Chapter 10


When the Gourmet, at long last, wandered into the clearing to find his sweet Sakura, his goddess, engaged in a violent disagreement, he found himself, for once, at a loss for the elegant and eloquent words that defined a man of the world such as he.

Sakura, luckily, was able to talk quite enough for the both of them, and as though sensing his presence, she froze, ears pricking up, and then launched herself at him like a hyperactive kitten.

"Snuggle-Pumpkin!" she shrieked in joy that quickly turned to dismay as she bounced off his spherical self and into the fray again.

"Alright, ENOUGH!" the Gourmet bellowed, summoning up all the lung power and diaphragmatic support that had been his throughout the opera career that had ended when he had realized his true calling.

His diaphragmatic support did not disappoint. Four fist-fighting young adults, as well as the two standing off to the side and happily munching popcorn whilst taking bets on who would come out unharmed, came to a dead halt and stared in fear at the furious man.

Anger radiating from every pore, he stalked toward the jumble of combatants and very gently hauled Sakura to her feet.

"Are you alright, my delicate pastry of bliss?" he asked, tenderly brushing some hair from her eyes.

"I'm okay, Snuggle-Pumpkin," she assured him, snuggling happily against his shoulder – so nice and pillowy! "I missed you."

"I missed you too, darlingest. I was in the middle of a grand banquet in honour of the opening of a new and ground-breaking restaurant by one of the great names in international cookery, and I simply couldn't stand it any more. After three days of no appetite, I just had to return to see how my sweet little sugar-cookie was faring in my absence."

"Lonely," she pouted, eyes huge and appealing.

"I hope it won't be so long next time."

"Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, WHOA!" exclaimed Karen, who had finally recovered her powers of speech. "HE'S your boyfriend?"

"Well, yeah," Sakura giggled, blushing pinkly. "At least, I think so. You're my boyfriend, right?"

The Gourmet gave a jolly laugh.

"I had certainly better be!"

"My one and only," the blonde assured him with a roguish grin, followed by a dreamy sigh.

Karen, meanwhile, continued to sputter.

"But...but...but HOW?"

"We met at the cooking competition," Sakura confided, for some reason pulling a big block of chocolate and a bottle of wine, which Karen promptly confiscated to deal with her shattered nerves. "Our eyes met over the judging table. I smiled. He ate cookies. Then he smiled. There were cookie crumbs in his teeth. And I knew that he was the one I wanted to spend the rest of my life with."

"If I didn't already hate cookies, I would now," Karen groused.

" weren't after Karen?" Rick surmised as he climbed off of Kai and absently dragged the other boy to his feet.

Sakura stared blankly.

"What kind of idiot would think that?"

"Yeah, Rick," Kai agreed, glaring daggers. "What kind of idiot?"

"It's not my fault!" Rick protested. "It's the mustache! It makes me do weird things! Just ask the doctor! Do you really think he would've dragged Elli off to have his evil way with her if it weren't for that mustache?" He paused, expectant look wilting as everyone fixed him with disbelieving looks, even the Gourmet, who very likely knew nothing of either one. Hastening to change the subject, Rick turned to Sakura. "So, you really weren't after the girls, huh?"

Sakura shook her head, then winked at Karen, Popuri, and Ann in turn.

"No offense, ladies. You're all smokin' hot, but there's just no one to compare with my pookie."

"O-kay! That's good enough for me, and more than I ever needed to know," Rick declared. "Let's go, Karen. Maybe we can still catch the tail end of Happy Hour."

""But…but…how?" Karen demanded, seeming near tears. "She's cute, and young, and perfect in every way, and he's—"

"He's rich, and respected, and kind, and sweet, and considerate, and chivalrous," Sakura finished airily.

"But…but he's fat!"

Sakura shook her head and sighed, arms folded.

"Come on, Karen, what kind of irredeemably shallow, useless idiot thinks that being overweight removes every scrap of worth a person would otherwise have?"

"Shut up!" Karen barked. "I am not shallow! Now Rick, take off those glasses before I break up with you for being too nerdy and seek out someone worthy of my perfection and Goddessness, because despite my general hopelessness at doing anything useful, I am hot, which is all that matters!" Then, as one regaining sanity very suddenly, she gave a start. "Whoa! I think I was channeling my fanboys. Rick, if that ever happens again, promise you'll drown me or something."

"What!" Rick exclaimed. "No! I'd rather have you stupid than not at all, Karen."

"Aw, that's sweet," she said with a dopey smile. "I think..." Then she turned to Sakura. "But seriously, what's going on? This is some kind of joke, right? Please tell me you're planning to murder him on your wedding night and make off with his fortune, or something. Being a cold-blooded killer is one thing, as long as you only cold-bloodedly kill ugly people, but having bad taste in men? Inexcusable! Now, don't make me go write a fanfic in which you dump him for traits he doesn't actually have, because I deem him unworthy of you!"

"Karen," Rick called nervously through gritted teeth. "You're channeling again…"

Coming once more out of her trance, she wheeled furiously on Rick.

"You were supposed to drown me next time that happened!"

He made an exasperated noise.

"I already told you, no way."

"Rick, I would rather die than live without a brain!"

"But it's not you talking! It's a temporary lapse! You're going to throw your whole life away for a temporary lapse?"

"I can feel it happening again, Rick," Karen said brokenly, face in her hands. "I can feel myself longing to ask Sakura what the hell she sees in him, even though they're clearly really happy and sickeningly in love."

"Well, then, I'll tell you," Sakura said, grinning as she put her arm around Karen's shoulders. "Have you seen the size of his mouth? Just think of the tongue he must have. And by the way," she added, bright red, "he does know how to use it. He's a talented man."

"Not so very," the Gourmet chuckled. "I just know what my favourite dish likes."

"Yeah, I'm scarred for life," Ann commented casually to Cliff.

"Me, too," Cliff agreed sadly.

"Wanna go see if the doctor's special medicine will inflict some well-timed amnesia?"

Cliff pondered this, his expression anxious

"Will we still remember each other?"

"Cliff, we live in the same building," Ann reminded him with a giggle. "I think we'll work something out."

Nodding thoughtfully, he followed the redhead from the clearing.

Kai turned to Popuri.

"Yeah, I think they've got the right idea. Wanna go have some snow cones forget any of this ever happened?"

Karen watched thoughtfully as the pair scurried away. Then she turned to Rick.

"What were you saying about the tail end of Happy Hour?"

"I don't think so, Karen," Rick told her, eyes narrowed and fixed piercingly on the little blonde as his mustache shot out several feet at either side, and twisted and curled through the air. "After that display of horror at meeting Sakura's boyfriend, that show of unfairly and cattily picking out his every fault, I'm not leaving here until I know for sure that there's no danger of the hoe-happy succubus growing tired of her Snuggle-Pumpkin and moving on to you."

Karen sighed heavily.

"I don't suppose you're thinking of getting her to Pinky-Swear."

"I was thinking something a little more...permanent," he replied, his mustache winding around a thick branch of a nearby tree and wrenching it free."

"Have I mentioned that I hate my life?" Karen asked the Gourmet casually.

"W-what sort of town is this!" the large man demanded as Rick's mustache brandished the tree branch like a weapon.

"Believe me, you're not the only one to ask that recently," Karen replied flatly as Sakura, recognizing the maniacal glint in the eye that the mustache didn't have, drew her sickle from hammerspace and assumed a battle position.

"YOU turned her against me!" Rick howled cryptically, launching himself at Sakura, aiming blow after cruel blow at her pretty golden head, all of which were dodged easily by her superhuman grace and speed...or at least, by her supernatural dumb luck as she stumbled about, swinging her sickle blindly at her assailant.

"Uh, I'm not against you, Rick," Karen called, annoyed, and all the more so as she was entirely ignored by the combatants.

"Your anger management issues and your silly mustache have done that already," Sakura spat back at the sandy-haired young man. I've got a bad feeling about this, she thought resignedly.

"YOU WILL NOT TAKE HER FROM ME!" Rick bellowed with all the anger and rage that the capslock key could muster.

"Hello! Rick! Still right here! Not going anywhere!" Karen tried to interject, once again to be entirely ignored.

"Your paranoia and your faulty logic have already done that...already. Y-y'know, along with the anger management issues and the mustache," Sakura said, faltering a little towards the end as her spiffy dialogue began to wilt a little around the edges and sound merely silly. It wasn't fair; Ewan McGregor could have made it sound cool!

"Oh, someone is going to get hurt," the Gourmet fretted.

"Don't worry about it," Karen said flatly. "She took him with no problem last time."

"Ow!" Sakura was meanwhile yelping in pain as the branch connected heavily with her knee.

"Alright, I've seen enough," Mr. Pheberton announced decisively. "Sakura, I've decided that I'm going to take you away from this awful place."

Sakura froze in the act of clutching her sore leg, and blushed deeply.

"T-take me away? Does that mean...get married?"

"Of course," he chuckled. "A man of my position, and a lady of your beauty, grace, and honour, living in sin?"

"The mental images hurt," Karen whimpered.

"If you will agree to it, my sweet little dumpling, I would like to be married as soon as possible."

"Wow," Sakura laughed sheepishly, withdrawing a slightly battered Blue Feather from her backpack. "That kind of makes my present a moot point."

"Then let us go celebrate, my love. To the Beach House!"

"The Beach House!" she repeated jubilantly, and they sauntered off together arm in arm.

Karen shot Rick a distrustful glare.

"What, you're not going to chase them down and pound her to death?"

Rick laughed.

"Didn't you hear him, Karen? He's taking her away from all this. That means she's leaving Mineral Town, and our relationship is safe from outward negative influence! Geez, you need to work on your listening skills."

"And that's it?" she asked flatly. Something about this just seemed too easy...

"Well, yeah. Did you think I was going to chase her down to the ends of the earth or something, pelt her with chickens until she swore in blood to leave you alone?" he scoffed. "Come on; I'm not psycho."

"That's a relief, anyway," she sighed, conveniently forgetting the multiple seasons she had spent in stalking a totally unaware young lady in the suspicion that she was after the bespectacled young man before her. "So, now what?"

His reddened slightly.

"W-well, now that everyone's gone, I have something I kind of wanted to ask before."

She raised an eyebrow. If this story ends with a double-wedding, I'm going to shoot the author.

"Yeah?" she prompted, hoping to sway his impressionable male mind against the proposal that she feared. Not that the idea of embarking upon married life was unpleasant, but after al this, her nerves were about shot, and she was gloomily certain that they'd snap completely and result in the Bridezilla to end all Bridezillas if she were forced to plan a wedding in this state.

"Will you...join me for a drink?" he finally finished, looking shyly at the ground and scuffing the toe of his boot in the dirt. "We missed Happy Hour, so I'll buy tonight."

Karen's eyes grew misty, and her expression morphed into a dopey, sentimental smile.

"Oh, Rick, I thought you'd never ask. Again."


And with that, a gripping tale of adventure, romance, cow-milking, and head trauma drew to a close. Life within the sleepy little village of Mineral Town returned to as normal as ere it had been in the past. The cows began once again to have prophetic dreams of Boats and Trucks, birds became once again alternately stuck in chimneys and used as lethal weapons, and farms exploded.

This, of course, all existed only in the bestselling novel that Mary adapted from the diaries that Sakura found under her mattress while packing to accompany her Snuggle-Pumpkin to his urban life. These diaries, the sordid tale of the Farmer of Purest Evil of days long past, captivated Mary's interest immediately, and every second that was not spent with Gray was spent slaving over her book. A labour of love, however, it won the hearts of the publishers as wholly as its author won the blacksmith's grandson's. Er, heart, that is. The royalties, Anna pointed out delightedly, could buy an absolutely beautiful wedding. Whether or not young Mary decided to take her mother's advice is unknown; all that is certain is that she sure is cute when she blushes.

But not everyone had time to indulge in scribbling, as Kai called it, playfully disdainful. Between the two of them, Sakura and her Gourmet had about eaten the beach house out of business. Apparently, in the city, celebrating was considered something best done with a disgusting level of excess. Or, maybe farming, ranching, and brawling just worked up a heck of an appetite. Either way, with every scrap of food gone from the Beach House, Popuri suggested that Kai take this opportunity to re-imagine the menu. Maybe, she said excitedly, they could expand their repertoire to more than four items! This had prompted Kai to request snippily that Popuri stop being a smart-ass, which had earned him a lot of confused blinking on the pretty pink-haired girl's part, as she had, in fact, been completely in earnest.

Certain other eating establishments in the area were wont to note, carefully loud enough for Kai and his newfound collaborator to hear, that they would give their spleen's left eye tooth – or something – for kind of time it would take to reinvent the menu. Although, Ann would add airily, she supposed it must be a lot harder when there were more than four things on the menu to reinvent. This would lead to Kai pouting a whole lot, until Popuri could cheer him up with stories of all the times Karen had yelled at Rick that day, but Ann's attention would, by this time, be elsewhere. Specifically, on the young man now firmly instated as a full-time assistant at Duke's Winery, one of the Inn's top supplier. The Inn's only supplier, as a town the size of Mineral Town was unlikely to have more than one Winery, as amusing as the rivalry might have been for the privilege of intoxicating all the locals. At any rate, with Cliff working right next door, and living in the same building, Ann found lots and lots of time to get to know him, and eventually, as her father stated, shaking in embarrassment and horror at the scene he had witnessed upon incautiously walking into Ann's room without knocking, lots of time to get to know him, in the Biblical sense. That had not been a terribly good day for Doug, although presumably it had been quite a fantastic day for Cliff and Ann.

Incidentally, it had also been an extraordinarily good day for the young couple at the Clinic, too, as it had finally occurred to them that really, they could easily make the peeping hole obselete by simply sharing a room. Then they could see all they liked, whenever they liked, without the back and neck pain and eye strain of peeking through a tiny hole in the plaster. It was, Elli told Karen, who really wished she hadn't, ecstatically the next day, just like a really big peeping hole, all the time! With touching privileges, Tim was, unbeknownst to her, meanwhile telling Carter in a hushed, awed voice. These two, Carter sighed as Tim floated back to the Clinic on the fluffy pink cloud that was the knowledge that he was to "get some" tonight, just didn't get the point of being married.

Karen and Rick were faring just as well in their own particular brand of romance, which tended to feature bitter arguments for about the five minutes that the two could keep their hands off of one another. This had led them to stop meeting at the bench outside the Supermarket, as they had been repeatedly fined by Harris for indecent public exposure. This had disappointed Elli greatly, as she had been looking to the amorous young couple on the street bench for ideas on what exciting new positions to try next, which had led Rick, when it got back around to him, to remark that she was "sick". Nevertheless, it was just as good, taking their arguments to Goddess Pond, although the strange camera flashes that tended to come from the water whenever they really got going were a little unnerving.

As for the Harvest Goddess, she assembled a scrap book of photos of the various young couples doing their various young couples things, which she had entitled "Mineral Town Gets Freaky", and sold on the internet for a fairly hefty profit.

Meanwhile, the girls continued to receive postcards from all over the world, "from your bestest buddy, Sakura", detailing all the wondrous adventures she was having touring with her Snuggle-Pumpkin, learning the ropes of the culinary world, putting her insanely high metabolism to the test amid her frantic workout sessions. Wink-wink, she had added, providing all five girls with mental images they so didn't need.

Yes, it seemed that life in Mineral Town had returned to normal. And then, one night, while preparing to hop into bed, Thomas received a telephone call that sent a shiver down his spine:

"Yeah, hi; my name's Gary – Gary Stu. I'm six-foot-three, slim-yet-muscular build, long, thick red hair, gorgeous blue eyes, and a hell of a way with women. And men, for that matter. Anyway, I'm calling about your ad in County Real Estate Weekly; the one for the farm..."


End Notes: Aaaaaaaaand, that's a wrap. I know, it didn't really have an ending, but at least it's over, right? I figure someone out there's gotta be cheering. XD