"You know, I thought after everything we've all been through together that maybe YOU would have grown up a little bit, jerkface!"
"ME? I need to grow up? You're one to talk! For all you're an old hag you're such an annoying brat!"
"Hag! HAG! Oh, I wish I'd pushed you off a cliff when I had a chance, Chester Burklight!"
"Maybe you should have! Then I wouldn't have to listen to your yapping ALL THE TIME!"
A whirl of pink and an angry hiss of wind nearly clipped Cress as he ducked out of the way. He had been on the way to invite Chester to breakfast, but the argument had carried to his ears almost as soon as he stepped out of the house. He sighed, knowing what he'd find when he went inside. Arche was already out of sight.
"Still haven't told her, have you," he said dryly as he stuck his head inside the doorway. Chester was pacing angrily up and down the length of the room, punching the solid walls whenever he passed one.
The response was the same as always too. "It doesn't make a damn difference! She doesn't listen! And it's not me she wants, anyway!"
Cress sighed again and continued the ritual. "How do you know?"
"Because is not an answer. Look, I came to invite you to breakfast. Mint made enough for a small army. I don't know where she thinks she's going to find one to feed, but you may as well chill out and come over. You at least could put a sizable dent in the pile." He carefully did not say that Arche would have held her own quite well.
"Yeah. I'll be there soon," Chester said at last. His pacing and punching had slowed, but he wasn't calm enough to talk to anyone civilly yet. "She gets me SO MAD!" Slam.
"Looks like the feeling is mutual," Cress muttered unhappily as he made his way back to his own house. There was little he hated more than when his friends fought.
Arche was miles above and away by that point, racing the wind on her broom. The wind was good company. Sometimes, whenever the mood struck Sylph, the Spirit would appear and race with her. Though not an especially good listener (it was Claus' own fond opinion that Sylph was a bit of an airhead) the Wind Spirit did know how to have a good time and often provided a fun distraction.
Fortunately for Arche's mood, today was not one of those times. She didn't have the patience for Sylph or, through the Spirit's messages, Claus. She'd still never forgiven him for laughing at her in the North Forest. Twice. It had eventually grown into a running joke between them. He'd later learned through no intention of Arche's that the sorceress was a lot more talk than action, experience-wise. Somehow, that only made his teasing worse. Still, she vastly preferred his teasing to the hot-tempered cruelty of his great grandson.
She screamed wordless rage as she flew, barely visible were someone to look up. She didn't know or care where she was going, only that she had to get as far away from the jerk as possible.
Why was he so cruel to her? What possessed him to say such hurtful things? Why did he make her so angry? She'd spent a full century of her life passing the time as harmlessly as possible, as virtuously as possible, waiting for him. Periodically, she'd met people who intrigued her – his own father among them – but held herself strictly in check waiting for his love. Did he truly hate her so much?
"What have I done to deserve this?" It was a recurring refrain in the year or so since Mint, Cress, and Chester had returned to this time from their grand adventures together. After all, hadn't she been a loyal friend? Hadn't she given the letter from his father, unread, to Chester? And gone the day before Cress and Mint's wedding to fetch his aunt and uncle from Euclid on her broom? And cooked for him after a full hundred years and change of practice? Hadn't she changed herself enough for him?
Instead, the past year had been full of recriminations, hostility, and name-calling. She'd had a century to grow. He'd had something like a week. It showed.
Finally, her anger burned low, she hung upside down, cruising in lazy circles. "It's not fair," she said aloud. The wind tossed her hair around playfully, the light glistening off it in iridescent reflections. Another refrain. "Was I wrong to love him all this time?"
There was no answer; none of Claus' Spirits were paying attention. That was fine by Arche. The last thing she needed was her old friend's meddling. She was actually quite thankful that he'd never appeared to her as a ghost; it was weird enough when the Spirits came to her with messages from him.
The summoner had formed a bond of friendship with the spirits with whom he'd had a pact, though it had taken time. By the time he had written his book, the Spirits would occasionally appear to him of their own accord, with some informational tidbit or even just for the company. She smiled, remembering a conversation she'd interrupted.
"But that doesn't make sense," the man was saying as Arche landed. "The vectors involved would cancel each other out."
"The rules of water are slightly different," Undine replied. "Remember that the elements are not solid. Even Earth has fluidity. We are not as tightly constrained; though the essential rules apply, we Spirits have found ways to make the laws of physics work in our favor. But we shall continue this another time, Summoner." With that, the Spirit of Water sank back into the bowl and the water was still.
Claus sighed. "Really, Arche, you couldn't have come an hour later?"
"It's already an hour later than we invited her, Claus," Milard tugged on a lock of his hair. "You're the one who threatened that she'd better not be late because you were hungry. And yes, Arche, I know you were circling for an hour waiting for him to finish his conversation. Frankly, Claus, she's a better friend than you deserve."
"And you're a better wife. We know, dear." Arche giggled. She couldn't help it; Claus and Milard just flowed together so well! She envied the relationship they had, how free and easy they were with each other. Their insults carried affection, not the way Chester had treated her! But he was almost a hundred years away, now; maybe she'd learn to understand him between now and then.
"So you're still harassing the Spirits about the whole states of matter thing, huh?" Arche asked Claus as she helped Milard set the table.
"Oh, please don't get him started," his wife begged as Claus nodded.
"It does not make any sense! Why does water exist in all three states of matter? And why is Earth not composed of any one single element? When Earth is molten, like in a volcano, does it come under Gnome's control or Efreet's? For that matter, what state of matter IS flame? Luna is the Spirit of the Moon's energy, but if what I hear is right, and the moon only glows with a reflection of the sun's light, what kind of Spirit is Luna? Light energy, or something else? And if it IS light under Luna's domain, how different from Aska's is Luna's light? And then there's Origin…"
"He's been ranting about this since I met him," Milard shook her head. "I told you not to get him started."
"I know of one way to get him stopped," Arche said, bringing the laden plates to the table.
"Ooh, pancakes!" Claus dug in happily, his diatribe forgotten – for the moment.
"Works every time," Milard grinned back at her friend.
If only it was as easy as pancakes, Arche sighed. Unfortunately, Chester refused to believe that her cooking had improved, even though he'd eaten it many times. He barely looked at her, and when she did catch him, he would turn it into a glare or a hurt look would cross his face.
She hated to bother Mint and Cress; the wedding had taken place almost two months ago and the couple was finally planning their honeymoon. The problem as Arche saw it was that Cress was rather jaded by travel; he felt that when you've traveled the world so many times over, there's nothing left to explore. Mint argued that it wasn't about exploring the world, it was about getting away from business as usual and enjoying the company of your new spouse. She wanted to visit the North Forest again.
Arche would have liked to know whether or not Unicorn would still appear to Mint; she was a married woman but her heart was as pure as ever. Did that make a difference? Arche's heart wasn't very pure, despite her state of innocence. If nothing else, her frequent threats to Chester's life – which were his own fault, really – would likely keep Unicorn away from her altogether. No matter what Claus thought.
She wished there was someone to talk to. Unfortunately, her closest friends in this time were all in the Toltus area. She only had one other thought, and that would be tough to pull off. Righting herself, she angled her broom towards Ymir. She didn't like to do it often, but enough of the villagers were sympathetic enough to get a message to her mother if she dropped one into the town. She reached into her pack and pulled out one of the gloves she'd gotten from her friends, the gloves her mother had given them to pass on to her. If she dropped one near the inn, her mother would come when she could and meet her at the entrance to the forest; it was a system they'd devised when they first reunited.
She hovered as low as she dared, dropping the glove as close to the inn as she could and praying it didn't get stuck in a tree. Then she flew to the entrance to Ymir to wait.
She didn't recognize the guard on duty that day; he was young and seemed to be fairly new to the job.
"Hi," she said cheerfully, masking her feelings in front of the stranger.
"You shall not pass!" he said ostentatiously. He managed to keep the condescending expression for almost a full minute as Arche gave him a blank stare. Then he snickered. "How'd I do?"
"Oh, VERY well," she said, barely keeping the sarcasm in check.
Either he ignored it or he missed it completely. "Really? Thanks!" Beaming at her, the guard confirmed her suspicions. "I've only been doing this about a week, and you're the first person to show up here. Really I don't know why we need a guard around here. No one ever comes. I've heard they're talking about opening trade to humans, but really the whole thing is silly, in my opinion." He lowered his voice conspiratorially. "I don't know what the big deal is. Humans, half elves, and elves, we should all live together in peace. The world's a harsh enough place as it is," he added sadly.
"I'm Arche. And I'm not allowed in because I'm a halfbreed," the sorceress said.
The guard nodded. "I'm Norbert. No relation."
"No relation?" Arche looked at him blankly.
"Never mind. It's a dumb joke anyway."
"I don't get it."
Norbert sighed. "No one does. It's not much of a joke really. But because of the Lord of the Elves, Brambert, and I'm Norbert… yeah…" his voice trailed off into disappointment. Arche almost felt bad for him. Mostly, she felt confused – and still upset.
"Norbert? Can I ask you a weird question?"
The guard blinked. "Sure, ask away."
"Are all guys really stupid about girls?"
Norbert looked like he might get upset, but then he thought about it for a long minute. "I'm gonna have to say yes. But don't tell anyone. They might take my membership card away."
"Membership card?" Arche was back to staring at him blankly.
He sighed. "Now I know why they tell me not to quit my day job. You know, my membership card, as a guy…? Never mind," he said again as Arche continued to appear lost.
She tried to work up a smile for him but failed. "You're a nice guy. Thanks, Norbert." She rose, looking over his shoulder with relief. A more mature-looking woman, an elf, came towards them.
Realization dawned over the guard's features. "She's your mother."
"Very perceptive," Arche said dryly. "You're cute. Maybe I'll look you up one of these days," she said as her mother opened her arms to her daughter's embrace. Arche went to her and hugged her tightly. "Can we go up?"
The elf nodded. "Your call."
Arche mounted the broom and her mother sat behind her. For once, she said nothing as they flew. As always, Luti let her daughter lead the conversation and choose their destination. She was mildly surprised when Arche landed in the ruins of Midgards.
"You're more upset than I realized, daughter." Dismounting, Luti studied Arche's face. Though they tried to visit at least once a year, Luti realized she hadn't seen her daughter since before her friends had returned to the present from their battle against Dhaos.
"Norbert said that all guys really are dumb about girls."
"The new guard."
"He's a surprisingly honest young man." Luti said.
Arche nodded. "Makes one of them."
Luti sighed. "It's still this Chester boy, isn't it."
"Oh, mom, I just don't know what to DO about him anymore! He's been back for a year now, and he's such a big stupid jerk! Why did I have to go falling for such a big stupid jerk…?" The tears were starting, which only made things worse. Arche felt like a fool for crying, and that made her angry, and that made her cry more…
Saying nothing, Luti put her arms around her daughter and let her cry herself out. It took a while. When the sobs finally did begin to subside, Luti spoke. "You've been holding that in for a long time. It isn't healthy."
"I know, mom, but I can't do it in front of him…"
"Have you ever tried to tell him how you feel?"
Arche looked at her mother as though she wondered what planet the woman came from.
"Oh, Arche, in over a century of living among people all over the world, watching them, you still haven't learned about how to deal with your feelings?"
"Well, it's different when it's your own," Arche mumbled.
Luti nodded. "That is true. It's certainly no easy thing."
"There's something else, though, something wrong. It's like he's… Afraid of me? He won't be alone with me at all, if he can help it. And when we start to have a real conversation, it's really nice, until he realizes it's me he's talking to." Arche was pouting, though she didn't realize it.
"He wasn't that way before. Only since they got back. And for him, it wasn't that much time…"
"Did something happen when you met again?"
Arche shook her head. "Nope. I brought a picnic lunch, and some tools to help them rebuild…" She forced herself to focus on the events of that day. "And there was the letter from his dad… MOM! THE LETTER!" Luti flinched at her daughter's sudden vehemence. "Oh, no, Chester's Dad must have told him something horrible about me... I've GOT to read the letter!"
Luti sighed. "Just take me home first, Arche, and don't forget to tell me what happened later," she said, putting the glove back in her daughter's pack.
Arche flew, fast and furious, straight and true as one of Chester's arrows from Heimdall. She nearly crashed into the new Inn at Miguel. "Mint, I've got to talk to Mint, she'll know how to get it away from him!" she was heard to mutter. Those within hearing range just shook their heads. Everyone knew that magic users were weird.
"Mint!" Arche burst into Cress and Mint's new home – and stopped short. "Oh… uhh.. Sorry… I'll... uhh… later…" Her face burned. Cress and Mint had been peacefully standing in their own living room in their own house, kissing. ~I have GOT to remember to knock!~ Arche chastened herself as she all but slammed the door behind her. The couple barely had time to look surprised.
"Her timing stinks," Cress murmured against his wife's lips.
"Hmmm… Yes, it does. But she hasn't seemed so frantic in a long time. I suppose we'd better see what's wrong," Mint murmured back.
"Hmmm." Mint stole one more gentle kiss, promising her husband a rain check, and then nodded regretfully. "Now." Pulling herself away reluctantly, she adjusted her clothing and opened the door. Arche was halfway across the bridge, looking somewhere between dejected and desperate.
"Arche!" Hearing her name, the half-elf turned around.
"I… I'm sorry," she muttered, blushing again.
Mint shook her head. "It's okay. Cress and I have the rest of our lives to do that," she giggled, blushing in return. "But you seem really upset."
Arche nodded and Mint sobered up. "I was just talking to my mother. Mint, I need to see that letter. In like, thirteen years I never read that letter but I need to read the letter that Chester's dad wrote him. I'm afraid Travis said something bad about me."
Mint raised an eyebrow. Arche had told her quite a bit about Chester's father in his youth; they'd been good friends until Arche realized who Travis actually was. Hard enough for her that he was Claus' grandson, but he was also Chester's father, and that complicated things far too much for her to handle. She was fundamentally innocent, perhaps in some ways more so than Mint herself. Still, Mint doubted that Travis would have said anything bad about Arche.
"He's never even shown us the letter," she said. "I really don't think he'd just give it up like that."
"I know," Arche moaned. "That's why I need help. I need to know what Travis said that made Chester hate me!"
"Hate you? Chester doesn't hate you." ~If anything, quite the opposite, but I can't tell you that for him. It has to come from him.~ "What makes you think Chester hates you?"
"He's always so mean to me! Nothing but insults, all the time, and if I try to say or do something nice he acts like I'm doing it to be spiteful! He's the spiteful one! Stupid jerkface…"
Mint couldn't stand it. She threw an arm around her friend's shoulder and hugged her for a moment. "Hey, he may sometimes act like a… stupid jerkface," she smiled, feeling a little silly as she said the words, "but he is our friend. I wonder," Mint pondered.
"Wonder? Wonder what?"
"Wait here." Mint stepped off the bridge and went back into her home. Arche was left to stare into the water and fret.
Several minutes later, Mint returned with a satisfied smile. "Rather than stealing the letter, I've convinced Cress to talk to Chester about you, something he hates to do."
Arche looked confused at that. "Why?"
Mint thought for a second. "Well, my husband agrees that when the subject of you comes up, Chester acts like a 'stupid jerkface' and he's tired of it. So let's go for a walk and leave the boys to talk, okay?"
Arche nodded and followed Mint. Cress looked after them thoughtfully as he stepped out of the house. He didn't doubt that Chester would be at home, probably fletching more arrows if he'd calmed down enough.
Fortunately for Cress, as he entered the building, he didn't hear the sounds of fury he fully expected. That was a good sign. Maybe Chester would be willing to sit down and talk about things without blowing his top. Cress wasn't optimistic. Actually, at the moment he thought he might prefer to go head to head with Dhaos again. Solo. Unarmed. Without armor. Blindfolded. Chester's moping had really begun to grind his last nerve. And… he really did owe the guy a lot.
"Yeah, 'm up here."
Cress looked up – his friend did not mean upstairs, he meant leaning on a rafter. Bits of feather and wood drifted down periodically as he fletched an arrow.
"I don't get how you're so comfortable up there," Cress muttered. "Look, I need to talk to you."
"What did I do now?" There was no humor in the question. Chester packed his fletching kit away and dangled from the rafter, dropping lightly to the ground.
"Showoff," Cress said. "It's about Arche."
"End of conversation."
"Chester, I'm not having it this time."
"End. Of. Conversation." The taller young man turned his back on his friend.
Cress sighed. "Look. Just listen to me. I don't want to sleep on the couch but I'm going to if this doesn't get resolved."
Chester looked at him blankly. "What does that have to do with anything?"
"So you and I are going to have this conversation because I do not want my wife to stay mad. OR my two best friends."
Chester folded his arms. "So talk."
"Mint says that Arche thinks you hate her."
Chester snorted. "Course I don't hate her. We're friends, right?"
Cress sighed. This was going to be even harder than he'd thought. "Normally, I'd say yes, but especially since our wedding, you've been edgier than ever. Especially around her. Ever since the day she showed up again. For us, it was three months. For her it was over a hundred years. So what changed?"
"Yeah, you know, what made you act so differently from the time we said goodbye to the time she showed up again?"
"Nothing changed. Nothing at all, Cress."
"What're you mad at ME for?"
Chester shook his head. "All this time and you really don't get it?"
"You idiot, Arche is in love with you!" Chester was all but yelling, and it didn't help any when Cress stared at him for a long moment, then began to laugh.
He couldn't help it. Chester's outburst was anything but what he'd expected. Was THAT what was driving his friend so crazy all this time? He'd believed Arche was in love with him, Cress? It was too much, and his friend's increasingly incoherent anger didn't help. Every time he looked at Chester, he found himself laughing harder and completely unable to stop.
He had no idea how long Chester stood glaring at him as the tears ran down his face, uncontrollable laughter racking his whole body until his sides hurt and his face burned with the effort of it. Pain eventually helped him gain control, though occasional snickers leaked out for several minutes.
"Are you QUITE done." Chester's voice was solid ice.
"Probably not," Cress snickered. "Oh for the love of… You honestly believe that she's in love with me?"
"Obviously?" Cress parroted. "How obviously?"
"Dammit, Cress, since the moment you came back she's been all over you."
"She's all over everyone. It's the way she is."
Chester shook his head. "Not everyone."
Cress stared at him for a long moment. "Wow. Okay, let's leave that alone for a moment. Where did you get the idea that she's in love with me?"
"Two things. The way she acts around you… And something Dad said to me."
~Ah hah! So Arche and Mint were right… Travis DID say something in the letter.~ "What? Your dad said something?" Vaguely, he thought he remembered something about it, but the last time they'd had this discussion was right before his own wedding, when his uncle had resurfaced.
Chester himself was so upset that he didn't remember reading it to Cress. "In the letter." Chester pulled it out of his quiver. Clearly, he'd read it many times; the years of stiffness were gone and there were signs of wear around the edges. "This part…
"Don't tell this to Arche. When I first met her I thought she was quite a woman, but it didn't take long before I realized she was waiting for someone special. By now maybe she's even found him again. I say again because, though she never said as much, I think she'd already met him but in the future, which she won't talk about. With any luck, she's come back from wherever she went, and she's helped to raise you alongside us. She left very suddenly when Cress was born; it was the same day we told her you were expected. She never told us why but your mother figures that it was something future-related. Your mother is a very smart woman. And no, dear, I'm not writing that because you're reading over my shoulder as I write. Then again, son, you're reading this now, so something happened that we didn't expect. Or want. Don't get too close to Arche, Chester. I don't ever want to see you hurting.
"Dad knew that she was in love with someone. If it was someone in the future, that leaves out Claus. And I really doubt it's Mint or Suzu," Chester said with a snort.
Cress looked thoughtful for a moment. "Hmm. If it were Mint, do you think she'd-?"
Chester cut Cress off before he could even finish the thought. "NO," he blurted, red-faced.
Cress snickered again.
"So that leaves you."
Cress stared at Chester for a long time. "You really are an idiot. I mean, don't get me wrong, Chester, you're my best friend and my brother and all kinds of wonderful crap, but you really are an idiot."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Think about it. I'm going to go tell my wife that she better not hog the blankets tonight," he smirked and walked out.
He tried not to wonder what made such a solid thunk against the door; whatever Chester had thrown after him, he'd thrown pretty hard.
Mint and Arche waited in the living room, talking. When Cress walked in, he looked at the two women, sighed mournfully, and admitted to himself that Arche was definitely not into Mint. Oh well. "You're right, Arche. Chester is an idiot," he said with a grin.
"I think I'll leave him to tell you himself," Cress said as he heard footsteps approaching the front door. To be more accurate, they were stomps.
Wordlessly he opened the door. Framed there was a still-fuming Chester with his arm raised to pound on the door; as soon as he saw the three of them there, he hesitated, flustered.
"I—uh, hi," he said lamely.
"I just remembered, Cress, we need more swords for the school. Come sword shopping," Mint said in a voice that brooked no argument.
Not, of course, that it would stop Cress. "We can go tomorrow, can't we?" He looked torn between a reluctance to get involved and a wicked glee in seeing how his friends finally resolved their issue.
"NOW." Pulling her husband along by the arm, Mint marched out the door, leaving Chester alone with Arche.
Awkward silence reigned. Chester couldn't bring himself to look at Arche, and she was refusing in turn to look at him.
Seconds stretched out ridiculously long. Minutes took years. Arche was beginning to think that the century she'd waited for her friends' return was less interminable. And less tense. But as she was working up towards opening her mouth to reconcile with him, Chester was building back his head of steam.
"DAMN him anyway!" the blue-haired, red-faced young man burst out.
Arche turned to stare at him in bewilderment. Confusion was becoming entirely too frequent a feeling for her tastes, and she was beginning in turn to get annoyed. "What are you talking about?"
"CRESS!" His voice sounded almost unnaturally loud but Chester was beyond caring. "I don't know what he's on about but if he thinks he's going to play stupid games with Mint's heart on the line, he's got another think coming!"
"Mint's heart… Stupid games? What are you TALKING about?"
"Oh, don't pretend to be so stupid, Arche." His heart was breaking even as he spoke. Months of waiting, of hoping, of fighting the knowledge had worn him down.
Her jaw thrust out in an all too familiar expression. She had gone from royally confused to royally ticked off. "Who're you callin' stupid?"
"Look, Arche, it's just you and me. Admit it already."
Chester stared at her for a long moment. All the anger ran out of him and he shook his head sadly. "Arche… Please. It's been obvious since I met you anyway. You've always been into Cress. I don't know what you did to him, but I can't believe you'd do that to Mint."
"DO WHAT TO MINT?" All of Chester's anger seemed to have leached into Arche. She stood trembling violently, glaring and red-faced, stalking towards him.
Chester didn't move, his whole body slumping with something akin to despair. "You and Cress."
"ME. AND. CRESS. WHAT."
Finally Chester raised his eyes to stare at Arche, who by now was mere inches away from him. Though he all but towered over her, she still seemed almost intimidatingly large and in his face, except that she wasn't. "You know," he said, "You're not all that beautiful when you're angry."
Arche growled incoherently.
"Look," Chester said as he turned away. "If you don't want to admit it to me, that's fine. But do yourself a favor and either admit it to her, or stop it now."
~This isn't my house to destroy,~ Arche struggled to remember. "I must not call down Judgment on him. Or any other spell. Must not destroy Mint's home. Must not kill him here. Mint will be mad if I get blood all over everything." She was so incoherent with anger she didn't even realize she was muttering that aloud.
Chester looked back over his shoulder at her. "Arche, I can hear you thinking all that. Why do you care about getting blood all over her house when you're already destroying her marriage?" There was only grief in his voice.
"WHAT!" Dark clouds of magical energy were gathering. Whether she meant to or not, Arche was risking Mint's home with the sheer force of her wrath.
"You're involved… You and Cress are… Involved," he finally managed to say.
Arche stared at him, boiling for a long moment. Then she did two things he didn't expect.
First, she burst out laughing, much as Cress had before.
She stopped much sooner, though, and the next thing she did was lay an uppercut square on Chester's jaw.
He had a very brief moment to realize just how strong she'd gotten in a hundred years before he lost consciousness.
He wasn't awake for the part where she panicked, praying she hadn't actually killed him even though she wanted to for him even thinking such a thing, and was he really that stupid… She kept up a running monologue as she cast ice arrows into a bucket to put on his face, alternately berating him for his "extreme stupid jerkfaceness" and fretting over having hurt him.
It was to this scene that Mint and Cress returned.
"What happened?" Cress asked, concern and amusement warring for dominance.
"I hit him," Arche mumbled, having ceased speaking when they entered the house.
"You hit him?" Amusement was winning.
Arche nodded. "He thought you and I were… Involved." She made such a face that Mint started laughing.
"It's not funny, I know, but I can't help it," the healer giggled. "Your face… Oh, Arche, did he really say that?"
The embarrassed half-elf nodded.
"Okay, you were both right," Mint admitted. "He is an idiot."
"Wow. I'm impressed, Arche, you KO'd Chester!" Cress was grinning rather broadly. "I hate to say it but he was overdue for that… Did you actually discuss anything?"
Pink hair hid her face as Arche shook her head miserably.
"He just took forever to build up to that little tidbit. He got me so mad. Darn it! Why'd I have to go and fall for him anyway!"
Mint and Cress stared at her in amazement. She'd never admitted it aloud to them, not in so many words.
"It's just that you've never said it aloud before," Mint said softly. "Come on, Cress, go put him on the bed at least. I think Chester needs to rest a little before we wake him."
"You mean you want to talk about him so he can hear without opening his yap?" Both women looked at him in surprise. "Well, he has been kinda hard to be around lately. Say for the past year. Hey! I didn't get a chance to tell you this," he said more seriously. "Chester read me part of the letter. You were right. Travis did say something to him about Arche. Let me see if I can remember. I think Travis had a crush on her when he met her or something, but apparently they became friends… He said something about how she was waiting for someone, and when I was born, she stopped talking to them or something. And he said that Chester shouldn't get too close to Arche because Travis didn't want to see him hurting."
Mint looked surprised and thoughtful. Arche looked as though she had been the one punched instead of Chester after all… Her knees gave way under her and she collapsed to the floor.
"Arche, are you okay?" Leaving Chester on the bed, Mint went to her friend.
Arche shook her head. Finally she raised tear-filled eyes to her friends. "Travis came along when I was ready to give up. He reminded me of Claus at first, and later I thought about it, and he reminded me of Chester even more. Which makes sense really. But we got to be friends. Cress, I was friends with your parents too. But the day after you were born, when you were presented, Travis and Rachel told me they were expecting a child too. They told me if it was a girl they'd name it Ami. But if it was a boy they'd name him Chester. That's when I knew I had to leave. I didn't want to give anything away. But Rachel was on to me.
"We stayed in touch for a couple more years, Rachel and I. She didn't tell Travis because she knew that whatever my reasons were, they were valid. She did tell him to write that letter, and she told him that she was sure that Master Tristan would have a way of finding me. She didn't tell him that she'd send the letter to me directly. He was a good man, but he didn't understand paradox as well as she did.
"If it weren't for Travis, I might have given up altogether. I might not have made it through the century waiting for you guys. I was so lonely. I know there's no way he could possibly have known… that it was his son I was waiting for."
Mint put her arms around Arche, who leaned into her friend's embrace and gave in to the sobs that she'd been holding back. Cress knelt down and enfolded the two of them in his own arms, silently supportive as he rested his chin on his wife's head.
Arche was barely calming down when there was a groan from the bed. "Oof. What hit me? Feels like a house dropped on me."
"Actually, it was Arche. She hit you. It's a good thing, too, because if she didn't, I was getting ready to." Cress lifted his head but didn't otherwise move as he spoke softly.
Chester lifted up onto one elbow and looked at the three of them kneeling on the floor. He snorted in disgust. "So it looks like I was only half right."
Arche tensed. Mint pressed a reassuring hand more firmly on her shoulder. Cress rose, cold anger written all over his body. "Chester, shut up. Before you say one more word, shut up and listen." Shock and betrayal chased each other around the edges of Chester's face. "Arche told us what you said. I didn't know you were such a low little worm that you'd come out with garbage like that. Arche is not involved with me in any way beyond friendship. If she hadn't hit you, I would have myself. You've offended me, you've offended my wife, and you've offended our friend.
"I will not put up with such behavior in my household. You may apologize, or you may leave and not set foot in here again."
Mint and Arche leveled incredulous gazes at Cress, who did not acknowledge them. "Cress…" Mint had never seen him this angry since they'd fought Dhaos. Not even when he'd first heard of the letter from his uncle had he been this furious. Then again, Cress set high value on honor, and theirs had all been called into question by someone he'd counted as a friend.
Chester stared at Cress for long moments. The tension built until Mint thought she would scream.
Finally, blue eyes broke away from ice hard blue eyes. "Dammit, Cress… I'm sorry. But what was I supposed to think?"
"Did it ever occur to you that there was someone else in our party?" Cress kept his voice even.
"Someone else?" Now it was Chester's turn to look confused.
Cress nodded. You remember. It wasn't Mint or Suzu, and it wasn't Claus. So who did that leave?"
Disbelief washed over Chester. Mocking laughter escaped his lips. "Don't pull my leg, Cress." The women huddled, forgotten for the moment, on the floor as they watched the two men. "We both know it couldn't be me."
Arche and Mint exchanged confused glances. Each thought she had an idea what was being discussed, but neither was entirely sure she wanted to know any more.
"Because why should it be me? Look at me," Chester demanded as he rose, slightly unsteadily, from the bed. "Look at me! Okay, yeah, I'm about as strong as the rest of you… Well, most of the rest of you," he rubbed his jaw, "but I'm nothin' special. Just a regular guy. Well, I'm a hell of an archer. But there's nothing else special about me. I'm no hero. I'm not like you."
Cress took a gamble. "Ever since your sister died, you've gotten such a huge inferiority complex. Do you really need someone to worship the ground you walk on that badly?"
Chester flinched. "What's to worship? What's so special about me?"
As they bandied back and forth, Arche stared at Chester. She was sure, now, that they were talking about her. Cress had been right; Travis had inadvertently warned his son away from her because he didn't want to see his son hurting. A moment of pity for her lost friend flashed through Arche. Quickly it turned into anger. The idiot really had no idea how much she cared for him! Chester had no idea that she'd been waiting for him all this time, or that she'd spent more than one hundred years counting the minutes until she'd see him again. Imagining herself in his arms. Picturing what it would be like to take him up on her broom and showing him her world.
Chester froze. Mint looked at her, startled into letting go, and even Cress turned in surprise.
Arche stood slowly. "Chester, everything about you is special. Cress told us about what you told him from that letter. Your dad made a mistake, Chester. Travis was a good friend, and a good father. He didn't know – he couldn't know that the man I was waiting for all this time was his son."
Cress and Mint were afraid to move.
"His son…?" Chester was back to parroting. For some reason he seemed to have trouble processing Arche's words.
"Yes, Chester," her voice was barely audible. "I never read the letter. I didn't know what he told you, other than that he told you about Claus being his grandfather. I didn't know that he was trying to protect you from me. I wouldn't have thought you'd need it."
"Yeah, me neither," he muttered, rubbing his jaw again. In spite of the ice it was beginning to swell.
"Chester, I…" Arche's gaze dropped.
Mint and Cress held their breaths.
Chester looked up at Arche.
Cress shared a glance with Mint. ~Say it already!~ they willed her together.
Arche bit her lip. Chester straightened, hope struggling in his eyes.
"Chester, I love you."
"Arche," he said. Disbelief still warred with hope.
"Chester, I love you," Arche said again, looking up with triumph in her own eyes. "I love you, Chester Burklight. Chester Burklight, I love you!" By the time she finished speaking, she all but glowed with it. Looking at her, he could not doubt her sincerity. Like magnets, or moths to flame, or water droplets, they were drawn together by forces beyond their comprehension or caring.
"Arche Klein," Chester whispered softly. "I love you."
Cress and Mint, smiling at one another, left the room as silently as possible. Their friends didn't notice.
"Ow," Chester said as he rested his chin on Arche's head, very carefully. Then he smiled. That also hurt, but he didn't care. It was worth it.