For the millionth time, I apologise profusely for not updating sooner. I haven't felt like writing much lately, and most of my free time is taken up by my assignments. :'(
Thank you all so much for reviewing and please be patient. It won't be often, but I'll do my best to update any chance I get!
Who Am I To Say
Stargazing with Ash soon became a routine thing. At least once a week, Cam would sneak out at midnight and meet up with Ash at the statue in the middle of the town square. It often left them both yawning in class the next day – sometimes Ash would even doze off during class, his head resting on his desk – but neither were willing to leave the other standing out there in the cold all by himself.
On this night, however, the clouds were too dense to see any stars. Cam felt the disappointment creep over him – there was a break in the clouds further off into the distance; if only they could find somewhere higher to sit.
Ash seemed to be reading his mind (much to Cam's surprise, the other boy actually took a liking to the stars. Though he still fell asleep sometimes). "Why don't we go to the mountain?" He suggested.
Much like their weekly midnight meetings, Ash's suggestions had become part of their routine. He was forever wanting to venture off to the mountain, day or night, to explore and uncover the secrets the forest held.
Cam frowned like always, "I don't know…" He murmured. Actually, the idea was beginning to sound appealing, especially now that it was fall, and the clouds hung lower and lower every day. But he wouldn't admit that out loud just yet – the fear of what might be lurking in the dark forest still outweighed any curiosity.
"Don't worry, it'll be okay!" Ash assured him for the millionth time, "I know the mountainside back to front, inside and out!"
The crease between his eyebrows deepened.
"…Laney said there are bears out there."
Ash waved it off, "They're all asleep by now. Besides, the bears are more scared of us than we are of them."
That wasn't what Mayor Rutger had said. Nature is beautiful and must be respected, he said, but it is also dangerous at times. Bears were dangerous.
"Come on, don't you trust me?" Ash asked.
The other boy was watching him. Even under a veil of darkness, Cam could see the honesty in his clear blue eyes.
Ash held out his hand.
Cam stared at it for a moment, before he reached out.
The phone call came, just as the party was beginning to wind down.
The sharp tinny ringing cut right through the doom and gloom of the atmosphere, jolting everyone to attention. All eyes were drawn to the sound, as the same question simultaneously popped into their minds: who could be calling at this hour? On a day like today, no less.
It was Mayor Rutger who answered; he tipsily tottered around the reception desk and fumbled around the papers and books for the phone. When he finally got a hold of the receiver, he held it to his ear – upside-down at first – and practically shouted: "Hello! You have reached the Bluebell Town Hall. This is Rayor Mutger – I mean, Mayor Rutger speaking!"
Cam stood apart from the crowd, alongside Laney, at the other end of the room where the post Cooking Festival feast had been laid out – or what was left of it, anyway. They were helping Howard to clean up, collecting the dishes and cleaning off scraps into the nearby waste bin, throwing away paper cups and plastic cutlery. Even from this far away, they could hear the mayor's chatter. Cam glanced up as Laney handed him an empty plate; he caught sight of Rutger in the background, the old man seeming decidedly more sober than he had been just minutes before. His bushy blond eyebrows were deeply knitted together.
"What do you think is going on?" Laney murmured into Cam's ear.
Cam shrugged, gently placing the plate into the open cardboard box which sat on a chair in front of him. They'd find out soon enough.
And soon enough, Mayor Rutger muttered, "Yes… yes, I'll tell them. Thank you for calling," and relinquished the receiver back to the holder. He lingered behind the reception desk for a moment, before making his way back to the others. The townspeople hummed with speculation.
Rose approached her husband with a concerned frown, "What's the matter, dear?" She questioned, "Who was that on the phone?"
The mayor didn't reply straight away. Instead, he searched every face that stood before him, until gaze fell upon Jessica. The lines on his forehead deepened even further. "There's been an accident," He announced.
The crowd froze. All sound was sucked from the room.
Cam felt the dread slowly drip into his stomach.
Everyone looked to their left, their right, then back towards the reception desk. Mayor Rutger didn't even have to speak their names; they were the only two missing and they had been for the last hour.
"Ash and Violet were found on the Konohana side of the mountain. It appears they were caught in a minor rock slide," Rutger explained, "Luckily, Violet was uninjured and able to get help. Ash, however, was not so lucky. He suffered a concussion and is still unconscious…"
Jessica let out a choked cry, "I have to go to Konohana!" She pushed through the crowd, but stopped halfway to the door, where she threw a worried glance over her shoulder. Her young daughter was propped up against a wall in the corner, having dozed off some time ago, "What about Cheryl–?"
"We'll look after her," Laney assured her quickly.
"Wait a minute, Jessica!" Rutger called out, before she could run off again, "Doctor Ayame says Ash is stable and probably won't wake up until the morning. It's not safe to go out to the mountain at this hour, especially by yourself."
Of course, Jessica would have none of that; she fought back, she argued, she begged the mayor to understand. It took Grady physically restraining her, holding her back with a gentle arm around her middle, and a reminder that she had two children to worry about, before she reluctantly relented.
The grim silence returned to the room. No one knew what to do for the distraught mother, so they did the only thing they could: they offered their kind words and support, a shoulder to lean on. Jessica thanked them and she gathered her daughter into her arms, while the townspeople moved to the perimeter of the room, clearing a path to the door for her. She departed the Town Hall with a brave smile on her face, though not without one last pleading look in Mayor Rutger's direction.
One by one, the townsfolk began to follow in Jessica's footsteps, heading on home. It was late – almost eleven o'clock – and though everyone was worried about Ash and Violet, they still had to face an early morning tomorrow.
Cam, Laney and Howard were among the last to leave. They quietly gathered up the rest of the dinner dishes, until the table was spotless. Then, with heavy boxes held in their arms and even heavier hearts weighing down their every step, they exited the Town Hall and walked the short way back to Howard's Café.
Howard and Laney retired to their rooms, however, Cam remained awake, long into the night. He sat by his window, trying to get a glimpse of the sky beyond the tall trees that surrounded the house – to no avail; the trees were even higher after all these years.
There were too many thoughts in his head. What he should've done, what he could've done. What he didn't do.
He should've stayed behind. He knew Ash had a terrible sense of direction. He could've stopped this from happening.
And the most important question.
What were they doing out at the mountain in the first place?
Apart from the monthly Cooking Festivals, it wasn't often that Bluebell and Konohana strayed into each other's territory. Yet, it wasn't entirely unheard of either – especially during the colder seasons; Doctor Ayame and her assistant Hiro never hesitated to help with the more severe cases of the flu. Still, when they did cross paths beyond the mountain top, the inhabitants of Bluebell couldn't help but be on guard.
That morning, everyone stopped their work and stared, as a foreign horse and carriage trotted into town.
Even Cam paused to take a look – he was tending to the flowerbeds around Bluebell, his usual routine before he opened his stall for the day. From his position outside Howard's Café, he had a clear, albeit distant, view of everything beyond the town square. In the front seat of the carriage sat the driver, the horse trainer Kana, and beside him was the doctor Ayame, who cheerfully waved at anyone she made eye contact with. Their Konohana visitors didn't seem too perturbed by their less than friendly reception.
The carriage slowed to a stop outside of Jessica's farm. Kana hopped off and extended a hand to the doctor, helping her step down. They both went around to the side, where Kana made a show of once again offering his arm to whoever was inside. The first to emerge was Violet; she seemed to be able to move all right, unhurt, though she was visibly still a little shaken. Cam felt a wave of relief wash over him when Ash soon appeared at her side – Kana held a hand out to him too, which was promptly swatted away. Ash's right arm was in a sling and there was a bandage wrapped around his head, but despite that, he looked well enough.
Ash managed to limp his way over to his house. He raised his fist and knocked at the door. Immediately, the door flew open and there was Jessica and Cheryl. His mother threw her arms around Ash, while his sister latched onto his waist, both of them squeezing him tightly in a hug.
There was no need to worry. They were okay. Safe. Both of them. Cam exhaled slowly and reached for the watering can. As much as he wanted to postpone his work and join them, Cam knew Ash needed his rest. He'd drop by later, perhaps with a bouquet even.
Still, every so often, Cam would glance up. Jessica and Ayame were talking and occasionally throwing concerned frowns in Ash's direction. Cheryl was hanging off her brother's waist. Ash dutifully nodded whenever there was a break in her chatter; he seemed distracted, however, his eyes wandering around, never settling on one spot for too long. And Kana made an attempt to converse with Violet, but she was just as unwilling to make eye contact.
Eventually, the visitors from Konohana made a move to leave. Kana boarded the carriage first, and he helped the doctor into the spot beside him. Just before they rode off, Kana called out, loud enough for the whole town to hear: "That's two drinks you owe me now!"
Jessica ushered Ash and Cheryl into the house. Violet lingered behind; she exchanged words with Jessica, probably an invitation to come in as well, but Violet just shook her head. It was then Jessica leaned over and gave the younger farmer a quick hug, before she joined her family inside.
And there Violet stood in the middle of the main road, alone.
She looked so lost, so desolate.
Cam felt a twinge in his chest. He involuntarily placed the watering can on the ground. Found himself taking a step forward.
But then, Violet turned away. She began making her way down the dirt road, towards the town entrance.
It brought Cam to a stop. No problem; they'd be able to see each other some other time. After all, Violet needed the chance to recuperate too.
He returned his focus to the flowers.
The rest of the morning and afternoon dragged on, mostly uneventfully, with Cam attending to his stall. Mayor Rutger was the highlight of his day; he came running over, begging for his biggest and most beautiful bouquet – apparently, he'd accidentally broken Rose's favourite vase in his drunken haze last night. At ten minutes to five (a little early, but no one would notice) Cam closed down his stall. He gathered up the unsold flowers and carried everything back to Howard's Café; the flowers were put away in the cold storage containers in the spare room beside his bedroom.
One bouquet of carnations had been left out for later. When Cam finished packing up, he turned off the lights and took the bouquet, journeying outside once more.
Within minutes, Cam stood on the doorstep of Ash's house. He raised his hand to door and softly knocked.
The door opened, revealing a frazzled looking Jessica, "Hello there, Cam! How nice to see you, come in, come in."
He followed her inside. Just like Howard's Café, the farmhouse was warm and inviting, a real family home. As a child, Cam had spent so many nights staying over that it even became like his second home; he and Ash would build a pillow fort and read comic books by flashlight, until they were both too exhausted to keep their eyes open.
"What lovely flowers," Jessica said, interrupting his reminiscing.
Cam handed over the carnations, "I thought these would add some colour to Ash's room."
"Thank you," Jessica held the bouquet to her nose and inhaled deeply, "If only they could cover up the mess too!"
The florist chuckled, "There isn't a bouquet big enough for that."
They both moved into the kitchen, where Jessica busied herself by looking for a vase. Despite the warm and happy memories that surrounded them, there was a sombre feeling in the air, and neither could keep up the happy façade for long.
"How is he?" Cam asked quietly.
"Still moping, I'm afraid." The older woman sighed as she filled the vase with water – he suddenly realised how tired she seemed; she wouldn't have gotten much sleep last night. Still, she managed a reassuring smile, "I'm sure he'll be happy to see you though –"
Another knock at the door suddenly cut Jessica's words short. Cam was left in the kitchen as Jessica hurried back to the front foyer to see who it was.
"Oh, Violet!" He heard Jessica exclaim, "This is a surprise. I thought you'd be resting!"
Violet giggled sheepishly, "I tried, but I couldn't sit still for very long."
"Well, don't just stand there. Come on in!"
The door was closed and their footsteps echoed closer as they crossed the hardwood floor. A pleasant scent wafted into the kitchen first, then Violet appeared in the doorway; she carried a large stainless steel pot in her hands, which she was staring at intently.
"Look who I found at the door," Jessica said to Cam, as she followed the younger girl inside.
"Hi Violet," Cam said. His greeting caught the farmer girl off guard – she glanced his way with a start, as if only just noticing him.
"Cam… hello," She murmured, her brow furrowing slightly. Her gaze shifted to Jessica, "I'm not interrupting something, am I?"
"No, no, of course not. The more visitors, the merrier!" The older woman said with an emphatic shake her head, "Violet, I just have to ask, what do you have in that pot that smells so good?"
"Oh, right…" In such a short time, it seemed Violet had forgotten about the pot. She placed it on the kitchen table, pushing it towards Jessica, "I was practicing for the Cooking Festival and I ended up making too much stew. I thought you, and Ash and Cheryl might like some."
"Thank you very much. I can't wait to try some." Jessica accepted the pot, making no attempt to hide the mischievous grin that stretched across her face, "But I'm sure you didn't come all this way just to bring us food."
Violet blushed. "Am I that obvious?" She asked, twirling a strand of hair around her index finger.
"Ash has been very popular today. Almost everyone in town has paid him a visit!" Jessica gave her a wink, "I know he'll be extra thrilled to see you two. And he could probably use a break from Cheryl – she's been watching him like a hawk ever since he got home."
Jessica chuckled heartily to herself. Cam found himself joining in; as much as Ash loved his little sister, she exasperated him sometimes – he remembered Cheryl's protective phase, when she went around putting bugs in Georgia and Laney's hair to keep them away from her brother (it didn't work too well). "Now if you'll excuse me for a moment, I'll go see how Ash is doing." The older woman's laughter followed her out as she disappeared down the hallway, calling, "Ash, you have some visitors~" in a sing-song tone.
This left Cam and Violet alone once more.
From the corner of his eye, Cam watched her – Violet was staring at her feet, her expression downcast and her eyes faraway. Up close, he could see the faint scratches on her face – she had a bandaid stuck to her right cheek – and her forearms arms were blotchy, brown and red, the beginnings of bruises.
It was only the night before that they last spoke – even so, it felt like a lifetime ago. However, this time, he wouldn't let the opportunity pass him by.
"Violet," Cam said.
Her body shifted towards him, but she didn't look up.
There was nothing. His voice caught in his throat, his words sticking to his tongue.
Are you okay?
I'm glad you didn't get hurt.
What were you and Ash doing out so last night?
"Um… are you–?"
"This was all my fault."
Her voice was so small, he almost missed what she'd said. She slowly raised her head and lifted her tearful purple eyes – which, he suddenly realised, were the same shade of purple as her name – captivating him entirely.
She chewed at her lip, trying to keep the tears from falling, "Ash was trying to cheer me up, and he ended up getting hurt. He seemed so angry with himself, but none of this would've happened if I'd just gone home."
They were standing so closely, he could've reached out and taken her hand. Cam kept his arm by his side, forcing his hand into a fist to resist the urge.
"It's not your fault," He told her, "It's nobody's fault. It was an accident."
His reassurance did nothing to ease her self-blame. Cam felt his eyebrows come together in a frown.
"You two are in luck! Ash just woke up!"
The announcement made both of them jump, and they turned just in time to see Jessica amble back into the kitchen. "Give him a few minutes to get dressed and then you can go right on in."
"Thanks," Cam murmured. He stepped out of the kitchen and led the way to Ash's room – it was so familiar, he could find it in his sleep. Halfway down the hall, Cheryl emerged from one of the rooms and skipped by; she gave Cam a sweet smile, but there was no missing the ugly glare that was shot in Violet's direction. Violet didn't seem to mind though, her mind elsewhere.
Cam stopped at the furthest door on the left. They both reached for the doorknob at the same time. Cam retracted his hand and nodded at Violet to go first.
Her face lit up in gratitude, "I'll be quick."
She knocked gently at the door, and Ash's voice called out, "Yeah, come in." Violet disappeared inside.
Cam glanced around, trying to find something to preoccupy himself with but every time, his stare returned to the door, fixated. Although Violet had closed it behind her, it still remained open just a crack. Unable to help himself, Cam inched forward, despite the voice in the back of his mind yelling at him to stop. It was wrong to eavesdrop. It was even more wrong to eavesdrop on your best friend.
But here he stood, with his ear all but pressed to the door.
Someone inside was pacing around. Judging from the heavy footfalls, it was Ash – no doubt, he hated being couped up in his room, even if it had been less than a day.
Violet spoke first: "How are you feeling?"
"I've been rendered an invalid, how do you think I feel?" Ash snapped. A tense moment of silence followed, which was soon brought to an end by a long sigh, "…Sorry Vi."
"It's okay, really."
The footsteps came to a stop. Cam could just imagine Ash standing there, his hand tangled up in his blond hair, his expression in a pinched contrite grimace, "I just hate that I can't do anything with my arm like this. I'm useless, just like he was."
Violet wouldn't know who Ash spoke of, but Cam did.
One night when Cam stayed over, he met Ash's father – he was an animal trader, and as a result was more often out of town than not. He had seemed caring, a man who loved his family. Which is why the whole town had been shocked when he walked out on Jessica after fourteen years of marriage, leaving her to care for the farm and their two young children, all by herself.
It had been almost ten years since Ash had last seen his father. Despite this, he still lived every day feeling the same hatred and betrayal he'd experienced the night his father left.
"I-I'm so sorry, Ash."
Cam couldn't resist any longer. He crept closer and peered through the crack in the door. He saw them both, Ash seated on his bed, and Violet situated across from him, her head still angled down at the floorboards.
Ash was watching Violet with a frown, "…What are you apologising for?"
"You tried to protect me and you ended up getting hurt…" The farmer's voice cracked, and she hugged an arm around herself.
"But you're okay, and that's all that matters." Ash ran his good hand through his hand, letting out another tired exhale, "Besides… it was my fault we got lost in the first place. I never told you that Cam was the one who usually led the way when we were kids."
She looked up in surprise, "You should've said something. I wouldn't have thought any less of you."
"Haha, but you know, manly pride and all that."
Violet shook her head, still seeming torn between guilt, sadness and now amusement. She crossed the room and sat down on the bed next to Ash. Her expression finally softened as she placed a hand on the plaster cast that was wrapped around his right forearm. "What am I going to do with you?" She sighed.
Ash grinned at her, placing his left hand atop hers. A gentle smile pulled at Violet's lips and she rested her head against his shoulder.
Cam stepped away from the door. He'd seen that look before – the same way Rose looked at her husband in adoration, even after so many years; the way Laney gazed wistfully as she watched Pierre at every Cooking Festival.
Something heavy dropped into Cam's stomach. It twisted within him, a giant knot of envy and disappointment.
He didn't know how much longer Violet remained in Ash's room. When she eventually emerged, she gave him one last gracious smile, before heading back down the hallway.
The door had been left partway open for him. Yet, Cam found himself hesitating – it would be easy enough to make up an excuse, to say sorry and explain that Howard or Laney were waiting for him back at the café, to come back another day when this feeling inside him had subsided.
Cam shook his head. What was he thinking? It was Ash – his best friend, he reminded himself – who was waiting on the other side of that door.
Ash glanced up when Cam stepped passed the threshold of his room; he was still sitting on the bed. "Hey, man," He greeted.
Cam smiled slightly in response. Silence filled the room, neither making an effort to stop it.
His eyes flittered from the clothes that lay strewn across the floor to the old action figures on the shelves and faded posters on the walls that had been there since Ash was a young boy. Focusing on everything, anything, but his friend who sat across from him.
Then he thought of Violet and the affection he had seen in her purple eyes. The heavy knot that sat in Cam's stomach began to unwind. It spread outwards across his body, unleashing a part of him that he had been keeping restrained for the past few weeks.
"You haven't told her yet, have you?"
He never meant to say it, never in such an accusatory tone. But it slipped out, stinging them both.
Ash's expression hardened. "Because she doesn't need to know," He said calmly.
All the words he couldn't say before were suddenly coming to him so easily, leaving his mouth faster than he was able to think.
"She's going to get hurt."
"And what are you going to do about that, Cam?" His best friend asked in a low voice, "Are you going to tell her? Would you do that to me?"
Normally, no matter if he was angry, happy or sad, Ash wore his every emotion on his sleeve. But at that moment, Cam could see nothing beyond the wall that went up in the other man's blue eyes.
It was that sight that tamed him. In all their years of friendship, Cam had never come so close to being shut out, and that thought frightened him more than anything else.
Rendered unable to speak, Cam tugged the brim of his cap low over his eyes. The silence was left to reign once more.
"That's what I thought," Ash muttered.
"Ash… I would never… I'm sorry," Cam swallowed, loosening his throat and his words, "Just… don't take this out on Violet. Please."
A shadow of betrayal flashed across Ash's face, so quickly that he almost didn't see. The injured man lay down on his bed, rolling on his side, removing his best friend from his view.
"Go home, Cam."
There were no words left.
So Cam did the only thing he could. He went home.
The further they walked, the more the forest seemed to be closing around them. Cam moved closer to Ash, biting his lip as he surveyed their surroundings. It was so quiet, every step they took sounded like an explosion. They'd lost sight of the main road a while ago, and all he could see before them was a blanket of thick, dark greenery.
"Ash… where are we?" Cam asked his friend.
The other boy didn't reply. He'd been quiet for a while now, his eyes trained on the distance. More than once he'd tripped over a branch or a rock, his knees cut and scraped, but still he kept moving forward.
"Maybe we should head back. What do you think Ash?"
All of a sudden, the blond boy dropped to his knees. Cam came to a halt.
"Ash? …What's wrong?"
"It… it's so dark!" Ash exclaimed. His voice echoed through the night and bounced off the trees. Then, his shoulders tensed. Began to shake. "Everything looks so different… I don't know where we are!"
It came out as a sob. Cam winced.
Ash buried his face into his arms. It barely did enough to muffle his whimpers.
Cam watched helplessly – he'd never seen Ash cry before. Even when he fell from a tree branch or fell face first into the mud, he'd brush himself off and get up with a grin.
He needed to do something, anything. But what?
Cam crouched down in front of his friend. He hesitantly reached forward and untangled the other boy's hand from beneath him.
"I-It'll be okay," He said, in the strongest voice he could muster. Slowly, Ash raised his head. There was desperation in his teary eyes.
It filled Cam with a strange feeling and he knew.
That he had to be the strong one sometimes.
He held Ash's hand tightly, "We'll find our way back together."