Chapter 1: Cradling Stones Hold Fire Bright
“Did you hear, Priscilla?”
“They’re recruiting people to settle the new territory. It’s pretty far away.”
“Wow, that’s scary to think about! I would never do that!”
“I hear they pay pretty well.”
“Even so… you can’t spend money if you’re dead!”
You tried your best to politely get around the chatty ladies and reach the message board in the middle of the town square. The new notice was by far the largest.
“The Capitol Needs You… to Help Expand the Kingdom!” You scanned past the ostentatious headline and quickly took in the basic facts. The government had recently acquired a large section of wooded land on the south border of the continent, and for now, they wanted young, able-bodied couples to develop the land. The reward for volunteering was a piece of that land, as well as housing materials and a living stipend for the first ten years.
It was an interesting prospect, to be sure, but the risks almost outweighed the rewards in your mind. You didn’t have a family to leave behind, having lost your parents to the outbreak of scarlet fever six years ago, but that didn’t mean that you were going to willingly feed yourself to whatever wild animals inhabited the territory of Gongaga. Adventure, exploration, and excitement- these things were all well and good, but they did not exactly drown out the possibilities of sickness, starvation, and enemy attacks.
Of course, in the end, it didn’t matter what your thoughts on the matter were, because you knew exactly what a certain someone would think, and you knew exactly what you were about to get dragged into.
“Hey, _____, did you hear? Did you?” You sighed good-naturedly as the man behind you, who you knew was bouncing in place, parroted the words of the town gossips. As grating as his energy could sometimes be, and as put-upon as you generally acted, a person couldn’t meet Zack Fair’s enthusiasm with anything less than a smile.
“Yes, Zack; I’ve just read the notice, see?” You could have sworn that his hair deflated a little at your calm tone. Again you wondered why you tried to curb that energy, even as you asked yourself why he could never manage to wear other clothing besides one of his many pairs of cargo shorts. If the weather was warm, Zack was shirtless. The sun rose, the sun set, and Zackary Fair would not wear a shirt.
“And? Isn’t it awesome?! A whole new territory! Nothing but trees and rivers and animals, completely untouched by people. How amazing would it be to be the first humans to live there?” Whatever height the spikes had lost was quickly gained back as he extolled the virtues of pioneering. You listened absently, nodding along when he reached a pause, and waited for him to run out of breath.
“Zack, don’t you think it’s a bit dangerous?”
“Well, of course I do, but do you really think there’s anything out there that can defeat THIS?!” He immediately dropped to the ground and began doing push-ups, then moved on to squats while he said, “You know… that I… can take care… of myself.”
Another sigh escaped your lips, even as you admired Zack’s muscles, which were beginning to glisten with sweat. You and he had been friends since you were children and your parents introduced you, but even after seeing it almost daily, you weren’t immune to that body. Zack had gotten ridiculously muscular over the years, and seemed completely oblivious to the stares he got from every female in town… hence why he constantly forewent wearing a shirt.
At this point you realized that Zack was still talking, and had stopped showing off to waving a hand in front of your face. “Earth to _____? Are you still with me here?”
You shook off the stupor and tried your best to look at his face. “I heard you. You’re the strongest, blah blah blah.” Your smile betrayed that you were joking, though, and Zack knew better than to take that seriously.
“Hey, I didn’t say it, you did!” A silly grin made its way to his face as he placed his hands on his hips and thrust out his chest. You secretly called this his “hero pose.”
“I think that you’re missing one very important point, though.”
“What’s that?” He cocked his head to the side inquisitively.
“Well, they only want couples to go to the new territory right now. The Capitol seems pretty concerned with population stability before anything else…” You let the sentence trail off, sure that he would understand what you were implying. “Not to mention that you’re the Mayor’s son, and I’m almost positive that he won’t want the future leader of the town to go off to Gongaga and get eaten by something.”
A look of contemplation crossed Zack’s handsome face, and for a second you thought you might have dissuaded him. “Those are both excellent points, and I will respond to them by doing this!”
“Oh, no you will nAAAH!” You had tried your best to escape but you were quickly caught and swung up over Zack’s shoulder. “Eww, you’re all sweaty.” In reality, you didn’t mind that much, being used to it after almost a lifetime of friendship with him.
“That’s what you get for doubting me!” And with that, he began to walk away from the square, taking the path toward the river. You squawked and struggled for a while, mostly to make him laugh, but settled down after a few minutes of that.
You knew that Zack really was interested in going to the new territory and having a real adventure. You also knew that there were a couple of significant roadblocks between him and this goal. Finally, you were completely aware that his abrupt descent into silly games was his way of ignoring those roadblocks until he thought of a solution. Playing along and waiting for him to bring it up was the best course of action for now.
This time of year, the river was lukewarm and the currents were gentle. Fish occasionally darted through the water and tickled your toes as you sat on the grassy bank, but mostly they lazily allowed themselves to be carried along. Your part of the continent was warm almost all year, with high humidity and frequent rainstorms in summer. You wondered if the new territory had similar weather. It wasn’t too far away, but climate could vary greatly from place to place.
“Look, I got one!”
You brushed off distraction for the second time that day when water droplets were flicked onto your legs by a thrashing fish. Zack held it up proudly at the end of his hand line. “Wow, that’s a big one, but aren’t you going to let him go? It’s too nice of a day to be gutting fish.”
“Ha, I guess you’re right. Okay, fish, you live to swim another day!” The fish splashed back into the water as soon as the hook was out of its mouth, swimming much faster than it had been before.
“Do you think Gongaga has a river like this one?” There it was, the reintroduction of the awkward topic. It had taken a few hours of fishing and small talk, but you were sure that it would be coming.
“I’m sure it does, Zack; maybe it’s the same river. I mean, this one does flow east, so there has to be something like it out that way.”
“Oh… We’ve never really been far from home, have we? I mean, I thought that the next town over was far, but it’s actually only a few miles. I’ve never seen much of anything.” Real contemplation was a rare thing for Zack, who tended to think as he went and somehow manage to wiggle out of the inevitable trouble that strategy brought. You noted that he wasn’t looking at you, but instead at the grass beside himself.
“The world is a really big place. We’re still pretty young… I’ll be twenty in April and you’re only a couple years older. Of course we haven’t been anywhere yet.”
“Yeah, but no one from our town has ever been anywhere. The ones that leave don’t come back. It seems like there has to be something great out there.” A bit of a sparkle returned to Zack’s blue eyes as he perked up a little. “Mom and Dad can’t make me stay and be mayor, especially if I don’t want to. I wouldn’t be good at it, anyway. You know me — never thinking before I act.”
Although the last part was said with self-deprecating humor, you knew that he really was struggling with self-doubt. “I think…”
“I think you’ll be good at whatever you decide to do. Be the mayor, or be something else. You try hard, and you have a good heart. That’s what’s important.”
“You really think so?”
“Yeah, Zack, I really do. You’ll be fine… oh?” You turned your face upward and realized that it had just gotten much darker. Clouds had rolled in, and the thing that had hit you was a fat raindrop. “Oh, no… it wasn’t supposed to rain today!”
Zack was obviously out of thinking mode and had slid smoothly right back into being a man of action. “Only one thing to do!”
“Uh, what’s that?”
“RUN!” He took off down the wooded trail toward home, and you scrambled to follow.
Unfortunately, the rain was incredibly heavy and lightning began to strike a bit too close for comfort. You and Zack were forced to take shelter under a large stone that jutted out of the earth, leaving just enough room for two people to fit below …if they acted like sardines. Worse things existed than being pressed up against your attractive friend until the rain passed, even if he did still smell like fish.
“Don’t worry about it.”
Chapter 2: As Crickets Call Out to the Moonlight
About a week had passed since that conversation on the riverbank, and by all accounts, Zack was being his normal self. He hadn’t mentioned going to Gongaga again, not even when someone else brought up the notice. Sometimes you thought you saw him staring east, but maybe that was all in your head. In fact, you hadn’t seen him in a few days, so you could just be misremembering what you’d seen.
The harvest festival was coming up soon, to celebrate the beginning of autumn. The leaves didn’t change in your part of the world, but the agricultural cycle remained the same. You were hard at work on a pie recipe for the contest; baking was one of your favorite things to do. It felt good to make something tasty with your own hands.
Pies covered almost every surface in your small home, and anyone who stopped by was invited to try them and give a review. So far, the apple-pumpkin hybrid was winning over both cherry and apple by itself. There were only a few days left to decide, and you were pretty sure which one you were going with.
A gentle knock rattled your front door. You hadn’t been expecting anyone, but the smell of baked goods had lured most of the town to your house over the past few days. “Come in!” you called from your seat at the dining room table.
You were only a little surprised to see the mayor at your door, hefting a large box over his shoulder. It was easy to see where Zack got his strength. “Oh, hi, Mayor Fair. Have a seat. Do you want some pie?”
The mayor, a tall man in his forties, put the box down on the floor with a soft thud and took a seat next to you. “Now, _____, I’ve told you a thousand times to just call me Tobias. I’ve always thought of you as family; there’s no need to be so stuffy!”
“Ah, I’m sorry. Old habits die hard, I guess. What have you got in the box?” Truth be told, you knew what it was, but asking got the topic out of the way.
“It’s your portion of the meat from the deer hunt. I believe my son’s words were, ‘_____ will make something great with this!’”
Thus began the same old song and dance that you went through every time the meat was delivered. “Truly, Mayor- I mean Tobias,” you corrected yourself, “you don’t need to do this for me!”
“I promised your parents I’d look after you, and I’ll be darned if I let you make a liar of me.”
“I know, but surely there’s someone in town who needs it more.”
“Everyone gets fed; you know that. This is just your part of it. With just you on your own, you wouldn’t have any meat.”
The well-worn argument reached its conclusion as you replied, “All right. I’ll take it this time, but you must let me repay you somehow. How about you and Mrs. Fair and Zack all come over and let me make dinner?”
The mayor ran a hand through his short salt-and-pepper hair, while the other hand accepted the piece of pie you offered. “You’ve got yourself a deal.”
Having the mayor’s family over for dinner would be an occasion for pomp and circumstance in some communities, but in yours, etiquette was a bit more relaxed. Besides, it was at least a monthly occurrence to find the Fairs in your home for a meal. The mayor wasn’t some kind of supreme overlord; he was more like a director, thinking about the best ways to keep the town running smoothly. The people generally elected a mayor who served until the retirement age, and then they chose a new one. The Fairs had been the mayoral family for three generations, though, which was why everyone had such high expectations for Zack.
The energetic man in question was currently in your kitchen, stirring his assigned pot of stew with a look of concentration on his face. Zack was an awful cook, but he had wanted to help so badly, and you couldn’t stand the sad look on his face when you’d said that you didn’t need anything. Hence the assigned chore, “Stir that, and tell me if it starts to stick.”
The meal wasn’t anything fancy; you had made a stew with carrots, onions, potatoes and a portion of the deer you’d been brought. There was fresh bread to go with it, and the entire house was starting to take on the homey smell of a warm meal. The sound of Zack’s spoon scraping the pot was almost like a metronome for the gentle music of a relaxed evening with friendly company.
“I think it’s done now. Why don’t you taste it and tell me what you think?”
“All right!” It was apparent that he’d been waiting for you to say that for a while. “Wow, this is really good! Maybe I’m getting better at cooking.” He grinned widely and gave you a thumbs-up.
You laughed softly at his joke, before taking the spoon from him and waving him off to the table. “Go on, sit down. I’ll bring the food in a minute.”
“Don’t take too long, or I might start eating the table.” With that, you were alone in the kitchen once more. You served out four dishes of stew and bread before taking two and walking out to the table.
“Ah, the chef has arrived,” said Mrs. Fair cheerfully. “I always do love the first stew of fall.”
“Yes, ma’am, I do too,” you said, serving the mayoral couple first.
“Aww, _____, I could have helped you with that,” said Zack as you returned to the kitchen for his food and yours.
“No way, you’re company…even if you are here all the time.”
“_____, I don’t think he counts as company any more. If you cooked like this every day, he might move in,” the mayor said with a smile.
“You may be right,” and here you paused to sit down, “but maybe that’s why I don’t do it!”
The whole table laughed heartily before tucking in to their dinner. Noise was limited to soft noises of contentment and silverware touching dishes. When everyone had finished their first serving (and Zack had finished two), you asked, “Who’s ready for dessert?”
“Only if it isn’t pie,” Zack said.
His mother swatted the back of his head gently. “Zackary, that is rude.”
“Ow, what was that for? I’ve eaten enough pie to feed a horse!” He reached up to rub his head.
“No, Zack, it isn’t pie this time.” Despite the scolding, he looked pretty relieved at your statement.
Dessert was not, in fact, pie. It was cake, and it was a chocolate cake. You had kept it a secret and made it early in order to protect it from a certain young man’s appetite. Chocolate icing covered the two-layer dessert, and everyone made appreciative noises as you placed it on the table and began to serve it.
“So, Mom, Dad, I have something I want to talk to you about.” You were surprised, but not all that surprised, to hear Zack speak up after taking his first bite. You knew where this was going.
“Well, dear, if it’s that important, shouldn’t it wait until we get home?” Mrs. Fair looked mildly intrigued, but also a little worried.
“No, see, that’s the thing. _____ and I have already talked about it.”
“Ah… go ahead then, son, I think I know what it is.” said Mr. Fair.
“Wow, uh, that makes it easier, I guess. Okay. So…” He trailed off, probably nervous and apprehensive. You nudged his foot with yours under the table, urging him to get on with it. “Yeah. You guys all know about the new territory of Gongaga and how the government wants people to go there and settle it.”
The entire table nodded mutely, waiting for him to get to the point.
“Well…er…. I want to go.”
Zack had probably expected outrage and shock, but no one said anything. He broke the silence. “Um, what do you think about that?”
“Well, boy, I think we all knew that.” Mr. Fair spoke up first, saying what everyone was thinking. “What I don’t think we know is how you plan on doing it.”
“What do you mean, Dad? You know I can handle it! I’m a great hunter; I know how to take care of myself.”
“That isn’t exactly what I meant, Zackary. There’s at least one important…consideration that you don’t seem to have thought of.”
“Yes, there is. Let me give you a minute to think about it.”
“Tobias!” scolded Mrs. Fair, not pleased about her husband’s teasing.
“Well, Sarah, it’s an important point!”
“That may be so, but there’s no reason to torture him. Just say it.”
“All right then, I will: you aren’t married, son. You aren’t even halfway to thinking about getting married. Every time we bring it up, you always find some kind of way to change the subject.”
At this point in the conversation, you were turning beet red and sinking as far into your chair as you could. This was not a discussion that you should have been present for, Zack’s insistence aside. You wanted to excuse yourself, but it was your house and there was really nowhere for you to go.
“Dad, I have thought about that.”
“Have you now?” Mr. Fair’s eyebrows raised higher than you had thought possible.
“Yeah, I have.”
“And what solution have you come up with?”
“There’s a reason I brought this up tonight. _____ has agreed to come with me!”
Your eyes snapped up from their firm gaze on the tablecloth. “I what?!”
Chapter 3: As You Lean In to Steal a Kiss
“Isn’t that right, _____?” The emphasis Zack put on the words was a familiar one, well worn over the years you had known him. It was the tone that implied, Just go along with this right now and I’ll explain later. However, you’d never been asked to commiserate on something so serious before. You had an important decision to make and seconds to make it before Zack’s claim was invalidated by your silence.
Damn it, you thought. I can’t just leave him hanging. He had better have an excellent excuse for this. “Yes, that’s…correct.”
“Oh,” said Sarah Fair faintly.
“Ah,” said Tobias Fair evenly.
“See?” said Zack, as his famous grin returned to his face.
“Your father and I,” began Mrs. Fair, “we always saw something like this coming, but it is a bit of a shock to hear it so suddenly.”
“Oh yes, believe me, it was a shock to me at first also,” you replied, attempting to keep your statements neutral until you knew what Zack had planned.
“I suppose some kind of congratulations are in order, then, but…you aren’t leaving right away, are you?” she said with a slight tremor in her voice.
“No, not at all!” Zack jumped in. “It won’t be until spring comes again, at least. Trying to survive winter in a new place is a really bad idea.”
“I see,” said Mr. Fair. “Okay, son, as happy as we are, you’ve given this old man his heart attack for the day. Why don’t we head on home and leave _____ in peace.”
The Fairs quickly gathered their coats and made an exit. Mrs. Fair clasped your hands in hers and said, “I’d welcome you to the family, dear, but I always thought of you that way, anyway.”
Mr. Fair patted you on the head and “hmph”ed, but you knew that he was probably still processing and didn’t take his demeanor personally.
Zack threw a look at you over his shoulder, one that you couldn’t interpret. He mouthed I’ll come back later, and then the door closed behind him and you were by yourself again.
The dishes had been done, the table was clear, and the floors were swept. No sign remained in your home of the previous events, except for the wrinkles in your creased brow. Why would Zack have told such a blatant lie? You had not agreed to do anything; in fact, you’d done your best to dissuade him from leaving the village. Surely, he had some sort of plan, but it would have been nice to hear about it in advance.
“Rrrrghhh.” You let out a growl as you allowed your head to collapse onto the table. What had he been thinking? Now in addition to being worried about losing him to the wild blue yonder, you had to worry about his secret agenda that depended on you lying to his family. The Fairs had been like surrogate parents since you had lost your own, and it irked you to tell them something so blatantly untrue.
Maybe a warm drink would serve to settle your unease. You set about boiling some water for tea, and then dug through your cabinets for the jar of chamomile leaves.
Just as you had put the leaves in the water, an extremely quiet knock came at your door. Were you honestly ready to hear whatever insanity would come from Zack this time? You could pretend to be asleep already, but he would know that you wouldn’t be able to sleep while you were so worried. He would know that you were avoiding him, and then he would be upset. It seemed as of late that many of your dealings with your oldest friend were determined by pragmatism. This occasion was no different, and you got up wearily to answer the door.
Zack stood there staring at the ground, wearing a shirt for once. He seemed to startle at the sight of you, and then quickly settled back into his moping. “Can I come in?” he half-whispered, careful not to alert any neighbors to his presence.
You closed the door softly behind him. “When have I ever not let you in? For that matter, when have you ever asked?”
“I figured maybe you wouldn’t want to see me, but I had to try to explain.” A shrug followed these words.
“I’m not really angry at you. Just confused and a little hurt that you wouldn’t tell me before you pulled a stunt like that. I felt so stupid; I had no idea what to say.”
“I… I want to tell you what’s going on, but I’m honestly afraid to. Can we sit down first?” His apprehension was unusual. There were very few things that Zack hadn’t told you over the years, and you’d heard a multitude of things that you wished you could forget.
Nevertheless, you moved towards the sofa and sat down on one end. Zack took the other end, leaving a fair bit of space between you. This was another anomaly; usually he forgot about personal space completely.
“Okay, I’d really like to know what’s going on in that spiky head of yours. Go ahead.”
“You know that we’ve been friends for a long time.”
“And we always do everything together, and people have always thought that we’re…dating.”
“Yes, even though I think they’ve realized by now that we aren’t.”
“I figured that if I told my parents that it was you I was leaving town with, they would be okay with me preparing to go, and it would give me some time to figure out the whole…marriage thing.” His smile was almost sheepish, as well it should have been.
You felt a cold hand slip around your heart and you shot up from your seat on the couch. This was worse than anything you could have imagined. “Zackary Tobias Fair! Are you telling me that you want me to lie to everyone and say we’re together, while you make other plans?” Tears welled up in your eyes, although you tried to suppress them.
“No! No, no, no, that’s not it at all!” He waved his hands frantically, as if he could dispel any misunderstandings via gestures.
“Oh? Then what is it? We’ve been best friends since before I could talk, and you want me to be your pretend girlfriend until you find someone you like better.” Clenching your fists, you turned your back to him. “Well, I won’t do it. I won’t lie to everyone.”
“Didn’t you ever wonder why I never dated anyone? Why I never told you if I had a crush on someone?”
“You didn’t want me to know. It’s not hard to figure out that a man doesn’t want a female friend knowing about all of his…conquests.” The last word was spat out, almost as though the idea disgusted you.
“I never had any conquests, or dates, or anything else!” You turned an appraising eye on Zack’s face. He looked genuinely distressed, but many things could have prompted that.
“Okay, so we’ve established that you’re behind on the dating game. Why do you need me to lie for you? It wouldn’t be hard for you to find someone to go with you. Ask anyone you want. I mean, have you ever seen yourself?” Oh, damn, you hadn’t meant to say that. “I mean. You’ve grown up well. Women stare at you all the time.”
“You just said that you think I’m cute.”
“No, I didn’t, and I’m still very angry with you.”
“You did.” The familiar smile was returning, and Zack’s tone become singsong. “You think I’m adorable.”
“I do not.”
“You know you do.”
“So what if I do? What does have to do with anything?!”
“Gotcha!” Now Zack’s smile was almost blinding in its intensity. “I knew it. That makes this next part so much easier.”
You were still trying to get over your embarrassment enough to remove your face from your hands. In a muffled voice, you replied, “And what’s that?”
“The reason I spend all my time with you, and the reason that I never showed an interest in anyone, and the reason that I told my mom and dad that you’re coming with me are all the same reason.” It was Zack’s turn to take on the patient tone with you. “What do you think that reason is?”
“Haven’t you dragged this out enough?” you said lowly, returning to your seat on the sofa. “Just spit it out already.”
Before you could even blink, Zack had moved over to your side of the sofa. He cupped your cheek in a callused hand and wound his other arm tightly around your waist. “There’s only ever been one girl I wanted to look at.”
You made an extremely undignified noise of shock. Your cheeks had to be bright red, and your heart was racing faster than you had ever felt it go before. “I…”
“Shhh. Let me finish.” The hand on your face moved to place a finger over your lips. Who was this smooth-talking Prince Charming? Where was your bouncy, silly best friend Zack? There wasn’t enough room in your head for all the thoughts you wanted to process. That was okay, though, because his next statement pretty much turned you into a blank slate.
“The only woman I ever wanted to be with…was you.” He leaned in even closer, tilting your face to the proper angle, and kissed you.
It was not, perhaps, the most technically perfect kiss, but the enthusiasm and passion you felt from him made up for that. His lips were so much softer than you would have thought, and his hair, you dimly noted as you wound your fingers into it, was nowhere near as pointy as it looked. It felt so perfect to be pressed up against his firm chest like that, like you were puzzle pieces fitting together. Zack gently licked your bottom lip, encouraging you to open up further to him, but the slight change brought you to your senses enough to place a hand on his sternum and push. “What… What was that?!”
His first reaction, after disengaging his mouth from yours, was apparently to blush and panic. “Was it that bad? I mean, I didn’t know where to put my nose, but I tried really hard not to slobber on you or anything and I-“
You cut him off by borrowing his finger-shushing gesture from moments earlier. “I don’t mean the kiss, even though it was…” and here you got a little sidetracked replaying the kiss, “really good.”
Zack fist-pumped jovially, before bringing out the serious face once more.
“I mean, since when have you felt like that? Why couldn’t you just tell me?”
“Do you have any idea how scary that was to say? You’re so pretty and nice and you don’t get annoyed with me and I didn’t want to screw it up! I didn’t know if you felt the same! Wait, do you?” The transition from passionate compliments to worried inquisition was a pretty funny one.
“Of course I do.” His whole body visibly relaxed at your statement. “I’ve only been crazy about you since I was twelve. I thought you didn’t like me like that.”
“I always did, ever since I started thinking about girls at all. I don’t know how you never noticed.”
“If you were waiting to tell me this, why didn’t you wait to tell your parents until after you told me?”
“Honestly?” Zack’s nose scrunched up as he sorted out his words. You allowed yourself, finally, to acknowledge how cute that was. “I didn’t mean to. I guess I thought at the time that if my parents knew, then I had to tell you. I made a situation where not telling you was worse than telling you.”
“Did you really think about it that much? That’s really complicated.”
“Well, not really. I just sort of did it and now I’m trying to figure out why.”
“That’s more like the Zack I know.” You smiled in spite of yourself.
“So, I guess there’s one more thing I have to ask you.”
You scooted yourself a little closer to him. It was pretty much reflexive - he smelled really good, like a mixture of soap and the forest when it rained. “I’m pretty sure I know what it is. Yes, I’ll go with you.”
“Yeah, I didn’t think- wait, really? You will?” Zack began bouncing on the sofa cushion, causing you to bounce along with him. His eyes glittered with happiness. “That’s so great! What made you change your mind? I thought you didn’t want me to go.”
“I didn’t want you to go because I didn’t want you to leave me behind.” This admission made you a little embarrassed to have thought so selfishly, and you lowered your eyes as tears began to well. “I don’t know what I would have done without you. I’d go anywhere you went, if you’d have me.”
“Hey,” he lifted your chin to bring your eyes up off the floor, “It’s okay. I’d never leave you behind. You are never, ever, ever getting rid of me.”
“You…you mean it?”
“Not even when I get on your nerves and you want me to go away. I won’t do it! I promise! You’d miss me too much.” He ruffled your hair, knowing that it annoyed you, but also knowing that you’d forgive him.
“Don’t push your luck, Fair,” you grumbled as you ducked out from under his hand.
“Okay, I’ll quit.” He sombered up a little but pulled you back into his arms. “So, want to go on a date with me?”
“I think you’ve done this whole thing completely backwards, Zack…”
“Huh? What do you mean?” He tilted his head in confusion.
“First you tell your parents we’re moving in together. Then you tell me you like me. Then you ask me on a date. Do you see the issue here?” You laughed a little at the absurdity of the situation.
“Haha, I guess you’re right. But, will you do it anyway?”
“What did you have in mind?”
Chapter 4: I'll Never Need More Than This
The harvest festival was, besides Christmas, Easter, and other common holidays, the biggest event of the year in your town. It was an excellent place for a first date (in fact, you saw that many other couples were doing that very thing), and you credited Zack mentally for having a great idea. There was so much to do and see that it was nearly impossible not to have fun.
Though the basic features of the festival hadn’t changed much since you first attended as a child, little details often shifted, making each year’s celebration feel exciting all over again. There were standard events that always happened, like the athletic events, the music performances, and the fortune-telling tent. This year, the big draw for people was a show by a traveling acrobat group.
The big draw for Zack, of course, was the contests which took place in a field just outside the town proper. Most of them were athletic tests, which he always excelled at. This was not news to you or anyone else in town; people were so used to Zack winning all of his contests that you weren’t sure why there were other entrants. Even so, he was a really good sport about his skill and tried hard not to celebrate his victories too zealously in front of the losers.
His favorite event was the long jump, but second place was almost definitely the stone toss. Which, it occurred to you, was currently taking place, and so you thought you had best stop mentally explaining the festival.
“Okay, that was a great attempt by Alan Peterson. Next up, we have Kilroy McCarthy. This is his first year competing, so let’s all be supportive and give him lots of applause!” You clapped politely, smiling as you saw Zack on the sidelines clapping so hard you thought you could actually hear it from your place on the bench about fifty feet away.
Kilroy McCarthy was not a particularly impressive physical specimen, and if you were to guess, you’d say he was in this contest to win over a girl. Nevertheless, he stretched a few times, and then walked up to the stone. The size varied from year to year, but it was always maybe half the weight of a grown man. The ground in front of the boy was already littered with dents from previous attempts.
McCarthy lifted the stone as best he could, though his trembling legs belied its heaviness. He took a few staggering steps up to the line, and then proceeded to fling the rock as hard as he could. Unfortunately, his toe dug into the dirt at the last minute, and he tripped spectacularly as the stone sailed forward. It flew through the air for a remarkably long time before hitting the earth, further than anyone else’s throw had yet. The spectators, which included most of the town, cheered and whistled wildly. You sat there shocked, wondering what divine providence had intervened in the name of Kilroy McCarthy’s quest for love. Indeed, a small blonde girl, who you remembered faintly was called Elizabeth, flung herself from her seat in order to help him up from the ground.
“And an amazing throw from young Mr. McCarthy,” the announcer, who was also Amos Taylor the blacksmith, boomed. “I haven’t seen a rock fly like that in years! Mr. Fair, I hope you’ve been practicing!” he ribbed.
Zack was now on his feet, doing squats like his life depended on it. Most of the crowd likely thought he was showing off, but you were pretty sure he was nervous and working out the tension. It had been a while since anyone had seriously challenged him at something like this. He raised his arms and rotated them a few times before moving over to the throwing line. The stone was being rolled back by three young boys, none over the age of ten, who likely were fascinated by the idea that they could one day throw something that large.
“Of course, the last contestant is one we all know already. Zackary Fair!” The applause was only slightly less deafening than you expected. Zack was very popular with most of the townsfolk due to his polite and helpful personality. “Well, this will be exciting! Do your best, boy!”
You saw Zack take a couple of deep breaths, swing his arms once more, and then heft the rock up. He didn’t seem to be having much trouble holding it, but throwing it was a completely different animal. For a moment time seemed to slow, and then the stone was flying fast, hitting the soil with an audible thud. Had it passed Kilroy McCarthy’s throw? You couldn’t tell from your spot. The announcer walked over to the landing spot and scratched his head before shouting loudly, “I’ve never seen one this close before! Our winner of a fabulous prize, and only by inches…” Of course, he dragged out the pause. Zack took a couple of visible deep breaths. You clenched your fists and bit your lip. “ZACK FAIR! Still the stone throw champion!”
A breath you didn’t even know you were holding escaped your lips. The winner himself was bouncing around the arena exuberantly, doing cartwheels and even throwing out a few silly dance moves. However, he slowed his celebration when he noticed the sad second-place winner staring at the dirt. Zack marched over to Kilroy McCarthy and placed a hand on his shoulder. “Hey, you did great today. Keep up the good work!”
Zack proceeded to flash his brilliant smile and give a thumbs-up. Kilroy’s companion, Elizabeth, clasped the slightly more upbeat youth’s hand in her own as they walked away. You rose from your seat and went to meet your own date. He had his back turned to you, speaking with the announcer and receiving his winnings.
“Yeah, I wasn’t sure if I could- oh, hey, _____,” he said as you tapped him on the shoulder. “Anyway, Mr. Taylor, thanks for doing the talking today! I can’t neglect my date anymore or she might go find someone else!”
You blushed slightly at Zack’s words, even as the blacksmith smiled and waved the two of you off. “I wasn’t even worried. I knew you would win.”
“I knew I would too. What would you have thought of me if the first time I lost was on our first date?” Zack laughed and looped an arm around your waist. “Now that I’m done throwing things for the day, what would you like to do next?”
“Hmmm,” you said as you thought about it. Being so close to Zack was nothing new, but he looked so good like this, his dark hair damp with exertion and his muscles taut and prominent. You could hardly keep your mind on the topic at this distance. “Why don’t we just walk past all the different tents and see if there’s anything interesting?”
“Good with me!” he exclaimed, almost dragging you along with his large steps.
“Hey, wait,” you pulled on his arms to stop his movement, “what was your prize? I don’t see it anywhere.”
“Oh, that. I told him to give it to Kilroy.”
“Why would you do that? It wasn’t something good?”
“It was cool, but I asked him if I could have something else, instead.”
“If I told you, I’d have to kill you. Now come on, let’s go explore. We still have a couple hours before they judge the pies.” The two of you strode away toward the main area of the festival. You allowed your hip to bump Zack’s thigh playfully, and he tickled you with the fingers that were still touching your side. Your laugh echoed through the mostly-empty arena and could be heard all the way back.
“Meat pie! Get your meat pies here, only three coppers!”
“Rare goods from all over the world! You won’t find them anywhere else!”
“Place your bets on the frog race!”
The shouts of various vendors filled the air and tumbled about in your ears. It was a little confusing and a lot crowded, and you were grateful to be with someone who was taller and broader to help you navigate. Lots of people came from different places to attend the festival, so there were many unfamiliar faces. Even so, the general aura of fun and merriment was contagious, and you and your companion had already visited a few tents. The standout had to be the “Something on a Stick” booth, where Zack had paid two coppers for, and received, something on a stick. In a way, it was like gambling, as the something could have been food, a valuable prize, or something awful like an old shoe. Zack apparently thought he had gotten pretty lucky, because he was munching on his turkey leg (stick removed for convenience) in high spirits. “Mrff ih fuh eh ace emurr,” he said around his mouthful of food.
“I have no idea what you just said,” you said, and gently punched him in the shoulder. “It’s bad manners to talk with your mouth full.”
He swallowed with a feigned look of guilt before repeating himself. “I said, this is the best date ever.” A slight blush colored his cheeks.
“Oh.” You were a little surprised, even though you were having a great time with him, that he would say that. Then again, Zack had a tendency to be so sincere it hurt. “You think?”
“Yeah! It’s just like how we hung out before, but now I can do this!” The “this” was to pull you close, dip you back with one arm, and plant a sloppy kiss on your cheek. Zack tilted you upright and let go, beaming from ear to ear.
Even though you were embarrassed at his grand gesture, you couldn’t help but smile back. “I’m having a lot of fun too,” you told him as you subconsciously pressed a hand to your face.
“Good! I’m glad that I didn’t mess up!” he said, relief evident on his handsome face. His blue eyes became intense as he scanned your features for any sign of discontent. “Yeah, I think I’ve done pretty good so far,” he concluded, taking another huge bite of the turkey leg. “Ooo ant umf?”
“No, Zack, I do not want some,” you giggled as he attempted to chew. “Don’t choke on it.”
You hadn’t noticed, but the two of you had come to a stop outside a small purple tent with a shiny sign staked into the grass. The fancy letters spelled out “Madame Xenobia’s Fortune Telling”. Although the sun was still out as dusk approached, the inside of the tent was dark, and you were intrigued in spite of yourself. “Hey, let’s go get our fortunes done!”
“You sure?” asked your companion, now finished with his food and capable of clear speech. “I’m in if you are, but it kind of creeps me out.”
“It’ll be fine,” you assured him, “I’ll be right there with you! I’ll even hold your hand.” Lacing his fingers between yours, you gently tugged him forward.
Chapter 5: We All Share the Pain of Our Histories
I get one comment and here I go, giving up the goods. Honestly, I got four whole kudos and I freaked a little. I hope you enjoy this chapter, even though it's mostly just tarot cards and ridiculousness.
Once you were inside, you could see a bit better. A middle-aged woman with brown hair and pale skin sat at a small table, a crystal orb and a deck of cards in front of her. She smiled upon noticing your presence, and greeted you warmly. “Welcome, welcome. My name is, as you may have seen, Madame Xenobia. I can tell you anything you want to know, be it past, present or future. What is it that you’re wondering?” Her kind demeanor instantly put you at ease, and you even felt Zack’s grip on your hand loosen. This woman was not at all scary, nothing like you had expected.
You quickly realized that she had asked a question. “Well, we kind of just wanted to get our fortunes read… I didn’t think of anything specific.”
“Ah, that’s fine as well. If you’re open to anything, you often get the best answers! Please, sit down, both of you. We’ll see if we can’t clear a few things up.” You took a seat and, judging from the tug on your left arm, Zack did the same. He didn’t look too uncomfortable, so you felt okay about bringing him with you.
“Now, what are your names?” Madame Xenobia asked.
“Oh, I’m _____, and this is Zack,” you gestured to the man beside you.
“Uh…hello,” Zack said with a small wave and a smaller smile.
“I see you’re a bit nervous, young man. Do try not to worry, you are in no danger here,” she said kindly. “Let’s see. I wonder what method would be best for you two.”
Despite your intimidation, you had to ask, “Both of us? I thought fortunes were only one at a time…”
“Oh, no, not at all. I can sense that you two are very strongly bonded. Your fortunes would be almost identical, so it’s best to do them together. And, young man,” she pointed to Zack, “That question you have burning in your mind? I would get on with it…”
Zack jolted visibly and his hand clenched around yours, her words obviously striking a chord with him. “How did you know about that?”
“I know many things, dear. Now, back to the question of how I am to read your collective fortune. Tea leaves, perhaps? Ah, I think it is to be the cards.” Madame Xenobia lifted the cards you had seen earlier from the table and untied the ribbon holding them together, before holding them out to you. “If you would shuffle these, and then hand them to your friend so he can do the same.”
You reached forward hesitantly, grasping the cards and feeling their thick, papery texture. The backs had a design of stars, and you stared at this image as you shuffled them a few times. “Your turn,” you whispered, handing the deck to Zack. He shuffled them a little more dexterously than you did before passing them back to the fortuneteller.
“For you, I will use five cards. This first one,” she smoothly flipped the top card over and placed it on the table, “represents your past.”
The card displayed an image of a blindfolded man with two swords crossed over his chest. “That doesn’t look good,” Zack murmured, but Madame Xenobia heard him.
“The two of swords is not exactly a cheerful card, but seeing as it’s in the past, I think you’ll find it less troubling. You see, this card represents repressed feelings and fear of action. Was there recently some revelation between you, hmmm? Yes, that makes sense,” she replied to your hesitant nods, before turning over another card. “Oh, I thought so. The Fool.”
“Hey!” exclaimed Zack, probably more than a little offended. You laughed in spite of yourself.
“This card represents new beginnings, letting go of fears, and trusting your heart. Some people would call such faith foolish, but this truly is a very positive card to signify your present. It shows that you are open to all the joy life may bring your way. I will only caution you to be prepared for those things which are not joyous.”
You heard a sharp intake of breath from your companion, and squeezed his hand. He squeezed back, and you knew that he wasn’t too freaked out.
The fortuneteller continued, “The card beneath this one represents your collective driving force, the thing that pushes you toward your goals.” This new card carried a familiar image: that of a wheel like the ones used for games of chance. You noticed that it was not facing the same direction as the others. “The wheel of fortune often represents lucky accidents, but in this case I believe it signifies a sudden realization or abrupt decision about something quite important. Which of you has experienced this? Is it both? Here, however, we see it reversed. Something is inhibiting the important realization. Think about that when you make a choice of magnitude.”
At this point, you were getting goosebumps. Everything that Madame Xenobia had said so far made a lot of sense to you. Apprehension filled you at the thought of what else she might know.
“Almost done, now. This card at the top represents your ultimate destination, the thing toward which you are constantly traveling.” You saw the image of an angel with brown wings on the card, holding a golden staff. “Temperance signifies harmony, security, and overall well-being through working together. It’s an excellent card for a pair like you, isn’t it? You strive toward a happy future through compromise.”
The silence that followed was a little awkward. You and Zack both shifted in your chairs, but before you thought of something to say to the happy pronouncement, she continued with the reading. “All right. Our last card represents your future. Before I reveal it, please do remember that these things can always change, and that the best thing to do with these readings is to consider them. Do not take this prediction too seriously, yes?” She smiled widely at the two of you, and seemed pleased when you both gave nervous nods.
The card she turned over was not particularly remarkable, but its image of conflict was not a comforting one. Several men seemed to be fighting with sticks. “The five of wands gives the idea of minor setbacks, of disagreements, and of being divided in purpose. It is not a happy card, my dears.” Madame Xenobia wagged a finger at you. “Even so, it is easily overcome if you continue looking to what is important: mutual balance and peace. Things will become difficult, but I am sure you will surmount them.”
“How do you know?” you blurted out.
“Yeah, I was wondering the same thing myself,” Zack added. “It doesn’t seem like the future will end well from the look of that card.” He leaned forward to get a better look at it.
“Not to worry, this is a question that is often asked. When I read a fortune, I do so with a signifying card, one that is chosen to represent the person or people the reading is about. I use this to inform my choices about the information I give.”
“Okay,” you said. “What was ours?”
“That is the next question they always ask. Here,” and she laid down a card that she had apparently been holding in her lap. “The two of pentacles. You can see that he’s having a bit of trouble juggling those, but you also see his smile. This card tells me that the two of you will be flexible and persistent, while always trying to make the best of a situation. It tells me that the obstacles thrown your way will be easily passed.”
“Well, she sure has me down,” Zack admitted with a tone of surprise. “I’m all about the flexible fun!”
“Zack, you better not be talking about-“
“May I request that you attempt to kill him outside the tent, dear?” Madame Xenobia asked you.
“Oh, of course,” you replied, and handed her a silver coin. “Come on, you. It’s probably time for the pie judging.”
Nothing made Zack move faster than the promise of food. He was out of the tent in seconds. “Thank you,” you told the fortuneteller.
“Good luck with him,” she said with a smile.
In the end, you had won second place in the pie contest. It didn’t bother you too badly, though, because everyone knew that Melissa Taylor made the best blueberry pie in town. She had been baking for much longer than you had, after all. You wore the second-place ribbon cheerfully, and Zack wore a look of contentment at his full stomach.
“I think this was the best festival we’ve ever had!” he exclaimed, patting his midsection to emphasize the point. “Even though the card thing was a bit creepy.”
“You thought it was creepy because it sounded true,” you replied, leaning your tired head against the arm he had interlinked with yours. The walk back to your house wasn’t far from the festival space, but you were walking pretty slowly. “I can’t believe this will be my last festival.”
“I hadn’t…thought about that.” Zack’s forehead wrinkled, a sure sign that he wasn’t thinking good thoughts. “Maybe we can come back and visit for the next one?”
“Maybe,” you exhaled. “I’m glad we went together, no matter what.” The dry leaves crunched under your feet as the two of you walked in silence for a minute or so. Fall had definitely arrived, and the temperature dropped dramatically after the sun went down, enough to prompt a gentle shiver. You were glad that your home was now in sight.
“That’s good,” said Zack in a lower tone, his face serene and calm. “I’m really happy that we’re like this, you know?”
“Like what?” you inquired as you reached your front door.
“I don’t know how to say it… We feel the same way and now we both know. I don’t have to be scared to be close to you. I can do this…” he trailed off, as he leaned down, pushing your your back gently to the wood of the door, and kissed you for what couldn’t have been more than the tenth time. Your hands immediately clasped at the back of his neck, and you raised yourself onto your toes in order to press your lips to Zack’s more firmly. His confidence was apparent, and you could feel heat run all the way through your bones. His mouth was almost like liquid, hot and molding perfectly to your own, and when he slid his tongue along your lips, you didn’t hesitate to open your mouth and run your own tongue along the surface of his. Your head began to get a little fuzzy, and he must have felt the same, because he broke the kiss so that the two of you could gasp for air. Your faces were only scant centimeters apart. There wasn’t a single place inside you that felt untouched.
“Wow,” you panted, trying to regain your breath.
“Wow is right.” Zack’s voice was a husky rumble, and the pupils of his normally bright eyes were blown open, so that almost all you saw was black. “I can’t believe I waited this long to do that.”
“I’m just…happy you did.” You were breathing a little easier now, and you moved one hand to trace his strong jaw. Ever since he had kissed you for the first time a few days ago, you had wondered how this gorgeous, sweet, amazing man had come to belong to you.
“I want to make you lose your breath like that, over and over again,” Zack whispered before pressing himself against you and kissing you hard once more.
Chapter 6: The Ache Goes Away, if You Could See
Sigh. This story rots my teeth, even two years later. I hope the deluge of fluff makes you guys happy too.
Winter was upon the town now, and though it had yet to snow, everyone new it would come soon. You and Zack had only grown closer, though not much had changed physically. Kissing was the extent of your activities for now, even though both of you had often wondered about doing more.
The onset of the coldest season meant that there were fewer hunting trips, but those that did occur were longer and brought in more meat. Most of the small game was hibernating already, so that just left bigger animals like moose and deer to be hunted.
Zack went on all of these trips, just like the other men in the village. He came back proudly displaying his kill most of the time, and on the rare occasion that he didn’t, he came back telling tales about the man who had given the most impressive performance. Today, though, you and the mighty hunter were seated in your home, enjoying some cocoa together in the hours before he left on the next hunting expedition.
Things between the two of you had settled into a cozy familiarity, just like they had been before. You’d known each other so long that neither of you had much felt the need for awkwardness or doubt; you were content to relax and just enjoy being together. A crackling fire and a couple of warm blankets provided comfort as Zack rambled about chocolate with his head in your lap. You ran your hands softly through his hair, an activity that you’d quickly become fond of in the last two months.
“The traders told me that chocolate actually starts as beans, did you know that?” His eyes were closed in satisfaction, and if you didn’t know better, you would think he was about to start purring. Occasionally, you allowed your nails to graze his scalp gently, and then you felt him shiver in pleasure.
“I’ve never heard that,” you replied with a little giggle. “How do they get it to become the stuff we eat? Did they tell you?” Despite the amount of time you spent with Zack, you never seemed to run out of things to talk about.
“Well, they tried.” His eyes opened a little and he looked at you, making you pause your hair stroking. “I kind of stopped listening after they gave me a free sample.”
“You’re terrible. Now I’ll never know,” you joked as you resumed your attentions. Zack nuzzled his head farther into your lap and made a noise of agreement. “Are you falling asleep on me?”
“Mmmhmm.” You felt him nod.
“Okay,” you said quietly. Normally, you’d tease him for being lazy, but you couldn’t bring yourself to deny him a little rest before he was faced with cold weather and an uncomfortable bedroll. “You can sleep for a little while.”
Even if the person was as handsome as Zack Fair, watching someone sleep did tend to get boring after a while. Your thoughts began to wander, as they often did, to Gongaga and what it might be like there. The climate was said to be similar, but so much could be totally new. A distance that took two weeks to cross by wagon was pretty long. Would there be new plants growing? Were there different types of fish in the rivers? Would there even be a river, or would the water come from a lake? When you thought about these things, you could get lost for hours just imagining what could be. Many nights, you fell asleep planning out a day in your new life.
The prospect of leaving home was becoming less and less frightening as time went by. You weren’t really leaving much behind, and the most important thing you had in the town was coming with you.
That thing had hardly stirred since falling asleep, and had even begun to snore quietly. It was a slight rumble, followed by a faint whistling exhale. Much to your chagrin, you found yourself thinking about what it would be like sleeping next to that every night. The married ladies you knew always complained about their husbands’ snoring, but you thought you could live with this for a long time.
In Zack’s absence, you began making things. Lists were your main product; there were lists of things to pack, lists of things to buy, and even a list of lists yet to be made. Your second most productive task was the creation of a new afghan blanket. Sharing one was great, but you had found out that someone was a cover hog when he had yanked the blanket from you while sleeping on your lap.
You went over to the Fairs’ home almost every day in the almost two weeks the men were gone, bringing your crocheting supplies and the incomplete blanket, which got larger every day. If the Fairs had been hospitable and kind before, the prospect of you becoming their daughter-in-law had ushered in a new era of friendly relations. Sarah Fair, as it turned out, was quite the knitting enthusiast, and pairs of mittens were born multiple times during your quiet crafting sessions.
It was during one of these times that the hunting party returned. Sitting on the (slightly uncomfortable) sofa in the Fairs’ living room, crochet hook twirling away, you heard the shouts of children outside that indicated an exciting arrival. When cries of “Daddy! You’re back!” began to reach your ears, you rose from your seat, as did Mrs. Fair. Was it silly of you to have missed Zack this much? He had left for longer than this before; you had never paid all that much attention. Maybe it was the fact that you had been spending almost every free moment with him in the past month.
Sure enough, once you had retrieved your coat and boots and left the house, you saw a gaggle of people out to meet the returning men. What you did not see was Zack’s bouncing, spiky head. He was pretty tall; it shouldn’t have been this hard for you to find him. Then you caught sight of the mayor, and you changed course to ask him where you could find his elusive son.
When you got a bit closer, though, your excitement dissipated completely. Mr. Fair was helping to carry a makeshift stretcher with a grave expression, and you felt as though your lungs had shriveled up to nothing. You registered the cold against your legs before you realized that you had fallen to your knees. Zack’s eyes were not open, his skin was paler than you’d ever seen it, and you couldn’t tell if he was breathing.
They wouldn’t be carrying him like that if he were dead. He had to be alive, and that thought was what kept you from passing out.
“Let’s get him inside,” you heard the mayor say to his wife. You couldn’t move. All you could do was sit there and stare at the ground. How had this happened? Was he going to be all right?
“_____, dear, let’s go inside now. It doesn’t do any good to sit out here,” Sarah said, placing a hand on your shoulder. You got to your feet stiffly and walked to the door like a robot. Zack was laid out on the kitchen table, still unconscious, but twitching a little. He looked like he had a fever, and his leg was- you couldn’t hold in a gasp- his leg was bent at a horrid angle.
“What…what happened to him?” Sarah spoke exactly the question you wanted to ask before you had the chance.
“He was in a tree with the crossbow, waiting for a shot at a buck. It started to walk too far; he leaned to get a better angle and fell. We all heard the crack when he landed. He was conscious for a few minutes, but he’s been out cold since then.”
“Will he be all right? Do you know?”
“The doctor’s on his way now, but if we can’t set the break he may never walk right again.”
You had been silent up to this point, and the only reason you spoke was pure terror. “That would kill him!”
Despite your bad word choice, Zack’s parents nodded in a somber fashion. “Maybe you shouldn’t be here for this part…” Mrs. Fair suggested gently.
“N-no. I can’t leave him like this. I’ll stay as long as it takes,” you replied. A fierce protective instinct rose in your heart, telling you to watch over Zack even though there wasn’t much you could do.
“I thought you’d say that,” Mr. Fair said. He inhaled deeply and closed his eyes. The house was silent, except for Zack’s labored breaths.
When the doctor knocked at the door, everyone flinched noticeably. He came in with an air of professionalism, even though he knew everyone in town and could probably tell you everything about them. Maybe it was meant to make the patients and bystanders feel reassured in his abilities, and it was working, if you were any representation.
While Dr. Jensen examined Zack’s leg, you focused your gaze on his face. He looked like he was hurting, but he was at least making expressions. You heard a sickening crack, much like what you imagined the original sound of breaking bone must have been, and then the doctor stepped back. “The break set well, at least. I’m going to splint it and give him some pain medication. He should be awake in a few hours.”
“Why is he unconscious now? My husband didn’t say that he hit his head…” A mother’s concern shone through in her voice.
“His head is fine. I expect that he passed out because his brain wanted to relieve the pain. It’s a natural reaction to such a sudden injury.”
“Oh…I suppose that makes sense.”
Now that the nasty part was over, you found yourself leaning closer to the table in order to see what was being done. Splinting an injured leg was a useful skill to have. “How long will it take to heal?” you asked, almost unaware that you were speaking.
“Ah, it shouldn’t take more than two months before he’s walking fairly normally again. I would not recommend that he do anything extremely strenuous with it for maybe another month afterward,” Dr. Jensen replied. “Will you be helping him, then?”
“Oh, I… I don’t know, it isn’t exactly my place…” You suddenly felt awkward, as though you were trying to usurp the place of Zack’s family members.
“Of course it is.” A large hand came down on your shoulder in a supportive gesture.
“You care about him just as much as we do. I’m sure he’ll be happy to have you around while he recovers, _____,” said Sarah, who sounded slightly tearful. “I can’t promise that he’ll be a good patient, though,” she finished.
Chapter 7: This Night Under Stars, Well I Call it Peace
“Zack, I-“ you tried to interrupt as he stopped speaking. When he heard your shaky voice, his expression turned to one of total resolve. He sat up like there was an iron bar in his spine.
I'm posting this soooooo slowly, hoping that by the time I run out of chapters, I'll start writing it again. I hope you enjoy this update!
Three hours later found you in a chair next to Zack’s bed, waiting for the painkillers to relent enough to allow him consciousness. You held his hand in your own, even though you weren’t sure if he could feel it. His face looked much more relaxed now, at least.
“Zack, why couldn’t you have been more careful?” you murmured to his sleeping form. “You never think things through before you go charging in. I worry about you so much.” Your other hand, the one that wasn’t holding his, brushed a lock of black hair from his forehead. “What would have happened to your dream if things had been worse?”
You sighed and leaned forward onto the bed. Talking to a sleeping man was not exactly exciting, and today had been exhausting on more than one level. Anyone close to Zack Fair could tell you that he was an excellent purveyor of cardiac distress. This was not the first time that he had scared the living daylights out of you, and you were sure that it wouldn’t be the last. “What am I supposed to do if you aren’t so lucky next time?” you mumbled into the bedcovers.
Thinking of a life without Zack was like trying to imagine a life without sunlight. He’d always been dear to you, but now it was nearly impossible to consider being without him. He balanced you perfectly, rash where you were cool-headed, confident where you were shy. No one else could make you feel as safe and taken care of as he did, even as you had to look out for him almost constantly. “I’ll tell you what I’d do,” you continued, answering your own question. “I’d have to resign myself to being an old maid, because there is no one on this planet that could ever replace you.”
“No one, huh?”
“Zack! You’re awake!” Your head shot up from the blanket and you had to restrain yourself from squeezing him too tight. “Don’t you ever do that again! I swear, if I ever find out that you fell out of another tree, I will kill you myself!”
He only laughed; he knew that lecturing him was one of the many ways you showed your affection. The arms you’d flung around his neck when he spoke were another. The tears that he felt falling onto the skin of his neck were possibly the best indicator of all. “Hey, don’t cry, please? I know I did something stupid, but I’m still here. I promised to stick around.”
You pulled back with a sniffle, lifting your head off his chest, though you hated to let go of him at all. “Yeah, you’re here, but I’ve never been so scared in my life. Can’t you get it through your dumb spiky head that I love you?” Oh, you hadn’t meant to say that. You meant it completely, but wasn’t it too early to be spouting off things like that?
Zack tried to sit up and winced. Dr. Jensen had said he was bruised all over from the fall, as well as hitting several branches on the way down. Flopping back onto his pillow, he opened his mouth to speak. You were terrified that he’d say something negative, so you cut him off. “And another thing! You are not going to be running around like a bunny rabbit while you heal. I will personally see to it that you stay in this bed even if it takes mmphhgg.” Zack had covered your mouth with his hand, causing the end of your sentence to become gibberish.
“It’s okay, _____. I don’t know why you’re worried about what you said. I told you already that I’ve known you were the one for years.”
“But…isn’t it too soon?” you managed from behind his slightly slack palm, which he then removed.
“I don’t think so. We’ve known each other for so long, and I’ve loved you for seven years already. Why shouldn’t we say it?” He winked at you, and you saw that even numerous cuts on his forehead and cheeks couldn’t dull his shine. “I gotta say, though, that fortuneteller was completely right.”
“Wait, what? What does that have to do with it?” This was one of the weirder conversation segues that Zack had attempted, and that was saying something.
“Don’t…don’t worry about it, I think the medication is messing with my head…” The sheepish look on his face was one you knew extremely well; it was the look that meant he was fibbing. You decided that since he was the injured person in the room, you wouldn’t fight him on keeping something to himself.
Thoughts of his injury prompted you back to your duty as amateur nurse. “How are you feeling right now, anyway? The doctor told me to ask you to rate your pain from one to ten.”
“Uh… not really that bad. Maybe a five? It aches a lot, but it doesn’t hurt like when I fell.”
“Okay. He said if it didn’t hurt too badly, to have you drink some water and rest. I’ll go grab a glass for you.” You moved to rise from the chair, but you felt Zack’s hand grip your arm and keep you in place.
“Yes?” What could it be now? You were beginning to worry that all these intense conversations were taking a toll on your mental health.
“I’m glad you were here when I woke up. It was nice to see you first thing.” His smile wavered slightly. “Even if you did lecture me.”
“You signed on for a lifetime of lectures, buddy. Now let me go get the water so you can go back to sleep.”
“I’m not even tired! I was asleep for two days!”
You heaved a put-upon sigh. You loved him more than anything, but Zackary Fair could be a huge pain in the you-know-what. “Sleep now and we’ll do something fun later, okay?”
“Fun?” he asked with a waggle of his eyebrows. It never ceased to amaze you that even drugged and injured, Zack managed to be such a flirt.
“Not that kind of fun. Well, not for a couple days, at least,” you said, and left him with his jaw hanging open.
Two could play at that game.
If you thought you spent a lot of time at the Fairs’ house before, now you were literally there most of every day. Your own house sat empty, and a large chunk of winter passed with you tending to the world’s most stubborn man. Christmas came and went without much fanfare besides the food; you didn’t have time to purchase presents and Zack couldn’t go anywhere to buy any.
You sensed that Zack’s parents were passing the buck onto you because they wanted to show their acceptance of what they thought was your engagement, but in all honesty, you didn’t exactly feel competent. Kissing scraped knees was easy, but helping someone up and down stairs on crutches was far from simple. Making him do his exercises so the muscle wouldn’t atrophy was probably the worst part; if it wasn’t squats, he apparently wanted nothing to do with it. Minor tiffs had broken out between you often, and even though they were quickly resolved, you hated to fight with Zack. Being bossy was one thing, but arguing all the time over his well-being was awful.
The first days were the worst because he wasn’t allowed to try and walk without help while his crutches were prepared. He quickly got bored, despite your best efforts to entertain him, and with his boredom came stir-craziness. Once he was allowed to get up, though, dealing with him got much easier.
He was recovering well, and had taken to the crutches like a bird to the air. The only place he still needed help was the stairs. Other than that, he moved around at almost the pace he kept before the accident. There would be no running or hunting, as decreed by the doctor, and it was too cold to fish, but the two of you amused yourselves decently with reading together, drawing, and sometimes even kissing when you were sure his parents were gone. A part of you didn’t like doing that under their roof, but the other parts were in agreement that Zack was too hot to resist… as well as too persuasive.
A new favorite pastime of yours, however, had to be helping him bathe. Sadly, he wore his swimming shorts, but even though all you were needed for was to help him in and out, you were basically given free rein to ogle your gorgeous boyfriend the entire time. You had discovered that he liked when you washed his hair. It wasn’t a tough job considering that he didn’t have his usual antics getting it dirty, and he closed his eyes and made happy noises the entire time your fingers were on his scalp. He really did remind you of a puppy sometimes, what with his boundless energy and love of being scratched. You wondered what he would say if you offered him a belly rub.
It was about five weeks after the accident, and after one of these tranquil baths and an extended head-scratch that Zack thought he should try walking without the crutches. His hair was still wet, and it dripped on your shoulder as he leaned on you to walk back to his bedroom. You stopped at the door and leaned yourself against the frame. “Okay, try walking to the bed. That isn’t too far.” He shakily took his arm from around your shoulders and balanced his weight on the uninjured left leg. His shadow wobbled across the floor, thrown into relief by the kerosene lamp.
For a terrifying second you thought his leg would buckle underneath him, but your fears were proven wrong when he took four slow, limping steps and sat down on the bed. “Whew, I never thought walking would be so exhausting!” he said.
Your excitement was tangible in the air. You erupted into a spontaneous happy dance, twirling in circles and jumping up and down before sitting down next to Zack. “You did so good! I’m really proud of you!”
“Yeah! I’m finally getting back to normal, huh?” Zack bounced on the mattress a couple of times, which moved you up and down too. “Maybe tomorrow I can try the stairs.”
“I don’t know about that,” you sobered up quickly. “How about we stick to the hallway for now? Maybe try to take a walk outside later?”
“You might be right about that…” He rubbed the back of his head and you could see the mental gears turning. “So once I’m walking right, you’ll be leaving.”
“I don’t think your parents want me moving in, so yeah, I’ll be back at my house.”
“Aww, you know they’d let you stay as long as you wanted to.”
“I feel bad though! I’m not doing anything to help around here other than spend time with you. I can’t even really make any money because I can’t cook things to sell or finish any blankets or anything.”
“I think my mom thinks putting up with me is enough to pay for your room and board, honestly,” he replied, eyes bright. “You like being here with me all the time. Admit it.”
“I never said I didn’t. It just isn’t work taking care of you. I’ve been doing that for a long time before you broke your leg.” You smiled despite yourself, thinking of your lengthy history of trying to keep Zack out of trouble.
“I don’t know if I’ve said this yet, but thank you for helping me. I would have probably just sat around being mad and not done my exercises without you.” A little pout appeared on his face, his full lips pursing in discontent. “It’s going to suck when you move out!”
“It isn’t like you can’t come to see me. Think of it as motivation to walk!” Your fist punched the air to emphasize your point, but Zack just laughed at you in the soft, friendly way he always did. His fingers reached out to brush across your cheek.
“I know. It just isn’t the same thing as having you in the next room whenever I think of something to tell you.” He paused for a minute and looked pensively at his knees, before looking back into your eyes. “Would you get something for me? It’s in an envelope in that drawer,” and here he pointed to the top drawer of the dresser.
You were so used to odd topic changes by now that you were completely unfazed by this one. The envelope he mentioned was not immediately apparent upon opening the drawer. “Zack, all that’s in here is socks,” you said, shifting several pairs around before finding a plain white envelope. “Oh, never mind. You want the whole envelope, or just what’s in it?”
“You can open it.” He gave you a charming grin from across the small room, which told you that he was up to something.
“If whatever’s in here eats me or gives me the plague or something, I’ll- oh,” you breathed, as a shining silver ring tumbled out of the paper and into your palm.
“Uh, remember when I wouldn’t tell you what my prize was at the fair?” You nodded dumbly. “Okay, I asked Mr. Taylor to make this for me instead.”
“Why? It looks way too small to… oh my god. Oh my god, you are not doing what I think you’re doing. Please tell me I’m dreaming right now.” You felt your pulse speed up, and you honestly felt like you could pass out any second. Leaning on the dresser provided some relief, but the item glittering in the lamplight as you held it didn’t disappear.
“I can’t get down on one knee, or I could but it would be really hard to get up. I promised to stick around forever, and I want you to know I meant it.” He took a deep breath and continued. “I know things haven’t been easy on you since I got hurt, but I swear if you promise to stick with me too, I won’t ever let you face the hard stuff alone.”
“Zack, I-“ you tried to interrupt as he stopped speaking. When he heard your shaky voice, his expression turned to one of total resolve. He sat up like there was an iron bar in his spine.
“No, let me finish. I want you to stay with me forever. I don’t want you to be scared about the future. I want to be there for you for the rest of our lives.”
“_____,” he said, in a more serious tone than you’d ever heard out of him, “will you marry me?”
You had known what this was leading up to, but hearing it was the last straw. A soft thud reached Zack’s ears as you fainted dead away.
Chapter 8: If You Say, "I'll Never Need More Than This"
once I throw on this bow chicka wow wow what you gonna say~
Rating goes up in this chapter, although we don't get explicit until a few chapters down the road.
I'm really sorry this took so long to get up. I want to be honest with anyone reading-- I haven't worked on this story in about three years. I'm currently posting what I have written and hoping I remember where I wanted it to go.
You woke up seconds later, with a worried Zack shaking your shoulders as you lay on the floor. “Oh fuck, what did you do, Fair? You ask a girl to marry you and she keels over! Wake up, _____, come on…” He noticed your fluttering eyes trained on him and immediately heaved a sigh of relief. “You don’t have to say anything! It was the ring, wasn’t it, my dad said you’d want a diamond but I thought you’d want something simpler and I can get you another one!”
You could feel your eyebrows rise in surprise at his immediate descent into panic. “Why… why would I want a different ring? This is the one you picked out…” In hindsight, perhaps you should have chosen a different opening remark.
“Then…it’s me? What can I do so you’ll say yes? I’ve really bombed this whole proposing thing, huh.” he replied sadly, his beautiful blue eyes downcast.
“I didn’t say anything yet, but-” It was at this point, of course, that Mr. and Mrs. Fair came barreling into the bedroom.
“We heard a loud noise, is everything okay?” said Tobias Fair in a concerned, fatherly tone.
Sarah Fair was much more perceptive, and quickly took in the ring in your hand and the sad expression on Zack’s face. “Oh, dear. I think we may have interrupted something important…” she murmured out of the corner of her mouth.
“Hmmm? What might that be?” Sometimes, the mayor was just like his son; he didn’t quite catch on.
“Shhh. Let them finish,” Sarah replied with a gentle elbow to her husband’s side.
“Uh, I was saying that I hadn’t… actually answered you yet, Zack. How did you get over here so fast, anyway?” It must have been the shock that made you unable to focus on the topic at hand. There was no other reason for you to be so scatterbrained at a moment like this.
“Not important, _____... What’s important to me right now is that you say yes. I don’t know how I’m going to do it yet, but I promise I’ll make you happy every day.”
Your eyes brimmed with tears. “ “Oh, Zack… Did you ever think I’d say no? I was waiting for you to ask, stupid.” You sat up from your place on the floor and threw your arms around him, burying your face in his shoulder. “Of course I’m saying yes!”
“You mean it?”
“Yes!” You nodded against his neck.
“This is the best day of my life! I love you! We’re getting married!” He returned your embrace, squeezing you so tight that you began to worry about breathing.
“Zack! Air!” you wheezed, and his grip relaxed slightly.
“Sorry, I just can’t control myself! Holy shit! Mom, Dad, she said yes!” he shouted, finally addressing the other two people in the room.
“Well, good job finally getting around to it, boy. _____, welcome to the family. Again.” said Zack’s father. You laughed; he was always so placid about things like this.
“We’re very happy, dear, really. Now you both should get to bed…separately.” Another giggle burst forth from you at Sarah’s face, schooled as it was into a look that screamed “discipline.”
“Yes, ma’am, we will,” Zack immediately answered. Nothing cuter than a boy who listens to his mother, you thought, before kissing his cheek and tightening your arms around him once more.
“Goodnight, Zack. Goodnight, Mr. and Mrs. Fair.”
“Oh, please. You’re marrying my son. Call us Tobias and Sarah, or Mom and Dad, but for the love of god, no more Mr. Fair!” said Tobias as he pointed at you, making everyone in the room crack up.
If someone had been standing outside the Fair home on that cold night, you thought that they would have been in for an extraordinary sight. You felt so warm and happy, and Zack was so exuberantly laughing, that you were positive the house was glowing with joy.
“Do you think there’s going to be any funny business?”
“Tobias, behave. _____’s a good girl. She wouldn’t.”
“Hmph. You were a good girl, and look at what that got us.”
“You keep that line of thought up and there will be no funny business in your future, just remember that.”
“I mean… you’re a great wife and I love you.”
“That’s better. Goodnight, honey.”
With a final harrumph from the patriarch, the Fair parents fell asleep peacefully.
You couldn’t help but mourn the passing of winter a little, knowing as you did that your mourning also applied to the life you had always known. The snows melted slowly, but when the last clump of stubborn ice disappeared, it was impossible to ignore the impending journey.
Zack was happy, or at least he seemed to be; since he had regained full mobility he was once more unstoppable. The stairs were no obstacle anymore, and he ascended and descended them much more often than he really needed to in order to prove this point. You had done most of his packing for him, because you couldn’t trust him to remember everything he wanted to bring along. Zack was more than happy to sit back and let you cram things into bags, but when it came time to pack your own things, he insisted on being there, ostensibly to nag you in the same way you had done to him.
Most of your things had either already been packed or had been bequeathed to someone in the village. However, things like clothes and cooking implements had to wait until the last minute. Two days before the trip is last minute enough, you reasoned as you folded another winter sweater away. Zack lay on his back on your bed, generally ignoring your packing and talking at the ceiling. A bit of mischief crossed your thoughts, and you tossed the next sweater directly onto his head.
Your aim was true, and Zack had a mouth full of wool in the middle of a sentence about horses, of all things. He sat up, trying in vain to brush the fibers from his tongue, and threw the sweater back at you. His throw missed by a mile, and you couldn’t help but laugh at his sputtering. “What was that for?!”
“You were spacing out, and I’m completely sick of looking at all my winter clothes,” you answered with a shrug.
“Well, what are we going to do about it?” The impish glint in his turquoise eyes looked much more natural on him than it had on you, you mused. As it turned out, Zack wasn’t really asking for your input, as he was off the bed and tackling you into the rug before you could make any suggestions at all. A minor scuffle followed, during which you flailed mightily and still failed to break his hold on you. Once it was established that you were not getting away, he sat up, a knee on either side of your hips, and wiggled his fingers.
“No. No, Zack, don’t you dare- ZACK NO!” You squirmed uncontrollably as his fingers skimmed over your sides. Tickling was one of your few weaknesses, and he often used it to torment you. Soft, high-pitched shouts came from your throat, even as you flopped around, fishlike, beneath him. “Zack, you have to stop, seriously, I can’t breathe!” you gasped.
“Damn, I’m sorry!” He immediately stopped moving his hands, letting you catch your breath, but showing no intention of getting off of you. Your wicked streak reared its head once again, inspiring you to pitch forward as hard as you could. The tables had turned; now Zack was at your mercy, even though you knew you couldn’t hold him there for long.
“Now look who’s got who, hmmm?” you whispered in his ear, hands planted on either side of his head. “I can do whatever I want with you, and you can’t stop me!” You laughed in what you imagined was a villainous fashion, not aware that it came out sounding like a sneezing kitten. “Any ideas?”
Zack did not seem displeased by the current turn of events, even if he was now in the role of the captive. His cheeky grin remained in place, his eyes continued to sparkle and his cheeks were flushed pink with- well, it could have been exertion, or surprise, or the fact that you were currently straddling him- oh, dear. “Oh, I have plenty, but you seem to have things under control,” he said with a grin, bucking his hips under you and nearly tossing you back onto the floor. “Besides, I’m the prisoner here. I don’t get to argue.”
The seriousness with which he said these things startled a laugh out of you; making you forget your nervousness at the position you and Zack were in at the moment. God, but you loved this man so much… He always made you smile, always looked after you, and always put your happiness first. You really didn’t deserve him, but you made a mental promise to work hard at making him as happy as he made you. Leaning down so that your faces were almost touching, you whispered, “Jail time’s up,” before moving further forward and kissing him soundly.
The shivers that erupted down your spine when he began to kiss back were almost painful; your heart stuttered at the feel of his strong hands spanning your lower back beneath your top. There had never been such urgency or heat between you before. Your eyes fluttered open momentarily, and Zack’s expression nearly made you faint then and there. His eyes were closed, but his features appeared enraptured, completely absorbed in the wave of passion affecting you both. His tongue delved into your mouth, tickling some places, but painting liquid intensity almost everywhere. Your grip on his soft hair (when had you grabbed onto it?) tightened, and his hold on your hips became bruising. There was no way you’d ask him to stop, even as the slight pains entered your awareness, even though this was further than you and he had ever gone. Zack’s hard body pressed against you more firmly, rubbing against places you’d only ever explored alone, and the shockwave of pleasure that took hold of you made you shudder violently.
Zack never took his mouth from yours, but kept up a lazy, steady pace in grinding his hips upward into yours. You could hear his quiet moans intermingling with your own, and the bliss you were sure he felt as well only spiraled further out of control. This man was like a wildfire, scorching across every inch of your skin, immersing you completely in heat and desire. Every muted drag of fabric across your core served to tighten the coil that had formed in your belly, and white starbursts were beginning to form behind your eyes. Oh, god, I can’t breathe, you realized, and pulled back from the continuous kiss for air. Zack opened his eyes at this development, but they grew hazy and distracted once more when you began to push back against him. Neither of you were going to last much longer, you realized dimly, before wondering exactly how long this had been going on. Another firm push of fabric against flesh drew a long, low whimper from you, one that quickly turned into a plea. “Zack, please…”
This expression of desire only spurred him to move faster, holding you to him with a grip like steel. “Come on _____, I know you want it, I want to give it to you, just let it happen…” he panted, the words pushing you so close to the edge that you cried out in pleasure.
“I want it, I want you, please let me- ah, yes, please, please, Zack, yes, AAAHHHHmmmphhh?!” One of the powerful hands that held you had moved to the back of your neck, dragging your lips down against his as he pushed you through the most powerful orgasm you’d ever felt. You nearly screamed into his mouth, biting down on his lips and making impossibly high-pitched sounds as the rush of pure, sweet lightning went on and on. Vaguely, you realized that he was coming too, moaning in time with his stuttering hips before going still. The taste of metal filled your mouth, Zack’s lip bleeding from the pressure of your teeth. When the sparks in your vision faded, there was nothing left to do other than collapse onto his chest, heaving as it was with the effort of drawing breath. “That was… You were…” you panted, trying to form a coherent statement.
“I know… I love you… so fucking much…” Zack managed, placing his well-developed arms gently around your waist. “Just stay right here. Don’t move.”
You closed your eyes and listened to his slowing heartbeat, pondering if Sarah Fair knew that the sex talk she’d given you as a young teenager would be put to use in this way. By the time you had realized that the both of you, but especially Zack, needed to clean up, the man in question was dozing off on the floor. You sighed in defeat, knowing that there was no waking him after so much exertion. You planted a gentle kiss on his neck, just above the collar of his shirt, before falling asleep yourself. The rise and fall of his chest beneath you felt like the rocking of a boat on a gentle sea.
Sarah Fair, meanwhile, stood with her hand raised to knock on your door, as she had been standing for the past fifteen minutes. Her face was pale and she looked as though she’d seen a ghost. “Zack can find his own dinner,” she murmured before marching determinedly back to her own home.