Tithing Love

By The Laughing Libra

Summary: (HM: MoFo) Claire, the new farmer in Mineral Town, is bold, aggressive, and full of fire... and she's rubbing some of the townsfolk the wrong way. But for Carter, she may just be the answer to his prayers.

A/N: I wrote this story because my favorite game of all time is "Harvest Moon: Friends of Mineral Town." When "More Friends" first came out, I was beside myself with excitement, because the character I loved best was Carter, the town priest, and I was gung-ho to be "the minister's wife." Imagine my consternation when I found out your marriage options were mostly confined to the 5 rival bachelors. What about all the other single men in town?! I thought. Gotz, Zack, Carter—I can marry the freakin' Gourmet but not them?! What's up with that?!

So the long and short of it is, this story is an expression of my love for Carter. I hope you will enjoy it!

And, as another added note, the measurement of time in my story is the same as it is in real life, and not merely 30 days per season.

Tithing Love

Chapter I: Meeting Again for the First Time

Claire had moved into Mineral Town two seasons ago, but in all that time the only time Father Carter had seen her was the initial visit she made to the church on her introductory tour with Mayor Thomas. Such minimal contact with a member of the town wasn't uncommon to Carter; he barely saw most of the villagers: aside from a very few loyal parishioners, the church wasn't exactly the town's biggest hot spot. So for quite a while, the only impression Carter had of Claire was a pair of angry eyes, half hidden under a mop of long blonde hair, inexplicably glowering darkly at Mayor Thomas for her entire visit to the church.

Therefore, it was with a small amount of trepidation that Carter headed to Claire's farm to invite her to the annual Music Festival.

This trepidation only increased when, the moment Carter set foot on Claire's property, her dog, still half a puppy but large enough to do damage to the unwary, leapt with surprising speed out of his doghouse to skid to a halt in front of Carter, barking loudly and blocking Carter's path. Carter took a hasty step back.

After a few tense moments, a petite, sporty-looking blonde poked her head out of her front door to see what the commotion was all about. Seeing Carter, she grinned broadly. "Hey, Father!" she greeted him hastily before saying to the dog in a commanding voice, "Down, Pilot! Heel!" Immediately, the dog stopped barking and trotted over to Claire to sit at her side. She patted Pilot's head. "Good boy."

"That's an excellent guard dog," Carter said with relief, amazed at Pilot's instantaneous transformation from warden to family pet.

"Isn't he?!" Claire said, obviously pleased with the compliment. "I trained him myself." She rubbed the dog's ears and continued, "You wouldn't think it to look at him, but he was once this tiny runt of a thing I found half drowned in the gutter. My ferry to Mineral Town got delayed because of a huge storm and I literally tripped over him running around in the rain trying to find a youth hostel with vacancies. I picked him up out of the mud and decided to keep him." She scratched the dog's chest fondly. "I've got a soft spot for strays."

"That's very kind of you," said Carter, and meant it. He admired people who went out of their way to help others. Part of the reason he became a priest was because it was a means to better accomplish just that task.

Claire straightened up and looked at Carter. "So it's a bit early for social calling, but you have good timing anyway—I was just starting breakfast. Come on in and join me. You can tell me why you're here while we eat."

"Um, thank you. That's very generous," Carter said, pleasantly surprised at Claire's unexpected friendliness as well as the unexpected opportunity to eat breakfast. The church ran on the charitable donations of the town, but unfortunately, the small percentage of the town that regularly frequented the church was also the percentage with the least amount of spare cash. Breakfast—and lunch, for that matter—was a luxury that Carter usually did without.

Claire pointed him to a seat and presented Carter with a simple but bountiful meal of a fruit salad consisting of wild grapes, cubed pineapple, and slices of freshly picked apples; buttered toast; and tea. She took the seat across from him and was about to dig straight in before she thought the better of it and grinned again at Carter. "I almost forgot. Do the honor, Father?" she asked.

"Of course," he replied, and they folded their hands as Carter gave a quick thanks to the Harvest Goddess for the meal.

"Enjoy!" she said cheerfully to Carter, already spearing an apple slice with her fork and popping it into her mouth with relish. Silence reigned for a while as both of them ate heartily. As they began to slow down, Claire finally asked conversationally, "So what did you stop by for?"

"Ah…! Well, it's the annual music festival a week from Monday. The girls in town always perform together, and it just occurred to me that you might also…"

"Wanna join in?" she interrupted eagerly. "I'd love to! I've played the ocarina since I was five, and it's one of my favorite things to do."

"That's wonderful!" Carter replied. "I brought you some sheet music… Do you think you could learn it by then?"

"No problem!" she replied confidently. "It'll be fun to perform in public again! I haven't done it in ages."

Once Carter gave her all the details, they began to chat comfortably about various subjects. Claire asked him about the town and its festivals, and then about the church and its activities. It was obvious that Claire was new to his religion, and listened to the answers he provided to her questions with interest.

"So… you've really done a lot with this place in a short amount of time," Carter said, sipping his tea and glancing at the view out the window. The farm, he knew, had fallen into a desperate state of disrepair by the time Claire had moved in, and it was now amazingly clean and organized for the relatively short period of time she had been living there. Rows and rows of sweet potato plants were beginning to bud, and more rows in the field were also plowed and obviously seeded, though nothing had grown in yet.

"Yeah…" she replied, "I'm a natural workaholic. Planting stuff and watching it grow has been interesting, but I just got my first animals, and I gotta say, taking care of them is a lot more fun. You wanna see them?"

Carter glanced down at his plate. He'd cleaned it completely, and had been debating whether or not it would reflect poorly on him to ask for a second helping—he didn't want her to feel obligated to feed him like this every time he showed up. Deciding to err on the side of caution and not reveal how hungry he habitually was, he smiled and said, "I'd love to. Let me help you clear the table."

They went outside and she showed him her new sheep and cows, and then led him to the chicken coop. "And here's my pride and joy!" she said as a tiny chick cheeped and ran up to her. Claire picked up the tiny bundle of fluff and deposited her into Carter's hands. "Isn't she cute?! I named her Maya. She was the runt of the chicks at the poultry farm, and I decided to make it my mission to ensure she grows up big and strong!"

"She's great!" Carter said enthusiastically, carefully petting the tiny chick. "You must be very good friends with Popuri and Rick if you like chickens so much."

Claire frowned and folded her arms, not looking directly at Carter but obviously recalling a memory with annoyance. "Well, I am good friends with one of them. The other one… well, we argue over Kai a lot."

"I see," Carter said, realizing from her face that he was treading onto a touchy subject. He knew that Kai was the boy that vacationed in Mineral Town every summer, and who was casually dating Popuri, one of the few faithful attendees of Sunday services. Popuri talked about Kai to Carter quite a lot, but Claire must have taken a liking to him as well. That was a shame, because it seemed to Carter that the girls might have gotten along very well otherwise.

Carter tactfully changed the subject. "Well, I can tell you're making a good home for little Maya. I feel the presence of the Harvest Goddess in this farm; I think it will be very successful." Claire beamed at him.

"That means a lot coming from you, Father," Claire said, unfolding her arms and smiling. "You seem like you know what you're talking about."

They left the chicken coop and Claire walked him to the border of the farm. "I'm glad you stopped by, Father."

"You can just call me 'Carter,'" he said.

"Okay then, Carter," she said with a cheerful nod, readily taking to the amendment, "I'll see you at the Music Festival promptly at 6:00."

She walked Carter to the edge of the farm, and they exchanged very affable goodbyes. As Carter started walking back to the church, he couldn't help but reflect with satisfaction on the town's good luck of gaining such a good-natured resident. Just before he reached the first corner, he turned and took one last look back at the farm. Claire was still where he left her, leaning against a fence post with Pilot at her side. When she saw that he was looking back, she stopped petting Pilot's head and waved brightly to him. Carter grinned and waved back before continuing on his way. Claire was undeniably a very nice person. He hoped he'd have the chance to speak with her at length again at the Music Festival.

As she had assured Carter she would be, Claire was indeed prompt to the festival. In fact, she was rather early.

"Hello…!" she called into the echoing halls of the church, her ocarina and sheet music in hand. Carter came over to greet her.

"Hello, yourself," he said, smiling. "I'm afraid it's only Cliff and me here at this point."

"That's fine, Carter," Claire said, grinning at him. "We already know we can hold a conversation without offending each other or boring each other to death. I'm sure we'll be fine."

Carter laughed. "This is true. Unfortunately, Cliff is very quiet and shy. You know, I think he could benefit from talking to someone as lively as you. Would you mind befriending him a bit?"

"No problem! I'll do my best," Claire said, following Carter to the front of the Church.

"Hi!" she said brightly to Cliff, sticking out her hand for him to shake and introducing herself. Carter was pleased to see that soon, with Claire's help, the two of them managed to engage Cliff in a rather involved conversation. Soon the topic turned to Cliff himself.

Claire sighed sympathetically and said, "No job, huh? Yeah, I can see the trouble—it's such a small town that all the jobs are already taken out of shear necessity to keep the town functioning. It must be difficult for you," said Claire.

"Yeah… but the problem is that I really do like this town… I don't want to leave if I can help it," Cliff mumbled softly.

"I wish I could help. The problem is that now I'm just starting up—in a few seasons I'll probably need a farmhand, but right now I just can't afford one. So that's not gonna work," mused Claire.

"Don't worry, Cliff," said Carter kindly. "If you're meant to stay here, the Harvest Goddess will surely provide."

"That's right!" agreed Claire. "I'll keep my eyes open for you, too, and I bet—" She was cut of by the sound of the door opening. The participants of the music festival were arriving.

"Ah, I wanted to coordinate with the girls before the festival. Excuse me, gentlemen," Claire said, getting up from where she was sitting beside Cliff on the pew and meeting the girls at the door.

"She seemed nice," Cliff said quietly to Carter. "Sort of like Ann—nice in a pushy sort of way."

"I don't know about that," Carter chuckled, "but she is very nice. I think it'll turn out that we'll all be glad that she moved to our town."

Carter took a seat with Cliff as the Music Festival got started. After a brief warm-up, the girls played a few tunes that were long-time favorites with the town's residence, before trying a piece that was brand new. The new song turned out to prove very popular with the audience, and enthusiastic applause followed. Carter listened very carefully throughout the festival to discern Claire's performance from the rest of the music, and was impressed with her talent.

Of course, the real star of the evening was, as usual, Karen with her exquisite singing voice, and a blushing but pleased Karen was swarmed with adoring well-wishers the moment the girls took their last bow. Thanks to this, Claire was largely disengaged, and Carter took the opportunity to work his way through the crowd over to her and fulfill his wish of speaking to her alone again.

She looked delighted to see him. "This festival was fun! I can't wait to see what the next festival is like—the Harvest one!" she said as soon as he was in earshot.

He smiled. "I'm glad you enjoyed yourself. You played beautifully."

"Were you listening to me?" she laughed, pleased. "Well maybe now I should return the favor and listen to you. I'll come to a mass and hear one of your sermons, sometime."

"Well if you really are interested, I could tell you a short one right now, if you like," he said.

"Yeah?" she said, looking curious. "I'm all ears. Let's hear it."

"Really? Now let me see…" He paused in thought. "This is a story from before I became a priest. I had no money, and lived in a tiny apartment. From my window, I could see inside the next apartment. There lived a couple there, and over time I noticed that the husband never moved—he sat in the same place all day, sometimes talking to his wife, or shaking his head, but never getting up. Everyday the woman would go out to work, leaving the husband behind, and he would just sit there."

Claire snorted. "Sounds like my mom and my deadbeat dad."

Carter continued, "One day, I noticed that a fire had started in that apartment. I expected the man to flee, but he still sat there, unmoving! In a panic, I rushed over to the apartment to save him. When I opened the door, the place was full of smoke, but I fought my way inside."

Claire's eyes widened, and she leaned closer, listening intently.

"When I reached the man, he just gazed at me with a blank expression. I tried to move him, but he was mysteriously heavy. I was baffled until I looked down at the floor, and saw that his arms and legs were growing out of it like plant roots. Ahhhh!!"

Claire jumped at his scream and looked absolutely shocked. Carter couldn't help but laugh as he observed her face. "I'm joking! I was just checking to see if you were paying attention. That didn't really happen."

She looked at him silently for a moment. "You have a really strange sense of humor," she said wonderingly, but she smiled as she said it. She pushed his shoulder playfully. "You know, if this is a typical example of your storytelling, maybe you need to have someone help you with your sermons."

"Are you volunteering for such a job?" asked Carter with a smile, only half-serious in his question.

She considered it a moment. "You know, I think I will. It'll be interesting." She raised an eyebrow archly. "As long as I don't have to sit through that story again. That was horrible."

"Oh, I've got plenty of other stories," he said with a grin. "I think we'll find one you'll approve of for me to tell this Sunday. Shall we meet here at 1:00 on Saturday?"

"Sure! It's a date," she replied, sticking out her hand so they could shake on it. He took her hand, and felt a warm smile gracing his lips. It was wonderful to have a new friend in this tiny town.