The Yuletide Ball--A Christmas Tale (Cinderella Dances)

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It's been months since Li was reunited with Elaine and the following silence from his family. Now, someone is reaching out to him, and he's unsure how to proceed. With Christmas just around the bend and Elaine out of town, their friends, Mark and Annette, are planning a Yuletide Ball to remember. With Li reconnect with his family? Will Elaine be home in time to share their first Christmas together?

Author's note

This is a follow-up story for my novella Cinderella Dances, written for the Christmas Tale competition. I'll do my best to ensure it's enjoyable as a stand-alone piece, but for those interested in backstory or wanting to enjoy more of the characters, check out Cinderella Dances!
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1. Family Is What You Make It

   "Da, wake up, you're going to be late!"

   I groaned tiredly, calling back, "If you come back to bed, I won't be alone!"

   Elaine laughed, sounding next to my side of the bed. "You'll still be late."

   "But I won't be alone," I pointed out, stretching the sleep out of my body with a sigh.  I didn't need to look to know she wasn't amused. "I'm getting up, don't worry."

   "I know it's not as exciting as work, but it's still important."  She kissed my cheek, making me smile. "You should shave, too."

   "Mm, all dozen of my whiskers.  I'm up, I'll do it," I relented when she started counting to tease me.  I finally sat up, staring at the clock unhappily.

   "Your sister's sticking her neck out to have lunch with you," she reminded me.  Elaine turned stiffly, going to the corner with her routine stretch equipment. "It's only fair for you to look nice and be on time."

   I nodded, watching her morning ritual for a minute before leaving the bed entirely. "Remind me again why I'm going alone?"

   "Because I'll be on a plane to another city," she called as I made my way into the adjoining bathroom.  I frowned.  She was right--I should shave.

  "You'll be home in time, right?" I checked again.  My electric razor buzzed to life.

   Elaine giggled from the bedroom. "It's a couple nights performing at a holiday event, then I'm coming right home."

   It really didn't take long to smooth out what few hairs managed to sprout on my face.  I rubbed at my chin idly, returning to the bedroom in time to watch Elaine's finishing stretches.  Her movements seemed unusually stiff this morning, derailing my precious train of thought.

   "Please, be careful, Ellie," I asked gently.  She pursed her lips petulantly.

   "I'm fine, Li, just a little--Agh!"  She froze mid-stretch, face twisting in a grimace of pain.

   I didn't think twice, helping to ease her out of the stretch and over to the bed to rest. "How bad is the pain?"

   "On a scale of 'ouch' to 'knock me unconscious'?" she winced sarcastically.

   "Elaine..."

   She breathed deeply and nodded. "I know.  I'm sorry, I'm just frustrated today.  I feel like I can't keep up lately."

   "The schedule you're working would be tough on anyone," I assured her.  She eased my hand toward her back, giving me permission to check the area.  I didn't need long to confirm my suspicions. "Just some swelling.  Slow down a little bit, and it should get better."

   She smiled persuasively. "And what can I do until I get home from this upcoming gig?"

   I pursed my lips. "You have medicine, and a very concerned boyfriend.  Use them."

   Elaine leaned against me with a tired sigh. "I'm getting in the habit of both of those."

   "Thank you.  Which means, I'll take care of the house for awhile."  I gave her a peck on the top of her head, glancing at the clock for the first time since getting out of bed.  I breathed deeply, stifling my immediate panic. "I hope Jane doesn't mind keeping my sister company for a little while."

   "Why?"  She looked up, the realization hitting her quickly. "Oh."

   "Yeah."

   "Oh.  Oh!  OH!  My plane!" she cried out, hurrying to stand.

   "Ellie, wait--!"

   "Ouch."

 

~~ * ~ * ~ * ~~

 

   The Canary was festive this time of year.  Carl and Jane both enjoyed the season, it seemed, enough to have invited quit a lot of The Canary's extended "family" to decorate as they pleased.  The windows had been painted, lights and mistletoe were hung, a tree now sat in one corner of the little cafe, and even a wreath had found its way onto the door.

   It was always a comfort to hear the jingle when I entered The Canary, even as nervous as I was today.  My sister wasn't difficult to find sitting with Jane; The Canary's crowd was sparse today.  As soon as my sister realized the door had declared a new patron, she gave a habitual glance my way.

   "Oh-my-gosh-Da!"

   I barely kept her from knocking me over with her exuberant embrace.  She squeezed my middle until I thought I might feel something pop.  It was a small mercy that I could at least breathe.

   "Calm down, Meili," I urged her quietly, all too aware of the questioning stares of the other guests. "Come on, let go, I want to sit."

   "No!  I haven't seen you in ages!" she whined.

   I rolled my eyes, gripping her at the elbows to prey her off. "Honestly, Meili, it's been seven months since the last dinner.  It's not like I died."

   My sister stared up at me with a doe-like expression, bottom lip quivering. "It's worse than that, Da, no one even talks about you.  Mom even took the picture of you I tried to hide.  She was furious!"

   I steered her back to the sofa she'd been sitting on.  Thankfully, it was the quieter corner of the cafe.  As we sat down, Jane excused herself with a motherly smile.

   "Why are you even reaching out to me, then?" I finally asked sternly, swatting her hand away when she tried to latch onto my arm. "I'm serious, Meili, you could get in trouble."

   Meili finally came back to earth a bit. "I don't think I could ever top whatever you did.  Besides, I'm Papa's darling little girl.  They think I'm visiting friends today, and that's exactly how it'll stay because that's what they want to think."

   "You always were spoiled."  I shook my head slowly. "So, why did you want to see me?"

   "It's the holidays, Da," she replied simply.  I could tell that she was up to something, recognizing her expression easily.  I'd seen her use the same one with our parents countless times. "Maybe if you just apologized--"

   "No."  I'd expected this to be stressful, but I hadn't anticipated being so upset at the thought of what she suggested. "You know what they'd ask me to do, Meili, and I'm not giving any of this up again."

   Meili looked just like Mother when she glared at me like that. "Honestly, Da, what would you be giving up?  Is a cafe really more important than family?"

   "I've got a lot more family here," I muttered bitterly, looking away.  I didn't want to remember what Mother had looked like when everything came to light after the masquerade.

   She scoffed, and I could almost hear her rolling her eyes. "A couple bakes and a defunct dancer?"

   "That defunct dancer is Elaine, and I have every intention of making her family," I snapped back, grimacing when I realized what I'd said.  My sister didn't need to know that!  I breathed deeply and shook my head. "You shouldn't take everything Mother says at face value, anyway.  It's more complicated than that."

   Meili was quiet for an uncomfortable minute, thinking it over. "You...you really want to marry her?"

   I sighed heavily. "I--"

   "Well, why didn't you just say so, Da?!" she cried out, ignoring my swats and embracing my side tightly. "I can't wait to meet her!  It'll be great to finally have a sister!"

 

~~ * ~ * ~ * ~~

 

   "Please, Mark."

   He shook his head with a nervous laugh. "Ohh, no."

   "I'll ask Annette," I warned.  Mark groaned and glared at me, but he let both me and my sister inside. "Thank you."

   "This is extortion," he muttered.  Meili wandered off to the kitchen to find Annette.  Were they going to watch the chef cook? "You're the worst friend I have."

   "It's not like she'll rat us out to my parents anymore," I joked bitterly. "Besides, she's here to ask about Elaine."

   "Why us?  She's your girlfriend," he protested quickly.

   "And you two have more stories and pictures to share," I countered sharply.  It was hard to deny that I was still hurt by that, but it was getting easier. "She's your problem for now."

   Mark straightened in shock. "Wait, where are you going?!"

   I held up kmy phone as I backed towards the door. "My girlfriend's plane just landed; I'm going to call her."

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