Other [FanFic] Stages (Ch.23 - Apr. 28)

Discussion in 'Fan Works' started by Kid Absurdity, Jul 18, 2016.

  1. Risukage

    Risukage Existential Complex

    I think we all can agree that writing for Sam is a complete delight. :)
     
      Alkanthe likes this.
    • Kid Absurdity

      Kid Absurdity Starship Captain


      We're back with another installment. The pacing of the story continues a bit more slowly than I expected but with a justifiable slowdown for tender juicy character development. So enjoy!




      The abruptness of the breakup threw Archie off almost as much as the reason for it. Sure, he recognized the inherent problems of the difference between his position in life and Sandy’s, and their diverging paths, and he had been willing to make compromises, even if it wasn’t to go as far as she wanted. That much, he could grasp, and he could understand why she may not want to go along for that journey with him, though it didn’t seem to him that they really tried substantially to work it out, so soon after the issues had been brought to the fore. He was disappointed about that. That she would dump him to start with Elliott, knowing full well his tendencies, he could not understand on a number of levels. She was too proud for that, for one thing. She must have thought there was something different between herself and Elliott than there was between Leah and Elliott. Maybe the trusting nature that opened Leah up to Elliott’s abusive behaviour was simply less of a factor. Maybe she thought she could be the one to wrap him around her finger. Maybe it was a lot of possibilities, but thinking about them gave Archie a headache and didn’t make him feel any better emotionally either. And while he fumed about it, he went about his farm tasks mechanically, out of a sense of responsibility to Pierre as much as, if not more so than, out of a drive for profit or actually feeling like doing them.

      It was impressive enough that the town didn’t know about those events for over a week. Leah and Archie kept to themselves, and Elliott was either writing or off to the desert early in the morning – Archie didn’t care which, but without all of the parties being especially communicative, the town knew something had happened, but not what. One of those mornings, a rainy one demanding less farm work, he was feeling too agitated to fish, like a bundle of aggression looking for a fight. Without having rocks left to break on the farm, he decided he might as well break some of the ones in the mines until he felt better. He took his bag and his pickaxe and walked up to the adventurer’s guild, to check in with Marlon, like he’d been told to.

      The wizened adventurer seemed a bit startled by the bell on his door ringing when Archie opened it, but the surprise seemed to be a pleasant one as he had a roaring laugh about Archie’s sabotage at the Harvest Fair. Archie managed a small smile at that before telling him that he’d finally decided to do some mining.

      “Glad you remembered to stop in. You’re a bit under-equipped,” Marlon told him.

      “What am I missing?” Archie asked.

      “A weapon and some food, by the looks. Give me a minute.” He went rummaging through a large wooden footlocker, pulling out a wooden sword, before also picking up a couple of pieces of jerky from his desk. “With the slimes and bats and whatnot, it’s dangerous to go unarmed. Here, take this. They hassle you, just bop them, and let me know how many of what you clear out.”

      “Sounds great,” Archie replied, “thanks.”

      Marlon didn’t really sense much amiss with Archie since they’d only had very brief conversations, but he figured he’d follow the farmer down for his first mining session, just to make sure nothing went amiss. It didn’t take him long to see that something was troubling him; since the first few swings of his pickaxe were far more aggressive than they needed to be to break those rocks. It seemed like Archie was trying to pulverize them into a fine gray mist, muttering his frustrations aloud to himself. The rhythmic smashing of the rocks attracted one of the slimes that Marlon had mentioned, and it was squelching its way up toward Archie from the side, on the fringes of his peripheral vision. He raised his pick for another swing at the outcrop of rock has was excavating, when the slime suddenly launched itself off the cave floor and into his outstretched arm, startling him into pivoting away from the rock and jolting the pickaxe off the ground, sending it off on a couple of wild bounces. His arm hurt, and he felt sluggish and weak compared to moments before. Using his other arm, he wrenched the slime off and grabbed the sword, slicing at the slime wildly. He had missed a swing and the slime lunged again, bouncing off of his pants, leaving a trail of ooze down his shin. Eventually, forcing himself to calm down a little and stay on task, he caught the slime with an underhand swing as it leapt at his legs again, slicing it clean in half. He recovered his pickaxe and stood over the dead slime, wondering what the hell it actually was. He’d never seen anything like it.

      “Archie.”

      The farmer whirled at his name being called, and saw Marlon standing a short distance away. “You can take your frustrations out on the rocks, but you need to keep a clear head down here or you can get very badly hurt. Let’s go together for a bit.”

      Archie didn’t necessarily want the company, but he also didn’t want to get slimed to death so they walked together through a few floors of the mine. Marlon pointed out particular semi-precious stones and rock formations, and Archie hit them. Marlon pointed out different kinds of living hazards, and Archie hit them until Marlon also pointed out where to hit them; at which point Archie still hit them, just roughly in the specified location. All the hitting did gradually tire Archie out, and he sat down on a rock to offer Marlon some jerky when he felt a sudden pinching on his posterior and leapt up with a start. He had sat directly on a rather offended cave crab. Marlon howled with laughter.

      “Oh, and pay attention down here, Archie. No ifs, ands, or butts.”

      Archie rolled his eyes and they kept on for a while longer. He’d filled his bag with ores and semi-precious stones, and his arms ached like back at the beginning of his farming career. He didn’t necessarily feel that much better, emotionally, rather, he was approaching being too tired to be aggressive. He suggested to Marlon that they return to the surface.

      “If we go down one more from here, we can ride the elevator back,” the adventurer suggested. Archie kept at his search for the ladder down amid rock growths and undergrowth, finally finding it. “After you,” Marlon offered.

      Archie eased his way down the ladder, arms screaming only to find a tiny area, hardly excavated to mine at all, about the size of a small room, with an elevator stop and, curiously, a comically oversized treasure chest in the middle of the room that he just had to try to open. The lid yielded pretty easily, and he was surprised to find, of all things, a pair of leather desert boots, in his size, that might even be suitable for lighter work on the farm, while also being more comfortable in the mines.

      “Hey Marlon!” He called up the ladder. “Did you put this here?”

      Marlon scrambled down to look at what Archie was referring to. “Nope. Nice boots, though.”

      Archie precariously put the boots into his already bulging backpack and pressed the button to call the elevator. That was when Marlon decided to ask what was on his mind.

      “Relationship trouble,” Archie said simply, not opting to go into the wider details.

      “You’ll pull through,” Marlon said sympathetically. Then he chuckled. “If your dignity can survive that rock crab, it can survive that.”

      Archie returned to the mines the next few days after that first outing when his farm chores were finished, skipping the Friday evening at the saloon. No one other than Marlon and Gil saw much of him, save for isolated contact on the walk up, or when he bought groceries, and he was distant with everyone until the Sunday, when he walked out of the mine toward 11 at night, covered in bruises, scratches, mud, coal dust, small lacerations, and monster guts, to find Sebastian standing near the exit by the mountain lake, smoking a cigarette. Archie stopped in his tracks as Sebastian looked him up and down.

      Sebastian took a long drag from his cigarette. “Feeling better?”

      Archie wasn’t sure he wanted to have the conversation that he thought was coming, but since it seemed so rare that Sebastian instigated them, he decided, for better or worse, to go along with it. “Not really.”

      Sebastian nodded taking a relaxed breath and cycling the smoke from his lungs. “Sorry to hear it.” He pointed at Archie’s bag. “You changing careers?”

      “Taking up a new hobby, though I thought monster slaying and smashing rocks would be more cathartic.”

      He nodded again. “On Friday, when we realized you weren’t coming to the saloon, I thought about something you told me a while back.”

      Archie’s curiosity was piqued. “And that was?”

      Sebastian took another drag. “That people can choose to be alone, or they can choose to be alone together. I thought you might appreciate knowing you have both choices too.”

      Archie stood there, taking his own supposed wisdom back in, turning it over in his own mind, and giving some thought to what he wanted beyond the intensity of emotion telling him to vent his aggression until he could control it. “I do appreciate that,” he croaked out, eventually.

      “You want to talk about it?”

      “No, but I know I should,” Archie told him. “I’m trying to figure out where I should even start.”

      Sebastian offered him a cigarette and Archie declined. “The beginning works for me. I know Leah’s worked up because Elliott’s dumped her again, but not what your story is, if that helps you figure out where it is.”

      Archie found his way to a nearby tree and sat down, leaning back against its trunk. “Leah had asked me and Sandy to go on a double-date with her and Elliott, and for me to tell her whether I thought Elliott would stick to it this time. It was a disaster.”

      Sebastian frowned. “How come?”

      Archie shrugged in vexation. “It seemed like everything that could have gone wrong did. We’d all been talking about the desert when Sandy and Elliott got wrapped up in a conversation of their own, and the whole double-date dynamic fell apart. Both Leah and Elliott were excited to go see more of the desert, get inspired, all that jazz. I warned Leah that if Elliott went off to visit the desert without her, to run like hell.”

      “And he did?”

      “Yeah, he snuck off on the first bus the day of the Harvest Fair, and he was on the last one back. I was so dismayed for Leah when we saw him step down off that bus.”

      Sebastian winced. “But what about you?” he asked.

      He explained how he left Leah and Elliott at the bus stop to sort their relationship out, and how Leah cut through the farm sobbing on her way back home, the frustration in his voice mounting steadily. “He straight-up dumped her, said he’d found another woman in the desert he’d be pursuing. I figured Sandy had introduced him to someone, the next morning I found out it was actually her he was talking about when she dumped me. It’s not like we didn’t have problems, but I thought we could try solving them first, y’know?”

      Sebastian nodded, puffing out a smoke ring before putting the cigarette out. “She thought you couldn’t?”

      Archie nodded. “Sort of, but she said she didn’t want to anyway. She wants someone to live with her out in the desert, and I don’t want to commute to the farm every day on top of working the long hours, stuff like that.”

      “Thought she’d cave and move here?”

      “I wishfully hoped, but I didn’t give it that much thought at all. It was too early. Now that I think of it, I don’t think Elliott would rush to move either, but I could be wrong.”

      “Yeah, it seems like it’s been longer than it actually was. Not even a year yet, but most of it with her.”

      “There’s also the fact that we’re both headstrong, stubborn people, and I think that suits me better than it does her.”

      “Huh?”

      “She’d challenge me on things all the time, and I was excited to think it over, pick and choose, and be better.”

      “And her?”

      “She’s comfortable where and how she is. Or she was. I’d like to presume she isn’t anymore, given the circumstances, but that’s wishful thinking. My sister thought that’d be an issue eventually.”

      “Don’t you just hate sisters being right all the time?” Sebastian asked, a bit of strain in his own voice for the first time.

      “Yeah, buddy, though at least she might be right about me finally being able to succeed at something.”

      Sebastian paused a while before answering. “I hope she’s right. You’re well enough suited to the place.”

      Archie picked up on it. “I appreciate that, but I’m more concerned about you not feeling like a success right now.”

      Sebastian sighed. “It’s not that, I’m succeeding somewhat with programming, just not as fast as I’d like. It’s rough in the house, and part of it’s because she’s succeeding so much. I want out.”

      “I’d have thought she’d be starting university this fall, she’d be out of the house, and what then?”

      “Spring term, maybe? Maybe she’ll do online classes for a bit to save the family some money? I don’t know. And it’d probably be even more awkward with just the three of us in there. If there’s one thing I’m grateful to Maru for, it’s keeping Demetrius too busy with hands-on parenting to bother me.”

      “Huh.” Archie said, non-committal. “You’ll succeed, just differently, and between you and me, I think it’ll take you out of this town, same as Abigail.”

      “Why same as her?” Sebastian asked, a bit confused.

      “She’s got bigger dreams than taking over the store, not that Pierre would give her any responsibility anyway. By the way, Pierre said you got into character a bit more than I’d have guessed on that prank we pulled on him.”

      Sebastian rolled his eyes. “I don’t know that we see each other that way, but it made the wait in the forest more bearable. Though, we were talking about you.”

      “I don’t feel good, man, if I wasn’t smashing rocks and cave creatures, I’d have probably gone spoiling for a fight with Elliott by now.”

      Sebastian shook his head. “I don’t think so, besides, even if you didn’t realize it, turns out you just dodged a bullet, and each of them stepped into one.”

      “You think?” Archie asked. He could have said it in a viciously sarcastic way, but was surprisingly earnest about it.

      “I’ve seen and heard enough to know that Elliott has no idea how to treat women, and that Sandy’s judgment is awful. You do the math.”

      The beginnings of a smirk started to crease Archie’s face. “I’m bad at math. Can I foist it off on Maru?”

      Sebastian laughed dryly. “So you ready to get back to being your chipper old self?”

      Archie thought briefly about it. “I’m getting there. Thanks.”

      “Didn’t happen to find a piece of jade in there, did you?” Sebastian gestured at Archie’s backpack.

      “I did. Didn’t Maru give you the one you were looking for ages ago?”

      Sebastian laughed. “Of course not.”

      Archie fumbled around in the pack and tossed Sebastian the stone. “Least I could do, friend.”

      “Cheers,” Sebastian replied, before wishing Archie a good night and walking back toward his house, tossing the stone from hand to hand, and looking it over from all angles.

      Archie returned to his feeling better for having the conversation. On the Friday of that week, a couple of days before Spirit’s Eve, when he showed his face at the saloon, people knew something had happened, and maybe even the specifics of what, but didn’t give him any hell over it. He placed his meal order with a very apologetic Emily, who gave him his first beer on the house.

      “I’m so sorry, Archie! I never would have expected that from her,” she told him.

      While Emily was a cause of their relationship, Archie hardly held that against her. “It was a big surprise for everyone involved, I think, but don’t worry about it. Eventually I’ll hope she’s happier and I’ll know that I am, but I enjoyed the good times. I’m still glad you threw her my way at the Flower Dance.”

      “Speaking of, I wonder if she’s going to come to next year’s,” Emily started, before catching herself. “Uh, sorry. That’s probably not what you wanted to think about right now.”

      “If she does, she does. I’ll have a whole winter to cool off. Hah. Winter. Cold. Ingenious.”

      He checked in with Leah while he waited for his food to arrive. He wanted to make sure she was OK, but also to give her some space since he also felt partly responsible for what had happened.

      “How’re you doing?” he asked.

      “I’ve been better, but I was doing worse the last few days,” she said. “I stayed at home a lot, finally started putting some of that emotion into art yesterday, then decided I’d still rather spend my Friday nights out. How about you?”

      Archie shrugged. “It’s pretty similar. The last few days I’d finish my farm chores and stay in the mines ‘til well past dark, taking my frustration out on the rocks. I probably could have kept up with that if I didn’t run into Sebastian afterward the other day. Say what you will about him, but they guy’s a grounding influence.”

      Leah seemed a bit surprised. “He seems so uptight a lot of the time.”

      “He sort of is. He’s on edge most of the time, but it makes him pretty perceptive. I’m glad you’re – we’re – doing better. Enjoy your meal.” He started walking off toward another table to set himself up to eat.

      “You too, Archie,” she replied.

      Spirit’s Eve came and went, and the year gave way to the onset of winter – the part of the year Archie had the least farming to do. He spent a lot of the winter mining, building more lean muscle and endurance, still going to the saloon on Fridays, still a bit withdrawn compared to his usual self. When taking a trip to Clint’s to upgrade his pickaxe, he caught himself wondering whether this was his usual self and his time with Sandy was the happy anomaly. He felt the sting of missing her in the circumstances.

      Deeper down the mine, he had found some natural wonders that most of the town, for lack of interest in what lay underground, probably had never set eyes on. The mineshaft snaked out into a cavern with a vast underground lake, and deeper still, where the temperature of the caverns defied nature, another cave contained a partially frozen lake. He had been in no mood for fishing in that period, especially in the windy winter outdoors, but toward the middle of the winter, he sunk almost whole day into fishing in the underground lake, surprising Marlon when he showed off his haul of fish rather than minerals, and Willy when he sold them on to him.

      One of the things Archie had been looking forward to in the winter was going vacationing with Sandy. They never really made a plan, but he imagined they’d go from the desert out past Zuzu City and beyond, but with the borders still largely closed due to the war, the destination would have had to be in the Republic. With that off the table, Archie had to figure out how to spend what remained of the winter before the spring thaws came and a huge amount of time would go into getting the farm and the distribution company up and running. He could go back home to Gallibrand City, on the same buses that took him here, and visit his family, but then he quickly thought about how long it had been since anyone other than Maeve had been up to Pelican Town. He quickly dashed off the text messages inviting them to celebrate the Feast of the Winter Star at his house. They’d just have to bring their own air mattresses and blankets. He’d sneak a trip to the city in before the New Year - and maybe invite his friends for a party to usher in the New Year and the anniversary of his move.



      Compressed time is going to occur much more as we move into Year 2, focusing on some larger events in character backstories and development in the plot.

      4000 words of the next chapter are drafted. I'm not sure where to end that and what the quality is yet, but I do have some writing mojo, even though that promises to be at least slightly interrupted with family matters (good and bad) and work ones (also good and bad). Thanks for keepin' on reading as I try to move this story toward it's conclusion, whatever and whenever that may be.
       
        Last edited: Feb 24, 2017
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      • Kid Absurdity

        Kid Absurdity Starship Captain


        I actually had this chapter written for a while and ready for earlier release, but got stalled out with some stuff on Chapter 21 that I wanted to resolve first + RL stuff. Whoops. The Junimos work in mysterious ways.




        On one of his walks up to the mines, Archie detoured from his usual route to pay a visit to the Community Centre, for the first time he’d gone since the spring. He was largely over the agonizing questions of free will since his sister’s visit, but had contented himself with acting in what he guessed was the town’s benefit. He hadn’t thought to check in with them to see how he was actually doing on that, a key point since it was set to be tied to his farm’s success, with the Flower Dance less than a season away. Before he even got to the building, he was surprised by seeing Haley in a very fashionable winter jacket, photographing snow-topped branches, the snow-topped community centre, and snow-topped playground equipment. He’d rarely seen Haley much at all, and certainly not doing anything creative aside from coming up with new ways to whine about things, so he was intrigued and greeted her.

        She was a bit apprehensive, but willing to go along with the conversation. Apparently nearly a whole year was enough time for her to cool down over the Flower Dance. “Hi Archie, you’re looking better,” she said, gesturing to his winter parka, or maybe talking about him in general.

        “And you’re looking more interesting than I’ve ever seen you,” he said, pointing to the camera. “I didn’t know you were interested in photography.”

        Haley smiled an actually sincere smile. “Oh, yeah! Everyone thinks, ‘oh, Haley is going to go off and be a model…’” she began, leaving Archie unsure whether anyone had ever thought that at all. “… and I’d do it for a while, but I’d much rather be able to be a good fashion photographer.”

        To Archie, that made a lot of sense, and he said as much, though he added that the landscape photos she was taking were pretty far away from fashion portraiture.

        “Yes, duh, but it lets me work on lighting and technique and composition. But wait! I can take some photos of you… if it isn’t going to hold you up. What are you doing up here anyway?”

        Archie didn’t know where to begin explaining. “I wanted to stop at the Community Centre on my way up to the mines.”

        Haley’s face scrunched up a bit. “That abandoned rat-hole? You’re even stranger than I thought.”

        “You can take some photos in there if you like - capture some rural decay on film.”

        Haley thought it over. “That could be good for a portfolio,” she decided.

        Archie opened up the front door of the Community Centre and stepped inside. In the depths of winter, it smelled less of freshly upturned earth, but a few steps in, Archie quickly realized that the place had changed since he was last there. The interior walls were no longer falling apart, though the wallpaper looked like it could use some work. The kitchen and the art room had been tidied up, and he looked down to see that he was standing on freshly timbered floors. Had Robin come through in the past seasons?

        Haley followed Archie in, not having a recent reference point for his confusion about the improved state of the building. She started looking around in a mix of apprehension and excitement.

        “Mind if I look around?” she asked.

        “Go ahead. Could you keep it to half an hour or so, though? I just remembered I have to speak with Robin today.”

        Haley readily agreed and took off to photograph various corners of the Community Centre, while Archie unzipped his coat and took a seat by the Junimo hut. “How am I doing, little guys?” he asked softly, bordering on a whisper. To his surprise, the squeaking and honking and squonking noises began to issue forth from the hut building into a cacophonous, discordant din that only he could hear. Shortly thereafter, another sigiled scroll came shooting out of the door of the hut, landing in front of him. He picked it up and pocketed it. He couldn’t read it, but he wasn’t sure he was living up to their expectations. “I’ll try harder,” he said. The Junimos had nothing to say in reply.

        Haley wrapped up only a few minutes later than Archie would have liked, rejoining him at the entrance. “Like, parts of it are pretty run down but it’s really not in as bad shape as people said.”

        “I think Robin may have done some work on it. The floors look brand new.”

        “But why?” Haley asked.

        “Maybe she got really bored,” Archie suggested. “Anyway, I also feel bad that we got off to a really awful start this year, and that I just sat on it. I’m planning to host a New Year party, if you’d like to join us.”

        “Who else is going?” she asked.

        “I haven’t invited anyone else yet. Pretty much everyone around our age except Elliott and Shane.”

        “I don’t get along very well with most of them,” Haley said, flatly.

        “I know that, but you and Alex are both welcome anyway.”

        She perked up a bit at that. “I’ll consider it, and I’ll let you know. Thanks.”

        “You’re welcome.”

        Their rapprochement begun, Haley stayed in the playground a while longer, snapping snow-topped exteriors, while Archie pressed on up into the mountains to Robin’s shop. Robin looked surprised to see him as he kicked the snow off his boots before walking through the door. “Archie, what can I do for you?”

        Archie greeted her warmly. “I’ve got a question for you and an invitation for your kids, if they’re around.”

        Robin put her palms on her countertop. “Fire away.”

        “Did you redo the floors of the Community Centre in the last few months?”

        Robin shook her head in bewilderment. “No. I didn’t think anyone’s been in there this year. Are the floors fixed?”

        Archie was also confused. “Yeah, good as new.”

        They both thought that was strange. “What are you inviting my children to?” Robin asked.

        “A New Year’s party. I was thinking of nicking back to the city for one, but decided to host something instead.”

        Robin considered that. “How lovely, just don’t let them get completely wasted.”

        “If they decide to come, sure. Are they around?”

        Separately, Archie invited them both, not hiding the fact that he was inviting both of them. He was a bit distracted by the mystery of the Community Centre’s floors while doing it. Maru was enthusiastic, since there hadn’t really been any house parties in the whole of the year, and Sebastian thought it’d be a nice change of pace, though he wasn’t entirely thrilled that Maru would be there.

        Instead of going mining, he doubled back home to try putting the Junimo scroll inside of the book of field notes again, to get a translation. It didn’t work, so he started trudging toward the Wizard’s tower in search of greater insight when he ran into Leah by the river outside her cottage, doing some fishing. He told her he was off to see the wizard and asked if she’d like to join him for the walk. She declined, but mentioned he could stop by on his way back to see some of the art she was working on. He accepted, and invited her to the New Year’s party, which she sounded excited about, before heading off into the forest. This part of the forest was even more scenic than the wooded parts of the mountain, though the frozen lake would have been more visually impressive without the layer of snow obscuring the ice. The snow here was nearly pristine, with so few people going out the Wizard’s way. He made his way to the tower, drew back his hand to knock on the door, which, like the first time he visited, startled him by opening before his fist made contact with it. The Wizard and a surprised-looking Abigail stared back at him from the tower’s foyer, as Archie stepped inside.

        “I’m sorry to interrupt,” he said.

        “It’s cool,” Abigail said with a slight smile, short-circuiting the Wizard’s grandiloquent speech before it occurred.

        “What brings you here, Archie?” The wizard asked.

        “I have two questions for you, one of which I’m comfortable with Abigail knowing the answer to.”

        The wizard nodded, and Abigail’s smile widened, though she was still concerned about the other question. “Go on.”

        “The floors of the Community Centre were recently re-done, but not by Robin. Do you know who might have done that?”

        “Were they? Excuse me a moment, I’ll go see for myself,” and with that, the Wizard disappeared in a flash of purple and golden light.

        With Archie and Abigail left alone, it would have quickly turned to small talk but for the mystery evoking speculation. Lewis? A secret Joja Mart marketing initiative? The Junimos? No one knew, but they were very curious.

        “Indeed they were. I don’t know for certain yet, but I’ll let you know when I do find out. Your second question?”

        “What does this say?” Archie asked, pulling out the new Junimo scroll.”

        “Last time you paid me in purple mushrooms, what will it be this time, Archie?”

        “I’ve been mining a lot lately. Any minerals you’d want?”

        Abigail seemed excited at Archie’s response, while the Wizard pondered it over. “Two Earth Crystals will suffice,” he offered.

        “It’s a deal. I don’t have them on hand, but I’ll bring them by when the translation is ready. Just send me a note like last time.”

        “So be it,” the Wizard said, taking the scroll and setting it down on his table. “Abigail was just telling me about you sabotaging her father’s display. It was a fine distraction, playing in a number of his anxieties. Though, in the future, I’d prefer you keep me out of it. Call it a small favour for services rendered.”

        Archie shifted uncomfortably, but agreed. Sure, some of it was Sam’s idea, but the story had spread and trying to shift the blame was hardly likely to work with the Wizard. “I’ll leave you two to it?”

        “We were just wrapping up anyway,” Abigail volunteered. “We can walk back together.” Archie assented.

        Not long after they left the Wizard’s Tower, Archie asked her how her father was doing. As it turned out, he was behaving differently in some ways. On its own, being the butt of Archie’s mutually destructive prank, in full view of the town, would have only made Pierre angry at his business partner, but seeing the rest of the town reveling in his getting knocked down a peg made him reconsider his haughty attitude. He was still unwilling to give Abigail much responsibility around the store, but the self-examination was doing him some good, Abigail thought. As they reached Leah’s, Archie mentioned she’d invited him to see some of the art she was working on.

        Abigail nodded, preparing to walk the rest of the way home alone. “You treat her nicely, Archie.”

        Archie chuckled. “I will. She’s still stinging, and Elliott’s true self coming to the light’s only made me more determined not to do anything approaching that.”

        “She deserves someone like you, Archie.”

        “She deserves to be ready to think about relationships again, and so do I, for that matter, but thanks. By the way, see you at the New Year’s party…”

        “…What New Year’s Party?” she interjected in a blaze of excitement.

        “The one I’m hosting. I’ll take your enthusiasm as a yes?”

        She nodded eagerly and started bounding off toward her home, while Archie approached Leah’s cabin tentatively. Abigail had sowed the twin seeds of hope and doubt in his mind, as much as he didn’t much want to think about pursuing anyone at quite that moment. But if he were to, he could see himself doing far worse than Leah. He knocked on the door, and Leah let him in. He kicked off his boots and was surprised to see her cabin in a much more orderly state than the last time he was in it. Rather than the brushes and canvasses strewn about, everything art-related was much more narrowly focused in one area of her living room, toward the window, where there was one easel with a painting on it, and one wooden sculpture.

        “It looks different in here,” Archie said.

        “Oh. Yeah,” Leah answered. “A couple of days after the Harvest Fair I got a call from my other jerk ex. I was so angry while stewing in here that I ended up cleaning the entire place after throwing my phone at a wall” she said, gesturing to a dent in the wallpaper, a ding on the wall, and the fractured remains of a landline telephone that were the exception to her cleaning the entire place.

        “That’s some timing,” Archie said.

        “It’s almost uncanny. Any turbulent or stressful time in my life, there he is. Any time I’m happier than usual, there he is. It’s aggravating.”

        “I’m sorry to hear it.”

        There was an awkward lull in the conversation that seemed like a lot was being left unsaid on both sides, before Leah ushered Archie toward the sculpture and the painting. The sculpture was hard for Archie to place an analogous shape too, in spite of it being simple. It looked like a loose knot; or a loop of rope, with a rounded base and two curved arcs reaching in opposite directions, like shoelaces. It looked like it should roll off of the stand it was on, surprising Leah when he tried to start it rolling before saying anything about it.

        “It’s screwed in to the stand,” she offered.

        “I can see that,” he said, peeking under the sculpture. “Though you hid it very well, I can’t see it from here.”

        “What do you think?”

        “I like it, though I’m not completely sure why,” he said. Leah looked at him expectantly and told him to go on. “It can mean a lot of things. And maybe it’s the timing, but what I’m pretty overwhelmingly getting from it, is that that sculpture is telling me to hold on loosely to things, beliefs, people.”

        Leah looked at him quizzically. “Can you explain that a bit?”

        Archie tapped on one of the arcs, extending from the base. “Sure. That’s a person. Or a thing, whatever.” He slid his hand along it, tracing the path outward, past the other arc running in parallel. “So’s that one,” he said, tapping the other one. “They’re going in different, opposite directions, unless…” he started retracing them back the other way, toward the centre at the base of the sculpture. “… unless they were moving inward all along. If you tightened that shape any further, you would have forced them inward.” He had started blushing, not entirely satisfied with the spaciness he perceived in his explanation.

        His embarrassment didn’t register with Leah. “That’s surprisingly close to what I was going for with that,” she told him. He asked her what she was going for with it, but she deferred, saying that answer was for another conversation. Archie wasn’t entirely satisfied, but neither did he want to press the issue. He turned his attention to the painting itself, an abstract piece in blacks, crimsons, violets that to Archie’s mind, was a chaotic roil of colour and emotion alike. He gazed at the painting and suddenly felt as though the canvas was moving underneath the paint. He felt nauseous and uncomfortable, even stagger-stepping as he wrenched his gaze away from the canvas.

        “Whoa,” he said. “That was one of the strangest art experiences I’ve ever had.”

        “I was in a state when I painted that.” Leah replied, and Archie couldn’t tell whether excitement or guilt was predominant in her tone.

        “I think I could feel it looking at it. It was not comfortable, but it’s impressive how much range your art has. You should exhibit some of it during the new year.”

        “I don’t know…” she started to tell him, her voice quivering.

        “I understand, and I know how hard it is to put yourself and your work out there – not as well as you do, but I get it. I believe in you, I believe in your art, and I believe it’ll be good for you to do it.”

        Leah seemed to consider which objection to bring to bear, but simply asked, “Good?”

        “Yeah, good.” Archie started, as if the moral and ethical dimension of having the art show was clear as day. “And for a lot of reasons – it’ll be good for you to get your talent recognized, to launch your career, to rebuild your confidence, and to show Elliott what an actual artist looks like. It’ll be good for the town to have something that isn’t a festival on the social calendar.”

        “And how’s it good for you, Archie?” Leah asked with wearied skepticism.

        Archie felt a bit dejected that Leah would ask him that, as if he were manipulating her, though he realized how difficult things must have been for her, with her recent troubles caused by yet another manipulative man in her life. “I get the joys of watching a friend succeed and living in a village with the beginnings of an arts and culture scene.” He paused. “I should go. I’ll see you around.”

        His walk back to the farmhouse was morose. He hated seeing Leah like that – thinking the worst of people, closing herself off to avoid the pain of opening her own vulnerability out onto the world. For as long as he’d known her she was really proactively pleasant to be around. She put sincere efforts into her craft and lived like she didn’t have anything to prove to anyone, and he respected all those things. Her spark of optimism kept her looking for the best in people, and it was the first time he’d ever come face to face with that spark extinguishing itself, and he found that immeasurably sad. Junimos, he thought, I hope some of your blessings find their way to her. His mind drifted back to what Abigail had said about Leah deserving someone like him, and he mulled it over for a while. What does ‘someone like me’ mean? Archie knew he was brash, and that he moved through life in Pelican Town with confidence that was sometimes justified, and sometimes manufactured because the situation needed it more than Archie actually had it. He’d been somewhat sensitive to other people while he was in Pelican Town, but was he really anything that special? He wasn’t the ferociously protective friend Abigail was, the grounding influence Sebastian was, the… whatever Sam was, the seeming saint Penny was, he wasn’t what any of them were, and he didn’t know where the puzzle piece of his soul fit in this town.

        After some fitless fiddle-playing when he got back to the farmhouse, Archie received a text message. It was from Sandy and he didn’t know what he expected – an apology, bitter recriminations, something emotionally relevant. It wasn’t what he expected, just a straightforward text asking if his friend with retail experience was free to look after the store over a range of dates toward the end of the winter. Exasperated, but it being too late to go to the mines, he tried reading and playing music, watching TV and punching the living daylights out of one of his pillows. Nothing calmed him down until exhaustion crept in and a restless sleep overtook him.

        He awoke groggy, and after a breakfast of dry toast, he tuned in to Welwick’s Oracle. He had skipped watching yesterday but could interpolate when his fortune was from how his day went. Today, the spirits would smile on him and everyone else who clawed their way out of bed to watch. After cleaning himself up, he put on his parka and boots and left the house to see he had mail. There was a letter from Lewis about the upcoming Winter Festival, and to his surprise, the Junimo scroll, the same as he’d left it. As he looked at the scroll, the sigils rearranged themselves into letters.

        We are the Junimos.

        We are Keepers of the Forest. The Town is in the Forest. The People are in the Town.

        You are the son of the daughter.

        You make the Town remember Community.

        You make the Town is remember Harmony.

        Come to the Junimos.

        Together we begin to big help the People.

        Archie smiled broadly in spite of his previously awful mood. Sure, it was fatalistic that he was in the situation, but his work would earn some rewards. He walked to the community centre with intent, but no clear direction for how he or the Junimos would “big help” the town.

        He unzipped his parka and sat down outside the Junimo hut, with the scroll in front of him. He closed his eyes, and he waited for the squeaking and honking and squonking that never came. Concerned, he opened his eyes. Several Junimos stood on the corners of a new scroll, with crude stick drawing sketches. They looked just as Archie remembered them, and tears began to well up as he recalled wondering if he’d ever see them again. There was one drawing that looked like a house, and one that looked like a bridge. One that looked like a rectangle on wheels and a few others he couldn’t place. The Junimos waited expectantly. Archie pointed to the sketch of the rectangle on wheels, which dissolved into sigils that formed into letters.

        We are the Junimos.

        You are the son of the daughter.

        Bring the children of the mountain to the big carriage

        Smiling, he thanked the Junimos, put his parka back on, and zipped up the mountain to Robin’s shop.

        “Archie!” she greeted him, “I hope you’re well. Are you finally here to buy something?”

        He shook his head regretfully, he had been visiting a lot without supporting Robin’s business as much as he’d have liked. “Sadly, no, though I’m hoping the spring harvests put me in a position to. I need your children’s help with something, are they in?”

        “Sebby’s in the basement, I’m not sure he’s awake. Is it urgent? Maru’s working at the clinic today.”

        Archie thanked her and forcefully rapped on the door to Sebastian’s bedroom. A few moments later, a groggy-looking Sebastian opened the door, knowing it wasn’t anyone in his family who knocked like that.

        “By Yoba, Archie, what are you barging in here this early for?”

        “I need your help with something big, please,” he said, simply.

        “It’s not another prank, is it?” Sebastian asked warily.

        “No, it’s a challenge worthy of your skills. Get some coffee, and meet me at the bus stop with your motorcycle tools in an hour, OK?”

        “You think I’m going to fix that bus?” Sebastian groused.

        Archie shrugged. “I honestly have no idea what you’re going to do. It’s Junimo stuff. They said bring you and Maru there – strangely, that was actually one of the more straightforward things they ever communicated.”

        Sebastian looked at him strangely. “Alright, but you owe me a favour.”

        “Deal,” Archie said, without hesitating, though in retrospect, he thought he could plead a case to not have to owe him one, starting with “bruh, why you got to do me like that?

        He zipped down to the clinic, which was fairly quiet. Only Penny was in the waiting room, where she excitedly discussing something with Maru behind the desk when Archie walked in. Maru slipped into full on professional mode. “What can I do for you, Archie?”

        Archie didn’t know quite how to answer. “I’ve got a favour to ask of you that’s going to involve some amount of your workday, if Harvey will let you leave early.”

        “Oh? What’s that?”

        “I don’t know exactly. I think it involves you and Sebastian looking at the broken down bus engine.”

        “What do you mean you don’t know?” Maru demanded, quite reasonably, in his opinion, while Penny sat watching in a mix of confusion and excitement.

        Archie decided to simply go with the truth. At least Penny might back him, after the outing they took to the Wizard. “I mean that I was asked by mythical guardian spirits of local folklore to make sure you and Sebastian were at the bus stop at the same time today. I’m just the messenger, but I think it’s so the bus can get fixed.”

        Maru remained incredulous. “I couldn’t get that engine to work. I’ve tried before.”

        “You didn’t try it with him, or the Junimos, backing you up,” Archie quickly retorted.

        “But…”

        Penny cut Maru off with one of the gentlest interruptions Archie had ever heard. “Excuse me, Maru, but please do it, I’ll clear it up with Harvey, just go.”

        Maru hesitated and then reluctantly agreed, and she and Archie walked out of the clinic together toward the nearby bus stop. A few minutes later, Sebastian’s motorcycle came into view down the road and pulled up in front of the bus, and he set his toolkit down on the ground. They popped the hood on the snub nose of the bus, revealing the engine block beneath it.

        “So, now what?” Sebastian asked Archie.

        “I don’t know, I was thinking you’d try figuring out what was wrong with it,” he replied.

        “Go inside and try starting it,” Sebastian suggested. “The key should still be in there, somewhere.”

        Archie had a monstrous time trying to pry the bus door open, but got into the driver’s seat eventually, looking about for the key for a while before realizing it was in the ignition. He turned it.

        Sebastian and Maru started arguing about the engine’s lack of functioning. Sebastian suggested the crankshaft should have been turning, but wasn’t, whereas Maru didn’t think the ignition was sparking. They checked the spark plugs, which seemed to be in working order. Maybe it was just hard to see the sparks in daylight. They kept trying for an hour and a half, slowly getting into a rhythm with each other. The crankshaft had stopped turning, but that didn’t seem to be the only problem.

        While they were discussing the issue, a van sped past, before slowing down and turning around in a gentle U-turn, stopping behind Sebastian’s motorcycle. It was marked up with the logo of the Zuzu City Transport Commission. The driver rolled down his window and stuck his head out. “You kids trying to fix that thing?” he asked, with a hint of incredulity.

        Maru nodded and walked up to the truck. “Yes. We found one problem, but we think there’s more than that. What do you do at the transport commission?”

        The driver grinned. “I’m a bus mechanic. We even still use some Larson-Olson mini-buses like that one, though they’re getting phased out soon. I can have a look if you’d like.”

        Maru happily assented and led the mechanic over to the bus’ engine block, where Sebastian was gently unscrewing one of the mounting screws on the crankshaft. “Crankshaft won’t turn,” he told the mechanic, simply. The mechanic took a closer look at it.

        “There’s a bit of shear along the forward end of it,” the mechanic said, “gesturing to what may have seemed at first glance like a gouge borne of regular wear-and-tear. Looks like it might have damaged the bearings it’d need to turn properly. You good to unmount it?”

        Sebastian unmounted the front end of the crankshaft, allowing a clearer look at the bearing beneath, which was visibly warped from the shear. “Good spot,” Sebastian told the mechanic, who was looking over that end of the crankshaft, “we completely missed that.”

        “I have a replacement bearing shell in the truck. We can mount that and see whether it’ll turn.”

        “What’s it going to cost us?” Sebastian asked.

        “I’ll have to call in, but probably nothing. This is a Hub Town Public Services bus. HTPS keep going on and on about how much better their mechanics are at fixing things and customer service than the ZCTC. My manager especially wants to get a shot in at them, he’d probably write off the cost of a bearing. I’ll be right back.”

        The mechanic hopped back into his truck to place the call, emerging a few minutes later with a Larson-Olson engine main bearing shell and a wide smile.

        “Can’t imagine my luck, the one time I’m taking this road back from our annual conference, and some budding young mechanics are at work on an abandoned rival bus. This is just too good.”

        Under the mechanic’s supervision, Sebastian swapped out the bearing, which Maru held in place while Sebastian re-mounted the crankshaft to it. Archie turned the key again, and this time the engine fired, and turned, but irregularly. One of the pistons wasn’t firing properly. Archie cut the engine.

        “Regulator, maybe?” Sebastian suggested.

        “Or a valve.” Maru opined out loud.

        “Could be either, it’s easier to check the valve on the camshaft first,” the mechanic said, pointing at another shaft. “That’s the assembly for that piston, the valve should be underneath the gasket. Sebastian swapped wrenches and unscrewed the nut holding the gasket shut, while Maru took a look inside the cam.

        “It looks blocked with something, I can hardly even see the valve,” she reported.

        “Probably a worn seal,” the mechanic suggested. “It’s a known problem with older model Larson-Olsons. May I?” The mechanic dug his index finger into the cam by the valve, dragging out a tendril of oily gunk. “That’d be what’s blocking the intake, the seal must have failed and the valve flooded with that. I can fix that up.”

        “We should be able to do it,” Sebastian protested.

        “I can talk you through how, if you really want to, but it’ll be grimy.”

        Sebastian and Maru were not afraid to get their hands dirty, so the mechanic talked them through extracting the valve, clearing it, and fixing the rubber seal with a replacement unit he also pulled from the truck. It took about an hour before they replaced the valve and Archie was given the green light to try the engine again. He turned the key and the engine fired, and turned, with the previously errant piston seeming to run in step. Archie shut the engine again while Sebastian, Maru, and the mechanic celebrated.

        “Think it’ll be driveable?” Sebastian asked him.

        “I can inspect it, though it’ll take a while. And it’s cold out, is there somewhere around here with soup or coffee?”

        “Yeah, we’ll get you something,” Maru said, knocking on the bus door, which Archie opened, much more easily from the inside. “Archie, can you grab some soup and coffee for us all while he inspects the bus? It’ll take a while, and it’s cold out there.” Archie nodded and scurried over to the saloon, returning a short time later with 4 take-out coffees and chicken and corn soups, which they ate together inside the bus, which, with the engine running, was the warmest place around. They talked about engines, the plan for this bus to be converted to use as a town service, and themselves. The mechanic, whose name was Karl, was intrigued by the crew he worked with to fix the bus – the computer programming motorcyclist, and the engineering-minded nurse who were half-siblings, and to a lesser degree the farmer who persuaded them to come try fixing it on this winter’s day. Karl was particularly excited because he thought the teaching component of fixing the bus was a lot more fun than he usually had with his work, and that if they’d be willing to vouch for his service, he thought he might even be in for a promotion when he got back to Zuzu City. The young adults readily agreed. They’d take some photos, and if the bus was roadworthy, its maiden voyage would be to Zuzu City’s bus yards for a promotional stop.

        When Karl was nearly done inspecting the bus, Penny, Harvey, and Lewis arrived on the scene. Harvey was looking disappointed that Maru was still out there, while Lewis was intrigued about the mechanic’s truck and the man’s legs poking out from under the bus and Penny was curious about what was going on and why it took so long.

        “How’s it going, there?” Lewis asked Maru.

        “We got the engine running, with Karl’s help,” she replied, pointing under the bus’ carriage. “He’s just finishing checking the brake lines.”

        Harvey, Penny, and Lewis all lit up at the news. “I thought that bus was a writeoff,” Lewis said. “The company that owned it sure did.”

        “That’s because…” Karl said, pulling himself out from under the bus, “they didn’t have these people to help them, or the Zuzu City Transit Commission. The bus can probably run, but there are some problems that we’d be better off looking over at the yards in Zuzu City. The tires are a bit warped from the bus sitting in the same position, and I can’t be sure about the brakes and steering column without getting the bus lifted. You should have it towed there rather than risk it on the highway.”

        While Archie and Lewis discussed who they could call to tow the bus with the mechanic, Maru and Sebastian looked bittersweet. “I’d have liked to have been able to finish the job,” Sebastian muttered.

        “Me too,” Maru replied, “but it was cool that we got that engine fixed together, at least.”

        Sebastian could only smile and nod. “Yeah, it was.”

        “Couldn’t have done it without you,” Maru told him.

        Sebastian’s smile took on a wry twist. “It would have taken far too long to do it without you.”

        While all of these conversations were going on, Harvey was left with a teary-eyed Penny he wasn’t quite sure what to do with. He asked her if she was alright, and tears streaming down her face, she simply replied that she was doing much better than that.



        One thing I've been considering about the wider approach to my story is how I want to handle magic. I'm kind of leaning in the direction of "co-incidental magic", to borrow a phrase from a role-playing game I like. Rather than the Junimos simply fixing the bus, fate gets gently nudged toward the bus being fixed. Very little functional difference, but it makes a bit of a scene of it.

        This was a strange chapter and I'm not sure how much I like it relative to others, but I did certainly like some parts of it.
         
          Risukage, Minimanta and Alkanthe like this.
        • Risukage

          Risukage Existential Complex

          There are few things as satisfying as throwing the double middle finger to entropy and fixing something that everyone else had written off. Also, I love seeing Maru and Sebastian get along; I'm convinced that together they could be a terrifyingly efficient and brilliant team.

          And I like that sort of magic you're using, it's kinda like the witches from Discworld or the like, in that there's no direct influence, just a nudge here and there, and you can never quite be sure if anything WAS done or if it's just hey, one of those happy coincidences that just happens. As a Taoist, I approve. :)
           
            Alkanthe likes this.
          • Kid Absurdity

            Kid Absurdity Starship Captain

            Year 1 ends next chapter, which is where the pace of things is going to start to ramp like heck as the routines are established. I can safely say that the story is moving into its final arc from Chapter 22 or so, and that it will be shorter than the others, so we are nearing the home stretch! I've you've stuck around this long, thanks, and I hope you enjoy the rest! There will be a brief period of fast updates as I have a buffer of 2 chapters for the first time in ages.




            The winter continued apace in its gelid splendour, and, aside from a brief adventure to the Zuzu City Transit Commission bus yards with Sebastian, Maru, Penny, and a sedate and conflicted-looking Pam, he saw little of the town in spite of being over his anti-social, post-breakup phase. The bus was given its complete inspection and certified roadworthy, which was a point of elation for Penny and Pam, if tinged with apprehension. Could she get to a point to safely drive that bus, day in and day out?

            Archie was finding that the mining he was doing was sufficient to keep him afloat, if, a bit on the gruelling side. While he was less withdrawn, he saw relatively few of the townsfolk until the run-up to the feast of the Winter Star, when about a week before the big winter holiday; Lewis asked him if he’d be at the holiday festivities. Archie mentioned that he was expecting to host his family, or at least most of it, since his brother still away studying and unable to return due to the war and the closed borders. Archie wasn’t in nearly so much contact with his brother as his sister, not out of any dislike, but just a sense the two were growing apart since his early teen-age. But, the Feast of the Winter Star is a holiday where you think about family as much as spend time with them. Lewis told him the town has a big potluck dinner on the night, and that they could easily be accommodated for the meal and the gift exchange, provided they brought gifts. Archie thought that was nice, and it would take some pressure off of him as a host, and perhaps as a sous-chef for his mother, whose cooking was far more ambitious than it was sensible. He eagerly agreed.

            Though the cold was wearing on him, between the freezing outdoors and the clammy, damp coolness of the mines, he was resisting a trip to the warmth and sun of the desert thanks to the newfound negative associations with it. At the same time, he wanted to be warm someplace that wasn’t his shower or the magmatic sauna-esque hellscape of the lower levels of the mines. He decided he wanted to just sit somewhere scenic and talk to someone. He thought he’d invite Leah, but she wasn’t at home when he went to invite her. And, given her newfound suspicion of him, maybe it was for the better. He went to the store to pick up some picnic food – bread, cheese, some cured meats and some olives, and was only slightly surprised to see Caroline supervising the store, since he’d never seen her working there since he moved in. There was a little bit of small talk about the distribution agreement for the spring as she rang up his groceries, and he asked if Abigail was around. Caroline went to get her, and the two women returned shortly thereafter.

            “Hi Archie!” Abigail greeted him with some enthusiasm. “What’s up?”

            “I might have found you a short-term retail management job, and I’m readying up for a picnic, want to join me?”

            Abigail seemed not to be able to decide between whether to be excited or confused, while Caroline’s emotions seemed harder to read – both in terms of Abigail finding some other work, or picnicking with the slightly unstable farmer.

            “In this weather? Are you insane?” Abigail asked him.

            “You wound me. You know very well that I’m mostly sane, just too willing to ignore the fact that some of my ideas are bad. This idea isn’t even bad, much less insane. It’ll be just cooler than room temperature.”

            “Alright,” Abigail conceded. “Beats my plans for the day.”

            “Hold up, Archie, what’s this job?” Caroline interjected.

            “That’s Abigail’s business, but if you must know, my ex-girlfriend is looking for someone to manage her shop in the Calico Desert while she goes on a winter vacation,” he answered straightforwardly before addressing Abigail directly. “It’ll pay, though I’m not sure exactly how well. I didn’t ask because I didn’t really want to speak with her,” he added with palpable blitheness.

            “We’ll discuss it over food, want me to bring anything?” Abigail asked.

            “Something to drink would be nice,” Archie suggested, and Abigail ducked off to one of the fridges, returning with a bottle of pomegranate juice, dutifully paying for it before practically bounding out the door with Archie.

            “This is not like you,” Abigail opined, “what’s going on?”

            “I really wanted to talk with someone, and I had stuff to talk about with you. I’m glad I didn’t catch you working.”

            Abigail stuck her tongue out at him before countering with a smug pffffft as they walked up toward the mountain. “Mom would probably have stocked the shelves to get me out of there, especially with a guy. It’s practically all been grooming for marriage for the last few years, and Yoba knows they think you’re the greatest for helping with the business. You’re not taking us to the bathhouse, are you?”

            Archie shook his head “Yoba no.” Then, he shrugged. “I haven’t even helped anything yet, it’s only in the spring that we’ll see if the whole plan works – though, I am pretty good.”

            “Yeah, you are,” she said as he led her to turn toward the entrance to the mines and ushered her inside.

            “This is your idea of a romantic locale?” she asked.

            “A scenic one. Romance wasn’t on my mind – or, it was, just not like that,” Archie answered, beginning to stumble over his words and thoughts while Abigail looked on bemusedly and they piled into the elevator cabin.

            “Go onnnnnn…” Archie pressed the button for floor 20.

            “Have you even been in the mines?” he asked, deflecting her question with one of his own.

            “Yeah, a few times, as a teen. I never went that deeply into them, why?”

            “Because there are some areas that are really impressive,” he said, pressing the call button for the elevator. “I wanted to spend some time at one, but not alone, and I had stuff to ask you.”

            “Oh?”

            “Well, about the work at Sandy’s store for one thing. It’s aggravating that it’s so her and Elliott can take a trip to Fuck-off-ity-land, but it may be useful for you to go and run her shop. It’s from tomorrow to the day before New Year’s, Winter Star and the day after excluded. Just a few days.”

            “And I’d commute back here?”

            “I guess so. She didn’t say anything about housesitting.”

            “Seems reasonable, tell me what the shop is like?”

            Archie did for a short time before the elevator arrived and they stepped out onto the electric lantern-lit landing overlooking the underground lake, where Archie unrolled a blanket and started laying the picnic food out. “The water’s perfectly still. It’s pretty calming. Yoba knows I needed that lately.”

            Abigail nodded and gingerly sat down on the blanket. “Yup. I feel you.”

            “I’ll get to asking you about the other thing, but let’s eat first.”

            They dug into the picnic and Abigail marveled at the underground lake for a while, with a bit of small talk.

            “What did you mean when you said Leah deserved someone like me?” he asked.

            “I pretty much meant what I said. You are pretty good, Archie, but on top of that you’re not the kind of guy to do the things other guys did to her.”

            “That’s a pretty low bar, but I get you. I had a talk with her that same day, and it was so strange to see her become suspicious of me. It was really difficult, too.”

            “What’d you tell her?”

            “That she should hold an exhibition of her art in town. Her recent stuff is either really powerful or really good.”

            “And?”

            “And she asked what I thought was in it for me. Seeing her succeed as much as her talent and work deserves - that’s what,” he said with emphasis, nearly spitting out the last two words.

            Abigail nodded slowly, understanding the complexity. “That’s the romance that was on your mind?”

            “Yeah, sorry to disappoint you and your mom,” Archie joked.

            Abigail punched him in the shoulder. Hard. “No offense, Archie, but…” She punched him again. Harder. “… I’m not sure you’re my type. Or anyone else in this town is, for that matter.”

            “Well,” Archie said, rubbing his shoulder. “maybe you’ll meet a cute desert guy or something.”

            Abigail harrumphed. “You think so?”

            “Nah, I think you’re going to meet some strange people, but I never ran into cute guys visiting her shop. I was a bit too focused on Sandy to notice, though.”

            “Not hard to see why.”

            “Yeah, she’s pretty stunning.”

            “To the degree that you ignored your problems together.”

            “I didn’t ignore them, I thought the problems were premature. It hadn’t even been a year yet and I’m supposed to want to move in with her in the desert? Come on.”

            I agree, though relationships to tend to move faster out here than in the city. People get to focus on each other more than making rent.”

            Archie paused to consider that one, given the somewhat accelerated pace of his relationship leading into the accelerated pace of his breakup. “Huh. I hadn’t thought about that, but I think you’re right.”

            “Of course I’m right.”

            They talked a bit more, before determining that Abigail would go and stand in at Sandy’s store while she and Elliott went on vacation. Neither of them was thrilled, but there was some practicality to it. Archie detoured by Pam’s trailer to let her know that he and Abigail would be taking the bus out to the desert early the next morning, where he also let Penny know it would make a good field trip for Vincent and Jas, before trying again at Leah’s. She was at home this time, and after being let in, Archie quickly explained that he’d be going to the desert to drop off Abigail tomorrow, and asked if she’d like to join him.

            “What’s Abigail doing in the desert?” Leah asked.

            “Standing in for Sandy at her store for a few days.”

            “Why are you doing her a favour?”

            “Abigail?”

            “Sandy.”

            “I’m not doing it for Sandy, Abigail needs some retail management experience, and she’s going to get it whether Pierre likes it or not. And you were excited about the desert, so I’m inviting you.”

            Leah looked weary more than anything. “Sorry, Archie, I’m going to pass.”

            He gave her an inquisitive look and took his leave.

            The next morning he was surprised to see Penny, Vincent and Jas at the bus stop when he showed up to join Abigail on her trip. “Hello, you three, what brings you out here?”

            Vincent was bobbing up and down with excitement “We’re going on a field trip!”

            “Where to?”

            “The desert!”

            “That’s great. I’m going too. I think you’ll love the dinosaur skeleton.”

            “Dino…” Vincent’s mind raced at the prospect of seeing a dinosaur skeleton, momentarily silencing before he broke into a litany of saying how cool it would be, while Jas also looked excited, if in a more subdued way.

            “Are you visiting that lady?” Jas asked him.

            “Not this time. Abigail is working at her store while she goes on vacation. I just wanted to go somewhere warmer. By the way, did any of you bring sunscreen?”

            None of them had.

            Archie reached into his rucksack and pulled out the tube of sunscreen, gently tossing it to Penny. “You all don’t want to burn.”

            As Abigail arrived, Archie was small-talking with Penny, before Pam also arrived and they piled onto the bus. The drive was non-eventful, with a bit of gossip and small-talk exchanged with Penny, who thanked Archie for his part in getting the bus fixed. It was a very small part, he thought, but he was happy to help and said as much. Archie mentioned to Abigail that he’d invited Leah and she declined, and Abigail shrugged it off. On his way off the bus Archie asked Pam how it felt to be behind the wheel again, and she told him it was a mix of terrifying, and good to have something to do.

            They arrived early enough that Archie and Abigail could join Penny and the schoolchildren at the dinosaur fossils, where Penny, who hadn’t seen them before, was able to give a pretty erudite lecture about what kind of dinosaur it was, and how it lived to a rapt audience of the kids and childish adults. Archie and Abigail bid the children goodbye and headed toward the Oasis, where Archie leaned up against a side of the building while Abgiail went in to handle her business. She had asked him if he intended to join her, or to see Sandy, but he didn’t think either was necessary. Abigail could take care of it without him, and while he had a lot he might have said to Sandy, he had very little to say to her. A few minutes later, he was only slightly surprised that Mr. Qi had sidled up alongside him.

            “Greetings, farmer.”

            “Mr. Qi,” he returned.

            “You’re getting better at the pronunciation, keep at it.”

            Archie laughed. “I took up your advice about mining. I have to thank you for it - it kept me afloat through the winter time.”

            “I’m delighted; though sorry it didn’t work out between you and my business partner.”

            “How come?”

            “Because I’d rather talk to you than the new guy,” Qi replied, prompting another laugh. “Your friend, Sandy’s replacement…”

            “What about her?”

            “She’s trustworthy?”

            “I don’t know, but I trust her.”

            Qi seemed satisfied by that. “That counts for something.”

            “It’s not going to take her long to ask about the bouncer leading into the back of the store.”

            “I should hope not, she’d be very dull if it did.”

            “What kind of club is it back there.”

            “A very exclusive one that I hope you’ll have the opportunity to join one day,” Qi replied enigmatically, as Sandy and Elliott left the store and climbed into Sandy’s car, never casting a look back at the store or noticing Archie and Mr. Qi.

            “I’m going to duck into the store,” Archie told him. “Abigail can use a friendly face for her first customer as a manager. Want some ice cream?”

            “Ice cream would be nice,” Qi said, then, quickly added, “Almost as nice as you pronouncing my name right.”

            Archie inaugurated Abigail’s retail management career to the tune of two cones of ice cream. He took his out to the bench at the edge of the plateau, overlooking the Gem Sea, watching the waves crash against the shore, getting lost is his thoughts for hours until the time came for Abigail to close up shop and for them to take the bus back.
             
              Last edited: Mar 30, 2017
              Risukage, Alkanthe and Minimanta like this.
            • Kid Absurdity

              Kid Absurdity Starship Captain



              The visit from his family for the Feast of the Winter Star was not as eventful as Archie had expected it might be. They got to see how he’d changed. There were as many superficial changes as here were deep ones – the pudge of his sedentary lifestyle had given way to lean muscle, especially in the wake of his winter mining spree. His posture had improved with his confidence and he stood tall, the orange of his hair had softened slightly, into a more cupric shade. His face, though still looking youthful, had a bit more of an edge to it, as though his experiences and newfound maturity was written on it, just without the accompanying wrinkles of age quite yet.

              The fireplace blazed cheerfully along, and the farmhouse was warm and unaffected by the blustery winds outside. The conversation was similarly warm, mostly expressions of surprise at Archie having taken to the farm. It was out of his prior character, but the terror of having no place in the world had, paradoxically, motivated him as it subsided when the farm became his place in the world.

              They ate breakfast and drank coffee, sharing their experiences of the year. With his breakup being the most recent notable thing on his mind, Archie was a bit more reserved about things, though he’d long since told Maeve, whose business was continuing to do very well, to the point that in a couple of years she and her husband, Tim, who’d come along for the trip, might look to have children. Archie’s parents were still acclimating to being empty-nesters, but filling their days with all manner of hobbies. His mother reminisced about her childhood in Pelican town – about her own hell-raising with a friend of hers before she decided to move to the city and not to look back. Of all people, Archie was surprised to find out that it was Caroline, who seemed to be the most unassertive, undistinctive adult in the town save for when she was trying to force Abigail to be an unassertive, undistinctive adult.

              The catch-up with his family was nice, if for no other reason than to finally be able to show them that he could handle adult life for once, but it was a holiday with a family emphasis, even when they emerged to walk about the town before attending the festival dinner.

              Archie’s mother and Caroline had their reunion while Archie introduced his family to whoever approached them, mainly his friends and the older adults. Lewis offered some remarks on how nice it was to have visitors, new and returning, and while Archie’s mother may have had mixed feelings about the idea, she treated him graciously enough. The meal, as was expected for the festivals, was a veritable feast for the aptly named holiday; that was punctuated with stories, laughter, and interruptions for mystery gift-giving. This was a moment that Archie was dreading ever since he’d gotten the note from Lewis telling him that he had to give Elliott a gift this year. He agonized over what to do, much less than he did over what to get him. He still thought that not lashing out at him was as much of a gift as he’d hope to muster up. He wound up ordering a copy of Fight for Your Write: A Guide to Writing and Publishing Your First Novel and struggled for a week on end not to write something passive-aggressive in the dedication. The book, hastily gift-wrapped, dangled languidly from Archie’s left hand as the assembled town wrapped up their desserts.

              Before Archie could get up to deliver Elliott his gift, he felt a hand gently rest on his left shoulder. It belonged to Leah, who was holding an impeccably wrapped small gift box adorned with green wrapping paper and an orange ribbon bow. “Happy Winter Star, Archie,” she told him, while he hesitated.

              “Should I open it now?” he asked, unsure of what the protocol was.

              “Of course you should! Don’t you enjoy presents?” she replied with an almost childlike glee, watching Archie expectantly as he stood up, and gently undid the bow and opened the box. It contained a small wooden carving of a Junimo, with a note on the underside that read; Happy Winter Star, Archie. This gift is a placeholder for something that needed a bit more time, but please keep it and I hope you enjoy it anyway. –Leah.

              Archie smiled. “That is a great gift, thanks so much.”

              “You’re most welcome.”

              Archie showed the carving to Maeve and her husband, and to his parents. Everyone thought the quality of the sculpture was great, though Archie’s mother seemed to have a visceral and negative reaction about the content of it, which she quickly smoothed over with Leah. When Archie mentioned that Leah was the one who designed his logo, Maeve immediately pulled her into a conversation, allowing Archie time to deliver his gift to Elliott, who had been sitting toward the other end of the long table with Sandy. Archie felt a lump in his throat as he uneasily walked to that end of the table, taking the time to greet everyone he passed that he hadn’t spoken to yet, Marnie and Jas, Jodi and Vincent, George and Evelyn, before he came face-to-face with Elliott and Sandy, who looked only scarcely more comfortable than he did. They all looked at each other in awkward silence.

              “Happy Winter Star,” Archie offered, somewhat lamely, extending the gift out to Elliott, who hastily took it and muttered out a brisk thank you. When he saw the book, he seemed pleased enough while Sandy looked aggravated, clutching at a bright yellow book of her own. Archie knew that Sandy was not a book person, and wondered who got it for her, and what it was, but not enough to ask her. He wished her a happy holiday and started moving hastily back toward his family, nearly bumping directly into Shane as he turned around. Shane was holding a case of Joja Cola that he shoved into Archie’s arms.

              “Happy Winter Star,” he offered with a mix of sincerity and apathy, while Archie pondered the gift he’d just received and what he’d actually do with it, as well as the fact that everyone was only meant to receive one gift for the exchange.

              “Thanks, Shane, happy Winter Star to you. Best wishes for the year,” he replied politely, but without particular warmth, as he walked back toward the table looking at the case of soda in disgust. It was convenient that he got given a case of soda as he was about to host a house party, but at the same time, he would rather his guests drink a good soda.

              The misfits were having a discussion not far outside of Archie’s path and he briefly joined them to wish them well and catch up. While Abigail was indignant about the fact that he was carrying a case of Joja Cola, she was talked down by a more excitable Sam than usual.

              “Archie! This is the best Winter Star ever! My dad’s coming back in a week!”

              Archie nearly dropped the case of cola in his shared excitement, before setting it down to give his friend a hug. “That’s wonderful news, Sam, I’m so glad. Must have made any gift you got pale by comparison.”

              Sam shook his head. “Nah. Well, yeah, but Jas gave me some wicked sick Solarion Chronicles novels, and I can’t sneer at swords and sorcery, especially swords.”

              “What’d you give this year?”

              “A 6-pack of purple boxer shorts, to Lewis.”

              Archie thought that was a bit of a strange gift, but kind of funny for a reason he couldn’t put his finger on, while they kept discussing the gifts. Sebastian got Haley an antique mirror that he found in a city shop, and got a hand-made beach shirt from Emily. Abigail fumed a bit about receiving a cookbook from Jodi, calling it “bourgeois housewife bullshit” before admitting there were at least a couple of recipes in it that looked really good. She was also the one who gave Sandy what it turned out was a copy of Relationships for Dummies, which brought a wide grin to Archie’s face, less out of vindictiveness but more out of knowing that Abigail would back him, publicly, to that degree.

              “Isn’t that a bit rude?” Archie asked.

              Oh, no.” Abigail replied, brimming with sarcasm. “I won’t get a glowing reference for my five days of work at her store.”

              Along those lines, Archie told them about the book he got Elliott, which they interpreted as a slight against the would-be author, that scumbag. Archie didn’t feel that the gift came out of a place of anger all that much, though he didn’t want much to do with either of them. He also told them about the cola and the sculpture, which prompted a great deal of speculation on their part about Leah’s intentions as Archie made his way back to his family.

              Leah had since moved along and was in the middle of an animated discussion with Emily and Gus, but she’d apparently made a good impression while she was talking with them. “The people here are so nice,” Archie’s father told him, as a means to welcome him back into the conversation.

              “For the most part, they really are. There’s an ethic of helping your friends out here.”

              “Not like the city?” his mother interjected.

              “Hard to say, but I haven’t heard from my city friends since the summer. It’s not that I don’t miss them, but it’s more personal in a village this small.”

              As the festival wound down, Archie led his family back to the farmhouse, where he relinquished the bed to his parents, and set himself up on one of the air mattresses he bought from Pierre in anticipation of the family visit to discuss business things with Maeve and Tim before they’d all go to sleep. The following morning, after exchanging some gifts of their own, the visit came to a quick end as they started on their return trip. For Archie, it was nice to see them, but he thought it would be a more significant event for his parents, to see that he really had established himself in his new life after nearly a year.

              It was a quiet post-festival recovery, which he spent doing a mix of preparing for the New Year’s party and fishing in the underground lake. On the morning of New Year’s Eve, he was surprised by a knock on his door, one early enough in the morning as to actually wake him while he was enjoying a holiday sleep-in. He hastily put on some pants and a t-shirt and opened his front door, where Leah was standing outside with the sculpture of the loose knot next to her on the porch, snowflakes landing all over her face. “Hey Archie,” she greeted him. “I couldn’t finish it for Winter Star, but I want you to have this.”

              Archie rubbed his eyes, and gawked at Leah in disbelief. “What?” he said, dumbly, before catching himself. "I love it, but I can’t help but feel you should exhibit it, or sell it to some rich city aesthete, rather than give it to me.”

              “I thought so too, but I had a change of heart. Help me move it inside, it’s tricky maneuvering it through doors with one person. Grab that end.”

              Archie picked up the sculpture from the base while Leah maneuvered the top of it. Like the Junimo carving, the base of the sculpture had “How I Feel About Archie” written on it. He nearly tripped over his feet as Leah set about trying to find the best place to put the sculpture, his mind racing about his interpretation of the sculpture – to be willing to let go of people. Was it a farewell gift? “Uh, Leah?”

              “Yes, Archie?”

              “Is that the title on the underside of the stand?”

              Leah blushed slightly and paused. “Oh! Right, yes, it is. I probably should have mentioned that.”

              “So, what does the sculpture mean?”

              “It’s art, Archie, it’s subjective,” Leah responded, teasingly. Archie was incredibly frustrated in that moment, but stewed silently until they had at least placed the sculpture. “It fits right in this corner!” Leah added, with satisfaction. It did, the old wood she used to carve it complemented the walls of the farmhouse, and the overall look of the place.

              “It’s beautiful,” Archie said, dead-pan, trying to process Leah’s seeming refusal to tell him how she felt about him, through sculpture or words.

              “It’s good that there’s some more art in here,” Leah told him, “it was a bit too minimalistic when you moved in.”

              That got Archie thinking back to his university days and his theatre-making. “Art’s good for the soul.”

              Leah smiled and nodded, before telling him “I’ve got to get going. I’ll see you tonight,” and she was off. Archie watched her go, looked at the sculpture, and threw his hands up in frustration. He loved the gift, which was much more than he thought he deserved, but the mixed messages were messing with his head as he walked over to Pierre’s to pick up the last of the party provisions. At the store, Shane was leaving with a few beers of his own.

              “Hey Archie,” he said, subdued, looking at the ground. All of that was unusual.

              “Hi Shane, what’s doing?”

              “New year, hopefully better than the last,” he replied, shaking his arm carrying the beer for emphasis.

              “I hope so, best wishes.”

              Shane still stood there, fidgeting a bit. “I heard about your party. Can I come?”

              Archie thought it over. Shane had pretty much always been unpleasant to him, and to the best of his knowledge, most anyone else, but he also needed a social outlet and hadn’t shacked up with his ex-girlfriend. “Sure, just don’t get too drunk and don’t ruin anyone’s good time.” He offered Shane a handshake, which Shane returned a bit limply.

              When the evening rolled around, and the guests arrived, the party began a bit awkwardly. While they all noticed, and praised, the sculpture adorning the corner of the living room, the guests typically gave the people they were less familiar with a wider berth. That did not immediately lead to interesting and flowing conversations, in spite of Penny’s conversation-directing abilities, though Penny seemed a bit agitated in general, perhaps due to the alcohol liberally flowing around her. The typical cliques kept to their own; Alex and Haley, the misfits, Penny, Maru, and Harvey. While Archie was playing host, Leah and Emily kept each other company. As Shane, who was the last to arrive, walked in, Alex had entered into a rant about the difficulty getting enough protein from eggs without also getting too much fat, because his athletics demanded precise dietary calibration, and the audience was less than rapt, sitting in awkward silence.

              “Oh,” Shane said, with a hint of curiosity in place of his usual sneer, “you should ask my aunt for eggs from Calvillo chickens. They cost a bit more, but have more protein in them.” Everyone turned to look at Shane, as they had no reason to expect him to be there, much less to be the one to save them from Alex’s bro-onslaught.

              Alex seemed a bit puzzled by it too, but was not one to be unappreciative of good advice. “Thanks, bro. I never would have thought of something like that. I’ll do that.”

              The equilibrium restored, the party continued apace, with drinking and snacking, and a lot of talking about what they’d all be doing in the upcoming year. A lot of the people’s goals remained the same. Alex was going to work on his fitness and try out for Zuzu City College’s gridball team toward the end of spring, while Haley was going to finish building her photography portfolio. Harvey had his career in order, and it was mostly business as usual for him, while Maru was going to keep narrowing her vast array of options down. Sebastian, looking less comfortable while Maru was expounding on it, said this would be the year he hoped to leave Pelican Town and try to make it in one of the cities, while Abigail was aiming to go on her first archaeological dig and then make some decisions. Sam was just excited to spend time with his father early in the year, and everyone was glad to hear he was coming back soon. Emily was going to try to take her seamstressing and turn it into a business, though she’d keep helping Gus out. With Pam driving the bus again, Penny hoped to develop her teaching skills more, but wasn’t sure how. Shane’s goal was to find somewhere to work that wasn’t Joja Mart, while Leah announced that she was going to exhibit her art in the Spring. When Archie’s turn rolled around, all eyes were expectantly on him.

              “I’m going to grow the farm and try to be a better friend,” he said simply. It occurred to him that he was at a different stage in his life to a lot of the assembled group. Like Harvey, he had his career now, less wild and unharnessed potential than most of the others in the crowded farm house.

              As the conversations continued, and the groups shuffled members, with Archie bouncing back and forth between them to play host, it was quickly approaching midnight, so he turned on the old cathode-ray television to see the fireworks and celebrations in Zuzu City Square, with the countdown to the New Year. The room quieted down as they watched the bands and the showmanship of the city’s celebrations, before the assembled guests yelled along to the countdown.

              10!

              Sebastian sneered at the loudness of it all but put on a show of being in the spirit of it.

              9! 8!

              Haley fidgeted with her camera, looking to capture the climactic moment that was about to happen.

              7! 6! 5!

              Penny looked at the television screen in rapt attention, while Sam scooted over next to her.

              4! 3!

              Shane started to open another beer, then glanced at the bottle, hesitated, and set it back on the table.

              2!

              Emily and Leah exchanged a roaring laugh about something.

              1!

              Archie took a seat in front of the TV, satisfied at throwing a successful party.

              Happy New Year!

              The room erupted in a roar and a burst of light from Haley’s flash-bulb. No sooner than Haley set the camera on the table did Alex pull her in and kiss her, while, toward the other end of the room, Sam gave Penny a quick peck on the lips as well. Archie smiled and almost reflexively glanced across the room to Leah, who was staring at him, whereupon his smile melted into a confused look. He got up, grabbed a glass of water, and leaned up against the wall next to the sculpture, surveying the party winding down. He hadn’t intended for the bulk of the crowd to leave shortly after midnight, but it was a long walk in the snow for some. Archie said goodbye and gave his best wishes to everyone as they left, until only he, Leah, and Emily remained in the house.

              “I’ll help you clean up,” Emily volunteered.

              Though Archie wanted to talk with Leah, he wasn’t inclined to say no to some help. “That’d be great, it’ll go much faster.” Leah also helped out, and the cleaning went fairly quickly given the small size of the farmhouse.

              “I still feel badly about Sandy,” Emily told him, while Leah watched the conversation intently.

              “I don’t see why you should, anything after the Flower Dance was on us.”

              “I may have over-sold you a bit.”

              Archie laughed. “She’d have seen through that pretty quick,” he retorted, which got a laugh of agreement from Emily, “I agree with her that our lives were going in different directions, I’m just disappointed about how she chose to handle it.”

              “You are now, but it hurt you then,” Emily pressed.

              Archie sighed. “Yeah, but that’s not your fault, you were looking out for a friend as best you could, and then things got more complicated.” Archie chuckled to himself. His situation with Leah being exactly what he just described was not lost on him. Leah started shoving paper plates from the table into a garbage bag, scrutinizing the conversation intently, while Archie started packing away the empty bottles and cans for recycling. “And I’ve learned a lot from that experience that’s going to make me happier.”

              “Like what?”

              “How to communicate, and also how not to communicate.”

              Leah and Emily both smiled, wryly, at that.

              The clean-up concluded, Emily took her leave as well, leaving Archie and Leah alone in what felt to him like a tense standoff.

              “Hey, Leah.”

              “Yes, Archie?

              “That sculpture is beautiful, but it’s also the most mixed message I think I’ve ever encountered. Can we discuss it?”

              Leah took that in with a bit of pause. “Yes, but not tonight, sorry. Happy New Year.”

              “Same to you,” he said, shifting his hips as though he was planning to take a step toward her before freezing. He wanted to resolve all this newfound tension, not to mention to give her a hug. He could almost swear he saw similar trepidation in her before she said goodnight and left.




              Love is never easy when you're prone to over-analyzing everything.

              Neither is writing fan-fiction, holy crap. I'm about halfway through Chapter 24, and I'm expecting this story to end in the 25-27 range, so thanks for sticking around for all the stages of this adventure, hahahaha, I destroy myself.
               
                Last edited: Apr 7, 2017
                Risukage, Alkanthe and Minimanta like this.
              • Alkanthe

                Alkanthe Oxygen Tank

                Oh god, the New Year's party. When you see someone you like, across the room, but you don't dare ask them to kiss you, even though you'd like to try and it's the most appropriate moment, because it isn't appropriate enough yet.

                I have strong feelings about that scene. Can you tell?
                 
                • Kid Absurdity

                  Kid Absurdity Starship Captain

                  It's not New Year's specific, but I have lived that scene more than I particularly like to admit.
                   
                  • Risukage

                    Risukage Existential Complex

                    Dang, these people are salty. Next chapter I'm gonna hafta remember to bring some tequila and lime to go with it. Those gifts, it's a good thing it was cold out 'cause there were some seriously sick burns there.

                    And I'm glad that you wrote this. It was well-scripted, you seem to have hit all of your marks, there've been a lot of good call-backs, and I'm glad you didn't bow out partway. *Standing ovation.* ;P
                     
                      Alkanthe likes this.
                    • Kid Absurdity

                      Kid Absurdity Starship Captain


                      I just noticed this cracked 5000 views while I wasn't paying attention. I have very little idea who's reading other than the usual suspects, but hey, hope you're enjoying. It's nice to know that my serious story will rival my parody (but nonetheless realistic) Shane erotica. Internet love hearts.

                      Also, yes, the title is a pun on the Bon Jovi lyric.

                      Also also, I just realized I managed to squeeze this in on April 20th, so I hope you blaze through this latest update.




                      The end of Winter brought about a return to the established routines, the long workdays of clearing and planting the fields with a diverse range of crops that the town would need and the cities would buy. Archie would have spent the day uninterruptedly planting the seeds he would buy from Pierre the morning after New Year’s until well past dark, but with the morning’s two pieces of mail; that he read over his coffee, came an imposition on his time for the day that he was happy to accept.

                      Archie,

                      Sam’s father, Kent, is coming back from the war today. His bus is scheduled at 1 PM. We’d like as much of the town to be on hand to welcome him as possible.

                      -Lewis

                      He was going to have a mildly hung over, very late night of planting seeds indeed, but that was a moment he wouldn’t dream of missing. The other piece of mail announced Leah’s art show.

                      Hi Archie,

                      As you know, I took your advice about exhibiting my art in town on board. The exhibition is in a week. I hope you can make it, and also that you can help me carry some of the bulkier sculptures over to the Square. Please let me know.

                      -Leah

                      He whipped up a large breakfast to power him through the day, checked the weather and watched a bit of Welwick’s Oracle before heading over to the general store with his spreadsheet of seed orders. He was surprised to see Abigail running the shop when he walked in.

                      “Hey Abigail, big order today, is your dad around?”

                      Abigail suppressed her giggle a couple of seconds after starting to. “He’s too hung over. My parents had a New Year’s party of their own. I’m glad you hosted that, I can’t even think of the last time we had a house party. Haley’s sixteenth birthday, maybe?”

                      “That long ago?”

                      “Yeah, unreal, isn’t it. Nice new sculpture, by the way,” she added, winking at him.

                      Archie’s frustration swelled up. “Yeah, it’s beautiful but it’s doing my head in.”

                      “Too aesthetic?”

                      “No, just that it’s such a mixed message that I don’t know what to think of it. Last time I talked to Leah about that sculpture, I interpreted it as being about letting go of people.”

                      “I see?” Abigail replied, not fully seeing it. “I don’t think she’s giving that to you to tell you to go away, Archie.”

                      “I know that, just not much else, and it’s bothering me.”

                      She sighed in vexation. “What seeds do you need?”

                      Archie handed her the list and she busied herself assembling them.

                      “The two of you are being idiots, you do realize that, right?” Abigail asked, pointedly.

                      Archie glared at her.

                      “You should go be happy idiots together,” she added, cackling as she finished packing the seed packets into a large paper bag.

                      Archie took the bag and started briskly walking toward the door without responding to that.

                      “Hey, idiot,” Abigail added forcefully, stopping Archie in his tracks. She was still smiling. “That’ll be 17,605 Guilders - 17,600 for the seeds and 5 for the psychological help.”

                      His face red, he paid his bill and booked it to the farm to start turning over his fields and planting them, which he did wordlessly, barely even looking up at the clear blue sky, before making his way over to the bus stop to greet Sam’s father before lunch.

                      Basically all of the townsfolk were there except the commuter Joja employees. Sam had a struggle securing the day off, but Morris realized during the discussion that he didn’t want to make his branch look anything less than patriotic, so the problem was solved. The bus pulled in about ten minutes late and it quickly became an emotional scene as Sam and his family looked expectantly at the bus as it pulled up, and the doors opened and a few moments later, the soldier, still uniformed, stepped down into his town amid tears and shouts of joy. Sam and Vincent both tearfully rushed up to hug the father they hadn’t seen in over a year, with Jodi following closely behind. The joy of the reunion masked Kent’s exhaustion as the family exchanged hugs and words before the rest of the townsfolk got to greet him, with hugs and handshakes. For Archie, it was the latter, and when he introduced himself, at the tail end of the strong handshake, the infantryman simply said, “thank you for being a friend to my son,” before moving on down the line. Archie was sure he’d have more opportunity to speak to Kent as he re-adjusted to civilian life.

                      That opportunity hadn’t come up when Friday evening rolled around and Archie headed to the saloon. He’d spent the past days frantically getting the farm up and running as quickly as he could to start bringing in the harvests and the money to keep his business ventures afloat and to pay for some creature comforts for the old farmhouse that he was starting to consider.

                      The jukebox was playing some old rock n’ roll music while the usual suspects were scattered across their usual places. Leah was picking at a salad half-heartedly when Archie placed his order at the bar, and doubled back to briefly join her.

                      “I’ll be at the exhibition, and I’m happy to help you move things,” he told her.

                      She looked a bit less stressed after hearing that. “Great, thanks. I can’t believe it’s already coming up so soon.”

                      Archie chuckled. “It feels to me like it’s been a long time coming. That’s the difference in perspective, I guess.”

                      Leah didn’t seem particularly amused. “If you say so.”

                      He didn’t feel like this was going to go anywhere fast. He rose from the barstool to make his way toward the arcade and the lighter evening’s entertainment of the misfits. “After your exhibition, we’ve got to talk.” Leah nodded as he walked away.

                      Sam wasn’t in the arcade this week due to a family dinner, so Abigail and Sebastian were the only ones in the arcade that night. They were having an animated discussion when Archie walked in and waved, in contrast to his usual slightly obnoxiously loud greetings.

                      “You look tired,” Sebastian told him.

                      “I am. 60-hour week and a lot on my mind,” he replied.

                      “Farm stuff or Leah stuff?”

                      “Both.”

                      Abigail stood up from her side of the sofa. “I’ll be right back. You guys sit down and have boy talk.”

                      Archie took her seat and he and Sebastian launched into discussing it while Abigail left the arcade and stomped right across the main room of the saloon to Leah’s table and sat herself down in front of her. “I don’t know what you think you stand to gain from keeping him stewing, or what he thinks he stands to gain from waiting, but you’re both being complete idiots and it’s starting to aggravate me. When I go back in there, I’m going to tell him to sort this shit out. And you, sort your shit out too, this is ridiculous and it’s gone on long enough.” Abigail sat there a couple of seconds, watching for Leah’s reaction, which there wasn’t much of one aside from surprise. When Abigail got back to the arcade, the two men were, as far as she was concerned, overanalyzing some things to the point where any conclusion they could draw was bullshit. Abigail gestured to Archie to vacate her seat, which he did, leaning up against the wall near the sofa, next to the rack of pool cues. “Archie, you’ve got to sort this out. One more ‘will she or won’t she’ conversation and I will flip a table at you.”

                      Both the men looked surprised at Abigail’s outburst, though Archie’s expression quickly changed into one of defeat. “I don’t want to pressure her into anything, or do anything like Elliott.”

                      Abigail did not let up. “She knows you’re not Elliott, show her at least that much respect, and yourself too for that matter.”

                      Archie mulled it over silently while Sebastian and Abigail turned the discussion to other topics. After a few minutes, Emily arrived with his order of a spicy eel platter. She placed the plate on the coffee table in front of the couch. “I don’t know what the two of you said to Leah, but she seems pretty distraught right now.”

                      Archie and Abigail exchanged a glance before Archie excused himself to go find out what was going on. Most of the salon regulars hadn’t noticed Leah hunching forward, leaning her face into her hands, her red face, the streaks of her hastily wiped-away tears. He quickly paced across the saloon and sat down at her table.

                      “I’m sorry I upset you,” he said.

                      “Yoba, same to you, Archie. I didn’t realize it had reached this point.”

                      “I thought I was pretty clear about that.”

                      You were,” she replied with evident frustration, “I didn’t know what I made of it. I’m still struggling with that.”

                      “I don’t want to rush you into anything…” he started, before Leah cut him off.

                      “You aren’t, and I don’t want to leave you twisting in the wind, Archie. You’ve been too good of a friend to deserve that. But I haven’t worked out how I feel about you and what to do with that.”

                      Archie took it in quietly, mulled it over, and played back his reply in his head before saying it out loud. “Can we start by agreeing that the name of that sculpture was a mistake and go from there?”

                      Leah chuckled weakly in spite of herself. “Your sister’s right, you are a clown.” She paused, considering her own words. “Maybe it was the spirit of Winter Star, Archie. I’m grateful for you, and I wanted to give you a really good token of it.”

                      “Little anxieties aside, you really did. I’ve had a lot of time to think this winter. I thought we grew a lot closer since the incident, and the more we did, the more I wanted to.”

                      Leah nodded. “I don’t know whether I can do that right now.”

                      “For now, you have an art show to figure out first.”

                      “I know, it’s exciting and terrifying. I won’t keep you waiting much longer than that - the exhibition will help clear things up for me.”

                      “Deal.”

                      “Deal.”

                      The art show was only a few days later, the day after the Egg Festival, where Abigail again beat out Vincent in the Egg Hunt by finding one more egg. The Egg Festival continued to be a slow day for Archie, who continued to resolutely refuse to intrude on Marnie’s business by adding animals to the farm’s purview. He ate eggs and chatted with people, making a point of having his first lengthy conversation with Kent, whose adjustment was complicated by the fact that he felt like he’d lost his sense of perspective about his sons. Archie was hardly the best suited to tell him about Vincent, but he did recognize some positives in Sam that he thought might help Kent to reconnect with him on the right foot. Sure, he told him, Sam was directing his energy in a million directions at once and applying himself fully to none of them, but he endured his unpleasant job to support the family, had a strong moral centre, and looked out for his friends and family. He was getting the important stuff done, and was growing as a person. Kent was relieved to hear it.

                      Archie arrived at Leah’s cottage the following morning to help her transport some of her pieces to the town square, and was relieved to see Alex approaching to help as well when he saw how large some of the sculptures, hidden under numbered burlap tarpaulins, were. Leah quickly explained that she had taped numbered sheets of paper around the square, and to match the numbers on the tarps to put the art where it needed to be. There were only four very large sculptures that required Alex and Archie to co-operate to move them into place. After all of his farming and mining, Archie had gotten much stronger than when he arrived, but was still lagging behind the athlete in physical fitness, though Alex was more impressed with Archie than the farmer was with himself as they hauled one of the sculptures to the square.

                      “You been lifting, bro?”

                      “Nah, bro. Lately, tilling fields, and I spent most of the winter mining. I need more endurance than I do strength. What about you, what’s your regimen looking like?”

                      Alex explained it in a great deal of depth, it seemed like a mostly very good workout routine for strength and endurance building, but it seemed to Archie there was one thing missing.

                      “Do you fit any flexibility training into it?”

                      “Naw, haven’t found a good way to yet.”

                      “You should probably look into it, it’s good for agility and preventing injuries. I’m really curious about what these sculptures are.”

                      “You can always look under the tarps, besides, you’re close with Leah, haven’t you seen what she’s been working on?”

                      “I’d rather be surprised a bit later, and she’s only shown me one painting so far. She’s self-conscious about her work, even if it is killer. I hope she comes out of this exhibition as confident as you.”

                      Alex guffawed. “I don’t really get art or speak to her much, but I hope it’s good for her too. Confidence is important – winning is like, 10% mental.”

                      Archie wasn’t sure he agreed with Alex’s math, but he appreciated the sentiment. “How’re you and Haley, by the way?”

                      Alex took a deep breath, and smiled lightly. “I think we’re both mellowing out a bit, it’s good for us.”

                      “I’m glad,” Archie said with a nod as they kept moving the sculptures to the Town Square, if more quietly. Archie never had antipathy for Alex, but neither did he ever feel like he had that much to discuss with him.

                      By the time that the exhibition was about to begin, a surprisingly large crowd had gathered in addition to the townsfolk, though Elliott and Sandy remained conspicuously absent. Lewis had called the provincial governor to invite him, and some calls to regional media outlets had a few journalists and a reviewing critic in. A bit of promotion had led to some people interested in art coming in from Hub Town, the desert, and even a couple from Zuzu City. The exhibition itself was a tightly curated one, with Leah leading the crowd from art-work to art-work, removing the tarps to make each piece a surprise reveal before giving brief summaries of each. After the first couple of pieces, landscape paintings of the wilder outskirts of the town, the nervous edge left her voice and she was powering through and even beginning to enjoy herself. Her abstract colour piece, the one that made Archie feel disjointed, changed up the audience’s expectations as Leah demonstrated her range, before moving into smaller carvings, figure studies, and full-sized sculptures before the big reveal of her larger sculptures, including one like the one Leah had given him. There were egg-shaped people bobbing up and down, shifting assemblages of pink piping, and generally speaking, things that challenged Archie’s understanding of what sculpture was. It was, in his subjective experience, good art. As Leah wound down her explanation of the final sculpture, she added;

                      “There are a few people that I’d like to thank for making this exhibition possible. Mayor Lewis did a wonderful job taking charge of promoting the event so I could focus on the art. Alex Mullner and Archie Finegan were instrumental in setting up the larger sculptures, and without Archie’s idea to do this in the first place, friendship, and consistent encouragement, it never would have happened. Thanks, all of you.”

                      The guided exhibition shifted to wine-and-cheese schmoozing, and Archie gave Leah a lot of room to socialize with everyone while Haley documented the art and the occasion with her camera. He took up a vantage point outside the general store, next to a shorter, black-haired man he hadn’t noticed before.

                      “Some art, huh?” Archie said in way of greeting.

                      “Meh,” the guy replied.

                      Archie shrugged. Everyone’s a critic. He watched the proceedings from a distance with a sense of satisfaction and rejoined the crowd, taking a look at one of the programmes listing the selling prices of the art works. Given the massive amount of work Leah put into them, the numbers made sense to him, but were maybe a bit out of step with their market value, though by the end of the afternoon, she had sold over half of them. He and Alex started putting the tarps back over the artworks to transport the ones that weren’t purchased, or that were too large to fit in a car, back to Leah’s cottage.

                      “What was your favourite one?” he asked the gridballer.

                      “The red, black, and purple painting,” Alex replied near-instantly.

                      “Really? I liked that one, but I found it uncomfortable to look at.”

                      “I had a lot of memories looking at it. It made me think of my parents and my life now. It was uncomfortable at first, but then it calmed me down.”

                      Archie blinked, struck by the idea he had missed something obvious. “Maybe I just didn’t look at it long enough.”

                      Alex shrugged, as they unloaded the last of the sculptures into Leah’s storage shed, before Alex said a quick goodbye to him and Leah and zipped home for dinner.

                      “You did it!” Archie told her.

                      “I did, and people liked it! They were buying it afterward, it went much better than I hoped,” she replied, a bit overwhelmed with the emotion of the success that Archie thought was a long time coming.

                      He gave her a high-five and pulled her in for a hug. “Maybe it’s not all subjective. Maybe you were objectively good at art all this time.”

                      Leah laughed. “Oh, come off it. I needed this, though, Archie. I needed to know I could handle it.”

                      “After the first couple of pieces, you seemed totally natural at it.”

                      “I was so nervous,” she replied. “I was shaking.”

                      “Like you are now?” Archie asked. She was trembling a little bit inside of the hug they hadn’t released.

                      Leah playfully shoved him in the chest. “Yes.”

                      Archie let her go, but kept one hand on her back. “The Flower Dance is in a few days.”

                      “That sneaks up on me every year.”

                      “Would you like to be my date this year?” he asked, glancing over to see whether her reaction was any different from last year.

                      This time, she did not look like she was about to be hit by an oncoming truck. “I would like that,” she told him.

                      “A lot’s changed in a year.” He pulled her back in close.

                      “It sure has, including me, but not the part of me that wouldn’t want to take the chance. Are you going to wear the kilt again this year?”

                      “I haven’t got any other formal clothes, so yeah.”

                      “There aren’t many formal occasions in town.”

                      “True. We could start having masquerade balls.”

                      “Archie.”

                      “Or box socials.”

                      “Archie.”

                      “Or black tie cocktail soirées.”

                      “Archie, shut up,” she demanded, gently shoving him again to accentuate the point, starting to laugh in spite of her annoyance.

                      After a few seconds, Archie pulled back. “It makes me really happy that that part of you didn’t change in the end.”

                      “Me too.”

                      They both grinned a bit unsteadily as they looked at each other expectantly for a few seconds, before pulling each other closer and into a particularly mutual kiss.

                      “Want to watch a movie?” She finally asked. “We can curl up under a blanket with some cider.”

                      “That sounds lovely.”




                      Part of the reason for the delay on this was some alteration to the dialogue, which was giving me the nagging feeling something about it sucked for a while. I think it's better for the time spent percolating before editing it. Writing can be hard, editing usually is.
                       
                        Last edited: Apr 21, 2017
                        Risukage, Alkanthe and Minimanta like this.
                      • Kid Absurdity

                        Kid Absurdity Starship Captain


                        Welcome to Chapter 23 of what I am expecting will be 26. Chapters 24 and 25 are written, though there are still some things that are rubbing me the wrong way about Chapter 24 that I'll look to adjust in editing. Ideally, unless things change, Chapter 26 will have an epilogue baked in and bring this story to a (hopefully satisfying) end.




                        The spring continued on with minimal incidents outside of a very awkward Flower Dance where Elliott and Sandy made their presence as a couple felt a bit more than they did at Winter Star. They insisted on dancing in the main dance, Elliott having taught her the formal steps, leaving the town with an extra couple. Given that Lewis knew in advance, he asked Archie what he thought of it.

                        Archie’s perspective had hardly changed since the last time. “I’d open it up to the whole town. The Junimos want a harmonious day more than exactly five couples dancing, and we’ve already established that there’s no good to come from excluding anyone.”

                        “But it’s how we’ve always done it…” Lewis said.

                        “Well, yes, but even if how you’ve always done it was right then, it clearly isn’t anymore, so why not shuffle it up a bit.”

                        Lewis was non-committal when he left on mayoral business and to think about it.

                        Archie and Leah coupling up was more or less known to the town, but Archie hadn’t officialised it in the traditional Valley way, sealing the relationship with a bouquet. It caught him off guard when he heard it, being accustomed to the city tradition of discussing it like mature adults. He realized, though, that he was choosing to play by the unspoken rules of the valley in a lot of ways, and it’d be foolish to resist the idea of giving Leah a nice bunch of flowers to symbolically do what they had already done anyway. He knew just who he had to ask for help making it that extra bit special. A brisk walk to the Mullner house later, while Alex was out and George was cantankerously watching TV, Archie enlisted Evelyn’s help in assembling a bouquet of spring wildflowers for him to give to Leah. Sure, he could buy a packaged one from Pierre, but ahead of the Flower Dance he wanted something with that little bit of added personal touch and extra oomph.

                        While Archie had had fairly little contact with Alex or his family, Evelyn was nonetheless as happy for him as she was to share the news. “George, did you hear! The farmer asked me to craft him a bouquet to give to Leah!”

                        Across the house, her husband grumbled something that didn’t carry intelligibly over the rooms separating them.

                        “Hey Evelyn, how did you and George make your relationship work for so long?”

                        “By picking our fights carefully, dearie. Now take some of these cookies home with you, Alex loves them, but he shouldn’t eat too may when he’s training.”

                        Archie happily accepted the cookies and the advice.

                        On the day of the dance, as he was dealing with binding the kilt and the butterflies in his belly, he was mentally running through the steps that Leah had shown him when Lewis knocked on his front door. After hastily fastening the kilt, he opened the door and ushered the mayor into his house.

                        “It’s going to be a much happier time this year,” Archie said by way of getting down to business.

                        “I’m glad you’re confident, I’m considerably more nervous about it. I am trusting you with the tradition, here, Archie.”

                        “As far as I can gauge what the Junimos want, that’s not the issue, and maybe it never was. I’m more nervous about Leah, and seeing Elliott and Sandy there, even if it makes very little sense.”

                        “Given the circumstances, I’d find nerves to be quite natural, myself.”

                        “Well, that’s it. I’m giving Leah a bouquet today and I guess there is always the chance that she’ll say ‘no thanks’. I don’t think she will, but the uncertainty is there. With Elliott and Sandy, I don’t know I should feel about it, or how I do feel about it, or how I will feel about it when they’re in front of me. I hope it isn’t, but it could always be another Archie Finegan brand festival surprise.”

                        Lewis laughed. “If you could keep a straight face with Pierre at the Harvest Fair, you can handle all of that with some grace. Though I still wonder how you’d have disrupted the Festival of Ice if you’d been up to going.”

                        Archie chuckled. “I’d have found some way to lose my chill, clearly. If you’ll excuse me, I have a bouquet to pick up, and I’m glad you’re on board with opening the festival dance to everyone.”

                        They quickly parted ways, and Archie jogged over to the Mullner home to pick up the bouquet of flowers, an immaculate arrangement of daffodils, red tulips, and a pair of well-preserved winter crocuses providing a contrast of colours he thought Leah’s aesthetic eye would appreciate. It was wrapped in white paper with red trim.

                        “Evelyn, this is uncannily beautiful, and I’m sure it’ll make Leah’s day. Thank you so much.”

                        “You’re very welcome, Archie. You were right to come to me, I take pride in arranging flowers.”

                        At that point Alex emerged from his room and into the foyer in his festival blue suit.

                        “You’re looking sharp,” Archie told him.

                        “Thanks. I never could get behind your kilt get-up, but hey, big day,” he said, waving at the bouquet.

                        “Yeah, a lot of it caught me by surprise. Did you ever give Haley one?”

                        “A couple of years before you moved in, yeah.”

                        “Did you feel like your heart was jumping into your throat all day on the day that you did?”

                        Alex laughed upon recollecting it. “Yeah, something like that. I was confident from sports but not about that kind of thing. You’ll be alright, though.”

                        “Thanks, man, see you there.”

                        “Later, bro.” Alex said, extending a fist, which Archie bumped before leaving to the forest clearing where the festival was being held.

                        As in the previous year, Pierre was manning his stand, selling an assortment of flowers, and tubs thereof, but unlike the previous year, he greeted Archie warmly and by name, and told him he was disappointed he bought the bouquet from a florist. Archie explained that Evelyn assembled it by hand, as a gift and a favour.

                        “Caroline told me about the winter picnic you and Abigail went on. It’s not for her, is it?”

                        Archie shook his head. “Leah. Though without Abigail, this wouldn’t have happened, or at least, not nearly this quickly. She’s a good one, your daughter.”

                        “So I’m learning, Archie. So I’m learning.”

                        With the sight of Archie carrying the bouquet, the buzz among the townsfolk grew. Most of them had a good idea of where the whole thing was going, but the tension around it made for a gossip-worthy event. Clint started animatedly telling Willy how he’d try to learn from how Archie did it to work up his own courage to approach Emily, while Robin explained it to Demetrius. “What a fascinating courtship ritual,” the scientist concluded as he watched it unfold. Even Sandy and Elliott’s heads turned as Archie cut across the dance floor, narrowly dodging Vincent and Jas, who looked at him transfixed as he kept walking like he was on a mission. Leah was chatting with the misfits, and Penny, waiting for Archie to arrive when she saw him approaching, the bouquet in his arms, looking noticeably surprised. The conversation hushed, leaving only Sam keeping on talking as Archie approached the group of his friends while the rest of the assembled company kept whispering at him to shut up.

                        “Well, so much for subtle, I guess,” Archie said with a bit of a nervous edge as he walked up, interrupting Sam and minutely adjusting his already perfectly straightened cap, “hi everyone, can you excuse us for a few minutes?”

                        They stepped a few yards away, to being barely within earshot as they watched the proceedings with interest.

                        “Um, hey,” he greeted her, feeling like his heart was going to pound through his ribcage.

                        “Hi, Archie,” Leah said with a hint of a blush and a broad smile.

                        “I also wanted to give you something beautiful,” he said softly, almost struggling to get the words out while offering the bouquet, “and, hopefully, to get us started right.”

                        Leah looked carefully at the bouquet, not because she was especially pre-occupied with those particular flowers, but because she’d seen the bouquets that Pierre was stocking. This bouquet was not one of them. “It’s gorgeous. Where did you get this?”

                        “Evelyn picked out the flowers and assembled it.” He was starting to tremble holding on to the bouquet as if it had gotten unbearably heavy while Leah was asking questions.

                        “Thank you.” She relieved him of the bouquet, and threw her arms around him as they gently spun around in the surprise embrace. A kiss provoked cheers and applause from the bulk of the assembled crowd. Elliott and Sandy were not swept up in that wave of emotion, and Archie felt the weight of their gazes on him, though even Shane permitted himself to crack a smile as Archie and Leah rejoined their friends.

                        “It’s not usually that showy, is it?” Archie asked no one in particular.

                        “Not typically.” Penny told him. “Sam wasn’t. That was beautiful, though, I wish you both well.” The rest echoed Penny’s good wishes.

                        Abigail gave both Archie and Leah a hug. “Thank Yoba you two decided to be idiots together,” she said, clearly joking with her tone, but also meaning the content of what she said.

                        The dance itself went smoothly, when it started, in spite of the deviation from tradition. The rest of the young adults of Pelican Town partnered up with their usual partners, while Elliott and Sandy, and Archie and Leah, took up their places on the opposite ends of the line. Jodi and Kent, and Robin and Demetrius took up spots on the dance floor while Jas continued to chase Vincent around it, trying to get him to dance with her. Evelyn wheeled George’s chair out onto the floor in order that they could, if not dance, at least move rhythmically. Emily, Shane, and Clint looked on, and when Shane said he’d rather not participate, an emboldened Clint asked Emily to join him for the dance. Emily seemed surprised, but energetically accepted, and they got into position just as Gus started playing the dance. The pairs began to move, except Vincent, who stopped suddenly, shell-shocked by being on the floor when the music started, as Jas caught up to him and led him in an impromptu imitation of what the adults were doing.

                        Archie remembered the steps that Leah had taught him, though it was a small miracle since that was the last thing he was focusing on when her beaming smile, one he felt he hadn’t seen in a long time, was staring him in the face, and he couldn’t help but smile along as the whole town, insofar as they wanted to participate in the Flower Dance, did. He wasn’t glad to see Elliott and Sandy there, but he was glad that Sandy got to be a part of the festival this year because the town’s perspective, or at least Lewis’, had evolved.

                        As the festival wound down, while Archie was catching up on the gossip with Emily and hearing about her surprise return to dancing at the festival, Sandy interrupted them, to say hello to Emily, unsurprisingly, but also to ask to speak with Archie, who was surprised by that. They hadn’t much talked since the unceremonious goodbye, and Archie felt like there was little of value to say, but he obligingly followed her over to where she and Elliott had been standing and talking.

                        “So, how are you?” she asked.

                        “Better,” Archie replied, truthfully, “the farm is up and running again, and there’s the excitement of a new relationship I’m finally able to welcome. You?”

                        “I’m glad for you. I’m happier, too. I feel like Elliott and I are moving at the same speed.”

                        Archie shrugged. As far as he was concerned, the reason was never as important as the way it happened being particularly hurtful, and he wasn’t invested in whether their relationship ended happily ever after or in a flaming wreck. “I never wished misery on you, but I can’t say I’m that excited for you.” He waved toward Leah. “Given their history, I’m a bit worried, but you seem to have it under control.”

                        She nodded. “We have an understanding.”

                        Archie didn’t want to give that too much thought. “Don’t leave without your flowers this year. Take care, and give my regards to Mr. Qi.”

                        “Take care, Archie.”

                        Elliott also briefly greeted him, with cool civility. “A gaudy display, Archie, but again, it had panache.”

                        Archie sized Elliott up, and considered his response, as he didn’t want to provoke an outright altercation. “I’m not ashamed of her, what do I care?” Elliott frowned, as Archie continued. “You don’t know what you gave up on.”

                        “Perhaps not, but I am, for now, happier for it. The book is nearly done, and your advice to go seek out new experiences was instrumental.”

                        “Trying to pin our situation on me, that is just classic. So long, Elliott.” Archie did not wait for a reply to rejoin Leah and his friends.

                        The spring and summer marched on, and Archie and Leah’s relationship with it. The distribution arrangement with Pierre, combined with his hard work setting up his fields, brought in significant enough dividends that he was starting to consider what he wanted to do with them. A small percentage went into a slightly more lavish Luau bonfire, where the couple, the misfits, and Penny had a delightful time in spite of Sam having too much sugar from the s’mores and becoming uncomfortably hyper.

                        On rainy days, and there were a fair few that Spring and Summer, Archie would alternate between spending time with Leah, and mining. He reached a level of the mines with no ladder down a couple of days before the Dance of the Moonlight Jellies. In the small excavated room there was nothing but a small treasure chest, containing a key with a skull-shaped handle, and a VIP card for the Qi club. Archie smiled at the prospect of returning to the desert with a new context early into the fall.

                        Maeve returned for the Moonlight Jellies, and in addition to checking up on the partnership and ensuring everything was in place to keep the gravy train rolling, she spent a day with Archie and Leah sat outside Willy’s cabin, on the same folding chairs Archie bought the previous year, marveling at the jellyfish moving by, enjoying a more mutual and free-flowing conversation. Maeve was less into aesthetic pursuits than her brother, or the artist, but she could see Archie and Leah’s common ground much more clearly than Archie and Sandy’s. After the fact, she told him that this relationship seemed to make a lot more sense. In Maeve’s estimation, they both thought there was value in exploring and learning about themselves and the world, where Sandy didn’t. She also added that Leah could much better tolerate Archie’s obsessive philosophical examination of things than her, or most anyone.

                        He finally hired Robin to add a proper kitchen onto the farmhouse, which brought her a great deal of excitement that Fall, when on a rainy day, he booked a bus ride to the desert with Pam and headed up. On the way they discussed Penny and her plans for tutoring the children.

                        “It’s a shame,” Pam said, “it’s not sustainable. Those two are going to get to high school age, and then what’s she going to have?”

                        Archie bit his lip. “I’ve been thinking about that. Now that you’ve got work driving the bus again, do you think she’d be able to go back and finish her degree?”

                        Pam sighed and shook her head. “Even with working again, we can’t afford that.”

                        “I might be able to help a bit, but she doesn’t want to leave you alone, you know?”

                        Pam took a deep breath. “Oh, Yoba. After feeling like I could do nothing but drive her away. I may need some help, but she should go finish it up. But you’d really be willing to help foot the cost?”

                        Archie reached over the back of her seat and put a hand on her shoulder. “To a point. My sister owns a rental apartment near the university, so maybe she can stay there for cheap. Maybe there are other scholarships she can get, she hasn’t looked in ages. I’d be willing to chip in something. As for you, we’ve got a good set of people to come up with a plan; Lewis, Harvey, Gus. We’ll figure something out, that is, if she wants to pick that back up.”

                        Pam took it all in, and it became apparent to Archie, in spite of her silence, that mother and daughter would have a long talk back in Pelican Town.

                        The bus pulled up at the stop near the Oasis and Archie disembarked, asking Pam to wait up for him, as he didn’t think it would take him more than half an hour. He bee-lined to the shop and bought a few dozen packets of beet seeds.

                        Sandy graciously rang up his order. “Still doing well?”

                        “Can’t be beet,” he replied, grinning, waving the seed packet in her face conspicuously. “Elliott move in with you? We’ve been seeing him less and less around Pelican Town.”

                        Sandy nodded. “He’s working from my house today. He showed me a bit of his novel last night.”

                        Archie looked genuinely surprised. “He never showed me a word of it. I wondered whether it actually existed.”

                        Sandy nodded again. “It exists. It’s even pretty good. He took his negative emotions and turned them into a story.”

                        Archie rolled his eyes. “Come on. Really?”

                        “I know how surprising it must be.”

                        “I guess? I didn’t really see him tearing himself apart.” Archie said, not particularly sure what he thought as he walked toward the back room, something he never had done before, as the bouncer moved to block the entrance before Archie flashed the VIP card and the bouncer obsequiously got out of his way.

                        “You have a VIP card!?” Sandy called after him incredulously, as he walked through the door, letting that fact answer the question for him.

                        The club, as it so appeared, was more of a casino than a club with a few patrons gambling away, though there was an opulent lounge area, where Mr. Qi and the governor were having a conversation. Presuming that he was a VIP rather than a mere club member, Archie didn’t hesitate to go and join them, which prompted a smirk from Mr. Qi. “Welcome, Archie. I’m pleased you could finally join the club.”

                        The Governor greeted him politely, while Archie continued to survey the scene.

                        “Nice place you’ve got, Mr. Qi. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t quite this.”

                        Mr. Qi smiled. “And I wasn’t expecting you to finally pronounce my name right, but look how far we’ve come. I’m surprised you didn’t ask your friend what was in here.”

                        “I didn’t even ask Sandy what was in here after the first time. I’m surprised you’d think I’d have asked her.”

                        Mr. Qi turned to the Governor. “You see? I’ve got to make this place even more exclusive to get people interested.”

                        “Good thing for you there are few enough interesting people you’d want to invite anyway,” the Governor replied. Turning to Archie, he asked, “what did end up in that Luau soup, anyway? Delicious, I tell you.”

                        He chatted a short time longer before excusing himself and catching the bus back.

                        Pierre won the Harvest fair that year by a single point, but was the very picture of graciousness about it with Archie and the other competitors that time, while Archie’s hard work on the farm kept paying dividends through the autumn. In the winter, with his proper kitchen, he could focus on making small batches of preserves, and other refined products from his crops to keep an income flow going, rather than mining out of desperation, but given the year he had, it wasn’t entirely necessary. He was eager to spend more time during the winter with his friends and with Leah in particular. There wasn’t an endless assortment of things to do in Pelican Town, granted, but they took their Friday dinners together at the saloon before hanging out with the misfits. At one such meal, during a long pause in their conversation, not an awkward one, just due to a line of discussion ending, while simply enjoying each other’s quiet company, Leah told Archie that when she was with him, silence was bearable. It was perhaps the most romantic thing that Archie had ever heard, and it prompted him to talk that little bit less and to appreciate that little bit more. They ice fished in the frozen lake, and went on walks, and when the cold became too overbearing they day-tripped to the desert. They watched movies cuddled under a blanket drinking cider. They supported each other and managed just fine.

                        Maeve invited him and Leah for Winter Star in the city that year, and the discussion around that got pretty intense. Leah was torn between wanting to spend it communally among the town, and also wanting to spend time with him, while Archie hadn’t been back to his hometown in nearly two years. As a compromise, the two of them went to visit a week earlier, coinciding with a surprise visit from Archie’s brother. With the war winding down and the borders easing open, he was able to fly in from the Emerald Isle, which he insisted Archie (and Leah) would have to visit. Archie even managed to catch up with some of his old theatre friends, with Leah, and amid the joy of reminiscing over past creative accomplishments, Leah noticed that Archie still didn’t sound entirely convinced when he said he’d given all that up when he became a farmer.

                        The second annual New Year’s party at Archie’s was more comfortable given Robin expanding the house, and with the initial awkwardness of having done it for the first time gone. Alex had made the cut for the regional gridball team, and Haley had sent off her portfolio and was waiting to hear back. Maru started taking some university classes online to figure out what program to commit to, while Harvey continued his business apace. Sebastian was still living at home, but getting more regular freelance contracts from one of the big urban software houses, and he’d taken up playing music with Sam more, and Abigail, to the point where they were getting pretty good. Archie sometimes jammed along with them for a change of pace, but wasn’t a fixture of the band. Abigail had started to take on more of the managerial duties at the store, and had gone on her first archaeological dig in the fall. Penny was trying to figure out what to do since Vincent was going to be high school aged before long. Emily had a first date scheduled with Clint in the spring. Leah made and sold more art, though she hadn’t exhibited it in the same way as at her initial show. She thought that she’d be able to start showing it in larger venues, Hub Town, or Zuzu City, maybe.

                        The couples were more coupley while they were also more social, and to Archie, it was starting to feel like the whole town, but especially its young adults, was growing up some but also growing together.




                        IDK, feel free to ask some questions now that this is in the end stages.
                         
                          Alkanthe, Minimanta and Risukage like this.
                        • Risukage

                          Risukage Existential Complex

                          Ha! Evelyn has it right; you're gonna have arguments, so make 'em the right ones. :p

                          And everyone's working toward a positive future, yasss. You did good, Archie, the town's a better place for your efforts. I'm kinda sad to see this ending, but I'm also looking forward to a successful conclusion.

                          Also, yes, someone else out there understands the power and value of silence!
                           
                            Alkanthe likes this.
                          • Kid Absurdity

                            Kid Absurdity Starship Captain

                            I've been flat out with work the last couple of weeks and editing on the next chapter has been back-burnered amid other concerns. The next chapter is still aggravating me because I irrationally think the draft sucks, and I want to try out a partial re-write and see whether it fits my vision better. I'm hoping to get it done before a conference trip at the end of the month. I appreciate your patience!

                            Also:

                            That line about silence was as much of a self-insert as Archie gets in that story, given that I was once told that same thing, and nothing has capped it since as far as a romantic line. When one's mind, filled with loud insecurities, shuts up, it's a significant thing.
                             
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