Everyone Knows

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Everyone Knows

Post by Ladybug on Tue Jun 19, 2012 11:05 am

It felt like tiny pinpricks in his arms, and the happy chirping didn't help a bit. Without opening his eyes, Nick swatted at the source with his free hand, making brief contact with the soft, almost furry, scales. The chirping became an indignant squawk, and the pricks briefly became more painful as the creature dug in tightly before springing off in a different direction. Nick rolled over and pulled the pillow over his head, trying to catch a precious five more minutes of sleep. For a brief, blissful moment, he thought he had succeeded, only to feel a fuzzy lump in the small of his back. He pushed the pillow to the floor with a groan. In a gesture of defeat he held out his arm, wincing as the pinpricks returned.

"You win, Crackle," said Nick, reaching for his glasses as he sat up. "I'm awake."

Crackle chirped and rubbed his head affectionately against his master's, an easy reach from his perch on his shoulder. Nick slid his glasses into place, and the world came into focus. He stood, stretching, and looked around the room. As he reached for the shirt draped over the chair, the iguanabat took off. It was a familiar routine, and Nick had gotten into the habit in the years he'd worked as a go-to repairman of always keeping a set of clothes handy for the same reason he always slept in, at minimum, his underclothes - it only took seeing one apprentice running to a repair site starkers to cure the rest of them, and he was just glad it hadn't been him.

The beast returned to its perch as Nick finished dressing. Nick tied his boots and stroked Crackle's head. He was fond of the creature, in no small part due to having raised him from an egg. He didn't like to admit it, but he had been a little disappointed when Iris had identified him as a normal iguanabat, rare though they were, rather than the dragonet he so resembled. It didn't make Crackle any less his pet and companion, and he still liked to call him a dragon in public. In his experience, nothing put a smile on a child's face like the unusual, and everyone knew dragons were myth anyway. He could stand to look a fool to make children happy.

Nick frowned. His coat was missing. He turned to Crackle. "You haven't been dropping things out the window again, have you?"

Crackle squawked indignantly and took off in a flurry of gray. He landed on Nick's work table and flicked his tail at the pile of sketches, sending them flying.

"Crackle!" Nick lunged forward to catch the papers, but the lizard was quicker, swooping in a circle and separating the machinery sketches from the miscellaneous drawings Nick had done from memory whenever he found himself unable to concentrate. It was one of these that Crackle snatched out of the air in his jaw and laid at Nick's feet. He bent down and picked it up. The subject was a powerfully built young woman, grasping a claymore in both hands and poised to strike. Her dark hair framed her face at the chin, and her expression was calm, her eyes focused.

"Oh, Lana has it? Wonder why." he said, mostly to himself. He gathered the rest of the papers, trying to keep them in some semblance of useful order. It shouldn't be too difficult to find out. He was, after all, renting this room from her father, and she was just a few doors down the hall.

Landing on his shoulder, Crackle made a clicking noise in his ear. It took Nick a moment to place the noise’s meaning, but the instant he did, he dropped the stack and turned pink. Even the lizard was mocking his crush. He quickly gathered the papers and buried the sketch deep within the pile. He stood and set them back on the desk, setting the model of his latest machine, and the first to actually work as well on a full scale as well as a tiny replica, on the papers to act as a paperweight. He hoped this one would fare better than the last several ideas he'd had.

His stomach rumbled, and he headed down the stairs. It was probably too late for breakfast, but he didn't mind making his own meals if necessary. He hated causing extra work for Alicia and Avner, feeling bad enough that they barely charged him anything for room and board. But if he was being honest with himself, he didn't terribly mind avoiding contact with them most of the time. As grateful as he was to Avner Magus for opening his home to him and as much respect as he had for the man, Nick was extremely nervous around him.

To his surprise, the entire household was gathered around the table when he arrived in the kitchen. Lana and Avner must have just come inside from their morning spar, as their swords were leaned against the wall, and both were gleaming with sweat. Alicia Tailor smiled at him, and it struck Nick just how different from her family she looked. Both Lana and Dan had inherited their father's coloring and dark hair, with Alicia's influence barely managing to lighten their olive complexions. Even Lana shared her father's solid build, where Dan was somewhere between them. Avner had once commented that Nick, with his fair skin and sandy hair, would have passed as a relative of hers more easily than did her actual children.

He sat at the table, eliciting a brief nod from Avner and Dan. Lana smiled broadly. "Well, we actually get to see you this morning!"

"That'd be Crackle's doing," said Nick, an involuntary grin of his own springing to life. "You know me. You get roosters; I get owls." It had become something of a joke over the past few months that the family, save Dan, was constantly up at sunrise, and Nick, by contrast, was semi-nocturnal. It was rare that all five of them managed to meet for a meal. Nick filled his plate and began eating.

Still only half-awake, Dan reached for his glass and jostled his cane from where he'd hooked it on the edge of the table. It fell to the ground with a clatter. Avner sprang into action and reached for it. "Father!" Dan protested.

"I'll get it," Avner said quietly. It would have been easy to believe that the words had been swallowed by his graying beard.

"No," snapped Dan. "I'm crippled, not helpless." He shoved back from the table, bent down, and picked it up. He scooted the chair up again and placed the cane on the side of his chair this time.

Awkward silence fell over the kitchen, broken only by the scraping of silverware on plates and Crackle's chirping. Nick slipped him a slice of fruit to silence him. He hadn't been around for every meal, but Nick had noticed that Dan's outbursts like this had been more common over the past few weeks. It was far from his place to ask, but he'd begun to wonder if something had happened with some of the other boys in town.

Lana applied her typical sisterly wisdom to the situation and gently teased her brother. "Chin up, Dan. You'll find a girl who likes you back someday."

Dan glared at her across the table. "What makes you think it's about a girl?"

"You're fifteen, and I keep catching you eyeing them rather than minding your sewing. It's about girls." She laughed. "Believe me, I was the same about boys when I was your age." She winked at Nick who had absolutely no idea to respond. He offered a weak smile in return, immediately feeling the pressure of Avner's eyes on him, a gesture that was, to him, indecipherable. He wished he knew why he did that whenever Lana teased him. It would make more sense to shoot her a look if he disapproved. Did Avner think he was encouraging this?

Dan snorted. "Like minding my sewing's going to do me a lick of good. It's a woman's career." Avner transferred the glare to him, to Nick’s relief. "Anyway, you've no room to lecture me, Lana. I don't see you with a man."

"I've my reasons," Lana said, her tone dropping any sense of warmth. Nick began considering making a run for the door.

"Look, sister mine, we're doomed for the same reasons. Everyone knows men like slender women, and women like strong men. The militia maid and the cripple are both destined for bachelorhood."

Nick stared down at the table. Crackle leapt off his shoulder and began eating off of his plate.

Lana sat straight as a statue and snarled, "Just because you've let your spirit go as twisted as your leg doesn't mean the rest of us are resigned to bitterness."

"Then tell me how you've scared off every boy you've brought round."

"At least I try!"

"Enough!" shouted Avner, banging his fist on the table. Lana and Dan jerked back as though pulled by the collars, the result of a textile petitioning.

Nick took the opportunity to slip away from the table before things escalated further. It had not yet happened in his time there, but he was hesitant to take a chance. He hurried upstairs and retrieved his satchel, checking that his tools were still inside - intelligent a beast as Crackle was, he had a tendency to hoard shiny things.

The tool thief awaited him at the bottom of the stairs, leaping into his usual perch the instant Nick was within range. Nick stroked him behind the ears, smiling slightly as he received a happy gurgling in return. He sneaked hurriedly past the kitchen, not bothering to check if they were still arguing. They likely weren't - it took a great deal to anger Avner, and things generally calmed down quickly when he demonstrated his wrath, moreso when he was actually driven to use magic.

He walked around to the back of the building, where his latest machine, and the one he had the highest hopes for, rested against the wall. He'd not bothered to secure it for the sole reason that he was absolutely positive no one wanted it. Not yet at least. It was his current mode of transport and his answer to the continual shortage of horses and stabling in the coastal region of Ora Lunata. It had a slim wooden frame topped by a long but narrow bench carefully designed to hold considerable weight. The seat was longer than necessary as he used the back for storage, usually of his satchel. He was considering the possibility that it could hold another passenger, uncomfortable though the ride may be, though he would argue it was no worse than riding a horse. It boasted two large wheels powered by pedals, and he was considering adding some sort of padding to the wheels for the sake of a smoother ride. A handlebar on the front allowed for steering. Overall, he had not yet discovered any major design flaws with it.

He strapped his satchel to the back of the bench and swung his leg over the side. He kicked off and pedaled, propelling the as yet unnamed device into the city streets. A definite perk he'd discovered was the tendency people had to get out of his way when he rode. He was sure it was mostly due to the device's novelty, and it would wear off as people grew more used to it. He hoped so, at least. He saw potential in this, if he could find the right improvements to make.

He came to a stop outside of the local wayfarers' inn and tavern, leaning the vehicle against the hitching post. A large stallion snorted at him. Nick moved away from it. He shouldered his satchel and tapped the bench. Crackle scrambled down his arm and took his place on the bench, sitting up posed as a gargoyle. Nick couldn't help smiling. Who needed a guard dog, anyway? He headed inside.

"There you are!" called a rich baritone voice as Nick shut the door behind him. Aaron Cook waved to him from behind the bar where he stood with his wife Dora. "We were about to have a crisis."

Nick nodded. Cook had sent a messenger over late the previous night to ask for his services, but as it hadn't been an immediate need, Nick had told him he'd be there in the morning to take a look. "What is it?" he asked.

The bald and burly man led him into the kitchen. "Main stove. We've two, so we didn't have to shut down completely, but you can see why you're here."

"Sure do," said Nick as he rolled up his sleeves. He was suddenly very glad he'd worn a dark shirt. "Can you get me a bucket? Probably should clean this out before anything else." He already had a feeling he knew what the problem was, but it never hurt to take a look at all angles and make certain it was all that was wrong.

It took half an hour to get the last of the ashen residue out of the belly of the stove, and he peered inside. Nothing in there. he moved to the flue. Aha. "You've been overfiring." He pointed to the offending section. "Pipe's started to warp, but what's causing your main problem is that someone knocked this top section out of alignment." He gestured upward. The flue was no longer aligned with the hole that held a path to the outside. Nick climbed up and straightened it. "Be careful with it, and you should be fine."

Cook grinned in reply. "Thanks. Anyone ever told you how nice it is to have a handyman who actually lives in town?"

"No," Nick said, surprised. He hadn't heard that, but it made sense. He didn't talk to people much; the time he spent with Avner's family was the most social he'd been since finishing his apprenticeship.

There had been a small handful, Nick had learned, before the factories began spreading toward the coast. Ora Lunata was heading toward the future of industry as quickly as the rest of Fatua if not more. Any and all mechanically minded workers had quickly relocated for the full-time work opportunities offered. Despite his initial assignment to the newest of these, a shipbuilding facility, Nick had been the first - and so far only - mechanic to take up permanent residence in the coastal settlement and work outside of the factories in nearly a decade.

"You must see a lot of work," said Cook.

"I keep busy," he replied.

Cook clapped him on the shoulder with a hearty laugh. "Good on you! Won't be a surprise to anyone when some lucky lass takes a shine to a rich lad like you."

Nick took a long moment to decide how to respond. He finally settled on, "I'm not rich."

"Keep this up, and you will be!" Cook reached into a ceramic jar on the shelf and pulled out Nick's pay, pressing it into his hand.

Nick uttered his thanks and excused himself, trying not to dwell on his words. Dan's outburst still hung over his thoughts, and it made it difficult to enjoy the day. He nodded to Dora as he exited, her presence only compounding the evidence for both theories - this was the biggest inn the trade center boasted, and Aaron Cook was known for both girth and wealth. It added a lot of support to the hypothesis. Women like men who are big, strong, and wealthy. He compared himself, drawing a fat zero.

He stepped outside, shaking his head. Out of rote, he held out his arm upon reaching his vehicle, and Crackle scampered up his arm to his usual perch, nipping at his master's ear. He absently stroked the lizard's head, then mounted and pedaled off.

The more he looked around, the more support the theory had. This part of Ora Lunata had the heaviest militia presence and the most prosperous docks, meaning there was no shortage of either sailors or soldiers, and those who were off-duty seemed to have no problem finding a girl, or boy in a few rare cases.

He rode into the market district, watching the permanent shops and traveling merchant stalls for deals on raw materials. As he looked, he saw ample support for the rich argument, seeing many men buying gifts for their female companions. He sighed, his stomach souring and his desire to browse lost.

"Mr. Tinker!" called a voice.

Nick dragged his foot on the ground and stopped. He made a mental note to install some sort of method of stopping that worked better than this. "Yes?" he said, looking around and finding a small girl of about eight. It took a moment to place her name - Summer Larslass.

Summer curtseyed politely. "Are you free? Papa says he needs you at his farm." She began gesturing. "The thing in the barn's busted."

Between her gestures and the limited time Nick had spent around Philip's ranch, he gathered it was the pulley for the hayloft. "Shouldn't be a problem. If you'll hop on and point the way, we can be there in no time."

She gave him a nervous look.

Nick sighed. "You don't want to ride."

"Nah, but I'll walk."

Nick shrugged and dismounted, letting her lead the way as he wheeled the machine along.

He'd been right. It was the pulley. He could tell the cause without more than a cursory glance around. The roof directly above it was of a different color than the rest, and similarly hued patches indicated that a leaky roof had just been fixed. Several times from the gradiated patching. The wooden mechanism had been in use for quite some time, and its age had not let it stand up well to the elements. Classic wood rot. He told Lars Farmer that he'd need to make a new block and tackle or head into town and buy one, which would be probably quicker but cost extra.

Lars supplied him with timber and helped him cut it down to an appropriate size before leaving him to carve it. Nick sat under a tree and began whittling away, working quickly and deftly and almost without looking. As he worked, Summer kept him company and mostly played with Crackle. The lizard, for his part, was glad of the attention. He wound himself around her legs, much like a cat. In between petting and playing, she regaled Nick with stories about life on the farm. He didn't much mind, and she wasn't distracting, but he did wish that she would talk about something other than her brother's fighting off a wolf.

"Don't you think he was brave, Mr. Tinker?"

"Yes," said Nick, still carving, concentrating more intently than he perhaps needed to.

"I hope I can meet a boy as brave as him when I grow up," Summer said, rubbing Crackle's stomach.

Nick just nodded. "I'm sure you will." He updated the mental checklist and shook his head. Zero for four.

Thankfully, it did not take as long as he'd thought to rig carve the pieces, but due to a number of other factors, such as having to jury-rig a temporary platform to stand on to even reach the spot Lars wanted the pulley, it was sunset before he was finished. Lars thanked him and paid him, and Nick warned him to watch it for rot in the future. He looked around and had to fight very hard to stifle a laugh. Summer had carried Crackle to him and had, by way of thanks, tied a large yellow ribbon around his neck. Crackle was displeased.

He rode back to town, Crackle wrapped around his shoulders and trying to claw the ribbon off to little success. The lizard eventually gave up and lay his head down, rubbing against Nick's chin. Nick didn't react, squinting to see the path. Maybe he could mount a light on the front. He didn't mind the improvements he'd need to make. Room for improvement was good. Maybe he could do that tomorrow. It wasn't as if it should take too terribly long to work out, and he didn't have anything lined up for then.

The streets were slower, if not entirely deserted, as he rode through. He caught snippets of conversation, as usual, mostly about the races. There was to be a major competition in about a week, and people seemed to have decided that newcomer Clara Samslass and veteran Heather Rider were the favorites to win. He'd seen more than one fight break out because of differing opinions. He personally didn't get the popularity of the sport or what the jockeys had to do with the speed of their mounts, but whatever made them happy, he supposed.

He leaned his vehicle against the building, covered it with a tarp for once. Nick headed inside, walking quietly. Avner and Lana were always abed by now, and he didn't want to disturb them.

"Nick!" called a voice from the workroom.

He turned around, surprised to see Lana still up. "Oh, good evening!"

She beckoned him inside. "Come here a moment."

"Um-"

"It won't take long. I just need to measure something."

He walked into the room and was immediately greeted by a tape measurer. "Um, Lana?"

"One second." She stretched it from his waist to his feet and scribbled the number on a small pad of paper. "Thank you." She tossed the tape measurer onto her table. "I need to apologize. I borrowed your coat this morning since I saw the hem was coming loose, and your elbows are fraying. I was hoping to get to it today, but then Philip sends me a request for as many blankets as I can spare. It's for that race, see."

"Oh." That made sense. Nick nodded. "It's not a problem, but thank you. How much-"

"No!" said Lana, waving him away. "I'm doing this as your friend, and I won't take any payment. It just may be a few days."

"Are you sure?" asked Nick.

"Positive. I do appreciate it, though." She smiled at him, and Nick was certain he turned pink.

He looked around. "Is there anything I can do to pay you back?"

She shook her head. "No, I'm fine. Get some rest. I'm turning in myself as soon as I get this one done." She gestured to the loom, where a mostly finished blanket of dark blue adorned with a brilliant sunburst hung.

"That's very nice," he said, unsure what to say.

She shrugged. "Not my best work, but he did put in a rush order." Lana stretched, lifting her arms over her head. "I do need to get back to it, though. Sleep well, Nick."

"Pleasant dreams," he managed, bowing slightly as he exited. It was sad to say, he thought, but that conversation had completely lifted him out of his funk.

Nick walked up the stairs, smiling. He changed his plans for the next day, having gotten an idea. Philip was a good friend, and he'd had a good deal of life experience. Tomorrow, Nick would drop by the ranch and see if he had any advice.

Crackle woke him early the next morning, and for once, Nick didn't mind terribly. Breakfast went much better than the day before, if much quieter. Dan was silent, perhaps too embarrassed about his earlier outburst, and Lana looked exhausted, having stayed up to finish her project. Nick ate quickly, excused himself, and left.

Philip's ranch was a fair distance from town, and it would have likely taken the better part of the morning to walk there. On his transport, however, it was a much shorter trip. As he approached, he saw that there was a lot more activity here than usual; a great many horses were being paraded around the normally empty pasture, and he recognized some of the people from the posters hanging around town as their jockeys. Must be here for practice.

Philip was supervising from the sidelines, where a number of other people had gathered to watch. He waved as he saw Nick. Nick stopped, dismounted, and tied his vehicle against a tree. Crackle leapt down for guard duty.

As Nick approached him, Philip smiled. "Mornin', Nick," he said. "Fer's not here - Iris dragged her off on some errand."

"I actually came to see you," Nick replied. Philip raised an eyebrow. Nick didn't drop by often, but when he did, it was normally to see Ferra. This part of Ora Lunata didn't have many mechanically-minded people, and the two of them liked to talk shop when they had spare time to do so.

"Takin' an interest in the races?" Philip frowned. "Pardon." He cupped his hands around his mouth. "Jacquelyn! I catch you pullin' that hard on the reins again, an' you'll never get another horse from me!" He shook his head and turned back to Nick. "Amateur race tonight. Heavens preserve us all."

Nick looked at him blankly. "I thought they just bought them from you, and that was the end of it."

"Only the pros. Plenty just buy permission to ride an' pay for upkeep. Most of them, for instance." He pulled his pipe from his pocket and struck a match on his boot. "So, what brings you here?" He lit it.

"Can I ask your advice on women?"

The match fell to the ground. Philip saw it and stamped it out quickly, then stared at Nick. "You're kidding."

Nick shook his head. "You don't think I need all the help I can get?"

The rancher sighed, wiping a bit of sweat from his dark brow, then taking a drag from the pipe. "There ain't someone else you could ask?"

"Well, considering my options, even if Ferra and Iris were here..." Ferra regarded relationships the same way others regarded high art - wonderful for the experts in those fields who could appreciate them, but incomprehensible and pointless to all others, including herself. Iris, on the other hand...he didn't want to think about.

Philip began walking away from the crowd, and Nick followed. "All right, they're out. But you live with a normal girl an' a man who's been married goin' on thirty years."

Nick froze. He said nothing and stared into the distance, much in the manner of cornered prey.

"Oh," said Philip.

"Please don't tell anyone," Nick said quietly.

Philip shook his head. "Why? You could do worse than Miss Weaver."

"Could do a lot better, too." Nick sighed. "I just don't know how to get her to see me in that light."

"Tried askin' her?"

"No!" stammered Nick.

"Seems the easiest way."

Nick was bright red at this point. He removed his glasses and pulled a cloth from his pocket, wiping flecks of dust away as an excuse to break eye contact. "Philip, I don't have a chance. I mean, look at me." He put the glasses back on. "Everyone knows I am not the type women go for. At all."

Philip hesitated a moment before awkwardly reaching forward and patting the younger man on the shoulder. He quickly withdrew his hand. "Doubt it."

Nick looked up, still flushed. "Why do you say that."

He shrugged. "Better question. Why're you asking me about women? Seen me with any?" They both looked at the practicing jockeys in the pasture. "They don't count."

Nick shook his head.

"Then why'd you think I'd know anythin'?"

Nick rubbed at the back of his neck. "Well, I didn't have them in mind, more the fact that you're the only person I can actually ask about this, but there were these rumors about town now you mention it."

Philip sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. "Almost afraid to ask. Which ones?"

Nick thought a moment. "I'm rather partial to the one where your lover was captured by pirates."

"Ain't heard that one. Remind me to add it to the collection." He ran a hand over his face. "Nick, I can't help you."

His face fell. "Why not?"

"Dunno. Simple as that." He pulled out his pocketwatch and shook his head. "Mind walkin' with me? Need to check on my traps." He dumped the contents of his pipe on the ground and pocketed it.

"Sure," said Nick. "I've got nothing else to do." He followed after the rancher, his hands stuffed into his pockets and his posture slouched.

They kept a brisk pace through the area around the ranch, Nick struggling to match Philip's pace. After a while, Philip noticed and adjusted. It was some time before either spoke.

"So, you can't help me at all?"

"Not with what you're askin'. I don't know what women like. Never needed to." Philip kicked some loose brush over an exposed trap. "Watch. Don't need to be sendin' you to Avner for that."

Nick carefully stepped over the trap. "Why not? Haven't you ever been interested?"

Philip's tone was odd. "Had some years ago. Fell apart."

"But you aren't still interested?"

"I like bein' alone."

"But see, if you wanted a relationship, you could have one." Nick sighed. "You're what they like. Strong, rich, brave. I'm not."

"Now who told you that?" asked Philip.

Nick shrugged. "Everyone knows that."

"Everyone, huh?" He stopped walking and leaned against a tree.

"Yeah."

"I didn't." Philip cracked his knuckles. "Seems to me you're puttin' an awful lot of stock in this everyone without actually knowin' if they know anythin'."

"Well, a majority opinion-"

"Ain't everyone. First off, I'd say you're plenty brave. Helped us out with that business at the factory, an' you came here alone knowin' the roads keep attractin' bandits. Second, I can tell you right now that rich ain't high on her list."

Nick frowned. "What makes you so sure?"

"Only daughter of the only healin' petitioner in town who's also payin' into her own dowry from two jobs. She's fine, money-wise. That’s basic common sense."

"But someone would've already asked her," Nick said. He evaded a snare and leaned against an adjacent tree.

"You're not gettin' it. If everyone knows that everyone marries for money, she'd be taken. She ain't. This everyone must be wrong." He pushed off from the trunk and walked. Nick followed with some reluctance.

"If it's wrong, why does it get repeated so much? Why is there so much support for it?"

"Cause people hate bein' wrong." Philip leaned down to examine the frayed edge of a chewed off snare. "Sandy," he growled.

"Sandy?"

"Never mind." He pocketed the loop of twine. "You've heard the rumors. Everyone knows quite a lot, don't they. Who'll marry whom, who's goin' to win the big race. My money's on Dancer." Nick just stared at him. "Clara's ridin' her."

"Oh."

"But everyone also knows I killed my father, when he had a heart attack in his old age, an’ that I tried to kill Dan Avnerson."

"What?" Nick gaped.

Philip shrugged. "Oh, Avner was in on that. Else I'd've paid, right?"

"No way."

Philip frowned. "Of course not. You know it's horseshit. But everyone knows it."

Nick was silent a long moment, and it took him some time to realize Philip had kept walking. He hurried to keep up, barely missing a snare trap. "So now I've even less to go on than I did."

Philip laughed. "You live with the girl! Just stop worryin' so much about what everyone knows everyone likes an’ think more on what you know Lana likes. You'll be fine."

A genuine smile spread across Nick's lips. He squeezed Philip's hand. "Thank you," he said quietly.

"Ain't nothin'."

"No," said Nick. "It means a lot."

He shrugged and looked at his watch. "Stayin' for lunch?"

"Sure. If it's no trouble."

"Nah." Philip scratched at his beard. "Though if it's a guilty conscience you’ve got, I suppose you could look at somethin' for me."

Nick groaned.

He stayed the rest of the day there. After lunch, he inspected the machine Philip had mentioned, a crude hay baling apparatus. Nothing seemed to be wrong with it, but he tightened a few bolts to be sure. He was not entirely surprised that some of the younger spectators had found and taken a shine to Crackle - the animal could attract more of a following in this town than the swiftest horse jockey.

Philip, however, was more interested in the machine.

"What in tarnation is that?"

"I built it," said Nick. "Haven't named it yet. Since I'm thinking it might be a good alternative to horses, maybe something along those lines."

"Doesn't explain what it is," drawled Philip.

"It's a man-powered instrument of transportation. You don't have to feed it like a horse. Doesn't need fuel like those new locomotives in Praeses, and it's a good deal more maneuverable. Can't take a steam engine through the market street."

Philip frowned. "What's wrong with horses?"

Nick shrugged. "Nothing. There just aren't enough around town for people who want to rent them."

"Easy fix. Buy more. Give the farmers some more business."

"Can the soil really take the strain?" asked Nick. He didn't know a whole lot about farming to be sure, but he'd heard about town that people were worried about the crops and considering asking the council to send a weather petitioner. Iris had offered to help, but as she wasn't a specialist, there wasn't much she could do for the long term. And even on top of that, there was only so much land that was good for growing, and that had to support both people and livestock. Nick was willing to bet that between a choice of horses for everyone and having to revert to a hunter-gatherer society for food or dealing with a shortage, people would happily walk places rather than ride.

Philip shook his head. "Guess not." He poked at the contraption. "Doesn't mean people'll want your fix."

"Maybe," said Nick. "Not till I get a few design upgrades phased in, anyway." His voice grew distant. "Covering for the wheels, reliable method of stopping, mounted light, more of a padded seat..."

"You can't stop it?" Philip's brows shot up, the most expression he'd seen on the man.

Nick quickly cut him off. "Oh, you can stop!"

"Besides crashing."

"Yes!"

Philip looked the machine over once more. "You really think there's demand."

"Not yet, but once I refine the apparatus." Nick folded his arms and met his gaze. "Yes. I do."

"Make you a deal." Philip paused a moment, tapping his chin. "By year's end, get someone who ain't you to ride this thing. If you do, I'll buy one myself."

"That's it?" Nick said flatly.

"Considerin' I've got no need-"

"No, I meant 'That's all I have to do?'" He flashed a wide smile. "No problem. And if I fail?"

"Nothin' much. Just owe me a free repair."

Nick laughed. "Fine. It's a bet." He held out his hand.

Philip spat on his own hand before gripping Nick's; the inventor didn't so much as flinch. Philip smiled. "A month ago, you'd've demanded I wipe that off."

"A month ago, I'd not have a machine I trust this much."

"If you say so." He clapped him on the shoulder. "Be seein' you, Nick." He tipped his hat and walked back to the pasture to clear out the jockeys.

Nick smiled. He stuck two fingers in his mouth and whistled for Crackle; the creature bounded over to him and climbed to his shoulders. He mounted the machine and set off, kicking up a miniature smokescreen of dust as he pedaled his way down the dirt road back to town.

A month passed. The heat of summer became the lingering heat of autumn, and it almost seemed that the leaves changed their color in protest. Ora Lunata was saved from the worst of it by the frequent sea breezes, and the change in seasons marked a change in the market attitude. Talk had turned to the subject of the upcoming harvest and the festival that always accompanied it. The unapprenticed and even many who were began discussing wages with the farmers who would need them. Nick avoided this as his line of work kept him as busy as ever - people were finding it more and more important with the upcoming cool weather to make certain their stoves and boilers were in working order. The trade goods at the floating stalls shifted to darker colored imported cloths, the bright summer hues being packed away for a more appropriate month. Meanwhile, the ever-present equestrian faction had altered their focus from pure speed to agility - jumps and tricks.

Nick was having a far easier time interacting with the family, not least because every spare thought he had was devoted to fixing his machine...if not to naming it. He'd played with variations on "False horse" and "Half-cart," but they didn't seem to fit. He'd worry on it later. True to his word, his first step had been to add a reliable braking system activated by pushing backwards on the pedals. Much better than dragging his feet on the ground, but he could probably find a better way to implement this in a later design. He'd fastened a cushion to the narrow bench, which helped greatly with alleviating the discomfort from riding for too long. Wrapped up in his project, speaking to Lana had taken a backseat in his mind.

He'd not yet returned to the ranch, though he did want to ask Ferra her opinion on the contraption. Her petitioning gave her a unique perspective that he appreciated, but he did think that he should work through this himself, if only to prove to Philip that he could. It was maybe a stupid point of pride, but it was the battle he'd chosen, and he would win or lose it on his own merits. Nick was starting to think that his machine could take off, especially now that he could steer and stop better. People had, at least, stopped dodging him quite so frantically, which he took as a good sign.

This particular day had him called over to the stadium via messenger bird. He'd ridden quickly over, his speed helped by the day's heavy rain - fewer people were about, and enough of Ora Lunata's trading center had stone roads that he had no fear the wheels sticking in the mud. He tethered the machine to a hitching post and went inside, cringing as he opened the door and met a wall of smell. The odor of horse was overpowering, and he took a moment outside to collect himself, wondering exactly how Philip could stand it. Then, the ranch was much more open to the air than the stadium's stables. Nick sighed, glad he'd left Crackle at Avner's - he had a mischievous streak, and the last thing Nick needed was to rescue the iguanabat from an angered horse trying to stomp on a pest.

Ryan Handler waved at him from the end of the hallway. Handler was a long and lanky man of middling age with a mop of dirty straw colored hair perpetually hanging in his eyes. "Thank you for coming," he said, hurrying over and gripping Nick's hand.

"My pleasure," said Nick, dripping wet and trying very hard to ignore the animal smell. "What seems to be the trouble?"

"Follow me." He opened the door and led Nick down the stairs to the stables.

Nick tried to alter his posture to a more confident walk, unnerved though he was by the row of horses. He'd never felt comfortable around large animals. One in particular seemed to sense his discomfort; a white mare leaned over her door to nudge the back of his head. He jumped a foot.

"Hey!" Ryan turned around at the sound and made a quick gesture at the horse. "Easterly, no." The mare snorted and retreated. "Sorry 'bout that," he said. "Don't get too many people down here what aren't jockeys."

"I can see that," Nick said quietly.

"Anyway," said Ryan, continuing on, "our problem's up here." He stopped at the gateway and picked up a stick, nudging a mechanism some distance over his head. "This. It's jammed. Without it, we can't open the gate, and without that, we can't get these fine creatures the exercise they need. Just 'cause the exhibition's got the day off for the weather don't mean the horses don't need to move around."

Nick frowned. "There's not another door to lead them out?"

"Got taken out when they redid the stables a few years back. 'Fore your time."

"All right," said Nick. "Get me a ladder, and I'll get to it."

It was a fairly simple fix, if complicated by the facts that the ladder was rather wobbly and that Ryan liked to try to help by yelling advice. Nick tuned him out, only briefly entertaining the idea of giving him advice on raising horses. He gave his work a final once-over and signaled Ryan to pull the switch.

"Ready?"

"Going to see."

Ryan shrugged and complied. The gears turned, dragging the rope, and the gate opened. "Aha!"

"There you are." Nick climbed down the ladder and stretched. "Should be set, though make sure you keep oiling that."

"Thanks, Nick," said Ryan. "Here, office is this way. Let's get you paid."

He led him back through the horses, though Nick was considerably warier this time, making certain to walk in the center of the passage, out of the reach of wandering muzzles. Nick followed Ryan back up the stairs and around the outer walkway. He stole a few glances out into the stadium proper. The bleachers were, for once, empty, and the obstacles in the arena were covered with canvas to protect them from the elements. He didn't see the point, but it wasn't his area of expertise. If they wanted to waste good materials to shield things left outside normally, that was their business.

Ryan pushed open a door. "Mornin', Mr. Booker."

Booker, a rotund and balding older man, looked up. "Got the gate fixed?"

"Yes, sir," said Nick.

"Thanks, lad," said Booker. "Carson would have our heads if he found out his horses weren't being treated properly." He shared a look with Ryan. "And we know better than to cross Mr. Carson." Ryan nodded and looked at Nick, who kept his face carefully blank. Booker ran a hand through his thinning hair. "Ah, yes. Your fee. A moment, Mr. Tinker." He pushed his chair back and squatted on the ground at the safe. He took a moment to open the safe, and Nick heard the gears turn as the combination was entered. Booker straightened and pressed some money into Nick's hand. "That should cover it."

Nick gave it a cursory glance. It was considerably more than he usually made for such a short period. "Actually," he began.

Booker cut him off. "We keep this organization a well-oiled machine, Mr. Tinker. If those horses are faring ill, so's our business. Consider it a tip."

"Thank you, sir," Nick said.

Ryan escorted him out. As the walked, he shook his head. "You seriously complaining about making a bit extra? You have any idea how hard it is to get money out of Booker?"

Nick shrugged. "I don't want a reputation for overcharging. Bad for business to be known as dishonest."

"How? You've got no competition." Ryan cracked his knuckles. "'Sides, Booker's not gonna argue. Choice between a bit extra and crossin' Carson?" He whistled. "Comin' to the exhibition?"

"Not sure," lied Nick, knowing full well he'd be doing everything possible to avoid it.

"Pity. Gonna be a great show. Till later."

"Good day," he replied, walking the last few yards alone.

He rode off through the streets, lost in thought. The rain had lessened, though it still beat down in a steady flow. He sighed. Well, there was one advantage to a carriage, so long as you weren't the driver. He briefly toyed with the idea of a detachable canopy for the machine but decided against it. Too many ways for it to go wrong. For a wonder, no one stopped him in the street. Less work than he was used to, but he didn't have too much of a problem with taking a half day. He returned to the house and tethered the vehicle behind it.

He entered the house and immediately felt as if he were in the way. Alicia and Dan sat at the table, sewing. Dan looked none too happy about it and seemed to be making an effort to ruin his project. Meanwhile, from the workroom came the furious clicking of the loom. He hurried past before he could disrupt anyone's concentration, shutting the door to his room behind him. Crackle nearly knocked him over as he crashed into his legs, rubbing against them.

"Missed me, did you?" said Nick, squatting down to pet him as he shrugged out of his drenched coat. Crackle squawked in reply, leaping up to his shoulders. He rubbed his head against Nick's cheek. Nick draped the coat over his chair and sat down at his desk. He rifled through the stack of papers and retrieved his blueprint for the machine, shooting a glare at Crackle as he knew he had left this one on top of the stack the night before. Crackle gave no reaction. Nick sighed and pulled a pencil and eraser from the drawer. He stared at the page, trying to organize his thoughts.

Sensing his master's discomfort, Crackle took off, gliding across the room to curl up on the bed.

Nick tapped the pencil against his chin, unsure where to start. He'd come up with a number of ideas to implement and no idea which ones to work on first. Maybe the light, but there had to be a better method than tying a lantern to the front and hoping for the best. He ran a hand through his hair and sighed. He shoved the paper aside and pulled free a clean sheet. Sketching usually helped him focus. He closed his eyes, and the first image that sprang to mind was Philip, crouched and inspecting a trap. He locked it into his mind's eye and began drawing. With something to work on, he found it much easier to think. His thoughts drifted to the rumors, and he once again wondered how so many bought into them. Surely anyone who knew the man would see right through them, and Philip had to have spoken out against them. But then, Nick could actually see a fairly good reason for letting them stand. As Booker and Handler had shown him, a reputation like that, no matter whether it truly was deserved, was a weapon in its own right. No one in their right mind would double-cross Philip as long as those rumors lived.

There was a knock on the door. Nick sat upright and set the pencil down. "Come in," he called.

Lana opened the door and stepped inside. "Good afternoon, Nick."

He turned around and flushed. "Oh, hi, Lana." He set down the pencil. "What can I help you with?"

"Could you take a look at my loom?" She looked a little embarrassed. "Something's come loose on it, and I'd rather not make it worse."

"Of course," he said. He picked up his satchel and followed her into the workroom. He took in the room in a cursory glance. The loom did indeed look different from usual. "Ah."

"My batten," she said sheepishly.

"I can see that," he said. "All right." He set to work, Lana standing close at hand. It was an easy fix and, now that he thought about it, one that Lana should have been able to manage herself. He glanced around the room. "More horse blankets?"

Lana rolled her eyes. "Oh, don't get me started. All those new to the scene riders insist on their horse having the best blanket, never mind the fact no one ever gives them mind once the competition starts."

"Pays well, though, doesn't it?" asked Nick.

"I suppose it does," she said. "But I'd be a dirty liar if I didn't say I was waiting for winter. Put the horses to stable, and I'll make something different for a change." Lana sighed. "Assuming I can get them delivered."

Nick frowned, leaning against the door. "What do you mean?"

"Ernie Stabler has so kindly informed me that his cart horses are booked solid through the end of the week. So I'm assuming that to get these to the ranch, I'm going to, amusingly enough, have to walk to the ranch, rent one of Philip's, and take his share of these there with his own horse. Waste of time and money," she grumbled.

Nick hesitated a moment. He inhaled deeply and said, "I could help with that."

Lana looked at him quizzically. "Stabler owe you?"

"Nothing like that." He shook his head and rubbed his neck out of nervousness. "Actually, you'd be doing me just as big a favor."

"What's that?"

"Would you be interested in helping me test out my machine?"

The next day was marked by clear skies and a warm breeze. Nick had risen early to secure Avner's cart to his machine, which he was for now calling a two-wheeler for the sake of at least having something to call it. Lana joined him directly after her spar with Avner, the claymore still sheathed on her back and her skin glistening with sweat. Nick tried not to notice. They loaded the blankets, three dozen in all, into the cart.

"Oh, hello," said Lana, bending down. Crackle was on the prowl.

"What are you doing here?" said Nick. "Thought you were going to stay here."

Crackle climbed onto her shoulders. "Oh, he can come. I've no problem with it."

"All right," said Nick. He climbed onto the bench and signaled for her to do the same. Lana moved slowly, unsure of the vehicle's ability to balance, but after stowing her sword in the cart, she slid carefully in behind him. Nick kicked the two-wheeler into motion, and Lana started in surprise, holding tightly to him to steady herself. He felt himself turn red.

The cart rattled along behind them but stayed firmly attached. Nick sighed in relief; he'd been worried it would come free. A few people eyed them oddly as they rode by. Nick's contraption was an odd enough sight on a normal day, adding a passenger and luggage didn't help matters. But they gave them a wide berth, which made the trip easier.

Once out of town, things were quiet, moreso than usual. He felt Lana's grip tighten and heard Crackle hiss.

"Stop," whispered Lana.

Not thinking twice, he did. "What is it?"

"Trouble," she replied, dismounting. She retrieved her sword and assumed a defensive stance. "Show yourself!" she shouted.

Nick climbed off as well, and Crackle leapt from Lana's shoulders to his, curling defensively around his neck. Nick reached into his satchel and pulled out a wrench, the best makeshift weapon he could manage.

The bushes rustled, and two men stepped out, both armed with knives with bandanas and masked. Nick figured neither could afford a pistol...and made a mental note that he should get around to buying one for himself. The roads had been getting worse of late as this incident proved.

"Hand over yer valuables," said the first man, the taller and paler of the two.

"No," said Lana, flatly.

"Oh, big man hiding behind a lady, eh?" he said.

Nick shrugged. "Sounds about right."

"Don't that just rankle?"

Nick shook his head. "Not really."

Lana sighed. "Drop the knives, and I won't have to hurt you much."

"Ah, but we've got you outnumbered."

Nick frowned. "It's two-on-two."

"Oh, so you are counting yerself."

Lana shot Nick a look. "Get behind the cart. I'll take care of this." Nick hesitated but complied. Lana was far more versed in combat than he, and he wasn't about to argue with anyone trained for the local militia. He stood behind the cart, ready to move if necessary.

As soon as he was out of the way, Lana charged forward, a wordless cry heralding her attack. Tall and pale dropped the knife; he hadn't expected her to actually do anything. He stumbled out of the way. Lana kicked the knife in the opposite direction and turned her attention to his shorter companion. Nick could tell from the look on his face that he was deeply conflicted about the idea of fighting a woman, a costly mistake. Lana didn't even bother with the sword, hip-checking him and knocking him to the ground with a sweep of the leg. She also confiscated his knife.

"Now, are we going to do anything else this stupid?"

The fallen men shook their heads.

"Get out of here before I change my mind."

They did. Lana walked back to the cart, slipped the sword back into its sheath, and dropped it on the blankets again. She flashed Nick a smile.

Nick gaped at her.

"What?" her smile faded.

"That was amazing," he said after a moment.

"Really?" She looked surprised. "Not the word I'd expected."

"Well, you should have!" Nick climbed onto the two-wheeler, holding out a hand for her. "Stopping two armed robbers, minimal injury on either side. That's impressive."

"And unfeminine," she replied. "Or so I've been repeatedly told." Lana sighed as she resumed her seat. "Ignore me, Nick. I'm in a mood."

Before long, Philip's ranch was in sight. It looked to be a slow day for business; none of the amateurs from Nick's last visit were present. He assumed this was due to their preference for the races than the exhibitions.

"To the house?" he suggested.

Lana shook her head. "It's midmorning. You really think Philip's still inside?"

Nick shrugged. "I'm not usually out here this early. Let's just try and find someone." He snapped his fingers, and Crackle's head shot up. "Guard those," he said. Crackle leapt into the cart and curled up beside the sword, basking in the sun.

"You really think that's necessary?" asked Lana.

"It makes him feel important," said Nick.

Lana led the way. They explored the ranch for a short while, finally running into Maggie, one of Philip's newer hires, in the stable.

"Oh, he's checkin' traps," Maggie said. "Did you not bring the little dragon?"

"Crackle's with the cart," answered Lana. "Thank you."

"Not a problem."

Once outside, Lana turned to Nick. "Any idea how long that'll take?"

"Not really," he admitted. "But I do know where to go for that."

He led her to the underbrush behind the ranch proper. Once there, she again took the lead, her eyes scanning the ground for snares before setting her foot down.

Nick sighed. He wanted to talk to her. Need to, really. And this was likely the best chance he was going to get. He took a deep breath. "Lana?"

"Yes?" she didn't turn around.

"What did you mean earlier? When you said you were unfeminine."

That got a reaction. She stopped dead in her tracks and froze for a moment. Lana laughed softly to herself before answering. "Nick, haven't you wondered why I'm still unmarried?"

He didn't answer right away. "Well, sometimes people just don't want to. Look at Ferra and Philip. Iris, even."

She turned around, a thin smile across her lips. "I've been turned down and had relationships ended more than I care to admit. And mostly because of what I said earlier. I'm unfeminine. I like to fight, and most of the men I've seen hate that. I think it threatens them." She sighed. "I dated a fellow militiaman a few months before you came to town. Everything was a competition to him. He had to prove that he could best me at everything." She shook her head. "Now, maybe I'm crazy, but that's not love, is it?"

Nick's voice was quiet. "No. It isn't."

She kept walking. Nick hurried to keep up. "But I may as well be honest with myself. Dan's right."

"Dan's a teenage boy who's upset with the world on principle," argued Nick.

"Doesn't make him less right. Broken clock and all."

"You can fix a broken clock," muttered Nick. He hated that saying.

Lana shrugged. "I suppose."

They walked in silence for a while. Nick shoved his hands into his coat pockets, watching the ground while Lana forged ahead. A flash of red caught his eye, and he turned. A cluster of wildflowers, poppies, specifically, grew at the base of a tree. He raised his eyebrows in surprise - he figured most flowers would be dead or dying at this point in the year. Not that he knew much about them. He reached down and picked one. As he stood, he noticed Lana was far ahead of him, and he ran to catch up.

"Wait, Lana."

"Hm?" She slowed her pace but kept walking.

Nick spoke slowly, afraid of tripping over his own tongue. "Um. What makes you so sure that you'll never find someone?"

"Experience," Lana replied. "Unless you've got someone in mind who might feel otherwise."

The words almost caught in his throat, and he reddened. "I do."

Lana turned around, her eyes wide with surprise. "What?"

Nick held out the flower. "I like you, Lana, quite a lot. And, um, I've been trying to work up the nerve to say this for a while." He stopped for breath. "I'd like to ask your permission to ask your father's permission to court you."

She stared at him for a long moment, her face frozen. Her lips twitched into a smile, and she began to laugh. "Nick," she said, "you do realize you don't need his permission?"

Nick had not realized this, but shrugged. "Well, maybe so, but since I do live with him..."

"All right, fair point," Lana said. She took the poppy from him and tucked it behind her ear. "Thank you, and you have my permission."

Nick smiled and took her by the hand. "I'll be sure to ask him tonight."

"Freeze."

Nick and Lana stiffened, exchanging a nervous glance. Lana spoke first, turning around. "Philip?"

"Oh. What're you two doin' here?"

"Looking for you," said Nick. "Maggie said you were out here. You can put the gun away."

Philip shouldered his rifle. "Can't be too careful. Caught some idiot out here last week tryin' to sabotage a horse before the big show. Granted, you two sneakin' out here to kiss ain't much better."

"We weren't!" Nick protested, turning bright red.

Lana just laughed. "I brought your blankets," she said.

She preceded them as they made their way back to the ranch proper. Philip hung back with Nick. "Talked to her, I see."

"Yeah." He smiled.

The rancher clapped him on the shoulder. "Good on you. And it worked out?"

"Like you said it would."

Philip smirked. "Never doubt the wisdom of your elders, Nick. Speakin' of, I think I know what you'll be doin' for me come the new year."

Nick's smile became more sinister. "Oh, yes. Building you a two-wheeler of your own."

Philip's eyes widened. "You didn't."

"Oh, I did."

"Guess I've no choice, then." Philip just shook his head. "Figures. Make a bet on the impossible, and it's a guarantee."

Nick grinned. "Well, of course, Philip. Everyone knows that."
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