With those deceptively simple instructions, Elliott set the rhythm for the days and weeks that followed. Rhys got up; ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner; worked in his garden; and sold vegetables and flowers to Pierre. He ran small errands for the other villagers; won a prize at the Stardew Valley Fair; and still went to the saloon every now and then. On the surface, he fell into the same patterns as he had when he’d lost his mothers, and then Eileen: he crowded work and life into every waking moment, edging grief into margins and corners. You don’t get my life, he told his sadness. He ceded only the liminal spaces: the boundary between waking and sleeping; the daydream that seized his heart with sorrow before he could call it back.
The difference, this time, was Elliott. Before, Rhys had been alone. Here, he had a manic-haired writer who showed up to chivvy Rhys away from his fields and tools and into town, into company; who dropped off barely edible quiches and casseroles that didn’t force Rhys to eat, exactly, but did motivate him to start cooking again, so that Elliott would stop. And it was Elliott who got the name of a therapist from Harvey, and insisted that Rhys talk to someone. “This isn’t just about Sebastian, Rhys,” Elliott had said. “I think it goes deeper than that.”
And he’d been right. Sadness, Rhys was learning, was a wall with a crack in it. He’d done nothing but throw coats of paint on it for years, hoping to hide the fact that the crack was widening. He’d been exposed, now, and he was forced to shore up the foundation before the whole thing crumbled to the ground.
The therapist was in Zuzu City, which wasn’t ideal, but he let Rhys do most of his sessions by phone or video chat. And every few weeks, when Rhys caught the bus into town for a face-to-face appointment, the city was its own kind of therapy—a reminder of what he’d left behind, and what he’d chosen. What he still chose, every day, even if he chose it alone. And then Rhys would sit in his therapist’s office, in a comfortable chair, in a room bright with windows, and talk until he felt a little better.
There was one thing he held back, however; one way of grieving he kept from his therapist, and even—maybe especially—from Elliott: Rhys was spending too much time in the mines. Before Sebastian told Rhys about the origin of the monsters, Rhys had gone to the mines only out of necessity—when he needed ore, or stone to repair his fence, or the gemstones that would temporarily fill his coffers as he saved to upgrade his chicken coop or add on a room to his house. He didn’t like the gloom, and he hated the monsters that blended in with it, slipping out of the shadows to make Rhys fight for every inch of ground he gained.
Now that he knew the truth, though, Rhys went back whenever he could. He missed Sebastian, whom he saw only across the crowded saloon, or walking between Sam’s house and the mountains, a fae apparition with hunched shoulders. He would nod at Sebastian, then, and Sebastian would nod back, heartache sparking between them like a live wire. And then Sebastian would be out of sight, and Rhys would be alone, even when he was surrounded by his neighbors.
It was only when he was in the mines that he felt close to Sebastian. Rhys knew how stupid it was, how misplaced, to think that fighting the monsters Sebastian made when his subconscious was broken open by sleep did anything to help Sebastian himself. But somehow, Rhys felt like it did. He felt, for a few moments each day, like the knights he’d read about in storybooks when he was younger. Picking up his sword and stepping into the darkness was an act of devotion for someone who would never see it, and probably never learn of it, either. It was a way of fighting for Sebastian that Sebastian hadn’t allowed him in real life, and Rhys craved it. Rhys didn’t know what it meant, that a man who had once faced such danger reluctantly now sought out monsters with the single-mindedness of an addict looking for his next hit. Sometimes, though, he felt a kind of kinship with them, even as he struck them down—these citizens of the shadows, these expatriates who had also been exiled by Sebastian’s loneliness and distress and fear.
It was small wonder, then, that Rhys snatched at time in the mines the way a drowning man scrabbled for a rope thrown from shore. Today, he’d finished his work on the farm by early afternoon, and he’d headed straight for the mountains, barely taking the time to exchange his ax for an obsidian sword. Fall had just given way to Winter in Stardew Valley, but Rhys set out with only a light jacket, which he left at the entrance to the mines. The floors he was currently exploring were warmer than the outside air. They were warmer, in truth, than the hottest summer day Pelican Town had to offer; tropical and ravenous with magma streams belching steam that could burn skin if Rhys got too close. It was easy to lose track of time, here, where everything was fire and shade, and maybe that was partly the point—he traded his dream of a life with Sebastian for the hours and minutes of his actual life, the seconds slipping through his fingers like Rhys was a fairytale prince in a bewitched sleep. This time, when Rhys remembered to check his watch and headed for the ladder, later than he’d intended to be, there was a shadow shaman blocking his exit, delaying him even further. When he finally overcame the shaman and stumbled from the mines, bloodied and exhausted, night had fallen, as it did earlier and earlier each day this side of the new year.
Looking back, Rhys would think how foolish he was; how he, of all people, should have known what darkness meant, and been on guard for it. But Rhys was tired, and bruised, and heartbreak bored into his bones with a ferocity that left him hollow, and so he’d sheathed his sword long before he crossed his property line, and stowed it deep in his pack. Without a weapon at hand, he was defenseless when the bats fell on him from above, screaming and diving at him with teeth and claws outstretched. It was almost laughable, how close he was to safety, the roof of his cabin in sight, its windows glowing with light and a promise of warmth. But Rhys couldn’t get there, as hard as he fought, and this time when the blackness descended, it was total.