Charlie awoke the morning of the Bunny Festival feeling a little apprehensive. Today was the day to start harvesting the apples in the southwestern section color-coded as 'green'. Yet when she stopped by for one last check before retrieving the ladder and baskets, she stopped dead in her tracks. There were no apples on the branches. Like, literally none. She had spent the last few days nervously eyeing those sweet round fruits, counting down the days until harvest. And now they were gone.
In a panic, she checked the journal she had gotten into the habit of carrying everywhere, just to make sure she was in the right section. And she was—large square plot northeast of the greenhouse. Every tree in that plot had a faded, but still very green ribbon around their trunks.
Looking around showed the other trees were heavy with fruit, but they were the red and pink apples, both in fruit color and their respective ribbons. As much as she wanted to deviate from the routine that had been in place for decades, green was what was supposed to ship this week.
Whatever kind of trick this was, it wasn't a good one. It was messing with her source of income, and a source of goods for dozens of stores in the area.
Looking up suddenly when she heard a short, melodious chirp, Charlie spied some burlap sacks near the sprite hut. The sacks bulged like they were filled with baseballs, each tied off with a purple ribbon. They weren't there the day before. She cautiously approached, tugging the ribbon away. Her eyes widened when she saw what was inside: green apples. The next sack was the same, full to bursting with ripe, freshly picked green apples.
"What in Erde's name…?"
She looked at the journal and then stared hard at the hut. Had the sprites finally come back? There were no footprints, definitely a crapload of small fallen branches, and no fruits dropped at all on the ground. The apples had been gathered and neatly placed into bags…almost by magic.
It had to be the sprites.
Crouching to get a better look at the little constructs, Charlie gingerly pulled open the door attached to the front of one. And inside she saw…nothing. Nothing but empty space and the hard-packed plot of dirt upon which the construct sat.
"Maybe they 𝘢𝘳𝘦 just shy…"
Closing the door, she stood and turned to the sacks.
The sprites were the only ones she could think of to do this, and in such a short amount of time. Without magic, picking, bagging, and placing said bags of literal thousands of apples would have taken a normal, full crew of people over a week. She'd last checked on the trees before bed the night before, so not even twelve hours had passed. She wasn't upset the sprites wouldn't show themselves, just curious. And ever-so-thankful.
She tossed the journal back into her small messenger bag and picked up the first sack. It was heavy like she'd expected it to be. With a determined exhale—and a muttering of thanks—she carried it up to the shipping bin.
‡ † ‡
Two hours and a long shower later, Charlie was feeling a lot better. She lost count of how many sacks she had carried to the shipping bin, but it was enough to put a sizeable dent in the pile. Taking a moment to finish the day's entry in her new ledger, she smiled to herself. She had officially started on her first harvest. And the sprites—she'd convinced herself that no one else could have done it—definitely eased the process along.
She made a physical note to speak to Tal later about help with shipping, then a mental one to go to the library. The libraries in Drasil had computers with public internet, so it was her best shot here with how shit the Wi-Fi was. If not, they might at least have a book or two she could check out.
It was so bizarre to her that, with as many times Marianne mentioned them in her journals, there were no concentrated works over them in the house. And aside from the library, the only other place she could begin to think of would be the tower…and that was a dead end. For now, at least. With a sigh, she hoped once more that the immortal within was okay and would wake soon.
But those were issues for Future Charlie. Today, Bunny Festival.
She remembered the event from her childhood. Seeing everyone that now called Miner's Cove 'home' come together for a community-wide celebration excited her. She recalled one of her upstairs neighbors trying to arrange a meet-and-greet in the building shortly after she moved from the suburbs, but they learned very quickly that city residents had zero interest in socializing with others over nothing but proximity. People kept to themselves, for better or worse.
Thankfully that was not the case in Miner's Cove.
Charlie arrived at the village square shortly after the official festival start time and was pleased to see that most of the town had already turned out. Tal was running a shopping stand, and waved Charlie over to offer some new strawberry seeds he'd gotten in stock.
"You haven't lived until you've had a strawberry-apple pie," he grinned.
"Guess I haven't been living, then," Charlie smiled back, gently reminding him of the 'famous' Alavai Pie he made for Griff's birthday one year.
He laughed. "Well, there went my sales pitch. Still, they're limited time only!"
Despite the cliched advertising, she still bought three packets. Might as well try her own hand at that famous pie. She couldn't remember the taste fully, but she did recall making Griff cry when she stole the birthday boy's portion. Waving, she turned to survey the square.
A massive spread of food was displayed across two tables, with Cal running between them stirring dishes and fiddling with hot plates. Troy was positioned suspiciously close to a large bowl of punch, and Charlie watched with amusement as he stealthily produced a flask from his pocket and poured it in.
Walking through the courtyard, Charlie stopped to briefly chat with a few of the townsfolk she'd grown close to. She talked television with Masae and Sophie, catching up on the latest episode of their favorite crime show, and then played a jump rope game with Nate and Tia.
Jason was predictably being cornered by Hannah, so Charlie didn't bother approaching him. She had no problem with Hannah, but the other girl demanded Jason's full attention when they were together. And as Hannah clearly only had eyes for him, trying to engage either of them was an exercise in futility.
As she wandered about, Charlie spotted a few people she hadn't met. An older woman with an eye patch stood near Tal's shop, picking away at a stone with a rather sinister-looking sharp object. She decided to skip that introduction for now. A man with hair that was longer and more luxurious than her own was in deep conversation with Elizabeth—the young owner of Blue Moon Vineyard just west of the beach—and she didn't intrude there either. Most interesting, and most creepy, was a wide-set woman lurking near the riverbank, watching the festival from afar. Charlie only saw her for a moment though, because when she locked eyes with her, she seemed to vanish into the surrounding flora.
She was still staring in the direction of the river when Griff called to her. She turned to see him waving cheekily, flanked by Ignis and Gabriela.
It's not that she disliked Ignis; he'd just grown so distant and made her ridiculously uncomfortable, and she couldn't tell if he did it on purpose or not. Gabriela, on the other hand, had not made a very good first impression on her. Still, Charlie was willing to give them both a second chance. Griff's is the only friendship that seemed to remain the same, and she didn't want to place any strain on his social connections just because they didn't get along.
She put on a smile and walked over to the group.
"Hey," she said simply.
"How are you liking your first Bunny Festival back in the Cove?"
"It's better than what I remember. Nothing like this in Drasil, that's for sure, and I've seriously missed these little social gatherings," she admitted. "Though I'm pretty sure I saw Troy spike the punch, so that's concerning with the little kids here."
Griff groaned. "Not again…" He pulled his phone out of his pocket, texting quickly. "Last year both kids caught a buzz off whatever he put in the punch. Dad's gonna flip out."
Gabriela laughed. "Well, silver lining—if Nate gets drunk, there's no decent competition."
Griff glared at her. "Not funny."
"Jeez, take a joke. I'm just kidding."
"Because making kids sick is such a riot," he growled darkly. Gabriela rolled her eyes and his frown deepened. "Why don't you actually give the kids a chance at the egg hunt this year? You're a grown ass woman. What are you getting out of beating seven-year-olds?"
It was Gabriela's turn to glare.
"It's a competition, Griff. If you always win you won't build any character. Nobody's going to baby your 𝘸𝘪𝘵𝘵𝘭𝘦 𝘣𝘸𝘰𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘳 forever, you know."
And there went the second chance offered to Gabriela. Being shitty was one thing. But being shitty towards kids was something Charlie was not okay with.
"Funny thing," she interjected, "but I think seven-year-olds are still young enough to be babied a little."
Gabriela turned to her immediately. "No one asked the Apple Queen," she snapped. "Keep your big red nose out of it."
Charlie judged her as the type to really hate being mocked, so she just raised her eyebrows and pressed her smiling lips together like she was holding back laughter. It got the reaction she was looking for. Abigail's face reddened with impotent rage, fists clenched to her sides like a toddler throwing a tantrum.
"Whatever. Come find me when you're all not being so fucking sensitive," Gabriela seethed as she stormed off in the direction of the cemetery.
Griff shook his head. "I have no idea what you see in her, man," he said to Ignis.
Ignis had remained oddly quiet during the little squabble, but he looked so tired. Charlie felt like this wasn't the first time a confrontation like this had happened between the three of them.
"Gabby loves rabbits, and she wanted to catch one this year as a pet. You guys messed with her on purpose," he said finally.
"Except she started it," Griff shot back. "Dude, I'm pretty sure she's going to sacrifice the poor thing the second she gets it alone," he added, his face crinkled with worry. Genuine or not, Charlie couldn't tell.
Ignis sighed and rubbed a hand across his face. "I'm gonna go to talk to her. Catch you later."
Griff shook his head as he watched his friend walk away. "He can be so fucking dumb sometimes."
Charlie had no clue what to say to that, so she stayed silent. After a moment, Griff turned back to her with his usual cheer restored.
"C'mon, let's go get some of that punch."
‡ † ‡
The rest of the festival went by without a hitch. Gabriela was suspiciously absent from the bunny chase, much to Charlie's amusement, and Nate and Tia ended up tying for first place. They both beamed with pride as they ran over to show off their new pets, and Charlie laughed and cheered when Griff lifted both kids up on his shoulders for a congratulatory parade around the square. The food was fantastic, and the whole town was in good spirits by the time the festival ended.
Except for Ignis and Gabriela, anyway.
Charlie and Griff were feeling pretty good themselves after indulging in more than their share of Troy's punch. She tried to get the man to spill what kind of booze he'd added, but Troy just grinned and played dumb. Whatever it was, it was delicious. And potent. Charlie didn't particularly want to ride out her buzz alone at home, so she accepted the invite when Griff finally decided to just chill at his house.
They played video games until Griff got tired of getting his ass handed to him by a girl. Then they talked about favorite bands and movies while he messed around in his sketchbook—still working on costume designs—and Charlie thumbed through some magazines. When they retreated to the kitchen for some snacks and something non-alcoholic to drink, Charlie helped put away groceries, which elicited a mixed reaction of embarrassment and delight from Tal.
It all just felt so…normal, so comfortable. It felt almost like home.
They ended up on the couch with a movie when the afternoon wound down and their buzz lightened up. The movie turned out to be a garbage sequel for one of the best eighties' movies, and they were mostly entertaining themselves by mocking it relentlessly throughout. Tal had taken Nate to the park to play, so Griff and Charlie had free reign of the house to be as lewd and silly as they pleased.
During a long stretch of driving scenes that were too boring to even make fun of, Charlie brought up a question that had been on her mind for a while.
"So, what's his deal, anyway?"
"Oh… What about him?"
"He's gotten kinda cold and…shitty. Gabriela, too. Sorry."
Griff sighed. "Well, he changed right after you left. Kinda closed in on himself and wouldn't talk to anyone. But, he's still cool! Sure, he keeps to himself a lot and comes across as an ass, but he's really a good dude once you get past all that. He's just…gotten so quiet and hard to read, so no one really gives him a chance."
Charlie lowered her gaze. She'd expected something like that, but it still hit hard. She, Griff, and Ignis were inseparable, and having such a tight-knit group quite literally torn apart would mentally derail even the strongest of people. They weren't exactly kids, but it still affected them.
"You're right about Gabby, though. She 𝘪𝘴 pretty shitty."
"So, why do you guys hang out with her?"
Griff paused for a moment, and then smirked. "Because Iggy's an idiot." At her confused look, he continued. "He's been obsessed with Gabby for, like, two or three years now. She used to actually be pretty cool, and he had a crush on her for a while, but when she found out the only reason he wanted to date her was to forget about you, she did this whole 'maybe' thing and started leading him on. So, she's been on a power trip playing head games with him since, and he won't listen to reason because over time he convinced himself he's in love with her."
Charlie blinked back her sudden anger. "That's…incredibly messed up. I…I don't—"
Griff waved it off. "He's a big boy. Honestly, now that you're back, I'm kinda hoping he'll see how stupid he's been, but knowing him?" He sighed dismally. "He's stubborn as hell so I don't know if he's ever going to snap out of it. He gets pissed at me whenever I bring it up, so now I just try to keep my mouth shut and deal with her. I don't know what else I can do."
"I can think of a few things."
He shrugged, but Charlie could tell that the situation really bothered him. Scooting over on the couch, she put her hand on his shoulder and gave him a friendly squeeze. He gave her a grateful smile and returned the gesture, pulling her into a warm half-hug. They watched the rest of the movie in comfortable silence, and Charlie walked home feeling better than she had in years.