In the spirit of Christmas, and reclaiming my rightful place at the top of the Rowan of Rin roster. 29 entries, and I'm merely number 28? UNACCEPTABLE! MAKE IT 30!

This follows a bit of backstory I had made up and referenced in another fic, Deluge. Violet is an OC, and she pops up in other things I have written. Since the whole thing happens because of this festival, I thought I'd may as well use it. ;D

P.S. Now go read Deluge. XD

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Paper Flowers

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In general, Rowan had never been interested in girls. Annad was the obvious exception… But she was just his sister, and what he usually felt for her was brotherly overprotection. He was pretty sure that this didn't count.

He had only been back from the mountain a few weeks when this had begun to change. It had started with Violet, one of the girls in his class. She was the daughter of Maise, who kept the books; and though they weren't exactly close friends, they were the same age and so ended up in the same group for most things.

As far as Rowan had always been able to tell, Violet was basically the same as all the other girls in their class. She whispered with her friends during lessons. She giggled over hair and dresses in between lessons. She practiced with a bow and arrow on training days and was very good at it. Girl things that all girls did, he supposed. The only way she had ever stood out in his mind was her smile. It was a pretty smile, always full of hope. And whenever she chanced to smile at him, she seemed to really mean it.

In fact, whenever she chanced to look in his direction at all, it had always been in kindness. Once or twice, he could have sworn it had been apology for the way her friends often treated him. She was the only person in his class who had ever been nice to him in any way. He had always appreciated that about her, and wished her well for it.

So perhaps that was why in those first few weeks, he found that his legs turned to jelly if he was anywhere near her. And if she was called on to recite during lessons, hearing her voice made his heart skip painfully for no reason. He hadn't been sure what was causing this alarming, horribly uncomfortable feeling, and had wondered if he had hit his head recently.

He didn't have to spend a long time wondering. If his mother had noticed his sudden mood, she hadn't mentioned it; but Marlie and Allun had noticed it right away, and recognized it for what it was.

"Upon my word," she had nearly cheered, "you've fallen in love with the girl!" Beside her, Allun had beamed joyously, trying desperately to contain his excitement. They had been…. Weirdly proud of him.

Rowan had gone to bed that night mortified, redder than he had been in a long time, and wondering furiously what he was supposed to do with this revelation. He wasn't sure what he could do. Just walking up to her and asking her to do something with him would have been the normal solution...

But, he wasn't exactly normal. Even if he found the nerve to try, success was unlikely. He had sighed sadly and resigned himself to suffer in silence.

Time had marched on since that evening. Autumn had faded, winter had rolled over the valley, and Rowan had begun to change his mind about quietly accepting his fate. After most of a winter that had snuck up early and dragged on bitterly, it was finally midwinter. So, naturally, Rin was buzzing with talk of one thing: the festival of lights. It was their yearly tradition of farewelling winter and looking forward to springtime, and also one of their few occasions where rejoicing in public wasn't frowned upon. Therefore, the village square would be hung with brightly colored paper lanterns. Artisans would set up stalls and sell pieces that were beautiful, rather than just functional. Bonfires would be lit, and people would enjoy sweets and street foods in that warmth.

The festival of lights was also a time-honored festival for lovers—the one time every year that couples could walk around hand-in-hand or show any kind of strong affection without being mocked mercilessly. Of course, such a thing would never do on a regular day; it was one of those shows of great feeling that the Rinfolk always saw as weakness. But for one whole week out of the year, in the dead of winter, when everyone needed a little light and cheer in their lives, those feelings were more than allowed.

It was a time to be relished, and everyone looked forward to it. It was a chance for certain people to be free for a short time. For others, it was a call to be bold, to perhaps take a risk and try something new.

Which was the whole reason Rowan was changing his mind. The months had worn on, and he still found himself avoiding Violet as best he could. He kept turning red as a beet if he was standing too close to her, and that was difficult to hide. Whenever she chanced to smile at him, he felt terribly faint. That was nearly impossible to hide.

Given that the festival for lovers was now right around the corner, he was very frustrated. He now wanted very much to ask if she would join him for it. Not that he hadn't all along, he just really felt like he was in a place to be able to do that now. After all, he had saved the whole village and everyone in it. He had looked a dragon in the eye, not very long ago; thinking of it that way was admittedly impressive. Even if he didn't feel very much like a hero, everyone else seemed to think that he was, somehow; that was also impressive.

Considering all this, asking Violet to join him for the festival should have been easy. It was only a few simple words. A brief, pleasant conversation, if he forced down his anxiety and put a little effort into it. And, again, he had faced an entire dragon—stuck his head down its throat, for goodness sake. Talking to Violet should have been the easiest thing he had ever done.

Finding that he just couldn't do it, over and over again, was crushing. Each time an opportunity presented itself, he would take a deep breath to calm himself and then walk up to her…. And then keep walking and walking, looking at the ground so no one could see his reddened, disappointed face, and keeping walking until he was reasonably far away from her.

But you looked a dragon in the eye! The emboldened, awakened, angry part of him would scream at these moments. It's only Violet—you've known her all your life! What's wrong with you?

I know. I'd rather have the dragon, would answer the part of him that hadn't changed a bit.

And the festival was now only a few days away. Lines were already being strung up around the square for lanterns, and wood was being gathered for the great bonfires each night. He was running out of time. And chances.

Desperate and confounded, Rowan wandered to the bakery that afternoon. He had thought of wandering home and letting John have first pick of his problems, but had decided against it. He was on better terms with the big man now, after they had shared such an incredible journey together, and that was good. But if great feelings were mentioned, John was more likely to get up and leave as quickly as possible than to sit and have a discussion about it. Such talk always embarrassed him terribly.

Besides, even if they understood each other better now, Rowan still hadn't decided how he felt about the man courting his mother. Almost certainly the two planned to go to the festival, themselves, as the couple they now were. That only made the boy more anxious about his own situation.

Fortunately, Allun made himself available for such things—seeing as the man who would likely be the boy's step-father plainly couldn't handle it. If he was honest, Rowan preferred that. He now knew that Allun understood his many problems better than anyone else, and could therefore give him the best counsel and comfort when he needed it. He also had a pretty girl on his own arm, now.

In spite of all his problems and deficits and failures, Allun had managed somehow. That gave Rowan hope for himself. It was why he often spent more time at the bakery than at home recently.

As he had hoped and half expected, Marlie was already there. It seemed she had been helping tidy the bakery for the day, while she and Allun carried on a conversation by teasing each other. As soon as they saw their favorite young person come in, all work skidded to a halt, and the table was quickly cleared to make room for a small feast of the day's leftovers. There was also a pot of water for tea on the stove.

If Rowan didn't know any better, he would have guessed they had been expecting him. If it had been anyone else, the attention would have made him cringe. But it was just Allun and Marlie, who now went out of their way to look after him. He had discovered recently that he was really very fond of them. As he joined them at the table and helped himself to a few treats, he decided that he didn't mind the attention.

"So," Marlie wanted to know right away, "have you worked things out with Violet yet?"

Rowan sulked in his chair. "No…"

The woman clicked her tongue in disappointment as she poured him a cup of tea. "You're running out of time, you know."

"I know that," he whined, burying his face in his hands. "It's just so hard! I wish there was an easier way to do this."

Marlie glanced at him in amusement. "How hard can it be to say a few words to a girl?"

He pinned her with a look, as if to ask if she even knew anything about him. She seemed to understand, and abandoned the idea.

"I'm truly sorry about all that, my small friend," Allun said to him, surprisingly frank for this moment. "It's just one of those things in life where if you want it, you have to go and find it for yourself, in your own way. I suppose it's a bit different for everyone."

"But you figured it out. How did you do it?"

Allun shook his head. "As I said, it's different for everyone. This didn't come out of the blue, like it has for you. Marlie has been very good friend since I was a child, myself. This love has had a lifetime to grow and change. It was the next step, that's all."

Marlie smirked at him across the table. "Whatever happened to, 'I've loved you since I was ten years old'?" she asked, impersonating him as best she could.

"Nothing, dearest," he grinned back. "I was only trying to make the boy feel better about himself."

That was another thing Rowan liked about the two of them. They were obviously in love, and probably had been for a longer time than he had realized; but most of the time, they behaved as good friends should. That simpler kind of love was still there—it just had another layer to it now. It certainly didn't stop them from teasing each other, laughing over the small things, and quarreling over the things that really mattered, the way they always had.

It really put being in love into perspective. Like everything else, it seemed easy enough. In reality, it sometimes seemed like a pain.

"So," Rowan asked, "how did you do it, anyway?"

Allun shrugged. "I think I just asked, didn't I?"

To this, Marlie hummed and nodded in agreement. "Although, now that you mention it, I can't quite remember," she added. "I think it was more of a silent agreement that it needed to happen, after all those years."

Rowan sighed, dismayed that there had been no grand, unforgettable gestures to go with that. It was unlike these two very bold, very loud people to do something so meaningful so quietly. In a way, that made it all the more lovely. And slightly aggravating.

He drummed his fingers and the table, glanced into a corner, and muttered mostly to himself, "I wonder what John did…?"

Marlie overheard this and scoffed, looking exasperated. "John is an idiot," she said flatly. "He probably stammered and tripped over his own words the whole time, until your poor mother took pity on him and just said yes. I swear, I love the man to death, but honestly."

Rowan wasn't sure how to feel about any part of that comment; but it was kind of funny to think that Strong John, who feared nothing, could have just as much trouble speaking to a girl as a shy little boy. He couldn't help smiling a bit. "You think so?" he asked.

"Certainly," Marlie said with a faint shrug, as if it were nothing. "Oh, remind me to tell you some stories about that man, sometime."

"I… I think I like not knowing."

"That's a shame. They are very good stories. Perhaps you will change your mind, someday."

"Yeah," he sighed. "I do that a lot lately…"

He hadn't meant to look so defeated, but he knew at once that he did. He could see it the sympathetic faces of his older friends. They no longer pitied him as they used to, but they clearly felt deeply for his troubles—understood his troubles, even—and wanted to help him.

"Marlie, my dear, think. Think hard," Allun insisted. "There must be something we can do for him."

Marlie tapped her cup of tea, looking doubtful. "Little birds must leave the nest sometime," she pointed out.

"But not when they're just now learning to fly. We can help him, I'm sure of it. We must."

"But we can't fight all his battles, either. How else will he learn for himself?"

"I'm not saying that we should. I only mean…"

He trailed off, and then his face brightened with an idea.

"I always knew I was brilliant," he declared, jumping up from the table. "Wait right here. I have just the thing."

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And so it was that Rowan went to his lessons the next day, armed with a bunch of paper flowers. Allun had spent the rest of that afternoon teaching him how to fold scraps of parchment in just the right places, so that they took the shapes of petals, leaves, and stems. While they had done this, Marlie had run back to her house and returned with a few pots of bright red and green dye to paint those delicate folds with.

After a few hours and several misshapen, splotched wads of ruined parchment, Rowan finally had six presentable paper roses. Explaining them to his mother and curious little sister had been awkward, but they had been charmed at the idea. Jiller had even seemed proud of his effort.

"I'd like to see any girl in the village turn those down," she had said, gently taking the bunch from his hands. "Let us find a safe place to keep these until morning, where they will be safe from smaller hands."

He had half feared that she might "accidentally" dispose of them while he slept, because it might have appeared childish and embarrassing to her. When he came downstairs in the morning, he found them perfectly intact, waiting for him in a vase on the kitchen table.

Being in love, herself, perhaps she didn't find the paper flowers so childish, after all. After that, he decided to give his mother a little more credit than he had been lately.

Making the paper roses had been fun, and a welcome distraction from his anxiety; but he had wondered if they would actually help him at all. He had counted on them making him feel more clumsy and stupid than ever before. However, as he carried them off to his lessons, he felt that they really had given him some confidence. Having something solid and real, which he had worked so hard on in hand, made his decision feel more final. Like there was an end to all this. It would be a shame to have worked so hard making these roses perfect, only for them to never meet their destiny.

As he walked, he smiled at the thought that perhaps Allun had counted on this. Now that he had something real to anchor himself to, and something small to show for even if things went poorly, he felt much better. No one else could have predicted his personality and needs, after all.

I hope Violet likes these, in any case, he thought to himself. And if she turns them down… I can always give them to Annad. That will make her feel special, indeed. I shall have to make some for her, too, since she liked them so much. I wonder if I could make and sell these at the festival…?

As he had come to expect, seeing Violet made him terribly nervous. There she was, as always—one in a gaggle of other girls, chatting excitedly about whatever girls chat about. But there was also her pretty smile, making his knees melt under his weight. For a long moment, he thought of abandoning his mission yet again, as he always did. But he took a deep breath, gripped his six roses a little tighter, and willed his feet to do his bidding this time.

With a thrill of many feelings, he found himself marching with purpose right up to Violet.

Or, at least, he was pretending to have a purpose. His heart was still hammering in his chest, unable to believe he was actually going to go through with it this time. He didn't have to wonder much how red his face was. He knew he must have looked sunburned.

That whole gaggle of girls noticed him right away, and they also looked surprised to see him coming straight toward them. They typically thought as much of him as he did of them; but since he had returned as a hero, at least they weren't horrid to him anymore. He felt like he must have looked comical to them, with a bunch of paper flowers in hand and such a determined expression on his face.

Maybe they were wondering which of them those flowers were meant for…?

Finally, he stopped right in front of them and cleared his throat as seriously as he could.

"Hello, Violet," he managed to say.

To his relief, she smiled her nice smile. "Hello, Rowan," she answered.

Well she hadn't told him to get lost. He had already gotten farther than he had expected.

"Can I… Talk to you… Please…?"

He had managed to get all the words out in the proper order without sounding like a lunatic. Again, father than he had expected.

Violet nodded politely to her friends. "I'll meet you in a few minutes, okay?" she said to them. The rest of them all let her walk off with him. One or two of them even looked bit envious.

How was this even happening…?

Once they had gone off a bit, he stopped and held out his bunch of flowers. He had hoped to be more casual about it, but he suddenly gave up. He just held them out stiffly, terrified to look right at her.

"I made these for you," he blurted out, squeezing his eyes shut in terror. "They're made of flower—I mean—paper—so, they won't die—unless you water them—so don't water them—here…"

He had braced himself to hear uproarious laughter, because he could only imagine how ridiculous he looked. Instead, he heard a gasp of pleasant surprise, and looked up as Violet accepted his offering. She looked delighted.

"You made these for me?" she asked. "Why, they're beautiful! I love them! Thank you."

"Oh! Okay. Um…"

Once again, much farther than he had expected. He hadn't even bothered planning what he would do at this point, because it had seemed so out of reach. While Violet went on admiring her present, he rubbed his neck sheepishly, fishing for words.

"Well, that's… That's good, because… I was wondering if… Maybe… If you'd… Like to go to the festival with me…"

It was amazing to him that he had gotten so many words out at once. And in a cohesive sentence this time, no less. He was still rubbing his neck, resisting the urge to look at Violet's face, when she began to giggle.

"Yes!"

His head snapped up so fast, he looked back on it later and was amazed that his neck hadn't broken.

"…Huh?!"

It actually worked?!

His reaction had clearly tickled her, because she started giggling harder. Not in a mocking way, either; he had simply surprised her had much as she had surprised him. Seeing that he was too shocked to speak clearly, Violet composed herself a bit, holding the bunch of roses safely to her heart.

"I'll be ready at my house the night after tomorrow, at five o'clock, if it suits you," she suggested with an especially brilliant smile.

Thank goodness, one of them was in the right mind for making plans. For a moment, all he could do was gawk at her in disbelief. Still smiling to herself, Violet turned to rejoin her friends. Rowan shook himself, and realized that perhaps he hadn't heard her clearly.

"Wait, wait, wait," he called after her, "night after tomorrow?"

"Yes," she laughed over her shoulder, "at five o'clock. If you need reminding, don't' worry. We still have lessons all week. I'll let you know."

If it had been any other girl in their class, it would have been mocking and hurtful. It would have all been a ploy to steal those paper roses for herself to show off, and make a fool of him. But from Violet, it was just an easy reminder, followed by what seemed like friendly teasing.

Just like how Allun and Marlie carried on a typical conversation. Maybe there really was a possibility here.

Rowan spent most of that morning in a daze, still unable to believe his good luck. And Violet made a point of glancing over and grinning at him often, a sure sign that she hadn't just been playing him for a fool.

For once, he couldn't wait for lessons to be over. He couldn't wait to see Allun and Marlie's faces when he told them how perfectly it had all happened.

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Afterthoughts…

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This actually took a year to remember to finish, because I'm lazy. And it might have another chapter someday. I haven't decided. I'm just taking a day or two to finish some leftovers and get them up here, because I have several short things I never got around to completing this year. This year was sent by the devil, himself.