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A Perfect Memory

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Seth smiled into his pillow as he listened out for the sounds floating in from outside the bedroom. For a few seconds: silence, and then again; the downy pad of socked feet pattering against the hardwood floor. Seth didn’t have to get up and look to know where the sounds were coming from. On Christmas morning, with the promise of gifts in the living room, there was only one place those little feet could be heading.

He let out a sleep-hoarse huff of laughter, languidly stretching an arm out across the bed. He expected to land against warm stomach or back, but instead he felt his hand smack against his husband’s bent knees. Seth propped himself up curiously: Lyor was already awake, sitting up with his ear cocked towards the door, smiling softly. He glanced down at Seth, who grinned up at him dopily.

“He’s up,” Lyor said.

From the hallway, a delighted little gasp punctured the air. Seth chuckled. “You think?”

This was Wesley’s first proper family Christmas. Appropriate, considering Seth and Lyor were his first proper family. Lyor had pointed out that since their son was only two when they’d adopted him, he wouldn’t have remembered much of his first Christmas even if he’d had one, but Seth had brushed him off. This was special, and Seth wanted it to be perfect. He knew better than most how important a first Christmas could be.

Lyor’s hand brushed over his own, rubbing his thumb fondly. “I think you’re more excited than he is,” he said wryly.

Damn right he was. But he thought that maybe he should leave most of the childish glee bubbling up inside him to the actual child in the house, so Seth contented himself with a giddy grin.

“Let’s go,” he murmured, and gave Lyor a quick peck on the mouth. “Before he starts doing somersaults.”

Grateful for his socked feet swallowing up most of his noise, Seth shuffled over to the bedroom door, peeking out just a sliver down the hallway- and then promptly clapped a hand over his mouth to stop himself from laughing out loud. Their son knew he wasn’t allowed in the living room alone while the Christmas tree was up- partially because they didn’t want him opening the presents early, but mostly because seconds after they’d first put the tree up and left the room, Wesley had tried to climb it. So, in the infinite wisdom of an almost-three year old, he had clearly deduced that he would be able to sneak in undetected by scooting across the floor into the living room on his bum instead of walking.

It was an honest relief, watching Wesley toeing the boundaries. For the past year they’d watched him walk the line between indulging his natural inquisitive- and disruptive- nature, and being terrified of breaking the rules; and that wasn’t any way for a toddler to be. Seth was just glad their son was finally trusting them enough to start becoming the chaotic hellion child he was destined to be.

But for now, there were easy ways to get Wesley doing the right thing. Seth shot Lyor, who was still dragging himself out of bed, a wink over his shoulder. “Hmm. I wonder if Wesley’s up yet?” he called into the hall, deliberately loud. Like clockwork, there was the sound of a sudden scramble; little frenzied footsteps skidding back in the direction of Wesley’s bedroom. Seth gave it a few seconds, and then beckoned Lyor over, both of them making their way down the short hall.

From the doorway, Seth could see a child-sized lump under the dinosaur studded duvet, a nest of inky curls springing out at the top. It would have been an exceptionally good pretence at being asleep, had Wes not been peeking out every few seconds to see if they were still there.

The urge to crack up resurfaced, and Seth turned to Lyor for reinforcement. His husband was more than willing to play along. “Ah, still asleep,” he said solemnly, with a smirk dangling from his lips. “We should let him rest, do Christmas another time.”

“I’m awake!” Wes burst out from under the blankets like a rocket, wide eyes swallowing half his little face. Seth finally let himself laugh at his son’s panicked expression, and he came forward to give him a kiss on the forehead.

“Hey, angel,” he said, crouching so they were eye to eye. Wesley tipped forward and grabbed at Seth’s shoulders, desperate for balance as he nearly vibrated off his feet from sheer excitement.

“Daddy, Kiss-mass!” he exclaimed, bouncing up and down on the mattress. It had been like this every morning for the past two weeks: Wesley jumping up and asking if it was finally Christmas yet. Even if he’d never had one before, he’d heard enough from his new cousins to build up the excitement. Seth was happy to fuel the fire.

“Yeah, it’s Christmas!” he said, scooping Wes off the bed and placing him on the floor. “You wanna see what’s under the tree?” Wes nodded hard enough to look like it hurt, looking all of a rag doll with with his head bobbing like a spring and his hair flopping wildly. He scrambled out to the hall doors, feet slick against the floorboards in his onesie, and Lyor hovered close behind with a hand out and ready to steady him. But when they got to the entrance to the living room, Wesley paused, mouth agape. The tree wasn’t particularly impressive- only a miniature, with some fairy lights and tinsel strung around. Seth had only even bought the tree because it was just what people did for Christmas. But to Wes, with his hazel eyes gleaming in the reflection of the tree’s warm glow, it must have seemed perfect.

Maybe when it had been forbidden, it had been enticing enough to overpower his hesitation, but now he had their permission, ‘Kiss-mas’ must have seemed a little too good to be true. Wes tipped his head back to face them, mouth open in a silent question.

“Go ahead, Wesley,” Lyor said, gesturing grandly.

Wesley batted his eyelashes, and shyly grabbed Lyor’s hand.

Lyor glanced back at Seth, mouth twisted into a puckered line of surprise. Wesley had gravitated towards Seth almost instantly, but he still held back a bit around his papa. Little kids could sense fear, and around him Lyor positively reeked of it- he was still so apprehensive about being a father, so conscious of causing damage no matter how great he was with his nephew and nieces. But here was a baby step for both of them. Seth smiled encouragingly, and Lyor led his son over to the tree, settling him down in his lap. Seth sat down next to them and picked out the nearest present, handing it to Wes.

Wes gaped at it, looking like he didn’t quite understand what to do next, or maybe just transfixed by the reindeers decorating the wrapping paper. His blunt little fingernails scrabbled hesitantly at the edges, and Lyor, with a huff of laughter, pointedly tore the corner open. At the sound of ripping, Wes’ eyes positively sparkled.

Once again, Seth had to laugh. Of course- the sound of destruction; music to Wesley’s ears.

His son needed no further encouragement. In a matter of seconds, there were only the barest of traces that the wrapping paper had ever existed to begin with, and Wesley held up the box inside with a whoop of triumph.

“Bees!” he said excitedly, shaking the box around so the smiling bee on the lid seemed to wave at them. The lid popped off, and a stream of jigsaw pieces fell out with a deafening clatter. Wesley fell silent, face frozen in confusion and the little trace of fear that had become so familiar over the last year; the fear that Seth hated more than anything.

Lyor didn’t hesitate a second. “It’s a puzzle,” he said, in the velvet-soft soothing tone that Seth had only seen him be able to manage for his son’s sake. “It comes apart.” He snapped apart two pieces that had remained together, the one’s that made up the bee’s beaming face, and dropped them unceremoniously. “See?”

The shyest hint of a grin showed as Wes mimed his father’s actions, taking apart an invisible puzzle in the air. “Puddle,” he said confidently.

“Jigsaw,” Lyor tried again, as if that word could possibly easier for a three year old. Wesley just giggled.

“Alright, Wes, wanna see what else you got?” Seth said, tousling the boy’s hair. Wes let out a squeal, and then he was off: leaping out of Lyor’s lap and utterly demolishing the small pile remaining under the tree. Amidst the sound of shredding paper and toddler shrieks of delight, Seth scooted over to press up against Lyor, leaning into the enticing warmth of his side.

They’d already given each other their gifts. From Seth, Lyor had gotten a new dressing gown- ludicrously plush and swishy, just the way he liked it. And in return, Seth had gotten an aged leather satchel. They didn’t bother with the ceremony of waiting til Christmas day, considering Seth only celebrated it out of habit, and Lyor simply went along with it because he didn’t care either way- he was primarily interested in the prospect of the lunch Kendra and Trey always put on. Over their years together, they’d slowly formed a hodge-podge holiday celebration of their own, pieced together from Seth’s memories of his secular family Christmases and Lyor’s lingering fondness for his Jewish upbringing. They left out anything religious, but they’d fry latkes as Seth tried to serenade Lyor with his renditions of the most obnoxious Christmas songs possible; and give their nephew and niece chocolate gelt right alongside their Christmas presents.

While at the moment Wesley was turning his nose up at the latkes, Seth still reckoned they had the makings of a proper family tradition on their hands.

“We could have saved some money and just gotten him the wrapping paper,” Lyor said dryly. Wes had left his unwrapped gifts scattered in a half-circle around him, and was currently giggling maniacally as he careened around with a sheet of paper draped over his head, looking like he was the winner of a World’s Worst Halloween Costume competition.

“At least we know he’s resourceful,” Lyor continued, and Seth laughed, mouthing a kiss against his shoulder.

“I’ll go and get the last gift,” he said, and stood. “Make sure he doesn’t split his head open.” The last thing Seth saw before disappearing back into their bedroom was Wes charging headlong into Lyor, tripping up and blindly tumbling into his lap.

He found what he was looking for waiting on his bedside table, from where he’d been flicking through it last night. Seth smoothed a hand over the cover, lingering over he curling letters inscribed on the front. This one hadn’t been wrapped, or even placed under the tree- as much as it was Wesley’s gift, it really wasn’t suitable for unsupervised toddler hands. The last gift- the most important gift- was one that would have to bide its time. They didn’t expect Wes to appreciate it yet, as young as he was, but it needed to be given now. His appreciation of it would mature right along with him.

For now, Seth hoped it would at least bring his son a little joy, even if he didn’t fully understand why.

Back through in the living room, Seth could only make out the faintest of murmuring, the comparative silence ringing in the wake of the peaks of childish laughter from before. Slightly concerned that Wesley had knocked himself or Lyor- or both- out, he peeked his head through, but instead the sight he found made him practically melt against the doorframe.

Lyor and Wes, both still in their pyjamas, both sitting cross legged, were facing each other with the dismantled bee puzzle spread between them. Wesley’s face was drawn in a pout of stern faced concentration as Lyor explained how the jigsaw worked.

“See how the pieces fit together?” he was saying as Wes spread them around on the floor- there were only 6, but for a three year old it may as well have been the enigma code. “For this one, you find the one with the curve- no, no, they have to slot in-“

Wes, tongue poking out in thought, carefully clicked two squares together. Lyor’s face lit up.

“That’s right, excellent. Now try and find where this one goes...”

Seth must have made a noise, because Lyor glanced up. Seth must have looked adoring, because he had the tiny smile on his face that he always grew whenever Seth told him he loved him.

“What?” Lyor said, still smiling.

Seth just shook his head, crossing the room in a few short strides and dropping down next to them. “How’d I get so damn lucky, huh?” he murmured, and kissed his husband’s temple.

“Daddy, look.” Wesley said, and nudged over the puzzle, fully completed. He was grinning ear to ear. “Did it!”

“Oh wow! Great job, angel.” Seth ran a hand over his son’s unruly hair as he turned to his papa for the same praise. It was a picture-perfect moment; his family, together. It was the kind of moment made for photos, but Seth didn’t want to get his phone and risk missing any of it. No, there would be plenty more moments like this to come. For now, he just wanted to savour them in the present.

His musings reminded him of why he’d left in the first place though, and he shifted his grip on what he was holding. “Hey Wes,” he said, and his son’s head bounced up. “We have one more present for you. Wanna see?”

Wesley nodded enthusiastically, and Seth beckoned him over. “This is a special gift, okay?” he explained. “So we have to be careful with it. Come over and I’ll show it to you.”

Dutifully, Wes clambered into his lap, and Seth wrapped his arms around to settle the gift on the boy’s knees. Wesley’s face brightened, and he skimmed his fingers over the glossy yellow cover- carefully, just like Seth had warned him. His eyes were wide; hungry.

“Papa read book!” he said, peering up at Lyor beseechingly, reaching over to him with eager hands.

Lyor looked inordinately pleased with all the attention he was receiving, and a bit like he didn’t quite know what to do with it. He shook his head, gently guiding Wesley’s focus back to the book in front of him. “This isn’t a story book, Wesley,” he said. “It’s a photo album.”

“Well, it is a story book in a way,” Seth cut in. “It’s your story, Wesley.” He took Wesley’s hand in his, tracing it over the words on the front. “You know what this says? It says ‘Wesley’s Life Book.’”

Slowly, he started flipping through the pages. Each one was full of photos and hand-written notes. There were ones of himself and Lyor, with messages from them both for Wes when he was older. Then there were his grandma and grandpa- Seth’s parents- and his Uncle Michael and Aunt Yasmin, because against all the odds, Mikey had actually convinced a girl to marry him.

And then, of course, there was the rest of the family. They went through pages of Kendra and Trey, with Matthew and Maddy smiling up from the page and Maisie nestled in her father’s arms. There was Tom, grasping Seth in a one armed hug as they laughed, and Aaron trying to dance with Hannah while Amy laughed in the background. There were even a few photos of Julie in there. All these people, even as more and more years distanced them from their time together in the White House, were all apart of each other’s lives. This was Seth’s family, and this was Lyor’s family; so this was Wesley’s family as well.

With Seth’s help, Wes was peering through the book himself now, eagerly pointing out the faces he recognised. He let out a babble of excitement as they reached the more recent photos, with snapshots of Wes himself as he played with his cousins. There were plenty of him and Madelyn, linked arm and arm and beaming. Seth had a feeling those two were gong to stick together like velcro- and he had more than a few premonitions of doom about it.

“This is your family, Wes,” Seth said. They reached the blank pages that made up a good majority of the book. Memories, waiting to be made. “And this here is for you to fill in as you grow up, with any pictures you like.”

Over Wesley’s head, Lyor met his gaze, quirking an eyebrow. Seth nodded, and slowly he eased the album out of Wesley’s hands, turning right back to the front. On the first page, before even the photos of Lyor and Seth, were ones of a young woman with soulful doe eyes staring up at the camera; a dark, gorgeous hazel.

“Do you remember who this is?” Lyor asked softly.

Wesley had gone quiet. His thumb travelled up to sneak into his mouth. “Mummy,” he mumbled around the digit.

“Yeah,” Seth said, and rested his chin atop his son’s head. “That’s your mummy.”

They hadn’t been able to find many photos of April Bowers. Only two- one of her at what was probably nineteen, smiling, and then one from a year later: a photo of her holding a newborn Wesley in her arms. They barely knew any more about her than what the pictures showed- they’d been told that she’d been a single mother who started struggled with drug addiction around the time Wesley turned one, which was the reason Social Services had taken him. The plan had been for her to go to rehab so she could be reunited with her son, until she committed suicide five months later; found with a suicide note and a letter in her hand, saying how sorry she was.

More than anything, Seth was glad the foster carers who had taken Wes before his adoption had made an effort to keep the memory of his mother alive for him- they’d been where the photos had come from. Wesley had been lucky enough to have a birth mother who had tried to make her way back to him; she deserved more than to be forgotten.

“See here?” Seth fingered an envelope taped to the inside of the front cover, one that had been given to them along with their son. After a second, Wes did the same. “This is a letter that your mummy wrote to you before she died. And when you’re a bit older, you can read it.”

Seth shut the photo album, pressing a hand tight against the cover. “We’ll keep this on your bookshelf, and we’ll take it down whenever you want to have a look. This book- it’s important, because it carries a piece of your mummy, and me and papa, and everyone else; all the people that love you. The people who’ll always be there for you.”

There was a sudden lump in his throat that he had to fight down. As much as this book was meant to fill a hole in Wesley’s life, it also meant everything to Seth. Far beyond gifts or festivities, Seth needed to be able to give his son the knowledge that he was loved; that he would always have a family; that his birth mother hadn’t just abandoned him. Because Seth knew, better than most, what that kind of abandonment did to a child; the way it ate its way through to the bone- even after being adopted and loved most of his life, that sick fear, that loneliness, never fully left him. And Lyor too- Seth turned to his husband, who was staring at Wes with something far off in his eyes- he knew what it was like to feel unwanted by someone who should have loved him more than anything.

Both of them had a silent agreement; they would never let their son feel they way that they’d been forced to.

Against his chest, Wesley’s head was drooping unsteadily. The boy let out a yawn that shook his entire body. Lyor chuckled, and carefully reached over to slide the photo album safely off of Seth’s lap as Wesley rearranged himself so he was properly curled up into a ball.

“He likely kept himself up all night. No wonder he’s exhausted.”

Seth pulled Wes closer, tucking in a stray arm that was spilling out of his lap. His son peered blearily up at him. “You wanna have a nap before we go to Uncle Trey and Aunt Kennie’s?” he asked. Wes only managed half a nod before passing out completely.

“You going to take him back to bed?” Lyor asked,

Seth traced a thumb over the soft round of his son’s cheek, careful not to disturb him. In front of him, the tree sparkled, and he felt Lyor’s hand settling down on his own. A moment for memories.

“We’ll stay here,” he said. “Just for a bit.”

Just a bit longer, in this perfect memory.