|Of Unexpected Gifts
Author: Moonlit Dreaming PM
Mary knows this Christmas will be different, but she doesn't anticipate just how different. And interesting. And, possibly, special. Also featuring Ann, Jack, Cliff and Claire. Secret Santa Gift for xXLittle AngelXx. Oneshot.Rated: Fiction K+ - English - Romance/Friendship - Mary & Ann - Words: 4,560 - Reviews: 6 - Favs: 5 - Published: 12-24-09 - Status: Complete - id: 5607078
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Disclaimer: Harvest Moon is sadly not mine.
Note: Merry Christmas all! This little oneshot is for my Secret Santa, xXLittle AngelXx. I hope you like it! You didn't specify either way whether you wanted a Christmassy story, so I hope it's okay that I chose to, er, take that approach. That's putting it very lightly; I don't think this oneshot could get anymore festive if it tried. It's also quite fluffy. Well, you'll see...
Of Unexpected Gifts
Enough cocoa to last through until New Years and an entire library at her disposal; what more could a self-confessed bookworm want for Christmas?
Well since you asked...
But Mary tried not to dwell on what was lacking in her life, especially at this time of the year. A relaxing break from work - not that her job was ever as stressful as she'd like it to be - and time to reflect, time to hopefully dissolve her growing writer's block; whatever she ended up doing with her time, it was most certainly welcome.
The house was slowly, but tastefully transformed by her modest decorations: a small tree purchased from Gotz, a cute paperchain made by May and Stu and a line of candles along the windowsill. Once the wreath was hung, Mary took a seat at the kitchen table to admire her handiwork over what would surely be the first of many mugs of hot chocolate.
Though she would miss her parents this year - imagine! A cruise at Christmas! - it was a relief to escape her mother's yearly Christmas tree criticism.
"Those branches are wonky."
"What's that tacky reindeer doing here?"
"Spread those baubles evenly, Mary!"
And when they'd finally finished and were taking a step backwards to get an appreciative look at the result: "...Does it look lopsided to you?"
Mary certainly wouldn't miss her mother's Christmas-spirit-crushing pessimism, though the silence left in its wake was odd. Even the comforting aroma of sweet, baking cookies was absent. If she concentrated hard enough, Mary was convinced that she could almost taste them. Unlike her, Anna was a brilliant cook.
She would probably end up heading to the Inn on Christmas Day itself, just for the company. There would be none of the party atmosphere usually provided by Ann as she, too, would be out of town. But never mind that; how could she begrudge her best friend happiness, anyway?
Mary sighed and refocused on the book she had been reading. Typically, it was a story she knew word for word. A tattered, worn fairytale from her childhood that ended with the immortal, 'happily ever after'. In this alternate universe, magic happened around Christmas time. In Mary's universe, this year at least, it was a time for loneliness.
Just as she tried to distract herself from such thoughts, a bang made Mary jump. She hoped it was the arrival of a shiny Fairy Godmother, here to grant her wishes, and not just the tree toppling over under the weight of its own trimmings, like it did last year.
Actually, it was neither.
Somebody was knocking on the door. Two sharp raps followed the first, making Mary smile. She only knew one person that impatient...
Cliff was up to his ankles in snow. He paused and looked awkwardly about himself, debating how to even begin clearing their long drive. Thanking the Goddess that the snow had finally given way to pale blue skies, he traipsed towards the front door and battled his way inside.
He found Claire in the kitchen, wearing an apron, whilst opening and closing drawers seemingly at random. As she turned to him, her eyes lingered just a moment too long on his soaked trousers which were slowly, but surely dripping puddles onto the polished wood floor. The reprimand they both expected never arrived. She was far too busy to care.
"Where's Alex?" he asked.
"Asleep." She tried not to feel guilty at the blatant relief in her tone. "At last. Do you know how much needs to be done around here?"
Cliff nodded, the snowy driveway topping his list of priorities. He would have to discreetly borrow Claire's tools. Not because it was embarrassing to have to borrow your wife's tools - though it was not the sort of thing he'd be boasting about in the bar later - but because she'd insist on helping. Never mind the fact that they had a six week old baby; Claire thought she was simply invincible.
"I bumped into Sebastian outside the Blue Bar," he remembered, extracting a crumpled envelope from his pocket, "and he gave me this."
Claire accepted it with the blank look of someone preoccupied with more important things. "Sorry, who the heck is Sebastian?"
"Err... the old guy. He's Romana's butler, I think."
That made her laugh. "Oh, how the other half live, eh?" Running a tired hand through her hair, she read aloud: "To Claire, Cliff and baby Alexandra. Seasons Greetings and Best Wishes for the New Year, Romana, Lumina and Sebastian. Well, that's nice. One problem, though..."
Cliff had a flash of deja vu. "Claire... not this again..." he pleaded.
As far as Claire was concerned, there was always time to bemoan this. She was constantly busy, but never too busy for her daughter. "I just like people to get things right, hun. And it's Alex. That's all. It's not short for anything. Why can't people just listen when I explain these things?"
"To be fair," began Cliff, ever the peace-maker, "when was the last time you spoke to Romana? Or Sebastian, whose name you didn't even recognise until a minute ago?"
It was obvious from her hand-on-hip stance, pursed lips and scowl that Claire knew he was right. He tended to be right, her rational husband. But she was saved the humiliation of admitting defeat by the first stuttering cries from up above: Alex.
Their heads turned towards the ceiling, and Claire threw down the cookie cutters. As she ascended the stairs, Cliff made a discreet grab for the shovel - which he eventually found at the back of the cupboard after causing an avalanche of bangs and clanks - "What are you doing down there?" - while various pieces of equipment bounced off his head.
Their black cat, Cleo, who he had accidently awoken, followed him outside. She sat on the mailbox and regally watched him frantically shovelling snow in preparation for the arrival of their guests. An indeterminable amount of time later, just as Cliff had lost all feeling in his fingers, the front door opened. In the threshold stood Claire, her fingers wrapped around a steaming mug.
She stepped up to him, smiling sympathetically. "Here," she said, lifting the mug to Cliff's lips. He inhaled sweet, steaming cocoa, felt that single sip translate into heat that reached the tips of his toes. It only lasted a second, but made him smile nonetheless. Claire held out the mug again. "Take it," she offered.
Cliff refused on the grounds that he wanted the driveway cleared by midnight.
"Let's just hope it doesn't snow again tonight, or you'll be back to square one!"
"Always the voice of doubt," Cliff sighed, leaning on the shovel. "Anyway, I've checked the forecast. Five times. It's not going to snow, but expect an increasing north-westerly wind and a thick frost tomorrow morning. Could be icy. Watch out for that."
Claire laughed, but it was nervous and preoccupied. She twirled a strand of fine, blonde hair around her finger - a definite sign of worry. "Sorry," she began, focusing on the white paddock, some way behind Cliff, "for being so full on."
"You know." Her blue eyes swivelled to meet his own. "I'm manic. Blame winter, it's maddening."
Cliff found himself inexplicably drawn to a skeletal tree, stood just on the entrance of their land. The branches were encrusted with solid ice, which glittered in the weak winter sunshine. "Not the word I'd use... "
"Oh, you know what I mean, Cliff! Winter just... sucks, when you're a farmer. I need to be growing things. I need - "
" - To get back to Alex, probably," he finished for her. "You'll freeze out here."
Claire nodded and took a long swig of cocoa, but didn't turn to move indoors. Instead, a rather mischevious grin unfurled across her face. "Just one more thing, okay?" she wheedled, suddenly producing a very convenient sprig of mistletoe, that set Cliff blinking in awe. "A kiss?"
He took a joking step backwards, as Claire advanced. "But there's no point," Cliff insisted. "My lips are totally numb; I'd never even feel it!"
"Well I will," Claire insisted, arms snaking tightly around his neck. "C'mere."
The person who entered when the Inn door was flung open, on the morning before Christmas Eve, was not a person at all. He was tan-and-white and had four legs and a collar; he was, in fact, a mongrel called Casper, and he was Jack's.
Ann briefly glanced up as two familiar paws planted themselves on the counter she was scrubbing. Mere moments later, a familiar shadow loomed over her.
"Hey, Casper. Hey, Jack."
"Hey!" - That was Jack, not the dog. With one hand he dumped a heavy rucksack onto the counter, and with the other grabbed Casper's collar and forced him into a sitting position. "Sit, you idiot. It's only Ann, we know Ann."
"Only Ann?" she grinned. "And I see you've packed, at last."
Jack was probably the least organised farmer the residents of Mineral Town had ever had the misfortune of encountering. In only his first few seasons in charge, he forgot to water his crops so often that he simply gave up planting them. Now, he only kept animals, claiming that cows were harder to forget or ignore. It was a strange, then, that he had ended up engaged to the work-orientated Ann.
His feisty fiancee flicked her dishcloth at him, landing it squarely on his shoulder. "You can carry on with that. I still can't shift it." Part of the bar was stained a deep, blood red. Ann, meanwhile, skipped over to a half-decorated tree in the corner and whistled. "Come and help, Casper."
Jack raised a wary eyebrow. "Is that - ?"
"Not blood," Ann said absentmindedly, untangling tinsel while Casper watched, his tail thumping eagerly against the floor. "It very nearly was, though. Another of Rick and Karen's blazing episodes. I can't remember what it was about... not that it matters, they're all the same. Anyway, she went to punch him in the nose, but obviously missed. Smack! Down went a bottle of Duke's finest. There was glass all over the place, and I had half a mind to bang their stupid heads together. Of course I didn't 'cause I promised Dad I wouldn't manhandle the customers anymore..."
With a soft sigh, she stood back from the tree, leaving Casper to rummage noisily in the boxes.
"What is it?" Jack asked.
"Nothing, really. I'm just wondering how Dad'll cope without me this Christmas," she explained, standing on tip-toe to place a star on top, as the finishing touch. "That's why I'm putting up the tree before we go. He won't even think to bother if I don't."
For a while Jack didn't reply; he continued casually wiping the counter-top, then asked, "But isn't your father supposed to be having Duke around for party? Or was I supposed to be keeping that a strict, guys-only secret?"
Ann, who was both relieved and amused, snorted with mirth. Wrenching yet more tinsel from Casper's jaws, she jovially tossed it at the poor tree. "Well! You can be sure I won't ever be telling you anything in confidence, Jack."
"Too late," he crowed, throwing down the dishcloth. "I know your deepest secret already."
"Yeah, your secret love for pink, remember?"
"No, you liar, because that never happened, did it?"
Despite the fact that she was ominously armed with baubles and glitter, Jack pressed on: "You do, you do; deep down you want hair like Popuri." He expertly dodged the first bauble. "And don't deny that you wanted me to buy you a dress this year - hey, careful!"
Within minutes, Jack was coated in glitter and looking more garish than the tree itself. Ann silently removed the dishcloth, his only weapon, from her forehead where it had unceremoniously landed. Then she laughed infectiously, so that they both dissolved into giggles. "You know, I'm beginning to think we're too immature to be getting married," she concluded, wiping her eyes with a paperchain. "And that reminds me - probably because she's ten times more sensible than we'll ever be - I was thinking of asking Mary to come on our little trip."
"Ann, we're leaving tomorrow morning!" Jack pointed out, after simply staring at her in disbelief. "Not everyone appreciates last minute packing at Christmas."
She shrugged, but her eyes were twinkling dangerously. "That's what I intend to do."
"You... you haven't packed yet?!"
Using the tree as a handy shield, Ann darted to safety. "I didn't exactly lie, Jack," she protested, "but I thought you'd need an incentive. What's wrong with setting a good example?"
Casper, who had sensed a charged atmosphere - and was, for that matter, pretty poorly trained - howled with excitement. Raising his voice just to be heard, Jack answered, "There's nothing wrong with setting a good example, unless you have to lie to do it. There's something fundamentally wrong with that." He peered through the highest branches at Ann, who squeaked. "Anyway, Claire'll hate it. You know how she feels about surprises."
Ann's head popped out the other side with her long, red braid swinging comically. "Still," she continued, determined to justify her decision, "how likely is it that your only sister will turn you away on Christmas Eve, making you miss your niece's first Christmas, just because we brought one bespectacled very small, very quiet librarian?"
A sulky look entered Jack's eyes. "You don't know her, though!"
"Spoken like a true sibling," Ann countered; she had won and she knew it. "Okay. You go ahead and ring Princess Claire if it's going to be such a problem. I will go and speak to Mary."
Jack had the reciever in one hand, ready to punch in his sister's number, when he froze. "Wouldn't it make more sense to find out if Mary wants to come before I ring Claire?"
"Oh no." Ann pulled on a scarf and headed, rather quickly, towards the door. "There's no time for that. I've still got to pack."
And so at an unbearable 6am on Christmas Eve, Mary found herself shivering outside the library waiting for Ann, Jack and their dog, Casper. She yawned frequently and wondered why she had even agreed to this.
Because you're lonely.
"No," she whispered defiantly, not because it wasn't true, but because it just wasn't worth dwelling on.
When Ann and Jack arrived, miuntes later, she noticed that Ann had pulled on a bright Santa's hat. Predictably, the dog was wearing antlers with a bell on his collar, and jingled as he trotted along beside his owner. "Very festive," Mary remarked, smiling slyly.
Ann ignored her. "Ready?" she said, to grumbles from the other two. Mary, at least, felt she had some excuse for being grumpy. It was so early. But Jack, who looked deathly pale against the wintery backdrop, was a farmer for Goddess sake! When Mary looked at him, she got the impression that he never even seen the dawn.
"We're not walking to Forget-Me-Not, are we, Ann?" Mary warily inquired. She considered the possibility of ice and snow showers; of plunging to her gruesome death at the bottom of some vast, desolate ravine. Well, Anna always did say she had an over-active imagination...
However, Ann's answer transpired to be a positive, if slightly insensitive one. "Hell, Mary!" she guffawed. "I knew you were feeling a tad lonely, but I never realised you were suicidal. Mother's Hill?! No chance. No, we're taking the ferry. You like boats, don't you?"
What did it matter? Mary just sighed, nodded and followed the others as they began a bleak trudge through the glistening streets of Mineral Town. "I suppose it'll be nice to see Cliff again," she mused out loud, "when I haven't seen him since the wedding."
"If you think about it," Jack added, "I've done that guy a lot of favours." They had reached the beach, the sight of which was more than enough to make them all shudder. "I got him that job at the Winery, saving him from poverty. I introduced him to the love of his life..."
"At least you're modest with it," Ann chipped in. Without a backward glance, she bounded along the pier and threw her bag on board the ferry to a cheery cry of, "Anchor's aweigh!"
The driver just looked at her.
It was with mixed emotions that Mary left Mineral Town for the first Christmas since she was twelve years old; that said, Ann had never spent the festive season outside of their quaint, little town. As the tiny boat continued to do battle with the waves, Mary weighed up the pros and cons of this little adventure.
Cons: She was freezing. She was on a boat that was barely winning its battles with the waves. A boat that was also rusty. And heading, for all she knew, to the middle of nowhere.
Pros: Hmmm. Nothing of significance, really. Except... a strange feeling, contrary to the evidence, which suggested that just maybe things were looking up.
Only she wasn't sure why.
"Oh! It's beautiful!" They stopped breathlessly at the entrance of "Redson Ranch", Cliff and Claire's home. Their cottage was similar to a log cabin in construction, and lay nestled amongst fir trees at the end of their property. The whole scene looked like something you'd see on a Christmas card. Even Jack stopped to offer an admiring glance.
"Not bad," he admitted. But he struggled to suppress a grin that threatened to expose his excitement. Jack tried to pretend otherwise, but he couldn't wait to see Alex, Cliff and, though he'd never tell her, even Claire. Taking Ann by the arm, they strode up the drive to the front door. Mary and Casper followed in their wake.
Suddenly, Mary began to regret saying 'yes' to this trip. The door opened to a chorus of delighted squeals and greetings. There were hugs all round. Mary, meanwhile, lingered at the back of the group, avoiding attention. She felt like something of an intruder.
"And this," Ann was saying, "is my best friend, Mary. Remember her? From the wedding?"
Of course she doesn't remember me, Mary thought. Claire was the bride, she wasn't going to recall a quiet librarian sat in the back row. Not on the most special day of her life, anyway. But Mary certainly remembered the sweet, petite blonde and politely shook her hand. Cliff, on the other hand, beamed at her. "Mary!" he laughed, dissolving her fears just a little; it sounded as though he was genuinely happy to see her - a feeling that was readily reciprocated. "Claire said you were coming."
"Didn't you believe me," Claire joked. She started shepherding them inside, only to notice Casper at the last moment. "Jack... " she frowned. "I thought we agreed that you weren't bringing the mutt."
"He's got a name!" came Jack's hot retort.
"But the cat - "
While this was going on, Casper slipped effortlessly into the house; he was later found curled up with Cleo at the fireside. The other three all shared a 'look' and left the siblings to their squabble. Cliff and Claire's house was just as stunning from the inside; it was perfectly pristine; all open-plan and gleaming wood surfaces.
It was like being in one of those films. Honestly. Mary had never enjoyed such a typical, traditional Christmas Eve. There were cookies, made by Claire, which were every bit as good as the ones her mother made. "Goddess, I love gingerbread," Jack announced in distinctly muffled tones. He then proceeded to spray crumbs all over the rug, much to Claire's annoyance.
Then Claire brought a bundle wrapped all in pink downstairs and everyone's voices became hushed and awe-struck. Their daughter, Alex, was so cute she made Mary's chest ache. The ache snaked upwards, tightening around her throat; it actually hurt.
But still she maintained that everything was perfect. Alex, who had the biggest brown eyes and softest honey-coloured hair, certainly was. The scene outside was perfect; there were light, fluffy snowflakes swirling down beyond the window pane. Inside, the fire was flickering gently bathing the room in a cosy glow...
Nothing, however, could distract Mary from the simple fact that she was surrounded by couples - of the loved-up, contented variety. And of course she was happy for them, but...
There's always a 'but', isn't there?
Somehow, being around people was more lonely than solitude. It didn't make an ounce of sense, yet it was all very real for Mary. She stroked Casper's ear, cooed at the baby and laughed at Ann's stories. Mary didn't have to force a smile, she just wished it could mean something more... for her. Was that so selfish?
"Do you think he'll come?" Claire whispered to Cliff, returning from putting the baby to bed. "It's getting dark."
Cliff looked doubtful. "I don't know," he muttered. "...Winter, as well..."
"What are you two keeping so secret?" Ann demanded to Mary's disbelief. How many times had she met Claire, her future sister-in-law? Twice?
"We're not conspiring," Cliff explained, exasperated. "No, I knew one my old roomates was passing through the area, and I invited him over. But, erm, now I think of it, I doubt this would be his scene."
Mary's heart squeezed with unpleasant recognition; she felt pure dread bleeding through her body. Old roomate. Not... Gray? Please, not Gray. The librarian would always remember the day she found out he had skipped Mineral Town, leaving no note or message, no explanation or realisation that he had shattered her utterly. She could not see him again.
But sure enough: "Did you hear that?" "I think it's footsteps!"
There was a brisk, timely knock on the door and Claire raced forward to answer it. "He couldn't have left it much later," she giggled, thankful that her ideal Christmas would now be complete. The door swung slowly open.
Mary didn't quite gasp, but she felt like it. She wasn't looking at Gray, she was instead gaping at a tall, tanned, exceedingly out-of-place young man.
It was Kai.
Moonlight pierced the window. Mary stopped half-way down the stairs and let it wash all over her. It was past midnight, Christmas Day technically, and like a young child, she couldn't sleep. Remembering that Kai was asleep in the lounge, Mary perched on the bottom step to read her book by the silvery light. There were only a few pages left now, though she already knew what was coming.
In the dead of night even the faintest creaks and groans become roaring great explosions. And if you're the only one awake, it's natural to freeze, no matter how mundane the sound. Mary felt very concious of her own pulse at that moment.
There was one sudden, sharp click, followed by the most awful, drawn out squeal of hinges. Hazy moonlight poured in through the front door.
"Wh - Who's there?" Mary stammered.
The hushed reply made her feel both relieved and stupid: "It's Kai." Yes, stupidly relieved.
"Oh, gosh, I'm so sorry, what an idiot," she rambled. Mary didn't rush off upstairs, but continued to linger in the semi-gloom, toying with her fringe. She could not avoid the glaring question. "Um. Forgive me for asking, Kai, but what were you doing outside at 1am in Arctic temperatures?"
"Just walking the dog. He was getting restless." Mary saw a shadow, that must have been Casper, rush past at knee height as Kai closed the door. The feeling of stupidity was steadily increasing. Somewhere, beneath the foreboding squeaks and moans, Mary had missed the obvious: Casper's bell.
She heard a shuffling noise as Kai came to sit beside her. In the dim moonlight she could make out his favourite purple bandana - laughably inappropriate for a cold winter's night. Perhaps she was not seeing clearly, but there seemed to be something very different about Kai. Something subtle, not physical. His eyes were still the colour of dark chocolate; they just weren't Kai's.
Mary snapped shut her book, even though she hadn't quite reached its conclusion. "You - You really hate the winter, don't you, Kai?" she asked, thinking that that must be it, and wondering why he had bothered to visit.
"I just like chasing the summer," he told her. "That's what I've been telling myself. But there's a problem with chasing one thing continually."
"What is it?"
"You have to keep running away from everything else. And to tell you the truth, I'm starting to hate the running away part. I'm tired of it. And - I'm lonely." Mary could neither speak nor tear her eyes away from him. Maybe this was the same Kai from the summer; maybe no one had been looking hard enough. "So, I've been wondering..." He trailed into silence without completing his sentence.
"Hey!" Kai's abruptly upbeat tone made Mary jump. "Did you say 1am?"
"Yes, I did."
"So it's Christmas morning?"
"Well, yes," she giggled, "didn't you realise?"
"Merry Christmas, Mary!" said Kai, resting his hand on her shoulder.
The touch made Mary smile. For the first time this Christmas, it was a smile just for her. It wasn't congratulating someone else or celebrating their happiness; it was for her own. Christmas itself would be for everyone, as it was supposed to be, but this moment was for her. So Mary was now pretty sure a 'Merry Christmas' was guaranteed. There was just one more thing...
"And a Happy New Year, Kai," she added.
"Yes," he murmured, looking at her like nobody else ever had. "Happy New Year."
A/N: That was so fluffy, so fluffy it hurt. XD I just hope you enjoyed it xXLittle AngelXx. I've never written Kai x Mary or Cliff x Claire before, so I hope I didn't ruin those! Happy Christmas everyone!