(NO NEED TO CRITIQUE--JUST THOUGHT IT WOULD BE FUN TO FLEX THE WRITING MUSCLES WITH YOU. COMMENTS WELCOME BUT ONLY IF YOU LIKE.)

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Valencia Torreon didn't care much for spring. When she thought of spring she thought of mud. Cold, wet mud that soaked through the knees or seat of your pants in an instant and left you bone cold for days afterward that only countless blankets and a half-dozen cups of piping hot soup could cure. The earth revealed after the snow retreated wouldn't be lush and green for weeks. The world looked damp, brown, and ragged, like it had spent all winter out late drinking and didn't quite need all that bright spring sunlight as much as a stiff mug of coffee to get things going, thank you very much. Renewal, rejuvenation, a fresh start. Those things sounded good in theory but it wasn't so pretty when you looked it straight in the eye in these cold early morning hours.

Inhale.

Valencia had finished the last dram of Cartwright's Rye last night and she was still feeling it. The whiskey punched you in the lips with each sip and had a long, slow burn all the way to your stomach that Valencia quite liked. Better than half the swill they made in the FVR that could make you go blind if you drank too much. Cartwright's stuff did it the right way, eating you up from the inside out, slow, over time. Proper. It almost made her not resent the headache. Almost.

Exhale.

She cupped her hand over her mouth so no one would see the steam from her breath. An unnecessary precaution because no one was looking anyway, but a mild hangover was no reason to get sloppy. The man with the mustache and cowboy hat was still squatting in plain sight near the tree, giving directions with his hands. A shotgun leaned against the tree, its bolt handle shining brilliantly in the morning sun. Around him a handful of unshaven louts crouched in a semi-circle. Now he stood and faced her and made a semicircle with one hand. Might as well wave a flag while he was at it. They were nearly 300 yards away but she imagined she could hear his sage advice. You boys sneak up on 'em real quite like from behind. We'll fire a few warning shots and when they're distracted, that's when you three come in from behind. Or something. Did it really matter? It was always the same with these types.

Valencia squeezed the trigger.

The mustachioed man's hat whipped off his head like it was attached to a string. His hand hardly reached his bald head when she squeezed the trigger again and a cloud of dust exploded between his feet. Behind him the yokels literally ran in circles, running into each other before coming to their senses and dropping into the long yellow grass for cover. The mustachioed man executed a graceless somersault behind the tree that still left his legs and ass exposed to her scope. She squeezed the trigger again the shotgun fell to the ground.

She heard commotion in the coach behind her and Barwick stumbled out, his glasses slipping off his face as he pulled a suspender over his bare shoulder, barely covering the white smattering of hair on his chest. He squinted and shaded his eyes, peering up at her atop the supply coach. "Val? What's going on? What's happening?"

"Morning Barwich," she said as she watched through the scope as the figures cut paths in the grass and they beat a retreat. "Didn't realize you were up. Coffee's already on."


Afternoon
They reached the market by late morning and, because she wasn't looking forward to working her way through the crowd, she helped Barwick unload his wares and set up shop. It was still early for most root vegetables but he did okay on dried flowers and the fruit he'd canned over the winter. He made enough on those cherries and plumbs to see him through until June. He offered her a jar as payment but she shook her head. Then on second thought, she popped the top on the jar and took a long sip of deep red cherry juice, swished, and swallowed. It made her lips tingle but it washed down the metallic taste of whiskey and coffee in the back of her throat. She wasn't sure how her stomach would feel about it.

She was thankful only a smattering of people wandered the market with her. Not good for business of course, but she hated the feeling of people pressed against her. She could almost feel their filthy hands rifling through her pockets, snatching whatever they could find. It disgusted her to be honest, but she made her living through trading so what must be done, must be done.

The usual assortment of crap and overpriced mechanical goods and materials greeted her as she strolled through the half-empty aisles. In a few weeks she'd be pressed in on all sides so she might as well savor the space while she had. She nodded and smiled at the Trailvyne traders she knew but didn't stop for small talk. It exhausted her and that cherry juice had started to do a number on her insides.



Evening
Barwick invited her to dinner, his treat, and she accepted. He chose an upscale joint on the river and they sat outside even though it was chilly. He parted his gray hair down in the middle and wore a tie for the affair, and Valencia certainly hoped the older man hadn't gotten any clever ideas, but he let the night mostly pass in silence as he knew was her wont. They ate mystery fish and sipped a wine that the bartender swore he uncorked for them but it had clearly been opened a month ago. After the meal Barwick ordered double whiskeys for them and asked if she would like to split a blunt. She shrugged and nodded. They watched in bemused silence as their waiter in a stained tuxedo shirt expertly rolled it beside their table.

"So what's the occasion, Barwick?" Valencia asked, her voice thick with alcohol. "Why the big deal?"

He held the weed close to his muttering lips for a few seconds and then broke into a peal of boyish giggling. Valencia tried to resist but couldn't and laughed behind her hand.

Barwick shrugged shyly. "Springtime, my dear, and I enjoy your company" he said dabbing his eyes. "To new beginnings."

And he clinked her tumbler with his so hard he chipped the glass. Valencia rolled her eyes, smiled involuntarily, and drank.