This Chapter: Betty and Daniel enjoy their very different Christmas experiences; old wounds are opened; new ones are healed…
A/N: All right, this is hopefully a slightly more interesting chapter, although it's still mostly filler before the good stuff starts again in the next chapter. Still, at least something happens in this one, so it's better than the last one for that reason. ;) Still no D/B interaction, though; be patient, my lovelies.
Chapter Five: My Demons, I Clothe Them
25th December, 2007
Christmas morning at the Suarez house was the usual affair of raucous present-opening, delicious-smelling food cooking in the kitchen, and holiday-season television. As Betty had described, Justin had woken the entire household at 5.00am, been sent back to bed by Hilda, and tried again three hours later. They had indulged in a large breakfast, opened their presents, and were now milling around waiting for Ignacio to finish preparing dinner.
Justin was engrossed in a book about the history of Broadway and wearing the matching hat and scarf which Betty had picked out for him, despite the warmth of the house, whilst Hilda was eagerly reading the instructions on a lethal-looking pair of styling tongs with various attachments that her family had clubbed together to buy for her. Ignacio had received some shiny new cooking utensils and a novelty apron – which he was already putting to good use – and a mix CD from his grandson proclaiming to be a 'starter kit' in his apparent upcoming initiation into the wonderful world of musical theatre.
Betty had also received thoughtful gifts from her family. She, too, had been given a mix CD from Justin, although the songs were different. He had named it his "chicks' mix"; Betty couldn't decide if he'd inherited her flair for wordplay, or merely his mother's bad punning. From her sister, there were some girly bath things and a piece of paper reading "I.O.U. 1 tree", whilst her father had bought her a recipe book. ("You'll have to learn eventually," he'd explained.)
The joyfulness of the day, however, was marred by the single remaining gift that sat unopened and forlorn beneath the pink glow of the tree. The small box seemed to Betty to be silently mocking her with its continued presence. Her present for her boss had been sitting under the tree since its purchase a week ago; her present for Henry was under Henry's tree at his apartment, to open on his return from Charlie's parents. She couldn't help but feel that there should be a present waiting for her from Daniel, and all thoughts of the presumptuousness of this sentiment were overshadowed by her misery at his departure.
Twenty-four hours had been and gone since the Staircase Incident, and she had not yet plucked up the courage to contact him. For the same reason, her cellphone had remained off for the duration of Christmas Eve, and would doubtless remain so until at least January. (She wasn't sure if Daniel had her home number, but had eventually decided that unplugging the landline was taking things too far, not to mention unfair on her family.)
As much as Betty knew that she and Daniel needed to talk, she simply couldn't find the nerve to make the first move. She suspected that Daniel was feeling just as anxious and awkward about what had happened, if not even more so, and it was really his issues that were clouding things. Betty was quite clear about how she felt; what she wasn't sure was how Daniel felt.
Except, of course, he'd made it more than obvious. She wasn't exactly experienced in such things, but Betty knew the difference between a chaste kiss between friends and something which implied more, and Daniel's kiss – as brief as it had been – was most definitely not the former. She remembered with absolute clarity how close he had drawn to her, the way her breath had hitched in her throat in fearful anticipation, and that split second on contact when she'd almost forgotten herself…
"Betty, are you okay?" Hilda's voice snapped her back to the present. "You seem to've gone red."
She now realised a blush had risen in her cheeks, and covered her face self-consciously with both hands.
"I'm just warm", she said. "I think I'll get some water."
A minute later her head was enveloped in the soothing coolness of the refrigerator, and this, too, was painfully familiar. She mentally cursed Daniel for completely invading her brain, and made an executive decision in that moment. He wasn't going to ruin her Christmas any more.
"I'm going to call Henry."
So saying, she closed the refrigerator door with determination, and headed for the telephone.
Daniel paused with his hand on the doorlatch, as he talked himself in and out of leaving the apartment for the sixth time. As anticipated, his drunken decision the previous night to turn up unannounced at Betty's house now seemed considerably less plausible. There was always a chance he could save the situation before he made it worse. He had yet to decide, however, whether seeing her would save them, or condemn them.
With a final, decisive nod, he finally pulled open the door.
He had barely stepped over the threshold when the phone began to ring. He considered ignoring it and carrying on, but was struck by the notion that it might be Betty. She did, after all, have an uncanny ability to read his mind, and it would be just like her to call up at exactly the right time. But it seemed Daniel wanted to surprise her more desperately than he'd thought, if his hesitation was anything to go by. After dithering about it for another five rings, he then closed the door again and ran to answer it.
"Yes? I'm here, don't hang up!"
"It's me, Daniel." His sister's voice greeted his ears. Trying to suppress his disappointment, he attempted to sound nonchalant.
"No need to sound so disappointed."
Damn. She had an uncanny knack of being able to see – or, in this case, hear – right through him. What was it about all the women in his life that they could do that?
"Sorry. I was… expecting someone else."
"Mom," she surmised. He didn't argue with her, and Alexis took his silence as affirmation, continuing with an explanation. "She was only allowed one phonecall today and she decided to use it on me."
"I see." That made sense to Daniel. Last Christmas, Claire only had one son left, so obviously this year she wanted to lavish as much attention as possible on Alexis. Still, he felt a pang of jealousy.
"She told me to tell you to get your butt over to my place and spend Christmas with me," instructed Alexis. She was met with silence from the younger Meade. "So that's what I'm doing."
"I'd rather not," said Daniel. "I… I have somewhere I need to be."
"Somewhere so important you need to go there on Christmas Day?"
"Cut the crap, Danny." She gave an exasperated sigh of impatience. "Okay, look… Mom's right. With things the way they are right now, we should spend Christmas with what little family we have left, and that just leaves the two of us… I know things have been difficult, Daniel, but… come on, what do you say?"
Daniel knew she was talking sense, and that annoyed him more than if she'd been wrong. He put his hand in his pocket and grasped the small present he'd bought for Betty, and which he'd been intending to take over to her house. Perhaps it wasn't such a good idea. She probably needed more time, and if he was honest, so did he.
"I'll see you in an hour."
Alexis offered a phrase of thanks, but it was lost to him putting the receiver down. Heaving a sigh, he moved to a drawer and pulled out another small, wrapped item and a card, placed them into his pocket, and headed to the front door. With Betty's present still in his other pocket, he stepped out into the hallway and closed the door behind him.
Betty had settled herself snugly at the top of the staircase so as not to be disturbed whilst making her phonecall. She clutched a scrap of paper in one hand, upon which was scribbled the telephone number of Charlie's parents' home in Tucson. Betty had written it down grudgingly, still annoyed by Henry's announcement, but was now quite glad that she had.
Nevertheless, she had been sitting there for nearly five minutes without managing to dial the number. She didn't want to run the risk of speaking to Charlie, because she wasn't sure she'd be able to hold her tongue. Equally, she wasn't sure how to explain who she was when Charlie's parents answered and inevitably wanted to know.
Okay, Betty. Come on. Just dial.
She took a deep breath and quickly punched the numbers into the handset, and held her breath as the other end rang. Once; twice; three times. She chewed on her bottom lip, half of her hoping nobody would answer, and the other half desperately wanting to speak to Henry now that she'd made the decision to do so.
Another five rings sounded in her ear and she let out her held breath in a sigh of frustration. Just as she was about to hang up, a male voice picked up.
"Hello and a very merry Christmas to whoever is calling!"
The voice sounded cheerfully inebriated, and Betty could just about hear the sounds of a family Christmas in the background. Momentarily stunned by the man's telephone manner, Betty hesitated, then decided to get it over with.
"Um, hello… is Henry there?"
"Why, yes, he is. Who may I say is calling?"
"It's… it's Betty. Um. I'm his, uh… cousin." She cringed; she was a terrible liar. Luckily enough, the man (whom she assumed to be Charlie's father) didn't seem to notice.
"I'll just go and get him."
She heard the receiver being placed down onto a hard surface and presumably-Charlie's-father called Henry's name. Betty could only imagine the look on Charlie's face as her name was mentioned, and it gave her some small pleasure to know that she'd given her a little taste of her own medicine.
The receiver was picked up again, and Henry's voice filtered through.
"Hi, Henry, it's me."
He started to speak in a somewhat hushed whisper. "What are you doing? I thought I said only to ring me in an emergency."
Betty's throat felt slightly tighter, but she smiled down the receiver to keep up a front. "It's Christmas," she said. "I missed you."
When Henry spoke again, he seemed a little more relaxed. "I know, I miss you, too, but… Betty, I can't really talk right now."
"Oh, I know, I just… wanted to hear your voice." I'm having a horrible Christmas, she wanted to say, but the reason why would not make the best conversation.
"I'm sorry about this…" said Henry, for what seemed to Betty to be the millionth time. "I'd much rather be there with you." There was an empty pause. "How is everyone?"
"Oh, we're all great," she said. "It's nice and relaxed. Plus, I have the rest of the holiday off. Daniel shut down the magazine for Christmas."
"That's good," he said. "I was worried you were working too hard."
"Hey, that reminds me. Someone gave me this really good idea for when you get back…"
Betty explained Daniel's idea of celebrating Christmas despite the day having passed, but didn't indicate that it was his idea. The mere mention of his name earlier had seemed to cause an automatic meltdown in Henry's meagre conversational tone, and she didn't want to get into another pointless argument. She had hoped her telephone call would be better received, but was now beginning to feel decidedly stupid for not realising that he wouldn't be able to talk to her with Charlie nearby.
She paused hopefully, and Henry answered. "Hmm… Yeah. That does sound like a good idea. But it'll have to be before the sixth, because I don't like having the tree up past then… it's bad luck."
"Fair enough…" Henry would be back before then; they'd have plenty of time.
With Henry accepting the idea, she was starting to feel a little cheerier and settled back to have a chat with him, except then he hastily said, "Hold on a second," and seemed to cover the receiver with his hand. The next exchange was fuzzy, but she could just barely hear it.
"Henry, dearest, we're about to serve dessert," said Charlie's voice, dangerously chirpy, seeming to come from some distance away.
"I'll be right there, honey," he said back.
Betty knew it was a front. He was just playing the role of the dutiful boyfriend, father of the impending grandchild, pleasant Christmas guest… but nevertheless, the endearment sliced like a knife through her heart. When he addressed her again, her thoughts of a pleasant conversation, no matter how brief, were dashed.
"I… I have to go."
"Okay." She felt her eyes brim with tears, but somehow managed to hold them back.
He didn't seem to hear the tremor in her voice. "I'll see you soon."
"'Bye." She paused. "And Merry Christm-" The line went dead.
Charlie had been watching, Betty knew. Waiting for Henry to slip up and say something incriminating like "I love you"… but nevertheless, Betty felt stung and heartbroken that he hadn't said anything. Henry's "honey" kept ringing in her ears like a playground taunt, and despite her best efforts a ragged sob escaped from her throat. She brought her knees to her chest and buried her head in her arms in an effort to stifle it, but her grief seemed to go unnoticed, as, from below, the sounds of her family enjoying Christmas floated up through the banister. Justin's excited giggles as he discovered something interesting in his book; Hilda commentating on the television show; her father humming as he cooked.
Betty felt overwhelmingly alone.
She reached into her pocket for her cell phone and flipped it open, her thumb hovering over the power button. Her distraught mind registered only that she needed to hear a friendly voice, tell someone her problems… but her innate selflessness immediately discouraged her from ringing Christina at a time like this. Besides which, turning on the phone brought with it the associated fear of Daniel's imminent contact.
She snapped the device shut again and cast it aside, quickly followed by the now screwed-up paper bearing Charlie's parents' number. She desperately needed a hug. Her anguished brain felt too big for her skull, the pressure almost unbearable. All she could think about was Daniel's tender gesture at the office when she'd told him about Henry, Daniel walking with her to the house, Daniel helping with the washing up, Daniel sitting beside her on the stairs, Daniel kissing her and then walking away…
Betty glanced at the front door and willed it to open, willed him to walk back through as though nothing had happened… It remained firmly closed. She ran to her bedroom and soaked her pillow with bitter tears for the second time in as many days, whilst her family continued oblivious to her plight. After all – she didn't want to worry them.
Alexis's earlier suspicion that there was something wrong with her brother was confirmed by his arrival half an hour or so later. After buzzing him up to her apartment and waiting by the front door for him to emerge from the elevator, it was plainly obvious that a black cloud had followed him all the way from his own building to hers. Ordinarily she would have made some kind of snarky comment about it, but the look on his face indicated they'd both end up having a horrible time if she did. Besides: it was Christmas.
"Come on in," she said, waving him through. Daniel trudged over the threshold and shrugged out of his coat, which Alexis took and hung on a nearby hook. For a moment, he didn't say a word. That is, until a timer began beeping from another room and distracted him.
"I'll be right back," said Alexis, running off to attend to the timer and whatever was cooking. "Make yourself at home."
At this point, Daniel finally took in his surroundings, realising that he'd never seen Alexis's apartment before. It was quite the opposite he would ever have expected of his brother; despite the minimalist décor (which was clearly a trend in designers these days) there were definite female touches: a vase of flowers, softer colours, voile at the windows instead of Venetian blinds, and the smell of a home-cooked dinner wafting from the kitchen.
Or rather, the smell of a home-burnt one.
A distinctive "Dammit!" emanated from the other room and Daniel allowed himself to smirk. Clearly Alexis wasn't as confident a chef as she was a born leader.
She emerged again wearing a pair of oven mitts and an expression of annoyed disappointment.
"I hope you like your vegetables crispy."
"I'm sure they're fine."
"They're as black as Wilhelmina's soul," she proffered. "It's your call."
The smirk turned into a small laugh, Daniel's dark mood starting to lift. Alexis pointed him in the direction of the living area and sat him down on the couch.
"The rest of lunch will hopefully be ready in an hour," she told him. "Do you want a drink? I've got pretty much everything."
Daniel's mouth was still slightly fuzzy from the previous night's wine. "Water would be fine for now," he said. "Thanks."
Whilst Alexis busied herself with getting him a drink, Daniel continued his visual appraisal of her living space. The lounge area was similar in style to the rest of the apartment, with a soft rug on the floor and a couple of bookcases with actual books on them. The television was off, but he noticed for the first time the sound of quiet Christmas music coming from the expensive-looking entertainment system.
There was a small but well-decorated tree in one corner, adorned with coloured lights and a fairy on top, and a small array of presents underneath its branches.
When his sister returned with a glass of water, he said, "You didn't go to all this trouble just for me, did you?"
She sipped her own drink, some kind of cocktail. "Some of us still have our Christmas spirit, Daniel. I admit I wasn't going to cook a full-blown dinner just for myself, but… well, Mom wants us to have a family Christmas, and I'm trying my best."
He gave a nod. "Did she sound okay?"
"As good as can be expected, I guess." With a smile, she added, "Her dinner will probably be nicer than ours, at this rate."
"Do you need any help?"
Alexis gave him a look. "I think I'm more than capable of poisoning us on my own, thank you." At that, Daniel rolled his eyes. His older sibling would always doubt his abilities, even when they were meant to be nice to each other.
Alexis joined him on the couch.
"So," she said, "what was so desperately important that you nearly blew me off?"
He shrugged. "Nothing. It doesn't matter."
"It was a lot more important than 'nothing' earlier," she reminded him. "Plus you were giving the Grinch a run for his money yesterday. Come on, Daniel… what's going on?"
He sighed. Alexis was incredibly perceptive, and if he didn't tell her, there was a likelihood she would wheedle clues out of him until she could adequately guess. It would be quicker and less painful to just tell her.
"It's Betty," he said.
"What about Betty?"
"I suppose it's not really Betty," he said, trying to avoid the subject as long as possible. "It's me, I suppose."
"Why, what have you done?" When an answer wasn't forthcoming, Alexis – as anticipated – tried to guess. "You didn't fire her, did you?"
"What? No, of course not. I'm not a complete Scrooge. It's just… complicated."
Alexis considered that the majority of Daniel's situations were complicated, and this was just par for the course. "You wanna start at the beginning? It usually helps…"
He frowned at her sarcastic tone; she was pulling out all the stops to get him to open up, including her favourite tactic of irritating him. With a deep breath, he recounted the events of the past couple of days. He attempted to skim quickly over the incident on Betty's staircase, but Alexis caught the relevant point in the midst of his ramble.
"Whoa, back up. You kissed her?"
"Did I say that? I can't have said that…"
Alexis spoke in a warning tone. "Daniel…"
"All right. Yes. Fine. I kissed Betty. She pushed me away, and then I left."
"Huh. Okay then." Alexis seemed to ponder this for a while. Then, suddenly, she punched him hard in the arm.
"Ow! What was that for?"
His sister set into a tirade, her hands flailing manically to indicate her point. "Okay, first of all, you never kiss and tell. Second of all, Betty's a sweet girl who doesn't need Daniel 'Wandering Hands' Meade trying to grope her in the middle of the night. And third of all, WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?" She punched him again.
He flinched, rubbing his arm. "I don't know. I wasn't thinking. Also, I wasn't trying to grope her, thank you very much." He gulped down a mouthful of water. "I just… I couldn't sleep, and apparently nor could Betty."
"So you thought you'd keep yourself entertained with one of your usual night-time activities?" She raised an arm to punch him a third time, but Daniel moved out of the way.
"Would you stop that? You're not my big brother any more, Alexis. It's not exactly ladylike."
"I'm fighting for the side, here," she explained. "Now stop avoiding the subject and sit back down."
"Are you going to stop hitting me?"
She folded her arms and pouted a little sulkily. "Fine…"
Cautiously, Daniel sat back down on the couch, an inch or so further away from his sister. "She was just… everywhere," he explained. "I only wanted to talk to her, but it was like… I don't know. Suddenly there was this fist in my chest squeezing all the air out of my lungs, and Betty and her family had been so good to me, and there was this… this moment of total clarity. You know?"
Alexis stared at him, curiosity in her gaze. She had never heard her kid brother talk like this before, and there was a side of him emerging which had never seen the light of day. Of course, she had heard about the Sofia incident before her release from the clinic, but she didn't recall Daniel reacting like this about it.
"What are you telling me?" she asked.
Luckily enough for Daniel, his 'moment of total clarity' had lingered long past its sell by date. When he next spoke, it was with enough conviction to shock Alexis into momentary silence.
"I'm in love with her, Alexis. I'm in love with Betty."
To be continued…
A/N: I thought the Daniel/Alexis sequence was going to be much more difficult to write, but it was actually kind of fun. :) Sibling rivalry; don't you love it?
Anyway. I apologise again for the lack of Dettyness, but this is the last of the 'filler' chapters. The good stuff starts in chapter six, I promise. Also, I know I promised a while ago that Henry wouldn't appear in the fic in person, but he was unfortunately necessary in this chapter; still, at least he was only on the phone with Betty. He may appear very briefly later on, but it will only be brief. Honest! crosses heart
Sooo… yeah. Review, m'dears.