Note: I'm a very bad girl. I did a lot of telling instead of showing this chapter, which is a big no no in writing. I fail. DX But hey, at least it got written! Woot!
The easy part of losing Kai was remembering. I could remember the way he'd wrapped his arms around me, let his lips find mine, and stole away my first kiss—promising more were to come. I could remember how his fingers got lost in my hair, how when he whispered good-bye in my ear, he smelled faintly of pineapple and wine. Yes, remembering was easy. Simple.
I'd fully intended to swamp Zack with letters for Kai every day, but once I finally sat down to write, I realized I couldn't think of anything to say. "Come home soon" sounded pointless; this wasn't even his home, anyway. "I miss you too much for words" sounded clingy, desperate, and stupid. "Nothing's happened since you left" sounded boring and too honest.
"I love you" scared me too much to write.
Those first few days were the worst, when I'd find myself walking to Kai's Snack Shack only to remember that he was gone now. Sometimes I'd walk along the beach, pick up a seashell, and let the sound of the ocean roar in my ears as I held it against my head, wondering if maybe these shells worked both ways as I whispered, "I miss you," into its hollow opening.
Yet time passed, as it always did. I farmed, I smiled, I waited. The first festival came, and with it came the memory of a promise I had unwillingly made him: "I don't want to hear about you sitting out on any festivals, or pining over me, or any of that. Enjoy yourself, okay?"
Enjoy myself. Ha. Is that what I was doing?
My date and I sat beside each other, arms crossed, staring at the full moon in the sky. Embarrassed at having begged him last minute, I looked away from him in shame as he asked question after question: Why did I need a date so badly? What was the point of going to a festival where all you do is look at the sky? Couldn't I do that by myself?
Uncomfortable, I squeezed my arms even tighter around myself and wondered exactly when it was Stu's bedtime and why the hell I was so desperate I'd dragged him along with me.
Things are going fine overall. I'm still growing plants (haha) and Rick is still giving me dirty looks. We had our first festival, and it was weird without you, but I think everything went okay. I still wish you were here, though. It's strange going to the Snack Shack and seeing it closed. Hope you enjoyed the pineapples.
PS: I miss you.
I folded the letter, stuck it in the envelope, and mailed it, proud that I could actually get something sent to him. The PS had been an afterthought, something I decided I could tack on even though it might seem too clingy or obvious. Zack took it to town, and it was a week or two before I got the reply:
Greetings from Fiji!
Glad you enjoyed the festival. Next time, get a real date. (Yeah, Elli sent me a letter mentioning Stu. Nice.) You can do better, trust me. A gorgeous girl like you, guys should be lined up at your front door. Believe me, I've met enough girls around the world to know you're one of a kind. (The pineapples were delicious, by the way.) See you next summer!
PS: I miss you, too.
Plans foiled, and dignity slightly bruised, I read it over and over until I'd memorized his hurried and slanting handwriting and the way his hand smudged the ink in the corner. Figuring out how to get a date for the next festival would be difficult, definitely. So many couples were taking shape in Mineral Town; I felt I would be lost in the shuffle. After all, I wasn't looking for anything serious. Not when Kai wasn't around.
Then fate took pity on me, as an opportunity fell into my lap.
"Claire? A-are you busy?"
Cliff stood outside my door, hands in pockets, looking this way and that nervously. I didn't really get what all the anxiety was about (I wasn't going to eat him or anything) until he finally said, "It's just—there's this festival, okay? And I'd go with Ann, except we got into a small fight and now she won't go with me. So I figured…"
"Yes, yes, yes!" I exclaimed, too thankful to care I was his second-choice; all things considered, he was my second, too. "I'd love to be your date. Um, when do you want to pick me up?"
He shrugged, thanks shining in his eyes, and mumbled eight was fine with him if that was okay. It might sound silly, but I didn't really care who it was asking me out at this point, as long as they were legal and male. So I hummed as I mined for ores, fed the animals, and shipped my goods, waiting for a date that I could fold into the confines of an envelope.
When Cliff showed up, my hair was flat and tousled, and I couldn't care less. My overalls had a stain on the knee, but that didn't bother me. Make-up was ignored, as was the usual process of date-preening, and I didn't even try to do last-minute touch-ups when I heard him knock. "Ready to go?" I asked, locking the door and following him as his head bobbed yes. To my satisfaction, he hadn't preened himself either; what was the point, when we didn't care about impressing each other? Once again, I found myself standing under the night sky with a date who wasn't Kai, and I pretended that fact didn't bother me in the least when, in truth, I knew it was eating me up inside.
"What was the fight about?" I asked finally, attempting to end the silence.
He looked up, blinked in surprise, then turned away. "Something stupid. I…I just need a job. Bad." His voice cracked. "I might be leaving. In fact, I probably will. So I told her, and…well. You can guess what happened next."
Something in me ached when he said that, and pity crept into my voice without my knowledge. "I'm sure everything will be fine, though," I insisted softly. "Traveling must be a thrill, and I'm sure you can visit her."
But he merely grunted at my hollow sympathies, and my well-wishes were reduced to silence. "What a hypocrite," I chided myself. "Here you are, crushed after Kai left you for three seasons, and this guy will have to leave Ann for good. How can there be a silver lining on a cloud so dark?"
Talking about it does no good. Talking simply makes your fears tangible, when all you want is for them to disappear before your very eyes. So I stepped closer to him, squeezed his hand, and said, "Can you tell me about Fiji?"
And grateful, he did so.
My next letter wasn't as fake as the first, and about half of it wasn't about me at all. I lamented about Cliff's situation, how awful he must be feeling about leaving Ann behind, and throughout it all didn't say what we both were thinking: that the two of us could very well end up like them. I finished on a lighter note, complaining about the dreary weather and scenery, and said how much I was longing for the summer beach and sand.
I didn't mention longing for Kai, too, but I think he knew what I meant.
Sometimes, simply waking up seemed another way the world kept pulling Kai away from me. He'd haunt my dreams, saying all the words I longed for him to write: "I can't stand being away from you." "I need you by my side." "I love you." I'd soak in their brilliance, their honesty, and bury my head in his shoulder, repeating each syllable and meaning every word.
We'd stay that way until dawn, when the sun would separate fantasy and reality from my sleepy mind.
I tore the second letter from its envelope eagerly, after just glancing at the postage stamp upon it lettered in some unfamiliar language. My eyes scoured it readily:
How's it going, beautiful?
Pass on my apologies to Cliff; he's a good guy, and I hate to hear things are going so bad for him. Hope things work out between him and Ann, anyway. (You sure he's looked everywhere? Carter's maybe, or Jeff's…?) Man, is it wrong to be incredibly jealous that he gets to watch the stars with you instead of me? Haha, I know: I started this whole nonexclusive policy. Still, though… Ah, well. Hope you're having fun. Even if it is snowy, boring and awful without me.
PS: It's sunny over here. Nice, bright sunshine. Now you get to be the jealous one.
Ironically, once the letter arrived, the flurry of snow got worse by the day, coating my windows and door until finally it became a challenge just to walk outside each morning. After exhausting myself at the Lake Cave, I'd trudge onward to the Inn, where I could warm myself and listen to stories from the local townsfolk. Some were funny: the time Karen almost poisoned the Gourmet with her "super-secret" recipe for curry. Some were painful to hear: the loss of Gotz's wife and daughter on Mother's Hill. My favorites were always Cliff's as he spoke about lands far away from humble Mineral Town, lands Kai could be at right now. Brazil. The Philippines. Spain. It always made me feel closer to Kai, as if learning about these exotic places made them less surreal and bridged an unspoken gap between us.
"I can't imagine seeing so many places," I'd told Cliff once, shaking my head. "It's so incredible—how can you be satisfied in a small place like this?"
Cliff grinned sheepishly, and I noticed that his gaze was no longer on me, but the redheaded waitress behind the counter. "There's more for me here," he answered me, "than I could find in any other corner of the world."
And when he said that, I just knew he couldn't leave.
Fishing out Kai's letter once again, I did as he suggested and barraged Jeff with requests to hire Cliff. "I'd love to," he'd replied, "but we're awfully short on money now, what with so many people buying things on credit lately. I can't afford to give him a salary for a few seasons now."
The Doctor's explanation was different, but the reply still negative, as was Carter's apologetic decline. Rick merely gave me an incredulous look, and Barley had laughed, saying he had more need of a babysitter than a farmhand. Dejected, I came home in a slump, and threw myself on my bed in defeat.
Cliff and Ann weren't so different from myself and Kai. A traveler and a small-town girl. Two people who, despite the odds, wanted to stay together at all costs. Part of my desire to help Cliff was merely out of sympathy, but another part of me—one I didn't want to acknowledge—whispered that if the love between these two could fade, then so could what existed between me and Kai.
I closed my eyes, buried my head in my pillow, and let the ticking of the clock count away all the doubts that multiplied in my mind. Sleep could cure this. Sleep.
Or a knock on the door.
Groggy, I opened it to see a face I hadn't even considered, and one that would offer not only salvation for Cliff, but inner peace for me: Duke. "We're in need of a few more hands around the winery," he'd explained with a chuckle. "I was wondering if and you and a friend could--?"
"Cliff," I'd spoken immediately, hope surging. "Cliff could help."
And it took every ounce of willpower to stop me from embracing the married man before me in a thankful hug.
I'm not sure if you're going to like or dislike the news in this letter. I found Cliff a job at the Winery, which is great. The downside, I guess, is that since he's with Ann, I can't spend New Year's with him. I'm fine with it, but no one else seems really into asking me out this year. I'm just going to go about it alone, if you don't mind (it's your own fault for removing Stu from the list of eligible bachelors). Love you, and hope you don't mind.
It wasn't until after I'd sent it I realized I'd told him I love him. And strangely enough, that thought didn't terrify me, but brought a smile to my face.
New Year's is celebrated in many different ways. You can go to the Square and share food with the other villagers, or romance with a date on Mother's Hill, but for some reason, nothing seemed more natural to me than walking to the beach to celebrate the coming of the New Year. Everything was different from when I'd come here with Kai; a layer of frost covered the bright white building we'd used to stand outside of everyday. Wistfully, I put my fingers on the windowpane, and watched as they left trails in my wake. Tomorrow, the ice would be gone, just a figment of my memory. Spring would wash away everything, making way for Summer.
Summer. Never had there been a more beautiful word.
A soft voice arrested my attention, and I turned, in shock, to see its owner. A warm wooly cap covered her head of cotton candy curls, and she crossed her arms, mittens clutching knitted sleeves. I flinched involuntarily, and something flashed in those red eyes: hurt, confusion, or both.
"I didn't know you spent New Year's here, too," the girl stated, her bubbly voice returning as the shock of seeing me vanished. "You can get a prettier view from the dock, you know."
I swallowed a lump in my throat and nodded, unsure of the etiquette one should use with a boyfriend's ex. Frozen, I let her drag me by the arm to join her on the dock, where we sat side-by-side, staring at the night sky. She didn't seem like she meant me any harm, not in the jealous manner I feared she might take. I'd never really had someone jealous of me before, and if the movies and the books were any indication, I didn't want someone to be.
"The stars are already showing," Popuri chirped excitedly, pointing. "Look! It's going to be really beautiful this year, I can tell." No pretenses clouded her cheerful expression, and I let my guard drop for a moment as I nodded in agreement.
"You can see the North Star," I offered, and at that her smile faltered somewhat. Wringing her hands in her lap, she looked away.
"Yeah, I guess he showed you that too, huh?"
I blinked, surprised "he" had even come up at all. Strangely, I'd been expecting her to avoid mentioning Kai at all costs if she intended to be friendly (which, it seemed to me, she was intending to be). "W-well, I've seen the North Star before," I stammered, pretending I wasn't as unnerved as I felt. "He just…showed me some of the other constellations. Ones I didn't recognize."
Popuri nodded, hugging her knees close. "You really wouldn't think about it, but Kai actually knows all kinds of things," she continued. "He can drive a boat, cook a meal for thirty people, navigate by the stars alone, and he can make anybody in the world laugh." She wrapped her scarf tighter about her and chuckled lightly. "Even Rick, though he doesn't want to admit it. He's so stubborn about weird things like that, you know? Men have this weird pride and all…"
The girl heaved a long sigh, and I took it as a cue to reply. Unfortunately, nothing in my mind seemed a suitable answer, and my mouth opened only to close in defeat.
"Still, as far as guys go, Kai's one of the best," Popuri added, giving me a quick glance. Mistaking my silence for taking offense, she insisted, "I—I mean, when I was dating him, I thought he was just the greatest guy ever! He's real romantic, always spending his free time trying to be the best boyfriend he can be, and I'm totally not bashing on him or anything! He's…great. Kai's great."
This time, Popuri was the one reduced to silence, and I tried to find my voice. Normally, the pink-haired girl would be the one filling an awkward silence, but now that I was doing the job, I couldn't help but realize how much I was seriously lacking in that area. "Some days it doesn't even feel real, being with him. I just—I could never imagine leaving him." I turned to her, the unspoken question hanging in the air: "So why did you?"
Wordlessly, Popuri drew away from me, and we watched as the stars twinkled in the darkening night. A sliver of the moon hung above us, smiling like a Cheshire cat as it witnessed the awkward scene between Popuri and I with glee. Desperately, I tried to ignore the uncomfortable atmosphere and let pictures of Kai enter my mind, one by one blocking this unease from view.
"This is the first year in forever I could have asked someone to a festival."
Her soft voice traveled on the breeze, and she shut her eyes, trying to explain something that had no words. "I'd never been able to with him—I'd never been able to make myself. Sometimes I'd have a sleepover with another girl, or I'd babysit Stu or May, and sometimes I'd just sit here, watching life pass me by." She twirled a strand of her hair, curling it tight about her finger before letting it go. "But I'm not a patient person, I guess. And I sort of got tired of trying to figure out what I was waiting for."
I stared at her, and suddenly Kai's voice drifted through my mind unbidden: "So, what am I supposed to do? Tell you to wait here like a good little girlfriend for some guy who'll only show up for one fourth of the year? I saw what that did to Popuri, and I like you too much to let that happen to you."
"Rick says I was right to leave him." Sighing, she released a small puff of air, and said, "I think it was the right choice, but not because Kai was scum or anything. He just wasn't right for me anymore, and I wasn't right for him. We wanted different things. Cliff was ready to drop everything to stay with Ann, right? So…why wasn't Kai ready to do the same for me?" She ducked her head and smiled. "I just wasn't 'the one.' And I never could be."
Suddenly a warm mitten was upon my own hand, and as warmth coursed into my body I looked up to see her smiling at me, radiating goodwill. "Kai is absolutely head-over-heels for you, Claire. You should see the letters he's sent me; he's been begging for my approval."
"H-he has?" I managed. A thousand questions rose in my throat; what had he said about me, anyway?
"Mhm. He wants to make sure there are no hard feelings or whatever." Popuri grinned. "At first, I didn't want to be okay with it, but you know, I think you could make him really happy. And if he makes you happy, well, then everything's settled, isn't it?"
Relief coursed through my body at her blessing, and I found I could only whisper, "…Thank you." Still, even those words didn't seem enough.
Streaks of color were painted onto the sky as light rippled on the ocean's surface. Looking to the horizon, the two of us could see the sun peeking over the crest of the waves, and she squeezed my hand, saying, "Happy New Year!"
Light spilled onto the heavens, and I smiled, watching with her as all the tears and laughter of the past year were wiped away, leaving our future a blank, open, and inviting page.
Spring already, huh? Almost Summer. To be honest, I'm dying to see you, and I can only hope you're just as ready to see me. But this is your choice, and whatever you choose, I'll be fine with it. If you want to stay together, I'll be there with open arms. If you want to leave…well, I can understand that. Again, I don't want to force you to do anything. The last thing I want to do is hurt you, okay?
I love you, Claire. No matter what.
If you listen, you can hear the gulls crying in the early morning, just waking from their slumber. If you close your eyes, you can smell the salt of the summer breeze wafting towards the shore. If you squint, you can see the sun as it creeps barely above the horizon, and if you run up to the edge of the dock, you can see a shadow in the distance.
I don't think I can control my emotions anymore; my heart is pounding against the cage of my body, slamming again and again as I take in frightened breaths.
God, I've never hated waiting so much in my life.
Dawn. That's all I'm asking for. That the ship in the distance would reach the shore, and that its traveler—my traveler—would disembark it, smiling at my presence. I want to hear his voice again, the way it causes shivers to crawl up and down my spine, and the way his touch awakens every inch of me I'm unaware of.
It's coming closer now, this shadow on the waves. I tense, preparing myself as I stand ready, my nails digging into my skin as my hands clench into fists. Yet there's nothing to be afraid of but what lies ahead, and to be honest, for once, the unknown thrills me.
He's waving, and I'm laughing now, waving back. Tears of joy spring to my eyes, and I don't know why I'm crying. Why should I be crying, when I've never felt so happy about anything in my life?
The boat has docked, and with a loud cry of "land-ho!" he sweeps onto the pier, and gives me the cheeky grin I've missed for oh-so-long. I drink in the sight of his laughing eyes, the way his hair is swept under his bandana, and I wonder how my mere memory could do him justice. "Miss me?" Kai asks, and I press myself against him, laughing and crying all at the same time as I bury my head in his shoulder.
I know that it's not an easy choice. I know that once I welcome him in my arms, I could very well be setting myself up for heartache every time he leaves our shore. Yet it's my choice, and if I've learned anything, it's that I need him more than I've ever needed anyone. I still want to learn more about him. I want him to learn more about me. I want to see where this path leads, for better or worse.
"I love you, Kai," I whisper into his ear. "I could never let you go."
I've made my decision, and as he pulls me close, the rays of the early dawn flash across the sky, heralding a new beginning, a new day, and endless possibilities.
End Note: So, that's it! Yup, the end was too vague, choppy, etc. etc. I know, I know. It pains me. But after much rewording, moving paragraphs around, and other fun editing things, I came up with this, and I hope you all enjoyed it. (Whew! I feel so drained; fluff is so taxing!)
Thank you to the many reviewers and many readers; I honestly did not expect so much support. Many thanks.
And Randomness fer Life, I hope you've finally gotten the Kai x Claire fluff you've been craving. ;)