Part One

It was funny how one person could come to matter so much in another's life that it felt stark and empty when they were away. For his part, Gustafa very much preferred composing songs and poems centered around love and heartsickness than experiencing it himself. He found that it was rather disagreeable, and left him with little desire to do much but wander listlessly and think about what he was lacking. Which, really, wasn't like him at all. He enjoyed life to its fullest whenever he could, or at least he tried to. Lately, though...

Well, lately he hadn't had much desire to enjoy anything. Not even music. That had hit him rather harshly, too; music was his one true passion in life. Without it, he felt like an empty vessel, drifting aimlessly without a captain or a crew. It was a most dissatisfying feeling, one that he could certainly do without. The only problem was, he couldn't seem to vanquish it.

Long walks on the beach only made him think of her, because of course his poetic heart would link the color of the waves gently lapping onto the shore to her eyes. Tree-gazing, too, had betrayed him; with the crispness of autumn came the warm, vibrant colors of the leaves, which his foolish heart naturally resolved to compare to her hair. The shifting weather only succeeded in likening itself to her moods, varied and unpredictable as they were.

Yes, it appeared that he was very far gone indeed, with no hope of ever having her. She had run out of money and left Forget Valley... or at least that was what she had told everyone. For his part, Gustafa was inclined to believe that Jack and Celia's marriage had, had something to do with her abrupt departure as well. It was no small secret that the guileless farmer had captured the fancy of many a woman around their village. Gustafa didn't resent this, however, and he wasn't jealous; Jack was a good, honest man, and wouldn't intentionally play with anyone's feelings. He was also a good friend of Gustafa's. It wouldn't be right for him to envy the other man.

Unsettled by the route his thoughts were taking, Gustafa shifted in his seat and mentally admonished himself. So the person that he cared for didn't give a whit about him aside from friendship. He should be happy to have that much from her. He was, in fact. It was a pleasure just to talk to her, just to discuss whatever random thing captured her fancy for that day. They had always had very interesting conversations under the tree by his house. She would cross her arms and lean against his wall, and he would settle comfortably against the bark, guitar over his lap, and then they would talk. The wonderful thing about her was that she could appreciate silence as easily as she could a good conversation. It had seemed that, since the moment they met, they were kindred spirits of a sort.

"Mm, the wrong sort," he murmured, absently tilting his glass of milk and examining it as if he expected to find something hidden in its liquid depths.

"You're very quiet lately, Gustafa."

Blinking, Gustafa glanced up through the slit in his hat, gaze falling on Muffy. She was standing behind the bar, a glass and washrag in hand, smiling at him as she went through the motions of polishing. In all truth, Gustafa had never really had a decent conversation with Muffy; from what he had observed of her when talking with others, he doubted they would find much in common. However, there wasn't anyone else in the bar tonight, and much as he would prefer to be left alone with his thoughts, he was not a rude man.

One corner of his mouth lifted slightly in response to her smile, and he said, "I suppose I've just been thinking."

Muffy inclined her head, pursing her lips briefly. She appeared to be considering him, her gaze thoughtful and intent, so he decided to do the same.

She was a very attractive woman, he would admit. There was no denying the appeal in her round, impish face, framed by flaxen waves that he imagined must be like silk to the touch. Her eyes, almost always laughing, dominated her face and had sent many a man chasing his own tail when they were applied in the sport that so many young ladies seemed to enjoy. Some might have described her countenance as angelic, but Gustafa differed. Certainly, she was fair, but there was a playful slyness that lingered around the edges of her generous lips that he imagined an angel wouldn't be likely to display.

She formed quite the picture though, especially in that little red dress that was apparently her favorite. It flattered her hair and complexion, as well as every curve on her body. Some people thought it too extravagant for a place like Forget Valley, but then, some people thought him too extravagant.

Yes, Gustafa could appreciate that Muffy was a very attractive woman. However, his sentiments were captured by another young woman of quite a different sort, and he was in no danger of falling under the spell of the alluring Muffy of the Blue Bar.

She didn't seem perturbed at all by his observation of her; rather, she set her glass aside and leaned rested one hip against the bar, crossing her arms under her breasts. "Thinking, hm? You look so solemn lately... you know, if you want to talk, I'm willing to lend a friendly ear."

Gustafa's smile widened, but he just shook his head. "I appreciate the offer, but..."

"But," Muffy continued for him, tapping one finger to her chin as she slanted him a glance, "you don't want to burden someone who you barely know with your romantic troubles." When he glanced up quickly, she winked. "Am I right?"

Leaning back, he laced his fingers across his stomach and arched an eyebrow. "Perhaps."

Muffy laughed, a rich, warm sound, and Gustafa felt his lips twitching despite himself. "Oh, I am right. You're not going to be able to avoid spilling your sorrows, you know."

"Oh? And why is that?"

Muffy glanced around, as if expecting someone to be listening in, and then leaned over confidentially. "I'm the bartender, darling. It's my job to be pesky and your job to get piteously drunk and tell me everything. Though," she paused, arching one delicate eyebrow at his drink, "I'm afraid you'll have to have something a bit stronger than milk to accomplish that."

Gustafa glanced down at his milk and laughed. "I'm afraid I don't drink alcohol. The taste has never appealed to me."

Muffy nodded, apparently satisfied. "I admire that. Although, it makes my job that much more difficult. Since you seem like the sort of man that won't fall victim to feminine wiles, I suppose I'll just have to be blunt... You miss Nami, don't you?"

Gustafa blinked once. Then he blinked once more. "I hadn't thought it was that obvious."

A smug smile settled onto Muffy's little red bow of a mouth. "From one true romantic to another... it was written all over your face, darling. My heart's almost breaking for you."

A man with a less complacent disposition would have likely been irritated. As it was, Gustafa was intrigued. He obviously had not given Muffy enough credit in his initial estimation. "Well, it won't do to have both our hearts breaking," he said teasingly.

For a brief moment, wistfulness danced behind her eyes, but she smiled so quickly and warmly that he had difficulty deciding whether he had imagined it or not.

"Hearts are fickle things, darling. You can't tell them when to break and when to endure."

Gustafa was spared conjuring a response because just then the doors opened and Rock came in, chattering noisily over his shoulder to someone who happened to be passing by. He was perfectly oblivious to having interrupted any sort of important conversation, and promptly fell on top of a barstool with a boneless grace that Gustafa marveled at.

"Hey, Gustafa, Muffy. You guys know of anything fun to do?" He asked, reaching up to push strawberry-blonde locks behind his ears.

Muffy arched one delicately formed eyebrow at him and shook her head. "You know, Rock, one of these days..."

He rolled his eyes. "One of these days, my thrill-seeking is going to get me killed. Right?"

Gustafa ducked his head, reaching up to pull the brim of his hat lower over his eyes so that they wouldn't see him grin. Rock was an impertinent youth at best, but so affable about it, that almost no one could find it in them to scold him. It was true that he sometimes tried the nerves with his endless talk of parties and activities that could never happen in Forget Valley, but he was young. Young people always wished for things that were just out of their grasp.

In some ways... he supposed youth wasn't really that different from adulthood.

But in any case, he had overstayed his visit for the night. Rising, he laid some money out on the scratched surface of the bar and tipped the edge of his hat toward Muffy.

"Have a nice night," he murmured, reaching for his guitar.

Muffy turned from the heated debate she'd begun with Rock and blinked at Gustafa. He held her gaze only briefly, and in that moment a small frown line appeared between her eyes. However, she didn't comment on what apparently disturbed her; rather, she nodded and swiped a hand along the counter, dropping the money into her hands.

"Don't be a stranger, Gustafa," she called cheerfully, waiting until he had slipped through the doors and closed them quietly behind him to sigh.

Rock glanced up curiously. "What's the matter with you?"

Fisting one hand on her hip, Muffy scowled at him and waggled a finger. "Someone like you wouldn't understand."

Rock feigned hurt. "Well, sorry."

"Oh, you know you aren't really offended."

For a moment they merely stared at one another, in perfect silence, before both burst out laughing. The sound slipped out through the slightly opened window, and Gustafa glanced over his shoulder, a faint smile curving his lips as he walked off into the darkness.