Landmines were exploding in my head and something was stabbing me in the ribcage when I woke up. Closer inspection wasn't possible. My face was too busy being stuck to my pillow with drool. I was sure any kind of sunlight infiltrating my eyes would instantly cause my entire being to shut down. The pain would be too intense.
Someone was stage-whispering: "Duckling. Duckling. Bella!"
I was in some strange game of Duck, Duck, Goose. Clearly I'd already been shot. In the head. The game had gotten brutal since I was a kid.
The stabbing subsided, replaced by a miniature earthquake that rocked my whole upper body and threatened to eject anything currently residing in my stomach. I would have given my kingdom for a Starbucks.
I tried to pull my knees up to my chest, rolling away from the earthquake, mumbling: "I'm not the goose."
My nose started to tickle and a low voice coaxed: "Duckling, I know you're awake. I got you Tylenol. Yummy, yummy, Tylenol."
It felt like there was a shadow across my face so I risked easing open my eyes, a fraction of an inch at a time, until Pretty Boy's blurry visage hovered beside me like a tequila-soaked angel in desperate need of a shower. He reeked of alcohol and my stomach was very, very unhappy at being so close to the smell.
Unfortunately for my stomach the rest of me was pretty damn enthused to see him.
"You smell of bar," I greeted him, my face still pressed into the pillow.
"You smell of vomit, so I'm gonna win this one."
When I pried my eyes open again his face was annoyingly kind. Like he found my horrific situation endearing. He was sitting up next to me now — one hand wrapped around a half-empty bottle of water, the other cupped with two small white pills resting in his palm.
I think the burst of pain that penetrated through my skull was my face rearranging itself into a horrified expression. "Why do I smell of vomit?"
"Why do you think you smell of vomit? The magical vomit fairy?"
"Did you throw up on me?" I groaned. "MC, so help me. That's my favorite shirt."
"I promise all the vomit was your own."
Hands gently wrapped around my shoulders and turned me over, pulling me up into a sitting position at the same time. It was a pretty skilled maneuver. If I hadn't be in the middle of dying and all I would have been impressed.
One of the hands traced around my cheek lightly. Hovering by my face with just the lightest pressure.
"Duckling, I need to go."
"But I smell of vomit."
"I know, and contrary to what people may say, that's not why I need to go. But, I do, need to go. Take your Tylenol. You'll feel better... in about three days."
He deposited the pills into my clammy hand as I took the bottle of water. Lucky for me the top was already off because that was a feat of dexterity that I wasn't up to on most days, let alone the morning after Mike's epic end of semester Christmas party.
Pretty Boy pushed back my sweaty, frankly disgusting, hair from my face as I swallowed the Tylenol.
"I really need to go, or I'm gonna get stuck in traffic. You okay?"
"I think I might die."
"MC, seriously, you can go. I'm surprised you're even still here. I'm gross."
"You're not gross."
"I feel so shit, and I'm not going to see you for three weeks. You need to go before I cry. I hate that I'm so stupid and disgusting when you're leaving."
Pretty Boy's face was not impressed. In fact, it was all thunder-cloudy and his voice was sharp: "Bella, you feel like shit cause you drank a fuck-load of some guy's Grey Goose last night, threw up all over our cab, and then passed out. I need to go and you're making me feel like shit about it."
I felt my bottom lip start to wobble. "I'm sorry. Go, go."
He showed true bravery in the face of... well, me hungover, and pressed a kiss to my closed mouth. Despite my grumpiness. His fingers were weaved all through my hair making blissful little pressure points on my scalp.
"I'll miss you. Vomit-breath and all."
"Why are you okay?"
His mouth scrunched up in that way that made me turn inside out. "I'm not. I think I'm still kinda drunk. There's a cab outside waiting for me, that's why I don't want to get stuck in traffic. I need to get home before I'm as bad as you."
"Bye, Duckling." His thumb traced just above my eyebrow as he pulled away.
"MC," I called out as he headed for the door.
He looked back, quirking a brow in question.
His smile was shiny and white as he disappeared into the hall and I flopped face first back into my mattress.
I had to sleep a long time before I was sober enough to sit upright and drive at the same time.
The house looked more Charlie Brown than Charlie Swan. There was one sad little artificial tree on the kitchen table, about the size of my foot. It had a smattering of unmatched baubles and the most painful, threadbare strand of tinsel I'd ever seen.
Post-holiday blues weren't going to be a problem if this was the extent of the festivities.
I was kind of a sucker for Christmas, but I wasn't in the mood to trim the tree and bake sugar cookies just so that I could sit alone and gorge myself on them. That would be a whole new level of depression.
I turned to my dad, and stated: "You've done so much with the place."
"Well, Bells, I wasn't really expecting company this year, you know that."
"And you usually do all this decorating stuff. You know it's no difference to me."
"They decorate the station?"
"Some of the girls on the front desk dressed it up a bit."
"Shoulda got them to stop round here."
"The market will still be open if you wanna deck the halls, kiddo."
I would have rather drowned in egg nog but the chances of the police chief's underage daughter getting hold of the necessary ingredients was slim to none. For that reason, and that reason alone — actually no, decorations, too — I was a little sad I wasn't spending the holiday with my mom.
"I gotta head out. You okay to get unpacked? I haven't had a second to get groceries, but there's some money in the pantry."
"I bet you have beer."
His mustache twitched with a hidden smile. "Well, it's invisible as far as you're concerned."
My dad wasn't a bad guy — he just didn't really get me. I guessed that was okay; most people didn't.
I traipsed up the stairs once he left to dump my belongings. My bedroom was a museum. The sheets were clean but they were the ones I used before I moved out. Everything in the little purple room seemed irrelevant to me now.
The last time I'd stayed here I had been quiet, and agreeable, and virginal. Well, for the most part. I hadn't been that agreeable since Renee remarried halfway through my sophomore year.
I had smiled when she told me about the engagement, dutifully wore the world's most tragically monstrous bridesmaid's dress, and sunnily agreed that of course I'd go live with my dad while she took an eighteen month honeymoon with her dreamboat ball boy.
Philip was okay. He hated that I called him Philip, and I hated that he called me Izzy. He was good for birthday cash, though, and he kept my mom occupied.
I flopped onto the bed and closed my eyes. When I opened them I was almost disappointed to find myself in the same room. I half expected to see Pretty Boy's hoodie slung over the back of my desk chair, or one of his stray sneakers hiding under my bed.
Christmas Eve showed up before I realized. It's like all the mopey wallowing I'd done, alone, in front of the TV had time-warped me somehow.
I was woken from the fog of blah when my cell phone buzzed with a text.
Eating cookies and milk in my jammies and you're missing it.
I laughed aloud at the thought of Pretty Boy in footie pajamas.
I texted back: All alone and I forgot my jammies, you're missing that.
My cell receives picture messages you know.
Shame I have no idea how to send them.
That was a lie. What moron didn't know how to press the little envelope next to a photo and pick out a contact to send it to?
I didn't reply and not much later two more texts arrived in quick succession while Ina was teaching me the best way to include ten sticks of butter into mashed potatoes.
Can I call you?
I'm gonna call you.
The cell buzzed and vibrated against the side table until I answered it.
"This is weird," I admitted.
"We've never spoken on the phone before. It's weird. I can't see you."
"Don't be a dick — it's Christmas Eve, Santa will be watching."
"He'll be getting a hell of a show at your house."
"Nah, I stole your green t-shirt. It's comfy."
"That's cause it's like three thousand years old. Who's the klepto now?"
"We're dating, kind of... that gives me rights to all your clothes."
"We haven't actually been out on a date."
"Yeah, I know, it was weird as soon as I said it."
The most awkward pause that has ever occurred in conversation hung between us until Pretty Boy suggested: "We could just skip dating."
He continued: "Dating sucks. It's like awkwardly hanging out with someone you probably don't even like on the off chance you might get laid."
"You're such a romantic."
"And you're already getting laid."
"And eloquent, too!"
"Whatever, Duckling. It's true."
"So, what, you're my boyfriend now?"
"On the phone was a really shitty time to have this conversation, you coward."
"It limited the chance of you throwing something at me."
I rolled my eyes and changed the subject. "What's it like at your sister's?"
"Yeah, T announced she's pregnant at dinner. She and the boyfriend aren't getting married or anything, but everyone's hyper as fuck."
"That's so cool. That's good, right?"
"Yeah, I mean she's older so just as long as everything goes okay."
"It will. It absolutely will. Hey, you think they'll stop calling you Baby E?"
"I wish." He sighed. "I wish you were here."
"Aw, MC, you feeling all sentimental?"
"Must be all the baby talk, it's affecting my hormones."
"You're so full of shit," I laughed.
"How's it at your dad's?"
"We're just short of a Snoopy."
"Is it that bad, Charlie Brown?"
"It's not bad, it's just..." I let the sentence trail off. I couldn't think of a way to really finish it without sounding like the world's biggest Scrooge.
"Duckling? Hey, Bella, you there?"
"I gotta go, but everything's cool. I'll talk to you later."
I hung up the phone and ran upstairs where I started gathering the few things I'd unpacked to squish them all haphazardly into my backpack.
Charlie was still at the station. He would be there all night and most of the next day. When I finally got me and my belongings downstairs I grabbed a post-it from beside the phone and left him a note.
I threw all of my stuff into the backseat and gunned the engine as best I could in the piece of crap I was driving. It rattled, although to be fair that was probably half the engine giving up and half the copious amount of empty Starbucks cups rolling around on the floor.
It would take me a couple of hours to get there but I had my iPod plugged into the cassette deck and my Christmas playlist on full blast as I navigated the frosty roads. There wasn't any real snow, but the closer I got to my destination, the more festive everything began to feel.
It was the feeling people get when they're headed home.
My cell phone rang again and I glanced at the caller ID. It was Pretty Boy. I switched to one hand on the steering wheel and took the call.
"You're suddenly chipper."
"I can't talk right now."
"What's going on?"
"I'm driving and I don't have hands free."
"Stocking up on essentials? We had to do a massive grocery run earlier cause Emmett was terrified we'd run out of Pringles."
"I should hang up."
"Right. Merry Christmas Eve, Duckling."
"Merry Christmas, MC."
It took twenty minutes longer than I had anticipated to find where I was headed and when I finally pulled up the driveway it was already dark. The house glowed like an elaborate Christmas decoration itself, flooding warm light.
I knocked and shuffled from foot to foot listening to people moving around inside.
The door swung open and Pretty Boy was standing in front of me, his head turned away as he called behind him: "Carlisle, do not take that seat! I'm coming back."
He turned to face me, and stopped short. He was wearing a t-shirt that was a little too tight, and sweat pants that I wanted to crawl inside. There was a popcorn garland wrapped around his left hand and from the empty length of string dangling from his fingers he had been snacking on it.
I gave him a little wave with my mittened hand. "Hey."
"Duckling. Did you get lost?"
"Yeah, totally got turned around on my way to the market..."
His mouth split into a smile. "You better come in then. Gimme your keys."
I handed them over. He was barefoot but he shoved on some sneakers by the door and headed out to my car to grab my bag while I stood awkwardly in the foyer. The popcorn garland was still wrapped around his hand.
He brought my backpack inside, slung over one of his shoulders, and tugged my elbow, leading me toward the stairs. We walked past the huge lounge area.
"Looks like Baby E's present arrived early," Jasper laughed when he saw me.
"Fuck off." Pretty Boy tried to look angry as he threw a piece of popcorn from his garland at Jasper's head.
Pretty Boy's hand tugged at mine again, and we headed up the stairs for his room. I could feel the combined power of an entire family smirking at us through the back of my head.
When we got there he threw all my stuff on the floor in his closet, and unwrapped my coat from around me. He was so much taller than me — we were toe-to-toe, my head tilted almost all the way back to see into his eyes. Then, he hugged me, tight, his popcorn garland crumbling between his hand and my back. He smelled like laundry detergent, and Christmas candles, and salt.
He pulled back a little, keeping his hands on me. "You came."
"I got to Charlie's and I just... felt like I was in the wrong place."
Instead of replying Pretty Boy kissed me. I was wrapped up in all of him. My hands in his snug t-shirt. One of his tangled up in my hair, the other pressing between my shoulder blades, holding me a little too close to kiss but doing it anyway. Every part of my feet except my tiptoes came off the ground.
When he finally pulled away he unwrapped the shattered popcorn garland from around his hand and held it out to me. "Want some popcorn?"
I laughed. "Yeah, sure. You got some spare?"
"For you? Always."
He twisted his fingers up in mine and led me back to where the rest of his family were celebrating with popcorn and mince pies and eggnog and Scrabble.
And you can probably guess this part, but, we kind of lived happily ever after.
AN: OMG. I can't actually believe it's finished. Firstly, thank you for all the kind words and encouragement for this story - in reviews, on Twitter, on Livejournal, on blogs - I really appreciated each and every comment I read and I honestly can say I wouldn't have finished this without you.
A few people have asked about Outtakes or a Sequel. I won't say no to either because I really don't think I'm ready to say goodbye to Duckling and Pretty Boy, so Author Alert or follow me on Twitter to stay abreast of any updates on that front. One of the most likely candidates is a very Masen-Cullen Christmas since so many people have brought it up in reviews. :)
Finally, and most importantly, have a very Merry Christmas.