"Say...Jade?" I put down my cup of tea, surprised. It was the weekend, and Alan had asked if he could keep me company during the morning. He apparently had something he wanted to discuss with me, and so the two of us sat having breakfast in my room.
"I think that's the first you've called me by my name," I noted, smiling.
"I wanted to try it just once, boss."
"Oh? Reverting back to 'boss,' are we?"
"Well, I guess I'm just more used to it at this point." Alan looked down at his own cup, seeming to hesitate for a moment.
"...There was something you wanted to talk about?" He shifted in his seat, his large frame appearing almost nervous.
"The thing is, boss… I've actually been doing some thinking lately, and, uh…" He took the moment of silence to quickly gulp down the rest of his tea, before continuing. "Aren't I… kind of useless?" His face flushed ever so slightly as he avoided eye contact with me, and I observed him quietly, not expecting this scenario.
"W-what?" I stammered out, not being able to hold back my confusion. "What are you talking about?"
"It's just that, I don't really feel like I'm needed here… Chase can make medicine, and Veronica is the one who can find the herbs… and she's not out in the forest all the time, so she ends up just dealing with customers most of the time anyways," Alan replied, rubbing the back of his neck sheepishly. Sighing, I leaned over to his side of the table. He watched me carefully, his eyes widening as I inched closer and delivered a painful flick to his forehead.
"Alan, you should know that you're a crucial part of our team. Always have, and always will be." Obviously not taking my words to heart, he slumped down into his seat.
"Listen," I began, tapping the table to get his full attention. "Everyone has a role to play. And if you'd let me so say myself, you're the best salesman around here. You know what our customers need, and know how to deliver it." He perked up a bit, listening to me. "And you're the one who gives me most of my ideas for new products, you know? You've always reported to me what it seemed like the customers were looking for but didn't have. You're one of the main reasons that our customers are able to come and be satisfied with what they get," I explained, hoping that I was able to reach through to him.
"Thanks, boss," he said, smiling gently. "I guess recently I've, I don't know...I feel like I'm falling behind," he admitted, looking away. A moment of silence passed between us, and I took the chance to think about what he was saying.
"You know," I stood up and walked over to the window. "I used to be the same."
"Yeah." I watched the street below, observing the market stands that were being set up along the street for the day. "When I was younger, I always felt like I was falling behind everyone else. Then again, maybe it was because people had high expectations of me."
"...So what happened?"
"Well, I felt like I was always chasing this ideal...And before I knew it, I realized that I wasn't ever looking at myself at all." I turned to face Alan, leaning against my desk. "I was looking at everyone else, and at the back of the person that people wanted me to be. But thinking like that all the time was exhausting, and I wasn't happy at all." Alan listened quietly, not saying a word.
"So, it might be hard to realize, but I hope you know that you have your own strengths as well. Don't sell yourself short. You're a very skilled and bright young man. And you're one of the most reliable people I know- you've the qualities of a great leader in you." Alan smiled awkwardly, probably not expecting the sudden compliment.
He stood up from his seat. "...Thank you, boss. I guess I have a long way to go, huh?"
"So do I." I gathered up our empty cups and plates and headed to the kitchen sink.
I started running the tap water, bringing out the dish soap to do the dishes. "Yeah?"
"You're… really alright, aren't you?" I put down the plates, stopping what I was doing to meet Alan's eyes.
"What's with you guys lately? You've all been asking that ever since the other day. I swear, I'm completely normal."
He forced a smile my way. "I don't know boss, you've just seemed… kind of different lately. Distant, almost."
"...I'm sure it's just your imagination." As Alan shrugged and left the room, I could feel Jay's presence creep up behind me.
"See? I told you that you're learning more."
"What do you mean? And why do you keep popping up so randomly these days?"
"You just gave your beloved junior some advice from your own experience, didn't you? You hardly were able to say your own name when you first arrived here."
"It was less talking from my own experience… than it was just having this strange emotion."
"Is that so? Well, they do say that memories are the birth of emotions."
I returned to washing the dishes. "Liar." Jay hummed quietly. "I've never heard anyone say that."
"Thank you so much for coming over. I'm sorry to ask this of you when I know you must be so busy as of late," Mrs. Colten apologized, laughing quietly.
"Please, don't worry about something as small as this. You've done so much for me up until now, this is the least I can do. I haven't been seeing you guys around lately, anyways." George laughed at my comment, having excitedly rushed over to the door when he had heard I was coming. Mr. and Mrs. Colten had asked me to help them look for a certain herb in the forest, and since I wasn't opening up shop until the evening, I agreed. I knew what the herb looked like, but I unfortunately didn't have any of it stored at the shop, since it didn't really serve any sort of medicinal purpose.
"My, you're as wonderful as ever, aren't you? Don't worry, though, we asked one of the men here to help out, so you won't be doing all of the work," Mr. Colten assured. It was nice knowing that someone would be assisting me. Who knew how long it would take to find this herb among the many that grew in the forest? Just then, the doorbell rang, and Mrs. Colten hurriedly rushed over to answer it.
"Oh, that must be him!" She excitedly opened the door, and I almost choked on my water when I saw who walked in. He seemed to be just as shocked when he saw me, immediately freezing in place.
"Gray, what are you doing just standing there? Come in, son," Mr. Colten beckoned, laughing.
"Gray!" George shouted excitedly, rushing to his side. "I haven't seen you in forever!" Gray snapped out of his trance and smiled down at George, ruffling his hair.
"Hey, little guy. You've grown since last I saw you." He glanced back up at me, and then looked to Mrs. Colten.
"Uh, so, what's… she doing here?" he asked, obviously referring to me.
"Do you two know each other already? That makes things easier then. Gray, Jade here will be helping you out with the favor we asked of you," Mr. Colten replied, heartily clapping a hand on my shoulder. I could see him suppress the urge to sigh, and he forced an all-too-familiar, kind smile on his face.
"Is that so? I look forward to working with you, Jade." I could hear the awkwardness in his voice, and it made me feel just as awkward as well.
"So do I, Gray," I replied, trying to sound natural.
"You two should hurry along, now. I don't want you two to be out there till dark. Here, take this lunch I've prepared for you and be on your way," Mrs. Colten hurried us out the door as she pushed a basket into our hands.
"Bye Jade! Bye Gray!" George shouted after us excitedly. Just like that, the two of us found ourselves on the street, and we quietly looked at each other.
Clicking his tongue, he grabbed the basket from out of my hands and began to walk in the direction of the forest. I hurriedly ran to catch up, and tried my best to match his large strides.
"Wait for me," I complained, taking the basket from out of his hands. "I'll carry the basket," I offered. He took it back from me.
"I can do this just fine on my own," he said gruffly, slowing down just a tiny bit.
"Don't be like that. I have a debt I owe to the Coltens anyway, so let me help out." He glanced at me curiously.
"A debt?" he asked. A small portion of his coldness began to melt away as his curiosity seemingly took over. Gray was an interesting person, and I couldn't quite pinpoint what he was like. Seeing as he was my age, I wanted to get to know him better. I smiled.
"Yeah. When I first arrived here, I literally had nothing. But when I helped out Georgie one time when he got injured, they helped me get settled into the village. Even if they said that it was in return for helping George, they still did so much more for me than they needed to." I explained the situation, and Gray listened quietly, his eyes focused ahead.
"If you had nothing, then how'd you even get all the way out here anyways? We're in the periphery of the Kingdom, you know. Did you just fall out of the sky or what?"
"Something like that," I laughed. I thought I saw the faintest bit of a smile on Gray's features. "How do you know them?" I asked.
"Thomas told you, right? I grew up around these parts. Everyone here pretty much knows everyone else. Mr. Colten is the village head, and he's helped almost all of the families here at one point or another. Everyone in the village really admires him." Gray's expression softened as he talked about the people of the village, and I felt the affection that he had for his home here.
"I can tell you really care about the village. Don't you miss it when you're not here?" He immediately stiffened up at my words, any sign of him opening up to me vanishing in an instant.
"None of your business," he said coldly, and began picking up the pace. Bipolar much, is he? Well, he doesn't seem like a bad person at all, at least… I rushed to catch up to him once again, and before we knew it, we found ourselves at the forest. I crouched down, examining the foliage in search of the herb we were looking for, but noticed Gray awkwardly standing around.
"Something wrong?" I asked. He looked at me and then looked away, acting as if he wanted to say something but couldn't. No way…
"Gray, do you… know what the herb we're looking for looks like?" I asked tentatively, hoping that that wasn't the case. He stayed silent, opening and closing his mouth as a tint of red dusted his cheeks.
"...No" he mumbled, looking down. I broke out into laughter, unable to hold myself back. His head snapped up at me, and his body began to shake a little.
"Oh shut up, would you?!" he shouted at me, watching as I clutched my stomach. I calmed myself down, and wiped away a tear. "...Just tell me what the damned herb looks like already," he quietly added, earning a few more laughs from me.
"Alright," I said, in between gasps for air. "The leaves are pinnate and come in bunches of three. The individual leaves are sinuate. They usually grow on the ground," I explained as Gray took mental note of what I was saying.
"Jeez, that wasn't so hard, was it? I don't see what's so funny," he complained to himself as he crouched beside me and began to look. He's just like a little kid, I thought to myself, slightly amused.
"I mean, you should've asked before," I said, smiling. "Sorry for laughing. I just thought that you're kind of funny." I looked to him for a reaction, and he refused to spare me a glance, waddling over to a different area of the ground. Pft, he looks funny like that.
"Whatever," he said, his hands searching through the foliage.
"Oh, wait. Take this," I said, holding out a glove to him. He turned to look at me, taking the glove in his hand and examining it. "I didn't know that you were gonna come, so I only brought one pair. But you can wear the right glove if it fits okay. It should be pretty stretchy. It'd be bad if you got hurt on some of the thorns and branches here." He struggled to fit the glove around his large hand, but eventually got it on.
"What the heck?! It's so small!" he exclaimed. I almost wanted to laugh again.
"Your hands are just too big. I'm glad you were able to at least get it on," I retorted, pulling the left glove onto my own hand.
Gray sighed as he got back to work. "Thanks."
We worked in silence afterwards, and when we eventually were able to find and gather enough of the herb we were looking for, we headed back to the Colten house. I looked up at the sky, the sun still high up among the clouds.
"How much time do you think passed?" I asked, kicking a pebble along the road.
"Who knows." Gray replied, yawning. He seemed tired, and I could say the same for myself.
"Oh well then." We arrived at our location, and the door immediately opened for us after we knocked.
"Have you two finished? It's been about two hours since you left," Mrs. Colten said worriedly, looking at us. Two hours? More time than I had thought.
"Yep. We put the leaves in the basket you sent us off with. Lunch was delicious, by the way." I smiled as I handed her the basket, and Mrs. Colten seemed pleased as she took a look inside.
"Thank you two so much. Could I invite you in for some afternoon tea? We just had some cakes delivered from a few towns over. It's such a wonderful treat."
"No worries, Mrs. Colten. I'm always happy to help." There was Gray's kind smile once again. "I'm afraid I'll have to decline the offer, though. I really should be heading home now. Have a good day, and please give my regards to the rest of your family," Gray declined, slightly bowing his head.
"Well if you say so, Gray. Tell your mother I said hello, won't you?" Mrs. Colten called out as Gray began to leave. He nodded in response and eventually faded from view. "And will you be joining us?" Mrs. Colten turned to me.
"Actually… I did have something I wanted to tell you and your husband...So I think I'll accept your offer, if you don't mind," I said, hesitantly stepping inside as Mrs. Colten beckoned me in.
"Please, if I minded, I wouldn't have offered," she laughed, leading me into the living room. Mr. Colten was seated there, reading the newspaper. George was seated on the floor nearby, reading a book of sorts. When they noticed my presence the two of them got up to greet me.
"Hello there, Jade. I heard your conversation from here. Please make yourself comfortable," Mr. Colten stated, motioning to a seat across from him. I gratefully took it, and smiled as George made his way over to me.
"Jade! Did Gray not come with you?" he asked, looking up at me.
"He said he needed to go home," I answered, patting him on the head. He looked a bit disappointed, but immediately perked up again.
"So? What brings you here?"
"She'll be having some tea with us. And it seems as though Miss Jade has something that she wants to tell us lot." Mrs. Colten carried a tray filled with tea cups and plates of cake, and my mouth began to water at the sight of the sweet dessert. Stop it, Jade. Don't forget the reason why you're here.
"The thing is…" Mr. Colten put down his newspaper to listen to me, and Mrs. Colten gingerly took a seat beside him. "Actually, I… I think I'll be leaving the village soon. And I thought that I should probably tell you all, since you've helped me so much ever since I've arrived here."
"Y-you're leaving?! When?! Why?! Did I do something wrong?!" George wailed, jumping up and grabbing my hand.
"Georgie! Calm down, for heavens' sake!" Mrs. Colten reprimanded, before turning to me and taking my other hand into her own. "But Jade, you're leaving?! When?! Why!? Did I do something wrong?!" she asked anxiously, her wandering eyes searching for an answer in my own. I laughed awkwardly, and Mr. Colten luckily came to my rescue.
"Honey, Georgie, give her some space to breathe and I'm sure she'll give her reasons." Mrs. Colten and George reluctantly let go of my hands and slunk back, both looking at me with expectant gazes.
"So? Why must you leave so suddenly? It's not even been a month since you've come here." Mr. Colten leaned forward in his seat, his hands folded together as he waited for my response.
"The thing is, for me it's already been a month… I'm… not really supposed to be here at all."
"Where will you be going?" Mrs. Colten asked worriedly.
"To be honest, I was offered to open up shop in the Royal City-" I began, before being cut off my George's gasp of awe.
"The Royal City?! I've never even been there before! I've only heard the stories that Gray's told me!" he exclaimed, eyes sparkling in wonder.
"You're not joking, are you?!" Mrs. Colten also expressed her amazement, and even Mr. Colten seemed to be at a loss for words.
"Truth be told, though, the Royal City is only a stop along the way. I'm…" I paused, wondering how to word my next thoughts. "I'm making my way back home."
"What about the shop?" Mr. Colten asked, taking off his glasses and resting them at the coffee table.
"About the shop, you know I have my workers there, right? I was thinking, if they were up to it, they could take over operations…" I trailed off, glancing down at my hands. "I haven't been here long, but… I really have grown attached to the village of Meril, after all. And of course, I'll miss everyone here who's helped me and encouraged me all this time." I smiled sadly to myself, thinking that I'd been able to meet many different types of people here in the mere span of a month. "But in the end, I really do have to leave."
The Coltens stayed silent as they listened to me, and I was almost too nervous to look up. What's their reaction..?
"Jade," George's voice broke through the quiet. "You're really nice." I looked at him, confused.
"You… helped me even when you didn't know me. And you always listen to my stories and answer my questions… and you're helpful to my parents, too, and your shop does a lot of good for the village…" his voice seemed to waver slightly, but he continued on. "I… don't want you to leave, but…" he turned his face to look up at me, his eyes teary. I realized that my own eyes had begun to tear up. "If you look that sad right now, then I think you should go home and be happy." George smiled up at me, and I let out a hoarse, quiet laugh. I gently laid a hand on his head, and smiled down at him, thankful for the young boy's understanding.
"Haha, Georgie… you sound all grown up now, don't you?" I whispered, willing my voice not to crack.
"I suppose we couldn't've said it any better ourselves," Mr. Colten chuckled. Mrs. Colten once again took my hand in her own, and nodded at me understandingly.
"You go do what you have to," she said warmly. "And know that you're always welcome here if you ever feel like coming back." Even though I knew that once I left this village, I'd probably never come back again, I couldn't help but answer earnestly.
When I told Mr. Mantrey that I was accepting his offer to go the Royal City, he told me excitedly that I had made the right decision, and that I wouldn't regret it.
When I told Chase, Alan, and Veronica that I wanted to leave the shop to them, they were at a loss for words. They were utterly shocked, unable to form comprehensive sentences until they finally pulled themselves together. Then came the barrage of questions, concerns, tears- and finally, they'd come to terms with it, and told me that it would be their pleasure to take over the shop in my place.
When I told Mr. Rudeforth, he smiled sadly.
"I'm glad you've come to a decision."
When I told Jay, well, I didn't really need to tell her.
"So, you're finally ready to move forward?"
"If you can call this moving forward, then I guess so."
I saw something from the corner of my eye, and I froze in place, too surprised to speak. "W-who..?"
"Hm? Oh, can you see me now?"
"Jay? Is that you?" I asked, reaching out shakily to the phantom-like figure. I couldn't make out a face, but the hazy and translucent image of a person floated about the room happily.
"How perfect. It seems as though you're progressing quite well, if you can see me." I watched in silence, not sure what to make out of the situation.
"I can feel my presence grow stronger with each passing day. And that means that I can do something for you that I wasn't quite able to do before."
I finally found my voice. "...And what is that?"
"Well, if you want to take a step toward the future…" she giggled.
"...Then you should probably take a look back on your past."