Christmas Eve was quiet, almost furtive, as those working on their tasks did what they could to conceal them from the others. It had been decided that Molly, who most wanted to be surprised, would be the one to prepare for the following morning first. She had set out her gifts, which all looked suspiciously the same shape and size and were wrapped in wads of newspaper, in a corner of the room, then, hands on hips, began to direct the others as to what exactly they could do about them.
"No touching! Don't pick them up or shake them either! Don't even look at them, okay? Just…do your stuff…and then go to bed, okay?"
She had scrambled off to her own bed considerably faster and with more enthusiasm than she did any other night of the year, and pulled her covers over her head for good measure, not wanting to risk seeing anything she didn't want to. And the others had gotten to work.
Karolina and Nico had earlier struggled to figure out exactly how it was they would not only drag this tree into the lair, but also hide it from Molly until Christmas morning.
"I don't know why we have to HIDE it, she's the one that told us to go get it," Nico had griped, but in the end it was she who had decided to cover it with blankets where it stretched across half the kitchen and living room area until they could put it upright. Though Chase and Victor had offered to help, she and Karolina had set it upright alone, Nico rolling her eyes at the offer.
"We managed to find it, cut it down, lug it home, and hide it from Little Miss Eagle Eyes, and you're gonna step in at the last second and take some credit? No thanks."
Gert's cookies had cooled long ago, and she set them out on a tray nearby, slapping Chase's hand away when he attempted to snake one towards his mouth. And as Karolina set the recording on the floor reluctantly, together they worked on the tree, decking it out with somewhat unconventional paperchains, snowflakes, snowmen, and candy canes. The lair was not what one would call a sight of beauty, but as they stepped back, critiquing their efforts, all of them, even Gert, felt that they had made an improvement…that maybe, just maybe, they had been worth it, if only to make Molly happy.
Happy might have been a mild phrase for Molly's reaction. It seemed to the others that it barely the crack of dawn of Christmas morning before Molly was shooting out of bed and shaking them all awake, crying out excitedly, "It's Christmas! Merry Christmas!"
The others had been slow to react to this, nestling further into their blankets, Gert going so far as to mutter what vaguely sounded like a threat of physical harm, but Molly, being invulnerable to anything the older girl could have done to her even if she had been serious, had ignored her, simply shaking her again and even more enthusiastically.
"Christmas! Get up and come open your presents!"
She was not taking no for an answer, and even in their sleepiness, her excitement was strangely contagious. Without much further prodding they had poured themselves out of their makeshift beds, shuffling slump-shouldered, yawning, and bleary-eyed in the direction she was indicating. Nico leaned into Karolina, arm around her waist and head on her shoulder as she rubbed at her eyes, and though Karolina jumped, her heart beating faster, and quickly became considerably more awake than the other four, she did tentatively curl her arm around Nico as well, letting her lean on her as they followed Molly. Chase, seeing Gert emerge, made his way over to her, one arm extended, but the purple-haired girl scowled.
"Touch me before six am and lose a hand," she warned, but then relented, slipping a hand into his. "Merry Christmas."
Molly, meanwhile, was almost dancing in circles around the others, her face aglow, messy hair flying about as she spun around, arms flying out to indicate everything she was seeing. She was energetic as a rule, but watching her then, her smile lighting up her eyes, the others smiled too, even Gert.
"This is AWESOME!" she enthused, "It's really CHRISTMAS!"
And it was. The tree stood tall and strong, and if its decorations were not of the best quality, their quantity made up for it. The cookies laid out for them might not have been as good as they could have been, but they were sweet, and that was good enough. And with a raised eyebrow from Victor, Karolina had gently pulled out from under Nico's arm to switch on the recording she had made of herself. Hearing her own soft voice singing "Silent Night" was not embarrassing, as she had feared, even as her cheeks flushed in anticipation, but rather strangely fitting and appropriate. Its tone and mood seemed to go with the present moment more perfectly than any silence, and as the others began to realize that it was her own voice they were hearing, their smiles softened, and they stood still, as though savoring, even reflecting on the moment. Nico slipped an arm around Karolina again, whispering in her ear, "Beautiful," and Karolina blushed, letting herself think, even for half a second, that her friend was referring to her rather than to her voice.
That unusual peacefulness was exactly what most of them had never felt was quite present most Christmas mornings, but this Christmas was unlike any others.
Of course, realism indicated that this quiet peace among them could not last long without being broken, and it could not have been longer than thirty to forty seconds before Molly darted towards her stash of presents, beginning to grab them up and toss them to each of their respective owners.
"Open them up, open them up!" she fairly demanded, already tearing into her own, though she knew perfectly well what her package held, having provided it herself. And the others had to admit that they were indeed curious as they obeyed.
When all newspaper wrapping had been cast aside, the other five children for several seconds could just stare down at Molly's gift to them, attempting to process it. Each of them was holding a formerly plain, solid-colored t-shirt, one from their own wardrobe, but Molly, apparently, had decided on a better use for them all. Each plain t-shirt had been "decorated" by Sharpie markers, individualized for each person. On the back of the shirt in slightly uneven capital letters across the shoulders was the word "RUNAWAYS", and beneath that, the individualized nickname of whichever person the shirt belonged to. "Talkback" for Chase, "Arsenic" for Gert, "Sister Grimm" for Nico, "Lucy in the sky" for Karolina, "Victron" for Victor, and of course, "Princess Powerful" for Molly herself. On the front of the shirt was Molly's drawn renditions of whatever she thought most appropriate to represent that person- a robot for Chase, a rainbow for Karolina, what was apparently supposed to be a dragon for Gert, a witch for Nico, a smiley face for Chase, and a princess, complete with a crown and wand, for Molly.
As the others looked down at their shirts, then up at Molly, as though seeking an explanation, Molly beamed, clearly pleased with herself.
"It's our costumes!" she announced. "For us, the Runaways! You guys are boring and wouldn't make any, so I did it for you. Look, it's got our names and pictures for us too…I didn't know what to put for you, Chase, so I just put a smiley face. Try them on, guys!"
And without further ado she slipped her own on over her t-shirt, grinning down at herself with satisfaction.
Ordinarily, Nico would never have let anyone even touch her clothes, let alone permanently alter one of her shirts, and specifically, she would never be caught dead wearing a caricature of a witch, something she had considered in bad taste even before she herself became one. Ordinarily, Gert would never have been caught dead wearing a bad rendition of a dragon, scrawled by an 11-year-old hand…but even they, examining Molly's dedication to them, couldn't help but smile, at least for this morning, and then, even to laugh. And they, along with everyone else, slipped on the t-shirts, then turned around to compare with each other, everyone laughing at and pointing out everyone else.
"No shirt for Old Lace, Mols?" Chase asked her, and she had an explanation ready.
"She didn't already have one and I couldn't buy one that big. But maybe I can make her a hat!"
"I think she's content as it is," Gert said dryly, but she was smiling as she looked at Chase's shirt pointedly. "I get the dragon…and you get a smiley? That speaks volumes."
"Maybe you should have got Nico's shirt," he retorted, as Gert replies calmly.
"Well if I'm a witch, you could get to be my toad."
Karolina, meanwhile, was looking down at the rainbow on her shirt and tracing it absently, thinking with some amusement, some discomfort, how very ironic its presence was. Nevertheless she smiled, because it was appropriate because of her colorful, sparkling light that her powers were able to allow her to give off as much as for other reasons. Victor too was shaking his head and smiling at his goofy robot shirt, and Molly, observing them all, was grinning from ear to ear.
"See, this is much better than Christmas with our parents, isn't it?" she asked.
"Totally," Chase agreed, sliding a friendly arm around Gert, and she allowed him to, even leaning slightly against him as well as she too nodded.
"Yes…not that it would have taken a lot in retrospect."
"It really is, Mol," Karolina said warmly, and Victor and Nico nodded as well, their faces open and relaxed. Surprisingly, or perhaps not so surprisingly, everyone's words were sincere. There were no fancy expensive gifts, no large feasts, but as cheesy as it sounded, as clichéd as it probably was, they didn't need any of it.
As though echoing the sentiment, Molly asked of the others collectively, "We don't even need our parents or any of the dumb things they would have done with us. We've got each other, right? We're all family now, so that's what matters."
And no one disagreed. Sitting close to each other, with Chase and Gert, Karolina and Nico, then Victor and Molly in pairs on the floor in front of the Christmas tree Nico and Karolina had labored to bring, newspaper strewn around them, silly t-shirts of various colors donned by all, each of them, whether they indicated it aloud or not, fully felt this to be true.