Disclaimer: Harvest Moon does not belong to be.
Author's note: Written in response to a request for something Zack x Muffy by Quaintly Modern. The request was made in August, so this has taken me, what, four months? Yeah... I'm slow. Anyway, here it is at last. I've never written a pairing like this before, so I hope it turned out OK.
Better In Time
"Oh, well it's awful nice of you, Zack. Even my own kids have barely stopped bickering long enough to remember my birthday." Lillia paused suddenly and burst out laughing. The noise filled the room and bounced off the walls, seeming far stronger than her frail body would surely allow. "I'm certain they'll be begging for my forgiveness come the morning, though."
Zack tried to shrug off her heartfelt thanks by pretending that it was nothing. That the broach he'd given her hadn't been a valueable antique that had been absolute hell to ship. And that it hadn't cost him over 5,000G. He'd be feeling that hole in his wallet all the way round until next Spring.
It was all worth it, though, just to see the look of child-like glee on Lillia's face when she tore off the wrapping. She looked exactly like a kid on the Pumpkin Festival. In that moment, you wouldn't have thought she was the same young woman whose life was ebbing away far too fast for her years. Every weary look and telling wrinkle seemed to vanish, but, of course, it didn't - couldn't - last.
He felt a rush of both guilt and triumph at the lack of a present from, Rod, her husband. Lillia was typically upbeat when she told the shipper, but her over-bright, ruby eyes betrayed her. It made him feel like her knight, the hero of the hour - but in amongst the sense of victory was a sickening rush of shame. A distraught Lillia was a huge price to pay for one brief moment of success over her husband.
And worst of all, she was oblivous as ever regarding his true feelings.
"Thank you so much," Lillia breathed, pinning the broach to her chest and twirling around in front of the little mirror above the fireplace. "Don't you think it suits me perfectly?"
Zack nodded and smiled, trying not to let his blush betray him. He was no fashion expect - far, far from it - but even he could see how well the amethyst stones complimented her candyfloss pink hair. "It looks lovely," he agreed gruffly.
This was how it always went. Whenever Zack visited Poultry Farm, he would take great pains to ensure his real feelings for Lillia remained hidden. Yet at the same time almost ached to tell her the truth. Deep down he knew never could. It wouldn't be fair to put her in such a dilemma, when he knew she was just the sort of person who would tear herself apart with guilt. The slightest waver in his direction would be seen as betrayal of Rod in her eyes, and he knew he simply couldn't burden her in that way.
Perhaps, he often mused... perhaps she already knew. Maybe that little glimmer in her eyes or the smile that tugged at her lips when they met were not just his imagination. There could be more to those seemingly innocent actions, but he just couldn't bring himself to ask. The hurt it would cause... it was too much.
No, he thought, as the door to the farmhouse burst open and Rick and Popuri rushed in bearing belated gifts, Lillia would practically have to throw herself at him. He needed to know that she truly returned his feelings, truly wanted him, before he could act. Otherwise, he only risked hurting her.
Without another word, he slipped out of the farmhouse and into the fresh, Spring air. By that time, Lillia was too busy reassuring her children to notice.
Rain lashed Zack's beach hut with unforgiving force. He couldn't say why exactly, but the weather always seemed that little bit more turbluent so close to the sea. It was all he could hear, as he sat inside the four wooden walls on one very wet Tuesday afternoon.
It was a Summer storm. Supposedly romantic, supposedly unpredictable. Definitely boring, as far as Zack was concerned. The only woman he cared about had to stay inside on rainy days, doctor's orders, and probably wouldn't leave to visit him, even if she could.
They had not seen each other since her birthday on the 19th. Zack supposed he was glad to be removed from temptation, but it was honestly a rather half-hearted sort of glad. The type where you only feel that way because you know very deep down that it's the right thing to feel, and even then you know you're only kidding yourself.
Zack's eyes darted restlessly from the old clock hanging lopsided on the wall to the broken fishing rod sat on the table before him. Well, it wasn't so much a table as an upturned crate. Won, his salesman housemate, wouldn't stretch to proper furniture for his hastily thrown together shop. It wasn't cost effective, apparently. Neither were his prices, in Zack's opinion, but he never said so.
The fishing rod belonged to Mineral Town's novice farmer, Jack. Idiot had broken it with an overly ambitious first catch. He'd only had the damn thing a week. Still, the boy was only a beginner and Zack was determined to help him out however he could. It gave him something to do, at least, gave him a bit of purpose in life.
Another quick glance at the wall told him that three o'clock was fast approaching. Why that rung a bell in his mind, he wasn't entirely sure. Won had mentioned something about... boats, was it? ...before he left on a business trip earlier that morning, but Zack couldn't think for the life of him what it was exactly. After several minutes of mulling it over - by which point three o'clock had come and gone - he returned to mending the rod, mostly untroubled.
Zack sat bolt upright in his chair. The echoing thump on the front door was not the last. It was actually one of many. In fact, Zack realised, as he crept across the room with ridiculous trepidation, he was sure he could hear a woman's strangled tones battling against the howling wind and fierce rain. Whoever she was, she sounded angry. He only hoped it wasn't Ann - though why she would be so annoyed with him, he couldn't fathom.
As soon as Zack opened the door, he was pushed roughly aside by a woman, one who obviously didn't wish to bother with waiting to be asked in. It wasn't Ann or, for that matter, any of the other Mineral Town girls. Zack had never seen her before.
He shut the door firmly on the storm, as she wheeled angrily around, hair dripping all over the floor. It was a bit of shock to be so suddenly confronted with a pair of wide, almost menacing, green eyes that he jumped a little. "Zack, isn't it?" she ground out furiously, surprising him without effort. "Oh, you take your time, don't worry about me. Won promised I'd be met off the boat, but don't worry yourself about it. Never mind that it's absolutely tipping down out there..."
Suddenly, everything clicked together for Zack. Boats. Three o'clock. He remembered now. There was a ferry docking in Mineral Town that afternoon and Won, ever the business man, had arranged to meet and greet new arrivals. Apparently tourism was an untapped market in Mineral Town.
And wherever there was an untapped market, Won was sure to follow.
Water was now starting to pool on the floor, but Zack made no move towards the woman. He just wasn't in the mood for all this hassle today. Why did Won have to make plans and then push off elsewhere?
"I was promised shelter in the event of bad weather," she continued accusingly. "Perhaps this weather isn't quite bad enough, eh?" She was having to shout to make herself heard over all the wind, so Zack didn't bother answering that one.
"I forgot I was supposed to let you in," he shrugged, not unkindly.
It seemed for a split second as though she'd blaze with anger at that - but no, she merely shook her head tiredly. It was only then that Zack examined her properly. Her hair was long-ish, light brown and wavy. Or so it seemed. Perhaps it was simply the wet. Then, he noticed her eyes. The sight of them startled him, however briefly.
If Lillia's were rubies, then her's were surely emeralds.
Lillia, Lillia, Lillia... he thought, sighing inwardly. He was actually beginning to wish he could forget her. Just for a moment. And, anyway, what a stupid thing to think...
"My name's Muffy," she said softly, jogging him back to reality. "If you were wondering."
"Zack," he said automatically, before remembering that she already knew that and cursing himself. It was typical of him and left in little doubt as to why things had not worked out with Lillia.
Fortunately, Muffy laughed. She ran a ran through her damp hair almost nervously, and proceeded to explain her situation, "I was visiting the mainland this morning - not for the first time - I live in Forget-Me-Not, you see..."
"Oh?" said Zack, saving her from her apparent embarrassment. "Yeah, I've been there. Nice town."
Muffy nodded. "D'you know the Blue Bar?"
Zack had to think for a moment; it had been years since he'd last visited the quaint Valley. But he thought he remembered it... vaguely. "Little place? Just off the mainstreet?"
Muffy nodded again, only this time she raised one of her thin eyebrows, just as Lillia tended to when tickled by something. "That's it," she said. "And I'm glad to hear we made such a lasting impression on you."
"I'm the barmaid there," she explained, quirking her lips into a grin undoubtedly reserved for the customers. Try as he might, though, Zack could not recall ever seeing the woman. When he thought about it further he didn't even remember the inside of the bar and was actually beginning to question whether or not he'd entered the establishment. As his visits to the Valley were strictly business, he'd probably walked straight past it.
"You don't recognise me?" she inquired.
Zack could only shrug. "Y'know, now I think of it, I only remember walking past that bar."
Actually, he wasn't at all shocked to hear Muffy let out a tiny, annoyed snort at that admission. Her eyes, Zack noticed - though he wasn't watching too closely, of course - seemed to take on a sharp, determined gleam. Rather like a cat's. "Well," she mused, aloud but to herself, "I'll have to tell Griffin that we're not attracting the customers as we used to. We'll have make some changes, stand out a bit more..."
Zack would've pointed out that he was talking about years ago now, but didn't like to cut her off when she was clearly feeling so passionate. Even if it was joking and silly. Before long, Muffy's story, her explanantion, was forgotten. Which meant it didn't matter. And it didn't, not really. He could guess her situation without being told.
The short, blood-red dress, sharp, shiny heels and mascara that clearly the rain had not smudged. He'd seen the same before. Either she'd been jilted, or even dumped - but it made little difference either way. The hurt was the same, lingering just beneath the surface.
She hid it surprisingly well, he thought with admiration, and startled himself by wondering whether he was equally efficient. Or was his desire for Lillia plain for all to see? Could even this woman, this strange woman, see straight through him, too? Maybe; he thought he had her all worked out, after all.
Mercifully, the first strands of sunlight had finally escaped the clouds and poured in through the shack's only window. Muffy sauntered over to the door and had one hand on the handle when she turned to Zack. "Well. I guess I'm okay to go now," she said casually. "And thanks, by the way. For earlier; I was upset... and stupid. Well, you know," she added, leaving him to shift uneasily.
"You going to be okay?" he asked her rather gruffly, changing the subject. "How're you getting home?"
"I'll walk," she told him, shrugging. "It's not that far."
He had to laugh then - though he didn't. How changeable could you possibly get? One minute, storming in, raging at a complete stranger; the next... simply shrugging off an arduous walk home. He wouldn't have thought it possible, if she wasn't stood right before him.
With a brief, "Bye," on both parts, the door slammed closed and Zack was left to carry on fixing the fishing rod. A few minutes after he'd started, it occured to him that Muffy had only been there a measly quarter of an hour.
3:20, the clock read. That was all.
Fifteen minutes distraction... and now back to reality.
Even at his lowest ebb, Zack could still summon up admiration for Lillia. She did shock so gracefully. If it really was shock, of course. If she hadn't known the truth all along, secretly. He didn't stop to consider that much, if he could help it.
Autumn had arrived in Mineral town. It was the same as every year; crisp, clear days, misty mornings and the trees seeming to turn crimson over night. Had the clarity of autumn convinced him to spill his heart out to her?
Yeah... that or stupidity.
Lillia and Zack sat opposite each other at her kitchen table. She was on the side nearest the crackling fire, pale faced with a thick, knitted blanket thrown over her knees. It was a full three days since she'd fallen ill so abruptly, sending a pulse of disbelief through the community. Her frail condition was common knowledge, yet she'd dealt with it so well for so long. You wouldn't have known she was that ill. You certainly wouldn't have expected her to collaspe, one morning, just outside the Clinic. But it happened.
Zack was certain that it had been this bombshell which had jolted him out of his comfy denial and into the uncertain territory he was now wading in. Why had he told her?! His thoughtless words echoed in his head, as Lillia skillfully maintained her calm demeanor. You'd have assumed she'd had years of practice in rejecting besotted fools.
He ran a weary hand through his short hair, for want of something to do, while she sipped staidly at a steaming mug of cocoa. Zack had one too, but had lost any desire to drink it. His index finger ran round and round the rim restlessly as he waited for her continue speaking.
"You should understand, Zack," she began softly, "that I don't think any less of you for this."
He winced, unable to help himself. Her words were too sweet, too understanding.
"It's lovely to know you care so much for me - " more than care, more " - and I'm ever so flattered, really." Lillia was carefully avoiding his eyes, choosing instead to glance from the roof beams to the front door and back again. Anywhere, but him.
Perhaps she didn't quite understand, he thought. Perhaps she believed it was nothing more than a simple crush, easily brushed away with a quick reality check. The sort of thing they would laugh about in years to come.
Perhaps, he convinced himself, he should correct her.
"Look, Lillia, maybe you think I'm saying this on a whim, or joking, or - " But he didn't get much further than that, for Lillia's eyes snapped back down to focus on him. She shook her head emphatically.
"No, I understand you perfectly well," she insisted, though not fiercely. Still composed even then. "Whatever it is you feel, however touched and grateful I am, my answer isn't going to change. I'm sorry."
Zack bristled with a new emotion - annoyance tinted with desperation. She so clearly didn't realise how deep his feelings for her ran, how he had been thinking about nothing else for so long, and how this was not some crazy idea dreamt up in matter of hours. It was so much more, yet he hadn't the faintest clue of how he could convince her.
The strangest smile had burned its way across Lillia's face, while he struggled internally. "I know what you're thinking," she told him, laughing a little in spite of the circumstances. He was suddenly, forcibly, reminded of Muffy when she raised just the one eyebrow knowingly. "We've been friends too long, Zack. I know you. You think I'm not taking you seriously, don't you?"
He opened his mouth to object - to lie, really - but Lillia didn't seem to require an answer and plowed on determinedly.
"I do know how you feel. Believe me." Her voice was barely above a whisper now; he had to lean forward to hear, though wondered if it would be easier not to hear at all. "But as I said before, it doesn't make any difference. What either of us feel."
Either of us...?
Zack promised himself he'd stay calm and therefore hopefully dignified, but suddenly couldn't help it. "Why?" he demanded. "Why can't we just - ?"
"Because I'm still a married woman." She didn't yell it, scream it, torture him with it. She simply stated it, like a fact you'd read from an old textbook. Which it may as well have been, in terms of truth and all.
Zack felt weirdly deflated all of a sudden, as though all the hope had been sucked out of him. So... she still loved him. What could he say to that, really? He had thought it would be simple; after all, how could she remain faithful to a man who'd abandoned her?
But she was, evidently.
"I made vows," Lillia said simply, allowing herself a brief nostalgic smile. "And I meant them. Still do." Her eyes were now glistening fiercely, more than usual, but she fixed them steadily on Zack's. "You probably think I'm an idiot for trusting that he'll return, but he's my husband, not just anyone, and you've got to make a leap of faith sometimes."
Her words rendered him silent. A million arguments raged through his head - are you worried about what people will think? Don't spare him another thought - but, though he didn't want to, he could see that voicing them was becoming increasingly pointless.
He stood up awkwardly, as Lillia raised a hand to her face, wiping away the tears that streamed there. For a moment he was purely frozen, watching her with a pang in his chest. Were they tears of regret? For something she - they - would never have? Lillia finally sniffed and pulled herself together, and Zack conceded that he'd never know for sure.
"I hope we'll remain friends," Lillia asked evenly, her compsure all but regained. She sounded very much like this was an ordinary meeting of friends. Afternoon cocoa, no clumsy revelations or crushing rejections. It had never happened.
Zack nodded rather curtly, attempted a smile and left. He actually managed to reach Mineral Beach without once thinking of Lillia, although... really there wasn't that much to think about.
A ferry had just arrived. Among the few tourists walking along the pier, came the sharp click of high heels and an unmistakeable blonde head. Muffy.
He thought for a fleeting second of turning on his heel and walking away; in theory, he shouldn't be able to deal with her today. Something stopped him.
If anything he actually quickened his pace as he approached Muffy. Even when she turned to him, a curious smile lighting up her soft features, he couldn't turn away. He knew he should want to - but somehow didn't.
It was the oddest thing, but his mind had never been clearer or more focused. He was free, finally.
And it was the oddest thing.
Seasons passed in a flurry - the rain, the frost, the snow, the sunlit days all blurring together into one long loop. And on one startlingly clear autumn morning, Zack found himself stood in a graveyard. He walked through the graves, not alone, but hand in hand. His wife walked on one side, their daughter on the other. She was only four, so leaving her at the gates, even in the quaint safety of Mineral Town, was not an option in Zack's mind. Over protective, people called him, and he was actually inclined to agree.
They stopped before a pearly, marble tombstone, decorated tastefully with an array of carefully pruned flowers. There was not a weed in sight. It was clearly, he realised, the result of Rick's unwavering dedication.
His letter had been such a shock. When it arrived at their Forget-Me-Not home, Zack had been brutally wrenched from his cosy life and left to drown in a mire of painful memories. Eventually, he realised he had to make his peace, knowing full well that he had his wife's complete support behind him.
After a moment stood in respectful silence, Muffy spoke up. "Do you want us to leave you for a minute?" she asked him, understanding of how he felt, but not overdoing it. Zack wanted to convey some form of gratitude, but trusted that she already knew that, too. In the end, he simply nodded and watched as his wife and daughter retreated to the gate.
He turned his attentions back to the grave.
A loving friend, mother, wife. Forever missed.
A painfully familiar jolt rooted Zack to the gorund. Loving wife... but where was the loving husband? Rick's letter made no mention of his father. He talked of Popuri's recent engagement to the local farmer, of his and Karen's two young sons... but never of Rod. He, like Lillia, had now been left in the past. The elusive cure, whether discovered or not, was now too late, and the family had at last moved on.
Zack glanced over his shoulder to where his wife and daughter stood just outside the cemetary. Muffy looked up at just that moment and shot him a smile which conveyed more warmth and comfort than any empty words. Within seconds, an involuntary grin had spread across his face, while she turned away and started to sort out Emma's quickly unravelling plaits.
Perhaps he had not always acknowledged it, but deep down fatherhood had always been quite an appealing idea to Zack. Of course, such had been his - well, obsession - with Lillia that he'd been more than prepared to give it up. She already had her children, her family, and he was able to accept that. Being with her would make all the sacrifice worthwhile, so he had thought.
Muffy was a different story altogether. They hadn't discussed or even planned for a child. In fact, their relationship itself was hardly an expected thing. They had stumbled into it unknowingly, both having cast off the extraordinary expectations which had once held them back. And it worked. By some miracle, it really worked. Then came marrigage and Emma.
The things they had denied wanting for the sake others, but could now embrace. Freedom was a wonderful thing, Zack mused. Scary at first, but ultimately wonderful.
He spared the gravestone one last mournful look. He had moved on years ago. Now, thankfully, so had Lillia.