This fic has been very much a labor of love for me. I started it about four years ago, and you would not believe how many times I've rewritten things since then. It's been a long time, but I'm glad I'm finally able to start posting. I sincerely hope you will enjoy this fic as well!
I did try to make things work within the constraints of the game, although you'll see some lines tweaked and some parts condensed.
Warning that this fic contains (or will contain) mentions of violence and symptoms of PTSD including flashbacks and dissociation.
Spring - Season of Rebirth
It was undeniably spring now. The hard freeze had lost its grip on the earth, allowing fields to be cleared out and tilled once again. Now if only the stillness of winter would lift from Kross's mind and free him from the desire to sleep though the season.
Nothing would change. He would tend to the two fields he had planted, donate what he didn't need to Stella at the church, and stay forgotten at the edge of town. That was what his life was now. Nothing would change, promised the little voice of his optimistic heart.
He heard the enthusiastic patter of footfalls on the dirt path first. Kross glimpsed a new face through the curtain of his hair as he stood out in front of his house, thawing in the spring sunlight.
The young stranger seemed ordinary enough as Kross looked him over. He was a few years into adulthood by Kross's guess. His build was not muscular, but still sturdy. He was dressed sensibly in a leather tunic over plain cloth, with pouches belted at his waist. Kross took him for a traveler, but not a threat with his lack of visible armor or weapon.
Kross fully expected the stranger to go charging by without ever noticing him. That was the way life was. That was familiar and safe. The last thing he expected was for the stranger to look around at him and come bounding up the hill to introduce himself and say he had just moved into the abandoned farmhouse down the road. He radiated a cheerful energy that made Kross want to retreat back into the house.
"You. . . don't need to know what my name is. The villagers always forget it anyway."
"Um. . . Are you Kross? Hello."
The old shapes of paranoia came rushing out from the crevices in Kross's mind to pile up on him. This newcomer was to all appearances harmless, but did that really mean anything? Was he confident or foolish to be revealing that he was here looking for Kross? "How do you know my name?!"
"Huh? It's written on your mailbox." Raguna answered, momentarily flustered by Kross's vehement reaction. He recovered all too quickly and added in a teasing tone, "Your writing is really cute, Kross." He was inviting Kross to laugh off the misunderstanding, but Kross wasn't in a mood to laugh.
"That isn't my writing. I'm sure the mailman just wrote it herself out of consideration." She needn't have bothered. There wouldn't be anything for her to deliver. Kross sighed. That had shaken him more than he had expected, after living here quietly for so long.
"Now then, I should get back to work," he added, before Raguna could interrogate him further. But. . . another person in the village might not be a bad thing if it allowed him more work. He had all kinds of plans drifting around his head for the neglected farmhouse Raguna said he had moved into. "Your name was Raguna, was it? When you need some help, don't hesitate to ask. Just come to me when you want extensions."
Raguna thanked him and left him alone, trotting away to inflict his cheerful self on the rest of his new neighbors. That night Kross marked off another day on his calendar. Spring still stretched out before him. He was looking forward to another year of living invisibly in the peace of this small town on the edge of the frontier. His only wish for the year was that once again nothing would change, new neighbors notwithstanding.
"Good afternoon, Kross. How are you?" Raguna took advantage of him working in the front part of his field to come and greet him over the fence. He was smiling again today, although now he looked as though he had been roughed up a bit while fighting.
"It seems you've been to Whale Island." Kross had seen the stalk growing up to the island in the sky. It was easy to guess it had something to do with the new arrival.
"Yes. It's amazing. I've never seen anything like it."
Raguna neglected to mention that he had been attacked by monsters, even though there were still hints of acid burns around his knees from what must have been an encounter with angry ants. It seemed to Kross that rather than intentionally hiding the fact, he simply hadn't taken it to heart.
There was something about Raguna that Kross felt was better met with monster instinct than human reasoning. It might only be the impression that he was a straightforward young man. There was nothing predatory or suspicious in his body language.
He seemed to be the kind of person monsters would like. That was the only way Kross could explain it. He was reaching for the tool in the pouch at his waist before he was aware that he had made up his mind how to deal with Raguna.
"Do you know? You can make friends with monsters. If you pet them with something like this." Kross pulled out the pet glove he had carried for so long as a useless good luck charm, and held it out to Raguna over the fence. "If you can manage to communicate with them, they'll be your friends. But there is a chance that you'll be smacked around badly until that happens."
"That's amazing." Raguna accepted it easily and brushed his fingers over the short bristles. They were soft, so as not to catch in fluffy fur or scratch skin.
"If you can't talk to them, you just have to show them with your actions. It's crucial to be gentle even if they attack. Of course, there are monsters that will refuse to accept you no matter what."
It had been a long time since Kross had been able to be close to monsters. What would Raguna need to be told so he would be able to look after them well? "If you manage to befriend a monster, it won't stay with you without a place to live. I can build you one. . . Also you need to care for them, feed them and brush them once a day. I'm sure you can become better friends with that."
"Thank you, Kross!"
The sincere happiness in Raguna's voice startled Kross a little, even though that warm aura had been part of why he had feel compelled to give Raguna the pet glove in the first place.
"Thank you for this, and for the advice. I don't know what to say."
Kross didn't expect him to say anything. "Go ahead and enjoy your life with the monsters."
Kross had never been inside a bathhouse himself. A lifetime ago he had visited public steam baths. He always came away feeling lightheaded, with his heart pounding out of control and his skin aching from the heat. If that was the way to rid his body of impurities then it seemed his body preferred to remain impure. Washing in cold water felt cleaner.
He didn't think it would be acceptable to mention any of that. Melody had been very enthusiastic that baths were good for the soul, although she didn't seem to mean it in a 'mortification of the flesh' sense.
While he might not have a personal interest in visiting, he did find the task of building a bathhouse extremely interesting. Smooth wood floors had to be sealed, anticipating constant contact with water. The tiles inside the baths must be fitted together neatly. The vaulted ceilings would allow steam to rise. Kross tried to envision a place to relax, determinedly leaving his own memories of the unpleasant weight of sweat and steam on his skin out of his plans.
"You should come back this afternoon when I open," Melody told him. "I think you could definitely use a bath to relax!"
Kross didn't answer. Once his work was done he put the offer out of his mind.
By now Kross knew the sound of Raguna's footsteps, the same way he had learned to pick out the gait of every one of the villagers. If Raguna ever wanted to be stealthy he would have to learn not to run everywhere so eagerly. It was a fine arrangement for Kross, who hated having anyone sneak up on him.
He heard Raguna running by his farm on his way here and there a few times each day. He couldn't stop to check what was happening every single time he heard Raguna. Kross didn't look up when he heard Raguna hurrying by at the same pace as always.
This time, however, Raguna didn't run past. He ducked through Kross's house and into his field, stepping carefully between the rows of vegetables even as he kept up his quick pace. So far Raguna had only bothered him if he was standing out in front of his house, or in a part of the field where it was possible to talk to him over the fence.
"Good morning, Kross!" Raguna called happily. He moved to dig through his bag and pulled out a huge turnip, then offered it to Kross with a bright smile. "I wanted to give you something to thank you for welcoming me to the village."
Kross accepted the vegetable and stared at it for a few seconds in absolute confusion. Had Raguna actually brought him a gift? No one ever gave him gifts.
"Do you not like it?" Raguna asked, suddenly flustered. "I'm sorry. I should have asked first! Erik was upset when I gave him one, but I didn't think-"
Kross cut off his stream of words by biting directly into the turnip. The vegetable was dense and mild, with that robust taste of a fresh vegetable grown without the aid of potions. It didn't even need to be pickled or roasted to be delicious.
"This tastes. . . good," Kross managed. Tears pricked at the corners of his eyes. When was the last time anyone had given him something so delicious? He couldn't remember.
"I'm glad." Raguna answered.
His smile was almost blinding when Kross looked up at it. With tears already in his eyes, Kross lifted his gaze just a tiny bit more to see how Raguna's eyes warmed and gentled with the simple act of smiling. They were such a bright shade of blue. Kross had barely gotten even a glimpse of them so far, and he didn't allow himself more than a fleeting glance now before looking away to hide his overemotional reaction.
Those eyes were so blue, it was almost like looking into the expanse of the open sky. Kross couldn't remember the last time he had lifted his head to gaze openly at something so bright, and he didn't allow himself to do so now.
Kross ran his fingers along overlapping shingles, feeling how they fit together as organically as scales. They contoured to the shape of the roof, individually carved and placed to hold together watertight.
With his own work solid under his hands, the sweet smell of sawdust clouding his head, Kross was content. He had built this roof, and when it was solid and useful then so was he.
"So, the north side?" Erik called up to him.
"There's no damage," Kross answered.
He had the building plan in his head. In fact, he had built this extension himself. He was crouched directly over the seed storage, so he understood Erik's concern. Erik was a farmer to his bones.
Once he had confirmed Erik's seeds were safe, he moved to the south side of the house where he knew there was a leaking chink in the roof's armor, over the living area.
He heard Raguna's footfalls on the path, recognized, considered, and dismissed them long before the cheerful call of, "Good afternoon!"
"Hey, young man," Erik answered before Kross could decide if he needed to react after all.
Of course Raguna was speaking to Erik. Yet Kross listened to their everyday pleasantries as he found the damaged area. He curled his fingers under each warped shingle and pried them free with a momentary longing for the sure precision of claws.
"Kross?" Raguna called up just as he started hammering the first replacement shingle in place.
"Don't mind him. He gets a little intense when he's working. If you need any repairs on your house you should definitely ask him."
Kross didn't pause in his work, but he slowed for just a moment to listen. He wanted the work. He had blueprints waiting for it, old ones from idle thoughts and new ones inspired by the new tenant. His hands often ached for the weight of wood and brick and stone.
"Did you come for more farming advice?" Erik asked. It was obvious he was eager to have a new student.
"You said you could sell me some seeds, so I wanted to ask what to plant."
They moved inside, words drowned out as Kross took up his hammer again. Raguna was still settling in. Of course getting seeds in the ground would come first.
He didn't need to hope greedily for a chance to work on Raguna's house. After this he still needed to go and patch up the roof of the clock tower. It was a good spring if he could steady his hands on work like this.
The first holiday since Raguna had come to Trampoli, and Kross stopped to look over his farm on his way to the church. He wasn't surprised to see Raguna working, trotting to the stream or well to fill his watering can and then back to tend to his crops.
His crops were planted in neat plots of land scattered among the large stumps and stones that still littered his field. He had made an effort to clear out the weeds and stray branches, as well as some of the smaller rocks, but the worst of the mess still remained.
What did come as a surprise was that different types of shoots were peeking up from each tilled plot. Raguna had obviously decided to try planting every spring crop Erik could give him seeds for. In one corner Kross spotted the first signs of bushy fodder, which would soon become good food for monsters.
A bigger surprise was when Raguna lifted his head and called a happy greeting, pausing in his watering to come and pepper Kross with friendly chatter.
Without meaning to, Kross spent the whole morning there, watching Raguna work, head tilted down a few degrees to shield his face from that bright smile. When Kross moved on to the church at noon Raguna even went so far as to walk with him to the edge of the homestead and thank him for his company.
When he reached the church he found another new face. There was a young sister standing outside.
"Good afternoon," she greeted him when he approached the doors.
"Hi." The word came out startled and hoarse. He had hoped to slip by her like a ghost.
"My name is Lara. I'll be serving here as a sister and a nurse, so I'm glad to have a chance to meet eveyone. What's your name?"
She had a smile that made Kross feel like she was the one welcoming him, when it would usually be the other way around. He was about to tell her his name didn't matter, but thought better of it before he opened his mouth.
"Kross," he answered. He thought briefly of Raguna immediately becoming friendly toward him, and he supposed there were one or two of the villagers who remembered his name after all.
Morning still came slow and cool, but this year Kross didn't worry about finding a late frost in his fields. His world had settled firmly into spring. He expected the new arrivals would settle in quickly enough. The routine of the growing season was comfortable enough for Kross to fit his life into. He knew the routine of the village and the crops both, and felt himself rooted in them.
He could hear Anette outside, talking to herself as she stopped at his mailbox for once during her daily rounds. "I always forget about this house when I do deliveries, I wonder why."
Kross opened his front door just enough to greet her, "Hello, Ms. Mailman."
"Did someone call me?" Anette's gaze flicked here and there, not focusing on where he lurked in the shadow of the doorway.
"There's no one here but I hear voices. . . Is it a monster?" Now she was looking in entirely the wrong direction, back down the mountain path that led away from town.
Kross let out a sigh, but it was better to go unnoticed, after all. He didn't know now why he had spoken up in the first place.
In the moment before Kross retreated, Raguna trotted into his line of sight to exchange warm 'good morning's with Anette. She had no difficulty seeing him, and it was clear at a glance they were already friendly with each other. Of course they were. Raguna had been forward enough to introduce himself even to Kross.
Then Raguna turned slightly, looking up towards where Kross lurked, and raised one hand in greeting.
Kross closed the door before Raguna could attempt to call him out into the sunlight.
Raguna had brought him another turnip yesterday. It had been late afternoon, almost when Kross was ready to lock his door for the night. Sometimes his body was numb to its own pangs of hunger, and he hadn't realized how empty his stomach was until he took that first bite under Raguna's hopeful gaze. The entire thing had disappeared in a few hungry bites, greens and all.
With that in mind, Kross didn't expect Raguna to offer him more than a passing greeting today. He lifted his head just enough to catch a glance at Raguna dashing by, but that was because it had been most of the day since he'd last heard Raguna. He only looked to confirm it was still his new neighbor, well and energetic as ever, even though he could already hear that.
To his surprise, Raguna approached him again, but this time he wasn't holding out a gift.
"Kross," he called brightly. "Can you really build me a barn?" He paused and rubbed at the back of his neck. "You were kind enough to give me the pet glove, but if there's a monster I want to tame I have nowhere to keep them and you said you could build me something, so. . . It doesn't have to be a big one. I don't have a lot to build with yet."
Kross knew he was giving Raguna an unreasonably good deal when he stated his price. He told himself he was only deducting the price of a handful of meals Raguna had brought him, and for such a small project he could supplement the lumber from the left-over scraps he had. There was a part of him that wanted to see Raguna able to take good care of the monsters he would tame.
"Are you sure? Well, then is there anything I can do to help?"
"Thank you for the offer, but this is my job."
It wasn't a large barn, just one room and enough space to be comfortable for a few monsters living together. That would be enough for Raguna to start with.
As he worked, Kross's mind cycled through quiet reflections one after another. He made the walls plain, the roof high and open, the floor rough with a natural texture of dirt and wood that would be more comfortable to monster feet than the polished smoothness in a human home. Any monster would be happy to live in this barn, he thought.
Why shouldn't they be happy? Kross already knew Raguna would tend them as lovingly as he did the messy fields he was restoring. He would give them as many tokens of kindness as he did his new neighbors.
Deep in Kross's heart there was a selfish little wish that opened and bloomed in the darkness. He wanted to be a monster here, in the sturdy peace of this barn.
When Kross walked over the bridge to Raguna's homestead he noticed something rustling through the cucumber vines after Raguna as he made his rounds. He froze at the edge of the field, poised between the instinct to shout a warning and need to not alert whoever was stalking Raguna to the fact that they had been spotted.
Then Raguna moved from one plot to the next and Kross saw what was after him. A giant Ant was following at Raguna's heels, stopping when he stopped and scuttling after him when he moved. It made no move to bite or spit at him.
Raguna finally saw him and called to him with a friendly wave. On his way to meet Kross he picked one of the newly ripened strawberries and offered to let him be the first to taste them, as if it was the most natural thing in the world.
Somehow Raguna coaxed him to come sit on the bank of the stream for a few minutes while they shared strawberries fresh from his fields.
As Kross watched, Raguna shared morsels of his food with the tame Ant that was sticking adoringly close to him. He was glad to see the kind way Raguna looked after his monster companion.
"You've already made friends with a monster," Kross commented, surprising himself by breaking the silence. "It seems like you're getting along well."
"I hope so. I'm planning on going to get some things from Lute later, and I thought Annie would like to take a walk."
This was something Kross had forgotten to tell him, that he would be able to bond with monsters by taking them out for exercise and spending time with them. It seemed Raguna had discovered this by instinct. Kross was glad his own instincts had been right. Monsters would be happy under Raguna's care.
Kross kept a respectful distance between himself and Raguna's ant. He was sure it avoided him instinctively, keeping Raguna between them at all times. A monster's instincts must be given at least as much consideration as human ones, and to Kross they deserved more.
"Are you scared of monsters?" Raguna suddenly asked him.
"I'm not scared. I'm actually fond of monsters. They never lie to humans." Even when a monster was dangerous it was acting honestly in the only way it knew. Even after being tamed and learning to live with humans a monster would continue to be honest, never hiding its intentions or its nature.
Raguna was smiling at him. It was strange to think the declaration might be enough to make someone smile. It was natural to Kross.
If Kross thought about it, it seemed that humans were the ones to be afraid of. He had spent a lot of time thinking about that. He would like to be honest in the way that monsters were. He had never been honest before, and now it seemed impossible for him. He was still missing what he needed to be a monster. "I would like to live a free life like a monster. What do monsters have that humans don't. . . ? Tails. If only I had a Cat Tail, would I become like a monster?"
"You want to be more like a monster?" Raguna considered this for a moment before answering, "I remember you told me I had to show monsters my intentions if I wanted to befriend them. I think it would be good if people could be more open and communicate honestly with each other too."
Raguna didn't understand, but he had tried. Kross thought it must be that he still hadn't expressed himself honestly. Raguna would be better able to understand the monster he had bonded with than he could ever understand Kross.
It was ridiculous to feel something so petty as jealousy when he heard a contented rustle from the monster at Raguna's side. Kross had realized a long time ago that he was not fit to tame monsters anymore, or enough of a monster to be tamed himself.
The sun was just coming up as Kross finished his work on the roof. He was left blinking for a moment in the light that suddenly spilled over his work. That first ray of sunlight struck him, like that was the moment his plans suddenly became a solid thing for the rest of the world to see.
Rosetta had been watching him build from the moment he started on the frame. She stood well out of the way, reserving judgement while he fixed the sign for her new store in place. At some point Danny had joined his small audience, standing out in front of his own store with his arms crossed.
Kross spared a moment to judge that everything was in place before he leapt from the roof. He was aware that both of them jumped back when he landed. That wasn't something he could help, he told himself, and silently went inside to finish the built-in fixtures. He ignored the conversation outside, all civil words and icy tones.
By the time he finished he had sweet-smelling sawdust in his hair. His hands were steady from the grounding weight of wood and brick. To take his plans and create something real made him feel more real himself.
Kross put something of himself into his work. He focused on how what he built would shelter people. A permanent shelter meant more than being kept dry and safe. Kross wanted to create a place to live. He made a wide open space for the shop, one that wouldn't feel uncomfortably crowded even with shelves and customers. The living space on the second floor was designed to be more cozy. That was a place to hide and sleep. Kross built those thoughts into the walls and roof and floors.
If what he built was appreciated, that was worth more than Kross himself being accepted and lasted long past his few struggling social interactions. His work made him useful, dependable, solid. With everything he built he became rooted here.
As soon as he was finished, Rosetta came in to open the windows and air out the dust. He watched silently as she assessed her new shop. She paused with one hand on the counter he had built for her, stroking the smooth wood.
"This is exactly what I need. I never imagined I could be in business this fast! Are you done upstairs too?"
While Rosetta went up to inspect the living space over the shop, Kross moved on to the next task. His head was still light from her praise.
Danny had disappeared back into his own shop and taken his disapproving stare with him. Kross went to the small pile of things waiting to be taken inside. He could still visualize the plans in his head. Rosetta had blocked out the interior layout she wanted, making sure there was room for everything she deemed necessary.
Kross preferred the work of actually building to moving, but it wasn't a difficult task for him. He started with the largest set of shelves and carried them carefully into place so he wouldn't risk marring the new floorboards.
He was halfway done bringing in display shelves when Rosetta came down again.
"What are you doing?" she demanded. "I never asked you to do that."
Kross froze with a sudden flash of panic. For a minute he gripped the sides of the shelf with his shoulders stooped, wanting to be small. It took him that long to realize what he had done wrong.
"This is part of my job." She had blocked out where the large furniture belonged, so he had assumed this was something for him to do as well.
Rosetta was charming and proud, and Kross could at least relate to the second half of that. He remembered showing her the plans. She had been so careful about the dimensions and the fixtures, forcing everything to fit within her budget. She was determined not to start her business in debt and at the same time wouldn't accept any discount. Kross understood that desire to live according to ones own rules.
Yet Kross still felt it would be irresponsible to walk out with the job unfinished. He was momentarily paralyzed, unsure how to proceed.
"Well, if you insist. I'll consider it a bonus," Rosetta told him, resolving the misunderstanding when he could not. "Thank you for all your hard work."
Kross kept his head down and refrained from saying that he needed no praise for his work ethic. All that mattered to him was that he had built something worthwhile.
This time Raguna had brought him a cabbage, the often tasteless vegetable was fresh and crisp as Kross ate it one leaf at a time.
He was beginning to wonder why Raguna brought him one present after another. With this latest gift, Raguna had given him at least one of each of the spring vegetables he was growing. Raguna was at his farm almost every day to at least tell him hello, which was already more than Kross expected. The only days he didn't visit were holidays, when Kross stopped in the morning at Raguna's farm. Then Raguna did things like offer him strawberries fresh off the vine, every one of them warm and juicy and almost tasting of spring sunshine.
"You should remember to keep some of your produce for yourself," Kross told him. He liked the gifts, but the uneasy feeling of the unknown nagged at him to turn them away. He could easily twist that unease into paranoid fears.
"It's okay. I've been able to grow a lot. Erik thought it would be a good idea for me to try all different kinds of crops. Anyway. . ." Raguna shifted uncomfortably and half-turned away, as if something on the open hill opposite Kross's farm had caught his attention. Kross took the chance to lift his head and catch a glimpse of blue eyes while they weren't looking at him, only to have Raguna turn back and catch his gaze. "It seems like you're always happy if I bring you something, and that makes me happy too."
He had suspected Raguna was trying to butter him up to get a good deal when he needed an extension or something similar. Kross looked away, shame squirming in the pit of his stomach. Assuming the worst of people was a defensive mechanism that had taken him half his life to learn, and even under Stella's guidance he still resisted unlearning it. Yet the more he got to know Raguna the more foolish he felt when those assumptions were turned back on him.
Raguna hunched forward, the better to look up into his eyes, and surprised him with a warm smile. "Kross, it's okay if I bring you things once in a while, right?"
Kross gave a stiff nod, apparently unable to close his eyes against the invasion of bright, hopeful blue. Raguna was insistent on turning his expectations inside out with one small gesture after another, and he had no idea what to do about it.
It had been raining the first day Kross arrived in Trampoli, just at the start of spring. Ever since that day the sound of the rain had always made him feel calm. The white noise of falling rain drowned out all the unwelcome thoughts at the back of his head, until he was even able to sleep deep and dreamlessly.
He wouldn't need to water his fields today. Kross went to church instead. The sound of rain would wash out the echos that even simple sounds made, until he could concentrate on Stella's voice.
Stella welcomed him. Her firm voice often seemed like a guiding hand. She had told him how to atone for his past sins, even when he couldn't name or explain them. Live a clean life and tend to his body and spirit. Put something good into the world. Care for his neighbors. Now and again she would remind him that he was isolating himself too much, and Kross accepted those reprimands coming from her even if he made very little progress in responding to them.
"It's good to see you being more friendly these days," she commented.
"I haven't done anything." Kross had not been more or less of anything. He did his work, came to church, spoke to Erik occasionally, and that was all. He avoided the business district and the affairs of his neighbors. Nothing had changed.
"I noticed you've been busy building for our new residents. Kanno certainly appreciated that you came to check over the repairs on the clock tower."
"That's my job." Kross enjoyed his work. Of course he had taken the opportunities offered to him. When he had gone back to the clock tower it wasn't because he didn't have faith in his own work. He simply wanted to be available in case Kanno or his granddaughters had found anything on the inside of the building they wanted repaired, or something they wanted improved. That wasn't worthy of thanks.
"And Raguna mentioned you have been very welcoming to him."
To that Kross could only let out a long sigh. He didn't know how such a misconception could have happened. Raguna was the friendly one, not him.
Just yesterday Raguna had approached him with another present, so eager about learning to cook that he wanted to share. The grilled trout he had offered Kross was toasted and succulent, and so fresh it flaked and melted on his tongue. Raguna had waited with a bright, hopeful expression simply to be told that Kross enjoyed it.
Kross wasn't trying to work himself into other people's lives. He was better off staying to the edges. As long as he could live doing his work and be left otherwise forgotten, he was content.
The smile that met his silent denial worried him, as if Stella knew something he hadn't figured out yet. Her voice tipped into the firm proclamation of the sermon. "You must reach out to your neighbors in times of plenty as well as times of need. Man is not meant to live alone."
He wasn't alone. No matter how independent he tried to be, he couldn't live without depending on others in some ways, for seeds or tools or whatever else he needed. Yet somehow he didn't think that was what Stella was trying to say.
Kross was beginning to look forward to holidays in a way he never had before. He spent the morning watching Raguna in his fields, silent as a shadow as he listened to the cheerful young farmer humming to himself while he worked.
He wondered if Raguna stayed around to break up stubborn rocks and till the freshly cleared earth just for his sake. He got the idea that normally Raguna would spend half the day up on Whale Island, or in the Green Ruins.
No, how could he think Raguna was staying for his company? Even if he did stop to talk with Kross over his shoulder as he wiped sweat from his brow, Kross must be little more than a shadow at the edge of his field. This must just be a habit he had developed. While the rest of the village–apart from Lute–rested on their holiday, Raguna's idea of rest was to spend the morning at home in his fields.
As Kross turned to move on to the church, to spend his afternoon in cool silence, Raguna stopped his work and came hurrying up to him.
"Wait, I almost forgot! I found this on Whale Island and I thought you might like it."
The warrior's medal Raguna handed him was a simple thing, carved in a rough style that showed more enthusiasm than skill. Kross's hands shook as he accepted it.
"You seem to have gotten much stronger. Be careful, not to get injured severely," Kross whispered. He meant it, as deeply as he had ever meant anything. He wasn't surprised to see Raguna was already strong enough to be bringing back little trinkets from dangerous places, but he found he desperately didn't want to see Raguna injured. Not the young man who was, against all odds, kind enough to offer him a gift like this one.
"Um. . . Thank you, I guess? I just noticed you have a bunch of war histories and things like that," Raguna explained quickly. "So I thought you might like it."
Kross nodded silently as he tucked the medal safely away. He tried to say 'thank you.' He felt his lips form the words, but there was no breath behind them, no sound.
Raguna smiled and called after him to have a good day.
Kross moved off to the church with one hand pressed over the medal in his pocket. He could almost swear he felt a warmth radiating from it, from where it had rested in Raguna's hand.
All his life Kross had never been given recognition as a warrior. His victories were not his own. Dishonor and shame he could claim for himself, but victory was no more than what was expected. Fulfilling expectations was not worthy of comment, let alone praise. He had thought his heart was no longer hungry for such a thing.
How did Raguna know to give him such a present? His rushed explanation didn't seem strong enough to carry the weight of its importance. It almost felt like Raguna was telling him, 'You did your best. You did more than anyone could have expected of you.'
That night Kross took the medal from his pocket and cradled it in his hands once again before setting it beside the bed where its carved visage would watch over his sleep. The sense of recognition that came with that medal was precious to him, even if Raguna had no way of knowing what he was recognizing Kross for.
Raguna had gone out to the lake early in the morning. Kross had glanced up at him on his way out, and now had to remind himself on the return trip that he was only looking every other time he heard Raguna. The sound of someone passing by didn't put him on alert (which was odd in and of itself), but left him almost with a feeling of curiosity. Which didn't make sense when he already knew what Raguna was up to.
Then Raguna stopped to talk, leaning his pole on the fence and calling Kross's name cheerfully, which took the decision out of his hands.
"I caught this, but I don't think I'm a good enough cook yet to do anything with it. Would you like it?"
The fish he was holding was a pond smelt, scales still glistening fresh. Kross accepted it. In two quick bites and a crunching of bones, it was gone.
"Kross, don't eat it! It's completely raw!" Raguna cried, even though it was already too late.
"It tastes good," Kross reassured him. Not as good as Raguna's other offerings, but good enough. He had learned long ago what it felt like to have all pickiness starved out of him.
"If you say so," Raguna sighed in defeat. "I promise I'll bring you something better next time, okay?"
Kross didn't doubt that Raguna would be kind enough to bring him another present soon. He couldn't even be surprised at himself for expecting so much of his neighbor.
"I'd like to go give some fish to Cinnamon, too," Raguna mused to himself. "Especially since she gave me the fishing pole in the first place. I still haven't found something nice to thank her with. Do you think she'd like a gift like that when she can catch her own?"
Kross had met the two red-haired sisters who had moved into the clock tower, but he hadn't exchanged more than a few words with either of them. There was little he knew about them, but he had seen Cinnamon pass by on her way to fish in the lake.
"People always want more of what they like," he told Raguna, although he immediately doubted he was qualified to give advice. He didn't know how to offer a gift, while Raguna could do it in such a way that even he accepted without thinking.
"Oh, have you met her already? I guess there have been a lot of new people moving into town this year. Do you like having lots of new neighbors?"
He liked having so much new work, but he didn't think that was the answer Raguna wanted. Stella had recently reminded him yet again that he could not live alone. It seemed most people responded well to having some sort of community. He remembered being that way once himself, although the village he had grown up in seemed like part of someone else's life now.
"I don't mind her. She's quiet."
Raguna burst out laughing. It was a joyous sound, and the sudden peal of it made Kross flinch. "I should have guessed!" Then Raguna paused and rubbed the back of his neck awkwardly. "Wait, are you trying to tell me I'm too loud?"
"No." Kross wanted to pause and consider, but his answer was already out. He supposed it didn't matter. Even if there were more people settling in Trampoli, he found he didn't mind any of them, and that included Raguna. Any connection between them was built on little more than a few words and Raguna's unabashed generosity, but Kross decided he could adapt to that. Once he adapted to the presence of his new neighbors his life would be consistent and comfortable once again.
His roof didn't need any real repairs, but Kross still found it soothing to inspect and tighten up his work on a quiet morning like this. The wind brought familiar, wild smells down from the mountain path and blinded him with his hair while he tried to work.
He didn't need to see the road below to know who was hurrying by his house, but he shook his hair back into place to look anyway.
"Raguna," he called down.
He thought he might not be loud enough to be heard, but Raguan stopped and turned to look up at him. "Yes?"
"I'm sorry, but could you get that nail by your feet?"
"Sure." Raguna looked around the area in front of Kross's house. "Um. . . Where is it?"
"I thought I put it there." The wind had been making his nails roll down the slope of the roof, so Kross had wanted to make sure they stayed put.
Kross jumped from the roof to look for himself. Raguna jumped back at having Kross land in front of him so suddenly, but Kross turned his eyes down, pretending not to notice.
"That's strange. . . Oh, it was in my pocket." It had made sense at the time. Kross didn't know how he had forgotten putting the nails there for safekeeping. "Sorry for calling out to you."
"That's fine! You can call out to me any time. I'd be happy to come help if I can."
Kross wasn't sure what he could have expected to see on Raguna's face other than a sincere smile. The only response he could find for that was a simple, "Thanks."
Kross didn't give a discount on the first official extension, but Raguna didn't bat an eye about the price. He had been saving up for it and had collected enough lumber that Kross would have no problem doing his best work. Rather than discussing the price or the lumber, Raguna was more interested in asking what sort of kitchen Kross thought would be best.
Kross didn't want to answer. He was afraid Raguna wouldn't like the plans that he thought most suited both the old farmhouse and its occupant, but in the end Raguna somehow picked out the plan that Kross was the most proud of.
When he arrived to do his work, Mist was out in front of the house, humming to herself as she looked out over Raguna's fields. She crouched down to give the leaves of a nearby turnip plant a friendly pat, not even noticing Kross until he started the work of opening up the wall so he could add a little more space.
"Oh! You startled me! Hello," she greeted, stepping closer. Her feet hardly seemed to fit to the dusty ground as she drifted over to meet him.
"I. . . sorry." Kross answered, breathing in the familiar smell of wood shavings and dust that accompanied construction. He already didn't know how to speak to others, but for Mist his usual discomfort was compounded.
Mist looked to him like she belonged under moonlight, or perhaps runelight, not in the reality of dust and sunshine. Even her eyes had the color washed from them, leaving them paler than the sky or the sea. Except Kross suspected he only saw her that way because of the impression of the distant eyes of a dream-walker. Kross got a feeling that no matter where she was or what she was doing, at the same time she was also listening to something else far away.
He had known people like that, once. They had been sorcerers so powerful that they could be looking through the veil at any moment, so that they barely had attention to spare for anything that moved around them in the everyday world. Although, in Mist's case there wasn't a single drop of the careless cruelty Kross remembered. If she truly sensed some ethereal power beyond the world Kross knew, it didn't sap her empathy. It simply left him far more lost than usual as he fumbled with how to speak to her.
"You must know Raguna very well, to visit him at home." Kross didn't know why he was babbling uncomfortably. Or at least as close as he got to babbling. Most people who made him uncomfortable could easily be met with silence. Besides, he barely knew Mist. At most he would pass her on holidays as she finished her morning prayers at the church.
"I'm not sure. Raguna gave me a pickled turnip earlier. I don't think that's very nice to do to the poor little turnip." Mist pursed her lips into a little pout.
Kross had no idea how to respond to that. He tried to focus on his work, letting the noise of it drown out his own indecision, but all too soon he had finished. The shape of the enlarged kitchen grew smoothly out of the house as if it had always belonged there. It could have been built right into the original designs. Kross ran one hand over the finished boards, permitting himself a wistful shadow of a smile. He had always been a terrible cook, while Raguna was gaining skill so fast that he already needed a bigger kitchen to practice in. This, at least, he could do with his own hands and be satisfied with his work.
"What's wrong?" Mist wanted to know. She shifted until she was looking up through the protective curtain of hair. It was a move he was already getting used to Raguna using on him, but having someone else do it made him pull back in surprise.
"I think Raguna likes to offer gifts to the people he cares about," Kross said. He would pretend that she hadn't asked about him, that they were still talking about Raguna.
"You're right." Mist closed her eyes when she smiled. Her face lit up brightly, and the otherworldly quality momentarily vanished. "He really is kind, and I know he wouldn't give someone a gift he knew they didn't like on purpose, so it's okay!"
Kross retreated to tell Raguna that his extension was done, head down as he thought. Was there anything he wouldn't accept now if it was Raguna offering it to him?
The field Raguna had adopted was smooth and well-tended now. Not every inch was tilled, but he cleared the debris daily until only the largest rocks remained.
Kross could have offered to get rid of those last few rocks for Raguna. He watched Raguna automatically dodge around one on his way from one strawberry patch to the next, and reminded himself that Raguna hadn't asked for his help.
If he was honest, Kross thought he would rather not see Raguna's reaction to his strength. His first spring in the village he had pushed a boulder much larger than those scattered remnants out of Erik's field. Erik had thanked him profusely, but his shock had been all too clear. He had been expecting to lose a day or more trying to find someone with a monster strong enough to move it, not to find that his new neighbor was as strong as a monster himself.
Kross told himself he would rather see Raguna proud of his progress and enthusiastic about his future plans. Raguna was happily carving out a home for himself without Kross interfering.
"How do you like your barn?" Kross asked. Perhaps soon Raguna would tame a wonderful, strong monster and then he would never need Kross's help.
"It's beautiful! It feels like the monsters are so happy living there. I was trying to keep a close eye in case they didn't get along living together. I tamed a Buffamoo and she's very, uh. . ."
"Opinionated?" Kross remembered Buffamoos fondly. He felt that fondness clogging his voice, not quite like tears.
Raguna laughed. "That's a good way to put it! I love her. I'm relieved she's getting along with Annie."
"Monsters usually don't fight among themselves. As long as they're happy and feel safe, then even if they're from different places they should get along."
"Oh. That makes me feel a lot better. I really should have thought to come ask you first! I'm surprised you don't have a barn of your own."
"I'm not the type of person who can tame a monster and keep it happily." Kross sighed and directed his gaze away from both Raguna and the barn.
"But you even had the pet glove. I. . . would you need it back?" Politeness couldn't kill the honest feelings in Raguna's voice. He didn't want to give it back. He wanted to live with his monsters and keep them happy.
"I was only holding it for a man who left a long time ago. It would be better in the hand of someone who cares for monsters. I thought you would be that person."
Kross found that he truly believed that. It wasn't just what he wanted. If the dead could speak his judgement of Raguna would still ring true. It was something right in the world.
"Then I promise to always take good care of them."
Kross dipped his head in a shallow nod, accepting the promise.
"Kross, do you mind if I ask you about monsters sometimes? It seems like you know a lot about them and how to keep them happy."
"If you want to."
It seemed that Raguna truly was eager to learn about monsters. He was thinking about taming a Wooly next. Kross had grown up with Woolys, and found he was happy to share what he knew with his surprisingly eager audience.
The time until noon, when they usually parted, seemed to rush by in minutes. Kross realized his throat was starting to feel rough. He was completely unused to talking this much. Before he could turn to go Raguna stopped him with a gift.
"I have to go see Lute this afternoon and get more kitchen things installed, but I was able to make this. Since you liked the raw fish before." There was a hint of teasing in Raguna's voice, but the gift he offered wasn't a joke. It was squid sashimi, sliced and arranged neatly. "I think something like this would taste better, right?"
Kross wouldn't argue against the gift Raguna had prepared tasting good.
He thought of Raguna cooking in the newly expanded kitchen, and to his surprise he felt warmed with pride knowing the addition he had built into Raguna's home was being used. It appeared there were things he could do for Raguna that would be welcome after all.
Kross was so accustomed to feeling at peace in the rain, it took most of the day for him to admit that something felt off. Something was nagging at him, leaving him dissatisfied and uneasy, and it took several hours of cycling through troubled thoughts before he realized what was bothering him.
Rain meant he wouldn't see Raguna today.
When had he become so used to Raguna's presence that missing one visit gnawed at him like this? He wasn't lonely. He had spent most of the day at church with Stella, and his world was briefly calm even though there was no work for him. He didn't need Raguna's company the way he needed the untroubled sleep the rain would give him.
Just as Kross was convincing himself that he didn't even like the sky, he wanted it covered with clouds, and he definitely didn't need to see a flash of that same endless blue in anyone's eyes, Raguna was at his door.
Raguna hadn't come to visit him at the last few rainy days, though Kross knew he went out running here and there in spite of the weather. Yet here he was, just wanting to step in long enough to say a quick hello. For once Raguna didn't come bearing a gift, and he was dripping water on Kross's floor, but Kross hardly noticed.
He didn't admit it to himself until after Raguna had gone, but seeing Raguna was a gift in itself.
"Kross!" A happy call came from over the fence, and Kross lifted his head, as always, just enough to catch Raguna waving and smiling at him. He didn't pause in his work until Raguna had stepped carefully through his field and was right beside him, obviously intending to talk.
"Oh, you're harvesting too. It feels like suddenly everything is ready all at the same time, doesn't it?"
Kross nodded, not sure what to say. They had all been counting down the last days of the season when they planted their last cycle of crops, after all.
"Even the seeds from Rosetta's shop are all blooming now. And Eunice was handing out flowers to everyone this morning. She's so thoughtful."
Kross remembered the innkeeper's daughter being shy and polite. To him it seemed like a very outgoing gesture, but he knew that for someone who enjoyed being close to people it was easier to express that sort of kindness.
He wasn't surprised that he hadn't been given a flower. He preferred to be forgotten, even by his nearest neighbors. He didn't know how to express this to such a kind idealist as Raguna, and so he murmured the first thing that came into his mind, a few words about growing dead grasses. It was nearly the end of the season, after all. Soon enough the spring crops would be nothing but dead and dry grass, and flowers would be irrelevant.
"Did you not get one?" Raguna interrupted. "Here, Kross." He held out a yellow flower. It was a cheerful little thing, even as it looked almost bleached out under the strong sunlight.
Kross accepted it, because Raguna was handing it to him, but he didn't know what he was supposed to do with it. He touched the plant delicately, finding soft petals that bruised easily between his fingers and leaves that were no more than thin salad greens. Kross had never had space in his field to set aside for growing decorative flowers, but he did encourage the few herbs and flowers that could grow in the narrow planter in front of his house. As far as he was concerned the final goal of those flowers was the same as any other crop.
"This tastes good," he offered to Raguna, same as with any other gift of food that had been placed into his hands.
"Kross, don't eat it!" It was too late for that. Raguna laughed and shook his head. "That can't taste as good as vegetables. You really will eat anything, won't you? But you could've used it to brighten up your house or something."
Why on earth would he need flowers for decoration when he had his blueprints spread out over the table? Besides, even if the petals were bitter and the leaves were limp, he had tasted far worse.
"It used to be very difficult to grow crops here without potions and expensive aids. Even then, many of them would wither before they could ripen." Kross had subsisted on weeds and the withered remains of his dead crops in those times. He would never waste offered food.
"I'm sorry, Kross. I wish I could have been here then. Maybe another pair of hands would have helped."
Raguna reached out and laid one of his work-toughened hands on Kross's shoulder, and Kross froze at the touch. If Raguna had wanted his attention, he certainly had it now. Kross was motionless, hardly even paying attention to what Raguna said. "Next time I'll bring you something good to eat, okay?"
The hand was lifted, and Kross's own hand rose to cover the same spot, feeling as if an impression of Raguna's hand had been left behind on his shoulder.
"Oh, that's right! Erik keeps reminding me about not planting anything now because there won't be enough time left to grow it, so it's time for us to get summer crops ready. What do you like to grow in summer? I'll make sure to grow something different to share with you, okay?"
It took a minute for Kross to drag words out. Even now that he was well aware of Raguna's generosity the idea that he would choose his crops with the intention to share was so confusing.
"Pumpkins and corn," he finally managed. He had bought the seeds already. He liked corn. It would keep producing all season as long as he tended it. Stella had mentioned needing a few pumpkins herself, and he always liked the untamed way the pumpkin leaves splayed out and the vines coiled along the ground. He had enough seeds for the whole season.
"Okay. I'm going to buy some seeds from Erik. I'll see you tomorrow, Kross!"
With that Raguna was gone. He didn't touch Kross again. He didn't have to. The unfamiliar echo of being touched once, with no hint of malice, stayed with Kross for the rest of the day.