When the letter comes to the house, Caroline is shocked. All of their mail is usually for Pierre, supply forms or Head of Household things, or for Abby, her little magic magazines or a video game she’s ordered from the city; Caroline can’t remember the last time a piece of mail that wasn’t spam came in for her.
“What’s in the mail, dear?” Pierre asks as Caroline brings the whole stack into the kitchen. She sighs when she sees that he’s already begun eating, despite how she had asked him to wait for Abby. He has to open the shop, Caroline knows that, but he can’t wait five minutes to have a family breakfast?
“I got a letter,” She says, then flushes at how excited her voice sounds, like she’s a child on Feast day. “It’s from the Farmer.”
Pierre hums, disinterested. “Anything for me?”
“Ah, yes, sorry. A seed order form for next season.” She hands the booklet over and Pierre is easily absorbed by both it and his breakfast. Caroline doesn’t sigh, not aloud, but she does allow her shoulders to rise and fall before she leaves the room to remind Abby to come eat. It’s not like Pierre is looking at her anyway.
She doesn’t open the letter until later, after the store’s opened and after Abby’s left for the Museum, not because she’s ashamed or because it’s a secret but because it just seems like it’s something she should do alone. Like it’s private. She’s sent the Farmer letters before, with recipes and tips, but the Farmer’s always seemed the type to prefer face-to-face communication and she’s certainly never heard of anyone else getting anything in the mail from them.
Caroline, the letter reads, ink dark and deliberate but still a bit messy, letters flowing into each other in a half-cursive script like the Farmer’s hand couldn’t keep up with their thoughts, Sorry I can’t ask you in person, doing some stuff on the farm, but would you like to come over today at 5? It’s okay if you can’t, I’m just making a new recipe and wanted you to try it first.
Caroline reads the letter twice more before refolding it and tapping it against the countertop, thinking. Tonight… Well, tonight was going to be like any night: she’d cook and eat dinner, have some tea and read a book, try to get Abby to take her online classes seriously or wear something with a bit more color or stop doing all that occult nonsense or something. The only blip in her monotonous life is what topic she and Abby argue about -- that, and the Farmer’s visits, recently. There’s a part of her that wants to cling to that which is comfortable and routine but the more Caroline thinks about it, the more appealing it seems; she hasn’t had someone cook for her in a long while, and she’s never been out to the farm. Besides, she and the Farmer are friends now, right? She’s been to dinner at Jodi’s plenty of times, and though those were joint family dinners with Abby and Pierre and Jodi’s Sam and Vincent, this is barely any different. It wouldn’t be difficult to make food enough for two and put it in the fridge, She reasons, Surely even Pierre can work the stove well enough to warm up a tray of cheese and cauliflower.
She nods, final, and pops into the store to tell Pierre of her decision. He’s talking to Harvey and when he sees her, he holds up a hand in a clear wait a moment. Caroline frowns but stands beside the counter as the men finish their business and their chatter, an obedient wife.
“Yes?” Pierre asks when Harvey leaves.
“I just wanted to tell you that the Farmer’s invited me to dinner.”
“On such short notice? We’ll have to decline, I was going to do inventory tonight-”
“No, dear,” Caroline interrupts, rolling her shoulders back to stand straighter, “They invited me. I’m going to go over, this evening, I’ll leave dinner in the fridge for you, okay?”
Pierre makes a face, nose scrunching and corners of his mouth falling. “When did they ask that? I haven’t seen them in today.”
“They haven’t been in, but that’s what the letter was about,” Caroline says, then, when Pierre continues to look confused, she clarifies, “The letter I got this morning. It was from the Farmer, remember?”
“Oh, yeah. That.” Pierre says. Caroline can see that he obviously does not remember. She takes a breath in through her nose.
“I was just letting you know what I was going to do. I’ll write heating instructions and leave them in the kitchen but, if all else fails, you can put it in the microwave, it just might get a little mushy.”
Pierre makes another face but Caroline doesn’t give him a chance to argue, retreating to the kitchen to make dinner so she can have enough time to get ready before heading out.
When she leaves home at 4:30, pinning a note on the fridge to remind Pierre how to warm up their dinner, she walks down the dirt-trailed path towards the farm and realizes that it’s been ages since she’s been out here, out of the town center in general, really. When she and Pierre first moved to the Valley, she remembers going on long walks, through the forest and down the beach, up to the mountains and following the winding of the rivers; now, she spends her days either at home, in the square talking to Jodi and Evelyn, or at the community center. Time has made me boring, She thinks with something close to regret, wondering what the bright-eyed girl who used to sneak out to the Wizard’s tower in the evenings would think of her now.
As soon as the farm is in view, the Farmer is as well, leaning on the side of their house and absentmindedly fiddling with something. When they see Caroline, they put whatever it was into their ever-present backpack and jog out to meet her at the path.
“Hey,” They say, grinning, “You made it.”
“How could I not, with such a kind request?”
“You’re the kind of lady that deserves a kind request,” The Farmer says, and Caroline blinks in surprise but feels her smile grow all the same. The Farmer looks away, rubbing at the back of their neck. “Anyway, I’m about ready, but I’ve got to grab something from the coop first. You can come with me if you want.”
Caroline does want, so she follows the Farmer and lets them open the gate for her as they enter the livestock area. When they enter the coop, Caroline almost takes a startled step right back out the door; it is one thing, she discovers, to know that there are going to be chickens in a place, but it is something entirely different to suddenly be in a small room full of chickens.
“Oh, don’t worry, they don’t bite,” The Farmer says, sensing her reluctance. They pause and continue with, “Well, most of ‘em don’t. Mind that black one in the back, though I’m sure Voidy will be on her best behavior.”
The black chicken clucks loudly, almost in argument, but stops as soon as the Farmer sends her a sharp look. The whole exchange is enough to make Caroline laugh and snap from her nerves. She kneels and runs her hand through a happy blue hen’s feathers and when another chicken, this one white, comes over to investigate and Caroline pets her as well. She lets herself enjoy how the chickens shake their feathers as she strokes them and the low contented coos they make.
“Got it,” The Farmer says finally, returning and offering Caroline a hand. “I’m sure the girls are enjoying your attention, but you’re mine tonight.”
Caroline’s face flashes suddenly hot at the certainty in the Farmer’s voice, at the cocksure tilt of their smile, at the rough callouses on their hands as they pull her up with an easy motion and a bit too much power, causing her to stumble into their chest. She stills in shock for a moment, just a second, but it’s a second where she’s pressed against their work-hardened muscles, close enough to share the same air. The Farmer’s eyes are bright even in the dim light of the coop and Caroline’s pulse kicks up as those bright eyes soften. Then, quick as it had begun, the moment is gone and Caroline clears her throat and takes a step back.
“No need to apologize,” The Farmer assures her, and they hold the coop door open and the chickens back as she leaves.
Stepping outside helps clear her head a bit and she’s thankful for the cool evening air. The Farmer leads her back to the house and asks her to wait while they duck inside, so Caroline takes the time to press a palm to her still-quickened heart. What is up with me? she wonders. She figures that she’s probably just oversensitive; Pierre’s been so busy with the store, especially now that Joja’s closed, so someone paying as close attention to her as the Farmer does is obviously going to be a bit flustering. Especially when they’re that strong, She thinks, then immediately squeezes her eyes shut and shakes the thought away. The Farmer emerges then with a wicker basket on one arm and they refuse Caroline’s attempts to hold it.
“It’s rude to make a lady carry her own dinner,” The Farmer says, though they do offer their hand out to Caroline again. She doesn’t think she’s held hands with a friend since her childhood but Caroline takes it anyway, feeling the back of her neck heating up as the Farmer smiles softly and squeezes her hand.
The Farmer swings their attached hands gently as they walk further into the farm. They tell Caroline more about the chickens, about the kinds of crops they're growing this spring, and about how they’re experimenting with different types of jam.
“Once I get the sugar levels right, I’ll give you a jar,” They say easily. “What’s your favorite fruit?”
“Ah, I suppose I like apples, but really, you don’t have to-”
“I won’t do it if you don’t want any, but it’s not about ‘having to,’” The Farmer cuts in. They give Caroline an assessing look before shrugging and looking towards the darkening horizon. “I want to. I’d like to do nice things for you, if you’d let me.”
“I- uh,” Caroline swallows thickly, self-conscious and blushing. “That’s incredibly kind of you.”
“I already told you, you deserve kindness,” The Farmer says simply.
They don’t look back over to her, but their grip on her hand tightens slightly, comfortable and secure. They walk in easy silence until they reach their destination at the farm’s greenhouse. Inside, it’s nearly balmy and the air smells like fresh fruit and something else, familiar and pleasant to her. She can’t place it until they make their way around the towering blueberry, tomato, and grape plants and she finally sees two whole rows of valuable planting space taken up by her favorite flower, as well as the red-check blanket spread out next to the plants.
Caroline runs forward, unable to contain her excitement, and runs a finger down the petals of a particularly bright blue summer spangle. “These are out of season! How did you get them?”
“I asked the traveling merchant. I was going to just grow them and give them to you, but then I got this recipe and Abigail mentioned-” The Farmer cuts themself off, flushing. “Anyway, they’re for you, or, uh… I could keep them growing here if you'd like, and you could come by anytime to see them.”
“I grew them for you,” The Farmer says again. They take her hand and pull her towards the blanket, putting down the basket as they sit beside Caroline. “Now, this is my first time making this for someone else but all the ingredients are fresh, so…”
They push the basket towards Caroline, watching her intently as she opens the lid. When she does, she almost immediately drops it to bring her hand to her face, covering her shock-opened mouth. “You-”
“I can’t promise it'll be any good,” The Farmer is saying as they open the basket and remove the tupperwares of fish tacos by themself, red to the ears. The tacos smell delicious when they open the lids, like the sea and sun-warmed wheat, and they look even better. “No Gus-quality guarantee, but I tried my best, and-”
“It’s perfect,” Caroline interrupts, voice still muffled by her hand. Her heart feels full and light like there’s a balloon of pure happiness behind her ribcage, and she shakes her head in disbelief. “This is all so wonderful, I- I don’t know what I’ve done to earn this and I know you’re going to say it’s just a kind thing but this is- Perfect. This is just so perfect.”
Caroline drops her hand, letting it fall atop of the Farmer’s own, and the Farmer startles a bit. They look at her, eyes wide and face flushed, and Caroline feels her cheeks start to hurt because of how wide her smile is. I must look so silly, She thinks, An old lady like me so emotional over something like this, but still she can’t quell her joy.
“I,” The Farmer starts, eyes darting around Caroline’s face. They turn their hand under Caroline’s until they’re holding hands again, this time with fingers intertwined. “I’m glad you like it.”
“I love it,” Caroline confirms and pulls the Farmer in for a tight hug, pressing her face into their neck. When she pulls back a bit, arms loosely around them, the Farmer is still looking at her with that same wide-eyed wonder and it reignites her own embarrassment. “I’m sorry,” she starts, “That was-”
She doesn’t get to finish her sentence before the Farmer cuts her off, not with words but with action as they close the scant space between them and kiss Caroline, a soft press of chapped lips against her own. Caroline, for a moment, kisses back; she’s so full of joy and love, and the Farmer’s lips feel so right against her own as her eyes slip closed and her body presses closer that it takes a second for her brain to catch up. But as soon as it does, she near throws herself away, half-crawling off the blanket and directly into the bed of flowers that had so overjoyed her earlier. Her hand comes back up to her mouth, covering not happiness but horror now as the lightness in her chest turns into a churning weight in her gut. The Farmer looks just as shocked as she is, though the recognition doesn’t make her feel any less sick.
“I didn’t mean to-”
“I should go,” Caroline says over whatever apology the Farmer is trying, standing and brushing her skirt off. “I mean, look at the time! It’s so very late, and I’ve been at your farm for some time, and I really need to get home.”
“My family-” Caroline starts, only for the words to stick in her throat. She clears throat, ignoring the embarrassed and guilty sting of her eyes, and continues, “Pierre and Abigail will be waiting for me and I really shouldn’t have imposed on you like this.”
“You could never impose,” The Farmer says, mouth twisting sadly as they stand. Caroline takes another stumbling step back, feeling the stem of a flower snapping beneath her shoe, but they don’t try to cross the distance she’s put between them. “I shouldn’t have done that, but Caroline, you’re always welcome here.”
“No, I,” Caroline shakes her head helplessly, wipes a desperate hand at her eyes, “I don’t think I should come over again.”
The Farmer nods dolefully and takes their own steps back, gesturing at the blanket. “Take a taco at least, please. I made them for you.”
That’s the problem, Caroline doesn’t say. Instead, she takes one of the tupperwares and says, “Thank you for the meal.”
“It was no problem,” The Farmer says, still looking at her with those bright, earnest eyes, and Caroline- can’t. She can’t do this.
She shakes her head again, not trusting herself to even say goodbye, and rushes out of the greenhouse. It’s dark now, as she finds her way off the farm and down that country lane back into town. She doesn’t run, because there’s no way to know who’s watching and there’s nothing more gossip-worthy than fleeing into the night, but her steps quicken the closer she gets to home, where she’s relieved to find the store empty and unlit. She stops just inside the doorway, leaning back against the hard wooden door as she finally allows her shoulders to shake and the confused tears to fall from her eyes.
She feels like she stands there for an eternity, silently trying to dissect the night and see how it went the way it did, figure out what kind of shameful signals she was putting out that made the Farmer think that she’d ever-
But you did, a part of her brain hisses, You did, and you liked it. Caroline, alone in the dark of Pierre’s store, shakes her head roughly. No, she was just confused; it’s been a hard time for her and she’s been so stressed with the house and the store and Abby and she was just so lonely, it only made sense that her heart would get friendship mixed up in feelings like that. It was just an embarrassing accident, she assures herself, wiping her eyes and straightening her back. All there is for it now is to apologize, stay away from the Farmer for a bit, and pretend it didn’t happen.
Caroline takes a deep breath and nods to herself. She walks into the house proper, pausing when she hears noise coming from the kitchen. “Pierre?”
“Nope,” Abby answers. As Caroline enters the kitchen she can see her daughter at the table, eating shredded cheese out of a bowl by the spoonful.
“Sorry mom,” Abby says but doesn’t stop eating the cheese. Caroline sighs. Abby nods her head towards Caroline’s hands, eyebrow raised. “Is that what the Farmer made you?”
“I wasn’t quite as hungry as I’d hoped,” She says as her stomach flips again at the mention of the Farmer, just to remind her that she’s in no shape to eat tonight. “Did you enjoy the cheese cauliflower?”
Abby snorts, “Yeah I did, but dad just went to the Saloon.”
“He what?” Caroline spins around. Abby shrugs, eating another spoonful of cheese.
“Yeah, I don’t know. He’s in bed now, so I guess you could ask him about it tomorrow.”
“If I had known that he was just going to get dinner from Gus then I could’ve-” Caroline stops, takes a deep breath. She opens the fridge and puts her untouched fish taco next to her husband’s untouched serving of cheese cauliflower. She exhales and relaxes her shoulders. She has no right to be upset with Pierre right now. “Nevermind. It’s not a problem.”
“‘S still not nice,” Abby mutters around her spoon, “For all he complains about cooking, you’d think he’d appreciate…”
Abby trails off with a roll of her eyes and Caroline waits for the usual Make your family play nice instinct to rise in her chest, for the Have some more respect for your father! to fall from her lips before she can even think about it, but it… doesn’t. Caroline frowns, just slightly.
“Well, don’t stay up too late, okay?” Caroline says, instead of anything else, and kisses Abby on the forehead when she grunts her assent.
As Caroline gets ready for bed, she finds herself thinking about the greenhouse again. She looks in the mirror and presses a hand to her lips -- wondering what she’d looked like to make the Farmer kiss her, wondering if that had been their plan all along, wondering what could’ve happened if she wasn’t a wife and mother. She splashes water on her face to help clear the thoughts away. Musings like that are for girls half Caroline’s age, a girl like Caroline was before she met Pierre and moved to Pelican Town and had Abigail. Farmers and greenhouses and summer spangles, none of that is for Caroline any more; she has her life, and that's enough.