Fifteen

☼►fourteen◄☼

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It felt like only twenty minutes later that I was being rudely jerked awake, jostled by someone jumping on the bed. Groaning, I slapped a hand toward where I thought the person was, but Harry’s laughter told me I missed my mark by a mile. Seeing I wouldn’t get back to sleep for the bouncing, I shoved myself to a sitting position and yawned until my jaw cracked.

Harry finally collapsed to sit on the bed like a normal human being instead of a hyperactive child given too much sugar at four in the morning. I grumbled as I scrubbed a hand over my eyes, glaring at him once my hand fell back to my lap. His hair stuck up in all directions in a curly mass, and lines from his pillow crisscrossed his face. He looked a mess, honestly.

But his enthusiasm and excitement for the day was infectious: I found my irritation fading the longer I watched him grinning, no matter how early or rude the wake-up call was. He bounced in his spot and slapped lightly at my leg.

“Happy Christmas, Seren! Now come on, it’s time for presents!”

“Are your parents even awake right now?” I whined, falling backwards onto my pillows.

“Yes, he woke us first,” Anne replied as she passed by the door, and I huffed out a laugh and climbed to my feet.

Harry bounded down the hall, shouting Happy Christmas! on the way, and I could only shake my head again at his behaviour. He was acting as if this was his first holiday after being told about it for years. I truly marvelled at his giddiness concerning Christmas. I hadn’t felt like this in a very long time, so it was wonderful to witness at least one person so uninhibited.

I grabbed the wrapped gifts off the dresser and followed him to the family room, though I moved much more sedately. The thought of hours together with the family was incredibly enticing. Even with my dislike of the holiday, I’d come to love these people - even Robin, who though kind and funny, I wasn’t as close to as I was with Anne or Gemma or Harry. But I certainly wasn’t going to make a fool of myself.

Evidently, they’d all been waiting for me to arrive, because as soon as I sat on the sofa between the siblings, Robin began passing out the gifts from under the tree. My eyes stung with tears when I was handed one, but no one spoke of it, thankfully. My pulse pounded in my ears as I watched Harry tear into the paper on his present with abandon, dropping the scraps to the floor. Anne caught my eyes, grinning, and gestured toward the box in my hand.

I swallowed the surge of emotion, my fingertip tracing the Seren on the tag before I slipped a nail under the edge of the paper. The wrapping paper peeled back to reveal a hardcover book, one with a plain black cover that gave nothing away of what it was meant to be. Flipping it open to the first page, I gasped softly. Loopy handwriting, blue ink against a pale greyscale galaxy, promised that I would always have a place with the family, no matter what. Anne’s kind words of how much she cared for and loved me caused my tears to break the dam.

I sniffled and wiped my palm across my cheek before looking up at Anne. She nodded, obviously reading my expression correctly. My smile was tremulous, even I knew that, but neither of us cared. I reached down to pick up the garment box, passed it to Harry, and then handed out the rest of the gifts for the others.

Gemma barely waited for me to pull my had back before she was ripping the paper off the package in one quick go. She squealed delightedly at the pair of earrings I’d gotten for her, turning to hug me tightly, but my attention was firmly on Anne. She stared down at the scarf I’d made without speaking. Her hands trembled as she tenderly lifted the scarf from its box.

“It’s lovely, thank you so much.”

My cheeks burned when she wrapped the scarf around her throat, and I wrenched my gaze away before I could cry any more. Before I could do anything, she was on her feet and pressing a kiss to my hair. I chewed on my bottom lip and focused on watching Harry.

He grinned and raised the novel in his hand. He still hadn’t finished The Outsiders, so I’d managed to find and purchase for him a copy of his own - I wanted mine back. Now he could read and love the novel as much as I did. When he reached for the second present I got for him, a spark of guilt flickered through me.

I had only gotten the others one present apiece, but the yarn had caught my eye from the shop window. I wasn’t able to walk away, my mind too preoccupied with how the rich forest-green, the thin golden ribbon weaved throughout, reminded me of him. When I’d gone inside to examine it closer, the softness solidified the skein as the right choice. Now, I could only hope he wouldn’t ask how much it cost me.

Eventually, all the presents were opened, and wrapping paper littered the floor. I took a moment to flip through the picture album that I received; Robin and Anne had already begun to fill it with photographs, including the one she’d taken of us teenagers when we’d fallen asleep together on Halloween. There was even one of Harry and I washing dishes, a snapshot I hadn’t realised was being taken.

Seeing all the moments I’d shared with the family over the last few months filled me with a sense of peace, the kind that one could only get from belonging somewhere. A voice in my brain whispered that I’d be leaving at the end and therefore didn’t belong there, not really, but I ignored it. The contentedness I felt was enough for now.

As Anne and Robin cleaned up the paper, I disappeared into my bedroom to put away the presents. Gemma had gotten me a few shirts and a pack of socks - mismatched and a variety of patterns, I had giggled as soon as they were revealed under the snowflake-printed paper. The tops were adorable yet comfortable, the type I would wear on a regular basis.

Folding the shirts and putting them in the drawer took only a few minutes, and soon enough, I was finished. I tucked the journal under my pillow and set the photo album on the nightstand. I had a feeling I would be looking through it before bed quite often. A moment of hesitation, then I tore a strip of paper from my notebook and tucked it between the pages, marking the photograph from the fort.

“Want to go for a walk?” Harry whispered as we carried the breakfast dishes into the kitchen forty-five minutes later, and I glanced at him before setting the small stack of plates on the counter. Something on his face told me this was important.

That I shouldn’t say no.

So I didn’t.

“Sure. Meet you at the door in a few?”

His bright grin gave away his nervousness, but I didn’t speak of it. Instead, I asked Anne if I could help with anything. She grinned, shook her head, and pushed me gently out of the kitchen. I took it as a sign that she’d heard her son and was giving me permission to not do chores. A Christmas miracle if ever there was one.

I kissed her cheek, thanking her quietly, then hurried to my room to change out of my pyjamas. It shouldn’t have been that difficult to choose what to wear - they had all seen me in everything from sleep-pants and a T-shirt to my school uniform to shorts. But it was. It was near impossible.

I deliberated over my options for a full five minutes before grabbing a pair of dark jeans and the warmest knit sweater I had brought with me. After pulling on a pair of my new socks, one white with bright purple stars and the other black with neon-pink lightning bolts, I made my way to the front door.

Harry was already there, waiting for me. He stood there while I tugged on my boots and coats, then we stepped outside. My breath was stolen from my lungs by the sharpness of the cold air, and I huddled deeper into my coat, yanking the collar up around my face. Our exhales lingered in the air, puffs of clouds that preceded our steps.

Harry kept his face to the ground, but I could still see the pinkness to his cheeks and nose. Green eyes glittered over pale flesh as he caught my eye, and I nudged him with my shoulder, smiling to myself when he rolled his eyes. No one was outside as we walked in silence. Not yet. That would come once the festivities of the holiday were over, once gifts were unwrapped and meals were consumed.

“Is everything okay?” I finally asked after a few minutes of hearing nothing but snow crunching beneath our feet.

Without a word, Harry guided me toward a bench outside of a shop. The sign in the window said Closed for the holidays above a smiling Christmas tree. He reached into his pocket as we sat, pulling out a small box. It wasn’t wrapped in paper, just a plain silver box with a golden ribbon tied around it. The ends of the ribbon rested on the top in a mass of curls; a tag attached read “To: Star From: Q”. Warmth burst into life in my chest at the nicknames.

I carefully untied the ribbon, slipped it into my pocket, and lifted the lid to the box. Nestled in the tissue paper was a thin silver chain that glinted in the sunlight. Harry reached out to lift the edge of the paper, exposing a star-shaped pendant, and my throat tightened. The air grew thin in my lungs as I stared at the charm. A star.

For me.

When I made no move to pick up the jewellery, he did it for me. Goosebumps prickled at my skin when he pushed up the sleeve of my coat, his fingers brushing my skin as he clasped the bracelet around my left wrist. I shivered, though something told me it wasn’t just the low temperatures and his icy fingers that were affecting me.

The thought he put into my present was astounding. The world went fuzzy around the edges, eyes flooding with warmth before spilling over. When I looked at him, his face was flushed - from the cold or embarrassment, I wasn’t sure. He scrubbed a hand over the back of his neck, fidgeted with his knit cap, and I leaned over to wrap my arms around his neck.

“Thank you so much,” I whispered in his ear, hoping my voice could relay just how sincere my words were.

He grinned, crooked and relieved, and so Harry that my chest physically ached. My lips tingled with the urge to press against his cheek, his lips, but I resisted. He pushed against me with his shoulder as my finger came up to trace the star.

Anne didn’t even let us get completely through the door before she was converging on us, thick blankets in hand. Neither Harry nor I argued, just removed our coats and boots, and she looked pleased as we let her wrap us securely in the blankets and usher us to the family room. I dropped onto one end of the couch, which left Harry to settle between his sister and me.

His mother returned after a few minutes with two mugs; steam spiralled from the tops, and the rich scent of chocolate filled my nose. Heat leached from the porcelain into my palms as I cradled my mug close to my chest. I snorted, amused beyond words, when Harry took a sip of his drink only to hiss in pain and pull back with whipped cream on the tip of his nose.

He glared at me in mock outrage before scooping some cream onto is finger, dragging it across my cheek. My cheeks ached with my smile, and Robin chuckled from the armchair. Before I could retaliate, he unfortunately put a stop to our antics before they could grow worse. I pouted and stuck my tongue out at Harry, wiping the whipped cream from my face. He rolled his eyes but let me lean against him as I settled into watch the movie that was playing.

The rest of the day passed in much the same fashion. We only moved from our spots for an early dinner and returned to them quickly once our bellies were full. My attention wandered in the middle of the third film - some feel-good, holiday drivel - and I found myself looking around at these wonderful people, a family who had given me somewhere to stay.

A place to call a second home.