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Gold Love

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Often, Christen cursed the fact that she was the first one awake for everything. She was the lightest sleeper she knew. Her inability to remain dreaming longer than when the sun rose meant nothing in the early hours escaped her notice.

This morning was no different.

As soon as she felt Tobin’s hands move from around her hips in the bed, a wry smile crossed her face.

“What do you think you’re doing?”

Her voice was still laced with the remnants of sleep, no one having spoken a word as of yet, and Tobin’s mumble in reply was much the same. Still, the movements had a purpose.

She almost burst out laughing when Tobin’s hands cupped her breasts, squeezing slightly.

“I’m having a good morning, is what I’m doing.” The murmur came from eyes that Christen was sure were still closed, feeling her body get pulled into her girlfriend’s front. She felt Tobin press flush against her back, lips pressed to the side of her neck as hands squeezed again.

(Christen would take waking up early if this is what greeted her every time).

Tobin’s lips had no real purpose, moving across her skin and leaving slow kisses in her wake. Her hands had other ideas, squeezing and ever so gently pinching, one of her legs brushing over her thigh with the purpose of pulling her onto her back, moving on top of her and –

“Wait, wait.”

It took so much restraint to stop her. Tobin sat back on her arms immediately, looking to see what was wrong. Christen shook her head, heart clenching at the adorable tilt to Tobin’s head, the way she was so sweet, always checking, always soft. She pulled her down for a kiss to relax her, whispering against her skin.

“Not yet. Mal hasn’t left.”

Christen knew the footsteps of her baby sister like the back of her hand, hearing her pattering around the apartment still. Mal was spending the morning with Mabel at Roseway helping with the younger kids and Tobin and Christen would join in the afternoon with the older kids.

It was the last few days before they would fly out to Florida to spend Christmas with the Heaths. They’d all been busy at Roseway over the last while making it as magical a Christmas for the kids as they could; today was crafts and tomorrow would be baking. Seeing the smiles on their faces was everything to them.

“She’ll leave soon.” Tobin whispered, lips pressing down against Christen’s neck again, hands riding up her sleep shirt, edging it closer to her shoulders. Christen’s attention snapped back to the feeling, eyes shutting when Tobin’s teeth nipped just below her ear lobe, hands just managing to push her shoulders away with a knowing grin.

“You know she’ll come in and say goodbye. I’d rather that happened with my shirt on, thank you.”

Tobin tried to grumble, laying back down in bed, but it didn’t get half way out before the bedroom door opened quietly, a body slowly tiptoeing through the room in the dark and –

Oof!”

“Mal!”

“Goooood morning!”

Christen genuinely thought she was winded by how Mal had jumped straight onto the bed, landing right on top of both of them in a way that had everyone collapsing in groans and laughter.

“That’s it, I’m kicking you out of the apartment.” Tobin said teasingly as she wrapped an arm around Mal, pinning her in place on the bed with a tickle as she kissed the side of her head.

“You would never.”

“That’s it, I’m writing you out of the will.” Christen wrapped her arm around Mal’s other side, tickling her just the same as Mal let out another laugh.

“You don’t have a will to write me into.”

“Hmmm,” Christen kissed Mal’s head, smiling in the dark, “Guess you’ll just have to write me into yours since you’re a baller now.”

“I’m not a pro yet.”

That’s for sure.”

“Shut up, Tobin.”

“Make me.”

“Oh, I’ll show you.”

Christen just lay on her back in the bed, rolling her eyes at the absolute children beside her now play wrestling. It amazed her (and made her heart race like a fool) that not even a minute ago Tobin was ready to jump her bones and now she was being a completely cute dork, throwing playground insults at Mal, trying to give her a noogie.

“Alright, cut it out. It’s too early for this.” Christen threw an arm out, half-heartedly trying to stop the two of them. “Mal, you better go, you don’t want to be late to get to Roseway with Ma.”

Strained laughter erupted from Mal. “I can’t get up!”

Everyone could hear Tobin’s grin without seeing it, it sounding like she had Mal pinned down. “You can’t get up? Where’s your muscles? I thought you were a professional footballer or something.”

“The standard in the USA must be low if this is the caliber of people who make their national team.”

“Hey!” Dual protests left Mal and Tobin’s mouths, it succeeding in Tobin letting Mal moving and going. Christen just laughed, outsmarting them once again, and flicked the soft beside lamp on. She beckoned a now standing Mal closer, sitting up slightly to kiss her cheek.

“I love you, baby. We’ll see you later, okay?”

“Okay. Love you, Chris.” Mal smiled, flicking Tobin’s foot where it was under the covers in the bed. “Love you, Toby.”

“Love you, bud.” Tobin held her hand out and she and Mal did a series of slaps and twists with their fingers, Christen wanting to die at how cute the two of them were with the handshake they’d created.

Mal waved to them as she walked to the door, almost getting out of it before Tobin called out.

“Mal, wait, I have to tell you something.”

“What is it?”

“Come here,” Tobin said, Christen immediately hearing she was trying to hold a grin back, “It’s a secret.”

From the light in the doorway, Mal’s face showed she knew Tobin was most likely talking shit. She stayed there for a few seconds, as if debating whether to relent to Tobin’s request or leave her hanging.

She bit, of course she did.

And Tobin was messing with her, of course she was.

“You’re a loser.”

Christen snorted when she heard what Tobin whispered in Mal’s ear, it being the most unoriginal playground insult of the morning. Mal sighed, taking Tobin’s pillow from behind her and whacking her over the head with it.

“Chris, can you dump her and get a new girlfriend?”

“Sorry, baby love, this one came with a lifetime guarantee.” Christen felt Tobin’s wide grin against her shoulder as she said it, watching Mal shake her head with a smile just as big.

“You’re such a pain in my ass, Tobin.” Mal stage whispered to Tobin as she walked out of the room, Tobin still laughing to herself even when they heard the apartment door close.

Christen looked down at her, an eyebrow raised. “Quite pleased with yourself, are you?”

Tobin’s cocky grin was shot her way, sending a shiver down her spine. “Why wouldn’t I be? I’m funny and I have the world’s most beautiful woman in my bed who is about to be naked and screaming my name.”

It amazed Christen, (and made her heart race like a fool) that not even a minute ago Tobin was being the world’s cutest dork with her sister and was now heavy lidded and dark eyed, pushing her shoulders down on the bed as she lay on her back, hands finding their home again on her breasts and pinching at nipples, lips pressing against hers.

“I’d say I’m quite pleased with myself indeed.”

---

It was one of those perfect Portland days where the chill could be easily combatted and although you couldn’t really feel it, the sun was shining bright without a cloud in the sky. Still acquainting herself to the city, Christen had gotten Tobin to show her some of her favorite places on their late morning walk, circling all the way back around to a new café near their apartment and on the walk to Roseway, where they’d planned to pick up lunch for Mal and Mabel.

The place was humming with people, the typical buzz of a new food venture in the city, and Christen immediately felt drawn to the wooden walls and the plants hanging in what felt like all available space.

She and Tobin happily joined the line, standing with their hands held as Christen faced Tobin, pulling some stupid cute faces at her before –

“Christen Press?”

She stiffened, as if iced water had been thrown directly at her back, eyes widening as she continued to stare at Tobin. The voice had come from behind her, and she recognized it, she did, but she couldn’t place it. Her mind immediately jumped to all the possibilities she could only call horrible – most involving having run into someone from her time in foster care.

She was convinced she wouldn’t turn around for anything, but when Tobin squeezed her arm reassuringly and smiled down at her, it struck enough curiosity that it countered the fear. She built up the courage to take a deep breath and spin on her heel.

“Kam?!” The ice cold feeling flushed away to be replaced by complete joy. In front of her was Kam, the man who was once her yoga instructor at the hotel from the January camp earlier that year, along with his husband – “Oh my god!” Christen exclaimed, seeing Yash standing behind the counter. “How – what – ”

She could only stand dumbfounded, a huge smile on her face, before Kam held his arms out and she gave him the biggest hug.

“It’s so good to see you!” Kam said, swaying Christen in the hug before letting her go, keeping a hand of hers in his. His hair was shorter now, Christen thought back to the once growing afro, but everything else was exactly the same as she remembered him – athletic in a tall, lean, yoga-instructor way, deep brown eyes, the warmest smile.

“You as well!” She squeezed his hand, reaching back with her other for Tobin, who she felt step up behind her. “This is Tobin, my girlfriend. Tobs,” She said excitedly, turning back to her, “Remember in January camp how I started to learn yoga at the hotel? Kam and Yash were the instructors!”

Tobin’s smile was just as genuine, radiating off the excitement of Christen and also just happy to meet another nice person. She shook hands with Kam, both of them hitting it off.

“So you left the LA beaches for Portland?” Christen asked, seeing Kam grin in response.

“Yeah, something different. Owning a café has always been a dream of ours, and Yash has been in love with Portland longer than he’s been in love with me.” Kam laughed, Christen’s smile growing bigger.

“This is your place?”

“Sure is.” Kam beamed like a proud parent. “Welcome to Union.”

“Oh, Kam, I’m so happy for you both. Look at this place, it’s beautiful. And so busy!”

At the mention, Kam caught Yash’s eyes from behind the counter and squeezed Christen’s hand again, letting it go. “It is, and I think Yash might kill me if I stay here talking any longer – mostly because we are too busy but also because I know he’s jealous I’m getting to talk to you and he can’t.”

Christen laughed, feeling completely overcome with happiness. She’d never experienced this before, knowing good people from her past, running into them again, the idea of catching up with friends who were genuinely excited to see each other.

It made her giddy like all the Christmas spirit surrounding them had hit her at once. She nodded, giving Kam a gentle shove back to the counter.

“Yes, go, go. We’ll talk to Yash when we get to the front. Oh, I’m so happy to have run into you!”

“Us too, babe. But I’ll see you again before you leave!” Kam smiled as he left, Christen sighing in happiness as she leant back against Tobin.

“You are,” Tobin circled her arms around Christen’s front, “Without a doubt,” A kiss to the back of her head, “The most adorable person on this planet.”

The smile had completely overtaken Christen’s face and she couldn’t wipe it off even if she wanted to. She molded herself into Tobin’s embrace, her entire body radiating joy.

“I’ve never…never run into a friend like that. An old friend. Even if I only met them less than 12 months ago. The idea that I have friends to even run into.” She spoke out loud, missing the unhappy crease in Tobin’s forehead at the statement. “It’s stupid, but…”

“It’s not stupid at all.” Tobin held her tighter, a longer kiss to the back of her head. “It’s one of the greatest things in life, having people to share it with. Whether old or new. And you deserve to have everyone good in your life, Chris. Of course it’s exciting for you.”

Hands squeezed together gratefully, Christen sending big smiles to the counter every time Kam or Yash caught her eye. When they got to the front, Yash reached out his hand, taking Christen’s in his.

“As if this day couldn’t get any better! It’s so good to see you, Christen.”

Christen bounced in place. “You as well. It’s the best surprise. And Yash, this is Tobin, my girlfriend.”

“Oh, you don’t have to introduce Tobin Heath to me. I’ve been a Portland fan for a long time, and you don’t know Portland without knowing Tobin Heath.”

A blush ran all the way across Tobin’s cheeks, Christen’s heart accelerating with joy at the interaction. Tobin shook Yash’s hand, thanking him with a tiny, shy smile.

“Yash, look at this place. It’s so incredible! I’m so happy to see all these customers in here. And the food looks amazing.” Christen gestured to the cabinet, overflowing with mouth-watering sweets and savories, way too many good looking things to make an easy choice.

“Thank you! That means a lot. It’s such a blessing, we never could have dreamed it would take off like it has, but now we’re in dire need of help. You don’t know anyone looking for a few days work, do you?” Yash asked, his manner half joking and half serious, Christen and Tobin laughing with him. “So what can I get for you both?”

“We’re just going to get some coffee, and Tobs, you wanna choose something from the cabinet?”

“Leave me with the hard job, okay.” Tobin grinned, her eyes scanning all the food over and over, trying to find the best looking thing despite them all looking so good. She eventually pointed out a couple of items to Yash, one of them being a slice of lemon meringue pie (Christen’s third favorite food behind French fries and donuts) and Yash held his hand up when they went to pay.

“No, no, you don’t pay here.” He said, shaking his head adamantly when both women protested. “I won’t hear it! Go and sit down and this really hot waiter will be over soon with your food.” He winked at Kam as the man walked past, making both women laugh again.

Christen thanked him profusely as she saw Tobin drop money into their tip jar regardless, both of them moving to a free table that opened up as Christen continued to look around, falling more in love with the place.

“Can you believe it?” She gushed to Tobin, looking around and back at the men and then finally to Tobin’s face, eyes bright and smile wide. “It’s so crazy, right? Of all the people, and, oh, they’re so, so nice.”

Tobin squeezed her hand, that dumb smile on her face she wore when Christen was being too cute. “They’re the nicest. I’m so happy we came here.”

“Me too!” Christen’s eyes continued to dance around the place. “The whole café is so cool. I love the plants, and it’s so bright and open in here.”

“It’s very your style.”

“And the food, didn’t it look amazing?”

“Their chefs must be crazy talented.”

“And Kam and Yash just look in their element. They’re so happy. And – ” Christen stopped in her tracks, noticing the glint in Tobin’s eyes. “What?”

The smile just stayed on Tobin’s face, that knowing look in her eyes, and Christen asked her again through a chuckle. “What, Tobs?” 

“You want to work here, don’t you?”

“What?” Christen said again, seemingly completely unexpecting Tobin’s comment. She opened her mouth to respond, before it hit her full on. Holy shit. “Oh my gosh, I do want to work here.”

Tobin just cracked up, taking her hand across the table and bringing it up to her lips, kissing it. “I love you so fucking much.”

“Tobin! I want to work here!” Christen said with glee, seeing Tobin’s smile grow bigger, if that was possible. “How did you know that before I even did?”

A shyer smile, then, Tobin kissing her hand again. “You lit up in this place. And I pictured seeing you here and it just felt like something you’d love.”

Christen’s chest felt like it might concave from how her heart exploded at the words, at the look on Tobin’s face. The one of pure love, the happy eyes, the easiest smile. It was as simple as breathing, like it had always been part of her.

In a way, Tobin always had.

“I love you so much.” Christen squeezed Tobin’s hand, beaming. “Would it really work, do you think?”

“I don’t see why not. Yash said they were looking for some help a couple days a week. And you don’t want to work full time again right now.” Tobin said, more of a question than a statement, but Christen agreed wholeheartedly, knowing she’d well and truly left her Diner days in the past. “But I know you said you still wanted some financial independence. And with a few days here, you’ll still have a lot of time to volunteer at Roseway. And a lot of time to spend with us.”

This time Christen kissed Tobin’s hand, holding it tight. “That sounds perfect.”

-

“So, per your request, these are Kam’s two favorite sandwiches from the menu and there may or may not be a cupcake inside as well.” Yash stage whispered the last part, winking at Christen and Tobin where they once again stood behind the counter. The two were picking up food for Mal and Mabel to take to Roseway with them, having just eaten the most delicious meal of their own.

“And no, we still won’t let you pay.” Kam said in passing as Christen tried to pull her card out, Tobin shaking her head again with a grin as she stuffed the tip jar once more.

“Is that all for today?” Yash asked, looking a little less frazzled now that the brunch rush had somewhat died down.

“Well…” Christen said in a way that made both men look up. “If you were serious about a part-time job going, I’m all yours in the New Year.”

Two mouths opened in overjoyed shock, trying to assess the seriousness of what Christen just said. Both Tobin and Christen laughed, even more so when both men did a little bounce in place, always in synchronization, always together.

There was a lot of excited chatter that followed, an exchange of numbers, a promise to meet up as soon as they could, a flurry of plans to pick yoga back up as well, and Christen couldn’t remember the last time she felt this free, this happy, this secure in her future.

“I know you and Mal are getting paid well, even if it’s not half of what you deserve.” Christen started, holding hands with Tobin as they made their way through the streets to Roseway. Tobin snorted at her comment, knowing all too well the equal pay fight that was currently brewing in the national team. “And I know you both want to take care of me financially, which is so nice, it is.”

Hands squeezed, a silent gesture that told Christen she was being heard.

“But you know, you said it before. Being financially independent is really important to me. My whole life has been this giant looming threat of poverty and I know, god forbid, it’s unlikely we’ll ever end up back there, but I need to feel secure in this. That worry about money, it’s not something I can just switch off. And working part time, not over-exerting myself again, with these guys who are just the greatest, this is like the best solution.”

Tobin nodded contemplatively, sending her a soft smile. “You’re pretty amazing, you know that?”

“You may have mentioned it once or twice.”

“Well I hope you never forget it.” Tobin’s thumb brushed across the back of her palm as she talked. “I know Mal and I can probably be overbearing. It was really hard watching you work all those hours at the Diner, and we just want what’s best for you. I want you to be happy, Chris, in whatever you’re doing. I know you struggled so much in the past but you don’t have to work to survive, now. You can work because you want to be around great people, around great food. You can learn these new skills, and you can have fun with it. That’s all I ever want, you know? For you to be happy.”

One set of feet stopped walking as Christen pulled Tobin into her, eyes glistening ever so slightly. “Keep smiling like that and I’ll be happy forever, beautiful. I love you, so much.”

Tobin’s kiss in reply told her heart everything she needed.

---

It was lucky Mal had already cut the cupcake in half and set one aside for Mabel, because at the rate she demolished it, the entire thing would have been gone in seconds.

“Oh my god.” Mal’s eyes closed in happiness, sprinkles on her lips, grinning when Christen flicked the back of her head in a silent ‘don’t talk with your mouth full’ scolding. “Hearing you got a job at this place is even better if this is the kind of delicious food they have. Ma, you gotta try this.”

Mabel shook her head at her, a knowing grin on her face, one bite into her sandwich. “While I support your choice to eat dessert before lunch, I prefer to have mine the other way around, angel.”

Mal just smiled at her, closed lips but puffed cheeks from the cupcake, making all of them break into laughter. They could hear Tobin through the door in the main room at Roseway, the woman having volunteered to watch over the littler kids as they ate lunch, leaving the sisters and Mabel in the kitchen.

Christen caught Mabel’s eyes and the older woman winked, reaching over to squeeze her hand. “I’m proud of you, honey.”

A blush ran over Christen’s cheeks, still getting used to praise like this, unable to stop the warmth dancing around when she received it. “Thanks, Ma.”

“You seem rightly excited about this job, because this food is amazing. And Yash and Kam sound lovely.”

“They’re the best.” Christen sat up more, eyes alive. “And I was thinking, I’ll have so much more time for Roseway now, and in the new year, maybe you and I can plan some more stuff for the kids. If there’s more of us here to help out, we can create a whole plan for the weeks, with stuff on each day that the kids can look forward to. And practical stuff, too, like learning how to cook and bake, and budgeting for the older kids. Helping them get jobs and helping them with college applications. There’s so many things I’ve been thinking of, and – what?”

Christen cut herself off at the look on Mabel and Mal’s faces as she talked. To say both of them had proud smiles was an understatement, their eyes shining in happiness hearing Christen talk with such passion, such life in her voice.

“Mal, baby child, did you know your sister is one of the best people out there?”

“Of course, Ma.”

“And did you know each day she opens herself up and puts herself first, she comes one step closer to being the truest, most fulfilled version of herself?”

“I did, Ma.”

“And do you think she knows we couldn’t be prouder of her?”

The way Christen’s eyes shone, her hands on her cheeks with a look half way between wanting to cry and wanting to wear a beaming smile, Mal nodded.

“I do, Ma.”

-

If anything screamed Christmas, it was the sound of Mariah Carey blasting through the speakers on repeat. And if anything screamed Christmas chaos, it was the scenes that afternoon at Roseway.

All the kids were there, young and old, paper and string and glitter strewn about the room, giggles and hysterical laughter, squeals and bad singing and so many smiles Christen couldn’t contain herself.

It was perfect.

Her heart clenched when she saw a line of kids waiting to have their nails painted by Mal and two of the older kids, Aden and Cassie, both boys and girls being delighted at the reds and greens and gold stars being drawn on.

She tried not to laugh when Mabel had to break up growing tension in a group of 6 year olds because one of them had colored in Santa’s hat purple instead of red, and all hell had almost broken loose.

But she’d fully lost it when she saw Tobin had been roped into laying on her back on a giant sheet of rolled out paper, kids tracing around her body outline to create –

“Chris, look, I’m gingerbread.”

She’d laughed so much she doubled over, the kids surrounding Tobin joining in with her as they traced.

“Miss Tobin, keep still!” The kids exclaimed when Tobin kept lifting her arms to try and tickle them as they giggled, scrambling out of reach.

“This looks amazing, you guys.” Tobin praised when she’d gotten up and the kids had started to decorate the body parts of the outline. “But I think the gingerbread might be lonely. Should we give them a friend?”

Christen knew that tone, knew the mischief even before she saw Tobin’s expression, and it turned out the kids did too, because before she knew it she was surrounded by little bodies jumping on her, tugging at her arm, leading her over to the paper.

“Oh, you want to turn me into gingerbread as well?”

“Yes, Miss Christen!”

Christen put a hand on her forehead, her voice exaggerated. “I hope you don’t eat me! I promise I don’t taste that good!”

“I beg to differ.” Tobin – thankfully – whispered as she swept her into her arms, laying her down on the paper while Christen yelped in surprise and laughter, giving her a look that said she knew she was lucky to have gotten away with that.

Tobin just winked at her, and Christen tried not to let the blush run all the way across her face. She looked away from her to collect herself, listening in on the kids conversations around her and immediately finding herself laughing.

“You’re next, Mally!” Zion, a rambunctious kid, had called out with a grin as he traced around Christen’s arm.

“Not a chance, buddy!” Mal responded from across the room with her tongue sticking out, never once breaking concentration from the nail she was painting.

“We’ll get her over here, Z, don’t you worry.” Christen sent him a grin, making all the kids around her giggle as well.

Soon, another voice joined the mix. “Now what is going on here? Sounds like everyone is having far too much fun.” Mabel walked over, the kids closest to her immediately latching on to her for a hug.

“Ma, we’re turning Miss Christen into gingerbread!”

“And look, Ma, we made Miss Tobin gingerbread already!”

“Ma, I’ve never even eaten gingerbread ever!”

Christen laughed at the chorus of kids voices talking all at once, especially at the last comment by Keisha, seeing Mabel respond to her.

“Well, angel, tomorrow is going to be your lucky day. We’re baking Christmas cookies!”

All the kids yelled in excitement just in time for Christen to stand up, having been traced, able to escape damage to her eardrums from the high pitched squeals that came out of their mouths. She stood next to Mabel, seeing Tobin having gone over to the kids who were coloring, and leant into the woman’s side briefly.

“Hard work, huh?”

Christen laughed – it was true. “Yeah. But I love it. I’m going to miss this place when we’re in Florida.”

“Me too, honey. But everyone won’t be gone for long. And we’ll be back before we know it.”

“Are you excited to go to and see Tommy?”

Her heart clenched when Mabel’s face lit up even more, always the case when she thought about her son. Mabel had decided to spend the holidays with Tommy in Missouri, and it was impossible to miss the excitement from the older woman every time she talked about it.

“Oh, it’ll be wonderful. I haven’t seen my boy in so long.”

Mabel’s happiness was completely infectious. It made Christen almost bounce in place at the thought of going back to Florida, seeing all the Heaths again and having what would probably be one of their best Christmases ever. To Christen, the holiday season had always been one where she could never stop working, could never take a break and just be in the spirit of the moment, in the excited feelings leading up to the day.

She’d always missed her parents too much. Always worried about money. Always felt guilty for what she couldn’t give to Mal. All her energy was spent on hiding that from her sister, and trying to give her the most magical memories she could have in their situation.

And now, finally, Christen was really starting to feel like she could have that, too.

She looked around the room, feeling the love bursting out of every corner of it, knowing that the excitement and happiness of the kids could make the walls shake, felt like it could make the whole roof blow off. This was what this time of year was supposed to be about. And she had a feeling that happiness would sit with her for a long while to come.

---

It was quiet. In the distance, a car rolled slowly by. Crickets chirped outside the window. The gentle patter of feet moved about downstairs.

Two sets of identical breaths rose in and out of chests, filling the dimly lit room with repetitive, soothing sounds. Christen smiled to herself, eyes closed at the feeling of comfort, at the feeling of Mal’s face half mushed into her arm, at the feeling of Tobin’s hand resting just at the top of her head where it lay across the pillows above them all. 

They’d been in Florida for a day and a half, and of course, one of the first things Tobin and Mal had wanted to do was go surfing. It had been a massive day for them, having driven a few hours to find the best waves and spending the day in the ocean, coming home with video after video to show Christen. When she got past how good Tobin looked in her bikini, and how she swore she could still see her muscles contracting even under her wetsuit, she had to admit that Mal had actually gotten quite good.

The three of them had been lying in the bed, Mal in the middle, holding the phone playing the videos out in front. It wasn’t until the phone flipped onto its face out of her hands, and neither Mal nor Tobin moved to correct it, that Christen realized both of them had fallen asleep.

Her heart had clenched at the sight, both her loves resting peacefully, together in a safe house in the holidays. It was all she could do not to cry at the overwhelming feeling of how lucky she was, how good everything had turned out when she had struggled for so long. She let her eyes close for a moment to soak it all in, thinking of her parents and how they would be smiling down with her.

“I love you, so much.” She murmured to Mal with a kiss on her head, leaning over to kiss Tobin’s cheek and whisper the same thing before padding out of the room and down the stairs, knowing it was still a little too early for the entire Heath family to be asleep.

She was right, seeing Katie and Perry sitting on one of the couches in the lounge, a wine glass in hand as they talked. Not wanting to interrupt their conversation, she made to leave before both of them looked up on noticing her, smiling that dang Heath smile that got her every time.

(She loved this family).

“Hey, Christen.” Perry said warmly, moving how she was sitting to open her body posture up. “You okay?”

“Yeah, totally fine.”

“Where’s Tobin and Mal?”

“Asleep.” Christen answered Katie with a grin, seeing both sisters laugh. “Mal I expected to fall asleep, but I guess Tobin was just as wiped as she was.”

“That sounds like Tobin. Out like a light.”

Christen nodded. “Those two are so similar.”

“Hey, come sit down.” Katie said, waving her over to the love seat next to the couch they sat on. “Do you want a drink of something?”

“No, thanks.”

“Tobin and Mal are pretty close, aren’t they? I always thought that, and saw it at Thanksgiving as well. But seeing them over the last couple days really shows it.”

A dumb smile came over Christen’s face at Katie’s words. “Yeah. It’s the best thing. Sometimes it’s like conducting a circus when they get going, they’re both so silly. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

“Tobin is such a kid at heart. She’s always been a happy person.” Perry said, “But since she’s been with you, and since she’s had both of you around, she shines like I’ve never seen her before.”

Maybe it was the soft evening glow, the gentle warmth of the fireplace, the way Christen curled back into the loveseat with her hoodie around her. But Perry’s words made her eyes glisten, her heart contracting in her chest. Her fingers itched for Tobin, wanting to hold her, to kiss her.

“I’m so lucky to have her. She’s…unimaginably loving.” A lump formed in Christen’s throat before she knew what was happening. “Tobin exudes kindness in a way I didn’t think was possible for humans. I used to worry she would get sick of Mal. So much of my life was, still is, wrapped up in that kid. She’s so important to me. But Tobin, she didn’t just accept that. She fully embraced it.”

Christen spoke softly, curling her knees up to her chest and resting her chin on them, looking at Katie and Perry’s beaming faces with a bashful smile.

“I call Mal baby but I swear Tobin is one day away from doing the same.”

Perry laughed gently, agreeing. “It’s like early parenting practice for her.”

“Oh, she’s such a protective mother hen.” Christen wore the proudest smile. “But she just melts to a puddle for Mal’s doe eyes. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her be strict with her. Mal has Tobin wrapped around her little finger.”

“Mal had me undone today, with the sunscreen.” Perry said, Christen bursting out laughing at the memory. “Kids, right?”

“Oh, for sure.” Christen agreed.

Katie grinned, shaking her head. “I keep thinking about my little guy, saying to myself oh when he’s older, it’ll be different. And then – ”

“ – You’re still slathering sunscreen on their face as they try to escape out the door to go surfing aged 18?”

“Exactly.” Katie laughed. “Maybe soon we’ll be able to sleep naked again without thinking a child will walk in at any point.”

“Oh, no, that never goes away.” Christen commented, all of them with shining, amused eyes. “Luckily Tobin actually heeded my warnings before she was victim to Mal coming into our room and jumping on the bed any time she feels like.”

“Kids, right?”

A wide grin sat on Christen’s face. “Kids.”

Comfortable silence filled the room, the fire crackling and Christen basking in the peace.

“It’s so lovely to have you both back, Christen. You and Mal fit in like you’ve always been here.”

Katie laughed at Perry’s comment. “Remember how much Tobin talked about Christen when she got back from that camp all those years ago? I swear from that moment on it was like I knew you before I met you.”

There was that pang in Christen’s heart again, the ache for Tobin widening. Her cheeks hurt from smiling. “This would have already been Mal’s favorite Christmas just to be able to spend it with Tobin, but to be able to be here with all of you as well…it’s been so wonderful. We’re so lucky, and we really can’t thank you all enough for being so welcoming.”

Two sets of hands waved her off immediately, Katie shaking her head and speaking. “Hey, you’re not here as a charity case. You’re part of the family, both of you. The holidays we spend together, no question. We’re just as happy to see you here as we are Tobin.”

“Maybe more.”

Perry’s interjection had Katie laughing, “Definitely more.” The three women smiled at each other, Christen murmuring another thank you as she curled her arms around her knees, not sure what to do with all the love she felt being poured her way, all the familiarity of family that she had lost for so long coming back to her.

Katie took another drink of her wine before speaking softly. “I was wondering, to make sure we didn’t accidentally go overboard and you weren’t comfortable, whether Christmas and the holidays is something that you have good memories associated with.”

There was a pause, then, the question being mulled over. Katie quickly jumped back in.

“Not that you have to talk about it, at all. There’s no pressure.”

“No, no, of course.” Christen said emphatically, getting rid of any worry that they had stood on her toes. “It’s interesting to think about. Because obviously, with our parents, this time of year was the best. They would go all out on the traditions, and I loved it as a kid. When Mal came along, it was like all the excitement renewed again.” The wistful tone sat heavy in the room. “It felt like the complete opposite in foster care.”

Silence filled the room then – Christen, processing, Katie and Perry giving her the space to. After a while, Perry left the door open.

“That must have been really difficult to go through.”

“Yeah.” Christen let out a breath of laughter, though it wasn’t happy. “The first year, we had some sponsor thing give us a Christmas present. Mal got this teddy bear and I got this like, toiletry pack or something. Both of them actually turned out to be amazing – Mal was obsessed with this bear, and I was a teenage girl with desperate need for everything in that pack. Mal’s teddy was the only real thing she owned, along with her few clothes, until it got taken away from her at our next foster house.”

“What!” Katie sat up, outraged. “It didn’t.”

Another non-joyous laugh. “It did. This was at our third foster house. The foster parents who turned out to be drug dealers, disguised to everyone outside as some perfect all-American family. Lovely people.” The sarcasm was dripping. “The foster father tried to spin some bullshit like previous foster kids of theirs having bedbugs in their stuffed animals, so they didn’t let any come into their house.”

Perry had a hand on her forehead. “Oh no. Mal must have been devastated.”

“She was. But, thankfully, she was already asleep when it happened. I tried to fight for it, but it was our first night there. I didn’t want to make an enemy that early, and I just had to let it go.”

“Did she know what happened?”

Christen nodded at Perry. “When she woke up the first thing she went looking for was the teddy, but when she couldn’t find him I had to lie and pretend that maybe he’d gotten lost on the trip from our last foster house. It was awful, the way she cried. She was so worried about him. Took her months to get over it, and I never forgave the foster father for it.”

“What a bastard.” Katie said, sitting back. “That’s horrible.”

“It is. But it’s not even the worst thing I had to tell Mal in that house.” Christen wrapped her arms around her knees tighter. “Because when Christmas came around, I knew we weren’t going to get sponsored again like we had the year before. Sometimes you get lucky in foster care, sometimes you don’t. I knew what Mal would take that to mean, you know, the naughty or nice kids thing.” Christen shook her head, hating how stupid and awful the memory was for her. “So I had to do it. I had to tell her.”

“Make ready our sledge,” ordered the Witch, “and use the harness without bells.”” Christen read, putting a scrap bit of paper in between the pages. 

“Wait!” A six year old Mal stopped Christen from closing the book, knowing that was coming next. “Can you, um…can you go back to that page before?”

Christen looked down at Mal, who had gotten up from her position of lying under the covers to sit next to her, flipping through the book. “What page?”  

“Um…this page.” Mal flicked a few pages back, not meeting Christen’s eyes.  

“What about this page?”

“Um…this word. I didn’t know what it means.”

“This word?” Christen pointed to the word she was sure Mal knew. “Dreadful?"  

Mal nodded, still looking at the book.

“Dreadful means something bad or terrible or that makes you unhappy.”

“Oh.” Mal said, rushing her hand out to stop Christen from closing the book again. “And what about this one?”

This time, Mal couldn’t trick Christen that well, and the older Press sister tilted Mal’s chin up, seeing her not entirely innocent face. “Are you trying to pull a fast one on me? Escaping bed time?”

“No!” Mal said adamantly, Christen raising an eyebrow. “I asked what it means. You said I ask when I needed help.”

“When you need help.” Christen corrected gently, nodding. “I did say that. But you know both of those words, I know you do. That’s why I asked if you are trying to avoid going to sleep.”

“What’s avoid?”

A hand rubbed at a forehead, Christen knowing she walked right into that one. “It means to stay away from something. Like going to bed. Like you’re going to do right now.”

“But I’m not tired.” Mal pouted, in an uncharacteristically difficult fashion. She was usually so pliant, never trying to make things harder for Christen. It made her eyebrow raise even higher.

“Well, you can just lay there until you feel tired and fall asleep, okay? But we’re finished reading for tonight.”

Then, in the most surprising move of all for the docile six year old, Mal grabbed at the book when Christen attempted to move it away, her little hands gripping the edges of it. Christen’s eyes widened, looking at her, but Mal was once again staring determinedly at the book.

“Mal, we don’t do that. If you grab the book like that it might break. Please let it go.”  

No dice. Mal gripped it tighter.

Christen had no idea what had gotten into her.

“Mallory, I’m asking you to stop. It’s time to put it away. Please let the book go.”

“You let the book go!” Mal growled, yanking it out of Christen’s hands with force that Christen didn’t know her little body possessed. She quickly turned around on the bed with the book, opening it back up to where she thought they’d left off and “reading” it, which meant whispering only half the words out to herself and skipping the rest she didn’t know.

It took a second for Christen to recover from the shock of Mal’s outburst. This was nothing compared to how she’d seen foster kids misbehave before. It was so little it was almost laughable. But it wasn’t Mal, not with others, and never with her. She couldn’t understand what was happening.

Pause. Take a breath. Don’t speak when you’re angry.  

Mal had flipped about 20 pages in the minute Christen had taken to collect herself. She could have let Mal ride it out and fall asleep on her own. But that would have been against everything she was trying to do with her, against how their parents raised them. Never go to sleep angry. Never let a lack of communication be the reason for unnecessary hurt and frustration. Always give them a chance to talk it out.

“Mal.”

Nothing.

“Mal, baby.”

Still nothing.

She could have let it go.

But –  

She was terrified of the rage she’d seen in other foster kids, of how it had built up piece by piece, every time someone threw abuse their way, threw a hand their way, threw disappointing glares and passive aggressive comments. Kids who didn’t have anyone else to talk it through would bottle all of it up, every bit of hurt, then explode against the world, unable to cope with the weight of it. Christen made sure every time Mal was on the receiving end of a comment that she undid it twice over by telling her it was wrong, telling her she mattered, telling her how loved she was.

Something was wrong with Mal, now. Something that could fester. And she wouldn’t let it sit there, no matter how tired deep in her bones she felt, how much she just wanted her baby sister to sleep so she could lay in the silence for a while. She couldn’t.

“Mal, you don’t have to look at me, but can you please close the book when I’m talking so I know you’re paying attention?”

The minute it took for Mal to do so felt like years. Christen took another breath, seeing her mother in her mind. Validate someone’s feelings when they’re upset. Ask them to share with you. Let them come to you.

“You can tell me if I’m wrong.” Christen started. “But it seems like you’re upset and angry about something. That can’t be fun. I really want to help you and I want to know what you’re feeling. Can you tell me that?”  

Silence, again.

And then, “I want to read the book.”

It wasn’t much, but it was a start. “Okay, you want to read the book. I hear you. What I’m saying to you is that we’ve already read some of the book, and now it’s time for you to go to sleep.”

You’re not sleeping.” Mal’s petulant pout was so obvious through the tone in her voice that even though it wasn’t visible to Christen, she knew it was there. God, Christen wished she could go to sleep.

“I know I’m not sleeping. But it’s not time for teenagers to go to sleep. It’s time for six year olds to go to sleep.” Christen tried, eliciting exactly nothing in response. She took a chance. “Can you please give me back the book so we can put it away?”

“No.”

A nail dug into her palm to stop herself from growling in frustration. Breathing wasn’t working so much this time. “Mal, baby. I know you’re always such a good listener for me. But – ”

“I’m not being bad! I’m not a bad girl!”

There it was.

The chill ran down Christen’s spine.

Her body sat upright and alert at the words she had never heard come out of Mal’s mouth before. Gears began to twist in her head, brain wracking to try and think back to what might have happened, what Mal could have heard.

“Oh, baby love, I know you’re not bad. I don’t think you’re bad at all. You are such a good person.” Soothing, gentle tones came out of her mouth. She didn’t reach out for Mal, not yet, but she moved closer to her so the sides of their bodies were touching. So Mal could feel her there.

Silence sat in the room, but Mal may as well have been screaming from the way the tips of her fingers turned white under the pressure of the grip on the book, her little hands starting to shake.

“Did someone call you bad, Mal?”

The book looked like it was mere moments away from ripping. Christen used her softest voice, a hand reaching out to ever so gently brush Mal’s curls away from her face as she spoke.

“I promise you won’t be in trouble. Can you tell me what happened?”

The small body crumbled as soon as it felt the loving touch. The book fell to the side of the bed, Mal turning over and curling into Christen as tears streamed from her eyes, loud sobs wracking her chest.  

Christen immediately pulled Mal into her lap, her cries muffled from where she buried her head in Christen’s neck, the upset so plain and evident.

“Oh, baby, it’s okay. I’m here, I’m here. Let it out, you’re okay, I promise.” The relief Christen held that there was seemingly a reason Mal had been acting out was quickly overshadowed by the worry about what that reason was. She wished with everything it wasn’t something truly bad, and just something the six year old had found upsetting, but being in foster care had made the worst case scenario fly straight into her mind.

The comforts poured out of her mouth as she rocked Mal back and forth, waiting the few minutes for her to calm down enough that she wasn’t still blinded by her tears. A small hand gripped the collar of her shirt tightly and Christen’s heart ached in the intensity of how she would move heaven and Earth for this kid.

Big brown eyes looked up at her as she wiped the tears off Mal’s face, pressing a kiss to her red cheeks. “I love you more than anything in the whole wide world, baby.”

“I love you, Chrissy,” Mal’s grip on her shirt got tighter, her bottom lip trembling, “I’m s-sorry I didn’t l-l-listen!”

Tears welled up and threatened to turn into full blown sobs again as Mal came to terms with how she’d just acted, Christen seeing the upset and guilt on her face. She rubbed Mal’s back, making comforting shhh-shhh-shhh sounds through her words.  

“Thank you for apologizing, Mal, that’s so good of you. I’m not angry or mad at you, I promise.” Her heart beat easier seeing this version of her sister in her arms, the one she knew so well. She had to find out what happened. “It sounds like you’re really upset about something.” A nod from Mal, and Christen prodded more. “Can you tell me about it?”  

Hands circled Mal protectively as Christen gave her time to talk, hearing her recount the event from the week before when a lot of food had gone missing from the kitchen, and no one fessed up to it. Naturally, the foster kids were blamed, even though there was no proof of it. They’d all been banned from having “nice” things (the definition of which was arbitrarily decided by the foster parents on a whim) for a month.  

Christen nodded as she listened, though she was confused, thinking she and Mal had already dealt with it the week before, had already talked it through. She didn’t think Mal was still so hung up about it to act out the way she did, until Mal started talking about tonight.

“You and Michael were washing dishes and me and Tasha were cleaning the table. And Travis came over and he started saying mean things to us.”

Christen’s eyes wanted to roll so far back into her head when she heard this. She should have known any problem in that house would start with that little asshole, he and his sister Courtney being the two biological kids in the house and the root cause of most of Christen’s headaches there. Tasha and Michael were the other two foster kids in the house with them. Michael was 14 and clung to mythology books like a lifeline. Tasha was 10 with what felt like all the silent rage in the world bottled up in her body.

“He was teasing us because we always have to clean. And him and Courtney, they never have to do anything.” Mal rubbed at her eyes in frustration, only six but so aware of the injustice.

“It’s not fair, is it.”

“It’s not!” Validated by her older sister, Mal spurred on. “And I just ignored him, like you told me to. And Tasha ignored him because she never talks to anyone. And I think he got annoyed. And then, when Martin walked past, Travis said we were being naughty even though we weren’t!”

Christen braced herself. Any insertion of Martin, the foster father, into the mix was never a good sign. He was, and this is true, an absolute fucking asshole. “That wasn’t nice of him, was it.”

“No. And then, Martin, he said we better stop being naughty because bad girls are on Santa’s naughty list, and we won’t ever get anything for Christmas again. He said we were all on the naughty list already because we took the food but we didn’t!

It was so easy to see how all of this had riled Mal up so much, even though it was so stupid, and Christen wanted to scream into her pillow that she was having to deal with the fallout from this idiot family. And yes, this idiot family had taken them in and gave them a roof and food. Which they reminded them of – constantly.

But no, Christen was not going to fall on her knees for this family who had so clearly fostered kids for the money, so clearly fostered them to get the kids to do all the housework. She hated the way they talked to them, the way they looked down on them. The way they knew all the things to say that would get under their skin. That something so stupid, like a lie about Santa, would ruin Mal.  

Because to a six year old, the idea of being on Santa’s naughty list, of being deemed a bad kid, that may as well have been the end of the world. And Mal wasn’t a material person, she wasn’t spoiled with presents. But Christen could see what the effect of being labelled bad was doing to her. Mal knew about bad kids, and she didn’t want to be one.  

Fucking Santa.

Fucking Christmas.

Fucking foster care.

It had already taken so much of Mal’s childhood. And it was about to take something else, too. Because Christen couldn’t stand to let the cruel foster family have any more ammunition over them than they already did. If they wanted to try and control the kids by lying to them about Santa, that was all about to end.

Christen pulled Mal back a bit, so she was looking at her properly, one arm still fully wrapped around her. “I’m sorry that happened, Mal, that’s really mean of Travis and Martin to have said that to you both. I’m really glad you told me, though, that was the right thing to do. I always want you to tell me when stuff like this happens, okay?”

Mal nodded, playing with the bottom of her shirt.

“You’re not naughty. And you’re not a bad girl, not at all. Do you think Travis or Martin know who you are, on the inside?”

A shake of the head, Mal’s bottom lip protruding ever so slightly.

“They don’t. They don’t know how sweet and loving and kind and good you are. They don’t know you have the biggest heart. And they don’t get to tell you that you’re bad, because you’re not.”

“But…but…” Mal’s brain was wracking. “He said Santa already knows. And Santa might think I’m bad.”

Okay. Here went nothing.

“I’m going to tell you a secret, baby, okay?” Christen said, seeing Mal nod. She took a breath, before cracking yet another innocent part of her sister. “Santa isn’t real.”

If it wasn’t so sad of a situation, Mal’s face would have been hilarious. It morphed from confusion to shock to heartbreak and all over again, her searching Christen’s face to see any spot of a lie.

“What?” Mal was stunned. “But…but it’s Santa!”

“I know.” Christen said, keeping her arm around Mal. “It seems like he’s real, doesn’t it. But he’s not.”

“He is real!”

“He’s not, baby.”

“How do you know?”

Christen pulled out all the stops straight away. “Mom and Dad told me.”

“Mommy and Daddy told you?” Mal gaped, knowing this meant it had to be true. She opened and closed her mouth a few times, genuinely perplexed. “But…why is Santa not real?”

“I think someone made him up a long time ago, to make Christmas feel more magical.”

A hard thinking expression ticked across Mal’s face as she mulled the information over. “It’s not very magical if Santa has a naughty list.”

A snort left Christen’s nose before she knew it. Kid had a point. “You’re so right, baby. So, you see, there isn’t such a thing as a naughty or nice list, because there’s no such thing as Santa. It’s just a way to get kids to behave, you know, be good or else you won’t get any presents.”

Mal’s eyebrows raised. “Be good or else? That’s scary.”

Another laugh from Christen. God, she loved her. “It is, you’re so right again.”

“Chrissy, who gives presents to kids if Santa isn’t real?”

Oh. The laughter died pretty quick from Christen’s mouth. “Most people’s families give the kids presents. Or sometimes friends. Or sometimes strangers.”

Mal wrung her hands together, eyes not meeting Christen’s anymore. Christen didn’t have to ask her to know what she was thinking.

“It’s something really nice to get a present, but it’s not something we need. And if you don’t get a present, it doesn’t mean you don’t deserve one.” Christen lifted Mal’s chin up to meet her eyes. “I wish I could get you anything you wanted, baby. But we just have to wait a few more Christmases until we’re out of the system, and then I promise when it’s just you and me, we’ll get a real Christmas tree, and we’ll decorate it, and we’ll sing songs and I’ll get you a present, and it’ll be magical.”

Mal’s eyes lit up in imagination, her snuggling into Christen more. “Can we not have a magical Christmas this year? Just me and you in here? I can draw a Christmas tree. I’m pretty good at drawing now! And maybe…maybe we can make each other a present. I don’t need any toys!”

Oh.

Sometimes, Mal said stuff like this that made Christen want to lie on the floor and cry her eyes out, both for the fact that it was so wholesome, but also for the reminder that she was maybe doing okay in raising her. That Mal was someone who had the biggest heart, and Christen wasn’t completely fucking up, like she always felt like, but that she was teaching Mal to be kind, and unselfish, and that was so important to her.

She taught Mal so much. But Mal also taught her. And the realization that yes, they could have magic with them that year, and not just wait for the future to come and hope it was better, hit Christen like a brick wall. She nodded emphatically, hugging Mal tight as she told her what a brilliant idea it was.

Oh, what a turn the night had taken.

“So, Santa isn’t real, someone just made him up?”

“Yeah. Like Harry Potter.” Christen said, Mal’s eyes lighting up in recognition of one of her favorite characters.  

“Santa’s like Harry Potter!” Mal exclaimed, Christen just shrugging in agreement, willing to let it fly if it meant that smile stayed on her face.

“But, baby, not everyone is in on the secret, okay? A lot of people still think Santa is real. And we can’t ruin that for them, so we need to pretend like Santa is real, still.”

Mal just giggled conspiratorially. “Maybe Travis still thinks Santa is real."  

A grin formed at the idea, though she knew it wasn’t true. “Maybe he does. But let’s not tell him either way, okay?”

“Okay. Chrissy, do you know when Travis said we better not cry like cry-babies, Tasha looked like she wanted to punch him.” Mal rambled on as Christen laid her back down in the bed, pulling the covers over her. “Is Tasha older than Travis? I think she could beat him up.”

Christen tried to not let the frown show on her face, tried to keep the unsettling feeling inside at bay. “Baby, I don’t want you thinking about violence like that, okay? We don’t punch anyone, we don’t touch anyone.”

“My body my rules.”

A proud, relieved smile burst off Christen’s face. “Yes, exactly. I’m so happy you remember that.”

Mal ran her hand curiously over Christen’s braids where she had lay down next to her. “I won’t punch anyone, Chrissy.”

The repetitive motion of Mal’s hand felt soothing along Christen’s hair. She gave Mal a fond look, amusement quirking her lips up. “I’m glad to hear that.”

“But,” The six year old continued, yawning around her words now, “I would punch someone for you.”  

A small, breathy laugh left Christen, knowing Mal was probably dead serious but unable to imagine her tiny six year old body doing more damage than a pillow. “Okay Muhammad Ali, settle down.”

The little grin Mal shared in response just about undid Christen. She pulled Mal into her arms completely where they lay, feeling Mal burrow in in content, hearing another yawn. “I love you so, so much. More than anything in the world, baby love.”

Now it was Perry and Katie’s turn for silence, sitting as the story Christen just shared washed over them. It was understandable to Christen, seeing the inability on their face to decide how they felt about it. The memory was technically wholesome, but it had sad undertones, even worrying, in some places.

“Thank you for sharing that with us. Mal sounded so cute as a kid. For what it’s worth, I’m so sorry you had to go through all that.” Katie said, Christen smiling gratefully for such a considered response.

“Me too.” Christen was now pretty keen to change tracks, dwelling on the past being something that could quickly overtake her happiness in the present. “Tell me about your little guy at Christmas time. I guess he was still too young last year to know about it, but it looks like he’s getting right into it this year.”

Katie laughed, everyone in the room knowing that was an understatement. “I’m pretty sure he’s ready to pack up and move to the North Pole. He’s shaking in excitement every morning, and he’s got the cutest pyjamas from Mom, the – hey Tobs.”

Everyone’s attention was drawn to the newest figure in the room, and Christen was positive her heart had never melted so fast. Tobin was standing in the entranceway, hoodie and sweats on, still looking completely half asleep. The soft glow of the fireplace danced off her hair and her skin, showing her tired eyes and squinting expression. Her gaze met Christen’s and through the sleep her face morphed into this gentle peace, leaving Christen feeling like a puddle on the floor.

She would never be so in love with someone like she was with Tobin.

Tobin looked so soft and confused, standing in the room like she didn’t know how or when she’d fallen asleep, and that she didn’t really know how she gotten there, either. She rubbed at her eyes with one hand, still looking at Christen, who was just so entirely enamored with her in this state she almost forgot to speak.

“It’s okay, Tobs, go back to sleep. We’re just talking.”

Tobin nodded dumbly at Christen’s words, still rubbing at her eyes, still standing there half asleep and so, so soft. Christen wanted to scream; she was so adorable. Seeing Tobin stay in place, Christen held her hand out to her, the other woman immediately gravitating towards it. Their fingers intertwined, and it only took one tiny tug for Tobin to bundle herself up on the love seat with Christen, curling her knees up and burrowing into her warm side.

Tobin’s hoodie was soft and big, and Christen’s arm wrapped around her, her hand coming up to card through Tobin’s hair. She felt the woman completely sigh in relaxation into her when she did that, knowing it would only be seconds before she fell back asleep.

Christen could see Katie and Perry looking on fondly out of the corner of her eye, but she couldn’t keep the dumb smile off her face as she looked down at Tobin, her heart beat racing wild, the complete opposite of the slow moving, softly glowing room.

“I love you, pretty girl.” She whispered into Tobin’s hair, feeling Tobin murmur it back against the skin of her neck where her head lay.

“Still a cuddly baby, I see, Tobin.” The teasing voice that only an older sister could take on.

“Shut up, Perry.”

---

The car door opened, and Christen stepped out onto the Heath’s driveway as quick as she could to escape the sound of the awful rendition of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen that Tobin, Mal and Jeff had so kindly being providing.

“I’m with you, Christen.” Tobin’s dad grinned, getting out of the car just as fast and leaving the three others singing in the back as they entered the house.

They’d just been to a carols night at the Heath’s church, and even though she wasn’t religious, Christen had been awed by the beauty of the building. She’d been excited to go, kissing Tobin silly when the woman had so shyly asked her if she wanted to come, wanting to know more about the place that was so special to Tobin, where she found the connection to what guided her.

Tobin’s passionate nature for everything she did was one of the things Christen loved most about her, and her devotion to her religion was right up there. Christen felt honored every time Tobin showed her into that space in her heart, knowing how precious and sacred a guiding force like that was held.

The Heaths all had hearts the same, having welcomed Christen and Mal in like they’d always been there, having gone out of their way to make sure they were comfortable and felt safe. They had so many wonderful traditions around the holidays that they’d been introducing to them; the carols night so far being the hit.

Christen once again thought about pinching herself to think if this was really her life, that they had ended up this lucky to have so many good people around them. That they finally had a holiday where she wasn’t constantly thinking about money, or what she could never provide Mal with.

Hands wrapped around her waist from behind and she smiled when Tobin kissed the back of her neck, cuddling into her.

“Not a fan of our singing?”

An understatement, to say the least. “It’s a good thing you’re really amazing at soccer, Tobs.”

A grin against her neck. “You know what else I’m really amazing at?”

The tone of Tobin’s voice made a shiver run down Christen’s spine, feeling Tobin’s grin grow bigger at the response. Within seconds, even less, reduced to a puddle. “What?”

“Making hot cocoa.” Tobin smacked a final kiss against her skin and pulled her in amusement through to the living room where everyone else was beginning to gather. Christen rolled her eyes, shaking herself out of it as she watched Tobin go into the kitchen with her Mom to start brewing the cocoa. On entering the new room, and not remembering the last time she saw her, instinct made Christen search Mal out.

Like relaxing hunched shoulders she didn’t know were sitting high, or unclenching a jaw that had been locked in place, her body naturally settled when she saw Mal sitting at the edge of one of the couches with Perry. Just as fast as the calm had washed over, another spike of concern ticked through when she saw Mal’s posture, her fidgeting hands and her smile that wasn’t quite there.

The way Christen could read her body language, Mal may as well have been wearing a neon sign. She continued to keep an eye on her for the next while, watching everything Mal did like a half movement. The laughter that cut short, the absent gleam in her eyes. The half-finished cocoa, the distracted stares. The attempt at being convincing when she said she was tired and wanted to go to sleep early. The hugs she gave Christen and Tobin – proper ones – like she wasn’t going to see them again until the morning. The way Mal hadn’t said anything to her but Christen knew, just knew there was something there.

Soft cheeks were peppered with kisses a half hour later, Christen feeling Mal laugh underneath her as she shifted over in the bed, making room for her sister. Two bodies lay facing each other, staring softly.

“Love you, Chris.”

“I love you, baby. You want to tell me what’s up?”

A corner of Mal’s lips lifted in the kind of tiny smile that showed she knew her older sister knew something was on her mind. Knew without even having to say it that she wanted to talk about something. It was relief and familiarity and comfort and everything Mal craved from her.

“Do you like Christmas?”

“Of course, I love it.” Christen smiled easily, finger tapping the end of Mal’s nose. “You were always so happy at the holidays, and it made me so happy.”

Despite Christen’s smile, there wasn’t one mirroring her. “No, Chris. Do you like Christmas. Not do you like it for me, but do you like it for you.”

God, she was never going to get over how emotionally mature this kid had become.

“I do, baby. What’s making you ask that?”

A sigh made Mal’s cheeks puff out ever so slightly, Christen’s heart clenching. “We’re doing all the family traditions with the Heaths. And I love that they think of us as family. But it made me think of our Christmases and I…I miss the traditions we had.”

The words were rushed out, near a whisper, like a secret Mal was afraid of getting too loud. Afraid of what she might think.

“It’s our first Christmas not being in the old apartment, and I guess I was so excited to come to Florida with the Heaths I didn’t think about the fact that we wouldn’t be there doing those things. And now I miss them. And I know that’s bad…”

A gentle question interrupted. “What makes you say it’s bad?”

Mal’s eyes glistened. “Because…I know it must have been hard for you, because we were really poor and you hid how much you struggled from me. Christmas is an expensive time of year but you worked so hard to make me feeling like I was never missing out. I always had a good time…the best time. But now after everything I know, especially after that stupid article, I look back on it and I don’t know if you actually had a good time, too.”

Could a heart actually break into a million pieces from the force of love? Christen felt hers in her chest so hard, felt her throat constrict so quickly at the sweetness of the girl next to her. “Is that why you asked me if I liked Christmas?”

A quick nod. “I didn’t want it to be like Bice. That I loved it, and the memory, but it was something painful for you that you didn’t actually like. And that I kept talking about it, but it made you sad, not happy, and then I didn’t realize again, because I’ll never be able to realize everything you did for me, and – ”

“Hey, hey,” Christen cooed, cutting Mal off before the guilt could overtake her, one tear slipping down her cheek. She swallowed around the knot in her own throat, hating the lasting effects of it all. “None of that, okay? Please don’t let yourself feel any of the guilt that tries to make its way in here.” She kissed Mal’s head, stroking her cheek. “It’s not your fault. Nothing from our past is your fault.”

Mal leant into Christen’s touch more, eyes looking up at her, still clinging to her like she would tell her the answers to the universe, make anything better, fix any problem.

“I didn’t realize you would be missing all that.” Christen thought about how close it was to actually being Christmas day, and all that her and Mal would have usually done together at that point if they were still living their old lives, in their old apartments. “I’m sorry we haven’t gotten to do any of that stuff this year. I miss it too.”

“You do?” Mal looked right in her eyes, suspicion overriding the hope. “You’re not just saying that?”

“I’m not, I promise.” Genuine, green eyes crinkled, remembering every beaming smile Mal wore in December, every deep belly laugh, every outrageous song. “I loved every day with you, and the holidays were the most special. Especially Christmas, you made it so fun, and I can’t thank you enough for that. Without you, I would have been miserable.”

Mal shook her head, like she didn’t even want to imagine a situation where Christen wouldn’t have her. (Christen could relate). “You were the one who made it fun, Chris. I never even thought about what rich families would do. We were having the best time, and all I wanted was to be with you.”

Christen’s hand clutched at her heart, her face scrunched up dramatically like she couldn’t handle the cuteness, and really, she couldn’t. How was Mal so pure?

“Oh, my baby love.” Christen said in an exaggerated fashion, pulling Mal into her arms and resting her chin on her shoulder. “Who raised you to be this wholesome?”

She felt Mal shrug, a yawn coming out before she spoke. “Some loser, probably.”

Christen grinned. “I should thank her sometime.”

“I’ll spend the rest of my life doing it.”

There it was again, Christen’s heart shattering. She kissed Mal’s head, holding her tight. “I love you more than anything and I’m really glad you told me what was on your mind. I promise tomorrow we’ll start to do some of our stuff, okay?”

Mal nodded against her, squeezing her hand gratefully.

“Do you want Tobin to join in? If you don’t, we can keep it just you and me.”

“No, I want Tobin there. I know she won’t judge us. Maybe we can show all the Heaths, If you want.” Mal’s eyes closed, already slipping into sleep in Christen’s embrace. “It’ll be fun.”

-

“Tobin! We’re only going to be left with one branch of this tree decorated if you keep eating all the popcorn!”

Honestly. Christen would have thrown a pillow at her girlfriend’s head had she not been holding the bowl that contained their decorations – stove popped popcorn that was disappearing at an alarming rate.

Tobin’s shit eating grin matched the level of amusement that was coming from Mal and Perry behind her, all of them working on threading the popcorn onto a string that would go around the tiny, fake Christmas tree they had found at the dollar store earlier that day.

There were paper chains adorning the stair case and paper snowflakes hanging from the entrance way already, the popcorn being the final touch to the tree decorations that Mal had wanted to do. It was her favorite thing as a kid, and it was easy to see why, if Tobin’s behavior was any indication.

Though Christmas decorations could be found very cheap if she had searched hard enough, when Christen had come across the idea of popcorn on a string instead of tinsel for the tree, she knew it would be a hit with her baby sister. When she started fostering her, an 8 year old Mal used to jump up and down excitedly on an unstable chair as she watched Christen shake the popcorn in the pot on the stove, being overcome with the thrill and responsibility when she was old enough to do it herself.

Mal had instigated a ‘one for the tree, one for me’ rule with the popcorn that Tobin was definitely abusing right now, with more of a ‘one for the tree, a giant handful for me’ approach, but it had most of the room doubled over laughing, and who was Christen to deny that happiness?

“You are such an ass.” She said as she moved over to Tobin, picking up a couple of pieces herself and eating them as Tobin’s mouth dropped open.

“Oh, so it’s okay when you do it?”

Christen winked at her with a grin. “Now you’re catching on.”

A flustered blush painted Tobin’s cheeks, and while she was distracted Christen took the bowl from her hands, hip bumping her to go and stand by Mal and Perry and help them down there.

Katie then came over, hands up. “I can’t promise I won’t eat any, but it’ll definitely be less than the human vacuum that is my sister.”

“Already a better start.” Christen laughed through the sounds of Tobin’s playful protests, Mal teasing her all the while.

It did all look a bit funny, when she stood back to see the final product. The Heath’s house was grand in a way Christen and Mal had never experienced, even when their parents were alive. Their Christmas decorations were equally so, lights and tinsel and precious ornaments strung on a big tree, wreath garlands wrapped around banisters. 

In comparison, Christen and Mal’s decorations looked childlike, cheap. But before Christen could let the flush of embarrassment creep up, she defended herself to her own inner monologue. The decorations were childlike and cheap, because they’d first made them when they were children. When they had barely any money. There was no point denying they were anything else, but that didn’t mean she had to be embarrassed.

She looked across to Mal talking with a wide smile to Tobin’s brother Jeff as she told stories about the paper snowflakes, or how they once made a curtain through their living room of paper chains. Her heart near burst out of her chest when Tobin’s parents arrived home, and Cindy loved the popcorn tree so much she put it in pride of place on the mantel, right next to the big family tree.

And later, when they’d all eaten dinner and Christen had asked if they’d wanted to see their favorite tradition that had started at Christmas but got brought out whenever they wanted a bit of magic, everyone was happy-full of smores made from roasting a marshmallow over a 25 cent candle, because who needed a bonfire when you had a little bit of patience and some ingenuity?

“I keep thinking, there’s no way I can fall more in love with you.” Tobin said, holding Christen in her arms on the outdoor couch as they sat in the sunset, watching Mal and Tobin’s nephew run around outside, Katie happy for the kid to wear off the sugar before bedtime. “And then you show me this part of your life today, this part of your heart. And I don’t think I’ll be able to survive if this is the rest of our lives together. If you keep being this incredible. I don’t know how I got so lucky.”

Christen pulled Tobin’s arms tighter around her, eyes squeezing shut briefly to ward off the tears that gathered at Tobin’s words. Her heart felt so full, brimming higher and higher until she didn’t think it was possible to love any more.

This was what life was about, and she was finally at peace enough to experience it. To sit in the quiet evening and listen to the giggles of play. To hear the laughter of bad jokes. To feel the sweet kiss of the love of your life and taste the candy stuck to their lips. To be present, without the weight of the world on your shoulders.

Tobin didn’t know how she got so lucky, but Christen had spent countless nights dreaming of a future like this, feeling so deep in her bones it would never happen to her. It was almost incomprehensible, that it was hers, now. She wouldn’t let it go for anything.

---

“Put her on again!”

“Wow, so nice talking with you as well, Tobin.”

Lauren’s deadpan had everyone laughing as Christen playfully pushed Tobin away and out of view of the facetime call. She tried to hold it back on her face before Tobin reached out, grabbing the phone and shoving her face into it.

“Lauren, I love you, but your baby is so cute I want to scream. Please let me see her again.”

Warmth flew through Christen’s heart as she sat back on the couch, watching Tobin coo at little Jrue when Lauren eventually flipped her camera around to show the tiny baby, only 3 months old, dressed in the most adorable Christmas onesie.

“Mommy it’s Jrue-Jrue!” A small voice basically screamed through the call, Amy’s groan making it known it came from her end, and then Ryan’s 3 year old face beamed up at everyone, joining in Tobin’s cooing.

“You know what’s up, don’t you my man.”

“Jrue so cute, Toby.”

“She is, isn’t she?”

“Should we just leave these three to it, Chris?” Christen heard Lauren call out, the camera eventually flipping back around to her grinning face, and Christen pulled Tobin back into her, both of them smiling through the phone.

It was tradition, Christen had learnt, for Tobin, Amy and Lauren to facetime each other on Christmas day. The three friends hadn’t missed a single one in their whole time of knowing each other, even when they were in different time zones. Right now, it was the afternoon in Florida, everyone stupid full from Christmas lunch trying to fathom the thought of eating more at dinner time. There was sunshine outside, laughter floating all throughout the house, and a dumb smile that hadn’t left Christen’s face all day.

“You have kids and then poof. Your friends just care about the baby.”

Tobin just rolled her eyes at Lauren, laughing. “You’re supposed to be the mature one, Cheney. You know I love you.”

Lauren cheesed a grin. “Amy, your day sounds like it’s going well despite the whole family being around. One tantrum per child is a pretty good average.” Amy laughed at Lauren’s comment, agreeing. “Chris, Tobs, how has your day been?”

An arm wrapped around her shoulders, Tobin silently telling her she could take this one, as they both settled in. “So good. Just, incredible really.” She could feel the smile practically bursting off her own face. “The little guy near fainted with excitement this morning when he saw that Santa had come, and we had an easy breakfast and the nicest lunch. I’m so full I can barely move.”

“Well is it really Christmas if you don’t need to have a nap after every meal?” Amy said, the facetime call breaking into hilarity when Christen flipped their camera around, showing Mal through the window outside passed out on the outdoor couches. “See, she knows.”

“Did you guys do presents?” Lauren’s question sent a whole rush of emotions pouring over Christen.

Since their parents had died, Christmas had never been about presents. She could never afford it, and she knew she had to be upfront with Mal about that instead of trying to trick her and get her hopes up. They would make each other little gifts, and when Christen started working she made sure she had enough stored away to get Mal one present that was a mix of something she wanted and something she needed.

But the idea that you could just go shopping and buy presents without much thought as to what you could and couldn’t afford, or with any stress surrounding the event at all, was so foreign it took Christen a long time to warm up to it.

She had adamantly told Tobin that she didn’t want a lot of presents; if any. She knew herself, and she knew it would be overwhelming and uncomfortable to go from Christmases where she had barely anything, to a Christmas where she had an abundance of things. The idea of having things just to have them was something she didn’t think she’d ever wrap her head around, but if she was going to, it certainly wouldn’t be this quickly.

Practical things they could use, or things they could do, or something meaningful, was what Christen cared about. She was glad she’d been brave and honest in talking to Tobin about it, because Tobin was as incredible as ever at listening and making her feel heard, but was also creative in coming up with solutions.

“We did, yeah.” Christen couldn’t keep the smile off her face, feeling Tobin squeeze her shoulder. “Mal and I have never been camping, and it’s something we’ve both always wanted to do, especially Mal. So our present to each other was some gear we could use for it, and we got Mal all of that as well. She was so excited, and we’ve already planned to go in the New Year after their January camp.”

“Oh I love camping.” Lauren gushed, “That’s such a cool idea for a present!”

Warmth spread throughout Christen’s chest. “It was all Tobin’s idea. And she must have told her parents about it, because they gave Mal and I these incredible outdoor jackets. And her siblings gave me the warmest blanket. And – wait, did you just tell your family I am perpetually cold?”

Tobin laughed at her sudden question, shrugging her shoulders in an innocent but not answering the question kind of way, her happy smile so cute it took everything for Christen not to kiss her silly there and then.

“Perhaps. It’s only the…second most common thing you talk about in Portland.”

An eyebrow raised, the corners of lips quirked into a half girn. “And the first?”

“How much you love donuts.”

Glorious, carefree laughter floated out of Christen, leaning more into Tobin and once again entirely overcome with how fucking happy she was right now. How perfect and peaceful and calm life was. How she had wanted this for so long and never, never ever ever thought it would happen.

Her heart ached in thought of her parents, knowing, truly knowing they were looking down on her now. She squeezed Tobin’s hand, rubbing her thumb across it.

“So it has been amazing. Our best Christmas in a long time, for sure.” Tobin pressed closer when she said that. “How has your day been so far, Lauren?”

“Oh, a dream. Jrue slept through the excitement of morning presents and I treasured it, because I know near every Christmas after this I’m going to have a child waking me up at 7am wanting to open presents.”

“7am? That’s cute, Lauren. You’ll see kids have some weird Christmas day body clock that has them up at 5am and then you’ll know all about it.”

Tobin waved Amy’s comment off. “Oh come on Ames. Ryan, Luke and Jrue are too cute to be mad at that.”

“You come here next Christmas and see for yourself, okay Tobs?”

Tobin grinned, squeezing Christen’s hand. “Easy.”

---

Christen’s parents used to say the only way you knew whether Mallory was up to something was if the house was quiet. Too quiet.

The kid had a tendency to make a joyful noise wherever she went, talking out loud or singing or kicking a soccer ball through the house. She would make up stories and laugh and call out to her family.  

That had died, almost completely, when they got put into foster care. Christen wanted to cry when she thought about how the system had stolen Mal’s carefree spirit, had made her unsure in every house they stepped into, made her make herself small. Scared.

There was one place, though, where Christen knew Mal was comfortable. Where she knew she was safe. It was within the four walls of their bedroom in the foster houses, right where Christen was with her, too.

Mal would see Christen shut the door (a privilege Christen knew wasn’t afforded to every foster kid) – and place something in front of it like a desk or some heavy books (because they were never afforded the privacy of a lock) – and she would oftentimes instantly bounce back into her authentic self.

Kids are resilient, she’ll be okay, Christen would chant in her head to herself, unable to focus for too long about how sick to her stomach it made her to think how foster care was fucking Mal up.

Their saving grace was having their own room. The one in their third foster house was tiny, enough room for a bed and a desk and chair, but it was a luxury not afforded to so many others like them. It was the only place they felt safe, because that was how they made it. They were each other’s comfort, and they had four walls around them.

This was where Christen created Mal’s world. They would play for hours together, making up dances, having the smallest games of hide and seek, drawing up treasure maps, making rhymes and stories, crafting with whatever paper they could get their hands on.

Mal loved to do everything with Christen, never letting her older sister out of her sight. But this time, Mal had requested Christen sit at the desk and not turn around, for anything whatsoever.

“Unless I say the super-secret password and that’s the only time you can turn around, okay Chrissy?”

Christen tried not to snort at her seven year old sister’s hilarity. She nodded, taking Mal as seriously as the kid was taking whatever venture this was.

“And will the lady be so kind as to tell me what the super-secret password is?”

A giggle sounded out from behind Christen, and a smile bloomed on her face. Her favorite sound in the world.

“Ummm….” Clearly Mal hadn’t thought this part through. “Smelly…socks.”

This time Christen did snort. “Smelly socks?”

Laughter burst out of Mal. “Yes.”

Life with a child. “Okay, baby. I promise I won’t turn around unless you say the password.”

“The super-secret password.”

“The super-secret password.” Christen confirmed as she picked up the book her English class was going to be reading in the new year, trying to get a much needed head start on it to counteract all the studying time of hers that raising Mal usually occupied.

In the end, though, she should have known she wouldn’t really get much done.

She could hear Mal behind her, whispering to herself, writing and drawing, humming little tunes as she went along. She sounded so cute, and the temptation to turn around and look at what she was doing was so strong. 

After Christen had read the same page for the fifth time, a little voice sounded out.

“Chrissy? Don’t turn around.”

A smile as big as could be. “I won’t, baby. What’s up?”

“How do you spell laugh?”

Christen wondered for the umpteenth time what Mal could be doing. “How do you think it’s spelled?”

“Ummm…l-a-r-f.”

“That’s a good try. You got the start right. Laugh is a hard word, because it doesn’t really sound like it looks. It’s spelled l-a-u-g-h.”

“U-g-h?”

Christen grinned, just imagining Mal’s confused face. “I know, it’s kind of silly, isn’t it.”

“Lots of words are silly.” Mal simply said, effectively summing up the English language in one short phrase. 

Christen never did get to find out what Mal had been doing that day, not until almost two weeks later, when her birthday rolled around. She wasn’t expecting anything. Her birthday in foster care had passed without a fuss last year – it wasn’t like Joseph was going to take time out from his holidays to do something nice for her (frankly, she was glad for that) – and Mal was surely too young to remember.

At least, that’s what she thought.

The morning had started the same as always, and Christen held Mal a little tighter in their morning cuddles just because her heart needed it. It had started the same, until Mal’s eyes shot open, scaring Christen for a second, before an excited grin spread all across her face.

“Stay here, Chrissy, okay?” Mal whispered as she tried to get up from the bed, giggling when Christen held her in place with her arms.

“I don’t want you to go, I want to snuggle.”

“Chrissy!” Mal’s giggles intensified, worming her legs away and getting up off the bed when Christen finally let her go.

Mal disappeared out of sight for a few seconds, Christen could hear her rummaging around, before her head popped back up over the side of the bed, eyes serious.

“Close your eyes, okay Chrissy?”

She had no idea what Mal was doing, and even though something in the back of her mind told her that maybe Mal had somehow figured out it was her birthday, she didn’t believe it. She didn’t want to get her hopes up.  

But she should have, because when she closed her eyes and felt Mal climb back onto the bed, tapping her on the arm and telling her she could look, she just about burst into tears on the spot.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY CHRISSY was spelled out in Mal’s writing, bright blue and green pen shining bright, dozens of stars and hearts drawn in the remaining space, colorful and messy and perfect.

“It’s today!” Mal exclaimed excitedly, still holding out the card. “Happy Birthday Chrissy! I love you, my big 17 year old!”

Tears immediately clouded her vision, the last thing she could clearly see was the excited smile on Mal’s face drop off a bit.

“Chrissy, don’t cry, it’s okay.” Mal practically climbed into her lap where she sat up against the wall at the head of the bed. She wrapped her arms around her, letting her tears fall for a few more seconds before forcing herself to pull it together, moving back to see Mal’s face but keeping her cuddled close.

“Are you sad?”

The sweet question almost made her cry more, shaking her head and pressing a kiss to Mal’s curls. “No, baby, I’m not sad. I’m so happy.”

“Happy tears?” Mal asked, wiping at Christen’s cheek in a way so familiar to how her own tears were wiped away. She smiled at Christen, hopefully, it expanding even further when Christen nodded. Definitely happy tears.

Mal was still holding the card out to her and she took it in her hands, carefully tracing around the words and smiling even bigger. Her heart was so happy, the tiniest of gestures from her baby sister meaning the most to her, all she could ever want.

“Did you make this all by yourself?”

Proud didn’t even begin to describe the smile that burst off Mal’s face at the awed comment, nodding and blushing when Christen praised the writing, the artwork, and that was before she opened it.

“Oh, baby. This is so beautiful!”

Inside the card was a whole stack of writing, maybe the most Christen had seen Mal write, ever. She finally realized what her sister must have been doing the other day when she made her turn around, her brain not even comprehending the thought that it might have been something special, just for her birthday, just for her.

The words were in all different colors, accompanied by more little designs, and it would be nothing short of a miracle if she could get through reading the card out loud without more crying.

To: Christen Press

Happy birthday Chrissy!!!!!!!!

I love you so much

I love when you hug me and kiss me

I love when you reed me storys

I love when you tuck me in bed

I love when you play soccer with me

I love your pritty hair

I love your smile

I love when you larf laugh and have fun with me

I love you are my favrit person

I love you making me safe

I love you forever and ever and I will never stop

You are my most beuteful thing in the world

Love from: Mallory Press 

Now she finally understood how Mal felt on her last birthday when Christen had made the card for her, reading it out slowly word by word, treasuring every single one of them, every loving sentence. Her fingers traced the letters, smile so wide it hurt, and she hugged Mal even closer.

"Thank you so much. I love it, baby. I love it more than any present, ever.” The genuine words poured out of her mouth, Mal squeezing her tight before leaning over the edge of the bed, pulling up her school bag.

“Um…I didn’t have wrapping paper. Or money. But I wanted you to have a present.” The little hand held out the red bag, eyes unsure but still that hopeful smile, and Christen really didn’t know how much more love her heart could take.

She opened the bag, hands clasping around the object inside and pulling it out, laughing as she did so. Mal had put a novel that already belonged to her – well, her high school – in there, presumably wanting her to be able to have some kind of present on her birthday. She was about to thank her for the book, when she noticed a piece of paper sticking out of the middle of it.  

Giving Mal an excited look (and seeing the same expression reflected back, if not even more), she opened the book up, gasping in delight.

Mal had clearly spent a long time on the drawing, putting every effort in to make it as special for Christen’s birthday as she could. Two stick figures adorned the page, one taller and one shorter, and they stood in a meadow filled with flowers and not one, but three suns in the sky, along with countless rainbows. Soccer balls and green grass sat at their feet, beaming smiles on their faces, bright blue and white soccer uniforms on their body.

‘Christen Press’ and ‘Mallory Press’ were written below the figures – Mal was very into the idea of full names at that point in time – and it was maybe Christen’s favorite thing ever. She was definitely teary eyed again, and she hugged the picture and Mal close to her, kissing Mal’s head.

“Baby, this was so kind of you. I love it, so so so much.”

“You do?”

Christen swore she’d never need anything else, nothing but those big, brown eyes looking up at her with all the love in the world pouring out of them, nothing but the tiny hand in her own, curled up against her like together, they would be able to do anything.

“More than anything. Will you read me the letter?” Christen asked Mal, seeing the younger girl get excited that she got to read her letter out loud, the same way Christen did for her on her birthday. “Thank you so much, baby. I love you so much. You’re my most beautiful thing in the whole entire world.”

“I love you, Chrissy! And you’re my most beautiful thing forever and ever and ever and ever, ever, ever!” Mal spoke with such earnest that another tear slipped down Christen’s cheek, running along the curve of it that had lifted with her smile. The kind of smile she hadn’t worn in a long time, the one that shone from the tips of her toes to the top of her head, radiating off her.  

She heard Mal start to read the letter, her little finger walking along with the words she spoke, speaking with such love and devotion and Christen missed her parents so fucking much but she thought this might be one of her best birthdays yet. 

“Happy Birthday, Chrissy.”

If it wasn’t for the plate of food resting on her lap, Christen would have pulled Mal completely into her arms.

The three of them were sitting in bed, back in Portland having arrived from Florida last night, ready to spend Christen’s birthday together and see in the new year in their favorite city. It was nine in the morning, Tobin having run down to the store to get donuts, coffee and bagels for breakfast in bed, and honestly, Christen would have been happy for the day with that, already having smiled so much.

Mal sat to her right, holding out a card to her, HAPPY BIRTHDAY CHRISSY written in bright red ink with patterns of all colors adorning the back – Mal’s handwriting certainly better than all those years ago, but the spirit of the card remaining the same.

Christen traced the letters on the front, feeling Tobin on her left lean over to have a look, feeling her smile against her shoulder as she saw what it was, even more so when Christen opened the card and read out loud.

To: Christen Press (the most phenomenal and incredible and out of this world sister I could ever be so lucky to have and love)

Happy birthday Chrissy!!!!!!!!!

I love you so much

I love your never endless drive to do the right thing

I love how you are so creative

I love your heart and how you share it with others

I love the laugh that bursts out of you and fills a room

I love when you smile so big your eyes crinkle and your cheeks hurt

I love your beautiful hair and how you love your curls

I love that you are proud to be black and how you show me that too

I love how you make me feel safe and you always protect me

I love how you shine when you do things you’re passionate about

I love seeing you at Roseway

I love that you’re trying to put yourself first even though it’s hard for you

I love when we play soccer and you can still win against me

I love your hugs. I’ll never be able to describe how content I feel when you hold me

I love when you still sit with me when I fall asleep

I love how you are silly and goofy with me and you let me be a kid

I love your Bice

I love how you help me remember Mom and Dad

I love that you fought for me, never gave up for me and you sacrificed everything for me. I’ll never be able to repay you, and I’ll never know how hard that was for you. But I see all these amazing things in your life now – Tobin, Ma, Roseway, the Heaths, the team, and I ask whoever is out there every day that good things never stop coming to you. I don’t know what I’d be without you. I hope you know how much it means to me that because of what you did, I’ll never have to find out.

I love you forever and ever and I will never stop

You are my most beautiful thing in the world

Love from: Mallory Press

In and out.

In and out.

The reminder to breathe came so she wouldn’t burst into tears, feeling so overwhelmed in all the best ways, clutching the letter in her hands.

“Happy tears?” Mal asked her, and clearly Christen hadn’t been able to contain all the feelings, seeing Mal brush at her cheeks.

Tobin moved the tray of food off her lap as she pulled Mal into her side, squeezing her tight and kissing her head because of course. Happy tears. “The happiest. Thank you so much, baby. I love it and I love you.”

“Love you forever, Chrissy.”

“Will you read it to me?” Christen asked with a grin, loving how Mal never lost the proud blush on her cheeks even after all this time, how the excited smile still quirked her lips up. Mal nodded, Christen feeling Tobin smile bigger into her shoulder as Mal started to read, and she just knew if she was looking at her girlfriend right then Tobin would be wearing her ‘how is Mal this stupid cute’ expression.

“I also have this for you.” Mal’s grin when she’d finished reading the letter was big, holding out a present which Christen knew was a wrapped up book, she just didn’t know which one. “Bet you can’t guess what it is.”

Laughter sprung out of Christen, shoving at Mal’s side as she opened the book, even more coming out when she saw it was Tobin’s copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Tobin cracked up upon seeing it, too, having been let in on their little tradition, and Christen excitedly opened the book up in the middle for the drawing she knew would be there, seeing an envelope fall out as well.

“Baby, this one is so cute.” Christen gushed, looking at the drawing Mal had done of three stick figures, two on surf boards in the ocean and another on the sand cheering them on, everyone’s full names written below, just like Mal did when she was a kid, exploding Christen’s heart just as much. “This is the first time anyone else has ever featured in a birthday drawing of mine, just so you know.”

Tobin’s eyebrows shot to the sky in an exaggerated fashion, looking at the picture to see where Christen was pointing to a figure on a surfboard, the words Tobin Heath written under it, a big smile on her stick figured face. “I’m genuinely so honored. This is super cute, Mal.”

“And what’s this?” Christen held up the envelope that was also inside the book, knowing this was not a usual part of the birthday tradition. Brown eyes looked away shyly, and Christen’s heart rate spiked ever so slightly, her natural instincts of excitement unable to be quelled.

Opening the tab of the envelope, she pulled out a piece of paper, reading it slowly as to make sure she had gotten it right.

Dear Christen Press

We are pleased to confirm a booking for you and your guest, Tobin Heath, to Jardin, one of Portland’s highest rated retreats, for the night of December 29, 2016.

Her eyes grew wide as she kept reading, handing it to Tobin as she looked over at Mal who was still sitting there with the shy smile on her face. The unfamiliarity of having presents, and nice ones at that, bought for her still set Christen’s skin a little on edge, thinking about how much money people could spend on gifts and all the times she had to count every cent, all the times she had to calculate what food she could and couldn’t buy.

But that was before. And if anyone could appreciate that, it would have been Mal. And now her baby sister had used her own money to buy an experience for her and Tobin that would be so special, a tiny overnight break together, and Christen wanted to cry again.

“Baby, this is so kind of you. You didn’t have to do this…I never expected anything and it must have been a bit expen – ”

Mal waved her off, going so far as to put a hand over her mouth, giving her a look. “I don’t want to hear it. Just take it, because you deserve it, and that’s that.”

When did Mal get so grown up?

Christen’s eyes softened, hugging Mal close, thanking her over and over. “You’re going to be here by yourself tonight.” She suddenly realized, knowing Mal hadn’t been alone in a place that wasn’t a hotel room, ever.

The body she was hugging shook its head, Mal looking up at her. “I already asked Crystal if I could go and stay at her house tonight.” An excited smile rested there. “I would have gone to Ma’s, but she’s still in St Louis with Tommy. And Crystal said yes before I could even explain why, it’s going to be so much fun.”

A mental note was made for Christen to give Crystal the biggest hug next time she saw her. “You’ll have the best time for sure.”

Comfortable silence filled the room, the three of them happily full of pancakes. One head lay against her soft hoodie, resting on her collarbone, the other leaned against her side, until Tobin sat up.

Hands wrung together and a red tint painted Tobin’s cheeks and Christen was immediately intrigued. Tobin and shy weren’t two words she usually put together, and now that she’d seen this, she had to hold in a scream at how cute her girlfriend was.

“I also…have something for you.” The words were rushed out all at once, Tobin’s hands still fidgeting. She could barely meet her eyes as she rambled on. “It’s not much and it’s not that good, either, really, but I thought it might be nice and you might – ”

Christen squeezed Mal’s thigh, silently telling her sister to sit up so she could turn to Tobin, take her hands in hers and kiss her quiet. “Breathe, beautiful.”

The red on the cheeks grew bolder. Tobin nodded, laughing a little through her nervous smile, the lines by her eyes crinkling up and Christen couldn’t help but reach out to her face to calm her, anchor her.

A deep inhale sounded out in the room before Tobin reached under the bed, handing over a rectangular package quickly, like it might scald her hands if she carried it too long.

“It’s for you. I made it. I – just open it.” Tobin pleaded, Christen feeling her soft smile and a presence over her other shoulder this time, Mal sitting up to peer across at the present.

Christen had no idea what Tobin had given her, and if her heart had skipped a beat with Mal’s present before, it was absolutely thundering out of her chest now. She wasn’t one for big, showy gifts. The ones that meant the most to her were sentimental, things she could do or use, or things made for her, things you could hold and see the love in them.

Her delicate finger undid every line of tape on the page, but Christen’s eyes were locked on Tobin, whose gaze was firmly set on the package. The blush remained, as did the fidgeting hands, and Christen couldn’t quite describe just how special this moment was.

That feeling was just the tip of the iceberg when she pulled out the present.

“Oh. Tobin.”

The reds and oranges and yellows swirled together and there was no mistaking, not even by a glance, of what Christen was holding in her hands. It was the beach, her beach, by her and Mal’s old apartment, at sunset. The most stunning colors brushed together, the ocean depicted in glimmering fashion, like she was seeing the sun reflecting right off it, three silhouetted figures sitting on the sand with the very corner of a taco truck showing and –

“You painted this?” Christen was reverent as she held the painting, unable to strip her eyes away from it for longer than a second to see Tobin nod, touching it ever so delicately as if to feel for herself that this really was a painting and not a photograph.

“I, uh, I used the stuff you got me for my birthday earlier in the year. The paints and brushes and all that. And I thought, you might like a painting, but that it would be even more special because of that, and – ”

The rambling had stopped because Tobin’s lips became otherwise occupied, Christen unable to contain herself and pouring everything into the kiss she planted on her, pressing their lips together close and feeling moisture as she pulled away, the painting now watery through her gaze.

“I love it.” She choked out, hands hovering above it, not daring to touch it any more but wanting to be close. “It’s so beautiful.”

“Tobin, it’s amazing.” Mal was just as awed in her voice, smile wide. “You are so talented. It looks incredible.”

Tobin’s shy, humble smile was too much for Christen who again kissed her silly, pecking her face over and over until the other woman was laughing too much, pushing her away with the red blush still splashed on her cheeks.

“I’m glad you like it.”

The tiny voice made Christen want to scream, Tobin was so adorable. She squeezed her hand, kissing it with the biggest smile. “I love it. We’re hanging it in the kitchen.”

Tobin’s head ducked low again, the corners of her mouth lifted in happiness, and Christen took her chin gently, guiding her eyes to her own. “Thank you. It means the world to me. I love you.”

“I love you too, beautiful.” Tobin said, smiling back down at the painting before clearing her throat, clearly happy to divert the attention back off herself. She picked up the piece of paper Mal had given her in the envelope, reading it over once more.

“This place looks amazing, Mal. I’m so excited about it!”

Christen had a sneaking suspicion that Mal had told Tobin about her plans, with the way that Tobin had worn a knowing look when she opened the envelope. Mal clearly put a long time thinking about when and where to send them, and Tobin had put in countless hours and effort into this painting. Warmth spread throughout Christen’s chest at just how lucky she was, sitting sandwiched between her favorite people, listening to them with a fond smile as they swung banter back and forth.

“Nice of you to get me a birthday present as well.”

Playful eyes rolled at Tobin, Mal hiding a grin hiding behind her face. “Well going by that logic, it’s also a birthday present for me, because it means I get to escape your annoying ass for the night.”

---

It was a mixture of trust, strength and balance. But honestly? The water of the river was so clear, so still, so inviting, Christen wouldn’t have even minded if she fell in.

“You got it?”

She nodded at Tobin’s question, holding on to her outstretched hand as she secured her footing after stepping onto the log just sticking out of the water. Tobin stood on the bank a yard and a bit away, fingers clasped in hers as Christen took her first few careful steps down the log, slowly moving her hand away from Tobin’s.

“You good?”

“Yeah.” She concentrated at the wood beneath her, feeling Tobin give her hand one more squeeze before letting go.

They had been at the retreat for a few hours now, having eaten the most delicious meal for lunch and were now taking in a walk all the way along the riverside that just seemed to stretch forever.

They weren’t mad about it.

It was peaceful, here. Quiet. She could hear the birds singing, she was cozied bundled up in her scarf, she had the love of her life next to her. Her breaths had been bigger. Deeper. Fuller. Giving her time to stop and just be. Be so damn happy and carefree.

She felt herself balance on the log, now on her own. A cheesy grin shot out of her mouth as she looked up at Tobin in success.

That dumb, so fucking in love smile crossed Tobin’s face and Christen’s heart beat right out of her chest. “You did it.”

Slowly, Christen curtseyed on the log, making Tobin laugh. “I did it.”

“Don’t fall in. That water looks nice but it would be freezing.”

Christen looked down at it again, agreeing. She could see hundreds of stones laying on the riverbed, the water lapping at the sides of the log as it gently streamed past. “So beautiful.”

“Yeah, you are.”

Laughter, free and bright and joyous filled the calm outdoors. “What a little dork.” She still blushed, seeing Tobin’s cheeks the same. “I love you.”

“I love you, too. So much.”

She kept her balance on the log as she shut her eyes, letting the sun hit her face. “If it was warmer out we could do yoga on the grass. But I saw they had the most amazing indoor area for that, all glass windows and high ceilings.”

“I don’t think you understand how bad I am at yoga, Chris.” Tobin had her hands on her hips, mouth in a permanent grin. “You’re really overestimating my talents.”

A hand shot back out to Tobin, not to grab her for balance, but to waggle a finger in front of her. “No, no, no. You’re not getting out of it. We’re doing yoga together.”

“But Chris – ”

“But nothing!” A cheeky grin. “It’s my birthday, or something.”

Tobin’s eyes rolled playfully. “It won’t be your birthday tomorrow morning when you booked us in to do it.”

“No, I think it all rolls over. Still counts.” Christen sent her best smile Tobin’s way, knowing she wouldn’t be able to resist. “And besides, it’s not like I’m an expert yet, either. I’m still starting out.”

Tobin laughed, shaking her head. “Get out of here with that. You basically lived in that yoga studio with Kam and Yash last January camp.”

“We did do a lot of yoga,” She had a point, “But we also spent a lot of time in easy stretches just talking.”

“I bet you did. You three in a room together would lose track of time.” Tobin, knowingly or not, mirrored Christen’s footsteps as she walked up and down the log, walking in the grass on the bankside. “How are you feeling about starting work at Union next week?”

Excitement rushed through Christen, her beaming smile giving away all the answer needed. She couldn’t wait to be in the café, back with her friends, working a few shifts for some financial independence and not attaching work to livelihood, not having constant anxiety around it.

Even though sometimes customer service sucked, there were aspects Christen genuinely enjoyed about it. And a place like Union, she could tell, especially with how wonderful Kam and Yash were, would have regulars she could get to know, would attach her to the community, be able to immerse herself in one of her favorite cities. She loved being able to connect with people like that.

“I can’t wait. And it’ll be perfect timing, because you and Mal will be at January camp. So between Union, and Roseway, I’ll have things to keep me occupied, but a lot of down time still, as well.” Christen saw the relieved smile on Tobin’s face and her heart panged.

She knew Tobin still worried she was going to push herself to the brink again with work, and she could feel the natural desire to go-go-go in her own mind, too. But this time, instead of playing ignorant with herself, instead of waiting until she crashed, she was actively aware of it, working against it. She knew she didn’t have to be at work all the time now, and even though it wasn’t as simple as that to rewire her brain, it was a step in the right direction.

“You’re so cute when you get excited about Union. I love how passionate you are about the things you do.”

An overwhelming urge to be off the log and in Tobin’s arms took over, and Tobin was more than happy to comply when Christen reached her hand back out to her. Their fingers interlocked, Tobin’s arms basically lifting her right back to the bankside. Immediately Christen kissed her, arms around her neck.

“Thanks, Tobs. I love how passionate you are too.” A little laugh emitted from Christen’s lips as Tobin’s arms around her waist picked her up, spinning her in a few gentle circles. Christen pressed their foreheads together, breathing in deep before she spoke again, something she really wanted to say. “And thank you for being excited about Union, like it was any job, and not just a ‘waitress’ or whatever. I never got to go to college and maybe because of that I’ll never have a ‘career’ job, but you’re always so excited and interested in whatever I’m doing. You’ve never once made me feel like being a waitress was inadequate. You’ve never judged me.”

A hug, this time, big and engulfing and protective. They swayed together softly, Tobin’s face buried in her shoulder breathing in and out, a kiss placed on her hoodie before Tobin looked back at her face.

“And I never will judge you, Chris. I only ever want to support you and help you grow.” A smile grew on Tobin’s face as she spoke, Christen’s lips pressing dozens of tiny kisses on her cheek. “If you’re happy, and you’re going to work with great people and doing something you enjoy, you’re already doing better than most other people out there who hate their jobs and are wasting away in it. Being a waitress does not mean people should treat you with less respect, or that you’re not impressive or talented or the most incredible person ever, okay?”

She knew it, deep down, but the insecurities arose often. She couldn’t express how it warmed her heart to hear Tobin’s words of affirmation.

“You know who I learnt that from?” Tobin asked, Christen shaking her head. “You.”

“Me?”

Tobin nodded, kissing her palm. “Do you remember? When we went to dinner with Alex and Kelley and Mal at that fancy place. And the waitress dropped those drinks.”

Christen’s jaw almost dropped open, it all coming back to her.

“You were so kind to that waitress, who was a complete stranger, and you completely turned that situation from something horrible to something encouraging for her. You were so affirming and validating and I swear I could see how bright your soul shone in that moment. I knew you’d never change from the amazing person I knew when I was 15, but I can’t tell you how stupid in love with you I fell in that moment.”

Warmth filled her body in the chill air as her vision blurred slightly, Tobin’s words hitting home in so many ways all at once. She gripped Tobin’s hands, pulling their bodies in close, whispering her thanks into her hair, hugging her tight.

Tobin carried on.

“Until the day you start hating it, I’m so happy you’re going to work at Union. Until the day you feel like it’s holding you back from something you really want to do, if that day does come, I’ll support you in it. And if you spend the rest of your life as a waitress, then I’ll be so happy, because that means a lifetime of cabinet treats for me.”

Muffled laughter filled the air, Christen having buried her face in the scarf wrapped around Tobin’s neck, holding on tight to her. “Thank you, my love. That means more to me than you know. And you can have all the treats you want.”

An arm wrapped around her shoulders and Tobin kissed her head, leading them back down the riverside and continuing the walk. “See, you say that. But you can’t outrun defenders when your body has become 80% lemon meringue pie.”

Laughter, then, Christen’s fingers tangling in Tobin’s. The memory of it all flooding back to her. “What a way to go, though.”

“I’ll be sure to tell Dawn the night before my retirement game I want to eat a whole cake and no one can stop me.” Tobin spoke in an amused, faraway tilt that told Christen she was remembering, too.

“I don’t know whether to laugh or be concerned.”

The whine that came out of Tobin’s mouth didn’t give an answer to Christen’s comment, both 15 year olds sitting on the floor of Tobin’s hotel bathroom. Tobin had her face leaned up against the cold tiles, Christen sitting opposite her leaning against the shelves of the basin. Her legs were stretched out, not quite enough to be fully in Tobin’s lap, or even to touch her thighs -

- but she kept them there, deadly still. Like she had built up all the courage in her body to have moved them this close to Tobin in the first place. She couldn’t possibly move one more inch, breath almost caught in her throat at how much she focussed on how close they were. How the slightest of movements could have this monumental, amazing consequence of her and Tobin’s skin touching. Even though that had already happened throughout the week. Even though they’d woken up in the same bed that morning. Christen still felt like every time she brushed past her in the slightest she might actually pass out.

“I think I’m dying.”

Now the amusement had won over the concern. Christen grinned. “What a way to go, though.”

“Christen!” Tobin whined again, not being able to hide her own smile at what she knew was a ridiculous situation.

“Look, I’m just saying. When they write your obituary and speak of the heroic 5 helpings of dessert you had tonight, you’ll definitely be remembered. Death by chocolate cake.” 

“Literally.” Tobin groaned. “What if I can’t train tomorrow?”  

“That’s not an option. One, coaches will know you broke the reasonable dessert rule. And two, you have to train if we want to get onto the next roster.”

Tobin nodded like she knew that, even if it was all devastating to hear out loud. “But what if I actually can’t train. What if I can’t even move? What if I’ve just turned into a giant chocolate cake in the morning.”

Christen could actually feel her palms get sweaty at how flustered Tobin made her. She wasn’t even doing anything, apart from being the cutest person she had ever seen in her life. She could feel her heart beat thundering out of her chest. Feel the urge to basically tackle Tobin in a hug and never let her go, tell her how amazing and cute and incredible she thought she was.  

“Well…if you can’t move in the morning you’ll have to barf it all out.”

Another whine. “I hate barfing. I can never do it.”

So, so, so, so cute. Christen’s toes almost curled in with the inability she had to contain the rush of feelings Tobin sent through her. She took a deep breath, keeping her legs still again, trying to help her out. “Well, I’ll be here with you and I’ll make you barf!”

Tobin laughed, looking at her.

“What’s like, the grossest thing you can think of?”  

The answer was immediate. “Wet paper.”

“Exactly, so I’ll just make you think of – wait, you’re really grossed out by…wet paper?”

Tobin just thumped her head against the wall again. “Yes but I don’t want to talk about it! It’s making me queasy.”

Both girls were struggling not to break out into hysterics, despite the very real possibility Tobin might barf.

“You’ll be okay, Tobin.” Christen tried to sound confident in that. “Once the cake settles it’ll turn into sugar. Maybe you’ll be your fastest yet at training tomorrow.”

A smile formed on the face pressed against the tiles. “I really like how positive you are, you know that?”  

Oh god. Christen’s cheeks felt like they might melt off her face from how instantaneous the blush was. She once again looked at her feet, still unmoving, but if she reached out, just, she might be able to –  

Tobin took the opportunity to cradle in on her stomach, the ache growing too much, before deciding that wasn’t working and instead stretching out fully on her back. Christen hurried to move her legs away, give the girl room, not invade her space and then, then wonderfully and beautifully and magically Tobin’s hand reached out, clasping ever so delicately at the bottom of her leg, curling around her ankle, and the girl just…stayed there. Stopped moving. Like her hold on Christen was grounding her. Like it was the only thing anchoring her to feeling okay.

Christen swore the room was vibrating with how hard her heart was beating. She could literally feel her ears pulsing from the rush of blood.

“Thank you for being here.” Tobin said, eyes closed and then open, head tilting to the side with this smile that stole the breath from Christen’s body. “You make everything seem better.”  

Surely no more than a squeak would come out of Christen’s mouth if she tried to talk, then. She counted to five in her head, breathing out before trusting her voice, unable to send anything less than a full smile back at that face that had so taken her over in the last week.

“Of course.” She was brave, so brave and nudged the top of her foot into the girl’s hip, trying to maintain some semblance of keeping it together when she felt Tobin squeeze her ankle in return. “And if I ever became incapacitated from too many French fries I’d expect you to do the same.”

“In a heartbeat. We can see each other through all the food woes we have forever.”

Forever.

Christen liked the sound of that. 15 years old and no idea, not even close, of what life would throw at her but if she had Tobin by her side it all seemed bright and beautiful and exciting in a way she had never ever felt. A crush that somehow felt more than that, something she didn’t think she would ever be able to get over.  

“Just never let me eat chocolate cake again. I’m swearing off it.”

“Somehow I don’t think that’s true.” Christen grinned, seeing Tobin’s eyes close with a matching one, feeling again, so wondrously, another squeeze at her ankle.

“Somehow, you’re probably right.”

The air was crisp and the view was beautiful and Christen exhaled deeply, like she could blow away all the bad memories, times she felt so trapped and so helpless and if only she could go back to herself now. If only she could tell herself one day everything she dreamed of, even more, would be hers. That she would feel the most complete sense of peace and happiness and she would start to find herself again, her true self.

She and Tobin followed the route along the riverside, Christen bringing their clasped hands towards her mouth and kissing Tobin’s knuckles gently, brushing them across her cheek.

“Eat all the cake, Tobs. Live your best life.”

Tobin just smiled into the kiss she placed on her head.

---

The dirtiest, deepest moan of pleasure reverberated off the tiled bathroom walls.

“Oh fuck.”

A tongue licked out.

A fingertip caught in between lips.

The moment was intense.

And a snort cut right through the atmosphere.

“Should I leave you two alone?”

Christen ignored Tobin’s comment, biting into the chocolate truffle again. She felt her eyes roll in delight as the tastes hit her tongue, the soft, sweet chocolate swirling around. She swore she’d never eaten anything better.

“Uh, uh, I don’t think so.” Movement behind her made her pull her hand away from Tobin’s mouth, her girlfriend pouting at not being successful in her mission to get a taste.

“But it looks really good.”

Determined to ignore the pout and not give in to Tobin’s completely adorable face, Christen cocked an eyebrow. “Now you want in on my quality time with the chocolate? I thought you were leaving us alone?”

“I bought them for you.” Tobin’s bottom lip dropped lower, Christen being unable to resist turning her head more to the side to kiss it, briefly. She laughed as she felt Tobin’s tongue sneak out and lick some of the chocolate off her lips, her eyes widening.

“Chris, please let me try it.”

“Hmmm,” A playful sound of thought left Christen’s lips, her leaning back fully into Tobin where they both lay in the bathtub, lit candles dancing around them as the glass in the ceiling above showed the dark night sky, the stars shining bright. The perfect end to what had been the most relaxing day at the retreat. “I don’t know. It’s the best one yet.”

“You said that about all of them, so far.” Tobin pointed out, looking at the box of deluxe chocolate truffles she’d given to Christen as another birthday present that night.

Christen just darted her tongue out once more, lapping at a drip of running chocolate that was about to fall into the bath water. It wasn’t lost on her, in the slightest, the way she felt Tobin’s sharp intake of breath at the sight, squirming ever so slightly in the tub.

“If I give you this, you’ll have to make it worth my while.” She wore a smirk as she held up the truffle to where she knew Tobin’s mouth was behind her, feeling Tobin’s breath on her knuckles. That smirk died instantly when Tobin’s lips found purchase around her fingers, tongue flicking the truffle into her mouth before sucking every, last, drop of chocolate off them, all of Christen’s insides feeling like they were reduced to a molten mess at the sensation.

The power dynamic changed in an instant.

“You say that like I wouldn’t enjoy it.” Tobin’s whisper in her ear made a shiver run down her spine. “Like I wouldn’t do it for free.” Made her feet curl in in anticipation. “Like there was anything else I would rather be doing than watching you come apart as I tease you,” A hand danced through the water to drag slowly across the underside of her breasts, thumb just reaching out to brush over a nipple and disappearing twice as fast. “As I touch you,” A second hand ran a single finger through her folds once, Christen knowing how wet she was even while sitting in the water, even so quickly. “As I kiss you.”

Lips came quickly together, Christen tasting the last of the chocolate on Tobin’s tongue as she opened her mouth to let it in, eyes shutting in the feeling of Tobin around her, her hardened nipples pressing against her back, the way if she moved her butt just backwards she would know she’d feel Tobin’s own wetness against her.

“Is that what you want, pretty girl?” Tobin whispered against her lips and then kissed a trail along her jaw and down her neck, hot skin in her wake, labored breaths. “You want me to make it worth your while?”

Eyes clenched shut, losing herself to the sensation of Tobin’s touch.

“Want to be my good girl while I give you your last birthday present?”

The whine that shuddered out of Christen’s mouth was answer enough, her pressing their lips back together as Tobin slid over her in the tub, laying her back against the porcelain side as she hovered above.

Fingers teased at Christen’s nipple, a tiny sharp tug. Another finger flicked at her clit, moving back away. “Was that a yes?”

The sensations shot straight through her, Christen’s leg twitching. “Yes, Tobin, fuck. Please.”

She could hear the smirk on Tobin’s face without having to open her eyes and see it herself. “Please what, pretty girl?”

The finger languidly moving up and down her slit, not nearly enough pressure applied to do anything, even when she tried to buck her hips, had Christen’s brain fuzzy. “Please touch me. I want your fingers, I want your mouth.” A moan filled the room, Tobin’s finger finally circling around her clit again.

The way the water made them lightweight had Tobin leaning right against her, her fingers moving up and down before one finally slipped inside, Christen’s tight heat clamping around it. She felt Tobin’s lips against the underside of her jaw again, her voice whispering out.

“I love when you tell me what you want.” Tobin’s finger pumped in and out slowly at first, adjusting Christen before a second joined in. “Love how incredible you are. How beautiful, and caring and strong.”

Each word had Christen’s insides clenching around Tobin’s fingers, the way her voice was low and husky making her completely fall apart. The feelings only grew, every word whispered in her ear, every inch of her skin kissed, every time Tobin’s fingers curled against her walls up and up and up until her heart felt like it would stop, her legs and chest shuddering as she came in a wave, crashing down and pulsating, breathing hot and heavy but she still had to have Tobin’s lips on hers, still had to feel her there.

“Fuck,” She panted out when their lips separated, head leaning back against the tub as it lolled to the side, resting against Tobin’s shoulder. She felt a chuckle above her, Tobin’s fingers still moving slightly inside, still riding her orgasm out. A mischievous thumb brushing over her clit had her legs spasming and she laughed in over-sensitivity and pleasure, nipping at Tobin’s shoulder.

“You ass.”

“You don’t like it?” The question was said but Tobin’s tone knew the answer, thumb brushing past again.

Christen keened, moving both closer and further away, trapping Tobin’s hand inside her with a grip on her wrist when she made to pull out. “I like it.”

Their eyes met, boring into each other, Christen seeing the little flickers of gold in Tobin’s honey orbs and feeling like there was nothing else tethering her to the Earth but her. “I love you so damn much.”

Tobin’s hand pulled out of her and came around her back, cradling her close as she kissed her, their bodies floating against each other in the warm water, soft and smooth and easy. “I love you, too, beautiful. Thank you for being here with me, for loving me. For sharing your life with me. And your heart.”

Christen shook her head, a hand curling through Tobin’s hair as she held her even closer, kissed the skin on her shoulder. She could never comprehend how Tobin felt like that about her, still, not after the years she spent dreaming about moments like this. “Every day I want to pinch myself that this isn’t a dream. That you’re really here with me, like I always wanted.”

“We were always meant to be together, Chris. We couldn’t love each other this much and not.”

Her throat constricted, overwhelmed at her feelings. Christen pulled back, cupping Tobin’s cheeks in her hands, looking at the perfect face before her. “You’re it for me, you know?” The words were murmured, reverent, like she was holding the most precious thing in the world. “I’ll never want anything else but you.”

Both sets of eyes glistened, foreheads resting together as they breathed in and out, Tobin’s scent filling her being and calming her, grounding her like always. When their lips met it was just as passionate as before, but longer, now. Slower. Wrapped up together with legs tangled up, rocking gently over and over until a whine filled the room.

Tobin shuffled down slightly, putting one of Christen’s hands on the side of the tub before pushing her up onto an indented ridge near the top, one of Christen’s legs resting comfortably on the edge. Tobin lay in the water, one hand curling around Christen’s knee as the other tucked hair behind her ears. When Tobin kissed the inside of Christen’s thigh and looked up at her, droplets visible on her olive skin where her back rested outside the water, candle light dancing off her, eyes heavy and so full of love, the corner of her lip quirked up – Christen could have combusted on the spot.

“If I remember correctly you said you wanted my mouth.” Tobin murmured, sucking into her skin, closer and closer to where Christen needed her. “I like these presents that are for you and me, too.” Her tongue licked out once up Christen’s slit, Christen seeing her eyes close in delight. Tobin moved one of her hands to rest in her hair, telling her she could guide her, grinning when Christen curled her fingers in tight, ready in anticipation. “Happy birthday, my love.”

---

The beat thumped against the walls as the half of the room that wasn’t dancing dissolved into hilarity. Christen knew the only reason she hadn’t been subjected to being pulled into the middle by Mal was that she already knew this dance inside and out, having been forced into learning it by her baby sister earlier in the year.

“Juju? What even is juju?” She heard Becky yell out to the universe as Mal and Crystal kept teaching Becky, AD and Tobin the dance, Juju on that beat repeating through the speakers for the third time in a row. Becky’s partner, Zola just about lost it at that comment, crouching down as Pierre, next to him, filmed the whole charade.

“You got this, babe! Now slide, and drop,” Emily, AD’s fiancée, sang out from the sidelines, making Crystal and Mal cheer as she did the dance too, evidently having had learnt this already.

“Come on, Tobs, I know you know running man, wasn’t that the dance in your era?”

Tobin swatted out at Mal who darted away just in time, running to the other side of the circle. “Say that to my face, you little asshole!”

Mal just laughed, her cheeks tinted red and her eyes alive, a result of the few drinks she’d consumed that night. Christen was keeping an eye on her without trying to be overbearing, knowing she was safe as could be in this environment. She looked around the room, Crystal and Pierre’s decorations up in their house for the new year’s eve party keeping the festivities alive, lights bouncing off the walls and balloons hanging from door frames.

The three of them hadn’t necessarily made new year’s plans, knowing they would be in Portland but not being fussed about what would happen. When Mal had come home from Crystal’s house after staying the night of Christen’s birthday, excitement bursting through the roof that both of them had found out AD, Emily, Becky and Zola also had no plans, Christen knew nothing would stop her sister and Crystal from putting together a great party.

And so far, it had been so fucking fun. In fact, between Christmas, her birthday, and now this, Christen couldn’t believe the amount of intense happiness she had experienced, not even being able to remember the last time she was genuinely stressed, sad or worried. When that had been her usual state, for as long as she could remember, it was almost jarring to try and accept that maybe life could be like this for the most part, forever more.

(It made her chest ache with hope at the idea).

“Oh, Lord.” Tobin jumped out of the circle, crashing back into her as the fourth rendition of the song ended and it miraculously changed to a different one, Mal and Crystal carrying on dancing either way. “Mal is such a little shit.”

Christen grinned at Tobin, handing her beer back to her that she’d been holding. “You look great out there, Tobs. Maybe you could be on dancing with the stars.”

“You and Mal been going to the same comedy club, huh?” Tobin rolled her eyes playfully at her, pressing a kiss against her lips before taking a swig of her beer. “I love you.”

“I love you, too.” Christen stroked along her cheekbone, tucking some of the wild strands of hair back behind Tobin’s ear. “You having a good time?”

“Yeah.” Tobin grinned, easy and beautiful. “The best. Are you?”

“Of course. Some of my most favorite people ever in this room.” Christen laughed when Tobin pulled her into a big hug, wrapping her arms around her front and kissing her cheek over and over.

“Can I ask you something?” Tobin asked, her tone a little different to before, a little more serious, more so than Christen expected from the bouncy, fun, tipsy chats Tobin had been dishing out that night so far. She turned to her, trying to gage what it was all about by the look on her face but seeing nothing apart from Tobin’s soft expression, loving and so full and whatever it was she wanted to talk about, Christen’s heart beat easy, knowing it would be okay.

She got pulled into the kitchen, just around the corner from the main room where the noise was significantly quieter, the atmosphere less chaotic. Tobin leant against the counter, joining their hands together and kissing her knuckles.

“What’s up, beautiful?”

A quizzical look was sent her way, before Tobin took a breath. “Do you drink?”

“No, I don’t.”

“Have you ever?”

“No. I wondered when you’d ask me this.” A soft smile sat on Christen’s face, her squeezing their intertwined hands gently, letting Tobin know she hadn’t overstepped, hadn’t made any assumptions.

She thought back to the few times she’d had to actively refuse an offer of a drink at various events, or at the Heath’s thanksgiving or Christmas. Whenever Tobin had been in ear shot of it, she’d noticed the woman staying looking at her for half a second longer than usual, never judging, never anything attached to it, but clearly trying to decide whether to ask about it, how to ask about it, knowing it might be something Christen might want to talk about but also knowing it didn’t really matter, at all.

Half a smile spread across Tobin’s face when she said that, being able to guess what Christen was thinking about at that moment, too. “Do you want to tell me about it?”

Of course, Christen knew that Tobin had probably a very good guess as to why she didn’t drink. But one of the things she loved most about Tobin was that she didn’t charge forward with the presumption. Instead, she left the floor open for her to explain herself, if she wanted.

And she did, of course. She wanted to share everything with Tobin.

“The car crash my parents died in, the person who was driving the car that hit them was drunk.” She started, swallowing hard, it never seeming to get easier to talk about it, even after all these years. Tobin squeezed her hand softly, nodding, knowing that much, but not what else Christen was about to say. “When I was 15, I was so mad about it. Under all the hurt and grief and loss, I was so mad.”

She scoffed.

“I’m still mad.”

A little noise of acknowledgment left Tobin’s lips, without her having to say words, Christen felt it. It’s okay, that’s valid, more than understandable.

“When I was 15 I swore to myself I would never drink alcohol. Ever.”

“And did you?”

She shook her head, accepting gratefully the glass of water Tobin handed her. “As a teenager I always had Mal, so it was the last thing on my mind. And when I adopted Mal, buying alcohol wouldn’t have made sense, it would have just been a waste of money we already didn’t have.” She sighed, not wanting to think too much about those times, anymore. “The few foster parents we had that always drunk and smelt of alcohol, always got a little too unnervingly unpredictable after a few beers didn’t help my opinion. Personally, I had no desire or interest in it. I don’t think I ever will.”

Tobin, attentive as always, listening with complete focus, nodded. But Christen, just as so, didn’t escape noticing that Tobin had begun fidgeting with the bottle of beer in her hand, a look of unease and the tiniest hint of guilt shining through as she bit at the inside of her cheek.

“Hey. None of that.” She smiled, genuinely, reassuringly and lovingly. A kiss to Tobin’s lips, feeling her woman relax against her. “I let Mal drink tonight. You think if I actually had an issue with people drinking alcohol that I would have done that?”

The only logical answer to that was no, and Christen smiled when she saw Tobin shake her head. “I’d never make you feel bad or guilty for drinking, my love, and I hope if you ever feel like I am that you’ll tell me.”

Tobin’s head shake became a nod, the beer in her hand resting on the counter as she wrapped her arms around Christen’s waist. “I don’t even drink that much, anyways. Never during the season, and like, only a beer or two every now and again.” She was cut off with a kiss, Christen smiling knowingly.

“I love you. And I know. But if you were out and you did want to drink more than that, you could. I don’t ever want to stop you from having fun. And I know you would never do something like drive after you’d been drinking.”

The most adamant of head shakes from Tobin, and Christen’s smile grew bigger.

“I would never, Chris.”

“I know, beautiful.”

A hug, then. Christen’s face buried in Tobin’s neck and she breathed in, greedily inhaling the scent that was like home to her. That was safety and comfort like nothing else.

“Thank you for being honest with me. Promise me if we’re ever anywhere and you want me to stop drinking you’ll tell me?”

Christen cupped her cheeks in her hands, brushing her thumbs of her jaw. Her chest ached in the ease that Tobin surrounded her with, knowing she was so loved. But she knew how much Tobin put others before herself, and that made her chest ache too. “Tobs, I never want to be that person who tells you what to do with yourself. As long as you’re safe and others are safe I promise I don’t mind what you do, okay?”

She waited until Tobin finally nodded, happy she had really heard her, and she kissed her soft. Sweet. “Besides, I used to work at a sports bar, remember? If I was uncomfortable with alcohol, I wouldn’t have done that. I always felt better when we called taxis for people who couldn’t get home on their own.” Then, a grin took over her face. “But I promise that you having a few beers, or even more than that, wouldn’t match some of the wild shit I saw there.”

Tobin laughed. “I bet. Okay, beautiful.” She kissed her again, then raised an eyebrow. “Did you ever play our national team games at the sports bar?”

A half eye roll emitted from Christen at the mischief on Tobin’s face, one of her thumbs leaving her jaw to trace over her lips. “I might have done.” When Tobin’s expression grew gleeful, she continued. “I turned it on for Mal, of course. Whenever she was there during my shifts she always begged us to switch one of the screens if a game was on.”

The glee on Tobin’s face comically dropped, and Christen’s heart actually hurt from how in love she was. The corners of her lips quirked up. “But mostly, I turned it on to try and sate my overriding, all-consuming, keep-me-up-at-night crush I had on USA’s number 17.”

Tobin’s excited eyes were back.

“It made my heart ache, seeing you on the screen every time and not knowing, not hoping to believe if we’d ever meet again.”

Arms pulled her closer, then, Tobin leaving a sweet, tiny kiss to her thumb still on her lips.

“But at the same time I couldn’t stop watching. Seeing you, even on there, it made things better. Made me breathe a little easier.”

“I’m glad for that, at least.” Tobin murmured, the breath hitting her thumb. “It makes me sad. But, I’m here now. We’re together now.”

Christen nodded, burying her face in her neck and relaxing when she felt Tobin’s arms circle completely around her, thankful without even having to say it that Tobin understood the immediate need to be wrapped in each other.

“Now and forever.” The words were a statement, like they were so set in stone, Christen whispering them against the skin of Tobin’s neck.

“Forever, my love. And all the rest.”

Tobin squeezed her tight as another voice entered the mix.

“Chris?”

Christen pulled her head out of Tobin’s neck to see her baby sister there, bright eyed and red cheeked with a smile slowly dying on her face. “Are you okay?”

She nodded, still hugged into Tobin, and lifted an arm out for Mal to take. When she was pulled into the hug too, Mal tapped her cheek, looking quizzically at her. “Are you sure?”

The slightly tipsy tilt to Mal’s tone made her chuckle. “So sure, baby.” She kissed her forehead, mumbling against it. “I promise, promise, promise.”

Mal laughed a little, pulling away and yelping when Tobin tickled the back of her neck. The worry vanished from her face in a second, the gleam in her eyes coming right back in as she gushed excitedly. “Guess what, you gotta come out and hear this.”

“What is it?” Tobin asked, both of them already being pulled out of the kitchen by the tipsy 18 year old.

“Crystal says she wants to get chickens. Chickens! And she’s showing me where in the back yard she’s gonna put them. Isn’t that so funny and great? Can we get chickens too?”

Christen’s smile couldn’t have been bigger.

-

“It’s nice, you know. Seeing her so happy.”

Christen naturally leant into the side hug that Becky offered, as always, finding comfort and direction from the woman she so admired and enjoyed. She followed Becky’s line of sight to where Mal was standing a few yards away, laughing her head off with Crystal as they scrolled through a phone, picking music as the time crept ever closer to midnight.

“It is. It’s the best thing. Though I’m sure a lot of those giggles are alcohol induced.”

Becky laughed, waving her hand. “I’d say she’s doing pretty well. Seems to have found her happy medium. Though I’m sure you are keeping an eye on it,” Further laughter emitted as Christen raised her eyebrows, nodding definitively. “You’re good for letting her drink.”

Shoulders shrugged ever so slightly, Christen contemplating the comment. “I want her to have these experiences in a safe environment. And I want her to know she can know her limits, or trust those around her to help her if she needs.” She grinned. “Plus, I think the only people in any danger tonight are those who get subjected to her and Crystal’s dance offs.”

Becky just gave her a look, that said she knew that all too well. Christen was certain ‘Juju on that beat’ flashbacks were playing through the defender’s mind that very second. “She’s lucky she’s so darn cute.”

Christen knew that all too well, a fond smile on her face. “Oh yeah. She’s got everyone she meets wrapped around her little finger, that’s for sure.”

“You know, after the article came out, we were all really worried about her. About both of you.” Becky spoke gently, the arm she still had wrapped around Christen’s shoulders squeezing her in a bit more. “When Tobin told Pinoe it had been released without anyone’s consent, we were outraged. And I can’t even begin to imagine how you all felt.”

Warmth settled in her chest, like only the feeling of friendship could do, and specifically someone like Becky’s friendship, where Christen often found an anchor for herself. “I know. And thank you, for all the support in that time. You and all the team, your words meant a lot.”

“I feel like we didn’t do enough.” Becky sighed. “We wanted to help, do something, but no one knew how. I wish we could have done more.”

Christen adamantly shook her head, leaning into Becky’s hug more. “You did plenty. Mal was in no state to be talking to anyone, neither was I, really, but having all your messages to read over that next week, and having offers of advice for Mal and just knowing you were there, it’s everything. I promise. You did more than you know. You do more than you know, just by who you are.”

A smile burst on to Becky’s face, a slight red tinge coating her cheeks. “Christen, you’re going to make me cry! You’re the sweetest.” Christen laughed, happiness filling her up. “You know we’ll all look out for her next camp. With reporters, with fans, with anyone overbearing. She’ll always be the youngin, even when she gets older.” Becky laughed, then her tone got lighter. “Though with Tobin around, you really don’t need to worry about anything. If someone says boo around Mal the wrong way she’d have something to say about it.”

Tears sprang to Christen’s eyes from how much Becky was making her laugh, knowing there was absolute truth to that statement. She thought about how strong the bond between Tobin and Mal was, and how protective Tobin was of her. It made her heart ache with joy, much like the song that Mal had just put on did, the piano melody springing through her ears.

“Chrissy! Come on!” Mal yelled from next to the speaker on the outside porch, hands held out as she practically jumped up and down in excitement.

“I’ve be summoned. This is one of our favorite songs. Our parents played it constantly when we were kids and Mal’s obsessed.” Christen said to Becky, both of them making their way outside. Becky grinned as she nudged Christen towards Mal’s outreached arms, and Christen grasped them tightly, immediately bouncing up and down with her sister.

“Sugar pie, honey bunch. You know that I love you!” The two of them sang, Crystal next to them dancing and laughing as well, soon followed by everyone else. “I can’t help myself, I love you and nobody else.”

Christen looked around, immediately seeing Tobin standing there with the biggest, dumbest smile on her face, eyes practically the shape of hearts. She beckoned her over, soon the three of them dancing together with their hands held, bumping into each other and laughing over the top of their very loud singing.

“When I call your name, girl it starts a flame, burning in my heart, tearing it all apart.” Christen kissed Tobin, winking at her as she sang. “No matter how I try, my love I cannot hide.

Tobin soon caught on to the lyrics.

“Sugar pie honey bunch, I’d do anything you ask me to! I can’t help myself, I want you and nobody else.”

“Countdown is 30 seconds away! 2017 here we come!” AD announced, sending a cheer through the group. The song ended to be replaced by one from Queen but nothing could have taken away Christen’s attention from the happiness bursting through her, still gripping the hands of the two people she loved most in the world, jumping and singing and laughing with unbridled joy.

“Ready?” AD called, the rest of the group turning to each other, everyone at different levels of inebriation but all of them feeling the excitement. “Ten! Nine! Eight!”

The anticipation of what a new year would bring.

“Seven! Six! Five!”

The hope for everything good to keep going. The courage to think it could even get better.

“Four! Three!”

All with her loves by her side.

“Two! One! Happy new year!” The group all screamed out loud, somewhere down the road fireworks erupting, Freddie Mercury blasting in the background and two sets of lips planted either side of her cheek.

Christen laughed because the happiness felt like it could literally burst out of her. She wrapped her arms around Tobin and Mal and kissed both their cheeks in return, pulling them into a hug and telling them over and over how much she loved them both.

Then Mal squealed as Crystal wrapped her in a hug from behind, lifting her up off the ground and spinning her around, and then Tobin’s hands were cupping Christen’s cheeks, the smile beaming so bright.

“Happy new year, my love.”

They kissed, bodies completely pressed into each other, Tobin’s soft lips melting against her own and Christen felt so much love she really didn’t know what to do with herself, murmuring the sentiment back to Tobin as she smiled into their kiss again.

If this feeling was any indication of how the rest of her year would go, she could hardly wait to experience it all.

---

It was almost like Mal was a small child again, sitting up in the bed acting like she wasn’t tired when really Christen knew as soon as she closed her eyes she’d be out. She curled a loose strand of hair behind Mal’s ear and gently nudged her shoulder, and just like she predicted Mal complied, laying down with a yawn.

It seemed even a little alcohol couldn’t change that.

“Time to go to sleep, baby love.”

“You’re sleeping too?” The words were spoken through another yawn, Mal shuffling over in the bed and Christen unable to deny her, laying down on her side to face her. They were back from Crystal and Pierre’s house, now, Tobin eating a very late 3am snack in the kitchen while Christen sat with Mal in the bedroom as she was falling asleep.

“Yeah, in a little bit. But I’m going to sleep with Tobin, okay?”

You’re going to sleep with Tobin!” Her words were parroted back to her in a sing song voice, like Mal had heard an elementary school secret, teasing and eyebrows waggling and lord, did this kid make her eyes roll.

Though, two could play at that game.

“You know what? I am going to. And you’re lucky you’re such a heavy sleeper otherwise you’d hear us.”

Wide eyes faced her, then, Mal’s mouth dropping open. “Chris!”

Oh, the dilemma of choosing between playing out the game or bursting into hysterics. “And we’ll start in the bedroom. But we might move to the living room. So I’d be careful where you sit tomorrow.”

“Christen!” Mal slapped her hands over her eyes, as if that would do anything to protect her ears from what her older sister was subjecting them to. Christen started laughing, and Mal pulled the pillow out from under her head, shoving it in Christen’s face with a groan. Every time Christen tried to say another word, Mal sang out loud, drowning her out until she was in hysterics. “Stop it!”

Christen eventually pulled the pillow away, flicking Mal in the forehead before picking her head back up and laying it down on the soft feathers. “Hey, you wanted to play ball.”

“Well, I regret it.” Mal grumbled.

“I’m just teasing, baby.” Christen said, grinning when Mal looked up at her with surprised eyes. “Well, not about the sex. But we’ll contain ourselves to one room.”

Mal glared at her like she would be personally responsible for all her wrinkles. “Your bedroom.” She said, extremely pointedly.

“Yes.”

“Don’t you go tainting that couch.”

Christen hesitated long enough to let Mal know it was too late for her threat. The girl just groaned again, Christen still laughing. “The less you know, the better, Mal.”

“You know what? I’ll happily never speak of this again. This is not the information I wanted to enter the new year with.” Mal shoved at her shoulder, Christen batting her away.

“Okay, loser. Go to sleep.”

She left a kiss on her forehead, and when Mal grinned up at her, tipsy eyes and all, Christen already knew something silly was coming.

“I’ll see you next year.”

She laughed, still. Mal always got her. “It’s already the next year, stupid. You’re a couple of hours too late for that terrible joke.”

Mal shrugged, closing her eyes with the grin still in place. “Dad would have appreciated it.”

“He would have.” Christen said softly, silence sitting in the room, then. Mal shuffled a bit closer, then closer still, until Christen wrapped her arms right around her, both of them laying in a hug.

“Love you forever, Chrissy.”

Her heart ached. “I love you, baby. So, so, so much. You’re my most beautiful thing.”

“Mine too. Always.” Mal said with a smile, looking at her for a few more seconds before closing her eyes. Usually, Christen would start counting down the seconds until she knew her baby sister would be out like a light, but she could see just by her expression that it was going to be different, tonight.

Her tone was knowing, the smile unable to stop pulling her lips up. “Mal.”

One eye peeked open, tipsy and cheeky. “Hey.”

“Hi.” The same knowing tone. The same pull at her lips.

“I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

Two eyes open, now. “More than the sun and the sky and the whole world forever and ever?”

Her heart, already so full, couldn’t possibly get bigger. “All of that times a million.”

Mal’s hands clasped the top of the blanket that she’d pulled right up to under her chin. Christen loves her so much it hurts. “You’re the best person I know. I’m so lucky to be your sister.”

Christen’s throat constricted, the rush of emotions immediately glistening her eyes over. “You are so easy to love, Mal.” She kissed her cheek, knowing the motion of her hand brushing through the top of Mal’s hair would have her asleep in no time. “Sleep now, okay? We’ll see you in the morning. And I love you, baby. So, so much.”

Even though she felt Mal’s breathing even out in less than a minute, she stayed wrapped up with her, basking in the soft new year moment until the door gently opened, Tobin coming in to check on them both.

She felt the bed dip behind her and she turned to the side, taking her arm off Mal. Pursing her lips, Tobin grinned and leant down to kiss her.

“Hi, beautiful.”

“Hi, Tobs.”

“You want to sleep in here tonight?”

There it was. Tobin, being her perfect, unassuming, non-judgmental self. The thing that made Christen feel so safe, so comforted, so happy. Her heart softened at Tobin’s question, because she definitely remembered the suggestive talk they’d had earlier about the new year bedroom ventures they were planning on having. And she knew Tobin did, too. Yet she was so quick to put others before herself.

Christen wanted to cry, she felt so lucky. “No, I was just laying here while she fell asleep.” She clasped their hands together, squeezing softly. “I thought our plans earlier sounded pretty good.”

Tobin grinned, her other hand resting on Christen’s thigh. “Pretty good, huh?”

“Yeah. If you were still up for it.”

“Hmmm.” Tobin pondered out loud, her expression making Christen laugh. “Sex with my girlfriend who is literally the most gorgeous person on the planet. What a hard decision.”

A grin, then. “Considering I didn’t get any better offers tonight, I guess it’ll do.”

“Damn. Sounds like you need to up your game, Press.”

“You can be the judge of that.”

Two pairs of darkening eyes met, then. Tobin bit her bottom lip subconsciously, Christen knowing she was imagining all the possibilities that could mean. Tobin’s hand reached out for Christen to take, both of them getting up off the bed, but not before Christen’s heart melted as Tobin crouched down, kissing Mal’s sleeping head. “Love you, baby. Sweet dreams.”

The second the door to Mal’s bedroom shut, lips were against each other, Christen sliding her hands into the back pockets of Tobin’s jeans as she pressed her against the wall, just outside their own room.

She felt Tobin grin against her lips at the movement of her hands, even more when she full-palm squeezed her butt. Only a few seconds later that grin fell away to an open mouthed moan when Christen slotted her leg in between Tobin’s, the woman’s stance almost buckling and only driving her more down onto Christen’s thigh.

“Love you so much.” Christen whispered, kissing along Tobin’s neck to the underside of her ear. One of her hands had left her jeans to trail up and down the skin across her back, sensitive and teasing, making Tobin emit the little whining sounds Christen was so weak for.

Tobin’s head hit the wall with a soft thump as Christen’s thigh continued to move between her legs. “Love you, Chris, I – fuck.” She pulled aimlessly at Christen, at her shirt, whining and needing and Christen got it.

“I know, beautiful.” She murmured against Tobin’s lips, nipping at the bottom one. “I know what you want. Know you can’t wait to come.” Her hands moved from behind her to instead trail up Tobin’s abs, ghosting over her bra, two fingers pinching nipples and Tobin only whined more.

Chris.”

She felt Tobin grind down on her thigh and she knew her own restraint wouldn’t be able to last long now. Reluctantly pulling away from her, she took her hand, kissing the palm of it before nodding, a gentle tug down the hall.

Like a trance, Tobin followed her, entering their own room and letting Christen guide her to the bed. Tobin’s eyes must have been as hooded as her own, Christen immediately kneeling above her on the bed, desperate to feel her lips back on her own.

She finally relented to Tobin’s attempts at getting her own shirt removed, pulling Tobin’s off after along with her jeans. Tobin was melting under every kiss she laid on her skin, Christen’s grin getting lost in the movement of her lips every time she sucked against Tobin’s sweet spots, licked across her gentle bites, made her move closer to coming undone.

She could feel how wet Tobin was even before her boxers were removed. When she lay on her stomach, head resting for a moment against the inside of Tobin’s open thighs which her arms had curled around, she waited for Tobin’s eyes to open and look at her.

Tobin made a noise half way between a laugh and a groan when she did, her body twitching just at the look on Christen’s face, at the way she knew she was about to be ruined in the best way.

“Nobody’s ever made me feel like you do, Chris.”

Even though Christen had the upper hand in the situation, seconds away from turning Tobin into a writhing mess, she blushed at her whisper, turning her had to the side and kissing the soft skin of Tobin’s thigh.

“I love you.”

“Love you so much.”

This time Christen’s kiss didn’t stop at only one place, instead trailing right up Tobin’s leg, ghosting teasingly across where she wanted her the most and back down the other thigh. Tobin’s laugh-groan was back, her hand coming to rest in Christen’s hair.

If the way Tobin’s body was reacting to every touch, Christen knew this first one wouldn’t take long. But she had no intention to stop there, and the thought made her smirk against Tobin’s skin more.

“Chris, please, please touch me.” Tobin whined, unconsciously gripping Christen’s hair tighter and it only made Christen’s smirk deepen. She finally relented, moving her grip up to Tobin’s waist as she laid a kiss an inch below her bellybutton, looking up to meet her eyes.

“Happy new year, pretty girl.”

-

The thing Christen had always loved about Tobin, the thing she had only grown to love more, was the comfort and peace she found in the quiet. In being still. In what that meant for the moment, actually appreciating it.

Her norm used to be living in a headspace that felt like it never switched off. Always something to worry about. Always something to plan for. Numbers swirled, bank accounts too low, debt too high. She stressed about Mal. She stressed because Mal could see she was stressed. It never stopped. It never seemed like it would.

Everything felt impossible before she got Tobin back. Before she found someone to anchor her. To give her the chance to get her feet on the ground. To give her the hand that had been out of reach for so long. To help her see she was capable of living, really living. Not just surviving to the next day.

Her head started to slow down. The thoughts stopped screaming. The nightmares came, but they were less frequent. Less debilitating. They didn’t have a hold on her anymore.

How could they, when Tobin held her instead?

Her lips pressed against the skin on Tobin’s collarbone, feeling goosebumps form in her wake. The heart beat that had been moving at allegro slowly began to quiet, Christen’s fingers drumming the steadying beat against Tobin’s abs as her head lay on her chest.

It could have been any time of the morning. She wouldn’t have been surprised to hear the birds start chirping. They hadn’t slept, “not since last year” – Christen had just rolled her eyes knowing why Tobin and Mal got on so well. But neither of them were in a rush to leave the moment. To slip out of the consciousness of the pleasure they had driven each other to, into the still of the recovery, limbs tangled together.  

“What do you hope for this year, Chris?”

She felt the murmur more than she heard it, smiling against Tobin’s chest at the way it reverberated on the side of her head. “This.” Her hand lay flat across Tobin’s stomach, pulling herself in tighter. Tobin laughed, suggestively, because of course she did, and Christen’s eyes rolled even though she expected it. “I just gave you three orgasms, Heath, get your mind out of the gutter.”

“Never.”

“What I meant,” Christen tickled Tobin’s stomach slightly, making the other woman yelp, “Was I just want this. All of us together. You, me, Mal, and all the other people who made our lives so great this last year. I want us to be happy, and thrive. And I want us to be able to give the love we have so much of to others, too.”

She could tell Tobin was smiling without seeing her. “I really like that.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

She moved closer, impossibly. “What do you hope for, my love?”

“You.” The answer was so quick. Without thinking. A blush rose to her cheeks, and she kissed Tobin’s chest again before turning sideways, meeting her eyes. Even in the dark they shone with her smile. “This, too. Happiness. It’s what I’ve prayed for. And I always will. No more worries. Mal, thriving like she should.”

She felt Tobin take her hand and kiss the palm, holding it against her cheek reverently as she murmured into the air. “Sometimes I love you so much I don’t know what to do with myself. I never thought I could fall in love with someone so deeply.” The words Tobin spoke brushed against Christen’s fingers, pressing them gently against her lips as she did. “I thank God for you every single day, Christen.”

Tears had never spilt from Christen’s eyes so fast. Tobin squeezed her hand like she knew, because of course she did. Somersaults flipped inside Christen’s chest, the strongest most overwhelming feeling of joy rushing through her. This couldn’t be her life. She couldn’t be this lucky.

“I love you with every fiber of my being, Tobin. 2016 was the craziest year of my life, and that’s saying something.” Tobin laughed under her and kissed her palm again.  “So many highs and so many lows but it was all perfect. Everything. And the fact that we’re here together and we get to do it all again this year, and every year…” The lump in Christen’s throat was swallowed down. “All with you by my side.”

“For as long as you’ll have me.”

Christen smiled knowingly. Always the charmer. “Forever, Tobs. And then some.”

“Forever?” A yawn peeped out of Tobin’s mouth. “That sounds perfect.”

Perfect, Christen thought, laying her head on Tobin’s chest, a deep exhale and she was happy to her bones. Her eyes closed, and outside the first bird of the first morning of 2017 chirped. She smiled.

Yeah. Perfect.