Miriam had no point of comparison, so she still wasn’t sure if doing awkward and uncomfortable things was a part of all friendships or if this crap was exclusive to her friendship with Pinn. She sure hadn’t accepted the invitation to dinner with him and his family for her own sake.
The only sounds in the room were the clinking of forks and the sound of his mother’s (piercing, grating ) laugh, directed at the giant bearded former Baron, whom Pinn had pegged as his father without any real certainty or enthusiasm. The chipped plates were stained with sauce from the dish that was supposedly Pinn’s favorite but which he ate with the same gusto usually reserved for gruel.
Onion casseroles and birthdays, it turns out, suck in exactly the same way: Disappointing and make your heart hurt afterwards.
The Baron (it was far too late in the evening to ask what his name was) had only given them a curt “Hello” when they arrived and Miriam never had much to say anyway, so most of the talking had been between Pinn and his mom.
And then just his mom.
Then no one.
Miriam had sort of expected the family birthday traditions to be as ridiculous as the birthday boy himself, and a low-key affair should have been a relief. A low-level anxiety had pooled into preemptive second-hand embarrassment, and had now congealed into heart-stopping awkwardness. Only...the wrong kind of awkwardness. Instead of playing games that would brand Miriam with permanent humiliation burns if news got out she was participating, they were all just sort of sitting around a table, the only sounds being the clinking of forks on porcelain.
The Baron cleared his throat and tapped his fork on his glass, snapping Miriam out of the rapidly-complicating process of deciding how mortified she should be. He then stood, and when he spoke it almost sounded like it hurt, like a muscle had cramped somewhere in his voice box and he failed to properly stretch it out. Slowly, deliberately, he spoke:
“Well...I would just like to say that today marks the 17-year anniversary of a very, very special day in all of our lives.”
Nobody else spoke. Pinn’s eyes betrayed startled bemusement, darting this way and that until, finally, they hazarded a guess. “Um...My sixth birthday?”
More silence. The Baron’s eyes remained locked with Pinn’s.
“...Aren’t you 17?”
After a moment, the Baron sat back down.
Miriam’s hand met her head halfway to the table, her fingers locking into a white-knuckled grip on her hair. If her aim had been a little to the left she’d have torn out an earring. Pinn noticed, and Miriam pretended she didn’t notice they noticed, glancing away and down to her glass of wine. The temptation to pick it up and drain it was strong, but everyone else settled into uneasy quiet, Miriam left with nothing to really think about except the beginning of the day.
It seemed like it could never rain in Chismest on Miriam’s first visit. Now it seemed like it would never stop. The thin covering of dusty grey snow had been traded for rain that looked like mist and stung like frigid needles, causing the last mile or so of their flight to take a turn for the uncomfortably soggy.
“You could have said we’d need ponchos.” Miriam held her arm up to her face, one eye squinched shut, as the Bard huddled under their capelet.
“Heh. Sorry! I kind of forgot what Chismest was like in the spring.”
“Well, it’s just rain. It’s nice. Or,” the Bard hummed a meandering tune, “it’ll bring nice things later. Like flowers and frogs!”
Miriam considered this. “I don’t think I saw a single flower bed last time we were there.”
“Oh...right...” Pinn didn’t continue. Instead, they continued humming, formless notes in uneven rhythm that never resolved itself into a tune. Miriam couldn’t count herself as a student of human behavior, but then, Pinn wasn’t exactly a poker player. Her friend had been nice enough to announce, however wordlessly, that they were a nervous wreck.
Suddenly, Miriam was blind. A particularly precise raindrop hit her eye and the broom juttered to the side. She heard a yelp from Pinn as she struggled to right herself but she over-corrected, sending the broom teetering like a log in a river. With a mighty heave she pulled the end of the stick upwards, the new direction cutting the momentum of the old ones. Her heart pounded in her ears as the broom evened out in the climb, gasping for breath.
Then something landed on her head with a wet splap.
Looking straight up revealed a wrinkled green brim and a drooping feather. Looking behind her, she saw Pinn with a sheepish goobery grin on their face.
“That’s...a nice thought,” she said, “but your hat is already soaked. It’s dripping down my face.”
Pinn’s face fell, and she...well, Miriam never backtracked when she spoke her mind, but her relationship with the weird bard had already been full of second thoughts. What’s one more? “It’s fine. I can deal as long as I don’t go blind again.”
Flying with two people was still an adjustment, but Miriam was getting the hang of counterbalancing the turning to the weight and a moment later it was as if she’d never lost control at all.
“We’re going to look like crap for your parents, you know that right?”
“Yeah. Mom won’t care though. She’ll just have us dry off by the furnace.”
Miriam clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth. “Sure. And your dad?”
Pinn shrugged. Miriam assumed, anyway. She felt them shuffle behind her and when they spoke next there was a distinct uncertainty in their voice.
“Uh...I honestly have no idea!”
More backseat shuffling, like they were fidgeting. Miriam glanced back and, yep, they were pulling at their capelet and kicking their ankles together.
“Well...remember the letters I sent you about coming?” She nodded, and Pinn continued. “Okay, so...between then and now I kind of...sort of...found out that my dad is The Baron."
If Miriam could have stopped dead in mid-air without immediately dropping out of the sky…her mouth hung open for a second, the strength of her grip suddenly threatening to snap her broom in half.
“The Baron! Remember? The factory owner who-”
“I know who he is! The same guy who left you when you were a kid to make a stupid toy that ruined your hometown!”
“Well!” Pinn’s protest had taken on a childish whine, “He’s back now, right? And he said he wants to get to know me, so-!”
“So, after 23 years he thinks, oh yeah, I have a kid, let’s see how they’re doing! I haven’t done that any of the other times it mattered, but hey, let’s check up!”
The two of them sent each other letters whenever visiting was out of the question, and Miriam was certain she had all of them somewhere. She was equally certain that, in every single one, they’d never said a word about who their father was, just that he...existed. And just now he had decided to be part of his child’s life as if it was no big deal.
Pinn folded in on themself, drawing their knees to their chin. Which was no small feat on a broomstick. “I...no, you know what? I’m going to give him a chance.”
“What a surprise.”
“No, I mean it! I don’t know how to run a business! Maybe it really did take that much time to build everything!”
“He was still only like a block away! Didn’t he ever stop by to eat? Or sleep? What about your mom, didn’t she-”
“Miriam, drop it? Please?”
Miriam closed her eyes -not for more than a second, she still had to drive- and sighed. “I...OK. Sure. If that’s what you want, fine. I’ll play nice. I promise.”
They didn’t want to talk about it. That was fair. It was their right. They just wanted to have a nice normal relationship with their dad, because that would somehow make up for nearly a quarter-century of silence. Miriam...could only guess she understood, in a theoretical kind of way. It wasn’t like she was going to get the chance with her own parents, and even though she stopped believing they’d come back-
Nope. No. Birthday mood, remember? For Pinn. So she flew them there in silence and smiled when she walked in and sat back and ate bad casserole even as the awkwardness soaked into the walls and floor and she sipped wine she’d prefer to chug and watched as nothing happened in a way that made her feel buried alive.
“It is nice to have the whole family back together, isn’t it, muffin?” Pinn’s mom was saying and Pinn was pleasantly mm-hmming back. “I’m sure you and your father have so much to say to each other after all these years!”
Miriam looked between both Pinn and The Baron and nearly dropped her fork when it hit her: They didn’t. Pinn adjusted their seat, scraping it across the kitchen tiles. The Baron made a noncommittal grunt. Pinn smoothed their hair back (“No hats at the table, muffin!”) The Baron coughed. No one said anything.
Say sorry, Miriam thought, as if she could will The Baron into doing it. Say you’re sorry for not being there. Pinn isn’t going to get angry for their own sake, but you could pretend to care even a little bit.
Instead, The Baron said: “...You were at the factory when it was shut down.”
“Oh, ha. Yeah.” Pinn’s eyebrows furrowed, and their smile became ever that more pinched. “I was.”
The Baron took another bite. “Perhaps you’ll be pleased to know that I have the plans for another toy.”
Miriam felt restless, and she leaned her cheek on her hand. Then she moved it to cover her mouth, cupping her palm so her whispered voice would carry to Pinn and only to Pinn. “Whoooooooo caaaaaaares?”
It earned her a tap on her shin from her friend’s foot. It might have been a kick, if they had been capable. “Oh! That’s...nice.”
Huh. Suddenly Miriam’s glass was empty. How’d that happen? Equally as suddenly, her glass was being whisked away by Pinn’s mom with a “let me get you some more, dear!” and she was left to watch the spectacle without distraction, no matter how much she wanted one.
“The factory has been converted into a scientific center, but I believe I have isolated the problem with my original plan: Variety. I believe now that happiness cannot come from one thing, but many.”
Pinn chewed lazily. “Maybe so!”
“And I’d like you to be part of it.”
Pinn stopped chewing. Because they were choking. Miriam herself felt bereft without some wine to spit, but not having it gave her the ability to whack Pinn on the back with her palm. When they could breathe again, the both of them fixed the Baron with a stare. Hard on Miriam’s end, befuddled on Pinn’s.
Miriam felt something in her gut twist, uncomfortable. Enraged. Seething. Play nice, Miriam. Remember to play nice. You get to sit here and watch the Baron perform some deranged reverse fire sale on his child’s affection but. Play. Nice.
“Excited, are you?” said the Baron, “I can hardly blame you. I have plans to reopen the gift store as a toy store. Perhaps later we will expand from there.”
“But...why me? I don’t know anything about business!”
The wine was back, and Pinn’s mom took her seat. Miriam switched from “sipping” to “swigging.”
“You brought that mob into my office to inform me that I was on the wrong path. You must have a skill for leading people. That’s something this new family will need in our mission to bring joy to-”
Maybe it was the wine. Maybe it was the word “family.” Maybe it was a hurt that bubbled in the back of Miriam’s brain that pushed the words to the front of her mouth, but they seemed to leap out of her, unbidden and uncontrollable.
“But not something the old one needed, huh?”
“Miriam!” Pinn whipped around to face her.
“Oh c’mon! Are you even listening to this?! He couldn’t be bothered to see your entire childhood but now that you’re useful to him? He can’t wait to get to know you!”
The Baron cleared his throat. “Young lady, I really don’t think-”
“Miriam, it’s not that big of a deal! Really!”
“Yes, it is! He doesn’t even know you and he’s trying to trap you in his freakin’ office-dungeon like you wouldn’t just suffocate in there! This isn’t an offer out of the goodness of his heart! It’s him just doing the same thing that didn’t work the first time and he knows it!”
The Baron was silent, expressionless. Pinn’s own expression was somewhere between concern, shock, and profound discomfort, and Pinn’s mom had escaped to the kitchen. Miriam felt out of her own control, as a thousand hurts and ugly thoughts snowballed into a wall of anger that she wasn’t sure was about the Bard or Baron anymore. All she knew was the Baron’s blank face was making her angier to look at by the second. And so she stood.
“Some birthday. You’d think a hero could get some actual respect from their family but I guess that’s too much to ask. Thanks for dinner, but I’m full. I’ll be waiting outside for whenever you’re ready to go home-”
She threw open the door and was suddenly illuminated by lightning. The needle-mist rain had turned into an implacable torrent and Miriam felt stuck holding the door. She heard Pinn’s voice call her name, and even though casserole sucked, it was probably better than the crow she was going to be eating the rest of the night.
“...I...can’t fly in this.”
She heard shuffling behind her, and when she glanced back, she saw Pinn’s mother carrying a tray of cupcakes, pretending that absolutely none of that had just happened.
“Doo hoo hoo! You can’t go yet! We still need to sing Happy Birthday!”
And then it was 10:00. Miriam was laying on the couch without sleeping. When she closed her eyes, they itched like she had no eyelids. So she stared at the ceiling, counting the ghosts of ash stains, and wondering why she was the way she was. That little voice in the back of her mind wouldn’t leave her alone on a good day, but on a bad night, it made her want to cut her own head off. Complicated thoughts compressed into a simple You suck Miriam , endlessly repeating . Something upstairs was bumping around, and she knew it was Pinn because of how rhythmic it was. Not enough to drown out her own mind, but interesting enough to distract it. Shuff , went...maybe the sound of picking up cardboard? Then thump thump thump, then whumph . They were...moving something?
Well, she wanted to talk, she just didn’t want to talk about what needed to be talked about. This was a much better alternative. She heaved herself off the cushions and stepped heavily up the stairs, only to be immediately barricaded by boxes. One of the boxes was open, and when she peered inside, about 50 pairs of creepy eyes stared back.
“Does your dad have a plan for dealing with his leftover Happy Kids? Because if it’s not ‘burn them,’ I have a suggestion.” Pinn came through the door to their bedroom and Miriam found yet another reason to be mad. “Did he just store all of those in your room!?”
Pinn looked at Miriam, then at the box in their arms, then back at her.
“...Yes. But! He didn’t know I was going to stay over tonight.”
“That’s not an excuse! He should be up here helping you clear this junk! Move over.” And Miriam pushed past her friend, into their room, and grabbed a box off their bed. But when she exited the room, they were staring at her in a way she could not begin to read.
“He’s...old. And it’s not a big deal. Really, it’s-”
“Pinn, stop it.”
Pinn dropped the box in a stack in the hallway. “Stop...what?”
“Stop-” Miriam was going to have to start planning her sentences, and by extension, her feelings all the way through. “ Augh, I don’t even know! Making excuses for him? Acting like you haven’t been acting like you’re acting?”
“I...I really have no idea what you mean!”
“C’mon, are you seriously going to make us go back to that...thing? That thing where I have to have all the feelings and you just bottle everything up until it all breaks? I thought your birthday would be the one day nobody could get you to shut up but...you haven’t even sung anything all day! That’s worrying.” Miriam squeezed one eye shut, as she often did to relieve stress. “For literally anyone else, it’d be normal but...”
Pinn broke their gaze to look at the floor as they went to grab the last box on their bed. “...Miriam? How do you do it?”
Yet again, Miriam had been completely knocked off balance. Though this time she didn’t have any idea how or why. “What?”
“That thing where you just...I don’t know! Feel things.” They crossed paths in the door, and it felt like Pinn’s words were daggers in her ear, even though they weren’t shouting in the slightest.
“Back in Chaandesh you asked me how I was so happy and I told you it was hard but...this is hard too. You know, feeling the way you’re supposed to feel and everything.”
Miriam leaned against the doorframe, arms folded, but instead of irritation, her posture had given over to complete bewilderment. “OK, I don’t have a clue what you’re talking about. ‘Supposed to feel’...what, exactly?”
Pinn rubbed at their shoulder, where his capelet would usually cover. “Do you remember, back in Rulle? When you told me about your parents?”
Oh. Oooooh no. “...Yeah.”
“I know how you feel about them, and...when I learned my dad was back I kept thinking about what you said and how you felt about your parents and...” Pinn sat on their bed, hands folded between their legs. “I still don’t know. I thought that I probably should feel lucky that he was still here. It scared me to think I could ever feel that kind of anger towards someone who was trying but...I don’t. But I don’t feel happy either. He’s just there. And I can’t find anything in” -they tapped their chest, right over their heart- “here. I should be mad, or sad, or happy but even if I dig I can’t find it.”
The uncomfortable awareness she was gaping at them like a fish mixed with a hot feeling in her gut and bubbled up to her throat. For all of that, she had no idea how she felt right now. Was she angry? About to cry? Not knowing felt like she was trying to ride a wind current into a tornado.
“You- That’s not- Are you seriously asking me how I’m the worst part of myself like it’s a good thing!?”
“No! I mean, you just... feel things! You don’t worry about your bad feelings being who you are or that having them makes you bad! And then you can stop feeling those things when you’re done, or...use them to keep going! I don’t know how to do that like you do.”
Pinn didn’t set the box down until they’d sank to floor, drawing their knees up to their chin in the classic Sad Bard pose. Miriam picked at a thread on her elbow, and then pulled herself upright.
“Oh...” Her feet felt like lead as she wandered over to the wall by where Pinn was, leaned against the wall, and sank to the ground right by their side. “Nobody has ever described me that way before.”
Mean. Ill-tempered. Nasty. Those words she was used to, she could handle that. Not for the first time, she felt far, far away from home. They sat next to each other for a few moments.
“I promise I’m not bottling anything up, Miriam.”
“You literally just were and have been all day.”
“Oh. Um, are we in a fight?”
“Oh! Good! I don’t really know how to do that either.”
“I’m sorry I lost my cool tonight.” Pinn opened their mouth, but Miriam cut them off. “And do not say it’s OK.”
“ Augh! No! Not this time. This time you are going to hear my lousy stupid feelings all the way through before you try to make me feel better!”
Pinn put their hands up in front of them and said nothing more. So Miriam took a deep breath, hissed it out through her teeth, and then:
“You are way too good for this, OK? You’re too good to be worried about a guy who can’t even get his mind off toys for a second to remember how old you actually are, even if he is your father. And I know that caring about everyone is kind of your whole thing, but...you don’t have to. You never have to! And that’s why it’s so good that you do anyway. But! You want this guy who left your mom and you as a baby to feel like he wasn’t wrong to do it? My parents did the same thing, and I’ve held that against them for years, and and now you’re asking how to be a petty jerk about it because you think there’s a certain way you “have” to feel? And I can’t figure it out except I keep flashing back to a certain bard at the end of the world that said ‘Oh Miriam, I don’t matter, it’s everyone else that’s important.’ And just...stop it! Stop trying to make your emotions fit comfortably into everyone else’s and just feel what you feel! You know you aren’t going to work in his new shop, and you know he doesn’t need you to, but you never stand up for yourself! You let people walk all over you and it pisses me off to think you still think you aren’t good enough. You are! Even if I didn’t see it when we first met...you’re enough. That’s how you saved the world. And why...are you smiling?”
They were smiling, a big ear-to-ear grin that couldn’t be a worse match for the tears that threatened to spill from her eyes. She barely remembered what she said now that it was out in the air, but she knew it wasn’t the kind of dressing-down you smiled about.
“Was that high-pitched squeaky voice you did supposed to be me?” Pinn said through barely-contained laughter.
“I couldn’t imitate your voice if I tried,” muttered Miriam, drawing her own legs to her chin, “It was more your...essence, I guess. Glad you think I’m such a comedian.”
“Was-” Pinn looked up at the ceiling, a toss of their head that looked almost reflexive, “Was that really what I was doing? Trying to appease him?”
“I didn’t realize.”
“You do that sometimes,” said Miriam. A moment ago she’d felt like she spent all her emotions for the next decade, but it was still coming. Around Pinn, at least, it was getting easier. “Try to make yourself small so other people can have more room.”
“Thank you, Miriam.”
“Really! For...being the first person to ever tell me that. I mean, I want everyone to be happy. I do. That’s why I wanted to be the hero, but...I didn’t want to save the world because it was perfect. I wanted to save it because it...was. And it’s OK the way it is. And I guess I didn’t realize all that until now.” They closed their eyes. “I’m glad you told me.”
The knotted emotions in Miriam’s chest seemed to untangle, just a bit. “I still think your dad’s a total jerk who neglected you for no good reason, but...I guess...I kind of see where you get some of this? Trying to bring happiness with factories and singing are pretty much the same. You know, if you run with them off a cliff and die.” She cleared her throat to move the lump. “And you know what else I think? It wouldn't really have mattered who raised you. You're just too weird to be anyone but who you are.”
Pinn didn't wait even a full second before throwing their arms around her neck and pulling her into a hug. She snaked one arm around their waist and clasped their wrist with her other hand, feeling oddly pleased to realize she no longer hesitated to return their hugs and- yep, there it was: a bubbly giggle from somewhere deep in his throat, both unbearably dorky and unaccountably endearing.
“You take the weirdest things as compliments,” said Miriam.
“Coming from you, I know they are,” said Pinn, “And you aren’t petty or bad for feeling the way you feel about your parents, OK? You’re as much a hero as I am. We’re just...different. I’m glad we’re different. And I’m glad you came.”
“Yeah. Me too.” They stayed that way for a few more moments before Miriam pulled away. “You know, we still have an hour and a half before it’s not your birthday anymore.”
“Oh! That’s true!”
“So what do you want to do?”
“I hadn’t thought about it!” Pinn looked at their shoes for a second, deep in though. “Um...I guess...I’d like to go dancing?”
“What a surprise,” said Miriam, smiling.
“I bet we can find a club!” Pinn hopped up. “Hey, we might even run into the band from Delphi!”
Miriam stood up too. “Probably not, but...who knows? Anything can happen, right?”
The accidental maze they’d made of the boxes held them up for a second, and Miriam found herself at the top of the stairs, with her foot resting flat on the bottom of a pile of boxes. Pinn’s smile was bemused, but still there.
“I’m gonna do it,” said Miriam.
“It’ll wake my parents.”
“That’s the idea.”
“I’ll just pick them all up.”
“Not if I drag you out of here first.”
“You’re not going to do it.”
Miriam was silent. Then she moved her foot away from the boxes. “No,” she said, “I won’t. But thinking about it makes me feel better.”
“Well…” Pinn shrugged, “Thinking’s OK...right?”
“Yeah.” said Miriam, “Thinking’s OK.” And they went down the stairs and off into the streets, faces glowing in the lamps the rain hadn’t put out.