I'm so so sorry how long this took. Can't believe it was so tough to write, but it was! I'm glad to have something though. The next chapter shouldn't be as long a wait, god willing.
The arrival of two new residents in the small town was of course immediately subject to a great deal of gossip. Those who had seen the two were questioned relentlessly, though their tolerance for such things varied. Hamilton and Pascal were very careful with their words, while Jake, Colleen, and Chase mostly refused to gossip.
"Weren't very talkative but they seemed friendly enough," Pascal said.
"Oh, I'm sure they'll be wonderful guests. A bit jumpy, but it's quite a change from the city," Hamilton said whenever he was asked.
Maya, Yolanda, and Elli on the other hand would cheerfully tell anyone who asked everything they'd thought about the two.
"A peculiar pair. Very polite," Elli remembered, "very quiet, reserved. The little girl kept clutching the young man's coat. He seemed happiest when she was in sight. I didn't watch them for very long though."
"Those eyes! Weirdest color I've ever seen." Maya exclaimed cheerfully, "the little girl had such red eyes. She woke screaming in the night, you know. Father went to check on them and it turned out the little girl was having a nightmare, poor thing. Screaming and screaming I tell you, like someone had attacked her. They both looked really rugged the next morning, you know? Tired, probably didn't get any sleep after that."
"Looked like war veterans," Yolanda said with an air of wisdom. "Like they had just come from the front lines. I'd be careful with those two. Probably came here to get away from something."
"I almost wish I hadn't stayed home yesterday," Gill told Akari as they walked back to their house in the Caramel River District. Their daughter walked between them, clutching one of her parent's hands in each of her own.
"Why, so you could gossip with Elli?" Akari teasingly asked him. Gill rolled his eyes, but couldn't help the twitch of his lip.
"Certainly not," he replied, "but I'd much rather see such things for myself than rely on gossip. I'd like to make my own conclusions of the two."
"They seemed friendly," Akari recalled, "if a little cautious. They reminded me a bit of you when we first met, if you had been more friendly than blunt."
"Father is very friendly," Samantha said, looking up at her mother. Akari laughed.
"He tends to be now, but he wasn't very friendly before." Akari told her daughter. Gill snorted (though he wouldn't admit to it if asked) but didn't disagree with Akari's answer.
"I wonder where they've been all day," Akari said. "Maya said they left after eating breakfast this morning and haven't been back since. No one else seems to have heard from them either."
"Well if I were them, I'd attempt to get away from all of the gossip. Goodness knows it spreads like fire around here." Gill huffed disapprovingly. "There are plenty of places they could relax around here. It isn't our business and we shouldn't bother them." Akari gave her husband a fond look.
"Of course, dear," she said, "but we'll keep an eye out. That boy barely looked old enough to buy his own phone." They arrived at their home then, and Akari pulled both Gill and Samantha into making sure that all the animals had eaten before they were sent back for the night.
"Mommy, is that them?" Samantha asked, pointing towards Caramel Falls. Indeed, there were two figures walking on the path towards town. One a tall figure, the other barely reaching half the height of the first. The sun had already set, leaving the scarce light from lamps and moon to show them.
"Don't point Samantha, it's rude," Gill scolded her before looking over at the two figures with interest. It was Akari who called out to them when they stepped out under the lamp close to their house.
"Garry! Ib! Are you two alright?" she called. The two figures paused and turned in their direction. The light lit up half their faces, and it was such a strange picture they made. The man, iris colored hair and a single dark eye visible, looking wary. His clothes looked a bit torn and ragged, though whether it was style or wear was impossible to determine. The girl's eyes almost glowed as the light reflected the ruby red of her pupils. Her clothes had been changed to what looked like a school uniform, a sailor's suit style with a red skirt and neckerchief. Half covered in the darkness, the lack of light only accentuated their tiredness. Both had dark circles under their eyes so deep that they looked like they'd been slugged. Weariness and caution was in every look and every angle. Briefly, Gill reflected that they really did look like wounded soldiers.
"We're fine," Ib said, to the surprise of everyone. She even looked like a quiet child, Akari thought, before she nodded.
"I said I'd introduce you to my husband and daughter, right? Well this is my husband, Gill, he teaches classes at the town hall in the morning, if Ib wishes to attend some time." Gill gave a polite bow.
"I'd be happy to have Ib should she wish to attend." Gill said formally. Garry gave him a smile and a nod, though both looked forced.
"This is my daughter, Samantha," Akari continued, pushing her daughter forward a bit. Samantha bowed and gave a quick, "pleased to meet you." Ib didn't quite copy her and only bowed, giving no verbal response. Garry glanced at her, but seemed to guess that there would be no more words from his companion that night.
"We really should be going," he said, "we need to eat something before we sleep. It's getting so late..."
"Yes, but as long as you follow the path, you'll get where you need to go." Gill told him. "There are no real dangers on this island beyond the weather. Even the strays are friendly around here." Akari giggled at that, though none of the rest had any idea why.
"Yes," she agreed, "and there is still plenty of time before you need to worry about the Inn closing for the night. They're open until one most days."
"Thank you," Garry said as he and Ib began to walk again, "we'll be sure to follow the path."
"So long as it doesn't disappear," Ib murmured so that only Garry heard her. He squeezed her hand as they moved away from the small family.
"Paths don't change here like they do in the gallery," he murmured back. Ib appeared to ignore him, but he knew she'd heard. Behind them, Gill, Akari, and Samantha watched the two with interest.
"War veterans indeed," Gill muttered as he ushered Samantha into the house.
Ib and Garry walked back toward the town, hands clutched between them. The sky stretched out above them- endless and deep and real- the ground beneath their feet was solid but changed, rugged and uneven in places, unlike the perfect carpeted floor of the gallery. There was ambient noise, the noise of wind and life that had been absent from the gallery when there hadn't been creatures around. The oppressive silence smothering every step and turning their voices quiet as they dared not talk loud enough to attract attention.
"We're safe," Garry tries to soothe Ib as they walk into the town center.
"We're safe," Ib repeats, as though she is trying to taste the truth of the words. She sounds no more convinced than he feels. The paranoia never left. The constant threat of the gallery never ceased. It was always there, the fear that a single wrong step would lead to going back, being where they never wanted to be again. Ib sucked in a breath of the fresh air, glad that it was there. There was nothing fresh in the gallery.
"We should probably make an effort to know who's in the town," Garry said as they arrived at the Sundae Inn. "It will keep us from being surprised, and well, we need to talk to people." Garry looked nervously down at Ib, who nodded slowly.
"Tomorrow," Ib said, looking up at him with the same brave face she'd used in the gallery. It reminded him of when she'd looked at the portrait in one of the rooms and seen her parents. It hurt. It hurt to think of the moment and it hurt to see that face. He pretended it didn't, for both their sakes.
"Tomorrow," Garry agreed. One step at a time, he thought, hour by hour and day by day.