Friday, February 23, 2018

Fairy Tales - Part Ten

“What happened?” Crill asked immediately.
Jac sat with them, wrapping his arms around his knees and resting his chin on them.  “Fin’s dad said he’s safe.”
When he stopped there, Crill elbowed him.  “And?”
“And, I’m not sure what to think.  Emre said Fin wasn’t expecting me as his match.  Which is kind of what you said, Crill, but I still don’t understand.  I’m really thinking he doesn’t want me.”
“But that’s not what Emre said, right?” Sera clarified.
“No, he said what I told you, and that Fin would come to me after he did some necessary things, although I don’t know what those are.”
“Maybe he’s figuring out how to approach you?” Sera suggested.
“Yes, that’s a good observation,” Crill agreed. 
“What’s to figure out?” Jac questioned.
“Well, maybe Fin didn’t expect to match with a boy,” Crill proposed.  “It’s not unusual to be matched like that, but it’s the less common combination.  Maybe that’s what put his wings in a tizzy.”
Jac hadn’t considered that, and thinking back on his own meeting with the Bond Guard, he had also been surprised at discovering Fin was his match.  He hadn’t expected a boy either.  “Maybe,” he conceded.
“Are you going to seek him out?” Sera asked.  “Did Emre tell you where he was?”
Jac shook his head.  “Emre said he’d tell him where I could be found and that Fin would come to me.”
“Oh, that’s right.  You did say that,” Sera remembered.  “Do you know when he’s coming?”
“No, and…” he looked somewhat reluctantly at his friends, “could I stay with you until then?  I don’t…I just feel like I can’t sleep at my place until Fin’s with me.  It’s supposed to be for us.”
“Of course you can stay,” Crill declared, and Sera was nodding without hesitation.
“You can be there anytime, you know that,” she told him.
He breathed a sigh of relief.  “I don’t want to crowd you, but thank you.”
Jac didn’t really know what to say after that, since he honestly was at the point that he didn’t want to discuss his distressing situation anymore.  He stood after a few minutes and fluttered his wings enough to lift him off his feet while addressing his friends.  “I’ll be flying.  See you tonight?”
The couple nodded and he took off without looking back to them, thinking they might want to continue from where he’d interrupted. 
He flew through the now-familiar surroundings.  It was easy to see why his kind dubbed this area as Apple Hollow.  More than twenty healthy apple trees grew in this patch, although they weren’t the only fruit to be found.  A half dozen sweet cherry trees mingled in amongst the apples, and a strong patch of earth on the outskirts of the trees hosted lush blueberry bushes.  The scent of the fruits was rich and mouthwatering. 
With an experienced eye, Jac checked each individual tree, making sure they were healthy, and used his inner magic to heal small scars or remove harmful insects to places they couldn’t damage.  He loved being a Nature Nurturer, and seeing healthy fruit and flowers were things he never took for granted. 
When he’d done all he could amongst the trees, he flew further out, toward a place he was fairly sure no other fairies neared.  It was a placed Jac indulged his fairy curiosity more than he perhaps should, but it was also a place that held memories with Fin.
Flying carefully to make extra sure he wouldn’t be seen by those who couldn’t be trusted, he neared his destination and kept his eyes peeled for a sight that was sometimes there and sometimes not.  This time his gaze quickly found what he was looking for—the flimsy little house the humans, Matt and Ricky, lived in when they came to the fairy woods. 
Since coming across these two with Fin the first time, Jac had sporadically returned to this location, both out of curiosity of the human creatures, and to make sure they didn’t wander too close to the densest parts of the forest where the fairy communities were.  The two human males weren’t always here when Jac checked, but he had noticed that they came and stayed for one or more nights about every other moon cycle.  Although, the visits had increased lately.  He’d seen them spend two or three nights here four times over the last six weeks.  He wasn’t sure what to think about that, but since they never wandered terribly far from their portable house, he didn’t feel there was any danger about them being there.
Another reason he kept returning to check on them was his own curiosity over their relationship.  It was clear they were mates, and what Crill had said to Jac was true—matched-gender matings weren’t unusual in fairy culture, but they weren’t the most common pairing either.  Jac knew a few couples like that both in the section of forest where he grew up and in Apple Hollow, but he didn’t know them well, and wasn’t comfortable asking them anything.  He knew he couldn’t ask the human mates either, but he could observe them—which he did as often as he was able.
In some ways, he almost felt like he knew Matt and Ricky as well as Crill and Sera.  He listened to their conversations and watched how they interacted.  They kissed and touched in similar ways that fairy mates did.  Although, they did have some activities that were very odd to Jac. 
He’d been a bit frightened the first time he witnessed some of those activities, but he now understood them to be punishments.  They were very different from fairy discipline.  When disobedient or disrespectful, younger fairies were usually punished by having their wings grounded or their flying boundaries restricted. 
Matt and Ricky seemed to do a similar version of those as well, but they did more.  Jac observed that Ricky deferred to Matt, although Jac didn’t fully understand why, and that Matt decided on consequences when a wrong was done.  It had seemed strange to Jac that Matt sometimes made Ricky stand so close to a tree that it would have made Jac’s eyes cross, and Ricky had to stay there and stare at the tree until Matt said he was done.  At first, Jac thought there might have been something special about the tree, but it wasn’t always the same tree Ricky was forced to stare at, so he knew that assumption was wrong. 
Other times Matt gave a book to Ricky—Jac was very proud that he’d learned what a book was since fairies had nothing like them!—and told him to put special words on the book’s insides.  Jac still wished he understood the magic that made those odd symbols appear in the book when Ricky moved his hand over it.  He would have loved to know how to do that!  Although, Ricky seemed to find the activity tedious and he whined about doing it quite a bit. Jac didn’t like that part.  The whining irritated him, and he usually left soon after Ricky started that particular endeavor.
The activity that had frightened Jac though was the one that always made Ricky, and even Matt sometimes, cry.  Occasionally, Matt would remove the clothing from around Ricky’s legs and make him lay across his lap.  Then Matt would smack Ricky’s rump over and over until it turned red.  Usually he used his hand to do this, but a couple times he’d used a fallen tree limb or a strange flat object from inside their tent. 
Jac did not understand why Ricky did not run away when Matt said he was going to get a spanking—the strange word that always preceded the rump smacking—when it clearly hurt both of them.  Sometimes Ricky did argue about not deserving to be spanked, but he never ran away or seemed afraid of Matt.  In fact, whenever Matt ended the smacking, the two of them hugged and held each other for a long time afterward.  It was like they loved each other more at that time, and Jac still didn’t understand it, although he was coming to believe that it did seem to do something good for the two humans’ relationship.
Now, as he drew closer to the little house, he looked and listened carefully for Matt and Ricky.  There were no shadows moving about in their shelter, so he knew they weren’t in there.  There was, however, the stone circle the young men always arranged to contain their fire, and the bags he usually saw them carry on their backs were on the ground by the stones.  He waited, hidden amongst the leaves of a tree, for the humans to show.
It was only a few minutes before the crunch of dried leaves under footsteps preceded Matt and Ricky’s arrival.  They were holding hands and laughing at something, which made Jac feel warm inside.  They broke apart when they reached their fire circle.  Matt squatted down and began assembling twigs and then small logs within the stones.  Jac watched Ricky grab their two bags and take them into the flimsy house, then come back out with a couple small items in his hands.
“Matches or lighter, Matt?” Ricky asked.
“Matches.  It’s dry enough that I don’t think we’d waste one.  Want hot dogs or ‘poor man’s spaghetti’?”
“Spaghetti.  The hot dogs are still frozen, and I’m too hungry to wait for them to thaw.”
“Me too.  Get out the pot and the one of the water jugs then while I get the fire started.”
The two of them easily moved around each other, seeming to Jac to know what the other was doing or needed without a lot of words shared.  Matt put a pile of strange, skinny sticks into the pot of water when it boiled, and they became soft and kind of wormlike in Jac’s opinion.  Then he poured the water out of the pot and replaced it with a container of something red that smelled like tomatoes.  The scent was mouth-watering in a few minutes and Jac wished he could try the food that the two humans were soon scarfing down.
After they ate, they cleaned up from their meal, and then Matt began pressing his body closer to Ricky’s.  Jac watched with a mix of fascination and jealousy as Matt nuzzled at Ricky’s neck, and then began kissing Ricky’s jaw, slowly moving toward his mouth. 
It was clear Ricky was enjoying the attentions by the sighs and soft moans that passed through his lips.  When the two young men started to remove each other’s clothes, Jac knew it was time for him to leave.  They deserved privacy when they shared their bodies with one another, although Jac could admit in his head that a burning curiosity in him sometimes tempted him to stay.  Like all fairies, what he knew about a mated couple’s private relationship came from what his parents had told him the night before his Bond Guard meeting, and from the Bond Guard himself.  Everything else would have to be learned between him and his mate.
Those thoughts brought his mind very quickly to Fin, and his heart again felt a heaviness as he flew to Crill and Sera’s home.  Would he ever share the sweetnesses a couple explored with one another in private?  Would he ever laugh with Fin as Matt and Ricky did with one another, or as Crill and Sera did?  Would he ever even get to share the house he’d made for Fin?
That house he now stood in front of.  He had been so hopeful when building this dwelling.  He’d made their home at the base of a strong forest tree with deep roots; a tree unlikely to release from its foundation from either strong winds or flooding waters.  A tree with a wide enough trunk that Jac had been able to hollow out sections of its insides to create multiple rooms and levels without damaging its health.  A tree that neighbored the one Crill and Sera had built their home into.
Jac hoped that Fin would enjoy Crill and Sera’s company as he did, and that his mate would be happy to have them as neighbors.  For nearly the last year he’d daydreamed as he’d worked, and often thought of the ways he and Fin would spend their days—working together as a Nurturer and Earth Reader, sharing meals and games with Crill and Sera, exploring new and old places in the forest, and maybe even traveling a bit further to places neither of them had been.
He sighed and turned his back on his own front door, moving nearly silently to his friends’ home.  Better to enter this one filled with companionship than the empty residence his house currently was.

Fin had gone home after his evening with Luna.  The decision was made partly to keep his parents from worrying, and partly to keep himself from staying near a future that wasn’t meant for him.  It wasn’t surprising to see both his parents were awake, and despite the late hour, he told them of his conversation with Luna.  He’d been hugged and comforted, but he still wasn’t the happiest of fairies.
“Will you go to Jacoby now,” his mother had asked.
It had taken him a moment of consideration, but he nodded.  “I need to apologize to him, and to explain.  I’m not sure what to do after that though.”
“What do you mean?” his mom questioned.
“I just…I don’t know how to stop loving Luna and connect with Jac,” he confessed, and felt ashamed of his feelings.  “What if he doesn’t want me to be his mate after I ran away like I did?”
His father answered in confidence.  “Jacoby has been waiting a long time for his chance to be matched with you.  I do not believe he will just push you aside.  The two of you need time together, and if it is difficult you can speak to me as a Cultivator, or even go back to the Bond Guard for advice.  That is part of his role, as I’m sure he said to you.”
Fin nodded slowly and thoughtfully.  “He did…but I still need to speak to Jac first.”
“You do,” Emre agreed, and proceeded to tell Fin exactly where Jac had been living.  “I told him you’d come to him after making your necessary changes, and you’d be wise not to delay in offering your apology.  When do you plan to go?”
“Tomorrow,” Fin decided, although he was tempted to put it off.
“Good,” his parents said unanimously. 
“I’ll make a hearty breakfast for you in the morning before you leave.  Don’t even think of flying off without eating,” his mother warned.

The following morning, Fin’s nose said the breakfast his mother cooked would taste wonderful, but anxiety was making his stomach feel as squirmy as a bug in a spiderweb.  He managed a portion of sweet potato hash and mint water, but stopped there.  With hugs from his parents, and a few more words of advice from his father, he started on his way to Apple Hollow.
Despite knowing he shouldn’t keep Jac waiting longer than necessary, Fin couldn’t help flying slower than was typical for him.  He tried to work out an apology as he flew, and an explanation, but neither was coming easy to him.
Eventually, the sweet scent of ripe apples tickled his nose, and he knew he had to be very close to his destination.  Soon the copse of apple trees his father spoke of came into sight, and he admired and enjoyed the time it took to fly through them.  Just beyond the grove there was a small meadow of tall grasses and flowers, and Fin offered hellos to the bees and butterflies that were enjoying the nectar of the floras.  He didn’t linger though, but continued on into another grouping of trees, denser than the small orchard he’d just gone through, and set his sights for the oldest and tallest trees he could find.  It was among them that he’d find the fairy community where Jac had been living.
In a short while, signs of fairy life could be seen.  He saw several lovely homes, blended so well into the environment that only those familiar with them would recognize the abodes that they were.  A gourd garden also caught his eye in one section, and he quickly realized the dozen or so of the fleshy fruits had been hollowed out and were being used as food storage facilities.  Fin had heard that some communities were starting to do such things to make sure no fairy or animal went without during droughts or cold seasons.  He was tempted to take a closer look at the gourds, but forced himself to turn away.  Finding Jac was more important.
Very soon he heard the voices of fairies, and he smiled as his eyes landed on a group of young ones swinging on vines and shouting to each other.  Not far away, their parents were chatting and watching the children.  He chose not to pull their attention away from the playing kids and flew further on. 
He soon came across another fairy at the same time that his Reader-senses picked up on the faintest scent of old smoke.  He immediately followed his instincts to the ground where the other fairy was patting a patch of earth that had clearly been victim to a fire.  Compassion welled in him as he knelt down and began soothing the ash-laden earth as the other boy was doing.
“What happened,” he asked with quiet respect to the other fairy, while they both dug their fingers into the dirt and massaged its vulnerable depths.
“Lightning strike,” the young man murmured.  “Over a year ago now.”  He glanced toward Fin.  “You a Reader?”
Fin nodded, half his attention on the fairy and half on the ground beneath him.  “The depths are healing, I can tell, but it was a deep wound.”
“Yes.  The struck tree did not survive it, but we’ve planted a seed of his, and we hope that an heir from his branches will renew a foundation here and grow strong.  I’ve been coming frequently to encourage the ground’s healing.”
Fin let his fingers sink deeper into the soil.  There was clearly still a lot of the deathly ash of the lost tree in the dirt, but in the deeper parts, Fin felt the underlying health of good earth. 
Concentrating his senses, he sought for the planted seed and rejoiced when the soil spoke to him, guiding him to the embryonic tree. 
“Yes, there you are,” he whispered.  “Are you growing?  Have you needs?”
He listened carefully, and then shifted his attention briefly to the other fairy.  “Have you water?”
The young man, who appeared around Fin’s age, nodded.  “Is it thirsty?”
“Yes, but don’t offer the drink to the top layer.  It’s still mostly ash.”
His companion looked confused.  “How can we water the seed then?”
“I’ll show you,” Fin told him.  “Just give me one moment…” 
He returned his concentration to the earth and young seed in its depths, and then gave a determined nod.  “Poor the water over me.  I’ll guide it down to where it needs to go.”
Looking confused but trusting, the boy lifted a walnut bucket and poured it slowly over Fin’s body.  Fin shivered once at its chill, but then used his energies to guide the droplets down his body and follow his fingers into the earth, until they soaked the soil that surrounded the young seed.  He had the other fairy soak him two more times before he knew enough had gone into the ground.
“Good.  His thirst is quenched for now, but we may need to do it again another day.”
The fairy looked at him in awe.  “How did you know how to do that?  The earth has been asking me for water whenever I’ve come, and I’ve always given it, but just on the top layer.  How did you know it wasn’t going deeper and how to get it there?”
“I only knew it wasn’t getting past the top layer because the earth told me.  But I learned the way to guide the water deeper from a Water Watcher friend of mine named Lorelei.  I’m glad I could help.”
“You really did, and maybe you could help me learn to do that.”  The fairy then fluttered his wings in the greeting of welcome offered to unfamiliar faces and introduced himself.  “I’m Dani.”
“I’m Fin, and sure I’ll show you how to water the earth like that, but I can’t right now.  I’m looking for someone.”
“Who?  I know most everyone in Apple Hollow.”
“Do you know Jacoby?  He didn’t grow up here, but I was told he’s been living here recently.”
“Jac?  Yeah, I know him!” Dani exclaimed.  “He came right after the fire that took out this tree and has been helping the Nurturers.  He’s usually off with Crill.  If you fly to that group of three boulders over there, and then turn left, you’ll find Crill’s place.  He’s got a white pebble path leading up to his door.”
“Thanks!  See you around?”
“Definitely,” Dani agreed, and waved as Fin took off.
It didn’t take Fin long at all to find the home Dani directed him to.  The front door was built directly into a healthy-looking tree, with a small roof of twigs and dried daisies providing a shade over the entrance, and a fairy with chestnut brown hair and strong-looking arms appeared to be securing the white pebbles making a path toward the door more solidly in place.
“Excuse me?  Are you Crill?” Fin asked as he landed next to the stones.  The fairy looked up, offering a smile to Fin in greeting, and dusting off his hands as his stood from where he’d been kneeling.
“Hello, and yes, I am.” He gave the fluttered wing greeting Dani had offered, which Fin automatically returned.  “What can I do for you?”
“I’m looking for Jacoby Floraman and was told you often work with him.  Could you tell me where to find him?”
A bit of Crill’s smile faded.  “Jac’s been flying a little further afield than normal for a couple days.  I’m afraid I don’t know where exactly though.  I’ll see him this evening, so I can let him know you were looking for him if you’re not able to wait.”
There was a temptation in Fin to return to his parents and put off the difficult conversation he’d come to have, but he wasn’t sure he’d come back if he returned to his home forest.  He needed to follow through.
“I’ll wait,” he decided, thinking he might go back to Dani and see about helping the other fairy with learning the trick to watering deeper earth.  However, Crill changed those plans quickly.
“You’re Fin, aren’t you?” he said, his voice making it sound more like a statement than a question.
Wide-eyed with surprise, Fin nodded.  “How did you know?”
Crill’s gaze on him was now more scrutinizing than Fin was comfortable with.  “Jac’s my best friend,” the brown-haired fairy stated.  “He confided in me about who his mate was to be a few weeks ago, and he was staying with me when your dad found him.”
Before Fin could be upset about that news, Crill continued.  “I’m also the one who found him sobbing from a broken heart when you rejected him.”  He crossed his arms over his chest.  “Are you going to hurt him again?”
Fin couldn’t look the fairy in the face, which Crill took as an answer. 
“Why are you even here if you plan to hurt him?  How cruel a fairy can you be?!”
“No, I don’t want to hurt him!” Jac defended.  “But I have to explain to him, and…I don’t know how he’ll react.”
Crill didn’t soften his gaze.  “Explain what?”
“That I didn’t reject…or, I didn’t mean it to look like that.  But,” he sighed, his voice growing softer.  “I have to talk to him.”
“Crill?” a feminine voice interrupted before either one could say anything else.  They both looked toward the home’s front door.  A pretty fairy with pale yellow hair and wings that matched stood there.  “Invite him inside, Crill,” she ordered, although the words were sweet and without judgment toward either man.  “We were told he would come to Jac, and it’s good that he has arrived so soon.”
Crill’s protective posturing for his friend eased.  He looked back at Fin and nodded.  “My mate is right,” he said with less accusation and more affability in his tone.  “And so are you.  You need to talk to Jac and he to you.  He’s been staying his nights with us and you’re welcome to wait in our home until he returns.”
“Thank you,” Fin accepted, although he was sure his face and wings had to be blushing with the disgrace he felt.  “Perhaps…maybe I could help you with this,” he motioned toward the stones Crill had been working on, “before we go inside.”
Crill hesitated for a long moment, but then nodded.  “The help would be appreciated.  They’ve loosened a bit since I positioned them, and I don’t want them to wash away when heavy rains start.”
Fin quickly got to work, using some tricks as an Earth Reader to harden the dirt around the stones and make their positioning firmer.  He tried to subtly watch Crill while they worked, wishing he knew more about this fairy who claimed to be Jac’s best friend.  He also wished Crill hadn’t said something that was now digging at Fin’s conscience.   
That persistent digging eventually drove him to speak.  “Did you really find Jac crying?” he asked, his voice so quiet that he couldn’t be sure Crill would hear him.  But the other fairy must have been waiting for Fin to say something.
“Sobbing,” he corrected a bit harshly, but then tempered his tone when he saw Fin’s eyes fill with regret, although he remained honest.  “I found him sitting outside the house he’d been working on for months to make a home for the two of you, crying like his heart was shattered.  He told me you didn’t want him, that you ran away from him.”
Fin’s wings wilted with shame.  “I never meant to hurt Jac,” he said wretchedly.  “I just didn’t expect him.”
“Your father said the same thing,” Crill told him.  “What did you expect?”
Fin shook his head and managed to look Crill in the eye.  “I need to explain that to Jac first.”
With a sigh, Crill nodded.  “You’re right.  Why don’t you come inside now?  I’m sure Sera will have something cold to drink for us.  I expect Jac will show up around sunset.  You and he are welcome to stay and eat with us.”
Hoping that offer might include some forgiveness for hurting Jac, Fin offered a sincere thank you and followed his host inside.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Shining Rock Caverns

This is a new story with new characters.  I can't promise that I'll write more with these guys, but I was inspired for this short story.  Enjoy!

Shining Rock Caverns

Keith did a quick head count of his tour group.  The limit for any tour of the Shining Rock Caverns was fifteen, and he was told his 2pm slot was full. 
“Eleven, twelve, thirteen….” He said under his breath.  His eyes darted around the room, looking for two more people who might be part of his group.  Off to the left, two young men started speed-walking his way from the direction of the bathrooms.  Somewhat roguish smiles were on both their faces, and Keith allowed a split second to admire the handsome looks of the men.  He assumed they were brothers, considering their similar coloring and apparent camaraderie as they stayed close to one another. That split second was all he allowed though, before completely focusing on his job.
“Hello, everyone!” he greeted with a smile and easy enthusiasm.  “If you’re here for the 2 o’clock tour, could you please raise your hand?” 
Everyone he’d counted lifted their hands, and he nodded approvingly. 
“Excellent.  My name is Keith, and I’ll be your guide today.  Before we begin the tour, I do need to go over some rules and safety regulations.”  He saw more than one person roll their eyes and willingly chuckled.  “Yes, I know.  It would be much more fun to ignore those, but ‘adulting’ is required during the tour.” 
That got a few laughs, and he waited for it to quiet before explaining tour guidelines.  “First, when we enter these doors behind me, there will be a rack of hard hats hanging on the wall.  Everyone,” he emphasized, “is required to wear one since we will be moving through a few low-hanging areas, and there is always the risk—though slight—of falling rocks.  Now, I know some of you are concerned about the sanitation of the hats.  Let me assure you that after every tour, each hard hat is washed and then sprayed with a sanitizing solution.  Any questions on that?”
No one commented other than a few murmurs to their companions, so Keith continued.  “Secondly, once we’re inside the caverns, do not separate from our group.  There will be places that you will have time to spread out a little bit and look around, but there will be ropes and wooden barriers to mark your boundaries.  Please do not ever cross those lines.  It’s not safe to do so and we take our guests’ safety very seriously.  There is lighting to mark our route during the tour, but it’s not bright, so pay attention and watch your steps.
“Lastly, I will be giving direction at times on places that you can touch or things you cannot; please don’t ignore that, as we don’t want to do damage to the amazing sights you’re about to see.  Also, if you have any questions during the tour, feel free to call out to me, but please don’t shout, as sound waves in a cavern environment can create instability.  Don’t fear that though.  A normal tone of voice won’t cause any problems.”
Keith was pleased to see that everyone appeared to have listened to this initial speech, so he hoped they would be a group that could be trusted. 
“Alright everyone, if there are no questions, then follow me!”
In the room the Shining Rock employees had termed the “foyer”, Keith pointed out the hanging hard hats to his group.  As was typical, a few people needed help adjusting and fastening the chin straps, including one of the brothers who had been the last to join the tour.  Mischievous eyes seemed to dominate the young man’s face as Keith tightened the strap and fit the hard hat to the closely cropped blonde hair. 
“Does that feel alright?” he asked out of habit.
“Perfect,” the guy assured. 
When Keith turned away, his peripheral vision caught the brother he hadn’t helped elbowing the other one.  He wondered what that was about, but didn’t spend any time pondering it.  He returned to his place at the front of the group, quickly confirmed that everyone had a hat one, and then motioned them to follow him into the first cavern.
The tour itself was an hour and a half long, and when done three times a day, had Keith’s feet hurting by the end of it, but he loved his job.  The Shining Rock caverns were an amazing natural wonder.  They held dozens of different rock types and minerals; one mineral of which contained a luminescent property that caused a surreal glow to the rocks.  Even more interesting was that different kinds of rocks glowed different colors.  Blue was the predominant one, but green and red were also natural sights in the caverns. 
Keith had a masters in geology and was working toward a doctorate, and a perk of his job was that he had access to a lab and the non-tour spots of the caverns to continue his studies.  Three days a week, he hosted the tours, and the other two days he was part of the science team that studied and recorded data of the caverns’ holdings. 
While he knew that few people held the same interest in rocks and ground layers that he did, Keith was still enthusiastic in the information he shared with his tour groups.  His clear passion came through, even in the memorized and over-rehearsed speeches given on every tour, which his managers claimed made him one of the best guides they had.
Keith’s current tour group seemed to have been pulled into his zeal, and as they passed through each room and he explained the sights they were seeing, as well as that luminescent rocks and unique formations the caverns had to offer, many guests offered up questions and observations.  He loved that, when people involved themselves in that way.
As he led the group to each designated spot on the tour, habit had Keith constantly counting heads.  He’d learned never to move forward unless every person was accounted for, and he took the safety of his groups seriously.  There were five caverns open to the public on the tours, each named almost regally for its individual splendor.  There was Crystal Hall, the Moon Room, King’s Den, the Empress, and the Grand Ballroom. 
The Grand Ballroom was the largest cavern on the tour and the one they were about to enter. Keith did his head count, happy to get to fifteen, and led the way into the splendor of the large cavern.  Just a few steps in, and he heard gasps of awe and respectful murmurs of admiration.  He turned to face the group in his designated spot and his smile was sincere with his own appreciation. 
“Welcome to the Grand Ballroom.  This is the largest natural cavern in Shining Rock.  All three classifications of rocks are found in this room: igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic.  Thus far, the caverns as a whole also are host to over four hundred types of minerals.  This room alone contains two-hundred-and-three different minerals that we’ve found so far.  As you can see, it also shines with all three luminescent colors.  If you’ll notice, there is no artificial lighting in this cavern.  What you’re seeing is its natural glow, and right now we’re almost a half mile underground.  Isn’t that amazing?”  He got a lot of agreement with that statement, and when it quieted again, he continued.  “If you’ll look around, there are several natural arches throughout the room, as well as amazing displays of both stalactites and stalagmites.  Kids?” he addressed the three members of the tour who were clearly under ten.  “Remember how to tell which is which?”
One little boy enthusiastically raised his hand.  “The stalactites hand from the ceiling, and they’re called that because they have to hang on tight to keep from falling!”
“Excellent!” Keith praised.  He reached into a pouch he always had attached to his belt and took out three specialized coins.  “Since you and your brother and sister are paying such good attention, you each get one of these.  You can keep them as a souvenir or turn them in at the gift shop for some special rock candy.”
The three kids accepted the coins with enthusiasm.  Keith secretly hoped that even one of them might garner an excitement for geology after their experience at the caverns.
“Another unique facet of this room,” he continued to everyone, “is that it is the only one on the tour that has luminescent minerals that shine up through the floor.  Every other room has shining rocks only on the walls and ceiling.”
One of the brothers, the one he’d help fasten the hard hat for, raised his hand.
“Yes, sir?” Keith acknowledged.
“Why is that?” the young man asked.  “How come the light is in the floor here but not the other rooms?”
“Good question.  The Grand Ballroom is the only cavern on the tour that holds Celestine in its floor.  Celestine itself has a faint blue glow all on its own, but when in contact with the luminescent mineral we’ve found in these caves, that glow is brighter and does not require any additional light from the sun or artificial resources to maintain that glow.  You might also find it interesting to know that Celestine is also a principal source of the element strontium, which is commonly used in fireworks.”
That information clearly impressed several people, including the two brothers.  Keith had to admit that it was information he’d always found interesting too, especially as a teen when he’d created some of his own fireworks.  They’d gotten him into plenty of trouble at the time, but even to this day he couldn’t say he wouldn’t have done it all over again.
The smile on his face now had more to do with rueful memories of that time than his current job, but his tour group wouldn’t know that.  Quickly focusing on his people, he explained a few more unique aspects of the room before bringing up a special opportunity the caverns offered.
“If anyone here is in the planning stages of a wedding or know someone who is, we’d like to let you know that the Grand Ballroom here at Shining Rock Caverns is a venue that can be rented for that special occasion.  The ceremony itself would be held right here, with all the natural glory you see surrounding you.  Our cavern family also have two spaces in our upper grounds—one outside and one inside—that can be used for a fabulous reception.  If anyone is interested in more information, please come and speak to me at the end of the tour. 
“Now, you have the opportunity to explore this space without me speeching you all over the place.”  The group chuckled and Keith continued.  “Please remember not to cross the barriers as you explore.”  Unclasping a special light from his belt, Keith held it up for everyone to see, flashing it several times to reveal a red beacon-like beam.  “You have fifteen minutes to sightsee, and then I’ll flash this light to ask you to please reconvene right here.  Have fun, everyone!”
The group began to disperse and Keith watched the different directions and sights that people headed toward.  The arches in this room always drew a lot of attention.  Personally, he loved a particular section of stalagmites in one of the few darker corners of the space.  The formations were so tall that weaving among them was like moving through stone trees, and he loved the sense of adventure he felt just looking at them.  He always gravitated toward them when he gave the group time to explore. 
When the fifteen minutes were up, he reluctantly moved back to the meeting place and flashed his light.  It usually took several times before everyone noticed the beam, but that was okay.  However, after several minutes of waiting and repeatedly flashing the light, he was still only counting thirteen people in his group.  For a split second he feared two of the children were missing, but he thankfully spotted them with their parents.  It was then he realized it was the two brothers who hadn’t returned.  Keeping his voice calm, he addressed those who had gathered. 
“It seems the glories of the Ballroom have permanently distracted two of our members.  I’m going to take a quick walk around to hurry them back to us.  If everyone would please stay here, I’ll rejoin you shortly.”
He hated to do it, but he couldn’t leave two guests behind because they weren’t paying attention.  With a steady but careful stride, Keith walked the perimeter of the cavern, taking care to check the places he knew could easily hide people, or that could pose a slight danger.  He was two-thirds of the way around when a muffled moan caught his attention.  Pausing, he heard it again and feared it meant someone was hurt.  However, it didn’t sound like a moan of pain; more like one of…sex?
Frowning, he moved closer to one of the roped off boundaries.  On the other side of the rope was a tunnel that was about ten feet in depth, and then turned and had a very dangerous drop-off about three steps after the turn.  Heart pounding, he crossed the rope and entered the tunnel, another moan reaching his ears just before his eyes spotted his two missing members.  They were locked in an embrace which told Keith that his assumptions they were brothers was clearly untrue.
“Excuse me,” he said sternly, the adrenalin rush of fear he’d initially felt now transferring to anger.  The two young men jumped and gasped.  “If you’ll kindly return to the tour group with me, I’d appreciate it.  I’ll also be reporting your disregard for the boundaries to management.  They’ll decide if you’ll be allowed to return to cavern property ever again.”
It wasn’t much of a threat.  Most guests only visited the caverns once, usually as a day trip or a family outing, but the two young men looked both devastated and a bit frightened by that statement.  The taller of them looked almost teary at that announcement, while the other grabbed his arm in pleading.
“Please, Keith…sir.  We’re sorry!  We just got caught up. Don’t tell anyone!  We won’t do it again.”
“Those boundaries are there for your safety, and you risk yourselves and my job and reputation by going beyond them,” Keith said without compassion, despite feeling some sympathy for the apparent sincerity of the pleas.
“We’re so sorry,” the young man still holding his arm repeated.  “Please, we won’t leave your side the rest of the tour!”
Keith stared down both young men, some of his sternness cracking.  “We’ll see,” he finally offered, “but I want to talk to you both, privately, when the tour ends.”
“Yes, sir!” the two agreed in unison.
“Get back to the group now.  Everyone is waiting for you.”
The two hurried back ahead of him, while Keith rehearsed exactly what he wanted to say to the two when the tour ended.
The last leg of the outing was usually a favorite of Keith’s.  A small waterway, with luminescent pebbles throughout it, flowed through certain sections of the caverns.  A special battery-operated boat had been positioned for the tour groups at the far end of the Grand Ballroom where part of the waterway flowed.  Keith directed his guests into the boat, specifying where people should sit to keep things balanced, and then moved to the bow and started the boat on a slow speed through the water.  The water portion of the tour was only fifteen minutes long, but it took the group through two lighted tunnels, including a spot near where they would exit that held ancient markings on the walls, proof that at some point man had dwelt within these walls.
Exiting the boat marked the end of the tour, and Keith thanked his group for their interest and time.  He gave some final directions on where to hang their hard-hats, and then showed them the exit that would lead to the caverns’ gift shop, small cafĂ©, and parking lot.
A separate door in the space led to an employee-only area.  Before the two young men could leave, Keith corralled them and led them to the door.  Thankfully, no one else was around as they entered, and Keith immediately frowned at his troublemakers.
“Going beyond barriers like you two did was beyond irresponsible and dangerous,” he said severely, his tone in lecture-mode.  “That tunnel is off-limits because it contains a sinkhole that you could fall into and we’d never get you out.  Your disregard of the rules could have gotten you hurt or killed, not to mention shows a great disrespect for me as your guide, the safety engineers who work to keep the caverns safe, and the caves themselves.  Nature is a beautiful thing, but also very dangerous when it isn’t shown the respect it deserves.  Tell me one good reason why I shouldn’t report you to management and get you banned from the property.”
The young men looked to each other, and then to Keith.  The shorter one, who seemed to be the spokesman of them, answered with clear nervousness.  “Because the Archers are my family, and I’d get in so much trouble if they knew, especially since Terry was with me.”
Keith felt the moment of shock run through him.  The Archers weren’t management.  They were the owners of the land on which the caverns were held.  George and Rhoda Archer were well into their eighties and had inherited the land and caves from George’s parents.  Their oldest son, Milo, and his wife had mostly taken over charge and care of the Shining Rock Caverns and business it brought in. They were big into conservation, which Keith respected. 
“How are you related to the Archers?” he asked seriously.
The younger man worried his lowered lip a moment before answering.  “George and Rhoda are my grandparents, and Milo and Sydney are my uncle and aunt.  I’m Cara’s son, Sean.”
Cara was the youngest of George and Rhoda’s six children, if Keith remembered correctly, and the only girl.  He’d never met her, and didn’t think she had any involvement in the caverns.  Sean continued in his pleading as Keith recounted this information.
“I’m studying environmental engineering with an emphasis in green technology at college, and Terry is studying geochemistry.  We’re both doing an internship at the caverns for the summer, so we can’t be banned!”  His look turned even more pleading.  “Plus, Gramps and Nana don’t know that Terry and I are…together.  They don’t approve,” he admitted, “and it could ruin everything if they find out!”
Keith sighed.  Being gay himself, he knew the struggles and fears that went along with it.  “Does your aunt and uncle know about the two of you?”
Sean nodded.  “Yeah.  They don’t have a problem with it, but they know how my grandparents feel, and they won’t say anything, but I can’t let them down when we’ve just arrived.  Please don’t tell them!  I promise Terry and I will be on our best behavior all summer!”
Caught between a rock and a hard place, Keith couldn’t help being sympathetic.  Grudgingly, he gave in to Sean’s pleading and Terry’s wide-eyed look of anxiety.  “Alright.  I won’t report this incident, but you two better exercise extreme good behavior and common sense this summer.  I suspect I’ll see you here and there.”
“Yes!  Thank you!  Thank you so much!  We will!”
Both Keith’s hand were grabbed in enthusiastic and grateful handshakes.  He returned the grasps and with one more word of warning sent the two men on their way.  As he watched them leave he couldn’t help thinking it might be an eventful summer.