On a Friday morning in Fall, Anita was waiting to greet Ivan as usual with a friendly hug, and a mint leaf to tuck into a button hole. 'Hey Ivan?' she said as she adjusted his bowtie neatly. 'I don't have much more work for the rest of the day today, so what do you say to joining me for a lunch at the cafe after your tutoring session with the twins?'
Ivan could feel a happy swelling in his chest at her words, and he smiled. 'That sounds great, Anita. I'll see you then.'
'Alright-y!' she chirped, then reached up on tiptoe to kiss him on the cheek. It was a very innocent gesture – Anita was childishly naive sometimes – but it made him blush. She waved and ran off, jumping up the ledge that was a shortcut to the hotel with the grace of a dancer.
The week before, he had given Cindy and Lauren a test paper. At first, the older twin had protested loudly against being given a test so soon after learning the lesson, but agreed with a little coaxing. Ivan had promised to grant her a wish if she passed the test, and then she had been awfully eager about doing it. He was a little apprehensive about her wish now, especially as she had passed with full marks. When he'd first proposed it, he'd imagined having to perhaps buy her donuts from the cafe, but her excitement threw him off.
'Cindy, Lauren, I have your test results,' he said once they had settled at their usual places. 'Lauren, you made a little slip here,' he said, pointing her to a specific page. 'But otherwise, you scored perfectly.'
'Thank you,' she said in her quiet voice. 'I'll do better next time.'
'Of course you will. I know you can do it,' he said encouragingly. 'As for Cindy...' He turned to the girl. She was sitting up straight, staring at him intently, her hands wringing her pencil. The look scared him a little. 'Um, congratulations. You got perfect marks.' He handed her paper over and she took it, staring at the red '100%' written on the top in Ivan's neat hand.
'Yes! I did it!' she cried happily, jumping up from her chair with a large grin. 'I told you that topic was a piece of cake for me! Now you have to grant me a wish, Ivan!'
'Yes, I owe you that,' he said, gently pointing her back to her seat. 'But remember, it has to be a realistic one.'
'Fine! Ivan, I want you to take me out on a date!'
The room fell quiet. Ivan was struck speechless. This was a little far off his expectations. He glanced over at Lauren, who was watching him without the slightest hint of surprise at her sister's request. Then Cindy broke the silence.
'I'm only joking, forget about it,' she said with a shrug, although her expression told him she had been serious. 'My wish is to know about the kind of girls you like, Ivan. Tell me!'
Ivan tried to look her in the eye, but her head was bowed, and she was staring at his shoes instead. He felt a little sorry for her, but he knew it was probably only a schoolgirl crush. She would get over it.
Cindy's head suddenly snapped up and she glared at him. 'Well? What kind of girls do you like, Ivan?'
'I like –'He couldn't really say. He'd never dated anybody before, having always been too busy taking care of Dirk. He saw many women in the city when he went to work, but none had ever interested him into pursuing them.
And then the image that had been skulking in the back of his mind pushed forward: Anita. He liked Anita. He liked her very much... but as a friend. But she was a woman after all. It suddenly occurred to him that the happy feeling he got in his chest whenever they talked might not be simply platonic affection. 'I like... girls from my own age group,' he said finally. 'And I like girls who are hardworking and earn a lot.'
'Oh, really?' said Cindy. She appeared to be regaining herself. 'Then when I'm your age, Ivan, I'm going to work really hard!'
He managed a chuckle before advising 'Don't wait. You can work hard beginning from now, can't you? Both of you.'
When he went down to the cafe to meet Anita, she was already sitting down at a table outside and was chatting to Sherry.
'Hello, Ivan!' Anita called out when she saw him. She waved him over and he came, but he found he couldn't quite look her in the eye when he said 'hello'.
'Good afternoon, Ivan,' said Sherry. 'I'll just be on my way now. I'll talk to you later, Anita.' With a wave, she left, and Ivan took her seat.
'How were the girls?' Anita asked in a leisurely manner.
The thought of the girls made him flush. 'They were good, as usual. Cindy got a perfect score in her test. She had some difficultly with that topic at first, so I'm proud of her.'
'Haha, that's great. But I can't say I'm surprised. They have a good teacher after all.'
He blushed even harder, keeping his gaze concentrated on his hands. 'Thank you,' he said softly.
'Hey, what's the matter Ivan?' she said concernedly, trying to peer into his face. He met her gaze reluctantly. 'Your face is red! Are you ill?' She reached out and put a hand on his forehead, making him flinch slightly. 'You have a temperature too – do you want to go home and have a lie down?'
'No, I'm alright,' he said, gently, pushing her hand away. 'I just need some water and I'll be okay.'
'Hmm, if you say so. Don't kill yourself over a little lunch date, though.' She smiled at him, then beckoned Dirk over to place their order. Ivan felt a strange jolt in his stomach at the word 'date'.
When Dirk had gone, Anita began to gaze into the distance with a dreamy expression. He could have easily called her back to earth, but his heart was still pounding a little uncomfortably for conversation. His feelings for Anita were very confused, and instead of talking about it, he preferred to watch and her and thinking by himself. Although talking to her probably would have helped. She was always a great help. Talking to her cheered him up, and if he was honest to himself, he wasn't quite sure how he had lived without her guidance, back when the farm was still quiet and overrun with weeds.
She turned around. 'Yes?'
'I was just thinking...' His hands went to his bowtie which he untied and retied as he went on 'Zephyr Town has seen a lot of change since you've come. And everybody's found a good friend in you. Without you, the bazaar wouldn't have expanded like it has. So I'd like to thank you for your contribution to our town.' He tried to keep eye contact with her throughout his speech, but ended up staring at the fountain over her shoulder.
Anita giggled and reached forward to straighten his bowtie. His skin felt warm where her fingers brushed it. 'Ivan, you are just so sweet! I'm glad to hear you say that, honestly. I never thought I'd get so caught up in my farm, the bazaar and this little town.' She took his hand. 'I've come to love everyone here. I'm really glad I came.'
'Yes.' He looked up into her twinkling eyes and found courage there. 'So am I.'
Dirk's voice interrupted their moment. 'I don't mean to butt in,' he said with a large grin. 'But I brought your food.'
'Not at all,' Anita smiled. She withdrew her hands so Dirk could place the tray on the table. Ivan felt an odd chill on his hand when Anita let go of it. He was getting a little frustrated at himself for being so self-conscious.
'How's it going in the kitchen?' she went on.
'Why, would you like to help out?' Dirk laughed. 'We're okay, have been for ages. Later!' He bounced back into the cafe.
'Dirk is so cute,' Anita chuckled into her tea. 'Though I bet he's a handful at home. He can be so cheeky.'
'He's very childish,' Ivan agreed. 'I'm always worrying about him. But he's my brother and I love him.'
She watched him for a moment before saying 'I love hearing you talk about the children under your care. You have such a passion for kids. It's nice to see that in a guy. I really admire you for it.'
He flushed. 'Thank you. I'm lucky to be in a line of work that I love.'
'Heh, so am I. I've never done farming before I came to Zephyr Town, but it's everything I've expected and more.' She leaned back on the chair's back legs, taking off her hat and placing it on her lap. 'This is just the best, Ivan. Sitting here with my best friend in this beautiful town...'
For a moment, a cloud shifted and a sunlit ray fell on Anita, on her shoulders and reflecting off her blonde hair, and Ivan was struck with her beauty. He felt to maddening urge to kiss her, but was afraid of offending her, so he merely took a sip of tea to calm himself. He realised now he did love her. He hadn't always done so, but somewhere on the way, he'd fallen in love with her childish, hyperactive manner, her thoughtfulness, her kindness and her generosity.
He was glad it was Anita.
That night, as Ivan was getting ready for bed, Dirk knocked on his bedroom door.
'Enter,' he said.
'Hey Ivan,' Dirk greeted, opening the door and leaning on the frame. 'Had a good day?'
'I did,' Ivan smiled, combing his damp hair. 'How about you?'
'I had fun as usual,' was the answer. They were silent for a moment before Dirk said 'So... you and Anita, huh?'
Ivan dropped his comb and hurriedly bent to pick it up. 'S-sorry?'
'Just asking,' Dirk laughed. 'You guys are always together, and you actually held hands today!'
'We always do things like that,' Ivan mumbled.
'Come on, Bro, you can't fool me. I've known you all my life, and I've never seen you act the way you act around Anita.'
'You've never seen any woman get to know me before, that's all,' said Ivan a little uncomfortably, not quite sure why he was defending himself. Perhaps he was simply not ready for anybody to know his true feelings yet. 'I know plenty of women in the city.'
'Well if you like it that way,' said Dirk, looking rather amused. 'Just don't forget to tell her when you realise it.' Smirking, Dirk left, shutting the door behind him.
Ivan looked up at his reflection in front of him uneasily. His face was the colour of Dirk's hat. But his younger brother had a point. He wasn't the only man in the village. There was Dirk himself, and Angelo and Lloyd. Perhaps Anita had already developed feelings for one of them. Perhaps the reason she was always acting so intimate with him was that he was already so far into the friend zone, she felt there was no danger in doing so.
He hurried to bed to get rid of those thoughts because they hurt him.
The next day, he woke up at 6am with his hair sticking out in every direction. It always took a good quarter of an hour to tame it, which was why he always got up early. He could have lounged the whole day in bed that day if he liked as it was a Saturday, but Ivan was not a man of such habits. He preferred to mark his students' papers at this time, when the town square was quiet during the bazaar.
In the afternoon, Dirk popped his head into Ivan's room and said 'Hey Bro, I'm going to the bazaar. Wanna come?'
'No thank you. Have fun. Don't eat there, I'm making dinner.'
'Aww, are you sure? Anita –' Ivan's heart skipped a beat the mention of the name '- has just expanded her stall and she told me yesterday she'd be selling some new dishes. Don't you wanna check it out?'
It was tempting to go, just to see her, but he had teaching plans to arrange and no other business there. 'Some other time, Dirk. I'm busy.'
'You have tomorrow and the day after to do that! C'mon, Anita would be really happy to see you.'
This was very flattering to Ivan's ears, but... 'Dirk,' he began in a warning tone. 'Don't try and pull me from my work please.'
'You're always so stuffy,' said Dirk, skipping over to Ivan's work table. 'You take your work too seriously.'
'Someday when you have your own career, you'll understand,' said Ivan, beginning to get rather cross, frowning at his half-completed teaching plan.
'I do have a career – at the cafe!'
'That's not an actual career.'
'I'm still young, I don't have to worry about that yet.'
'You've just turned 20,' was the sharp reply, making Dirk flinch.
'Geez, how's a guy supposed to have any fun with you hovering over them like a saint? Give me some personal space.'
'Sometimes I think I give you too much space,' said Ivan coldly. He didn't want to get angry at Dirk, especially since their last argument had been pretty recent, but the boy was always testing his patience. As if he didn't have enough to worry about, what with his students both in the city and his hometown.
Dirk was getting equally cross. 'Stop trying to be Mom, Ivan,' he snapped. 'It's not working.'
He left, slamming every door shut on his way.
When he had gone, Ivan released the breath he had been holding as a sigh and put down his pen. Sometimes he felt that Dirk was being ungrateful, and other times, he wondered if he had done something wrong in raising him.
'Ugh...' Ivan rested his head on his open teaching plans. If only he had somebody to advise him in matters like these. His mind went to Anita – she always gave him good advice – but he didn't want to burden her. She was busy enough on the farm as it was. He would very much like to have her two cents, however. She would make him feel better, if nothing else.
An hour later saw him standing in the kitchen preparing dinner, with Dirk's favourite dish on the menu as a peace offering. Ivan's cooking wasn't on par with Joan's, but it was palatable, occasionally delicious, and his cream croquette never failed. As a matter of fact, his cream croquette was the very reason Dirk loved them so much. As he was cooking, he heard a knock on the door which he assumed to be Dirk, but he was surprised by Anita instead.
'Hey Ivan. Hope you don't mind me dropping by.'
'Good afternoon. I don't mind at all – is something wrong?' He put down the knife and turned to face her.
'Nah, I just wanted to see you.' And his heart gave a happy leap.
'I-is that so? How was the bazaar?'
She dropped into the chair nearest to him. 'It was great, Felix is really pleased. Everybody's put in a lot of profit today! Don't let my chatter hold you up from your chores though. What are you cooking?'
At her advice, he turned back to the stove. 'Dinner, along with cream croquette, Dirk's favourite food. I – got into an argument with him today and I'd like to make it up to him.'
'Oh I see. Do you always cook for him?'
'Sometimes, but usually only for special occasions. I-I'm not a very good cook.' He glanced over his shoulder at her. She was slumped forward on the table, head on her arms, watching him. He turned away again as he continued 'Our mother was good though. Dirk misses her – and our father – so I try to make up for the both of them.'
Anita was quiet for a while at this. Then she said 'I don't know if that's what he needs, Ivan. Maybe he just needs a brother more than a parent right now.'
He turned around with a slight frown. 'I've always acted like a parent to Dirk, though.'
'Yeah you have. You raised him and you're his only family, but he's an adult now. The fact that you are his only family is even more reason why you should act like the brother you are instead of the parent you aren't. Don't you think?'
They looked at each other for a moment before Ivan smiled. 'You're clever, Anita. I don't know what I would do without you. Thank you, you're absolutely right.' He went back to the cream. 'Dirk and I used to play together as children. Maybe I should go out with him someday to see those beetles he admires so much.'
'That's the spirit!' said Anita happily. 'I'm so glad I was of help. And don't be shy to ask for it next time.'
'Wha-' He looked at her, surprised. 'How did you know-?'
'I saw Dirk at the bazaar just now. He looked kinda stormy and I thought you guys could use some help making up.'
He stared at her for a few seconds. Then he put down his cooking utensils, walked over to Anita and embraced her warmly. He was scarlet when he pulled away, and he might have detected the slightest shade of pink on her cheeks, but he couldn't quite look her in the eye to be sure. 'Thank you again,' he mumbled.
Anita giggled. 'It's okay. But don't think I don't know you enough to be unable to tell, just from your brother, that you too, have a problem.'
'Yes,' Ivan smiled. 'I'll keep that in mind.'
She got up, twirling a lock of golden hair around her fingers. 'Well if you're alright now, I better go and finish up my chores. Those sheep haven't learn to get back into their barns themselves yet. Goodnight, Ivan.' She waved before leaving. He returned the gesture with a warmth travelling through his body.
Dirk didn't come back until the bazaar had ended for a good hour. He came in very quietly, shedding his hat and coat and hanging them up, and was about to go straight to his room when Ivan noticed him and called him into the kitchen.
'Good evening, Dirk,' he said, seated at the table. 'Would you like dinner? I made your favourite.'
'Thanks,' said Dirk, sitting down and pulling a plate towards himself.
'I'm sorry for snapping at you earlier, Brother,' Ivan began, watching as Dirk ate. 'I didn't mean to sound like I was forcing you or anything. I just worry about you. I promise not to do it again.'
'That's okay,' Dirk chuckled. 'You have a point too, I can't slack off forever. Maybe I'll open my own cafe someday, in the city.'
'That's a good idea. We could go to work together every morning like that.' Dirk flashed Ivan a grin at his words. 'Are you serious about it, Dirk? I have some friends in the city I could set you up with.'
'Uh, maybe give me another season to think about it.'
'Alright. I'm here if you need any help, Little Brother.'
'Yeah..' A comfortable silence fell between them, and Ivan took a sip of tea, thinking fondly of both his brother and Anita. He really did not know what he would do without either of them at his side.
On Sunday morning, Ivan put on his coat and went for an early stroll. It was a cold, foggy morning, and he was soon absorbed in breathing in the scent of wild mint and getting his head lost amongst the butterflies. He was so wrapped up in his little world that he didn't realise his feet had lead him to Anita's farm until he heard the clucking of a chicken at his feet. Then he snapped out of his reverie and looked around.
He was standing by Anita's crop field, and a stray chicken was pecking at his feet. Its siblings were all in a fenced off area, but this one appeared to have run off.
'Mimi!' Anita's voice cried. She came running around from the grazing field. Ivan bent down and carefully scooped the chicken into his arms. 'Mimi' clucked and flapped and dirtied his shirt with mud, but fell silent and settled down when Anita approached, apparently rather intimidated by her mistress.
'Mimi, you bad girl!' Anita scolded, taking her from Ivan. 'Thanks Ivan! Stay a while? You're just the man I wanted to see today.'
'It was my pleasure,' he smiled, following her to the chicken pen to deposit her hen. 'I was just taking a walk and ended up wandering here.'
'You must have smelled breakfast,' she laughed. Indeed, as soon as he walked into the farmhouse, the delicious smell of eggs and toast enveloped him.
'Would you like help with that?' he asked when she disappeared into the kitchen.
'Nope, just take a seat. They're already done, they just need setting out.'
Smiling, he hung up his coat and sat down. He liked this. It felt so closed and cosy, and there was such a sweet feeling accompanying the thought of having a private breakfast with the woman he loved. The last time he had been inside was on Spring for the Harmony Festival. Anita had just moved in then, and the house had been large and bare. Now the walls were either covered in books, or framed photographs. The one opposite him depicted a small boy playing in mud, laughing at the photographer. On the table in front of him sat a wreath made of lavender he assumed Anita had made on a rainy day.
'Help knock that off the table, please,' Anita said as she approached, holding up a tray and nodding at the flower wreath. Ivan took the wreath and examined it.
'Just an experiment,' she said, unloading the tray onto the table. 'I meant to make it for Sherry.'
'It's quite pretty,' he said, turning it around in his hands.
'To a guy,' she snorted, putting the tray aside and sitting down. 'But I couldn't give that to Sherry, it's put together all wrong.' She took it from him and put it on the empty tray. 'Now eat.'
He obediently took a plate of eggs for himself and began the act of consuming breakfast. She buttered herself some toast and bit into it.
'I would have looked for you if you hadn't come,' she said. 'There something I need to ask, see.' He suddenly noticed she wasn't really eating, only nibbling on the edges. Was she looking... nervous? He'd never seen her anxious before. Her childish nature gave her confidence in everything she did. She was always bright and optimistic. This new side to her scared him a little. 'Look at that picture on the wall behind you.'
Turning, he saw a photograph of a bearded man and a young girl sitting on a picnic blanket in a tight embrace. The mad had chestnut hair and deep blue eyes.
'Is that your father?' he asked.
'Yeah. He raised me by himself. My mother left him a year after I was born, and I don't remember a thing about her. My dad was always busy at work. He's an engineer, but he always made time for me, and sometimes for my cousin too.' She beckoned to the picture he had been looking at earlier, of the muddy boy. 'He was – still is – really protective of me. He didn't want to let me come here at first, especially since it's too far away for him to visit often. He was actually hoping I'd get married before I came here, so there'd be somebody to take care of me.'
His heart lurched in his chest. 'S-so you have a boyfriend in your hometown?' he asked, completely neglecting his eggs.
'Nope, but if I did, I would have broken up with him two seasons ago.'
'Oh. And why is that?'
'Because-' She hesitated.
'You don't have to tell me if you don't want to,' he said, although in a rather coaxing tone. 'I won't force you.'
'You're sweet. I don't mind though.' She smiled. 'I – found somebody I like here, that's all.'
Dread gripped him. He didn't want to hear who the man was, but he also wanted to know who his rival was. And of course she was telling him, because he was the best-friend-like-a-brother. She felt safe near him.
'I'm sorry if I'm burdening you with my feelings,' she went on, looking down at her toast. 'But I feel like I'll go crazy if I keep it in much longer.'
He didn't say anything. He didn't trust himself to. He merely kept his eyes on her, watching her.
She took a deep breath and drew something out of her bag. She placed it on the table between them. 'Ivan... will you accept this?'
There was silence as Ivan stared at the object. He was dreaming, his eyes were deceiving him, that couldn't be –
'I – know it's kinda sudden, but I really like you, Ivan. You're good for me. I mean, I've gone out with a few guys before – I mean, you don't have to say yes if you don't want to, obviously, or maybe you'd like to-'
'Anita,' he cut her off in a quiet voice. 'I don't think I should accept this -' He picked up the blue feather. Her face fell and she looked disappointed as she bitterly stuffed the rest of her toast into her mouth. He bit back a private smile as he went on '- because I feel I should be the one to propose to you instead.'
Her head snapped up, her face alight with renewed hope. The sight filled him with something more than courage as he leaned forward to tuck the feather behind her ear. 'Anita, will you marry me?' he breathed, looking into her dark eyes.
She giggled, and he knew the sweet, childish Anita he loved was back. 'Of course I will, what kind of question is that?'
'Only the most important one in my life so far,' Ivan smiled. Relief and happiness were flooding him, almost overwhelming him.
How he loved his fall mornings.