Gasping for breath Veronica sat up in bed, hindered by her sheet that wrapped around her neck and bound her arms. She untangled herself and took deep breaths, trying to slow her rapidly drumming heart.
She glanced at her bedside clock which read 7:00am. It was morning.
"It must've been a dream," she muttered as she got up.
Looking at herself in the bathroom mirror, she couldn't help but think the red marks around her throat looked more like they had been made by a large pair of hands rather than her cotton sheets, but she shrugged it off as being paranoid.
After freshening up, she shuffled into the kitchen, greeted with a nudge from Backup who wanted to go out. Clipping his leash on, she was throwing on her jacket when she noticed something. There were cookies missing from the racks. Shortbread and sugar cookies. The exact ones that Felix had been eating.
She knew those cookies had been there before she went to bed. And the only other possible culprit was Backup who wouldn't have been so dainty as to only take a few.
There was one way to be sure.
Wallace was decidedly NOT happy to be awoken at quarter after seven on Christmas morning. "Mars, this had better be damn good, otherwise I'm going to kick your ass."
"Merry Christmas to you, too, Sunshine." He grunted in response. "Look, easy question and then you can go back to sleep. Did my dad send you a text message last night?"
"What? Oh, yeah, he did. What did you end up doing, by the way?"
Her father did text Wallace. Felix ate the cookies. Lamb gave killing her the old college try. All signs were pointing to the dream being real which was so freaky she couldn't even wrap her head around it.
"Veronica?" Wallace prompted.
"Oh, yeah, I didn't do anything. Look, I'd better take Backup out before he loses control. I'll talk to you in a couple of hours, okay?"
Wallace sounded very bewildered. "Yeah, okay. Talk to you then."
If the dreams were real then it meant she was getting a second chance. A chance to change things, make them better, and make sure some things never happened.
But first things first. Heeding Backup's insistent nudges, she took him outside and let him take care of his business. Then they got into the car to go to the beach so he could run around for awhile. While he ran up and down the deserted beach, chasing seagulls, and splashing in the cold water, Veronica did some planning.
Once he tired himself out, Veronica took him back home, put the turkey in the oven and assessed what she had in the fridge. Then she headed back out.
First stop was Weevil's apartment. She had to buzz twice before she got a gruff, "What?" from the intercom.
"Merry Christmas, Mr. Navarro."
"Yeah, can I come up."
"Uh, sure." The door buzzed a second later and she went up to his fifth floor apartment.
He was waiting in the hallway wearing an undershirt and sweats, yawning and glaring at the same time. "Fuck, V, it's Christmas morning. I'm off the clock."
"I'm not here for work," she said, pushing past him into his apartment. "I'm here for a favour."
He closed the door with a roll of his eyes. "Of course you are."
Tilting her head at him, she smiled. "It's a small favour, really. I need you to bring chairs."
"To what?" he asked, gruffly.
"Christmas dinner. My place. Tonight."
"I don't need a pity invite, Veronica."
She had a feeling it would go like this. "It's not a pity invite, vato. I just want your bubbly personality and shining face there."
His face went from pissed off to weary. "Look, I appreciate it, but I don't think I'd be very good company today, all right?" He rubbed the back of his neck and Veronica noticed the bandages on his hand.
Not wanting to tip him off that she knew exactly how he got his injuries because there would be no way to explain that, she just gestured at his hand. "You okay?"
"What?" He looked down at his hands and chuckled. "Oh yeah, just got in a fight with my car."
"Don't you know better than to fight someone who weighs a tonne and is made of metal?" she admonished.
"Hey, you should see the other guy."
"I'm sure." This was going to require some humility. "Okay, Weevil, this is the deal. My dad got stuck in Chicago which is the reason we didn't come over last night." She figured a little white lie wouldn't hurt.
"You could have come without him," he pointed out.
"Yes, but that would have interrupted my pity party. I was feeling very sorry for myself, you see. But today, instead of feeling sorry for myself, I want to spend time with my friends. And for better or worse, that includes you."
He laughed at that. "All right, I'll think about it. What time does dinner start?"
"I'm thinking five. But if you do decide to come over, maybe you could come a little early and help me set up? I have to figure out how to fit nine people into my living room. You're much better at the whole spatial relation thing than I am." It never hurt to butter him up. That, and if he knew she needed his help, he was almost guaranteed to show up. He'd never leave her hanging.
"All right." He followed her to the door. "Merry Christmas, Miss Mars."
She whipped a candy cane from her pocket and proffered it to him. "Feliz Navidad, homie."
He took the candy, shaking his head grinning. "Later."
After she left Weevil's, still unsure whether he would show up or not, but having a good feeling about it, she drove over to Mac and Parker's off-campus apartment. Nearly everyone that lived there were students, and so it was usually jumping with activity, not unlike the dorms. Christmas morning found it silent with most of it's inhabitants gone home. Parker was in the midst of another fight with her parents so she decided to spend the holidays with Mac, instead.
She knocked on their door, but got no response. Wondering if they maybe decided to stay at Mac's parents' place for Christmas, she knocked again before the door was thrown open by an unusually grumpy-looking Parker.
"Hey Parker, Merry Christmas."
Parker nodded in acknowledgment, and gestured for Veronica to come in, following her when Veronica headed for Mac's room. Parker headed straight for the armchair in the corner of Mac's room while Veronica sat on her bed, bouncing up and down a little.
"If you don't stop that," came Mac's muffled voice from under her pillow, "I will have to kill you."
"Someone's being naughty and Santa won't leave her anything," Veronica said as she continued to bounce.
Mac whipped her pillow off her head and threw it at Veronica. "Why do you hate me?"
"Nothin' but love here," Veronica responded, catching the pillow. "What are you guys doing today?"
"Brunch at my mom's in – " Mac looked at her cellphone, "Well, we're supposed to be there in fifteen minutes but I think we'll be late. After that, nothing."
"Excellent," Veronica said, tenting her fingers. "Be at my house at five o'clock, and if you can steal some of your mother's buns, even better."
"What for?" Parker asked..
"Christmas dinner, of course."
Mac sat up and looked at Veronica carefully. "Are you feeling okay?" she asked seriously.
Veronica couldn't help but grin. Apparently her friends were going to need time to adjust to her new friendly, social self. "I'm fine. Just full of Yuletide cheer."
She got up and went to the door. "So I'll see both of you at five?"
Parker was now sitting straight up in the chair, fully awake, also looking at Veronica like she'd grown another head. "Sure. Sounds fun."
"Merry Christmas," Veronica said, and tossed them each a candy cane before she left.
The next stop was going to be the hardest and for a minute Veronica considered just skipping it entirely, especially as she had to pause at home to baste between the stops, but she was trying to turn over a new leaf and she figured that included even the more troublesome parts of the leaf.
Surprisingly, Logan and Dick were actually awake when she got to the penthouse. The latter answered the door, didn't even acknowledge Veronica, just turned around and shouted, "Logan, Santa dropped off your lump of coal."
"Merry Christmas to you too, Dick," she said, following him in.
Logan came into the main room, carrying a half-full garbage bag. When he saw Veronica, he looked downright shocked. "Hey."
"Hey," she said, feeling incredibly uncomfortable.
Setting down the garbage bag, he awkwardly came towards her. "What's up?"
"Just checking to see if you and Dick have plans for tonight."
He shrugged. "Not really. Just to order in a pizza and play some Guitar Hero. Why?"
It was probably too late to change her mind. Still, Veronica felt one last shred of misgiving before she soldiered forward. "I'm having some people over for Christmas dinner tonight. I was wondering if you'd like to join us." She tried to hide a sigh. "Dick, too, if he behaves himself."
Logan sent her a shy grin, one that used to fill her with butterflies but now just gave her a warm, nostalgic twinge. "You sure?"
She smiled back. "Yeah, I'm sure."
"We'll be there."
"Great." She headed for the door, with Logan following close behind. "Hey, bring Guitar Hero, too. Mac tells me she's unbeatable. I want to see her kick everyone's asses."
He shook his head in wonder. "She's not lying. Dick thinks she's secretly a robot."
Dick came back into the living room and glanced at Veronica. "You're still here, huh? Don't you have people who actually like you to bug?" He turned away, heading for the balcony and Veronica threw a candy cane at him, hitting the back of his head.
"Happy Holidays, Dick," she called sweetly. Then she handed another to a grinning Logan. "You don't need to twist his arm if he doesn't want to come." He chuckled and waved her off with a flourish of his hand.
Her last stop of the morning was the Fennel home. Alicia answered the door and smiled in welcome. "Veronica, come in. Merry Christmas."
"Merry Christmas, Alicia. Sorry to drop by like this," Veronica said as Alicia ushered her into the living room.
"Don't be silly. Wallace said that Keith is stuck in Chicago. We were just about to call to invite you over for Christmas lunch."
In the living room, Darrell was surrounded by a heap of wrapping paper, cast-aside clothes and books, engaged in heated battle on a new PSP. Wallace lay slumped over the arm of the couch, watching TV, looking worse for wear. Glancing up, he muttered, "Hey Veronica," and weakly smiled.
Veronica turned to Alicia. "Thanks for the invite, but I need to get home soon. I was hoping that you three could come over for Christmas dinner tonight. I have a bunch of food and I'd like to have people to share it with. Are you free?"
Alicia smiled. "I think we might be available. Can I bring anything?"
"If you have extra food of any kind, it'll be welcome, but don't put yourself out. I just want you guys there. Five o'clock."
"We'll see you then." Alicia turned to her youngest. "Darrell, put that down for five minutes and help me set the table." Darrell groaned, but acquiesced.
Smiling at Wallace, she plopped down next to him on the couch, and allowing herself to be affectionate which was always easier with him, laid her head on his shoulder. "Hi."
She could feel him staring down at her. "Hi." He put his arm around her. "You okay?"
"Nursing an impressive hangover. But I'm all right."
"Good." She leaned back a little to look him in the eye. "I've missed you the last couple of months." Waving her hand to quiet him when he opened his mouth to protest, she continued, "I know it's my fault. I haven't exactly been available, but I wanted to let you know that I did miss you and things are gonna change."
Wallace looked truly worried and his arm tightened around her. "Seriously, Veronica, are you okay?"
"I had, I don't know, kind of a dream? But not. More like an epiphany, last night. It's complicated." She smiled, her heart tugging at the concern on his face. He really was the best friend in the whole wide world. "I'm fine, Wallace. Honestly. I just realised some things I had been missing, and one of them was you."
His eyes remained a bit troubled, even as his face relaxed into a smile. "Well, I missed you, too. Life just hasn't been the same without your cheer and optimism."
She feigned realization. "That's why they call me Little Miss Sunshine."
"Yeah, that's it." His grin reached all the way to his eyes this time. "So, you sure you need to get going? My mom made her famous crepes with pretty much everything you can think of to put into them. And I bet we could get Darrell to put down the PSP long enough to play one of our ancient board games."
"No, there's a turkey roasting, probably drying out as we speak. And potatoes to mash and yams to bake. Or maybe I'll just order pizza."
Walking down the hall, Wallace said, "Hey, I never turn down a pizza."
"Oh, please. You never turn down anything."
"When the girl's right, she's right."
At the door, Veronica turned and handed him a handful of candy canes that she pulled from her bag. At his eager grasp, she chastised, "You share those with Darrell and your mom. They're not all for you."
After he promised to share, she left and made her way home. The turkey had dried out a little, but it wasn't too bad. She took the rest of the morning to prep the cooking for the afternoon.
As she quickly ate some lunch she eyed the still-wrapped presents under her tree. Technically she could open them – it was Christmas, after all – but half the fun of opening them was the look on her dad's face when she finally saw what he got her. She decided to wait until he got back. She was more into the anticipation, anyway.
Just past three, as she was putting the vacuum cleaner away, there was a pounding at her door. She answered it to find Weevil on the other side with tables, chairs and bags surrounding him.
"Hey," she greeted.
"Hey." Not waiting for an invitation, he started hauling everything in, and after a minute of gaping at him, Veronica helped.
"What is all this?"
"You said there were going to be nine people. That means you're gonna need something for them to sit on and eat at."
She gestured to her tiny apartment. "Well, sure, but where are we going to put it?"
"Right in the living room. We're just going to redecorate a little."
Something about that sounded ominous, but Veronica let it go. She'd actually been wondering how she was going to fit all of her guests into her apartment and if Weevil had a plan, more power to him.
He eyed the room and she could practically see him doing the math in his head. "So, what can I do to help?" she asked.
"Nothin'. You probably got plenty to do. I got this." Knowing that Weevil liked best to work alone, she nodded and returned to the kitchen.
The next half hour was quiet punctuated with an occasional grunt from Weevil as he was moving the furniture. Veronica became consumed with figuring out the timing of everything so that all the food would be hot and ready at five o'clock. After finally puzzling it out and putting the first few steps into motion, Veronica turned around to look into the living room. It was completely empty save the TV stand that had been shoved into the corner.
Weevil walked into the room, and she noticed he'd cast off the nice button-down he'd shown up in and was down to his undershirt.
"You didn't fence our stuff, did you?" she asked.
"Yeah, because your living room set is worth so much on the black market." He jerked his head towards the hall. "I put it in your dad's room."
Curiosity over-taking her, she peeked her head into her father's room to find the couch, chair, coffee table, and side tables all stacked neatly.
She went back into the living room where Weevil was setting up the folding tables. "Those look like the tables from the History Department."
"That's 'cause they are," Weevil replied. Veronica delicately searched for a way to ask the next question, but he beat her to the punch. "And no, I didn't steal them. I called my supervisor and asked if I could borrow them. Same with the chairs. It's all on the up-and-up."
He set up the tables up diagonally across the living room and put the chairs around them. Eyeing it, he asked, "Do you have a couple of table cloths?"
Taking a moment to marvel at the fact that Weevil Navarro just asked her about table cloths, Veronica checked their linen cupboard and found not only one large table cloth that would fit over the shoved-together tables, but napkins and placemats as well.
Over the years Veronica found herself privy to some little-known facts about Weevil. Due to hours of watching with Ophelia, he was a big fan of Spongebob Squarepants. He hated quiet and if he couldn't play music (which he and her father had wildly different tastes in) he would start humming to himself, not even conscious of the fact. And the reason he graduated only a year late despite missing well over two years of school due to juvie and truancy could be surmised from his standardised test results which rivalled hers. But one thing she didn't know is that the guy could set a seriously pretty table. It looked like it came from the pages of the Good Housekeeping magazine.
He presented it to her for inspection and she couldn't help but laugh.
"What?" he snapped.
"Nothing," she reassured him. "It's not the table. It's just, who knew you spent so much time watching Martha Stewart. Or was there an interior design course in Chino?"
As soon as the words left her mouth, she wished she could take them back. They never spoke about prison. It was a six-month period of his life that they pretended didn't exist.
She tensed, waiting for angry words, or worse, a hurt brush-off. Instead, he grinned. "Nah. There was a knitting course, and beadwork, but nothing on table-decorating. Something about the inmates having sharp forks and knives. Probably a bad idea."
Her shoulders relaxed as he chuckled, and the tension rolled away.
By the time the Fennels arrived just before five, they were nearly ready. Veronica was making the gravy, and Weevil was mashing potatoes. Alicia carried a incredibly rich looking chocolate cake which made Veronica's mouth water, and she seriously considered 'forgetting' to put it out.
Wallace saw her eyeing it. "Don't you even think about keeping it to yourself. She wouldn't let us have it for lunch, so I'm damn well getting a piece tonight."
On the heels of the Fennels came Mac and Parker and then Logan and Dick casting the apartment into utter chaos for the next fifteen minutes. Coats were thrown into Veronica's room, food was laid onto the table and Weevil carved the turkey while ignoring comments from the peanut gallery – namely Logan – about how suspiciously adept he was with a knife.
Finally they were all sitting at the table, a generous spread before them. Veronica expected everyone to dive into the food, particularly Wallace who was practically twitching. But they looked at her keenly, and she realised she was expected to say something.
"We don't really say grace in the Mars household, but I want to thank all of you for coming and sharing Christmas dinner with me. This is the time of year we should spend with family, and I feel like you're all a part of mine." She refrained from telling Dick that he would be the family dog. It was the holidays, after all.
She wasn't sure if she was supposed to say more, but Wallace rescued her. "Cool, let's eat!"
Very few things gave Veronica more of a warm, fuzzy feeling than watching Wallace eat. He did it with such joy. But she found that all of her friends, sitting around the table sharing a feast made that feeling even warmer and fuzzier. The only thing missing was –
"Merry Christmas, honey!" Her father burst in, exhausted and dragging his bag. Veronica was out of her chair and flew into his arms before he even had a chance to shut the door. "You're home! How?"
"Through begging and showing your picture to a very nice, generous man who traded me tickets, I got an early flight," he explained, returning the hug. He released her and acknowledged the room full of people. "Hey everyone. What's going on?"
Weevil got up to pull an extra chair to the table, moved his and Veronica's plates down a spot, and set another place at the head of the table. While he did that, Alicia answered, "Veronica put together a wonderful dinner and invited us all over to share it."
Her father looked slightly surprised, but impressed all the same. "You did all this?"
"With lots of help. Everyone brought something to eat, or drink," she gestured to the wine that was Logan and Dick's contribution. "And Eli was nice enough to set the place up."
Her father sat down at the head of the table and smiled at everyone. "Well, I'm starving and your plates are still full, so what are we waiting for?"
For the next hour they consumed more food than ten people really ever should, even when one of those people is Wallace. After there was nothing but crumbs left of Alicia's cake, and everyone had pushed back slightly from the table to let their food digest, Veronica took a moment to contemplate her people.
Mac and Logan were arguing good-naturedly about something with Parker and Dick chiming in as back-up. Who would've thought that those two would ever be close, but Veronica could see from the way they laughed together, that Logan and Mac genuinely cared for each other. Alicia and Darrell were poking fun at Wallace, who rubbed his belly uncomfortably, the portrait of a loving family unit. Weevil leaned across her to talk to her dad, and her dad was laughing at whatever story he was spinning.
She had to admit, there were worse families to have. In fact, under duress, she might admit she was actually quite lucky. But more important things were waiting.
"Who's up for some Guitar Hero?"
Playing Guitar Hero necessitated the disassembly of the chairs and tables and for their regular furniture to be reinstalled. While Weevil, Dick and Logan took care of that, Wallace, Mac and Parker helped Veronica wrap the remaining food up, and put the dishes in the dishwasher.
An hour later, Mac was walloping Wallace's ass while the others cheered them on. Veronica brought the unopened Christmas gifts over to her Dad who was sitting at the breakfast bar. "I've been very patient, but can we open these now?"
Her dad laughed, "I'm impressed that you made it this long, sweetheart. Yes, by all means, let's open our presents."
There were some smaller items, DVDs and gift cards, but Veronica's major gift was a new camera. "Oh, Dad, it's beautiful!"
"You've had your camera so long, I thought it was time for an update. And the salesperson said that it was very good for everything you might need."
She hugged him tight before nudging him to open his gift from her. He did, and he pulled it out, looking at it with awe and wonder. "Is this really…?"
It was a baseball from the '73 World Series signed by Reggie Jackson, her dad's hero when he was growing up in Northern California. "They told me it was from the game that you went to with Grandpa."
"Sweetheart, this is perfect." He hugged her and kissed the top of her head.
Veronica started to go over all the technical specs of her new camera when her father cleared his throat. "So, what prompted this?"
"What?" she asked, distracted.
"This dinner. It's not exactly like you to throw a party like this."
She glanced up from her camera to see a look of furrowed worry on her father's face and couldn't help but smile. "No, I guess not seeing as everyone is reacting with stunned disbelief. I had some visitors last night. Sort of."
"I'm not sure I was conscious at the time." She raised a hand to stop him from interrupting with his startled expression. "Nothing nefarious, Dad. But these weren't people who could just drop by. It was Lilly, and Meg. And Felix Toombs," she said, noticing Weevil listening out of the corner of her eye, "and for some strange reason, Lamb. Anyway, they hinted that maybe it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world for me spend more time with my loved ones. Hence, the dinner."
Her dad just stared at her for a second, like he couldn't tell if she was joking or not. He settled on smiling. "Well, it was a good dinner, Veronica. Maybe it's something we should do more often." Standing up, he ruffled her hair before joining Alicia and Darrell in cheering Wallace on.
"Felix, huh?" Veronica turned around to find Weevil at her elbow.
His eyes weren't quite meeting hers. "Was it just a dream?"
She shrugged. "It could have been, logically, it probably was. But it seemed really real to me." On sudden impulse, she laid her hand on his. "And if it wasn't a dream, then he really loves you, and he's watching over you, and he wants to make sure you don't try to be the stoic guy, never asking for help when you need it and pushing people who care about you out of your life."
Raising an eyebrow, he said, "I'm pretty sure Felix didn't know the meaning of 'stoic'."
"Well, I might have put it in my words, but the sentiment's the same."
He smiled. "All right, I'll do my best. Coming from you, though, it's kind of like the pot and the kettle."
"I know. I'm gonna try, too."
"Weevil, Ronnie, you're up!" Dick shouted.
Weevil grinned at her. "You're going down, Mars."
"Bring it on, Navarro," she said, joining the rest of the gang. "Bring it on."