Haley doesn't know why this is the year she decided she'd go into the maze. Well, that's not true. She does know why. What she wants, what she's been craving all year, is a change. She wants something to happen. She wants to be a different person, she thinks, but she's not sure how she can be, and what it's boiled over into tonight is … this.
That is to say, Haley standing by herself in front of a giant spider. It's black, bristling with hair, its mandibles clicking, and Haley is absolutely petrified, shaking with horror.
This is what change gets you, she tells herself bitterly. So much for trying to change, trying to be a better, more thoughtful person. She's going to die here, poisoned to death, or eaten, or something - probably leaving a bloated and disgusting corpse - all because she decided that this was the year things were going to change.
"I should have stuck to photography," she says - whimpers, really - and starts trying to back up. She absolutely cannot look away.
There's a gleam in the spider's black, beady eyes. She pants with fear. Is it moving? No, she thinks maybe not - it's so hard to tell in the light from those weird blue flames -
"Get back!" The cry comes from behind her. Before she can react to it, though, a lithe figure is moving past her. Firelight glints off a raised - is that a sword? - and then the figure is bringing it down with a meaty thunk, carving into the spider. It hisses - there's blood on the sword as the figure brings it back, and swings it down, again and again. The figure yells something indistinct. Haley backs up until her legs hit the fountain; her knees give way, and she sits there, trembling, until the hissing noises have stopped, and the yelling too, and the slender figure, sword bare, comes towards her out of the dim light.
"Oh," she says, surprised. "It's you!"
"Expecting someone else?" Abigail is streaked with black blood, her dark hair mussed and matted, but she doesn't look dirty, or messy, or ashamed. She looks - she looks astonishing, actually, as if lit with some kind of inner glow, victory warm on her face.
For some reason Haley is having trouble catching her breath. "Sort of - no," Haley says, though truthfully, now that she thinks about it, for some reason she'd been expecting the new farmer - so called because they arrived in Stardew Valley only three years ago, and are therefore considered basically a stranger. "Oh my god," she says, remembering herself, "are you okay?"
"I'm fine," Abigail says, but suffers herself to be drawn into the light so Haley can check her over. She doesn't appear to be bleeding; there's a scrape from the hedges on one arm, and Haley bathes it in the water from the fountain, rips the sleeve off her shirt with barely a pang to bandage it up.
"Wow," Abigail says, amused. "I didn't know you cared."
Haley flushes, hot. It's true that they've never been close, though they're the same age, had caught the bus to Zuzu City together every school day from ages 12 to 17. Abigail tended to hang out with Sam and Sebastian; Haley sat at the back of the bus with Emily and Alex.
She distinctly remembers making a sarcastic remark about the colour of Abigail's hair, and all three of them laughing. Her cheeks get hotter.
"Thank you," she says, abruptly, in an attempt to stop remembering things like that. "I was so - I was so scared. I couldn't go forward, I couldn't go back, I was just stuck."
"I know how you feel," Abigail says. She's cleaned her sword off on her trousers, and slung it over her shoulder into some kind of scabbard. "I've been the same every year that I can remember. Spiders," she says in tones of loathing. "But this year -" she pats the hilt of her sword, fondly.
"You were amazing," Haley says, sincerely.
Abigail blushes a little, but looks pleased. "You're welcome," she says. Standing there, even with the flush of victory fading, looking diffident, hands thrust in her pockets, Abigail looks nothing like the goth nerd Haley grew up with. She looks instead like a hero from a story, striking out on adventure to defeat the evil and defend the innocent; Haley can barely believe she was ever afraid of spiders. She's transfixed.
The silence stretches, and then on a gust of wind they both hear yells and laughter from town. It breaks the moment; Haley tears her eyes away, feeling her cheeks flush again.
"I better -" she gestures back towards the maze's entrance.
"Can you find your way?"
"I think so," she says. "I didn't get lost getting here."
"You're all right, too, right?" Abigail says, and pats Haley's shoulder.
In a rush, Haley hugs her, presses a kiss to her cheek, pulls away. "I'm okay," she says, firmly. "Are you going to carry on?"
Abigail blinks at her, slightly dazed. "I, uh - yeah," she says. "Yes. I can finish it. I need to know I can."
"Good luck," Haley says. "You sure look like you can," and Abigail gives her a smile of surprising sweetness.
Haley makes her way out of the maze without incident, twitching her skirts out of the way of the grasping hands, going from pool to pool of the light shed by the dancing lights. She turns the wrong way once and finds Penny, dazed over a bubbling cauldron; feeling vaguely like she has to pay the favour forward, she tucks Penny's arm into hers and hauls her with her until they stumble out of the maze and into the town square.
Pam's not far off, and Haley happily relinquishes Penny to her mother; she seems sober enough, and for all that Pam isn't necessarily nice to drink with of an evening at the Stardrop Saloon, she always fusses over Penny. As for Haley, she finds herself a mug of cider, tosses it back, and heads, as quickly as she can, for her house and her own bed.
Emily pokes her head into Haley's room as she's snuggling under the covers. "Are you okay?" she says. "Sam said he saw you come out of the maze looking like you'd seen a ghost."
"Spiders," Haley says, sleepily. "But it was OK, Abigail was there."
"Right," Emily says, brow wrinkling. "Good?"
"Mm," Haley says, wakefulness exhausted. "Night night."
"Good night," Emily says, and pulls the door to.
The next day Haley's in the kitchen, wrestling with a jar of melon preserves, when someone knocks on the door. "Come in," she calls, half-expecting the farmer, who's taken lately to dropping around spare bolts of cloth for Emily. Sometimes she brings cake, too; Haley could really go for some cake.
It's Abigail, though, coming in tentatively.
"Oh, good," Haley says, as soon as she sees her. Maybe it's not who she thought, but it's still someone usefully strong. "Come over here and open this jar for me, will you?"
"Sure," Abigail says, cautiously; it takes her a moment of wrestling, strong, fine fingers flexing around the lid, but quickly enough she presents Haley with the opened jar.
"I knew you'd be strong enough," Haley says, smiling. "Thank you." She fans herself a little; even though it's the last day of fall, it's unusually warm today.
Abigail smiles at the compliment. "I just came to see if you were okay after last night," she says. "And, um." She digs in her satchel. "To show you this," she says, as she pulls out a giant golden pumpkin and plops it on the dining table."
Haley knows right away what it has to be, and claps her hands. "You made it! To the treasure?"
"Yep," Abigail says. She tries to look serious, but a smile keeps breaking out. "I had to solve a puzzle and walk through a tunnel in the dark, but - I did it."
"Oh my gosh!" Haley hugs her. "Congratulations," she says. She can't stop herself offering Abigail a drink, to celebrate, but as she makes it they both seem to remember how little they've had to say to each other since they were about twelve, and soon they're sitting side-by-side on the couch, looking into their mugs and saying not much, suddenly, inexplicably, shy.
"When did you -"
"Why did you -"
They both speak at once, and break off, and laugh.
"You go," Abigail says.
"Okay," Haley says. "When did you learn to fight like that? I've never seen, well, anyone do anything like that."
Abigail nods. "Nor had I," she said. "Until - you know the farmer?"
"Of course," Haley said. "I got those preserves you just opened from the farmer."
"Right - man, that farm produces a lot of preserves," Abigail says, distracted. "Anyway, I was playing my flute up by the river in the hills last year, and I saw the farmer come out of the old mine up there. She gave me this." She breaks off to dig around in her pocket, coming up with a chunk of amethyst. "Beautiful, right? I wondered if I could get more like that in the mines. It's beautiful, but also, you know, with JojaMart coming to town, things are kind of tough for Mom and Dad, and I thought - well, anyway. I decided I'd go and explore."
"The old mine? Isn't it supposed to be haunted?" Haley feels a chill go down her spine.
"Well, maybe," Abigail says. "I don't know about ghosts, but I can tell you about bats, and giant flying bugs, and slimy monsters."
"Ugh. And you went in there?"
"First I wanted to, just to see. And then …" Abigail trails off. "I wanted a change. Have you ever noticed how things around here don't really ever change? Seasons happen, festivals happen, people die and are born, but somehow the town just … goes on as normal, and everything feels the same."
"I have," Haley says. "I really, really have."
"Right. I thought … you know, if I could do this, maybe the town wouldn't change, but I would. So I went to the adventurers guild down by the quarry and I banged on the door and I made them sell me a sword - you know they usually won't let anyone shop there until they've proven themselves?" Abigail adds, indignantly. "How are you supposed to prove yourself without a sword? I told them if they didn't sell me one I'd just go down there anyway and probably die without being able to defend myself, so they gave in, and then I just started … going there, every now and then. When I had a minute."
"Wow," Haley says. Abigail blushes, and shakes her head. "No, really," Haley says. "You're so brave! I wish I was that brave." She picks at a fold in her skirt. "Sometimes I feel like you do," she says. "About change. I think, you know … I mean, I know what people think of me," she says, meeting Abigail's eyes briefly, then looking away. "Shallow, mean, ditzy. And I've been thinking for a long time, you know … I need some hobbies that aren't shopping." She tries on a laugh.
"Your photos are amazing," Abigail says. "I've seen them. You could do that professionally."
"Thanks," Haley says, quietly. "But I need to change more than that. It's been really hard."
"It's not easy," Abigail says. "My parents don't know, but they'd lose it if they did. They think I'm just off hanging with Seb playing computer games, and they hate that, too. They want me around all the time, like I'm still a kid." She sighs. "But I'm not," she says, firmly. "And when I start bringing in money from the mines, they'll see that."
Haley reaches over, tentative, and puts a hand over Abigail's. The hand beneath hers is strong, wiry, rough against her soft palm. "They will," she says. "And if they don't … I do."
Abigail's eyes come up to meet hers for a moment. "Thanks," she says, and her voice is breathless.
A week later, on a chilly but brightly sunny day, Haley fills a thermos with hot chocolate and makes sandwiches with goat's cheese and weird melon preserves, and she and Abigail go out to the woods west of town. They meander along the river for a long while, talking from time to time. It's awkward at first, but conversation warms up as they do; they end up by the little pond, throwing snowballs at each other idly and laughing. Haley pulls out her camera and snaps a few shots of Abigail, standing on the pier, snowball in hand; for the last shot, Abigail throws the snowball, and Haley thinks, though she'll have to wait to find out when she develops it, that she caught it in motion, the snowball in flight, Abigail's strong arm extended.
"Hey," says Abigail, climbing off the pier, cheeks still flushed with laughter. "Want to know a secret?"
"Of course," Haley says, promptly. "Always."
Abigail grins, and reaches out a hand. Haley takes it, and feels her stomach flutter a little.
"This way," Abigail says, and leads Haley into the woods.
She takes her through winding twists and turns until they squeeze between two trees and find themselves in a little glade, dense with undergrowth, where Haley's never been before. It would be dark in a season where the trees had leaves; as it is now, it's still pleasantly private feeling, and ever so quiet. It's almost hushed, and Haley holds Abigail's hand as they wander through it, between tree stumps, until they come to a wider clearing with a pool and strange ruins. Abigail gestures to them. "These are … well, they're not a secret, I guess," she says, looking a little chagrined. "But I never knew they were here."
"I didn't, either," says Haley, charmed. "They're so old-looking! When are they from, do you know?"
Abigail shakes her head. "No idea," she says, and Haley walks up to the funny statue sitting there. "Old Master Cannoli," she reads off. "I guess you can't be that old, Master Cannoli, if I can read your plaque," she says, and, acting on whimsy, folds her hands together and bows formally to the statue. "I hope you don't mind if we eat lunch here," she says to him, and pulls out her plastic-lined picnic blanket and spreads it on the stones.
They eat slowly, talking. Haley can't stop watching Abigail, the way she moves, her confident gestures, the way her dark hair falls forward over her face when she laughs, the fire in her eyes when she talks about her dreams. She's beautiful, Haley thinks, quietly. It's inescapable. She pulls out her camera, quietly, and takes a picture as Abigail looks up at her and smiles. That one she knows will be beautiful.
They finish eating, taking their time drinking hot chocolate out of the thermos to warm themselves, and refold the blanket, shaking off snow and tucking it away. Haley hangs her camera around her neck and goes to take Abigail's hand again as they leave, and Abigail reaches out to take it, and then jerks herself back. Haley has a second of being hurt before Abigail says, urgently, "Get behind me," and bends to the ground to fumble around before coming up with a large stick as Haley turns around and sees--
"What is that?!" It's undulating towards them across the ground, some kind of slimy blob, making a hissing noise. Haley has absolutely no idea what it is, and doesn't want to, but her hands go automatically to her camera and she takes a photo.
"Slime," Abigail says, through gritted teeth, and takes a few steps forward and swings at it with the club. She connects with a solid thwack, and it falls back a bit before leaping at her, suddenly. Haley screams, she can't stop herself, but Abigail swings again and catches it in midair like it's a thrown baseball, tossing it back so it slams into a tree and slides down before bursting into a puddle of goo at the base of the trunk.
"Oh, my god," Haley says, gasping. She can feel her breath coming hard and fast as Abigail turns her head to look around, then grabs her hand.
"Come on, let's get out of here," she says.
"There are more? Oh my--"
"Maybe," Abigail says. "Don't worry. They're not that dangerous but I didn't bring my sword, so let's just go," and she more-or-less pulls Haley out of the woods.
"We should be safe enough here," Abigail says, panting, as they reach the river. Haley bends over to gasp for air for a while, then straightens, painfully.
"Thanks for, you know, saving my life again," she says.
Abigail smiles at her. "Those ones are pretty harmless," she says. "You could have kicked it to death in those boots."
"But I really, really wouldn't have wanted to," Haley says.
The next day Haley sends Abigail a note. It ends up being about three sentences long, but she agonises over those sentences for an hour; Emily makes sarcastic remarks and insincere suggestions, laughing at her while Haley pulls a series of dreadful faces at her. Eventually, though, she pats Haley on the shoulder and advises, big-sisterly, "Just say you had a nice time and want to do it again."
"Easier said than done," Haley mutters.
the note ends up reading,
I thought it would be fun to write you a note! I had so much fun in the woods with you yesterday, yes, even with the slime thing. I think you're so sexy when you're saving my life but if you want to hang out in a non-life threatening situation, you could come over this weekend and I'll show you my dark room!
"Wow," Abigail says when Haley, unaccountably nervously, lets her into the dark room. "This is really impressive."
"Thanks," says Haley, feeling herself blush. "Here - " she runs through the development process with a couple of negatives from their picnic, showing Abigail each step. She shows off a little with one of them, fiddling around with the exposure and carefully burning through the centre of one photo so Abigail, smiling out from the centre, really pops.
"Beautiful," Abigail says, but when Haley looks up from carefully pegging the photo to a drying rack Abigail's not looking at the photo; she's looking at Haley.
"They have to dry now," Haley says. "Uh, we could -" she gestures at the door.
"Let's not," says Abigail, and leans forward to kiss Haley, firm and warm.
Haley pulls back after a moment to say, "I've been waiting for that."
"Me too," Abigail murmurs, and nuzzles in closer, kissing Haley's neck, which Haley experiences as a bolt of fire to the stomach.
"Mmf," she says, and puts her arms around Abigail's waist, and twists to kiss her mouth again.
Making out in the red light is just as fun as Haley had imagined.