Disclaimer applies.

Notes: As promised, there is sexin' in this chapter, but nothing explicit. (Sorry. This is only rated T you know. :P) There is, however, a scene or two of buildup, so if you're young or uncomfortable reading about physical intimacy at all, consider yourself warned.

Many thanks to those few of you who have read up to this point for putting up with this "little" brainfart of mine. Enjoy the (lengthy) finale. :)


4. Winter

"I wonder what exactly it is you mean to me."

His remark came out of nowhere one morning, some time after the blue feather fiasco started to die down and we'd started talking again without any embarrassment involved. I blinked, wondering if I had not misheard him.

Alas, that was not the case.

"You inspire me," he continued. "You encourage me, you energize me..."

Then, as if recalling who he was talking to, he broke off with a nervous half-laugh. "Sorry. I've been thinking about some things lately."

Now what brought that on, I wonder?

o-o-o

One morning, I woke and stepped out my door to see my fields blanketed in white. My breath came out in puffs, and flakes drifted down from the gray sky. I wandered around, overcome by a sense of wonder at the stark landscape, so still and pristine. My dog, finally old enough and well-trained enough now to join me on my excursions, ran along behind and before me, barking at invisible rabbits, tracking paw prints in the snow.

I went first to the barn to milk the cows and shear the wool from my sheep, then to the stable where I had been taking care of a filly old Barley from Yodel Ranch had entrusted to me earlier in the year, and finally to the coop to collect eggs. The last of the fall harvest had been sent off in the previous week's shipment, and for the rest of the year I would have to rely on animal produce to generate a little extra income. Gray had offered to take me to the mines for ores and gems and other raw materials to sell, while Mary's family offered to take me along when they went searching for winter grasses in the mornings; even taciturn, bearlike Gotz, who lived in a cabin in the mountains by himself, had invited me -- to my surprise -- to go ice fishing once the lakes and the river froze over. I was deeply grateful to them all.

But today, I had other errands to run. I whistled for my dog and he came running, tongue lolling and tail waving back and forth in the air. I patted his head, and together, we set off down the road to Zack's place on the beach. I needed to check on the week's prices, and inquire after the status of my last shipment, and perhaps haggle with Won for some of his more unusual goods.

As we entered Rose Plaza, however, Dog barked in alarm. Through the falling snow I saw a dark, bundled shape stagger forward, and then collapse.

I ran over. It was Cliff, clothed in far too little for the weather, and clutching a crinkled photograph in his hand. It slipped out of his grasp as my dog nudged at his prone form.

"Stop that!"

I picked up the photograph, my mind racing through various options. Zack's was the closest, but he wasn't always there at this time of day (I had planned to try a little fishing at the docks while I waited), and Won was probably still sleeping. The church was the next place and perhaps the obvious choice, but there was no guarantee that Carter was in either.

"Stay here," I ordered, hoping that the stupid dog would obey instead of trying to follow me, and ran for the inn.

o-o-o

Between all the shouting and panic that ensued, I somehow managed to carry Cliff to the clinic with help from Doug and Carter -- who by some stroke of fortune had been there warming up over a cup of hot tea. Ann tagged along, as did my thankfully behaving dog. Despite the lingering awkwardness between us, I was glad to see Elli when she came to greet us at the door, alert and professional as ever. She and Doctor were always islands of sanity and composure in the chaos.

Doctor soon announced that it was a case of mild hypothermia, and that there was fortunately no lasting damage.

"Thank God he's safe!" exclaimed Carter, more expressively than I had ever seen him speak before. "What on earth was he doing?"

Ann was biting her lip and clearly trying to hold back her tears. Doug patted her shoulder comfortingly.

Doctor looked mildly annoyed -- probably just feeling awkward about all this unrestrained display of emotion -- and sent everyone away with the admonishment that his patient needed rest and quiet.

o-o-o

It wasn't until after I had finished with my errands for the day that I remembered the photograph. In the earlier confusion, I had stuffed it in my coat pocket and forgotten about it. I took it out now and looked at it. It had been torn down the middle, and the colors had long begun to fade, but the subjects were still clear enough. Two people stared out from the picture, one an older woman with sunken eyes and hollow cheeks, and the other a pretty little imp of a girl who seemed to be glaring at the camera, or the photographer, or both. Not exactly the most pleasant family portrait I'd ever seen.

I wondered if it might not be better if I just pretended that it had been lost, but reminded myself then that it really wasn't any of my business, and headed back to the clinic, dog in tow.

Doctor was at the door, about to lock up for the evening. Elli was probably upstairs; she had a room at the clinic where she stayed whenever there were overnight patients. Dog seemed to want to play, and kept running around and barking at Doctor before I told him to shut up.

"He dropped something of his earlier," I explained. "I forgot to give it back."

"You could have come back tomorrow," pointed out Doctor.

"Why? Is he still asleep?"

"Not at the moment." Doctor sighed and patted the dog, who thumped his tail against the ground in appreciation. "Well, I suppose if you think it's urgent." As I stepped inside, he added, more quietly, "It was a good thing you happened by when you did."

I wasn't sure if he meant earlier, or now.

Cliff was still in bed, but sitting up and staring into space. He seemed confused when I walked in with Doctor, but his eyes lit up as I held out the photo.

"Ah... thanks... I thought I'd lost it..."

"No problem," I said. "I picked it up earlier and it slipped my mind."

"It was you who told Ann and everyone else for me, wasn't it? Thank you... I owe you a great debt. First the job, and now this..."

"Not at all. Anyone would have done the same."

I was busy thinking of the best way to excuse myself then when he said, "It was snowing when I left... I will always remember that day..."

"That day?" I asked, rather uncomfortably.

"This photo is of my mother and sister," he said. "You see... I... I didn't like it back home, so I left them to strike out on my own. But by the time I returned, my mother had died and my sister had gone somewhere... She didn't leave any word, any hint of where she had gone. I suppose I deserved it, for abandoning them like that."

Why are you telling me this? I wanted to ask, but instead I forced out a polite, "No, I'm sure that's not the case."

Cliff shrugged. "I guess... This town reminds me of my old home. That's probably why I..." He broke off, then added sheepishly, "Sorry for burdening you with my story. I'm sure you didn't want to hear about it..."

"Not at all, I didn't mind."

Thus satisfied, he laid back down and closed his eyes, looking somewhat more at peace than he had been when I first walked in.

Doctor had been watching our exchange quietly, and it seemed he sensed something off about my demeanor, for he suggested then, "Shall we go out for a walk?"

I hesitated, then agreed.

o-o-o

Before we set out, Doctor changed out of his lab coat and into a heavier overcoat. Underneath, he was wearing a dark forest green sweater that Elli's grandmother had knit for him; it complimented his figure very well, but I did not say so. My dog, realizing that we were heading out again, stood up from where he had been waiting for us by the entrance with a happy bark.

By now, the snow had stopped. We headed in the direction of the beach.

"I can't really blame him," I said with halfhearted cheer. "I hate the winter too. I'm a child of the spring, after all. It's too cold for me."

"Hmm," said Doctor, whose usual denseness did not prevent him from being quite observant when it suited him.

"It's just --" I noticed Dog wandering away from us again and whistled for him.

"Just what?"

Damn him and his selective persistence.

"If he thinks that he deserves all of this -- all this self-inflicted punishment, just because he thinks he abandoned his family -- I mean, does he think he's the only one who -- What about Lillia's husband? Kai? Aja? What about --" it came as a sudden shock to me to realize just how upset I was "-- me?"

We had reached the beach by now. I ran down the steps from the plaza, towards the dark waves, unwilling to face him. Dog ran with me, and then down the snow-covered shore, sniffing at rocks and sea grass.

"I ran away from home when I was sixteen."

I whirled around, surprised that he had caught up with me so soon. His gaze was sharp and intense. I could not look away.

"You did?"

"I did."

We fell silent. I watched the sea reaching out for our feet, then receding.

"I feel like I've been running away my entire life," I admitted quietly. "Even when I'm not... I'm always leaving a way out, making a Plan B, setting up an escape route, just in case..."

He did not respond, but I knew that he was listening.

"What made you decide to become a doctor?"

"At first, because I felt an obligation to follow in their footsteps. After I left -- I suppose because I was good at it."

"And now?"

"Because it felt right."

It wasn't quite the answer I had expected, and I couldn't decide if I were disappointed or relieved.

"And did you... ever go back?"

I looked up at him, and he looked back with a not-quite smile.

"By the time I wanted to, it was too late."

A piece of the puzzle clicked into place.

"Kai offered to take me with him," I murmured then, and I felt more than saw him stiffen at my side. "I almost agreed."

"But you stayed," he said, and I could practically hear the gears turning as he pieced together his own puzzle.

"It was the first time I've ever..."

I was no longer sure what I was trying to say.

After a while, he said, "I think we must all find our own answers... There are cures that work for everyone, and some that only work for a few. For each person it's different. Because everyone's body is unique, each one responds uniquely -- it must be the same thing. Am I -- making sense?"

"Yes," I said. "I understand."

Dog trotted back over to us, something strange in his mouth. After a bit of tug-of-war, I managed to extract it.

It was a rotting old boot.

When I looked again at Doctor he was gazing out toward the sea.

I said, quietly, "Don't you -- ever get scared?"

He smiled but did not turn.

"Always."

o-o-o

On our way back, I stooped down on a whim and packed a loose snowball.

Splat!

Doctor turned with very deliberate slowness. I put on my most innocent face, though it was difficult to suppress the giggles that threatened to burst from deep inside of me. Without even changing his expression, Doctor bent down and tossed a snowball back at me that hit me square in the ribs before I could run away. My giggles escaped from me then, in gasps and heaves.

Dog barked and ran circles around us, nipping at our heels as our little fight escalated into all-out war. At last I stumbled and fell into the snow, laughing so hard I could barely breathe. Dog came over and licked at my face, which tickled and only made me laugh more.

Doctor strode over and offered me a hand. I took it. When I was standing again he untied the scarf around his neck and wrapped it around mine.

I froze.

"You are going to catch a cold if you don't take better care of yourself," he said, but his eyes were dancing and I knew he was holding back a smile.

After I got back home, I caught sight of myself in the mirror and almost didn't recognize the young woman staring back from the glass, ruddy-cheeked and bright-eyed, hair tangled and wild.

o-o-o

Whenever I think of my last boyfriend, I remember the mirror.

I'd met Jack at one of the lectures at the university, and started dating him halfway through the term. I remember he had a grandfather out in the countryside who owned a farm, but at the time that didn't matter much to me. He was nice, and he wasn't bad-looking, and when he laughed he became quite charming indeed, and that was enough for me. I knew his eye wandered sometimes, but because he was nice I also knew that he had neither the balls nor the heart to take any real action, so I hadn't minded.

We broke up right before graduation. It was an amicable parting on both sides, and everyone who knew us was surprised by the suddenness of the split. When my friends at the time asked, I explained only that he had wanted more from me than I was ready to give him, and let them think what they wanted. (Everyone assumed that I had caught him cheating on me, and that was that.)

I suppose what I told them was true, in a way. Earlier that week he had asked me about my post-graduation plans, and I had been suitably vague. He told me then that his grandfather had recently passed on, and had left the farm to him, and that he was thinking of moving out to the country and taking over the place.

He'd wanted me to go with him.

At the time, I'd already passed the exams for a few of the companies I had interest in, and was, I believe, understandably reluctant to uproot myself all of a sudden and leave behind everything I knew. It wasn't really that I had any particular plans for myself, or any real dreams for the future. It just rankled me, his assumption that I would drop everything for him on the spot and follow him into the unknown.

But the real reason I broke up with him in the end was because of a dream I had one morning, exactly one month before the date of our graduation.

I was trapped in a room. There was nothing there. No door, no windows, nothing but four blank walls and a mirror. At least, I assumed it was a mirror, because it resembled the one hanging across from my bed in my apartment, but when I looked at it there was no reflection on its surface, not even the shadow of a face.

When I woke, I sat up with a start.

In that state of dim awareness I searched frantically for my reflection before me, and what I saw at last shocked me, not so much due to the sight of my still half-asleep visage (which I was quite familiar with), but because of the quiet tremor of a thought that passed in that instant through my mind: I am turning into my mother.

I ended it that very day.

After that, we graduated, and eventually we lost contact with each other. I found that I didn't miss him. Much later I heard from some mutual acquaintances that he had eloped with the daughter of his boss at the small company that ended up hiring him.

And now, here I was, running a farm of my own, slowly but steadily eking out a place for myself in this little town in the countryside.

Funny, the way fate works.

o-o-o

If I had my way, the annual Thanksgivings would be banned forever. (After buying all that chocolate, I was surprised I was still going to manage to break even for the year.) It took me a while to finish handing out all the obligatory chocolate to everyone who had helped me throughout the year. I'm not sure how chocolate and cookies serve as expressions of appreciation and gratitude, exactly, but I suppose I don't have any better ideas either.

At the door of the clinic, I bumped into Elli, who had just finished making her own chocolate rounds, it seemed.

"Hello, Claire," she said. "Here for the doctor?"

I nodded. "You must be too."

"Yes. I'm surprised, though. I thought you would give it to him on the hill this morning."

"Not today. I thought it would be easier to finish giving out everyone else's chocolate first."

She laughed. "I suppose that's true."

She finished unlocking the door, and let me in.

We sat down on the couches to wait.

"You're so brave," she sighed. "Trekking up the hill every day, even in such weather..."

I said quietly, "Not at all. You are much braver than I am."

Something in my voice made her turn and give me a long, cool, considering look.

"I think," I said, "we're more alike than either of us would like to admit."

She said nothing, waiting for me to continue.

"We both play our cards close. We hide everything deep inside, bury all our anger and frustration and grief someplace no one can reach, never revealing what we truly feel."

Silence.

"You're wrong," she said softly. "You can't possibly understand... how much I have envied you."

"You are a capable nurse, a caring granddaughter, a responsible older sister. Everything that I am not. Will never be."

"Yes, I would make a good wife, wouldn't I?" The quiet bitterness in her words was unmistakable.

"I envied you too. For having the courage to tell him what I could not even admit to myself."

She smiled, then. "Did you come here to mock me?"

"No," I said. "I came here to apologize."

She stood. Turned, to hide the trembling of her hands.

"I've been watching him for so long... So, so long. But he has never had eyes for me. All I ever wanted was for him to see me..."

"He does see you..." I hesitated.

"I know," she whispered. "I know he does."

A click, and the door opened to reveal Doctor returning from his trip up the hill.

"Oh, you're both here," he said, and at the sight of his bemused face and wind-rumpled hair I felt a stirring in my heart, a slow deep ache filling me from within.

"Good afternoon, Doctor," said Elli, smiling sweetly again. "Here, this is for you. Thank you for everything this year."

She bowed her head in a quiet, melancholy little gesture, and left.

Doctor watched her go, wrapped box of chocolate in his hand, and sighed.

Then, recalling my presence, he turned to me. I stood and handed him the chocolate I had prepared without a word.

"Ah!" he said happily. "You remembered!"

For a moment I was confused, before remembering that he had given me cookies for Spring Thanksgiving.

Suddenly annoyed, I said, "It's handmade."

"Really? You didn't have to go to that extent..."

I was beginning to believe what my mother used to often say about men and subtlety.

"If you don't want them, then I'll take them back," I said, sticking out my tongue at him (but making no actual move to take back the chocolate), and walked out the door before he could respond.

o-o-o

That night I removed the shell charm from around my neck. I looked at it fondly.

"Thank you for lending me your luck," I whispered, and stored it away in my box of keepsakes.

o-o-o

When I went to visit Doctor the weekend after Winter Thanksgiving, I found him napping at his desk, his head propped up on a pile of books. Elli had gone next door to make lunch for her brother and grandmother, and we were alone. I'd heard that May had come down with a sudden fever the previous evening, and when I went to check on her in the morning old Barley told me that Doctor had spent the whole night at the ranch looking after her. But by then Doctor had already returned to the clinic.

And now I was here.

For some time I stood there watching him sleep, reluctant to disturb his rest. But at last I could not resist any longer, and gently shook him awake.

"Doctor. Doctor?"

His eyes fluttered open. "Elli?" he mumbled. "Is it time already?"

I decided I'd forgive him this once.

"It's me," I said, amused. "And you are coming with me."

He blinked a few times, then rubbed his eyes. "Claire?"

I tugged a bit harder at his sleeve, and he stood obediently and let me lead him to the front door before remembering where he was.

"Where are you taking me? I still have patients --"

"Not today you don't."

"There might be an emergency --"

"Not likely. May's doing perfectly fine now, and no one else seems to be coming down with anything."

He looked at me suspiciously, then sighed. (He seemed to sigh an awful lot lately.) "Fine. At least let me get my coat and leave a note for Elli."

It was another few minutes before we set out, bundled up in coats and gloves and scarves.

"You still haven't answered my question," he said.

"The hot springs," I said cheerfully. "Enforced break."

Doctor colored a bit -- or maybe it was just the cold -- and said little else for the rest of our trek through the town and up the hill.

Though as a town we were quite proud of our hot springs, we were too far out in the middle of nowhere to attract many tourists in this cold season -- all but the most hardcore of hot spring aficionados, that is. But at this time of day, few people, if anyone, would be around; the springs were not officially open to the public until later in the evening, and even then they were still mostly populated by locals.

There was only one unfortunate -- or perhaps fortunate, depending on your point of view -- detail about our springs: they were mixed sex baths. There were unspoken hours for men or women specifically, but not everyone adhered to those guidelines all the time.

I suspect I was in a particularly daring mood.

Upon our arrival, we went in separately to undress and wash. When I finished and entered the spring, shivering in a towel and blanketed by billowing steam, I saw that Doctor was already there, soaking at the far end of the pool.

I slipped into the water at my end, respecting his desire for distance. After braving the biting chill of the climb up, it was pure bliss to sink back into the warm, lapping embrace of the spring.

That said, it was taking me a great deal of self-restraint to keep from splashing over and pouncing him on the spot.

In fact, the distance was unbearable. We couldn't even hold a proper conversation like this.

(Maybe that was the point.)

Caught between irritation and nervousness, I finally began to wade closer to where he was.

I hoped he was panicking. If he was, though, his face did not show it. (Although it also seemed that he was deliberately keeping his gaze away from my direction.)

I stopped just far enough that he could hear me.

"Feeling better?"

He nodded slowly. After some time, he said, "Not that I don't appreciate it, but why now? What brought this on?"

Forget pouncing him, I kind of wanted to kick him.

But I didn't.

"Hm. I suppose... I'm in the middle of running a little experiment," I said.

That comment seemed to occupy him for a while. But still he continued to refuse to even look directly at me, and after far too much time had passed, I decided to give the experiment up as a failure. (I may be a planner at heart, but I am not always the most patient one, I must admit.) I rose from the water, wrapped my towel around myself, and headed back into the cabin to change.

Only to realize that he had followed me.

I pulled my towel back up as he crossed the distance between us. Closer and closer he stepped, until we were standing face to face, and I realized that I had backed up against the wall.

He whispered, "You give up too easily."

Then he leaned in and kissed me.

He tasted like tea today, and mint toothpaste, and I could feel his skin burning through the layer of towel between us. I threaded my fingers through his hair, still damp from the steam, and closed my eyes. My heart was pounding, and I was half certain that when I opened my eyes again I would find that I was only dreaming, that the fumes had gotten to my head, or maybe that I was having that nightmare about Mayor Thomas again.

We broke apart for air, my arms still wrapped around his neck, his hands still pinning me to the wall. He had somehow managed to free my hair from its tie when I wasn't paying attention -- I could feel the loose strands tickling my cheek, fanning out behind my neck and tangling against my shoulders -- and he had that intense look of concentration I recognized from when he was particularly engrossed in his reading. It amused me to think that I was a text in his hands, waiting for my covers to be cracked open, for my pages to be turned and the words written within me to be read and deciphered.

"I hope --" he said, breath short and ragged, "that you've proved your point."

"Was it that obvious?" I asked innocently, when I had caught my own breath again.

He didn't answer. Smart man.

After a while, I said, "You know, we should probably go. Before someone else comes up and finds us here."

"My place," he murmured against my bare shoulder.

"Mine's closer," I said, allowing the question to leak into my voice even as I bit back a gasp.

He lifted his head to study my expression as his fingers continued their downward trail. "They won't talk as much about a patient staying overnight at the clinic as they will about a unattached man staying over at the house of an unattached woman."

"In that case, please take good care of me, Doctor." I giggled and batted away his hands to put on some clothes. He followed suit, a slight smile playing about his lips.

The walk back down to the clinic was not at all cold, despite the snow that began to drift into our hair and eyelashes, feathery light. We kept each other at a respectful distance, but I could feel the heat emanating from his body, just steps away from me. And when we ran into old Saibara on the way, Doctor got his revenge on me by explaining to him, rather pointedly, that I was feeling "a bit out of sorts", and that he was therefore shepherding me back to the clinic to "rest". Saibara, still sharp despite his age, chuckled and hoped quite loudly that my recovery would be swift.

o-o-o

Elli had gone home and locked up behind her. Doctor fumbled for a few moments at the entrance for his keys; we squeezed through the door in a jumble of arms and legs, removing first our boots, and then our coats and gloves. Doctor unraveled his scarf from his neck, then reached out to help with mine. He smoothed out our articles of clothing and laid them out on the couches in the waiting room, then led me upstairs.

His room was spacious and austere and looked much as I had expected it to. His desk stood in the corner, tidy and neat, and beside it was a bookshelf filled with medical texts and a stray mystery novel or two. His wardrobe and bed were in the opposite corner, and to the side was a glass coffee table framed by a set of elegant black leather sofas. Softening the effect were the rug, and the walls, both colored in soothing green patterns.

Karen would probably laugh at me if she knew that I was busy admiring the man's room of all things at a time like this. I think Mary would understand, though. The way any individual maintains their personal space or immediate surroundings speaks volumes about the kind of person they are, perhaps even more so than the company they keep.

Not that I had much time to be standing around in admiration. Now that we were in the safety of his room, Doctor kissed me again and began to busy himself with more important matters. His fingers found the straps of my overalls and slipped them from my shoulders. Then his hands trailed lower, down my back, against my hips. I took the opportunity to begin working on his vest. He released his hold on me then to let me step out of the clothing that had begun to pool around our ankles. By the time we reached his bed, I had tossed aside his shirt and was running my hands all over his bare chest, smug as a cat.

Halfway through unbuttoning my own shirt, I remembered something.

"Oh!" I blushed. "I should go down to the store -- but they're closed by now, maybe I can ask Karen..."

The general store was the only place in town that carried condoms.

(Naturally, that meant Karen, as the daughter of the proprietors, was aware of any and all or at least most sexual goings-on in town, as she had boasted many a time, always delighting in informing Mary and me whenever Manna and Duke were having make-up sex after a particularly bad fight, or whose husband was sleeping on the couch for the week, and other things we really didn't need to know...)

"No need," he said with an embarrassed cough. He climbed off the bed and bent down to pull out a hidden drawer, revealing an entire collection.

"Hmmm," I said. "So do you bring up every pretty patient who drops by the clinic?"

"I do not. That would be highly improper of me. Not to mention utterly irresponsible --"

He looked at me and realized I was joking.

Sighing, he explained, "My old schoolmate from the city sends me a box every year for Starry Night. He's always doing that kind of thing. Remember, the one who sent the -- " A second realization struck him. "I am going to kill that bastard the next time I see him."

I kissed him then, because as funny as I was finding this, I could see he was getting distracted, and that simply wouldn't do.

That worked well. Perhaps too well.

I squirmed out of his grasp, flushed and laughing.

"One last question, then," I said.

"What?" His hair was distractingly tousled, and he sounded distinctly annoyed at the interruption.

"I... I'd like to know your real name." I hesitated, then grinned mischievously. "That is, unless you would prefer me to call you Doctor --"

This time it was his turn to silence me with a kiss.

As he leaned over to unhook my bra, he whispered the answer in my ear.

o-o-o

Despite all our precautions, it turned out that stern old Saibara was as bad of a gossip as any biddy, and by the end of the next week Doctor and I found ourselves the talk of the town. It seemed that we were approved of as a couple, though -- the bored housewives had apparently been trying to pair off Doctor for years, with little success, and to my surprise and pleasure, they now considered me one of their own, and our couplehood therefore as a personal victory for them despite their lack of actual involvement in the proceedings. Manna proudly proclaimed that she had seen it coming from the start. (I distinctly remembered her making all sorts of wild predictions about Cliff and me back in the fall, and about Kai earlier in the summer, and of Gray of all people when I had just arrived.) Sasha smiled knowingly, and Anna declared it a fine match, though a bit sudden. (I think she'd been hoping to snatch up Doctor for her own daughter, and was quite disappointed that she had been unable to convince Mary to make a move before I did.) Old Saibara even had the audacity to ask when he could start expecting new young'uns (to frighten and badger into obedience, no doubt).

Through it all, I felt sorriest for poor Elli, who had to put up with all the idle gossipers who came to the clinic to chat (and offer their sympathies when they thought I was out of earshot). When I realized that, I started avoiding the clinic during the day, instead choosing to meet up with Doctor after his work hours. Inconvenient, perhaps, but better for everyone all around, I thought.

(Besides, meeting after work hours allowed for certain extra perks.)

Fortunately, the gossip soon died down, as it always eventually did -- to be replaced by rampant speculation about a strange visitor to town who arrived just two weeks before Starry Night.

He was an older gentleman from the city, one of those hardcore hot spring enthusiasts, it seemed. Aside from his daily excursions up the hill -- he would always wave and greet me as he passed by the south end of my farm -- he stayed mostly at the inn. He was a rather dashing silver fox, if a bit eccentric, or so I heard.

"I heard he that he's a famous professor!" giggled Manna.

"He does seem the type, doesn't he?" said Sasha.

"Seems rather fishy to me," sniffed Anna.

As for Karen, when we went drinking -- "AHH! It's THAT guy!"

"'That' guy?"

"What do you mean, Karen?" asked Mary, startled by her outburst.

"It's him. This weird old bastard Aja and I met in the city a few years ago. That perverted -- arrgghhhh --"

Said gentleman, attention drawn by the disturbance Karen was making, looked over at us and winked.

We couldn't get much else out of her after that.

o-o-o

That is, until the night we went out to celebrate Mary's birthday. Mary showed up at the inn wearing a delicately wrought flower brooch, and we teased her mercilessly about it before presenting her with our own gifts, a leather-bound journal from Karen and a monograph on exotic insects from me.

"Congratulations on making it to adulthood," I said, grinning.

Karen laughed. "Welcome to the travails of being an adult!"

Mary, always uncomfortable with all that attention focused on her, cleverly shifted the topic. "I saw you talking to that gentleman from the city earlier, Karen. Did something happen?"

Karen got quiet, but at last she sighed and looked down. "I was going to wait to tell you guys, but I guess now is as good a time as any..." She gulped down her current drink. "When he goes back to his country, I'm going with him."

We stared.

"No, it's not like that!" she grumbled. "Turns out he's a professor from some foreign music school... he saw me and Aja when we went out drinking that one time, and I guess he was impressed by my rendition of the Mechabot Ultror theme... I have no idea how he managed to track me down again, but he said he wants to take me on as a student or something, and that he'd sponsor my application..."

"Wait. Hold on. Go back. The Ultror theme?!"

Mary giggled as Karen retorted, "It's a hard piece to sing, I'll have you know!"

"Uh huh."

Mary spoke then, more subdued. "But what about your parents?"

"I'll talk to them. I was going to tell them tomorrow." She paused. "They'll understand. The professor's going to come with me to discuss it with them..."

"And Rick?"

Karen's eyes narrowed. Mentioning Rick's name in front of her had not been a very wise thing to do for a few months now. But Mary must have known what she was doing because Karen did not explode in anger as I expected, but instead buried her head in her arms and muttered, "That jerk."

"You told him already?" I asked.

"I thought he of all people would support me," she whispered. "But no, he just starts going on and on about how the guy must be a fake who's trying to trick me, offering me false promises just to lure me away with him. I mean yeah, the old bastard's a bit of a perv, but... I don't think he was lying."

"Rick probably just doesn't want you to leave," said Mary.

"I know," said Karen. "But I thought he understood. I mean -- it's not like I'm planning on leaving forever. I'm not like Aja, I do love the store. And I love this town and all. That's why I decided to stay at first. I thought it wouldn't be so bad, maybe. But, I've always, always..."

I saw then in her a glimpse of the girl who still believed in the Jolly Old Man and the Tooth Sprite, who still visited the Goddess Spring every day in hopes of someday being granted a sighting from the goddess herself, who took long walks along the beach every night to whisper her dreams to the distant waves.

"Anyway, I'll be fine. Since Doctor'll be coming along too, I doubt the old perv will have the guts to try anything."

I set my glass down and looked over.

"Doctor?" I said quietly. "What do you mean?"

"Ah!" Karen looked up at me. "You mean he didn't tell you?"

I shook my head slowly.

"That asshole! I'm gonna go give him a piece of my mind --"

"Karen --" I managed to grab her arm before she could dash off. "Karen, please."

"Karen, why is Doctor leaving?" asked Mary, and I was thankful for her voicing the words that seemed to refuse to reach my lips.

"I'm not sure," muttered Karen as she slumped back down into her seat. "Something to do with his studies, I think. He overheard me talking to the professor, and offered to accompany us if I needed the extra reassurance."

"Oh," I said. I couldn't think of what else to say.

Mary said softly, "Claire, you need to talk to him, okay? He must have his reasons."

"I know," I said.

"Sorry," said Karen. "I assumed that you already knew..."

"It's okay." A thought occurred to me, and forcing some cheer back into my voice, I said, "Mary, when you moved here, was Doctor already here?"

She thought for a while. "I think so, yes. I was supposed to enter high school, so five years ago."

"Yeah," said Karen. "He arrived about a year or two before you did. I remember Aja had a crush on him for a while. That was before she found out what he was really like -- no offense meant to you, of course." That last was directed at me.

I smiled. "What about you, Mary? Have you ever regretted coming here?"

"Not at all," Mary said slowly. "I don't think I would have been happy attending a high school in the city. After all, I have learned so much on my own here. From my father, and my mother, and from my books..."

She had quit school after graduating junior high, I knew, and had been entirely self-educated since then, partly because even the closest schools to Mineral Town were too far away for easy commute, and partly because the formal education system had never been kind to her. I remember being surprised that Anna let her quit -- the woman had always seemed so controlling, so proud, so obsessed with appearances, so insistent on doing everything the proper way, on abiding by the rules and expectations of society.

"You don't ever want to go back to the city someday? Or leave to someplace else?"

Mary shook her head. "Of course it was tough at first. Everyone thought my father was strange. And my mother was shunned by everyone because they all saw her as some snooty sophisticated woman from the city who thought herself better than everyone else. Mother struggled so hard to fit in at first... But it got better. People started warming up to us. Everyone here is so kind..."

Karen grinned. "Me and Aja started dragging you out to drink --"

"Mother's never forgiven you for 'corrupting' me, you know."

"She still doesn't realize that it was your dad who let you try a sip of his wine when you were ten?"

"Apparently not," said Mary, beginning to blush.

I listened to them reminisce, and thought of Doctor, and how little I knew of him, despite everything.

o-o-o

The days passed. Doctor and I made plans for Starry Night, inviting Carter to join us for dinner. He and Carter had made it a tradition of celebrating Starry Night together every year, apparently, and though part of me would have preferred to spend the night alone with Doctor, I knew how much Doctor treasured their friendship, and I had grown quite fond of Carter myself.

In the meantime I studied Doctor's face, his behavior. Nothing seemed to have changed. I made up excuses for him in my mind, then discarded them.

Before I knew it, it was Starry Night, and he still had not said a word.

He and Carter both arrived promptly at my door at six (Dog greeted them with much happy barking and attempts to bowl them over before I shooed him back to his doghouse), Carter with a bottle of wine Duke had given him, and Doctor with a few packages that he set aside. I had prepared some simple appetizers, and we nibbled on those while Doctor rolled up his sleeves and set about whipping up a few main dishes. (It somehow did not surprise me to find out that Doctor was a good cook; he was, after all, a health freak who had lived on his own for many years, and I'd already had the pleasure of breakfasting with him once or twice.)

Dinner was quite enjoyable indeed; troubled as I was, I don't think I have ever spent a more entertaining Starry Night. Between Carter's endless stories and Doctor's commentary, I laughed so hard that night, I could almost forget the fear and the insidious doubt that had crept over me, taking root and burrowing into the deepest recesses of my heart.

The evening soon wound down. Carter looked at the time and exclaimed; he excused himself and apologized that he had to leave our company so soon, being an early sleeper.

Sometimes I had to wonder if Carter were inhumanly perceptive, or if he was just plain clueless.

We watched and waved as Carter's tall form ambled away, down the snow-covered lanes. When he was gone, Doctor turned to me. He looked like he wanted to say something, but suddenly afraid again, I reached out to touch his cheek, to make sure he was real, that he was truly standing there before me.

He bent his head and captured my mouth in a kiss.

At first I tilted my head up in response, drowning in the moment. But then I pulled away.

"Claire," he said, and though I could not bring myself to look at him I could hear the uncertainty in his voice. "We need to talk."

I said nothing, but led him back indoors.

"My old schoolmate invited me on an overseas research opportunity," he said.

"The one who sends you condoms?"

He watched me carefully, as if trying to decipher my expression. "Yes, him."

"When were you planning on telling me?" My voice came out far calmer than I actually felt.

"I... When I was certain."

"But you've known for weeks now, haven't you? You told Karen and that professor --"

Who was the dense one now?

"Is this -- what you and Elli were arguing about? That day --"

"Yes," he admitted. "Partly."

I could feel my face burning, and not with the heat from the fireplace. I turned away from him.

"I didn't come to a final decision until a week ago," he said. "And after that, I just couldn't think of the best way to tell you."

"You should have just told me. No matter how many fancy words you truss it up in, the truth remains the same, doesn't it? What did you think I would do? Throw a fucking tantrum at you --? I --"

What a beautiful lie it had all been, these weeks. A beautiful damned lie.

"Claire," he said, and I felt him draw close, but he did not touch me. "I'm sorry for hurting you. I truly am. But the truth is, I..."

He heaved a sigh of frustration.

"The truth is, there's something I had to ask you. And I just couldn't --"

"What?" I snapped, knowing that I was being unfair.

"Here," he said, reaching in his pocket for something, and when I turned to see what he was holding out, my heart stopped.

Sparkling in his palm was an amethyst set in a delicate silver band.

All I could do was look at him, waiting for him to explain himself.

He blushed, but his voice was steady as ever as he said, "I won't ask you to come with me. I couldn't do that to you. You have not been here long, but it is already clear how much your farm, this town, mean to you. I cannot -- will not -- demand any promises from you. But the incident with the blue feather made me begin to realize -- just how much you have come to mean to me. And in the end, I wanted to ask you... this, at least. I wanted -- to ask if you would wait for me."

In the churning waters of my heart, only a single thought rose to the surface: it takes more courage and trust to ask someone to wait for you than it does to ask them to follow.

It would have been so easy to lie to him. So, so easy.

But I did not want to lie to him.

"When?" I asked instead. "When are you leaving?"

He bowed his head. "A week after New Year's."

So soon. "And -- how long --?"

"Three years. Two at the very least." He hesitated, then said, "I understand your reluctance. It was too presumptive -- too selfish of me to ask. We haven't even known each other for half that time, if that."

I said, not really conscious of the words coming from my mouth, "You're wrong. I'm not like you -- I can't just slough off an addiction at the drop of a hat --"

As if that explained everything.

He smiled sadly.

"I don't know," I said. "I don't -- I can't -- I need more time."

He nodded, and pulled on his coat, turning to leave.

I couldn't stand it anymore. I couldn't stand it. The sight of his back, turned on me. Fading into the night.

"Wait!"

I grabbed the back of his coat, clutched at the thick fabric, leaned my forehead against his back. He stiffened. I was trembling so hard that my voice barely came out in a whisper.

"Stay. Stay with me tonight."

I'm addicted to you.

o-o-o

"It's useless to marry for love, so you might as well just marry for security."

"Then I'd rather not get married at all!"

That had been one of the worst arguments we'd ever had, my mother and I, before the empty threats, before the constant accusations, before our differences grew so huge and complex that we could barely speak two words with each other before starting to shout and scream. What a silly argument it seems, now. I had just started high school at the time, and still believed in the power of my words to sway her, still believed that I could salvage the remaining scraps of our broken family.

When I try to remember any happy memories of that time, I always come up blank.

But there is a fragment of a memory that remains with me still, from earlier, in the weeks right after the divorce.

My mother had always been fond of old foreign songs, and in those weeks she often played her old albums as she stared out the window or lay in bed, face buried in her pillow.

"What's this song, Mother?" I would ask her. And she would grunt out a brief answer before turning back to the wall.

"Who's this singer?" I asked, listening to the warm female voice singing about yesterday and sha-la-las.

"Killed herself from dieting too much."

"What about this one?" This woman's voice was scratchy and wild and filled with something electrifying and primal even as she crooned about summertime and peaceful days.

"Overdosed on drugs."

"This one?" Wistful and haunting. It's the laughter we remember.

"Oh, her? Still alive."

It is strange to think back on those days, and stranger still to remember them as brief snatches of light and happiness before the poison set in for good.

But what I remembered in particular as I lay there that night, nestled against the solid, familiar warmth of another body, was that old song about a jet plane, sung by a man with a gentle voice to the soft strumming of his guitar.

Tears came trickling down my face, unbidden.

o-o-o

The next week was busy with New Year's preparations and the penning of postcard greetings for everyone in town, and we did not have much chance to speak. Karen's family was at war -- well, more accurately Sasha and Karen were -- and the rest of the town was too busy avoiding getting caught in the crossfire to gossip much about about Doctor's impending departure. (Karen prevailed in the end, when Jeff, to everyone's surprise, sided with her against his wife.)

When I was not helping out with New Year's preparations, I spent my time engrossed in preparations for spring and the new planting season. I had indeed managed to break even this year, and I was satisfied with the results. I would learn from my mistakes and experiences. I would do better, this coming year. I would surpass the limits I had set upon myself.

Sometimes I caught myself fingering the ring Doctor had left with me, which I carried with me in my pocket at all times, as if I were afraid to lose or misplace it.

I was less upset now than I had been. Although I was still hurt that he had not chosen to confide in me or discuss his decision with me, I could understand why he had not done so. Neither of us had ever been clear about our feelings, and in the eyes of everyone else, we had only been dating for a little under two months. We had no -- obligation to each other. His schoolmate's invitation predated our relationship; in fact, I wondered now if at least some of what I had assumed to be typical masculine obtuseness on his part had not actually been deliberate caution. (And if that were true, what did it mean that he had, in the end, after weighing all his choices, thrown all caution to the winds?)

If I had been in his place, I knew I would have likely done the same. I knew how much he cared for the townspeople. How much he wanted to find a cure for Ellen's legs, or for Lillia, who had been ill ever since she was a child. And we both knew that the best place for him to do that was not here. I only wondered why he had ever come here in the first place, why he had stayed for so long, why he had not left earlier.

But at the same time, I think I understood. I think I knew. We were not so different, after all...

And what he asked of me now -- it was not even an official commitment. Not an engagement, not a promise of things to come. Merely a request to wait.

o-o-o

There must have been a time when even my mother was happy.

That is what I believe. Rather -- what I must believe.

o-o-o

On the last night of the year, I ascended Mother's Hill and made offerings to the Goddess at her spring. And as midnight drew close, I climbed, shivering, to the peak.

I was not the only one there. Cliff was there, with Doug. (Ann, who had been at the plaza gorging on noodles earlier, was not.) Saibara and Gray were there, as were Mary and her family, huddling under blankets and chatting with each other in low voices. (We greeted each other with well-wishes for the new year.) Even Gotz was there, silent and watchful as he patrolled the nearby trails.

And there was Doctor.

He nodded at me as I approached him and settled down at his side. Tonight the sky was clear, and the stars shone above us more brightly than they had ever been in the city. We sat there together in silence, shivering and waiting for the dawn.

There is risk inherent in everything we do. I have always known that, always done whatever I could to lessen that risk, even knowing that there are times when there is nothing you can do but take the plunge.

"Do you believe in fate?" I asked him quietly.

If he found my sudden question strange, he did not say so.

"I do," he said. "But -- I believe also in the power of humanity to surpass it."

I hugged my knees and leaned my head against his shoulder. After a moment, he reached out his arm and pulled me closer.

I must have dozed off, then, because the next thing I knew, he was shaking my shoulder and whispering, "It's time."

He offered me his hand and I took it. For a moment he looked a bit stunned, but then he smiled, grinning from ear to ear.

I had missed his smile.

We clambered up to join the others, who had gathered already at the edge of the peak. Below us I could see the hazy outline of the town, my farm, my fields, the surrounding countryside stretching for miles beyond.

There were so many things I wanted to tell him, so many things I wanted to say. But there was no time, no words --

He did not let go of my hand.

A hush fell upon the gathering as the sun rose, bathing the land in a gentle glow, ushering in the new year. In the distance I could see the ocean, diamond waves shimmering like a mirage. In just another week, he would board a ship with Karen and her foreign professor. Leave, as so many others had already left, perhaps forever, perhaps only for a little while. Already I could see it: a little white ship bearing them slowly and inexorably towards the sun, into the unknowable future. Already the long, cold night we had endured seemed so far away.

But I did not look long. No ship would come for me, no feathered wings; no path lay for me beyond those shimmering waves or across the boundless sky. To the earth I had given myself: here would I set down my roots, growing them deep and strong. And here would I stretch my branches up and upward, to that ever distant sun.

The ring on my finger glittered in the rosy light.

Fin