A young Zafara set idly under a large, shady oak tree. She’d been sitting there for quite some time, and, though the bench upon which she rested was made of stone and rather uncomfortable after long periods of time, she did not feel obligated to move. With her legs crossed daintily at the ankle and tucked under the bench, the Zafara remained generally immobile with a book in her lap, save for the occasional movement of her reaching out to turn the page.
A soft breeze ruffled the brown curls of her hair and blew a few wisps into her face. She did not mind, because it also alleviated the heat, which was quite pressing while she was clad in her long, blue cloth dress. The air smelled of flowers mingled with the warm scent of baking bread. The bakery was just around the corner, and it was half the reason that Alice usually haunted this spot. She felt at peace with the homely smells, and often she was lost in daydreams of when she’d have a kitchen of her own with a family to appreciate her hard work preparing their food.
Alice sighed, glancing up from her book to peek through the slants of the tree branches stretched out above her head. The sun winked back at her, and she felt at peace, as always. Neovia was her home, and it was her favorite place to be. Though she was only at a ripe age in her very early twenties, Alice had never ventured away from Neovia, and she was stubborn in believing that she never would. Why did she need to go elsewhere? Neovia offered everything she needed. Her home was here, her family was here, and, as she often dared to dream, her future family dwelled somewhere in this quaint town as well.
A sly smile crept onto her elegantly pretty face, lighting her large eyes with a childish sort of glee.
Who would it be? She wondered to herself. Would it be Henry, the trim, athletic Lupe and son of the wealthy banker?
Oh, he had shown interest in her before. Once even, he’d brought flowers to her home. She’d allowed herself to be courted by Henry for at least a month. He was tall, handsome, and sharply intelligent, but he lacked something that she could not place her finger on, and she’d had to end it. Now that Alice thought of it, it was probably humor that was lacking. He’d never once laughed or cracked even the slightest of smiles.
Then there’d been John. Alice giggled to herself, as if enjoying a nice joke. But really, that had been what John was. A nice joke. She imagined him finishing school and moving to Meridell to entertain the king. He had the personality of a true court jester.
Alice leaned back against the bench, resting her paws over the pages of her book that was now forgotten. She went through her mind, ticking off names, wondering to herself. Who would it be? There were numerous worthy names, but few she could imagine having a family with. Was her knight in shining armor really in Neovia at all?
The light purple Zafara jolted, coming fully out of her daydream. Hurriedly, she sat up straight, flattening the cloth of her dress and habitually reaching up to make sure none of the pins in her hair had loosened. It was always rather embarrassing to be caught daydreaming. Her mother warned her that she did it too often.
“Yes?” she asked, finally raising her eyes to the one who’d spoken her name.
She almost made a face. Almost. It was Edmund, the pale yellow Skeith who’d developed a rather embarrassing interest in her at school. She knew the other students had laughed and joked and teased behind her back, what with the way that Edmund was so painfully unpopular and had always persisted to tag along at her heels like a lost Spardel. His intentions had been evident from the start, and not even her friends had spared her from the jokes.
With manners that had been bred into her since birth, Alice managed a small smile for Edmund, though it was far from welcoming.
“I—Well, I—brought you something,” he told her, stuttering slightly in his awkwardness.
It was then that Alice noted that he was hiding something behind his back.
“Oh, Edmund, you shouldn’t have,” she replied, and meant it.
Her eyes, though she tried to resist, kept finding their way to scrutinize the long, wooly sideburns on Edmund’s face that went from his hairline to his jaw. They would have been fine on the features of an elderly Neopian, but Alice thought Edmund too young to have them. Edmund was nice and all, but he was awkward, shy, and a bit embarrassing really. He lacked the charisma of John and the acute intelligence of Henry, among several other things.
Alice scolded herself a little. It was really impolite to be so judgmental.
But still... Her eyes flickered to the sideburns again.
It seemed Edmund had to take a moment to gather himself together. He moistened his lips and tried to stand a little straighter, a little less awkward and fumbling.
“Yes, I did have to, Alice,” he disagreed, speaking, for once, without stuttering. “It’s Valentine’s Day, you know, and I thought that, well, a girl like you deserves to be appreciated on this day.”
Alice felt a blush rise to her cheeks. She pressed a paw lightly over her heart, truly surprised that such adoring words had come from Edmund’s mouth. He was usually so awkward about professing his feelings, and the words he had just spoken might have been the kindest, sweetest that she’d heard from anyone. She deserved to be appreciated?
“What is it?” she asked, genuinely interested now, and scooted to the edge of the bench as if to peek around him.
“I hope you like them,” was his only reply.
Slowly, he withdrew the gifts from behind his back. In one hand, he held a bundle of tulips, and in the other, he offered her a heart-shaped box of chocolates.
Real pleasure lit her features as she took them from his paws. She pressed the tulips to her nose, breathing in the faint scent. Had Edmund known that tulips were her very favorite?
“The tulips are color-changing,” he informed her. “They’ll never be the same color two days in a row.”
Alice smiled beautifully up at the Skeith, and he turned scarlet.
“Oh, Edmund, thank you. This was very kind of you.”
He shuffled his feet, and started to stutter again. “H-Happy V-Valentine's Day, Alice.”
“Happy Valentine's Day, Edmund,” she answered, and she meant it.
How adorably sweet of him. She hadn’t known he’d had such gestures in him. In school, he’d only been a pest, an embarrassment at best, and though he still seemed awkward now, it appeared he was trying his best to change.
“Alice,” he called to her again, and she looked up from her tulips as he carefully sat beside her. “Will you eat dinner with me tonight? I would like to cook for you.”
Alice bit her lip. Her immediate answer had been, “No,” but she clamped her teeth around it. He was the only one who’d gotten her anything for Valentine’s Day, and now he wanted to cook for her. How could she resist such an incredibly thoughtful and true request?
The young Zafara nodded. “I would love that, Edmund.”
Several long years into the future, the present-day Alice smiled as she rocked back and forth in the wooden rocking chair Edmund had made her during their early years of marriage. Resting in her lap was a book she had long since forgotten, even the crackle and hiss of the fire lit in the fireplace beside her hardly disturbed her. For just a little while, she’d been lost in the daydream of her past, the fateful day she’d accepted Edmund into her life and turned down a path in her life she would never regret, despite all that had happened.
Her eyes lit on a picture frame hanging on the wall across from her. In all her home, it was her favorite picture. Encased eternally into that small photo was the family she had made for herself with Edmund. The young faces of her children, Bruno, Sophie, and Reginald, smiled back at her from the frame. They were older now, grown and changed, survivors of the curse that had blistered Neovia not long ago.
Alice’s heart ached as much as it was happy for the pleasant lives she had always imagined for her children that had been wrenched from their grasps. But they’d survived, they’d accepted, and they’d moved on. Though at times she desperately wished her darling daughter hadn’t decided to remain in the swamp, she knew that their paths had been chosen, much like hers had been many years ago. There was nothing she could do now, no way that she could protect them, because life tended to move on with or without people.
Alice sighed and turned her head as the floor creaked to her left, announcing Edmund’s entrance. She smiled up at her husband, and then her brows raised.
“Edmund, what’s behind your back, dear?” she asked.
Her husband was grinning like a child utterly pleased with himself. He crossed the floor to her and knelt beside her chair, presenting her with what had been hidden behind his back.
“Happy Valentine’s day, love.”
Tears welled in Alice’s eyes as she regarded the tulips that had been placed into her paws.
“Oh, Edmund,” she whispered, as years melted away, and she was taken back to the past.
“The tulips are color-changing,” he told her gently, taking her free paw into his own. “They’ll never be the same color two days in a row.”