CHAPTER ONE: "JACK"

Jack Hill was sure that hell was constructed of white pressboard cubicles and lit with dim florescent lighting. It had to smell of stale carpet and old coffee and it sounded of the hum of phones, computers, and printers. It was populated by bloated, un-impressible micro-managers and simpletons who would rather undercut you behind your back to try and pull themselves just a little higher than you in the boss's eyes, rather than have an open dialogue with you when there was a problem.

Jack had been climbing the corporate ladder since he was 18 and he was convinced that the devil wore a tie, sat at a desk, and was balding.

There was no explanation to why his life was so miserable. Inside his workspace at WingUS, his entire life from 7 to 4:30 was a nightmarish compilation of boredom, tedious work, and joyless co-workers too busy trying to make themselves higher in the eyes of their boss.

It was as white-washed and PC as a company could be. Motivating pictures or funny comic strips weren't allowed after Jim Decker posted a political carton that offended Tim, who was of the opposite political spectrum. Radios were allowed only if everyone could agree on one station. Also impossible. Where one person liked the Top 40, another liked soft-airy classics of the 60s, 70s, and 80s. For every country fan there was someone who liked hip-hop. And of course, Kross, the delivery boy, blared thrash metal when given the chance.

Computers were company owned and internet service was restricted so badly that the only website they could effectively use was Wikipedia and Jack was certain he had memorized all of it by now. He knew the entire history of the world-including the intricacies of the Chinese Dynasties and Russian politics-as well as every current serving congressman and Senator and their opponents in the last elections.

Daily, he had a total of three hours worth of work to stretch over a 9 hour day. He had the initiative, the drive, to succeed, but he floundered in an environment that was as toxic as a landfill. In a normal company, he could ask for more work, more responsibility. But here, under the watchful eyes of Mr. Pennington, not a thing was done that his boss couldn't help take credit for. Being unable to Do something to the benefit of the company without Pennington's involvement was something that had kept Jack down for years now.

And it was pissing him off.

He was constantly overshadowed by people with half his experience and a fourth of his brain power. But those people knew to get chummy with the boss. Jack had never wanted to play office politics. From the time he was little, spending summers at his grandfather's farm, he had been instilled with a work ethic second-to-none. He came to work early, left late, finished his projects with minimal issues and had thus far never come into conflict with anyone.

This was both his greatest strength and most glaring weakness. He was content to keep his head down, never complain, and do his work. But in the corporate world, his stoic manner and never questioning his superiors meant they could treat him any way they wished without reprisal.

Much as he wished the opposite was true, Jack found himself relegated to the company doormat. Whenever someone monumentally screwed up a project, they would find the easiest way to tie to project to Jack and spin it around to where it was his fault. Mainly, he knew, the solid chewing out he would receive meant he would stand there and take the most brutal dressing down seen outside of a military boot camp.

And he took it. He had fought and struggled for so long that he couldn't afford to compromise his position at the company. His raises were miniscule and his praises were non-existent. Not once in his five years here had he been thanked for a job well done-not even so much as a pat on the back.

He wanted to leave, but the economy was terrible. Jobs were scarce. Besides, if they even suspected he was looking for another job, they would can him.

So he was stuck, sitting in a tiny cubicle, staring at a computer, with a coffee cup that was always too empty for his liking. But walking to the coffee machine meant the risk of interacting with the snobs, the brown-nosers, the shameless hussies, and Kross, the son of C'thulu, destroyer of worlds.

But here, encompassed in his world of torment, was Jack's one saving grace. The one thing that had helped him stave off his world of white collar hell in the concrete depths of WingUS.

He took it home at night, but snuck it in during the day in his lunch bag. A small potted plant. A normal green plant with no buds and only four green leafs. He watered it at home and let it soak up daylight on the balcony. Here it brought color to a colorless world and made him think of better times on Grandpa's farm.

The work had been hard and Grandpa didn't seem to know what child labor laws were, but there was always a moment of the day, when his work was finished, when Grandpa would look at what he did, nod in approval and say "Good job, son." Pride would beam through him before Grandpa would tell him to stop grinning like a fool and get back to work. He had a weird sense of humor like that. The first memories Jack had were being dropped at the farm. He was a as unsure of Grandpa as Grandpa was of him.

Grandpa's first words to him were: "I am in charge all of the time. If, for some reason, I'm not here, then the dog is in charge."

It wasn't perfect and there was plenty to dislike when he thought about it, but he wouldn't have traded those summers for the world. His heart always warmed, thinking back to that one summer and one girl in particular, holding his hand and cutting through to his heart with those eyes.

Eyes that were alive and full of love. He had never forgotten them.

"Hill."

Spoken with no emotion, the flat tone nevertheless turned Jack's insides to a rigid knot. He had been contemplating recently a gathering of gray hairs at his temples. At 23, he felt like a withered flower under a glaring sun. He was constantly fatigued, needed a bellboy to carry the deep-set bags under his eyes, suffered from stress migraines.

And Mr. Pennington was the source of it all.

He was a petty man, no doubt about that. He knew he had Jack by the short and curlies and exploited it to no end. He couldn't even give him the common courtesy of calling him by his first name. He never passed up an opportunity to assure Jack of where he stood in the company pecking order.

"The Dunham File is due on my desk by Friday." Mr. Pennington, a short, shred looking bald man said. "I've told you about not using condenser files on cases like this. Don't make me tell you again."

"Okay." Jack said, simply.

"I mean it. Don't screw this file up or it's your ass."

His boss left as easily as he had come. It was a simple thing, but in essence, he had ruined Jack's week. The Dunham File wasn't due for another two weeks and now he had half the time to finish it. That meant working at home over the weekend...Oh sweet lord, this was going to ruin him for the next two weeks. He felt a terrible burning in the center of his nose. In no time, it had spread to his forehead and temples. A stress migraine hit him full on right in the middle of the day and he did what he always did: sucked it up and went back to work.

He suffered. And no one noticed. What he wouldn't give for a sweet summer's breeze and a warm hand in his.

At least he still had his sweet release tonight. Even though, he needed to work on the file all week and the weekend, he would make tonight's date. One good relaxing evening before he put his nose back on the grindstone to no benefit.

Not for the first time, Jack hated his life.

XxXxXxXxXxX

Author's Note: Something of a non-traditional opening to a Harvest Moon story. I hope you stick with it because I promise some excellent storytelling, drama, a few laughs amongst friends, and the promise that in spite of life's unending tribulations, an act of love will always defeat an act of hate.

FYI, if you're concerned or wondering about the pairings, please refer to my profile for the answer.