Note: The final installment! Wow, it feels so weird to get here…but I chose this one last for a reason. I'm very happy with all the fluff I (somehow) managed to write, and I'd like to thank those who read, reviewed, and faved this collection. Thank you so much!
This last installment is for Kuruk, my good friend. Kai x Popuri at your service.
Popuri had about one hundred sixty seven reasons to love Winter. She loved the way snow covered the ground and made crunching sounds when she jumped knee-deep; she loved the feel of the wind in her cotton-candy hair as she sled down Mother's Hill; she loved the taste of peppermint and cookie-dough…maybe a little too much.
Yet one thing, and one thing only, ruined Winter, and that was the one thing that should have made it wonderful: the festivals.
And the fact that Summer was two seasons too late.
"Popuri, save some for the kids, would you?"
She made a face at her brother, and continued licking her candy cane to her heart's content. The stripes had come clean off by now, leaving a sharp white point behind. The sharper it got, the more reluctant Popuri was to bite it, curious to see just how pointed the sugar could become.
"You're going to get a stomachache."
"So what if I am?" she replied, turning. "Winter is the one time of the year that I can indulge myself without feeling greedy, you know."
Rick snorted. "Since when?"
"Since…now." She bit the candy cane with a sense of finality, letting the sugar blissfully enter her bloodstream. "You're one to talk, Rick. Mama still doesn't know what happened to the cookie dough earlier, and I saw you licking it off your fingers."
He blanched at that, and Popuri grinned smugly. "Fine, go and get yourself diabetic," Rick groaned. "See if I care."
"Oh, you know you love me," she giggled. "Even if I got myself horribly obese and messed up my blood sugar, you know you'd still love me." She stood up, and gave her brother a hug on tippy-toe; a little stunned, he just patted her on the back uncomfortably. "You'd love me, right?"
"I'd think you were a little crazy, but I'd still love you."
Satisfied, Popuri pulled away, and reached for another holiday goody—this time, a marshmallow snowman. "Mmph, so, where are you taking her?" she mumbled; Rick had, incredibly, been living long enough with her to translate her mouthful of gibberish.
"Mother's Hill," he grinned. "Karen and I had our first date there, you know."
"You mean festival?"
"Well, it's the same thing, right?"
She swallowed the marshmallow, and glowered at him. "Well, no, it's not. I mean, do all dates have to happen the same day every year in the same exact place? That's just weird."
Rick blinked. "Uh—"
"Really, can't someone wake up one day and think, Oh, I think I'll go on a date today, or does everything have to be structured just so? Someone could have their own Starry Night Festival in the middle of Summer if they wanted to, right?"
"I guess, but—"
"So festivals aren't really festivals at all! They're just planned dates. Planned dates that everyone has every year, so that single people feel left out." She took a determined bite of gingerbread. "I think it's mean and kind of unromantic to have everything planned like that. You know?"
This, Rick thought with a sigh, was one of those rhetorical questions, the kind where no matter what answer you give, you're completely and totally wrong, and apparently fail at life.
So obviously it was divine intervention when the door opened, and Karen arrived to whisk him away to his romantic retreat. Popuri waved them good-bye, her mouth still full of cookies, and frowned when the door shut behind them.
Last year, Popuri hadn't been so unfortunate during festival days. Mary and Ann had been single then, and festival days qualified as slumber-party nights and excuses to go out on the town to catch the latest movie. They'd distracted her, keeping her mind off of the traveler she dreamt of and longed to cuddle up with on cold winter nights.
This year, Ann had decided she thought the shy new traveler was cute. And this year, Gray—stupid, stupid Gray—had finally realized that if he asked Mary out, she'd say yes.
Which left Popuri alone, at home, munching on sugary treats.
On the other hand, she'd had a boyfriend for a good three years now. The only other girl whose relationship had outlasted that was Karen, and she'd known Rick since they were in diapers, so Popuri hardly thought that counted. Plus, it was her brother. Ew.
Elli and the doctor had sort-of, kind-of, implied they were dating last year, though neither one of them admitted to actually being boyfriend and girlfriend until this season. They'd still gone to festivals, though, so Popuri couldn't rely on the nurse to ease her boredom.
Besides, Elli would get onto her about all this candy. After all, Stu got lectured for that all the time.
"Popuri? What are you doing down here?" A soft voice snapped Popuri out of her sulky reverie, and soon Lillia had taken the seat across from her, smiling. "I'm a little surprised to see you all by yourself," she commented. "Wasn't tonight movie night?"
Was being the key word. "Gray asked Mary out," Popuri muttered.
"Oh, he did?" Lillia beamed. "Well, it certainly took him long enough! That's splendid. So, where is Ann, then?"
"She asked Cliff out."
"You mean Cliff asked—"
"No, Mama, she asked Cliff out." Popuri sighed and, cookie gone, began to nibble on some fruitcake despite herself; unfortunately, her stash of goodies had dwindled. "So, I'm kind of bored."
Lillia smiled, seeing her daughter's head droop the same way it would when she lost a toy as a toddler or complained that it wasn't fair that Rick got to stay up later than her at night. "Oh, dear, festival days can be hard. I know. Sometimes, I see Jeff and Sasha, and just think, Why aren't you spending the festivals with your husband, when he's right here? I get so frustrated."
"But don't they come play Poker here with you on festival nights?"
Her mother smiled, but didn't deny it. Instead, she looked at her daughter to say, "Darling, don't you think you've had enough sugar for one day?"
And unable to garner sympathy, Popuri left.
To be fair, Popuri figured she'd actually like the festivals if Kai were there. She should technically be really happy with herself; not many long-distance relationships lasted as long as hers and Kai's had. He wrote her letters, sent her presents, and never forgot about her for a moment when he was in town. "How is it the most beautiful girl in Mineral Town is my girlfriend?" he'd laugh, shaking his head. "I don't deserve you, Poppy."
Poppy wouldn't mind a festival every once and a while, but eh. The price of love.
She shuffled her feet, walking across the beach in a bored daze. She stuck her tongue at the empty Snack Shack (stupid Winter, making it closed) and kicked at the beach, watching the grains of sand fly into the air. The thing that really, really stunk was that if Kai were in town, he would have gone all-out for every festival. Popuri knew that without any doubt; every time he and her were alone together, it wasn't just an ordinary "I-love-you, you're-so-wonderful." He loved to surprise her, to sweep her off her feet, to make her feel special in a way no one else would.
But, stupidly, she had to spend the festival days alone, and listen to the other girls chatter about their evenings the next day, instead of bragging herself. Because, Popuri thought to herself, any date with Kai would so trump anything the other girls had. Besides, when they were together, everything was just like...like...
Suddenly Popuri realized Harris had spoken, and she turned to him in confusion. "What is it?" she asked, scrutinizing him. He wasn't asking her to spend the festival with him, was he? Harris was nice and all, but—Popuri had to face it—he was way too old for her. Plus, wasn't he still with Aja long-distance? Either way, Popuri cringed at the idea.
The policeman shifted back and forth impatiently. "Zack said you never got your package."
She blinked. "Package?"
She barely understood him as he started explaining something about Zack being late or whatever; only one person sent her presents, and that one person was Kai. Rushing a "thank you," she dashed off to Zack and Won's, shouting at the door that she had come for her gift. What it was didn't matter. Who sent it meant everything.
It wasn't wrapped, but tied with a silky red bow that Popuri eagerly tore away as she held the box close. Squatted on the dock, she tossed the packing peanuts behind into the sand (she'd clean it later; this was kinda important) and soon found an envelope perched on top of all the packaging materials.
Happy holidays, Poppy!
…Okay, so for all I know, this is late, but here's hoping you got it on time! Gah, this long-distance thing can be a pain, huh? I'd much rather start this letter off with a hug, but what can you do? Anyway, I'm over in the Virgin Islands right now, and—believe it or not—I'm swimming on the beach everyday. What a Winter Wonderland, right? Sand and seafoam. Go figure.
But it's days like these when I wish I wasn't surrounded by a bunch of suntanned tourists. I'd much rather be chasing you in the waves, and laughing when a wave crashes overhead and knocks us to the ground; I want to hear you exclaim when you find a pretty seashell and show it to me; I want, frankly, for you to be here with me. And honestly? Knowing that you're celebrating a really cool village holiday is making me kind of jealous. (Popuri couldn't help but giggle at that—he had nothing to be jealous of.) Then there's those awesome cookies and cakes your mom makes; what I wouldn't give for one right now! I bet you're stuffing your face full, huh? (Popuri tried to let out an indignant "hmph!" but she found herself smiling; he knew her far too well.)
So there's supposed to be a full moon tonight. Er, again assuming you got this on time. That would be bad. I'd owe you a free snowcone. And a piggyback ride...but nah, I promised May she'd go next. Haha. Anyway, I'm going to be on the beach all the way over on the other side of the world, watching the moon and stars. And Poppy, if you look up at the night sky, we'll be gazing at the same beautiful lights.
There's no one I'd rather spend this holiday with than you, my love. And…and maybe, after this summer, we won't have to. I can't stand being apart from you, Poppy. I never could. This summer, I'm going to make a choice…and it'll be up to you to choose yours.
But I love you, Poppy. So, so much. Wish upon a star for me, alright?
The paper shook in her hands, her breath caught in her throat. No…could it be? Popuri shook her head, pink curls bouncing, and brought her hand to her mouth, the other pawing through the package. No, he couldn't have—he didn't, this—!
A soft touch arrested her attention. Suddenly her movements had slowed, fingers tracing the outline of this beautiful, breathtaking gift as a single color caught her eye: a deep ocean blue. Popuri couldn't help it; she gasped. Enshrined in her grasp laid a long, slender feather: elegant and proud. Tied to it was a simple note:
If you want my heart, it's yours. You decide.
She couldn't breathe, but her heart kept pounding against her chest, threatening to burst from the cage of her body. Good Goddess. Good Goddess. Her body trembled, legs shaking beneath her as she fought to stand up. Here she'd been sulking all day, stuffing her face full, when this…this…oh, Goddess. The dome of sky above her had already blackened, naught but swirling mass of darkness lit by only a full and shining moon.
A proposal. A proposal. After so many long, bittersweet summers, Kai had done the one thing Rick had sworn he never would. Something fluttered within her—butterflies, perhaps?—and as the clouds parted from the sky, so did her thoughts are she sorted them one from another in this tangling mess of confusion.
She'd have to leave, of course. Kai couldn't stay still, not in this town. Ricky wouldn't like that, though; he obviously didn't want her to leave Mama behind. Yet hadn't her mother always told her she could do anything she set her mind to? Hadn't she always been the one to take Popuri in her arms and say her daughter was destined to do more than sit and wait in this village?
It hadn't been the way she'd always planned. It hadn't been on one knee, there hadn't been a ring, and Popuri didn't get to pepper his face with kisses as she knew she would have. Yet as Popuri started towards the edge of the dock, she clutched the feather close to her heart and let the wind grab hold of the hem of her gown and sweep it like a train behind her. She sighed—a long, satisfied sigh—and let her ruby eyes search the sky for any glimmer of light. Sure enough, a single star lit the night like a sparkling diamond, and voice choked with happiness, Popuri whispered, "I do. I do love you, Kai. I do."
Her fingers touched her lips, and smiling brighter than the moon above, she blew a kiss onto the sea breezes, her answer carried along with the voice of the sea.
"I love you, Kai. I'll be your bride."
And upon a foreign shore, a young traveler smiled, receiving so much more than his wish upon a star.
With this, the collection ends. But the title to this last installment seems so superfluous now…see, I'd meant to make the gift a box of Hershey's kisses (that magically didn't melt, haha) at first, then it turned into a blue feather. And I wanted to end this sap-fest with something a bit more subtle, and Popuri seemed like a perfect foil for that.
Anyway, thank you very much for reading my greatly delayed collection to its full completion, and here's wishing you happy holidays in…June! (I can't even say 'Christmas in July'…darn. That's kinda sad.)