Lorelei547- I know it's been way too long, but I'm happy with the way this turned out and I hope you are too.
Merry Christmas... seven months later.
Lillia could barely contain her excitement. She skipped along the cobblestone path toward Doug's Inn, her skirts billowing behind her and her breath condensing in puffy clouds before her. It was December twenty-fourth, her absolute favorite day of the year (besides the Poultry Festival of course), and what made it even better was that she was spending it with her absolute favorite person in the world.
She burst through the doors of the inn, startling the middle-aged maid who worked there on weekends and was rumored to have a secret relationship with the innkeeper.
"Whoa there, missy!" Ellen scolded her, but her eyes twinkled as she placed the hand clutching a broom on her hip in mock annoyance. "Where do you think you're going in such a hurry?"
"Oh, Ellen!" Lillia exclaimed, clasping the woman's hands in her own. "Have you seen Rod? We're going to cut down a Christmas tree from the forest today and decorate it and make cookies together and go ice skating and possibly go swimming in the hot springs afterward an-"
"The hot springs?" Ellen clucked her tongue. "And exactly what kind of swimming will you two be doing in there?"
Lillia ignored the suggestive question. "Oh, it'll be just grand!" she exclaimed dramatically, letting go of the maid's hands and spinning around the room like a top gone wild.
It wasn't until after upsetting a small bucket of mopwater and receiving a sharp reprimand from the grumpy minder Saibara that the girl finally stopped, panting and dizzy with glee. Ellen shook her head and continued with her sweeping.
Just then, a mousy, bespectacled boy appeared at the bottom of the steps leading to the bedrooms upstairs. Lillia ran to greet him, nearly knocking him over with her enthusiasm.
"Hello, Jeff! How are you today? Is Rod up there? Is he ready to go?" she inquired the small boy breathlessly, pushing her bangs back from her face as she awaited his reply.
Jeff peered up at Lillia through his glasses, a bewildered look on his pale face. "Uh… I… er…"
"Well, can you please tell him to hurry up then?" she demanded impatiently. "We have a lot to do today and we need to go before it gets dark so we have enough light to pick out the perfect tree!"
She thrust her arms out and began twirling again, lost in her fantasy of sugar cookies and pine needles and ice skates and and hot springs…
…only to be stopped by Jeff's bony hand clamping around her wrist.
Lillia turned to give the boy holding her arm a questioning look. He took a deep, shaky breath before speaking.
"Lillia, i-it's Rod… he, uh… he told me to give something to you this morning. Er, not this morning, as in he g-gave it to me this morning, but, uh, this morning, as in…" Jeff fumbled with something behind his back, his stutter worsening with every word he spoke. "…he, er, he told me that he, uh, wanted me to give, um, th-this letter to you this morning, right before he, uh… left the inn… last night…"
"Left?!" Lillia cried, a shocked expression on her porcelain features. She snatched the piece of paper the terrified boy was holding out to her and began to read the message scrawled upon it.
Jeff shrunk back towards the staircase, rubbing the place where Lillia's long nails had grazed his knuckles and watching nervously for her reaction.
Lillia's eyes widened and her mouth dropped open when she reached the end. The paper slipped through her fingers and landed on the floor by her feet.
"Uh… I, er, just remembered something I have to do. Bye, Lillia!" Jeff cried, and he retreated upstairs before the blizzard struck.
"So he's GONE?!"
Joanna's mouth was agape as she took in the contents of Rod's letter, her best friend a puddle of tears beside her. She had planned on having dinner at the inn with Doug Jr. to celebrate Christmas Eve and their six-monthaversary together, but Lillia's frantic phone call and her barely intelligible explanation of the situation between fits of sobbing had immediately taken priority over the date.
Joanna wrapped her arm around Lillia's shaking shoulders and scanned the words on the paper one more time to make sure she hadn't missed anything. Although she was known as the more level-headed and reasonable one between the two of them, even she couldn't suppress the feelings of rage that were bubbling up inside of her as she reread it.
I'm so sorry. I know this must really hurt you. Please know that I still love you and always will; I just needed to get away from Mineral Town for a while. Try not to be too sad- it's your favorite day of the year, after all.
Love you babe. Miss you.
P.S. Please don't show this to Joanna. She'll kill me.
"Damn right I will!" Joanna growled, crumpling the note in her fist and seething as Lillia wailed into a pillow beside her. "I cannot believe the nerve of that boy! If he ever shows his face around this town again, I'll kick his happy place so hard his mother will…"
"'Ever shows his face again?'" Lillia cried, her tear-streaked face finally emerging from the cushion. "Y-you mean… he might not come back?!"
Crap. "No, no, that's not what I meant. Forget I said that, okay? Rod'll be back. I promise." Joanna crossed her fingers behind her back and patted Lillia's pink head comfortingly. Her best friend snuffled a few more times and wiped her nose on the pillow, forcing Johanna to swallow back a gag and paste a smile on her face.
"There, there, it's alright. I'm sure your boyfriend's just stressed out with all the holiday craziness and needed some alone time. Guys can be weird like that. I bet you he'll even be back by tomorrow morning."
Lillia looked at her best friend hopefully and hiccupped. "You… you really think so, Jo?"
Joanna crossed her fingers even tighter. "I know so. So…" She leaned close to Lillia and grinned, her dark eyes gleaming naughtily. "What do you say you and I go over to Doug's place and cheer up with a couple of drinks?"
Lillia sighed as she twirled half-heartedly on the bar stool, her plump face resting in her hands. As much as she had tried to cheer herself up by stuffing her face with gingerbread men and even singing Christmas karaoke with a drunk Ellen, she just couldn't seem to get Rod off her mind. She had been so excited to spend this night with him, and it was all she could do to keep from crying into her eggnog.
Joanna wasn't much help, either. After the first two glasses of wine her best friend was gone, sprawled across Doug Jr.'s lap and laughing at every other thing he said even though Lillia knew for a fact that she couldn't stand his sense of humor. Really the only thing the boy had going for him were his looks (whoever said redheads couldn't be cute had obviously never met Doug Jr.), and the fact that he was going to inherit the inn and all of his father Doug Sr.'s money once he passed away.
"Just because I've never been in the mines doesn't mean I can't dig for gold," Joanna would sometimes say with a wink. Though she always added a 'just kidding' afterwards, Lillia couldn't help but question her friend's intentions sometimes. She didn't seem too serious about finding a job and making money for herself, hence the reason she had been kicked out of her father's home and now lived in the attic of Lillia's.
As much as Lillia loved her, she couldn't help but worry about Joanna's future. Though she was a loyal friend and lots of fun to be around, Johanna was a bit lacking when it came to things like responsibility and discipline.
Especially, Lillia noted as Jo and Doug Jr. began making out on the bar stool beside her, especially when she was drunk.
It was a quarter 'til midnight. Lillia had just been about to drag Joanna's unconscious body home when he appeared in the seat beside hers, seemingly out of thin air.
"Hey," Zack said, the dimple in his right cheek showing like it always did when he smiled.
Lillia sniffled and quickly brushed away the tears that had been streaming steadily down her face for the last hour. After watching other couples share hot chocolate and cuddle beneath mistletoe all night, she had finally given up on trying not to think about Rod's absence. It had eaten a hole through her heart, leaving her feeling empty and hollow inside.
"Hi, Zack," she said with a pitiful attempt at cheerfulness.
Zack frowned and nudged her leg. "What's wrong, sweetheart? Why so blue?"
Despite her mood, Lillia couldn't help but raise her eyebrows as she looked at Zack. Though it was no secret around town that he had a massive crush on her since the third grade, the timid boy usually didn't even have the nerve to say hello to her in person. She wondered when he had suddenly become so bold.
And then she saw the empty bottle of wine in his hand.
"Oh, I get it," Lillia said, chuckling darkly. "You're one of those drunks."
Zack put his head in his hands and tilted his head to the side, his expression like that of a dopey basset hound. "What ever do you mean, pumpkin?"
Lillia laughed out loud at this. She had to admit Zack was handsome in his own way, and she found the whole petname thing kind of endearing, if not a little lame. In fact, when she was younger she had even had somewhat of a crush back on him, but once Rod showed interest in her the poor boy had no chance.
Rod. Her expression darkened again, and she heaved a dramatic sigh. What was the use in being here again? This whole night had been lousy. She might as well just go home and go to bed; the sooner this day ended, the better.
She had started to climb down from the chair when Zack suddenly caught hold of her wrist. "Wait," he said, and his expression was so mournful that Lillia wondered if she wasn't the only one having a miserable Christmas Eve. "Won't you stay and have a drink with me, honeybunch? Just one."
Lillia sighed again, then glanced down to see Joanna passed out on the floor beside Doug Jr.
She turned back to Zack and grinned. "Oh, why not? One drink can't hurt anything, right?"
Even the star that lit up the sky the night Jesus was born couldn't have shined as brightly as Zack's smile.
Lillia couldn't remember how she had ended up in the beach shack on Christmas morning. She couldn't remember where Rod was or why she wasn't with him. She couldn't even remember the name of the tan, muscular boy who was sound asleep beside her. In fact, as she laid in bed and put the pieces of last night's puzzle together, there was only thing Lillia knew for sure.
She wasn't getting any presents from Santa Claus this year.
The pregnancy test was positive.
Lillia covered her face with her hands and burst into tears. Joanna stood beside her, rubbing her back and looking bewildered as Lillia told her through loud sobs what had happened that night.
"Geez, Lil," she finally said, scratching the back of her head. "I always thought I would be the one to get knocked up first out of the two of us."
Lillia cried even harder as she began to speak. "I didn't mean to, Jo! I can't even remember how we got back to his place. All I know is that one second we were sitting at the bar drinking, and talking, and laughing, and then we started kissing, and I knew we should stop but I didn't want to and I just missed Rod so much but I was mad at him too and…and…"
Joanna waited through another round of uncontrollable sobbing before her friend continued.
"And then I woke up the next morning and I was naked and he was naked and I was just so embarrassed that I left without saying goodbye and I don't even know if he freaking remembers anything and…and goddess, Jo, I'm such a slut!"
Despite the very unfunny situation, Joanna couldn't help but laugh at this. "Trust me when I say that you are so not a slut, Lillia. Don't be so hard on yourself. Everyone makes mistakes."
"Yes, but does everyone sleep with a guy they barely talk to after getting drunk on Christmas Eve and then get pregnant because of it?!"
To this Joanna had no answer.
Surprisingly, the hardest part of everything wasn't when Lillia told Zack or even Rod about the belated Christmas present that was due in ninth months. Sure, neither of them took the news particularly well, but both men blamed themselves moreso than Lillia for what had happened that night- Zack for being too drunk to realize what was going on, Rod for not being there to prevent it from happening.
No, the hardest part was when the time came for Lillia to give her precious first child up for adoption.
As much as she wanted to keep him, Lillia knew that it wasn't realistic: mostly for financial reasons, but also due to the fact that somehow her and Rod's relationship had survived all of this, and raising a child together who wasn't technically his would make things awkward to say the least.
So it was with tears in her eyes that Lillia smiled for the only picture that was ever taken of her and her baby boy before handing him off to his new family, a middle-aged couple that lived thousands of miles away in the United States of America. She was told by the kind social worker who helped her through the entire process that the adoption agency had strongly advised that no contact be made between her and her child until he was at least eighteen, old enough to decide for himself if he wanted to have a relationship with his biological parents.
Though this had been difficult for Lillia to accept, she, Rod, and Zack had all talked it over and decided this would be best.
The only thing that got Lillia through this emotional time was having Joanna there through it all. It was Joanna who cracked jokes about serious things and hugged her whenever she got too sad. It was Joanna who spent countless nights sitting beside Lillia, her head on the pink-haired girl's shoulder as she wailed about all the things she was missing- her baby's first words, his first steps, his first day of school, his first girlfriend. It was Joanna who waited patiently with Lillia through Rod's frequent disappearances, reassuring her that "Everything's gonna be okay Lil, everything's gonna be okay."
It was Joanna who put together the Christmas '88 scrapbook chronicling that winter's exciting events, starting with pictures of Rod and Lillia's ski trip in early December. Though Rod, Lillia's family and even Zack starred in a few, most of the pictures in it were of Joanna and Lillia. Making snow angels while wearing bikinis. Sledding down the hill in Lillia's backyard. Laughing at something that had apparently been hilarious after consuming one too many bottles of wine at Doug's. Smiling with hot cocoa mustaches on their upper lips. And one, which was Lillia's very favorite, of the two of them hugging, their backs turned to the camera, as they watched the boat carrying Lillia's child fade into the horizon.
In the months after Joanna left Mineral Town after dropping off her daughter on Barley's doorstep, Lillia slept with the scrapbook beside her bed. Sometimes when she had trouble sleeping at night or just felt lonely when Rod was gone, she would pick it up and flip to the very last page, which was the picture of her and her baby with a handwritten note beneath it.
You would've been a great mother, Lil. I'm so proud of you. Love you.
The room was quiet except for the occasional beep of the heart monitor and the faint sound of Christmas carols playing over the intercom. No one dared to move or breathe. No one dared to speak. No one dared to shatter the silence.
And then Popuri began to cry.
Rick leaped up and began pacing back and forth in the tiny space between Lillia's bed and the curtain, muttering unintelligibly beneath his breath. Elli wrung her hands and attempted to calm her fuming husband. Gray was too shocked to do anything but sit and stare at the scrapbook that lay open on Lillia's lap, mentally cursing himself for (literally) stumbling upon the "perfect present." And Lillia's soft, pleading voice could be heard as she desperately tried to make things right again.
"Rick, Popuri, please, you must understand that I was only seventeen at the time! I was young and naïve and drunk, and my actions were driven by a broken heart. I never meant to sleep with Zack that night and betray your father in such a way, it's just… I… I…" Her eyes filled with tears. "Please forgive me, children. I know it was wrong of me to keep this from you, but I can't bear for you to be angry with me."
She reached a frail, shaking hand towards her son. "Rick," she implored him, her thin voice rising in desperation. "We were going to tell you about this soon, we truly were, but with Christmas and everything it just got…"
"Who's we? You and Zack?" Rick demanded, then turned on his heel and stormed from the room. Flustered, Elli followed behind him.
Popuri, on the other hand, had ceased weeping and was now flipping through the pages of the scrapbook with a strange look on her face. She froze when she reached a picture of her mother cradling a brown-haired, blue-eyed baby boy in her arms.
Lillia held her breath as Popuri studied the child's face for what seemed like hours. Gray watched the corners of her mouth turn up in a smile as she traced her finger around and around the baby's tiny figure, trying to guess what was going through her innocent mind.
Finally, she turned to her mother with sparkling eyes and a mischievous grin.
"Well, he was much cuter than Rick."
It was a crisp night in Mineral Town, so cold you could feel the winter air seeping through your skin and settling in your bones. Everywhere Rick looked lights were shining from rooftops, creating a warm and friendly glow about the town despite the dropping temperatures. There was even a family of snowmen in the yard next door.
Rick wanted to tear every single one of the lights down and decapitate the snowmen.
He just couldn't bring himself to believe it. His mother, the purest and most goddessly woman he knew, had cheated on his father. Before they were even married. She had had a son before him. With Zack. The man who had lusted after her since before the beginning of time.
And she had never told them. Any of them.
Rick shook his head. His mother's confession had evoked so many conflicting emotions within him, he didn't even know what he was feeling right now. Part of him was angry at her for harboring her secret for so long, part of him was guilty for being angry with a woman who was lying in a hospital bed on Christmas Eve, and part of him, the piece of his heart that had gone with his father when he left to find a cure for Lillia… well, that part just felt betrayed. Like he was the one Lillia had cheated on with Zack.
Suddenly Rick was flying down the snow-covered cobblestones in the direction of the beach, his brown eyes ablaze with refueled anger. Surely it had been Zack's fault all along. He had probably taken advantage of Lillia in her drunken, depressed state and coaxed her into bed with him. Perhaps he had even slipped something into her drink at the inn. Who knew what that lonely, lovesick man was capable in his teenage days? He would storm into the tiny shack he called a house right now and give that bastard a piece of his mind.
And then a tiny pair of arms wrapped themselves around his waist, and Rick found himself struggling to break free of his wife's fierce grip. Elli may have been small in stature, but she had given Stu enough shots to develop the strength needed to hold Rick back, or at least slow him down enough to try to talk some sense into him.
"Rick, please don't do this. You don't need to cause any more trouble for yourself or your family." Elli dug her heels into the snow, earning a grunt of frustration from her husband. "Hasn't Lillia suffered enough?"
"Let go, Elli," Rick snarled, attempting to pry her arms from around him. Man, he needed to start lifting weights again.
She hung on even tighter. "Listen to me Rick. Pause for just one second, okay? I know what you're going through, I really do…"
"How?" Rick exploded, whirling around and nearly sending his wife into a nearby snowbank. "How on earth could you possibly know how I'm feeling right now, Elli? Do tell, because I'm dying to know!"
He glared down at her, his chest heaving and his bangs plastered to his forehead in sweaty clumps despite the fact that the first snowflakes of the night were beginning to fall. Elli stared straight back up at him, her lips quivering and her eyes glassy with unshed tears.
"I know, Rick," she said, her voice barely above a whisper. "I know because my father cheated on my mother when I was ten years old. On Christmas Eve."
Rick froze. Elli's face was hard to see through the fog that had begun to cloud his glasses, so he took them off and listened as his wife shared a piece of her past she had kept hidden from everyone but herself until now.
She took a sharp breath before continuing. "My dad was on an 'extended vacation,' or at least that's what Mum told me. I was snooping around their room looking for presents when I stumbled upon the letters he wrote to her before he left." She closed her eyes, the memory as vivid as though it had happened yesterday. "I was so angry at him and my mother for trying to keep it a secret from me. I refused to speak with Mum for a week, and when Dad came home and tried to make amends with both of us, I told him I hated him and hoped something bad happened to him."
The last part was the hardest to tell. It took Elli several minutes of repressed sobbing before she was finally able to choke the words out. "I…I found the letter he wrote to me the night of the car accident. It was three months after he came home, and I had only said 'I love you' to him once, sarcastically, when he tried to apologize to Stu and I again."
She took a deep, shuddering breath, the painful truth dangling in the air like icicles before her. She had never admitted this part to anyone, not Ellen or Stu or even herself.
Rick was slowly closing the distance between them, but Elli hardly noticed. She was too wrapped up in the memories, too burdened by the consequences of her bitterness. "Mum dropped us off at Grandma's a week later and drove away without saying goodbye. Except for Christmas and birthday cards, I haven't talked to her since. I still have the letter from my dad. It's all about how sorry it is and how much he wishes he could take back what he did and make it up to us, and the very last thing he wrote is 'I'll always love you Elliphant… merry belated Christmas.'"
And then she was on her knees, her face buried in her hands and her body wracked with the sobs she had held in for the past ten years.
"And that's why you have to forgive your mom," she gasped as Rick enveloped her in his arms, stroking her hair and gently shushing her as he rocked her trembling frame. "Because you don't want to miss your chance while she's still here."
They stayed that way until the snow stopped falling; two hurting people tied together by broken families and regret-filled pasts. It was the saddest and the strongest of bonds, and Rick knew as Elli buried her face into his chest that he wouldn't have it any other way.
"Are you ready to go back?" he finally said, pulling his wife to her feet and wiping frozen tears from her cheeks.
Elli nodded, then frowned as though suddenly remembering something important. "Yes, but before we go I have something to tell you."
And then she whispered something in his ear that made every other emotion but pure joy fade away.
It was a quarter 'til midnight when Rick and Elli finally returned, covered from head to toe with snow and smiling giddily at the secret they now harbored. Popuri and Gray were snuggled together on the couch in the lobby, Gray absent-mindedly flipping through Lillia's scrapbook and pausing to let Popuri squeal with laughter at someone's outfit and occasionally pecking her on the cheek.
After teasing his sister and her boyfriend good-naturedly, Rick immediately went to his mother's bedside to apologize to her and to tell her his good news. Upon hearing it, Lillia practically leaped from her bed with excitement, causing Doctor Trent to rush into the room in a panic and spend several minutes trying to convince her to lie back down.
This of course caused Gray and Popuri to come running to see what all the commotion was about, and Elli's pregnancy became public knowledge just as the clock struck midnight. A general uproar ensued, the chaos only heightening when Zack entered the clinic with a freshly cut pine tree hoisted over his shoulder and a crockpot cradled in the crook of his arm.
Although there was inevitable tension among those gathered upon his arrival, it dissipated as quickly as the steam rising from the cups of hot chocolate he distributed. Even serious Trent seemed to loosen up and was chuckling merrily along with the rest of them as they listened to Zack's hilarious stories about his Christmas Eve spent with Won.
The rest of that fateful Christmas Eve consisted of decorating the tree with a random assortment of objects found within the clinic, tossing out potential names and feeling for the child dancing excitedly inside of Elli, and, of course, passing around the scrapbook that had changed the lives of those gathered together that night.
And Lillia treasured all these things in her heart.
Jack gazed out across the midnight blue waters to the lights twinkling in the distance. He had received a letter several weeks ago from his biological mother for the first time ever, asking him to travel to an obscure town nestled on Mineral Island in order to finally meet the family he had never known and celebrate the New Year with them.
It had taken some time and earnest persuasion of his adoptive parents before they finally gave him their blessing to take this trip. Now that he was within reach of his true roots, Jack suddenly felt sick to his stomach. Would the family accept him or reject him? Love him or hate him? Embrace him as one of their own or turn him away at the door?
Jack didn't know the answers to these questions, but as his eyes fell upon a lone star shining radiantly above the place he was headed, he felt an overwhelming sense of peace.
Somehow, Jack knew in his heart that no matter happened, he was heading towards the place that he belonged.