It began something like this: When Justin woke up that morning, it was just another morning in the month of Sleeping, maybe the fifteenth, perhaps the sixteenth, only a few days before the eighteenth, perhaps. The yellow Mynci yawned and hopped out of bed, hoping for snow, but knowing in Meridell it was a little too late for that. The air was still a bit chill, but nothing worth putting on a coat for.
He went down the stairs and was greeted by two pets much older than himself, a pink Bori who was fiddling with something at the table and a yellow Kacheek who was tossing pancakes at the stove. The Bori looked up when he came down the stairs and smiled at him.
"Hey, Dad," Justin said. Neither one was his father, of course, but they both had treated him like they were: Some years before, when he was just a lost little boy in Meridell, the two--who had owned the farm for years while their parents had still lived there--had taken him in. They'd been like a family since then, so after a while he just sort of began calling them both dad.
The yellow Kacheek also turned and smiled. "Morning, Justin," he said. "Want some pancakes?"
"Sure," Justin said and took a seat.
"Hey, Harls," the Kacheek said to the Bori, "why don't you put that stuff away so we can have a nice breakfast together?"
The pink Bori grinned. "You only had to ask, Mikhail." He gathered the small screws and bolts and the palm-sized assemblage in his paws and started carrying them to a toolbox across the room. "With any luck," he said as he went, "I'll have the new irrigation design finished soon and we can increase the yield of our crops again. We'll be the most productive farm in Meridell."
Mikhail laughed as he plated the pancakes and brought them to the table. "Thanks to your father's work on the Station," he said to the Bori, "farming's already been revolutionized wordwide." The Bori nodded with a wistful glint in his eyes as they both sat down and pulled their seats in. The next instant, the three were digging into their breakfast like children.
"I've got to head into town," Justin said as he and Harls worked together to tidy up the kitchen some time later. "We need more seed, so I better buy some more now rather than wait till later."
"I'll get you some Neopoints," Harls said and started fumbling through his pockets. The Bori pulled out a few coins and passed them to the young Mynci. "Be careful, okay?"
Justin smiled, loving feeling as if he had a father--and not one, but two. Knowing they cared so much for him made him as happy as he could be. He couldn't imagine ever feeling happier.
"I'll be fine," he said with a roll of his eyes as Mikhail came back into the room. The yellow Kacheek had changed into some clothes more fitting of work and was headed toward the door.
"Up to helping out a bit near the southern fence?"
"I'll do it," the pink Bori said. "Justin's heading into town to buy some more seed."
Mikhail nodded and tipped his hat at the Mynci. "Be careful then. See you in a few hours."
Justin nodded and made for the door. He couldn't stand being kept any longer than he had to be. A little affection was welcome, but too much parenting on their part was more than stifling.
Outside he buttoned up his denim overshirt and pulled the sleeves back down. It was hard to remind himself it was still winter; to him it felt more like spring or fall. Nonetheless, the wind was a bit rough today, and he didn't feel like going back inside in the least, so he weighed his options carefully: Walk twice as far around the farms, or just cut through the fields?
His choice was instantly clear.
The wind rushed through his fur as he ran and jumped and pummeled over their crops and then hurdled over the old fence on the eastern edge of their property. The fields beyond were instantly untamed and wild, the undergrowth having taken over some time ago. Soon enough (though longer than that, simply with the passing of time unnoticed) he passed the old ruins of a house that had burned down before he'd ever moved here, and only vaguely recalled the stories he'd heard of it: Apparently a well-known if not quite yet famous Neopian Times writer had lived there, but an incident with a Gallion or some sort had torched the place and they'd moved to Altador. The stories said they were supposed to move back, but then the tales became hazy and ended with dragons in the Haunted Woods. Justin chuckled. Crazy stories were told in Meridell.
He got to the border of the next farm and paused for only a second. He knew the place was owned a by a couple called the Channings, a blue Mynci and a yellow Usul if he recalled correctly, and although his family had met them once or twice at informal meetings, with all the work to be done, farmers were rarely ever very social with each other. Nonetheless, he felt just a little bit guilty for trespassing without permission.
He hoisted himself up and swung his legs over the fence. He landed on the tilled earth leaving only small indents in the aerated dirt, and then started off, walking more slowly than he probably had intended to. He didn't want to disturb their farm too much and he wanted to keep an eye out in case he had to duck for cover at any moment.
This is what happened: Failure.
Justin heard the soft, feminine voice behind him and stopped in his tracks. He imagined the yellow Usul holding a pitchfork, her brow furrowed, fury in her eyes, and swallowed a bit fearfully. Then he imagined something worse: The same yellow Usul, but instead of holding a pitchfork, holding a plate of cookies with which she'd coax him into their house and make him pay for his wrongdoing.
But when he turned around, he was surprised to see someone other than the yellow Usul entirely: A petit pink Xweetok with small round eyes and a slender face whose expression was caught somewhere between surprised and confused.
"Excuse me?" she said again, stretching her neck slightly, leaning toward him even less, looking partly intrigued and partly defensive. "Who are you?"
"I'm, uh, I'm--" He smiled sheepishly. What could he say? I'm a trespasser from two farms over, just a bit lazy on a cold winter day. I'm sorry? It didn't seem appropriate.
"You sorta look familiar," she said, tightening her already tight face and looking over him with a more critical gaze. "Have we met before?"
Justin tried to remember the past few gatherings they'd all gone to: Maybe a harvest fest the Halloween before last, or a conference about varying weather patterns more recently? He was certain, however, that if he had ever seen this timid pink Xweetok before, he would have remembered it.
"I don't think so," he said slowly, still trying to remember what he was so baffled to have ever forgotten. "I'm the kid from the farm a ways up."
"The one past the old Rody estate?" she asked, her voice gentle and soft and supple and oh so much like sweet honey.
"Yeah, that's the one," Justin said, scratching at the back of his neck. "You know, I'm really sorry, I didn't mean to trespass--"
The pink Xweetok chuckled, and Justin stopped talking. He was partly caught off guard at how songlike her laugh was, but also angered at how lightly she took his obvious disregard for rules and the property of others.
Her hand covered her mouth a moment longer, and when she finally stopped giggling, she smiled and said, "It's alright. I've done it, too, farm-hopping." She glanced around as if keeping an eye out for her parents. "It's fun, isn't it? So freeing, right?"
Justin stared at her with his mouth hanging open a moment until he realized he hadn't answered her yet, then he jolted upright and nodded. "Oh, yeah, uh, I was just trying to get to town faster." He had his hand on the back of his head still, laughing more loudly now. He'd never felt this way before. It was like static under his veins, like his seventeen years of living had been compacted into a single second of life.
"Oh," the Xweetok said, her eyes wide a moment as if she had unwittingly shared her biggest secret with a total stranger. She blinked a couple times and smiled more softly again. "Oh, well, could I join you? I was headed that way anyways, when I saw you leisurely trespassing, as you put it." She smiled again, very friendly-like.
"Oh, uh, sure," Justin said, feeling utterly and completely unable to suppress his gigglish laughter again. He'd never giggled or laughed quite like this before. It sorta startled him now that he did.
"So what are you shopping for?" the Xweetok said as she started walking and passed him in his stupor.
"Oh, seed," he said, "yeah, seed. For the birds."
"Your farm raises birds?" She swiveled her gaze back over her shoulder for just the shortest second and then batted her eyelashes.
"Oh, no," he said, giggling again. "The birds like to eat our crops, so we scatter birdseed to keep them off it."
"But then the birds keep coming back again, don't they?"
Justin laughed. "It's an unintentional side effect."
What follows is a series of strange and mysterious things, mostly mundane, mostly the kind of things that are cute to write but trite to read, the sorta thing that young girls and lonely boys often dream of while reading the Neopian Times on Sunday afternoons when all their friends are out playing and they're stuck procrastinating on their homework, left to wonder in their bored aloneness if singularity is truly any less than dualism, if fate is futile or forgiving, if patience is painful or the path to perfection.
This is what follows, only a fortnight and half or two halves thereafter: The calendar rises and falls toward the midpoint of the month of Awakening. The flowers have begun poking their heads out of the glum green grounds of Meridell, have yet to open their eyes and show their faces, are still just bulbs of muted colors in the undergrowth of the wild field. Like most things, their beauty is inherent, but not until the time is right, until just the right amount of sunlight touches them in just the right places, stroking them with summery stillness, will it ever be seen.
Justin has just come down for breakfast. Mikhail has pancakes on the stove. Harls is tinkering with another model for the farm. Except for a small pile of paper scraps on the table and two handmade cards resting atop it, the scene is the same as it is every day. Justin waves hello, waves goodbye, and slips out before breakfast.
Eliana is waiting when he reaches the old Rody estate. The pink Xweetok is where they always are, at the top of the tallest burnt-out staircase, lightly charred, the edges washed away from years of summer rainfall and winter snow. The visage is exactly as it is every day, save for a single detail that makes his heart leap in his chest and his face burst into smiles so wide his cheeks sting. Sitting in her lap, intertwined between her fingers, is a single rose, sticking up to catch the sunlight in just the right way.
Justin rushes up the staircase and pulls her to her feet, spinning her around precariously over the ruins before coming to rest with her at the top landing. He reaches into his back pocket, licking his lips and grinning, holding back his giggling, and pulls out a small trinket box. He places it in her hands, wraps her fingers around its velveteen surface, and promises this is just the beginning.