Chapter 1: Impressions: First, Second, and Awful
It was understandable that tutoring Vincent and Jas came with long lists of rules from their families. Vincent could not be allowed to wheedle his way out of lessons to play, and Jas could not help him in that regard. They could not bother anyone at work, be it the new curator Gunther or Lewis during his mayoral wandering. Money for lunches was provided, but she was asked very politely to not let Gus sneak in treats.
Penny thought the rules were very sensible and never questioned them. However, her acceptance of the rules did not translate to an easy enforcement. The first year was the worst, as Vincent constantly took advantage of her love of reading and tendency to get lost in words. He snuck out of the museum when she wasn’t looking, Jas never far behind him. They would race each other to Cindersap Forest, and if they managed to reach Marnie’s ranch there was no getting them back to the museum.
“I don’t need books!” Vincent said from his perch in a tree. “I’m gonna be a soldier like Dad!”
“But wars are scary!” Jas protested. “And your dad’s away all the time!”
Vincent looked at them, thought, and eventually asked, “Should I be something else?”
“You could be a woodsman, since you like trees so much,” Penny said with a smile.
He began to climb down. “Do woodsmen fight monsters?”
“Wha—monsters? There are no monsters in the forest.”
“Sam says there’s monsters in the cave by the lake!”
“And Aunt Marnie said the man in the tower is weird,” Jas added, pointing to the tower in the distance. “Like he’s a wizard.”
Penny sighed, putting her hands on her hips. “You two have been hiding storybooks in your lesson books, haven’t you.”
“Nuh uh!” they chorused.
“Sam says there’s monsters, so there’s monsters!” Vincent said.
“And I’ve seen purple smoke come out of the tower’s chimney!” Jas said. “How can you get purple smoke if you’re not a wizard?”
“Well…I’m sure there’s a book back at the museum about fireworks and how to get those kinds of colors.”
Their eyes widened. Grinning, Vincent said, “First one there gets the nice reading cushion!” He ran off, Jas close behind, but they went in a different direction. They headed north, running dead center up the path past Marnie’s silo.
“Wait!” Penny called, but they did not hear. She hurried after them, picking up speed when she heard both of them yelp in the distance. Simply by luck and a longer stride did she avoid tripping on the tangle of tall grass and fallen timber, and she found them on the ground by a pond.
“Are you all right?” she asked. Vincent sniffled, rubbing his face, but did not cry as he nodded. Jas nodded as well and sat up, but her eyes widened.
“Miss Penny, look!” she said, pointing at the pond. “Tadpoles!”
“And a rabbit!” Vincent said, pointing to the grass on the pond’s other side. “Can we look for rabbits?”
“We can look for them back in the forest, but this is private property. Come on now.” She offered her hands to help them up, letting them hang on as she turned them around to head back.
“I thought no one lived there,” said Jas. “Aunt Marnie said the last farmer passed away a long time ago.”
“He did,” Penny said. “About fifteen years ago, when I was six. But the Amundsen Farm is still private property, so we really shouldn’t trespass.”
“Why doesn’t anyone live there?” Vincent asked.
“I’m not sure. I never met the farmer’s son. He might live very far from here.”
Pouting, Vincent kicked a rock. “I wish someone was there so we could ask to play with the rabbits.”
“Maybe someday,” Penny replied. “You’ll have to keep making due with asking Miss Marine very politely.”
He nodded without protest, and he and Jas both were diligent in their studies for the rest of the day. Spring passed with fewer and fewer runaway moments, fall had almost none, and winter saw them staying inside for lessons instead of escaping for snowball fights. When the Feast of the Winter Star came, she was surprised and happy to receive presents of a dried sunflower from Vincent and a crocus from Jas. She gave Gus his present before going to gather something warm to eat.
She had enough time to turn and see Maru hurrying over before she was caught in a hug. She gladly returned it, if only for the warmth, and rubbed her hands together when Maru let go.
“Come sit with me and Sebastian for a bit,” said Maru. She lowered her voice to add, “Mom and Dad went to talk to the mayor and Sebastian’s not talking.”
Penny nodded and followed Maru back to one of the tables. Sebastian, staring at the table rather moodily, looked up on their approach. He returned the wave Penny gave him, leaning back with his hands behind his head as they sat.
“Happy Winter Star, Sebastian,” Penny said.
“You too, he replied, smiling briefly but honestly. He looked around and sighed as he looked at Maru. “Are they still talking to Mayor Lewis?” When she nodded wearily, he groaned. “This sucks.”
“Why are they with the mayor?” Penny asked.
“Apparently,” Sebastian sighed, “someone’s coming to the farm at the start of spring. Mom’s talking to Lewis about the cottage out there and if it needs repairs.”
“I think Dad’s asking about that cave on the property,” Maru said. “He’s wanted to do some experiments in there for a while now.” She sighed as well. “We keep telling him isn’t not even up the Mayor Lewis, but…” When she added, “Dad,” Sebastian muttered, “Demetrius,” at the same time.
“Someone’s really moving in? Do you know their name?”
Maru and Sebastian looked at each other, mouths slightly open.
“Did Mom get their name?” Sebastian asked.
“Um…if she did, she didn’t tell me.”
He rolled his eyes. “Great. So we get to be awkward when Lewis makes this guy introduce himself because we don’t know his name.”
“Or hers,” Penny said.
“Or hers,” he said. He bounced one leg under the table. “Can they get back already? I want to eat and go home to my warm room.”
Penny caught the dismayed look on Maru’s face and leaned in slightly to say, “Sam said you’re working on a new project. What’s it for?”
He stopped bouncing his leg, looking mildly surprised, and then sat up properly to speak. The conversation continued easily until Robin and Demetrius returned. Penny left them then to find Pam in the small crowd, entirely distracted while they picked warm, hearty food. The last few days of winter passed by with more and more wondering about who was coming to the farm. For all their bluster of the prior year, Penny saw shy anxiety rising in Vincent and Jas when the topic came up.
“Do we have to go say hello?” Vincent asked the Friday before the farmer was set to arrive.
“I think they’re going to be too busy for visitors right away,” Penny replied. “Remember how overgrown it was up there?”
“Chickens would clear out the grass,” Jas said. “Cows, too.”
She smiled. “That’s true, but chickens need coops and cows need barns. It’ll be them doing everything for a while.”
“Do you think that they’ll come to the museum?” Vincent asked.
“Maybe. We’ll have to see.”
Monday arrived, but there was no time to spare to look for the farmer. The laundry and cleaning had stacked up far too much to stand any longer. First came an argument with Pam about her not doing her portion of the chores, which quickly escalated into a fight. It ended with Pam storming out of the trailer, leaving Penny to clean everything alone. Any curiosity about the farmer was driven clear out of her head through the day, and through Tuesday and Wednesday as well.
Thursday brought with it the clearing of Pam’s unemployment check and Jodi and Marnie giving her her tutoring fees. The thought of shopping in the JojaMart and running into Shane or Pam, surely at a tie for their hangovers, made her grimace. Thus, she cleaned up, put on one of her nicer sundresses for the warm day, and made her way to Pierre’s.
“Hello!” Pierre sang from behind the counter, his voice matching the bell over the door. “Time for groceries?”
“Time for groceries,” she replied with a smile. She picked up a basket and started down the nearest aisle. Though a few items were tempting, ideas for recipes she’d seen on Queen of Sauce on their tiny TV, she stuck close to her list. So focused on checking prices and expiration dates was she that she walked right into someone after turning a corner.
“O-oh my gosh!” she said, taking a step back. Because she saw a dark blue sleeve first, she started to say, “Sebastian, I’m sorry, I didn’t see—”
She stopped because she looked up properly to find a woman looking back at her. The woman’s eyes, already deep, dark brown, seemed black with the bags under them. Her hair was brown as well, but much lighter; a patch of blonde started at the top of her head and traveled all the way down into her short ponytail. Her skin was almost as brown as her eyes; Penny wondered how much time she spent out in the sun.
“Uh,” said the woman. She looked Penny up and down, looking confused and awkward as she rubbed the back of her neck. “It’s okay. You’re too little for that to have hurt.”
Penny stared back, brows slightly raised. “Are you the new farmer?”
“Yeah,” the woman said quietly, sheepishly. She turned to face Penny properly and offered her hand. “I’m Finley Amundsen.”
The nervousness was too much to ignore. Penny smiled kindly and took Finley’s hand. “I’m Penny Bernard. It’s nice to meet you.”
Finley smiled back, but it was slight and small. As they let go, she pointed at Penny’s basket. “I have to admit that I really miss cooking. Not that I knew how to cook very well.”
She stared. “Don’t you have a kitchen?”
“Nope. My grandfather never built onto the cottage to have a proper kitchen. But I’ve got a hot plate and a camping stove, which is all I really need for the stuff I can make.” She hummed laughter. “It’s good enough to warm up leftovers from the saloon, and that’s a lot better than my cooking. I know how to make mashed potatoes, so…that’ll be good once those come in.”
Penny chuckled and leaned closer to whisper, “Don’t tell Pierre I said this, but you should go to Marnie’s ranch for good butter.”
Her smile widened, one brow rising. “I won’t tell him. Thank you.” She started to turn away; Penny caught sight of the massive stack of seed packets in her other hand.
“I’m sorry to run off this soon, Miss Penny,” she said, “but I’ve gotta get home if I want to plant these before dark.” She lifted her hand, said, “I’ll see you around town, then,” and headed off before Penny could answer. She headed to the back of the store with long, quick strides and returned quickly at the same pace. In an instant she was out the door, her small gray rucksack stark against her dark coat. Penny boggled at the door. She turned to look at Pierre; he laughed.
“I’ve got no clue how she’s got that much energy when she looks dead on her feet if she’s still for five seconds,” he said. “I think she lives on coffee instead of water.” He hid a yawn behind his hand. “I could use some coffee right now.”
Penny looked at him a moment long before glancing at the door. She sighed, murmured, “I hope she doesn’t work herself into exhaustion,” and returned to her shopping. She looked around when she left the store, unsurprised at finding no one in sight. Thought she glanced toward the road leading off to the farm, she did not look for long. She went home without another thought for Finley.
For the most part, rain was less common in spring: the winter storms had gone north with the sea breeze. The rain that came to the valley tended to be light, steady showers that passed in a day’s time.
Because of this, the downpour that started before dawn the following Tuesday was nothing less than startling. When Penny came out of her room to make breakfast, she found Pam diligently repairing the bent parts of their umbrellas.
“You don’t need Gunther mouthing off at you for being soaked to the bone when you get down there,” she said. “Or for you to catch your death.”
Penny smiled and said, “Thanks, Mom. Give me a bit to make breakfast.” She turned slowly enough to catch Pam’s small smile; it made the pancakes they shared taste all the better. When it came time to leave, Penny put on her raincoat and boots and did her best to avoid puddles. She could imagine Vincent doing his best to jump in every single one and chuckled at the image.
The museum was empty save for Gunther pottering about the collection displays past the library. He nodded to her after she’d set her rain gear near the door, letting her pick books for the day’s lesson without interruption. Vincent and Jas arrived soon enough, hanging up their coats dutifully before hurrying over. To her surprise, Jas went right by their usual table and over to the displays.
“Miss Penny, look!” Jas said. “There are things on the shelves now!”
“Really?” Vincent asked. “I wanna see!” He went to join her, Penny following with little else to do. Her eyes widened at the sight of artifacts and minerals occupying spaces that had been empty on Friday. She turned to Gunther as he came around one side of the shelves in the middle of the room.
“Where did these come from?” she asked. “I thought the entire collection was lost.”
Gunther smiled, tipping his hat back slightly. He said, “It’s the strangest thing, but have you met the new farmer?”
“Finley? She looked at the shelves again. “She had all of these?”
“Well,” he said as he rubbed his chin, “I don’t think she had them in her own collection. But she’s been donating things left and right.” He chuckled. “I have to admit it’s pretty impressive.”
“This one’s pretty,” Jas said, pointing at an uncut yellow gemstone.
“That’s a topaz,” Penny said. “Wow, and a pretty big one. Gunther, where’d she even find that?”
“The ones in the cave by the lake?” Vincent asked.
“Yep,” said Gunther. “Joja finally got rid of that boulder blocking the way. There’s no telling if she’ll find more gems, but I’ll take whatever she wants to donate.”
“Wow,” Vincent and Jas said in breathless unison. They looked at the topaz with longing.
“Do you think she’d give us cool rocks if we asked nicely?” Vincent asked.
“If she’s finding them to sell, that might be impolite,” Penny replied. “Come on now, we need to start today’s lesson.”
“Okay,” he said, dragging the word with moodiness. He went to their table, taking the book she’d set in his spot at the table. Once Jas had taken her seat and book, they both looked at Penny to pay attention.
She’d gathered books for a history lesson, aiming toward recent and current events to stave off boredom from the rain’s drone. It worked marvelously, even keeping Vincent’s attention the entire time. When she set them to their reading assignments, he looked eager to start.
There was no bell over the door, but the hinges were unreasonably loud no matter how they were oiled. The rain nose was jarring, making all of them look up and turn. The hinges squealed again as the door closed; a faint sigh wavered through the air. A few squelches sounded off, timed to footsteps from mud-covered boots.
Finley, drenched and dripping, stood holding the straps of a bright red backpack. The bags under her eyes were even worse than last Penny had seen them. Finley had been looking around, mouth opening to speak, but she went still upon seeing Penny. She looked confused for a moment before recognition hit her.
“Miss Finley!” Gunther said, opening his arms as he walked through the library. “Have you come to make a donation?”
“A few, actually,” Finley said. “Minerals and a new gem, I think.”
“Well, come on up to the counter with me and we’ll see what you’ve found.” He went behind the counter as she went to its front. Before Penny could stop them, Vincent and Jas scurried over to peek around a bookcase. With a small sigh, Penny went to join them in spying.
Finley was on one knee, digging through her backpack. She pushed her wet hair out of the way when it fell in front of her exhausted eyes. One by one, she took five mineral clusters and one deeply purple gem from her backpack and set them on the counter. Gunther whistled, tilting his hat back again as his brows rose.
“Would you look at that!” he said. “Let’s see…we’ve got…malachite…nekoite…alamite…a petrified slime…and a tigers-eye! I haven’t seen raw tigers-eye in years! And this is a gorgeous piece of amethyst here!”
Finley hummed something that sounded like laughter. “I got pretty lucky on finding the amethyst.” Distracted, looking as though she was unaware of what she was doing, she rolled and stretched her left arm and shoulder. “Lucky after a bunch of slimes and bats, anyway.”
It was then that Penny saw the sheathed sword on Finley’s back, held steady by the stiff leather holster that crossed over it and held a pickaxe. A pair of holsters were on a wide belt that sat low on her hips, but only one was occupied by a long-handled spade. Penny stared, mouth opening but words failing. Vincent, on the other hand, gasped aloud and stepped out from behind the bookcase.
“There’s monsters in the mine?” he demanded.
Finley turned, both brows raised. Hesitating, she said, “Um. Well…I wouldn’t really call the slimes monsters, but…I’ve got a sword.”
“Where on earth did you get a sword?” Penny asked.
Finley looked at her as she came around the bookcase. “It’s Penny, right?” She smiled crookedly with visible weariness. “It’s nice to see you again. And I got my sword at the Adventurer’s Guild.”
After a moment, Penny asked, “Why?”
“Better safe than sorry in the mines. It’s definitely come in handy.”
“So you fight slimes?” Vincent asked.
“Isn’t it scary?” Jas asked.
“Yes,” said Finley, “but not really.” She looked at them more closely. “Sorry, I’ve seen you two around town, but I haven’t introduced myself. I’m Finley.”
They both froze up. Penny took pity and put her hands on their heads.
“This is Vincent and Jas,” she said. “I tutor them here.” She laughed through her nose. “No school and all.”
“It’s nice to meet you two,” Finley said.
“Nice to meet you,” they said together, looking down.
She hummed laughter again. Looking to Penny, she said, “Sorry to do this again, but I should get back home. I need to make sure my cat isn’t going nuts from the rain.”
Penny felt her eyes widen and did not care. “You have a cat?”
“Marnie brought me a stray tabby,” Finley replied. “He loves running around in the grass.” She leaned down to pick up her backpack. “If you’d like to see him, you’re free to visit.”
“Sure. He wouldn’t mind a visitor after the rain stops.”
“I—wow, thank you!” Penny said, smiling brightly.
The sight of her smile made Finley go completely still, brows up and eyes wide. She looked down quickly, shy and startled, and grabbed her backpack. She straightened up and pulled the backpack on in the same moment, but she had to take a step forward when her left knee buckled. Only Penny seemed to notice, as Gunther lifted a hand without comment.
“Here,” he said, offering a bundle of seed packets. “For helping the museum get back on its feet.”
She stared at him a moment, clearly baffled, before quietly saying, “Oh. Thank you.” She took the packets, looking at their labels. She smiled crookedly. “Wow, for melons? These’ll help me get started next season.”
Jas tugged on Penny’s sleeve. “Miss Penny, don’t you like melons?”
Finley heard her and turned to Penny again. She asked, “Do you?”
“It’s one of my favorites.”
She blinked slowly. She looked at the packets and rubbed the back of her neck. Shyness rose in her eyes again when she met Penny’s gaze and said, “Then…I’ll write your name on one of these packets and give you whatever grows from it.”
Her cheeks flushed as she smiled. “Really? Thank you!”
Once again, Finley froze up at the sight of her smile. She put the packets into a side pocket on her backpack, mumbling, “You’re welcome.” When she tightened the straps on her backpack, it was with such anxious force that she stumbled again. Gunther spotted it, and he heard how her feet dragged when she turned. Penny saw how her eyes started to grow unfocused and how her shoulders slumped.
“Finley?” she said.
Finley did not seem to hear her as she started away. “See everyone later.” Her shoulders sagged further as she reached for the doorknob.
“Finley, do you want to sit down for a while?” Gunther called to her. “You look exhausted.”
“‘M soaked,” Finley said. “It’s fine.” She turned the doorknob and opened the door. Pulling the door inward made her stumble yet again.
“Finley, hang on a second!” Gunther said. He came around the corner at a swift pace, but she did not pay attention. Finley walked outside, took five steps, and tripped on a rock. She landed facedown in the mud and did not move, only groaning. Vince and Jas shouted in panicked surprise as Gunther ran outside. Penny followed after grabbing her umbrella, holding it open over Gunther and Finley as Gunther rolled her over and sat her up.
“Finley, are you okay?” Penny asked.
“Ngh,” Finley mumbled with her mouth shut. She blinked hard, wiped the mud from her face with an unsteady hand, and tried to stand up.
“Nope, no you don’t,” Gunther said. He caught her under her arms, heaved her up, and all but dragged her back inside to sit back down against a wall. He turned to Penny and asked, “Can you head over to the clinic and see if Harvey will come down here?”
“I’m fine,” Finley grumbled, but her hand was still unsteady when she pushed her hair out of her face.
“That’s a horrible lie and you should feel ashamed for lying in front of children,” Penny said.
Finley looked up, saw her stern frown, and looked down again with a twist in her mouth. She sighed and asked, “If you’re going to the clinic anyway, can you get an energy tonic?”
“I don’t have enough for that.”
“I do,” Finley said. She reached back to dig in a different side pocket on her backpack and retrieved a wallet. She took several bills from it and offered them to Penny. “Please?”
Penny and Gunther shared a look. Tentatively, Penny took the money and put it in her pocket.
“You’ll have to hurry over there,” Gunther said. “They’ll close sooner than later.”
“I know,” she replied, putting on her boots and jacket. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.” She hurried off, unable to care about puddles as she went. Despite the chill in the air, the humidity from the rain made her blouse stick to her back and her skirt cling to her legs. She reached the clinic and burst inside, earning startled looks from Maru and Harvey both.
“I need to buy an energy tonic!” Penny said, hurrying to the counter. “Finley collapsed at the museum!” To her shock, neither Maru nor Harvey looked alarmed. Instead, Harvey frowned and Maru sighed.
“Is she conscious?” Harvey asked.
“She…is,” Penny said.
“I don’t think so, but I don’t think she can stand up.”
He sighed heavily, pushing his glasses up to rub his eyes. He grumbled, “Third time since she came here.” He adjusted his glasses and to Maru said, “Ring up a tonic while I lock everything. I’m lecturing her this time.”
Penny stared at him as he went into the back, but Maru took an energy tonic from a shelf and opened a ledger.
“It’s a thousand,” Maru said in a sigh, looking half as irritated as Harvey.
Penny swallowed hard and reached into her pocket. For the first time, she looked at the money properly to count it. She went pale and wide-eyed when she saw, at a glance, that Finley had given her far too much.
“What on earth?” she whispered. “Why is she carrying so much money?”
“I’m not sure,” Maru said. “Sometimes it feels like she’s saving everything for tonics. Here, let me get the change.” She took the money, counted it, and handed back change and the tonic. After putting the ledger and cash lockbox away, she went into the back to fetch her coat, boots, and umbrella. “I’ll come with. You look frazzled.”
“Thank you,” said Penny, tucking the money and tonic in her pocket. “I really appreciate it.”
“Let’s head out,” Harvey said as he came from the back with an umbrella in hand. “After you.” He left the clinic last, locking the door, but led the way with an impatient stride. They went in silence across town, reaching the bridge by Lewis’ house before Harvey started grumbling.
“Of all the short-sighted behavior,” he said. “Makes me worried she’ll have a heart attack at twenty-seven.”
“She’s twenty-seven?” Penny whispered to Maru.
“That’s what she put on her paperwork when she registered as a patient,” Maru replied. “Which was…the first time she collapsed in town. It was by the community center while Harvey was on a walk.”
“She’s really been working herself to exhaustion?”
“Yeah, but she’s not saying why. And she barely ever comes into town except for food and supplies. Sam told Sebastian that Haley is really annoyed about it.”
Words failed, and so she followed behind Harvey to go inside the museum. Finley was still sitting against the wall, staring into the middle distance through her feet. She did not blink until Penny knelt beside her and offered the tonic.
“Thanks,” she mumbled. She took the tonic and unscrewed the top, starting to drink it down without breathing.
“Finley, I told you not to chug those!” Maru said. “Energy tonics aren’t easy on the stomach!”
She slowed down, but barely. When she finished, she grimaced, shuddered, and grumbled, “These taste awful.”
“Then maybe you should stop needing them,” Harvey said, arms crossed and foot tapping.
Finley did not look at him.
“I have never,” said Harvey, “in all my years as Pelican Town’s doctor dealt with a patient who’s so driven to work herself to an early grave.”
Vincent and Jas went pale, eyes widening. Gunther gently guided them away and out of earshot when Penny looked at him pleadingly. Finley still did not raise her head.
“I can only do so much for a patient who throws herself into poor health and danger like you do. What’re you trying to prove by going into the mines when you must already be exhausted from farm work?
She remained silent.
“As your doctor, I am ordering you to get a week of proper rest. No mines, proper meals while you farm. If you come in for an energy tonic, I am going to charge you triple the cost.”
She remained silent.
“Don’t make me pay Demetrius to keep an eye out for you near the mines. I will and I’ll charge you for it.”
Finley sighed. She muttered unintelligible sound.
“What was that?”
“Fine,” she said clearly.
“Fine, I’ll get a week of rest. No mines and I’ll eat properly.” She got to her feet without wobbling, putting the empty tonic canister in her coat pocket. “If you’ll excuse me.” She started toward the door.
Penny rushed to put her hand in her pocket. “Finley, your money—”
“Keep it,” Finley muttered, and she was gone.
“I don’t think I even trust her to go home at this point,” Harvey said, rubbing his brow.
Penny thought, biting her lip. She inhaled deeply, looked at Maru, and said, “Can I ask you for a favor?”
“Can you take Vincent and Jas home? I’ll make sure Finley doesn’t go to the mines again.” When Maru and Harvey looked at her, she added, “I have to give her money back and she said I could visit her to see her cat. It’s a good excuse.”
“I can get them home,” Maru said with a smile.
“Thank you for the help,” Harvey said. “It’s always appreciated with difficult patients.”
“Sorry for the panic, Gunther,” Penny said.
“You’re not the one who brought it in,” he replied, chuckling weakly as he brought Vincent and Jas back.
“Thank you again,” Penny said to Maru. Looking to Vincent and Jas, she said, “Please be good for Maru. She’ll get you home.”
“Yes, Miss Penny,” they said.
She nodded to them all before heading outside. She crossed the bridge and headed toward the saloon. Though she fully intended to go inside, she stopped short when the door opened.
“Sorry for the water, Gus,” Finley said, looking back into the saloon. “Are you sure you don’t want me to clean it up?”
“It’s fine!” was the faint reply. “That’s what happens when it rains!”
Finley smiled slightly, but without real humor. “Thanks again. I’ll probably be back tomorrow.” She closed the door and turned. They both froze when they saw each other. Finley turned away first, going down the few steps and heading around the corner.
“Before this grosses you out,” she said over her shoulder as she lifted the trash can lid, “I’m just throwing away the tonic.” She took the canister from her pack and tossed it in the trash. She dropped the lid with a clatter and walked off without looking back. Penny squared her shoulders and followed quickly, catching up and keeping pace to walk beside her.
“Isn’t your house the other way?” Finley asked, voice flat as she went toward the road out of town.
“It is,” Penny replied. “But you said I’m welcome to visit.”
“After the,” Finley started, and she gave up. “Fine.”
They walked along in silence for a long while. When the break in the fence for the bus stop came into view, Penny swallowed.
“Do you want to share my umbrella at all?” she asked. “You bought food, right?”
Finley hesitated, slowing down. She held out one hand and said, “Let me carry it so you don’t have to stretch.”
The hesitation carried into Penny. She handed Finley the umbrella and moved closer to her. They reached the farm in short order, going into the farmhouse immediately.
“Let me get a fire going,” Finley said. “You can put your stuff on the coatrack.” She went to the fireplace, taking several pieces of wood from a crate nearby and stacking them to light. Because the coatrack was near the fireplace, Penny went behind Finley cautiously. She hung up her coat and umbrella as Finley got the fire going.
“I don’t have an armchair, but you can sit at the table,” Finley added. “I need to get my gear off.”
“All right,” Penny replied, and she went to the table. Unable to suppress her curiosity, she watched Finley take off her backpack and start unbuckling the belts holding her tools. They were all set against the wall by the fire before she worked her coat off. Her gray t-shirt was soaked through as well, clinging to her.
The first thing that startled Penny was the overt definition in Finley’s back, shoulders, and arms. It had been hidden by her coat, but Penny could now see every movement her muscles made. The second thing that startled her was how patched and stitched up her shirt was.
“Why is your shirt so ragged?” she asked.
“What?” Finley asked in turn, hanging her coat up.
“Why is your shirt torn up if you have so much money?”
“Oh. This is my mining shirt. It’s easier to patch up one shirt instead of all of them.”
“Patched up from what?”
Finley looked at her over her shoulder. She turned away. “Just stuff in the mines. Can you turn around for a minute so I can change into dry clothes?”
“Yes, of course.” She turned to look out the window and watched the rain drench the trees and the hillside past the fence. A long, whiny meow made her jump and turn around. A tabby cat, sleek and slim, stood on the pillow on the bed, stretching with its front paws on the headboard. It peered at her with amber eyes, head tilted and tail raised.
“Finley, is that your cat?” Penny asked, turning further. Her eyes widened because Finley was in the middle of pulling on a button-down shirt, right arm covered but left arm only half in its sleeve. Finley did not pay her any mind, but it still felt as though time had slowed down. Penny could not take her eyes from the long, dark scar that started at Finley’s elbow, went up the back of her arm, and curved over the top of her shoulder blade. It was intersected by smaller lines in a regular pattern, but Finley had pulled her shirt on properly before Penny could try to think on it further.
“What?” Finley said as she started to button the shirt.
“Is…that your cat?” Penny repeated.
The cat meowed again, drawing Finley’s attention. She smiled wearily.
“Arthur, were you hiding under the covers?” she asked.
Arthur meowed and hopped down from the bed. He trotted to Finley to wind between her ankles, purring, before making his way to Penny. She stretched out a hand for him to sniff, smiling eagerly when he rubbed his cheek on her fingers.
“He’s so sweet!” Penny giggled.
“Less sweet when he whacks me in the face with that baseball bat of a tail.” She rolled her left shoulder again, looking at the floor. After a moment, she asked, “Can I get you anything?”
“I bought a lot of coffee and I have an extra mug. Would you like some?” She glanced at Penny and looked away. “I’ve got some sugar, if you don’t take it black.”
“I’d love some,” Penny said quietly. “Thank you.”
Finley nodded, rolling her sleeves back, and carried her backpack to the table. As she set about brewing coffee, Arthur leapt up into Penny’s lap to purr at her.
“And here I though he’d be puffed up under the bed,” Finley sighed, leaning back in her chair.
Penny giggled as she scratched under Arthur’s chin. “He’s very sweet.” When he rumbled pleasantly at her, eyes closed, she laughed again. “You silly little guy.”
“It’s nice to have him here when I come home for the night.” She went quiet in favor of watching the coffee pot on the hot plate. Penny did not press, instead looking at Arthur to pet and scratch his cheeks. They glanced at each other out of sync, never catching the other looking. Eventually, Finley poured out two mugs of coffee, pulling over a covered sugar dish and a spoon.
“Sorry,” Finley said quietly, picking up her mug.
Penny stopped in the middle of stirring in a spoonful of sugar. “What? For what?”
“Take your pick,” she muttered. “Making you worry about me, asking you to go buy me something when it made you feel awkward, actually letting you walk me home. There’s plenty for me to apologize for.”
Penny sat still for a moment. She finished stirring in her sugar and took a careful sip. As they both drank, Penny considered her words. She set her mug down, took the money from her pocket to set on the table, and looked at Finley directly.
“I accept your apologies about making me worried and asking me to get you a tonic,” she said. “But I don’t need an apology for coming to visit.”
“This isn’t a visit. This is you doing Harvey a favor and making sure I don’t sneak off to work.”
“It’s doing you a favor,” Penny said, frowning. “I thought you had passed out completely before. I just—figured you’d be happier to stay home and get some rest if someone was here to pass the time with.”
Finley gave her such a startled, confused look that Penny blushed and looked down.
“I—I mean,” she stammered. “Th-there’s no reason to work yourself so hard. And—I know how unpleasant it can be to go home and stay there if you want to be somewhere else. S-so…never—never mind.”
Silence answered; her ears burned. She opened her mouth to apologize.
“I’m sorry,” Finley said first.
Her head snapped up, mouth remaining open for a question. The sight of a blush on Finley’s sheepish face made her freeze up. Finley’s eyes were locked on the table as she rubbed the back of her neck.
“It’s been a while since I’ve lived around people who were nice to their neighbors,” she said. “My last place was…not like Pelican Town.”
“What was it like?” Penny asked, gentle but curious.
“I was in a flat in the city.” She looked up and gestured around the cottage. “This is about the same size, actually, but it’s nicer here. And no more getting gouged on rent.” She took a slow drink of her coffee. “That was the least of my problems, though.”
“Was it really that bad?”
She smiled ruefully. “I once had a neighbor threaten to drag me to the landlord because I was playing an acoustic guitar in the middle of my day off and it woke him up from a nap.”
Penny put a hand over her mouth. “Oh my gosh, what did you do?”
Finley smirked. “I put my guitar away, went to the door, and discovered that the guy was tiny. Shorter than you, I think, and really scrawny. Since it was summer and I hate paying for A/C, I just had a tanktop and shorts on. I’ve never seen a guy turn tail so fast, but I guess he’d never seen a woman who had bigger biceps than him.”
Penny stared, and then snorted with laughter as she started to giggle. Finley snickered as well, but fell into laughter when Penny was unable to stop giggling. Arthur rumbled with displeasure before hopping out of Penny’s lap to lie in front of the fire.
“Oh wow!” said Penny. “I bet you were able to scare off anyone you wanted with how fit you are!”
Her smile faltered, but she cleared her throat to bolster it. “Well…here I probably can, but not everyone back in the city. Heck, you should’ve seen some of the other women at my gym, not to mention some of the guys.”
“So they’d put Alex to shame?”
Finley boggled. “Is he the guy in the letterman jacket?”
“Oh—yes, on One River Road with his grandparents.”
She sighed, rubbing the back of her neck again. “Right. I haven’t gone to introduce myself to them.”
“Can,” said Penny, “I ask why?”
“Why aren’t you introducing yourself to more people? It sounds like you’ve only met a few people so far, but you’ve been here over a week now.”
Finley met her gaze for a moment. She looked at her coffee. “I’m…not that interested in being around people.”
“You came here to be alone?”
“More or less.” She sighed. “It’s not working out like I’d planned.”
Penny hesitated, looking at the unreadable expression on Finley’s face. She thought, and then asked, “Really alone? I’m sure Alex would be happy to be a workout buddy.”
“Not interested in hanging around an athlete. Last thing I need is another tough guy flipping out at me when I tell him I’m not going to be any guy’s girlfriend.”
Penny’s brows rose. “What?”
Finley did not look at her in favor of rubbing her face. She muttered, “It’s nothing. I don’t want a buddy.”
“But you said you’re not going to be any guy’s girlfriend.”
Her shoulders tensed visibly. She looked away even further. “It’s really nothing. I’m just—I’m not looking for a new g—never mind.”
“Finley?” said Penny, keeping her voice soft. She started to reach across the table. “Are you—”
Finley saw her hand approach and, panic flooding her eyes, jerked away. They both froze. Though Penny felt her face burn, the blood drained out of Finley’s face. Hand shaking badly, Finley pushed her hair out of her face and hid her eyes.
“I’m sorry,” she said quietly.
Penny could not help but to ask, “Finley, are you g—”
“Yes,” Finley said as her voice began to shake. “Please don’t tell anyone.”
After a moment, she said, “But it’s okay.”
“Yeah right. In a tiny old town in the valley? It’s asking for another—never mind. Never mind.”
Her eyes widened. “Are you worried someone will—”
“I always am,” Finley whispered. She lowered her hand to pick up her mug and drink the last of her coffee. She stood then and said, “I’ll walk you home before I make you more uncomfortable.”
There was such finality in her voice that Penny could not argue. She retrieved her coat and umbrella; Finley dug an umbrella out of a chest. They left, Finley keeping a gap between them. The only sounds to hear were the rain on their umbrellas and the noise of their boots in the mud. They reached the stairs that led up to the playground before Finley spoke again.
“Where do you live?” she asked.
“The trailer by the river,” Penny said, eyes on the ground.
“Okay,” Finley replied. She led the way by a full stride, neither of them looking at the other. Finley came to a stop at one side of the trailer, out of sight from the windows. Penny stopped before the front window in her room, turning around.
“Thank you for the coffee,” she said. “And walking me home.”
“Mm hmm,” Finley said, looking away. “See you around.”
Gritting her teeth, Penny reached out and caught her hand. Quiet, soft, she said, “It’s really okay. No one would even care.”
A moment passed. Finley looked at her and asked, “Would you come out here?”
She went still. She let go of Finley’s hand.
“Thought so.” She looked away, turning on one heel.
Penny closed her hand into a tight fist and, in a rush, said, “I’ve only wanted to tell Maru so far.”
She looked back, eyes wide as she stared.
“But—I know it’d be fine to tell her entire family. Or Jodi. Or Marnie. Or even Mister Mullner, Alex’s grandfather. No one would judge you.”
Finley’s eyes narrowed. “Says the girl who’s lived here her entire life. Why wouldn’t they let it slide for a sweet girl like you?”
“But you only just moved here!” she protested. “You shouldn’t write us all off as a bunch of uncultured bigots because we live out here!”
“Just—” She closed her eyes tight and sighed. “Forget I said anything at all. You don’t deserve me being such an ass to you.”
“Finley, I’m not angry, I just want you to—”
“Forget it,” she said, turning away once more. Despite it, she hesitated. “I’ll still give you the first melon I harvest next season, okay? It won’t mean anything special. I’m not here to find a—girlfriend. Not again. Ever.”
She walked away. Penny watched her go. When she lost sight of her, she went inside. She hung up her coat and set her boots and umbrella on a rubber mat near the door. She thought about going to her room and decided against it in favor of sitting at the table.
For a long time, Penny’s mind was blank. She looked at her hands on the table. The first thought that came to her was that Finley’s hand was far more calloused than she would’ve expected for someone fresh from the city. The next thought that came to her was realizing that Finley had called her a sweet girl. Every word before and after them had been tinged with bitterness, but those two words had been honest in the utmost.
“Finley,” Penny murmured, and replaying the memory took all the words she had for the rest of the night.
Chapter 2: Gossip in Town, Meetings in the Forest
Second chances are a precious commodity, but there are enough people in Pelican Town for Finley to try again with. It helps when natural-born storytellers like Vincent and Elliott are the ones doing their best to get to know her.
Penny is entirely grateful for the second chances, and not only because of the apology she receives. It gives her the opportunity to talk to Finley again, and to get Finley's word that she'll be the first person in town to know what exactly happened to Finley five years ago.
Then again, it also brings the opportunity to have a wonderfully good mood ruined by a meeting between Finley and somebody else.
The next day, Penny was not at all surprised that the topic of most conversations was Finley’s collapse. She had expected it, given who’d seen what had happened. Vincent seemed desperate to repeat the story, even when Penny tried to get them started properly on their lesson. She gave up altogether when Elliott wandered in for something to read and Vincent charged over to him.
“Mister Elliott!” Vincent said as he ran. “Mister Elliott, did you hear what happened yesterday?”
“I was holed up writing yesterday,” Elliott said, swaying slightly to keep his coat out of Vincent’s grabbing reach. “What happened?”
“That weird new farmer passed out right outside!” he replied with an eager grin. “Me and Jas saw!”
Elliott boggled at him. He looked at Penny and asked, “Is he telling the truth? This sounds like one of my old stories.”
She sighed and said, “Finley didn’t pass out. She just—tripped and fell because she was tired.”
“Doctor Harvey was really upset,” Jas said to chime in. “I’ve never ever seen him upset.”
“Goodness, really?” Elliott said, brows rising. “I’ve never heard of someone actually doing that.” He put a hand on his chin. “I wonder if she’d be willing to tell me how that felt. I’d love to research it.”
The image of Finley’s pale, frightened face flashed in front of Penny’s eyes. She bit her lip. After a moment to gather words, she said, “Harvey ordered her to get some rest and she might not want visitors.”
Elliott sighed. “Well, maybe another day. I’ll have to keep relying on books to teach me how to describe these elusive feelings of exhaustion and anxious loneliness.”
Penny had started to reach down to Vincent’s back, but she stopped short to look at Elliott again. She patted Vincent’s back to send him off to the table before turning to Elliott properly.
“Why do you say ‘anxious’ loneliness?” she asked quietly.
“I would say it’s clear as day,” he replied. “Keeping herself sequestered on that farm even though this is one of the most welcoming towns in the world? You can’t tell me there’s a really good reason for her to choose that route instead of relaxing out in the sun or with a good book with good people.”
“I don’t think I know her well enough to say one way or the other,” she said, looking down and away.
He raised a brow at her. He smiled. “What’s your gut tell you?”
Penny said nothing. She thought. After a long while, she murmured, “That she’d do better with people around her.”
Elliott chuckled. “Then it’s a good thing she’s in our little town, right? If you all welcomed a newcomer like me with open arms, it’ll happen again for her.”
His smile was genuine, and warm enough that Penny relaxed and smiled back. She said, “I think you’re right.”
“Excellent!” he said, patting her shoulders. “Do let me know if you come up with any plans to go over there as a welcome party. I’d love to take a break.”
“I will,” she said, and she lifted a hand as they went their separate ways. She did what she could to curtail Vincent’s excessive energy, but was forced to take them outside for their midday break earlier than normal. After they’d finished lunch, Vincent and Jas ran around in a two-person game of tag. Penny sat at the edge of the river to watch them, and she let them cross the bridge to have more space to run after they swore to stay in her line of sight.
She sat and watched, taking off her shoes to dip her toes in the river. The sun had baked the rain out of the ground; a steady breeze had taken away the humidity. Gratitude filled her to be outside on a day so clear, taking up the empty space left by the wind clearing out her mind. Still, when the faint sound of footsteps reached her from a distance, she could not help but to turn.
Finley was walking along the riverbank, coming down from the north. Her gaze was aimed at Clint’s shop, and she did not notice Penny before she went inside. Penny knew she was staring even before Vincent and Jas ran to her.
“She has her pickaxe and sword again!” Vincent said. “Is she gonna go to the mines?”
“But she promised Doctor Harvey she wouldn’t!” Jas protested. “We were all there!”
“We shouldn’t assume,” Penny replied. “It’s not polite to do that to people.”
“I’m gonna go ask!” Vincent said, running off on his own. He ignored Penny shouting for him, running so fast he had no chance to stop himself when the door opened suddenly. He crashed into Finley’s legs; she scrambled to grab the doorframe to keep from falling. The weary, hard expression on her face made Vincent’s eagerness die.
“Everything all right over there?” Clint called from inside the shop.
“Yeah,” Finley replied over her shoulder. “Don’t worry.”
“All right. Give me a couple days, then.”
“Thanks,” she said, and she closed the door after Vincent had stepped back enough to let her outside. Though she started to walk away, Vincent followed close behind.
“Are you gonna go in the mines?” he asked.
She stopped short and looked at him to say, “What?”
“Are you gonna go in the mines?” he repeated.
Finley sighed and started to walk again. Vincent continued to follow, bumping into her legs when she stopped abruptly. He leaned around her legs to see that they were near the bridge and Penny and Jas were in view.
“Miss Penny, I think she’s gonna go in the mines,” Vincent announced.
Finley’s face grew red, but there was only embarrassment in her voice when she said, “I’m not. I just gave Clint my pick.”
“You sold it?” Jas asked.
“I gave it to him for upgrades, not to sell.”
“If you’re not going to the mines, what’re you gonna do?” Vincent asked.
“Something at the beach before going home,” Finley mumbled, and she hurried off with extremely long strides. They all watched her cross the bridge, and Vincent and Jas looked at each other when she’d crossed the other bridge heading for the beach. They looked at Penny, saw the way her mouth was twisted, and looked at each other again to nod.
“Miss Penny, can we go to the beach?” Jas asked.
“Wha—our lesson isn’t done,” Penny said.
“Can we do our lesson on the beach?” Vince asked.
Penny looked at them both. She sighed and said, “It’s not polite to be nosy.”
“We’re not being nosy,” Jas said. “We just want to go do our lesson on the beach.”
“And she was rude first anyway,” Vincent added. “She didn’t say ‘hi’ to you.”
“She didn’t say hello to any of us.”
“But you walked her home yesterday!” he protested.
Penny opened her mouth, but closed it after only a moment to think. She raised a brow and asked, “Do you just want to see her sword?”
“No,” he said, but he blushed all the same.
She sighed, rubbing her brow. “You were doing so well about not trying to skip lessons.”
“But you don’t look like you want to do the lesson either,” Jas said quietly. She looked at her hands when Penny turned to her. “It’s true…and you look kinda sad, too.”
“The beach’ll make you feel better,” Vincent said with a sage nod.
She sighed again, looking at the river to think. After a long while, she said, “If we go to the beach, do you both promise to read your books? You can’t go running off to play or bother Finley.”
“We promise!” they said.
“All right, then let’s get our books and head down there.” She put her shoes back on as Vincent and Jas ran back inside. They returned in seconds with all of their books, and Elliott was close behind.
“What’s this I hear about a lesson on the beach?” he asked.
“Finley just passed by,” Penny said, taking her book when Jas offered it. “She said she’s going to do something on the beach and…well, you see Vincent and Jas.”
“She’s a mystery, it seems,” he chuckled. “Will you allow me to lead the way? This is a bit more engaging than my books.”
“Of course,” Penny replied, and they headed out as a group. It took no time at all to cross the bridge heading south, passing through the band of trees that made the border between the river and the beach. When they stepped onto the white sand, the only sight that greeted them was that of the sea and Willy’s shop on the docks. Once they passed Elliott’s cabin, though, Penny spotted Finley’s backpack, sword, boots, and coat sitting on the sand near the wide inlet from the river.
Finley was in the inlet, shorts just brushing the water, pushing at one of the rotten supports from the broken bridge. The pieces of wood that had made the bridge itself were laid out on the bank near her gear. Penny thought she could see Finley mouthing curses as she pushed.
“My word, are you planning on fixing that?” Elliott said loudly.
Finley jumped; her hands and shoulder slipped on the algae on the support. As she pitched forward, she spat, “Son of a—” and landed face-first in the water.
Even Penny could not stop her snort of laughter, but she put a hand over her mouth as her face burned. Vincent and Jas giggled madly, holding onto her skirt to hide their smiles. Elliott hid his face as well, shoulders shaking. When Finley emerged from the water with a piece of seaweed on her head, they laughed even harder.
Finley spat water as she waded to the bank. As she pulled the seaweed off her head, she grumbled, “I was doing fine staying dry, too.”
“Miss Finley, are you all right?” Elliott called to her.
“I’m fine,” she said, pushing her hair out of her face. “It was into the water.” She spat again, grimacing at the taste of lukewarm seawater. When she spotted Penny, Vincent, and Jas, she hesitated. Her brows came together and rose. “Why’re you all here?”
“We’re going to have our lesson here today,” Jas said, holding up her book. “It’s really nice out.”
She hesitated again, unable to hide her anxiety when she looked away.
“We won’t get in your way,” Penny said. “Is this far enough?”
Finley blinked slowly. She pointed toward her gear. “At least that far away so I don’t splash you.”
“Okay!” Vincent said, and he hurried over to sit near her sword.
Though she grimaced a moment, she said, “All right.” After shaking her head hard and redoing her ponytail, she headed back into the water. She began to push the support from a different spot, gritting her teeth. Even without seeing far under the water, Penny could tell that she had dug her toes into the sand for leverage.
“Hmm,” Elliott purred, watching her back with a hand over his smiling mouth. “So that’s how it is.”
Before Penny could speak, he had turned nearly around to head for his cabin. Frowning a moment, Penny gestured to Jas to lead her to Vincent. He’d taken off his shoes and socks by the time they sat down, and they did the same without hesitation. Penny sank back into the day’s lesson, continuing on in the history lesson from the day before. She barely noticed when Elliott came out of the cabin with a small notebook, a pen, and a folded beach chair.
He set himself up closer to Finley, still past her gear to stay out of range of splashes. Smiling in a way that seemed strange to Penny’s eyes, he opened his notebook, crossed one leg over the other, and started to write in small bursts. There was little left in the lesson, letting Penny watch Elliott for a time. When she still could not parse his expression, she turned to look at Finley.
To her shock, the support had tilted significantly. Finley was heaving the support backward from yet another angle, heels dug into the sand. Her forearms stood out, bunched intensely from the strain. Her grit teeth were bared; her face was wet from sweat. Penny could see her hissing curses too quietly to hear from a distance.
The support shifted sharply, suddenly. Finley’s eyes widened as she tilted backward with the support still in her grasp. Penny went pale, mouth opening. Teeth grit again, Finley repositioned her feet, and, snarling, heaved the support away and down. It hit the water with an almighty splash and Finley stumbled from her own force. She dropped to one knee, sinking down to her chest, but grabbed the support before it could float far.
Keeping a death grip on the wood, she got to her feet and waded in to the waist to get to the other side of the support. Bracing herself against the current, she started to roll the support through the water and up onto the bank. Once it was safely on the sand, she sighed heavily and sat down.
“Wow!” Vincent said. “That was so cool!”
“It’s gonna take me two days to get all these things out of the water,” Finley said, looking over her shoulder at the five remaining supports. “Or three. Even more to actually rebuild it.”
“How come you’re rebuilding it?” Jas asked.
“Willy said bigger fish are over on that side,” she replied. “It’ll be easier to get there and back with a bridge.”
“It’s easier to tear down and rebuild a bridge than wading back and forth?” Elliott asked, his smile broad and impressed. “What did you get up to back in the city?”
Finley looked at him and saw his smile. The muscles in her jaw flexed as she closed her mouth tight. She looked away from him and said, “A lot of working out and reading about different things.”
His brows rose slightly as his smile faded. He looked at Penny. When he saw the way her head was lowered, her anxious eyes still on Finley, he smiled with great cheer.
“Say, Penny,” he said, “didn’t you tell me recently that you needed some help at home?”
Finley turned as Penny stammered, “Wh-what?”
“It was something about moving things, wasn’t it?” he asked. He winked at her. “I think Miss Finley beats Alex for strength. Maybe you could ask her for a favor?”
Without thinking at all, Penny blurted, “Our lights are the problem, though.”
His smile vanished as though he’d been slapped. “Oh.”
They all went silent, Penny and Elliott steadfastly avoiding Finley’s eyes. Finley looked at Vincent and Jas, who looked at her with a plea in their faces. She inhaled deeply, scratched the back of her neck, and cleared her throat.
“Um,” she said. “I was actually an electrician. Back in the city, I mean.”
Penny and Elliott boggled at her.
“What does an electrician do?” Vincent asked.
“I did a lot of work at a Joja warehouse and office to take care of all of their electrical equipment,” she said. Because he only stared, she added, “Like making sure the machines and lights worked, and fixing things if they broke.”
“So you could fix a heater?” Jas asked.
“It’d depend on the heater, but for the most part, yeah.”
“Electricians aren’t bridge-builders, are they?” Vincent asked.
“Well…no, but I went and asked Robin a million questions earlier. She said it wouldn’t be too hard if I had some building experience, and I was the handy-woman on campus for most of college anyhow.”
Elliott hid a giggling laugh in his hand before saying, “You’re a good old-fashioned Jack of all trades. We’ve needed one of those for a while now.”
Finley looked at him again, suspicion already in her eyes, but his changed smile made the suspicion drain away. She said nothing, looking at the support in front of her for a time. When the moment passed, she stood up to head for the water. She stopped abruptly, inhaled deeply, and sighed.
“If,” she said, failing miserably at casualness, “if people need something done…I can check the bulletin board. Y’know, at Pierre’s.” She glanced at them, shrugging her shoulders with an uncertain smile.
“We’ll let everyone know,” Penny said, smiling back.
Finley nodded and headed into the water to start work on the next support. They all settled in as well, reading, writing, and glancing at Finley every so often. As time passed, it was clear that she had to work harder and harder to make progress. She slipped repeatedly, both in the muddy silt and on algae, and the support was refusing to budge.
When the afternoon rolled in and Vincent and Jas started to read on their own, Penny took the opportunity to look away from them to watch Finley. To her surprise, Finley had stopped entirely. She had put her fists and forehead on the support, breathing hard.
Penny watched, transfixed, as Finley stared into the middle distance and swallowed. She could see Finley say, “Just one more,” in silence. After another few seconds, Finley lifted her head, took a massive breath, and pushed her sleeves up. She drove her shoulder into the support, arms braced and muscles bunched as she pushed.
The support shifted; Finley did not stop pushing. It tilted; she bowed her head to focus. Then, abruptly, the support gave way. Finley, startled, grabbed the support as it went down and was flipped right over for her trouble. As she spun over, she yelped, “Son of a—” and splashed down some distance from the support. The support turned and picked up speed in the current before she could sit up and catch it. When she did manage to sit up, she was sent back down by the support smashing against her face.
“Finley?” Penny called, throat tightening. Elliott started to stand, but Finley sat upright once the support passed over her. She grabbed it, letting it drag her back onto her feet before rolling it out of the water and onto the bank in a single rush. Scowling, putting a hand over her swollen left eye, she kicked the support with her heel.
“Stupid damn thing,” she grumbled.
Vincent and Jas rushed over, both pale. They stopped at a slight distance, though, and Jas asked, “Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” Finley replied, keeping a hand over her eye. “I’m gonna have a monster bruise, though.”
“Do you need to see Doctor Harvey?” Vincent asked.
She turned to look at them properly. When she saw the fright in their eyes, she smiled and said, “It’s okay. Besides, he’ll get mad at me if I show up with a bruise on my face after the lecture he gave me yesterday. I’ll be fine, don’t worry.” Her stomach growled so loudly that Vincent and Jas jumped from surprise.
“I’ll be fine after I eat, anyway,” Finley sighed.
“Did you need to buy something?” Penny asked.
“No, for once I have food in my bag,” she replied, stepping around Vincent and Jas to head for her gear. Before she picked anything up, she looked to Elliott and asked, “D’you mind if I leave all that to dry out? I need the wood and I can’t chop it up like this.”
“I’ve no reason to object,” he said with a smile.
“Elliott. Thanks again.” She gathered her gear, putting on nothing but her sword, and made her way to the docks with her eye already swelling shut. She sat, legs hanging over the water, and rummaged in her backpack for a wrapped lunch. Her back was to them as she ate; none of them spoke or called to her. After several awkward moments of silence, they returned to their reading and writing.
Elliott was the first to get up again when the sunlight weakened. He bid them goodbye quietly and headed into his cabin. Penny moved next, getting them all into their shoes to leave. She stopped to look back. Finley was still sitting on the dock, leaning back on her hands as the breeze picked up. Penny turned around. She hesitated. She swallowed slowly.
“Please wait here a minute,” she said to Vincent and Jas, and she headed for the docks. The boards creaked under her feet, catching Finley’s attention to make her turn. The sight of her closed eye and already bruising cheek made Penny’s eyes widen.
“Oh goodness,” Penny said quietly.
“Wow, that bad?” Finley asked with a tiny, crooked grin.
“Well,” Penny said, resisting the urge to cover her own mouth, “it—yes.” She cleared her throat. “I’m going to take Vincent and Jas home, but if you’d like a cold-pack for your eye, you’re…you’re more than welcome to come to my house in a little while.”
Finley stared. She looked down, rubbed the back of her neck, and looked up again to say, “O-okay. Um. Thank you.”
Penny smiled at her, lifting one hand in a small wave as she turned and walked away. She led Vincent and Jas back into town, heading west once they’d crossed the bridge. Vincent was dropped off first, Penny taking his book to return. He waved at them with both hands as they went on, going into his house soon enough. Penny took Jas’ book as well, letting Jas hold her hand as they followed the river to Cindersap.
“Miss Penny?” Jas said as the ranch came into view.
“Do you think people were mean to Miss Finley before?”
She looked at Jas, finding her eyes on her. “Do you mean here in town?”
Jas shook her head. “Where she lived before. Aunt Marnie told me sometimes animals act kinda mean or scared if they were treated bad before, but they do better when people are nice. Miss Finley did better when all of us were nice today, but she was rude before, so…do you think people were mean?”
Penny brought them to a stop. Smiling, she crouched down to meet Jas’ eyes and said, “One of my favorite words is ‘astute.’ It means someone is very clever and they’re very good at figuring things out. You’re a very astute little girl, Jas.”
Though Jas started to smile at the praise, it faltered when understanding followed. “Oh.”
“But,” Penny said, “I think you’re right about how to help. We just need to give her time and make her feel welcome.”
“So be nice like with animals?”
She giggled. “Not exactly like with animals, but yes. We need to give her a chance to settle. It’s only been about a week.”
Jas nodded firmly. “And I’ll tell Vincent to be nice, too.”
“Thank you, Jas. I know Finley will appreciate it.”
She finally smiled then, and the smile remained through her going inside. Penny made her way back into town, returning the books as dusk sank into the valley. A cooler breeze started to blow across the river, pushing her dress against her legs as she walked home.
The sound of footsteps on her left as she passed Lewis’ house made her jump and turn. Finley, looking as startled as she felt, had stopped on the other side of the house with her hands raised. The bruise on her face had managed to get even worse since last Penny had seen it.
“Sorry,” said Finley.
“It’s okay,” Penny said in a weak laugh. “You’re really quiet even though you’re carrying so much stuff.”
“I’m not carrying much today, but…um. I try to stay quiet.”
“You’re fine,” Penny said. “But please come in and I’ll get the cold-pack.” As Finley followed her to the door, she said, “Are you okay? That looks really bad.”
“It’s okay,” Finley chuckled. “It’s just a bad black eye.”
Penny bit the inside of her cheek and sighed, but opened the door to head inside. She turned on the main light before heading to the fridge. She gathered the cold-pack and a towel to wrap it in, turning around to offer it. The sight of Finley staring at the light, head tilted to keep her left eye angled away from the light, made her go still.
“What’re you doing?” she asked.
Finley tilted her head back, pointed at the light, and asked, “Is a different light not working?”
“O-oh. It’s the light for our table.”
Finley looked around, spotted the table, and walked over to it. She took off her backpack before setting one knee on a bench seat and leaning to turn the light on. She waited, frowned, and flipped the switch a few times slowly. Her sigh was noisy when she turned the light off one last time.
“Let me guess,” Finley said. “This is a brand new lightbulb?”
“It is,” Penny replied. “We checked it in the lamp in my room and it works fine.”
“Gotta love it when something up and dies like that,” Finley said with a rueful smile. She stood up, crossing her arms as she thought. “I’d have to bring my tools over, but I think I know what’s wrong. It’s a quick fix, so there wouldn’t be any charge.”
“Yeah.” She smiled properly. “I don’t have a reason to pad the time for a work order and I wouldn’t be sitting around doing nothing.”
“Did you really do that?”
Her cheeks flushed. Sheepish, quiet, she said, “Only on jobs for Joja executives.”
Penny sputtered on a giggle before putting a hand over her mouth. Because Finley looked startled and confused, she said, “You should tell Pierre. He’d love to hear about anyone taking money from Joja.”
“Oh.” She took the wrapped cold-pack when Penny offered it, wincing when she set it over her eye. When Penny sat on one bench and gestured to the other, she hesitated. She thought, looked down, and carefully took off her sword with her free hand. She sat down opposite Penny, gaze locked on the table.
“So,” she said slowly, “no one here likes Joja?”
“A lot of people shop there,” Penny replied. “They say they have better prices than Pierre, but that’s really not true.” She smiled, unable to keep weariness from it. “I pay attention to the price more than most people here.”
Finley looked up. Their gazes met, but neither looked away for a while. Eventually, Finley smiled.
“I’d never go into another Joja-owned building my whole life if I could,” she said. “I can’t tell you how awful most executives were.”
“Why did you work for Joja so often?”
“They paid the most,” Finley replied. “And for some reason, they always called me first if there was a problem.” She thought. “Well. Some reason. The one time they called someone cheaper, the air conditioning in their office building got screwed up. In the middle of summer. Some of the non-executive employees actually took me out to a bar when that was all done.”
“Oh,” Penny said quietly. “Do you drink?”
“Not for the last five years, no. I never really liked to in the first place.” She chuckled. “The smell of beer makes me gag now, so the saloon is a little hard in the evening.”
Penny took a deep, easy breath as the muscles in her back relaxed. “I know what you mean. I can’t imagine getting drunk.”
“It’s not fun at all.” Her smile was weary with nostalgia when she added, “Never worth a hangover, either.”
“Can I ask why you’d go to a bar, then?”
“It was something to do And they wound up being my friends after a while, so it was where we went.” She cleared her throat and, in a very quiet mumble, said, “Girlfriend, too.”
Penny laughed with kindness. “You couldn’t get anyone to be your workout buddy?”
Finley went quiet and finally looked down. “I didn’t work out like I do now until about five years ago. We were young, so drinking at a bar was the only thing we could think to do.” She hummed faint laughter. “We didn’t live somewhere with safe roads or a river or a forest that wasn’t fifty miles away.”
“We have more to offer in the way of nice surroundings than the city,” Penny said. “That much I’m confident in.”
“You’re not wrong. I’m glad I moved out here.”
Penny could not stop her brows from rising out of surprise. Her eyes widened when Finley set the cold-pack on the table and looked up at her.
“About yesterday,” Finley murmured. “I finally had a good night of sleep and I thought about it a lot this morning. I know I was a jerk. I’m sorry.”
Her mouth opened. She blinked several times. “Finley, it’s all right. I was never upset.”
“Still,” Finley mumbled, rubbing the left side of her jaw to avoid the bruise. “I’m sorry for being a jerk. And saying what I did about people here. I just get really nervous about coming out again after what—”
The lock on the door turned back; Finley and Penny both jumped. The door opened and Pam, eyes closed as she rubbed the back of her head, walked inside.
“Penny?” she said. “You home?”
“I am, Mom. Did you want dinner at home tonight?”
“Nah, I just wanted to swing by and check on you before I headed to Gus’.”
Penny resisted the urge to sigh as Pam opened her eyes. She started to gesture to Finley, but her words were driven down her throat when Pam grabbed her wrist and heaved her off the bench.
Pam pushed her onto the couch, snatched the frying pan Penny had left in the sink, and spun to brandish it at Finley. Though she had gone white as a sheet, Finley had grabbed her sword and held it in both hands, one on the hilt and the other on the scabbard to keep the blade sheathed.
“Who the hell are you and what d’you think you’re doing in my house with a weapon?” Pam bellowed. “If you threatened my Penny, I swear I’m gonna—”
“Mom, no!” Penny said, grabbing Pam’s elbow. “This is Finley, the new farmer! She has a sword for going in the mines, she didn’t threaten me!”
Pam looked at her. She lowered the pan a few inches. “The farmer girl?”
“Why didn’t you say that at the get-go?” Pam asked, lowering the pan completely.
“Because you didn’t give me a chance!”
Finley slowly tilted to one side, lowering her sword.
Pam saw her terrified eyes and snorted with laughter. “Calm down, kid. I’m not really gonna hit you.”
“Oh,” Finley said in a breaking croak.
Pam snorted again, but raised a brow at the sight of her face. “How’d you get a shiner like that?” She looked at Penny and asked, “Did you whack her with the pan before I got here?”
Penny blushed dark red and hissed, “Mom!”
“Um,” Finley said, hastily putting her sword down. “N-no, Penny didn’t do anything. I got hit in the face by a bit of the bridge while I was working on it.”
“‘A bit of the bridge’?”
“The one at the beach,” Penny said when Finley hesitated. “She’s repairing it.”
“Seriously?” said Pam. “Damn, kid, that’s ambitious.” She laughed and grinned. “I don’t remember your old man being that ambitious when he was around here! Good on you, taking after Old Man Amundsen and your old lady!”
Finley stared at her. “You met my mother here?”
“Yeah, just once,” Pam said, putting the pan back in the sink. “I think your dad brought her here to meet Old Man Amundsen.”
“Sounds like Dad,” Finley said with a small smile.
“Your old man was one hell of a nerd,” Pam laughed, fondness in her grin. “I still don’t get how he hooked up with that spitfire of a woman.” She patted Penny’s back as she started for the door, but made a detour to pat Finley’s shoulder.
“You’re welcome to visit, kid,” she said. “Just don’t keep Penny up all hours chatting.”
“N-no, ma’am,” Finley said.
“Don’t call me ‘ma’am,” Pam said, going to the door. “Makes me feel old.” She opened the door, said, “I’ll be back late,” and left without locking the door behind her.
For a time, Penny and Finley both stared at the door. When they looked at each other, Finley cleared her throat in an attempt to dislodge the awkwardness stuck there. She drummed her fingers once on the table.
“I didn’t know my mother ever met anyone in Pelican Town,” she said.
“Didn’t she tell you stories about traveling here?”
“Well,” Finley said, “my parents got divorced when I was really little, so I didn’t hear a lot of stories from her. Or not ones about when her and Dad were together.”
Penny froze. Finley saw and smiled, holding up her hands.
“It wasn’t bad,” she said. “My mother moves around a lot and she didn’t want to drag me all over the world and not have a stable life.”
“‘All over the world’?” Penny echoed. “What does your mother do?”
Her easy smile faded as her face turned red. She lowered her hands to her lap as her shoulders rose. “Uh. W-well.” She cleared her throat. “She…uh. She’s…from…a long line of…soldiers of fortune.”
Penny’s jaw plummeted. “Your mother is a mercenary?”
Finley’s blush went to the tips of her ears. “Um. Yes. B-but she doesn’t take contracts from any country fighting against the Ferngill Republic! She doesn’t want to risk me or my dad getting hurt in any way!”
Penny could only continue to stare, jaw still hanging.
“There’s not a lot of people out here who’d go to war for money, huh?” Finley said with a faint, anxious laugh. “Or not as…uh. Enthusiastically as she does.”
“Vincent’s father is a soldier,” Penny said, “but…no, I don’t think anyone here or anyone who’s ever lived here has been a mercenary.” She stopped with a sudden thought. “Did she teach you how to sword-fight?”
“How’d you guess?” Finley said with another anxious laugh.
“But I thought she wasn’t around when you were young.”
“She wasn’t. But…she came back five years ago.”
Penny watched her look down. She leaned and reached out, keeping hesitance from her arm, and set her hand on Finley’s with as much gentleness as she could.
“What happened five years ago?” she asked, voice gentle as her touch.
Finley said nothing. She curled her hand closed and pulled it out from beneath Penny’s. Eyes still on the table, she said, “I should go.”
She wanted to protest, wanted to catch her hand again. When she saw that there was no fear in Finley’s eyes, only a vast hollowness, it all faded. She brought her hand back, straightening and stepping back as Finley stood. Nothing was left to her but watching Finley pull her gear back on; she could not think to put the cold-pack away. She followed Finley to the door, intent on locking it behind her, but Finley stopped suddenly in the open doorway.
“Penny,” she murmured, “I know you’re curious. But this is the first place in five years I’ve been able to not think about it every single day. I promise I’ll tell you what happened, so can you hold off on asking me for a little while?” She turned enough to show that she was smiling slightly, finally without awkwardness. “I’ll tell you first. Just let me not think about for a little bit longer, okay?”
“All right,” Penny said quietly. She hesitated when Finley started to turn, but reached out to touch her hand. “You really mean you’ll tell me first?”
“Yeah. I promise.”
“All right,” she repeated. She brought her hand back and said, “Have a good night, Finley.”
“You too,” Finley replied, and she left with another smile and a quick wave. Penny watched her go, seeing how she rolled her left shoulder idly. She found herself smiling as she went back inside to make herself dinner.
Where Vincent had been desperate to repeat the story of his first encounter with Finley, Elliott absolutely relished speaking of her escapades at the beach. Based on Pam’s report the next morning, he’d drawn all of the regulars over with his storytelling. There had been more than one massive bout of laughter at Finley’s unknowing expense.
“You should’ve seen it,” Pam chuckled. “Even Shane laughed, and I don’t think he was drunk when he did.”
Penny sighed, going through the cabinets and the fridge. As she worked on her grocery list, she said, “I hope Elliott didn’t make her sound like a fool. Anyone could’ve fallen with how grimy that wood was.”
“Nah, he made her sound pretty tough.” Grinning, she added, “I made her sound like a nerd.”
Pam laughed. “Only a little! I couldn’t help it with how jumpy she was! Seriously, though, don’t worry about it. It’s better for her to not seem scary, right?”
“It sure made her look good to your buddy Sam.” She thought. “That artist girl had a pretty wistful look on her face, now that I think of it.”
“Leah? The woman by the river?”
“That’s the one.”
“She had a wistful look?”
“Yep. Didn’t know she swung that way, but I’m not one to judge.” She snickered before drinking the rest of her coffee. “What a pair, though. A willowy artist and a buff klutz, can you imagine it?”
Penny had gone still, the tip of her pencil hovering over the list. She smiled and exhaled laughter. “That’d be interesting to see.”
“It’d be a nice change-up for our little town,” Pam said, standing from the table. She rinsed her coffee mug out and left it upside down in the sink. Rubbing Penny’s head gently, she said, “I’m off to Joja’s. See if I can’t make ‘em move their asses on fixing the bus stop.”
“Okay,” Penny said. “Will I see you for dinner?”
“I think so, yeah. Make it tasty, all right?”
“All right,” she giggled, and she smiled when Pam turned and left. Though she managed to get through writing the rest of her list, she had to crouch down because her legs were shaking. She hid her massive smile with one hand, hanging onto the counter with the other. She rushed through getting dressed, tucking her list and her wallet into the pockets of her jeans before hurrying out of the trailer. Pierre’s was bypassed; her goal was the clinic. Maru looked away from the filing shelves when she came inside.
“What’re you all giggly about?” Maru said with a smile. “I don’t think I’ve seen you so happy in a while.”
“My mom told me that Leah looked interested in Finley after Elliott talked about her at the saloon!”
Maru stared a moment. “Well…Sebastian said something similar about Sam this morning, but why does that make you happy?”
“Because she said she wasn’t one to judge either of them!” Penny said. “She’s okay with it!”
Maru stared again. She snorted with laughter before starting to giggle. “Penny, you were the one who always thought she’d be fine with it!”
“I know, but still!” She laughed as Maru continued to giggle, rubbing her flushed cheeks to try to cool them. Relief was in her smile when they both calmed down, and she giggled one last time when Maru reached over the counter to ruffle her hair mightily.
“Good,” said Maru. “That’ll be a weight off your mind when you find a nice girl to flirt with.”
Her blush flared again, dark and aching. “I—to what?”
Maru grinned. “I guess it’ll have to be when a nice girl flirts with you. I can’t really see you flirting, honestly. No offense.”
“None taken,” Penny said, rubbing her cheeks even harder.
“Think it’ll happen?”
“Someone flirting with me?”
“Come on, that’s a given. I mean Leah and Finley.”
“Oh,” Penny said, blush finally fading. She thought. “Well…maybe? They both seem to really enjoy nature.” She thought further. “And Finley’s an artist, too. She said she can play guitar.”
“Think we should do a little matchmaking?” Maru asked, grinning and waggling her eyebrows.
“I don’t know…I think Finley wants to settle and be on her own for a while.”
“Fair. My mom said the farm’s more like a forest nowadays.” She glanced over her shoulder toward the door leading to Harvey’s office. “Do you want to chat once I get off work?”
“Absolutely. At the bench?”
“If I don’t find you lost in a book by the river,” Maru replied with a wink. She waved as Penny left, and Penny went through her shopping with a smile on her face. Pam was not at the trailer when she returned with groceries, but it did not dampen her mood. She put everything away, found the book she had started recently, and went back outside.
As she locked the door, she heard running footsteps. Penny turned in time to see Finley rush by at a sprint, hanging onto the straps of her bag with a death grip and her face pale once again. She was gone, heading for the beach, before Penny could think to call to her. After a moment, Penny bit her lip to smother a giggle.
“I bet Harvey saw her,” she said to herself. She headed for the large three near the graveyard after tucking her key into her pocket, starting to read before she’d sat down. There was the faintest breeze in the air, slipping through the leaves above. Without thinking, Penny adjusted her grip on the book to keep the pages from rustling. Deaf to the breeze, deaf to the soft burble of the river, she read and sank into her book.
Any movement she made from then was idle and unconscious. Every so often, she would have to tuck hair behind her ears, and she tended to twine her hair around her fingers before doing so. She changed her position when her legs grew tired. Settling in the roots of the tree proved the most comfortable, as it always did. Penny relaxed with her legs pulled up and her book resting on her thighs.
It was the easiest thing in the world to lose track of time and the daylight. There was no need to listen to her stomach when it rumbled. In the back of her mind, she remembered that she hadn’t been able to afford a lunch for herself that day. Even when it made her grow tired in the warmth of the day, she did not mind. Her eyes grew unfocused and began to flutter closed as the sun passed noon and the breeze faded. She let her head tilt back against the tree, shifting slightly in an attempt to find a position to keep reading. With a few more blinks, her eyes closed and she fell asleep.
An hour passed, and then another. No one passed close enough to notice and she slept soundly. At one point, she woke halfway through a dream without knowing she was awake. Head tilted, she opened one eye slightly to look for the cat that had been walking around in the air above her knees.
For some reason, she saw Finley at the hedge blocking the graveyard from view. She could not make out the expression on Finley’s face at all. Because Finley did not move, did not speak, Penny decided she was a misplaced statue and closed her eyes again. She was gone in seconds, never noticing how Finley took a step forward and opened her mouth. She did not see what Finley did before making a hasty retreat.
When she woke again, it was to Maru shaking her shoulder. She jumped, looking around with a bleary gaze. She spotted Maru and rubbed her face hard.
“Oh no,” she said. “I’m sorry, have you been waiting for me?”
“It’s okay!” Maru laughed. “It looked like you needed a nap before.”
“What time is it?”
“A little before five.”
She groaned, rubbing her face even harder. “Maru, I’m so sorry, I need to go home and cook dinner. I promised my mom I would.”
“We can chat tomorrow, don’t worry. Go get—” She stopped short. “Hey, where’d those come from?”
Penny looked down when Maru pointed, finding a few dandelions in the crease of her book. She stared. She looked in every direction she could and found no one but Maru. Her gaze snapped down to the dandelions.
“Did you see anyone when you came over?” she asked. “Vincent or Jas? Or—Sam even?”
“I didn’t see anyone,” Maru replied. She smiled. “I think you’ve got a secret admirer.”
She froze up. She looked at Maru, and then at the dandelions. Very quietly, she said, “O-oh. Um.”
“Maybe Leah actually likes the quiet bookish girls,” Maru said, grinning.
Her cheeks burned. “Uh.”
“Get home and wonder about your admirer already!” Maru laughed. “And don’t burn your dinner!”
Penny swallowed hard, took the dandelions carefully in hand, and closed her book as she stood. She gave Maru a quick hug before hurrying off for home. Pam had not returned by the time she arrived, giving her time to take a glass from a cabinet and fill it partway with water. She took it to her room to set on her desk. The dandelions were place in the glass, but she did not dwell.
Dinner was planned as spaghetti with crumbled beef, and she somehow managed to avoid overcooking anything. It took a moment for her to realize when Pam had come home, only looking up when Pam commented on how good everything smelled. Dazed, Penny ate dinner without tasting her food or hearing Pam’s grumbling about Joja.
“Mom?” she said once they’d finished eating.
“I know it’s my turn for dishes, but…could you do them tonight? I’m really exhausted.”
“Sure, kiddo, don’t worry. You’re a little pale, actually.”
“Thank you,” Penny said, and she stood up to hug Pam good night. She went to her room, twisting her fingers on the way. Still dazed, she fumbled through getting undressed and putting on her pajamas. After turning her light off, she sat in bed and leaned against the wall. She looked at the dandelions in the dark. Before her eyes could fully adjust, she lay down to sleep fitfully.
Several days passed without much focused through on Penny’s part. She managed to concentrate during lessons, and Vincent and Jas were able to do the same without Finley coming into the museum. When next Friday arrived, though, they discovered new minerals and another uncut gemstone sitting on the shelves. Penny brought Vincent and Jas over to let them read the neatly written labels and stare longingly at the brilliant stones.
“Did Miss Finley go in the mines again?” Jas asked.
“She must have,” Penny said, unable to look away from a piece of aquamarine. “She has remarkable eyes if she can find stones like this.”
“Miss Penny, do you like any of these rocks?” Vincent asked.
“I think they’re lovely, but my favorite kind of gem is an emerald.”
His eyes lit up. “D’you want me to go get one for you? I can go in the mines, too!”
She boggled before laughing kindly. “Emeralds are precious stones. You shouldn’t give one to me for a present, and you really shouldn’t go into the mines. Finley needs a sword even though she’s really strong.”
He opened his mouth to protest, thought, and closed his mouth to pout. He crossed his arms to think harder, and then asked, “Can I ask Finley to get an emerald?”
Penny laughed again. “She’s selling what she finds, remember?”
“Shoot,” Vincent grumbled.
“You can go into the mines once you’re older and stronger like Sam,” said Penny, rubbing his head. “Come on now, we need to get started.”
Vincent and Jas nodded firmly and followed her back to their table. They paid close attention to her lesson on volcanoes, both of them asking politely to see her book and the pictures in it. Once their midday lunch break was done, they read their assignments with admirable diligence.
A cool breeze met them when they left the museum, but was pleasant in the warm afternoon. Vincent charged off on his own when he spotted Sam practicing on his skateboard outside their house. Sam smirked when Vincent leapt at him, catching him to lift him up and onto his shoulders. Careful, slow, he started to push them along on the skateboard.
“Thanks for the little man,” Sam said to Penny. “No trouble today, right?”
“Not at all,” said Penny. “But don’t let him talk you into going to the mines.”
Sam laughed and tilted his head back. “Getting ideas from our buff lady friend, huh?”
“I can go in the mines, too!”
He reached up to give Vincent a noogie. “In ten years, sure. Chill out for now.”
“Fine,” Vincent said, pouting again. Still, he smiled while he and Sam waved at Penny and Jas, who headed onward toward Cindersap. Marnie, herding cows back into the barn with an eye on the growing clouds, waved as they approached.
“Can you give me a hand?” Marnie asked, eyes on Jas. Once Jas had nodded, Penny picked her up to pass to Marnie over the fence. To Penny, Marnie said, “Thank you. I’ll bring your fee over tomorrow.”
“But it’s not due until Monday.”
“I got a bit of extra business today,” Marnie replied. “And Jas says you should get something nice, so I’d like to share.” Because both Jas and Penny blushed, she laughed. “It’s fine. But I’d head home before it starts raining. It’ll be here soon, based on the sheep.”
“All right,” Penny said. Before Marnie could go far, she asked, “What business did you get?”
“Believe it or not, that odd farmer girl had Robin build a coop. She bought half a dozen chickens and some hay.”
Penny could not keep her jaw from dropping, but she quickly put a hand over her mouth. Without thinking, she said, “How does she have so much money?”
“No clue,” Marnie chuckled. “But she’s welcome to spend it here.” She set Jas on her feet, both of them waving once again before hurrying to herd animals inside. Penny turned to leave, stopping short when an even cooler breeze came in over the river. She started toward the river, intent on going back into town. The sight of Leah rounding the corner of her cottage made her stop short. Leah spotted her and smiled, lifting a hand.
“Hey there, Penny!” she said, jogging over. “I feel like I haven’t seen you in a while.”
“We probably miss each other when I bring Jas back,” Penny replied, tucking hair behind one ear. “How’ve you been?”
“Pretty good, pretty good. Trying to catch someone’s attention, but that’s for later. I wanted to tell you something. You were napping at the tree a few days ago, right?”
Penny froze. “Um. Y-yes, I was.”
“Did you wake up with anything weird on you? I thought I saw that girl Abigail skulking around in the graveyard and I was worried she’d leave something on your book.”
“Oh.” She blinked several times. “No, it wasn’t like that. I had dandelions on my book.”
“Good!” Leah said with a smile. “No one should be mean to you. Now—may I ask you something?”
“Of course, what is it?”
“Since you’ve talked to her the most, I feel like you know her best so far, so I wanted to get your opinion. Do you think our good Miss Fin is into women?”
Her brows rose. “Well…that’s not something we’ve really talked about.”
Leah snapped her fingers. “Damn. I was hoping it’d be easier than having to go through small talk.” She heaved a sigh, but smiled as she did. “Pretty sure she’d be worth going through it again, though.”
It was easy to smile back as she asked, “Have you met her yet?”
“No, which is getting annoying after hearing all these stories. Did she really tear down that bridge?”
“Yes, but it wasn’t easy for her to do.”
“Really?” Leah laughed. “According to Sam, Vincent saw her rip the supports out of the dirt.”
Penny sighed, putting both hands over her face. “That would be an embellishment.”
She laughed again. “I figured. What do you think, could she be home by now?”
“Maybe, but I honestly don’t know how she schedules herself. She might be in the mines, honestly.” She sighed. “I hope she hasn’t been in there all day…it’ll be terrible to walk home in the rain.”
Leah glanced at the sky, sniffing once quickly. “We’ve all got a little time.” She hummed as she thought, frowning slightly. “Maybe I’ll try catching her in the morning.”
A reply hadn’t so much as come up in Penny’s mind before her attention was caught by the sound of breaking wood. Though she and Leah both stepped away from the nearest bunch of trees, nothing toppled. Wood broke again, the sound handing in the leaves, followed shortly by the thwok of an axe hitting a tree. Five more blows gave them enough time to see which tree was shaking from the hits, and they settled in to wait.
Abruptly, the sound of the axe stopped. A much fainter sound of breaking wood rose up then, indicative of the wood being twisted. Then, just as abruptly as the axe had stopped, the wood snapped loudly and Finley pitched sideways out of the low pine branches she’d been hidden in. Though she made a strangled noise, she dropped the broken branch in her hands to tumble into a cartwheel. She landed safely on her feet, bafflement in her face.
“How’d that work out?” she muttered to herself.
“What were you in the city?” Leah asked, smiling. “A professional acrobat?”
Finley jumped and turned. When she spotted Leah, a blush rose on her face. She said, “Well, n-no, I was just an electrician. I just—I didn’t actually think I’d manage to stick that.” She turned further, saw Penny, and relaxed. She cleared her throat and lifted a hand, saying, “Hi again, Penny. And…I don’t know your friend’s name yet.”
Leah’s amused smile did not falter as she crossed the distance between them and offered a hand. She said, “I’m Leah. I live in the cottage by the river.”
Finley leaned slightly to look past her before taking her hand. With humor in her voice, she said, “I’m the weird farmer up the way.”
“The one who rips up bridge supports?”
“The—wait, who said I ripped them up?”
“Vincent,” Penny said. “I think he’s just been waiting for someone he could tell tall tales about.”
Finley sighed as she let Leah’s hand go. “I didn’t do that. I fell, mostly.”
“Yeah, but you actually tore the whole thing down and you’re rebuilding it,” said Leah. “That’s pretty impressive for one person, let alone someone who’s not our town’s fantastic carpenter.”
For a few seconds, Finley stood there looking gently confused. Because Leah’s smile remained strong, the confusion vanished for surprise so obvious that Penny had to bite her lip to avoid laughing.
“Uh,” Finley said. “Thank you.” She rubbed the back of her neck, starting to blush. “We should all get home. I don’t want to chop wood much longer.”
“I was going to head to Gus’ place for dinner,” Leah said. “I wouldn’t mind a little company.”
Finley froze. Penny saw anxiety pulling her shoulders into stiffness and stepped forward to say, “Would you two mind me walking along? I need to get home, too.”
“I don’t mind,” Leah said. “Fin?”
“Um. N-no, I don’t mind.” She glanced back at the broken branch on the ground, shook her head, and followed Penny and Leah away. She relaxed again when Penny gave her a quick smile when Leah was not looking.
“Leah, did you know that Finley can play guitar?” Penny asked.
“Just simple songs,” Finley said. “So you can’t ask me to play long rock ballads.”
“I think simple is better for guitar,” Leah replied. “Especially acoustic. Do you think I could come by one day for a song?”
“Sure. Maybe not soon, I’m still really busy.”
“I’m patient,” Leah said with a chuckle. “It’ll give me time to figure out a request.”
The smile on Finley’s face was small, but it was without anxiety. It was an easy smile, speaking of comfort. Penny smiled to see it, tuning out their conversation as they walked through town. She left them at the saloon, hurrying home when the rain finally started.
Pam was nowhere to be found, and so she made dinner for herself. She brought her plate to the table and, without thinking, reached to turn the light on. It did nothing, and she sighed and flipped the switch off.
“I keep forgetting to ask,” she mumbled. She drummed her fingers on the table, thinking of how to bring the light up to Finley. Her words fell to the wayside when she thought of Finley’s smile.
There was no smile on Penny’s face when she thought of how Leah had put a hand on Finley’s arm with infinite casualness. When she started to eat, half of her was startled by how unpleasant her food tasted. The other half didn’t care in the slightest, and it was that part of her that drove her to bed without cleaning up.
Chapter 3: To Each Their Own Troubles
It was easy to get used to the expected in Pelican Town, and it was why it's so easy to be confounded by most everything Finley did. Whether it was her visits, the massive welcome she showed on the farm, or even the remarkable things she shared, Penny is never entirely prepared for her. It was a pleasant unpreparedness, though, and she wouldn't give it up for the sake of the expected.
She wouldn't give it up, but she doesn't bring herself to push for anything beyond that. Especially not after the answer Finley gives to a very simple, very polite question Jas asks her one afternoon.
Penny’s tongue was fuzzy with foul sleep and the lingering aftertaste of her bad dinner when she woke the next morning. Her head was no better, as it took her a full fifteen seconds to realize she’d been woken by the sound of someone knocking on the front door. When the realization came, she lay there staring at the wall with her brows low and her mouth open in a vague, silent question.
Another knock bounced through the trailer, and it brought with it angry, malformed grumbling. Ice filled Penny’s spine and drove all grogginess out of her limbs. Perfectly silent, she got out of bed, grabbed a change of clothes, her coat, and her keys, and bolted for the door. After snatching her sandals, she rushed outside and blindly pushed the person at the door several feet away. She hurried back to lock the door as quietly as possible before putting on her sandals.
“Maru, I don’t care what gossip Sebastian has about last night!” she hissed, focused on pulling on her coat. “You can’t come by this early on a Saturday! You know how my mom is with a hangover!”
She looked up then, fully expecting to see Maru standing by with shame in her face. Because she found herself face-to-face with Finley, looking equal measures startled and confused, she froze. Her face burned.
“Um,” Finley said. “I just—thought I’d come by to fix your light. You seem like an early riser, so…uh.” She looked Penny up and down. “Are you in your pajamas?”
Penny’s eyes began to burn as well. She tried to hide her clothes behind her back without Finley noticing. Finley spotted it all the same, looking at Penny with raised brows. Before Penny could speak or retreat, Finley took a quick breath and spoke first.
“Do you like pancakes?” she asked.
“What?” Penny replied.
“I got sick of cold spaghetti for breakfast,” said Finley, “so I asked Gus to show me how to make pancakes. Do you like pancakes?”
“Would you like to come to my place for breakfast? We can come back here later for the light.”
“Yes please,” Penny said, blurting it out even as her face burned hotter.
“Okay,” Finley said, and she moved her tool bag to her left hand to offer her right arm to Penny. Penny took it without thinking, gratitude filling her chest at the way Finley matched her quick pace without speaking. Only when they were well down the road to the farm, wholly out of anyone’s sight with morning mist around them, did Penny finally slow down.
“Sorry,” she said quietly. “For pushing you earlier.”
“You’re good,” Finley said, voice mild and easy. She smiled and added, “I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t be able to knock me down anyway.”
“Still,” she said, hands tightening on Finley’s arm. Her words died when she felt the fabric of Finley’s coat under her fingers, soft and warm from her body heat. Looking at her hands for the first time, her eyes widened and her blush reached her ears. She pulled her hands away and crammed them in her coat pockets.
“Sorry,” she said again.
“I offered,” Finley said, still smiling. She reached into her pocket to retrieve her key, turning it idly in her fingers as they walked the rest of the way in silence. Penny, eyes on the ground, almost followed her inside without looking up. Clucking made her stop at the door and turn. She stood by and watched as a plump brown hen led three fluffy chicks out of a coop near the dilapidated building some distance off. Finley leaned back out the door to follow her gaze.
“Oh hey, they’re up now,” she said.
“You got up before the chickens?” Penny asked.
“I would’ve slept in,” Finley replied, waving her inside. “But I had an ‘oh shoot’ wakeup, so I’ve been up for a while.”
“Where you’re sort of awake, but then you remember you really need to do something and you bolt upright.” She lifted her tool bag, said, “I remembered your light,” and set the bag on her bed. Arthur, drowsing on the pillow, lifted his head to look around. On seeing Penny, his tail rose to stand upright even before he’d taken to his paws. He hopped off the bed to hurry over and wind between her legs. Before she could close the door, he slipped past her to lie down on the porch.
“Can he be outside if the chickens are out?” Penny asked.
“Oh yeah. I caught him giving a chick a bath yesterday while the other two sat on him.”
“Yep. I’m pretty sure he’d protect them against foxes, he likes ‘em so much. But c’mon, you can come sit. I’ll get the pancakes going.”
Penny nodded, but left the door ajar for Arthur as she went inside. She sat at the table after hanging up her coat, watching Finley gather ingredients from within and atop a mini fridge.
“You really need a kitchen,” Penny said, unable to keep from smiling.
“I’m gonna get one, trust me,” Finley replied. “Once I get a good harvest this season, I’m hiring Robin.”
“You don’t just have the money?”
“I burned through a lot of money getting everything I have,” Finley said, starting to make the batter. “I need to make sure I’ve got money for the house and more seeds.”
Penny laughed. “I’m sure you’ll find more gems soon. I can’t believe how much you’ve given to Gunther.”
Finley looked over her shoulder to grin. “What can I say? I like mining. I kinda wish I had everything I’d need to hang lights in there, but that’d take a full crew of people.”
“So you have to carry torches?”
“Yeah. I’m getting used to it, though.” She lifted her right hand, waggling her fingers. “No burns.”
Penny hid her giggles in one hand. “You’re in a good mood. Was last night really fun?”
“Yeah! Leah did me a huge favor and introduced me to more people after we ate, so that was good. Finally met Robin’s husband and son, your buddy Sam, Shane—” She went still with a thought, eyes drifting up and to the right. “Well…I thought Shane was laughing at me at one point. Kinda weird.”
Her face flushed as her shoulders rose. “Um. About that.”
“When Elliott told everyone about that day on the beach…my mother might’ve…she drinks with Shane sometimes and she likes to—make fun of people she’s heard stories about. So, she might’ve…made you sound foolish.”
Finley stopped short in setting the bowl of batter on the table. She looked at Penny with a mild, nearly unreadable expression. The barest hint of insult was in her eyes when she set the bowl down.
“That’s not exactly polite,” she said, voice quiet and flat.
“She didn’t—she thinks people shouldn’t find you so intimidating!” Penny said quickly, voice pitching higher in desperate protest. “She didn’t do it to—she just meant to tease!”
“All right,” Finley replied, still quiet, still flat. “Mind your hands near the stove, please.”
Penny put her hands in her lap as Finley set up the camping stove and a skillet. A quick swipe of butter greased the skillet and she was making pancakes in minutes. Sitting there without Arthur as a distraction, Penny struggled to focus on something other than the bitterness at the edge of Finley’s eyes and her slight frown. Her stomach gnawed on itself; she gripped her sleeping pants at her thighs. Finley cooked three pancakes in the silence, stacking them neatly on a plate.
“How,” Penny said hesitantly, “how was the rest of your night?”
“Good. A little odd when…Abigail? Pierre’s daughter, she said, hanging out with Sam and Sebastian. She stopped me when I was leaving and asked about my sword.” She chuckled and set another finished pancake on a plate. “She said she’d love lessons from a real swordsman.”
Penny managed to smile, but could not quite look up. “You’re actually pretty popular.”
“Which is weird, if you think about what people say about me.”
Her smile vanished as she lifted her head. “Finley, she didn’t—”
“Pancakes,” Finley said gently, setting the plate before her. She retrieved a fork, a knife, and a mason jar half-full of syrup. “That’s from one of my trees. It’s pretty good, even if you’re used to store-bought.”
“Finley, I didn’t mean to make you mad—”
“You didn’t,” she murmured. “It’s fine.” She tapped the lid of the mason jar twice slowly before drawing her hand away. “I need to do more work on fencing in my crops. You don’t need me hanging around while you eat.” As she headed for the door, she said, “I won’t tell anyone you’re here if I get visitors this early.”
The tone of her voice, utterly soft and kind, pinned Penny to the chair. She watched Finley take off her coat and drape it on the headboard of her bed before pushing the door open. She paused on the porch to stretch her arms across her chest, the muscles in her back on clear display through her t-shirt. Without looking back, she closed the door softly enough that the only sound was the faint click of the latch.
Penny was left in silence then, eyes on the door. She turned away and started to eat, guilt pooling in her spine at how slowly she ate. It was not anxiety that made her chew every bite thoroughly. The sweetness of the syrup and the pancakes worked to wash all the leftover unpleasantness out of her mouth; the warm weight in her stomach soothed the shaking that threatened to fill her limbs. When she finished eating, she sat still and stared at the crumbs and traces of syrup left on her plate. After taking a deep breath, she stood up, got dressed, and headed outside.
Finley was a significant distance from the cottage, a bundle of fence posts on her back and a shovel in one hand. Every so often, she paused to dig a small hole to drive a new post into. Soon enough, she reached the overgrowth she had not quite cleared out. Penny could just make out that she was shaking her head before heading in a different direction. She set up fenceposts until she reached the eastern edge of the property, and she turned toward the cottage when she was done.
Penny could think of no words when Finley saw her. She stood by while Finley made the trek back to the cottage, stomach tied in as many knots as her tongue. Finley wiped her brow when she arrived, setting the remaining posts down.
“I’m gonna need a hat before summer,” she said.
“You might need to ask Pierre to order one,” Penny said.
“Until I get the house big enough to have a computer again, yeah.” She stretched again, drawing her elbows behind herself slowly. With how she bent her arms, it seemed to Penny’s eyes that she was putting her biceps and forearms on display. It brought anxiety back into her.
Because Finley saw it, she put her hands in her pockets and sighed. She looked at the ground, head tilted slightly, and said, “Did you know my property has a back road leading into the mountains? I can get to Robin’s place without running the whole way through town. It’s a really nice walk.” She looked up then, gentleness all through her, and added, “You can be up there for a pretty long while and no one would really know. You’d be safe.”
Penny stared at her. She looked to where Finley pointed then, seeing a path leading north off the property. She turned back, words failing to form properly in her mouth when she saw how Finley’s expression remained gentle without regarding her with pity. It made her face and eyes burn again. Before she could convince herself to stop, she spoke.
“I am safe,” she said quietly. “My mom—my mom doesn’t hit me.”
Finley’s eyes widened as her jaw slackened, mouth opening.
“She doesn’t,” Penny said. “She just—yells. That’s all—she doesn’t hit me.”
Her gaze hardened as her brows lowered. She clenched her teeth, jaw tense. “Does she do it when she’s drunk?”
She froze, eyes locked on Finley’s.
“Penny, I won’t bring it up to her—I won’t confront her.”
Penny struggled through swallowing. She admitted, “And…hungover.”
“That’s why you ran out this morning?”
Finley stared. She opened her mouth, and she closed it. She pushed her hair out of her face, but left her hand on her head. “Does she yell at you every time that happens?”
“N-no. Just a couple of weekends every month.” She swallowed. “Sometimes weekdays.”
Finley opened her mouth again. She rubbed her head hard before putting her hand on her brow. “Penny, I don’t—have you told anyone else about this? Maru, or—anyone?”
“Just Maru,” Penny said quietly. “But I asked her not to tell anyone because my mom doesn’t hit me.”
Any shade of anger in her face drained away to leave startled confusion. “Then why are you telling me this? I don’t want this happening to you, but—I’m still practically a stranger. I’m not important enough to know something like this about you.”
“Why not?” Penny choked out. “If I’m important enough for you to promise to tell me what happened five years ago, why can’t—why can’t I tell you this? I don’t want you to do anything, I just—want to tell you.”
Finley said nothing and did not move.
Penny looked down and forced words out of her throat before it tightened too much. “I’m sorry for ruining your morning. I’ll—”
Finley caught her in a hug before she could continue. They both stiffened, Penny staring at Finley’s shoulder with wide eyes. Finley let out a faint, uncertain sound, sighed, and patted Penny’s head.
“You have yet to ruin a single thing for me and I’m pretty sure you never will,” Finley murmured. “You don’t have to apologize.” She sighed again. “And I can be that important if you want me to.” She patted Penny’s head, gentler than before. “You’re free to come by if you need somewhere to go for a little while, okay? This way you can get up to see Maru without going back through town.”
“Okay,” Penny said. She rubbed her eyes when Finley let go and stepped back, clearing her throat before looking up. It was easy to smile again, however small, when she said, “Could you show me the road? I’ve never been back there.”
“Sure,” Finley said, smiling in turn. “Gimme a minute to get my gear. I’ve got a couple other errands to run.”
Penny nodded, and then sputtered with startled giggles when Finley ruffled her hair before walking away. She patted her hair back into place, face burning, and watched Arthur chase butterflies. The morning mist had vanished completely by then, half from the warm, warm sun and half from a steady breeze.
Tension left her as she stood there, even when she thought of Finley’s arms around her again. She put her left hand on her right shoulder, still able to feel how steady Finley’s arm had been there. Another smile came to her without thinking when she remembered Finley’s hand on her head and its infinite casualness. When she paid enough attention to notice her own smile, she blushed, shook her head furiously, and rubbed her cheeks hard.
As Arthur grew bored with the butterflies and started to chatter at birds in a nearby tree, Finley came back outside. She wore her backpack with her tool bag in one hand and Penny’s coat and pajamas in the other. She offered in polite silence.
“Thank you,” Penny said, bundling her pajamas inside her coat. “Um, what errands do you have?”
“Demetrius left a notice on the bulletin board about doing something to the wiring in his lab,” Finely said. “I’ll head over there after your light.” She started to lead Penny to the road, adding, “I’ve got something else to do, but I’ll take care of it after you and him.”
“We could take care of that first,” Penny said. “It’ll…um. Give my mom more time to wake up. What is it?”
Finley hesitated in going up another step in the rail-tie stairs headed north. She resumed climbing, her thinking clear in her face, and said, “We can stop there and waste a little time.”
“You know the community center?”
“Of course. Lewis had to lock it up to stop Vincent from playing in there all the time.”
“Well,” Finley said slowly, “I bumped into Lewis there the other day and we talked about it. When I said I wouldn’t get a Joja membership, he said he wouldn’t sell the land.” She scratched the back of her neck, voice growing softer and shyer as she said, “I’m thinking about…fixing it up a little. Maybe.”
Penny stopped at the top of the stairs to boggle at her. “Are you serious?”
“I like renovation projects,” Finley said, face turning red. “It’ll probably take me forever, but…I don’t know.” She laughed weakly. “Stupid, right?”
“I think you’re ambitious, not stupid,” Penny said, smiling back. “First a bridge, now a community center. You’ll help Maru with her robot next, huh?”
“She’s building a robot?”
“Yep. She might ask you to check its wiring at some point.”
Finley laughed properly. “That’d be fun to help with.” She stopped abruptly, crouching down at the side of the road. Penny moved closed to peek over her shoulder, seeing that she was carefully digging a leek out of the ground.
“Are you getting that to eat?” she asked.
“To sell,” said Finley. “I’ve gotten good money for the stuff I can forage.” She looked over her shoulder after brushing the dirt off the leek and putting it in a side pocket of her backpack. “Do you like them?”
“I do. It’s part of why I like spring so much.” She looked about. “Have you found a lot of leeks up here?”
“Yep.” She grinned. “You’re free to take some, since they’re not my crops.”
“I might come back later,” Penny said, smiling as Finley straightened up. “Especially if dandelions grow up here.”
Because Penny was focusing on the edges of the road as they walked, she did not see Finley’s brows rise before she asked, “You like dandelions?”
“I know they’re not as pretty as some of the other flowers here,” Penny said, “but I’ve always really liked them.” She thought, bit the inside of her cheek, and asked, “Are there any flowers you like?”
“Sunflowers, but they’re out of season. I’m gonna plant some this year, though.” She chuckled. “You don’t happen to like sunflowers, do you?”
“I do, but my favorite flowers are poppies.” She laughed quietly. “I’ve never met anyone else who likes poppies.”
Finley hummed and said, “Seems rude to hate a flower that’s not a weed.”
Penny hid her giggles in her hand, moving to walk next to Finley. They went along in relative silence as the sun rose higher and took the chill out of the air. Squirrels began to run across the road ahead of them, tails twitching as they charged up tree trunks. They reached the mountain soon enough, Finley pausing to look north as Penny turned south.
“Is something back there?” Finley asked, pointing with her thumb.
“That doesn’t look like a crack in the mountain, it looks like a blocked path.”
Penny moved to look past her. “Oh. You’re right, it’s a path. There’s a train station back there, but there was a landslide this last winter. Almost no one used the station, so we’ve let it go.”
Finley frowned at the path, crossing her arms as she gauged it with one eye closed. She tapped one foot. “I think—”
“Finley, oh my gosh, you’re going to work yourself to death,” Penny giggled. She tugged on her elbow, getting her to head south. “Come on, focus on one project at a time.”
“All right, all right,” Finley said, smiling back. “But I’m pretty sure I could—”
“Stop!” Penny laughed, pulling harder. “You don’t have to fix everything!”
“All right, I was teasing,” Finley said with a grin. “I’ll save it for a much later date.”
“Good,” said Penny, letting go of her arm. “No one wants you to collapse again.”
“Nah, I’m over doing that. Those energy tonics really taste awful.”
“And they don’t exactly help you save for that house upgrade.”
“Also a good point.” When they finally reached the community center, she held the door open and said, “Mind your step. There’s a couple spots where the floorboards are rotted.”
Penny nodded before walking inside. When Finley closed the door behind them, all sound became muted. Though one window was broken, the birds she’d heard singing seconds ago were gone. Dust was visible in the sunlight coming through the unbroken windows, and she caught the scent of loamy soil.
“I didn’t think it was this run down,” she said quietly. “Are you sure you can get everything fixed up?”
“With a little help here and there,” Finley replied, smiling easily. “Hang on a second out here, okay? I want to check the outlets to see if this place still gets power.”
“Okay,” Penny said, and she stood by to wait as Finley went down a hall. She looked about as she waited, seeing cobwebs everywhere. The sight of a broken fish tank in one corner made her sigh. Minding a rotten patch in the floor, she went to see if there was any glass. She circled the tank, looking as closely as she could. A sigh of relief left her when she found nothing, and she headed back to the center of the room.
What she had meant to do then was call out to Finley about watching for broken glass. All of her words and most of her coherence left her when she saw something large and green with spindly black limbs scurry into the rough-built hut near her. The only thing she could think to do made perfect sense, and so she did not hesitate in doing it.
“Finley!” she screamed. “Help!”
Finley sprinted back up the hall in less than five seconds, eyes wide and brows up. Before she could speak, Penny rushed to hide behind her, holding tight to one of her arms.
“I just saw some—thing go into that little hut!” she said, pointing for good measure.
Finley sighed, cracking her knuckles. “The one day I don’t have my sword. Was it a rat?”
“I think it was a slime!”
She went still. She turned slightly to look at Penny. “You saw a slime go in there?”
“Yes! I mean—I think so! It was green and round—isn’t that a slime?”
“It can be,” Finley said, “but…hang on.” She patted Penny’s hands, waited for her to let go, and made her way to the hut. She listened closely before sinking down on one knee and looking into the hut. Musical, cheerful chirping greeted her, and the green thing Penny had seen skipped out of the hut and waved its twig-like arms at Finley. Penny froze as the thing hopped onto Finley’s left shoulder; she nearly screamed again when two other things, red and blue this time, popped into existence near the hut.
“Wait, so can you see these guys, too?” Finley asked, smiling as she stood up and pointed to her shoulder.
“What is that thing?” Penny whimpered.
“It’s a junimo,” said Finley. “They’re little forest spirits, but they moved in here a long while back.” She scratched the back of her head as she thought, still smiling. “Ras said no one else can really see them, but—you do?”
“Who on earth is Ras?”
“Rasmodius,” she said. “The wizard over in Cindersap?”
“There’s actually a wizard in that tower?”
“Yeah. He’s gruff, but you get used to him.” She lifted her hands after seeing the persistent fright in Penny’s eyes. “The junimos are friendly, I promise. But Ras said it’s uncommon for people to see them, so they’re probably as surprised as you are.”
“How long have you known they were here?” Penny asked.
“Since I first came in here, sorta.” She brought one hand near her shoulder, letting the junimo hop onto it. “One of them came wandering out of the hut when Lewis was showing me around. He couldn’t see it and I freaked out a little.” She snickered. “I played it off like I was scared of a huge rat.”
“Is…that why you came running through town the day after you hit your head at the beach?”
“Uh,” Finley said slowly as the junimo traipsed down her arm to hang on her sleeve. “I think so.” She looked down as the blue and red junimos started untying her boots.
“Why’re they doing that?” Penny asked.
“I was in the middle of giving them something when their buddy spooked you, it’s okay.” She crouched down to tie her boots, murmuring, “Give me one second, guys. I’m not going to take it all back.”
Penny watched the green junimo swing around to Finley’s back, climb up it, and sit on Finley’s head. It swayed slightly as it sat there, the tiny leaf on the stem on its head swaying in counter-time. Penny started to smile, heartbeat finally slowing down. She took a cautious step closer, jumping only slightly when the green junimo looked up at her and waved.
“Um,” Penny said quietly. “What—er, what’re you giving them?”
“Gifts,” Finley replied, standing up. “C’mon, I’ll show you.” She led Penny down the hall as the red and blue junimos ran on ahead, chirping in the same musical way as the green junimo before them. They all turned left at the end of the hall to enter a room that had seen better days, carpet grungy and wallpaper peeling.
For a moment, Penny saw nothing in the room but Finley’s backpack and tool bag. The red junimo leapt suddenly and landed on a large, white-gold tablet that appeared from nowhere and began to glow. Its glow illuminated a horseradish, a leek, and a daffodil. Finley knelt next to the tablet, beckoning Penny closer. Hesitating for a few moments, Penny went to kneel down with her.
“They want things from around the valley,” Finley said, reaching into her backpack. “It helps them get stronger, and they’ll be able to help me fix this place up if I keep bringing gifts.” She took a dandelion from the backpack. “This is the last thing I need for this first little bundle.”
“How do you know that?”
“Look,” Finley said, reaching to lay her free hand on the tablet. “See these marks?”
“The—okay, yeah, it looks like that. But Ras gave me a potion so I can understand what the junimos say and write, and the tablet says they’re asking for the valley’s spring forage.”
Penny boggled at her.
Finley blushed, but chuckled. “Here, let’s see what this does.” She set the dandelion in the last open square on the tablet and took her hand away. The red and blue junimos trilled with glee as a glittering, glowing gift box appeared over the items on the tablet. They ran in and scooped up the box, hurrying out of the room. Penny and Finley following, just managing to see them run into the hut.
All at once, several more junimos popped into existence, trilling with the same glee. Audible pops rang out, timed to another tablet appearing before the fish tank and a glittering light flaring in a room nearby.
“Huh,” Finley said, grinning. “Looks like they really liked that.”
Penny pointed at the tablet near the tank and asked, “Is that to ask for more stuff?”
“I think,” Finley replied, heading for the tablet. She crouched to look at it, paying no heed to the junimos that jumped up to bounce on her shoulders. “It is—it’s for different fish.” She stood up straight, drumming her fingers on her chin. “Interesting.”
Slow, careful, Penny went to the room where light had flared. It was a pantry, empty but for an old set of shelves and the tablet on the floor. She leaned into the hall to say, “There’s another one in here.”
Finley came and checked it. “Wow, for crops, too. But…I guess I’m asking them to do a lot here. That’s fair of them.” She stood up and walked out of the room, looking into the middle distance. After a moment of thought, she looked to Penny and said, “You’re taking this pretty well.”
“Yeah. Aside from the first scream, I mean.”
“Well,” Penny said quietly, looking at a pair of purple junimos on Finley’s right shoulder. “They’re…right there. I’m pretty sure I’m not dreaming and I don’t think you’re trying to trick me. So…I don’t know. They do seem friendly.”
The green junimo on Finley’s head tugged on her ear, chattering while pointing at Penny. Finley exhaled a laugh and brought her hand up for the junimo to hop into.
“He wants to say hello,” she said. “Hold out your hands, okay?”
Tentatively, shoulders high, Penny did so. The junimo jumped into her hands when Finley brought it close, hanging onto one of her thumbs for balance. Chattering with no mouth, it looked at her with eyes as black and shiny as its limbs. Because it went on for a long while, Penny looked at Finley, who was standing by with a hand over her mouth.
“Is he saying something other than ‘hello’?” she asked.
Finley lowered her hand, revealing a smile, and said, “He says he’s glad to have another visitor and he’s sorry he scared you. He also hopes that you like what they’ll do with the center in the future.”
The junimo chirruped, pointing to one side. They both turned to see a trio of junimos encircling a rotten patch of the floorboards. Glittering light caught the dust over the boards, growing brighter and brighter as the junimos crooned. A snap sounded as the light flared too bright to look at, and the floorboards were restored when they looked again.
“Oh wow,” Penny whispered.
“And that’s what I meant when I said I’d get some help repairing the place,” Finley said. “It’ll just take a while.”
“Wow,” Penny whispered again. She went to the junimos and gently set one foot on the repaired boards. “That’s amazing.”
“Makes me wish I could ask Grandpa if he ever saw junimos,” Finley said. “Ras said there’s something about my dad’s side of the family that makes us more likely to see them.” She thought. “Now I really wonder who else can see them. I would’ve thought Vincent or Jas could, but they would’ve told you by now, huh?”
“Vincent would’ve told the entire world if he saw magical spirits,” Penny replied. She looked at the junimo in her hands, giggling when it chirped and waved at her. She looked at Finley, smiling brightly, and said, “Thank you for letting me tag along. I’m really happy to meet them.”
The junimo trilled at her again, drawing her attention just in time for her to miss how Finley blushed bright red. Chattering and gesturing broadly, the junimo kept her attention while Finley rubbed her cheeks furiously and forced the blush back.
“Now what is he saying?” Penny asked.
Finley cleared her throat, scratching the back of her neck, and said, “That if you ever want a little personal favor, you can bring him a fresh cookie.”
“Really?” Penny said to the junimo. When it nodded, she laughed. “Thank you. I might do that one day. But,” she added, walking to Finley and setting the junimo on her free shoulder, “I’ll need Finley to help translate.”
“They understand us,” Finley said.
“Yes, but I don’t know their language.” She smiled again and said, “Please?”
The green junimo purred at Finley, stroking her cheek. She snorted with laughter and pushed its hand away gently before saying, “You can come get me when you need a translator.”
“Thank you, Finley,” Penny giggled, and she laughed outright when the junimo purred again and hugged Finley’s head as best it could.
Finley cleared her throat again and asked, “Do you think your mom is up by now? I’d really like to fix your light.”
She looked at one of the windows, considering the angle of the sunlight. After a moment, she said, “I think so. I can go in first just in case.”
“All right. Let me grab my stuff and we’ll go.”
Penny nodded, watching her head back into the room with her bags as the junimos hopped off of her. She held her hands behind her back, looking at the junimos as they meandered and chattered at each other. Finley returned with her bags, opening the door for her again. Penny led the way then, walking out into town and moving a few paces ahead when the trailer came into view. She gestured at Finley to make her wait out of sight, intent on unlocking the door quietly.
Discovering that the door was unlocked already made her freeze up, shoulders rising. From the corner of her eye, she saw Finley frown as her brows lowered. She hurried to open the door before Finley could speak.
“Mom?” she said, keeping her voice soft. “Are you up?”
There was no reply. Penny stepped inside and looked about, but Pam was nowhere in sight. She listened, but there was no sound of running water from the bathroom. She finally spotted a scrap of paper on the table, picking it up to read.
Joja for aspirin and juice. No food, thanks, going on a walk.
Penny sighed as she smiled. She turned, seeing Finley leaning around the doorframe.
“You can come in,” she said. “My mom’s out right now.”
Finley stepped inside, closing the door, and set her tool bag on the table. Quietly, she said, “No offense, but I have to admit I’m relieved she’s not here.”
Penny opened her mouth, hesitated, and looked down before she said, “I am, too.”
For a few seconds, they did not speak. Then, Finley reached over to ruffle Penny’s hair again. It was even gentler than before, leaving Penny unable to do more than smile. She chuckled as she pushed Finley’s hand away.
“Is that what you do to everyone?” she asked.
“Just women who happen to be shorter than me,” Finley replied. “And guys get noogies.” She looked around, spotted a panel on the wall near the fridge, and made a beeline for it. “I’ll be quick about this, so nothing in the fridge’ll go bad.” She popped the panel open, glanced at the switches inside, and flipped all of them. The trailer went completely silent, the faint hum of the fridge vanishing and the microwave’s clock turning off. Finley turned on her heel and went to the table, taking a screwdriver from her bag and getting to work on the cover to the light.
Penny took the opportunity to put her pajamas and coat away. Finley had already set the light’s cover and the lightbulb on the table by the time she returned, and she was on the last set of screws that held the faux-wood paneling over the wiring. Penny kept herself quiet despite the questions that rose on her tongue, but let herself move closer to the table. She picked up the lightbulb for safekeeping, and Finley set the screws and screwdriver down and worked the panel off of the wall.
“Ah ha,” Finley said at once. “Thought so.”
“What? Do you see what happened?”
“Yep. C’mere, but careful of all the screws.” She waited until Penny had drawn closer, pointing at a wire and the char around it. “Its insulation failed. Did the light flicker all the time before it up and died?”
“It was shorting out. I’m glad you both stopped turning that switch on.” She set the panel aside, reaching back into her bag to retrieve a spool of wires and a pair of cutting pliers. In a matter of seconds, she had stripped the burned insulation from the wire, replaced it with a length of insulation from the spool of wires, and secured the wire back down.
“That should do it,” said Finley, reaching for the panel. She stopped suddenly, looked at the table, and asked, “Can I see that lightbulb real quick?”
Penny offered it, but Finley only took her wrist gently to tilt the lightbulb. She read its stamped label before leaning closer to the wall. She squinted when she checked the label on the light fixture, frowning slightly.
“Do you always buy this wattage for the bulbs on this lamp?” she asked.
“We do. It should be the same for all the lamps in the house.” She hesitated. “Is it the wrong wattage?”
“No, this one really is fine,” Finley said, starting to screw the panel back down. “I think this happened over time, buying the wrong wattage every so often.” She took the lightbulb properly when the panel was set, screwing the bulb in and replacing the cover. She got to her feet and returned to the wall panel. When the switches had all been flipped back, she smiled and gestured to the switch at the table.
“If you’d do me the honor,” she said.
Penny snorted with laughter before leaning across the table and flicking the switch. The light turned on immediately and without a single flicker, leaving an enormous smile on Penny’s face and a grin on Finley’s.
“Told you it’d be quick,” Finley said.
“Finley, thank you!” Penny laughed. “It was giving us both headaches to not have that working at night.” She flipped the switch a few more times purely to see the light working. She sighed, still smiling, and put her hands on the back of her neck. “Are you sure you don’t want any kind of payment?”
“For something that took less than five minutes to diagnose and fix?” Finley said. She waved a hand as she went to the microwave and reset its clock. “C’mon, I’d feel like a con artist. You don’t owe me anything.”
Finley laughed, returning to the table to put the screwdriver away. “Parts and labor wouldn’t even reach ten gild. You can pay me after I fix something major, not after I fix one little screwed up wire.”
“All right, all right. Then I owe you a favor for this one.”
“If you insist,” Finley said, zipping the bag closed. “But I don’t have any requests right now, so you’ll have to live with waiting for me to figure what I want.”
“Better than not paying you at all.” She smiled at Finley when she picked up her tool bag and turned. “Really, thank you again. I appreciate it so much.”
“Glad to help,” Finley said, returning the smile.
Again, they went quiet. Again, they stood looking at each other. Penny was struck abruptly, then, by the relaxed slope of Finley’s shoulders. Her relaxation showed in her easy smile, and in the way she let her tool bag hang on her fingers. It was even in the way she raised a brow slightly.
“Did one of the junimos leave something on me?” Finley asked.
“You’re making me feel like they put stuff in my hair again. They didn’t, did they?”
“O-oh.” Her face began to burn; she lifted her hands half to wave in dismissal and half to hide her cheeks. “N-no! No, I just—realized that I’m keeping you here when you still have errands to run!”
Both of Finley’s brows rose before she chuckled. “You’re not really keeping me here, but yeah, I need to get back up into the mountains at some point today.”
“Of—of course!” said Penny. “I know, I won’t keep you any longer!” She hurried to open the door, rubbing her cheeks when her face was turned away. She held the door open with her eyes on the ground, tucking her hair behind her ears as Finley walked outside. She looked up when Finley cleared her throat.
“Have a good day, all right?” Finley said. “It’s nice enough to go read under a tree again.” She exhaled a laugh. “Especially now that you’re not worried about that light.”
“I will, don’t worry,” Penny said. “You have a good day, too.”
“I already am,” Finley replied, and she lifted a hand to wave as she headed off.
Penny smiled and went to fetch her book. She was halfway to the tree by the river before she realized what Finley had said. She turned quickly, but Finley was well out of sight. Penny stared, brows low with confusion.
“Did she see who left those flowers in my book?” she said to herself. She looked at her book, fingers brushing the top of her bookmark. She tried to swallow words from another thought, but a lump rose in her throat and forced them back up. Able to see the dandelions in her mind’s eye, she whispered, “Did she leave them there?”
Penny could not come up with an answer, even after a minute of looking toward the mountains. She sighed, said, “Of course she didn’t,” and did what she could to avoid dwelling on it.
Whether it was thanks to favorable word of mouth from Demetrius or simply from need, requests for Finley’s services as an electrician skyrocketed after that day. Persistently flickering lights, fans that’d stopped functioning the fall before, and even a request to check on the power supply to a sewing machine went on the bulletin board. Finley was kept so busy that Penny saw neither hide nor hair of her for another two weeks.
When Penny finally did see her again on a Saturday, it was only a brief moment seeing her across the river as Finley headed south along the river on the museum’s side. Finley’s focus was on a notepad in one hand as she walked, her other hand holding her tool bag on her shoulder. Though Penny could not see her lips moving from so far away, she felt safe in assuming she was mumbling to herself.
It made her smile before heading out on her own, making her way to the park. She hesitated at the top of the stairs, looking at the community center. Sam called to her then; she turned and hurried over. Sam had clearly meant to stop pushing Vincent and Jas on the swings when Penny arrived, but Vincent leapt from the swing at the peak of his arc. Sam let out a choked noise as Vincent sailed clear over the bark under the swings and out onto the grass. Tumbling perfectly on the landing, Vincent bounced back onto his feet and ran back to Penny to hug her legs.
“Hi Miss Penny!” Vincent said.
“Vincent, you gotta warn me before you do stunts,” Sam sighed. “Awesome jump, though.”
Jas got down from her swing, coming over to tug on Vincent’s sleeve. Pouting, she said, “You said you’d show me how to jump.”
“Oh!” Vincent said, and he caught Jas’ hand. “Right, come on!” As he pulled Jas back to the swings, Penny followed to join Sam behind them.
“He’s turning into a little daredevil,” Penny murmured, nudging Sam with her elbow.
“For real, though,” Sam said. “Do me a favor and don’t tell my mom he got all the way to the grass.”
“I won’t, I promise.” She gave Jas a push to get her moving, stepping back as she and Vincent began to swing. Sam stepped back as well, tucking his hands in his pockets.
“So have you gotten a visit from Fin for your electric stuff?” he asked.
“Two weeks ago, yes. She finally fixed our table light.”
“Nice,” said Sam, nodding once. “Mom got her to fix up that wonky cord for her sewing machine. She’s been dying to use it.” He smirked and snickered. “She was so happy she said she’d make Fin a blanket on top of paying her.”
“She probably needs one,” Penny said. “That cottage is really drafty.”
He stared at her, both brows raised. “Have you been over there?”
She stared right back. “Vincent knows I walked her home the day she tripped in front of the museum. Did he skip that part when he told you and Jodi?”
“I think Mom cut him off with hugs when he said Doc Harvey scared him and Jas.” He sighed. “Dang, lucky you.”
“I was just visiting a friend at their house,” she protested.
“That’s better than anyone else so far with her.”
“What about Leah?”
“What about Leah?” she said again. She hesitated under his baffled gaze, but said, “They’re going out. Hasn’t Leah been up to visit her?”
“Penny,” Sam said, “I don’t know who you’re getting your rumors from, but Fin and Leah aren’t dating.”
Her mouth opened slightly. Her brows lowered. Quietly, she said, “I’m sorry, what?”
“Me, Sebastian, and Abigail see them in the saloon,” he said. “They’re not having dinner dates, they’re just talking.”
“That’s what you’d do on a date, though,” Penny said. “Leah’s interested in her, she told me that to my face.”
“Okay, but it’s pretty clear Fin’s not interested back. She’s just there to have dinner and talk, and she and Leah have a lot to talk about.”
“But,” Penny said, and her words failed. She stared at nothing. “That doesn’t make sense. I thought she knew Leah was asking her out on a date.”
“Wait, what? When did this happen?”
“Two weeks ago, that Friday it rained. I ran into Leah after dropping Jas off and then Finley ran into both of us. Leah asked Finley out to dinner…and I thought Finley knew it was for a date.”
“Well, the only thing that’s obvious to us on Fin’s side is that Fin isn’t there to be on a date,” Sam said. He shrugged, smiling slightly. “I get where Leah’s coming from, so I feel kinda bad for her that Finley doesn’t show up there just for her.”
Penny boggled. “Finley never acted like she was on a date? Not even that first Friday?”
“Nope.” He raised a brow, confusion writ on his face. “Is that really a surprise?”
“I just—thought they’d hit it off.”
“I don’t think they’re really each other’s type. Buddies for sure.”
She raised a brow back at him. “What do you think their types are?”
“I dunno,” he said, shrugging again. “Just not each other. Leah likes ladies who’re like Fin, but I don’t know what kind of ladies Fin is actually into.”
She said nothing.
“What? Neither of them were having any of Shane flirting after he got tipsy the other night.”
“No, I just—” She sighed. “I don’t know. I just didn’t think she’d turn Leah down after going out with her.”
“I’m pretty sure Fin’s too polite to turn down a date offer right when she gets it,” Sam replied.
“But,” Penny said, and her voice died as she thought. Her cheeks began to ache when she replayed a memory, and she hid her face in her hands to faintly say, “Oh my gosh, you’re right. I’m such a jerk.”
“Whoa, what? Since when?”
“Since I pushed Finley to go to the saloon with Leah when she didn’t want to go.” She sighed hard, rubbing her brow. “Oh my gosh, Sam, I am such a jerk.”
“For what, trying to do something nice?” He nudged her gently with his elbow. “Penny, c’mon, has Fin acted like she was mad about it?”
He snickered and nudged her again. “I’m pretty sure she’s fine with making more friends, chill out. And if you’re really worried, you can always talk to her.”
“I should,” Penny said, lowering her hands. “I hope she isn’t angry about it.”
“Pretty sure she’s not,” Sam said. “But she’ll accept your apology if she’s mad for some reason.”
Vincent launched himself off the swing at that moment, flying even further than before and making Sam jump with fright. He landed cleanly and ran back to hug Penny’s legs.
“Vincent, you gotta warn me about stunts!” Sam said.
“If Finley’s mean to you, I’m gonna beat her up,” Vincent said with the utmost seriousness.
Penny and Sam both stared at him. Jas jumped off her swing as well, only going half the distance but landing just as smoothly. She hurried over as well, taking Vincent’s elbow and tugging gently.
“Don’t be mean to Miss Finley!” Jas said. “You promised to be nice and Miss Finley wouldn’t be mean to Miss Penny!”
Vincent grumbled noise and did not let go of Penny’s legs. Penny looked at Sam, but he shrugged helplessly. She took a deep breath, thought, and put a hand on Vincent’s head. He looked up.
“Finley isn’t the kind of person to be mean to other people,” she said. “Even if I upset her before. You don’t need to worry.”
Vincent watched her closely, eventually sighing and letting go. He dug one foot into the bark, eyes on the ground. His expression was so moody that Penny rubbed the back of her neck.
“If I go talk to Finley to make sure she’s not upset, will that make you feel better?” she asked.
“I’m coming with!” Vincent said, putting both hands in the air. “That way she can’t be mean!”
“She wouldn’t,” Penny began, and she stopped because he crossed his arms firmly and nodded. She sighed, shaking her head, and said, “All right. Then we need to go find her.”
His conviction faltered for a moment. “Um. How?”
“She’s probably doing jobs around town, so we can figure it out if we look at the bulletin board,” Sam said. “C’mon.” He gave Vincent his hand as Penny gave hers to Jas. They left the playground and went to Pierre’s, Sam lifting Vincent up to read the board.
“‘Looking for help to fix the night fishing lamp at the shop,’” Vincent read aloud. “’See Willy for details.’” He looked up at Sam when he was set on his feet. “She’s at the beach again?”
“I saw her heading that way earlier,” Penny said. “She might still be down there.”
Vincent nodded, and he all but dragged Sam along to lead the way. His insistent stride made Penny wince, but she could not think of any way to slow him down by the time they reached the beach. It was quiet and empty every direction they looked, with no sign of Finley. As they headed for the docks, Penny caught sight of the rebuilt bridge. Her brows rose at how stable it looked, broad enough for two people to walk side by side.
“Wow,” Jas said quietly. “That looks nice.”
Sam whistled with appreciation. “Good job, Fin.”
The sight of seashells in the sand across the bridge made Vincent and Jas stare with longing, but Vincent shook his head fiercely and aimed himself at the docks again. Because his gaze was set straight ahead, he did not notice Finley sitting up on the flat portion of the roof of Willy’s shop.
“Fin, what’re you doing up there?” Sam called.
Finley jumped so violently she pitched a screwdriver straight up into the air. She grabbed it while staying seated, turning around carefully. When she saw them on the beach, she stared.
“I’m fixing the lamp up here,” she called back. “Why else would I be up on a roof?”
“To get a ball down?” Vincent said.
Finley boggled at him, sighed, and rubbed her brow. She said, “If you’re here to talk to me, give me a minute to get down. I just finished working.”
“Mind your step,” Penny said as they walked off the sand and onto the docks. They spotted the ladder against the side of the shop, staying several paces away while Finley packed her tool bag and stood. She started to creep down the slope to get to the ladder.
“Thanks for not coming up on me while I was right here,” she said. “I would’ve jumped like an idiot and fallen, probably.”
“Couldn’t you just be like a cat and fall on your feet?” Vincent asked.
Finley snorted with laughter. “I am not like a cat and you—”
The roof caved under her right foot. As she pitched to the side, her left foot slipped and drove her right leg further into the hole. She dropped her bag, arms pinwheeling, and tipped backward. As her bag slid off the roof and took the ladder down with it, she fell onto her back and started to slide as well. Before she could fall off the roof entirely, her right foot caught on broken wood and stopped her hard and fast. Even at an angle, Sam and Penny spotted how her ankle was wrenched on the stop.
Finley, upside down and swinging, screamed, “Son of a—” before slamming a hand down over her mouth and swearing into her fingers. She tried to catch the edge of the roof with her free hand, but missed every time with her swinging.
“Finley, shoot!” Sam said as he scrambled for the ladder. Penny dashed for Finley, standing on her toes to grab Finley’s shoulders and stop her movement. When Sam got the ladder back up and started to climb, she hung onto it with one hand. Sam caught Finley’s arm as he climbed, heaving with all he had to get her upright enough to grab the edge of the roof. She squirmed, managed to get her left leg beneath her, and pulled her right foot free of the hole with an almighty snarl. She curled up on the roof, gripping her shin tightly.
“Finley, are you all right?” Penny asked.
“No,” Finley said through grit teeth. “Pretty sure I wrecked my ankle.”
“Can you climb down?” Sam asked.
“I’m gonna have to,” she said. She sighed hard and rubbed her face. “Harvey’s gonna kill me.”
“For an accident?” Penny said. “He wouldn’t get angry at you for that, but—but come down here before anything else happens!”
“Sam?” Vincent said, voice and shoulders high with anxiety.
“Hang on, buddy, stay there,” Sam said, waving one hand. He reached out again to hold Finley’s elbow as she scooted along the roof. He climbed down first, moving to hold the ladder with Penny. Finley climbed down after him, cautious and relying on her arms. When she was on the docks, she sighed and put her brow on one of the ladder’s steps.
“You two get free passes on any job you want me to do ever,” she said. “I thought I was going to break my leg.”
“So did we, geez,” Sam said. “It looked like it down here.”
“I’m gonna sit now,” Finley said quietly, sweat on her brow.
Penny moved back from the ladder, but offered her hands for Finley to hang onto as she sat. Once she was firmly seated with her leg stretched out, Vincent and Jas inched closer.
“Are you gonna be okay?” Jas asked.
“Yeah,” Finley said, rubbing her shin. “I’ll be limping for a while, but I didn’t break anything.”
“I didn’t mean to make you jump and fall!” Vincent said, eyes full of tears. He hiccuped and started to cry. “I’m sorry!”
“Vincent, shh, it’s okay,” Finley said, smiling slightly. “You didn’t make me jump, I promise. The roof just broke on its own, it wasn’t your fault at all.”
“I’ll go find Harvey or Maru,” Sam said, starting to head up the dock. “I’ll be back quick.”
“Thank you,” said Finley, and Sam hurried away. Finley sighed and leaned back against the wall, still pale and starting to shake. Penny knelt beside her, looking at her leg.
“Are you sure you didn’t do anything else to your leg?” she asked. “No splinters or nails?”
“Nah, my jeans are too heavy and I’ve got my work boots on.” She exhaled a weary laugh. “Just my usual bad luck.”
“Do you fall off roofs a lot?” Vincent asked, rubbing his eyes.
“No, but I fall a lot. And get hurt a lot.” She grimaced as she rubbed her left shoulder. “Waking up tomorrow isn’t going to be fun.”
“How come Willy wasn’t here to hold the ladder for you?” Jas asked.
“He had to go to Pierre’s for groceries and I said I’d be fine. This wasn’t his fault.” She laughed again, just as weary. “Seriously, it’s just me and my bad luck.”
“I think it’s lucky you fell when people were nearby and you weren’t hurt worse,” Penny said in return. “I thought you did break your ankle.”
“Did it really hurt?” Vincent asked.
“Yeah. That’s why I was swearing like that.”
“You were swearing?” Jas said, looking scandalized.
“Didn’t you hear me?”
“You covered your mouth,” Penny said.
“Oh,” Finley said. She smiled crookedly. “Glad I did that, then.”
The scandalized look broke apart as Jas and Vincent both started to giggle madly. Penny hid a smile in her hand, snorting with laughter when Finley winked at her. The sound of running footsteps made Penny look away before she could see how Finley’s confidence shattered from anxiety and a dark blush; Vincent turned as well. Only Jas saw how Finley looked down with shame in her face, but even Jas turned when a voice came up alongside the footsteps.
“Finley!” Willy panted as he came around the corner of the shop. He came to a stop so abrupt that the loaf of bread on the top of his bag of groceries toppled out. Vincent yelped, flailed a moment, and caught the loaf before it hit the ground.
“Finley, I’m sorry!” Willy said, eyes wide and face pale. “Sam told me what happened on my way back! I didn’t think there was any rotted stuff up there!”
“It’s okay, it’s okay!” Finley said, holding up both hands. “It was an accident, I’m not angry!” She laughed weakly. “I’m more sorry for damaging your roof, frankly.”
“Roofs aren’t the same as legs, Fin,” he replied. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
“I’ll be fine,” Finley said. “It’s just a sprain. Harvey lecturing me is going to be the really not-fun part.”
“Why would he do that?” Willy asked.
“Doctor Harvey yelled at her before,” Vincent said.
“He didn’t actually yell,” Penny sighed. “And this was an accident, so he’s not going to lecture you, either.”
“Hopefully,” Finley mumbled.
Penny gave her a look. Finley lifted her hands slightly higher in surrender before lowering them. She leaned back against the wall then, closing her eyes. For a few moments, Penny watched her, seeing how a cold sweat was still on her brow and how her shaking lingered. The urge to reach out and set a hand on her shoulder filled her, but she stopped when Finley rubbed her left shoulder again. It was then that she noticed Jas looking between them with curiosity and anxiety mixed in her face.
“Jas, are you okay?” she asked.
“Uh huh,” Jas said quickly, looking down. “I’m fine.”
“Mister Willy, here’s your bread,” Vincent said, holding out the loaf.
“Thank you kindly,” Willy said, taking it. “Let me put everything away—I’ll be right back.”
Finley nodded without opening her eyes, breathing slow and deep. None of them spoke for a long while. Jas continued to look down, playing with her fingers. Penny watched her, one brow raised, but Vincent’s gaze was locked on Finley.
“Are you trying to sleep?” he asked, tugging on her sleeve.
“No, just calming down.” She rubbed her thigh. “My ankle hurts a little less now.”
“‘Cause you sat with your eyes closed?”
“’Cause I was concentrating on other things,” Finley chuckled as she opened her eyes. “It’s something my mother taught me.”
“Because you get hurt a lot?” Jas asked.
“Pretty much, yeah.” She sighed, pushing her hair out of her face. “I’m glad she did, since it really helps.”
“Is your mom a sword-fighter?” Vincent asked.
“She uses a sword sometimes, but not always. It depends on who she’s fighting.”
“Is she a soldier?”
Finley hesitated. “Well…sort of. She works with soldiers a lot.”
Vincent stared at her, utterly confused, but the sound of new footsteps made him turn around. Sam came around the corner carrying crutches, Harvey only a step behind with a first aid kit in hand. Harvey went straight to Finley, sitting on her right side.
“Your boot’s going to have to come off,” he said. “Think you can handle taking it off normally, or do I need to cut it?”
“I’m not losing a boot over this,” Finley mumbled. She bent her leg to undo and loosen the laces on her boot. Though she grimaced, she worked her boot and sock off before leaning back and straightening her leg. Harvey lifted her leg onto his bent knee, gently rolling up her jeans.
“Pretty inflamed and swollen already,” he said. “Curl your toes?” He watched her face, waiting for the grimace that came in time with her toes quickly uncurling. “Okay. Hang on for one minute. I just want to check if there’s an obvious fracture.” He took her foot and ankle carefully in hand, testing their range of motion. As he did, he felt along her bones as best he could, and he sighed when he stopped.
“You’re coming with me for an x-ray,” he said, “but there’s no break as far as I can tell.” He chuckled. “Thank goodness for work boots.”
As he started to dig through his kit, Finley glanced at Penny. Penny smiled with patience, biting her tongue to keep from giggling when Finley blushed, shamefaced, and looked down. Willy came back outside as Harvey began wrapping Finley’s ankle.
“She’ll be fine,” Harvey said when Willy inhaled audibly. “No going up on roofs alone from now on, though, okay?” He finished wrapping her ankle and patted her shoulder. “No one wants you breaking your neck.”
“Fair,” Finley said.
Harvey laughed and patted her shoulder again. “All right, let’s get you up. Sam, ready with the crutches?”
“Ready when you are,” Sam replied. “Vincent, Jas, scoot a little way out of the way, okay?”
They nodded and hurried to obey. Penny, on the other hand, moved closer after taking to her feet. She waited for Finley to get her left leg beneath her before offering her hands for balance. Finley took them and stood on one leg, keeping her right foot off the ground. Sam passed her the crutches then, patting Vincent’s head when he came over.
“Can someone bring my tool bag?” Finley asked. “And…um…my boot, too?”
“I’ll get them,” Penny said easily and without a second thought. “Hang on.” She looked around, spotting the fallen tool bag some feet away. She gathered the tools that had tumbled out of it, brought it back, and picked Finley’s boot up by the laces after tucking her sock inside it. They set out for town, slowed only slightly by Finley’s crutches. As they reached the saloon, Penny hesitated when Pam came out of the trailer and saw them. Pam raised a brow, but smiled and shook her head. Penny faltered for a moment, jogging to catch up to the others before the clinic.
“All right, patients only for x-rays,” said Harvey. “The rest of you wait out here, please.” He led Finley away, leaving them to their own devices. Sam and Willy sat first, Sam patting the chair next to him. Vincent sat there, swinging his legs, while Penny and Jas sat side-by-side.
“Does Finely have to get a shot?” Vincent asked.
Sam snorted with laughter. “No, you don’t get shots for twisted ankles. She’ll be fine.”
Vincent hummed quietly, focusing on the door to the back of the clinic. He went still to listen, frowning because he heard nothing. He slumped back in the chair, swinging his legs anew. Both he and Willy had started to nod off when the door opened and Finley came back out.
“No breaks,” Finley said when Penny opened her mouth. “Just a bad sprain.”
“Which you need to keep wrapped with good compression,” Harvey added, coming out behind the reception counter. He plucked a file off the shelves and opened it to scribble several notes. He put it away after adding a developed x-ray. “Are you absolutely sure you don’t want anything for pain?”
“I’m fine,” Finley said with a small smile. “I hate pain meds.”
“A small town doctor’s dream.” He turned to check the calendar on the wall, tapping several days and flipping a page. “All right, here’s the doctor’s orders. I want you on those crutches for a minimum of five weeks. No mining and no projects that take you off the ground. Fair deal?”
“Fair deal,” Finley replied. “Thanks for the loaner crutches.”
“All in a day’s work,” Harvey said with a smile. “Now. Miss Penny, if you’d be kind enough to get her home again?”
Finley opened her mouth, brow furrowed in a clear start to a protest. Penny simply lifted one brow as she picked up her tool bag. Finley blushed, sighed, and rubbed the back of her neck.
“Would you mind?” she mumbled.
“I’d be happy to,” Penny replied. “Is the farm clear enough to get to Cindersap easily?”
“Yeah. I had to clear it to haul lumber from the forest.”
“Can Jas come along? I’ll take her home that way.”
Sam put a hand firmly on Vincent’s head when he inhaled loudly, saying, “We’ll let you go, then. You don’t need us getting in the way.”
Jas stuck her tongue out at Vincent for the briefest of moments, making Finley and Willy snicker. Willy stood, went to Finley, and patted her shoulder.
“I’ll leave you in Miss Penny’s care,” he said. “I need to pay Robin a visit.”
“Sorry again about that,” said Finley.
Willy waved a hand as he headed for the door. “Get better and we’re even. Take care.” He left the clinic, Sam and Vincent close behind, and Penny and Jas went out first to hold the door open for Finley. They made their way down the westward road, the locking points in the crutches clicking every other step Finley took.
“Miss Penny, have you had to use crutches before?” Jas asked.
“No, but I broke my arm once when I was little,” Penny replied. “I landed badly after jumping off a swing.” She chuckled. “My mother carried me the entire rest of the day, now that I think of it.”
Jas made a faint sound of awe before looking at Finley. “Have you ever used crutches before?”
“Nope, this is my first time on them,” Finley said. “I never broke any bones when I was a kid. Lots of sprains and bruises, though.”
“Have you ever broken a bone?” Jas asked.
“Uh,” Finley said quietly, watching her feet. “Yeah. Five years ago.”
Penny did what she could to avoid staring at Finley.
“Was it scary?” Jas asked.
“A little,” Finley said, sounding distant.
“But you’re all better now, right?”
Finley laughed slightly. “Other than my sprained ankle, yeah.”
“Good,” Jas said with a nod, and she was quiet until they reached the farm. When she saw Arthur asleep with the chicks on his flank, she giggled and hid her face in her hands.
“Your aunt brought me a really silly cat,” Finley said, reaching down to pat Jas’ head. “I love him.”
“Good,” Jas said again. She followed Penny up the stairs to the cottage, holding the door open for Finley. She stood near the door while Finley went to the dining table and sat heavily in one chair. Penny hesitated in setting the tool bag on the table, already having set the boot on the floor.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” Penny asked. “I could go back to the clinic for medicine.”
Finley shook her head and waved one hand. “It’s fine. I’ll get my cold pack after I sit for a while.”
Finley, in the middle of pushing her hair out of her face, caught the anxious tinge in her voice. She looked up at Penny, fingers still in her hair, and smiled. She said, “I’m fine, Penny. But thank you for the offer.”
Penny smiled back at her, content to stand at the table as Finley sat back in the chair and redid her ponytail.
“Miss Finley?” Jas said.
“What’s up?” Finley replied, setting her hands on the table.
“Are you and Miss Leah dating?”
It took a moment of complete silence, but Finley blushed a shade of bright red that Penny had never seen on another person. Finley’s mouth hung open, her eyes going wide. Out of Jas’ sight, her hands started to shake on the table.
“What,” Finley choked out, “wh—who—who said—that?”
“Miss Penny said Miss Leah asked you on a date,” Jas said. “But Sam said you’re not dating. Are you really not dating?”
Finley went still. She blinked, one brow twitching, and let out a whimper of a laugh. “Oh. Uh. We’re not dating, no.”
“How come?” Jas asked. “Do you not like her?”
Her brow twitched again. “N-no, it’s not—I like Leah just fine. I like almost everyone here.”
“But you don’t like-like her?”
“Do you like-like anyone?”
Finley went still once more. She looked only at Jas, never seeing how Penny watched her as her blush faded. She did not notice Penny staring at her hands as they stopped shaking and closed into loose fists. Finley exhaled slowly, looked down, and tapped the table with one fist.
“No,” she said. “I don’t.”
Jas hesitated. “Did you ever?”
Penny opened her mouth to speak, but stopped short when Finley let out the smallest, softest laugh.
“Yeah,” Finley said. “Once upon a time.”
For another few seconds, none of them spoke or moved. Jas looked between them, played with her fingers a moment, and said, “I hope you like-like someone again.”
Finley said nothing. Penny said nothing. Finley, without looking up, quietly said, “We’ll see.”
Tension lifted Jas’ shoulders visibly. She looked at Penny, even as Penny moved to join her at the door. Penny set her hand on Jas’ head gently.
“Come on,” said Penny. “We need to let Finley get some rest, okay?”
“Okay,” Jas said. She lifted a hand to wave, saying, “Feel better, Miss Finley.”
Finley lifted a hand in turn, smiled, and said, “I will, Jas. Thanks.”
Penny waved as well before guiding Jas outside. She left the door open for Arthur, took Jas’ hand gently, and led the way south off the property. When the trees of the forest came into view, Jas brought her other hand to Penny’s and tugged.
“Did I make Finley mad?” Jas asked in a whisper.
“Oh—no, Jas, no,” Penny said, stopping to crouch down and meet Jas’ anxious gaze. “Finley wasn’t mad, she was embarrassed. She’s very shy about liking people and she probably didn’t expect you to ask her that.”
“How come?” Her shoulders sank with a thought. “Is it what people were mean to her about?”
Penny took a breath. She held it. Letting it out in a sigh, she said, “It is. Please promise me that you won’t tell people. It’s not our business to share that with people if Finley doesn’t want to do it herself.”
Jas stared at her.
“Please, Jas? We just have to give her time.”
“Okay,” Jas said with a note of misery in her voice. She accepted the quick, firm hug Penny gave her, hugging hard in return. They were quiet the rest of the way to the ranch, only waving to each other in parting. Penny went home with her tongue between her teeth and her eyes on her feet. Though she meant to head straight to her room, the smell of marinara sauce and cheese made her stop and look up after opening the front door.
“Surprise, kiddo!” Pam said, gesturing to the pizza on the table. “Thought I’d splurge and stay home today.”
Penny smiled from shock and sputtered a laugh. “What’s the occasion?”
“Well,” Pam said with a smirk, “mostly ‘cause you looked like you had a hell of a day. But I’d also like to get the story behind Fin’s latest injury so I can tell it without making her look like a huge goof.”
Her smile froze in place, pinned by confusion. She said, “What?”
“Finley’s a nice gal,” Pam said, smirk softening to a smile. “And I know it bugs you when people make fun of her. If you tell me what happened, then I’ll get it right.”
“Oh,” Penny said faintly. She did not move.
“C’mon, sit and have a slice. You look like you’re starving.”
She hesitated, but took off her shoes and sat down. She took the plate Pam offered, looking blankly at the slice of pizza on it.
“She really is a nice kid,” Pam said, words easy and light. She took a bite of pizza and said, “Don’cha think?”
“Yes,” Penny said, closing her hands tight as her chest ached. “She is.”
Chapter 4: Acts of Kindness
It's hard for Penny to say "no" to going to the farm to pay Finley back for the light, and it's easy to say "yes" to it when Finley decides to bring in part of the harvest, injury and JojaMart offers be damned. It's nearly impossible, though, to own up to what she knows is in the back of her head when she finally gets to see how Finley smiles when she's relaxed. The matter only gets worse with an argument and time apart.
Fortunately, there's nothing quite like a festival and a drunken demand to get people into town to see each other and finally talk.
Just as it had been after the bridge incident, the story of Finley’s near-fall off Willy’s roof went through town like wildfire. Unlike the bridge incident, however, there were no teasing asides at Finley’s expense. Instead, there was a sense of admiration for how she’d handled herself. Jodi and Marnie were grateful that she had managed to avoid swearing in front of Vincent and Jas, and the fact that she had refused anything for pain impressed everyone who heard the full story.
“Gus said Elliott went running over to the farm yesterday,” Pam said next Thursday morning.
“Wha—why on earth would he do that?” Penny asked. “I thought Finley hasn’t come into town to get help with anything.”
“I don’t think she has, but Gus spotted Elliott carrying at least two notebooks. My money’s on him doing some writing research.”
Penny sighed, head falling back as she looked at the ceiling. She looked back down quickly to watch the scrambled eggs in the skillet before her. She grumbled, “She’s not a research specimen. He shouldn’t bother her when she’s injured.”
Pam snickered. “I’m pretty sure she’d whack him with a crutch if he was getting on her nerves too much.”
“She wouldn’t, but I hope she puts her foot down and makes him go home if she gets tired.” She took the skillet off the stove, splitting the eggs neatly between two plates. “I still can’t believe she didn’t break her leg.”
“She’s got the devil’s own luck, in my opinion,” Pam said.
Penny hesitated in taking forks from the cutlery drawer, but brought the plates and forks to the table while saying, “I think so, too.”
Though they began eating at the same time, Penny ate faster to finish sooner and start working on the week’s grocery list. She rummaged through cabinets and the fridge, thinking hard to recall what prices had been the week before. She stood at the counter, arms crossed and one hand on her chin as she thought, until Pam patted her head.
“My turn for dishes,” Pam said.
“Oh—sorry, I’ll move.” She took her list and pencil to the table. As she sat down, she turned the light on without thinking. She went still with her fingers on the switch, looking at her hand. Holding down a sigh, she took her hand away and picked up her pencil to keep working on the list.
“Penny?” Pam said from the sink.
“You said Fin fixed the light, yeah?”
“You paid her, right?”
“I tried, but she wouldn’t let me.”
Pam snorted with laughter. “Yoba above. Go over there later and pay her back by helping her around the farm for a while.”
Penny looked up to stare at her back. “What?”
“We don’t take freebies, kiddo,” Pam said without turning. “Give her a visit and help her for an afternoon. She’ll appreciate it with that ankle of hers.”
Penny opened her mouth to protest, but closed it again when no words came to her. She quietly said, “Okay,” and finished her list. She went to her room to get dressed; Pam had finished cleaning by the time she came back out.
“I’m gonna see about the bus stop again,” Pan said, putting on her shoes. She sighed hard. “Gettin’ sick of Morris’ excuses about the repair crew.”
“Good luck,” Penny said, giving her a quick hug. She left after Pam, locking the door before heading to Pierre’s. She waved at Jodi and Marnie once she was inside, and they waved back before falling back into conversation. Penny made her way through the aisles, picking things off the shelves after double-checking each price. Pierre smiled at her when she came around a corner, pausing in his sweeping to let her go by. Abigail was at the counter when she approached, and she gave Penny a casual salute before yawning massively.
“Sorry, I was up late,” Abigail said.
“Bad dreams?” Penny asked, setting her basket on the counter.
“Nah, I was up gaming.” She opened a ledger to begin tallying everything in the basket. “What I wouldn’t give for a better internet connection and a way better computer.”
“One day, right?” Penny said.
“Exactly,” Abigail replied with a grin. She continued to tally everything up, pausing only briefly when the bell over the door chimed. Without looking up and in near-perfect unison with Pierre, she called out, “Hello there!”
“Hey,” an exhausted voice replied.
Abigail looked up as Penny turned. Finley stood in the doorway, left arm free and right arm occupied with a crutch. Her eyes were deeply underscored by dark bags, but she smiled when she saw Penny and Abigail looking at her. She started to head for the aisles, but stopped and turned back at the sound of Jodi’s gasp.
“Finley, are you sure you should be up?” Jodi asked. “Vincent and Sam told me about your fall.”
“I’m all right,” Finley chuckled, holding up her left hand to placate. “Besides, I need stuff and I was going stir-crazy.”
“Well,” said Jodi, “if you need help, let us all know. I’m sure Vincent would love to help on the farm.”
“I will. Thank you for the offer.” She went into one aisle, crutch clicking. Penny looked at the shelves for a time, unable to see Finley clearly. She turned back around to find Abigail looking at her with a raised brow.
“Um,” Penny said, “s-sorry. How much?”
Abigail snickered, coughed into her fist, and said, “It’ll be—”
The bell over the door chimed again; Pierre and Abigail said, “Hello there!”
“Ah, I see it’s bring your child to work day! Very industrious!”
The smile on Abigail’s face vanished, instantly replaced by a dark frown. Quietly, she said to Penny, “Four forty-six gild, please.”
“Of course,” Penny said, going into her purse for her wallet. She passed over bills and coins for exact change, looking over her shoulder while Abigail wrote out a receipt. Morris was making a show of looking at what was stocked on the shelves, adjusting his glasses and bowtie every few steps. Pierre came out of an aisle, gripping the broom handle tight enough to bleach his knuckles.
“Morris,” he said through grit teeth. “How can I help you?”
“Throw him out, Dad,” Abigail whispered as she started to bag Penny’s groceries.
“Well,” said Morris, “I wanted to see how my fellow shopkeeper was doing on this fine day.”
“Shopkeepers are dandy today. How’re managers who left their shops?”
Morris chuckled. “Managing, naturally.” He cleared his throat and reached into his lapel pocket. “It just so happens that we’re have a special today at JojaMart!” He held up a sheaf of coupons, saying, “Forty percent off your purchase with a coupon! Good only for the next hour!”
Abigail went pale as Pierre’s jaw clenched. Jodi and Marnie, brows raised, looked at each other. They glanced at Pierre, but did not meet his gaze. They did not look at him as they went to Morris and took a coupon each, and they left a painful, awkward silence behind them when they left the store. Penny joined Pierre in staring at Morris outright, and Abigail glared openly.
“Pam’s daughter, right?” Morris said, looking at Penny. “Too bad I didn’t get here sooner. I was delayed by questions about the bus stop.”
Penny’s shoulders rose as she bit her tongue painfully hard.
“Would you like a coupon anyway?” Morris asked. “We have a wide assortment of items and—” He stopped suddenly and looked around. “What on earth is clicking?”
“That’d be me,” Finley said mildly, coming out of an aisle. She carried a box of wheat flour in her left hand, setting it on the counter next to Penny’s bags. She looked at Penny and, smiling, said, “Hey.”
“I don’t believe we’ve met,” Morris said.
Finley’s smile disappeared as her brows lowered. Voice utterly flat, she said, “Finley Amundsen. The farmer.”
“Oh!” Morris said, hurrying over to stand behind her. “Then perhaps you’d be interested in a coupon to buy seeds for that wonderful farm!” He tore a coupon from the sheaf and held it out.
Finley turned her head and looked at him over her shoulder. She looked at the coupon when he lifted it higher. Sighing, she turned away and said, “I’m good without. I’m busy right this second, Marvin—”
“Uh huh. Busy right this second and I’ve only got enough on me for this.”
“Have you considered applying for a JojaCard?” Morris asked. “We offer a very reasonable APR at only twenty—”
“Morris, Miss Amundsen.”
Finley blinked slowly and sighed hard through her nose. When she turned to look at him over her shoulder again, Penny and Abigail saw the blistering disdain in her eyes. Morris did as well, and he shrank on himself.
“Let me make this clear from the start,” Finley said, vicious and dark. “I don’t need any Joja trash. Take your coupon and stick it where the sun doesn’t shine.”
Morris’ jaw dropped. Penny and Abigail stared. Pierre grinned.
“I,” Morris stammered, “we—we pride ourselves on carrying the finest products and fresh produce—”
“Pierre,” Finley said. “I can sell you produce, right?”
“Of course,” Pierre replied. “I’ll buy at a good price.”
“Fantastic.” She turned to Abigail. “May I buy this? I need to get home and have breakfast so I can start harvesting.”
Abigail grinned as brightly as Pierre and pulled the ledger over again. Morris boggled, choking out noise.
“‘Bye, Marky,” Finley said over her shoulder.
Morris stared a moment longer before shoving the coupons in his pocket and storming out of the store. When the bell had stopped clanging after the door slammed, Pierre laughed aloud.
“Miss Fin, I’d hug you if you weren’t on a crutch,” he said.
“Are you serious about going home and harvesting?” Abigail asked.
“Completely,” Finley replied. “I was going to leave it until tomorrow, but I have plenty to get today.” She leaned her crutch against the counter to take her wallet from her back pocket.
“Are you sure you can handle that with a sprained ankle?” Pierre asked.
“Yeah. It’ll take me longer, that’s all. Particularly the delivery.”
“Would it go faster if you had someone to help you?” Penny asked.
“Yeah, but I don’t have any helpers.” She opened her wallet and looked at Abigail. “How much?”
“Finley,” Abigail said.
“Did you actually hear Penny?”
Finley gave her a baffled look. “I…did?”
“I’m offering to help,” Penny said.
Finley turned to stare at her. “What?”
“To pay you back for the light.”
She continued to stare. She looked at Abigail, and then at Pierre when he cleared his throat.
“Not to be pushy given my vested interest,” said Pierre, “but you should take the help. You could get Sam and Vincent in on it, too.”
“Vincent has a wagon he’ll let us use if I ask politely,” Penny said.
Finley turned to look at her again. She opened her mouth, but closed it and sighed. Rubbing her face, she said, “Sorry, yes, I would really appreciate the help. I haven’t had breakfast or coffee yet and I’m stupid right now. Can you give me about an hour before you bring anyone over?”
“Of course. I’d need to put things away and change.”
“Okay then.” Smiling, she added, “Thanks.”
Penny smiled back, doing what she could to ignore how bright it was on her face. She gathered her bags and left the store, walking as quickly as caution would allow. The trailer was empty when she arrived, but it did not slow her down. She put everything away, arranging things in the cupboards to kill time. When forty minutes had passed, she changed into old jeans and a t-shirt, put on her sneakers, and headed through town.
Vincent was in front of his house, doodling on the ground with chalk. He looked up on her approach, waving with a grin.
“Hi, Miss Penny!” he said. “D’you wanna draw with me?”
“Actually,” said Penny, “I came to see if you and Sam wanted to do something with me.”
“Like go help Finley on the farm.”
His eyes went wide. “We can go up there?”
“Yes, but it’ll be to help her harvest crops, not to play.”
“I’ll help!” Vincent said, getting to his feet. “I’ll get Sam to help, too!” He rushed off before Penny could say another word, calling for Sam even before he had opened the door. Penny hid her giggling in one hand as she waited, but she laughed outright when Vincent and Sam came back outside, Vincent sitting in a wagon Sam pulled along.
“You want the wagon too, right?” Sam asked.
“Yes please,” Penny laughed. “Sorry to drop this on you, but…well, Finley asked for help.”
“It’s cool,” Sam said, pulling Vincent in the wagon as they headed north. “Not like I think she doesn’t need the help, y’know? Besides,” he added, pointing over his shoulder, “he’s been dying to really go up there.”
“Is Finley’s leg any better?” Vincent asked.
“Not really,” said Penny. “It’s only been a few days and Harvey said to stay on crutches for five weeks.”
“Boo,” Vincent said.
Sam laughed. “I think Fin’s more annoyed about it than you are, buddy. But that’s why she’ll be happy to have us help.”
Vincent grinned and went quiet to wait out the rest of the walk. When the farm came into view, he got out of the wagon and ran on ahead. Though he saw no one at first, the cottage’s door opened as he started up the stairs. Finley, still only using one crutch, looked at him blankly. She blinked several times and smiled.
“Hey Vincent,” she said.
“We came to help!” he said in reply, pointing to Sam and Penny.
“And I appreciate that,” Finley said, starting to go down the stairs. She patted his head as she passed him, beckoning them all when she headed for the fenced-in crops. “Bring the wagon and please don’t let chickens or Arthur run in after you.”
“’Arthur’?” Sam and Vincent said in unison.
“Her cat,” Penny said, holding the gate open so the wagon could be pulled in. She looked toward the coop, pointing when she spotted Arthur bathing himself near the open door. “There he is.”
Sam and Vincent turned to look. After a moment, Vincent said, “Dogs are better.”
Finley laughed. “You and my dad agree. But I love that little orange nerd, so he’s my favorite.” She rubbed her head, staring at the rows of crops before them. “So…geez, lemme think.”
“You don’t have it all planned out?” Sam asked, clearly trying not to laugh.
“I did when it was just me getting filthy,” said Finley. She sighed, drumming her fingers on her head. “I didn’t think about getting other people out in the dirt here with me.”
“I like dirt!” Vincent announced. “It’s okay!”
“We can take baths, Fin,” Sam said with a snicker. “Chill out and put us to work.”
Though she sighed again, she smiled. “All right, all right. So…okay, Vincent, I want you to get as all the loose dirt off everything we give you. People shouldn’t have to really clean what they buy.” She coughed a laugh when he saluted her, turning then to Penny and Sam. “You two get parsnips and green beans—I put some pails near the trellises for the beans. I’ll deal with the potatoes and cauliflower. And before I forget, Vincent, please put a few of everything off to one side. I’ll keep them for food.”
Vincent saluted her again, moving to stand out of the way. While Sam set himself to carefully digging up parsnips without hesitation, Penny took a moment as she picked up a pail to look at Finley. Finley was going along the rows carefully, a bucket in her free hand with a tool inside it. At the end of a row with leafy plants, she set the bucket down and knelt carefully to keep her right ankle from bending too much. As she started to dig, brows furrowed in concentration, Penny turned to hide her smile.
They worked mostly in silence, Vincent breaking it to cheer when something was brought his way for cleaning. He hummed a tune while he did, looking remarkably at peace as he tossed dirt clods back toward the rows. When Finley came back up her row at last with a bucket full of potatoes, he grinned at her and pointed at the wagon. She looked at the parsnips and smiled.
“Attaboy,” she said. “Just like that.”
“This is fun!” Vincent said. “I like farming!”
“Say that when you’re really digging,” Sam said, arriving with another few parsnips. Once he’d set them down, he leaned backward to stretch with a groan. “Geez, Fin, you were gonna get this all on your own?”
Finley looked at him curiously. “Well…yes? It’s my farm and I planted for a large harvest. I just didn’t expect to be injured when harvest time came.”
“Geez,” Sam said again.
“Sam, trade with me for a while,” Penny said, offering the pail. “No one wants you to hurt your back.”
“All right,” he said, taking the pail with one hand and rubbing his back with the other. He went to the trellises as Finley moved down a line of cauliflower. Penny knelt down to dig up a parsnip, starting to pull when she thought she was deep enough. The parsnip resisted. Penny adjusted her grip, grit her teeth, and pulled harder. The parsnip popped out of the ground immediately, nearly sending her head over heels backward from her force. She yelped as she tipped, scrambling to catch herself.
As she knew they would, Vincent and Sam burst out laughing. Her face burned bright red, but her mortification stalled when, for the first time, she heard Finley laughing without restraint. Finley sat shaking with laughter, eyes closed tight as she tried and failed to hide her massive smile.
“P-Penny, I’m s-sorry!” she laughed. “I shouldn’t l-laugh this much!” She coughed, but continued to giggle when she said, “You squeaked!”
Whatever shred of mortification was left in her vanished at the sight of Finley’s brilliant smile, replaced neatly with something she did not want to name then. She laughed along with them, doing what she could to rub away her blush. They resumed harvesting, snickering every so often. Vincent arranged the crops very neatly in the wagon, tilting his head from side to side as he considered his puzzle. The noon heat started to creep in, no breeze coming to cool them. Sweat beaded and rolled down Penny’s spine, and she took a moment to wipe away what was on her brow.
“Hey,” said Finley.
Penny and Sam turned. Penny stared at the sight of multiple cauliflowers sitting clean in the wagon. Both of them boggled at Finley, leaning on her crutch without the slightest sign of looking tired. She smiled at all of them.
“We’ve got a good amount for the day,” she said. “Why don’t you go sit on the porch for a while before we go to Pierre’s? I’ll draw some water from the well.”
“You’ve got a well?” Sam asked.
“Yep. Robin’s amazing. Go on, sit for a while.”
Sam let out a massive sigh, stretching with his arms over his head. Penny followed him through the gate, Vincent behind her and Finley trailing. Finley went around the house as they sat heavily on the porch. Penny sighed as she sat down, trying to scrape dirt from under her fingernails. Soon enough, Finley returned with a bucket of water.
“Hey, let Vincent have a drink first,” Sam said.
“All of you should have a drink before you clean your hands,” Finley replied, but she let Sam take the bucket to hold for Vincent. Once both of them had taken a drink, Sam gave Penny the bucket. She drank slowly to savor the cold, clean taste.
“How the heck are you not tired?” Sam asked.
“Hmm?” said Finley.
“You pulled up way more than us,” he said. “And you looked wiped out when we got here. I thought you were just an electrician.”
Finley blinked at him. She laughed quietly, rubbing her cheek and leaving a streak of dirt without realizing. “Oh. Well—yeah, I was, but I work out a lot and I’ve been running a ton. I woke up late, too, so…yeah. Not super tired.”
“Lucky,” Sam said. He turned when Penny offered the bucket back. Penny smiled as he and Vincent began to clean their hands. She turned when she realized she was being watched. She met Finley’s gaze without meaning to, unable to look away. Finley’s eyes were uncertain, shoulders slightly raised. The muscles in her jaw flexed on unformed words. Penny could not even manage that much, still unwilling to name was was stuck in the back of her mind.
“Uh,” Finley eventually said. “How about…this?” She headed up the stairs and inside. Sam and Penny stared at the door, left open. Finley returned quickly with an acoustic guitar in her free hand. She came down the stairs and sat on them near Penny.
“I played a little last night, so it shouldn’t be too out of tune,” she said. She took a pick from her pocket, strummed a few times to check the tune, and made the slightest adjustments. This done, she began to play.
The song was not quiet at all, instead bright and cheerful. Finley smiled as she played, eyes half closed. Penny watched her with raised brows. The tiniest breeze went by as the urge to scoot closer filled her. It was perfectly cool on the back of her neck, just strong enough to make the end of Finley’s ponytail flutter. Chest growing tight, Penny set her hand down on the porch to move closer. She stopped short because she still could not bring herself to name what was in her head.
It was too soon that Finley stopped playing. Vincent clapped for her, making her chuckle. She sat patting the guitar for a moment, and she looked toward them. Her eyes met Penny’s at once; her smile weakened. Anxiety was in her face for the second before she turned away. Despite how far she’d turned, despite how she scratched the back of her neck, Penny saw how her expression turned frustrated and bitter for a few seconds. Penny’s chest tightened to the point of pain, but no words came to her. When Finley turned to them, though, there was a smile on her face once again.
“Ready to head to Pierre’s?” Finley asked.
“Miss Penny’s hands are still dirty,” Vincent said.
Penny jumped, looking at her hands. She quickly took the bucket and started to clean her hands. Finley chuckled as she went back inside with the guitar. Same went to fetch the wagon, Vincent on his heels. Penny managed to get her hands clean by the time Finley came back outside and Sam and Vincent returned.
“Away we go,” Finley said, and they headed out to the road. Vincent walked behind the wagon to keep an eye on everything, catching the odd potato that tumbled when a wheel hit a bump. Finley was at the head of the group, faster on only one crutch. She paused when they reached the clinic, sighing so low in her chest it was more a growl. Penny moved to stand beside her, spotting Morris pacing outside Pierre’s. When he turned and saw them, he looked at Finley, at Penny, at Finley, and finally at Penny with a raised brow. Penny struggled with the urge to fidget, but she looked at Finley when she saw her lift her hand.
Waving with sarcasm in her toothy smile, Finley said, “‘Bye, Matt!”
Morris went bright red, sputtered noise, and turned on his heel to stomp to the bridge. Finley snickered at him before pressing forward and opening the door for all of them. She closed the door behind herself and looked around. When she saw Pierre standing behind the counter with stars in his eyes, she laughed.
“Delivery for you,” she said.
“Finley, I love you in that special platonic way that store owners and their suppliers have,” he said. “That all looks amazing.”
“Don’t flatter me when this is my first harvest. You’ll make me overconfident.”
Pierre laughed. “It’s that good old Amundsen blood in you. C’mon, bring it up here so I can figure out what to pay you.”
Sam pulled the wagon up to the counter, Finley following. Though Penny and Vincent moved to join Sam a few steps back, Finley turned to look at them.
“You don’t have to hang out in here and wait,” she said. “I’ll bring the wagon out with me.”
“Okay,” said Sam. “We’ll hang out on the bench in front of the saloon.”
“I’ll look for you there,” Finley said, and she smiled as they left. Once the door was closed and they were well out of earshot, Sam groaned and stretched his back.
“Man, I don’t even think Alex could do that as easy as she did,” he said. “How buff is she?”
“Enough to pull down those old bridge supports,” Penny said, nudging him with her elbow. “Maybe you need to start working out more.”
“I’m not planning on moving in over there, so I’m good,” Sam laughed. “I hope whoever does is ready to help harvest.”
“It wasn’t that bad,” Penny said as they sat on the bench with Vincent between them. “I wish I had a hat, though.”
“It’s nice over there,” Vincent said. “The trees look good for climbing.”
“Fin’s gotta keep both feet on the ground for a while, buddy,” said Sam. “I don’t think she’ll let you climb her trees.”
“Boo,” Vincent said.
Sam laughed and rubbed his head. “We can go to Cindersap this weekend if you really wanna climb trees.”
“’Kay,” Vincent said, and he settled back to wait. Both he and Sam started to doze off, the air warm and still around them. Penny took the time to get the last of the dirt from under her nails. When the thought of Finley playing her guitar floated up in her mind, she went still. Her gaze grew unfocused as a daydream took her, one of being on the farm early on a summer morning. It was not a daydream of visiting; she had woken up in the cottage and had a cup of coffee with Finley at the small table.
The sound of small, squeaky wheels broke the daydream and made her look up. Finley came around the saloon with a gait made awkward by how she pulled the wagon behind her.
“All set,” Finley set as she rounded the bench. “I’ve got some stuff to deal with at home, but before I go, I’ve got stuff for you. Vincent, hold out your hands.”
He did so, looking confused when Finley set something in them. His eyes widened when he saw she had set several bills there.
“For you and Sam,” Finley said with a smile. She moved to stand before Penny, reaching into her pocket as she said, “You too, hold out your hands.”
“Finley, you don’t—”
“C’mon, please?” She waited patiently until Penny had offered her hands, setting something there. She made Penny close her hands around it before she could look.
“I really appreciate the help,” Finley said, taking her hand back. “Sam, tell Jodi I said ‘thanks,’ okay?”
“Will do,” Sam said.
“Thanks again,” Finley said, and she lifted a hand in parting as she went off on her own.
“Thank you, Miss Finley!” Vincent called after her. He grinned at the money in his hands before showing it to Sam.
“Nice,” Sam said. “Mom’ll be happy.”
Penny bit her lip and opened her hands enough to look. Her gut twisted when she saw a roll of bills in her palm, held neatly with a rubber band.
“She pay you, too?” Sam asked.
“She did,” Penny said, and she somehow managed to hold down her sigh.
The only thing Penny told Pam the next morning was that she helped bring in a harvest. She did not mention the money Finley had given her, as it sat in her pocket as heavy as lead. The pancakes Pam made perfectly were bitter in her mouth; she ate quickly to get her food down. Impatience began to fester in her spine as she did the dishes.
“Gonna head out, kiddo,” Pam said, and there was an odd flatness in her voice that made Penny turn.
“To…JojaMart?” Penny asked.
“I wanna find Lewis,” Pam sighed. “Maybe he can throw his weight around with Morris.”
“Oh,” Penny said quietly. “Okay. Um. Good luck, Mom.”
“Thanks, Penny,” Pam said, kissing her head. As she headed for the door, she said, “Have a good day with the munchkins, all right?”
“All right. I’ll see you tonight.”
“Yep,” said Pam, and Penny knew it was a lie. She sighed when Pam closed the door, turning back to the dishes. She finished them and headed for the museum with the money still in her pocket. The day dragged, minutes long as hours. She let Vincent run away with recounting the previous day to Jas. It let her dwell and think. Still she forced down what was in her head; still the money weighed heavy on every part of her.
She took Vincent and Jas home slightly early with the excuse of giving them a longer weekend. Though she started home from Cindersap with her eyes on her feet, she looked toward the clinic and the western road when she passed Haley and Emily’s house. In the distance, she saw Finley going up the stairs with only one crutch. Her red backpack was hanging on one shoulder, leaving her broad back on display.
All at once, anger spread through her nerves from the nape of her neck. She stormed up the narrow road, shoes loud on the cobblestone. The noise grated on the anger and sharpened it to a fine edge, quickening her pace even more. She was on the stairs before she knew it and at the top even sooner. She caught sight of the door to the community center closing and went straight for it.
Penny hesitated at the door, hand stuck to the latch. For all the anger in her, she could not shove the door open. She went inside quietly, closing the door gently. Finley was not in sight and there was no clicking from her crutch. Penny went for the hall nearest the junimo hut, ignoring the junimos that came out at the sound of her footsteps. She checked the pantry first and stopped immediately because Finley was sitting on the floor in front of the table with her back to the door. She rummaged in her backpack, a cauliflower and potato on the floor next to her.
“Finley,” Penny said.
Finley let out a choked noise, jumping where she sat. She turned, clutching her shirt at her chest, and said, “Penny, come on, at least knock if you’re gonna come up behind me like that!”
“I don’t want your money,” Penny said in a rush.
Finley stared. Her brows furrowed deeper. She said, “Wait, what?”
“I came to help to pay you for our light,” she said. “I didn’t help to get you to pay me.”
She continued to stare. She sighed and said, “I would’ve been an asshole if I charged you for that light, and I would’ve been a bigger asshole if I didn’t pay you for helping.”
“I didn’t want you to pay me! I wanted to be even!”
“Penny, that wasn’t even amounts of work! Why are you mad at me for this?”
“I don’t want you to treat me like a charity case and pay me when all I did was help you for helping me!”
Finley’s mouth opened. She blinked several times. Choking noise a moment, she said, “You worked for me, did a good job, and I paid you! How is that any different from your tutoring job? Why am I pissing you off like this?”
Penny knew her cheeks had gone red. She pulled the money out of her pocket, went to Finley, and all but threw the money in her lap.
“I don’t want this,” she said, voice shaking, and she turned to leave.
“N—wait a minute!” Finley said, scrambling to get her crutch and stand. “No, wait a minute!”
Penny tried to storm away. Her feet stuck to the floor over and over.
“Penny, what the hell makes me paying you any different from anyone else paying you?” Finley asked. “What the hell makes it wrong for me to do that?”
The thing in the back of Penny’s head started to shove its way forward to its name again. She tried to shove it back as she went down the hall.
Voice rough, Finley demanded, “Penny, what the hell did I do wrong?”
Penny turned, intent on shouting back. The sight of the hurt and confusion on Finley’s face made her stop short. She moved to step back and turn away. Finley’s eyes fell, but then widened.
Her foot sank into a rotten floorboard. She pitched backward, eyes going wide as the blood left her face. Before she could fall, Finley caught her around the waist with her free arm and pulled her up and against her. They both froze.
It was unlike the hug Finley had given her weeks ago. It was just as steady, but the cautiousness was lost in how firmly she held Penny against the fall. The firmness of her hand on her hip made Penny stop breathing.
Just as quickly as she’d caught her, Finley set Penny on her feet and let go. She stepped back, face turned away and eyes filled with disgust. Penny’s heart fell out of her throat and straight through the floor.
“Forget it,” Finley muttered. “Don’t take the money. Just—forget it.” She turned completely and went back to the pantry.
Penny did not follow. She turned on her heels and rushed out of the community center so quickly she did not hear the junimos chattering to call after her.
She wasn’t entirely sure how she managed to sleep at all that night. She woke late and hungry after skipping dinner, and she was alone with no note from Pam. The silence was painful as she sat at the table with a plate of buttered toast. Still, she ate slowly and carefully to avoid making noise.
Though Penny wanted to let her mind wander, it remained blank. When she looked at the microwave clock, thirty minutes had passed since she’d finished eating. She watched another three go by before her stomach started to twist. Throat aching, she cleaned up, got dressed, and headed north. When she came close to the community center, she walked faster and kept her eyes on the ground.
The breeze that rolled down from the mountain was cooler than in town, catching noisily in the pine trees. As she went up the road, she began to hear wood being sanded. The garage was open at Robin’s shop, and Penny spotted Robin sitting on an upturned milk crate inside. A rocking chair made of mahogany wood was before her, its design ornate despite being in progress. Robin’s smile was small with concentration, but blissful nonetheless. She stopped sanding the chair’s arm when she spotted Penny, lifting a hand.
“Hey there, Penny,” said Robin. “How’re you on this lovely day?”
“I’m all right,” Penny lied. “How’re you?”
“Happy to get the garage to myself for the day,” Robin replied. “I’ve been dying to work on this.”
“Is it for yourself?”
“Yep. I’ve always wanted a rocking chair, but I almost never get the garage space to work on this one.”
Penny looked about, only seeing Sebastian’s motorcycle tucked to one side. “Did Demetrius go out?”
“Along with Sebastian and Maru. They all needed stuff from the electronics store in the city, so I really get the garage all day.”
“Oh,” Penny said faintly.
Robin caught the tone in her voice and raised a brow. She smiled gently and pointed to one side. She said, “I’ve got another crate over there you’re free to sit on. And I’ve got a couple good ears if you need to talk about something.”
Penny opened her mouth slightly. She closed it, sighed, and fetched the crate to sit nearby. She crossed her arms in her lap and let her spine curl forward.
“Are you doing okay?” Robin asked. “I thought you’d be in a good mood after getting to help on the farm. Sam told Sebastian how great it was over there.”
“I was,” Penny mumbled.
“Yeah,” she admitted.
“Did something wind up happening? I heard about the argument your mother had with Morris.”
“Lewis said he tried to get Morris to move on repairing the bus stop, but Morris wouldn’t budge,” Robin said. “He had some excuse about the work order being delayed by the Joja office in the city. Pam didn’t accept that and got into a shouting match with him.” Her smile faded. “Is everything all right?”
Penny sighed. “It is. It’d just be easier if the bus stop was working.”
“As long as you’re sure,” Robin said.
“Then something else ruined your good mood?”
She did not reply. She bit the inside of her cheek. “I’m—angry at someone.”
Robin’s brows rose. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you mad at someone.” She thought. “You didn’t even get angry at Sebastian that one time he stole Maru and your dolls when you were little.”
“I don’t like being mad.”
“It’s definitely not fun,” said Robin. “Especially if it’s at someone.”
“It’s—just—” Penny sighed hard. “I’ve never been this frustrated. I don’t want to be mad at her. I want to be friends and I want her to not be upset with me. But—then I don’t know why she’s upset or if she’s really upset at all! I don’t—I don’t know what I’m doing wrong!”
She sighed again, even harder. “But I’m doing the same thing. I didn’t tell her why I’m really mad.” Going quiet, she said, “Or that she didn’t do anything wrong.”
Robin’s brows rose further before coming back down. Very casually, she said, “I know where you’re coming from. It’s pretty hard to admit that when you’ve had that type of argument.”
Penny looked at her and said, “What?”
Robin smiled and started to sand the chair again. “Sometimes I get so mad at Demetrius for stuff he does. Stupid things like blowing holes in walls and tables, yeah, but I can fix all of that. But I get angry at him because if he’d just talk to me, we could avoid getting a hole in the house. I want him to talk to me because I don’t want him to get hurt and be unhappy for it.”
Penny looked down. She rubbed her thumbs together. “That’s why I wish she’d talk to me like she promised. I know she’s not happy right now, but I don’t know how to get her to talk to me.”
“Know what it really sounds like?” Robin asked.
“It sounds like you have a crush on Finley.”
She stiffened as the back of her neck went cold. As she looked at Robin, she began to blush from the tips of her ears to the top of her chest. Weakly, she said, “Um.”
Robin smiled, humming pleasantly. “You know, I think you’d love it over on the farm. It’s amazing how quiet it can be in the afternoon. There’s even a little bit of land that’d be good for a flower garden.”
“Isn’t okay with another woman having a crush on her?”
“N-no, that’s not it—she is, but I don’t…I can’t tell what she’s thinking. She seems so upset with me.”
“Then you’re mad back because you wish she’d talk to you?”
“So,” Robin said gently, “from what I know of Fin so far, you might need to be the one to talk to her first.”
“I know,” Penny said quietly.
Robin chuckled. “I’m not saying go over there and tell her you’ve got a crush, Penny. Just talk to her like a normal person.”
“I know,” Penny said again. “But it makes me nervous.”
“Talking to her?”
Robin gave her a look. “Talking to that giant klutzy puppy of a woman makes you nervous?”
Penny sighed. “It sounds stupid when you put it like that. But—I get nervous that I’ll blush or I’ll laugh too loudly or—just do something embarrassing.”
Robin gave her another look before smiling. “You’ve got one heck of a crush on her if you’re that worried about laughing in front of her.”
Penny sighed tremulously and put her hands on her cheeks to try to quell the blush she felt surging. “I don’t want to sound stupid.”
“I’ve heard you laugh plenty of times and you’ve never sounded stupid. You’ll be just fine. But,” she added, “you’ve gotta talk to her.”
“I know,” she said quietly.
“You don’t have to go today. If you had an argument, you should both cool off.”
Penny nodded without speaking. Robin nodded as well, starting to work on the chair with greater focus. Every so often, she glanced at Penny and saw how she was relaxing as she thought. She smiled to herself when she saw Penny look at the wall that faced west, but said nothing. The afternoon had started to settle in before either of them spoke again, and Penny was the one to break the silence.
“Thank you, Robin,” she said, taking to her feet. “I’m sorry I took up your time, though.”
“You didn’t take up any time at all,” Robin replied. “But do me a favor before you go?”
“Smile a little? I don’t think you have a reason to look miserable like that.” Because Penny hesitated, she grinned and said, “Imagine Finley as a big goofy dog who just tripped over her own paws.”
The thought was too absurd not to imagine at once, and it made Penny snort with laughter and start giggling. When she calmed down, a smile remained on her face.
“Thank you,” she said again. “Will you say ‘hello’ to everyone for me when they get home?”
“Will do,” Robin chuckled. “Say ‘hi’ to Pam for me.”
“I will,” Penny replied, and she waved as she left. Though she looked toward the westward mountain path, she headed back south. When the community center came into view, she slowed down. She stopped when she saw the door. After taking a deep breath, she went inside and closed the door gently behind her.
“Is anyone here?” she asked, looking about. Hesitating, she added, “Finley?”
The reply that came was not made of words, but of happy trilling. Multiple junimos popped into being throughout the room, all of them waving at her. The green junimo that skipped over and waved both hands was one she recognized, and so she crouched down and offered her hands. It hopped into them, chattering as she stood back up. She smiled and opened her mouth, but the junimo continued to chatter without end. Eventually, she spoke to interrupt it.
“Finley’s not with me to translate,” she said. “I don’t know what you’re saying.”
Though the junimo had no mouth, its eyes spoke of how it pouted then. It crooned softly, sadly, and reached up to stroke her cheek.
“I,” Penny said, “is Finley…here right now?”
The junimo closed its eyes and turned from side to side, crooning sadly again.
“Oh,” Penny murmured. “She probably brought all the gifts she had for you yesterday.”
The junimo purred and leaned forward in a nod. Penny sighed, looking at the other junimos. When the green junimo patted her chin, she turned back.
“I’m sorry for getting into an argument with Finley here yesterday,” she said. “That was rude of me. Of us.”
The junimo chirruped, putting both hands in the air. It pointed toward the hall leading to the pantry, tugging on her thumb. She followed its lead, other junimos starting to trail behind her on the way. The junimo guided her to the pantry first, gesturing at the unpolished tile that had replaced the floorboards. Before Penny could be amazed, it tugged on her thumb again. She followed the other junimos to the first room Finley had shown her, and her eyes widened at once.
All around the room were small stone vases, and each vase held spring flowers. A large number of vases held dandelions, pristine and lovely. She smiled as her mouth opened, exhaling a laugh.
“Wow,” she said softly. She looked at the junimo in her hands and asked, “Did Finley ask you to do this?”
The junimo nodded; Penny laughed again.
“She’s really silly even when she’s mad,” she chuckled. She exhaled slowly and looked at the junimo to ask, “Do you think she’d still want to talk to me after that fight?”
The junimo stared, its eyes appearing to grow wide. It took her thumb in both its hands and squeezed. The other junimos purred at her, leaving her at a loss for words.
“Then,” she said after a long while, “I’ll talk to her.”
Though she had been filled with a strong sense of purpose on leaving the community center, shyness carved a hollow space back into her when she came down the stairs and looked at the road leading to the farm. She had opened her mouth, sighed, and hurried home in an attempt to stop overthinking.
The rest of the weekend passed by in a haze, Pam offering little companionship and less conversation when she was home. Distracted by her own thoughts, Penny did not realize that Pam came home well after dark on Sunday, but in silence and without reeking of hops.
Like the weekend, the week went by faster than Penny expected. Vincent was quiet and diligent every lesson, seemingly satisfied with adventure for the time being. The gossip for the week was how good Finley’s vegetables were, but there was no word about Morris’ take on it. It wasn’t until Thursday that Penny heard tell of his reaction, and it came from an unexpected source in Shane.
He came early in the morning while she was sitting reading in the chair out front, carrying a cloth-covered basket in his arms. Though there were bags under his eyes and his chin was covered in stubble, he smiled slightly when she looked up from her book.
“Pam up yet?” he asked.
“She went out for a walk a little while ago,” Penny replied. “Did…you need to talk to her?”
“If she taught you how to make her deviled eggs, then nah.”
Penny stared at him, looked at the basket, and let out a small, startled laugh as she closed her book. She set it in the chair as she stood, saying, “I can’t believe it’s already time for the Egg Festival.”
“Everyone but me and Abigail seems to forget,” Shane said. He offered the basket delicately, only tucking his hands in his hoodie pockets when Penny’s hold on the basket was firm. “Well, us and the chickens.”
“I’m happy you always remember,” Penny said. “It’s a fun festival every time.” After a second and a glance at the door, she said, “I’m sorry, could you open that? I’d like to get these in the fridge for now.”
“Sure,” he said, and he moved to open and hold the door for her. She took a few bowls from the cupboards to load the eggs into, heading back outside with the basket and cloth. Shane took them when she handed them over, but did not turn to leave silently as he had done the previous three years.
“Y’know that farmer?” Shane asked, aiming his thumb over his shoulder. “Jas says you do.”
“Yeah, that one.”
“I do.” She thought, and then winced. “Please don’t tell me something else happened and she got hurt again.”
“Not as far as I know. Marnie said she’s been hanging out at the river every day for a week, and Jas looked sad when she heard that.” He raised a brow. “D’you know what that’d make her sad?”
Penny shook her head, saying, “I’d think it’d make her happy, since it means Finley can’t get hurt again.”
“Short of a fishhook in the eye.”
“She’s not that clumsy.”
He shrugged, but then asked, “Think she’ll come to the festival? Lewis probably invited her.”
“I hope she does, but I think it’ll depend on if her ankle is up to it.”
“If it’s up to going all the way to the river on a dirt road, it should be up to going to town. ‘Sides, it’s time for free food. Everyone should come.”
Penny chuckled. “That’s true.” She swallowed slowly as she thought. She looked at him and said, “Thank you for bringing these by. If…could you do me a favor if you run into Finley before Saturday? Can you invite her to the festival, too?”
“Don’t know when I’d run into her, but I can, yeah.” He smirked. “If only to meet the person who pissed Morris off like that.”
“He’s really upset?”
“He banned her from the store.”
Penny stared at him. She blinked a few times, shaking her head slightly, and said, “I beg your pardon?”
“He banned her. Told everyone to show her the door if she comes in.”
“But-she’s never even gone into JojaMart.”
“Doesn’t mean he can’t ban her,” Shane snickered. “Someone said ‘Amundsen’ and he looked like he was gonna go through the roof. It’s amazing.”
Penny tried to bite her tongue, but she wasn’t quick enough to stop her snort of laughter. It made Shane snickered even more, and she hid her giggles in one hand until they both calmed down.
“If you see her before Saturday, you should tell her that,” Penny said. “I think she’d like it.”
“I can do that, too,” Shane replied, and he lifted one hand in the vaguest of waves as he turned and left. Penny continued to smile as she retrieved her book and headed inside to start boiling the eggs.
There wasn’t much noise that could reach the lake in Cindersap that wasn’t from the forest itself. It left Finley in near silence through all of Friday, the only sounds to be heard from birds, the wind, and fish that bothered to bite. She paid it all no heed, watching the water instead. When she ate lunch, a squirrel dared to come near. She tore a piece of bread off her sandwich and set it down on the dock. Squeaking, the squirrel took the bread and ran off.
Finley neither sighed nor smiled. She finished her sandwich, wedged her fishing rod in a gap in the dock’s planks, and lay back with her coat under her head. She stared at the sky, watching clouds drift by on breezes that did not reach the forest. She spent an hour doing this before falling asleep. Hours passed and took the sun with them, but Finley did not stir. As the moon rose, she started to twitch in her sleep.
Shane, an open beer in one hand and the remainder of the beer’s six pack hanging on the fingers of his other hand, shambled into the forest then, humming a droning tune as he headed for the lake. He arrived at the dock in time to see Finley flinch mightily before scrambling to sit up. Brow raised, he watched her look around and breathe shakily.
“Didn’t your mom ever warn you ‘bout fallin’ asleep outside?” he asked. “Catch your death out here.”
Finley turned quickly to stare at him. When she recognized him in the moonlight, she sighed hard and rubbed her face. Before she turned away, she grumbled, “My mother warned me about plenty, Shane, thanks.”
He looked at her, brow still raised, and looked at his beers. Sitting next to her with a grunt, he pulled a can out of the plastic and shoved it at her.
“Have a cold one,” he said.
She looked at him from the corner of her eye. She took the beer and toyed with its tab. Sighing, she opened it and said, “First beer in five years.”
“Yeah.” She took a drink and immediately made a face. “Shane—this is pisswater.”
He snickered. “Not a whole lotta choices out here. You’re not supposed t’sip it like wine, y’know.”
“Yeah, yeah.” She took another drink, grimacing as she swallowed. Neither of them spoke for a while, hooting owls the only things to hear. Shane sniffed after taking another swig, scratching his chin.
“Hey, you hear that Morris banned you from JojaMart?” he asked.
“Good. He’s a prick and I don’t want to go in his store.”
Shane almost laughed. The sound caught in his throat and he looked down. He tapped one finger on his beer before drinking down the rest of it. Setting the empty can aside, he pulled another out of the plastic and opened it.
“You’re kinda badass,” he said.
“Yeah right,” she grumbled.
“You are. I’ll never be like that.”
Finley said nothing in favor of staring at the water. Shane looked up at the moon.
“Hey Fin?” he said.
“Ever feel like…I dunno, like whatever you do, you’re gonna fuck it all up?” He exhaled slowly. “Like you got yourself stuck in an abyss that’s so deep light can’t get down to you? No matter what you try?” He grew still. “Probably not.”
Finley turned to look at him. She saw how his bleary eyes had narrowed, how his gaze had grown hollow. Again she looked at the water, and she said, “I’ve been there. Still not really out of it.”
“See the light at all?”
Finley glanced toward town. She muttered, “It comes and goes. Goes mostly because I’m a jackass.”
“At least you see it,” Shane said. “I just—Yoba help me, I feel like I’m never gonna get outta that hole. I’m not strong enough. Not like you, Fin.”
“I’m not someone to look up to, Shane,” she replied. She pushed hair out of her face, holding it back. “I’m a hell of a coward.” She downed the rest of her beer in one breath, gagging more than coughing. “And I can’t handle one cheap beer anymore, this is awful.”
He laughed through his nose. “Fast drinker, though. Just like me.” He chugged the rest of his beer as well, belching before wiping his face. “J’st don’t make it a habit, all right? You’ve got great stuff ahead, y’know? Amazing farm…people who want you around.”
She turned to look him in the face. “Shane.”
“Go home. Dump the rest of the beer out.”
“You’ve had way too much tonight.”
“‘M just gettin’ started!” he said with a crooked smile.
Finley grabbed the beer from between them and put them on her other side out of his reach. His smile left him, replaced with confusion.
“B’t those’re mine,” he said. “I bought ‘em.”
She dug her wallet out of her coat and crammed a pair of bills into his hand.
“B’t you don’t like ‘em,” he said.
“I’m gonna dump them down the drain when I get home.”
“Because you don’t need any more of this in you,” Finley said. “It’s making you think that you don’t have people who want you around and you know that’s not true. Don’t tell yourself it’s true.”
“Sure,” he mumbled. “Say that now. I won’t know it in the morning.”
“Go home, Shane,” Finley said, and she pitched her voice gentle. “It’ll be a better day tomorrow. The sun’ll be out.”
“Yeah,” he said. “Bright for the festival.”
“Egg Festival.” He stopped with a memory before turning and jabbing a finger in her shoulder. “Hey, Penny had something to say to you about that!”
She shrank back. “What?”
“She wants you to come! Her and Pam make awesome deviled eggs and you oughta eat ‘em!”
Finley stared. “She what?”
“Wants you to come to the festival! You accept invitations from pretty girls even if you’re a girl, you dumbass! Who taught you manners?”
“Uh,” Finley said.
“Go to the festival,” Shane said, jabbing her shoulder again. “I’ll drag you there if I don’t see you.”
“A-all right,” Finley said, holding up her hands. “Just—gimme a little while before you come over to drag me.”
“Attagirl,” he said. He belched again, grimacing as his stomach roiled. “All right, time for me to stop.” Standing, he said, “G’night, Fin. I’ll see you tomorrow, yeah?”
“Yeah,” Finley said, and she waited until he’d gone into the ranch house before making her own way home and pouring the other beers down the drain.
The tables for food were set up by nine-thirty, the tables to eat at by quarter to ten. Lewis shooed Vincent, Jas, and Abigail away when they tried to follow him as he started to hide eggs and ten to ten. They busied themselves with a game of tag in the center of town, managing to rope Sam into it after a time. Penny and Maru stood by to watch, and Penny glanced over her shoulder every so often.
“You’re awful at not making it obvious,” Maru chuckled.
“What?” Penny said, looking at her. “Not making what obvious?”
“That you’re looking at the road to the farm,” Maru replied. “You really want Finley to show up.”
“I—well—I do, but it’s so I can apologize.”
“Excuse me? For what?”
“We had an argument about a week ago and we haven’t spoken since. But I want to talk to her, so I want her to be here so I can apologize.”
Maru stared at her.
Penny’s face flushed as she said, “What? It would be weird if I didn’t want to apologize.”
“I’m just trying to imagine what you argued about,” said Maru. “Even if it’s Finley, it’s hard to think of you being mad at anyone.”
“Wait, why ‘even’ Finley? She’s very sweet and funny once you get to know her.”
“I’m teasing, Penny,” Maru giggled, nudging her shoulder. “Geez, jump to her defense any faster and I’ll think you’ve got a crush on our town’s resident klutz.”
Penny opened her mouth, but her throat closed up as her face burned.
Maru looked at her. Her eyes went wide as her brows rose. “Penny, oh my gosh, do you?”
“Um. Well. Yes.”
Maru grinned and leaned closer to lower her voice. “Okay, you have to gush. You listened to me gush when I had a crush on Sam, so now it’s your turn.”
“That was when we were kids,” Penny protested, but she giggled all the same. She took a deep breath, rubbing the back of her neck. “I don’t know…I already said she’s funny and sweet. I don’t know how to gush.”
“What does she do that just makes you happy?”
“Does hugging me count?”
The scandalized look that came to Maru then was so overt and overwrought that Penny burst into giggles.
“You’re all the way up to hugging?” Maru asked in a stage whisper. “How risqué.”
“Just twice!” Penny giggled. She giggled even harder, saying, “No, wait, that makes it sound worse.”
“Only out of context.” She smiled and nudged Penny gently. “Think she might have a crush on you, too?”
Her giggling stopped and her smile faded. “Um.”
Maru’s smile broke instantly as her brows rose. Lowering her voice to a proper whisper, she asked, “Oh no, is that what you argued about?”
“No, no!” Penny whispered back. “It wasn’t! I—I don’t know if she does or not! It’s really hard to tell how she feels about anything. Anything other than Joja, I mean.”
“Well,” Maru said slowly, “she seems like the kind of person who’d be polite about something like this.”
“She really, really is, yeah.”
“Then you should be able to talk to her, I think.” She thought, and then smiled again. “No wonder you want her here today.”
“Yeah,” Penny said quietly. She sighed and rubbed her cheeks. “I really hope she comes.”
Maru opened her mouth, but paused when she caught motion in the corner of her eye. She turned and saw Finley coming down the road on one crutch, looking exhausted and nervous. Maru grinned and turned to Penny.
“Looks like you get your wish,” she said.
Penny turned. She saw Finley, turned away from them as she spoke to Pierre at his stall. She turned back around at once, staring at the ground with wide eyes. She whispered, “I am not ready to talk to her again, I take that back.”
“Penny, get over there and say ‘hi’ at least!” Maru laughed. “She’s not gonna bite your head off!”
“But I was so rude to her before! I don’t want to make her even more angry!”
Her protests withered. She turned to carefully peek past Maru. For a few moments, she watched Finley go between clusters of people. When Finley attempted to greet George and Evelyn as Evelyn wheeled George onto the flower-print mats, Penny saw George frown and remain silent. Because Finley’s shoulders slumped, Penny took a deep breath.
“I’m going to go talk to her,” she said firmly, and she headed off when Maru gave her a thumbs up. She went with quick steps, biting her lip when she drew close enough to hear Finley mumble, “Dammit.”
“Finley?” she said.
Finley looked over her shoulder and froze.
Penny froze as well, but managed to smile. “You shouldn’t get discouraged when George does that. He takes a while to warm up to people.”
Finley hesitated. She turned around awkwardly, wobbling briefly, and said, “I’m starting to get that, yeah.”
They went quiet. They looked down. The weight that settled on Penny’s back spoke of Maru’s stern gaze.
“D-do you like deviled eggs?” Penny asked.
“My mom and I made deviled eggs. Do…you like them?”
“Uh.” She chuckled. “Y-yeah, actually. I haven’t had them in months.”
Penny could not help how bright her smile grew then, but kept herself from reaching out to tug on Finley’s elbow. She said, “Why don’t you sit? I’ll bring you a plate.”
Finley opened her mouth to protest, made a faint noise as she thought, and sheepishly mumbled, “Yeah, I’d probably drop it in a second.” She followed Penny’s lead to one of the smaller tables, sitting gingerly as she kept her right foot off the ground. Penny saw her wince when she set her foot down, but bit her tongue and went off to the serving tables. She caught sight of both Pam and Robin looking at her closely from across the punch bowl, but only smiled at them as she gathered a plate of deviled eggs and two cups of punch.
Carefully, she ferried everything back to the table and set it all down. Finley’s eyes lit up then, the slight curve to her spine straightening out. The sight of her eagerness brought the memory of imagining her as a dog, and Penny hid her smile in one hand.
“What?” Finley asked, seeing the amusement in her eyes.
“Nothing,” Penny said. “I didn’t know you liked them so much, that’s all.”
“We usually only have them for Winter’s Star,” Finley said. She looked at the eggs again, looked at the cups, and looked at Penny. “Aren’t you going to sit?”
“I,” Penny started. She stopped, closed her mouth, and sat in the other chair. Quietly, she said, “I am.”
They both went still again. Before either of them could look down, they heard Lewis loudly say, “Go!” They turned in time to see Vincent, Jas, and Abigail run off in different directions.
“What just happened?” Finley asked.
“The egg hunt started,” Penny replied.
Finley’s eyes drifted up and to one side as she thought. “I…can’t actually remember the last time I did an egg hunt. I think I used to be good at them.”
“There’s always next year,” Penny said, taking one of the cups. “But I’ll tell you right now that Abigail always wins.”
“She doesn’t let Vincent or Jas win sometimes?”
“Not once since they started participating.”
Finley raised a brow. She picked up an egg and took a bite. When she had chewed and swallowed, she said, “We’ll see what happens when an Amundsen competes again.”
Penny hid her smile in her cup as she took a sip of punch. “Would you try really hard to win?”
“I’d try really hard to keep Abigail from winning so Vincent or Jas could win.” She ate the rest of the egg while Penny giggled, smiling slightly as she chewed. Once she had swallowed, she said, “My compliments to you and Pam for these. They’re really good.”
“More to my mom than me,” Penny said, looking at the table. “I used a little too much mustard in my first batch.”
Finley stopped short in taking another egg. She looked at Penny, glanced about, and mumbled, “That doesn’t mean my compliments go away from you.” She put an entire egg in her mouth and started chewing before Penny looked up.
It was not Penny’s intention to watch her, but her gaze lingered when she saw the shyness blended with nervousness in Finley’s averted eyes. She almost spoke up, but bit her tongue and looked away. Finley finished chewing as Lewis blew a whistle. They watched Vincent, Jas, and Abigail return to the square with colorful eggs in their arms. Even at a distance, they could see that Abigail had the most.
“Told you,” Penny said.
“You did,” Finley replied. “Wow.” She drummed her fingers once before taking a drink.
“Finley,” Penny said, “I—”
“I’m sorry,” Finley said quickly. “Again.”
Penny stared. “What?”
“I’m sorry. About the other day. I yelled at you and I shouldn’t have.”
She reeled and hurried to say, “You didn’t yell, Finley, I promise!”
“I raised my voice, at least, and I’m sorry.” She sighed, mouth twisting, and rubbed the back of her neck. “I didn’t mean to insult you, so I’m sorry for that, t—”
“I overreacted,” Penny said.
“You didn’t insult me,” she said quietly. “I was embarrassed. I didn’t think you’d pay me, let alone that much. I just—didn’t want you to think I helped you for money.”
“I didn’t,” Finley said. She smiled, anxious as her gaze, and said, “I was happy that you came to help. It was a lot of fun.” She chuckled. “Especially when you nearly flipped over.”
Penny’s face burned. “Don’t remind me of that!”
“But you squeaked.”
Finley grinned. “And you’re easy to tease.”
Penny huffed and took an egg to eat. Finley snickered and did the same. For a while, they ate and drank in comfortable silence. When Finley had eaten the last egg, she sighed and reached down to move her right leg by hand.
“Are you okay?” Penny asked.
“My leg’s being weird. I wish I could put more weight on it when I walk, but my ankle is still trashed.”
“Even a couple weeks later?”
“Yeah. That’s what I get for being stupid.”
“You’re not stupid,” Penny said. She thought, daring swelling in her chest. “Would going for a walk help? A walk on soft ground?”
Finley thought. “Maybe.”
“What…what about a walk on the beach? For a little while, I mean.”
“I can give it a try.” She looked down and patted the table. “Um. D’you…wanna come with me? It’d be kinda boring on my own.”
Her heart shot into her throat and started to pound. She swallowed it down and said, “Y—I’d love to, yes.”
“Great,” Finley said, smiling slightly. She took her crutch in hand and stood, Penny standing as well. They started to head south, paces even with how Finley was slowed. Penny glanced over her shoulder and spotted Maru grinning at her, smiling back. She turned around to focus, staying quiet to hear birds in the trees once they’d crossed the bridge over the river. The beach came into view, the birdsong fading and the sound of small waves rising. They reached the sand and Penny paused to take off her sandals.
“I like feeling the sand,” she said when Finley gave her a curious look.
“Fair,” Finley chuckled. “I’m not used to having sand so close to home.”
“Did you live that far from a beach?” Penny asked as they began to walk.
“About a hundred miles when I was a kid. Fifty or sixty in the city.” She paused to tentatively put some weight on her right leg, heel on the ground. “That feels a little better.”
Penny smiled brightly as they resumed walking. “I’m glad it helps. I don’t think I’ll ever forget how bad that fall was.”
“You still think about it?”
“Finley, I was sure you broke your ankle. For a minute I thought you broke your leg with you looked right then.”
“C’mon, you don’t have keep worrying about me.” She put weight on her leg again, heel down in the sand. “I’ll be fine and I won’t go on roofs alone again.”
“That doesn’t mean I won’t worry,” Penny said, so quiet she could not tell if she could be heard.
Finley hesitated in putting weight on her right leg. She looked at Penny and took a deep breath. “Uh. Hey, Penny?”
Penny looked up, mouth open, and froze when she met Finley’s gaze. “Y-yes?”
“So—about the other day. I’m…sorry about grabbing you.”
Penny boggled at her. “When did you grab me?”
Finley boggled back. She turned slightly, taking weight off her leg. “I grabbed you when you tried to leave.”
“When—when the floorboard broke? Finley, I was going to fall! You probably kept me from breaking my ankle! Why on earth would you apologize?”
“I didn’t—I didn’t need to grab you like that!” Finley said, starting to go red in the face as her voice went higher with embarrassment.
She stared. She laughed purely from surprise, smiling and saying, “You caught me! I’m not upset about it!”
Finley went red to her ears. “As—long as you’re not upset. I thought—I really thought it made you upset. Weirded out.”
“Why weirded out?”
She said nothing, mouth open. Still blushing, she mumbled, “Well…never mind.” She cleared her throat. “Let’s keep walking.”
Penny meant to say “all right.” She looked down and saw that, in her distraction, Finley was about to put weight on the front of her right foot. She went pale.
“Finley—oh my gosh, no, your foot—”
She put her foot down, flexing her ankle. Instantly, her face twisted and her eyes grew wet. She pulled her foot up so sharply she wobbled on her left leg.
“Dammit, dammit, dammit,” Finley whimpered, and the sand shifted under her crutch. She pitched backward and started to fall.
Penny scrambled to grab her flailing hand. She had no hope of keeping Finley on her feet with the immense difference in their weight versus her own strength. They fell, Penny landing on Finley’s chest and winding the both of them.
“Ow,” Finley coughed weakly.
Penny sat up as quickly as she could, moving so she wasn’t on Finley’s leg. Blood gone from her face despite her pounding heart, she put a hand on Finley’s should and said, “Finley—I’m sorry, I’m sorry! Are you okay?”
Finley coughed again, rubbing her face with both hands. She took a shaking breath and said, “I’m gonna lay here for a minute, okay? Just until my ankle hurts a little less.”
“Okay,” Penny murmured. She kept her hand on Finley’s shoulder, staying steady through Finley’s shaky breathing. As her breathing evened out, Finley moved her hands to press their heels down on her eyes.
“Probably could’ve avoided that if I had my other crutch,” Finley muttered.
“Why don’t you?”
“It was wrecking my shoulder.”
“Your left shoulder?”
“Yeah. I can’t put weight like that on it anymore.”
Penny swallowed. “Since…five years ago?”
Finley went still. She slowly set her arms down beside her head. As she stared up at the sky, the bags under her eyes seemed to deepen. She sighed.
“Yeah,” she said. “Since then.”
Daring returned to her. She asked, “Will talking about it help?”
Finley breathed steadily as she stared at the sky. She blinked and turned her head to look at Penny.
“It will, yeah,” she said.
“Well,” Penny murmured, hand still on Finley’s shoulder, “I’m here. And I’m listening.”
Finley held her gaze. She sat up, cautious of her ankle. She inhaled deeply and exhaled slowly.
“Okay,” said Finley. “I’ll talk about it.”
Chapter 5: What She Carries With Her
When Finley had promised to tell her what had happened five years ago, Penny knew it wouldn't be a story with a happy ending. She knew then, and she listens because she knew then that it's not an easy story to repeat. She lets Finley tell her what happened and she doesn't run off at the end.
It is Finley who runs off in the end after doing something that leaves them both red in the face, but it is Finley who, after trading letters, makes another promise to Penny that she wholeheartedly intends to keep.
Finley sat still and silent for a long while, looking into the middle distance through her legs. When she moved, it was slow, tentative. She reached into her back pocket and retrieved her wallet. Penny watched her take something from it, holding it in one hand.
“Is,” Penny said, “is that a photo?”
“It’s my old electrician’s guild badge,” Finley said. “I got my picture taken seven years ago when I was hired.” She turned the badge over in her fingers before holding it out. “I don’t think I look anything like this anymore.”
Penny took the badge to look at the picture. A young woman looked back at her, fresh-faced and brimming with confidence. The angles of her face were less clear-cut, softened by the hair that hung loose and just above her shoulders. The slope of her shoulders was also far less defined; the only thing that immediately matched between the photo and the woman next to her was the broadness in their shoulders.
The eyes were where Penny looked closest. They were the same rich brown color, the same shape. The light in them was something Penny had seen before, though briefly. Though it took time and a long look at the woman’s smile, Penny recognized her as Finley.
“You do look different,” Penny said, offering the badge back.
“Aside from the chipmunk cheeks I had that day, I was scrawny,” Finley said as she took the badge. “All I really had going for me was that I got my mother’s build more than my dad’s.” She put the badge away and returned her wallet to her pocket. Her words faded away.
Penny reached over, but stopped short of putting her hand on Finley’s knee. She considered her words and asked, “What do you mean by ‘going for me’?”
“It’s what made Kenzie hit on me in the first place.”
“Ex. But yeah.”
“How’d you meet?”
“Remember that story I told you about the summer a Joja office hired an idiot who broke their A/C? Kenzie and her friends asked me to go out with them after I fixed it.” She smiled slightly. “I miss them a lot.”
Getting a foothold in the city, whether in work or in relationships of any sort, was not an easy task. So her father, Paul, reminded her almost every ten minutes while they moved her into an apartment.
“It’ll be tough, kidling,” he told her. “City life isn’t polite to kids just out of school, even smart ones like you.”
“Dad, c’mon,” she laughed. “I’m an Amundsen and a Madigan. We don’t get knocked down that easy.”
“True,” he laughed back. “Siobhan would be pissed if I told her daughter she wouldn’t do well.”
It wasn’t easy, but Finley managed through it by doggedly repeating, “An Amundsen and a Madigan doesn’t get knocked down this easy.” The old family daring got her into the city’s chapter of the province’s electrician’s union; the old family daring got her a job in the city’s guild. Her skill sent her up the ranks quickly, got her the most renown and the best pay.
The Joja office not calling her to fix their A/C was, honestly, not the first in a series of insults from Joja. She’d learned to tune out the comments about her age and the questioning of her skills and rates. The guild members all had horror stories about Joja work orders. Padding those work orders was nothing new and nothing frowned upon.
She went to the office in the summer heat, hair tied back and tool bag in hand. It was sweltering, but the employees were still in their full business attire. A woman with curly black hair in a dark skirt and light blouse gave her such a look of misery that she doubled her efforts at once.
Cold air began to pour out of the vents just passed noon, and Finley swore she heard more than one person cheer. She came out of the building’s basement with a splitting headache and a black hole of hunger in her gut, greeted immediately by the black-haired woman and two men who dwarfed them both.
“Drinks are on us!” the trio laughed, and one man picked Finley up to spin her around.
“I’m gonna puke,” Finley said weakly.
“Josef, put her down!” the woman said. “Don’t make her sick!”
He set her down gently, saying, “Oops, sorry. Not what I meant to do.”
“But we totally mean it about the drinks,” the other man said. He offered a hand. “Conrad. Finley, right? I thought I heard your name earlier.”
“Yeah,” she said, taking his hand. “Finley Amundsen.”
“Kenzie,” the woman said, and she offered her hand the moment Conrad let go. Her smile was warm and utterly dazzling when Finley took her hand. It came so very close to knocking her down, but she was an Amundsen and a Madigan and she’d be damned before backing down then. She smiled and bent in a soft bow.
“Glad to have helped, Kenzie,” she said. “No need to get all sweaty this way, right?”
Kenzie’s eyes widened as Josef and Conrad shared a look and a smile. Kenzie let out a brief laugh.
“Not at all,” she replied, reaching out to smooth a crease in Finley’s shirt at her shoulder.
Finley grinned and decided the day was completely worth it.
“We spent the night flirting and drinking,” Finley said. “I had her number before my third beer.” She paused to think and noticed Penny staring at her with raised brows. “What?”
“You really said that to her?” Penny asked.
“The—the part about when to get sweaty.”
“Oh. I did, yeah.” She smiled slightly when Penny continued to stare. “Penny, believe it or not, I’ve been a hell of a flirt since high school. I charmed a lot of women.”
“Then you were out back then?”
“You were really out? People knew you’re gay?”
“Oh,” Finley murmured. “I was…yeah.”
This time, Penny did not stop herself from putting a hand on Finley’s knee. She asked, “What happened?”
Finley looked at Penny’s hand. She breathed slowly, breathed deep. “Y’know…that thing I kept saying about not getting knocked down so easily because I’m an Amundsen and a Madigan?”
“Well. Combine that with being out and stupid to the wrong people at the wrong time, and…” She swallowed and laughed faintly. “It’s a great way to get yourself beat half to death.”
It hadn’t been a trying day for Josef and Conrad. They were still up to round after round of darts and nachos. Finley was tired from a day of driving around the city for multiple jobs, but saved from exhaustion by virtue of being that night’s designated driver.
Kenzie was the one nursing away a bad day, only sipping her beer and nibbling at their nachos. She leaned against Finley, sighing so heavily and so often that Finley finally stopped tangling her fingers in Kenzie’s hair.
“What’s bugging you?” she asked.
“My manager David,” Kenzie grumbled.
Finley bristled. “That asshole who’s been hitting on you?”
“Kenzie—come on, you said you were gonna go to your HR!”
“I did!” she protested. “But they just told me I need to attend a training course on conflict resolution because it’s his first strike!”
“They don’t believe you?”
“You know how Joja is,” Kenzie grumbled, taking a nacho to eat.
“Yeah,” Finley muttered, and she pulled Kenzie closer. “I’m sorry.”
“My job hunt’s going good, though.”
“The sysadmin one?”
“Yeah,” Kenzie said, staring to smile. “I have a second interview next week.”
“You’re awesome, y’know that?”
“Because you help me relax after crappy days.”
Finley smirked. “Is this your way of asking to get out of here early?”
“I’m not saying ‘no’ to a backrub that gets even better,” Kenzie replied, leaning in to kiss Finley’s neck.
“Neither am I,” Finley purred, kissing Kenzie’s cheek. She dug her keys out of her pocket and handed them over. “Go start the car and turn the heat up. I’ll tell the guys they need to get a taxi.”
Kenzie hummed a laugh before kissing Finley properly. They got out of the booth, Finley going to Josef and Conrad. They laughed and bade her good night. With a spring in her step, Finley settled her and Kenzie’s tab and headed outside. The autumn chill was in full force, viciously biting. Gritting her teeth against a shiver, she zipped her coat up all the way and walked quickly.
“I want you to leave me alone!”
So close to the side alley they’d parked in, Finley could hear Kenzie’s voice clearly. The fear in it pushed her into a run, but the fear that filled her on seeing two men, one slight and one with the build of a boxer, cornering Kenzie against a car froze her feet to the ground. Her boots scraped on the pavement, drawing all gazes to her. The man deepest in Kenzie’s personal space grinned crookedly.
“That your girl?” he asked Kenzie.
“She’s just a friend,” Kenzie said quickly, looking away from Finley. “Sh-she’s just our DD tonight.”
“Uh huh,” the man said. “So you’ve got a picture of you and your ‘friend’ on your desk?”
She looked at him with shock and disgust in her face. “You’ve been looking at the stuff on my desk?”
“It’s out in the open,” he replied.
Fury melted the fear and let Finley move forward. “Hey, Dennis!”
The man went still. He looked at her. “My name is David.”
“Uh huh. Back the fuck off.”
“Or I’ll break your jaw.”
He looked her up and down before laughing. “You’ll break my jaw. Uh huh.”
“You wanna test that, Dougie?”
“David, you dumb fucking dyke,” he snarled. “Jason, hurry the fuck up already.”
Finley saw red. She rushed forward, drawing her fist back.
“Finley, no!” Kenzie screamed.
It made her hesitate. It made her remember the other man and turn. The man, Jason, punched her high on the cheek, knuckles landing hard on her ear. It knocked her off balance and sent her head-first into the window of a car. The glass fractured; the skin on her brow split. The world spun before her as her legs buckled. Coughing, gagging on the nausea that twisted her stomach in a heartbeat, Finley held on and straightened her legs.
“The fuck?” she rasped as sound faded in her ear. She felt heat running down from her ear and touched her cheek. Her fingers came away covered in blood. She turned and saw Jason. She bared her teeth and rush at him to throw a bunch at his head. He slipped his head to one side to dodge and returned with a punch to her right side that drove her up onto her toes.
“Finley!” Kenzie screamed.
Jason grabbed her coat and slammed her against the car. Holding her coat in one hand, he drilled punch after punch into her side until three ribs had broken. Finley wheezed, but once more tried to punch him. He dodged and countered her punch with a hook to her jaw. She felt a tooth rip out of her gums from the force, blood flooding into her mouth.
Finley gagged on the blood, retching and coughing it and her tooth out to keep from choking. She gagged again when the man rammed his knee into her stomach, legs starting to fail. When she tried to cling to his jacket to stay standing, he punched her in the face hard enough to fracture the bone around her left eye. Her head snapped back to slam against the car. Her legs finally failed, but he kept her from falling on her face.
He turned her as he threw her to the ground, forcing her to land on her back. Panting, Finley tried to pull herself backward. A sneer on his face, Jason moved to stand at her head. Heart pounding fit to burst, Finley watched the man lift his foot. Her vision was too blurred to let her track his foot as he stomped it down. There was only the briefest moment where she felt his heel come down on her upper left arm, close to her shoulder, and then she was unconscious.
“I didn’t hear it because of that punch to my ear,” Finley said quietly, “but Kenzie was screaming for help that entire time. Even when Daniel or whatever hit her to try to make her stop. Josef and Conrad came out of the bar and they heard her, and they…they got there before the guy could start stomping on my chest.”
She swallowed hard. “Conrad…he was, uh, he was a gridball player in college. Linebacker. Tackled the guy. Actually knocked him out with how his head hit the ground. Concussed him really well. Josef got Dick or whatever his name was. Kenzie…she said she couldn’t remember how she called an ambulance. Like she did it on auto-pilot.”
Finley swallowed again. She reached up to her left shoulder, setting her hand there lightly. “That stomp broke my shoulder blade. Broke my left arm bad enough to put the bone through the skin—the socket was in pieces. I don’t remember how many stitches it took after the surgery to put everything back together.
“So,” she said, “I was unconscious for six days. I think it was officially a coma. My mother…my dad called her. She was at the hospital in six hours, he said. They were there when I woke up. Josef and Conrad came to visit the next day. Kenzie…never visited. Josef told me she couldn’t stand to see me in the hospital like that. She threw a party when I got out, but we just weren’t the same with each other.”
She took sand between thumb and forefinger to roll back and forth. “We broke up without talking about it. She blamed herself, but it was my fault for being a stupid fucking weakling. I went back into the closet because I’m a coward on top of that.” She sighed. “My mother stayed for five years to train the weakling out of me, but there’s no getting the coward out of someone.”
“So,” she said, “I saved as much money as I could from the lawsuit against the two assholes. I got a lot because Siobhan Madigan will convince juries to give her daughter anything. And I took that and all my savings and…moved out here.”
Finley smiled very, very slightly. “Pretty pathetic, huh? That’s what I am in the end, a useless coward.”
Penny reached up and set her hands on Finley’s face with the utmost gentleness. She waited until Finley turned to look at her before saying, “I think you’re incredibly brave for getting through that and coming out the other side as a kind, friendly woman. And I think you’re incredibly strong to be able to talk about what happened to you.”
She stared at Penny. Her eyes grew wet. Voice weak and shaking, she asked, “Can I hug you for a minute?”
“Mm hmm,” Penny replied, and she put her arms around Finley’s chest as Finley wrapped her arms around her shoulders and hid her face. Penny held tight to her coat when she heard Finley’s breath hitch. It took significantly longer than a minute for Finley to let go, and her cheeks were wet when she did.
Though she brought a hand up to her face to rub the wet lines away, she spotted the tears on Penny’s face and froze. Blushing crimson, she tugged one sleeve down over her hand and gently dried Penny’s face.
“Come on, please don’t cry,” she said. “I hate seeing women cry.”
“Sorry,” Penny said with a small smile. “I sympathy-cry at the drop of a hat.” She rubbed her cheeks once Finley had taken her hand away.
“That must make it hard to keep your composure with Vincent and Jas.”
“Only sometimes.” She tucked her hair behind one ear as Finley dried her face and cleared her throat. Because Finley’s blush lingered, she cleared her throat quietly and asked, “Did you think I wouldn’t cry?”
“Well—I didn’t want you to cry.” She put a hand on her head, rubbing hard for a moment. “I really hate seeing women cry, especially if it’s because of me.”
“I wouldn’t say it’s because of you, Finley,” Penny murmured, putting a hand on her knee again. “It’s okay.”
For a moment, Finley said nothing. She looked at Penny’s hand. When she looked up, a shy smile had come to her face. She said, “Thank you. For—for listening. I haven’t, um, actually told anyone that whole story for…a few years now.” She chuckled. “Last time was to my therapist.”
“I don’t blame you for not sharing,” Penny said. “I wouldn’t want to think about it, either.”
“Gets tough to avoid when my shoulder gets screwed up.” She let out a long-suffering laugh. “And there’s no chiropractors around to tweak it back.”
“You have to stop working so hard.”
“Yeah, I know,” Finley said in a chuckle. “It’s hard to get out of the workaholic lifestyle.”
“Why don’t—why don’t you take the next few days off completely?”
“Aside from watering the crops, you mean?” Finley asked with a wry smile.
“You planted more crops?”
“Of course I did. I sold all the rest and got more seeds.” She took several seed packets from her coat pocket. “Planting these later for strawberries.”
Penny stared. “You really need to take a few days off.”
“I know. I will once I go to Robin this afternoon.”
“Why—wait. Do you have enough money to upgrade your house?”
“And plenty left over.” She smiled and reached out to run a curled finger down Penny’s cheek. “I really owe you for helping me, Penny. Thank you.”
Penny’s cheeks filled with heat. She swallowed hard, glancing at Finley’s hand as it came away from her face. “U-um. Y-you’re welcome. I’m happy to have helped.”
Finley gave her and her blush a curious look, looked at her hand as though it wasn’t hers, and went red in the face. She hastily put her hand on the back of her head, averting her eyes.
“Uh,” she said, voice cracking and lilting. “I—should get up to Robin’s before the sun goes down. See if I can’t add a nicer bed to the upgrade orders. That, uh, that bed I’ve got isn’t great for my shoulder.”
“It’s not exactly big, either,” Penny said. “F-for Arthur to be in there with you, I mean.”
Finley laughed. “Nope, definitely not. I’ve got a hat every night.”
The image made her laugh, and laugh enough to break the tension in the air. Finley laughed as well, once more without restraint, once more with a brilliant smile. Penny’s chest tightened at the sigh and sound; she did not feel the need to take her hand from Finley’s knee until they grew quiet. Because Finley looked about for her crutch, Penny stood up and retrieved it for her. Finley got to her feet, catching the hand Penny offered when she wobbled.
They looked at each other when Finley was steady. They did not speak, but they shared small smiles. In silence, they walked back into town. In silence, Penny walked with Finley until they reached the bench near the community center.
“I promise I’ll take a break once I get home,” Finley said. “Don’t worry about me, okay?”
“All right,” Penny said. She thought a moment before saying, “You should put up a hammock. If—Robin has one and you have good trees for it.”
Finley raised a brow. “I probably do.” She smiled. “That’s a great idea.”
Penny smiled brightly in return. “Then I hope she has one.”
Finley looked at her, eyes widening. She looked about, face flushing, and put a hand on the back of her neck. Exhaling hard, taking a massive breath, she leaned down and pressed the gentlest kiss to Penny’s cheek.
“Okay, I’ll see you around,” Finley said in a panicked rush, turning and hurrying off.
Penny stood absolutely still, unaware of anything but the warmth that lingered on her skin from Finley’s lips. Finley was long since out of sight before she moved again, and she slowly put her hands over her mouth.
“Oh my gosh,” she whispered. She blinked, and then laughed. “Oh my gosh.” She laughed again, bouncing on her toes. Gleefully, eagerly, she giggled, “Yay!” into her hands and turned to hurry home.
“She did not,” Maru said the next day as they sat by the lake. She thought a moment and laughed, slapping her forehead. “That’s why she was smiling like that yesterday! Penny, oh my god!”
“Wait, what was she smiling like?”
“Like you are right now.”
“Like—wait, like—” Penny put her hands over her mouth, but could not determine the shape of her smile. “How am I smiling?”
“Like you can’t believe it,” Maru laughed.
“I can’t!” Penny giggled. “I still can’t believe that happened!”
“Well, based on evidence from Finley’s goofy smile, I think we can safely conclude that she gave you a kiss.” When Penny blushed and opened her mouth, Maru added, “On the cheek.”
“Right,” said Penny, and though her voice was quiet her smile did not fade.
Maru leaned back on her hands as they looked at the lake. “I’m amazed that you’re up here and not over there right now.”
“I want to let her actually take time off and focus on relaxing. I don’t want her to think she has to entertain me as a guest or anything.”
“You are polite to a fault, Penny,” Maru said with a weary smile. She settled on her back to watch gray clouds rolling in from the north over the mountain. After a moment, she said, “What were you guys talking about when you were at the beach? You didn’t just spit it out, did you?”
“I…didn’t actually tell her.”
Maru went completely still. Her brows slowly lowered as her eyes widened. She turned to look at Penny and said, “I’m sorry, what?”
“I didn’t actually tell her that I have a crush on her,” Penny said, not meeting Maru’s gaze. When Maru sat up quickly, Penny blushed again and lifted her hands. “I wasn’t avoiding it! We just talked about other things! She gave me a kiss after we talked about the house upgrade and she ran off before I could say anything!”
Maru boggled, mouth open, before taking off her glasses and rubbing her eyes. Sighing, she said, “I simultaneously believe that happened and can’t believe she did that.”
“I’m a little happy that she did,” Penny said. “I would’ve felt so stupid if she heard what I said after she left.”
“What’d you say?”
“I might’ve…said…’yay’ to myself.”
Maru choked on laughter and hid her face in her hands. Through her fingers, she said, “Penny, you did not.”
“You did not.”
“She gave me a kiss even though she’s been so nervous about things!” Penny said in protest. “Why wouldn’t I say ‘yay’?”
“Penny, oh my god!” Maru laughed, shoulders shaking. “You’re such a goof!” She lowered her hands to put her glasses back on, still laughing, and gave Penny a grin. “Finley is so lucky.”
“I think I’m pretty lucky, too,” Penny murmured.
“I agree with that.” Her grin softened as she thought, eventually fading completely. “So how long have you known she’s gay?”
“Since the day I walked her home.”
“Mm hmm. It just kind of came up when we were talking at her house.”
Her brows rose and came together. “Oh man, has she been worried about coming out here?”
“Yeah,” Penny said quietly.
“But—come on, that doesn’t make sense! No one here would even care! The only reason anyone would ever get irrational at her is if she hurt you, and then we’d all kick her—”
Penny reached out to catch Maru’s wrist and said, “Don’t. That’s not funny to say.”
Maru looked at her curiously. When her thoughts came together, the frustration left her and was replaced with pity. Softly, she asked, “Penny, what happened to her?”
She hesitated. She exhaled through her nose. “It’s not my place to share the whole story. But it was bad.”
“She told you the whole story?”
“Well, she…she promised to.” She let go of Maru’s wrist to play with grass. “I kind of guessed that something bad happened to her in the city and when we talked more after she got hit in the face with the bridge, I asked what did happen. She couldn’t tell the whole story then, but she promised to tell me before anyone else. And…she kept her promise.”
Maru looked at her even more closely, saw her tiny, shy smile and the faint blush on her cheeks. She exhaled slowly and smiled.
“I think she’s got it bad for you,” she said. She nudged Penny with her elbow. “You’ve got it pretty bad for her too, huh?”
“I think I do, yeah.”
Maru chuckled. She grinned when a thought came to mind. “You know what could be fun?”
“Please don’t say ‘tease Finley.’”
“No, not that! Send her letters!”
Penny boggled at her. “What?”
“Send her letters like they do in those romance novels of yours! There’s no postage for letters delivered in town and you could take time to figure out things to tell her without getting nervous! Don’t you think she’d like that?”
She thought. Her eyes lost focus when she imagined Finley finding a letter in her mailbox; she grinned because she could picture Finley’s confused, cautious smile perfectly.
“I think she would,” she replied. “And I think that’s what I’m going to do tonight.”
“You better go get started so you’re not up all night, actually,” Maru said with a wink. “Pretty sure you’ll need an hour for the first sentence after ‘Hi Finley.’”
“I will not,” Penny said, pouting.
“Go prove me wrong, then,” Maru said as she smirked.
“You’re so terrible sometimes.”
“It’d be worse if I was Sebastian.”
“How’d I be worse?”
Penny and Maru both shrieked, whirling about to discover Sebastian behind them, taking a cigarette from a crumpled pack. Maru groaned as he took a lighter from his back pocket to light the cigarette.
“Sebastian, don’t do that!” she said. “You’re too quiet!”
“Sorry,” he said after taking a drag. “So what would I be worse about?”
“Teasing me,” Penny sighed, rubbing her chest as her heart slowed down.
He exhaled. “About?”
“Nothing,” she mumbled.
He raised a brow. “About your obvious and massive crush on the klutz named Finley? Why would I be a dick like that?”
“You tease most people,” Maru said.
“I’m tired today,” he said with a shrug. “And I think it’s a good fit.”
Penny and Maru both stared. Penny eventually said, “You…do?”
He ashed his cigarette and gave her a look. “You’re kidding, right?”
“She ever fess up about putting those dandelions in your book?”
She stared, mouth falling open. “What?”
“We had band practice at Sam’s that day,” Sebastian said. “I saw her run away from the tree when I took a smoke break and Maru said you had flowers in your book. You don’t need to be as smart as Maru to connect the dots if you saw her run.”
He smirked at her blush. “You’re both dweebs. It’s a good fit.”
“Oh my god, Sebastian,” Maru sighed. “Penny, go home and write Finley a letter before he says something even worse.”
“Go write her a crush letter,” Sebastian chuckled. “She might blush herself unconscious.”
“Sebastian!” Maru groaned. “Stop teasing Penny!”
Penny laughed as she stood and smoothed out the wrinkles in her skirt. She said, “I’m going to go write it so I don’t miss the mail pickup. Thank you both for the encouragement.”
“Knock her dead,” Sebastian said, but Maru only sighed and shook her head because there was an honest smile on his face. Penny smiled as she went off, holding her hands behind her back as she started to consider her words. By the time she’d gotten home, found a pen and a pad of paper, and sat down at her desk, though, she had no words to use.
“Hi Finley,” she murmured as she wrote. She stopped there, turning the pen over in her fingers to avoid making idle marks. She stared at the two words she’d managed, putting one hand on her chin. As she thought, she rubbed her lower lip with her thumb. After a long while, she mumbled, “Okay, it might take an hour.”
Penny sat and looked at the paper for several minutes. She tapped her desk with her pen gently, slowly, and hummed a flat tone. She thought a few moment more before turning the pen over.
“Hi Finley,” she murmured again. “I know this is a little silly when we live so close to each other, but I thought you’d like to get a nice letter in the mail.” She smiled and brought one leg up to her chest as she leaned forward with words in mind.
She wrote for a long time, taking care to have to cross out as few errors as possible. Her focus was great enough that she did not notice when Pam returned home, nor when Pam watched her write. She never turned around to see Pam’s small, knowing smile, and did not realize Pam was there at all until she left her room with her completed letter.
“Oh!” she said, stopping short upon seeing Pam sitting on the couch. “Mom, when did you get home?”
“Little while ago,” Pam said, fiddling with a dial on the TV. “You looked pretty busy, so I didn’t say ‘hey.’”
“O-oh. Thank you.” She went to dig through one of the drawers near the fridge.
“Envelopes are in the cabinet near your room,” Pam said mildly. “Moved ‘em after I spilled something a while back.”
“Oh. Thank you again.” She found an envelope and folded the two pieces of paper to fit inside it. Before she put the letter in the envelope, she picked up her pen again. She thought, but came up with nothing.
“Mom?” she said.
“Do you know the address for the farm?”
“Two Hundred West Acre,” Pam replied.
“Thank you,” Penny said, writing the address on the front and adding hers on the back. She went outside briefly to put the letter in the mailbox and lifted the box’s flag. A smile was on her face when she went back inside.
“Sending Fin a letter?” Pam asked.
Her smile faltered. “Um. Y-yes.”
Pam nodded slowly. “Do I need to go give her the talk?”
“The one where I tell her not to break my daughter’s heart unless she wants me to kick her ass.”
Her blush came on so fast and so strong her ears began to ache. “Mom, th-that’s not—please don’t tell her you’ll do that!”
“Buff lady or not, you break my daughter’s heart and you’ve earned an ass-kicking. She needs to know that.”
“Mom! She wouldn’t do that, so please don’t threaten her!”
Pam snorted with laughter. “I’m kidding! I’m not gonna kick her ass. I know how much you like her, even if you’ve been trying to be sly about it.”
“I haven’t been trying to be sly,” Penny said quietly, looking down.
Pam looked at her, seeing how her blush lingered and how she twisted her fingers around themselves. She reached out to turn off the TV before sitting back on the couch. Gently, she said, “C’mere, kiddo.”
Penny hesitated, but went to sit next to her. She did not squirm when Pam set a hand on her head, but looked at her with confusion in her face.
“Penny,” Pam said, “if there’s something I ever did that made you scared to come out to me, I’m sorry. But I’m happy that you like someone this much.” She snickered. “Even if she’s a huge klutz. You should probably keep her away from knives if she helps you cook.”
Penny stared at her, throat aching as much as her ears. She opened her mouth, but closed it again to swallow hard. She smiled crookedly, eyes burning, and said, “That seems fair. She said she doesn’t really know how to cook, so it’ll be easy to keep her away from them.”
“Isn’t she finally getting her house built up to have a kitchen?”
Pam grinned outright and ruffled her hair. “Bet she’d like having you over to teach her some recipes.”
Penny burst into giggles, hiding her mouth with both hands. When relief filled her from head to toe, she closed her eyes tight. Her shoulders shook both from her giggles and the way she cried quietly. Pam smiled and said nothing of the latter, instead putting an arm around Penny’s shoulders to hold her close.
Like many mornings before it, Finley woke abruptly on Sunday when Arthur hit her in the face with his tail. She let out a startled grunt, and then a weary one when he hit her again.
“Fine, I’m up,” she grumbled. “Get off my head.”
He rumbled at her before getting off the pillow. He waited until she was standing with her crutch before hopping to the floor. She opened the door for him before getting dressed. Leaving her hair loose, she put a pot of coffee on the camp stove and headed outside with her watering can.
The chickens were let out first to Arthur’s joy, and she snickered at him before going to the fenced-in crops. After filling the can in the spring inside the fence, she started to water. It was slow going on a crutch, but there was no real impatience in her as she went up and down the rows, refilling the can when it emptied. She hummed quietly, measuring each pour against the beat. Every so often, she crouched down to check leaves and their color.
“I need to set up a sprinkler system,” she said to herself upon reaching the end of the last row. She thought, rubbing the back of her neck. “But I don’t have nearly enough coal to smelt the copper and iron.” She thought further before smiling. “And I promised to take a few days off.” Humming again, she turned and started back up the rows. The sound of tools clanking in a tool bag made her turn after closing the gate behind her, seeing Robin coming along up the road.
“Up early as usual, I see,” Robin said, lifting a hand.
“You’re no better,” Finley replied with a smile. “And you stayed here late.”
“Don’t sass me,” Robin laughed. “I’ve been dying to do a build like this and I’ve got it on good authority that you’ve been dying for a bigger place.”
“I’m kidding, I’m kidding,” Finley said. “I appreciate the enthusiasm.” As she went up the stairs, she said, “Let me know if you want any coffee. I brewed extra.”
“Much obliged,” said Robin, and she vaulted over the framing she’d set up the day before.
Finley went inside to brush and tie back her hair, going back out after pouring herself a large mug of coffee. She sat on the porch to drink and watch the chickens peck at the grass.
“Fin, not to be nosy, but you know you’ve got mail, right?” Robin called over her shoulder as she drew a tarp off the wood stacked inside the framing.
Finley turned to look at her, mug still at her mouth. When she saw that the flag was raised, she set her mug down, grabbed her crutch, and went to the mailbox.
“I’m still not used to mail at the crack of dawn,” she said. “It was always in the afternoon in the city.” She retrieved the single envelope and went to sit back down without looking at the address. When she did, she went still. Nervousness took her, making her bite the inside of her cheek as she opened the envelope slowly. With a glance at Robin, she started to read.
I know this is a little silly when we live so close to each other, but I thought you’d like to get a nice letter in the mail. I wanted to thank you again for trusting me. Are you doing okay after telling me that story? I really hope you’re resting and not doing something like starting a new big project.
Finley did what she could to stop her laugh, but snickered all the same.
What kind of projects did you get yourself into back in the city? My only guess is something big like repairing the wiring in fancy old houses or community centers that don’t have forest spirits to help you with everything else. It’s kind of hard to imagine you doing small projects after everything you’ve done here so far.
Is everything going well at the community center? I went in there the other day and saw all the flowers. It was lovely, and I wish I could’ve been there to see what the junimos did. Did they bring the flowers in, or did they make them with magic? This is a little selfish, but can I come along the next time you give them gifts? They’re very sweet and I like seeing them happy.
Finley smiled, chuckling quietly. She turned the page over to keep reading.
You’re very sweet, too, Finley.
She nearly knocked over her coffee as she reached for it, putting her hand flat on the porch to keep from reaching again. She stared at the letter, face burning, and kept reading.
I know I told you to take a few days off and that’s why I didn’t come by yesterday, but I really wanted to visit. I feel like I gave you the wrong idea and you ran off because I didn’t tell you that you could stay. But you could have. I would’ve liked it if you had. Because you made me really happy, Finley.
Sorry, I’m rambling a little and I actually had a point. Once Robin is done and you finally have a kitchen, would you like me to teach you a few recipes? I could show you how to make cookies for the junimos. You can send me a letter back so you don’t have to walk all the way into town.
P.S. I would like to reply properly to what you did the other day, so say yes to me coming over, please?
Finley stared at the P.S., separate on the last page, with her brows raised and eyes wide. She did not move until Arthur came up the stairs and sniffed her coffee.
“No,” she said faintly, picking up her mug. She took a drink without tasting it in the slightest.
“What’s got you smiling like that, Fin?” Robin called to her as she measured and remeasured a support beam. “You look like you won the lottery.”
Finley looked at her. She looked at the letter. She put a hand on the back of her neck and drummed her fingers. Closing her eyes a moment, she took a deep breath.
“It’s,” she said, “uh, a letter from Penny.”
“She sent you a letter when you only live this far out?” She laughed. “I’m not surprised. Give her the chance and she’ll do something cute.”
“I’m learning that,” Finley said, still smiling. “But she’s cute all the time anyway.”
“Very true,” Robin said. “You should tell her that.”
Finley looked at her again. She took another deep breath and said, “Well—I’m going to invite her over once the upgrade is done, so…I’ll have a chance to tell her.”
“Good,” said Robin, and she smiled brightly. “I’ll put in calls to get your appliances once the walls are up so they’re here ASAP.”
“Thank you.” She laughed weakly. “She wants to show me how to make cookies.”
“You know what they say about girls who want to make cookies for you.”
“I do,” Finley said, and she chuckled as she went inside for a pen, paper, and an envelope.
Two weeks later, Penny stood outside Pierre’s with the handles of a cloth bag in her grasp. She leaned against the wall and tried to keep from checking her watch again because she knew it still wasn’t nine-thirty. She let herself look at the westward road because there was no helping it, though she looked away when she heard Vincent and Jas shriek with laughter as they played tag behind Vincent’s house. It was distance more than the laughter that would have muted the clicking of Finley’s crutch, but Penny saw her come around the bend in the road when she turned back to watch for her.
Her heart skipped into a higher pace when Finley saw her and lifted her free hand with a smile on her face. She stood properly as she waved back, smoothing wrinkles in her skirt that didn’t exist after lowering her hand. Finley arrived soon enough, still smiling, and the bags under her eyes had finally gone away.
“Hi,” said Finley.
“Hi,” Penny replied. Before her tongue could twist itself in knots, she said, “You look well-rested.”
“I took most of the week after the Egg Festival off,” Finley said. “Finally caught up on sleep.”
“Good. You looked like you’d collapse again.” She turned slightly to point at the door. “Let’s go in. You said you’d have eggs from your chickens today, right?”
“Yep. They’re in my new fridge.” She followed behind Penny to go for the door, but paused when a piece of paper tacked to the bulletin board caught her eye. She sighed and pulled it down. “Demetrius, for heaven’s sake.”
“Did he do something to his wiring again?” Penny asked as she opened and held the door.
“Yep,” Finley repeated, tucking the paper in her coat pocket. “I’ll go up there tomorrow.” She went inside, picking up a basket. “So what actually goes into cookies other than eggs and sugar?”
“At least flour,” Penny laughed. “Butter, milk, and chocolate chips if you want more flavor. Have you really never made cookies before?”
“Nope. Dad doesn’t do any baking and my mother doesn’t like any kind of sweet food.”
Penny gave her a look of horror, stopping with her hand on a box of flour. “What does she like?”
“Food that’s spicy enough to melt your tongue.”
She grimaced. “Do you like spicy foods, then?”
“Only slightly spicy.” She held out the basket once Penny had picked up the box, carrying it along as Penny led her to another aisle. “My dad’s a wuss about spice, though.”
“I am, too,” Penny said, finding a small bag of chocolate chips. “I don’t know how Lewis and Shane can eat hot peppers.”
“It’s an acquired taste. My mother ate them a lot when she was in the country the last five years. Dad wouldn’t let her near him if she’d been eating them.”
“What?” Penny said, setting the bag in the basket. “Why?”
“She kissed him once after eating peppers and it got on his lips. He had to sit with his mouth in milk for about ten minutes before it stopped hurting.”
Penny put a hand over her mouth to hold down her laughter, shoulders shaking as she tried to contain it. “D-did she apologize?”
“She did,” Finley said. “She was so sorry she didn’t laugh until he was out of the milk, and the only reason she laughed was because his beard was completely soaked with milk.”
“Oh wow,” Penny coughed, finally calming down. “I guess you got your silliness from both of your parents.”
Finley chuckled as she followed Penny out of the aisle and to the single refrigerator in the store. “That part’s fine, but if I could’ve gotten less of my dad’s tendency to trip on everything, that’d be good, too.”
“At least so you don’t fall when you’re on a roof,” Penny said to agree, and she took a bottle of milk and a small box of butter from the fridge. She hesitated after putting them in the basket. “Do you have space for all this now?”
“More than enough,” Finley said. “Don’t worry.” She followed Penny to the counter, setting the basket before Pierre. He took a glance inside and smiled.
“Breaking in the kitchen with cookies?” he asked, taking everything out of the basket before retrieving his ledger.
“Technically broke it in by making spaghetti last night, but this’ll break in the oven,” Finley replied. “And hopefully not burning down the house.”
“Penny’s not going to let you do that,” Pierre chuckled. “Especially when you just got everything.” He tapped each item with his pen, whispering to himself before making a final tally in the ledger. “Three eighty-six, Fin, if you would. I’ll use that bag, Penny.”
Penny handed him the bag as Finley took her wallet from her back pocket. By the time she’d counted out bills, he’d packed everything into the bag. He took the money and returned change and the receipt.
“Enjoy your baking, ladies,” he said as they headed for the door. “Don’t burn anything!”
“Thanks, Pierre,” Penny said before letting the door close behind them. She made to hang the bag on her shoulder, but had to move it out of Finley’s reach when she tried to take it. “Not with your bad shoulder.”
“I can carry things,” Finley chuckled. “I just can’t put that kind of pressure on it.”
“I’m still carrying it,” said Penny, and she hung the bag on her shoulder before Finley could reach for it again. She stuck her tongue out for good measure, smiling afterward. Her smile faltered when Finley stared at her, brows raised. Before she could fidget, Finley snorted with laughter so hard she choked. She put a hand over her eyes, shoulders shaking with silent giggles.
“Penny, for the love of,” she wheezed. She coughed and shook her head, starting off for the road.
Penny boggled at her before rushing to follow. She caught up as Finley passed the stairs past the clinic, saying, “Finley, what’re you laughing about?”
“Nothing,” Finley giggled, not meeting Penny’s eyes. “Nothing at all.”
“What?” Penny laughed, trying to get ahead of her.
“Don’t be mean, tell me what you’re laughing about!”
“That was cute,” Finley said. “I wasn’t ready for it.”
Penny came to an abrupt stop, face burning. Finley stopped as well, turning to look at her. Though she hesitated, though she blushed, Finley smiled and cleared her throat.
“You keep being really cute, Penny,” she said. “I don’t know why I’m never ready for it.”
The blush on Finley’s face darkened significantly as Penny’s cheeks grew hotter. Finley faltered first, looking away as she made a breaking, anxious noise.
“Let’s get to my place before the butter really melts,” she said.
“Okay,” Penny said quietly, and they started off again. They were silent for the rest of the walk, only speaking again when they went onto the farm.
“That’s Arthur in the grass, right?” Penny asked.
Finley looked where she pointed, seeing the orange tail waving back and forth over the tall grass. She chucked and said, “Yeah, that’s him. He’s hunting butterflies and grasshoppers.”
“I’m still amazed that he protects your chickens,” Penny said, following Finley to the stairs. “Do you think—” She stared at the cottage, expanded in size to a proper house. She leaned, and then took a few steps to the side to look at the new end of the house.
“Oh my gosh,” she said faintly. “How much more did Robin build?”
“Several hundred more square feet,” Finley replied. “C’mon, come in.” She went up the stairs, unlocking and opening the door. Penny followed, stopping the moment she saw the interior. The kitchen was enough for her jaw to drop, large and overflowing with counter space, cabinets, and cupboards. The stove and fridge were new, no scuffs or dings to be seen, and the sink was much the same. She closed her mouth and let out a wavering sigh.
“Finley, I’ve never been more envious of someone else’s kitchen,” she said. “This is amazing.”
“I really wanna learn recipes to put it to use,” Finley said. “I feel like people would like treats sometimes.”
“If you made me poppyseed muffins, I would be so happy,” Penny said without thinking. When she realized what she’d said, she jumped and looked at Finley with wide eyes. “I mean—you don’t have to! It’s a little complicated and it takes a lot of ingredients, so—”
“I’d need poppy seeds, right?” Finley asked.
“Is it okay if you wait until summer? Poppies aren’t in season right now and Pierre isn’t selling packets for them yet.”
Penny stared. She asked, “Wait, you’d—you’d make me poppyseed muffins?”
“I will, yep,” Finley said simply.
Words failed. She opened her mouth. Eventually, she said, “Thank you.”
Finley smiled. She closed the door and started for the kitchen. “C’mon, show me what to do. Better late than never to learn how to make cookies, right?”
“Right,” Penny said, smiling back. She went to the counter, setting the bag down. She began to direct Finley about the kitchen, retrieving the bowls Finley had stored in a low cabinet. Finley followed her instructions to the letter, making the dough and turning on the oven.
“Why do you have all this kitchen stuff when you didn’t have a kitchen?” Penny asked as she put spoonfuls of dough on a cookie sheet.
“I ordered a kitchen set when Robin ordered the appliances,” Finley said. She grunted as she lifted herself onto a clean spot of the counter. “Sorry. My leg gives out after a while.”
Penny’s shoulders drooped. “Is your ankle still not any better?”
“It’s not healing as fast as I was hoping it would,” Finley muttered. “It’s been nearly five weeks, but Harvey’s probably going to keep me on the crutches for another week at this rate. Doesn’t help that my good leg is so worn out.” She sighed, massaging her thigh. “I’m dying to go on a run.”
Penny sighed as well, shoulders drooping further. She thought, eyes falling to the bowl. She bit her lip before looking at Finley again. She asked, “Have you ever tried raw cookie dough?”
“You’re technically not supposed to eat raw cookie dough, but it’s really delicious. Would you like a spoonful?”
Finley looked at her blankly a moment. She smiled, small and shy, and said, “Sure. First time for everything.”
Penny laughed as she gathered a spoonful with as many chocolate chips as she could manage. “Twenty-seven and you’ve never had raw cookie dough. It makes you seem sheltered.”
“Maybe a little,” Finley said, taking the spoon when Penny offered it. Before she put it in her mouth, though, she said, “I’ve been meaning to ask how old you are.”
“Twenty-one,” Penny said as she fetched a clean spoon. “Twenty-two this fall. Why?”
“Just curious,” Finley said, and she put the spoon in her mouth. Her brows rose immediately; she smiled dreamily around the spoon. Penny laughed again, adding the last of the dough to the sheet. She cleaned her hands and put the cookies in the oven, setting the timer. She leaned back against the counter, not watching Finley out of politeness. Only when Finley spoke again did she look up.
“I have no idea why my mother doesn’t like sweet things when they taste this good,” she said.
Penny smiled, chuckling through her nose. She considered her words before asking, “When’s your birthday?”
“Nope. My dad always had to remind his family to tell me ‘happy birthday’ when we visited for Winter’s Star, since apparently they forgot to once when I was really little and I just cried for an hour. When’s your birthday?”
“Two days after the Dance of the Moonlight Jellies.”
Finley stared at her. “The—the what?”
“The—oh. I’m sorry, that’s a festival we hold on the last day of summer. My birthday is two days after that.”
“That’s easy to remember,” Finley said. “I’m glad I remembered to ask how old you are.”
“I don’t look really young, do I?” Penny asked.
“No, you look your age,” Finley chuckled. “Besides, if you were much younger than me, I’m sure Pam would’ve told me I had no reason to spend this much time with you.”
“I would’ve told her to.”
“I’m glad. I’ve been an ass to you more than enough.”
“Finley, you’re fine,” Penny said with a laugh. “Please don’t worry.”
“All right,” Finley said. She cleared her throat quietly. “I wanted to tell you something else.”
When she did not continue, Penny asked, “What’s that?”
“I don’t plan on running off like I did last week. Not again.” She took a deep breath and added, “That’s a promise.”
Penny did not move. She did not speak. She only looked at Finley, eyes wide and brows raised. As seconds passed, anxiety filled Finley visibly. Penny could all but hear the panicked chain of curses she knew Finley was saying in her head. She moved forward as Finley looked down and shrank on herself, the very image of a kicked dog.
Penny caught hold of the counter next to Finley’s leg for balance, rose up on her toes, and kissed Finley’s cheek. Finley looked at her when she settled back on the floor.
“I’m glad,” Penny murmured. “It would make me really happy if you kept that promise, too.”
Finley stared. Her blush came back full force, but she did not look away when she said, “Good. I like making you happy.”
“You’re pretty good at it,” Penny said, smiling gently.
“You better not flatter me,” Finley replied. “It’ll go straight to my head.”
Penny laughed, turning to glance at the timer. She missed how Finley reached out to touch her cheek, hurrying over to the oven as the timer reached the last minute. Finley looked after her, startled, before getting of the counter.
“Th-those didn’t take long,” she said.
“I set the timer a little early,” Penny said, opening the oven door. “I didn’t know if your oven runs hot like ours does and I really didn’t want to burn them.” She checked on the cookies, letting out a sigh of relief. “Just enough time to get a plate and something to put the sheet on.”
Finley gathered up a plate, potholders, and a spatula at once, moving out of the way after putting them in Penny’s reach. Motions practiced and smooth, Penny put on mitts, took the cookie sheet from the oven, and set the sheet on the potholders before turning the oven off.
“I’d say these came out really well,” Penny said, starting to transfer the cookies from sheet to plate.
“They smell amazing,” Finley said, her gaze longing as she looked at the plate.
Penny saw her expression and laughed. “You’ll get to eat some, we’re not giving all of them to the junimos! Just let them cool down a little!”
“All right, all right.” She waited with thinly veiled eagerness, keeping her hands to herself until Penny stepped to one side and moved the plate between them. They both took a cookie, fingers just missing each other, and they took a bite. Penny hid her giggles in her hand when Finley again smiled dreamily.
“You don’t need to tell me they’re good,” Penny said.
“No, but you showed me what to do,” Finley replied. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” she murmured. She looked at Finley closely then. The daydream she’d had came back in a rush, seeming so much more plausible as they stood there together. Finley’s hand no longer looked so far away when she hitched her thumb in her pocket. She still could not reach out for it, but the moment was enough to put a smile on her face.
“So,” Finley said after a moment, “do you want to help me bring some of these over to the community center? I actually have the last pieces of a gift bundle to give to the junimos and I don’t want to crush the cookies in my backpack.” She smiled and said, “I saved it for when you came over.”
“Oh—yes, I’d love to!” said Penny. “I’ve been wondering what they’ll fix next.”
“I’m wondering that, myself. Here, lemme get a towel or something to put them in.” She went through several drawers before finding a towel, letting Penny take it. As Penny wrapped ten cookies in the towel, she watched Finley retrieve her backpack from near the door and head to a chest next to the TV. From the chest she took multiple stacks of un-sanded, unvarnished squares of wood, and she tucked them into her backpack.
“You’re giving the junimos lumber?” Penny asked.
“Yep. I guess it’s to help fix the rotten spots over there.” She rearranged how the squares were stacked in her backpack, saying, “I’m glad they let me just drop off parts of the bundles. It’d be tough to bring everything for this bundle all at once. And a little conspicuous.” She put the backpack on carefully, leaning heavily on her crutch to counter the awkward weight.
As always, the road between the farm and town was quiet but for the birds, and their songs were lazy that day. Penny walked on Finley’s left side, glancing at her hand as it held the strap of her backpack. At one point, Finley paused to adjust her grip on the crutch’s handle, and Penny stopped to wait. She watched a squirrel cross the road, eyes drifting to the broken bus stop in the distance. She clenched her teeth and sighed, turning away and finding Finley looking at her with concern.
“What’s wrong?” Finley asked.
“It’s nothing,” Penny said, looking down.
“You can tell me,” Finley said.
“It,” Penny began, and she stopped. She sighed. “It’s stupid. I was hoping there’d be a repairman at the bus stop today.”
“Was…one supposed to be?”
“No, but that’s why it’s stupid.” She shook her head and started to walk again.
Finley followed close behind, looking back at the broken stop for a moment. She reached out and touched Penny’s shoulder, asking, “How long has the stop been like that?”
“Since last summer,” Penny replied. “It just—stopped working. Mom said it hadn’t been printing tickets correctly for weeks. Then it wouldn’t take money for tickets, bills or cards, and then it stopped working completely. It wouldn’t let people select tickets at all.” She sighed. “All it’s good for now is as a stop for long distance buses passing through the valley.”
Finley glanced over her shoulder, brows dropping, and looked forward as she asked, “Pam was the driver?”
“Yeah. She’s been asking Morris to get it fixed because the stop falls under Joja’s jurisdiction, but he always comes up with excuses. It’s like torturing her about not having a job makes him happy.”
“He’s been useless nearly an entire year, huh?” She sighed through her nose, the sound grating in her throat. “I’m not surprised.”
“Me neither,” Penny muttered. She watched her feet as they reached town, never looking up until they were up the stairs and at the community center. It was because Finley had opened the door that she looked up, and she smiled because Finley was smiling gently at her.
“You said you saw the flowers in the crafts room, right?” Finley asked as they went inside.
“The day after we…fought, yes.”
“Then that was right after I finished a second bundle. I gave them all the special foraging stuff last week after I tapped some trees, so this’ll finish a fourth bundle.”
“Mostly stuff you can tap from the trees, but I had dumb luck finding mushrooms in the mines before I got hurt.” She raised her voice to say, “It’s me and Penny! You can come out!”
The green junimo appeared atop her head as other junimos popped into the world, all of them trilling with glee. The green junimo cheered upon seeing Penny, hopping up and down with its hands in the air. Penny laughed and offered her hands, catching the junimo when it leapt to her.
“We brought gifts,” Penny said.
“She has cookies,” Finley added in a sing-song voice.
The sound of the junimos gasping in unison was identical to the sound of a short, hard breeze.
“Are you going to get me swarmed by junimos?” Penny asked.
“Not swarmed, no,” Finley chuckled. “But you’re going to be their extra-favorite person for a long time.” She started for the hallway on the left, saying, “Let me put this down. I’ll be back out in a minute.”
“Okay,” Penny replied. She moved away from the door, kneeling down on newly, beautifully polished floorboards as the junimos rushed to her. The green junimo jumped out of her hands, gesturing and chattering to get the others to form a line. Though Penny took the wrapped cookies from the bag, she did not set them down or open the towel. She glanced at the hallway before looking at the green junimo.
“I want to ask you for a favor,” she whispered.
The junimo crooned at her.
“Does your magic work on humans?”
The junimo crooned again, a question in the sound.
“It’s not for me, it’s for Finley. Can you heal her ankle? She’s so unhappy right now and she might have to stay on that crutch for another couple of weeks. Is that something your magic can do?”
Putting both hands in the air, the junimo chirruped at her and nodded. It took the cookie Penny offered, but waited until the other junimos had split the cookies between themselves before running off to the hallway. Penny followed quickly, not noticing that the other junimos ran after her. Finley was sitting at the tablet in the crafts room, massaging her left shoulder, as Penny arrived.
“You made their day,” Finley chuckled, pointing at the green junimo as it hopped up and down near her right foot. She stared when the other junimos clustered around her foot and ankle. “Uh. What’re you guys doing?”
The junimos trilled and lifted their cookies over their heads. Before Finley could move, the junimos crooned in unison. Light flared, a pop sounded, and Finley yelped.
“What was that for?” she said, drawing her leg back. “It felt like you popped a balloon against my ankle!”
“But does your ankle hurt anymore?” Penny asked.
Finley looked at her. Her eyes widened as her brows came down. She looked at her foot and slowly curled her toes. Her mouth opened. She flexed her ankle.
“My ankle doesn’t hurt,” she said, voice dazed. She flexed her ankle by hand as much as the wrap allowed, eyes widening further. She stood up and carefully, gingerly, put her right foot down flat and put weight on it. Her jaw dropped, brows rising, and she looked at Penny.
“They fixed my ankle!” she laughed. She looked at the junimos and asked, “Why’d you do that?”
The junimos pointed at Penny and chirped.
Finley boggled. She looked at Penny. “You asked them to?”
“They said I could ask for a favor if I brought fresh cookies,” Penny said quietly.
There was no hesitation or shyness in Finley’s massive smile when she laughed and said, “Thank you, Penny. You have no idea how much I appreciate this.”
“You’re welcome,” Penny replied with a giggle. “Have you given them your gift, yet?”
“This is the last piece of wood,” Finley said, crouching to dig a square out of her backpack. She set it on the tablet, stepping back when a gift box materialized over the squares. A team of junimos scooped the box up and ran off, leaving Finley and Penny to follow after them.
When the box had vanished into the junimos’ hut, light flared in the hall across the way. Finley jogged over and past the tablet-bearing bulletin board to duck into another room. Penny followed and found her kneeling down to look at a tablet before the empty, derelict vault in the corner of the room.
“What’s this one for?” Penny asked.
Finley did not reply, eyes sharp with focus as she stared at the set of markings at the bottom of the tablet. She blinked and mumbled silently to herself, brows lowering.
“Finley?” Penny said.
“What?” Finley said, turning about. “Sorry, it’s for money, of all things. I, uh, didn’t expect that.” She chuckled as she stood up. “It’s all right. I get good money for everything.” She grinned and lifted her right leg. “And now I can go back into the mines for more gems.”
“I’m just glad that you don’t have to stay on the crutches any longer than this.”
“No kidding.” She set her foot down, sighing as she put weight on it again. “This feels so amazing.”
“If you’ve been in pain the last few weeks, I can only imagine it feels like heaven,” Penny said with a smile. She left the room first, waiting for Finley to follow before they both headed for the crafts room.
“This is almost as good as when I got out of the hospital,” Finley said. “I can’t wait to get my boot back on.”
Penny laughed. “You’ve been waiting to put your boot on?”
“I have steel-toe boots to keep from breaking my toes on rocks. I’ve been terrified of kicking something on accident.”
Penny laughed again, shaking her head. “That explains why your boot was so heavy. What’re you going to do when you get home?”
“Other than take this damn wrap off my foot?”
“Of course other than that.”
“Clear space for that hammock I bought,” Finley said casually. She winked at Penny when she gave her a startled look. “You’re welcome to use it whenever you visit.”
Though Penny opened her mouth to say “thank you,” she stopped when they came to the crafts room’s door and found Finley’s backpack wriggling on the floor. Two junimos emerged from the bag soon after, a large one from the main pocket and a small one from a side pocket, and they waved at Finley as they left the room.
“What was that about?” Penny asked.
“They give me little gifts once I finish bundles,” Finley replied. “I had seed packets in my bag that first day we were here, but I didn’t find them until that afternoon. It’s probably more seeds.” She sank down on one knee to dig through her backpack. She drew her hand back immediately, paper in her grasp.
“Wait, what?” she said.
Penny moved closer, looking over her shoulder. “Is that…a blueprint?”
“For a charcoal kiln,” Finley said. “I could burn the scrap wood I get from my trees to get coal—I wouldn’t have to dig so long in the mines!” Her growing smile stalled and fell when she read a few more lines. “It needs a bar’s worth of smelted gold ore for the actual brazier so it can’t set the entire kiln on fire. Dammit.”
“You don’t have that?”
“I haven’t gone that far down in the mines,” Finley said. “I can’t afford enough raw ore from Clint right now.” She looked at the blueprint a moment more before sighing. “Blueprint’s better than nothing.”
Penny nearly sighed with her. She saw something glinting in the open side pocket and touched Finley’s shoulder. “What did they leave in that pocket?”
Finley looked at her, saw her point, and reached into the pocket. Her eyes widened as she drew back a fistful of gleaming yellow stone.
“This is gold ore,” she said very quietly. “A bar’s worth.”
“They really want you to have a kiln,” Penny said with a weak, shocked laugh.
“I can work out my sprinkler system before summer,” Finley said in a daze. She blinked several times before grinning. “I have enough copper and iron ore stored for twenty sprinklers, I just haven’t had the coal to smelt all of it!” She laughed, looking at Penny. “This is perfect! I can go home, start smelting this, and drop off the crutches while it’s processing!”
“I want to make the junimos more cookies now,” Penny said, smiling back.
“I will buy you enough stuff to make a hundred cookies and help you make them,” Finley said, putting the ore and the blueprint away. She picked up her backpack and crutch, still grinning as they headed outside.
As Finley closed the door behind them, crutch under her right arm for the last time, Penny took a quick breath and reached out to touch her elbow.
“I was wondering,” she said, “if—I didn’t know if your ankle would’ve been better on its own by next Wednesday, but I was wondering if—if you were planning on going to the Flower Dance.”
“It’s the festival we have at the end of spring,” Penny said.
“And it’s a dance?”
“Mm hmm.” She took her hand away, but kept her eyes on Finley’s. “I know your legs need to get stronger after being on crutches, but—if you go and you’d like to dance…um. I’ll be there, too.”
“You don’t have a standing partner?”
“No. I mean, I usually dance with Sam, but—I don’t have to dance with him. I can dance with anyone who asks me.”
Finley went bright red, but her smile was easy and relaxed when she said, “I don’t know how much my legs will recover by then, but I’d like to reserve a dance with you, Penny.”
Penny blushed as well, smiling brightly. “Then I’ll be your partner if your legs are up to it.”
“Perfect,” Finley murmured, and she leaned down to kiss Penny’s cheek. “I’ll see you then if I don’t see you sooner.”
“Okay,” Penny said, and she stood on her toes to kiss Finley’s cheek in return. They went in different directions then, Finley heading for home. Penny watched her go to see how her stride was no longer so awkward and stumbling, and it put a smile on her face. When Finley had gone down the stairs, Penny turned around and all but ran for the mountain road to find Maru.
Chapter 6: Turning Points, Seasonal and Otherwise
The Flower Dance isn't necessarily something complicated, but it's something that someone from the city wouldn't know. It's only sensible for Penny to be the person to teach Finley the steps and the customs, and when word gets around of her inviting Finley, no one is surprised.
Finley takes the lead in surprises, both good and awkward. Still, as summer starts to settle in and she and Penny share a moment by the river, the awkwardness finally goes away.
There were multiple things that drove Penny to insomnia that night. The first was the heat that had come in during the afternoon, leaving the trailer uncomfortably warm. The second was the lack of a breeze despite her open window beckoning it. The third came from Pam, too uncomfortable to sleep and watching TV instead. Though the volume was at a low enough level for Penny to sleep through, she was too awake to ignore it.
The fourth thing that kept her awake and staring at her ceiling was Finley. No one had been home when she tried to find Maru, leaving her alone with her over-excitement. Even walking from the mountain, to the beach, and to Cindersap before the sun set was not enough to wear her out and lessen her smile. She returned to an empty trailer, finding a note saying Pam was beating the heat in the saloon until later. It had not dampened her mood; she made and ate dinner without thinking about what she ate.
As she lay in the dark, listening half to the TV and half to an owl hooting in the distance, Penny thought about Finley’s smile and how joyous it had been when she stood up. She dwelled on how warm Finley’s lips had been on her cheek, and how soft Finley’s cheek had been when she’d kissed her. When she remembered that she hadn’t hugged Finley before they parted, she sighed and rolled onto her side to stare at her bookcase.
“I can get a hug next Wednesday,” she whispered to her moodiness. “Go to sleep.”
She closed her eyes then, intent on doing her best to sleep. Sleep, in turn, did its best to continue eluding her. The room remained too warm, her mind too busy. She rolled onto her back, her other side, and she fluffed her pillow twice. When none of it worked, she lay on her stomach and put her pillow over her head to muffle her sigh. Several minutes passed with no luck, and so she got out of bed to leave her room.
Pam was asleep on the couch, head tilted in such a way that she did not snore. Penny turned off the TV and went back to her room, closing the door behind her. She turned her desk lamp on to its dimmest setting before going to her dresser. From the back corner of the lowest drawer, she retrieved a slim dress box. When she opened the box, she smiled at the scent of the dryer sheet she’d left inside the previous year. Setting the lid and the sheet aside, she took the dress out of the box to put it on the hanger on the hook on the back of her door.
It wasn’t a fancy dress, only a white sundress with slightly puffed sleeves and a tiny bit of embroidery along the neckline. Penny stood examining the dress for a long while, scouring every inch to hunt for holes, tears, or loose threads. Nothing became apparent no matter how long or how hard she looked, and she sighed softly. She smoothed the skirt once more before turning her light off and going back to bed.
Lying down, she set her head on her cool pillow and closed her eyes. She heard the owl hoot three more times as she thought about dancing with Finley, and she missed the fourth as she fell asleep.
It was a rare occasion when Jas came into the museum visibly excited, but she was giggly the moment she came into Penny’s view that Tuesday. She went to Penny immediately, tugging on her skirt. Penny took her hands from the shelves and crouched down, Vincent peeking around her.
“What’s got you so excited?” Penny asked with a smile. “Did Shane hatch another blue chicken?”
“Finley’s not hurt!” Jas said. “She was in the forest yesterday and she didn’t have a crutch!”
“I know,” Penny laughed. “She showed me she was feeling better when I visited her on Sunday.”
“Is she gonna come to the dance next week?” Vincent asked.
“She is,” Penny replied. “I invited her.”
“Do you think she’ll dance with anyone?” he asked.
“It’ll depend on if her legs are up to it. They’re very worn out for how long she was hurt.”
“But she’s gonna dance with someone if her legs are better?”
He opened his mouth for another question, stopped short when a different idea came to mind, and asked, “Does she know how to do the Flower Dance?”
“She doesn’t. She didn’t know about the festival at all until I invited her.”
“She’s so weird,” Vincent giggled. He giggled harder when Penny gave him a quick tickle.
“It’s not very strange to not know a new town’s festivals,” Penny chuckled. “But she is silly sometimes.”
“Miss Penny, you should teach her how to do the dance!” Jas said, tugging on her hand. “Then she can dance with someone!”
After thinking a moment, Penny said, “I guess I should, since she’s going to dance with me if her legs are up to it.”
Vincent and Jas stared at her, eyes wide. Penny stared back, face starting to burn. When Gunther leaned around the bookcase with raised brows and a smile, her blush reached her ears.
“What was that about the dance?” Gunther asked.
For a moment, Penny though to protest and say “nothing.” She forced the thought back, cleared her throat, and said, “I invited Finley to the Flower Dance and we’re going to dance together if her legs are up to dancing.”
Jas’ mouth fell open in a massive smile, stars in her eyes, and she bounced on her toes as she took Penny’s hand in hers. Words all in a rush, she asked, “Miss Penny, does that mean she like-likes you?”
“I think so, yes,” Penny laughed.
Jas gasped, asking, “Do you like-like her?”
Jas cheered before dissolving into giggles. Penny laughed with her until she saw Vincent’s stern frown.
“She better not step on your feet,” he said, crossing his arms with a huff.
“She’s not that clumsy,” Penny said, doing what she could to avoid choking on more giggles. “Besides, I’ll teach her how to do the dance. It’ll be fine.”
“’Kay,” he mumbled. He could not stop himself from giggling when she tickled him again, and he gave her a hug when she stopped. They gathered their books and went to the table to start for the day, but Vincent tugged on Penny’s sleeve once they had settled.
“When’re you gonna teach her the dance?” he asked.
“I’ll ask her if I can come by this weekend,” she replied. “Just so she has more time to rest.”
He nodded, but added, “Don’t let her step on your feet.”
“I won’t,” she said with utter sincerity, and Jas bit her lip to stifle her giggles. They went through the day’s lesson with little focus and focus Penny thought admirable for the morning’s excitement. In the afternoon, though, as Vincent and Jas were finishing their reading assignments, the door opened.
“Hello there,” Elliot called from the door. Once he had closed it, he added, “Just here for the biweekly book trade.”
“Mister Elliott!” Vincent and Jas both said, getting to their feet and running for the door. Out of sight as they were, Penny only heard Elliott’s yelp of surprise and several books hitting the floor. She winced and hurried over.
“What’s all this about?” Elliott asked, laughing helplessly as he crouched down to gather books. “You two aren’t usually so peppy at the same time.”
“Finley’s gonna go to the dance and dance with Miss Penny!” Jas said.
“Yeah!” said Vincent. “And she’s not gonna step on Miss Penny’s feet, either!”
“She’s off her crutches?” Elliott asked.
“Yes, finally,” Penny said, offering him the last book. “I can’t tell you how happy she is about it.”
“Well,” Elliott drawled, “I have to assume she’s as happy as you must be about her accepting your invitation.” He winked as he took the book, smiling because she blushed slightly.
“I would—agree,” she said.
“Good,” he replied. “You seemed to have that look in your eye about her at the Egg Festival.”
“Was it really that obvious?” she asked quietly, rubbing her cheeks.
“To everyone but Fin, apparently,” Elliott chuckled. “I’m pretty sure people will be happy to see you two dancing.”
“I hope so,” Penny said. “And I hope she’s up to it.”
“Well,” he drawled again, “I’m also pretty sure that she’ll do everything she can to be up to it. Nothing like a dance with a pretty young lady.”
“I just need to teach her the dance, now,” she said, smiling as they stood.
“It sounds like an exceptional plan,” he replied, giving her a salute before heading for the bookcases. Penny smiled, sighed, and led Vincent and Jas back to their table to clean up before taking them home.
The last thing Penny wanted to Saturday was to go to the farm unhappy. There was no helping it with how she’d been woken at midnight by Pam returning drunk and noisy. Though there had been no yelling, it left her with a pounding headache that refused to go away after breakfast. Keeping her eyes on the road to avoid looking toward the sun she left the trailer later than she had written she would.
The spring coolness had gone completely, warmth settling in already in the late morning. She was glad to be wearing a light dress with a short skirt, as no breeze came along the road. She sighed with relief when Finley’s house came into view, rubbing the back of her neck. She put a foot on the steps to go to the door, but stopped when she heard a faint sound. She turned to listen, catching the sound again. It came from past the broken down building and in the trees standing there. Brow raised, she made her way past the building and into the grass standing tall amongst the trees.
It did not take long to spot the hammock hung up between two trees and Finley laying in it dressed in shorts and a t-shirt. Her legs were off one side, bare feet on the ground to rock herself idly. Cradled, eyes closed, she played her guitar and hummed along to the tune. Penny stood by to listen and watch, relaxing in the shade. She did not speak for a long while to keep the moment as it was. Still, eventually, she took a deep breath.
“Finley?” she said gently.
For the first time, Finley did not jump violently. Her feet came off the ground as her shoulders rose, but she relaxed when she opened her eyes and saw Penny. She smiled sheepishly as she stood up.
“Sorry, I lost track of time,” she said. “Have you been waiting over at the house?”
“No, I just got here. I’m sorry for being late.”
“I think it wound up working out,” Finley chuckled. Her smile faded for concern when she looked at Penny more closely. “Are you okay? You’re really pale.”
“I woke up with a headache,” Penny admitted. “The heat’s not helping.”
“I’m sorry,” Finley murmured. She thought, rubbing the back of her neck, before smiling again. “I’ve got an idea. Sit in the hammock, I’ll be back in a sec.”
Head throbbing too much to think of questioning her, Penny sat in the hammock as Finley went off. She listened to the birds in nearby trees and to the chickens clucking out of sight, eyes half-closed. The sound of bare feet in the grass and water sloshing in a bucket in time with the strides made her look over her shoulder.
“Here, try sitting with your bare feet in the water for a while,” Finley said, setting the bucket at her feet. “Conrad swore up and down that this worked for all his headaches and migraines.”
“Conrad the gridball player?”
“The one and only.”
Penny smiled slightly, said, “I don’t see a reason not to try,” and took off her sandals. She set her feet in the water, shivering at the chill, and sat as still as she could.
“You can lay back,” Finley said. “That’s what hammocks are for.”
“I know.” She looked at Finley, saw how sweetly she smiled, and quickly looked down as her cheeks started to sting. She glanced at Finley, swallowed hard, and said, “Y-you can sit down, too. It’s your hammock.”
Finley went red to her ears. “Uh. Y-yeah, that’s true.” She cleared her throat and sat down cautiously to keep Penny from moving. For a few moments, they said nothing and did not look at each other. Finley fidgeted, brought her guitar into her lap, and started to play again.
“You don’t have to entertain me,” Penny said with a smile.
“Wha—no, I’m not trying—” She stopped abruptly with a weak laugh. “I play a lot when I get nervous. That’s why I was out here this whole time.”
“What? Why are you nervous?”
“I’m really bad at dances that aren’t slow,” Finley mumbled.
Penny looked at her properly. “Bad how?”
“I trip on other people’s feet,” Finley said even more quietly.
Penny stared. “You—trip?”
“Yeah.” She sighed, tuned one string slightly, and started to play again. “The only dance I ever actually learned is a waltz, and I’m pretty sure the dance on Wednesday isn’t a waltz. So…I get nervous.”
“It’s not a fast dance, though,” Penny chuckled. “You won’t trip on anyone’s feet.”
“As long as I’m not stepping on your toes, I don’t really mind if I trip a couple times.” She froze when Penny leaned against her and set her head on her shoulder.
“If you can waltz, you won’t step on my toes,” Penny said.
“Is it like a waltz, then?”
“I’m not sure. I don’t know how to waltz.”
“Really? It’s just a rotating box going one-two-three.”
“I know, but no one dances like that here.”
“Well…how about I teach you how to waltz once you teach me how to do this dance for Wednesday?”
“I’d like that,” Penny murmured, closing her eyes.
Finley looked at her, tilting her head carefully to keep them still. When she saw Penny’s closed eyes, she smiled and said, “C’mon, lay back for a while. You look like your head’s splitting.”
“It’s getting better,” Penny protested.
“We’ve got the whole day to do dance lessons. I don’t mind being out here playing for you until your headache goes away.”
Penny sighed softly, briefly. She thought, twisted her fingers about themselves, and asked, “Can you keep playing if you lay back?”
“That’s how I was playing before, so yeah.” She froze again. “Oh.” She cleared her throat. “Then…uh…let me settle first.” She waited until Penny had lifted her head before laying back, heels on the ground to keep them both steady. The difference in their heights kept Penny’s head level with Finley’s shoulder when she settled as well; she put her hands on her stomach to keep them from bumping against Finley’s leg.
“Comfy?” Finley asked.
“Mm hmm,” Penny hummed, letting her head tilt to rest on Finley’s shoulder again.
“Good,” Finley chuckled. She adjusted her grip on the guitar and resumed playing. It was a slow, quiet song, the tune seeming to meander as it went. Penny closed her eyes to focus on the sound and the feeling of Finley’s sleeve against her cheek. The fabric was smooth and without the scent of laundry detergent. It smelled floral, but only just. Part of her thought to ask about it; the rest of her remained silent to let Finley play without interruption.
It was not her intent to fall asleep. She found against the urge for a long while, tapping her fingers to the beat in the effort. Finley saw when her tapping slowed down and when she took her feet out of the water without thinking. She smiled, rearranged her feet so her toes were in the grass, and started to rock them slowly back and forth.
Penny did not have time to think of a reason to protest before she had fallen asleep. Finley continued to play, continued to rock them back and forth. A tiny breeze came along after a time, too gentle to do more than ruffle Penny’s skirt. Arthur came to them as the breeze faded. Though he peered at Penny’s bare feet, he only crooned and went to curl up in the guitar case Finley had left open nearby.
“Thank you,” Finley said quietly, and she smiled when he meowed quietly in reply. She finished the song as he fell asleep, bringing the hammock as she looked at the trees and thought. Penny did not stir, remaining asleep as she shifted. She rolled onto her side, one hand finding Finley’s elbow. Finley smiled as Penny burrowed closer, head pressed against her shoulder and knees bumping her hip. She started to play a new song, rocking them slowly, and chuckled when Penny let out a contented groan.
“You’re cute when you’re asleep, even,” Finley murmured. She looked at Penny’s face while she played, seeing how her hair fell over her eyes. Her playing tapered off when she looked at Penny’s lips, notes off beat with her distraction. Penny closed her hand loosely around her sleeve, sighing in her sleep. Finley went completely still, brows raised.
“Well,” she said, “’cute’ isn’t the right word at the moment.” She let her head fall back as she sighed, staring at the leaves above. “I shouldn’t have let you fall asleep.”
Finley tapped her pick against the guitar as she tried to remember where she’d stopped, but gave up and started over. As the midday heat crept in around them, grogginess caught her and made her play sections of songs in loops without realizing it. She paused at one point to try to think, setting her hand on her stomach. Because Penny held tighter to her sleeve, she sighed, smiled, and gingerly set her guitar aside to lean against the tree nearest her.
“To hell with it,” she said, and she closed her eyes. She rocked them until she fell asleep, and they were still and silent in the shade. Arthur woke at the sound of the chicks chirping, getting out of the case to herd them away from Finley’s feet. They were left on their own then, more than an hour passing with both of them asleep.
It was a stronger breeze that woke Penny, catching her skirt and the few drops that were still between her toes. She resisted waking for a time, rubbing Finley’s sleeve between thumb and forefinger. When she opened her eyes, she saw Finley’s hands, folded over each other on her stomach, and did not fully understand where she was. Lifting her head slightly, she looked up to see Finley sound asleep, head tilted toward her left shoulder. Penny stared for a few moments longer before her grogginess faded enough for her to blush.
“Why did you fall asleep?” she whispered. She meant to sit up, to shake Finley’s shoulder, but only managed the first. Finley’s head tilted toward her when she moved, but Finley did not wake. She made a faint noise, mouth closed, and moved her left arm before going still. Her hair was in her face for what seemed like the thousandth time to Penny, hanging over her left eye.
Penny let go of Finley’s sleeve and lifted her hand. She reached out, hand somehow steady, but stopped. Her fingers curled to touch her palm. Penny opened her hand and gently moved Finley’s hair out of her face, tucking it behind her ear. Her touch was too light for Finley to wake, and Penny let her hand linger near her cheek. She leaned closer when she saw a small, narrow red line at the edge of Finley’s eyebrow that followed the curve of her eye. She set her hand on Finley’s cheek, thumb near her eye.
Finley opened her eyes and looked at her. Because her gaze was groggy and unfocused, Penny pulled her hand away quickly. Finley closed her eyes tight, rubbed her face, and took a deep breath.
“How’s your headache?” Finley chuckled.
“Then a nap was the right thing. I’m glad.” She smiled and touched Penny’s nose. “Even though you tried really hard to stay awake.”
“I didn’t,” Penny said, “I didn’t…snore at all, did I?”
“Not that I heard.” She smiled and added, “You were out like a light once I started swinging us.”
“Why did you go to sleep?” Penny asked.
“It’s nice out,” Finley replied. “And watching you sleep made me sleepy.” She sat up properly, rubbing the back of her neck before looking at her watch. “I don’t suppose you’re hungry now that we slept our way to the afternoon.”
“I didn’t eat much for breakfast, so…I am.”
“Then I’m glad I brought in another little harvest of potatoes a few days ago.” She stood and offered a hand, pulling Penny to her feet. As Penny put her sandals back on, she put her guitar in its case to carry back to the house. Penny walked alongside her on her left, glancing at her face as they went.
“Finley?” she said when they reached the house.
“Is…did Arthur scratch you?”
“What?” Finley asked, hand on the doorknob.
“There’s a cut on your face by your eye.”
Finley looked at her blankly. She took her hand from the doorknob to point at her left eye. Smiling, she asked, “The line that starts at my eyebrow, right?”
“Yes. Are you okay?”
“It’s not a scratch,” Finley chuckled. “They had to do a bit of surgery for the fracture around my eye, but I got lucky about how little this scar is. Not like the one on the back of my shoulder.” She opened the door, letting Penny go inside first. As Finley set the case near the door, leaving the door open, Penny swallowed hard.
“Finley, about your shoulder,” she said. “That first day I came over…I turned around when you were putting on a dry shirt and I saw your shoulder.” She blushed when Finley looked at her with raised brows, rushing to add, “I’m sorry, I wasn’t trying to peep! I think I was asking you something and I just turned around without thinking!”
“Penny, it’s fine!” Finley laughed. “You’d see it eventually anyway!”
“It’s pretty hard to miss when I wear shirts with no sleeves,” Finley said. “Don’t worry about it.”
“Oh. Um, all right.” She followed Finley to the kitchen after taking off her sandals, pausing at the sight of what looked like a wooden bucket at one end of a counter and a milk crate full of mason jars on the floor near it. “What’s all that?”
“It’s a preserves jar on the counter. I’m making jelly out of most of my strawberries. You can take some of the full jars in the crate if you’d like.”
“Are you sure? You’re selling it, aren’t you?”
“Penny, you really need to get used to me giving you presents,” Finley said with a smile. “Besides, a few jars of jelly won’t bankrupt me.”
“Thank you, then.” She went through the jars in the crate before finding two to take and setting them next to the preserves jar. Finley had begun peeling two large potatoes by the time she was finished, sitting on the counter as she worked.
“Are your legs all right?” Penny asked.
“Yep. I just like sitting where I shouldn’t.”
“So…you’ll be able to dance on Wednesday?”
“Absolutely. As long as you teach me the dance.”
“I will, I promise.” She moved closer when Finley got off the counter to find a large saucepan, watching while she cut the potatoes into chunks. When Finley had filled the pan with the potatoes and water and set it on the stove to boil, she asked, “How long will those take?”
“About half an hour, fifteen to boil ‘em. Are you really hungry?”
“No, I was thinking about how long it’ll take to show you the dance.” She smiled and shrugged as the water started to boil. “It’ll probably take a little longer than that.”
“We could go out of order,” Finley said, adding salt to the water.
“I can show you how to waltz first,” Finley said, reducing the heat and covering the pan. She set a timer, saying, “It really won’t take long.”
“All right. Do we need to move anything out of the way?”
“Nah, we’re fine with everything where it is. I won’t lead you too far away.” She grinned. “And I promise to not step on your toes.”
“I might step on yours,” Penny admitted.
“I’m leading, so that might be hard to pull off,” Finley chuckled. As she moved away from the stove, she crooked a finger and said, “C’mon.”
Penny followed her, stopping when she did. “So—how does this go?”
“I wasn’t kidding when I called it a rotating box going one-two-three,” Finley said. “You’ll be doing the mirrored version of this.” She stepped forward with her left foot, to the side with her right, and brought her feet back together. She returned to where she was by stepping back with her right foot, the side with her left, and bringing her feet back together. Smiling, she offered Penny her left hand.
“Um,” Penny whispered. She gave Finley her right hand, setting her left hand on Finley’s right arm below her shoulder. When Finley’s right hand settled on her back over her shoulder blade, she went still to suppress the shiver that went down her spine from the warmth of Finley’s hand. She swallowed and said, “So—back on my right foot?”
“Yep. Back, one.” She stepped forward as Penny stepped back. “To the side with your left, two.” She stepped first, waiting as Penny followed, and said, “Then together, three.”
Penny nodded, gripping Finley’s sleeve tight. She looked at their hands when Finley squeezed her fingers, turning back to her quickly.
“Now you come forward on your left, one,” Finley said, stepping back on her right foot. “To the side with your right, two. And together, three.”
“That’s really it?”
“Rotating box going one-two-three,” Finley replied, smirking slightly. “It’s the easiest dance in the world, so even I can’t screw it up.” She stepped forward with her left foot, saying, “One,” as Penny stepped back. She counted their steps as they danced, speaking clearly and going slowly, until Penny stopped watching their feet. Once Penny was looking at her, she hummed quietly to keep time. Their steps grew lighter as Penny relaxed; soon Finley did not have to count time at all.
Penny stopped holding Finley’s sleeve so tightly as they turned on a step. She let her hand rest on Finley’s arm, feeling the warmth of her skin through her shirt. Finley’s hand was just as warm, holding her other hand steady as she led. There were calluses in her palm just below her fingers, rough and obvious every few steps. Penny did not look at their hands again, even when Finley ran her thumb over the inside of her wrist. Her eyes were on Finley’s, and on her small, easy smile.
Finley slowed their pace, forgetting to count their steps. Penny followed her lead, but stumbled on a step back. Finley kept her on her feet, holding Penny’s hand tight while her fingers splayed over her back. Regaining her balance with her hand closed in Finley’s shirt at her chest, Penny blushed and opened her mouth to apologize.
There was nothing in Finley’s fond smile that asked for an apology, and so Penny closed her mouth. She did not let go of Finley’s shirt as Finley moved closer and brought her hand around from her back to cup her cheek. Inhaling shakily, Penny started to rise up on her toes as Finley leaned down.
The timer went off, making them jump apart with their faces aflame. Finley went to the stove, pushing her hair out of her face before getting to work.
“So that’s a waltz,” Finley said, voice breaking. “Really easy.”
“It—it is,” Penny said, staring at a far wall as she rubbed her cheeks. “B-but the Flower Dance isn’t much harder than that.”
“Good. I probably won’t step on your feet, then.” She cleared her throat, but did not speak again. Penny turned to look at her, seeing how intense her blush was. She moved closer, but waited until Finley had turned off every burner before going to her side. She held onto Finley’s elbow for balance as she stood on her toes and kissed her cheek.
“I know you won’t,” Penny said, and she smiled when Finley looked at her. When Finley smirked and leaned down to kiss her cheek in turn, she laughed.
Wednesday came with a break in the heat, the river carrying a cool breeze to the clearing in Cindersap. The small flags hanging on streamers around the clearing fluttered with each small rush of the breeze and birds chirped when the branches they perched on swayed. Vincent and Jas went through the Flower Dance on their own as best as they knew from memory, Sam and Jodi standing nearby and snickering. Haley practiced on her own, gaze distant with focus save for when she turned toward Alex.
Penny stood by at one side of the cleaning, doing what she could to avoid checking her watch or looking past Pierre’s stall. When anxiety gripped her too fiercely, she looked at her watch. Her shoulders drooped, pulled by a sinking heart, when she saw it was quarter to ten. She did not have a chance to sigh before someone poked her side and made her yelp. Turning, she found Maru beside her with one brow raised.
“Don’t tell me you’re fretting,” said Maru. “You know she’ll be here.”
“I do, I know,” Penny said. “I just—I didn’t think she’d be so late.”
“You told her the festival started at nine, right?”
“I did.” She sighed, looking at the three dandelions in her hands. “Maybe she’s just having trouble finding flowers.”
“Probably. I think we picked the town clean this morning.” Because Penny did not look up, she sighed and smiled. Nudging Penny with her elbow, she said, “Don’t get in a twist before she even gets here. She’ll be here soon and you know it.”
“I do.” She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “She’s just finding flowers.”
“Either that or she wussed out.”
Penny and Maru both jumped, Maru spinning about to punch Sebastian’s shoulder.
“Stop doing that!” Maru hissed.
“But it’s fun,” he replied, and he snickered when she punched him again.
“Thank you for your vote of no confidence in her,” Penny said flatly, “but Finley will be here. She’s just late.”
“For her sake I hope she is,” Sebastian said. “I don’t think she wants to know what Maru’s like when she’s pissed.”
“No one has to get angry with her,” Penny replied. “She’s just—”
“There’s my favorite supplier-slash-customer!” Pierre laughed from his stall.
They all turned to look, seeing Finley coming around the stall with three dandelions in her hand. Though she started to look around, she turned to Pierre when he waved at her.
“Interested in anything here?” he asked.
“Sorry,” she replied with a smile. “I didn’t bring my backpack for once.”
“As long as you remembered your flowers,” he said, winking at her. “Get going.”
She gave him a quick wave before moving into the clearing. She went two steps before Vincent and Jas grabbed her legs, nearly toppling her.
“Did you bring flowers?” Jas asked. She giggled madly when Finley smiled and showed her the dandelions.
“You’re not gonna step on Miss Penny’s feet, right?” Vincent asked.
“I promise I won’t,” said Finley. “D’you know where she is?”
They pointed in unison, letting her go when she looked. Seeing Penny, her smile widened and she relaxed visibly. Minding Vincent and Jas’ feet, she made her way across the clearing. The weight of a few curious gazes made her blush, but she did not stop until she was before Penny.
“Sorry,” she said. “I had a hell of a time actually finding flowers.” She laughed quietly, nervously, and looked at the ground. “I only found two on the back road, so I had to cross the river before I came here.”
“It’s okay,” Penny said. “I thought that’s where you were.”
“Can I go tell Lewis that you’re here and ready to dance?” Sebastian asked. “I hate wearing this jacket.”
Finley looked at him blankly. She looked at his jacket, bright blue and stiff at the elbows. She then looked at Penny and Maru in their white dresses. She turned to look around, seeing blue jackets and white dresses, and finally looked at her own dark blue jacket.
“Was I supposed to wear something specific?” she asked.
“You’re good,” Maru said. “I don’t think Old Man Amundsen would’ve left his jacket here if had one.” She patted her and Penny on the back before following Sebastian as he walked off. For a moment they faltered, free hands twitching but not reaching out. Then, Finley moved her flowers to her left hand and offered Penny her right arm. Penny took her arm and walked with her to the middle of the clearing.
“All right, everyone, take your places!” Lewis said, clapping his hands. “Dancers in the center! Those in jackets, your backs to the river, please!”
Finley went to stand in line, shoulders starting to rise. She jumped when Elliott patted her right shoulder, smiling slightly because his smile was so cheerful. Across the way, Leah nudged Penny gently.
“I knew it,” Leah whispered, smiling at her.
“Knew what?” Penny asked.
“I knew she’d come to the dance with you,” Leah said. “After what Pierre said last Friday about you two baking at her place, how could I not?” She chuckled. “I’ve got to admit I’m jealous. Happy for you, but jealous.”
“Thank you,” Penny said. Smiling, she added, “I think.”
Leah laughed, patting her on the back. “Does she know how to do the dance?”
“She does. She’s not going to trip.”
“Good. Maybe Shane can follow her example and not knock Emily over this year.”
Penny looked across the way, seeing Shane shuffle up on Finley’s other side with his hands deep in his pockets. He glanced toward them as Emily took her place on Penny’s other side, his gaze quickly dropping and growing morose. Finley saw Penny look at Shane with concern, turned, and tapped her elbow against his side. He rushed to take his hands from his pockets and dug daffodils out of his jacket pockets.
“Now then,” said Lewis. “It’s time again to show our thanks to the spring as it ends and summer comes along! Ladies and gentlemen, if you’d do us the honor of showing the forest your best dancing?” He hurried out of the way, grinning through his mustache as he went to a portable stereo on a folding table and pressing play.
The music that started to play was bright, its tempo steady. Penny curtsied along with the other women, and Finley bowed with her flowers over her heart as the men beside her did the same. They all closed the gap, hands coming together so they each held three flowers in either hand. Those in jackets turned right to look toward town, leading the way along the line. Penny looked at Finley when they drew close to the end, fighting a giggle when Finley winked at her. They let go at the end, keeping their flowers in the right hands as they turned to circle around to the end of the line.
When they had returned to their original places, those in jackets bowed again. Penny stepped in closer with the others to place one flower in a pocket on Finley’s jacket over her heart. She stepped back, Finley following to set a flower in the pocket on her dress over her heart as well. Finley took half a step back, Penny following, and they brought their hands back together. Feet staggered between each other, they bowed to their right and then to their left.
As she straightened up, Penny saw Emily whispering in Shane’s ear with a smile. Though he blushed, he grit his teeth and nodded. When they were all standing straight, Penny took all four of their flowers in her right hand to give her left to Finley. Finley lifted her hand to guide her through a spin, and Penny saw Emily guide Shane through one as well. He continued to blush, but he did not stumble or trip with how Emily was taller than him by a few inches. When they all took their partner’s hands again, he smiled slightly at the approving smiles Finley and Harvey gave him from either side.
Those in dresses turned to their right then, facing away from town. Penny and Finley made their way to the end of the line, split apart, and came back to their original places. Finley stepped in first as Penny curtsied, setting a flower behind her left ear. She stepped back to bow; Penny followed to set a flower behind her left ear. When she went back half a step, Finley went with her to take her hands.
They all turned and moved toward town one last time, holding their remaining flowers in either set of hands. When they reached the end of the line, they let go only with one hand, turned back to walk past those behind them with their arms as an arch. Penny held tight to her flower as she walked on her toes to give the others their way. When Finley ducked down to follow her back to their original places, she bit her lip to stifle giggles.
They let go at the end, final flowers in their right hands. As they bowed deeply and curtsied, they held their flowers over their hearts. They stepped forward in unison, Penny moving to offer Finley the flower. She hesitated because Finley folded her hand over and tucked her flower up her sleeve suddenly. With the music playing, only Penny heard the pop that sounded from inside Finley’s sleeve. Her jaw dropped when Finley unfolded her hand to reveal a brilliant scarlet poppy and a tiny blue junimo hiding up her sleeve.
“You said you like poppies,” Finley said, blushing and smiling, when Penny stared at her.
“Did you just one-up everyone with a magic trick?” Haley asked, leaning around Leah.
“Uh,” Finley said quietly, looking around at all the eyes on her. “I wasn’t…trying to.” She shrank on herself, blood beginning to drain from her face. “Uh. I just—Penny likes poppies. I wanted t-to give her one.” She froze stiff when Elliott clapped her on the back.
“It’s been a while since I’ve seen a dashing move like that!” he laughed. “Well done!”
“Make everyone jealous, why don’t you,” Haley sighed, flipping her hair as she went off on her own.
Lewis approached then, smiling and clapping politely. “Well done, everybody! An excellent farewell to the season!” He patted Finley’s shoulder, not taking in how she remained frozen and pale. “And a very good showing from our new farmer. Your grandfather wasn’t that good for what I remember.”
“Thanks,” Finley croaked. She did not move as he went off, choking on a gasp when Vincent and Jas charged in and grabbed her legs. She started to tilt backward, but Penny took her hands and heaved to keep her upright. Finley stared at Vincent and Jas, eyes wide and jaw tense with fright.
“How’d you do that?” Jas asked.
“Can you do magic?” Vincent demanded.
“N-no, not real m-magic,” Finley stammered. “It was j-just sleight of hand. L-look.” She tucked her hand in her sleeve and brought out a dandelion Penny knew hadn’t been there. “See? I just switched them at the end. I wanted to give Penny something she really likes.” She flinched when the poppy was taken from her hand, looking up to see Penny smiling at her.
“Thank you,” said Penny. “This was a wonderful surprise.”
Finley stared. She started to smile, but froze up when Jodi and Marnie came closer. Vincent and Jas let go of Finley’s legs to go to them.
Smiling, hiding her soft chuckles behind her hand, Jodi said, “That was quite a performance after all the stories about you getting hurt. The flower was a great touch.”
“We were hoping you’d dance with Penny,” Marnie said, patting Jas’ head. “It was a big thing when Jas came home last week saying you would.”
Finley stared. One eye twitched. She said, “Th-thank you.”
“Well,” Jodi said in a leading voice, “I think I need to get my boys home for lunch sooner than later.”
“That sounds like a plan for us, too,” Marnie said. “Jas, Shane, want to head home?”
“Sure,” Shane replied, pulling his jacket off. “Jas, c’mere.” He picked her up to sit on his shoulders when she went to him, and they headed off.
Sam swept in to pick Vincent up as well. He grinned at Penny, giving her a thumbs-up from the hip. Jodi patted his back, leading them off. Finley stared at them, never truly seeing that they were followed by most everyone that remained in the clearing. The last person to leave was Pam, lingering to ruffle Finley’s hair gently and to kiss Penny’s head.
“See you at home, kiddo,” she said to Penny, and she went off with a wave.
Finley stared after her. Her eye twitched again. When she looked at Penny, she started to shake. Voice weak and breaking, she choked out, “You w-were r-right.”
Her breath hitched, mouth twitching, and she started to cry. “Y-you were t-totally r-right. N-no one c-cared.” Her mouth twisted again, now into a weak smile, and she laughed as she hid her face. “I w-was scared for no fucking—reason.”
Penny smiled and stepped in to touch Finley’s elbow. When Finley moved her hands, she stepped in again to hug her. She held tight, brow pressed to Finley’s shoulder. Finley held tight in return, hiding her face in her arm to keep from crying in Penny’s hair. Minutes passed, but Finley stopped crying sooner than she had at the beach.
“Please don’t be crying,” she said, not letting go.
“I’m not, I promise,” Penny said.
Finley nodded, let go, and scrubbed her face dry. She looked at Penny, face and eyes red, and smiled tentatively. “Um. C-can we sit for a while? M-my legs feel like they’re going to give out.”
“Come on,” Penny said, taking her hand. “We can sit by the river.” She led the way, tugging Finley’s hand only once. They sat on the riverbank, Penny taking off her sandals to dip her feet in the water. For a long while, they said nothing. Finley sat rubbing her face slowly, sniffing faintly until her nose stopped running. Penny did not watch to give her privacy, instead watching the river. She did turn, however, when a series of confused, irritated squeaks rang out from inside Finley’s sleeve.
“Sorry, sorry!” Finley said, rushing to take the junimo out. “I wasn’t trying to smother you!” She accepted the bop the junimo delivered to her nose, smiling sheepishly. “I’m really, really sorry. I’ll bring more cookies soon, so please don’t be mad.”
“Were you late because you went to get him?” Penny asked.
“Yeah,” Finley said. “I wanted to get you a poppy for that last trade.” She laughed when the junimo jumped on top of her head and bounced several times before vanishing. “I owe them like three batches of cookies, but that’s a fair trade.”
“For one poppy?” Penny laughed.
Finley smiled at her and said, “I got to give you a poppy, so yeah, fair trade.”
Penny went still for a moment before smiling back. She looked at the river and said, “It’s hard to believe you’ve only been here a few months.”
Finley laughed once, rubbing the back of her neck. “I know. It feels like a lot longer.”
“There’s a saying in the valley,” Penny said, moving her feet in gentle, slow kicks, “that days go by twice when you’ve found the right soil for your roots.”
“I like that,” Finley said, looking up to the sky.
“Good,” Penny murmured, starting to lean against her. She stopped when she looked up and saw that Finley’s hair was once again in her face, hanging over her left eye. She laughed wearily and said, “Finley, for heaven’s sake.”
“Huh?” Finley said, turning to look at her.
“You keep letting your hair get in your face,” Penny laughed, reaching up to move Finley’s hair aside. She tucked it behind her ear. Though she meant to draw her hand back, the way Finley turned to look at her hand brought her fingers against her cheek. Penny took a breath; she set her hand on Finley’s cheek.
Finley smiled and put two fingers against the outside of Penny’s wrist. As she started to lean down, she reached out to touch Penny’s chin. Penny tilted her head up, smiling because Finley took hold of her other hand. When Finley kissed her, she closed her eyes and held her breath to focus on nothing but the heat of Finley’s lips on hers. It left her out of breath as they parted, and her laugh was soft when Finley kissed her cheek.
She kissed Finley again before she could go far, and she moved closer to sit hip to hip with her. Finley chuckled and put an arm around her shoulders. Quiet, smiling, they sat and watched the river for a long, long while.
It happened two weeks later with a perfectly reasonable question Haley asked her on her way back from taking Jas home on Friday. She was out taking photographs of the flowers in front of her and Emily’s house, looking away from the viewfinder at the sound of Penny’s footsteps crossing behind her.
“Penny,” she said before Penny went far past her. “I’ve been wanting to ask you something.”
“What is it?”
“Did Finley give you a bouquet before the dance? Or right after?”
Penny stared at her, mind blanking out. “What?”
“She gave you a bouquet, right?” Haley asked.
She did not have to think long about the last two weeks before quietly saying, “Well…n-no, but—”
“Oh come on, you’re kidding me,” Haley huffed, putting a hand on her hip. “That’d be the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard after that display at the dance. You’re telling me she doesn’t like you enough for a bouquet?”
“No, that’s not it,” Penny protested. “I know she likes me, but I don’t think people give each other bouquets in the city to ask them to be boyfriends or girlfriends. She probably just doesn’t know.”
Impatience filled Haley’s eyes as she shook her head, sighed, and turned back to the flowers. A shade of condemning contempt was in her voice when she said, “That’s ridiculous in the city and it’s ridiculous for her to string you along if she’s not serious. She needs to get with the times.”
Penny gaped at her, eyes wide and spine full of ice. She stammered, “Thank you, Haley,” because she could come up with no other words and hurried home without looking back. She was alone in the trailer, a note left on the table. Leaving it unread, Penny went to her room to sit at her desk and stared at a wall.
Minutes passed with her mind blanked out again. As the sun moved closer to the horizon, she bit her lip and opened the desk’s bottom drawer. From it she took a coffee can, and she took its lid off to pour its contents onto her desk. At a glance, she knew that the coins before her did not add up to two hundred gild.
“I thought I had more saved,” she said quietly. She thought, and then groaned, “I took most of it to get Gus’ Winter Star present.” Sighing, she put the coins back in the can one by one before putting the can away. She brought her legs up to her chest to hold them, setting her chin on her knees. She stared at a wall again, but her mind was no longer blank.
There was no anger in the cold weight filling her limbs. Anxiety was there instead, driving her to drum her fingers on her shins for a distraction. She sighed and hid her face in her knees.
“I can’t just ask her to give me a bouquet,” she mumbled. “That’d be so stupid.” She shook her head and sighed again. “But Haley’s going to make a big deal of it to Emily, and then everyone will make a big deal of it when she tells them at the saloon.” She sighed once more, misery in the sound. “Why did I tell her that?”
Penny went quiet and still then, looking at the floor. When her stomach rumbled, she left her room to eat. Putting together a salad was a distraction that only managed to take her focus for a few minutes; eating it took even less time. Going back to her room, she sat on her bed and looked at her bookcase.
Even two weeks later, the poppy Finley had given her was brilliant and without a sign of wilting. It sat in the glass of water Penny set on a shelf, remarkably lovely. She looked at it for minutes on end, knowing when she started to smile.
“I can talk to her tomorrow,” she said quietly, and she stood to take a book from the shelves. Before she picked one, she ran the back of her fingers against the poppy’s petals to try to recall the feeling of Finley’s lips. The memory arrived in a rush, and fiercely enough that it instantly mingled with the idea of Finley taking her face in hand and kissing her soundly. It left her red in the face and scrambling for a book, and she threw herself into bed to look at anything but the flower.
Sleep came fitfully with how little the evening cooled off; lingering thoughts about rumors worsened it. Though she did not wake with a headache, exhaustion kept her in bed an hour past her alarm. Taking her book with her was not something planned, but she could not turn around to take it home when she only realized she was carrying it by the time she reached the clinic. She focused on finding her place in the book as she passed the bus stop, but closed the book again as she drew close to the farm.
“Finley?” she called as she walked onto the property. The only thing in immediate view was Arthur, sitting atop a fence post and looking as though he was posing. He turned to look at her, ears flicking, before turning away and meowing loudly. Penny took a few steps to follow his gaze properly, seeing Finley a ways off digging next to a stump.
An old brown cap was on Finley’s head while a towel covered the back of her neck. Sweat was already showing on the back of her gray tank top, and she sighed hard when she straightened up. As she took her cap off to wipe her brow, Penny saw that she was wearing work gloves caked with dirt. Arthur meowed again, louder than before, and Finley turned around. The look of happy surprise that came to her face made Penny blush as she lifted a hand in greeting.
“May I come over?” Penny asked.
“Sure,” Finley laughed, putting her cap back on. She took off her gloves to slap them against the underside of her boots, breaking off some of the dirt. She put the gloves in one hand, moving the handle of the shovel to the same hand as Penny came up.
“I wasn’t expecting a visit,” Finley said with a smile, “but I’m happy to see you.”
“What’re you doing?” Penny asked.
“Tearing up stumps,” Finley said, pointing to one side with her thumb.
Penny looked where she pointed, seeing a large stump that had been torn up and left to lay with its dirt-encased roots exposed. Her mouth opened, brows rising. She looked at Finley and asked, “Did you dig that up by yourself?”
“Yeah. I’m not happy that it took all morning, but now I know what to do.” She chuckled as she pulled her gloves on. “I need these things out of the way to plant fruit trees, so they’re coming out hell or high water.”
“Did you already buy saplings?” Penny asked.
“No, I went all-out on seeds and fertilizer. This is just planning ahead.” She winked. “I planted those melon seeds from your packet in the best spot I know of so far.”
Penny desperately wished her cheeks did not burn so fiercely so fast, and she rubbed them as she looked down. “You didn’t have to do that.”
“No, but there’s no way I wouldn’t,” Finley replied, and she leaned down to kiss Penny’s still-red cheek. She spotted the book in Penny’s hand when she glanced down. “Did you come here to read?”
Penny looked up at her, lips parted to speak. The smile on Finley’s face stopped her, inviting and cheerful. She hesitated. Knowing there more anxiety than shyness in her smile but unable to change it, she asked, “Is that all right?”
“As long as you don’t mind the noise I make working,” Finley replied. “If you could keep Arthur from yelling at me, I’d appreciate it, honestly.”
“I think I can,” Penny said. She turned, going to Arthur to scratch his chin. “Do you want to sit with me?”
He looked at her imperiously before getting down from his post. He headed for the trees, Penny following behind him. Finley watched them go, smile fading. When Penny did not look back toward her, her brows lowered. She hummed quietly, adjusted her hat, and got back to work digging down to expose the stump’s roots.
“What am I doing?” Penny hissed, sitting heavily in the hammock. Arthur waited until the hammock stopped swaying so much before jumping up into it. He was not so patient in claiming a spot in Penny’s lap, squirming around her book to sit down. He purred at her when she sighed in exasperation.
“Why didn’t I tell her?” Penny said to him. “I’m not mad at her about this, why can’t I just say something?”
He rumbled at her, thumping his tail against her chest until she sighed and began to rub his cheeks with both hands. Because she could not open her book, Penny watched Finley while she worked. Finley was too focused to look away from the stump, digging steadily down. The flex of the muscles in her arms and back made Penny stare, lips pressed together.
All at once the image of Finley kissing her soundly rushed back into her mind, and all at once she was caught up in imagining how Finley’s back would look without a shirt hiding it. She wondered how her skin would feel under her fingers, if it would be warm, what it would be like to feel her muscles move. Arthur changed positions before she could think about how Finley’s callused hands would feel on her own back, letting her pick up her book to read. She took the distraction hastily, but it was not enough to let her ignore that she was blushing again.
The sounds of the shovel and the dirt were distant and soft enough that she was able to read through an entire chapter without looking up. The sound of an axe chopping into roots made both her and Arthur jump, and Arthur rumbled as he thumbed his tail violently. He got out of her lap to slink back to the house, leaving Penny on her own. It made her fidget, made her flinch with each blow of the axe. Something swelled in the bottom of her throat until the thought of swallowing made her nauseous. She gently closed her book.
“I can’t tell her she’s doing something wrong,” she whispered. “Not when she isn’t.” She stood up and started back toward Finley. Because Finley was still chopping the stump’s roots, she stood by quietly. It wasn’t long before Finley paused to rest and stretch her left arm, and she noticed Penny immediately.
“Everything okay?” Finley asked.
“It is,” Penny lied. “I just remembered that I needed to buy something for dinner. It’s my turn to cook tonight.” She tried to smile and only managed something small. “I’m sorry for being silly and coming over like this.”
“Penny,” Finley said, “you can come by any time you want.” She smiled. “You’re my girlfriend. That’s something you can do.”
Her blush returned, even more painful. Because she said nothing, only staring, Finley blushed and laughed sheepishly.
“Sorry,” she said. “That was kinda sudden of me to say.”
“N-no!” Penny said. “It—I don’t—that’s not wrong!” There was infinitely more honesty in her smile when she added, “No one’s called me that before, that’s all!”
“Well, we are girlfriends, aren’t we?” Finley asked.
Once again, she hesitated. She kept her smile where it was when she replied, “We are.”
“Then you don’t have to apologize for dropping by,” Finley said. “I’m happy to see you.” She laughed. “Even though I’m a filthy mess right now.”
“Do you think you’ll be doing this all day?”
“I’ll stop this afternoon. I want to get into the mines tomorrow and I can’t overwork anything.” She set the axe down to dry her face with both hands. Voice muffled by her towel, she asked, “Is there something you wanted to do?”
Penny froze entirely, words pinned to her tongue. She looked down, missing how Finley lowered her hands slightly to look at her. When she looked back up, she had put a smile on her face.
“I was just wondering,” she said. “But I’ll let you get back to work. Please don’t work too hard, okay?”
“I won’t, don’t worry,” Finley said, and she leaned down to kiss her cheek. Penny turned at the last moment to give her a proper kiss, though it was one that was light and brief. She backed away quickly, not giving Finley a chance to follow before she waved in parting and turned away.
Finley watched her go with one brow raised. She hummed quietly and looked at her watch.
“Just past noon,” she murmured. She thought. “That’s enough time, I think.” She rolled her shoulders, cracked her neck, and lay into the stump with vicious force. It did not resist, coming out of the ground completely within forty minutes. She let it lay where it was, taking her tools back to the house. Another twenty minutes were all she needed to wash up, change into clean clothes, and eat something before she set out on the back road at a light run.
It was only cooler near the mountains by a few degrees, but there was a steady breeze coming across the lake when Finley came up the road. She slowed briefly going along the side of the house, but picked up speed when she saw no one near the telescope outside. She spotted Maru sitting at the lake’s edge, writing on a notepad, and went for her at once.
“Maru!” she called out as she drew close.
“I’m not talking to you, Fin!” Maru called back, and she did not look up when Finley jogged up next to her.
“Oh—good,” Finley said, bending over to catch her breath. “I was—right.”
“About what?” Maru grumbled.
“I did something,” Finley replied, “and hurt Penny’s feelings.” She took a few deep breaths to steady her breathing completely. “Except she won’t tell me what’s wrong. I’m assuming I did something stupid and she doesn’t want to make me feel stupid.”
She smiled slightly and said, “But you’ve never worried about telling me off for stupid things I do, so I was hoping you’d tell me so I can fix it.”
“Why haven’t you given Penny a bouquet?” Maru demanded.
“Wait, what? All the poppies I planted for her aren’t grown yet. I can’t give her one yet.”
“No, a bouquet from Pierre’s shop! Emily told everyone at the saloon that Penny told Haley that you haven’t given her a bouquet!”
Finley boggled at her. “Why did that even come up between them?”
“Because no one can tell if you’re actually going to ask her to be your girlfriend when it’s been this long since the dance! I can’t believe you’re doing this to her!”
Finley stared at her, eyes widening as her brows dropped. “You’re telling me people think she’s not my girlfriend?” She grimaced putting a hand on her face. “Dammit. Good job, Amundsen. You didn’t ask what to do in the valley.”
Maru hesitated. “Wait. Is…that not what you do in the city?”
“Nope,” Finley sighed. She looked at her watch. “Little before two. Okay.” She turned and started away.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Maru said.
“Fixing things!” Finley replied, and she started to run again. When she reached the stairs leading down to town, she paused briefly to look about. Because Penny was not in immediate sight, she went down the stairs in three jumps, boot heels sliding on the cobblestones at the bottom. She did not fall, recovering easily to rush into Pierre’s. He stared at her, freezing in the middle of stocking the shelves nearest the door.
“Why are you out of breath?” he asked after a moment.
“Ran down from Robin’s,” Finley said, smiling. “Can I—get something—real fast?”
“A glass of water?”
She laughed faintly and took a deep breath. “Your nicest bouquet.”
He stared a few more seconds before raising a brow. “Maru yelled at you, didn’t she.”
Finley laughed again, holding up her hands. “I technically asked her to tell me off. She told me what I did wrong, so I’m happy I went up there.” She followed him to the back of the store, looking closely at the bouquets he had on display before picking one.
“Do us all a favor and don’t make Penny wait again,” Pierre said as he wrote in his ledger. “Pam was pretty miffed.”
She winced. “Am I on her hit list?”
“She was the only one arguing for you. But no one likes her yelling at them, so I’d avoid making Penny wait in general.”
“I don’t plan on it,” Finley said, taking her change. “Thank you kindly!” She headed out of the store, looking around as she went toward the main square.
Marnie, Jodi, and Caroline all stood there, talking amongst themselves. Finley thought to creep past them, but took a deep breath, shook her head, and began to walk with the bouquet held in a steady hand. She stopped abruptly when Evelyn came around one of the rose bushes near the saloon with clippers in her hand. Evelyn startled as well, gasping faintly before laughing.
“Don’t sneak up on old ladies, Miss Amundsen,” she said, patting Finley’s arm. “It’s impolite.
“Sorry,” Finley said with a smile. She thought, rubbing the back of her neck, and asked, “Have you, uh, seen Penny recently?”
“Oh yes,” said Evelyn. “I saw her heading toward the river with a book a while ago. I expect she wanted to be alone, considering the expression on her face.”
“That would be my fault,” Finley said. She started off, lifting her free hand as she went. “Thank you kindly for the info!” Her pace was quick, steps light as she headed for the tree nearest the river. When she was close, she stepped to one side to peek around the tree.
Penny was sitting on the other side of the tree, legs pulled up to her chest to make herself small. Her eyes were on the river and a book was on the ground on her other side. The look on her face was so dejected and depressed that Finley’s shoulders sank. She shook her head, straightened her shoulders, and stepped forward to lean around the tree with the bouquet out of sight behind the trunk.
“Penny,” she said.
Penny drew a sharp, squeaking gasp as she jumped. Blushing badly, she looked up and said, “Finley—oh my gosh, you scared me!”
“Sorry,” Finley said, struggling to not laugh. “I wasn’t trying to.”
Penny sighed weakly, trying to rub the blush out of her cheeks. It lingered when she asked, “Are you already done tearing up stumps?”
“I stopped a couple hours ago,” Finley replied. “I realized I had something to do when you left.”
“What was it?”
“I had to go see Maru to get yelled at.”
“You—wait, what? Why did you need to do that?”
Finley smiled and came around the tree completely to reveal the bouquet. “Because I was pretty sure you were upset about something I did, but you didn’t want to tell me.”
Penny stared. Her blush worsened when Finley sat next to her and offered the bouquet. She took it and looked at the fragrant roses and red poppies. She could not meet Finley’s gaze when she quietly said, “I didn’t want to make you feel bad about not giving me this if it’s not what you do in the city.”
“It’s not,” Finley said, putting an arm around her shoulders. “But I just would’ve felt a little stupid, so it’s okay.” She stretched out her fingers to brush them over the back of Penny’s hand. “I’m sorry for making you feel bad about this.”
Penny began to smile, leaning against Finley. Still quiet, she said, “It’s okay. I know you like me.”
“Enough to want to kiss you all the damn time,” Finley chuckled, lifting her hand to stroke Penny’s hair. “Honestly, if I hadn’t been so filthy earlier I would’ve kissed you way more than once.”
She hid her face and her giggles in the bouquet. “Finley, don’t tease me! That’s so mean!”
“Wait, do you think I’m teasing?”
Penny looked up at her. “Aren’t…you?”
Finley looked back at her and replied, “Not at all.”
She froze, mouth going dry. Voice faint, she said, “Oh.”
Finley hummed laughter and stroked her hair. “I’m sorry again about the bouquet. I should’ve figured it’s different in the valley.”
“Wha—um—what do you do in the city?”
“We give each other something we know the other person really likes in a showy way.”
“Then—you were asking me to be your girlfriend back at the dance?”
“Yep.” She smiled sheepishly. “That’s why I was so nervous. I thought everyone would know what I was doing. I really guessed wrong, huh?”
“A little bit,” Penny giggled. “But it’s okay, I promise. This’ll just stop the rumors.”
“And hopefully make people stop being mad at me.” She exhaled a laugh. “I’m not surprised that I pissed people off. I’d be pissed if someone hurt your feelings even if I wasn’t your girlfriend.”
“Thank you.” She hesitated, looking down as she took a breath. “Um. Finley?”
“Well.” She took Finley’s fingers in her hand. “Can I have a kiss?” When Finley moved their hands to touch her chin, she jumped and turned. The smile on Finley’s face and the look in her eyes put a shiver down Penny’s spine even as heat coiled in her stomach.
“Absolutely,” said Finley, and she closed the distance between them. She kept the kiss light until Penny squeezed her fingers and pushed back. Smiling against Penny’s lips for only a moment, Finley pulled her in closer. When Penny relaxed and sighed softly, Finley broke the kiss to touch her lips to Penny’s cheeks.
Staying close, Finley murmured, “I’m looking forward to finding out what kind of kisses you like best.”
“Me too,” Penny replied, smiling brightly. “You better tell me what you like.”
“Don’t you think you’d have more fun finding out?” Finley chuckled.
She thought a moment before giggling. “Okay, you have a good point.”
“Thought you’d like that,” Finley said, and she held Penny close when she squeezed her fingers again.
Chapter 7: On Summer Winds
Summer rolls in on the back of an earthquake, bringing in lazy days ripe for weekly dates and daydreaming. Three weeks take Penny and Finley on a picnic, to dinner at the saloon, and stargazing at the beach after dinner at the trailer. Stories manage to lead to a point that catches them both off guard, and the next date brings them to another point to stumble through with shyness and uncertainty.
An unexpected visitor the following day leaves Penny at an admittedly happy loss as she plays tour guide, and Finley can't help but to be happy as well. By the end of the afternoon, an honest talk and a pleasant plan leave them waiting eagerly, impatiently for the following weekend.
There was no way anyone could’ve missed the earthquake, even though it happened in the dead of night. It was strong enough that Penny nearly fell out of bed, and it sent the glass holding her poppy off its shelf to shatter on the floor. Already awake from the glass, Penny heard footsteps approaching at a quick, hard pace before her door was opened.
“Penny?” Pam said. “Are you okay? I heard glass.”
“I’m okay,” Penny replied, hands shaking as she sat up. “Are you?”
“I’m fine, don’t worry. Here, lemme get the trash for that.” She turned Penny’s desk lamp on before leaving, and Penny carefully got out of bed. She picked up the poppy and set it on her desk next to her bouquet before starting to gather glass. Pam returned quickly with their trash can and a towel and knelt down to help.
“Did anything else fall?” Penny asked.
“No, just this.” Pam smiled wearily. “Figures that we get our first quake in fifteen years when you’ve got a glass out like this, huh?”
“It’s okay,” Penny said, smiling back. “I’m just glad I didn’t have a chance to step on it.” She put the last pieces in the trash, taking the towel to soak up the water. “Has it really been fifteen years?”
“Yep,” said Pam. “About six months after Old Man Amundsen passed. It was a lot smaller than this one, though, so I’m not surprised you don’t remember.”
“I hope nothing major broke,” Penny said with a sigh. “It’d be terrible if anyone’s power went out.”
“Yeah, even your girlfriend can’t fix downed lines,” Pam said, and she winked when Penny looked at her.
“I think you’re right about that,” Penny replied, smiling again. “Though she’d probably try, now that I think of it.”
“Don’t let her do something as stupid as that.”
“I won’t, I won’t.” She stood when Pam did to bring the towel out to the kitchen. “I’ll buy another glass in the morning, Mom. Thank you for coming to check on me.”
“You’re welcome. Be mindful of aftershocks during the night, okay?”
“I will. Good night again, Mom.”
“’Night, kiddo,” Pam replied, giving her a quick hug.
Penny returned to her room, but did not go back to bed. She considered the poppy and the bouquet on her desk for a time. The poppy still showed no signs of wilting, vibrant as the day Finley gave it to her. She smiled as she picked it up to smell.
“I hope this isn’t actually going to last forever,” she whispered to herself. “I wouldn’t be able to explain.”
She inhaled again, closing her eyes. It gave her a moment to think of Finley’s smile that afternoon, sweet and unafraid. Even when Sam, Sebastian, and Abigail had come out of Sam’s house for a break, Finley had not taken her arm from around Penny’s shoulders. She had laughed sheepishly when Abigail demanded to know if Penny had been given a bouquet, but did not deny anything when Penny lifted the bouquet with a smile.
Penny smiled as she opened her eyes. She put the flower down and turned off her light before getting back in bed. Laying in the warm dark, she let herself think about what Finley had told her. Heat filled her cheeks, but it wasn’t painful. Her smile did not falter as she rolled onto her side to look at the wall that faced west.
“You would’ve kissed me way more than once, huh?” she said quietly. She touched her lips, giggling faintly against her fingers. “I wish I’d asked which day you knew you wouldn’t be filthy.”
By his own admission, it was a rare day that would take Lewis past the community center to make the trek to the mountains. Based on his huffing and the sweat on his face, Penny knew where he had come from when she ran into him by Pierre’s shop late in the morning.
“Did you have to see Robin about something, sir?” she asked. “Nothing broke last night, did it?”
“No on both points, fortunately,” he replied, taking off his cap to wipe his brow. He sighed heavily and said, “The quake broke apart that batch of stone and dirt in the mountain pass. I went up to inspect after Robin came and reported it.” He put his cap back on and asked, “Do you happen to know if Finley is at home? Robin was hoping to get a little assistance in breaking the larger rocks.”
“I don’t know if she is right now, but I’m happy to check and let her know.”
“I’m much obliged, Penny,” Lewis said. He laughed weakly and said, “I’m going to take a break in the saloon. A long one.”
“Rest well, sir,” Penny chuckled, waving as they went their separate ways. She took the new glass home before heading back out for the western road. She stopped short at the clinic when she saw Finley coming around the bend, wearing jeans, her patched gray t-shirt, and her backpack; her pickaxe and sword were visible over her shoulders. Though she had been looking at the sky and mumbling to herself, she smiled when she looked forward and saw Penny.
“Did you already hear?” Penny asked when she was close enough.
“About the earthquake? It scared the hell out of Arthur.”
“No, about the mountain path. The earthquake broke what was blocking it. Lewis said Robin wanted help breaking the larger rocks.”
“Oh,” said Finley. “Sure, I can help. I was going to the mine anyhow.”
“Do you mind if I walk with you?” Penny asked. “I’d love to see if the spa is still running.”
Finley offered a hand, smiling, and said, “I’d love to take a walk with you.”
Penny giggled as she took Finley’s hand. They started off, going up the stairs and heading north. As they passed the community center, Penny laced their fingers together.
“Have you finished any more bundles since the day we both came here?” she asked.
“No, I’m waiting on crops and some fish. Hopefully soon.” She thought for a moment. “What’d you say about a spa?”
“There’s a spa past the mountain path near that train station,” Penny said. “It was maintained by people who don’t live in town, so I’m hoping that it didn’t close down after the landslide.”
“Is it nice?”
“It’s wonderful. It’s amazing to go in the fall and winter—the bathing area is as big as a pool and the water is so warm.”
“Is it too hot in the summer?” Finley asked.
“No, not really. It’s incredibly relaxing, so it’d be nice to rest there if you need a break from work.” She laughed and said, “I actually went there a lot last summer because I have the free time.”
“No lessons. I work on figuring out the lessons for the rest of the year, but it’s my vacation time, too.” She looked up at Finley, seeing the thoughtful expression on her face. “What’s that look for?”
“What’re you thinking about?”
“Figuring out dates since you’re on vacation. D’you like picnics?”
“Finley, we don’t have to do that! I know how busy you are!”
Finley looked at her with a raised brow and a smile. “Me being busy doesn’t mean we shouldn’t go on dates. That’d be a little silly. Besides,” she added, “not going on dates means I’d have fewer opportunities to kiss you. That doesn’t work out for either of us.”
“But,” Penny started, and she stopped. After a moment, she admitted, “That’s true. And…I do like picnics.”
“What do you say to a picnic next Sunday?” Finley asked. “We can go anywhere you like. As long as it doesn’t require a car.”
“How about Cindersap, then?” Penny laughed. “It should stay cool by the river.”
“Sounds perfect,” Finley replied, and she lifted their hands to kiss Penny’s knuckles. She grinned when Penny blushed, saying, “I told you I flirt.”
“I didn’t say I don’t like it,” Penny said. “I’m just not used to it.”
“But you do like it?”
“I do.” She brought Finley’s up around her shoulders and kept hold of her hand. “Since you are good at it.”
“You really shouldn’t flatter me,” Finley chuckled. “It goes to my head.”
“I don’t see how that’s a problem,” Penny said, playing with Finley’s fingers. She stopped walking when Finley set her hand down on her shoulder, turning to look at her. The look in Finley’s eyes was identical to the one from the day before, utterly knowing and sharp. Penny held her breath, brows rising, as Finley leaned closer.
“It winds up being a problem,” Finley murmured, “when I get people worked up more than I should. The last thing I want to do is move too fast with you.” She kissed Penny’s cheek. “So tell me if it’s too much, okay? You won’t make me feel bad.”
“I will,” Penny said. “Thank you.” She stood on her toes to kiss Finley. “But I do like it and I want you to flirt with me.”
“Good,” Finley replied, giving her another kiss. She began walking again when Penny tugged on her fingers, the both of them making their way up the mountain road. With the steepness of the hill, they could see at a distance how the path further north had mostly cleared. As they passed Robin’s house and the back road, they spotted the mounds of dirt and stones that had tumbled out of the path.
“Geez,” Finley muttered. “Robin’ll need to let me borrow a shovel.” She took her arm back to climb up the dirt, moving into the path. She had only taken a few cautious steps before the dirt shifted and made her pitch forward with a yelp and fall out of sight.
“I’m okay!” she called before Penny could speak. “It’s only a couple feet high!” She reappeared immediately, dirt streaked on her cheek and hands. “That actually shouldn’t be too bad once the dirt out here is cleared. There’s only four boulders to break.”
“How long does it take you to break a boulder?”
“An hour, hour and a half. The biggest one’ll take about two, I think.” She went to one side of the path, taking off her backpack and sword to set them aside.
“Are you able to get all the way back there?” Penny asked.
“Yep. D’you wanna check it out before I start working?”
“Do you mind?”
“Nope, c’mon.” She wiped her hands on her jeans before offering one to Penny. She kept Penny steady when the dirt shifted under their feet, letting her sidle between the boulders first before following. The clearing they walked into was broad, its grass overgrown. Train tracks wound in and out of two tunnels in the mountainside, passing in front of a long platform at the back of the clearing.
Penny headed left, going for the building that dominated most of the space before the tracks. She peered at the windows as she went, stopping when she saw a sign reading “OPEN” hanging in one. She grinned as she headed back to Finley.
“It’s still open!” she giggled. “We can go here once the path is clear!”
Finley smiled and said, “I’ll have the boulders done as soon as I can, then.” Though she started to turn back to the path, she stopped short upon seeing the sign at the train platform. She went closer, brows lowering, and looked both ways before crossing the tracks. Penny followed, looking at the sign as well.
“What is that?” Finley asked. “On the sign?”
“A stardrop,” Penny said. “The valley is marked with one on every map I’ve seen and the station’s the same.”
“A stardrop,” Finley mumbled, looking down. She inhaled, held her breath as she thought, and then sighed. “Maybe I just forgot the name.”
“When I was really little, my dad told me stories about a fruit from the valley,” said Finley, “that was so amazing it changed his life. Made him healthier, stronger, gave him more energy. It was a violet fruit in the shape of a star with a hole in the center.” She sighed again, rubbing the back of her neck. “I don’t know why I’d forget the name, though. He would’ve told me.”
“You were little,” Penny replied, taking her hand. “I’m amazed that he had a stardrop. They’re very rare and you can’t find them outside the valley.”
“He might’ve been making it up,” Finley said, following Penny’s lead across the tracks and to the path. “The last thing he is is energetic. And I wouldn’t call him very healthy when he catches colds at the drop of a hat.”
“Are you the same?” Penny asked.
“No, I take after my mother and grandfather. You?”
“I get sick, but not too often.” She sighed as they reached the other side of the path. “It’s usually when Vincent or Jas get sick.”
“Well,” Finley chuckled, “if you get sick after I get my fruit trees, I’ll bring you fresh fruit.”
“Don’t spoil me,” Penny said with a smile.
“Only a little,” Finley said, leaning down to kiss her. She took her pickaxe from its holster, rolling her shoulders. “Hopefully Robin will let me keep some of the stone. I’m trying to make walkways on the farm.”
“You’re the one breaking the boulders,” Penny laughed. “I’m sure she’ll let you have the stone.” She gave Finley another kiss. “Don’t overwork yourself. It’s going to be hot today.”
“I won’t, don’t worry.” She winked. “I’ll send you a letter when the path is completely clear.”
“Thank you,” Penny said, smile growing bright. “Then I’ll see you in Cindersap on Sunday if I don’t see you sooner.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Finley replied, and she leaned down when Penny tugged on her sleeve to accept a kiss on her cheek. She returned the kiss, lifting a hand as Penny started off. They were both smiling when they lost sight of each other, and Finley got to work with her smile becoming a grin.
The doldrums of summer boredom weren’t unfamiliar to Penny. There was only so much to be done for planning lessons, and less to do for herself when she’d read and reread most every book in the library. Relief came in the form of dates with Finley, scheduled regularly for Sundays. Three weeks saw them go on a picnic, to dinner at the saloon, and stargaze at the beach after dinner at the trailer. Penny could not completely hide her surprise when Finley pointed out more than a dozen constellations as they sat on the docks.
“Where did you learn all of those?” she asked when Finley paused to breathe. “Did you take astronomy classes in college?”
“My mother taught me, believe it or not,” Finley replied, putting an arm around Penny’s shoulders. “I had insomnia constantly when I was doing rehab, and her way of getting me to calm down enough to sleep was to tell me old stories about the constellations.” She thought a moment. “But I’m pretty sure she told me the stories from Xuitares, not Ferngill.”
“Is she from Xuitares?”
“Yep.” She snickered. “I got a really weird mashup of features from my parents, now that I think about it. Build and skin color from my mother, but hair, eyes, and face from my dad.”
“Oh,” Penny said, face starting to burn. She smiled sheepishly and said, “I thought you were really tan already by the time you got here. I didn’t even think your parents weren’t from Ferngill.”
“It’d probably be more obvious if I had my mother’s hair. Solid black, and she’s got those crazy blue eyes everyone wants.” She laughed through her nose. “I wish I’d gotten her eyes sometimes.”
“I really like your eyes,” Penny said, putting a hand on Finley’s thigh.
“And I like yours,” Finley replied with a smile.
Penny smiled and started to lean against Finley more heavily. A thought made her stop short and look at Finley. “Does…your mother have—”
“An accent?” She chuckled, cleared her throat, and said in a voice that leaned on its vowels and rolled on Rs, “Oh, aye. Bit of a weird thing, that. Wasn’t used to hearing a Xuitaren accent coming out of a coma, y’know. Picked up the odd touches here and there. Have y’caught it at all?”
Penny stared before laughing. “Your ‘you’ contractions! I thought it was a city thing—I didn’t realize it was Xuitaren!” She thought and laughed again. “Oh my gosh, and your Rs! I feel so stupid about not hearing that more!”
“In your defense, it’s really faint,” Finley laughed. “I don’t know why that actually stuck, but that’s what everyone catches first. Even Dad started doing it after a while.”
“I still feel dumb about not even thinking about it,” Penny said, smile still sheepish.
“From what my mother told me, people from Xuitares don’t come this far north too often for sightseeing. They tend to like visiting cities since they’re more spread out. Cities like the ones in Ferngill and Gotoro are kind of a novelty and the valley is too much like home.”
“Except for your mother’s family?”
“Yeah,” Finley sighed. “They’re in the cities along the western coast. All the travel and shipping business makes it easier for them to get contracts and keep low profiles.”
“Have you ever been?”
“Yeah. My mom visited once when she was around my age and she said it was lovely. And there a lot of craft beers that she liked.”
“She hit the northern coast, then,” Finley chuckled. “My dad and I visited once when I was a kid, I think when I was eight. My mother took us around her city and introduced us to a lot of her family. She wanted to show off how proud she was of us.”
“Your mother sounds sweet,” Penny said.
“She can be,” Finley admitted. “But she can be really intimidating if she wants to.” She laughed wearily and added, “Like if you assault her daughter.”
“I think most mothers are like that, though. My mom wanted to threaten you to not break my heart, but I told her not to.”
“Wait, what? When was this?”
“When I sent the letter about teaching you how to make cookies.”
Finley stared. “Wait, she knew you liked me by then? Did you tell her?”
“Finley, I hate to tell you this,” Penny giggled, “but apparently you were the only person in town who didn’t realize I had a huge crush on you. I think Jas and Vincent knew before you did.”
The moonlight was more than enough to let Penny see how brightly Finley blushed. Stammering, Finley said, “Wha—wait a—when did you get a crush on me?”
“I actually figured out what it was that day Sam, Vincent, and I came to help with the harvest, but I’m pretty sure it started when you came to fix our table light.”
Finley gaped at her, blush growing dark. “But—how’d I—” She sighed weakly, rubbing the back of her neck. “Wow, I’m sorry. I probably would’ve been way more obvious way sooner about my crush if I’d figured that out.”
“When did you know?”
“When I snuck flowers in your book while you were taking a nap,” Finley mumbled.
“That was you?” Penny asked, smiling brightly.
“Yeah,” Finley said, shyness in her smile. “You were really cute. I wanted to surprise you, but I chickened out and ran before you woke up.”
Penny giggled madly, hiding her face in Finley’s shoulder. She lifted her head to say, “I told myself it couldn’t have been you after what we talked about. I can’t believe we both missed the obvious like that.”
“Well,” Finley sighed, “I was trying to be really standoffish. Got it stuck in my head that it’d be better to not get a girlfriend after all that.” She put her hand on the dock and tapped one finger. “Sorry. That was a bad choice on my part.”
Before Penny could speak up, she shook her head, smiled, and said, “I know, I’m apologizing again and I don’t need to. Bad habits.”
Penny smiled and tugged on Finley’s sleeve to make her lean down. She kissed Finley gently, and when they parted she murmured, “I’m glad you like me enough to go back on a bad choice.”
Finley smirked and took Penny’s face in her hands. She said, “Me too,” and kissed Penny again. It was firmer than the kiss Penny had given her, growing heated enough to match the warmth that lingered in the air. Penny let out a faint “mmph” against Finley’s lips, reaching to close one hand in Finley’s shirt. She moved closer, muffling another soft sound when Finley buried her fingers in her hair. Finley made to pull away, but Penny gripped her shirt and kept her where she was.
When they finally drew back, they looked at each other. Heat filled Penny’s cheeks; she saw Finley’s blush return. Finley took her hands away and cleared her throat awkwardly, looking down toward the water.
“It’s, um, getting kinda late,” she said. “Why don’t I get you home now?”
“All right,” Penny said, but she leaned close to kiss Finley’s cheek before they both stood. They headed to the trailer hand in hand, Penny keeping close to Finley’s side. When they arrived, Finley cleared her throat again.
“I kinda have a surprise I want to bring over next Sunday,” she said. “Is it okay if we have our date here?”
“Of course,” Penny said. “But can I have a hint about what the surprise is?”
“You’ll really like it if I don’t screw it up,” Finley chuckled. “I’m not telling you more than that.”
“Nothing else at all?”
“Nope.” She snorted with laughter when Penny pouted at her, reaching to touch her lips. “Don’t pout at me. It makes me want to kiss it off you.”
“I don’t think that’s a bad outcome,” Penny replied with a smile.
Finley smirked again and leaned down to murmur in Penny’s ear, “It might be a little bad out here in the dark in front of your house when I can hear that the TV’s on inside.”
She blushed bright red. “Oh. Well, all right, that might be a little bad.”
“Sunday will be here before you know it,” Finley said, straightening up. “So I’m not giving you any more hints.”
“All right,” Penny said in a heavy sigh, and she giggled when Finley snorted with laughter again. She rocked up on her toes to meet Finley halfway for a kiss, rocking back down slowly with a smile on her face. “Have a good night, Finley.”
“You too, Penny,” Finley replied, and she kissed Penny’s cheek once more before heading off into the night. Penny went inside after a few moments of watching Finley walk, finding Pam dead asleep on the couch. She turned off the TV and the lights before heading to her room and sitting on her bed.
Penny kept still, closing her eyes as thoughts floated up to the forefront of her mind. She had felt the roughness of Finley’s hands on her cheeks more clearly than she had in the past. Once again, she wondered how they would feel on her back. Her mind drifted to how they might feel on her sides, slowly moving up toward her breasts.
Penny sighed, folded her arms over her breasts, and drew her legs up to hold her arms where they were. The pressure was a relief, but only for a short while. She sighed again and lay down, still curled up in a ball. Stinging rose in her cheeks with how fiercely she blushed.
“I wish we’d been at your house,” she whispered. Shaking her head, she closed her eyes and tried to focus on sleeping. She was remarkably unsuccessful for most of the night.
The following Sunday afternoon was warm enough that Penny waited outside with her bare feet in the river, doing what she could to concentrate on reading despite how the air was completely still. That stillness made it easier to hear footsteps coming up behind her, and she turned to see Finley approaching with her hands behind her back.
“What’re you hiding?” Penny asked, struggling not to laugh.
“Well,” Finley said, “one thing I’m pretty sure I did a good job with, and one thing I need you to tell me how to improve on.” She took off her sandals and sat down carefully to keep her hands out of Penny’s sight before bringing them around to her front. In one hand was a bouquet of gorgeous, fragrant poppies, and in the other was a paper box that she held out to Penny. When Penny lifted the box’s lid, she discovered several fresh-baked poppyseed muffins.
“I think the one I had at home for a taste test was pretty good,” Finley said. “But they’re your favorite, so you’ll have to tell me how to make them better.”
“Finley, these all smell amazing,” Penny laughed, taking the bouquet as well. “I can’t believe you actually made muffins!”
“I said I would,” Finley replied, and she kissed Penny’s cheek before they both took a muffin. They sat with their feet in the water, eating in an easy silence. Sitting hip to hip, Finley on Penny’s right side, Penny took Finley’s left hand to hold. She set their hands on her thigh and leaned against Finley, both of them smiling.
“D’you mind if I come in to wash my hands?” Finley asked when they were done. “I can tell I’m sticky.”
“Of course,” Penny replied. “Come on.” She gathered the bouquet and the half-empty box before they took to their feet. She let Finley open the door and go inside first, leaving the door open in the hope of catching a breeze. She stood by licking bits of muffin off of her fingers while Finley washed her hands.
“Is Pam at the saloon again?” Finley asked, looking over her shoulder.
“She is,” Penny replied. “She left a note.”
“D’you guys have A/C? I’m getting a little worried for you two if you don’t and it gets hotter than it’s been.”
“We do,” Penny said. “It’s just not as good as Gus’ and it’s cheaper to go to the saloon than let ours run all the time. And before you offer to tune it up, we’re fine. It’d probably cost more than we can afford.”
“Well,” Finley said, turning off the water and taking the towel hanging on the oven’s handle. She turned about, leaning against the counter as she dried her hands, and looked at Penny. Voice steady, gaze unwavering, she said, “I can accept kisses as payment if you’d like.”
Penny stared at her. “What?”
Finley chuckled, set the towel aside, and went to stand before Penny. She put a hand under Penny’s chin and said, “I can accept kisses as payment if you’d like me to tune up your A/C. Kisses from you are much better than gild.”
Penny opened her mouth as her face burned, but she could not manage more than a quiet “Oh.”
“It’s just an offer,” Finley said with a smile. “You don’t have to take me up on it right now.”
“But I can take you up on it later?”
“Whenever you want,” Finley chuckled. “But this one isn’t for a payment.” She leaned down and kissed Penny. It was just as firm as the kiss from the week before, just as heated. Penny was struck still a moment, able to taste the vanilla and sugar that lingered on Finley’s lips.
She relaxed and closed her eyes, putting her clean hand on the back of Finley’s neck. When Finley moved her hands to rest on her hips, she moved her fingers into Finley’s hair. The heat of Finley’s hands sank through the thin fabric of her sundress; Penny curled her toes and leaned into the kiss.
“You taste like the muffins,” Penny giggled when they parted.
“That might just be you,” Finley replied, “considering you had one more than me. But you do taste sweet when I kiss you, so you may be right about me.”
Penny burst into giggles when Finley winked at her, blushing bright red. “Finley, don’t tease me! You’re so awful about it!”
“I’m not teasing you now, either,” Finley said, pouting slightly. “You do taste sweet when I kiss you. And I’m pretty sure you—” She stopped suddenly, face flushing. She cleared her throat and, eyes averted, mumbled, “Sorry, never mind.”
“What? Why? What were you going to say?”
“Something that would be teasing. I don’t actually want to do that.” She cleared her throat again. “Not really appropriate. Sorry.”
“You’re not going to tell me at all?”
“It’s—” She sighed and took her hands from Penny’s hips. “Just—to get you worked up instead of making you feel silly. I feel like that’s going too far right now.”
Penny’s heart rose into her throat. She took a deep breath and said, “Well…I don’t. I’d like it if you told me what you were going to say.”
Finley sighed again, rubbing the back of her neck and keeping her eyes averted.
“Please? I really do want to know.”
Finley inhaled slowly. She thought, drumming her fingers on the back of her neck. When she looked at Penny again, Penny had just enough time to see how the heat in her eyes had increased before she leaned down to bring her lips close to her ear.
“Then I want to do something while I tell you,” Finley said.
“O-okay,” Penny replied. She went still, eyes widening, as Finley put one hand on her hip and one hand on her side. She inhaled shakily when Finley moved her hand lower, brought it to the back of her thigh. Her other hand turned slowly until its heel was pressed up against Penny’s breast.
“Finley?” Penny said, curling her toes again.
“What I was going to say,” Finley murmured back, “was that I’m pretty sure you taste sweet everywhere. Including,” she said, bringing her fingers under Penny’s skirt to trail them up the inside of her thigh, “where I really want to put my hand right now.”
Penny bit her lip, hiding her face against Finley’s chest. She bent one knee to let Finley bring her fingers higher. Faintly, she said, “Finley.”
She held tight to Finley’s upper arms, heart pounding, and inhaled deeply when Finley set her hand down completely to stroke her thigh. Finley pulled her closer; she shivered. The front door creaked when a breeze finally blew against it; she froze up.
“Finley,” she whispered urgently, “Finley, I left—I left the door open, wait—”
Finley pulled her hands away immediately, lifting her head just as quickly. There was deep shame in her face and anxiety in her voice when she chuckled, “Yeah, too far right now. I’m sorry.”
“Finley, I didn’t mean—”
“I’ll—um, I can go, so I’ll just—”
“Sorry, I won’t do it ag—”
Penny reached up to catch Finley’s face in her hands, saying, “Finley, please let me say something for heaven’s sake.”
Looking startled, Finley closed her mouth.
“Thank you,” Penny murmured, smiling. She moved closer to set her brow on Finley’s chest again. Terribly aware of the ache between her thighs, she said, “I don’t want to do this here.”
“With…the door open?” She cleared her throat. “I could…um…go…close it. If you want.”
“I mean at all. My mom likes you, but I don’t think she’d be happy to come home and see me with your hand up my skirt.”
“Pretty sure you’re right,” Finley admitted. She hesitated, but wrapped her arms around Penny.
Penny took a deep breath and put her arms around Finley’s neck. She said, “Why don’t…we do this? Next Sunday, how about I come to your house? So we can talk about—all this.” She swallowed. “And we can see where it goes.”
She buried the fingers of one hand in Penny’s hair. “That sounds good.”
“Good. Because I really liked this.” She laughed faintly. “Other than when I remembered the door.” She thought, and then gingerly lifted her hands. “And when I forgot that I hadn’t washed my hands before touching you. Sorry.”
“It’s okay,” Finley chuckled. “It cleans off easy.” She let Penny go to return to the sink, wetting her hands to wipe away the stickiness. Penny washed her hands as she did, taking the towel first. Though she meant to give it to Finley, she smiled and stood on her toes to dry off the wet spots on Finley’s skin.
“There,” she said. “All clean.”
“All clean,” Finley echoed. “Thank you.” She kissed Penny’s cheek, far more chaste than earlier, and cleared her throat again. “I’ll head home before it gets too late. I’m planning on being in the mines for most of tomorrow.”
“I thought your kiln was giving you enough coal for everything.”
“It is, but now I need more ore, stone, and gemstones to sell. Never enough money, honestly.”
“Are you going to go very far down?”
“I’ve gotten the elevator running down to level sixty-five, so…fairly far.”
Penny grimaced. “Please stay safe.”
“I’ll be careful, don’t worry,” Finley said. “I haven’t run into many monsters down there so far, but I’ll sharpen my sword tonight anyway.” She tucked hair behind Penny’s ear before kissing her lightly. “Have a good afternoon and night, Penny.”
“You too, Finley,” Penny replied, kissing back. “And thank you again for the muffins and flowers.”
“You’re welcome,” Finley chuckled.
“And…for what we did in here.”
Finley’s brows rose, cheeks going red. She murmured, “You’re welcome for that, too.” She headed for the door, waggling her fingers as she slipped outside. She closed the door behind her, leaving Penny to herself. Penny took a deep breath, putting her hands on her face and feeling the heat in her skin.
“I can’t believe we did that, Finley,” she whispered. She sighed and shook her head, the ache between her legs increasing. “Why didn’t I say some day sooner than Sunday?”
She swallowed slowly, went to the door on shivering legs, and set the lock. Heart in her throat, a smile on her face, Penny went to her room and put herself to bed with sleep being the last thing on her mind.
For the most part, no one had free time in the middle of the day to spend at the spa. It was true the following day, letting Penny float in the steaming water with no one present to ask about the pensive expression on her face or what she mumbled in the quiet.
“Why did I say ‘talk a little’?” she asked herself. “What can I tell her other than ‘I really like you and I want to go further’? I’m not a writer, I’m not good with words.” She sighed and ducked underwater completely. Coming up, she smoothed back her hair.
“‘I really like you and I’m not as nervous as I come off’?” she said. “’I only panicked because the door was open and I didn’t actually want to stop at all’? ‘I’ve never done this, but I trust you and it’s okay’?” She shook her head. “That just makes me sound like a naive idiot.” She thought. “And ‘I want to have sex with you’ is so—clinical.”
Shaking her head again, Penny looked at her fingers and saw that they were beginning to prune. She got out of the water entirely and went to the changing room to dry off before putting her clothes back on. Outside, the sun had baked the ground dry, and small breezes kicked up dust and fallen leaves. She started for the path south, but jumped and turned at the sound of a train whistle.
A passenger train was stopped at the platform, steam rising from its engine. Curiosity pushed Penny closer to look at the train-cars, painted a sleek shade of emerald green. Passengers did not look out their windows, preoccupied with newspapers or napping. When the whistle was blown again, the passengers barely flinched. The train began to chug away into one of the tunnels. When the last car cleared the platform, Penny was left looking at the woman who stood there.
The woman was on the taller side, made more so by her jet black boots, and her skin was a dark shade of brown. Her jeans were faded, threadbare on her right knee, but her dark blue jacket was pristine and tailored perfectly for her broad shoulders and arms. She watched the train disappear with a raised brow, the short braid of her black hair waving in the breeze. She pushed it back over her shoulder as she turned away, and Penny found the woman’s eyes fixed on her.
“You there,” the woman said, jumping down from the platform. “Y’look like a lady of the valley.” She adjusted the straps of a heavily packed bag on her shoulders as she drew close, and Penny saw how brilliantly blue her eyes were when she looked at her again.
“I—I am,” Penny said. “I mean, I live here. I’ve always lived here.”
“Good,” the woman said. Her voice leaned on vowels and rolled its Rs as she went on. “I’ve got a favor to ask. I haven’t been here in decades and I need someone to show me about.” She smiled, showing perfect, straight teeth, and pointed her thumb over her shoulder. “Love that sign, still.”
“I—I’d be happy to show you around, but—I don’t know your name.”
The woman looked at her. She chuckled softly and said, “What use do y’have with a name attached to a person like me? Pretty young ladies from the valley don’t need my name.”
“But if you were here before and you want me to show you around,” Penny said, “what am I supposed to tell people? That you don’t have a name?”
Penny boggled at her. “That’s absurd. You can’t tell me you were here but you never told anyone your name.”
The woman laughed. “Aye, that’d be a touch unlikely.” She offered Penny a hand. “Your name?”
“Penny Bernard,” she said, taking the woman’s hand tentatively. She went still at the calluses she felt in the woman’s hand, just below her fingers.
“Siobhan Madigan,” the woman said.
Penny froze up, shoulders high and mouth open as she stared. “You—that’s—”
Siobhan raised a brow. “Heard my name, then?” She hummed laughter. “Lemme guess. You’ve gotten under Finley’s skin.”
She blushed from the tips of her ears to the top of her chest.
“Oh, that far under?” Siobhan asked. “Good, thank Yoba for that. Thought she’d swear off people forever.” She smiled wearily. “Particularly women.”
“She said she would,” Penny said quietly. She looked up when Siobhan set a hand on her head.
“I’m glad you charmed her,” Siobhan chuckled. “She needs a nice, pretty girl in her life.”
“She really charmed me,” Penny said, starting to smile.
“She does that,” Siobhan laughed. “Gets it from Paul, really. Not a charming bone in my body.”
“I’m glad she’s good at it. It’s…very fun.” She cleared her throat before she could blush, asking, “Are you looking for Finley? She’s planning on being in the mines for a while.”
“Aye, before I leave. D’you mind showing me around until she gets out? Paul didn’t get much of a chance due to…timetables.”
Penny thought to ask, but saw the knife strapped to Siobhan’s belt, mostly hidden by her jacket and her pack, when she turned to look around. Heart rate jumping as the back of her neck cooled, she said, “Y-yes, of course. We can—start with Robin’s house.”
“That brilliant carpenter’s still here?” Siobhan asked, following Penny’s lead south. “Paul still has the armchair his dad had her make for him. Still with Jason, is she?”
“With,” Penny started, and she winced. “Oh…um, no, they got divorced. Before I was born, actually. But she married a man named Demetrius and they’ve been together for over twenty years.” She smiled. “Their daughter Maru is my best friend. And Robin’s son Sebastian is…a friend.”
“Bit of a jackass?”
“Well—no, that’s a little unfair. He just gets moody about things. He still has trouble thinking of Demetrius as his father, I think.”
“Not much of a reason to be rude, in my opinion. But that’s not worth much here, and it shouldn’t, frankly.”
“Because you and Mister Amundsen divorced?”
“Aye, it’s a large reason.”
“Can I ask if you ever remarried?”
“Lord, no,” Siobhan replied. “I love Paul—I stay with him when I’m in the country. I’m just not good to be a mother or a wife with how I go about.”
“Oh.” Penny smiled sheepishly. “I was wondering if you married Mister Amundsen again after what Finley’s said about you two. I’ve heard Robin is on bad terms with her first husband and it was nice to hear you still care about him.”
“Aye,” Siobhan chuckled, “Paul’s the one for me. It’s really just me not fitting into his life very cleanly.”
“Sounds a little like my dad,” Penny murmured.
Siobhan looked at her from the corner of her eye, raising a brow at the weary smile on her face. She asked, “Your mother’s divorced, then?”
“She is. It was one of those marriages that just didn’t work out.” She looked at Siobhan and took the weariness from her smile. “But I’m glad it didn’t end really badly.”
“Always better. Though,” she added, “you don’t have to tell me because I’m divorced as well. Finley’s quite a bit better at comforting than I am. Settling scores is more my habit.”
“Oh,” Penny said quietly. “O-oh, I’m sorry! That was—that was uncalled for!”
“Not a thing to worry about,” Siobhan chuckled. “Let’s change the subject. How’d you meet Finley?”
“I ran into her at Pierre’s. Um…literally.”
“Not surprised. She’s unaware more often than not. Clumsy as Paul, bless them both.”
“She fell over the second time we met.”
“She was exhausted and she tripped. She was working herself too hard.”
Siobhan sighed through her nose, looking toward the mines before they went too far past Robin’s house to the south. “Dammit, Finley.”
“Has she always been like that?”
“Aye, a bit. But she was at the end of her rope when she finally got her courage together to come here. Paul and I were worried.”
“I was worried too, honestly. She was…rough around the edges.”
“Not normally,” Siobhan said as they started along the mountain road.
“No, I know! She’s really sweet and silly! She even taught me how to waltz.”
“Silly flirt,” Siobhan chuckled. “Gets that from Paul, too. She tell you how he gave me a stardrop for an engagement present? Didn’t tell him it was actually my fourth ‘drop until I was pregnant with Finley.”
“Aye. Got three over several years, but his was the last I’ve had.”
“But she said Mister Amundsen had a stardrop and told her stories about it.”
Siobhan thought a while before laughing. “He told her stories about me and all the nonsense I can do thanks to those things. She was probably too little to remember right. I can’t believe she remembered stardrops at all.”
“I wish I could give her a stardrop,” Penny said quietly. “If it’d give her more energy, it would be good for her.”
“Paul’s fond of saying the valley’ll provide well for those you love,” Siobhan replied. “If she’s under your skin by a mile like this, I think the valley’ll provide for you.”
“Well—I mean—it was scary to see her fall like that. I don’t want her to work herself to death.”
“Y’can say y’like her, Penny,” Siobhan chuckled. “I’m happy you do.” She smirked when Penny blushed and looked down, reaching out to pat her head again. Though she glanced toward the river as it came into view, her gaze turned toward the community center. Her eyes widened at the sight of a broken window.
“Who did that?” she asked.
“The window? I don’t think anyone did it on purpose. I think it broke during a storm, actually. But…the center’s been run down for years now.”
“Paul loves this place,” Siobhan said quietly. “Showed me it the minute he could.” She sighed. “This’ll make him depressed.”
“Wait, let me show you something,” Penny said. “Come on.” She led Siobhan inside, smiling when Siobhan’s brows rose at the sight of polished floorboards and clean, unbroken windows. “Finley’s been working on fixing the run-down areas in here. It’s coming along really nicely, don’t you think?”
“That’s an Amundsen for you,” Siobhan laughed. “Every time I come back, Paul and Finley have some new project going.” Though she had been smiling, her brows dropped low at the sound of the doorknob turning and hinges creaking. She and Penny turned, seeing Morris attempting to creep inside. He froze when he saw them looking at him, but smiled simperingly as he walked in and closed the door.
“Ah, Miss Penny,” he said. “So nice to see you. Showing a tourist around?”
“Yes,” Penny said flatly. “Why did you follow us in here? Mayor Lewis said he won’t sell Joja this land now that membership sales are stalled.”
The corner of Siobhan’s mouth twitched as her eyes darkened.
“Oh, I’m just wondering why you and that girl keep popping in and out of here,” Morris said with a shrug. “Neither of you have a very good reason to be here, after all. Not to mention the fact that it’s not exactly a nice place to have little dates with Faye or whatever it is, so I’m surprised you brought a tourist in here at all.”
“Her name is Finley,” Penny said sharply. “And she’s been working on restoring the center and showing me how she’s doing. So what if we’re in here?”
He chuckled and said, “I’m just thinking of propriety.”
“You come off as such a cultured young lady, Miss Penny,” he said. “But you have to know it’s very improper to have dalliances in public spaces.”
Blood rushed into Penny’s face as her throat closed up with fury. Forcing the words out through grit teeth, she said, “That’s not what we do in here.”
“Oh, I understand!” he said with a laugh full of mockery. “Young people do ridiculous things like this! You should just consider your job!”
Her shoulders rose with tension. “My job?”
“Well,” said Morris, “the center is supposed to be for adults and children, yes? What would Jodi and Marnie think if they knew what you and the Amundsen girl were up to in here?”
“We’ve never—that’s not what we do in here!” Penny snapped. Her voice began to rise as she said, “How dare you threaten my job like that! Finley and I aren’t doing anything wrong!”
“I suppose not,” he sighed. “You’re both adults. But really, dating a woman like her? It’s such a bad example for who should be allowed in the valley.” He started to chuckle, but yelped when Siobhan clapped him hard on the shoulder and dug her fingers in.
“Let’s say you don’t happen to mean a girl with some of Xuitares’ soul in her for ‘who should be allowed,’” Siobhan murmured. “A person like me is a much worse example for these lovely people here in the valley. I doubt this Amundsen girl is anything but wonderful, so it’s best not to spread rumors about how she’s not.” She leaned down and smiled in the most unpleasant way, eyes narrow and frigid.
“And it’s a terrible thing to threaten a young lady’s job with a lie, aye?” she said. “Best not do it again.”
“Who the devil are you?” Morris asked. He squealed when she tightened her grip.
“A little devil, I’d say,” she chuckled. She lowered her voice to add, “A little devil who will not take kindly to hearing about this young lady’s job being threatened because you don’t happen to like this Amundsen girl. So. Best not to do that again, aye?”
The glacial chill in her voice had made him go pale, and so he nodded. He started to turn toward the door, but stopped when she dug her fingers in even harder.
“Let’s not see you in here again, either,” said Siobhan. “No need for you if you’ll never have the land, aye?”
“But,” he started meekly. The look in her eyes made him stop and swallow hard. Silently, he nodded. Siobhan let him go, patting his shoulder to make him wince.
“Run along,” she murmured. “Don’t let me catch you trying to follow us. I’ll be very annoyed.”
He nodded again, hurrying off at a pace just shy of sprinting. When he had slammed the door behind him, Siobhan sneered openly.
“I’d spit after him if we weren’t in here,” she muttered.
“I hate him so much,” Penny hissed, rubbing her cheeks.
“If ever you want him relocated, tell Finley and I’ll make sure it happens. Paul’ll be glad to help.”
“Does Mister Amundsen hate Joja as much as you and Finley do?” Penny asked.
Siobhan looked at her closely. After a moment, she said, “He’ll drive an hour out of his way to avoid any business with Joja. Won’t go to any of their stores, won’t take cases to represent any Joja execs. Had to ask his partner to represent Finley in court because the conflict of interest was too much.”
She smiled slightly and said, “He’s been on a campaign of representing people going after Joja for HR problems since then. Said it never should’ve come to what happened to our girl and Kenzie.”
“Did you actually coerce the jury members to get Finley more money?” Penny blurted. She blushed and put a hand over her mouth when Siobhan raised a brow at her.
“Oh, aye,” Siobhan said with a smile. “Did the same for Kenzie’s case, to a lesser amount. It was the only way to settle the scores properly. If I’d actually killed the little bastards, Finley wouldn’t have gotten everything she did to come out here.”
“You…actually considered that?”
“Paul and I had a very long talk the first night Finley was in the hospital. Had to convince each other out of it.”
“Oh,” Penny said faintly. She looked down, twisting her fingers about themselves, and said, “I don’t blame either of you.”
“Most people don’t when they learn what she was put through,” Siobhan murmured. “I’d wager that jackass who just ran out of here wouldn’t approve.”
“Morris isn’t exactly my favorite person in town,” Penny muttered. “Or Finley’s.”
“He’d have to be blessed for anyone to like him,” Siobhan said. “But c’mon, no more dallying in here being mad. Paul said it’s impolite.”
“‘Impolite’?” Penny asked as they headed for the door.
“Aye. It upsets the little forest spirits that live in the valley, he said.”
“Oh. That’s—very polite of him.”
“He’s very polite. Said his dad told him stories about the spirits, but Paul never saw them himself. Said no one should be rude to the spirits, even if they can’t see them.”
“Did his father ever see spirits?”
“Not sure. I only visited here once, and I didn’t get a lot of time to chat. When Paul brought him to the city at the end of things, he was too tired to tell many stories, even to Finley.” She gave Penny a curious look. “Why do y’ask?”
“I was just wondering if their stories matched what my mother told me when I was little,” Penny lied, lifting her hands. “She didn’t see any spirits, but she always said I shouldn’t do anything to upset them.”
“Good lesson,” Siobhan replied. “Y’never want to be on the wrong side of spirits and magic.”
“I second that,” Penny said. She swallowed down the anxiety in her throat and said, “We probably still have time before Finley gets out of the mines. Let me show you around more.”
“After you,” Siobhan chuckled, bowing slightly. She followed Penny through town then, smiling as they went from there to the beach and finally into Cindersap. The only people they managed to run into were Elliott and Leah, sitting on the riverbank in Cindersap, and Elliott lifted a hand when he saw them.
“Did Lewis name you as tour guide today?” he asked with a laugh.
“Not exactly,” Penny said. “Elliott, Leah, this is…um.”
“Siobhan,” said Siobhan. “And I figure y’know my girl Finley.”
Elliott and Leah both stared, and Leah said, “Fin didn’t say anything about her family visiting.”
“It’s a surprise,” Siobhan chuckled. “If y’run into her, don’t let on that y’know I’m here.”
“Scout’s honor,” Elliott said. “Though I was never a scout.”
Siobhan snickered. “Me either.”
“Are you here for long?” Leah asked.
“Today only. Once I see Finley I have to head out.”
“Where to?” Elliott asked.
Siobhan smiled pleasantly and said, “Overseas for work. I’ll be away for a while.”
“Such is life,” Elliott said, giving her a sympathetic smile. “But don’t let us keep you. I think you’ll be very proud of Fin for how she’s turned the land around.”
“Finley always does me proud,” Siobhan replied, still smiling. “It was lovely meeting you two.”
“You too, ma’am!” Leah said. “Have a safe trip if we don’t see you again!”
“Thank you kindly,” Siobhan said, bowing before following Penny away. When they were out of earshot, she chuckled and said, “Lord, Finley moved to a lovely little place. Glad she kept that letter with the deed.”
“I think all of us are,” Penny said. “If only because we needed a really good electrician.”
Siobhan laughed. “She is very good at that.” She raised a brow as they come to the farm, looking about. “This seems…bigger than when I was here before.”
“Did Mister Amundsen’s father use less of the land? I know Finley cleared out a lot of overgrowth.”
“He must’ve,” Siobhan said. “I remember that his fencing stopped quite a ways up there past what I see. Now I see how Finley was working too hard.”
“She’s been working here a lot, lately,” Penny said, moving forward. “See all the upturned patches of soil? She’s gotten rid of stumps to plant fruit trees once she can afford saplings.”
“Then all that fencing is for crops?”
Siobhan whistled faintly, smiling. “Attagirl, Finley.” She followed Penny to the fencing, both of them stopping when they began to walk on stone.
“Oh wow,” Penny said. “She got started on the pathways she told me about.”
Siobhan laughed aloud. “Never enough projects for that girl.” She glanced at the sign posted on the fencing and looked at the rows of crops. “This’ll probably net her quite a bit of gild. Melons fetch a high price in the city.” She turned sharply when something darted behind Penny, but relaxed when Arthur leapt up onto a fencepost and meow. Penny gasped, spinning about, and sighed shakily.
“Arthur, for heaven’s sake,” she said.
He meowed again, tail thumping against the fence.
“Yours?” Siobhan asked.
“Finley’s. He basically made himself her cat, since he was a stray.”
“Picked up on the Madigan in her, did he?” Siobhan chuckled. She clicked her tongue, offering Arthur a hand. He sniffed her fingers before rubbing against them, and he purred as he moved to a closer post. “Paul loves his pups, but I’ll take a cat any day.”
“He’s a very sweet cat,” Penny said. “I envy Finley just for him.”
“How long have you two been dating?”
“Since—wait, what? Why do you ask?”
“He’ll be your cat when you move in with her,” Siobhan replied. “Have y’not been dating long enough to discuss that?”
Penny went crimson, eyes wide and mouth open. “I—we—that’s—we haven’t—” She sighed hard and rubbed her cheeks before saying, “We’ve only been together as a couple for about a month.”
Siobhan smiled sheepishly and said, “Sorry, wasn’t trying to embarrass you. Just felt like it was something you’d have talked about.”
“I,” Penny started, but she closed her mouth to find words. After a long while, she sad, “I daydream about it, but it’s early to talk about it seriously.”
“Fair point,” Siobhan said. “For what my opinion’s worth, I think you’d do well here.”
“On the farm?”
“Aye, and with Finley.” She chuckled. “I admit I’ve not spent much time being her mother, but you seem like the right kind of woman for her. I’m glad you’re the one I ran into.”
Penny stared. Very quietly, she said, “Oh. Th-thank you.” She cleared her throat, struggling for words again. “Um. I don’t think Finley left the door unlocked, but we can—sit on the porch to wait for her.”
“I can pick the lock if we need to get in, but all right,” Siobhan laughed. She started off toward the house, Arthur rushing to follow, and was seemingly unaware of how Penny stared at her.
“You can—pick the lock?”
“Oh, aye. Picked that up when I was…six? Fun thing to practice.”
Penny opened her mouth to reply, but stopped at the sound of an electric crack. Siobhan turned to look at her. Another crack sounded, drawing their attention to a statue near the path to the back road, a stone carving of a mouse with a gleaming green stone set in the pillar it stood on. The stone crackled with electric sparks on the next crack. Siobhan moved her hand to her knife as Arthur ran away.
In an instant, a black cloud appeared before the statue, hovering just higher than it, and a bolt of green lightning struck the ground below it. Blinding light flared and a rush of wind carried away green leaves that hadn’t existed before. When they opened their eyes, they saw Finley standing before the statue.
Her arms were streaked with coal dust and sweat, and her face was much the same where it wasn’t covered by a handkerchief. She held her sword in her right hand, but returned it to its sheath carefully. Her left arm was bent and held close to her chest, and she coughed as she pulled the handkerchief down.
“Dammit,” she muttered.
“Finley?” Penny said, rushing to her and reaching out.
Finley jumped, turning to keep her left side away. “No, sorry, don’t touch my arm.”
She jerked her hands away immediately, looking between Finley’s left arm and her filthy face. After a moment, she took Finley’s right hand and asked, “What happened? Are you hurt?”
“No, I’m fine,” Finley said. She straightened her left arm slightly and winced. “Just made a really bad swing and jammed my shoulder. I’ll be fine after I put my ice packs on it for a while.”
“But why were you holding your sword?”
“I got jumped by a bunch of shadow brutes.” She smiled when Penny went pale. “I’m fine. I only killed a couple to clear a path to run and then I got out.”
“All right,” Penny said. “But…how exactly did you do that?”
“Appear in a bolt of lightning in front of this statue.”
Finley went still. “You…saw that?”
“Of course I did! How could I miss that?”
“Um. Well. The truth is…that was…magic.”
Penny looked at her blankly. “What?” She lifted Finley’s hand to look at her sleeve, and then looked toward her belt.
“It’s not a junimo,” Finley chuckled. “I need to get into my bag to show you.”
“Okay.” She meant to let go of Finley’s hand, but the sound of footsteps behind her made her freeze up. “U-um, Finley, before that, there’s…well.” She pointed over her shoulder when Finley gave her a curious look.
Finley looked where she pointed, seeing Siobhan standing there with raised brows and an open mouth. Her mouth opened as well as she went red beneath the coal dust.
“M-Mom?” she said.
“That’d be why y’asked if Paul’s dad saw spirits, then?” Siobhan asked Penny, voice faint.
Penny went bright red, stammering, “N-no, it’s not what it looks like!”
“Y’know I heard her say it was magic, right?” Siobhan asked. “Even if you tried to cover for her, Finley can’t lie to save her life.”
Finley’s blush darkened as she said, “M-Mom, it’s—I just—”
“Is this something you picked up here?” Siobhan asked. “There’s not a soul in my family that can do that.”
Siobhan stared, and then started to laugh. She went to Finley and ruffled her hair with one hand, saying, “A beacon of talent as always, Finley! Well done!”
Finley was completely still for a moment. Still blushing, she said, “Oh.”
“Lord, that’s a relief on top of everything else Penny’s showed me,” Siobhan said, rubbing off a streak of dust on Finley’s nose. “You’ve got a way to get out of a fight when you’re at a disadvantage. Better than any of the techniques I’ve got, honestly. Absolutely well done, Finley.”
Finley continued to stare. She smiled shyly. “Thank you.”
“And the fact that you’ve got this sweet young lady charmed enough to run to your side is another bit of relief,” Siobhan chuckled, smirking.
Penny’s blush darkened to match Finley’s. She opened her mouth, found no words, and sighed tremulously.
“I feel good about you being here,” Siobhan said gently. “That’s enough for me now.”
Finley looked at her blankly a moment before her brows rose. “You actually came to check on me?”
“Aye, but I can’t stay longer than this.” She put a hand on the back of Finley’s head, touching their brows together. “Sorry for it.”
“How long will you be gone this time?” Finley asked.
“A few months minimum. It’s a bit of digging to get what we were hired to bring back.” She smiled and ruffled Finley’s hair again. “I’ve been in the country a bit too long. You and Paul both know that.”
“We do,” Finley said quietly.
“It was worth it, love,” Siobhan murmured. “Don’t worry.” She lifted her head and reached out to ruffle Penny’s hair with her other hand. “Miss Penny, it’s been a pleasure to be with you today. Sorry to head off suddenly like this.”
“It was wonderful to meet you,” Penny replied. She smiled when Siobhan patted her head, exhaling a laugh when Siobhan kissed a clean spot on Finley’s brow.
“You two take care of yourselves,” Siobhan said, starting away to the back road. “And each other, aye?”
“Yes Mom,” Finley said. She watched her until she was out of sight, turning then to Penny. She opened her mouth, thought, and said, “Can you get my key out of my left backpack pocket? I could really use my ice packs now.”
“Oh—yes, one second!” Penny said. She hurried to unzip the small pocket on the left side of Finley’s backpack, minding her arm as she did, she went on ahead to unlock the door, and she held it open until Finley was inside.
“You’re absolutely sure you’re not hurt?” Penny asked, touching Finley’s right elbow.
“It’s just a little screwed up,” Finley said. “I’ll be totally fine in a couple of days. Lemme get this off.” She went to the table, turning about so her backpack was over it. Crouching slightly, she let the backpack rest on the table so she could ease her left arm free of the straps. She did the same with her right arm, sighing with relief when she had taken off the rest of her gear. She sat on the table to lift her feet up and untie her boots, rubbing the back of her neck once she had taken her boots off.
“Did you want to clean up before the ice packs?” Penny asked.
“I should,” Finley sighed, looking at her arms. She smiled slightly and asked, “Is my face pretty bad?”
“There are a couple of solid black spots,” Penny said.
“I hit a pretty good vein of coal,” Finley chuckled. “Gimme ten minutes.”
“Can you handle it with your arm like that?” Penny asked as Finley started toward an open door.
“I can, don’t worry. Go ahead and sit on the couch. I’ll be quick.”
Penny nodded and went to sit down. She listened as a faucet was turned on, sitting patiently while the water ran and Finley scrubbed herself clean. Because she listened closely, she heard when the faucet was turned off. She stood up and went to the kitchen to retrieve the ice packs. Finley came out of the bathroom with spots of water on her shirt but her skin clean of coal dust, and she smiled when she saw Penny on the couch with the ice packs.
“Thank you,” she sighed.
“You’re welcome,” Penny said, smiling back. “So—does it help most to lay on your back with these?”
“It does, yeah.”
“Let’s do this, then. Come here.” She moved to one end of the couch, setting the ice packs down beside her. Because she looked at Finley expectantly, Finley chuckled and gingerly lay down with the packs under her shoulder and her head in Penny’s lap.
“Helping?” Penny asked, petting Finley’s hair.
“Yep,” Finley replied, eyes closing halfway. “Thank you.” She relaxed for a time, but looked up at Penny and asked, “How did you run into my mother?”
“She’d just gotten off a train when I came out of the spa. She wanted me to show her around, but she wouldn’t tell me her name right away.”
“She’s a little…paranoid about giving people personal information. Sorry.”
Penny smiled and said, “It’s okay. I’m sure it’s part of her job to be that cautious. I’m more surprised she didn’t stay longer. I thought she would’ve stayed to talk to you more.”
“She never stays anywhere for long if she’s going out on a job.” She smiled slightly, looking down. “I didn’t think she’d come out here before she took another job.”
“She was very happy about everything when I showed her around town.” She thought a moment before sighing. “Except for when we ran into Morris at the community center.”
“What? What was he doing in there?”
“He saw me lead her in there and he…wanted to spy, I guess.” She frowned. “He basically said he was going to tell Jodi and Marnie that you and I go in there to have sex.”
Finley stared at her. As her eyes darkened, she said, “I beg your pardon?”
“I don’t know if it’s because of my mom or because of you,” Penny mumbled, “but he really doesn’t like me.” She felt Finley start to sit up and put a hand on her right shoulder to keep her down. “You’re not going to go yell at him.”
“I will when my shoulder stops hurting,” Finley grumbled.
“You won’t because Siobhan already threatened him. He’s not going to do anything.”
“He better not,” Finley muttered. She thought, and then asked, “What did she do to him?”
“She told him she wouldn’t be happy if she heard someone was threatening my job because of you. Except she said it in the scariest tone of voice I’ve ever heard, and she looked like she was trying to crush his shoulder.”
Finley laughed weakly. “That sounds about right for someone who works for Joja.”
“She said your father hates Joja, too,” Penny said, “but he couldn’t represent you in court. I didn’t know he was a lawyer.”
“Did you think he’s an electrician, too?”
“Maybe a little.”
“Me and Dad confused the hell out of my grandfather,” Finley said with a smile. “Dad went into a white collar job instead of staying on the farm, and then I went into a blue collar job that wasn’t anything like farming. I think he was worried the land would just get sold off when he passed away.”
“Thank goodness you kept the deed,” Penny said, starting to pet her hair again.
“No kidding,” Finley said, relaxing completely.
“Can I ask how your parents met? I can’t see how a lawyer and a mercenary met and fell in love.”
Finley snorted with laughter, putting her right hand on her face. “My dad is so embarrassed about this story.”
“Did something happen to him? Or to your mother?”
“No, not to them. But they met during my dad’s best ever case.”
“He was picked to be the defense attorney for a woman who’d been accused of murder,” Finley said. “The prosecution made it out like it was an assassination of a parliament member.”
Penny gaped at her. “Are you talking about the Gotoro Scandal thirty years ago?”
“That’s the one,” Finley chuckled. “The woman who was accused was Saoirse Bryne, one of my aunts on my mother’s side. She was set up by a Gotoro minister, but there was no evidence that would’ve turned up through normal methods in time for the trial. So—”
“‘The defense worked day and night with an anonymous informant to uncover the truth and clear the accused of all charges,’” Penny said quietly, eyes widening.
“My dad gets embarrassed about this part,” Finley said, struggling not to laugh. “My mother was in his office first thing the day after he was assigned. Before the office opened. He went in extra early to start work and it scared him half to death—he swears it put the first gray hairs in his beard.”
She took a deep breath and sighed, smiling. “It was the hardest case he’s ever done. They really worked day and night. Dad says my mother was so scared for her sister it broke his heart, and he swore he’d get her free.”
“And they started to like each other while they worked together?”
“A lot, yeah,” said Finley. “My mother and aunt had to stay in the country until some heat died down, and my parents took the opportunity to be a couple. When she left for more mercenary work, they kept in touch. She came back several times over the next couple of years, and when she was set to come back and stay for a while, he proposed.”
She smiled sheepishly. “My mother got pregnant with me pretty soon after they got married. They were really surprised.”
“Your dad’s embarrassed about that story?” Penny asked, laughing. “But it’s really sweet! It’s wonderful that they got together through all of that and they’re still in love!”
“Dad’s such a nerd when it comes to my mother,” Finley said, smiling properly. “The background on his phone is a picture of her taking a nap.”
“Oh my gosh,” Penny giggled. “I hope he comes to visit someday.”
“I’m pretty sure he will. It’s just an issue of when his schedule clears up.”
“The workaholic Amundsen family,” Penny sighed, playing with Finley’s hair.
“My dad’ll love you,” Finley murmured, reaching up to brush her fingers against Penny’s cheek.
“I think my dad would love you, too,” Penny said. “My mom said he likes people who work hard.”
“Is he due for a visit any time soon?”
“No, his schedule is just as full as your dad’s is. He only visits ever five or six years, and his last visit was on my eighteenth birthday.”
Penny looked at her a moment, but leaned down. Finley sat up to close the last bit of distance between them and kissed Penny sweetly. When Penny straightened up, she sat up as well and turned to face her.
“Then I guess it’s good that I plan on being here for a long time,” said Finley, smiling brightly. “It means I get to meet your dad when he visits again.”
“It’s definitely good,” Penny chuckled. She meant to lean closer, but stopped short when she touched the ice packs. They had warmed significantly, and so she asked, “Is your shoulder feeling better?”
“A lot, yeah. Thank you for helping me get settled.” She took the ice packs as she stood up, saying, “Lemme put these away.”
“All right.” She settled to wait, but soon went still as a thought came to her. She looked at the floor, closing her hands loosely. She nodded to herself, looking up when Finley returned to sit with her left arm still bent and held close to her chest.
“Finley,” she said, “can we talk about something?”
“Sure. What’s up?”
“I want to talk about you thinking I’m nervous.”
Finley looked at her blankly. “About…meeting my dad? I don’t think you are. You don’t have to be, either—my dad’s a giant teddy bear.”
“No, not that,” Penny said. She took a deep breath, set her hand on Finley’s thigh, and said, “I know you think I’m nervous about going further than what we did yesterday. But I really, really want you to know I’m not.”
“I’m not. The only thing I’m nervous about is that it’ll be the first time I have sex with someone. But I’m much less nervous about it because I’m going to be with you.” She smiled, rubbing Finley’s thigh with her thumb. “I only made us stop yesterday because I left the door open. If the door had been closed—I probably would’ve asked to go to my room.”
Finley stared. She went bright red. “Oh. Well—dammit.”
“What? Why ‘dammit’?”
“Dammit because my shoulder is still jammed and wow do I wish it was up to more right now.”
Penny blushed as well. “Wait, did—did that turn you on?”
Finley smiled and leaned close to kiss Penny’s neck. Lips against her skin, she purred, “So much.”
“But all I said was that I want to go further.”
“Penny,” Finley said, lifting her head to bring her lips close to her ear, “I haven’t had sex in five years. Just getting to touch you like I did yesterday made me feel like I was going to melt. I could barely wait to get to my room when I got home.”
Penny could hardly breathe for how her pounding heart was lodged in her throat. She swallowed it back down and said, “I went to my room right after you left.”
“Are you teasing me when my shoulder is screwed up and I can’t really do anything?”
“I don’t mean to!” Penny protested, leaning back to look at her. “I just wanted to tell you how much I liked what we did!” She froze when Finley took her chin in hand. She swallowed hard again, turned to face Finley properly, and closed her hands in Finley’s shirt to pull her closer even as Finley brought her forward.
Finley kissed her just as firmly as all her daydreams, but the heat of her lips was beyond what her imagination had been able to conjure. She managed to hold down a whimper; she could not stop the soft moan that left her when Finley drew back to suck on her lower lip. Penny distantly heard Finley chuckle when she tried to breathe, and then all thought left her when Finley did not let her and instead kissed her with even more heat.
“Wait,” Penny said, pulling away.
“How much further can you go with your shoulder like it is?”
“It’ll really suck to take my shirt and bra off for a few hours,” she replied. “And as much as I’d love to watch you undress, I want to to that myself this time.”
“And it’d be awkward if I walk through town with my clothes really rumpled,” Penny sighed.
Finley raised one brow and grinned. “Wow, are you saying you’d be okay with having sex with your clothes still on?”
“Well—if I stayed the night so I had a good reason to bring a change of clothes…I wouldn’t say no.”
“We’re going to have so much fun,” Finley chuckled, taking her hand from Penny’s chin. She set it on her side, angling her hand to press its heel against her breast. The sound of Penny taking a shaky breath made her hum.
“I know we need to stop,” Penny said quietly. She swallowed and took hold of Finley’s wrist. “But,” she said, moving Finley’s hand to cup her breast, “can you do this? Just for a little while?”
“Absolutely,” Finley murmured. She lowered her head to kiss Penny’s neck, starting to rub her thumb back and forth over her breast. It wasn’t long before Penny’s nipple hardened under her thumb, and she set her thumb atop it to toy with it. As she moved her hand to be able to take her nipple between thumb and forefinger, she heard Penny giggle softly.
“Does that tickle?” she asked, lifting her head.
Penny shook her head, a dreamy smile on her face. “It feels really good.”
Finley’s grin returned, brighter than before. “Penny, do you get giggly when you’re turned on?”
“Maybe,” Penny laughed.
“Isn’t that the damnedest thing,” Finley said. She gingerly straightened her left arm enough to set her hand on Penny’s thigh, sliding her fingers under the leg of her shorts. She moved closer, bringing her hand higher until Penny shivered.
“I thought you can’t do anything with your left arm,” Penny said.
“This is the most I can do,” Finley replied. “So anything more than this’ll just be with my right hand.” She hummed laughter as she took Penny’s nipple between thumb and forefinger and pinched gently. “But I can do my best if you want to keep going now.”
“That’s not fair to you, though.” She closed her hands in Finley’s shirt, inhaling slowly when Finley pinched harder. The faint scratch of Finley’s calluses against her thigh made her squirm as she exhaled. “I don’t want to keep going if I can’t really touch you.”
“Time to stop, right?”
“Mm hmm.” She relaxed when Finley took her hands away, looking at her with a shy smile. “Um. Thank you. That was—amazing.”
“Just imagine how amazing it’ll be with your clothes off,” Finley said with a grin.
Penny hid her face in Finley’s shoulder and giggled, “I’m going to when I get home.”
“And I’m going to imagine that when you go.” She ran her fingernails lightly over the back of Penny’s neck, setting her hand down afterward. After a moment, she said, “Penny?”
“I know we agreed on Sunday, but why don’t you come over Friday? Stay the weekend. And we can talk before we do anything so we know what’s okay.”
“I’d love that,” Penny said, nuzzling against Finley’s shoulder. “When can I come over?”
“Any time you want. It’s not like it’ll take much to get me revved up.”
“Me either.” She lifted her head and sighed. “I know I should go, but I don’t want to at all.”
“I know, I don’t want you to go either,” Finley chuckled. “But let me show you what I used to get home before you go. It’ll give you time to cool down a little.”
“All right,” Penny said, standing as Finley did. She followed her to the table and watched her take something out of the small pocket on the right side of her backpack. She took it when Finley offered it, finding it was a carved piece of wood with grassy fiber at its base.
“The fiber’s held on with dried honey,” said Finley.
“What is it, though?”
“A warp totem. If I use it anywhere in the valley, it’ll teleport me home in front of that statue outside.”
Penny looked at her. “So you can do magic on your own.”
“The junimos taught me how to make it, but yeah. I had to lie to Vincent and Jas.”
“I know, but I don’t think you could’ve told them the truth.” She smiled. “They’d be begging you to teleport them everywhere.”
“I can only come home or go to the beach or the mountains,” Finley said. “But they take hardwood to make, so they’re not something I like to use too often.”
“Just in emergencies, right?” Penny asked.
“Exactly. I don’t go into the mines without a totem for home in case something like today happens.” She took the totem when Penny offered it back, returning it to its pocket. “The last thing I want is to be stuck down there with a jammed shoulder.”
“I’m glad you have a way out,” Penny said, setting her hand lightly on the small of Finley’s back. “Now I just wish you had a radar for monsters if they’re going to sneak up on you.”
“I’ll pay even more attention when I’m down that far, I promise.” She went still when Penny moved her hand lower. “Penny? What’re you doing?”
“Well,” Penny said, face flushing. “Something I’ve wanted to do for a while. Is that all right?”
“You let me do something I’ve been wanting to do, so go right ahead.”
Penny smiled brightly, eagerly, and moved her hand even lower to take a tight hold of Finley’s backside. Finley let out a sharp, startled noise, shoulders rising.
“Well—okay then,” Finley said, face going bright red as she looked at Penny. “You’ve been wanting to do that?”
“Is that not okay?”
“It is absolutely okay,” Finley replied, voice breaking.
Penny looked at her with wide eyes and raised brows. “Do you really like that?”
“Yep,” Finley said, and she cleared her throat awkwardly. “Well. Dammit. Friday’s not going to get here fast enough.”
“I agree. But you need to rest your shoulder, okay?”
“I will. The last thing I want is to miss out on this weekend.”
“Good,” said Penny. She thought, took a breath, and squeezed Finley’s backside to hear her make another sharp noise.
“Okay, not fair!” Finley laughed, reaching back to take Penny’s hand. “Don’t rev me back up when I’m trying to cool off a little!”
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” Penny laughed in turn. “I just really wanted to do that before I go!”
“And you call me a tease,” Finley sighed, and she lifted Penny’s hand to kiss the inside of her wrist. “Go home before I really do melt. You can tease me as much as you want this weekend.”
Grinning, Penny asked, “Is that a promise?”
“Yep. I expect you to hold me to it.”
“I will,” Penny giggled, and she stood on her toes to give Finley one more kiss before she left.
It's bad form of me to not have figured out Finley's ethnicity until this point, but I have gone back to make a couple edits in chapter one. Also to add Penny's surname, since it's silly not to have gotten that as well.
Chapter 8: Start of a Rainy Weekend
The best kind of weekend is a lazy one, and one with a good reason to stay inside. Penny is quite happy to have such a weekend ahead of her.
It wasn’t that Penny meant to slip away for the weekend without telling Pam. It was simply that when she’d managed to work up the courage to say it Friday morning, Pam had already left the trailer with only a note to tell Penny she had gone to the beach to fish. Penny stood in the kitchen for a long while, staring at the notecard she’d taken from a drawer. She thought, almost began to write, and thought again. She sighed at herself before starting to write.
“Hi Mom,” she said to herself. “Spending the weekend at Finley’s. Be home Monday. Love you, Penny.”
She set the note on the table in plain sight before packing a tote-bag and heading out. The day was already warm, the air thick with humidity and the scent of approaching rain. Penny quickened her pace despite the clear skies above, sighing with relief when the farm came into view. She went to the house and knocked on the door, but there was no reply.
“Finley?” she called, knocking again. Once more there was no reply. She hummed quietly, making her way toward the coop to head for the trees. When she saw that the hammock had been taken down, she stared.
She turned, seeing Finley waving at her in the distance by the pond. Exhaling a laugh, she made her way across the property.
“Sorry, sorry,” Finley said when she arrived. “The forecast says we’re in for a storm tonight and tomorrow and I wanted to secure these crab pots. And set up those lightning rods over there for safety’s sake.”
Penny looked where she pointed, finding a trio of lightning rods halfway between the pond and the high craggy hillside at the western edge of the property. She sighed and said, “I hope lightning doesn’t strike near here. I’d hate for anything to happen.”
“I kinda hope we get a lightning strike,” Finley said, finishing the last knot to hold a set of crab pots to roots protruding over the pond. “Maru showed me how to set the lightning rods up with battery packs to save power. Robin’s got blueprints for lampposts that I want to put up around here.”
Penny looked at her with raised brows and asked, “You’re going to build lampposts?”
“I don’t want to risk anything catching fire from campfires or wood braziers.”
Penny snorted with laughter. “Finley, you never have enough projects, do you?”
“Nope,” Finley chuckled. “But I promise not to check them until the storm stops. Especially since the rain gives us a good reason to stay inside, right?”
“It does,” Penny laughed as Finley stood up. “Is your shoulder doing all right?”
Finley smirked and scooped Penny up into her arms. Snickering at how Penny blushed and stared, she said, “It’s perfect right now.”
“Finley—oh my gosh!” Penny said before bursting into giggles. She hid her face in Finley’s shoulder, giggling harder when Finley started to carry her back toward the house. “You have to be kidding.”
“I’ve been dying to pick you up and carry you around since our first date,” Finley replied. She went up the stairs and opened the door without setting Penny down.
“It doesn’t hurt your shoulder to carry me like this?” Penny asked.
“Carrying things isn’t what does me in. It’s putting pressure on my shoulder.” She chuckled as she finally put Penny on her feet. “Which is why you’ll never see me asleep on my left side.”
“I’ll be careful which side I cuddle,” Penny said, taking off her sandals. She let Finley take her bag to set on the dining table, but did not follow her. She thought, wet her lips, and said, “Finley?”
“I just wanted to say…thank you.”
“What?” Finley said, turning about. “For what?”
“For saying we can talk first. About what’s okay.” She laughed faintly, looking down. “I was a little worried it’d all just—happen.”
“That’s not fair to either of us,” Finley replied. She went to Penny, moving hair out of Penny’s face and tucking it behind her ear. “The first time I had sex was a complete mess and it all did just happen. We were both put off from having sex again for a while. Next time we did, we agreed we had to sit down and talk so it wasn’t awful again.”
She smiled and said, “I know what I like, but I don’t know what you like. I don’t wanna guess and I don’t wanna make you guess.”
“I really appreciate it,” Penny said quietly, reaching up to take Finley’s hand.
“Though you made a great guess on Monday.”
She smirked. “When you grabbed my ass, Penny.”
Penny blushed, but smiled. “That wasn’t so much a guess of what you like as much as it was something that I’ve been wanting to do.”
“That’s a good place to start, though,” Finley said, and she picked Penny up again. She brought them to the couch, sitting down with Penny sideways in her lap.
“I can’t believe you can just carry me,” Penny giggled.
“No offense, but you’re pretty little. I could probably give you a piggyback ride from the beach to the mountain and then come here without needing to set you down.” She grinned, setting her hand low on Penny’s back to slip her fingers under her shirt. “But that’s a little beside the point right now, right?”
“Mm hmm,” Penny hummed. She took Finley’s other hand in both of hers, looking at her rough, callused palm as she thought. “So…things I’ve been wanting to do.” She thought further. She hesitated. “Could—you go first?”
“Still feel awkward talking about it?”
“A little,” Penny sighed. “Sorry.”
“It’s okay,” Finley chuckled. “We’re not going for dirty talk right off the bat.” She thought as well, slowly rubbing Penny’s back. “Let’s see. I basically told you on Sunday that I want to go down on you.”
“I didn’t miss that,” Penny giggled, blush flaring again. “I would like for that to happen this weekend.”
Finley kissed her cheek and murmured, “Just tell me when.”
Penny lifted Finley’s hand to kiss her palm, replying, “Thank you.” She bit her lip as she thought, but soon looked at Finley and said, “I’d like to undress you. And—maybe have you tell me what to do after that?”
“To get me off?”
“I like the sound of that,” Finley said with a grin.
“Can I ask for one more thing?”
“If it’s for hitting or really hard biting, I will have to say ‘no.’”
Penny looked at her blankly for a moment before sighing and softly said, “Oh thank goodness.”
Finley blushed, but snorted with laughter. “Did you think I might be into that?”
“No, no!” Penny laughed, blushing as well. “But it keeps coming up in books and the movies that air on stations here and I never wanted to even try that!”
“I’m glad we match up, then,” Finley said, still choking on giggles. “One of my exes wanted to try it, but it only wound up working for her when we did.”
“I can’t imagine you enjoying either side of it.”
“Not even a little, nope. But is that what you were actually going to ask for?”
“No, but I’m happy you brought it up.” She set Finley’s hand on her cheek, saying, “I’d like it if we could take this…a little slow, I guess? This first time, I mean. I don’t want to have a goal to go after.”
“I don’t want the first time we have sex to just be about getting each other off as fast as possible. It’s—I don’t care if I have an orgasm or not. I want us to be able to take our time.” She sighed. “Sorry. I don’t think that makes sense.”
Finley turned her head gently, waiting until Penny was looking at her before smiling and saying, “D’you know what’s one of my favorite things?”
“Having sex that lasts all afternoon and pretty much all night.” She grinned again when she added, “So I’m all for taking this first time nice and slow.”
“Even though getting to touch me made you feel like you’d melt?”
“Going slow means a slow melt. Besides, I wanna make you melt, too.”
“Then kiss me,” Penny said quietly.
Finley chuckled. “Get in my lap.”
She started to giggle. “I’m in your lap, Finley.”
“Not really,” Finley replied. “Turn toward me.”
Penny smiled and stood up. She turned and got back into Finley’s lap, knees beside Finley’s hips. Though she sat gingerly at first, Finley took her hips in hand and pulled her down and closer. They were still for a long while, watching each other’s eyes. Penny blushed first, but did not lower her gaze. Finley lifted one hand, running the backs of her fingers over Penny’s cheek.
“Still okay?” she asked.
“Yes,” Penny replied, and she leaned in to kiss Finley. It was gentle, but the warmth of it quickly grew into heat. Finley hummed against her lips, sliding one hand up the back of Penny’s shirt. Penny broke the kiss with a burst of giggles.
“Tickled that time?” Finley asked.
“No, just—I’ve wondered what it’d feel like to have your hands on my back.” She smiled and said, “It’s really nice.”
“You get so giggly,” Finley chuckled. “You know what I’ve been wondering?”
“If you’ll giggle a little when I finger you.” She pulled Penny closer still, holding tight to her hip. “Seems pretty likely so far.”
“I think I might,” Penny admitted. “I’m not sure.”
“I get to be the one to find out?” Finley asked, voice dipping low.
“Mm hmm.” She leaned in, but stopped to gently take the tie out of Finley’s hair. She put it aside, combing her hair out with her fingers. Leaving her hands in Finley’s hair, she kissed her sweetly. When Finley pulled her closer still by her shirt, she giggled. An upward tug on the bottom of her shirt made her draw back.
“Shirt off,” Finley said, voice unwavering and gaze focused. Penny’s blush darkened, but she began to pull her shirt up and off. Finley caught it at the end, taking it from her hands to set aside. She rocked her hips then, bringing her lips to Penny’s chest when she rose up on her knees slightly. The kisses she lay on Penny’s chest were featherlight, dotted on every inch of bare skin. She trailed her fingers along the edge of Penny’s bra, smiling at the soft sigh Penny let out. Though she moved her hands to Penny’s back, reaching for the bra’s clasps, Penny caught her elbows.
“Your shirt off now,” Penny said.
Finley hummed laughter and set her hand on Penny’s thighs. “I’m glad I wore a button-down shirt today.”
“Me too,” Penny murmured, and she began to unbutton Finley’s shirt. When the last button was undone, she pushed her shirt away and off her shoulders to set her hands lightly on Finley’s stomach. She felt her breathe for a time, letting her hands settle more firmly as she relaxed. She leaned close to kiss Finley’s neck, moving her hands to Finley’s sides as she did. As she started to bring her hands around to Finley’s back, she felt Finley reach behind her and undo her bra’s clasps with one hand. Blushing painfully, Penny crossed her arms over her chest and hid her face in Finley’s shoulder.
“Did you really just do that?” she asked.
“Mm hmm,” Finley hummed. “The straps are in my way.”
“In your way?”
“Mm hmm,” Finley hummed again. She put one hand under Penny’s chin, guiding her to lift her head. When Penny looked at her, she gently moved the straps off her shoulders. She ran her fingers along the curves of her shoulders and trailed them over her collarbones.
“Have you ever seen some feature on a person that really takes your breath away?” she asked. “They’re pretty everywhere, but there’s that one thing that always catches your eye?”
She could not keep from looking at Finley’s arms when she said, “I have.”
“You have shoulders that’re so amazing it’s like an artist drew them.” She smiled and added, “And they forgot to not make them perfect.”
Penny stared. Her blush finally spread to her ears and chest. She exhaled shakily and looked down. Voice faint with wonder, she said, “Th-thank you.”
“Can I take this off?” Finley whispered in her ear, taking hold of one bra strap.
She swallowed and, after a moment, nodded and lowered her arms. She let Finley take off her bra, meeting her gaze when she turned back from setting it aside. The way Finley cupped her breasts gently, thumbs brushing over her nipples, made her shiver even as she smiled.
“It was definitely in my way,” Finley chuckled.
“Let me take yours off,” Penny murmured. She fidgeted and said, “I don’t think I can do it one-handed, though.”
“It just takes some practice,” Finley replied, sitting up slightly so her back wasn’t against the cushions. It brought her close to Penny, so much so that they felt each other’s breath on their lips. Penny exhaled a laugh and touched their brows together.
“Can I tell you something?” she asked as she brought her hands behind Finley’s back.
“That day I figured out I had a crush on you, I had a daydream about waking up here and getting to have a cup of coffee with you.” She kissed Finley’s cheek and undid the clasps of her bra. “And I actually get to do that tomorrow.”
Finley chuckled and kissed Penny’s shoulder. “I’ve been wanting to wake up next to you for a while now.”
“Even if I snore while I sleep?”
Finley laughed aloud. “Why do you think you snore?”
“I just worry about it!” Penny giggled. “And I don’t want to wake you up when you always work so hard!”
“You’re fine, I promise.” She took her arms out of the straps to let Penny take her bra off and set it to one side. Gentle, slow, she set one hand on Penny’s thigh and brought her other hand up to cup Penny’s cheek. Because Penny hesitated, anxiety in her eyes, she went still.
“Are you okay?” Finley asked.
“Is there anywhere I shouldn’t touch?” Penny asked in turn.
Finley looked at her blankly. “Say again?”
“For your shoulder. You said not to put pressure on it, but where specifically?”
“Oh.” She looked down as she thought. “Well…try not to push on it from the top or the front near the joint.” She smiled weakly. “Pretty sure that’ll kill the mood.”
Penny looked at her for a moment before leaning forward. Tenderness was in the way she kissed Finley’s shoulder close to the joint. She followed the curve of Finley’s shoulder with her lips until she reached her neck. There she stopped, and she put her arms against Finley’s chest to settle against her.
“Can we go to bed?” she asked.
Finley’s answer came in the form of a low, pleased hum before she put her arms under Penny’s back side and stood up. Penny hid her giggles in Finley’s neck as she was carried out of the living room, giggling harder when Finley closed the door behind them with her foot.
“What?” Finley laughed.
“You’re being really charming!” Penny said. “It’s fun!”
“Good,” said Finley, “‘cause I think sex should be fun.” She sat on the edge of the bed, Penny still in her lap. Though she set her hands on Penny’s back, she paused. “This is out of the blue, but are you ticklish anywhere?”
“My feet are.”
“Noted.” She ran her hands up Penny’s back, fingertips along her spine, and smiled at how Penny shivered with a blissful smile. “I hate accidentally tickling people.”
“Are you ticklish anywhere?”
“Nah,” Finley murmured, moving her hands back down. She brought them forward at Penny’s hips, going further to set them on Penny’s thighs. Slowly, casually, she moved her hands up Penny’s thighs to slip them beneath her skirt.
“I’m lucky about not being ticklish,” she said. She kissed Penny’s neck as she moved her hands higher. “And I’d argue that I’m lucky that you’re not too ticklish.”
“Actually getting giggly from tickling makes people hyper-sensitive for a little while,” Finley replied. “In my experience anyway.” She kissed Penny’s lips. “Derails the mood a little.”
“I don’t want to have that happen right now,” Penny said. She smiled shyly and added, “Your hands are already making me sensitive.”
“Are they really that rough?”
“Yes, but—not in a bad way.” She set her hands lightly on Finley’s biceps. “I like it.”
“I’m glad,” Finley murmured. She ran her hands up and down Penny’s thighs, brushing her thumbs over the front of her panties.
Penny giggled, toes curling as she lifted her hips. She held tighter to Finley’s arms to keep her balance while she scooted closer on her knees.
“Now your skirt’s in my way,” Finley purred.
“Then—let me stand up,” Penny said, blush flaring.
Smiling, Finley took her hands away. She leaned forward, elbows on her knees, once Penny was on her feet. Because Penny took one of her hands, she leaned closer to take the skirt’s zipper and gently pulled it down. A small tug brought the skirt down over Penny’s hips and sliding down her legs.
“You’re a little fidgety,” Finley said, setting a hand on Penny’s hip. She smirked and asked, “Are you getting wet?”
“That’s not a fair question,” Penny said with a pout. “Aren’t you?”
“You’re not fidgety because you’re sitting down. I’m on my feet.”
“Fair enough. C’mere.” She moved backward on the bed, grabbing a pillow to put under her head before settling on her back. Tentatively, Penny got onto the bed and lay down on top of Finley, hips between her legs and breasts against hers. When she hesitated in putting her arms anywhere, Finley smiled and guided her to put one arm around her neck and the other on her chest to avoid her left shoulder.
“Comfy?” Finley asked.
“Mm hmm.” Penny nuzzled against Finley’s right shoulder, moving her hand to touch Finley’s neck. “I want to take a nap like this.”
“Not right now, right?” Finley asked, reaching down to slip her fingers past the band of Penny’s panties to take her backside in her hands. Penny jumped, one hand grabbing the sheets. She squirmed and let out a blissful giggle.
“Not right now, no,” she replied. “Definitely not right now.”
“Good, ‘cause I don’t wanna stop before I get to see how wet I’ve made you.”
“Check,” Penny whispered in her ear.
Finley went still. She took a deep breath, shivering from head to toe, and asked, “Do you know how sexy that was?”
Penny shook her head, blushing crimson.
“If you saying anything in that voice again, I might have to take you straight to bed.” She took one hand from Penny’s panties to coax her legs open, cupping Penny in her other hand the moment she could. Penny whined, smiling dazedly when Finley dipped each finger into her ever so slightly, ever so gently, one after the other.
“Know what?” Finley rumbled.
“What?” Penny asked in a faint giggle.
“You are so, so wet.” She dipped her middle finger in again, pushing in to the second knuckle and going still. She grinned at the happy hum Penny let out as she squirmed and squeezed her finger. “And I am really sure you’re going to giggle when I start fingering you.”
“Check,” Penny said again, kissing Finley’s shoulder. She exhaled slowly, shakily, as Finley pushed her finger in deeper. When Finley drew her finger back entirely, she whined. “Finley, please don’t tease me.”
“N-no, sorry, I’m not,” Finley said. “I just really want to see your face.”
Penny’s cheeks burned hotter as she lifted her head and said, “What?”
“I want to see what your smile looks like when I touch you,” Finley said. She considered her words and blushed. “That…sounded less stupid in my head.” She smiled weakly. “I’m out of practice for dirty talk. Sorry.”
Penny looked at her for a long while before moving. She brought her hand up from Finley’s neck to set it on her cheek, kissing her sweetly. When Finley took her hand from her panties and rolled them over, she giggled and relaxed into the mattress. Reaching up, she put her hands on Finley’s shoulders, close to her neck.
“I guess now would be the time to tell you,” Penny murmured, “that I’ve been thinking about how you’d look at me while you touch me.”
Finley’s blush darkened to crimson. She smiled crookedly and said, “You have a gift for dirty talk, y’know that?”
Penny’s blush darkened just as much as she laughed and hid her face in her hands. “Finley, stop! No I don’t!”
Finley smirked and, while Penny was still hiding her face, unbuttoned and unzipped her jeans with one hand. When Penny stopped laughing and lowered her hands, she took one of her hands and brought it down between them. She guided Penny’s hand past the band of her underwear and pressed her fingers up against her wet skin. She inhaled deeply and drew her hand back, leaving Penny’s hand where it was.
“Believe me now?” she asked.
Penny stared, eyes wide and lips parted.
“You’re sexy, Penny,” Finley said. “I’m not teasing you about that.” She chuckled. “You can tell I’m not.” She kissed Penny’s neck. “You don’t have to worry about that.”
“Oh,” Penny said quietly. She swallowed, glanced down at her hand, and said, “Th-thank you.”
Finley hummed and kissed her cheek again. She hooked one finger in the band of Penny’s panties and tugged slightly, saying, “These are in my way now.”
“O-oh. All—all right, let me—” She was stopped short by a kiss that made her forget what breathing was. Moaning into Finley’s mouth, she was perfectly aware of how Finley took her panties off and tossed them to one side of the bed. She took a deep breath when Finley lifted her head, bringing Finley back down when she heard her chuckle.
The touch of Finley’s fingers along the line her thighs made pressed together made her shiver. She opened her legs without hesitance, breaking the kissing when Finley cupped her again with her left hand. Her toes curled as Finley ran two fingers through her wetness; her legs flexed when Finley pushed two fingers inside her. A breathy, dreamy laugh left her in time with Finley starting to rock her fingers in and out.
“Knew you’d laugh,” Finley purred.
“I’m happy,” Penny sighed, bliss in her smile. She met Finley’s gaze, putting her hands on her neck, and rocked her hips against Finley’s hand. “And this feels so wonderful.”
“Better now that your clothes are off?”
“So much better.” She giggled for only a moment when Finley kissed her cheek, moaning faintly when Finley lowered her head to kiss her neck. She put on hand in Finley’s hair, the other on her right shoulder. Every move Finley made was slow, but none of it was tinged with hesitance. She took her time in kissing Penny’s neck, her shoulders, all along her collarbones, lingering when she happened upon spots that made Penny sigh.
There was no haste in how she moved her fingers. It was slow at times, other times still as she curled them. It never failed to coax a whimper from Penny, a shiver through her legs. Finley closed her eyes and set her lips against Penny’s neck, listening to the way Penny breathed. She ran her thumb back and forth, up and down, still listening closely.
When her thumb found a knot of hot, swollen flesh, Penny’s breath stopped with a sharp inhale. Finley stopped her hand entirely, opening her eyes and lifting her head. She saw how Penny had closed her eyes tight and was biting her lip, cheeks a deep red. Finley exhaled slowly, lowering her head to kiss near Penny’s ear.
“How much do you think you can take?” she asked.
It took a moment for Penny to open her eyes and say, “What?”
“I don’t want to tease you and back off when you’re close to coming,” Finley said. “I know you want to go slow, so…how much more do you think you can take?”
Penny stared. She swallowed hard, looking down, and said, “Not much if you keep rubbing with your thumb.”
“So I did find your clit?”
“Well…yeah. Did you think you needed to ask?”
“No, but I wanted to.” She nuzzled against Penny’s neck. “Want me to keep going?”
“I want to touch you more, first,” Penny said in a rush. She blinked and said, “That—was more forceful than I meant it to be.”
“It’s okay,” Finley chuckled, taking her hand away. “What do you want me to do?”
“Can you lay on your stomach?”
Finley stared. She said, “What?”
“I want to rub your back.” Because Finley continued to stare, she said, “I want to help you relax more. You always look a little wound up when I see your back.”
“Oh.” She smiled. “Sure, all right.”
“You have to take your jeans off first, though.”
“Fair,” Finley said, still smiling. She stood up to take off her jeans, tossing them toward a hamper in one corner. Though she meant to turn back around and sit down, she saw how closely Penny was looking at her back. Because there was a shade of red in Penny’s cheeks, she laughed.
“You really like my ass,” she said.
“I—well—I do, yes, but I’ve never gotten to see you just in your underwear!”
“So you wanted to take the chance to stare a little, I get it,” Finley replied. “You can stare at my ass all you want.”
Penny started to giggle again, harder than before, and patted the bed when she calmed down. She waited for Finley to lay down and settle before setting her hands on her back. For a long while, she only moved her hands along Finley’s back, taking in the contrast between their skin. She ran her thumbs up and down the length of Finley’s spine to make her hum faintly.
Again and again, her gaze went to Finley’s left shoulder. With how her arms were crossed under her head, the scar was slightly stretched, looking pulled upon. Penny bit her lip as she set one hand down near the scar, fingers atop it. She said nothing, only moving her fingers in the slightest, smallest brushes. Exhaling quietly, she brought her hand away to move Finley’s hair aside.
The touch of her lips to Finley’s neck made Finley go still with a shaking hum. She turned her head to look at Penny with a lazy, happy smile on her face. Penny smiled back, kissing her cheek. She sat up slightly to set her hands on Finley’s back again, starting to find spots where muscles had knotted up. Careful, firm presses of the heels of her hands started to undo the knots, and her thumbs worked out the last of them.
With each knot undone, Finley relaxed further. When she kept her eyes open, her gaze was hazy with pleasure. It put a lump in Penny’s throat and increased the ache between her legs. Distantly, she could feel the wetness on her thighs. She swallowed slowly and leaned down again. She kissed Finley’s back softly, moving further down her back with each kiss.
Very soon and still not soon enough was she able to reach Finley’s backside without stretching. She exhaled quietly, perfectly steady, and moved one hand past the band of Finley’s slip-shorts. Finley took a shallow breath, eyes closing, and moaned. The sight and sound made Penny’s face burn and her eyes widen.
“Was that—really that good?” she asked.
“Penny,” Finley said without opening her eyes, “I’ve wanted to have sex with you for nearly three months. And I swear I’m going to come so fast I’m going to look like a jackass.”
“Wha—why would you look like that?”
“Because it’ll look like I’m faking it.”
She stared a moment before smiling. “But now I know you’re not. It’s okay.”
Finley was silent. She uncrossed her arms to hide her face in the sheets, rubbing her head. After a moment, she looked at Penny with a dark blush on her face.
“You’re not going to make me beg right now, right?” she asked quietly.
Penny shook her head and moved her hand between Finley’s legs. Voice gentle, she said, “I don’t think I could,” and pushed two fingers into Finley. A whimper left Finley instantly, her shoulders tensing just as quickly. As Penny began to rock her fingers in and out, Finley’s breath grew uneven. When she exhaled, the sound was weak and breaking. She tried to hide her face in the sheets to muffle herself, but she only managed to press one cheek into them because a deep push of Penny’s fingers left her shaking.
Heart in her throat, Penny brought her other hand below Finley’s hip to reach between her legs. She did not bother reaching into Finley’s shorts, too aware of how Finley moaned desperately. She rubbed Finley through her shorts, breath hitching because the fabric was soaked through. Finley let out a strangled sound, hands fisted in the sheets.
“Penny,” she whimpered. “I—can’t, I’m gonna—”
All rational thought was burned out of Penny’s mind by the heat in Finley’s voice. She moved her fingers faster, rubbed harder. It seemed only another moment before Finley let out another strangled noise, but it broke apart into a loud moan. She moaned over and over as she tensed around Penny’s fingers, each coming softer than the last. It left her out of breath and shaking as she put a hand on her head.
“I didn’t fake that,” she said, anxiety in her voice. “I swear I didn’t. I just—come really fast and it looks like I’m faking.”
“Finley,” Penny murmured, “I don’t think you did. It’s okay.” She exhaled a laugh. “I’d pet your hair, but my hands are really sticky right now.”
For a moment, Finley was still. Then, she sputtered with laughter. “I guess they would be, huh?”
“Mm hmm,” Penny replied as she took her hands away slowly. She lay down next to Finley, waiting as she calmed down. When Finley looked at her, she smiled. “Can I ask you to do something?”
“Can you—go down on me?”
Finley smiled, raising one brow slightly. “I didn’t think you’d ask like that.”
“There’s not many ways to ask,” Penny giggled.
“Fair.” She moved closer to kiss Penny, taking her time to make Penny squirm. She pulled away only enough to roll Penny onto her back. Again she kissed her, and with heat that left Penny breathless and dazed. She began to move lower, always between Penny’s legs as she kissed her skin along the way. Both of Penny’s nipples were given hard sucks, earning blissful giggles.
Finley settled between Penny’s legs, lifting one over her right shoulder and gently moving the other to one side. Penny, biting her lip, bent her knee to let Finley move closer. Finley hummed laughter and kissed her inner thigh.
“You’re really wet,” she murmured. Before Penny could speak, she licked her thigh in a long, firm pass of her tongue. She chuckled and murmured, “I was right. You are sweet.”
She brought her mouth to Penny’s sex and licked slow and hard.
“Hmm?” Finley hummed, not taking her mouth away.
Penny let her head fall back, smiling dreamily and said, “Just—this is…wonderful.”
Finley replied with another hum and started to lick over and over. Penny’s breath grew uneven, eyes drifting shut. She rocked against Finley’s mouth slowly, moaning when Finley’s tongue dipped into her. Her hands held tight to the sheets, and her back arched when Finley licked her clit.
“Finley,” she moaned. The sound of Finley humming made her tense up, holding her breath. There was no stopping the whimper that rose in her throat when Finley pushed three fingers into her and began to lap at her clit with fervor. She was left helpless, unable to move anything but her hips.
There was no telling how long it took for her to come, but it felt an eternity for how fiercely Finley’s tongue burned against her. She stopped breathing, weak sound leaving her open mouth while her hips rocked on their own. Finley continued to lick her, slowing as Penny came down. When Penny started to breathe again, she lifted her head and drew her fingers out.
“Oh my gosh,” Penny whispered. She exhaled shakily, opening her eyes after a moment. She was greeted with the sight of Finley above her, smiling warmly. The fact that she could see wetness smeared on Finley’s chin made her blush painfully.
“Oh my gosh,” she said again, hiding her face.
“That’s what happens,” Finley laughed. “Lemme go wash it off.”
“I should wash my hands,” Penny said.
“True. C’mon, let’s get to the bathroom.”
“Most of my clothes are in the living room.”
“Oh.” She thought. “One second.” She got off the bed, returning quickly with a button-down shirt and a t-shirt. She handed the button-down to Penny, pulling the t-shirt on. Smiling, Penny put the shirt on and buttoned it. When she stood, it fell halfway down her thighs.
“There we go,” said Finley. “How does cuddling sound after cleaning up?”
“Like the best thing,” Penny replied with a smile. She followed Finley to the bathroom, washing her hands as Finley cleaned her face. They both paused when they heard thunder rolling in the distance, Finley wincing as she left the bathroom. Penny followed, stopping behind the couch when she saw Finley open the front door. Arthur darted inside at once, rubbing against Finley’s legs.
“Thought you’d be at the door, buddy,” Finley said, reaching down to rub his head. “Let’s stay in, okay?”
He crooned at her and headed for the couch. Blushing yet again, Penny hurried to gather their clothes from the couch before he hopped up onto it. He lay down at once in one corner, thumped his tail a few times, and curled up neatly. Penny boggled at him before sputtering with laughter.
“I guess he’s going to stay there,” she said.
“He tends to in the afternoon,” Finley replied. Smiling, she said, “C’mere,” and scooped Penny up into her arms. Penny hid her giggles in Finley’s shoulder as she was carried back to the bedroom and Finley closed the door behind them. The moment they were on the bed, Penny burrowed up against Finley’s right side.
“Good start to the weekend?” Finley chuckled.
“Mm hmm,” Penny hummed, nuzzling against Finley’s shoulder.
“Good. That’s what I was hoping for.” She tangled her fingers in Penny’s hair and leaned down to murmur, “Let me know when you’re up to more, though.”
Penny smiled and kissed Finley’s neck. “I will.”
Apologies for how damn long it took to get this out and that it's shorter than usual. Work stress is past the sun at this point and I'm out of practice with smut scenes. I'm actually treating this as an interlude because there's no real plot advancement to speak of, but the plot will resume in chapter eight.
11/20/17: After quite a while of trying to get another chapter going for this, I realized I got to the point I'd wanted to and I didn't have much more to write. I'm working on new projects, one original story on my wordpress site, and a Bloodborne story that I've just started work on. I have a habit of coming back to characters and worlds I really love, so it's quite likely that I'll wander back this way to write some drabble-y pieces for Penny and Finley.
Thank you all very kindly for reading this! I'm very happy you enjoyed it as much as you did!