Claire tried her best to smile, but there was no fooling Karen.
The blonde cautiously replaced her spoon back beside the plate of tar-black pudding and put an arm around her best friend, who sighed heavily and rubbed her temples. Cooking was never one of Karen's strong points, and it is hard to convince her tasters otherwise.
Karen took one irritated look at the charred dessert before groaning and settling onto a kitchen stool. The friendly farmer of the local farm sat next to her, arm still wrapped around the feisty one's shoulders. "Come on," Claire said bracingly, nudging Karen. "That wasn't so bad...just try not to let the food cook for so long..."
Her friend couldn't help but laugh. Claire was always brutally innocent and nice to most everyone around her...except to the wild dogs who try to devour her chickens. She looked at the sincere blue eyes and hugged the farmer tightly. "Thanks, Claire," Karen smiled, "but I don't think I'll ever get this right." There was a moment of silence.
"I'll never marry this way!" Karen finally cried, exasperated. Her hands flew up in the air and covered her eyes, elbows resting on the kitchen counter. "Everyone knows that 'a fastest way to a man's heart is his stomach'," said Karen woefully. "And I can't cook to save my life. Every other girl in Mineral Town won their husband with cooking."
"Oh come on, that's not true..."
"What about Popuri and her pineapple fruit salad?"
"Well, Kai's really a sucker for pineapple..."
"Mary and those vegetable puffs?"
"Gray will eat anything Mary offers..."
"Ann and those apple pies!"
"Let's admit, my brother has a passion for food..."
"Elli and her disgusting herb sandwiches?!"
"The Doc always emphasizes health, and they're not that bad..."
"Cliff proposed to you the day after he tasted your homemade wild grape-cake!"
"Um, t-that could have been coincidence..."
Karen made another woeful sigh and sank onto the counter. "I grew up with him, I've dated him, I've done almost everything there is to do, what should I do?" The brown-blond head sank into her purple vest collar, green eyes almost vivid with tears.
Claire thought long and hard. Rick should have proposed to Karen ages ago. A talented singer and dancer blessed with beauty and a headstrong attitude, everyone admired Karen. She was opposite the quite plain but passionate Rick: their personalities "clicked" so well that Lillia was bent on having Karen as her daughter-in-law.
Often the young farmer would see the two chatting, laughing about some joke only they new while outside the Supermarket. They still seemed to play with each other, like their juvenile days. Other times would be at night at the bar, or else while Rick was tending to the chickens...
A lightbulb went off in Claire's head. "That's it!" she cried, pounding her fist on the counter and jolting Karen from her self-pity. The sand-blond looked at the farmer as if a gasket blew inside Claire's head. "A-are you okay, Claire?" Karen asked, a tiny drop of humorous sarcasm in her voice. She was surprised at Claire's sudden fervour.
"I'm perfectly fine," Claire said breathlessly. "In fact, I just had a brilliant idea!" Karen looked at her questioningly, but the farmer girl ignored this. "The reason Rick can't propose to you," she declared, "is that you are his girlfriend."
Karen took a few moments to process this. "...What?"
"Listen!" Claire hushed. "Yes, you're the person he's loved all his life. He can't positively live without you. But you're his girlfriend. As in 'girlfriend, not-quite-wife-material'. He's not sure he can hold on to you as his wife, or whether you both can handle lifetime commitment and children."
The brown-blond girl snapped her fingers and gasped in realization. She was silent for a moment. Then began to speak. "That...is a total load of crap. I love him more than anyone else can. I want to marry him." Her face was twisted with annoyance. "Why can't he understand that?"
"OHO! That's what came to me a minute ago! But I have the craziest idea that just might make it happen!" She squeezed Karen's shoulder heartily as she told her the plan that crazily blossomed into her mind. The diva's eyes widened at every stage before shining with joy. "Oh, Claire!" She squealed as she hugged her best girl friend. "This is...crazy, but it just might work!"
A very hassled Rick was confused when Karen arrived at the Poultry Farm cradling a tiny bundle in her arms. When the baby's cry can be heard, Rick's face went hilariously from his normal tan to chalk white.
"Who—what--?!" He sputtered, his orange-brown hair messed.
"He's not our baby, Rick."said Karen sternly, causing Rick to burn deep red as he heard Popuri snort on her morning glass of milk. The young man stood with his mouth open as he heard Karen's explanation: an orphan baby was left by a traveler last week at the door of the church. Carter couldn't raise the child properly, so he was entrusting it to Karen and Rick, at least until foster parents arrive.
The first thing Rick did was to ask if any other couple would take care of the baby.
"Claire and Cliff?"
"Their busy with their farm and orchard—spring is the time for planting."
"W-what about Mary and Gray?"
"Mary's pregnant, and can you really trust Gray, with him and his blacksmith job?"
"...Ann and Pete?"
"Pete's preparing the farm as well, and Anne's holding up the Inn."
"Elli and the Doctor?"
"The Doctor's squeamish around handling babies."
"Your parents, anyone's parents!"
"Too troublesome for them..."
The baby hiccuped as Karen cooed to him in the singsong voice mothers use. The young man just watched on, both fascinated and frazzled.
"Why didn't you do it yet?" Cliff groaned.
It was morning at the winery and springtime was the time of preparing and tending the new vines. As he inspected each trellis he cast a critical eye at the moody young man. The baby in him arms wriggled and gurgled affectionately; Cliff smiled and played with the baby's fingers before rounding on Rick.
"This little one just came out of nowhere, and I panicked! Okay?" Rick felt the velveteen box in his pocket weigh like a lump of iron. The brunet felt ready to wring his friend's neck for his stalling. Today was supposed to be the day the young poultry farmer would propose to the love of his life; instead, some convenient distraction happened.
Nearby was Gray, also quite confused at this convoluted turn of events. At his wife's urging he had agreed to assist Rick by making a ring for Karen. It was a jade stone—cut like a flower—encased in a silver band with tiny turquoise studs. In the midst of the green petals was a shining diamond, carved to perfection. This precious treasure was tucked in safely in the box next to the main prize—a large blue feather, shimmering like fire. Its fine shape and softness must have come from a magnificent bird.
The capped one was more entranced by the baby making faces at him. Timidly he let the little one grab ahold of his index finger. Happily the baby began to suckle; Gray made a face and laughed softly. "He's hungry."
The vineyard worker absently took a small bottle of milk from his lunch—from Claire's youngest cow—and handed it to him. He was still thinking about this predicament, and for good reason. Kai had bet 1000G that Rick and Karen would not be married by summer. Cliff accepted this wager and bet that they would marry in the springtime. If Claire finds out about his impulsive bet, she would probably be celibate for the rest of their married life.
"This is quite a complicated romance, isn't it?" Gray commented, watching Rick feed the baby. Cliff had brought one of his daughter's baby bottles at Rick's request, and now he was watching the baby suckle at the fresh milk. Rick sighed as he sat the baby on his lap. "This is terribly confusing, and I wouldn't bother given the chance."
A lightbulb went off in Cliff's head. "That's it!" he shouted, almost upsetting the baby's milk bottle and badly shocking the other two young men. "...Cliff? Are you alright?" Rick asked, quite incredulous at the young man's sudden outburst.
"I'm perfectly fine," Cliff said breathlessly. "In fact, I just had a great idea!" Both men looked at him questioningly, but the vineyard worker ignored this. "The reason Karen might be stalling," he concluded, "is that you are her boyfriend."
Rick took a while to try and figure this out "...What?"
"Listen!" Cliff hissed. "Yes, you're the person she's loved all her life. She can't positively live without you. But you're her boyfriend. As in 'boy-friend, not-quite-husband-lover-material'. She's not sure she can become more than your best friend or girlfriend, or whether you both can handle lifetime commitment and children."
Rick was silent for a moment. "That...is the biggest load of bull I've ever heard. I love her more than my own life. I want to marry her and be with her." His face was enlightened and annoyed. "Why can't she see that I can love her?"
"EXACTLY!" Cliff said triumphantly, pointing his index finger in the air as a pose of victory. "We'll just have to tweak our original proposal to suit the situation! Show her that there's a burning desire for her in you! Now, get to work on your speech, Lover Boy!" He clapped his friend's back and went back to work, pleased with himself.
Rick turned over to Gray, who was playing peek-a-boo with the baby. "What do I do now?", he sighed in defeat. Getting him to be overtly romantic in public would take work. But the blacksmith was surprisingly calm and offered his help: "You should head over to the library. Mary would be glad to help you."
"Are you sure this is perfectly fine?" Rick asked nervously, eyeing the heavily pregnant librarian with a bit of apprehension. Mary waved it off and smiled warmly, patting the large bump under her blue dress. She took a look at the papers strewn across the table, all full of numerous phrases and words all pertaining to Karen. The tightly formal writing of the poultry farmer mingled with the soft and loopy words of Mary, with sparse penwork here and there from Gray.
Now this accumulation of thoughts were crafted into what seemed to be a very sentimental speech. The amount of visible emotion weighed heavily on Rick, who was very conservative and disciplined, save for anger in large doses. "I can't do this..." he said desperately. "I'll look like a terrible fool." Every word in the speech was his heart, exposed and raw...and vulnerable.
Mary sighed and tried to give him a look of understanding. Gray looked at her and their eyes met, grey-black and ocean blue. In the silent magical way couples often spoke to with their eyes, they knew that this proposal had to be private, and special. Gray asked the question first for his wife.
"Is there any special place where you would like to do this?" the blacksmith asked quietly. "I'm sure you must have had something in mind."
Rick thought about this. He paused awhile to wipe his glasses, murmuring in reply: "Well, I was thinking about the forest behind the church. We used to play together as little kids there. I thought it would be appropriate because that's where we bacame the best of friends."
He smiled, remembering fondly the little blonde girl the now gorgeous Karen grew from. Taking this as a good omen, the librarian patted his hand as a sign of encouragement. "You can do this, Rick." Mary said softly, looking at her own golden wedding band. "And I know she will say yes. All you need is a nudge in the right direction."
Rick nodded and looked at the paper again. "I only have a few hours," he said. "I want the moon to be shining perfectly when this happens. But how can I get her near the church in time?"
"It's already late out."
It indeed was ink-blue evening, but the moon shone bright like a wheel of heavenly light and surrounded everything with a soft lunar glow. Karen and Rick were at the beach, where the baby crawled around in the soft woolen blanket they laid on the sand. The couple was sitting beside each other, and presently Karen began to worry about the time.
"It's going to be okay," Rick said bracingly, cuddling her with his arm. "I'll keep you warm."
Karen laughed and blushed at her boyfriend's sudden affectionate nature. The change was unexpected but pleasant, and they reveled in their joy as they shared a picnic lunch. It was milk pudding—a new recipe around Mineral Town—that, secretly, Karen cooked with Claire and Ann's help. She was pleased to see that he enjoyed it fine.
The baby rolled over on its back and gurgled...then suddenly began to cry.
"Oh no..."Rick said worriedly, his paternal nature immediately kicking in. Quickly Karen scooped the infant in her arms and tried to console it with nonsense murmurs, wrapping the baby warmly and feeding him milk. That show of love warmed Rick and reminded him of her nurturing heart.
Leaning to the side, the young man quickly gave Karen a peck on the cheek before she could react. Her eyes widened and she was silent, suddenly demure. The baby looked up and noticed a certain presence of something his parents had when the same things happened.
"Um...I'm sorry to disturb you..."
The couple looked behind them, suddenly embarrassed. Elli was standing at the steps leading to Rose Square, holding a baby basket in her arms. "I-I'm afraid Carter will need to care for the baby for tonight." She was persuaded to be into the charade by Claire, who enlisted her help.
"Of course," Rick said. As Karen watched him say goodbye to the baby and greet Elli, she thought, this is the man I have loved all my life. Straight-backed and proud, and very loving, Karen would not have him any other way. She turned away and watched the ocean cresting under the light of the moon.
That was Rick's voice. His warm hand was on her shoulder, slightly calloused from working with sharp beaks and claws. "Hey," she replied, smiling. She felt his hand beckon to her, and she looked around. His blue-green eyes shone behind his glasses. "We have to go somewhere special."
"It's working!" Claire said gaily as she heard Elli report back. She had heard the news and was sipping tea at the Inn with Ann. Unruffled, the nurse smoothed her frilly apron and dress and sat down to her own cup, her lips pursed. The red-headed young woman looked at her with concern. "What's the matter, Elli?", Anne asked.
Elli sighed and looked out the window. "My husband was there in the bushes a minute ago," she said dryly, sipping from the steaming mug. The other women looked at her with mouths agape. "...How did you know that?!" Ann cried, surprised. "Already a sixth sense from spending so much time with Doctor Tim, eh?"
The brunette laughed, sweeping her short brown hair with her hand. "Tim wears very strong cologne," she explained. "I hate it when that happens! It's like he took a bath in it, but he never realizes it. In fact, the smell is so strong that I know that he is on his way here!"
Claire sudddenly became suspicious. "Why is he here?"
"Let's merely wait another hour until those two lovebirds are finally finished." Cliff chuckled, as he and his fellow cohorts extracted themselves from the bushes overlooking the beach sands. Gray brushed stray leaves from his brown jacket; Pete, the young farmer, tried to fix his cap back on his chestnut hair. The Doctor sneezed. He looked quite guilty as they walked back toward the Inn.
"Why so grave, Tim?" Gray asked, relieved to be out of that leafy trap.
"I think...I just gave us away..."
The other three men froze, faces incredulous. "WHAT?!"
"It was Elli..."the Doctor trailed off nervously. "I think she was on to us. On to me."
Cliff inhaled sharply. "It's that awful perfume you're wearing." He hissed.
"COLOGNE." Tim growled as they walked closer towards the Inn.
"Ah, let's hope she can't catch on. Perhaps think that it's some strange fragrant animal..." Pete fought to bite back a smile at Tim's positively venomous mood.
The small brick restaurant started to show behind the dark tree branches clasping its view. The minute the band of merry men approached the building, Cliff's blood ran cold. His face turned from tan to a pasty color as he spotted a streak of golden hair. He turned to his companions as they also paled when they spotted their wives standing at the doorway.
Pete nervously swallowed.
Ann sighed, bustling over with trays of piping hot coffee and tea. They were all exhausted from explaining one predicament and reason over the other. It all came to the same thing—that a plot was underway to persuade Rick and Karen to marry.
"I can't believe I bet over this," Cliff moaned. He sat next to Claire, fumbling the hold on his wife's hand. "I'm sorry."
"Don't be," Claire smiled, frankly surprised at her husband's willingness in the matter. "I'm sorry too, honey. I bet with Lillia that they would be married by now as well. She expected last winter. 500G."
Everyone laughed, and soon everyone was at ease once of tea and coffee were gladly passed around as soft chatter filled the restaurant. "It's good," Ann said as she shot down coffee, "that Mary is safe asleep at home. This caffeine would do the baby bad."
The following conversation streamed to Gray, about names and baby things and such. "We agreed on May if a girl," said Gray, "and Gary if a boy." Ann volunteered to organize a huge baby shower full of gifts—Elli agreed to knit baby clothes for them.
As this was going on with much joy, Claire was watching the proceedings very nicely. Beyond baby troubles and her own life, she wondered about Karen. She prayed a quiet prayer to the Harvest Goddess for good weather tonight and help for Rick.
"Like old times, remember?"
Rick nodded, watching Karen point at the moon. Its silvery glow bathed her body in light, making her possibly more beautiful that he had thought. The shimmering light encircled her arched body like a halo, dancing on her golden brown hair and soft skin. Why can't I bring myself to say it yet...thought Rick. I...I can't...maybe now's not the time...
Out of nowhere, a green pebble shot out of the air and hit Rick square in the forehead.
"OW!" he yelped, rubbing the reddening mark with the heel of his hand.
"What?" Karen turned toward him, concerned. Not wanting to embarrass himself, the young man forced himself to look her in the face. The normally confident eyes were worried.
"I-I mean...wow!" He breathed. "You're so...beautiful." He gave himself a mental high-five as a pink color flooded her cheeks. "Um, thanks." Karen's fingers twisted themselves together...something was up. "So...why did you take me here?"
"Well, the moon is so lovely tonight. That's all."
"...Oh." the young woman replied, a little crestfallen. She had hoped for something else.
Now's not the right time!, the voice in the young man's head trembled. It might not work...
Another shining stone found its way to poor Rick's turned away from his girlfriend and massaged the sore spots carefully. Karen looked at him quizzically, her suspicions strong. "Excuse me?"
"S-sorry." Rick's glasses were hanging off one ear, but the young woman laughed lightly and fixed them back on his face herself. "That was weird...maybe it was some squirrel or something."He was oddly determined with his cause now, though. Even the forest spirits were beckoning him to propose.
It will be tonight.
"You hit him too hard, budum!"
"Shh...you'll give us away, budum."
There was a rustling of leaves, and Staid and Chef scrambled out of a bush. Behind them, a nervous Hoggy was running to catch up. The three tiny Harvest Sprites pitter-pattered away from Rick and Karen's location as fast as can be.
The sleepy yellow sprite was out of breath. "Staid...Chef! Wait for...me, budum!"
The meticulous red sprite moaned, wringing his hands. "You hit him too hard! No dessert when we come back home, budum!"
The spirited blue sprite giggled and stuck his tongue out at the red sprite. "You worry too much, Chef! Now please wait for Hoggy to catch up, budum!"
Chef was adamant. "The Harvest Goddess asked us to snap him out a little. Not conk his head off, budum!" They raced toward their little hut behind the church, thick beneath tall trees. Staid was very much ahead. "With the Harvest Goddess' unmissable magic pebbles, I couldn't resist! Besides, we did the job very well; the Goddess assured that Rick could do the rest, she said, budum!"
At last the stars began to show themselves, hovering bright over the couple's heads. They set like rhinestones on the velvet night, jewels encircled like a crown of the moon. Not a cloud was to be found, nothing to cast shadow on this perfect night.
The young man wrapped his arms around her slender waist and leaned forward, snuggling his nose in her. Karen giggled gaily and placed her own soft hands on his. "Yes?"
"I can't be your best friend anymore."
Rick braced himself, feeling her skin go cold. With a trace of fear, she whispered back. "...Why?"
He adjusted his arms, careful to make the right move. "I...just don't feel like being just your best friend. I want...something...else." The guilt of his act escalated when her soft hands slipped from his. "I see..." she said, sounding huffy and deeply hurt. "Real nice of you to mention! Making me look like a fool after those sweet things! I can't believe you, Rick!" Her voice was at a steady crescendo as she screamed, flinging his arms away and walking a yard away from him. She was angered, and wounded most of all. She finally murmured, trying to bite the tears back: "And...what is that thing?"
Karen felt his chin move close to her shoulder and whisper the words that burned in her heart deeply.
Her eyes were dumbstruck as a glittering blue feather was enclosed in her hands, brightly beautiful under the full moon. Tied to the quill of the feather was an amazing ring of silver, turquoise and jade stones. For a moment, Karen almost forgot to breathe.
Feeling this new undercurrent, Rick took the time to say the things his mind stifled. Before she could protest, his soft lips enveloped hers in a bold kiss. Karen melted a little in his embrace before suddenly stiffening, pushing away. "I-I don't get you, Rick..." she said, confused at the feather in her hand. "Is this...real?"
"You're the only one I've ever loved," the young man murmured, looking at her so deeply that Karen could have fallen into his blue eyes. "Years have passed and I don't feel mere friendship—only a deep love. From your smile and your laugh, your little habits and your nature...I have loved everything you do. And I love you, most of all." His face was soft as his sweet words.
"I want to be with you, forever. If you will let me be." He said finally, dropping to one knee. Clasping his fingers around hers, the feather enclosed in the bowl their hands made, Rick breathed in deeply and said, with conviction and hope: "Karen, will you marry me?"
The whole world turned silent after his question. Rick's insides quaked nervously—perhaps she was still upset, perhaps his delivery was off...or maybe—he dreaded deeply—she didn't love him enough.
She wanted to cry.
Confronted with the man in her life kneeling on the floor in a meek gesture of his love-how could she answer? This man who had loved her all his life: the man who grew with her, played with her, befriended and later loved her. How could she answer such ardor?
And how could she say no?
Karen flung herself at Rick, startling him and making him fall flat on his back. The feather and ring lay beside them on the grass as she wrapped her arms around his neck and covered his face with kisses. She was crying and laughing—a remarkable combination—and hiccuped her "Yes!" again and again.
After a few minutes of more cuddling and joy, they were able to regain a little bit of composure and sat on the grass. The engagement can wait—they said to each other with their eyes—and they wanted to spend time together. The stars seemed to twinkle in delight.
"Rick?" Karen finally asked, after a bit of quiet.
"...Did you like that milk pudding I made?"
He had to be truthful. "...It was delicious."
She smiled inwardly. "Thanks."
Beyond that nook where the lovers celebrated their engagement, a beautiful pale lady with grass-green hair was pleased with the turn of events. This marriage will surely be blessed by the Goddess herself, and indeed the said patron deity was satisfied with this occurance.
"Good evening, dear Goddess."
The spirit jumped and looked behind her from her discreet hiding place. There stood Carter, the pastor, mildly amused and reverent. She bowed her head in acknowledgement and smiled. "There will be the ringing of wedding bells this year," she said in her tinkling voice. "And it will have my blessing."
"True, dear Lady." agreed the brunet man, his small eyes twinkling like the stars. "And I suspect more than just your blessing is part of this union." His kind young face was unsuited for an unmarried man though his vocation was his only love, he claimed.
The Goddess couldn't say no. "Tell not a soul, my friend," she made him vow, "and I shall tell all. I placed an extra charm in the milk pudding to make young Rick a bit more outspoken for tonight. It seems to have worked, for the better I believe."
Looking around furtively, she whispered to Carter another note, which amused him: "I bet the Witch a few magical charms that they would marry this spring. She bet that they would end up by fall."