The Christmas gathering was going far better than Leslie thought it would. She thought it might be something of a dry affair considering how little the families actually interacted over the years. Matthew and the other "kids" were at the Aarons house including Maybelle who resented being considered a kid but surprisingly offered little resistance. Somebody had to babysit and she was the oldest. The parents were much livelier than Leslie anticipated. Maybe it was holiday spirit or maybe they were just happy to have their kids' home. Either way everyone was enjoying the evening. Leslie sipped a glass of wine as she walked upstairs to her bedroom. She sat down at her desk and opened a drawer. She pulled out a small medallion. It was a weathered piece of wood cut into the shape of a shield. During that first magical year in Terabithia she worked with Jess on developing a coat of arms for Terabithia. After all royalty must have a lineage. Borrowing tools from Jess's father they made two shields. One big enough to hang inside the castle and the smaller one now in her hand that acted as a power of good against the dark master. Originally, it was a brilliant blue and yellow emblazoned with their battle cry, "Nothing Crushes Us". It was so faded only a hint of yellow and blue remained. The motto was all but gone. Leslie's intention had been to give it to Kyle. "Nothing Crushes Us" saved her and Jess so many years earlier. It was a mantra they could use when life got hard. Bullies, parents or just a tough math test were no match for an inspired king and queen.
"Leslie?" a welcome voice came from the door. Leslie turned to see her other half smiling with just a hint of concern.
"Hey Jess," she joined Jess on the bed and showed him the old shield. "Do you remember this?" Jess took hold of it and carefully brushed away some of the dust.
"This is what you wanted to get from the tree house?" he said studying the relic. "God I forgot we made this."
"I wanted to give it to Kyle. You remember our motto…"
"Nothing crushes us, of course I remember. You screamed it from the treetops the first time we went to Terabithia." Leslie remembered that day. It was one of her fondest memories.
"It's barely even recognizable now. I wanted him to have something special. Something from us that had meaning."
"Leslie, you gave him that by sharing Terabithia. I'm pretty sure Kyle realizes that. He knows we care Les."
"I know but I wanted him to have something to hold on to. Something tangible so when he's out there by himself on the other side of the world he won't forget. Do you think he'll be okay?"
"I think so. I keep hoping somehow he won't have to go back over there. Maybe he can get reassigned or something."
"I was thinking the same thing."
"The best thing we can do is what you said the other day. We've got to do a better job of being friends, staying in contact. I know we will."
"You know that for certain do you?" Leslie asked as she brushed what appeared to be crumbs from Jess's mouth.
"I do because you and I have to do the same. Do you think we will do a better job of staying in touch once you leave?" The question panged at Leslie's heart. She hated thinking about it. The thought of leaving Jess was painful and not something she looked forward to.
"That's something that terrifies me," she said resting her head on his shoulder. "We just found each other again. What if…"
"What if we slip away from each other again? What if one of those guys out in Cali-phony sweeps you off your feet," Jess had taken to using the slightly slanderous term lately. Leslie knew he was just as upset as she was but also knew he was jealous, fearful of losing her to some mystery man out in Los Angeles. The jealousy was obvious but what bothered Leslie was his lack of trust.
"Jess, I've told you to not worry about that."
"Well, it's hard not to. Your beautiful, outgoing, tons of friends, it's not like guys aren't coming after you all the time."
"Girls don't come after you?" Leslie countered growing more irritated.
"No, they don't. Small community college in Podunk, USA. This hardly compares to LA."
"What does LA have to do with it?"
"Beaches, sunny weather, beautiful people wearing little clothing and a huge city full of a bunch of horny guys." Jess jumped off the bed. "I can't compete with that. I'm just some dumb ass hick from Lark Creek."
"You're not competing with anyone and I'm from Lark Creek by the way," Leslie felt her anger starting to boil over. "What is this all about? Don't you trust me? Why do you think I'm going to go off and sleep with some other guy? Have I accused you of that?" Though it was true Leslie had kept silent on the issue it had in fact been on her mind. Jess attracted other women and she knew it. It was evident in high school and she was sure there were opportunities at his community college regardless of how small it was.
"I didn't say I didn't trust you," Jess shouted.
"Well you insinuated it otherwise we wouldn't be fighting right now."
"Who said we were fighting?"
"It's rather obvious Jess. You're convinced I'm going to sleep with the first guy I can find once I'm back in LA."
"I didn't say that!" Jess threw his hands up in frustration. "Jesus Leslie." The two sat on opposite sides of the bed in silence, arms folded across their chests. Leslie felt frustrated and sad. The last thing she wanted was to fight with Jess on Christmas of all days. Their time together was limited and they certainly didn't need this. As she sat fuming a knock at the door caught both their attention.
"Hey, you two all right?" Kyle asked peeking inside. "Everybody downstairs just stopped what they were doing and stared at the ceiling. Damndest thing you ever saw. Then they all look at me like I'm supposed to come up here and make sure everything is all right. Can you believe that? I'm mentally unstable and they send me," Kyle sat at the end of the bed in between Jess and Leslie. "So, how's it going?" As angry as she was Leslie couldn't resist laughing. Kyle had a talent for delivering a line in a subtle yet hilarious way.
"We're just having…a disagreement" Leslie began.
"I thought we were fighting," Jess fired back.
"Well, okay then," Kyle spoke after an awkward silence. "Relationship advice isn't my area of expertise but maybe I can be of assistance."
"No offense Kyle but this isn't any of your business, it's between me and Leslie,"
"Jess he's just trying to help,"
"Kyle, this isn't something you can help us with," Jess said irritated. Leslie was stunned at how rude Jess was being. "Leslie and I can handle this. Just tell everybody downstairs we're fine."
"Fair enough," Kyle said raising his hands in surrender. "I'll be downstairs hovering over the cider bowl. Damn that stuff is good." He quickly exited the room leaving the couple again in silence.
"Jess what's wrong?" Leslie pleaded. "Why is this bothering you so much?" Jess was notorious for brooding when upset. Leslie knew he could go on like this for hours if not days. She softly caressed his cheek and turned his face to hers. "Talk to me," Leslie knew her touch could soothe him faster than anything she could say.
"I'm sorry," he finally said looking into her eyes. "I'm scared. I'm really scared of losing you."
"I'm scared too but that doesn't mean we can't make it work,"
"Leslie, we're 3,000 miles apart. No matter how often we talk it's not the same as being together. Eventually, we're going to drift apart just like we did before."
"You say that like it's already happened. You're not even giving us a chance."
"Leslie, we were best friends," Jess said as he began to pace around the room. "You and I were not just ordinary friends, there was always something special and yet after high school you move to LA and it just…dies."
"I know Jess believe me I've thought about it plenty of times," Leslie said as she pulled Jess back on the bed with her. "That was a hard lesson to learn but we have a second chance. Okay, so what if guys hit on me or girls come after you? That doesn't mean we have to act on it. Jess, I'm not exactly a slut okay?" She finally managed to get him to smile. "I trust you and you're going to have to trust me. We'll make it work. Besides now you have a reason to come to Cali-phony. I'll take you to the beach, wear a skimpy bathing suit, wine and dine you then take advantage of you." Leslie leaned in and kissed her boyfriend. Jess was putty in her hands, his anger abated.
"Please feel free to take advantage of me anytime you wish. I promise I won't resist." The two laughed and enjoyed a moment of cuddling.
"Come on let's go back downstairs."
Kyle was never a fan of hot apple cider. He remembered drinking it at his grandmother's nearly every winter while growing up and though it had its charm he preferred hot chocolate. After his grandmother passed he never touched another drop until tonight. This brew however was absolutely divine. Mrs. Burke said it was spicy and Kyle had to agree it certainly had a kick. He refilled his mug and took a seat at the kitchen bar. He wasn't comfortable enough around all the parents, even his own, to join them. Instead he sat alone and listened to the various conversations. He wondered about Jess and Leslie. Obvious they were scared of being apart and their emotions got the better of them. They fought plenty of times growing up so it wasn't an odd scene. Kyle always thought they acted like an old, married couple. Their bickering was so natural and fine-tuned it was amusing. He always figured they would end up an old married couple so it never bothered him. It was actually comforting to see them getting some of that raw emotion out of their system.
"Kyle," Jess's familiar voice pulled him from his thoughts. "Listen, I'm sorry I snapped at you. I uh…I was upset and took it out on you." Kyle turned to see his friends once again holding hands. It was simply amazing the effect they had on one another. They bounced back from one obstacle after another.
"Thanks, but no apology necessary. I'm glad to see you two have worked it out."
"Well, Leslie can be quite convincing."
"I imagine she can."
"What does that mean?" Leslie asked a little suspicious.
"I have no idea but you have to try this cider. Your mom can make a good batch of cider Les," Kyle stumbled a bit as he left his stool and prepared two fresh mugs. "Here you go, drink up." Leslie took the mug and sniffed it like a bloodhound. Her eyes grew wide as she smiled.
"Kyle, you do realize this cider is spiked with rum," she asked taking a sip. "Yeah, definitely a healthy dose of rum."
"Really?" Kyle wasn't familiar with rum outside of seeing a bottle of it once with a pirate on it. He sampled his share of alcohol in the Corps but never that particular spirit. "Well, that explains the odd sense of well-being. No wonder I feel so toasty. This rum stuff is awesome!" Jess nearly spit out his cider as he began to laugh.
"Kyle, you honestly didn't know the cider had rum in it?" Leslie asked as she smelled it again. "It's fairly strong."
"I swear I thought it was just cider. I mean it's a lot better than my grandmothers but…well, I guess that would explain why it's so much better."
"How many cups have you had?" Jess asked still trying to control his laughter.
"I don't know probably five or six. I'm not sure but I really need to pee."
"I think that's enough for tonight. I'm going to have to cut you off." Leslie took his mug and handed him a bottle of water. "Start rehydrating."
"Okay, if I'm not back in a few minutes I'm probably just passed out on the crapper. Don't come after me it's always been my dream to die on the toilet like Elvis. That would be so awesome." As Kyle headed to the bathroom he could hear Jess laughing uncontrollably. It was nice to make somebody laugh. Though tipsy Kyle still had his wits about him and he enjoyed using them. He figured it was time to give his friends their Christmas presents.
After a round of gift exchanges followed by an excessive amount of photos the party began to wind down. As the parents mingled and began saying their goodbyes Leslie realized Kyle wasn't in the room.
"Did you see where Kyle went?" she asked Jess who was busy fidgeting with his phone.
"No, he's probably in the bathroom again. I think the cider is still working through him." Leslie got up and headed to the bathroom but it was empty. It's possible he used the upstairs bathroom though unlikely. She checked all the same but he wasn't there. After peeking into her room she walked back downstairs and began to worry. Where could he possibly go?
"The gold room," she said under her breath. She noticed Kyle took quite a shine to the room since coming home. She quickly made her way to the room and to her relief found him. Sound asleep on the couch it appeared the rum cider got the best of him. As she was about to call Jess something caught her eye. Resting on the bookshelf, the very bookshelf that contained the "Jeslie" timeline in living color, was a bright red and green gift bag with a bow attached. "Jess," she called out as she walked over to the shelf. As she got closer Leslie saw a small tag that read, "To Jess and Leslie from Santa". Leslie smiled as she felt Jess come up behind her.
"Who's that for?" he asked wrapping his arms around her.
"I think it's Kyle's gift to us."
"Poor guy, he was passed out on that couch this morning and now he's passed out again,"
"Well, he's had an eventful homecoming. The only rest he gets is from the anesthesia during surgery or drinking too much rum cider. His parents may just have to let him sleep here tonight. I don't know if he's going to wake up."
"You're probably right," Jess said as he motioned to a new picture on the shelf. It was the one Kyle placed in the Burke's mailbox along with his diary. He even managed to fit it in the correct chronological sequence. "He had that picture all these years. I wonder why he gave it to us?"
"I don't know. Maybe he just wanted us to have it if…well, if he wasn't going to be around." Leslie carefully grabbed the bag and sat down on the floor with Jess. They opened it together. Inside was an envelope with Jess's name on it. Leslie handed it to him. "Open it," Jess carefully opened the envelope and pulled out the card. It was a Christmas card with a cozy, winter scene on the front. When he opened the card another card fell out. Only this was a much smaller card, the size of a credit card. He handed it to Leslie and began to read aloud what Kyle wrote inside,
"Merry Christmas Jess! When I thought about what to give you for Christmas I didn't really know what to get. However, after seeing you and Leslie together as a couple it finally dawned on me. The greatest gift I can give you is a "ticket" to see your girl. The gift card is for JetWest Airlines. There's plenty of money on there to get you to Los Angeles and back anytime you wish. It's my gift to you. You've found the love of your life and I'm sure you want to see her every chance you can. Well, the first trip is on me."
"I can't believe he did this?" Jess said astonished. "This…this is amazing." Leslie couldn't deny the happiness she felt. This was the best gift they could have received. For cash strapped college students they now had a chance to see other free of charge. She was finally going to get Jess out to Los Angeles. The thought alone was blissful. However, where did Kyle get the money? A low ranking enlisted Marine didn't earn much money. "Leslie, I think this is for you." Jess handed her what appeared to be a knapsack. She couldn't tell what it was made from but clearly it was hand stitched. Her first thought was how handy it would have been in Europe. Inside she could feel a book of some kind. As she pulled it out Leslie realized it wasn't a book but in fact a journal. It was dark brown and soft to the touch. It had a worn feel but was clearly new. Stuck between the pages was another envelope. Leslie pulled out a Christmas card with sunny Los Angeles as a backdrop. She smiled at the picture of her adopted home.
Merry Christmas Leslie! First let me say you're easier to shop for than Jess. I found the shoulder bag and journal in a market in Kuwait. As soon as I saw them I thought of you. I couldn't understand a word the merchant said but he smiled a lot so I think we were both happy. You're a born writer Les and I know how much you love to travel. Every writer needs a journal and you being the globe trotter that you are in dire need of one that fits your personality. Hopefully this will do. So, when you're hiking through the Andes make sure you write it all down! Your grandkids will be able to read it, touch it, and perhaps even carry it on their own travels.
Leslie stared at the journal and re-read Kyle's card. He never ceased to surprise her. He clearly knew Jess and her better than they knew him. Sometimes he knew the right words to say or not to say, the perfect gift to give or simply when to give them their space.
"You know Kyle always talks about how lucky he was to meet us," Leslie said as she ran her fingers over the rough texture of the journals paper. "That we saved him from a life of solitude. I don't think he realizes how much of an impact he has had on us,"
"I know," Jess said wrapping his arm around her. "He doesn't give himself any credit but I think he just wants those he cares about to know it. I guess we'll have to wait to give him his Christmas present."
"It can wait," Leslie said snuggling up to Jess. "I think he'd appreciate the sleep more right now anyway."
"Like it or not he's out. I think you're right he's probably spending the night here."
"Jess?" Leslie asked quietly. "Will you stay here tonight?"
"I was hoping you would ask. I don't really want to go home not alone anyway." Leslie smiled and closed her eyes. She knew he wouldn't say no. They were finding separating harder and harder. It was like those early days when they first became friends; when they were inseparable. They never wanted the days to end because it meant they had to go home and wouldn't be able to see each other until the next day. As a child that might as well be an eternity. Now, as adults they were feeling that same sensation only amplified by all the chaos that romantic love brings. There was a calm reassurance however in knowing they would wake up and be together. Their friend was safely sleeping downstairs and they were surrounded by several loving families. Their homecoming proved the true gift. A new appreciation for home, love long put on hold and nearly lost was finally ignited; a lost and frightened friend walked out of death and found life. Lark Creek was small, isolated and perhaps a little behind the times but no matter how far they traveled, how distant they may have become, the love forged in Lark Creek, in their home never died, it just needed to be found again.
A/N: Thanks to all who followed this story. Whether you read from the beginning or joined somewhere in the middle I appreciate your time and patience. Special thanks to Mad Tom who has been following since the first chapter back in December 2012 and stuck with it until the end. This was a fun story to write and it served the purpose of reigniting my passion to begin telling stories again. I'm not quite sure what it is about the characters of Jess and Leslie that are so compelling but I was happy to make another contribution to their world in my own way. I have an idea for a third story, might just have to look into it. Thanks again.