It’s late in the evening; he doesn’t leave until four the next morning, but he’s already said his goodbyes and wants at least some sleep. His room is a mess, clothes and other belongings strewn across every surface as he tries to decide what to pack and what to leave. Most of it is obvious choices; he doesn’t need more than one sweater or coat, but plenty of t-shirts and rugged shorts; it doesn’t get cold in West Africa, not like it does here. He also makes sure to throw in a pot of Folgers; it’s damn near impossible to get decent coffee while working out there.
As he stuffs it into his case something else catches his eye. It’s a small red bow, the cheap stick-on kind, stuck to the corner of a photo of him and Catherine on his bedside table. It was never meant to mean anything; he bought the thing last-minute at the airport as a quick way to spruce up his Christmas present to her. But when he gave it to her she smiled in that way only she could, that way that made his heart leap, and stuck it on his sweater, declaring that he was her present this year.
He wore it all Christmas Day, a blatant symbol of their affection, something more concrete than just lingering gazes and gentle brushing of hands, but one that their parents would never suspect. And in the few days since he kept it carefully, ready to take back with him as a memento. He gave up long ago trying to forget his feelings for her while out in Africa, and now he looks forwards to having a reminder of her with him.
There is a knock at the door. He sits up, not needing to reply, and it creaks open to reveal her standing there. Her hands are clasped together, and her smile is small and sad. She is always like this when he has to leave, and he frowns at the sight.
“Brother?” she asks. He forces a smile.
“Can I talk to you?” Her voice is quiet, hushed, for fear of waking their parents. It’s a routine he knows well.
“Always,” he returns, sitting up onto the bed and patting the messy covers beside him. She plops herself down beside, gently leaning into him. One of her hands worms its way into his, and she sighs.
“I’m going to miss you, you know?”
“You always do,” he says warmly, gently squeezing her hand.
“How much do your friends know about me?” she asks softly. “Out in Africa?”
“They don’t.” His voice is warm, but there’s something guarded in it.
“Really?” she scoffs with mock offence. “That’s not like you. What happened to telling everyone about how great your sister is?”
“They know I have a sister,” he says quietly, “But that’s it. I don’t want them to know too much, in case…”
“In case they start to suspect things?” she suggests.
“Something like that.” He puts his free arm around her. She leans in closer, breath warm on his neck, something bittersweet on her face. He wishes they could stay like this, two halves of one whole, and he knows she feels the same way. It’s a comfortable place to be, and slowly the bitterness fades from her face.
She leans up; their lips meet for a brief moment, quick and chaste but full of love for each other, and then they are apart again, hand-in-hand, still snuggled together, hearts pounding and faces flushed. It’s all they dare do here, with the threat of discovery ever-present. They both want so much more, but neither has the courage to try.
“Brother?” He looks down; she isn’t smiling anymore. He squeezes her hand again, offering gentle reassurance. She takes a deep breath. “Take me with you? When you go back?”
He blinks and inhales sharply, taken aback for a moment. Deep down he has wanted to hear those words for a long time, but it takes a second for the reality to even process in his mind. He finally looks back; she is biting her lip, an old nervous habit, and her eyes are pleading.
“You said nobody out there knows me,” she says quietly. “There would be no mom, no dad. We could actually be ourselves; not siblings, just…”
“Us,” he finishes, breaking into a smile. “Sister, you have no idea how long I’ve wanted you to say that.” Her eyes go wide. “Why do you think I’ve kept you a secret out there?”
He doesn’t have time to say anything more before her hands are on his cheeks and her lips on his. For a moment he is too stunned even to think, but as his brain catches up and he realises what she is doing he starts to kiss her back. It’s different from last time; it’s something rawer, no longer bound by fear. It’s love and elation and excitement all wrapped in one, and it goes on until they both have to break apart for air. She is grinning ear to ear, bright red and giddy with excitement, and all he can think is how cute she looks and how much love he feels. Wrong or not, this is what he wants for as long as she’ll give it.
“I love you,” she whispers.
“I love you more,” he replies. She fake-pouts, reaching over to the bedside table. Her hand whips forwards, pressing against his chest, and he hears the crinkle and knows exactly what she’s done.
“See?” she chuckles. “I told you you were going to be my present this year!”
“Shhh!” He has to fight not to laugh himself. “Don’t wake them! You need to go and pack.”
“I already did,” she admits, looking up at him with a sly smile. He puts his arm back around her, feeling her melt into his side. She reaches up with one hand, gently tracing patterns around the ribbon on his chest with a finger.
“How long have you been planning this?” he asks.
“Since last time you left,” she whispers. “I didn’t want us to be apart anymore.”
“Then from now on, we won’t be.”