Author's Note: Well my dears, I'm not dead. I thought about you almost every day! But my life has gotten a bit crazy, as life has a tendency to do. Kudos to FancyFreeThinker101 for giving me a kick in the pants earlier this evening and to Teji for making me melt a little. Sorry to keep you all waiting this long.
Credit to Neil Gaiman's Stardust for a bit of inspiration in the middle of this chapter.
She was leaning forward to dip a finger in the chocolate river when a voice said softly, "I wouldn't do that if I were you."
Amalda jerked her hand back and looked around to see Mr. Wonka standing not far behind her.
"If you read the papers, you remember what happened to the last person who touched my chocolate."
Amalda scrambled to her feet as Mr. Wonka approached, slipping a bit on the grassy slope. His face was a blank mask and she couldn't tell if he was teasing her or not.
"If you don't want people to touch it, you really shouldn't put it in a room where you tell people everything is edible," she said with a nervous laugh.
"Eatable," he corrected, "not drinkable." He stopped in front of her, hands clasped on top of his cane as he tilted his head to look at her.
"That's a silly little technicality to expect everyone to catch," she scoffed. "We can't all be as clever as the great Willy Wonka." Her tone had been light and bantering, but Mr. Wonka continued to simply stare at her. "What?" she asked uncertainly.
"You are a puzzle to me, Amalda McCaine," he said softly. When she opened her mouth to reply, he shook his head and continued. "Two of the women here are looking for jobs, though not the job I have available. One is not interested in a position at all and the last is seeking a position she could never hope to fill. But which are you?"
Amalda realized her mouth was still open and she shut it quickly. Mr. Wonka took another step closer, close enough that she found herself absently noticing the little details she would not have otherwise, such as the exact color of his blue eyes and how she had to look up just slightly to meet them.
"Which are you?" he murmured again, searching her face as if it would give him some clue as to her intentions.
Amalda bit her lip and watched his eyes stray towards the motion. In a voice equally quiet, she replied, "Thus far, you've made it very clear that there is only one job available here and it is not the one the newspapers have been speculating upon so wildly." Her voice dropped to a whisper. "Though now you're starting to make me wonder."
Mr. Wonka raised an eyebrow. "And I've been wondering-"
The lights went out.
In the pastoral setting of the Chocolate Room, it was as if someone has switched off the sun.
The sudden darkness surprised Amalda, but it was the simultaneous shrieks of the other women, one sounding unusually close, that made her jump. While she had been aware on some level that the candy grass was slippery, she hadn't really noticed it until one of her feet skidded out from under her, and then she realized in a moment of panic how perilously close she was to the chocolate river.
Her breathless gasp was lost to her own ears, but somehow Mr. Wonka must have heard it, or else he had exceptional night vision. He caught her elbow in a strong grip and her flailing arm wrapped around his, clinging desperately. "There, there," he murmured as she caught her balance.
Then, absently, "Charlie must be showing them the night settings." She felt more than saw him turn his head upwards. "And he's forgotten that we harvested the stars last week."
"What?" she gasped, feeling completely off balance, literally and figuratively..
She felt Mr. Wonka moving again and then a spritely melody echoed through the darkness. Almost instantly, a light appeared across the room and began moving toward them. As the figure drew closer, Amalda realized it must be an Oompa Loompa. Reaching them, the Oompa Loompa flipped the light in his helmet around to illuminate his face. The shadows cast his face in an ominous leer and Amalda struggled to remind herself that it was only a trick of the lighting.
Mr. Wonka bent down to talk to the Oompa Loompa. "Charlie's showing off for our guests," he explained. "Have you seeded the sky since the last harvest?" The Oompa Loompa shook his head and grinned, looking extremely evil. "The helmet lights need some work," Mr. Wonka murmured to himself. "Bring some star candy for everyone," he instructed.
The Oompa Loompa reached into his pocket and pulled out a bulging bag. Mr. Wonka took it and shook a generous amount of what looked in the dim light like sand into his hand, then passed the bag back. The Oompa Loompa twisted his light back to the front and headed towards where Amalda guessed Charlie was waiting.
"What is that? What's star candy?" she asked curiously.
"Hold out your hand," he told her and Amalda lifted her free hand, the one not clutching Mr. Wonka's arm. He tilted some of the sand into her cupped palm and she was surprised to find that it had a rough, crystalline texture.
"Do I...eat it?" she asked uncertainly.
He chuckled. "Stars aren't for eating. At least, not yet.Lift up your hand, like this." He wrapped one arm around Amalda's shoulders and lifted the other towards the darkened sky. Amalda mimicked his motion, holding her hand up next to his.
"Now, my dear lady," he murmured softly in her ear, causing her to flush in the darkness. "What do stars do?"
Before she could answer he took a deep breath and exhaled the final word in a gust of warm air.
Amalda gasped in delight. As Mr. Wonka blew the sand slowly into the sky, it began to glow with its own ethereal light. It seemed to find its own breeze as it escaped the shelter of Mr. Wonka's hand and floated unerringly upwards. At last, between one blink and the next, Amalda no longer saw a trail of glowing dust but a sea of sparkling stars overhead.
"That's incredible," she said breathlessly.
All around the Chocolate Room, other tracks of starlight were beginning to join Mr. Wonka's. "Now your turn," he told Amalda, and when she hesitated he wrapped his sandy hand around her own, steadying it. "Take a breath," he instructed and she inhaled reflexively. "Now…just blow."
Amalda blew, and it became a hooting laugh as her star candy obediently lit up and began its trek to the sky. The strange noise that resulted from laughing and blowing at the same time made her laugh harder, and the last of her star candy left in small puffs and clusters.
"Well," Mr. Wonka said sounding bemused, "I suppose the Oompa Loompa's will be charting some new constellations."
Amalda looked up and realized that the clusters of star candy had managed to stay together even in the sky. She giggled quietly. They fell into a comfortable silence, standing side by side, staring at the new stars and listening to the murmur of the other women exclaiming over the feat. Their hands were still clasped together, half lifted towards the sky, and Mr. Wonka's hand had drifted from her shoulders to settle at her waist.
The lights came back on, more gradually this time, as if to simulate an actual sunrise, and Amalda and Mr. Wonka became aware of their intimate embrace at the same moment. Before Mr. Wonka could do more than look startled, Amalda was already turning away, studying the grass under the pretense of looking for her shoes. Her face burned with humiliation. She was acting no better than that horrid Mary Sue! She didn't want to see Mr. Wonka's face when he decided to place Amalda in that same category.
She took her time fiddling with her shoes and when she dared look up again, Mr. Wonka was staring out at the chocolate waterfall, hands clasped before him on his cane, seemingly unconcerned. She wasn't fooled.
"Mr. Wonka," she began, and saw his grip tighten on his cane. She chose her words carefully. "I have the greatest respect for you and Mr. Bucket, and would be honored to take any position in your factory that you have available." She couldn't resist adding, "Even if it's only as a...a star farmer!"
Mr. Wonka half turned to look at her, a smile teasing the edges of his lips. He tipped his hat at her and strode away, cane swinging jauntily.
Amalda breathed a sigh of relief and thought that maybe, just maybe, she hadn't ruined her chances.
Neither of them noticed Ms. Mary Sue Weston fuming silently behind the snozzberry bushes.