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Pictures for Miriam

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Never has a front door looked so ominous.

The witch stands there, her hand hovering near the worn knob she had turned so many times before. A bead of sweat trickles down her forehead.

Soon her fingers will close around that knob, and with a twist of her wrist, the door will creak open. She will bid farewell to the sun, the wind, the crimson-colored leaves of the trees, and her sanity as she enters the –

“I FORGOT MY TOOTHBRUSH!!!”

Never mind.

“We have to go back, Miriam,” pleads the bard, their eyes wide with worry.

The witch groans. “I am not flying you all the way home just for a stupid toothbrush.”

“But dental hygiene’s important! What if I get a cavity?!”

“I’m sure we have an extra toothbrush you can borrow!”

How did she let this happen?

A sleepover!

The idea was first suggested by Miriam’s grandmother, Sapphire (or “Saphy”). The older witch had invited the bard, named Kiwi, over for dinner and, during said meal, asked them if they’d like to stay the night. It was so late, after all. Surprisingly, Kiwi refused. It wasn’t that they didn’t want to, but they hadn’t prepared for a night away from home. They didn’t have a change of underwear, or their toothbrush, or anything!

But they promised the next time they were invited to dinner, they’d accept Saphy’s offer.

Well, the time has come.

And Miriam isn’t certain she’s ready for it.

She’s still uncertain even as she enjoys one of Saphy’s homecooked meals. She remains uncertain as she listens to the bard chat with her grandmother about a variety of mundane topics.

“What have you been doing these days?” the elderly witch asks as she gives Kiwi a cup of tea.

“Not much!” the bard cheerfully replies.

“Is that so? No plans on going to school or finding work? Content to whittle the days away with song and leisure?”

“…”

“Nothing wrong with a carefree life. You certainly deserve it after all you’ve been through.”

Is it Miriam’s imagination, or is Kiwi unusually nervous right now?

“Ah,” chirps Saphy. “I’ve something to show you. I believe it was tucked away with these books here…”

She pulls a weathered book from the shelf and looks at it curiously.

“Miriam?” she asks. “Isn’t this that book you borrowed from Mohabumi months ago? Weren’t you supposed to return it by now…?”

“I’m not going all the way back there to return some dumb book,” Miriam sneers. “Besides, they’ve got tons of books. Who cares if one’s missing?”

“You borrowed a book from that magic city, Miriam?” Kiwi asks.

“Yeah,” she replies.

“I thought you didn’t want to study magic?”

“I don’t. That book is, uh…”

“About music,” says Saphy. “It seems someone’s made her curious about the intricacies of song.”

“Could you not?!”

“WHAT?!!!” the bard jumps to their feet. “You’re studying music, Miriam?!”

“NO!!! I mean… Not really? What you said about music being vibrations and stuff made me wonder… Anyway, I’m not reading it seriously! Just browsed through it once or twice. Don’t get so excited!”

“Yes,” says Saphy. “Get excited about this instead.”

Miriam’s face goes pale at the sight of the “picture book” in Sapphire’s hands.

“What’s that?” asks the bard.

“A picture collection of Miriam as a little girl,” Saphy replies with a chuckle.

The elderly witch gently places the book in the bard’s hands. Kiwi holds it for about three seconds before Miriam takes it and shoves it back on the bookshelf.

“FORGET,” Miriam warns. “Forget you ever saw that.”

Now Miriam is more uncertain than ever about this whole “sleepover” thing. Dealing with the bard is one thing, but now she must put up with her grandmother’s teasing? And that’s exactly what this is – teasing. Saphy brought that book out just to mess with her. She knows it! The mischievous little smirk on the old woman’s face confirms it.

Yes, Miriam is very uncertain about tonight.

Later, as she bids her grandmother goodnight, she is still plagued with uncertainty.

Later-later, she sits in the bath, uncertain. Still.

It gets to the point where Miriam’s uncertain about being uncertain. When she becomes uncertain about being uncertain about being uncertain, she decides “enough is enough”.

Kiwi is her friend. And what do friends do?

They have nice, fun sleepovers.

“(It’ll be a great bonding experience),” she thinks.

Bonding.

The word gives her goosebumps. She and the bard have done a little bonding over the months since the world’s restoration. But she wouldn’t say she and Kiwi have gotten significantly closer.

It’s difficult. She still has many reservations about getting close to someone else. Whenever she feels her affection for her friend growing, she panics. Withdraws. Sometimes for weeks at a time.

But eventually she musters the courage to see them. And when she does, they welcome her back with a smile and a hug. And a song. Lots of songs.

“(A good chance to bond… Okay. I’ll be okay. It’s only for one night. I can put up with them for that long.)”

She frowns. “Put up with” isn’t a nice way to describe spending time with a friend.

“(Get it together, Miriam. You owe them some quality time. Get out there and be the friendliest friend you can be.)”

She takes a deep breath and steps out into the living room. Kiwi is splayed out on the floor, humming without a care in the world.

“I’m back,” she says.

Kiwi sits up.

“Aw, Miriam! You look cute in your jammies!”

Her “jammies”? Sometimes she questions how old Kiwi’s supposed to be.

The bard’s intense gaze makes Miriam feel sheepish. This is the first time she’s worn her pajamas – her “jammies” – around someone not named “Sapphire”. It’s a baffling sensation. Somehow, despite wearing an oversized light pink sweatshirt and purple shorts, she feels… naked? Maybe not “naked”, exactly. Vulnerable? Yes, that’s the word she’s looking for. She feels vulnerable!

And she doesn’t like it one bit.

“Is something wrong, Miriam?”

Her discomfort must be obvious. Her first thought is to answer sarcastically. Or maybe angrily. Perhaps a bit of both? She decides against it. That’s how she typically responds to, well, most things. But it’s a little different with Kiwi. With them, she’s trying to be “softer”. More earnest. It’s taken some getting used to. Being honest about her feelings makes her feel vulnerable.

And she doesn’t like it one bit.

But she’ll put up with it. At least for their sake.

“Isn’t this weird for you?” she asks.

“What?”

“Being in your pajamas around someone else?”

“No. Why? Do you think it’s weird?”

“A little? I dunno. I’m not used to letting other people see me like this. I feel… exposed?”

“Hmm. Your shorts are kinda short. Maybe try wearing pants? Do you think that’ll help?”

“Ugh. No. Just forget I said anything.”

“Okay…?”

Tonight’s off to a good start.

Miriam sighs and joins her confused companion on the floor. She sits far enough that another person could fit between them.

“…”

The witch thinks. “(Oooookay. Here we go. This is the part where… the talking happens.)”

Talking to Kiwi is always hit-or-miss. Their “weirdness”, while endearing, can make them difficult to talk to. It’s rare for a conversation NOT to end with the bard bursting into song. Like that one time a chat about snacks was ruined when they decided to waste five minutes singing about the flavor differences between various types of cheddar.

And the few talks that don’t end with a big musical number? They’re prone to ending with Miriam enraged over an innocently insensitive “compliment”, like that one time Kiwi told her how much they liked her long nose. Ouch.

“…”

Kiwi smiles. Miriam returns the smile, though hers is much more strained.

“(Anything’s fine)”, she thinks. “(Just say a word to them. Just one.)”

“Hi,” she mutters.

“Hi!” they exclaim.

Flawless. Ten out of ten.

She thinks. “(Okay. Maybe… more than one word?)”

“I, uh, like the color,” she says, “of your…”

She groans.

Jammies. That’s a pretty blue.”

“Oh! Thanks!” they happily reply. “I like the color too!”

“Kinda weird seeing you without your bard getup on. I don’t think I’ve ever seen your, uh, hair before.”

“Really? Huh.”

And just like that, the conversation dies. It didn’t end with a song or an unintentional insult, so Miriam considers it a success!

Tick, tick, tick –

The minutes slowly pass.

Miriam comes to the horrible realization that they have nothing to do. Aren’t sleepovers supposed to be fun? How the heck do you make them fun?!

“What do you do for fun?” she asks.

I SIIIIIIIIIIING –“

“BESIDES that!”

“Hmm… I like going out for walks. I visit Langtree a lot, but sometimes I keep to the woods. It depends on if I feel like seeing people or animals, I guess.”

“What? You have days you don’t wanna deal with other people’s crap?”

“…Sometimes.”

That’s surprising.

She appreciates the honesty. Kiwi’s slowly been getting better at expressing negative emotions, at least around her. There are still plenty of fake smiles, forced laughs, and dismissive comments. But they aren’t keeping ALL of their bad feelings locked away anymore.

She scooches just a bit closer to them.

“Guess we all have those days, huh? What else do you do for fun? Like, if it’s raining and you can’t go outside. You…”

SIIIIII-“

“Okay, BESIDES that!”

“Uh… What do you do for fun, Miriam?”

“Blow stuff up with my magic.”

“Miriam!”

“Kidding! Relax. I… Hmm. Guess I kinda like reading? Doing stuff with Grandma Saphy’s always good. And I practice playing the piccolo sometimes. …We don’t have a lot of hobbies, do we?”

“Guess we don’t. Maybe that’s why we get along so well!”

“Yeah, sure. We’ll go with that.”

Tick, tick, tick –

The minutes keep slowly passing.

Miriam thinks. “(This is bad. There has to be something fun we can do!)”

Sitting around isn’t bad, but it doesn’t make for a very exciting sleepover. What can they do to liven things up?

“Miriam?”

“Yeah?”

“Wanna take a look at this?”

Kiwi reaches into their shirt and pulls out a certain collection of Miriam pictures. The witch’s eyes widen with panic as she screeches -

“WHERE DID YOU GET THAT?!!!”

“Your grandma lent it to me!”

“RRRRRRGH!!! Of COURSE she did! …Did you have it hiding in your shirt this whole time?”

“Yep!”

She furrows her brow. Well, furrows it even more, as it’s already quite furrowed. If the book’s been in their shirt this “whole time”, that means they’ve had around an hour to sneak a peek.

Was there any point in the last hour she left them unattended?

“Crap. When I went to take a bath… Did you already look inside?!”

“Nope!”

What? They didn’t?

Kiwi gently places the album on the floor next to Miriam.

“I wanted to look through it with you,” they say with a smile.

“No way.”

She reaches for it. Kiwi snatches it away at the last second.

“Aw, c’mon. Why not?”

“Because it’s embarrassing?!” she snarls. “Now, give it here!”

She holds out her hand expectantly. The bard doesn’t budge.

“It’ll be fun.”

“It won’t! Gimme!”

She reaches for the album, but Kiwi holds it away from her. With a polite smile, they say -

“I bet you were really cute when you were little.”

“Give. It. To. Me.”

Nope. Nope. Nope.

Each attempt to snatch the album away is met with failure. And with each failed attempt, Kiwi’s smile grows wider. They take a deep breath.

“(Great!)” Miriam thinks. “(Here comes the song.)”

And they sing -

               I’m

               Afraid I must pry

               Time

               To find out why

               You’re

               So shy

She’s growing frantic. She is confident Grandma Saphy put the most embarrassing photo on the very first page. It strikes her as a “Saphy thing” to do.

She CANNOT let Kiwi open that thing. It can’t happen. It won’t happen.

“GIVE IT!!!”

She roars, her voice a mixture of anger and embarrassment, and lunges at Kiwi. They scramble to get away but are just a tad too slow.

They’re able to move away just enough to keep Miriam’s hands off the book. Instead, her fingers dig into their ribs. Kiwi’s voice goes up several octaves. On one hand, they’re pleased. They’ve been trying – and failing – to hit that really high note for a while.

On the other hand, HELP.

Miriam grumbles about several things, such as how much her ears are ringing after Kiwi hit that high note. Also what a pain in the butt they’re being. Why can’t they just give her the stupid book? Why struggle so much? And what’s with all the laughing?

Miriam rolls her eyes. She’s glad her friend finds her frustration hilarious. But then she realizes their hysterical chortling may have to do with the way she’s grabbing them.

“Oh? You ticklish?” she asks, surprised.

Apparently so.

“Cool. You gonna give me that book?”

Looking like a no.

Welp.”

The two struggle for some time. Somehow, even with all their flailing, the bard manages to keep the book just out of Miriam’s reach. It’s kind of upsetting her.

“Would you just...! Rrrrgh!” she groans. “How the…”

There’s another issue upsetting her.

“Hey. You ever gonna try, oh… I dunno. Defending yourself? Gonna die laughing this rate.”

In response, Kiwi makes one feeble attempt to swat Miriam’s hands away.

“…Is that it?”

It is. And they feel awful for attacking her. They should’ve tried singing instead. Not that they can right now.

Miriam sighs. “You’re taking some of the fun out of this… Fine. Fine! Do what you want with that thing. I don’t care.”

She lets them go. Kiwi takes a moment to catch their breath. Then –

“Here, Miriam.”

They hold the book out to her.

“What?”

“Take it.”

“What do you mean, ‘take it’? After all that crap I put you through, you’re just giving it to me?”

“I wasn’t actually going to look at it without your permission.”

“Huh? What the heck was up with all that ‘keep away’ stuff, then? If you were just going to give it to me in the end, you…”

“I wanted to tease you a little.”

Miriam isn’t sure why she’s blushing so furiously. Was it what they said? The way they said it? Who knows.

She picks up the album and turns away from the bard.

“Consider me ‘teased’.”

She peeks over her shoulder to make sure they’re not looking. They’re too busy staring at their twiddling thumbs.

Good. She slowly cracks open the album –

Yes. There it is, just as expected. It’s the only photo on the first page. Miriam, maybe two or three years of age, scowls as she sits on her training potty. Sapphire was kind enough to write “making a poopy” next to the photo.

Miriam smiles, but it’s a very angry smile.

She quickly turns the page.

“Hmm… Maybe this one…”

“Can I look?”

“NO!!! Not… yet.”

“…?”

“I’m picking out some photos, okay? There’s no way I’m letting you see all of these. But some of these are fine.”

She continues flipping through the pages, plucking out the least offensive pictures. But as she does so, a thought comes to her. She looks over her shoulder. Kiwi’s absentmindedly looking around the room.

“Hey.”

She waits until they look at her before continuing -

“You don’t laugh much, do you?”

“What? Of course I do!”

She thinks back to their world-saving journey. Kiwi’s smiling face appears all over her memories, as expected.

She thinks a little harder. There’s Kiwi, smiling like a fool. There they are singing at the top of their lungs, their voice oozing joy. There’s that time they forced a laugh as a conversation came to an awkward end. And another time they giggled to hide their discomfort over being insulted.

There aren’t a lot of memories of Kiwi laughing genuinely. Isn’t that weird? They’re literally a living, singing mass of happiness. There’s a smile plastered on their face right now.

Miriam’s eyes narrow. “(Hold on… Thought so! That smile’s a fake.)”

“Don’t get upset. I’m just kinda surprised,” she says. “You think someone who spews happiness out of every hole in their body would, y’know… be laughing all the time… or whatever.”

They’re suspiciously quiet. She looks away.

“…It’s cute. Your laugh, I mean,” she timidly continues. “You should, uh… do it more.”

“Oh… Yeah, okay. I guess I never noticed. No one’s ever said that to me before. …You don’t laugh much either, Miriam.”

“Duh. I’m a grump. One laugh a year’s all you’re getting from me.”

“It’d be nice if you did it more.”

They both fall silent. Miriam’s just about done picking out her photos when Kiwi says -

“Why don’t we laugh more together? That’s a thing friends do, right?”

She closes the book.

“Yeah. It is,” she replies. “And we can… definitely work on that.”

Why is she getting so flustered?

“F-For now, pictures. Here.”

She hands them a small stack of mildly embarrassing photos. Kiwi eagerly accepts them.

“Aaaaaaaaaaaaaw! Look at you!”

“Yeah, yeah. Rosy-cheeked little angel, that’s me…”

“You’re so CUTE!!!”

“S-Sure, yeah… Could you maybe not talk while you look at those? This is hard enough for me as is.”

“Haha… You’re blushing, Miriam.”

“YEAH?!!! AND?!!!”

Miriam can’t decide if this is the worst thing to happen to her or the best. Seriously. She’s both mortified and delighted right now. There’s something exciting about sharing your stupid kid photos with a friend. As long as they’re not incredibly embarrassing photos, that is.

“Miriam… Here.”

They hand the photos back to her.

“What’s that look on your face? Didn’t like the pics?”

“No, I loved them.”

“Then what’s the problem?”

“There’s no problem…”

“Spill it.”

“Well… Maybe you should take a closer look at them.”

She does. She doesn’t notice anything wrong with the photos.

“These are pics of me. Yes, indeedy.”

“Yeah.”

She’s not sure what they’re getting at.

“They’re pics of you. Just you. You’re alone in every single one.”

She looks through the photos again. Kiwi is right.

“Not like I was a popular kid growing up. Wasn’t kidding when I said I didn’t have many friends…”

“…”

“What? You don’t need to feel bad for me. Sure, I didn’t have other stupid kids to frolic with. I didn’t need them! I had Saphy. That was enough for me.”

“Still… Oh! I know! Miriam, do you have a camera?!”

Why are they so excited all of a sudden?

“Pretty sure Saphy’s got one collecting dust in the house somewhere. I’m guessing you want me to dig it out.”

They nod.

“Right. Cool. Be right back, I guess.”

She finds it sitting behind the grandfather clock. She has no idea why it’s there. The camera is old and worn, likely the same one Saphy had used to take those baby pictures. Miriam had seen newer, slicker models at the shops in Mohabumi. In fact, it was the only location where cameras were commonplace. Upon closer inspection, she notices small crystals in the device like the ones hovering all over the magic city.

Miriam wonders if her grandmother got the camera from there in her younger years. She still wasn’t sure if Saphy originally came from the city. She’d been meaning to ask for ages, but never got around to it. Not that it matters now. She’s got other things to worry about. She returns to Kiwi and gives them the camera.

“Here.”

“Great!”

They fiddle with it for a few moments.

“I think I got it! Maybe? Do you know how to use this thing, Miriam?”

“Not really.”

“Okay! That’s fine!”

They fiddle with the camera for a few more moments.

“I think I got it! For REAL this time!”

“What are you doing?”

“You’ll see!”

They grab a few books from a nearby shelf and neatly stack them on the floor, placing the camera on top.

“Quick! Sit over here!”

She sits near the bard –

“Closer!”

They motion for her to come closer. She budges an inch.

“Miriam! There’s not much time!”

They frantically pat the spot next to them. RIGHT next to them. If Miriam moves that close, their shoulders will be touching. Gross.

MIRIIAAAAA-

“Okay! Okay! I’m moving, all right?! Knock it off with the singing!”

She sits next to them. As she feared, they’re so close that their shoulders are touching.  And it gets even worse. Kiwi drapes their arm over her shoulder and pulls her even closer. Their faces are nearly touching!

“It’s about to go off! Get ready to say ‘cheese’, Miriam!”

She isn’t ready for this!

“Three, two, one… CHEEEEEEEEEEEEESE!!!”

Flash!

Miriam is shocked. Is it over? Did the picture get taken? The aged camera slowly spits out a single photo.

“Look! Look, there it is! Do you want to look at it?!”

Miriam thinks. “(Nope. I wanna burn it.)”

She’s certain she’s making a stupid face in that photo. But Kiwi is so excited. She doesn’t want to disappoint them.

“I think it needs a few minutes before it’s ready,” she says nervously. “Let’s, uh… wait a sec.”

Excellent. She’s bought herself a little time. Now she can steel herself against whatever horror awaits her in that photo. Except her plan didn’t account for a certain issue.

She’s still sitting extremely close to the bard. Their arm is still draped over her shoulder. And their faces are still almost touching.

Kiwi’s noticed. Their joyous smile falters a tiny bit.

Both of them are frozen in place, awkwardly gazing into each other’s eyes, unable to say or do anything. Until -

“I think it’s ready!” they exclaim.

And just like that, Miriam’s left sitting by herself. Kiwi crawls over to the camera and picks up the photo.

“…”

“Soooo… How’d it turn out?”

“GREAT!!! Look!”

She takes the photo from them.

Just as she feared, her expression is beyond words, and not in a good way. Kiwi, meanwhile, is absolutely beaming.

“(Well…)” she laments. “(At least one of us looks cute.)”

Kiwi plucks the photo from her hand and moves to place it in Miriam’s baby album, but they stop at the last second.

“OOOOOOOH!!!”

That’s probably not good.

“Miriam! I have an idea!”

That’s definitely not good.

“Let’s start a new album!”

“A new one?” she asks.

“YES!! We can fill it with pictures of you and all the friends we made on our journey!”

“Uh… Yeah, I’m not sure about that.”

“It’ll be fun!”

“Hmm…”

“I need to visit Chismest anyway. My mom wants… Well, I need to go! And I was thinking instead of going straight to Chismest, maybe I could go around and visit people! And you could come with me!”

“Wha-? Listen –“

“AND WE COULD GET TONS OF PHOTOS!!!”

“Listen –“

“MIRIAM!!!”

“LISTEN!!!“

They frown.

“You don’t want to?”

Yes, but she doesn’t want to say it so bluntly.

They force a smile. “It’s okay. It was a dumb idea. I don’t want to force you into anything you don’t want to do.”

She hates it when they talk like that. And that stupid look of disappointment in their eyes –

Nothing pisses her off more.

“Shut up. Who said I didn’t want to go? You just surprised me. I mean, you dumped it on me so suddenly! My brain couldn’t process it.”

“Then…!”

“…I think it could be… an experience. Of some sort. Might be cool. Or not. Only one way to find out.”

“Miriam! Thank you!”

“What? Don’t thank me for that, you dork.”

“But I want to! It’s been a while since we’ve done anything together… And I know you’ve been busy, so taking time to spend with me… I appreciate it! And I appreciate you!”

“…Thanks.”

A few days later, Miriam sets off from her grandmother’s house for Langtree. She tells Saphy Kiwi needs her help with “stuff”, and she’ll be gone for at least two weeks. She’s careful not to let Saphy see the camera in her satchel.

Kiwi is ready and waiting by the time Miriam arrives.

“We’re hitting up Delphi first,” the witch says. “Wanna see your old bandmates, don’t you?”

“Mhm! Ready to leave when you are!”

“Hop on.”

Her broom hobbles as the bard literally jumps onto it. They place a hand on her shoulder and say –

“Thanks again, Miriam. I’m really glad you came.”

“Happy to be here."

Once a downtrodden town with little to offer, Delphi was now a lively community with slightly more to offer. Since the world’s restoration, the town had undergone a small economic and population boom. A handful of new houses were built on the outskirts, more shops opened, and the inn expanded! Yes, times were good in Delphi!

Locals wave as they notice the witch and bard flying overhead. Miriam “parks” her broom in front of the town’s main entertainment establishment – the Crazy Raven. Kiwi, excited at the thought of being reunited with old friends, can barely keep their giddiness in check. They jump off the broom and dance.

“Our day’s just started,” Miriam grumbles, “and you’re already acting like a lunatic. Would you relax?”

“I’m so happy, Miriam!”

I noticed. Anyway, we’re here. Gonna go talk to your friends?”

“Mhm! Let’s go inside!”

“You want me to go in there with you? Maybe it’d be better if I stayed out here.”

“Why? What’s wrong?”

“I…” she hesitates. “…I don’t know them.”

“Then I’ll introduce you!”

“How about you go in there and have your happy little reunion, hang out, then come get me for the picture?”

“I could do that…”

“It’d be easier for me if you did.”

“All right. I’ll be back soon!”

Kiwi ignores their disappointment and boogies into the club. There’s no one inside except the owner. After recovering from the mild shock of someone bursting into his business with sick dance moves, the owner greets Kiwi.  

“Long time no see! Been doing good?”

“Great!” Kiwi exclaims. “How are things here?”

“Can’t complain. Business couldn’t be better! Haha, that’s a lie. It could be way better… but it’s good! Real good. Been thinking about doing some renovations to the place. You know, spruce up the bar, add some more lights. Stuff like that.”

“Neat!”

“Also thinking of expanding the roster. We do a bunch of music shows here – mainly Manny’s band. And other local talent, like Mitzi and Dani. You see ‘em perform yet? Their music is… different.”

“Different how?”

“Experimental. They started off as a run-of-the-mill ‘guitar and drum’ duo. Then they added props and novelty instruments and… yeah, it kinda escalated from there. Words don’t do ‘em justice. You need to see ‘em to ‘get it’.”

“Huh.”

“Anyway, I was thinking of adding a wider variety of shows to draw in more customers. I heard poetry nights are catching on bigtime overseas. Might do that. Oh, and more comedy shows. Improv nights could be a huge hit!”

He smiles.

“Been beefing up the ol’ joke repertoire, by the way. You should come see me do stand-up one of these days. For now, wanna hear a joke?”

“Yeah!”

“What did the ox say to her kid when he moved out?”

“…”

“…’Bison’.”

“…”

“How was it? Tried changing up the line delivery this time.”

“Are Manny and the others around?”

“Afraid you just missed ‘em. Skipped town yesterday to go to Rulle. They’re gonna perform at the king’s birthday celebration! Can you believe it? They’re really moving up in the world. Say, why don’t you rejoin them? I heard their current singer, Jaime, is finally going solo. They’ll need a new singer. I’ll tell Manny you-“

“Oh, I can’t join any bands right now. I’m in the middle of something…”

“Right. Shouldn’t be surprised you’ve got your hands full these days. I mean, you saved the world! People must be hounding you nonstop for stuff.”

“…”

Kiwi finishes chatting with the club’s owner and then heads back outside to rejoin Miriam.

“Photo time?” she asks.

“Manny and the others aren’t here.”

“For real? Sorry to hear that.”

“Don’t be! Sounds like things are going great for them!”

“That’s good. You must be happy for them. You kinda helped start that band, after all.”

“Yep! …It’s a shame you never got to see our show.”

“If you ever end up singing with them again, I’ll totally be there. So? Now what? Wanna get some candy?”

“YES!!!”

Getting a picture with Manny’s band was a bust, but that doesn’t stop them from finding other opportunities. Miriam takes a photo of Kiwi and the candy store’s owner, Jeb, singing together. Later, she and Kiwi pose dramatically in front of the Queen of Winds statue. That night, they watch Mitzi and Dani perform at the Crazy Raven. They’re not sure what to think of the music. They take a picture with the duo before retiring at the inn.

“I had a lot of fun today,” Kiwi says as they head upstairs to their rooms.

“Glad to hear it.”

“How about you, Miriam? Did you have fun?”

“Surprisingly. It’s crazy how lively Delphi’s gotten the last few months. You can see the excitement in everyone’s eyes. It’s kinda gross.”

“Oh. This is my room. Um…”

“Mine’s over there. Guess we should say goodnight for now. Soooo… g’night.”

Goodniiiight! Sleep tiiiight!”

Miriam rolls her eyes. They had to get one last song out, didn’t they? She feigns irritation and enters her hotel room, sighing with relief as she removes her boots. The first day went well. Very well, even. She hopes the rest of their trip will go as smoothly.

But she gets the feeling it won’t.

Chapter Text

The next morning, Kiwi finds Miriam waiting in front of the inn.

“Miriam…!” Kiwi gasps. “You’re smiling!”

“I’m smirking. There’s a difference.”

“But why?”

“Because I saw something you’re really gonna like. Follow me.”

They walk together towards the dock. About halfway, they’re approached by an ominous figure. The person is tall, standing somewhere between seven and eight feet. Kiwi gazes up to look at their face -

“Nina?”

“‘Sup, heh.”

That’s strange. They can’t put their finger on it, but there’s something different about Nina.

“Did you cut your hair?”

“Yep. I’m stylin’, hehe.”

“So,” Miriam sighs, “you gonna ask about her crazy shoes or should I?”

“Oh. What’s with your shoes?” Kiwi asks. “They’re really… tall.”

“Gonna be in charge of a ship,” Nina chuckles. “Means I gotta be more imposin’, hehehe.”

“In charge of a ship? Did something happen to the captain?”

“No,” a young woman’s voice replies. “He’s fine and dandy.”

The bard is approached by a pair of familiar coffee-scented pirates. The woman, Penny, has a small canvas sack slung over her shoulder – provisions for an upcoming voyage, most likely. Meanwhile, the man, Francisco, has sacks in his hands, sacks slung over both shoulders, sacks strapped to his back, sacks tied around his thighs, and even tiny sacks pinned to his shoes. What Miriam initially mistakes as a stylish hat is, in fact, another sack.

“We’re expanding. Business has boomed so much lately we can barely keep up, so we’re getting a second ship,” Penny explains. “The captain hesitated at first… I had to pester him about it for weeks! But I finally got through to him.”

She sighs.

“I get why he hesitated. Our crew’s like a family, y’know? We’re so used to being crammed together on the Lady Arabica. It’ll be strange to be split between two ships, even if we’ll still be traveling together. But ‘business is business’, and business has needs… The Lady Arabica alone isn’t cutting it anymore. We need to expand!”

She looks at the bard and, with a smile and a wink, says –

“By the way, interested in permanently joining our crew?”

It’s quite possibly the greatest question anyone has ever asked Kiwi. They -

“We’re busy with other stuff,” interrupts Miriam. “We’re just here for a picture.”

“Too bad.”

“The captain held a raffle to determine who’d name the ship and who’d be in charge,” says Francisco.

“I got stuck with naming duty,” Penny sighs.

“And the worst possible person to be chosen as leader was chosen as leader.”

“Yaaar, hehe,” Nina chuckles. “Hehehe.”

“I named the ship ‘Sixty-Nine Thousand Nice Beans’ after the sixty-nine thousand beans you ordered, never paid for, never received, and never will receive,” Penny says in an irritated tone. “Actually, since we’re on the subject, why did you order so many beans?”

“I dunno. It was like I was being driven by an otherworldly entity,” Kiwi says nonchalantly. “One who really wanted beans.”

“What?”

Right as Kiwi opens their mouth to respond, a familiar voice calls out -

“YAR!! Could it be…? Matey!”

Kiwi squeals with delight at the sight of Captain Lucas, their favorite pirate in the world. They practically throw themselves into the captain’s arms.

“Glad to see ye doin’ well! Yar, we’ve missed ya!”

“Are we leaving?” asks Francisco.

“What?!” Kiwi cries, disappointed. “You’re leaving already?!”

“Aye. Been overwhelmin’ lately, matey. We get nary a moment’s rest,” Lucas grins. “Good thing we never sleep!”

“Oh…”

“Hmm… Any chance ye be headin’ overseas? We’re headed for the land o’ two kingdoms. If ye be headin’ that way…”

“Actually…!”

Kiwi looks at Miriam.

“Miriam, let’s go with them!”

“Seriously? To Rulle and Chaandesh?” she scoffs. “I thought you wanted to go to Chismest.”  

“I want to go everywhere! But, um, Chismest can wait a little… Anyway, Manny and the others are in Rulle! This is perfect! We have to go with them!”

“…Can’t we just take a picture and –“

“NO!!!”

“…”

For once, Kiwi frowns.

“Miriam… If you don’t want to travel with them, that’s… okay. But I really wish you’d reconsider.”

“Ugh… I’m not against getting on the dumb pirate ship. It’s just…”

“Just…?”

“I’m not NOT against getting on the dumb pirate ship, either.”

She still gets headaches when she remembers their previous adventure on that boat. The pirates were so loud and annoying. With the bard around, they almost never stopped singing.

“Sounds like…” Captain Lucas whispers, his grin mischievous, “she needs a bit of convincin’… And I think we’ve just the thing! Right, matey?!”

“We sure do!” Kiwi exclaims. They take a breath –

“Crap...” groans Miriam.

And the bard sings -

               Miriam, oh, what do you say?

               Let’s hop on their ship and go sail away

               A new journey on the ocean so blue

               The final decision is all up to you

               Cross the seas? We haven’t the means

               So might as well go with these folks who sell beans

               Climb aboard! Just what have we got to lose?

               Can you not enjoy an exciting cruise?

The pirates join in  -

               Miriam, oh, what do you say?

               Get on our ship and let’s sail away

               A new journey on the ocean so blue

               Singing and sipping some coffee with you

               Under the sun

               Voices as one

               Pondering what each day may bring

               Under the sun

               Fun’s only begun

               Carried by the wind, we sing

“ENOUGH WITH THE SINGING!!!” the witch shrieks.

Kiwi looks at her expectantly.

“You wanna go that bad?!” she asks.

They nod.

“Fine. We’ll go. But the singing’s being kept to a minimum. Got it?!”

They nod again.

About twenty minutes later…

Kiwi sings -

               I spy with my little eye something beginning with ‘C’

Lucas croons back -

               Could it be me cup of coffee?

Kiwi continues -

               Wow, you got me

               That’s what I see

               You won Round Three

               So easily

               I must complain

               That it’s a shame

               Miriam won’t join our game

They wave and motion for her to join them. She decides to retreat below deck instead.

This isn’t what she imagined when she agreed to leave with Kiwi. Sailing with pirates? Visiting the distant kingdoms of the sun and moon? She told Saphy she’d only be gone two weeks, and now that was looking unlikely. It takes several days to reach Rulle’s distant shores by sea! And how in the world is she going to get back home? Hitch another ride with the pirates? Find another ship? Fly her broom all the way back?

Miriam finds a nice, dark corner in one of the ship’s cabins and sulks.

“I don’t want to be stuck with all these goobers again,” she tells herself. “They’re so annoying…”

She’d actually spent the previous night planning out a list of things for her and Kiwi to do around Delphi. There are many picturesque places both in and around the town. They could’ve paid those cave trolls a visit and gotten a picture of them. And a picture of the breathing crystal at the cave’s bottom. There’s a grove not too far from Delphi where she and Sapphire used to pick mushrooms. She was really looking forward to taking Kiwi there.

Miriam sighs and thinks back on what Kiwi had said –

“Let’s start a new album! We can fill it with pictures of you and all the friends we made on our journey!”

“(All the friends),” she thinks, grimacing, “(…YOU made.)”

“And I was thinking instead of going straight to Chismest, maybe I could go around and visit people. AND WE COULD GET TONS OF PHOTOS!!!”

“(Tons of photos I don’t even want.)”

“You don’t want to? It’s okay. It was a dumb idea.”

“Aaaargh! Why’d you have to make that face?!” she screams at no one in particular. “You’re so unfair!”

“It’s been a while since we’ve done anything together… And I know you’ve been busy, so taking time to spend with me… I appreciate it! And I appreciate you!”

“…I wouldn’t put up with this crap for anyone else.”

She says “put up with” but in the end she doesn’t leave the cabin for the rest of the day. When Kiwi checks on her, she lies to them by saying she’s seasick and needs to rest. Later in the night, she can hear the bard and the pirates having a jolly time in the mess hall. They’re singing, shouting, and laughing.

She closes her eyes and imagines what it’d be like out there with them.

“Pssh… Yeah, right. Me being out there’d ruin the mood. Miriam the Party Pooper, killer of joy…”

She covers her head with a pillow to drown out the noise. Eventually, she falls into a fitful sleep.

But even in her dreams there’s no escaping the voices of Kiwi and the crew. She’s haunted by their jolly jigs. Tormented by “yar har”-filled hoedowns. She greets the morning with a start, more frazzled than she was before. Perhaps a cup of coffee would help?

She finds the cook, Lou, standing around in the mess hall.

“Lookin’ rough, girlie,” he says, his face stern.

“Can I get a drink?” she asks.

“’Fraid I don’t run that sorta establishment.”

“I meant a coffee.”

“I was pullin’ yer leg,” he smiles. “Cause I can’t pull my own on account of losin’ it!”

Everyone’s a joker…”

The coffee is pleasant. And, unlike a certain bard, she can handle caffeine without issue. The drink lifts her spirits for a few moments. Then she remembers where she is and where she’s going and frowns once more.

“You ever wonder why you do stuff?” Miriam asks.

“All the time.”

“I mean… Why am I here? I don’t care about a bunch of stupid pictures.”

“Pictures?”

“It’s this idea that weirdo bard had. They saw I was alone in all my old pictures and thought it’d be great if we could take a bunch of new ones with me and aaaaaall their pals.”

“You ain’t interested?”

“Of course not. I don’t know who any of you people are. Uh, no offense.”

“None taken.”

“Why would I want pictures with you? It doesn’t make any sense.”

“You don’t want a picture of my smilin’ face?” Lou says with a grin.

“…There’s no way for me to answer that without sounding like a jerk.”

She thanks Lou for the coffee and takes her leave. Perhaps some fresh air will help clear her mind. She returns to the deck and finds Captain Lucas and Kiwi chatting happily with each other. Also, for some reason, they’ve swapped hats.

“AHOY, MIRIAM!!!” Kiwi shouts.

After a pause, they add –

“YAR!!!”

MI MI MIIIII… RIAAAAM, GOOD TO SEEEEEE YA!!!” Lucas sings.

“Oh. Cool. You two hit your heads and swapped personalities,” Miriam snarls. “Guess that’s another thing to add to my GROWING LIST OF PROBLEMS.”

“No, no, no, no! That’s not what this is!” cries Kiwi.

After a pause, they add –

“Yar har!”

“Yaaar – I mean, laaaa la. Aye, tis no foul play here,” Lucas replies.

“Then what’s with the… everything?”

“They be helpin’ me fix m’voice, tra la, so I may better serenade sweet, fair Mel! Ah, shinin’ jewel of the sea… Holder of me achin’ heart…!”

“The captain told me he wants to take things with Mel to ‘the next level’!” says the ex-bard, now turned pirate.

After a pause, they add –

“Yo ho ho and a bottle of milk. You know, to mix with your coffee!”

“(This needs to stop)”, Miriam thinks. “(…And none of that explained why they switched hats.)”

“YAR!!! I mean – DO RE MI!!! Don’t go blabbin’ to her, matey! It’s… embarrasin’. Laaaa.”

Why let the bard blab when Captain Lucas can do it himself? With no prompting whatsoever, he shares his romantic woes with Miriam. The captain fears Mel may be losing interest in him, and he wishes to do something to renew the “RAGIN’ TORRENT O’LOVE” in her heart! Miriam raises an eyebrow. Last she checked, the mermaid had no romantic interest in him whatsoever.

“Does she know you like her?” asks Miriam.

“Ooooooooh, asked for her hand in marriage, I did, back when we met at the mermaid’s hidin’ place, la la. Not sure, ooh la la, how to make it clearer than that.”

“Have you talked to her about it since then? Like, at all?”

“YAR!!! I mean -  LAAA-“

“ENOUGH ALREADY!!! Talk normally!”

“…Nar.”

Miriam wouldn’t call that “normal”, but whatever. It’s good enough.

“I was thinkin’ of makin’ me intentions clearer with a nice dinner… and a song.”

“And that’s where I come in!” Kiwi waves at Miriam to remind her they’re still part of the conversation.

After a pause, they add –

“Shiver my timbers!”

“Okay, first? It’s ‘shiver ME timbers’. Second, knock it off. You’re not a pirate.”

They’re crushed! How could Miriam say that? Can’t she see the cool pirate hat on their head?

“Singin’ any ol’ song won’t be enough to convey me feelin’s,” Lucas says. “I need help puttin’ what’s in here –“

He taps his chest.

“…into melodious words.”

“Mhm! And that’s where I come in!” the ex-bard chirps. “Again!”

After a pause, they add –

“I’m helping the captain write a love song!”

You’re writing a love song?”

“Yes!”

“A romantic love song?”

“Yes?”

“Have you ever, you know, been in a romantic relationship before? You even interested in that kind of thing?”

“Uh…”

“YAR!!! Tis fine! The feelin’s are all mine!” Lucas exclaims. “I need ‘em to make the words flow… like a flowin’ river, yar.”

“And rhyme!” adds Kiwi.

“Aye, and rhyme.”

“(Good luck with that)”, Miriam thinks.

“I’ve still got stuff to do with the captain,” Kiwi says, “so I’ll be busy a little longer. But after that we can go hang out with Nina!”

“Huh? Why Nina?”

“She invited me up to the crow’s nest with her! It’s really cool up there, Miriam! You’ll love it!”

“Actually, I’m… still feeling kind of sick. Think I got a bad cup of coffee…”

Captain Lucas YAR’s at the top of his lungs. A bad cup of coffee? On his ship? Impossible! But Miriam insists and excuses herself. She walks over to the other end of the ship (groaning every now and then show how “sick” she is) and finds a quiet spot to sulk. Out of the corner of her eye, she notices three mermaids relaxing on a nearby rail.

“(That redheaded one’s the captain’s crush… He seriously thinks some dumb love song’s gonna win her over?)” Miriam rolls her eyes. “(He’s only setting himself up for disappointment.)”

Speaking of disappointment, that’s exactly what she’s feeling. She went on this trip to spend some time with her friend, but they seem more interested in pretending to be a pirate and lyricist. A pirate lyricist? They haven’t taken any pictures together since getting on the Lady Arabica. At this point, she doubts they’ll get any at all.

She spends most of the day alone, only briefly joining Kiwi and the pirates for dinner before retreating to her cabin. That night, she once again finds herself alone in the dark while everyone else has fun in the mess hall. She wakes in the morning, more irritated than ever, and goes searching for her friend. She finds them singing with the mermaids.

She decides to leave them alone.

A little later, she finds the bard down in the storage area helping Francisco count beans.

She decides to leave them alone.

She later finds them receiving an impromptu economics lesson from Penny.

Yep. Leaving them alone.

Nina and Kiwi have a dance-off. While Miriam is impressed Nina can dance while wearing shoes three times her height, it’s not impressive enough for the witch to approach the pair. She leaves them alone.

Soon the sky goes from blue to orange and red, and the sun descends beneath the horizon. Night has arrived, and it’s looking like it’ll be another lonely one.

Miriam notices Captain Lucas handing the bard several pieces of paper. He hurriedly rushes off, his cheeks pink. Miriam watches as the bard tucks the paper into their right boot and heads up to the crow’s nest. She supposes it’s a good time for her to return to her cabin.

But then she notices Nina talking with Penny and Francisco nearby. The mermaids are on the other end of the deck, and Lou and the captain are down below. There’s no one up in the crow’s nest with Kiwi. Were she to go up there now –

“(Forget it. As soon as I get up there, someone’s gonna show up.)” she thinks. “(I’m going to sleep.)”

And so she returns to her cabin and settles in to her hammock. She closes her eyes and braces herself for another night of annoying, song-filled dreams. Sleep doesn’t come despite her efforts, however. Irritated, she heads back up to the deck to get some fresh air. There is no one around. At least, that’s how it seems at first.

“Singing…” she mutters to herself. She can hear a voice coming from somewhere.

Up there, in the crow’s nest –

“They still up there? …Well, not like I’ve got anything better to do.”

She makes her way up to where Kiwi is.

“Wow, what’s that look on your face?” she asks after reaching the top. “So serious.”

“Miriam! Are you feeling better?”

“Oh, yeah… I’m real peachy.”

“I’m glad! I was worried about you.”

“Sorry,” she says as she sits next to them, “for worrying you. So, what’s with the papers? You writing an essay?”

“No, these are the captain’s! They’re notes to help me write that love song!”

“Make any progress?”

“Not much. The captain wrote a lot down.”

They hold the captain’s notes out to Miriam.

“Is it okay for me to read this?”

“I think so?”

Miriam doubts it. However, curiosity gets the better of her, and she takes the notes into her hands.

Her face turns redder than a tomato. Months ago, in Chismest, a forlorn musician had gifted her with a passionate letter. One so embarrassing she doubted anything would ever top it. Yet here, in her trembling hands, is one that completely blows it out of the water.

“Gross…”

“It’s not gross! I think it’s really sweet. …Miriam?”

“Yeah?”

“Pirates… are so cool.”

“What’s that got to do with anything?”

She hands the papers back to them.

“I hope I can write a good song for the captain,” they say.

“I still can’t believe you agreed to write a love song. You’re, like, the last person I expect to get all lovey-dovey. You’re just too…”

“Weird?”

“I was gonna say innocent, but weird works too.”

“Haha. You’re not the first person to tell me that.”

“So… Have you ever gone all lovey-dovey for someone before?”

“Not… really,” the bard answers. “Have you?”

“Enough to write a letter like this? Can’t say I have. But I’d like to think I’ll meet someone one day… I can feel this icky about.”

Her face turns red after realizing what she just said.

“Miriam!”

“Don’t’ you DARE tell anyone I said that! Okay?!”

She grabs them by the shoulders and shakes them.

“Promise me! PROMISE ME!!!”

“I-I-I p-p-pro-o-mise!”

“Okay. Okay, good. S-So… I should, uh, let you get to work… on the song.”

“Wanna help me?”

“What?”

“I can’t figure out what to write. Maybe you were right, and I shouldn’t have agreed to help the captain. I’ve read his notes over a dozen times and…”

“C’mon. If you can save the world, you can write a stupid song. Have you come up with a melody yet?”

“NO!!! I HAVEN’T!!! Miriam, that’s a great idea!”

“Uh –“

“I can come up with the melody… and you can write the words!”

“What?!”

I didn’t save the world, Miriam. We did! Together! And we can write this song together too!”

And so Miriam was dragged kicking and screaming into the world of lyrical composition. It was a frightening world full of even more frightening feelings. But perhaps the most frightening thing of all –

“…”

Was that after half an hour –

“…”

They still hadn’t come up with anything.

“…”

“This sure is hard.”

“RRRRRRGH!!! It shouldn’t BE this hard!” Miriam screams. “How can we not have any ideas?!”

“Should we take a walk? It could help.”

“Know what? Sure. Let’s take a walk.”

They descend from the crow’s nest and begin walking around the ship’s deck. They walk –

“…”

And walk –

“…”

And walk

“Any ideas yet?” Miriam asks.

“No.”

“Great.”

And then an idea pops into Miriam’s head. An idea that, not long ago, she would’ve never considered. Actually, she’s sure she wouldn’t have considered it mere hours ago. Now? Now, after several irritating, lonely, excruciatingly long song-filled days at sea, she’s feeling slightly unhinged. The captain’s letter certainly isn’t helping. Even now, his saccharine words are echoing in her mind, influencing her.

At least, those are the excuses she’s going with.

“This ain’t working,” she says. “We need to change our approach.”

“Huh?”

“We need to get in the captain’s head. Y’know… really understand what’s going on in there.”

“Oh! Okay. …How do we do that?”

Miriam doesn’t say anything.

“Uh… Miriam? How do we…?”

This is so stupid. What’s she thinking? Maybe she should forget the whole thing and go to bed.

But it wouldn’t hurt to try, would it? Doesn’t she wonder what it’s like? There may not be another opportunity like this.

“Opportunity” for what? Being a gross weirdo like the captain?

“(No.)” she thinks. “(For…)”

“Ugh… I can’t believe I’m doing this… Let’s pretend. You’ll be the captain and I’ll be Mel. So we’ve got a nice night, right? Cool breeze, bright moon, calm waters… and we’re alone. So… the captain probably wants to, y’know, make a move? Like… by holding hands or whatever…”

“…Um, should I start talking like the captain?”

“Maybe don’t pretend that hard.”

“Hmm… Okay. Uh, MEL!!!”

“Y-Yeah?!”

“Your scales sure are pretty! Can I sniff your hair and hold your hand?”

What.”

“Um, in the letter the captain mentioned snif-“

“Okay, know what? Forget what I said. No pretending. Just…”

She holds out her hand.

“Let’s just s-see what it’s like. M-Maybe it’ll give us inspiration… or something…”

And so the bard takes her hand.

“…”

“…”

“Miriam, you -“

“Don’t say anything.”

“…”

Good. This is good. Miriam can deal with this. Just breathe slowly. Take it nice and easy.

“Hmm…”

Wait. This isn’t good. Miriam knows that look. That stupid, mischievous grin that only appears when a certain goofy bard is about to poke her buttons –

It’s coming. They’re going to poke her buttons so hard.

She gives them a look that says “Don’t you dare!”. It only makes their grin bigger.

And then –

Yooooou didn’t saaay anything about siiiingiii-“

“CAN YOU NOT?!!!”

They’re a little taken aback, as is Miriam. She didn’t expect to be THAT loud.

Did that kill “the mood”? Definitely seems like it was killed.

A little voice in the back of Miriam’s mind says, “(We can still save it. Y’know, with some good old-fashioned talking. About our feelings. That sorta thing.)”

Great.

“Sorry. This isn’t… easy for me. So this is, you know… kind of a big deal? …I’ve never held hands with anyone before…”

“Me neither!” Kiwi says cheerfully. “Except with my mom. That, uh… doesn’t count, does it? Haha.”

“No. It doesn’t.”

A long, awkward silence follows.

“(Is that it?)” asks the voice in Miriam’s mind. “(That all you got?)”

Guess so.

“(You kinda suck at this.)”

She’s well aware of that.

“You, uh, feeling inspired yet?” she asks.

“Not yet. Are you?”

“Nope. Guess we should… walk around a little?”

Miriam quickly notices how awkward it is to walk hand-in-hand with someone. She’s used to moving at her own pace, so matching her speed with the bard’s proves somewhat tricky. If the bard’s also having a hard time, they sure as heck aren’t showing it. Miriam frowns.

Why is this so easy for them, but so hard for her?

Talking to people.

Making friends.

Being happy.

Holding hands.

WALKING???

Kiwi excels at everything Miriam struggles with. It’s infuriating. But more importantly – it’s discouraging. It’s been months since the “new world” came to be. Miriam had promised herself she’d try harder to be happier and more open like her upbeat friend. What happened? She hasn’t made any progress at all.

It’s at this moment she notices the wind picking up. Or rather, she’s moving faster.

Kiwi’s falling. Probably tripped over their own feet. But they’re still holding her hand, meaning she’s falling with them.

THUD.

It doesn’t hurt. Probably because she landed on the bard instead of the hard floor. Judging by Kiwi’s groaning, that floor probably hurt. A lot.

“Good going, Kiwi.”

“Thanks! Are you okay, Miriam?”

“You’re asking me that? I’m not the one who cracked my skull on the ground.”

“MY SKULL’S CRACKED?!!!”

“What? No, I was just… You’d know if your head was split open and all your brains were spilling out. You’re fine.”

“Phew! Okay. You had me worried!”

Sometimes Miriam isn’t sure if the bard’s messing with her or is genuinely lacking common sense.

It’s at this moment Miriam notices she’s still on the bard.

Her body pressing down on theirs.

Her head resting on their chest.

She raises herself just a bit. Just enough to get a good look at them. There is a very tense smile on their face. She isn’t sure if they’re trying to hide their pain or their embarrassment. Probably both.

“…”

Until just a second ago, Kiwi was staring up at the sky. But now they were looking at Miriam.

Staring directly into her eyes.

She thinks. “(This is a problem.)”

She’s not an idiot. She’s peeked at those romantic novels Grandma Saphy likes to read when she thinks Miriam isn’t around. (Saphy’s one secret shame, Miriam notes.) This situation is one that pops up a lot in those sappy stories.

A moment of clumsiness forces the two lovers’ bodies to become entwined. There’s a moment where they express their embarrassment. The two lovers gaze into each other’s eyes and slowly, slowly bring their faces together.

But this isn’t like that.

Passion isn’t swelling in Miriam’s chest. She isn’t holding back a raging desire to smush her face against Kiwi’s. No, what she feels is –

Panic?

She notices there’s a very, very, very, VERY slight trace of pink on the bard’s cheeks.

Miriam is definitely panicking now.

“Um, wow… You two should, like, get a room.”

The very, very, very, VERY slight trace of pink vanishes. They quickly scramble to their feet and look for the source of the voice. They find her sitting on a nearby rail.

“Hi, Mel!” Kiwi says happily. A little too happily, Miriam notes. “We were just talking about you!”

“Oh, yeah? Do humans usually talk about mermaids before makin’ out?”

“IT’S NOT LIKE THAT!!!” Miriam shrieks.

“Suuuure.”

Miriam can’t handle the embarrassment. She quickly excuses herself from the conversation and flees below deck. She spends the rest of the night curled up in her hammock, unable to sleep.

It’s around noon the following day when she manages to drag herself out of the cabin for another day of pirate-filled “fun”.

“Good mor-uh, afternoon,” Kiwi says, waving as they approach her. “I came up with a melody! Wanna listen?”

She doesn’t hear them. In her mind, the previous night’s event is playing over and over again. She still can’t believe that happened. What was she thinking? Stupid, stupid, stupid.

“Uh… Miriam? Are you feeling okay?”

“WHAT?!!!”

She finally realizes the bard is standing in front of her, and the sight of them absolutely terrifies her. She feels herself breaking out in a nervous sweat. What she needs, now more than anything, is to get far away from them. She can’t deal with being around them. Not after last night.

“I’m fantastic,” she answers curtly. “You got the melody done?”

They sing it for her.

“What do you think?”

“Still got the captain’s notes? Hand ‘em over.”

Kiwi gives her the notes. She stuffs them into her satchel and walks away, saying –

“I’ll get the lyrics done as soon as I can.”

“Let me help! I came up with –“

I don’t need your help. You do the melody. I do the lyrics. Remember? That’s what you said last night.”

“Haha. Right. I did.”

She winces at hearing their forced laugh.

“I’ll let you know when I’m done. I’m not feeling great, so I’m heading back down. Have fun with your pirate buddies.”

Good. Now Miriam has an excuse to keep to herself. Should anyone approach her, she’ll tell them she’s busy working on “a project” for Captain Lucas. The pirates are too busy to check on her, but Kiwi visits her multiple times throughout the day. After the sixth time, she asks them to leave her alone for “a day or two” so she can “concentrate”.

They frown, but only for a moment. “Okay. Sorry for bothering you. Let me know when you’re done! I can’t wait to see what you come up with!”

She doesn’t come up with anything that day.

Two days pass before she speaks with them again. She finds them on the deck giving the captain more singing lessons. Compared to the start of the voyage, Kiwi looks downtrodden. To her, at least. She’s confident the pirates haven’t noticed anything is amiss. Miriam feels a pang of guilt but ignores it.

“I finished it,” she says. “Here.”

“YAR!!!” Lucas takes off his hat and waves it around in triumph. “I’m grateful to ya both, I am. With this song, I’ll finally convince sweet Mel to be mine! I’ll have Lou prepare a special meal tonight!”

“You’re singing tonight?” Kiwi asks. “Are you sure you’re ready?”

“Ready as I’ll ever be! I’ve been waitin’ for this day, matey, like ya wouldn’t believe! Me poor heart’s racin’ nonstop… and not because of caffeine this time!”

He excuses himself. Miriam takes the opportunity to leave as well.

Later that night, Miriam finds the pirates gathered in the mess hall. Captain Lucas has put on his finest pirate’s outfit, complete with extra shiny buttons and a vibrant blue sash. His hair is slicked back, and his beard is neatly trimmed. He’s holding a cup of coffee in each hand and is clutching a third with his lips.

“Someone’s nervous,” Penny giggles.

Miriam decides to return to her cabin. Meanwhile, Kiwi is offering the fretful captain words of encouragement. This is the moment he’s been waiting for! He can’t back out now! Everyone will be up there to support him! (As well as play instruments for the song, with Kiwi acting as a backup singer.) The captain musters all the courage he can and heads up to the deck, where Mel awaits.

The night sky is clear, filled with twinkling stars and a crescent moon. There, on the forecastle deck, stands a lone table draped with white cloth. A lavish meal - at least “lavish” by Lou’s standards – sits atop plates of fine china. In the table’s center is a lone candle, its flame flickering in the wind.

And there, sitting patiently, is Mel the mermaid.

“Whoa,” she says, “This is pretty extreme.”

The captain takes a step forward, then squeals in fright and tries running back below deck, but his crewmates block the way. They whisper words of encouragement, except for Nina, who offers chuckles of encouragement instead.

“Hehehe,” she chuckles encouragingly.

“You can do it!” Kiwi says, their eyes filled with confidence.

He can do it! Lucas thanks his friends and struts over to the table. He sits across from Mel and says –

“N-N-Nice night t-today! Night! Tonight! Yar…”

“You’re, like, all dressed to impress. What’s the occasion?”

“Th-The oc… The occasion is… Mel, I-I…”

“Yeeeaaaah, okay. Soooo… Is it just us? Why are all your friends, like, staring at us?”

“They’re… YAR!!!” he jumps to his feet. “THE SONG!!!”

“Wha-?”

Kiwi and the pirates scurry over to where their instruments are waiting. Mel raises her eyebrows and looks around. She has no idea what’s going on.

Francisco gets the song started with a tap on a triangle. Lucas closes his eyes and sings -

 

               I thought that my time was due

               Scuttled by rain, waves, and wind

               Then you appeared from the blue

               Lovely maiden fair and finned

               You sang to me a melody

               And brought me to the light

               Knew in that moment that we were meant to be

 

               As the clouds part

               And waves rush to the shore

               How your voice grinds my heart

               Like Lou grinds dark roast beans

               For the drink we adore

               Avast ye, love!

               I watch you from afar

               Gulls sing above

               Yar har

 

               Passion is stirring inside

               Like sugar, milk, and ground bean

               Pure love that can’t be denied

               For you, born of the marine

               We’ve found each other once again

               With help from a bard

               Can’t let this miraculous meeting be in vain

 

               As the clouds part

               And waves rush to the shore

               How your voice grinds my heart

               Like Lou grinds dark roast beans

               For the drink we adore

               Avast ye, love!

               I watch you from afar

               Gulls sing above

               Yar har

 

               Don’t want to be without you

               Tell me that you feel it too

               Will we sail into the sunset together?

 

               As the clouds part

               And waves rush to the shore

               How your voice grinds my heart

               Like Lou grinds dark roast beans

               For the drink we adore

               Avast ye, love!

               I watch you from afar

               Gulls sing above

 

               As the clouds part above us

               Coffee’s fragrance fills the air

               As the waves rock below us

               We drink and sing without a care

               Yar har har

 

He opens his eyes. Kiwi and the pirates wait with bated breath for Mel’s reaction.

“…”

She’s rubbing her fingers against her forehead. If they didn’t know any better, they’d swear she was annoyed.

“Should’ve known,” Mel sighs. “So, like, thanks for the nice-looking dinner or whatevs. I gotta go.”

“WHAT?!!!” everyone shouts.

“Wait!” Lucas cries. “Did me song not stir yer heartstrings?!”

“Okay, yeah, the thing is, I’m not really cool with this? Like, I thought you needed to talk to me about important stuff but it’s, like, just the same crap as always.”

Lucas’s heart sinks. “C-Crap…?”

The pirates wince.

“But Mel,” Kiwi says, “Captain Lucas wasn’t trying to upset you! He really likes you!”

“Trust me, I totally know. He hasn’t, like, been subtle about it.”

“You don’t like him?”

“It’s like, every time I see him, he gets all weird and flirty! I mean, it was cute… at first. But then it kept happening, and it got kinda, I dunno… creepy. He comes off as desperate. Like, super off-putting. Totally not a good look.”

“He’s just excited to be around you!”

“Like, why? Cause I saved him one time or whatevs? I don’t even remember that. Anyway, like, why would I like him back? Cause he’s cute? I barely know anything about him!”

“What?! Haven’t you two talked a bunch?!”

“Nope.”

Lucas sheepishly looks down at his feet. “Nar…”

“He’s a lot shyer than he lets on,” Penny whispers to Kiwi.

“Oh,” the bard says. “Then… why don’t you try talking? Right now?”

Captain Lucas runs a hand through his slicked-back hair. “But… what do we talk about?”

“Um… Likes? Oh! Like what your favorite color is!”

Mel shrugs her shoulders. “…Yeah, okay. Guess I’m down for that. What’s your favorite color?”

“It be pink, yar,” Captain Lucas replies.

“Wow!” Kiwi exclaims. “I wasn’t expecting that!”

“Surprisin’, I know. It was long ago, back when I was a young lad on me first voyage. The day was rough with howlin’ winds and ragin’ waters tearin’ at the ship, and I thought I’d be sleepin’ with the fishes that night. Yar, but I survived, I did! The storm abated at dusk, and that was when I was greeted by the most beautiful sight – the sea and sky painted myriad colors by the settin’ sun! What stood out to me the most were the clouds… YAR!!! The clouds! If only I could show ya! There they were, towerin’ in the sky all ethereal-like, colored the most strikin’ pink I’d ever seen! Brings a tear to me eye rememberin’…”

“That’s so crazy. It’s, like, totally the same for me,” Mel says. “Listen – young mermaids can’t survive outside water for long so, like, we spend our whole childhood beneath the waves. So it’s like a big deal when a mermaid goes to the surface the first time! Like a coming-of-age thing? Anyway, yeah, when I first saw the surface world my eyes nearly exploded cause of how colorful it all was. What I loved most were the clouds, which were this crazy bright pink color…”

“YAR!!!”

“I KNOW, right?”

The pirates nod their heads, pleased. Their work here is done.

Back down in the mess hall, Lou prepares more coffee for his crewmates. Everyone is in a cheery mood.

“I can’t believe that worked,” sighs Penny. “I thought the captain was done for.”

“That was a nice save,” Francisco says as he pats Kiwi’s shoulder.

“Uh, thanks!” says the bard.

“Think they’re smoochin’ yet? Hehe.” Nina puckers her lips and makes smooching noises.

“I swear, good stuff happens whenever you sail with us. You sure you don’t want to join our crew?” Penny asks.

Kiwi keeps quiet.

“Too busy? What are you up to these days anyway?”

“Haha,” they nervously giggle. “Stuff…”

“Must be very exciting ‘stuff’. So, that’s what your life is like these days? You run around doing ‘stuff’? Is that all you’re going to do?” she takes a cup of coffee from Lou and sips it.

“What else is there to do?” Francisco is already halfway done with his coffee. “They already saved the world. It’s hard to top that.”

“I guess so. I can’t imagine what I’d be doing were I the one who saved the world. It’d be hard to go back to selling beans after an experience like that. I mean, I’d do it. The money’s too good. Still… Hey, are you okay? You seem kinda down.”

Kiwi flashes their best smile. “I’m fine!”

Everything is perfectly fine.

Chapter Text

“Okay! Everyone get ready!” Kiwi shouts. “Three, two, one…”

“YAAAAAAAAAAR!!!” the pirates, mermaids, and bard shout.

Flash!

Kiwi is confident this is the best picture by far. There’s only one flaw – Miriam isn’t in it. They begged her to join everyone for a group photo, but the witch was adamant in her refusal. In fact, she’d refused every photo opportunity during their voyage on the Lady Arabica, claiming to be “too sick” or “too tired”. A tiny voice in the back of Kiwi’s mind suggests the witch may be lying, but the bard refuses to believe it. Miriam wouldn’t lie about something like that.

Rulle’s coastline is within view. In a short while, Miriam and Kiwi will be setting out on the next part of their journey. Sadly, the coffee pirates will not join them. They’ve got far too much business to manage in Xiatian, and far too little time to complete it.

“We’ll only be here for two days,” Captain Lucas says. “Be headin’ off to Tatango Island after. Ye’re welcome to join us, should ye be done with yer own business by then.”

“Miriam and I are going to Mohabumi after we’re done here,” says Kiwi, frowning. “So… I guess this is goodbye for now.”

“Sure ya don’t wanna join our crew? We’re hirin’.”

“…”

“Take all the time ya need, matey. Me offer stands, be it tomorrow, next week, next month, next year… Ya’ll always have a place with us.”

Less than an hour later, Miriam and Kiwi find themselves walking through Xiatian’s streets. The bard is trying their hardest to hide their sadness over leaving the pirates again. Miriam, meanwhile, has noticed Kiwi’s despondency and believes it’s entirely due to her coldness towards them.

She feels awful. She wants to talk to Kiwi, but whenever she looks at them, she remembers the hand holding incident and panics. No matter how hard she tries, she can’t get over her embarrassment.

She thinks. “(Get it together. Trip’s supposed to be happy and fun and full of bonding! Remember? Where is it? Where’s the happy? The FUN?!!! THE BONDING?!!!)

“AAAAAAAARRRRRRRGGHHHH!!!” she roars.

Everyone near her, including Kiwi, looks at her like she’s lost her mind. Maybe she has.

Kiwi notices a poster on a nearby wall. On it is a sketch of a young woman with short hair, a long nose, and an angry expression. It bears a striking resemblance to Miriam.

“Wow! Look at that!” Kiwi shouts. “That looks just like –“

“NOT NOW, OKAY?!!!” Miriam screams.

Right. Not now. Forget the poster.

“Let’s,” she sighs deeply, “go to the inn. I’m tired.”

“Can we look for Manny and the others first? Please?”

The witch sighs once more. “Whatever. Fine. Let’s find your dumb friends.”

Miriam stands around while Kiwi asks the locals about Manny’s band. Someone mentions seeing a man matching Manny’s description at the inn’s lobby earlier in the day.

“We should’ve gone there in the first place,” the witch grumbles.

Upon entering the inn –

“Calm down. We’ll manage fine without him,” Viola, a young woman in a blue dress says.

“Who’ll sing?” asks Ash, a solemn, pink-haired accordionist with poor posture.

“Why, you, I suppose.”

“What?! I can’t! My voice isn’t that loud…”

“I ain’t got the pipes to hit some of ‘em notes,” says Manny, a stocky, slightly dubious-looking man in a red blazer. “So it can’t be me.”

“And I can’t sing and play at the same time,” snaps Viola.

 The three of them stand there, "hmm-ing" and "hah-ing", unaware of the bard standing next to them.

“I can sing,” Kiwi says. “What’s the song?”

It takes a full minute for the three musicians react to Kiwi’s presence.

“ACE!!!” screams Manny, throwing his arms up in shock. “HOLY CANNOLI, AM I SEEIN’ THINGS?!!”

“Whoa,” Ash whispers, their voice trembling.

“Imagine meeting you at a time and place like this,” Viola says. “It’s so convenient I could laugh.”

But she doesn’t.

Manny pats Kiwi’s back. “What a sight for sore eyes! Ace, ya got no idea how happy we are to see ya! Listen, we need your help!”

“Great,” Miriam sighs. “I’m renting a room. Have fun with your friends.”

She grumbles all the way to the reception desk. Kiwi watches her, frowning.

“It’s our singer,” Manny explains. “Jaime? Y’know, the guy we got to sing after ya retired from the band? Been talkin’ ages about goin’ solo…”

“He went solo,” Ash mutters.

“Before our big performance at the palace, because of course,” Viola scoffs. “He said something about not wanting to sing with dorks in the presence of royalty. Honestly…”

“Been beatin’ on his door all day,” Manny points upstairs. “But he ain’t answerin’.”

“He’s gotten cold feet. What else explains his sudden departure? He clearly has no issue ‘singing with dorks’, as he’s done so for the past several months!”

“We’ve never played for a king before,” replies Ash.

“At this rate, we never will!”

“Here’s the deal,” Manny explains. “The king’s birthday celebration’s tonight! We were slated to be the openin' act… until Jaime left us high and dry. But that’s where you come in, my singin’ friend! Still got a few hours before the show starts. We can teach ya the songs and do some rehearsals to make sure things go smoothly. Whaddya say, ace? Wanna sing?”

They glance at Miriam. She’s looking back at them, her expression sour.

“I… shouldn’t,” Kiwi says softly.

“You’ve gotta give us a hand! C’mon! I’m beggin’ ya!”

“…”

“Go sing with them,” Miriam sighs. “Not like we were doing anything important anyway.”

“Everything I do with you is important!”

Miriam doesn’t know how to respond to that. She’s confused, irritated, and… a little happy?

“Smooth, ace,” Manny whispers to no one in particular.

 “I’m going with them to practice. You stay here and get plenty of rest,” Kiwi says. “Then later we can all go to the palace together!”

“What?” Miriam asks, even more confused than before. “Why am I going to the palace? I’m not in the band.”

“You said next time I sang with Manny and the others, you’d watch!”

She does remember saying something like that. However, she was thinking of watching them at a club or bar. She’s not thrilled at the idea of going to some king’s fancy castle – which she already has bad memories of – to watch a concert. She won’t go. Absolutely not. It doesn’t matter how much the bard stares at her. She’s not going. She’s really not. She definitely does not want to go.

A few hours later –

“I can’t wait for you to see us perform!” Kiwi exclaims.

The witch groans. She unenthusiastically rides her broom behind the bard and the band on their way to the palace. A king’s birthday celebration is likely to have tons of people. Loud, annoying people. Great. Just great. Not like she doesn’t already have a headache or anything.

Manny speaks briefly with the guards at the front entrance.

“We’re the openin’ band for tonight,” he says.

The guards let them in.

There’s still time before their performance. A palace attendant tells them they’re free to help themselves to food and refreshments in the main hall while preparations are being completed. Another attendant will take them to the concert venue when the time is right.

It isn’t as crowded as Miriam feared. Perhaps the king was selective with who he invited to his fancy party. She wonders if it’s okay for her to be there, considering she isn’t part of the band and wasn’t invited as the king’s guest. In fact, if she didn’t know any better, she’d swear some of the guards were giving her “funny looks”. She prays it’s just her imagination.

“My, these appetizers are to die for,” Viola says. “Does the king eat like this every day?”

“Talk about a good gig,” replies Manny. “Big house, lots of money, fancy food… Must be good to be the king.”

Speaking of the king, he’s calling for everyone to be silent. Despite sitting on a throne covered with festive balloons, which itself is sitting on a giant pile of presents, the king looks unhappy.

“ANYONE want to tell me,” the king demands, adjusting his party hat, “why a wanted criminal is at my birthday bash?!”

Guards and guests look around, confused.

“You’ve got to be kidding. You don’t see her? The criminal standing right there? With the short hair, hoop earrings, long nose, and angry face? You know, like the person in the wanted posters all over town?”

An attendant, holding a golden tray, walks up to the king. The king takes a paper from the tray and holds it out for everyone in the room to see. It’s a poster with a young woman’s portrait sketched on it. She has a scowling expression, short, messy hair, hoop earrings, and a long, pointy nose. The text below reads “Wanted Dead or Alive, Preferably Alive – Miriam the Witch”.

All the color drains from Miriam’s face.

“Uh, Miriam?” Kiwi says nervously. “I think that’s you on the poster.”

“You two again. Yeah, I remember you. You’ve got issues. You know that?” the king scoffs. “You waltz into my palace like you own the place, nag me with some weird song, blow several holes in my dungeon – which cost a fortune to repair, thanks – don’t return borrowed property OR pay late fees, waltz uninvited into my palace a second time, and crash my party.”

“HOLD IT!!!” Miriam shrieks, having finally regained her composure. “What the heck are you talking about?! Borrowed property and late fees? I don’t remember that!”

“The library in Mohabumi.”

“What…?”

“It’s like this, all right? Chaandesh and Rulle are good, happy friends now. When one of us has a problem, the other does all they can to help. This includes dealing with crime. In your case, you borrowed a book from Mohabumi’s library months ago and didn’t return it on time, incurring a late fee. Then you continued to not return it, resulting in your late fee increasing.”

“Did you know about the late fee, Miriam?” Kiwi asks.

“I kinda… forgot about it…” she replies.

“Bet you did,” the king says, rolling his eyes. “Anyway, that late fee? Yeah, it multiplies by ten each week you go without paying it.”

“What?! That’s insane!”

“What’s insane is your fee. You there,” he points at one of his attendants. “Show her the bill.”

Miriam is handed a small slip of paper. Upon reading it, all the color drains from her face a second time. Manny, Kiwi and the others look as well.

“That’s more than most people make in a lifetime,” Viola gasps.

“Do you have that much money?” Kiwi asks.

“NO!!!” Miriam screams at the top of her lungs. “WHO THE HECK DOES?!!!”

She crumples up the bill and throws it to the ground. The king is not amused.

“You people are CRAZY!!!” Miriam continues, frenzied. “All that for one stupid book?! I barely read it!”

“Don’t shoot the messenger,” the king sighs. “I’m telling you what I heard from Chaandesh. Don’t like it? Go whine to them.”

“Oh, I will.”

“Actually, you won’t. Guards.”

With a snap of the fingers, the king orders his guards to surround Miriam and the others.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa! I ain’t likin’ the looks of this!” Manny cries.

“Why are they pointing their weapons at us?!” Viola asks, shocked. “We haven’t done anything wrong!”

“On the contrary,” the king replies. “You knowingly brought a wanted criminal into the palace. Makes me think you’re her accomplices. I know for sure that singing clown is.”

“Does he mean me…?” Kiwi wonders.

“Here’s a tip – next time someone invites you to perform at a birthday party, don’t bring debt dodgers with you.”

He motions for the guards to proceed with the arrest.

“Kiwi, hop on! We’re getting out of here!” Miriam jumps on her broom and holds out her hand. Kiwi takes it.

“Manny!” Kiwi shouts, holding out their other hand. Manny takes it.

“Viola!” Manny shouts, holding out his hand. Viola takes it.

“I can’t believe this is happening! Ash! Quickly!” Viola shouts, holding out her hand. Ash takes it.

“I CAN’T TAKE ALL OF YOU!!!” Miriam yells.

“We can’t leave them behind, Miriam!” cries the bard.

There’s no time to argue. Miriam concentrates, channeling as much of her magic as possible. Carrying one other person is a big enough pain. Carrying the bard and the entire band will take serious effort. She groans, she moans, she grits her teeth and grips the broom’s handle so tightly her knuckles turn white.

“(Move! Move!)” she repeats in her mind.

And the broom does move. But that alone won’t be enough to guarantee their escape. She points her finger at the nearest wall and –

“Oh no! Miriam, don’t blow the place up!” Kiwi shouts.

“WE DON’T HAVE A CHOICE!!!”

KABOOM!

One shot’s all it takes to blow a gaping hole in the wall.

“OH, COME ON!!!” the enraged king shouts. “This is the worst birthday ever!”

The witch, the bard, and the band take to the skies. They’re not as high or going as fast as Miriam would like, but it’s enough for them to escape the city.

It doesn’t take long for a new problem to arise.

“Guh… Rrrrgh…!”

“Hey, ace! Your friend doin’ all right there?” Manny calls out.

She is not. Carrying so many people on her broom is incredibly straining. She’s feeling woozy.

“We’re slowing down.” Ash says. “And… going down.”

She’s visibly sweating now. Her breathing is ragged. She feels like she’s going to faint.

Kiwi is very concerned. “Miriam…?”

And then she does.

“MIRIAM!!!”

Fortunately, they’re not very high in the air. The fall hurts, but no one is injured. Kiwi immediately rushes to Miriam’s side and calls out to her. She doesn’t respond. They grow frantic.

“Calm down, ace! She’s okay!” Manny says, patting the bard on the shoulder. “Tired herself out. Let her rest and she’ll be as good as new.”

“Let’s worry more about ourselves,” Viola sighs. “I doubt we’re safe out here. We must find a place to hide.”

“But,” Ash looks around. “There’s nowhere to hide out here…”

“There’s a town,” Kiwi says. “It’s not too far… We can try hiding there.”

“Let’s hurry,” Viola replies. “I’d rather not be around when those guards show up.”

Manny helps Kiwi carry the witch as the group hustles to the forests of Rulle, where a lumber town sits hidden among the trees. By the time they get there, everyone is exhausted and stressed. They don’t take it well when a strange bird nearly skewers them upon arrival. Or rather, Viola doesn’t take it well. She has some very harsh words (that can’t be repeated here) for the bird’s owner, an uptight man named Ping.

Eventually, the town’s leader, an affable man named Phil, arrives to see what the problem is.

“Well, I’ll be! It’s you, wayfarer! Hold on a second…”

Later, Miriam awakens and finds herself in an unfamiliar room. She sits up, panicked, and looks around. Where is she? How did she get here? Wasn’t she flying a moment ago? Did she die? She did, didn’t she?

Looks like she’s not the only one who did. The bard is nearby on the couch, snoring away without a care in the world. She rushes over to them and shakes them awake.

“GAAAAH!!!” the bard flails and screams.

“Calm down! It’s me!”

“Wha-? Gosh, you scared me… WAIT!!! YOU’RE AWAKE!!!”

They pull her into a tight hug.

“I was worried you’d never wake up! Are you okay?”

“Yep. I’m doing great. You can let go of me anytime. Aaaaaaanytime now.”

“Oh! Haha. Yeah, sure.”

Kiwi lets her go.

“So,” she clears her throat, trying to hide her embarrassment, “what’s the deal? Last I remember, we were flying out of Xiatian.”

Kiwi explains they’re currently sheltering in the lumber town they’d visited in the past. It’s been a full day since they fled from the city. Miriam’s shocked to learn she was unconscious for so long. No wonder Kiwi was hugging her so tightly.

“And the band?” she asks. “They still around?”

“Yeah.”

Disappointment.

They head outside together, and sure enough, Manny and the others are out there waiting for them. Miriam grows irritated.

She thinks. “(It was like this on that stupid boat, too. Kiwi was always with someone else! It sucks! Can I get more than five minutes alone with them? Is that asking for too much?)”

Her cheeks start turning red.

“(Crap. What am I saying? I want ‘alone time’ with them? Sounds less like I want to hang out with a friend and more like I want… to…)”

Her face is very red now.

“(You’re being stupid, Miriam. It’s not like that. You know it’s not like that. It’s not. It’s not!)”

“Hey there! Good mornin’!” Phil walks up to the group. “I was wonderin’ when – Oh. You good there, friend?”

Everyone looks at the red-faced witch.

“My! You’re flushed,” Viola gasps. “Are you feverish?”

“Oh no! You’re sick, Miriam?!” Kiwi presses their hand against Miriam’s forehead.

She swats it away. “I-I’m… fine.”

“We’ve got plenty of medicine if you need it,” Phil says.

“I’M FINE!!!”

“Okay, okay. Take it easy.”

“Ya get the info I asked for?” Manny asks.

“Sure did, and I’m afraid to say it ain’t lookin’ good for you all. The king’s got checkpoints set up all the way from Xiatian to Mohabumi. Guards were snoopin’ ‘round the gates earlier, but I told them we haven’t seen you. That’s bought you some time…”

“Great work, pal. It’s appreciated.”

“How are we getting back home?” Ash asks.

“I know some folks who may be able to help,” Phil replies. “Ever since the war ended, we’ve been doin’ more business with Chaandesh. Met some good people out there. I may be able to convince them to get you a ship out of the country. Where you all headed?”

“Anywhere but here,” Viola sighs.

“Chismest,” Kiwi says. “My mom lives there.”

“Oof. That’s far,” Phil says. “I’ll see what I can do.”

It’s decided they’ll leave first thing tomorrow morning. Kiwi, Manny, and Ash help Phil with the preparations for their trip. Viola passes the time entertaining children with music. Miriam sits around and sulks.

Later, around sunset -

Miriam’s busy sulking under a tree when she’s approached by the bard and Manny. Both are covered in dirt and drenched in sweat.

“What happened to you?” she asks. “You’re all grody.”

“Spent all day loadin’ crates into carriages,” Manny says.

“I got kicked by a horse!” Kiwi proudly points to the horseshoe-shaped stain on their shirt.

“You what?!” the witch shouts in disbelief. “Holy crap! Are you okay?!”

“Yeah. I got kicked in the stomach, so none of my bones broke! But, um, for the next day or two, could you avoid making me laugh? Laughing… really hurts right now.”

They giggle nervously, then immediately wince in pain. Miriam wonders if they did that on purpose to make a point. Knowing Kiwi, probably not.

“Hey! Great! I was lookin' for you all,” says Phil. “In the mood for some fun? We got snacks and music.”

Kiwi likes snacks and music.

“What’s the occasion?” Manny asks.

“It’s the last sunset of the week. That means it’s time for our weekly ‘chop-out’,” Phil replies.

“Mind tellin’ us what a ‘chop-out’ is?”

“Think of it as a village-wide cookout. We all get together, make food, sing songs, and chop a ton of wood. When you spend all day workin’ with wood, the last thing you want to do when you get home is chop up firewood. I’m not kiddin’ when I say everyone here hates it… as a chore, at least. But with the chop-out, we turn it into a weekly event. We build up a huge stockpile of wood and then, during the week’s final sunset, chop it all up together. Then it gets evenly distributed to everyone. Nice, huh?”

He motions for them to follow him.

“It’s like a game. We form teams of three and chop wood in time with music. The music will speed up and slow down randomly, and you need to do your best to keep the pace. Oh, I call it a ‘game’ but there aren’t any winners or losers. It’s somethin’ fun for everyone to do.”

“You chop wood… for fun?” Miriam asks. “Yeah, I think I’m sitting this one out.”

“Miriam, come on!” Kiwi whines. “It could be a lot of fun!”

“You get to hit things with an axe,” Phil adds. “Great stress relief.”

Miriam could use some stress relief. And swinging a dangerous weapon around does sound amusing. Phil gives her an axe and sets a small log down in front of her. The axe has a good weight to it, but it’s not so heavy that she can’t lift and swing it. She raises it and, with all her strength, smashes it onto the log.

“Whoa. Okay, that was kinda cool,” Miriam whispers to herself.

Phil gives her a thumbs up. “Doesn’t it feel great? So, interested in joining us?”

“Y'know what? Sure.”

“Oh, oh, oh, oh! Me too!” Kiwi waves their arms and jumps around. “Can I see the axe, Miriam?”

“You know this isn’t a toy, right?”

“Yes!”

“Then you know it’s a weapon. You sure you wanna give it a go?”

Miriam thinks back to their world-saving adventure, to that one completely insane moment on the Lady Arabica when Kiwi brandished a gun. She still has no idea what they were thinking. According to the bard, they had no idea what they were thinking either.

Back then, they were clearly uncomfortable holding a weapon. Their body trembled, and they struggled to point the gun at anything. Eventually they ended up tossing it into the sea, much to Lou’s dismay. Apparently, they had a similar reaction to wielding a sword. And that happened in a dream!

Bards and weapons don’t mix. That’s what Miriam believes.

But Kiwi is determined to hold this weapon. They’ll take it, raise it above their head, and swing it with all their might! They’ll do it because –

“I want to chop wood with you,” they say, their voice confident. “May I have the axe?”

“Whatever. Here you go.”

Miriam isn’t surprised by what happens next.

“Hnnngh! Mrrrgh! Gah! Gyeeeeeh!”

They try. Oh, how they try. Despite their best effort, however, they can’t lift the axe more than a few inches off the ground.

“Lemme see that,” Manny says. He effortlessly picks up the axe and swings it down on the log.

“Wow! You’re so strong!”

“’Eeeeeey, ain’t nothin’ to it. Used to chop wood for my folks back in the day.”

“Sorry, Miriam. I have to sit this one out…”

“Hold on there,” Phil says. “You already forgot? I said everyone works in trios, yeah? I should’ve explained it more.”

“Huh?”

“One person puts the logs on the chopping block while the other two do the chopping.”

“Oh. OH!!! Let me set up the logs for you, Miriam! Manny, you can be the other chopper!”

With their team formed, they get ready for a night of feasting and chopping. Viola and Ash show up a short while later. They’ll be performing with the village’s musicians during the “game”. After a lively dinner, everyone gathers for some quality axe-wielding action. Or “axe-ion’, if you want to be cheeky.

The game is way more tiring than Miriam anticipates. The music constantly changes tempo, and she and Manny struggle to keep swinging their axes. Kiwi cheers them on and takes the opportunity to snap a few pictures of them. Once the game is done, an exhausted Miriam shuffles away from the crowd and collapses near a tree. Kiwi follows her.

“Look! This is the picture I took of you,” they say with a grin. “Here!”

She takes the picture from their hand and examines it. It’s a shot of her mid-swing.

“I look kinda cool.”

“You look REALLY COOL!!! I’m jealous!”

“Jealous? Please.”

“I mean it! I couldn’t lift the axe at all! Even if I could, I wouldn’t look half as cool as you! …I wish we could’ve chopped wood together.”

“Uh, we did?”

“…”

“Oh. You’re saying you wanted to swing that axe around. Maybe you should lift weights to build your upper body strength. Might help.”

“I don’t know if it would.”

They take a seat next to her and continue speaking.

“It’s weird, Miriam. Whenever I touch something dangerous like that, I imagine what could happen if I carelessly used it. It gives me goosebumps! You can hurt someone with a weapon!”

“You sure can,” she replies, thinking back to when a certain “hero” used a weapon against her. “But an axe isn’t really a weapon. I mean, it is, but in this situation, it helps to think of it as a tool. You need to chop wood. Axes chop wood. There’s no evil, murderous intent or anything.”

“You’re right. I didn’t think of it that way.”

“Would’ve been weird seeing you use an axe. I’m trying, but I can’t imagine it. Knowing you, you’d try singing at the wood before chopping it.”

“Haha! Guh! Ow… Don’t make me laugh…”

“Whoops. Sorry.”

“Anyway… I doubt that’d work.”

She smirks. “For anyone else? Yeah. For you, I’m not so sure. If anyone can get a log to split in half by singing at it, it’d be you.”

“…Should I try?”

“Do you seriously think you can do it?”

A few minutes later, the two of them are staring down a log.

“Okay,” Kiwi says. “Here goes.”

The bard takes a deep breath and sings a few random notes.

Nothing happens.

They lean in closer to the log and sing louder.

Nothing happens.

Miriam picks up the log and holds it directly in front of Kiwi’s face. They sing as loudly as their injured stomach will allow. She sets the log back down.

Nothing happens.

“…Miriam,” they say, their expression serious. “I don’t think it worked.”

The witch cackles. She tries to speak but only manages to get the word “stupid” out before breaking down into a giggle fit.

Gasping, the bard grabs their friend by the shoulders and gently shakes her. “The Miriam I know never laughs! Who are you?! What have you done with her?!”

It takes her a moment to regain enough composure to speak. “Sh-Shut up! Ugh… Crap… My sides hurt…”

“…”

“What the heck are you grinning about? You know you almost killed me? ‘Miriam, I don’t think it worked.’” she snickers. “Yeah. Yeah, I can see that. Sheesh! Don’t say stupid stuff like that without warning me, okay?”

“I dunno. I may have to do it again if it’ll make you laugh.”

“Psssh. Whatever. You got lucky this time. You’re not catching me off guard like that again.”

Not long after, the bard leaves to join Phil and several others in singing campfire songs. Miriam chooses to take a bath and go to sleep. Sleep, however, will not come easily to her tonight. There’s too much on her mind.

The book fiasco? It’s stupid and shouldn’t be happening. She’s going to give those librarians in Mohabumi a piece of her mind!

Being a fugitive again? She didn’t care for it the first time. She really doesn’t care for it now.

Swinging an axe? That sure was cool. She wants to do it again.

The band members? She wonders how long they’ll hang around. It sounds like they’re traveling with her and the bard to Chismest. She’s not excited at all.

Why are Kiwi’s hands always so warm? No, that’s not it. Why are they always so warm? No, no. What’s she thinking? Bad Miriam. Bad.

“Miriam…? Are you still awake?” the bard whispers.

She shuts her eyes and pretends to be asleep.

GoodniiiightSleep tiiiight…” they sing softly.

They get settled on the couch. It takes less than five minutes for them to fall asleep. Impressive.

“Kiwi?” she whispers.

They snore.

“We finally have time to ourselves and you’re knocked out. That’s cool.”

Snore, snore –

“What do you think about us hanging out for a day? Y’know, just… you and me? Would that be boring?”

Snore, snore, snore –

“Truth is, I kinda… want that. Is that weird? I feel bad saying it since I know how much you want to see all your friends. And they want to see your stupid, smiling face. It’s not right for me to keep you to myself. But… I want to. The longer we’re away from home, the more I realize…”

Snore –

“Nah. Forget it. I’m being weird.”

She closes her eyes.

“G’night, Kiwi.”

Miriam doesn’t get much sleep. She gets up shortly after sunrise and walks around the town, enjoying the cool morning air. Many villagers are already awake and getting ready for the day’s work. She finds Phil near a group of crate-filled carriages.

“Mornin’,” he says cheerfully. “Get plenty of rest?”

“Yeah,” she lies.

“Great. I’m addin' the final touches to our ride here.”

The plan is for Miriam and the others to ride in Phil’s caravan all the way to Chaandesh’s border. They’ll pose as friends of Phil’s visiting from overseas, though they haven’t worked out the specifics yet. Phil hands Miriam a cloak to cover herself with.

A few hours later, they ride out of the lumber town. Phil and the bard keep the mood light with singing. But once they approach the first checkpoint, the good vibes immediately disappear. Aside from Phil, everyone becomes quiet and tense.

“Heya Phil. Morning,” the guard says. “Sorry to stop you, but we need to check everyone who passes through. Got a group of dangerous criminals on the loose.”

“Not a problem, my friend. Do your thing.”

“And who’re these folks? I don’t recall seeing them before.”

“This,” Phil says cheerfully, “is my old friend, Manuelo!”

He chuckles and slaps Manny on the back. Manny nervously chuckles back.

“He’s taking his family on a trip to Chaandesh! Right, pal?”

“Right!” Manny replies. “Wife’s been pesterin’ me for years to take the kids on vacation! Hahaha…”

Phil continues. “I figured – hey! Let me help my old pal and give him a lift! It’s a long walk to the ferry!”

The guard looks at them suspiciously.

“Odd-looking ‘family’,” he says. “I can’t tell which one of you is supposed to be the wife.”

Manny nudges Viola.

“That,” she sighs, “would be me. My name’s Violetta, and these are our children –“

She points to Ash.

“Ashley, our oldest.”

She points to Miriam.

“Mira, the middle child.”

She points to Kiwi.

“And Bar…t. Bart, the youngest.”

“No offense, ma’am,” the guard begins –

“MISS,” Viola hisses.

“…Uh-huh. No offense, miss, but I’m having a hard time buying these people are your kids. Your ‘youngest’ looks older than you.”

“How dare you, sir!”

“Prick,” Miriam grumbles.

“Miriam! Don’t be rude!” Kiwi cries.

Phil, Manny, Viola, Ash, and Miriam sigh in unison.

Miriam?” the guard mutters. “Isn’t that the name of… Wait a minute! I recognize you! Yes, you! With the long nose! You’re that criminal!”

The guard looks at Phil and says –

“Phil! What the heck? You’re in cahoots with criminals now? I can’t believe this…”

“No! He’s innocent,” Kiwi cries. “We forced him to help us! Right, everyone?”

Miriam is surprised the bard would straight up lie to the authorities like that. But she understands what they’re trying to do. Things could get ugly for Phil if the king learns he aided wanted criminals.

She cackles evilly. “Mmm, yes. We did. I, Miriam, feared witch and debt dodger, forced this innocent man to do my bidding! Because, y’know, I’m an evil criminal or whatever.”

“I knew it!” the guard yells. “GUYS!!! HEY!!! I FOUND THE CRIMINALS!!!”

“The jig’s up!” Manny cries. “Let’s scram!”

Miriam hops on her broom. Since Ash is closest to her, she reaches her hand out to them.

“Let’s go!” she says.

Ash takes her hand. They reach out for Manny –

“No you don’t!” a guard thrusts their sword at the witch. She raises her broom, narrowly avoiding the hit.

“Whoa, whoa!” Phil cries out. “That’s uncalled for, man!”

“ARE YOU CRAZY?!!!” Miriam shrieks. “You could kill someone with that thing!”

Her attention switches to the bigger problem – Phil’s carriage is completely surrounded by armed guards. She can’t lower herself and Ash to pick up Kiwi and the others without risk of getting slashed. Or captured. She’s not really sure which will happen. She supposes she could blast the whole group with magic, but she’d end up hurting Phil, Kiwi, Viola, and Manny.

“(What do I do?!)” she thinks to herself.

“Fly away, Miriam!” Kiwi shouts.

“What?! I’m not leaving without you!”

“We’ll be okay! Go take care of that late fee!”

She’ll “take care of it” all right. If by “take care” you mean “blow the whole library to smithereens”.

“Miriam! Go!”

“RRRRRGH!!! This sucks! Nothing bad better happen to you while I’m gone, or I SWEAR I’M WIPING THIS WHOLE CONTINENT OFF THE STINKING MAP!!!”

“Um, maybe don’t do that! But, okay! Be careful! I’ll be waiting for you!”

With great reluctance, the witch takes to the skies, leaving the bard behind.

Chapter Text

It’s been hours since Kiwi and the others were captured. Miriam and Ash are nearing Chaandesh’s border.

The sound of Ash’s accordion fills the air. It nearly drowns out their voice as they softly sing -

               When

               The butterflies prance

               In

               The verdant expanse

               It’s then

               Two hearts shall dance

“This isn’t a good time for a song,” Miriam says, “Could you keep it down?”

“I’m sorry,” Ash replies, lowering their accordion. “Music helps keep my mind off stuff…”

“You can play all you want once we get this book crap out of the way.”

“Do you think the others will be okay?”

“Why wouldn’t they be?”

“What if they get… tortured?”

“Seriously? No one’s getting tortured over a stupid late fee!”

“What do you think will happen to them?”

“They’ll sit in cramped, smelly cells until we get them out. What we need to worry about now is how we’re doing that. Sneaking into Xiatian’s palace wouldn’t be too hard, and one blast of magic’s all it’d take to bust ‘em out...”

It would add to her growing list of crimes, unfortunately. Not to mention Kiwi would disapprove of her blowing stuff up, even if it was to save them. A dramatic jailbreak isn’t the solution this time, Miriam decides. Not yet. She’ll take a page out of Kiwi’s book and try a nicer, more peaceful method. She’ll go to the library in Mohabumi to discuss the late fee. Perhaps they offer payment plans.

If that doesn’t work? That’s when it’ll be time to blast some walls.

Miriam tells Ash her plan.

“We can manage that,” they say.

“Yeah, should be easy-peasy. Let’s keep moving. The sooner we get this done, the sooner we can ditch these lame kingdoms.”

They fly on her broom through the dark forest. Miriam keeps her altitude low, fearing she and Ash will be spotted should she take to the skies. The last thing she needs is to be shot down. She still has nightmares from when the Spell Squad blasted her and Kiwi out of the sky during their last romp in Chaandesh.

“You’re so level-headed…” Ash says quietly.

Miriam raises an eyebrow.

“I found it weird,” they continued. “That bard’s so… silly. How could someone like that save the world? But I get it now… It was because you were with them.”

“Uh… Thanks? I didn’t really do anything, though. I was kinda useless for most of our ‘quest’.”

“That’s not true. I can tell… They never would’ve made it without you.”

“You’re kinda downplaying all the hard work they did. Almost every problem we had, every snag we hit… They were the one who got past it. Not me.”

“You’re not giving yourself enough credit, um…”

“Miriam.”

“Right, sorry. Miriam, we haven’t known each other long, but… being near you has this calming effect on me. I get anxious easily, and a lot of times I choose to run and hide instead of face things head on. I’ve gotten better about it, but there’s still room for improvement. Being here with you, though… I feel more confident. I’m not afraid.”

“You’ve been branded a criminal in two major countries. You prooooobably should be afraid.”

“…True, but I could be more afraid.”

“Cool. I mean, I don’t agree with what you’re saying at all. I’m not level-headed, I’m not useful…”

She’s relieved that out of all of Kiwi’s friends, she ended up with the calmest, quietest one. She doubts she could’ve kept her cool had she been stuck with either of the other bandmates. She shudders at the thought of being alone with any of the coffee pirates.

Except maybe that bald, grumpy one. What was his name? Francis? Franco? He seemed okay.

It’s funny. She had assumed the mellow accordionist was just as annoying as all of Kiwi’s other friends, but they’re pleasant and surprisingly easy to talk to. It makes Miriam wonder if Kiwi’s other friends weren’t as bad as she feared. Maybe she should’ve given them a chance.

If only she hadn’t been such a fuddy-duddy on the Lady Arabica.

And Xiatian. And the lumber town. And Delphi.

And everywhere else.

She reflects on the last few months. How many times had she tried having a conversation with anyone besides Saphy and Kiwi? Whenenver she went to Delphi or Langtree, how many times did she try to be friendly to the people there? When someone greeted her, how often did she greet them back?

Why does she always have to be grumpy? Rude? Antisocial? Cowardly?

Why can’t she change? Why is it so easy to fall into old habits? To keep making the same mistakes?

“AAARRRRRRGH!!! I SUCK!!!” she screams, pulling her hair in frustration.

“We’re falling, we’re falling, we’re falling, we’re falling, we’re falling –“

She grips her broom’s handle and refocuses on flying. Had she been a second slower, they would’ve crashed into the ground.

“Sorry,” she mutters, embarrassed. “Didn’t mean to do that.”

Ash responds by exhaling loudly.

“No more talking, okay?” she continues. “It’s hard to fly and talk at the same time.”

No more thinking. She just wants this trip to be over already.

Meanwhile, back in the city of Xiatian, Kiwi and the others are biding their time in the king’s dungeon. Manny and the bard share a cell. Viola had been placed in an adjacent one but raised such a stink that she got moved to “nicer accommodations”. Kiwi and Manny still aren’t sure if the guards were being sarcastic about that or not.

“Hope your friend gets this mess sorted out soon,” Manny says. “Ain’t keen on spendin’ the rest of my life here.”

“She’ll be back soon! You’ll see!”

“Got a lot of faith in her, huh? Guess she did save the world with ya…”

“Miriam’s tough and smart, and she always knows what to do. She’ll get us out of here!”

Though Kiwi isn’t sure how she’ll do that. They’re hopeful she’ll go to the library and peacefully resolve the situation, but there’s no guarantee she will. Her temper remains as explosive as ever, and she’s made it clear on multiple occasions that blowing stuff up is her favored solution to every problem. It’s the one complaint they have about her.

“Say, ace, whaddya think about rejoinin’ the band?” Manny asks.

It’d be so much fun. Maybe even more fun than being a pirate! However –

“I can’t right now,” they reply.

“How about later? After ya finish whatever business ya got goin’ on? We can make do without a singer for a while. Viola’s been wantin’ to experiment with more instrumental stuff. Y’know, so she can get more solos.”

“Oh. Later? Uh…”

“We really miss ya, ace.”

“…”

“Sorry, I ain’t tryin’ to pressure ya.”

“It’s okay! I’d love to rejoin the band. I… just don’t know when I’d be able to. Haha…”

“What’s been shakin’, huh? Bet things have been crazy for ya ever since ya stopped the world from implodin’!”

Kiwi giggles nervously.

“Still can’t believe we all almost died. Get scared thinkin’ about it! Let me tell ya, I ain’t takin’ this life for granted no more! Got big dreams, ace! And I ain’t stoppin’ till I make ‘em come true!”

Dream.

The word makes Kiwi’s body tense up.

“It’s nice,” they say quietly, “to have a dream. I hope you can make yours come true.”

“Hahaha! Right back at ya! …What’s the future got in store for ya, ace? You and that girl gonna… y’know?”

“Do you mean Miriam? Are we gonna… what?”

Manny wriggles his eyebrows. Kiwi’s not sure what that means.

“Whoa, ace. Don’t look so serious. I’m messin’ with ya!”

Kiwi didn’t realize they were looking serious. They smile.

“Sorry,” they say, “I’m not upset or anything! I was thinking hard about your question! To be honest, I haven’t thought about the future much.”

For today, at least.

Manny keeps talking, but Kiwi’s mind wanders elsewhere. They wonder why that question keeps popping up.

“What have you been doing these days?”

“What are you up to these days anyway?”

“What’s the future got in store for ya, ace?”

Couldn’t people ask something else? Anything else would be fine. Why is it always that question?

“No plans on going to school or finding work? Content to whittle the days away with song and leisure?”

They have no idea. They’ve thought about what to do now that the world’s been saved, but nothing’s come to mind. As for being “content to whittle the days away”, they’re not sure about that, either. It sounds fun. It was fun for a time. Not having to worry about Overseers, magical songs, spirit worlds, monsters, death, heroes, side quests, ghosts, Happy Kid, and a bunch of other problems? That was great. Everything was great!

And then it wasn’t. Kiwi isn’t sure when they started thinking differently.

“I mean, you saved the world!”

That’s right. They saved the world. They made a difference, just like they’d always wanted.

Life was peaceful. People were happy.

“What else is there to do? They already saved the world. It’s hard to top that.”

When did Kiwi realize they weren’t happy? Why weren’t they happy?

“What’s the future got in store for ya, ace?”

No matter how hard they try, they can’t find an answer.

Nor can Miriam find the answer to her own problem – how to get to Mohabumi’s library. She and Ash successfully made it to the city’s borders after two tense days of flying and sneaking around, but now progress has completely stalled. There are guards from both Rulle and Chaandesh everywhere. There’s no way for them to enter the city without being noticed.

“This. Is. So. STUPID.” the witch groans, barely able to contain her rage. “All of this over a stupid book. ALL of THIS over a stupid BOOK!”

She wants to scream. She wants to scream so, so badly.

“Please, keep your voice down,” Ash begs.

“I know. I know. I’m cool,” she slows her breathing in a flimsy attempt to calm herself. “So… any ideas?”

“Um… Can you fly your broom underwater?”

“Er… I can’t say I’ve tried.”

“If you can… we can hold our breath, ride your broom underwater until we reach the docks… and then go from there. If we keep to the shadows, we’ll be okay. I hope…”

“That’s… actually not a terrible idea. You sneak around a lot?”

“N-No! I read a lot of, um… spy novels.”

“Neato. Well, I can’t think of anything, so we’ll go with your plan. How long can you hold your breath for?”

“Not long…”

Neither can she. Well, they’ll have to make the plan work somehow.

She lowers her broom into the water.

“Take a deep breath. We’re going down.”

Both she and Ash gasp, and then –

Sploosh.

Moving the broom underwater is nowhere near as simple as she’d hoped, and it takes all of her concentration to propel it forward. She wonders how fast they’re going. Will they reach the city in the next ten seconds? If not, they may have a serious problem on their hands! She feels Ash’s hands firmly gripping her shoulder. They’re squeezing harder and harder. Are they running out of air? They probably should’ve worked out an emergency signal before diving.

Oh well.

Miriam isn’t sure how much longer she’ll last. Her chest is burning. Her body’s screaming for air.

“(I can’t! We have to go up!)” she thinks.

Splash.

They both cough and gasp for air

“I-I hope the water… d-didn’t damage… my accordion…” Ash gasps.

“That’s… Urgh…! That’s what you’re worried about?! Oh. Hey, we made it.”

They’re beneath the docks near the tourist shopping area.

The next step of the plan is to “keep to the shadows”. Obviously, walking around a bright street riddled with tacky stores isn’t the best option. They look around for dark, seedy alleyways. There are several to choose from.

“Which one?” Ash asks.

“The darkest, seediest one,” Miriam replies.

Ash exhales loudly.

Miriam decides that this part of the trip may be better done on foot. They quietly sneak down the dark alley, watching for any movement.

“See any guards?” Miriam asks.

“Y-Y-Yes,” Ash squeaks.

“…What?”

“HOLD IT RIGHT THERE!!!” a voice calls from behind them. Miriam turns around to see a shadowy figure blocking the end of the alley.

“IT’S OVER FOR YOU!!!” a second voice calls, this one blocking the other end of the alley.

They’re surrounded.

“Welp.” Miriam jumps on her broom. “Ash, we’re flying! Hop on!”

The two shadow figures point at Miriam and Ash and begin charging their magic.

“They’re g-gonna shoot, Miriam!” Ash cries. “What should we do?!”

“Shoot back!” Miriam shouts, pointing at the mysterious person blocking the way forward.

“Huh? Miriam? You mean that silly bard’s friend?” asks one of the strangers.

“Hey, yeah. She’s that witch we shot down and almost killed…” says the other.

“Wait a minute,” Miriam says. “I know those voices…”

The two strangers use their magic to illuminate the alley. The person in front of Miriam is a young woman with short green hair and tanned skin. Her long yellow scarf billows behind her as she poses dramatically.

“It’s me! VIVIAN!!!”

“Great,” Miriam turns around to look at the other stranger. She’s greeted by another young woman, this one with pale skin and bright orange hair. She has a small green scarf neatly folded around her neck. She also strikes a pose, though it’s nowhere near as dramatic as Vivian’s.

“And SANDRA!!!” she cheers.

“We’re the Spell Squad,” they say together.

“Ohmigosh, Viv, look!” Sandra cries. “She’s dating someone else!”

“WHAT?!!!” both Vivian and Miriam shout.

“O-Oh gosh…” Ash mutters.

“It’s not like that! Would you two stop assuming every person I travel with is my… AGH!!! WHATEVER!!!” she kicks the nearby wall. “What are you doing here?!”

“We could ask you the same thing,” Vivian says. “Don’t you know you’re a wanted criminal?”

“We heard you showed up in Rulle,” Sandra adds. “We were hoping to find you before anyone else did.”

“A little late there,” Miriam sneers. “That stupid sun king found us. He’s got my friend and my friend’s friends rotting in a dungeon. I’m here to get this book crap sorted out so we can go home and never talk about Rulle or Chaandesh again.”

“Need a ride to the library? We can help with that,” Vivian says, striking yet another pose.

“You, uh, aren’t gonna arrest us? We’re criminals and fugitives…”

“Um… To be honest, we’re supposed to shoot you on sight…” Sandra whimpers. “But we don’t agree with that…”

“We also don’t think you’re bad,” Vivian grumbles. “You and your ex ended the war between our kingdoms and saved the world. How can you be evil?”

Kiwi is not my ex,” Miriam hisses.

“Oh. You’re still dating?” Vivian gasps. “Are you cheating on them?!”

“NO!!! WE’RE NOT A THING, OKAY?!!!”

Miriam feels a little sad after saying that.

“Um, I don’t want to be rude,” Ash says, “but we shouldn’t stay here too long… The sooner we can get these issues resolved, the sooner I can go back to my band.”

They sigh.

“I’m… really not cut out for adventuring. I just want to go back to Delphi and play music…”

“You’re doing a good job, though,” Miriam says absentmindedly. She scratches her head after realizing she complimented someone besides Saphy or Kiwi.

“Oh…” Ash blushes slightly. “Thanks.”

“Pinky’s right. You’re in crazy danger being here. The sooner we can get you out, the better,” Vivian holds up her broom. “Ready to fly? We’ll guide you to the library.”

“Here, put these on,” Sandra hands each of them a bandanna. “It’s not much, but it’ll cover some of your face. Make sure you stay close to us.”

Miriam is grateful for this small turn of fortune. If she’s lucky, she can be back in Rulle tomorrow. But first comes the hard part – dealing with that massive fee.

Sandra and Vivian fly on either side of Miriam, constantly watching for stray shots of magic. They’re confident no one will try shooting Miriam down while they’re with her, but they can’t absolutely guarantee it won’t happen.

“Are you two sure about this?” Miriam asks. “Won’t you get in trouble for helping me?”

“Probably,” Vivian answers.

“Our jobs are important but doing what’s right matters more. We believe in you,” Sandra says. “Oh, and we still feel bad about almost killing you that one time…”

“The library’s not far off. Let’s speed up.”

Getting to the library proves shockingly easy. Getting inside, however, ends up being a tense experience. The bandanna is a pathetic disguise, and most of the library staff recognize Miriam as soon as she walks through the door. Everyone gawks and points at her, and for a moment, Miriam fears they’ll all blast her into oblivion. It’s only thanks to Vivian and Sandra vouching for her that they make it to the reception desk.

“Our friend is having an issue with a book,” Vivian tells the receptionist. “Can you help?”

“Sure. Got your library card?” the receptionist asks.

Miriam feels around in her satchel. She sighs with relief as she feels it at the very bottom of the bag. She must’ve left it in there after her last visit to Mohabumi months ago.

“Oh, it’s… you.” the receptionist says. “Do you always borrow stuff without returning it? Your parents should be ashamed.”

“My parents didn’t raise me,” Miriam snaps back.

“Explains your bad manners.”

“LISTEN, YOU –“

“Miriam, please!” Ash whimpers. “Let’s resolve this peacefully and leave.”

Right. Peacefully. Just how Kiwi would want it.

“I don’t have the book,” she says, “so I need to see what my payment options are.”

“You have one option – pay in full. You got the money?”

“DO I LOOK LIKE I DO?!!!”

“Guess you’re going to jail, then.”

Another library employee walks up to the receptionist and taps her on the shoulder.

“Um, actually…” she quietly whispers the rest of her message in the receptionist’s ear.

“…Are you kidding me?” the receptionist groans. “It came in four days ago? Why didn’t her record get cleared?”

“I, uh, forgot…”

The receptionist shoos the employee away.

“Well,” she says, “that changes things.”

“What?” Miriam asks.

“The book was returned four days ago.”

“WHAT?!!!” Miriam, Ash, Vivian, and Sandra shout.

“SHHHHHHHHH!!! This is a library!” the receptionist hisses. “Anyway, yeah… It showed up in the mail from Delphi.”

“(Grandma!)” Miriam thinks. “(I’m giving you the biggest hug when I get back home.)”

“What does that mean for me?” Miriam asks.

“It means you’re insanely lucky. Since you’re a first-time offender, I have the option to waive your fee. But I must make this clear – this is a ONE. TIME. OFFER. Pull a stunt like this again and you are done for. And I mean that in the grimmest way possible.”

“I’m off the hook? Just like that? Seriously? That’s it?”

The receptionist shrugs. “I don’t know. Do you want me to waive the fee?”

“Yes.”

“All right. Poof. Done. You’re off the hook. Is there anything else I can help you with?”

“No.”

“Great. Have a nice night.”

The group leaves the library in disbelief.

“We did it…” Ash says quietly. “We did it…!”

“I’m happy for you!” Sandra chirps.

“I’m kinda bummed,” Vivian says. “I was hoping for something more exci-“

“AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHH!!!” Miriam screams at the top of her lungs.

“You okay?” Vivian asks.

“NO!!! WHAT THE HECK WAS THE POINT OF ALL THAT?!!! I CAN’T BELIEVE THIS CRAP!!!”

She repeatedly shouts the word “stupid” while stomping the ground.

“You should be happy! You’re not a criminal anymore!” says Sandra with a nervous smile.

“I NEVER SHOULD’VE BEEN ONE IN THE FIRST PLACE!!!”

After giving Miriam some time to vent her frustrations, the group discusses what to do next.

“Rulle’s king still has a beef with me,” Miriam says. “I dunno if he’s gonna let my friends go.”

“But you don’t have a criminal record anymore,” replies Sandra.

“…”

“Did you,” Vivian asks, “do something in Rulle that would make the king upset with you?”

“I kinda blew a giant hole in his stupid castle and avoided arrest multiple times.”

“Hoo boy. Maybe you should stay here. Sandra and I will go deal with your friends.”

“What? You don’t have to do all that for me. You’ve already done enough.”

“We really feel bad about that one time we almost killed you,” Sandra says.

“Yeah, and we kinda owe you for saving the world. I mean, we wouldn’t be here if not for you.” Vivian strikes a pose as she speaks. “Let us help!”

“Whatever,” Miriam replies.

A day later, Sandra and Vivian return with Kiwi, Manny, and Viola.

“I seriously don’t like that king,” Vivian mutters.

“He’s kinda mean… but at least he’s sensible,” Sandra replies. “He let everyone go after we explained what happened. But, um, you probably shouldn’t go back to Xiatian for a while. He’s still very mad about what you did to his wall.”

“That won’t be an issue,” Miriam says. “We’re leaving for Chismest as soon as we can. Thanks… for all your help.”

The two witches wave goodbye and fly away on their brooms.

Ash immediately runs over to their bandmates and talks to them about their adventure.

Miriam sees Kiwi. She instinctively braces herself for one of their enthusiastic hugs.

But it doesn’t come.

They stand near the band members, staring absentmindedly at the ground. They have a small smile plastered on their face – a half-hearted attempt to hide whatever distress they’re in. Whatever’s troubling them must be bad, Miriam thinks, as they don’t notice her even when she’s standing in front of them. She knows asking them what’s wrong is pointless. They won’t answer honestly as long as other people are around. She’ll have to wait until she’s alone with them.

There’s no telling when that will be, and she’s not thrilled at the idea of the bard being depressed until then. How can she cheer them up now?

A joke? Does she know any jokes? What about making a funny face? Somehow that doesn’t seem like it’d be enough. Should she say something nice to them? How about saying something nice while patting them on the shoulder? No, a shoulder pat seems too impersonal. How about holding their hand? Actually, no. Forget that one. She doesn’t want a repeat of what happened on the Lady Arabica. Also, she really wishes she could forget what happened on the Lady Arabica!  What else could she try? Hugging?

Her face turns red. Has she ever hugged them first?

She thinks. “(Who am I kidding? Of course I haven’t. I can’t even hold their hand without freaking out.)”

It’s worse than that - she can’t think about holding their hand without freaking out.

“(I’m already shaking and I haven’t done anything yet! Talk about pathetic.)”

She grits her teeth.

“(Come on, Miriam. They need you right now. Stop being a scared loser and hug that dork.)”

She takes a deep breath.

“(On the count of three. One. Two…)”

She repeats “two” five more times before reluctantly putting her arms around the bard.

“(Threeeeeeeeeee…)”

“H-Hey,” she says nervously, “Long time no see.”

For a moment, Kiwi tenses up.

“Did they hurt you?” she asks.

With a soft sigh, their body relaxes, and they gently wrap their arms around her.

“…No.”

“Bummer. I was looking forward to blowing up the place.”

She pulls back slightly to get a look at Kiwi’s face and is pleased to see their fake smile replaced with a small, bashful grin.

If her heart wasn’t racing before, it certainly was now.

“I’m glad you’re okay, Miriam,” they say, “And that you didn’t blow anything up.”

“We’re not out of Chaandesh yet. I could still blast the place…”

They press their forehead against hers.

“Don’t be mean!”

The witch struggles to respond with a snarky line. Or any line, really. Why is it whenever she’s this close to them, she freezes?

She senses a familiar panic building within her. Her chest burns, her stomach tingles. If she doesn’t get away from the bard soon, she’ll explode. Who knows? Maybe she really will end up wiping Chaandesh and Rulle off the map!

“I’ve about had it with these stupid kingdoms,” she nervously blurts out. “I’m ready to go to Chismest. You?”

Their expression darkens again. They make no effort to hide their unhappiness even after Miriam gives them a concerned look. It’s only after Manny calls out to them that the bard’s lips curve into that familiar, forced grin. Kiwi gives her a little squeeze before letting her go.

“(What the heck’s gotten into you?)” she wonders.

A few hours later –

“Well,” Viola says, “there aren’t any ships or carriages or anything currently going to Chismest. There is an option for Tatango Island…”

“We’re thinkin’ of headin’ out that way,” Manny says. “They got ships out there that’ll take us back to Delphi. You two comin’?”

Miriam glances at Kiwi.

“No,” they say quietly, “I need to go to Chismest. My mom wants to see me.”

“That’s a shame. I was really enjoyin’ havin’ ya around, ace. Well, when ya come back to Delphi, come find us. We’ll get ya singin’ on that stage again,”

“Thanks. I’ll miss you.”

Miriam shrugs as Kiwi and the bandmates share a group hug.

“Um, Miriam…?” Ash walks over to her and holds out their hand. “I just wanted to say… it was a pleasure. I hope I wasn’t too annoying…”

“Oh, uh,” she awkwardly shakes their hand, “you were fine. Thanks for helping me with all that book crap. I wouldn’t have gotten so far without you.”

Ash gives her a shy smile before leaving with Manny and Viola.

“Okay,” she says, turning to Kiwi, “Guess it’s down to just you and me…”

“…”

“So! Chismest! I guess since it’s just us, I can fly there. How are you feeling? You good for flying? Wanna stay and rest a bit?”

“…”

“Kiwi? You listening?”

“Oh. Haha, sorry…”

“You can drop the act. It’s just us.”

“Right. Sorry. I’m good to fly if you want to leave now. I don’t want to keep my mom waiting any longer. I was, um, supposed to be in Chismest several days ago…”

“What? Seriously? Why didn’t you say anything?”

“…I kinda… didn’t want to go… I guess.”

“And let me guess – you still don’t.”

“…I promised her I would.”

“You can always go later. She’ll understand.”

They shake their head. “I have to, Miriam. It’s really important. Can you please fly me to Chismest?”

She was hoping Kiwi would take up her offer to stay and rest. She’s completely drained after all of the nonsense in Rulle and Chaandesh. That, and she really wanted to sit down and talk with them.

“(Guess we can talk while we fly),” she thinks.

But once they’re in the air, Kiwi falls silent. Miriam tries to lighten the mood with small talk (which she hates) and describing her adventure with Ash. It doesn’t work. She tries getting them to sing, and they do, but there’s no joy in their voice.

Miriam’s very concerned now.

“Okay, what’s going on? You’re acting weird and I don’t like it,” she says.

“I’m always weird.”

“Yeah, but you’re being super weird, and not in a funny way. I’m… worried, okay? If there’s something bothering you…”

“I’m okay, Miriam.”

She frowns. “You said you weren’t going to bottle up your feelings anymore.”

“I’m not!”

She doesn’t believe them.

Now Miriam is the quiet one. Sensing her irritation, Kiwi tries distracting her with their singing. It doesn’t work, and they don’t really feel like singing (for once in their life), so both of them fall silent. They barely speak for the rest of the flight. By the time they arrive at Kiwi’s mother’s house, they both look miserable.

Kiwi smiles.

“Don’t,” Miriam says angrily.

“I have to,” they reply. “You know how my mom is. Also… Miriam?”

“What?”

“Be on your best behavior. Please?”

They step inside. Kiwi is immediately greeted by their eternally happy mother. She hugs them, pinches their cheek, and compliments their “incredible smile”.

“It’s a shame. You just missed you father,” she says cheerfully.

Miriam raises an eyebrow. Kiwi didn’t say anything about their father. In fact, in the entire time she’s known them, they’ve only ever mentioned their father once.

“Mom said my dad came home.”

That was it. They didn’t elaborate and she didn’t pry.

“Doo hoo hoo! I finally manage to get your father out of this house and you come back! What timing!” she chuckles again. “Don’t worry, muffin. I only sent him out for groceries. He’ll return shortly.”

She turns her attention to Miriam.

“My, my! Still hanging around my little muffin? They must’ve charmed you quite a bit, doo hoo hoo hoo!”

Miriam smiles awkwardly. “Yeah… Can’t get enough of ‘em.”

“Oh, you! I can’t say I blame you. They have the best smile in the world, don’t they?”

“Sometimes, I guess…”

Kiwi and Miriam sit on the couch and enjoy some tea and cookies. Miriam looks around and notices a bookshelf. Perhaps –

“Do you have any pictures of Kiwi when they were little?” Miriam asks.

Kiwi’s mother reacts like she’d been waiting her entire life for this moment. Within seconds, a small book is thrust onto Miriam’s lap. Kiwi’s mother claps her hands and giggles, unable to contain her glee. Kiwi doesn’t know how to react, so they stick with smiling.

“Let’s see what we have here,” Miriam says with a sinister chuckle. She opens the book.

She’s greeted by the image of a smiling child with fluffy brown hair wearing a red coat, light brown pants, a light green scarf, and dark brown mittens and snow boots. They’re “holding hands” with a snowman that’s almost as big as they are. Miriam slowly turns to look at the bard, who smiles shyly and avoids her gaze.

“(You’re so cute it makes me want to barf.)”

She can’t bring herself to say it out loud. Her eyes wander back to the album, and she turns the page. As she browses through the photos, she occasionally finds one that forces a snort or snicker out of her. Each time, she notices Kiwi squirming uncomfortably.

“(Now you know what it feels like! How do you like it? You embarrassed?)”

She’s enjoying this way too much.

But as she continues, she notices something odd about the pictures - aside from a handful of shots of Kiwi with their mother, they’re alone. There are no friends. No classmates. No cousins. No one.

Even worse? In almost every photo, their smile is forced.

“You’re… alone,” she says in disbelief. “in every picture…?”

“My mom’s in some of them.”

“That doesn’t count! Where are your friends?”

“…”

“It’s a shame,” Kiwi’s mother says. “My little muffin was well-liked at school, but never could manage to befriend any of their classmates. I suppose they were too ‘unique’ for their tastes! Doo hoo hoo!”

“Can you call that ‘well-liked’?!” Miriam scoffs. “Usually when people like you, they want to be around you! This is…”

Her heart sinks as she flips through the pages again. It was all too familiar.

Another lonely afternoon in the park, watching the other kids run around. Realizing she’d not been invited to a birthday or holiday party again. Wondering why she was the only one who was “different”.

She may as well be holding her own photo album. She sighs and closes the book, setting it off to the side.

“Thanks,” she says. “I’m done looking at it.”

“Weren’t they just the most precious little cinnamon roll?” Kiwi’s mother chirps as she takes the book.

The two continue snacking on cookies and sipping tea in silence. And then, a short while later, Kiwi’s father returns from the store. The color drains from Miriam’s face when she sees the Baron walk through the door, several paper grocery bags tucked in his arms. He glances at them but says nothing. Kiwi’s mother welcomes him and beckons him to follow her to the kitchen to help cook. Once they’re out of the room, Miriam turns to Kiwi and angrily whispers –

The factory owner?! Seriously, Kiwi? That’s your father?!”

“Mhm.”

“Why the heck didn’t you tell me sooner?”

“…It wasn’t important.”

Don’t,” she points at them, “ever say that again. Everything about you… is important to me. Okay?”

“…Okay.”

She wants to pull her hair out. Everything was fine before they were separated in Rulle. Why in the world is Kiwi being so “weird” now? Did someone say or do something to them? She tries asking, but Kiwi assures her they’re fine.

“Fine,” she grumbles and crosses her arms. “Be that way.”

Around an hour later, Kiwi’s mother finally emerges from the kitchen. She sees Miriam messing with a camera and exclaims –

“Oh! What a lovely idea! We should take a family photo!”

And so Miriam suddenly found herself in charge of taking the first ever “complete” Kiwi family photo. Kiwi and their mother stand side-by-side while the Baron looms ominously behind them. It’s almost comical how much bigger he is than them. Miriam wonders what Kiwi would be like had they inherited their father’s absurd height.

It almost makes her smile. Almost.

She holds up the camera and tells them to say “cheese”. Kiwi and their mother flash their best smiles. The Baron’s lips curve into the tiniest, most awkward grin.

Flash!

A minute later, Miriam hands the picture to Kiwi’s mother.

“Doo hoo hoo! It’s wonderful! Here, muffin. You should take this. Keep it by your bedside when you return home, that way you’ll never feel alone.”

Kiwi wordlessly hands it to Miriam. She tucks it in her satchel along with the camera.

“All right! Dinner’s ready! I hope you two didn’t stuff yourselves on snacks!”

Miriam sighs quietly. Great. A family dinner with a family that barely seems to function. This will be fun.

“How do you like the food?” Kiwi’s mother asks after several minutes of excruciating silence.

Miriam looks up. “Oh, you’re asking me? It’s… good. It tastes different from the stuff I’m used to. Guess they use different spices and stuff here.”

“Doo hoo hoo! Chismest cuisine is rather unique. I’m happy you like it.”

“So, um… why’d you want Kiwi to come all the way out here?”

“To have a family dinner!” Kiwi answers “cheerfully”. “We’ve never sat down and shared a meal like this before!”

“I would have liked to have the dinner last week, on the anniversary of when their father and I met,” their mom continues, “but my little muffin’s never been the most punctual!”

“Haha! Sorry, mom…”

“That was my fault,” Miriam says. “They got caught up in one of my messes and got held up several days. Sorry.”

“Oh, it’s all right. It wasn’t a big deal. I’m just glad to finally have them home!” Kiwi’s mother smiles. “If only they’d move back!”

Kiwi forces another laugh. Miriam isn’t sure how much more of this she can take.

“Muffin? When are you moving back?”

“Um, not for a while…”

“Goodness, you must be busy! You won’t move back, and you rarely visit. Is it your little friend here? Is she keeping you busy?”

“…”

“You know, you are getting to that age… Have you considered what you’ll do in the future? The clock is ticking if you’re wanting to start a family of your own…”

For a split second, Kiwi frowns. Kiwi’s mother somehow doesn’t notice - or possibly chooses not to notice - but Miriam does.

“(Huh. Something about what she said just now seriously rubbed them the wrong way),” she thinks.

“You never were one to put much thought into your future,” their mother continues. “That was fine when you were a child, muffin, but you’re part of the adult world now. This aimlessness of yours simply won’t do. And… to be quite honest, your momma would love to become a granny! You really should put more consideration into what you’re doing!”

“Sure…” Kiwi says quietly.

Miriam scowls. While Kiwi has that terrible fake smile plastered on their face, everything about their body language is saying how much they don’t want this conversation to continue.

“Why not come back to Chismest and get a job at the factory? There are many wonderful people here who’d make for a lovely partner. No offense to you, dear!” she looks at Miriam and chuckles.

“It’s fine,” Miriam grumbles, “We’re just friends…”

“Hoo! Oh dear! Are you, now? Well, muffin, think about what I said. Even if you don’t find your true love, the factory pays very well. You could have a very happy life here with us.”

Kiwi nods, their smile strained. Miriam can’t watch this anymore.

“That’s ENOUGH!!!” Miriam shouts.

The room falls silent.

“Those glasses just for show?! Don’t you see how uncomfortable you’re making them?!”

“M-Miriam… It’s okay,” Kiwi says quietly.

“It’s not! And you shouldn’t act like it is! It doesn’t matter who’s talking – a stranger, a friend, your own mother! If you don’t like what they’re saying, tell them!”

“Miriam –“

“And you!” she focuses her attention back on Kiwi’s mother. “How can you be so oblivious to your own kid’s feelings? Did you even notice their smiles in most of those pictures were fake?! You’re always telling them to smile, smile, smile without giving a crap about what’s going on with them!”

“They never said they were unhappy,” Kiwi’s mother says, shocked.

“Gee, I wonder why? Maybe because they were raised by someone who wouldn’t let them be unhappy.”

“Miriam!”

She freezes. Did she imagine that? That voice was definitely the bard’s, but it sounded unfamiliar to her somehow.

Kiwi gets up from their seat and places a hand on Miriam’s shoulder. Quite firmly, in fact.

“Can you help me outside with something real quick?” they ask, grinning ear to ear.

Miriam shivers. There’s that “weirdness” in their voice again.

She realizes what it is.

Anger.

She wordlessly rises from her seat and follows Kiwi outside. Despite taking less than a minute, the walk feels agonizingly long. She’s reminded of when she was young, to all the times she waited with dread for Saphy to scold her. It was always a terrifying ordeal. Saphy, unlike Miriam, rarely showed anger. So the few times she did are burned into Miriam’s mind. Vivid, uncomfortable memories that still give her goosebumps to this day.

There’s something about a nice, happy person losing their temper that shakes Miriam to her core. And now she was about to suffer the consequence of pissing off the nicest, happiest person.

She’s scared out of her mind.

But she’s also a little irritated. Why is Kiwi angry with her? She didn’t do anything wrong! She stood up for them! They should be happy with her, right?

“…”

They’ve been standing outside for over a minute now. Kiwi’s yet to utter a single word or even turn to face her.

The longer she waits, the more irritated she gets. Why drag her outside if they’re not going to say anything? Is this how they’re “punishing” her? By ignoring her? The worst part is, it’s surprisingly effective. She hates that they’re not speaking. She can deal with insults and complaints. She wishes they’d insult her or complain about her crappy attitude.

This? She can’t deal with this.

“You gonna talk or not?” she grumbles.

They don’t respond.

“It’s cold. Can I go back inside?”

Nothing.

“…Kiwi.”

“…”

“I can’t fix the problem,” she sighs, “if you don’t tell me what it is. Talk to me. I don’t care if you don’t have anything nice to say. Insult me all night if you want. Just… say something.”

The bard glances back at her. Miriam braces herself. She’s ready for whatever Kiwi’s about to throw at her.

“Maybe,” they say quietly, “you should go home, Miriam.”

She was not ready for that.

Her mind races. “Go home”? They want her to “go home”? They made her stand around in the cold just to tell her to “go home”? What happened to all their anger? Why aren’t they yelling at her? Calling her names? Who the heck tells someone to “go home” like that?! It doesn’t make any sense! What about the trip? The pictures? She can’t just leave.

That’s it. They’re confused. They’re too nice to be mean to her, but too mad not to say anything, so they’re telling her to leave because they can’t come up with anything else. That must be what’s going on!

Maaaaaybe I don’t want to,” she says jokingly.

“Maybe I want you to,” they say, their voice serious.

“…”

She gets it now.

“Go home”. She chuckles bitterly. Kiwi really is too nice for their own good. The poor little bard doesn’t have the heart to say what they really mean –

“I don’t want you around.”

It hurts far worse than any insult.

“…Oh.”

Is all she can manage to say.

She feels tears welling up in her eyes. She’d better get out of here before she starts wailing like a baby. Should she say something or leave quietly? Leaving quietly would be the smarter thing to do, but she’s not sure. She feels like she should say something to the bard. But not just anything. What should she say? The more she wonders, the angrier she gets. Why is this even happening? It’s so stupid. Everything about this is stupid. This whole trip’s stupid. She never should’ve left home.

She hops on her broom.

“That’s what you want?” she says, sneering. “Sure! All right!”

A little voice in the back of her mind is screaming for her to stop. She ignores it. She wants to talk, but more than that, she wants to make sure whatever she says hurts Kiwi as much as they hurt her.

Maybe I will go home. Maybe I never wanted to go on this stupid trip anyway. And maybe, juuuuuust maybe, I’m tired of putting up with all your crap.”

“Miriam, don’t –“

“No. Screw you! You wanna stay here and pretend to be mommy’s happy little angel? Be my guest. Stay here for the rest of your life for all I care.”

“…”

“I’m so done with you.”

There it is. That’s exactly what she wanted to see. All the anger’s faded from the bard’s eyes. Now they look confused, sad, and – most importantly – hurt. Mission accomplished.

“…I’m outta here. Bye.”

She starts crying as soon as she flies away.

Idiot, idiot, idiot. What has she done? Why can’t she ever keep her mouth shut? Were the two seconds of satisfaction she got worth trashing her friendship?

They’d better be, because they’re all she has now.

Chapter Text

It’s been several days since Miriam went away. Kiwi still hasn’t left Chismest. At this rate, they doubt they’ll ever leave.

“Screw you! You wanna stay here and pretend to be mommy’s happy little angel? Be my guest. Stay here for the rest of your life for all I care.”

Her words repeat endlessly in their mind.

“I’m so done with you.”

Without thinking, they hum the lullaby their mother used to sing to them. Growing up, they often relied on the gentle, familiar melody to comfort them during their darker moments.

Their sadness. Their anger. Their fear. Their pain.

Music could wash them all away. One by one, they would drown, until only “good” feelings remained.

They hum until Miriam’s voice fades from their mind. They enjoy a minute or two of peace before other problematic thoughts take the place of Miriam’s hurtful words.

The future. Dreams.

The bard looks down at the ground and notices a small rock. They nudge it with their foot.

There we go. Kiwi feels a little better now.

“Everyone’s so… busy. There’s so much going on! They’re starting bands, traveling, growing businesses, working with their neighbors, falling in love and so much more. Much, much more. Everyone’s working towards their future…”

The bard is genuinely happy for their friends. No doubt about it.

But hearing all their friends talk about “what’s next” - seeing them work to make their “dreams” come true – made the bard realize something.

What, exactly, is “next” for them? What is their dream?

They wanted to prove they could make a difference. They dreamed of saving the world.

Well, they succeeded.

What happens now? Where does their life go from here? What do they want to do?

“I guess... you don't really ever figure that out.”

They recall a conversation they had with Miriam ages ago. It was when they were still on their quest to save the world, when they were in the city of Mohabumi. The bard had found Miriam dancing at a club.

The city of witches had left Miriam filled with questions. Ones she struggled to find answers to.

“I've been figuring out... a bunch of stuff... about myself... and, it's been exhausting... Like, who I am... and what I'm doing... and why I'm doing it.”

The same ones Kiwi now found themselves struggling with.

“You... always seem to know what you're doing.”

They didn’t.

“You know... who you ARE.”

Maybe back then. They’re not so sure anymore.

“You're always so sure... of what you want.”

That couldn’t be further from the truth.

At first it didn’t bother them much, as they were too busy enjoying the new world to think about their lack of direction.

But as the days turned to weeks –

And then months –

They found it harder to ignore. And now it has become impossible.

Kiwi closes their eyes and sings -

     As time marches on

     In a world newly restored

     Others face the dawn

     Towards a future fit to be explored

     Mmm -

     Has the sun already set for me?

     I can’t see

     What’s meant to be

     Aimless, I fear

     My future unclear

Somehow, singing that song only made them feel worse.

“Your voice… is nice.”

Kiwi looks up to see the Baron looming ominously before them.

“…Hi,” they say.

“…”

“Um…”

“May I sit with you?”

“Oh. S-Sure…”

The bench shifts and creaks under the Baron’s weight.

“It saddens your mother…” he says slowly, “to see you without a smile.”

“I know,” replies Kiwi. “That’s why I’m not home.”

“…”

“I’m sorry. I’ll go home soon. I just needed to… not smile… for a bit.”

“Do you resent her?”

“What?! Mom? No! I love her!”

Kiwi stops to carefully consider what they’ll say next. It’d be easy to end the conversation here. The “old Kiwi” would’ve ended it, despite still having so much to say. They think of what Miriam would say were they talking to her instead of the Baron. She’d tell them to “let everything out”. That it’s okay to share the bad feelings and unhappy thoughts… sometimes.

“I’ll always be grateful for everything she’s done for me. She loves me despite my… weirdness.”

Is that really what they want to say? Miriam wouldn’t be satisfied with that. She’d probably say –

“So you love your mom and she loves you? That’s sweet. Doesn’t explain why you’re upset.”

It doesn’t. Kiwi sighs.

“…I only wish she tried harder to understand me. I can’t always be the way she wants me to be… Sometimes I get sad, or mad, or scared, and it hurts to smile…”

That’s better. But there’s still a little more, isn’t there? What is it that’s really bothering them?

“I wish I could be happy all the time. Maybe then, I wouldn’t have hurt Miriam.”

“The witch girl?” the Baron asks.

“She’s my best friend. Well, she was… I said something mean to her, and she went away… I don’t think she’s coming back.”

They bring their knees to their chest, curling up into a ball as they continue speaking.

“I feel so lost. I was already feeling lost because I couldn’t figure out what to do with my life, but I thought as long as I had Miriam, I’d be okay! Now she’s gone and I-I’m… I’m so terrified! I don’t know what to do!”

“…’What to do with your life’, you say… How curious.”

“Huh? What’s curious?”

“I’ve recently wondered the same. Despite months passing since the factory’s restructuring, I remain at a loss as to how to proceed forward. If such a thing is even possible for me, that is.”

“Why wouldn’t it be…?”

“I dedicated my life to bringing joy to others. I sacrificed my friends, my family, my home… for a dream I ultimately failed to realize. It was painful… learning the path I chose led me astray. My ambition poisoned this city… and all who dwelled in it. And it denied me the greatest happiness of all – the joy of family. Of being a husband… and a father.”

“…”

“My life is in its twilight years. Should I not spend what little time I have left making amends for the past? How does one move towards the future when everything one does revolves around the past?”

Kiwi tries, but they can’t think of a good answer.

The Baron rises to his feet and looks down at the bard.

“However, our struggles are not quite the same. I seek a future where there may be none. You have a future but are simply unable to see it clearly. Know that an unclear future is one rife with opportunity. It is something to be celebrated, not feared.”

He slowly walks away. But as he leaves, he says –

“Whatever it has in store for you… I pray it brings you happiness.”

Some time later, near Delphi -

It’s another lovely day.

There have been so many lovely days lately. Miriam can’t stand it.

Well, she’ll do today what she’s done the last several days. What she’s done the last two weeks, to be exact.

Absolutely nothing.

She sits up in her bed and glances to the other side of her room, where her satchel has sat abandoned since she returned from her trip. She wonders if Kiwi’s still in Chismest.

Not that she actually cares.

Groaning, she flops back down onto her bed and covers her face with a pillow. She wishes the day would end already.

“Good morning, dear.” Saphy says, “Are you planning on spending all day in bed again?”

“Mrrrgghh…”

“Hoo hoo! Ah, to be young and unemployed. Won’t you at least join me downstairs for breakfast? You’ve barely eaten anything for days. You must be famished.”

“Mmmmrrrrrrrrrrrrrghhh…”

Miriam hears the sounds of her grandmother opening the nearby window. A cool breeze flows into the room.

“My, what splendid weather!” Saphy says. “Care for a bit of flying?”

“Mmmrgh …Huh? What, you mean together? You haven’t ridden a broom in ages.”

“Look at that beautiful sky, Miriam. How wasteful it’d be not to soar in it! Come, now. Put on your hat and let’s be off.”

“Really not in the mood…”

“Humor this old woman. We won’t be long, I promise.”

Miriam forces herself out of bed and gets dressed. Her grandmother is already waiting for her outside by the time she trudges downstairs.

“I’ll drive,” Saphy giggles.

Miriam takes a seat behind Sapphire and wraps her arms around the old woman’s waist, just like she did when she was little. Even in her advanced age, Sapphire’s control over a broom far surpasses Miriam’s. For one, she can fly a passenger around all day and night and not break a sweat. And the broom doesn’t wobble at all when she controls it, unlike Miriam. She can also do a lot of “sick maneuvers” – as she jokingly calls them – though the young witch doubts Saphy will try any today.

“Ah, how nostalgic! Soaring above the clouds with my sweet little girl! I couldn’t be happier!”

“At least one of us is happy,” Miriam grumbles.

“Did I say ‘sweet’? I meant ‘grumpy’.”

“Yeah, very funny.”

“Oh, Miriam… Are you that upset about your friend?”

“Huh? Who said anything about them?”

“It’s woefully obvious. Before your little excursion, you couldn’t go more than a few hours without mentioning your precious little bard. Yet during these last few weeks, you’ve not mentioned them once. That, my dear, is rather suspect.”

“Tch! Maybe I don’t want to talk about them!”

“You had a fight.”

Miriam doesn’t answer.

“As I feared…”

“Ugh. Can’t hide anything from you, can I? Yeah, we… fought. It… It was bad. They said they didn’t want me around…”

“Miriam…”

“Don’t feel bad. I’m sure they’re out there having a great time with all their other buddies. They have so many other friends! It’s almost disgusting.”

“…”

“They don’t… They don’t need me.”

“Oh, Miriam…  You know that isn’t true.”

“It is! You should’ve seen them! Everywhere we went, they had a grand ol’ time… with everyone but me. I could’ve left anytime and they never would’ve noticed.”

“Now you’re being dramatic.”

“I’m not.”

“How many times did they check on you while you were moping by yourself?”

“What? How did you… I-I mean, I didn’t mope by myself!”

“You’re not fooling me, my dear. I bet you crawled off somewhere and grumbled your little heart out at least once a day. And whenever you did, they came looking for you.”

“That’s not… true.”

“Tsk, tsk, tsk. Always with the negativity. Is it that hard to admit they cherish you?”

“Maybe they d-did before, but they sure as heck don’t now! I-I messed everything up. Grandma, I really… think it’s over. Our friendship, I mean…”

“Not all friendships last. It’s one of life’s many sad truths. Some run their natural course, with friends outgrowing each other as circumstances push them down differing paths. Others end suddenly and dramatically, a casualty of anger, disappointment, resentment… Then there are those most lamentable – the ones that end unnecessarily.”

“Unnecessarily?”

“Yes. Friendships that could be mended – perhaps even strengthened – if only the estranged pair would open their hearts to each other. But they allow pride or fear to hold them back. Weeks of silence turn to months, then years… Decades pass. Sometimes they never put aside their differences and pass on without ever reaching out. Ah, what could have been…”

“But what if one does reach out but the other shuts them out?”

“It is what it is, as unfortunate as that sounds. You can’t force someone to care about you. But at least you can take some comfort in knowing you tried! You set aside your pride, your pettiness, your bitterness, and let that other person know you still think of them. And, should they wish it, you can be friends once more.”

“…”

“I speak from experience, dear. Nothing is more painful than realizing you could’ve saved a relationship had you only tried. All those experiences missed. All those words left unsaid. And for what? A silly misunderstanding or argument that meant little in the end. …If only I’d told them how I missed them – how I loved them. But the chance has passed, and all I’m left with is regret.”

“Grandma…”

“You and your friend have something truly special, Miriam. It would be tragic were you to let it slip away.”

“…I don’t know what I’d do if they turned me away…”

“Hoo hoo! I doubt that’ll be an issue.”

“Don’t laugh! I hurt them! They –“

“They are likely thinking the exact same thing, Miriam. Ashamed of causing you pain… and terrified of approaching you. Were you to show up at their doorstep unannounced, I… Well, let’s just say I don’t see them turning you away.”

“Psh. Wish I had your confidence.”

“Just try, Miriam.”

They return to their house. Miriam joins her grandmother for a late breakfast and then heads back upstairs to her room. The satchel is still sitting where she left it.

“I'm really glad you came back! I missed you a lot, Miriam.”

They’d welcomed her back with open arms back then. Back when the world was on the verge of collapse. She’d abandoned them at a critical moment, leaving them to fend for themself on the frozen peaks of Mount Ichor. She claimed to be too injured and tired to continue, but in reality, she had simply run away from them.

She’s always running away from them.

“Thanks for being my friend...”

They’re always welcoming her back.

This time will be different. It has to be. Even someone as nice and patient as Kiwi has limits. They must be tired of her crap by now.

“We're outsiders... together! I'm glad that we're friends!”

But what if they were willing to give her one more chance?

“I love you!”

No. Not “what if”. She knows they’ll give her another chance, even if she doesn’t deserve it. That’s just how they are.

“I really… miss you,” she says quietly. “And I’m sorry, but I’m gonna have to make you wait a little more. But don’t worry… I’ll be there soon. Wait for me a little longer. Please…”

She grabs her satchel and her broom and heads downstairs.

“Going to see your friend?” Saphy asks, pleased.

“Not yet. I got something I need to take care of first.”

“Hmm. Well, good luck, dear.”

“Thanks, grandma.”

It isn’t until three weeks later that Miriam finally makes it to Kiwi’s house.

“This is it,” she mutters, “The big day… Keep calm, Miriam. Everything’s gonna be okay.”

She stopped by Langtree earlier to verify that Kiwi had actually returned from Chismest. Luckily for her, they had. However, she was troubled to hear that the bard rarely visited Langtree, and when they did, they were oddly quiet and lethargic. They still smiled and sang, because of course they did, but everyone could tell something was off.

She approaches the front door of Kiwi’s house and gently knocks on it.

“Kiwi? It’s… It’s me.”

There’s a strange thumping noise from somewhere within the house, but aside from that, there’s no response.

Miriam bites her lip. This is the moment she’s been dreading the most – the moment where she actually has to speak to them. To tell them everything.

But she doesn’t know how to start. What can she even say? She opens her mouth to speak, but no words come out. She tries again and again, but to no avail. The words won’t come to her.

Discouraged, she backs away from the door. Today is a lost cause. She’ll come back tomorrow and try again.

“(No! I’m just trying to run away again),” she thinks to herself. “(I have to do this now… If I don’t, they really may not give me another chance.)”

She reaches into her satchel -

“(Can’t talk? All right, then I won’t talk. I don’t need words to convey my feelings. They’re a bard! If there’s one thing they understand…)”

And pulls out her piccolo.

“(It’s music.)”

She brings the instrument to her lips.

“(Kiwi… Listen carefully, okay? ‘Icky Feelings Miriam’ is back in all her terrible glory, and she’s got a song for you.)”

And she plays –

     Air, carry all my fear away

     Sing what my heart wishes to convey

     When I saw the look in your eyes, I knew

     That I hurt you

     Harsh words, pain undue -

     Lashing out, denying what’s true -

     I’m scared of a future without you

 

That’s not enough. That’s not what she really wants to say. She closes her eyes and continues playing –

     This is so hard for me to say

     Thoughts and feelings long kept at bay

 

A familiar voice begins to sing along with her melody –

          (Air, sing doubt away)

     A brimming fondness I cannot subdue

          (Every day, to you I’ll say)

     How I love you

          (How I love you)

     Real warmth, bond anew

          (Pure joy, shared by two)

     Side by side, let’s see the day through

          (We’ll see it through)

     I don’t want a future without you

          (I don’t want a future without you)

She lowers her piccolo.

“Kiwi…” she whispers. “You… sang with me…? Thank Eya…!”

Her feelings reached them.

She hears the sound of the front door slowly creaking open. Kiwi, dressed in their blue pajamas, stands and looks at Miriam.

“(I’m an idiot. I’m a coward. I’m sorry I took so long. I’m sorry for everything.)” she struggles on what to say to her friend.  

As she mulls, she doesn’t notice the bard approaching her. Quickly, at that. She’s caught completely off guard as they throw their arms around her and hug her so tightly she can hardly breathe. They don’t say a word. Their breathing is unsteady, and their body’s trembling. She thinks they may be crying, but she’s too scared to ask.

They stand there, silently holding each other for a long while. Finally -

“Miriam?”

“Yeah?”

“It’s chilly out here… Can we go inside?”

“Sure.”

However, neither one of them loosens their hold. The pair is forced to awkwardly shuffle into the house. After Kiwi gently pushes the door shut with their foot, they find a nice spot in the middle of the room to resume standing in silence.

This time, Miriam speaks first –

“Guessing you’re not mad at me anymore.”

“I’m sorry. I never should’ve gotten mad in the first place.”

“No, I deserved it. I was being a jerk.”

“You kinda were.”

“(Oof),” she thinks, “(Wasn’t expecting you to agree with me.)”

“Still,” Kiwi continues, “it was wrong, and I’m sorry.”

“No, I was wrong and I’m sorry. I’m an idiot, Kiwi. I should’ve told you what was bothering me instead of bottling it up and giving you the cold shoulder. I ruined the trip…”

“I’m not any better! I was bottling stuff up too! I wanted to talk to you about it, but I didn’t want my problems getting in the way of all the fun we were having…”

“So you kept your bad thoughts to yourself.”

“Yeah.”

“Even though you promised ages ago you were gonna stop doing that.”

“…Yeah.”

 “We got time. Wanna talk about it now?”

They release each other and walk over to the bed. Miriam takes a seat at the foot of the bed and pats the spot next to her. Kiwi avoids her gaze as they sit.

“Okay! Tell me what’s going on, Kiwi. What’s got you down?”

“Do you remember that dance club in Mohabumi? The Crater? We talked about a bunch of stuff…”

“We sure did.”

“You said I always knew what I wanted and who I was…”

“Whoa. That’s a gloomy look on your face. I’m guessing your problem’s got to do with what I said back then?”

“I don’t know what I want anymore, Miriam. My dream was to save the world and make a difference… and I did! And for the longest time I was really happy! Life continued on… Everything went back to normal. And that’s great! But… watching everyone go on with their lives, working towards their dreams… made me realize I don’t have a dream anymore.”

“Psh. Is that it?”

“W-Well… Yes…?”

“Look at me, Kiwi. Do I look like I have some big dream?”

“Um…”

“The answer is ‘no’. I don’t know what the heck I’m doing. And y’know what? That’s totally fine. I’m happy getting by one day at a time. Big goals and dreams can motivate someone to better themselves, but some people take it too far. They get so caught up in chasing a dream they don’t stop to enjoy what’s happening right now.”

“It’s still scary. When I think about five years from now, or ten, or fifteen, it’s a total blank. What should I do? Everyone else is moving forward and all I can do is watch.”

“Everyone goes through life at their own pace. Just because it looks like everyone’s moving faster than you doesn’t mean they are. Anyway, don’t worry about it so much. Find something small you can focus on now.”

“Something small? Like what?”

“I dunno…”

“What about you? What are you focusing on?”

“Uh… S-Stuff…”

“Miriam!”

“Gah! Okay! I-I’m… focusing on what we talked about before. A-About being happier and stuff…” she pauses. “And… y’know… some o-other things…”

“Like?”

“I can’t believe I’m telling you this,” she groans. “Like… Uh…”

She points at Kiwi and then herself.

“What does that mean?” the bard innocently asks.

It means”, Miriam hisses, barely able to contain her embarrassment. “I’m focusing on… us.”

“…”

“…”

“Oh. You mean our friendship?”

“Yes. That’s exactly it,” she grumbles. “Because y’know what? I’m like you – I can’t see much of anything when I think of my life five or ten years from now. But unlike you, I can see one thing.”

“What is it?”

“You.”

“…”

“A-Anyway, let’s talk about my p-p-problems now! Yep, it’s the Miriam Misery Hour with me, Miriam! I, uh, so during the trip I kinda… You and the p-pirates and the band and everyone and…. I-I dunno, it got under my skin and… Crap, I’m not making any sense… Hold on…”

She clears her throat.

“I didn’t agree to go with you to hang out with all your buddies and get some stupid photos. Oh, I’m talking about our trip, by the way. So, yeah. What I was really looking forward to wasn’t any of that stuff. It was being with…  Ugh… This is really embarrassing! Forget I said anything!”

“Are you okay, Miriam? You’re being really sweet today. It’s scaring me.”

“DON’T make fun of me right now. I’m THIS close to exploding, okay? ExPLOOOOOOOding!” she trembles as she speaks.

Maaaaybe I want you to exploooode!” they sing as they throw their arms around her.

“NO!!! No HUGGING!!! I can’t deal with this right now!”

The witch thrashes about, desperate to get away from all this affection, but the bard refuses to let her go. Eventually her thrashing turns to half-hearted squirming, and then –

“This,” she says quietly while hugging them back, “was all I wanted. Time where we could just be dumb friends doing dumb friend things with no one else to bug us. That’s what got me so worked up before. I could barely get a moment with you. Everyone wanted to talk with you or sing with you or do whatever.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Because I was scared! Telling someone you want to spend time alone with them? Don’t you know what that sounds like?! Besides… I didn’t want to get in the way of you having fun with all your other friends. And before you tell me I could’ve had fun with you all too… Yeah, maybe I could’ve. But that’s not the point, though now I’m not really sure what the point is, and I’m so desperate to end this conversation and –“

She pries the bard off her and reaches into the small satchel hanging at her side. She pulls out a book and thrusts it into Kiwi’s hands.

“What’s this?” they ask.

“Open it.”

Kiwi does so and is greeted by the picture they’d taken at the sleepover weeks ago – the one of Kiwi grinning at the camera while Miriam makes a bizarre expression. Beneath it, scrawled in Miriam’s sloppy handwriting, is the phrase “A PORTRAIT OF DORKS”. They turn the page.

There are the pictures they took in Delphi. They strike cool poses before the Queen of Winds statue, stand apprehensively next to Dani and Mitzi after a strange concert, and sing in a sweets shop with its owner.

The next page is filled with photos of the coffee pirates as they go about their business. The following has pictures of Kiwi and Lucas swapping hats, Kiwi dancing with Nina, and Kiwi playing card games with the mermaids. There are also random shots of the Lady Arabica and the open sea. Miriam notices Kiwi’s smile fading slightly, likely in response to her not appearing in any of the pirate photos.

There are a few pictures of Xiatian. Of Manny, Viola, and Ash. There’s the picture of Miriam chopping wood.

There are a few pictures of the moon and stars in Chaandesh’s skies. There’s the one awkward family photo of Kiwi and their parents.

And then a blank page. Kiwi begins to close the book -

“You’re not done,” Miriam says.

“Huh?

“I’m telling you to turn the page. There’s more.”

Kiwi turns the page and sees a picture of Miriam with her grandmother. They’re picking mushrooms in the woods near Delphi.

The next page has a shot of Miriam with Manny’s band at the Crazy Raven. They’re setting up the stage for a future performance. Another shot has Miriam making a goofy face with the Crazy Raven’s owner. Another has her and Ash watching Viola attempt to play the accordion.

They turn the pages faster now. There are dozens of shots of Miriam with the mermaids and pirates. One shot has Lucas and Mel together with the word “SWEETHEARTS” written in Lucas’s handwriting. There’s one page that has nothing but pictures of Nina’s face. Nina wrote “coolest person alive” next to each photo.

“Miriam, this is…?” Kiwi asks.

“My attempt to make things right, and the reason I haven’t come to see you until now. I went all over the world to take pictures with everyone. And… make friends with them. You’ve got some weird taste in people, but… they’re not so bad once you get to know them. Next time we go on a trip, we’ll have tons of fun. No more sulky, antisocial Miriam.”

Kiwi looks back down at the photo album in their lap.

“…”

Drip, drip –

Tiny droplets of water fall on the page.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa!” Miriam gasps. “Are those tears?!”

“Mhm.”

“RRRRRGH!!! Don’t ‘MHM’ me! What the heck are you crying about?! And why are you crying and smiling at the same time?! It’s okay to frown sometimes, y’know!”

“I’m sorry. I’m really sorry, Miriam. I’m just… so happy right now.”

“…Pffft! Hahaha! Y-You’re seriously the worst! You smile when you cry, you apologize for being happy… What a weirdo.”

She uses her sleeve to wipe away Kiwi’s tears.

“Haha… Yeah, I know,” they say. “Miriam, thank you. For this… For coming to see me… For talking to me. For always being such a great friend. I don’t know if there’s a way for me to say how much I love you. SO I’LL SING –“

“OKAY, WOW, LOOK AT THE TIME!!! Saphy’s gotta be worried sick about me! Really must be going!”

“Oh! You’re right. It’s getting late. Will you be okay flying back? Maybe you should spend the night.“

“I really, really, really, really can’t tonight!”

“(I’ll seriously die if I don’t get away from you),” she thinks.

“I really, really, really, really want you to.”

“Well…” she glances down at her satchel, “I did kinda pack my sleeping bag, pajamas, and a change of clothes… and grandma knows I’m here, so I guess she wouldn’t be that worried if I didn’t come home tonight…”

“Then…!”

“I guess I can stay.”

Kiwi quickly gets dressed and takes Miriam to Langtree for dinner.

“Marley and Francine always make too much food!” Kiwi exclaims. “And everything they make is good. You’ll love it!”

“Is it okay for us to randomly show up and ask for food?”

“I do it all the time.”

“Maybe you should cook for yourself more.”

“Haha! I’ll cook next time you stay with me.”

Marley and Francine have indeed made too much food, and they have no issue with Kiwi and Miriam joining them for a meal. Marley’s nice enough to give Kiwi a few snacks to take home. The pair wander around Langtree for another hour or so, chatting it up with anyone who’ll give them the time. Kiwi does most of the talking, but Miriam makes an effort to socialize. With no one left to talk to, they head back to the bard’s house.

Some time later, they’re both sitting around in their pajamas.

“Hey,” Miriam says. “Wanna take a picture?”

“YES!!!”

With Kiwi’s help, Miriam sets the camera’s timer. She sits on the floor in the middle of the room and pats the spot next to her.

“C’mon. Don’t have much time.”

Kiwi pounces on Miriam.

“WHOA!!! Relax! You’re way too excited about this!”

She gently pushes them off her.

“Okay, so,” she clears her throat, “go ahead and put your arms around me.”

They gasp.

“Don’t make this weird!” she shouts. “Say anything dumb and we’re not taking the picture!”

“I’ll be good!” they say, pulling Miriam into an embrace.

“Good. N-Now… our, uh… cheeks should touch… o-or whatever.”

“Like this?” they ask, pressing their cheek against hers.

“Y-Yeah…” she replies, stifling her embarrassment. “Just like that. Make sure you look at the camera, okay? It’s about to go off, so… I’m gonna count to three. You’d better smile like your life depends on it!”

“Okay!”

“Here we go. One… Two… THREE!!!“

She jabs the bard in the ribs.

“GAAAAAAAAH!!!” they scream.

Flash!

“Yes! Got it!” Miriam snickers and fist pumps the air.

Kiwi, meanwhile, has fallen backwards and shows no signs of getting up.

“…Miriam, that was mean,” they pout. “Now we gotta take the photo again.”

“Nah.”

“But I blinked! …And screamed. And fell backwards.”

A single photo slides out of the camera’s front slot.

“It’s fine,” she looks at them and grins. “Trust me, this is gonna be the best picture ever.”

Kiwi, still on the ground, watches as Miriam takes the photo into her hands and –

“Hahahaha! I-It’s perfect!” she waves it triumphantly in the air. She looks at it again – holding it closer to her face this time – and cackles hysterically.

Curious, Kiwi sits up and takes the photo from Miriam.

The witch’s face is turned towards the camera, but she’s looking at Kiwi from the corners of her eyes. Her mouth’s twisted into a sinister grin. Kiwi, meanwhile, is right in the middle of switching from “picture-perfect smile” to “shrieking at the top of their lungs”. It’s not a flattering look, but it is a funny one, and Kiwi can’t help but laugh at the sight of it.

“Here! Here, give it back!” Miriam motions for Kiwi to return the photo to her, which they do.

She opens the photo album and removes a picture from it. She holds it up along with the new one.

“That’s the picture from the sleepover,” Kiwi gasps. “Oh! They match!”

Both photos are of Kiwi and Miriam in their pajamas sitting next to each other. In the old photo, Kiwi’s smiling at the camera while Miriam’s making a ridiculous expression. Now there’s the new one that has Miriam grinning and Kiwi looking like a lunatic.

“I’m keeping this one,” Miriam says as she slips the newer photo in her satchel.

“You don’t want to display them together?”

“It’d be cooler to use this one to start a new album.”

“A new one?”

“Yeah. I want you to keep that one,” she points to the book resting on the floor next to Kiwi’s bed. “Think of it as an apology gift for me ruining the trip.”

“But those pictures were for you.”

“Okay. They’re mine, right? That means I can do whatever I want with them.”

The bard looks at her quizzically. “Yes?”

“I want you to have them.”

“But…”

“Why the long face? You should be excited! This gives us an excuse to go on another adventure to take more stupid pictures.”

“OOOH!!! WE CAN HAVE MATCHING ALBUMS!!!”

“Yeah, there you go. That’s the spirit.”

Kiwi jumps to their feet, grabs the camera with one hand, and Miriam’s arm with the other.

“LET’S GO TAKE A BUNCH OF PICTURES!!!” they shout.

“Are you crazy?! Look at the time! We should be getting ready for bed!”

“Oh. Can we take some pictures in the morning?!”

“Sure? I guess that’s fi-“

“GREAT!!! Let’s go to bed right now so we can get up bright and early, Miriam!”

In an incredibly rare show of force, Kiwi drags Miriam over to their bed, throws the blanket off, motions for her to lie down (which she does), grabs the blanket from the floor, tucks Miriam into bed, quickly sings her a lullaby, then collapses on Miriam’s sleeping bag on the floor.

“Uh,” the witch mumbles, “g’night…?”

Kiwi closes their eyes.

“Kiwi?”

They open their eyes. “Sleep, Miriam!”

“Aren’t you uncomfortable down there?”

“I’m fine!”

“You’re not even in the sleeping bag.”

“Go to sleep, Miriam!”

She groans. “Look… I… I don’t feel right taking your bed. We should –“

“You’re my guest. I can’t let you sleep on the floor!”

“…I’m… I, uh… H-Have fun on the floor!”

Kiwi closes their eyes.

“Ugh …Kiwi.”

They open their eyes. “Sleep, Miriam!”

“Get in the bed.”

“But you’re in the bed.”

She lowers her voice to a nervous whisper. “I know. I’m saying w-we can… share it.”

If only she could see the look on their face.

“No,” they answer, hiding their nervousness with a cheery tone. “I’m okay!”

“RRRGH!!! I’m not letting you sleep on the floor!”

“I slept on the floor at your house!”

“So did I!”

Both of them had slept in the living room and used sleeping bags.

“Either you come up here,” she growls, “or I’m going down there. You have until the count of three. One. TWO!!!”

Kiwi scrambles into the bed.

“G-Good,” Miriam squeaks, her voice barely audible. “Sleep n-now. G’night.”

She turns away from the bard pretends to snore. Kiwi turns away from her and closes their eyes. They follow Miriam’s lead and also pretend to snore.

“Snore, snore,” Miriam says, “Snore.”

“Snoooooore,” Kiwi replies, “Snore, snore, snore…”

“Snore, snore, s-snore,” her voice cracks.

“Sno… Haha! M-Miriam, what are we doing?”

“I have no idea,” she snickers. “You got enough space over there? You can move closer if you want.”

Kiwi’s been teetering on the bed’s edge the entire time. They slowly slide over, stopping only when they feel their back pressing against Miriam’s.

“Sorry! Is that too close?”

“It’s… f-fine. You’re, uh, wow… You’re warm.”

“I am? Is it bothering you? Should I –“

“I’m not complaining. …I like it. Actually, I… Okay, Kiwi? I’m gonna say something very icky to you, and I need you to promise not to make a big deal about it. Can you do that?”

“Sure! I promise.”

“Great. So, uh, here goes. I… like… w-w-warm.”

“…?”

“Crap! What I meant was, I like how warm you are! There! I said it! And I hope you enjoyed it because I’m never saying it again!”

“Aw! I like how warm you are too!”

“Tch! And there you go, just blurting crap like that out without any hesitation,” she turns to face them. “How is it so easy for you? Saying stuff like that, I mean.”

“I’m not as shy as you are.”

“Wha-?! I’m not shy!”

“You are, and it’s one of my favorite things about you,” they finally turn to look at her. “You’re so cute, Miriam.”

“WE’LL SEE HOW ‘CUTE’ I AM AFTER I PUSH YOU OFF THIS BED!!!”

“Haha! Wait, wait, wait! I’m sorry! I’M SORRY!!! Don’t push me off! NO!!!”

“You’d better be sorry!” she says, frowning. “Seriously… Don’t say stuff like that to me right now, okay?! I can’t deal with it!”

“Miriam? Sorry. Did I tease you too much?”

“No,” she sighs, “I… UGH!!!”

She sits up. “I’m the one who’s sorry! You’re totally right about me being shy. It’s so frustrating… I try getting close to you, but when you start… uh… ‘returning the favor’, I tell myself I can’t deal with it and push you away! I’m lucky you’re as patient as you are. Anyone else would’ve given up on me.”

“I’d never give up on you!”

“Sometimes I wish you would. Do you know how awful it feels knowing I’ve hurt you repeatedly? And instead of getting mad or sad, you just… let it slide!”

“I don’t want to be mad at you. I was at Chismest and look at what happened. We almost…” their voice trails off.

“Don’t you dare blame yourself. You had every right to be angry. The problem is… and always has been… me. I need to learn to control my feelings better. Not just my anger, but… everything! I don’t want to stay like this if it means I’m just going to keep hurting you.”

“You don’t need to force yourself to change for my sake, Miriam! I love you the way you are!”

“Guh! I’m not ‘forcing’ anything! It’s called ‘personal growth’, Kiwi! I want to be a better person! I want to be someone who’s so awesome and makes you so happy you’ll never have to fake a smile again! And I’m…”

She clenches her fists.

“I’m gonna start right now! Kiwi!”

“Y-Yes, Miriam?!”

“’Shy Miriam’ is dead. There’s only ‘Cool Miriam’ now.”

“Okay?!”

“Close your eyes!”

Confused, and just a bit scared, the bard closes their eyes and keeps still. They feel Miriam’s hands cupping their face. Is this what they think it is? They feel her leaning in closer.

Closer.

They feel her breath on their face. And then –

“…”

Something gently pokes their cheek.

“…Miriam?” the bard asks after a long pause.

She responds with a mildly annoyed grunt.

“Is that your nose?”

“…Maybe.”

“Did… Did you try to kiss me just now?”

“…Also maybe.”

Kiwi opens their eyes to see a mortified Miriam staring back at them. They both glance at her nose – its tip slightly bent from pressing against Kiwi’s cheek  - then back at each other’s eyes.

Kiwi isn’t sure which one of them cracks first, but within seconds they’re both howling with laughter. They laugh for what feels like forever, and by the time they finally calm down, neither of them has the strength to move.

Miriam, however, still has enough energy to grumble.

“Darn it, darn it, darn it, darn it,” she groans. “Of course. Of course this happens. Ugh…! That’s what I get for calling myself ‘cool’. Should’ve known better… I’ll never be cool. Gonna spend the rest of my days being a loser dork. And you –“

She pokes Kiwi’s chest.

“How dare you laugh at me! Once I get enough energy to move, I’m leaving. You’ll never see me again. I hope you’re happy. Jerk.”

“You were laughing too, Miriam.”

“I totally didn’t find anything about that funny. I only cracked up because someone here has a dumb, infectious giggle.”

Kiwi giggles.

“Heh… See?! See what I mean? Anyway… can we just, uh, pretend that didn’t happen? That’s what I’m gonna do. I’m also gonna go to sleep because I’m seriously exhausted. I don’t think I ever laughed that hard in my life. Sheesh…”

“Sleep sounds good… Wait, we’re still taking pictures tomorrow, right? Or are you really gonna leave forever and never come back?”

“Eh… I’ll forgive you this time. Consider yourself lucky… that I love you so much…” she yawns. “Okay, seriously… sleep time. We’ll take pictures tomorrow… G’night, Kiwi.”

Goodniiiight! Sleep tiiiight…”

After a pause, they add –

“I love you.”

“Yeah, yeah. I know. As a friend, right?”

The bard giggles but doesn’t say anything. Miriam’s eyes snap open. Why didn’t Kiwi respond to that? What was that ominous giggle? Is there something they’re not telling her? She could try forcing an answer out of them, but she’s had enough “grossness” for one day. She’ll ask them about it in the morning.

The two of them hold each other and drift off to sleep.