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It was really an offhanded comment that started the whole ordeal.

Rae had lived in Stardew Valley for close to three full seasons when the life-changing conversation took place. The old farm her grandfather had willed her was looking brighter and more cheerful day by day; she had a steady stream of income from her chickens and solitary cow, called Ramen.

That wasn't even mentioning the good-sized field of crops she had arranged in front of her house. She'd just pulled in a massive harvest of cranberries, and the corn was due to be ripe within the next few days. Then there were the bushels of wheat stacked beside the shipping bin, and the bok choy in a crate beside that...

She was doing so well that she'd gotten Robin to upgrade her house. It'd gone from a tiny one-room shack (a nice shack, but still) to a two-room house with a proper kitchen and a tiny bathroom. Her first night in her brand-new king-sized bed was like sleeping on a bed of roses. Rae let herself sink into the mattress and just relax. Her sleep was unbroken.

Her 6 AM alarm, however, did just that. With a groan, Rae sat up and slapped the alarm, laying back down in bed and throwing a limp arm over her eyes.

Her extra five minutes did not last. A cold, wet nose prodded itself into her armpit, prompting her to sit up with a yelp. "Bullet!" she yelled, looking down at the massive German Shepherd sitting at her bedside. He panted happily at her, tail thumping hard against her brand-new wooden floor.

Just the sight of the floor cheered her up, and Rae swung out of bed with no further complaints. "Sorry, big boy," she crooned to Bullet, ruffling the fur on his head. "I'll get your breakfast in a moment..."

Sunlight warmed her bare feet as she walked to the dresser that held most of her clothes. From within, she withdrew a light blue blouse, short sleeved and loose-fitting, and a pair of plain navy jeans. The tiny bathroom was difficult to change in, and she made a mental note to look at sewing curtains to hang over the bedroom windows at a later date. Once she finally finished, though, she brushed her teeth and brushed her bronze hair back, using pins to keep any loose strands in place.

Bullet whined at the door and she laughed, following him to the kitchen. "Hungry, huh, baby?" she asked, bending down to retrieve his bag of dog food from within a cupboard. “Yeah, I bet you are, hm?” He danced at her feet as she moved over and poured a generous portion into his doggy dish. She chattered away at him as he dove into his food and she put the bag away, before moving to the refrigerator. Eggs, a loaf of bread, some cinnamon she’d been given from Jodi – French toast sounded delicious.

It took her just a few minutes to finish the food and sit down at the table. Bullet laid down at her feet and rested his head on his paws, staring up at her with soulful brown eyes. She raised one eyebrow and laughed, shaking her head as she devoured her breakfast and went to go get her boots and backpack.

It was a hot day; the sun was blazing, unseasonably warm for late fall. Rae made a disgusted face and walked down the front steps of her new house, Bullet at her side. Before she got to work, she turned around and allowed herself a moment to admire her new house. It was freshly painted too, and looked brand-new. She smiled, ran a hand through her hair, and turned around to get to work.

Sure enough, her corn crop was in, and she made that her first priority of the day. Bullet napped in the shade of a nearby oak tree as she moved through the rows, pulling ears of corn from the stalk. Some of them were nicer than others; she set those aside in a separate pile to ship, and kept the less-nice ones to turn into pickled corn. Odd as she thought it was, it sold well in the city.

After an hour of work, she paused to get a drink of water and surveyed the rest of her farm. It was small right now; she planned to spend the winter setting up a sprinkler system that would hopefully double the size of her farm, allowing her to spend more time focusing on her animals and the artisanal goods she hoped to start churning out. Maybe, given time, she could even look at hiring someone to help her. Farming the land was proving to be a very profitable job indeed – perhaps not as lucrative as her job at Joja Corp had been, but certainly much more rewarding. There was something satisfying about digging her hands into the dirt and planting seeds, watering them, then seeing them grow up to be healthy plants and harvesting the fruits of her labor (literally).

She sighed and wiped the sweat off her forehead. Well, back to work. Her eggplants were looking pretty ripe. Maybe a harvest for them within the next few days…?

She worked until noon, watering her plants, sowing seeds, and pulling up the weeds that tried to encroach on her careful work. After that, she made her way over to the chicken coop constructed to the west of her little farm plot.

Bullet scratched at the door, but she just laughed and shook her head. “Sorry, baby, but you’ll scare my chickens,” she told him, leaning over to scratch his ears. He leaned into her touch; she smiled and told him, “Sit, and stay. I’ll be out in a few minutes.”

With his pitiful whining behind her, Rae stepped into her chicken coop and closed the door securely behind her. Her chickens were clucking softly in the coop, and she smiled as she walked forwards. “G’morning, ladies,” she murmured, leaning forwards to pet Soba’s white feathers. “What have you got for me today?”

She was rewarded with 2 eggs for her trouble, one brown from Udon, one white from Soba. “Good job, ladies,” she told them as she refilled their food trough and walked back to the door. “You want to go outside today?”

The two chickens clucked at her, and she smiled as she stepped outside and opened the door to the coop. The two chickens filed through the door and headed straight for the small pasture of grass that’d been growing all year. Rae whistled to Bullet; he looked at the two chickens with an interested expression, but obediently returned to his mistress’ side. “Good boy,” she told him, before moving to the barn right next door to the coop.

The barn felt cavernous as she stepped inside, milk bucket in hand. Ramen stood at the food trough, chewing ponderously on some hay. She looked up at the farmer and mooed, walking over to headbutt her in the chest. She giggled as she stumbled back a step, scratching behind the cow’s small horns. “G’morning, sunshine,” she said, as Bullet sniffed in a few corners. “Ready to be milked?”

Ramen was in a giving mood, and Rae ended up with a bucket completely full of milk. “What a good cow,” she said, scratching Ramen’s flank. “You want to go eat from the pasture?”

She mooed in response, and Rae whistled for Bullet. The dog followed her to the barn door, where she grabbed the chain that opened it and began pulling, hand over hand. The door rose, allowing sunlight to spill into the barn. Ramen made her escape, and Rae watched as the cow walked down to the pasture to greet the chickens and eat her fill.

“Looks like that’s about it, huh, big boy?” she told Bullet. “I’m gonna go into town and grab some seeds. I’ll be back late. Guard!”

The dog barked back at her, before trotting out to the pasture. He was a good dog; Rae thanked every god there was that Marnie had seen fit to give him to her.

Which reminded her. It was Friday, and the Saloon would be hopping. Rae didn’t drink, but she knew that Abigail, Sam, and Sebastian would all be there to shoot some pool and hang out. She had a standing invitation, one she intended to make good on.

But first – she needed more seeds.

The trek to town was short. She paused briefly to put her jug of milk and two eggs into the shipping bin, along with the nicest corn. The rest of the corn went into a chest that was half-full of produce she intended to make into jellies and preserves (not to mention all the grapes and hops for alcohol-related items – just because she didn’t drink didn’t mean there wasn’t profit to be made in it). With that accomplished, she allowed herself a satisfied look at her little farm and set off into town.

The walk there was warm, but a light breeze cooled her off considerably. She walked past the bus stop and waved over at Pam, who was sitting in the driver’s seat of the bus, smoking a cigarette. Either the woman didn’t notice her or just ignored her. Rae rolled her eyes and continued to walk.

Finally, she reached the town square. Harvey’s clinic was closed, but she made a mental note to herself to make an appointment with him at a later date. Pierre’s shop, however, was open.

She stepped inside, bell on the door jingling, just in time to hear muffled shouting from the back room. Pierre stood at the counter, but kept glancing back at the door that led to his house with a frown on his face. Rae hesitated in the doorway, frowning; her eyes flicked between the door and Pierre.

“Should I come back later?” she asked quietly.

Pierre jumped, head spinning to look at her. “Oh, no, of course not!” he said, pasting a smile on his face. “It’s just fine. Come in, come in. How can I help you today?”

Encouraged, Rae walked forwards. “I just need some seeds today,” she told him. “24 wheat and 16 bok choy should be enough.”

“Of course!” Pierre crouched down behind the counter, and Rae heard the sounds of him shuffling through bags of seeds. She looked over at the door again, biting her lip. Someone was still shouting at someone else. Then there were the sounds of loud, angry footsteps. Rae braced herself for the door to fly open, but instead, a second door slammed closed, close to the door she watched. The noise startled both her and Pierre. The man jolted upright and slammed his head on the underside of the counter. She winced for him as he groaned and stood up, holding her seeds in one hand and rubbing the top of his head with the other. “This should be all of them,” he told her.

She glanced at them quickly, counting, and nodded. “Looks right to me,” she said, and dug in her backpack for her wallet.

“That’ll be 1,040 gold,” Pierre told her, still rubbing the top of his head. Rae winced, but shelled out the cash. She’d make it all back tonight, anyways – she was pretty sure she’d had at least 10 gold-level ears of corn, and each of those went for 75 gold, not to mention the tons of cranberries she’d shipped off yesterday.

“Thank you,” she said as she swept the seeds into her backpack. Before she could leave, though, she hesitated. “Uh… if you don’t mind my asking, is… everything ok?”

Pierre’s shoulders slumped. “Yeah, everything’s fine.”

Rae didn’t buy it, but didn’t push it. “All right. Well, I’ll see you in a few days. Thank you!” She waved as she walked to the door and left.

Outside, she lingered, checking the bulletin board. There was no ‘help wanted’ ad, which meant she didn’t have to do any quests. A glance at the calendar told her it was Robin’s birthday tomorrow; she made a mental note to find something the carpenter liked, something nice. She frowned, closed her eyes, and breathed out, focusing on the woman. Something she liked, something she would love…

The thought drifted into her mind, floating like a dandelion seed on the wind. Noodles topped with red sauce, the picture showed.

“Spaghetti,” she murmured, and raised an eyebrow. “Note to self: stop by the Saloon tomorrow and grab a plate for her.”

That decided, she turned on her heel and made her way towards the beach. She had a few traps to check, and needed more bait for them as well.

She rounded a corner and spotted Elliott, standing on the bridge to the beach, staring off into the distance. A smile touched her lips; she liked the flowery young man. He was gallant and kind, though perhaps too much of a dreamer for her tastes. “Hello,” she called as she approached. “Having a good day?”

Elliott started and turned to look at her. “Ah, Rae!” he said, a gentle smile crossing his face. “Indeed. I was simply enjoying the water. It sounds soothing, does it not?”

Rae paused beside him and leaned on the rail of the bridge, closing her eyes and simply listening. The babble of the water rushing along beneath them was soothing, and she found herself sinking into a peaceful half-trance. The company of the man beside her was equally soothing, and she found herself half-focusing on him.

*Lobster,* she realized abruptly as she opened her eyes. *He likes lobster. Huh. High-end tastes, there, especially for a ‘starving artist’…*

“How were you to occupy your time this fine afternoon?” Elliott asked casually.

“Well, I have traps to check,” she said, watching the water rush past. “Then I was planning on fishing for a while. After that, I was thinking of heading to the Saloon – some of my friends hang out there on Friday nights.” She glanced over at him. “You should visit sometime. I don’t know how good you are at pool…”

“Not very, I’m afraid,” Elliott said, a smile touching his lips. “But I thank you for the invitation. Perhaps I will take you up on that – some other day, however.”

“Suit yourself.” Rae shrugged her shoulders and smiled. “How’s your novel going?”

He sighed. “At a snail’s pace. I find myself unable to find the words I need. I decided a break was in order, so here I stand.”

“A good spot for a break,” she said, smiling. Then – “Well, I won’t disturb you any longer. I’ll see you later, Elliott!” She pushed off from the railing and waved as she walked past, a bounce in her step as she walked towards the beach.

Her pots were all full; one held a crab, the other some shrimp, and the final a broken pair of glasses. Rae made a disgusted face and put the glasses into a trash bag she carried for that purpose. The crab and handful of shrimp went into a catch bag she’d gotten from Willy, the old fisherman. Then she rebaited the traps and stepped into the fishing shack, just a few feet away.

Willy looked up from the fishing pole he was working on as she entered. “Why, if it ain’t Miss Rae!” he said, beaming at her. “What can I help ya with this fine afternoon?”

Rae smiled back and held up her catch bag. “I caught some stuff, if you’d be interested in buying,” she told him. “A crab and some shrimp. Sound good?”

“Indeed it does. Let’s have a look-see, then. Put ‘em here,” he said, gesturing to the fish tank in front of him. Rae obediently deposited her catch into the tank and watched as Willy inspected each of them. “Ah, a fine crab, this one. The shrimp look good enough to eat, too.” He looked up at her, gray eyes twinkling. “I’d be happy to buy ‘em all off ya.”

“Name your price,” Rae said, her own gray eyes dancing as she crossed her arms over her chest. Here it came-

“Best I can do is 160 gold,” Willy said.

Rae scoffed. “160? Don’t toy with me. Those shrimp are oversized. I’d say that’s worth 215 gold at the very least, total.”

“You doubtin’ my expert opinion?” Willy retorted. “Maybe I can do 175, but that’s it.”

“And maybe I can just sell them through the shipping bin. 210.”

“185.”

“200.”

“175.”

“I’m not going any lower than 200,” Rae said. “Take it or leave it.” For all their barter, she was enjoying herself, fighting to keep a smile off her face.

Willy gave her a theatrical sigh and shook her head. “All righty then, fine. 200 gold it is. Yer doing good, learnin’ how to haggle.”

“I’m learning from the best,” she said with a grin as he handed her 200 gold and closed the lid on the tank. The seafood would stay there until someone came by to pick it up. “And besides, I know you’re making profit off that anyway.”

Willy gave her a bark of laughter. “That I will, lass. What say I give you some bait on the house and we go fishing?”

“Sounds excellent!” Rae said, grinning at him. “Lead the way!”

They ended up fishing for hours, just letting the sound of the ocean wash over them. Rae didn’t catch much, but Willy caught several fish and strung them up. “Dinner,” he told her, smiling from behind his beard.

Rae grinned back, swinging her bare feet. Her toes just barely skimmed the water. “I figure you’d get tired of fish, since you live out here on a dock,” she said, turning her attention back to the bobber. “Seafood all day, every day.”

He laughed at that. “Well, whenever I go to the Saloon, I end up getting’ somethin’ a little different,” he said. “Gus’ spaghetti tastes especially good after a long day of fishin’.” He checked the sky. “Speakin’ of which, it’s about time I head over there myself.”

“Is it that late already?” Rae asked, checking her watch. She started. “It is! Oh, no, I’m gonna be late!” She started to reel in her bobber, keeping a close eye on it. It caught on something; she gave it a tug and the seaweed it was caught on came loose. “At least I caught something,” she told the old fisherman with a wry smile as she detangled the seaweed and put it in her wet-bag. “Looks like sushi’ll be on the menu in a few days.”

He grumbled. “Fish ain’t for eatin’ raw,” he said, shaking his head. “Anyways, git along. I gotta lock the store up.”

“Ok. I’ll see you at the Saloon!” Rae called as she took off down the docks at a dead run. The wood protested her flight, and she slowed down to a hasty trot, before starting to jog once she reached the sand. She grimaced as some of it got into her shoes, but kept going.

The Saloon’s lights were all on, a warm and welcoming sight to her. Rae slowed to a stop outside the door, dusted her shirt off, and stepped inside.

The barroom was bustling; music played from the jukebox, while people chattered to each other. Robin and Demitrius danced in front of the fireplace, both laughing and generally having a grand time. A glance around told Rae that Leah was sitting at her own table, nursing a glass of wine and staring pensively into the distance. Wine, then – she tucked that away in her mind for future reference, once she got her little wine business up and running. Shane sat next to the fireplace, grumpy as always. A burst of laughter from her right made her look over; Marnie stood next to Mayor Lewis, talking with him about something.

“Hi, Gus!” she called as she walked to the counter and leaned on it. “Heya, Emily. Good night so far?”

“Busy as always,” Gus told her, smiling. “What’ll it be?”

“Cup of coffee sounds good,” Rae said. “Two, actually. One with two sugars, a touch of cream, the other black please?”

“Sure,” he said, and moved away to get it for her. After only a minute or two he returned, bearing her coffee cups. “Gonna drink all of that?” he asked, raising an eyebrow.

She laughed. “Not even remotely.” 600 gold dropped onto the counter; she tried not to wince at the exorbitant amount. “Thanks, Gus.”

“Not a problem. If you need a refill, it’s on the house,” he told her.

“Thanks!”

Rae scooped up her coffees and walked into the back room. Even before entering, she could hear the clacking of pool balls on the table. She strode through the entrance and beamed at the three people standing or sitting inside.

“Hey, guys!” she said, beaming. “What’s up?”

“Seb’s kicking my ass,” Sam groused. “Again.”

She laughed and walked over to Sebastian, who was lining up for his shot. “Got you something,” she said, after he shot and sunk a pool ball. “Coffee!”

“Hey, I like this,” he said, accepting the cup of black coffee she offered him. “Thanks.”

“What, none for me?” Sam teased.

“Nope, unless you want one of those trashy things,” Rae retorted, jerking her free thumb at the Joja Cola machine behind her. “Still don’t understand how you can like that…”

“Ironically. I like it ironically,” he corrected her, as he leaned over and peered at the pool table.

Rae laughed and retreated to Abigail’s side, sitting down. “You ok?” she asked quietly, taking a sip of her coffee. “You’re awfully quiet.”

Abigail sighed and rubbed her forehead. “Yeah,” she said finally. “Mom and I had a big argument today.”

“I heard,” Rae admitted. “I was buying seeds when you were fighting.”

Abigail winced. “Sorry you had to hear that.”

“No, I don’t care.” Rae nursed her cup of coffee, watching the boys play pool. “If you don’t mind my asking… what was the argument over?”

Abigail was quiet for a long time. Just when Rae opened her mouth to apologize, the other girl sighed and shook her head. “It was about my hair,” she admitted. “Only that. But… she’s been nagging me for weeks now, about my interest in the occult, about my room, about… everything. I dunno, I just… snapped.” She sighed and leaned forwards, resting her head in her hands. “Dammit.”

Rae put her coffee cup down and wrapped an arm around Abigail’s shoulders. “I’m sorry,” she murmured, squeezing her shoulder.

“I just want to get out of there,” Abigail grumbled. “I’m an adult, legally. I just… don’t have a job, so I don’t have money, and there’s no place for me to move.”

Before Rae could think, she spoke. “You could move in with me.”

Abigail laughed a little, wiping her eyes. “Funny, but seriously-“

“I’m dead serious,” Rae said, drawing away and turning to look her friend in the eye. “You could move in with me. I literally just upgraded my house. You’d have to sleep on the couch, maybe help me around the farm, but if you want…”

For a long moment, there was silence between the two. Rae tried to look as honest and sincere as she possibly could, while Abigail scrutinized her face. “You mean it?” she finally asked.

“Yeah, 100 percent,” Rae said. She smiled. “There isn’t too much room, but… hey, it’s something, right?”

Abigail looked at her. “You’re completely serious?” she asked again. “… because I’m actually considering saying yes.”

Rae smiled. “I’m totally sure. You’re more than welcome.”

A slow smile grew on Abigail’s face. “When can I move in?” she asked, looking genuinely excited.

“Can you make it to tomorrow or do you wanna camp out on my couch tonight?” Rae asked, feeling more and more excited by the moment.

Abigail made a face. “Ugh, I don’t want to go home tonight. Can I just camp?”

“Sure!” Rae laughed. “Man, it’s been forever since I had a roommate. Last time was college.”

“What’s this about roommates?” Sam called, as he fired another shot.

“I’m gonna be Rae’s roommate,” Abigail said. Rae laughed at the excitement in her voice. “I’m moving out of my parent’s house!”

“You are?” Sebastian asked, looking between the two of them.

“Yeah,” Rae said, making sure to keep her voice down. “I offered her a place to live. I’m not gonna be anywhere near as strict as her parents are and as long as she doesn’t try summoning demons, I don’t care about the occult.”

“Hey, I don’t summon demons!” Abigail protested, but she was laughing. “I just talk to them!”

“Aw hell no,” Rae said, holding up her hands. “We leave talking to the dead alone! You wanna talk to them, you do it elsewhere, I’m not getting haunted in my own home.”

“Ok, ok, deal,” Abigail said, smile still in place. “My parents go to bed around 10. If we just sneak through my window and grab a few things, I’ll be all set.”

“Ooooh, a stealth operation,” Sam said, grinning. “Count me in.”

“Because that hair is perfect for a stealth operation,” Rae added dryly, gesturing to the bright gold head of hair. Sam pouted while Abigail laughed and Sebastian just smirked. “But seriously – are you completely sure, Abigail? I don’t want to get you in trouble.”

“Rae, I’ve been looking for a way out. You’re offering me a golden ticket.” Abigail gave her a dead serious look. “Of course I’m sure.”

Rae smiled and checked her watch. “Then let’s blow a few hours and go get your shit together,” she said.

~*~*~*~

After a few anxious hours waiting, 10 pm finally arrived. Abigail perked up when the alarm on Rae’s watch went off. “Time?” she asked.

Rae checked her watch. “Yep!” she chirped. “Pool cues down, boys – it’s show time.” Her voice was only slightly sultry as she leaned on Sebastian’s shoulder and batted her eyelashes at Sam. It only lasted for a moment before she and Abigail both burst out laughing. Sebastian, for his part, only shook his head at her antics as he moved away from her, allowing her arm to drop from his shoulders. He and Sam both put their pool cues away and turned to look back at the two girls.

“We’ll have to be quiet to get into my house,” Abigail warned. “I live on the first floor, luckily, but my parents are in the room right next door. I leave my window unlocked, so that shouldn’t be a problem. Ready?”

The two boys and Rae all nodded.

The four waved at Gus as they left, acting as normal as they could. Most of the adults had left, though Marnie and Lewis still talked at a table. Once outside, the four looked at each other.

“Let’s go!” Abigail hissed, and the four of them took off for her house.

They sprinted across the plaza, giggling and shushing each other as they tried to avoid the lights. They took the back way behind Harvey’s clinic, before Abigail flailed one hand at them to slow down. She snuck ahead and pushed at the sash of one window. It slid up; Sam walked forwards and laced his fingers together. Abigail stepped into them and slid through the window with Sam’s boost. Rae followed close behind.

She slid inside and turned around. Abigail had a bag open on her bag and was stuffing clothes into it. “Get my console,” she hissed, and Rae tiptoed over to it, quickly disconnecting the cables from her TV. She gathered up a handful of games and moved over to Abigail’s side, placing them on the bag. The blue-haired girl sorted through them with efficient movements, placing a few in her bag and a few back on the bed. “Console,” she muttered, and Rae placed it in her hands. Abigail fit it in on top and zipped up the bag as quietly as she could. “Think that’s it.”

The two of them tiptoed back to the window and pushed the duffel bag through. Sam and Sebastian caught it and lowered it to the ground, before Rae kicked her feet through and smoothly slid out, landing without a sound on the grass. Abigail followed close behind her and slid the window closed. “Go, go, go!” she hissed. With no other prompting, the group sprinted away from Abigail’s former home and towards Rae’s farmhouse.

Once they reached the bus stop, Sebastian and Sam slowed to a halt. Rae came to a stop as she realized they weren’t with her anymore and turned around. “Going home?” she asked, checking her watch. It was already 10:30.

“Yeah,” Sam said. “We have practice tomorrow at my house, don’t forget, Abby!”

Abigail grinned. “Wouldn’t miss it. I’ll be there.”

“Night, boys,” Rae said, giving them both her warmest smile.

“Night!” Sam said, while Sebastian only gave them a little nod and half-smile.

The two girls turned around and continued walking to Rae’s farm. “It’s not much,” Rae admitted as they finally exited the forest and stepped into the bounds of the farm. “But it’s home to me, and to you as long as you want.”

To Rae, it wasn’t much; some machines surrounding the shipping bin, a few plots filled with crops, a barn and chicken coop in the distance. She glanced over to see Abigail’s reaction. The blue-haired girl just stared at the scene before her, tears gathering in her eyes.

“What’s wrong?!” she asked immediately, feeling panicked. Was it too much? Was she not ready to move out? Was it something else entirely?

Abigail took a deep breath and wiped her eyes. “No,” she said. “Nothing’s wrong. It’s just… it looks like heaven.”

“Well, it ain’t that, I’ll tell you-“ Rae started to say, voice dry as the desert, before she gasped. “My chickens! Ramen! Oh, crap – just drop your stuff in the house, I have to close up the coop and the barn before anything goes after my livestock!” She took off at a run for the coop, dodging the plots of crops in front of her house.

Luckily for her, all three of her animals were securely in their pens. She breathed a sigh of relief as she closed the doors and locked them up tight behind her, before making her way back to her house.

Bullet greeted her in the doorway as she opened the door, dancing around. “Yes, I brought you a friend,” she crooned. “Were you a good boy? Did you let yourself in? What a good boy you are…”

Stifled giggles made her look up. Abigail had followed her instructions and was now observing the scene in front of her. “Do you baby talk all your animals?” she asked, eyes dancing with merriment.

“Of course I do,” Rae told her as she straightened, scratching behind Bullet’s ears. “Easiest way to make an animal like you. It worked with Bullet, didn’t it, my big sweet boy?” He looked up at her, tongue lolling out the side of his mouth in a big grin.

She looked up again just in time to see Abigail yawn. “Bedtime,” she said briskly. “I get up early early, 6 AM. This once I’ll try not to wake you, since it’s so late already, but if you stay here, be prepared to wake up with the sun.”

Abigail groaned theatrically. “All right, I guess,” she said, but she was grinning.

“Bathroom’s in there. It’s small, but it works, so I’m good with it. There’s a second pillow on my bed you can take, and I have a few extra blankets.” Rae rested her hands on her hips and frowned. “Tomorrow will be an interesting day. You do realize…”

“I’ll have to talk to my parents. I know,” Abigail said. Her shoulders slumped at that. “Maybe we’ll get lucky and they’ll agree right away?”

“And maybe pigs can fly,” Rae retorted. At seeing the look of defeat on Abigail’s face, though, she sighed. “But hey, that’s future us’s problem, right?”

“Right.” Abigail smiled again, but it was much more subdued than before. “G’night.”

“Night,” Rae said, and walked towards her bedroom. In the doorway, she paused and looked over at her friend. “For what it’s worth, I’m glad you’re here,” she said, giving her most genuine smile.

Abigail returned it. “Me too,” she said. “Thanks.”

Chapter Text

Rae woke up at 6 AM sharp, thanks to her alarm. She didn’t need the extra push to get out of bed that morning, luckily, and instead ended up moving around Bullet as she got ready for the day. He finally managed to drag himself over to the kitchen when the sound of kibbles rattling in his bowl woke him. Rae laughed as she grabbed a quick breakfast and checked the TV. The weather would be clear tomorrow, and Welwick was predicting her luck would be average. “Good to know,” she muttered as she glanced over at Abigail. The girl was fast asleep, looking like a lump on the couch.

She stepped out into the early dawn light, taking a deep breath of morning air. It was cool and moist from the morning dew on the grass. Her eggplants were ready to be picked, apparently, and she smiled. More income – which reminded her…

She stepped over to her mailbox and opened it. Sure enough, a leather bag lay inside, at the very back of the box. There was a letter as well; she checked it first. It was from Jodi, giving her a new recipe. She made a note to thank Jodi when she saw her next and grabbed the money bag, dumping the gold into her own purse and replacing the bag at the back. A note told her she’d made several thousand gold from the harvest; she smiled and tucked it away.

Her animals were first to work on, and she made her way to the chicken coop. There were two eggs again, one larger than the other, and she tucked them into her bag before letting Soba and Udon out to eat. Ramen greeted her with a happy-sounding moo and a full bucket of milk; she patted the cow’s flank and let it out to graze, barn door opening with a loud din.

The eggplants were next on her agenda, and she got to work. Each plant yielded roughly two or three eggplants and she tucked them away in a basket, crouched in the dirt. Bullet wandered through the rows, sniffing at the plants. She whistled and gestured to her side. He came over and laid down, unfazed as he panted in the sun.

Halfway through the rows, she heard the front door to her house open and looked up. Abigail stood there, rubbing her eyes as she peered out at the cleared plot of land. “Good morning!” Rae called, standing up and dusting off her knees. “Sleep well?”

“Yeah,” she replied, walking down the steps and along the stone paths Rae had set up between plants. “What’re you doing?”

“Picking eggplants,” Rae said proudly. “Look!” She held up the basket and offered it to Abigail.

“Uh… nice,” she said, frowning. “I… don’t actually like eggplants.”

“Oh, neither do I,” Rae said conversationally, as she set the basket down again and knelt. “But I can’t help but be proud of what I’ve grown, y’know?”

“Oh! Oh, yeah, totally.” Abigail smiled and crouched down, touching a leaf. “It’s really cool.”

They stayed quiet for a few more minutes, while Rae continued to pick eggplants and Abigail sat in thought. The air slowly warmed around them as the sun rose; everything was calm and quiet. Rae said nothing, only moving from row to row as she finished.

Finally, she straightened and wiped her forehead with the back of her hand. “Time to water the plants,” she said. “I don’t have a second watering can, sorry.”

“Oh, no, no problem,” Abigail said. “Is there anything I can do to help in another way?”

Rae frowned, considering. “No, not yet. If you’re gonna stay here, I’ve got a lot to teach you. Sorting crops into regular, silver, and gold, how to take care of the animals…”

“I can fight,” Abigail offered. “You know that.”

“I do, and that’ll come in handy this winter,” Rae said firmly. “I intend to get as deep into the mines as I possibly can. I need a lot of resources; I want a fully functional sprinkler system by the end of winter.” She rested her hands on her hips. “For now… ugh. All right. I’ll water the crops and then we’ll sort the eggplants into rankings. And-“ she shook one finger – “don’t forget we still need to see your parents about this whole moving in situation.”

“I was hoping you’d forgotten,” Abigail admitted.

Rae snorted. “Unlikely. I don’t want them yelling that I’ve kidnapped their daughter and banning me from shopping at the store.”

“That’d never happen. Dad needs the customers too badly,” she said.

“That’s true. Won’t stop him from getting angry and passive-aggressive.”

“Isn’t that all parents?”

Abigail laughed at that.

It took Rae an hour and a half or so to water all her plants. By the end of it all, she was pretty exhausted, but managed to trudge back up into her house. Abigail sat at the kitchen table her house had come with, examining a eggplant. She looked up when Rae entered and frowned. “Are you ok? You look pretty tired…”

“Yeah, I’ll be fine.” Rae walked to the kitchen and grabbed a glass, filled it full with water from the sink, and drained it dry. “Whew. Much better.” She grabbed a field snack from one of her cupboards and walked over to the table, leaning against it heavily. “All right. Sorting crops. The smallest ones are the ones that are usually just regular.” To demonstrate, she pulled out a eggplant that fit in the palm of her hand with room to spare. “If they’re a little above average size-“ and she found a second, slightly larger eggplant, that she could curl her fingers around and they wouldn’t meet at the top- “they’re silver rank. Finally, gold rank crops are the ones that are even bigger.” She pulled out a fairly massive eggplant and held it out. This one took two hands to hold. “Make sense?”

“Yeah. So anything close to the benchmark you made?” Abigail asked, carefully inspecting one eggplant.

“Yes.” Rae ate her field snack and began working, sorting the eggplants with a dexterous hand. Abigail was far slower than her, but Rae’d expected this and was patient, assisting where she needed to. By the end of it, Rae checked her work and nodded. “Looks good! Ahhhhh… only thing is this one-“ and she tapped a eggplant- “is a little small for silver status. I’d put it in with the regulars.”

“Ok.” Abigail rubbed her forehead. “This is hard.”

“Trust me, you get the hang of it quick,” Rae said dryly, before straightening. “Now. I’m going to drop the gold and silver rank crops in the shipping bin, and then we’re going to town to talk to your parents.”

“Do I have to?” Abigail asked, distinctly not whining.

Rae just gave her a Look as she swept the eggplants back into the basket and walked to the door. “C’mon. Let’s go.”

Abigail dragged her feet the entire way to town. She dawdled watching the leaves fall from the trees, she wandered off the path several times, and Rae finally got tired of her obvious reluctance to move. She linked an arm through Abigail’s and tugged hard, giving her a raised eyebrow when she started. “Dragging your feet won’t help,” she said. “Do you want me to be there, or do you want to talk to them alone?”

Abigail hesitated. “Alone,” she decided.

“Ok. I’ll be in the Saloon, I have to get something for a birthday.” Rae gave her arm a squeeze and released as they reached the town plaza. “I’ll come looking for you in 20 minutes.” Then she stepped away and waved as she walked towards the Saloon.

Gus stood at the bar, wiping it down. He looked up, startled, as Rae stepped inside, brushing her hair out of her face. “Good afternoon,” he said, smiling. “How’re you?”

“Good!” Rae said, grinning in return. “Funny question – do you have a plate of spaghetti I could buy?”

Gus raised an eyebrow. “Well, you’re in luck- I put the noodles on not half an hour ago. They should be ready soon. Have a seat while I put a plate together.”

“Great!” Rae sat down on a barstool. “Can I get it to-go, by the way?”

“Sure, sure,” Gus called from the kitchen.

Rae kicked her feet as she sat at the bar, fingers drumming on the counter. Abigail must’ve been talking to her parents by now; she couldn’t help but wonder how their conversation was going.

The door opened behind her; she started and spun on her stool. Emily walked in, surprise flickering across her face. “Rae!” she cried, smiling. “What brings you here?”

“The spaghetti, of course,” she said, smiling in return, before she started. “Oh! I need a cup of black coffee, too, to-go as well.” A wince flickered across her face. “Sorry. I know you only just showed up…”

“No, no, that’s usually the first thing I do anyways,” Emily said, waving one hand at her as she walked around the counter. “Plain black?”

“Yep,” Rae said. “You know me so well!”

“Know you, or know Sebastian?” Emily asked, eyes dancing as she put the coffee pot on and turned to look at Rae, crossing her arms over her chest.

Rae laughed. “You got me. He likes coffee and doesn’t take care of himself. It’s my way of making sure he knows he’s got friends.”

“Just friends?” Now she was fishing, and both women knew it.

“Just friends,” Rae said, and gave Emily a bland smile.

The coffee pot had finished chugging away, and Emily poured her a Styrofoam cup full of coffee. She popped the lid on it and slid it across the counter to her. “That’ll be 300 gold,” she said.

“Oh, I got a plate of spaghetti too. Gus was getting it for me,” Rae explained. She hid a sigh when Emily’s face lit up.

“Oooh, also for Sebastian?” she crowed, leaning on the counter and waggling her eyebrows.

Rae fixed a smile in place and shook her head. “Actually, no. It’s Robin’s birthday and I know she likes the spaghetti here a lot, so…” She shrugged. “Also, I want to talk about expanding my chicken coop.”

“Aw, that’s sweet!” Emily said, as Gus walked out of the back with a container in his hands. “That’ll be 540 gold for a cup of coffee and a plate of spaghetti.”

“Nothing for yourself?” Gus asked, a frown touching his face.

Rae shook her head. “No, nothing. I’m just fine.” She beamed at them as she gathered her two containers in her arms and stood up, walking towards the door. “Bye, you two!”

“Bye!” they chorused, as the door closed behind her.

Rae walked down the steps and paused for a moment, closing her eyes and taking a few deep breaths to calm herself. One good thing about living in a big city that she missed was the complete lack of gossip. Here, in a small town, a new arrival and bachelorette was no end of entertainment for the entire town. She’d been dealing with it well, but… sometimes she missed her privacy.

She rolled her shoulders and set off towards Pierre’s General Store. The air was cool and crisp, leaves drifting down from the trees. She breathed in the air, closed her eyes, and smiled.

“Whoa!”

Rae skidded to a halt at the familiar voice. “Alex!” she cried, eyes wide as she instinctively held on tighter to her take out containers. “Oh my goodness, I’m so sorry, I didn’t realize you were there-“

“Walking with your eyes closed will do that,” he said, apparently solemn. She stared at him for a moment, before something danced in his eyes and she burst out laughing.

After she regained her solemnity somewhat, balancing both containers while wiping tears from her eyes, she looked up at him. “Hello,” she told him, grinning. “It’s good to see you!”

“Good to see you too.” Alex still had the gridball in his hands, and he turned it over absently as she watched. “Where’re you off to?”

“Robin’s house. It’s her birthday today.” Rae tapped the top of the box with her free hand. “Got some of Gus’ spaghetti as a surprise!”

“And the cup?” Alex asked curiously.

“Myself,” she lied. “Have to stay awake while we talk over farm details somehow.”

She turned at the sound of a door opening and started. Abigail was leaving the store. “Sorry, gotta go catch up with her,” Rae told him apologetically. “I’ll see you later, ok?” She gave him a smile.

“Sure thing. See you around,” he told her, still spinning the gridball in his hands.

She turned around and raised a hand, calling, “Abby! Wait up!”

Abigail turned towards the sound of her voice, one hand wiping away under her eyes. Rae’s own eyes widened and she jogged over, careful not to spill anything. “Abby, hey, what’s wrong?” she asked, reaching out her free hand to grasp the other girl’s shoulder.

Abigail sniffed and shook her head. “It’s fine. They said I could stay.”

Rae wrapped her arm around Abigail’s shoulders. “Walk with me and tell me what happened,” she said softly. “It was more than just that, wasn’t it?”

She hesitated before nodding. “Yeah,” she admitted, as they began walking towards the stairs that led up to the community center. “They’re fine with it, but… they’re treating it like a joke.”

“What do you mean?” Rae asked as they climbed the stairs.

She sniffed again; Rae extracted her arm from around Abigail’s shoulders and dug in her pocket, producing a handkerchief and handing it over. Abigail took it and wiped her nose. “I told them that I was moving in with you and they just… laughed it off. They said that it sounded like fun, but they’d keep my room the way it was when I decided I was tired of farm life and wanted to come home. They’re treating it like a vacation, more than anything…”

“Well, it certainly won’t be a vacation,” Rae said, dry as a bone. “You’ve seen it yourself – I work for my living.”

Abigail sniffed and laughed at the same time. “You aren’t kidding. You do all that work every single day?”

“Yep!” Rae said. “Day in, day out. Buuuuut-“ and she wagged one finger- “I’m going to be mining basically every day this winter, trying to get resources for a sprinkler system. That’ll both cut down on my labor and increase the amount of crops I can grow. That, in turn, will increase my profits and allow me to expand my farm… It’s a cycle. Never seems to end.” A smile touched her lips. “But I love it. This life? The one I’ve built for myself? Is the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.”

“I want that too,” Abigail admitted. “Some life where I’m actually creating stuff. I’m taking courses for college online, but otherwise…” She shook her head. “I’ve got nothing.”

“Well, stick around. We’ll change that.” Rae wrapped her arm around Abigail’s shoulder again and squeezed. “I’ll teach you everything I know about farming. We’ll learn together, huh?”

“Sure,” she said.

“Now, I want a few ducks, and Marnie has said I need a bigger coop for her to give me any ducks. Ergo, I need a bigger coop. So! Let’s go sort out some details.”

~*~*~*~

The mountain walk up was quiet. Rae took her time, though she could’ve climbed it much faster than she did. Abigail had to stop a few times, breathing heavily and attempting to rest her legs. She was patient, pausing when she needed to and not saying anything.

After half an hour, Robin’s house came into view; Rae smiled. “Ok, I need to hand over the coffee to Sebastian and talk with Robin for a little. You don’t have to stick around, I’m not your mom.” She grinned at Abigail and rolled her shoulders, walking to the front door with a spring in her step.

“Hey, Rae!” Robin called as soon as she stepped inside, a smile crossing her face. “Good to see you!”

“Good to see you too,” Rae said, giving her a genuine smile in return. “Happy birthday!” She crossed to the counter and placed the plate of spaghetti on it, neatly scooping the coffee off the top. “I brought you lunch and a job.”

“It’s my lucky day!” Robin exclaimed, laughing as she opened the container. Her jaw dropped; she looked up at Rae with wide eyes. “How’d you know this is my favorite?!” she demanded, as Abigail stepped inside.

“Oh, just a lucky guess,” Rae said, batting her eyelashes.

Robin grabbed the plastic fork and gestured for her to follow as she stepped around the counter. “Now, what’s this about a new project?” she asked, walking down a hallway and towards the kitchen.

“Yeah. I want to get some ducks on the farm, but Marnie said she won’t sell any to me unless I have a bigger coop.” Rae gave a theatrical pout, crossing her arms over her chest as she followed. “Personally, I’m offended – oh, good afternoon, Seb.”

Sebastian turned around from the fridge, looking at her as he ran a hand through his hair. He was still dressed in sleep pants and his hair was a mess, but his typical hoodie was in place as usually. “Hey,” he said, sounding groggy.

“I brought you coffee,” she said, holding up the cup.

“Thanks,” he told her, reaching out to take it.

“Aw, that’s so sweet of you!” Robin said, beaming at them. The two of them exchanged looks when she turned around to sit; Sebastian rolled his eyes, while Rae gave him her absolutely deadpan stare. By the time she’d turned around, the two younger adults were back to their usual expressions. “Now, you wanted to expand your chicken coop?”

“Yeah,” Rae said as she sat down. “Oh, yeah, Seb, Abby’s here too. She should be in the front room. Don’t know if she’ll stick around, but she’s here.”

“Gotcha,” Sebastian said as he took his coffee and left.

Rae sat down with a heavy sigh and rolled her shoulders. “I’m thinking I want a bigger food trough, so I can have more chickens or ducks.”

“Ok,” Robin said, as she ate a mouthful of spaghetti. She chewed, swallowed, then added, “I can put in an incubator too…”

~*~*~*~

They talked for roughly an hour, sketching out a game plan for the new chicken coop. By the end of it, they’d decided on a payment plan and how Rae would provide the lumber. “I’ll stack it by the coop tonight,” she promised as she stood up. “See you tomorrow!”

“See you, Rae,” Robin said as she stood. “Pleasure doing business with you!”

“Agreed!” Rae called, and walked down the hallway.

She trotted down the steps to the basement, where Sebastian lived. It was dead silent in the room, but when she knocked, Sebastian called, “Come in.”

She stepped inside, looking over to see Sebastian at his computer, typing away. Abigail sat cross legged on the floor against the table, reading one of his comic books. Both looked up as she stepped inside and closed the door behind her, before slumping against it and making a face. “You’d think she’d figure it out by now that I’m not interested in you,” she told Sebastian in a whisper, rolling her eyes. “Emily gave me the same treatment when I grabbed your coffee for you.”

Sebastian shook his head silently, before taking another sip of the afore-mentioned coffee. “Thanks again,” he said.

“You doing ok, Abby?” Rae asked, turning her attention to the young woman.

Abigail looked up and nodded. “Yeah. Just reading this.” She held up the comic book; Rae smiled and walked over to sit beside her, back to the table. She closed her eyes and smiled, listening to the silence as Sebastian typed and Abigail turned the pages of the book.

For a while, the room was completely silent. Rae’s fingers twitched as if playing music on an invisible instrument; Abigail read; Sebastian coded and drank his coffee. Finally, though, Rae checked her watch and started.

“It’s late. I have to get back to the farm,” she said and stood up, arching her back. It popped a few times and she grimaced. “You wanna come now or later, Abby?”

Abigail hesitated, before putting the comic book on the table and standing. “Now. Not sure I want to find out what’s living in the forest between here and the farm.”

“Some squirrels, a rabbit or two. The slimes stick to the mines, as far as I can tell.” Rae shrugged. “It’s safe enough.”

“Still, I think I’m gonna go with you,” she said briskly. “See ya, Sebastian.”

“Bye,” he muttered, not looking up from his screen. Rae rolled her eyes, a smile touching her lips as they turned and walked to the door.

Demetrius was just walking in as they climbed the stairs. “Hey,” he said with a cheerful smile. “Good to see you two.”

“Hello,” Rae said politely. Abigail only smiled briefly. “Have a good walk?”

“Yes, I did,” he said. “Have you seen Maru today?”

“No, we haven’t. Sorry,” Rae said with a shrug. “But we have to leave now. It’s getting late. We’ll see you around!” She waved and passed him, Abigail sticking close to her side as they slid out the front door.

Once outside and well on their way home, Rae let out a breath. “He’s nice, but I can’t help but remember how he treats Sebastian,” she said grimly.

“Same,” Abigail agreed, rolling her shoulders as they walked along the forested path. “He just… ignores him. I don’t understand how he can just ignore one of his kids…”

“Well, technically Sebastian isn’t his,” Rae said. “Still, it’s no excuse to not at least TRY to be a parent… Have you noticed he never talks about Sebastian at all? I’ve never heard him say a single thing about him. It’s always about Maru, and Maru notices it too.”

“What does she think?” Abigail asked. “I never really talk to her.”

“She doesn’t know what to do about it,” Rae admitted. “At least, I don’t think she does. Sebastian blames her for Demetrius ignoring him. You’ve noticed how strained their relationship is.”

“Relationship? What relationship?” Abigail quipped. Rae burst out laughing. Abigail grinned, and after a moment joined in.

Finally their laughter subsided. Rae wiped her eyes. “That shouldn’t be funny, it really shouldn’t, but it really honestly was,” she admitted, grinning.

“It was cruel, but honest,” Abigail said. “That’s probably part of what made it so funny.”

“Agreed,” Rae said, as a set of stone stairs appeared in front of them. “There we are – these stairs lead to the farm. I have to move some wood to the chicken coop, but it’s only-“ she checked her watch again- “5 PM. I’ve got time.”

“Need some help?”

Rae hesitated. “It’s hard work,” she said. “If you feel up to it, I certainly won’t say no.”

“I can try,” Abigail said, shrugging her shoulders. “I’m stronger than I look.”

“I know you are,” Rae said, looking forwards as they walked into the farm area. “Still, you don’t have to-“

“This is how I’m paying rent now,” she said, laughing. “Just let me help, dammit!”

Rae laughed as well and held up her hands in a joking fashion. “Ok, ok, I will!” Then she dropped her hands and turned towards the woodpile beside her house. “Here. We need 400 pieces of wood and 150 pieces of stone.” She gathered an armful and counted it quickly, before nodding. “Ok. Each trip is 10 pieces of wood, times 2 for the two of us- 20 trips each. Shouldn’t be too bad. Stone will be worse, because it’s so heavy and unwieldy.” She glanced over at the pile of stone behind her house and sighed. “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”

“Agreed,” Abigail said as she picked up 10 pieces of wood and got to work.

It took them roughly 45 minutes to move all the wood over to stack beside the coop. The stone took longer, as they could only carry between 4 or 5 pieces at a time. Between the two of them, it took them roughly 15 trips each to get all the stone over. By the end of it all, Abigail was panting from exertion and Rae felt winded. She checked her watch and smiled. “All done before 8. I’m thinking quick dinner, shower, and bed. What about you?”

“That sounds amazing,” Abigail said wistfully. “What’s for dinner?”

Rae frowned in thought. “Hm. Uh… Depends?”

“On what?”

“On what I have in my fridge?” She ran a hand through her hair, thinking hard. “I think I’ve got some fresh fish I caught yesterday, I have some vegetables… I think I may have a baguette I made a few days ago?”

“Do you ever actually eat anything?” Abigail asked.

Rae lifted one shoulder. “Occasionally. Usually I just have a field snack or two and I’m all set.”

Abigail stared at her.

“… what?”

“Why’d you never say anything?!” Abigail exploded. “You could’ve told someone and we would’ve kept you fed!”

Rae raised her hands up, palms flat and facing away from her. “I mean, I do eat regular meals on occasion!” she said hastily. “I eat breakfast… most days…”

Abigail let out a theatrical groan, slapping her hand to her forehead. “I can’t believe you,” she said, eyes looking up towards the sky.

“Hey, I’m doing just fine!” Rae protested. “Go ahead and head inside, see what I’ve got to eat. I’ve got to put the animals up and get stuff into the shipping bin.” She waved the other girl off and walked to the chicken coop, poked her head inside, and counted chickens. Soba and Udon were both in place, feathers fluffed as they tried to sleep. Bullet poked his head up at the sight of her and stood up, trotting over to stand in front of her and dig his nose into her hands. She smiled and scratched behind his ears, before stepping aside and letting him out as she closed the hutch door and the main door both.

Ramen was asleep as well, and she closed the barn door as quietly as possible. Bullet danced at her feet as she headed back towards the house, wiping the sweat off her face. The sun had completely set; the air was cooling around them, bit by bit. She inhaled and exhaled. The lack of smog alone made her smile as she climbed the steps to the front door and let both herself and Bullet inside.

Abigail was in the kitchen, working on something at the counter. “What’re you up to?” Rae asked as she closed the door and pulled her boots off, placing them by the front door.

“Making food,” she said absently. “I may hate cooking, but Mom made sure I can cook. Do you like sashimi?”

Rae made a face and shook her head. “Not really. Had a bad experience with raw fish one time and never really liked it again.” She shrugged. “I can bake some, though. I think there’s a salmon in there.”

“There is, actually.” Abigail pointed to the fish, thawing in the sink. “You want it baked?”

“Sure.” Rae rolled up her sleeves as she walked over and washed her hands, before getting to work.

Abigail was a pro at making salad, as Rae soon found out. She worked quickly and efficiently, using some of the frozen greens Rae had kept from the spring to make the greens and a few splashes of vinegar for dressing. Meanwhile, Rae filleted the fish (something she’d learned from Willy) and stuck it in the oven. “That should bake for half an hour,” she said with a sigh. “How fast do you shower?”

“Not very,” Abigail admitted. “I usually take a while.”

“Well, if it’s ok with you, I’ll go first. I usually don’t take too long, and then you can take your time while I plate up stuff.”

“Sounds good. Go right ahead.” Abigail smiled at her as Rae went to the bedroom and closed the door behind her.

Showering only took a few minutes; she scrubbed her hair thoroughly, wrinkling her nose in disgust at the dirt and grease in it. Once finished, though, she toweled off and pulled on her sweatpants and an old tee shirt, fluffy socks on her feet, before making her way back out into the main part of the house. “Your turn,” she said cheerfully, walking over to the cabinet and pulling out the baguette she’d stashed there. “Should only need another twenty minutes.”

“Got it.” Abigail vanished into the bedroom; after a minute, she heard the shower start up. Rae took a deep breath, let it out, and turned around to lean against the counter.

“What am I doing, huh?” she asked Bullet softly. The German Shepherd stood up at the sound of his mistress’ voice and padded over to her, burying his nose in her side. She scratched his head, staring blankly at the opposite wall. “What the absolute hell am I doing…”

He whined at the bleak tone in her voice. She sighed out heavily and sat down, back sliding down along the cabinets before her butt hit the tile. Bullet laid down as well and put his front legs across her lap, resting his chin on them.

Rae closed her eyes and buried her fingers in Bullet’s fur. “Did I do the right thing, baby?” she whispered. “Maybe I just shouldn’t have said anything. She’ll be leaving soon anyways. So will Sebastian, and Alex, and probably Sam, maybe Maru, all the people my age.” Her eyes squeezed shut. “God, I’m an idiot, huh, big boy.”

He whined and nosed her stomach. A weak smile touched her lips. “Hey, though,” she murmured. “At least I have you.”

A timer on her new oven dinged. She sighed and patted Bullet’s head, before moving it off her lap and standing up. He scrambled to his feet as well, dancing as she walked to the oven and pulled on a mitt Robin had thrown in with the house upgrade. “Let’s see, is it done?” she asked him as she opened the oven and looked at the fish. “Looks done to me, huh?”

Bullet barked. She laughed and placed it on the counter, before finding two plates in one of the cabinets and starting to plate up.

The door to her bedroom opened; she turned to look. Abigail wore a very similar outfit to her own; her hair was up in a black towel Rae didn’t recognize. “Ready to eat?” Rae asked, waving briefly.

“Yeah,” Abigail said, and promptly yawned. “Man, I’m tired though.”

“I am too,” Rae said. “Eat and sleep, that’s what I’m planning to do.”

“Sounds good to me.” Abigail took her plate and a fork over to the table. Rae silently thanked herself for getting a second chair with the house upgrade. “What’re you doing tomorrow?”

Rae sighed as she gathered her plate up and walked to the second chair. “Hm,” she said, as she took a big bite of fish and smiled. “Well, the yams looked like they were just about ready for harvest, so I’ll have to harvest and replant them all tomorrow. I’m pretty sure some of the multiple-harvest plants are going to be ready in a day or two, as well.” Her eyes widened comically. “That’s fun to deal with. Several harvests on the same day? Whew.”

Abigail laughed. “So what you did today is what you do every day?” she asked.

Rae shrugged one shoulder. “Eh, more or less. Early in the season, I have to wait for everything to grow, so profits are slow. I start the season with a net loss, usually, just because seeds cost so much. Within the second week or so I start making money again. Plus, I have my animals – it’s a guaranteed source of income every day.” She frowned. “I’m literally putting you to sleep.”

Abigail started from where she’d begun to slide off her hand. “What? No, it’s interesting, I’m just-“ and she yawned so big Rae wondered if her face was going to split in half.

Rae laughed. “Finish eating and then go to sleep,” she said. She didn’t need to tell the other girl twice; Abigail managed to clean her plate and put it in the sink before falling face-first on the couch and passing out. A smile danced across Rae’s lips as she quietly cleaned the plates and put the rest of the food back in the fridge. That accomplished, she brushed her teeth and pulled her hair up, before curling up under the covers and falling asleep almost instantly.

Chapter Text

The sound of someone hammering away at something woke Rae up at 6 AM, just as her alarm went off. She turned it off quickly and got up, still in her pajamas as she went to the front door and looked outside.

Robin was already at work, hammering away at the chicken coop. Rae winced; her chickens would certainly not be pleased with the early wake-up call. She closed the door as stealthily as she could, willing the woman not to notice, and went back to change into her usual clothes. Blue blouse, dark jeans; she threw in a cream sweater for a change, made of thick yarn. It felt like a warm hug. She smiled and snuggled deeper into the wool, before Bullet’s nose in her hip made her start and turn towards the kitchen.

She grabbed a quick breakfast of leftover pancakes and pulled on her boots while checking the weather. It was supposed to rain tomorrow; she frowned. Her chickens would NOT be happy with that at all. She’d be lucky if she got eggs the next few days, while Robin worked on expanding the coop.

With that in mind, she pulled on her boots and walked outside, standing on the front porch for a minute and taking the view in. The early morning dew had gradually begun turning to frost over the past few weeks, as the temperature dipped lower and lower every night. The sun would melt it fast enough, but it was just another reminder that winter was approaching at a rapid pace. Rae set her shoulders and sighed, before walking down the front steps. Maybe she should spend a little time cutting the long grass that encroached on her plots; she could use the hay for the animals this winter…

Robin straightened, wiping her forehead with the back of her hand, and noticed Rae as she walked towards the field. “Good morning!” she called with a bright smile, waving one hand.

“Good morning,” Rae said in return, smiling. “How long have you been here?”

Robin shrugged and checked her watch. “I was up at 5 and showed up around 5:45,” she said. “I only started working at 6, though.”

“You don’t have to be here this early!” Rae said, looking scandalized. “I don’t need this done in two days! Just before winter!”

Robin laughed and rolled her shoulders. “Don’t you worry about it,” she said. “I’m used to getting up this early.”

“If you say so,” Rae said, not sounding convinced. She walked past the woman and stopped at the door to the coop. “Is it safe for me to go in?”

“Yeah, it should be,” Robin said. “I haven’t started working on the structure itself yet.”

“Thanks!” Rae opened the door and stepped inside. Sure enough, her chickens weren’t happy about the early wakeup call. She sighed and murmured an apology as she opened the coop door. A rush of cool air made her wince and close it again. “Maybe after it’s warmed up a bit I’ll let you out,” she murmured. “Too cold for little chickens to be outside right now…”

She gathered the two eggs and tucked them away in her bag, before leaving the coop and walking to the barn next door. Ramen mooed at her as she walked inside, taking the milk pail off its hook beside the door. After a quick round of milking, Rae opened the barn door and allowed her cow to walk down to the field of grass. Bullet joined her inside, tail wagging as he nudged his way under her hand. She scratched behind his ears absently, standing still for just a moment.

Then she shook herself and walked out the barn door, following the stone path back to her field of crops. The plot for yams was directly in front of her; she came to a stop and knelt. Sure enough, the one she tugged out of the ground was ready for shipping. She set it aside on the stone and got to work, digging them up one by one.

After half an hour or so, she had a stack of yams in varying sizes sitting on the pathway. She glanced over at them and sighed; they’d require scrubbing before she could send them off. She allowed herself a moment’s respite before standing up with a groan and going to look in one of her chests. Sure enough, a handful of seed packets at the bottom of the chest turned up some wheat and bok choy seeds. They were fast growers; there was a very good chance she’d be able to harvest them before winter properly rolled in.

She moved back to the patch of land and began working, tucking the seeds into the soil. Bullet joined her, having successfully sniffed around the property. He laid down on the path and watched her work, head on his paws. She just smiled and kept working.

The plot wasn’t all that big, but it still took a good chunk of time to sow all the seeds. Finally she was finished and stood up, trying not to wipe her sweat on her sweater. Bullet scrambled to his feet as well, tail wagging; Rae laughed and shook her head. “Not done yet, big boy,” she said, scratching his head. “Still have to water allll these plants and let the chickens out to eat.”

While he may not have understood everything she said, Bullet certainly understood “not yet”. He whined pitifully, giving her his biggest brown-eyed soulful look. She laughed again, shaking her head at his antics. “Maybe when Abby wakes up, if you ask her nicely,” she told him in a conspiratorial whisper.

She walked to the porch and grabbed her watering can off the railing, before moving to the small pond to get some water. Can full, she straightened and walked over to the first plot – her cranberry bushes. There were only a few cranberries, not enough to merit a full harvest. Rae hoisted her watering can and got to work.

Farming chores took a lot longer than she’d first expected when she’d first moved to Stardew Valley. Oh, of course she’d expected early mornings and long hours, but the actual extent of those hours was an unknown quantity. Her first day, even just sowing a tiny patch of turnip seeds had taken her over an hour – just to hoe the ground, plant the seeds, and water them. With time, in the many months she’d been here, she’d cut that time down to a few hours to do her entire plot of land.

Reminded, she finished watering the last row of crops and walked back to her mailbox. Sure enough, the little leather bag was full of coins. She pulled it out and dumped the coins into her hands, counting through them. A little over 1000 gold for all the eggplants she’d shipped – not bad. In addition, she still had to pick out the bad ones from the average group to make into pickles, and ship the decent ones.

It was now roughly 10 o’clock, and Rae turned to look as the front door opened. Abigail was dressed and looked ready to go, bouncing down the front steps. “G’morning,” she chirped to Rae, beaming at her. “Ready to go?”

Rae laughed a little. “Well, you missed most of the fun,” she admitted. “I’ve already got the yams picked, crops replanted, and everything watered. However-“ and she gestured over at the stack of yams still on the pathway – “you’re just in time to sort yams with me.”

Abigail let out a theatrical groan. Rae couldn’t help but laugh. “C’mon. It’s not that bad, honestly. You’ll get better with time.” She grabbed a reusable bag off the porch and walked down the path to the stack of yams, Bullet at her side. Abigail followed, if somewhat reluctantly, and helped her gather the yams into the bag.

Rae glanced over at the coop and started. “Oh, give me just a moment,” she said, and jogged over to open the chicken’s entrance to the coop. Almost immediately Soba and Udon were out the door and on their way to the field of grass. Rae rolled her eyes and laughed as she straightened, resting her hands on her hips.

Robin was inside the coop, working, but at the sound of Abigail’s voice she poked her head out the door. “Oh, hello, Abigail!” she called, smiling at them. “I didn’t know you were here!”

“Yeah,” Abigail said, waving briefly. “I’m…” She hesitated, glancing at Rae in desperation.

“She’s staying with me for a bit, getting a taste of farm life,” Rae said, slipping in to take point. “If she likes it, she’s considering moving in permanently.” She waved her hand lazily. “But eh, it’s no rush.”

Abigail shot her a grateful look as Robin beamed. “How nice!” she said, sounding genuine – but then, everything Robin did was genuine. “I should try and get Sebby over here more. The sun would do him good.”

Rae turned around to walk back towards Abigail and widened her eyes to comical size for just a moment. Abigail’s lips twitched.

“Need anything?” Rae called over her shoulder as she picked up the sack of yams. “I’m just going to be on the front porch, so if you do-“

“Nope,” Robin called. “I’ve got everything I need. Thanks for the offer, though!”

Rae smiled and gestured for Abigail to follow her. The two of them sat down on the front porch steps, and Rae upended the bag on the wooden deck between them. “These have to be cleaned, too,” she said. “They’re a bit more labor-intensive, but they sell for good money.”

Abigail sighed and picked up a yam. “Example?” she asked and handed the yam over.

Rae accepted it and turned it over in her hands, examining it. “Silver rank,” she decided, and placed it down on the porch. “This is your average benchmark, this is your gold.” She picked two up and wiggled them around for Abigail to see, before placing them down as well. “Get it? Got it? Good.” She winked at the other girl and got to work.

For the next half hour, the two sat in silence, sorting yams. Rae worked quickly, fingers dexterous as she dusted off dirt and inspected each tuber. Abigail was slower, but just as steady. Bullet lay at the foot of the stairs, watching the livestock move around in the tall grass. The continuous sound of hammering from the chicken coop lulled them into a calm state. Rae paused for just a moment to take in the atmosphere.

This… this was nothing like anything she’d ever expected. When she’d left her corporate job at Joja Corp, she’d had no idea what to expect. She was a city girl, born and raised; the only bit of gardening she’d ever done was a window-box in her apartment. Moving here – some days she still wondered whatever had possessed her to quit, pack up all her wordly belongings, and drive all the way across the country to a strange town she’d only ever seen once.

Her luck, so far, had held. She could never have imagined this; the friendly townsfolk, the beautiful town, the farm itself. Here, peace reigned supreme; she felt calmer than she had in months, if not years. The spark in her chest that had burned out was returning. Rae closed her eyes and sighed out in relief.

“You all right?” Abigail asked, glancing over at her.

“Hm? Yeah,” Rae said. “Just thinking.” She returned her attention to the yams, only to find the pile was gone. “All done?”

“Yep. While you were spacing out, I was working,” Abigail said, voice gently teasing. “What now?”

“Now-“ and Rae shoved herself to her feet – “we wash the yams by rank and send them off. I will keep a few, though – have you ever had glazed yams?”

“No?” Abigail said cautiously. “Are they good?”

“Are they good – ha!” Rae scoffed. “They’re better than candy, I’ll tell you that.”

“Really?” One eyebrow rose. “That’s some high praise.”

“It’s not unwarranted,” Rae said, scooping up the gold rank yams into the bag again and walking down the stairs. “Follow me.”

Abigail followed, leaving the silver and average crops behind. Rae gestured her over to a large metal tub beside the house, full of clear, clean water. “Now we wash these,” she said, and upended the bag into the tub.

Abigail yelped as water splashed everywhere, dodging the majority of the water. Rae danced back, grinning as she swatted water off her sweater. “Give me a warning next time!” Abigail demanded, shaking her head.

Rae stripped off her sweater and rolled up her sleeves. “Come help me scrub these,” she said, jerking her head at the tub. “After this, we’ll set them out to dry, wash the others – then, I need some raw ingredients from town.”

“From… Dad’s?” Abigail asked warily.

“Yeah,” Rae said. She paused in scrubbing the yams to look at the blue-haired girl. “If you’re not comfortable going, I understand.”

Abigail knelt beside her and began to help. “It’s fine. I’ll go. I’ll be fine.”

Rae glanced over at her. “You sound more like you’re convincing yourself than you’re convincing me,” she murmured.

“I can do it.” Abigail scrubbed at the yam in hand a little harder.

Rae nudged her elbow. “We don’t want to peel the yam,” she said, gently chiding. “Let’s leave that to the people who buy it.”

“Oh. Sorry.” Abigail went red and calmed down. Rae nudged her shoulder with her own and refocused on the task at hand.

Another hour went by, wherein they washed and dried the harvest. Rae pushed herself to her feet, groaning at the stiffness in her knees. “All right, into the shipping bin with these and then –“ she checked her watch – “I think a trip to town is in order.”

“Sounds good.” Abigail scooped up an arm of yams and walked over to the shipping bin. Rae followed and kicked the lid up, leaning forwards and placing the yams in the bottom of the bin. The eggs and the milk ended up in the crate beside the yams; the two straightened as Rae dusted off her hands and closed the lid.

“All done,” Rae said, smiling. “Ready to go?”

“Yep,” Abigail said, straightening her vest. “Ready.”

Rae whistled; Bullet perked up and ran towards her, weaving through the crops to reach her. Robin also looked up; Rae waved and pointed in the general direction of town. “Back soon!” she shouted, waving, before the three of them turned and began walking to town.

It was a long, quiet walk, watching the leaves float down from the trees. Birds chirped in the trees around them; Bullet chased a squirrel from a bush. It raced up a tree trunk and perched on a low branch, chattering angrily at them. Rae giggled and whistled, recalling her dog to her side.

Otherwise, the walk was uneventful. They saw no one and said nothing to each other.

Finally the town square appeared in front of them. Rae rolled her shoulders and checked her watch. “We still have a few hours. I’m gonna go grab some stuff.” She gestured to the general store. “What do you want to do?”

“Uh…” Abigail hesitated. “I’m… gonna go find Sam.”

“Ok.” Rae gave her a sympathetic smile. “I’ll catch up with you.” She glanced down at Bullet and jerked her head towards Abigail. “Go with her, big boy. I’ll catch up.”

She walked away, towards the general store. The bell over the door rang as she entered, brushing a strand of hair out of her face.

“Ah, Rae!” Pierre called, cheerfully. “How are you? How’s Abigail doing with farm life?”

“Well, both of us,” she said coolly. “She’s adjusting as if born to it.” She leaned on the counter. “I actually came to buy some cooking supplies and a sack of yam seeds. I need a bag each of sugar and wheat flour, a bottle each of vinegar and oil, and a bag of rice.”

Pierre raised an eyebrow. “Lots of cooking supplies, then. Any reason for it?”

Ah. Here was something Rae disliked about small-town living – the propensity of people to dig their nose into everyone else’s business. “I’ve been needing to eat more regularly, so I figure if I buy in bulk, I’ll be more able to make a meal on the fly,” she told him, only half lying. “Can I get that stuff now, please?”

“Of course, of course,” Pierre said, kneeling down and pulling a few objects off the shelf. Rae dug in her money pouch while he did that, mentally calculating prices. “That’ll be 800 gold, plus the sack of yam seeds… 25 seeds in each sack, that’s 2,300 gold total.”

She tried not to wince and pulled out the gold necessary. Pierre set the items she’d requested on the counter and scooped up her gold as she placed the items in her backpack. “Anything else you need?” he asked.

“Nope, I think that’s it.” She tried to give him a warm smile as she backed away. “Got to go now, sorry. Bye!”

“Thanks for letting Abigail hang around for a while!” he called as she left. Rae closed her eyes briefly as he finished with “Goodbye!”

Why do adults never take us young adults seriously? she wondered silently, shaking her head. Everything we do is a game to them. Eventually we’ll always ‘come to our senses’.

She brushed the incident from her mind as she approached the front of Sam’s house. He stood on the cobblestone pathway, working with his skateboard. Abigail sat nearby, observing him as he tried to do a kickflip. Both looked up as she rounded the corner. Bullet scrambled to his feet and raced over, tail wagging as he danced around her feet. She couldn’t hold back a laugh and bent forwards, scratching behind his ears. “Hey, big boy, have fun?” she crooned.

“He’s been staring in the direction of the store,” Abigail said, half laughing. “He really loves you.”

“And I really love him, yes, don’t I?” Rae asked, still loving on Bullet. He beamed at her, tongue lolling out the side of his mouth.

“You’re hilarious,” Sam said with a grin. Rae straightened with a laugh. “Hey, by the way.”

“Hey yourself.” Rae grinned at the two of them and dropped down to sit beside Abigail.

“How’d it go?” Abigail asked. There was a distinctly anxious note in her voice.

“Eh.” Rae shrugged one shoulder. “Like you said – he’s treating this whole thing like a joke.” She rolled her eyes. “Why do adults never act like we’re serious when we say we’re doing something?”

“Good question,” Sam muttered. “If I knew, maybe I could make them take us seriously.”

Rae pulled her bag off and laid back in the grass, staring at the sky. “Just – God. It irritates me that they aren’t supporting you in this more.”

Abigail sighed. “It bothers me too,” she confessed. “But we’ll just have to give it time. When I don’t crawl home after a few days, they’ll be forced to accept I’m not joking.” Her face was stubborn.

“Cheers,” Rae murmured, and raised a pretend glass in Abigail’s direction. “At least Granddad thought I could do it when he left me the farm…”

“At least your Granddad gave you a farm,” Sam retorted. “Not all of us have been given that chance.”

Rae’s shoulders slumped. “I know,” she admitted. “I was really, really blessed.” She heaved a sigh as Bullet laid down and rested his head on her stomach. “Man. I was so burnt out working in the city, you guys.”

“That bad, huh?” a fourth voice said. Abigail jolted and yelped; Sam almost fell off his skateboard. Rae grinned as she rolled her head over to look at Sebastian, walking towards them with hands stuffed in his pockets.

“Yeah, that bad,” she said in response, then (somewhat melodramatically) declared, “and yes. You have no idea how life-draining working for Joja Corp was-“

“Wait, you worked for Joja Corp?!” Sam demanded, staring at her.

“Yeah.” Rae frowned at the sky. “I could’ve sworn I mentioned that at some point.”

Sebastian dropped down to sit on Rae’s other side. “Never told me,” he said.

“Me either,” Abigail said. “Did anyone know?”

“Robin knew, or I thought she did…”

Sebastian snorted. “Mom doesn’t know. If she had, everyone would’ve known.”

“Ok, that’s a good point,” Rae said. “Huh. So no one knew. Yeah, I worked for Joja Corp before moving here. They sucked out my will to live by the day, let me tell you. Wasn’t worth the money I was making…”

“How much were you making?” Sam asked.

“Sam, that’s not polite to ask!” Abigail snapped, sounding scandalized.

Rae laughed. “You think I care? I don’t work for them anymore.” She wiggled around to get a stone out of the small of her back and watched the clouds. “I made… oh, probably 200,000 gold a year?”

“Two hundred thousand gold a year?!” Sam demanded, staring down at her. “That’s a fortune!”

Rae snorted. “A fortune at the cost of my happiness? What kind of fortune is that? I hated it there, with every fiber of my being. Plus, living in the city is so fucking expensive I couldn’t save any money at all. I moved here with only 500 gold in my pockets, and most of that was from selling my furniture.”

“Seriously?” Sebastian asked. “I didn’t realize it was that bad…”

“My apartment – basically two rooms, the same size my house is now, maybe smaller – was like 15,000 gold a month.” Rae’s mouth turned flat. “Like I said – expensive.”

“Geez,” Abigail muttered. “At least we don’t have to rent our house.”

Rae shook her head, feeling the grass run through her hair. “It was so bad.” She sighed. “Living here – ok, this is corny as fuck, but it gave me life again.”

There was a stifled snicker from someone. A smile curved across her lips. “It’s ok, you can laugh,” she said, and Sam burst out laughing. Abigail joined in, as Sebastian smiled and shook his head.

Finally, the laughter subsided somewhat. Rae gave a heavy sigh and shook her head. “I’m never going to be taken seriously,” she said, mournful. “I’m going to die misunderstood—“

“No, don’t say that!” Abigail cried as Sam’s laughter redoubled. “Nooooo—“ She collapsed beside Rae, throwing one arm over her body and squeezing tight as she buried her face in Rae’s shoulder. Her blue hair fell in Rae’s face; she almost inhaled some before coughing and reaching up to wipe it away. Before long, Rae’s solemn exterior shattered and she laughed right along with the rest of them. Her heart felt light, lighter than it had in a long time.

Abigail eventually moved away, allowing Rae room to breathe again. Sam gave up on the kickflip and sat down on her left side, looking up at the sky. It was beginning to grow dark; the stars were appearing, one by one, far overhead.

“Anyone know constellations?” Rae asked, a wistful note in her voice.

“Yeah, a few,” Sam said. “… Dad taught me, before he left.”

Rae raised her eyebrow at this new tidbit of information, but said nothing. Instead, she asked, “Can you point a few out for me? I’ve never had the chance to really watch the stars.”

“Sure,” he said, and raised one hand. “You see those three?” His finger pointed out three stars in a rough line. “They lead to a box. That’s the Big Dipper—“

“Everyone knows that one!” Abigail complained. “Something different. I know you know a whole bunch more than that.”

“I was starting off easy,” Sam complained, but moved his hand. “That one right there – the three in a row – that’s Orion’s belt. He was a huntsman, long ago. He’s got a bow, and he’s shooting at…” His finger tracked across the sky. “Taurus, the bull. It’s shaped like an H – here –“

He scooted over to sit at Rae’s head and pointed. “See it? Right there.”

“I see it,” Rae murmured. “Y’know, my horoscope is Taurus…”

“Really?” Abigail asked in interest. “I never knew that. When is your birthday?”

Rae hesitated. “You go by seasons here, rather than months, but I was born on the 21st of the spring season – I think that’s how it works.”

“Cool,” Sebastian said.

Abigail gasped. “We should have a party next year!” she exclaimed, wiggling around a little.

“Whoa there cowgirl, easy,” Rae said, half-laughing. “We’ve got almost two full seasons before we reach that point.” She shifted around. “More constellations?”

“Sure.” Sam pointed to another star. “That’s the North Star – Cygnus. Over there is…” He paused. “I… don’t remember.”

Rae craned her head back to look at him. His chin was down, fallen forwards. He looked exhausted. “You ok?” she asked, reaching one hand up to touch his face.

Since she was looking at him upside down, it was difficult to see his face clearly. Still, Rae could see tears brimming in his eyes. “Oh, no, what’s wrong?” she asked immediately, sitting up and turning to look at him. Her hands found his, wrapped around them and squeezed tight.

Sam sniffed and pulled one hand out of her grip to wipe his eyes. “I miss my dad,” he admitted; his voice was smaller than she’d ever heard it.

Rae’s heart melted. “Aw, Sam,” she murmured, wrapping her arms around him as tight as she could. He hesitated for a moment, before wrapping one arm around her shoulders. “I’m sorry…”

Abigail sat up as well and pressed her hand to his back. Rae rested her chin on his shoulder and shot a look over at Sebastian, mouthing, “Is he dead?” in the process.

Sebastian shook his head, just a little. “Military,” he mouthed back. Rae’s eyes got big, and she squeezed just a little bit tighter, before releasing and drawing away.

Sam wiped his eyes again. “He’s overseas, fighting the Gotoro Empire,” he said softly. “He’s been away for almost a year. Mom says he should be home come springtime, but… Vincent barely remembers him. He knows Dad exists and he asks about him, but otherwise…” He shook his head. “And all I can remember is the last night he was here. We went and watched the stars.”

Rae closed her eyes for a moment. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I didn’t mean to bring up old memories.”

“No.” Sam shook his head. “It’s fine. I’ve got to remember the happy times. Keep the memories alive, y’know?”

Rae nodded. Abigail exchanged a glance with Sebastian, eyes flicking to Sam’s house. A cold breeze drifted across the group as Abigail reached out and touched Sam’s shoulder. “It’s late,” she said softly. “And you’ve got work tomorrow. You should go to sleep.”

Sam sighed. “You’re right,” he said. Rae rocked back on her heels and smiled at him, giving him her hand as she stood up. He took it and made a noise of surprise as she pulled him to his feet easily. Abigail and Sebastian stood as well. “G’night, guys.”

He walked to the door on his own. The three others watched him as he opened the door. Light spilled out, over the lawn and onto the river, as he stepped forwards and into the house. The door closed; the light vanished, leaving the three in the early-evening darkness.

Rae was the first to make a sound. She let out a long, heavy sigh. “Everything I touch dies,” she said, only half-melodramatic. “Or, at least, falls apart in the most magnificent fashion.”

“No, it doesn’t-“ Abigail started to say.

Before she could finish, Rae whirled to face her. “Don’t try to tell me that wasn’t my fault,” she said, voice low and dangerous. “I asked, I brought up the memories. I was responsible.”

Abigail seemed to be struggling for words. “Don’t – but –“ She groaned in frustration. “It’s not your fault,” she finally said. “It really isn’t. Don’t go blaming yourself for this.”

“Too late,” Rae said, as Bullet whined and nosed at her hand. She scratched his head absently. “Ugh. Why couldn’t I just have kept my stupid mouth shut…”

“You didn’t know,” Sebastian said, as he jerked his head back towards the town square. “C’mon. I need to head home too.”

Rae sighed and acquiesced, following him as he walked along the road. “You get like this often?” he asked over his shoulder, voice bland.

Rae promptly bristled in irritation. “What’s that supposed to mean?” she demanded. Bullet nudged at her hand again, clearly sensing her anger.

“So self-destructive. You act like this a lot?”

“Only when it’s my fault,” she retorted. “What, you get like that often too?”

He snorted, but didn’t respond.

Abigail trailed a few feet behind them, silent. Rae glanced back at her, only once, but quickly returned her attention to her own self-deprecation.

Their train was silent for the rest of the trip to the town center. When they reached the streetlight to the west of the plaza, Sebastian stopped and turned to face the two young women, arms crossed over his chest. “G’night,” he told them.

“Night,” Rae said, prepared to brush past him, but Sebastian grabbed her arm before she could pass. He pulled her closer to him; she gave him a narrow-eyed gaze from under her lashes, still angry.

“It wasn’t your fault,” he murmured. “And blaming yourself only hurts you and the people who care about you.”

Her shoulders slumped, just a little. “I know,” she murmured back. “But I’d rather blame myself than my friends.”

Sebastian nodded slightly and released her arm, patting her on the back. “See you around,” he told her, before adding, “Night, Abby.”

“Night, Seb,” she said softly.

They split off – Rae and Abigail to the west to go to the farm, and Sebastian to head north to his house. The two women were silent as they walked, a very different trip than the one they’d taken only a few hours before. Rae sunk deep into thought, barely paying attention to the route they took, let alone the company she kept.

“It really wasn’t your fault,” Abigail said abruptly. “No one ever told you about Sam’s dad being away. You didn’t know that asking about the constellations would set him off.”

Rae’s shoulders slumped. “Thanks, voice of reason,” she said, but there was no anger or malice in her tone – only wry humor. “I know. I just – a little voice pokes at me, telling me that it’s my fault. I’m…” Her shoulders sagged. “I’m not very good at ignoring it.”

“Hey.” Abigail nudged her side with her elbow. “Stick with us. We won’t let that little voice drag ya down.”

A smile touched Rae’s lips; she brushed a strand of hair out of her face. “Thanks,” she murmured, and slung an arm around Abigail’s waist.

Chapter Text

The days leading up to the end of Fall fell into a pattern. Rae woke with the sun, dressed and ate a small breakfast before leaving for the field outside. She checked her animals and set to work on the crops. Abigail, whenever she woke, would help with whatever chore Rae was working on – usually watering or harvesting the crops. When that chore was done, they’d sit down on the front porch and sort the harvest or harvests for the day. After that, they’d toss the nicest crops in the shipping bin and the less-nice ones in a chest Rae had designed specifically for that purpose and head into town, to shop or hang out with Sam or Sebastian.

But winter was just around the corner, and on the final day of the Fall season, Rae sat back from sorting cranberries with a sigh. “Well, it’s Winter starting tomorrow,” she said grimly. “There’ll be a lot of changes around here because of that.”

Abigail put her handful of cranberries down. “Like what?” she asked.

“Well, we can’t grow anything in winter,” Rae said. Her lips twisted. “There goes our primary source of income. I’ve been planning on going mining, trying to get deeper into the mine to get more ores. I really want to be able to have a fully functioning sprinkler system for my crops by next spring – that’ll both cut down on the energy it takes to water everything, and give me the opportunity to expand my field somewhat, which means more money for less work.” She leaned back, back resting on the porch railing as she looked out over her field. “But, in order to get that, I have to go deep into the mines. I need gold ore, and lots of it. It’s not easy to get, but I don’t have much of a choice.”

“I can go with you!” Abigail said, sitting up straighter. “I’ve got a sword. I can fight.”

Rae gave her a glance. “Have you been in the mines?” she asked, nothing but innocent curiosity in her voice.

“Yeah, I have.”

“How many levels down?”

Abigail frowned. “Hm. Maybe 5 or 6?”

Rae raised one eyebrow. “I’m talking going down to level 80 or so,” she said. “Gold can only be found VERY deep in the mines. I’d be happy to take you with me down to level 20 or 30 to hone your skills, but things get hairy past level 50 or so.”

“I can handle it,” Abigail insisted, stubborn. “Seriously, I can!”

Rae didn’t look convinced. “We’ll see,” she said, and pushed herself to her feet. “But, for now, we have to take this stuff to the shipping bin and then I want to go into town.”

Abigail scrambled upright as well, gathering the basket of gold-rank cranberries into her arms. “What’re we doing today?” she asked.

“Well, I need to chat with Alex, because I’ve been neglecting him and I feel like a complete asshole,” Rae declared, carrying the silver-rank cranberries over to the shipping bin and placing them in beside the milk bottle and two chicken eggs (Essa the duckling was still too young to produce any eggs). She straightened and stepped aside, allowing Abigail to put the cranberries in as well, before dropping the lid shut with a loud ‘BANG’. “Bullet, baby!” she called, whistling to catch his attention. “Guard the chickens!”

He answered her with a whine, but turned back to follow the livestock. Abigail giggled. “He always looks so put out when he can’t come with you.”

“Well, he would follow me absolutely everywhere if he could,” Rae said, before gesturing for Abigail to follow. “C’mon, let’s go!”

The two of them walked towards town, talking about the final harvest of the season and other farm-related topics. The trees were almost entirely barren of leaves now. Rae looked around with a smile on her face, taking in the crisp air.

“Weather says it’s gonna snow tonight,” Abigail commented. “That’ll be the first snow of the season.”

“And it’ll kill all the plants,” Rae said, shaking her head. “That’ll be sad to see. It’ll kill the grass, too, which means I won’t be able to let the animals out to eat.”

“You think you have enough hay?” Abigail asked.

Rae shrugged. “I have a silo full and only four animals. I think I’ll be all right for the season. If not… Marnie sells hay all year round. It’s expensive, but hopefully I won’t have to buy much.”

“So don’t overfeed the animals and you should be just fine,” Abigail said. “Got it.”

Rae giggled as they left the path and entered town itself. The ground was covered with leaves, creating a crunchy carpet that made delightful noises under their feet. The trees here were also barren of leaves; the empty branches danced in a light wind.

“I’m gonna go find Sam,” Abigail said. “I’ll see you later, ok?”

“Sounds good.” Rae rolled her shoulders, briefly wishing she’d brought Bullet with her for moral support, before checking her bag one more time for the little present she’d set aside for him. Certain it was in its place, she set out for where she thought he’d be.

She passed the saloon and glanced over at the dog pen in front of Alex’s grandparent’s house. Sure enough, Alex stood there, leaning on the fence as he talked to the giant Dobermann Pinscher inside. She approached at a decent rate, making sure to call out her greetings so she wouldn’t startle either party.

Alex looked up at the sound of her voice, glancing over to see her. A smile spread across his face as she grinned back, bouncing forwards to hug him. He was a solid six inches taller than she was, meaning her face only reached his shoulder, but she wasn’t bothered by it.

“Hi!” she chirped happily, drawing away to look up at him. “How’ve you been?”

“Pretty good.” He messed with the gridball in one hand, before looking back at her. “What about you?”

“Busy,” she said, widening her eyes to comical proportions. “Very busy. I just pulled in a massive cranberry harvest this morning.” She shook her head. “Sorry I’ve not been around all that much.”

“No problem,” he said. She frowned at the tone in his voice; it sounded like it was a bigger problem than he was letting on.

“I brought you something,” she said, digging in her bag. “I just filtered this today, so it’s really fresh.” She pulled out a glass jar, filled with amber liquid.

Alex accepted the jar of honey, turning it over in his hands. “Thanks,” he said finally. “I appreciate it.”

Rae smiled and leaned on the fence. Silence fell over them; then Alex set the jar of honey down on the ground, being careful not to drop it, and settled in beside her. “So, haven’t seen you around in a while,” he commented.

She winced. “I know. I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to ignore you for the past week – it’s just been so crazy what with Abigail moving in and trying to get everything harvested, expanding the coop-“ She dropped her head into her hands and massaged her temples. “I’ve been a horrible friend.”

He patted her back lightly, before returning to leaning on the fence. “I have been feeling a little neglected,” he said. She analyzed his tone as best she could; there was honesty mixed in with the joke. “I know you’re busy, but I’ve seen you around with Sam, Sebastian, and Abigail a few times.”

Rae sighed and closed her eyes. “I know,” she admitted. “Thanks for not giving up on me.” She rested her chin in her hands, watching the dog.

Alex hesitated for a moment, before sighing out and throwing an arm around her shoulders and pulling her into his side. “No problem. Just – try not to forget about me again.”

“I won’t,” she said, resolute, as she wrapped an arm around his waist. “I’ll do better.”

“Sure you will. And then something will pop up, and you’ll run off chasing another new adventure –”

She burst out laughing aloud, jostling him with her entire body. He laughed too, squeezing her shoulders as he used her to regain his balance. Their laughter eventually died; there was a long, comfortable pause.

Then Alex sighed. “You know you’re basically my only friend here in town, right?” His voice was a little lost, a little lonely. “No one really likes me.”

“Haley,” Rae said immediately.

“She’s not been around,” he said. “I’ve been keeping to myself, mostly. Granny and Grandpa are nice, but the other kids my age… don’t like me so much.”

“Why?” she asked.

She glanced up just in time to see him wince. “Uh…” He was stalling for time. She gave him her most unamused look. “I… wasn’t the nicest person, when I arrived here.”

She stayed silent, but gave him a confused look. Alex looked down at his feet, shifted a little. “I… arrived right after Mom’s death. I was… angry. I lashed out at everyone who tried to be nice to me. I don’t even really know why.”

Again, silence fell. Alex swallowed, not meeting Rae’s eyes when she looked up at him. She looked away after a moment, staring back down at the dog. He was chewing on a bone, eating away merrily at the scraps of meat left on it. The sight made her smile, just a little.

“Can’t have been that angry,” she commented. When he looked down at her, frowning, she nodded at the dog. “You made friends with him pretty readily.”

He snorted. “Yeah, well, he wasn’t human company either.”

“Maybe that’s what you needed at that point.”

Alex looked down at the top of Rae’s head. “Hm?”

Her gaze was pensive, staring at the dog in theory, but in actuality a million miles away. “After tragedies, sometimes the last thing you need is people around you,” she murmured. “Animals… animals aren’t people. Animals can’t pat your head and tell you what a good, brave girl – or boy – you are, or how well you’re holding up in the face of this… catastrophe. Animals can’t smother you in a hug and croon in your ear about how big you’ve gotten. Animals are just there… to listen. To be there. They love you unconditionally and never want to cause you pain.” She looked up at him and squeezed again. “They just want to make you feel better.”

Alex dropped his chin. “Yeah,” he murmured. “You’re right.”

She smiled, but didn’t say anything.

“How do you know so much about this?” he asked after a pause.

“I’ve been on the receiving end of those well-meaning sentiments a few times,” she murmured. “Grandpa’s funeral, for one.” She closed her eyes and shook her head. “Ugh. I wanted to book it out of there at full speed, let me tell you. I was sick of all these people pinching my cheeks, telling me – meaningless platitudes –“ She cut herself off and shook her head, as if casting aside something. “You get the picture.”

“Yeah, all too well,” Alex muttered. “Mom’s funeral was the same way.”

She nodded. Silence fell once again, as they just watched the dog.

“Excited for winter?” he asked.

Rae held up a hand and wiggled it back and forth. “Eh. Kind of. I’m going to have a lot less to do – nothing grows in winter, which is kind of the whole point of a farm, y’know?”

He laughed at that.

She heaved a sigh. “So, I’m basically going to go mining all day, every day. I want to expand my farm and I need ores to do that.” She rolled her shoulders. “Abigail wants to come, but… I’m not so sure about her coming. She’s only been into the mines a few times, and never anywhere as low as I’m going to need to go. I want the help, but I’m worried she could end up hurt, badly.”

Alex winced. “Ouch. That’s rough. I don’t know how to really… help. You can tell her no, but –“

“Like that’s gonna work.” Rae snorted. “I know.” She let out a long, slow breath and shook her head. “I think the only way I’m gonna be able to get her to stop is by taking her with me to a higher level and letting her see how it goes.”

“Sounds like a good plan.” Alex bobbed his head, eyes looking up towards the sky. “I could see that working.”

“You really think?” she asked, looking up at him.

“As good as you’re gonna get.” He shrugged and squeezed her shoulder. “I’ve got faith in you.”

Rae hefted a sigh. “I needed that. Thanks.”

“Don’t mention it.”

They stood in silence for a while longer, until Alex hefted the gridball in his free hand. “You wanna toss this around for a bit?” he asked.

“You mean do I want to make a fool of myself? No thanks,” Rae retorted, grinning. “I’m perfectly content to never throw one of those around again.”

He grinned at her and unwrapped his arm from her shoulders, tousling her hair while she whined and swatted him away. “Well, farm girl, I’m gonna head in,” he told her. “Have fun with the rest of your day.”

“I will.” Rae grinned at him and took a few steps backwards. “Bye!”

She turned on her heel and headed for the beach. It was late, but she could get a little bit of fishing in if she hurried – maybe even see Elliott.

The bridge came into sight, and she was pleased to see Elliott himself standing on the bridge. “Elliott!” she called, raising a hand as he looked over at her. “Long time, no see!”

Elliott smiled and straightened. “Hello, Rae. How has your week been?”

“Busy!” she exclaimed, shaking her head as she leaned on the railing beside him. “Oh, my goodness, it’s been sheer insanity. You heard about Abigail moving in with me, right?”

“I have heard rumors that she had, yes.”

He looked down at the top of her head as she sighed and shook her head. “I don’t doubt it. Everyone gossips about everyone’s life in a town as small as this. Anyways, I’ve been getting her settled in and she’s been learning about farm life.” Another breath. “Ugh. I didn’t realize just how much I’ve learned in the last 3 seasons.”

“I’d guess quite a bit,” Elliott said, mild and calm as ever.

Rae snorted. “Oh, man, you’ve got no idea.” She dropped her head to rest on her arms, whining softly.

Elliott laughed softly and patted her back. “That bad?” he asked.

She nodded into her arms. “I’m so tired. I’m just taking the first few days of winter off to sleep and read, because I just need a break. After that, it’s straight back into prepping for spring. I feel like I just can’t get a rest.”

“Farming is thankless work, or so I’ve heard. You seem to be holding up rather well.”

“Because I make sure to take steps to keep myself sane, like coming into town and talking to people. Friday nights at the Saloon – if I really wanted to dive off the deep end, I’d quit going there.” Her voice was muffled.

Elliott looked up at the stars. “Come have a cup of tea with me. We can sit and talk inside for a while. You sound like you need the respite.”

Rae straightened, a smile on her face. “You sound so fancy, using ‘respite’. Reminds me of my English Major friends back in college.”

“Oh, you went to college?” His voice held a note of curiosity. “I never knew that.”

“Yep. Never graduated, unfortunately.” She made a face. “Lots of reasons, before you ask.”

“Ah. I’ll refrain from asking, then.” They’d arrived at his cottage on the beach; he opened the door for her and bowed her inside. She giggled, but entered before him and took a seat at his small table while he moved to put a kettle on a small stove top. “What kind of tea do you like?”

“Um…” She hesitated. “Do you happen to have vanilla chamomile?”

“I do, actually.” He held up a box of loose-leaf tea.

She sighed out, a happy smile settling on her lips. “You’re the best,” she said. “Heaven bless.”

He chuckled and put the water on to boil. “How’s your writing going?” Rae asked abruptly, frowning as she looked at him. “I’ve not been able to ask recently.”

Elliott gave a deep, heavy sigh as he leaned against the counter. “It goes,” he admitted. “Some days more than others. I feel like for every step forwards, I take two backwards.”

“I know that feeling,” Rae muttered. “I’m sorry. It must be hard…”

He inclined his head. “Again, some days are more difficult than others. I am progressing, and that is what matters most.”

“Indeed.”

The kettle began whistling, and Elliott pulled it off the burner, pouring it into two mugs. He brought the mugs over to the table. Reminded, Rae started and dug into her bag. “I brought a gift, by the way,” she said, placing a second jar of honey on the table. “Fresh from the farm. I only strained it today.”

“Marvelous!” Elliott beamed at her as he picked the jar up and inspected it. “Let me get a spoon and we can try it now.”

He did so and opened the jar with ease, scooping some into his tea. Rae did so as well and stirred it in, before taking a sip and sighing out in contentment. “I need to drink tea more often,” she said. “This makes everything worth it.”

He laughed around his tea. “It is excellent,” he agreed. “I’d be happy to give you some tea until you can find a steady supplier.”

Her eyes lit up as she regarded him over her mug. “You would?” she asked, delighted. “Oh, thank you!”

“Of course. It isn’t a problem at all.” His eyes narrowed for a moment. “Out of curiosity, what kind of tea do you favor?”

~*~*~*~

Abigail finally found Rae an hour later, still in an animated discussion with Elliott about types of tea. “But I just find black tea so bitter,” she complained as Abigail stepped inside. “I don’t understand – oh, hey, Abby!”

“There you are!” she said, trying not to look too relieved. “I couldn’t find you anywhere, and then Marnie said she saw you on her way to the Saloon, so I went to the docks, but you weren’t there either, and then I saw Elliott’s light on –“ She had to take a deep breath. “What I’m trying to say is, you’re very hard to find when you don’t want to be.”

Rae giggled as she stood up. “Thank you for the tea, Elliott,” she said. “I really appreciate it.”

“It’s not a problem,” he said, standing as well and taking her mug off the table. “Hopefully I’ll see you more this winter.”

“I hope so too,” she said, smiling up at him. “Good night!”

She walked over to Abigail and waved over her shoulder as they left the shack. A burst of icy air hit them, and Rae had to suck in a breath. “Holy buckets, that’s a cold front,” she said, eyes wide. Abigail laughed at that. “When did this roll in?!”

“While I was looking for you,” Abigail said. “We should hurry home. It’s just gonna get colder.”

Rae tried to ignore the warm feeling in her gut at Abigail calling her house her home and obediently picked up the pace. She started when an elbow landed in her side; Abigail gave her a sly side-eye. “So, you and Elliott?” she asked.

Rae let out a long, gusty sigh. “Why is my love life the only thing anyone’s interested in?” she asked the air as they crossed the stone bridge back into town.

“Hey, it’s a small town,” Abigail said. “We rarely have outsiders moving in, and even more rarely are they eligible bachelors – or bachelorettes. It’s something new to gossip about. You saw how fast news of me moving into your place spread once Robin knew.”

“Ok, point taken,” Rae said, though it was somewhat reluctant. “But really, I’m not interested in finding anyone to date, let alone marry.”

“People won’t take that at face value,” Abigail warned. “I may lay off, but no one else will.”

“That’s fine,” she said, shrugging. “I just think it’s impolite to gossip about than someone’s love life.”

“Well, it’s free entertainment.” Abigail shrugged back. “I wish you luck.”

“Thanks.” Rae rolled her eyes. “I get the feeling I’m going to need it.”

They walked the rest of the way back to Rae’s house in silence, each contemplating their own thoughts. The clouds overhead continued to grow thicker and darker, and eventually flakes of white began to drift down from the sky. Rae looked up as the first snowflakes of the season touched her nose, nudging Abigail with her elbow. “Look,” she whispered. “Look up.”

Abigail did so, and sure enough, white dots drifted down on the breeze to touch the ground. She tilted her head back, sticking her tongue out, but the snow was so spread out it was impossible to catch any snowflakes on her tongue. It certainly didn’t stop her from trying.

“We should hurry back,” Rae murmured. “I need to make sure the heaters are still running in the barn and coop, and make sure the doors are all shut.”

So they picked up the pace, and before long they were tramping along the dirt path back to Rae’s house. The snow was coming down faster now, in bigger clusters, catching on the dying grass and creating drifts of white everywhere. When they did reach the farm, it was clear that the crops wouldn’t survive the night; already snow was piling up around the cranberry bushes and covering the stalks of the corn plants. Rae sighed, and her shoulders slumped as she regarded it. “And thus, autumn ends, not with a bang, but with a whimper,” she murmured, and went to see to her animals.

The heaters were working, and Bullet was resting in the barn, watching the door carefully. As soon as Rae’s silhouette appeared, though, he was up and walking towards her, winding around her legs and nudging his head under her hands. She smiled and stroked his fur as she pulled on the chain to the barn door. It slammed shut, and she used the smaller door to the right, stepping out into the cold with Bullet by her side.

Together, they tramped back to the house. Everything was closed up and done for the night, something Rae was grateful for, because it just kept getting colder and the snow showed no sign of letting up. She breathed out a foggy breath as she reached the porch and tramped up the steps to the front door.

Abigail was inside, making hot chocolate on the stove. “I know you already had tea, but I figured we might as well have something warm since it’s so cold out,” she said over her shoulder as Rae entered and closed the door behind her. She shook her head, flinging snowflakes everywhere, and dusted off the shoulders of her coat. It was warm enough in her little house that the snow melted as soon as it touched the wooden floor. She made a mental note to invest in a broom at some point, if there wasn’t one hanging around somewhere, and pulled off her boots, setting them beside the door. Her jacket was next, and she hung that on a hook beside the door as well, before walking over to pull out two mugs and help Abigail.

Within just a few minutes, the hot chocolate was finished, and the two of them sat down at the kitchen table to sip their drinks and sit in the silence. Bullet laid down at Rae’s stocking-covered feet, watching her drink with big brown eyes. She just smiled at him and shook her head, before returning her gaze to the wall across from her.

“So, what are you doing tomorrow?” Abigail asked over the top of her mug, inspecting Rae.

“Nothing,” Rae said with relish. “I’m going to get up late, tend to the animals, and read all day. I’m taking a break, because I’ve been working basically non-stop since I arrived and dammit, I deserve a rest.”

Abigail raised one eyebrow. “All winter?”

“Oh, good heavens, no.” Rae took a sip of her hot chocolate and sighed in relief, shoulders dropping. “Oh, man, that’s good. No, I just want a day or two off before I start gearing up for the mines.”

Abigail’s eyes brightened; her back straightened. “The mines?” she asked. “Can I come with you?”

Here it was again – that same argument. Rae placed her mug down on the table and rubbed her temple with one hand. “I’ll take you down to one level fairly far down, see how you handle it,” she said after a pause. “You don’t understand, Abby – the mines are EXTREMELY dangerous. It’s easiest on the top levels, but the farther down you go, the more difficult to kill the enemies are. I don’t want you getting hurt.”

“I won’t,” Abigail insisted. “I won’t get hurt, I promise. I’m good – I’ll be fine.”

Rae closed her eyes for a moment and pinched the bridge of her nose. “Fine, ok, all right,” she said. “I’ll take you with me on my first trip in a few days.”

“Yay!” Abigail cheered, dancing in her seat. Her hot chocolate sloshed a little, and she quickly stopped dancing to steady the cup. “Thanks! I’ll be just fine, promise.”

“If you’re sure,” Rae said, but she didn’t sound at all sure.

Chapter Text

Four days later, winter was in full swing. Nightly snowfalls blanketed the land with a thick layer of white, covering up all the bushes and stripping what leaves remained on the trees. When Rae woke, it was still dark outside. She sat up, rubbing the sleep from her eyes, and allowed herself a moment to just sit in the darkness and enjoy the pre-dawn hour.

Then Bullet rested his head on her leg, and she laughed at him, very quietly. Her feet swung out of bed and landed on the floor. It was cold, and she almost went back to sleep right then and there. Unfortunately, that wasn’t an option; today was the day Abigail wanted to go into the mines.

She got up and went to find her mining clothes – a pair of old, ripped up jeans and a paint-covered jacket over a plain white shirt with a few holes in it. They were the oldest, nastiest clothes she owned, and they were perfect for sweating in the mines. That accomplished, she padded into the front room, wearing a pair of thick socks.

Abigail curled up on the couch, as per usual, covered in at least three separate blankets. She was so well bundled up that Rae could barely see her hair, let alone any skin. She reached out and shook Abigail’s shoulder. “Abby. Time to get up.”

Abigail looked over her shoulder, eyes bleary from sleep. “Huh?” she asked.

“You wanted to go into the mines, didn’t you? Today’s the day.”

“Oh!”

It never ceased to amaze Rae how fast Abigail could go from fast asleep to wide awake and moving. She immediately bounced to her feet, throwing her blankets back onto the couch as she beamed at Rae. “That’s today!” she exclaimed, already running to find a change of clothes. “I’m so excited!”

Rae smiled in bemusement as she went into the bathroom to change, but shook her head and walked over to the kitchen. For a day like today, they needed all the energy they could get. She started pulling ingredients out of the fridge, most of them produce from her own farm. A complete breakfast would probably be the best thing for the day – pancakes, eggs, hashbrowns, the works. She set to work immediately.

By the time Abigail was all dressed and ready to go, Rae was setting out the plates on the kitchen table. She started as she reached the kitchen. “You made all this?” she asked.

“Yep,” Rae said, smiling over at her as she straightened. “I can cook, remember?”

“I know, I just didn’t expect such a big breakfast.” Abigail sat down at her place and poked at it. “This looks really good.”

“Thanks.” Rae sat down herself and dug in.

“Wouldn’t we want a light breakfast?” Abigail asked around her mouthful of pancakes.

Rae swallowed and shook her head. “No. You’ll want all the energy you can get. Plus, the more you eat now, the less food you have to carry with you into the mines.”

“Good point.”

The rest of the meal was quiet, as they ate everything on their plates. Rae sighed out as she finished and stood up. “I’ll set the plates to soak for now and wash them tonight,” she said. “Go get your boots on. We leave in just a few minutes.”

While Abigail got her shoes on and backpack together, Rae tended to the animals. They disliked the cold, obviously, but the heaters she’d installed in late Fall were helping to bolster their mood. She gathered two eggs and a jug of milk before returning to the house, just in time to see Abigail wrestle her boots on and pick up her backpack. “Ready to go?” she asked.

“Am I ever!” Abigail beamed at her as she walked to the door.

“Bullet, stay,” Rae told the dog, giving him a stern look. He pouted at her, but laid down again by the hearth. She nodded and stepped aside, allowing Abigail passage out into the snow. The door closed behind them; Rae turned and looked out at her farm, sighing. Time to go mining.

She paused briefly to deposit the milk jug and eggs into the shipping crate, but then they were off. They took the back route to the mines, the one that lead along behind Robin and Demetrius’s house. Linus’ campfire burned away, but he was nowhere to be found.

They walked past the lake in front of the mine and crossed the small wooden bridge that spanned the river. The entrance to the mines loomed in front of them; Abigail bounced on her toes as Rae eyed it with trepidation.

“You ready?” Abigail asked; her voice was vibrant with excitement.

Rae hesitated. “As ready as I can be,” she decided, and led the way into the mines.

They crammed into the tiny elevator, and Rae hit the button for the 40th floor. The elevator dropped, sending her heart into her throat. Abigail yelped softly and grabbed the wall of the elevator. They dropped into the mines at an astonishing rate, rattling ominously as they fell deeper and deeper.

Finally, the elevator jerked to a stop and the doors opened. They were in a small room, icy cold, and Rae zipped up her jacket to her chin. “This is the beginning of the frost levels,” she explained. “Below this, there’s a lot of iron ore, but a lot of enemies as well. Ready to go?”

Abigail settled her shoulders and drew her sword. It was an old one of Rae’s that she’d lent to Abigail, one that wasn’t as good as her own sword but could still strike true and cut hard. “Let’s go,” she said.

Rae nodded and walked to the ladder in the floor. She brought her feet down onto the second rung from the top and began climbing down. Abigail followed behind her.

As soon as Rae’s feet hit the ground, she turned and brought her sword up in a deflecting move. There was nothing there; she scanned the room they were in. “No enemies yet,” she murmured. “Let’s get to work.”

Abigail landed and followed close behind her as she walked over to a chunk of rock with a silvery metal shot through it. She brought her pickax out of her belt and swung it up and over her head. The first hit seemed to reverberate through the air, making her wince. “Keep an eye out,” she ordered. “They could come from anywhere.”

Another swing and the rock split into pieces. She gathered up chunks of iron ore and tucked them into a pouch on her belt. “I found some more,” Abigail called from farther in the mine. Rae spun; Abigail was no longer right behind her. She muttered a curse and jogged over to see what Abigail had found.

There was a small vein of ore, sure enough. Abigail was bent over it, examining the rock. Rae looked up as a squeaking noise caught her attention. “On your right!” she called, drawing her sword.

Abigail spun and drew her sword, slicing at the slime coming towards her. Rae leapt over the rocks and landed on the other side, engaging the slime as well. Within two hits, it dissolved into a puddle of blue-colored slime. Rae straightened and wiped her forehead off. “Watch your surroundings,” she said, as she grabbed her pickax again and began swinging at the ore. She missed Abigail rolling her eyes.

They progressed farther into the mine. There was a decent amount of ore on the ground; they found it just about everywhere. Abigail usually took watch while Rae worked.

Finally, after killing another slime, Abigail’s sword swing imbedded itself in the ground. The dirt fell away, revealing another ladder. “I found the next level!” she called, waving Rae over.

The other woman came, tucking a ball of rock into a separate pouch. She peered down, then nodded. “Good find. Ready?”

Before Abigail could respond, she stepped onto the ladder and climbed downward. Abigail rolled her eyes, but followed.

The next level was much of the same. There was ore everywhere, enemies here and there, and a few old boxes Rae busted with her sword, revealing a little coal and some cave carrots. She tucked them away in her backpack and nodded to Abigail.

“Let’s keep going,” she said. “I want to leave around level 45 – that’s where the elevator is next. It goes by floors – every five floors there’s a stop.”

“I knew that.” Abigail sounded annoyed. “Quit treating me like a kid.”

Rae didn’t say anything in response, only inclined her head and brushed past. “You need to watch your sides better,” she called, as her sword blade shot out and sliced into a dust sprite bouncing towards them. It squealed and died, dropping a lump of coal that she caught in midair and dropped into her backpack. “Let’s keep moving.”

Abigail didn’t get lucky again, and the two spent roughly half an hour mining and searching for the ladder down. Finally, finally, Rae broke apart a mammoth stone to reveal the ladder. She wiped her forehead and breathed out. “You wanna stop for a break?” she asked. “I think we could both use the energy.”

“No, I’m good,” Abigail said, eyes shining. “Let’s keep going!”

Rae rolled her head on her neck. “Ok, if you say so,” she said, and dropped into the darkness.

Her feet landed in goop.

“Fuck,” she muttered. “It’s infested!” she called up to Abigail. “What do you want to do?”

Abigail answered her by dropping down onto the floor. “I want to kill some slimes,” she said, a bloodthirsty gleam in her eyes. “Let’s go!”

She ran forwards, only for a slime to surprise her and slam into her. She yelped and fell backwards, striking at it. Rae ran to her aid, slicing away the slime. “Are you hurt?” she snapped, as she killed the slime in one strike.

“Ow,” Abigail snapped. “A little, but I’m alive. It’s not bad. Let’s go.”

They strode forwards, swords now at the ready. The cavern the ladder was in lead into a larger cave, where at least five slimes turned to look at them.

“En garde!” Rae hissed, and raised her sword.

The slimes attacked all at once, lunging for them. One got close enough to latch onto Rae’s leg, burning through the fabric of her jeans. She hissed and sliced at it, cutting the slime in two. Another one spat a clump of slime at her knees; she stumbled and found her movements slower than she was used to. She sliced a few times, before the slime dissolved and allowed her to move freely.

They cleared the room with some difficulty; Rae hefted her sword. “I need a better blade,” she muttered. “Ugh.”

“C’mon,” Abigail said, leading the way to a second room off the cavern. There were three slimes there; again, they fought. Rae could feel the exhaustion getting to her, and cursed Abigail’s boundless energy in silence. Another one landed a hit on her leg, almost buckling it. She gritted her teeth and forced herself to stay upright, slicing away.

“How’re you holding up?” she called, forcing all the pain she felt to stay away.

“I’ve gotten hit on my arm, but otherwise I’m ok!” Abigail called. “You?”

“I’m hanging in there.” Grim determination laced through her voice. “Let’s move.”

They continued moving through the cavern. More slimes came out of the woodwork to fight them; they fought as they walked, each sustaining more injuries. By the time they reached the second to last cavern, Rae was limping heavily and Abigail’s left arm hung mostly limp. The two looked at each other. “You ready?” Rae asked.

“Yeah.” Abigail nodded once. “Let’s do this.”

Rae straightened her back and hefted her sword. She led the charge into the cave.

Inside, there were at least seven small slimes waiting for them. Rae let out a low growl and charged forwards, sword already swinging. It impacted into one slime, splitting it in two. A second one bit her ankle. She kicked it away and swung the sword up and over her head, bringing it down into the slime. It died with a squeal, bringing a third slime to its side. Rae swept the sword in a horizontal slice, catching the slime just as it leapt for her. The slime splattered against her chest, acid eating away at the fabric and finding skin. She winced and let out a harsh breath, swiping away the slime as fast as she could.

Abigail finished off the last slime and looked over at her. “I’m all done,” she said. “Where’s the exit?”

“It appears when everything’s been defeated,” Rae said.

“That means…”

Rae’s attention was drawn to the hallway behind Abigail. Something moved there, something big, something approaching fast –

“ABBY, MOVE!”

Rae hurled herself forwards as the big slime pounced. She tackled Abigail out of the way as the slime latched onto her, enveloping most of her left side. The acidic slime bit even deeper into her skin, as she slammed into the ground and rolled away from Abigail, striking wildly with her sword. It did very little, and the pain was almost overwhelming.

Abigail scrambled to her feet and ran to help. She sliced at the slime as fast as she could, again and again, shouting angrily at the slime. “C’mon! Get off her! Leave her alone and come fight me!”

Rae’s grasp on her sword weakened as the giant slime released its hold on her and went towards Abigail. She forced herself to her knees, then to her feet as she clung on, using both hands to keep her grip. “Go to hell,” she growled, and slammed the sword into the slime, hilt deep.

It split into several smaller slimes. Rae hap-hazardly hacked at a few of them, cutting away. Her vision was swimming; she was seeing double. She missed her strikes, more often than not. “C’mon, just die,” she slurred, voice angry. “Come ON-“

The final slime died, and a ladder appeared on the wall. “Ready to go?” Abigail asked, already making her way towards it.

No voice answered her, only heavy panting.

“Rae?” she asked, turning around.

Rae wove on her feet, holding her sword hilt in both hands. “I’m – I’m –“ she managed, before her arms failed her and her sword fell to the ground. It landed with a squishy sound that made Abigail wince.

“Rae?!” she demanded, striding towards the woman.

Before she could even get halfway there, Rae fell to her knees. Her eyes rolled up in the back of her head, and she folded like a house of cards.

“RAE!”

Abigail raced forwards, dropping to her knees in the slime as she rolled Rae onto her side. She was breathing, but her breaths were shallow and fast. “Oh, no,” she whispered, eyes wide with fear. “Oh, no, no, no, Rae, hang in there –“

She stood up and leaned forwards, grabbing Rae’s arm and pulling it up and over her shoulders. The woman was entirely limp, unresponsive. Abigail cast around. “Oh, ok, come on, think,” she whispered desperately. “Oh no – I need to get up to the surface, now. The ladder, back there, I need to get up to the 40th floor. Then I can take the elevator. Ok. Come on. Let’s go.”

She pulled Rae towards the exit, praying silently as she walked. Her own arm was still hurting, but she tried to ignore it and push on. The walk back was long and arduous. She felt exhaustion at the edges of her own mind, but couldn’t stop. She kept walking.

Finally, the ladder came into view. Abigail could’ve cried from happiness. Now, though, she was faced with a second conundrum – how to get Rae up the ladder. “C’mon brain, think,” she hissed. “Rae, now would be a really good time to wake up –“

Nothing happened. Rae didn’t stir, still unconscious. “Ok then,” Abigail whispered, and hoisted Rae up over one shoulder.

Climbing the ladder was a task in and of itself. She winced at every step and had to pause a few times. “Why are you so heavy?” she muttered to the unconscious woman. “Ugh, come on –“

After maybe half an hour, she made it onto the 42nd floor. “Two more floors to go,” she muttered. Luckily for her, the ladder to the 41st floor was very close, and Abigail was able to pull Rae over to it. She rested for a few minutes, then repeated the process.

Finally, she was on the 41st floor. “Almost there,” she whispered. “Hang in there, Rae.” She slung Rae’s arm over her shoulders and limped through the icy corridors, trying to find the ladder.

She almost cried when it came into view. “We’re so close now, we’re almost to safety,” she whispered. “Please, Rae, just hang on…”

Another exhausting ladder climb later, she was finally on the 40th floor. She wanted a rest, but there was just no time; she dragged Rae to the elevator and pushed her inside, propping her up against the wall. Once she herself crammed inside, she pressed the button for the ground floor with no small amount of relief.

Up they went, skyrocketing back towards the surface. Rae’s head lolled around on her shoulders; when Abigail stared at her, she remained unconscious. “Just hold on,” she whispered as the elevator doors opened and she pulled Rae into the center of the cavern.

There, she deposited her pack beside the woman and limped out into the snowy night. It was late, very late. The moon was high overhead. She searched the shore for someone, anyone, until –

“Hey!”

There was a figure standing by the lake. “Hey!” Abigail shouted again, waving her arm in the air. “Hey, I need help! Please!”

The figure started towards her. As it approached, she saw who it was – Alex. “What’s wrong?” he called. “Why are you here? It’s late –“

“It’s Rae,” Abigail interrupted him. “She’s hurt, really badly. Please – I dragged her to the surface, but I can’t carry her to Harvey’s.”

“What happened?” Alex demanded as he arrived at the entrance to the mines.

“She defended me – I was going to get hurt and she took the hit for me –“ Abigail was close to tears now as she led the way into the mine.

Rae still laid on the floor, right where Abigail had left her. She looked bad; there was blood running down her face. Her clothes were melted in places from the acid, revealing burned skin. Alex skidded to a halt, face falling. “Oh, Yoba,” he whispered. “C’mon.” He picked her up, as carefully as he could, one arm under her knees and the other behind her back. “Follow me,” he ordered Abigail. She grabbed both of their bags, and together they set off at a fast pace for the clinic.

The snow had continued coming down while they’d been in the mines. Alex plowed through the snow at a fast pace, breaking through so Abigail could follow behind him. “How long has she been like this?” he called over his shoulder.

“An hour?” she yelled in return. “I don’t know, I wasn’t keeping track of time!”

“All right.” He fell silent again, focusing on breaking through the snow.

Finally they reached the clinic. It was late, very late, but that didn’t stop Alex from banging on the front door. “Harvey!” he yelled. “We need your help!”

It took a minute or two, but Harvey appeared in the doorway as a light flicked on in the clinic. He blinked sleep out of his eyes as he stared at them. “What’s wrong – is that Rae?!” he demanded.

“We were in the mines, she got hurt,” Abigail called. “Please –“

“Inside, now,” he demanded, reaching out to open the door more. “Put her down on the bed in the clinic.”

Alex hurried into the room, carefully placing Rae down on the indicated bed. She looked even worse in the harsh lighting of the clinic; her untouched skin was pale, while acid burns turned her skin a bright red. She’d hit her head at some point, as blood ran down her temple and turned a section of her bronze hair tacky.

“What happened, I need to know right now,” Harvey demanded. He’d pulled his doctor’s coat on over his pajamas as he strode into the room, pulling on gloves.

“She got tackled by a giant slime and got hit with acidic slime several times,” Abigail managed as she sat down. “I think she hit her head at some point. I had to drag her back up from the mines.”

“I’m going to have to cut this away,” he said, gesturing to her jacket and shirt. “It’s burned into her side in places. You two may want to leave.”

“C’mon,” Alex said quietly to Abigail, offering her his hand. “Let’s go.”

She took it, and he helped her into the front of the house. Once there, she sat, heavily, and rested her head in her hands. “You’re bleeding,” Alex murmured; he disappeared, only to reappear with a first-aid kit. “I’m not too good with first aid. Sorry.”

“’S no problem,” Abigail said, managing a smile for him. She took the kit apart, looking for some supplies to use on her own burns.

“She took you into the mines?” Alex prompted.

Abigail looked up; he’d sat down a few chairs away, looking at her in concern. She nodded, wiping away some remnants of slime from a burn on her leg. “She needed some iron ore. She took me down to level – 40, I think. Far down, but she thought we could handle it. And we were, we really were, but then we reached level 43 and it was –“

She cut herself off, shuddering. “It was infested,” she said, revulsion deep in her voice. “So many slimes, everywhere. I knew she was getting tired, I saw it, but we just couldn’t stop, and when I went to take a rest... that’s when the giant slime attacked.”

She took a deep breath in and let it out again, closing her eyes. “She tackled me out of the way,” she said. “She saw it coming and took the hit for me. Yoba, it was bad. It almost enveloped her entire left side, just slime everywhere.”

She had to put the cloth she was using down; her hands were shaking too hard to hold it. “Then the ladder appeared after we killed it, and I was all ready to go down into the next level, and I turn around and Rae’s just – vacant. Like she’s seeing me, but she’s looking through me, y’know? She dropped her sword, and then she just fell forwards.”

Alex dragged a hand over his face. “Yoba,” he muttered. A glance at the clock told him it was only 10:30 at night or so. “You did the right thing, bringing her back.”

Abigail leaned forwards and buried her face in her hands. “I was an idiot,” she said, muffled by her fingers. “I pushed her too much. I wanted to go into the mines to prove myself. Instead, I just got her hurt-“

She cut off, choked sobs filling her throat. Alex shifted uncomfortably, before reaching out to pat her shoulder. “She’ll be fine,” he said, feeling an uneasy tinge in the back of his head. “She’s strong. She’ll be just fine.” It was as much to reassure himself as it was to reassure her.

They sat in silence for what felt like an eternity, as Abigail patched herself up as best she could and Alex stared at the opposite wall. His leg bounced; when he made that stop, his hand started tapping on his knee. He leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms over his chest, eyes casting around for anything to focus on besides what was happening in the other room –

Footsteps sounded from the hallway, and his head snapped around to stare at the entrance to the waiting room. Harvey appeared in the doorway, pulling off his gloves. They were bloody; Alex’s stomach churned, and he made himself look up at the doctor’s face.

“She’ll be fine,” he said, exhaustion a thick thread in his tone. “She’s asleep now, but if you want to see her, that’s fine.”

Abigail tried to stand up and winced. Harvey’s eyes landed on a large gash on her leg and he sighed. “Come back and let me take a proper look at that,” he told her, gesturing to the back room.

The three of them went back. Abigail sat down in a chair beside Rae, and Harvey pulled up a stool to sit on.

Alex walked over to Rae’s other side. She was asleep, still pale, but far less bloody than she had been before. An IV in her arm led to a bag of something, hanging from a metal stand. Her head was bandaged, hair still tinted red from dried blood. She looked terrible, but she was alive.

“She’ll need to stay for at least another day or so, just to flush out any acid that got into her system,” Harvey said. Alex glanced over; he was wrapping up Abigail’s leg. “It’s good you got her to me when you did. The damage could’ve gotten much worse, given time to fester.”

“She’ll be ok?” Abigail asked faintly as Harvey finished the wrapping and moved onto a serious acid burn on her left shoulder.

“She should be fine,” he confirmed.

She let out a long sigh. “Good,” she said. “Very good.”

Alex rested his hand on Rae’s own and squeezed lightly. “Ok,” he muttered. “Good.”

Her hand twitched under his; he yanked his hand away as if burned. “Rae?” he asked, a little louder.

Rae’s eyes flickered open; she winced as the light hit her eyes. Harvey stood up and walked over to the light switch, dimming the lights. She sighed out in relief. “What happened?” Her voice was small.

“You got hurt,” Abigail said. “Really bad. I had to drag you up to the surface again.”

There was silence; Rae stared at the ceiling for a minute. “Well,” she said, and her voice was stronger now. “Fuck.”

Alex snorted, and she turned her head slightly to look up at him. “Hi, Alex,” she said, a smile touching her lips. “Fancy meeting you here.”

He tried to smile back and patted her hand. “You were lucky I couldn’t sleep and was walking around,” he told her. “Abigail looked dead on her feet when she got you up to the surface.”

She reached one hand out to him but stopped, wincing. He went to pat her hand, only for her to grab hold with surprising strength. “Thank you,” she said softly. Her hand released and she rolled her head over to look at Harvey and Abigail as well. “Thank you, as well.”

“Go back to sleep,” Harvey instructed her. “You’ll be very tired for the next few days.”

She laughed softly. “I can tell already,” she murmured, as her eyes closed again. This time, her sleep was far more natural, peaceful.

Rae slept, and did not dream.

Chapter Text

Word spread the next morning that Rae was in Harvey’s clinic, badly hurt from a mining accident. Within a few hours, she had plenty of gifts and flowers at her bedside table. “Again?” she asked Maru, eyes wide as the nurse brought a bouquet inside. “I’m fine, you’d think they’d understand that.”

“You’ve made a lot of friends,” Maru said, shrugging. “People are worried.”

Rae turned pink and ducked her head.

Around noon, the door to the clinic opened. Rae listened as someone’s voice rose, before someone else started shouting. “Hey! You can’t-“ Harvey called as something clicked on the tile floors, growing louder and faster as they grew closer –

Bullet rounded the door, skidding on the slick tile floor, panting as he beamed at her. “Hi, baby!” she exclaimed, voice high pitched as she reached out to him. “Did Abby bring you to see me?”

He barked happily and raced forwards, bouncing up to stand on the bed at her feet. “Lay down,” she told him, laughing. He obeyed happily and rested his head on her upper legs, still panting as she dug her hands in behind his ears and scratched.

“No, no – no animals in the clinic!” Harvey called, irate as he stormed into the room, only to stop.

Rae looked up, giving him her biggest puppy eyes. “Please, can he stay?” she asked. “Just for a little bit. Doesn’t have to be for long…”

Harvey wavered. She frowned. “Please?”

He sighed. “Fine. But just for a little bit.”

She beamed at him. “Thank you so much! And Bullet thanks you too, isn’t that right, you big sweetheart?” she asked, leaning forwards again and baby-talking to her German Shepherd. Harvey just sighed, shook his head, and left the room.

Abigail came in next, beaming at her. “Hey, Rae!” she said, sounding excited with something. “How’re you doing?”

Rae shrugged. “I’m doing ok. Still hurting a bit. How’re you?”

Abigail grinned. “I managed to take care of all the animals this morning!” she exclaimed, a bright smile on her face. “He –“ nodding to Bullet – “helped keep them in check while I worked.”

Rae’s face lit up. “You did?” she asked, eyes wide. “Oh, thank you so much! I was worried about them… I was going to ask Marnie to swing by today and take care of them.”

“No need,” Abigail said proudly. She dropped into a seat beside Rae’s bed and leaned over to scratch behind Bullet’s ears.

There was the sound of the front door opening. Rae slumped in her seat, sighing heavily. “Everyone keeps trying to come see me,” she muttered to Abigail. “And I’d rather be left alone, to be honest…”

Abigail listened, head tilted to the side. Her lips twitched. “You sure about that? Because I don’t think you’ll want to shoo these two away…”

“Hey!” Sam almost yelled as he entered the room, grinning ear to ear. “We came here to bust you out!”

Rae started laughing as he entered. Sebastian wasn’t far behind him, shaking his head as he walked in. “That’s probably not a good idea,” she told him, eyes dancing as her laughter subsided. “I’m still not feeling too great.”

His smile slipped a little bit as he dropped into a seat on her other side, across from Abigail. Sebastian leaned against the wall, watching their little group. “Yeah,” he said, much more somber. “You really freaked the town out…”

Rae shrugged. “Nothing I could’ve helped. I didn’t know the level was infested.”

Bullet, sensing the change in atmosphere, whined and crawled forwards, resting his chin on Rae’s legs and giving her his best soulful eyes. She smiled down at him. “Hey, I’ll be ok,” she murmured. “I’ll be home in a few days.”

“You look like you’re doing ok,” Sebastian observed, raising an eyebrow.

“Yeah, until –“ Rae went to raise her left arm and stopped abruptly, wincing. “That,” she finished. “Ow.”

“Don’t do that,” Abigail hissed, batting at her arm. “Harvey’ll make you stay for another day, he’s done it before!”

Rae’s eyes went wide. She made an alarmed face and dropped her arm back to her side. “Never mind. Totally didn’t do that!” she said cheerfully.

Sam laughed, as Sebastian shook his head and Abigail smiled. “At least you’re awake,” she said, her tone something soft and lost.

That sobered them all up again. Rae shrugged, trying to dispel the dark turn the conversation had taken. “Yeah, I hate sleeping in,” she said. “I feel like I waste the day if I’m not up by 6, 6:30 at the latest –“

“You wake up that early?” Sebastian asked, sounding revolted. “I’m cranky if I’m up by 8.”

“I’m happy if I’ve finished the morning’s harvest by 8,” Rae retorted. “By 9, I’m usually in town, stocking up on seeds for the next harvest. By 10 –“

“You’re sowing seeds for the next harvest, yes, we know, we get it,” Abigail said, laughing. “You never stop working, do you?”

There was potential to veer back towards the darker side of things there, and Rae saw it clear as day. “Not unless someone literally tells me to sit my ass down and quit working,” she joked. “Which happens a lot more often, now that Abby’s living with me.”

“How’s that going, by the way?” Sam asked. “I feel like we barely see you two anymore.”

They exchanged glances; Rae shrugged. “I think it’s going well. What about you?”

“I feel like it’s going well too,” Abigail said. She winced after a moment, hand coming up to rub the back of her neck. “I am getting tired of the couch, though…”

Rae straightened, eyes widening. “I didn’t tell you?!” she asked, staring at Abigail. “I could’ve sworn I had!”

“Tell me what?” Abigail asked.

“I asked Robin to make you a bed – won’t be big, probably a twin, but it’ll get you off the couch.” Rae frowned at nothing. “My memory must be going…”

“You… you mean it?” Abigail asked. The look on her face was priceless.

Rae grinned. “100 percent. You’re sticking around, there’s no reason for you to not have a place to sleep. Honestly it was ridiculous after the first week, but eh – I’ve always been shit with doing things on time.”

Abigail scooted forwards, wrapping her arms around her friend tight. “Thank you…” she said in a small voice, burying her head in her shoulder. “That’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever done for me.”

Rae scoffed, returning the hug. “You must have a very low bar,” she said, half-laughing. “We’ll have to order sheets or something.”

“I don’t care!” Abigail said, pulling away again as excitement sparked in her eyes once more. “Oh, my goodness, I’m so excited!”

“You’re this excited over a bed?” Sam asked, grinning. “Man, you’re easy to please, aren’tcha?”

“I mean, I’d be excited if I was getting a new bed too,” Rae said. One hand rested on Bullet’s head, scratching behind his ear. “But yeah, she said it should be done in just a few days. That was right before we went to the mines, so it should be ready pretty soon.”

Abigail bounced in her seat. “Now I really can’t wait for you to be home!”

Rae smiled down at Bullet, who gazed up at her with wide, adoring eyes. “Neither can I,” she murmured. “Neither can I.”

~*~*~*~

Two days later, Rae was finally healed enough to leave. Harvey nodded as he checked her side and finished unwrapping the bandages. “No hard labor for at least a week,” he told her, giving her a stern look. “And I’ll be asking Abigail to keep an eye on you, so don’t try anything funny.”

“Yes sir,” Rae said, smiling at him as she sat up straighter and swung her legs off the bed.

“I’ll be in the waiting room, talking with Abigail,” he said, before he turned and walked through the screens, closing them behind himself.

Rae stood up, waiting to make sure she wasn’t going to collapse. Once she was sure, she walked to the chair with the clothes Abigail had brought up for her. Jeans, a loose tee shirt, and a fairly heavy jacket all went on, with the hospital robe discarded on the chair. She sat down on the bed again and pulled on her socks and boots. There was a touch of dried brown on the edge of one boot; she scratched it off with her thumbnail and stood up again. Her vision clouded for a moment, and she grabbed onto the bed while it returned. When she could see again, she made her way to the door, using the wall for support.

When she finally reached the waiting room, Bullet rushed over to greet her, tail going wild. “Hi, baby!” she said, grinning at him. “I’m all set!”

“No working for at least three days,” Harvey said as he turned away from Abigail to look at her. “Come see me then, and maybe I’ll be able to clear you for light work.”

“Will I be able to get back to regular work by spring?” Rae asked, unable to keep the worry out of her voice.

“Yes, as long as you don’t do anything to reopen the wound,” he said. “Take two of these if the pain gets too bad –“ and he handed her a bottle of pills, along with a small tub of some kind of cream – “and this if anything starts to look infected, before coming straight to me.”

“Yessir,” Rae said automatically, accepting the two containers. “Thank you again, so much.”

“Thank Alex and Abigail,” he said instead. “They got you to me in time.”

“Speaking of which,” Abigail added, beaming at her as the door opened. Alex stepped inside, looking a little embarrassed to be there.

“Hi, Alex!” Rae said, beaming at him. “Fancy meeting you here!”

“Yeah.” He ran a hand through his hair. “Abigail asked me to come make sure you got home safe.”

“Thank you,” she said in return. “If that’s everything…?”

“That should be it.” Harvey frowned in thought. “I’ll see you in three days. Remember, sooner if anything gets infected.”

Rae nodded and waved as she whistled Bullet to her side – unnecessarily, as he was glued to her hip as was. “Bye!” she called over her shoulder, waving as the three people and one dog walked to the door and opened it.

It was chilly out, and snow had fallen overnight, blanketing the town in a few inches of fluffy white powder. Rae was very thankful for her boots when she stepped down a step and sunk ankle-deep into the snow. “No one cleans the roads, I’m assuming?” she asked, giving the two others behind her playful glances. “Man, the only thing I miss about the city…”

“What else do you miss?” Abigail asked, jumping off the top step and landing in the snow with a soft fwump.

Rae considered the question as they began walking back towards the farm. Alex slid around them and started fording through the snow, making it easier for the two girls to walk. Abigail stepped up to Rae’s left, watching her face. “I miss them plowing the streets first thing whenever it snowed,” she said after a few moments of thought, gesturing to the town. “I miss being able to just go to a coffee shop and get breakfast when I didn’t feel like cooking anything. I miss the lights at night. I miss the noise from the street – isn’t that weird? I used to hate it and when I first showed up here I had to put on music to sleep, because it was just too quiet.” She shook her head. “Strange, how things change.”

Abigail was quiet, looking ahead. “I’ve never been to the city,” she admitted. “I want to go someday.”

Rae smiled. “We should. Make it a weekend trip, go to the city. There’s a whole bunch of museums that I remember. I think you’d love them. There’s this super old coffee shop with superb loose-leaf tea that I used to drink whenever I was getting sick and it would just – poof, I’d be better. Coolest thing.” She grinned and leaned over to whisper conspiratorially, “I think they put magic in the tea leaves.”

Abigail burst out laughing, and Rae joined in. Behind her mirth, though, she longed for the witchy little tea store back in the city and the warm, welcoming atmosphere.

There was real magic in that store. That much Rae was absolutely sure of. There was no other way to describe the sensation that rolled over her skin when she first opened the door of that store, stepping into a cushion of warm air that dried her soaked jacket within just a few minutes. The cold brought on by the sudden rain storm dissipated with a single cupful of tea, and the smiling young barista just laughed when Rae asked for the recipe. “Trade secret,” she’d whispered, and Rae could see those blue eyes winking as clear as if she’d just left the store.

She sighed out as they quit laughing and called up to Alex, “You’re welcome to come too!”

“Huh?” He started, looking over his shoulder at them. “What?”

“We’re going to go visit the city one weekend,” she said, smiling at him. “You should come with!”

He looked away again as the farm appeared in front of them, growing out of the trees. “I’ve been a few times,” he muttered, the wind carrying his words back to them. “Don’t really want to go back.”

Rae bit her lip and nodded. “I understand,” she murmured. “Nevermind.”

An elbow nudged her side. Abigail caught her eyes and widened her own, jerking her head up towards Alex. Rae shook her head and leaned close to whisper, “It’s not my story to tell.” She drew away again and continued walking as they finally reached the farm.

It wasn’t as big of a mess as Rae had expected. Of course, because it was winter, nothing was growing, but there were no stones or loose branches in the carefully-cleared patches she’d taken hours to clean up. “Did you keep this clean?” she asked Abigail, gesturing to the farmland.

Abigail turned red. “Yeah,” she said, dropping her head a little. “I… wasn’t really sure what to do, so I hope I did ok –“

“Are you kidding me?” Rae beamed at her. “This is great! Less work for me to do after I get back to work!” She threw both arms around Abigail and hugged her tight. “Thank you so much!”

Abigail started, but willingly hugged her back. “You’re welcome,” she said, real warmth in her voice. “I kept your tools in a chest in the house, because I didn’t know where else to put them. I didn’t realize just how heavy they were!” Her face was shocked enough to make Rae burst into laughter, grabbing her side when it gave a painful tinge. Alex, who’d turned when she began laughing, started and reached out to steady her.

“Ow,” Rae said finally, chortling as she wiped tears out of her eyes. “Ok, that was much funnier than it should’ve been. I’m thinking put on a movie and have tea in the house, because there’s no way I’m doing anything else today. Thoughts?”

“Sure,” Abigail said, shrugging as she linked her arm through Rae’s and walked up the front steps to her house. The porch was swept clean of snow, and they had no problem making their way to the front door and stepping inside.

Rae’s first thought was it felt comfortably warm in the house. From the other room, the glow of firelight told her Abigail had stoked the fire to keep the house warm while she left. The floor was clean; there were washed dishes drying on the rack beside the sink. The table was clean, as were the counters in the kitchen. Her TV screen wasn’t dusty anymore, and the pillows that she normally stuffed in a cabinet were out on the couch, along with an old blanket that looked freshly washed. It felt… homey, more homey than it had ever felt. She inhaled and smelled – was that cinnamon?

Bullet shouldered in past her and shook himself head to tail, spraying snow everywhere. Abigail groaned as she stepped past Rae and went to find a broom. “I just finished sweeping before we left, you darn dog,” she called in sheer exasperation. Rae laughed as she leaned over and pulled off her boots, setting them by the door. She gestured Alex in as well; after a moment’s hesitation, he pulled off his boots and stepped further into her house.

“Did you do all this?” Rae asked, as Abigail returned with a broom. “It feel like a real home.”

Abigail ducked her head as she swept up some of the snow and water to the threshold. “I had nothing to do otherwise,” she said. “I just… went exploring through some of the stuff you had and pulled it out.”

“Thank you,” Rae told her, a smile touching her lips as she made her way over to the couch and sat down on it. “This means a lot to me.”

“I made cookies too,” Abigail said. “Sugar cookies with cinnamon. And I saved a jug of milk from milking the cows.”

“You are a perfect angel,” Rae said with real feeling. “I’m just gonna retire and let you run things, because you obviously have everything well in hand.”

“Don’t you dare,” Abigail said, but she was laughing. “I can’t do half the stuff you do, and we both know it.”

Rae grinned at her. “You’ll learn,” she said with confidence. “What movie do you want to watch? Alex, come in, you don’t have to stand in the doorway and look awkward.” Her eyes danced as she gestured for him to sit at the other side of the couch. After a moment of hesitation, he leaned over, took off his boots, and set them beside Rae’s and Abigail’s. He took a seat at the other end of the couch, looking around everywhere with curiosity.

“You’ve never been here before, have you?” Rae realized, nudging his hip with her toes.

Alex started. “No, I haven’t,” he said, shaking his head. “I’ve seen the outside of it before, but I think it was smaller then.”

She grinned. “Yeah, I only upgraded around a season ago, mid Fall. Used to be a one-room house with no kitchen.”

“No kitchen?” he asked, raising an eyebrow. “No wonder you looked scrawnier every time I saw you.”

“Hey!” Rae smacked at his arm, laughing. “Rude! I did eat food!”

“Field snacks don’t count,” Abigail called.

“I ate sometimes.”

Alex burst out laughing. Rae gave a wry grin, shaking her head, as Abigail brought over a plate of cookies and three mugs of milk. He calmed down as he accepted the cup of milk and a cookie, before biting into it. His eyes widened. “Mmm. These taste like Granny’s,” he said, spewing out some crumbs.

“Ew, gross,” Abigail complained as she sat down in the oversized comfy chair. “And they should – it’s her recipe.”

“Yum.” He popped the other half of the cookie in his mouth. Rae nibbled on hers, smiling at the two of them.

Abigail ate away at her own cookie as Rae reached for the TV remote. Satellite was sometimes difficult to work with, but the day was crisp and clear, so she figured it would be no problem. “What do you want to watch?” she asked the room as a whole, thumbing through channels.

“Is there a game on?” Alex asked.

Rae resisted the urge to roll her eyes. “Only hockey, probably. Abby, any thoughts?”

“Hm.” Abigail hummed in thought, tilting her head. “History?”

“I could go for history,” Rae said. She scrolled through the channels, before her eyes widened. “Oooh, looks like this is a history documentary of the Gotoro Empire. Thoughts?”

“Sure, why not,” Alex said sarcastically, grabbing another cookie. “Sounds fine.”

Rae glanced over at him, before catching Abigail’s eye. She rolled hers as Abigail widened her own, just for a moment. Then she hit the play button and settled in, ready to whittle the day away with two of her friends, finally back in her own house.

~*~*~*~

The next morning, Rae woke up at 8 to the sounds of someone cooking in the kitchen. After maybe five minutes of just lying there, enjoying the peace, she got up and walked to the doorway to the main room.

Abigail was in the kitchen, flipping a pancake over. She turned her head over as Bullet scrambled to his feet and came over to see her, tail wagging. “Good morning,” she said with a cheerful smile. “How’re you feeling?”

Rae wobbled one hand back and forth. “Eh. I’m doing ok.” She walked forwards, grabbing onto the back of the sofa, just in case. “What’s up?”

“It’s the Ice Festival today!” Abigail said, grinning. “It starts at 9, down by Marnie’s farm. There’s a snow carving contest, an ice fishing contest, and a snowman building event. You think you’re up for it?”

Rae thought for a minute as she arrived at the kitchen table and sat down. Bullet planted himself at her hip. “I don’t think I could make it the full day, but I could make it part of the day for sure.”

“Oh, good,” she said, looking relieved. “I wanted to go, but I didn’t want to leave you alone…”

Rae waved a hand as Abigail brought two plates of pancakes to the table. “I wouldn’t have kept you from going,” she said. “It’s not fair to you.”

The two dug in, and for a few minutes, it was quiet. Rae wasn’t very hungry, and only ate half her plate, but Abigail polished her entire plate off. “Are you done?” she asked, looking concerned when Rae nudged her plate towards the center of the table. At Rae’s nod, she stopped eating and put her fork down. “Are you sure? Maybe you should stay home – usually you clean your plate-“

Rae laughed softly, shaking her head. “That’s usually the morning after working all day, non-stop. I’ve been cooped up in bed for the last, what? Four days?”

Abigail bobbed her head at that. “You aren’t wrong,” she agreed. “Ok. But still, if you get tired –“

“I’ll sit down or tell you, I promise,” Rae said, eyes dancing. “When does it start again?”

“It starts at 9,” she said. “I’ll let you know when it’s time to leave.”

Rae nodded as she stood up. “I’m going to go get dressed, in that case,” she said, as Bullet stood up with her. He bumped against her hip. She rested her hand on his head and used him as a crutch as she walked to the bedroom and made her way to the dresser.

She dug through the drawers, searching for something nice to wear. Her cream sweater was one of the first things she pulled out, since it was most likely the nicest winter-wear she owned. All her jeans were partially ripped, however, and she resigned herself to wearing a pair of her cleanest, least-ripped. A quick look-over told her that the nicest pair she owned was, unsurprisingly, her straight-legged jeans (it was impossible to crouch in them, since they were so tight). She grabbed the sweater, a black undershirt, and her jeans as she walked back to the bed and laid her clothes out.

For a moment, she just looked at the outfit. How far she’d come from her time in the city; then, she would’ve spent hours dithering over what to wear. Here, no one cared except her, and comfort was always in style. She carefully worked her sleep shirt, a loose tee shirt from college, up over her head and placed it on the bed. Her side twinged with the muscle strain; she winced a little. One hand rested on her side, still thickly bandaged.

Rae shook her shirt out and pulled it on over her head, using small, slow movements to inch it down over her bandage. When it eventually settled into place, she breathed a sigh of relief loud enough to make Bullet sit up and nudge at her hand. “I’m fine, baby,” she murmured, ruffling his fur around his ears. “Just tired and sore.”

Pulling her sweater on was much the same, and then she tossed her fuzzy sleep pants onto the bed and wriggled into her jeans. All that accomplished, she sat down and pulled on a thick pair of socks.

“Are you about ready?” Abigail called from the front room. “The Festival will be starting in a few minutes.”

Rae rolled her shoulders and lifted her chin, putting on a smile. “Yeah, I think so,” she called. “Give me a minute to brush my teeth.”

She took a minute to brush her teeth, hair, and put on some concealer to cover the dark spots under her eyes. Even that little bit of makeup improved her appearance by a huge amount, and a real smile touched her lips as she put the concealer away and walked back towards the living room.

Abigail had a hat on that covered her ears and most of her head, and was in the process of wrapping a scarf around her neck. “You look warm,” she said with a grin. “Ready?”

“Almost.” Rae pulled her own hat off the hook it hung on and tugged it on securely, making sure it covered her ears. She also picked up a gray scarf and wrapped it around her neck several times, before carefully bending at the waist to pick up her boots and pull them on. “Now I’m good,” she said as she straightened, giving Abigail a warm smile.

Bullet raced to their side as Abigail opened the door. “Come on,” she said. “Ready to go?”

Rae smiled and gestured for her to go first. “Ready as you are.”

The two of them and the dog set out. Rae spared a glance over at the barn and chicken coop; Abigail caught her gaze and smiled. “Don’t worry,” she said proudly. “I already took care of them. Where do you think the milk and eggs for the pancakes came from?”

Rae smiled and allowed her shoulders to relax. “Thanks, Abby. I don’t know what I would’ve done without you.”

“Oh, stop.” Abby waved her hand. “Someone would’ve helped you. We don’t leave our own hanging.”

Rae nodded. A sobering thought occurred to her; she almost tripped over her own feet. “Whoa, hey, steady there,” Abigail said, reaching out to grab her arm. “You ok?”

“Yeah, sorry,” she said hastily. “Just – bad thought.”

“Do I want to know?” Abigail sounded nervous.

“You’re better off not knowing, probably.” Rae gave a shaky laugh. “Anyways – I’ve never been to an Ice Festival before. What did you say was going to be there?”

Abigail smiled – beamed, really. “Oh, yeah! There’s always an ice fishing contest – Willy always wins that one. Then there’s an ice carving contest, which is really cool to see. Usually some people build igloos, but they’re pretty small so only Jas and Vincent can get into them.”

She chattered away on their way south. Rae was more than content to just listen and walk, keeping her eyes on the ground or the trees.

Eventually, they left the farm and walked down the path to the forest. Marnie’s silo was barely visible through the tree branches as they got closer. Dead ahead was a block of ice with a familiar head of red hair moving around it.

“Leah!” Rae called.

The artist looked up, head swinging as she looked for the source of the voice. When she saw Rae, a smile broke out on her face and she placed her pick down, jogging over to them. “Rae!” she exclaimed. “I’m so glad to see you up and about! I was so worried when I heard you’d been hurt…”

Rae gave her a delicate hug, smiling as she drew away. “I’m fine, Leah,” she said. “I got very, very lucky. What are you doing?”

Leah lit up and gestured for her and Abigail to come see. “I’m doing ice carving,” she said, giving them a grand gesture. “See?”

“It looks lovely,” Rae said, observing the mermaid. “You’ve got a real talent for this.”

“Thanks.” Leah ducked her head at the compliment. “I should get back to work, but there’s a lot of cool things to see around here! Have fun!”

Rae grinned. “I will. I’ll see you around!”

With that, she and Abigail left, wandering past a few other ice sculptures. Leah was certainly not the first to notice Rae’s appearance, and she was deluged with well wishes from well-meaning townsfolk. By the time they made it down to the igloos, she rather wanted to go home.

They found respite inside one of the igloos. A hand stuck out the entrance and waved as they approached; Abigail giggled and linked her arm through Rae’s, urging her onward. Once they reached the entrance to the igloo, she dropped into a crouch, bringing the farmer with her. “Hey, Sam,” she said. “Having fun yet?”

“Come in!” Sam hissed, and Abigail guided Rae through the small tunnel into the igloo itself.

Inside, Sam and Sebastian sat crosslegged, facing each other. They scooted around so the two girls could sit with them. Rae gave them a grateful glance as she settled against the wall of snow, closing her eyes for a moment.

“You ok?” Sebastian asked. She opened her eyes in time to see him exchange worried glances with Sam.

“Yeah, I’m just wiped,” she said, running a hand through her hair. “Everyone wants to see me, say hello, ask me a million questions about what happened. I just want them to forget about it and leave me alone.”

Sam reached across the igloo and ruffled her hair as Abigail settled into a seated position. Rae made a small noise of discontent, but otherwise did nothing. “Awwww, give it a few days. They’ll forget all about it soon enough.”

“Not soon enough for me,” Rae grumbled into her arms. “Ugh. They need to leave it alone.”

She allowed herself to drift off for a few minutes, just enjoying the quiet as Sebastian, Abigail, and Sam talked. The igloo was surprisingly warm; she supposed it was due to the body heat all four people were giving off in spades.

Then there was shouting from outside the igloo, and Rae bolted upright, narrowly missing hitting her head on the ceiling of the igloo. “Oh, the ice fishing contest is starting soon!” Abigail exclaimed, scrambling to the exit and crawling out. Sam went next, then Rae; as she reached the exit, two different sets of hands extended and pulled her to her feet. She wobbled, unsteady, as blood resettled around her body.

“Whoa there,” Sam said, sweeping one of her arms up and over his shoulders. “You ok?”

“Yeah, just gotta get feeling back in my legs.” She shook her legs out one at a time and tested her balance. “I’m good now, I think.”

Sam reluctantly let her arm fall from around his shoulders. She stood on her own, but Abigail linked their arms together as soon as she did. “We can walk together,” she said, and winked at Rae. Rae giggled in return and tightened her grip as the four walked over to the ice-fishing pond.

It was Willy, Pam, and Elliot competing this year. Abigail escorted Rae over to an empty crate and made sure she sat. Rae did so and tucked her hands into her scarf, watching as Mayor Lewis announced the start of the ice fishing tournament. Her eyes cast over the three contestants. Elliot seemed fairly relaxed, standing with a small smile on his face and his hands in the pockets of his red overcoat. Pam shifted back and forth on her feet, veritably vibrating with excitement. Meanwhile, Willy stood still, arms crossed over his chest, watching Mayor Lewis speak. He seemed unshaken, unafraid.

“Fishermen – and women – take your positions!” Mayor Lewis remained in place as each contestant walked to his or her fishing hole of choice. Elliot was close to where Rae sat, and he winked at her as he leaned over and picked up his fishing pole. She smiled at him as he straightened and checked his fishing pole, before turning to look at the Mayor again.

“Is everyone ready?” he called.

The three nodded.

“Then – begin!”

Competitive ice fishing was much more exciting than Rae had expected. Everyone cheered on their own contestant, leading to Rae shouting, “Go, Elliot!” and applauding violently. He glanced over at her group and gave them all a cheerful smile and brief wave; his bobber took that precise moment to dip under the water. He made a startled face and pulled on the pole, quickly reeling in a decent-sized fish that he placed in a bucket.

For the next five or so minutes, the three fishermen caught fish as fast as they could. Rae noted with glee that Elliot seemed to be catching a fish almost every thirty seconds, but a glance around told her Willy was still in the lead. “C’mon, you can do it!” she called in encouragement.

“Ten!” Mayor Lewis called, and the other townspeople quickly picked up the chant. “Nine! Eight! Seven!”

Rae joined in, grinning. “Six! Five! Four! Three! Two! One!”

“Aaaand time!” Mayor Lewis cried. Elliot dropped his final fish into the bucket and straightened, placing the pole down beside him before stretching. “And give us just a few minutes to count up the fish in each bucket!”

Elliot leaned over and began counting. Rae held her breath and crossed her fingers. There was a long pause, where each fisherman went up to the mayor and murmured his total. Each time, he’d nod, face impassive, and gesture for them to return to their fish.

“And the winner is,” Mayor Lewis called, as soon as Pam returned to her station. He dragged the word out; Rae held her breath and waited. “Willy!”

There was some cheering from the adults and clapping from the teens. Rae groaned softly, but applauded anyways as Willy stepped forwards and accepted the prize from the Mayor. Elliot smiled as he crouched and tipped the bucket over, allowing the fish to slide back under the surface of the water.

Rae yawned as she stood up, making sure she was stable first by holding onto Abigail’s arm. A warm hand on her other elbow made her glance up, startled; Sebastian nodded to her. “Thanks,” she murmured, before linking arms with Abigail.

“That’s about it,” Abigail told her. “The ice fishing contest is the last event of the day. It’s a little short, but it’s a fun festival.”

Rae smiled. “Just as well. I’m pretty tired. We should probably be going now.”

“Want us to walk back with you?” Sam asked.

She turned to look at him, smiling. “You don’t have to,” she said. “But it’d be nice to visit.”

Sam grinned as Rae glanced over at Abigail. “I don’t mind,” he said. “Let’s go! Seb, you coming?”

Rae looked back at Sebastian. He was watching someone else; she tracked his gaze to see Demetrius and Robin laughing and talking with Maru. She reached out one hand and grasped his wrist. He started and turned to stare at her; she gave him an encouraging smile. “Come with us,” she murmured. “We can have something to drink.”

“Does it involve liquor?” he muttered, but allowed her to take his hand and pull him with her.

They walked to the path up to Rae’s farm together. The other three chattered away while Rae kept silent, content to walk and listen instead of add to the conversation. Arm-in-arm with Abigail, hand-in-hand with Sebastian; this, she decided, was the life she’d always wanted.

“You doing ok?” Abigail asked, tightening the grip on her arm.

Rae glanced over at her. “Yes. Why?”

“You’re being awfully quiet.” Concern glittered in her eyes.

Rae exhaled, rolling her head around on her shoulders. “I’m all right. Just tired. Too many people, too much socialization. My head feels like it’s spinning, too.”

“Your head’s spinning?” Sam asked, eyes wide as he reached out to grab her shoulder. Sebastian’s hand tightened on hers for a moment.

“I’m fine, I just need to sit down,” she told them, waving a hand lightly.

Luckily they were at the stairs to the house, and Rae climbed it with three sets of hands to help. She would’ve complained, only she was getting tired at an exponential rate. As soon as they stepped into the house, still comfortably warm, she made her way over to the couch and curled up in one corner.

“Do you need to go back to bed?” Abigail asked, hovering behind her.

Rae opened one eye and looked up at her. “Nah,” she said, a brief smile touching her lips. “It’s fine. Pull up a chair, have a cookie. I need a second chair over here…”

Abigail giggled at that and vanished out of Rae’s line of sight. She closed her eye again and sighed out heartily.

The couch depressed near her feet. She cracked an eye open again and smiled at Sam, who grinned back at her. “Hello,” he said, grabbing the blanket off the back of the couch and snapping it out to drift down over her. “Go ahead and sleep. Don’t worry about it.”

“Wasn’t going to,” she murmured, smiling at him for a moment. “Thanks. That was really fun.” She raised her voice so Abigail could hear. “I’m glad I went. Thank you.”

“Maybe next year you’ll be able to actually enjoy it,” Sebastian quipped, but Rae didn’t hear him, already slipping off to sleep.

Chapter Text

The next three days were quiet. Rae slept a lot, still healing; Abigail kept up with the animals and the house. Bullet followed Abigail around, but he usually ended up sleeping in Rae’s bed with her.

On the second day, Rae woke up to someone knocking at the door. She got up, stretched, and winced as her side complained. Bullet lifted his head off his paws and watched her as she walked to the front door and pulled it open, wincing against the chill.

Robin stood there, hand raised to knock again. Her eyes widened when she saw Rae standing there, shivering as a breeze flitted past them and into the house. “Oh my goodness!” she exclaimed as Rae stepped aside to allow her in. “You should be asleep!”

Rae shrugged as she closed the door behind Robin and went to stoke the fireplace. “It’s fine,” she said, waving one hand. “I need to be up and moving some more anyways.”

“No, you don’t,” Robin said firmly. “Sit.”

Their voices woke Abigail; she sat up, running a hand through her purple hair. “What’s goin’ on?” she asked, sounding confused.

“I brought the bed you requested,” Robin said, smiling. “It’s all finished.”

“It’s done?” Abigail asked, suddenly looking much more awake. “Really?!”

“Yes, really!” Robin said, laughing. “Come on out and take a look.”

Rae grabbed her boots and a thick, heavy jacket to wear over her sweatpants and tee shirt, while Abigail got up and stretched. “I’m so excited,” she proclaimed, standing up and all but vaulting over the back of the couch. “I can’t wait to see!”

The three of them walked outside as soon as Abigail had her own jacket done up. The snow was roughly a foot deep in places, but Abigail had worked hard to keep a clear path between the house, the barn, and the coop. Overnight, a soft dusting of snow had obscured the cobblestones Rae used to walk from place to place; it crunched under their feet.

The bed was in pieces in the back of the truck, but Abigail still gasped in glee as she looked at it. The wood was a light tan pine, stained for longevity. Robin had added carved swirls into the headboard and baseboard, making it far more decorative than Rae had expected. It was built to be sturdy, but still ornate. “Do you like it?” Robin asked anxiously, as Rae reached out and ran two fingers over the wood.

“I love it,” Abigail breathed, grasping one of the legs. “It’s perfect.”

Rae took that moment to let out a sneeze, shaking her head and squeezing her eyes shut. “Get inside, get inside,” Robin said, waving her away, before calling, “Sebby! Come help me!”

There was movement from inside the cab of the truck. Rae paused in climbing the steps to watch as Sebastian stumbled out of the car, looking half asleep. “Wha’?” he asked, scrubbing his face with one hand. “I’m up…”

Rae giggled as she finished climbing the last few steps to the porch. Bullet greeted her as she stepped inside and slid past her to go say hello. She waited in the doorway as they took out the headboard and, between Sebastian and Robin, managed to get it up the steps and into the house. Rae held the door open as they passed, while Abigail gathered the two pieces that connected the headboard and baseboard and followed. One more trip to get the baseboard, and Rae closed the door behind the two humans and the dog.

They moved everything into Rae’s room, against the front wall. Rae sat down on her bed at Robin’s insistence, Bullet at her feet as the other three got to work assembling the bed. Robin knew what she was doing, luckily, because the other two young adults had absolutely no clue what was going on. What started as giggles from Rae fast became full-on belly laughs that left her clutching her side for air, as Robin fruitlessly tried to direct the two. “No, you two switch places, and flip it upside down,” she ordered, only for them to switch places and flip the pieces so that they were exactly the way they had been not two seconds before. She sighed out and rested her head in her hands as Rae threw her head back laughing, and Abigail and Sebastian exchanged confused glances. “Nevermind,” Robin said wearily. “Set them down and just lift what I tell you to.”

Things went much faster after that. Rae scratched behind Bullet’s ears as she watched the bed take shape. Robin even had a mattress she was willing to part with; with it placed on the bed, it started to look more like an actual bed, rather than a mismatched pile of parts.

“Do you want to try it out?” Robin asked, smiling.

Abigail sat down, bouncing lightly. “Oh, I love it,” she said, beaming at them. “It’s perfect!”

“Your sheet set should be here tomorrow,” Rae said. She smiled at Abigail as the other girl looked at her.

Abigail flopped onto her back and stared at the ceiling. “This is the best day of my life,” she said, and sighed happily. “I’m so happy.”

“Happy over a bed? Man, wait until you get your birthday present,” Rae joked. “You’re gonna flip.”

Abigail grinned. “Bring it on!” she called.

Rae laughed and stood up. “Anyone want breakfast?” she asked as she walked over to the kitchen. “I’m making pancakes and eggs.”

“Oooh, yes,” Robin said, grinning at them. “That sounds amazing. Sebby, what do you think?”

“Eh.” Sebastian shrugged.

“I can make pancakes,” Rae called over her shoulder. “Our coffee maker isn’t in yet, but I think I have some that I can reheat.”

“Coffee sounds amazing,” he said with feeling. “Thanks.”

Rae smiled as she pulled out a large Styrofoam cup of coffee and poured some into a pot, which she placed on the stove. “No microwave yet,” she said apologetically. “Finding one that’s not Joja Corp-made is impossible. I think I may have found one, though, so that’ll make heating stuff up a lot faster.”

“Ugh, you’re telling me,” Robin complained as she sat down at the table. “Finding appliances that aren’t made in a Joja Corp factory is a pain…” She shook her head. “It took Demetrius and I months to find things for our kitchen, to say nothing of a washer and dryer…”

“Ugh, I still need those myself,” Rae complained as she started mixing the batter for the pancakes. “Where’d you find them in the end?”

She didn’t miss Abigail and Sebastian exchanging eye rolls as Robin shook her head. “It went out of business,” she admitted. “Which reminds me, I need to keep an eye out for someone who can repair it, it’s been making this nasty clunking noise –“

“Mom, Abigail and I are gonna go check on the animals,” Sebastian said abruptly, standing up. “We’ll be back in a few minutes.”

Rae winked at Abigail as she grabbed her coat and pulled it on. “See you in a little bit,” Rae called. “Save a jug of milk for me?”

“Got it,” Abigail called, as she swung the door open and stepped outside. Sebastian closed the door behind them.

Robin waved as they left, before turning around and sighing. “I feel like every day is another day Sebastian slips away from me,” she admitted, resting her head in her hands and rubbing her temples. “I don’t know what to do.”

Rae’s hand stilled in the process of flipping over a pancake. “How so?” she asked cautiously, aware that the ice she was on was very, very thin.

Robin sighed again. “I don’t know,” she said, sounding hopeless. “He and Demetrius are fighting almost constantly and I don’t know how to make it stop.”

Rae fell silent as she flipped the pancake off the pan and onto a plate. “I don’t know what to tell you,” she admitted softly. “I wish I could help, but I don’t know how.”

“Neither do I.” Robin groaned and ran a hand through her hair. “I keep feeling like one day I’m just going to wake up and he’ll have packed his stuff and left for the city, and I’ll never see him again-“

Rae couldn’t help herself. She snorted.

After a moment, Robin laughed herself and pushed a hand through her hair. “It’s silly, I know,” she admitted. “Foolish. But he never comes out of his room, and whenever he does, he ends up fighting with Demetrius or Maru…”

Rae raised one eyebrow as she continued cooking. “Have you ever considered that maybe it’s not entirely his fault?” she asked, very, very careful. “I know from his perspective, you and Demetrius compare him almost constantly to Maru. Just from casual observation, I can tell that they’re very different people with very different interests.”

There was silence for a moment. Rae flipped a pancake and almost dropped it on the floor, as she waited for Robin’s reply.

“I don’t know what I can do to make Demetrius stop,” Robin said finally, and the weight in her voice made Rae’s heart ache. “I love him and Sebby and Maru with all my heart, and I don’t want to lose any of them.”

“If they really love you,” Rae murmured, “they won’t be angry if you ask them to stop.”

Robin nodded as the door opened and Abigail and Sebastian tramped inside. “It’s still cold out there,” Abigail announced. “And I brought the milk!” She held up a jug of milk.

“Perfect!” Rae grinned as she reached out for the milk jug. Abigail took a few steps forwards and handed the jug to her, before returning to the front door and pulling off her shoes. “Pancakes are almost done.”

“Yum,” Abigail said with relish as she moved over to the cupboard and pulled out some plates. “Do you have any maple syrup?”

“Yeah, actually,” Rae said, beaming over her shoulder. “Fresh-made, too. Tapped the trees on the property myself!”

Robin laughed. “One of these days, you’re going to be completely self-sufficient,” she said, shaking her head.

“Nope,” Rae said cheerfully, as she slid the last pancake onto the plate Abigail held out. “Still gonna need a good woodworker.”

“Is that so?” Robin asked, as Abigail handed her the pancake and bottle of syrup. She accepted it with a grin and added, “I may know just where to find one.”

~*~*~*~

Rae’s check up at Harvey’s went well, and within a few days she was back in the mines with Abigail – this time much farther up than before. Each day consisted of exercises to train Abigail how to use her sword more efficiently, before taking a trip to the mines and going through at least 5 floors, sometimes 10 if they encountered little resistance. Abigail learned quickly, and before long they were venturing down farther and farther, gathering more iron and gold as they went. Each day, after arriving home, they’d set up the ores to melt in the furnaces overnight before retiring to bed.

Within maybe two weeks, Rae had amassed a small fortune in gold, iron, and copper bars. The refined quartz she needed was taking a bit longer, but still didn’t pose a problem. She spent any time not training Abigail or in the mines working on shaping the sprinkler system that would run under the fields, tilling the ground with her hoe and placing pipes down.

It was on a day like that that she started in the middle of her work and paused. Abigail looked up from the next row over, frowning. “Something wrong?” she asked curiously.

Rae shook her head. “No. I just remembered something,” she said, and stepped over the trench she’d dug to walk to the chests lined up against her house. She dug inside one of them for a moment, before coming up with one bar each of the gold, iron, and copper. An earth crystal from the one beside it found its way into her pocket, along with a chunk of fire quartz. “C’mon,” she called to Abigail, as she stuffed these bits and bobs into her backpack. “We’re going on a field trip.”

Abigail was more than willing to stand up and bring her own hoe over to the tool chest. “Where are we going?” she asked as she dropped the hoe off and wiped her forehead.

“It’s a surprise,” Rae told her, as she climbed the front steps and vanished into her house for a moment. When she reappeared, she was tucking some fall crops into her bag. “Let’s go, and I’ll show you once we get there. Bullet, heel!”

The German Shepherd was already loping towards her, tongue hanging out of his mouth as he arrived at her side and grinned up at her. “Hey, baby,” she said, scratching his head, before jerking her head towards the town center. “Follow me.”

The woods were deep in snow; at least three inches covered every surface not sheltered. The few squirrels they saw were starting to lose some of the weight they’d packed on in the fall; Rae tossed a few acorns at any she saw, keeping one hand on Bullet’s collar. He whined and strained against her grip, but ultimately behaved very well. “There’s a good boy,” she murmured as one grabbed the acorn and raced back up the tree. “Leave it, that’s my boy.”

When they got into town, instead of going to Pierre’s store as Abigail appeared to expect, Rae turned towards the stairs that led up to the hill behind the town. “Follow me,” she said, as she finally released Bullet’s collar and allowed him to race up the steps. “Keep close.”

She led the way up the stairs and past the playground. Abigail glanced over at the decrepit community center, but didn’t give it a second thought until Rae turned towards it. “We’re going there?” she called. “It’s not exactly safe in there…”

Rae laughed. “It’s perfectly fine, I promise.”

“Isn’t it supposed to be locked?” Abigail asked as Rae climbed the steps to the front door. The words died in her mouth as the other woman tugged on the door handle and it easily slid open, allowing her inside. “Guess not.”

“Lewis leaves it unlocked for me,” Rae called, not entirely hiding her amusement as she walked into the central chamber of the building. Bullet went over to sniff at one of the corners. “Come in. It’s not so drafty as you’d expect.”

She took a moment to just examine her surroundings once she was inside. It was an airy room, yes, with windows broken and vines creeping in from the outside, but it was a comfortable room. She didn’t smell any dust or mildew, and there was no sign of any small creatures who may be living inside – besides the Junimos, of course.

Abigail cleared her throat and stamped her feet as she looked around. “So, why are we here?” she asked.

“A mission, of sorts.” Rae rolled her shoulders and turned to the right, down a small hallway. Abigail followed; Rae glanced over shoulder and smiled at the trepidation in her face. Bullet pushed past Abigail and jogged to walk at Rae’s side.

She went to the end of the hallway and turned right again, taking the stairs down to the basement boiler. It was old and decrepit, the boiler falling apart. The pipes were rusted and full of holes in places. There was no way it could be restored to working order; everything was too old.

Rae walked to the center of the room, where a small plaque lay on the floor. There was a star with writing in the center of it. To her, it was words, but to anyone else, she knew it would just look like scribbles.

“What are you doing?” Abigail asked, as Rae knelt and dug into her bag. She pulled out the three bars and placed them on the center of the plaque, side by side. “Why are you doing that?!”

“Less talk, more listen,” Rae said simply. She sat back on her heels and waited.

It took a moment, but eventually the plaque began to glow – faint at first, but steadily growing brighter. Rae smiled, but didn’t look away as the light shone, increasing in brightness swiftly. Behind her, Abigail gasped.

The light consumed the three bars; they vanished from sight in the brilliant glow. She closed her eyes against the glare and waited.

The light subsided, and Rae opened her eyes. Before her, sitting off to the side of the plaque, was a shiny new furnace.

“Two down, one to finish,” she murmured, and stood up, rolling the furnace to the side. When it was safely away from the plaque, she knelt again and placed the piece of fire quartz and earth crystal on the plaque.

This time, the glow was much greater. It grew out of the plaque at an exponentially increasing rate, filling the entire room. Rae sat back on her heels and closed her eyes, bracing against the blinding light. Behind her, she heard Abigail shout in panic, but there was a strange ringing filling her ears as well. Even with all the sensory overload, Rae smiled as the light enveloped her.

When it vanished, the room looked brand new. Rae let out a soft, pleased noise as she looked around, examining the fresh new room. The boiler chugged away, filling the room with warmth. All the pipes were repaired around the room.

The first Junimo popped into existence right in front of her, and she laughed aloud as it bounced up and down. More appeared around the room, filling it with tiny noises of excitement. They were a variety of colors; the first one to appear was the gray one Rae had only ever caught glimpses of in the past.

Her mind fogged, and she closed her eyes as the Junimo spoke directly into her mind. “So many wonderful bundles… Thank you! Thank you!” the gray Junimo said, bouncing in her mind’s eye. Rae smiled and opened her eyes, bowing her head respectfully to the Junimos.

They vanished soon after, and Rae stood up, brushing off her knees. “Mission accomplished,” she said in satisfaction, before turning to look at Abigail.

The girl stared at her, eyes wide in shock. “How’d you do that?” she demanded, head snapping around to stare in other directions. She took everything in.

“Follow me,” Rae said, walking past her friend and climbing the stairs two at a time. The little gray Junimo was a few feet ahead of her as she walked into the main room again, watching. It raced into the small hut made of dried grasses and leaves and came out carrying a gold star, which it brought over to the picture frame above the fireplace mantel. With one mighty throw, the star flew through the air (borne by magic, Rae guessed) and settled perfectly into one of the seven star-shaped hollows. That completed, the Junimo bounced over to hide behind Rae’s legs.

“What… is that thing?” Abigail asked, peering down at the thing. “Are those things, I guess.”

“You can see them?” Rae asked, mildly impressed. “Huh. I thought the Wizard and I were the only ones. Anyways, this is a Junimo. They’ve been restoring the community center and some things around town, in exchange for gifts that I provide.”

Abigail frowned, before starting. “So that’s how the bus got repaired!” she exclaimed. “Everyone was wondering, but we just thought Pam had been messing with the engine or something.”

Rae laughed. “Nope. That was the Junimos. I don’t know what they’re going to fix next, but that’ll be exciting to see!” She grinned at the other woman.

They’d forgotten about Bullet, the humans and Junimo both. Now the dog padded over and nudged at the Junimo, jolting back when the little thing bounced about a foot into the air and squeaked, racing away to the hut. “Bullet, no, leave it alone!” Rae called, trying and failing to hide her laughter. “That’s not a toy! Leave it!”

The German Shepherd retreated to her side, whining in complaint as he continued to glance at the hut. The gray Junimo poked its head out and shook a tiny fist.

Rae and Abigail burst out laughing.

Chapter Text

Winter continued in much the same fashion. Rae and Abigail went to the mines; some days Rae went alone, though Abigail was reluctant to allow her out of her sight after the whole debacle. Friday nights they went to the Saloon, for drinks and pool. Some afternoons, if mining went well, Rae took a nap while Abigail went to Sam’s house to work on their music as a band.

Rae was working on soup for dinner when Abigail burst through the front door, grinning wide. “Rae, I brought company for dinner!” she crowed, as Sam followed a few steps behind, panting. Sebastian was a minute or so behind him; he shut the door behind the three and caught Rae’s eye, rolling his own. Still, for all his calm demeanor, something excited sparkled behind his eyes.

“I can see that,” Rae said, shaking her head and smiling as she checked the pot. There was enough for four people, luckily – though she’d have to come up with something for lunch tomorrow. “What’s all the excitement for?”

She glanced over in time to see Abigail and Sam exchanged thrilled looks – there was no other way to describe it. “Spit it out,” she said, and had to pause and close her eyes, vivid memories of her mother using the same tone whirling through her head.

“We got a gig!” Abigail shrieked.

Rae whirled, eyes flying open. “You did?!” she demanded. “Where?!”

“Zuzu City,” Sebastian said. He’d been busy pulling his boots off and tapping the snow away. Now he walked past where Sam and Abigail were bouncing up and down in excitement and opened a cupboard, extracting four bowls. Rae gave him a thankful smile and returned her attention to the pot of soup. “It’s gonna be in a few days. Just a small park, nothing major, but still-“

“It’s a start!” Sam exclaimed, grinning ear to ear. Then his smile slid off his face, and he abruptly turned a little green. “Uh… oh boy. We’ve got a lot to do…”

Rae laughed as she started ladling soup into the bowls. “Well, you can talk about it over dinner. Soup today – tomato, with bread I baked this morning.”

“She put it on this morning to simmer before we left for the mines and when we came back it smelled sooo good,” Abigail bemoaned. “She wouldn’t let me try it, though…”

Rae pointed her ladle at the other woman. “Because ‘trying’ something turns into ‘eating all of’ something,” she said. Amusement danced in her eyes as she put the ladle back into the pot and helped Sebastian carry the soup bowls to the table. “Now you get to eat it.”

“Yay!” Abigail cried, already digging in enthusiastically. “Oh, that’s really good.”

Rae shook her head and smiled as she sat down. “Mouth closed, please, I don’t need tomato soup on the table.” She took a bite herself, raised an eyebrow, and swallowed. “You aren’t joking, though. Very good, especially for frozen tomatoes…”

“No kidding,” Sam said, in between shoveling mouthfuls of soup in. “This is great. Can you cook every day from now on?”

“I think your mom would have some things to say about that,” she said, though her eyes were dancing.

“Ok, good point…”

The remainder of dinner was spent talking, mostly from Abigail and Sam as they began figuring out how the concert would go down. Rae was content to sit in the silence and listen, watching the conversation fly back and forth like some kind of invisible tennis match. Sebastian was equally quiet, only speaking up with a comment here and a quip there.

She loved this; this kind of quiet time to soak in the day, to sit with her friends and just enjoy their company. There was no need to rush; she had no obligations for the evening, no places to run to. Her friends were here. She was content.

She finished mopping up the remains of her soup and stood up. “Are there seconds?” Sam asked, eyes shining as he looked up at her.

Rae laughed and shook her head. “Nope. Sorry. There was just enough for 4 servings, no more, no less.” She grabbed her plate and dish and walked to the sink, placing them in the basin to be washed later. “But, if everyone’s finished, I have a small surprise…”

Abigail straightened, eyes shining. “Oh! Can I help?!” she asked, standing and grabbing her dishes as well. “Please?”

Rae giggled as she stepped over to the refrigerator. “Come here, then,” she said, and swung open the door, blocking Sebastian’s view of the interior with her body. Abigail hurried over and helped her lift out the chocolate cake. Together, they carried it to the table.

“Happy birthday!” the two of them chorused, as they placed the cake down in front of Sebastian. He looked startled, before a shy smile crossed his face.

“You guys did remember,” he said, looking at each of them.

“Belatedly,” Rae admitted, wincing.

“She started crying when she realized she’d missed your birthday,” Abigail said in a stage whisper.

“I was on pain meds! It was a bad day!” Rae protested, lifting both hands and laughing. “I felt bad!”

Sam started laughing as he brought over four plates and forks, setting them down. Abigail retrieved a lighter and a candle, placing the candle on the cake and lighting it. “Ready?” she asked, grinning, before taking a deep breath and beginning to belt out ‘Happy Birthday To You’. Rae joined in, smiling as she sat down at her seat. Sam came in last, and together the three of them carried through a passable round of the song.

“Make a wish,” Rae urged him softly when they finished, leaning her elbows on the table and giving him an encouraging smile. A brief glance over her shoulder told her Abigail looked more excited than any of them, still standing as she leaned forwards. Her hands were planted firmly on the table, arms straight and elbows locked. Sam, when she glanced over at him, met her eyes and gave her a smile, before turning back to watch Sebastian.

Sebastian had his eyes closed, still as a pool of water. He nodded once, took a deep breath, and blew out the candle. It went out immediately, and a thin waver of smoke rose into the air, climbing up towards the ceiling.

“What’d you wish for?” Abigail asked. Rae’s head swung around to stare at her; she bounced up and down on the balls of her feet, a wide grin on her face.

“That’s not how that works!” she admonished. “You’re not supposed to tell, that’s the only way it’ll come true!”

Sebastian made a soft snorting sound. Rae turned back to him. “It’s ok,” he said. “I won’t tell, though.”

Abigail pouted, but Rae only smiled and handed him a knife. “Cut yourself a slice – not too big!”

“It is my birthday,” he pointed out. “I feel like I can have as big a piece as I want…”

“I mean, if you want, I suppose,” Rae said, faltering. Soft laughter interrupted her, and Sebastian waved his hand before cutting a small piece of cake. She took the knife after him and cut similarly sized pieces for the other three, before dishing them out and starting to eat.

It was good. It was very, very good, and it was all Rae could do to not take another piece when she was finished with her first one. “It’ll probably be better tomorrow,” she warned as she stood up, plate in hand. “I’ll get started on dishes, and then we can do presents.”

He looked startled. “You got me presents?”

“Of course!” Rae beamed at him, eyes shining. “How could we not?”

He ran a hand over his face, scrubbing his cheeks. “… I don’t know what to say.”

She shifted over to his side and wrapped her free arm around his shoulder. “You don’t need to say anything,” she murmured into his hair. “Just smile and accept the fact that we’re here for you.”

Hesitantly, one of his hands lifted to cover her own. “Thanks,” he said. “I appreciate it.”

She smiled and drew away, carrying her plate to the sink and starting to wash up. “Abby, mind giving me a hand? I wash, you dry.”

“Sure.” Abigail shoved her final bite of cake into her mouth and stood up, swallowing in the process. “Should go pretty fast.”

“Can I help?” Sebastian asked.

Rae looked over her shoulder, giving him an unamused glare. “You sit, and stay sat,” she ordered. “Enjoy your belated birthday.”

So he did, as the two girls worked. Eventually Sam joined them, placing dishes back in their place in the cupboards. “I need a dishwasher, a mechanical one,” Rae grumbled softly. “This is getting real old, real fast…”

“Maybe for YOUR birthday,” Abigail said as she dried the final dish and handed it to Sam. “Speaking of which, PRESENTS!”

She bounced into their shared bedroom and returned with two packages, while Sam extracted one from his back pocket. “Here you go,” she said, and placed the packages on the table.

“Open that one first,” Rae called. She pointed to the one with flowers drawn on the plain brown paper.

Sebastian glanced up at her, before a tiny, mischievous smile crossed his face and he picked up the other package – the one with stars on it. “I think I’ll open this one first,” he said.

“Yay!” Abigail dropped down into her seat and shifted, wiggling around.

Sebastian opened it carefully as Sam and Rae both sat down, watching. He pulled out a mug with an emblem on the side; an odd look crossed his face. “Is this-“

“The Solareon Chronicles? Yeah!” Abigail grinned at him. “I know how much you like the game, so I thought that would be perfect.”

He nodded. “It is. Thank you.” He set it aside and bobbed his head to her, a little awkward. She just waved it off.

He picked Sam’s gift next. The thin, tiny package was light in his hands, but as he ripped it open, a piece of plastic slid into his hand. “What’s this?” he asked, frowning as he turned it over.

“It’s a giftcard,” Sam said. “You can order a new game pack online for our next game night!”

“I’m sensing a pattern here,” Sebastian quipped, but the smile on his lips was genuine. “Thanks, Sam.”

“No problem.”

“I suppose that leaves Rae’s for last,” he said, giving her a small smile. She returned it and inclined her head as he broke the tape off the package.

There were two things inside this pack; one rattled when he shook it. He peeled the paper away and revealed a tiny, detailed figurine, beautifully painted and elegantly crafted. His breath caught in his throat. “Is this-“

“I remembered your character and asked an artist I was friends with to create it for you,” she admitted. “There’s a stand, so you can use it as a game piece.”

He turned it over in his hands, eyes wide with wonder. “It’s perfect,” he murmured. “Thank you.”

She smiled. “There’s still one more thing in there.”

Reminded, he picked up the second object and unwrapped it. A beautiful piece of pale-blue crystal fell into his palm, shaped like a teardrop. His breath caught in his throat. Rae watched, a tiny, pleased smile on her lips.

“Is this…?”

“A frozen tear? Yes.”

She watched as he turned it over in his hands, holding it up in the air. The lighting caught the facets of the crystal and reflected them, casting tiny rainbows all around her kitchen. Abigail made a soft noise of astonishment.

“Where’d you find this?” There was reverence in his voice.

“The mines,” Rae murmured. “Took me three days to find one that was perfect.”

He turned it over and over in his hands. “This is… this is perfect.” He looked up at her. “Thank you.”

She half-stood, but he waved her off and stood himself, shifting around the table to hug her. Sebastian wasn’t a hugger; Rae knew this from several long months of experience. This appeared to be a special occasion, as he rested his cheek on her head and squeezed her shoulders for a minute. She smiled into his shirt, relaxing for just a moment. “You’re very welcome,” she murmured in return, before drawing away. She had to look up roughly a foot to see his face, but was met with a soft smile.

“You guys are so cuuuute,” Sam said in a stage whisper, and Rae burst into laughter, turning to look at him with mirth dancing in her eyes. Sebastian stepped away again, running a hand through his hair; Rae glanced up at him, still giggling. “Awwww, don’t stop on my accord!”

“Too late, moment ruined,” Abigail said, deadpan, and Rae laughed harder, shaking her head. “This is very funny to you, for some reason.”

Rae waved her off, trying to stop laughing, especially as her side reminded her she WAS still recovering. “Ow,” she managed, pressing a hand to the point it hurt. “Agh, make me stop laughing –“

“Dead puppies and kittens,” Sebastian said as he sat down again and turned the frozen tear over in his hands. “Nuclear annihilation-“

Her laughter subsided, and she gave him a friendly glare. “Too far.”

“Why was that so funny to you?” Sam asked. “And I’m genuinely curious, because anytime someone asks about who you’re interested in you either brush them off or give them the most polite smile I’ve ever seen – which is still hilarious.”

Rae hesitated for a moment, disguising it by pressing one hand to her side and wincing again. “Ow,” she said again. “Well, I’ve just… I don’t know, I’ve never understood why everyone thinks it’s their business who I’m interested in or not interested in.” She shrugged. “I wasn’t here for a week and people were already pointing out the eligible bachelor AND bachelorettes in town. I’m honestly a little surprised at how welcoming they were of the fact that I could be gay…”

“No one cares,” Abigail said, shrugging one shoulder carelessly. “I’m bi, no one makes a big deal out of it.”

Rae gave her an astonished look. “Really?” Abigail nodded; Rae shrugged. “Cool. Anyways, yeah, that’s most of it.”

“And the rest of it?” Sam prompted.

Bullet nudged Rae’s side; she leaned over and scratched his head. “I’m… ace,” she admitted. “Never been interested in dating at all. I had a few flings in high school and college, but eventually figured out it just wasn’t for me.” She lifted one shoulder. “I dunno. It’s just never been a thing that I’ve needed to talk about.” She rolled her eyes. “Though, at this rate, I’m going to have to put a fucking notice out front of Pierre’s shop…”

Sebastian grinned as Abigail and Sam burst out laughing. “Can you imagine?” Abigail asked, half-wheezing. “Oh, that would be so funny –“

“It’d be great,” Sam said, waving one hand at her. “No, no, we’ll definitely leave you alone from now on, sorry. I just want to see the reactions all the moms would have when they figure out you’re not interested in getting married, period.”

“Well, I don’t think I’m just going to tell them,” Rae murmured. She dug her fingers in behind Bullet’s ears and tried not to sound too worried. “But… would you mind not telling anyone? I don’t know how others would take it. Back in the city, the few people that I told… they weren’t exactly welcoming.”

Their laughter finally subsided. Sam nodded. “Of course.”

Her shoulders relaxed. “Thanks,” she murmured, keeping her eyes on Bullet’s. He stared up at her, eyes wide and adoring, and she managed a smile for him. “I… I appreciate it.”

Sebastian reached over to clap her shoulder, and she gave him a warm smile. “We’ve got your back,” he murmured.

She nodded, throat closing, and wondered how the universe had been so kind as to give her these wonderful friends and a new chance at life.

Chapter Text

Abigail spent much of the next four days at Sam’s house. Rae visited the mines, but chose to re-explore earlier levels instead of venturing deeper. She’d have plenty of time to do that after the gig, with Abigail at her side.

Occasionally, in the afternoons after mining, Rae made it down to Sam’s house to sit and listen to them practice. They were decently good, but to Sam, decently good wasn’t enough. He pushed them harder and harder, trying to get them to peak performance. She watched it all with worried eyes, noticing just how difficult he was being on both himself and the other members of his group.

The night before the gig, Sam drilled them far into the night, only stopping when Jodi knocked on the door. He cut off in the middle of his song with a soft growl and stomped over to the door, yanking it open. Jodi stood there, clutching a bathrobe to her throat. She did not look amused. “I’m going to bed,” she said. “You should get some sleep too.”

“We will, just one more run through of this song-“

Rae pushed herself off his bed and walked over, bare feet padding against the carpet. “Sam, it’s almost 10:30,” she murmured. “It’s far too late. You really should sleep.”

He raked one hand through his hair, forcing all the spiky bits to lie flat. “You don’t understand,” he snapped, and Rae’s eyebrows immediately jumped upwards. “We have to be perfect-“

“No you don’t,” Rae said, before he could keep going. “You just have to be genuine. Now, get some sleep.”

She turned around to see both Sebastian and Abigail giving her grateful looks. She winked at them and gestured for them to come to her side. “You’ll need to be well rested for tomorrow,” she said, gently resting a hand on Sam’s shoulder. “Relax.” Her voice turned low and soothing, and she put weight behind the word. “You must be exhausted…”

Sam blinked several times, frowning. “I mean,” he muttered, looking at her. “I guess I’m a little tired…”

Internally shrieking in triumph, Rae linked her arm through his and tugged him away from the doorway. “Just sleep, and when you wake up, you’ll feel so much better,” she told him, keeping that same tone – relaxed, calm. “Go on…”

He almost collapsed onto his bed, fast asleep before his head could hit the pillow. Rae let out a hefty sigh and turned around. “And now I’m going home,” she muttered, closing her eyes for a minute and shaking her head. “That boy’s been wearing me out.”

“Thank you,” Jodi whispered to her as she passed, and Rae gave the woman a gentle smile. She saw them out the door and waved as they left.

“Can I crash at your place tonight?” Sebastian asked, heaving a weary sigh. “I really don’t feel like sneaking into my house.”

“Plus, we can get you up on time tomorrow for the gig.” Abigail nudged his side with her elbow as they walked north, towards the path to Rae’s farm. “Sleepyhead.”

He nudged her right back. Rae giggled, a few steps behind them. At the sound of her voice, both turned back to her and gestured her forwards; she took up a spot between them and linked arms with both.

“So, miss magical sleep fairy, bed as soon as we get home?” Abigail asked.

Rae laughed. “Indeed. I’ll throw a blanket and pillow on the couch for you.”

They walked for a few more yards, enjoying the quiet crunch of snow underfoot and the soft noises of the wind in the trees. Then Rae took a deep breath in and said, “Y’know, I was thinking we could go into the city early tomorrow and just explore for a bit. I can show you around. If we get there at 10 or 11, we could have five or six hours before the concert. Plus, I need to do a little shopping…”

She trailed off and bit her lip, silently hoping they’d come. Whether or not they wanted to accompany her, she still intended to go into the city early enough to go shopping for some casual pieces she was missing, not to mention a stop at her favorite little tea shop.

Abigail sighed. “If it gets me away from Sam’s obsessiveness, I’m down. Besides, if this is that tea shop you talked up, I really want to visit it.”

Rae let out a hefty sigh. “Oh, thank goodness. Well, I’m going to get up at 8 or so to catch the bus at 10 and get there by 11. Want me to get you guys up?”

“Ugh, that’s so early,” Sebastian muttered. “Why would you get up that early?”

“Why would you waste half the day by sleeping?” she retorted.

“Ok.” He shook his head at her.

They reached Rae’s house late at night. As soon as they got inside, Rae headed towards the bedroom and found a spare blanket and pillow – the ones Abigail had used, before she got her own bed. She poked her head out of the bedroom and threw them at his face, trying not to laugh as he fumbled the catch. Abigail brushed past her, giggling as she grabbed her pajamas off the foot of her bed and grabbed the bathroom first. Rae rolled her eyes, grinning. “You better be fast!” she called over her shoulder.

Her raised voice woke Bullet, who dragged himself out from under Rae’s bed and wandered over to her, blinking at the lamplight in the front room. “Did I wake you, baby boy?” she murmured, leaning over to kiss the top of his head. He gave her a big grin, tail wafting around as he leaned against her leg. “Sorry, sweetness.”

“Sometimes I think you love that dog more than you love any of us,” Sebastian murmured, as he sat down on the couch and shook out the blanket. “You treat it like your child.”

Rae giggled. “Well, I do call him my baby all the time.” She smiled down at Bullet again, before looking up at him. Behind her, the shower started up; she rolled her eyes and mentally added another thirty minutes to her wake-up time tomorrow morning.

“She takes forever,” he muttered, startling a laugh out of her. “I guess you know that by now, though…”

“I do, indeed,” she said, shaking her head. “Well, I’m heading to bed now. Sleep well!”

He waved her off, already tucking his pillow under his head and closing his eyes. She closed the door to her bedroom and made her way over to her dresser, digging in it for sleep shorts and a tee shirt. As soon as she found some, she changed, kicking her clothes towards the bin. They slid across the slick wood floor and piled up at the base of the wicker basket. She did a very short victory dance and flopped down on her bed, wiggling under the covers. Bullet jumped up beside her and stretched out, resting his head on her hip and letting out a hefty sigh. Far before Abigail finished with her shower, both woman and dog were asleep.

 

Rae woke up to a mouth full of cotton and a sunbeam in her eyes. She grumbled softly and rolled over, reaching out to pick up her alarm clock. The digital numbers told her it was roughly 7:45; her alarm wouldn’t go off for another 15 minutes. She closed her eyes for a few more minutes, but even then failed to fall back asleep.

Eventually, she slung her legs out of the bed and sat up, scrubbing her face with both hands. Bullet grumbled and took up the spot she’d just been laying in. She giggled and gathered her clothing for the day, choosing a dark gray long-sleeved shirt with an asymmetrical hemline; there were an additional few inches of mesh-like fabric sewn onto the bottom. She paired it with her nicest pair of jeans and some low-heeled black boots, before hopping into the shower and doing a thorough job of scrubbing her hair clean. When she finally stepped out, feeling cleaner than she had in… weeks, actually, she grabbed some of her old clothes and pulled them on.

Abigail was just stirring as Rae walked through her bedroom. “I’m going to go check on the animals,” she murmured as she passed. “I’ll be back in in just a minute or two.”

“Hm? ‘kay,” Abigail muttered. She rolled over to face the wall and promptly fell back asleep. Rae laughed to herself and shook her head, not slowing in her walk to the door.

She pulled on her boots and slipped outside, making sure the door was closed securely behind her. That accomplished, she jogged down the few stairs and made her way to the barn and coop.

Her chickens clucked at her as she let herself in, stamping off the snow that clung to her boots. She murmured soft apologies as she walked across the wooden floor, strewn with straw, to refill the feeding trough. They moved to eat, revealing three eggs, all of a fairly decent size. She gathered them up, placing them in her jacket pockets carefully. “Thanks, ladies,” she murmured, slipping back out into the cold morning.

Ramen wasn’t very awake either, but she shifted a little when Rae milked her. The cow headbutted her chest when she stood again; she laughed softly and scratched behind the cow’s ears. True to form, Ramen pressed her forehead into Rae’s stomach and stood there for a moment. “There’s my pretty girl,” she crooned, giving Ramen one more pat on the head before stepping away. Ramen watched her leave again, mooing as she stepped outside and closed the door behind her.

She walked back up the steps, pushing the door open. Abigail was awake, standing at the counter as she mixed something in a bowl. “Get any eggs?” she asked, turning around. “I was going to try for donuts, but there was only 1 egg.”

“Here.” Rae walked over to hand her one and placed the jug of milk on the counter as well. “I need more chickens. I was thinking I’d be able to ship all their eggs, but nope, keep using them all for myself…”

Abigail laughed, loud enough that there was movement from the couch. “Huh?” Sebastian asked, moving around a little and sitting up. “Whuz’goin’on?”

“Breakfast, slowpoke,” Rae said, walking over to his couch and leaning on the back of it. He rolled over and blinked up at her. “You want donuts?”

“… yes,” he said after an extended pause. “Donuts sound good.”

“Great. Abby, need any help with the glaze?” she called as she straightened.

Abigail glanced over at her and raised an eyebrow. “Not until you change into something not covered in cow slobber.”

Rae grabbed her shirt and pulled it away from her body, eyeing the wet stain with disgust. “And this is why I didn’t wear anything fancy,” she muttered, flouncing over to the bedroom and grabbing the door handle. “I’ll be out in a minute.”

She closed the door and made her way to the bed, stepping over Bullet in the process. He poked his head up and watched her as she grabbed her change of clothes and went to the bathroom, closing the door and changing quickly. She took a moment to look at herself in the mirror, examine her face and hair a little more closely. Still looking good, she told herself as she ran her hand through her hair. It was still damp, very cold; she muttered a curse and grabbed for the hairdryer she hadn’t used in months.

Roughly five minutes later, she ran a hand through her hair and peered in the mirror. Her bronze hair looked flawless, falling in gentle waves down past her shoulders. She gave herself a wink in the mirror and pushed the door open, sweeping her hair out of her face and over her shoulder as she stepped out of the bathroom.

“Ok, where do you need me?” she asked as she reentered the main part of the house. Bullet walked at her heels, panting happily. “After I feed him, of course.” She reached back and scratched his head; he leaned into it happily.

“Making the glaze-“ Abigail started to say, half turning as she dropped another donut into the oil, only to stop. Her eyebrows lifted. “You look different.”

“Amazing, how well I clean up,” Rae said, half-rolling her eyes as she found the cupboard with the dog food in it and crouched beside Bullet’s bowl. He started scarfing down his food as fast as he could, tail beating the air. “But yeah, I probably do.”

When she stood back up, Abigail was still staring at her. “Your hair,” she decided, and snapped her fingers. “It looks… really different.”

“This is how I used to wear it all the time,” Rae admitted, brushing a strand out of her eyes. She put the dog food away and stood again, folding her hands to hide her twitching fingers. “It doesn’t look bad, does it?”

“What? Oh, no, of course not!” Abigail looked scandalized.

Rae let out a huff of air. “Good. Ok, you never fully answered my question about what you need my help with.” She moved over to the sink and turned on the water, scrubbing her hands clean.

“Glaze,” Abigail repeated.

“Maple or regular?”

She paused, tapping a wooden spoon against her lips. “Maple,” she said, nodding once and reaching out to prod at one of the donuts. Evidently she liked what she found, as she nodded again and flipped the donut over.

Rae, meanwhile, was digging through the refrigerator for the maple syrup. “Where’s Sebastian?” she asked, half-absent as she found it and pulled it off the shelf.

“Sebastian is awake,” a distinctly un-awake-sounding voice called from the couch. Rae snorted, glancing over to see him lift one hand and wave it lazily.

“Sebastian may be awake, but he’s most certainly not up and moving,” she replied, unable to keep sarcasm out of her tone. “Come on, up you get.”

He grumbled, but sat up and rubbed his face. “Rise and shine, sleepy head, we leave in –“ She checked her watch, raising one eyebrow. “A little under an hour.”

“Fun,” he muttered. “All right, I’m up…”

He stood up and stumbled towards the bathroom, running a hand through his hair. Rae watched him go, shaking her head as she placed the ingredients for the glaze on the counter. “That boy,” she muttered. “What time do you think he’d’ve been up if we didn’t get him up?”

Abigail snorted. “After 12, for sure. I’d bet good money on him not waking up until 1 on the weekends…”

Rae grinned as she measured out the maple syrup. “No kidding.” She grabbed the jug of milk off the counter and poured a little into the syrup. Powdered sugar came next, and she eyeballed that, before grabbing a whisk from a drawer and setting to work. “How’re the donuts doing?”

There was a popping noise; Rae glanced over to see Abigail lifting one of the donuts out of the pan. “That looks about done,” she decided, and placed it on a plate covered with a paper towel. “Let that cool a little, and then we’re all set.”

“Sounds good. Just need to get some of the lumps out of the glaze…” Rae poked her tongue out of the corner of her mouth, frowning as she whisked harder. “And done!” She swiped one finger around the edge of the bowl and stuck it in her mouth, considering. “Taste-test. More maple?”

Abigail leaned back, dipping one finger into the glaze herself. Ignoring Rae’s sputtered protests, she licked it and thought for a moment. “I’d say good. Almost done.”

By the time Sebastian reemerged from the bathroom, ready for the day, the girls were putting the finishing touches on the donuts. “You ready to go once we’re done?” Rae called over her shoulder, as she pulled out three plates and placed them on the counter.

Just then, someone banged on the door. Everyone started; Abigail almost dropped the donut she was holding into the bowl of glaze. “I’ll get it,” Sebastian called, as he made his way to the front door. Rae turned just in time to watch him pull it open and stop. “Well. Hello, Sam.”

Abigail shot a wide-eyed gaze at Rae. Rae, for her part, closed her eyes tight and flattened her lips into a line.

“Hey,” Sam said from the doorway. “I wanted to see if you were up, and if you weren’t I was gonna get you up so we could practice some more-“

The other three groaned at the tops of their lungs. “Sam, give it a rest!” Abigail called over her shoulder, rolling her eyes. “If we haven’t got it down by now, we won’t have it down by the performance tonight.”

“She’s got a point,” Sebastian said.

“Come in and eat something,” Rae said, turning to look at him and resting her hands on her hips. “We made your favorite...” She held up a maple bar so he could see it.

“I mean…” He hesitated, before a gust of cold wind made Rae sneeze. Abigail jolted and waved him in hastily. He stepped inside; Bullet bounded over to meet him, tail beating a mile a minute as he panted happily.

“I was actually planning on going into the city early this morning,” Rae told him as he walked inside and sat down at the table. Sebastian stepped over to get another plate as Abigail placed a donut each on the three plates, and Rae carried two to the table. Abigail snagged the jug of milk as Sebastian got the last two plates, and together they sat down at the table. “I have some shopping I need to do, and I wanted to take you guys to a tea shop I loved to visit when I lived there.”

“I’d be down for tea,” Abigail said as she grabbed her maple bar off the plate and took a bite. “I’d really like to try it. You’ve talked about it before, right?”

“I think so, yeah,” Rae said, frowning. “You’d like it, I think.”

“Sounds good!” She crammed the rest of the donut in her mouth and stood up. “I’m gonna go get ready to go. You guys finish up.”

“But – practice,” Sam muttered, picking at his donut.

Rae reached over and rested her hand on his. “Listen to me,” she murmured, her gray eyes digging into his. “You need to calm down and breathe. It’s enough. You’ve put so much work into this already. Take a break.”

He ducked his head, sticking a bite of donut in his mouth and chewing. “Ok,” he said after he swallowed. “I’ll go.”

“Good.” Rae gave Sebastian a relieved smile over Sam’s head. “Well, I plan to leave at 10, which is in… half an hour or so. So we finish eating and head out, is what I’m thinking.”

“Sounds good to me,” Sam said, though it was half-hearted at best.

Rae stood up, giving Sebastian another worried look over his head. “I’m going to see how Abigail’s getting on,” she said. “I’ll be back out in a few, and we can head to the bus stop.”

“Okay,” Sam muttered.

She took a few hesitant steps towards the bedroom, before pausing and catching Sebastian’s gaze. “Talk to him?” she mouthed, a frown touching her lips. He gave her a curt nod. She gave him a tiny smile and turned, walking away.

Abigail struggled to run her brush through her hair as Rae entered the room, frowning in the mirror. Her purple-blue locks were hopelessly tangled. She growled and threw the brush down on the counter. “Having problems there?” Rae asked, walking forwards and picking up the brush.

“Yes.” Abigail’s voice was very nearly a whine, but avoided it by a hair’s breadth. “Please.”

Rae laughed softly and set to work. Her hands were gentle as she began working the brush through Abigail’s hair. “Did you sleep with it wet?” she murmured.

“How’d you know?”

“Because I used to do this all the time in college.” She set to work on a particularly difficult knot. “Go to bed, hair all wet and a mess, wake up the next morning with a rat’s nest for hair. I broke myself of that habit pretty fast.”

“What did you go to college for?” Abigail asked, trying to meet Rae’s eyes in the mirror.

The other woman didn’t look up from her task. “Business,” she said. “General Business. It didn’t work out.” Her words were short and clipped. Abigail respectfully fell silent.

They stood in the quiet for a few more minutes, until Rae ran the brush through her hair one more time and stepped back. “I think you’re all set,” she said, and offered a small smile in the mirror. “About ready to head out?”

“Yeah, I think so.” Abigail stood up and brushed herself off. “You?”

“Of course. Just let me get my purse and we can go.” Rae stepped into the bedroom and called, “You boys about ready to go?”

“Yeah!” Sam called, sounding noticeably more cheerful. Rae traded a raised eyebrow with Abigail as she snagged her purse out of a drawer and rifled through her wallet. There were a few old credit cards and one that looked more recent; she tucked that into her purse and walked to the front of the house.

The other three chattered softly to each other as she approached, checking her purse one last time. “Let’s go grab the bus, then,” she said, giving them a smile. “Bullet baby! Guard the house!”

He whined and stood up, walking over to nudge at her hand. She felt her heart melt a little and leaned over, scratching behind his ears. “Oh, I know, you big sweet boy,” she murmured, dropping a kiss on the top of his head. “I’m sorry. But I have to go, and you need to stay here…”

“Loves the dog more than she loves us,” Sebastian muttered again.

Rae stifled a laugh and straightened. “Ok, let’s go.” She gave Bullet one last scratch on the head before they left, locking the door behind them.

The walk to the bus stop was brisk and chilly. Rae buried her face in her scarf and walked along, careful not to turn her ankle in her boots. She led the way; Sebastian and Sam trailed a few feet behind her, while Abigail laughed and chattered with them. The cool morning air touched her cheeks and forehead, feeling like icy fingers grazing her face. Snow crunched underfoot.

They rounded the corner to the bus stop just in time to watch Pam climb the stairs to the bus interior. “Ok, tickets and tea are on me today,” Rae called over her shoulder as she approached the ticket machine. One swipe of the card and four pieces of paper later, they crammed into the bus for the hour long bus ride into the city.

For the next hour or so, they napped or spoke softly. Rae, for her part, pulled out a small notebook and began sketching plans for the spring. One rough grid pattern later and she started putting letters into the boxes. Parsnips go here, and I have some strawberry seeds from last year’s Egg Festival that I can plant here… She chewed on her pen, so deep in thought she didn’t notice the minutes slipping away. Ink absorbed into paper, and by the time they reached Zuzu City she had most of the next season’s planning squared away. It was only when the bus stopped that she realized an hour had passed, and they were there.

Stepping off the bus was a far sight different than it had been, almost a year ago now. Rae tucked her scarf a little tighter around her neck as she looked out and around, watching the city lights with no small amount of nerves. The sidewalk at the bus stop wasn’t crowded, but a steady stream of traffic moved just beyond the shelter. Behind her, Sebastian, Sam, and Abigail disembarked, murmuring to each other.

“Ever been here before?” Rae called over her shoulder, still trying to take it all in.

“Yeah, a while ago,” Sam called. His tone was subdued. Rae turned enough to catch Abigail’s eye; she mouthed “his dad”. She nodded a little.

“We used to come here as a family, back when Dad’s shop was a little more successful,” Abigail said. “Take a vacation and go to the city for a day. We’d do a little shopping, see some sights, then head back home before bedtime.” She rested her hands on her hips. “We haven’t done that since the bus broke down, though.”

“More or less the same.” Sebastian stepped up to stand beside her. “Mom hates the city, though.”

Rae looked around, at the dull city sidewalks and the shining glass windows. “Where to first?” she asked, checking her watch. “We can go to the tea shop a little later today, maybe around lunch.”

“There’s the art museum,” Abigail suggested.

Simultaneously, Sam and Sebastian groaned – Sam’s much louder than Sebastian’s. “No, not the art museum,” Sam said. “That’s sooooo boring.”

“We should at least check it out,” Rae said. Both boys gave her betrayed looks. “Look, I’m sure there’s something that’ll interest you there. Don’t know how interested in history you guys are, but I’m sure there’ll be something there to keep your attention.”

Sam and Sebastian exchanged looks. Sebastian shrugged; Sam gave a loud, frustrated huff. “Fine,” he said, shoulders slumping. “I guess we can go.”

“Thank you.” Rae gave him her warmest smile as she looked around. “Ok, so we’re going to need to go… this way.” She gestured further down the road they were on. “Follow me, I can at least get us close.”

They set out at a brisk pace, thanks to Rae. She walked with purpose, brushing past people carelessly. The three others scrambled to keep up, shoving through the crowd. “Rae, slow down!” Abigail called, trying not to laugh as she pushed through a small group of businesspeople in full suits. “You’re too fast!”

“You’re too slow!” she called over her shoulder, half-laughing. She slowed down regardless.

They stayed just a few yards behind her for the entirety of their walk, all the way up to the central plaza in the city. It was a sudden thing – one minute they were boxed in by buildings that grazed the clouds, mirrored glass creating a weird effect, the next they rounded a corner and found a tranquil stone plaza. A large fountain held center stage, turned off for the winter, of course, but the intricate stonework and towering central column held attention better than the white-marble courthouse behind it. Rae came to a halt at the crosswalk to the plaza, looking around and drinking in the sights.

“I don’t remember this,” Abigail said, wheezing a little as she finally caught up to Rae. “I mean, it has been a while, but you’d think I’d remember this…”

“It was under construction when I lived here,” Rae said, glancing over her shoulder as Sebastian and Sam finally caught up to them. “This is Victory Plaza – perhaps named a bit prematurely, but it’s certainly optimistic. If I remember right, the Ferngill Republic Museum is… that way.” She pointed down the street, mentally checking her map of the city. “Yeah, it’s that way for sure. Do I need to slow down, or can you keep up?”

The crosswalk sign turned, and she started across the street, stuffing her hands into her jacket pockets. The three others followed, shuffling closer together.

This was a side of Rae the three had never seen. She walked with purpose, chin held high, boots tapping on the cleared sidewalk as she flawlessly navigated through the crowd. Her shoulders were back, her eyes sharp as she caught every detail around her. “Keep up,” she called over her shoulder, not bothering to slow her pace for them. “We’re almost there.”

They turned down a street and abruptly found themselves face-to-face with a dark stone building that soared over their heads. She finally slowed down, came to a halt and rested one hand on her hips. “Here we are,” she said, not bothering to hide the satisfaction that her memory was right. “Ready to go in?”

She turned around to see the other three panting a little. “Give me a minute,” Abigail managed. “You walk so fast!”

Rae shrugged. “It’s the only good way to get anywhere fast here. If you walk like you know where you’re going, people move.” She tapped one foot, studying them. “Need a minute more?”

“It hasn’t even been a minute,” Sebastian muttered, but he straightened. “But I guess I’m ok.”

Rae looked at them, a small smile dancing at the corner of her mouth. “Ok, then,” she said, turned on her heel, and walked up the short set of stairs. “I’ll get tickets while you recover!”

She slipped into the museum and paused just inside the front doors, looking up and around. The room was cavernous, ceiling high overhead and walls far apart from each other. The floor was tiled, each one a mandala pattern with black, blue, and gold accents. The walls were navy, the ceiling arched and painted pure white. A golden chandelier dangled from the center of the ceiling, directly above a reception and ticket desk at the center of the room. On either side, a staircase rose to a balcony overlooking the entrance area. Beyond that, she caught a glimpse of an exhibit hall.

The young man working at the front desk looked up as she entered. He gave her a warm smile. “Welcome to the Ferngill Republic Hall of Relics and Art. How can I help you?”

She smiled in return and took a few steps forwards. Her boots tapped on the tile, and her hair bounced against her shoulders. She brushed a portion out of the way as she stopped. “How much are tickets for admission? My three friends and I would like to look around.”

“Tickets are 1000 gold each. For a group of four, we can give you a group discount which drops the price down to 3500 gold total.”

Just a year ago, Rae would have winced at the hefty price. Now, she didn’t even flinch. “Perfect,” she said, digging into her purse for her wallet. “That’ll work.”

Behind them, the doors opened. Rae half turned, glancing over her shoulder. “Hey guys,” she called. “I’m getting tickets, go ahead and start wandering.”

“What exhibits do you have?” Abigail asked, drifting over to the front desk.

The man behind the desk swiped her credit card and typed something into the computer. “Well, we have an art exhibit on the first floor, through those double doors behind me-“ he indicated a set of massive oak doors behind the reception desk – “and a historical exhibit in the second floor’s east wing. The west wing is an exhibit about the current war, I think.”

Rae shot a worried glance over at Sam, who wasn’t looking at any of them. “Thank you,” she said as she accepted her card and tucked it away in her purse.

“Enjoy the exhibits.” The young man gave her a professional smile and returned to his computer.

Rae turned and walked towards the staircases to the second floor. “I want to look at the historical exhibit,” she said as she reached Sebastian, who was lingering at the foot of the staircase. “You?”

He shrugged. “Maybe the war exhibit.” His gaze darted to where Sam was entering the double doors to the art exhibit with Abigail. “It’s just…”

“I know.” Rae’s grip on her purse tightened momentarily. “I just don’t know what to say or do.”

Together, they turned and began walking up the stairs. “They say there’s a peace treaty in the works,” Sebastian muttered. “No one actually knows if it’s for real or not, though. There’s a lot of hope that it is.”

Rae shook her head. “It’s been dragging on for ages,” she murmured as they reached the double doors and moved towards the west wing. “You’d think they’d get their act together and actually try a little harder to get this whole thing over…”

“War provides jobs, lots of jobs,” Sebastian said. Now they were in a corridor, wide and carpeted, with large windows that overlooked a shaded courtyard. Rae turned her attention towards it as they walked down the hallway. “It’s difficult to provide jobs to people after the war is over.”

She sighed and dropped her chin. “I know.”

They entered a room, high ceilings and walls far apart. It was divided up into sections by moveable panels, walls that had pictures and short paragraphs on them. A few glass-covered artifacts were positioned throughout the room. The lighting was dim; there were a few windows, but they were all covered by thick velvet drapes. Each panel had a single spotlight illuminating it, just bright enough to read. The floor was thickly carpeted. Rae felt her boots sink into the padding underfoot.

Rae and Sebastian split off from each other. She moved to the panel that announced the title of the exhibit: “War in Gotoro – Artifacts from the Fight Across the Gem Sea”. A short synopsis of the exhibit told her it was exactly what the title implied. Amused, just a little, she shifted to the right and began to explore.

The exhibit was… sobering, to say the least. There was some military gear, a helmet and a bag; each of them were in sandy colors, tans, whites, and grays. The helmet had a piece of fabric wrapped around it, also light-colored. She inspected it closer; it looked like it was a face covering, covering the nose and mouth and fastening at both ears. The pack looked like it weighed as much as Rae herself did, stuffed full of the necessities for war.

She moved on. There was a map of the Gotoro Empire, across the Gem Sea; one finger delicately traced ‘X’s and dotted lines that showed where major battles had been fought. A series of panels, entitled “Life on the Front Lines”, was nothing but pictures and short blurbs about the people in them. The eyes of the soldiers haunted her; some were stained with soot around the eyes, while the eyes themselves were wide and wild. Once again, she reached out to touch the face of a soldier (little more than a boy) in one picture.

Another exhibit showed the contents of a field-ration meal. She looked it over, frowning as she considered each part. Crackers, cheese-in-a-can, jerky, so on and so forth. Not very appetizing, she thought. But certainly calorie-heavy.

There wasn’t much else to the exhibit. Most of it was just pictures, pictures of the battles that had been fought, pictures of planes flying overhead, pictures taken from the planes, pictures and pictures and pictures. She studied all of them with a grave eye, silently collecting faces and names and tucking them away in the back of her mind.

She’d lost Sebastian somewhere in the exhibit, but didn’t hesitate to leave when she’d seen everything. Her heart weighed heavy in her chest as she walked away, back towards the east wing.

The historical exhibit provided the mood-lifter she needed. There were old artifacts, from the dwarves and the shadow people alike. There were a few things that supposedly came from merpeople, something that some famous archaeologist claimed was elvish in nature.

The one thing that really drew her attention, though, was the picture of a skeleton. As she drifted closer and came to a halt in front of it, she realized it was a picture of the skeleton in the Calico Desert. Jarred a little by the realization, she leaned closer and read the plaque.

“This is the skeleton of a legendary Sand Dragon, discovered in the late ----s by legendary paleontologist Dr. Jones Wolcutt (d. ----). Unfortunately, while attempting to remove the skeleton from the desert, five people lost their lives, including Dr. Wolcutt. The skeleton remains there to this day.”

The dates were smudged out; she couldn’t make out any of the numbers. Below the short blurb were five names. Dr. Wolcutt’s name was at the top.

“Hm,” Rae murmured, and moved away.

She ran into Sam and Abigail on the stairs down to the art gallery. “Enjoy it?” she asked, gesturing with a tilt of her head.

“Yeah! They have an exhibit from college students at the university. Some of them have some real talent,” Sam said, giving her a truthful smile, so far as she could discern.

“And some of them don’t,” Abigail added. “How’s the exhibits upstairs?”

“The history museum was intriguing,” Rae said, as diplomatic as she could. “The… other exhibit was… sobering.” Her voice dropped in volume; she couldn’t resist sneaking a glance at Sam. He met her gaze, a small, sad look on his face, but didn’t flinch away.

“Well, we’re gonna head up. What time do you want to meet to go to the tea shop?” Abigail asked.

Rae checked her watch. “It’s 12:30 now, so we should get there around 1 maybe? 1:30? They’re never really jam-packed, so it won’t be a fight to get inside or find seats.”

“Sounds good.” Abigail nodded resolutely. “If we see Seb, we’ll tell him the plan.”

“Perfect.” Rae stepped aside for them to pass, smiling at the two of them. “I’ll see you around.”

Her footsteps were muffled on the carpeted stairs, but drew attention from the reception desk. “Enjoying the exhibits so far?” the young man at the front desk asked, turning in his chair to see her.

Rae gave him a polite smile. “They’ve certainly been… educational,” she said, as she turned the corner and made her way into the art gallery.

The gallery was far less entertaining than the exhibits upstairs. There was also no one else there; it was a weekday, she supposed, and during the middle of the day too. There was little surprise there. She breezed through it in maybe half an hour, before making her way back through the foyer and up to the second floor. Sebastian all but ran into her as she entered the exhibit. “Have you seen Sam?” he asked softly, reaching out to grab her arm as she stumbled. “I thought they were downstairs.”

“No,” she said immediately. “Last I saw they were coming upstairs.”

“Hey guys.”

Rae lifted her gaze up and over Sebastian’s shoulder. Sam and Abigail approached; Sam gave them a weak smile. Abigail had her arm linked through his. She gave them a weary smile; Rae exchanged a glance with Sebastian. “Should we head towards the tea shop?” Rae asked. “It’s not too far from here.”

“Ok,” Sam said, shrugging one shoulder. He looked exhausted. She felt her heart sink; doubt wriggled in her mind, wondering if she really should have brought them all to the city today.

“Let’s go,” Sebastian said, turning to look at Rae again. “Lead the way.”

She turned and walked down the stairs again, passing the front desk. The young man at the front desk called “bye”, and she glanced over her shoulder to give him a small smile. “Thank you!”

Outside, Rae drew her coat around her a little tighter. “Follow me,” she called over her shoulder, and jogged down the front steps. “And do try to keep up this time!”

Chapter Text

The Sole Retreat Tea Room was a hole-in-the-wall café, set a few blocks over from Victory Plaza. Rae’s gaze swept the interior as they approached, peering through the windows to make sure it wasn’t too crowded. It wasn’t, and she turned back to Abigail, Sam, and Sebastian. “Ready to go in?” she asked, trying not to vibrate with sheer excitement.

“Uh, sure,” Sam said, peering at the building behind her. “Is this it? I was expecting something… bigger.”

“It’s plenty big, what are you talking about?” Abigail asked. She frowned at him. “C’mon. Let’s go.”

“It looks a little sketchy,” Sebastian said.

“What are you talking about?!” Abigail repeated. “It’s fine-“

Rae, tired of their argument, walked forwards and pushed the door open with her hip. The bells over the door chimed, soft and gentle. A wash of peace rolled over her. She couldn't hold back the sigh of contentment that escaped her lips.

“Huh,” Sam muttered behind her. “Guess it is fine. Weird.”

"Hey, welcome to- Rae?!"

Her attention snapped to the barista, leaning forwards over the counter to see her better. She grinned and walked forwards, waving as her three friends wandered off to different corners of the room. "Audra!" she called, reaching out a hand to the woman. They clasped wrists; Rae's fingers lingered over the hemp bracelet Audra wore. "It's been so long!"

"Far too long," Audra agreed, smiling at her. She winked briefly at Rae before withdrawing her hand. "What can I get for you?"

Rae looked up at the boards overhead as Abigail stepped up to her side. "How do you order here?" she whispered.

Audra smiled. "Well, we have two menus, kind of. One is the typical coffee shop stuff - we do lattes, frappuccinos, coffee, tea, you get the gist of it. Our other menu is more of a surprise. You order what you want - say, a little extra luck, or some charisma, or something like that, and we give you a cup of coffee or tea that we think will do just that."

Abigail's eyes lit up. "Really?" she asked, excitement vibrant in her voice. "That sounds so cool!"

"I love it here for a reason," Rae said, smiling at Audra. "Ok, I'm gonna get something special, to celebrate being back."

"Ok," Audra said, leaning forwards on the counter. "Just pick your wish!"

Rae pursed her lips, considering her options. "I think I could use some clarity, for the coming months," she said. "But I won't say no to a little luck."

"Clarity and luck, eh?" Audra tapped her chin with one finger, gaze far away. "I can do that. You two hear my explanation?" This was directed at Sam and Sebastian, who finally had joined them at the bar.

"Yeah," Sebastian said, nodding a little. "Thanks."

"Need some extra time?"

Sam frowned at the menu, deep in thought. She straightened after a moment's silence and said, "I'll take that as a yes. Back in a minute, Rae."

She turned and walked to a wall of small glass jars. Rae watched as she raised one hand and trailed it along the paper labels on the jar fronts, selecting a few as she moved. Her hands moved with speed and grace as she opened each jar, measured a tiny amount into a little silk tea bag, and set the water on to heat up. The tea bag closed, and Audra touched a finger to it, just for a moment, before placing it in the tea cup and pouring hot water over it. She picked it up and brought it over to the counter, where Rae pulled out her gold to pay. "My treat, this time," she told the others as she slid Audra payment. "What's in it?"

"Chamomile and daisy, with pinches of cinnamon and nutmeg," Audra told her. "Most are for luck, but cinnamon and nutmeg do double duty as clarifying components."

Rae picked it up and took a cautious sip, closing her eyes as the tastes hit her tongue. "Oh, this is lovely," she murmured. "I didn't expect the flavors to work together as well as they did, but... wow." She opened her eyes and gave Audra a beaming smile. "Thank you."

"Of course. Now, what do the other three of you want?"

"Sam needs peace of mind," Abigail said immediately. "And peace, in general."

Audra giggled as Sam glared at Abigail. "She's not wrong," Sebastian admitted. Rae grinned over her mug of tea, content to lean against the counter and watch the show. "Peace for Sam."

"Peace I can do," Audra decided. "Anything else you want?"

Sam shook his head, looking a little put out. She straightened and stepped back to the wall, pulling a few bottles off the wall and setting to work. A few moments later, she had a cup of tea on the counter. "Peace for you," she said. "Lavender and rose hips, with a squeeze of lime juice. All good for giving peace of mind. Very popular with college students, especially during finals week."

He nodded silently as he picked up his tea and stepped over to the side, allowing Sebastian and Abigail to order. Abigail pushed Sebastian forwards first, still looking up at the menu. "Got anything for dealing with negative people?" he asked, leaning on the counter.

"Protecting against negative energy? Sure. Anything else?"

He frowned. "Stress relief, maybe."

Audra nodded. "Ok. Give me just a moment." The same cycle repeated; after a minute or two, she set down a mug of tea. "Peppermint, sage, rosemary, and a hint of lemon juice, all for repelling negative energy. Peppermint isn't specifically for stress relief, but it's calming enough that it works."

He accepted the cup with a soft 'thank you' and stepped aside. Now Abigail was all that was left, looking up at the board. “Purification of spirit?” she asked, frowning. “Please.”

“Purification, I can do that,” Audra said. “Anything else?”

“Nope.” Abigail gave her a sunny smile. “That sounds good.”

Audra set to work, and Rae nursed her cup of tea in quiet. The tea shop had changed little since she’d last been there; the walls were still a soothing sage green, the floor dark wood. The mis-matched chairs everywhere blended in perfectly, lending a home-like feeling to the space. One wall was covered with shelves, groaning under the weight of the things they held.

“Here,” Audra said, drawing their attention once again. She set the mug of tea down on the counter and leaned on it. “A leaf of sage, a sprig of rosemary, just a touch of mint and a little anise. All good for purifying the spirit.”

“Thank you,” Abigail said, a grateful look in her eyes as she accepted the mug. She took a sip as Rae turned and made her way over to the wall of shelving.

Her eyes drifted towards a wooden box, divided into sections. Each held a few crystals, smoothed surfaces shining under hazy sunlight from a nearby window. She shifted her mug to one hand and reached out to run her fingers over a chunk of emerald, a smile just barely touching her lips.

She moved on to another section on the shelves; this one was incense, boxes upon boxes of it. There were also a few jars with individual sticks, each labelled in an elegant hand. “Sage”, read one – apparently the most popular, as it was almost completely empty. “Cinnamon”, “Jasmine”, “Patchouli”, and “Peppermint” also looked to be popular. She hummed to herself, leaning close to take a whiff of Sage, before stepping over to look at the candles.

The candles were kept in rows, available in both short, squat form and long, tapered form. Each one had a label stating the color and a few cryptic words: “Pink: Positive Thoughts, Healing”. “Orange: Luck, Precious Things”. Rae picked up a light blue tapered candle, examined it for a moment, and put it back in its place.

There was more, of course. There were empty jars and bottles for sale, small sachets of dried herbs, even tiny seedlings of rosemary, lavender, and a few others.

Rae took another sip of her tea and glanced over at the other three. The boys sat at a small table, talking to each other in low voices. Abigail studied the shelves full of items closely, eyes sparkling as she turned over an embossed leather journal in her hands.

Audra caught her eye and waved her over. Rae went willingly, leaning against the counter and smiling at the other woman. “You haven’t been here in a while,” Audra murmured, as she took a sip of water herself. “It’s good to see you again.”

“The same to you,” Rae whispered. Her lips quirked in a half smile. “Life has been insane. I’m a farmer now, did I ever tell you?”

“You are?” Audra asked. “How’s that going?”

“Well, mostly.” Rae took another sip of tea. “I missed being here, though. Just something about this place.”

“I know the feeling.” The two women exchanged secretive smiles over their drinks. “Toast?” Audra raised her mug; the two cups clinked together. Rae drained the last of her tea.

They dawdled around the Sole Retreat Tea Room for a few hours. Rae caught up with Audra; Abigail inspected everything on the shelves thoroughly, before joining Sebastian and Sam at their table. Customers came and went. Rae watched Audra smoothly create more concoctions as the customers requested them. She moved behind the counter as if it were her element. Rae was almost envious of how perfect her movements were.

Then Rae’s phone chimed 4:30 PM, and she started. “Guys, we have to move out,” she called over her shoulder. “Abby, get whatever you want to buy and pay for it. We need to get over to the bus station to greet everyone from town.”

Abigail gathered up a small pile of things, including a few sticks of incense and a chunky purple candle, and walked to the register. As Audra rang her up, she dug in her pockets for payment, eventually coming up with enough gold to pay for the items.

Meanwhile, Rae returned to Sam and Sebastian. Sam looked a little green around the gills as he toyed with his mug. “Don’t drop that,” she told him, and he started. “You break it, you buy it.” Amusement danced at the corner of her eyes, and she smiled at him.

He looked even worse at that. Sebastian caught her attention, frowning just a little and shaking his head. Her smile disappeared. Concern filled her mind as she took a few steps over and sat down beside him, reaching out to cover one of his hands with her own. “Are you ok?” she whispered. “You’re gonna do great.”

He nodded. “I’m fine.”

“No you’re not,” she murmured, and squeezed his hand. “You’re going to rock this, and you’re going to do great. I believe in you.”

He swallowed and nodded. She thought that if he opened his mouth, he might be sick all over the ground.

“Good to go,” Abigail said as she appeared at their side. “Are we ready to go?”

Rae looked up at her. “I think so,” she said, and rose to her feet. “Follow me, all of you. We’ll go to the bus station and straight from there to the park. Sound good?”

Sam just nodded and stood up. Sebastian gave him a sharp look, but said nothing.

“Bye, Audra!” Rae called, waving at the barista.

“Don’t be a stranger! Come back soon,” Audra said in return, giving her a warm smile.

No one else saw, but Rae glanced over her shoulder one more time as they left. Audra watched Sam’s back like a hawk, fingers flicking towards him. Something brushed past Rae’s shoulder. Audra caught Rae’s gaze and winked. One finger drifted up to touch her lips.

Rae winked back and let the door close.

~*~*~*~*~

They arrived at the bus stop just as Pam pulled up. The doors opened and spilled what looked like half the townsfolk onto the concrete sidewalk.

The band, plus Rae, greeted everyone as they stepped off the bus. Most of the younger group was there – Emily, Shane, Elliot, Leah, Maru, Penny, and Harvey all greeted them. Jodi helped Vincent off the bus and pressed a kiss to Sam’s cheek. He turned red, but didn’t say anything.

“They already have the equipment set up for us. I just need my guitar,” he said.

“Right here!” Emily beamed at him as she handed over the instrument. “Ready to go?”

“Follow me!” Sam turned and began walking.

As they walked, Abigail fell in step beside Rae. “Does he seem different to you?” she murmured.

“In what way?” Rae asked, lifting one eyebrow.

“He’s… more confident.”

“Maybe he is,” she said mildly. “Perhaps we finally got through to him.” She winked at Abigail and dropped back a few feet to walk and talk with Elliot and Leah.

The group turned a corner and there it was; a tiny grass lot with an elevated concrete platform. A keyboard and drum set were already placed onstage. Fairy-lights made tiny swoops on the front of the wooden overhang, giving it a hipster feel. Someone had cleared all the snow away; there were a few pieces of detritus and chunks of snow here and there, but it looked nice.

“Ready to get set up?” Rae asked, moving forwards again. “If you need any help…”

“Nope, we should have this,” Sebastian said. He nodded to her. “Go have fun. We’ll get this all settled.”

“If you’re sure,” she said, and drifted away again.

She kept an eye on the stage while she talked to the other townspeople. Sam, Abigail, and Sebastian talked in low voices, moving around each other in a fluid dance. For maybe 15 minutes, they got everything put together. People arrived in ones and twos, ones from the city, not from the town. From a few overheard snippets, she gathered that they’d been advertising for a few weeks about the gig.

Finally, though, a chord of music caught all of their attention. Sam clapped his hand on his guitar, muting the sound. Everyone started to quiet down; Rae excused herself from talking to Harvey and moved closer to the front of the stage. She found herself standing beside Penny, and brushed the girl’s hand with her own. Penny started and glanced up at her. “Hey,” she whispered, giving the shorter girl a warm smile. “You ready for this?”

“Yeah,” she said in response after a moment. “This’ll be good, I just know it.”

“Me too.” Rae hesitated for only a moment, before grabbing Penny’s hand and squeezing it. “I’m nervous for them,” she confided. “Sam’s been super nervous for weeks.”

“You’re telling me,” the shorter girl whispered back. “He’s been panicking on and off to me for ages.”

“Good to know I’m not alone in trying to calm him down,” Rae muttered. Penny giggled.

Then Sam cleared his throat into his microphone, looking out over the crowd of 20 or so people. “Hey guys,” he said, shifting in a distinctly nervous fashion. “Thanks for, uh, coming out tonight. We’re, uh, we’re from Pelican Town, and, uh, we’re called the Pelicans.”

He took a deep breath and strummed on his guitar again. “Here we go,” he muttered, barely loud enough for Rae to hear, and started to play.

They played maybe 10 songs for the next 45 minutes. Rae cheered them on at every pause, as did most of the other townsfolk, and gradually Sam started to relax. He smiled more, acted more comfortable, let his eyes move off the guitar and his hands as he played. He made fewer mistakes, and Rae relaxed as he did.

Finally, they finished a song and Sam checked his watch. “Well, unfortunately, it’s about time for us to wrap this gig up,” he said, and he sounded genuinely sad. “We’ve got time for just one more song, and we –“ he gestured to Sam and Abigail – “wanted to dedicate it to someone in the audience, without whom we couldn’t have gotten this far.”

Rae had an inkling where this was going.

“So, without further ado, this is dedicated to Rae, who was always willing to be there for us.” He grinned down at her. She felt her cheeks heat up and hid her face in her hands.

Penny giggled beside her and wrapped her arms around her waist. “Don’t be shy!” she whispered. She was smiling when Rae peeked at her from between her fingers. “It’s a great honor!”

“I know!” Rae whispered, as the music started again and she hesitantly removed her hands from her face. “I just… didn’t expect that.”

The three on stage all beamed at her, though Sebastian’s was more of a brief smile and nod. Her heart felt like it was going to burst out of her chest, and she just closed her eyes and listened to the song her friends had written and intended for her.

Chapter Text

They got home pretty late and went to the saloon for the next few hours, celebrating, drinking (though Rae only nursed a glass of wine and Sam drank Joja Cola like it was going out of style), and talking. Sam challenged Sebastian to a few rounds of pool, just to see if he could beat the other with impaired judgement (he couldn’t).

Rae helped Abigail home and checked on the animals. They were all settled in for the night; she locked the doors and went inside.

Bullet lay on her bed, tail thumping as she changed out of her fancy clothes and into sleepwear. Her makeup scrubbed away with a little soap and water. She pulled her hair up into a bun and blinked at her reflection in the mirror. “Goodnight,” she whispered, and crawled into bed and fell asleep within minutes.

The two girls slept in the next morning. Bullet finally woke up Rae by nudging her arm repeatedly. She rolled over and groaned, reaching out to pet his head. “Give me a few,” she murmured, eyes still closed. “I’ll get your breakfast in a few minutes…”

Bullet did not like this answer. Within a few moments, he had his head stuck under her arm, nose in her face. When she still didn’t wake up, he stuck his tongue out and started to lick at her face.

“Oh, gross!” Rae came awake in a matter of seconds, scrubbing at her face. “Bullet, no!”

He panted happily at her as he dropped back to sit at her side. “All right,” she groaned, and swung her legs out of bed. “May as well get up.”

She fed the dog and got started on some breakfast for herself and Abigail. Today, she thought that muffins sounded fantastic – perhaps poppy seed? A check of the fridge told her she had all the things she needed to make a batch. Plus, she told herself, she could make 12 and they’d last for a few days.

A quick breakfast was going to be a necessity in the coming days, too. There was a week until the almanac predicted spring weather would arrive, meaning that she had just 7 days to finish up the sprinkler system she’d been working on. Her mind wandered as she started mixing ingredients together. There was a chest full of quality sprinklers out in the area beside her house, and it was almost time to start putting them into position and connecting them together through the iron pipes. Each area would be sectioned off through wooden planks.

Her musings were interrupted by Abigail shuffling into the room. “Hey,” Rae called. “Poppyseed muffins sound good?”

“Yeah,” Abigail said, and yawned again. “Sounds perfect.”

She sat down at the table and rested her head in her hands. Rae kept an eye on her as she poured the batter into a greased muffin pan. The oven beeped at her, and she knelt down to open the door and put the tin in. Abigail yelped at the noise, jolting upright. Rae glanced over her shoulder, trying not to laugh.

“I’m going to go check on the animals,” Rae said. “I’ll be back in a few minutes. Keep an eye on the food?”

“Yeah, yeah, sure.” Abigail waved her off.

Rae changed quickly and went out to the barn and coop. Her animals greeted her joyfully, nudging into her legs. She gathered the eggs and jar of milk, gave affection where she needed to, and made sure they were all fed.

On her way back into the house, she happened to glance over at her mailbox. The little red flag that alerted her to letters was poking up, half-covered by snow. “How long has that been there?” she murmured, wandering over to check the letters.

There were two; one was addressed to Rae, the other to Abigail. Frowning, Rae closed the mailbox and dropped the flag, before climbing the set of stairs up to the porch and stepping inside.

“Hey, Abby, you got mail,” she called, walking over to the table and dropping her letter on the table. She ripped the envelope open and pulled it out, scanning the contents. Her eyes widened; she straightened. “Uh, Abby? What’s this Feast of the Winter Star?”

Abigail blinked a little. “Uh, it’s an annual festival? We all gather together and have a lot of food and exchange… presents…”

Abruptly, she grabbed for her letter and ripped it open. “Shit,” she muttered. “The secret gift exchange.”

“Yeah, my thoughts exactly,” Rae said in return. “Who’d you get?”

“Vincent,” Abigail said. “You?”

“Marnie.” Rae let out a huff of air. “Ugh. We have what, four days? Not a lot of time.”

“What would Vincent even want?” Abigail complained. “I don’t know basically anything about kids.”

Rae hummed, staring down at her letter. She focused on Vincent’s young face, full of joy and wonder. Focus, she told herself. Focus…

There – a shimmer of red. She grabbed onto it, pulling it closer.

“Cranberry candy,” she said aloud. “Try that.”

“Hm?” Abigail gave her a strange look as she shook her head to clear it.

“Kids like candy, right? Go with that.” She put her letter down on the table and walked over to the oven, kneeling to check on the muffins.

“Good point,” Abigail said. “Thanks.”

“No problem.”

Rae put the eggs and milk into the fridge and started to work on cleaning up the dirty dishes. “I’m going to start making wooden planks for paths around the crops, instead of the stepping stones we’ve been using. I plan on putting the sprinkler systems in within the next few days. I won’t connect it up to the water pump at the pond until spring hits, though, because I REALLY don’t want to pop the pipes.”

“Need help?” Abigail asked, looking far more awake now.

“I will,” she said. “I need to assemble the sprinklers, though. That’ll be today, and tomorrow we’ll actually start putting things into place. Sound good?”

“Sure.” Abigail grinned at her. “This’ll be fun!”

~*~*~*~

‘Fun’ was in short supply for the next few days. Every day was full of work. Rae shaped each sprinkler head with care and each pipe with a steady hand and level eye. Abigail helped, stoking furnaces to melt down iron bars and handing over tools. They worked 12 hours a day, from morning late into the night, taking brief breaks for lunch and water.

Finally, the night before the Feast of the Winter Star, Rae put down her hammer and breathed out a sigh of relief. “We’re done,” she said, wiping her forehead. “That’s all the sprinklers I wanted to make.”

Abigail leaned over the chest, counting. “Looks like… 25,” she said. “That sound right?”

Rae nodded. “Perfect.” She placed her hammer down on the anvil and leaned on it. “Ok, it’s late. Time for dinner and then I want to go bed.”

“What about tomorrow?” Abigail asked.

“What about it?” Rae responded. One hand rubbed her forehead. She was so, so tired. All she wanted to do was sleep…

Abruptly, she bolted upright. “The Feast,” she hissed. “Fu-“

“Yeah,” Abigail said. Her voice was grim. “And we forgot. Again.”

“Shit,” Rae muttered. She rested her head in her hands and rubbed her temples. “We’ve just been so busy… I completely forgot.”

“So did I.” Abigail sat down on the lid of the chest. “We have to get presents.”

“I had Marnie, you had Vincent…” Rae closed her eyes. “Cranberry candy takes too long. We can bake a cake – Pink Cake, I have the recipe somewhere and a few chunks of melon I froze, we can split it and give each of them a piece or a half or something.”

“Ok, sounds good,” Abigail said. “I’m guessing we do that tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow morning.” Rae nodded her head once. “I’m barely going to be able to stay awake during dinner.”

“Agreed,” Abigail said. She stood up and stretched. “Food and bed. Let’s go.”

They stumbled through a quick dinner and showers. For once, Abigail didn’t take half an hour to shower; she fell into bed less than 10 minutes after gathering her stuff to go inside. Rae followed suit, falling face-first into her bed and crashing hard.

Her alarm went off bright and early at 6 am, and for once she didn’t have to wait to get Abigail up. The girl was moving at the same time she was. “I’ll take care of the animals,” she said, one leg in, one leg out of her pants. “You go ahead and get started on the cake.”

“Good idea,” Rae called from the bathroom, as she pulled her hair back into a ponytail. “Go for it. I can have it done in less than two hours if I start in five minutes or so.”

“Great!” Abigail grinned at her. “Thanks for doing this.”

Rae waved her off as she walked back out into their room and dug through her drawers, eventually pulling out a pair of sweatpants and tee-shirts. “Don’t mention it. Think of it as a favor for those weeks after I got hurt.”

She changed quickly and made her way into the kitchen, already pulling out the items she needed to make the cake. A few pieces of melon from that fall were defrosted, and she quickly scraped the insides out into a bowl. She mashed it up and added a little sugar and butter, mixed that up as well, and added a few spices for flavor. Then she sifted together flour, baking soda, and baking powder together.

She looked up as Abigail reentered the room. “I’ve got eggs and milk here,” she said, raising them for Rae to see.

“Great, bring them here,” Rae said, making grabby hands for them. She took the eggs Abigail offered and cracked two of them into the bowl with the melon, sugar, and butter mixture. “Wash up and get something to eat.” She mixed the eggs in and poured half the flour mix in, mixed it, poured a little milk, mixed it, poured the other half of the flour in and gave it a final stir. The over beeped behind her as she poured the batter into two pans. “Abby, do me a favor and find the recipe for the icing?” she asked as she knelt and pushed the pans into the oven.

“Got it.” Abigail rifled through her recipe box and frowned. “This is a mess. Why don’t you have a recipe book?”

“Haven’t had time,” Rae said absently as she set the timer on the oven. “I’ll get around to it… eventually.”

Abigail laughed as Rae pulled the powdered sugar out and set another stick of butter. “Can you whip up some frosting while that bakes? I need to go change.”

“Sure, no problem.” Abigail grabbed a bowl out of the cupboard and began working. Rae breathed a sigh of relief and jogged into the other room, searching for a suitably festive outfit. She dug into one drawer and resurfaced with a dark green sweater and maroon leggings. The leggings, when she checked, were lined. Perfect.

She changed and dropped her hair out of its ponytail, ran a brush through it, and tugged her hair up and back again. It was wavy and messy, but she hoped it looked like it was supposed to be that way. For a moment, she considered putting on a little makeup. Mind made up, she grabbed a tube of lipstick (a dark mauve color) and put some on. She caught her own eye in the mirror and smiled.

“Got that icing done?” she called, turning on her heel and walking out of the bathroom. Bullet went with her, walking right at her side. “The cake should be done in a few minutes, if you want to go change.”

“Sure.” Abigail smiled at her before placing the bowl of icing on the counter and walking to the bedroom. “Cute outfit, by the way,” she called over her shoulder.

“Thanks!” Rae beamed at her back.

Abigail wasn’t gone for five minutes before the timer beeped. Rae reached out and pulled a towel over her hands, tugging the door open and reaching for the pan. One after the other, she placed them down on the stovetop and stood back. Both looked just about as perfect as they could get.

“Whew,” she muttered, and crossed her arms over her chest. “Now they have to cool…”

She glanced up at the clock on the wall. It was almost 8; she had less than an hour to finish making the cake and get herself and Abigail out the door. Luckily, Abigail wouldn’t require too much moving. She reemerged a moment later, dressed in a dark blue dress and dark gray leggings. Her usual vest was on over top the outfit; her purple hair was loose and slightly curly. “Cake’s done?”

Rae nodded and smiled. “We should be good to go soon. Got everything else?”

“Yep!”

Within the hour, the two headed out, each carrying a small bag with a slice of cake inside. Bullet stayed behind, whining as Rae ordered him to stay and guard the house. Other than that, their spirits were high as they headed to the Feast of the Winter Star.

They reached the town square and Rae came to a halt, eyes wide. The snowy plaza was full, both with people and tables. At the center of the plaza was a massive tree, bedecked with ornaments and a bright star on top. The townsfolk of Pelican Town all milled around, speaking to each other. Laughter and the sound of glasses chinking together filled the air. The cold air couldn’t deter the festive atmosphere.

“Rae, Abigail!” Sam called, waving them over. Rae turned to look as he walked over to them. He beamed as he reached them. “Good to see you!”

“Hey, Sam!” Abigail grinned back at him. “What’s up?”

They started to talk as Rae looked around. She excused herself and made her way back north, towards where Marnie was speaking to Mayor Lewis. They turned to look as she approached, carefully carrying the gift bag. “Surprise!” she told Marnie, smiling. “I was your secret friend.”

“Oh, you were?” she asked, looking surprised as she accepted the gift bag. “Shall I open it now?”

“Sure,” Rae said with a shrug. “Doesn’t matter to me.”

Marnie opened the bag and extracted the piece of cake. “Oh!” she exclaimed, eyes wide. “This looks wonderful!”

“Oh, good,” Rae said with feeling. “I’d hoped you would like it.”

“This is my favorite desert,” she admitted. “Thank you so much, Rae!”

“Of course.” Rae waited until Marnie had put the cake back in the bag and put it down to hug her. “You’re very welcome.”

She made her excuses to both adults and moved back towards the tree in the center of the plaza. She paused in front of it, just taking in the sights as the sunlight made the ornaments shimmer. There were a few presents around the base of the tree; she wondered if any could be hers.

A gentle tap on her shoulder made her start and turn. Jodi stood there, smiling at her, carrying a tray in her hands. “Hello,” she said. “I was your secret gift-giver this year.”

“Oh!” Rae started. “I – oh, I didn’t realize I’d get a secret friend too!” She felt her cheeks heat up a little. “Oh, wow, thank you!”

Jodi offered her the platter, on which was a blackberry cobbler. She gasped, looking it over. “Oh, Jodi, this is amazing!” she whispered.

Jodi laughed. “It’s just a little gift, nothing big.”

“Nothing big? Oh my goodness, please, this is amazing!” Rae beamed at her. “Thank you so much. I really, really appreciate this.” She balanced the platter on one arm and reached out for a hug. “Thank you.”

She deposited the blackberry cobbler with Abigail, who was talking to her parents. The purple-haired girl gave her a strained smile as she did so. Rae leaned over and made sure her hair concealed her face as she whispered, “If you need to leave, just say the word.”

“I’m good,” Abigail whispered in return. “Thanks.”

“Sit with us!” Caroline said, gesturing to a free seat at the table. “Please! The feast is about to begin.”

Rae sat down, a little reluctantly. She gave Pierre and Caroline warm smiles, as warm as she could be. Something about Abigail’s expression told her the conversation before she arrived had been a little bit rough. She put in a concerted effort to steer the conversation to safe waters.

The Feast was a lunch/dinner meal, and everyone talked for a while before it was finally time to eat. Rae filled her plate as they passed the food around, wasting no time in digging in. She listened to the cheerful conversations for a while, basking in the laughter and sunlight. It was wonderful… until it wasn’t.

“Mother, I’m fine.”

The raised voice made everyone else quiet a little. Rae straightened and set her fork down. Abigail shot her a lightning-quick glance; she caught and held it, nodding just a little. “Please excuse me,” she whispered as she stood up and started making her way to the table behind her.

Sebastian sat at his family’s table, back straight as a poker and face stony. Rae tried to catch his eye, but failed. He pushed his plate away from him and stood up. “I’ve got to go,” he said, turned, and walked away.

Rae caught Robin’s shoulder when the woman went to stand up, forehead creased in worry. “I’ll go after him,” she whispered, squeezing a little. “I’ll be back.”

She stuffed her hands into her pockets and set off in pursuit of Sebastian, who was walking towards the stairs that led up to the plateau over the town. She kept well behind him, just watching him. He walked with a long, angry stride. His shoulders were hunched over and tucked in tight. Rae walked just a little faster, trying to catch up to him.

“Leave me alone,” he called over his shoulder, not bothering to look back.

They passed the Community Center and continued on back towards the mountain. “No,” Rae said calmly. “Talk to me, Seb. What happened?”

He came to an abrupt halt, halfway up the trail. Rae stopped as well, watching him. She scrubbed her hands together to warm them up. “What’s wrong?” she asked again, much softer.

Sebastian turned around. He looked a little off; his eyes were red and somewhat teary. “It’s nothing,” he snapped. “Nothing you need to worry about.”

“I beg to differ.” Rae took a hesitant step forwards, hands down and out. “You can talk to me, Sebastian. I won’t tell anyone, I swear.”

He swiped away at his eyes. “They just don’t-“ A choked noise broke from his mouth. Rae took another step, reaching out her hands. He stood a little back, swallowing. She took one more step, and he broke.

In two sweeping strides, she pulled him into her arms as tight as she could, wrapping her arms around his waist and holding on for dear life. He wrapped his arms around her and cried into her shoulder. “Shhh,” she whispered. “Shhh, I’m right here.” Her throat thickened and she closed her eyes. “I’ve got you.”

“Why won’t they listen to me?” he whispered, resting his forehead on her shoulder. “Why? Maru’s just fine, but when it comes to my dreams, they laugh it off…”

“Oh, hun, I don’t know,” she murmured. “But I believe in you. So do Abby and Sam. We’ve got your back.”

She held on tight, as he tried to pull himself back together. The cold ate into her skin, but she didn’t move. “What do you want to do?” she whispered. “How do you want me to help?”

He shook his head a little. “I can’t go home, not tonight. I can’t face them.”

Rae squeezed his shoulder. “You can sleep on my couch,” she said immediately. “I don’t care. There’s plenty of room.” She pulled away and cradled his face in her hands. “Do you want to get a few things from your room?”

He nodded, drawing a deep breath. “Yeah.”

She drew away and reached out, wrapping an arm around his waist. “Here. Let’s go.”

Together, they walked the rest of the way up the mountain. The chill bit into Rae’s arms and legs, but she said nothing, just keeping a steady pace with Sebastian. He didn’t seem to notice the cold at all. They trudged through the snow, and Rae couldn’t help but breathe a small sigh of relief when she saw the house ahead come into view. “You should at least get one change of clothes, maybe two,” she murmured. “Anything really important should come as well.”

He gave her a side-glance. “Think you can carry a computer?” he asked.

She lifted one hand and wobbled it back and forth. “We’ll see,” she finally said. “Depends on how heavy it is.”

“It’s not too bad,” he said at the entrance to the house. He turned the knob; the door swung open easily. He scoffed. “They never bother to lock it.” As they walked through the front area, where Robin kept her store, he dug into his pocket and pulled out a key. “However, I have too much expensive stuff in my room to not lock it…”

He unlocked the door and walked down the stairs. Rae followed close behind. At the bottom, he turned the light on and surveyed the room.

For a long, quiet moment, neither of them said anything. It was just pure silence. Rae looked around the room, reminded of the times she’d spent in here, talking to Sebastian or Sam or Abigail, sometimes a combination of the group, sometimes all three. It felt like those times were gone now, vanishing – or at the very least, overshadowed by the events that had built up to today.

“Get your clothes together,” she urged, gently pushing him towards the dresser. It was dark wood, and it was a disaster. At least two drawers wouldn’t close fully, meaning there were just clothes piled up on top of the openings, overflowing onto the floor. Why he needed so many clothes, she wasn’t sure – it wasn’t like he wore anything besides blacks and grays.

He nodded and got to work packing some clothing. “What else do you want?” she asked, walking to his bookshelf. The first thing she pulled out was the Solarian Chronicles box. Its expansion packs – one of which looked brand new – followed.

“Just-“ Sebastian straightened and turned, a few tee-shirts in his hands. “Well, you’re ahead of me,” he said, eyeing the boxes on the table. She laughed. “Uh, otherwise, my computer – it’s got all my work on it, so be careful.”

Rae walked forwards and examine the computer. “Right, so I know how to use a computer, but deconstructing it is gonna be your job,” she decided. “I’ll carry what I can.”

“No problem.” She turned just in time to watch him throw a few things into the bag. “We can put the keyboard and mouse in here. Everything else we’ll have to carry.”

“No problems.” She moved a little closer and peered at the bag. “Think the boxes will fit in there?”

“Probably. Let’s find out.”

They packed for another thirty minutes or so, and Rae sat down at the table as Sebastian began taking his computer apart piece by piece. “So,” she said, trying for a conversational tone, “Think this is going to be permanent?”

Sebastian’s hands stilled. He stared blankly ahead for a long moment. Just when she was about to repeat herself, he stood up and turned to look at her.

“Could you – I mean, would that… would you be ok with that?” he asked, hesitant.

“Sure,” she said, lifting one shoulder. A wicked thought, and she smiled. “I can always use more help around the farm, anyways.”

“I don’t do that,” he said, giving her a deadpan stare.

She laughed and waved him back from work. “Yes,” she said. “I’m ok with you staying permanently. Would I have offered to help carry your computer if I wasn’t? It’s too heavy for a temporary move.” She frowned. “I’ll need a table for that, though. I only have a breakfast table and a few side-tables…”

She entirely missed the look he was giving her until she actually met his eyes. “You don’t have to,” he murmured, crossing his arms over his chest. “This is enough.”

“If you’re going to live with us, you’re going to be comfortable,” she said firmly.

He stood up and walked over, wrapping his arms around her. “Thanks,” he whispered, squeezing for a moment. “You’re the best.”

“No I’m not,” she scoffed. “But thank you. Now, finish packing. I want to be back at home before anyone gets back.”

Chapter Text

Sebastian spent the rest of the day settling into Rae’s living room. They took the long way home to avoid the festival; Rae silently mourned not being able to see the kids unwrap presents, but brushed it aside. Sebastian needed her more than she needed to see the joy in their faces.

He was taking a nap on the couch when Abigail got back. She almost busted down the door in her haste to get inside. Rae bolted upright, having been sitting at the kitchen table with a book. “Shhh!” she hissed, waving one hand as she stood up and moved towards Abigail. “Seb’s asleep.”

“Oh, good, he’s here,” Abigail said, lowering her voice accordingly. She turned around and spoke to someone outside. “He’s inside.”

Rae crossed the remaining distance in just a few moments as Abigail went to open the door wider. “No, no, no, wait,” she hissed, waving one hand.

Sure enough, Robin stood outside on the porch, wringing her hands. “I just need to see him,” his mother whispered, sounding a little desperate. “I just need to make sure he’s ok.”

“He’s ok,” Rae said. “But he’s asleep. He’s exhausted. I want to let him sleep for a while, you understand how it is, right?”

“Yeah.” Robin wiped her eyes. “I know. I just – I just wanted to make sure everything was ok.”

“He’ll be fine,” Rae whispered. She reached out to grasp Robin’s arms. “Give him some space and some time.”

She nodded. “If you’re sure…”

“I am.” Rae gave her the most reassuring smile she could manage. “You should probably head back now. I’ll make sure he comes to see you, maybe in a few days.”

“Ok,” Robin said. She gave Rae a brief smile. “Thank you.”

“No problem.”

Robin turned and walked away. Rae watched her leave, before turning and stepping inside. “You heard all that, didn’t you,” she said as the door closed behind her.

Sebastian sat up, rubbing his eyes. “Yeah,” he said, yawning. “Thanks for running interference.”

“No problem.” She ruffled his hair as she passed him.

Abigail was just placing two gift bags on the table. “So, I got a chunk of amethyst from Clint,” she said, sounding disgruntled.

“I thought you loved amethyst,” Rae said.

“I do, but when you get it every year for the Feast, it gets a little old.” Abigail rolled her eyes; Rae giggled. “But you left your bag, so I brought it home for you…”

“Oh!” Rae hurried forwards to take the blackberry cobbler out of its bag. “This can be dessert for tonight.” She moved to the refrigerator and opened it, sliding the cobbler inside.

Another knock at the door made them all look. Sebastian immediately collapsed backward and flung a hand over his eyes, pretending once more to be asleep. “Another person?” Rae muttered, as she walked towards the door. “At this point, I’m just going to install a revolving door-“

She pulled the door open. Sam stood there, shifting back and forth on his feet. “Hey,” he said, giving her the most uneasy smile she’d ever seen him wear. “Is it ok for me to come in?”

“Sam’s good, right?” she called over her shoulder. Sebastian gave a muffled grunt. She took that to mean ‘yes’ and opened the door a little wider. “Come in.”

Sam stepped inside, dusting his feet off. “You doing ok, man?” he asked, sounding concerned as he walked over to the couch and leaned on the back of it. Rae joined him, standing beside the slightly taller young man and looking down.

Sebastian peered up at them, one arm thrown over his forehead. “I’m good,” he said.

“Sure,” Rae said. She reached out and tugged at a loose strand of pure black hair hanging over his forehead. “Anyone want cobbler?”

“I’m stuffed,” Sam complained.

“Same,” Abigail said. “Thanks for the offer, though.”

“No problem. Well, if no one else wants cobbler, we can have coffee and chat for a while.” Rae straightened and walked over to the cupboard. “Anyone?”

“Yep,” Sebastian said. Sam reached out a hand; Rae glanced over in time to see him pull Sebastian upright.

“You good?” Sam asked. Sebastian gave him a thumbs-up.

Rae set the coffee pot on to brew and pulled out four mugs. Unprompted, Abigail pulled out the milk and sugar. She poured a little of each into one mug, then a lot of each into another. “How d’you want your coffee?” she called, as the guys walked over and sat down at the table.

“Lot of milk, little sugar,” Sam said.

“Black.”

“Like your soul?” Rae teased, glancing over as the coffee pot chugged merrily away. Sebastian gave her a small smile.

The coffee pot finished chugging away and Rae poured out four cups full. She picked up the one with a little milk and sugar and stirred it with a spoon she grabbed off the counter. One long sip later, and her eyes closed in contentment. “Perfect. Thanks, Abby.”

Each person retrieved their coffee and sat down, regarding each other in the silence. Rae took another sip of her coffee as her eyes darted between the three. “So,” she said as she put her coffee mug down, cradling it in her hands.

“So,” Sam agreed. “If you don’t mind my asking, what was that about?”

Sebastian’s shoulders slumped; he toyed with his coffee. “I guess it just got to be too much,” he muttered. “Maru was chattering on and on about her online classes, and working as a nurse, and on and on… I was just tuned out, minding my own business, when Mom asked if I was ok.” He heaved a sigh. “I guess I was a little short with her.”

“You were,” Rae said. When he glared at her, she raised one eyebrow. “What, you want me to lie to you?”

His shoulders slumped; he shook his head. “No,” he muttered into his mug. He took a moody sip, staring off into the far distance beyond the opposite wall.

“Talk to me, man,” Sam said. He was intently focused on Sebastian, even leaning forwards in his chair to make his friend meet his eyes. “There’s gotta be more than that.”

Sebastian fiddled with his coffee mug. “It was a buildup of everything from the last few years,” he admitted. “I’ve been listening to oh, how great is Maru, and Maru’s accomplished this, oh, look at Maru, on and on and on and on, since she was born, it feels like. I guess it just finally got to me.”

Abigail reached out and patted his hand silently. He acknowledged her with a slight nod of the head.

“I’m sorry,” Sam murmured. “I…” He faltered and fell silent. Rae caught his gaze as he gave her a plaintive look.

“I don’t know how you feel,” she said softly, after a long hesitation. “I was an only child. But I can tell you now – we’re here. And we’re so proud of everything you’ve accomplished.”

Sebastian picked up his coffee mug, but didn’t take a drink. He only stared at it for a few long moments. “Thanks,” he finally murmured, and drained the mug dry.

~*~*~*~

The next morning, Rae woke up, walked into the kitchen to get something for breakfast, and nearabouts screamed.

After getting her heartrate back under control and realizing that no, that was not some random homeless person sleeping on her couch, it was Sebastian, she set to work on making breakfast. Muffins again, she decided, but blueberry this time. A quick check in the fridge told her that yes, she had some frozen blueberries from the fall before. She quickly set to work, mixing everything together and throwing the batter into a muffin tin.

Before long, the smell of baked goods filled the air. Rae opened the oven and peered inside, releasing another cloud of scent. Movement caught her attention; she stood up just in time to see Sebastian sit up and rub his eyes. “Morning,” she called. “You up?”

“No,” he grumbled. “What time’s it?”

She glanced at her watch. “6:30.”

He groaned and collapsed back on his makeshift bed. “Going back to bed,” he grumbled. “G’night.”

“Sure you don’t want to get up and work with Abby and I?” she asked.

“Yep.” His voice was muffled by the pillow his face was buried in. “Bye.”

This won’t do, she thought, and looked around for some way to wake him. A nudge at her side made her look down. Bullet sat at her side, panting up at her joyously.

“Wanna have some fun, sweet boy?” she muttered.

Bullet tilted his head at her. She smiled.

He followed her over to the couch, where Sebastian had fallen back asleep. Bullet sat down at her side, looking up at her inquisitively. She pointed to Sebastian’s face; Bullet happily stuck his nose right into Sebastian’s ear.

Abigail walked in just in time to watch Sebastian all but levitate off the couch. Rae started laughing as he yelled something incoherent, flailing around as he tried to wipe Bullet snot off his ear and cheek. She looked between the two of them, blinked twice, and declared, “It’s too early for this.”

Rae succeeded in her goal of getting Sebastian up. They all sat down for breakfast, a little later than normal, but mostly on time. Rae finished her muffin first and stood up. “I’m going to go check on the animals, and then I think it’s time to put the final pipes and sprinkler heads in the ground.”

“Really?” Abigail asked, as she stood up and picked up her plate. “That’s great!”

“Seb, you down to help?” Rae asked. She put her plate in the sink and turned around in time to see Sebastian make a face at his muffin. “You don’t have to.” She paused and amended that. “At least, not yet.”

“Not yet?” he asked, giving her a confused look.

“Of course! What, you think rent’s free?” Rae pointed at Abigail. “She’s been working with me as a farm-hand, I guess you could call it. Gonna have to work for your lodging.”

He made a face; she thought it could’ve been disgust. “Can I just pay you rent per season?”

“Hmmm…” Rae made a show of considering it. “No.”

He visibly deflated. She laughed. “It’s not so bad, is it, Abigail?”

“Nope, not bad at all.”

Something in her voice made Rae pause as she started to walk to the bedroom. She pivoted around, just in time to see Abigail jolt upright and give her a positively angelic expression. “You’re not fooling me,” she said, and flicked two fingers between her eyes and Abigail’s face. “Watch it, girl!”

She flounced into her bedroom to get changed and reemerged, wearing her working clothes. “Back in a minute,” she called over her shoulder as she opened the front door. “Bullet, heel!”

Bullet scrambled to his feet and raced to her side, dancing around her feet and panting happily. He followed right behind her as she walked out onto the front porch and shut the door behind them.

She just stood there for a minute. It had snowed overnight; everything was soft with freshly-fallen snow. There was a clean edge on the snowpack on the railings down to the ground, while icicles dangled over the roof. Bullet charged down the front porch steps ahead of her, breaking the smooth, unblemished white. She huffed out a breath. It turned white in the air in front of her. She smiled.

Her animals weren’t so happy about the chill in the air. Her chickens huddled together in a clump, clucking at everything that got close to them. “Sorry, chick-a-dees,” she crooned as she grabbed some hay from the bin. “Winter’s almost over. When the weather warms up, I’ll let you outside straightaway, promise.”

She collected the few eggs and placed them into the small zippered pocket of her backpack, before checking the heater and collecting Bullet from his place sniffing the corner. They walked outside and over to the barn next door, where the pattern repeated. Ramen nudged Rae’s shoulder while she milked the cow, mooing softly. She didn’t seem as affected by the cold as the chickens were, of course, but she still didn’t seem too pleased with the chill in the air. Rae checked that radiator as well; satisfied it was working well, she picked up the milk pail and grabbed an empty milk jug from beside the door. Her hands were steady as she poured the milk into the jug. When it was empty, she collected the pail and jug and walked over to the pond.

Unfortunately, the pond was frozen over. She sighed and crossed her arms over her chest. “I need a well,” she muttered, and lugged the pail up to the house. There was a small spigot on the side of the house. She used that to wash the pail out and placed it inside her tool chest.

Once all that was accomplished, Rae turned and made her way back up to the front porch. “Abby, you good to go?” she called as she pushed open the front door. Bullet pushed past her and shook the snow from his coat. She made a face.

Abigail emerged from the bedroom, straightening a sweater Rae hadn’t seen before. “Yep,” she said, and gave Rae a smile. “All good to go.” She snatched her hat and gloves off the hooks by the door and pulled them on. Rae stepped aside to allow her out and gave Bullet a questioning look, pointing outside. He made a huffing noise and lay down on the rug in the center of the room, resting his head on his paws.

“Suit yourself,” Rae muttered, and stepped out into the cold.

They worked for roughly four or five hours non-stop, trying to screw in the sprinkler heads and the last few pipes. Rae’s back hurt from leaning over and scratching at the cold ground, straightening and bending and lifting, over and over and over again. She finally stood up and leaned back a little, trying to pop her spine. It acquiesced with a short series of cracks. She sighed in relief.

“How’re you doing?” Abigail called as she stood up.

“Good. I’m close to done, I think.” Rae rolled her head and circled her arms a few times. “Also exhausted. What do you say we take a break, have some food?”

“That cobbler’s still in the fridge,” Abigail pointed out.

Rae’s eyes widened. “Ooooh, you’re right…”

They climbed the stairs together and stepped inside. It was quiet in the house; Bullet had only rolled over, otherwise not budging an inch from his rug. Sebastian was also fast asleep still.

“Is he always like this?” Rae asked, frowning as she walked over to the kitchen and pulled out two plates.

“Yeah, more or less.” Abigail opened the fridge and pulled out the cobbler. “Want me to throw this in the oven first?”

“Well, don’t throw it,” Rae admonished, blinking innocently when Abigail glared at her. “But yes, that sounds good.”

They set up everything and leaned against the counters, facing each other. “So,” Abigail started. “How’s the first day of spring going to play out?”

Rae rolled her shoulders and tilted her head back to stare at the ceiling. “Well. The first order of business will be seeing what the snow’s uncovered. I’m guessing a lot of rocks and stuff have gotten buried under the snow. First thing after it melts, I’m going out with a hatchet and a pickaxe to break it all down and cart it off. I’ll need your help for that – mostly manual labor. After that, we’ve got to hoe the ground, turn over the soil so we can drop seeds in it. One of us will need to go into town to get seeds – a lot of seeds. You want that job or do you want me to do it?”

Abigail hesitated. “That’ll involve going to the general store, right?”

Rae nodded. “Yeah. I don’t buy from Joja if I can help it. It may be more expensive to buy from Pierre, but I trust I’m not going to get bad seeds.”

“I think I’ll stay back and work the ground,” Abigail said after a moment to think.

Rae nodded. “Ok. Perfect. Then tomorrow we finish the sprinkler system and count out spaces and what we want to put where. I have-“ and she reached out to a cabinet for a magazine – “a seed catalogue here. C’mere and take a look, tell me what you think we should plant…”

For the next ten minutes, the two young women flipped through the seed catalogue, making notes and plotting out where seeds would go. The oven beeped at some point; all they did was serve up a portion of the cobbler each and move to the table, still talking and waving their hands as they plotted out piece by piece where everything would go.

Finally Rae looked over the piece of paper between them. “Ok,” she said, and leaned back in her chair. “I think that’s everything. Thoughts?”

Abigail tugged the page over to her and inspected it. “Looks good to me,” she said firmly. “This is gonna be fun!”

Chapter Text

Later, Abigail would look back on her words and laugh and laugh and laugh about it. The first day of spring was not “fun”. The first day of spring, simply put, was hell.

First of all, Rae woke up late – an hour late, to be exact. She almost vaulted out of bed trying to get to her clothes in time, shouting for Abigail to get up. This made the purple-haired girl fall out of bed in shock, flailing as she hit the ground. “Sorry!” Rae called as she snagged her clothes and bolted into the bathroom. “We’re late!”

After that, it was a mad dash to the kitchen. Rae tried to wake up Sebastian, but he stayed stubbornly asleep. Finally, she gave up and called, “Bullet!”

Bullet raced out of the bedroom and skidded to a halt beside Rae. She pointed to Sebastian – he didn’t just poke his nose in the young man’s ear, he scrambled onto the couch and laid down on Sebastian’s chest. Sebastian coughed himself awake and flailed a little. Rae didn’t stick around to see him try to move the oversized German Shepherd.

She and Abigail scarfed down their breakfasts and bolted outside, calling for Sebastian to join them as soon as he could. Rae grabbed the axe, Abigail the pick, and together they set to work on destroying the various debris that had fallen into the field.

By the time they got close to finishing, it was almost 9:00, and Rae straightened from cracking a piece of wood into chunks. “I need to go get seeds,” she called. “Do me a favor and get Sebastian moving? We need the fields plowed soon, and we still have to let the animals out - actually, do that first!” She was already moving, running towards the mailbox to retrieve whatever money she’d made off the gems she’d shipped just a few days before. “I’ll be back!”

She jogged all the way into town, arriving just 20 minutes later and heading straight for the general store. Pierre was standing at the counter when she all but burst inside, panting. “I’ve got a list!” she cried, and that was when she remembered it was still sitting on the counter at home.

He must have seen her disappointment in her face and started to laugh. “A little overeager there, are we?” he asked.

“Well, I needed to get a head start on planting and everyone woke up late today, so there’s that.” She flounced up to the counter and leaned on it hard. “Luckily, I still have all the money I need to pay. I’ll take three sacks of parsnip seeds, one of cauliflower, ten green bean trellises, and two sacks each of kale and potato seeds.”

Pierre’s eyebrows had slowly crept upwards as she listed off the seeds she’d need. “That much, huh?” he asked. “Sounds like you’re doing pretty well for yourself.”

“We are!” she said, giving him a broad smile as she pulled her backpack off her back and placed it on the counter. “Abigail and I’ve been working for the last few weeks to clear out space for everything, she’s been a huge help.”

He paused in withdrawing the sacks of seeds. “She is, huh,” he said, sounding… odd. “Glad to hear it.”

“Yep.” Rae dug into her purse for the gold to pay for it. Pierre didn’t have a credit card reader, meaning she had to pay in physical gold. It was a pain to haul around, but it wasn’t so bad – she stored most of it in a secret safe somewhere on her farm. “We make a great team. I love having her around.”
Pierre was quiet as he put down the last few bags of seeds and turned around to get out the bean trellises. “She’s not going to move back home, is she,” he murmured, almost too soft for Rae to hear.

You’ve got to be joking. I don’t have time for this. “I don’t know,” she said. “She seems pretty comfortable living at home. How much do I owe you?”

“Uh, one second…” He seemed thrown by the abrupt change in tone, but took it in stride and began calculating.

Rae rested her head in one hand as he worked, silently making a list of everything to do as soon as she got back to the farm. She’d give Abigail the kale and potato seeds, Sebastian the parsnips, and herself the rest. There were sections already laid out, she just had to put them in the right places-

She dropped the gold requested on the counter and shot Pierre a brief smile as she swept the seeds into her bag. “Thanks, I’ll see you later!” she called over her shoulder. He didn’t have time to call a goodbye before she was sprinting for the door, backpack half on her back.

She ran the rest of the way home, breathing in the crisp spring air. Everything felt like it was moving so fast; she could see little green buds on every tree she passed, and the bushes were already putting out leaves. A few squirrels ran after each other, chattering away. The air felt different from winter; softer, gentler. She smiled at the shift, already excited for what the year could bring.

For all her excitement, though, the season wasn’t off to a promising start. As she emerged from the path to her farm, she couldn’t see Abigail or Sebastian anywhere. A closer look told her there was no one outside – including any of her animals. Confused and a little disappointed, Rae slowed her pace and went straight for the barn and coop to let out her livestock.

Her chickens greeted her with happy clucks and excited shuffling. Essa was fully grown now, and Rae’s mood improved with her first ever duck egg. She cradled it in her palms and turned it over, eyes wide. “What a good little ducky you are,” she crooned, reaching down to stroke Essa’s plumage. The duck positively preened under her attention. “Here, I’ll put this in the incubator and we can try it out. Maybe if we’re lucky we’ll have another little duckling running around soon, hm?”

Essa quacked at her and waddled over to the little door that led outside. Rae laughed and walked over, cradling the egg to her chest as she leaned down and opened it up. Soba, Udon, and Essa all filed outside in an orderly fashion, and Rae walked over to the incubator, put the egg inside, and turned it on. “There,” she murmured, and slipped out the door of the coop.

Her bird were happily eating up the grass that was only just beginning to sprout from the ground. She walked to the barn and opened it, poking her head inside.

Ramen mooed as soon as the cow spotted her and made her way over. Rae stepped inside and smiled, holding out a hand. “Sorry, big girl,” she murmured, as the cow nudged her hand and she scratched behind her horns. “Let’s get you milked and out there, shall we?”

She moved fast and poured the milk into a clean jug in a crate by the door. That corked, she put it down and reached up to the barn door chain. Ramen was out the door as soon as it was high enough, and the stale air in the barn grew fresh with the cool air. She held onto the chain and leaned on one foot, tucking one behind the other and resting her temple on the track for the door.

There was no time to waste, but she just took a moment. The day had been hectic so far, but scenes like the one before her – her animals calmly eating the freshly-grown grass, a few trees rustling in the distance by the pond at the base of her property, birds flying around – made everything worth it.

Then barking made her straighten. She stepped out the barn door and looked. Bullet raced towards her, barking madly, tail going wild. “Hey, baby!” she cried, crouching down and opening her arms.

He plowed into her at full speed, knocking her back on her rear and flopping down on her legs. “Hello, sweetness, did you miss me?” she asked. He rolled over so she could scratch his stomach.

When she looked up, Abigail was running towards her, Sebastian a few yards behind her as he scrubbed at his eyes. “I’m so sorry,” she said, looking frantic. “I totally forgot to let them out, I’m so sorry-“

Rae nudged Bullet off her legs. When he stood up, grumbling a little, she scratched behind his ears and pulled herself upright. “It’s ok,” she said, and raised one eyebrow. “I do have to ask why it took so long to get Sebastian up. Did you finish hoeing everything?”

Abigail nodded. “Yeah, all done. He was being stubborn.” She glared behind herself; Sebastian threw his hands up into the air. “But he’s up now,” she said as she turned around, looking rather satisfied with herself.

“Good,” Rae said. She passed by them and gestured for both to follow. Bullet kept right at her heels as she walked towards the front of her house, where she’d left the ten bean trellises. “Come get your seeds,” she called over her shoulder. “I want to get all these in the ground by the end of tonight, and we also have to water everything.”

“I thought that’s what the sprinkler systems are for!” Abigail said as she caught up.

“They are, but I didn’t connect them last night, so they didn’t run this morning.” Rae frowned, disappointed in herself. “So I’ll connect them up before we go to bed and they should run tomorrow morning, bright and early. As long as we don’t have a flash-freeze, we should be all set.”

Abigail nodded as Rae slung her backpack off her back and planted it on the ground. She dug in the main pocket and withdrew all the bags of seeds. “Seb, c’mere,” she called, and raised the three bags of parsnips. “Your task is to plant these in that field.” She pointed at the closest field, fairly big and freshly tilled. “Abby, you get cauliflower and the beans, those go in the fields there.” She pointed farther away, at the fields beyond Sebastian’s assigned plot. “I’ve got the rest of it. Abby, I’m expecting you’ll be done first, so you get the watering can first. After that, pass it off to Seb and help him out. Then you can help me.”

“Sounds good.” Abigail grabbed the bag of cauliflower seeds and the bean trellises. “Meet you at the end!” she called and turned away, sprinting to grab the watering can and running for the fields. Rae grinned, swept her stuff into her backpack again, and shouted for Bullet. He raced to her side, and together they ran for her southern-most fields. Sebastian brought up the rear, shaking his head as he hefted the seed bags and walked to the field.

Rae worked for hours – they all did. She was right in who would finish first. Abigail planted the last of her seeds around half an hour after they first began and started watering everything. Sebastian was slow enough that they finished at roughly the same time, and she set to work watering the seeds he’d planted. Another half hour later, Rae was finally planting the last bean trellis in the ground, and Abigail filled up the watering can from the freshly-thawed pond. “Ready?” she shouted.

Rae straightened, one hand on her lower back. She leaned back a little, stretching her spine and twisting back and forth. “Yep!” she shouted, waving them towards her. Bullet barked, adding his voice to hers.

They got to work on the final fields. Rae’s experience allowed her to complete the four sacks of seeds in just over an hour and a half, but there was a lot of ground to cover when it came to watering all the seeds. Bullet lay in the shade of a nearby oak tree, watching the three work. Sebastian joined him a few times, wiping his forehead and fanning himself. “Maybe if you didn’t wear all black, you wouldn’t be so hot!” Abigail called as she swept the watering can over a group of seeds. He just flipped her off.

The sun was beginning to set as Abigail and Rae finally finished working. Sebastian came out to help, still sweating through his black hoodie even with the sleeves rolled up. Abigail passed over the watering can to Rae; she swept it over the last seeds and grinned, letting it fall back to her side. “Done!” she declared. “And I’m starving.”

“Anything to eat in the fridge?” Sebastian asked.

Abigail scoffed. “Of course you’re hungry,” she griped, rolling her eyes. “You did basically nothing and you’re still starving-“

“Oh-kay!” Rae said at full volume, stepping between the two. “I’m going to put the animals in for the night and get some food from the freezer to thaw. Abby, you wanna take point on that? Seb, why don’t you help me with the animals? No arguments? Perfect!” She grabbed Sebastian’s arm and pulled him towards the barn.

He stumbled at first, but regained his balance and kept up with her. “Just keep quiet until we get the animals inside,” she muttered, linking her arm through his and holding on tight. “Please.” He obliged as they reached the barn door and Rae ducked inside, pulling him with her. She released his arm to pull the barn door closed, hand-over-hand.

“Now are you going to tell me why you hauled me in here?” he grumbled, crossing his arms over his chest.

Rae sighed as the door finally closed and she turned to walk to Ramen. The cow lowed at her and plodded over to be petted. She sighed as she rubbed the white spot on Ramen’s forehead. “While yes, I understand that you need sleep, we really needed your help this morning,” she murmured. “Is everything ok?”

She watched Sebastian from the corner of her eye, trying to judge his reaction. It was… interesting, and enlightening, to say the least. He shifted, looking away and down at the sawdust-covered ground. “It’s fine,” he said, shrugging one shoulder. “I just couldn’t get to sleep last night.”

That was bullshit, and they both knew it. Rae went to bed at 10 pm, but Sebastian had fallen asleep at least an hour before she’d gone to sleep. Couple that with him sleeping in for hours that morning, and Rae figured he’d gotten roughly 10 hours of sleep, if not more. “Are you sure?” she asked, treading as carefully as she knew how.

“I’m fine, ok?” he snapped, stepping away from the wall and taking a step towards her. Anger glittered in his eyes; Rae met them with nothing but level confidence. “I’m just fine.”

“Hm.” Rae tilted her head, studying him. His hands were trembling and clenched at his side, his entire form tense. She’d hit a nerve somewhere, in something she said. The real question was what, exactly, had set him off. “Fine,” she decided. “If you say so. But please, try to get up and help us out, at least a few times a week? Expansion comes at a price, and that price is man hours and labor.”

He scratched the back of his head and stepped backwards. “Yeah. I’ll try.”

She gave him a warm smile and stepped around Ramen, brushing past him on her way towards the door. “Don’t worry too much about it. I’ll run interference for Abigail too, if it helps.”

They stepped out into the night. Winter left a slight chill in the air, just enough for Rae to wish for her jacket. She shivered and picked up the pace to the chicken coop, ducking inside. The heater still ran, albeit on a lower setting than it had in the winter. The chickens and sole duck clustered around it, feathers ruffled as they slept. She smiled and leaned over, closing the hutch door as softly as she could. That accomplished, she stepped back out into the darkness.

Sebastian waited just outside the door for her, looking up at the stars overhead. “Ready to go in?” she asked, reaching out for his arm. He jolted a little and inclined his head; she linked her arm through his. Together, they walked back to her house and up the front steps. He held the door open for her. She smiled at him as she breezed past and stepped inside.

Bullet sprinted over to see her as soon as she set foot inside, tail wagging dangerously fast. “Hello, sweet boy,” she murmured. One hand scratched his head as she looked over at Abigail. “What’d you find in the freezer?”

“Huh? Oh, for a second I thought you were asking Bullet,” Abigail joked. “Uh, I found some crab cakes, or at least I think they’re crab cakes.”

Rae moved over and inspected them. “Yep, I think I made those sometime within the last few weeks.” She sniffed at them and nodded. “They’re still good. Maybe not fresh, but if we toss them in the oven for 10 minutes it should be fine. Everyone good with that?”

“Sure.” Sebastian walked over to the kitchen table and sat down on one of the chairs. “Need my help?”

“Actually, yeah. Abby, would you get drinks, and Seb, would you take care of dishes? Three plates, cups, sets of silverware.” She pointed towards a cupboard. “Dishware’s in there, silverware’s in the drawer directly below it.”

He didn’t respond, but when she glanced over, he was moving to obey. She hid a smile and turned back around, placing three decently sized crab cakes onto a baking tray and reaching to pre-heat the oven. “Thank you,” she said. “Hey Abby, mind helping me with something real fast?”

“Sure, what’s up?” Abigail looked over at her.

“I just need your help with something, it’ll only take a minute.” Rae gave the other girl a sunny smile and gestured for her to follow. “Sebastian, when the timer goes off, put the crab cakes in the oven and set the timer for 10 minutes. We’ll be done before then.”

Abigail followed her into the other room; Rae closed the door behind them. “Ok, now what’s up?” Abigail asked, crossing her arms. “You don’t need my help with anything and we both know it.”

Rae sighed and nodded. “I just wanted to ask you to back off a little on Sebastian. I know you’re frustrated at him – I am a little as well – but… I think there’s more going on with him than what we know.”

Her curiosity morphed into concern in an instant. “What do you mean?”

Rae moved to her bed and sat down, resting her elbows on her knees and her chin in her hands. Her voice lowered dramatically as she murmured, “I think he’s got something, some… mental illness. Depression seems most likely. Back in college, I had a few friends with it. Just based off him sleeping so much…” She shook her head. “Anyways. Just- lighten up a little.”

Abigail nodded, looking a little ashamed, even. “Sorry,” she said.

Rae waved her hand. “Tensions were high today. It was a rough day all around. Just… you owe him an apology, not me.”

Abigail nodded. “Ok.”

“Thanks,” Rae whispered. She stood up, reaching out to Abigail. After a moment of hesitation, she reached back, and they hugged. Rae rested her forehead on Abigail’s shoulder, wondering how in the world this had become her life in only a few short seasons.

They left and walked back out into the main room. Sebastian sat at the table, staring down at the table with a moody look on his face. “You ok?” Rae asked, frowning as she got closer.

He jolted and looked up. “What? Huh? Oh, yeah.”

The oven beeped somewhat insistently, which told Rae it wasn’t the first time it had gone off. He went to stand, but Rae beat him to it. “Don’t worry about it,” she told him as she slid the tray into the oven. “You feeling ok?”

“Yeah.” He rubbed his forehead. “I’m fine. Tired.”

Rae closed the oven door and stood up. “Early bedtime tonight,” she commented. “We’re all wiped. And the sprinkler system should run tomorrow morning, which means no need to water the plants. We can probably afford to sleep in a little.”

“Oh, good,” Abigail said with a theatrical sigh. “I’m beat.”

Rae planted her hands on the countertop, backing up to the cabinet front. She bounced a few times, before shoving herself up and landing on the counter. “Tomorrow, I’m going to start clearing out the trees,” she said. “I’m thinking we can set up an orchard to the south, by the pond.”

“Oooh,” Abigail said. She dropped into one of the chairs at the kitchen table and planted her elbows on the top. “What kinds of fruits?”

“I don’t know.” Rae gave her a bright smile. “You got any ideas?”

They bantered back and forth for a few minutes, trying to figure out what to plant first. Sebastian watched them go back and forth, a worn smile touching his lips as he studied their repartee. The oven went off and Rae hopped off the counter, not even missing a beat as she and Abigail continued to bounce back and forth. “Dinner,” she finally said. “Pick your cake and have a seat.”

They ate dinner in relative silence. Rae stared off into space, eating mechanically. Her mind was full of questions, chief among them how in the world she could help Sebastian – if he even needed or wanted help. Did he even know he could have depression? Did he want to know? Dear Yoba, what in the world was she going to do?

She dropped her head and picked at the last bite to her crab cake. “You ok?” Abigail asked.

Startled, she looked up. “Yeah, sorry. I’m just – really wiped, y’know? And I’m not all that hungry either. Think I’m gonna head to bed.” She stood up, swept her dishes up and headed to the sink, tossing the last bite of crab cake in the trash bin. A quick scrub and shine later and her dishes were clean, drying on the towel beside the sink. “Night, guys.”

“Night,” they chorused, waving as she turned and headed to her bedroom. Bullet stood up and followed, ducking his head under one of her hands. She glanced down, smiling at him.

She closed the door and leaned against it, closing her eyes. “I always seem to have this habit of digging myself in too deep, don’t I, boy?” she whispered. “Yoba. This is a mess.”

She sat down with her back to the door, and Bullet all but crawled in her lap. Her eyes slipped shut, and she focused on the warmth in her lap, the feel of his chest moving up and down on her legs. As she started to tune out, a voice caught her attention.

“Hey.”

It was Abigail speaking, quiet and hesitant. “I just-“ She cut off again. There was the sound of a deep breath, a sigh. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have been so harsh on you.”

She guessed Sebastian must’ve shrugged. “’s ok,” he said.

“It’s really… not.” Abigail sounded frustrated. “Tensions were running high today.”

A snort. “You could say that,” Sebastian said.

“I didn’t mean to be rude, or mean. I was just upset, because I felt like we were doing all the work and you were just drifting along, la-di-dah.”

“I gathered that.” Was that amusement she heard in his voice?

A long silence. “Anyways,” Abigail said. There was the sound of wood shifting on wood, like she was a little uncomfortable and unconsciously rocking back and forth. “I’m sure it’ll get better. Just – sorry.”

“Apology accepted,” Sebastian said. “And – I’ll try to help more in the future.”

“Thanks,” Abigail whispered, barely loud enough for Rae to hear.

They went quiet. Rae opened her eyes and looked up at the ceiling. “And then stuff like this happens,” she whispered, a small smile. “C’mon boy. Let me up – it’s time for bed.”

Chapter Text

They got decent amounts of sleep for the next few days, thankfully. Rae didn’t leave the farm much, but Sebastian and Abigail both did. Apparently, Sebastian ran into Robin at some point; he came home and stayed in the house for the rest of the day. Neither girl felt inclined to push the matter.

On the fourth day of spring, everyone woke up to harsh knocking on the front door. Rae bolted out of bed, checking the time as she pulled on a shawl and raced to the front door. It was about time for her to get up anyways – just a little earlier.

She wrenched open the front door, holding the shawl closed around her neck. Sam stood there, beaming ear to ear. “Rae!” he yelled, and hurled himself forwards to pick her up completely off the ground in a hug. She yelped and hugged back, trying to figure out what in the world was going on. “Rae, my dad’s coming home!”

His words sunk in, and she squealed in glee. “You’re kidding!” She squeezed him tighter, beaming ear-to-ear. “When?!”

“Today! He’s on a train home right now! Mom didn’t tell me until this morning!” He let her drop back down to the floor, unable to stand still.

By this point, Abigail and Sebastian were up. “Your dad’s coming home?” Abigail asked, a smile breaking across her face. “What time? We’ve got to come greet him with you!”

Rae hesitated, but Sam was still vibrating with excitement. “He’ll be here at noon,” he said. “You guys have to come with us!”

“Are you sure?” Rae asked, frowning as she drew her shawl tighter against the early morning chill. “I mean, it’s… kind of a private matter, wouldn’t you say?”

“Yeah! Yeah, no, I asked mom and she said it’s fine with her.” Sam grinned at them all. “Please, please say you’ll come!”

“Yes!” Abigail exclaimed, clapping her hands together. Sebastian nodded, a sliver of a smile on his face.

Rae was left, hesitating as she looked between the three. At least two of the three trembled with sheer excitement.

This still felt like such a private moment. She didn’t know Sam’s father (did she even know his name?). But if his mom had said it was ok…

Rae sighed. “Of course,” she said, and gave him a warm smile. “Wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

“Yay!” Abigail exclaimed, jumping up and down. “We’ll be there at noon!”

“Yes!” he said, almost exploding with joy. “I’ll see you there! See you guys later!”

He bounded back down the stairs, waving as he ran back towards the town. Rae waved at him, turning to step away and close the door behind her.

Inside, Abigail was jumping up and down with excitement, trying to make Sebastian jump with her. “He’s coming home! Kent’s coming home!” she yelled, grinning so wide Rae thought her face might just split in two. “He’s finally coming home!”

“You should go start getting ready, then,” Rae said with a smile. “I’ll take care of the animals, if you think you’ve got a handle on breakfast.”

“Sure.” Abigail gave her a lightning-fast smile and pivoted on her heel, already sprinting back into the depths of the house. Rae sighed, shook her head, and followed, a touch of a smile on her lips.

~*~*~*~*~

Rae changed quickly and stepped out into the cool morning air. Bullet pushed past her, tail wagging as he sniffed around the porch a little. “Nothing’s gonna jump out at us, right, big boy?” she murmured, reaching down to stroke his head. He gave her a doggy smile, before turning and bounding down the front steps.

She followed, brushing a loose strand of bronze hair out of her face. The grass crunched under her boots, still icy from the early morning frost. It was concerning, but her plants were only just starting to sprout, meaning she shouldn’t have to worry too much about them dying of cold. She walked to the barn door and pushed it open.

Ramen greeted her was a soft moo. Bullet pushed past Rae and went to sniff at the cow. The sole human shook her head as she grabbed the milk pail off its hook by the front door. “Making friends, sweet boy?” she asked. He gave her an innocent look.

Unfortunately, Ramen was dry, with no milk to give. Rae frowned as she stood up, giving the cow a once-over. “Are you ok, sweet thing?” she asked, patting the cow’s side. Ramen nudged her arm with her nose, but - of course - said nothing. “I’ll let you out to roam and graze today. Maybe that’ll fix the problem.”

She pulled the barn door open and let the cow out to pasture. Ramen went willingly, plodding along to the field of grass to the south. Rae watched the cow go, resting her hands on her hips.

Bullet sat down on her foot. She looked down at him. “If she’s still dry in a few days, then I’ll go to Marnie. What do you think, big boy?”

He just panted up at her. She rolled her eyes, still smiling, and ducked out the barn door to visit the coop.

Her duckling still hadn’t hatched yet, but she didn’t mind; there was still plenty of time left. She collected the three eggs from the ground and petted her birds, before opening the coop door and allowing them out to roam and eat. They filed out in an orderly line, clucking at each other. She stepped outside to watch them go.

Bullet herded the animals farther south. He only returned when Rae whistled, gesturing him back towards the house. Then he raced to her side, bouncing around her gleefully. “Having a good day, baby?” she asked, reaching one hand out. Bullet quieted immediately and tucked himself against her side, allowing her to rest her hand on his head.

Together, they walked back towards the house. As Rae opened the door, the smell of something sweet baking met her nose. “Ooooh,” she said out loud, taking a deep breath of the scent. “What in the world is that and can I have some?”

“It’s cranberry bread,” Abigail called from the kitchen. “It’s my grandma’s recipe. It’s not done yet - it’ll be another… fifteen minutes or so.”

“Yum.” Rae pulled her light jacket off and hung it up on the hook by the door. “Seb?”

“He’s getting changed and using the restroom.” Abigail turned to look at her. She was wearing a different outfit from her everyday wear; today it was a long sleeved purple shirt and knee-length black skirt. Rae made a mental note to step up her own outfit for the day. “What all did we get for the day?”

“Three eggs,” Rae said. She frowned, reminded. “Oh, Ramen didn’t give milk today. I’m going to keep an eye on her for the next few days, see if it’s just a temporary thing. If nothing changes I’ll talk to Marnie, see if she can find what’s wrong.”

“Sounds good.” Abigail turned back to the stove. “Good thing we’ve got extra milk from yesterday, then, right?”

“Yeah.” Rae chewed on her lower lip as she walked over to the kitchen table and sat down. A glance at the clock on the wall told her it was only 7:30 or so. “Hey, I’m actually gonna head back out - the parsnips should be ready for harvesting. You got everything locked down tight here?”

“Yep!” Abigail beamed at her.

“Then out I go again,” Rae said, rolling her eyes a little. “Back in a bit.”

She moved back to the door, pulling her jacket back on. Bullet didn’t seem all that ready to follow, so she shrugged and stepped back outside.

Sure enough, the parsnips they’d planted a few days previously were fully grown. She knelt in the dirt, dusted off a parsnip, and picked it up. It was whole and perfect, only a little dirty (as was to be expected). She smiled and put it aside, getting right down to work.

Digging up parsnips was mindless work, and it gave Rae time to think - a dangerous thing, really. She took a moment to glance across the field before her, staring out over the growing crops. Where to go from here, was the question. If she didn’t set goals, she’d fall back into the same pattern she’d had at Joja Corp - going nowhere fast.

So where to go. Well, if she looked at the growing family she seemed to be creating, she was going to need a bigger house… again. It felt like she’d only just expanded it, but - no, it would be close to 2 seasons in just a few days. Strange, how fast time seemed to go.

There were also more animals. She wanted a goat at some point, but that required expanding the barn. She could also use another silo for the winter - that past winter had taught her that you could never have enough hay. So many building improvements. Robin would be over the moon.

What else could she do to expand the farm? Better sprinklers would be a huge help, but for that she needed iridium. Iridium, so far as she could tell, was about as rare as stardust, and ten times as hard to find.

She could also do with upgrading her tools, and maybe getting another set for Abigail. The young woman was a huge asset, but she’d be even more helpful if she could actually use her own watering can or pick instead of sharing Rae’s. Maybe she should talk to Clint, see if he could create another set: for a price, of course.

Her train of thought cut off abruptly as she realized she’d run out of parsnips to dig up. She looked over at the small pile of parsnips and brushed her hair out of her face. Time to sort all of these and put them in the shipping bin-

“Hey!”

She turned. Abigail stood on the front porch, rubbing her arms. “Food’s ready!”

“Oh, good,” Rae called, as her stomach rumbled. Only now did she realize how hungry she really was. She stood up and dusted her knees off, brushing dirt away. “Give me just a minute.”

“Don’t take too long!” Abigail said, and turned to go back inside.

Rae swept up as many parsnips as she could carry and moved them over to the shipping bin. After breakfast, she’d sort them; hopefully, by that time, she’d be able to go get some more seeds to plant. She made a second trip to retrieve the rest of the parsnips. Once they were beside the bin as well, she straightened and made her way back into the house.

The entire room smelled like fresh-baked cranberries. She inhaled deeply and sighed out again. “It smells so good in here,” she commented. “Hope it tastes equally good.”

“It better,” Abigail retorted. Sebastian sat at the table, a plate already in front of him. She lifted two plates as she walked to the table, placing one at the empty spot and the other at her own place. “Wash up first, please.”

“You’re starting to sound like me,” Rae said, only half-joking. She leaned over and tugged her boots off, before walking to the sink and rolling up her sleeves. She started to wash her hands as she commented, “I don’t think you’ve ever told me about your grandmother. Is she still alive?”

“No,” Abigail said. There was something a little wistful in her tone; Rae immediately opened her mouth to backtrack, but the other girl waved her off when she looked. “It’s fine. It’s been years. Grandma was strong, but as she got older her immune system just couldn’t keep up. She died of flu long before you showed up here.”

Rae hummed a little, moving to the kitchen table and sitting down. “What was she like, if you don’t mind my asking?” She took a bite of the cranberry bread and almost melted into a puddle. “This is really good, by the way.”

“Grandma was my favorite grandparent - she was my mom’s mom.” Abigail took a bite. “She was a fighter. Granddad didn’t approve, but there wasn’t much he could do to stop her. After a while, he just learned to accept it.” She fiddled with her fork for a minute. “She was the one who taught me a few basic moves with a sword. I… actually practice on her grave sometimes. It makes me feel closer to her.”

Rae’s heart melted a little bit. “It sounds like you loved her a lot,” she murmured.

“I did,” Abigail said. “She was everything young me wanted to be. Then she died, and Mom and Dad… well, they’d rather me focus on being a housewife.” She made a face.

Rae laughed at that. “Understood.” She looked over at Sebastian. “What about you? What were your grandparents like?”

Sebastian was quiet for a long time. “I don’t remember Dad’s parents at all,” he finally said. “We moved away before I could really remember them. They lived in the city, as far as I can remember. After Dad… died, Mom couldn’t get out of the city fast enough. We lost contact after she remarried. Her parents died before I was born, so… I guess I don’t really have grandparents.”

Rae glanced over at Abigail. “Well, there’s always Granny Evelyn, right?” the blue-haired girl said, bright as could be. “She’s like a grandparent. What about you, Rae?”

She took a moment to gather her thoughts. “My mom’s side of the family is pretty small and spread out,” she said finally. “Her parents died before I can remember, too - though I have vague memories of her mom, if I really focus. Dad’s parents are still alive, but I’ve not really been in touch with them in a few years now. They didn’t agree with me dropping out of college.” She lifted one shoulder. “Whatever. I don’t mind so much.”

“What about your parents?” Sebastian asked.

Rae toyed with her food. “I haven’t really talked to them since I’ve arrived,” she admitted. “I sent them letters for their birthdays. They have a standing invitation to come visit, but so far… they haven’t taken me up on that.” She put on a cheerful smile and shrugged. “Maybe this year. We’ll see!” She took another bite of cranberry bread to avoid saying anything else. When she swallowed, she quickly changed the subject. “So, after I finish this, I’ve got to sort the parsnips, which shouldn’t take long. I’m thinking we leave here around 11 or so. Sound good to you guys?”

“Sure!” Abigail finished her bread quickly and smiled across the table. “Sounds good to me!”

“Good.” Rae stood up, picking her plate up and taking it to the sink. “Can one of you do dishes? I’d do it, but, well…”

“I can get it,” Sebastian said. “Don’t worry about it.”

“Thanks,” Abigail told him. Rae turned just in time to see them exchange smiles. “I appreciate it.”

Rae walked back to the door and pulled on her boots. “Keep up the good work. I’ll be back in just a few minutes, it shouldn’t take too long.”

She stepped back outside and made her ways down the stairs, brushing her hair back out of her face and behind her ear. The parsnips were where she’d left them, and she sat down to sort them out.

It took a short amount of time, shorter than she expected. She must be getting better, she thought, and swept the gold level parsnips into the shipping bin beside her. As she went to deposit the silver level crops next, the front door to her house opened. Abigail stepped outside. “Hey, Rae, are you almost ready to go?” she called. “It’s 10:30 already - if you want to shower, you need to do it soon.”

“Oh, crap.” Rae scrambled to her feet and dusted her legs off. “I’ll hurry!”

She raced inside, barely pausing to yank her boots off her feet. Sebastian looked up from his place at the kitchen table, where he’d set up his computer. “Running late?” he asked.

“Just a little bit!” Rae called over her shoulder, before running towards the bathroom. “As soon as I get dressed, we’re heading out, you better be ready to go!”

She took the fastest shower in the history of mankind, or so she thought - less than five minutes from the time she got in to the time she got out, even taking time to wash her hair. As soon as she got out, she dressed in her nicest jeans she owned and a loose short sleeved blouse, towel-dried her hair, and pulled her hair dryer out of the bathroom cabinet. It roared to life as she plugged it into the outlet and started working on her hair.

Abigail knocked on the door as she finished drying her hair. “Almost ready to head out?” she asked. “It’s getting close to 11…”

“I’m almost done!” she yelped, almost dropping her hair dryer in her haste to run a brush through her hair and find her makeup bag. “Just give me another minute or two!”

She swiped on foundation and a bit of eyeshadow, lined her eyes with dark brown eyeliner, and put on just a touch of lipstick (a delicate shade of light pink that she only wore in springtime). That accomplished, she gave herself a once-over in the mirror and nodded.

“Ready!” she called as she stepped out into her bedroom. All her shoes were over by the front door. She jogged across the house in her sock-covered feet and pulled on her boots. “Ok, I’m good to go,” she said, straightening and settling her blouse. “You guys all good?”

“Yep!” Abigail smiled at her as she stood up from beside Sebastian. The young man typed a few more things and hit a button with a flourish. He stood as well and followed her over to the front door.

“Bullet, heel,” Rae ordered. The dog stood up from the rug, shook himself out, and trotted over to her side, panting happily up at her. “Good boy.”

They stepped out into the daylight. Rae tilted her head back, smiling at the clean air around them. “Bullet, guard the animals,” she said. “We’ll be back in a few hours, promise.” He whined, but took off towards the field of tall grass to the south.

They walked into town first, taking their time. The spring day was warm and comfortable, a light breeze providing just a touch of cool air. Squirrels chattered at each other as they scampered around, digging up seeds from their hiding places. They paused at one point to observe a rabbit, huddled beneath a bush and busily munching on some type of grass.

They arrived in town and observed a small crowd of people, gathered in the town center. It looked like half the town had turned out to welcome Sam’s dad home. Rae gave it a once-over and frowned. “That’s… a lot of people.”

“Not really, when you look at it,” Abigail murmured in her ear. “See, Mom is Jodi’s best friend, so she’s there. Dad and Kent were friends, so he’s there too. Then Jas and Vincent are there to keep each other company, and Marnie’s there to watch Jas since Shane’s at work. Then we’re here for Sam, so the entire family has someone to lean on.” She smiled. “We support each other, as much as we can.”

Rae’s shoulders relaxed; she huffed out a breath. “It makes more sense when you put it like that,” she whispered back, before Sam turned and looked over at them. His face lit up; he waved frantically, before just jogging over to them.

“You came!” he said as he got closer. “I was starting to wonder.”

“She took forever,” Sebastian said, absolutely deadpan as he pointed at Rae. “We were ready to go and she was still out in the yard, working.”

Rae elbowed him. “That’s how I pay to keep expanding the farm, you dolt,” she said, humor dancing in her eyes. “Don’t diss my work!”

He gave her a small smile and ruffled her hair. She groaned and ducked away, running her own hands through it and trying to re-settle the loose strands into place.

“Sam, is that everyone you invited?” Jodi called from a few yards away. “We should start walking to the train station. The train should be coming through in less than half an hour.”

Sam’s bright grin shrank. He looked nervous, shifting a little. “You ready to go?” he asked softly.

“Ready if you are,” Abigail murmured. She reached out and took his hand, squeezing it tight. “We’re with you.”

“Thanks,” he said quietly. “I appreciate it.”

The group began to move, walking together. Sebastian, Rae, and Abigail all surrounded Sam, keeping close. He was pale and nervous; his hands shook. “I don’t know why I’m like this,” he admitted at one point, laughing, just a bit hysterical.

“It’s ok,” Rae murmured. She reached out and squeezed his shoulder, wishing he would calm down. After a long moment, he exhaled and shook his head. She hid a smile and released.

They finally reached the stairs to the train station. Sam stopped at the base of the stairs and just stared up it, completely blank. Abigail nudged him gently. “You ready?” she asked.

He nodded, a little shaky. “Let’s go.”

He followed the rest of the group up the stairs. They crossed the train tracks and filed up onto the train station platform. Rae sat down primly on a crate to be shipped out and waited, watching the tunnels. The train should be coming from the west, from Zuzu City. She focused on it, fiddling with the hem of her shirt.

Sam leaned against one of the pillars of the station, staring so intently at the tunnel that Rae wasn’t sure if he was even comprehending anything. She reached out a hand and rested it on his arm. He jolted. “He’ll be here,” she murmured, not looking at him. “Give it some time…”

At that very moment, the faint sound of a train whistle attracted her attention. Everyone went quiet, turning to look at the tunnel. Rae smiled.

The train locomotive pulled into view, spewing thick gray smoke into the air. Everyone pulled away from the edge of the station on an unspoken word. Sam stumbled a few steps to stand next to his mother; Vincent clung to Jodi’s legs as she wrapped one arm around each of her boys, watching the train pull in.

The brakes squealed, and the locomotive stopped a few yards beyond the station, allowing the passenger car to rest directly in front of the platform. The door opened. Jodi squeezed tight for a moment.

Only one person disembarked at Stardew Valley Station. That person was a man, wearing tan and brown army fatigues, shouldering a camo-patterned backpack as he stepped down the three steps to solid ground. He looked exhausted, was Rae’s first thought; his face was lined with age. His hair was golden and spiked - it looked like she now knew where Sam got his hair from.

He stopped on the platform, staring at Jodi, Sam, and Vincent. For a long, unbroken moment, there was no one in the world to them except each other.

Then Vincent shouted, “Dad!” and threw himself forwards. The man dropped to his knees and opened his arms, picking up the young boy like it was no trouble at all. He staggered a little, burying his face in Vincent’s shoulder, one hand in the little boy’s hair.

“Kent,” Jodi whispered, and she and Sam both surrounded him a moment later. Kent, apparently - she was sure she’d heard that name before - shifted Vincent to one hip and used his free arm to embrace both Jodi and Sam at the same time. Jodi’s shoulders shook as she hid her face in his shoulder. Sam sobbed aloud, open and unashamed.

Rae wasn’t quite sure who started it, but someone began to clap. She quickly picked it up, followed by everyone else there. She couldn’t help but smile as she watched Kent draw away and cradle Jodi’s face in one hand. He whispered something; she laughed through her tears, nodding. He released Jodi and ruffled Sam’s hair hard. The two laughed, Sam trying to duck out from under Kent’s hand.

The applause died after a moment, and Kent wiped his eyes. “Thank you all,” he said, smiling. Rae got the feeling he didn’t smile too much. “Thanks for coming to greet me.”

“Of course,” Caroline said. She beamed at the happy family. “We’re glad you’re home safely.”

“Believe me, I am too.” He opened his mouth to say something else, but the train whistle blew and everyone stepped away from the edge of the station. The train pulled away, chugging off through the tunnel at the other end of the plateau.

The welcoming party moved back down the mountain, towards the town below. Rae, Sebastian, and Abigail all hung back a ways, talking quietly to each other. Rae kept an eye on the family at the front of the parade. They seemed blissfully happy to be back together. She smiled at them and hoped silently that their happiness would continue.

Chapter Text

To none of their surprise, Sam wasn’t around much for the following week - not that they would’ve had time to say much. Rae was out on her hands and knees in the dirt, digging up potatoes and collecting kale heads. She and Abigail fell into a rhythm, of sorts; she tended to the plants, and Abigail worked with the animals. Sebastian was still finding his footing between the two of them, but gradually his sleep patterns started to shift to a more normal schedule, allowing him to wake up earlier and help more.

Five days after Kent arrived home, Rae woke up to the gentle sounds of rain on the roof overhead. She sat up, rubbed her eyes, and realized what the noises she was hearing were. Almost instantly, she collapsed back onto her bed with a happy sigh. Rain meant no watering… but then again, she’d installed sprinklers over the winter, and didn’t need to water her crops anymore. Darn.

Still, rain meant that she could sleep in for a little while longer. She curled up under the blankets a little tighter and reached one hand out, setting her alarm clock for 6:30.

“’S it time to get up?” Abigail asked, groggy, of course.

“Thirty more minutes,” Rae said, and fell back asleep.

When her alarm went off again, she was much more ready to get up. Bullet had clambered up in bed with her at some point in the last half hour, however, and was far less prepared to get up for the morning. He was laid out over her legs, keeping her securely pinned in place. “Ok, big boy, time to get up and move,” she said, pushing at the German Shepherd’s side. “Let’s go.”

Bullet grumbled and shifted a little, but didn’t respond otherwise. Rae rolled her eyes. “I get it, sweet boy. But we have to move. C’mon - up you get.” She pushed at him again. He gave a noise that sounded like a ‘harumph’ and shifted a little. She rolled her eyes and began slowly shifting his heavy torso off her legs. He moved just enough for her to slide herself out from under him and swing her legs out. “Not feeling mornings today, are you, there?” she murmured. “Don’t worry - neither am I.”

She took her time getting ready, even showering and pulling her hair up into a braid that fell over one shoulder. It was longer, she thought, tugging at the end of the braid. She hadn’t cut it since she arrived at the farm, so it made sense that her hair was growing longer. She just hadn’t taken the time to notice.

She left the bathroom in her work clothes. Abigail was just sitting up, rubbing her eyes. Rae glanced over to see Bullet was still asleep in her bed, just a lump half-covered by her blanket that she’d tossed off. “You up for the day?” she asked, walking past Abigail’s bed to the bedroom doorway. Sebastian was asleep as well, though she wasn’t actually sure if he was asleep or just lying there.

“Yeah.” Abigail broke the word off with a yawn so big it threatened to split her face in two. Rae, though not giving her more than a glance, heard the half-moan, half-groan sound she made. “I’m up.” She swung her legs out of the bed and winced as her bare feet touched the cool wood floor. “Breakfast?”

“I’ve got it. It’s raining today, so I’m not too worried about moving fast today. Chances are good we won’t get off the farm - at least, I won’t.” Rae smiled over at her before walking out of the room and into the living room. She reached out to squeeze Sebastian’s shoulder as she passed. He rolled over to look up at the ceiling; Rae paused and leaned on the back of the couch. “Good morning,” she said. “Lazy day today. That good with you?”

“Yesssss,” he said, dragging the word out far longer than usual. She couldn’t help but laugh. “And I have some work to do on a few projects for a client or two. I haven’t been doing as much as I need to do on those recently.”

“Need any help with that?” Rae asked. “I know a bit about computers, from my time at Joja.”

“Got any idea how to bug hunt?”

Rae tilted her head to the side. “Somewhat. Not precisely, but I could probably learn fast.”

“We’ll see,” Sebastian said. “I’d need a second computer for that, and as far as I know, you don’t have one.”

“I don’t,” Rae admitted. “Something I should probably look at getting, if I’m honest with myself.” She smiled. “Well, in the mean time, I’m gonna heat up some muffins and make some scrambled eggs. You down?”

“Sure, sounds good.” Sebastian sat up and ran a hand through his hair. “Let me just get dressed and I’ll help.”

“Ok.” Rae pushed off the back of the couch and moved back towards the kitchen. “Fair warning - I think Abigail is taking a shower, so you may just have to use my bedroom to change.”

“Great.” Sebastian groaned as he stretched. “Thanks for the warning.”

He went to the doorway to her bedroom and closed the door behind him. A moment later, the door opened again and Bullet pranced out, panting happily at her. “Hi, baby!” Rae called, beaming over at him as she pulled a container of muffins out of the fridge and placed them on the counter. “Are you hungry?”

Bullet danced around her feet and barked once. The sound was sharp and loud; she winced, still smiling. “Ok, ok, give me just a minute!” she told him, and walked to the cabinet where his food was. He almost tripped her roughly five times between the counter and the food. As soon as she dumped a cup of kibbles into his bowl, he dropped his head down and began scarfing down the food. Rae shook her head, smiling, as she returned to the oven and turned it on a low setting. She pulled out a metal tray and placed three muffins down onto it, before opening the oven door and pushing the tray inside.

That accomplished, she walked over to the front door and pulled on her rain boots. Her rain jacket was next, and she made sure it was securely zipped up before she opened the door and stepped out onto the front porch.

The rain was coming down in gentle waves, not the sheets she’d feared. Rae sighed in relief and walked down the four stairs, making her way towards the barn and coop.

Her chickens didn’t like the rain, this she knew, which meant that they wouldn’t be going out that day. She took a few minutes to refill all the feed troughs with hay and stroke their ruffled feathers. The duckling she was waiting on still hadn’t hatched yet, but she shrugged and brushed it off. It would hatch sometime soon, she guessed - there was no hurry. She collected the eggs and stepped back out into the rain.

Ramen greeted her with a happy moo. She tried milking the cow, but once again there was no milk. Rae frowned, scratching right between the cow’s two small horns. “You feeling ok, baby?” she asked, running one hand down the cow’s flank. “I’m starting to get real worried about you. Maybe Marnie will be able to help, hm? I’ll talk to her tomorrow for sure.”

Luckily, there was still half a jug of milk left over from a few days ago in the fridge, which meant she didn’t have to scrap her plan of scrambled eggs. Man, homemade cheese would be wonderful, she thought, as she refilled the feed trough and replaced the milk pail on its hook by the door. “Bye, baby,” she said, giving Ramen one more goodbye scratch. Then she stepped back out into the rain.

For a moment, she just tilted her head back and let the raindrops hit her face. It was soothing, the feel of rainwater streaming down her cheeks - like artificial, heaven-made tears. They took with them all the stress in her brain, all the worry about Ramen and the harvest, everything. She allowed herself a second to just take it all in and breathe.

Then the moment passed. She dropped her chin and opened her eyes. To the south was the pasture; beyond that, the pond, ringed with trees. Which reminded her - she needed to start working on clearing some of those trees away and getting some fruit trees planted. It would probably take a full season just for the trees to grow, which meant the sooner she got those seedlings in the ground, the better.

That was a topic for tomorrow, however. She needed to eat something, as her stomach helpfully reminded her with a loud gurgle. She turned and made her way back to the house, where she pulled her boots off on the porch and placed those by the door, before pushing it open and stepping inside.

Abigail stood up from the oven. “Hey!” she said, cheerful as ever as she put the tray with muffins on the stove top. “What’d you get?”

“Eggs, but no milk again,” Rae said. That worry returned; she frowned as she put the eggs on the table. “I’m gonna talk to Marnie tomorrow, see if she can figure out what’s wrong.”

“Hey.” Abigail pulled her potholders off her hands and reached out to grasp Rae’s shoulder. She looked deep into Rae’s eyes, blue to gray. “I’m sure it’s nothing. Ramen’s gonna be just fine, I promise. Marnie will come take a look at her, maybe prescribe some kind of medication, but it’s not going to be too bad.”

Rae sighed and rolled her shoulders. “I know,” she said. “I just - you know how I am. I worry.” She smiled, a little weary, a little rough around the edges. “All right, I’m gonna get started on some scrambled eggs for breakfast and then we can decide what to do with the rest of our day.”

Half an hour they were sitting down for breakfast. Rae took a bite of her scrambled eggs; they were light and fluffy, half-air, half-substance. She made a contented noise and shoveled more into her mouth.

“These are really good,” Abigail said. She took a bite of her muffin, chewed, and swallowed before continuing, “How’d you learn to cook? Did your mom teach you or did you teach yourself?”

“A little bit of both,” Rae said. “Mom taught me the basics - measuring ingredients, how to follow recipes, a few easy meals. I learned more after I got to college, and even more after I arrived here.” She looked considerate for a moment. “If I can get some bananas and chocolate chips, I’ll see about making Grandma’s banana bread. It was always my favorite food. It’s perfect for breakfast or desert both. I used to eat it all the time - could polish off an entire loaf of the stuff by myself in a week.”

“That’s probably not healthy,” Abigail said, grinning over at her. “Bread has a LOT of carbs.”

“I know,” Rae said, rolling her eyes as she took another bite of her muffin. “Geez, you sound like my mom. I worked it all off the minute I started working on the farm.”

“I don’t doubt it, but you also didn’t replenish any of those calories you burned,” the other girl pointed out. She half-glared at Rae, who raised her hands in a placating manner. Before she could open her mouth to respond, Abigail sighed and nodded a little. “But you’re doing better now, yes, I get it.”

“Precisely,” Rae said, and glanced over at Sebastian. He watched the two with the avid attention of someone watching a particularly tense game of tennis. “Enjoying yourself?”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” he said, in a particularly monotonous voice.

She giggled and finished off the last of her muffin in a big bite. “Well, I’m gonna go fishing, since it’s raining. Chances are good I can catch a catfish and I need that for the Community Center.”

“The old Community Center?” Sebastian asked, frowning. “It’s falling apart. ‘S too dangerous to go in there.”

Abigail and Rae exchanged a look, unreadable to him, but full of mischief to each other. “Oh, nothing,” Rae said, voice just a little bit sing-songy. “You’ll see eventually.” She stood up and picked up her plate. “I’m gonna go up towards the mine, in that mountain lake, if you guys want to come.”

“Sure, why not?” Abigail pushed her chair back and stood up, stretching her arms up and over her head. “I haven’t practiced with my flute in a while, and today’s a good a day as any to do it. Just let me find my rain poncho.”

“Seb, you in or out?” Rae asked over her shoulder as she scrubbed her plate clean and put it away.

There was a long silence. She didn’t turn around, only kept her eyes on the silverware in her hands. Abigail put her plate by the sink and moved over to the other side, picked up a rag, and began to dry the dishes. The two girls exchanged glances as the silence went on and on. Rae finally asked hesitantly, “Seb?”

A heavy sigh. “Sure. Why not.”

“You don’t sound too enthusiastic,” Rae commented. She had an inkling of what this was about - the mountain lake was very close to his house, and as far as she knew, he still hadn’t talked to Robin about his abrupt move. “If you don’t want to go, you don’t have to. I know you mentioned you had a lot of work to do.”

If he was aware she was trying to give him an out, he didn’t show it. “I’ll go,” he said, more firmly this time. “It’s fine. It’ll be fun.”

Rae turned around as she finished washing the dishes and smiled at him. “Ok. Got a rain jacket?”

“I have an umbrella.”

“That’ll do,” she decided, and moved past him, heading to the front door. She pulled the door open and stuck her head out, curious as to the current weather conditions. Rain was still coming down - maybe a little heavier than before, but not bad enough to merit staying inside. “It’s not that bad out. We should be fine. Get your stuff together and we can head out.”

She closed the door and stepped back inside, already reaching for her rain jacket. Abigail vanished into the bedroom, reappearing with her boots and rain coat. Sebastian grabbed his umbrella out of the stand and waited patiently for Abigail to pull her jacket on.

“Just step outside when you’re ready to go,” Rae told them, and slid out into the rainy day. She leaned against the wooden wall of her house and pulled one boot on, then the other. By the time she was done, the door was opening, and Sebastian and Abigail joined her on the porch. “Guard the house, baby!” Rae called, right before the door closed.

Sebastian opened his umbrella and walked down the few stairs to the muddy ground. Rae and Abigail both pulled their hoods up and followed close behind; Rae paused to pull her fishing pole from its place leaning against the wall, under a small overhang.

From there, they set out. Rae took the lead, backpack securely on her back, fishing pole slung over her shoulder, and casually striding along the muddy road that led up the mountain. Sebastian shared his umbrella with Abigail; the two walked in silence for the most part. Abigail held a delicate wooden flute in one hand.

They took the road that led behind Robin’s house, something Sebastian evidently noticed. Rae glanced back; he gave her a small nod. She smiled as she turned around and continued walking. Linus’ bright yellow tent caught her attention, but the man himself was nowhere in sight. She made a mental note to look at bringing him something to eat sometime soon and continued on the ramp that led down to the mountain lake.

“Be careful on those bridges!” Abigail called as she split off and walked over to a large pine tree. She sat down beneath it, folded herself into a cross-legged sit, and carefully put her flute together. Rae walked away as the gentle sounds of flute music filled the air around her.

Sebastian walked with her, stopping at the edge of the lake as Rae walked across the thin wooden bridge. She extended her arms out to lend her balance as she walked. Her feet were steady; she never faltered, and she quickly reached the first of the two islands connected. “Are you coming?” she called over her shoulder, as she quickly began baiting the hook and tossed it out into the lake.

“No, I’m staying on dry land,” Sebastian called back. Rae was hardly paying attention at this point; her eyes were focused on the bobber on the lake.

~*~*~*~*~

Rae fished for a few hours, occasionally reeling in a fish or two. Every time she’d inspect it, curse, and place it on the grass beside her. The flute music carried on, cutting out at points due to squawks and wrong notes.

Eventually, she felt a gentle tug on her line. Her breath hitched a little; she went completely still, waiting for a second tug. There - another gentle tug. She held her breath and counted. Three, two, one-

She yanked up on the pole and felt resistance immediately. “Yes,” she hissed under her breath, beginning to reel it in, careful and steady. “Come home, little fishy, come here, please…”

The fish fought her, of course, as was to be expected. She had patience aplenty, though, and took her time, allowing it line when she needed to, taking line when the fish tired. “Come on, little fishy,” she muttered, taking just a little extra in. “Come along.”

A minute passed, then another. The fish was finally tiring, she could tell; she was gaining more line than she was giving. “Almost there,” she muttered, and focused. “Almost there…”

With a final hard pull, the fish exploded through the surface of the water. Rae gasped with delight as she finished reeling in the final few feet - it was the catfish she’d been looking for for the entire day. “Yes!” she yelled gleefully, grinning ear to ear. “Haha, thank you Yoba!”

The fish flopped on the grass beside her, and she quickly pulled the hook from the catfish’s mouth. “Sorry, lil’ guy,” she told it, wiping her hands on the damp grass. “Hey, Abby, Seb! I caught it!” She stood up and waved one hand in the air. “Abby, fancy a field trip?”

The flute music cut out abruptly, as Abigail looked over. “You caught it?” she yelled back.

“I caught it!” Rae bounced on her toes, before dropping back down to pick it up. “Come on, fishies, time to go visit the Junimos,” she said. Curiously enough, the flopping fish went still as she said the last word. She filed that away for later and strung the fish onto a spare piece of fishing line. Back across the wooden bridge she went, careful not to trip on the slippery wood. Once she was back on dry - well, marginally drier land, she ran over to Sebastian and Abigail. “Let’s go!”

Abigail already had her flute half-disassembled and scrambled to her feet. Sebastian, however, hesitated. “You guys go ahead,” he said. “I’ll catch up.”

Rae frowned. “You sure?”

“Yeah. I…” He looked away, suddenly a little shy. “I think I need to go talk to my mom.”

Her confusion turned into understanding. “Take as much time as you need,” she said, reaching out to touch his shoulder. “You know where we live.”

He looked up and gave her a small smile. “Thanks. It means a lot.”

“See you later,” Rae told him, waved, and walked away with Abigail. Before they were even fully out of sight, Rae nudged her shoulder. “Race you to the Community Center.”

Abigail’s face split into a wide grin. “You’re on!” she crowed, and took off at a sprint for the path down the mountain. Rae yelped in shock and bolted after her.

It was a surprisingly close race, for all Abigail had cheated. Rae caught up to her as they reached the base of the mountain, skidding down a shortcut between switchbacks and almost colliding with Abigail. The rest of the run down was more or less even, with Rae slamming her palm into the door of the Community Center a split second before Abigail could.

“And let that be a lesson,” she lectured, panting for breath. “Cheaters never win.”

“Says the person who cheated!” Abigail called, equally out of breath. The two looked at each other, holding each other’s eyes for a moment before they both burst out laughing.

Rae pushed the door open and stepped inside, string of fish still in hand. “I bring gifts!” she called to the apparently empty room. It didn’t fool her; she’d caught a glimpse of a blue flicker of something right as she’d pushed the door open. “Someone order a catfish?”

Abigail followed behind her as she walked over to the broken fish tank and knelt, laying the string of fish on the ground. The catfish was at the end, and she carefully pulled it off the string and laid it on the plaque. As usual, for a moment nothing happened. Then a glow appeared around the catfish; when it disappeared, the catfish went with it. She sat back on her heels and smiled. “Another fish down, roughly… 10 more to go.”

“What are you hoping to get in return?” Abigail asked, sounding curious.

“Hm? Oh, nothing. Doing this helps me hone my skills. I’ve gotten better at fishing all because I want to complete this bundle and help the Junimos.” Rae pushed herself to her feet. “Fancy a wander down to the docks? I need to haggle with Willy for a fair price on these lovely fishies.” She lifted the string of fish off the ground with care.

“As long as we don’t get washed out to sea, I’m fine with it,” Abigail said with a shrug.

“It shouldn’t be too bad down there.” Rae brushed a few raindrops off her front with her free hand, set her shoulders, and sighed. “Once more into the rain, then.”

With that she and Abigail stepped back out into the rain. It had grown a little harder, Rae thought; she’d have to check the weather. Something told her the rain was going to keep up into the next morning, if not carry on for the rest of the week. They hurried south, cutting through the town and Mayor Lewis’ side yard in order to reach the beach faster. The narrow pathway that led to the shore was muddy and mucky. Rae muttered angry curses as her boot got stuck in ankle-deep sludge, forcing her and Abigail both to tug herself and her shoe free.

As soon as they reached sand, it got much easier to walk. Rae sighed in relief as the mud quit squelching around her shoes. “The one part of the rain I don’t like,” she muttered, giving the path behind them an angry glance. “One of these days, I’m just gonna put down wood planks between here and the town, make it that much easier on everyone.”

“Town improvement projects. Nice,” Abigail quipped. “What’s next, new paint jobs for all the houses?”

Rae swung the string of fish at her gently. She dodged with a shriek.

They crossed the beach and finally set foot onto the wooden dock. The ocean churned underneath their feet, slapping against the posts and splashing them periodically with salt water. Rae picked up her pace, careful to keep her footing on the slick boards. She reached her free hand out to Abigail, worried that one of them could slip and fall, or - worse yet - go into the cold water. It was still almost Arctic temperatures this early in the spring, and Rae didn’t fancy taking a swim.

The bell over Willy’s door jingled gently as Abigail pushed it open. She held it open for Rae to duck inside. Both shook themselves, dislodging water everywhere. “I’m so glad I didn’t bring Bullet,” Rae said. “He’d have gone and gotten muddy, and I don’t want to imagine how washing him off in the shower would’ve gone.”

“What did you two ladies do, decide to go for a swim?” Willy asked, drawing both of their attention. His eyes twinkled with amusement. “Ye’re both soaked clear through!”

“We may as well have taken a swim,” Rae admitted. She pushed her hood back and grinned at him. “Look, I brought fish!”

“Ah, a fine day for fishin’ indeed,” Willy said. “Put ‘em right here.”

Abigail followed Rae to the counter, where she placed the fish into the tank that doubled as a counter when the lid was closed. The fish made a miraculous recovery as soon as they touched the fresh river water. “Hm… big, healthy fish, these ones. Where’d you catch ‘em?” the old fisherman asked.

“Up on the mountain, in the lake near the mine,” Rae said. “There’s a big log that they like to hang around.”

“Ah, yes, I know that log. Smart girl,” he told her. “Now, let me see, let me see… three good-sized largemouth bass, two carp…” Willy scratched his beard, considering. Rae struggled to hide the grin that she was sure was growing on her face. “Best I can do for ye is 300 for the lot.”

Her eyebrows shot up. “300? For five fish? Those bass are all worth at least 125 gold each, and we both know it. 450.”

“What’re ye tryin’ to do, drive me outta business?” His eyes were dancing. “I can maybe do 350.”

“400.”

“375, and that’s my final offer.”

Rae considered for a moment. “Deal.” She held her hand out to him; they shook on it. “Pleasure doing business with you.”

“And with you. You’ve still got a bit to go, though. I woulda gone up to 400 for you.”

“Dammit!” Rae smacked her forehead with her non-fishy hand.

“You know how to haggle?” Abigail asked. Rae jumped; she’d all but forgotten the other girl was there. “I’ve seen it done before, but I’ve never tried it myself.”

“Next time ye’ve got a few fish to sell, I’ll start teachin’ ye the basics,” Willy told her. “It’s not somethin’ ye can pick up overnight, though. Takes a lot of practice, knowin’ how much things are worth.”

“I swear, he swindled me out of a year’s seed when I first started learning,” Rae said in a stage whisper. Abigail laughed as Willy shook a finger at Rae, who stuck her tongue out in return.

A crack of thunder made them all jump. “Ye should be headin’ back to dry land,” Willy told them. “This storm’s just gettin’ worse. We’re in for a real howler.”

“Good to know.” Rae swept the gold he placed on the counter into her backpack, which she’d pulled off while they were talking. “We just gotta make it back to shore and we can run for town, got it, Abby?”

“Got it.” Abigail tugged her hood up over her face again.

Rae walked to the door and looked out the porthole window. Whatever she saw, she clearly didn’t like, as she backed up and shook her head. “It’s bad, all right. Willy, are you going to be ok?”

“I’ve survived far worse out on the open sea, lass. I’ll be fine. Go now, afore it gets worse.” Willy waved them away.

Rae poked her head out into the storm and flinched. The rain was starting to come down in visible waves. The ocean itself was providing plenty of its own, adding to the chaos. “All right, ready?” she called over her shoulder, reaching for Abigail’s hand. “Bye, Willy!”

His reply was drowned out by a crack of thunder. Rae flinched a little, but a wide grin spread across her face at the same time. “Let’s go!” she yelled, and pulled Abigail out into the storm.

They raced along the dock, keeping their footing as best they could. Abigail almost slipped at least twice; both times Rae pulled her upright with as much strength as she possessed and kept them running for land. The thirty or so feet to the beach had never felt longer, as they struggled to fight driving rain and heavy gusts of wind both.

Eventually, though, they made it. Abigail looked like she wanted to collapse onto the ground right there, but Rae shook her head. “I bet the river’s rising!” she yelled over the downpour. “We’ve got to cross the bridge before the water gets too high!”

So they continued slogging back to the town, through the mud that had only gotten deeper since they’d arrived on the beach. Rae pulled them over to the side of the path, and they slipped and slid along the shoulder of the path. It turned to cobblestone near the river and bridge back into town. It was with grateful sighs they found their footing on the stone.

The river was rising like Rae had predicted, but the bridge showed no signs of being washed away. Rae inspected it a little closer, and realized that there were small gaps between the stones on the railing that allowed water to rush over the bridge and not push against it. “Smart,” she said, or thought she said. It was impossible to hear herself think, as another flash of lightning lit up the sky overhead and deafened them seconds later with a crack of thunder.

They ran across the bridge and back through Mayor Lewis’ side yard. “The Saloon!” Rae shouted. “We can stop there for a few minutes before heading back!” Abigail seemed more than happy with that suggestion, and together they sprinted to the building just a few yards away.

Rae pulled the door open and let Abigail go in first. She followed, sagging against the wall as the door shut again.

“It’s really coming down out there, isn’t it?” Gus asked, sounding amused.

“Oh, it’s bad,” Rae said. She shoved her hood off her head and made a beeline for the fire, almost shoving her hands into the flames to warm them up. “It’s just gotten worse since this morning. I’d expect it to last for the next day at least, maybe longer.”

“Need anything to warm you up?” he asked. “I just put a fresh pot of spaghetti on, but if it’s really that bad, I guess I won’t be selling too much tonight.”

“Spaghetti sounds magnificent,” Rae said with feeling. “Yoba, it’s cold out there.”

“Two plates?” he asked.

“Yep. Abby, you want any coffee?”

“Yes,” Abigail said with feeling. “Please.”

It only took Gus a minute to make up plates, and mugs full of coffee followed soon after. Rae paid in the gold Willy had given her for the fish and wasted no time in digging in. Between Abigail and herself, they polished off their plates in five minutes flat. Rae was almost ready to lick hers clean when the door behind her opened, admitting a figure along with the rolling boom of thunder. “Whew!” Emily said, as she brushed her hair out of her face. “It’s really pouring!”

“Abby, that’s our cue,” Rae said. She pushed her plate away and stood up. “We need to go home, before it gets too much worse. As it is, I’m not sure that we won’t get swept away.” She was only joking… she hoped.

“You’re right.” Abigail was clearly begrudging to leave the warm saloon, but she stood up and tugged her coat a little closer around herself. “Let’s go.”

They bid farewell to Gus and Emily both and struck out into the storm. It was darker now, not just with the storm, but with night beginning to set in. Rae led the way north and west, towards the entrance towards her farm. They slogged through the muddy path all the way through until the farm finally came into view, just ahead of them.

Rae sprinted the final few yards to the front porch and shoved the front door open. Bullet sprang to his feet, barking loudly, but Rae hastily waved him down. “Shh, shhhh, it’s ok, boy,” she said, holding out both hands. His fur, which had leapt up to stand straight up on the back of his neck, began to settle. She reached out with one hand and multi-tasked, petting him while using him to balance as she pulled her shoes off.

Abigail followed close behind, panting as she ran a hand through her hair. “I shouldn’t have showered this morning,” she said, somewhat rueful. “I just took a second one.”

“No kidding.” Rae finally wrangled her second boot off and put it by the door. “Go get out of those wet clothes and I’ll get some tea going. We’ll have to let these dry out, I think. Just hang them over the shower curtain rod to drip for a while.”

“What about Sebastian?” Abigail asked.

“If he’s smart, he’ll either stay the night with his family or get a ride back.” Rae reached up and touched her head gingerly. Her hair was all but standing on end, due to the extreme humidity outside. She made a face and started to comb it back, using her fingers to collect it all into a bun at the top of her head. “Go ahead and change first. I’ll put the kettle on for tea.”

“You sound so posh,” Abigail called over her shoulder as she walked to the bedroom to change. Rae flipped her off and stuck her tongue out, ruining that image handily.

It was a matter of half an hour to change, make tea, and sit down at the kitchen table. Bullet laid down at her feet, chin resting on his paws, and fell asleep. Rae sipped her tea and sighed in relief as a full body shiver made her smile. “This has been a good day.”

“Hm.” Abigail raised her cup a little before drinking from it. “Mmm.”

They sat in silence for a while. Rae had a book in hand, reading as she sipped from her mug. Abigail looked like she was nodding off into the quiet, as the rain lashed the windows and thunder rolled overhead. Their silent peace was unbroken, at least until someone banged on the door.

Rae jolted and closed her book with a clap, standing up. Bullet scrambled to his feet, barking. “Hush,” she ordered, as she walked to the front door and opened it.

Sebastian stood there, drenched to the bone, from what she could. “It’s raining,” he told her as he stepped inside, dripping all over the floor.

“Do tell,” she said, shaking her head at the mess he was creating. “Did you run all the way back? No, wait, don’t tell me. Give me a minute to get you a towel, then you can go change and have some tea if you want.” She jogged to the bedroom and retrieved a towel, distantly noting she should look at embroidering them with initials if this kept up. When she returned, Sebastian had already peeled his hoodie off and was standing at the sink, wringing water from it. She tried not to sigh in despair and shook her head. “Should’ve told you to stay put,” she murmured as she threw the towel around his shoulder and set about making another mug of tea. “You do want tea, right?”

“It’s not my favorite, but if it’s hot I’ll drink it.” Sebastian wrung out his hoodie one more time and started to walk over to the fire.

Rae intercepted him, glaring. “No, you don’t,” she said, pointing to the bathroom as she took his hoodie from him. “I’ll take this. Quit dripping everywhere.”

“Yes ma’am.” He ducked his head a bit and walked past her to the bedroom. Every step squelched. Rae tilted her head back to stare at the ceiling and silently mouthed a prayer to Yoba for patience. Abigail giggled as she watched; Rae tilted her head a little bit and rolled her eyes.

By the time Rae had Sebastian’s hoodie drying in front of the fire and a cup of tea on the table, he was dried off and carrying his wet clothing. He hung it up in front of the fire and joined them at the table, sitting down at his computer and starting to type. Rae sat down as well and sipped at her tea, sinking back into that comfortable place.

They were starting to settle back into that silence when someone knocked at the door again. This time, it was hesitant, as if the person asking to be let in wasn’t sure of their course of action. “Were either of you expecting any visitors?” Rae asked as she stood up; the other two both shook their heads. Bullet jumped to his feet again and followed his mistress to the front door. She pulled it open and started.

“Penny?!”

Chapter Text

“Penny?!”

Rae pulled the door open further and reached out to admit the shivering young woman. “Come in, quickly,” she said, noting that Penny was hugging herself tightly, soaked clear through with rain. “What in the world are you doing here? Dear, you’re freezing!”

“I’m sorry to disturb you,” Penny said, as Rae pulled her towards the fire. She looked over the top of Penny’s head - she was so tiny! - and caught Abigail’s eye. She jerked her head towards the bedroom; Abigail immediately stood up and made her way there, returning a moment later with a dry towel. “I just - I didn’t know where else to go.” She sounded desperate, just a little.

Rae frowned. “Of course. Let’s get you warm and you can tell me what happened - if you want, of course. You don’t have to.” She reached out to help Penny pull off her raincoat, only to freeze.

Penny’s palms were covered in small cuts. Rae carefully inspected them, turning them over. “What happened?” she murmured, keeping her voice low.

“It’s a long story,” Penny whispered. She was shaking, and Rae honestly wasn’t sure if it was from the cold.

“I’ll ask when these are fixed. Seb, in the bottom drawer of my dresser is a first-aid kit. Can you go get it for me?” Rae called. She helped Penny out of her coat, only to discover that the cuts went almost to her elbows on both arms. Something churned in her stomach. She forced herself to remain calm and collected.

Sebastian dropped the first aid kit onto the rug beside Rae and Penny. Rae sat down, gently pulling Penny down to sit across from her, and opened the kit. “I think there are some glass shards in here, so I’m going to get those out first, ok?” she said, soothing, like she was speaking to a scared animal. “It’ll probably hurt a little.”

So saying, she set to work with the pair of tweezers included in the kit. It was a painstaking task. The shards were tiny, and everywhere. The only saving grace was the fact that the glass wasn’t clear. It had a brown tint to it, which told Rae it had come from a bottle. If she had to guess, it was a beer bottle. Rage made her hands start shaking. She had to put them in her lap and take a deep breath before she could continue.

Abigail knelt beside them, eyes wide as she took in Penny’s hands and forearms. “What happened?” she breathed; when Rae glanced over at her, her face was horror-stricken.

“It was an accident,” Penny whispered. “Mom came home from the Saloon. She was angry - sometimes she gets like that, it doesn’t mean anything, she’s just drunk - and she just… I try to clean up, while she’s out. She couldn’t find something and started yelling at me. There was a bottle, on the table, right next to her. She threw it at me. I blocked my face, but it hit the cabinet next to me and shattered. That’s how… that’s how this happened.”

Rae kept up her work, but she wanted nothing more than to hug the girl. “Bullet,” she called quietly. Bullet came, head down, tail wafting a little. “Down.” He lay down and rested his head in Penny’s lap, looking up at her with soulful brown eyes. The red-headed young woman smiled down at him. Rae pretended she didn’t see her lips wobbling.

Rae pulled the final piece of glass out of Penny’s hands and put the tweezers aside, digging through the kit for something. “This is going to sting,” she said softly, as she held up the bottle of hydrogen peroxide. “But I don’t know what was in that bottle, and I don’t want any of these getting infected. Ok?”

Penny nodded. Rae gave her a small smile and uncapped the bottle. Carefully, she poured some onto a piece of gauze and began swabbing at the cuts. After an initial hiss, Penny was silent.

“Is this the only time this has happened?” Rae asked, careful to keep her voice level.

“Yes. Usually, it’s just yelling - well, you’ve seen it before.” Rae nodded, continuing to work. “I guess this time she just… had enough.”

The cuts were now cleaned. Rae pulled out a pack of small bandages and opened them, starting to cover as many cuts as she could. “You’re welcome to stay for as long as you need to,” she said. “My home is your home.”

“That’s - that’s what I was hoping for,” Penny said. She sounded a little choked up. “I didn’t know where else to go. Harvey’s wasn’t open…”

“If you bang on the door long enough and yell loud enough, he’ll get up,” Abigail told her. “Personal experience.”

“I didn’t want to make a scene…”

“I think we’ll need to go anyways, first thing tomorrow morning. Harvey will be able to treat these better than I can.”

Rae carefully watched Penny for her reaction; the girl flinched. “No, no need. I don’t want to be a bother-”

“You aren’t a bother,” Sebastian said quietly. Rae almost jolted; she’d forgotten he was still there. Now he sat in one of the armchairs she owned, observing them with eyes shadowed by firelight. “Your safety is important to us.”

Penny sniffed. “Thank you,” she said, and Rae could tell she was on the verge of crying. “You guys are being so nice…”

“Of course, what did you think I was going to do, kick you right back out?” Rae asked, making sure Penny could see the humor in her eyes. “We’re here for you. Now-” as she removed the last glass shard from Penny’s arms and picked up the gauze again - “you can take my bed and I’ll sleep on the couch. Don’t you dare try to protest, you need your rest and I got to sleep in this morning. I’ll be perfectly fine.” Rae shook one finger at the other woman, having seen the protest building in her eyes.

For her arms, she just used a roll of gauze to wrap both arms. When that was done, Rae sat back and looked at her handiwork. “There’s a reason I’m not a nurse, but oh well. It’ll hold until Harvey can take a look at it in the morning.” She stood up. “I’ll find you something to sleep in. I think I have an old over-sized shirt from college that you can use…” Deep in thought already, she moved back to her bedroom, intent on finding the shirt in question.

She found it in the bottom drawer of her dresser. Holding it up showed that it was an extra large - way too big for Rae to ever wear normally, but it was of the ‘free’ variety and she’d be damned if she’d turn down a free shirt, especially when she was in college. When she walked back into the living room, she was unsurprised to see Penny sitting with her arms wrapped around Bullet’s neck, clinging to him like a lifeline. He gazed at Rae, completely unconcerned.

“You being a therapy dog today, sweet boy,” she murmured as she walked back over and rested a hand on Penny’s shoulder. “I found the shirt. You should go change and get some sleep. I’ll get you up when Harvey’s clinic opens.”

“The kids - they have school tomorrow,” Penny whispered. “I have to teach…”

“It’s Vincent’s birthday, I don’t think he was planning on going to school anyways,” Abigail said. “And I’ll go let Marnie know there’s been a family emergency and you can’t work in the morning. Don’t worry about it.”

Penny released Bullet and took the shirt Rae offered to her. She stood up with help from Rae and gave them all a watery smile. “Thank you all,” she whispered, and walked to Rae’s bedroom. The door closed behind her and left a dead silence in the room.

Rae broke it by sitting down in her other chair and hiding her face in her hands. “Dammit,” she said, muffled by her palms. “Dammit, dammit, and dammit again.” Bullet caught her mood shift and moved to her side, all but crawling into her lap. It was testament to how shaken she was that she let him. Usually she never allowed him on the couch or chairs. Now, she willingly embraced him. Her hands were shaking.

“I knew Pam drank too much, but I didn’t realize it was quite that bad,” Abigail whispered.

Sebastian shook his head. “Maru was worried about her. It’s just in comments she made sometimes. I don’t think she ever expected it to get this far.”

“Well, now it has.” Rae stroked Bullet’s black-and-tan fur, willing herself to calm down. “Seb, in the morning I'll walk her to Harvey’s clinic, as soon as it’s open. Can you stay here and hold down the house, keep an eye on things?" He nodded once. "Abby, I want you to go ahead and go let Marnie know that Penny’s sick as soon as we get up tomorrow morning. If she asks questions, just redirect as best you can. Eventually it’ll get out, but I don’t want it being from one of us spilling the beans. Should we tell Sam? I know he and Penny are pretty close too…”

“Don’t tell Sam,” Abigail said immediately. “It’s Vincent’s birthday tomorrow and I don’t think he should be distracted. We can tell him later.”

“Sounds good.” Rae rubbed her forehead. “I think there’s a sleeping bag somewhere in my closet from when I first arrived here. I’ll find it and use it tonight. Tomorrow we’ll sort out sleeping arrangements more.” She gave a rueful smile. “At this rate, I’m going to need to expand the house again. Well, at least Robin will be pleased… Down, big boy.” Bullet moved and she stood up. “Get some rest. I have a feeling tomorrow will be pretty crazy.”

~*~*~*~

Rae woke up with the beginnings of a crick in her neck, having spent the night on the floor in front of the fire. It was still raining outside, as evidenced by the pattering on the roof. For a minute, she did nothing but lie there in silence, staring at the rafters overhead. Today was going to be a long day; she could feel it in her very bones. Procrastination would get her nowhere, however, and she sat up, wiping her face with one hand.

A few minutes later, she was on her feet and moving. Her first task of the day was to check on the animals. Essa, Soba, and Udon all welcomed her with gentle clucking or quacking, depending on the species of the fowl in question. She collected the eggs and checked on the duck egg. Still nothing. She resigned herself to another day before it hatched.

Ramen still wasn’t giving milk. Rae resolved to ask Abigail to mention it to Marnie, when she went to tell her about Penny’s “illness”. She returned to the house and put the eggs in the refrigerator, then pulled out the muffins and turned on the oven to heat them back up.

Abigail walked out into the living area, fully dressed and ready for the day. “Penny’s still asleep,” she murmured as she reached the kitchen. “Hopefully she stays that way for a while.”

“We’ll be taking a different route into town,” Rae murmured in turn. “I don’t want any confrontation between her and Pam.”

“No kidding.” Abigail shook her head. “That… would probably end badly.”

They fell silent, moving around each other to get breakfast set up. Rae kept an eye on the doorway to her bedroom, watching for Penny to appear. Sebastian beat her to waking up, though; he groaned and stretched, arms reaching up towards the ceiling. “Breakfast’s almost ready,” Rae said, keeping her voice low. “Try to keep quiet while you’re getting ready. Abby, mind finishing up here? I need to go check on the crops.”

“Yeah, no problem.” Abigail turned on the light in the oven, nodding at what she saw. “Hurry, though. Looks like they’re almost ready.”

Rae ducked back out into the rain, jacket hood pulled up over her head. The bean plants were almost fully grown now, and she could expect a harvest in the next few days. Her kale and potato plants were also growing well; they’d probably be ready for harvest around the same time, maybe in three days. However, there was nothing to harvest that day, so she walked back up the stairs and ducked back inside.

Her watch told her it was roughly 9:00, meaning they had an hour before Harvey’s clinic opened. Rae looked up just in time to watch Abigail put a muffin onto a plate and raise it. “Yours,” she said as she put it down at the table. “Penny’s awake and moving. She’ll have breakfast with us and I told her you’d walk her to the clinic afterward.”

“Thanks.” Rae gave her a weary smile. “Hey, do me a favor and mention to Marnie that Ramen’s not giving milk?”

“Sure. Still nothing?”

“Still nothing.” They sat down at the table, just in time for Penny to walk out of the bedroom. Her hands were freshly wrapped. “Hey, good morning!” Rae gave her a warm smile. “How’re you doing this morning?”

“I’m ok,” Penny said softly. “Are those muffins?”

“Not fresh baked, but home-made,” Abigail said. “There’s one for you.”

“How’re your hands? Looks like you got them re-wrapped up. Abby or Seb do that for you?”

“I did,” Sebastian said, mouth full of muffin.

Rae gave him a confused look. “I didn’t know you could do first aid,” she said.

He shrugged. “I used to be an adventurous kid. Got my knees scraped up a lot. Whenever Mom wasn’t there to fix my bumps and bruises, I’d do it myself.”

“Hm.” She took a bite of her muffin and chewed, thoughtful. “Learn something new every day. Penny, please, sit. Eat something.”

The fourth plate sat at the empty seat; Penny took her place and took a bite. Her eyes widened. “This is good,” she said.

“No need to sound so surprised,” Rae said, gently teasing. “I didn’t survive living on my own by being incompetent at cooking.”

Penny gave them a shy smile and ate the rest of her muffin. It was quiet in the house; the only sounds were the rain overhead and Bullet’s nails clicking on the kitchen tile. He rested his head in Rae’s lap and gave her the biggest puppy eyes he could muster. “You hungry, baby?” she asked, scratching his head with one hand while the other stuffed the rest of her muffin into her mouth. After she swallowed, she pushed her chair back from the table and stood up. “Give me a minute. Penny, if you want to grab your shoes, we’ll be taking a different route into town than the one I normally take, ok?”

“Ok.” Penny fiddled with her glass of water.

Rae knelt and pulled out Bullet’s food, listening as someone behind her shifted. “Hey,” Abigail murmured. “It’s gonna be just fine. You’re more than welcome to stay here for as long as you need to.”

“Thanks,” Penny whispered back. Rae didn’t have to be looking to know there was a smile on her face.

Rae finished filling Bullet’s bowl and stood up, checking her watch. “It’s only 9:30, but I want to get walking,” she said. “You about ready to go, Penny?”

The girl was already moving. “Yeah,” she said. “Give me a minute or two.” She pulled on her shoes by the door, struggling a little with her hands all wrapped up. Sebastian moved to her side and helped, tying the laces for her. “Thank you.”

He just nodded a little and stood up. “Need any chores done?” he asked Rae as she moved to the door.

“Not today, I don’t think. Catch up on your work, I know you’ve been meaning to do that. Penny, ready?”

“I’ll go to Marnie’s after you leave,” Abigail told her. “I’ll do dishes first. Seb, I could use someone drying…”

“Got it.” Rae smiled as he rolled his eyes at her.

Together, Penny and Rae stepped out onto the porch. Rae lifted her umbrella and opened it. “Follow me,” she said, and set off for the mountain route to town.

They took the full half-hour to reach town, but Rae didn’t rush. She took her time, moving around the puddles, keeping a slow pace Penny could keep up with. Rae had never considered herself ‘tall’, at around 5 feet 9 inches tall, but over the petite 4 foot 11 girl, she veritably towered over her. Of course, this meant her legs were longer than Penny’s were, and even her normal stride was a light jog for the other. So she slowed her pace, and Penny gave her a grateful look when she glanced down.

They finally stepped off the mountain close to the community center. Rae spared a glance at it, but saw nothing and no one. She kept her attention turned towards the south, as they climbed down the stairs to the plaza and took a right. They passed in front of Pierre’s general store, before finally arriving at Harvey’s clinic. Rae held up the umbrella and opened the door. Penny hesitated for only a moment before stepping inside.

Maru looked up from the front desk, and Rae immediately started cursing up a storm in the back of her mind. The last thing she wanted was this getting out, making the rounds around town, and if there was one thing she could be certain of, it was that Maru would tell Robin, and Robin would tell everyone else. “Hi!” Maru said. “How can I help you today?” Her smile was bright and cheery, directed mostly at Penny.

Rae glanced down at Penny as she folded the umbrella away again. “Go on,” she murmured, nudging the smaller woman forwards. “I’m right behind you.”

“I… I need to speak with Harvey,” Penny said in a rush. “I… dropped a glass and it got my hands all cut up.” She held up the gauze-covered appendages.

Maru gasped, looking shocked. “Of course! Oh my goodness, are you ok?” She hastily pulled a clipboard out from under the counter and set to work, putting a few sheets of paper on the board and adding a pen. She passed it over the counter; Penny took it. “Just fill that out, and I’ll let Harvey know you’re here.”

“Thanks, Maru,” Rae said, giving her a genuine smile. The two outside of the counter walked over to sit down; Penny passed the clipboard to Rae after a moment of hesitation. “I can’t fill this out,” she whispered. “Will you do it for me if I give you the information?”

“Of course.” Rae wrapped her free arm around Penny’s shoulders. They sat down, and Rae started to go through the sections, filling in what she could. When she needed help, she simply asked for the information, and Penny happily obliged.

It was only when Rae got to her birth-date that Penny didn’t reply. “Penny?” she asked, looking up.

Penny was almost sheet white. “I don’t have the money to pay for this,” she whispered. “I left all my savings at home, under my mattress. I can’t pay for this-”

“I’ll take care of it,” Rae said. One hand touched her purse, hanging at her side. It was full of coins. “Don’t worry about it. If you’re so concerned, you can pay me back at a later date. Now, when’s your birthday?”

They finished the paperwork just in time for Maru to reappear at the desk. “He’ll be with you in a moment,” she said. “All done?”

“All done,” Rae confirmed. She moved over and put the clipboard on the counter. “We’ll be here.”

Maru vanished again as Rae sat back down, taking the clipboard with her into the back room. A few moments later, she reappeared in the doorway, reading through the notes on the clipboard. “Come on back,” she said, waving to them. “Uh… Penny, do you want to do this alone or do you want Rae to stay with you?”

Rae kept silent, letting Penny make that choice. The red-head hesitated, before nodding. “I want her to come with me,” she said, voice soft. “Please.”

So Rae stood up and followed them into the clinic. Maru led them to a small room and pointed Penny to the bed. She gingerly sat down, smoothing her skirt out over her legs. Rae fiddled with her hands as she waited for Maru to take Penny’s temperature and ask a few questions, silently wishing she’d brought a book with her. She didn’t have one, though, and simply sat as patiently as she could. Maru finally nodded, smiling. “I’ll go get Harvey and he can take a look at your hands.” She put the clipboard in a container hanging on the wall by the door and stepped outside, walking away.

Rae glanced over at Penny. Her head was down, a few loose strands of red hair hanging in her face. “You’re going to be fine,” she said softly, giving Penny a kind smile. “You can go home with me and stay there for as long as you need to. I promise, it’s safe. We’ll keep you safe.”

She finished just as the door opened and Harvey stepped in. “Oh! Uh, hello,” he said, giving Rae a small wave. She nodded in return. “I think Maru said you dropped a glass and got shards in your hands…?”

“Yes,” Penny said, and held out her hands for examination. Harvey examined the wrappings on her hands, making small noises of consternation. “I’m going to need to take these off,” he said. “Let me know if anything hurts.” He set to work, Rae watching Penny’s face. She didn’t wince once; Rae presumed this either meant it didn’t hurt or she had a higher pain tolerance than Rae had expected.

The last of the gauze fell away, and Rae leaned forwards, trying to see how her hands looked today. To her great relief, they didn’t look infected; a few of the smaller cuts were well on their way to healing already. Her shoulders relaxed as Harvey turned her hands and arms over, inspecting the damage. “It doesn’t look too bad,” he said finally. “I take it Rae removed most of the glass shards?”

“Yes,” Rae said. “Took a while, though.”

“What did you do?” he asked absently.

“Removed the glass shards and swabbed them down with hydrogen peroxide, wrapped them up and sent her to bed,” she said. “Nothing too major. I just wanted to make sure nothing was infected.”

“Well, it doesn’t look like anything is,” Harvey said as he stood up. “I’m going to let Maru wrap your hands up, if that’s ok, Penny. She could use the practice.”

“Hey!” Maru protested as she walked in, carrying a few things in her arms. “I’m not that bad!”

Harvey smiled a little and stepped away. “Rae, could I talk to you for a minute?” he said. “Penny, I’ll be giving you some medication to make your hands heal faster, but I want to explain this to her first.”

Rae wasn’t fooled, and she didn’t think Penny was either, but she stood up and walked out anyways. “What is it?” she asked, as Harvey led her into the front room.

“She didn’t just drop a bottle, did she,” he asked her, not bothering to mince his words.

Her shoulders slumped; she rubbed the back of her neck. “No,” she admitted. “Her mother came home drunk again and got angry, threw a bottle in her general direction. When it shattered, she tried to protect her face and got most of those cuts on her arms. The ones on her hands were from trying to clean up the shards. Her mother kicked her out, she ran to our house.”

Harvey ran a hand through his hair and tugged on it. “I thought so,” he said, shaking his head a little. “I hoped it wasn’t that, but… well, I had my suspicions.”

“I’m keeping her at my house for now,” Rae murmured. “I don’t want her anywhere near her mom.” She side-eyed Harvey after a moment. “You’ll have to report this, won’t you?”

He hung his head. “HIPAA requires doctor-patient confidentiality, but in cases like this, yes, I’d be required to report a case of domestic abuse.”

Rae ran a hand through her hair. “Fuck,” she muttered with feeling. “I know you have to, but a scandal like this in a small town… doesn’t go away easily.”

Harvey nodded. “I understand.”

She closed her eyes for a moment. “Shouldn’t we see what Penny herself wants to do? I feel like that’s probably for the best, before we go uprooting her life.”

“Do you really think she’ll agree to let me report this?” Harvey asked.

Rae shook her head. “No way. But it’s worth a shot.”

Together, they walked back into the room. Rae spared Penny a warm smile and sat down in her chair. Maru was almost finished with wrapping up Penny’s hands and arms, and when she finished, she stepped away. “All set!” she said with a sunny smile.

“Thank you, Maru. Can you go take care of the paperwork? I just need to talk to Penny for a moment.” Harvey smiled and waved her out of the room, pulling up a rolling stool and sitting down on it. Maru waved to Penny before stepping outside.

Once Maru was safely down the hallway, Harvey sighed and rubbed his face. “Penny,” he said gravely. “You’re aware that I have to tell the authorities that your mother caused your injuries.”

Penny went sheet-white once more. “No,” she whispered. “Please, no. I don’t want any trouble - I’m out of the house and I don’t have to worry about her now-”

“Penny,” Rae murmured, and reached out. She rested her hand on Penny’s arm and ran her thumb over the bandages. “Calm down.” To Harvey, she asked, “Is there any way you wouldn’t have to report it?”

He thought for a moment. “If you’re no longer living in the house and are out of immediate danger,” he began, hesitant, “then I suppose it would be ok…”

“Done,” Rae said firmly. “There’s room in my house for you.” In the back of her mind, a voice that sounded a lot like her own pointed out that her house really wasn’t built to hold as many people as it currently was. She ruthlessly squashed that voice into a box and closed it up to open later.

Harvey gave them a weak smile. “Then I suppose it’ll be ok,” he said. He still sounded doubtful, but Rae gave him a thankful look as Penny gasped out her appreciation. “Don’t thank me yet. If this happens again, I will have to report it.” He stood up. “Let’s get you checked out so you can go home.”

Chapter Text

The walk home was long. Rae tucked Penny close to her side and tried to just be a warm, comforting presence as they walked back to her house. Her mind was racing, making plans. Penny would need a bed, and fast, as would Sebastian - that would provide work for Robin, which was perfect, because the woman had been pointedly asking if she had any work she wanted done on her farm for days now, through pointed letters. Hopefully if she got the work started now, she could set up a weekly payment plan, or just pay it off completely once the plants actually came in and started producing.

She didn’t realize they were walking past the bus station until she felt Penny tense at her side and draw her hood up farther. “Shit,” she muttered. “Walk with purpose, don’t look. If she comes over, I’ll talk to her, you keep walking.” She tilted the umbrella down a little, obscuring Penny from the view of the bus station.

Rae deliberately didn’t look over at Pam, sitting in the driver’s seat of her bus and smoking a cigarette. She ushered Penny forwards, and together they almost made it past the station before Pam’s voice rang out. “Hey!”

“Fuck,” Rae muttered again. “Keep going, I’ll stall.”

Penny was mute, frozen at her side. Rae turned to face Pam. “What?” she called back, crossing her arms over her chest. She tilted the umbrella to the side, into the rain, which just so happened to be the same way to protect Penny’s face.

“Have you seen Penny today?” she asked.

That’s when it hit Rae - Penny was wearing a spare raincoat. She hadn’t grabbed one from her own home, and her hood was up, hiding her face. “No,” Rae lied. “I haven’t. Why, what’s wrong?”

“She’s missing,” Pam said. There was a desperation in her eyes. “I got blackout drunk last night - I’m not proud of it, but I’ll admit it. When I woke up, I was at home, and there was broken glass on the floor and Penny was gone. I’ve been asking around - no one has seen her.”

“I haven’t either,” Rae said.

Pam’s eyes drifted to the disguised Penny, still hiding half behind Rae. “Who’s this?” she asked. “New kid in town?”

“My cousin, actually,” Rae said. “Vivienne. She’s visiting from ZuZu City, but she’s deaf, so don’t expect her to respond to anything you say.” To this end, Rae turned so her body was blocking Pam’s view of Penny and moved her hands in the little sign-language she knew. Penny responded with a curt nod. “And she’s getting cold, so I’d best get her to the house to warm up.” She turned back to Pam and gave her an apologetic smile. “Best of luck finding Penny. If I see her, I’ll let her know you’re looking for her.”

Together, Rae and “Vivienne” walked back towards the house. As soon as they were safely out of ear shot, Penny whispered, “Do you really have a deaf cousin Vivienne?”

“Yes, actually,” Rae murmured. “And I haven’t seen her since I graduated high school.”

Neither of them breathed easy until they were back on Rae’s farm. She let the shorter girl climb the steps up to the house first, scanned the farm one last time, and followed her inside.

“Well?” Abigail asked impatiently. “How’d it go?” She sat beside Sebastian at the kitchen table; both appeared to have been invested in his computer screen before they came in.

Rae reached out and helped Penny pull her raincoat off. “All better, mostly,” she said. “It’ll take time before these heal.” She touched Penny’s hands, swathed in cloth once more. “I’ll make you some tea to drink - just got some from the city a few days ago. Sound good?” She gave Penny her warmest, gentlest smile.

“That sounds… nice.” Penny returned her smile, more hesitant. “Thank you.”

Rae walked to the kitchen and began to pull together a mug of tea. She set the water on to heat and pulled a mug from the cupboard. Abigail struck up a conversation with Penny, asking about her interests and hobbies. Rae half-listened as she added the base chamomile tea and placed a few extra ingredients in the tea strainer - some pieces of dried ginger, a sprig of rosemary, and a few pieces of thyme. While she wasn’t sure about the taste, it would hopefully help heal the wounds on Penny’s hands and arms.

Once the kettle started whistling, she picked it up and poured the boiling water over the tea strainer. It slowly started to darken, and she waited, tapping her fingers on the counter. “Do you want a dollop of honey to sweeten it?” she asked abruptly, turning to look over at Penny.

Penny hesitated, considering. “I think so,” she said, though she didn’t sound completely sure.

“It’s actually honey from a beehive I keep, down to the south of the farm,” Rae said. “Speaking of which, someone remind me to check on the farm after all this rain. I want to make sure neither of the hives flooded.”

“Gotcha,” Abigail said, doing finger-guns at her.

Rae returned them and laughed a little. “So what do you say? Want some?”

“Sure,” Penny said. “I’ll try it.”

Rae smiled and opened the cabinet, pulling out the little jar of honey and placing it on the counter. She grabbed a tiny spoon and pulled out a spoonful of the honey, letting it slowly drip into the tea. “Almost done,” she said as she placed the tea in the spoon and extracted the strainer, taking a sniff. It smelled a little odd - probably thanks to the thyme, but what could you do. Anything besides a bit of honey could throw off the tea’s delicate balance.

Rae picked up the mug and walked to the table, placing the mug in front of Penny. "Drink up," she said, nudging Penny's shoulder with a gentle hand. "It tastes good, I promise."

Penny reached out and cradled the mug in her swathed hands. She took a careful sip and frowned. "What's in this?" she asked. "It tastes... odd."

"Oh, a little bit of this, a pinch of that," Rae said, waving the question away casually. "It's chamomile with something special tossed into the mix. It won't poison you." She glanced at Abigail, who narrowed her eyes at Rae. Rae, for her part, winked back as she sat down.

Penny kept drinking, making the occasional face, but ultimately she got the entire drink down. "Thank you," she said when she finished.

"No problem," Rae said. She smiled again and stretched. "So, I know you two are gonna hate me, but it you've got time, I've got a list of improvements I want to make by next winter."

Abigail groaned. "Can't we enjoy the day?" she asked.

"We did that yesterday," Rae pointed out. "I've been jotting down ideas as they've hit me, so I have this..." She leaned on one elbow and extracted a wrinkled piece of paper from her back pocket. "First off, I want to get bunnies for the coop, which means we need to add a rabbit hutch, which means Robin's gonna be over the moon with the projects I'm gonna have her building."

"Bunnies sound fun," Abigail said, looking as optimistic as she could. "What else?"

Rae ran her finger along the page, squinting at the smudged pencil lead on the page. "Oh, that's right - I want to clear out the little forest to the south and plant some fruit trees. Fresh fruit would be wonderful, especially stuff like apples or peaches." She briefly got a dreamy look in her eyes, before snapping out of it. "Aaaaand... I want to get another cow sometime in the next season or two. Eventually, I want to be producing enough to start shipping goods instead of eating everything."

"Sounds good. Anything else?" Abigail looked a little more intrigued, a little less tired than she had previously.

Rae took a deep breath. "Yeah. It's gonna take a lot of money and materials, though."

"Spit it out," Sebastian said, sounding bored. It didn't fool Rae; his eyes were on her, not the computer screen in front of him.

"I want to expand the house again," she said. "It'll take a lot of money and hardwood, but if our house keeps getting more residents, we'll need it."

"Ooooh, expanding," Abigail said. Her eyes glittered with glee as she leaned forwards a little. "Did you sketch plans? I want to see!"

Rae had, indeed, sketched out a rough plan for the house expansion. On the other side of the paper was an ink drawing of the current house layout. She’d made marks with a pencil, outlining a rough sketch of a second story with two rooms and a bathroom. “I was thinking Sebastian could stay upstairs and either the girls could stay in my room or in the second room upstairs,” Rae said, pointing to the spaces outlined on the paper. “The attic’s a little big, got pretty high ceilings, and I’m not using it for anything, so it should be a cinch to raise the roof a little more and add a second story.”

“How much is it gonna cost?” Abigail asked. “Do you know?”

Rae winced. “Yeah, I asked. About that… it’s gonna cost upwards of 50,000 gold to upgrade.”

Sebastian did a double take. “50,000? Holy sh-”

“I know,” Rae groaned. She dropped her head into her hands. “It’s so expensive, it’s ridiculous. But I can’t blame Robin, really - she’s adding a second story to the house! That’s not cheap!”

“What else do you need for the expansion?” Abigail asked.

“Hardwood. Lots and lots of hardwood. Roughly 150 lengths of it, if I’m not mistaken.” Rae looked up at them, determination steely in her eyes. “It’s gonna take a lot. I’m gonna be scrimping and saving everywhere I possibly can to save up for this.”

“I’ll pitch in everywhere I can,” Abigail said, smiling at her from across the table. “I think we can do it. I’m in!”

“I can toss some money in,” Sebastian said. “It’s the least I can do, since I’m living here now and all.”

“Thank you guys,” Rae whispered, giving them her most grateful smile.

“I don’t know how much I’ll be able to do, but I promise to help wherever I can,” Penny murmured. She took another sip of her tea, blushing at the attention on her. “I mean, if I’m going to be staying here…”

“Of course you’ll be staying here,” Rae said briskly. “There’s nowhere I’d rather you be.” She rolled her shoulders and straightened in her seat. “All right, then. Our long-term goal is to expand the house. Since we can’t exactly go straight to that, though, tomorrow it should be clear. We can take a look at the field to the south and start trying to clear it out a little. Sound good to everyone?”

“Fine by me,” Abigail almost chirped, beaming across the table at Rae. Sebastian and Penny just nodded their agreement.

“Then tomorrow - we work.”

~*~*~*~

Rae’s first port-of-call the next morning was to check on the animals. She crept out of the house, careful not to disturb any of her roommates as she pulled on her boots and called Bullet to follow her into the pre-dawn chill. The sun was still low on the horizon as she stepped outside, swathed in an old sweater. “Go on and run around, big boy. I’m gonna check on the chickens first and you know they don’t like you much,” she murmured. He wagged his tail at her and ran off towards the southern field, bouncing over her cauliflower as he went. She shook her head and made her way to the coop.

As soon as she stepped inside, soft cheeping made her jolt and look around. “It hatched!” she whispered, jogging over to the incubator and peeking inside. Sure enough, a tiny yellow ball of fuzz continued to cheep away at her. Rae breathed a soft “oh” and reached out, slipping her fingers under the duckling. She lifted it up to eye level, inspecting it carefully. “Hello, little one,” she murmured. “Welcome to this big, beautiful world.”

The duckling cheeped at her again. She laughed and brought it closer to her chest. The heat lamp Marnie had suggested she purchase sat in the corner; she moved over to it and picked it up, turning to look around. There was a low table with an outlet beside it. She moved over to it and plugged the lamp in. It lit up with a dull red glow; she could immediately feel the heat emanating from it. A crate under the bench became the new duckling’s home for the next few weeks. She found a towel in a corner and lined the crate with that, before putting the duckling inside. “There you are, little one,” she whispered. “I’ll introduce you to the others in a little bit. For now, get some sleep.”

She gathered the eggs and made sure to give each bird a thorough petting. “Don’t be jealous,” she murmured, feeling a little weird. “She’s just a baby.”

The birds clucked at her as she stood up again. “All right, out into the morning you go,” she said, and reached out to raise the coop door. The birds filed out in an orderly line. Rae left the coop just in time to watch them make a wide circle past Bullet, who lay in the sun with his head on his paws, idly watching them pass. Rae shook her head and continued to the barn.

Her first sign that something was amiss was the fact that she couldn’t see Ramen anywhere. “Ramen?” she called, immediately concerned. “Where are you, big girl?”

A soft “moo” from the corner just out of sight from the door made her sigh in relief. “C’mere, baby!” she called, snapping her fingers. “Let me see you-”

Of all the things she was expecting, what she got was not it. Ramen walked around the corner, giving her another “moo”. Rae sighed in relief and reached out, only to freeze as a wobbly-legged calf chased after her mother.

“Dear Yoba,” she muttered. “When I asked for expansion, I wasn’t precisely expecting this.”

The calf was the same brown as her mother and almost a newborn - Rae was no expert, but she’d guess that the calf was only a few hours old. “Hi there, baby,” she called, extending her hand to the calf. “Come say hi?”

The calf eyed her warily, but Ramen looked back and “moo”ed again, tail swatting the air in wide arcs. That was all the encouragement the little one needed, as the calf stumbled forwards and nudged Rae’s hand with her soft nose. Rae knelt down, careful, and examined the calf, looking for any obvious problems. None met her eyes; the calf looked newly cleaned. “You did this all by yourself?” she murmured. “Good job, sweetie.”

She left the new mother and baby alone and went to take the eggs into the house. Abigail met her just inside, turning to look as Rae entered. “You look happy about something,” she commented. “What’s up?”

“You need to start thinking of names,” Rae said, unable to hide her smile. “Wanna see?”

“Um, yes? Why do I need to start thinking of names?” Abigail asked as she placed the eggs Rae handed her into a bowl and followed the other girl out.

“Pick one or two,” Rae said. “Just choose one of those two numbers.”

“Uh, two. Why?”

Rae didn’t say anything, only led the way to the barn. She pushed the door open and stepped inside, allowing Abigail through while she held the door. “Meet the first of our new additions,” she said. “Ramen, where’s your baby at?”

Abigail’s eyes were the size of saucers. “That’s why she wasn’t giving milk?” she asked, as the calf came over to see them. The baby was getting more steady on her feet, Rae noticed with no small amount of pride.

“That’s why,” she confirmed. “I didn’t even notice she was getting heavier - I just thought she was eating more than one portion of feed. Surprise!”

Abigail laughed as the calf sniffed at her hands. “Oh, she’s adorable!” She scratched the calf’s ears. “I love her already. You said there were two additions?”

“This one’s a lot smaller,” Rae said. “Say bye for now!” Abigail did, and she led the way to the coop, where insistent cheeps met their ears as soon as they stepped inside. “Our duckling hatched today as well!”

“No way!” Abigail hurried to the box and leaned over it. The cheeping noise redoubled, growing more demanding. “I think she’s hungry. Oh, she’s so cute!”

“Ducklings actually don’t need to eat for the first 24 hours of their lives,” Rae explained. “Marnie told me that when I got Essa. She was just a hatchling at the time, and I had no idea what to do with her. She told me that when they’re newborn, they’re still taking in nutrients from the egg they were in. It’s only after 24 hours or so that they actually start getting hungry.”

“Hm. Good to know.” Abigail stroked the duckling’s head. “Got a name for either of them yet?”

“Not yet. I was gonna leave that up to you and Penny.” Rae brushed her hair out of her face and leaned over, inspecting the duckling herself. It was absolutely adorable, she wasn’t afraid to admit.

“Well, Penny was still asleep last I checked. We should make something fancy for breakfast to celebrate,” Abigail said, eyes dancing with excitement.

“Pancakes sound good?” she asked. “I think everyone likes them.”

“Mmm, pancakes,” Abigail said with relish. “Not that I don’t like muffins - I just-”

“Get tired of them, I understand.” Rae grinned over at her. “Trust me, I do too. Even with all the variety we’ve been having lately, I’m in the mood for something different. Pancakes it is.”

They walked back into the farmhouse, where both made a beeline for the stove. “I’ll start mixing everything together, if you want to put the pan on,” Rae directed briskly. “Lots to do today - I need to go see Marnie about her making a visit to inspect the calf and the duckling, not to mention proper feed for them. Then I want to swing by Robin’s place, see if we can get some quotes on expanding the barn or the coop. The house will have to wait for now.”

“Sounds good.” Abigail put the pan on the stove and turned it on, dropping a chunk of butter onto the pan. Rae, meanwhile, had fished the milk out of the fridge and poured a little in the batter. She grabbed a whisk from a tall bowl on the counter and set to work.

Sebastian groaned from the couch and sat up, yawning as he stretched. “G’morning, sleepy head,” Rae called, still whisking away. “Pancakes for a change?”

“Yeah,” he said, sounding distracted. “Sure, sounds good.” He grumbled to himself and stood up, stretching his arms up and over his head. “Back in a few.”

He wandered into the girl’s room, and Rae shook her head. “We need another bathroom, one that isn’t in our room,” she said to Abigail. “That griddle ready yet?”

Abigail swiped some water from the faucet onto her finger and dropped it onto the metal with a flourish. It sizzled and spat water into the air. “All good.”

Rae ladled the first pancake onto the griddle and watched it immediately start cooking. She set the batter aside and grabbed for a spatula, poking at the bubbles that formed on the top of the batter. “Got any names in mind?” she asked.

“Ask me again later,” Abigail said. “I got nothing yet. You have a naming scheme in mind?”

“What I ate in college, actually.” Rae poked at another bubble on the pancake, nodded, and slipped the spatula under the pancake. She took a deep breath, bobbed her head three times, then expertly flipped it so that it landed on the other side in the pan. Abigail applauded politely. “I ate a lot of ramen noodles, so I just thought it’d be funny to name my cow that. Soba and Udon are other names for noodles. Essa I just kind of thought was cute - first thing that came to mind.”

“That’s a lot funnier than I expected,” Abigail said. “I thought you were going to say something like ‘that’s what they’re gonna end up as eventually’ or some dark stuff like that.”

Rae gave her a wide-eyed glance. “No, heavens no! That’s so dark! Why would you think something like that?!”

“I don’t know!” Abigail said, throwing her hands in the air. “I have a dark mind, I guess!”

Rae rested her free hand against her forehead. “No, that’s not why I named them that,” she said patiently. “But now that I know you have an even darker sense of humor than I first thought, do you have any ideas that don’t involve naming the animals after what they’re usually eaten as?”

“Say what?” Sebastian’s confused voice floated to them from the doorway to Rae’s room.

Rae tilted her head back to look at the ceiling. “Of course you wander in just in time to hear that, completely without context. We got some new additions to the farm today and Abigail and I are discussing what we should name them.”

“New additions how?” he asked.

“One new duckling, one brand-new calf,” Abigail announced proudly. She slid a plate towards Rae; the other woman scooped the pancake up and dropped it onto the plate, dropping another dollop of batter into the center of the pan. “Got any ideas?”

“Coco for the cow,” Sebastian said immediately. “It is a brown cow like Ramen, right?”

“Yeah, she is,” Rae said. “Coco? Like a chocolate bar?”

“Chocolate milk,” he corrected her.

“Ha!” She threw her head back and laughed at that. “I love it. Coco the calf it is. I’m gonna leave the duckling to either Penny or Abigail, though. Good with you?”

“Just fine. I’ve got no clue what to name it, anyways.” Sebastian sat down at the table and booted up his computer.

Rae glanced over and waggled her spatula in his general direction. “I’m gonna have a look at getting a table for that today,” she said. “The table’s not big enough for your computer and the four of us eating.”

“Sorry,” he said.

She waved him off. “Don’t apologize, it’s not your fault. None of us expected you to move in as well.”

“Fair enough.” He moved the mouse around and clicked, before starting to type. For a long time, there was quiet; only the soft shuffling of feet, the crackle of pancake batter against the hot metal, and Sebastian’s typing.

That was broken by soft movement from the girl’s room. “Good morning,” Penny’s soft voice said. She shuffled toward them, still dressed in Rae’s old tee-shirt and a pair of sweatpants Abigail had scavenged up. “Are those pancakes?”

“Yep!” Rae said cheerfully. “I hope you like ‘em.”

“I love pancakes,” Penny said. She shuffled closer, rubbing her arms a little. “Do you need any help?”

Abigail and Rae exchanged glances. “Nope, I don’t think so,” Rae said. “We’ve got this pretty well handled. If you want to get water glasses, that’d be great, while Abby sets the table.”

“Ok.” Penny padded to the cabinet and pulled out four water glasses, minding her hands.

Rae glanced at Abigail and winked. “So, I have a surprise for you after breakfast,” she said. “It’s outside, though, so you’ll have to get dressed.”

“What is it?” Penny asked.

“Not telling,” Abigail said, in a sing-song voice. “You’ll just have to see for yourself.”

“Ok,” Penny said, smiling at them. “I can’t wait to see!” She put the four water glasses down at the table. Sebastian grunted his thanks as he picked it up and took a sip.

“How’re your hands doing?” Abigail asked. “Let me see.” She gestured for Penny to sit down and pulled her own chair over, reaching for the bindings. Rae kept her eye on them as she flipped the pancake over and onto the plate, pouring in another pancake.

The bindings came off and Abigail frowned. “They almost look fully healed,” she muttered. “But they should still be scabbed over… These look like they’ve healed a week’s worth overnight.”

She looked over at Rae, suspicion in her eyes. Rae, for her part, shrugged with a bland look on her face. “Maybe Harvey’s salve did something,” she suggested.

“Maybe,” Abigail said, though she didn’t sound convinced. “If you’re careful, though, I don’t see why you’d need to wear the wrappings today - not unless some of them reopen today. Rae?”

“Sure,” Rae said. “I’d be inclined to agree with that. But no hard labor with your hands, missy.” She shook the spatula at Penny, which made the other woman giggle a little bit.

They finally finished cooking the pancakes and sat down for breakfast. Rae placed a glass bottle of maple syrup on the table as she sat. “From the farm,” she explained. “I learned how to make taps last summer and set up a few taps in the fall. This was the end result.” She had to grab it before Abigail did and drizzle some on her pancakes. “Don’t put too much on there,” she scolded as she passed it to Abigail. “There isn’t much and I want everyone to be able to have some.”

“Yes, mom,” Abigail complained, rolling her eyes. She did drizzle a much more moderate amount onto her short stack of pancakes before passing the bottle on.

They ate in silence for the most part. Scratching at the door made Rae start; she jolted to her feet and hurried to the door, where she snagged a towel from beside the door. “Sit,” she ordered as soon as she opened the door and Bullet came in. “I need to wipe those paws of yours.”

“All muddy?” Abigail called.

“Of course,” Rae said, rolling her eyes even though they couldn’t see. She scrubbed his paws thoroughly; he panted as he allowed her to work. “Good boy, I’ll get your breakfast in just a moment, ok?”

He barked in her face. She winced. “Hush.” He gave her a soft “whuff” instead. “Good boy.”

She stood up and walked over to the cabinet, pulling a bag of dog food out and putting it on the floor. It was almost completely full, meaning that it was heavy, and she ended up having to tilt it and shake the kibbles into a bowl. “Come eat!” she called, needlessly. Bullet shoved his head under one of her arms and panted in her face. She wrinkled her nose. “Gross! Get that smelly breath out of my face.”

He was soon preoccupied with his dinner, and she put the dog food away again. After washing her hands, she returned to the table, only to find one of her two pancakes missing. “Who did this?” she asked, quirking an eyebrow.

Abigail pointed at Penny, who looked startled, while Sebastian pointed at Abigail without tearing his eyes from his computer screen. Rae looked down at Abigail’s plate - there were three half-eaten pancakes on it. “Give it back,” she ordered.

“Awww,” Abigail whined, but picked up the pancake with her fork and ferried it back over to Rae’s plate.

“Thank you,” Rae said, and dug back into her breakfast.

When they were finished eating, Abigail swept up the plates. “Seb, got time to help me wash the dishes?” she asked.

“Sure, fine, whatever,” he said, absentminded.

“Thanks. Rae, take her on out to see them.” Abigail winked at her.

Rae returned it and turned to Penny. “Go change into some day clothes and meet me back here,” she instructed. The girl vanished into the bedroom obediently, probably to wear the same clothes she’d been wearing when she arrived. Rae made a mental note to get more clothes for her at some point today or tomorrow. She reemerged; Rae was right. She was wearing the clothes she’d showed up in.

Rae waved her over to the front door. “We’re not leaving the farm, so you don’t have to worry about heavy clothing.” She pointed at the light jacket she normally wore on slightly chilly days in fall. “Wear that - I’m in long sleeves, so I don’t have to worry as much.” Penny obeyed, and together they walked outside.

Rae led the way to the barn first and pushed open the door. “Ramen, last time for this morning, I promise,” she called. “Can you come bring your baby to see me and my friend?”

She turned, just in time to watch Penny’s eyes go wide at the sight of the calf. “Her name is Coco,” she explained. “Sebastian named her.”

Penny gasped as Coco wandered up to them, Ramen keeping a close eye on her baby. “She’s so cute,” she whispered, hesitantly reaching out to stroke Coco’s head. Coco immediately crowded closer, nudging under Penny’s hands eagerly. Penny smiled, a warm, soft smile that Rae hadn’t seen since before she arrived on the farm, and set to work. “I love her.”

“I think we’re all in love with her, besides Sebastian, and that’s just because I haven’t been able to drag him out of his room to see her.” Rae watched them for a few moments longer, smiling softly at the sight of them together. “Whenever you’re ready to go, I have one more surprise for you.”

Penny straightened and nodded resolutely. “I’m ready now,” she said.

“Then follow me,” Rae said, and led the way to the coop next door. She stepped inside and held the door for Penny. “It’s over there, in the box on the bench.”

Penny tiptoed over and made a soft noise. “Oh,” she breathed, kneeling beside the box. “Can I pick her up?”

“Sure,” Rae said. “I’d tell you to be gentle, but I don’t think that’s necessary.” Her voice was gently teasing.

Penny worked her fingers under the duckling and picked her up, cradling her in both hands. “Hello, little one,” she whispered. “Aren’t you precious.”

“Do you want to name her?” Rae asked. She walked forward and crouched down, reaching out a finger to stroke the duckling’s head. “Seb got to name the calf, so I figured it was only fitting you name this little girl.”

Penny considered it. “I… don’t know. I’d have to consider it.” She touched the duckling’s feathers with a delicate finger. “Give me some time?”

“Of course,” Rae said. “I have to go run down to Marnie’s so she can look over the newborns. Will you be ok staying here?”

Penny nodded. “Go ahead. I’ll be just fine.”

Rae smiled at her and pushed herself to her feet. “I’ll be back in a few,” she said. “See you later.”

She slipped out of the chicken coop and whistled, calling Bullet to her side. He left the livestock alone and raced to her side, tail going wild. “Hey, baby,” she said, scratching behind his ears. “Wanna run to Marnie’s with me?”

He barked, running circles around her. She dodged out of the way and laughed, shaking her head. “Come on,” she told him. “Follow me.”

They walked south, following the path Rae had cleared through the tall grass. The chickens rustled the grass around them; Rae kept an eye out to make sure she didn’t step on any of her birds. Bullet leapt back into the grass, rustling around. When she emerged on the other side of the grass, he followed, now covered in grass pieces. She shook her head at him and patted her side. He stuck to her like glue as they walked down the path that led to Marnie’s house and the forest beyond.

Rae pushed the door open to Marnie’s house-slash-shop and stepped inside, holding the door for Bullet. He bounced inside and ran around the counter to greet Marnie. “Hello!” the woman said cheerfully, leaning over to scratch behind the German Shepherd’s ears. “How’re you doing today?”

“I’m doing well,” Rae said, beaming at the woman as she walked to the counter and leaned on it. “Would you happen to have time to come up to my farm and take a look at my animals?” Her eyes sparkled as she added, “I figured out what was wrong with Ramen, by the way. She had a healthy baby calf sometime last night.”

“Congratulations!” Marnie cried, clapping her hands together. “I’d be happy to come look over the baby. Anything else?”

“The duckling I was waiting on finally hatched as well,” Rae said. “So now I have two more hungry mouths to feed.”

Her tone turned dry on the last sentence; Marnie laughed as she stepped out from behind her counter. She crouched for a moment, before standing again, a large brown leather bag in her hands. “That’s the way it always goes,” she said. “I can walk up now, if you’d like.”

“That’d be perfect,” Rae said. “Bullet, heel!” Her dog stuck to her side like glue, and the three left the house, heading north back to Rae’s farm.

As they walked, Rae could feel the curiosity flowing off Marnie in waves. She suppressed a sigh and said, “Ask away. I know you have questions, though I can’t promise I’ll answer them.”

Marnie nodded. “Abigail showed up yesterday and told me Penny wouldn’t be there to pick up Jas for class yesterday or probably today. She said something about Penny being sick. I know Abigail and Penny aren’t all that close, so what’s wrong?”

Of course - straight to the point. Rae sighed. “I don’t want this getting out,” she started. “Pam threw a glass in Penny’s general direction and shattered it everywhere. Penny got pretty cut up from it. She’s hiding out in my house for now.”

Marnie nodded, grave-faced. “I understand,” she said quietly. “I’ll keep it quiet.”

“Thank you,” Rae murmured. “I appreciate it - honestly, I do.”

They kept walking, in quiet this time. The narrow pathway that led north from the forest finally opened up into Rae’s farm; they were almost immediately knee-deep in grass. “There’s a path over here. Follow me,” Rae said, and gestured for Marnie to keep close. They waded through the grass, finally coming out on the other side of the pasture.

From there, Marnie took the lead, heading straight for the barn. “I’m going to start with the calf, first. Have you named her - is it a her? - yet?”

“Her name is Coco,” Rae said as she pushed open the barn door. “Sebastian actually named her. Penny’s still thinking of names for the duckling.”

Ramen walked over to greet them, Coco stuck to her flanks like glue. “Well, will you look at that!” Marnie cried, resting her hands on her hips as the little family drew closer. “Aren’t they precious.”

“I know,” Rae said with a proud smile. “Will you be OK to do the examination while I’m not here? I need to go check on my plants - I’m pretty sure I have a harvest of green beans I’ve got to take care of.”

“Go right ahead,” Marnie said, giving her a cheerful smile. “I’ve got this handled.”

Rae ducked out of the barn again, Bullet meeting her outside the front door. “Good boy,” she muttered, scratching behind his ears. “What a good boy you are. C’mon, let’s go pick some green beans.”

He pranced along beside her, tail wagging as she led the way to the green bean patch, only to stop in surprise. Abigail looked up at her as Bullet raced to her side, digging his nose into her ear. “Hey!” she called, waving one glove-covered hand. “I figured I could get a head start, since you were so busy this morning.”

Rae’s heart warmed at the gesture. “Thank you so much,” she said with feeling. “I really appreciate it.”

She knelt in the dirt beside Abigail, nudged her with her shoulder, and the two got right back to work.

Chapter Text

What with the unexpected births of the day, Rae got very little done outside the farm, choosing instead to remain on the farm and do her work there. With Abigail’s help, she harvested the green beans and sorted them in record time, checked on the rest of the crops and noted which ones would be ready for harvest tomorrow. With nothing else to do that evening, Rae borrowed Sebastian’s computer, sat Penny down beside her, and together they went shopping for clothes for her. Penny protested at first, but after seeing Rae refused to be moved, she gave in.

Rae managed to get to sleep early that night, telling herself she’d go to Robin’s in the morning after the harvest. Luckily for her, the day dawned clear and sunny. She recruited Abigail to start harvesting the potatoes, which were finally ready, and checked on the animals. Marnie had given Coco a clean bill of health, and the duckling - which Penny had named Reese - was doing well. She let the chickens out, but she was reluctant to let Coco out of the barn. To that end, she refilled the feed troughs and left the mother and baby alone.

Once outside again, she rejoined Abigail, only instead of getting on her hands and knees in the dirt, she grabbed the sickle from its place leaning against the house and went to harvest the field of kale plants next to the potato plants. She set to work immediately, sweeping the sickle low against the ground. The razor-sharp blade sliced clean through the stalks; kale heads rolled everywhere. She kept moving, fast as she could without severing a head clean in half. She was good to go, though; by the end of the field, she’d gotten every single kale head without messing up one.

“Mind giving me a hand?” Abigail called, sounding irritated. “Since you just blitzed through those like they were nothing?”

Rae laughed. “Give me just a minute to collect these all together and sort them real fast.” She placed the sickle on the ground, leaned over, and swept up an armful of kale heads. “Is Penny awake?”

“I don’t know,” Abigail said in return. “Why?”

“I wanted to teach her how to sort crops, and there’s also that patch of strawberries over there that are ripe for picking.” Rae gestured to the small patch beside the house; it was flooded with green plants, tiny spots of red peeking out from under the leaves. “I figure she’d like that.”

“You’re right.” Abigail sat back on her heels and wiped her forehead, leaving a track of dirt. “I don’t know, but I know Sebastian’s awake right now. He’s on his computer. I told him it looks like it’ll be a fend-for-yourself kind of breakfast today.”

“A rarity, but yes,” Rae said. She stretched her arms up over her head and leaned to one side, then the other. “Back in a minute.”

She jogged up the stairs and opened the front door, and poked her head inside. “Hey, Seb, is Penny up?” she asked, seeing him at the table.

“Yeah, I heard her moving around. Why?”

“I want to teach you and Penny how to sort the crops we harvest,” she said. “I’m not so worried about you - I’m pretty sure you’re gonna spend most of your time inside. Penny, though - Penny will need to learn.”

Penny stepped out of the bedroom, wearing some of Abigail’s clothes - she was the one closest to Penny’s height, and had offered to lend the girl some clothes while she waited for her own to come in. “Yes?”

“Do you want to pick strawberries out here? The day’s really nice out,” Rae said. She offered Penny a sunny smile. “It’s pretty shady over there, too.”

“Ok,” Penny said, smiling in return. “Give me a minute, and I’ll be right there.”

Rae waved and closed the door, jumping off the porch to land on the ground. Bullet scrambled to his feet and barked at her. “Oh, hush,” she told him, with no real anger. “It’s just me.” He stopped immediately, wagging his tail. If a dog could look sheepish, he did.

“She coming out?” Abigail asked.

“Yeah, give it a few minutes,” Rae said in return. She sat down on the stairs and started sorting the kale heads, gold in one pile, silver in another, normal in a third. A few of the nicest ones she set aside; she could probably get even more money for them if she played her cards right.

She was just finishing up when the door behind her opened. Penny hesitated on the porch itself, looking down at her. “What’re you doing?” she asked, frowning a little.

“I’m sorting crops,” Rae said. “I just finished, though. I’ll teach you later. So, there’s a basket over there you can use to put the strawberries in-” She pointed to a wicker basket, sitting next to the door. “And when you’re done, if you could just pick out the ones that aren’t any good or have bruises, we’ll keep those for ourselves to eat and sell the nicest ones. Sound good?”

“Perfect,” Penny said, and gave her a shy smile. She picked up the basket and walked down past Rae, taking care not to step on any of the kale heads. Rae followed, picking up all the heads she could and taking them over to the shipping bin. She pushed it open with her elbow and placed them in, one after the other. When she was done, she closed the lid, dusted her hands off, and went to help Abigail.

They worked their way through the field of potatoes, pulling them up one by one - or in bunches, depending on the plant. Rae pulled up one that had over 10 palm-sized potatoes dangling from the roots. “Dinner,” she said with relish, and set it off to the side. When she caught Abigail looking at her, she shrugged and explained, “They’re too small to sell - but they’re perfect for fries or baked potatoes.”

“Yum,” Abigail said with relish. It wasn’t long afterward that Rae caught her doing the same thing to a small bunch of her own. She hid a smile and kept working.

She was almost done when a cheerful voice called out, “Hey guys! It’s been forever!”

Rae rolled back onto her heels and pivoted to see who was calling, shielding her face from the sun. “Sam!” she cried, rising to her feet and dusting her jeans off. “It’s so good to see you!” She stepped over the potatoes, careful not to squish any, and made her way to him, reaching out to give him a hug. “How’ve you been?”

“Good,” he said with a beaming smile. “Really good. It’s been great to have Dad home again. Abby!” Abigail cut in to give Sam a hug herself and ruffle his hair. “How’s the farming life been treating you?”

“It’s been good,” she said. Rae gestured for them to follow her back to the potato field, where she leaned over and began to pick up the potatoes she’d pulled up. Abigail quickly picked up her meaning and went to do the same, calling over as she did so, “What brings you here?”

“Oh! Right! Well, the Egg Festival is tomorrow and Mom wasn’t sure you’d gotten your reminder - Mayor Lewis has been kind of preoccupied with something recently, for some reason.” He shrugged. “Anyways, I volunteered to run over and remind you that’s tomorrow.”

“Thanks,” Rae said over her shoulder, as she stood up and surveyed the field one last time for any stragglers. Her arms were completely full of potatoes, and she used her head to gesture him towards the porch. “Come fill us in on everything that’s happened while we were busy.”

Sam started chattering away, telling her about Vincent’s birthday party and how well it had gone. Rae’s mind immediately flew to Penny, who was still working in the strawberry patch as far as she could tell. “He made all of us cry, actually,” Sam said, oblivious to Rae’s sudden shift in mood - from joyous to anxious. “He said all he’d wanted for his birthday was for Dad to be home - Penny!”

Penny, who’d just stepped onto the pathway towards the house with a basket brimming with strawberries, froze. “Sam!” she said; Rae easily picked up on the strained note in her voice. “So good to see you!”

“Same to you!” he said, grinning back at her. Then his face shifted to confusion. “Isn’t it a Friday? Why aren’t you teaching the kids?”

Aaaaaand there it was. “Hey, Penny!” Abigail called, before Rae could open her mouth to intervene. “Why don’t I help you sort through those around on the side of the house? We can rinse off the dirt in that tub Rae has beside the house.” She dumped her potatoes beside Rae, asked “Sort those for me?” and waved Penny over.

Penny gave her a grateful look and followed the other woman past. Rae reached out and touched Sam’s arm. “A lot’s happened,” she said gravely, taking a seat on the porch steps.

Sam sat down as well, frowning. “Is something wrong?” he asked.

She sighed and rubbed her forehead. “It’s a long story. You know that big rainstorm, a few days ago?” He nodded. She picked up a potato and turned it over in her hands, trying to decide what rank it was, before setting it aside with a weary sigh. “Around 11 the first night, Penny showed up at our front door with glass shards halfway up her arms.”

There was a brief silence. Rae bit her lip, not looking at Sam. “What?” he finally asked, sounding heartbroken. She mentally kicked herself - it would’ve been better to tell him when it first happened, but she had to listen to Abigail instead.

“She’s OK now,” she said. “We took her to Harvey’s the next day. But her mom came home drunk, got mad at Penny, and threw a beer bottle in her general direction. I’m still not sure if Pam wanted it to hit her and was just too drunk to aim, or meant to miss her and had excellent aim.” Her brows drew together as she admitted, “Frankly, I’m not sure I want to know. So, for the moment, she’s living with us, hiding from her mom. I think it’s going to be permanent, though.”

Sam was quiet for a long few moments, staring off into the distance south of the farm. Rae refocused on her potatoes, letting him think. “She’s OK,” she repeated, after the silence started to get unbearable.

“I know,” he muttered, reaching up to rub his face. “But I feel like I should’ve been there.”

“There was nothing you would’ve been able to do,” she said. “As it was, the three of us had it under control from the moment she stepped inside. It’s all right. Don’t you blame yourself - we talked this over and decided we didn’t want to ruin Vincent’s birthday party.”

Sam nodded. “I understand. So what happens on Monday?”

“We haven’t discussed that yet,” she said. “I’m leaving that up to Penny. It’s not my decision to make.”

He nodded again and looked over towards where Abigail and Penny were working on sorting strawberries. Rae could just hear Abigail explaining the difference between the ranks of crops. “Thanks,” he murmured.

She dusted her hand off on her jeans, reached out, and squeezed his shoulder. “Of course.”

~*~*~*~

Sam stuck around, but as soon as Rae was finished sorting potatoes, she grabbed her purse and waved goodbye to the four, who had all congregated inside around the kitchen table. “I’m off to Robin’s, and from there I’m going to buy more seeds,” she called. “I’ll catch up with you once I get back! Abby, be ready to plant! Seb, Penny, I may need your help as well, and Sam, don’t think that just because you don’t live here I won’t drag you into it!” Good natured groans and laughter met her announcement, and she was smiling as she closed the door behind her.

Once off the front porch, she whistled Bullet to her side and gestured him towards the north passage that led up the mountain. He took the lead with no small amount of glee, and she followed after him on the trek up the stairs.

Out here, in the clear mountain air, she felt like she could really breathe again. The past few days had been nothing short of stressful, enough for her to feel like yanking her hair right out of her head. This alone time was exactly what she needed to recharge and relax.

She took her time walking to Robin’s house, enjoying the crisp spring air. Bullet seemed to be enjoying his time off the farm as much as she was - he raced here and there, trying to scare up squirrels and the occasional rabbit. She called him back when he strayed too far, and he’d walk right beside her for a time, before spotting his next target and taking off again. She laughed every time.

Finally, she found herself in the plateau just above Robin’s house. The stairs down were no problem at all - she skipped half of them on the way down and rounded the corner, making her way into the house. Robin looked up as she stepped inside, Bullet at her side. “Rae!” she said, beaming wide as ever. Rae felt a little bad for how much she’d wanted to avoid the woman since the Feast of the Winter Star. “It’s so good to see you!”

“It’s good to see you too,” Rae said warmly. She reached across the counter to grasp Robin’s hand briefly. “I’m actually here on business, today. I need to take a look at how much expanding the farm is going to set me back.”

Robin’s eyes lit up. “Oh!” she exclaimed, dropping out of sight so fast Rae wondered if her knees had been cut out from under her. She reappeared with a sheaf of papers in her hands. “Good thing you asked - I’ve been coming up with a few different plans for expanding the coop and barn. Do you want to take a look?”

“That’s what I’m here for,” Rae said. They moved over to a low table with two stools, and Robin spread the plans out, going into detail about how she wanted the buildings to both look and function. “If you have any ideas, feel free to throw them out there,” she said when she was finished.

Rae reached out and sorted through the plans. “I need to talk pricing first, of course,” she said. “I’ve only got so much money right now.”

“Well, of course, the coop expansion will be cheapest,” Robin said. “That should run you around 20,000 gold, and you provide most of the materials as well.”

Rae blanched a little at the price, but kept her wits about her. “How long would this take to complete again?” she asked. “Two days or so?”

“Roughly. Working around 12 hours a day - yeah, roughly 2 days, maybe a little less since I’m not building from the ground up.”

Rae did some quick calculations in her head. Around 850 gold per hour was fair enough, especially for the manual labor Robin would be putting in. “Ok, I think I can work with that. I also need two beds built, same style as Abigail’s, the sooner the better. I’d be willing to put the coop expansion on hold so you can get those built.”

Robin thought for a moment. “One is for Sebby, isn’t it?” she asked. When Rae nodded, she brightened. “We can just disassemble his bed and move it to your house, so you only need one. Who’s the other one for?”

The blatant attempt at fishing didn’t go unnoticed. Rae gave her an unamused look, held it for a moment, and finally broke. “It’s for Penny,” she admitted. “… Circumstances have led to her living with us, and I’m thinking it’s going to be permanent. Considering how long Abby slept on the couch when she first arrived before I finally got my act together, I want to get the ball rolling on this fast.”

“Penny’s living with you?” Robin asked, thankfully keeping her voice low. “What happened?”

Rae winced. “She showed up in the dead of night. I think Pam came home drunk again and Penny just couldn’t take it anymore.”

“Maru mentioned she was at the clinic a few days ago. Does that have something to do with this?”

Well, shit. There went Plan A: Be Vague. Unfortunately, Plan A was as far as Rae had gotten. “Yes, but it’s not my story to tell.” She rubbed her face. “Ask no questions, I’ll tell you no lies.”

“I see.” Robin was quiet. “Do you want to start work on that bed first, then?”

“Yes.” Rae nodded. “How much? 2,500 gold again?”

“Yes. Do you want oak, maple, or pine wood?”

She hesitated for a moment. “We’ll go with pine, I think. It should match the other beds pretty well. When do you want to bring Sebastian’s bed over?”

“I can just bring them together. Since tomorrow is the Egg Festival, it may be a few days late. That OK with you?”

“Just fine.” Rae held out her hand, Robin took it, and they shook on it. She dug into her belt purse and pulled out the coins to pay for the new bed. “Next time I see you, I’ll commission that expansion to the coop.”

“Perfect.” Robin beamed at her and stood up. “Pleasure doing business with you!”

~*~*~*~

After visiting Robin’s, Rae jogged down the mountain into town, did her shopping, and returned to the farm, avoiding Pam again as she did so. Once back, she and Abigail set to work replanting for the third harvest of the season. It took them until late at night, and Rae sent Sebastian to the Saloon with orders to get two pizzas to split among the four. He returned, they ate, and she fell into bed for a dreamless sleep after a long and productive day.

Rae woke up early, did all her chores as per usual, and went to prepare breakfast for everyone. Today it was French toast, a meal she hadn’t had in a while. She set to work, put the pan on the stove to heat up, and mere minutes later had two pieces of egg-soaked bread on the stove to toast.

Abigail came inside, yawning as she deposited the jug of milk on the table. “What’s for breakfast?” she asked.

“French toast. Mind cutting up some of the strawberries Penny picked yesterday?”

“Sure.” She yawned again as she grabbed a knife from its drawer and the bowl of strawberries off the counter. “We going to the Egg Festival today?”

“Of course,” Rae said warmly. “What should I wear? Formal, semi-formal?”

“I’m wearing jeans and a nice shirt,” Abigail said. “Seb historically wears whatever. You’d be fine in just changing into a clean shirt and those jeans.”

“Ok, good to know,” Rae said. She checked the bread and slid the spatula under it, flipping it over. The French toast was a perfect golden brown. She smiled in satisfaction and turned to look at Abigail. “How’re those strawberries going?”

“Almost done.” Abigail glanced over at the bedroom door and brightened. “Penny! Good morning!”

Rae echoed the sentiment, smiling as Penny padded across the wood floor. “Good morning,” Penny said, rubbing her eyes with one hand. “Breakfast seems earlier today than normal.”

“It is,” Rae said. “The Egg Festival is today. Abby, Seb, and I were planning on going. You don’t have to come if you don’t want to.” Her eyes flicked to Abigail; the other woman had the same concern in her eyes that Rae felt.

Penny hesitated, shifting on her feet. “Let me think about it,” she requested, voice soft. “It doesn’t start until 9, anyways.”

“You have time,” Rae said. She offered a cheerful smile, only to jolt. “The toast!” She whirled back to the stove and was barely in time to save the toast from getting overdone. “Good thing there’s no smoke alarm above the stove,” she muttered. “That probably would’ve set it off…”

“That’s also probably not safe,” Sebastian said. He sat up and swung his feet off the couch.

“Touché,” Rae said. “French toast OK with you?”

“Sounds good,” he said.

Within maybe twenty minutes, the last piece of French toast came off the stove top and Rae moved the stack to the table. “Strawberries, maple syrup, French toast, go nuts,” she said, and grabbed for the toast plate first. She snagged two pieces and placed them on her plate before passing the plate on. She dumped a spoonful of strawberries on each piece and poured some maple syrup on top, before digging in. It was heavenly, and Rae couldn’t help but let out a sigh of sheer contentment.

They ate in relative silence, before Rae looked over at the clock on the wall and started. “It’s 8:30,” she said. “I need to go get changed. Penny, have you decided whether or not you want to come with us?”

Penny paused, lowered her fork back to her plate. “I think I will,” she said finally. “My arms are basically healed, so there shouldn’t be too many questions asked. If I see Mom… well, you guys will be there, right?” Her voice faltered at the end, uncertain.

“Of course,” Abigail and Rae chorused as one. “If you need anything, you come straight to me,” Abigail continued. “I’ll be more than happy to help you out. Hide you, provide a distraction, whatever.” She grinned.

Rae laughed, but nodded. “The same goes for me, Penny. If you need me to run interference, do whatever, I’m here for you.”

Sebastian only nodded, but the sentiment was clearly there. Penny’s eyes watered; she wiped them, a smile touching her lips. “Thank you,” she whispered, but the gratefulness behind the two words showed how truly appreciative she was.

Rae deposited her plate in the sink and dusted her hands off. “I’ll be out in a bit. I’m not bothering with my hair today, so I shouldn’t be too long.” She waved and hurried off to her room, calling over her shoulder, “Penny, I’ll look for something for you to wear!”

She dug through her drawers, searching for the shirt she knew was there. It was small on her, a light blue that would go well with Penny’s red hair and fair skin. When she found it, she laid it on her bed, before hurrying into the bathroom to change into her own shirt. This one was pale pink, short sleeved, and from before she’d been to college. It still looked good, she thought with no small amount of satisfaction as she looked in the mirror. The fit was good and there were no stains or tears anywhere.

She put on a little makeup and swept her hair out of her face into a low ponytail, eyes glittering as she surveyed her face one last time. Satisfied everything was in place, she opened the door and stepped aside to allow Penny in. She carried the blue shirt over one arm.

Sebastian and Abigail were doing dishes when Rae walked into the living room. “You need to feed Bullet,” Abigail called over the sound of running water. “He’s whining up a storm.”

Rae slapped her forehead. “Crap - I knew I forgot something.” She hurried over and stroked Bullet’s head as she pulled out the bag of dog food and dumped some into his dish. “There you go, big boy, there’s a good boy,” she crooned as she did so. “You’re such a good boy, aren’t you, yes you are…”

She straightened as he dug in, tail beating the air happily. Sebastian surveyed the scene with a raised eyebrow as Abigail dried the last dish. “You really love him,” he commented.

“Of course I do,” Rae said, smiling down at the dog. “He was my first unconditional friend here, one who accepted me without question or confusion as to why I was here. He just knew that I was here, and as far as he was concerned, that was where I belonged.” She leaned over and stroked his head. “Good boy,” she murmured, and turned away as Penny exited the bedroom, tugging at the blouse.

“Does it look ok?” she asked, tugging at the hem and brushing an imaginary piece of lint off the fabric.

“You look lovely,” Rae said, moving around the table to straighten the shirt. “It’s not too tight, doesn’t scratch anywhere?”

“Nowhere,” Penny confirmed. “It’s lovely. Thank you for letting me borrow it.”

“No problem.” Rae gave her a smile and turned to look at the other two. “Now, are you two ready to go?”

“Almost,” Abigail said. She brushed past the two other girls into the bedroom. “I have to change,” she tossed over her shoulder as she passed them. “Give me just a minute!” The door closed on her words.

“Fair enough,” Rae decided. “Seb, you’re just going to wear that?”

“Yeah. Why, got a problem with it?” he asked. She noted how his pose shifted; his shoulders hunched down a little, his head ducked, he buried his hands in the pocket of his hoodie. A touchy subject, then.

“No, not at all,” Rae said. “I just needed to know if I needed to kick Abigail out so you could change.” She raised her voice a little as she reached the end of the sentence, prompting an indignant shout from beyond the bedroom door.

The three laughed as Abigail threw open the door, glaring at them. “Rude,” she snapped, before breaking down and laughing along with them. “I’m ready to go if you guys are. Just need to pull on my shoes.”

“So do I,” Rae said, and swept over to pull on her tennis shoes, a change from the normal mud-covered boots she wore around the farm. “Bullet, you get to guard the chickens today,” she called over her shoulder. He followed her out the door onto the porch as she held it open for both him and the three other humans.

She sat down on the steps as she pulled on her shoes, looking over the field of crops. The soil here must be rich or magical, or maybe a combination of the two, because she’d never seen plants grow faster than they did here. Even now, a day after replanting the potatoes and kale, she could see sprouts poking out of the ground. Her beans were regrowing at a break-neck speed, fast enough that she expected another harvest within the next few days if it kept up. Her parsnips would be ripe tomorrow for the third harvest since the start of the season, less than two weeks ago. She shook her head slightly and finished tying the laces on her shoes. No time to dwell on the magic in the valley - she had places to be.

Bullet peeled off to head south as soon as she and her friends turned to head east to the town center. She watched him go fondly, noting how he jumped over the crops in an effort not to trample any of them. “He’s a smart dog,” Abigail murmured, also watching him go. “Sweet, too.”

Rae nodded and returned her attention to the path. “Penny, if you want to stick close to me, I’m going to try to catch up with Alex and Elliot,” she said. “I haven’t seen them in far too long and I want to see how they’re doing. I don’t know what the other two are doing, but I can guess they’re going to be hanging out with their families. It’s up to you, what you want to do.”

Penny was examining her hands when Rae glanced over at her. The scabs had almost completely fallen away, she was pleased to see; the tea she’d prepared a few days ago had done exactly what she wanted it to do. “I think I’ll see Sam,” she said finally. “I need to wish Vincent a happy birthday, since I haven’t done that yet. After that… we’ll see.”

“We’re here for you,” Rae said again, smiling. The town appeared up ahead, and they could hear noise from the town square. She grinned and bounced a little. “Oh, this is so exciting! I’m gonna run ahead, I can’t wait to see what it looks like!”

“It looks the same as it did last year!” Sebastian called, but Rae was already running ahead. She slowed down as she reached the edge of the houses and rounded the corner, grinning at the square in front of her. The wonderful smells of fresh-baked food drifted to her nose; for a moment she fretted, wondering if she should have brought anything. Then she brushed it aside - they would have told her personally if she needed to bring food, and nothing had been in her mailbox for the past few days. Mind settled, she swept the crowd, looking for Alex or Elliot.

Alex caught her eye first, standing on the other side of the square with his hands in his pockets. He looked a little uncomfortable, if she read his body language right. That wouldn’t do, she decided, and she set off across the plaza, weaving through people with brief greetings and shouted pleasantries as she went.

“Hello!” she exclaimed as she reached him, reaching out to give him a brief hug. He looked a little startled, but hugged her back none-the-less. “How’re you today?”

“Good,” he said. “It’s been a while.”

“It has,” she groaned, slapping her forehead. “I’d make excuses, but nobody likes those, so I’ll settle for a sincere apology - I’m sorry. Please forgive me?”

“Of course,” he said. “It can’t be easy, farming. I caught a glimpse of you, first day of spring - you looked like you were going to explode.”

At the reminder of the frenetic first day of the year. “You aren’t wrong,” she admitted. “It was pretty rough. I’m just lucky I had help this year - doing it alone would in no way be fun.” There was an overturned bucket beside him, and she sat down with relief. “So, how’ve you been? Still reading philosophy?”

“Trying to,” he said. “I don’t understand a lot of it, but I’m trying.”

“I’ll let you in on a secret,” Rae said, lowering her voice to a conspiratorial level. “I took college courses for this stuff. No one knew what the philosophers were talking about.”

Alex threw his head back in a boisterous laugh at that. She grinned ruefully, reminded of her college days once more. He sat down beside her, legs stretched out in front of him as he leaned back on his arms. “So, how have you been?” she prompted once more. “You look a little stressed about something. Care to share?”

Just like that, his shoulders dropped again. She kicked herself for bringing it up and was opening her mouth to apologize when he sighed. “It’s nothing,” he said softly. “I’m just worried about Granny and Granddad.”

Worry shot through her - had she missed something while secluded on her farm? “What’s wrong?” she asked.

“Grandpa’s… not doing so well. He keeps getting crankier, I think. It feels like it at least. Granny’s trying to take care of him, but it’s getting harder for her. I’m really glad I’m there. At least I can help a little bit.” Alex stared out over the festival before him. Rae followed his gaze; Granny spoke with Jodi and Caroline, George at her side. As she watched, Jodi said something that made the three women laugh together. She glanced down; he smiled at them.

“They look like they’re doing ok,” she commented softly, studying the group. “Do you think maybe they’re just getting older? What are you afraid of?” Her last words were only a whisper.

Alex shifted, looked down at his hands. Rae turned on her bucket to watch him. “They are getting older,” he said. “That’s what worries me. I just - I keep thinking one day Granny’s not going to be able to take care of Granddad, and then they’re going to have to go to a nursing home somewhere far away, and then what happens to me?” His shoulders shuddered a little - Rae reached out and grabbed one of his shoulders. Alex rested one of his hands over it as she squeezed tight.

After a short time in silence, Rae spoke. “You don’t need to worry about yourself,” she murmured. “You’ll always have a place at my house.” Her voice turned dry as she continued, “Yoba knows I seem to be out to adopt everyone I can. You certainly wouldn’t be the first, and somehow I doubt you’ll be the last.”

He laughed. “I heard about that - what, you’ve adopted both Sebastian and Penny since I last saw you?”

Alarm spiked. Rae straightened abruptly. “How’d you know Penny’s staying with us?” she demanded, keeping her volume down.

He gave her a startled look. “I just saw her walk in with Abigail and Sebastian, all from the direction of your house. I just guessed.” He frowned. “Is she not?”

“No, she is,” Rae muttered, sweeping the crowd once more. “It’s just circumstances are that I want to try to keep Penny from her mother, and if someone’s gossiping, I need to go shut it down fast.”

“Huh? What happened?”

“It’s a long story that’s not mine to tell.” She finally found Penny, standing between Sam and Abigail as they spoke to Sebastian. The second boy caught her eye and nodded a little. The other three twisted to see her; she smiled and waved at them. They waved back. “Just suffice it to say I really, really don’t want a confrontation like at the Feast of the Winter Star.”

Alex winced. “That was… rough. Everyone was talking about it.”

“Precisely,” she said grimly. “Round two would be even more of a debacle.”

“That bad, huh?”

“Quit digging.” She pushed his shoulder, rolling her eyes. He laughed.

Her gaze swept over the crowd, just in time to see Elliot walk towards the plaza. She brightened. “Oh! It’s Elliot! I’m gonna go talk to him, but if you ever need anything, you’re always welcome at my house for a cup of tea and whatever sweets I’ve got on hand, OK?”

“OK. Thanks, Rae.” Alex gave her a grateful smile as she stood up and held out a hand. He grabbed it and used it to pull himself to his feet. By some miracle, she didn’t topple over. “See you around!”

They parted ways, Rae making a beeline for the long-haired author. “Elliot!” she called as she got closer, lifting one hand in greeting. “Hello!”

A gentle, genuine smile spread across his face as he saw her. “Rae, what a pleasure to see you again,” he said, giving her a bow. She returned it with a curtsy, pulling out an invisible skirt in the process. “How have you been? I’ve heard a great many rumors about your first days this Spring.”

“Oh, you have, have you?” she said, raising one eyebrow. “I see. Then there’s no need to discuss my exploits, is there? How’s your writing going?”

By the look on his face, she could guess at just how well it had been going. “It goes,” he said. “Some days more than others. The sea air is good for writer’s block, but occasionally I find myself distracted by the sound of the sea instead of inspired.”

She laughed. “I can understand that. You haven’t gone for a dip in the ocean yet, have you? It’s probably far too cold.”

“I’ve only dipped my feet in on occasion,” he said. “No need to worry over my welfare. I’m actually closing in on the end of the novel, come to think of it. Perhaps five more chapters?”

“Five more chapters?!” Rae bounced in place, a beaming grin on her face. “Elliot, that’s wonderful!”

He brushed it aside with a wave of his hand. “Of course, then I must re-read everything I’ve written and edit it into a decent piece of fiction.”

She rolled her eyes. “Yes, but that’s the fun part of writing. You’ll be most of the way there! Oh, I’m so happy for you! If you ever need an editor, I worked on the school magazine in college, I’d be happy to read through your first draft.”

One of his elegant eyebrows lifted, in surprise, if she had to guess. “I was not aware of this. Perhaps I’ll take you up on that.”

“Please do,” she said. “I’d love to read it, whether it’s finished or not. You’ve got to tell me when it’s published - I want to buy a copy.”

His cheeks flushed red - he even blushed prettily, she thought to herself. “You seem to hold a great deal of belief in me. May I ask why?”

She hesitated for a long moment, broad smile turning small and wistful. “It was my dream once,” she finally admitted. “To be an English major, graduate, get published. I… well, let’s just say I didn’t exactly get lucky in my job prospects. One thing led to another… and here I am.” She tried to turn her smile wide again as she looked up at him. “There’s still time, though. I’m young.”

“You are indeed,” Elliot said. He smiled down at her. “It took me five years and a change of scenery to get this far. Don’t give up hope just yet.”

She sighed, dropping her head a little. “That’s what I needed to hear,” she murmured. “Thank you.”

“Any time that you find yourself in need of encouragement, I’d be happy to provide you with some, as would your roommates,” he told her. “Never think yourself alone.”

She nodded at that, opening her mouth to thank him again when she heard raised voices. “Oh no,” she whispered, whipping around. “Please don’t let it be-”

Pam was in the plaza now, laughing raucously at something Gus had said. Rae immediately swept the area for Penny, only catching her breath when she saw Sam, Abigail, and Sebastian in a cluster, guarding her from view. Another sweep showed Maru making her way over to join the conversation. “Please excuse me,” she murmured, already calculating escape paths for Penny to take in the event of an explosion. “I’ve got work to do…”

She made her way to the clump of people circled around Penny, planting herself securely with her back to the rest of the square. “Penny, what do you want to do?” she asked, eyes meeting each and every other person’s in the cluster. They all looked equally determined to do whatever they needed to.

Penny, for her part, looked even tinier than normal. Her face was pale, her hands shaking. It killed Rae to see her like this. “I don’t know,” she whispered. “I don’t know that I can face her…”

“If you don’t want to, you don’t have to,” Maru said. “You shouldn’t put yourself through undue stress. If you can’t, just say the word - all of us will get you out of here.”

Rae looked around again, as furtive as she could. They were attracting attention, of course- a cluster of five of the young adults in the valley was bound to draw concern, especially if someone noticed that Maru was there, who wasn’t great friends with anyone in the circle and outright didn’t get along with Sebastian. “Just say the word,” Rae murmured. “It’s your decision.”

Penny shifted, before she lifted her chin and took a shaky breath. “I have to face her someday,” she whispered. “If I don’t do it now, I’m going to be living in fear or jumping at small noises for ages, until something happens. I’d rather it happen here, where I have friends.” She gave them all a tremulous smile, one they returned to varying degrees. “Stay close to me?”

“Of course,” Rae whispered. The others echoed her words.

Then Jodi waved one hand in the air, attracting attention. “It’s a little early, but I think we can get started on the feast now!” she called. “Everyone, please come get a plate and have something to eat!”

Penny squared her shoulders under the blue shirt Rae lent her and nodded. “I’m going to eat something, and if something happens, it’ll happen,” she said. Rae added that characteristic to her mental picture of Penny - brave, as long as she knows she’s backed up by a person or people. In this case, she had a veritable army backing her to the hilt, and she wouldn’t be walking into this fight alone.

Still, the group surrounded her as they moved over to the twin tables groaning with food. Rae thought she recognized a bit of her produce in amongst the myriad of different dishes present. She scooped bits of this and that onto a plastic plate, eager to find her seat and dig in, all the while trying not to look like she was looking for Pam.

Penny was directly behind her in line, and it was only when she finished filling her plate that Pam took notice of her. Rae watched as Pam’s eyes caught Penny’s face, determined to not look at her own mother. Her gaze trailed down to Penny’s arms, where a few scabs still had yet to fall away, for all the good Rae’s tea had done for her. She was quiet, and then, as Penny stepped away from the table and Sam stepped up to flank her, Pam approached.

“Penny,” she said, and her voice was quiet. There were eyes on her, of course, many, many eyes, and conversations across the plaza had dimmed, but people still carried on as if nothing was wrong. “I wanted you to know I’m sorry.”

Of all the things Rae had been expecting, this quiet apology wasn’t it. She shot a glance over at Sam, who looked equally confused.

“I should never have lost my temper like that,” Pam continued. “That was wrong, and I’m sorry. And-” She swallowed, looking pained. “I understand if you don’t want to talk to me again.”

Tears glistened in Penny’s eyes. She took a step forwards and hugged her mother. “Thank you,” she whispered. If she wanted to say more, she was too choked up to. Rae looked away, trying to give the two space.

Then Penny drew away and smiled at her mom, a little shy. “Still,” she said. “I’m happy living at Rae’s house. I’d like to stay there, with her, if she’ll let me-”

“Of course,” Rae said immediately. She neglected to mention the bed she’d requested from Robin. “My home is your home.”

Pam nodded; Rae had to look close, but could see the silent pain in her eyes. “Of course,” she said simply. “You’re a grown woman now - you can live where you please. You don’t have to ask for my permission.”

That was bullshit, in Rae’s admittedly limited experience, but she kept her mouth shut.

“Will you at least eat next to me this festival?” Pam asked, and Penny nodded. Together, they walked to the buffet line.

Rae glanced over at Sam. “Everything went better than expected,” she muttered. He grinned at her and cut in front of her to get in line for food.

Chapter Text

Rae didn’t win the egg hunt; Abigail took the prize home, by one egg. They jostled each other all the way home, each accusing the other of cheating. Sebastian and Penny exchanged rueful glances, but let the two argue it out.

The next week returned to its pattern of quiet. Rae did work around the farm, Abigail helped out, Sebastian coded, and Penny went to work at the library every day, teaching Jas and Vincent both. Luckily for her, the scabs she’d gotten from the bottle were gone by Monday, and she didn’t have to explain to the kids why they were there. Rae gave herself a little self-satisfied pat on the back for how well that tea blend had worked.

They fell into a sort of casual rhythm, as normally happened after a new person moved in. Rae relaxed into the days, breathing easy once more. Her plants were growing well, harvests happening every other day, her animals were all healthy and providing their respective products, her friends were comfortably settling in. Sure, Sebastian was currently sleeping in a corner of the living room she’d cordoned off for him, but he had a table for his computer now, which meant the breakfast table was clean and available to eat on. His and Penny’s beds had arrived a few days after the Egg Festival.

Rae woke up the next Sunday to Abigail coughing up a lung. Her immediate reaction was concerned exhaustion; it felt so early. She’d been up late with Coco, who had to be going through some sort of colic based on how restless she was. Even when Marnie said the calf would be fine, she couldn’t quite bring herself to leave the baby alone. So she’d stayed up late, and now she was regretting it.

“I think Abigail’s sick,” Penny whispered a few moments later. Rae rolled over; Penny’s blue eyes glittered in concern. “She feels warm to me. Maybe you should take her to Harvey’s? I know she was complaining about a sore throat last night at dinner…”

She had been, and Rae had offered to make her tea for it, but she brushed it off, saying it was probably nothing. Now, Rae was wishing she’d insisted.

“Give me a minute and I’ll take a look myself,” she said. “Just - sorry, I was up until 2 am with Coco.”

“I remember you coming in late. Is she ok?”

“She’ll be fine, I think the worst has passed. Now I’ve just got to worry about Abigail.” Rae rested her arm over her eyes and let herself lay there for a moment, before another cough forced her to her feet. She sighed and sat up, stood, and walked over to Abigail’s bed.

The girl did look a little too flushed for Rae’s liking, and the back of her hand to Abigail’s forehead told her she was overly warm. “I think you’ve got a fever at the least, possibly Strep throat,” Rae diagnosed. “We should probably take you to Harvey’s to get a prescription.”

“I’ll be fine,” Abigail complained, and coughed again.

“No, you won’t,” Rae said, firm as she could. “C’mon, up you get. Can you guys take care of the animals or do you need me to do that?” Distantly, she noted her own throat was feeling sore. Wonderful - she’d need a cup of tea herself if this kept up. She really didn’t have time to be getting sick.

“I can take care of the animals,” Penny said.

“Sebastian, can you get the plants? I don’t think you’ll have to pick anything today, if it makes you feel any better. You’ll just have to check for anything amiss-” Rae poked her head around the door frame. Sebastian was fast asleep in his bed still.

A headache started to build behind Rae’s eyes. She was exhausted and everything was starting to get overwhelming. “Penny, can you get him up?” she asked, trying not to cry. She just wanted to sleep, dammit.

“Sure. Do you want me to heat up breakfast?” Penny asked.

“Yoba bless you,” Rae said, relief sinking into her veins. “That’d be fantastic. I’m gonna get dressed and get Abigail up - hopefully she can drink some tea and walk over with me.”

“Ok.” Penny smiled at her and slipped into the front room. Rae went back and found her most comfortable clothes - an old threadbare sweater and loose jeans from college. She changed quickly and brushed her hair, pulling it up and back out of her face. Once that was done, she walked back out and into the front of the house.

Penny smiled apologetically. “I couldn’t get Sebastian up,” she said. “But breakfast is warming up now. It’s just leftover muffins.”

“That’ll be perfect.” Rae gave her a worn-out smile. “Once he’s up, get him to look over the plants?”

“Of course.” Penny returned her exhaustion with a sympathetic smile. “We’ll take care of things on the farm.”

“Thank you,” Rae said with real feeling. “Let me go get Abby up - again.” She returned to her bedroom and roused the other girl, despite the protests that really, she was going to be fine. After far too much protesting, Rae managed to get her into the bathroom to take a hot shower and change. She returned to the living room to find Sebastian still asleep and Penny pulling the muffins out of the oven, poking at them with a worried frown. Rae’s heart plummeted.

“I think they’re moldy,” Penny said, somewhat doubtful.

Oh dear. Rae frowned as she walked over. “Where’d you find these?”

“In the freezer. I think they were in a plastic baggie with some numbers on it. 01/01?”

Rae closed her eyes. “Penny, those were from Spring of last year. No wonder they’re moldy - I must’ve forgotten about them.” For a moment, it was all she could do to keep her head level. “Just - look for some in the fridge, I made some just a few days ago. Sebastian, are you awake yet?”

Miracle of miracles, he groaned and sat up. “What’s wrong?” he asked.

“Abigail’s sick, and I need to take her over to Harvey’s as soon as it opens. I can’t take care of the plants, so can you take care of them for me?”

“Yeah, I guess. Not sure I’ll be any good at it…”

“If you see anything that needs to be picked, just leave it overnight, I can take care of it tomorrow,” Rae said, distracted by the bathroom door opening. Was Abigail really done already? She’d only gotten in five minutes ago - usually she took half an hour -

“There’s no clean towels in here!”

Of course. Because Rae had forgotten to do laundry within the past week. Her shoulders slumped, and she called, “Be there in a minute, I’ll find something for you to use.”

“Thanks!” The door closed again. There was that headache again, Rae thought, and went to find something for Abigail to use. She scrounged up an old, threadbare dog towel Bullet usually used to dry off on rainy days. She cracked the door and tossed it in onto the counter.

Half an hour later, Rae turned to see Abigail walk out of the bedroom, fully dressed and still looking tired. “Feeling any better?” Rae asked.

Abigail wobbled her hands back and forth. “Better, a little.” Her voice was nasally with clogged sinuses. Wonderful, Rae thought. “I’m hungry. Is there anything for breakfast?”

“The muffins are almost ready,” Penny said. “Go ahead and have a seat. Give me just a few minutes…”

Abigail sat down at the table while Penny and Rae got to work. Rae passed out plates as Penny put the four muffins in the center of the table. “No fresh milk this morning, sorry,” she said. “I didn’t have time.”

“I’ll take care of it,” Penny told her. “You two need to eat and go to the doctor’s office.”

Rae took a muffin and started to eat, blinking at the opposite wall. She was vaguely aware of the others moving around, but only came back to herself when Sebastian sat down with a bang that made her jolt. “It’s almost 9:30,” he said, gesturing to the clock. “If you want to get Abby to Harvey’s first thing, you should probably finish.”

Rae nodded once and rubbed her forehead. “Yeah, give me a minute to get my jacket and then we’ll go.” She pushed her chair away from the table and stood, picking up her plate and taking it to the sink. She rinsed it off and put it on the drying rack.

When she came back out of the bedroom, Abigail had her coat on and coughed into her coat sleeve. Rae gave her a weary smile. “Ready to go?”

“Yeah.” Abigail wiped her hair out of her face and nodded at her. “Let’s go.”

So Rae waved to the other two and pulled her jacket a little closer as they walked outside. “Sorry,” Abigail said.

“It’s not your fault that you’re sick,” Rae told her. “Now, c’mon. Let’s go, and if we get back early enough, you can take a nap until dinner.”

The two young women walked into town. Abigail dragged her feet a little, frustrating Rae to no end, but she kept her mouth shut and tried to be patient. When the town came into view, it was all Rae could do to not cry from joy. Finally - she could get Abigail into Harvey’s office and maybe go pick up some more seeds.

It wasn’t to be. Abigail specifically wanted Rae to come back to the room with her, and Rae couldn’t very well say no. She followed, trying not to drag her own feet, and sat down in the same chair she’d used with Penny a little over a week ago. Harvey hemmed and hawed over Abigail, checking her throat, taking her temperature, asking a battery of questions. All the while, Rae tried her best not to fall asleep. Just when she thought she was going to nod off right then and there, Harvey cleared his throat and straightened. “Yes, it looks like just a bit of a sore throat. I’ll prescribe some medication and send you home. Get lots of sleep and take the pills and you should be right as rain in just a few days.”

“Great,” Rae said, blinking as she sat up straighter. “We’ll wait in the front while you write that prescription-”

“Actually, if you could just wait right back here, that’d be great,” Harvey said. He gave them a smile and continued, “I’ll just be a moment - it won’t take long at all.” He left the room, and Rae slumped forwards, resting her elbows on her knees and her face in her hands.

“Are you ok?” Abigail asked. Rae peeked at her through her fingers; the girl looked concerned. She gave a wan half-smile and waved her concern away.

“Here’s your medication, and I think you’re free to go!” Harvey said as he stepped around the corner, holding a bottle of pills in his hand. Abigail took it, and Rae dug into her pockets to pay for the visit, only for him to wave her off. “No need to worry. It’s just some pills, nothing major.”

“I insist,” Rae said, with a weary smile. “It’s the least I can do to say thank you.” Her smile turned wry as she added, “I’m fairly sure our visits are the only thing keeping your practice afloat, and I don’t want to take that support away.”

She pressed a few hundred gold pieces into his hands and followed Abigail to the door of the clinic. The day was going to be nice, probably would grow even warmer before nightfall, and she let herself bask in the sun’s rays for a moment. She could make it through this trying day, she really could. She just needed to get back, maybe crash on her bed, take a nap, relax some…

The farm felt abnormally quiet when Rae, at long last, arrived at home. She looked around, rubbing her forehead. “Hey, do you see Penny or Sebastian anywhere?” she asked Abigail.

“I don’t.” She sounded remarkably better, and Rae cast a suspicious glance over at Abigail. She sniffled and wiped her nose with the back of her hand, before continuing, “There’s always a chance they finished already…”

“I didn’t think we were gone for all that long,” Rae said. Her shoulders slumped. “Oh well. If they forgot, I can do the chores after I get you inside and to bed.”

“Sounds good.” Abigail took the lead, climbing the stairs to the front porch. Rae followed, and Abigail waited until she was there. “You go in first. I need to take my shoes off - think I stepped in a patch of mud.”

“It hasn’t rained since last week.”

“I managed to find some.” Abigail grimaced. “Go ahead. I’ll follow.”

Rae nodded and swiped a hand through her loose strands of hair as she approached the front door. She reached out, grabbed the door knob, and pushed it open.

“SURPRISE!”

Rae almost had a heart attack right there. She stumbled back a step, eyes going wide as a myriad of voices called out to her. Abigail laughed from behind her, suddenly right there, pushing her forwards.

“Happy Birthday!” someone shouted, and everyone else was quick to pick up the refrain. Rae blinked in shock, staring at the freshly decorated living room and kitchen. Her house was freshly cleaned, looked as if it was brand new, even. Streamers hung from the ceiling, dangling down in places, swooping low to connect to the opposite wall in others. There was food on the table, a lot of it, so much the poor table was almost groaning under the weight. In one corner was a small pile of presents, none really bigger than could fit in her hands. The people around the room all beamed at her, and to her horror, Rae felt tears build in her eyes.

“I forgot it was my birthday today,” she admitted with a damp laugh, wiping her tears away. “Oh my goodness, I never expected this. Thank you so much, all of you.”

“Of course!” Penny said, beaming wide. “Happy birthday, Rae.”

“There’s presents!” Sam called as he walked over to her, wrapping one arm around her shoulders. “I don’t know if you want to open them now or later…”

“I don’t know…” Rae put her hand to her forehead. “I’m… kind of overwhelmed.”

“Let’s open some presents for now, and once we finish it’ll be about time for lunch. We can eat then, then everyone can go home.” Jodi stepped forwards, taking charge with a warm smile. “Does that sound ok?”

Rae gave her a grateful smile. “Thank you. That sounds wonderful.”

The mass of people - Sam’s family, Maru, Marnie and Jas, and her little circle of friends - moved to the living room, and Rae sat down in her over sized comfy chair. She reached out, and Abigail moved quick, sweeping her present into Rae’s hands. Rae started to open the package, carefully trying to keep the packaging in one piece.

The removed wrapping paper revealed an intricately carved wooden box, not overly big, but too large to fit into her palms comfortably. The top was two layers, one carved into vines, the backing a pale pine piece. Rae gasped, handling it with care. “Oh my goodness,” she breathed.

“Open it,” Abigail said. Rae glanced at her; she was wriggling in her seat. She nodded a little, found the latch on the box - hand carved, wooden, she noted - and flicked it open.

Before her lay a series of sixteen tiny bottles, each labeled with what she recognized as Audra’s careful cursive. They lay on a cushion of luxurious maroon silk. Each was full of seeds. Rae gasped, picked up one labeled “Rosemary”, and turned it over in her hand, almost reverent. “Oh, Abby,” she breathed, an unbelieving smile on her lips. “You got this for me?”

“I thought you may like to have an herb garden again,” Abigail said with a shrug. “I wrote to Audra to ask for help, and she said this would be perfect.”

Rae nodded, speechless as she examined each bottle. Her fingertips traced each name. “Thank you,” she whispered. “I had a window garden, but I had to leave it behind when I came here. Each one of these was a plant growing in that garden. Audra must have remembered. Oh, thank you so much…”

She placed the seed bottle back in its place and closed the box, latching it with care. “I don’t know that any of us will be able to top that,” Sam complained, prompting laughter from those assembled. “But here, I got you something too!”

Rae took the much-smaller box from him and peeled off the paper - much more haphazardly wrapped than Abigail’s package. The paper revealed a box, and the box revealed a figurine, one she recognized as her character from the Solarian Chronicles - a half-elf ranger. “I know you don’t play too much, but I hoped that if I got you this you’d be able to play more often with us!” he proudly declared.

She laughed, peering at the detail on the character. “This is beautiful, Sam,” she said with a warm smile. “Thank you. I’d love to play more often - I think I should have more time later this year.” She set the character on her lap, beside the box.

“My turn,” Penny said, somewhat shy. She stepped forwards and handed Rae another present, this one perfectly cubed. Rae dug into it and opened the top of the box, revealing a matching teacup and saucer. “Oh, wow,” she murmured, examining the forest green pattern, laced with silver-leaf - well, leaves. Leaves and vines, to be exact. They seem to think I like vines quite a lot, don’t they? Rae mused to herself. Well, they weren’t exactly wrong. She liked vines, and if one of her other houseplants from before was anything to go by, vines liked her. “Penny, this is lovely!”

“You like it?” Penny asked.

“Of course!” Rae smiled at her. “You know how much I love tea. This is perfect. I’ll have to make a cup tonight before I go to bed.”

She set the tea cup aside and picked up the final package - one from Sebastian. This one was much larger than the last few. Once she tore the wrapping paper away, she found yet another box. “Boxes! I love boxes,” she joked, drawing laughter from her friends.

She opened the box from one end, and out slid a sleek, shiny, brand-new laptop. Rae’s jaw dropped. “You didn’t,” she gasped, staring at it.

“You’ve been meaning to get one, so I figured I’d save you the trouble.” Sebastian gave her a sliver of a smile.

“This is too much,” she said, feeling a little faint. “I can’t accept this, Seb, this is top-of-the-line. It must’ve cost you a fortune.”

He gave her an odd little smile and shrug. “Don’t worry about it. I had some gold saved up.”

Rae sighed in happiness and set her presents aside, noting that there were no more packages. Before she could stand up, however, Marnie stepped forwards. “We weren’t sure what you wanted, but they-” indicating her roommates- “gave us some ideas. If you don’t mind stepping outside…”

Rae moved her presents onto the coffee table and followed the flood of people outside, where her hands flew to her mouth. Robin’s truck was parked outside, and in the bed of the truck was roughly eight to ten saplings. Robin herself leaned against the side of the truck, grinning.

“They mentioned how you wanted a fruit orchard, so the townsfolk pooled together their money and bought you some saplings,” Jodi said. “Even Jas and Vincent put in some of their allowance.”

Rae’s eyes filled with tears again. She covered her mouth with her hand as her lower lip started to quiver. “This is too much,” she whispered. “I can’t accept this…”

“Just take it!” Abigail said, nudging her side with her elbow. “Dad doesn’t take returns. Besides, once he found out what this was for, he threw in a free sapling.”

Rae laughed. “Oh, my goodness. I’m so excited. We’ll have fresh fruit by fall if we plant those soon… That’d be so wonderful.” She pressed her hands to her face, eyes sparkling. “Oh, thank you so much. This has been the best birthday I’ve ever had.”

“And it’s not even over yet,” Marnie pointed out. “There’s still a feast for lunch.”

“There is, isn’t there?” Her eyes widened, startled. “How in the world did you make so much food? You must’ve planned this for weeks.”

The group moved back inside, and someone pushed a plate into her hand. “Eat,” Jodi instructed. “You go first. Well, I don’t know about here, but I was instructed to bake a chocolate cake for you, and the others took care of everything else.”

“We started cooking the second you left with Abigail,” Penny said proudly. “It was difficult, but we managed it, Sebastian and I together.”

“And the place is intact?” Rae asked, lifting her eyebrows at the kitchen. It was sparkling like it was brand new. “I’m impressed. The place looks cleaner than I left it, even.”

“Hey, we cleaned up,” Sebastian protested. “We weren’t going to leave you with a dirty kitchen on your birthday.”

“But any other day of the year it’d be just fine?” Rae asked, fighting back a smile. He looked afronted, before she started laughing.

The meal prepared for them was all of Rae’s favorites - baked fish, cranberry sauce, salad, and a fresh-baked baguette. For dessert, Jodi had indeed made a two-layer chocolate cake, decorated in delicate blue banners and roses. Rae admired it, but held off from getting a slice, choosing to eat her lunch before her dessert. She walked outside, sat down on the stairs, and started to eat. Bullet raced towards her from the south, landing at her feet and laying down while he panted at her. “Have a good run around in the pasture, baby?” she asked, shifting her fork into the hand holding her plate to reach forwards and scratch him behind his ears. He laid his head down on the ground and let her work. A few minutes later, her friends joined her, finding seats on the ground or the stairs around her.

“So, you’re happy?” Sam asked, beaming at her as he sat down at her feet.

“Of course,” Rae told him. She took a bite of the cranberry sauce and sighed in joy, savoring the sweet and tart flavors that mingled together. “Last time I celebrated my birthday was probably when I turned 18. After that, what was the point? I’d reached adulthood, there was no real reason to party.” She shrugged and took another bite, not failing to notice the astonished and sad looks her friends traded at this revelation. “It was never all that big of a deal. No need to look so sad about it.”

“Yeah, but still - we try to at least hold small celebrations each year,” Penny explained. “Even if it’s just a cake and some presents. This was a special occasion, since we didn’t celebrate with you last year, and you’ve helped us so much over the last four seasons.”

Rae messed with her salad for a moment. Tears brimmed in her eyes again; she wiped them away. “I can’t thank you enough,” she murmured. “This… this is more than I ever could have imagined. This is too much.”

“Of course not,” Abigail said, and those around Rae backed her up vociferously. “You’ve done so much for all of us. The least we could do is return the favor.”

She smiled at everyone. “Thank you, all of you. I really appreciate this.” She finished her meal and stood up, dusting her backside off. “I’m going to go in and cut the cake. Who all is with me?”

Abigail and Sebastian had both finished off their plates, while Penny took the final bite from her baked fish. Sam scrambled to jam the rest of his meal in his mouth. “All finished?” Jodi asked, taking notice as they stood up. “The candles are on the cake already. All we have to do is light them up.”

“I get to blow out the candles?” Rae asked, startled. “I haven’t done that since I was really little - maybe 12 or so? Past a point my mom just gave up on putting all those candles on a cake and stuck to one.”

“Well, I had ten candles, so there’s ten candles on the cake,” Jodi told her. “Go ahead and take a look. Abigail, you’re in charge of lighting those candles.”

“Yes ma’am!” Abigail snapped her hand up to her temple. “I’ll be responsible, promise!”

The group trooped inside, chattering and laughing amongst themselves. Rae placed her plate in the sink, privately vowing to do the dishes later. The others piled their dishes in, and Rae returned her attention to the cake. Sure enough, there were 10 candles on it. Abigail dug through a drawer and pulled out a lighter, walking over to light each one. “We should wait until everyone’s done,” Rae said. “I’m not in that much of a hurry.”

“Do we have to?” Sam whined. “The entire house has smelled like cake all day. It’s sooo good.”

“It’s only polite,” Rae admonished him. “I promise, I’m not doing this to torture you.”

“Are you suuuuuure?” he asked, dragging the word out.

“Yes, I am sure.” She fixed him with a raised eyebrow, lips twitching as she fought not to smile. “If it’s so impossible to wait, you can go back outside - I’m sure Bullet would love to have a playmate, especially with all these people here.”

“No thanks,” Sam said. He made a face. To Penny, who looked confused, he said, “The last time I wrestled with Bullet, he dumped me on my rear in a puddle.”

“He’s still growing, he just doesn’t know his own strength,” Rae said.

Sebastian scoffed at that. “He knows his own strength, all right. Did I tell you about the time Rae got me up by making Bullet climb on top of me?”

Penny’s eyes went wide. “But he’s huge!”

“He is not!” Rae cried, leaning over to Bullet, who’d appeared at her side. “He’s just fluffy, aren’t you, baby?” He grinned up at her with a toothy smile. She dug her hands into the ruff of fur around his neck. “Yes, you are, don’t listen to those mean people…”

“Loves the dog more than she loves us,” came a chorus from Sebastian and Abigail.

Penny giggled as Rae gave them a betrayed look. “Of course I do - he’s my baby, and you’re just my best friends,” she told them.

“Oh, rude!”

They sniped back at each other for a few minutes, waiting for the other guests to finish their meals. Once they started to pour back in, Jodi clapped her hands together. “Ok, everyone, gather around! We’re going to sing Happy Birthday to Rae!”

Rae went red, hiding her face in her hands. “You don’t have to!” she said.

“But it’s your birthday, and it’s tradition,” she said. “It’s all right. We won’t embarrass you.”

“Too late,” Rae whispered under her breath, but straightened her shoulders and took her place in front of the cake. On Jodi’s mark, everyone began to sing.

“Today is your birthday,
You’ve grown since the last,
We hoped what you wished last year,
Has now come to pass.
So close your eyes tight,
And think of a prayer,
Then take a deep breath,
And wish yourself there.”

Rae closed her eyes, squeezing them tight. Her wish was clear, and she held onto it, before inhaling and blowing on the candles. Her eyes opened; every candle was out.

“Happy birthday!” everyone cried, clapping. Rae ducked her head and brushed her hair back over her shoulder, smiling wide.

“What did you wish for?” Sam asked, leaning over the table. Curiosity shone in his eyes.

“I can’t tell you,” Rae said, a secretive smile on her face. “Then it won’t come true, will it?” And with that, she picked up the knife and cut herself a slice of cake.

Chapter Text

The first few days after Rae’s birthday were uneventful once more. The days ran normally; Robin finished the rabbit hutch two days after the party, before telling Rae that she’d get a discount on the beds and hutch both. When Rae tried to protest, Robin waved the young woman down. “It’s my present to you,” she said. “Happy birthday.”

Rae toured the hutch, inspecting it closely. Everything was perfect, as far as she could tell - it looked flawless to her untrained eyes. “Thank you,” she said again. “I really appreciate it.”

“No problem. Going to go to Marnie’s and ask about buying a rabbit?” Robin looked over at her. “I’m sure she’d give you a discount too.”

Rae hesitated. “I don’t know. I don’t want to take advantage of the townspeople, just because it’s my birthday.”

“She doesn’t mind, I promise you. You probably won’t have to ask - she’ll just offer it.” Robin shrugged and yawned. “I think I’m going to leave now. I could use a nap.”

“Go on,” Rae said, nudging the woman with her elbow. “Get some sleep. I appreciate it.”

Robin left, and Rae walked back into the house. Abigail and Penny were up, with Sebastian at his computer as per usual. “Cake for breakfast?” Abigail called.

“As long as you have scrambled eggs with it,” Rae said back. “Too much sugar in the morning is bad for you. Any of you want to go with me to Marnie’s after breakfast? We get to get a rabbit today!”

“We do?” Penny asked.

“Yeah!” Rae beamed at her. “Robin finished the hutch just a few minutes ago. I’m excited, I don’t know about you, but I’m really excited to get a rabbit.”

“What are they good for?” Abigail asked, looking a little confused as she glanced over at Rae. “I thought they were just for pets.”

Rae pulled out plates and silverware. “Well, the rabbits I’m looking at getting are a special breed,” she said. “They have longer fur than the average rabbit you see around here. You can brush them to get the extra fur, and that makes a really soft yarn that’s really popular in Zuzu City. If I can get enough rabbits to make skeins of that yarn, we’ll be well on our way towards upgrading the house.”

“I can knit,” Penny offered. “If you make enough yarn, I could make mittens or socks to sell.”

Rae beamed ear-to-ear at her. “You’re wonderful!” she said. “That would be great. However, in order to get to that point, we need rabbits. So, who wants to go with me?”

“I’ll go,” Penny said, half-raising one hand. “It’ll be fun.” She smiled. “I always like to see Marnie’s animals, anyways. I’d be happy to go with you.”

“I’m heading out as soon as breakfast is done,” Rae told her. “Sound good?”

“Sounds perfect.”

They ate together - Rae scarfed down her food, leading to Abigail making a comment about her eating like Bullet, which almost led to a full-out food-fight before cooler minds prevailed. Once they were finished, Rae grabbed a light jacket, pulled on her shoes, and called over her shoulder, “I’ll be back later today! See you!”

Together, she and Penny headed south, Bullet right on their heels. The two girls chattered away, laughing and talking about everything under the sun. Rae glanced at the pasture to her right as they walked past - she’d started to chop down trees, but it was a work in progress.

As they walked farther south, towards Marnie’s ranch, Rae kept an eye on Bullet. He was in and out of bushes, searching for something. It was only when he disappeared into a bush and remained in there for a while that she got concerned. She frowned, whistled. “Bullet!”

He reappeared, but he looked odd. Something was in his mouth, something he held gingerly. “What did you find?” Rae asked, frowning even deeper. “Spit it out…”

She pointed at the ground. Obediently, Bullet lowered his head, opened his mouth - and out dropped a tiny ball of fur and fluff.

“Oh Yoba,” Rae whispered. Penny stared down at the fuzzball on the ground as Bullet sat down, leaning forwards to nudge it with his nose. “Bullet, no-” She crouched down and gingerly dug her fingers into the blades of grass underneath the tiny thing.

She picked it up, inspecting it closely. It was a baby rabbit, absolutely tiny. It was small enough to sit in the center of Rae’s palm with room to spare. “Yoba, Bullet, where did you find this?” she whispered, pulling the minuscule thing to her chest and looking around desperately. “The mom is probably looking for it, you mess…”

“I don’t know,” Penny murmured. Her gaze was fixed on something nearby - a much larger lump of fur. “I think it’s mom is dead, Rae.”

Rae ran a finger over the baby rabbit’s fur. The poor thing trembled at her touch. “Poor baby,” she crooned. “Let’s take it to Marnie. Maybe she can help.”

The two finished the rest of the walk at a much faster pace, anxious to get the baby rabbit looked at. “Marnie!” Rae called as soon as she stepped inside. “I’ve got a patient for you!”

“I thought you were coming to buy a rabbit,” Marnie replied from behind the counter. “Which animal is it?”

“None of mine.” Rae stepped up to the counter. Carefully, she placed the baby rabbit on the counter. Marnie’s eyes went wide. “Bullet found this little guy in a bush. We think its mother died - there was a rabbit nearby that was dead. Can you help it?”

“Of course,” Marnie said, though she sounded a little doubtful. “It looks young, though - maybe a few days old. I’ll see what I can do.”

She stepped out from behind the counter and walked to the kitchen, gesturing for the two girls to follow. “If you want, you can go look at the animals - Rae, I just got in some new Gemiric rabbits yesterday - go ahead and pick out the one you want. I’ll take care of this little one.”

“Thanks. Penny, stay or go with me?” Rae asked.

Penny hesitated. “I’ll stay here,” she said quietly. “If that’s ok.”

“I’m not the boss of you,” Rae said. “No problem here. Marnie, I’ll be back.”

She opened the door that led to the barn and walked down the center aisle, heading towards the rabbit hutch. The Gemiric rabbits were easy to pick out - they had abnormally long hair, silky soft, but easily tangled. There were three - one was black, one white, and one a tan color. “Hi, there,” she murmured, crouching down in front of the section of the hutch. “Look at you… one of you want to come home with me?”

The tan rabbit lifted its head, looking up at her. Its pink nose twitched; Rae held her breath as it hopped over its friends and approached her, hesitating a few inches away from her. “You wanna come back with me?” she murmured, reaching out to touch its head. When it didn’t pull away, she wriggled her fingers under its body and lifted it up to her chest. It nosed just under her chin, cold and damp. She lifted her head, wrinkling her nose. “Noooo, silly little one, I know you’re curious, but please don’t,” she whined.

The rabbit settled down in her arms. She felt her heart melt a little more. “Yep, you’re mine,” she muttered, allowing herself to lower her chin and tilt her head down to bury her nose in the thick fur on the rabbit’s back. It felt like how clouds looked - soft and floaty, warm and insulating. She sighed at the feeling and smiled. “You’re a fluffy little one, aren’t you? Let’s go see Marnie.”

She carried the rabbit back through the barn, humming under her breath. “Hey, Marnie,” she called as she reentered the kitchen. “Found my rabbit. How’s the baby doing?”

Marnie looked up from the kitchen towel on the table, an eyedropper in her hand. “Well, your little bunny friend is a trooper,” she said. “Feisty little guy, aren’t we?”

Penny sat beside Marnie, arms crossed and resting on the table, providing a cushion for her chin. She looked utterly transfixed by the tiny ball of life, huddled in the towel. “What are you going to do with it?” she asked softly. One long finger reached out and nudged the side of the furball. It moved a little, but otherwise didn’t budge an inch. Rae moved to the table and sat down, stroking her brand-new rabbit’s fur.

“I don’t know,” Marnie said. She bent over again, offering the eyedropper to the baby. It lifted its head; wide brown eyes, shining like polished stones, caught Rae’s gaze. The long ears, laid back flat against its head, twitched. It nibbled at the drop of milk at the tip of the eyedropper. “It’s very little. It would require around-the-clock care until it got big enough to survive on its own. It’s a wild breed, too - I doubt it would be able to return to the wild after this.” She looked at the two of them. “If you want, it would probably thrive in your care…”

Rae hesitated, but Penny wasted no time. “I’ll take it,” she said. “I’ll take care of it.”

“Are you sure?” Marnie asked. “When I say around-the-clock, I mean at all hours of the day and night. Feedings every few hours, a special formula that I’d be willing to give you…” She shook her head and straightened up. “It won’t be easy.”

“I can handle it,” Penny said. “I’m used to late nights. This will be no problem for me.” The baby bunny shivered under her touch as she continued to stroke its gray fur. It was solid gray, of a color that shone like spun silver.

“I’m ok with it, if you are,” Rae said. “Of course, we’ll have this one now, too.”

Marnie finally turned her gaze on the rabbit in Rae’s arms. She brightened. “Ah! That’s exactly the rabbit I would’ve chosen for you,” she announced. “She’s got the sweetest temperament of the three Gemirics I got. Have you got a name in mind for her?”

Rae hesitated, mulling it over. She ran her fingers over the rabbit’s fur again. “Velvet,” she said abruptly. “She feels like velvet, so Velvet it is.”

“An excellent name,” Marnie said. “As for the little one-”

“Ruby,” Penny said with no hesitation. “Her name is Ruby.”

Marnie and Rae exchanged a look. “It’s a lovely name,” Marnie said. “But Penny, you have to understand - it’s very small, and there’s a chance it won’t survive. Besides, you don’t even know that it’s a girl.”

“I know that,” Penny said. “But her name is Ruby. And she’ll survive.”

~*~*~*~*~

Penny walked home with Ruby cradled close to her chest. Rae had Velvet tucked tight in her arms, well away from Bullet, who danced at her feet, trying to catch a sniff. “Leave her alone,” she admonished. “But good boy, for finding little Ruby and bringing her to us.” Dear Yoba, now I’m even calling it Ruby, she thought.

As they approached the farm, Rae swept her gaze over the coop and barn to the north. The pasture would vanish sometime in the next few seasons, she reminded herself, and she needed to figure out a place for the animals to feed…

Could she fence in an area in front of the two buildings? Yoba knew she’d have enough wood to build a decent length of fence around an area. She could get some grass starters from Pierre, maybe even cultivate the grass already there to spread inside the fence, and make it very safe for her animals to roam freely. Yes, it would put Bullet out of a job, but he would still be useful in keeping whatever predators were around away from her new rabbits.

She was so deep in thought she didn’t notice Abigail calling her name until she was almost on top of the girl. “Hey!” Abigail cried, and Rae started. “I’ve been shouting for you since you reached the farm. Is this our new addition?”

“Yep!” Rae said, grinning wide. “This is Velvet. Velvet, say hi to Abigail!”

Abigail crooned over the new rabbit, before turning to Penny. “What did you get?” she asked curiously, trying to see what was in the bundle in Penny’s arms. For her answer, Penny tugged away the towel, revealing the baby bunny. Abigail gasped.

“Her name is Ruby,” Penny murmured. “We think her mom is dead. Bullet found her and brought her to us.”

“Oooh, she’s adorable,” Abigail breathed. She turned her attention to Bullet, who sat at her feet, tail thumping against the ground. “Did you find her? Yes you did, you good boy, you.” He gratefully leaned into her touch, giving Rae a Look as Abigail scratched away at his ruff.

“Don’t give me that look,” Rae told him. “I’ve got my arms full. I can’t pet you right now.”

He whined at her, ears flat against his head. She laughed and turned towards the rabbit hutch. “I’m gonna go introduce Velvet to her new home. Penny, do you want to take Ruby inside and get her set up?

“OK,” Penny said. She turned; Abigail wavered for a moment, before waving to Rae and following behind Penny. Rae didn’t mind; Bullet kept right at her heels as she walked.

The rabbit hutch was made of oak wood, metal chicken wire composing the sides with wooden slats on the bottom. Loose hay was scattered across the bottom. Rae shifted Velvet in her arms to free up one hand and ran her fingers over the smooth wood. It looked lovely, even smelled nice. She smiled and shifted the rabbit in her arms to put her in the hutch, then leaned on the edge and watched Velvet hop around, investigating her surroundings. “What do you think, darling?” she murmured, letting one hand hang down. Velvet hopped over to sniff at her fingers, before rubbing against the back of her hand. Rae felt her heart melt a little more.

She made sure her newest pet had plenty of food and water before turning away and heading back into the house. Bullet nosed the door open in front of her and wandered over to lay down on the rug in the corner. She closed the door behind her and turned around to find Abigail and Penny leaning over something on the table, crooning away. Sebastian glanced over at them, one eyebrow raised, before returning his attention to the screen in front of him. She looked over at the two women, shrugged, and walked back over to lean on Sebastian’s chair. “Whatcha doin’?” she asked.

Sebastian moved one headphone off his ear and leaned away a little, turning to look at her. “What?” She repeated herself. “Coding a website for a client.”

“Hm. Cool.” She watched as he resumed typing, watching the colorful words appear on the black background. Neither spoke; Rae half-listened to the two girls continue to coo over the baby rabbit in the background. She finally straightened and stretched. “Ok, guys, I’m gonna go check on the plants and the other animals, then I’ll look at pulling some lunch together. After that, I want to look at setting up a window box or two for the kitchen.” A beaming smile spread across her face, and she couldn’t help but bounce on her toes a little. “I’m so excited for them to grow!”

With that, she whistled to Bullet and gestured him towards the door. He scrambled to his feet and went with her, panting up at her as she opened the door and let him out first. Out onto the porch they went, and Rae paused at the top of the stairs to look out across her farm.

How far they’d come - how far SHE’D come - since arriving on the farm. Looking over the fields of growing crops now, it was hard to remember what it had been like when she arrived. Robin had laughed herself silly at Rae’s expression when she first saw the overgrown farm laid out before her. The explanation that it had lain dormant ever since her grandfather’s death made it a little better, but those first days… those first days felt never-ending and exhausting, when she accidentally caught a glimpse of the mess that remained and looked back at her little patch of cleared land with weary eyes.

Now, though - now she had work to do.

She finished the descent to the ground and walked forwards, setting to work on examining her crops. Her strawberries needed just one more day, as far as she could tell, while most other crops would probably need a day or two more before they were ready for another harvest.

Her animals were all doing well; she got full buckets of milk from Ramen and a headbutt to the chest from Coco, not to mention three eggs from her chickens and duck. She almost tripped over Bullet in her haste to get into the house to deposit the eggs in the fridge and grab her velvet box filled with seeds. “Any of you want to help me with this, or are you going to fawn over the rabbit all day long?” she called over her shoulder as she headed for the porch. Abigail’s brash laughter followed her out the front door. She paused before she closed it, shrugged, and left the door open. It was a lovely day out, anyways, not too hot and not too cold. If they complained, well, they could close the door and she wouldn’t mind.

Rae sat down on the front porch, cross-legged, in front of some copper-plate window boxes Clint had made for her last year. She’d commissioned them, received them, and promptly stuck them in storage with the excuse that she didn’t have time to plant anything in them. It was partially true, but she also didn’t see the point in planting flowers in her window boxes. Of course, they were pretty, but they served no real purpose, and if they had no purpose then what was the point? Fresh herbs both smelled wonderful and provided a practical purpose - all the teas she liked to make needed them as components.

She reverently opened her box of seeds and ran one finger over the labels, silently reading off the names. Rosemary, thyme, basil, lavender, peppermint… So many seeds, so little room, she thought to herself. No matter. She tugged the bottles free of the box and began to separate them by type - flowers in one area, herbs in another. The herbs, she decided, would go in the window boxes in front of the sink, where she could use them in meals. The flowers would go in the window boxes on the front porch, and she’d keep a few seeds back for personal use in a window box in the girls’ room.

That decided, Rae set to work on the windowboxes, filling them with potting soil. Abigail eventually joined her, rolled up her sleeves and sank her hands wrist-deep into the rich, thick dirt. The two chattered and laughed as they planted seed after seed, watching the sun in the distance. Penny came to sit with them after a while, cradling Ruby in her arms. The three fell silent after a while, watching the sun set in the distance over the slowly vanishing wilderness to the west of Rae’s farm.

When the sun had completely vanished and the sunlight was beginning to leave with it, Rae sighed, stood up, and picked up the window box she’d been working on. “I think I’m all set,” she said, smiling down at the girls. “I’m gonna go put this in place around the side of the house. If you want to, you can take those two-” she nudged them with her toe- “to the kitchen windows. That last one goes right there, at that window.” She nodded to the porch window in question. “All good?”

“Perfect,” Abigail said, grinning at her. “I’ll take one of those around the other side.” As if to prove her point, she grabbed one box. Rae didn’t stick around to watch her, but turned, whistled Bullet to her side, and walked over to the window in question. With two ‘click’s, the box slid into place. She hesitantly moved her hands, hovering nearby just in case it didn’t hold, but the box stayed in place perfectly. “Oh, good,” she murmured, and went to put another box in place.

Chapter Text

In the next few days, things seemed to move very quickly. Rae and Abigail worked daily on clearing out the forest to the south, making haste to cut down all the trees and stumps so they could plant the orchard before all the saplings died. Sebastian alternated his time between coding for clients and helping around the farm.

Penny worked rigorously around the clock to feed baby Ruby. The bunny herself was thriving, under a flood of attention and warmth. Penny herself was not so fortunate. Waking up every four hours or so to feed the baby bunny was wreaking havoc on her sleep schedule. She looked exhausted every morning, even though she greeted everyone with a warm smile. Rae had started letting her sleep in until the last minute before school to compensate for the lost hours of sleep. While this had the side effect of making Penny panic every morning, the extra few minutes were helping, just a little bit.

The Flower Dance was a non-event, for Rae. She skipped out on it, waving away the others with a casual hand and a promise of taking care of Ruby while they were gone. Instead, she tended to the farm and the animals and worked on cutting down the last few trees in the pasture to the south, where her orchard was going to go. The three returned after a few hours, claiming the whole event was boring as per usual and she didn’t miss much.

Roughly four days after getting the rabbits, Rae opened her ore chest and realized she had a pretty pile of iron ingots just sitting there, ready to be used. She took one look at the ingots, looked at her axe, and scooped up five ingots. "I've got to run an errand!" she shouted, already jogging toward the edge of her property. "Bullet, stay! Watch the animals! I'll be back soon!"

She made a beeline for Clint's blacksmith shop across town, waving at the various townsfolk she saw on the way. The day was crisp and clear, that leftover winter chill quickly vanishing under the onslaught of sunlight. She lifted her chin and basked in the rays, pausing for just a moment on the stone bridge over the river. The day was young; she could afford a minute or two to breathe.

As quickly as it arrived, however, the moment passed. She straightened with a sigh and rolled her shoulder, turned on one heel, and walked the rest of the way to Clint's.

The bell over the door jangled as she stepped inside. Clint looked up from the forge, where he'd been working on hammering something into shape. "Hello, Rae," he said, shoving the piece of metal back into the fire. "Uh, what brings you here today?"

"I need to upgrade my axe," she said, holding up the copper axe for him to see. "Got all the ingots you should need right here, along with payment."

"Great," he said, giving her a painfully shy smile. Rae returned it as they both moved to the counter, and Clint looked over the materials she placed on the counter. "Everything looks in order. It should be ready in a day or two."

"Perfect. Thanks, Clint!" she called over her shoulder as she pivoted and jogged back out the door.

That accomplished, she headed back to the farm, where it was finally time to clear the field of grass and plant all the saplings. Abigail was just leaving the house and looked up at Rae’s shout, beaming at her. “Ready?” she yelled, holding up the shovel they’d bought in preparation.

“You bet!” The two met on the path to the former pasture. Rae glanced over at the chicken coop and barn, shaking her head. “It’s a little bit of a shame,” she commented. “Instead of being free-range chickens, I think I’m gonna have to fence off some of the farm for them to graze from. It’s not ideal, but it’ll have to do…”

“I don’t think they’ll mind too much,” Abigail said, nudging at Rae’s arm with her elbow. “Hey, what had you in such a hurry this morning? You just bolted with no explanation.”

“Oh! Right. Sorry, I remembered that I have enough stuff to upgrade my axe, so I took that to Clint’s. With any luck, it should be strong enough to break some of the biggest logs we’ve got around here.” She gestured to the large log, lying beside the pond. “I think there’s a big one in woods to the south that’s blocking an area too. I don’t know what’s there, but I kind of suspect it’s more woods.”

“Really?” Abigail asked, giving her a wide-eyed innocent stare. “Whatever would make you think that?”

They held their solemnity for maybe a second, before the two of them burst out laughing. “Ok, ok, seriously though. Back on topic,” Rae said after a minute. “How do we want to plant these? I was thinking in rows by season, so we’ve got the apricot and cherry saplings, then the orange and peach saplings, and finally the apple and pomegranate saplings. I also want to leave a little bit of room between them for future expansion? I’m expecting them to produce good fruit that will pay out enough for more trees soon.”

“Good idea,” Abigail said. She paused beside the group of 10 saplings and inspected each tag. “You’ve got two apricot and two cherry saplings. Maybe plant those side by side?”

“I was actually thinking four-by-four squares of each,” Rae said. “So we plant the trees diagonally to each other. That way it looks somewhat natural but there’s still room for 3 more trees to grow.”

Abigail nodded slowly. “Thinking real far ahead, aren’t you?” she said. “All right. Well, I’m fine with that if you are.”

“Yeah.” Rae picked up a cherry sapling and walked to a point on the cleared ground. “I’m gonna put this here for right now and we can clear out the grass around it!” she shouted to Abigail. “All good with you?”

“Sure! Means we can move them around, change our minds if we want!”

So she set the sapling down and returned to the saplings, leaning over to pick up the scythe lying innocently on the ground. “I’m gonna get to work. If you want to space those out wherever you think best, I’m good with that,” she called as she returned to the field.

“Fine by me, so long as you don’t cut my legs off at the ankles!” Abigail shouted back.

“Rude!”

The two girls set to work, laying out the saplings and clearing grass in an efficient fashion. Somewhat surprisingly, after a bit Sebastian joined them, rolling up his black sleeves and helping Abigail place the saplings in various configurations. Penny brought out water for the three and stayed to help Rae bundle up the grass for hay. They weren’t quiet as they worked - almost exactly the opposite, honestly. They sang and shouted and yelled at each other, laughter singing up towards the clouds. It was fun work, on a warm, sunny day, gathered with friends - the best kind of day, in Rae’s opinion.

Around lunch time, the four trooped inside and grabbed a light lunch. It didn't take too long to eat, and before half an hour was up they were trooping back outside to finally - finally! - plant the saplings. Rae grabbed the shovel off the ground and surveyed the new orchard. "You guys ready for this?" she asked, unable to keep the grin off her face and out of her voice.

"Of course," Penny said, giving her a gentle smile. Abigail bounced up and down a little, while Sebastian nodded.

Rae planted the tip of the shovel in the dirt at the base of the first sapling, put one foot on it, and pushed down. The shovel blade sank into the earth, and she stepped back, pushing down on the handle. The dirt popped free, and she dumped it off to the side. A few more scoops of dirt and she had a decently sized hole to plant the sapling in.

"You guys want to move it into place? I'll keep moving on and we'll get this finished in half the time."

"Sure," Abigail said, moving over to the apricot sapling. She gestured Sebastian over; he helped her pick up the sapling and cut the canvas covering from the roots. Penny followed behind them, pushing the dirt over the roots. Assembly line established, the four got to work.

In a matter of a few hours, the orchard was officially finished. Rae slammed the shovel into the dirt, leaned on it, and wiped her forehead clean of sweat. "It looks amazing," she murmured, eyes wide. "We finally have an orchard."

“Technically, we don’t, not yet,” Sebastian pointed out, halting beside her and resting one elbow casually on her shoulder. “Y’know, they’ve gotta grow and all that-”

Rae jabbed an elbow into his exposed kidney. He bent over, wheezing. “We know that, dummy,” Abigail said, grinning over the back of his head at Rae. “But for now, it’ll do.”

~*~*~*~*~

Summer arrived, with a blazing hot vengeance. The first day was climbing toward 75 before Rae had even left her house. She tended to her animals and grabbed seeds from Pierre’s store. Everyone pitched in to help plant for the season. Melons, radishes, and red cabbage went in one area, as crops that would have to be replanted, along with a large field of wheat. In another area, they set up rows of blueberry bushes, corn seeds, a few trellises for hops to grow, and a field of mixed hot pepper and tomato plants. It took most of the morning, but after a quick meal around noon, Rae swung by Clint’s shop and grabbed her axe. Abigail met her by the southern exit to the farm, carrying her old rucksack over one shoulder. “Ready to explore?” Rae called, as soon as she got within view.

“You bet!” Abigail called back. Rae threw one arm around her shoulder as she got closer and led her west, toward the big log that had been blocking her path ever since she’d arrived in Pelican Town.

They came to a halt, surveying the log. “If that’s the size of the log, how big was the tree that it came from?” Abigail asked.

“I’m not sure,” Rae murmured, before hoisting her axe. “But it’s in the way, and it’s a very, very good source of hardwood.” She gestured for Abigail to move back a step and swung hard. The steel axe slammed into the wood with a loud *clonk*, sticking in and separating a little of the wood. She wiggled it free and repeated the process. The same thing happened. She and Abigail exchanged a mournful glance. “This is going to take a while, isn’t it?”

Indeed, it did take a while. Abigail eventually wandered off to gather some plants from the area, while Rae worked with single-minded determination on breaking the log down into chunks. An hour wore by, then another. She growled in irritation at the stubborn log, raised her axe up and over her head, and slammed it into the bark.

The log cracked into pieces, forming almost perfect beams as it shattered. Rae’s eyes went wide; she stepped back. “Abby! I did it!” she called after a minute. “Come see!”

There was the sound of someone crashing through the forest, and Abigail appeared after a moment. Her eyes widened at the sight of the former log. “Did you do all that yourself?” she asked, looking astonished.

“No, actually.” Rae frowned at the boards. “I have no idea how that happened. I’m not gonna question it, though. Ready to go exploring?”

In response, Abigail pulled out one of Rae’s old swords - a step up from the one she’d originally taken with her when she moved. Rae moved the beams over to one side of the path, drew her own sword - a Lava Katana, earned after much blood, sweat, and tears. “Let’s go. Lead the way.”

They followed the path, into the depth of the forest. Rae marked trees with small X’s as they passed, leaving a second path back to the light. Together, they swept the forest for any sign of monsters. None made themselves apparent.

“There’s slime there,” Rae murmured, after they’d been walking for a while. “Looks like we know what our primary enemy will be.”

“And there’s A slime,” Abigail pointed out, at normal volume. “Ha!” She lunged forward, swinging her sword wildly. Rae drew her own sword and stepped forward to cover her friend’s back.

After killing that slime and the three more it called to its aid, the two advanced. Rae spotted a few stumps in the area ahead, along with some mushrooms. “Pick those and I’ll get some more hardwood,” she instructed. “Shout if you see anything.”

Together, they went through the small series of clearings, Rae breaking down the stumps, Abigail collecting the mushrooms. At the end of the path, they found a small pool, crystal clear and blue as the sky. Rae knelt beside it and curled her hand up into a cup, scooped some up and took a sip. “It’s fresh,” she said. “Tastes wonderful.”

“Hey, Rae? Come look at this.” Abigail’s voice floated to her from a few yards away. Rae stood up, shaking the water from her hand, and walked over to see what looked like ruins.

“What’s this?” she asked, frowning as she stepped onto the cobblestones.

“Maybe some sort of plaza?” Rae walked to a column and examined it.

They were quiet for a moment, looking around, before Rae saw the statue. “Look,” she murmured, turning her attention away from the columns. “There’s an inscription at the base of the statue. ‘Old Master Cannoli, still searching for the sweetest taste…’”

“Weird.” Abigail shrugged and looked at her watch. “Do we have enough hard wood?”

“We need to check how many beams we got at the entrance to this part of the woods, back with the rest of it, but…” Rae hesitated. “Maybe.”

“Well, if you do have it, we need to go back and see just how much money we’ve got to pool together. If we do everything right, there’s a chance we could pay Robin today and have the house done by the end of the week!” Abigail bounced in place, beaming ear to ear. “How great would that be?!”

“Pretty great,” Rae agreed, smiling over at her. “Let’s head back. Keep your eyes peeled for more slimes.”

They walked back to the entrance to the secret woods, encountering no other slimes. The beams were exactly where Rae had left them. She knelt down and stretched out her arms as far as they would go, frowning as she sat back on her heels. “Looks like there’s… maybe 15 or 20 beams, around 10 feet long each? A length of wood is around 5 feet. That makes 75 to 100 lengths. Coupled with all the other hardwood we’ve collected, it should be more than enough for what Robin needs.”

“Great!” Abigail said, grinning. “Now how are we gonna get this back to the house?”

Rae huffed out a breath and crossed her arms. “Good question. Bit by bit, I guess. So… let’s get started.”

~*~*~*~*~

Two hours later, the last of the beams crashed into the pile at the side of the house. Rae wiped her forehead and peered up at the sky overhead. There wasn’t a trace of a cloud anywhere in sight. “Gross,” she muttered. “It’s sooooo hot…”

“You can say that again,” Abigail said, slumped against the side of the house and staring into the far distance. “Yuck.”

“I’m going in,” Rae said, and reached out a hand. Abigail’s hand was slippery from sweat as she grabbed it and pulled. Together, they staggered onto the porch and inside.

Bullet greeted them at the door, whining up at them. “I’m ok, big boy, just tired and sweaty,” Rae murmured, leaning down to scratch behind his ears. “I call first shower.”

“Noooo,” Abigail moaned theatrically, slumping down in one of the chairs and laying her head on her arms. “… fine.”

“Much thanks. Fill Seb in when he digs his head out from his computer, will you?” Rae called over her shoulder as she hurried into the room and closed the door behind her. Within fifteen minutes, she was showered and reappeared in the living room, fully dressed, hair still soaking wet. Sebastian was sitting with Abigail at the table, both talking quietly. Penny was crouched down, rubbing Bullet’s side while he panted on the rug by the door. “It’s hawt,” Rae said, fanning herself. “Abby, shower’s open.”

“Finally!” Abigail bolted to her feet and shoved past Rae. The bedroom door slammed closed behind her. Rae rolled her eyes and walked over to sit in the seat beside the one Abigail had recently vacated.

“What’s going on?” Penny asked, looking a little concerned as she sat down in her seat. Bullet had followed her, evidently displeased that she’d quit paying attention to him, and rested his head in her lap. She stroked his head, attention focused on the other two at the table. “I caught the tail end of the discussion, but not much beyond you may have enough wood to expand the house.”

“We do,” Rae said, with a proud little smile. “The question here is do we have enough money for it. I think we do. I’ve been shoving money into the cookie jar fund for ages now…”

“’Cookie jar fund’?” Sebastian asked, raising an eyebrow across the table at her.

She gave him a smug smile and stood up, walking over to the kitchen. While the ceilings weren’t all that high, maybe 9 or 10 feet, the top shelf of the cabinets was at least 7 or 8 feet above the ground. Rae climbed up onto the counter and opened one of the cabinets, reaching into the back and retrieving a sack that was bulging and clearly heavy. “This is the cookie jar fund,” Rae said, sounding a little strained. “Some help would be appreciated-”

Sebastian was right there, reaching up to take the bag from her. She deposited it in his arms and stepped off the counter, landing with a light thud on the ground. She took the bag from him and moved to the kitchen table, where she dropped it. It made a very loud jangling noise when it hit the wood. “Cookie jar fund,” she said. “Originally it was in a cookie jar. Then it got a little too full so I had to change what it was in.”

Penny stared with wide, shocked eyes at the bag. “How in the world do you have this much money?” she asked. “That’s… a lot.”

“It is,” Rae agreed. “But it looks like more than it is.” She tugged on a drawstring at the opening of the bag and let some of the coins spill onto the table. “I make a lot of money off farming. Highly profitable.” She paused, frowned. “If I get the whole farm working instead of just parts of it, there’s a chance I could feed the whole town.” She shoved a handful of coins toward Penny, then Sebastian, and grabbed a third pile for herself. “Start counting. When you finish, put those to the side and get another pile.”

They set to work. Penny was easily the fastest, fingers moving each coin with haste and confidence that each coin would land where she wanted it to. She was first to finish her pile and quickly moved on. Sebastian and Rae weren’t far behind.

After perhaps half an hour, Abigail emerged, towel-drying the ends of her hair. She came to a dead halt in the doorway, eyes going wide. “Holy shit!” she said, sounding delighted. “Is this our house fund?”

“This is our cookie-jar fund!” Rae said, beaming over at her. “Come count.”

She joined them and dove right in. By the time they finished, it was late in the evening, unfortunately enough, which meant they couldn’t go to Robin’s and order the house expansion. “It’s all just as well,” Rae said breezily, pushing the last pile of coins into the center of the table. “We need to figure out what all we want from the expansion. Now, I got roughly fifteen thousand, give or take a few hundred. You guys?”

“Roundabouts the same,” Penny said briskly, adding her pile to the center. The other two echoed the sentiment. “Shall we work on designing the house?”

“Definitely,” Abigail said. “We need another bathroom.”

“Praise,” Rae said dramatically, raising her hands into the air. “Wait - I’ll get a pen and paper. We’ll need to sketch this out.” She stood and went to rifle through a drawer. “Aaaaaha! There we go.” She sat back down and put out the items. “Ok, another… bathroom…” She scribbled down the criteria, along with ‘more bedrooms’.

“At least two more,” Sebastian said, tapping the paper. She obediently added a 2 beside the line. “Could we add two more bathrooms? One guys, one girls?”

Rae tapped her chin with a pen. “One over the kitchen, one over the other bathroom - makes plumbing easier,” she explained. “Yeah, we can do that.” She put another 2 down on the paper. “Ok, we can put the stairs starting between the kitchen and the living room, right over there. It can go up along the back of the living room wall. The hallway can go right down the middle of the house.” She gestured to the wall in question. “That will lead up to a hallway…” She sketched it out and drew two boxes. “One bedroom over the kitchen, one over the living room. Bathroom goes over the kitchen as well. Ummmm…” She dragged the word out and slid the paper forward. “Thoughts?”

“Getting stuff upstairs will be a bitch,” Abigail said, flat as a piece of paper.

“I mean layout, dummy,” Rae said, rolling her eyes.

“Oh. Then no.”

“How will we distribute living areas?” Penny asked. “I figure Sebastian gets one and Abigail and I can share one-”

“Oh, no, I can share, I don’t mind,” Rae protested. “Don’t mind me.”

She was met with three deadpan looks. “You own the house and you invited us all in,” Sebastian said. “Quit protesting.”

“Easy for you to say, you wouldn’t be the one sharing a room,” Rae pointed out.

“I don’t mind,” Abigail said, looking over at Penny. “Do you mind?”

“No, I don’t mind.”

“It’s settled then.” Abigail gave Rae a calm look. “Next.”

Rae opened her mouth to protest, but Penny waved her down. “That’s enough,” she said. “Now, furniture. Do we need more?”

“Yeah, definitely. A new chest of drawers - if we do 6 drawers, could you two share one?” Rae asked, glancing between the two girls before scribbling it down on the paper. “One for each room, then…”

This carried on, late into the night. At the end of it all, each fell into bed, exhausted, but satisfied with the night’s labors - and very ready to face the new day.

Chapter Text

The next morning, after tending to the animals and eating a fast breakfast, Sebastian, Abigail, and Rae set out for Robin’s house. It was around 8:30; Rae planned on them arriving just as she opened her shop for the day. Penny wanted to come, but she had to teach school. The three shooed her off with the promise of nothing major happening that day; it was likely Robin would need the rest of the day to prepare for the following day’s renovations.

That was not what happened.

Rae knocked on the door at 5 minutes past 9, pushing it open and allowing the others in first before following suit. “Good morning!” Robin called from behind the front desk, before beaming at Sebastian. “Sebby! So good to see you!”

Rae stepped inside, her hair falling forward to shield her face while she traded a glance with Abigail. Before she could start laughing, Rae hastily cleared her throat and turned her attention back toward Robin. “Good morning, Robin,” she said; there was no need to fake a smile. “We have a project for you to do!”

“Oh really?” Robin asked, raising an eyebrow. “A barn expansion, maybe? I know you wanted to get a pig at some point…”

“Not quite,” Abigail said, all but bouncing through the roof. “Rae?”

“We’ve got the funds and the hardwood to expand the house and get a second floor,” Rae said. She walked forward and placed the bag of gold on the counter. “We’ve got the plans and everything, all set to go!”

“That’s great!” Robin said, grinning at them. “I had some ideas in the works too. Do you have a blueprint we can take a look at?”

“Sure, but I’m interested to see your thoughts first,” Rae said, leaning on the counter.

“Great!” Robin said, and vanished under the counter for a moment. She reemerged with a roll of paper in her hands and proceeded to spread it on the counter for them to see. Sebastian and Abigail crowded around, looking at the paper.

Rae’s initial reaction was not exactly promising. She frowned at the paper, trying to make sense of the lines and scribbled measurements. “Um… I may be misreading it, but does that say ‘nursery’?” she asked, tapping one point on the paper.

“Yes, it does!” Robin beamed at her. “Of course, it can be used as a second bedroom, but one day when you get married and have kids, that would be where their room is!”

Dear Yoba, Rae thought, and plastered a smile on her face. “That’s lovely, Robin. Uh, I see you’ve added another bathroom, that’s… great. What’s this room?” She tapped a large room just outside the nursery.

“That’s the playroom! Where the kids can keep all their toys.”

Abigail stepped on Rae’s foot. Rae returned the favor. “Hm. It’s a lovely design, but I’m not sure it’s exactly… functional for our needs. Here.” She pulled the folded piece of paper from her pocket and laid it out on the counter for Robin to read. “Stairs up to a hallway, two bedrooms, two bathrooms. It’s a little more expensive, probably, but I can still pay for it. I’ve got a little extra squirreled away for furniture.”

Robin examined the paper, frowning and nodding slowly. While she was absorbed with the plans, Rae dared glances at both Sebastian and Abigail. Sebastian looked about done with the entire world, gaze so deadpan it was cutting a hole through the wall he was staring at. Abigail caught Rae’s look and rolled her eyes theatrically, shaking her head a little. Rae stifled laughter and turned back to Robin.

“I can do this,” the carpenter said finally, putting the paper down. “And if you want to do renovations at any point in the future, it shouldn’t be too hard.”

“Exactly,” Rae said. “When can you start? Tomorrow, I’m expecting?”

“Actually-” Robin glanced up at the clock. “If you’re all right with going to take a look at the house, I could start around noon, just getting some preliminary beams in place. I’d need your help raising the roof up high enough to fit a second story on, but that would be for tomorrow.”

The three traded alarmed glances. “That’d be great, but we need to move and cover some stuff,” Rae said. “Can you give us until noon before you swing by?”

“I can do that. It’ll give me time to get my tools in order.” Robin grabbed her blueprint and put it away, while sweeping Rae’s gold and paper into her hands. “I’ll see you in three hours, then.”

The bell jangled over their heads as they left. Rae waited until they were a sufficient distance away to say, “A what now?”

“Kids? Really?” Abigail asked, chortling around the words. “Seb, your mom is a little crazy.”

“And in other news, water is wet and the sky is blue,” Sebastian said. He kept that flat, deadpan gaze staring into the far distance, shaking his head just a little. “It’s always been this bad, believe it or not.”

“I am so sorry,” Rae said, equally flat. “Even my mom was never this bad.” She linked arms with both of them and tugged them onward, back down the mountain and towards the northern entrance to the farm. “Hey, just, I don’t know, smile and nod if she brings it up and if it’s really bad, direct her towards me. I’m sure I can come up with some bullshit sob story that’ll get her off our backs.”

“You’re the best,” Abigail proclaimed with a melodramatic tone. She grinned at the two of them, shrugging one shoulder. “But hey, why tempt fate? Let’s go get stuff moved around so we can expand!” With that she wrenched her arm out of Rae’s and took off at a dead run down the mountain path. Rae rolled her eyes at Sebastian, who shook his head, and the two continued to walk.

~*~*~*~*~

Frankly, it was lucky that Rae had ordered the tarps and other assorted equipment early. The three of them got to work right away, throwing the tarps over the furniture in the house. Rae pulled some equipment out of the kitchen cabinets and put it into a large plastic tub, before pulling out painter’s tape and beginning to tape the cabinets shut. “To keep the dust from getting into it,” she explained, when Abigail gave her a questioning look. “We did this at my parents’ house, back when we were remodelling.”

Penny arrived home early, staring around at the chaos as she walked in the front door. “What’s going on?” she asked, looking confused.

“Mom’s starting the expansion today,” Sebastian called from his little nook, where he was folding his cot and bedding up. “Hey, Rae, where are we gonna sleep?”

“Oh, good question.” Rae pulled open a small closet that none of them had ever really noticed, frowning at its contents. “I’ve got a six-man tent we can use. Sleeping inside will be… shall we say, less than ideal. Just move our mattresses and stuff out into the tent and we’re all set.”

“What’s the weather supposed to be like for the next three or four days?” Abigail called from where she was putting clothes into a duffel bag. “I’m not sleeping out in the pouring rain if I can help it.”

Rae grabbed the TV remote off the coffee table and pointed it at the TV, turning it on and switching quickly to the Weather Channel - one of the few channels they got in Pelican Town. The announcer was muted, but the five-day-forecast at the bottom of the screen was promising. “Sunny, highs in the 80s and low 90s, lows in the 60s every night for the rest of this week,” she said. “Very low chance of rain on the back end of this week. I think we’re in the clear.” With that, she turned the TV off and tossed the remote onto the couch, before pulling the tarp over it. She moved back over to the open closet and went digging, pulling a few things out and placing them against the wall. “Aha!” She pulled hard and revealed a large bundle. “Should we work on setting this thing up now or later?”

“What time is it?” Penny asked, looking out the window at the sun. It was still high in the sky, but over it’s apex by now.

Sebastian checked his watch. “It’s roughly 3,” he said. “Sun should still be up for another few hours.”

“Any of you ever set up a tent before?” Rae asked, looking at the others one-by-one. Quick glances and small shakes of the head told her all she needed to know. She sighed and rolled her eyes. “It isn’t too hard. We’ll save that for last, though, because this stuff has to be done first-”

A knock at the door startled all of them. “Must be Robin,” Abigail said, and hurried to the door, peeking through the peephole. “Yep!”

Rae nudged Penny’s arm as Abigail started to open the door. “I’ve got a story for you, after this is all over,” she muttered, before plastering a wide smile on her face again as the door opened and Robin stepped inside, holding the blueprints in her hands.

“Almost done wrapping everything up?” she asked, looking around the room with a smile. “Looks like you’re close!”

“Pretty close,” Rae said. She dusted her hands off and gestured to the kitchen. “Taping up all the cabinets, covering everything… we’re gonna camp outside while the house is under construction.”

“The weather-”

“-should be just fine,” she said smoothly. “Checked already and everything. Hey, any of you want to go work on setting up the tent with me?”

They evacuated from the house so Robin could take a look around, giving them a chance to set up the tent in the meantime. Rae, as the only one who had ever been camping before and the owner of said tent, took point. She assigned the others to snapping the tent poles into place while she and Sebastian unfolded the tent and laid it out in the field to the west of the house. After that, it was a ‘simple’ matter of figuring out which pole went where.

It was anything but simple.

“This one is shorter than the others,” Abigail pointed out, holding up the tent pole in question. “Doesn’t that mean it should be the pole at the top?”

“You would think,” Rae said, frowning as she looked at the varying lengths. “But there are two lengths that fold out those flaps there on each side…” She picked up two poles, passing one to Penny. “See if this one fits through those flaps there. Seb, give her a hand?”

They were not, in fact, the right poles. Rae groaned and looked over at the poles again, shaking her head. “Shit. Well… huh. Are we missing some?”

“Are there any instructions?” Penny asked, stepping daintily over the canvas to pick up the bag the tent had come in.

“You don’t keep the instructions for a tent,” Rae said dryly. “At least, my family never did. Usually, it’s self-explanatory. This one appears to be purposefully difficult, for some reason.”

“Tents aren’t sentient, Rae,” Sebastian pointed out.

“You’d think,” Rae retorted, resting her hands on her hips. “You’d really fucking think.”

Abigail picked up two more poles and held them up. “Hey, Rae, I think these two match those other two in length,” she said. “Should we try them?”

“Why not,” Rae said, rubbing her forehead with one hand. “Just shove them through those loops to keep them in place and we’ll see if that’s the right way to do things.”

It was, in fact, the right way to do things. Rae grumbled ceaselessly as she finally connected the poles to each other and the cross bar at the top, which had in fact been the shortest pole. The remaining two were proved to be the ones that held the sides of the tent out. The four stood back and examined the tent, with no small amount of pride between the four of them. “Let’s check inside,” Rae decided, and stepped forward to unzip the tent flap.

The others followed her into a surprisingly spacious interior. Rae looked down at the ground and made a small noise of complaint. “I forgot - last time I used this was at a beach. Look at all that sand.”

“The broom’s still inside,” Penny said. “I’ll go grab it and we can sweep it out.”

“Great!” Rae gave her a beaming smile. “I’m going to check for any tears in the fabric, just in case. If you guys want to help her or start moving your bedding materials outside, that sounds good to me.”

Penny returned momentarily with a broom in her hands and set to work sweeping out the tent. Rae joined her with the dustpan a few moments later, picking up all the sand and dumping it outside the tent. Sebastian and Abigail carried out both their bedding and the other two’s, arms filled with blankets and pillows. They set it up quickly and retreated into the tent, each taking a seat on their bedrolls.

“It’s different than the last time I camped in here,” Rae said, looking up at the fabric ceiling above their heads. “It may not be comfortable, but it’ll do.”

“Pfft,” Abigail said, rolling her eyes. “Comfort is overrated.” She fell back onto her back and stared at the top of the tent. “I’mma go to bed now. Night.”

“Oh no you don’t,” Sebastian said. He shoved himself to his feet and nudged her head with his foot. “Up. We have to help Mom.”

She groaned, roused herself, and followed him out of the tent.

~*~*~*~*~

The one thing no one ever thinks to mention about remodeling houses is how exhausting and boring it is. Even with the four helpers, Robin had to take her time and make sure everything was right. While Rae appreciated it, it was also time-consuming. Cooking over an open fire had lost its novelty after the first three days, and she’d forgotten to get spices of any kind out of the cabinets before they sealed them up. Dust coated everything in the house in an inch-thick layer, leading to coughing fits that could last for half an hour or more. After the first five days, they had to do laundry in the pond close to the house, only to realize all the detergent was sealed up in the house as well.

It did, in fact, rain around a week in. The rain-fly over the tent didn’t do much. They ended up sleeping on the front porch, trying in vain to keep from getting drenched whenever the wind changed. The roof was on the house by that point, thankfully, so the rain didn’t ruin the downstairs area.

The day the windows came in was one of the windiest days of the season. The first window that went in almost went right out the other side, acting as a sail due to the lack of windows elsewhere. They had to wait, which added another day to the timeline. By the end of the renovations, they were at least five days past their scheduled end date and at least five thousand gold over budget. Finally, finally, though, they were done. The tarps and tape came down, the floors were clean enough to eat off of, the bedrooms were set up; it was finally over. Rae collapsed onto the couch and threw her arm over her eyes, almost crying with relief. “We’re done!” she said loudly, throwing her other hand into the air. “I’m so happy right now…”

“Same,” Abigail said, falling down beside her and putting her head in Rae’s lap. Rae put her hand on Abigail’s head, running her fingers through her purple hair. “I think I’m just gonna sleep for a week.”

“Your roots are growing out,” Rae pointed out, parting Abigail’s hair at different places to look. “It’s not bad, but we’ll need to touch it up at some point.”

“Have you ever dyed your hair before?” Penny asked from her seat at the kitchen table. “Rae, I mean.”

“Yeah, I have,” Rae said, lifting one shoulder. “At one point I was navy blue, so dark it was almost black. I loved that color.” She gave a little sigh of contentment. “I had to give it up when I went to work for Joja. No crazy hair colors- company policy.”

“Ew.” Abigail made a face.

“I know, right?” Rae returned the favor.

“You should try dying it again,” Sebastian said. He ran a hand through his own hair. “She’s gotta order her hair dye. It’d be easy enough to get you a pot.”

“Maybe later.” Rae shrugged a little. “Anyways, thank Yoba that’s over. You guys wanna walk through the upstairs?”

They did.

The upstairs was shiny and new, as expected. The floors were bright with polish, lights overhead reflecting in it. “We can paper the upstairs at some point, or paint it,” Rae said, gesturing to the wooden slatted walls. “I was thinking girl’s room here, guy’s room here.” She pointed to the left and right. Abigail was the first to shove the door open and step inside.

Robin had listened to what they wanted. Penny and Abigail’s beds were in the room, against opposite walls. Between them was a rug; facing the hallway door was the door into the bathroom. Penny opened it and stepped inside, humming with approval. “It looks great,” she called back to Rae, who leaned in the doorway.

“Good!”

While the girls were invested in their room, Rae heard the door behind her open. Sebastian stepped into his own room, hands shoved into his pockets as he inspected his new room. It was much the same as the girl’s room, except there was only one bed. He turned back to look at her and nodded, a small smile curving across his face. “Hey,” he muttered. “Thanks.”

She returned it with a little smile of her own. “No problem,” she murmured. “I’m glad you’re happy.”

Chapter Text

The first night in the new house was, quite frankly, atrocious. Rae collapsed into bed, entirely prepared to sleep a solid 10 hours in comfort at long last, only to find that the room was far too quiet. She stared at the ceiling for half an hour, tossed and turned for another, and finally gave up when 11 rolled around. She padded into the kitchen, Bullet following at her heels, intent on making some tea.

Someone yawned from the couch, making Rae levitate for a few seconds, before she realized it was just Sebastian. “Couldn’t sleep either?” she asked softly, trying to keep her voice low in case the other girls were having more luck than they were.

“Nah,” Sebastian said, in equally low tones. “It’s just dead silent up there. Way too quiet for me.”

“Same.” Rae opened one of the cupboards, suppressing a happy sigh at finally having access to her kitchen once more. “Tea? I think I’m going to put the kettle on and brew some up.”

“I’d prefer coffee, but that’s a bad idea right now,” Sebastian said. She heard him moving as he stood up and walked to the kitchen table. “Tea’s fine.”

“Excellent.” She set the kettle on the stove and turned it on, before turning her attention back to the open cupboard. There were a few little jars, pushed off to the side, labeled in perfect curling script. She selected a few and placed them on the counter, before pulling a drawer open and fishing for her tea strainers. Sebastian reached out and picked them up, one by one, returning them to their place on the counter when he was done. “Chamomile, lavender, and rosemary?” he asked.

“All excellent for promoting restful sleep and good dreams,” Rae said absently, preoccupied with digging through the drawer. “Where in the world did those get to - aha!” She pulled out two plain tea strainers and a third that looked like a long-necked dinosaur. “Perfect.”

“Why three?” Sebastian asked.

For an answer, Rae looked up at the ceiling. Soft footsteps sounded overhead; the stairs creaked a little as someone walked down them. “You too?” she asked, without turning around.

“Yes,” Penny said softly. “It’s just odd.”

“Was Abigail awake?” Rae grabbed a miniature spoon from the same drawer and popped the lid on the chamomile container.

“I don’t know.” One of the kitchen chairs scraped against the tile as Penny sat down. “I couldn’t tell.”

“Well, when she does decide to come down and join us, we’ll just clean out one of these strainers and reuse it,” Rae said. She opened the lavender container next and spooned a small scoop of dried buds into each strainer. The kettle began to whistle, and she yanked it off as fast as she could. “Shhhhhh, if she really is asleep we don’t want to wake her-”

“Too late.” Abigail clunked down the stairs, yawning wide. “Tea?”

“Should help you sleep.” Rae put the strainers into three mugs Sebastian had set out and poured the hot water over it. “Give it a minute or two before drinking that.”

They found their seats at the table, the other three cradling their tea mugs in their hands. Rae stroked Bullet’s head as he rested it in her lap. “It’s so quiet,” she murmured. “I wasn’t expecting that.”

“Tell me about it,” Sebastian muttered. “I didn’t realize how noisy the living room was until I tried to sleep. It’s so quiet my ears were ringing.”

“I got used to Abigail’s snoring,” Rae said, deadpan.

Said girl began to sputter, before realizing that Rae was joking and snorting into her cup of tea. “Very funny,” she said once she’d recovered. “I thought it was Bullet.”

“My baby doesn’t snore, does he, no he doesn’t,” Rae crooned, leaning over to press a kiss to the top of Bullet’s head. He bumped her chin up and licked at her face, prompting her to lean back a little bit. “OK, no kisses, baby, no kisses, I know where that mouth’s been.”

“Eeeeew,” Penny said, wrinkling her nose up in a rather accurate imitation of little Ruby.

“That’s why you don’t let dogs kiss your face and you don’t let cats walk on counters and tables,” Rae said with a shrug. “Did any of you ever have pets?”

“A cat, when I was a little kid,” Abigail said. “I called her Amy. She was a pretty little black cat with the most gorgeous blue eyes I’ve ever seen on anything or anyone. She ran away a few years ago and just never came back.”

“I had a hamster,” Sebastian volunteered. He drummed his fingers on the table for a minute. “It didn’t live too long. Got loose one day and hid in my room. I only found it after it died.”

“Oh, gross,” Rae said, echoed by Penny’s physical lean away from the table. “That’s terrible!”

“I didn’t say it had a happy ending,” he pointed out.

“Fair enough. Penny?”

Penny lifted one shoulder, rubbing one thumb around the rim of her tea mug in a nervous tic. “Mom never liked animals all that much. I tried to help any stray animals that I could, but I had to hide them from her.”

Silence fell over the table. Rae looked down at her hands for a few moments, twisting her fingers together. Abigail shifted in her seat and finally said, “Well, you don’t have to worry about that with us!” Her smile looked a little forced. “Hey, this tea’s really good, Rae. What blend is it?”

“House blend,” Rae said with a little smile. “Chamomile, lavender, rosemary.”

“What’s it do?” Penny asked.

“Sleeping, sweet dreams, not too much.” Rae stood up and moved over to the counter again. She dished out some of the herbs into a fourth mug and poured water over it.

“Looseleaf?” Sebastian asked.

“Yeah. I’ll just spoon it out. If I don’t get some sleep soon I’m going to have a terrible morning,” she said. She sat back down and stirred her tea, staring blankly ahead of her.

“How do you know so much about herbs and everything?” Abigail asked finally. “I’m just curious.”

Rae mulled over her answer for a few moments. “You remember that tea shop in the city, the Sole Retreat Tea Room?” Nods from Sebastian and Abigail, and a curious look from Penny. “I used to work there.”

“You did?” Abigail asked, eyes widening. “That’s so cool!”

“Yeah, it was a job to help me pay for college,” she said. “That’s why Audra and I were so close - we worked together, but we were also friends.” She swirled her tea again. “I loved it there - making tea and everything. The clientele was always very friendly.” Her eyes flickered up as she paused, looking at each of them for a long moment. “It was also one of the most magical places I’ve ever visited.”

“Magical?” Abigail perked up. “I thought something was off about it!”

Rae looked over at Sebastian. “You remember how you and Sam thought it looked tiny and sketchy, right?” He nodded, frowning. “Well, that’s a ward meant to keep people out who don’t belong. If you’d gone there alone, chances are good you would’ve passed it right by without a second glance, thinking it no more than a shady hole-in-the-wall joint. See-” she leaned forward, getting deeper into her explanation now. “The Sole Retreat is built on the intersection of three ley lines - count them, three. It’s been around for centuries now, started as a tavern a long time ago and has survived up until this day. Audra’s a direct descendant of the first woman that started it.”

Sebastian tilted his head a little, considering it. “So why did you and Abigail see it so clearly?”

Rae nibbled on her lower lip. It was now or never, she guessed; she’d backed herself into a corner on this one. “Because,” she said, keeping her voice as low and level as she could, “the two of us have magic in our blood.”

“Wait, what?” Abigail asked, looking a little startled. “I mean, I know there’s magic, but I’ve never really tried anything with it.”

“Well, somewhere along the line, you got magic in your blood, like me.” Rae shrugged. “It could manifest, it could not. Doesn’t matter, usually.”

“Manifest how?” Penny asked.

Rae tilted her head slightly, considering. “I can see what gifts people would like most,” she said after a long pause. “Just close my eyes, focus on it, and boom - there it is. It’s how I always know what to get people for their birthdays.”

“Seriously?” Abigail stared at her, a wide smile on her face. “That’s so cool!”

Rae ducked her head a little. “It is,” she admitted. “But… it wasn’t always. Growing up, I had to hide it, because magic in the city… it’s not really approved of? I don’t know how else to explain it. Witches and those with magic blood are looked down on a lot. And when I worked for Joja Corp, I had to hide it. If you have magic, you’re not allowed to work there. They consider people like me to be ‘abnormalities’.” Her nose wrinkled, showing exactly what she thought of that. “I’ve dealt with it. It’s certainly come in handy here.”

“Got anything else?” Abigail asked.

Rae shrugged. “Not that I’m aware of.”

She was lying. Her magic amplified other magic, increased it times two or ten or even occasionally a hundredfold. Working at the tea shop, she’d been in high demand; her magic always melded well with the teas she made and the different effects they provided. Audra’s magic, on the other hand, usually went on the cup itself - when a customer touched the surface, it transfered onto their skin and soaked in. It made them a powerful team, almost dangerously so; on one memorable occasion, a luck spell Audra cast and Rae amplified turned out to multiply by far too much. That was an interesting day, she thought, and took a sip of her tea.

But she said none of this, and instead took another sip of her tea. It only took a few moments for Abigail to launch into a flood of questions - how long she’d known she had magic, how she’d found out, on and on. Rae tried her best to answer them all with a cheerful smile, but as the questioning wore on for another half hour and showed no sign of slowing down, she cast a pleading glance at Sebastian. He, luckily, caught it and cleared his throat, giving a large fake yawn. It caught Abigail’s attention as he stood up and walked to the sink, rinsing his mug out and putting it down. “Give it a rest, Abby,” he said. “It’s late, we’re all tired. You can ask her questions at a later date.”

Rae quickly stood, finishing her tea with a swift gulp and following Sebastian’s lead. “Yeah,” she said, “I have to be up early tomorrow. I’m gonna head back to bed - c’mon, baby boy, let’s go-” to Bullet, who was asleep beneath her chair. He opened one eye and huffed, standing with what was clearly a Herculean effort on his part. She rolled her eyes. “Get over yourself. Let’s go.”

“Good night,” Penny said softly, smiling up at her. “Thanks for the tea and the story.”

The other two echoed the sentiment. Rae waved as she retreated to her bedroom, closed the door, and stood completely still for a moment.

Well, her little magical secret was out now. Who knew how long it would be until the rest of the town knew?

~*~*~*~*~

Rae woke the next morning on time as usual and got ready for the day at her normal pace. Her planting cycle had been thrown off by the house remodel, and she needed to get back on track for the remainder of the summer. It was set to be a boiling 95 degrees that day, according to the weather, and she chose her shorts and tee-shirt accordingly. While digging through her closet, she found a large floppy-brimmed sun hat and plonked it on her head to see how she looked. It was a little ragged - had probably been crumpled up in there since she first moved to Pelican Town - but it would work nicely to keep herself shielded from the burning rays of sunlight. Two long strands of ratty ribbon dangled from either side, probably to tie under her chin, and she made a mental note to replace them as soon as she could.

Breakfast was leftovers from dinner; Rae figured she’d need the whole day to work on the farm, and the more time she had, the less work she’d have to do tomorrow. She left the heated food on the stove, burner turned off, and left the house with Bullet at her heels.

She was just starting to work on pulling weeds from around her radishes when running footsteps caught her attention. Alarmed, she looked up, just in time to see Sam running towards her. “Rae!” he shouted, and the look on his face had her standing and sprinting to meet him.

“What is it, what’s wrong?” Rae demanded as soon as she got close. Sam looked shocked, panicked - she immediately started running through every scenario that could put that look on his face. “Talk to me-”

He leaned forwards, resting his hands on his knees and panting. “It’s Granny - Evelyn,” he said around gasps for air. “She collapsed while she was gardening today. Harvey wants her to go to the hospital in Zuzu City.”

Rae felt her face drain of color. “Oh no,” she whispered. “Do they know what happened?”

Sam shook his head. “Harvey thinks it could be a stroke, but he’s not sure. Caroline and Pierre offered to take her and George to the city. I found out just a few minutes ago - Caroline came to give Mom the house keys and ask her to look out for-”

“Alex,” Rae breathed. “Oh, Yoba- where is he?”

“He’s at his house, I think. Why?”

Rae was already whistling for Bullet, who was off meandering around. “I need to go get him,” she called over her shoulder as she took off at a jog for town. “The last thing he needs right now is to be alone!”

She jogged all the way to town, keeping a steady pace. Bullet ran beside her, grinning up at her every now and then with joy. “This is great!” he seemed to be saying. “We should do this more often!”

Once they reached town, Rae slowed down, though she kept a decently fast walk instead of a run. No one was out to see her walk across the town square and stop in front of Alex’s house. She raised one hand, took a deep breath, and knocked on the door.

There was silence, for a long time. Bullet nudged at the door curiously and looked up at her. “Is he there, big boy?” she murmured, before raising her voice. “Alex. I know you’re in there.”

There was a shuffling sound from behind the door. Rae bit her lip. “Alex. C’mon. We need to talk.”

After a long silence, the lock on the door clicked. Alex opened the door slowly, leaning against the wall beside the door. He looked terrible; he’d clearly been crying, as his eyes were red and he looked pale. Rae worried her lower lip, frowning at him. “C’mon. Grab some stuff. You can sleep at my house until your grandparents come home.”

His breath hitched a little; he scraped a hand along his face. “Fine,” he muttered after a moment, and opened the door more to allow her and Bullet inside.

She stepped in. The house was dark; all the lights were off, the kitchen - usually the heart of this home, where Evelyn spent most of her time - was cold. It felt odd. Rae shivered a little.

She followed Alex back to his room, where he pulled out a duffel bag from under his bed and began throwing things into it. Clothes, toiletries, even a book or two. Rae leaned against the wall and watched him closely.

“So,” she said finally. “How are you doing?”

Alex paused for a moment. He straightened, holding a teeshirt in his hands. They were shaking, just a little. “I’m fine,” he said, which was such an obvious lie Rae almost started laughing. It was most definitely not an appropriate time for that.

“OK,” she said instead. “How’re you really doing?”

He stood there for a moment, before rounding on her. “What do you want me to say?” he demanded, eyes blazing. “That I’m absolutely terrified? That I’m scared I’m going to lose my grandmother? That I don’t know what I’m going to do? Huh? Is that what you want me to say?” He took a half step towards her, glowering.

Rae didn’t move to get out of the way. Instead, she calmly reached down and tucked two fingers into Bullet’s collar, who was sitting at her feet. “Down, boy,” she murmured, feeling the long, rolling growl building in his throat. “It’s fine.” She returned her attention to Alex. “Be careful,” she said quietly. “I understand your anger and grief. He does not.”

Alex stared at her, then at Bullet, then back at her. “I’m scared,” he admitted. “I’m so scared.” He dropped the shirt on the floor and sat down on his bed, burying his head in his hands. “I’ve lost my parents. I can’t take losing my grandparents.”

Rae touched Bullet’s head with her free hand. “Be nice. Say hi,” she murmured to him, before releasing her grip on his collar. She herself moved over to sit down beside him. “I know,” she murmured, resting one hand on his shoulder. “It’s terrifying. But they’re stronger than you give them credit for. Granny will pull through, and you’re going to be just fine.”

He shook his head, as Bullet nudged at his hand cautiously. He reached out and stroked Bullet’s head; the German Shepherd leaned into his touch. “I should finish packing,” he muttered. “I don’t want to be here right now.”

“I don’t blame you,” Rae said. “Now, get your stuff. Let’s go. I think I’ll try to put you on animal-wrangling duty today. It’s good for wearing you out and giving you dreamless sleep.” Well, that and a tea blend, but she wasn’t about to say that. She patted his hand and stood up. Alex finished packing, picked up his bag, and followed her back through the silent house. Stepping into the sunlight felt like stepping out of a crypt, to Rae’s mind. The house just felt wrong now.

Together, they walked back to Rae’s farm. Bullet ran around, sniffing at everything and vanishing behind bushes, only to emerge covered in twigs and leaves. She laughed at him, while Alex observed with a blank stare. Her worry continued to grow as they approached the farm.

When she finally made it back to the farm, she was unsurprised to see a welcoming committee up and around. Sebastian knelt beside Abigail on a path, helping her dig at the weeds. Penny watered the window boxes on the porch with Rae’s watering can. Sam, in the distance, was trying to chase the chickens out of the crops. “Go help Sam, big boy,” Rae ordered, and Bullet took off like a shot - heh - for the animals. Sam looked up as the chickens began squawking and fleeing towards the pasture and yelped at the sight of a 110 pound dog racing dead towards him. He leapt out of the way as Bullet plowed past him, sending chickens scattering everywhere. Rae lost it, bent double with laughter. A quick glance told her that little stunt had gotten a smile out of Alex, even if it was just a tiny quirk of the mouth. “C’mon,” she said, once she’d collected herself. “Let’s drop your stuff off and I’ll find you something to do.”

He dropped his stuff off in the living room and returned to the front porch. Rae frowned, sweeping her gaze over the farm. “Blueberries need picking,” she decided, and went to get a basket. He looked startled when she shoved it into his arms, turned him in the direction of the patch, and pushed him lightly in that direction. “Go on. Have fun. Don’t forget to drink, that pond right there is fresh water.” With that, she gave him a friendly pat on the shoulder and turned to Penny. “How’re the herbs looking?”

She spent the next few hours teaching Penny how to harvest all the herbs properly, using a special pair of scissors Rae had brought with her and never had cause to use. They strung up long strands of twine in the rafters of the porch and hung bundles of herbs from them, turning the porch into a heavenly-scented area. Rae buried her nose in a bundle of thyme and inhaled deeply, smiling at the smell. “Perfect,” she announced. “Give those a few days and we’ll be able to put them into jars to use!” She patted Penny on the shoulder. “Good job.”

With that, she went to join Abigail and Sebastian in the fields. Now they were working on picking some of the hot peppers and tomatoes that had missed the main harvest. She helped for a while, before going over to Alex to check on his process.

He didn’t notice her approach, so invested in picking blueberries that her footsteps went unnoticed. “Hey!” she called from a few feet away, reaching over to one bush and picking a few blueberries. She popped them in her mouth and chewed as he started so hard he almost fell over. “How’re you doing?”

“Pretty good,” he said, and held up a nearly-full basket.

“Great!” she said, grinning. “Here, I’ll help. Give me just a moment. Take a break, grab a drink. Are you hungry?”

He shrugged. “Not really.”

“You will be,” Rae said. “Let’s grab something to eat real fast, then we can get back to work. The blueberries aren’t going anywhere.”

She shepherded him into the house and basically stood over him as he ate and drank something. When she was satisfied, they went back to work, both with fresh baskets. Rae chattered away, keeping the topic on light statements - how adorable little Ruby was, how well she was doing, how Reese the duckling was eating her weight in feed every day now, all about Ramen and her baby, everything and anything under the sun that didn’t relate to the current tragedy in Alex’s life. She managed to keep it up for the rest of the day, and when she ran out of topics, Penny smoothly stepped in and picked up the thread of conversation. Rae, thankful for the reprieve, retreated inside to make a cup of tea for Alex to drink. She passed her hand over the cup when it was done brewing, sending silver threads of power into the tea, and smiled a little as it vanished into the tea. Good. With any luck, that would send him to sleep until Pierre and Caroline could get word to them about Evelyn’s condition.

The tea worked like a charm. Alex drank it with dinner and soon after fell asleep on the couch. Rae sipped her own tea with a hint of smug satisfaction. Abigail and Sebastian gave her pointed looks, but neither said anything. She was grateful for it; Sam had stayed for dinner, and the last thing she wanted was to explain once more about her magic.

“Poor guy,” Sam murmured, looking over at the mop of brown hair barely visible on the couch. “He’s worn out.”

“Indeed,” Penny said primly. She caught Rae’s eye. Rae lifted one eyebrow at her. “It’s been a rough day for him.”

“You can say that again.” Sam rolled his shoulders, wincing. “You do work like this every day? I don’t know how you do it. I’m worn out.”

“You get used to it after a while,” Abigail said. She held up one arm for inspection. “See? Muscles.”

“Nice!” Sam said, grinning across the table at her. “Next gig we get, you’re carrying the speakers.”

Abigail collapsed back in her seat, groaning with a theatrical flair. “Not the speakers,” she bemoaned. On the couch, Alex shifted; she hastily lowered her voice. “Anything but the speakers!”

“Settle down,” Sebastian said, rolling his eyes, but a smile turned one corner of his lips up. “It’s strange to see him like this. First time I met, he insulted my clothes and called me a wimp.”

“He was super degrading towards me,” Abigail complained. “Said I was just a girl and I couldn’t play gridball with him.”

Rae stirred her tea and listened. “He’s been sexist to me too,” she murmured. “But I think Alex has been in a bad place for a long time, and his defense is to insult and degrade everyone. Don’t let his past actions fool you too much. Underneath… I think there’s a scared, lost little boy.”

“What happened to him, do you know?” Sam asked eagerly.

Rae gave him a sharp look. “Even if I did, it wouldn’t be my place to tell you,” she said. “If you’re so invested in his life, ask him, not me.”

Sam made a face. “I don’t think he likes me so much,” he said. “He’s always been rude to me every time we interact.”

Rae frowned, staring down at her tea. “Give him a chance,” she finally said. “Just - he’s been through a lot. Still is going through a lot. Give him some time.”

Chapter Text

The next morning, Sam brought the news that Evelyn had indeed experienced a stroke. With that came the news that she’d be staying in the hospital in the city for a few extra days, and after that, chances were good that she and George wouldn’t be able to live alone anymore - and since Alex couldn’t take care of both of them, it looked like they were going to have to go to a nursing home in the city.

Alex immediately retreated into himself upon hearing the news, secluding himself as much as he could in a house where he had no room to go hide in. Rae watched with worry and racked her brains for a solution to the problem; Alex was legally old enough to live on his own, but the town had no real job openings besides working at Joja Corp - and she’d be damned before she’d let him work for them.

So, instead, she shook her head and went to speak to her house-mates.

“You want him to move in with us?” Abigail asked, sounding incredulous. “We just talked about how he’s treated us before last night! Have you already forgotten?”

“I haven’t forgotten,” Rae said patiently, swiping her scythe close to the base of the wheat stalks she held in one hand. Abigail caught them and placed them on a pile, leaned down to grab both ends of the string, and tied it up with a double knot. With that, she put it aside into a stack of bundles on the pathway. Rae paused and straightened, wiping her forehead with her forearm. “But he needs some stability right now, and I think we can provide that for him.”

“He has that big house all to himself now,” Abigail pointed out.

“Would you want to live there alone?” Rae asked, turning to look at her.

Abigail’s shoulders slumped. “OK, you have a point.” She cracked her knuckles and grabbed another length of twine. “So what about the house?”

“George and Evelyn have to make a decision about it,” Rae said. “It’s not my responsibility. I’m thinking they’re going to sell it, though.”

“Ooooh, new townsfolk!” Abigail said. “That’s always a treat!”

“It’ll be interesting for sure,” Rae said dryly. “My question is, what’ll happen to George and Evelyn? I don’t think they’ll want to live in the city, but we don’t exactly have a retirement home available in town.” She grabbed another chunk of wheat close to the base and swiped at it. It came free, she passed it to Abigail, and Abigail tied it up. “What do you think, Seb?”

Sebastian knelt nearby, examining the coffee plants Rae had planted. He looked up as they spoke, a little startled. “What?”

“George and Evelyn,” Rae clarified. “Where they’ll go.”

He sat back on his heels, considering the small bush in front of him. “Hm,” he said, a non-committal noise. “I don’t know. Not my place to say, is it?” He returned to his work. Abigail and Rae exchanged amused looks, but took that for the dismissal it was and got back to their own work.

~*~*~*~

Days passed, while nothing really happened. Alex stayed at Rae’s house and moped around more often than not. After perhaps the third day of this continued behavior, Rae grew tired of it and shoved him towards the yard where the animals wandered around. “Go watch them and keep them from doing anything stupid,” she told him, before returning to her work of pulling up melons. Abigail’s stifled giggles reached her ear; she rolled her eyes and shook her head at her friend’s antics. He was surprisingly good at herding cattle, she noted, and made a mental note for him to work in the fields more often.

The next day, Rae walked down to the orchard, curious to see how her trees were growing. What she found made her start and pivot, running back towards the house. “We’ve got our first fruit harvest!” she cried as she burst through the door, startling Abigail and Penny who were sitting at the table. “The trees have finally finished growing, they’re COVERED with fruit!”

“Which trees?” Penny asked as she stood up, picking up her empty plate and depositing it in the sink. “I’ll find the baskets!”

“The orange trees and peach trees,” Rae said, leaning forwards to brace her hands against her knees. “Whew - sorry, I got a little excited to tell you.”

“I don’t blame you.” Penny retrieved a few baskets from the closet and handed one to Rae. “Maybe if we pick enough peaches, we can make a peach cobbler for dessert!”

“Oooooh,” Abigail said, pushing herself up to her feet and moving to grab another basket. “Count me in!”

The three walked south. Bullet bounced around their heels, barking gleefully until Rae hushed him. Then he ran ahead, dancing at the gate to the orchard. Rae let him in; he raced around for a few moments, before flopping down in the shade of an apple tree.

Meanwhile, Rae looked up at the peach tree. “I’m climbing up,” she decided aloud and swung the basket over her shoulder. One hand found a high branch, one foot the V where a branch met the trunk, and she bodily pulled herself into the tree.

“Be careful,” Penny said, with a worried frown on her face. Rae grinned down at her, before turning her face upward and moving higher into the tree. It’d only been growing for a little over a month, so it wasn’t too big, and she reached the top after just a few branches. From there, she got comfortable and started picking peaches. When the basket on her arm got full, she maneuvered herself so she could lean over and pass the basket down to Penny. Penny, in turn, handed up an empty basket. Rae got back to work.

It didn’t take too long to clean the trees of any and all ripe fruit. The green ones were still growing, which meant there’d be another harvest in just a few days. Rae dropped out of the tree and checked her basket. The peaches inside were just fine.

Abigail, Penny, and Rae walked back to the house, chattering away and laughing as they carried their baskets full of fruit. One basket each of peaches and oranges went into the shipping bin, but the mixed basket Penny carried went into the house. Penny quickly took charge, directing Abigail to wash up some of the peaches while she started on the cobbler mixture.

In the cheerful chaos, Rae noticed Alex slip out the front door, face downcast. She frowned, glanced between her friends and the closing front door, and followed after him. She found him standing on the front porch, leaning on the railing and looking over the farm. “You ok?” she asked softly. He started at her voice.

After a long, drawn out pause, Alex dropped his head. “I don’t know,” he admitted. His voice was no louder than hers. “I’m… really upset. A little scared.”

“You’ve got a right to be,” Rae said. “Your circumstances… anyone would be frightened right now.”

He reached up and raked one hand over his face, eyes bleak. “I don’t know what to do,” he said. “I don’t want to make the decisions I think I’m going to have to in the next few days.”

Rae nodded, fingers drumming on the railing as she leaned beside him. “Well,” she said with a sigh, “you aren’t alone. You’ve got a lot of people who will back you up, no matter what you decide. And your grandparents are still here, Alex.”

He nodded. A heavy sigh fell from his lips. “I just want to sleep a lot, and not do anything.”

“Sounds like depression,” Rae said, maybe a little too flippantly, reaching over to pat his shoulder. “We’ve all been there. Big life changes - makes it hard to get out of bed sometimes. You’ve got all of us though. You aren’t alone.”

They were silent for a while, before Alex bowed his head. “Thanks,” he muttered. “Sometimes I forget I’ve got friends here.”

“Of course you do!” Rae said, and wrapped one arm around his shoulders. “Of course you’ve got friends. I’ve got your back.”

He gave her a wan smile. “Thanks, Rae.”

They stayed like that, standing on the porch and staring at the cotton-candy clouds until Penny called them in for cobbler.

~*~*~*~

The next day, Alex headed into town to talk to his grandparents and returned late in the day with the news that Caroline and Pierre had offered them a place to stay in their house. Abigail went to retrieve a few more of her personal effects from her old home and came back with the news that they were renovating her room to be more accessible for George and Evelyn. In the meantime, Alex prepared to move back to his old home.

That same day, without telling him, Rae called all her housemates together and sat them down around the table. “We need to talk,” she began, eyes unusually serious.

“Talk about what?” Sebastian asked.

Abigail groaned. “You can’t be serious.”

Rae shot her a sharp look. “I am. I wanted to ask you guys what you’d think about Alex moving in with us. Otherwise, he’d be alone in his old house, which I really don’t think is a good idea. I’m fine with it, of course, otherwise I wouldn’t be bringing it up. I open the floor for comments.”

Abigail spoke first, of course. “I don’t think it’s a good idea. Historically, our interactions haven’t been great. He’s been difficult to get along with, and living in the same house would probably just make it worse.”

“But Rae talked about this, he was in a bad place when he arrived here,” Penny said. “And he’s been nothing but polite the past few days he’s been staying here.”

“Because he’s living in our house,” Abigail said impatiently. “He’s been living with us, the last thing he wants to do is make us angry!”

“I say it’s fine.”

Sebastian’s words brought the brewing argument to a screaming halt. Abigail visibly gaped at him. “What?” she demanded, looking poleaxed.

“I say we let him live with us,” he said, arms crossed over his chest. “He’s in a rough patch right now. He probably shouldn’t be left alone.”

“Seb, he’d be rooming with you!”

“And?” Sebastian shrugged. “He keeps to his space, I’ll keep to mine.”

Abigail opened and closed her mouth a few times, gaping like a fish. “I don’t believe this,” she said finally, and pushed her chair away from the table. “Fine. Whatever. I’m outvoted anyways.”

“Abby-” Rae started to say, half-rising to follow her, but Sebastian reached out and put a hand on her arm as the door slammed behind her.

“Don’t worry about it,” he muttered. “She’ll be angry for a while, but she’ll cool off eventually.”

Rae slowly sat back down. “Why on earth did she get so upset?” she whispered, confusion evident on her face. “I don’t understand. She had no problem with either of you joining us…”

Penny just shook her head, wordless. Sebastian looked after Abigail, eyes clouded. “He wasn’t nice to her, when they first met,” he finally murmured. “And Abby can hold a grudge like no one I’ve ever met.”

“You think that’s what this is, then?” Rae asked. “Just leftover anger at him manifesting?”

“Seems like it.” Sebastian shook his head. “Ridiculous, but that’s Abby for you.”

Rae sighed out slowly, rubbed her temples as a headache began to build behind her eyes. “Well, I’m not thrilled with how that went, but I’ll talk to Alex and tell him our offer.” She stood up and turned to the door. Bullet, seeing her movement, scrambled to his feet. “C’mon, big guy. Let’s go find Alex.”

Together, the two walked into town. Rae stuck close to the shade as she could, finding the places where the unrelenting sun missed the ground. Once in town, it was far more difficult to avoid the sunshine, and she could feel her shoulders starting to burn. She wished she’d remembered her sun-hat. It would’ve helped a lot.

She found Alex moving boxes of his grandparents’ stuff around in his old home with a lost look on his face. A brief knock on the front door, propped wide open, and he looked up. “Hey Rae,” he said, missing a lot of that old cheery smile she usually got. “What’s up?”

“Just a proposition for you,” she said as she walked through the doorframe. Bullet followed and began sniffing around the corners of the rooms. “So, I ran it by the others, and we’re… in agreement that you’re welcome to come live with us.”

Alex froze, in the process of stacking one box on top of each other. He put the box down and turned to look at her. “What?”

She repeated herself. He shook his head a little; for a moment, her heart plummeted. Then he looked up at her, a grateful smile on his face. “I’d like that,” he said quietly. “That’d be… that’d be great. Thank you.”

“No problem,” Rae told him, and moved forwards to give him a hug. “You’re very welcome.”

After a moment, he stepped back. “I get the feeling that it wasn’t a unanimous decision, though,” he commented, as he set to moving boxes with far more vigor than he’d had when she first entered.

Reminded, she winced. “Not exactly. Abigail wasn’t thrilled about it.”

His shoulders drooped. “I wasn’t nice to her, when I first showed up here,” he admitted. “Wasn’t nice to anyone, but you knew that. I think most other people have forgiven me, but she hasn’t quite yet.” He paused, shifted around a little. “Um… if you think it’s best, I don’t have to-”

“No, no,” Rae said hastily. “Abigail got outvoted, she accepted that. Granted, she may not have been too pleased about it, but she was outvoted fair and square, and she’ll come around eventually.”

He shifted around a little, looking at everything in the house. “When can I move in?” he asked finally, and Rae beamed.

~*~*~*~

It wasn’t an instantaneous process, of course. Rae had to get help to move Alex’s bed to her homestead in pieces and parts, and reassemble it once she got it all upstairs. Sebastian proved himself to be surprisingly handy with power tools, and took little time to put the bed back together. Alex’s dresser came next, and he took a while to arrange everything on top of it and on his side of the room.

Once that was finished, Rae took him out to herd the animals around and talk. “House rules,” she said abruptly, and held one hand up. “One, keep your space clean. Two, do your fair share of chores - that’s your rent. Three, if you have a problem, say something. We can’t help you if we don’t know. Four, try not to be an asshole without good reason. Five…” She paused, waving her thumb around in the air. “What was five, I know we had a fifth rule.” She frowned for a while, before shrugging. “Oh well, I’m sure I’ll remember it eventually. All clear?”

Alex nodded. “Thanks, Rae,” he said after a minute. “I really appreciate everything you’ve done for me.”

She gave him a friendly smile. “Don’t mention it. I would’ve done the same for anyone in your position.” She snapped her fingers. “Oh! Five, don’t pry into why the others are here. We’re all a little reluctant to speak about circumstances that brought us to be here.”

“Understandable,” Alex said.

She beamed at him. “Look at you, using five-syllable words! Wait, that is five syllables, isn’t it? Un-der-stand- yep, five syllables.”

“I’ve been reading a lot more,” he said, and the two dove into conversation over their favorite books. The sun was hot overhead, but in the shade it was easier to bear, and together they stood and chatted.

After a while, Rae waved and moved back to her crops, going to inspect the blueberries and tomatoes for any she’d missed during the previous harvest. Bullet came to keep her company, lying down in the shade as she checked each plant. Besides a few stragglers, they’d cleaned the bushes out pretty well, and after maybe half an hour or so, she stood up and cracked her back with a weary sigh.

The fruit trees caught her attention, waving in the breeze. It had been a few days since they’d gone through the trees and collected the fruit. New goal in mind, she headed back towards the porch and grabbed the basket sitting on the stairs specifically for that purpose. “Abby, I’m gonna go collect fruit!” she yelled into the house, already turning on her heels as she headed for the southern end of the pasture.

Behind her, Penny called, “Be careful!”

Bullet joined her at the orange tree, lying down in the shade as Rae looked up at the tree. Basket in hand, she considered how best to climb the tree, finally deciding on a strategy. The basket found a home in the split of two branches; she reached up and pulled herself onto the lowest-hanging branch.

Up into the tree she went, dragging the basket with her all the way. Maybe 20 feet up - and wasn’t that a trip? They’d been saplings only a month or so ago - she settled in and started picking oranges.

In the middle of pulling one off the branch, Rae paused, turning it over in her hands. She looked up - back towards the town, thoughts beyond it.

Then she half-fell down the tree again and whistled to Bullet. Over to the peach tree she went and grabbed a low-hanging peach. Then she swung by the rabbits, where she gathered some of the Gemiric fur Velvet had shed. She separated it into two piles, tucking each into her pocket. Finally, she snagged a container of milk out of the fridge, along with one white egg and one brown egg. “I’m going into town,” she told Abigail. “Remembered something I need to do.”

“You gonna be all right?” Abigail asked, frowning a little.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” Rae said, giving her an odd smile. “I’m taking Bullet, but I’ll be back.”

With no further words, she left and whistled Bullet to her side.

They headed into town, but instead of going to any of the houses, she turned left immediately upon entering town and took the stairs two at a time up to the plateau overlooking town. Her destination loomed ahead, desolate clock tower looking down upon the houses below. To anyone else, it would be locked, but as her fingertips grazed the old wood, it swung open on silent hinges.

Together, she and Bullet stepped over the threshold of the old community center; she closed the door behind them. It wasn’t dark, even then. Holes in the roof allowed beams of sunlight to fall on the walls and floors, dust motes dancing in the rays. Her footsteps echoed in the empty room as she stepped forwards.

“Hello,” she called softly. “I’m back.”

There was silence for a few moments. Then a soft whispering filled the air, and Rae smiled, slowly kneeling down.

The bravest Junimo appeared first, a green one she always saw. It spoke in a strange language, and Rae listened for a moment, mentally translating the words.

You have returned. It has been a long time, friend!

“It has,” Rae said softly, smiling at the Junimo. “I’m sorry. I’ve been busy. But I’ve brought gifts for you.”

Good! Good! The Junimo jumped in place. Follow me!

She didn’t question how it seemed to know what she’d brought, even though she hadn’t shown it. Instead she stood up and followed the Junimo, down a hallway and into a side room. The plaque on the ground beckoned her attention. She knelt and placed her gifts in the center of the plaque, then stood up and stepped back.

Good! Good! The Junimo said again, beginning to move side to side like a crab. This will do nicely!

Bullet pressed against Rae’s hip as light started to glow within the gifts, growing brighter and brighter until it enveloped the room. She closed her eyes and shielded them with one hand. Still it grew brighter, and finally winked out.

She took her time removing her hand from in front of her eyes, worried about damaging her sight. The light had vanished by this point. Instead, the formerly dusty and cobwebbed old room had transformed. The old, half-rotten shelf had transformed into a shiny new one, laden with cans of food. The barrels were new too; Rae took one step forwards and lifted the lid of one. It was full of flour.

What do you think? The Junimo asked. Rae started; she’d been so focused on the repaired pantry that she hadn’t noticed the Junimo was still there.

“It’s beautiful,” she said, stepping back. “Is this what it used to look like?”

Yes, long ago, the Junimo said. It was perhaps twenty years ago now, long before your time.

“I know,” Rae said. “But not before my grandfather’s time.”

She could swear the mouthless being smiled. Yes. He visited often. We considered him a friend.

“And then he died.”

Yes. No one came to visit after that. People left town for the city. The community center fell into disrepair.

“And now I’m revitalizing it.” Rae smiled as she looked around. “Fitting.”

We thank you for your help, said a second voice. She turned around to see a light blue Junimo, standing at the plaque. There will be a gift for you, on your farm tomorrow morning.

“Oh, I don’t need anything,” Rae said, holding her hands up. “I like seeing this place repaired. That’s good enough for me.”

Regardless, you have given us hope, the Junimo said. Farewell!

It and the green Junimo both disappeared in flashes of light, and Rae and Bullet were left standing alone in the room.

Chapter Text

Rae woke up early as per usual the next morning. Bullet splayed across her legs, still fast asleep. She wriggled free and changed into her clothes for the day - a loose, breezy top with no sleeves and army-green shorts. Her hair went up in a low ponytail, and she snagged her sun hat on the way out of the bedroom.

Unsurprisingly, no one else was awake, and Rae fixed a fast breakfast on her way out the front door - just a handful of berries and a slice of bread. She stepped onto the porch, already scarfing down her food, and paused as she noticed the rising sun glinting off something in the distance.

“Hm,” she muttered. “That’s new.”

She finished the rest of her food and turned around to open the front door as something scratched at it. Bullet bounced out and onto the porch, grinning up at her with a wide doggy grin. “Shall we go investigate?” she asked him, climbing down the stairs and stepping onto the path.

He followed her east as she trekked along the path, looking for the source of the light. What she found, when she emerged from a small woody area, made her stop dead in her tracks and stare.

Before her stood the old greenhouse - which had formerly been in a terrible state of disrepair. She’d spoken to Robin about upgrading it, but the cost to do so had made her blanch and shelve it indefinitely. Now, though, it was flawless, appearing almost brand-new. The polished glass shone crystal-bright before her; that, she realized, was what had reflected the sunlight and caught her attention.

“Oh, wow,” she whispered, taking a hesitant step forwards. “Is this what they meant by a gift?”

The front doors beckoned her, and she took a deep breath before stepping onto the patch of cobblestones. The door swung open, and she stepped into the greenhouse proper.

It felt bigger inside than it appeared to be outside, she thought. Perhaps that was just the ceiling, cathedral-like over her head. The center of the room appeared to be a large square of dirt, the kind that was good for growing things - thick, rich, dark. It was bordered by wood, and tile surrounded that. Raised planter boxes lined the back wall. Her fingers itched to transplant some of the more delicate plants from her window boxes to them. A metal tub of water burbled at the very back of the greenhouse.

“Wow,” she murmured, turning around slowly. “This is… incredible.” Her mind was already racing with ideas, spare seeds she could plant here, locations for sprinkler heads, so much she could do with the new space granted to her. “Thank you…”

Bullet barked from outside the greenhouse. Rae turned and stepped back outside, leaning down to scratch behind his ears for a moment. “Ok. Let’s go take a look at the other crops and we’ll come back to work out a plan later.”

So they walked back towards the house, and Bullet waited patiently outside the chicken coop and barn for her to finish her early-morning chores. She lifted the rolling doors to allow her animals out into the sunshine and grass, before returning to the house.

Penny was already awake and working on breakfast in the kitchen. Rae smelled fresh bread baking and smiled as she placed the basket of eggs and milk on the kitchen table. “Morning,” Penny said over one shoulder. “How did you sleep?”

“Fine,” Rae said. “Yourself?”

“Not bad. Have you eaten already?”

“Not much. What’re you making?”

“French toast. We finished off the bread yesterday, so I had to make a new loaf.” Penny turned around and smiled. “Oh, good, you grabbed the eggs already!”

“Yep. Chickens and cows are all out and running around,” Rae said. She moved over to the fridge to put the milk away. “So guess what.”

“What?” Penny’s voice sounded amused. “You’ll have to give me a hint.”

“Just guess!”

She gave a long-suffering sigh. “All right, I don’t know, tell me.”

“We have a greenhouse.”

Penny paused, turning to look at Rae with a small frown on her face. “A greenhouse? Is that what you went to do yesterday?”

“Yes, of a sort. Anyways, I went to check it out and it’s beautiful. So much space! And we can grow some crops year round!” Rae bounced in place for a moment, grinning wide. “You should come see it, after breakfast.”

“See what?” Sebastian asked as he tramped downstairs, and then it was a flood of explanations as Abigail and, surprisingly, Alex followed behind him. Abigail wouldn’t believe it until Rae showed her, and even then she kept repeating her disbelief as she wandered around the interior of the greenhouse.

Breakfast was lively with plans of what to do inside the greenhouse. Some advocated for plants of every kind growing year-round; others called for fruit and vegetable plants that bore repeated harvests, allowing for a steady income specifically in winter. The debate carried on into the post-breakfast cleanup, only breaking up once Rae declared that she was sick of arguing and was going to go check on the plants.

The wheat needed harvesting again, and the pepper plants were full to bursting. The radishes would need another day or two, Rae figured, as did most everything else. She sighed and went to grab the basket off the porch, calling inside that she’d need help with the wheat harvest again.

It was as she stepped off the porch that she glanced up at the sky and noticed the clouds scudding by overhead. Perhaps it was just her, but they seemed to be almost green. She frowned and made a silent note to check the weather before heading to bed that night.

~*~*~*~

It was just as well she did; the weather forecast called for heavy rains, with a chance of lightning and thunder, the following morning. Rae warned the others and waved them off to bed, trekking back out to check on the animals and batten down the hatches.

Then she crashed in bed, barely bothering to change back into pajamas.

She was rudely woken by the crash of thunder overhead. Bullet scrambled to his feet, barking at the shock of it. After a moment of confusion, she got her bearings again and ordered, “Hush.” He went mostly quiet, only letting out a soft ‘whuff’ of exasperation, she supposed.

After a brief pause to listen to the rain overhead and more distant thunder, Rae glanced over at her alarm clock. It was only 4 in the morning, and she groaned softly, flopping back onto her back and staring up at the ceiling. “I’m going back to bed,” she told Bullet. “Wake me up at a decent hour.”

Her alarm blared at 6 as usual, but she slammed the snooze and rolled over to nap for a while longer. It was 7 before she finally got up. She shuffled around the kitchen in her pajamas, throwing some frozen pancakes onto a griddle to reheat as she sat down at the kitchen table. The rain beat on the windowpanes; she rested her chin in her hand and stared out the window over the sink.

“Good morning,” Penny said, soft footsteps the only other alert to her arrival. Rae raised a lazy hand and waved it. “You’ve already started breakfast?”

“Don’t want to go out in this mess,” she said. “It’s pretty bad.”

“Did you wake up to that thunder early this morning?” Penny went to the fridge and pulled out the jug of milk. “It was awful. Scared me half to death.”

“Indeed,” Rae muttered. “I went back to bed.”

Penny laughed. “Me too. What are we going to do today?”

Rae sighed and leaned back in her chair. “Very little, if I had to guess. I’m probably going to go mining, at least for part of the morning. You guys got a handle on the chores?”

“Of course.” Penny smiled over at her. “Go ahead and go. We’ll be fine here.”

Rae sighed and stood up, stretching. “Ok. I’ll grab something to eat on the way over to the mines. Thank you, Penny.”

She went alone; it was the kind of day that she wouldn’t appreciate company. She did stick to the upper levels for the most part, choosing to focus on copper and coal more than iron or gold. Luck was with her today, even though the weather wasn’t - she didn’t encounter any infested levels.

It was late at night by the time she finally emerged from the mines. The second she stepped out of the entrance cavern, rain washed over her, scrubbing sweat off her skin. She sighed in relief and pulled her jacket off, throwing it over one shoulder and starting to trek back to her farm.

She didn’t get too far before someone almost ran into her, forcing her to stumble back a pace. “Sam?” she asked, a little shocked as she reached out to steady him.

“Rae, thank Yoba!” His face shone with relief. “Have you seen Sebastian anywhere recently?”

“No, I’ve been down in the mines all day. Why, what’s going on?” she asked, steadying him.

“He’s missing. Abigail said he went to visit his family and Maru told me there was a big fight. He left and no one has seen him since.”

Her blood turned to ice in her veins. She grabbed onto his arms with more force. “Do they know what direction he went?” she asked urgently, all thoughts of heading to the spa north of town forgotten.

“South, through town, but no one we’ve talked to has seen him.” His eyes took on a pleading cast. “Please, Rae - it’s supposed to get worse tonight, and it’s getting late.”

“He’s a grown man, but I’ll see if I can find him anywhere.” Rae sighed and grabbed a granola bar from her backpack, eating it in one bite. “I’ve got a few ideas as to where I can find him. Don’t worry.”

~*~*~*~

She headed due south, towards the beach south of town. No one was out in this weather, choosing instead to stay inside where it was warm. The bridge was close to being swamped, and the path to the beach was muddy as usual. She grumbled as she carefully made her way to the beach.

The mud changed to wet sand, and she couldn’t figure out which was worse. At the dock, she paused and pulled her boots and socks off, stowing her socks in her backpack where they wouldn’t get wet. Her boots she carried as she walked farther down the dock. The rain was coming down in sheets; the waves crashed against the docks, sending mist into the air. As if the air could use a little more moisture, she thought wryly.

She reached the end of the dock farthest from Willy’s little shack and came to a stop, looking at the figure standing in front of her. “You’ve got Sam and Abby worried, you know,” she said aloud, over the noise of the waves and rain.

“Hm?” Sebastian turned around, looking a little shocked to see her standing there. “Rae?”

“I was coming out of the mines and Sam about bowled me over,” Rae said. She shoved her free hand into her front pocket. “He told me a bit of what happened.”

He scoffed, shaking his head and turning back to the ocean. The umbrella over his head turned with him, shielding his face from view. “It was a stupid argument,” he told her.

“Care to share?”

“Not particularly.”

Rae nodded to herself and shrugged her backpack off, placing it on the dock. She pulled her jacket on and stood back up, shivering despite herself. “Do you want to come back to the house?” she asked.

“No.”

Wonderful. “I’ll leave you alone then, if you want me to. Come home before it gets too dark, though-”

“You can stay.”

She paused, in the middle of turning around. “You sure?”

“Yeah.”

She stepped up to stand beside him; he lifted the umbrella a little and gestured her closer. She huddled beside him, absorbing the warmth he radiated. They stood there in the storm, observing the sea.

“You would think that me moving out would mean I don’t have to deal with Mom and Demetrius anymore,” he muttered after a while.

“What was it this time?”

A weary, heavy sigh. “Mom doesn’t understand why we’re all living together. She can’t seem to grasp the concept that none of us are dating, or have any interest in that. She keeps asking me when I’m gonna get married, or when she’s gonna get grandkids.”

Rae winced. “Yikes.”

“And, like - I get where she’s coming from. I know Sam’s always wanted kids, and I think Penny has as well, but I’ve never wanted to be anything other than the cool uncle. I hated Maru as a baby, couldn’t stand her. She always irritated me. Other peoples’ kids don’t bother me, though.”

“Same,” Rae said with feeling. “I was an only child. I never really interacted with children outside of a few scattered babysitting jobs. Kids… ugh. But being the awesome aunt - I always wanted that.”

“Yeah, well, telling Mom that she’s not getting grandkids anytime soon didn’t go over so well.”

“Was it what you said, or how you said it?”

A snort. “A little bit of both, probably. Then Demitrius told me not to talk back, and it kind of dissolved from there.”

“Oh dear.” Rae sighed softly. “I’m sorry.”

“It isn’t your fault. If it wasn’t for you offering me a home, I probably would’ve given up a long time before now.”

She smiled over at him briefly. “Of course.”

Then she sneezed once, twice, and a third time for good measure. He glanced over at her, frowning. “We should head back. It’s late, anyways, and you’ll get sick if you stay in those wet clothes.”

“Look who’s talking,” Rae said, gesturing to his own soaked clothing. They turned and started to walk back down the dock. “You want to help us figure out the layout for the greenhouse? I’m gonna start planting stuff tomorrow, if I can get the seeds for it.”

“Sure.” He slung one arm around her shoulders and tugged her to his side as she sneezed again. “I can help with that.”

~*~*~*~

Rae chugged tea that night and slept late the next morning, but woke with no ill effects from her soak in the rain. The others picked up her slack: she found that Penny, Abigail, and Alex had all but finished the morning’s chores while she slept. They brushed off her grateful smile and thanks with shrugs and laughter.

After a brief lunch, Rae dragged the group - including the newly-awoken Sebastian - out onto the front porch, where she unfurled a sheet of paper with a grid on it in front of them. “All right,” she said, shoving a pen behind her ear and using some small pebbles to weigh down the corners of the paper. “We have about a 10 by 12 square foot area, which means room for 120 different individual plants. How do we want to divvy this up?”

“We should have long-lasting crops,” Penny said immediately. “Ones with multiple yields. Cranberries, blueberries, grapevines, hops-”

“We could have a steady supply of ale all year round!” Abigail cheered, raising both fists in the air.

“Aren’t you still underage?” Rae asked, raising one eyebrow.

“Shut up.”

“Hops and grapevines would be great,” Alex said, a little hesitant, but Rae nodded in encouragement and he continued. “Strawberries might be nice, too-”

“Can we grow coffee?” Sebastian cuts in.

“Hold on, all of you- hops, strawberries, coffee.” Rae finished scrawling the names down on the side of the paper and looked up. “What else?”

Abigail opened her mouth to speak again, but there was a shout from the direction of the road to town that caused her to pause. Rae put down her pencil and stood, whistling Bullet to her side as she walked down the stairs.

It turned out to be Sam, waving wildly as he approached. “Hello, farmer and farmhands!” he called, grinning ear-to-ear. “How’re you today?”

“Not bad,” Rae called back, crossing her arms over her chest. “What brings you over so early this fine morning?”

“Mom and I went to the general store, and Caroline came out to tell us they’ve got an offer on Alex’s grandparents’ house already,” he told her, with a cheerful smile. “We’re gonna be getting new neighbors soon!”

Rae’s eyes went wide, glancing over her shoulder at where the others sat on the porch. “Does Alex know?” she asked, voice much lower.

“No, he hasn’t heard,” Sam said. He came to a stop in front of her and stuffed his hands into his jacket pockets. “That’s why I’m here - Caroline asked me to come fetch him so his grandparents can tell him in person.”

Rae nodded once and turned on her heel, waving at the porch. “Alex! C’mere a minute!” She glanced at Sam as he stood and extracted himself from the seating arrangement. “I’m guessing they didn’t try to put a gag order on you before you told him, huh?”

“Yeah, they did, why- oh.” Sam scratched the back of his head sheepishly. “Whoops.”

Rae just sighed and shook her head a touch, a smile creeping up the corners of her lips. “I’ll just pretend I haven’t heard it before.”

Sam gave Alex the abbreviated version of events, though Rae had to cut him off before he could spill about the new inhabitants. She gave him a reproachful look behind Alex’s back, trying not to let her laughter show through, before shaking her head and waving them away, back to town. She would do her best not to spoil the news before Alex got back to tell them himself.

~*~*~*~

The new family was eager to move in, Alex informed the group when he returned several hours later. They’d be there within the week, which prompted a few raised eyebrows and startled glances. Apparently it was a family: father, mother, a son around Jas and Vincent’s age, and a daughter in her early teens - an age demographic that was somewhat lacking in Pelican Town, Rae noted silently. She’d never met the girl before, but she was already a little worried about her and how she’d adjust to such a small town.

For the time being, she shelved that worry. She had bigger fish to fry, as the saying went: namely, sorting out the greenhouse. They’d finally hammered out the plan for where the plants would go, and she was rather preoccupied with finding seeds. Pierre only had seasonal seeds, and half of the ones Rae wanted weren’t in stock, meaning they had to figure out some way to get her the seeds without waiting full seasons to get them. The current idea was to order off the internet. It would be expensive, but she expected she’d make the cost back sooner rather than later.

Just because they had to wait for the seeds to come in didn’t mean they weren’t busy, though. They had to prepare the greenhouse, setting up sprinklers and stacking fertilizer near the doors for later use. This was in addition to the plenty of seasonal crops out in the fields to tend to, which took up most of their days.

It was also, incidentally, how she met the new neighbors.

Admittedly, it wasn’t Rae’s finest moment. Up to her elbows in soil, hat askew on her head, hair back in a messy braid that was half-undone, sweaty and gross and generally not at her best. She’d also been planning on meeting the new neighbors on her own terms.

She wrapped her hands around a particularly stubborn weed and tugged once, twice. It refused to budge. She muttered a curse and redoubled her efforts, bracing herself and giving one last final yank.

The weed snapped off just above the root, and Rae went tumbling backward, collapsing on her back just as footsteps sounded on the wooden path. “Ow,” she complained to the open air, rubbing her forehead with the back of her hand. “Stupid weed...”

“Are you alright?” an unfamiliar woman’s voice asked her, and Rae bolted upright, startled. She shoved herself to her feet and dusted her hands off on her pants, glancing up to see who was speaking.

Before her stood the perfect “nuclear family”, if she recalled it correctly: a man, woman, boy, and girl. They were all immaculately kept, neat and pristine in what looked like their Sunday best. Her gaze swept over them, taking in their appearance.

The man was tall, narrow shoulders and carefully groomed brown hair that kept trying to fall in his face; he brushed it back with a gentle hand. She had a feeling it was a long-standing habit. The woman beside him, one hand laid gently in the crook of his arm, had a mess of gold-blonde hair, curled and falling over one shoulder. She wore a knee-length dress and low heels; Rae was impressed at how she kept her balance on the widely-spaced wood planks that made up the paths through her garden.

The boy looked like a carbon copy of his father, clinging to his mother’s leg, but the girl looked more like a mixture of the two. Her hair was a darker shade of gold, short and messy. She looked uncomfortable in her skirt and blouse, picking at a spare thread between curious glances at the farm.

“Oh, yes, I’m fine,” Rae said quickly. She scrubbed her face with the sleeve of her t-shirt, hoping she wasn’t smearing dirt everywhere, and brushed her hands off on her pants again before tugging the ponytail holder out of her hair. She tied it up at the base of her neck, allowing the braid to unravel entirely. “So sorry- I didn’t hear you coming! You must be the new family in town. Welcome to Carriker Farm- I’m Rae, the local farmer.” She glanced down at her hands and made a brief face. “I would offer to shake hands, but I suppose you wouldn’t want dirt all over you.”

The woman laughed, an elegant thing (like the rest of her, Rae thought). “Thank you,” she said with a warm smile. “I’m Kathleen; this is my husband, Stephen, and my son and daughter, Logan and Eleanor.”

“Ellie,” the girl muttered. Rae caught it, just as she caught the mildly displeased twitch of Kathleen’s mouth.

“Nice to meet you,” Rae said with a grin. “Give me just a second- you may want to cover your ears.” She took a deep breath, stuck two fingers in her mouth, and blasted out a sharp whistle as loud as she could. Kathleen and Stephen jumped; Logan hid further behind his mother. Ellie gave Rae a wide eyed stare - surprise and shock, if she had to guess.

Like she expected, her friends popped up like clockwork from wherever they’d been hiding. “WHAT,” Abigail roared from the south, in the fruit orchard. Penny stepped out from behind the tree she’d been concealed behind, looking a little alarmed.

“Look out!” Alex shouted from the livestock pasture. “Incoming!”

Sebastian emerged from inside the house, just in time to watch Bullet race through the plants and skid to a halt at Rae’s feet. He dropped into a sit at her hand signal, tail thumping the dust and panting gleefully up at her. Kathleen looked a little pale, stepping back a pace, but Logan perked up.

“Is he nice?” he asked, peering at Bullet.

“Yep,” Rae said with a smile. “You can pet him, if you’d like. Guys, the new townsfolk are here, come meet them!”

The four other inhabitants of the farm assembled quickly, as Rae guided everyone to the porch, out of the midday sun. Penny vanished inside with Sebastian to bring out glasses of water for everyone. Logan sat down beside Bullet, petting his head gently; Ellie seemed just as fascinated with the dog as he was with the two kids.

Introductions were made all around and Kathleen and Stephen declined the offered water, citing their need to get back to town and finish unpacking. “Kathleen just wanted us to introduce ourselves to the new neighbors,” Stephen said, giving his wife a smile. “I’m sure we’ll see you around town!”

“Indeed you will.” Rae gave them her warmest smile. “It was very nice to meet you.”

“Oh! Do you like oranges, or peaches?” Penny asked, standing back up.

Rae cottoned on quickly, nodding her approval at her. “If you’d like some, you’re welcome to them,” she said. “We have an orchard to the south. They’re fresh off the tree.”

Kathleen’s hand fluttered to her throat. “Oh! But we don’t have any way to pay you-“

“It’s a welcome-to-the-Valley gift,” Rae said. “No need to pay for it. If you ever want more, swing by and I’d be willing to sell some, farm-fresh.”

Laden with fruit and well wishes, the new family said their goodbyes and walked down the porch. Bullet whined unhappily as the hands petting him vanished, but Rae scratched behind his ears and all was right with the world again. The farm group watched them leave, before turning back to look at each other.

“Of all the times for new people to show up,” Rae griped quietly, dumping some of her ice water into her hands and scrubbing away. “I had to look like an actual disaster.”

“Not your fault, we were all unprepared,” Sebastian said quietly. He wore his traditional hoodie and jeans, even in the extreme heat, but showed no sign of discomfort as he leaned against the wall of the house. “About had a heart attack when you whistled, though.”

“Bullet bolted as soon as he heard it,” Alex said, shaking his head. “I would’ve tried to stop him-“

“- but strong or not, there isn’t much you can do when a 100 pound German Shepherd goes tearing off after something,” Rae said wryly. “Believe me, I’ve tried.” She let out a weary sigh and turned to look at the patch where the stubborn weed remained. “Well, back to work, I guess.”

Chapter Text

Rae had quickly discovered after moving to the valley - and continued to discover - that gossip was the lifeblood of the townsfolk. It was why she wasn’t particularly surprised to go into town to restock on seeds the next day and discover all anyone wanted to talk about were the new neighbors. They’d introduced themselves to just about everyone, apparently, and everyone had opinions on the four, ranging from “nice enough” to “stuck up” to “too soon to decide”.

Rae fell into the latter camp. She herself didn’t have many other interactions with the new family, but her housemates did whenever they visited their family or friends still in town. Stories accompanied them home, about the renovations to Alex’s old house, brief encounters between them and the townsfolk, and more.

“Kathleen acts like this is some… I dunno, quaint adventure they’re on,” Abigail complained one day. “And she hates that dog that lives in the fenced-in lot in front of their house. Wanted to know what the number for animal control was, apparently.”

“Hating dogs doesn’t exactly endear her to us,” Rae said, as she stepped over Bullet sprawled across the kitchen floor. “Do we even have access to animal control out here?”

“And they wanted to call in a renovation company from the city,” Sebastian added from his seat in the living room. “Mom wasn’t too happy when she found out.”

“I bet,” Rae murmured. “What did they decide on, does anyone know?”

“Stephen convinced her to go with Robin,” Alex said. He cradled his mug of coffee as he sat at the kitchen table, watching Rae and Penny prepare dinner. “After a lot of back and forth.”

“Any news on the kids?” Rae asked, unable to help herself.

“Logan hasn’t shown up to the kindergarten yet,” Penny said, and Rae glanced over to see a troubled frown on her face. “Even though I told her about it almost a week ago.”

“Oh! I know why!” Abigail called, raising one hand. “Apparently she’s worried because of how young you are - and she wanted to know what teaching certifications you had.”

Penny stared down into the pot she was stirring, that frown growing on her face. “I know I don’t have any, but it’s hard to work on that all the way out here,” she said softly. “I do my best…”

“You’re doing a wonderful job,” Rae told her with a warm smile and pat on the back. “I’m sure she’ll come around eventually.”

“She’s homeschooling Eleanor, though,” Sebastian added. “Wonder if she’ll try to do the same for Logan.”

“She may try,” Rae muttered. “What’s the betting it doesn’t last more than a few weeks?”

“Any more gossip?” Abigail asked, evidently deciding to forgo appearances completely and call a spade a spade. Various head-shakes met her question. “All right - well, there’ll be more before too long. Guaranteed.”

She was right. Sebastian and Abigail went to visit Sam for a band practice session the next morning; Rae sent them off with a wave. It was raining again, so she wasn’t worried about their absence. She was at work in the fields pulling weeds when they returned, waving her to the front porch with urgent looks on their faces.

“What’s up?” Rae asked as soon as she got close, Bullet standing to greet her with a wagging tail. She scratched his head, looking between the two.

“It’s easier if we tell everyone at once,” Sebastian said. He looked uncharacteristically grim, even for him. “Where’re the others?”

“Penny was in the rabbit coop, and I think Alex was milking the cows. Why, what’s wrong?”

“We’ll tell you soon. Get the other two?”

“Of course.” Rae pivoted and raced for the barn and coop to gather the other two. Worry hastened her pace.

When they returned to the house, Abigail was heating up a pot of coffee, while Sebastian sat on his computer at the kitchen table. “Now spill,” Rae demanded, sitting down and crossing her arms. “You’ve drawn this out enough. We’re all here. Talk to me.”

Abigail and Sebastian exchanged looks. “Sam was working at the Joja Mart when Stephen came in,” Abigail said. “Turns out he works for Joja-”

“Worse, he was sent from corporate to increase sales here,” Sebastian interrupted. Abigail glared at him; undeterred, he continued, “He’s essentially Morris’ boss. They were trying to work out a plan while Sam was listening.”

“They want to use Pelican Town as a distribution base for the entire southern coast of the Ferngill Republic,” Abigail cut in. “They want to buy out the old community center and transform it into a warehouse, get a lot more traffic through town.”

Alarm didn’t begin to cover Rae’s state of mind. She traded wide-eyed looks with Alex and Penny. “Have they talked to Mayor Lewis yet?” she asked. “He told me once when I moved in that if just one more person bought a Joja Mart membership, he’d sell the community center.”

“Dunno,” Sebastian said. “Sam overheard it yesterday, so maybe not.”

Rae was already on her feet, pulling her raincoat on by the door. “I need to go talk to him,” she said. “I’ll be back in a while - don’t hold dinner for me if I’m not back in time.”

“Where are you going?” Penny asked.

Rae caught Abigail’s eye as she pulled her hood up. “He can’t sell the community center,” she said. “I’ve just gotta convince him not to.”

~*~*~*~

Rae jogged all the way to town, jumping over puddles and dodging mud all the way there. She slowed down to a fast walk in the plaza, heading for the Mayor’s house. The light was on as she knocked on his door, huddling under the overhang to avoid getting rained on further.

The door opened behind her, light spilling across the front yard, and she turned to see the Mayor standing in the doorway. “Rae! Goodness, come in, come in,” he said, standing aside and ushering her into the house. She pulled her hood back once she was inside, sighing softly at the warmth. “Do you want a cup of tea, or coffee?”

“Tea, please. I need to cut back on coffee,” she said with a small smile. “Sorry to bother you.”

“Oh, no, you’re not a bother at all!” Mayor Lewis said, waving it away. “Please, sit. What brings you here today?”

“It’s something I’m not even sure you’ve heard about yet, but I wanted to come tell you about it before the official proposal reached you.” She sank into the chair at the kitchen table. “It’s about the old community center.”

“That old thing?” Mayor Lewis glanced at her as he poured hot water over the teabag in the mug. “Has it fallen apart even further?”

“Oh, no, actually the opposite,” Rae said, shaking her head. “I’ve been trying to repair it, a bit at a time.”

“Wonderful!” Lewis sat down, sliding her mug to her. She took it and inhaled the sharp smell of peppermint. “Your grandfather always loved that place. If I couldn’t find him in town or at the farm, I could always count on him being there, reading a book and smoking his pipe.”

Rae ducked her head and smiled, feeling a bit regretful she’d never bothered to visit Lewis before. “Well, I’ve been working on it, but I heard through the grapevine that Stephen is actually working for Joja Corp?”

“Yes, he is,” Lewis said, frowning. “Only found that out myself the other day. What’s wrong?”

Rae took a deep breath. “They - Morris and Stephen - were talking about buying the community center for Joja Corp,” she said. “I knew a long time ago you said you’d sell it if one more person bought a Joja Mart membership…”

“I did say that, didn’t I?” He leaned back in his chair. “They haven’t approached me, though. Why do you bring this up?”

“I don’t want you to sell it,” she said in a rush. “I’m so close to finished with - renovations. I just need a little more time. I understand they may approach you, and they may offer a LOT of money for it, but please - if you can, just stall them for a little longer.”

Lewis looked at her gravely. “How long would you need?” he asked.

Rae chewed on her lip, staring into her mug. “Another season?” she said. “I need… resources. Components to keep building. I can get it done, I swear - I just need more time.”

“I believe you, Rae,” he said, leaning forwards again and resting a hand over hers. “But you understand they may not give me a choice?”

“Why not?”

“They could say it needs to be condemned, that it’s a health hazard,” he said. “It certainly looks old and run-down enough to be one. If they do, I won’t have much opportunity to keep them away.”

Rae nodded. “Then give me as much time as you can,” she said. “I’ll make it work.”

~*~*~*~

Mayor Lewis bought her two weeks, as it turned out. He told her as much via a letter delivered the next afternoon, warning Stephen and Morris wanted to bring in a building inspector from the city to have the community center declared unsafe. Rae read it over breakfast, then promptly pinned it to the fridge and went into town, waving aside questions from her housemates with promises of explanations later.

She took Bullet with her, letting him run free around her as she walked briskly towards town. When he wandered too far, she whistled him back, but he was mostly content to stay by her side, panting in the summer sun. He beat her up the front steps of the community center, standing at the door and watching her approach as if to say “hurry up!”

“I’m coming, sweet boy,” she said, unable to hide her laughter, and pushed open the door for him.

Once again, the building held a sense of peace she couldn’t completely explain. Part of it was due to the Junimos, if she had to guess, but maybe part of it stemmed from the years of peace and quiet people had found within its walls, soaked into the very foundation of the building and exuding back out in waves now. Even with her worry about Joja Corp, Rae couldn’t help but relax in the quiet.

She didn’t have time to relax for long, though. The Junimos began to pop into existence, that green one that was most courageous first and closest. You are back? It said, and maybe it was just her, but it almost sounded confused. You have not brought any gifts.

“I know,” Rae said softly, crouching so she didn’t tower over the creature. Bullet laid down beside her, head on his paws as he watched the Junimo. “But I needed to talk to you about something besides the bundles. It’s about the whole community center.”

Go on. The Junimo shifted on its feet, back and forth, back and forth.

“There are new humans in the town, a family. They’re working with Joja Corp, and they want to buy this place and tear it down.”

The Junimo paused in place. We will be fine, if that is your concern.

“Partially.” She had figured they would, to be completely honest. “But I have two weeks to finish all the bundles, so you can completely restore it. What do I have left to do?”

There was quiet for a minute or so, while the Junimos seemed to ponder her words. Three eventually made their way to the front of the group, bouncing in place. Three more parts of the Community Center must be completed, the head Junimo said, and Rae’s shoulders slumped a little. The Fish Tank, the Crafts Room, and the Bulletin Board. Together, it is less than 10 items.

“Can I get a list?” Rae asked, digging into her backpack for paper. She found a piece eventually and a piece of coal buried in the depths of her bag to write with. The Junimo named the items she needed; when it finished, she examined the list. “Two fish, two exotic foraged items… the Bulletin Board will be the biggest challenge…” She folded the paper up and tucked it into her back pocket.

We have faith in you, the Junimo said. You have come this far.

“Thank you,” Rae whispered, touched. “I’ll do my best not to disappoint you.”

~*~*~*~

With her list in hand and the deadline fast approaching, Rae had her work cut out for her. Two fish, one of which was native to summer and winter, the other to fall and rain; two exotic foraging items (Rae already had the three varieties of tapped sap); and a laundry list of rare items for the Bulletin Board, the easiest of which was a Red Cabbage, as she had one left from her last harvest.

Her most difficult challenge was to find a Truffle, she decided; she still didn’t have a barn large enough to hold a pig, and so far her visits to the Traveling Cart that occasionally visited town had been less than fruitful. She made a note to ask the merchant about finding one the next time she saw her. The rest of the list would come with time.

She dedicated the rest of that day to fishing in the lake up on the mountain, until the sun began to go down and she had to give up. She still had a good string of fish for dinner, though, and she decided to dedicate one to the Maki Roll she apparently needed for the Bulletin Board. If she remembered correctly, she still had some leftover seaweed and rice to use, and the recipe filed away somewhere in a cupboard from the Queen of Sauce.

As focused as she was, Rae hardly realized she was walking home until she was standing at her front door. Startled, she blinked a few times and shook her head, then opened it. “I’m home!” she called, stepping inside and wiping her feet on the mat.

“Where’ve you been all day?” Abigail asked from the kitchen, frowning from the pot of soup she was leaned over. “We were starting to get worried - you just vanished after breakfast.”

“I had to go do some chores off the farm,” Rae said, trying to evade the question as much as she could with others not in-the-know in the room. Alex had the gridball game on the TV, though it was silent; Penny sat in the armchair, reading a book.

Sebastian looked up from his computer, concern in his gaze. “Lucky for you, nothing needed harvesting today,” he said.

“Not like you’d know, you sat around on your computer all day,” Abigail said, nudging him with her elbow as she walked past. “We kept some dinner hot for you, by the way.”

“You did?” Rae glanced at the clock, then did a double take. “It’s already 9?!”

“Yes, that’s why we were worried,” Penny said, looking away from her book with a frown. “You just disappeared.”

“Like I said - I had some chores to do around town,” Rae said, moving to put her fish in the sink. “And I did some fishing. We can freeze some of it for later.”

“Is there any carp?” Alex asked, frowning. “It’s not my favorite - really bland and oily.”

Rae glanced in the sink, which was mostly full of carp. “Uhhhhh I caught a few,” she said, trying not to wince. “I can make a couple dishes with it. It’ll be fine.”

She ignored the unconvinced looks the four traded and spooned out a portion of soup to eat. As she sat down at the table, Abigail pressed the matter one more time. “What were you up to today?”

She hesitated one last time, but finally sighed and rubbed her temples. “The old community center- I’ve been fixing it up, bit by bit,” she admitted. “It’s not what you’d consider typical building materials, shall we say.”

“Like what?” Penny asked, putting her book aside.

Rae dug the list out of her back pocket and squinted at it. “Hm… let me get a pen and write this out with something better than coal.”

“You wrote a list with coal?” Alex asked, looking over from the TV.

“Of course- I don’t carry a pen or pencil around with me all the time, and I typically don’t need to make lists while I’m out and about anyways.” Pen located, Rae sat back down. “Um, let’s see - a sturgeon, a walleye, some stuff that I have to forage… oh, a truffle, a Maki Roll, a red cabbage, 3 apples, and a pomegranate.”

“You weren’t kidding about unconventional building materials,” Sebastian said. He peered over the top of his computer at her. “Was that why you were fishing all day?”

“Yep.” Rae’s shoulders slumped. “No sturgeon, though. I have to wait for fall to start to fish for the walleye, though.”

“Why do you even need those things?” Penny sat down at the table, placing her book in front of her.

“It’s…” Rae hesitated, rubbing her forehead as she tried to think. “The… contractors I’m using, shall we say, prefer to be paid with objects instead of gold.”

“Ohhhhhh,” Abigail whispered, eyes going wide. “Oh, OK, that makes a lot more sense. I forgot about that.”

“What do you mean?” Sebastian asked, looking between the two young women.

“Nothing,” the two chorused.

“OK, so you need what again?” Abigail continued. Rae slid the piece of paper over to her; Abigail read through it, tapping the paper a few times. “OK. Apples and pomegranates are fall fruits, aren’t they? The trees are fully grown now, so that shouldn’t be an issue.”

“Yeah, but the truffle is the problem,” Rae said, frowning. “For that, I need a pig, and Marnie won’t sell me one without a bigger barn. Plus it’d be a piglet, and it takes a while for pigs to learn how to truffle hunt.”

“Right… what about the forging stuff?”

“Maybe that wooded area to the north of the Wizard’s tower? I found Fiddlehead Ferns there during the summer, so maybe there’ll be mushrooms or something I can gather there.” Rae chewed on her lower lip, frowning at the list.

“Besides the truffle, I think it’s doable,” Abigail said finally, sliding the paper back to her. “I’ll help if I can. I used to play in the community center when I was little, but they shut it down after a thunderstorm caused the roof to partially cave in.”

“I’ll help too,” Penny said, a little timid. “If I can. The community center used to be a fixture of the community - it’s such a shame it’s fallen into disrepair.”

“I’m in, even if I can’t help,” Sebastian said. “I just really hate Joja, though.”

Rae snorted. “Good enough.”

She deliberately didn’t glance over at Alex, who was looking down at his hands. The decision ultimately wasn’t left to her, however, as Abigail called, “Hey, sports-boy, you in?”

“I don’t know that I can really help,” he said hesitantly. “I can try, but I’m not sure.”

“Good enough for me,” Abigail decided, and turned back to Rae, eyes blazing fervently. “Where do we start?”

~*~*~*~

Rae was up bright and early as usual the next morning, but she didn’t head out to check the crops. Instead, she left the farm and headed south to the woods, where the traveling merchant typically set up shop.

Sure enough, when she arrived in the area, she could see the cart already waiting. The pig that pulled the cart oinked at her as she approached, and she gave it a brief smile before turning to the merchant.

“Good mornin’, farmer girl,” the merchant greeted her, with a wink and a nod. Her dark green hair shone in the early morning sunlight. “What can I interest you in this fine summer morn?”

“Hi,” Rae said, smiling back. “I was actually wondering if you happened to have a truffle for sale today.”

The woman frowned, tapping her chin. Her gold chandelier earrings danced at the movement, chiming softly. “A truffle, you say? Expensive taste there.”

“I need it for… a gift.”

“Hm.” Her gaze was sharp as she looked at Rae. “I don’t, not today. But-” as Rae’s shoulders sagged- “I may be able to find one for you, for the right price.”

Rae perked up. “Really?” she asked, before practicality took over and she frowned. “What’s the price?”

“5000 gold should do the trick,” the woman said.

Rae winced. “5000?! That’s… a lot. How about… 3000?”

“Not enough. My contacts will need some extra palm grease to find one for me.” The merchant shook her head. “4500.”

“3750.” Rae crossed her arms over her chest.

“4250.”

“4000.”

“4125. Take it or leave it.”

“Take it,” Rae decided. It was a testament to how successful her farm was that she didn’t even flinch at the price. “Thank you so much.”

“Of course, farm girl.” The woman smiled. “Anything else you need that I may actually have in stock?”

Unfortunately, there was nothing Rae needed in stock, so she headed to the secret woods northwest of the forest proper. It was still summer, but she was hoping there might be some early mushrooms to harvest. Besides a few errant slimes, though, there were no mushrooms to be found. She collected a few Fiddlehead Ferns for dinner, then left again, waving at the merchant as she headed towards town.

The red cabbage sat heavy in her bag, and she bee-lined for the community center to drop it off. As usual, the Junimos danced with excitement as she handed it over; she gave them a brief update on her progress, or the lack thereof, before leaving with a wave and heading farther north towards the lake. Summer was slowly coming to a close; she had just a few days left to catch the sturgeon she needed.

Chapter Text

The last days of summer drew to a close. Rae felt the days slowly growing shorter with each sunrise and sunset. She took the very last day of the season to leave the farm early in the morning, entrusting the day’s chores to her housemates. The northern lake was calling her name; she had a rather elusive fish to catch.

Rae set up her kit just south of the little wooden bridge to the islands in the middle of the lake, casting her rod and getting comfortable on the green, green grass. Her bare feet dangled over the small ledge into the water. It was tepid, even so early in the morning, nearly bathwater warm. She kicked her feet absently and watched the bobber on the water, clamping a hand down on her sunhat as a brisk wind threatened to take her hat with it.

Time dragged on. She watched dragonflies dance over the water, reeled in a few more carp — big surprise — and rebaited the hook. Around lunch she dug a bar out of her pack and munched on it, still watching the water.

“What are you doing?”

Rae jolted a little, looking away from her fishing pole. The new girl, the daughter from Stephen’s family, stood there, watching her.

“Fishing,” Rae said. “You’re Ellie, right?”

She was treated to a small smile. “And you’re Rae, the farmer.”

“Right in one.” Rae glanced at her pole, which hadn’t budged since she’d last looked. “What’re you doing so far up the mountain?”

“Exploring,” Ellie said. She shifted on her feet in Rae’s peripheral. Wordless, Rae gestured to the ground beside her. She sat, lifting her face to the sun and closing her eyes. “I haven’t had the chance to go look around since we moved in. Mom’s kept me busy in the house, helping with remodeling and all.”

“How’s that been?” Rae wiggled the fishing pole a little further into the dirt. If the hands-free approach didn’t work after another half hour, she’d switch back to the traditional method, she decided.

“Slow,” Ellie said with an over-exaggerated sigh. “Boring. Mom keeps making me help paint everything. I HATE painting.”

Rae had to stifle her laughter, and the wash of deja-vu from her own past she felt. “What do you like to do?” she asked instead.

“I like to read,” Ellie said after a minute. “And play video games. I used to be on the soccer team, back when we lived in the city.” She was glaring at the lake, when Rae glanced at her. One hand found a pebble and threw it at the water.

“Easy there,” Rae said, gently chiding. “Don’t scare the fish off.”

Incidentally, at that very moment, the pole wiggled. Both froze, staring at it. It wobbled again. Rae reached out, very slowly, and picked up the fishing pole. The line began to tick off the reel, slowly at first, then picking up speed. Rae held her breath, counting silently - then jerked the rod upwards.

The line took off with no small amount of noise, ripping through the water and diving downs. Rae bolted to her feet, pulling the rod up as steadily as she could. “You caught a fish?!” Ellie asked, staring at her with wide eyes.

“Fish on, not caught yet,” Rae said, keeping her sentences short as she focused. The fish was one of the most difficult she’d ever faced; it dove and rose at random, staying in place at times, moving freely at others. This was almost definitely the fish she’d been searching for - the sturgeon she needed for the community center. Her focus turned laser-intense, feeling the tension in the line and moving with it. This was likely her best chance at getting the sturgeon and staying on track to save the community center.

It took her a long time - probably upwards of 10 minutes of fighting the fish. It started to tire, just as fast as Rae was; she took a deep breath and pulled up on the rod again. The reel clicked a few times as she wound up the line some more, and she finally got her first look as the fish briefly breached the surface.

It was the sturgeon she needed, alright. Almost as long as her arm, with silver-teal scales glittering under the surface. Rae sighed, pulling on the rod one more time. The sturgeon finally gave up the fight and rose completely to the surface of the water, where Rae scrambled forwards and pulled it from the lake.

“Woah!” Ellie said somewhere behind her, and Rae nearly dropped the sturgeon right back into the water, having completely forgotten she had an observer. “That’s so cool! What kind of fish is it?”

“It’s a sturgeon,” Rae said, laying it out on the grass and going to work on the hook embedded in the fish’s mouth. “Just what I was hoping to catch.” She freed the hook finally and rocked back on her heels, wiping her forehead. The summer sun had her sweating clear through her shirt.

“Are you having it for dinner?” Ellie asked, wrinkling her nose.

“Nope!” Rae said with relish, as she found the bucket she’d brought with her and swung it into the lake. Now half-full with lake water, she lifted the sturgeon into the bucket. “It’s a gift for someone.”

“For us? Mom hates fish.”

“What? Fish are great!” Rae grinned at her. “Salmon’s especially awesome, but I can only get it in fall.” She stood up and stretched, wincing as her bones cracked and popped. “Plus we don’t get much else in the way of meat out here…”

She glanced at Ellie, who was trying not to shift on her feet as if she was nervous. She wanted to ask something, if she had to guess; it was in the uncertain glances she kept trying not to shoot at Rae. “Got anywhere to be for the next two hours?” Rae asked, looking out over the lake.

“No, I don’t,” Ellie said, a little cautious. “Why?”

“Know how to fish?”

“No.”

“Want to learn?”

The grin Ellie gave her was close to blinding, even competing against the summer sun.

~*~*~*~*~*~

Rae returned late from handing in the sturgeon and Maki Roll to the Junimos to find everyone pulling on their shoes and light jackets. “What’s going on?” she asked, glancing around in consternation.

“It’s the Dance of the Moonlight Jellies!” Penny said, clasping her hands in front of her as she bounced a little in place. “You remember from last year, right?”

“I do,” Rae said. “Is that really tonight?”

“Yeah, it’s the last night of summer,” Sebastian said. He leaned against the wall by the front door, watching Abigail hop around on one foot as she pulled a stubborn combat boot on. “You don’t have to come.”

“No, no, I want to,” Rae said hastily. She retied the shoelaces on her boots and pushed the door open. The wind that swept in was mildly chilly, certainly colder than anything they’d experienced in quite a while. “I may pay for it tomorrow morning, but I think it’ll be worth it.”

“It’s really cool,” Alex agreed. He stepped outside; she joined him on the porch, letting the door close behind her as they waited. “Granny and Grandpa should be there, so I’ll probably spend most of my time with them.”

Rae nodded, a solemn veil falling over them for a moment. It was broken by the other three all but kicking the door open, Bullet racing between legs to sit at Rae’s hip.

“Let’s go!” Abigail yelled, already running towards town. Rae sighed wearily as she closed the door behind them and followed suit.

The walk into and through town was quite lively — the housemates chattered away at each other, filling the night air with laughter. They joined a stream of townsfolk at the town square, heading south towards the docks. Rae glanced around the crowd, then frowned when she didn’t see a few faces.

“Did anyone invite the new family?” she asked the group as a whole, which now included Sam.

“Don’t think so,” he said with a casual shrug. “Why, you gonna?”

“I want Ellie to have a chance to go at least. I’ll see you in a bit — don’t start without me!” Rae waved and whistled, calling Bullet to her hip as she jogged back towards Alex’s old house.

She hadn’t seen it in quite a few days, not since they’d moved Alex out, and was surprised to see a fresh coat of bright white paint on the wooden exterior. She knocked on the front door, now gray instead of green.

The door swung open, revealing Stephen. “Hello? Oh!” He appeared startled to see her standing there.

“Hi! I’m Rae-”

“The farmer from Cartwright Farm, I remember.”

Rae privately winced at the butchering of her last name, but shored up her ‘company smile’ and soldiered on. “Right. Uh, there’s an event going on tonight at the docks, the Dance of the Moonlight Jellies? I was wondering if you and your family wanted to come with us.”

Stephen glanced over one shoulder. “Give me one minute to ask my wife,” he said, and closed the door in her face.

Rae raised an eyebrow at the gray wood. “Well then,” she muttered.

A few moments later, the door opened again, revealing the whole family standing in front of her. “Rae, so wonderful to see you!” Kathleen said with a white-toothed smile. She looked like someone out of a commercial — wide-skirt dress and low-heeled shoes.

Rae smiled back. “You may want to change shoes, just fair warning — it’s a sandy beach, and the docks have some sketchy spots,” she said. Ellie rolled her eyes; Rae caught it and winked at her.

“Can I pet your dog?” Logan asked, already shifting where he stood as Bullet panted at him.

“Sure. We should head out, though — the jellies wait for no man or woman.” Rae smiled and, once she was sure Kathleen wasn’t going to change her choice of footwear, led the way south.

They took the stone paths through town, not the shortcuts Rae had become intimately familiar with over the past few seasons living in Pelican Town. It was a longer route, but less likely for Kathleen to twist an ankle. They caught up with a few stragglers — Robin, Demetrius, and Maru, having left late from their house on the mountain. Rae caught the way Robin’s smile went stiff at the sight of Kathleen. She wasn’t sure Kathleen had.

Then they were at the beach, and Rae waved to her friends in the distance. “Watch your step on the dock,” she warned again. “You can stay close to land, but the jellies don’t tend to come up that close ‘cause the water’s too shallow.”

“Oh — Eleanor, Logan, don’t go too far out!” Kathleen called as both took off at a run. Bullet accompanied them, racing at Logan’s heels and barking as they raced to the end of the dock. One hand fluttered to her mouth. “Is it sturdy?”

“Sturdy enough. It hasn’t collapsed in, oh, fifty years, so it probably won’t collapse now.” Rae shrugged.

“They’ll be fine, Kath. Let them have a little fun.” Stephen gave his wife a genial smile and offered her his arm. “Thank you, Rae.”

She would’ve thought even better of him if she hadn’t known what he was in town to do.

Rae headed down the dock, coming to a halt beside Mayor Lewis. “Everyone here already?” she asked, glancing over at him.

“Seems like it. I saw you even wrangled the new family into coming — that’s quite an achievement.” He glanced at her, a twinkle in his eye.

“I just asked nice.” Rae shrugged again. “Oh, sh- don’t get too close to the water!” This to Logan, who’d leaned too far forwards at the end of the dock and would’ve fallen in if Sebastian hadn’t grabbed the back of his shirt.

“I don’t see the jellies anywhere,” he complained. “Are we eating them on toast?”

Rae choked and started laughing. Of course — she hadn’t explained what the Dance of the Moonlight Jellies actually was. “It’s jellyfish, not actual jars of jelly,” she explained after she’d calmed down a bit, wiping away tears of mirth. She wasn’t the only one. Abigail grinned unashamedly, while Penny covered her mouth to hide her amusement, Sam almost cackled, and Lewis chuckled at her side. “They glow in the water, though. Wait til you see it!”

“When will we see them?” Ellie asked curiously.

Rae glanced at Lewis, who nodded at her. “Well, why don’t you help me launch this boat and we’ll see,” he said.

Water forgotten in their haste to help, Rae stepped to one side as they rushed past her. “Kids,” she murmured as she stopped in the midst of her friends. “So energetic.”

“You’re telling me,” Penny murmured back with a weary sigh.

The boat floated out to sea, and Rae squinted, trying to see anything at all on the horizon. It started as a faint glow, so faint it was easy to think she’d simply imagined it. Then it grew brighter, slowly, until she could discern a blueish glow in the water, slowly drawing closer.

“Bullet, sit,” she murmured absently, sitting down on the dock with care to the old, worn wood. Her feet dangled over the edge, a few inches above the surface of the water. Her friends joined her, one by one, until it was a line of them watching the jellies drift ever closer to the shore.

Just as it had last year, the sight took Rae’s breath away. The night sky came alive, darkness receding to allow the glow of the jellies to fill the air. Several drifted by right beneath her feet. She braced her hands on the edge of the boards and leaned as far forwards as she dared to see better.

One stood apart from the rest, dancing through the water and pausing a few feet directly in front of her. She squinted to see beneath the small waves. It glowed with a green light, not blue. Her jaw slowly fell open as she realized it was the rare green one someone had mentioned last year.

“Abby, look look look look!” she hissed, slapping her friend’s arm as she pointed out over the water. “Right there!”

The rest of her crew caught on quickly, watching in shock as the green jelly came just a little closer, then receded back out into the darkness again. It was the start of a mass exodus; one by one, the jellies retreated out into the open ocean, continuing on their way to their spawning grounds for fall.

~*~*~*~*~*~

With the sturgeon and Maki Roll both handed over to the Junimos, Rae could turn her attention towards the rest of the bundles. Her next objective was the two exotic foraging items, but before she could focus on that, fall arrived and killed off most of her crops.

The cool wind swept in virtually overnight, and Rae woke to cold air and even colder floors. She hissed as she tiptoed to the bathroom, making a mental note to find her slippers soon. She couldn’t quite remember where she’d boxed them up during late spring…

But then she changed focus to the fall crops and where to plant them. Her list sat on the kitchen table - she’d learned her lesson at the beginning of the year and snagged it on her way out the front door. She had to pause briefly to go find a light jacket, but once she had collected both it and Bullet, she grabbed her scythe from where it leaned besides the front door and went to work.

She cleared out the dead crops with a hint of regret, waving to the others as they woke and stumbled out to attend to their own chores, but there was no time to chat. Bullet kept her company until Alex walked out the front door; then he split away to help herd the animals. Rae let him go with a small smile, halfway through dismantling the trellises the hops had grown on.

When the fields were cleared, Rae headed straight for town. Pierre had barely opened up shop when she arrived in the plaza. He blinked at her a few times, raising an eyebrow, then said, “Busy morning?”

Rae looked down at herself. Despite the wind, she was sweaty and her ponytail was half undone over one shoulder. Her boots were dirty, and she made a point to knock most of it off outside before stepping into the store. “Very,” she said, when she realized she still hadn’t answered him. “Do you have fall seeds already?”

“Indeed I do,” Pierre said, guiding her back to the register. “What do you need?”

Rae pulled the list from her back pocket and laid it on the counter so they both could see. His eyebrows went up when he realized she’d not only included numbers, but prices. “You’re prepared to pay that much?”

“Got the gold with me already,” Rae said, tapping her backpack. “As long as you have the seeds, of course.”

Just as Pierre crouched to dig around beneath the counter, the bell over the door jingled. “More customers?” Rae heard him mutter. “It’s so early…”

She herself turned to see who it was and started. Kathleen stood in the doorway, dressed just as nicely as she had been the first day Rae met her. “Oh!” she said, hand fluttering to her throat in what Rae guessed was supposed to be shock. It was far too choreographed a movement to be true. “Miss Carriker, was it?”

“Yes,” Rae said, putting aside the suspicion she felt and smiling. “Please, call me Rae. What brings you here, especially at-” She checked the clock on the wall. “9:10 in the morning?”

Kathleen approached, smiling far too innocently. Perhaps she fancied herself an actress - Rae wasn’t naive enough to believe it. “Well, my husband works for Joja, of course - I’m sure you’ve heard by now,” she said.

“Yes, I have,” Rae said, as Pierre fell silent, crouched behind the counter. She turned fully to face Kathleen as her smile went bland.

“Well, we were just so impressed with those fruits you gave us that we wanted to repay you in some small way,” Kathleen continued. “So - here. Please, take this.”

She offered a small slip of paper to Rae, who accepted it the way one might pick up a snake. Further inspection revealed it to be a JojaMart coupon, and not just any one, but-

“75% off my total purchase?” Rae read out, feeling her eyebrows rise towards her hairline. Ignoring Pierre as he banged his head on the underside of the counter and yelped, she looked up at Kathleen with sharp eyes. “Is this a fake?”

“Oh, no, I assure you, it’s entirely real,” Kathleen said, with a pretty smile and fluttered eyelashes. “Stephen has a very high position in the company with wonderful benefits. We get plenty of those coupons to use ourselves or give to our friends.”

Rae very deliberately ignored the latter half of the final sentence and kept up her bland smile. “Thank you,” she said, “but I’m afraid I’ve already checked out here, and Pierre doesn’t do returns on seeds.” Pierre scrambled to back her up behind her, but she ignored him. “Thank you for the coupon, though. Perhaps I’ll use it later.”

She had no intention of doing so, but there was no need to go making unnecessary enemies. For all Kathleen rubbed her the wrong way, she didn’t want to anger the woman and risk alienating her children.

“Oh!” Kathleen said, hand returning to her throat. “Well, then, maybe you can use it at the start of next season. It shouldn’t expire for quite a long time.” She smiled again. “Anyways, that’s all I wanted to say. Have a good day!” With a flutter of her fingertips and a swish of fabric, she turned on her heel and left again.

Rae turned back to Pierre, shaking her head as she pulled out the gold to pay and dropped the coupon into the depths. “Well, maybe I should use it next season to buy all my seeds,” she muttered under her breath. When Pierre gave her a betrayed look, she only smiled innocently. “After all, 75% off of zero is still nothing.”

~*~*~*~*~*~

Sowing the crops went far more smoothly with so many helpers; by the time Rae returned from town, carrying her sacks of seeds, Abigail and Alex had already tilled and watered the earth she’d blocked off. All she had to do was plant the seeds and stand back, hands resting on her hips.

“You spoil me,” she told Abigail, when she came to see what was going on. “I’m so used to working from dawn ‘til dusk on the first of the season that I’m a little unsure about what to do with myself.”

“Work on the community center,” Abigail said immediately. “What do you still need to get?”

Reminded, Rae’s shoulders sagged. “Two ‘exotic’ foraged items - I wanted to go visit those woods today, thanks for that. I’m hoping to find some mushrooms, which should be enough to finish that off. Three apples, easy enough, and a pomegranate, even easier. The traveling merchant should be keeping an eye out for a truffle for me. With any luck, she’ll have one next time she comes by.” She took a deep breath after the litany. “The other problem is the walleye, because the weatherman’s calling for an abnormally dry fall, and according to some books in the library I found, it has to be rainy for it to come out.”

Abigail hissed through her teeth. “Drat. That’ll be cutting it close.”

“But I don’t have another option,” Rae said, lifting her hands in a helpless shrug. “It’s that or hope the merchant has one in stock next time she comes through.”

“Well, let’s not depend on that,” Abigail said. She grabbed Rae’s shoulders and bodily turned her south, ignoring her protests. “Take Bullet and go visit those woods. Good luck finding mushrooms!” She gave a friendly shove, then went to go check on the animals.

So Rae whistled Bullet to her side and headed south. The narrow passageway at the very bottom of her land soon opened up to the Cindersap Forest, trees already turning brilliant colors in the cool fall air. She stopped for just a moment to take it all in, sighing at the fire-like color scheme the woods had taken on.

Then she turned west and headed for the portion of woods she and Abigail had uncovered weeks ago now - how long had it been? It felt like years. The trees turned into a canopy quickly, and she rested one hand on the hilt of her sword. She’d found slimes liked to live in the depths of the woods, and didn’t feel like fending one off with just her fists today.

The secret woods were just as enchanting as they’d been when she’d first explored them; now the leaves were falling in a shower of color around her. Bullet plowed through a bank of leaves, scaring up a slime in the process; Rae killed it quickly before it could attack. Bullet grinned at her, entirely unrepentant as she shook her head and forge on through the leaf piles.

She found a red mushroom in the first half an hour of exploration, not to mention a few tree stumps that yielded more hardwood. She stacked that at the entrance, then wandered deeper into the woods, curious about a small clearing she could’ve sworn she’d seen as she hacked at a slime.

One more raced to attack her, but she brushed it aside with a flick of the wrist, almost absent-minded as she focused on the clearing. Her footsteps changed from muffled to clear as she stepped onto the stone tiles, half-overgrown with moss and grass. The faint sunlight that made it through the thick canopy overhead illuminated toppled columns and the statue of a man, crouched and staring over the plaza with blank, eery eyes. Something about him unsettled her a little, but Bullet had no qualms about investigating it, so she followed suit.

A plaque glittered in a ray of light, catching her eye as she approached. She cleaned the dirt and plantlife off of it, revealing words. “Old Man Cannoli, still searching for the sweetest taste,” she whispered as they got clearer. “Wonder what that means…”

She had her mushroom, though - only one, but that would have to do. It felt like the day had only just begun, but already she could see the sunlight fading. “Another day, maybe,” she murmured as she stood, dusted herself off, and whistled sharply. “Bullet! Heel!”

He raced back to her side, panting gleefully - and with a glob of slime stuck to his side. “Oh, you,” Rae said, sighing wearily as she crouched and tugged at it. It came free, but left behind residue on everything it touched. She tossed it to the ground with a disgusted face. “Now I’ll have to give you a bath. Naughty dog.”

Bullet gave her the biggest doggy grin his face could hold. She couldn’t contain her laughter at that.

~*~*~*~*~*~

She lugged the lumber home well after dark and collapsed into bed after a small dinner, too tired to even dream. The next morning brought good news: the weatherman was calling for a late summer storm the following day, complete with thunder and lightning. “Be careful,” Abigail warned her over breakfast, a crease in her forehead. “It’s dangerous to fish when it’s storming like that.”

“Are you entirely forgetting the time I did just that?” Rae asked her, raising an eyebrow as she grabbed her light sweater off the rack by the front door. “I’ll be fine, Abby, but thank you for your concern. Besides — that’s tomorrow’s problem. Today, we’ve got stuff to do!”

“Like what?” Alex called from behind her as she walked out the front door.

Bullet stuck right at her heel as she leaned backwards into the house, calling with a grin, “Mining!”

And mining was indeed the chore of the day. Another quick jaunt south to the Forgotten Woods bore no more mushrooms, as expected. Frankly, she wasn’t sure she couldn’t use something else — the Junimos had just said mushrooms as an example, and she knew of three varieties at least. One only grew in spring, if she remembered correctly, and the other two she’d thought would appear during fall. The red one had, of course, but not the purple one. The only place she could reliably find mushrooms were the mines north of town.

So she went back to the farm, nearly running into Penny in the process, who was walking north from the fruit orchard. “No luck?” Rae asked, upon seeing the empty basket at her hip.

Penny shook her head. “I think it’s still just a bit too early. They’re present, certainly, but they aren’t ripe yet.”

“So give it a few days and we should be good?”

“I think so.” Penny hesitated as they walked back to the house, then said, “I wanted to let you know — I’m not going to be available as much in the next few days, maybe week or two. I’m going to try and get my K-thru-4 teaching certificate.”

Rae spun to face her head on, grabbing her arm. “Seriously?!” she asked, feeling a huge grin break across her face. “Penny, that’s fantastic!” She threw her arms around the other young woman, almost dancing in place as Bullet barked at their feet.

“Oh!” Penny yelped, then laughed as Rae spun her around. Once she was back on her own feet, though, she quickly turned solemn again. “It won’t be easy — I’ll be studying online most days and probably nights. You have to take the test in person at a testing center in Zuzu City, so I’ll have to go into town this next Monday. I’ll likely be gone all day.”

“Of course! We’ll help in any way we can,” Rae reassured her. “Have you told the others yet?”

Penny shook her head. “I’ve been thinking about it, especially since the new family showed up in town.”

“Kathleen really got to you, huh.” Rae gave her a small, saddened smile.

“It was… a deciding factor, yes. I won’t be able to teach Eleanor-”

“Ellie.” At Penny’s confused look, Rae amended, “She prefers Ellie.”

“-Ellie, then, but I can work my way up to that certification later on. The K-thru-4 would let me teach Vincent and Jas, and Logan as well.”

“Sounds perfect.” Rae nudged her with her shoulder, a slow smile spreading across her face. “C’mon. Let’s go tell the others!”

Chapter Text

After the impromptu celebration over Penny’s decision — “I haven’t even passed the test yet, there’s no need to make such a big deal of this-” — Rae gathered her mining gear and prepared to head out once again. When she straightened from grabbing her pickaxe, however, she was met with a very determined face.

“Hey, Abby. Something up?”

“I’m going with you.”

Rae paused in the process of digging out a few snack bars from a chest. Before she could say anything, Abigail forged on. “I’ve gotten better at fighting and I promise to pay attention to my surroundings, I want to make sure you’re not all alone down there, and two heads are better than one since you don’t like taking Bullet into the mines-”

“Ok.”

“-and I know last time — wait, what?”

“I said ok.” Rae shrugged. “You’re right. Last time didn’t go well, but it’s been a while since then. If you’re confident in your own abilities, I’m confident in you.”

Abigail stared at her, her own sword hanging limp from her grasp. “I thought you were gonna argue a LOT more,” she said flatly.

Rae closed the chest she’d been digging through and stood up. “I need the help,” she admitted. “I have no idea where this mushroom I’m looking for is going to be. It won’t be high up in the mines, either — it’ll be really far down, probably. The more eyes and blades, the better. You ready to go?”

Still nonplussed, Abigail nodded.

“Good. Alex! We’re heading out!”

A muffled shout of acknowledgment from the direction of the barn and coop. Bullet scrambled to her feet at her shout, tail wagging wildly.

“No no,” Rae said sternly, shaking her head. “Go help Alex. You can’t come with us.”

His tail stopped wagging; his ears slowly flattened against his head.

“Don’t you give me those puppy eyes. It’s too dangerous. Besides, I just got you clean from your encounter with a slime yesterday.” Rae planted her hands on her hips. “I’m not doing that again if I can help it.”

Bullet whined pitifully at her. Rae remained unmoved. “No. Go find Alex, my good boy.”

He relented with what Rae could swear was a put-upon sigh and got to his feet, trotting in the direction of the animals. Rae shook her head, glancing over at Abigail, who was staring up at the sky while chewing on her lip.

“Not a word.”

“Who, me?”

They jostled each other as they walked north, over Robin and Demetrius’ house and past Linus’ little clearing — Rae paused briefly to give him some corn from the last harvest, which he accepted gracefully. On they went, finally stepping into the dim interior of the mine entrance.

Rae checked her equipment one more time. “You ready?” she asked, glancing up at Abigail.

“As I’ll ever be.” She wasn’t so bouncy and nervous this time around; she seemed more set, more steady. Rae nodded wordlessly and led the way.

They plummeted into the earth, sending Rae’s stomach into her throat as they dropped into the mines. “Any ideas of where to start?” Abigail called above the rush of the wind.

“In the lava levels, probably. I found a mushroom layer once, a long time ago now. We might be able to find it again if we’re lucky.” Rae glanced up at the light over the door, watching as it displayed higher and higher numbers. “If not, I’ll go back and ask the Junimos if they’d accept anything besides mushrooms.”

“Sounds good.”

The elevator slowed and dinged, allowing them out into the mines themselves. It was an empty layer, just a cobblestone floor and nothing else. “What layer are we on?” Abigail asked.

“I think 110? We’re really deep in the mines. I haven’t been down here in quite a while.” Rae bowed a little and gestured towards the ladder with a flourish. “Shall we?”

Down they went. The layers were dark, the enemies stronger than anything they’d ever faced before. It took both their full attention to keep from getting jumped and badly injured.

Rae drove her sword almost hilt-deep into a shadowy monster, yanking it free as the shadow dissolved into nothing. Some void essence hung in the air where it had been. She grabbed it with one hand and shoved it blindly into her pack. “Find anything?”

“Not yet!” Abigail swung her own sword hard, cracking the mask of a shadowy shaman-like figure. It disappeared as well; Abigail shivered. “Ugh. Feels like ice water down my back.”

“If I remember right, those things can curse you,” Rae said. “Be careful for the next few minutes.”

Abigail gave her an incredulous look, but nodded. “Ok. I think I see the ladder over there. Wanna head down?”

“Sure.” Rae brushed her hair out of her face with the back of one hand and followed the other further in.

Down they went, and as soon as Rae set foot on solid ground and turned around, she knew they’d hit the jackpot. “We found it!” she called to Abigail, already running forwards to collect a few purple mushrooms from the wall. “Look at all these — we’re set for ages with all these!”

“So we’re good? You got it?”

“The foraging bundle? Yeah, I think I’ve got everything I need for that, which means the craft room is done.” She grinned as she glanced over at Abigail. “Wonder what the Junimos will give us this time?”

Abigail shrugged, resting her sword on one shoulder and grabbing for her canteen at her waist. “No telling. Last time they gave us the greenhouse, right?”

“That’s the one.” Rae glanced around the level, reluctant to leave. She calculated the level they must be on mentally and paused.

“What?” Abigail asked warily. “You’ve got a thinking face on.”

“I was just wondering — how deep are the mines?” Rae asked. “We’re at level 114, if I’m calculating that right. They can’t go too much deeper. Want to keep exploring?”

A slow, steadily spreading grin was her only answer.

There were relatively few monsters at that level. They found the ladder without too much hassle and descended down to level 115, where the elevator lit up before Rae could even press the button to call it.

“Onwards?” Abigail called over one shoulder, fending off a bat or two.

“Onwards!”

So down and down they went, the enemies as tough as ever and their teamwork unparalleled. It felt like it took then no time at all to get all the way down to level 119, but Rae knew it was getting late by the way her eyes felt heavier and heavier, and the yawns grew more frequent from both of them.

“Almost there,” Abigail said, rubbing her side where she’s gotten hit with something. “You ready?”

Rae nodded, almost leaning on her sword from exhaustion as she stared down into the depths below. They couldn’t see what was down there; it was pitch black down the final ladder.

“After you,” Abigail said, and so Rae sighed and carefully lowered herself down.

Torches ignited as soon as her feet touched solid ground, and she turned to find herself in a surprisingly small cave. Pillars carved from the rock to look like snakes wound around them held up the ceiling. In the center of the room there was a small chest.

“This is it?” Abigail complained as she dropped down the last few rungs. “It’s so… small.”

“Let’s see what our reward is,” Rae muttered, and flipped the chest lid open.

She half expected some chirpy music to play as she peered inside, but there were only the soft sounds of dripping water somewhere in the cave. “Well?!” Abigail demanded, bouncing in place, injuries and exhaustion all but forgotten.

For her answer, Rae held up a key.

Silence.

“Well, that was a waste of time.”

~*~*~*~*~

After the… disappointing end to the mining trip, Rae and Abigail got back to the house in the midst of rising winds and a starless sky. Mindless of the incoming storm, they each collapsed face-first into their beds and fell asleep in mere moments.

Rae awoke to a clap of thunder so loud it shook the windows. She bolted upright, honestly worried for a moment that one had broken, but when there was no shout of alarm or crashing of glass, she figured everything was all right.

A glance at her alarm told her it was roughly 5:45, so she collapsed back into her bed for a few more precious minutes of sleep. Really, she should’ve gotten up and gone fishing for the walleye, but if she remembered correctly, it wouldn’t even come out until noon. So she yanked the covers up to her nose and closed her eyes, sinking back into sleep.

It didn’t last long, of course — her alarm went off what felt like scant seconds later. She groaned and sat up, scrubbing her face with both hands and raking fingers through her hair. It needed a trim — her fingers tangled in the ends. She had to yank them out, as careful as “yanking” could be.

She got up, careful to step over Bullet as he lay on the floor right beside her bed, and tiptoed into her bathroom to start the day. A few minutes later she emerged, hair in a braid, changed into jeans and a cotton shirt. Bullet woke up to follow her into the living room.

Rae was the only one awake at the early hour, especially with the heavy rains. Alex didn’t need to tend to the animals; they couldn’t leave their lodgings in a storm so severe. Penny had started studying almost constantly, Sebastian volunteering to take over some her cooking duties as long as she needed him to — they would see how that went, because frankly Rae didn’t have high hopes. Abigail was probably still asleep as well, what with the late night they’d had. She dug in the freezer and fished out a few frozen pancakes. Into the oven they went to warm up; Rae leaned against the counter and yawned.

Rain lashed the window over the kitchen sink, and she twisted to glance out of it. She was just in time to catch a flash of light, then hear the rolling boom of thunder — far closer than she’d expected. “Oof,” she muttered, as Bullet whined and nudged his head under her hand. “Easy, sweet boy…”

“What was that?” a weary voice asked from the staircase. Rae glanced over to see Sebastian, halfway down the staircase. He glanced out the front windows and frowned. “I didn’t realize the storm was that bad.”

“It is,” Rae said grimly. “Did you not hear the thunder this morning? I about jumped out of my skin.”

“Think I slept through it.”

“Figures.”

The oven went off and Rae pulled the pan out, setting it on the stovetop. “Food’s up. I’m gonna eat fast and go, I want to check on the farm. That lightning seemed really close to us and I’m worried it may have hit the coop or barn.”

“Seems fair.” Sebastian poked at the coffee pot, checking the grounds and water level before turning it on. Within a few seconds, the scent of coffee filled the air. Rae breathed it in with a small smile.

They ate alone, no one else awake or downstairs yet. It was peaceful — the rain on the windows, the clink of fork against plate, the scent of coffee and warm syrup mixing in the air. Rae savored her breakfast, sure the day was about to take off and not slow down until the end.

She was correct. She tugged on her boots reluctantly and pulled her jacket on, checking her hood again. “All right, I’m heading out. If I’m not back by 10, check to see if I got washed away.” She was joking — she hoped.

“Stay safe.”

“Will do. Bullet, stay.” She frowned at him as he whimpered pitifully. “I’m worried it’s too dangerous. Stay.”

He laid down by the door silently, head on his paws as he stared at her.

“Good boy.”

Out into the weather she went. She paused on the front porch to stare out over the farm, momentarily speechless. The rain was coming down in sheets; she was glad the plants hadn’t really started growing yet, or she was sure she would’ve lost some. She took a deep breath and stepped off the porch.

The rain and winds buffeted her immediately. She swore softly; it vanished under the rain, which sounded like drumming on taunt canvas. “Let’s get this done,” she muttered, and slogged towards the barn.

The animals weren’t happy about the weather, but then, neither was Rae. She quickly fed and milked the cows, stroking their noises to comfort them as much as she could, then hurried over to the coop.

There was a small leak under the window, and she grumbled under her breath and grabbed a handful of straw to shove into the crack. That accomplished, Rae stepped back and set to collecting eggs and the tufts of fur both Velvet and Ruby had begun to shed. She ran it through her fingers, contemplative. A lazy summer and boring summer job during college had provided her with ample time to learn how to spin yarn, and she wondered if she might be able to spin both types of fur together.

That was a thought for another time, as thunder rolled overhead once more. She stroked each animal to calm it, refilled the food troughs, and braced herself for the driving rain once more.

It was just as bad as it had been ten minutes ago. Rae muttered angrily to herself as she pushed back to the house. The wind caught the door as she pushed it open, slamming it into the wall. Inside, Penny jumped, turning from the stove to see Rae as she slogged inside and forced the door closed.

“It’s turning into a full-blown monsoon out there,” Rae grumped, shoving her hood back. “And I still have to go fishing later today.”

“Be careful you aren’t washed away,” Penny said.

“Ha-ha, very fun. I actually beat you to that joke.” Rae set the milk bottles on the kitchen table and stood there for a moment, basking in the warmth. “I promise I won’t do so on purpose.”

“That’s not as promising as you may think.”

“It wasn’t meant to be.” Rae leaned over to scratch Bullet’s head on her way back out the door. “I ought to be back by nightfall, but don’t be surprised if it’s later.”

“Goodbye!” Penny called as the door closed behind her, and then she was back out into the driving rain.

~*~*~*~*~

Rae slogged through the driving rain and ankle-deep mud, continuing her angry grumbling as she headed further north. One particularly deep puddle nearly took her rain boot clear off her foot. “Damn rain,” she muttered under her breath, wrenching her foot free and shaking it in the air. Mud splattered against her other boot; she made a face.

On and up she went, until she realized the lake was just ahead. The rain showed no signs of letting up. She shoved her hair out of her face and narrowed her eyes, searching both visually and mentally for any cover she could use while she fished. A faint outline of a tree in the distance, out on the lake, made her rack her brains — the islands on the lake. They were close enough to the water she could huddle beneath the branches and stay a little more dry.

Of course, that meant crossing a rickety wooden bridge, little more than a plank, to reach the islands.

For a moment, she considered not doing it and weathering the storm in the open. Then a gust of wind soaked her front again and she cursed, pushing towards the islands.

She waited for just a moment for the air to still and rain to let up for a moment. When it did, Rae took a deep breath, put her head down, and bolted over the wood. It was slippery, as expected, but she was moving too fast. Her feet didn’t stay on the wood long enough to risk slipping.

She nearly crashed face-first into the tree she’d seen, but managed to stop just in time. She pulled her fishing pole off her back, clicked the pieces into place, and sat down with her back to the bark. A flick of the wrist and the bobber sailed through the air. It vanished into the stormy waters, churning as the raindrops beat against the surface of the lake.

This… would be a challenge.

Rae huddled in place for what felt like days, trusting her instincts to alert her to anything on the line. A few fish took the bait — carp, a largemouth bass, once a bullhead. All went onto the line in the grass next to her. For once, Rae thought wryly, the fish were probably more comfortable on the earth than she was. There was a puddle that’d formed around her string of catches.

Finally — finally! — a tug at her line alerted her to fish on. She started to slowly reel it in, bit by bit. Her eyes narrowed as another sheet of rain crashed down around her. She really, really hoped this was the walleye she needed — otherwise she wasn’t sure she’d get another chance. She was very, very tired and soaked clear through, even with her raincoat and boots.

“C’mon, fishy fishy,” Rae muttered, tugging her reel up again. “Pretty please with a cherry on top…”

Again and again, she drew in the fishing wire. Almost there, she thought. Almost… please—

Her line abruptly went slack, knocking her back against the tree trunk. “No,” she breathed, winding the wire up as fast as she could. “No, no, don’t tell me-”

The bobber and hook popped free of the gnashing waves. She barely had time to react before something slapped into her chest, briefly knocking the breath from her.

She looked down into her lap. A walleye looked up at her with one blank eye, and gave a pathetic wiggle.

“YES!” Rae punched the air with both fists, mindless of the fishing pole still held in her grasp. The fish seemed far less pleased than she was — understandably. “Oh, thank Yoba! Now I’ve just got to get you back to the Community Center…”

She looked out over the lake. Somehow, without her notice, night had begun to fall. The rain and cloudcover cast an ever-deepening gloom over the area. “Well, shit,” she muttered under her breath. “I better hurry.”

So saying, she strung the walleye carefully onto the string and clambered to her feet, stretching with a groan. “Yoba protect me,” she muttered. Typically she put little stock in him, but at the moment she would take any divine intervention she could get. “May my feet be steady and my sight clear.”

The rain lightened just a touch, just for a moment. The world lightened with a flash of lightning, quickly followed by booming, rolling thunder. Rae took that as her signal to run for it.

It felt like an eternity, sprinting across the slick wood. It wobbled underfoot, and Rae’s breath caught, but she couldn’t slow down. Slowing down risked her feet slipping from under her, dumping her into the deep.

One more step — a flash of light. Thunder followed, so close on its heels Rae didn’t have time to brace. One foot slipped. She swore aloud and dropped to one knee, wincing as her knee cracked against the wood. Her other foot dipped into the deep, well up past her knee. Her boot immediately weighed a ton, filling with water in a heartbeat. “Fuck!” Rae yelled loudly, almost entirely drowned out by the rain.

She was still on the board, though. She wasn’t in the drink yet. She could work with that.

It took all her strength to drag her soaking pantleg and water-filled boot out of the water. On hands and knees, she crawled forwards, half-blinded by the rain. “Just a little further,” she told herself, hoping it wasn’t a lie. “Just a few… more… feet-”

One questing hand reached out and found grass. Rae let out a weary sigh of relief and dragged herself forwards, still clutching her string of fish in one hand. “Thank Yoba,” she whispered, rolling onto her back and immediately regretting it as raindrops stung her face.

Soaking wet and bedraggled, Rae got to her feet and pulled her boot off, dumping the water onto the already soaked grass. “I need a hot bath,” she muttered, staring down at the fish. “You guys can wait for a while. I’m going to the sauna.”

~*~*~*~*~

To the spa north of town she went. The fish went in a convenient barrel just beside the entrance to the sauna; she put a lid on it again so no one could see them and steal them. “You better be here when I get back,” she said, glowering down at the barrel as she thumped her fist against the lid again.

Rae shucked her sopping wet clothes and hung them up on a rack over a drain — probably intended to drip-dry swimsuits, but it suited her purposes just fine. Her boots upended and leaning against a bench, she changed into her swimsuit and walked out into the sauna proper.

She walked into a face-full of warm steam that made the hair on her arms stand up. A deep breath, and Rae sighed out in relief. It felt so good, even without getting in the water.

And if the air felt nice, the water felt heavenly. Rae groaned aloud as she stepped into it, sinking under the surface and allowing the warmth to cocoon her like a blanket.

She let all the air out of her lungs and sank to the bottom of the pool. For a few moments, she let herself sit and relax every muscle in her body, bit by bit. Only when her lungs began to burn did she stand from her seat and break the surface of the water. A deep breath of steamy air made her cough, but at least it wasn’t trying to play at being a knife.

Rae muddled about the sauna for another half an hour or so, until she felt less like well-tenderized meat and more like a human again. Only then did she stand and reluctantly climb out of the sauna, grabbing her towel and heading back out to check on her clothes. They were still a little damp, but nowhere near as wet as they had been. She tugged them back on, trying not to make a face at the feeling of damp cloth against skin, and headed back out to retrieve her fish.

Thankfully they were right where she’d left them. She lifted the string out of the barrel and headed down the mountain, passing Robin and Demetrius’ house as she did so. No one saw her as she passed by.

The Community Center was the same as it had been the last time she’d visited. She approached the fishtank, pulling the walleye from the string and placing it on the plaque in front of the tank.

For a moment, nothing. Then the fish began to glow and vanished. The glow grew and grew, expanding to cover the entire fishtank. Rae covered her eyes to keep from going blind.

Then the glow abruptly winked out, and she peeked through her fingers. The fishtank was repaired good as new. She pulled her hands away from her face and stepped forwards, curious. She recognized some of the fish swimming about the tank — she’d caught them before. So the Junimos hadn’t eaten them all, as she’d rather thought before.

Speaking of the Junimos, she looked down at her feet as the first one popped into existence — the pale blue-gray one she’d occasionally caught a glimpse of on her previous visits. It danced in place, bouncing up and down as more appeared, one after the other.

A fog swirled over her mind’s eye, and she closed her physical eyes. The green Junimo that seemed to be their leader appeared in front of her, shifting side to side as it raised its arms in the air. You’re close! You’re close! it exclaimed, in that odd speech she’d grown accustomed to. Only two plaques remain!

“Two?” Rae asked aloud, frowning deeply. “But I had the mushrooms… whiiiich are in a chest at home.”

She couldn’t be sure, but she thought the Junimo might be laughing at her. We will be here when you bring it to us, it reassured her.

“I’ll bring them by as soon as I can,” she promised. “I need to go home now, though. It’s late and dark already.”

Take this first!

Rae stepped forwards and knelt, holding out a hand. The Junimo hopped forwards and placed something in her palm. She looked down at it; it was a ring, glowing faintly as she turned it over in her fingers.

“Thank you,” she murmured.

Goodnight! Goodnight!

She blinked, and she was back in the real world again. The blue Junimo picked up a star and shuffled over to the fireplace, throwing the star into the air. It spun in place and settled into a slot over the fireplace.

“Two left,” Rae muttered and waved gently to the Junimo as she left. The new ring glowed gently on her right middle finger, illuminating her path as she slogged through the rain and headed towards home.

~*~*~*~*~

Rae slept soundly that night — so soundly she slept clear through her 6am alarm. She didn’t even notice when Abigail poked her head in to check on her, frowning; that frown only abated a little at seeing her friend fast asleep. She pulled her head back out, held a whispered conversation, then poked her head back inside.

“Rae?”

Rae heard her, as if at the end of a very long tunnel.

“Are you awake?”

She groaned to herself, rolling over to face the wall. “Five more minutes,” she said, tugging her quilt up further to cover herself. Only her face from her nose up showed.

“Rae, it’s kind of important.”

Rae took a deep breath, held it for five counts, then let it out. “Ok, I’m up,” she said, slowly sitting up and rubbing her eyes. “What’s wrong?”

“It’s… the orchard. Penny went to check on it this morning, and, well…”

A knot was forming in the pit of Rae’s stomach. She pulled her hands away from her face, looking at Abigail. “Talk to me.”

Abigail hesitated. “It’s the apple tree. It was struck by lightning yesterday. It looks like we lost the whole first crop from it.”

Chapter Text

Rae wasn’t sure she’d ever moved faster in her life. She went from half-asleep and nursing the aches from yesterday to on her feet and pulling on her clothes in just a few moments. “How bad is it?” she demanded, half-hopping into the living room where the others sat around the kitchen table.

“It doesn’t look good,” Penny admitted. She frowned, chewed on her bottom lip. “Any apples that were growing are crisped, now. You should take a look at it to see if the tree is salvageable.”

The knot in the pit of her stomach threatened to drop into the depths of the earth itself. “Shit,” she hissed, tying the laces on her boots and straightening. “I’ve been meaning to make a few lightning rods to prevent this happening but it completely slipped my mind — Bullet, heel!”

Bullet scrambled to his feet. As if sensing the heavy mood, his tail didn’t wag. He looked attentively to his mistress, waiting by the front door. She yanked it open and bolted out into the early morning sunshine.

By looking at the weather alone, one would never be able to tell it had rained terribly hard the previous day. The air was crisp and clear, sky a bright, brilliant blue without a single cloud in it. Looking down told the true story; the ground was muddy and churned up between the planks lining her crop fields. Some of her plants looked rather bedraggled, and she realized the sprinklers had likely still run that morning. She’d be lucky if she didn’t lose any to overwatering.

But most of her attention was drawn south, to the little orchard just beside the southern pond. She ran for it, Bullet racing along beside her. The closer she got, the more she could tell something was amiss. She put on the brakes and skidded — literally, with the thick mud — to a halt at the entrance to her orchard.

The apple tree, simply put, looked terrible. Penny was right — every single apple they’d been expecting and relying on was shriveled and useless. She might be able to use it for furnace fuel, but for the moment Rae was struck speechless by the destruction.

She slowly approached, reaching out a trembling hand to rest against the bark. “Oh no,” she whispered, looking up into the boughs overhead. “Oh, this is bad…”

Bullet whined at her hip. Rae glanced down at him, trying to smile for him. “It’s ok, big boy,” she murmured. “It’ll be fine… I hope.”

She turned back to the tree, rested her forehead against it. “What are we going to do?” she whispered, more to herself than anything else.

The apple tree didn’t reply, of course. It just kept waving in the gentle breeze that swept across her farm.

She slowly pulled away and turned back towards the farmhouse. Bullet walked at her hip, looking up at her with a soft whimper. Rae rested one hand on his head, murmuring… something to him. She wasn’t entirely sure what.

Up the stairs to her porch she went, and sat down on said stairs to pull her now-filthy boots off. Bullet was muddy well up to his chest. She grabbed a dog towel off the railing and worked to dry him off, not sure she was doing much besides rubbing the mud deeper into his fur. “You’ll need another bath,” she told him. At the b-word, his ears went back flat against his head. That, at least, made her laugh a little.

“How bad is it?” Sebastian asked, as soon as she stepped through the front door.

Just like that, the little lift to her mood disappeared. “Bad,” Rae admitted, rubbing her face with one hand. “It’s not looking good. I don’t know if I can fix it.”

The room fell silent for a moment. Everyone looked at each other.

“So that’s it?” Abigail asked softly. “There’s nothing we can do? Do you know anyone who may be able to help?”

Rae closed her eyes and thought, running through the townsfolk. Demetrius, maybe; he was a scientist type. Maru, perhaps, though her talents laid outside the realm of flora. No one else immediately came to mind. She thought harder, returning to her time in the city-

“Audra.” Rae snapped her fingers. “She’s a wonderful gardener in her own right. I’ll reach out to her, see if she can come up with anything.”

Maybe, she thought, though didn’t say it aloud, she knew a green witch that would be willing to help — for pay or not, Rae didn’t care. She needed those apples, and soon.

“Audra’s a good choice. You got that laptop for your birthday — could you email her?” Sebastian asked.

Something about the sentence poked at Rae’s memory, but she wasn’t sure what. “Yeah, I probably can. Penny, I know you’ve been borrowing it for your classes, but can I borrow it from you for a little bit?”

“Of course,” Penny said immediately, pushing her chair back and standing again. “Sit — I think breakfast will be done soon, anyways, and I need to work on finishing that.”

Rae drafted a quick email and sent it off to the Sole Retreat’s email address — she wasn’t 100% sure of Audra’s off the top of her head. “Here’s hoping she’ll get back to me soon,” she said, standing again. “Thanks, Penny. Need any help?”

“Coffee needs brewing,” Sebastian called from his computer in the living room.

“I wasn’t aware you’d changed your name,” Rae said tartly, glancing over at him. “And anyways, Alex already got that started, so you’re wrong on both counts.”

He lifted both hands in mock surrender, not bothering to look up from his computer screen. “Sorry.”

“No you aren’t.” Rae shook her head, laughing a little as she fetched the mugs from the cabinet. Penny took tea, but the rest took coffee with their breakfasts. She fixed each cup the way they preferred it, almost on autopilot at this point — a sugar cube for her, far too much sugar and cream for Abigail, black for Sebastian, a little cream and sugar for Alex. When the coffee pot finished chugging away, Rae poured each mug full and moved them to the table.

She turned just in time for Penny to slide the last omelet onto a plate. “Food’s ready!” Penny called, and the group sat down to eat.

Rae kept glancing at the computer screen on the kitchen counter as she worked, worrying silently over Audra’s reply. What if she didn’t have any ideas, or didn’t know anyone? She was Rae’s best shot at fixing this. There was no easily-available backup plan that Rae could think of.

“Hey.”

She glanced over, startled, after her fifth glance in as many minutes. Sebastian caught and held her gaze steadily.

“It’ll be ok,” he said, voice even. “We’ll fix this. We’ll figure something out if Audra can’t help.”

Rae looked down at her plate, playing with a bite of omelet. “I hope so,” she said, and tried not to let herself sound as doubtful as she felt.

~*~*~*~*~

After breakfast, Rae ran the mushrooms over to the Community Center. It was a lovely day to walk; the rain had brought with it a mild cold front, giving a touch of bite to the breezes that swept around Rae, played with her hair, caused a few scant leaves to dance along the ground. Bullet chased after them, biting at them and looking shocked when it crunched in his mouth.

Rae had to pause to laugh until her sides hurt.

The Junimos were waiting, as per usual, and vanished briefly as she walked through the quiet halls. The ruined craft room waited. She knelt, placed the two mushrooms onto the plaque in the center of the room. After a moment of blinding light, she peeked through her fingers and nearly squealed aloud with delight.

She hadn’t truly considered what, exactly, the craft room would consist of. She’d expected more of a kindergarten feeling to it — colored paper, markers, crayons, the like. There was some of that, close to the door into the room. What sat before her, though, was a true crafter’s room, one to make anyone even mildly skilled in the fibrous arts swoon.

One wall was nothing but shelves; when she investigated, she found it lined with mismatched glass jars full of dyes. A woven basket on the ground contained wool just waiting to be carded. A box on a low table beside a rocking chair contained crochet hooks and knitting needles. The opposite wall appeared to be sewing materials, from needles to ribbons to buttons.

The two things that made her heart positively sing with joy, however, were the loom taking up one corner of the room, and the spinning wheel directly in front of her.

Her mind clouded again, and the green Junimo bounced up and down in her mind’s eye. You are pleased? It asked her.

“Very much so!” She clapped her hands together, bringing them to her mouth to hide the grin on her face. “This is incredible! I love it!”

We are glad! We are glad! The Junimo bounced in place some more. She couldn’t be sure, but she thought it was smiling too. You are almost done! Just a little further to go!

At the reminder, her smile fell from her face. “About that,” she said, and slowly settled into a seat on the ground. “I have bad news. The storm yesterday — lightning struck the apple tree on my farm. I don’t know if it’ll ever produce apples again.”

The Junimo settled down, though it didn’t stop shifting from side to side. She wasn’t sure it ever stopped moving. It will heal, it reassured her.

Relief swept through her for a moment, before she frowned. “How long will it take?”

We do not know. We exist on another plane from yours and do not follow your time-keeping. The Junimo bounced a little. It should not be more than a week, if we understand your time conventions.

“I don’t have a week,” Rae said, somewhat desperate. There was less than a week left — it was already the fourth day of Fall. “I need it healed, and fast.”

We cannot help with it, the Junimo said apologetically. We are sorry.

“It’s ok.” Rae’s shoulders slumped a little. “It was worth a try. Thank you so much for giving me the chance at all.”

Of course! Of course! The green Junimo bounced in place again, and when she blinked, she was looking at the craft room once more.

Her fingers itched to try out the spinning wheel — finally she could start spinning her rabbit’s fur into wool! — but common sense prevailed and she followed the little yellow Junimo with its star out into the common area. Once again, it threw it into the air, landing perfectly in the plaque.

“One left,” Rae murmured grimly. She waved to the Junimo, which danced around her feet, and slipped out into the sunshine. Bullet followed close behind her.

She turned around as the door closed behind her and nearly ran into someone. “Oh, goodness- I’m terribly sorry!” she exclaimed, side-stepping to avoid face-planting into them.

Stephen blinked at her a few times. “Miss Rae? What were you doing in the Community Center?” he asked, frowning.

For a moment, Rae thought they’d run out of time and he’d brought the building inspector with him. A glance around, however, showed her he was alone. “I wanted to see what it was like inside,” she said with a hopefully-convincing shrug. “My grandfather on my mom’s side — he used to love visiting the Community Center. He left his farm to me, but I didn’t really get to know him before he passed. I just… wanted to feel closer to him, I guess.”

Her excuse worked, apparently; Stephen’s face melted into one of understanding. “Ah,” he said, nodding a little. “I understand.”

“What’re you doing up here?” Rae asked in return.

“I was going to check the structural stability — see if it’s holding up or not.” Stephen rested one hand on the doors, looking up at the still and silent clock over their heads. “It’s a beautiful old building.” The last appeared to be half-murmured to himself.

“It is,” Rae agreed. “Some beautiful old architecture. I like visiting it occasionally.”

His gaze snapped back to hers, frowning again. “It’s not safe,” he reminded her. “You really should stay away. I’ll talk to Mayor Lewis about putting some ‘keep out’ tape over the front — do you know if many of the villagers visit often?”

For a minute, Rae lost her breath. If he sealed up the interior, there would be no way for her to get in to deposit the bundles. “Oh, no — I don’t think so,” she said hastily. “I think people tend to stay away from it because they’re worried about the structure too.” She could’ve kicked herself as soon as the last words left her mouth — way to reaffirm his reasoning.

Stephen nodded, but that frown was still in place. “I think some of the children — Vincent and Jas, right? — they’ve been playing inside. There was a little hut that looked like it could be a child’s playhut.”

Rae, who knew precisely what that hut actually was, kept her mouth shut.

“I don’t want Ellie or Logan getting hurt because they decided to explore,” Stephen decided. He gave Rae a brisk smile. “I’ll get it sealed up. I’d stay away, if I were you — don’t want you getting injured by something.”

She really, truly could not tell if that was meant to be a threat or not. From Morris, she would bet solid money on it. From Stephen, it was almost genuine enough to be real concern.

She hoped.

In any event, as she pushed through the social pleasantries and said goodbye, it was exactly what she didn’t need — yet another setback.

~*~*~*~*~

Rae spent the remainder of her day in the fields, trying to clear out standing puddles that threatened to drown her crops. She wasn’t alone — Alex and Abigail were quick to help her, and Sam swung by briefly and got put to work as well. They labored until late afternoon, when Penny called that dinner was ready, and to come wash up and eat.

Audra had replied, when Rae checked her email before turning in for the night. She seemed to understand the urgency, as she promised to send something along as fast as she could manage. Heart a touch lighter, Rae went to bed and slept like the dead — again.

She woke to chirping birds and a beeping alarm, one far less pleasant than the other. She yawned, sat up; Bullet lay across her legs, trapping her in place again. “C’mon,” she told him, wiggling one leg. “Time to move, sweetie. Up and at ‘em.”

He grumbled and rolled over, allowing her just enough room to wiggle herself free and stand up. Rae yawned, wandering towards the bathroom. She passed the calendar hanging from her wall as she did so and paused; she hadn’t had the chance to check it recently, as busy as she’d been.

So she stopped and scrubbed at her eyes, blinking a few times. It was the fifth day of the fall season, which meant today was Elliot’s birth… day…

Rae’s eyes skipped back a few days to the second day of fall.

Her jaw slowly fell open.

Penny, already working on breakfast, jolted hard as the door to Rae’s bedroom slammed open. “Rae?” she asked, concerned.

“Why didn’t you remind any of us it was your FREAKING BIRTHDAY?!” Rae yelled, planting her hands on her hips.

Penny looked a little startled, glancing back down at the egg-and-toast she was cooking. “It’s no big deal, really,” she said. “I figured we could just have a quiet celebration after everything was sorted…”

Rae reached out, took the spatula from her and wrapped her up in a tight hug. “It’s your birthday,” she said, putting as much emphasis into it as she could. “It’s always important. Go sit. You get to take the day. It’s the least I can do.”

“Someone shouting?” Alex asked, mid-yawn as he tramped down the stairs.

“Yes, me,” Rae said. She gave Penny another half-joking, half-disapproving look. “It was Penny’s birthday on the 2nd, and none of us remembered, so she didn’t remind us.”

Alex stopped, staring between the two. “For real?” he asked, looking startled. “Why not?”

Penny was slowly going pink. “I didn’t think it was important,” she said softly.

“It’s a birthday! That’s a big deal!”

“It’s really not…”

Rae looked down into the pan of egg-and-toast, flipping it over absently as she focused on Penny. The kindness she practically exuded in waves, the warm smile that always greeted them when they came in from the fields, her strong work ethic…

A picture formed in her mind — two things, actually, side-by-side. A muffin with small seeds sprinkled on top, and a pot of something that looked like soup. She could see shrimp floating in it and slices of mushrooms. After a moment, she remembered the names: poppyseed muffins, and Tom Kha Soup. She thought she had the recipe for the soup somewhere — hopefully. The muffins would be easy enough to make.

“We’ll celebrate today,” she said abruptly, turning on her heel to face them. “There’s no reason not to. I may need a little bit to pull some ingredients together, but I’ll see what I can do.” She gave Penny a warm smile. “I know you need to study, but don’t worry about making dinner, at least — I can handle it for today. You’ve done so much for us already.”

“But I…”

But Rae had already turned back to the egg-and-toast and resolutely ignored Penny’s protests.

The other two got the same news when they arrived downstairs for breakfast, resulting in Abigail gently smacking Penny’s arm and giving her a playful glare. “You should’ve reminded us!” she said. “Yoba knows I’d kick up a fuss if you guys forgot my birthday — which is in like a week, by the way, so don’t any of you forget—”

“How could we? You remind us every day in the week leading up to it,” Sebastian said dryly. He traded a slightly exasperated look with Rae over his cup of coffee. “Happy belated birthday, Penny.”

“Thank you,” Penny said, a little pink in the cheeks at all the attention. “You’re all so sweet…”

“It would’ve been sweeter if any of us had actually remembered your freaking birthday,” Rae groused aloud, raking one hand through her hair. She sighed. “Sorry. I’m more frustrated at myself than I am with you.”

“I understand.”

They had a quick breakfast; then Rae sorted through her recipes and discovered she didn’t have the recipe for Tom Kha Soup like she’d thought. If she remembered right, Sandy did, though, and she went digging through a chest for some leftover sweet peas to butter up the woman. “I’ve got an errand to run — I’ll be back in a bit!” she called, waving as she ran down the path and to the bus station.

It was the work of a few minutes to purchase a ticket and hop on the bus to the Calico Desert. Pam didn’t have much to say, thankfully, and they drove in silence all the way to the desert itself.

“I’ll be here when you’re ready to go,” Pam told her somewhat gruffly as the doors opened and Rae stepped out into the desert sun. Even though fall was beginning back in Pelican Town, it still felt like the height of summer to her. She quickly trekked south to the shop Sandy ran.

The bells over the door jingled as she pushed it open and stepped inside, reveling in the air conditioning. “Rae!” Sandy said, with a surprised, pleased smile. “How good to see you!”

“Hello!” Rae waved needlessly as she approached the counter, digging out the sweet pea bouquet from her backpack and offering it to her. “Present for you!”

Sandy gasped, one hand fluttering to her cheek. “Oh, goodness — I love getting flowers from the valley. How did you know?”

“I asked a little bird and it told me,” said Rae, who had done nothing of the sort. “I confess — I have a second reason for coming to visit today.”

“Oooh, do tell.” Sandy’s brown eyes glittered as she leaned on the counter.

“It’s a friend of mine’s birthday, and she really likes Tom Kha Soup,” Rae said. “I was wondering if you had the recipe, and you’d be willing to part with it?”

“A birthday gift? Of course!” Sandy straightened, clapping her hands together. “Give me just a moment to find my recipe book. Tell me, how are things in the valley these days?”

So Rae launched into a long-winded update — about the new townspeople, the Community Center, Joja Corp’s plans. She cut herself off before she could start talking about her worries, though — there was no need to swamp Sandy with her insecurities. It was long after Sandy had found the recipe that Rae finished, resting her chin in her hands.

“Sounds like you’re very busy out there!” Sandy smiled warmly at her, resting her hands on her hips. “But you’re doing a great job!”

“I’m doing my best,” Rae said, hoping her return smile didn’t betray how uneasy she really felt.

“And sometimes that’s all you can do.” Sandy pushed the piece of paper towards her. “Now — there’s your recipe. Make sure to collect some coconuts before you leave, all right?”

Rae collected her new recipe. “I will,” she promised, keeping up the smile. “Thank you again, Sandy!”

The other woman waved as Rae stepped out of the shop and back into the hot desert winds.

~*~*~*~*~

The moment Rae got back from her brief jaunt out to the Calico Desert, she started cooking. Penny asked what she was making a few times, but Rae refused to tell her with a mysterious little smile. “Don’t worry about it,” she said airily. “But I guarantee you’ll like it.”

Sandy’s recipe was relatively simple — coconut milk, sliced mushrooms, and shrimp. She added a little water to thin out the thick soup and some spices to taste, but otherwise kept it easy. Poppyseed muffins went in the oven while the soup simmered on the stove. Soon enough, as Sebastian, Abigail, and Alex trekked back inside, dinner was ready.

“Happy birthday!” Rae half-sang, offering Penny the first bowl of soup.

Penny took a hesitant sip, then closed her eyes. “This is wonderful,” she said with feeling. “Tom Kha Soup — how did you know?”

“A little bird told me,” Rae repeated. She was relatively sure Penny knew about her little magic gift, but didn’t want to bring it back up again. The fewer people that knew, the better. “Go ahead, have a seat!”

Penny sat while the others got their soup and joined her. Soon the room fell quiet as they ate. Everyone seemed lost in their own little world as they did so.

Then Rae realized abruptly she had no soup left in her bowl and straightened, stretching both hands over her head. “Presents!” she said, clapping her hands together over her head. “It’s not much, but some of the Fairy Roses came in earlier than expected.” She stood and retrieved the vase from the top of the fridge — one of the only places that she figured Penny wouldn’t be able to see easily, since she was so short.

Penny gasped as Rae placed the flowers in front of her, clasping her hands together. “Oh my goodness — Rae, these are wonderful,” she whispered, and sniffed at one of them. “It smells heavenly.”

Rae smiled a little, folding her hands behind her. “I’m glad you like it so much. I’m sorry there’s nothing more for you.”

“That’s not true,” Abigail protested. “Seb and I ordered some stuff online — it just won’t be here for another few days, since it’s shipping from Zuzu City and all.”

Penny turned shining eyes on them. “Thank you both so much,” she said softly.

Alex cleared his throat, rubbing the back of his neck briefly. “I, uh, I didn’t know what to get you, but Rae let me use some of her supplies, so… here.” He handed her a small box from his pocket, ignoring the look Abigail and Sebastian traded and how Rae leaned forwards, just a little, to see better.

Penny opened the jewelry box; her jaw dropped. “Alex, you — you didn’t have to get this for me,” she whispered.

He huffed and ducked his head. “’S nothing, really.”

“It’s lovely,” Rae murmured, as she looked at the delicate pendant in the box. Alex had asked her permission to take a bar of gold and emerald to Clint’s early that morning, and she had agreed once he told her it was a gift for Penny. She hadn’t been sure what his plan was then, but now she could see the delicate craftsmanship in it. He’d asked for it to be made into a five-petal flower, with the emerald shining dead center.

Penny lifted it out of the box with shaking hands, staring wide-eyed at it. “I don’t think I’ve ever had something so beautiful,” she whispered. “Alex — thank you, so much.”

“Way to show us up, jock,” Abigail joked softly, but the words appeared to roll right off his back.

Penny put the chain around her neck, brushing her red hair out of the way and lifting her chin. “How do I look?” she asked.

“Beautiful,” Rae said, with a small smile for her. “You look lovely.”

There was immediate consensus from the others. Alex looked a little red at the ears as he muttered that it looked ‘pretty nice’, only turning brighter red when Rae nudged him with one elbow gently. “That was very thoughtful of you,” she murmured.

Alex shrugged. “Oh, y’know — I just figured I’d never seen her wear any jewelry and thought she might like something pretty.”

“It’s a good idea.” Rae winked at him as she picked up his bowl and retreated to the sink.

Behind her, she could hear Penny asking Sebastian and Abigail what they’d gotten her, while they refused to say anything. She laughed softly as Penny broke out the puppy eyes and Abigail wavered, but Sebastian’s resolve held firm. “You’ll find out soon enough,” she called over one shoulder, though she was just as curious as Penny was, truthfully.

Her smile slowly faded. The day had been a nice break from reality, but everything was starting to creep back in — her worries, her fears, the time limit that was narrowing by the hour. As much as she wanted to enjoy the evening, the celebration, she couldn’t.

“I will when this is all over,” she murmured to herself, too quiet for anyone else to hear. “I promise.”

Chapter Text

Rae slept fitfully that night, tossing and turning endlessly. Sometime in the night, Bullet leapt up next to her, causing her to toss the blankets off as the living hot-water-bottle made her sweat. For half an hour, she lay there staring at the ceiling, listening to wind in the trees outside and trying to drift off, even for a few minutes.

She must have finally slept, because she opened her eyes to the incessant beeping of her alarm clock. Bullet lay across her lower legs, trapping her in place, and for a moment she wanted nothing more than to roll over and fall back asleep.

But it was morning, and the day was wasting away the longer she laid there. She sat up, scratching behind Bullet’s ears as she worked her legs free from under him. “Good boy,” she murmured, standing and stretching out her spine.

She was awake early enough that no one else was moving around yet. She had a sinking suspicion she’d be chugging coffee to keep upright that day and so put a carafe on to brew. There were leftover poppyseed muffins in the fridge, and she warmed one up in the oven for her breakfast.

No matter the time crunch she felt pressing down on her more and more with each passing hour, the chores still had to be done. Rae stepped out into a bright day. The ground had yet to dry completely, she realized as she stepped off the porch, but it was far better than the slog through the mud she’d experienced the day previous.

The corn was ready to harvest yet again, and she set to work pulling ear after ear off the stalks. Bullet accompanied her, lying just outside the field and watching as his mistress worked. Before long, she had a small pile of corn on the pathway and the sun was well on its way to the height of the sky. She’d briefly seen Alex as he headed over to tend to the animals, and Penny as she headed south to the orchard.

The orchard — the apple tree-

Rae snapped her attention towards the house and her mailbox. The flag was up, she realized. She bolted towards it, skidding to a halt and yanking the door down.

A package, wrapped in brown paper and labeled with the elegant cursive script Rae had always envied, sat in the box. She pulled it out and retreated to the porch to open it.

A letter fell out of the paper as she ripped open one end; Rae picked it up and broke the seal (an actual wax seal — she’d known Audra was extra, but not that extra).

‘Dear Rae,’ read the letter. ‘I was so glad to hear from you again, though I’m sorry it was under such bad circumstances. Luckily for you, the newest barista here at the Sole Retreat Tea Room is a green witch/wizard. I asked him to make something for you and added just a bit of my own special touch to it.’

It went on at length, talking about the new barista, the latest concert she’d been to, Audra’s current beau. Rae skimmed it, mostly; once she was sure there was nothing else important in the letter, she set it aside with a promise to read it properly later and dug into the package itself.

The talisman Audra had gotten for her was a ribbon, beads threaded onto it in colors to represent life and vitality — green and red, mostly, giving it an almost Feast-of-the-Winter-Star vibe. Rae ran her fingers over it. She could see the runes of Audra’s magic and the faint shine of the new barista’s magic on it both.

There was only one thing to really do.

Rae folded her hands around it, closed her eyes and brought both hands to her chest. She breathed out, a long, slow breath, and visualized the magic following her veins from her heart to her hands and into the ribbon.

“All right,” she murmured to herself, once she was sure it had worked. “Let’s go hang this from the apple tree and pray for the best.”

Penny was up on a ladder in the pomegranate tree, catching the pomegranates that were tossed down to her from further up. Rae had to peer into the tree to see better, but she could see Abigail’s familiar hair color hidden among the leaves.

“Hello,” Penny called with a warm smile and wave. “Fancy seeing you here!”

“Indeed,” Rae called in return. She turned her attention to the apple tree. Her heart panged as she looked at all the burnt apples, some still hanging from the boughs. “Let’s hope this works…”

She reached out and hung the talisman from the lowest bough she could reach, making sure it was firmly in place before she stepped away. A gentle breeze made it dance in the wind, and she realized that someone had attached tiny bells to the free end as they chimed softly.

“Is that the talisman?” Abigail called from up in the pomegranate tree.

Rae peered up at her. “Yeah, it is,” she half-shouted back. “It just got here today. Audra moved faster than I expected.”

“Great!” The branches in the upper reaches of the tree shook, and Abigail’s head abruptly poked out of the leaves to beam at her. “How fast should it work?”

Rae shrugged. “There’s no telling. I’m hoping it’ll be in two or three days at the most. It’s already the 6th.”

Speaking of which, she started and turned to Penny. “I need a few pomegranates from you, then I need to run into town for a bit,” she said.

“Of course! They’re your trees, after all!”

So she grabbed several of the nicest pomegranates she could find from the basket and headed back towards the farmhouse and the route into town. Bullet she sent to assist Alex in herding the animals; she didn’t want to scare off the Junimos.

The walk into town was peaceful; the leaves had begun to change colors, turning yellow at the edges in places. None had really started to fall yet, but she figured that would happen within the next week or so. She skirted town, taking the stairs up to the park area above the town proper—

Rae stopped dead in her tracks as soon as she saw the Community Center.

Yellow “Caution” tape covered the front doors; the windows were covered with plastic sheets. Rae stared in silent shock, eyes wide and jaw nearly hanging open.

“Afternoon, Miss Rae!”

The exact last person she wanted to speak to at the moment. Rae forced her best “company” smile onto her face and pivoted on one heel to see Stephen approaching her, hands in the pockets of his navy dress pants. He looked at ease, peering up at the Community Center’s front.

Her blood started boiling almost immediately. She tamped it down — things would go poorly if she strangled him, especially in broad daylight.

“Hello, Stephen,” she said, trying her absolute best to be polite and hoping it didn’t come off as a plastic facade. “I see you managed to get the Community Center boarded up.”

“Yes we did,” he said with a satisfied smile. “I told Lewis-”

“Mayor Lewis.” It slipped out; she couldn’t resist the chance to be just the slightest bit petty.

Stephen looked briefly surprised. “Oh — yes, of course. I told Mayor Lewis about my concerns with the children and the Community Center and he agreed to seal it up until the inspector can come by.”

Rae had to remind herself to look surprised — she wasn’t sure she was supposed to know about the upcoming inspection. “Oh, there’s going to be an inspection?” she asked.

“Yes — you haven’t heard already? — Joja Corp is busing in a building inspector to take a look, see if the building is structurally sound.”

Rae waited for him to continue, but he stopped there. “They must really care about their employees’ children,” she prompted.

Stephen frowned. “What do you mean?”

“You said you were worried about Logan and Ellie exploring the Community Center and getting hurt, didn’t you?”

“Ah, yes I did.” Stephen gave her another genial smile. “Well, Joja Corp might be interested in buying out the Center, if you haven’t heard. It would bring a lot of industry to town and would help with Joja Corp’s continued expansion as well.”

Rae made a concerted effort to keep her face level. “I see,” she said. “Well, have a good day. I’m sure I’ll see you around.”

“Oh — if you’re going to be out and about, could you keep an eye out for Eleanor and Logan? Kathleen let them go play, but we haven’t seen them since they left this morning.”

Rae smartly did not comment on the hypocrisy of worrying about his children playing in an old building and yet letting them run rampant around town with no supervision. She merely nodded. “I will. Have a good day, Stephen.”

With that she did a heel-toe turn and walked back down the mountain, heading towards the beach and Elliott’s cabin.

~*~*~*~*~

Rae did her best to control her breathing as she walked briskly through town and south to the beach. Was the universe specifically conspiring against her to make this difficult?

She rolled her shoulders. She couldn’t blame the universe. She’d had over a year and a half to finish the Community Center and something or other had always made her put it off. This was her own fault.

Stone turned to wood, turned to sand under her feet. So lost in her own thoughts as she’d been, she hadn’t even noticed her feet eating up the ground to the beach. She walked through the wooded avenue to the beach and stepped into the sun.

Shouts of laughter caught her attention. She turned just in time to catch a small body barreling into her. Her breath left her with an ‘oof’ of surprise.

“Sorry, Miss Rae!”

She looked down. Logan beamed up at her. “Ellie and I were playing tag! Do you want to play with us?”

Ellie jogged up, shaking her short gold-blonde hair to get it out of her face. “Sorry, Rae,” she echoed. “Logan, you should be more careful next time.”

“It’s all right,” Rae said with a smile. She hoped it didn’t look strained.

“Rae, um…” Ellie twisted her hands in front of her as Logan retreated a few feet. “I was wondering — if you’re not busy, can we go fishing again? I had a lot of fun last time.”

On any normal day, Rae would’ve smiled and set up another time to go fishing. Today, though, her smile was steadily growing more taunt the longer she stood there.

“Not today,” she said. “I’m sorry, I’m busy today. Got to drop something off to a friend and then head back to my farm, I have to get my first fall harvest squared away.”

Ellie’s face fell a little, and Rae felt bad for a moment. “I understand,” she said, faking a smile much the way Rae was used to. For a moment, she was almost breathless at seeing herself mirrored back. “Some other time, maybe?”

She sounded like her mother for a moment. Rae nodded, keeping her fake smile in place. “I think your father was looking for you, by the way,” she said. “You may want to go back for lunch.”

“Lunch!” Logan cheered. “I’m hungry!” He grabbed Ellie’s wrist and started towing her back into town. “Bye, Miss Rae!”

She watched them go with a weak wave, then turned her attention back towards the small shack on the beach. She prayed Elliott was home. She could drop off his birthday present — a day late, but better late than never — and then maybe find a place to have a good cry, because she could feel it building in her chest.

She rapped briskly on the front door of Elliott’s cabin. Silence reigned for a moment; her heart started to sink.

Then a voice called “just a minute!” and her shoulders sagged. Elliott pulled the door open after a moment, surprise flickering in his eyes. “Rae! What a delightful surprise, come in!”

She smiled and stepped inside, breathing in the familiar salt and almost musk scent that pervaded Elliott’s little cabin. “Happy belated birthday!” she said, digging in her pack to produce one of the pomegranates hidden in it. “Sorry, I couldn’t bring it by yesterday, things have been…” She hesitated. “Busy.”

“So I’ve heard.” Elliott accepted the pomegranate with a warm smile. “This is lovely — you grew this yourself, didn’t you? I’m honored.”

“Of course.” To her horror, she felt her smile wobbling. “It’s nothing. I’m just sorry I couldn’t bring it by yesterday.” She gasped and slapped her forehead. “I’m such an idiot, we should’ve invited you over for dinner-”

“It’s quite all right,” he said, gesturing her further in. “Do you have time to sit and enjoy a cup of tea or do you have to dash off on your next great adventure?”

“I…” Rae faltered. “I think so.”

“Wonderful! Feel free to have a seat. Would you prefer chamomile or lavender lemon? I believe I still have some honey leftover from your last visit…”

Elliott trailed off as Rae sank into the seat he’d offered. It was right in front of the fire, which crackled as it threw off enough warmth to warm her wind-chilled bones. “Are you all right?” he asked, not bothering to conceal the concern in his voice.

“What?” Rae swiped at her cheeks; her thumb came away damp. She coughed out a laugh. “I’m fine, thanks.”

“Forgive me for not quite believing you.” Elliott gave her a warm, gentle smile, and Rae, horrified, felt the tears coming faster than she could control.

“I’m sorry,” she choked out, as she leaned forwards to rest her head in her hands and her elbows on her knees. “It’s been… a lot.”

“Tell me about it,” he said gently. “I’m always willing to listen.”

Rae took a shuddering breath, holding herself together still. She’d developed iron control in high school, further solidified in college, and this was unacceptable. “Lavender lemon sounds wonderful, thanks,” she said, and coughed as her throat constricted.

“I’ll put some water on to boil. What’s happened recently?” She heard Elliott walk away. Then he called, “I’m listening.”

“I’m sure you’ve heard Joja Corp is trying to buy the old community center,” Rae finally said, after a few moments to get herself under control. A hum from the kitchenette off the cabin told her he’d heard. “I’m trying to restore it to it’s former glory, but… I’m not using traditional building materials, and some of them are hard to get ahold of.”

“Like what?” Elliott’s voice came from over one shoulder. She lifted her face to see a mug, chip taken out of the rim, hovering in front of her face. She took it with a small smile and sniffed it. It smelled like comfort, in a way she couldn’t quantify.

“Like a truffle,” she said. “Which requires pigs, which I still don’t have. Like apples, which was going to be fine, but then lightning struck my apple tree and nearly destroyed it during that storm. And then I tried to go turn in another pomegranate and Joja Corp convinced Mayor Lewis to seal up the Community Center, so I can’t even get inside… I’m so scared I’m going to fail.”

“Why?” Elliott’s voice was nothing more than vaguely inquisitive.

Rae stared into the fire, taking a sip of her tea. It tasted wonderful, frankly. For a minute or two, there was just silence. “I feel like I have something to prove, I guess,” she finally admitted. “Like I have to rebuild the town, keep the old way of life. Like I have to prove to my grandfather that it wasn’t a mistake, entrusting the farm to me. I barely remember him, he died so long ago now, and I’m still trying to impress a man that’s been dead for seven years.” She laughed like a rusty hinge on a screen door. “Pathetic.”

“I don’t think it’s pathetic.” Elliott peered at her over the rim of his own teacup when she glanced at him. “We naturally want to make people we see as authority figures proud. I understand it — I want my family to read my book and know that I succeeded, that I did something to make them proud.”

She looked a little harder and was somewhat surprised to see her own vulnerability reflected back at her. “That’s silly,” she said, with a little laugh. “You shouldn’t have to do that. If they can’t be impressed with you as you are, then they don’t deserve you.”

“Precisely,” Elliott said, sitting back with a self-satisfied smile.

Rae groaned. “You just turned my own psychoanalysis back on me, didn’t you?”

His sea-blue eyes danced with mischief, an unfamiliar look for the typically mild-mannered writer. “You only needed a bit of a twist on your perspective. And, Rae-” He leaned forwards a little, intent on her. “You’ve already done so much for this town. Whether or not you succeed with restoring the Community Center, you’ve left your mark on Pelican Town.”

Rae took a steadying breath. “I have, haven’t I,” she murmured.

“If nothing else, you’ve drastically changed Abigail’s life, and Sebastian’s, and Penny and Alex’s.” Elliott sipped his tea; his shoulders relaxed with a small sigh. “And I fear my tea collection would be far less impressive without your blends.”

She laughed softly. “Thank you,” she finally said. “I’m very sorry for sidetracking you from your novel.”

“Well, actually…” Elliott trailed off for a moment. “I believe the rough draft is finished.”

Rae bolted upright, staring at him in shock. “Oh my goodness, are you serious?!” she asked.

“Entirely.” He smiled at her. “I’ve sent out some query letters to editors. Just waiting to hear back from them now.”

“Congratulations!” she exclaimed, nearly spilling her tea all down her front in the process. “That’s wonderful, Elliott! Oh my gosh, and me over here whining about my problems-”

“Don’t apologize for sharing your burden,” Elliott said sternly, before another smile broke across his face. “And yes. I’m quite excited, but there’s still a long road to publishing…”

~*~*~*~*~

It was already dark out by the time Rae finished her tea time with Elliott. “It seems like this happens every time we decide to catch up,” she commented as she peered out into the darkness. Stars glittered in the sky, from high overhead clear out to the horizon, and for a moment it took her breath away.

“At least it isn’t pouring this time,” Elliott said behind her, sounding amused. “Will you be all right to walk home?”

For an answer, Rae held up her right hand. On her middle finger was the glowing ring she’d collected from the Junimos a few days previous. “I’ll be just fine,” she said with a playful smile. “I’ll see you around, Elliott. Congrats again on finishing your rough draft!”

She stepped out into the chilly night air and set off at a brisk pace, heading north towards the town. She crossed the bridge, but hesitated before she could walk further north into the central plaza.

Today she felt like wandering past the edge of the Cindersap Forest. The night air was a bit nippy, of course, but she could handle it. She turned and walked past Haley and Emily’s house, then past Sam’s, and then she was in the shaded lane leading to Marnie’s farm and Leah’s cottage.

It was too cold for the lightning bugs she’d seen over the summer to risk flying, which was unfortunate, but the light from the bright stars overhead and the ring on her finger lit her path. She brushed a hand through tangled hair and proceeded further along the path.

Then she was turning north, and she could start to make out some of her farm through the gap in the trees. A soft breeze swept through the field of grass she was growing for hay, causing it to move like ocean waves. She halted at the edge of the farm, content to observe for a moment.

So caught up in the impending deadline of the Community Center as she was, she hadn’t had time in a while to pause and take in her farm progress. When she’d moved in over a year and a half ago, the farm had been a disaster: trees growing everywhere, downed branches and rocks scattered about, to say nothing of the weeds. She could still remember her first full day at the farm, nearly in tears at the work ahead of her and the rusty old tools she had to use. The backbreaking work she’d done to clear even a tiny piece of land and her first parsnip harvest.

Now ahead of her was the larger of the two ponds on the property, while directly to her left was her small orchard. Further to the northeast were her crop fields, growing strong and bountiful. Northwest held her barn and chicken coop. She hoped Alex had already put them up for the night.

Rae closed her eyes and listened; the bells on Audra’s charm jingled ever so faintly, buoyed by the wind. That same breeze brought a faint scent of apple blossoms to her nose. She went to investigate, picking her way through the tall grass.

“Thank heavens,” she whispered as she finally got close enough to see, shoulders sagging in relief.

The apple tree had begun blooming again.

~*~*~*~*~

The first thing she did the next morning, well aware of the deadline breathing down her neck and nothing really left to do but wait, was head south again. Bullet accompanied Rae this time, deciding to give the poor chickens a day off from his ‘herding’ (read: terrorizing). He ran ahead of her down the lane, crashing through a few small piles of fallen leaves and scattering them every which way. He even managed to scare up a rabbit, which darted away in terror.

Rae laughed, but it quickly subsided as her mind flew back to the newly-renovated crafting room in the Community Center. Her fingers fair itched to use the beautiful spinning wheel to experiment with spinning her rabbit wool into yarn. But Joja Corp’s minions had ensured that wouldn’t happen for a while, if ever.

Distantly, she wondered if she didn’t succeed, she could at least salvage some things from the Center. Then she pushed the thought from her mind. She just needed the truffle and three apples. Everything else was falling into place, more or less. She’d figure out how to get the stuff into the Community Center when she got it all together.

They passed the tall tree Jas liked to play under; she was there, skipping rope as usual with a thick scarf that kept bouncing into her face as she jumped. Rae waved, but didn’t slow down; the small girl wasn’t a huge fan of Bullet, if she remembered correctly.

The familiar purple cart appeared just up ahead, half-hidden behind a bush or two. Rae made a wide arc around so the merchant saw her coming well in advance. As usual, the woman waved once she saw Rae, but it wasn’t with her normal bright smile. Rae’s heart sank.

“I’ve good news and bad,” the merchant said without preamble. “What do you want to hear first, farm girl?”

“Bad,” Rae said immediately.

The woman tilted her head. “Well, it works best if good goes first — I found that truffle you requested, but I don’t have it.”

Rae’s heart plummeted through her boot soles. “What?” she managed to ask, staring at the woman.

“My contact is doing everything he can, but he doesn’t have it ready for me just yet. Should have it by Friday, though.”

She swallowed hard. “I don’t have until Friday,” she said, feeling a little shaky. Bullet pressed against her leg and whined softly. She scratched his head with a hand that trembled.

“That important, eh?” The woman gave her a sympathetic look. “I’ll see what I can do to make him work faster. When do you need it by?”

“The 10th.”

Now a frown spread across her face; she drummed fingers on the narrow counter. “That’ll be cutting it close. Sure you can’t hold out ‘til Friday?”

“Extremely.”

The woman sighed. “I’ll do what I can, then. See if I can’t find someone else to source one faster. You’d think it’d be easier, but truffles are expensive.”

“Yes they are,” Rae agreed, who’d thought many times about purchasing a pig to get an income boost and was sorely regretting not doing so earlier. “I know you usually don’t come through here on week days, but — could you please, please bring it by on the 10th at the absolute latest?”

The merchant nodded to her. “It’ll put my schedule in a bit of a mess, but there’s nothing much I can do about that. You’ve always been a wonderful customer and it’s the least I can do for you.”

Rae’s shoulders slumped in sheer relief. “I can’t tell you how much I appreciate this,” she said softly. “This is really a huge help.”

“They must really be someone, the person you’re trying to give this too,” the woman commented as Rae turned to walk away.

She smiled over one shoulder, waving her goodbyes. “You have no idea!”

Chapter Text

Rae could hardly stop moving around the entirety of the next day. The corn harvest had come in yet again, not to mention the artichokes were ripe for picking and a few leftover cranberries remained on the bushes. She was up at the crack of dawn again, out in the fields with the sleeves on her lumpy, well-loved sweater shoved up to her elbows as she pulled artichokes off the stalks and placed them on the ground beside her. Bullet lay nearby, watching her as she worked with single-minded determination.

“Morning,” a voice called from the porch. Rae straightened, rolling her head on her neck and glancing over at the source. Alex walked down the front steps, peering up at the sky. “Looks like it’s gonna be a hot one.”

“That’s what the weatherman said,” Rae said.

She wiped her forehead with the back of one hand, unsurprised when it came away sweaty. Alex snorted softly; when she looked askance of him, he gestured to his forehead. “Got some dirt there.”

Rae grumbled wordlessly and stooped to gather the artichokes. “I’ll handle it in a minute. Heading out to check on the animals?”

“Yep.” He waited for her, unexpectedly, as she dumped her burden on the porch. Bullet followed after her.

She scrubbed her face in the tub beside the house and returned to see him still standing where she’d left him. “Want to come with?” he asked, gesturing towards the barn and coop. “It’s been a while since you’ve seen them, right?”

“It has,” Rae admitted, feeling a little guilty as she turned towards the western side of her farm. “Let’s go.”

They were quiet on the walk to the coop. Rae went inside as Alex opened the little door allowing the chickens out. She gave them pets as they filed out the door to the yard, feeling rather disappointed in herself for neglecting them for so long. Soba in particular rubbed fluffy feathers against her hand for a moment longer than the rest, until Udon clucked at her to quit holding up the line and they scurried out into the sunshine.

She gathered the eggs carefully, holding the hem of her sweater up in a kind of pouch to carry them. Alex held the door open for her as she stepped outside.

Then they were in the barn and Alex sat down to milk the cows. Rae stroked Ramen’s forehead gently as he worked. “I don’t think I ever taught you how to milk a cow,” she commented.

“I actually learned from your granddad,” he confessed, and Rae’s hand paused in its motion. “Back when…” His voice faltered and died, and he paused in his work. Rae stood on tip toes to see over Ramen’s back; she could just see the top of his head, bowed in thought. After a moment, he spoke again. “Back before Mom… died, I used to come visit Granny and Grandpa in the valley. Grandpa was friends with your grandfather, so occasionally we visited the farm. That was when he taught me to milk a cow.”

“That had to have been over a decade ago,” Rae said softly. “Grandfather died nearly twelve years ago now.”

“It was.” Alex abruptly straightened and smacked Ramen’s rump. Coco took her place; the calf had grown so fast. She was nearly as big as her mother now, and giving her own milk besides. Rae rubbed the white splotches on her face. “So that’s how I know. To answer your question.”

“A useful talent,” Rae said. She patted Coco’s nose, staring off into space for a few moments. “What do you think of goats? Since you seem to be our resident livestock expert now.”

Alex was silent as he finished milking Coco, then sent her out into the sun. “Don’t you have the Community Center to finish?” he asked.

“I do,” she said. “But there’s nothing more I can do for it right now. I’ve put everything I can into motion. Now it’s a matter of sitting back, and hoping things fall into place.” She grinned up at him. “So, may as well look to the future instead while we wait. Thus — goats!”

“You seem excited,” he said, raising an eyebrow as he hefted the milking pails, one in each hand. “Aren’t goats stubborn and mean?”

“I wouldn’t know,” she said with a shrug. “And you’d be the one dealing with them most often. But I do love a good goat cheese, and I’m sure those big-city-folk would as well.”

“More income?” Alex asked.

“That too.”

They walked out into the sunshine, where Rae waited for him to pour the milk into the bottles. When he straightened, there was a frown on his face. “What do you intend to do with all that money?”

Rae paused, frowning. She glanced over at a distant bark, but soon deemed it unimportant. Her gaze locked on the far distance instead. “I… don’t know,” she said. “For so long it was to upgrade the farm, and now it’s to finish the community center, but after that…”

“Donate to some orphanage?” Alex said. Rae glanced over in time to see him shrug. “I don’t know.”

Rae checked the eggs she was carrying once again, just to make sure they hadn’t broken. “I’d thought to do some improvements around town — put a path down between town and the beach, fix up some of the houses, you get the idea. Put some money back into the economy and give Robin some more work.”

They walked back towards the house. “It’s a good idea,” he said. “Could do some good around here.”

“Of course, none of that really matters if we can’t get the Community Center done,” Rae said. She snapped her fingers, nearly dropping the eggs in the process. “Which reminds me — we need to get the group together and make some preparations…”

~*~*~*~*~

And so the 8th day of Fall passed uneventfully — something Rae was quite thankful for, to be completely frank. She needed the break from running pell-mell towards burnout.

After this was all over, she privately promised herself, she would take a day off and do nothing but sleep in, soak in the spa hot springs until her entire body had pruned, and stuff herself with her favorite food — her grandmother’s banana bread. She could almost taste it just thinking of it. It only made her more eager to finish the Community Center.

Her routine the next morning was much the same as the last. Get up ridiculously early, check the crops and help Alex with the animals, putter around the farm. She sat on the porch, sorting the day’s harvest of bok choy into average, silver-, and gold-star piles in the mid-afternoon sun, when Bullet lifted his head from where he lay beside her.

“What is it, boy?” she murmured, glancing at him, then at the direction he was looking. It was the path into town he stared at, and he got to his feet as whatever he saw seemed to almost alarm him.

Rae put her work aside, standing as well and peering down the pathway. A shock of bright gold, spiky hair caught a beam of sunlight between two trees. “Sam?” she murmured, stepping off the porch and moving to greet him.

“Rae!” he shouted, when he was still a good thirty yards away. “Rae, I’ve got news!”

Her immediate instinct was the inspector had already arrived, and her heart plummeted into the soles of her shoes fast enough to make her sway on the spot. “What is it?” she yelled back, resting a head on Bullet’s head to steady herself.

“It’s the Community Center!”

Sam sprinted the final few yards and nearly plowed into her. He bent double, wheezing as he tried to regain his breath. “Robin told Caroline, who told Mom, who told me-”

He had to pause for breath. Rae tugged him with her to the porch, out of the sun, and made him sit on the stairs. Sam gulped. “-that there’s some guard in front of the Community Center.”

“A guard?” Rae asked, frowning. “What do you mean, a guard?”

He held up a hand, coughing and taking a deep breath. “I didn’t see,” he admitted. “I ran straight here after Mom told me about it. Abby and Seb said you were trying to save the place. I thought you might wanna know.”

“I do indeed,” Rae muttered, looking out over the farm. If she focused, she could see the orchard to the south, and a figure approaching with a basket on one arm.

“Penny!” Sam yelled, right in Rae’s ear. She winced as he waved an arm wildly, nearly smacking her in the side of the head in the process.

The door opened behind them as Penny waved back. “I thought I heard a familiar dulcet tone.”

“Hey Seb!” Sam said with a grin over one shoulder.

“Where’s the fire?” Sebastian leaned against one of the pillars holding the porch roof up.

“The Community Center, as per usual,” Rae said with a sigh.

Penny arrived just then, looking up at the assembled group. “Hello Sam,” she said cheerfully. “Rae, look — the blackberries are coming in!”

Rae peered into the basket; sure enough, half of the contents were pomegranates and half were blackberries. She picked one up, turned it over in her hands, and popped it into her mouth. The sweet, tart flavor flooded her taste buds; she closed her eyes, savoring the flavor.

“If I had more, I might be able to make a pie,” Penny said.

“Shouldn’t you be studying?” Seb asked, raising an eyebrow.

Penny colored. “I was going to use the evening to study. The morning was for chores.”

“You don’t have to worry about chores,” Rae protested, then paused. “More blackberries, you said?”

“Yes.”

Rae winked at her. “I may have just the place to go.”

~*~*~*~*~

Rae linked her arm through Penny’s as they walked up the stairs to the area just above the town, where the playground and fountain were. She waved briefly to Haley, but the other woman was busy with her camera and seemed not to notice.

“What are we doing here?” Penny whispered.

Rae giggled like two schoolgirls exchanging secrets. She covered her mouth, turning to face Penny’s ear and looking beyond as she whispered, “Just a little light espionage. That’s all.”

“On who?” Penny lifted an eyebrow at her.

Rae casually nodded towards the Community Center. A man sat in a chair just in front of the steps, dressed in Joja Corp blue. His cap was tilted down to cover his eyes.

“What a wonderful guard they’ve hired,” Rae muttered. “I see he’s doing his job spectacularly.”

“What’s he doing?” Penny asked.

“Guarding the Community Center.” Rae stared at the door just behind him, once so welcoming and now appearing insurmountable. She stopped in her tracks. “Penny. Look at the door.”

Penny looked. “Is there a chain on it now?”

And indeed there was. Rae squinted to see it better — a thick chain through the handles, padlocked with a heavy iron lock. “More problems.”

“There’s plastic on the windows,” Penny murmured as they drifted closer.

“That was there earlier.” Rae peered at it. “It’s been reinforced, though — I think those are staples. It was just tape earlier.”

“On all the windows?”

“Only one way to find out.”

They circled wide around the Community Center, kneeling to pick blackberries off the bushes nearby. Slowly, slowly they drifted closer to the back. Finally, Rae felt the coast was clear enough to grab her basket and sidle behind the center.

These windows were sealed as well, stapled to the window frames like the front windows were. These were a little closer to the ground, as opposed to the front windows; the gentle slope to the area meant the Community Center sat in the hillside in order to stay level. There was no back door, not that Rae had ever recalled seeing one.

“Rae!” Penny hissed, and Rae immediately turned and darted back to her side, crouching and grabbing a few blackberries off the bush.

“Miss Rae!”

Rae stopped in her tracks. She closed her eyes, counted to five once, then twice. When that didn’t work, she took a deep breath and shoved herself to her feet. “Hello, Stephen.”

It wasn’t just Stephen, though — when she turned, she saw Morris stood beside him, sweating profusely in his suit and tie. “Miss Carriker,” he said with a smile that may have been an attempt at charming. It just came off as constipated. “It’s been a while, hasn’t it?”

“Indeed.” Rae wasn’t entirely able to keep the frost out of her tone. “Last time we spoke was in Pierre’s shop, wasn’t it? When you handed out coupons to everyone shopping there?”

“I think so.” Morris pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and mopped his forehead. “Ah… nasty weather we’re having.”

“I rather like it, actually.” Rae stared him down until he coughed uncomfortably and looked away. “I see there’s some new fixtures around the Community Center.”

“Kathleen was going to retrieve the children from the playground yesterday afternoon and swears she heard movement from inside. Joja Corp agreed to step up security.” Stephen gave her that same comfortable smile. She did her best to return it, even though it was the last thing she felt like doing.

“And you must be Miss Penny!” Stephen said with a congenial smile. “I don’t believe we’ve had the pleasure of meeting.”

“We haven’t,” Penny said, with a smile like sunshine. She shifted the basket onto one arm as she stood, extending the other to Stephen. “It’s nice to meet you, Mr. Stephen.”

“Likewise!” He shook her hand firmly. “I believe you’re the teacher in town?”

Rae shot a glance at her; Penny looked startled, then determined. “Yes, I am,” she said, with a lift to her chin. “And I haven’t met Logan, your son, yet. It was my understanding that he’s just a little older than Vincent and Jas are?”

“Yes, he is,” Stephen said.

“Then why has he not come to school yet?” she asked.

Rae had to bite her lip or her jaw would’ve fallen open. It quickly turned to hiding a smile instead.

“Pardon?” Stephen seemed taken aback.

“I understand I’m young, but I’ve been teaching Vincent and Jas since they were small and I’ve studied ahead at least a full grade. I’m also in the process of getting my K-4 certification now.” Penny folded her hands in front of her, back straight and gaze steady. “I’ve been expecting Logan to appear at lessons.”

“I… see.” Stephen appeared confused — not an expression Rae was expecting. “I’ll speak to Kathleen — I didn’t actually know anything about this. She said she’d home-school the kids.”

“I see.” If Rae had any doubts about Kathleen’s ability to school her children, she kept them to herself. “In any event, don’t mind us. Just gathering some things for blackberry pie. They’re in season, you’ll find them everywhere about town.”

Penny linked her arm through Rae’s without any signal necessary. Rae picked up her basket and waved over one shoulder as they walked away.

“Goodbye!” came the faint call from behind them. Neither turned around.

~*~*~*~*~

Rae whistled her best ear-piercing whistle the moment they set foot on her property once more. “Kitchen!” she shouted, as startled heads appeared from across the farm. “Now!”

Within five minutes, everyone had assembled around the kitchen table. Rae presided from her spot standing over her chair, both hands braced on the table. She had a crude sketch of the area around the Community Center on the table, along with her Solarion Chronicles character she’d gotten for her birthday and a few odds and ends collected from around the house. Her list of remaining Community Center items, some pens, and cups of coffee or tea according to preference covered the rest of the surface.

“What’s up?” Sam asked, apparently equally eager to get in on whatever Rae was planning.

“You were right- there’s a guard.” Rae looked down at the tabletop, considering for a moment, then picked up a blue four-sided dice she’d borrowed from Sebastian’s dice hoard. She placed it at the front of the Community Center. “And since I still have a handful of items to turn in, we’ve got to get past him. So: you are the players, as yourselves, and I am the Dungeon Master. Your task: get inside, without alerting the guard and waking half the town.”

“Good idea,” Abigail said, already leaning forward in her seat. “Where do we start?”

Rae picked up a red pen, then drew lines across the windows and door into the Community Center. “The front doors have been chained and padlocked as well. The windows have plastic sheeting, which has been stapled to the windowframes.”

“Back entrances?” Sebastian asked.

Rae shook her head. “None. Only door into the building is this one.” She tapped the front doors again.

“Padlock description.” He looked intrigued now, drumming his fingers on his knee.

“You’re too far away to get a good look at it, but it appears very sturdy. Picking it may be possible but will likely take a while.”

Sam raised his hand, opened his mouth.

“Bolt cutters are unwieldy and likely to not do the trick on the lock, in any event.” Rae raised an eyebrow at him; he lowered his hand, frowning.

“But through the chain?” Alex asked abruptly.

Rae raised an eyebrow, impressed; she hadn’t thought of it. “Unfortunately, it looks like it’s also too thick for bolt cutters.”

“Removing a handle?”

She tried to remember said door handles. “I don’t think it’s that easy. Would take a screwdriver at a minimum and you don’t know which head or how big the screws are.”

“What about the windows?” Penny piped up.

“Front, back, or sides?”

“Front first.” Her eyes were sparkling as she toyed with a thimble, borrowed from Rae’s small sewing stash.

“About three or four feet off the ground. The sheeting is stapled into place to prevent it from coming loose.”

“Sides?”

“Much the same. A little closer to the ground as you go further back.”

“The back itself?”

“Windows are about two, two and a half feet off the ground. Plastic sheeting as well…” Rae frowned as she thought. “But only one sheet instead of two.”

She saw the significant looks exchanged. “Ok, round one,” Sam said, rubbing his hands together. “We sneak around the back, pry the sheeting off-”

“With what?”

“A crowbar?”

Rae shook her head. “Plastic’s too thin to handle a crowbar. It tears. The plastic is stiff enough that it makes a noise, alerting the guard. Busted.” She tapped her knuckles on the tabletop.

“You said staples — what if we used the back end of a hammer to pry it up?” Penny asked.

Rae thought for a moment, chewing on her lip. “Ok,” she said slowly. “It’s a time-consuming process. Before you can get enough staples out, the guard does a round of the building, finds you there- busted.”

“He didn’t seem interested in making rounds while we were there,” she pointed out.

“Worst-case scenario. Let’s assume his boss lit a fire under him to ensure the place remains secure.”

“So we’re decided going in the back windows is the best option?” Sebastian asked, rising to his feet as well. “There’s how many of us, one, two, three… six of us?” He tapped a pencil against the map. “We need to split up. Half of us create a distraction, one that lasts long enough to give the second group time to break in. I’d assume we’re doing this at night, since the dark will give us cover.” At unanimous nods, he continued, “The hammer seemed like a good choice.”

“What about a flathead screwdriver?” Abigail asked. “Mom reupholstered some chairs a year or two ago, she used a flathead to pry the staples up. Lower profile and easier to hide up a sleeve or in a pocket.”

“Good idea.” Alex nodded to her.

“I don’t think I have one of those, is my only problem,” Rae said.

“Dad does. I can borrow his.” Sam bounced in his chair a little, making it creak ominously.

“Settle down. Ok, so we’re going to distract him. Which three-person team should go?”

“Rae’s gotta be in the back of the building, and the other logical team is me, Abby, and Sam,” Sebastian said. “Makes the most sense too if anyone questions it. We’re friends, everyone knows we are. If Alex was part of our team, there may be questions. Sorry.”

Alex shrugged. “Nah, I understand.”

“What’s your excuse?” Rae asked, toying with her character model.

“Had a bit too much to drink, trying to get home to the farm from town?”

“Wrong direction entirely, Abby’s a week too young to drink, Sam’s even younger. We’ll say the guard has the power to arrest you for this and he exercises that liberty.” Rae knocked her wrists together.

“So only Sebastian was drinking and we’re trying to get him home from the lake up north.”

She paused, inclined her head. “Could work.”

“Or we’ve been smoking, because you don’t want us smoking in the house,” Sam suggested.

She raised an eyebrow. “Yes, to both types of smoking. And may I remind you, it’s still technically illegal to smoke that kind of green in Stardew Valley?”

He gave her a sheepish grin.

“Not asking or judging, just not on my farm.” Rae crossed her arms over her chest. Removing herself from the DM role for a moment, she asked, “What if you were playing flashlight tag?”

“Why so specific?” Penny asked.

Rae pretended to shine a flashlight in Abigail’s eyes. “Use a flashlight, ruin his night vision. Though… if he has a flashlight himself, which he likely does, it’s a moot point. Ignore me.”

“No, it’s a good idea,” Abigail said, frowning hard. “What if… we’re playing flashlight tag, and we crash into him, and in the mix-up his flashlight somehow gets separated from him and lost in the tall grass, what a tragedy.”

“What if he’s got the loop around his wrist?” Rae challenged.

“We knocked him over. What a shame it came unscrewed and the batteries fell out.” She raised an eyebrow as if daring Rae to find a hole in the logic.

“And if he notices you unscrewing the flashlight?”

“The other two keep him distracted. Maybe that’s when you blind him.”

“This poor man,” Penny mused softly. “He’s not going to know what hit him.”

~*~*~*~*~

Before anyone else was awake on the morning of the 10th of Fall, Rae crept out into the pre-dawn light and headed south. Bullet trotted at her hip; in one hand, she carried her fishing pole. The other carried an empty basket.

She paused briefly at the orchard, looking up into the branches of her apple tree. Audra’s charm had worked as intended; apples grew on the branches, plump and ripe. She gathered three of the prettiest ones she could see; then she hesitated and grabbed a fourth, biting into that one.

Sweet, tangy juice flooded her mouth, and she nearly melted on the spot. These were no Red Delicious apples; these reminded her of a cross between a Granny Smith and a Pink Lady. She wanted nothing more than to make an apple pie with them at once, but that was a challenge for later.

For the moment, Rae had a truffle to retrieve, and a Community Center to… enter very carefully without rousing suspicion.

She set up shop on the dock just south of where the traveling cart usually stopped, flicking her wrist to send the bobber flying through the air. Bullet lay down beside her, half-wrapped around the basket resting between them. Rae made sure her boots were safe sitting beside her, then dipped bare toes into the water and settled in to wait.

She caught fish after fish, slowly filling the basket with a small variety. Occasionally, she glanced back towards the two bushes the traveling cart parked between, but the day was still besides her own movements. Bullet snoozed in the sun for a while, before deciding it was too hot and finding a shady place to watch from the bank. Rae eventually shed her sweater and laid it flat on the dock to soak up the sun.

Around lunchtime, she gathered the fish and hesitated, glancing once more at the two bushes. Still nothing. She sighed, whistled Bullet to her side, and headed north for lunch.

“That’s a lot of fish,” Abigail commented the minute Rae walked through the front door. Penny looked up from her computer; her eyes widened.

Rae placed the basket beside the sink and began to offload the fish. “Indeed it is,” she said. “Willy will be pleased. I haven’t been to barter with him in a while.”

“Take me with you when you go?”

She smiled over at Abigail. “Of course.” Then the smile fell away and she sighed. “No sign of the traveling cart yet. I’m gonna grab a quick lunch so I don’t miss her and head back out.”

“Don’t leave the fish in the kitchen,” Penny said, returning to the computer. “They’ll smell up the whole house.”

“No worries, I’ll take care of it,” she said. “But for now — peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and I’ll see you hopefully soon!”

But Rae returned to find no one there and no sign of anyone having been there during her brief absence. She couldn’t stomach more fishing for the moment and so set about foraging the area. She found a few handfuls of hazelnuts and some wild plums, plus some more blackberries, but otherwise it was picked pretty clean. A glance at the sky told her there were still hours before the sun set.

So she laid down on the grass beside the lake and took a nap. Late nights and early mornings of late meant she was running at low levels of exhaustion, and there was no telling when she’d be able to catch up on some sleep.

She blinked, and the sky had turned purple and pink and orange. Rae laid there for a moment, staring up through the branches overhead, before a leaf fluttered down and landed on her nose.

She sneezed, which startled Bullet awake at her side. He let out a bark, leaping to his feet and nosing at her hair. She brushed the leaf off her face and pushed him away, laughing softly. “Easy, boy. Just me.”

When she sat up, she could see the small lake was undisturbed, as was the grass around her. Rae yawned, rubbed her eyes with a hand; then her gaze snapped back to the two bushes.

“Heel,” she ordered Bullet and scrambled to her feet. She didn’t think the traveling cart would’ve been there and gone while she was asleep, without waking her up, but she had to check.

No wagon tracks — again. Rae breathed a sigh of relief, but it was temporary. The sun was going down; it was starting to get late. Soon the cold would start to pervade everything. Even though it was still early in fall, it would be chilly, and any gusts of wind would go right through her bones. She shivered at the mere thought of it.

In any case, her stomach was rumbling, and she needed to make some last-minute preparations before the truffle (hopefully) arrived.

Dinner was already on the table when Rae arrived home; Penny and Sebastian moved around each other in a mostly-smooth dance, placing cups at place settings while the water ran upstairs. “You’re back!” Penny exclaimed as Rae walked in the door, running a hand over her hair to disentangle any leftover grass from its waves. “Any luck?”

“Not yet,” Rae said, hoping her worry didn’t show in her smile. “What’s for dinner? It smells wonderful.”

“Some of those fish you caught, plus glazed yams Abigail harvested today and bean hotpot from the leftover green beans.” Penny beamed at her as Rae washed her hands and took her seat. Abigail and Alex tramped downstairs a minute later and followed her lead.

“Any luck?” Abigail asked immediately, just before stuffing her mouth full of fish.

Rae wrinkled her nose. “Chew with your mouth closed, please, and no, not yet. I’m heading back down there once I finish eating.”

“We have until tomorrow morning, don’t we?” Alex asked, frowning.

Her heart warmed a little at the automatic inclusion — it wasn’t just her, it was the whole group in this. This was the only way their tentative plan would work, was if they were in it together. She nodded in answer. “Yeah, but I don’t want to wait. I want to finish it tonight, just in case it takes the… builders some time to finish everything up.”

“Who are the builders?” Sebastian asked, poking at some of the yams on his plate.

Rae’s gaze flicked to Abigail, who shoved a forkful of green beans into her mouth and chewed vigorously. She chewed on her lip as she picked at her fish. Finally, she settled on “It’s a long story.”

“One you’ll tell us eventually, I’m sure.” Sebastian held her gaze and raised one eyebrow.

Rae gave him her best mysterious smile and took a sip of her water. “We’ll see,” she said cryptically, and proceeded to finish the last of her dinner in a few bites. “I’ll see you later, I’m heading south again.”

“Want any of us to come with you?” Alex asked.

“No, it’s fine.” Rae scraped the remains of her dinner into the compost bin and left her plate in the sink. “Hopefully Sam will be around sometime soon, and the traveling cart even sooner. Everyone be ready to go after the sun goes down, though. We may be cutting it close.”

“Roger that,” Abigail said with a salute. “Head out! We’ll see you soon.”