Disclaimer: Harvest Moon: Back to Nature is copyright Natsume and its respective creators/owners. I own nothing but the fever-filled dream of keeping Gray under my bed for my own personal pleasure and the wish that I didn't keep falling for the quiet types. Guh.
A/N: Watch for the tense shift about three-fourths of the way through. Yes, I meant to do that. Reviews notifying me of its existence will be acknowledged, but it was done on purpose, so put away the red correction pens, you grammar teachers. I know mine would be having a heart attack if he read this.
This is a companion piece to Cat and Mouse, though they both can be read separately. It's told from Gray's perspective, and concerns every girl's favorite holiday, Spring Thanksgiving. For those of you who aren't familiar with BTN, Spring Thanksgiving is a holiday where men bake cookies for the women they admire/like/love in appreciation.
This is dedicated to those of you who reviewed Cat and Mouse and wished for another one like it; I hope I gave you what you wanted, and thanks for waiting so long for me to finish it :) Enjoy!
So, it's Spring Thanksgiving in this backwater town, and I didn't have any cookies.
Wait, that didn't sound right.
I mean, I hadn't baked any cookies. Not then, anyway. And the way this day turned out, I thought I never would. Not that I'm a good cook, anyway, I just…I just want to. You know…
Maybe you don't.
You see, Mary's this girl. Well, she's more than a girl. She's a young woman; Mineral Town's only librarian. When I moved here a few years ago, to help the old man with his work, I was glad to see a library here. I like reading, unlike most blacksmiths' apprentices. Blacksmiths' apprentices are supposed to like pounding metal with a hammer. I guess I'm not a very good apprentice, if I spend most of my time reading. But, I work hard. I do. Or I try to, at least. I…I just like the library. And Mary. You could say I like her, too.
Like I said, it's Spring Thanksgiving here in Mineral Town. That means guys bake cookies for the girls they like, as presents. I don't understand the folklore behind it - I just know that today the Supermarket had a big sale on cookie supplies, and I found myself there staring at the flour and sugar and eggs, wondering what the hell I was doing.
I've never baked anything before. Back in the city Mom took care of all the cooking, and here I usually eat at Doug's or with Gramps on his days off. My hands are more suited to the forge than the oven, anyway. Yet, something made me pick up the supplies and fumble in my pocket for the coins to pay Jeff, keeping my hat low over my eyes. Maybe it was Mary…or the thought of her, at least.
Good thing the old man was out, so I could make my attempts in peace. He picked today, Monday, as the day to take a trip to the Hot Springs with Barley from the Yodel Farm. He claims it'll help his bad back. I think he just wanted an excuse to stop working. Either way, I had the forge to myself, and I thanked the Goddess with every step closer to it I took.
It probably would have helped if I watched where I was going.
Then again, Stu is only a third of my height.
I was distracted. And the box of flour was heavy.
Needless to say, when I tripped over Stu playing in front of his grandmother's house, I spilled most of it on him.
Why the kid picks the sidewalk to play on instead of the nice, green grass behind his house is beyond me. I'm actually surprised more people haven't tripped over him.
But, as I said, I was distracted.
The flour blinded both of us for a white, cloudy second, and then I found myself flat on my stomach with a small, grainy weight on my back legs. Stu giggled, and I felt him climb up my back and pull my hat off, peering down at me. Each giggle shook more flour onto me; it was obvious he got the worst of it, but he was quickly rectifying that situation.
"Sorry, kid," I mumbled as he bounced off my back (hitting a sore spot from an unsuccessful axe-making venture in the process), showering me with more flour as he did. He laughed once again as I sat up and began brushing the white dust and dirt from my shirt.
"You look funny, Gray," he said between giggles, and held my hat out to me. I raised an eyebrow at him; he was covered head to toe in the flour, and was quickly shedding it all over the cobblestones. Elli would not be happy with him when she came home. Then again, she wouldn't be too happy with me either, if she found out I was the cause of her brother's transformation into a small, floury gremlin.
I snatched the hat from his hands and jammed it on my head, finding out too late that the little runt had filled it with more of the cast-off powder as it cascaded in white rivulets down my face. He crowed with laughter; I growled, and made a grab for him. A wrestling match with a six-year-old isn't exactly my idea of a good time, but hell, I was already dirty. Stu shrieked and darted away from me, a big grin plastered on his floury features. At least he was enjoying himself.
My head snapped up, sending another white cloud into the air. Stu, safely out of my reach, chirruped, "Hi, Mary!" I groaned inwardly and tugged my cap lower, trying to hide my reddening face, heedless of the piles of dirty flour it dumped onto my shoulders. Oh, Goddess, why did it have to be her? "Gray and I are playing Dust Monsters! Wanna play with us?"
To my complete and utter surprise, Mary laughed softly, and I heard her skirt swish across the cobblestones as she knelt. The flour settled, and I saw her smile as she scruffed Stu lightly on the head, her hand coming away white and dusty. "Not today, Stu," she said in the same low voice she used in the library. She wiped her hand on a tuft of grass sprouting through the cobblestones. "I'm running errands for my mother. But maybe some other time, huh?" Stu grinned and nodded enthusiastically. Mary smiled again, and her eyes fell on me.
I swear she stifled a giggle.
"What happened?" she said in her hushed voice, straightening her glasses. Bits of flour were clinging to her hair now, looking like snowflakes against velvet. Stu sat down happily in one of the larger flour piles, and began building a small fort. I stumbled for words.
"I…I, uh…S-stu, he…he ran in front of me, and…" I trailed off, cursing myself. I always choke up at during important moments like this. Mary, however, didn't seem to notice anything; she was still smiling, quietly amused.
"Yes, but was it his flour, or yours?" she asked. I blinked and mumbled, "Mine." She smiled, and looked towards Stu, who was grinning at both of us through a mouthful of the fallen flour.
"Tayshes wei'd," he said, dribbling white powder out of the corner of his mouth. I groaned softly. Mary laughed again, and pulled a handkerchief out of her skirt pocket. Stu shied away as she began mopping up his face and hands. "No, no, I don't wanna be clean!" he whined, muffled by Mary's embroidered, now heavily floured handkerchief.
"Stu, Elli won't like it if you're dirty when she comes home, will she?" she asked, managing to wipe the remains of the flour away from his mouth; he was only slightly floured now. Stu stopped struggling at her question and hung his head, snowing flour on the ground in a small circle around his feet. Mary sat back on her heels; I searched for a clean piece of clothing to wipe my face on. My sleeve was clear, so I set to work. "She won't, will she?"
"No…" Stu scrubbed his nose with his sleeve, mimicking my movements. Mary glanced between us and laughed her quiet laugh once again. "She's gonna be really really mad, Mary…" There were tears cresting in his eyes. I looked away, not wishing to be blamed for Stu's sudden shift in mood. The flour spilled down my front was suddenly quite interesting.
"Oh, don't worry," Mary said, rising to her feet. Stu looked up at her with big, floury eyelashes and blinked. I struggled to my feet as well, wincing as that sore spot twinged along my spine. Working with that bruise was not going to be fun. "You can come get cleaned up at my house. My mama won't mind if you track flour in, I promise."
My head shot up; for a moment, I thought she was talking to me instead of the floury sprite that was Stu. But, sure enough, it was Stu that was swinging on her arm a moment later, getting her pretty dark skirt dusty and white, not me. Not that I would be swinging on her arm. I'm taller than her.
You know what I mean.
Then Stu tackled me.
I had the foresight to steady myself against the white picket fence outside his house; it was all that kept me from falling into the mounds of flour at my feet. Looking down, I saw a grinning Stu attached securely to my left leg. "Play with me again later, huh Gray? No one ever wants to play Dust Monsters with me, not even Jack, and he's dirty all the time!" Each word was punctuated with a tug on my shirt, leaving handprints along the hem. I sighed.
"Sure," I said, more to satisfy him than anything. Though, a little voice in my head said, he'll want you to play with him all the time now. I sighed. What do I get myself into? My reply seemed to satisfy him, though, because a minute later he was skipping merrily ahead of Mary, oblivious to the white footprints he left in his wake. I sighed again, and ran a hand through my hair. The resulting cloud of flour almost choked me.
"Are you alright, Gray?" For the third time that day my head jumped up, and then down to look at Mary, her head tilted slightly to the right and her big, brown eyes sparkling. They really do sparkle, in the right sunlight. "How much did you swallow?" she asked, her lips curved mirthfully and her eyes sparkling even more. I tried not to stare, and coughed to cover my stutter.
"Enough." I glanced down at the decimated box of flour, half empty and battered. Not ten minutes into my cookie quest and already I lost half my supplies. This was just perfect.
A hand touched my arm, and I glanced at Mary again. She looked troubled. "I'll send Stu over with more later," she said, pushing her glasses up her nose with a careless hand. There was a smudge of white on her forehead now.
I shook my head and bent down to pick up the disheveled box. "Better not," I replied, trying once again to dust myself off. It only produced another choking cloud. "He'll only try to [cough] dump it on me again." She laughed, between coughs, and shook her head slightly.
"No, I'm sure he won't," she said, smiling despite the grimace I was making. "Not if you tell him not to. Besides," and she glanced from the flour box to the surprisingly unscathed bag holding the remainder of my supplies, "it looks like you need it for something. Am I right?" My eyes widened suddenly, and I ducked my head and nodded once, feeling my face burn red once again. How do they always know when you're planning something? Huh. Women.
"I'll have Stu bring you some after he's clean," she said as she began her swishing walk up the cobbled path toward her house. Stu bounced happily in the distance, making a mess of her front step. I watched her go, only pausing to nod as she turned and waved before ushering Stu in her door. Then, I sighed, and began the walk back to the forge, knowing that a trail of browning flour followed me. Hopefully, no one would follow it and find a very floury me at the other end. Hopefully.
It was only after I was back at the forge, stripped of my clothes and taking a very cold shower that I truly relaxed enough to bring my mind back to the task at hand: Baking.
It was another fifteen minutes before I worked up the courage to look at the ingredients.
I had everything on Sasha's recipe: Butter, sugar, eggs from Chicken Lil's, the flour left in its torn box, even a lone bar of chocolate left over from my last Thursday off. With everything laid out to my satisfaction, I was just about to measure out the first cup of sugar when there was a sound outside the door. Sighing, I untied the forge apron around my waist and strode to the door, opening it slowly lest it be an angry Elli.
It was a large box of flour with legs.
No, actually, it was Stu. With a large box of flour.
I mean, really. Flour doesn't walk.
Stu lowered the box to the ground (carefully, I noted) and grinned up at me. He was clean once again, with only a few traces of dried flour stuck in his dark hair. He grinned up at me. "Mary said to bring this to you," he said, pointing to the box. I nodded, picked it up, and was almost thrown to the floor as Stu scampered by me and into the small room that served as the forge's kitchen and living room; the box of flour tilted dangerously in my grasp, but my quick reflexes steadied it without spilling a drop. "What're you making? Are you making cookies? Can I help? Can I have some when they're done? When are they gonna be done? Can I mix these? What's this?" I sighed, and trudged to the kitchen, where Stu was peering into the oven with a fascinated look on his unsmudged face. He looked up and grinned at me again. "Can we play now?"
"Uh, no," I said, quickly, and put the new box of flour a safe distance from his tiny hands. Looking down at him once again, I groaned quietly. I know that look.
Stu's face puckered up suddenly, and I could see tears brimming in his eyes. "Y-y-you d-d-don't wanna p-play with m-me?" he said in a stuttery, shaky voice. I closed my eyes and braced myself against the ensuing wail, which threatened to burst my eardrums out of sheer shrillness. "I wanna plaaaaaaaaaaay…"
It took twenty seconds of Stu's impossibly loud cry before I broke down. "Alright, alright," I said, loudly. "You…you can help, I guess." Maybe that would make him quiet down.
As predicted, as soon as the words left my mouth Stu shut his mouth and grinned up at me. Children can be very smart sometimes. I forget that sometimes. "I can?" he said, bouncing up onto his toes with excitement. "Neat! What are we making?"
Sighing, I dragged one of the two rickety chairs from the table and lifted Stu up to stand on it. "Cookies," I said, and rummaged around under the sink for the spare apron. It was predictably gigantic on Stu, but he seemed happy enough trying to tie the strings a dozen times around his waist in a large bow, so I wasn't going to complain.
"Grandma bakes cookies sometimes," Stu announced, his hands flat on the table and his legs rocking the chair back and forth. Reaching for the flour and measuring cup, I only nodded and let him talk. "She makes chocolate chip. Are we making chocolate chip?"
I glanced down at the recipe. "Yeah."
"Neat!" Stu bounced again. The chair squeaked ominously. It would be just my luck if he broke it. Rolling up my sleeves, I pushed my hair out of my eyes and measured out the first cup of sugar. The room was silent.
"What can I do?" Stu's voice startled me; my arm jerked, spilling flour down apron's front. Stu giggled. I closed my eyes in frustration. Do not yell at him. Do not make him cry, I chanted silently.
Sighing, I brushed futily at the flour, and quickly gave up. Stu was still giggling and squeaking the chair. In front of me, the butter was getting soft and starting to run. The eggs had a film of moisture around them. A panicky flutter closed in on my stomach as I wondered if I would ever get to the baking stage of this. It didn't look good.
"Why don't you mix the eggs," I finally said, pushing a smaller bowl in front of him. He made a grab for the eggs; I moved them away and cracked two of them into the bowl, handing him a whisk to stir them with. "Try not to spill anything."
"I won't!" he chirruped, and began mixing the yolks furiously and, as I expected, flicking yellow droplets onto his hair and apron. I sighed and turned back to the big bowl in front of me. While not the best solution, it would give me enough time to mix the rest of the ingredients before he got too bored or too dirty.
Two and a half cups flour, one and a half cups sugar, salt, baking soda, vanilla flavoring, butter, Stu's thoroughly beaten eggs, and the finely chopped chocolate bar later we had a bowl filled with what seemed to be cookie dough. Stu stuck a finger in and took a chunk; I watched closely for any sort of adverse reaction.
He chewed thoughtfully for a minute, and then grinned up at me. He had chocolate all over his face from cutting up the candy bar and sneaking pieces, and a smudge of flour was smeared across his nose. I'm sure I looked no better. "Good?" I asked, praying that it was. He nodded and reached for another chunk of batter. I caught his wrist.
"We've got to bake them now," I explained, "so we can give them away." Stu pouted a bit, but seconds later he was squeaking the chair and chewing on the rest of the chocolate bar. I started searching for a cookie tray in the disorganized cupboard above the sink.
"D'ya think my sister will like it if I give her cookies?" I caught a pan that threatened to crash down on my head and pulled an old but serviceable tray from underneath it. Turning around, I shrugged.
"I think so."
Stu looked as thoughtful as a six-year-old can get. "Who are you giving your cookies to, Gray?" he asked finally, fixing me with an inquisitive stare.
I blanched, and then felt my ears begin to turn bright, scalding red. Stu watched me expectantly. "I…I…I don't know," I answered lamely, ducking my head. Stu giggled.
"You're silly, Gray," he said, with the conviction of a child who knows he's telling the truth. I only sighed, and nodded, and tried to busy myself with dropping dollops of batter onto the tray.
Thoughts of Mary kept popping into my head, and I wondered if anyone else was bringing her cookies. Farmer Jack probably would; he brings presents to all the girls, and all five love him for it. I thought of the gifts I'd taken to Mary: A bouquet of flowers, a drawing of a plant I sketched while on the mountain, a meticulously crafted amber bracelet that reminded me of her eyes when she smiled. And now, cookies. I looked down at the misshapen circles of dough arranged on the tray and sighed. I could only hope she wouldn't laugh outright when I gave them to her. She probably will, whispered the traitorous Voice. I ignored it.
Stu stood by as I pulled open the oven door and slid the tray inside, still rocking the chair with his feet, though he sat on the table now. The clock over the stove read three-forty-five; the cookies would be ready in about ten minutes, if Sasha's recipe was correct. Closing the oven door, I was just dusting off my hands when a loud, clanging crash exploded behind me. I groaned. What now?
Stu's wail answered my unspoken question, and I turned to see him sitting amid a pile of empty pans, his legs entangled with the now broken chair. "Ow ow ow ow ow!" he cried, clutching at his left leg, blood seeping from a small cut just below the knee. Tears streamed down his face, once again stained with flour, and I saw the accident's cause right there at his feet: melted butter on the floor, right where the chair's leg must have been. With Stu's rocking the leg had slipped and brought him down with it, and he grabbed the pans in a panic, bringing them down on top of him and probably cutting him in the process. Muttering a prayer to the goddess for patience, I got down on my knees to help the kid up.
"You okay?" I asked, untangling him from the splinter-filled wood that was now the only extra chair in the kitchen. He bore no other marks, aside from a slight bump on his head from a stray pot, and I could tell the tears were mostly show. Stu's a tough little kid, no matter how he cries.
"'M okay," he whispered between sniffles, and I picked him up and away from the wreckage and sat him on Gramps' bed. He rubbed his face with the back of his hand, spreading the tears across his face in a messy conglomeration of baking materials and salt; I sighed and patted him on the head once.
"You wait here while I get something to clean you up with." I said as kindly as I could manage. Stu nodded, and I reached for Gramps' top shelf, where he keeps the first aid kit. More work. "I don't need this," I muttered to myself, and pulled down the old fishing box filled with gauze, bandages, and enough iodine to drown an elephant. A little water in a bowl and a soft cloth later and I set to work cleaning Stu up.
He was done crying by the time I finished, and even grinned at me when I asked him how he felt now. "You're good at this," he chirped, jumping down like nothing even happened. The single band-aid covering his cut stood out on his suntanned skin. "How'd you learn to clean a boo-boo like that? Even Elli hurts a little, but not you!"
I shrugged, a bit sheepishly, and scruffed him on the head once again. "My uncle had a farm in the country," I explained, dropping the blood-stained cloth into the bowl of tepid water, "I used to visit him when I was about your age."
Stu's eyes lit up, and he scampered around my feet as I packed the first aid kit back on its shelf. "Wow, a farm? Like the one's around here? Did he have horses and cows and sheep?"
The scent of the cookies baking was relaxing, and I allowed myself a little smile as I started restacking the pots on the table. "Just one horse, and mostly cows and sheep. I helped him with the animals, so I learned a lot about how to take care of cuts like yours." Granted, cuts on a sheep and cuts on a human were two different things, but the theory was the same. I was always good with animals. It makes me wonder why I'm not much good with people.
"Wow, that's so cool…" Stu watched me cross the room to pull the oven open. "Did you ride the horse?"
"A little." The cookies were a perfect golden brown, and I smiled in satisfaction as I pulled the tray out and set it down nearby. Stu leaned up on the counter to watch me angle the two dozen or so cookies onto an old, clean grate fashioned into an adequate cooling rack, and immediately reached for them as soon as I stepped away. My reflexes saved his fingers from getting burnt; I grabbed him around the waist and set him firmly on the ground, fixing him with the sternest gaze I could muster. "Don't touch," I said. I must not have looked very frightening: the kid giggled. "I give up," I muttered, throwing my hands in the air in exasperation, causing another giggle from Stu.
"You're silly, Gray," he chirped again, following on my heels as I tried to clean up the mess we - he - made of Gramps' small kitchen. "Can you tell me about the farm? Was it big? Did you get to grow stuff?"
I set him on Gramps' bed and started running water in the sink. "He grew some vegetables," I said, dunking the first big bowl into the six inches of warm, soapy water. "Carrots and potatoes, I think. Cucumbers, too; he made pickles with them."
"I love pickles!" Stu interjected, settling comfortably on the bed with his legs tucked underneath him. "Elli brings me some, sometimes, when she buys them at the market."
"Does she?" I allowed myself a smile and set the scrubbed bowl to the side, next to the one holding the extra dough. I wasn't going to push my luck with another batch; better to keep the extra refrigerated and wait, rather than risking burning the whole house down. I pulled the tray toward me and started washing that as well, glancing at Stu. He was watching me, looking thoughtful.
"Hey, Gray?" he asked after a minute; I shook the hair away from my eyes and looked toward him. He was hugging his knees to his chest now, cocking his head to the side.
"Hmm?" The tray was clean now, and I set it aside to dry, sitting on the bed beside Stu after I did. He crawled closer to me and looked up at me.
"Can you be my brother?"
I almost laughed, catching myself at the last moment and instead coughing a few times to mask the grunt I made. "What?" I asked; Stu proceeded to crawl onto my lap and hug me around the waist tightly.
"I want you to be my brother," he said, muffled by my shirt, "I don't have a big brother, and I think you're funny and nice and you let me help you make cookies and you make my boo-boo's stop hurting and I like you…" He trailed off and looked up at me, his eyes wide. "Can you? You won't even have to marry Elli or anything!" He looked very serious for a moment. "That's what she said someone would have to do if I wanted a big brother now."
I laughed outright at that; marrying Elli was the furthest thing from my mind at the moment. Then, the question caught up with me and I thought for a long, quiet moment. I never had a younger brother; my whole life it had been me and Mom and Dad, then just me and Gramps. How bad could it be, really? "Sure, kid," I said, after a moment's deliberation. "If you think I'll do a good job."
Stu's face lit up. "Really? You really mean it?" He was practically bouncing on my lap now, a rather unpleasant experience on my end, might I add. "You'll take me fishing and hiking and you'll play with me and read me books and tell me stories and…" The list went on and on, and I inwardly groaned. What do I get myself into?
"Stu," I said after a minute or two, cutting him off mid-'and climb that really big mountain in Japan?' He paused and looked up at me, stopping the incessant bouncing. Now was my moment. "Why don't we wrap up the cookies and deliver them now? Your Grandma will be wondering where you are."
"Oh…" He slid off my lap and stood looking up at the clock over the stove for a long minute. "I think it's almost dinner time," he announced, pointing to it. It read four-thirty, almost time for Gramps to come home. When I looked back at Stu, he was already reaching for the cooling rack; I jumped up and steadied it with a hand, pushing him toward the sink with the other.
"You get washed up," I ordered, "I'll wrap the cookies." Stu obliged, and minutes later he was as clean as when he had arrived, and the cookies were wrapped in cellophane and ribbon I had bought at the market and ready to deliver. My stomach was tumbling by now, nervous at the imminent sight of Mary waiting at the end of the short walk between the forge and the library. I took a deep breath, and started as Stu tugged on my arm.
"Are we going?" I nodded slowly, ran a hand through my hair, and sighed.
"Yeah. Let's go." And we went.
Which brings me to the present, and Stu and I walking down the cobblestone path toward the library. Stu holds my left hand in his own small right hand, and hums a happy song as he swings the package of cookies I had handed him before. A dozen for him, a dozen for me: That way, he could give some to his sister and grandmother as an apology for being out so late, and I would still have some left over for Mary. I'm trying not to think about anything, but I can feel a cold sweat breaking out across my palms. It's a cool night, thankfully. I think I'd be much worse if it wasn't.
The library looms suddenly, outlined by the light of the sun setting behind the clouds. My stomach flip-flops once again, but Stu drags me onward, grinning as wide as he can. "Let's give some to Mary, Gray!" he calls, tugging on my arm. "I think she'll like them, especially from us!" And without another word, he drags me to her door, the door I had been both dreading and dreaming of knocking on, and reaches up to ring the doorbell. It sounds loud in the perpetual quiet surrounding the building, and then Mary's voice calls from somewhere inside the house.
My knees are almost shaking now, and there's a veritable flock of butterflies stampeding through my lower intestines. Stu's little hand in mine is the only thing keeping me from running away right now; that panther-like persona Gramps always assigns me is turning slowly into a kitten who wants nothing more than to scamper home and dive under the nearest convenient bed. Goddess, the Voice sighs, this is the perfect time for you to lose your nerve. I almost growl a low response to it, but then the door opens and the room's sudden brightness in the dying light of day blinds me momentarily.
When I gain my vision back, she's standing there with a quizzical look in her eyes. Her long dark hair is unbraided, and it falls almost to her waist in a black curtain. It almost takes my breath away, and I can't speak for the moment it takes for Stu to bounce forward.
"Hi, Mary!" he says breathlessly, his cheeks red with excitement. "Gray and I baked cookies today, for Spring Thanksgiving and we wanna give you some, because you help us all the time and you're a nice person!" And with that simple, thankful statement, he hands her one of the packages I'd been carrying: the one wrapped in green cellophane with a sparkling gold ribbons. Just the one I was going to give to her. That kid is too smart for his own good sometimes.
Mary's face lights up at that, enough to make me weak at the knees once again. I feign casualness, bracing myself against the doorjamb to prevent any wavering steps, breathing deeply. It smells like flowers; she's been arranging them, or pressing them, or looking at them under her microscope again.
She accepts Stu's proffered package with a shy, pretty smile and holds it up so the light from the outside lights glint off the cellophane. "They look delicious," she says, and kneels down to hug Stu; he makes a face when she kisses him on both cheeks. "Thank you very much, both of you." I glance away as her eyes fall on me, trying to hide the furious blush I know is crawling up my cheeks. Thank the Goddess it's getting darker by the minute.
"Stu! Stu, there you are!" All three of us turn around as Elli's voice trickles down the lane. Stu's older sister is standing just before the entrance to the house she shares with her grandmother, her hands on her hips in a stern, matronly gesture. She's still wearing her nurse's uniform; it suits her better than anything else. "Stu, I thought I told you not to bother anyone else today!" she scolds, her skirts swishing as she glides across the cobblestones.
"'M not bothering anyone, Elli, honest…" Stu says, scuffing his toe on Mary's front stoop. "Gray and I were just baking cookies…" Oh, that's it. The kid has condemned me to Elli's temper for sure.
Elli, by now, had marched over to us and was standing in front of us, her arms folded across her chest. "Baking?" she asks, looking from Stu to me to Mary and her neat package of homemade cookies. "For Spring Thanksgiving?"
Stu nods, and tugs the remaining package from my arms and offers it to his sister. "See? We made you some, too! Because you're the best sister in the whole world and I love you!" He hugs her around the waist, becoming lost in her wide petticoats and lace.
Once again, Stu's frankly honest words win over the stern Elli, and she kneels down to hug her little brother as tightly as she can. "Oh, Stu," she says softly, and I can pick out the glimmer of tears in her pretty brown eyes. Stu hugs her tightly around the neck, and hangs on when she rises, forcing her to carry him. She doesn't seem to mind, though, and wipes her eyes with the back of her hand.
"He hasn't bothered you, then, Gray, has he?" she asks, back to prim and proper Elli with no pause. Stu shakes his head against her shoulder, and I shrug a little, searching for words to describe the trials of the afternoon. He dumped flour all over you? The Voice says smugly. He broke a chair? He stole your glory?
"He's been a big help," I finally offer, thinking back on it. To tell the truth, the kid had been something of a help; without him, I probably wouldn't have gotten the courage to give the cookies to Mary in the first place. I can forgive the flour, the chair, and the pulled back muscles. I reach out to scruff Stu on the head. "He's a good kid."
Elli smiles and nods, and places a light, sisterly kiss on Stu's forehead. His eyelids are drooping now, and he yawns. "'M tired," he announces, and the girls laugh softly as another yawn threatens to crack his jaw. I smile too, despite myself. He really is a good kid, truth be told. Trouble in a two-foot package, but a good kid.
"Well, you seem to have had a long day," Elli says, and hitches him up higher on her hip. "Let's get you home and in the bath; is that flour in your hair?" Mary laughs, and I scratch the back of my neck sheepishly, avoiding everyone's looks. Elli stops picking at Stu's hair and turns back to us.
"Thank you, Gray, for the cookies," she says, smiling now that she has her sleepy brother safe in her arms. "Stu's a handful, I know. You're an angel for taking him for a whole afternoon." I shrugged and grunted non-commitally, embarrassed once again. "See you tomorrow, Mary," she continues, and turns with a swish of her skirts. "Have a nice night, both of you!" And she leaves, still cradling the dozing Stu, who wakes up long enough to wave and call a promise to play with me tomorrow before Elli hushes him and swishes out of sight. And so, Mary and I are alone on her front step.
"He gave away all your cookies," she says in a soft voice, looking down at the package in her hands. I glance down at her hands; there's a glint of amber from her wrist (She's wearing the bracelet I gave her?) - I shrug, my heart pounding. I'm not an eloquent man, or even a truly honest one. I don't even have Stu's child-like logic to tell me what to say to her, just the pounding of the blood in my ears and a strange, tingling feeling running throughout my body. I take a deep breath, ready to speak; but Mary, biting her bottom lip, holds the cookies back to me.
"Would you like them back?"
That catches me by surprise, and my jaw drops in amazement. She's not meeting my eyes, just holding the package out to me to glint in the last of the sun's light. "I mean," she continues, pushing her glasses up her nose, "Stu did give them away without asking you, it seems, and I wouldn't want to take them if you were planning on giving them to some other - someone else, I mean." She had caught herself then; some other girl, she means, the traitorous Voice whispers, and I shoot back quickly, without thinking, there is no other girl but her.
I stare at her, taking in her profile in the ruddy light of the sunset. Eyes downcast, she chews on her bottom lip, staining them the deep red chapped color of a worrier. She's worried, worried that I don't want her to have the present I had toiled the entire afternoon to make, just for her. I shake my head and push it back toward her. "No," I say, the word freed of any nervous stutter by sheer determination welling up inside me. "No, I always wanted you to have it. Stu just beat me to it this time." And that was the truth.
Her face seems to light up the moment the words pass my lips, and she looks up at me with a smile fit to tumble mountains. "Really?" she breathes, and I nod, feeling suddenly embarrassed. I jam my hands into my pockets and try to fight down a nervous blush. "Oh…Oh, thank you, Gray…" she says, and clutches the cookies to her chest with another bright smile.
"Um…" I respond, my mind going blank. Gone were the eloquent, pretty words talking of her sparkling eyes and beautiful, dark hair, and peerless intelligence and beauty. My mind scrambles for something, anything, to say to her.
"Um…" I stammer, "um…thanks. For everything." And I continue to stare at the tops of my old boots.
I hate myself sometimes.
Her light, airy laugh makes me look up and meet her eyes. There goes all reason as soon as those sparkling amber-brown orbs meet my plain bluish-gray ones. "You're welcome," she says, bright laughter still coloring the air around us. "You're very welcome." I feel myself smile, almost grin as her eyes shine up at me, full of so much happiness that I wouldn't be surprised if she floated away.
"Um…" I say, after a minute of staring down at her and beating down that damned voice that screams 'Kiss her, you idiot!' every other second. I want to say, 'Hey, Duke's is open tonight. Let's go have dinner together,' or, 'Can I walk with you for a while?' or even, 'You look beautiful tonight…' but I look into her eyes and all I can seem to manage is: "I…I ought to go, then…"
Good one, Casanova, the Voice taunts. I amuse myself momentarily with an image of myself beating the obnoxious goblin that's taken up residence between my ears and look down at Mary, praying she doesn't hate me.
Her face has fallen a bit, but she nods slowly, and smiles as I take a step backward off her stoop and into the cobblestone path. "You…you're right," she whispers back. "I…um…Thank you for the cookies, Gray…" She smiles and I grin outright as a pleasant tingle courses through my body; I could fly all the way home on that feeling alone. "I'll see you tomorrow, then…?" she asks tentatively, watching me shyly over the rims of her glasses. I nod, too happy for words now, and turn away, a new spring in my step. Gramps was going to wonder what I had been up to when I got home.
I hear her door close behind me as I begin the short walk back to the forge, my spirits high. Not such a bad night, I say to myself. She liked the cookies, which was enough to make me happy for the rest of spring; hell, the rest of the year, at this rate. The Voice is thankfully quiet, and I muster up enough satisfaction to whistle a tune as I walk.
I'm already halfway down the path when I hear a door open and Mary calling my name. "Gray!" she calls again, and I can hear her bare feet pounding against the stone walkway. I turn, confused, and she barrels into me with surprising force from a girl her size, all dark hair and the sweet scent of catmint, throwing her arms around my neck and kissing my right cheek for one heart-stopping second. "Thank you," she breathes in my ear, making me shiver uncontrollably, and before I can even catch my breath she's gone again, dashing toward her house on feet light as air, with only her breathless laughter to keep me company in the deepening night. For a minute I'm floating on air on emotion alone; then, gravity catches up with a vengeance and I'm flat on my back on the sun-warmed cobblestones, my cheek still tingling hot as fire and then cold as ice with the feel of her.
Ignoring the pain of my pulled back muscles, and the new bruises I know will form on my backside, and the smudges of flour I'm sure are still in my hair, I grin up at the first new stars of the night. So what if a night of cleaning awaits me at the forge? So what if I probably won't be able to lift a hammer for a day or two? Mary kissed me, honest-to-Goddess kissed me.
I love Spring Thanksgiving.
You know, I think she likes you, says the Voice, and I can practically see its ugly little face smirking at me; I grin again, and watch as one of the brightest stars detaches itself from the blue-black velvet of the evening sky and falls in a brilliant streak of light behind the library.
"You know," I say aloud, stretching like a cat waking up from a long nap, "I think, for once, I agree with you."
So, I'm done. Finally. Yes, it was a bitch to write, which is why it took me so long to finish. It also didn't come out the way I wanted it, like most things I write, but it was enough to satisfy me. I think I need to step away from it for a few weeks and then re-edit it to my liking. But, it's here for your pleasure and approval (I hope), so please tell me what you think. Reviews are my weakness :)
I hope the tense shift didn't annoy anyone too much. It makes sense in a strange, twisted way. At least to me. Guh.
I heart Gray. I want to take him home and cuddle him for all the abuse I put him through. But, that's what makes the last few paragraphs my favorite, by far.
Plans are in the making for another BTN story, should Muse decide to like me and I finish my work on time. Mostly, it involves Karen with a plan and an underwater camera, and a mini-festival involving eligible bachelors in the Hot Springs. So, naturally, there's lots of humor and mayhem. Badger me into writing it; otherwise, it could be months.
And that's it. I hope you enjoyed it :)