I am so so so so so so so so SOOOOO sorry to have kept you waiting for so long. I was much busier this holiday season than I expected to be and I can only hope that the length and quality of your gift will make up for its lateness. That being said, I had a TON of fun writing it! I was so happy to finally get to write about characters I'm familiar with for a change, and I especially enjoyed exploring certain characters' backstories... oops! I've said too much already ;) Anyway, I hope you had a lovely Christmas and have a wonderful New Year!
P.S. The second chapter will be uploaded very very soon, I promise!
Popuri could barely contain her excitement.
It was December twenty-fourth, her favorite day of the year, and she was going to spend it with her favorite person in the world (besides Mama and Rick, of course.) Saibara was finally cutting Gray some slack and letting him take the day off this year, and Mama was even allowing him to spend the night at their house instead of the inn (on the account that he slept on the couch downstairs and didn't get up once, not even to go to the bathroom.)
Popuri giggled as she threw back her chick-patterned quilt and padded barefoot across the floorboards to the snow-kissed window on the other side of her room. Clearing a spot with her fist, she was delighted to see that the entire town looked as though it had been sprinkled with powdered sugar overnight.
She was even more delighted when she saw a certain cinnamon-haired boy turn the corner onto her street. Frantically Popuri began waving like a child trying to catch her parents' attention, not even caring that her hair looked like the work of an inexperienced cotton candy maker or that her breasts were practically popping out of the loose camisole she had worn to bed.
Of course Gray pretended not to notice this until he had already turned down to path to his grandfather's shop and was just about to open the door. Popuri was on the verge of opening her window and screaming something embarrassing at him when he turned with a smirk on his face and winked at her. She grinned and theatrically blew a kiss to him, which he pretended to catch in mid-air and stuff in his pocket before disappearing inside the blacksmith's.
A feeling of giddiness swelled inside Popuri's chest. Breaking out into a Broadway-esque version of All I Want for Christmas is You, she grabbed a cardigan from her closet and flounced down the stairs to begin her morning chores…
…and stopped dead when she saw her mother lying face down in the middle of the kitchen floor.
Elli lifted the limp arm from the bed and gently pressed her fingers against the outline of bones protruding from Lillia's wrist. She furrowed her eyebrows and held her breath until she finally felt the faint pulse of life she was hoping for.
Breathing a soft sigh of relief, Elli cradled her cheek against the warm flesh of her mother-in-law's palm. She refused to imagine what life would be like without the gracious and compassionate woman who had so lovingly accepted her into her family when she and Rick announced their engagement two years ago. What's more, she had taken Elli's little brother Stu in without a second thought when Ellen passed away in the spring. He now slept in the room beside Popuri's and made himself useful by helping Rick maintain the farm. While the two of them still ached from the loss of their beloved grandmother, it was comforting for Elli to know that her brother couldn't be in better hands than Lillia's.
Trent appeared on the other side of the hospital bed, taking the frail woman's temperature and making notes on a clipboard as he examined her sleeping form. She tried not to show it, but Elli couldn't help tensing a little whenever the doctor was near. She knew she shouldn't feel guilty for not being able to return the affection he had clearly felt for her since she began working with him several years ago, but it still broke her heart to know that her relationship with Rick had hurt the man she looked up to.
A creaky hinge and a gust of winter air announced the arrival of someone to the clinic. Trent turned to go, but Elli placed a hand on his shoulder to stop him.
"I'll get it," she said gently. Trent's eyes flickered for a moment, then he nodded and turned back to his patient.
Elli hurried towards the lobby, pausing to fluff out her skirt and run her fingers through her short brown bob a few times before entering.
Her husband stood anxiously by the door, fidgeting with the straps of his overalls and gnawing on his nails. As soon as he saw Elli, he ran to her and grabbed her petite hands in his large, calloused ones.
"Is she- will she be- did you give her the- was it because of the…"
Elli placed a finger over Rick's babbling lips. He shut up.
"Shh. She's fine, Rick," she whispered, reaching up her hands and tangling her fingers within his matted orange hair. It was a trick she had learned to calm him down whenever he was having one of his freak outs, and this time proved no different from the rest. "Trent's going to keep her overnight and run some tests, but he says she'll be fine to go home by tomorrow morning."
Rick's body began to relax as Elli's words sunk in. He closed his eyes and folded his arms around her neck, burying his nose in her collarbone and sighing into her skin so that her entire body was immediately riddled with goose bumps.
Elli knew most of the other Mineral Town girls thought of Rick as unattractive and awkward, but she found him endearing ways she couldn't explain. Perhaps it was because he was always so warm no matter what the temperature was outside. Perhaps it was his crooked smile or the way his glasses magnified his eyes so she could see every shade of brown in them. Perhaps it was his overprotectiveness or the fact that he wasn't afraid to show his emotions like the other men she knew. Perhaps it was his smell- a mixture of sweat, dirt, and chicken feathers that clung to his skin even after he showered. (Most girls found this scent repulsive, but after spending all day in a place where the only smells were of iodine and blood samples, Elli found it absolutely enticing.)
Or perhaps it was the way their bodies fitted together as perfectly as they did now; the way he leaned into her for comfort and the way her heart responded- by fluttering to life in a place that, like the clinic, had seen so much death- perhaps it was for this reason that Elli loved Rick exactly the way he was.
"So… why are we here again?"
Popuri huffed as she swatted at a cobweb dangling from the ceiling above her. She swore to herself that if Gray asked that question one more time, she would turn around, grab that stupid blue hat he always wore off his head, and smack him across the face with it. Multiple times.
She strained to keep her voice even when she spoke. "I already explained it to you, sweetie pie. Mama has to stay in the hospital on Christmas Eve and I want to bring her something special to cheer her up."
So what makes you think you'll find that special something in your attic? Gray thought to himself, but he didn't dare voice the question. He had learned from experience that when his girlfriend was annoyed her ears turned bright pink at the top, almost the same shade as her hair, and they were already beginning to do just that.
He bit his lip and shoved his hands into the depths of his pockets, resolved to refrain from saying anything else that would stress her out more than she already was. Instead he attempted to make himself useful by digging through the contents of a nearby cardboard box. He wasn't sure exactly what he was supposed to be looking for, but he hoped that the effort in itself would turn Popuri's ears back to their normal color.
The attic was silent for a few minutes besides the occasional scraping of cardboard and irritated grunts from Popuri. Gray was just about to ask his girlfriend if a one-eyed doll he found beneath a pile of baby clothes had any sentimental value when he heard it.
Oh, no. Gray hated that sound, hated it more than anything else in the world. He would have preferred being alone in a room with his screaming grandfather than being alone in a room with a crying girl. Emotional women just weren't his… thing, if that's what you even called it. Gray could turn a dull chunk of ore into a sparkling gem overnight, but he had no idea how to make a sobbing female smile.
Popuri hid her face and attempted to wipe away her tears before Gray could see them, but they continued to spill hot and fast over her pudgy cheeks. She always cried when she was frustrated, and the fact that she was crying in front of her boyfriend made her feel even more frustrated than she already was.
"Poppy? Hey, uh, Poppy," Gray said as he hesitantly began to approach her trembling frame. As much as he disliked using nicknames for people, dire circumstances sometimes called for desperate measures. "Poppy, it's, uh… it's gonna be okay. I promise."
It wasn't until his foot hit a box of Christmas ornaments and he nearly fell flat on his face that Popuri finally hiccupped with a giggle. He was just starting to hope that he might be able to save the situation after all when his arm brushed against a stack of books the height of a small child. They seemed to fall in slow motion, each one hitting the floor with a bang that echoed throughout the rafters.
"Shoot! I'm so, so sorry Popuri," Gray yelped, pulling his cap down over his face as it glowed red with embarrassment. He tried to bend over to begin cleaning up the mess he had made, only to find that his girlfriend had latched herself onto his waist and was crying even harder than before.
What the heck? "Oh my Goddess Popuri, I'm sorry! I'll pick all this up, I swear! Just… just stop crying, for Goddess' sake!" Gray's voice rose to a note of desperation. "Please!"
Popuri shook her head and detached herself from his waist, her mouth stretched into a smile that shimmered like Christmas lights. "I'm not crying, you dummy! I'm laughing!"
Dumb-founded, Gray asked the only logical question he could think of. "Uh… are you on your period?"
She giggled and swatted his arm playfully. "No, I'm not on my period, thank you very much!"
She then bent over and picked up a rather beaten-looking book from the pile of at her feet. It was a faded red color and had Christmas '88 written across the felt cover in Lillia's distinct cursive. Beneath the words was a picture of Lillia and Rod in their late teens, holding hands and grinning at the camera with Santa hats atop their heads.
Popuri held it out to her boyfriend with a beam, as though she was showing him a priceless piece of treasure rather than a dirty old scrapbook. "I'm laughing because you found the perfect thing to cheer Mama up, and you didn't even try! You were just being your regular bumbling idiot self!"
Gray opened his mouth to protest against the insult and instead felt a soft pair of lips press against his. Popuri's eyes sparkled mischievously as she nibbled on his bottom lip, her arms entwined around his neck and her body plastered to his. He found himself wanting so badly to make this moment last forever, and yet craving more at the same time.
Popuri was a rainbow of color in Gray's black-and-white world. She was a glittering ruby amidst a pile of coal. She was sweet buttercream frosting and lollipop swirls and steaming hot chocolate on a frigid winter's day. Before meeting her, Gray hadn't thought that anyone could melt the jagged ice that had surrounded his cold heart for so long… and then she had come along and done the impossible with a single wink in his direction.
She had warmed him from the inside out.
And although Gray had never been good with words, he knew the right time had come for him to say the three that were on his lips now.
"What?" She let go and stepped back, a look of innocent confusion in her scarlet eyes. Did I do something wrong? they seemed to ask.
Gray shook his head and took her hands in his before uttering the phrase she had been waiting to hear for almost a year.
"…I love you."
Rick hadn't seen his sister this happy in a long time. Sure, Popuri had always had a naturally cheerful disposition, but something about the look in her eyes told him her joy had less to do with her personality and more to do with the man standing beside her.
Just a brother's instinct.
"Mama! I have something to tell you," Popuri gushed, grabbing her mother's frail hand and waiting patiently for her eyes to flutter open.
Lillia smiled serenely and reached her other hand up to tuck a carefree strand of her daughter's hair behind her ear. "Yes, dear?" she replied hoarsely. Although still weak from her collapse, Lillia could feel the strength slowly returning to her bones.
"Gray loves me! He loves me, Mama! He said so himself!" Popuri squealed, and in an uncharacteristic display of affection her boyfriend grabbed her in his arms and twirled her above his head like a ballerina.
Gray's face immediately turned crimson after setting her daughter down, and Lillia couldn't help but chuckle at the poor boy's shyness. It reminded her of a certain man whom she herself had been fond of in her younger days, a man who had been her Romeo of sorts. Of course she had never told her children about this forbidden affair of hers, afraid it would upset the already fragile sense of stability in their home.
But when her daughter thrust an ancient scrapbook into her arms that Lillia had stowed away in the attic in the hopes that it would never see living daylight again, she decided that it was time for the truth to come out.
"Rick, Popuri? There's, ah… there's something I need to tell you."