like a lady.  She reluctantly returned to the kitchen.  “See you guys in a few minutes.”

The young man watched the waitress walk away and Claire noticed he was wringing his hands. “I-I was thinking we could go to the m-mountain today… th-that is, if you have enough t-time this afternoon,” Cliff stumbled over his words.  He quickly took a sip of tea and stared at the beverage as if it were the most interesting thing in the world.

“Sure. I already finished all of my chores for the day.”  She felt bad that he seemed nervous, but hadn’t her own stomach been tied up in knots half an hour ago?  Claire didn’t want their outing to be riddled with anxiety for either of them; today was supposed to be fun.  “I finished them early so we didn’t have to rush anything.”

A wave of relief swept over the young man’s face and he removed his gaze from his glass of tea. “Thank you.  Not having a job, you kind of lose your sense of time,” he gave her a sad smile as he rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly.

Claire played with the beads of condensation that were forming on the outside of her drinking glass. It was a warm day for spring and she noted that her friend had stopped wearing his leather bracers due to the higher temperatures.  “No luck finding work in town?” She frowned.

The young man was silent for a moment. His gaze returned back to the barley tea and his brows were furrowed in worry.  “No… and I… really don’t want to have to leave.”

“But I thought you just got here!” Claire’s stomach sank. She suddenly wished that she hadn’t agreed for him to pay for their meal and she quickly lost her appetite.  The young woman was aware that they didn’t know each other for long, but he was already one of her closest friends in town.  The thought of him not living here anymore made her feel like crying.

Cliff didn’t say anything for a while; he shifted his glass on the table’s surface and stared at the water trail it left behind, poking it with a finger. “Yeah, but I’ve moved around a lot,” he laughed bitterly.

He almost sounded defeated, like he had given up already… She had seen him depressed before, but the young woman had never seen her friend like this.  Claire could quickly feel a distance appearing between them; she was losing him.  “Don’t give up hope!  I’ll help you find something!” She almost yelled.  She surprised both of them.

“It’s alright,” he replied, and his expression softened. He wiped the dampness on the table off with his napkin and folded it again neatly, but his eyes remained glued to the glass.  “I’ve got a bit of savings I’m sitting on right now...  I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean to bother you with my worries,” he gave her an apologetic smile.

But he had to pay for board, and surely he had other expenses…

Ann brought out two identical plates. She had drawn matching hearts on the omelettes in ketchup.  Cliff returned his gaze to the floor and reddened.  Ann giggled.

Claire looked down at her plate. “Thanks, Ann.  You’re quite an artist with the ketchup.  The heart’s really cute,” she smiled, and her face felt a little warm.  The extra attention to detail was one of her favorite things about the eatery, and she had to admit to herself that the hand-drawn ketchup made her feel quite special.

“Thank you, Ann,” Cliff’s worry lines went away as he noticed his tablemate wasn’t offended by Ann’s handiwork.

The waitress walked back to the kitchen, rather pleased with herself.

The smell of the food made the farmer’s appetite return immediately. “Don’t let her get to you,” Claire took a bite of her omelette and she realized just how hungry she was.  She noticed that the young man’s face was still quite flushed, and she realized it was probably because of the shape Ann chose to draw the ketchup in.  Claire tried her best to hide the heat in her own face; she wondered for a brief moment if Ann had thought that the two were on a date.  “She’s just teasing you because she likes you.”

“I know… She just always does stuff like that… Ivy would always play tricks on me like that, too, just to see how I would react.”

Claire had met everyone in town, but the name didn’t sound familiar to her at all. “Ivy?” 

Cliff finished chewing. “Yeah, I had a younger sister named Ivy.”  He looked back at his plate emotionlessly.

Claire noted the past tense and quickly changed the subject. The young man looked as if he was quickly choking down an overwhelming sense of grief; she couldn’t stand to see him like this.  She wanted him to focus on the fun activities that they were going to do today.  “So, what are we going to do up in the mountains?”  She took a sip of tea and savored it; the toasty flavor was perfect.

To her surprise, a smile crept across his lips. “I wanted to show you something that I thought would help you.”  The pain faded from his eyes as he looked up at her, and his expression had changed to an eager one.

She was relieved that he had cheered up so easily. “Alright… Do you care to tell me what it is?” Claire grinned at him teasingly.  She wasn’t sure why he was being so secretive…

The young man let out a small chuckle, and Claire’s heart swelled. She had spent enough time with him in the church to be familiar enough with his behavior; he had finished reflecting.  “Did you bring your rucksack?” He asked.

Claire shrugged and found that she was giggling. “I thought we were just going to lunch.  I just brought myself.”

Cliff finished his omelette. “Well, you’re going to need it.  We’ll stop by your place on the way back to get it,” he said with authority.

“Yes, Sir!” Claire teased, popping the rest of her food in her mouth. It was interesting to see the young man take charge for once; today would definitely prove to be something out of the ordinary. She found that she was more excited than ever for the next phase of their outing. 

Cliff gave her a genuine smile. “I’ll be right back!”  He walked up to the counter, thanked Doug and paid him, then ran upstairs.

Ann came back to the table to clear up the plates. She grinned mischievously at Claire.  “He gets embarrassed way too easily, but it’s kinda cute, though, huh?”

Claire wasn’t expecting her own face to redden. “Cliff just needs to have a little more faith in himself.”

Ann smiled knowingly at the farmer. “And I’m just trying to help get him there.  Just trying to push him out of his comfort zone a little; just a little harmless fun…”  The redhead paused and gave her a serious glance.  Claire was caught off guard; the waitress had never been anything other than playful with her.  “You know, when he does talk, it’s often about you...  Be a good friend to him, okay?  He’s been through a lot, I can tell that much.”

Anyone could. Claire looked at the stairs, longing to go up them and see what it was Cliff was so excited about.  She didn’t have to wait long.  He hurried down the stairs with a simple yet beautiful handmade satchel strapped across his back.

“Let’s go!” He hardly waited for her to get up from her seat and led the way with a friendly chuckle.

“O-okay!” Claire had to jog to keep up with him.

They quickly made their way to Claire’s house.

The young woman was staring at the satchel that was strapped to her friend’s back. It looked, like most of the things he owned, very rustic and worn.  “So, what’s in the bag?”

“Not much… yet.”

Claire hesitated at her front door. After all, he was a man and she was a woman.  She wasn’t sure what the protocol was for this kind of situation.  It seemed natural when she visited Gray it the inn, as there was always someone else present, but this felt different.  Claire looked up and saw Koro running straight toward the two friends.

The young woman’s stomach jumped and she made a quick prayer to the gods that her puppy would behave himself. “Sorry, Koro’s not always the friendliest with strangers-!” 

Cliff crouched down and greeted the dog in a dialect Claire wasn’t familiar with. Fascinated, Claire fell silent and watched the young man patiently hold his hand out to the sniffing Koro.  For a moment, Claire feared she would be bandaging up a dog bite wound, remembering the dog’s encounter with Mayor Thomas.  Koro sniffed Cliff curiously then licked his hand.  The young man laughed and scratched the puppy’s chin.

“Nah, your dog is very sweet. Can we bring him?”

“Of course,” Claire breathed a sigh of relief and used this as an opportunity to dash inside her house alone while he patted her dog.

She suddenly realized she had no idea what they were going to actually do once they were up in the mountains, but she figured this was some sort of surprise. “Should I bring any tools in my bag?” She craned her head out the door.

Cliff was rubbing the top of Koro’s head. Claire nearly laughed out loud at the expression on her pet’s face; he was in heaven.  “Empty it.  You’ll need all the space you can get.”

He was so different than the gloomy young man in the church; his excitement was contagious. Claire didn’t waste another moment; she overturned her rucksack onto her table and came back outside.

“Alright, I’m ready.” She looped her thumbs through her rucksack straps and eagerly rocked back and forth on her heels and the balls of her feet.

The young man laughed, “Then let’s go, already!”

Koro barked and led the way. It wasn’t long until they arrived at the Goddess Spring.

Chapter Text

“Over here, Claire.”

The young woman followed her friend to a grassy patch where Cliff showed her some wild strawberries. They were a little ways off of the main mountain trail, and Claire had never noticed them before.

“Oh, how pretty. Can we actually eat those?”  She thought of the wild grapes she had been snacking on when she could find them.

“Yeah. I do all the time.”  He began picking dandelions and tying the bundles with long pieces of grass before putting them in his bag.  He handed her one and she twirled it in her fingers like a child.  “You can eat those, too, but they wilt fast.  You’ll want to eat them the day you pick them.”

Claire suddenly realized how Cliff was able to make his money last. She remembered Ann’s comment about how he rarely ate the food at the inn.  Claire popped a leaf into her mouth.  It was bitter, but not terrible.  The farmer looked around her; there were dandelions everywhere… there was food growing everywhere, free for her to eat…  She hastily began picking some and copied her friend’s bundles.

“Cliff.”

Claire jumped at the sudden deep voice behind them.

Cliff turned around. “Ah, hello, Gotz.”

“So this is her, huh?” Although his tone was what the farmer believed to be friendly, the man’s baritone voice seemed to rumble the entire ground as he spoke.

Claire observed the man. That farmer knew that she had never met him before; the young woman was certain that she would remember someone like him.  If she had one word to describe his appearance, it would be intimidating – the middle-aged man was very tall and solidly-built, and Claire vaguely wondered if he could fit through a doorway.  The male had a heavy-looking axe resting on one shoulder and a hunting rifle slung across his back.  Claire wasn’t used to seeing people carry weapons so openly and instinctively felt a little nervous; people in the city didn’t carry around firearms or blades through the streets for the purpose of hunting deer or pheasants, after all. 

The young man stood up to greet him, and she noticed that her friend only came up to the man’s shoulders. Gotz had a mess of thick brown hair, a bushy beard, and heavy eyebrows, but the farmer noticed that his dark eyes had a quiet warmth to them; he was no one to be afraid of.  After all, if Gotz was someone that Cliff already was on friendly terms with, he must be a good person and have a gentler side.

“Gotz, this is Claire. She’s running Mystic Acres, the farm just to the north of your place,” Cliff explained, and the young woman was surprised at how someone who was typically so quiet and shy still knew how to make a proper introduction.  “Claire, this is Gotz.  He lives a bit to the southwest of here and he is a master at carpentry.”

The farmer had stood up quickly as the introductions were made and she brushed off her overalls, hoping that she was making a decent first impression. “Hello.  Pleased to meet you,” Claire bowed politely and wasn’t taken aback to see that the man chose not to mirror her gesture.  He folded his muscular arms across his chest and grunted.

“You make me sound much more impressive than I am,” Gotz let out a gravelly laugh as he looked over at his friend. “I cut wood and build stuff.  I also patrol around here.”  His dark eyes bored into Claire’s and his expression turned serious.  “Don’t waste resources.”

To the young woman’s surprise, Cliff let out a friendly laugh. “Of course she won’t!  I’m going to be her guide this afternoon, and I’ll show her how to properly forage around here.”

Claire’s eyes travelled curiously between the two; she wondered how long the two had known each other, and if they spent a lot of time up here together.

“Well, alright. Show her how to do it right.  You should show her the burdock.  They’re growing like crazy over by the lake.  You know where I keep my shovel back at my place.”  The woodcutter gave Cliff a slight nod, and Claire realized that this was not a suggestion, it was a command.

“I’ll be right back,” the young man gave his female friend a kind smile and hurried over to the cottage. The farmer noticed that he looked back over his shoulder at them a couple of times as he jogged away.

“He’s a good kid...” Gotz’s deep voice startled her.  He was staring up the path toward the mountaintop.

“Y-yeah…” Claire’s voice faltered; she wasn’t expecting to be left alone with a stranger today and he hardly seemed like the type that enjoyed small talk, not that she was an expert on the subject herself.

“The mountains can be dangerous. Don’t go up the trail if the weather’s bad.”  His eyes didn’t move from the peak of Mother’s Hill, and Claire noticed his eyebrows were furrowed in what almost looked like regret.  They stood in silence for a few uncomfortable minutes, staring at the top of the mountain together.

“I’m back.” Cliff’s sudden voice made the pair jump.

Gotz swore under his breath; he obviously wasn’t the type that enjoyed being surprised, but Claire noticed that there was still kindness in his eyes. “Alright...  I’ll be around if you need me.”  He hoisted his axe over his shoulder and headed out into the deep woods.

Claire never went far off the trail; she watched as the large man loudly crunched sticks and twigs under his boots. Honestly, she was a little afraid to venture too deep into the forest; she had no idea what was living out there, and the fact that Gotz was walking around with a rifle didn’t make her feel any more confident about doing her own exploring out there.

Cliff bit back a laugh. Koro was staring at the woodcutter with wide eyes the same way his master was.  They both looked a little unsure of how they felt about him.  “Gotz is a nice guy; he’s just not crazy about people in general.  Don’t take it personally.”  The young man didn’t feel that it was his place to explain why Gotz preferred to spend his time away from others.

The pair followed the trail to the pond, Koro in tow. They spent some time digging up burdock roots and Claire quickly found that it was hard work.  The roots were very deep and much harder to get out of the ground than her turnips or potatoes; tilled soil made a huge difference.

“So I guess you kind of know how it feels to harvest crops, then,” Claire smiled, leaning on the shovel while they took a quick break.

“A burdock plant here or there is nothing compared to a field of turnips,” her friend returned, cutting the leaves off of the roots and storing them in a separate pile.

“Someday I’ll have an actual field… Right now, I just have a few pathetic plots,” the farmer let out a sigh and took a seat in the grass.  She stared out at the lake and frowned.  “There’s so much more I can be doing with that land, but I just don’t have the resources right now.”

Cliff was staring out at the water as well. “Give it time.”

Claire knew he was right. She pulled her knees to her chest and admired the crystal blue lake for a few minutes.  Summer would be here before she knew it.  A new season meant new crops she would be able to plant, and a chance to start out fresh.  She wouldn’t waste the first chunk of the season wallowing in self-pity like she had done this spring; the farmer was determined to improve.

Her eyes moved to the greenery around them, and they lit up when she saw a few thin green sprouts popping out of the ground. She pulled herself up to her feet, eager to show her friend that she wasn’t completely clueless when it came to wild plants.

“Ha!” Claire exclaimed proudly, “I know what these are!” She excitedly began tearing at a bamboo shoot with her bare hands.  She looked up and saw that Cliff had joined her and was harvesting a few of his own; he was able to do so quickly with the aid of the knife he brought with him.  The natural way his hand moved with the blade told Claire that this was something he had been doing for years.

He presented her with a few of them. “I bet Zack would even pay you for these.  People cook with them, and there are so many here already.  Honestly, you can probably cut as many as you want; they grow so quickly, anyway.”

“Thank you.” He was really fast at gathering things, she noticed.  She paused.  She suddenly knew how she could help the young man.  The farmer didn’t know why she had never thought of this before, and the idea made her giddy.  “Hey, Cliff!”

“Y-yeah?” He shuffled the bamboo shoots in his arms and looked at her curiously. He saw the smile on her face and found that he was mirroring her.

“Why don’t you keep these bamboo shoots for yourself? You know, you can use my box to ship some things any time you want.  Just give me a list of what’s yours and I’ll bring you the money.”  It was so simple; there was no reason why she couldn’t share her bin with him.

His eyes widened at the notion of guaranteed money for things he found growing up in the mountains. Finding a steady buyer in Mineral Town had been his main struggle with hunting; Doug wasn’t too keen on serving possum and raccoon on the inn’s menu.  Gotz was happy to take it off of his hands, but for a very low price.  Hunting wasn’t reliable in this season, anyway; despite the lush beauty of Mother’s Hill, there was not nearly as much wildlife as he had expected.  He wondered how the hunting season in the fall would be, but this was a worry for another day. 

“You’d really do that for me?” He was so surprised at Claire’s generous offer that he had to sit down, and the farmer quickly realized that there was a good chance he was exaggerating about how much money he had in savings. He sat silently for a moment, taking it all in.  “In exchange, I can show you how to prepare the things we forage today.”

“Sounds fair enough.” She cooked well with familiar ingredients, and was eager to learn about some new ones.  “But… I don’t even have a kitchen in my house.”  She was reminded of how meager her house was when Karen had practiced cooking with her.  “I don’t even have plumbing.”  She slumped down beside him.

Cliff shrugged. “That doesn’t make any difference.”  He placed a friendly hand on her shoulder and gave her a small leaf, “Here, taste this.”

“Okay.” This time last year, she couldn’t imagine herself sitting on the ground, tasting wild plants with a man clad in animal hides.  At that time, she had been busy trying to catch the train to work while shuffling her bags of paperwork she had taken home to catch up on.  Life was so different now.  She closed her eyes and focused on the herb.  She was sure she knew the flavor.  “Rosemary.”

Cliff nodded. “One of my favorites.”  He picked a cluster, inhaled the fragrance, and put it in his bag.

She watched him gather more herbs and noticed how much more confident he was acting today. He had a gentle spirit, and Claire had always seen him as painfully shy and anxious, but he seemed so relaxed at the moment.  The farmer noticed how she often felt a bit intimidated by Karen’s strong personality, and realized that there was a good chance he felt the same way around the grocer’s daughter.  Claire snapped out of her reverie and looked back down at the rosemary.

“Do you just eat it plain?” She asked.

“It’s quite strong by itself; I mix it with things,” Cliff explained, “But every night I tuck some in my pillow for the smell.” He handed her a small sprig and she took a whiff.  She almost instantly felt her muscles relax.

“Stress relief. It helps you to sleep, doesn’t it, Cliff?” The words and solemn tone came out of her mouth before she could stop them.  She had often seen him with dark circles under his eyes when she had visited Carter at the church.

He looked up at her, surprised she had been so blunt with him. “Yes.  Yes it does,” he answered honestly.

“Then I’ll try it, too,” Claire stated, smiling at him.

They spent the next couple of hours collecting herbs, berries, and the like. Claire had a lot of questions about foraging, and Cliff answered all of them in an encouraging way.  She got a strong sense that he had been doing this for a long time, but he never came off as proud or boastful; he was eager to be useful to someone.  Gotz took a quick break from his work and identified some poisonous plants to Claire and showed her what was safe to eat.  The woodcutter gave them a grunt goodbye and took the shovel along with him, and Claire thought that she saw a small smile under that bushy brown beard.

“Let’s go back to the inn and I can show you how to prepare some of these things.”

“Alright.” Claire’s bag was getting pretty heavy.

Gray was on his way up the stairs carrying a book when he saw the pair lugging their packs behind them.

“Oh, you made a nice haul today, Cliff,” Gray noted, eyeing up Claire. A smug look was plastered across his face.

Cliff didn’t notice his roommate’s teasing; he was eager to get started.

“H-hi, Gray. How are you doing?” Claire stammered.  The rest of the world disappeared; there were only the two of them walking up the stairs together.

“Same crap, different day,” he shrugged good-naturedly.

Ah, he is in good spirits again today… Claire had a feeling her good day was about to get a lot better.  Cliff opened the door for them and set his bag on the table.  Claire found herself hesitating before following Cliff to the table; she suddenly realized she would much rather spend time with the other young man in the room.

Gray had a book in his hand and threw himself on his bed, getting straight to his reading. Claire noticed that he had a much more casual air about him tonight.  It looked like he was reading a war novel.

Cliff was sorting through the burdock roots. He shuffled them around to get his friend’s attention.  “Claire,” he said her name kindly, but not without a little bit of sternness.

The farmer realized she had been caught staring at the blacksmith and whirled around. She blushed.  “I’m sorry.  What did you want to show me first?”

“The burdock.” He reached at his waist and removed his hunting knife from its leather sheath.  The blade was sharp, but the handle was well-worn; Claire could tell that it was one of his prized possessions.  The farmer had watched the young man work with the tool, and he used it so naturally he acted as if it were simply an extension of his hand.  She watched as her friend deftly peeled the root with his knife.  “You can eat the outside, but it doesn’t really taste as good, and it can be a pain to clean.  It’s the inside you want.”  An earthy smell filled the room.  Claire was initially caught off guard by the scent, but quickly found that it grew on her.

The young man taught her how to string up herbs for drying and showed her how to combine the fresh herbs with the dandelions to make salads and teas. He told her that she could eat the burdock buds raw if she wanted to, but told her a couple of other ways to prepare the root over a fire.  They were simple things, and Claire felt a bit silly she hadn’t thought to do them before.  Cliff had even brought some burdock leaves in his bag to wrap up the wild strawberries.  They cleaned up the table and shared a snack of wild fruit.

“Well, I should probably be heading out,” Claire finally said; her eyes had moved to the window and she saw that it was sunset. She half-expected Gray to recite his line about her needing to go back to the farm, and she realized with disappointment that she had cut the visit short herself.

“I will walk you home,” Cliff jumped up eagerly, helping her get her things together.

Gray put down his book, stretched, and walked over to the table where the two were sitting.

“Have a good night, Claire.” His pale blue eyes were focused on the piles of goods they had acquired up in the mountains.

“Thanks, you too.” Claire’s heart pounded; he rarely said goodbye to her in such a friendly manner. She turned toward him, trying to think of something more to say.  “… Tucker’s doing well,” she added brightly.

“Oh, good. You’ll get used to having him,” Gray gave her a nod, but his eyes didn’t move from the table.

She was disappointed he didn’t say more on the subject.

Cliff pushed a bundle of roots toward Gray. “For your grandfather.”

Gray took a seat next to his roommate with and wore an emotionless expression; he had been expecting this. “More burdock for him.”  Gray sighed and rested his chin on his hand.  “I don’t get it.  Gramps fell in love with you the moment he met you.  What am I doing wrong?”

Claire was shocked by his candidness.

“Saibara loves you very much,” Cliff stated with a warm smile. He tied up an extra bunch and set it off to the side to keep for himself.  “You just need to see it in the everyday things he does with you.”

Gray rolled his eyes. “You’ve been hanging out with Carter too much.”  He tugged on his hat.  “Go on, get out of here.  Get Claire home safely before it gets too dark.”

Their walk to her house was a quiet one. Claire was dying to ask Cliff more about Gray and Saibara.  She wanted to know more about the blacksmith’s apprentice, anything, really.  She had seen a gentler, friendlier side of him again this evening and it intrigued her even more.  She opened her mouth and quickly closed it again, realizing that ever since they had returned to the inn her focus had quickly narrowed to Cliff’s roommate.  She was a bit embarrassed, realizing how brushed off Cliff must have felt when he was only trying to help her.  She was reminded of the times she first met Cliff in the church and when he brought the basket of apples from Carter; she had been very rude to the young man then, too.  They finally arrived at her house.  They had dropped Koro off at the farm on their way back to the inn, and the puppy was sleeping beside his doghouse.

Claire hesitated at the front door. That awkward dilemma had come up again.  “Well, here we are,” Claire smiled nervously, fidgeting with her rucksack.

“I had a great time with you today,” Cliff said a little too quickly, looking down at the ground and shuffling his feet.

She remembered their conversation from the other day. “You do have things you’re good at, Cliff,” the farmer murmured.

“Huh?” He looked at her curiously and cocked an eyebrow.

The young woman smiled at him. “Remember when we were at the grocery store together with Karen?  You said you didn’t have any special skills.  You lied; you’ve got really good survival skills.”

He gave her a friendly laugh and she was surprised he didn’t stammer or deflect her compliment. “Thank you for thinking so.  I was happy to be able to help you today.” 

Cliff took Claire’s hands in his and gave them a squeeze. His hands, like Gray’s, were a bit rough.  They were warm and comforting, and Claire noticed that this attribute wasn’t confined to his hands.  Claire looked up at her friend.  His cheeks were rosy, but he didn’t look embarrassed or shy.  His eyes were wide and glowing, and his mouth was turned up in a bright smile.

Claire felt her heart throb with joy; she was seeing her friend completely unshackled from his negative emotions and memories for the first time. Strangely enough, she felt a lump form in her throat and her eyes felt misty.  Why couldn’t he always be this way?

“Let’s both keep working our hardest, okay?” His blue eyes were lit up. “You’ll be the best farmer around here before you know it!”

His excitement was exhilarating; the young woman couldn’t keep herself from grinning. “Maybe.  Now that I won’t be starving all the time, I’ll be able to work harder!”  She paused.  She really did owe him a lot for today.  “Thanks again for lunch and thank you for all of your help today.  Please remember you can use my shipping bin any time you need.”  Claire felt the gratitude from the bottom of her heart; so many options were suddenly open to her.

Their eyes locked, and Claire was pleased to see the genuine happiness and gratitude reflected back at her. They both knew there was no way he would forget to ship things.  “And I thank you as well.  I’ll see you again soon.”  He gave her hands one last squeeze and turned back toward town.

She realized that he had finally shown his true personality today. “Okay, have a good night, Cliff.”

“You, too.” He gave her a friendly wave as he left.

The farmer dragged her heavy bag into the room and sorted out what she wanted to eat and what she wanted to sell. Gray was right; they did get a nice haul.  Claire wouldn’t have to worry quite as much about food.  She could sell most of her crops instead of eating them.  Moreover, she could take some excess things she found in the mountains, such as the bamboo shoots, and make a little extra money off of them. 

Satisfied with these new options, the farmer flopped onto her bed and got ready for sleeping. She took a sprig of rosemary and tucked it in her pillowcase.  It smelled wonderful.  As sleep began to take her, she thought of Cliff and was wondering if he, too, was falling asleep to the same smell.  She made a prayer to the gods to bless her friend with a restful sleep, but she ended up falling asleep before she had finished.

Chapter Text

Claire flipped to the weather station on her television as she looked outside.

“… And it will continue to drizzle all day…”

The farmer let out a happy sigh and pulled up a floor cushion in front of the television and plopped down. She didn’t really have any plans for the day and she didn’t mind that one bit; her crops weren’t quite ripe enough for picking.  Claire flipped through the few stations on her old fashioned television and grinned when she heard a familiar theme.

“… Is he a friend/ Or enemy?/ Maybe you’re my destiny!/ My Dear Princess…”

Claire settled in and got more comfortable. It was her favorite guilty pleasure program, and she was surprised it played all the way out here in Mineral Town.  Koro curled up in a ball beside her and fell asleep, but his master took no notice; she was transfixed on the television screen.

She jumped when she heard a knock at the door. “Yo!  Claire!”

The farmer looked up at the clock and was shocked; she had been watching the television for hours since she first sat down. “Come on in,” She stood up and stretched.

Karen collapsed her umbrella and stepped inside. “I figured it would be a slow day for you…” Her eyes moved to the screen.  “Oh, Goddess…  Is that My Dear Princess?  That has got to be one of the corniest anime out there.”

Claire reddened and looked at the floor. Enjoying the sappy show wasn’t something she wanted to eagerly admit to.

Karen roared with laughter. She took off her shoes and stepped through the door.  “Who am I kidding?  It’s one of my favorites, too.  That Demon Lord can kidnap me any day!” Karen confessed with a giggle, winking at her friend.

“The network is running a marathon today,” Claire explained. Her eyes lit up.  She was very pleased to find a common interest with her friend; sometimes she and Karen seemed like complete opposites.

Karen had already grabbed another cushion and sat down in front of the television. She gestured toward the bag she left at the door.  “I brought snacks.”

Neither woman made a motion to them; a new episode had started.

*Rustle rustle rustle*

“Good morning, O Demon Lord. It’s time to wake up.  You’d best wake up soon, or else breakfast is going to get cold…”

0o0o0o0

Claire stood up because her legs were stiff; they had been quietly watching the television for a few hours, absorbed in the drama and romance of the anime. She let Koro out and hurried outside to use her makeshift outhouse.  As she washed her hands in the river, she noticed that the weather forecast had been right, there was still a constant drizzle.

Karen was waiting inside with a bag of chips. “Still yucky out there?”  She looked out the window with a slight frown; she wasn’t planning on going to the Goddess Spring today, that was for sure.

“I don’t consider it yucky; I don’t have to water today,” Claire pointed out.  It felt nice to have a day to let her body rest a bit; her muscles had grown sore from all of the work she wasn’t accustomed to yet.

Karen laughed. “I guess any day you don’t have to work yourself as hard can be a good one, huh?”

The farmer’s dog followed her through the doorway and shook himself dry.

“Koro!” Claire frowned as the puppy splattered mud and water all over her overalls.  She took an old towel and crouched down to wipe down her pet, but she quickly learned that the dog had rubbed most of the mud off on her.  The puppy barked at her playfully, but Claire was furious.

The grocer’s daughter looked at her friend curiously. Claire didn’t strike her as the type to be overly tidy about her appearance, although Karen noticed a rather spruced-up blonde out of the corner of her eyes many nights at Doug’s silently creeping upstairs.  “Just change your clothes,” Karen shrugged.

The blonde reddened.

The grocer’s daughter couldn’t believe that the farmer was still so shy; the two had already seen each other completely nude at the hot springs, after all. What was there to be embarrassed of?  “Oh, please.  I’ll just turn around,” the brunette rolled her eyes.

“I-It’s not that…” She stared at the floor.

Karen stared at the barren room, and realized at once that she had only ever seen the farmer in her overalls. It couldn’t be… “Oh, Goddess… don’t tell me that’s the only outfit you own!”

Claire looked like she was about to cry for a moment. Karen rummaged through a cardboard box of her friend’s things.  There were some fresh undergarments, but there was one other outfit in the box; it was folded with care and looked pristine.

“Here, wear this! … Oh, this is really pretty yukata, Claire.  Why don’t you ever wear it?”  The brunette removed a pale pink yukata from the box and noticed a gorgeous red obi and brand new set of geta tucked underneath it.

The farmer immediately got defensive. “Th-that’s for special occasions!”  The young woman retorted, reaching for the pink outfit.

The grocer’s daughter held up the garment and noticed it still had the tags on it. “What kind of special occasion?”

Claire’s eyes welled up with tears and her hands fell at her sides. “I told myself I wouldn’t wear that until I had a special reason to,” she mumbled, staring at the floor.  She realized that she probably sounded irrational, but she wasn’t in the mood for explaining the emotions tied to this piece of clothing.

“Well, that’s silly. It seems like you need a fresh outfit now.”  Karen stared at her friend, confused.

“No.” The farmer stubbornly unbuttoned the straps of her overalls and let the suspenders and bib hang down.  Most of the mud got on her sleeves and chest, anyway.  She took off her flannel, but kept on her white undershirt.  “There.  Good enough.”

“You need some more clothes, girl,” Karen raised her eyebrows.

Her friend gave her a pointed look, and the grocer’s daughter knew to drop the subject. They sat back down in front of the television together and Karen noticed that the farmer seemed to have mellowed out a bit.  “So… would you go for the Demon Lord or Hero?” She crunched on a handful of chips.

“Definitely Demon Lord,” Claire’s eyes were glued to the screen.

Karen nodded in agreement and laughed. It seemed that the awkwardness of the yukata had been pushed out of the farmer’s focus, at least for now.  The brunette encouraged her friend into talking a bit more.  “Ah, so you like the bad boys?”

The farmer shook her blonde head and looked at Karen with a sappy smile. “Nah...  I like his sensitive side.”

It seemed Claire was a romantic type as well. Karen looked back at the screen as a smile crept across her face.  “Sensitive, eh?  I can see that…  I like the idea of a guy who can make me swoon and provide for me and spoil me rotten.”  The brunette giggled and crunched happily on her snack.  “It wouldn’t hurt if he’s hot, too.”

“Of course not,” Claire giggled, grabbing a few chips for her own. As timid as the young woman was, she didn’t mind admitting that she enjoyed a bit of eye candy just as much as the next girl.  “He is studly, after all; even the well-mannered, dainty princess in the show said so.”

The girls giggled together, and Karen was relieved that Claire had stopped dwelling on her poverty for the moment.

“The poor Hero doesn’t stand a chance. Not only does he get his ass kicked by Demon Lord, but he doesn’t even get the girl.”  Karen rolled her eyes.

Claire crunched on some chips thoughtfully. She had watched this particular show several times through since she was a teenager, and now that she was a bit older, she had a better understanding of the character of the Hero.  “I got the impression that he wasn’t all that interested in the princess; he was just doing his job, and if the princess fell for him, he saw that as a bonus.”

“Well, aren’t you cynical?” Karen laughed. She hadn’t expected her friend to analyze characters from a silly anime, but she wasn’t about to complain; she was having a lot of fun.  “But that ruins the whole romantic tragedy of it all!  Of course they’re both fighting for the princess’s heart!”

“I guess it’s a little more poetic if you think of it that way,” Claire admitted with a shrug. “But honestly, if the Demon Lord or Hero existed in real life, I don’t think I’d be interested in either of them.”

“Whaaa-?” Karen’s potato chip fell out of her mouth. “You don’t want a hot guy to pamper you?”

Claire shrugged again. “Not that one, anyway.  He still kidnapped the princess, either way you look at it.  It’s kind of creepy; he’s making her dependent on him.”

“Oh, pooh! You’re sucking the romance out of it,” Karen chided, rustling in the noisy potato chip bag.  “If that Demon Lord came knocking on the door, I’d have to say, ‘Sorry, Rick, you waited too long, babe’,” She cackled.

Claire smirked at the brunette and Karen’s face turned violet as she realized what she had just said aloud. “Ugh, Goddess…!  Claire, not a peep out of you!”

The farmer had a smug smile on her face that she found she was quite unable to remove.

“Yeah, I like Rick… S-so what?” Karen’s face burned.  She stared at the floor and wished she had a glass of wine to hide behind; if she had said this while she was drinking, she would have had the confidence to laugh it off a little better.  “Like you’re very discreet!  I see you going upstairs almost every evening I go to the bar for a drink!”

Claire blushed deeply; she was not expecting this rebuttal. “Well… maybe you should stop drinking so much,” She teased.

A smirk spread across Karen’s lips as she saw her opening; she struck quickly. “Why?  So I don’t catch you flirting with the inn’s tenants?”

Claire’s face felt hot. “Like it’s doing me any good, anyway…”  The young woman thought of the ever-changing stack of books by Gray’s bed and knew that they weren’t a magical delivery from the book fairy.

Karen wanted to make a snarky comment on Claire’s statement, but she bit her tongue. She finally settled on something that would make her friend less upset.  “Eh, real guys suck sometimes.  Some days I’d rather watch the fake hot ones on-screen.”  Karen grabbed another handful of chips and munched noisily.

“You do realize you’re mooning over an anime character, right?” Claire raised her eyebrows.

The brunette sighed. “At least Demon Lord wouldn’t be too busy castrating roosters to hang out at the Goddess Spring with me.”  There was a bitter tone to her voice.  Her eyes moved back to the screen and she played with the ends of her brown hair.  “Plus, Demon Lord could probably magically turn all those chunks of copper you gave to Gray into a bangle or something.”

A piece of jewelry made with Gray’s own two hands… The notion still made her swoon a bit.  “Actually, that doesn’t take magic; Saibara can do that,” She reminded her friend with a laugh.

“Well, there you go! You’ve been wooing the wrong blacksmith!” Karen roared with laughter.

The farmer wasn’t sure how to respond to this for a brief moment; she knew Karen was joking, but the notion of Saibara being marriage material for anyone was a bit startling. He seemed so gruff and unapproachable to her, but he had to have been with someone at one point; he had a grandson, after all.  “Uh, I don’t think Saibara’s… my type,” Claire snickered.  There was a sudden knock at the door.  Claire pulled herself off of her floor cushion.  “Not to mention the age gap.”

Karen chomped on more chips. “It would be a May-December romance!  Go get the door; I bet it’s Demon Lord!  Tell him to take us both!”  She giggled.

Claire rolled her eyes at her friend as she opened the door.

A thoroughly drenched Cliff stood in the doorway. Stacks of empty leather satchels were hanging from his body, clinging onto him and bogging him down in the rain.  He had a makeshift spear resting across one shoulder.  The young man pushed his dripping wet hair out of his eyes.  Despite the dreary sky, he looked elated.

“Hey, Claire!” He was glowing.

“Oh, hey, Cliff.” She took in his soaked, disheveled appearance, and realized she didn’t look so hot herself.  “Wanna come in and dry off?”

“You fall in the lake or what?” Karen heckled him from her seat.

The young man shook his head excitedly. “No…  I’m just stopping by real quick…  Normally, I’d just slide this under your door, but today…  Well, today…  Let’s just say your shipping bin is at capacity!” He beamed, reaching into his tunic and proudly handing her a slip of paper that was miraculously dry.

Claire unfolded the list and studied her friend’s scratchy handwriting.

Bamboo Shoot x 12

Mountain Trout x 6

Bitterling x 3

Whitefish x 8

Bluegill x 5

Rainbow Trout x 4

The farmer’s jaw dropped as she read the list. To say she was impressed was an understatement; Cliff must have been fishing since the sun rose.  “Wow…  You’ve been busy today.”

“I love rainy days; the fish are more active!” He nodded eagerly.  The young man’s excitement over his catches seemed to be providing him with more than enough energy.

“Wait, what did you get?” Karen stood up and walked over to the two friends.

“A ton of fish!” Cliff answered, twirling the sharpened stick in his fingers with a flourish before stabbing it into the wet earth with an emphatic nod.

“Yeah, a ton of fish!” Claire echoed him; his enthusiasm was contagious.

Koro let out a happy bark.

“No, we’re not going to the mountain today, Koro,” Claire rolled her eyes with a laugh. She looked back over at her male friend with a concerned expression.  The woodcutter had told her that the mountain wasn’t always safe, especially in this kind of weather.  “You stayed away from the peak, right?  Gotz says it can get dangerous up there when it rains.”

“Of course. I’m from the mountains; I know how it works,” the young man replied with a nod.  His face flushed.  “Th-thanks, though…  For being concerned about me.”

Karen was studying the list. “Well, it’s official; you will be filthy stinkin’ rich tomorrow morning,” She gave him a slap on the shoulder and laughed when his hide tunic splattered water; it had absorbed the rainwater like a sponge.  “Now go get changed before you catch cold!”

“You can’t catch a cold from being out in the rain,” Cliff insisted.

Karen let out a snort of laughter. “I’m not about to take medical advice from someone who makes up blood types,” the grocer’s daughter retorted, handing the slip of paper back to Claire.

“Well, I am going to go back to the inn to freshen up. I’ll see y’all around,” he grinned, pulling his stick out of the ground.

“See ya!” Karen waved to him.

“Hey, Cliff…”

He stopped walking and turned around at the sound of his friend’s voice. “H-huh?”

“Good job. You should be really proud of yourself,” Claire smiled at him warmly.  “Have a good night and rest well; you deserve it.”

“Th-thanks…” He turned pink.  “You, too.”  He nodded and headed back toward town.

Claire shut the door.

Y’all…”  Karen had a huge smirk across her face.

The farmer rolled her eyes. “Be nice!”  She was not about to say that the young woman’s Mineral Town accent sounded just as folksy to Claire.

Karen plopped back down on her floor cushion, shaking her head. “That boy…  He’s a little crazy, huh?  Spending the entire day in that miserable weather…”

“I don’t think he saw it as miserable,” Claire replied. She learned that since she started farming, rainy weather wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.  Quite the contrary, she didn’t have to run across her fields with that watering can.

“So, Cliff’s been stopping by regularly, eh?” Karen asked casually, returning to her bag of chips. She observed her friend for some sort of reaction out of the corner of her eye.

“I told him that he could use my shipping bin,” The farmer explained with an excited nod. “He gives me a list of the things he puts in there so I can give him the money for them.”  She studied the list again for a moment and a smile spread across her face.  Cliff was really trying as hard as he could, and Claire was grateful that her simple gesture of sharing the bin with him was going to help him so much.

“You taking a percentage for yourself?” Karen winked at her.

“O-Of course not!” Claire’s eyes widened. “I’m trying to help him!”  What kind of person would attempt to profit off of their friend who was obviously struggling financially?

The young woman crunched on some more chips. “I’m just kidding, yeesh!”  She finished chewing.  “I’ve gotta say, I’ve never seen Cliff excited before.  It was kinda cute.”  Her gaze moved back to the farmer.

“He has a right to get excited,” Claire smiled at the list of items and set it on her table. She was proud of him; the farmer hoped that she had conveyed that to him this evening.  The young man needed encouragement…

“I think he was eager to impress,” Karen said carefully, raising her eyebrows as she noticed the farmer’s rosy cheeks.

The young man was probably going to tell all of his friends about his good fortune today, Claire reasoned. “I’m sure Ann will be impressed to hear about it, too,” the blonde nodded with a grin, taking a seat back at the television.

Karen once again bit her tongue and turned her eyes to the emerald-haired hottie on the screen. She seriously doubted the redheaded waitress would hear much about Cliff’s haul today; the mountain boy had already bragged to his intended target this evening.

Chapter Text

It had been a sunny morning, but there was a thick cloud cover that afternoon as Claire dug her hands in her pockets and stepped lively toward the north end of town.

Maybe some more rain? The forecast didn’t say so; she had already watered her crops.  She looked up at the sky as she walked.  It didn’t look too foreboding; it was actually kind of a pretty color, a soft shade of gray…

She saw a flash of brown in front of her and stopped suddenly. Cliff was walking toward her, dreamily staring up at the sky as well, unaware that he was about to collide into her.  The young woman remained silent as she bit back a laugh and playfully extended her arms in a halting gesture.  She wanted to see if he would actually notice her or if he would keep walking.  Apparently, he had something on his mind; the young man jumped when he softly bumped into her outstretched hands.  Claire let out a giggle.

“Oh, w-wow… I-I’m sorry!  I d-didn’t mean to do that, Claire!”  Her friend apologized profusely, bowing and blushing.  He shifted his bags on his shoulder and his eyes moved back to the sky.  “I promise I-I’m not usually so clumsy.  Sorry again.”

The farmer let out a good-natured laugh. “It’s okay; I almost ran into you myself,” she admitted sheepishly.  They had been bumping into each other a lot lately, Claire noticed, but now it was getting literal.  A grin spread across her face as she saw where his gaze was focused and she found herself mirroring him, glancing back up at the clouds.

“Ann said it wasn’t supposed to rain according to the weather forecast,” His eyes were glued to the heavens, and Claire had the feeling he was hoping for some precipitation.

“Fishing?” She gave him a knowing smile. She remembered the glee and confidence in his expression the other night and felt a warm glow inside of her.

He responded with an emphatic nod. “I’m going to see if I can do a repeat performance.  You know… y-you’re more than welcome t-to j-join me if you’d like…”  He absentmindedly adjusted the homemade spear strapped to his back.

Claire’s heart pounded as she remembered her original intention for coming into town today. “Maybe some other time?  I’m headed to the library right now.  I’m going to get a book on caring for horses.”

“Ah… I see…”  The brunette nodded politely and his eyes fell to the cobblestones.  Claire looked back up at the clouds as Cliff rubbed the back of his neck with a hopeful expression that his friend didn’t see.  “W-Well… the offer’s still open if you have time afterwards…”

“I’m not sure what this afternoon will be like,” Claire admitted with a blush. If all went well, she could be spending quite a bit of time at the library, or, if she played her cards right, the inn.  Perhaps Gray would be willing to review the book with her.  “I might see you in the early evening, though,” she added quickly.  She had a lot of fun with Cliff the other day and she wouldn’t mind spending some more time with him up in the mountains.  The farmer studied the brunette and his deep blue gaze had moved back up to the sky.  She noticed she was playing with her hair and swiftly stopped herself.

“So… See you later, perhaps?”  She gave him a friendly nod.

“A-Alright. I hope so.  See you,” He returned the gesture and headed to the south.  Cliff nearly dropped a few of his bags as he sped up his walking pace; Claire noticed that he seemed a bit distracted.  The young man must have fish on the brain.  The farmer caught herself grinning.

0o0o0o0

Claire could hardly believe her luck as she opened the door to the library. To her surprise, Gray was sitting alone at his usual desk, buried in a book, and the librarian was nowhere to be seen.  She couldn’t have wished for a better setup; the blonde slowed down her breathing as she dragged her feet over to the young man.

“H-Hi…” She inwardly scolded herself for her voice coming out as a soft squeak.

The young man let out a soft grunt in acknowledgment of her existence and she saw his eyes fly across the words on the page. He swiftly closed the book and cleared his throat, looking up at her.  “Sorry about that… just trying to finish a paragraph.  Hello.”

“Got to a good p-part, huh?” Claire let out a small giggle, but she was aware of how strained it sounded. She was not going to mess this up…

“Yeah… Mary always recommends the best books to read!” Gray’s face lit up as he added the book in his hands to a small pile in front of him.  “You should ask her to find a book that matches your tastes; I swear the woman’s a genius,” a satisfied grin spread across his lips as he admired the stack of books he was planning on bringing home that evening.  “She can match anyone with a book; even someone boring like me…”

“Y-You’re not boring at all!” Claire said a little too quickly. “A-And I was wondering if you could help me find a book today…”  She made her move, biting her lip as she struggled to keep her hands casually down at her sides as opposed to wringing them nervously as she was wont to do.

The young man’s pale blue eyes focused on the staircase. “I suppose I could be a stand-in librarian for the moment.  Mary’s busy finishing up a project upstairs…  She told me to get her if anyone came, but let’s not bother her, okay?” He gave the farmer a playful wink.

“Uh, s-sure!” Claire almost yelled and her face immediately reddened.

“Besides, I’ve done the entire checkout process myself on days when she’s up there working on a story; she doesn’t care once she goes into writing mode. She can get a little spacey sometimes,” There was a grin on his face as he continued to gaze at the staircase with kind eyes; the expression almost reminded the farmer of Gray’s demeanor around her horse, Tucker.

“Really?” Claire was surprised at hearing that the librarian wasn’t perfect. Maybe she should come to the library more often in hopes that the apprentice would assist her instead.

Gray nodded, and the farmer noticed that his cheeks had a little bit of color to them. “Mary’s so… passionate about her writing…  I’d give anything to have that kind of dedication…”  He let out a sigh as he pushed the stack of books across the desk and stood up in a businesslike manner.  Claire realized he almost appeared to be a little bit jealous, and she found that she was as well, but for a different reason.  “So, what kind of book are you looking for?”

“Something on caring for horses,” Was the farmer’s eager reply. She ran a few fingers through her blonde locks and stared at the wall of books.  “I-I’m not really sure where to begin,” She admitted.

“Ah, so you don’t think that I’m going to be enough help?” Gray’s expression was stoic as he looked down at her.

Claire felt the blood drain from her face, and she quickly went into damage control mode. “N-no!  I-I mean-!”

The apprentice rolled his eyes and snorted. “I was just kidding.  The more resources you have, the better.”  He muttered to himself as his calloused fingers expertly ran over the spines of the books and he swiftly tugged out a few for her.  “Here, I read all of these when I first moved here.  They’re all good.”  He deposited them in Claire’s arms.

“Uh… Th-thanks!”  She chirped.  The young woman was excited, yet slightly disappointed at his assistance; she had been hoping that the process would have taken longer.

The young man led the way to the librarian desk and pulled a pen out of the drawer. “Alright, you know the drill – sign your life away,” He smiled as he pulled the sign out cards in the backs of the books.

Claire took the offered pen and neatly printed her name on the line. Her eyes were drawn to the name above it, Gray Iwata, written in sloppy all caps.  So that was his last name… 

Claire Iwata… It had a nice ring to it…

The young woman halted her hand; she had almost begun writing the desired last name as opposed to her given one. She handed him the cards, struggling to hide the embarrassment on her face at her near-fatal error.

The apprentice grabbed a rubber stamp and pressed it on the inside of the back cover. “Alright, Miss… Dumont,” He looked down at the card with an overly serious face.  “Four weeks or you’re worm chow.”

She couldn’t have asked for today to go any better; he was actually joking around with her! Claire laughed a little more loudly than she meant to.  Now was her chance…

The blonde twirled a strand of hair around her finger. “M-Maybe you can-”

She was interrupted by a loud cry that caught her by surprise.

“Hip, hip-!” The voice rang down the stairs.

“HUZZAH!” Gray responded, roaring with laughter.

What was he doing, yelling in a library?

Her face fell as she saw the instigator of his odd behavior.

The librarian bounced down the stairway with a notebook in both hands, carrying it above her head as if it were a holy relic. “Hip, hip-!”

“HUZZAH!” The young man repeated with a wide grin.

“Hip…” Mary’s voice trailed off as her eyes landed on Claire.  The young woman clutched her notebook to her chest and turned a violent shade of crimson.  “H-Hello, Claire…  Welcome to the l-library…”  She fussed with her glasses.  “S-Sorry about that…”  She shook her head and her gaze fell to the floor in humiliation.

“That victory cry can mean only one thing… It’s ready, huh?” Gray did a poor job of hiding his excitement.

“Yes!” Mary said a little too quickly as she immediately forgot her embarrassment. She eagerly tucked her pen behind her ear.  “Claire, you’re just in time.  I-I think I finally have the first chapter ready for reviewing.  How lucky for me that you’re here!”

Claire forced a polite smile on her face. Lucky wasn’t the word she would choose herself…

“Lucky for us, too! It’s about time,” Gray teased.

The young woman pouted. “The first chapter sets the tone for the rest of the book!  You have to pull the reader in, but you have to lay down the groundwork and add enough foreshadowing to give the readers a taste of what the story is about.  It’s the hardest chapter of the entire book to write!”

“Alright, alright. But you know you can always show me your rough ideas, too,” the young man reminded her.

Claire watched the apprentice in amazement; she knew he liked to read, but she had never seen him get this excited over something, not even when he saw Tucker for the first time… Gray’s eyes were glowing and were filled with eagerness for new reading material; Claire wasn’t sure how she felt about it.

“N-no!” Mary held her notebook protectively to her chest. “It has to get m-my stamp of approval first before anyone can see the rough draft!”

The words that came out of the farmer’s mouth didn’t feel like her own. “I know what you mean.  You want to offer up your best,” Claire nodded, and she was surprised that she was met with a very kind and warm smile from the librarian.

The apprentice didn’t appear to have the same sentiment. “Well, I don’t get it.  Are you afraid of what I might see?  Are you worried that I’d be reading the ramblings of a lunatic?” Gray laughed.

Mary swatted him with her notebook. “I must be a lunatic if I’m friends with you,” she rolled her eyes, but her face was flushed.  “A-And I guess you’re just a glutton for insanity, because you come here e-every day we’re open.”

“Ah, I suppose you’re right…” Gray admitted, tugging on his cap.

Claire’s heart sunk. The only farm visits she received from the apprentice were strictly for business.  She decided she didn’t like the look in his eyes.

Mary glanced down at the book in her hands and nervously curled up the edges. “S-So…  Would you b-both be willing to give it a read?”  She shyly shuffled her feet.

Claire’s tongue was made of lead; she stood silently. However, neither of the other two had noticed, because Gray let out a gruff laugh.

“Don’t play stupid; that’s the whole reason I came here today, Mary. Of course we’ll read it,” the apprentice didn’t bother looking over at the blonde for approval.

“Well, if you’re both going to review it, I-I don’t want to be in the s-same room when you’re doing it,” the young woman stammered, playing with the cuffs of her sleeves.

Claire was surprised when she heard a chuckle from the apprentice. “Yes, please leave,” Gray grinned.  “I have a hard time reading when you’re standing over me.”  Claire felt a slight jump in her heart; Gray wanted to be alone in a room with her and not Mary…

“I-I know… I’m s-sorry…”  The librarian’s gaze moved to the floor and her face was flushed.  “I don’t really try to be that way…”  She held out her notebook to her male friend with shaking hands.

The young man’s expressions softened as he saw her distraught face. “Mary…”  His voice was gentle as he reached out his hands to the take the journal.  He placed his hands over hers and looked up at her.  “I was teasing; I would hope you know that by now.  You know that you can let me read anything you write without fear of judgment, no matter how much or how little polishing you’ve done on it…  After all, what kind of friend would that make me?  You gave me an honest critique of that bracelet I made last week.”  He gave her a friendly smile.

“Y-Yes… Th-that’s all I want – honesty.” The librarian’s voice quavered.

The apprentice looked down at their clasped hands and they both immediately turned red.

Claire found herself rather unable to do anything but stare. She had never heard Gray speak so much, and in such a kind manner.  She stared at the covers of her horse care books in vain; Gray’s line about Mary critiquing a piece of jewelry made by his own hands had cut her deeply.  The apprentice had told the farmer that all he could make was ingots…

“So, what’s the synopsis?” Gray asked, leafing through the notebook.

“W-Well… It’s almost more of a character study at the moment.  The story is going to revolve around a woman who is teaching a group of students how to distill herbal essences…  I-It’s more interesting than it sounds – I promise!”  She added defensively.

“Herbs, huh?” Gray gave her a knowing smile as he flipped through the pages absentmindedly.

“Well, it’s best to write about what you know,” the young woman responded with a nervous laugh. She turned toward Claire.  “My father is a botanist, so naturally, I know a lot more about plants than I’ll ever need to,” Mary explained with a giggle.

The blonde immediately thought of her outing in the mountains the other day with her friend. “Cliff showed me that there’s a lot of wild rosemary growing out on Mother’s Hill.”  She wanted to participate in the conversation; she was tired of being a spectator.

The librarian’s face lit up as she nodded. “Rosemary’s a good one.  My dad takes a little bit of extract regularly.  It’s good for calming the nerves, and it smells delicious.”

“Yeah, I put a fresh sprig in my pillowcase again last night.” She had tucked some in her clothing as well last night in order to freshen it up in lieu of washing it, but decided this fact was best left unshared.

“So that’s why you smell so nice,” Mary gave her a shy smile.

“Oh, you can smell it?” The farmer giggled, and she felt herself relax a bit.

“Rosemary and lavender,” Mary nodded. “They go well together.”

Claire blushed as she remembered that she had reapplied her lavender oil in her anticipation of talking to Gray. She wore it regularly to ease her anxiety, but she added a bit more as a perfume when she went calling on the young man; she was very fond of the smell.

“Mary’s got a nose like a bloodhound when it comes to herbs,” Gray teased, but Claire noticed he looked a bit proud of the librarian.

The farmer caught herself nodding in approval, but quickly stiffened. Why was she letting herself get impressed with her rival?

“You and Cliff should just take your sickle and go up to the mountain; the rosemary’s growing pretty rampant up by the peak,” Mary giggled, adjusting her glasses on the bridge of her nose.

Claire considered this and found herself wondering how much she would need to gather before considering making extracts. Surely she needed equipment of some sort as well…  How did the process work, anyway?

She was startled from her thoughts by Gray.

“S-Sickle…?! Dammit!”  The apprentice’s eyes were wide with dread.

The librarian looked at her friend in concern. “What’s wrong, Gray?”

He shoved the notebook into a startled Mary’s arms. “I was supposed to deliver Pete’s sickle after work today!  Shit, I completely forgot!”  The young man gathered up his large stack of books, muttering and cursing under his breath.  “Gramps threatened to throw my hat in the furnace if I forgot again!”

“Would you care to hide your hat here while you make your delivery?” Mary offered politely, but Claire noticed a playful smile creeping across the librarian’s lips.

“And walk all the way to the Valley naked?  I don’t think so!”  He glared at his friend but his expression quickly softened.  “Hey…  I’m sorry to bail like this, Mary…”

“Oh, it’s fine,” the young woman laughed; she was used to Gray’s outbursts. Color crept into her cheeks.  “Just come over to my place tonight to read it.  My red pen and I will be waiting,” She laughed innocently, giving his shoulder a pat.

“A-Alright!” The apprentice turned bright pink as he gave the women a polite nod in farewell and hurried out the door.

Claire forgot to say goodbye. She bit her lip.  Why was she constantly messing up when it came to Gray?

The two women stood in silence for a few moments when the farmer was startled by a soft chuckle.

“That man really is something else… He could have just taken the books with him later tonight.  Now he has to drop them off at the inn before going to the Valley…”

Claire briefly wondered if Mary was gloating over the fact that she’d be the one with Gray tonight. Her eyes moved toward her rival, but Mary was playing with the wire binding on her notebook.

“Herbs really do have some amazing qualities,” The librarian continued as if the young man had never been there. “Even plants that most people refer to as weeds can do some pretty amazing things.”

“I ate a bunch of dandelions yesterday,” Claire smiled. They weren’t what she considered tasty, but it definitely was better than eating her primary source of income.

“Mom sometimes sprinkles them in her salads…”

“I chowed down on an entire bouquet,” Claire giggled and caught the boastful tone in her own voice. She felt her face get warm as she realized how loud she was being in a library.

“Oh, have you ever tried chicory? Dad’s especially fond of it,” the librarian’s voice was warm and encouraging.

Claire shook her head. “I don’t know; it doesn’t sound familiar.  What is it like?”  She tried her best to recall the wild plants she had foraged in the mountain, but she didn’t think she had ever heard the word chicory uttered while she was out there.

“Well, it’s bitter, but some people really like it. It’s good for cuts and bruises, colds and digestion.  They grow all over the mountain.  They’ve got a woody stem and pale blue flowers…”

Claire immediately recognized the plant from the physical description. “Ah, Cliff calls those cornflowers.  Yeah, I tasted those.  Bitter!”  She giggled.

Mary beamed. “Gray’s always going on about the odd bundles of foraged goods his roommate brings back to the inn.  He refuses to try most of it,” the young woman giggled, playing with the frayed edges of the notebook.  “But I’d like to go there sometime to see what Cliff brings back with him; it kind of reminds me of my outings with Dad.”  She had a nostalgic smile on her face.

So Mary didn’t go to the inn regularly the way Claire did… The farmer relished in this tiny victory.

“W-Well, anyway… Cl-Claire?”

“Huh?” The young woman was startled from her reverie.

She held out the notebook to the blonde. “I still have my story here…  W-Would you be willing to l-look over it for me?”

“Alright.” She shifted in her chair to get more comfortable.  Her eyes widened in surprise.  At what point had they sat down beside each other at the desk?

Mary placed a red pen on the notebook and slid it to her with a conspiratorial grin. “Don’t go easy on me.  I want to see the pages red with the ink of my critics!”  Her eyes lit up; she was much more comfortable now that Claire had given verbal agreement to read the story.  “I’ll be over there, cleaning up some books.  Just let me know when you’re done, okay?”

“Okay.” Claire removed the cap of her pen and opened the notebook.  She looked up when she heard Mary’s sharp intake of breath.

“R-Right. I’ll… let you do it,” she let out a nervous giggle and hurried to the other side of the room, wringing her hands.

Claire opened the book and studied the librarian’s hurried scrawl. Who was this woman, and why did she seem so keen on hearing what Claire had to say about her story?  The farmer pushed these thought out of her head and began to read.

The blonde ignored the ticking of the clock as she sat, spellbound, learning of the quirky yet polite teacher known as Viola Remmington. Claire closed the notebook with a sigh; she almost felt as if she knew the fictional character, and the chapter left her with wanting more.  It was very enjoyable.  Perfect. One more read…

Her eyes scanned the page. No, it wasn’t perfect.  The farmer jotted down a missing word in a sentence…  Maybe that phrase should be reworded, and Mary had a fondness for the word ‘polite’ and used it far too often; she needed to consult a thesaurus…  When Claire finished her second reading, she stared down at the book in horror.  The pages were littered with her critical remarks – arrows, slashes, suggestions…  Surely Mary would take offense to this…  Claire’s face turned as red as the ink she had used to blemish Mary’s story.  She swiftly closed the cover and the librarian took notice.

“Ah… Y-You are finished?” She asked a little too eagerly.

Claire was terrified to show the writer the remarks she had written in the margins. “Um…  Pl-please d-don’t take it personally…”

Mary played with her braid and her eyes fell to the floor. “Ah…  Y-You didn’t c-care for it m-much, huh?  I…  I was afraid i-it was t-too boring…” Her voice quavered.

“N-No! Not at all!”  Claire nearly yelled.  “I…  I just got a little… too happy with the red pen…”  She bowed her head and offered her companion the notebook abashedly.

She felt the book leave her hands and heard the pages turn. Claire felt paralyzed with anxiousness.

She heard a slight gasp from the librarian. “Cl-Claire…”

The blonde was too afraid to look up at Mary. Surely she took the critical remarks on her story as a declaration of war over the apprentice blacksmith.  “Y-Yes…?”

“I can tell you really took your time with this. Thank you.”  She sounded sincere enough.

The farmer stole a glance at Mary’s face. She had a grin plastered across her face, but her eyes looked misty.  The blonde felt a pang of guilt in her heart.  “I-I’m sorry if any of my comments in there hurt your feelings,” Claire sputtered.

The librarian shook her ebony hair. “I’ll take a closer look later, but really…  These kinds of notes really help.  If I’m going to get any better, I need to know how to improve.”  She gave Claire a kind smile.  “Thanks again for taking the time to look over my story.  Your honesty really means a lot to me.”

Honesty… She had used that word with Gray as well…

Claire stood up and stretched.

“Pl-Please come by any time. I’d be really happy to see you again.”

The farmer found herself nodding. “Okay.”  She gathered up her books.  “Oh…  Gray helped me check out these books; he said that you wouldn’t mind.”  She bit back a smirk and inwardly scolded herself for her confusing behavior; Claire herself wasn’t sure what she meant by it.

To Claire’s surprise, Mary didn’t seem fazed by this, and the farmer realized that she had secretly been hoping to catch a hint of envy on the librarian’s face. “Ah…  I must’ve been up there writing.  Well, enjoy the books, Claire, and I’ll see you before too long.”

“Thanks.”

Claire pulled the library door closed behind her as she stepped outside and found that her body was trembling. What was she?  Angry?  Jealous?  Victorious?  The young woman furrowed her brow; her heart was a mess of emotions that made no sense to her.  This whole rivalry thing was new to the young woman, and she didn’t know what to think.

 The farmer’s throat tightened as her feet carried her to the supermarket.  Karen seemed like an experienced woman; maybe she could help make sense of what was going on in Claire’s head.  She pushed open the oaken door and a bell signaled her entrance to the shop.

“Hey, Claire. How are you?” Jeff gave her a polite nod as he idly pushed his broom across the shop’s floor.  He looked particularly bored today; he normally wasn’t one for making conversation.

The young woman didn’t answer his question. Now that she was in the presence of others, the confusion in her heart made her want to cry.  “Is Karen in?”  She wanted nothing more than a laugh or hug from her friend.

Jeff shook his head. “She had the day off and went over to Rick’s.”  He swept the non-existent dust into an invisible pile.

“Oh…” Claire tried to hide the disappointment on her face.  The young woman didn’t feel right going into the shop without making a purchase, and chocolate was the next best thing to a hug or sympathetic ear.  She paid for the sweets and walked out of the store feeling hollow inside.

She wandered up the mountain trail, unwrapping the candy bar as she went. She didn’t bother with breaking off pieces of the chocolate – she bit right in.  The candy helped a little; she didn’t feel like crying anymore, anyway.  Why wasn’t Mary angry that Claire and Gray had spent some time alone together in the library while she was off in dreamland upstairs?  If she had garnered some jealousy from the librarian, she would at least be feeling a sense of accomplishment…  Or would she?  Suddenly, that felt kind of mean…

She walked over to the lake. Seeing a cheerful Cliff may raise her spirits a bit; now that she had seen a glimpse of his genuine smile, she wanted to see more.  Claire looked all around the lake and saw no trace of the young man.  She followed the river and didn’t see any sign of her friend.  The young woman felt her throat tighten unexpectedly as she realized how lonely she felt.  She sat cross-legged in the grass and stared up at the clouds; the sky was such as sad, moody color; a drab shade of gray…

“The fish weren’t very active today; you didn’t miss much,” Cliff’s sudden voice startled her. He plopped down with a sigh.  “I just… couldn’t focus… on something like that today…”  He removed a single heavy leather gauntlet from his hand and tucked it into his bag. 

Claire noticed that this particular satchel jingled when he shuffled through it, but she wasn’t in the mood for questions right now; her mind was still trying to sort through her feelings about Mary. She took a bite from her bar and realized with embarrassment how rude she was being.  She swiftly broke off the part she bit from and placed in a handkerchief in her lap, breaking off a fresh piece for her friend.  “Ah, I’m sorry, Cliff.  You want some?”

His eyes widened at the treat but he shook his head, looking down at his hands sheepishly. “Ah, n-no… thanks…  I shouldn’t be handling food right now,” he tried to hide his hands, but Claire caught the slightly dried blood in the crevices of his knuckles and between the fingers of the hand that had not been gloved.  He quickly jumped up and scrubbed off his hands in the lake with a nervous laugh.  “S-sorry about that…”

“Oh, Goddess! Did you hurt yourself?” She nearly dropped the candy as she stared up at him in horror.

He shook his head and turned very red, showing her his clean hands. “Not hurt, just hunting…” He took a seat back beside her, but Claire couldn’t help but notice that he sat quite a ways further from her than he originally did. 

The farmer scooted closer to him while he was focused on his hands and she snatched them, depositing a piece of chocolate in them. “Here...  Nothing to be sorry for.”  She didn’t understand why he was being so awkward about it.  “So what did you catch?”

“A r-rabbit…” His soft voice, coupled with his body language, almost seemed to suggest that he had been doing something shameful.

“Huh… I don’t think I’ve ever eaten rabbit before,” Claire stared out at the lake pensively.

The young man relaxed as he realized he wasn’t going to be scolded for ending the life of a cute, fluffy animal. “I sometimes cook them over a spit on the campfire, but they’re really good in stew, too.”  He popped the piece of chocolate in his mouth and closed his eyes as he enjoyed the flavor.  “Thank you for the chocolate.  Between you and Ann, I am completely spoiled,” he let out a soft chuckle.

“I’d hardly call receiving a single square of chocolate grounds for making you spoiled,” Claire responded, eagerly shoving another piece of candy in his hands.

He happily accepted. “I hadn’t eaten anything other than what I found on the trail for so long.  So for me, this is a luxury.”  He smiled at his friend and looked down at the second piece of candy with wide eyes.

The farmer had never given much thought to the waitress that lived at the inn. She seemed to share a close bond with Cliff, but Claire had never spent much time with the redhead herself.  “S-So… What does Ann do for you?”  She cocked an eyebrow.

Cliff popped the second piece of chocolate in mouth and looked over the lake. “I’ve become her guinea pig with her cooking experiments, so I get a free meal every so often.”  A warm smile tugged at his lips.  “Ann is a very caring person, and so is her dad; they’ve always tried to make me feel welcome here.”

Claire set another square of chocolate on her friend’s knee. He looked down at it and grinned.  “I’m not finished with the one I’ve got, silly…” Color crept into his cheeks.

She liked it when he smiled. The farmer responded by setting a second piece of chocolate on his knee, her cheeks feeling unnaturally warm.  Today was a strange, confusing day…  “E-Eat it faster, then,” She gave him a playful giggle.

“I’d rather savor it,” His eyes met hers and quickly moved to the ground. “Y-You d-don’t get sw-sweet treats every d-day, after all…”  His face was nearly burgundy.

Claire’s stress diffused. It was nice to spend time with someone who had a simple appreciation for simple things on a day that had revolved around confusion and complex emotions.

Chapter Text

“So he meets you here almost every morning?” Claire took a seat on the wooden bench next to her friend and swung her feet.

“Yeah… But I mean…  We’ve been meeting like this since we were teenagers,” Karen played with a long lock of brown hair.  “It’s not as if this is a new development; for all I know he just does this out of habit…”

Claire cocked an eyebrow as she set her rucksack down at her feet. “Yeah, Rick just walks all the way to the other side of town to sit on a bench that happens to also be occupied by you out of habit.” 

Karen had no idea how lucky she was to have someone care about her like that, but the grocer’s daughter was either too proud or too blind to see it for herself. The farmer bit back her jealousy; she would love for a young man to make excuses just to see her, but alas, she was not the type of woman who was desired by men.  Rather, she saw herself as the type that clumsily attempted to do the pursuing herself and rarely succeeded; Claire was still bitter about the incident at the library the day before and she wanted to ask Karen’s advice on it but wasn’t sure how to start. 

“Well, Rick buys a few things at the shop for his mom,” She responded with a slight shrug. “He does most of the cooking at home, so he’s always stopping in for ingredients.”  Karen looked down the cobblestone path and giggled when she saw the chicken farmer headed their way.  “Speak of the devil, and he will appear!”

“It’s too early for Kai to be in town, no?” Rick was laughing, but his eyes were blazing with a fierce intensity Claire had only seen once before when he thought Cliff was attempting to make a pass at Popuri.

“Don’t get your apron in a twist,” Karen rolled her eyes. “We were only gossiping about you.”  She stuck out her tongue and winked at the young man as he took a seat beside her.

Rick was used to his friend’s teasing. He turned toward the farmer.  “Hey, Claire, is Karen telling you about all of the stupid things we used to do as kids?”

“Oh?” Claire looked between the two friends with interest.

The brunette’s face lit up. “We were pretty dumb, huh?  We were always getting into trouble with Popuri and Ann.  Remember that time we all went skinny dipping in the Goddess Spring and Gotz caught us?  We all had to go to the church and write lines. I must not disrespect the Harvest Goddess and her spring…”  She recited with a giggle.

“Carter made you guys write lines?!”  The grin on the blonde’s face grew.  She had no idea her friend had such a rebellious streak.

Rick shook his head. “No, Carter actually thought the whole thing was hilarious; it was Doug.  He was so mad when he found out the whole idea was Ann’s.  Her dad made her write extra lines, too! I must conduct myself as a lady…

“Yeah, that one still hasn’t sunk in yet,” Karen roared with laughter, “But I wouldn’t have my Ann any other way!”

“And you and me used to play out by Gotz’s all the time,” Rick had a nostalgic smile on his face as shuffled his feet beneath him.

Karen looked at him and laughed. “Yeah…  We used to play games like tag, kick the can, hide and seek… everything…”  As she counted off the games on her fingers, the brunette had a dreamy look in her eyes; she looked like she wanted to say something else, but she stopped herself.

Rick let out a soft chuckle as he smoothed out his apron and relaxed a bit. “We also wrestled…  although… I could never beat you.”

The grocer’s daughter immediately stiffened on the other side of Claire. She shot the young man a dirty look.  “What do you mean?!  I don’t remember any of that!”

Rick laughed as he gave his friend a playful punch on the arm. “Don’t you remember how I used to cry when you threw me to the ground?”  His face was flushed.

Karen’s eyebrows furrowed and she stood up from the bench, her cheeks burning. “I told you I don’t remember, s-so I don’t remember!”  She shouted defensively.  “I-I’m… going home now!”  She whirled on her heel and stormed into the grocery store, shutting the door behind her.

Claire and Rick both jumped as the door slammed loudly.

“What was she so mad about?” Rick sighed as he wiped his glasses off on his apron.  “How on earth was that story more embarrassing than the skinny dipping one she told?  Ugh…  I guess I better go and apologize…  I’ve got to buy some ingredients for dinner anyway…  See you, Claire.”

“Bye, Rick.” The blonde bit back a smile; Karen and Rick had definitely been quite entertaining to listen to.  She watched him smooth out his strawberry blond hair and straighten his posture before opening the door to the grocery store; she never realized how tall Rick was…

“Hey, Claire!” Cliff was rummaging through his satchel as he walked toward the bench. “Doing some more shopping?”

The young woman shook her head. “I wouldn’t recommend going in there at the moment; Karen and Rick are having a little tiff,” She whispered with a slight giggle.

Cliff looked at her curiously. “Oh, I don’t have anything to buy.  I-I…  I was just headed back to the mountain to get some bamboo shoots and maybe hunt for a few hours,” He nervously shuffled his bag and Claire’s ears perked up at the curious jingling noise; it almost sounded like he had a set of bells in there.  “I’m going to stop at Carter’s later this evening…  If you g-get the chance…  W-Want to hang out with us?”

“Sure. When will you be over there?”  Claire looked up at him from the bench.  He was fidgeting, and she was reminded of the time he asked her to the inn for lunch.

“Five or so. N-No big deal,” He added quickly, his face turning pink.  “I understand if you’re too busy…  H-How’s the farm coming along?”  He let out a nervous chuckle as he shifted his bag on his shoulder.

Claire stood up and stretched, throwing on her rucksack. She wanted the young man to know that he didn’t need feel like he was inconveniencing her by asking if she wanted to spend time with him.  She had noticed that since their outing in the mountains together, she had been speaking to him just as much as the apprentice blacksmith when she made her evening visits to the inn.  Cliff’s conversation gave her a lot more to work with than Gray’s; the brunette asked a lot of open-ended questions, and occasionally he’d share silly stories about assisting the priest in looking after Stu and May, the two young children who resided in Mineral Town.  The children sounded like quite a handful, and occasionally Cliff would pretend to look frustrated when he spoke of them, but Claire could always hear the smile in his voice when he used their names.

“I like hanging out with you, Cliff.  I’ll come over tonight at five.”  She smiled as she watched her friend visibly relax a bit.  “The farm’s a little slow at the moment.  The season is ending for spring vegetables, but Karen’s father isn’t selling the seeds for summer produce just yet.”  The two followed the cobblestone sidewalk to the south.  “Want to see my fields and my master plan?”

The brunette grinned and nodded so emphatically that his bag jingled. Claire’s heart swelled; something about the way he looked when he was genuinely excited and happy made her feel like every day was a precious gift.  She picked up her pace and led the way to Mystic Acres.

0o0o0o0

“So, I’ve been following the guide in that book I got from the library. This is the most effective layout plan for my fields come summer.”  Claire eagerly set her bag in the grass and jogged out into the middle of her plowed field.  In truth, she had been dying to show someone her plans for the upcoming season.  “This whooooole area will be filled with tomatoes…”

She waved her arms around in a wild gesture and grinned when she was met with a chuckle in response. The young woman hurried to the other side of her farm and was surprised to find that Cliff had followed her into the fields, looking around him with interest. 

“And there will be corn here! The sooner I plant it, the better, because I can yield a higher profit!  I’m going to plant some pumpkins and onions as well, but I’m going to really focus on tomatoes and corn!”  She paused, noticing that the young man hadn’t said anything in response to her plans.  “Ah, I-I’m boring you.  I’m sorry,” Her face felt warm, and it wasn’t from her little jog; the layout of her fields for the upcoming season had become her new obsession, and she was afraid she was alienating Cliff.  Surely, he was just being polite with his curious stares.

The young man shook his head. “I’m not bored at all…  It just looks like you’re going to have your hands quite full.”  He admired the tilled soil in amazement.  “This must’ve taken you forever to plow…”

There were still large sections that may or may not need to be tilled, but Claire decided not to share this; she reveled in the fact that she had impressed her friend with this much. “Yep!  And as soon as Jeff will sell them to me, I will buy as many seeds as I can carry!  I’ll plant as much as I can and then I’ll really be in business!  This farm is going to be the best; you’ll see!” Her face lit up as she turned back toward the young man.  His eyes were still glued on the dirt.  Claire’s smile faded a bit; she thought Cliff would be more excited for her.

“I know it will be the best,” He replied gently, “But don’t get too carried away.”  He took her hands in his and gave them a friendly squeeze.  “Take care of yourself, Claire.”

“I will!” She insisted.  The young woman bit her lip and their eyes met.  “Cliff?”

“Y-Yeah?”

“This farm… I…  I want to prove that I was meant to come to Mineral Town,” She had a determined gleam in her eye.

“I understand. I… want to, too…”  His eyes traveled to the ground and Claire felt his posture slouch as he let out a silent sigh.

“I guess these things don’t happen overnight,” Claire admitted with a sheepish chuckle.

His face relaxed a bit. “You’re right…  I’m… glad that we’re friends.”  He gave her a kind smile and squeezed her hands one last time.  “See you around?”

“See you tonight,” Claire corrected him with a grin as she returned her bag to her shoulders.

“R-Right! Five o’clock!  I’ve got a lot to do before then!”  He hurried off toward the mountain path before his friend could properly bid him goodbye.

0o0o0o0

It was starting to rain outside and Claire was growing impatient. She came to the church at four.

The priest and her friend were both there, sitting at a collapsible table strewn with books. Carter was murmuring something to Cliff, and the young man’s eyes were focused on the table’s surface, his face void of emotion.  The pastor looked up and saw the young woman in the doorway.

“Hi, Claire! Is it raining hard out there?”  He asked a little too loudly.  The brunette snapped out of his trance and looked up at his friend with an uncomfortable look on his face.

“It’s starting to come down quite a bit,” She responded, frowning as she saw her friend’s expression. Perhaps there was a reason why Cliff asked her to visit a little later; she felt like she was intruding on some sort of private lesson.  Was he taking special courses from Carter?  “Cliff invited me to come here and spend some time with the both of you,” She gave the priest a weak smile and hoped that she sounded more confident than she felt.

“I’m so glad you could stop by,” Carter replied kindly, closing his book. “We were just finishing up a bit of reading…”  He lowered his voice and turned toward the young man.  “Let’s work on this more tomorrow, okay?  Read until chapter eight and meditate on the focus points at the end of the chapters.  It’s time to have fun now.” 

Cliff responded with a weak nod and silently shoved the book in his bag.

Carter stood up from the table and smiled at the farmer. “You came at the perfect time.”

“Oh?” She really felt like she hadn’t…

“I ordered us all some dinner from the inn,” the priest gave the young man an encouraging look.

“Pl-Please join us if you have the time,” Cliff gave her a small smile and his cheeks were rosy as he stood up and shuffled his feet.

Part of her wondered if the young man really wanted her to be there. “I told you before; I enjoy spending time with you.  I came here early because I wanted to hang out.”  Her face felt warm, and she hoped that he understood that she was sorry for interrupting.

The young man’s demeanor seemed to mellowed out quite bit. He closed a couple of books on the table and looked up at his friend with a warm smile.   She wanted to spend time with him… He tried to focus on the priest’s words – it was time for fun.  “It will be our first dinner together.  Cool!” Cliff’s eyes sparkled; he found he was unable to hide his excitement. 

The farmer quickly walked down the aisle and made her way to the table. The brunette didn’t strike Claire as the type to use such an exclamation, but she found a grin spreading across her face.  The young woman learned that her guilt had faded at the sight of her friend’s smile.  She was eager to spend time with her friend again.  He had finally revealed his true self to her that day in the mountains; she was aware that there was so much more to him than his persona as a quiet stutterer who was too timid for his own good.

Carter smiled at the friends. He was relieved and grateful that both of them seemed to be making some great progress toward overcoming their shyness.  The priest’s eyes traveled to the lit candles lining the walls; perhaps his hunches were right after all…  Now was as good a time as any to test his theory…  A little tough love was in order.  He looked down at the table, which was covered with books.  “I’ll leave you two to clean up the place before Ann comes to deliver the food, okay?  I’ll… just be in the confessional,” Carter grinned.  He walked away from the pair before either of them could respond, and Claire thought she saw a smirk on his face.

The young man snapped back to reality as he watched the pastor hurry away. “But no one else is-” Cliff stammered.

The confessional door closed with a thud.

“Carter!” The young man looked frustrated at the priest, but his voice was polite.  He looked over at his friend apologetically.  “D-Don’t worry about it, Claire.  I c-can clean this up myself.”  His face turned pink as he glared at the closed confessional door.

The farmer shook her head with a giggle. “I don’t mind helping at all.”  She didn’t see what the big deal was; it wasn’t as if they hadn’t worked together as a team before.

“R-really, I’ve got it. Don’t w-worry about it,” he repeated firmly, swiftly gathering up the books on the table, hugging them to his chest protectively; she was reminded of the bashful librarian holding her notebook to her body to prevent anyone from reading it before it was ready.

She didn’t take his body language as a hint, however. “I’m not worried at all,” Claire returned, joining him at the table.  “I want to help.”

He looked up at her with an apprehensive expression; he appeared to be having some sort of internal debate. Cliff’s eyes traveled back to the confessional door; Carter had planned this all along…  He fought back his instincts to rebel.  “B-but…  A-alright…” He blushed fiercely.

The young woman worked on stacking up the books. “You guys must have been reading for a while,” She smiled as she tried to help him relax; she was unsure why he seemed so uncomfortable around her.

“Yeah...” He wasn’t really sure what to say.

Claire’s eyes were attracted to the covers of the books and she quickly saw why Cliff had been so adamant about clearing off the table himself. He wasn’t just trying to be chivalrous; most of the books were written on overcoming grief and loss.  Cliff had been seeing the priest regularly for grief counseling…  Her face fell; she wasn’t sure what to say.  She looked up and his eyes met hers from across the table; he had caught her reading the covers of the books.  Claire could see the pain in his eyes and she felt her heart drop.  The two were silent for several moments.

“I-I’m really sorry… I didn’t mean to pry,” she managed to say.

“… It’s alright,” He stacked up some books and gave her a sad smile. “As I’m sure you’ve noticed, I’ve been going through a… rough patch…  I’m… not really sure what I’m looking for,” he quietly admitted as Claire helped him put the books away.  “Guidance, perhaps...?”

She added her stack of books to the shelf and Cliff wiped down the table with a damp cloth. “Carter seems like a very kind man.”

“Yes. I can tell him anything.  He’s been helping me a lot…  I’m trying to find some sort of direction in my life,” He explained, switching to a dry cloth, “It can be very difficult sometimes.”  He admitted with a nervous chuckle.

The farmer saw how he was struggling to keep a happy face. So it wasn’t just social anxiety that was plaguing him…  Deep down she had known this for a while; the way he spoke of his sister in the past tense, the way he clammed up whenever hometowns became the topic of conversation… Something had happened…  She finished setting up the chairs and they sat across from each other.  She hadn’t known the young man for a very long time, but she found that her heart was aching for him in his grief.  Karen was right; he did have very expressive eyes, and right now, the look in them made Claire want to cry.  “Cliff…” She reached across the table and took his hand.  “Remember we agreed to help each other…?  I’ll try my best to help…  Things… will get better.”

“Thank you,” he looked up and smiled at her, but his eyes spoke more than his words. “For the first time, I really think that they will someday…”

“Hello, hello!” Ann collapsed her umbrella as she came in with the food and saw the pair sitting at the table holding hands.  “Oh, Cliff, are you on a date with Claire?”

Cliff’s jaw dropped as he reddened deeply. He was too embarrassed to say anything.

“Carter and Cliff invited me to have dinner with them,” Claire smiled up at the waitress, but could feel her own face getting warm. She didn’t want Ann spreading rumors that Gray might hear.  Cliff had immediately let go of her hand at the sight of Ann, and Claire returned her hands to her lap.

“How sweet of them,” Ann looked a little too pleased with herself as she swung the paper bag in her arms.

The priest emerged from the confessional at the sound of the waitress’s bubbly voice. “Good evening, Ann,” He greeted her.

“Hi, Carter. I’ve got your order right here!”  She handed him a bag and looked at the trio with great interest, rocking back and forth on the balls of her feet.

“You can go ahead and put the bill on my tab,” The pastor gave her a kind smile. “Stay dry out there; you don’t want to catch cold!”

Cliff opened his mouth but promptly closed it. Claire bit back a grin; she was sure the young man was going to question the validity of Carter’s statement, but he decided to keep quiet.  Claire winked at him and was met with a grin.

“I won’t! Have a good evening!” She waved goodbye and left.

Carter took a seat at the table between them and opened the bag. Claire noticed that there were three boxed meals and three jugs of milk inside.  Claire realized when Cliff casually asked her earlier that day if she could stop by the church, Carter must have planned on having her over for dinner.

Claire opened the box Carter handed her after he said the blessing. Inside was a piece of grilled fish, some grilled vegetables, and some rice.  “This looks fabulous; thank you, Carter,” she never ceased to be impressed by the generosity of Mineral Town’s residents.

“You’re very welcome. Doug is a great cook; I’ve never ordered anything from him and been disappointed.”  The priest replied, eagerly digging into his food.

“Yes, thank you, Carter. Doug’s omelet rice is good, too,” Cliff’s eyes met Claire’s and he smiled at his mentor.

The pastor took a long swig of milk. “That’s right.  You were starting to tell me about your outing with Claire earlier,” Carter encouraged the young man as he dug back into his fish.

Color rushed into Cliff’s cheeks as he nervously unfolded his napkin. “Well, we had lunch at the inn and spent the day in the mountains…  Claire is very generous.  She’s going to let me use her shipping bin, so I will have a bit of an income now,” He replied and took a drink of his milk, signaling the end of his explanation.

Claire wasn’t sure why her friend had suddenly become so shy; he left out quite a few details. “I’m happy to help, but Cliff was the generous one,” The young woman chimed in excitedly.  She absentmindedly stirred her rice with her chopsticks, enjoying the savory smells of the food.  “He taught me how to forage and showed me all kinds of ways of preparing wild plants.  He’s pretty amazing,” The words rolled off of her tongue easily.  She felt very comfortable in the casual setting with the priest and her friend.  She took a bite of fish and looked up across the table.  Cliff was blushing fiercely as if he had never received a compliment in his entire life.

Carter looked at the two friends and laughed softly. “I’ve noticed you’ve been spending less time here around the church, Cliff,” the priest commented, combining a bite of rice and fish on his chopsticks.

The young man was so flustered he nearly spilled his milk. “I-I’m sorry,” He stammered.

“Quite the contrary; I’m very happy about it. I’m glad you’re getting out and making new friends and talking to people besides me.”  Carter’s face lit up.  It seemed the young man was foraging a bit for profit now; perhaps all of Carter’s not-so-subtle declarations that Cliff was meant to come to Mineral Town hadn’t fallen on deaf ears.

“I had a great time with you the other day,” Claire smiled and took a bite of her rice. “I learned so much,” She swung her feet; her heart felt light.

“I enjoyed it, too,” Cliff grinned and his cheeks were still pink. Claire noticed that they seemed a lot closer after spending some time alone together.  They had gone from acquaintances to good friends in a very short time.

“What all did you gather?” Carter asked her, taking a sip of milk and playing with the bottle cap in his hands.

“Burdock, berries, dandelions, rosemary, bamboo shoots…” Claire counted them off with her fingers. “I’m sure I’m probably forgetting something.  I was pretty clueless before about what I could and couldn’t eat out in the mountains.  I feel pretty empowered right now.”  Her face was glowing as she gave her friend a grateful smile; Cliff had hardly touched his food, but he looked happy.

“He’s educated me a bit on foraging as well,” Carter smiled, swallowing a bite of grilled zucchini. “The courtyard behind the church has pretty good conditions for growing mushrooms, and he said that we might get some matsutake this year.  We’ll see if the Harvest Goddess blesses us with some in the fall.”  A rumble of thunder shook the church.  The priest laughed.  “And moisture is essential for mushroom growth, right, Cliff?”

The rain pelted the roof of the church loudly.

“Y-You can stay with us for a while, Claire… There’s no sense walking outside in that,” The young man gave her a shy smile.

“Oh, I’m not going anywhere for a while,” The farmer replied with a grin. She swung her feet and took another bite of rice.  She looked across the table and saw Cliff dig into his fish with a pleased smile across his lips.

Chapter Text

“It’s summertime, and you know what that means-!” Karen sang with a flourish as she walked with Claire to the grocery store.

“Noooo! Stop it!”  The blonde groaned as she gave her friend a rough shove and got a giggle in reply; the grocer’s daughter had been singing that annoying song all morning as the farmer showed off her field plans and it was more than stuck in both of their heads.  “Technically, it’s the last day of spring; it’s not summer yet,” Claire corrected her.  She eagerly shuffled her rucksack on her shoulders.  She had emptied it so that she could stuff it with seeds for the upcoming season.

“Yeah, but I saw Kai earlier today, so it is officially summer!” The brunette explained, flipping her hair over her shoulder. She shot her friend a grin.

“Who is Kai?” Claire recalled Rick mentioning that name the day before and wasn’t about to forget the frightening look on his face when he did.

“He comes here every summer to open his snack shack on the beach. He stays at the inn.  He’s…”  Karen looked around the two of them suspiciously before continuing.  “He’s actually pretty cute and friendly; he’s a really good guy.  Popuri’s kinda got a thing for him, but don’t say anything to Rick about it – Kai unleashes his papa bear alter ego…”

“Ah…” So Rick was a rather protective older brother… Claire understood a little better now, or at least she thought…

“There… is something sweet about it, though,” Karen smiled as she looked ahead, and the farmer noticed that the brunette’s cheeks were slightly pink.

“What, Popuri’s and Kai’s relationship?” Claire teased, and gave her friend a playful punched her arm. They opened the door to the shop.

“Hey, Dad! I brought us a customer!”  Jeff’s daughter announced loudly as the door swung open.

The proprietor was straightening a shelf of dry goods when he turned around and greeted them. “Hi, Claire!  What are you looking to buy?”

“A ton of seeds!” Claire answered excitedly. She looked around for the colorful sacks but her grin faded when she didn’t see any new ones yet.

The shopkeeper shook his head. “I usually don’t put out the next season’s seeds until it has started.  They’re still in the back room.  We’ll be closed tomorrow for the holiday, and I’ll be taking a couple days off after that for my health.”

The farmer frowned. Closed? On the first day of the season?!  She panicked; she was going to lose precious time with her intricate plans…  The young woman did a terrible job of hiding her uneasiness at this turn of events.

“But we can make an exception, huh, Dad? You can sell them to her today, right?” Karen grinned, casually leaning on the countertop, looking at her father with pleading eyes.  “She’s going all in with her savings, after all...”

“S-so you’ll be paying… cash?” Jeff’s face lit up as his eyes moved to the blonde.

Claire nodded proudly and her face lit up; she had been saving carefully so that she could invest a lot.

The grocer stared at the floor pensively for a moment. “Alright, then, pick out what you want from the stockroom,” he finally said with a sigh. “I usually only sell seeds early for big order customers like Pete…”

Karen grinned. “Thanks, Dad!”

Claire bought so many seeds she couldn’t fit anything else into her rucksack. That was probably for the best; she didn’t have much money left for anything but her house payment.  It was going to be a very lean early summer, but if she stayed disciplined, it would prove to be a very profitable season.  Claire figured she should get accustomed to the flavor of dandelions once again…

The shopkeeper looked at his full cash register and did not regret his decision to give in to his daughter’s demands. “Pleasure doing business with you!” Jeff grinned.

The grocer’s daughter caught a hold of her friend’s arm before she left the shop. “So, you’re coming with me to Beach Day tomorrow, right?” Karen asked.

“Beach Day?” Claire cocked her head and wondered if that was the holiday Jeff had mentioned.

“Yeah! I keep telling you to keep an eye on the bulletin board in town!  There’s a festival tomorrow!  Dog frisbee competitions, swimming, and free junk food.  You can plant your seeds the next day.  Come on!” Karen grabbed her friend’s wrist and pulled her to the back room of the shop, locking the door behind them.

“I guess I could go.” Claire felt she had little choice with her friend’s enthusiasm about the event, but some time near the water did sound refreshing.

“You’re going,” Karen said firmly as Claire set down her heavy bag and stretched her back. “And I can guarantee you will die out there in denim and flannel on the beach.  You don’t own a swimsuit, do you?”

Claire’s heart fell. Everyone was going to be able to cool off and have fun except for her.  She bit her lip, silently cursing herself for being so self-pitying, but it didn’t seem to help much.  “Well, no.”  It had been getting hotter, and now that Karen mentioned the beach, she wanted nothing more than to play in the waves.

“Well, then you’re lucky I have spares,” Karen pulled open her dresser. She pulled out a bright purple bikini and hugged it to her chest.  “Except this one.  It’s mine.” 

Claire played off her elation with a casual shrug, but again, she must have done a terrible job of hiding her emotions, because she was met with a grin from Karen. “Okay, I’ll take whatever you’re willing to lend out.”  The thought of jumping into cool water sounded like a wonderful treat. 

The brunette laid out a few choices for her friend. Claire’s face felt hot; she had never worn something so revealing.  The farmer was tempted to ask Karen if she had a one-piece suit, or at the very least something more modest, but didn’t want to sound ungrateful or rude.

“Well, go on! Try one on and see if it’s comfortable,” Karen dug through her closet for some sandals, laughing.  “They’re all cute ones!”

That was the problem; they were all eye-catching. The blonde wasn’t too keen on the idea of people seeing her in a swimsuit.  Claire felt more awkward than she did at the hot spring.  She stared at her choices and opted for a more cutesy design than a sexy one.  The teal bathing suit covered only slightly more skin than the others and the demure ruffles on the garment made her feel a little more covered up.  She changed as quickly as she could while her friend’s back was turned.  “Alright, this one fits!” She announced as she adjusted the straps to fit more properly.  Claire was relieved that she would be able to go swimming and that she hadn’t been stuck with the most revealing of the choices.

“I see you picked the one my mom bought me,” Karen laughed; she knew Claire would select that suit the moment she set it on her bed. “The most modest one, naturally.  You look good in teal.”

“Thanks,” Claire had never worn a bikini in her life and felt like she might as well wear her underwear to the beach. She felt her face grow warm; she would just jump into the water when she got there.  That was what Beach Day was all about, anyway.

Karen let out a low whistle at her friend. “Maybe I should take up farming.  Do you think I could get abs like that?”  She tossed some cutoff shorts and an oversized t shirt on the bed for her friend to wear over the bikini.

Claire could feel her friend’s eyes on her and reddened, realizing she was very likely roped into Sexual Tension: The Festival.  And here she thought it would revolve around the Frisbee competition…  “Well, I guess lugging baskets of turnips around has its advantages,” She laughed weakly, pulling on the shorts.  Claire frowned; even the shorts were a bit higher cut than she was used to.  They were a bit loose, but they’d work just fine; she had a length of rope in her stable that she could use as a belt.

“You know, you really could get away with something more like this,” Karen held up a more daring suit with a smirk.

“This one’s good. Thank you for lending me a swimsuit.” Claire replied politely, buttoning up the shorts.  She knew Karen was trying to embarrass her on purpose at this point.

Karen laughed and slapped her shoulder. “You are adorable.”

0o0o0o0

“I know Koro won’t be able to compete; he’s still a puppy, but I thought he would have fun at the beach with us,” Claire explained to Karen as they made their way to the festival the next morning. Koro’s paws tapped against the cobblestones as he trotted to keep up with the two friends.

“Well, maybe he can learn from the pros this year,” Karen replied, adjusting the bag on her shoulder. “It’s crazy what some people’s dogs can do.  Some people from outside of town and the Valley stop by to compete.”

While Claire was eager to see the dog stunts, she was most excited to go swimming in the ocean. She had grown up in a fairly urban area, and her family didn’t have much money to use on vacations, so she spent a lot of her summers on hot concrete.  And now that it was finally warm enough, the young woman was very excited to relax in some cold water.  She had been tempted to skinny dip in the river that ran along her house after working a couple of times, but her nerves always got the better of her; she became increasingly aware of how many people used the path through her property to go to Mother’s Hill.

They arrived at the beach and Claire stared at the glittering ocean. It took all the willpower she could muster not to run across the beach and jump at the incoming waves.  The beach was already in use – it looked like the Frisbee Competition had already started.  The two young women watched as the dogs leapt into the air to catch the flying disks.

A young man wearing a backwards blue cap seemed to be the star of the show. He tossed the frisbee across the beach and his dog did a flip to catch it.  The crowd cheered.

“Wow, that’s pretty cool, huh?” Karen whistled as the young man threw his second disc.

“Yeah… I wish my dog could obey orders I give him…”  Claire looked over at Koro, who was alternating between barking at the surf and chasing his own tail.  “He’s pretty hopeless, isn’t he?” The farmer laughed.

“Yeah, but he’s the cutest dog here,” Karen called the puppy over and scratched his chin. Claire was grateful that Koro was a pretty well-behaved pet; she had been paranoid her dog would bite people after the number he did on Mayor Thomas.

The young man claimed his prize and the people on the beach began to chant. “Pete…  Pete…  Pete…”

Karen’s eyes widened. “Oh, Goddess, that’s Pete?!”  She stood up to get a better view.  “He’s just a kid!”

“Huh?” Claire squinted and shaded her eyes with her hand.

“The farmer from Forget-Me-Not-Valley! He’s in the next town over!  He orders stuff from our shop all the time, but I’ve never met him in person before.  Either that, or I never caught on that it was him,” Karen let out a delighted laugh.  “We gotta say hi to him!”

The crowd from the frisbee competition broke up, and the winner of the contest made his way toward the exit of the beach, his dog proudly prancing behind him.

“Pete!” Karen waved her arms at him.

The young man appeared startled. He looked at the young woman and pointed at himself quizzically.

Karen beckoned him to come over with a finger, laughing. “Pete, it’s me, Karen!  Congrats on your win!”

“Thanks!” He grinned and jogged over to them.  “Karen, hi!  Wow…  How are you?”  His large brown eyes immediately traveled over her in a curious manner.

“It’s nice to put a face to a voice, huh?” Karen giggled; she was accustomed to stares.

“Wow… I didn’t realize I was talking to such a beautiful lady all this time,” Pete gave her a playful grin.

Karen cocked an eyebrow; she was used to men’s reactions to her physical appearance. “Nice try, but flattery won’t give you a discount.  You’ll have to pay full price for your seeds and groceries just like everyone else.”

The young man roared with laughter. “No good, huh?  I thought I was being smooth…”  He sheepishly rubbed the back of his neck, but the blonde got the distinct feeling that this shyness was feigned.

“Claire, Pete’s been a farmer in Forget-Me-Not Valley for... How long have you been there now?”  She looked over at him, biting her lip.  “I know I’ve been taking your phone orders since I was a teenager…”

“Oh, man…” The young man took off his hat and tossed it back and forth between his hands before placing it back on his head thoughtfully. “Since I was eighteen…  How many years now…?”

“Oh, please! You’re so old that you can’t remember your age!  Or are you really that bad at math?” Karen giggled.

“Seven! Seven years!”  He yelled over her, and the two of them laughed harder.

“You’ve been a farmer for seven years?” Claire looked up at him in awe. He was only a few years older than her and had already been so established...

“Yep. I inherited the place from my grandfather, so I took it over as soon as I was legally able to.  Claire, was it?”  His eyes moved to the young woman sitting down on the beach blanket.  She had been so quiet he didn’t even notice her until Karen had mentioned Claire’s name.

“Yes,” The young woman stood up, smoothing out her wrinkled t shirt. “Pleased to meet you,” she bowed politely.  “I just started running the farm here back in spring.  It’s called Mystic Acres.”

He bit back a smirk at the strong city accent; she was definitely a greenhorn. “Ah, a newbie, eh?”  He gave her a kind smile and she was surprised when he reached out to shake her hand.  “Well, you got a great piece of property; great location.  Work hard and you’ll do great!  We farmers gotta support each other.”

“Th-thanks!” Claire hoped she sounded more confident than she felt. Her heart leapt with joy.  Pete saw her as one of his kind; it felt good to be included.  His hands were calloused but warm - they were farmer’s hands.  Claire wondered if her own hands would feel like this someday…

“I stop by Mineral Town from time to time… Mostly to party at festivals,” he admitted with a mischievous grin.  “See you guys around.  And Claire, I want a report on your farm next time!” He winked at her as he left the beach with his dog.

They waved goodbye to him.

“He seemed really friendly,” Claire commented, realizing that she was more fired up than ever to get to work in her fields.

“He’s a hoot,” Karen laughed.

Claire noticed more people entering the beach and congregating near the front of the white beach hut that had been vacant up to now.

“Looks like Kai’s opening. Free food!  …  Aaaand here come the vultures,” Karen laughed, taking a seat under an umbrella.  “Let’s wait for everyone to calm down for a while before we go over.”

Claire was reminded that they were right by the ocean. Her eyes were focused on the blue waves.  “Do you want to go swimming?”

“Eh, maybe in a little bit,” Karen removed her cover-up and put on some sunglasses. “I think I’ll just chill here for a while.  Go on ahead.”

The farmer practically jumped out of her borrowed shorts and baggy t-shirt and forgot that she was embarrassed to wear a swimsuit in public. She hopped across the hot beach to the edge of the water and Koro barked, following her.  The young woman buried her toes in the wet sand and her puppy sniffed around her feet.  She looked out at the ocean and wondered why she had never come here before to relax.  Koro began playing in the shallows of the water, and his master joined him.  Claire laughed as the waves shoved at the both of them.  She had never seen her dog so happy.

Karen was putting on some sunscreen when she saw Gray and Cliff entering the beach together. She waved to them, and they came over.

“Took you guys long enough,” Karen laughed.

Both young men had very strained smiles on their faces.

“Hey,” Gray nodded and tugged on his hat by way of greeting.

“Hi, Karen,” Cliff greeted her politely enough, but his eyes were already drawn to the farmer, who was attempting to do battle against the incoming waves, laughing like a child.

“She’s cute, huh? Just like a little kid on vacation.” Karen giggled, but wasn’t blind to the way both men were looking at her friend out in the water.

“Why aren’t you out there with her?” Gray asked the young woman.

“I don’t feel like getting wet,” Karen shrugged. “And I’m waiting for the crowd to die down so I can get some free food.”

“Well, if you want this afternoon to be a peaceful one, you’ll finish your business with Kai before you speak to Rick,” Gray stared at the line of people around the beach hut.

Karen rolled her eyes. She looked over at Cliff, who was still watching Claire; his whole face was lit up and flushed.  “Well, go on!” She teased.  To her surprise, he didn’t get flustered at all; he threw off his sandals, ran to the edge of water and called for his friend.

Gray let out a loud sigh.

“So was he a handful this morning, or was it you?” Karen asked. “I’m sensing a ‘first fight’ vibe from the two of you.”

Gray snorted. “This is not our first fight.”  He groaned and took a seat beside her.  “I told him about this festival last week and asked him if he had something to wear for it.  He said that he did, so I thought nothing of it.  But this morning when we were getting ready to leave, guess what he was wearing?”

Karen stared at the young man out in the water. “Don’t tell me; a fundoshi.”  She laughed heartily, looking at the well-worn geta Cliff had left behind in the sand beside her.  “He looks the type, no?  Very old school and traditional.”

Gray buried his face in his hands and reddened. “Identical to my Grandpa’s,” He shuddered at the image of Saibara.  “I didn’t know anyone still wore them.  I told Cliff if he wanted to be allowed to leave the room, he would change.  I even offered him a spare pair of trunks, but he didn’t see what was wrong with what he was wearing.  He actually put up a bit of a fight about it and said I was making a big deal out of nothing.”

“Whoa… I would have paid money to see that whole argument,” Karen roared.  She couldn’t picture the quiet brunette standing up to the temperamental apprentice about anything, let alone an argument about him showing too much skin.

Gray frowned. She was not helping.  “He’d never been to a social event that required swimwear since he left home.  Where on earth would people still walk around in those things?” he folded his arms across his chest.

“Well, he’s probably going through a bit of culture shock,” Karen offered. “Don’t get mad at him.”

“I finally told him that Claire might make fun of him. He changed immediately.”  Gray sighed again, staring at his roommate as Cliff bent over to pick up something in the sand, becoming even more grateful he had won the argument.  “Yeesh…”

Karen giggled and shoved his shoulder; she had seen the same thing. “Oh, you’re so mean, Gray.”

The apprentice’s scowl faded. “…  Do you think that I was too rough?  Maybe I shouldn’t have laid into him so hard…” He frowned as he pulled off his t shirt, reaching for Karen’s sunscreen.  “Hey, share...  I burn easily.”

The brunette rolled her eyes. Typical Gray; he probably didn’t even own a bottle of sunscreen.  “Mineral Town has a high percentage of redheads with fair skin, huh?” The young woman laughed, handing him the bottle.

Gray shrugged. “I never really thought about it.”

“Well, what exactly did you say to Cliff that even someone like you is concerned about how it sounded?” Karen looked at the apprentice curiously.  “And while you’re at it, get my back; I can’t reach.”

Gray blushed as he rubbed some sunscreen on his arms. “Get Claire to do it.”

Karen abandoned her friendly tone and replaced it with a brusque one. “Claire’s busy.  Give me back my sunscreen if you refuse to help.  Don’t be a baby; Mary’s not here today, and even if she were, we both know she’s mature enough that she wouldn’t give a shit.  She’s tolerant about other things, if you catch my drift,” She raised her eyebrows at him suspiciously before draping her long hair over one shoulder, shifting her sitting positions so that she was in front of him.

“… Fine,” The young man grumbled, applying the lotion to her back, mouthing a few choice words at the back of her head. He was eager to change the topic of conversation away from women.  “I swear Cliff doesn’t try hard enough to try to fit in with people here.”

She jumped at how cold the lotion was and wished she had left the bottle in the sun. “What do you mean?  He’s got a few friends; you, me, Claire, and Ann,” Karen replied, her eyes focused on the subject of their conversation.  Cliff was petting a damp Koro and laughed when the dog shook himself dry and splattered him.  He responded by splashing the puppy back and was met with an eager bark.

“Well, yeah, but… He makes no attempts to relate to people,” Gray closed the cap on the bottle and handed it back to the brunette. 

Karen shook her head. The farmer had been unknowingly rambling about their mutual friend lately, whether it was regarding their church visits, foraging trips, or bragging about his survival skills.  Claire always spoke of her male friend with great admiration.  “That’s not true.  Hey…  If I end up with burn streaks on my back, your ass is grass.  Alright; you turn around and I’ll do you now.”

The apprentice obeyed, but jumped when her hands landed on his skin. He cursed loudly.  “Goddess, that’s cold!”  He turned around and gave her an icy glare.

Karen pulled her sunglasses over her eyes. “Deal with it.  I wanna hear what you said to make Cliff mad.”  She stuck her tongue out at him.  The brunette was aching to hear the conversation that started all of the drama.  She motioned for him to turn back around and he complied with a sigh.  Karen was much more businesslike in her application of the sunscreen.  Her eyes were half-glued to the blonde out in the water; after all, the last thing she needed was a jealous Claire.  “Well?”

The apprentice made no threats for her slapdash job of covering his back. The color drained from Gray’s face.  “I told him that he was acting like an obstinate fool, just like Grandpa, and that if he didn’t want Claire to tease him for being old fashioned and stubborn, he’d better change.”  It sounded much worse when he said it aloud.

“That is… a little harsh,” Karen felt a wave of guilt as stared out at the deep blue water; perhaps she had made Claire uncomfortable as well. She had only given her friend choices of swimwear that she thought would grant the farmer the most attention.  She absentmindedly closed the bottle of sunscreen and watched Claire and Cliff jump in the waves; neither of them seemed focused on what they were wearing at the moment.  Ann had joined them and brought a beach ball, and they were attempting some sort of variation on volleyball.

“Well, what was I supposed to do? Could you imagine someone showing up on this beach wearing a fundoshi?” Gray rolled his eyes.  “He would have been teased by someone, and then he’d clam himself up like he always does and go hide in the mountains or the church.”

“Hmmm… Not necessarily.  I mean, did he look good in it?” Karen wriggled her eyebrows.  “Some people here might be into it…”  She cocked her head in the direction of the demure nurse.  Doctor Trent put a thick layer of zinc oxide on his nose, and Elli was giggling at her little brother, Stu, who was streaking it on his own face like war paint.

Gray snorted. “Are you having fun creating non-existent drama?”

“Tons.” She smirked at him shamelessly as she flipped her hair over her shoulder, smacking him in the face with it.  She was met with a loud curse in reply, and her smirk grew.

“Really, though… He would have been teased for sure; what choices did I have?”

“I dunno,” Karen admitted. Gray was right; it was likely someone would have made fun of Cliff if he had shown up in his intended attire.  Karen realized with a twinge of guilt that she it was likely she would have been the culprit.  The grocer’s daughter would have been playful about it, of course, but surely the young man would have made himself scarce after her teasing remarks.  “Well…  I had a struggle with Claire about swimwear, too.  She worries too much about what everyone else thinks.”

“Well, that’s dumb.” His eyes were focused on their friends playing in the water.

Karen stared at him incredulously; she had half a mind to slap him for being so insensitive. “Well, not everyone is as confident as we are.”

“I just meant… She looks quite… different… right now than she does in her bulky work clothes,” he pulled down on his hat as he watched Claire in the waves.  The volleyball game had inevitably turned into a violent game where the ball was thrown at the opponents’ faces.

“You mean you think she’s got nothing to be ashamed of?” A mischievous grin spread across Karen’s face. “… There’s nothing wrong with thinking a girl is attractive, so long as you don’t pursue each one you see unless you’re actually interested in them,” She chose her words carefully as she nudged him a little harder than he was comfortable with.

He scowled at the young woman. “I know that!  Do you honestly think I see you as ugly?” He cocked an eyebrow, folding his arms across this chest in a huff.

A grin spread across the brunette’s face. “I’ll take that as a compliment,” Karen laughed, “But I’m not interested.”

“And neither am I,” Gray rolled his eyes.

Karen looked out at the water. Her friends were still engaged in violent sport.  Ann threw the ball at Cliff’s face so aggressively it bounced back and hit her own and they both flew backward.  Claire was laughing so hard she was nearly in tears.  “Well, it looks like they’re both having fun, despite us making things hard for them,” Karen’s voice softened.

“Yeah…” The pair watched their friends stumble out of the water and back onto the beach.

“Please tell me you saw that!” Ann pleaded to Karen and Gray as her friends followed. The three of them were giggling so much they were out of breath and having a hard time walking through the sand, staggering like a trio of drunks.  Koro was following the three, barking happily.  Claire was carrying the beach ball and playfully bopped Karen on the head with it.

“Oh, I saw,” Karen beamed.

“Last one to Kai’s gets a beach ball to the face!” Ann yelled, dashing to the hut; as always, she was eager for free food.

Claire set down the ball and Karen seized her wrist. “Come on; let’s go,” Karen smiled warmly at her friend and took her hand, seizing the opportunity to keep Claire’s mind focused on the lighthearted fun of the festival rather than any tension that would surely arise if she noticed a half-naked Gray.

Cliff turned to follow them.

“Hey…”

He stopped in his tracks and turned toward his roommate.

Gray’s features softened. “Cliff…  I’m sorry about earlier.  I … I didn’t mean to be so harsh with you,” He stammered.

There wasn’t a trace of stress left in Cliff’s face. “Don’t worry about it.”  The apprentice was surprised that his roommate wasn’t upset anymore; his time with Claire and Ann seemed to have released all of his pent up frustration at his roommate.  He looked down at his borrowed red swim trunks with a rueful smile.  “I guess I was kind of stubborn, too.  I didn’t want to listen to advice from a city kid.”

Gray almost commented how much Cliff sounded like Saibara right then, but held his tongue. He stood up and tugged on the bill of his cap.  “So are you coming with us to get some roasted corn or what?  Kai’s an awesome cook.”

“Sure.”

Chapter Text

Claire sprung out of bed early the next morning in anticipation of the full day head. Her rucksack was overstuffed with seeds, and as she shuffled the heavy pack on her shoulders and looked out at her field, she was a little startled when she felt a different kind of weight hit her.

This was it. She had spent everything on seeds.  The farmer had no back-up plan; this season things would change, for better or for worse.  She had passed the point of no return; her only spare money had been set aside for her mortgage payments.  The farmer had no choice but to succeed…  Claire bit her lip as she shook her head.  That wasn’t the way to think of it.

You’ll be the best farmer around here before you know it! Her friend’s voice echoed in her head and she grinned as she remembered his earnest blue eyes.

Claire could see Karen’s confident smirk in her mind. She’s going all in with her savings…

The farmer found a smug smile spreading across her own face. She was risking it all, and she was going to surprise everyone.  This season, she was going to have a successful farm and start fixing things around the house.  Claire’s introduction to Pete had been motivating to her as well; she was eager to show everyone what she could do.  She wasn’t a helpless city girl; she was a farmer.  Or at least she would be by the end of this season. 

It was just after five in the morning. The dew on the grass was already starting to evaporate into fog. It was just as the weather forecast had predicted; Claire could tell it was going to be a hot one today. In anticipation of this, Karen had invited her and Cliff to Kai’s place for some snow cones before he closed for the afternoon.

The farmer had insisted on staying on the farm to work all day – she was eager to get everything into the ground. However, Karen had been very adamant that Claire take a break.  After a mild argument, the farmer had begrudgingly agreed.  After all, the grocer’s daughter offered to pay for both friends’ treats.  She would go right back to work after her snow cone, Claire had demanded, and to her surprise, Karen had stepped down, allowing her to continue her work as long as she spent some time with them this afternoon out of the heat.

The morning temperatures were pleasant. The young woman worked swiftly, not taking any breaks, planting seeds where the ground was already tilled.  She had studied her blueprints the night before so that she could focus on getting the seeds planted and watered.  Claire finished burying some corn seeds and took her kerchief out of her pocket to wipe the sweat from her forehead.  Her eyes moved back to her bulging rucksack; she quickly realized that she had purchased more seeds than she had tilled land to accommodate them.  Claire let out a tired sigh and leaned on her hoe, weakly fanning herself with her hand.  There was no sense getting frustrated about it; she grabbed her tool in her shaking hands and set to work, making more room for her unplanted seeds. 

The sun was high in the sky as Claire panted, striking the dry dirt with her hoe. Sweat dripped into her eyes and burned; the frustrated farmer rolled up her sleeves and tied her kerchief into a makeshift sweatband and set back to work, trying her best to ignore the discomfort of moving around in sweat-drenched clothes.  She was getting tired already, but she knew the earlier she planted the seeds, the sooner she would have her crops.  She used this as motivation.

It was well after noon by the time she finished plowing. Karen was just going to have to wait, Claire reasoned as she caught her second wind.  After all, the grocer’s daughter knew that Claire had purchased all of those seeds.  Both friends had warned her about going overboard, but Claire was eager to impress them.  She had forgotten hours ago how thirsty she was.  She kept her focus on the snow cones and worked like a machine.  Now that her clothes had dried, it should be easier to move around, Claire reasoned.  So why was it getting harder?

She carried her full watering can carefully despite her trembling. If she was going to do this as fast as possible, she was not going to waste any water.  She looked jealously at the wet ground and quickly shoved the thought out of her head. If you take a break, you won’t want to start up again.  You’re not even sweating anymore and you’re already halfway done, she cheered herself on weakly, don’t even look at the clock. Her whole body felt light as she wobbled back to her fields from the watering hole.  Before she knew it, she would be sitting on the beach munching on a snow cone with Karen on one side and Cliff on the other.

It will be worth it, she reminded herself.  They’ll be so proud… Everyone will be…  Maybe even Gray, too...  The watering can got heavier each time she had to refill it.  Her whole world began to rock back and forth. Just a bit longer…

0o0o0o0

Karen shaded her eyes as she peeked up at the sun blazing in the middle of the afternoon sky. She looked around her, blinking.  It was getting really hot, and she wished they had worn swimsuits.

Karen and Cliff had met at the beach early afternoon. They had sat under an umbrella waiting for their friend for quite some time.  It wasn’t long before Karen had shed her purple vest, griping about the heat.  Her incessant complaining of her discomfort caused Cliff to cast aside his warm tunic and he now stood at the surf in a simple cotton undershirt, mindlessly skipping rocks into the water.

“I don’t mind waiting out here for Claire if you want to go in to cool off,” The young man volunteered, tossing a stone into the waves and giving a satisfied nod when he got four skips out of it.

“If she’s out working in the heat, I hardly feel right going inside where there’s air conditioning,” Karen retorted, wiping the sweat from her brow. She kicked at the sand with her boot, cursing the blistering heat of the sun.

Cliff whirled around and stared at her, his thick brows furrowed in worry. “Y-You don’t think she’s still out there, d-do you?  She’s been a while, don’t you think…?”

Karen felt her stomach drop; she had been so preoccupied with staying cool herself that she hadn’t given much thought to how their mutual friend was handling the heat.

“I told her to take it easy… Sh-She’s gotta be in her house, cooling off…  Maybe freshening up before coming to meet us…”  His voice trailed off as he dropped the stone in his hand.  “…  R-Right?”

Karen said nothing in reply, but dashed to the beach shack.

“Kai!”

“What’s wrong?” The proprietor looked up from wiping down a tabletop. “I was just about to lock up.  You want something?”

“What time is it?” She demanded, swinging the door open so violently the cowbell on the knob made a single clank.

Kai stared at his watch. “Uh… it’s half past one,” he replied, looking up at her.  “I’m locking up; I thought you guys were going to come in to buy something.”  His smile faded when he saw the expression on the young woman’s face.  “… Karen?”

She broke into a run as she grabbed their garments, tucking them under her arm. “Cliff, it’s 1:30!”  Karen yelled out at the waves.  She didn’t wait for a response from her friend, she stumbled across the sand, her stomach churning and her heart racing; something wasn’t right.  Claire was never late, and she had bought an awful lot of seeds…

To her surprise, Cliff passed her up the stairs and silently extended a hand to her. She took it and they ran along the cobblestone streets together toward the farm.  His legs weren’t much longer than hers, but Karen found that she was still struggling to catch her breath; she had no idea the young man could run so quickly.  And she used to tease Rick for not being able to catch her…  Karen was grateful that Cliff was pulling her along because the buildings were becoming a blur to her, but she just wished he would slow down a bit.  She couldn’t get the words out of her mouth and her heart was hammering in her chest; her body wasn’t used to this.  It was quite apparent she wasn’t the only one concerned about the farmer.

Karen’s breath escaped her as they reached Mystic Acres Property. She had to stop for a moment to inhale; her entire body was pulsating as blood pumped loudly in her ears and her lungs were burning.  “Wh-Where…?”

The young woman’s bleary eyes locked onto something blue. She dropped the bundle of clothing at her feet and sunk to her knees, struggling for air.

Claire’s overalls.

Claire.

The brunette sprung to life and wildly threw herself in the direction of the farmer, stumbling across the freshly tilled earth. The young woman was sitting silently in a slouched position in front of a pile of dirt, leaning over her watering can, her blonde hair splayed about.  The young man was already at her side with an arm around her shoulders, gently nudging her, attempting to speak to her calmly. 

“Claire! Claire!” Karen slid in the dirt as she threw herself down on her knees and slapped her friend’s cheeks, blinking away tears.  She shook the blonde only to realize the farmer had turned into a rag doll.

The farmer made no response.

Chapter Text

“Oh, Goddess, why did I let her buy all of those seeds?  I knew she was going to be stupid about planting them!” Karen sobbed.  She was on the verge of hysterics as she shook the young woman, unaware that Cliff had left their side.  “Wake up!”  Tears spilled out of Karen’s eyes as she squeezed her friend and pressed her lips to her forehead; she was terrified that Claire wasn’t reacting at all.  “Oh, Goddess!”  She cried out several times to the sky, half in prayer and half in anger at the deity for letting this happen.

This was all her fault, the grocer’s daughter scolded herself; she was the one who had told the farmer to hold off planting her seeds until after Beach Day. She should have known Claire would be stubborn and try to make up for lost time; the blonde had picked up a worker bee mentality as of late…

Cliff had returned as silently as he had left. The young man’s hands swiftly passed over the farmer’s flushed face, assessing the situation.  His fingers deftly worked at the top couple of buttons on Claire’s shirt as he touched her neck with a slight frown.

“She’s not sweating. Heat exhaustion.”  His voice was calm, but his friend thought she saw a brief flash of worry pass through his features.

Karen’s mind began to race. The worst medical emergency she had witnessed was a bee sting on Popuri’s finger when they were children and Lillia looking a little dizzy sometimes, but she had never seen someone unconscious before.  What if they couldn’t wake Claire up?  What kind of damage had been done to her body already, and was it going to get worse if they couldn’t get her to respond?  She didn’t know what else to do; Karen sobbed uncontrollably, squeezing the farmer.

She was startled from her lamenting as she got splattered by a few drops of water. She looked up through tear-blurred vision as her friend sprinkled the watering can over the farmer’s blonde head; it seemed he had filled it up at the watering hole while Karen remained at Claire’s side.  The young woman stirred slightly at the cold wetness.

Karen let out a jagged cry and bawled harder in relief; she had been terrified that nothing would make her friend move, and in her panic she had allowed herself to fear the worst.

“There we go,” Cliff murmured soothingly to both females. He patted Karen on the shoulder as she continued to cry, gently nudging his way between them to carefully pry the brunette off of her friend.  “L-Let’s get you cooled down, Claire…”  He scooped up the unconscious woman, ignoring Karen’s possessive reaches for the blonde; the grocer’s daughter was in no condition to help, and she seemed confused that he was separating them.  He shuffled Claire in his arms as he expertly choked down his own emotion, blocking out Karen’s sobs.  “Come on, Claire,” He muttered more to himself than to his unconscious friend, holding her to his chest as he stepped into the stream.  It wasn’t a very deep river, but once he got to the middle of the water, it reached chest level.  He sunk down into the stream until it reached Claire’s shoulders and she snapped back into awareness.

Blurred colors and shapes swam before her eyes; the world was spinning. She could hear the muffled sound of sobbing somewhere.  The sudden churning of her stomach and the throbbing of her head were too much to bear; she could feel herself vomiting.  Where was she?  Had she fallen asleep?  Was she still dreaming?  She felt herself moving through the water.  Was she doing this of her own accord, or was she being pulled?

“It’s okay… She’ll be fine…” Claire recognized Cliff’s voice.  She heard a soft whisper in her ear.  “You’re going to be alright.  You’ve got us here now.  Let’s cool down.”  Why was his voice so calm if she could hear Karen crying in the background?

Everything was blurry; she tiredly blinked, failing to focus her vision as she reached in Cliff’s direction and groped for his shoulders, clinging to him. “It’s alright,” He repeated quietly, shifting his hold on her.  “Lean back; I’ve got you.”  Claire allowed herself go limp and was tugged a bit more back into consciousness when she felt the chill of the stream on her scalp.  Cliff untied the handkerchief that Claire had around her forehead and used it to wipe down her face.  The young woman’s eyes began to focus properly as she looked around her, but her mind was still a step behind; she wasn’t sure what was going on.

She heard a splash accompanied by Karen’s voice, calling the farmer’s name, sobbing, praising the Goddess and cursing the blonde all in great succession.

“Try sipping at the water slowly,” The young man suggested, gently dabbing her face with the wet cloth.

Her mouth was dry and acidic; she was eager to get the taste of vomit out of it. The farmer weakly leaned forward and attempted to drink, but she ended up choking on the liquid instead of swallowing it properly.  She was given a soft pat on the back in response.  Claire felt another arm around her.

“Don’t you ever do something that stupid again!” Karen’s words were piercing and Claire found herself shrinking back.  “Well, don’t stop!” The young woman pouted.  “Keep drinking!”

The farmer didn’t need to be told twice; she fought the instinct to chug the water and found it very difficult. She was slowly coming back to life.  Her eyes came back into clear focus.  Karen fussed over her and covered her face in kisses, squeezing both of her friends and choking on her sobs.  The friends stood like that in the water for several moments.

“I-I wanna go un-under…” Claire murmured. She held her breath as her friends gently lowered her into the water for a few seconds.  She regained her sense of reality and the hazy film over her consciousness lifted significantly.  The three of them were in the stream to the south of her fields.  Karen, who was visibly shaken, was finally starting to calm down, but she kept a protective hold on Claire.  The farmer moved her eyes to Cliff as he silently watched over both of his friends, an arm around each.

“I think I’m okay,” Claire said weakly, realizing they must both must have been worried sick.

The brunette woman shook her head. “We are still taking you to the clinic, though,” Karen replied with authority, kissing Claire’s forehead.

The young woman gave a silent nod as she continued sipping water. She didn’t want to leave the coolness of the stream just yet.

Karen turned toward Cliff and planted a kiss on his cheek. “Thank you for staying so calm.  I’m glad she’s okay.”

“Me, too…” He never took his eyes off of the farmer.  He swallowed the emotion that was starting to build up in him again; not now, and not here

The young man was distracted from his friend’s exclamation. “I love you both so much!” Karen hugged them both so hard all of their foreheads knocked together.  She laughed.

Claire closed her eyes, relishing the moment. With those words, Karen had made her feel better than the cool water ever could have.

0o0o0o0

For a brief moment, Claire thought that going to the clinic was unnecessary; the water had revived her. However, after feeling the strong pull of gravity as she returned to land, she realized how weak she still was.  The blonde slumped to the ground, and her friends each grabbed one end of her and started carrying her to the clinic without a word on the matter.  The farmer bit back protests and apologies; she knew that neither of these things was helpful to her friends at the moment.

They quietly walked through town; Cliff had silently volunteered to walk backward and scooped Claire up under the arms. Karen was carrying the farmer’s feet and walking forward.  They were about halfway there when the reality of the situation finally hit Claire and she started to cry.  She had caused everyone so much trouble and worry, not to mention she had ruined their afternoon outing.  The young woman was too dehydrated to produce many tears, but her chest wracked with dry sobs.  Karen avoided looking down at the blonde.

“Don’t you start crying, or you’ll get me crying again, too.” The brunette smiled, blinking away tears that started to form.

The farmer didn’t realize how scared she was until she saw the wetness in her friend’s eyes. “I’m so… glad you g-guys came to check on me,” Claire managed to say as she choked on a sob, and she felt a hug around her chest from Cliff in response.  She weakly rested her hands on his and felt them quiver a bit.

The grocer’s daughter had tears running down her face and she sniffed. “Dammit, Claire, I said stop it,” Karen laughed it off.

Elli jumped up from her desk and opened the door for them as they made their way inside the clinic.

“What happened?” Trent was already at their side, ushering them into his office.

“We found her passed out on her farm.” The young man’s voice was steady.  Karen observed him curiously for a moment; it was almost as if Cliff had forgotten his last experience in this building and he had no apprehension around the physician.

“She’s very dehydrated. Heat exhaustion.”  Doctor Trent repeated the young man’s diagnosis as he quickly took Claire’s temperature an ordered the nurse to prepare her a cool bath.  The blonde let out a sigh in relief as she heard Elli turn on the tap; she was already starting to feel too warm again.  The physician pulled Claire behind a privacy screen and her friends followed her.  Elli fought with the laces on Claire’s boots and Karen began unbuttoning Claire’s overalls, and Cliff realized it was time for him to leave. 

“I’ll… be waiting on the other side…” He looked frustrated that it wasn’t socially acceptable for him to help any further.  He gave the young woman a sad smile and headed to the lobby, unable to hide his eyebrows furrowed with worry.

Claire felt a rush of guilt for making her friend feel this way, but she was distracted as the women tugged at her garments. The farmer let the nurse and Karen struggle with peeling off her clammy clothes; she was too tired to be embarrassed at her nudity.  Trent brought her some juice and Elli helped him lower her into the tub.

“You need to take better care of your body,” He started right away, wiping her face with a wet cloth. His words were harsh, but there was loving care in his hands.  She had briefly imagined she would be flustered at a man seeing her in this condition, but he was so businesslike that she realized she didn’t care.

His comment was still cutting, though. Claire stared at the water, avoiding his sharp gaze.  She was embarrassed that she had caused everyone so much trouble, not to mention the fact that she had angered the physician.  She felt like crying again.

“Summer heat can be hard on everyone, especially those who work outside,” Elli offered kindly, giving the doctor a severe glance. She often felt like she had to apologize on his behalf.  “We just want you to be healthy.”

“Drink.” Trent handed her a bottle, and Claire obediently took a sip of the juice, eager to be an agreeable patient.  It tasted terrible; it must have been a special formula for dehydration the doc created himself.  The farmer gagged slightly, but she was relieved that it had mostly washed her mouth of the flavor of stomach acid; it seemed she could name something that tasted worse than the concoction.

Karen crouched down by her friend, placing a protective hand on the edge of the tub. “I-Is she going to be okay?”  There was a tremor in her voice despite her brave face.

“She’ll be fine,” the doctor replied, standing back up, “But I want her to rest here for the remainder of the day. And stay out of the sun for the next few days unless you want to be visiting me again soon.”  He cocked an eyebrow at her as he spun on his heel and left the room to retrieve his paperwork from his office.

The nurse noticed the distraught look on the patient’s face. The doctor was often doing that, Elli realized with a sigh.  He was so caught up in healing his patients that he had a tendency to come off as cold and unfeeling, although deep down he was the complete opposite.  “Trent just means that your body needs a chance to recover from what it has been through.  He’s not mad at you, Claire.”  Elli gave her a kind smile and gently poured cool water over Claire’s head.

“If she’s staying here overnight, then I am, too,” Karen stated, daring Elli to defy her. She was determined to camp out on the floor if she had to; after all, she couldn’t help but shake her guilt over how the whole situation turned out.  She just wanted her friend to buy a lot of seeds and get a good start on the season…

Elli sprinkled more water over the farmer’s blonde hair. The young woman let out a tired sigh and leaned back in the water.  “I don’t think that’s really necessary, as she will mostly be sleeping.”

“I don’t care!” Karen snapped. She looked up at the startled nurse.  There she was, losing her temper again…  She furrowed her brows and gave the young woman an apologetic look.  “I’m sorry, Elli….  I just feel like I’m partly to blame.  I saw all those seeds she bought and I didn’t stop her…”

Claire’s eyes snapped open and she turned to face the pair. She hated that they were talking like she wasn’t in the room.  She was an adult and she had made the decision to overwork herself in the heat.  “I-I was the one that was stupid,” She admitted with a tremulous voice.  “I j-just wanted to get everything in the ground right away... I was the one that pushed myself too far.”  She locked eyes with the grocer’s daughter as she said this final line.

Elli was familiar with this situation; the patient and her friend needed a bit of time alone to talk things out. The nurse quietly excused herself from the room to fetch Claire a nightgown and towel.

She had hardly left when the grocer’s daughter started right into her friend. “Why didn’t you stagger the crops?  Why did you have to do it all at once?  Dammit, Claire!” Tears ran down Karen’s face as she clenched her fists in frustration.

The farmer didn’t meet her friend’s gaze. “I’m really sorry.  I was just trying to….” She didn’t finish her sentence; she didn’t want to make Karen feel worse.

They both knew what she was going to say anyway. The brunette wasn’t flattered, but rather, hurt.  The fact that her friend had put herself in harm’s way in order to impress her had made Karen feel guilty instead of proud.  “Don’t you ever do that again!” Karen scolded, impatiently wiping her burning cheeks.  “Don’t stop drinking that juice,” She added, folding her arms across her chest.

Claire sighed and took another sip. They sat in silence for a long time.

The blonde sunk down in the water. Karen hated her, and now she was indebted to her.  Surely her best friend now saw her as incapable.  All Claire had wanted to do was improve her farm and show the young woman what she was capable of.  The grocer’s daughter was so sure of who she was: she was strong and independent; she didn’t need to rely on others, and if anyone pushed her, she always pushed back.  Claire wished she could be more like her friend, but surely she wanted nothing to do with her anymore.  And here Claire sat, pathetic and naked in front of Karen; she was too embarrassed to look up at her.

The brunette couldn’t handle the tension any longer. She took a seat on the edge of the tub and playfully splashed her friend in the face.  “Hey, I’m sorry for yelling.  If anything ever happened to you, I would never forgive myself…”

Claire’s heart did a somersault. “K-Karen…”  It was a new feeling; she never had friends like this in the city…

“I’ve always wanted to have a sister,” Karen admitted with a sniff. She dipped her fingers in the tub and watched the ripples that formed on the surface of the water.  The young woman’s lips turned up into a shy smile.  “I’ve lived in this town my whole life longing for a close girl-friend...  Don’t get me wrong, I get along well with most of the people here, and I’m pretty close with Popuri, b-but when I met you…”

Claire smiled, and she felt a warm sensation in her chest. The fact that Karen genuinely cared about her was almost too much for her to take; she felt like crying once again.  They sat quietly for a couple of minutes, and the nurse returned to the room.

Elli drained the tub and helped Claire stand up, gently drying her off with the towel. “We can set up a cot by her bed tonight for you, Karen,” Elli gave her a kind smile.  She turned toward her patient and helped her into her nightgown.  “I hope you understand that you are very lucky to have friends like Karen and Cliff.”

Claire nodded, blinking her dry eyes.

Elli led her to the bed and helped her in. “I can put them down as your two main emergency contacts if that’s okay with you.”

The young woman nodded silently; she trusted the two of them more than ever after today.

“Trent ordered me to set you up with an IV to help hydrate you,” Elli explained as she set up the medical equipment. “Keep sipping at the juice, and I’ll take care of the rest.”

The grocer’s daughter was suddenly aware of how uncomfortable wet denim felt against her skin. “I’m going to go home to change,” Karen announced.  “I’ll be right back with my overnight things.”

The young woman headed back to the waiting room, and noticed a silent Cliff staring down at the floor. During all of the commotion in the patient’s room, Karen had forgotten that their friend was still waiting for them.  They must have been at least an hour back there.  She felt a wave of guilt; he looked like a nervous wreck, and he was doing a horrible job of hiding it at this point.  It seemed his calm demeanor had been worn away.  He heard her footsteps and looked up at her with wide eyes.

“They said she will be fine; she just needs rest. They want her to stay the night, and I’ll be here with her.”  She explained quickly.  “I’m going home to change.”  She realized he had been sitting in damp clothing as well, but he didn’t seem uncomfortable at all; perhaps his worry had distracted him, too.

“Okay. D-do you think I can go b-back there now?”  He bit his lip and ran his fingers through his now dry hair in a feeble attempt to look a little less disheveled.  He stood up and smoothed out his cotton shirt, wringing his hands nervously.

“Hey, Elli! Is Claire decent?”  Karen yelled over the cloth privacy screen.  “Cliff wants to visit!”

“He can come on back,” Elli answered.

At this moment, Karen realized how apparent it was that he had probably heard everything that had been said in the last hour or so. She played off her embarrassment.  “She’s lucky she has us, huh?” she winked at her friend, gave him a slap on the shoulder, and left.

Cliff wasted no time hurrying into the patient’s room; Elli was brushing Claire’s wet hair when he arrived.

His deep blue eyes traveled over her meticulously; the wait in the lobby had felt like an eternity, and he craved nothing more than to see his friend conscious and well. He gathered the last shreds of his composure together before he approached her.  “H-How are you feeling?” He asked, hurrying to her bedside.

“A lot better,” she admitted.

Cliff continued to study his friend. Her skin was a lot less flushed, but she still looked pretty weak.

She saw the concern on her friend’s face and gave him a weak apologetic smile. “I think I threw up on you earlier.  I’m sorry,” she tried to lighten the mood.

“That’s the least of my concerns right now,” he replied, and Claire fell silent. He took her hand and gave it a squeeze.  “I’m just… really glad that you’re feeling better.”  His eyes remained focused on their hands and were hidden beneath his bangs.  The blonde noticed his eyelashes moving a lot and saw him gulp before he looked up at her with upturned lips, but the expression in his eyes was anything but playful.

The farmer understood that he was probably just as concerned about her as Karen was. Elli excused herself as she left the room to get the IV.

“I’m sorry about today. I didn’t mean to make everyone fuss over me and cause so much hassle.”  She could feel her eyes yearning to well up with tears even though they weren’t capable of doing so, and she silently cursed herself for being so emotional.

Cliff swallowed the lump in his throat and willed his facial expressions to relax. “Don’t apologize,” he returned, kneeling down by her bed, “You just got carried away.  No one is upset with you; we just all care about you and want you to feel better.”  He saw that her eyelids were getting heavy; surely, she was beyond exhausted.  He wanted to spend more time with her, but he felt it was selfish to keep her awake for any longer than she needed to be.  “Rest well, and I will see you tomorrow.”  He gave her shoulder a friendly pat and hesitated before he took her hand and brushed his lips against it.

Warmth came to her face; it was a different heat than what the sun had given her and it made her mind feel muddled. “Alright…  Tomorrow.” Claire turned toward her juice.  “Thank you for all your help.”  She gave him a small smile; he really was sweet and had a kind heart...

“Any time.”

He turned around to leave, and a rather pink Elli stood in the doorway. “Thank you for helping bring her to us, Cliff,” She managed to squeak out as she wheeled some medical equipment into the room.

“Of course. I know you will take good care of her.”  He stood up and bowed politely to the nurse before leaving.

“Such a gentleman…” The nurse watched him go, not without a bit of jealousy.  She wished her coworker showed warmth like that more often.  Her brown eyes moved to the patient, who was busy sipping her juice.  “Alright, Claire.  I’m going to hook you up to this IV.  You just rest and I’ll bring you some more juice in a bit.”

Claire was an obedient patient, and Elli was a swift nurse, making the process as painless as possible.

By the time Karen returned to check on her friend, Claire was sleeping soundly. Karen scooted a chair by her friend’s bed and watched her.

Claire was sensitive, polite, hardworking and kind. Karen sighed and wished she could be more like her friend.  Claire had an air about her that attracted people, yet she was painfully unaware of it herself.  Karen sighed.  She wished she could be gentler like Claire.  She shouldn’t have scolded her friend like that.  That’s what Karen always did when she got upset; she would lash out.  She had trouble controlling her emotions.  That was why she and Rick bickered, why she would get in shouting matches with Gray, and why Cliff remained so timid around her.  She looked at her friend’s sleeping figure and wished she hadn’t sounded so cross with her.

Elli came into the room with another jug of juice and set it by Claire’s bedside. Karen snapped out of her reverie.

The nurse curiously looked at her patient. “P-Pardon my asking, but are Claire and Cliff…?”

“Oh, no,” Karen laughed, adjusting Claire’s blankets. “They’re just both really sweet.  Cute, aren’t they?”

Elli blushed. “I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to be rude.”

Karen shrugged. “I didn’t take it as rude.”

Elli smiled and pulled up a chair beside the brunette. “I hope you didn’t feel like I was trying to keep you from staying here tonight...  I just wanted you to know we were going to take good care of her, and honestly, she looks mostly better already.”  She wanted the young woman to know that her friend was in good hands.

Karen nodded. “I know.  I just feel responsible for her.”  Her throat tightened as she watched her friend sleep.

She was startled by the nurse’s soft voice. “You’re a really good friend to her, Karen.”

It was Karen’s turn to blush. “I try, anyway.  Do you have any idea how hard it is going to be to get her to take it easy for a few days?” She laughed.

“Her crops are going to have to wait,” Elli replied soberly. “She can’t keep up at that pace.”

Pete probably could, but the farmer of Forget-Me-Not Valley seemed to possess superhuman qualities. Karen shook her head.  “Tell me about it.  I’ll probably need to keep my eye on her tomorrow to make sure she doesn’t do anything stupid.  She’s polite enough, but she sure can be stubborn sometimes.”

Elli laughed, and Karen knew why; the grocer’s daughter wasn’t exactly known for backing down easily either. She moved her gaze to the ceiling, masking her embarrassment.

“I know it’s a little early, but I think I’m going to turn in, too.” Karen announced. She wasn’t in the mood for dwelling on her own faults any more tonight; it was an emotionally exhausting day.

“I’ll bring you a cot,” Elli replied with a kind smile. “I hope you feel comfortable here, and please know that you can knock on my door if you need anything.”

“Thanks, Elli.”

As the nurse took her leave, Karen’s eyes drifted back to the sleeping farmer. She stood up and walked over to the bed, brushing the young woman’s bangs out of her eyes.  She couldn’t help but realize that in the short time she had known the farmer she had already grown smitten with her, despite the fact that they had so many differences.  Perhaps that was one of the reasons she liked her so much, Karen reasoned.  “Sweet dreams, Claire…  You silly, stubborn, wonderful girl.”

Chapter Text

Claire woke up late the next morning still feeling rather sleepy. The nurse was helping folding up a cot, and Karen was holding out a breezy sundress and sandals.

“Oh, that’s a sweet dress,” Elli was commenting with a grin. “She will look so cute in that.”

“I figured something light would feel best,” Karen admired the powder blue garment with a satisfied nod.

The blonde stirred; there was no way she could fall back asleep now. The other two in the room were being far too loud…

“Welcome to the world of the living!” Karen had way too much energy as she hovered over her friend. The tips of the brunette’s hair dangled in Claire’s face and the farmer scrunched up her nose in protest.  “Doctor Trent already checked on you and said you can go home now to rest.”

The farmer sat up and rubbed her eyes and looked around the room vaguely, remembering with a nervous pang that she was in the hospital. She noticed a vase of wildflowers and rosemary on her nightstand and found herself relaxing a bit; whether it was the fragrance or the mere idea that someone had thought of her while she was ill, she could not say.  Perhaps it was both.

“Carter and Cliff already stopped by, but you were still asleep. Cliff volunteered to water your plants today and look after Koro and Tucker,” The nurse explained with a kind smile.

That easily explained the flowers; Claire had already begun associating the herb with her friend. She wondered how many people in town knew what had happened to her.  The farmer prayed that it wasn’t common knowledge by now; she didn’t want to be labeled as weak by the other villagers.  Cliff had probably mentioned yesterday’s events to his roommates and the priest, maybe Doug and Ann…  And Karen had probably told her parents, which meant her mother would inevitably tell Manna…

This meant the entirety of Mineral Town knew, or at least they would by this afternoon when the famed trio of gossipers met in the town square.

Claire frowned. It was the beginning of her second season, and surely people hadn’t gained much faith in her yet.  Were they even willing to at this point?  More likely, they would think she was nothing but reckless and irresponsible…

“I’ve got your clothes here,” Karen held up a bag, shaking the blonde from her reverie. “Elli was really sweet and did your laundry, but I brought you something lighter to wear.”  She held out the offered dress with a flourish.

Claire blinked. It felt like everyone was talking at once; she was still trying to get her bearings.  The two brunettes left the room so she could change in privacy.

The young woman looked down at her arm. There was a bandage where the IV was, but she only vaguely remembered it being there.  Yesterday was filled with hazy blurs.  The farmer recalled working in her fields with dreams of snow cones in the morning hours.  She remembered having a heart-to-heart with Karen soaking in a cool tub of water with great detail, along with some kind words and a sweet farewell from Cliff.  After her friends left her side, she must have fallen into a deep sleep.  Claire snapped back to the present and looked at her clothing choices.  The young woman opted for the dress; she still felt warm.  She grabbed the vase and the bag with her clothes and stumbled out into the lobby, her legs fighting her as she attempted to walk.

Karen immediately relieved the young woman of her belongings, and the farmer asked the doctor how much she owed.

“Nothing. Just take care of yourself, Claire.”  He gave her a very sincere smile.

“Th-Thank you.” The blonde was shocked by this act of kindness; she had actually been a little concerned as to how she was going to manage the medical bill for her visit.

Elli handed the grocer’s daughter a few more bottles of juice for her friend and they left the clinic.

It felt good to be standing on her own two feet again, but she still felt unsteady. All she really wanted to do was go back to sleep.  She expressed this to Karen.

“Good. Because I’m taking you home and you are not allowed to do a lick of work today.”  She took her friend’s hand and walked her home.  “You are going to go home and sleep.”

That sounded just fine to Claire.

They reached the farm and she was greeted by an excited yipping Koro. Claire reached down to pet the dog, rubbing his ears and smiling when the puppy closed his eyes with pleasure.  She noticed movement out of the corner of her eye as her friend was watering her fields.  Cliff saw her and gave her a friendly wave with a gloved hand.  She stood up more abruptly than she meant to as she prepared to approach him and was punished by a wave of dizziness; she stumbled a bit. 

Karen caught her by the arm. “What on earth are you doing, Claire?  Be careful!”  The young woman scolded and protectively put a hand on her back.

“I’m going to thank Cliff,” Claire thought that it was obvious as she turned toward the young man.

“Hold your horses, girl; he will come to you!  What part of rest do you not understand?”

The farmer didn’t realize how large her field looked to everyone else. Karen rolled her eyes and brought her friend’s things inside.

“Cl-Claire…” Cliff’s eyes were lit up as they focused on his friend and he fought back a blush.  The young woman looked very pretty in the blue cotton dress, but that was hardly important right now; she appeared to be much healthier than she was yesterday.  “I-It’s really good to see you standing again,” He set the watering can down on the ground and greeted her with an embrace.

His skin was warm and smelled of rosemary, leather, and sweat. Claire found the combination of scents quite agreeable – he smelled like hard work.  “Thank you for all of your help...  Yesterday and today…”  She buried her face into his shoulder, still ashamed at what had happened and the burden she had placed on everyone.  “I hope Koro and Tucker weren’t too much trouble.”

“Not at all,” He patted her back and picked up the watering can. “Get some rest and we can talk later.  Let us pamper you today,” he smiled, briefly placing a kind hand on her shoulder before returning to the crops.

Cliff had brought his own gloves; he came with the full intention of toiling in the fields today. She was relieved he had a good handle on things, but the farmer didn’t feel right leaving him to do all of the work.  She bit her lip.  “Okay...”

She gave him a nod and bit back a laugh as Koro let out a happy bark and trailed after the young man. Cliff chuckled and held a conversation with the puppy as he began watering again, splashing a little bit on Koro’s head to tease him.  The dog yapped in response and wagged his tail, eager to play.  Cliff apologized to the canine for riling him up as he continued to work, but Koro followed him at his heels, circling his legs and playfully barking.  Claire noticed that the brunette would make a statement or ask the puppy a question, and the canine would often bark or yip in response as if he understood; the farmer found herself giggling.

“He sure is cute, isn’t he?” Karen’s sudden voice beside her caused Claire to jump.

The farmer’s stomach gave a strange jolt. “H-Huh?”

The grocer’s daughter roared with laughter when she saw the look on Claire’s face. “Koro.  He sure is a glutton for attention, and all he ever wants to do is play.  How do you get any work done?”

“Well, I manage about as well as Cliff is,” The farmer admitted. She watched the young man alternate between watering the plants and giving the puppy a bit of attention, usually in the form of a pat on the head or a quick splash of water.

“It’s nice to take a break and see someone else do your work for a change, huh?” Karen gave her a grin.

Claire’s smile faded. That heavy pressure returned to her shoulders as she was reminded how guilty she felt.  She knitted her brows and bit her lip.  “Actually…”

The young man looked up from the empty watering can and noticed both of his friends were keenly watching him and were likely talking about him. He gave them a shy wave, and the rosiness in his cheeks was visible from the farmhouse.

A warm sensation spread through Claire’s belly. “It’s not that bad, I suppose.”  The blonde returned the gesture as she headed into the house with Karen.

Claire walked inside and her friend was already pulling back the blanket on her bed for her. The young woman handed her a bottle of juice.

“Drink.”

The blonde was happy to obey. She took a swig of the strange-tasting liquid and her eyelids felt heavy.

“Alright, now get some rest,” Karen ruffled her hair.

Again, Claire was quick to comply.

0o0o0o0

Karen flipped the page from the book that had been sitting on the table for the past few hours. She had been reading it on and off again to help pass the time.  She was on chapter five now; it was actually a pretty interesting story.  The brunette heard stirring from the bed in the corner of the room and tried not to look too excited as the blonde took a deep breath, stretching and finally opening her eyes.

The grocer’s daughter waited just long enough for her friend to exhale and blink a few times. She set down the book and walked over to the bed.  “How are you feeling, sleepyhead?”

Why was it that people always asked that question within seconds of awakening? She didn’t have an answer.  It had been a deep and dreamless sleep, and she still was regaining consciousness.  “Dunno yet,” Claire mumbled, rubbing her eyes.

Karen ran a few fingers through her brown hair as she admired the vase of herbs and flowers on the farmer’s bedside table. “Well, you slept all day.  It’s nearly 7:30.”

A pair of blue eyes widened in horror. “What?!” She sat up straight and immediately regretted it; stars swam before her eyes for a moment as she regained her equilibrium.

“Don’t sweat it,” Karen closed the book and set it on the table. “Today was a day for rest.”

The blonde blinked some more and looked around the room curiously; the floor was no longer rocking back and forth like a ship on stormy waters the way it had this morning. “I think I’m starting to feel more like myself.”

“Good. You had quite a few callers today.”  Karen pointed at a few bundles on her table.

Claire stood up and stretched her back, wobbling a bit. Karen smiled at the farmer’s messy hair, but didn’t comment on it.  The young woman shakily took a cross-legged seat at the table, too tired to care how undignified she looked.  Karen passed her the last bottle of juice, which the farmer obediently sipped at.  She had grown accustomed to the strange flavor.  Her eyes widened when she saw the offerings that had been brought while she was asleep.

“Wow, who brought the care package?” Claire saw a basket with fruit and a couple of bottles of juice.

“Those are from Kai. He stopped by with Gray.”

Claire’s face flushed. “Wh-Why didn’t you wake me?!”

Karen laughed. “You were out pretty cold.  Gray dropped you off a book, but I told him you were sleeping,” She handed her friend the novel she had been reading.  “A whodunit.  Pretty good so far.”

Claire’s heart pounded. She was surprised he had thought to bring her something, and she was deeply touched.

“Gray also came over to check up on Cliff, and Kai brought him some lunch,” Karen continued, “I guess he was pretty upset last night when he got back to the inn.”

Claire felt a rush of guilt, but didn’t say anything.

“He was so calm and collected when we saw you and took you to the clinic. Honestly, when the two of us found you, he was the only one who really knew what to do.”

The blonde wracked her brain and had a vague memory of his gentle voice and cool water. “It all feels like a blur,” She admitted with a weak voice.  “W-Was I really that bad off?”

The brunette’s eyelashes fluttered as she struggled to maintain a calm demeanor. “Trent said if we hadn’t found you, you might have developed to heat stroke, and ultimately your organs could have shut down.”  Her green eyes focused on the surface of the table.

Claire frowned. Surely Karen had been dwelling on this a bit, but the farmer was feeling much healthier; she didn’t want the young woman to worry.  “I’m very glad to have a friend like you.”

Color rushed to the brunette’s face, but she didn’t look up from the tabletop. “I didn’t really do anything to help.  I cried and yelled a lot; that was about it,” She confessed sheepishly, clenching her teeth.

The fact that anyone had been concerned for her safety had made Claire feel rather special, although somewhat guilty…

“I leaned on Cliff too hard with all of my crying and screaming,” The grocer’s daughter continued. “Apparently when he got home the whole thing hit him and he took it kind of hard,” Karen explained with a sigh, burying her face in her arms.  She didn’t feel that it was appropriate to repeat the entire story that Gray and Kai had told her; it would just make Claire feel worse to know how anguished her friend had been after the incident. 

Gray had confided in Karen that his roommate had been very withdrawn all evening, too distressed to leave their bedroom to visit the church or even go downstairs for a free dinner offered by Doug. He had quietly yet stubbornly pleaded that everyone leave him alone for the night.  The roommates had returned from dinner to find their friend curled up on his bed, passed out from exhaustion, his cheeks stained with tears. 

“I was so busy freaking out that I didn’t really give him a chance to get upset about it.” Karen struggled to keep her voice level.

Claire sunk deeper into her cushion. What kind of person was she, causing them both so much worry?

“I’m a terrible friend,” They both stated in unison. The women stared at each other.  Karen laughed, and it caught Claire by surprise.

“You don’t need to beat yourself up any more about yesterday. It’s over with.  We’re just happy that you’re feeling better.”  She let out a small sigh and returned to the packages on the table, shifting to a more businesslike mode.  “Rick dropped off a basket of spa boiled eggs for you so you don’t have to worry about breakfast tomorrow.  He stopped by and we talked for a few hours.  I can’t believe you slept through it.”  Karen blushed and pointed to another package, “And this is from Ann.  She brought you a lunch box.”

Claire popped it open and realized how hungry she was. Inside were a few rice balls, a small piece of smoked fish, and some pickled vegetables.  She was drooling.

Karen laughed, “You have quite a few admirers, huh?” She gave her friend a nudge and winked.

She was shocked by all of the gifts. Claire’s throat tightened in gratitude.  “Everyone here is so nice,” She managed to squeak out.  Remembering her hunger, she took a huge bite of rice ball.

“Don’t make yourself sick now,” Karen teased.

Claire offered Karen an onigiri and they ate in silence for a few minutes.

“So Rick was here for a few hours, huh?” Claire cocked an eyebrow as she finished her last bite.

“Yeah, do you want to fight about it?” Karen tried her best to look menacing while stifling a chuckle. “It was a really quiet day.  You were sleeping so soundly, and it got pretty lonely here.”  She shrugged casually.

The farmer wasn’t in the mood for teasing her friend any further today. “Did Cliff stop inside?”  Claire was slightly disappointed that the third member of their trio wasn’t in the room with them.

The brunette shook her head. “No, he left after he finished watering.  Why did you plant so much?  He was out there nearly all day!  I told him to just water half, but he insisted on doing the whole field…”  She gave the farmer an exasperated look; it seemed both of her new friends had proven to be quite stubborn.

“Ugh, and I’m going to have to do the whole field tomorrow,” Claire deflated. She didn’t want to take advantage of her friend’s kindness.  Surely Cliff had foraging and fishing to do, and his help on her farm had cut into that time; she couldn’t possibly ask for his help for another day.  Her only other option was for her to take the work on herself.

“No!” Karen slammed her fist on the table; she was determined to have the final say. “You are doing half!  And then you are doing the other half the next day!”  She was not about to have a repeat of yesterday’s events, not when she had the power to help prevent them.

Claire set down her jug of juice and furrowed her brows with worry. The timing of her projects was going to get thrown off…  “But my crops will grow slower…”  She insisted with a whine.

Karen wanted to hear none of it. “Do you want to get sick again?”  She remained firm.  “You’re still going to turn a huge profit this season, trust me.”

The farmer had a hard time realizing just how worried her fainting spell had caused her friends. “But I won’t be doing any more tilling,” The young woman pointed out obstinately.

Karen could see that she wasn’t going to get her own way. After all, as the farmer had mentioned at the hospital, she was an adult and had the right to make her own decisions.  “Fine.”  She folded her arms across her chest and sulked.  She cocked an eyebrow and gave her friend a serious glance.  “But once the onions come up, I am not letting my father sell you any more seeds until fall,” She insisted.

Claire had no doubt that the brunette could and would bully her father into this. She let out a defeated sigh.  “Okay, you win.”

Chapter Text

Claire spent the next couple of days mostly confined to the house, resting and rehydrating; her friends wouldn’t let her do much else. In a way, she was kind of grateful for this, as her body was still screaming in protest for overworking herself.  Cliff and Karen stopped by daily to check on her and the two took care of the fields.  Claire would wander outside to watch her friends work, but they refused to let her help much, reminding her to stay out of the sun, per doctor’s orders.  Her friends had different methods of making sure she followed Trent’s instructions.  Karen simply yelled until she got her way, startling Claire out of insisting on helping.  The farmer started to wonder if this was how the harassed grocer felt when Sasha scolded him in front of customers; it seemed their daughter had inherited her mother’s strong will.  Cliff was a little more subtle; he repeated to Claire time and time again that he had nowhere else he needed to be and that he was grateful to be able to help.  When he looked at her with those earnest eyes, she found it rather hard to say no to his offered assistance.  The farmer poured some kibble in Koro’s bowl and let Tucker out to graze, realizing that these two tasks were about the only ones her friends had deemed not too strenuous for Claire to handle.

The blonde noticed that the chores weren’t exactly divided evenly between the two; Cliff watered between two-thirds and three-quarters of the fields, and he only stopped because Karen stormed out of the farmhouse and wrenched the watering can from his hands. Cliff sighed, knowing all too well that Karen would burn herself out within the next half hour and toss the empty watering can at his head while he rested in the shade, talking to Claire, who kept a steady supply of drinking water available for her friends.

It was late afternoon and the farmer came outside and sat under the comfortable shade of the apple tree on her property. Karen was scolding Cliff for watering more than “his half” of the field, but she was distracted by the puppy’s antics and she began playing with Koro.  The young man rolled his eyes and continued to work.  Claire grinned; it seemed the grocer’s daughter was more bark than bite, the blonde giggled aloud at her pun as she watched Karen play with the dog.

“How are ya feeling?” The redheaded waitress was on her on her daily trip to the Goddess Spring and took a quick reprieve, plopping down on the grass beside the farmer.

“Mostly back to normal. I think I’m going to do the chores myself tomorrow,” Claire beamed at her, eager to get back to work.

Ann watched the two friends out in the fields. “Cliff used to spend a lot more time at the inn,” She remarked with a neutral expression, idly playing with the end of her braid.

“Oh, uh…” The blonde’s smile faded and she knitted her brows in nervousness.  “H-He insisted on helping me!  I-I’m not forcing him to come here!”  She didn’t want the young man’s friend to think the farmer was taking advantage of his kindness.

The redhead looked at her curiously. “I was just sayin’.  When he moved here in the middle of winter last year, he didn’t leave his room much.  I’m glad that he’s making some friends; I was kind of concerned about him…”

Claire thought of the first time she met her male friend. He had opened up with her a lot already in the short period of time they knew each other.  The blonde’s eyes traveled to Ann and she noticed her eyes had a very kind warmth to them as she observed the man, but Claire caught a flash of something indistinguishable in her expression that was quickly masked with a cheery smile.

“He’s been going on about your farm so much lately. It looks like you’ve got quite a setup here,” Ann’s blue eyes moved over the tilled earth.  “It’s kind of hard to believe that this is the same land that had been overrun with weeds not too long ago…  It looks good!  I believe if you’re going to do something, you might as well go all out!”  The redhead beamed at her.  “I like your style; maybe next time you come to the inn… we could hang out a bit?”

“S-Sure!” In all honesty, the farmer was growing increasingly curious about Cliff’s friend.  Claire noticed that Karen was rather chatty with the redhead when they passed each other on the street.  She struck Claire as lighthearted, fun, and playful.  Someone like that in the farmer’s life would be rather pleasant.

The waitress stood up and dusted off her overalls, tightening the ribbon in her hair. “Well, I’m off to the Goddess Spring to say a prayer for Mom.  See you around, Claire.”

“Bye. I’ll see you soon,” The farmer gave her a friendly wave as the redhead bounded down the mountain path.

Claire stifled a giggle as Karen gave Cliff a rough, yet playful shove in the direction of the farmer, insisting he take a break. He scowled at the brunette, but she brandished the watering can as if it was a deadly weapon.  The young man let out a sigh and a smile crept across his face as he headed to his friend in the shade, the puppy following at his heels.

The farmer held up a glass of cool water for him in greeting. As eager as she was about getting back to work, a little part of her was already beginning to miss this.

0o0o0o0

It took a bit more effort than usual to get moving the next day, but once she did, Claire started feeling a lot better. She hated to admit how much she had enjoyed having her friends run the farm in her stead and being thoroughly spoiled by them, but she was aware that it was time to buckle down if she wanted to have a successful season.  She waited for a few more days before doing anything too strenuous outside of watering crops; the young woman had been eager to head to the mines to get her copper for Gray.

The blonde loved the coolness of the mines in the hot summer afternoons, but as everything in life, the setting wasn’t completely perfect. She heard what she thought was the fluttering of wings in the dark cave and her skin crawled.

“Just focus on the sound of your hammer,” Claire muttered to herself as she swung the tool at the crumbling stone.

It was a satisfying noise, and the crunching of the rocks gave her a profound sense of accomplishment, but she found herself choking on the dust. She blinked her watering eyes and jumped when she heard a deep voice in the shadows.

“Are you trying to give yourself emphysema or what?” The apprentice blacksmith set down his lantern on the stony floor of the mine and gave her a smirk. He pulled a red handkerchief out of his back pocket and tied it protectively around his nose and mouth.

The farmer sheepishly fished through her own pockets and felt herself redden with embarrassment as she remembered exactly where she had left her own kerchief; it was folded in a tidy square on her table at home.

Gray sighed. “Here…”  He rolled his eyes and untied his ascot.  “I’d offer you my handkerchief, but I kind of sneezed in it earlier.  Trust me, it’ll be better for your lungs to breathe through this rather than completely exposing yourself to the particles of dust down here,” he offered her the piece of aqua-colored fabric.

Claire swiftly covered her nose and mouth with the cloth, grateful that it covered her burning cheeks. Even in the dim light of the cavern, she was sure her blush was visible.  The fabric smelled of smoldering metal and a hint of the young man’s sweat.  It was the sweetest perfume to Claire; her knees felt a little weak.

“Make sure you keep your mouth and nose protected in here if you’re going to be raising dust,” Gray’s voice was gruff. “We’re both too young to be giving ourselves health problems that can easily be avoided.”  There was an awkward pause as the apprentice focused his eyes on the floor.  “Cliff says you’re doing much better…  I’m glad.”  He turned his face away and focused on the rock formations in the mine.

“Th-Thank you,” she stammered, shifting her hammer on her shoulder. “S-So… What brings you to the m-mines?”  Claire tried to ignore the fact that the fabric touching her face had been against Gray’s skin moments ago; it was still warm from his body heat.  She focused on steadying her breathing.

“Gramps needs silver.”

So he had volunteered to help his elderly relative with the grunt work…  Claire grinned beneath her mask; the young man put up a tough front, but every so often she saw a crack in his gruff exterior.  “I-It’s nice of you to do that for your grandfather,” She ventured, shifting her tool in her sweaty hands.

Gray swung his hammer a few times and grunted. “Dunno about all that.  Gramps can find twice as much ore as me in half the time.  He’s just trying to keep me from getting underfoot at the forge.”  He rolled his eyes, continuing with his work.

The farmer mimicked his movements; the young man swung in a very fluid motion. This was obviously something he had done for years, and there was a certain kind of beauty to the way he moved.  As hard as Claire tried to keep up, she knew her body couldn’t handle it, and she took a quick reprieve, allowing her eyes to drift to the handsome young man beside her.  He eventually stopped to take a break and she paused again as well, catching her breath.  Gray never spoke much, and she wasn’t expecting him to start a conversation, but it felt like a wasted opportunity to not say anything…

Claire was distracted by the flapping noise again and her eyes widened. “Did you hear that?”  She gasped, looking up at the ceiling fearfully.

Her companion shrugged. “I didn’t hear anything.”  There was no emotion on his face or in his voice as he took his cap off and fanned himself with it for a few moments.

She heard an echoing flutter once more, and her heart raced.

“There it is again!” She clutched his arm and her breath hitched.  “Do you think there might be bats in this mine?”

Gray stared at her as if she had asked the most absurd question in the world. “No…  There are no bats here… anymore…”  He paused, looking around them dramatically.  “You know…  It could be the troglodytes…”  He raised his eyebrows.

The blonde blinked at him curiously as he returned his hat to his head, concealing the tousled red locks underneath.

“Y-You know… Cave dwellers.  Oni.”  The young man pulled his cap over his eyes.

A grin slowly formed across her face as she realized he was attempting to joke around with her, but she was sidetracked when she heard the sound another time. “There it is again!”  She repeated, turning toward the back corner of the cave.  She had never ventured that far into the mine before, and she wasn’t sure if she wanted to start.  “It’s coming from over there.  Do you feel that draft?”

“I guess…?” He didn’t look convinced.  The young man fished a few slivers of ore out of the rocks with gloved hands and went back to work.

The farmer bit her lip. Why was he suddenly treating her like a child?  “I’m g-going to see what that sound is…”

The young man swiftly caught her by the rucksack. “Don’t go over there unless you want to lose a finger.”

The farmer froze in her tracks and the blood drained from her face. “Wh-What?!”  Her eyes grew to the size of saucers and her jaw dropped behind her cloth.  “B-But you said that there were no-”

“I said there were no bats.  You stay out that area and you’ll be fine.”  His voice was gruff and commanding, but he didn’t let go of her bag.

Claire’s blood ran cold; she nearly fumbled her hammer. She turned toward him and he finally let her go, realizing she wasn’t going to rush out into the darkness by herself.  “S-So… What is it?”  Maybe he wasn’t trying to joke about the oni…

The apprentice knitted his brows and looked around them nervously. The playfulness had gone from his eyes a while ago; he tugged on the bill of his cap.  “It’s none of your concern.”  He finally said with a tone of finality that echoed his grandfather’s, returning to swinging his hammer.

She felt like she had been slapped across the face. And just as they were starting to get along well, too…  They worked in silence for several moments, both aware of the tension Gray’s last line had caused the both of them.

The young man cleared his throat and let out a weak chuckle. “Mary says oni have teeth strong enough to crush rocks…”  There was a twinkle in Gray’s eye as he looked back at her.

She would have normally swooned at his expression, but Claire was past the point of kidding around.  Why was it always about the librarian with him?  The blonde gritted her teeth and stubbornly took another step in the direction of the sound.

“Why don’t we take a break at the inn? Let’s get Ann to cook us something, eh?”  Gray caught her bag again, this time pulling the kerchief off of his face and giving her a grin. 

The apprentice succeeded; the farmer’s attention was immediately drawn away from the mysterious corner of the mine. Claire’s heart throbbed in her ears.  Gray was actually asking to take her out?  His not-too-subtle tone of voice had suggested that this was a command rather than a request, but Claire didn’t mind in the least; he wanted to spend time with her, and that was all that mattered.  She didn’t feel like sorting through the pile of conflicting emotions bouncing through her head at the moment. “Wha…?  O-Okay!”  She managed to squeak out with an emphatic nod and eagerly followed him out of the mine, nearly forgetting her lantern in the process.

0o0o0o0

They weren’t the only ones at the eatery that afternoon. Claire saw a familiar brown ponytail on the man sitting at the bar as Ann sang a silly rhyming song about cooking behind the bar.

“Yay! It’s ready!”  The redhead flourished a spoon to the young man across the counter with a cheery grin.  He reached for the offered utensil, but she slapped his hands away with her free one as she noticed the pair enter the room.  “Open up, silly.”  Her jolly facial expressions did not change despite her use of violence.

Her companion opened his mouth and accepted the offering. He sat in thoughtful silence for a few moments, contemplating the flavor.  “More miso.”

“Huh, you think? I don’t want it to get too salty…”  She refilled the spoon in the pot behind her and took a slurp.  “I dunno…”  Her eyes moved to the two new customers.  “Hey, you two!  Come and sit!”  She pointed at the bar with her metal spoon.

The brunette whirled around on the stool. “Oh, hey, y’all…”  He gave them a courteous nod, and his eyes curiously traveled to the familiar piece of teal fabric loosely tied around the young woman’s neck.

“Good to see you, Claire! … Gray.”  She said the second name like it was bitter in her mouth; the apprentice had left his dirty laundry on the floor of the shared bathroom again this morning and had gotten an earful from Ann about it.  When Gray insisted that his roommate didn’t seem to care, he was met with a broom handle to the back of the head.  “We’re trying to save this pot of soup.  It tastes like nori and water,” Ann explained with a sheepish giggle.  She reloaded the spoon and tasted it.  “Yep…  It’s definitely missing something…”  She dipped it back into the pot and nearly rammed the spoon into Gray’s mouth.

“I can feed myself, dammit.” He grumbled. “And use a fresh spoon!  I hope you’re more hygienic when you’re on the clock!”

Ann rolled her eyes. “Are you afraid of cooties?  Don’t talk to me about hygienic, you slob!  Taste it, and quit being a baby.”  She continued to hold out the spoon stubbornly.

The young man mimicked her facial expressions and Claire nearly laughed out loud; if she didn’t know any better, the two could easily be mistaken for siblings.

“Sooo… What’s it missing?” The waitress eagerly bounced on the balls of her feet.

“Flavor.”

Ann rapped the apprentice’s knuckles with the spoon without warning and Cliff bit back a snicker as Gray swore under his breath. The young woman ignored their behavior and added more soup to the spoon, turning toward the farmer.  “Your turn, Claire.  What’s it missing?”

The young woman obediently opened her mouth and blushed as the other three watched her curiously. Apparently, cooking practice at Doug’s Inn was very serious business.  She closed her eyes and concentrated on the flavor, trying her best to ignore the fact that the last one to have the spoon in their mouth was Gray.  “Miso…  Soy sauce, too…  It needs a punch.”

Cliff gave Ann a triumphant grin. “Told you.”

He got a smack on the knuckles as well, and Claire giggled aloud. “You only suggested miso,” Ann retorted, tasting another spoonful of soup.

“It’s all going to be gone if you keep ‘testing’ it,” Gray snickered, quickly removing his hands from the bar counter.

He was met with a sour look as the waitress turned around and began adding seasonings to the pot, continuing with humming her repetitive song.

“S-So… What brings you to the inn, Claire?” The brunette rubbed his red knuckles and gave her a kind smile.

The farmer’s eyes widened. She thought that Gray had just been melodramatic with his cursing; it seemed that Ann didn’t pull any punches when it came to doling out punishment.  She felt a little bad for laughing when his hand got struck.

“Gray and I bumped into each other in the mine,” Claire excitedly explained. She turned to face toward Cliff and felt the unfamiliar weight of Gray’s scarf tied around her neck; her face felt hot, but it wasn’t due to the warmth of the extra strip of fabric.

“Find anything good?” He asked politely, looking up from his hands.

“Not much,” Gray replied from the other side of her, folding his arms across his chest. “I got some silver for Gramps, but I know he’ll ask why I didn’t get more.”

“Sp-Speaking of…” Claire’s heart pounded as she reached for her pack.

The apprentice turned burgundy as he cut her off. “I-It wasn’t a very fruitful trip…  Y-You should ship everything you found today.”  He nervously pulled on the bill of his cap to hide his face.

Claire’s eyes moved to the floor; her heart broke. She thought it would mean more to him to be the recipient of the single piece of copper she found today for that very reason.  She didn’t notice the keen look Ann shot at the apprentice, nor did she hear the faint shuffling of the stool beside her.

The waitress held out another spoon to Claire. “Check it out; I added a few different things.  Open up!”

The redhead’s cheery demeanor shook Claire from her depressive state; she truly did enjoy cooking and experimenting in the kitchen, after all. Ann had a way of making her forget about her problems.  The blonde smiled and eagerly opened her mouth and gave the soup a taste.  It was quite an improvement, but it still needed something.  “Hmmm…  What did you put in it?”

“Come back here and I’ll show ya!” Ann winked at the farmer, beckoning her over with a finger and a grin. “You can help me perfect it!”

Claire remembered their conversation at her farm about a week ago; she was eager to spend a little one-on-one time with the bubbly young woman. The farmer stood up and brushed past the brunette before coming behind the bar, unaware of how closely the two barstools had drifted together in the past few minutes.

“Oh! S-Sorry, Cliff!” She let out an embarrassed giggle.

“I-It’s fine…” He gave her a shy smile as a hint of pink flashed across his cheeks.  His eyes followed the farmer to the bar and he jumped when he looked back at the bar stool and saw his roommate sitting there instead.

“Hey… She’s getting a little too curious about your corner of the mine,” Gray kept his voice low.

Cliff’s eyes widened and his eyebrows immediately furrowed with worry, but he didn’t say anything.

“She was going to walk over there herself for a moment. I had to stop her, and she wasn’t satisfied with my oni story.”

“Oni?” The apprentice was met with a puzzled look.

Gray rolled his eyes. “Yeah, I told her there were some oni living in the mine.”  He kept his voice low.

Cliff let out a soft chuckle. “Well, this mine is a bit too close to civilization…”

The apprentice gave his roommate a sideways glance and snorted; he looked up at the bar and the two women were too busy chattering away to notice. “You believe those fairy tale creatures exist?”  He cocked an eyebrow.

The brunette stared at him incredulously. “Th-They’re not fairy tales!  After all, there are tengu up in the mountains and there’s a kappa in the lake!”  He nodded more to himself than his roommate.

Gray scoffed; Cliff was rather superstitious to believe that a kappa actually lived just outside of Mineral Town. “Well, that’s beside the point,” He dismissed this with the wave of a hand.  The apprentice carefully watched Claire and Ann for their reactions, and the two of them were too busy giggling over the boiling pot.  He let out a sigh of relief.  “If she keeps nosing around, she’s going to get hurt in the mine, and it’s going to be on you.  Does Gotz know about your… arrangement?”  He whispered with a frown.

The young man nodded and his face was scrunched up in concern. “Yeah, but Harris doesn’t…  I kind of want to keep it that way if possible…  Rick hasn’t said anything to him or asked me any more questions about it, thank goodness…  Alright…  I’ll have to tell her, at least.  I’ll… do it soon,” He did a poor job of hiding his apprehension on the subject as he absentmindedly played with his fingers and glanced behind the bar at the two young women.

The waitress watched curiously as the blonde rifled through the bottles of seasonings.

“… And a little bit of this,” Claire added a few drops of sesame oil to the pot.

Ann’s bright blue eyes lit up as she took a taste from the ladle. “That was it!  Smells good!”

“Not quite… Just a touch more miso,” The blonde stirred the pot and gave it one more test.  “That’ll do it.”  She nodded proudly and handed the utensil to Ann.

The redhead slurped the liquid and gave an emphatic nod of approval; the city girl didn’t strike her as the type to know her way around a kitchen. “So, did your parents teach you how to cook, too?” The waitress lowered the heat on the pot and idly twirled the spoon in her fingers.

The young woman returned the cap to the bottle of oil. “Yes.  I cooked dinner a lot for my family as a teen before I moved out.  I used to work at a restaurant, too.”

“Cooking’s a good skill to have,” Ann commented, drinking a ladle of soup. “Everyone should learn how to prepare a meal.”

The farmer nodded in agreement. “Mum always said it was a skill necessary to reel in a man,” She shrugged her shoulders and let out an innocent giggle.  Claire’s mirth was halted when she looked up and saw the livid expression on Ann’s face.

“Your mother sounds like Dad…” The waitress bit her lip.  “I-I don’t need a… b-boyfriend,” Her voice was bitter as she thrust the ladle back into the pot, sloshing a bit of soup onto the counter, and the farmer noticed that the redhead’s eyes flicked to the young men talking at the bar and she bit her lip.

“N-No, of course not! Not unless you want one!”  Claire gave the young woman an awkward smile, feeling an uncomfortable sensation rise in her stomach.

Ann could see that the farmer was trying to be agreeable, and her facial features relaxed. She let out a sigh.  “Boys can be stupid,” She whispered, giving the pot an idle stir.  Claire was surprised that the waitress was wearing an apologetic smile rather than her usual grin accompanied with a laugh.  “Gray is sometimes as dumb as the rocks he digs up, huh?  He means well…  Hey…  Don’t worry about him, okay?”  She spoke with a gentle voice as she ladled the soup into four bowls and deposited a spoon in each of them.  Claire helped her set them on the bar counter.  “Alright, idiots, time to eat!”  Ann rapped her metal spoon on the bar counter.

Both young men jumped in surprise, and Claire laughed out loud at their reactions. Gray looked up at the waitress with a scowl, and Cliff gave her a rueful smile.

“Sit beside me, okay?” Ann shot the farmer a playful grin and a wink as she got out the napkins. “We girls gotta stick together!”

Chapter Text

Claire eagerly led the way up the mountain trail as Karen struggled to keep up with her.

“Slow down! The blueberries aren’t going anywhere!”  The brunette laughed.

Their trips to Mother’s Hill had become more common. After Claire finished watering in the mornings, she went up to the mountains to forage.  She often met Karen at the Goddess Spring along the way and they’d spend hours gathering berries, wild fruits, and other edibles.  The brunette had to admit that she was quite impressed at how her friend was able to find wild growing things and sell them for a profit.  She was a bit surprised at how brave the city girl was about eating them, though; Karen lacked the courage to eat some of the sketchy-looking weeds Claire eagerly popped into her mouth without a second thought.

The friends made their way up the mountain and picked a bunch of summer blueberries. Karen ate more than she put in the farmer’s bag.  Her friend was much more businesslike about the gathering of wild things, but she was happy for the help either way.  Claire looked up in the sky and saw a large bird with dark wings, a white chest, and speckled belly.  She pointed it out to Karen. 

“What kind of bird is that? Hawk or falcon?” Claire watched it slowly soar toward the lake.

Karen squinted as she shielded her eyes from the sun. “Ah, that’s definitely a falcon.  Hawks have larger bodies, and falcons have that wingspan.  Rick and Popuri taught me that one.”  Her eyes followed the raptor as it headed west.

Claire stared up at the bird, absentmindedly popping a blueberry into her mouth. “Oh, I’d imagine they’d need to keep an eye out for them with the chickens.”  She realized she would need to do the same thing if she decided to have some hens of her own.

Karen nodded; Rick was often griping about potential threats to his flock. “Well, they put netting over their enclosures, but you can’t be too careful…  I’ve seen this guy before.  He’s been hanging out in the mountains since the middle of last winter.  He sure is pretty…”  She couldn’t help but admire the creature.

“Yeah, I wonder if there’s a nest nearby.” The thought of chirping baby falcons made Claire’s heart melt.

They followed the bird up the mountain trail and were greeted with the scent of a campfire. The farmer inhaled the air and exhaled with a smile; the smell of burning wood was one of her favorites.  The two friends made their way down the path to the lake. 

They quickly found the source of the campfire. Cliff was standing in the shallows of the lake like a statue, holding a sharpened piece of bamboo over the water in deep focus.  He wasn’t wearing his usual tunic and his pant legs were rolled up; he hadn’t bothered with unnecessary clothing because of the intense heat.  Claire had never seen such a look of concentration in his face.  The farmer noticed that the falcon had perched in a tree not too far from the young man and the bird’s eyes were locked onto Cliff.

“What’s he doing?” Karen whispered.

For a moment, the farmer wondered if her friend was inquiring about the man or the bird, but she realized the brunette’s eyes were focused on their mutual friend. “…  Fishing…”  Claire thought this much was obvious; the young man regularly walked along the edges of the river and lake carrying a sharpened stick, but she had never actually seen him in action.

He suddenly struck at the water. Both girls jumped.  He pulled the stick out of the water, revealing a wriggling fish.  Claire’s eyes widened with amazement.

Karen whistled at him. “Wow, Cliff!  That was so cool!”

Their friend jumped at her sudden noise. He turned a deep shade of red.  “H-hey, y’all!”

They made their way over to him.

“Pretty impressive!” Karen applauded.  She gave him a congratulatory slap on the back and immediately retracted her hand in disgust.  “Ugh, you’re covered in sweat!”  She wiped her wet hand off on her shorts.

“What do you expect? It’s hot out,” Cliff shrugged and swiftly went to preparing the fish with his hunting knife; he was very hungry, but didn’t want to seem rude.  “F-Feel free to take a seat.”

Claire was familiar with his shaking hands. She had been there several times herself; he was on the verge of keeling over.  As the farmer watched her friend skewer the meat and prop it up skillfully over the fire, she noticed that he had tossed the remains of the fish in the direction of the falcon; it seemed Cliff was aware that the bird had been watching him.  The young man went to wash his hands in the lake and cool off, and she pulled the wild berries out of her bag, eager to share them with her hungry friend.  Karen went into munching mode again, and Cliff took a seat beside them.

It seemed the grocer’s daughter wasn’t aware of their mutual friend’s trembling. “Please help yourself,” Claire offered, wishing Karen would eat more slowly.

“Thank you.” He gave her a grateful smile as he popped a few berries in his mouth and rested his eyes for a moment.

“So, are we interrupting you from your work?” Claire asked, offering him her handkerchief to wipe off his face; he had splashed water over it while he was cooling off in the lake.

“Oh, no, you’re fine,” Cliff stammered, accepting the handkerchief with a kind nod and a hint of blush. “I was just looking for some lunch, and my food stash is running low.”  He explained as he shuffled the skewers over the flames with shaking hands.

Karen almost asked why he didn’t just buy some food at the inn, but she held her tongue; she knew he was unemployed. She watched Claire pull some sort of wild plant out of her bag and share it with him and felt a flash of embarrassment; she never realized how creative her friends had to be to make ends meet.  Karen only really knew that berries, flowers, and bamboo shoots grew up here.  She had no use for them herself, so she never really explored the area thoroughly.  All of the food she ate was available at the grocery store; she never gave much thought to having to find food.  Berries were the only thing she ate up here, and she only really ate them when she hung out with Claire.

Karen silently watched Claire give Cliff a couple of bundles of herbs and berries; the farmer seemed awfully generous with the things she had worked so hard to gather herself. The young woman watched the blonde tuck extra things in her friend’s satchel while his back was turned and smiled.  The farmer really was sweet.  The grocer’s daughter found herself sighing.  She really wished she could be more like Claire.

The fish was ready. The young man offered Karen a skewer, but she felt guilty taking it.  She agreed to taste it, and was surprised at how good it was.  It wasn’t seasoned the way Doug grilled his fish at the inn, but it had a delicate flavor.  She looked over at Claire, who was sharing in a skewer and laughing with Cliff about something.  The farmer had mentioned her foraging trip with their mutual friend nearly a month ago.  The grocer’s daughter realized that they had probably been meeting regularly in the mountains without her.  Karen wondered if Cliff always foraged without a shirt on and caught herself smirking at the two.  Claire laughed again and beamed at the young man, and Karen felt a twinge of jealousy, realizing she didn’t have the farmer completely to herself.

“What’s wrong, Karen?” Cliff noticed the look on his friend’s face.

Karen felt embarrassed and petty. She forced a small smile on her face, “Nothing.”

“I know it’s not Chocolate Curry dip, but I thought the fish was pretty good,” Claire giggled, adding her empty skewer to the pile as she thanked her friend for sharing.

Karen saw a bit of color come into Cliff’s cheeks and she smiled. “I was just lost in thought for a moment,” She admitted.  She suddenly remembered something, and she was slightly annoyed that the young man hadn’t brought it up himself.  “Hey, Cliff!  Wasn’t your birthday yesterday?  I think that’s when Ann said it was.”

“Oh, it’s today,” He corrected her with a soft chuckle as he poked the flames with a long stick. “I’m… twenty-four today.”  He looked like he had to do the math in his head for a moment.

“Well, why didn’t you say anything?” Karen teased him. “Were you planning on spending the day alone?  Do you want us to feel like jerks for not getting you anything?”

Cliff reddened. “I d-didn’t think of that at all.  I didn’t think it was a big deal…  I haven’t celebrated my birthday for several years now,” His expression turned grim as his eyes focused on the campfire.

The blonde scooted a little closer to her friend and stared at the burning embers. “I’ll be twenty-three at the end of fall,” Claire looked at him with a smile and her friend’s face immediately relaxed.

“Well, we should do something special today, then,” Karen stated with authority. Both friends looked at her, waiting for her direction.  “Well, obviously we are going to the bar,” She laughed.  “Come on, I’ll buy you both a big dinner and drinks tonight; it’ll be great.”  She was eager to do something special for the two of them.

“Thank you, that’s very kind of you,” Both of her friends stumbled over their words.

Karen smiled. They were so overly polite and easy to please.

0o0o0o0

Claire tore through her shelf and bag at her home. She was very embarrassed; she hadn’t known when her own friend’s birthday was.  Even worse, she had no idea what to give him.  She had spent all of her money on seeds and was waiting for it to come back to her, so she didn’t have the option of buying him anything.  The farmer was so broke that even a bar of chocolate was a luxury she couldn’t afford.  She didn’t have anything on hand that could qualify as a gift, either.  Her bag was nearly empty as it was; she had snuck extra food into Cliff’s pack when he wasn’t looking.  The farmer noticed how hungry he seemed today and how slim he looked; she was concerned about him.

Not knowing what else to give him and being pressed for time, Claire took the basket that Carter had given her back in spring and filled it with some bamboo shoots she had been keeping for herself. It was simple, but it would have to do.  Deep down, she knew that he wasn’t expecting anything from her and would be flattered at anything, but all the same, she wanted to give him something to let him know she cared about him.  Claire walked to her bedside and brushed her hair until it shined.

It was an awkward walk to the inn. Claire began to remember how oddly shaped the basket was, and she was kind of grateful to be rid of it.  She was thankful that she didn’t need to bring her usual rucksack with her as well; the basket was plenty.

Both of her friends were already there by the time the farmer showed up. Karen had a few empty beer steins around her, but Cliff was sticking to juice.  Claire hoisted the basket onto the table.

“Happy birthday!” She grinned, hoping that her offering would bring a smile to his face.

It was obvious he hadn’t been expecting anything from her. “Thank you very much!” he beamed and gave her a hug, nodding with approval at the sensible, thoughtful gift.

Claire took a seat between her friends and her heart felt light.

Ann stopped by the table to take their order, studying the heaping basket of bamboo shoots. “Wow, did Claire get those for you, Cliff?”

He nodded and his cheeks turned rosy.

“I got you something, too! Happy birthday!” She handed him a small package she had been keeping in the pocket of her apron.

The young man opened the parcel and his face lit up. Claire didn’t get a good look at it.  “A knife sharpener?  Wow, thanks, Ann!  I will get a lot of use out of this!”

Ann ruffled his hair. “No prob!”

Claire felt a flash of jealousy that she hadn’t given him something practical like that. If only she had known his birthday was coming up, she would have saved up some money to get him a proper gift… 

Karen watched the farmer’s expression with mild amusement. “And now for my gift!” The grocer’s daughter announced with a grin.  “Order whatever you want, guys.”

The waitress took the pencil that she had tucked behind her ear and rocked back and forth on the balls of her feet. “So what’ll it be?” Ann asked, pulling a small notepad out of her apron pocket.

“Do you serve Chocolate Curry dip?” Karen asked teasingly. Claire’s mention of their strange creation earlier today had caused a slight craving.

“No,” Ann laughed, playfully shoving Karen’s shoulder. She knew how proud the grocer’s daughter was of the dish, but there was no way they would serve it at the inn.

The brunette shrugged with a sigh. “You know me; I’ll have the pizza.  And another beer.  Keep ‘em coming!”

Claire couldn’t remember the last time she had pizza. She looked at the menu and saw that they had the savory pancakes and decided to give them a try.  Cliff ordered curry rice without even looking at the menu first.

“Alright! It will take a few minutes, but I’ll be right back with the drinks!” Ann ruffled Cliff’s hair again and he rolled his eyes. 

“So, Cliff… You and Ann,” Karen teased, taking a swig of beer.

Cliff shot her an unamused look and the grocer’s daughter laughed heartily at his expression. Her friend was too uptight; she’d make sure that was taken care of before the evening was over…

Claire was wondering if she had spent too much time in the heat today; her face suddenly felt warm. She shrank down in her chair and sipped at her water, contemplating the strange tightening in her stomach.

“This seat taken?” The blacksmith sat down before anyone could answer.

The farmer’s stomach went to tightening a bit to doing a somersault. “H-Hi Gray,” Claire breathed, her heart pounding loudly in her ears.

“Hey,” He nodded to her and tugged on the bill of his cap. “Happy birthday, Cliff.”

“Thanks.” His roommate gave him a small smile.

“So you’re spending your birthday surrounded by women? Not bad,” He grinned, folding his arms across his chest with a gruff laugh that reminded everyone at the table of the old blacksmith.

Cliff wasn’t used to all of the teasing. He reddened, and Claire could feel herself getting embarrassed as well; Gray was going to get the wrong idea.

“We’re all giving him a rough time tonight,” Karen laughed, giving the harassed brunette a ruffle of the hair.

“Hey, I got you something,” He handed his roommate a small box. “Made ‘em myself.”  The apprentice nervously held out the box, trying not to look too proud of his own creation.

His friend opened the box and his eyes gleamed with gratitude. “Ah, metal spearheads.  This will make fishing much easier.  Thank you,” He smiled at Gray.

“No problem.” The apprentice cleared his throat and leaned back in his chair with a polite nod.

The grocer’s daughter was eager to brag about their friend. She played with a long strand of her brown hair and rested her elbows on the table.  “We saw him take out a fish with a sharpened piece of bamboo earlier today,” Karen finished her mug and slammed it down loudly.  “It was pretty darn impressive.  Tell me, how do you learn to do stuff like that?”  She turned toward Cliff with an inquisitive look.

Claire’s ears perked up as her eyes flew toward the young man. She wanted to know, too.

“My uncle showed me; I’ve done it for years.” He didn’t go into further detail as he took a quiet sip of juice.  He was uncomfortable with all of the attention, even among friends; the young man’s cheeks turned pink.

Ann returned to the table with the drinks. She went to get a glass of wine for Gray.  Claire’s heart pounded uncomfortably in her chest.  Was Gray going to be spending the evening with them as well?  She couldn’t think of anything to say to him and found herself panicking.

“Speaking of impressive,” Karen continued as she started on her next drink, “Did you get a good look at Claire’s fields?” The young woman cocked an eyebrow as she swirled the wine in her glass.

Gray’s face lit up. “Yeah, I saw all the signs in the ground labeled ‘Corn’.”  He shot the farmer a grin and took a sip of his wine.

Claire blushed and noticed Cliff looked relieved to be out of the spotlight for the moment. She nervously twisted her cloth napkin around her fingers.

“You’re going to get so rich this summer,” Karen let out a carefree laugh as she finished off her wine and started on the other Ann had left behind for her.

“I sure hope so.” She had invested all of her money, after all, and was living off of foraged food and her get well gifts until her crops came up.

“Hey, you should be proud of yourself,” Gray said. “Taking care of that much property isn’t easy, I’m sure, and it’s good to see you’re back in the swing of things after getting sick.”

The blonde’s heart stopped for a moment; she hadn’t expected the apprentice’s heartwarming words. “Th-thanks.”

“We’re all glad,” Karen added, and Cliff nodded.

Claire smiled. There were kind friends surrounding her and the young woman’s heart felt full.  “Thank you, everyone.”  Karen squeezed her and kissed the top of her head.  Gray rolled his eyes and snorted.

The redheaded waitress bounced back over to the table, expertly balancing dishes and bowls. “Food’s ready!” Ann had to make a few trips to bring all of the plates.

Karen was a fast eater; she dug right into her pizza. Claire looked down at her plate and cut a bite of savory pancake.

“Oh, you got the okonomiyaki,” Cliff’s face lit up. “That’s one of my favorites.”  He nodded with approval at his friend’s selection.

The young woman grinned. “I’ve never had it before, but I figured I’d try it since you recommended it.”

He was surprised that she had remembered. “I’ll trade you a bite of yours for a bite of mine,” he offered.

“Sure,” Claire cut off a piece and held out the fork to her friend the way Ann had done for him before. Color rushed to his face as he took the offered bite of food, and his face turned redder as he shyly held out a spoon to her.

“That was good, but… H-Here, give this a try.”  He gave the young woman a kind smile.

Claire leaned in to take the bite and was immediately reminded of her childhood. Sweet cooked carrots, soft onions, and tender potato in a sweet, spicy, savory sauce.  A grin spread across her face.  “Doug makes a great curry,” She commented with a giggle, unaware of the stares the two were getting from Karen and Gray.  “I think I could drink the sauce.”

“It reminds me of home,” He admitted with a nostalgic expression. “My mother’s was a bit spicier, though.”  The young man looked down at his plate, staring at the meal as if it were too precious to eat.

Ann came back around to refill the drinks. It wasn’t long until Claire felt like she couldn’t eat any more.

The farmer heard shuffling feet behind her and saw Gray scoff and roll his eyes.

“Good evening, Cliff. Happy birthday,” Saibara put a hand on the young man’s shoulder.

“Thank you,” His eyes widened in surprise; he was shocked that the old man knew.

The blacksmith handed his young friend a jar. “I’ve been pickling the burdock you send me.  Thank you for always thinking of an old man like myself.  I brought some to share.”

Cliff was touched by this gesture; Saibara hardly struck him as the gift-giving type. “Th-thank you,” The young man gave the elderly man a strained smile as his roommate glowered at them.

“Have a good night, but don’t have too much fun,” He let out a loud, gravelly laugh has he slapped the brunette on the back and made his way to the bar.

There was an uncomfortable silence.

Karen could sense that Gray was ready to burst. “It’s been a great evening, huh, Cliff?” She asked a little too loudly and polished off her wine, eagerly starting on another beer.

“Yes. Thank you, everyone,” Cliff stammered, afraid to meet his roommate’s gaze.  He nervously wrung his hands underneath the table.

“But hey, it’s just getting started!” Karen sputtered, giving her friend a piercing gaze, “You’re making it sound like it’s time for us all to go home… Ann!”  The young woman snapped her fingers and laughed heartily.

“Reporting for duty!” The waitress saluted her best customer and giggled.

“A round of wine for the table, please. The usual.”

The waitress grinned; the brunette was in the most fun stage of drunkenness. “Of course, Milady!” Ann mock curtseyed.

“Are you sneaking drinks tonight or what, girl?” Karen cocked an eyebrow.

Ann stuck out her tongue at the brunette and laughed, heading back to the bar. She was obviously having a blast tonight, and she was dying to sit with them.

Karen snuck a look at the blacksmith’s apprentice; he seemed to have calmed down, at least a little, anyway. She let out a sigh.  Claire, too, was aware of the tension at the table.  She tried to think of something to say to Gray.  Asking him how things were going at the smithy didn’t seem like the best idea at the moment.  She could ask him if he’d read any good books lately, but then he’d inevitably talk about Mary…

It turned out she didn’t need to find anything to say, as Ann quickly returned with the drinks, along with something else.

“Happy birthday, Cliff,” Ann smiled sweetly as she pulled a wooden spoon out of her side apron pocket, brandishing it like a katana. “Twenty-four, right?”  She slapped the utensil on her open palm with a loud clap.

The apprentice’s eyes widened; any residual anger at his roommate had dissolved instantly. “Run.”  He gave the young man a rough shove.

Cliff almost fell out of his chair. “What are you talking about?” The brunette laughed, looking curiously between the waitress and Gray.  He chuckled at the apprentice’s overly serious facial expressions.

An impish grin spread across Karen’s lips as she understood. “Is it time for birthday spanks, Ann?”

She gave a single nod. “Eight from each of us girls,” The redhead didn’t remove her narrowed eyes from her friend.  She twirled the wooden spoon in her fingers as menacingly as one could.  “Who do you want first?  Me, Karen, or Claire?”

The young man turned a bright shade of red but didn’t say anything.

“Oh, we might go easy on you if you ask us nicely,” Karen winked at her male friend and then looked back at Ann. Both girls collapsed in fits of giggles that sounded rather sadistic to Cliff.

The young man moved his eyes to the farmer and her face felt hot; she wasn’t sure why she was embarrassed.  She gave her friend a tiny shake of the head and a slight smile, indicating that she had no intentions of harming him.  Cliff must have read her body language incorrectly; he turned from red to burgundy.

“I told you to run, man…” Gray reclined in his seat and rested his hands on the back of his head with a sigh.  There was no saving the poor soul now…  The apprentice had endured the grueling rite of passage for living at Doug’s Inn for three years now; he always had trouble sitting the day after his birthday.

“Well?” Ann smirked; she was waiting for an answer.

Cliff looked up at her; that smug smile looked so much like his sister’s that it almost hurt. He decided to handle her the same way he would his sibling.  “Alright Ann, if that’s what you want to do tonight, I won’t stop you.  Just remember that your birthday isn’t too far off…”  He cocked an eyebrow as he leaned back in his chair, folding his arms across his chest.

The smile faded from Ann’s face; no one had ever even hinted at retaliation before and she wasn’t sure how to react. She did a horrible job of hiding her blush as she tucked the spoon back into her apron pocket.

“What kind of cake do you want?”

Gray started between the waitress and his roommate several times in utter confusion. The apprentice had always accepted his yearly punishment begrudgingly; he never realized that there had always been another choice.

0o0o0o0

Three hours later, a rather cheery Gray was rambling to Cliff and Claire about the last time he got to go to the horse races between sips of scotch. The farmer was surprised at how friendly and open the young man was after having a few drinks.  A tipsy Karen had taken her seat at the bar hours ago, giggling into Rick’s shoulder as Ann poured the pair drinks with a flourish.

“Hey, tonight was fun,” Gray grinned at his roommate, relaxing in his chair.

The brunette looked at him in surprise; he was relieved that the apprentice had forgotten about his gift of pickled burdock and the complicated emotions that revolved around it. “Yeah, it was…”  He finished off his glass of wine.

“Well, I had better head back home,” The blonde yawned, looking at the clock. It was well past midnight, and she had chores to do first thing in the morning.

“Claire,” The apprentice gazed up at her with glowing eyes.

“Y-Yeah?” Her hands immediately got sweaty and her throat closed up.  He had never looked at her that way before.

“I’m gonna show you lunging sometime soon. I’ll come to your farm to teach you.”  His eyes blazed with excitement.

“Lunging? What’s that?”  Her heart pounded in her chest.  She didn’t care what it was; Gray was coming to her farm to do something with her!

“Vocal commands practice,” Gray finished off his scotch and slammed his glass down on the tabletop harder than he meant to. “You need to get used to being around Tucker and vice-versa.  We’ll make a date for it later, okay?”

Date?! Either it was the two fall breezes she drank or it sounded like Gray wanted to spend some extra time with her.

“O-Okay!” She stammered as she stood up, her chair screeching across the floor.  Now if only he would offer to take her home…

The blushing young woman looked down at him expectantly and was met with a confused look.

“I’d be happy to walk you home, Claire,” The brunette offered, pushing in his own chair.

The farmer noticed that Cliff always saw to it that Claire never had to back to Mystic Acres alone. She was grateful for her friend’s kindness.  He always walked her home when she visited the inn; it had become a ritual at this point.  It had started to hurt a little less that the clueless apprentice never understood what she was getting at.

It was a cool evening. Lilac clouds swam across the pink and orange streaked sky.  The pair stood in silence for a moment, marveling in the colors.

“Thanks for the great evening,” Cliff was beaming as he looked out at the sunset. “I haven’t celebrated my birthday with friends since Akiyama…”

“Akiyama?” Claire repeated the foreign name with a curious tilt to the head.

They started on the path to Mystic Acres, admiring the soft light the sunset cast on the entire village. Trees, buildings, even the unlit lamp posts all looked a little magical under the warm glow of the sun’s farewell.  “My home village…  It’s been a long time…”  The joy slowly faded from his smile as his forehead wrinkled.  His lips remained curled into a grin, but he didn’t look happy.

“H-How did you celebrate back home?” Claire asked, eager to hear a little bit more about his mysterious past.

He said nothing as they walked down the cobblestone street. She wasn’t sure if he was thinking of how to word his answer or if his silence was his chosen response.

The farmer realized that she never talked much about home, either. “Mum would bring home a cake from the bakery and we’d pig out on it,” The young woman giggled.  “I always asked for walnut cake with butter cream frosting.  And the best part was that the birthday child got to lick the frosting off of the candles after they were blown out,” A nostalgic smile spread across her face.  She could almost taste the glorious, thick frosting; it was almost too sweet…  “Of course, it usually wasn’t on our exact birthday.”

“Huh? Why not?”  The brunette stared at her as if he couldn’t wrap his head around the concept.

They turned the corner on the path and headed south; Claire noticed that the first stars of the evening were starting to show through the watercolor sky. “Well, Dad was away on business a lot, and Mum was stuck with us five kids all to herself, plus she worked double time at least.  We’d have what we kids called pretend birthdays.  Close enough,” She shrugged and gave him a grin.

Her friend found it strange that anyone would sing “Happy Birthday” when it wasn’t someone’s actual birthday. “Ma was a stickler for dates; she’d make sure Papa remembered,” Cliff laughed, kicking a small stone along the path.  “He forgot about my twelfth birthday while he was off on a hunting trip.  Ma got so mad that she dragged both of us kids out to the woods to find him.  My sister and I thought it was pretty fun, but Ma was not happy…”  A glow returned to his face as his eyes lit back up.  “That was my favorite birthday…”

“The one your father forgot about?” Claire shook her head, laughing as she kicked his stone farther ahead.

“W-Well… I was allowed to actually go out in the deep woods…”  He looked up at the purple clouds with a pensive gaze, forgetting to kick the rock along, leaving it abandoned behind them.  “It was the last birthday I spent with my father, too, so it will always be special to me…”  His eyes widened without warning.  “That was half a lifetime ago…”

The young woman was suddenly aware how deafening the cicadas were this year as they neared the farm property. “Huh…”  Claire thought of her life at eleven.  Half of her lifetime ago she was still a little girl.  Claire remembered a point in her life when a year would pass by and she was embarrassed of the person she was the year before – ashamed at her immature thoughts or behaviors, the embarrassing fads, the shallow people she befriended and yearned to be like…  The young woman realized that she was entering a new chapter of her life; her emotions were stabilizing and her personality traits were less easily swayed by others.  “I wonder if an eleven-year-old me would have been friends with a twelve-year-old you…”  She mused aloud.

“Probably not,” The young man blushed with a soft chuckle. “I was reckless, loud, and obnoxious.”  He looked down at his hands and played with his fingers bashfully.

She stared at him in surprise. Those words hardly described him at all now, and she couldn’t picture him in her mind.  The young woman stared up at the colorful sky and imagined a rowdy young boy with muddy cheeks, scruffy brown hair hastily tied back, and twinkling deep blue eyes.  She wasn’t blind to the way Cliff acted around Ann this evening; he definitely had a playful side to him, and he had a latent confidence that was rarely seen.  Cliff laughed and joked with Claire a bit when they were together, but it was more reserved than the young boy she imagined he was.  “I bet you were really cute and endearing,” A warm smile spread across the farmer’s face.

She was given a hearty laugh in response, but her companion had turned a deep shade of red. “I don’t even know how to respond to that,” He admitted with a snort.

“Y-You don’t have to deflect it, if that’s what you’re thinking,” The young woman responded honestly. “Besides, it’s not like you’re an old man now that you’re… twenty-four years old,” She pretended to gasp at the number.

“I-I know that! I-I’ve just… changed a lot since I was a kid…”  Cliff’s eyes had a faraway look to them as he stared out at his friend’s fields of tomatoes and corn.  The seeds were growing at a rapid rate.  Claire’s farm no longer looked like a large plot of tilled dirt; it was growing and transforming into something new.

The young woman twisted a piece of her long blonde hair in her fingers. “We all change a lot when we grow up, but deep down you are still the same person…”

His gaze didn’t move from the corn; Claire saw him blink a few times and swallow. “Th-Thanks.”

They stood in silence for a few minutes, taking in the beautiful scenery.

“Well, I guess I’d better head back to the inn,” The brunette gave her a playful smile. “S-See you later, Claire.”  He gave her hands a friendly squeeze and headed back to town.

The farmer’s heart and face both felt warm as she watched his ponytail sway in the summer breeze; he had an extra spring in his step that he didn’t have on their way here. Despite what he thought, there still was something very endearing about the gentle young man.

Chapter Text

“Are you returning or renewing?”

The young woman gazed down at the worn leather cover of the book pensively. “Hmmm…  I was going to return it, but now that you mention it, I think I’d like to renew instead.”  The farmer had consulted the book several times since she initially borrowed it from the library; it had become a sort of rulebook to her new life.

The librarian gave her a kind smile and stamped the inside of the cover with a fresh stamp as she retrieved the sign out card in one fluid motion. “I just need your name here, please.”

The blonde printed her name in tidy, round letters and pushed the card back across the reception desk. She glanced around the room in surprise as she realized that she was the only visitor this afternoon.

Mary noticed the farmer’s curious stare and bit her lip. She adjusted her glasses as her eyes focused on the slip of paper.  “Y-Your name has a nice ring to it.”  She sputtered.

The farmer was flattered; her attention brought back to the person who was actually present at the library today. “Really?  I always thought my name was pretty boring myself.”  She chuckled softly.

The librarian let out a bitter laugh. “You want to hear a boring name?  Mary Brown.”

While Claire did have to admit that the name wasn’t overly embellished, it sounded perfectly fine to her. She expressed this with a shrug and got a pained gaze in response.

Mary fidgeted with her sleeves, avoiding eye contact. “Th-That’s why I always try to write my characters with interesting-sounding names…  I wish my parents could have at least given me a less common first name to make up for my last one.  Maybe something like Olivia, or Daphne, or Gwendolyn…”  The librarian bit her lip as she fussed with the dark braid that rested across her shoulder.

“Just because your name isn’t rare doesn’t mean that it isn’t a nice one,” The farmer chimed in.

She got a shy smile in response. “Th-That’s really kind of you to say… Sp-Speaking of wr-writing…”  Mary pulled her notebook out of the desk drawer and gingerly placed it on the surface between them.  “W-Well…  I have the next chapter done.  Pl-Please give it a read if you have the time and let me know what you think,” Mary wrung her hands nervously.

They both knew that this meek request was near impossible for Claire to refuse when those dark eyes were filled with such supplication. The farmer gave her a civil smile; she didn’t feel comfortable with the desperate way the librarian was looking at her.  The blonde had arrived at the library already eager to hear more about the exploits of Viola Remmington, the instructor of herbal medicine, and she was pleased to see that a new chapter was ready for reviewing.  “Sure,” She courteously accepted the offered notebook as Mary offered her a red pen with a trembling hand.

“I-I’ll be upstairs. Just come and get me when you are finished.  Thanks again, Claire.”  The timid librarian hurried up the creaky wooden stairs.

The blonde walked over to one of the tables and sat down. She got more comfortable in her chair and flipped the notebook to where she had previously left off.  The young woman read the first paragraph three times before moving her eyes up from the book and looking incredulously around the room.  Claire was a little bit grateful that Mary wasn’t present; she was sure that the both of them would be embarrassed at the farmer’s behavior.

Curious, she turned back to the previous pages. Yes, it was the same hurried scrawl from before; Mary had definitely penned this.  If it weren’t for the distinct handwriting, she would have thought someone else had vandalized the writer’s work.

It was awful.

This wasn’t the polished, carefully chosen, hearty writing the blonde had come to expect from the young woman. It lacked detail.  Blatant mistakes, like missing words and punctuation, were rampant.  It was a chore to read and wasn’t enjoyable at all.  Claire’s red pen hovered over the pages; she began to wonder if the librarian was testing her in some way.  Hadn’t Mary said something about only offering up work that had gotten her own approval first?  Claire found it difficult to believe that the writer was actually okay with submitting these words for anyone’s review after behaving so protectively the last time she asked for feedback.

The young woman bit her lip as she stared at the paper in front of her. Although she knew that she wasn’t using the phrase as it was originally intended, those who stated that the pen was mightier than the sword couldn’t have been more accurate; Claire felt like she was holding a syringe of lethal poison as she hesitated over the scrawled lines.  They were the quiet, sensitive young woman’s words, they were her passion; the blonde wasn’t sure at what point she had become afraid of hurting the librarian’s feelings.

She took a deep breath and injected the notebook with red ink. The editor nervously bit her lip as she made her corrections, looking timidly over her shoulder several times.  Claire tried her best to keep her comments in the margins written in an encouraging tone, but it was hard work; her eyes were starting to swim with red arrows and slashes.

Mary had asked for honesty; she was going to get just that.

The farmer let out a sigh and stared at the bloodbath in front of her; strikethroughs, scribbles, injected words and suggestions all danced before her eyes in a red blur. Claire’s hands quivered as she replaced the sheath on her weapon.  She looked down at the smoldering remains of Mary’s words and frowned, slamming the book shut in shame.  She looked at the stairway and her body felt like lead.  The young woman sat in silence for a few moments, rehearsing in her mind what she would say if the librarian got angry or started to cry.  Surely if she upset Mary, Gray would never speak to her again.  Why had she agreed on proofreading for the writer, anyway? 

After a few minutes, Claire found herself at the top of the stairs. She stared at the floor below her, wondering how she had managed to drag her heavy feet up the entire flight.  The librarian was frantically sorting through a stack of books; the farmer almost felt bad for distracting her.  She cleared her throat; it suddenly felt parched.

“S-So you’re finished, then?” Mary whirled around and hurried over toward Claire.  “D-Do you have any questions?  A-Any overall s-suggestions?”  Her dark eyes searched the young woman and Claire gulped with much difficulty.

“Ah… I-It’s a l-little less polished than I’m used t-to seeing from y-you…” Her mouth felt uncomfortably dry.

Mary glanced down at the red-stained pages and she adjusted her glasses. “I-I kind of knew that as soon as I finished writing it…”  She admitted as she gave her editor a rueful smile.

The farmer’s stomach twisted into an uncomfortable knot; the librarian was certainly behaving differently than the last time Claire reviewed her work. “Well, then…  Why did you have me look at it before you fixed it up?”  The young woman’s cheeks felt uncomfortably warm.

Her companion was silent for a moment. She took off her glasses and held them in one hand as she rubbed her forehead.  “I… suppose I just needed to hear someone say that to me…”  The librarian shuffled her feet and stared at the floor with a sad smile as she returned her glasses to her face.

“Well… I’m a little surprised that I was your first choice as editor,” Claire ventured.  She noticed that the pages had been free of red ink when Mary offered her the notebook.  The farmer assumed that she would have allowed her daily visitor to review the work before Claire did, considering they were much closer.

“You don’t hold back with the red pen; that’s a good thing…” The blonde was given an uncharacteristic shrug of the shoulders from the writer.  “I know you put your heart in everything you do…  After all I’ve heard a lot about your farm lately…”  She didn’t say it in an unfriendly tone, but the young woman didn’t exactly sound too pleased about it either.  Mary’s eyes didn’t move up from the floorboards.

Claire contemplated the librarian’s statement. In those few words, she had said a mouthful.  The farmer was bombarded with a rush of emotions – pleasure that Mary’s best friend had probably been bragging about Claire’s hard work and dedication, victory that she had managed to capture the young man’s attention, thrill in that she was being considered a potential rival by the young woman for Gray’s affections… guilt for seeing the pain in those mocha brown eyes...

Claire wasn’t sure what to say in response. She jumped in surprise when she heard Mary’s sudden voice.

“I-I’ll have something better for you next time. Th-Thank you again for editing my story so honestly.  It looks like I’ve got my work cut out for me for this chapter.  I’ll… I’ll take my time with the next one and write something much better…”  The librarian bowed politely and Claire stiffened when she noticed how frequently Mary was blinking her shiny eyes.

The blonde’s throat tightened. “I-I’m sure it will be great,” She stammered as she played at the straps on her rucksack. 

The librarian said nothing in response, but gave a slight nod; they both knew it was time for Claire to leave.

“I-I’ll see you around.” The farmer’s voice cracked.

Mary’s eyes focused on the notebook in her hands. “Yeah…  See you.”  Her voice was pleasant, as was her smile, but her eyes reflected a deep pain.

Trembling, Claire hurried down the creaky stairs, her pounding heart throbbing in her ears. She closed the door to the library a little more loudly than she meant to, and she stumbled back to her farm, more confused than ever.

Chapter Text

“Here, just like this... You’ve got it.  Dump that red wine on my white shirt and you’re dead,” Karen stuck out her tongue at her friend. 

“B-But I-”

“To Mystic Acres and the first tomato flowers of the season! The start of something big!  Cheers!”  The brunette clanked her glass against the blonde’s and took a sip of alcohol in unison with her friend with intertwined their arms.  “See?  Not so hard, huh?”

Claire giggled. “I guess not.”  She touched the beverage to her lips and contemplated the dark, fruity notes of the wine.  This selection was different than Karen’s usual.  It had quite a bit of punch; Claire found that she rather liked it as she smacked her lips in pleasure.

“There, now you have a trick to kick your date up a notch,” Karen winked at her as she took a sip of wine and swirled it in her glass.

The farmer rolled her eyes; the grocer’s daughter enjoyed teasing her over non-existent issues. “H-Hey Karen…”

Her companion took a swig of her wine and looked over at her. “What’s up?”

Claire had been brooding nearly constantly on her interactions with the librarian the day before. “How long have Mary and Gray been friends?”  She moved her gaze to her boots.

Karen took this opportunity to let out a silent sigh as she chugged the rest of her glass and ordered another from the barkeeper via hand signal. “Uh… A few years, I think.  Ever since Gray moved here, anyway…”  She frowned at her friend’s expression; Karen knew that she had provided Claire with the answer she didn’t want.

“S-So they’ve been close for a long time…” The farmer stared glumly into her wine glass and deflated her lungs. Mary definitely had the upper hand…

Karen stared as Doug poured another wine; why couldn’t the barkeeper go faster? “I-I guess…”  She replied evasively.  “You stop by the library or something?”

Claire nodded. “Yeah, I went to get my book renewed.”

The brunette waited for her friend to supply further details, but got none. Quite honestly, she wasn’t in the mood for drawing any out of the quiet young woman.  Doug passed Karen her wine and the pair drank in silence for a few minutes.

The blonde let her thoughts drift into nothingness as she stared around the room. She found it hard to brood around her best friend.  The usual crowd was in tonight; Duke and Basil were sitting together, discussing the different varieties of grapes the winery grew.  In short, the naturalist sounded interested in what type of grape produced the largest yield, and Duke was more focused with what made the best-tasting wine; she couldn’t tell if they were arguing or agreeing most of the time.  It may have actually been an interesting conversation if Claire knew anything about winemaking, but she didn’t.  Her eyes traveled across the room.

Saibara sat at his designated stool on the far end of the bar. He stared off into space with his usual glass of hot sake.  The old man’s facial features were never readable; Claire wondered what went through his head on a regular basis.  She was a little startled when he saw the blacksmith signal for Ann and the waitress took a seat in the stool beside him, giggling and swinging her feet.  They seemed like an unlikely pair, but Claire supposed if anyone could make a grumpy old man like Saibara smile, it was Ann.

Her gaze traveled to the staircase on the other side of the bar. The farmer made frequent trips up those stairs around this time of evening to catch a moment with Gray alone.  She heard the heavy wooden door’s customary loud squeak and saw a grin spread across Karen’s face as she took another swig of her drink.  Claire didn’t have to turn around to know that the chicken farmer had arrived; the blonde took this as her cue.

“W-Well, I should probably be getting ready to head back home… B-But first…”  Claire’s eyes drifted longingly toward the well-worn oaken stairs.

Karen snorted and raised her eyebrows. She knew all too well of her friend’s little habit; in truth, the entire town did.  The grocer’s daughter tried her best to stamp out any wayward rumors about Claire that she overheard in the town square, but it was difficult when the farmer visited the infamous Bachelors’ Pad on a near-nightly basis.  Now that the room for long-term guests was full with three tenants, Karen’s mother giggled with her friends about how lucky Ann was that her father was collecting handsome young suitors for her and gathering them all in one room.  Sasha had once tried to drag Karen into this conversation and the young woman rolled her eyes, stating that Ann could probably beat each of them in an arm-wrestling match, spitting contest, or belching competition.  Manna had implied not-so-subtly that if Ann didn’t pick out a boy in that room she wanted, a certain blonde farmer was going to snatch one up first.

Granted, Claire never stayed up there for too long, and she was anything but predatory, but it was enough to give bored housewives something to talk about. Karen had been furious at Manna’s insinuation, but the brunette kept quiet and headed over to Rick’s, more willing to listen to him rant about misbehaving chickens and a particularly poorly-behaved cock than listen to a few ignorant women blab on about someone they never bothered to get to know.  The grocer’s daughter didn’t have the heart to tell Claire that the farmer was often the subject of gossip.  “Alright, alright.  Go mack on that roomful of boys, you little flirt.”  She kept her tone playful but raised an eyebrow as she finished off her glass of wine and shooed her friend away with the wave of a hand.

“I-I’m n-not! I’m just… saying h-hello!”  Her face felt hot as she slung her bag over her shoulder and flounced up the stairs, oblivious to the curious way the old blacksmith was watching her as he sipped on his alcohol.

0o0o0o0

“You know what? Stop by the Beach Shack sometime and I’ll cook you something special.  What do you like?  I can do snow cones, pizza, inari, baked corn, takoyaki, spaghetti…”

“Ah, those all sound good!” Claire giggled shyly as she played with the straps on her rucksack.

He flashed her a bright smile as he folded his arms across his chest. “I know someone in this inn who could probably eat all of that in one sitting…” Kai chuckled.  “I never pay Ann in all-you-can-eat free food anymore unless it’s leftovers.  That girl can pack it away!”  He nodded in approval; Ann was definitely an interesting woman.

“I’d like to be paid in free food,” Claire remembered the delicious treats from Beach Day. The food he served reminded her of the hot childhood summer festivals with her friends the city.  Cotton candy, taiyaki, roasted corn…  The farmer drooled just thinking about it.  Just the memory of the flavors gave her that carefree, summer vacation nostalgia.

Kai caught the look on her face and the two laughed heartily for a few moments before they were interrupted by Gray, who was clearing his throat loudly.

“I-It’s getting late. Shouldn’t you be getting back to the farm now?”  The blacksmith recited. 

Kai shot him a dirty look. His longtime friend never acted this way around him before…

Claire struggled to hide the disappointment on her face; she seriously doubted he was rushing their conversation so that he could finally walk her home. A new thought popped into her head as a hint of a smile played at her lips.  “Uh, yeah…  I guess so…  I hope you can make something out of the copper I brought…  It was nice meeting you again, Kai.”  She gave the friendly new tenant a wave.

“Likewise. Have a good night, Ms. Dumont.”  He bowed to her with a great flourish, flashing her a charming grin.

“And you as well, Mr. Alana,” Claire returned with a giggle. Her eyes drifted to the blacksmith’s apprentice and he was folding his arms across his chest as he stood in his corner.  Her heart gave a tiny leap.  He hadn’t offered to walk her, but he had reacted, at least.  “W-Well…  Bye…”  She shyly left and closed the door behind her.  Her face felt too hot; she was getting far too bold.

The farmer had actually given a gift to Gray while Kai was in the room. She had been carrying the scrap of copper in her pack all day and didn’t care that the apprentice’s roommate was there.  The new resident had said nothing about the behavior; he had politely asked how she was feeling since her illness and she realized she had been talking to Kai the whole time instead of Gray.  Maybe she had made the apprentice jealous; she wasn’t blind to his surly mannerisms as she left…  A tiny smirk spread across her mouth.

She was so preoccupied on this potential mini-victory that she almost stepped on the cat in the hallway. The farmer managed to dodge the feline, but she collided with the third tenant in the process.

“Claire, are you okay?” The young man had dropped several packages of herbs all over the floor, but he made no motion to pick them up.

She rubbed her shoulder where she had bumped into her friend. “I’m okay…  I’m so sorry, Cliff.  That was stupid of me!”  Flustered, she gathered up the parcels near her feet.  “I didn’t hurt you, did I?”

Cliff touched his own shoulder while he crouched down to gather some bundles. “Nah, I’m fine,” He offered her a friendly grin, excited to see her today.

The yellow tabby rubbed against the young man’s legs and let out a loud mew, completely unfazed by the fact that she had nearly been landed on by the farmer. The blonde snickered as she knelt down to pet the cat.  “Well, you don’t seem to have any worries,” She gave the feline a reproachful look.

“Ah, The Tabster doesn’t worry about anything,” Cliff laughed. He crouched down and rubbed the cat under the chin with his free hand.  “Do you, Tabs?  You’re the queen of mellow, huh?”  Claire almost laughed aloud at the deafening volume of the cat’s purr; the feline had a silly smile across her face and her eyes were closed in pleasure.  “You know, Claire, you practically jumped in front of me back there; you kind of startled me.”  He chuckled, continuing to load bundles of herbs in the crook of his arm.

“I-I’m sorry!” She repeated and her face felt warm as she hastily gathered up some herb packets, nearly fumbling them in her frenzy.  She wished she could follow the example of the cat and relax.  Why did Gray have to make her emotions go haywire, and why did they have to become exacerbated now and make her look like a fool around Cliff?

“Do you have any worries?”  He asked carefully as they gathered the rest of the spilled items.  His deep blue eyes reflected concern as they stole a glance at her.  The color reminded her of the wild blueberries she picked in the mountains with Karen.

The young woman blushed, but she didn’t answer his question. The grocer’s daughter was the only one the farmer had revealed her crush to and she intended on keeping it that way.  “Here, I’ll help you carry some of these to your room,” Claire insisted; he had been carrying far too many packages to begin with.  Honestly, she wasn’t sure how he had managed to collect so much in one day all by himself.

He was aware that she had dodged the question, but didn’t call attention to it. The young man forced a small smile on his face.  “Th-thanks…  I got a little carried away today.  Your shipping bins are pretty overloaded including the ones in the barn and chicken coop, and I left you a list under your door, like always.”

Claire’s jaw dropped; Cliff’s feat sounded humanly impossible. “W-Wow!  I-I’m glad; that’s awesome!  So this must be the season to get rich, huh?”

Cliff shook his head; herbs didn’t bring in too much on their own, but he had done some rough calculations and had come to the conclusion that he had earned a couple weeks’ worth of rent today. The young man knew he should be feeling good about this, but he was concerned about the future.  “No, that will be in the fall; that’s when I’ll be making the big money.”  He prayed that this autumn would reveal the wildlife he had so desperately been attempting to track since he moved to Mineral Town.

Claire noticed a stray flower among the bundles. It was an especially pretty pink cat with delicate pale petals.  “Ah, were you going to make an offering at the spring?”  He must have been too busy working to stop for a break and thank the Goddess.  She carefully picked it up and held it out to her friend. 

The young man took it in one hand as he turned a bright shade of red. “Ah… um…  I w-wanted to give you a thank you gift.”  He sheepishly rubbed the back of his neck and held the flower back out to his friend.

For a brief moment, the blonde wondered if he was fibbing to flatter her. Cliff didn’t strike her as the type to lie, and he looked so genuinely flustered over it.  Claire gave him a sympathetic smile; he seemed so nervous.  “That’s really sweet of you, but I don’t know what you’re thanking me for.”

“F-for being such a good friend…” He stared at the floor shyly.

She knew exactly what he meant; the people she spent her time with while she lived in the city could hardly be considered friends. “I’m glad we’re friends, too, Cliff.  Thank you for the beautiful flower.”  She accepted the bloom with her free hand, twirling the stem in her fingers, admiring the pink petals of the wildflower before she carefully tucked it behind her ear.  A grin crept across her face.  “Let’s go out together sometime soon, just you and me.  No work.  No foraging.” 

“O-okay!” She had never seen his cheeks so red; his entire face lit up and his posture became less slouched.  His blue eyes were dancing as he let out a delighted laugh.

Claire found herself giggling. “It’ll be fun!”

“Yeah!” Cliff shuffled the goods in his arms and pushed the door open with his foot.

“I mean, really; you’re going to complain about that?  Most guys-” Kai’s voice trailed off as the friends entered the room.  His eyes snapped to the newcomers.  “Hey, new roomie!  You got any goodies for me?”

“W-Well…” Cliff joined the men at the table and gestured for Claire to follow.  They unloaded their arms of bundles, creating a hefty stack on the table’s surface.  “I found a lot of wild mint…”

Gray snorted. “If you’re giving Kai stuff for his shop, you had better charge him for it.  Don’t just give it away!  Goddess, show a little backbone!”

Kai stared at his friend incredulously; the young man’s short temper was quickly wearing through the cook’s normally thick skin. “What crawled up your ass?  A bit of friendly banter is allowed here, no?  I said nothing about a handout!”

The apprentice didn’t say anything, but reddened and tugged his hat lower on his face to conceal it.

“Welcome back, Lady Claire,” The young man adjusted his purple bandana and gave her a kind grin. “Don’t worry about the Duke of Grumpington over here.  Someone as sweet as you is welcome here any time,” He gave her a playful wink and the farmer felt herself relax a bit.  The encouraging tone he spoke with made her worry dissolve, and she realized that his flirty mannerisms and words were just part of his outgoing personality.  Kai had been very honest with Claire when they met on beach day, complimenting the young woman on her appearance and confessing that he liked beautiful women the same way someone might declare that red is their favorite color.  “Cute flower.  Did your buddy get that for you?”  His eyes traveled between the two friends.

The young woman’s hand flew to the blossom in her hair and she shyly nodded her head, subduing the curious feeling in her stomach as she looked among the three roommates. Gray had leaned back in his chair with an expressionless face, Kai had a smile across his lips as he sat in a very relaxed posture, twiddling his thumbs, and Cliff’s head was down as he sorted through his packages of herbs with trembling hands and she could see that his ears were red.

“Mineral Town is a nice place,” She replied, folding her hands in her lap. “The people here are very kind.”

“I-I agree,” Cliff chimed in, looking up and giving his female friend a bashful grin.

The happiness faded from Kai’s face for a brief moment, but he quickly recovered. “Well, some people are, I suppose.  Everyone at the inn is cool, at least.”  He let out a laugh for good measure.

Claire was familiar with his tone of voice and facial expressions; she had seen them often enough when she had caught her own reflection in the public restroom mirrors at the nightclub and the office back in the city. The lack of enthusiasm, the sad eyes despite the grin and hollow laugh…  Kai had been bullied.  The young woman bit her lip; she couldn’t see why someone wouldn’t get along with the friendly, charismatic young man.

“I always feel like I’ve got an extended family here at Doug’s, and this year I’ve got a new brother!” Kai beamed at his newest roommate.  “Welcome to the family!”

“Ah… F-Family?”  The color drained from Cliff’s face and he wiped his sweaty palms off on his pants.

His roommate let out a hearty laugh. “Sure!  You can be my little brother; I’ll keep you out of trouble!  Me and Gray got your back!  That’s what big brothers do, right?”  He gave Gray a nudge and the two chuckled.

Both roommates were oblivious to the ghost white face of the forager. The young man forced a pained smile on his face, but the look in his eyes was pleading for the conversation to end.  He closed his eyes for a moment, his eyebrows furrowed.  She watched as he slowly relaxed them, the worry lines fading from his forehead.  He swallowed and greeted the world with open eyes that were void of emotion.  Claire stared at him in concern, her heart pounding in her ears; her friend’s behavior was disturbing, to say the least.

“I’d think if anything, Cliff could keep you out of trouble, Kai,” Gray smirked, tugging on the bill of his cap.  “That kid goes to confession every day.”

A set of deep brown eyes widened. “Every day?  Damn…  So what are you in for?  Adultery?  Bank heist?  Genocide?”  His laughter faded when he saw his companion shaking his head emotionlessly, growing paler still.  The cook realized he had crossed some sort of line and pulled off his bandana, setting it on the table, revealing dark, disheveled hair underneath.  “Hey, sorry man…  That was unfeeling.”

It took a few moments for Cliff to take down the barrier he had put up. He blinked a couple of times and flashed his roommate an empty smile.  “I-It’s fine…”

Kai shook his head, keen on the consoling look the young woman was giving her friend. His eyes traveled back to the brunette and he was aware of the lack of real emotion in his face.  “No, it’s not.  People are insensitive to me, and I shouldn’t spread the negativity.  Forgive me.”

Cliff’s facial expression mellowed out. “Already done.”

“So…” The apprentice’s eyes traveled to the farmer.

Kai quickly cut him off. “Ann’s birthday is in a few weeks.  There’s still time to order something from Won.  What do you guys wanna do?  Joint gift?  Individual?  I’ll do the cake!”

“You’ll have to fight with Doug on that one, and you know it,” Gray reminded him as he shifted in his chair; grateful for the change in conversation topic.

Kai rolled his eyes, running a few fingers through his messy hair. “Like Ann’s going to get upset about two birthday cakes.  I’m doing it!”

“I-I’m going to make her something,” Cliff’s voice was soft as his eyes traveled to the corner of his room where he kept his belongings. “I’ve got a deer hide left over from last season.  I’m going to make her a holster for her cooking utensils.”

Claire’s eyes widened; she had forgotten that another birthday was coming up. Perhaps she would make something as well; the notion of a handmade gift gave the farmer a warm, fuzzy feeling inside.  Her heart gave a throb of guilt.  If she had known in advance about Cliff’s birthday, she could have made him something.  Her eyes traveled to the basket of bamboo shoots in the young man’s corner of the room; she felt bad about the hasty gift, but she felt a little relieved to see that he had been eating them.

“Don’t do that! You’re essentially providing her an ammunition belt!”  Gray shook his head emphatically as Kai roared with laughter.

“That sounds awesome! I want one for my birthday, too!”  The young man grinned.  “I promise I’ll pretend to be surprised!”

“I’ll need to think of something, too,” Claire mused aloud as she straightened the stacks of mint on the table; the smell was crisp and delicious and made her feel relaxed. “Wh-What are you going to get for her, Gray?”  She played with the ends of her blonde hair.

The young man shrugged. “Probably a bag of candy.  Maybe I’ll buy her a huge jawbreaker so that she has to pace herself,” He smirked, tugging on the bill of his cap.

“Or break her teeth!” Kai chuckled.

“Hey, be nice!” Claire’s grin at the young man hardly made it look like a scolding.

“She’s right,” Gray quipped, “Ann would never do that! She eats efficiently!  If anything, she’ll attempt to swallow the whole thing in one go.”

Cliff turned pale. “Gray…  Don’t give her one.  She… might just try that.”

“Ah, I guess you’re right... I’ll get her something that young children can handle just fine,” The apprentice replied with a smug grin.

The brunette gave him a relieved smile; it seemed he really didn’t trust how far Ann would push her limits. “Good…”

Claire looked around her; all of the smiling faces were making her giddy. She loved this feeling, being surrounded by happy people.  Her heart throbbed as she savored the moment.  Claire listened with eager ears to the young men’s banter and was pleased to hear that the quiet brunette added his own parts to the conversation here and there.  The young woman nodded and laughed where it warranted it, but she found her eyes traveling between the apprentice and the forager.  The two of them were so very different from one another, but they managed to get along just fine under the same roof.  She got the distinct feel that Kai and Gray had been close friends for years, and the combination of personalities in the room was interesting.  Claire cupped her chin on the heel of her hand and stared at the pile of herbs, admiring the delicate veins on the lush green leaves, feeling her eyelids droop.

“Getting tired, Claire? I’ll take you home,” Cliff’s voice was gentle as he gave her a kind smile.

The young woman sat up and blinked her tired eyes a few times, suddenly aware that she had started to drift off.

“Don’t fall asleep on us, now!” Kai grinned.  “We’ll see you later!  Thanks for the encore appearance!”

Gray gave her a friendly nod. “See you.”

Claire waved goodbye to the roommates as Cliff opened the door for her. “Good night!”

Her energy returned to her as she saw the grin on her friend’s face. “It was nice getting to chat with you and the guys together.”

“Yeah. It seems like a lot of fun here,” She admitted, smiling at the yellow tabby in the hallway curling up for the night; it looked like Claire wasn’t the only one off on their way to dreamland.

“It… is fun.”  His face lit up in realization of this as they walked down the hallway.  Cliff flashed his companion a grin as they bounced down the stairs, side by side.  Maybe he really could have a new family and friends here; it was becoming less of a dream and more of a reality.  “Ah, w-wait!”  He halted the blonde at the bottom of the stairs.

“Huh?” His friend stopped suddenly looked at him curiously, her eyes moving back to the top of the stairs.  Did he forget something?

The pink cat was falling out of Claire’s silky locks from her romp downstairs. The young man moved a trembling hand toward her, but retracted it quickly, reddening.  “Ah, you’re losing your flower,” He shyly gestured to his right ear.

The farmer ran her fingers through her hair, sifting out the stem. “Oh, thanks.  I’m going to take it home and put it in my vase.”  She carefully tucked it back behind her ear and when she looked up at her friend, she was aware that his eyes had been glued to her.

Cliff didn’t say anything, but he was staring at the young woman in a very particular way that gave her stomach a curious jolt and a surge of warmth spread through her body. Those eyes were a very nice color, Claire decided.  She gave him a friendly smile, unsure of what to make of the strange sensation.  “Sh-Shall we?”

“Of course.”

The pair walked past the bar together, giving the waitress a kind wave as they did so. The redhead’s eyes were drawn to the new addition of the beautiful flower in the blonde’s hair as Cliff opened the door for her; he was looking at Claire with those wide blue eyes again and, surprisingly enough, the farmer appeared to notice this time.

Ann bit her lip and tightened the white ribbon on her braid as she turned back to the bar, collecting an armload of empty beer steins and hurrying back to the kitchen.

Chapter Text

Claire opened the door to the church. It was usually a pretty quiet building, but it was absolutely silent today.  Carter looked up at her from the altar and gave her a friendly nod, quickly putting his finger to his lips with a playful grin.  He cocked his head in the direction of the young man sitting in the front pew and looked back at her, beaming.

The young woman could tell that Carter was playing some sort of game, but she was confused. She shrugged at him, quickly aware that rule number one was no talking.  Carter let out a melodramatic yet silent sigh and pointed at her, drew a smile on his face with his forefingers, and then pointed at Cliff.

Claire nodded. Carter wanted her to cheer up their friend.  She crept along the left wall of the church, and Carter grinned at her.  She got to the far end of the pew and stole a glance at Cliff’s face.  His deep blue eyes were wide, but his emotions were unreadable as they bored into the stained glass windows across from him as if they would reveal the mysteries of the universe if he stared long enough.  The young man almost looked like he was searching for something as he sat silently, spellbound; Cliff was brooding again.  Based on previous experiences of finding him this way, it was likely he had spent the whole day here, forgetting that the entire world existed.  Claire frowned and her heart suddenly ached with an indescribable pain; she hadn’t seen her friend like this for quite a while.  She looked up at Carter, who still had that silly smile plastered across his face.  Maybe sneaking up on Cliff wasn’t such a good idea, and perhaps some quiet company was all he needed instead.

The priest pointed at her and made a subtle walking motion with his fingers and motioned for her to duck down.

He wanted her to crawl between the pews?!

Claire gestured at herself with a quizzical look on her face and pointed at the floor, as if to ask if the pastor had gone completely mad. Carter gave her an emphatic nod and her sadness melted away a little.  She stifled a small smile; perhaps he was a little insane, but the priest was very good at Charades.  Claire was aware that if anyone could cheer up Cliff, it was Carter; she considered following his orders.

The farmer never thought that she would see the day when a pastor would encourage shenanigans in a church, but then again, Carter wasn’t like any priest she had met before. Claire had a feeling that disobeying a man of the cloth would probably put her on the Harvest Goddess’s naughty list, and having that mindset didn’t leave her with much choice.  The young woman shrugged as she ducked down and slowly began crawling between the pews as silently as she could.

The farmer had to bite back a laugh when she paused and reflected on how ridiculous the situation had become. What had started as a simple visit to say hello to a friend was quickly turning into one of Stu and May’s “super-secret expeditions” Cliff had described to her while he visited the room at the inn.  She looked under the pew and stopped when she saw her friend’s soft leather footwear.  Her eyes lingered on them for a moment.  They were simple leather moccasins, but she had never seen a pair of shoes so worn out in her life; she’d be surprised if they would hold together for another season, and Claire doubted they actually provided his feet with much protection.  The young woman wondered what kinds of terrain the shoes had carried her friend across – gravely paths, lush grassy fields, cobblestones, rocky mountain trails…  How far had he come from, anyway?  She would eagerly ask him if it wasn’t for the fact that he seemed deeply wounded to provide so much as miniscule details about his past.  Claire snapped out of her trance as she remembered her task at hand.  To be honest, she was surprised he hadn’t noticed her yet.  The young woman slowly rose up from behind him with a straight face and Carter had to turn around to stifle a laugh, which he poorly disguised as a cough.

Claire froze; but Cliff was still off in his own little world. She leaned forward, suddenly realizing she hadn’t thought of what she was going to do once she actually got there.  She edged closer and stared at the back of her friend’s head.  His ponytail fell just over the edge of the pew; the tips of his chocolate brown locks faded into blonde.  All of his time outside fishing and foraging must have sun-bleached his hair a bit, she realized.  Claire found herself staring in fascination at it. Beauty wasn’t a word she simply threw around, especially for men, but her friend’s tresses gleamed in the sunlight pouring through the window.  She picked up subtle hints of blonde and red in his healthy locks, and beautiful was the first word that came to mind. 

Her eyes flicked to the priest and her face felt hot; she was losing focus of her goal. Claire’s gaze returned at the back of her friend’s head.  It may have been because she just spent so much time admiring it, but giving his hair a tug seemed a little too mean-spirited.  She would have to do something else.  Her eyes moved to his ear; she didn’t want to yell and scare him, either…  Cliff needed tenderness today, not a bully.  A grin spread across her face as an idea came to her.

“Guess who?” She whispered playfully into his ear and covered his eyes with her hands.

He immediately jumped, nearly slamming his head back into her. For a brief moment, his body language suggested he thought he was being attacked.  He calmed down as he appeared to remember he was in a church with the priest present.  “W-who?”

“You gotta guess,” Claire teased, noticing that his ears had turned bright red.

“C-Claire?” There was a hint of hopefulness in his voice.

She knew that she had made it painfully obvious, but the way he had said her name with the slightest touch of eagerness caused a pleased chuckle to escape her lips. Perhaps she really did have the power to cheer him up.  “Yep!” She grinned and rested her hands on the back of the pew.

“Wh-what are you doing here?” Cliff whirled around to look at her; his face was flushed. He looked startled, but excited to see her.

Carter laughed; he had thoroughly enjoyed the farmer’s performance. “You’ve let yourself get very rusty from last hunting season if you didn’t notice her, Cliff.”

“I-I wasn’t expecting someone to surprise me like that,” The young man was embarrassed as he stammered, looking down at his feet. “S-So, what are you doing here?” He repeated; surely she didn’t come to the far side of town to see him

It was a good question; the farmer didn’t have an immediate answer for him. She had wandered from her farm to the far side of town without much thought, and she didn’t have any intentions on going to confession today. Claire gave him a friendly smile.  “I came to say hi.”

“Oh… hi!” He laughed, his face easing up a bit.  The farmer was surprised how easily she had knocked him out of his daylong trance.

“Are you doing okay?” She tried to sound cheerful, but her eyes were filled with concern.

“I’m… alright…” He gave her a sad smile.

His friend was eager to see a more genuine expression of relief from what was bothering him. She got the feeling that if he wanted to talk about it, he would bring it up, but maybe an activity outside of the church walls would keep him from dwelling.  “Well, let’s go… do something fun!” Claire suggested, standing up.  The priest gave her a thumbs-up.

“… Like what?” Her friend looked up at her sadly as if such a thing didn’t exist; he was quickly going back into his depressive state.

Claire froze; those eyes he was making hurt to look at. “I dunno…”

The young man began to slouch down again in the pew.

The young woman became more adamant about them needing to go somewhere. She thought of how much fun they had at Beach Day.  The crystal blue water, the glistening white sand, the cheerful squawking of seagulls and the fresh smell of salty ocean air.  Mineral Beach was a peaceful, relaxing place.  “We’re going to the beach,” She announced.

“We are?” He sat back up, and a smile crept back onto his lips.

She became more convinced that she had picked the right destination. “Yeah!  Remember when I said we were going to go out together for fun?  Well, we’re going right now!”  Claire hoped she had come off as assertive yet friendly.  She reached out her hands to pull him up, and she was pleasantly surprised when he zealously took them in his.

“A-Alright…” A grateful expression spread across his face.

0o0o0o0

Claire hadn’t given much thought to what they’d actually do at the beach. It was early evening and the tide was out.  She set down her rucksack under an umbrella and deposited her socks and shoes beside it.  She rolled up her pant legs and her friend did the same.  The farmer noticed the entire process was much more laborious for her friend; the young man almost always had the bottom half of his legs wrapped as if he was prepared go out to hunt or fish, whether or not he was actually doing either of these activities.

Neither of them really said much; they wandered the beach, side by side, staring into the tide pools. The friends stood at the water’s edge for several minutes, feeling the waves wash over their ankles and watching the water pull the loose grains of sand back into the ocean.  Claire loosely intertwined her arm with his and he let out a soft sigh, his eyes never moving from the blue waves.  Perhaps he wasn’t in the mood for talking today, Claire realized.

Cliff finally gave her back a gentle pat before taking his leave of her, walking over to a large tide pool and gazing into it as if he was expecting the Harvest Goddess herself to emerge from it. He hadn’t intended on stealing her attention, but the farmer turned around and found herself watching him, curious as to what was going on through his head.  The young woman joined her friend; she felt that a gentle approach was necessary today, but she wanted to be available if he chose to talk.  They watched the water in silence for several minutes.

“Ivy’s twenty-three today…” He stared into the pool emotionlessly.

Ivy… When had she heard that name?  Claire wracked her brain.  “Ah, your sister,” The farmer assumed Cliff’s sibling had passed away based on the fact that he had always referred to her in the past tense and he was receiving special counseling from Carter, but the way he spoke of her made it sound like she was still very much alive.

He nodded, and she noticed that he had a very distinct grieving expression when he thought of his sister. It had a sadder feel than the usual demeanor he used while sitting alone at the church.  Claire had seen it last when they ate lunch together at the inn.

The inn… Claire recalled her discussion with the roommates and remembered that Ann’s twenty-third birthday would be coming up.  “Hey, she’s almost Ann’s twin, huh?”  The young woman thought that bringing a mutual friend into the conversation might help.

“They’re almost too much alike sometimes.” He picked up a small rock out of the tide pool and threw it into the surf, as if he were rejecting the stone and the idea.  “They have the same smile…  Similar mannerisms…  Sometimes that’s comforting, but other times…”  His voice trailed off.

It reminds me of everything I’ve lost…

“Would it help to talk about Ivy?” His friend ventured.

“I… I dunno…”  He finally admitted.  “I’ve never really told anyone much about her other than Carter.  Sometimes it feels better to pretend I don’t have a sibling at all…”  His voice faltered and he stared back at the water.

She waited for him to volunteer some more information about his sister, but he remained silent, crouching down to study the tide pool more closely, digging his toes into the sand. Claire joined him, poking at the water with a small piece of driftwood.

“People… used to say we almost looked like twins,” He said softly, staring down at his feet.

She imagined a young woman with long chocolate hair and expressive deep blue eyes. “She must be very pretty,” Claire murmured, making ripples in the tide pool with her piece of wood.

She heard the beginnings of a chuckle. “She’d roll her eyes at you if you told her that,” Claire’s gaze moved to her friend and she noticed a hint of a smile on his face.  She wondered if he had picked up on the indirect compliment; his cheeks were lightly pink.  “She was definitely… something…”

He still was referring to her in the past tense; it seemed likely they weren’t currently in contact with each other. Claire wondered if they had some sort falling out, but she knew better than to ask.  She could tell that his couple of sentences regarding his sister had been hard enough for him to get out; the young man almost seemed as if he was missing a part of himself.

“Don’t get me wrong, spending time with Ann helps me more than she could ever know.” He scooped up a handful of water and sand and let it drizzle through his fingers.  The grains dripped onto the ground, creating a structure that resembled an anthill.  “But…”  He bit his lip and continued silently playing in the sand.

His friend edged closer to him and contributed to his creation; feeling the sediment flow through her fingers in such a fluid motion was strangely satisfying.

Cliff’s voice was pensive. “I’ve been thinking about this ever since you and I went out for lunch together...  Things have to change…”

At what point had he stopped regularly stuttering around her? He had already changed so much since they first met.  “Change…”  She echoed him with a murmur as she added to the pile.  That was the very thing she had wanted for herself ever since she moved to Mineral Town.

“Yeah… I have to find a way to be happy here…  I’ve moved so much, but…  I wonder if it was really the locations that were the source of the problem.”  His voice was strangely calm as he stared at the sand.

Claire thought of her time in the city and all of the unhappy jobs she worked. “We have to learn how to make our own happiness instead of hoping it will come to us,” she said as much to herself as to her friend.  She realized her craving for something new had been satiated, but she hadn’t taken the time to enjoy it.  Claire hadn’t really thought about it until now.  She noticed conversations with Cliff were like that; she found herself contemplating her thoughts and emotions a lot more.

Her gaze moved over to her friend; he was continuing with his sand tower as if it were a very important project. The summer breeze played at his shaggy hair, but he didn’t brush it out of his face.  The fading sunlight reflected off of it, almost creating a halo on the top of his head.  Claire liked to think her observation was poetic in the way Mary might describe one of her characters, but the farmer wasn’t sure if her rendering had any deeper meaning; it was simply what she saw, and perhaps that was enough.  Cliff’s thick brows were furrowed in concentration, and Claire wondered if he was deep in thought or just very serious about his sandcastles.  She figured it was the first reason; it seemed the more he had on his mind, the quieter he became.

Claire’s eyes traveled from his face to his body. His skin had become rather tanned since spring, she observed with pleasure.  This was another piece of evidence that that he wasn’t spending all of his time inside brooding.  She looked at her own arms and realized her skin had darkened a bit as well.  She couldn’t remember the last time she had been outdoors enough to get some color on her skin before taking over the farm.  The young woman sheepishly tugged at her sleeves and realized she had achieved the quintessential farmer’s tan. 

Her friend didn’t sport the same tan lines, as he didn’t wear sleeves, and he stopped wearing his bracers in the hot weather. He had been outside, catching fish and foraging; he was providing for himself, Claire realized with satisfaction.  He didn’t have a job, but he was still trying to remain in control of his own life.  They really weren’t that different from each other after all.  His facial features gradually relaxed, and Claire noticed for the first time that Cliff had a very pleasant face when it wasn’t filled with worry.  He looked a bit relieved, as if he had just finished puzzling out something.

“Thank you, Claire.” His deep blue eyes moved up to hers and he gave her an honest smile.  “I’m able to see things more clearly when I’m with you.”

“I feel the same way,” She realized with a grin. When he actually gave her a genuine one, he had such a nice smile; if only she could see it more often…

Cliff had built the sand pile to a precarious height and it toppled over without warning. He let out a delighted laugh.  “It got pretty tall, huh?”

“Yeah!” She giggled as she rinsed off her hands in the tide pool.  Her expression became more solemn as she stared at the remains of their sandcastle.  “After all, we can only handle so much burden ourselves until we crumble apart…”

Her friend looked at her with a thoughtful expression and the smile faded from his face a bit.

“I… I w-want you… to feel like you can talk to me, Cliff…”  The young woman stammered, embarrassed by her own boldness.  Her heart mysteriously thudded in her chest and she was suddenly aware of how hot out it was.  Surely, she had intimidated him with those words…

“Y-you really do, huh?” His voice was hardly audible. Their eyes locked and Claire could see that his face was nearly burgundy.  The brunette’s voice became more confident.  “I’m… going to try my best to stay here permanently.”  His entire face lit up.

Claire’s entire mood lifted. “Good, because it wouldn’t feel like home without you here,” she let out a carefree giggle.

He gave her a kind gaze, but the farmer noticed his eyes were shining at her the same way she noticed the other evening; they were the same color as the ocean.

The tide was coming in; they sat on the end of the pier together and watched the sun’s rays escape over the horizon.

“Beautiful…” Claire murmured, admiring the pinks, purples, and oranges in the early evening sky.

“I wonder if she’s watching the same sunset…” The young man’s expression was unreadable.

Claire rested a caring hand on his shoulder. “I’m sure she is.”

Happy birthday, Ivy, Cliff mouthed as he looked over the azure waves. Wherever you are…

Chapter Text

How her friend was able to fold burdock leaves into little packets so neatly was beyond Claire. She held a small twig between her teeth as she fussed with the large, floppy leaf, sighing as some blueberries spilled into the grass at her knees.  It was a method that took patience, and the farmer was quickly running out of it.  She remembered that Cliff sometimes used his knife to shave down the spine of the leaf so that it was more malleable before loading it with the contents; she realized this was her problem, and she had no blade.  The young woman was foraging by herself today.  She washed the berries off in the stream, popping them into her mouth, deciding to give up on the packets for the moment.

She bit into a particularly sweet berry and relished in the flavor and the scenery around her with a smile, forgetting about her clumsy attempts at what she referred to in her mind as leaf origami.  It was a perfect summer day.  The sky was clear and she could hear birds singing in the high branches of the tree she was resting under.  Some movement in her peripheral vision caught her attention.

Three men were hiking up the mountain trail. They were quite a ways in the distance, but she recognized a familiar cap on the young man trailing several paces behind, kicking at the ground.  Claire’s heart skipped a beat as she threw on her rucksack and sprinted to catch up with him, her mangled burdock leaf and remaining berries spilling out of her lap onto the ground, forgotten.

Claire tried her best to make her reunion with the apprentice appear as more of a happenstance than a fair deal of effort on her part. “G-good morning, Gray,” She tried not to look too out of breath from her run as she dusted off her overalls.

“Oh, hey, Claire.” The young man gave her a wry smile. He was looking around them distractedly, jamming his hands in his pockets as they walked along the trail.

“It’s unusual to see you out here in the mountains,” she commented, shifting her bag on her shoulders.

“Gramps always takes me out on an early morning hike on the days when the shop is closed,” she noticed his voice sounded groggy. She couldn’t tell if this was something he enjoyed or not judging solely from his tone of voice, but his body language suggested annoyance.  “Usually it’s just me and Gramps.”

Claire caught a dangerous glint in his eye; he was staring straight ahead. The farmer looked where the young man’s gaze was focused.  Gray’s roommate had joined them today, and Saibara and Cliff were quietly walking side by side.  They were just out of earshot, but every so often one man would make a comment to the other.  Claire was startled by a sudden scoff beside her.

“We typically go up to the mountain peak to meditate… Well, I attempt to, anyway,” Gray frowned.  “It doesn’t look like that is going to happen today.”  He kicked a pebble along the trail and it fell just short of Cliff.  The young man snorted and folded his arms across his chest, almost a little disappointed that it didn’t hit his roommate.

The farmer was too busy studying the young man’s face to notice that he had kicked anything and assumed he was referring to her company. “Oh, I’m sorry!  I’ll let you be!”

“No, no… It’s not you,” he rolled his eyes and sighed.

Saibara let out a hearty laugh and clapped Cliff on the shoulder and Gray’s glare turned murderous. She noticed that the apprentice got moody when the subject of his grandfather was brought up, recalling the young man’s reaction to Saibara’s birthday gift for Cliff, but Claire had never seen Gray this way before.  It couldn’t be any more apparent that the young man was painfully jealous.

Claire longed to say something to comfort the apprentice, but she wasn’t exactly sure where to start. Gray had a tendency to get defensive when the young woman mentioned anything about the old man.  “You really enjoy your hikes with your grandfather,” she ventured, keeping her eyes focused on her boots.  His strides were longer than hers, but he took them more slowly; Claire couldn’t help but feel like more than just their steps were out of sync.

“… It’s one of the rare times when I’m his grandson and not his apprentice,” Gray murmured.  “We saw Cliff foraging on our way up here, and Gramps was insistent that he join us…  I wish he hadn’t…”  He tugged on the bill of his hat.  “I’m sure you don’t want to listen to this…  You must think I’m a very petty person, huh?”  He gave her an apologetic look, ashamed at his behavior.

Claire shook her head. There were several times when she wished her parents had spent less time with her younger siblings and more with her as a child.  She knew it was wishful thinking, but she still checked her mailbox regularly to see if her mother and father would reply to the letters she sent weekly.  They were mostly just simple reports of her daily farm life and how things were going with her friends, but it would be nice to have some sort of reply that they had actually received them.  Claire moved out of her parents’ house a few years ago and the only real correspondence she had gotten from them was an annual birthday card and a New Year’s card, often with brief messages about how they were doing.  “I don’t see you as petty...” her voice was thoughtful as she watched the pair walking in front of them.

He just wanted to be an important part of his grandfather’s life…

Gray grunted in reply, and Claire took this as an embarrassed affirmation. “I-I’m sorry for being so pathetic.  Don’t get the wrong idea…  I see Cliff as one of my best friends, but it really pisses me off that he has a natural way with Gramps.  I’ve… been trying to get the old man to pay attention to me my entire life.”  He grumbled, kicking at wildflowers as they walked past them.  The pink and yellow petals fluttered into the air like confetti although the overall mood was anything but celebratory.

“It sounds like you love your grandfather an awful lot,” Claire offered gently. She was pleased that he was opening up to her, but at the same time she didn’t want to admit to herself that she felt a little uneasy at his anger.  She wasn’t used to having someone express their unhappiness so directly.  Cliff was very hesitant to say what was troubling him, and it often took hours of sitting in silence or soothing conversations to get much out of him.  Karen had a different method; she played off her worries, laughing them off and refusing to go into detail with them.  Claire was first aware of this when the young woman came over to watch anime with her that rainy afternoon back in spring.  The fact that Gray was so comfortable venting to her always threw Claire off-guard – she was flattered he was willing to confide, but she wasn’t ever sure what she was supposed to say in response.

The young woman was startled when she heard a gruff voice. “You coming or not, boy?”  Saibara turned around to look behind him and Cliff followed suit.  “Oh, good morning, Miss Claire!”  The blacksmith bowed politely.  “Did you come to join us?”  Despite his choice of words, he didn’t look surprised at all to see her, and Claire wondered if he knew she had been back there the whole time.

Cliff’s eyes lit up at the sight of Claire, and he gave her a friendly smile. The young woman wasn’t certain how to react; she was happy that Cliff got along well with the old man, but she was uncomfortable with the tension it was causing with Gray.  She flashed the brunette a quick grin, but her eyes focused on the apprentice.

“Might as well,” Gray grumbled with a sigh. Claire almost took offense to this until she remembered his reassurance earlier that he didn’t mind her company; after all, Claire wasn’t competition for the old blacksmith’s attention.  “We’re just bringing along everyone we find on the way…”

Saibara shot Gray a look that made his blood run cold. He had only received a few of these glares from his grandfather within his lifetime, and he vividly remembered each occurrence.  The old man didn’t need to yell at him; his eyes had said plenty.

Claire didn’t notice Saibara’s gaze; she was focused on her friend. Cliff’s eyes flashed with pain for a very brief moment, but he quickly hid it.  The terrific skill at which he did this horrified Claire; this was a learned response, she realized.  The young woman had seen it before when she was visiting the three roommates at the inn a couple of nights ago.  She understood for the first time how open Cliff had been with her regarding his emotions when it was just the two of them together.  “I’m very sorry, I didn’t realize,” The young man bowed his head and smiled apologetically at the apprentice.  “I’ll just be on my way; s-see y’all later,” he quietly started to head down the mountain, but Gray caught him roughly by the forearm.

“Where do you think you’re going?” Gray fought to keep his voice level and failed. It made him furious that Cliff had to remind him how jealous he was.

The brunette avoided his roommate’s livid stare. “I really should be getting back to foraging anyway,” Cliff replied quietly, but he made no motion to struggle; he was patiently waiting for Gray to release him by himself.

So that he could gather more things for Saibara and his grandfather would tell him again how much he wished Gray was more like his roommate? Cliff’s composed demeanor only made the apprentice more frustrated.  Something inside of young man snapped; Gray’s grip tightened on his friend’s arm until his own hand hurt.  “What the hell is wrong with you?”  Gray yelled.  He wanted him to fight back; he needed him to fight back.  Gray needed someone to validate what he was doing - that wanting Saibara to care about him was worth putting an effort into.  Goddess knew he didn’t have anyone else in his own family to look up to…

Cliff remained silent as he stared at the ground, swallowing the lump in his throat. He had seen the foreshadowing of something like this happening for quite a long time now, and he wanted to avoid unnecessary drama.  The young man thought he’d try his luck and he took a small step away from him, but it was the wrong choice.  The apprentice wrenched his arm violently, begging the brunette with his eyes to at least say something.  Claire winced; she had often admired the blacksmith’s muscular arms, and she could tell his grip was likely going to leave a series of bruises on her friend.  Claire was surprised that Cliff didn’t show some sign that he was in any sort of pain; he looked more annoyed than anything else. 

The young woman wondered if she should say or do something, but she found she was unable to do either; her voice caught in her throat. She was stunned at Gray’s violent reaction to Cliff’s non-confrontational behavior.

“Gray, let go of me.” Cliff’s voice was calm.  He met the apprentice’s gaze.

Claire wondered for a brief moment if Gray was going to punch him. She looked at Saibara, who wore his default emotionless expression.  Apparently, the old man was content with simply watching the whole thing play out.  The young woman bit her lip.  What was she supposed to do?

“Gray…” Cliff was starting to lose his patience; his eyes hardened in a way Claire had never seen before. The young man adjusted his posture more assertively, maintaining eye contact with his friend.  Cliff gave the young man a few more moments as a last chance to release him before deftly twisting his arm out of Gray’s grip.  He carefully took a step back to give the Gray some space, but made no motion to walk away.

The young man tugged on his hat; it was almost as if he had come out of a trance as his rage subsided. He sighed, anger leaving him.  “I-I’m… sorry, okay?  I shouldn’t… have said that, alright?” 

Cliff initially looked unsure of what to say in response; Gray’s words earlier had cut him deeply, but he didn’t want the apprentice to know that. Cliff felt that he should have grown accustomed to being told he didn’t belong in a group over the years, but the brunette found that the pain never really went away.  “… Don’t worry about it.”

Gray flexed the muscles in his hand; they ached. He found that his wrist hurt a bit as well when Cliff had forced him to release his grip.  The apprentice realized with embarrassment what little control he had over his anger as he massaged his wrist, turning away from his friend.  Why was he always making such a fool of himself?  Instead of feeling angry, Gray just felt tired; the young man let out a soft sigh.

Claire found that she had rushed to Cliff’s side. “A-are you alright?” Her face was filled with concern as her eyes traveled over her friend.

“My arm?” He looked down at it and shrugged; she was making a big deal out of nothing.  “I’m fine,” her friend smiled at her, “it’s not like he was trying to hurt me.” 

Claire could already see the beginnings of bruises on Cliff’s forearm and wondered why he was being so casual about it. The farmer wondered if his ability for bringing in money would be hindered by his injury; she was worried about him being able to cover his rent without digging too deeply into his savings.  “… Will you still be able to go spear fishing?” She asked quietly.

Cliff nodded his head as he gingerly rolled his left shoulder a couple of times; he would not admit out loud that he was a bit sore. “I’ve taught myself to be more or less ambidextrous years ago…  Really, I’m fine, Claire,” the young man insisted with a blush; he wasn’t used to having people fuss over him.

“I know that your mother raised you better than to treat your friends like that and to behave that way in the presence of a lady!” Saibara started into Gray furiously.

The grandson pulled his cap over his face, wondering if it was possible for him to feel any more embarrassed than he already was. “I-I’m sorry… Cliff… and Claire…”  Gray wore a defeated expression as he stared at the ground.

The blacksmith was ashamed of his grandson’s outburst. “You must learn to channel your anger into something more productive.”  Saibara snapped.

“I already do!” Gray scoffed, folding his arms across his chest. Claire knew he was referring to his apprenticeship; she thought of how angrily Gray sometimes swung his hammer.

“Good medicine is bitter to the mouth,” Saibara muttered gruffly, continuing up the trail; as far as he was concerned, the conversation was over.

Gray rolled his eyes. The young man looked back over at his friends and reddened, starting up the mountain after his grandfather.  Claire found that she didn’t want to walk too closely with him; she was uncomfortable, to say the least.  She jumped when she felt a light hand on her shoulder.

“Shall we?” Cliff asked her quietly, his eyes following the pair up the rocky path as he adjusted his bag on his right side.

“I-I don’t know if we should,” Claire admitted, kicking her feet in the gravel. She wasn’t sure if either of them were welcome and she was about to suggest they head back down the mountain to town and see what Karen was up to.

Cliff chuckled, and it caught the young woman by surprise. “It would make him feel worse if we didn’t go with them at this point.”  He rolled his shoulder a few more times and stretched his arms, and Claire took note for the first time that Cliff was no slouch; he had some lean muscles of his own.  Gray just had a much sturdier build than his friend, so Claire never really thought of Cliff as physically strong.  “There is no need for you to be afraid of Gray.  I’ve been living with him for around six months now, and he’s much more sensitive than he lets on.”

Claire thought of Gray’s gentleness with Tucker and knew Cliff was right, but the whole situation left her with mixed feelings about the blacksmith’s apprentice. Her eyes kept falling on her friend’s forearm.

“Is he always this rough with you?” Claire was disgusted with Gray’s behavior, and she couldn’t help but be concerned for Cliff’s well-being.

The young man shook his head; Claire really was taking Gray’s outburst much too seriously. If the farmer had sat in on the regular arguments the apprentice had with him, Ann, and Kai, she would realize that Gray was much more bark than bite.  “Honestly, I’ve been waiting for this to come to a head for months now.  Saibara’s the only family Gray has in town,” he explained as he shifted his satchel on his back for comfort, “naturally he wants to have his grandfather’s love and attention,” the young man chose his words carefully.

Why should he have it all, though? Did Gray honestly think he was the only one in town who was lonely?  Claire looked at her friend; Cliff had no family in town, nor did she.  She frowned.  “His tantrum today was still unacceptable.” Claire could feel the blood rushing to her face.  She never thought she would feel the urge to slap Gray; she had proven herself wrong today.

“Please don’t get mad at him for my sake; I’m over it already,” Cliff gave her a small smile and his cheeks had turned pink. “It’s no big deal.”

His voice was gentle, but his eyes were pleading for her to stop worrying about him. “… You handled the situation very well,” Claire looked up at him with admiration, giving him a nod in approval as she shifted her pack on her back.  The two continued up the trail together after the grandfather and grandson.

Cliff flicked out his knife and cut a wild herb as they walked past, chewing on a leaf. “I attempted to play the peacemaker a lot back at home,” Cliff laughed it off, but his face turned redder.  “It didn’t make me very popular with some of the other guys.”  He offered her a tiny sprig.  “Rosemary?”

The young woman nodded, thanked him, and popped a few leaves into her mouth, focusing on the mellow flavor. She was once again reminded that it was a remedy for stress.  “You know…  I thought he was going to hit you,” Claire confessed.  She didn’t think a punch from someone as strong as Gray would feel very nice.

The young man chuckled, swallowing his leaves and rolling his shoulder once again. “You didn’t roughhouse with siblings or friends much, huh?  I would’ve gotten him to back off long before it came to that.”  He ate some more rosemary leaves, biting back a wince and praying for the muscle pain relief to take effect.

By the time they made it to the peak of the mountain, Saibara was already sitting down with his eyes closed. Gray was still standing, and he looked rather uncomfortable.  He walked over to the pair, his eyes lowered to the ground.

“Cliff… I’m sorry.  I…  I just wanted to… be a grandson for a while,” he stammered.  Claire was surprised he was making this confession in front of her as well.  “Y-You get it, right?”

The two men were quiet for several moments; Claire wondered if either of them was going to say anything at all.

“Forget about it. Saibara’s waiting for you.” Cliff replied, cocking his head toward the old man.  “And you’ll always be his grandson.  Nothing will ever change that.”

Gray tugged on his hat and punched the brunette’s shoulder playfully. Claire flinched.  “You sound more and more like Carter every day,” he rolled his eyes at his roommate, took a seat near Saibara, and stared out over the peak of the mountain.

Cliff took a seat further away, giving the relatives plenty of space to themselves. Claire wasn’t sure what to do; she had never really meditated before.  Her friend looked up at her and motioned for her to join him.  She sat down gratefully.  “What am I supposed to do?” She felt out of place.

“Just relax,” he whispered, resting his eyes. “Try focusing on your breathing.  Breathe in for a few seconds, then out for a few seconds.”  He demonstrated a few times for his friend.

“Okay.” The young woman closed her eyes.  Her mind was a jumble of thoughts.  She slowly inhaled and exhaled.  “What am I supposed to think about?”

“Don’t think about anything,” was the soft reply. “Let thoughts come and go through your mind as they please, but don’t focus on them.  Just breathe.”

The young woman briefly wondered if he had learned this technique from Saibara or Carter. She could still taste the rosemary in her mouth.  She filled her lungs with the summer mountain air and relaxed…

“Claire…” Cliff’s voice was gentle.

The young woman snapped awake and her eyes fluttered open. The three men were standing around her, looking down at her.

“I think she was out cold,” Gray snickered.

Claire could feel herself blushing. She rubbed her eyes.  “I-I’m sorry.” 

“It’s not an uncommon experience for beginners,” Saibara’s gruff voice had a friendly tone to it. “Keep practicing and it will help you in your everyday life.”

Claire nodded mutely at the old man, blinking her alert eyes. Cliff had offered her his hand to help her up.  Claire accepted the aid and looked around her.  She was surprised at how energized she felt.

“We were just getting ready to head back down,” Her friend explained.

“Alright.” The young woman was relieved that everyone seemed to be in a good mood.

The group made their way back to the trail and she jumped when she felt a light touch on her shoulder and noticed it wasn’t Cliff.

“Hey, Claire…” Gray tipped his cap at her.  “Uh…  I’ve been thinking…”  He slowed down his walking pace as Saibara passed them.  “Um…”  He gave his roommate a glance, unsure of how to continue his sentence.  Cliff took the hint and walked on the other side of Claire, giving them some space, letting out a silent sigh as he did so.  Gray was not blind to this.  He nervously tugged on the bill of his cap.  “I-I…  I want to improve myself.  Gramps is right…  I need an outlet…  C-Can I come over in a few days to work with you and Tucker?”

Why wasn’t she immediately agreeing? Her words caught in her throat and she wasn’t sure why.  Her eyes moved over to the brunette at her other side, but he was busy pulling some leaves off of another sprig of rosemary.  What was there to question?  Hadn’t she already agreed for him to come over sometime at Cliff’s birthday party?

“Look… I know I was a jerk today…”  He continued, staring at the ground.  “I-I’m not asking you to let me have complete control over how you raise your horse, I’m just asking you to give me a chance to help…”

The humbling words touched her heart. “Of course.”  She nodded and looked forward.

Cliff gave his roommate a kind bob of the head and the three walked down the trail together as Saibara scolded the trio for moving so slowly.

Chapter Text

The two friends stared at the piece of French toast that sizzled in the pan over the hotplate Karen had brought over.

“Wow… So two guys were fighting on the mountaintop for the affections of an old geezer…?” The young woman cocked an eyebrow as she poured herself a glass of water.  “It sounds like a scene out of an action drama, only I pictured a different kind of catalyst for the battle!”  The grocer’s daughter gave her friend a pointed glance and raised her eyebrows.  “Perhaps an attractive female…?”

Claire was about to insist that Karen’s adjective hardly described the farmer, but she kept her mouth shut; the actual conflict that happened up in the mountains had nothing to do with Claire. The blonde rolled her eyes instead, but her face caught on fire as the brunette gave her a playful wink; she was beginning to regret saying anything at all about yesterday’s incident.  Karen was making unnecessary drama.  “It wasn’t really a battle or fight,” she insisted.  “Like I said, it was more of a moment of Gray losing his cool than anything else,” she nervously played with her fingers as she listened to the murmur of the cooking show playing on her television in the background.  She preferred not to think about the second part of Karen’s comment; it brought up a lot of confusing, uneasy feelings.

“Like we’ve never seen that before,” the brunette snorted, prodding the spongy bread with a fork.  “I still say paprika would have been a nice touch…” She frowned at the rather bland-looking contents of the skillet, a single slice of French toast.

Karen had brought along the wrong spice, claiming that the two looked very similar and she thought that she had brought the correct one. “I told you to bring ground cinnamon,” Claire reminded her, “besides, the vanilla we added will make it taste plenty good.”  She glanced up at the television.  “See, Karen?  Look at the show!  Watch Chef B; he does this almost every episode.  He just puts whatever he feels like into the concoction.”

“Chef B sounds like my kind of cook,” Karen giggled, watching the onscreen chef add strawberries and beets to his ramen, immediately turning it a sickly magenta color. “You put in foods you like; I can’t argue with that logic.”

Claire sighed; her friend was missing the entire point. “Well, Chef B often ends up ruining his entry because he doesn’t check to see if the flavors coordinate.”

“Huh…” Karen was staring listlessly at the television screen, ignoring her friend’s demonstration of how to flip the slice of bread in the skillet. “I wonder which of those two guys would win in a fight…”

The bread sizzled loudly as the raw side hit the heat of the pan. Claire giggled and looked up at the television.  The show was called Dueling Chefs, after all…  “Those guys?  Well, I could swear I’ve seen Chef B add a stone to one of his creations, so…”  She didn’t admit aloud that this was one of the few times that the chef’s dish actually won

Karen stared at the blonde, befuddled. “I was talking about Gray and Cliff.  Who would win in a fight?”

Claire considered this and frowned. “I-I don’t think they’d fight, Karen…”  She remembered the scene from yesterday and her stomach twisted uncomfortably.  “I don’t think Cliff would let it get that far,” her voice was soft as she recalled the young man’s words about trying to be a pacifist.

Karen smirked, twisting a strand of hair around her finger. “Ah, so he’s your pick.  Gray does definitely have a lot of strength, though, but I bet he lacks the endurance.  I mean, that mountain boy can run!”  She began to laugh but it soon faded as she remembered the burning in her lungs and pounding in her chest as her friend desperately pulled her along the cobblestone path to Claire’s farm a couple of weeks ago.  She had felt like they were flying, and once they reached the property and Karen saw Claire’s slumped form, her wings broke and she crashed.  The grocer’s daughter swallowed the lump that was forming in her throat.  “Y-You’re right.  It’s a stupid question; they wouldn’t fight.”  She turned back to the hotplate, eager to forget about her memories of the unconscious farmer.  “S-So… I missed you flipping the toast back there…”

Claire pointed at the bread with the fork. “You want it to look golden brown like this.  If you poke it, it will feel solid instead of mushy.”  She dexterously lifted a corner of the bread with the utensil.  “See?  Golden.”  She turned the pan out onto a plate and added oil to the skillet.  “You ready to try?”

Karen pulled her slab of bread out of the egg and milk mixture. “As ready as I’m going to be, I suppose.”  She nervously dropped it into the skillet and let out a small shriek as it hissed loudly.

The blonde gave her a kind smile. “Don’t worry; once you get the basics down, cooking will become a lot easier, even fun!”

The grocer’s daughter gave her a playful punch on the arm. “Well, it’s a heck of a lot more fun than trying to learn from my mom…”  She paused and stared down at the toast in the skillet, her cheeks flushing a bit.  “… Thanks for putting up with me, Claire.  I know I’m a horrible cook.”

She let out a weak laugh. “N-No you’re not!” She insisted, waving her hands defensively, “and I’m not putting up with you; you’re my friend.  I enjoy hanging out with my friends,” she grinned, a warm feeling spreading throughout her body as she bit into her French toast.

Karen cocked an eyebrow. Claire had been much more social lately, especially with particular friends...  “Well, just remember that I’m your best friend,” she stuck out her tongue at the farmer playfully.

The blonde didn’t understand exactly what Karen was hinting at. “Of course!” Claire shot her a grin as she twirled her fork in her fingers.  The brunette had changed her life in countless ways, and Claire was starting to notice that she was starting to speak and behave a little more frankly around the grocer’s daughter.  Karen seemed tickled to receive less formal treatment.  Claire was happy about this as well; she never had close friends growing up and a small part of her had been afraid that she never would.  She cut a small bite for her friend and held out her fork to her.  “Want a sample of what you’re making?”

Karen snatched the fork from the young woman, biting back a snicker as she remembered the blonde feeding the rosy-cheeked birthday boy from her own plate the week before. The grocer’s daughter was content feeding herself.  She took the bite of French toast and chewed thoughtfully.  “It’s good, but I still think the paprika would have done something to it…”

Claire had no doubt that it would have definitely “done something to it”, but she doubted it would be an improvement. “Start with the basics,” she winked at her friend.

“Yeah, yeah…” Karen rolled her eyes.  “So, you’ve still got my swimsuit, right?”

Claire tried to hide the frown on her face; she had hoped to use it more than once before returning it. “I can get it for you in a minute.”

Her friend shook her head. “Nah, I was thinking we could go to the beach this afternoon.  What do you say?”

The farmer grinned as she remembered the fresh, cool water. “Sounds great.  I can’t wait.”  She absentmindedly watched the television program with Karen for a while and her smile faded as she smelled smoke.  “K-Karen!  Flip your toast!”

She swore loudly, attempting to stab the bread through the middle and it ripped. “What the-?!”

“Scoop,” Claire demonstrated with her own fork and the remaining toast on her own plate.

The brunette clumsily attempted the same motion and the bread flopped in the pan, sizzling loudly. The two stared at the charred top of the bread and Claire gave her an apologetic look; she knew she should have been more attentive.

“Looks pretty tasty, huh?” Karen had a genuine grin on her face.

Apparently this was much less burnt than the grocer’s daughter was used to. “Uh, s-sure!”  Claire beamed.

0o0o0o0

“Taking a break, Kai?”

The young man took off his bandana and aired it out. “Yep.  It’s a hot one today, huh?”  He absentmindedly watched Karen and the new farmer girl building a sand castle on the beach.  Kai took a seat on the bench outside his shop.

“It’s good to have you back,” the color rose in Popuri’s cheeks as she sat down beside him.

“It’s good to be back,” he returned with a grin. She was a sweet girl with a bit of spunk to her, and it didn’t hurt that she was easy on the eyes as well.

“Summer’s my favorite season because I get to hang out with you,” Popuri admitted, playing with a strand of her long hair.

Kai nervously wrung the purple square of fabric around his knuckles and stared down at it, frustrated that her words made him feel flustered. The young woman was very forthright with her opinions; he had noticed a not-so-subtle change in their friendship since last summer and, quite honestly, it left him a little baffled.  “It doesn’t bother you that I’m not around all of the time?” He asked carefully.

The young woman shook her head, her cotton candy curls swaying as she did so. Her face lit up and her garnet eyes had such an innocent, joyful glow to them that her companion found himself gaping at her, forgetting about his worries.  “I love the letters and postcards you send me.  Traveling sounds like a lot of fun,” she giggled, “and I know I’ll always see you again in the summer,” she added with a wink.

Kai let out a laugh as he sighed in relief. “Ah, I’m glad you understand…”  He wasn’t looking for anything overly serious right now as far as women were concerned.  He stared back out at Claire and Karen playing on the beach; he didn’t really think of himself as a womanizer, but he’d be lying if he said he wasn’t enjoying the view.

Popuri was watching the pair as well. Her eyes moved back to Kai and she noticed that they were still glued to the women, but she knew better than to take it personally.  After all, she wished that someday she could be as attractive and glamorous as Karen or at least have that simple, yet effective brand of feminine beauty Claire possessed.  Popuri feared that people saw her as a child attempting to play dress up with her ruffles and curls, but Kai had given her a look recently that made her worries fade a bit.  And the glance he had given her was quite different than the one he was giving the girls on the beach, she realized with satisfaction.  “We have the summer to see each other all we want,” she swung her feet.

Popuri had become fast friends with Kai back when he commissioned Gotz to build the beach shack five years ago. Rick had blown a gasket over the mysterious traveler spending so much time with his then sixteen-year-old little sister, convinced that Kai was a cunning pirate who was plotting to whisk Popuri away across the ocean.  She had only seen Kai as a platonic friend for those first few years and she hung out with him mainly to rebel against her brother; but she quickly learned that the cook was a lot of fun to spend time with.  Last summer, Popuri had caught herself openly flirting with the cook, and she was pleased to see that he was doing the same.

“Kai?”

“Huh?” He looked over at her. Her eyes were locked onto the water and she was slouched a bit; Popuri suddenly looked very small.

She swallowed the lump in her throat; her mouth suddenly felt dry. “You don’t have any girlfriends at the other towns you visit, do you?” She stammered, avoiding his gaze as she stared out at the beautiful aqua waves.

The question caught him off guard and he felt an itch of annoyance as he bit his lip. Kai shook his head.  “Your brother said that, didn’t he?”  No doubt it was another one of Rick’s plots to keep Popuri from seeing him.

The young woman looked at him earnestly; she had to know what Kai really thought of her. “He implied it,” she admitted, craving to hear his reaction.

He snorted, shrugging his shoulders; he was at his wit’s end with Popuri’s sibling. “Well, your brother can go to hell.”

Satisfied with his answer, Popuri giggled and gave him a kiss on the mouth; the tanned young man jumped a little in surprise, but he was more than happy to go along with it.

“HEY!” Rick’s voice echoed across the beach as he stomped towards the pair.  “WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING?!”

Claire looked over at the poultry farmer in surprise. She had never heard anyone yell that loud in her life.  Karen stood up and watched her childhood friend storm through the sand.

“Goddess…” Kai groaned when he heard the young man’s bellow. Of course Rick had to enter the beach at that very moment…

Popuri glared at Rick and gave Kai a few more kisses out of spite for her brother. The cook was so pleasantly surprised he forgot that he was supposed to be hesitant.

“I thought I told you to stay away from my sister!” Rick growled as he caught his breath. The uneven sand, coupled with his unbridled rage, left the young man a bit winded.

Kai opened his mouth to speak, but Popuri interrupted him. “I came here to see him!  He’s my friend, Rick!  Why is that so hard for you to accept?!”

Claire found it hard not to eavesdrop on the conversation. For one thing, everyone was speaking so loudly the entire town could probably hear.  Secondly, the subject matter was incredibly juicy; as much as she told herself she would not butt her nose into others’ affairs, she was finding it nearly impossible to stand there quietly and ignore the conversation.  Thirdly, Karen had left her side and was slowly approaching Rick.

“Friends don’t… h-hang all over each other like that!” Popuri’s brother stammered, adjusting his glasses before they fell off of his face.

“Well, Karen’s right here; why don’t you give it a try? Maybe you’d be less of a jerk!” The young woman retorted as she hugged Kai’s arm, daring her brother to challenge her.

“Wh-Wha-?” Rick whirled around to see his friend standing behind him and he turned a bright shade of red. “K-Karen!”  He didn’t question why she was there; he was desperately seeking an ally.  “T-Tell Popuri she’s b-being disgusting and inappropriate!  She listens to you!”

The brunette blinked at him and turned toward the couple. She looked back at Rick and shrugged.  “I don’t see anything gross.”  She raised her eyebrows when she got an impatient stamp in reply.  “And I’m not her parent,” she added pointedly.

Rick bit his lip until it threatened to bleed. “What exactly are you getting at?”  He couldn’t tell which woman he was angrier with.

Karen flipped her hair over her shoulder. “Exactly what I said.  I never mince words with you.”

Kai shot the young woman a grateful look and Rick was not blind to this. That meddlesome traveler did nothing but fool around and charm women; he had Popuri and Karen both wrapped around his finger! Rick was so furious he had trouble wording a proper sentence.  “B-But… th-they…!”

The brunette put a warm hand on his shoulder. “…  Kai isn’t a bad guy, Rick…  You need to-” her green eyes widened when her friend shrugged off her touch.

“Y-You’d know all about him being so great!” He spat, whirling on his heel and storming off the beach.

Her voice dropped threateningly and the poultry farmer halted in his tracks. “Rick, don’t you dare walk away from me!”

“I-I can’t deal with this right now,” his voice cracked as he took a step toward town.

The young woman’s patience broke. “I thought you wanted to be a man,” Karen chided, folding her arms across her chest.

Her words had stunned him. Rick froze and stared at her, pain reflecting in his eyes.  “Really, Karen…?”

“Yeah, really,” the brunette walked over and linked her arm with Claire’s, much to the farmer’s surprise. “Come on; the three of us are going to the Goddess Spring.”

The blonde’s heart pounded in her chest. She was going to be accompanying the two friends during what was going to inevitably turn into an argument?  The young woman gave her friend a questioning look, but she was met with a confident smile in response as Karen pulled her closer.

The young man stared at the couple on the bench with frustration. Kai and Popuri were sitting side by side rather stiffly, each with a thin line for a mouth.  “And what if I refuse?”

The farmer watched curiously as Karen let out a soft chuckle and ran her fingers down his arm before taking his hand. He shivered slightly, color rushing to his cheeks.  “You and I both know that’s quite impossible.”  Claire couldn’t tell if the brunette was being flirtatious or threatening.  The blonde watched in surprise as the young man grasped his friend’s hand gratefully and turned toward Karen.

I-I’m making the decision to join you,” he replied carefully, pushing his glasses back on the bridge of his nose with his free hand.

She knew exactly how to work him; they grew up together, after all. Karen gave him a playful smirk.  “Of course you are.  Lead the way, Rick.”

0o0o0o0

The walk to the spring was pleasant enough. Karen and Rick made small talk as they passed through Claire’s property, and the poultry farmer very impressed with the amount of corn the farmer had planted.

“The first ears are just ready to eat; I’m going to be harvesting a lot tomorrow morning,” Claire nodded proudly. She stared out at the tidy rows of corn, overwhelmed for a moment.  It looked like a farm

Rick’s eyes curiously scanned the fields. “Yeah, that’s a lot of corn…”  A grin played at his lips as he adjusted his glasses.

The trio sat in the grass in front of the Goddess Spring and Claire waited quietly, her stomach twisting in anticipation. The walk here had been suspiciously peaceful; she didn’t have to wait long for their argument to un-pause.

“You know you’ve been pushing them together, right?” Karen’s voice was soft as she stared at the waterfall.

“Wh-What?!” Rick glared at her.  “I’ve been trying to keep them apart!”  He gritted his teeth while he balled up his fists.

She shook her head. “What do you expect her to do, Rick?  You won’t let her help out at the farm.  Where else is she supposed to go?  I bet you’d suggest she go the church every day, but then you’d get mad because that’s Cliff’s haunt.”  The brunette stared at him and shook her head.  “Heaven forbid Popuri interact with a male…”

The poultry farmer snapped and slammed his fists on the ground. “I-It’s not like that!” He retorted, rage welling up from within him.  “And I should be the one that’s angry!”

The grocer’s daughter hadn’t really been angry until Rick said this. She was tired of playing nice.  “Well, it just happens that Popuri is my friend!” Karen frowned.  “Do you have any idea how worthless you make her feel?”

“Worthless?!” Rick spat, “All I’ve ever done for her is try to handle her the way Dad would! She gets treated like a damn princess!”  There was a not-so-subtle tone of jealousy in his voice as he stared at the ripples on the Goddess Pond, almost frustrated that the scenery looked so tranquil.

“You are not her father…” Her voice trailed off as her anger melted.  “And no one expects you to be.”  She stared into her male friend’s eyes.

Claire was starting to wonder why she had been dragged into coming along; she was starting to feel very uncomfortable. She looked up in surprise as she saw Cliff silently creeping out of the Spring Mine, slipping a heavy gauntlet off of his right arm and massaging his left shoulder.  Their eyes met for a brief moment and the color drained from his face; he looked like a spooked deer.  His hands immediately fell to his sides in response.  The young man gazed at the tension on Rick and Karen’s faces and gave Claire a comforting smile and nod in greeting as he noiselessly snuck behind them to head back into town.

The poultry farmer bit his lip as he fumbled to form a proper sentence to express his complicated emotions. “… Popuri deserves a father…” Rick stared at the water miserably.  “And she deserves a man who will stay in her life; not someone who just goes gallivanting around…”

“Are we talking about Rod or Kai?” Karen asked quietly.

They were quiet for a long time.

“Both, I guess…” He admitted with a sigh.

“You can’t do it all,” Karen took her hand in his and traced her fingers along his knuckles. “We’re all only human.  Don’t think of this as a bad thing... but… Kai can help ease that burden in a way…”

“I don’t trust him.” His voice was curt.

Claire noticed that Karen was struggling to find the right words as she stared at the ground. “I know that…  But I’m asking you to try.”

Rick looked at her with burning cheeks. “I don’t want him to toss her aside like an empty paper cup once he gets bored with her.”  His gaze shyly returned to the ground as he slouched his shoulders.

A rush of anger coursed through the grocer’s daughter as she clenched her jaw. “I-I told you…  Our breakup was mutual,” Karen let go of his hand and fussed with her brown locks.  “I-If anything, I broke up with him…”

Claire’s jaw dropped; she had no idea that Kai and Karen had once been a couple. Her friend had mentioned nothing of the sort, and she found that it made her feel a little hurt and left out for not receiving this information.  Karen seemed to sense this and shot Claire an apologetic look before turning her focus back on Rick.

The brunette decided she might as well give Claire a shortened version of her history with Kai. “It was a short fling,” she shrugged.  “It was years ago.  I’d hang out at the snack shop and we’d sit out on the docks together.  When summer ended, we both decided to move on.  It was fun while it lasted, but there wasn’t anything… solid there, you know?”  She looked at Rick; surely he had to understand this.

The poultry farmer swallowed the lump in his throat. The traveler had stolen Karen’s first kiss, and he would never forgive him for that.  Rick had secretly longed for that precious gift for himself for several years, but he could hardly say that aloud.  And now Kai was hanging out with his little sister…

“Kai really is a good guy,” Karen repeated quietly. “He wasn’t for me, but that doesn’t mean that he wouldn’t be great with Popuri.”

“I-I don’t want to talk about that right now…” Rick took off his glasses and wiped them nervously.

Karen leaned against her friend, her brown hair brushing against his shoulder. “I’m over him, Rick.  It’s about time that you were, too.”  She looked at him with wide eyes.

His cheeks flashed crimson as he scooted closer to her, but his posture immediately stiffened when he remembered Claire was sitting with them. He nervously cleared his throat.  “I-I g-guess you may h-have a point…  I…  I-I c-can’t guarantee it will happen overnight, though…”

Karen gave him a friendly smile as she sat up. “I thought I already said that we’re only human,” she giggled, standing up.

“Y-Yeah…” Rick wiped his sweaty palms off on his apron and gave her a crooked smile as he got up.

Claire bounced up, a little jittery at the display she had witnessed. She shyly followed the pair back toward town.  Rick and Karen started up their small talk again, and Claire noticed that it soothed her this time.  The trio stopped in front of Claire’s farmhouse.

“Well, thanks for hanging out with me today, Claire,” Karen gave her friend a swift hug as an unspoken apology for the argument she was dragged into. “See you soon?”

Claire nodded. “Of course.”

The brunette turned toward Rick. “I’ll meet you at the bar in a minute, okay?” Karen winked at the poultry farmer.  “Save me our spot and order me something good, okay?”

“A-Alright,” the young man blushed and waved goodbye to them. “Thanks, Claire.  Have a good evening.”

“B-Bye…” She waved, unsure of why he was thanking her.

“Thank you for coming along to the spring,” Karen echoed as her friend was out of earshot. “I know you really didn’t want to, but it means a lot that you did.  You were a huge help.”

Claire couldn’t help but wonder if her friend was being sarcastic. She knitted her brow.  “I d-didn’t do anything…”

Karen laughed and slapped her friend on the shoulder. “You kept me from slapping him a few times.  Your presence alone was very helpful.  Kind of like a mediator or a judge in a boxing ring…”  She stretched her back as she threw on her bathing suit cover-up.  “Well, I guess I should head to the bar.  He always wants to drink when he fights with Popuri; who am I to argue with that?  My sources say that we’re gonna get riggedy riggedy wrecked tonight!” She cackled.  “No doubt he’s starting us off with straight vodka.”

Claire raised an eyebrow. She knew Karen could hold her liquor, but she couldn’t help but tease her a bit.  “Don’t get too crazy, now.  Am I going to need to come and check on you later tonight?”

Karen roared with laughter and playfully patted her friend’s cheek; Claire thought she was already starting to act a little buzzed. “Are you looking for an excuse to visit the inn, you naughty girl?” She gave her a playful wink.

Her friend’s cheeks burned and she folded her arms across her chest. “I-I’ll leave it to Rick to walk you home, then.”

“Oh, he knows he will tonight,” Karen’s own face lit up as she waved goodbye to her friend. “Rick can be awkward sometimes, but he’s definitely a gentleman!”

Claire wondered if Popuri would be the only girl to get a kiss today…

Chapter Text

“Ah, wait!” Cliff shuffled through his jingling bag and held out a thin strip of leather to the farmer. “Here.”

The blonde stared at the offering in the palm of her hand and looked at her friend curiously.

The young man cocked an eyebrow. “Hair is very flammable, Claire.  Keep it tied back when you’re building a fire.  What was it Papa always said?  Ah, yes, ‘Don’t be a hothead’.”  He gave her an indecently pleased smile.

She blinked; the pun was so bad she almost didn’t want to acknowledge it. “Your father always said that?”  Her friend didn’t strike her as the type to use puns, and she couldn’t deny the pleasure it gave her to hear him say something ridiculous and embarrassing.

The brunette bit back a sheepish grin. “Yes.  Yes he did.”  He gave an emphatic nod as he watched the young woman pull back her hair, admiring the way the sunlight hit her golden locks.

Long hair on men was unusual to Claire; men in the city had very no-nonsense short haircuts for conducting business. “Did he have long hair too?” She fumbled with the strip of hide.  Cliff made taming his hair with a simple string look so easy; she was used to elastic ties.

“Much longer than mine,” her friend nodded. He wore a nostalgic smile on his face as he set down his flint.  “A long beard, too.  He braided it.”

Claire found herself giggling with delight as she saw her friend’s eyes light up when he spoke of his father. “The hair or the beard?”  She knotted the leather and shook her tousled ponytail for good measure.  She nodded in satisfaction when she saw that it held.

The young man’s cheeks turned pink as he quickly focused the gaze on his flint and steel before she caught him staring. “Both,” he laughed.  “A lot of the men had long hair and beards back home.  They were often gone on hunting trips for long periods of time, so it just made sense.”

Cliff started the spark with his tools, leaning in to blow on it. Claire watched in fascination as delicate, wispy curls of smoke rose up to the sky from the small ball of kindling.  Within time, a tiny flame crackled at the twigs and dead grass.  “Ah, that’s the hardest part,” he smiled with satisfaction.  “Once you get the flame a little stronger, we can start feeding it a little more.”  He nudged the beginnings of the fire into a small tent of sticks they had set up.

Claire reviewed the lesson out loud. “So, dry leaves, dead grass, dry moss…  Bundle it up into a bird’s nest shape…”  She gave him an impish grin.  “But don’t add your hair by mistake; don’t be a hothead!”

He chuckled. “Sounds like you’ve got it right.”  The brunette showed her the different sizes of sticks to feed to the tiny fire.  “I can lend you my extra flint and knife to practice with, okay?”

“Thanks!” She beamed. The farmer stared at their creation with contentment and quite a bit of excitement; this was a major step toward outdoor cooking.  She watched her friend monitor the flames and imagined a taller, bulkier version of the young man sitting beside him, laughing and spouting puns.  “What about you?  Think you’ll grow out a long beard one of these days like your father?”  She teased.

Cliff rubbed his smooth chin thoughtfully before shaking his head. “Eh, I doubt it…  I don’t think I could pull off a beard…  But… what do you think?”  His eyes traveled to her shyly and he let out a soft chuckle.

Claire played with her ponytail, vaguely aware that he was expressing that he valued her opinion on his appearance. “I like being able to see your whole face… all of your expressions,” she looked at him honestly and gave him a tender smile.  “I think you look fine just the way you are,” she gazed at him.

He turned burgundy in response and rubbed the back of his neck, letting out a nervous laugh. “Uh… Th-Thanks…  Speaking of…  I wonder if I should try to look and dress more like other people in town…  I mean, if I’m really going to be trying to be staying here and not just passing through…”

She was a little surprised the young man seemed self-conscious of the way he looked. “Nah,” Claire giggled, “You’re you.”  Her laughter died down, as the very thought of his residence being temporary always made her heart break a little.

“You mean I don’t look like… well... you know…?” His voice trailed off. Cliff didn’t really feel like repeating the insults he had heard hurled at him over the years – hobo, vagabond, bum…  “I mean… I look… alright?”

“You don’t look like someone who doesn’t belong, if that’s what you’re asking,” the farmer smiled as she watched the small flame grow. “You look like Cliff, resident of Mineral Town.”  She looked him once over and nodded appreciatively, but her smile faded when she realized he was wearing his heavy set of bracers in such warm weather.  Claire had noticed he was also wearing them yesterday when she caught a glimpse of him at the Spring Mine.  She had a distinct hunch as to why he decided to wear them today, but she refrained from commenting on it, wishing to respect his feelings.  He hadn’t mentioned the incident with Gray at all, and she decided to let him bring up the subject if he so chose.

He didn’t seem to notice where her gaze was briefly focused. “And you look like Claire, Mineral Town’s best farmer,” her friend returned, his eyes glowing.

The start of a frown that had been threatening to spread across her mouth faded instantly; the young woman giggled with glee in response. “You sure know how to stroke an ego!  I’ve got quite a ways to go before I can even be considered that,” she playfully bumped her friend’s shoulder with her own.  Cliff’s bag sitting between them jingled from the impact.  She looked at the satchel inquisitively.  “What is in there, a bell or something?” She finally asked.

Her friend nodded emphatically, shuffling through the sack. “Two, actually.”  He placed them in her hand and she stared at them curiously.  They were rather unique acorn-shaped copper bells with leather straps attached to them.  Claire shook them and noticed a dissonance in the two, realizing that one was slightly larger than the other.  Knowing Cliff, they served a distinct purpose; the traveler didn’t carry around more than was necessary.

“So… what do you use-?” Her voice faded as she saw the young man’s posture stiffen and his eyes widen in what looked like horror as the color drained from his face.

“’Afternoon,” Harris tipped his cap at them. “Lovely weather, huh?  I hate to be a bother, but have you seen Gotz around, Cliff?”

The young man’s eyes traveled to the ground as he wrung his hands. “H-He said he was going up to the peak today.”

The constable noticed the uneasiness on the young man’s face. The brunette often looked like he was brooding when Harris saw him entering and exiting the church in town, but he had seen Cliff laughing just a moment ago as the police officer made his way toward the two friends.  “Is everything alright?” He asked carefully.

“We’re doing great,” Claire replied with a smile and a playful shake of the bells.

The police officer smiled at the young woman. “Ah, was Cliff going to play you a song?”  He had been hearing a flute around Gotz’s cottage lately and he knew the woodcutter didn’t play.  “Have fun!”  He waved goodbye to them and made his way up the mountain trail.

“Claire.”

The blonde looked at her friend quizzically; the happiness seemed to have vanished from his whole demeanor when the constable appeared. She also was also curious about the song Harris was referring to.

“Are you available tomorrow?” He didn’t look up from the fire.

The young woman’s cheeks felt warm; she knew she would have trouble sleeping tonight out of excitement. The questions she had for her friend faded from her mind immediately as she shook her head.  “I’ve got plans with Gray tomorrow, remember?  He’s going to teach me vocal commands with my horse.”

He gave her a polite smile. “Sorry, I forgot.”  He absentmindedly peeled the bark off of a stick and added it to the flames.  “How about the day after tomorrow?”

He seemed eager about something; she was distracted from her thoughts of the handsome apprentice for a moment.  “Sure.  I can hang out after I’m done watering.”  She looked at him with a slightly tilted head, silently asking what the reason for his excitement was.

“Thanks. There’s… someone I’d like to introduce you to…” A shy smile spread across his lips.

The farmer thought she had already met everyone in town. She pictured the layout of Mineral Town in her mind and went down the streets, repeating the names of everyone she had met.  “Well, who is it?”  She asked, giving the strange bells a rattle.

The young man blushed. “It’s a surprise…” His smile grew a little bit as he fussed with his bracers.

Claire pouted. “You’re going to be all mysterious?” She grinned at his expression.

“Uh-huh,” his eyes glittered at her; he was eager to give the young woman something to look forward to.

0o0o0o0

“It’s good to relax after a hard day’s work,” Saibara took a sip of his sake and gave a small nod to his grandson that evening; he was finally starting to show a little class.

“ Yeah...” The apprentice tugged on the bill of his hat and looked across the table at his roommate.  “You sure you’re fine with just water, Cliff?  I really don’t mind paying for your drink…  I paid for Gramps.”

Cliff silently shook his head.

The apprentice had invited both of the men to the bar as a sort of apology for the other day, and Cliff had refused to accept any drinks from him. Maybe he’s still mad…  

Gray noticed that his friend had been wearing a rustic set of leather bracers for the past couple of days. He hadn’t seen Cliff don them since mid-spring when the weather was cooler.  The apprentice had watched his roommate remove them last night before going to bed and Gray felt a wave of guilt when he saw the purple bruises that dominated his forearm.  Gray’s own hand had been sore the day after the incident, and he was still mad at himself for his lack of control.  Cliff had mentioned nothing about the injury, and he seemed to be keen on keeping the whole thing under wraps, literally.  Gray was grateful for this, but it also made him feel worse about the situation…

“Come on… I’ll buy you a sake, too…”

“R-really… I’m fine…” Gray’s roommate shook his head; he felt uncomfortable that Saibara and his trainee were relaxing after a day of work and he was still unemployed. He hardly felt like he should be sitting with them at all.  He knew the only reason Gray had invited him along was because he felt guilty about the other day.  Cliff felt accountable as well; he should have been less easily swayed when Saibara invited him to hike in the mountains with them.  He knew how the young man felt about his time alone with his grandfather, but Cliff had been too selfishly excited to be included in a group outing to give much thought to any potential consequences.  He hadn’t thought of Gray’s feelings, only his own…

“Well, I’m going to buy you something anyway… You’re making me feel weird about all this…”

“It’s okay… really…” The brunette honestly wished he were anywhere else but here.  He couldn’t help but feel that his tablemates had the same desire for him.

“When someone as cheap as him offers you a drink, you should accept it.” Saibara’s sudden gruff voice startled both of the roommates.  “Don’t be ungrateful, Cliff.”

The young man stared at the floor, embarrassed. “… I’m fine with some grape juice.”

Gray rolled his eyes, but he was relieved his grandfather had taken his side for once. He decided to ignore the comment about him being cheap.  “Hey, Ann, can we get a red wine over here?”

Cliff’s eyes widened. “Th-that’s not what…!”  His cheeks flushed with embarrassment; he felt like he was being an imposition.

Ann bounced over to the table. “Sure!  What kind?”

“Whatever has the highest alcohol content,” Gray smirked. “A nice, big full glass, please.  Cliff wants to get trashed!”

Saibara roared with laughter.

“Oooh, someone’s feeling dangerous tonight!” The waitress teased as she walked past their table, giving the brunette’s ponytail a playful tug before bouncing back to the bar.  The young man rolled his eyes and scowled at the two chuckling blacksmiths.

The door to the bar creaked open loudly, and the three men looked in the entryway. Claire was carrying a bundle of young corn, and her face lit up when she saw them sitting at the table.  She began heading toward the men, her disheveled ponytail from that afternoon replaced with long, sleek cascades of gold.

“Good evening!”

“And a good evening to you, Miss Claire,” Saibara nodded politely to her. The old man checked the reactions from his companions of the corner of his eye.  His grandson looked exasperated and was doing a poor job of hiding it, and Cliff was smiling at the young woman, but his eyes looked pained.

“I’m surprised to see the three of you here together,” Claire laughed nervously as she shifted the bundle in her hands.

Saibara observed the farmer’s excitable behavior and wondered if she was going to take a seat or not. “The boy decided to treat us tonight,” the old blacksmith gave her a grin as Ann returned with Cliff’s wine.  The waitress gave her a kind wave, not before drooling a bit at the tasty-looking bundle she was carrying.  The blonde waved in response, but she was too busy staring at a particular occupant of the table to notice the redhead’s silent begging for a cob.  Ann shot the apprentice a poisonous look before heading back to the bar and he gave her a feeble shrug in response.

“H-how sweet of him,” Claire’s face was flushed. She was becoming increasingly eager for tomorrow’s lesson with Gray and Tucker.

Cliff took a sip of his wine and didn’t look up.

“Meh, I try sometimes,” an uncomfortable Gray tugged his hat over his face and folded his arms across his chest.

“W-well… Since you’re all three here, you can all share this gift from me!”  The farmer nervously hoisted the bundle of corn on the table, trying her best to hide her heavy breathing.  She had expected on giving the entire bundle to the apprentice as a thank you for agreeing to train her tomorrow, but she felt very flustered to present the gift in a group.  It hardly felt polite to not share the gift, given the company present.

“How very generous,” Saibara commented as a grin spread across his face.

The blacksmith’s apprentice could feel his mouth watering as he got a better look at the bundle. “That’s roasted, isn’t it?”  He lifted the brim of his cap and his eyes widened.

Claire nodded and gave him a shy smile. “Y-yeah.  Cliff taught me how to make campfires today, so I went home and thought it would be a good idea to practice roasting something over one.”  She recalled seeing Gray expressing his love for corn at Cliff’s birthday and she was delighted to see that he looked very interested in the offering.

The brunette looked up from his glass, and Saibara noticed the aching in Cliff’s eyes had increased. “Yeah… corn roasts well over a fire…” he replied kindly and returned to his drink; Gray’s love for roasted corn wasn’t exactly a secret.

“It really does taste best over a campfire; I tried an ear myself before I came over,” Claire nodded at Gray. “It’s really good…  I just picked it this afternoon, so it’s really fresh...  W-well…  I’ll see you all around.  Have a great evening, and enjoy the corn!”

“Thanks, Claire. It looks great,” Gray grinned, digging into the bundle.

“We will definitely enjoy!” Saibara grinned at her, tipping his glass toward the young woman.

The farmer gave them a courteous nod and turned to leave.

“H-hey, Claire…?” Cliff’s voice was quiet as he looked up from his glass of wine.

“Hmmm?” The young woman turned around, her blonde locks shining under the bar’s light fixtures.

“Thank you… you know… I’d be happy to show you how to cook some fish over a fire sometime,” he said carefully, giving her a shy smile as color rushed to his cheeks. He swirled the burgundy beverage in his glass as he looked up at his friend.  “And there are a lot of things you can cook over a campfire.  It’s… a very useful tool…”

“Alright, I’d be happy to learn!” She gave her friend a polite grin, distracted with her excitement about the next day’s events. “Good night!”  She left the bar, looking rather pleased with herself.

Saibara sat pensively for a moment after the young woman left. Gray had already started munching on one of the ears of corn, and Cliff drank deeply from his glass, his face blanching as he stared at the gift his friend had left in front of them.

The elderly man was keenly aware of the strained tension at the table. He wasn’t surprised that his grandson appeared to be oblivious to it; the boy’s reasoning often got muddled when his favorite food got involved.  “It’s odd that she didn’t stay for a drink...  She didn’t even look like she wanted to sit with us.”  The old blacksmith commented slowly, as he gave his tablemates a curious glance.

His grandson shook his head as he chewed. “Oh, she rarely stays to drink unless she’s with Karen,” Gray replied with his mouth full.

“So she stops by here regularly…” The old man took a sip from his glass.  He was already well aware of this; he recalled seeing the farmer going upstairs the other evening.

Cliff said nothing, but took another very deep drink. The conservative brunette’s glass was already nearly empty.  This told Saibara more than any words could.

The old man cleared his throat as he calmly poured himself another sake. “Gray?”

The young man looked up at his grandfather; he rarely called him by his given name unless it was to scold him. “… Huh…?”  He swallowed his food and could feel the hairs on the back of his neck stick up.

“You haven’t been giving it your all at the forge lately,” Saibara started, his voice emotionless as he touched the alcohol to his lips.

“I-I don’t know what you’re talking about!” The young man immediately got defensive.  “I-I’m always focused!”

Saibara cocked an eyebrow and set down his glass. “You expect me to believe that?  We both know that your mind is elsewhere!”  Saibara’s eyes flashed at him dangerously as his voice rose in volume.  “Don’t we?”

Gray turned a bright shade of red. “Wh-why are we talking about this now?”  He glanced around them, but Duke and Basil were too busy laughing to pay any attention to them; the pair looked like they had had their fair share to drink, and Gray was grateful that their focus was elsewhere.

The old man slammed his empty glass on the table so loudly that both young men jumped. “Is that a serious question?!”

The brunette shrank down in his seat and silently set down his empty glass. “M-maybe I should-” Cliff’s eyes nervously shifted between his tablemates.

The old man gave him a stern look. “This concerns you as well!”

“I-it does?” Cliff’s eyes widened as he remained frozen in his chair.

Saibara sighed; young people could be so dense sometimes. He drained his glass of sake and swiftly poured a new one.  “How long has Claire been stopping by here to bring you gifts?”  The old man’s eyes turned to his grandson and they didn’t move from him as he drank.

The color drained from his face; he saw where this was going. The apprentice winced, preparing for a scolding.  “Ah… since… the beginning of spring…?”  He was too terrified to lie to him as his heart dropped to his stomach.

Saibara gave him a small grunt. “Cliff…  Is this true?” He raised a snowy eyebrow at his grandson’s roommate.

The young man froze. He wasn’t sure how to answer; he would have someone angry with him either way.  The brunette nervously wrung his hands and decided to stick with the truth.  “… Y-yes…?”

The blacksmith wanted a more solid answer. He gave his companion a cold glare.  “Well, is it a yes or no?” Saibara slammed his fist on the table.

Cliff jumped at the sudden noise. “I-I really don’t know…  She stops by when I’m out most of the time…”  He couldn’t meet the old man’s gaze.

Gray’s heart stopped. He cursed under his breath; he didn’t feel quite so bad for bruising Cliff’s arm anymore.  “Look… if this is about me seeing a woman without a chaperone, I’m a grown man and can make my own decisions.”  He tried to stick to the lesser of two evils in an attempt to reason with the old man.

He was met with a snort in reply as the elderly blacksmith folded his arms across his chest and furrowed his brow. “Yes, I know that you are.”  The blacksmith nodded.

Gray let out a sigh of relief.

His grandfather stared up at him with stern eyes. “But we all know where you go when your shift ends; you’ve gone there nearly every day for the past few years.”  Saibara had stopped yelling, but Gray would have preferred his screaming to the low, dark voice his grandfather had used instead.

The apprentice could feel his face getting hot. Why did he have to bring up this up in front of his roommate?

The old man continued. “And you…”  He pointed accusingly at Cliff and his voice rose a bit.  “You are definitely not making the situation any better.”

The young man was confused. “I-I… I was just trying to show her some survival skills…”  The color drained from the young man’s face as he weakly attempted to defend himself.  He still wasn’t quite sure why he was being scolded.

Saibara rolled his eyes. Did he really have to spell it out to both of them?  “I am in the company of a couple of fools tonight.  Why are you both letting this happen?!”  He drained his sake glass and went to pour another.  Upon finding the flask empty, he slammed it down on the table in frustration.  “Well?!”  He waited for a reply from either of his companions.

Neither of the young men said anything. They took turns looking at each other uncomfortably, Gray’s gaze eventually drifting toward the ceiling and Cliff’s focusing on the floor.  Saibara sighed; he hadn’t really expected them to reply.  His anger faded a bit.  They were both still young after all, and therefore, fairly stupid.  “You both need to be firmer with Claire.  Neither of you are getting what you want, are you?”

The men had opposite reactions; Gray went pale, and Cliff turned a deep shade of red.

“Y-you’re the one who told me to always accept gifts!” Gray shot back.

“You’re accepting more than gifts from her, boy. Don’t be an idiot.”  Saibara went to take a sip of from his glass.  Being reminded once again that it was empty, he clanked it back down with a groan.  Both of them were being so thick that he was getting tired of speaking in a manner which he deemed as tactful.

Cliff stared silently at the tabletop, waiting for his half of the scolding. Upon seeing the old man’s frustration of his empty glass, the brunette waited for his words to be sharper.  He slightly bowed his head, as if pleading the blacksmith to go easy on him.

In truth, Saibara’s heart went out to the young man; he wasn’t blind to the look on Cliff’s face when he saw what Claire had done with the skills he taught her. “I know you made an attempt tonight, young man…” The old man’s voice was gentle.  “But we both know you’re not going to get anywhere until the boy wisens up.  He may need your help.”

Gray gritted his teeth; things were always his fault in Saibara’s eyes. “I don’t have to take this!”  He stood up.

The old man stroked his beard calmly; he knew Gray wouldn’t go anywhere. “Yes, you do.  I thought that you told me Cliff was your best friend.  Sit.”  He frowned at no one in particular.

The apprentice found himself unable to do anything but obey. He plopped down and folded his arms across his chest, tugging down on the bill of his cap.  “I just wanted to take you both out for a drink to say I was sorry, Goddess!”  He let out an overdramatic groan.

“Another sake over here!” The old man hollered, tapping his empty flask on the table.  He turned toward the brunette and gave him a playful wink.  “Order something else, too, Cliff.”

The young man shook his head, half in confusion and half in decline of more alcohol. Saibara’s mood swings had left Cliff befuddled, to say the least, and the wine had already caused his mind to slow down quite a bit.  “Oh, I couldn’t…”  He was suddenly aware of how strong his beverage had been and he vaguely remembered that he hadn’t eaten since that afternoon when he and Claire had roasted a couple of small things over the campfire; it had been a light snack at best.

“Pah…” The blacksmith rolled his eyes at the young man.  “Another wine for the kid!”

The apprentice shrugged and figured he might as well order something else, too. “Scotch on the rocks!  … Make it a double...”  Gray downed the rest of his drink.  He knew it was going to be a rough night, anyway…

“Gray?” The old man’s voice was gruff.

“Yeah?” He sighed, resting his arms on the table.  He looked up at his grandfather with a slightly harassed expression as he pulled off his cap and cradled his head in his hands.

The old man was taken aback; perhaps he had been too rough on the boy. “You are lucky that your young lady is so patient with you,” his expressions softened, as did his voice.  “A woman like that is more precious than gold; treasure her.”

Ann returned with their drinks and the three men drank in silence for a few minutes.

The apprentice stared at the ice cubes in his drink as he tilted the drink toward his mouth. No matter which way he rotated the glass, the ice remained right in front of him.  The whole concept reminded him of a particular person.  He took a pensive drink.  “How am I supposed to reject Claire’s gifts without hurting her feelings?” Gray asked quietly, thinking of his regular offering of copper in the evenings.  “You’re the one that says I should be a gentleman…”

“I said nothing about rejecting gifts,” Saibara replied thoughtfully, drinking deeply.

The young man waited for further instructions, but his grandfather said nothing more. Gray sighed and turned toward his friend.  “What do you think, Cliff?”

The young man looked up in surprise; he wasn’t sure how to respond. He took a sip from his glass and found he was lamenting the fact that he had no experience on such matters.  Women never sought his attention, but it wasn’t as if he had ever willingly approached any during his travels.  “I-I’m not sure…  I’ve never had that kind of problem before,” he realized with a slight twinge of jealousy.

Gray scoffed, taking a swig from his glass. “Consider yourself lucky, then.  Doesn’t Claire ever give you anything?”  He was surprised, to say the least.

“Ah…” The young man turned very pink.  “She thinks she’s being sneaky when we’re foraging; she tucks extra things in my pack.”  He fidgeted with his bracers as he said this; surely Claire was just trying to be polite and nothing more.  It would be silly for him to even wish that it was anything beyond a friendly formality, but he still felt heat coming to his cheeks.  The young man pushed away his wine; he was thinking into all of this far too much…

Saibara looked at Cliff with interest; perhaps things weren’t as one-sided as the young man believed. He took a long drink and looked over at Gray.  Things weren’t going to change for Cliff unless his grandson did something about the two women in his life; and until then, he was going to have an apprentice who couldn’t focus properly on his work.  Truly, no one was getting what they wanted.

Saibara finished off his glass. Gray had been dragging out this whole thing with Mary for far too long.  “So, boy…  You’ve got yourself quite a situation…  You can keep metal in the fire for as long as you like, but if you ever hope to make something of it… you need to take it out and pound it,” he winked at his grandson as he poured himself a fresh glass from his flask.

Gray’s eyes widened and he turned a deep shade of red, choking on his drink. “G-Grandpa!”

The old man stared emotionlessly at the young man for a moment. What was he getting all worked up over?  Cliff was attempting to hide a snicker, but he did a poor job of it as he shook his head, the soft chuckle turning into a genuine laugh.  What was so funny?  Perhaps the brunette had a little too much to drink…  Saibara suddenly realized the innuendo in his choice of verb and threw back his head, laughing heartily; the fact that he hadn’t meant to make a dirty joke made it even funnier.

Chapter Text

“Alright… You need to get Tucker used to the sound of your voice, so we are going to start lunging today.  It’ll be good for the both of you to get used to working together.”  Gray slid the harness on the colt’s head, gently brushing the forelocks out of Tucker’s eyes and giving the animal a pat.  “Barley’s already got him used to a lead rope and a halter.”  He took the rope off of a hook and handed it to her.  “Practice makes perfect.”

The farmer’s heart pounded; she had hardly been able to sleep the night before because she was so excited about her first horse real training session with the apprentice. Claire was eager to please; the young woman had high hopes that Tucker would be an icebreaker for the pair.

She fastened the rope and was surprised at how calmly Tucker followed. She normally lured her colt back into the stable with fresh greens, but she was pleased to find that the rope was far more practical.  Claire was glad that she never admitted this clumsy method to the young man; he probably would have thought the whole thing was rather silly.

Gray grinned. “He’s a mellow guy.”

They walked out to an empty grassy section of the field and the young man took the lunge line. He tugged on the bill of his cap and surveyed the area.  They were just going to start with the essentials today.  Tucker stood quietly beside him, awaiting a command.  Gray found that his heart was throbbing in excitement as he held the rope in his hands and looked at the colt, and he struggled to contain his cool demeanor.  After all, if he came off just as giddy as the farmer, he wouldn’t seem like a very credible teacher.  He attempted to acquire his grandfather’s description of the perfect balance of concentration and passion - tranquil as a forest, but on fire within.  Gray liked to think the words were pretty poetic and almost lyrical; he wondered if the old man had come up with them himself…  “Alright, let’s give him around ten meters.  Watch what I do, and step back over there,” he instructed.

Claire obeyed and watched in fascination as Gray commanded the young horse to walk in a circle around him. She tried her best to focus on Tucker, but she found that her eyes were attracted to the young man’s softened facial expressions as he watched the horse follow his orders.  He looked focused, but there was an easygoing air about him that the young woman had seen only on rare occasions.

“You got a feel for it? Come on over, Claire,” his voice was gentle.

She carefully approached them and felt her face get hot when he put his hands on her hips. Maybe I’m just imagining it, but his touch is so gentle. Loving, almost…  Maybe he really is interested, but he has a shy way of showing it…

He was too busy concentrating on the colt to pay any notice Claire’s facial expressions. “Move over here,” he guided her to where he was standing and handed her the rope.  “Okay, give it a try.”  He got out of the way so that she could maneuver Tucker.

Claire did exactly as she was told, and to her excitement, the horse obeyed. She looked over at the apprentice for approval, but his eyes were glued on the horse.  His lips were curled up into a satisfied smile; the young woman’s heart pounded.  Claire was always so enthusiastic to impress Gray, and it looked like for the first time, she was actually succeeding.  The farmer steadied her breathing and continued to command Tucker.  Now might be a good time to ask for some advice…

“He’s doing well,” Gray smiled kindly at the horse.

Claire grinned. “Hey… Gray?”

“Yeah?” His gaze followed the animal as he nodded in approval.

Her eyes were focused on Tucker. “Is it normal for him to hold his head that low?  I’m kind of worried about his neck…”

“What do you mean?” He stared at her, folding his arms across his chest.

Claire watched the colt slowly walk past and her smile faded at the young man’s stiffened stance and accusing glance. “Well…  I saw a few carriages in the park back in the city, and the horses pulling those had much better posture…” she explained.  “I just want to make sure-”

Better posture?!” Was she saying what he thought she was? “You sure as hell better not be suggesting we use an overcheck, because if you are, then I’m taking Tucker back right now,” Gray didn’t raise his voice around the horse, but his eyes flashed dangerously at her.

Claire was startled by his sudden change in demeanor. Time with Tucker had always meant a happy, gentle Gray.  “O-Overcheck?”

“So you don’t know, then,” Gray’s face relaxed and he looked away uncomfortably as he pulled his cap over his eyes. “… Sorry… It just pisses me off that people will cause stress on an animal for the sake of fashion.”

“I-I just thought that’s how horses were supposed to look,” she weakly attempted to defend herself.

Apparently this was the wrong answer; his body became rigid and he clenched his fists, seething. “Horses are supposed to look natural,” he spat, “they’re not supposed to look like some kind of wind-up toy…” he fumed for a moment, remembering similar carriages in the city he grew up in and wondered if the farmer was really so naïve.  It sickened him the way the horses were used to pull along doting couples, but the animal was given such little affection in return; he had seen them panting from overwork on several occasions, covered in sweat in the summer holidays.  His eyes returned to the farmer and the color immediately drained from his face when he saw her defensive posture and widened eyes.  His stomach dropped.  It was like the day he first met Claire all over again; all he could manage to do was say the wrong thing and hurt her feelings.  “I-I’m sorry… you said you didn’t know…”  He cast his eyes to the ground, embarrassed.

Claire wasn’t sure what to say; he hadn’t raised the volume of his voice enough to startle Tucker, but she found that she was trembling. Why was Gray always so quick to assume the worst in people?  Had she not proven to him time and time again that she could be a caring individual?  She bit her lip.

“I’m sorry, okay?” He tried again.  He tugged on his hat again, as if he was wishing he could use it to conceal his entire body.  “You’re doing great, really…” his voice softened as he took a few steps closer.

She had a feeling he was just saying that to be polite. Her stomach felt sour.  She looked down at the lunge line in her hands and played at the frayed fibers of the rope, losing her focus on the horse as her vision blurred, her eyes threatening to fill up with tears.

The farmer looked disheartened; he tried to reason with her. “I-I guess if you’re only used to seeing city horses...”  He still attempted to apologize.  “L-look…  Claire, can you stop Tucker for a moment?”  He looked at her with a worried frown, his lungs deflating.

The farmer halted the horse with a trembling voice and her heart pounded as the young man walked toward her. She blinked away the beginnings of tears and moved her gaze toward him anxiously.  Was he angry?  She said she didn’t know about overchecks…  She still wasn’t quite sure what one was, but she didn’t want to ask…  Was he going to try to take Tucker back to Barley’s and declare her a failure?  She found that she was steeling herself for some kind of defense to any sharp words or glares she got.

“I’m really sorry Claire. I really am…”  His face turned very red as he stared at the ground.  “I…  I know I can be kind of a jerk sometimes, but I…  I really do want what is best for Tucker.  Please… Please let me continue to help with him.  I promise I’ll stop being an ass…”  There was a tremor in his desperate voice.

Claire stopped holding her breath; he was the one asking for forgiveness…  “Y-you really like horses, huh?”  She ventured, her voice soft.  She wrapped the rope around her knuckles absentmindedly.

“Yeah…” He tugged on the bill of his hat. “It’s one of the main reasons I moved out here.  I get to help Barley a bit, but I’ve never really been able to help someone train a yearling on my own like this…  It’s kind of been a dream of mine…”

So Tucker was a project for him the way farming was for her, cooking was with Karen, and socializing was with Cliff…

“Claire… Please let me help…”   He repeated.  The young man removed his hat and bowed his head, his unruly red hair sticking out in several directions; the farmer stood in stunned silence at the humble gesture for a few moments.

The thought of refusing Gray’s help hadn’t crossed the farmer’s mind until he had pleaded for her permission. She found herself hesitating again, just like she did on the mountaintop when he asked to train with her.  Why was she so unsure? Claire frowned.  That couldn’t be right; Gray had been the only thing she was sure about since she moved here…  “Of course you can help,” the words flowed out.  “I mean, I wouldn’t really know what I’m doing without you here to show me…”  She admitted.  Claire immediately realized Barley could also help, but she quickly stifled this thought.

“Oh, thank you!” His face lit up.  “I promise I’ll make it worth your while!”  He tossed his hat back on his head and his pale blue eyes were wide.

Without warning, he threw his arms around her. Claire gasped and her knees immediately went weak.  She was surrounded by the scent of oil and coal; it was intoxicating.  The young woman’s trembling hands found their way around his waist; she was so happy she was dizzy and she almost forgot to breathe.  Yes, she made the right choice to allow him to continue helping, and what a reward she got in return!  What was there to decide, anyway?

Gray pulled away from the embrace and looked over the young woman’s shoulder. His face blanched as he saw his roommate standing frozen on the mountain path through the farm.  He had a makeshift rack of fish slung over his shoulders and a wounded expression on his face.  Cliff must have been headed back to their room at the inn, Gray figured.  The brunette snapped back to his senses, turned very pale, and did an about-face, hurrying back up the mountain.

The farmer was oblivious to the background activity. “I really do appreciate your help,” Claire stammered, blushing deeply.  It seemed that Tucker was bringing them closer together once more.

Gray paused a moment before replying; he knew that there could be some serious repercussions for their hug if Cliff mentioned it to Saibara. His mind was a whirlwind of thoughts.  What was she thanking him for again?  His eyes fell to the lunge line in her hands. Right, the horse… Suddenly, the fact that he’d be helping her with Tucker didn’t feel all that important right now.  He had so few true friends that he didn’t want to lose the ones he had…  His eyes flew to the mountain trail.

“Of course…   I’m glad to be given the opportunity.  Thanks again, Claire.  Just keep practicing, and I know that you’ll do great.  I’ll check up on you sometime to see how you’re progressing.”  He gave her shoulder what meant to be a friendly pat, but the farmer was too preoccupied to notice how stiff and awkwardly formal it was.

She could hardly hear his words over her heart thudding loudly in her ears. “O-okay.  Thanks!”  Claire played with the rope in her hands.

His mind was racing; he looked around them distractedly. “Well, I’ll leave you with that today…  I-I’m sorry; I’ve got to go talk to someone…  See you around.”  He nodded a curt goodbye and followed the mountain trail.

“A-alright… I’ll make you proud, Gray!”  She called out to him.  The sudden goodbye seemed a bit strange, but the farmer didn’t mind; she was still flying high from their hug.  Claire was already counting down the moments until her next training session.  His embraces were a little rough, but she found that she rather liked it; they gave her heart a thrill.

“Good! You better!”  He broke into a jog toward Mother’s Hill, cursing under his breath.

Chapter Text

Gray didn’t bother hiking too far up the mountain trail; he was sure he already knew where his friend was off sulking. He headed for the Spring Mine.  Sure enough, he saw a faint light flickering in the far corner of the cave and groped through the dimly lit cavern, grumbling and swearing as he stumbled on the loose rocks and uneven floor.  The young man heard a haunting, melancholy tune on a pan flute echo through the mine and Gray rolled his eyes; the guy could be so melodramatic sometimes.

Gray shuffled his feet to Cliff’s hideout. It was a cozy corner of the mine that the young man had lived in for a couple of months before moving into the inn.  A few oil lanterns lit the area and a deerskin was spread out on the ground.  Cliff was currently sitting on it, leaned back against a stalagmite, lost in his song.  Gray had to admit that his friend was actually really good; he had heard the brunette play a few instruments with great skill and he had mentioned something about training on them in his home village.  He had a way of putting his soul into his music, and Gray found that the melody made his heart ache a little; it was such a lonely song.  Tethered to the same rock formation was the young man’s partner, a peregrine falcon that accompanied him on his travels.  Cliff had introduced the apprentice to his companion nearly three months ago and he had pleaded with Gray to keep quiet about the bird; he was pretty sure that what he was doing wasn’t exactly legal, at least in this area, but he had nowhere else to keep the creature.

It was a pretty comfortable place, all things considered. A long, horizontal crevice on the cavern wall served as a makeshift window and provided a supply of fresh air.  The pair had come up here to hide on Saturday mornings when Ann insisted on rounding up everyone in the inn to watch another insufferable episode of Star Lily Bandit Girl.  Cliff had taught Gray how to feed the bird, and one afternoon, the brunette had invited his roommate up to the mountains to hunt with the falcon.  It was refreshing to see Cliff do something that he was confident at; he seemed like a completely different person when he wasn’t consumed with his gloomy, guilty demeanor.  Gray had watched with fascination; the traveler and bird definitely had a strong bond.  The apprentice knew better than to refer to the raptor as anything other than a partner or friend to his roommate.  He had received a piercing glare the last time he used the word “pet”.  The falcon seemed happy enough in his dwelling place, and Gray noted that he could often find the young man here when he was seeking solitude, which was fairly often.

He had been standing there for a couple of minutes; he was surprised Cliff hadn’t noticed yet. The bird had been watching the apprentice keenly since he entered their area.

“Hey.”

Cliff stopped playing his instrument and looked up at his friend in surprise. The brunette’s companion greeted Gray with a chirp.

“Hey,” Cliff echoed nonchalantly, setting his pan flute down beside him. “What brings you here?”

Gray rolled his eyes. “Is that a serious question?”

Cliff said nothing, but looked to the falcon as if the bird would answer for him.

The apprentice sighed; he knew from experience that his roommate was a very adept player of The Quiet Game.  “Claire’s doing well with Tucker,” he stated.

Cliff remained silent as his eyes traveled to the rocky floor.

Gray sighed. “Tucker is her horse...  Barley dropped him off at her place at the beginning of spring…”

“I know that.”  There was a hint of brusqueness in Cliff’s voice.  His friend smiled; now they were getting somewhere.

“Glad you remember, because you kind of gave me the go-ahead to train with her a few days ago,” he reminded him with a sharp look.  The two stared at each other in silence for a few minutes and Gray briefly wondered if Cliff enjoyed pissing him off with his lack of emotion.  Gray realized he was the one that had to keep the conversation going; his roommate sure wasn’t going to...  “Well, anyway, I was showing her some vocal commands today,” he nodded.  “Claire’s a smart girl; she actually kind of impressed me.”

Cliff pulled a heavy gauntlet out of his jingling bag and pulled it on, holding out a small fish to the falcon. He fluttered onto the brunette’s arm and accepted the treat.  The young man didn’t remove his eyes from the bird.  “Oh, really?  That’s great...” he didn’t sound like he meant it at all.

Gray was hoping that Cliff would get visibly angry; it infuriated him that his roommate was so eager to acquiesce any time there was tension between the two of them. The apprentice was sick of playing this game; Cliff was always making him feel like the bad guy.  He pushed harder.

“You saw us hugging.” Surely he had to reply in some way to this.

“So?” The brunette was watching the bird finish off his snack.  The young man’s silence in this particular instance was a little discomforting.  His friend vaguely wondered if Cliff was wishing that the fish were Gray’s own entrails.  He stroked the falcon a few times and was met with a chirp between gulps.  Cliff didn’t seem visibly mad.  He never did, that was part of the problem…

Perhaps he needed to see if that could be changed. “Well… aren’t you going to tell Gramps?” he finally asked, tugging on the bill of his cap.  “I mean, especially after our talk the other night?”

“There you go, Cain,” Cliff murmured to his falcon and gave the bird one last affectionate pet as he flew back to his perch with a happy chirp, his tether jingling. The young man slid off the gauntlet and stared at the ground thoughtfully as he returned his bracer onto his arm.  Gray was reminded that Cliff still had kept his left arm covered and he felt a wave of guilt rise within him once again; the apprentice had seen the bruises again last night and they still looked quite painful.  Cliff didn’t look up at his roommate as he laced up the arm wear.  “We’re not children, Gray; I don’t intend on tattling on you like one.”  He sat back down on the deerskin.

The apprentice frowned. Something was wrong; most guys would have been itching to punch him by now.  This guy had a strange way of dealing with his anger, which appeared to be not processing it at all.  However, Gray knew that if Cliff wouldn’t acknowledge that there was an issue, it wasn’t going to resolve itself.  “We both know Gramps has a way of drawing things out of people.  Besides, I know you’re pissed.”

“N-No I’m not…” Cliff fidgeted with his bracers and looked at the ground.

Gray let out a sigh; the young man could be exasperating sometimes. The apprentice would have been a little relieved at the invitation of a fight or at least a punch to the face.  “Why do you have to lie like that?  Why can’t you show someone how you feel for once?”  Gray took a seat beside him.

The brunette furrowed his thick eyebrows and scooted away from him a bit. He was well aware that Gray had been egging him on, and Cliff could only ignore it so much before he lost his temper.  The young man frowned; he and Gray were very different people.  “Well, you’re always too eager to show others when you’re unhappy,” he replied curtly.  He immediately hated himself for his bold response.

The pointed comment gave the apprentice a bit of hope that his friend would open up. Gray stared at the dancing flames of the oil lamps, contemplating his behavior earlier that day.  “Huh…  Maybe I am…  I got mad at Claire today and kind of yelled at her.”

Cliff said nothing in reply but looked over at his roommate in surprise, and, Gray noticed, a hint of disgust.

Good, more emotion. Finally...  Gray continued.  “I misunderstood her and thought she was saying she wanted to use a harness that restrains the movement of a horse and forces them into holding their heads up high…  Not good for the animal…  Anyway, I got angry with her and then I got afraid she wouldn’t let me help her with Tucker anymore.”

Gray waited for some sort of verbal response, but he got none. The emotional feedback seemed to have vanished as well.  The brunette was staring over at a rock formation.

The apprentice decided to continue. There was no reason why Cliff should be treating him this way, and he wanted the young man to know that.  “But she forgave me. That’s why I hugged her; I was grateful she was going to let me keep working with the horse.  It wasn’t romantic or anything…”

The brunette opened his mouth like he wanted to say something, but he promptly closed it again, staring up at the stone ceiling with what appeared to be a passive demeanor. It seemed as if Cliff was eager to look anywhere but his roommate’s face.  Gray studied the behavior and expressions of his friend for several minutes in silence.  There was a hint of a frown on the young man’s lips and his eyebrows were ever so slightly furrowed.  Cliff’s tell was the stiff posture and clenched jaw; Gray realized that while the brunette wasn’t speaking much, he was very livid.

“Come on! You know that’s the truth!” Gray frowned; he was frustrated that he felt like he had to encourage some kind of reaction and defend himself at the same time.  “It didn’t mean anything more than that, and we both know it.”

But she may have seen it as more… Claire was so desperate to see any sort of sign Gray was remotely interested in her…  Surely Gray had to be an idiot not to see this!  The young man was furious, and it was becoming increasingly difficult to choke down.  Cliff shrugged and looked back over at Cain.  “Fine… and why would I care anyway if it did?” he didn’t meet the young man’s gaze.

The apprentice was ready to give his friend a swift kick in the pants. He let out an annoyed groan.  “You’re the one who said we aren’t children anymore, but if anyone’s acting like one right now, it’s you.”

Cliff’s anger began to deflate as he turned a bright shade of red; Gray was absolutely right. He stared at the ground, ashamed.  “I-It’s just that…” his voice trailed off.  He didn’t want to finish his thought aloud; it was too immature.  Cliff had shared a friendly embrace with Claire when she returned home from the hospital, but he was not about to confess aloud how much he craved holding her close like that again.

The apprentice blacksmith’s pale blue eyes watched him with interest. Neither of them talked much about their emotions to one another, and today had been an odd day, to say the least.

“I’m… sorry, Gray,” Cliff finally said, exhaling as his quiet rage subsided.

“Whatever… I guess I’m sorry, too.”  Gray realized that his interactions with Claire today didn’t exactly help things.  “Go over to that farm and give her a hug if that’s what you want.  Hell, give her a kiss!” he laughed.

Gray’s smile fell as he was met with a cold stare. “She’d probably slap me across the face and never speak to me again,” the brunette replied bitterly, his barrier crumbling as he stared at the ground miserably.

The apprentice rolled his eyes. “You make it sound like she hates you.  I still don’t know why you think you don’t have a chance with her.”

There were many answers for this, and the brunette was surprised Gray didn’t notice the one that was the most glaringly obvious – Claire’s heart was set on the apprentice. Cliff let out a silent sigh; there also was the painfully clear fact – to him, anyway – that even if the young woman had never met Gray, Cliff wouldn’t even be considered as a potential partner for her.  He was silent for a long time as he gathered up his things. 

Gray was beginning to wonder if his friend was just deciding not to talk to him or if he was thinking of a response. He stared at the brunette, waiting for a reply of some sort.

“I’ll see you later tonight…” Cliff began extinguishing the lanterns one by one, signaling the end of their time in the cave together.

“Why aren’t you responding to me?” The apprentice couldn’t hold back his impatience any longer.

His friend looked at him with sad eyes, the notion of being alone forever weighing more heavily upon his heart than usual. “… I said I was sorry,” he muttered quietly.

“That’s not what I was talking about!” Gray was tired of him dodging the issue; things were never going to get resolved between them at this rate.

“… I don’t have a chance with anyone,” Cliff finally murmured, slinging his fish over his shoulder, immediately regretting saying anything at all.  Why was he always saying too much?

Gray scoffed. “You are so melodramatic, I swear!”  He folded his arms across his chest.

Melodramatic… Claire had used that same word to describe him back in the springtime…  What was it she had said?  He bottled up his emotions and let them stew until they became blown out of proportion…

The apprentice met his roommate’s eyes and was taken aback that the brunette looked almost on the verge of tears. Apparently the subject was a touchy one for him; Cliff didn’t seem to see much value in himself.  Gray couldn’t claim to be much better, but it was much easier focusing on someone else’s problems rather than his own.

“Hey…” Gray’s voice was soft.  “Look…  We’ll go out sometime soon and I’ll prove to you that you have a chance.  I’ll be your wingman and get you some time alone with your cute little lady friend.”  It would also be a good opportunity for the apprentice to work on deflecting the farmer’s advances without coming off as a jerk, Gray realized.

The brunette stiffened and nearly dropped the rack of fish. “W-Wingman?!”  Even in the dim light of the cavern, his roommate could see that his friend’s face turned scarlet.  “I-I’m not trying to lure in anyone!”

Gray rolled his eyes and couldn’t bite back the self-indulgent smile that spread across his lips. “You hang out with a priest every day and you still lie…  For someone who is very insistent that they are meant to be alone, I’ve never seen anyone so lovesick,” he snorted.

Cliff’s flushed cheeks didn’t make his hardened stare very convincing; his friend almost laughed aloud. The brunette said nothing as he gave Cain one last stroke and brought the final lantern with him, leading the way out of the mine.

“I’ll set something up tomorrow. Don’t worry about it, man.” Gray jammed his hands in his pockets and gave the young man an emphatic nod.

Cliff swung around abruptly, nearly slapping his friend with a couple of fat trout. “Not tomorrow.  I’ve already got plans with her,” he tried to hide the pride in his voice and failed miserably.

Gray laughed and gave him a hearty clap on the back. “Ah, so you think you don’t need my help after all, eh?”

Cliff extinguished his lantern in response and smirked as he heard his roommate stumble over the loose rocks of the cave, cursing at him the whole way out.

Chapter Text

Claire counted out Cliff’s portion of coins from the shipment the night before as she consulted his list of contributed items. She smiled when she saw the scratchy handwritten note scribbled beneath his typical businesslike list.

Don’t forget to meet me at the Goddess Spring at three o’clock! -Cliff

The farmer smirked; as if her friend really needed to sign his name. She noticed he had drawn a silly smiley face next to the note and found a grin of her own creeping across her mouth; he had a very distinctive artistic style.  Her friend was in a playful mood and she was looking forward to spending some time with him.  He didn’t need to remind her about their appointment, either; Claire was more than just a little bit curious about Cliff’s friend and was eager for an introduction.  She walked outside, watering can in hand.  If she wanted to make good time today, she would need to start right away.

Watering her crops was much more manageable since she was only doing half of her plots each day. She had originally planned on watering the entire field every day once she was healthy enough to be able to work again, but it was simply too much work to do; she’d have to plan better next season.  Karen was right, though – Claire was definitely going to be bringing in a lot of money this summer.  The farmer knew right away how she wanted to spend some of her earnings – she was planning on going to Won’s shop soon to order a few new outfits.  The merchant had lent her a catalogue of available items around a week ago, and the young woman was having a hard time deciding what she wanted to purchase.  The very idea of owning another set of clothes made her a little giddy.  This was a thought for another time, though, Claire realized as she hurried inside to prepare for her outing.

She had no idea who this person was, but the farmer didn’t want to show up empty-handed. Claire’s parents had taught their daughter from an early age to offer a gift to a new acquaintance if possible.  The young woman tidily bundled up some blueberries she had found in the mountains earlier for an introduction gift of sorts.  This particular bundle was the neatest one she had constructed yet, nice and sturdy; Cliff would be impressed by it, and surely, so would his friend.  She waved goodbye to a napping Koro in the shade and headed out toward the mountain trail.

Claire thought that she heard some faint singing as she made her way to the spring, but the voice blended into the waterfall and she couldn’t make it out very well. The song had a joyful, yet simple melody and she found that it had given off a contagious happy feeling.  The farmer shuffled her bundle of berries in her hands as she excitedly bounced to the spring.

The young man was sitting cross-legged in front of the waterfall and his friend realized he must have been the one that was singing. She was a little surprised, but she figured she would have recognized her friend’s voice immediately if she had heard better; she hadn’t gotten a very good listen, but the voice sounded comfortable and confident, two words she would have never associated with Cliff when she first met him.  “Hey.”  She greeted her friend.

Cliff beamed at her. “Hi!” A pair of dancing blue eyes stared back at the farmer as the young man stood up excitedly.

The young woman was eager to see her friend in such an upbeat mood, but she was suddenly aware of how nervous she was about meeting another new person. What if they didn’t like her?  How uncomfortable would it be if this friend got along well with Cliff but not her?  She clumsily held out the bundle to the young man in giddy confusion and then hugged it to her chest.  She was eager to make a good impression.  “I, uh… I brought a gift for your friend.  Are we going to go to their place?”

Cliff nodded. “Yeah…  I guess you could say that.” The brunette saw the berries and gave her a curious look.  “Hey, Claire, don’t worry about the gift.  He doesn’t really eat berries.”  The young woman was taken aback to hear him let out a soft chuckle.

The farmer felt her cheeks flush with embarrassment. “W-Well… I, um…”  She nervously shifted them into her bag.  Claire had wanted to make some sort of offering to this new person, but now she was empty-handed.  Dumont house rules told her that this was unacceptable; her parents would scold her for not bringing a gift to a formal introduction such as this.  She shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot.  “O-Okay…”

He shook his head with a smile, hoping to ease her anxiety. He had meant for this venture to be fun for her, not stressful.  “Seriously, you don’t have to bring him anything; I’ve already got him spoiled pretty badly.  If it makes you feel better, I’ve got something for him for later; I’ll tell him it’s from you.”  Cliff gestured for Claire to follow him as he picked up his lantern off of the ground and led the way to the Spring Mine.

The blonde frowned; this made her feel even worse. She had done such a poor job of picking a gift that he had to step in and help her.  She was distracted from her uneasiness as she saw Cliff enter the cave.  She was immediately reminded of Gray’s tales and she placed a warning hand on her friend’s shoulder.  “Wait, why are we going in here?  Are we going to meet an… oni or something?” she cast him a sideways glance.

The brunette raised his eyebrows at her and bit back a chuckle. “Oni?”

“Well, yeah… Gray said they lived in the mines,” her voice trembled and she laughed a little more loudly than she meant to.  “I don’t know if this is the best idea…”  She wasn’t in the mood for losing a finger, and she wasn’t keen on her friend getting injured either.

“Well, Gray’s not very educated on youkai and the supernatural. If he was, he’d know there is no way an oni would live this close to a town full of people; he’s all talk.”  He was about to mention something about this quality probably existing in Gray due to the fact that he was a “city slicker”, but he held his tongue.  The young man lit his lantern at the mouth of the cave.

“Oh, so you’re an expert?” she forgot her nerves once again and flashed him a mischievous grin as she looped her thumbs under her rucksack straps and rocked back and forth on the balls of her feet.  That playful side of him was coming out today, and Claire relished in it.

He gave a pleased laugh when he realized that the thought of scrambling to defend the apprentice hadn’t even crossed the young woman’s mind. “Hardly.  I don’t know if anyone ever could be; Carter says there are countless things in this world that humans aren’t even aware that they can’t comprehend.”

“Fair enough… but I’ve been told there’s something… dangerous living in the mine,” she replied, tightening her hold on her straps.

Cliff gave her a rueful smile, shuffling his feet abashedly. “I know; and that’s my fault.  I owe you an apology and an introduction.”  He led the way into the cave.

Claire almost tripped over her boots and she wasn’t sure if her instability was due to her friend’s comment or the craggy floor. “S-So… we are going to meet… whatever’s been living in this cave?” her heart pounded in her throat.

“Yep.” The dim light from the lantern reflected off of Cliff’s eyes.  The young woman reached for his arm and clutched it.  He flinched a bit and she felt a wave of guilt, remembering there was a reason why he wasn’t carrying the lantern in his left hand.  She shifted her hold to his upper arm and he smiled at her.  “There’s no reason for you to be afraid, Claire,” he laughed innocently, but he prayed she wouldn’t let go.  Much to his delight, she did not.

Claire had never been to this far corner of the cave. She heard the fluttering noise and stifled a gasp.

“His name is Cain; we’ve been traveling together for years. Wait right here for a moment, okay?” He gave her a reassuring pat on the shoulder.

“A-Alright.” She could hardly hear him over her pulse thudding in her ears. She watched mutely as her friend lit a few oil lamps and he was speaking to his companion in a soothing tone.  The young woman listened to the slight lilt in his pleasant folksy voice and found herself calming down.  Something was perched on a rock formation in the shadows near her friend.  Was it a giant bat?  The friendly chirp the young man received in reply made her think otherwise.  “I’ve heard of mines having canaries…” she laughed nervously.

“Oh, don’t tell him he’s a canary,” Cliff laughed, “or he’ll stop hunting for us. You can come on over.  He’s actually quite used to people and he’s tethered; you’re both perfectly safe.”

Claire walked to the corner of the cave and recognized the bird immediately. “Hey, it’s that falcon! So he’s yours?”  Her fear faded as she remembered the large bird soaring over her head the other day.  He was even more beautiful up close.  Claire admired the bird’s sleek feathers; it was truly a treat to see such a magnificent creature in such an intimate setting.

The young man donned a heavy leather gauntlet on his right hand. “Oh, so you recognize him then…?”

“On the afternoon of your birthday, he was watching you fish when Karen and I came over,” Claire recalled, stepping a bit closer and staring into the bird’s piercing eyes. “You fed him the scraps from your fish.  I thought you were just really kind to animals.”

He was grateful she felt this way about him even though she knew he hunted. Claire was also very observant, he realized.  “I’m… actually impressed you noticed,” he admitted with a blush, thankful that the lighting of the cave was so poor.

The bird stretched his wings and Claire stared in amazement. “So, you have quite a pet.  I don’t know why you didn’t tell me sooner.”

The young man held out his gloved hand and the bird fluttered to perch on his forearm. Claire’s eyes widened at the impressive wingspan on the creature.  “It’s not like I was trying to hide him from you…  But I’m not sure what the regulations are around here…”  That explained his nervous behavior around Harris the other day, Claire reasoned.  The brunette continued.  “I actually wanted to tell you for a while, but I thought he might scare you,” he confessed sheepishly as he stroked the bird’s feathers.  Cain gave him a deadpanned stare in response.  Cliff smiled at the bird.  “What?  I didn’t mean that in a bad way, Cain!” 

The bird blinked at him and Claire stifled a giggle; she could easily tell that they had spent years together, and the pair seemed to have a sort of understanding.

The brunette rolled his eyes at Cain. “Well, anyway, I prefer to think of him as more of a partner,” Cliff grinned.  “We’ve traveled a lot together.  I fly him at least once a day.  He really likes it up here in the mountains.”  Perhaps Mother’s Hill reminded Cain of home as well, the young man thought with a wistful sigh.

The farmer’s gaze was locked on the bird. “Wow, a falcon…  That’s so cool!”  The concept of owning one sounded so foreign to her; they were so wild and fierce.  Claire realized at once that she sounded like Karen on the day they had first spotted Cain.  The grocer’s daughter had gawked at their mutual friend while he was fishing and was a little over-the-top with her reaction.  Claire feared she sounded similar and found herself casting her eyes downward in embarrassment.

“Really?” It seemed perfectly natural to her friend; he looked at the bird perched on his arm curiously.  In truth, he couldn’t remember a time in his life when he didn’t practice falconry; his father was known throughout their small village for his skills with raptors.  Falcons and hawks were quite common in Akiyama Village, but he was aware that a peregrine like Cain was hardly a bird for a beginner.  Thanks to his childhood time spent with his father, Cliff was far from being considered a novice falconer, but saying so out loud felt a little boastful, as eager as he was to share this part of his life with his friend.

“Yeah!” she gave him a perky nod.

“Well, don’t you see Koro as your partner?” He stroked the bird with an affectionate hand. Claire noticed he did not invite her to do the same and she suddenly realized Gray’s warning about “losing a finger” might have actually had some weight to it.

“Hmmm…” The farmer thought of her young dog chasing his own tail and laughed.  “No, he’s more like a pet.”

“Well, I think he’ll surprise you someday,” her friend returned kindly. “Dogs are wonderful animals; we had a lot back at home.”  Cliff smiled at the bird as Cain fluttered back to his perch, preening his wings.  “I think that people and animals were meant to work together as partners…  Want to head back outside?”

“Sure. Bye, Cain!” Claire gave the bird a shy wave and giggled when she received a chirp in reply.

The young man extinguished the lanterns in the area. “He knows his name,” Cliff laughed, leading the way with the final lantern.

The young woman was grateful that her friend kept a slow pace for her to match. “I think it’s great that you have a special friend like Cain,” she looked at her friend thoughtfully.

He gave her a genuine smile in return as he carefully watched the uneven floor. “Thank you, and I’m glad you have Koro to help with your farm.”

Claire snorted. There he was going on again about her adorable, yet useless puppy.  “I honestly think he’s a lost cause,” she confessed with a playful giggle.  All her dog was good for was following her around and tripping her as she attempted to water her crops.  The farmer could’ve sworn she saw her puppy stumble over his own paws a few times when he got too excited.  “Don’t get me wrong; Koro’s the sweetest dog ever, but I don’t trust him with anything.  I have another animal that I’m hoping will be more useful in the future.”

“Tucker.” The young man didn’t have to guess as the pair took a seat in the grass beside the Goddess Spring.

Her entire face lit up, and Cliff wondered if she was thinking of the horse or the instructor. His silent question was answered almost immediately.  “Yeah… horse training went well yesterday,” she added casually, her cheeks turning pink.

Her companion let out a nervous chuckle and stared down at the grass, selecting a few very long strands and knotting the ends together. He began to braid them, and Claire realized that he used these little “ropes” regularly for all sorts of things.  “Ah, that’s good…”  He gave her a civil smile and his voice was lighthearted, but Claire noticed his body language suggested otherwise; his shoulders were slouched a bit and he wouldn’t meet her eyes.  She didn’t recall Cliff’s posture always being this poor, and wondered why she was suddenly aware of it.

She was about to gush over Gray’s gentle handling of her colt, but her voice caught in her throat. It wasn’t as if the lesson had gone perfectly, after all, and she was a bit unsure how she felt about the whole thing.  Claire found that she immediately regretted bringing up the subject.  She was reminded how rude she was to Cliff when he was trying to teach her some basic cooking skills with foraged goods at his place; once Gray got involved, she had a tendency to forget about everything else.  Why did it hurt so much more today to realize she was doing this?  She bit her lip.  Confused by her conflicting thoughts, she grabbed a few long strands of grass for herself and began mimicking her friend.  “I… I should have asked you about the song the other day…  I’m sorry.”  She gave him a sincerely apologetic look.

His focus moved to the young woman and a quizzical expression could be seen on his face. He was pleasantly surprised to see she had changed the subject.  “What song?”

Claire tightly braided her grass, admiring the knotting she had done on the ends. “Well, Harris asked if you were going to play me a song the other day.  Don’t you remember?”

The young man chuckled. “Oh, that!  It’s no big deal and you don’t have to be sorry…” he shyly rubbed the back of his neck and Claire caught a bit of color on his cheeks.  He stopped slouching almost immediately, she noticed. 

He was so polite despite his rustic appearance, often diverting the conversation about himself to give someone else a chance to speak. She wanted to learn something new about him today.  “I’d love to hear a song from you.  Do you play a musical instrument?  Or do you sing?”  She remembered his singing at this very location earlier and grinned.

Cliff finished braiding his strands of grass and set them on his knee. “Uh… actually, I do both,” he failed miserably to hide his excitement, and he rifled through his bag, pulling out a wooden pan flute.  There was a light behind his eyes, and Claire was reminded of his vague description of his rowdier childhood days.  The young woman studied him curiously and the word endearing had resurfaced in her mind while a smile spread across her lips.  It was always satisfying to see her friend so comfortable, and she was a little surprised he didn’t seem flustered at the notion of performing.  “What would you like to hear, Claire?” His eyes glowed at her.

This was a side of him she had rarely seen before. Claire ran her fingers through a strand of her hair.  “Uh… I dunno.  What songs do you know?”

“Lots,” he admitted with an impish grin.

She bit back a laugh. What words had he used to describe his younger self?  Obnoxious and loud?  She could easily picture a rowdy young Cliff with this same smile.  “Why don’t you play me one of your favorites?”  Claire suggested kindly.

“Okay…” There was a hint of a shy smile as the young man took a couple of slow breaths and began to play. He had grown and changed just like he had said a few weeks ago, but he was still had the same spirit.  Claire had noticed the brunette’s teasing and playfulness with Cain earlier.  Cliff hadn’t lost that childlike wonder for life, despite what he thought when he sat quietly in his pew at the church.  His song was proof of that.

The farmer had never heard a live pan flute before; she smiled at the pure, airy tones. Her friend had selected an upbeat melody with a bouncy beat that sounded like joy in musical format.  A strong wave of euphoria washed over her; something about the notes and especially the emotion behind them tugged violently at her heartstrings and she realized at once that this was more than a mere hobby for her friend.  For a few minutes, the young woman forgot about her fields of crops that needed tended, her young horse and the man who agreed to help train him, her quandaries over whether or not to invest in a hen, her looming tax and utility bills.  For that brief moment, she was simply a person listening to a song.

He was finished before she knew it; Claire sat in silence for a few moments, relishing in the experience. She dabbled on the ocarina, but his skill was unlike anything she had personally witnessed.  “That was beautiful.  How did you learn to play like that?”

“Oh, thank you!” Cliff reddened, setting down the flute. “I…” he immediately lost his voice as he stared pensively at the grass, as if he was debating whether or not to answer the question.  The young man bit his lip.  He had agreed to play for her, after all, and it would be rude to not reply.  Still, he found himself hesitating; this was a very slippery slope and if he wasn’t careful, he might end up burdening Claire with much more than she deserved.  “Ma trained me,” he answered with a slight smile on his lips, but his gaze did not move from the ground.

Based on his body language, she felt she had to speak carefully. “Did you perform for groups?”

He gave her a nod and a sad smile. “You know, I used to really enjoy being in crowds… Sometimes… sometimes, I even enjoyed performing.  Bet you never would’ve guessed, huh?”  His laugh sounded joyful and bitter at the same time; Claire was confused.

The blonde tilted her head at him curiously. “You seemed like you were having fun when you played a moment ago.”

He looked up at her with such anguish in his eyes that Claire was taken aback. “Playing for your own pleasure and having it be part of your life’s work are very different.”

The young woman played with a long blade of grass. She could relate in a way.  “You know…  I always enjoyed playing with numbers as a kid.  Mum and Dad always told me that I’d be an accountant in a big firm, handling finances and bringing home big paychecks… and I did for a while.”  She turned toward her friend and found that the smile on her own face felt a little forced.  “But it didn’t make me happy.  It wasn’t the work itself that made me so miserable…  I’m probably not making much sense, am I?” she shook her head and let out a chuckle.

The fact that she wasn’t overcome with regret caused Cliff to fall out of his own despair. He felt that he never asked her enough about herself.  Just because he didn’t want to speak about himself didn’t mean that he couldn’t listen to Claire’s story.  “What about it made you unhappy?” he asked, scooting a little closer to her, his eyes widening in genuine curiosity.  “Was it the fact that you had to do it as a living?  … Carter says a lot of people have trouble with that because people tangle their hobbies with their income,” he attempted to comfort her.

Claire shook her head once more and felt a lump form in her throat. “No, it wasn’t even that…  It was because I wanted to be able to choose my career myself.”

Her comment hit a little too close to home; the young man struggled to regain his composure while the young woman stared up at the clouds listlessly. She seemed to sense his uneasiness and didn’t look down from the sky, allowing him to calm down.  “But you chose to be a farmer here, right?” he stammered.

A warm sensation rose through Claire’s stomach and she grinned at her friend, nodding. That had really made all the difference with her; the young woman’s outlook on life felt so different.  To be honest, she had never even considered being a farmer until she saw the ad in the newspaper.  The promise of freedom was enough for her to leave behind everything she had ever known, and much to her delight, she found that she didn’t miss her old life in the city at all.  “Right.  Just like how you chose to live here with Cain…” she reminded him.

“Yes,” he beamed at her and their eyes locked. He was silent for a long time, but Claire didn’t say anything in reply; it looked like there was something he wanted to say and she waited patiently.  He gave her a friendly chuckle.  “Things happen for a reason, I suppose,” his wide eyes moved up toward the clouds.

“Yeah…” Claire looked back up at the sky, oblivious to her flushed cheeks.

Chapter Text

“Check out this one!” Claire proudly shoved a seashell in her friend’s face.

“Nice, no cracks or chips!” Karen beamed as her friend put it in her basket.

The two were spending an early evening beachcombing. The blonde had been aching to go back to the beach again, and the sand felt great between her toes.  The cool ocean breeze was refreshing after a hard day’s work.

The farmer looked into the woven basket. She had been finding shells much more quickly than her friend, and the container was already almost halfway full.  “So, what are we collecting all of these shells for?” Claire asked.

“I dunno,” Karen admitted, admiring a piece of sea glass and adding it to their collection. “Maybe one day we will get creative with them.”

“So, you never told me how things went with Rick the other day,” Claire used a broken shell to scrape away the top layer of wet sand and was rewarded with a pristine clam shell in exchange. She eagerly set it beside her and continued to dig in the surf.

Karen shrugged. “Things went fine; they always do…”  Claire couldn’t help but notice her friend sounded a little disappointed; perhaps she was thinking that something more would come of that night as well.  She glanced at her friend and noticed that the brunette seemed frustrated while she noisily rifled through a cluster of broken shells further from the shore.  “Rick means well, but he has a tendency to try to do too much…  He really expects too much from himself, and may the gods grant mercy to those who try to tell him so.”  She thoughtfully rubbed her thumb along an unblemished scallop shell she found and stood silently for a moment, reveling in her find.

Claire found herself hesitating; she didn’t want to pry, but she was more than a little curious as to what took place at the bar the other evening between the two of them. “So, what all happened?”

A guilty smile spread across Karen’s face. “Vodka happened.”

The farmer knew that this was an evasive answer, albeit an amusing one. Claire looked beside her and the clam shell she had dug up a moment ago disappeared; it must have been carried out by the tide while her back was turned.  She dug again and to her surprise, she found an identical shell.  “So… are you both doing well then?” she asked carefully.

“Yeah. Like I said, Rick can be stubborn, but he was really sweet the other night.  He bought all of my drinks and walked me home,” she gave her friend an impish smile.  “I got a peck on the cheek, too,” her face flushed and she beamed.  “O-Of course… it was probably just between friends.  I can dream though, right?”

Claire giggled; her friend wasn’t shy about giving kisses, but it seemed receiving them was another story. “Of course you can dream, Karen.  But I don’t think that you have to pretend too hard,” she admitted.

Claire’s implication that Rick had feelings for Karen made the grocer’s daughter turn a bright shade of red. She clattered through the empty shells and let out a nervous chuckle.  “Well, what about you?  Didn’t you have a lesson with Gray the other day?”

The blonde bit her lip and nodded. She still wasn’t sure how she felt about the whole thing.  Karen’s face immediately fell.

“What did he do?” she started right into her. “Do I need to kick his ass?”

Claire shook her head defensively. “It was my fault really…  Everything was going fine, until I asked a stupid question,” she muttered.

Karen’s eyebrows furrowed. “Don’t you know that there’s no such thing as a stupid question?  What did you ask?”

The blonde felt uncomfortable talking about the subject. She carried her clam shell to the basket and continued digging in the wet sand in an agitated manner.  “W-Well…  I asked him about Tucker’s posture and I thought that his neck should be held higher like the horses I saw in the city…  Apparently they get like that from wearing an uncomfortable harness, but I didn’t know when I asked him.  I did a little more reading on it…  I’m such an idiot,” her voice cracked as she stared down at the sand.  “I must have sounded so stupid to him!  It’s no wonder he threatened to take my horse back to Barley…”

“He did what?!” Karen’s voice rose in anger as she threw a shell in the pile, making a loud clattering noise.

“Well, that was when he thought that I wanted to use that harness,” the farmer quickly explained. Her mouth felt very dry all of a sudden.  “H-He apologized to me…  Pretty profusely, mind you.”

“I should hope so. So what happened?” the brunette put her hands on her hips and frowned.

“He said he was sorry and asked if I would still let him work with Tucker,” Claire’s stomach felt sour. “A-And I agreed… He… he was so happy he gave me a h-hug…” she turned a bright shade of crimson as she nervously dug in the sand with her fingers.

The farmer was so busy avoiding the brunette’s gaze that she didn’t notice Karen crush an old chipped snail’s shell in her fist as she clenched her jaw. The young woman gingerly removed the shards from her hand.  She would need to have a heart-to-heart with Gray; Karen was not happy with the way the young man was treating her friend.

Claire had distracted herself with collecting more sea shells. The farmer felt like she had stepped into a treasure chest.  She had never gone beachcombing before, and everywhere she looked, she saw beautiful sea shells – all she had to do was scrape a small layer of wet sand away.  She wondered why Karen was taking so long picking ones out.  “Now here’s another perfect one,” Claire picked up a snail shell and proudly handed it to the brunette.

The woman’s anger melted away at her friend’s foolishness. “It’s still occupied, you goof,” Karen giggled, handing it back to her.

“Oh.” Claire looked in the hole in the shell and saw the fleshy mollusk tucked inside. She tossed the shell gently into the surf and walked back to her basket sheepishly, crouching down beside it, studying the contents.

“What are you doing?” The brunette grinned; she had a pretty good idea she knew what was going on. Claire had been adding shells to the basket suspiciously quickly.

“I found a lot of clams that I thought looked perfect… I was thinking that I was just really lucky…”  She rifled through the shells.

Karen laughed and tipped over the basket with her foot. A few of the clams started to burrow immediately.  “You’re such a helpless city girl!”  She gave her a playful punch and laughed good-naturedly.  “Here’s a basic tip: if the shell’s closed, something’s probably living inside.  I guess you could’ve kept them to eat if you wanted to; I know you’re brave like that.”  The farmer ate all sorts of things that Karen would not dare to try – different colored grasses, herbs, and strange fruits that grew in the mountains.  She wouldn’t be surprised if the blonde had shared a squirrel over a campfire with Cliff.  Karen highly doubted Claire ate any of these things in the city, and the young woman had dropped quite a bit of weight since they first met.  It seemed when one was hungry enough, one couldn’t afford to be too picky.

Claire set some pretty stones they collected off to the side and lined up the shells on the beach in a tidy row, grumbling. “Alright, Miss Expert Shell Collector, let’s see how many of these are actually alive,” she challenged.  She’d show Karen…

“What the heck are you doing, Claire?” A deep voice from behind her caused the blonde to jump.  The young woman recognized the blacksmith’s voice and stood up abruptly, blushing.  Of course Gray had to arrive when she was doing something stupid…

“She’s catching clams and snails,” Karen laughed. “We were beachcombing for empty shells, but she has a knack for picking ones that are still alive.  Maybe we’d be better off digging for some clams and roasting them over a bonfire instead.”  The brunette teased, giving her friend a good-natured grin.

Claire turned around and noticed that Cliff had joined him. “Hey, Cliff.  Hi, Gray.”  She tried her best to remain casual.  She wished Karen hadn’t pointed out her ignorance in front of Gray.  She quickly brushed off the sand on her borrowed shorts and wished she her hair looked tidier.  She ran a few fingers through it in a futile effort to push it out of her face, but quickly realized she had sand on her hands.  She could feel herself turning redder as her heart hammered in her ears.

Gray didn’t make any acknowledgement regarding her appearance. “Well, did you find any big clams?” he asked politely, tugging on the bill of his cap.

The young woman was grateful that he never seemed to poke fun at her; she didn’t know if her heart could take it. “Not really,” she laughed.  “I’d rather catch some fish than clams anyway.”  The concept of eating clams wasn’t particularly appetizing to Claire.  Her parents were fond of them, but the whole idea of eating something out of its own shell simply reminded the blonde that she was eating a creature that had been living not too long ago, and it felt a little barbaric.

“Well… Cliff caught some really good salmon this morning,” Gray mentioned, giving her a small smile. “If you really want to catch some fish, you should get him to give you some tips.”

The notion of going on an outing with Cliff didn’t bother the young woman, but admitting that out loud to Gray didn’t feel acceptable. “But I use a rod,” Claire replied automatically, confused by her mysterious emotions.

The brunette man shyly took a step forward. “I-I could borrow one from Gotz,” Cliff stammered, wringing his hands anxiously.

She forgot about her strange apprehension when she noticed that her friend’s arms were bare today and the bruises were nearly invisible unless one was searching for them. She felt a wave of relief; it seemed Cliff was a fast healer, although he had probably used some herbal remedies.  “Yeah, that could be fun,” the young woman grinned at her friend excitedly.  “I don’t think I have the reflexes for spear fishing.  So you fish with a rod, too?”  She hadn’t noticed that Gray had artfully stepped back a few paces and gave Cliff the slightest of nods.

The young man took another tiny step closer to his friend and nervously rubbed the back of his neck. “Sure.  I prefer spear fishing, but I started out on a rod.  I learned from a master fisherman…  Maybe next time we’re in the mountains together, I can give you a few of the pointers Ray showed me.”

“Alright; sounds fun! To be honest, I haven’t fished much with the rod Zack gave me, and I never went fishing as a kid.”  Her face lit up in excitement.  A free protein source sounded wonderful; she knew that she had been lacking proper nutrition, as she was still very hungry all of the time.

“Well, there’s always time to learn,” He smiled at her, and his eyes drifted down at the sand in front of them. “Ah… it looks like most of your clams and snails were still alive.”

Claire looked down at her feet. Only a couple of shells remained, and one was slowly edging back out to the surf.  “Oh, well,” she laughed with a shrug.  “I was collecting some rocks, too.  Check out this one,” she handed him a smooth flat rock that was flecked with pink and white.  She was particularly proud of this find.

Cliff admired the rock in the palm of his hand. “A perfect skipping stone,” he murmured as he ran his fingers along it, a flood of childhood memories at the river’s edge filling his mind.  A nostalgic smile spread across his lips.

“Well, that one’s for the ‘keep’ pile,” Claire giggled and snatched the stone from his hand before he got any ideas.

“I-I wasn’t going to throw it,” he insisted with a blush. “Where’s the pile of rocks you’re going to keep?” he asked, looking around them curiously.

“Um… you’re standing in it,” Claire stifled a laugh, pointing at his feet.

Cliff jumped as his friend giggled. “I’m sorry!” He turned redder.  His attempts at appearing calm and collected in a social setting were fading quickly.

“Here, let’s get some more rocks in the surf,” Claire suggested, cocking her head toward the water’s edge with a playful expression. The young man eagerly followed.  The waves washed over her bare ankles and she looked at her friend with a huge grin.  Simply being outside in a beautiful setting with good friends was enough to make her heart burst with joy.  She was met with a happy chuckle in response; it seemed she wasn’t the only one who felt this way. 

Karen waited until the two were further out before she spoke. “Claire told me what happened the other day,” her voice was somber.

Gray swallowed the lump in his throat, vaguely wondering which of his transgressions she had told the grocer’s daughter. He hardly felt it appropriate to ask her to specify, lest the punishment become greater than it surely already would be.  “Ah.”

The brunette cocked an eyebrow. “That’s all you can say for yourself?  What do you think you’re doing over there at her farm?  Barley would be more than willing to give her some pointers, and he wouldn’t judge her!” her anger erupted.  “She needs encouragement, but you’re giving her the wrong kind!”

The apprentice didn’t say anything in reply; he knew that everything she said was true.

“Seriously, you’re such an idiot sometimes. Keep your hands off of Claire,” the brunette flipped her hair over her shoulder and folded her arms across her chest with a huff.

Gray felt his own frustration bubble to the surface. Karen truly was too protective over her girl friend, and he was tired of being treated like a villain.  “I already explained this to Cliff!  There was nothing romantic about the other day!”

The young woman mulled her friend’s words over in her mind. “So Cliff knows about what happened, then.”  She watched the pair standing out in the waves.  The young man had found a hermit crab and was holding it out to Claire, who let out a squeak in surprise and delight.  Karen’s anger faded a bit.  The farmer was simply too cute for her own good and Cliff’s pleased reaction to his friend’s behavior made Karen’s heart melt; her friends were, in her eyes, painfully adorable.

Gray let out a deep sigh. “Naturally, he was walking back to the inn through the path on the farm when he saw us…  I… I talked to him!” he insisted, tired of having to defend himself.

“Good.” The young woman’s eyes didn’t move from her friends for a few minutes.  They stood in silence, and Gray sensed that her anger had subsided, much to his relief.  “So where were you guys headed tonight?” Karen asked the blacksmith casually.  “You hardly strike me as the beachcombing type,” she snorted and gave him a curious look.

He let out a silent sigh of relief; she was finished scolding for the night. “We were going to Kai’s,” Gray replied vaguely.  “He told me if I brought a friend, he’d give me a discount.”

“Oh, that’s harsh! So you just dragged Cliff along?” Karen roared with laughter.  She lowered her voice as she looked out at the surf.  “Is that really your only reason?” she cocked an eyebrow.  Was it true that the stubborn young man was actually trying to help his friend?

Gray tugged on the bill of his cap; Karen was too perceptive. “Ann said that you two had plans out here tonight…  Why don’t you guys come with us?”

“Oh?” Karen looked far too entertained for Gray to feel comfortable. “Alright, then…” she turned to call out to her girl friend, but Gray caught her by the wrist. 

“Hey… give them a few more minutes, okay?” he kept his voice low.

“… Ah, I see…  Very well,” she raised her eyebrows and smirked at him.  It seemed he had a plan in mind, and she wasn’t about to argue with it.  The pair looked out at the farmer and the young man out on the edge of the water.

Claire didn’t want to admit out loud that she had never skipped stones before; surely Cliff would think she was odd. The young man shuffled through the rocks on the shore and quickly found one suitable for throwing.  He tossed it out over the water and got five skips out of it.

His companion watched in amazement. “Wow!”  Claire exclaimed.

The young man felt a rush of confidence at his friend’s reaction. “Heh, that one was pretty good,” He looked rather pleased with himself.  Cliff looked over at her playfully.  “Now let’s see what you’ve got,” he nodded out over the water.

He had made it look so easy; it must be a really simple process. The young woman grabbed the first rock she found and clenched it in her fist eagerly.  “Alright!”  She chucked it into the water with great determination and was surprised as it landed with a deep plop.  It seemed simply wishing it to skip across the water’s surface wasn’t enough to succeed.

“What the heck was that?” Karen laughed in the distance.

Claire rolled her eyes at her and grabbed another rock, her cheeks burning. She threw it harder this time, and only got a bigger splash.

The young man carefully shuffled through the selection of stones on the shore and finally settled on one. “Here.” Cliff handed her a smooth, flat stone.  “Try moving your wrist like this,” he imitated the movement a few times.  “It’s like throwing a disk.  Just let go when your wrist is fully extended.”  He got another rock for himself and demonstrated another throw, getting three skips.

Claire tried the motion several times with her own stone. It had taken her friend a few moments to find this particular rock and she didn’t want to waste it.  She was determined to make some sort of progress.  “I’m bad at disk throwing, too,” she admitted, laughing.  “Koro won’t be the only one who does terrible next summer at Beach Day,” she giggled.

He gave her a warm smile in response. “Well, you can think of this as practice,” he encouraged her.  “Go on; give it a shot,” he kept a kind, watchful gaze over the blonde as she bit her lip and looked over the water.

Claire summoned her determination and focused it in her wrist. “Okay…”  She exhaled and tossed the rock over the surf.  The young woman surprised herself when she got one skip.  “Did you see that?!”  She squealed in delight as her eyes widened, and she hopped up and down like a child.

“Sure did,” he laughed. The young woman was very cute when she was excited.  “Here, try it again,” he offered her another stone.

Claire was so eager to throw the rock that it landed with a deep plunk again. If Karen had heckled her again, she didn’t notice.  The young woman was so determined to succeed again in skipping the rock that her focus was aimed solely at the task at hand.

“I know I can do better than that!” Claire wore a determined expression and searched in the surf for more stones like a hungry scavenger in search of a meal.

“You want something flat… Hey, check out this one,” Cliff held it out to her.  The smooth stone was round and flat and was a beautiful gray-blue in color.

Her eyes widened at the simple beauty of the stone. “How pretty…  Don’t throw that one,” she breathed, giving him a pleading look.  If he didn’t want it, she was more than willing to keep it.

He was pleased to see that she found the stone as lovely as he did. “I don’t plan on it,” he replied as their eyes met.  He closed his fingers around it.  “This stone will stay safe,” he blushed, putting it in his pocket.

The young woman gave him a kind smile and returned to her scouring of the water’s edge. She spotted a rock with the right qualities and snatched it up eagerly.  “Okay, I’ve found the lucky stone!” Claire announced, holding it up in the air above her with an intense face as if she was imagining a heavenly chorus singing out a fanfare for her sacred find.

Cliff laughed at her expression; a playful Claire was a lot of fun to be around. The blonde practiced the movement with her wrist several times and stretched her arms.  By now, Karen and Gray had joined them and were watching silently with interest.

The farmer took a couple of deep breaths and popped her wrists. “Here we go!”  She tossed the stone and got two skips out of it.  The young woman felt a surge of adrenaline.  “Yeah!”  She yelled out over the waves, surprised at the volume of her own voice.

“Good job!” Cliff laughed heartily.

“I did twice as well that time,” She grinned at him, feeling a surge of pride in her accomplishment.

“Alright, Claire!” Karen’s sudden voice startled her. The farmer jumped and giggled.

“Not too shabby,” Gray gave her a nod of approval.

Claire felt herself redden. “Well…  Let’s see what you guys can do, then!”  It was time to pass along the challenge.

Karen sighed. “Really?”  While she had enjoyed watching them enough, the grocer’s daughter hadn’t intended on actually getting involved with her friends’ childish games.

The blonde nodded and dropped her voice into a serious monotone. “Show me what you got!” Claire’s bright blue eyes were blazing.

“Okay, okay,” The grocer’s daughter roared with laughter. She grabbed a flat stone and threw it into the water.  It landed with a loud splash.

Was Karen really as clueless about rock skipping as Claire had been? The farmer felt a sense of relief.  “What was that?!” The young woman heckled her.  “You threw that overhand!”

“That’s how I throw,” Karen retorted with a shrug, as if it was a problem that couldn’t be helped.

“You’re not using the right technique. You’ve gotta use your wrist!” the blonde insisted, mimicking the motion with her wrist that her male friend had taught her.

“You’ve created a monster, Cliff,” the brunette laughed at her friend. He gave her an apologetic look, but it didn’t look very sincere.  She smirked and threw another rock overhand out of spite.

Gray couldn’t stand remaining silent. “You’re killing me, Karen,” the apprentice tossed a rock and got three skips out of it.  “See?  Nothing to it.”

“That was so cool, Gray!” Claire cheered, but she turned straight back toward the brunette woman. “Come on, Karen!” she stared at her friend intently.

“Yeesh… Relax, Claire,” Karen giggled.  “I haven’t skipped rocks since I was a kid.”

Cliff threw another rock and it skipped four times.

The blonde’s eyes widened with amazement. “Go, Cliff!  That was awesome!” Claire squeezed him around the shoulders and he reddened violently as breath escaped him.  He found that he was quite unable to wipe the silly smile that spread across his entire face.

“You’re not helping the situation, man,” Karen rolled her eyes, but she was grinning as she threw another rock overhand. It arched high in the air and landed out far in the water with a loud plop.

Gray let out a low whistle. “Damn…  You got some distance on that one…”

Claire stamped her foot in the sand, still overcome with adrenaline. “You’re doing it wrong, Karen!  Don’t encourage her!” she laughed.

“How about we go get a bite at Kai’s before Claire tries to see how far she can skip Karen into the water?” Gray suggested with a smirk.

The grocer’s daughter gave the apprentice a sideways glance. “Your treat, right?” Karen winked at him.

The young man sighed, although he had a feeling he was getting let off easy. Either way, he was used to being scolded by her.  “Fine,” he said a little begrudgingly.

The brunette woman hurried toward the snack shack, but Claire hesitated before following her friend, shyly looking back at the men with a coy smile and twisting a strand of blonde hair in her fingers before heading there herself.

Gray gave Cliff a rough nudge. “Well, how about that?”

The brunette’s cheeks burned. Either way, she was in a playful mood and he didn’t want to read into the gesture too much.  “I think that was aimed at you,” his voice was barely audible as he stared at his female friend’s retreating figure.

“Pah, you’re just in denial that I did a good job tonight and helped you,” the grin that crept across Gray’s face was rather smug. He started to head toward Kai’s, but he stopped when he noticed his friend wasn’t moving.  “Are you coming or not?”

Cliff was staring out at the waves with a pensive look on his face. “Y-You know what would really help?”  He folded his arms across his chest and kicked at the sand as the ocean breeze played with his hair.

The apprentice thought that he had already assisted his friend plenty this evening. After all, Claire hadn’t focused much on Gray at all tonight.  “Huh?” his roommate grunted in response.

The brunette’s posture stiffened as he gulped. “If you made a decision already.”

Gray’s stomach did a somersault. “Wh-What do you mean?”

Cliff’s deep blue eyes locked onto his and the intensity of his expression caught the apprentice off guard. “You know exactly what I’m talking about…  Look, I know you don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, but right now you’re hurting everyone’s.”

The conviction in Cliff’s normally timid voice made Gray realize it was something that had been on the young man’s mind for a long time now. The apprentice had never really thought about the situation that way.  “Is that so…?”  He tugged on the bill of his hat; startled at his friend’s honesty and openness.

“Yeah.” Cliff swallowed the lump in his throat.  “If you don’t want to do it for me, at least think of Mary and Claire and how they’re feeling.”  He gave the young man a nod, satisfied with the words he had chosen, and started walking toward the snack shack.

Gray remained on the beach and found that his throat was tightening. Karen’s words didn’t tear into him the way his roommate’s had.  Did Cliff honestly believe he thought that little of him?  This was the person he identified as his best friend, and after their discussion the other day he was saying things like this?  He knew that the brunette had self-esteem issues, but his words – “If you don’t want to do it for me…” Gray felt like his heart had been ripped out and ground into the sand.

He stared at the waves crashing across against the shore and blinked back the mistiness that was starting to form in his eyes.

“Goddess… what kind of friend am I?”

Chapter Text

Karen was sitting on the bench outside of the grocery shop with Kai when she saw the blacksmith’s apprentice leave the library with a new stack of books and walk back toward the inn. “Well, here we go…  See you in a while?” She winked at the cook.  She’d be lying if she said she wasn’t a little bit anxious about their plan, but she knew something needed to be done.  The grocer’s daughter swung her feet.

The young man’s eyes followed Gray. He was in agreement that things couldn’t remain the way they were.  It wasn’t even the tension that had seemed to form in his room at the inn – he genuinely felt bad for the blonde farmer who silently asked for a walk home every night from the apprentice and never got one.  Thankfully, Cliff always stepped in, but still, it just wasn’t right…  “Yeah…  It’s stupid, really…  He’s a grown man, and you know he’ll be kicking and screaming the whole time.”

“I don’t care,” the brunette replied, flipping her hair over her shoulder. “I’m sick of all of this.  He needs a good shove and we are doing him a favor.  Catch you later!” The young woman saw this as her moment to strike.  She waved goodbye to Kai as she hurried toward the library and pulled open the door.

“Gray, did you forget something?” the librarian didn’t look up from her desk as she shuffled through an assortment of papers.

The grocer’s daughter leaned over the desk and made a sultry face at the young woman. “Baby, if you were a library book, I would check you out!” Karen dropped her voice an octave and did her best impression of the apprentice.

Mary’s face turned scarlet at the implication that Gray would proposition her; he would never say something like that. “K-Karen, what a lovely surprise...  I was just about to close up for the night, but I’d be happy to help you find something.  What kind of book are you looking for?”

She shook her head, her brown and blonde locks whipping about. “No books.  I was just wondering if you want to hang out tonight,” her green eyes lit up with determination.

Mary raised her eyebrows. “This is unusual…” 

Karen tried another route and shrugged casually. “It’s ladies’ night at the bar.  What would you say to hanging out with me and Claire?  Kai will be bringing the guys.  How would you feel about Gray buying you a drink?” She gave the librarian a playful grin.

The librarian dropped her pen on the floor and laughed nervously. “I-I don’t go to the bar very often…  And… I doubt…” her voice trailed off as she searched the floor for the pen.  The writing utensil rolled across the floor and tapped Karen’s boot.  The brunette picked it up and presented it to her.  “Ah, thank you.  Pardon my asking, but why do you want to invite me to the bar?  You and I don’t hang out much…  Did Claire ask you to invite me?”

Karen shook her head. “She doesn’t know about this yet.  It was just like I said – don’t you want to spend some time with Gray?  Kai and I will help… set the mood.” She replaced her playful expression to a warm, friendly one.

This change in demeanor seemed to help, as Mary actually met the brunette’s gaze. The young woman adjusted her glasses on the bridge of her nose.  “I really am quite unsure of what to say…  I suppose I do have one question.”  Mary shyly returned her gaze to the floor and fidgeted with the cuffs of her sleeves.  “Why are you helping me?”  She lowered her voice to a whisper.  “I do like Claire and I’d like to get to know her better…”  The invitation to the bar with the two of them was inviting.  In fact, her heart pounded in excitement at the very notion, especially due to the fact that the apprentice would be present…  “But… with Gray… I also… see her as a bit of a… rival…”  Mary felt ashamed to admit it aloud to anyone other than her mother or her friend Elli, especially this rival’s best girl friend.

“Exactly,” the grocer’s daughter gave her a knowing nod in reply.

Mary still felt as if they weren’t seeing things eye-to-eye. She absentmindedly tidied the stack of papers on her desk with shaking hands, vaguely wondering if this was some sort of plot.  “I-I still don’t understand.  I would have assumed you’d want to help her instead.”  Mary bit her lip.  The brunette wouldn’t have ill intentions toward her, would she?

Karen’s eyes locked with Mary’s earnestly. “Claire is my best friend.  I want to help her, too.”

The librarian blinked. “I’m afraid I don’t quite follow…”  This was partially a lie; perhaps she was afraid to understand…

The brunette wasn’t sure how to word her frustration at Claire and Gray’s situation. “I want her to be happy, genuinely happy…  I…  I don’t want her to keep chasing something that won’t bring her joy.”  It was difficult seeing her best friend suffer this way day in and day out.  “She’s… she’s in love with the idea of Gray, but she doesn’t love him…  It’s heartbreaking to see her pine like that.”

Mary was surprised at Karen’s brutal honesty, but she found that she rather liked it. After all, honesty was one of her favorite qualities in a person.  “I see…  You’re a good friend to her, Karen.  And I’m not just saying that because of m-my own feelings toward Gray,” she shyly squeaked, her face turning pink.

 The grocer’s daughter stared into Mary’s mocha brown eyes.  They seemed to have reached an understanding.  Her voice became less serious, but she spoke in a soothing tone.  “Come with me to the bar.  It’s not a big deal at all,” she let out a gentle chuckle.  “Just a couple of drinks…”

The young woman considered this offer. She stood silently for several moments.  “Let me change into something nicer real quick.”

0o0o0o0

Claire received a knock on her door just as she was preparing to change into her new nightgown. She let out a sigh.  It had been a long day of harvesting tomatoes, and she was eager to go to sleep early tonight.

“Heyo! Claire, open up!” Karen’s voice was muffled through the door, but the farmer could hear the overly enthusiastic quality to it.

Claire complied and stood in shock for a brief moment. To see the librarian accompanying her best friend this evening was a surprise, to say the least.  “Hi, Karen.  Hi, Mary.  Please come on in,” she bowed politely.

Karen cast a sideways glance at her friend. Claire was normally pretty formal, but perhaps being around someone she saw as a rival was making her nervous.  Well, that wasn’t acceptable.  Not tonight, anyway, Karen nodded to herself.  She had already talked the most difficult person into going to the bar – Claire should be a piece of cake.  The brunette thrust a bag into her arms.  “Get dressed.  I’m taking you ladies out tonight.”

The blonde accepted the sack with eyebrows raised in suspicion. Upon looking inside of the bag, she discovered the dress that she had worn after her brush with heat stroke.  “Why can’t I go out in what I’ve got on?”

The grocer’s daughter was relieved that Claire had already more or less agreed to accompany them. Karen gestured toward her own sleek purple dress and Mary’s white eyelet sundress.  “Because you’ll look silly if you don’t at this point.  We’re going to order fancy drinks and feel cool.”

If they were sitting at the bar dressed up nicely and Gray happened to be coming home from work…  Claire blushed.  “A-Alright, I suppose it can’t be helped.”

The brunette grinned. “I knew you’d see things my way.” That was surprisingly easy…

0o0o0o0

Claire felt a little silly to be dressed up to go to the inn. She felt most comfortable in her denim and overalls.  The dress, while cute, was much more Karen’s style than her own; it had a flirty flair to it that Claire couldn’t decide if she liked or not.  As they took a sat at their table, Mary and Karen were talking about something the farmer wasn’t making any attempts to listen to.  After all, she had temporarily lost the ability to focus on anything other than the table on the other side of the bar that was seating three young men.

Her face felt warm as her eyes traveled across the trio. Kai was sitting in the middle.  He was a very handsome young man with a deep tan and smiling brown eyes.  Something about his presence made her feel giddy and comfortable at the same time.  Cliff was sitting to Kai’s left.  The brunette’s long tresses were a bit tamer tonight and he wore a very comfortable-looking cotton tunic.  He normally didn’t wear much other than hides; the pale yellow of the shirt suited his complexion.  Her heart throbbed as she looked to the man at Kai’s right.  His hat was pulled over his eyes and his arms were folded across his chest as he leaned back casually in his chair.  Gray always had such an aloof air to him, but it was part of what attracted her to him.  She noticed he was wearing a fresh set of coveralls and she vaguely wondered if the young man ever considered shedding this unnecessary layer of clothing in the heat.

They hadn’t been at the bar for long at all when Ann approached the table.

“Oooh, Claire! A young gentleman has sent you a drink.  Will you accept it?” the waitress sang, presenting the farmer with a pink cocktail garnished with a cherry, a honeycomb, and a sugared rim.

“Damn… very nice…” Karen raised her eyebrows and snuck a look at the men’s table, giving her friend a nod of approval.

“H-Huh?” the blonde blinked in surprise. The thought had never occurred to her that someone would be interested in buying her a drink.  She knew what such a proposition meant in the city – some conversation would be exchanged and a future date may be set.  A few of Claire’s city friends had even gone home with men who purchased them drinks.  The blonde didn’t approve of this behavior, but she was afraid to express it aloud.  But this was Mineral Town; she knew everyone here, and she didn’t feel threatened by anyone.  Her blue eyes drifted toward the table of young men and she felt her face get warm and her pulse began to race.  Cliff was staring at the surface of the table and she was unable to see his expression beneath his shaggy hair, but his ears were red.  Kai was laughing at a slack-jawed Gray who was staring in her direction.  She had never seen the apprentice’s eyes so wide.  “Wh-who?”

The waitress set the drink on the table and nudged it toward Claire. “It’s from Cliff.  He says hi and hopes you’re having fun tonight.”

Any sort of apprehension she had disappeared immediately. The notion of her friend buying her a drink was a welcome one.  Her heart swelled.  “Ah, how sweet of him!” She gave him a kind grin, but he didn’t see it.  Claire was aware that Cliff had been bringing in more money with his shipped goods, as the list he slid under her door seemed to grow longer every day.  She knew that he was working hard, and the young woman was flattered that he wanted to celebrate with her.  “H-he’s a good friend…” she stammered, battling a confusing emotion within her.  Her gaze moved toward the man who purchased her drink.  His eyes were still glued to the table in embarrassment, but a shy smile played at his lips as he slightly tilted his head upward at her words.  He looked so vulnerable, yet strangely charming.  Her stomach did a strange flip-flop.

“That’s it – it’s time for a girl huddle!” Karen motioned for her tablemates to move in closer. They quickly obeyed.  The brunette beamed at her friend.  “Go, Claire!  You reeled in the sweet, cute one!” she teased, nudging her in the ribs a little too roughly.

The blonde laughed off the comment. “Reel in?  You make him sound like a fish.”  She suppressed a strange fluttering feeling in her belly that rose to her chest.  “It’s a friend buying another friend a drink.  You do it to me all the time.  He’ll probably buy you one, too, Karen.”

The alcohol connoisseur studied the mixed drink. Judging from the generous honeycomb garnish and pink sugar on the rim, it was a custom order.  Cliff had gone all out, and she had to admit that she was a bit impressed.  This was likely his reaction to Gray’s behavior at Mystic Acres the other day.  Karen felt a slight wave of relief that her friend wasn’t going to let his roommate walk all over him.  “Whatever.”  She highly doubted she would receive a drink from the young man, but she wasn’t about to complain if she did – it looked like he had good taste.

Mary leaned forward and pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose before they slid off of her face. “Well, standard etiquette says that if you accept the drink, you also accept his company…” she fussed with her ebony braid and Karen was a little surprised to see a hint of a smirk accompany the librarian’s kind eyes.

The farmer didn’t understand what there was to decide. “Well, of course I’ll sit with him, as long as you guys don’t mind.”  She didn’t want to come off as rude to her tablemates.

“Of course not.” If Claire wasn’t so giddy with excitement, she may have been suspicious in the fact that her companions said this in perfect unison.

“Then there’s nothing to debate,” the blonde continued as she twirled a blonde strand in her fingers, unaware of the huge grin creeping across her mouth.

“Why don’t you call him over, then?” Ann challenged, smugness written clearly upon her face.

The brunette jumped in surprise at the redhead’s interjection. “What are you doing here, Ann?” Karen gave her a playful shove.

The young woman puffed out her cheeks. “Well, you called a girl huddle!”  She stated this as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.

“Go… get me another wine!” Karen replied distractedly, shooing away the waitress playfully.

The redhead glanced over at Cliff. He was sneaking a look over at the blonde with that wide-eyed gaze that he reserved for the farmer.  Claire was playing with a strand of her golden tresses, her face flushed, but she had an air of confusion regarding her own emotions.  Ann exhaled.  It was starting to hurt a little less to watch the two of them, she realized.  “Alright, alright,” she sighed overdramatically and turned to head back to the bar.  She paused and whirled back around.  “Just remember, Claire… buying a girl a drink doesn’t give him the privilege of a roll in the hay!”

The young woman shook her head so emphatically that she felt dizzy. “Ann, why-?”

Karen roared with laughter and swatted her friend on the bottom. Ann let out a shriek and gave the brunette an impish grin as she went to get her friend’s beverage.

“Don’t worry about her,” Mary’s soft voice was soothing and brought the situation back to reality. “Everyone sitting at this table knows that Cliff is a gentleman and would never do something like that.”

Karen leaned back in her chair. “She’s right, you know.  Hang out with the boy.”

Claire’s cheeks burned as she stopped leaning on the table. She was never intending on not accepting the drink.  The young woman turned toward the man who purchased her beverage.  Their eyes met and she beckoned him over shyly with her finger.  She was attempting to look playful and keep the mood light, but she found that her face felt warmer than it did the day she had heatstroke.  Cliff was giving her a startled stare as if he wasn’t expecting her invitation.  The blonde was completely unaware that he was mirroring her exact behavior from a few moments earlier.  Her stomach sank a little bit; why did he look so scared to spend time with her?  His gaze nervously darted between his tablemates, and she could see him mumbling something to Kai.  Claire didn’t realize she was anxiously wringing her hands until she heard his chair screech across the floor as he stood up shakily and dragged his feet over toward her.

“H-Hey, Claire,” he let out a nervous chuckle. She had been around him enough to recognize that he was attempting to regulate his breath and used the laughter as a disguise to let out the excess air.

“Hey, Cliff… thanks for the drink,” she stammered with a shy smile. Claire had snuck in a sip while he was mentally preparing himself to join her.  “It’s really good.”

“Ah, I’m glad…” he rubbed the back of his neck, coyly looking at a vacant table in the corner. “So… uh… d-do you wanna…?”

Claire didn’t notice her companions’ slight nods of approval. She had already stood up and taken her drink in hand.  He politely gestured for her to lead the way.  Karen gave a slight tug on his tunic.

“Don’t keep her up too late, now,” she gave him a playful grin.

He gave a single nod in reply, turning from pink to red. Flustered, he whirled around and took a seat at the new table.

“Well, that was unexpected,” Karen turned toward Mary and gave her a kind grin.

“Yeah… it looks like things are looking up for the both of us,” the librarian returned.

Cliff pushed in his chair, observing his companion. She had dressed up for the evening and looked lovely.  A sense of pride began to well up in him for having the courage to engage her tonight.

Claire was still a little giddy and nervous at the young man’s shy, yet alluring behavior. Unsure of what to do, she looked down at her beverage.  “Here, give it a try.  Be sure to get some of the sugar on the rim,” the blonde nudged the drink toward her friend.

The young man took a sip from the glass and his eyes widened in surprise. “Wow, that’s very sweet, but it’s really good.  You can really taste the honey, huh?  It’s almost too sweet after what I’ve been drinking.”  Cliff had brought his own glass of wine over and timidly slid his own beverage toward the blonde, offering her a drink.

She touched her lips to the burgundy liquid and let out a tiny exclamation in surprise. The flavor was a stark contrast to what she had been drinking.  “Ah, tart!” she exhaled, closing her eyes.  “Let me try that again.”  She took another sip, focusing on the dark, fruity notes.  “Ah, it’s actually really good,” she grinned as they traded glasses once again.

They shyly drank in silence for a few minutes, neither sure what to talk about.

The young man was staring up at the ceiling. “I’ve been to a lot of bars and inns, but this one feels the homiest,” Cliff smiled.

She was grateful that he had chosen a conversation topic. She took a sip from her glass.  “And you’ve never ordered alcohol before moving here?” Claire asked curiously.

He shook his head. “I usually ordered hot water because it was free.  I ordered hot cocoa a couple of times as a treat.  I came in to warm up.”

Her friend made it sound like he was living outdoors. “So you didn’t actually live in the towns you traveled through…?” It was such a startling concept to her that she had a hard time wrapping her head around it.

He shrugged. “I camped outside; I don’t know what kind of residency that falls under,” he said with a slight chuckle.  Claire was relieved to see that the thought of it didn’t appear to upset him.  “This is the first place I’ve lived with a roof over my head since home,” he took another sip of wine thoughtfully.  He paused for a moment, deep in thought.  “… But I’ve been to a lot of festivals, though…”

Claire stopped nibbling on the piece of honeycomb in her drink. “Oh yeah?” her face lit up.  “What kinds?”

“Most of the ones I went to were music and dance festivals…” he looked pensively into his glass. “I performed at quite a few of them.”

“Wow, really?” Claire’s eyes widened in excitement as she continued to munch on the honeycomb, savoring the sweetness of the fresh honey and the delicate texture of the wax.

“Yeah, I filled in where they needed me and they paid me,” he had a slight smile on his face, but it was slowly fading.

She was determined to keep a smile on his face. “What would you say was the most bizarre festival you’ve ever attended?” she beamed at him, taking another drink.

He quietly thought for a few moments and let out a snort as he came up with his answer. “I went to a farming community where they had a tomato throwing competition,” he laughed.  “Ugh, I think I got some tomato in my eye once.  It was like a snowball fight, only with tomatoes.  A little wasteful, really…”

She bit into the cherry, relishing in the flavor it had picked up from being drowned in the beverage. “Sounds like someone’s a poor loser,” Claire teased with a giggle.

He grinned, glad that she was enjoying the drink so much. “Well, it was a waste of perfectly good tomatoes!” he replied with a mock-pout.  “Either way, I can now throw a mean tomato.”

Claire laughed heartily, taking another sip from her glass. “That seems like a vital life skill.”

“Oh, it is,” his eyes glowed at her mischievously. “You see, you never know when you’ll need to heckle someone who deserves it.”

The young woman leaned across the table and gave her friend a playful shove. “Well with an attitude like that, maybe someone should throw a tomato at you!”

Cliff let out a chuckle. “If you think you can hit me, by all means.”  He took another drink and smirked at her.

A grin crept across his companion’s face. “Well, you better watch your back when you’re passing through Mystic Acres, then!” Claire finished her drink and relished in the warm sensation it had left in her belly.  She leaned forward and rested her chin in the palm of her hand, giving her a friend a raised eyebrow and smug smile.

He snickered and drank the last bit of wine in his glass; her friend seemed to be in a playful mood tonight. His demeanor changed as he looked at the empty glasses and then at her with a deep blue gaze and flushed cheeks.  “Ah… w-would you like another, Claire?” he almost seemed afraid she would leave now that the beverages were gone.  “I’d be more than happy to treat you…” he had a shy, hopeful smile on his pink face and his eyes sparkled at her.

A different warm sensation flowed through Claire. Her friend had a very endearing way about him.  There was that word again, she realized.  “I’d love another, thank you.  I’m having fun!” She let out a friendly giggle.

0o0o0o0

Claire stood up a little too quickly. Her head and neck felt like they were moving half the speed of the rest of her body.  She felt a bit disoriented for a brief moment.

Cliff was slightly embarrassed that the alcohol had hit both of them so hard and so suddenly. “Whoa, are you okay?” her friend kindly offered her an arm, which she gratefully accepted to steady herself.  “I’ll walk you home, alright?”

“Thanks,” she gave him a sincere smile as she walked beside him, so flattered that he had opened the door for her that she didn’t notice the occupants at the table off to the side. The blacksmith’s apprentice and librarian were seated together, staring at each other with dreamy eyes and flushed cheeks.

It was a humid, hazy evening that only served to exacerbate Claire’s tipsiness.

“I don’t think I’ll drink that much on an empty stomach again…” she steadied herself against her friend’s forearm once more. The young woman stared down at the arm she was holding and briefly admired the toned muscles in it.  Her gaze focused on the scars on his arms and she realized that he had probably acquired most of them in his outdoor living experiences.  They were no longer pink and looked like they had healed years ago.  Her eyes traced upwards to the wisps of rich brown hair that had escaped her companion’s ponytail and she studied his profile in the sunset.  The young man had a slim face with heavy, yet friendly eyebrows.  He had a softer jaw line than his roommates, a straight nose, and large eyes that made him look younger than he really was.  Cliff was a little rough around the edges, but he wasn’t bad-looking by any means, she realized as the blood rushed to her face.  Maybe it was the alcohol talking, but he actually looked quite attractive…

“Maybe we should have gotten something to eat,” Cliff admitted with a guilty chuckle. “I am feeling the alcohol a bit, too.”  He turned to give his friend a grin and he noticed she was studying him closely.  His cheeks immediately flushed so deeply it was still visible in the setting sun.

“I’m sorry,” Claire stammered, “I didn’t mean to stare.” She remembered how flustered he was when they first met and she had been unable to take her curious eyes off of him.

“I-It’s alright…”

The sun had almost set by the time they made it back to the farm. The blonde immediately made a beeline for her fields.  She crouched over and rustled in the plants for a few moments before resurfacing with a large tomato in her hand.

“Hey, Cliff…” she gave him a teasing grin.

His eyes widened in surprise for a moment and he looked down at his tunic with a slight frown. He wasn’t thrilled at the notion of scrubbing tomato flesh off of his shirt.

“Don’t give me that look,” the young woman teased, carefully handing him the fruit. “If I threw it, then it would just be a waste of a perfectly good tomato, right?”

“Thank you.” A coy smile crept across his face as he gazed at the farmer.  For a moment, Claire was unsure of whether he was thanking her for the tomato, her mercy, or both.  “I’m glad you see things my way.”

“Besides,” Claire admitted with a giggle, “I probably would’ve missed. That second drink hit me kind of hard,” she leaned on his arm with a sigh.

Cliff stumbled a bit himself, and it wasn’t only because he had also had a little too much. Claire laughed harder, and her friend was reminded that she had a very contagious laugh with a musical quality.  It was one of his favorite sounds.  He stopped feeling self-conscious and gave her a friendly grin, looking down at the produce in his hand.  “Thanks for the tomato.”

“Here, take some more,” she murmured, filling her arms with the fruits.

“Cl-Claire, I couldn’t possibly-!” he stammered, but caught them in his arms as she unloaded them on him. He swiftly used his long tunic to hold the produce.  “This is too many.”

The playful look faded from the blonde’s face. “I want you to have these.  Please eat them…  I put a lot of work into them.” The young woman picked one more and took a huge bite from it.  “I’ve got more than I need, and they’re really good.”

“Well, that’s why you should be selling them,” her friend returned.

She rolled her eyes; they both knew how many tomatoes had been filling her shipping bin the past few days now that the first tomato crop was coming in. “C’mon, take a bite,” she insisted with a giggle, holding the fruit for her friend to try.  “Don’t you want to be cool?”  He looked at her curiously for a moment before the both of them burst into hearty laughter.  She really was drunk.  Claire wiped a tear from her eye.  “Seriously, though.  Give it a taste.”  She held it in front of his mouth, blushing.

“Alright,” he took a bite and they both burst into fits of giggles when juice spurted from the fruit and hit them both.

Chapter Text

“Catalogue from Won’s?” Ann took a seat on the stool next to the farmer.

It was a hot afternoon and the farmer was taking a break from the scorching sun at the local eatery. A glass of ice water sat in front of Claire; the condensation ran down the container, creating a puddle on the surface of the table.  The blonde nodded in response to the waitress as she took a sip from the glass.  “I need to purchase some new clothes, but I’m not sure what I want.  I have a list of work clothes down, but something a little more casual would be nice, too.”

“Well, it’s a good thing Karen’s not here! She’d probably manage to talk you into buying a bunch of party dresses!” the waitress giggled, swinging her feet.  The grocer’s daughter had a closetful of things she never wore, and judging by Claire’s worn-out overalls, Ann reasoned that the blonde needed some more practical things for her wardrobe.  “Although…”

“Huh?” the blonde looked up at her curiously.

The redhead looked around them conspiratorially. “Can you keep a secret?”

Claire gave her an excited nod.

“We’re planning a little festival of our own here at the inn, a sort of midsummer’s shindig, if you will. I suppose even I will have to wear a dress,” Ann giggled.  “It will be at the end of the week; we’re gonna put up the flyers tomorrow.”

“Oh!” Claire flipped through the catalogue.  “I don’t think anything I order will come in time…”  She frowned at the notion, but it wasn’t as if she had intended on ordering anything remotely formal.

The waitress shook her head. “Don’t sweat it.  Between Karen and Popuri, I’m sure you’ll manage to find something you can wear.  I’ve only told you and Cliff, so don’t go blabbing.  We’re still hammering out the details and an official announcement will be made soon.”

“I won’t!” the farmer pouted, eager to keep the secret. She hadn’t been to many group events since moving to Mineral Town, and she looked forward to another opportunity to try to improve on interacting with others.

The redhead hesitated before continuing. “There will be dancing and live music, too… did you dance much in the city?”

“No,” Claire confessed with a sigh. “I was always too self-conscious to go out on the dance floor.”  She was surprised she was admitting this to someone else.  Her thoughts turned toward awkward high school dances and evenings of sitting alone in the nightclub while her friends danced with groups of strangers, or worse yet, they brought the unfamiliar people to the blonde in an effort to make her more social.

Ann battled a strange combination of emotions – pity, victory, and excitement. Cliff had shyly admitted that he was an experienced dancer and intended in participating, his face lighting up at her mention of the event.  “So, will you be coming?  I know you missed the Chicken Festival.”

“I’ll try to make it,” the blonde gave her a kind smile. “But I can’t guarantee I’ll do much dancing,” she took a deep drink from her ice water and immediately regretted it; she was rewarded with brain-freeze.  Not only did she see herself as a clumsy dancer, but no one would probably ask her to join them.  She already was making plans for where to sit for the entirety of that evening.  “What about you?  Do you dance?”

Ann snorted and turned a bright shade of pink. “N-Not really.  Not with partners, anyway.  I was just trying to drum up some business for the bar.  I got a few folks from the Valley to agree to come over and play some live music, too.”

The waitress’s flustered behavior didn’t go unnoticed. “Oh, so you’ll mostly be working…” Claire commented.

The young woman shrugged. “Well, maybe a dance or two if he’s willing…” Ann muttered under her breath.

Her companion cocked an eyebrow. The waitress never really spoke about boys, unless it was to say that they were stupid and that she had no interest in them.  “With whom?”

She went from pink to red. “N-No big deal.  I told you, I don’t need a boyfriend,” Ann laughed nervously.

The blonde frowned. “A dance doesn’t make two people a couple.”  As uneducated in courting and romantic customs as she was, even Claire knew this, and she was sure that Ann did as well.

The redhead didn’t appear to be convinced. She fidgeted with her fingers, tapping them nervously on the tabletop.  “I suppose… but…”

She could sense that the waitress was uncomfortable on the subject, and the clicking sound of Ann’s fingernails on the wood was making her feel anxious. “Hey, I’ll dance with you if neither of us get a partner, okay?” the farmer offered kindly.

The waitress giggled and stopped the racket. “You’re too sweet, Claire.  You’re right.  There’s no sense getting worked up over it.”  She exhaled and sent a few of her red strands of hair straight up into the air before they fell back across her pale forehead.

Her friend tilted her head and her voice softened. “I have a feeling you’re referring to something other than the dance, Ann.”  She hadn’t meant to be so direct with the young woman, but the words slipped out before she meant for them to.  Claire prayed that she didn’t come off as rude.

The redhead’s color drained from her face as she stared at the floor a long time before speaking. Claire immediately regretted what she had said; it seemed that asking her directly what was wrong wasn’t Ann’s style.  The waitress ran her fingers along the grooves in the wooden tabletop thoughtfully, not looking up at the blonde.  “Dances always have a romantic connotation to them.  I was an idiot for thinking one up.”

Claire wondered if she was thinking of something her father had said to her; Ann had mentioned that Doug seemed concerned at the lack of romance in her life. Her friend shook her head.  “It will be a chance for everyone to get together.  You don’t have to pressure yourself.”

Ann laughed bitterly. “There’s no point pressuring myself anymore…”  She pressed her thumbnail into a scratch in the table’s surface and widened it a bit.

“What are you talking about?” Claire vaguely wondered if her companion realized she was destroying her own property, but she was more focused on the riddle Ann had presented to her.

The young woman looked around them cautiously before whispering. “I’m… afraid I blew my only chance… at love.”  A couple of tears rolled down her reddened cheeks and she swiftly wiped them away, embarrassed.  “I don’t even know what I want anymore…”

Claire’s heart broke. She had only ever seen the young woman with a grin on her face, and she realized that she was catching a true glimpse of her in this moment.  “Ann…?”

The redhead swallowed and plastered a cheesy grin on her face. “Wow, that was stupid of me, huh?” she giggled.  “I sounded pretty silly back there…  F-Forget about it!” her eyes were pleading under their thin veil of mirth.

The young woman felt uncomfortable. She wasn’t used to Ann’s methods of dealing with troubling issues.  She was accustomed to talking things out with Cliff.  This unfamiliar tactic left Claire a little on edge, and she felt guilty not continuing to attempt getting the young woman to open up to her.  She decided this was the right move for the situation although it was against her instincts.  “Why don’t we go to the beach shack or something?  I’ll buy you a snack and we don’t have to worry about anything, okay?”  She figured it was the least she could do; Claire hated to see Ann this way.

A genuine smile spread across her friend’s face. “Thanks.”  Her grin spoke louder than her words.

0o0o0o0

Kai’s snack shack was overstaffed when they got there. Three employees were working and Claire and Ann were the only customers.  Claire looked around the shop curiously.  All of the young men were half-naked and working with cleaning supplies in differing degrees of familiarity.  It was a curious yet interesting sight, to say the least.

“I wanna see my reflection in those tables, Gray!” Kai sang from behind the counter he was scrubbing, turning up the volume on his record player and bobbing his head to the reggae beat.

The young man removed his cap and groaned, running his hands through his unruly red locks. “This is so unfair!  How the hell was I supposed to know that you’re a frickin’ mermaid?”

Kai shot him a dirty look. “Merman!” he retorted, tossing a soapy sponge at him.  “Hush and get back to work, Mr. Dead Last!” he cackled, turning up the music louder, as if to drown out his friend’s complaints.

The cowbell clanked as Claire let the door fall shut. The proprietor snapped to attention.  “Hey, ladies!  How are ya?”

Ann was smirking at the apprentice. “Hubba, hubba!  Two men in swimsuits cleaning – be still, my beating heart!” she cackled.

Kai finished scrubbing the counter with a cloth. “Better get your eyes checked there, Ann, you missed one!”

“Hello.” Cliff’s voice emerged from underneath a table.  He had a metal spatula in one hand and a trash bag in the other.  Claire felt a swell of pity for the young man; she had been assigned to his duty a few times back when she worked at a diner herself, and it was a thankless job.

“I beat them both in a swimming race and now they’re my help for the afternoon,” Kai beamed.

“Wow, you guys were stupid enough to take on Kai in swimming?” Ann giggled. “What a couple of chumps!” she heckled them shamelessly.

“Shaddap,” Gray huffed, rubbing a dirty cloth on the table, smearing around mayonnaise and okonomiyaki sauce into a beige mess. If anything, he was grinding the filth into the pores of the plastic tablecloth.  The young man was likely more harm than help in cleaning the diner.

“Is it all that bad?” Claire stooped down to talk to the brunette. She noticed he looked surprisingly comfortable crouched underneath the table as he cleaned the undersides.

He flashed her an impish grin. “Nah.  We get all the free chewing gum we want.  I think I found where Stu sits.  Elli buys him the best candy.”

The two burst into laughter. Claire had two younger brothers, after all, and she was used to gross humor.

“Cliff, you can’t be serious!” the waitress rolled her eyes as she tried to keep a straight face; her friend’s comment had even put Ann off her appetite a bit.

 He just looked at her and grinned, as if telling her to figure it out herself.  Claire noticed that Ann had a flushed face and the blonde felt a rush of an uncomfortable emotion that was dimly familiar.  She remembered that her library book was due next week.

“So are you scraping gum because you want the free candy or because Kai put you there?” Ann asked with a playful gleam in her eye.

He shook his head, a few wisps of his brown hair falling around his face. “I’m just happy to help…” he replied innocently, giving both of the women a shy smile.

“Bull-shit!” Gray snorted with laughter.  “You’re the one who challenged Kai in the first place and roped me into the bet because you were so cocky!”

The brunette blushed, rubbing the back of his neck. “W-Well… I was confident in my endurance…”

“It was a speed competition!” His friend growled.

“Well, this is a quality competition now,” Kai threw another wet sponge at Gray and was met with a loud curse in response. “Stop using that nasty rag!  Whoever does a better job gets some free takoyaki!”

The young man picked the sponge up off of the floor and feverishly began scrubbing the tabletop. Kai slapped his forehead – he already knew who would be the winner.

“So are we going to order some food or just watch you guys clean?” Ann raised her eyebrows as she eyed up the menu.

“Order anything you like,” Claire offered with a kind smile.

Kai let out a good-natured laugh. “That’s a rookie mistake, Farmer Girl!  That girl will make you broke!”

Ann sulked. “I’ll just have a plate of spaghetti, a snow cone, and an ear of roasted corn,” she replied humbly, playing with her fingers.

This sounded like an awful lot of food for a snack, but the blonde didn’t complain as she handed Kai the money. “And I’ll have a snow cone as well.  I’ve been dying to try one.”  She had a flashback of feeling dizzy while watering her crops in the early summer heat and shook her head.  “A glass of ice water, too.”

“Sure thing. I’ll have it ready in a few minutes.  Feel free to take a seat… well… wherever the guys aren’t bugging you,” he chuckled as he washed his hands and pulled on a shirt and apron.

Ann plopped down at the table Cliff was working on. “What if I just sat here and decided to stretch my legs… like this?”  She playfully nudged her friend with her sneaker.

“Ah, you almost kicked me in the mouth, Ann!” a chastising voice emerged from underneath the table.

She let out a giggle and repeated the motion, squealing with laughter when her friend caught her foot in his grip.

“Cut it out!” he chuckled; he didn’t sound very convincing in scolding her. Claire watched the two curiously and vaguely wondered if Mary had been working on a new chapter of her book lately.

“Yeesh, you two can play footsie later,” Gray rolled his eyes. “This diner isn’t going to clean itself, Cliff.”

“Ah, sorry…!” the brunette popped his head out from under the table. “I’ll talk to y’all later, okay?” his eyes moved between the two women and Claire noted his face looked a little flushed from Gray’s teasing.

“Let’s sit over here,” Claire gestured toward a clean table and set her catalogue on the checkered tablecloth.

“Oh, fine,” the redhead pouted. She let out a playful giggle.  “I thought it would be fun to kick Cliff a bit more…” She stuck out her tongue at her male friend and he rolled his eyes.  “He’s fun to make flustered,” she added with a giggle and a wink.

Claire found herself flipping nervously through the pages of the catalogue. “That’s not very nice,” she let out a weak chuckle and wondered why she couldn’t just decide on a more casual top already.  “What do you think I should get?” Claire swiftly changed the subject as she shuffled through the booklet, not looking too closely at the photos of the products.  She stopped on a page of denim pants.  “Maybe some jeans would feel nice and not quite so heavy-duty.”  The young woman jotted down the item number of a basic pair that looked flattering.  “And this top looks pretty cute…  What do you think, Ann?”  She was looking for someone’s approval, but it wasn’t really her tablemate’s.

The young woman played with the ends of her braid, her mouth turned into a slight frown. “I think you should get what you like.”

The blonde was caught off guard by the slight bitterness in the waitress’s tone and realized she had been caught staring at the redheaded young man. “Ah, I suppose you’re right,” she gave the Ann a nervous smile as she leafed through the pages.

The young woman hesitated before speaking. “Hey… I’m sorry if that came out rude.  I just meant you should stay true to yourself.  Don’t worry about what other people think,” she gave the farmer a friendly nudge.

The blonde stopped wondering what Gray’s favorite color was. “You’re right,” she nodded and turned the page. “I wish that came as easily to me as it does to you,” she confessed with a sigh. 

The waitress bit her lip as Kai delivered their food. She waited for him to leave before she spoke.  “What is that supposed to mean?” the redhead raised a challenging eyebrow at her companion but didn’t hesitate before digging into her food.

Claire honestly wasn’t sure what Ann was driving at, but it looked like she had offended her in some way. She mulled the words over in her head.  “I meant that you always stay true to yourself and you never doubt who you are.  I hope someday I can be like that, too.”

Ann messily slurped her spaghetti, the marinara sauce splashing her cheeks. “You wanna be like me?” she asked, her mouth full.

“Well… yeah,” her companion admitted with a slightly flushed face. “I wish that I had your confidence.  Sometimes I feel like I drive people away with my… lack of it,” she silently cursed herself for her awkward phrasing.  “I fear that my personality is so… dull.”  Claire stared glumly at her snow cone.

They ate in silence for a few minutes. Ann started on her frozen treat.  “Well, you don’t need to feel that way.  Lots of people like you just the way you are.  And if they don’t… well… who cares?” she gave her a reckless grin as she chomped down on her ice.

The farmer stared down at the pink ice crystals in her paper cup, envying the lack of hesitancy it took for Ann to say such a thing. “Again… I wish I was more like you,” she repeated with a sad smile.

Kai stopped by to pick up some dirty dishes. He caught Claire’s last line.  “Don’t wish that.  You’re you, Claire, and we’re lucky to have you.” He flashed her a warm smile.

“Kai’s right,” Ann nodded as she thoughtfully dug into her ear of corn. “Besides, you grow the best corn!” she cried out as she munched happily.

“Hell yeah!” Gray echoed emphatically from the opposite side of the diner and Claire’s cheeks burned.

The farmer felt a surge of confidence. Maybe she did have her own things that made her special.  Still, she wished she could be more outgoing like Ann.  Claire jotted down a few numbers of shirts in the booklet that were cute and feminine but still practical.

“You buying more overalls?” Ann asked, leaning over the catalogue, spraying a few chewed kernels on the page. She gave her friend a sheepish grin as she brushed them away swiftly.

“Of course,” Claire answered. “I still need my clothes to work in, after all.”

Ann took a look at the numbers the young woman had written down and stared at the page in the catalogue. Many of the more casual things Claire ordered had flirty details to them that Ann would have turned her own nose up at.  The redhead felt her cheeks get warm.  “S-So… did you find anything casual to order?”

The farmer nodded. “Yeah.  I found a few cute things.”  She stared down at the order form, satisfied with her choices and the pair stood up to leave.

“Thanks for taking me out,” Ann gave her friend a grin as they waved goodbye to their friends and left the beach shack.

“Oh, it was a pleasure. I like spending time with you, Ann,” the blonde returned, giving her a genuine smile.  “Well, I’m off to submit my order.  See you later!”

The waitress let out a sigh and looked down at her own outfit as the farmer waved goodbye, her catalogue tucked under her arm as she opened the door to the house on the pier. Perhaps she should dress cuter…  She only entertained the thought for a moment; Ann shook her head and gritted her teeth, staring out at the waves.  What was the point?  She dressed for comfort, and she knew a wardrobe change wouldn’t make a particular young man pay attention to her differently.  After all, she realized, those deep blue eyes were often focused on a woman wearing overalls, it just wasn’t Ann.

Chapter Text

“Come on, Gray, stop being so stubborn. You were the one asking me to do this for you.  Take it off right now!” Ann yelled in frustration.  “It’s not my favorite thing to do, you know.  If you didn’t pay me, I wouldn’t bother.”

Cliff could hear his roommate groan through the door. “… Fine… just get it over with.  Goddess knows we need Claire walking in on us…”

“Oh, my… this might be the longest I’ve ever seen it,” Ann giggled. “Are you going for a record or what?”

“Quit complaining and just get to work on it already,” he grumbled.

“Ah, so now you’re raring to go, huh? Fine, just let me get it wet first.”

Cliff’s eyes widened as he stood in front of the door; he had half a mind to turn around and try to pretend he hadn’t heard anything. He had just arrived back from the church, but his face reddened as impure thoughts quickly swept through his mind.  He shook his head, as if to get the images out, and he whipped himself in the mouth with his own ponytail.  The brunette paused as he shifted his bag on his shoulder and knocked nervously. Surely I’m hearing this the wrong way…

“Come on in!” Ann’s voice sang. She looked up at the tenant.  “What are you doing, knocking on your own door?” The young woman laughed, sharpening her scissors.

Gray was sitting at a chair with his hat in his lap and an old towel around his shoulders. “I hate haircuts,” he sighed, running a comb through his damp hair.

“Hey, I do it for practically nothing!” Ann shot back, straightening his shoulders and passing him a hand mirror. “And all you ever do is complain the whole time!  Now sit up straight!”  She hardly waited for him to shift in his seat before she began clipping.  Rust colored bits of hair fell to the floor.  Ann began to hum while she snipped.

Her easygoing manner only served to make her client more nervous. “Hey, watch where you’re cutting!  Make sure you get the hair!”

Ann rolled her eyes at him; she was used to this treatment. “Hey, Cliff, you want a trim?  I could cut you shorter for summer,” She winked at him, twirling the scissors in her fingers.  When he shook his head, she frowned.  “I could at least trim out the sun bleach,” she offered with a nod.

His hair had a tendency to lighten at the tips year round, but it was admittedly exaggerated in the summer. “Ah… no, thank you,” he replied politely, protectively holding his ponytail as he took his things to the far side of the room.

She wasn’t deterred. “Well, your hair is getting pretty long,” the young woman replied.  “It’s grown quite a bit since you moved here.”  Her eyes traveled across the brown locks and noticed that his ponytail now ended far past his shoulders.

“I’ve always worn it this way,” he sorted though his bundles on the table. “And I think I like it a bit longer, too…”  His voice trailed off as he could feel his face getting warm; he turned away to avoid being teased.  Cliff’s ponytail had fallen loose a few days ago when he was foraging with Claire.  Normally, he would have tied it back again right away, but he caught the young woman staring at his long tresses with interested eyes more than once.  She had even leaned in close to him to untangle a stray leaf out of his locks.  She had complimented him, saying his hair felt very healthy and it was a nice, rich color.  His cheeks burned at the memory.  Surely he was thinking into it far too much, but it almost felt as if her hands were lingering on his hair for a moment...

Ann snapped him back into reality. “Well, I don’t know how you can see.  Your bangs are getting pretty shaggy.”

“Huh.” Cliff moved his eyes upward and was suddenly aware how long they had gotten.  They were now impossible to ignore.

“Hey, keep your eyes on me, Ann!” Gray whined, fidgeting in his seat. “He said he doesn’t want his hair cut.  Stop treating him like a child!  I don’t want you to mess up my hair because you can’t bother to focus on me!” he scolded, folding his arms across his chest and letting out a sigh.

Cliff silently sat on his bed and sharpened his knife with his whetstone, listening to the friends argue.

“What do you care anyway?” Ann retorted with a raised eyebrow. “You always wear that hat.  I could totally butcher it and no one would notice!”

It was one thing for the apprentice to say it himself, but when the person with the blade was making comments like that… “Alright, put down the scissors!” he roared, screwing up his face into a scowl.

“I’m kidding, I’m kidding. Yeesh,” Ann snipped at Gray’s locks.  “And stop moving so much!  You’re just asking to get cut!”

The blacksmith trainee sighed. Perhaps a distraction would be the best remedy to keep himself still.  Ann cutting his hair always put him on edge, but it was a task he didn’t trust himself to do.  “So, you do anything exciting today, Cliff?”

The young man shook his brown head. It had been too hot to hunt much.  He had flown Cain in the early morning hours and the falcon seemed grateful to go back to the coolness of his cave.  “Just got back from church…  Quiet day.  Found some blueberries and a bunch of herbs.  Two squirrels.  How about you?”

“Ingots. Lots and lots of ingots,” Gray sighed.  “Slow day at the library, too…”  Mary hadn’t produced another chapter for a while.  The young woman paced around upstairs in an attempt to relieve her writers’ block while Gray stared at the same paragraph for an hour or so before finally giving up and coming back to the inn.

“Ann?” The young man let down his hair and brushed it out as it fell across his back.

The young woman’s eyes widened a bit at the sight, and she felt a wave of guilt for suggesting cutting off any of the length. She mentally slapped herself in the face to regain her senses.  It had been months now, she needed to stop being so foolish…  He had referred to her a sister, she reminded herself.  “Harris made his afternoon stop today and told me that he thought someone was sneaking around Yodel Farm the other night, but it was just a raccoon.”

“Sounds like a riveting day all around,” Gray rolled his eyes. He let out another sigh; he had been hoping for some better entertainment than his friends had been able to provide him.  His stomach began to twist again as he remembered that Ann was wielding a pair of blades inches from his scalp.

Cliff stood up from his bed and it let out a loud squeak. Everyone in the room was used to the sound by now, and Gray was grateful for this, otherwise he might be missing a chunk of hair right then.  The brunette walked up to his roommate and gave him an imploring look.  “Hey… Can I borrow that mirror for a second?”

“Uh, sure…” Gray cocked an eyebrow and handed it over. While Cliff wasn’t a slob, he hardly seemed the type to care about what his reflection looked like.

“Thanks,” he propped up the mirror on the table with one of his bundles as an anchor and took a seat in front of it, brushing his bangs forward.

“Seriously, Gray, don’t let it get this long again,” Ann sighed, working on the back of his head. “Were you trying to grow it out as long as Cliff’s or what?”

Gray snorted. “I don’t think I could pull off that look.”  He half expected a pointed glare from his roommate, but the brunette seemed distracted with his own hair at the moment.

“Well, then. Don’t wait so long until you ask me to cut it again.”  She ran her fingers through his hair to check the length.

Gray rolled his eyes. “Say it one more time so I don’t forget.”  He didn’t want to admit that this was his favorite part.  Her touch was gentle and the tension headache he had was swiftly fading.

“I think you want this to be the last time I cut your hair for you, huh?” Ann threatened. She looked up in time to see Cliff gathering his bangs with his fingers and pulling them tight with a twist.  “Oh, Goddess… he isn’t…” Ann breathed as their friend reached for his newly sharpened knife.

The young man deftly ran his blade across the hair in one stroke. He ruffled the freshly trimmed bangs with his fingers, relieved that he could see again.  Cliff checked his reflection and gave a satisfied nod.  He tossed the hair in the wastebasket as he walked back to his friend with the mirror.

“Thanks again.”

“No prob.” Gray grinned.  His roommate was a strange guy, but he could be pretty entertaining sometimes with his methods of doing things.

Ann was staring at him in shock, nearly fumbling with her scissors. “Wh-why…?  Why didn’t you let me…?  I could have…”

Cliff shrugged and sat back down on his bed. It let out a loud groan in protest.  “I’ve got a method that works for me.  I don’t like other people to cut my hair.”

“That was the scariest thing I’ve ever seen…” Ann was still wide-eyed.  She was half in shock that he had used a hunting knife to trim his hair, and the other half was amazed that he had done a good job of it and it required no touch-ups.

“You scare easily then,” Gray chuckled. “It’s just hair; it can grow back.”

“Ugh… You’re brave, Cliff…” The whole scene left Ann’s heart racing and she felt slightly nauseous from all of the excitement.

The young man frowned. “I’ve cut my own hair and my sister’s since we were kids.”  He gave his female friend a wounded look.

Surprise hardly described Ann’s emotions. “Your parents let you cut your own hair?  … Like that?!”  The idea of letting a child handle a blade seemed a little irresponsible to the young woman, but she had completely forgotten herself as a young child chopping vegetables with her father while standing on a stool in front of the kitchen counter.  Selective memory was peculiar like that.

He sighed. “They were the ones that taught me.  We were taught how to use a knife before we even learned how to read.”

“What?!” Ann stared at him in disbelief.  Surely he had to be kidding…  The redhead recalled seeing the young man work with a knife on the kills he brought back from the mountains and foraged goods; he had such a natural way of handling a blade that could only be acquired through an upbringing around them.  Cliff still had all of his fingers – Ann supposed his parents must have done something right…

“It’s kind of like how you started bussing tables as soon as you could walk,” Gray laughed.

Ann forgot for a moment that she was giving Gray a haircut. She finished the last few snips and ruffled his hair.  “Hey, how do you know about that?  You weren’t ever here to see that!”

“Doug told me,” he shrugged. Surely this much was obvious.

“And what have you done since you were a child? Whine and complain when you got your hair cut?” Ann teased, brushing off his shoulders and sweeping up the floor in a fluid motion.  They had done this procedure for years now and she could have him finished in less than ten minutes.

Gray didn’t even bother to look in the mirror to see if she had done a good job or not. He threw his hat back on his head.  “Damn straight.”  He dropped a few coins in the young woman’s outstretched hand.  “Hey, Ann…”

“Huh?” She stopped and turned around to meet her friend.

He stood up and pushed the chair back near the table. “You know… your hair’s getting pretty long, too.  Why don’t you ask Cliff for a haircut?  He could have you done in a minute.”

Cliff was sharpening his knife again and looked up at her innocently, but the blade gleamed in the fading sunlight pouring through the window.

Ann’s bright blue eyes grew wide as she gripped her braid in both hands. “G-good night!”  She sheathed her scissors and hurried out the door.

“Don’t run with scissors, Ann!” Gray yelled after her with a chuckle.

Chapter Text

Mayor Thomas beamed at the group of young folk that had congregated in the village square, surely herded together by Ann. He finished hanging the flyer and turned around to give them a tip of the hat.  “I hope to see you all there.  Ann, I think that you’ve outdone yourself this time.  Good day, everyone,” he politely nodded and headed back to his house.

The crowd gathered to read the poster. The waitress stayed in the back of the group, a proud smile plastered across her face.

“So, I guess Karen’s business alone isn’t enough to keep the inn going,” Gray chuckled, “But how on earth does Doug think he is going to get enough people to make the event profitable? Especially with free admission?” he folded his arms across his chest in a nonchalant fashion, but his eyes were deceiving as they looked at the poster with great interest.

Cliff stared at the bulletin board wistfully. “A midsummer dance…” He looked up at the clouds as if deep in thought.  In truth, he had been looking forward to the event for a couple of days now.  “Kind of like home, I suppose…” he muttered to himself quietly with a nostalgic expression.

Mary smiled warmly at her companions and cast the waitress a grateful look. She twiddled her thumbs nervously as the words tumbled out of her mouth.  “I can’t think of a better time of year for a dance, with the beautiful sunset…” The librarian trailed off, but quickly caught herself, letting out a shy chuckle at her reverie.

Claire stared at the cobblestones, her stomach dropping. No doubt Mary was thinking about how romantic the whole affair would be, with that beautiful imagination of hers.  The color drained from the farmer’s face as she imagined the very thing that Mary must be dreaming up.  Claire only had a couple of days to get Gray’s attention and pray that he would be interested in attending with her…

“So I imagine you will all have dates, then?” Kai peeked over Mary’s shoulder knowingly.

Claire shot the young man a frustrated look, but he didn’t notice. Why did he have to rush everything?  The moment wasn’t right!  Claire bit her lip and nervously jammed her hands in her pockets, trying to think of something to say to Gray to catch his attention.

Mary turned a bright shade of pink at the cook’s remark. It was hardly a mystery who the librarian was wishing to spend that evening with.  “Oh, I don’t know about that…  I mean…”

“Mary?” Gray tugged on the bill of his cap.

“Y-yes?” Both the librarian and farmer’s hearts were in their throats.

The apprentice gave Mary a kind smile that shot a wave of envy through the blonde. He never looked at Claire that way, and it made her heart hurt to see that expression on his face when it wasn’t reserved for her.  “… Wanna go with me?”

Claire could see the young woman’s chest rise and fall quickly; Mary was hyperventilating in her excitement and doing a poor job of hiding it. The blonde didn’t have to guess what the answer was.  “S-Sure!  Wow, that’s really sweet of you...  I-I hope you didn’t feel obligated to ask me that,” Mary giggled a little too loudly and the farmer tried to hide the sour look on her face.

He shyly took a step closer toward her and shook his head. “Not at all.  We’ll have a lot of fun,” the blacksmith responded happily, relief washing over his facial features.

Claire was numb. She now realized the scene had been inevitable, but she didn’t expect it to play out right in front of her.  The fact that Kai had rushed along the situation had made Claire miss her slim chance with the apprentice.  The young woman frowned as she looked at the summer resident – he was busy laughing with Cliff about something and Claire almost wanted to slap him out of annoyance.  Did Kai not realize what he had done to her?  And the way Gray asked Mary so casually!  The fact that he was so comfortable around her made the whole situation hurt even worse.

“Yeah, it will be lots of fun.” Claire echoed the apprentice’s words but didn’t recognize the sound of her own voice, and she immediately hated herself for her response.  Now she had no choice but to go as well.  She slowly realized that her frustration at Kai was misguided – she was angry with herself for not being more aggressive.  Surely if she had said something first…

“I’ve yet to break you out of your shell and see you really party,” Karen’s sudden loud voice and slap of Claire’s shoulder startled the farmer.

“And you’ll be going with Rick, I assume?” Kai teased. The chicken farmer was still back at home working.

Karen turned red, and Claire wasn’t sure if it was the blush of love, or the wrath to throttle Kai. A moment ago, the farmer would have been happy to hold down the young man while her friend punched him.  “Maybe, maybe not.  I don’t need a man to have a good time at a dance.”  She quickly turned toward the farmer.  “Maybe I’ll go stag.  Or maybe I’ll bring Claire as my date.”

The blonde struggled to avoid rolling her eyes as she returned her gaze to the ground. Karen always got so touchy when the subject of Rick got brought up, and she didn’t want to be dragged into this.  However, her stunned state from Gray’s preference to escort Mary left her unable to think of a witty reply.

“But maybe she has someone else she’d like to go with,” Kai pressed his luck and winked at a particular young man.

Claire didn’t move her stare from the cobblestones. If this was some sort of attempt of Kai’s to ask her to the dance, she was conflicted in her feelings to give him an affirmative answer.  She enjoyed the young man’s company, but his eagerness to pair everyone up made her like him a little less at the moment.  “Now that I think about it, I don’t know if I’ll be able to make it,” Claire was desperate for an escape.  She longed to avoid this crowd; she yearned for a quiet place to lick her wounds…

“Come on, Claire! Don’t be such a killjoy!  When’s the last time you’ve been on a date?” Karen threw her arm around her friend’s shoulders, giving her a rough squeeze.  Claire let out a tiny involuntary cry in surprise.  “I’m a great date!   I don’t mean to toot my own horn, but I’m a really good dancer.  I get it from my grandma!  Plus, I’m a ton of fun!  You can even buy me my drinks.”

The brunette had a way of mellowing out Claire. The young woman cracked a pained smile.  “My farm is doing better, but it’s not doing that well, Karen,” she found herself chuckling.

0o0o0o0

“Wow, you clean up good, kid,” Karen teased as she tied the bow on the back of Claire’s lavender gingham dress. “Look at those curves you’ve been hiding under those bulky overalls!” the brunette giggled, “I know of a couple of young men that were drooling over you on Beach Day,” she gave her a wink as she zipped up the back of her own cherry red cocktail dress and gave it a twirl for good measure.

Claire ignored her and stared at her reflection glumly as she applied a thin coat of makeup, finishing off with a demure peach lip gloss she wore back in the city. “Gray’s going to the dance with Mary.  It’s not like I have anyone to impress,” she adjusted the sweetheart neckline of Karen’s borrowed garment and deflated her lungs, disappointed in the face that was looking back at her.

The brunette frowned at her friend’s gloomy reflection in the mirror. The farmer was talking herself out of having fun before the party even started.  “Who said you have to impress anyone?  If you feel the need to, then impress yourself.  You’ve already impressed me!” Karen squeezed her friend.  The brunette studied the young woman.  If they were measuring by purely physical beauty, her friend had clear skin, bright blue eyes, sleek golden locks, and feminine facial features – Claire was very pretty, and would be even more beautiful if she realized it herself.

Claire’s voice caught in her throat as her eyes shyly moved back up to the mirror. The grocer’s daughter was hugging her around the shoulders, and all the blonde could see was the fact that her friend was much more attractive than her.  The farmer was reminded of the first day they met; Karen had always possessed a particular brand of confidence and beauty that Claire knew she would never own herself.  Wasn’t the whole point of a dance to enjoy one’s date or find a new potential romance?  That was the way the girls in the city acted, anyway…

Karen held the young woman out at arm’s length when she realized that she had been unable to cheer her up. “Seriously, Claire, I want you to have a good time.  Plus, you look adorable.”  She stated this last word with a playful bop on the nose.

The blonde sighed. Her friend was merely attempting to get her to smile; adorable was one of the last words Claire would use to describe herself.  If she was indeed adorable, she would be on Gray’s arm tonight, or at the very least, a young man – not a sympathetic girl friend.  Karen had offered the farmer a couple of dresses that were a little too tight on herself, and Claire had selected the more conservative of the two.  The farmer looked down at her borrowed shoes and felt a flash of jealousy when she thought of how much better this dress must have looked on the grocer’s daughter.  The young woman watched as Karen brushed out her brunette locks and wistfully yearned for her friend’s unique brand of glamour.  The blonde bit her lip and swiftly remembered she had added lip gloss; she replaced her expression with a pout.  Her standards were too high – she should at least hope that someday she would be considered “adorable” and Karen wouldn’t have to lie about her friend’s attractiveness.

The brunette sensed that Claire had plunged down a deep hole – anguish and self-pity were written clearly upon her face. This simply would not do.  After all, the grocer’s daughter had given up her opportunity to attend the dance with Rick in order to make sure that Claire would allow herself to have a little fun.  The blonde hadn’t been the same since Gray came over to train with Tucker.  The farmer seemed very distracted and her emotions were much more varied.  She also seemed to get upset much more easily, and she seemed preoccupied.  Claire needed a friend who was going to talk some sense into her, she realized.  “Not everyone is going with a date, you know,” Karen continued.  “There will be plenty of people there who are going stag and they’re just looking to have a good time.  I want you to dance with at least three different people tonight,” the young woman challenged her.  “If you can do that, I will buy you dinner.”  The blonde rolled her eyes, but Karen caught her.  “Claire?”

“Y-Yes?” the farmer’s stomach twisted uncomfortably as she realized she had been seen sulking. The brunette had said her name with a very stern voice.  The blonde wrung her hands and couldn’t meet her friend’s gaze.

“Don’t…. freak out about Gray, alright?” Karen’s green gaze was surprisingly warm.

Claire was taken aback at both her friend’s facial expressions and her words. “But-”

Karen cut her off. “Okay, here’s the plan: I’m going to dance with someone else’s date tonight.  And guess what?  It’s not going to be a big deal!  We are not teenagers anymore.  It is a dance – it’s a party for people to have fun and enjoy each others’ company.  It doesn’t have to be a search for your soul mate.  Promise me that you will at least try to enjoy yourself.”

Claire attempted to release the tension she was holding in the pit of her stomach and she let out a small sigh. “Alright, I will try my best,” she relaxed her furrowed eyebrows as she smoothed out her dress.

The brunette grinned. “Ever so polite and proper as always, my sweet,” Karen clutched Claire’s arm.  “The night awaits!  Away we go!”

Chapter Text

Claire was surprised at the number of people who showed up for the event – nearly the entire town was packed into the room. To her surprise, her friend was right – it seemed a lot of people had shown up by themselves.  Harris, the local constable, was attending the party in a rather nice navy blue suit, but Claire couldn’t tell if he was attending the party or chaperoning for safety reasons.  Zack was sitting at the bar, stuffed into a dress shirt and bow tie, looking hopelessly out of place.  Mayor Thomas was doing a little jig beside the record player, and Rick seemed to be in deep conversation with Ann.  Karen’s first stop was the bar, and Claire followed closely behind, unsure of where to go.

“Lotta people here, huh?” the brunette turned to her friend with a grin as she ordered a beer.

Claire was immediately reminded of her experiences in the city at the nightclub. This was so very different yet similar at the same time.  It was similar in that the single people were all hanging around together in hopes of getting a dance, and the couples were established.  But she noticed something different - the pairs would break off and switch for a dance or two.  Manna danced with the doctor, Elli was with Harris, Duke was paired with Popuri.  The farmer noticed right away that this party had a much more open, friendly atmosphere, and she realized she wouldn’t feel too afraid to dance with anyone here.  Not that anyone would request her company, of course, and she had no intentions of asking anyone herself.  She wasn’t in the mood for embarrassing herself, after all.  All she needed was a comfy seat and she was more than happy to be a spectator for the evening.  The thought left her a little wistful, but she was content enough people-watching.  It didn’t hurt that everyone had dressed nicely for the event.

While Karen polished off her first beer, Claire spotted Mary on the opposite side of the room. She wore a floor-length mint green dress with wildflowers strewn in her hair, tucked into the twists of her long braid.  It was a simple adornment, but she looked gorgeous.  Surely her date was enjoying the view, she thought sourly to herself.  Claire suddenly felt self-conscious about her already modest neckline and the mid-calf hem of her dress.  This was one of her first public debuts in clothing other than her flannel and overalls, and she suddenly felt like a harlot.  She silently cursed herself for letting her friend dress her.  Karen was allowed to wear such things because, well, she was beautiful.  It was quite different for someone as plain as herself, Claire thought miserably.  She felt so out of place.  It took all of her willpower to stay in the room and not leave the party.

The bar was offering free punch for the night, which the farmer happily accepted. Claire decided right away to avoid alcohol.  She didn’t need to feel sleepy just yet, and her night of drinking with her male friend the other evening reminded her how low her alcohol tolerance was.

“Hi, Claire.” Cliff looked up from his glass of punch and gave her a friendly smile.  She had been so focused looking for him in the crowd that she didn’t notice he was sitting quietly beside her.  The young man was dressed in a simple clean tunic with dark blue stitching along the trim and his hair was loosely tied back with a coordinating ribbon.  It looked like traditional clothing of a culture she wasn’t familiar with, and he looked rather comfortable in it.  He looked quite formal yet he still had his characteristic rustic charm and Claire was reminded with a jolt in the stomach how handsome he was.

“Hello, Cliff.” As she silently approved his cleaned up appearance, Claire suddenly became afraid she would not pass his inspection.  The young man said nothing about the way she looked, although she could feel his eyes on her as well.

Her friend noticed her staring at him and his face reddened. He knew his attire was probably very different than what the men in the city wore.  He already dressed in stark contrast to everyone here – perhaps his clothing looked strange to her.  His gaze quickly shifted back to his drink as he let out a nervous chuckle.  “Quite a turnout, eh?  Ann and Doug are pretty happy.”

“Yeah.” Claire saw Gray among the crowd talking to Mary and the farmer felt that there were suddenly too many people at the party.  She noticed Cliff didn’t seem to have a nervous aura in this group like he did at the Cooking Festival, despite the fact that there were many more people in attendance in a smaller area.

“We used to have a lot of summer festivals in my old village,” the young man had a nostalgic smile on his face. “Lots of dancing and music… not quite like this, though,” he finished off his punch and pushed the empty glass off to the side.

Claire’s ears perked up. Her friend had been talking about his home a little bit more lately, and it was apparent he missed it dearly.  Claire was hesitant to bring up the subject herself because she had all too often caught him with a sad wistful look in his eyes when he sat alone at the church.  She figured when the time was right, he would tell her why he had moved away from a home he obviously loved so much.

“What kind of music?” Claire was intrigued. She wondered if he played his pan flute at such events; she recalled him saying his mother had taught him how to play.

“Hey, are we dancing or what?” Karen had finished her drink.  She grabbed Cliff by the wrist and dragged him out to the dance floor before the young man could answer his friend’s question.  The farmer giggled as she watched her two friends waltz together.  She was surprised at how adept a dancer Cliff was despite his initial reluctance; he moved even more gracefully than his partner.  The young woman scanned the dance floor.  Dancing in Mineral Town was a lot different than the school dances she attended in the city.  It looked a lot more involved, and they were using actual steps.  Claire was accustomed to seeing pairs slowly rotating in a circle and listening to girls whining about wanting to participate in a “slow dance”.  She realized this was just another quirk of living in a small podunk village that seemed frozen in time.

She watched the dancers more closely. Kai and Popuri were paired off, with Rick glaring at them over by the other end of the bar.  Kai was fairly skilled, and Claire wasn’t surprised at all – the outgoing young man seemed to excel in activities that would be considered romantic.  Manna and Duke, the couple that owned the winery next door to the inn, were dancing together, although it was apparent Manna was doing more talking than dancing.  Her husband quickly joined the bar, and Manna simply walked over to a dancing couple and continued her conversation with them, much to their chagrin.

“Well, you look lovely tonight, Miss Resident Farmer,” Duke nodded to Claire and motioned Doug for a drink as he took a seat in the stool beside her.

“Oh! Thank you!”  She had already forgotten she wasn’t wearing overalls.  “You do as well.”

The winery owner laughed softly. “So polite.  The town could use more young people like you.”  He accepted his brandy with a brightened grin and took a long drink.

A cough came from the other side of Claire. “Tell me about it.  Kids these days have no manners.”

Claire whirled around to see Saibara a few seats down from her in the corner. He looked so natural sitting there with his sake that he looked more like an installation of the bar rather than a patron.

Her other companion clattered his glass on the bar counter as he let out a soft chuckle. “Oh, Saibara, you know that you love your grandson dearly,” Duke chided.

The old man made no acknowledgement of this comment. He took the final sip from his sake glass, set it down carefully and turned toward Claire, bowing politely.

“May I have the honor of this dance, young miss?”

Someone wanted to dance with her?  The blonde’s head began to spin.  She knew she was going to make a fool of herself, but Claire was so caught off guard by the old man’s formality that she dumbly nodded and took his arm.

The music was much louder on the dance floor. The live band struck up a traditional folk song, and Claire immediately felt out of place.  She suddenly remembered she had no idea how to dance, she was from nowhere near here, and she was intimidated by her dance partner’s old-fashioned ways.  She was, surprisingly enough, overwhelmed with loneliness. 

Saibara could see that she was nervous. “City kid, huh?” he let out a playful cackle.

Claire didn’t think she could feel more embarrassed. She simply nodded again, her face feeling hot.  She looked around them nervously.  She had never seen this dance before, but everyone else in the room seemed rather familiar with it.  Claire wished she had stayed at home…

“Hey.” His voice softened and she whirled around, nervously wringing her hands.  “But you still want to learn, right?” Claire caught a mischievous glint in his grin and felt her tension release.  Someone was willing to help her try to fit in.

“Of course!”

Saibara was a good teacher and very patient with her. She nearly kicked him in the shins a couple of times, but the old man gave her a warm smile she had never seen before.  Claire’s heart lifted.  Halfway through the song, she was able to fake the dance well enough that he didn’t have to call out instructions anymore.  The song had a loud downbeat, and it was easy to move to. 

Now that they didn’t have to focus solely on coordinating their moves, Saibara moved to conversation. He was curious about this young woman who was calling on his grandson and the boy’s roommate very often as of late.  This was hardly a polite topic for conversation, however.  “Did you garden much as a kid?” the old blacksmith asked, deciding to stick to a topic he felt she would be comfortable with.

“Honestly, I bought the property on a whim, Sir. I have no farming experience,” Claire admitted sheepishly as she twirled shyly.  Her dress flared out beautifully and the old man watched her carefully – it seemed she didn’t allow herself a chance to be confident in anything.

Saibara laughed; the young woman really did come into this town without a clue, but he could hardly dislike her for that. He decided to give her a lesson for the evening.  “Well, if you have enough spirit, you can do anything.  My grandson says you came to this town with not much more than the clothes on your back.  I admire that you gave up everything to come here, even if the real estate company did trick you.”

Claire’s blood ran cold and she nearly stumbled as she missed the beat of the music. “Oh, dear…  Then you know, too-”

“That you gave Thomas a good walloping?” The old blacksmith grinned from ear to ear. “Heck, I admire you even more for it.  He’s been asking for one for years.”

She hoped that no one else in the room had heard. The subject of their conversation was in this very bar tonight.  “But, Sir-!”

The elderly blacksmith shook his head and let out a gruff chuckle. “Call me Saibara.  When you call me Sir, it makes me sound even older than I already am.”

“O-Okay, Saibara,” she blushed, giving him a polite nod.

He let out a hearty laugh as the music ended. “I like you, Claire.  You’re a good kid,” he patted her shoulder and made his way back to the bar.

Claire basked in the glow of the old man’s praise for a moment before she snapped back to reality. Karen was making her way to her, Cliff in tow.

“Look at you, Claire! You’re not half bad, you know,” Karen whistled at her.  She was relieved that her strategy to let Claire take control of her own evening, even for a few minutes, worked in the farmer’s favor.  The blonde looked looser; she was carrying herself with a little more confidence.

Her friend laughed. “You mean flailing around?  I suppose I’m not too bad at it.”

“That last song reminded me a lot of home,” Cliff was glowing.

“Well, you must be from real backwater country, because you certainly knew that dance,” Karen laughed at him. “They only play that music for the old folks here.”  She couldn’t remember the last time she danced with someone like that – the two had similar styles and she was used to being a better dancer than her partner.  The brunette saw Cliff’s skill as a challenge.  Karen was half-tempted to steal him for another song but she stopped herself.  She wanted to make sure that Claire was comfortable before she left her again, and she was certain that her male friend wanted some time with the blonde.

Claire shrugged. “It was pretty fun.  I’m not very graceful, but Saibara was pretty patient with me.”  She playfully swung back and forth, watching her skirt fan out.  The grocer’s daughter could tell that her best friend’s spirits had been lifted.

Karen was smirking at her dance partner. He was shyly watching their friend play with her dress, but the young woman decided not to call him out on it.  “Who knew you’d be such a hoot to dance with, Cliff?  Claire, you wouldn’t think it, but this guy can move!”

“W-Well, I… uh…”  The young man’s face was bright pink.  “I-I used to lead the dancing and music in the festivals back home…”  His voice faded to nearly a whisper as he shyly fussed with the laces on his tunic.

The brunette woman stared at him in disbelief. Someone as shy as Cliff, instructing?  Did he really expect her to believe that?  “Whose leg are you trying to pull?  You’re in a playful mood tonight, you jokester!”

The young man looked wounded. “Wh-Why would I-?”

Karen wasn’t paying attention; she was busy scouring the dance floor. Now that her girl friend seemed to be actively participating in the party, she didn’t want to become a crutch for Claire to lean on.  She scanned the room for the poultry farmer.

Cliff took this opportunity to focus his attention on his other friend. He nervously rubbed the back of his neck and wished his cheeks didn’t feel so hot.  “S-So… uh…” He looked up at her with wide blue eyes and the farmer felt her own face flush.  The combination of her friend’s shy demeanor and seeing him dressed so nicely made her stomach feel strange.

“Y-Yes…?” She encouraged him, timidly taking a step closer to him.  Claire wasn’t quite sure what he wanted to say, but she wanted to hear it.

“Has anyone seen Rick?” Karen let out a loud sigh in exasperation.

Claire blinked in surprise and shook her head. “Not lately.  Maybe he stepped outside?”

Karen laughed. “Claire, you think you are so sneaky.  Alright, I’ll let you two be and find him myself.”  She walked away from the pair, a smug expression plastered across her face.

“Karen sure can be weird sometimes,” Cliff looked frustrated as he rolled his eyes at her.

Claire continued to survey the dance floor, unsure of what to do. Perhaps she could see if Gray was available…  After all, if other couples were switching partners, why wouldn’t Mary?

“Claire?”

Her friend’s soft voice brought her back to reality. “Yeah?”

“Want to… get something to drink?” he let out a nervous chuckle as his face flushed.

“Sure.” She was relieved and disappointed at the same time as she followed the young man to the bar.  “S-So… is it really true that you used lead the festival dancing back at home?”  She was pleasantly surprised when her friend pulled out a stool for her and helped her up before climbing on the one beside her.

He nodded shyly as Doug passed the two glasses of punch. “Yeah.  You see, Ma was-”

Claire almost spit out her drink in surprise when she heard the old blacksmith’s sudden gruff voice. “What are you doing back here already, Claire?”  Saibara already had another sake and was at his usual seat.

“Good evening, Saibara,” Cliff smiled at the old man, masking his frustration at being constantly cut off this evening. He was aware that his voice had a tendency to blend into the background as he rarely projected when he spoke anymore, and the live band was rather loud.  The young man gave the blacksmith the benefit of the doubt; Saibara probably hadn’t heard him speaking to Claire.

“Good evening, Cliff. Good to see you as always.  I hope my grandson isn’t causing you too much trouble?”  He stated this last sentence as more of a question.

“Not at all, Sir,” Cliff answered courteously, his eyes traveling across his fully-healed left forearm.

“Such a polite young man… but also a bit rude.”

The young man felt his blood run cold. Saibara wouldn’t scold him right in front of Claire, would he?  He wasn’t even sure what the old man was driving at.  “P-pardon?” Cliff stammered.

“You haven’t asked the young lady to dance yet,” the old man’s face didn’t change expression as he took a thoughtful drink from his glass.

The brunette gave the blacksmith a strained smile. If he wasn’t constantly being interrupted…

“Oh, quit teasing them,” Ann popped up as if from nowhere, clearing the empty glasses on the counter beside them. “That’s my job.  Come on, Cliff, you promised me a dance.”

He gave the blonde an apologetic bow of the head as his friend grabbed his arm with a playful giggle and pulled him toward the dance floor. “I know, b-but-!” he hesitated, but didn’t want to cause a scene.  “O-okay….  See you in a bit, Claire.”  Claire’s friend was dragged off yet again as he gave her another repentant look. 

Seeing those deep blue eyes pulled away from her caused a surge of a emotion within the blonde. She sat quietly for a moment, furrowing her brow as she tried to make sense of it.

“The young man is still a nomad in a few ways; he lacks direction,” Saibara said to no one in particular as he finished of his glass, staring into it thoughtfully. “He needs a woman who can nurture his confidence, not boss him around.”  He poured himself another sake and gave the young woman a nod as he tilted his steaming glass toward her.

Claire reddened as she was distracted from her thoughts. Gray had complained to her several times about his grandfather’s obstinacy.  Who was Saibara to talk about bossiness?  Yet, despite her slight agitation, she didn’t move from her seat.  She had never really thought of Cliff as a man looking for a mate, and her heart pounded noisily as her stomach did an odd flip at the notion.  She found herself quite unable to move from her seat at the moment.  Uncomfortable, Claire looked behind the bar and sought Doug’s gaze.  The barkeeper walked over.

“What would you like, little lady?”

The blonde shyly pointed to the flask of sake her companion was pouring from, keenly aware that her face was crimson.

He rolled up his sleeves. “Want me to heat it up for you?”

It was sweltering earlier that afternoon; Claire stared at Doug incredulously and shook her head.

The two men gave each other knowing looks and bit back chuckles. After all, Claire was trying her very best to look every part the mature adult.  “Alright.”  He swiftly filled a flask for her hand handed over a small earthenware cup.  “Here, I’ll pour the first one for you.”  He deftly filled the cup and gave her a friendly wink as she paid him.

Claire touched the alcohol to her lips and she immediately decided she didn’t like it. She couldn’t even pretend to sip at it – the fumes hit her nose and made her eyes water.

Saibara roared with laughter when he observed the young woman’s face at the first taste. He was glad that he decided not to stay in tonight; the young people were putting on quite an entertaining show.  “What are you doing here drinking, anyway?  Get out there and dance while you’re still young!  I will make sure the drink doesn’t go to waste,” The old man winked at her. 

Claire nodded numbly as she stood up, her feet carrying the unwilling farmer across the floor. As soon as she was out of earshot, the old man raised the sake glass and flask to the barkeeper.  “Doug, heat this up for me, eh?”

Chapter Text

Flustered at the old man’s chiding, Claire stared at the sea of dancers and looked for someone in need of a partner. She felt like a fool.  Surely, she had just gotten lucky with Saibara – no one else would be willing to dance with someone as clumsy as Claire.  Sidling past an overenthusiastic Popuri and sheepish Zack waltzing, the farmer realized she was likely everyone’s last choice for a dancing partner.  Certainly, everyone had seen how long it had taken her to catch on to the dance everyone was so familiar with.  The owner of Mystic Acres was an awkward city girl with two left feet.  As if to confirm her bumbling nature, the young woman accidentally bumped into a woman in a mint colored dress.

“Oh, hi, Claire!” Mary’s eyes were sparkling as she looked at the blonde; she was obviously having the time of her life. Claire bit down her jealousy as she saw who the librarian was standing next to.  She would be having a wonderful time as well if she got to spend the entire evening at the apprentice’s side.  “I’ve been meaning to get the chance to say hello to you tonight.  I haven’t seen you at the library lately.  How have you been?”

The farmer stumbled over her words as she saw that Mary was holding Gray’s arm in a way Claire didn’t like. “The farm’s been busy…  Lots of corn.”  Claire immediately embarrassed herself and could feel her face heating up.  She must have sounded so simple and boring to someone with such an active imagination.  Quite the contrary, Mary’s face lit up at the young woman’s final sentence.

“Well, corn is Gray’s favorite, so you’ll probably get rich this summer,” she laughed. “It’s hardly a secret that he’s addicted to the stuff,” she gave the young man a gentle pat on the arm, and Claire’s heart burned when she saw the tenderness in the gesture. She was almost touching him as if the two of them were… no… I’m being paranoid… Claire shook the thoughts from her head; she still had plenty of time to win over Gray’s heart.  The young man rolled his eyes at Mary’s comment, but they shared a warm smile.

She couldn’t stand the way the two were looking at each other. “So, h-how are things at the library?” Claire managed to squeak out.  Her voice had cracked and her question came out much more loudly than she meant for it to.

Mary turned her gaze back toward the farmer and gave her a warm smile. “Pretty good.  My father brought in a new load of books, so there’s plenty of organizing to do.  I haven’t gotten much of a chance to work on my story lately because of it.  I know it probably sounds like boring work, but I really enjoy it.  I also really love reading my father’s notes on the plant life and nature in this area.  Mineral Town really is a unique place….”

Claire nodded politely. Why was Mary talking so much?  The young woman bit the inside of her mouth as punishment.  Why was she being so mean?  Mary was her friend.  Just because they were rivals didn’t mean that she couldn’t be civil, and it had never stopped her from behaving in the past.  The blonde forced a strained smile on her face, upset at her own behavior; she was aware that she was being immature and she disgusted herself a bit.

“Well, I am going to get a drink and get off of my feet for a moment. I wish I had chosen more practical shoes for tonight.  Would you care to join me, Claire?” Mary asked gently.  She had let go of Gray’s arm and was nervously twiddling her thumbs as her gaze shyly moved to the floor.

Knowing she would get heckled by Saibara if she returned so soon, Claire responded with a polite, “No thank you, I just got back from resting myself. I was just getting up to dance…”  While it was the truth, she immediately regretted saying this as she saw Mary’s expression.

The librarian’s face fell, but she quickly hid it. “Oh, okay.  Hey, maybe you’d like to dance with Gray.  He’s a pretty good dancer for a blacksmith,” Mary teased, beaming at her companion as she gave him a playful pat on the arm.

The farmer was stunned. “Oh.”  Claire wasn’t sure how to reply.  Her greatest wish of the night had just come true and she was too shocked to speak.  Perhaps tonight was indeed her chance to win the favor of the apprentice.  She wasn’t about to question why Mary had just handed him over to her.  Claire attempted to hide her overexcitement at this turn in events.

Gray shrugged as his pale blue eyes traveled to his date then back at Claire. “Sure, I’ll dance with you.  I mean, if you’d like to, of course.”  He nervously looked back to the bar where his grandfather was sitting and he rolled up his sleeves of his pale blue dress shirt, muttering something about it being too warm in the bar this evening.

Claire slowed down her breathing. Focus on the moment. Enjoy it, be yourself, and surely Gray will respond well. 

“Okay. Sounds fun,” she struggled to keep her voice casual.

“Alright, then. I guess I’ll see you around, Mary,” he called over his shoulder as the librarian waved goodbye to them and headed to the bar, stepping gingerly in her uncomfortable shoes.

She was still surprised that her rival had just given her blessing to dance with her date. Claire hoped she wouldn’t leave a sweaty handprint on Gray’s shoulder, and she prayed that he couldn’t hear her heart hammering in her chest.  She didn’t know how to waltz very well, but Gray didn’t seem to mind, although he had a somewhat concerned look on his face while they moved together.  The young woman’s mind drew a blank.  She never knew what to say when she was alone with him, and she was not about to ruin it tonight.

“So, do you dance much?” Claire tried to keep a dialogue going.

He frowned, and she noticed that it took him a moment to respond. “Not really...  Hey, do you mind if we just slow dance instead?” he mumbled.  “Trying to remember all of these steps is giving me a headache, quite frankly,” he admitted with an embarrassed smile.

She was now aware that the look on his face had been that of concentration. She was grateful that she wasn’t the only one in the room that wasn’t a seasoned dancer, but she hardly wanted to admit this aloud.  “I don’t mind.”  The young woman smiled at her good fortune; her risk of stepping on her partner’s feet or kicking him in the legs had just decreased dramatically.

Claire couldn’t help but notice that his stance was rather stilted. He put his hands on her waist and she had to admit she was a little disappointed that he didn’t take one of her hands in his; she found the hand-to-hand contact much more intimate while dancing.  However, a small part of her was grateful – she probably would have fainted if he had indeed done that.

Claire looked over Gray’s shoulder and saw Cliff dancing with Ann. The waitress was resting her head on her friend’s shoulder, staring off into the dance floor with an expressionless face.  The young woman looked deep in thought, and the blonde recalled her conversation with Ann the other day.  Could the person Ann felt she had lost her romantic chance with really be…?  That seemed rather silly to Claire, as the two were close friends and in good standing.  But the thought of the two being a couple…?  Tonight is only a dance, Claire reminded herself once again that night with a slight chuckle.  Cliff’s eyes met Claire’s for a moment, and he gave her a warm, friendly gaze.  The farmer returned the glance and noticed his eyes flash toward his dance partner before giving the farmer an apologetic smile.  She looked away, feeling a strong pang of something she couldn’t identify. 

Karen had found Rick and they were dancing together. The young man moved in an overly stiff, formal way, but his friend didn’t seem to mind.  Quite the contrary, Karen twirled and shot him a flirty smile that caused him to stumble a bit.  She pulled him close and whispered something into his ear and Claire noticed that the poultry farmer turned a bright shade of red as he moved in a little closer.  He was so focused on his dance partner he didn’t notice Kai stealing a kiss from his sister.  Claire wasn’t sure if this was a tactical maneuver or not on her best friend’s part, but the summer resident wasn’t about to waste the opportunity.

The hardworking Elli was taking a break from her regular duties at the hospital and was dancing with Trent. Manna paired with Harris, and Zack had taken a break from dancing and joined Thomas in deep discussion beside the record player.  It seemed like nearly everyone in the town had attended the party, and Mineral Town was very serious about their public events.  Claire had never been a part of a close-knit community like this before, but she found that she didn’t mind it at all.  The city hadn’t been exactly kind to her.

“This town seems to have a lot of festivals,” She commented, but didn’t look up at Gray. She feared that if she did, she would say something stupid.  When she didn’t get an immediate response, her stomach dropped.  Perhaps she had already made a foolish comment…

She heard a soft grunt in agreement. “Yeah.  They’re alright… I guess it’s good to have a break from the grind once in a while.”  His stance was rigid as he shrugged while still holding her.

Claire bit her lip. His body language was suggesting as if dancing with her was a chore.  She was determined to make him see that he made the right choice in agreeing to accompany her for this song.  “True, the farm can be really busy sometimes…”  The conversation was going nowhere, and neither were her advances with him, she realized with a soft sigh.  Claire felt her throat tighten.  She was blowing it…

“Well, hey… you look nice tonight... I-I mean… I like your dress,” Gray said abruptly and turned away awkwardly.  “The color suits you.”  His cheeks flashed pink as his gaze turned to the ground.

“Thanks, you look great, too,” Claire responded a little too eagerly, although she wondered why he always had to wear that hat. Her cheeks burned as she turned her face away from his, too embarrassed to look him in the eye.  The only things she could think to speak of were Tucker and the fact that they both seemed out of place in this folksy setting.  She still didn’t feel comfortable talking about her horse, but she was unsure why.  It should be a natural subject for them to talk about, as Gray had mentioned himself that he moved from the city to work with his grandfather and Barley by extension.  Part of her wanted to say the reason she was hesitant to bring up the subject of Tucker was the fact that training him hadn’t gone exactly the way she had hoped, but she shoved this thought down.  After all, every relationship, romantic or otherwise, had their ups and downs, disagreements and misunderstandings.  Perhaps she could put a positive twist on her second option for conversation.  They were both from a more urban area, after all…  “Th-They don’t dance like this in the city, huh?” Claire tried to make conversation as she looked around them.

It seemed to have worked. “Not at all,” he chuckled.  “Dances in Mineral Town are like rip-snortin’ hootenannies.”  They both burst into laughter, and it took Claire a moment to catch her breath.  She wasn’t aware that Gray knew of such silly phrases.  The music changed, and the pair slightly picked up the pace, and he switched them back into a waltz.  Claire was a little surprised that he had returned to the more complicated dancing style.  Perhaps he was trying to impress her?  His body relaxed significantly as they moved, and Claire took a tiny step closer to him.  “This time last week, I would have been stomping on your feet.”  He gave her a sheepish hint of a smile.

She was a little surprised, but like Mary had mentioned, he wasn’t a bad dancer. His movements were much more fluid since they first started dancing together.  It was almost as if she was paired off with a completely different person in more ways than one.  She found a smile creeping across her face.  “So… who was your dance instructor, then?”  She immediately regretted asking the question, knowing the answer would likely break her heart.  She pressed her lips together into a thin line.

Gray was too busy avoiding her gaze to notice; the young man focused more on the steps. He stared over her shoulder and his face turned red.  “My roommates…  Although one was more of a heckler than anything else…”  She saw him snap his gaze in the offender’s direction and shoot a poisonous look at the back of Kai’s head.

Claire stifled a giggle. The thought of the apprentice dancing with either of his roommates was a silly one, and she could easily see Kai giving Gray a hard time about it.

He cleared his throat to catch her attention. “Hey…  Gramps is finally letting me start to help with tools.  So… if you come by the forge sometime, I can help sharpen something for you.”

Her heart leapt into her throat as she moved in a little closer. “That’s great!  And my first batch of pineapples will be ready for harvest soon.  It looks like we’re both moving up in the world.” And it seems like we’re getting closer as well, she silently added to herself.

“I guess you’re right,” Gray chuckled. The young man seemed to have a much looser feel to him tonight.  She wasn’t sure at what point the change had occurred with the young man, but it was almost as if he had a huge weight lifted from his shoulders.  Claire stole a glance at his face and noticed that Gray looked the happiest she had ever seen him – the stress that was normally etched in his face had all but disappeared.  She couldn’t help but wonder if she was the reason for this change in his behavior and her cheeks burned.  The music ended all too soon.

“Well, thanks for the dance,” Claire hoped he’d stay for another song, and silently cursed herself for thanking him already. In doing this, she had said that the dance was over.

“Uh-huh.” He took a couple of steps back toward the bar and paused, whirling around.  “Hey… thanks, Claire.  It feels kinda nice not being the only person from the city around here.  I’ll… uh… see you around.”  He gave her a small smile and her heart swelled.  The young man rarely treated her to such an expression, but she was surprised to see that the joy in his face was confined solely to his mouth; his eyes were not smiling.  Her stomach twisted.  Perhaps he was sad to leave her?  Maybe any moment, he would take her hand and ask for another dance…

He tipped his hat at her and walked away. Claire’s lungs deflated.  What had that expression meant?  The apprentice had looked happy and sad at the same time.  Gray truly was a mystery, and she wondered if she would ever figure out what was going on in that head of his.

Suddenly without direction, Claire instinctively looked for Karen. However, her friend seemed deep in conversation with Rick at the bar, and she didn’t want to bother them.  She thought about heading back to the bar herself, but she had been having so much fun dancing that she wondered if she should try to find another partner. 

Claire felt a hand on her shoulder and whirled around in surprise.

Chapter Text

“Sorry about that,” Cliff frowned; he hadn’t meant to frighten his friend. “I-I’ve been trying to get a dance with you all evening,” he stammered.

Claire beamed, bubbling with excitement. “Well, here I am.  You know, you’ve been pretty popular this evening yourself,” she giggled.  Throughout the course of the evening she had seen him dance with a few different women, and he was entertaining to watch.  Manna had stolen a dance with the young man earlier that evening for a few minutes or so, and the winery owner was too worn out to tell to her husband, let alone anyone else, much about it.  Duke had offered to buy the young man a drink next time he saw him at the inn.  People in Mineral Town sure were friendly, he realized with a grin.

Cliff scrunched up his nose as he let out a carefree laugh, but she caught a hint of color dusted across his cheeks. “Popular?  I don’t know about all that.”  Another waltz started.  As the music started and he took her hand, Claire was suddenly aware he stood much differently than Gray.  He had the posture of a trained dancer, something which seemed out of character for such a shy personality.  She hated to admit it, but a small part of her felt a bit intimidated.  After all, she was hardly experienced, she reminded herself for what seemed like the millionth time this evening.  The young man seemed to sense her unrest, and his smile put her at ease.

Cliff was very easy to dance with; he had a gentle patience about him. He seemed to be quite used to leading and the movements felt very natural, even for a novice like Claire.  “Are you ready for a spin?” he asked gently, but she could hear the touch of excitement in his voice.

“I, uh… well…” Her voice trailed off as she took a deep breath.  This was her good friend, after all, and there was no reason to be nervous about what she said to him.  “I… don’t want to step on your feet or collide with you,” she admitted with embarrassment.

“You won’t, it’ll be fine,” he gave her a reassuring smile as he held her out at arm’s length.

She found her eyes instinctively drawn to her friend and was caught off guard when he gave her a gentle twirl. She giggled in surprise and when he pulled her back in, she softly bumped into him by mistake, thinking that they were going to take one more step together.  “I warned you I was clumsy!” she laughed it off, but her cheeks burned with mortification.

He shook his head. “I didn’t give you much warning.  There’s no need to be embarrassed; this is supposed to be fun,” he gave her a hopeful smile, praying he hadn’t pushed her out of her comfort zone already.

Claire remembered her stumbling with Saibara. The old man had been tolerant with her as well.  “You’re right.  Can we try that again?  I promise I’ll do better this time!”

There was a blaze in her eyes that reminded Cliff of their rock skipping session. “Of course,” his face lit up.

Claire wanted to practice the spins so much she started to feel dizzy. Her friend encouraged them to take a break from the twirling for a while.  Once the young woman got more comfortable with the movements, Cliff started the conversation back up.  “I saw Saibara showing you some traditional steps earlier.  They’re really similar to the ones we used in my hometown.”

She was happy he still was in the mood for talking about his home. “I want to know more about Akiyama.  I want to know more about you.”  She was holding his hand and gave it a playful squeeze.

“M-more about me?” Cliff turned pink once more.

She wasn’t sure why he was suddenly so flustered. His comfortable dancing style made it easy for her to relax and she wondered why he didn’t seem to be doing the same at the moment.  “Well, sure!  We’ve been friends for quite some time now,” Claire pointed out, “and there is still so much I don’t know about you.”

A thoughtful look crossed his face. He seemed to be trying to find the right words to begin his description of home.  “Alright…  It was an amazing place, but I didn’t know it at the time.  If you were Karen, I guess you would call it a backwater village,” he added with a soft chuckle.

Claire smiled; that was hardly a secret. Nearly everything about him had given that away a long time ago, from the folksy lilt in his voice to his clothing.

 His eyes lit up as he reminisced, and Claire was relieved when she saw it didn’t pain him to talk about it for the moment.  “We lived off the land.  We fished.  We hunted.  But most of all, we danced.”  He beamed and met his friend’s gaze.  “We played music.  You see, my mother organized all of the village festivals.  Practically everyone in the village could play an instrument.  I played about…” He silently counted them off in his mind.  “Eight,” he laughed.  “Me and Ivy always led off the traditional folk dancing, and Ma was the song leader.  I was being trained to take my mother’s place.”

Claire smiled; she could easily picture a rowdy young Cliff enjoying the festivals. She realized once again that he had the air of someone who was at one point very confident and comfortable with himself, but obviously something had changed.  Claire’s heart dropped a little.  He had heavily implied that his training had not been completed.  Something must have happened…

“I’ve been to more music festivals and dances than I can count,” Claire detected a note of wistfulness in his voice. An upbeat song began to play, and Cliff quickly taught her some new steps, again with a caring, gentle guidance.  “As I traveled, I learned different dances so that I could try to fit in…” he gave her a sad smile.

Judging from his expression and the fact that he had moved so often, simply knowing a town’s customs didn’t make it home. She sincerely hoped that he felt differently about Mineral Town.  “Well, you dance so well,” she complimented him, and she was grateful that his face perked up a bit.  “I’m actually kind of surprised,” Claire admitted, hoping her comment didn’t come off as rude.

The young man’s brooding manner had dissipated. “What is that supposed to mean?” Cliff cocked an eyebrow, but his expression was playful.

The words came out before she could stop them. “You just seem so… shy around people you don’t know well.  When I think of dancing, I think of people who are more… ” Claire stopped speaking, looking at her friend in surprise; she hadn’t meant to be so blunt with him.

“Outgoing?” he finished her sentence for her as his lips curled up into a smile. To her relief, he looked more amused than anything else.

She shook her head. Surely he was going to take her comment the wrong way.  “Th-that’s not what-!”  Claire blushed violently.  That wasn’t what she intended, and yet it was exactly what she had meant all at the same time.

Cliff laughed good-naturedly. He had danced with more strangers than he could count despite his quiet nature.  Claire wasn’t the first person this evening to make a similar comment to him.  It didn’t offend him at all, but rather, it made him desire to get to know the other villagers better.  “It’s alright, Claire.  When you have been raised your whole life doing something, it eventually feels natural to you, even if it’s not something you would have picked yourself.”

“Oh…!” She recalled their conversation at the Goddess Spring.  The young woman sensed there was more to this story, but she decided not to pry.  She was already thrilled with all of the information she had been getting from him tonight.

They moved to the music for a few minutes without speaking. Claire found that she enjoyed his air of experience – the soft hand on her waist was reassuring and she felt like she was becoming more graceful just from their time together.  She found that her hand didn’t sweat in his the way it had with Gray’s.

“I really do enjoy dancing,” her friend smiled at her, “even though I was more interested in other things growing up,” he admitted with a meaningful glance.

Young boys probably didn’t rank dancing with girls high on their list of favorite things to do, especially in a village that was known for hunting and fishing. “I see.” 

“You’re pretty good yourself; you pick up the steps very quickly,” he commented as they moved together.

She was having fun, but she didn’t consider herself good, as her friend put it.  “Well, I have a good teacher,” Claire stammered, her face warming.

Each time a new genre of music played, the young woman begged Cliff to show her some new steps. It was like a game – he would introduce a new move to her each song and she would try to incorporate it before the next song played.  The excited young woman didn’t realize she was capable of moving so smoothly, and she burst into excited fits of delighted giggles more than once.  She was having so much fun that she forgot to keep looking for Karen.

Cliff looked like he wanted to say something for a while, but he kept looking away nervously. Claire was about to ask him what was wrong when he finally looked at her with large earnest eyes.  “I-I want to know more about you, too, Claire.”

A grin crept across the young woman’s face. She didn’t understand why her friend was so flustered to ask her, but at the same time, she often feared she was prying when she asked about Cliff’s past.  She paused as she realized this was one of the first times he openly asked her about her background.  It may not have initially seemed like a huge step to her, but the more she thought about it, the more she realized how important it was to him and to her as well.

If she was going to tell her story, she wanted to be in a good mood for it. After all, no one wanted to listen to someone whine about how hard their life had been. “Well, you may not have noticed, but I’m not from around this area either,” Claire began very matter-of-factly, bringing the playful mood back to their conversation. 

He responded well to her tone. “Oh really?  I never noticed your big city accent,” Cliff’s eyes were mischievous and his brows were raised.

She loved how open he was with her tonight; she moved in a little closer. There was that cute, endearing, energetic boy she never knew as a child.  “Ha, ha, very funny!” the farmer pretended to pout as he held her out at arm’s length.  “… but yes, I did grow up in a large city.  I am a middle child who lived in an overcrowded house and went to an overcrowded school, then upgraded for a job in an overcrowded store for a while, then an overcrowded restaurant, and finally an overcrowded office.”

Cliff spun her, and she clung on to him, laughing heartily. The music and the energy in the room were thrilling.  Enthralled that she was more comfortable with the steps, Claire’s confidence soared as she continued her story.

“I would wake up, go to work, go home, eat, and then go to bed in my tiny apartment. No variety.  No fun,” she bobbed her head to the music absentmindedly.

“No fun?” The young man beamed and spun her again. He needed to hear that laugh and see that smile again; they were intoxicating.  He longed to give her that fun and variety she craved.

“Nope. No fun!” She couldn’t stop giggling despite the conversation topic and the young man’s entire face was smiling.  A slower song began to play, and the young woman calmed down a bit, collecting her thoughts.  When she spoke again, her voice was level.  “As I sat at my lonely table eating my precooked meal, I looked at the newspaper.  There was an ad for the farm in it.  I had never grown much more than a meager herb garden on my windowsill, but I immediately fell in love with the concept of a farm – the whole idea of doing what you want when you want and being able to provide for yourself.”  She knew that the whole thing sounded rather naïve and silly when she looked back on it…

His words surprised her. “I know exactly what you mean.”  Cliff turned very serious as his eyes locked on to hers and he hugged her tightly.  He smelled like the wild herbs that grew on the mountain and fresh summer breeze.  For that brief moment, there was no one else in the room.  There was no music.  There was no party.  There were two people, so very different, yet so similar, reaching an understanding.  Cliff wasn’t sure how long he held her like that, and he didn’t care if anyone else had noticed.  He had always found a kindred spirit in Claire, and this latest bit of proof made his heart swell.  He wasn’t alone, and neither was she.

Claire was having a difficult time processing her emotions. All that she knew was that his hug was reassuring and that she didn’t want either of them to let go.  She had found someone that truly accepted her and would never see her as a bumbling city girl trying to make it on a rundown farm.  She had Cliff, and he had her.  As long as they had each other, they always would have someone to support them.  Their friendship had reached a new bond of trust and understanding.

They danced in silence for a few minutes. There were so many more things she wanted to ask him about his past, but now didn’t feel like the right time.  They had made so much progress tonight.  Claire rested her head on her friend’s shoulder and looked around her for the first time in hours.  She realized at once how much time had passed.  Many couples were resting their feet, and quite a few had left already.  Claire and Cliff were the only two on the dance floor, and she was suddenly aware that everyone may be staring at them. 

Her first instinct was the fear of judgmental stares; surely the gossip crew would have something to say about the farmer dancing with a single partner for a majority of the evening. She didn’t lift her head, but her eyes darted around the room wildly.

And to her amazement, no one seemed to care. Saibara and Duke were laughing much too loudly, Ann sat beside her father behind the bar, munching on some snacks.  The redheaded waitress have them a friendly wave when she saw Claire’s eyes focus on her.  Karen, whose fingers were discreetly laced with Rick’s, gave the farmer a loving smile.  Mary and Gray were talking together at the bar and watching the dancing pair, smiling.  Manna was waving goodbye to a yawning Elli.  It occurred to Claire that Karen was right – they weren’t children anymore, and people had better things to do than gossip and cause drama at a dance.

Claire yawned. She felt sleepy, but her mind was alert.  Her feet moved automatically to the music.  She didn’t want the evening to end.  Her heart was full to bursting with a deep joy.

“One last song!” The bandleader called out, turning off the record player as they grabbed their instruments.

Everyone shuffled out onto the dance floor.

A ballad – even Claire knew how to dance to this one. She looked up at her dance partner, who was grinning at Ann.  The waitress whispered something into her friend’s ear and he turned a violent shade of red.  Ann patted Claire on the shoulder.

“Have a good evening, sweetie.” She gave the blonde the same smile Karen had given her a minute ago. Her heart swelled.

“Thank you, you too, Ann!” she called out, but she didn’t want to be saying her goodbyes just yet.

Claire looked up around the room. These people were her neighbors, but they were also her friends.  She looked at Mr. and Mrs. Cava and smiled.  Despite the squabbles between Manna and Duke, Claire could tell how much they loved each other.  The young farmer looked out in the crowd and saw Kai and Popuri laughing together.  Claire knew that although Kai’s seasonal visit was already halfway over, she liked him a lot already.  She was happy that Popuri got to spend time with him tonight without too much grief from her brother; it looked like things had cooled down for the moment with the poultry farmer.  Claire didn’t see Karen anywhere, but she was grateful that her friend had insisted she come to the dance.  Karen was always helping Claire expand her comfort zone, the farmer realized.  She would have to thank her when she got the chance.

Finally, she looked up at Cliff. Throughout the course of their friendship, Claire had seen him with fewer worry lines on his forehead and his stuttering was now rare.  She had learned so much about him in just one evening, and she suddenly wanted to know everything about him. 

She thought of Saibara’s comment about Cliff needing a woman and knew that it would take a special person to fill that role. She looked back at Ann, a natural choice for him as her bubbly personality seemed to complement his well, but the waitress was busy clearing empty steins off of the bar.  Claire remembered with embarrassment how long the two had been dancing together exclusively.

“Are you sure there’s not someone else you’d rather be dancing with?” Claire asked shyly. If Ann really had a thing for her friend, why didn’t it seem to bother her that she had only danced for a short while with the young man?

He looked genuinely confused. “What are you talking about?”

She understood she was just making things awkward and shook her head. “Never mind.”

Cliff gave his friend a spin, and a smile returned to her face. “I’ve been having a wonderful time,” his eyes locked onto hers.

“Me, too.” She gave him a friendly grin.  She couldn’t remember ever having this much fun at a social event, let alone a dance.  Her heart was bursting with joy as they moved together.

“Good. Then let’s keep dancing together, and I’ll walk you home.”  He pulled her a little closer.

He was giving her that look again that made her feel a little disoriented: a bright, kind, wide stare with friendly eyebrows and a glitter to his eyes that she had a hard time defining. Yes, that deep blue was a beautiful color, she realized once again.  “A-alright!”  Claire was stunned by the confidence in his voice and body language, and it gave her heart an unexpected jolt of excitement.  What was with her emotions going haywire lately?  She quickly shook it off.  “But you’ll have to get permission from my date first,” she teased.

“Oh, I don’t think Karen will be walking you home tonight; she seems a bit preoccupied,” Cliff laughed. He turned her toward Karen and Rick, who were leaving the bar together hand in hand.  Rick gave Karen a swift peck on the cheek, and she returned it with a big kiss planted on his mouth.

Chapter Text

The music ended and Claire and Cliff started heading back to the farm. It was a warm night, but there was a nice breeze, and the sky was nearly clear.  The sun had fallen and there was a soft pink glow on the wispy clouds on the horizon.  The colors looked a bit surreal; the fading rose-colored sunlight in the dreamy indigo evening sky was nothing short of breathtaking.  The young woman thought how romantic it must look to Karen tonight.  It would’ve been nice to end the evening with a kiss from a loved one.  The farmer caught herself sighing wistfully at the notion, but her displeasure was short-lived. 

Claire realized with a grin that her evening had been nothing short of amazing. She had never felt like such a welcomed and accepted part of the community.  She loved Mineral Town, and she admired the people who lived there.  Her friends in this small village were so different than the ones she had back in the city.  Her thoughts naturally drifted toward her girl friend and she recalled seeing the brunette plaster her mouth over the poultry farmer’s.

“Karen’s always so… weird and defensive when it comes to Rick,” she commented as they walked along the cobblestones. She let out a small chuckle at the image of her friend hanging onto the young man; the grocer’s daughter had obviously been looking forward to an opportunity like that for a long time.

Cliff nodded as a small smile spread across his lips. There had been a period for a few years in his life where he didn’t interact with other people at all, but the language of love was instinctual and universal.  He knew Karen was a woman in love the first day he met her and saw the two friends share a wine at the bar. “True, but I could tell from the moment I saw them together that they were made for each other.” 

“Well, you sure can string together a pretty line of words!” Claire giggled, but she knew he was right. She felt silly for ever considering her friend could possibly be romantically interested in anyone else.  “And that hypocrite was busy telling me that I shouldn’t be worried about finding my soul mate tonight,” she rolled her eyes with an impish grin.

He stopped in his tracks for a brief moment. “What did she tell you that you should be doing?  Knowing Karen, she had some orders for you tonight.”  His tone of voice was playful, but Claire could see from the light of the lamp posts that his face had turned pink.

She paused as she remembered their conversation earlier that evening. It had felt like the exchange of words had happened days ago.  “She told me to have a good time tonight and enjoy my friends’ company.”  They continued walking, and the farmer added a bounce to her step.  The blonde realized with pleasure she had done just that.  Tonight had been more fun than she could have ever hoped for.  “I was really nervous at first, but I ended up having really good time once I stopped putting so much pressure on myself,” the young woman admitted with an embarrassed smile.

“Me, too.” Cliff gave his friend a slight nod and stared out at the fading sunlight on the horizon as they walked along, their steps in perfect unison.

She found it hard to believe that someone so skilled at dancing would be nervous about this evening, but perhaps he was focusing more on the socialization aspect of the party. Claire realized she had been anxious about both the dancing and conversation.  She played with the folds of her lavender gingham dress as they walked along, swinging her hips dramatically so the skirt flared out.  Both friends laughed at the sight.  “Wanna know something dumb?  I forced myself to attend school dances as a teenager, but I always kind of dreaded them because I was so self-conscious of how I looked when I danced.  I’d always wait in the corner for someone to ask me to dance, but they never did,” Claire gave him a wry smile as she stopped swinging.  Her playful mood had dissipated.  “You must think I’m pretty pathetic, huh?”  She slowed down her walking pace until she found that she was dragging her feet.

He shook his head as he focused his gaze on her. “Not at all,” he replied.  “I would have asked you.”  He gave the young woman an honest, friendly smile with kind eyes.

Claire grinned and a warm feeling spread throughout her body. It felt so nice to be genuinely cared about.  She spun on the ball of her foot and her hair and dress fanned out beautifully as she relished this joyful feeling.  The young man shyly grinned at her in return.

They arrived at the farm. Suddenly, her whole hesitation about letting a good friend who happened to be male into her house didn’t seem like such a big deal.  It had been such a big debate back in spring. 

“Please come in. I have some herbal tea that we can share,” she insisted as she unlocked the door and held it open for her companion.

He tried to contain his heart pounding in his chest. “Ah, thank you…” Cliff was surprised.

The young woman reached inside the doorway and flicked on the light for her friend, gesturing for him to go inside. Claire followed a shy Cliff into her abode and reached into her new refrigerator.  As always, she was eager to be a good hostess.  She poured a couple of glasses of chilled tea and offered her friend a seat at the table.  The young man looked around the room with wide eyes, as if trying to remember every knot of wood on her walls.

The house smelled of fresh earth, herbs, and ripe tomatoes. “You have a lovely place,” he remarked, sitting down on a floor cushion.

She looked around the room a little curiously, wondering what it was that he found lovely.  “Thanks.” Claire noticed his initial reaction to the interior of her home was quite different than Karen’s.  The blonde wouldn’t have used Cliff’s word for it, as she saw it as a work in progress, but she decided not to say this aloud.  Judging from the fact that her friend had lived outdoors for a while, any home would probably seem like a bit of a luxury to him.  She took a drink of the tea and her friend followed suit.

His face lit up as the liquid touched his tongue. He immediately recognized the flavor.  “Ah, this is the blend I showed you back in spring,” he remarked, his entire face beaming.  “I’m glad that you enjoy it.”

She hadn’t even thought of that, but she was glad that the beverage pleased him so much. “Thanks again for teaching me how to forage.”  Her life had truly changed that day.

“It’s something I have been doing my entire life,” he returned modestly, taking another sip from his glass.

Well, she certainly couldn’t say the same. “The more I live out here, the more I realize I had no idea what I was getting into,” Claire rested her chin on her palm.  “I knew nothing about farming, nothing about plants, and nothing about wildlife.  All I knew was my little world with my apartment and my dead-end job.  I just always thought things were going to be that way.  When I saw the ad for the farm in the paper, I saw it as a way out.  I didn’t really care that I had no idea how to run a farm.”  She absentmindedly swirled the amber liquid in her glass.

Cliff stared at the table’s surface quietly for several moments, and Claire began to wonder what was on his mind. She knew he wouldn’t judge her for saying such a thing, but she was curious as to what he had to say.  “You were just looking for your freedom,” her friend offered as he pensively stared at the condensation running down his glass.

He was absolutely right, and she had found it. Claire nodded and took another sip of her tea, deep in thought.  Freedom was something she thought that she had always possessed.  She began to think of her life in the city.  She had moved because she felt trapped.  Would she have considered herself free at the time?  Probably – after all, she didn’t know any better.  Now that she was more in control of her own life, she was starting to realize just how precious that was.  “Have you found your freedom here, too, Cliff?” she ventured.  She set her glass down on the table and watched the beads of water on her drink.

The question caught him off guard. He was silent for several moments once again.  His eyebrows furrowed as he sat, contemplating.  She noticed that he looked somewhat concerned, and it made her feel uneasy.  “I hope that I can.”  His expression was grim, his eyes not meeting hers.

Those words broke her heart; she had a feeling finding his freedom wasn’t as simple as acquiring steady income. “I know that you can if you truly want to.  I’m… not sure what happened to you in the past, Cliff, but things will get better.  We don’t have to get into that tonight, but just know that when you’re ready, you can tell me anything,” she found that she was reaching for his hand.

He accepted the offered hands and squeezed them hard; he didn’t look up at her. She could feel a slight tremor in his body as his face reddened.  “It feels very nice to hear you say that.”

Claire decided to lighten up the mood. The young woman hadn’t meant to upset her friend, and she felt a wave of guilt.  She patted his hands playfully and ran her fingers through a strand of her blonde locks.  “Look at us, coming home from a party and talking about such serious things.  Don’t you think that Ann looked pretty tonight?” She thought of the waitress in her cute yellow dress and figured the topic of their mutual friend might cheer him up – she knew that the young man was close friends with her.  Claire still was feeling high from her realization that she had been accepted into the community and she was eager to talk about all of their friends.

The young man didn’t seem to have the same feelings. He shrugged his shoulders.  Cliff didn’t look unhappy, but he seemed like he wanted to focus the conversation elsewhere.  “I suppose.  Everyone looked nice tonight.”  He took a long gulp from his glass and sighed as he set down the tea in satisfaction.

The young woman found that she was mirroring him as she set down her own drink. Moving around so much this evening had made her very thirsty.  “We’re a good-looking bunch, huh?” Claire laughed, wriggling her eyebrows playfully.  She grinned when she got a soft chuckle in return.

“All joking aside, I think that you look especially lovely tonight,” Cliff said very sincerely as he looked up at her. Claire’s eyes moved to their hands when she felt his touch and she noticed that he had reached for her and was gently holding her hands in his.  She didn’t feel awkward or flustered about it.  He had given her a very genuine compliment that had no implication behind it and it made her feel a very deep sense of joy.  The young woman wanted to say something very honest to him as well.  She found him rather attractive as well, especially with the addition of the innocent blush in his cheeks, but it didn’t seem appropriate to echo the sentiment.  The young woman was afraid it would only sound like she was parroting his compliment to be polite.

“You have a very kind, beautiful heart, Cliff,” Claire replied, “and I think you will find your happiness here in Mineral Town.” She grinned; she had spoken from the heart and it came out more eloquently than anything she would have planned out to say to him.

Her friend turned bright red at the compliment. “But I already have.  I have more friends here than I’ve had in the last six years…  Maybe even my whole life…  I just need to work on finding my freedom and my sense of purpose.”  His eyes lit up vivaciously.  He looked determined to seek just what he was looking for.

“That’s the spirit! I’m very happy for you,” Claire gave his hands one last squeeze and stood up to stretch.

Cliff took this as his cue. “Well, then, I should probably be heading back to the inn.  I know you probably have a lot of things to work on tomorrow morning.  Thank you for the tea and company.”

“You know I always have time for my friends.” She clasped her hands together and gave him a gleeful nod in response.

“Thank you.” He turned to leave but Claire caught him by the waist and gave him a big hug.  She felt like he needed it tonight.  Cliff turned his head over his shoulder, blushing violently as he was caught off guard by her sudden squeeze. 

Claire was taken aback. Maybe she was taking everything a bit too casually tonight.  “I’m sorry!  I j-just!”

His feelings weren’t hurt; he had just been surprised. “Just let me hug you properly,” he wrapped his arms around her and pulled her close.  “You’re my best friend, did you know that?” he softly murmured into her ear.

His words made her melt a bit, and she relaxed into him. The embrace was warm and natural, and she liked the way his arms felt around her.  “And you’re mine.  You always will be.” Claire’s smile returned to her face.

“Have a good night, and sleep well.”

Her heart was full again; it was the same way when Karen and Ann had smiled at her. There was that feeling of genuine love and friendship once more.  “You, too.”

Chapter Text

Claire woke up the next morning with her legs and feet aching so much she could hardly move. The young woman had never felt so sore after a dance, but then again, she had never really actively participated in one before.  She struggled to get up and dress herself, her calf muscles burning as she pulled on her socks.  The farmer opened up her curtains and looked out at her fields.  She had been overzealous in planting corn and tomatoes, and watering them had become her main job.  After experiencing heat exhaustion earlier in the season, she knew that if the plants were going to get watered, they would need to be done right away before the temperatures rose.  She was about to settle into a rushed breakfast of fresh tomatoes from her rejected and blemished pile when she heard a knock on the door.

She knew it wasn’t Karen, as the brunette would’ve shouted out a greeting by now. Claire let out a soft moan of pain as she pulled herself up from her seated position at the table and hobbled to the door.

Her heart pounded at the sight of the apprentice blacksmith. If he was here on business, it was a surprise to her; she hadn’t ordered anything lately that he would be delivering, and she wasn’t expecting him today.

“Hey,” he said the greeting as if it were perfectly natural that he would show up on her doorstep at six in the morning.

“Uh… hi!” the farmer stammered as she opened her door and let the young man inside. She led the way to her table, eager to offer him some breakfast, but he milled about nervously in the doorway.

“Ah, you still have that horse book, huh?” he laughed nervously as he glanced at the library book on Claire’s table. “I can return it to the library for you today if you want,” the young man kindly offered.

The blonde shook her head. “I wanted to visit with Mary today anyway.  Let her know I’ll be coming over later,” she grinned.  Claire had been thinking about it a lot this morning, and the librarian’s cheery and friendly demeanor last evening intrigued her.

He let out a grunt of acknowledgement and wiped his sweaty hands off on his coveralls. Gray tugged on the bill of his cap and let out a soft sigh.  He knew from the day they first met that this day would come.  “Claire, we need to talk.”  His mouth was dry, but asking for a glass of water would only complicate things.  She’d be so damned friendly about it and then the words he needed to say would become impossible to get out.

The blonde’s face caught on fire as she struggled to steady her breathing. “Uh, sure.  Wh-what about?””

The apprentice’s cheeks turned a bright shade of red. How did one begin a conversation like this?  With the truth, he figured.  “W-Well… us, I suppose…”

The farmer nearly flopped over and gripped the edge of the table; she felt faint. Was the young man implying what she thought and prayed he was?

The young man folded his arms across his chest. “D-Dammit!  Wh-Why can’t I ever say anything right?” he let out a groan in aggravation.  Gray shot her an apologetic look and nervously rubbed the back of his neck, turning his head to face her.  “I mean, I guess it’s about us, but… well… why don’t I start from the beginning?

“Uh, okay…” the young woman shifted uncomfortably on her floor cushion and the young man paced in front of the table, jamming his hands in his pockets. “Please, have a seat,” she offered.  His agitated pacing back and forth was making her terribly nervous.

He looked at her with an expression that suggested she was asking him to do something painful. “’Kay,” he grunted, tugging on the bill of his cap.  “Listen, Claire… I…” he stammered as the blood drained from his face, realizing he hadn’t really rehearsed what he was going to say in his mind.

The blonde could hardly hear him over the pounding in her ears. He what?  He loves me?  He wants to be with me?  He can’t stand me?  He regrets not bringing me to the dance?  Her mind swam with possible options.

He couldn’t stand stalling anymore – he dove right in. “I’m… not the type of person that attracts people.  I’m aware of that…” his voice was husky as he removed his cap and set it on the table.  “So… in that respect, I am grateful that you’ve been so kind to me.”

It became difficult for Claire to breathe and she could feel a warm sweat forming on her brow. She wished he would just spit it out already… that he was madly in love with her and couldn’t stand it anymore…

“But…” his pale blue eyes moved to the floor, abashed.

How silly it was that the simple utterance of this one little word flipped the young woman’s mood. Her blood ran cold and she found that she was trembling.

He let out a soft sigh; it was less painful to just peel off a bandage than tug at it gently. “This – you and me – well, it isn’t going anywhere.  You have got to stop making yourself miserable.”  He lacked the courage to look her in the eye as his gaze uncomfortably moved to the floor.

She blinked, the words not truly registering. “Oh.”  She had no way to cope with this, so her brain refused to accept it.  The young woman felt as if she were watching the conversation happen from outside of her own body.  She couldn’t even find the proper motivation to be frustrated at her lack of emotion.

Gray continued, his voice growing a little stronger. After all, he still had more to say.  “I realize I may have been a little… misleading…  I apologize.”

Claire sat in numbed silence. He didn’t want her.  What about all of the time they spent together?  All of the pieces of copper she had given him?  What about him training Tucker? Or that time he took her out to the inn for lunch?  Surely that had to have meant something… but what it exactly meant, she was no longer sure.  Nothing made sense anymore.

He looked at the blonde uncomfortably. She was hanging her head, obviously deep in thought.  Her bangs hung in her eyes, so it was difficult to read her expression, but he could tell from her body language that it was not a happy one.  He wanted to say more, but he stopped himself.  “I’m… sorry, okay?” Gray returned his hat to his head and stood up.

He had never wanted her to begin with. She had offered him her heart, and he had no desire for it.  Her pulse began to throb in her ears as she felt her entire body get hot and cold at the same time.  “Okay…” she wasn’t sure what was expected of her to say in such circumstances, so she fed him the only line she could muster.  Claire stared at the table’s surface miserably, blinking away the tears that started to form.  She heard his boots shuffle across the floor toward the door and the young woman felt a spring of anger well up within her.  “No… it’s not okay,” she stood up, her voice tremulous as she realized how truly wrong the whole situation had been.

Gray froze in his tracks, numb. He really didn’t know how Claire was going to take his words, and he hadn’t given much thought on how to respond to her.  He just knew he needed to get it off of his chest today.

“I liked you from the first day I moved into town. You can’t tell me that you weren’t aware of that,” her words were bitter as she stood up from her seat, ignoring the searing pain in her thigh muscles from the night before.

He opened his mouth to speak, but the words wouldn’t come out. Her blue eyes looked aggressive and his first instinct was to protect himself.  “I-I didn’t think it was anything too serious…” 

She glared at him in response. How dare he cheapen her feelings toward him!  She was so furious she was twitching.

Everyone had heard the story of the farmer with the short temper who beat up Mayor Thomas on her first day in town, but he wasn’t about to be intimidated by her anger and he gave her a scowl in reply. “I tried to show you I wasn’t interested - I didn’t want to be rude and say it outright.  How could you not take the hint?” he bit his lip in frustration; the young woman had been selectively interpreting his actions and words to fit what she wanted them to. 

The young woman gnashed her teeth, but her rage faded a bit as she remembered the priest’s story about the child and the alarm clock. Gray’s avoidance of the uncomfortable words had made the situation worse for the both of them.  At the same time, she had to admit that there were a lot of times she pushed the doubts out of her mind out of sheer stubbornness.  The most obvious of those instances had happened just the night before when she noticed his uncomfortable demeanor while they danced together.  However, she refused to see that she had any blame in this – he should have told her outright that he did not want to be with her.  Her anger turned to sadness as she pitied herself.  “You always thanked me for the ore I brought you…” she lamented, her eyes welling up with tears.  She wanted him to know that he had led her on and it had hurt.

“I appreciated the gifts, but that didn’t mean that I wanted to be your boyfriend.” It was kind of true, anyway… even if all he did was throw the small pieces of ore into the furnace when he came into work.

Claire refused to believe that he had never felt anything for her at all. “You always blush when you’re around me!” Her voice rose in volume and she forgot her manners; they hardly mattered at a time like this.

He turned red once again. “W-Well… that’s because…” his voice trailed off as his eyes moved to the floor and he clenched his jaw.  She was not making it easy for him to remain tactful, but perhaps that opportunity had passed long ago while he was not paying attention.  “You’re always embarrassing me!  How would you feel if someone you didn’t even know that well stared at you like… you were their… lover or something?”

Her heart sank as a gasp of indignation escaped her body. A well of rage bubbled up within the young woman and before she knew it, she was raising a trembling hand, winding up to slap him across the face with all of her might.  Her eyes met his pale blue ones and she dropped her arm, her lungs deflating.  Stinging tears streamed down her cheeks and she impatiently wiped them away, but her emotions were too much.

“Go on, I deserve it…” he humbly removed his hat so she wouldn’t injure her hand.

She buried her face in her hands as she cried freely. She found herself unable to strike him, as much as she wanted to.  Claire was frustrated – why was she always hesitating with him?  She found that she would much rather simply hear the truth.  “No…I don’t…I just…why? Why didn’t you spell it out for me? Couldn’t you just say you weren’t interested to begin with?”

She was too busy wallowing in her own pain to see the anguish reflected in his pale blue eyes. The young man swallowed the lump in his throat.  He would have much rather she just slapped him; it would have been much easier on him.  “Because…  I didn’t want to see you look the way you do right now…” his voice trailed off.  He nervously rubbed the back of his head.  She wasn’t aware, but his heart was breaking as well, in a way.  “Despite what you think, I do care about you Claire…”

Those words hurt more than his initial confession that he didn’t love her. “Stop.”  She attempted to blink away the tears that were blurring her vision and she clenched her fists in frustration when they tumbled down her cheeks.  “No girl ever wants to hear that.”

“But I don’t dislike you,” he insisted. The young man wanted to make his point clear that he may not be romantically interested in her, but he didn’t think she was a bad person.

“I said ‘stop’!” her voice quavered. The more he said he did care in some way, the more it made her heart ache.  She would prefer it if he completely hated her.  She started to raise her open palm again to him, but swiftly wrung her hands instead.

He was still holding his hat. “Please, go ahead.  Honestly, it would make me feel better.”  He stared forward, bracing for impact.  A red welt on his cheek was nothing compared to what he was going through emotionally.

“If we’re being honest here, I don’t care about making you feel better,” she replied bitterly.  She may have slapped him if she was the same person she was when she moved to Mineral Town, but this wasn’t the case.  She had grown since then.  “I know I’m being selfish,” her voice quavered, “but I want you to understand how it feels to hurt, too.”  Claire’s voice trailed off as she sat down miserably at her table and buried her face in her arms, her blonde locks spilling onto the furniture’s surface.

Gray fussed with the baseball cap in his hands. He was unsure if she wanted him to sit down beside him or not.  He ran his fingers through his messy locks and sat cross-legged on a floor cushion across from her.

She heard him take a seat. “Gray…?”

“Yeah?” his heart was in his throat as he swallowed.

“Please leave,” her voice broke. “I want to be alone.  This may take me a while to recover from, okay?” her words were muffled, but she didn’t look up; it was apparent from her tone and body language that she was silently crying.

He nodded even though he was well aware that she was unable to see him. “Okay.”  His voice was gentle.  He almost added an “I understand”, but that would be a lie.  He didn’t know what she was feeling and it was unfair of him to pretend to, he realized.

0o0o0o0

How would you feel if someone you didn’t even know that well stared at you like you were their lover or something?

She sat at the edge of the stream on the side of her farm, her pant legs rolled up and her feet dangling in the water. Claire looked down at herself in the reflective surface as a couple of tears fell from her eyes, causing ripples to spread across the water.  She stared in disgust at her wobbly image in the stream.

Someone you don’t even know that well…

Those words had hurt the most. She had thought that he had seen her as a friend, at the very least.  She swallowed the lump in her throat as she impatiently wiped away her tears, well aware that her face was becoming raw.

What did Gray know about her, really?

He knew she was a farmer that came from a family of five children. He knew that she came from the city and that she lacked experience with what she was doing.  Claire frowned as she struggled to think of more things.  Books!  He knew she liked fantasy novels and didn’t care for overly cheesy romance.  The young woman’s face fell.  Was that really all she had to show for over four months’ worth of pursuit?

She let out a wistful sigh. It was now painfully obvious that he had never had romantic thoughts about her.  Who did she think she had been kidding, anyway?

The only one she had been kidding was herself, she realized as she wept afresh.

Chapter Text

The farmer wished she hadn’t said anything to Gray about visiting Mary today; the last thing she wanted to do was socialize. It would be a simple in and out trip, she told herself.  Claire would stay longer when she was in better spirits.

“I’ve come to return a book,” the farmer handed it over and turned to leave. It had been hard enough for her to come into town.  She ached to go back home so she could wallow some more in privacy.

“How did you like it?” Mary asked.

Questions were painful, and answering them was a chore. “It was pretty good,” she admitted shortly, turning around to give the librarian a small smile that looked more like a grimace.  In truth, she had enjoyed the book immensely and it had been very helpful, but she didn’t have the heart to stay and chat today.

“I’m so glad that it was of use to you,” Mary replied, returning the book to the shelf.

The farmer found her escape; Claire turned to the door again. “Well, I don’t want to keep you-”

“Wait,” Mary’s strained voice was desperate, and Claire stopped in her tracks. “You’re not keeping me from anything at all.”  The librarian paused and bit her lip.  “Claire, can you stay a bit?  There’s… something I need to t-talk to you about.”

“O-okay.” The farmer’s legs felt weak.  Another talk.  She had a feeling she didn’t want to stay for long.

Mary straightened up a stack of papers behind her desk and stood in the lobby. The farmer felt she had no choice but to join her.

“You looked beautiful at the dance,” Mary smiled.

The conversation topic took her by surprise. “You did, too.  I loved your flowers,” Claire confessed, loosening up a bit.

“Thank you,” Mary reddened, “you know, you made a lot of the other girls jealous last night,” the librarian giggled.

Claire was hardly the kind of woman that anyone envied. She cocked an eyebrow suspiciously.  “What are you talking about?”  Her eyes abashedly drifted toward the shelves of books.

“You looked like a princess and you seemed like you were in your element,” the young woman adjusted her glasses. “You were glowing.”

She absentmindedly read the titles of the volumes that sat on the shelf. Anything was better than making contact with those mocha brown eyes.  “You were, too,” Claire didn’t recognize the sound of her own voice.

Mary blushed as she quietly pulled out a couple of chairs. The farmer sat down across from her without realizing it.  “I had a wonderful time…  It seems like you and Cliff did, too.”

“Yeah, he really is a good friend,” a small smile found its way on her face, but she couldn’t shake her ache from earlier that day.

The librarian realized it was time to drop the formalities. That look in Claire’s eyes could mean only one thing.  “I get the feeling Gray must have stopped by your place earlier,” Mary gave her companion a sympathetic gaze as she nervously wrung her hands in her lap.  “I can see it on your face.”  Of course the bloodshot eyes and raw face were a dead giveaway that she had been crying all day, but to call attention to this seemed cruel to Claire.  The farmer felt her cordiality drop away at Mary’s comment.

So the librarian is in on this. Maybe other people know Gray never cared for me.  Had he gone around telling everyone before he bothered to tell me?  The blonde frowned as she felt her bitterness returning to her.

“I know that what he said must have hurt. I’m sorry you had to go through that,” Mary hesitated, “but there was a reason why he needed to tell you today.”

Claire was tired and her heart hurt. “What are you getting at?  Please stop talking in riddles and just say what you want to say.”  She was aware that she was not necessarily acting very tactful, but she had reached her threshold today.  The farmer was either going to snap a bit or start crying again, and she really didn’t want to do the latter – her face stung from the dampness of her tears throughout the day.

Mary looked taken aback for a moment, but she tried to understand how the farmer was feeling. Claire was probably very distressed and confused, she realized.  “Gray and I… we became a couple shortly before the dance last night started.”

Claire blinked. She had already been so numbed throughout the course of the day that this new piece of information didn’t hurt as much as she expected.  Instead, it baffled her a bit.  “Why didn’t he tell me when he stopped by my place earlier?” her voice weakened. Why is this information being fed to me in small doses, and by different people? She found herself clenching her fists as her anger returned.

Mary furrowed her brows. “He wanted to tell you how he felt without mentioning me so that you wouldn’t think I stole him from you; so that you would be angry with him instead of me.  He wanted to focus just on the things that have happened between the two of you.  And… I made him promise that I could be the one to tell you we’re together now,” she added carefully.

“Why?” So she could rub it in my face, she thought bitterly. 

The librarian caught the look on the farmer’s face. She understood that Claire was in pain, and her frustration made Mary feel she needed to be very careful with her choice of words.  “You know how fast news travels in a small town like this.  I didn’t want you to find out about us from Manna and leave you wondering why Gray didn’t say anything about it in the first place.  I also thought you should know why he chose today to tell you.  I know that you don’t like him very much right now, but I don’t want you to completely hate-”

“Well, it’s too late for that,” Claire spat as her anger returned. “He led me on for far too long.  He’s a coward!  He should have told me this stuff ages ago!” she cried in exasperation as she gripped her fingers on her long blonde hair, scraping her scalp in frustration.  If Mary was trying to explain things clearly, she had failed miserably, the farmer grumbled to herself.  She partly wished Gray told her so she would have a good enough excuse for punching him.  The blonde bit her tongue both as punishment and to prevent herself from saying something she would regret.  Those kinds of thoughts didn’t help and she knew it.  Claire was determined to remain mature throughout this situation.  She had done so well earlier, but she was getting emotionally burnt out.  It was hard remaining strong…

Mary folded her hands in her lap. “I won’t defend his actions, but he does feel badly about it.”

Claire clenched her jaw. The farmer knew it wasn’t the librarian’s fault, but she wanted to be angry at someone other than herself; it hurt too much to view the situation as entirely her fault.

“He didn’t treat you right… This whole thing turned out to be such a mess…  It should have never come to this in the first place, like you mentioned.  I… I wish you could apologize for other people,” she muttered softly, wringing her hands.

Claire realized that her companion was trying to handle the situation in the best way she knew how, and she could hardly blame her for any of this. “I… can’t be mad at you, Mary.  You won, fair and square.  He… liked you better,” her throated tightened as she felt her eyes well up with tears.  The anger faded and was replaced with sadness once more.  She blinked and the tears tumbled down her cheeks.  The old Claire would have been ashamed at weeping in front of her rival.

She wasn’t sure when she had gone to Mary’s arms, but a light hand was rubbing her back in a soothing manner. “It’s okay to be upset.  He should have been more honest with you,” she murmured.  “I’m sorry you got wrapped up in all of this.  You deserve to be happy, too, Claire…”

Even with her congested sinuses, Claire could tell that Mary’s hair smelled of rosewater.  It was strangely comforting.  She buried her face in the young woman’s shoulder.  Part of her wanted to say the only way she would be content was if she had Gray, too, but she knew that wasn’t the truth.  What was the point of pursuing someone who had no interest?  She let out a breathy sigh into Mary’s forearm and wiped her eyes.  “Sorry I got you all wet,” she looked at the young woman apologetically.

Mary shook her head to let her know that no harm had been done. She almost said that someday Claire would find someone that would make her happy, too, but it didn’t feel right.  She was afraid the young woman would take it as gloating.  It was probably going to take the farmer time to heal and the librarian realized that she needed to respect that.  Sometimes the most comforting words were none at all, but a simple embrace and the company of another.

The pair stood in silence for a long time.

The anger and pent-up rage wore off and Claire’s heart began to ache. She now understood that the young woman didn’t relish in telling the farmer that her love interest had been taken.  However, she knew that it would take her some time to want to spend any time with Mary.  “Please forgive me; this will take me some time to get over,” Claire murmured quietly.  She surprised herself at how honest and reasonable she was being.  They almost didn’t sound like her own words.  “It might be a while before I come over to read more of your story, but please don’t take it personally.  I… need time.”

“I understand. You’ve matured so much from when we first met.”  There was no judgment in Mary’s voice.

She felt ready to begin sobbing again; her emotions were raw. She needed a place that was quiet where she could be alone with her thoughts.  “I’m going to go to the church now,” Claire’s heart was heavy.  She stood up to leave, and Mary caught her in a tight embrace.

“Be well,” Mary said quietly.

“Thank you. I honestly wish you both the best.”  This time, the words sounded a little more like Claire’s.

0o0o0o0

Claire hated that she visited the house of worship much more often when she was upset. The gods were not genies that granted wishes; she had to take the bad things with the good in life, the farmer reminded herself once again.  Even so, the young woman found a visit was necessary today.  She had never met such a friendly, open pastor like Carter and she needed to release her emotions to someone.  She didn’t know how she made it to the church – her head was dizzy with emotion and she lacked the will to do much of anything.  Putting one foot in front of the other felt like a monumental task.  Claire stumbled inside and sat quietly in the back row.  She spied Cliff sitting up at the front pew but she didn’t have the heart to engage him at the moment.  She needed silence; she needed to be alone while she collected her thoughts for speaking to Carter.

Deep down, she knew that it was inevitable – Gray was never hers to begin with, anyway. He was polite enough to her, but when she really thought about it, they had a hard time truly connecting.  She thought of him working at the furnace, swinging a hammer, and her heart gave a flutter.  She had been initially attracted to his physical strength, honestly, and she felt a little embarrassed of this fact.  Claire shook her head.  She was cheapening her feelings towards him.  It had turned into far more than a physical attraction; she had also been drawn to his passion and the way he was constantly struggling to better himself and earn the approval of his grandfather.  She wanted to improve herself as a farmer, but the two never really seemed to relate on the subject through conversation.  After all, Gray had never been an easy person to talk to.

It’s not as if he asked Mary to be his wife, she’s only his girlfriend. I can always wait things out and see if he’s still interested later…  Claire shook her head, feeling foolish for even having that thought.  He had already said no.  She and Gray were simply not meant to be.  Besides, she could hardly be angry at Mary for the way things turned out.  The young woman had been nothing but kind to Claire.  In a way, it made the whole situation a lot harder for the farmer.

The blonde snapped back to reality for a moment as Carter came out of the confessional and greeted Cliff. The priest locked eyes with her, but didn’t say a word.  He asked his friend about the dance, and the young man immediately began to speak excitedly, standing up and bouncing to his feet.  Claire’s pain dissipated a little; it hardly surprised her that Cliff was used to dancing and he didn’t appear to be sore at all.  His happiness gave her a short moment of reprieve.  A kind smile crossed the pastor’s face.  Carter suggested they take their conversation in the confessional and he ushered the brown-haired young man behind closed doors without giving him the chance to turn around and see Claire.

Thank you, Carter.

The farmer prayed and focused on opening her mind about today’s events. The young woman knew that whether she was happy about it or not, she was going to have to live in a world where Gray wasn’t romantically interested in her, simple as that.  Furthermore, his heart belonged to someone else.  Claire mourned this fact for a few moments before returning her thoughts to a more logical standpoint.  She had a feeling that Gray and Mary were in some sort of relationship since she first saw them together, but she had refused to believe it.  The farmer noticed that she and the other female had many similar qualities and she figured that if she could be the more outgoing of the two, Claire would be the one to win Gray over.  But it hadn’t been that simple.  She had caught Mary’s playful banter. My red pen and I will be waiting… Claire would have to be a fool to not notice their blatant flirtations right in front of her.

When the farmer was honest with herself, she realized she really didn’t know that much about Gray. She thought she did at one point, but what did she really know?  He was a blacksmith’s apprentice that was trying to win the approval of his master.  He was strong and passionate; he had a short temper that made her a little nervous and excited at the same time.  Gray had a more sensitive side and enjoyed reading, but Claire never knew that part of him very well.  He had been kind and gentle with her horse, but things had gotten strange ever since that day he came over for lunging practice, as much as she hated to admit it.  There was a whole side of him that she could never get him to reveal for more than a few moments.

She wasn’t sure how she felt about this. Mournful, depressed, frustrated?  … Relieved?  The young woman shook her blonde head.  That didn’t even make sense.  But… maybe part of her never wanted to know the real Gray, only the ideal she had created of him…  and perhaps… she had pushed him away in that respect…

It was a sobering thought.

The confessional door opened, and Carter was bidding Cliff goodbye. The priest’s eyes met the farmer’s once again, and he looked a little surprised that she was still there.  Their mutual friend turned to leave and saw her sitting in the back pew.

“Hi, Claire.” He saw the anguish in her eyes and the glow from his eyes quickly faded. “Are you alright?”

She gave him a sad smile, twiddling her thumbs before staring down at her feet. “Not at the moment,” she admitted, “but it will pass.”  She hoped that she sounded more confident than she felt.  The young woman feared this feeling would never pass.  The apprentice was her first love, after all…  Her only love.

She moved her eyes back up to her friend and she noticed the young man was watching her carefully. Worry lines appeared on the Cliff’s forehead as he understood.  “Gray, huh?”  His voice was soft and gentle, but not patronizing.

It occurred to Claire that the blacksmith trainee had obviously said something about his new relationship to his roommate. She had never mentioned to Cliff that she was in love with Gray; she was surprised he had picked up on it.  Had she been that obvious?  Perhaps she was to everyone.  She nodded quickly, blinking back tears as the stoic attempts she was feebly making crumbled away.

His stance changed. Cliff took a small step closer to her and tilted his head downward so that their eyes were level.  It was a comforting feeling, but a little overwhelming for Claire at the moment – she was feeling everything too much.  “Is… there anything I can do?” He put a caring hand on her shoulder, unsure of what to say.

Claire didn’t feel ready to speak with Cliff on the subject; the wounds were too fresh. She shook her head.  “I’ll be alright.”  To be honest, she just wanted to be alone with her thoughts.  The young woman actually felt like she had been making some progress.

Cliff had picked up on her body language and allowed her a little more space. He gave her shoulder a friendly pat.  “I understand.  I will pray for you.”

“Th-thank you.” Claire didn’t expect her voice to crack as her throat tightened.

“Claire, come back here and talk with me,” Carter opened the door to the confessional, smiling warmly.

Cliff looked at the priest and back at his friend. The young man understood better than anyone that not every situation required words.  He gave the clergyman a polite nod and squeezed Claire’s hand in farewell, slipping out of the church silently. 

The young woman obeyed the priest as she dragged her feet down the aisle. She never recalled the walk being so long.  Perhaps this was the way nervous young women felt when they were getting married, she thought curiously.  Too bad she would never know that feeling, now that Gray was out of the picture.  Claire’s eyes welled up with tears.  She would never be Claire Iwata.

Carter guided her into the room with a gentle hand on her back and closed the door behind them.

It was a small room, divided with a privacy screen down the middle. Both occupants of the room knew that this side would be unnecessary today.  The other side of the confessional had a pair of matching well-worn armchairs facing each other.  It was otherwise a simple room, save a wavy stained glass window that dominated the main wall.  The afternoon sunshine poured into the room, creating a patchwork of green, pink, red, and yellow across the carpet.  Claire stared at the colors in amazement.  Beautiful things did still exist, she realized vaguely.

“Tell me of your troubles, child.”

Was it that obvious to everyone? Claire stared at the rainbow of lights playing on the floor as she remembered she was in a confessional; she didn’t know how to begin other than to grab a tissue from the box sitting beside her. 

Carter filled the silence for her. “Cliff was telling me what a great time you both had at the dance party last night.  I’m really glad you got a chance to speak with him about his hometown.”  The priest folded his hands in his lap and crossed his ankles as he got more comfortable in his armchair.

As absorbed in her anguish as she was, the young woman wasn’t blind to the fact that Carter was preparing to settle in while he expected Claire to spill her heart out to him. A side of her mind rebelled.  How could anyone possibly understand what she was going through, let alone someone who had taken a vow of celibacy?  “Cliff tells you everything, huh?” she didn’t mean to sound so cold as she stared out the window.  The bright colors no longer provided her comfort; they mocked her pain.

The priest cleared this throat, drawing the young woman’s eyes to him. The colors of the windows shifted as the wind played with the branches of the trees in the church’s courtyard.  Yellow and green splotches danced across Carter’s pale brown hair.  “He was very excited to tell me about the time you two spent together.  It means a lot to him,” the clergyman smiled at her, but his expression was serious as their eyes met.  “And you know you can tell me everything, too.”

Chapter Text

Claire found herself unable to speak the words. Saying them aloud would make them truer somehow.  And despite the fact that she had heard what both Mary and Gray had said, telling a third party seemed to hold a particular weight.  She took a deep breath as she wrung her hands nervously.  “I’ve … been in love with Gray since I moved here, but this morning he told me that he doesn’t feel the same way,” her voice cracked.  “He asked Mary to be his girlfriend last night.”

The seriousness in Carter’s face disappeared. “Ah, heartache,” his expression turned wistful.

Claire nodded. Now that he had given a word to the emotion she was feeling, it intensified and she reached for the box of tissues, dabbing at the tears that began streaming out of her eyes once more.  She was surprised she had tears left to cry.  But that word alone – heartache – hurt to hear.  A twinge of pain spread through her chest as she stifled a sob.

She was blind to the priest’s apologetic glance; he hadn’t meant to make her feel worse. The man sat in silence for a few minutes while she blew her nose and struggled to regain her composure.  She punctuated the silence with short apologies for her behavior, but he only shook his head.  “There’s nothing to apologize for, Claire.  Let it out; bottling these things in never did anyone any good.”

He was met with a loud blowing of the nose in reply. “It’s no good to keep all this in either,” she let out a congested laugh that lacked humor.  “I’m sorry I’m such a disgusting, mucus-y mess.”  Claire was certain she was what her friends in the city referred to as an ugly crier, but honestly, who looked good when their heart was stomped on?

“Please don’t apologize,” he replied calmly. Claire was hardly the first person to sob freely in this room, and he knew better than anyone that a maiden truly crying was anything but dainty.

The young woman rubbed her raw eyes and blinked as she stared at the splotches of stained glass colors on the floor. Her breathing eventually slowed down as she cleared out her airways once more.  “I want to think it was for the best,” she murmured, “but my heart won’t let me.”

“These kinds of things take time. No one expects you to be fully healed already.  You said this just happened today.  You’re speaking very rationally, and that’s why I know you’re going to be alright.”

Claire nearly deflected his compliment, almost asking him if there was a reason why she should not be thinking logically. The young woman stared at the ground.  She knew that most of her thoughts today had started out a lot more emotionally-driven.  “Perhaps the main reason I sound rational is because I’ve exhausted my emotions,” Claire admitted, giving the priest a wry smile.  “I’m still having a hard time putting things in perspective.  I might sound calm, but I feel like a mess.  I can’t tell if I’m angry or sad…”

… Or relieved. She kept this last thought to herself.

“There’s no reason why you can’t feel all those things at once. It’s natural.  You lost something today, and grieving is how we deal with it.”

The notion that she had suffered a loss caused a dagger of anguish to strike her heart. “I-I lost… m-my hope…” she burst into tears, burying her face with her hands in shame at her lack of control over her emotions, “that we’d ever be happy together!” she finished with a sob, reaching for more tissues.  “I… I hate… that I’m having such a hard time with this… accepting it, I mean.”

“Accepting something is the final step of the grieving process. It takes time for your heart to work through these emotions.  Again, no one is expecting you to be fine right now.”

“I… told them both… Mary and Gray… it would take time for me… to get over…”

“And that’s okay,” Carter replied, quietly waiting for her to continue.

“I wonder if he’s always had a thing for her…” she mused aloud as she blew her nose.  “I wonder just how much effort and time I have wasted…”

The priest frowned; this conversation was headed in a direction that wasn’t particularly healthy. “I don’t think it helps to dwell and wonder on such things.  But, for what it is worth, Gray moved to this town a few years ago and wasn’t the most social person you’d meet.  But he started going to the library and became friends with Mary.  After that, he has seemed much happier.  He was a very angry person when he first moved into town, and spending time with her seems to have helped mellow him out quite a bit.”

Strangely enough, Carter’s story made Claire’s heart hurt a little less. Even she had to admit that the two got along well and that they were good for each other, at least as friends.  “I guess I knew that something was going on between the two when I first met them, but I didn’t want to admit it to myself.  It seems I wasn’t meant to find someone here, I suppose,” she added a little sadly with a wistful sigh as she dabbed at the corners of her eyes with a tissue.

She was in so much pain right now that she couldn’t think about the future. Carter had been there himself, after all, back in his bachelor days before becoming a priest.  A broken heart took time to mend, and getting through that period of heartache was difficult enough without planning for what was to come.  “Just because things didn’t work out with Gray doesn’t mean you will be alone forever,” Carter comforted the young woman.

Claire frowned. Her heart ached and she was so tired.  “I honestly don’t know if I have the heart for love anymore.”  The young woman’s voice cracked at the end of her sentence.  If Gray wasn’t meant for her, then no one was.

Carter smiled. The young woman had much to learn.  “But Claire, don’t you see?  You’re surrounded by love.  What about your friends?  What about Karen, Ann, and Cliff?”

The farmer recalled the smiles she had received from her friends last night, and how loved she had felt. Had that really just been yesterday?  It felt like weeks ago…  Her heart had been full to bursting at the time; today it felt empty.  She no longer had the capacity to understand anything about love, except for the fact that she wasn’t receiving any of it from Gray.

“And I know that I wasn’t the only one to check on you when you got sick earlier this season,” the priest continued. “There are a lot of people that care about you.  You are loved by a lot of people.”  Surely the farmer had to realize that she had become an important part of the community and many looked up to her.  People admired her hard work ethic and the life she brought back to the struggling village.  When Popuri stopped by on Sundays, she occasionally would mention how Karen had mellowed out due to the farmer’s influence.  Jeff, the grocery store owner, seemed less stressed out now that he had a steady paying customer.  And Cliff… well, words couldn’t do justice for the positive change the priest had seen in this parishioner – no – this good friend of his.

The young woman felt a wave of frustration wash over her. She was aware that the clergyman was attempting to comfort her, but he was taking the word love too generally.  Of course she knew she was loved, but that hadn’t been what she really meant.  Claire sighed.  “I know what you’re saying, but I’m talking about romantic love,” she stammered, embarrassed she had to spell it out loud for him.  “I’ve never pictured myself with anyone other than Gray, and now that he’s taken….”  She realized how immature and ungrateful she sounded and she stopped herself.

Carter did not judge. “In the time we’ve known each other, I’ve seen you grow up a lot.  The Harvest Goddess called you to this town for a reason.  So maybe you weren’t meant to be with Gray.  That doesn’t mean that your time in Mineral Town has been wasted.  You don’t have to go looking for romantic love; it will come to you when the time is right, and now that you’ve had this experience you’ll be better able to handle it when it does.  You have accomplished so much with the support of those around you, and you shouldn’t let one sour experience ruin the whole thing for you.  Please, don’t let the news of Gray and Mary’s new relationship tarnish the wonderful memories you made last night with your friends.”

He was right. Today was a nightmare, but that didn’t mean that yesterday was… and maybe tomorrow would be a little easier, too.  Claire allowed a small smile to creep across her lips.  “I got to dance with Saibara last night.”  The strain began to fade from her voice while she remembered the old man’s cackles as he danced side by side with her the previous evening.

“You did?” The priest encouraged her with a gentle yet eager voice as he leaned forward in his chair.

“Yes. He was very kind to me,” she said, recalling the blacksmith’s patience in teaching her.  “He said that with enough spirit, you can do anything.”

The thought of the two dancing together was an entertaining one; the priest almost regretted not showing up for the social event. “He is right, you know,” Carter laughed.  “And Cliff said that you are a pretty good dancer.”

“He’s too kind,” Claire chuckled softly as she dismissed this with the wave of a hand, “I just had very patient dance partners. Now… Cliff is an excellent dancer.  He told me how his family used to lead off in the music festivals at his hometown,” Claire played with a lock of her long, blonde hair in her fingers as she studied the colorful patterns on the carpet.  “It was a bit surprising to learn that about him; it seems he has a few hidden talents.”

Carter let out a friendly laugh. “Yes, he’s definitely an interesting person…”

Claire nodded. “It was fun learning new dances and hearing new songs,” she continued as she crossed her legs and got more comfortable in her armchair.  “I really enjoyed seeing everyone together having a good time.  I am very eager to meet up with Cliff again sometime and learn more about him, but today…”  Her voice faded as she uncrossed her legs and slouched a bit in her chair, the memory of her heartache crashing around her.

The priest gave her a sad smile as he studied the pain in her eyes. “You heart needs a break today, huh?  It’s okay to feel sad about it, Claire.  Give yourself the time you need to heal, but do not dwell on the pain.  Be sure to spend time with your friends; their love will help you heal faster.”  His soothing voice eased the young woman’s heart a bit.

Claire nodded, and was surprised she didn’t feel like crying. Her mind felt a little less foggy, and she mulled over the day’s events in her head.  While the farmer felt that she had been wronged, she realized that she was not exactly innocent herself.  A pang of guilt rose in her stomach as she remembered her unkind thoughts and attitude toward Mary the night before.  “I would like to make a confession while I am here as well.”

“Of course, my child.” He folded his hands in his lap and bowed his head as he was wont to do when he heard those words.

“I… I’ve been mean toward Mary…  I know that I’ve been cold toward her when she did not deserve it, and I know I’ve been unkind towards others as well,” she recalled to him the times that she brushed off Cliff when Gray was in the same room.

“We often become blinded when we are infatuated or we feel threatened. The Harvest Goddess can see that and she forgives you.  It is important though that you don’t let your desire for love cause pain to another.”  He gave her a warm, earnest gaze as he twiddled his thumbs.

Infatuated? The young woman frowned.  Surely Carter didn’t understand what her heart was going through if he was going to use that word to describe it.  This had been love!  Perhaps he had forgotten what it felt like since he took the vow to become a priest.  She decided to let this line slide; the young woman wanted to focus on their conversation and where it was headed.  “I… I told Mary it might take a while for me to want to hang out with her again.”

The clergyman’s face lit up as he heard this news. He straightened his posture a bit and gave Claire a smile.  “I’m impressed at how honestly and responsibly you handled the situation,” Carter commented, smoothing out the wrinkles in his robes.  “I have listened to your confessions over these past two seasons and I can see your heart maturing, Claire.  You are developing into a very sensitive and caring young lady; you feel your emotions very deeply.  I know that someday, when the time is right, you will find someone of your own that will make you very happy.”

She knew that this last remark was one that the priest probably felt obligated to say to any heartbroken person who came seeking his counsel. “I don’t want to worry about that right now,” a smile tugged at Claire’s lips as she stood up, “But I do feel a bit better after talking to you.”

“Things will get better. Remember, Claire, bad times are just times that are bad.  The Harvest Goddess has a lot in store for you here in Mineral Town.”  He gave her a nod of encouragement.

“Thank you, Carter,” she turned to leave. Her heart felt a little less empty, but it still hurt.