A/N: Hi all. Sorry to have been away so long. Life has been busy and this chapter gave me no end of trouble. But, there's only one more after this, so rest assured, the story will be completed in a timely manner now. A word of advice- most of you have probably forgotten some/many of the things that happened in prior chapters. This chapter is highly referential, so if you have any time, I'd encourage you to go back and read over the story thus far. You'll get much more out of this one if you do. Thank you for your patience.
Chapter 6: The Words That Got Away
"Hey, over here!"
Xu caught sight of an arm beckoning to her from above a familiar head of blond hair. She ambled over and plopped down beside her friend, relishing in the beautiful afternoon.
It would have been a perfect day if only she could forgo her uniform jacket. Alas, the Commander was strict on the subject of uniform protocol while on duty in the Garden. And apparently, someone had decided that a man who junctioned his own narcissistic air conditioner and wore the same leather jacket through the Kashkabald Desert and the Bika Snowfield was a competent judge of such things.
Resigning herself to the high collar and the well-starched cotton-blend, Xu spared one last ounce of envy eyeing her friend's casual garb. Of all the times to break character and be the overdressed of the two…
Fortunately, Quistis had claimed one of the few shady spots left in the quad. Every other decent shadow in sight was occupied by lounging students, a fair number of whom should undoubtedly have been in class. Xu matched their posture, reclining in defiance of the prickly blades of grass which promised to make her neck itch for the rest of the day.
"So, how are you feeling?"
"On a day like today? How could I feel anything but wonderful?" Quistis replied, reaching into the bag at her side to pull out two lunchboxes wrapped in handkerchiefs. She held one out to Xu, who swung up into a sitting position, taking it eagerly.
"Wow, you really made lunch for both of us? Well this is going right back in the fridge…" Xu set her carton of leftovers aside.
"I'll let you in on a secret if you promise not to tell. We have Squall to thank for lunch today."
"My lips are sealed. I think the Commander's pride has taken enough of a hit recently," Xu replied, moving on before her friend could protest the abuse, "He's so into cooking these days, who would've guessed?"
"Well, he always did like to be underfoot in the kitchen when Matron was cooking. Most of the time she'd let him stay if he'd sit still, but once in a while when she was really fed up with him she'd give him a swat on the butt with her wooden spoon and make him go out and play."
"Hm, you'll have to remember that technique."
Quistis rolled her eyes, "Speaking of technique, did you ever get to have another talk with tall, pale, and handsome last night? Squall was worried he'd whisk you back to Galbadia with him."
"Marcus and I talked for a bit before all the chaos, but I haven't run into him since, so who knows. I think they're heading back tomorrow, but you can reassure Squall that I'm certainly not leaving Balamb to go after a guy. If anything, the headmaster can resign his post and come here."
"You'd really make Galbadia find a new headmaster all over again?" Quistis asked, taking a bite of her lunch.
"Why not? If we're taking Marcus they can have Arden back as far as I'm concerned."
To this, Quistis said nothing, chewing her food thoughtfully. The low hum of conversation and the buzzing of bite bugs off in the field filled the silence, punctuated occasional by the faint crack of a distant gunner practicing his aim.
At last, Xu glanced about to make sure there weren't any cadets in earshot and pulled herself closer to her friend.
"Alright Quisty, what's bothering you?"
Quistis paused in her chewing to give Xu a puzzled look.
"Look, we've known each other since the first day of Garden orientation. We were roommates for six years. I can tell when something is bothering you."
Quistis shook her head and shrugged, turning away to watch a bumblebee zooming from flower to flower. She absently shifted the rice in her lunch with her fork.
"There— whenever something is bothering you, you start picking at your food like that…" Xu began, noting with satisfaction that Quistis' hand froze.
"…AND, the bites you do take, you chew forever. Stop projecting your problems on that perfectly innocent food so you can ruminate on them more literally. We both know something is up so just spit it out."
Quistis made a face.
"…okay, poor choice of words, but you know what I mean."
Finally, the blond rolled her eyes and swallowed, making sure her mouth was totally clean so she could click her tongue disapprovingly at her friend.
"You are such a busybody—really, you're like a manipulative version of Selphie," she chided.
Xu shrugged and took an especially unabashed bite.
"Of course you're also right," Quistis continued, "creepy though your knowledge of my eating habits is…the thing is that Squall's been acting really strangely lately…"
"What do you mean?" Xu replied, her face tightening into seriousness immediately. The dark-haired SeeD had two modes, business and pleasure, and the ease with which she moved between them bordered on the schizophrenic, much to the unease of her students.
Quistis, however, noted her friend's seriousness appreciatively. Neither often needed the other's help, but both had it, always. She shook her head, as if trying to gather the strands of her scattered thoughts.
"He's just been really hot and cold. One minute he seems warmer and more comfortable with me than ever, and the next it's like he's my student again and I can't get a word out of him…"
Xu's eyebrows shot up, "I'm not sure I know what you mean."
"Like when I was walking with him to lunch last Thursday. I was trying to feel him out on the whole marriage thing, but as soon as I got within ten miles of the subject he completely shut down. Wouldn't say more than a few words, wouldn't even really look me in the eyes…"
Quistis paused to see if Xu would comment, but the other woman silently urged her to continue instead.
"On the mission to the Island Closest to Hell he was distracted the whole time. At the ball he danced with Arden, and then later he just started to get really quiet and nervous."
"Was that before or after he fell off a balcony?" Xu replied, deadpan.
Quistis winced, "I just don't know what to think. His behavior is all over the place and it seems like the proposal attempts are triggering him."
Xu seemed to think on this for a moment, and then ventured cautiously, "He's been acting a bit strangely at the office too…"
"What do you mean?"
"The other day I heard a woman in his office, you know, the day he had that big leak? It sounded like she was arguing with him about something."
Quistis eyed her friend skeptically, "Squall's no Irvine but I hardly think talking to a woman in his office constitutes strange behavior."
"No, but the strange thing is that I was at my desk the whole time and no one came in. And I didn't recognize the voice either. And then it goes quiet and I knock and no one's there when I come in. Just Squall alone behind his desk."
Quistis shrugged. That was certainly strange, but not condemning in and of itself. And after all, one did have to adjust for the abnormally high levels of bizarre-ness that had accompanied the world's heroes throughout their lives.
"Maybe it was Shiva?"
Xu shook her head, "Why would he summon Shiva to talk to her? They can have a perfectly decent argument in his mind and when she's summoned he can't even respond."
"And that's not all," Xu continued, "he was making a phone call the other day, which was unusual in the first place because he never puts through his own calls. He always asks me to put them through."
"True enough. Remember when his phone died on that mission in Centra and he had to call the main Garden information number so he could tell Cid he was going to be late?"
"Of course. The only one worse than him is Cid, who doesn't actually know phones exist and can't understand why no one's thought to install an international intercom system yet…"
Xu continued, "…Anyway, he calls someone on his own in the first place, and in the second place, halfway through the call he comes to the door and puts on the privacy setting. I didn't even think he knew it had one."
"How strange…there was a crumpled piece of paper in his pocket the other day with a weird phone number…"
"Do you remember what it was?"
"Not the whole thing, though the prefix was-"
Quistis' look confirmed that Xu was right.
"How do you forget a number like that, right? It's the Esthar prefix, and it was part of the number he called that day too."
"It could be a coincidence…"
"Who does he know in Esthar? Are you seriously trying to tell me he's having clandestine telephone conversations with his fathe-" suddenly Xu paused mid-thought, eyes narrowing as if on prey.
"Elise Arden is from Esthar. She comes from a prominent family of engineers—I read about it in The Garden Gazette. Didn't the number have a name by it or anything?"
"There was something I think, but it was scratched out…" Quistis tapped her fork on the edge of her lunch container and exchanged a look with her best friend.
Finally, with a weary sigh, she continued, "I understand there's a lot of circumstantial evidence here, but this train of thought is ridiculous. Squall is not having an affair. He just isn't that kind of guy."
"Let me get this straight. Squall comes home with a strange Estharian phone number in his pocket with the name crossed out, the owner of which he has phone conversations with which he doesn't want me to hear, sneaks women into his office, and starts acting really, really strange the very week Arden, whom he insisted on hiring, transfers to Balamb?"
Xu took a breath, "and honestly, all that I could probably believe was a coincidence, but there's also the little fact that he's been blowing off your obvious attempts to propose to him!"
"It could be he just didn't reali-"
"Come on Quisty, the man's not an idiot!"
"He can be about these things…"
Her friend gave her a gentle look.
"Quisty, so can you."
Silence. Looking down at the large remainder of her lunch, Quistis felt an uneasiness move through her. It was true enough, what Xu said. 'Orphan' and 'mercenary' each had their respective set of emotional neuroses, and when you got the best of both worlds…
"Quisty, I know you love him. From the first day he walked into your classroom you were a lost cause. Maybe even before then…but you can't ignore the truth because you're scared of what it might be. Trust me, whatever it is, it's going to catch up with you guys one way or another."
When her friend said nothing, Xu continued:
"Maybe he isn't having an affair but maybe he's freaked out about commitment and he's thought about it. Or maybe he just wants to take things a little slower…"
She noted the pained look that crossed her friend's face and pressed on hastily.
"I don't know what's going through his head. If there's anyone in this world I'd trust to be a decent judge of that, it's you. For Hyne's sake Quisty, just don't let him hurt you. "
Eying her friend, Quistis chewed on her lip.
Ifrit, what do you think?
I think he smells more and more like the ice queen every day…
Quistis knitted her brow.
And what does she smell like?
The ice queen does not smell like anything. Other things smell like her, Ifrit replied, as if it was the plainest truth in the world.
By Hyne, I'm not sure what that means, but it certainly sounds very romantic, Diablos interjected dryly.
What? What did you say?
Diablos continued, doing his best to ignore the fact that the air in his immediate vicinity was on the verge of combustion.
If you want my advice, I would urge you to trust him.
Ah yes, the sage counsel of an imp who has spent the last eon sealed alone in a charmed piece of earthenware!
Diablos paid no more mind to the demon than he had to the flames. Let fire war against ice. Gravity would remain aloof.
The fire demon is correct. I am no expert in human affairs. Still, I know your mind like every curve in that lamp. Your knowledge of him—his personality, his character, his motivations— weighs heavily on the side of trust. Let the burden of evidence that unseats it be equal to the task.
Quistis' eyes refocused, and she found herself meeting the patient, determined gaze of her friend.
"At this point, there's no proof that anything's happening with Arden. This evidence is still circumstantial and I refuse to lose faith in him until I see some direct evidence that he's going behind my back…"
"…But, at the same time, I have to admit that he is quite clearly avoiding the proposals and generally acting extremely out-of-character. And that is something I need to follow up on."
Xu nodded, standing with a stretch, "That seems like a fine place to start. I'll keep an eye on him during the day and let you know if I notice anything off. Speaking of which, I should probably get back. Work does tend to pile up with both of you out of the office," she said, passing effortlessly back into easy familiarity.
Quistis glanced at her watch and groaned, "Oh no, you're already late! Tell Cid I was holding you against your will."
"You forget— I'm Squall's office manager now, so he's the one I have to report to."
"In that case, I'll put in a good word for you myself," Quistis said, rising to give her friend a hug.
"Thank you," she whispered.
Xu winked and gave her a friendly salute, "Just take it easy until you're back to one-hundred percent, okay? And tell Squall he can make me lunch any day!"
Quistis nodded, watching her friend head back in the direction of the Garden's central circuit. One more thing to tell Squall. She'd just add it to the bottom of the list.
As Quistis approached the room she heard the sound of voices, and slowed just slightly to mitigate the sound of her approach. Coming to the door, she took her time retrieving her keycard.
One of the voices belonged to Squall— that much was clear. The other one sounded only vaguely familiar, but she had a bad feeling she knew who it was. It was female.
She wondered idly if it was the voice Xu had heard…
The door slid open without warning and sure enough, Elise Arden stood there, eyeing her in an entirely inappropriate way for a guest in a house to eye its proper occupant.
"I thought I heard someone lingering on the doorstep," she commented as Squall walked up from behind her.
"Quistis? What are you doing out here?"
"I was just getting home. What a pleasant surprise to find that we have a guest."
Quistis sidestepped the other and stood next to Squall, smiling cordially. She had to remind herself that neither of them could hear Ifrit's crackling growl or feel the sensation of ears flattening against a mane.
"Ah, yes…" a smile twitched onto Arden's features and then faltered, "In any case, I was just on my way out. Best wishes to you both. Good day." She turned on her heel and marched off down the hall.
"Next time, let me know when you're stopping by so I don't miss you," Quistis called after. Then she headed inside, leaving Squall standing alone before the gaping door.
Without bothering to mask the scowl that emerged, Quistis turned towards the kitchen. Xu's empty lunchbox went into the sink, and she tossed her own on the counter. Impulsively, she opened the refrigerator and retrieved a bag of grapes from within.
"Something wrong with this?" Squall asked, lifting her largely-untouched lunch to examine it.
"It was fine. I just wasn't that hungry." She popped a grape into her mouth.
His eyebrow raised slightly, "Something wrong with you?"
"What was she doing here?" Quistis replied, ignoring his question.
"People are talking about what happened at the ball. She came to see how we were doing," he said crossly, "I let her in even though I was busy…"
He glanced up sharply, pointing insistently to the pile of clothes dumped on the couch, "I was folding the laundry."
Could've fooled me, she thought, noting not a single folded article.
"No, I meant why did you answer the door in the first place?"
He shrugged, "I didn't want anyone assuming something was wrong because we didn't come to the door and causing another episode."
Carrying her grapes over to the dining room, Quistis stopped short when she caught sight of the vibrant bouquet lying on its side on the table.
"She brought us flowers," Squall said, coming up behind her.
Quistis walked over to the table and picked up the card. 'To Commander Leonhart', it said.
"For us, eh?" she asked, chewing thoughtfully. She tossed the card back onto the table and proceeded over to the living room, plopping down on the couch only to jump back up. Pulling aside the cushion, she was shocked to discover tucked within the folds an untouched bottle of champagne, along with two glasses.
"You were having some champagne too, I see…"
Squall blinked, muttering something about how he had no idea how it had gotten there, and then took it, along with the two glasses, putting them out of sight in the kitchen, though not before she noticed the label.
'Tears of the Moon' was an Estharian champagne which had only recently begun to be known with the gradual opening up of the introverted nation.
Egregiously expensive and notoriously difficult to acquire outside its domestic borders, she had only tried it once, when Laguna had secured a precious few bottles for Selphie and Irvine's wedding. Had he said something about it being for lovers, or was she misremembering?
"So you told her I live here too, eh?" she said, staring blankly ahead as he walked back into the room.
"Yeah, though she basically figured it out on her own."
He indicated the pile of clothes again. Prominently near the top was a pair of underwear that was distinctly feminine and read 'Quistis' in black, bold letters.
A couple years before she'd received them as a gift from Irvine, who'd informed her with a wink that there was a price break after the first six. And she'd kept them for some reason in spite of the fact that she lived in terror that the Trepies would someday learn of their existence.
Now Squall wouldn't let her get rid of them, claiming they were extremely useful for someone whose line of work cause his memories to vanish on a regular basis.
Yes, that pair was fairly self-explanatory.
"That grape. You're torturing it."
"Great Hyne, why is everyone so avidly scrutinizing my chewing!"
His eyebrows knit, as though she'd presented him with a particularly nasty riddle.
She tapped the armrest of the couch absently, "What makes you think anything's wrong?"
The two of them looked at each other, and as his eyebrow arched she let out a burst of nervous laughter which only made him look at her more strangely. Shaking his head, he turned to the laundry, muttering conspicuously about the damaging effects of hypothermia.
Come on Quistis, get a grip…
She took a calming breath and made a conscious effort to swallow the grape before speaking again, arms crossed, "So now my dirty laundry has quite literally been aired out in front of Arden…"
"Your clean laundry…" Squall corrected, "And what was I supposed to do, tell her it was Shiva's misprinted underwear?"
He grimaced, holding his head.
"You tell him, Shiva. Give him such a brain freeze that he'll never enjoy ice cream again."
Quistis headed back into the kitchen to put away the grapes, pushing the remains of her lunch in as well. When she closed the refrigerator door, Squall was standing there, looking at her intensely.
"Do you want to go get ice cream?"
"Do you want to go get ice cream? Because now that you've brought it up, Shiva isn't going to shut up about it until we do."
It didn't look like she was going to have much choice in the matter, because he was already reaching for his jacket. Ignoring Ifrit's grumbling, she checked to ensure she had gil as well as her keycard safely tucked into her pocket.
Admittedly an outing to Balamb would provide the perfect chance for them to have their little talk, and after all, she was so looking forward to that.
Stepping out onto the field, Squall could hear Shiva humming happily. The sun was out, but a determined breeze was weaving its way along, causing the grass to shuffle and the heat to disperse.
There were bite bugs buzzing, and he unsheathed his gunblade with zeal. Whether it was Shiva's or his own he couldn't tell, but it felt good.
Crack. Save the Queen snapped the first one out of the air, so he took to another, feeling a chill fill the air as he caught it with a downward stroke.
Move aside, tiny vibrating beasts!
Her tone was disturbingly gleeful.
They continued on, swatting at any insects that came near, trying to best each other. It was five-all, not counting the one which had spontaneously burst into a block of ice. Seeing one buzzing up ahead, Squall lunged for it.
Bang. Lionheart bit into empty air.
The bug fell dead at his feet. Scowling, he glanced up in the direction of the bullet that had felled it. Sure enough, firmly planted behind the barrel of his rifle was Irvine Kinneas, and behind him, the band of first years he was instructing on the finer points of fighting stances.
"Watch it, Kinneas! With your aim you're as likely to shoot me as the bug," Squall shouted, ignoring the giggles of the cadets.
Irvine shot them a grin, "Aw, don't listen to him. The Commander gets sour whenever I remind him that my gun actually fires bullets. You lot work on your stances, I'll be back in a tick."
There was a chorus of overzealous 'YES SIR!'s accompanied by clumsy salutes before the cadets took to their practicing.
"Hey Irvine, how's the class going?" Quistis asked.
"Not half bad—this year's crop can really hold a stance. How're my two favorite invalids?"
Squall scowled at him for the comment and Shiva scowled at him for holding them up. So he turned to Quistis.
"We're fine. Just headed out to get some ice cream in Balamb," she replied.
"Ice cream, eh? Man, that hypothermia recovery sounds pretty rough."
Squall scoffed, "Look, I'd be doing laundry right now if I hadn't been interrupted by Arden and then Quistis and then Shiva with this."
"So basically what you're sayin' is that you couldn't do chores because you got interrupted by a series of beautiful women? Man, I might have to get some hypothermia myself!"
"I bet Shiva could help you with that."
"What, don't tell me she's got a sister," Irvine replied, a grin spreading across his features.
"Good. I was due for a reminder on why we will never, ever let you junction Shiva," muttered Quistis.
"Shouldn't you be teaching?" Squall shot back.
"Oh yeah, I suppose. Not all of us get Monday afternoons off for ice cream dates with lovely ladies..." He cocked his hat and winked at Squall.
"Good luck Irvine. It's reassuring to know these cadets are getting their lessons in posturing from the best," Quistis said, continuing on her way. Squall nodded his regards and followed her.
"Don't worry bosses, I'll train 'em up good for you," Irvine called after, and turning back to his students, "Alright you rapscallions, back to work!"
"I'll have the coldest thing you've got."
The clerk gave him an odd look, before finally offering, "We've got some unopened stuff in the freezer out back..."
Squall nodded, feeling for some of the stray gil that floated around in his pockets. When he'd gathered enough, he set it on the counter and waited for the man to return with their orders. Emerging, the clerk handed Quistis a raspberry chocolate swirl and Squall a block of mint chocolate chip.
They made their way to the harbor, finding a spot to sit on the dock's edge, out of the way of the avenues where the busy fishermen rushed to and fro. She discarded her shoes, dipping her feet into the water, and he silently followed suit. Before long, the gentle waves were swirling around their ankles tamely, in stark contrast to the vicious thrashing of the previous night.
Squall prodded the ice cream with his spoon, noting that it left no indent.
I'm not sure I can eat this.
Nonsense. Put it in your mouth and see what happens.
He managed to pry off a hunk of it, sliding it into his mouth and chewing vigorously until he finally felt confident enough to swallow.
The familiar numb of brain freeze set in, and he shivered from head to toe. Shiva sighed blissfully.
Ah, simple pleasures…
"It's been so long since I've had a Balamb fish," Quistis mused, watching the fishermen lug their catches, eating her ice cream with decidedly more ease than her comrade could muster.
"They had it on the menu at that restaurant."
"It's so expensive…"
He gave her a look.
"What? Just because I have the money doesn't mean I want to blow 5,000 gil on dinner."
Grunting in reply, he ardently applied his spoon to the ice cream in an attempt to pry off another bite. It bent like a bowstring, trembled under the pressure, and finally with a sudden snap cracked in two. The handle rested in his hand and the rest remained lodged in the ice cream, impervious to the glare he was giving it.
"Why don't you set that aside and give it a chance to thaw," she advised, taking the last bite of her own cone and reaching her arms back to prop herself up, "I honestly still can't believe we're out here eating ice cream on the orders of a GF…"
"Doesn't Ifrit ever make you do weird things like this?"
She thought about it for a minute.
"Sometimes he makes me smell things…or people."
Squall chuckled, setting his ice cream down beside the broken spoon and imitating her position. They sat in silence for a moment.
"Hey, you know I was talking to Xu at lunch earlier," she finally said, "and I wanted to tell you something."
"Yeah, there's something I wanted to tell you too."
She blinked, taken aback. Maybe she wouldn't have to drag it out of him.
"Really? What's that?"
"I remembered some things the other day. Shiva somehow managed to pull them back."
"You're kidding? What did you remember?"
"Mostly you," he didn't look at her, but she felt the tips of his fingers come to rest on hers. Was it the tide, or were his legs swaying slightly in the water?
"Oh yeah? Would you tell me about it?"
He nodded, smiling faintly out at the ocean, and just like that her worries vaporized leaving her with a complete lack of will to seek them out.
Damn you, Leonhart. How can you make me crazy with worry one minute, then tempt me into thinking all is right with the world the next?
"Did you want to tell me something first?" he asked, finally turning to her.
"Oh…just that Xu really liked that lunch. She wants you to make it for her again sometime."
He nodded, and allowed his mind to drift back over the memories Shiva had unlocked, "You remember that big old pot Matron used to cook soup in?"
They exchanged salutes with Irvine as they traversed back, making their way towards the hulking form of the garden. As they arrived near the gate, Squall paused, turning to Quistis.
"I'll be right back," he said, jogging back in the direction of Irvine.
"The Commander returns! Back for mo-"
"I need you to get me a Balamb Fish," Squall replied quietly, cutting him off.
"Uh…what? But weren't you just in Balamb? And whaddyou want a fish for anyhow?"
Squall pressed a handful of gil into his friend's hand.
"Just pick one up and bring it back. I'll come get it from your place tomorrow."
Irvine raised an eyebrow, but finally sighed his consent.
"Fine, fine, I'll get your damn fish."
"Thanks. Make sure it's a good one."
"Yeah, yeah, I'll just have Leviathan pick it out for you! Maybe call Seifer up and ask for a second opinion…"
In about a half-hour the class concluded, and Irvine dismissed the cadets.
"You all go on back yourselves. I've gotta see a man about a fish…"
A/N: Thank you for reading! There's a little homage to FFXIII in there if you really squint. In any case, know that even though I've been checked out, I've still appreciated every review and fav. It means so much to read them all. Replies coming right up…
lunavixen: I hope your reports went well (you've probably forgotten all about them by now). My essays turned out fine, and are well behind me, so a belated congrats to both of us! We both should both a SeeD rank! (If only I really made more money every time I passed a test…) Anyway, thank you for the review.
redmangobliss95: Thanks for the review! Diablos finally gets a moment to shine in this chapter, much to Ifrit's chagrin. Oh well, Ifrit clearly has an anger problem anyway. After you mentioned it I considered writing something with Seifer in it. In fact a few of the sentences in the last chapter of 'A Lifetime of Moments' were inspired by that very suggestion…
Danton: Thank you for continuing to read and review! Even just the few GFs I've been using have been fun to work with. One wonders how the others might act if Shiva, Diablos, and Ifrit would share the spotlight for five minutes…As for Squall, I am trying to make sure he remains himself, albeit a more mature, settled version of himself.
Tsukikotenshi: Glad to know someone is sympathizing with Ifrit. Poor guy is always getting overshadowed by Shiva. Thank you for reading and reviewing. I believe I am long overdue for sending you some edits. I don't know if you are still interested in writing, but I apologize for being unavailable and you need only let me know if you still want any help. I can promise I will be more regularly available from here on out.
Vocarin: Wow, thank you for reading and taking the time to write that lovely, thoughtful review. The GFs have certainly given the story its own flavor, which is funny given that their addition was initially little more than an afterthought. I'm also glad everyone is patient with and enjoying interactions with other characters. I know sometimes readers want to read about a particular person or persons and aren't so interested in others. Also, I know what you mean about the narrator's voice. I can be a bit heavy-handed with the narration and it's something I can always use a reminder to look out for. Thank you for the encouragement and the critique.