"Does this Spring Festival seem a little duller than last year's to you, Hannah?" I asked, plopping down beside my friend with a heavy sigh as I ran my fingers over the orange in my hand.
"Not really," Hannah replied, sipping at her drink as she recovered her breath from the last dance.
I sighed at her response. Deirdre had said the same thing when I'd asked her earlier, though she'd added that I was a fool for even thinking it was duller than last year. Of course, Deirdre was probably biased since Dominic had managed to make the journey from his enclave in time for the festival after all. Deirdre's been head over heels for him pretty much since she stopped thinking boys had cooties and it was clear he loved her just as deeply. It honestly wouldn't surprise me if he asked her to stand before the oak with him at some point this evening, which would make Deirdre's response about the general dullness of the festival doubly suspect.
Idly, I started to peel the orange in my hand as I watched the next dance starting. I tossed the rind into the pile with the rest of the garbage and pulled apart the sections, popping one in my mouth. Much to my disappointment, the orange was a bit on the dry side. I suppose I shouldn't have expected to pick a good one when I haven't chosen an orange for myself in a while. Not since I figured out how good Archer was at finding the juiciest ones anyway. It was much easier to swipe his, since he only gave me a token protest anyway.
"You know, you might have a bit more fun if you danced with somebody," Hannah suggested lightly, when I sighed again as I ate the last of the orange.
"I'm supposed to watch Cayden for Giselle, so she can have a dance or two with Alrich," I said absently.
I figured I wasn't missing much on that count since I'm not a very good dancer anyway, and Giselle loves it when she has a chance. Plus it would give me time to spend with my nephew and Cayden is as much of a watcher as I am right now. If he was even still awake, that is. There was a good chance Giselle would simply be passing over a sleeping toddler by the time she wanted to dance. At not quite two, Cayden tends to fall asleep fairly quickly, even with the extra noise from the festival.
"Just because you have to watch Cayden later doesn't mean you can't dance now," Hannah pointed out, "I'm sure Siefer would dance with you and you haven't seen him in ages since he missed the last festival."
"I don't have to dance to talk with him you know," I said dryly, giving her a crooked grin.
"Then maybe I'll go ask him to dance since he's looking a touch lonely over there," Hannah commented, gesturing toward where Seifer was standing near the end of the buffet table, nibbling on some bread and cheese as he surveyed the mob of dancers.
Seifer hadn't grown much since the last time I saw him. He was still about my height, though his work with the enclave smithies had clearly helped fill him out a bit. The new depth of shoulders suited him as did the more reserved demeanor he'd adopted since the start of his apprenticeship. He still showed flashes of the clown he had been for years, but it really seemed like he was growing out of his pranks, though he could easily be lulling us all into a false sense of security on that count too.
"Go ahead," I said, waving her toward Seifer.
Hannah gave me a searching glance before wandering over to Seifer's side and asking him to dance. He smiled and offered her his hand to lead her out into the cleared dance area. It was almost a shame that he was one of my matches instead of hers. Seifer was one of the few people I'd ever seen that could get a rise out of the normally rock steady, unflappable Hannah.
By the time Hannah returned, breathless and slightly pink in the cheeks a couple of sets later, I'd found myself a new orange. This one was slightly sweeter than the last, but still not nearly as good as the ones Archer picked. I ended up giving half of it to Hannah, who gave me a very odd look since I rarely shared my oranges. Before she could ask me about it though, Cale came over to us.
"Vala, would you do me the honor of a dance?" Cale asked holding out a hand to me and giving me his most charming smile.
"Thank you for the offer, Cale, but I must decline," I replied giving him a small smile.
"Please, Vala," he asked, thrusting his hand closer to me, "Just one dance?"
"I don't want to dance, Cale," I said, pulling away from him a bit, my smile fading.
He'd asked me for a dance nearly every festival despite the number of times I've turned him down. I had thought that maybe he'd have learned by now that I watch the dancing, but I don't participate. Now it seemed I was going to spend another festival trying to find new ways to tell him no on top of being dissatisfied with the festival already.
"What's so wrong about a dance?" Cale pressed, his smile taking on a more brittle edge as he reached for my hand.
I was a bit shocked that he might actually try to drag me out with the rest of the dancers. He hadn't ever physically pushed the issue like this before. Considering he was both bigger and stronger than me, I would have to make a pretty huge fuss to keep him from succeeding and that would interrupt everybody else's enjoyment of the festival.
"Nothing. I just don't want to dance," I said coldly, twisting my wrist out of his reach and moving to place Hannah between me and Cale.
Hopefully Hannah would forgive me for using her as a shield. I could see in her eyes that she knew exactly what I was doing and while she didn't approve, she didn't say anything either.
"I'm only asking for one dance," Cale said, trying to move around Hannah. "I don't think that's too much to ask since you are one of my matches."
"Don't be silly," I said in exasperation. "Just because you're one of my matches doesn't mean we have to dance, especially since I don't want to dance at all. So stop asking."
Cale gave me a rather dark look before turning on his heel and stalking off without another word. Clearly he was less than pleased with my choice. Hopefully that meant I wouldn't need to fend him off again later. Despite how long he'd been my friend, for some reason he hasn't figured out that I don't dance.
"Why don't you dance with him?" Hannah asked quietly, once Cale had moved off.
"You know I don't dance, Hannah," I replied, still feeling mildly annoyed over Cale's behavior, "I never really have considering how bad I am at it."
"That's not true and you know it, Vala," Hannah said darkly. I was a little shocked that she'd addressed me that coldly so I remained silent as she continued. "You've danced with Archer every Spring Festival since you were nine, at the very least, and I know I've seen you with him at some of the other festivals and celebrations too."
"That's different," I said. "I only danced with him because he conned me into it after I pushed him in the lake to prove that we were still friends."
"And how many years in a row has he let you push him in the lake?" Hannah asked, giving me a rather pointed look.
"He doesn't let me push him in, and it's only been a few times," I said stubbornly. There was just no way I could have pushed him into the lake as often as she was suggesting.
Hannah held up her hand so she could tick her points of on her fingers, "The first year you pushed him in because Deirdre and I dared you to. You pushed him in again the next year because he teased you for not being able to go five minutes without talking about your sister and the baby she was expecting. You knocked him in playing tag the year after that, though you insist that doesn't count because you fell in too. When you were twelve you pushed him in because he was being patronizing. At thirteen you tripped him because he said you couldn't do it. Last year you knocked him in so you could steal his orange. And that doesn't address the incidents that weren't around a Spring Festival, but perhaps you'd like me to continue listing things off for you?"
"It doesn't mean anything. Archer and I are just friends you know," I said to keep her from continuing as I suddenly realized that I had probably pushed Archer into the lake as often as she was accusing me of and listed out like that, the reasons I'd had at the time didn't sound nearly as reasonable any more.
Hannah looked at me for a moment, before saying, "I can't believe you're still telling yourself that."
"What are you talking about?" I asked feeling suddenly confused.
"You keep telling yourself that your just friends, but really, Vala, don't you think maybe your problem with the festival isn't because it's duller than last year, but because Archer isn't here to keep you company?" Hannah asked, standing up rather abruptly.
"That's not true," I protested, but it sounded weak even to me.
Hannah gave me an exasperated look before turning and walking away, catching Deirdre by the arm before she could ask what we'd been arguing about. I couldn't help but feel a little betrayed by Hannah's words. She'd never been so cold to me and implying that I was bored because Archer wasn't here was just wrong. My life didn't revolve around Archer. Before I could really contemplate Hannah's words, Giselle came over to me with a sleepy Cayden in her arms and Alrich trailing behind her.
"Will you be alright to watch him for a while?" Giselle asked as she passed her son over to me.
"Don't worry about me," I said, smiling at my sister as I tucked my nephew's head under my jaw, smoothing down his unruly blonde curls in the process. "You know I don't dance anyway, so Cayden and I will be just fine watching. Right, Cayden?"
The two year old burbled at me and waved his fists at his parents for a moment, before seeming to loose interest and going back to his drowsing. I kissed him lightly on the forehead and settled him more comfortably in my arms. Cayden might be a bit late on learning to talk, but he was still a sweet kid. Giselle watched us for a moment before smiling and mouthing a thank you as she let Alrich take her hand. They were soon lost among the chaotic swirl of dancers, though every time I saw them I couldn't help smiling over the pure joy on my sister's face.
Cayden fell asleep in fairly short order and neither Deirdre nor Hannah came over to sit with me for a while, leaving me with nothing to do but consider Hannah's words and watch the festivities. For some reason, Hannah's comments just wouldn't leave me alone. I knew she was right about how often I had apparently pushed Archer in the lake. I'd never really thought about it before since it had always seemed like the right thing to do at the time, almost as if it was a game we played. He would torment me until I pushed him in the lake, we'd laugh about it, and he'd ask me for a dance to prove that we were still friends.
I couldn't even put my finger on why I had agreed to a dance with Archer to prove we were still friends either, considering how hard I usually worked to avoid dancing. It had just seemed like the most natural thing in the world to agree to his request. Now that I thought about it, I was fairly certain the idea of actually giving him more than a token protest about my inability to dance had never even crossed my mind. Not once in the six years since the first time he'd asked. Even the protest seemed to be part of the game since Archer had always grinned at me and replied that he would be happy to teach me.
It was a little unsettling to realize just how easily Archer had been able to get me to dance when Cale, who had been my friend longer, hadn't been able to. Especially considering I hadn't even noticed until Hannah pointed it out to me. Even more confusing was that I couldn't even bring myself to really mind either. I'd enjoyed myself at the time and there was a part of me that, oddly enough, looked forward to the next time. I wasn't sure if I liked that or not since Archer and I had always been just friends.
"Vala," Alrich called, interrupting my thoughts. "You look a touch down, is something wrong?"
"It's nothing," I said, forcing myself to smile at him.
I would just have to find a way to enjoy myself without Archer being present. It wasn't like I needed him around after all and really we were only friends no matter what other people might say. With that in mind, I resolved not to think about him any more and just enjoy the festival.
"I'm sorry Archer didn't make it to keep you company," Giselle said softly as she took Cayden back from me.
"Why does everybody think I'm sulking because he's not here?" I demanded crossly, my resolve to avoid thinking about Archer already crumbling as my sister echoed Hannah's earlier words. "Never mind, I don't want to know. I'm going for a walk."
Before Giselle could say anything further, I turned around and stalked away from the crowd of people that had gathered at the commons. At least if I was by myself, people wouldn't keep pestering me with these absurd comments about missing Archer. Because really, the comments had to be absurd, since they seemed to imply that the fact that I missed my friend held some deeper significance.
I let my feet carry me where they would and eventually found myself standing beside the lake watching the moonlight reflect off the black waters. It seemed I couldn't get away from the lake even without Archer around to dunk. Sighing over my poor luck to end up in a place with so many memories of the person I was trying to avoid thinking about, I picked a tree and sat down under it. Of course, after I sat down, I realized it was the same tree Archer had taught me to Focus my sorcery under. I just couldn't win tonight it seemed, if even the landscape was conspiring to remind me of my absent friend.
With a resigned sigh, I allowed myself to wonder what Archer was doing tonight. I hadn't seen him in nearly six months now and had only had the occasional letter when one of his older sisters came into the enclave. The letters usually didn't say much as he seemed to have his hands full looking after his mother and younger sisters after his father died in a hunting accident of some kind. I'd written back a couple times, just to keep him updated on what was happening in the enclaves, but it wasn't really the same as seeing him in person.
Allowing my hand to drift to my pocket where I kept Archer's most recent letter, I allowed myself to admit that I probably did miss his company this year. I'd gotten so used to Archer being around that it felt strange to go to a Spring Festival and not have him chiding me for stealing his orange or making me dance with him because I'd dunked him in the lake, or for that matter, helping me fend off Cale when he wanted a dance I wasn't willing to give him. But surely all that could simply be missing a dear friend couldn't it?
Satisfied that I had a reasonable answer for Hannah's accusations I relaxed a little and allowed myself to hope that Archer was happy wherever he'd ended up for the festival. And perhaps next time he was here, we could enjoy the festival without me being immature enough to dunk him in the lake before hand. After all, I couldn't imagine why he'd put up with me pushing him in as much as I had and now that I'd realized what I had been doing, perhaps it was time to stop tormenting Archer. He was, after all, a very good friend and deserved better from me.
Even as I resolved to not push Archer into the lake again, I couldn't help the slight pang of regret. There was a part of me that didn't want to give up the game that kept insisting this was something special that I shared with Archer. Squashing such childish sentiments, I tried to remind myself that it really was well past time I stopped playing such childish games. Certainly the council trusted me to be more mature about things since they'd asked me to companion a young sorcerer until she acclimatized to our ways, and she was supposed to arrive with some of our hunters in a few weeks. It didn't help make the pang of regret or the sense of loss over my choice any less though, and it certainly didn't help the fact that I was still stuck missing Archer right now.