They met for the last time in a coffee shop on the corner of Montmartre and First.
It was almost noon on a Tuesday in February, and the sky outside was cloudless, a blue so pure it broke your heart to look at.
She was drinking her second cup of coffee and trying not to think about the paperwork waiting for her back at the office. Instead she was thinking about the holiday to Mystery Island she was planning with her sister, and the visit to the museum with Judith tomorrow.
He came in the door of the coffee shop in a burst of cold air and noise, and set off the bells that hung from the door handle. He was wearing a brightly-coloured hat with pom-poms, and his nose was red with the cold.
"I'm so sorry, Marigold," he said, "but there was a lost little Grundo, and then the train was late, and it turned out the driver had gotten sick and it wasn't coming at all, so I had to run the entire way here!" He jogged up and down and rubbed his paws together. His mittens matched his hat. They were both a bioluminescent mix of blue and yellow.
'Really?' said Marigold.
'No, not really. I mean, there was a lost little kid, and I did almost miss the train.'
'Can I get you a coffee?'
'I've already had two. I might never go to sleep again.'
He got himself one, and when he returned he regaled her with a story about going on a hunt yesterday to find all the bridges in the city. 'There's more than you think,' he said seriously.
After a while, Marigold said, 'James, you said you had something to tell me.'
'Yes.' The corners of his mouth turned down and his brown eyes were solemn. 'The Troubles... well, the thing is they're getting kind of restless again. I'm not entirely certain that the diet is working anymore.'
Marigold said, 'I see.' She ran a hand around the rim of her coffee cup.
'I was thinking if I left them for a while, they might calm down.'
'Good idea,' Marigold said. 'They probably just need some time alone.'
They both stood up to go.
'Make sure you write,' Marigold said, winding her scarf around her neck. 'And let me know when you think the Troubles might have settled again.'
'I will,' said James.
'I hate endings,' said Marigold. She sighed.
'This isn't the end!' James cried. He put his hat on. 'I think it's just the beginning.'
'Do you think so?' said Marigold.
James apparently had gotten control of his Troubles—he confided to Marigold that he thought the secret was the new diet he had them on—and he was staying in town. He wanted to see all the things in the city.
'There's not much,' Marigold said doubtfully, but she took him to the old buildings, and up to Merganser Hill, where they had a picnic on the grass, and to the Museum and the art gallery.
Marigold got used to going places with her friend in the evenings and on weekends. She started not to mind the paperwork so much. It was a necessary evil, but it didn't own her.
Judith noticed and said, 'It's nice to see you so cheerful, Marigold. You should get out more often.' The Lutari smiled kindly at her.
Marigold went back to her desk humming a tune.
Marigold was walking home from work. The weather had been warmer than usual today, and she was wearing a dress with tights and boots and a heavy jacket. The poplar trees on Thripenny Avenue were stark and bare, budless against the sky like so many hands outstretched.
She looked up, and there was James, waving and grinning. She'd almost forgotten what he looked like; it was like try to recall a dream after waking. He was wearing a tweed coat and trousers that were a few inches too short. She stopped short. 'James? What are you doing here?! How was Neopia?'
'Overrated. Want to get a coffee?'
They went to the café that Marigold liked. She ordered hot chocolate and he got coffee.
'I can't believe you're actually here. How are the Troubles doing?' Marigold asked him.
'Oh, you know. Troubles are tricky things, but I think I might almost have missed them. How's the job?'
'The usual,' said Marigold. 'I'm thinking about going on holiday again. Thanks for the letters, by the way. And the lava.'
'I was not lying about the post offices!' James said. 'I wish I could have sent more.'
They were finished and Marigold was standing up to go when James said,
'I almost forgot! Here, these are for you.' James produced a little bag of red heart-shaped sweets from his pocket.
'Valentine's Day? Honestly, Marigold, you have got to cut down on the paperwork!'
Marigold smiled into her scarf.
New Year's Marigold spent at work. She exchanged crackers with Judith from two desks down.
Rogelio from Packing gave her a box of chocolates when she went down with a parcel for posting.
'Thanks,' she said. She gave him a paper sack full of oranges from the tree in her garden. 'It's my first year; I hope they taste good.'
'The boys eat anything,' Rogelio said. He grinned. He was a stout red Scorchio with a large mustache. There were pictures of his family on his desk. 'Oh, here. This came for you. I was just about to bring it up.' He handed her a small cardboard box. It was wrapped with newspaper, and tied with a lot of string and tape.
'Happy New Year, Rogelio,' Marigold said, and wandered back upstairs with her package.
She sat down at her desk and shook it. It felt light, and something rolled around and clunked inside. She cut the tape and string with a letter knife. There was a lump of basalt inside, and a note. She lifted out the note and unfolded it.
I'm in Moltara, but I'm too poor to buy jewels, so I figured you would like to have the other thing that Moltara is famous for.
P.S. I am not making that up about the post offices! They're rare commodities.
Marigold hefted the basalt in one hand and smiled.
It was late summer and the leaves were beginning to turn red and gold when she got a letter in the post. It was covered in a colourful array of stamps. She looked at the return address in surprise. There was only a name.
She opened the letter and unfolded the crumbling parchment it was written on.
Enclosed please find a photo of a pyramid. I'm in Sakhmet, which is not as interesting as it sounds. There's a lot of sand here.
P.S. I bet it's been so long you thought I'd forgot all about you, but I've just had a really hard time finding a post office. Nobody here seems to have heard of Neomail. Honestly. They're still building pyramids.
The problem with having a long-distance friend was that Marigold had no one to talk to on the lengthening evenings when she sat in front of the fire with her files.
She wrote him a letter back.
Enclosed please find a photo of my desk at work. I'm in Neopia Central, which is even less interesting than it sounds. There's a lot of paperwork here.
P.S. I did think you forgot, and I'm not buying the excuse about the post offices.
She had been back at her job for two weeks. A backlog of paperwork seemed to have built up while she was gone, and she was still sorting it all. She was sitting at her desk. The closest window was across the room, and she couldn't see outdoors from here, but she knew that if she could look out she would see the city, with its lights and traffic. She wished that she had not gone to Terror Mountain.
She knew that he was travelling around Neopia. He'd said that, before they left the ski resort. 'I think I'll travel for a while.'
He was still trying to escape his Troubles. She sorted her paperwork and daydreamed about lying on the beach in Mystery Island.
They met for the first time at a ski resort on Terror Mountain.
She was trying to escape her job, or rather all the paperwork that seemed to come with her job like a bad promotional product, and he said that he was running away from his Troubles.
'What are those?' she asked.
'Oh, they are very large and black and always attacking you. They have sharp claws and sharp teeth,' he added. 'I wouldn't advise keeping them as pets. Try a nice Puppyblew instead.' He tried to stand up and tripped over his skis.
He was a tall Kyrii with big eyes and hair that stood up straight on end like a field of wheat. He had a slight limp, which he said he got from one of the Troubles. 'But it wasn't really their fault,' he added. 'They can't help themselves.'
She was a Xweetok with fur whose colour she thought could have been a much nicer shade of grey. She could only ever wear blues and purples, and they made her look so drab. In her white ski-suit she thought she resembled a slightly-burnt marshmallow.
Afterwards they drank hot chocolate indoors, looking out at the icy slopes. She was shivering even in her down jacket.
'Do you know what day it is?' he asked, grinning.
'No,' she said. She was thinking that she didn't care for skiing. Terror Mountain seemed too cold and lonely. She should have holidayed somewhere warm, like Mystery Island.
He produced a rose from his pocket with a flourish. 'Valentine's Day.'
Marigold took the rose. It was pale pink flushed with gold, like the sunrise. 'Is this the start of a friendship?' Marigold asked.
'No,' James said thoughtfully. 'I think it's the end.'
Marigold laughed. 'That makes no sense.'
James grinned. 'Depends on how you tell the story.'
.some other time
She was coming back from a walk one day in the late evening, when the dusky purple clouds were gentling guiding the sun to bed behind the steel spires of the city. She was just rounding the corner to her house when she spotted someone leaning against a signpost. The figure was familiar; a tall Kyrii with short hair sticking straight up like the cap of dandelion, and a huge grin. Her heart quickened, and she sped up.
'James!' she called out.
'Hey, Marigold, guess what day it is!' he yelled. He pushed himself off the signpost. 'It's—'
She started to run, laughing, the wind blowing her hair out behind her like a streamer. 'Valentine's Day!'