His mind made up, he put the plan into action, diving back into the water. It took him a couple of dives to get them all, but finally his arms were full of flowers. They’d been snipped off far down from the blossoms, leaving plenty of stem, so they were relatively easy to bundle and carry. He preferred not to think of the mechanism by which they’d been cut down.
The flowers retrieved, he looked toward the shore and swallowed, his throat suddenly tight and dry. “Nevermind,” he told himself. “She said they’re okay, nothing wrong with ‘em. It’s fine.”
He waded toward the group, trying to focus on the splashing of the water he was causing instead of the sounds the bugs themselves were making. He angled himself toward the center of the group.
When he reached them, he stirred up the water at the edge where most of the pollen had collected, sweeping it out into the deeper waters with the cut ends of the flower stalks. After several minutes of determined work, the behavior of the bugs changed noticeably; they seemed to lose interest in the pond, drifting off in ones and twos, heading back to the hillsides where the flowers grew.
When there were only a few left, he waded to shore and dropped the salvaged flowers near them. “Here you go,” he said, “I think you lost these.”
“Thank you kindly, stranger,” the nearest one said, nearly causing him to jump out of his skin in shock. “There’re very few who’d bother to help out the way you just did, and fewer still who’re as entomophobic as you are. You sure are one of a kind, and we appreciate it! If there’s anything we can do for you, you just let us know.”
“Uh …” he cleverly said.
The bug somehow made a sound with its carapace that he’d almost have sworn was a chuckle. “I won’t keep you; you’ve got plenty more surprises coming up ahead of you today with that one, I’m sure. I never do get tired of that, though!”
It wandered back off to gather more flowers; as he’d feared, the flowers he’d retrieved were left behind on the shore. He stood and stared after them a moment, then snapped his gaping mouth shut and squelched his way up the hill to where Sorcha waited, trying hard to suppress a grin.
“You could’ve warned me that they talked,” he groused.
“Where’s the fun in that? It’s so much more entertaining when you find out on your own.” The grin broke free of her constraints. “So what did you learn down there?”
“They don’t like soggy flowers,” he said. “I’d kinda figured they might not want them after all the pollen and nectar had been washed away, but the stems were useful for stirring the water away, at least, so it wasn’t a total waste.”
“Mmm-hmmm,” she said, eyeing the pond speculatively. “Indeed, I can see the value of flower stems for stirring the waters of a pond. And tell me, why did you want to stir the waters of the pond so badly?”
“Well, they were stuck there, weren’t they? They were just milling around, looking like they were confused by all the pollen in the water that they could smell but not reach. The only thing I couldn’t figure out was why they couldn’t go into the water.”
Her eyes widened a bit. “Oh, but you are a clever one then. That was the only thing?”
He suddenly felt less sure of himself. “Um, it’s the only thing I can think of, anyway.”
“Well, it would have to be, wouldn’t it!” she smiled. “Otherwise it wouldn’t be everything.”
“So did I pass?”
She drew herself up imperiously. “Your flower-rescuing and pond-stirring skills are unmatched in all the world. In that, you pass!”
“But indeed,” she said, and suddenly she looked more like the serious-eyed quiet woman from the office at work. “But, there was no test. Or rather, not the sort of test you were imagining that you’d find. The situation you encountered, with the Coleoptans stuck on the shore, that’s a part of every day life for them. They’d have worked themselves free given a few more minutes, and indeed, they enjoy the short break, such as it is. There was no need for intervention, though I’m sure they appreciated your willingness to help.”
“One of them did thank me,” he said, feeling a little sheepish.
“The real test allowed me to see the way in which you approached and resolved the situation in order to confirm or deny my suspicions.” She gave a slight smile. “My suspicions are confirmed. You, Brandon, are going to be a tough one.”
“I don’t feel so tough after all that,” he said. “Can you give me any advice on how to do better next time? Was there anything in particular I did that—”
She cut him off with a laugh. “There is one thing in particular, yes. And it’s exactly this, what you’re doing now. You over-think everything, and work yourself into a frenzy trying to plan for every contingency. That’s a habit we’re going to have to break you of, if you’re to be of any use to anyone, especially yourself.”
“Of course I plan things out. How can you take care of a situation like that properly if you don’t have a plan?”
“Having a plan is important, yes; I’d never try to tell you otherwise. But you’ve got to know when you’ve spent enough time planning, and spending any more will just be wasting time. Important as plans are, the best plan in the world is useless if it’s implemented too late.”
He scratched his head, trying to wrap his mind around what she was saying. He recognized the ring of truth in it, but it went against his every instinct and habit of thinking. “How do I learn that, then?”
She grinned hugely. “I have no idea. That’s the fun of it!”