"There you are!" she called aloud, sitting up straight, as she spotted a trim young lad, no older than seventeen with hair the color of tree bark and freckles aplenty, running up the hill to meet her. "I was beginnin' to think your Pa was gonna keep you all day long."
"Sorry, Finchley. I know I was the one what called you out here in the first place," the lad responded as he plopped down in the grass next to her. There was a smile on his face, though the look in his eyes seemed a bit nervous. Of course, Finchley didn't notice, merely happy to share his company once again. After all, they had been courting properly for a few months now.
Instead of reproaching him, the short-haired lass merely shook her head, took his hand, and laid back down onto the grass to resume her cloud watching. The lad took a moment to look at her, his smile fading a bit, before lying back onto the grass himself.
A moment of silence passed before Finchley spoke again.
"So, why'd you want to meet with me here, Fletcher? You know you can always call on me at Grams' door. She doesn't mind you."
"I know," replied Fletcher, letting his brown gaze settle on her face. He allowed her to hold his hand, though his fingers did not curl around hers. Already he felt regret pooling in his stomach. "It's just, I wanted to talk to you about somethin'... important. And I wanted to do it in a place I know you like."
"Oh?" Finchley released his hand and instead used it to prop up her head as she rolled to her side so she could properly look at him, giving him her undivided attention. "'Bout what?" Her seemingly ever-present smile was still visible and there was a sense of openness about her that made him feel more at ease but also more regretful for what he was about to say.
"Well," he began, rolling onto his side as well. He looked at her for a long moment before he let out a sigh and continued. "Do you like courtin' me, Finchley?"
The lass' smile disappeared for span of a few seconds and she blinked a few times in surprise at his question. But it made a return in no time at all and she let out a light laugh. "Of course! I like you well enough. You've always been kind to me. Even after I busted my nose, even though that was mostly that blasted Caldwell's fault, and it healed up lookin' like this. You never made fun of me for it then like he did. You're a good lad, Fletcher, and a good friend. And-- Oh--"
She forced her over-active tongue to halt when she saw that Fletcher's smile had faded completely and was replaced by a frown. Her own smile disappeared as well and her brows knitted together slightly in sudden worry.
"Is there somethin' wrong?"
The lad let out another sigh and pulled himself into a sitting position, as if he couldn't quite bear to look at such an expression on her face. He heard the grass rustle as she sat up also and he tried to look anywhere but at her face. "I was doin' a lot of thinkin' lately. 'Lots of time to do it while helpin' Pa clean his kills and all... And I realized that I liked us much better as friends before we started courtin'."
"...Oh," was the only response he heard from her, prompting him to sit up straighter and reach over to take one of her hands in his.
"Please don't misunderstand, Finchley, you've done nothin' wrong. You never have and probably never will. It's just--..." Fletcher let out another sigh and rubbed at his eyes with the fingers of his free hand. This was clearly proving more difficult that he had previously thought. It was always Finchley that was better with words than he was. "Listen, you're a good friend to me and have been for a long time. We've had loads of fun together. Runnin' through the fields with the lads, retellin' adventures to the littles afore their bedtimes, and prankin' that tosser, Caldwell -- " He heard her snort a bit at that statement! " -- but we'll both be comin' up on our eighteenth summer soon. With my older sister gettin' married in a few months, Pa says I ought to get serious 'bout takin' on more of his work and findin' the means to settle down myself."
He felt Finchley's smaller fingers wrap around his, giving him the courage to finally look at her once more. Instead of the devastation he feared he would see upon her face, there was that familiar smile again. In her green gaze he found a slight sadness but, also, understanding and possibly even a little relief. It didn't seem right that he was the one letting her down and yet here she was, giving him the courage to continue speaking when she had every right to feel badly. But that's how it always was with Finchley. She never quite acted the way other lasses in their village did. He's long since decided that that was a good thing.
"I admire you, you know," he continued, emboldened by her smile as his own made a reappearance on his face. "You know exactly what you want out of life and you go after it with all you've got. I know that you've been learnin' a thing or twenty from Mister Dewitt when he comes through here. You ran around with us lads since you were a wee thing and never got tired or cried when you fell or skinned your knees. You read and write better'n most of us and I'm sure one day you'll see lots of places and things that folks here can only dream of or hear about in all those stories... I like you too, Finch, but I don't think that you're the sort of lass for me. At least not in this manner. I think it'd be better if I courted a more... traditional lady with the hopes of buildin' a home and a family with her."
To all of this, Finchley merely nodded, pulling her knees to her chest so that she could rest her chin up on them. This entire time she had not released his hand, as if mere touch had given Fletcher the courage he needed to speak his mind. And, perhaps it had; he was always the sort of fellow who found it hard to say how he felt about anything.
"I understand; really, I do," she responded at last, and Fletcher had never felt so relieved in all his life! It just wasn't right when it was him doing all the talking instead of her. "To be honest with you, I wasn't entirely sure about courtin' you after awhile either. I mean, like I said, you're a good friend and all. But when we got to doin' things together as a couple, it seemed like what I wanted never really lined up with what you wanted. It still doesn't, does it?"
"Aye, that's what I meant. I'm sorry, Finchley."
"Eh? Don't be sorry for bein' honest with me.. I told you before that you can always speak your mind with me. Besides, sometimes things just don't work out... So, I guess we'll call it quits, huh?"
"Mmhmm," Fletcher responded with a nod of his head. The both of them seemed to sigh in unison, as if a tremendous weight had just been lifted from their shoulders. Another moment of silence followed as they watched the sky turn orange as the sun began to set. Finchley stood first and pulled him up after her before finally letting go of his hand.
"I better be gettin' back afore Grams sets to worryin'."
"Aye, I'll walk you back... Say, Finchley, I know how you are. You know, with your preferences for anyone at all. You could try courtin' someone else you like. What about Miss Aida? She's right pretty and I know you had eyes for her once. I'll support you."
Finchley clapped a hand over her mouth and giggled.
"Oh, Fletcher, no! I could never court Miss Aida!"
"Huh, why not?"
She let out a few more giggles before walking backwards down the hill, careful not to trip over herself or fall backwards.
"Because! Her father's one of them folk who thinks my preferences ain't natural. And, ever since she was twelve, Miss Aida's had eyes for only you, you ninny!"
Fletcher turned pink like a turnip as he followed after her retreating figure, as her cheerful laughter filled the air. And, soon enough, he found himself laughing too.