It’s late when they get in—well, not late by Wernham Hogg standards, but late enough that the house is dark and quiet. Tim asks the cabbie to stop down the street, feeling like a teenager sneaking around past his bedtime. (Not that he’d ever done that. Not Tim Canterbury. He was always such a nice, well-behaved boy; never a rebellious thought in his head. Everyone always said so, and he's never done anything to prove them wrong, until now.)
Dawn stumbles getting out; she falls against him with a soft giggle, clutching the paintbox to her chest. Tim feels its sharp edges press into him when he steadies her, but that’s not why his breath catches.
"Whoops," she says on a breathy exhale, grinning, eyes bright. "Think that last glass of champagne went to my head a bit."
Dawn is going to Tim's head a bit, or maybe rather a lot, but he's used to keeping a lid on it. So he just grins back at her and steers her with a hand on her back until he's sure she's right on her feet. What he really wants to do is sweep her into his arms and carry her majestically over the threshold. Granted, it's the threshold of his parents' house and there's only his modest single bed inside, but those details aren't important. When he thinks about all the things he wants to do for Dawn (to her, yes, that too, but it's always been more than that), Tim's heart threatens to pound right out of his chest. He's strangled so many daydreams at birth over the years, it's an unbearable luxury to let the thoughts come at last. Grand thoughts of expensive restaurants and honeymoon suites and Paris; more humble thoughts of breakfast in bed, doing the weekly shopping, a quiet evening at home curled up on the sofa.
He can't think about all of it at once; can barely accept that he's even allowed to now. Maybe it'll all make sense in the morning.
Dawn looks curiously around the front garden while Tim fumbles with his keys. She's never been here before; theirs has always been a carefully neutral-territory friendship. The sight of her standing on his front doorstep makes Tim want to pinch himself, but if he's dreaming he doesn't really want to wake up.
"This way," he murmurs, holding out his hand. Dawn steps through the doorway with him, their fingers entwined, and Tim's heart skips a beat.
He draws her upstairs, wincing at every creak of the risers and valiantly ignoring the family photos gracing the wall. Dawn doesn't speak, but when he glances back at her he sees her eyes sparkling merrily, lingering on the Christmas Day group shot from 1992. The one with the striped jumper.
"Not a bloody word," he whispers. She mimes zipping her mouth shut, but he can tell they're going to revisit this moment tomorrow.
He ushers her into his bedroom somewhat bashfully, glad the darkness hides his flushed cheeks. It's not until he shuts the door and turns around that he realises what this must look like.
--"Come home with me?" he'd whispered into her hair, greatly daring. He hadn't wanted to (ever) let her go.
A moment of silent shared breathing, and then came her soft, "All right," still choked with tears, and he'd shuddered right down to his toes.--
Dawn is standing across the room next to the bed. Street-light filters in through the window, showing her hands twisting nervously together and the uncertainty on her face.
"Oh, hey, hey, no," Tim blurts out, at the same time as Dawn says, "Tim, do we have to--"
"No, I wasn't--I didn't--I mean, yes, at some point, but--"
He stops himself with an effort. Breathes deeply, and steps forward to take her hands.
"I just ... can I just hold you?" he asks. "I just want to hold you."
She smiles at him, and says, "Yeah, okay," and it's the best thing he's ever heard.
He lends her a tee shirt and a pair of trackpants to sleep in and tries to ignore the flare of something in his gut at the sight of her wearing his things. They take turns creeping down the hallway to the bathroom and then reconvene, a little awkwardly, in front of Tim’s bed.
“Sorry,” he says with an embarrassed shrug, scratching at his hair. “I just never got round to buying a bigger one.”
He doesn’t tell her it never mattered, because for the past six years it’s been just him in here. Even Rachel never saw this room. But he thinks, looking at Dawn, maybe he doesn’t have to say anything.
“Come on,” Dawn says. “Sleep.”
She untucks his mother’s viciously-tight blanket folds and slides between the sheets, shuffling over to lie closest to the wall. Tim has approximately three seconds to savour the vision and try to control his racing heart before she holds out one hand and beckons him in with a shaky smile.
He settles in gingerly, trying not to crowd her. Dawn lets him get away with that for a minute, then rolls over hard into him and more or less drapes herself across his body, pushing her face into his neck. Tim’s arms wrap around her without conscious thought, as if they’ve been doing this for years.
“‘Night,” she murmurs. “Merry Christmas.” She sounds half asleep already.
“Good night. Merry Christmas. I love you,” Tim whispers into her hair.
In the morning when they wake--embarrassingly late by Canterbury family standards--the entire family will gape at Dawn’s appearance at the breakfast table. Well, almost the entire family; Nanna will look her up and down and tell Tim she didn’t think he had it in him. There’ll be eggs and toast, but probably they’ll have missed out on the bacon, and Dawn will learn that Tim prefers coffee in the morning. Tim will try and fail to curtail his parents’ oh-so-subtle interrogation of Dawn, and eventually he’ll drag her back to his room to escape the increasingly outrageous remarks of his younger sister, Bree.
Dawn will laugh and let herself be stolen, and this time when they share the bed there’ll be nothing tentative about it.