Author's Note – you ever had an idea that buries itself inside your brain and refuses to leave until you write it? Well I kinda got it with this only it went off on all these weird tangents as I was writing and I don't know, maybe I had fluff overload with NBFB or something because this ended up very much in my natural genre which is kinda angstier. It's very different from anything I've written before but it was fun to try something new but I hope it's not too difficult. Let me know what you think. Have a Happy New Year!

Disclaimer – characters aren't mine and belong to Disney. The song is called Breathe Me by Sia.

Ouch, I have lost myself again.
Lost myself and I am nowhere to be found.
Yeah, I think that I might break.
Lost myself again and I feel unsafe.

Troy listened to the sound of Christmas music around him and tried to muster some enthusiasm for the party raging around him as he downed his drink and tried to smile politely at whatever the group of people around him were saying before giving up and discreetly slipping away into the backyard of his parents house. He walked over towards the table that was far enough away that he wouldn't easily be seen, but close enough that he would be able to hear if he was called for some urgent reason.

It was funny to think that he had received his first kiss at this party. He had been seven and it wasn't in a game of truth or dare like so many first kisses seem to be, instead his first kiss had been neither brave or heroic like he expected it to be and instead of the shock, sympathy and acclaim he would have gotten from his friends for enduring such a horror he had gotten laughed at, mocked, 'awwed' and fussed over from a group of adults who clearly did not understand the horror of the experience.

It had been innocent enough – Troy had been running around playing hide & seek with some of his cousins and friends at his parents annual Christmas party but he had made the mistake of wandering too close to the Christmas tree – partially to try and hide behind it, and partially because Chad had dared him to try and scope out what presents were there. Seeing that there was no chance at hiding, he had been discreetly trying to fulfil the second part of his task only to be interrupted when he heard a loud 'oooh' coming from two of his aunts. He had frowned, but before he could see what was going on he found a girl with blonde hair and ponytails who was much taller than him standing right in front of him expectantly. Troy blinked as he looked at her, and just as he was about to ask what was wrong she had leant down and planted her lips on his in a sloppy kiss that almost traumatised him for life as all the adults laughed and talked about how cute it was to be kissed 'under the mistletoe'.

He had hastily tried to wipe the kiss off his lips, but the experience lingered as he ran and told his friends about the horror of the little plant and the group had silently agreed that they didn't want random girls kissing them and, as such, they would all have to be extra vigilant.

The extra caution the boys had shown had meant that for Troy the whole Christmas kissing tradition had been avoided like the plague for ten years. He had painstakingly checked every room for the offending mistletoe and, to make doubly sure that nothing so untoward could happen again, he had taken to wandering around social gatherings in a pack. Chad, Jason and Zeke had made good buffers for a few years, and when they weren't available there was always a sympathetic cousin around who would feel his pain. When he was sixteen he had employed the usual system – he had been to his families Christmas party, talked about basketball, school, and a little more basketball and had avoided any of the girls who had somehow decided that he was the hot commodity that Christmas. It wasn't that he wasn't flattered, he was sixteen, of course he was flattered but the traumatising memories of his childhood years and the fact that these girls were just so...brash kinda scared him a little. No, as much as it was fun to smile and flirt with these girls he knew that in order to get where he wanted to be he couldn't be distracted from his goal of basketball, a championship and then a scholarship and as soon as that was achieved there would be time later for everything else that being involved with girls brought.

The day after the party they had flown out to Colorado where the family was going to spend New Year's together. It was officially a winter vacation so they could ski, snowboard and do other fun wintery things together. Unofficially though it was a basketball training camp without the distractions of TV, school, his friends, Christmas and girls. It had been fine – he had been enjoying himself and then his mom went and made him go to a New Years Eve party and short of being struck by lightning, he couldn't imagine his life changing as quickly as it had done after that. He had no idea what had happened. One song, one girl, one night and everything had changed for him. Suddenly basketball was...a game and he realised that, actually, he could do other things, have other interests, have other goals and that wasn't necessarily a bad thing.

He didn't know what had happened but when she showed up at his school, the change was made permanent because instead of solely wanting to spend time practicing or training, he wanted more than anything to spend time with her be it singing or just hanging out – as long as she was there, it would all be good.

The problem though, was that for lack of a better description, both Troy and Gabriella were...novices at the whole dating/relationship thing so despite their best effort, their relationship was mostly platonic for weeks. It wasn't entirely their fault – their friends liked to interrupt, or Gabriella's clumsiness and his awkwardness leading to clashed heads or inappropriate requests for brownies and all in all, it was somewhat...annoying. Not the dating, no the dating was amazing – the best in fact, but the whole first kiss thing was annoying. They had kissed cheeks, foreheads, hands, wrists...she had kissed his shoulder and even his back when he was giving her a piggyback ride and he had kissed her knee when they were sitting at her house watching a film with her on the couch and him on the floor – all of those kisses were fine, but as soon as they tried to progress it any further it just turned...disastrous.

That was the first time that Troy could remember wishing for mistletoe. He had, discreetly, checked on the internet to find out if there was anywhere in Albuquerque he could take her on a date where wild mistletoe could be found (there wasn't) and had even considered asking her to help clear out his attic where he would, discreetly, 'find' a sprig hanging and thus he could kiss her which, by channelling the so called magical properties of the little plant that had traumatised him as a child, only good things could possibly happen.

His problem had come when, after she had accepted his offer to help him, she had come up and noticed that the plant he had discreetly hung was actually holly with red berries instead of the stupid plant with white. He wasn't sure what his reaction was as she commented on how much she loved holly and the colours and everything else but she must have seen something as she walked to the box of decorations and opened it up, dropping the sprig in. He had turned away in frustration, embarrassed at his own stupidity that had landed him a day of tidying out the attic without the excuse of kissing her and just about ready for conceding defeat and accepting the fact that they might end up being fifty before he gets to kiss her properly when he felt a small hand on his back, turning him around. Before he could ask her what was wrong he felt a pair of warm lips against his own and, his momentary shock aside, he couldn't help but close his eyes and wrap his arms around her as he kissed back, her moist lips mesmerising as they moved against his and her sweet taste tantalising him. before he had time to savour it, she had pulled back and he saw her cheeks flaming red as she ran her tongue over her bottom lip, causing him to beam at her as she took a deep breath and brought her hand to his face softly before tilting his head up to where she was holding a sprig of mistletoe above their heads.

"It just seemed a shame that it was the wrong kind of plant that was hanging up."

He couldn't help but grin at her as he nodded before bringing her hand down with one hand, and holding her jaw with the other as he brought his lips down on hers. There was no clashing of heads, no stumbling, or anything that had characterised their pre-mistletoe Christmas (in March) kiss and, as he moved his hand to grasp the small plant out of her hand he flung it away, his hand linking with hers afterwards and their lips still attached as he silently congratulated himself on his quick thinking as he made a valiant effort at making up for lost time with her.

As soon as he fell into bed he closed his eyes. The room was cool, but that didn't matter as he took a deep breath and sighed, his fingers clenching softly against the fabric of the comforter as he drifted off, his hand brushing the empty side of the bed beside him.


He turned and looked to see her sitting beside him, her beautiful face turned into a smile and her hand dancing over his cheek. "You're late."

"No, I'm not," she giggled as she looked at him, the smile only fading slightly to reveal a more melancholy one as she gazed in his eyes. "I missed you."

"I missed you too," he breathed as he sat up more fully, waiting for her to crawl into his arms but he knew she wouldn't, not yet. "I needed you today."

"I'm sorry," she whispered as she looked down. "How was your day?"

"The boys...I don't even know what's going on with them," he ran his hand through his hair. "They are usually so psyched for going to my mom's but today..."

"They are nearly teenagers," she smiled sadly. "You remember what that was like – you don't want to spend time with your parents. Bribe them with a day at paintballing or something with their friends if they behave."

"You think that will work?"

"Yeah – if they're anything like their dad they just need the incentive," she grinned at him and he couldn't help but chuckle at the truth in that statement, although his incentive was usually far more rewarding than a trip paintballing. "It'll be worse in a few years..."

"Don't remind me," he groaned as he closed his eyes, only to open them again just so he could look at her. "You look...beautiful."

She looked down at her red top and black pants and blushed slightly. "Someone always said I looked good in red."

He swallowed roughly as he nodded. "Someone was right."

She lifted her gaze and just met his eyes for a moment and he could see the tears pooling in her eyes as she leant close to him and pushed him back down on the bed. Before her lips could touch his she stroked his cheek softly. "You need to sleep."

"I know," he said softly. "I love you."

"I love you too," she echoed. "Have a safe trip to Albuquerque. I don't want to see you too soon."

"I promise," he whispered and he watched as she smiled, the tears falling and he wanted nothing more than to wipe them from her but instead he watched as she continued to stroke his cheek as his eyes began to droop again and he could vaguely feel her nestle against him as he succumbed to sleep at long last.

When he awoke in the morning he took a deep breath as he grabbed his sweat pants and pulled them on before padding to the kitchen to find the two twelve year olds leaning over their breakfast bowls, whispering conspiratorially as he approached.

"Dad, we were thinking we could just crash here with Owl and..."

"And that would be a no," Troy said as he shook his head. "For one, you don't crash with a kid named after an animal and for two, you're too young."

"His name is Owen and he and his parents are cool with it."

"I'm not cool with it," Troy said as he shook his head, almost groaning at the start of the familiar discussion they had been having the last few days. "How about...we make a deal? You guys come to Albuquerque and behave and I will, in exchange, allow you two to go paintballing with your friends and take you go-karting in Albuquerque."

Troy watched as the two dark heads turned to each other and began babbling so quickly that he gave up trying to keep up and merely turned back to his coffee, waiting on their response.

"I...I guess that would be okay."

Troy smiled as he shook his head, the headache he had been having arguing it for the last few days blissfully absent as they all ate their breakfast and he couldn't help but discreetly bring his left hand towards his lips and press a kiss to the gold band found on his finger.

His efforts in March that year had been ingenious, but it was the following December that had caused him headaches. His problem was that at his family's Christmas party he was going to have to find a way of manoeuvring his girlfriend under the mistletoe without leaving himself open to the usual girls who were there and, even worse, leaving Gabriella open to being kissed by the guys who didn't seem to take the hint when he had made a point of kissing her thoroughly in greeting (leading to his dad slapping him around the head to get his attention and Gabriella's mom muttering something about them remembering that she's too young to be a grandmother) before glaring daggers at every boy who dared to check her out in front of him.

It wasn't like he needed the mistletoe as an excuse to kiss her – he could kiss her pretty much anytime he wanted (within reason) and he did. It wasn't that they were overly showy but...well, they were overly showy. They liked being close to each other and if that was holding hands, or hugging, or kissing her forehead or passing notes to arrange a meet up during free period then they didn't see why they should have to apologise for it. The thing was, as much as the kiss wasn't the main issue the tradition was. It was stupid, he knew but ten years after the crappy kiss at the same party, he kinda wanted to partake in the proper tradition but fate seemingly conspired against him. He had made the mistake of talking about the upcoming Championship game with some of the guys and hadn't noticed his mom call Gabriella over to show her the photo she had recently framed of her and Troy from Thanksgiving that was located on the wall beside the tree. Sure enough, his mom had barely wandered away to talk to one of his aunts when one of his cousin's friends had come over, introduced himself and kissed her under the mistletoe. Even if he hadn't seen the actual kiss he would have still been able to tell what had happened purely by the way she stood there, eyes wide, uneasy posture and backing away with a tight smile as she tried to avoid upsetting anyone. To say he was pissed would have been an understatement but, in the spirit of Christmas, he had decided to let it go but the whole sorry quest was ruined as he found himself cursing everyone at the stupid party and the stupid tradition that seemed to give carte blanche to every moron who wanted to try to kiss his girlfriend.

Gabriella, for her part seemed to understand that his festive mood was leaving him quickly so she feigned a headache and, knowing that her mom had been drinking, asked if Troy could drive her home. In hindsight, they hadn't been as subtle as they thought they were but at the time it was very much the last thing on his mind when his girlfriend had guided her upstairs into her festively decorated bedroom and proceeded to kiss him under the mistletoe. The kiss, the setting, the isolation from parental supervision and any and all interruptions all could have been a factor, or it could have been down to the way she looked up at him, her beautiful face shining with affection as she gazed at him, they wouldn't quite know, but whatever it was, something clicked with them both that night as they pulled back from the kiss and suddenly one kiss wasn't enough and almost immediately her hand found its way under his T-shirt and his hand found itself on her thigh, hiking her leg up to his hip while the other stroked up and down her side. Neither of them could remember who had removed the first article of clothing, but the end result found them lying in her bed, their clothes scattered all over her room floor as her head nestled on his chest and her lips pressed against his flesh as he cradled her against him, one hand brushing up and down her bare back and a grin on his face that he didn't think would ever leave.

"You know, in no way was I expecting this," he laughed softly, clutching her a little tighter as she lifted her gaze to look at him, her body laying half along him. "I'm glad that I suck at predicting the future..."

Her giggle, her smile, the glow she was giving off all elevated her already stunning appearance as he couldn't help himself but lean down and press his lips to hers again before pulling back to let her talk. "I didn't expect it either – if I did I would have dressed a little sexier," she blushed as she bit down on her lip shyly. "I'm glad it happened though."

"Me too," he said as he stroked her hair and he almost followed it up with saying something he had wanted to say for a while but instead bit it back as he hoped she understood. It wasn't that he didn't want to say it, he did and he knew she wanted to say it as well, but...there was a mutually agreed silent agreement made about saying it until they both knew what was going to happen to them in the summer. In this room, with the Christmas lights twinkling and the mistletoe hanging on the ceiling and the smell of gingerbread and cranberry's throughout the room it was easy to imagine that it wasn't something to worry about but one glance at her desk and the small map with U of A circled and push pins in the colleges she had applied to and the mileage between them was a sure way to end that delusion. So, instead of saying something that he knew they both felt but couldn't bear to say in case it made things even harder, he settled for stroking her face, his eyes never leaving her own as he leant close to her and whispered against her lips. "I will never have a better Christmas Eve than this."

She beamed at him before shaking her head playfully as she leant close to his ear. "Just wait until next year – I promise to better it."

With that she lay down on his chest again playing with his fingers and he closed his eyes in silent prayer hoping that she remembered that promise was a big word and praying that she was right.

"You having a good time?"

He glanced up and couldn't help but smile as he saw her and he nodded his head. "I am now."

"Matty and Jake behaving?"

"You were right - bribery is the way to a twelve year olds heart," he chuckled, laughing as she nodded and walked towards where he was lying and lay down opposite him. "I missed you this week."

"I missed you too," she whispered as she looked at him, her fingers almost touching his as she kept her gaze on his face. "You glad to be home?"

"Here's not home," he said quickly. "We have a home and it isn't here. It' it always is back here. I just let mom deal with it."

She nodded and moved closer to him. "Do you miss it?"

He looked at her and he knew there were a million different connotations to that question, but only one that really mattered. "I miss it more than anything."

She smiled softly and nodded. "It's going to be a great party, I think."

"It always is," he sighed. "Nothing gets in the way."

She reached up and touched his jaw softly. "Nothing should get in the way."

He looked at her and wanted to explain why she was wrong, but instead forced a smile as he shook his head. "It won't."


He gazed at her for a moment and sighed. "You are so beautiful."

She looked down, and he could see the faint blush colour her cheeks and she smiled. "Someone always said they liked how I look in red..."

"They liked how you look in everything," he said as she looked at him before she leant against him, her eyes closing as he felt his own eyes slide shut.

"I love you, Wildcat."

Her soft whisper had every effect on him. It made his heart break and mend again, it filled him with sorrow and happiness but mostly it made him yearn for the future. "I love you too."

"Be careful on the roads home from the Mall tomorrow," she murmured. "I don't want to see you too soon."

He nodded, his hand gripping her tighter as he sighed. "I promise."

As it turned out, she had called it correctly – as amazing as the Christmas when he was 17 was, the Christmas when he was 18 was even better and none of it had involved being at this party.

He was in his first year in college and somehow juggling a sports science course (which he liked), playing basketball (which he loved) and his drama course (which he loathed with the fiery passion of hell.) Along with those obligations, he also had the little fact of a 32.7 mile trip to see his girlfriend at least once a week and finding a job. He barely had time to sleep let alone anything else but there wasn't anything he could really do about it at that stage so he basically had to wait it out until things slotted into where they had to go. Seeing Gabriella less was not an option and the others were compulsory, at least until January when he was planning on switching out of drama and into some other class that he had managed to narrow down into a list of four but hadn't finalised.

When Christmas break was over he was pretty much ready for jumping in his truck and driving for two weeks, until the sad realisation that he had a game on the 23rd which meant that, yet again, he was going to be stuck on his own celebrating the holidays. On Thanksgiving he had been in Chicago while Gabriella had been in LA and his parents had been in Albuquerque and his meal had consisted of a cheap microwaveable turkey meal because the restaurant that they had booked had double booked meaning the scruffy college kids were sent elsewhere. Thanksgiving had been a bust and he hadn't expected Christmas to be much better until he found Gabriella standing outside his dorm room at 10am on the 24th when she should have been visiting relatives in Michigan with her mom. Instead she had insisted on dragging him out of his dorm with the proviso that he took anything he would need for the next three days before she drove them somewhere. He had at first assumed that they were going to drive to the house that she and her mom shared, but as she came to a stop around twenty minutes from his campus he began to wonder what was going on. He had been confused when she had stopped and assumed there was a coffee shop nearby that they were going to drink at; instead he had found her clutching his hand and leading him into an apartment building and to the fifth floor. It was only when she opened the door and presented him a fully decorated room complete with tree, lights and mistletoe that he began to realise what was going on as she led him in and grinned.

"What's going on?"

She shrugged before stepping closer to him. "I promised you a better Christmas than last year, and although I can't provide you with your family or friends, I can provide you with something better than spending the day alone in your dorm."

"I...where are we?"

"Well," she said slowly as she bit down on her lip. "I'm home."

"Home?" he looked around and he could faintly hear her giggles. "I don't...aren't you with your mom and..."

"My mom's moving," she said softly as she guided him over to the sofa. "Well, when I told you that she's getting a promotion I didn't tell you that she has to move to get it. She's starting a new job in the New Year in Arizona and...well, she gave me the option of trying to get into the dorm or...getting an apartment so I decided that this...this was the best decision."


"45 minutes was too far away," she said as she took his hand. "Twenty minutes though? Twenty minutes is manageable most days..."

"'ve moved in?"

She nodded and looked around. "Well, I still need to decorate and my bed is actually a mattress on the floor and the kitchen needs new...everything. To be honest, I persuaded the super to let me move in early so I got the keys three days ago and have been hauling boxes and everything since then know, I thought since you couldn't go home and...and, I don't know," she blushed as she looked down. "I just love you, so much, and I want you to have a great Christmas, even if it's not the same as it normally is so I wanted to surprise you. I bought a turkey and everything and..."

" could have got an apartment closer to Stanford..."

"I could have," she admitted with a smile. "But I wanted to be closer to you, not school."

He sat there speechless, not really believing that she had done that for him, for them and he was trying to formulate the words that would properly express the gratitude and the love he felt for her in that moment, but his silence seemed to make her nervous and she quickly stood and walked to the tree before turning back to him. "I mean, it's not like we have to see each other every day – or even every other day. I mean this is a really nice area, and the rent is really good and there's a library five minutes away, and a park and..."

He watched her ramble off the list of reasons that she didn't just pick the apartment for him, even though they both know that she did. He couldn't help but smile as she continued to pace and list of reasons so much so that she didn't see him stand up and walk towards her. She was halfway through a sentence about parking when he put his hand on her back and spun her around and kissed her. He liked to think that he had the ability to knock her off her feet if he wanted to. He was far too proud to admit that she frequently did the same to him to anyone but himself, but as she grasped onto his shoulders, he could feel his own legs weaken before pulling back and stroking her face.

"I really couldn't care less about the parking," he whispered against her lips. "'re not spending Christmas with your mom?"

She shook her head and he beamed at her, his head still leaning against his.

" moved in early because...because of me?"

She nodded and he was overwhelmed with the love he felt for her in that minute and his grasp on her tightened in response. He knew in that second that he was never, ever going to let her go – he had perfect clarity about the situation and everything else was secondary to that.

"I so do not deserve you," he said softly, his voice thick as he forced it out of his throat. "I love you so much, Gabriella. So much that I can't even explain it."

"I love you too. More than anything," she smiled up at him, her hand stroking his cheek. "I have a present for you."

"Babe," he said gently as he shook his head. "I think you've done enough for me."

She took a step back as she ducked down under the tree and brought out a small box and handed it to him. "It's only Christmas Eve," he reminded her. "Would it be better if I waited?"

Seeing her shake her head he pulled her close with one hand before carefully removing the elaboratively decorated gift from her grasp. He lifted the lift off the box to see the contents and his eyes immediately lifted to meet hers and she gave him a nervous smile as he held up the key that was dangling from a basketball keychain.

"You see – I figure that if you have it then you can come as often or as little as you like, whenever you like," she said, blushing slightly. "I have...lots of room, can be here...anytime...orr all the time...if you want, I mean. I mean..." she swallowed and looked down before taking a deep breath and looking up at him. "If...if you want to come here, anytime then...then now you can and I...I would like it, a lot and..." she bit down on her lip before sighing in frustration.

He dropped the box to the ground as he reached over and brought his finger to her lip and carefully extracted her lower lip from her teeth as he leant close to her and nuzzled his nose to her cheek as he made his way to her ear where he stopped. "I want; more than anything...I'll be here so often you will want to get rid of me."

He didn't need to be near her to know he had said the right thing. He could feel her smile as her facial muscles brushed against his cheek and the breath she exhaled as her shoulders relaxed said it all as her arms swung around his neck, holding him in place as her happy giggles filled the apartment.

When he pulled back he saw her gazing at him with a happy smile as she held the side of his face and although he would have been happy to stay like that until Christmas, there were other things he had to do now that he was going to be spending the holidays, and most other days with his girlfriend. First things first though...

He reached down and took her lips with his own, the tender caress quickly being replaced by an open hunger and declaration as he clutched her close, aligning her body with his own before tilting her as much as possible so he could deepen the kiss. Every second her tongue massaged his, or his teeth nipped her lips, or their bodies arched into each other's it was harder to remember that he had a purpose when he began kissing her but, when they pulled back, both panting and both flushed he remembered as he leant towards her again with a smile. "Hanging mistletoe was a nice touch..."

She giggled as she looked up and shrugged. "It wouldn't be Christmas without it."

"No it wouldn't," he smirked as he stroked her cheek. "So...tell me about this mattress..."

"I could tell you," she said as she straightened herself up before reaching over and taking his hand with a grin as she leant up on her tiptoes and whispered in his ear. "But I'd rather show you..."

He paused for a second, his brain barely functioning enough to get his body to breathe never mind anything else and all he could think as he watched her back away, beckoning him as she went was that this could very well be the greatest Christmas in the history of the holiday, and, as he dropped the key on the table and made quick work of kicking off his shoes and socks as he walked towards her, she was setting the bar impossibly high for next Christmas.

"I swear my mom is going to drive me crazy."

He turned to see her giggling at him as she shook her head. "She's a mom – it's her job to drive you crazy."

"Not like this. Why is she insisting on making it bigger than it has to be?"

"Because...she thinks it's a good distraction," she sighed as she leant in and kissed his chest. "For her, for the boys, for you..."

"I don't want a distraction," he muttered as he held her head before lacing their hands together. "She doesn't understand."

"Don't worry about it," she said with a smile. "Just try and relax – it'll be fine."

"I know," he sighed, trying to hide how defeated he was about it. He knew she was trying to make him feel better, but it was hard to rant when she was trying to be nice about everything. "I just wish..."

"Me too, but..." she sighed and looked away. "I'm sorry..."

"Don't," he said as he turned her head towards him and pressed his forehead into her shoulder. "Baby, don't. I know. I love you."

"I love you too, Troy. Forever."

"Good – I'm going to hold you to that," he smiled as he brushed his hands down the arms that were clothed in the soft red woollen fabric.

"You need to sleep. You have to be up early to take the boys out. Be careful on the roads. I don't want to see you too soon."

He sighed and lay down, nodding his head as he clutched her to him. "I will, I promise."

The music from the party was getting louder and he could hear some drunken singing telling him that things were clearly going well. He didn't move from his spot as his thoughts moved from the first Christmas in her apartment to one many years later.

He had woken to the feel of warm lips against his chest, moving slowly up his neck to his face and he couldn't help the dopey grin appear on his face as he tried to hold her steady so he could kiss her properly, but in his drowsy state she could easily dodge his clumsy attempts at pulling her down to bed. "Wildcat..."

Her soft voice along with her kisses was doing nothing to lure him from his slumber, and only the knowledge that having her there was better than any dream forced him to open his eyes to find her looking down at him, a soft smile on her face as she touched his jaw. "Hmmm?"

"Wake up, Wildcat..."

"No. Come back to bed," he begged.

"No," she laughed as she leant forward and kissed him again. "Baby, where did the ham go that was in the fridge?"

He blinked, trying to remember what she was talking about before the memory flashed through his head. "Um...Mrs Brookstein...she asked if we had food for some collection she was having and...we don't like it so...yeah...sorry?"

She giggled as she ran her fingers through his hair and he was aware of the fact that she was straddling him over the covers as her lips found his jaw again before brushing back up to his ear. "You gave away our ham, huh? What about your dad?"

It perhaps made him a bad son, but at that moment in time he really couldn't care less about what his dad was going to eat for dinner when he visited. The smell of her cranberry body butter overwhelmed him and between that and the feel of her body, the touch of her hand and the sensation of her kisses he suddenly didn't feel tired anymore as he growled and caged her, causing her to shriek in laughter as he managed to pin her underneath him, her face crinkled with mirth as he hovered over the top of her.

"One day I am going to see that coming," she giggled as she looked up at him and he couldn't help but smile smugly as he leant down and kissed her.

"No you won't, because you enjoy it just as much as I do and get distracted," he murmured.

"You could be right. Maybe I should get you an alarm clock instead," she retorted with a grin as he stroked her wrist tenderly. "Maybe Santa will bring you one for Christmas."

"Hmm, I think we both like this way better," he said as he went down to kiss her again, smiling as she sighed against his lips and held him closer to her. "Good morning, Mrs Bolton."

"Why good morning to you as well, Mr Bolton," she returned as she freed her hand and used it to brush the hair out of his eyes. "How are you feeling this fine day?"

"I feel great," he said as he leant down and pressed his lips to her cheek. "Amazing, even."

She tightened her arms around him momentarily before reluctantly putting her hand to his chest and pushing him back softly. "As much as I would love to continue this...I need to go make breakfast and then go buy a ham..."

He groaned slightly as he dropped his head onto her shoulder before rolling off her, just enough so he could pull her on top of him. "Can't we just stay in bed?"

"It's nearly 9am," she giggled as she pressed another kiss on his chest before pulling up and smiling at him. "And your dad will not be impressed when he comes to dinner tonight and we can't give him his favourite food because of someone's..." she leant forward and dragged her finger down his cheek. "Generosity with our ham. I have to go out and buy a new one and you have to go to work..."

"I can skip," he whispered. "No one has confidence in a PT that's on crutches anyway."

"I have confidence in you."

"You're biased though," he said as she stood and he let his eyes run over her body as she took a step back, her black jeans elongating her legs and her soft red off the shoulder sweater giving a glimpse of tan skin. "Wow - you look more that beautiful today. Trying to impress someone?"

She giggled as she spun around, her dark curls bouncing after her. "I hope I impress someone. Someone may have mentioned that they like how I look in red..."

"You know, you should stay home so that he can show you how impressed he is..."

"I should," she said as she backed off. "But, his kids are going to start destroying the kitchen if they don't get their pancakes and his parents are coming for dinner and he gave away his dad's favourite food so..."

Before he could tell her that he would just take them all out for dinner, he heard a call come from down the hall which caused her to giggle as she shook her head. "Go have a shower, handsome. I'll get breakfast ready."

"Fine, just leave me here alone, crippled and frustrated..." he said, hiding his smile as she laughed more fully.

"Crippled? You twisted your knee ligaments by showing off and trying to dunk the ball," she laughed as she backed away.

"They said I couldn't do it!"

"I swear you're regressing to your seventeen year old self. I thought the aging backwards thing happened when men hit middle age, not twenty seven?"

"You laugh, but I'll be 30 soon. You'll be married to an old man!"

"But you'll be such a good looking older man," she walked backwards. "I promise not to replace you with a younger model if you promise not to check out other girls."

He rolled his eyes and let out a pfft as he looked at her. "Like I would find someone better than you."

"I'm choosing to believe that so you better stick with it, Wildcat," she giggled as she backed up. "I'm going to the kitchen now before you can distract me anymore."

She gave him a small wave and walked out, leaving him to grin after her as he went to the bathroom to shower. When he came downstairs he saw her holding a two year old on her hip and birling another one around under her arm in a dance as the three of them were singing along to Santa Claus Is Coming to Town and laughing madly. He just stood back and watched her with their twins – smiling at the sheer contentment in the scene. Ten years ago he would have never guessed this would be his life, but as he limped into the room and wrapped his arm around them from behind, he couldn't help but wish this moment could last forever. All too soon he had to let them go as she sat the boys at the table and handed them their pancakes before putting some down in front of him as well along with a cup of coffee.

He listened to the chatter of the boys as he saw her walk over to the tree without eating and he pushed his own plate away before joining her, his hand brushing her hair off her shoulder before he leant his head on her shoulder. "You okay?"

"Food makes me sick," she said softly as she held his arms. "Your fault."

He chuckled as he spun her around, his hand finding her abdomen and stroking it softly. "I'm sorry?"

"Oh yeah, I bet you are," she giggled as she looked up at him. "Sorry enough to be on diaper duty for this one?"

"Maybe," he said before looking up. "Oh, look where we are. What a coincidence!"

Before she could say anything he had leant down and pressed his lips to hers before pulling back with a grin.

"I can't believe you still use mistletoe as an excuse," she rolled her eyes playfully as she pulled back.

"I have to take what I can get since we're travelling to Albuquerque to stay with my parents for this stupid party in a couple of days and I'm going to be deprived."

"Like you've ever been deprived," she said as she clutched his hand and looked up at him. "I love you, Wildcat."

"Love you too," he whispered as he looked at her, his fingers wrapping around her curls. "You want me to come shopping with you? Seriously, I'm only filling out paperwork so I can do it anytime."

"You're not shopping with your knee like that, but you could maybe meet us then and we could grab lunch together?"

"Sounds like a plan," he said as he let her pull him into the kitchen to eat.

A half hour later she had pressed her lips to his cheek and bundled up the kids and put them in the car, warning him not to give away anymore of their food regardless of how much of a sob story Mrs Brookstein fed him and that she would see him at lunch.

"Why are you so quiet?"

He watched as she shrugged her eyes downcast as she sat and he felt his heart pound in his chest. He knew what was coming when she got like this, and although he knew how to handle it, the fear that this would be the time that he wouldn't be able to say the right thing, or that this would be the time where it wouldn't be enough froze the blood running through his body.


"I'm sorry," she whispered, lifting her gaze to meet his and he could see the utter devastation that was there. "I'm so sorry, Troy."

"Gabriella," he crawled over beside her, only for her to move from his grasp and he tried to bite down on the agony that caused. "Baby, you have nothing to apologise for."

"I do," she stated, her hand running through her hair. "I make you so unhappy and it's selfish of me to do that. I won't co..."

"No!" he shouted as he grasped her arms desperately. "No, no, no. Don't say that, please don't. You don't make me unhappy – you're the best part of my day, please, please..." he pressed his lips to her hair, her ear, her cheek, her jaw, her neck. "Please, Gabriella..."

"I...I just want you to be happy, Troy," he whispered as she cupped his face, her tears flowing down her face. "I'd give anything to make you happy."

"Okay," he said as he met her gaze, his grip tightening as he looked at her. "I have never lied to you, right?"

"Never," she whispered.

"Okay then, believe me what I say that you make me happy. I'm happy with the kids and with my job and my friends, but here, now...that's what I wish for every second in between. Please, don't take it away from me," he begged as he brought his hand to her face. "Please don't make me do it on my own."

He heard her sobs as she nodded her head, her arms wrapping around him and he sighed in relief at disaster being averted again as he clutched her to him, almost greedily. "I'm sorry."

"Shhh," he comforted, his own eyes watering as he clutched her to him. "Its okay – I understand. I love you."

"I love you too, so much. I just don't want you to be unhappy," she murmured. "I only ever wanted to make you happy."

"You have always made me happy," he returned, meaning every word. "Only you."

"I love you," she repeated again as she reluctantly pulled back, wiping her eyes and offering him a sad smile. "You should sleep."

"I'm not..." he was about to protest, but as he saw her push him back down towards the bed he knew it was futile so instead he sighed as he looked at her. "You're so bossy."

She giggled and the smile that spread across his face at the sound was almost painful. "I wish I was bossy."

He grinned at her as he touched her face, stroking the tear tracks away. "You are so beautiful, Gabriella."

"I know you like how I look in red."

"I like how you look in everything," he said as he let her find the familiar spot against his chest. "I miss you."

"I miss you too," she said as she placed her hand over his heart. "Have a good time at the party tomorrow. Stay at home, don't go out if you're upset – I don't want to see you too soon."

He closed his eyes and sighed, not wanting to say it but knowing that he would. "I know, I promise."

Troy closed his eyes as he thought back and the smile that was playing on his lips faded. How different his first kiss had been to his last despite the fact that the memory of both tormented him.

It was strange how that day was so clear, every second of it was almost engrained in his head yet every day before and since were blurry at best. It had been simple – nothing extraordinary and he had gone over it a hundred different ways and in every other possible scenario, the day didn't end the way it did.

I didn't matter how many times he relived it, nothing changed the fact that he had wrapped her present, gone to work and then, as he was about to go and meet her for lunch received a phone call from the hospital telling him he had to get down there because his wife and children had been admitted. It didn't change the fact that he found the boys sitting on bed, chattering away in the twin speak that had confused their parents for two years with barely a bump between them and then was taken to his wife who was laying unconscious in the bed, her dark curls wrapped in a bandage and the skin that wasn't marred with bruising and cuts white and clammy as the machine that was keeping her alive beeped in the background. He had listened aimlessly to the doctors telling him that it didn't look good, that the damage was done and he vaguely heard that some driver had tried to avoid some teenagers who were clowning around on the road and had swerved into the other lane causing the five cars to smash together. She wouldn't have seen it coming because no one had seen it coming and she had no chance of avoiding it at all. She had done everything right and somehow it wasn't enough.

She had hung on for four days – regaining consciousness a few times, just long enough to tell him she was sorry, that she loved him more than anything but her consciousness was marred with agony. Part of him hated to see her in pain, but a small, selfish part was willing her to wake up no matter what pain she was in because he needed her. She was strong and he was weak and he needed her to tell him how to handle it.

He needed her...

He dropped his head to his hands and took a deep breath, his hands shaking as he ran them through his hair. The lights twinkled from his parent's house and he was sat outside watching people laugh, and smile and dance as another Christmas party went on at his parents' house. He could see his mom dancing with his sons and the image of them dancing with Gabriella clawed at his heart as he struggled to hold onto the composure he had vowed that he would always keep when the boys were around. They didn't need to know how much this time of year killed him, or how much he wished he could just forget the whole holiday season because she would have hated that.

"You going to sit out here all night?"

He looked up to see his dad standing there and he forced a smile on his face as his dad sat down beside him, a hand on his shoulder as they both looked into the house to see the twelve year old twins looking around suspiciously before shaking their heads and glaring at a group of girls who were at the other end of the room.

"I just...needed some air."

"Air is good," his dad said with a smile as he looked in towards the house and smiled as he saw his wife wrapping her arms around the boys and kissing them both on the cheek, causing them to blush furiously. Troy couldn't help but laugh – they took so much from Gabriella without even knowing it yet at times it was like looking in the mirror at smaller, better looking versions of himself. "Your mom wants to know if you've thought anymore about coming home to stay."

"I have a home, Dad," he said as he looked in and sighed. "I have a job and friends and stuff there...Jake and Matty are in school..."

"I know that and I explained to your mom but..." Jack trailed off and gave a shrug and Troy couldn't help but laugh. The mom card was used to forgive an abundance of sins and it had been universal. He could remember Gabriella using it to explain why she had resisted cutting the twins curls off for eighteen months, and for letting the boys stay up late to wait for him when he would come home from work, or the reason why it was okay for her to eat ice cream in bed. He could just imagine how it would have developed in time.

"She, your mom, she...invited...someone over tonight." Jack's hesitant statement pulled Troy out his thoughts and for a second Troy wondered what was wrong. His mom always invited people over – she was like a stray magnet and would invite people she had spoken to once for this party. "For you. She invited someone over for you to meet. She's...she's the daughter of a co-worker and she's apparently very smart and very bea..."

"Tonight?" Troy's voice was tight and his fist clenched as he tried to regulate his breathing. "This week?"

"Yeah," he said lowly. "I know the timing is...awful don't come home that often. She...she's just trying to help, Troy. No matter what you or I think about it, she's just trying to help."

"I came here so the boys could spend time with you two, not so that you could stick your noses into my life," Troy hissed. "I should have stayed at home. Seriously - how hard is it for everyone to understand that I'm happy with my life the way it is? I have my family, I have a job I love, I have a house, great friends, I watch basketball, go out for a beer, have BBQ's and I don't need anything else!"

"Troy...she just worries that you're lonely. You're a man and..."

"No!" Troy stood and ran his hands through his hair. "I don't need another woman, Dad. The boys don't need a mom and I sure as hell don't need another wife, okay? I refuse to settle for some replacement because you all fucking think that I should want one."

"Troy, I know," Jack said as he stood and grabbed Troy's shoulder and held it gently. "I know. Trust me, I know. If it were me...I get it, okay but she's your mom and all she wants is to see her little boy happy. That's all. It's been ten years and if...if you want something else, not as a replacement or anything, but just as...something she...Gabriella...she would understand."

"I know she would, Dad. The point is that none of you understand," he said quietly as he sat down and looked back to the party and sighed, wishing more than he was somewhere else. "I don't want someone else, okay? I don't...the idea of someone else just..." he clenched his eyes shut at the mere thought of it. He didn't want someone else – he had found the person he was meant to be with and if he couldn't have her, he didn't want anyone. "It will always be her. I'm happy with everything I have just now. I'm not lonely, miserable, aimless or depressed – I'm...I'm fine."

Jack nodded and sighed as he sat back down. "I know you are but I have to say it, you know? Just in case."

"Don't say it again," Troy asked as he turned back to his dad. "Please."

"I won't," his dad promised. "I'll talk to your mom as well, okay? I told her it was a stupid idea but she got to thinking that if you just went for dinner then...but I'll talk to her, I promise, okay?"

"Thanks Dad," Troy whispered as he looked down and sighed, letting the silence hang between them for a moment.

"I know it's tough for you, this time of year. Truthfully, it's tough for me too," Jack said as he looked down. "She was like a daughter to me and...and I know that Christmas has always been a big thing with your mom, but truthfully, forcing myself to smile through this party the last few years is difficult when I know it's hurting you so much."

"Don't worry about me - I'm fine," he looked down at his wedding ring and twisted it slightly. "It's good for the boys to come here. It's selfish but mom is so...up for the holiday that I can just let her build the excitement and I can just get pulled along with it without having to do much more than putting some lights up and wrapping some presents. I know it's selfish..."

"It's not selfish, just...natural. You shouldn't feel guilty for feeling like crap at this time of year."

"I know, it's just I can just remember that day so clearly – what she was wearing, how she smelled, what she said," Troy took a deep breath and brought his hand to cover his eyes. He saw her dressed like that every night in his dreams and every night he was torn between admiring her beauty and wishing she would wear anything else just so he could forget for five minutes. "She was teasing me for kissing her under the mistletoe and somehow made me agree to be on diaper duty for the baby and I can remember everything about that day. We were so happy, Dad."

Jack sighed and put his arm more fully around his son. "I know you were."

"I just...I still wish she were here so much..."

"I know," Jack sighed. "You've done an amazing job with the boys though. She would be so proud of you, Troy."

"I know," he said with a smile. "She always said I'd be a good dad, even when I couldn't understand a thing out the twins' mouths for eighteen months. She said I would get it eventually."

"She was right."

Troy smiled and nodded, knowing that he was pretty good at the dad thing. It was tiring and difficult and he wished more than anything that he didn't have to do it alone, but he was better at it than he ever thought he could be. He knew most of that was due to necessity and it hadn't been easy, but he was doing a decent job. "I picked up some tips along the way."

"Yeah, right," Jack said with a laugh. "The number of times you called me overbearing when you were a teenager?"

"You got it right eventually," Troy chuckled as he looked at his dad. "And got it right when I really needed you."

"Yeah well," Jack cleared his throat. "You learn on the job – there are some things that you can't prepare for. You know that."

"Yeah," Troy said, the implication left hanging as they both looked over at the house, the same memories playing in both their heads of a scene where they were both sat like this ten years earlier, his dad's arm round his shoulder, his head bowed and barely being able to breathe never mind anything else.

At that time he hadn't known how he was going to last a day and here he was ten years later and he was lasting it out. He wasn't lying when he said he was happy enough with his life – but it was all relative to what it was like when he was truly happy. None of that mattered though – his job was to look after and protect their children the way she would have done and he was doing that. Everything else was a bonus.

He was snapped out of his thoughts as he heard a commotion come from the house and his dad began laughing as they looked up over and saw the twins rush out and over to them, neither of them looking particularly impressed. They were at the age where Christmas parties with relatives weren't fun and the usual Christmas festivities (apart from opening their presents) were beginning to be a bit 'uncool' for them. Like their parents, they were mostly too polite to voice it but he had noticed that as they rapidly approached their teenage years they had begun to perfect the eye roll, the obnoxious sighing and had started to converse in Spanish around him and the rest of their non Spanish speaking relatives and friends when they were being pissy about something. Gabriella had started teaching them Spanish almost immediately as soon as they started talking and although it wasn't something he could do, he had got a book and kept it up as best he could until Maria had informed him that she would handle that for him. In hindsight he almost wished he had kept learning...

"You two are supposed to be in there having fun."

He watched as Matty, the eldest by a grand total of six minutes, burst out laughing and Jake pushed him harshly. "Bésame el culo, Mateo!"

Troy narrowed his eyes. "Hey – language!"

"What?" Jake said, pulling his face into an innocent expression and nudging Matty who quickly mirrored his brother, but much less successfully. "I was just telling him to stop laughing."

"I know I don't speak much Spanish, but trust me – I know enough to know that what you just said was not something that your grandma taught you."


"Do not even attempt to lie, Jacob."

"Fine," Jake said before sighing. "Sorry, Dad."

Jack laughed as he shook his head. "I swear it's like looking at your dad and Chad when they were your age."

"Hey – we never cursed you out in any language," Troy defended; causing Matty turned and shot a foul look at his brother.

"We didn't curse you out," Jake defended, causing Jack to chuckle more. Jake was definitely the most vocal and dominant of the two boys despite being younger, and he had the benefits of his dad's confidence with his mom's intelligence so could quite easily argue himself out of pretty much anything. Whereas Gabriella had decided that law was not for her, he could definitely see that as a career for their youngest son. "You know – if you learned it then you would have known that."

"Sorry, but languages were never my forte – there's a reason your mom used to order the food when we went to eat," Troy said defensively. "And if you keep being a smartass maybe I'll learn just so you two will have to find a different way to complain without getting in trouble."

"Sure, okay," Matty giggled as he and his brother shared what Troy was sure was supposed to be a subtle roll of the eyes which his dad seemed to find extremely funny.

"Anyway – why are you two out here instead of inside?" Troy asked as the boys groaned and sat down.

"Ugh – people are being weird," Matty whined.

"Yeah," Jake agreed, his face showing his distaste. "Why does Grams insist on putting mistletoe up every year? It makes all the girls go...weird."

Jack began laughing and Troy felt the weight of a dozen memories run through his head centred round that little plant and he swallowed back the lump in his throat as he forced a smile. "You'll understand it when you're older, buddy."

"No we won't," Matty said as he shook his head. "It's stupid."

"When I was your age I felt the same're just going to have to trust me on this."

"Yeah – you should have seen your dad with your mom," Jack said with laughter as he shook his head. "They came home from college one year and I swear he hung about ten different sprigs up and just spent the night walking her from one to the other..."

Troy watched as the boys faces merged from disgust at the kissing antics of their parents to excitement about hearing another story of their mom. It wasn't that they didn't know anything about her, it was just they didn't know everything and although it was easy for Troy to tell them how she would love to sing along to TV jingles and did the worst impersonations in the history of the universe, it was sometimes still hard to talk about how they had been and what their relationship had been like as a couple.

"I thought you and mom met in High School?"

"Actually, we met on vacation, at New Years," Troy corrected with a smile. "We...both went to this kid's party on New Year's Eve and neither of us had wanted to go. I wanted to play basketball and Gabriella...she was reading this book and she wanted to finish it but your grandma's were not having any of it and made us both go," he smiled at the memory, his eyes softening as the sounds and the atmosphere of that party, that night returned briefly. "We were chosen to sing karaoke together and I started and I just felt weird standing up on stage with all those people around me and was about to walk off stage when she started to sing and it was...I don't even know what to say – she just started singing and I was just...stunned. We finished our song and talked afterwards and it turned out that she wasn't just beautiful and talented, but she was also really, really nice so we swapped numbers but I had to leave the following day and I didn't think I would ever see her again."

"He was pouting like a seven year old girl all the way home," Jack added which caused the boys to laugh as Troy could only shake his head. He could remember the trip home and his repeated attempts at dialling her number before he chickened out, only to fall into an even worse mood because of it.

"I went back to school a couple of days later and was just talking to my friends when this girl just walks in and she doesn't even notice I'm sitting there but I noticed her, so her up..."

"In class?"

Troy laughed and nodded. "Yeah – and her cell phone went off and we both landed in detention, but...but that was it."

"You got her detention on her first day? Why didn't you just wait until you were out of class?"

Troy grinned as he shook his head. He supposed he could have done that but...well, he hadn't exactly been thinking much more than making 100% sure it really was her and letting her know that he was there. "I did wait for her after class but...I don't know, I wasn't really thinking clearly."

"So you guys got together then?"

"Kinda...we...we...were kinda clueless to be honest," Troy shook his head. "I screwed up and your mom found out and she wouldn't talk to me for days but yeah, we were pretty much together for all that time."

"So...I don't get it," Matty said with a shake of his head. "Why were you still trying to get her under the mistletoe when you were in college if you were going out with her in High School?"

"Because..." Troy began laughing as he remembered that particular Christmas in their second year after they had officially moved in together. "Because you'll understand it when you're older." He thought for a second about having two teenage boys behaving like he and Gabriella had and quickly added. "Much older. Like in college older."

"You two were weird," Jake said with a shake of his head as he looked down.

"Maybe a little," Troy conceded with a smile before he looked at the two boys. "We had to have been a little weird to produce you two after all."

"Ha ha," Jake said with a less subtle eye roll this time, but there was no disguising the smile that was tugging at his and Mateo's lips as they both made a show of turning away and looking back towards the house, a sign to everyone that the conversation subject was about to get changed. He didn't know if the boys thought about Gabriella much around this time of year because he always tried to avoid them associating what had happened with this time of year and they had obviously been too young to really remember much about her, but sometimes they would share a look, or start a conversation or make a comment and he would wonder whether or not they wondered about things. There was a part of him that would love to sit down and just spend a day and tell them everything, but another part, the selfish part, wanted to avoid it because it would just be too painful for him. "Aww man – Mal's been cornered. Why didn't he follow us?"

"He's a pinche idiota..." Troy cleared his throat loudly and Matty quickly continued as he stood and dragged Jake along with him. "I mean he must be so...annoyed that we ditched him. Come on – we better go save his dumb a..."

"You guys better stop swearing in Spanish!" Troy called after them with a shake of his head as he looked at his dad. "I should never have agreed to let them learn that."

"But you did," Jack said as he stood. "You should be proud."

"I am – I'd be prouder if they weren't using it to cuss every five minutes," Troy said as he sunk his head back. "I swear they got that habit from Gabriella without even knowing it. I should have realised that if they were going to pick a bad habit up off her it wouldn't be her obsessive need to tidy or to turn the volume off on movies when they got too scary or sad."

"They'll grow out it," Jack said with a smile. "When you were that age, your favourite thing to do was answer every other question with a one word answer because you though all the 'cool kids' did that."

"Yeah," Troy laughed as he shook his head, remembering his brief foray into attempting to be a badass when he was a kid that had lasted all of two weeks until his and Chad's dad had banned them from basketball.

"Yeah," Jack said slowly before looking at Troy. "I'm going to head back in – try and talk to your mom. Don't stay out here too long, okay?"

"Okay," Troy said with a smile. "Hey – thanks, Dad. Just...for everything."

Jack nodded and took a deep breath, a silent acknowledgement that Troy appreciated. "No problem. Seriously, don't stay out too long, okay?"

"I won't," Troy said as his dad walked off, leaving Troy out in his backyard, the tree house he hadn't been in for years looming overhead and the laughter and music from the house echoing around him as he closed his eyes, trying to ignore the memories that suffocated him as he looked at his watch, trying to wish time to move faster until he could go to bed.

Troy climbed into bed and closed his eyes, praying for sleep to take him but knowing the way he was feeling that it would take too long. He could hear the voices of his parents tidying up, and the faint arguing of the twins from across the hall and he tried to zone it all out. He didn't know what time he eventually closed his eyes, but it didn't matter as he heard a soft voice in his ear.

"Why are you so sad today?"

His eyes sprung open to be met by her beautiful brown that was laying alongside him, and his hand went to her cheek desperately.

"It's been a long day at the end of a long week. I miss you."

"I know." She brought her hand to his face and brushed it down his cheek. "But don't miss me. I'm here."

"It's not enough," he whispered, his voice thick. "No one else understands. No matter how hard I try, they want more and I can't..."

"You don't have to," she smiled as she leant in closer. "No one ever understood us."

"I know but..."

"Shhh," she said as she leant down and pressed her lips to his cheek. "It doesn't matter. None of that matters."

"Don't leave me," he whispered as he looked at her. "Don't leave me again. Promise me that you'll always come back."

"As long as you want me here, I'm yours," she swore as she brushed his hair away. "You shouldn' shouldn't feel bad if you want something else one day though. I just want you to be happy, no matter what."

"I've never wanted anything else," he promised as he interlaced his hand with hers. "Once in a lifetime, right?"

"Right," she smiled as she brought her hand to his heart. "Did you enjoy the party?"

He wanted to tell her yes, make it seem like he had but she could always tell when he was lying. "I said hi, but I was outside for most of it. The twins discovered the joys of mistletoe though..."

She giggled as she shook her head. "I love mistletoe."

"I know – I told them they would appreciate it more when they got older."

"Much older, hopefully," she said, her eyes widening in horror that mirrored his at the thought of the boys as teenagers. "Like college, older."

"Hopefully," he agreed with a laugh as she smiled down at him. "God, you are still so beautiful. I told you that you were going to end up married to an old man..."

"And I told you that you would make a good looking older man," she whispered as she brought her hand to the side of his ear and caressed it softly. "I love you, Wildcat."

"I love you too," he returned as she leant down and lay against his chest and he could feel her fingers hover over his heart.



"I want you to have fun tomorrow – don't think about me too much."

He didn't say anything, refusing to make a promise he couldn't keep and she kept talking.

"And...please be careful when you're going running in the morning," she whispered softly. "I don't want to see you too soon."

He nodded, his eyes open as he looked up, his hand brushing against her hair as he let his eyes close, knowing that when he opened them he would be on his own again – the way it always was and that mere fact made him want to break that promise. "I know, I promise. Tomorrow...tomorrow's going to be tough."

"I know it is. But...we can handle it, right?"

"Yeah, we can," he said as he brushed her hair away from the shoulder her red sweater left exposed so he could trail his fingers against it. "We can handle anything."

He smiled into the darkness at the truth of his words and although he didn't know if she was really there, or if it was his imagination, or anything else – all he knew is that it was enough to make him strong enough to be the man he had to be. Even if it was only a few stolen moments together in his dreams.

Be my friend. Hold me.
Wrap me up, unfold me.
I am small and needy.
Warm me up
And breathe me.
--Sia – Breathe Me--