The Christmas After

Disclaimer: I own nothing, just like to imagine a happier world. ;)

"Regrets collect like old friends

Here to relive your darkest moments

I can see no way, I can see no way

And all of the ghouls come out to play

And every demon wants his pound of flesh

But I like to keep some things to myself

I like to keep my issues strong

It's always darkest before the dawn

And I've been a fool and I've been blind

I can never leave the past behind

I can see no way, I can see no way

I'm always dragging that horse around

And our love is pastured such a mournful sound

Tonight I'm gonna bury that horse in the ground

So I like to keep my issues strong

But it's always darkest before the dawn"

Shake it out, by Florence + The Machine

A few months had passed since the whole ordeal with Artie releasing the sweating sickness, and the Christmas season was upon them once again.

Artie had not left the warehouse since they had returned, preferring to live there in isolation. He hadn't made any attempts to talk to anyone about what had happened. The Regents had cleared him for what happened with Leena, and had placed him on a temporary leave to recover from his wounds, both physical and mental.

Claudia and Steve took over finding the pings, while Myka and Pete did the hunting. Every now and then they would catch a glimpse of Artie coming out of his room and moving around. He made little or no conversation when he did. Claudia had tried numerous times to talk to him but he would brush her off.

They all worried about him but had no idea how to handle the situation so they just decided to give him time.

Claudia and Steve had decorated the B&B for the holidays, hoping to bring some semblance of cheer. It was the day before Christmas and they were all planning to stay in and watch old holiday movies.

Claudia, who had kept in contact with Vanessa, had invited her to come spend the holiday with them. She had called Dr. Calder on a regular basis to see if there were any methods to help Artie come out his funk. So far they hadn't been able to come up with anything.

Later in the afternoon, while they were watching The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, Pete and Steve were going over what everyone was going to make for dinner the next day. Myka and Claudia were deciding who was going to go to the Warehouse in the morning and make the attempt to get Artie to come and join them. They finally decided Claudia would go, since she had the closest connection to him, hoping it would be enough to get him out even for a day.

After all the plans had been made, they had finished the last movie and decided to turn in for the night. Claudia had made up a room for Vanessa to stay in for the night. They were the last two to head upstairs, talking as they went.

"Do you think he'll come? I'm so worried he won't, and he really needs to get out of the Warehouse." Claudia said, moving towards the staircase.

"I don't know, he seems hell bent on being alone and punishing himself for everything that's happened. Those kinds of emotions can really be hard to shake. I hope he realizes we all care about him enough to come tomorrow. He needs to heal, but he can't do it by himself." Vanessa replied, looking saddened at the thought.

They both headed to their rooms, thinking about the next day, hoping that all would work out.

As everyone woke up the next day and got started on their tasks, Claudia headed off to the Warehouse to make the attempt of getting Artie to join them. They all wished her luck as she headed out the door and took off.

When she got to the Warehouse, she walked in to see Artie sitting at his piano, working on the same song as always. He stopped momentarily when he heard her enter, and then resumed playing. He knew who it would be, and why she had come, but he still didn't want to talk. So he continued to play hoping she'd just go.

"Look, I know you don't want to talk to me, or anyone else. Fine. We get that. I get it. It doesn't mean we won't always be here, ready to listen when you do. For now, we don't want anything but your company. Everyone is back at the B&B making dinner, and all we want this year is for you to join us. Even if it's just to come eat. I'm going to head back, but I really hope that you decide to come. You're part of this family, and it wouldn't be the same without you. Just think about it." Claudia waited a moment to see if there was any reaction to her words, but he continued to play the piano. She sighed, disappointed that she didn't seem to get through to him.

She turned and headed out the door, wishing she could just take all of his pain with her. What she didn't see was Artie turning to watch her exit, tears in his eyes.

After Claudia had returned to the B&B informing them that she didn't get through to Artie, the mood was dampened a bit. They all tried to keep each others spirits up, but it still felt slightly empty.

After a few hours, everything was finished and they all sat down at the table. There was an extra chair at the table, meant for Artie, and even though he hadn't come, no one made an effort to move it.

There was music playing in the background and they were talking about various family traditions when they heard the front door open. Everyone stopped talking for a moment, and when no one appeared, they wondered if they had just heard what they wanted to hear.

"So my mom was always a stickler for cleanliness, and the one time I tried to make a popcorn string for the tree, she about had a heart attack. My sister and I were laughing so hard we couldn't take her serious. She finally gave in and let us put it up that year, but after that we could never find popcorn in the house around Christmas time." Pete said finishing his story. Everyone was chuckling, passing around the food.

Steve began to explain how his mom used to make him and his sister hand craft their ornaments. No one had noticed yet that Artie was sitting by the entrance to the kitchen, watching them with a look of sadness and shock. He hadn't expected Vanessa to be there. He was already wary of coming in the first place, but seeing her made him want to turn and run. He had behaved so badly the last time they met, he didn't know how to go about seeing her again. His heart was pounding and he was getting ready to head back out the front door when he heard Claudia say his name.

"Artie? You came!" She said loudly, jumping up to pull him into the kitchen. Everyone looked up, with huge smiles on their faces.

"Artie, ol' bean, come get some food!" Pete said waving at the table.

He looked around the table at the smiling faces of his team, feeling a little better about coming. He looked over at Vanessa to see her looking down at her plate, and the awkward feeling returned. He didn't want her to feel uncomfortable because he came.

"I uh... just wanted to stop by, I don't know if I'll stay... I..." Artie said, sounding flustered.

"Of course you're staying, come sit down. We were all hoping you'd come." Myka spoke up, smiling at him.

Claudia grabbed Artie and moved him over to the empty chair and pushed him into it. "That's right, we all made this great dinner, and you are staying to enjoy it with us."

Artie sighed, accepting that he was stuck for the time being. He couldn't help but notice that his seat was directly across he table from Vanessa. He couldn't bring himself to make eye contact with her, instead looking over towards Steve and Pete instead.

"So Steve, tell me more about these ornaments you made." Claudia said as she sat down. She looked back over at Artie, giving him a small smile. She could sense his uneasiness, and wanted to help by breaking the silence.

The next hour passed with more stories of Christmas past. Everyone had some humorous tree story to share and it there was a lot of laughter.

"So, since none of us really got much of a Thanksgiving this year, I was thinking we could go around the table and share the things we are thankful for and what we look forward to this next year. No one has to say anything, but I'm feeling a bit of holiday cheer tonight." Pete said, standing up. "I'll start. I for one, am very thankful for all of you. I never thought I'd have a job where I look at everyone and see family. You all mean so much to me and I'm glad we have each other. I look forward to more insanity in the coming year, but only so much." Everyone chuckled nodding in agreement.

Claudia stood up next. "Okay here goes. I'm with Pete in that I'm thankful for everyone here. I miss my brother, but I'm still with my family, and that's all that matters. I look forward to a calm year personally, and catching up on some inventory, since I have been slacking a bit in that area." She sat down, looking sheepishly at Artie. He gave her a small smile, which made her grin back happily.

Steve stood up next. "I am thankful to be alive, and my goal for the next year is to stay that way. And I want to say thanks to all of you, for bringing me back."

"Hear, hear!" Claudia said loudly.

"I'm thankful that I was roped into this job, because I would have missed out on some of the best moments, and the best people of my life. I hope we all continue to stay close in the coming years, no matter what." Myka said, looking at everyone, stopping at Artie with a smile, and repeated, "No matter what."

"Agreed!" Pete replied, tapping his glass to Myka's with almost too much force, causing giggles around the table.

"Well, I guess I'll go next." Vanessa spoke up. "I am thankful for good health, good friends, and never having a dull moment. And I want to say thank you all again for inviting me." She raised her glass to everyone, making eye contact with Artie for the first time that night. She gave him a tentative smile, pointing her glass towards him slightly.

"Cheers! And we are so glad to have you." Claudia said, breaking the tense moment between the two. Everyone raised glasses in agreement.

The room became silent, as everyone wondered if Artie was going to speak up. No one wanted to push him into saying anything, yet not knowing how to break the silence.

Finally, Artie cleared his throat and stood up.

"I know I haven't really been... the most sociable person lately... and I wanted to apologize to you all for that. I know that you just want to help... and... I've been rather... unfriendly in kind. I hope, though, that each of you know... how much I appreciate having you in my life. I don't know how much time it will take... to be able to really talk about things, but... when I am... I promise you'll know. I am thankful to have you all here... and I hope that... I haven't been so horrible that I... lost the trust of my family." He looked around at everyone. "Thank you... for sticking with me... even though..."

"We're always here for you Artie." Claudia said, raising her glass to him. Everyone else followed suite and raised their glasses as well.

"Yeah, you couldn't get rid of us if you tried." Pete chimed in. "To family."

"To Leena..." Artie said quietly, looking down.

"To Leena." Everyone repeated.

An hour later they were all done with dinner, and moving towards the living room to watch another movie and exchange a few gifts.

Claudia had grabbed Artie before he walked into the living room and pulled him outside.

"Artie, I wanted to say thanks for coming. I've been so worried about you and just wanted you to get out of the Warehouse at least for dinner. I know things haven't been easy, and I'm sure that the surprise of seeing a certain someone here doesn't help either. I just felt like no one should be alone, so I invited her to stay for a few days. There's no expectations about anything today, so I hope you won't leave right away. And... just in case you're in a gift giving mood, I brought this for you." She pulled out the small white box that had the copper bell in it. How she found that he had no clue, but she handed it to him, winked, and walked inside.

He sat there staring at the box, trying to decide if he felt like it was a good idea. He sat down on the bench for a minute, pondering the last few months. He wondered if he should start talking about everything, and finally try to move on. And seeing Vanessa tonight made him realize how much he really missed her. Maybe he should suck it up and make the most out of his life. Standing up, he headed back in towards the living room, formulating a plan to give his gift.

Everyone had settled and Artie moved over to one of the empty chairs and sat down. He had managed to hand Claudia the box and quietly told her to hand it out at the gift exchange. She grinned and happily agreed.

"Alright everyone, I'll hand out the gifts and then we all open at the same time, okay?" Claudia said, everyone nodding in agreement.

She started grabbing presents handing them out, one by one. Once everyone had theirs, she sat back down.

"Okay, lets do this!" Claudia said, ready to tear into her own presents.

Everyone spent the next few minutes opening said gifts. After everything had been opened, they all showed them off and shared thoughts on each one. Steve held up his miniature metronome that Claudia had given him eliciting a laugh from everyone. Pete was hugging his grilled cheese sandwich maker promising it won't go a day without use. Claudia showed off the multicolored scarf that had holes placed in a certain spot so that if she wrapped it around her head she had openings for eyes, nose, and mouth. Myka held up the complete works of Dante, collected in one giant book.

Everyone was happily chatting away about the worst and best gifts they had ever received. Vanessa realized Claudia had sneakily set one more gift next to her as she moved around to gather any wrapping paper still on the floor. When she looked up at the young girl, Claudia winked at her and nodded to the present, mouthing 'Open it'.

She grabbed it and pulled the lid off, looking inside. A smile crept across her face, as she pulled out the shiny copper bell, and held it in her hand. Tears sprung to her eyes as she realized what it was, and what it meant. Setting it back in the box, she looked up at Artie, who was staring at her nervously. He saw the smile on her face, and started to smile back.

Claudia held her breath as she watched the interaction. Seeing the results so far she was ready to jump up and down squealing, but she restrained herself. So she finished grabbing the bits of paper and ribbon off the floor, and nonchalantly made the suggestion that everyone head to the kitchen for some eggnog, giving Pete, Myka, and Steve a look that she hoped they understood. They all exchanged glances getting the hint and one by one got up to follow her into the kitchen.

Artie and Vanessa had both stood up as if to follow as well, but sat there still looking at each other.

"Vanessa... I... owe you an apology. The last time we met, I was... I wasn't myself, and I said things that I didn't mean. I don't expect anything to change, or to be forgiven, but... I needed to say...to tell you that I'm sorry... about everything." Artie said, shifting uncomfortably. When he looked back up at her, he saw that she had tears in her eyes. She moved forward, pulling him into a hug. At first it had shocked him, but when he realized what was going on, he hugged her back tightly, relishing the feeling of having her in his arms. He had missed Vanessa so much, and now all he wanted was to stay here forever, holding her.

She pulled back and looked into his eyes. "Artie, I don't need an apology. When I found out what had happened to you, I realized why you had done and said what you did. After you had gone on this temporary leave I wanted to come see you, see how you were doing. When Claudia had told me you wouldn't talk to anyone, I decided it would be best to wait for a while. I'm so glad that you came tonight. I've missed you very much these last few months."

"I've missed you too. The bell... that was the gift I had meant to give you that night, before Alice, before I had ruined everything. I wanted... to give you something that would make your face light up with that smile that I love so much. I'm sorry it took so long to give it to you, but I figured tonight of all nights was the next best thing." Artie replied, shrugging and looking down at his feet.

When he looked back up at Vanessa, there were tears running down her face, but she was smiling. That smile he looked forward to every time he saw her.

"Artie... this is the most wonderful gift I've ever received... I don't know what to say..." She stared at him, thinking about what he had just told her, making her smile even more.

Artie couldn't take it anymore. He reached up and wiped the tears from her cheeks, holding his palm to her face. Vanessa put her hand over his, leaning into it. He leaned forward and pulled her close for a simple kiss. When he attempted to move back, she grabbed him and pulled him into an even deeper kiss.

After the need for breathing became necessary, they both looked at each other and hugged. They started to laugh, joking about how if anyone saw them right now, they would look like a pair of teenagers.

Little did they know, there were four pairs of eyes watching them from the kitchen. After they had kissed, Claudia couldn't help herself. She squealed loudly, and was jumping up and down dancing through the kitchen, causing them all to burst into laughter.

"I can't believe it! That went so perfectly!" She said squealing again. She wanted to beeline out of the kitchen and go hug them both, but decided that she didn't want to ruin anything else that might happen, so instead she grabbed a bottle of champagne out of the fridge.

"I think it's time to celebrate the season, don't you guys?" Claudia said excitedly, moving to grab glasses. "Pete, since you have no shame, will you call the two lovebirds in here so we can all enjoy this together?"

"Done, and done!" He said, moving towards the door. "Hey you two crazy kids, if your done sucking face, get your butts in here for a toast!"

"Pete!" Myka yelled, trying not to giggle.

"What, I can't let Artie go this long without some teasing, and this is the perfect time for it!" He replied laughing.

Myka couldn't help it and started laughing too, which caused Steve and Claudia to start giggling with them. When Artie and Vanessa had come into the kitchen holding hands, it prompted everyone to laugh even harder, especially at seeing their red faces.

Vanessa couldn't help herself and joined in. Artie was trying very hard to look upset with Pete, but looking over at Vanessa, and seeing her laughing with them, he couldn't hold it in and started to join as well.

Claudia handed everyone a glass, holding one full of eggnog to Pete, and yelled, "Happy holidays, my dear family!" Everyone raised a glass to the toast. "And, it's about time Artie!" She added, causing another round of giggles.

"Hear, hear!" Everyone said joining their glasses together.

It had turned out to be a great night, with everyone together, full of love and joy.

Happy Holidays everyone! Thanks for reading! Let me know what ya think! :)