I look across the room, my eyes automatically landing on him. He's laughing, talking animatedly to some cousins of his, acting like everything's fine. Like we didn't have that fight. Like I'm no longer his best friend, like he doesn't care at all.
I tear my eyes away and survey the room, a room I've spent a large chunk of my life in, now draped in festive decorations, even the occasional sprig of mistletoe dangling from the ceiling. I watch happy couples float across the makeshift dance floor, their cheeks flushed and eyes sparkling. I watch the younger kids crowd around the base of the enormous Christmas tree, rifling through wrapped packages to identify which ones they'll be tearing into tomorrow morning. I watch everyone moving around me like I don't exist, but my eyes keep returning to him. He's gesturing with his arms, and even across the room, I catch the minute twitching in his fingers, the way he subtly leans on his cane in a manner that betrays fatigue rather than nonchalance. I've spent eleven Christmases in this room, but never before have I felt like an outsider. Then again, I've never been unsure about my position as his best friend.
The raucous enthusiasm, in part due to holiday cheer and mostly due to the rowdy spirit of the Morgenstern clan, suddenly feels like a heavy blanket, suffocating me, and I slip out of the room.
Stepping out onto the porch, I desperately pull in lungfuls of cold air, wrapping my arms around my torso as I look up at the stars glittering brilliantly in the dark, wintry sky. Sucking in a sharp breath, I stare up at the night canvas above me, willing the tears to keep from spilling down.
"Nessa." No one says my name like he does - that slow, stumble-y slur that drags a half-syllable too long.
I turn. He's standing in the doorway, framed by the light spilling from inside the house. He leans on the cane heavily and says nothing, both of us just staring at each other. My mind registers how haggard he looks, and I think of the confrontation. Me yelling at him, demanding to know why he paid my boyfriend to break up with me. Him yelling back, that my ex hadn't loved me enough to stay. Me storming out.
He moves closer, taking painstakingly careful steps, clueing me in to the fact that he’s either hurting or drunk. Maybe both. “Nessa,” he repeats, as he takes the final steps, getting close enough for me to smell the alcohol on his breath.
He nods. “’Course.” Matter-of-fact, unapologetic.
We stand there, looking at each other. I speak first. “Why?”
He knows what I mean, and this time we’re both prepared enough to have a calm conversation. “He didn’t deserve you. If he had refused the money, I would have respected him a little more, even if I still didn’t like him.” His speech, slurred and mumbled, is further distorted by the effects of alcohol.
I shake my head. “That’s not what I’m asking, Theo. You know that. Why did you do it?” I try to decipher whatever hidden message lies in his warm brown eyes.
He exhales heavily forcefully, and shakes his head, looking down at his feet. The silence stretches, but I say nothing. Finally, he looks up and meets my gaze. There’s something different about him – a determination, maybe. “Because I’m in love with you.” I stare at him, waiting for him to laugh and declare it as some sort of joke. But he continues. “And I didn’t – couldn’t – stand by and watch you fall for another arsehole. I love you, Ness, and I might be the most useless guy you’ve ever met, with my crip shuffle and cane and stupid spasms, but dammit, Ness, no one is ever going to love you as much as I do.” He’s breathless, I’m speechless.
Theo Morgenstern, the subject of my childhood crush, banished to the bottom of my pathetic romantic fantasies. Theo Morgenstern loves me. I continue to stare at him, unable to believe it.
He laughs nervously, shifting his weight slightly. “Say something, Ness.” I wrap my arms around him and squeeze tight, afraid I’m going to wake up from this crazy dream. “Say it again,” I whisper.
“I love you, Nessa. I love you so much.”
“I love you too, Theo.” I grin, unable to suppress the swell of emotion in my chest.
He leans back from our embrace, one arm around my waist, the other using his cane for balance, and jerks his chin up, a smirk on his lips. “Look up, Ness.”
I do, and laugh. Hanging from the porch roof, right above our heads, is a sprig of mistletoe.
My gaze connects with Theo’s, and his lips meet mine, soft and warm and feeling like home. I feel his smile against my lips, and my own lips stretch into a grin. Theo loves me. Almost as if he can hear my thoughts, he tells me, “I love you, Nessa Arienne Hart,” enunciating the words slowly and clearly.
“And I love you, Theo Robert Morgenstern,” I reply, savouring the delicious words on my tongue. This boy, whom I’ve loved secretly for so long, finally loves me back. He’s just taken my first kiss. I want all of my other firsts to be with him. “Kiss me again, Theo,” I whisper.
He presses his lips to mine again, moving his hand up my back to my neck, and lifts his other hand to occupy the spot on my back. “Ness,” he sighs against my lips, then shifts to pepper kisses on my neck. Finally, he pulls back. “My room?”
My heart beats faster in anticipation of another of my firsts going to him. “Okay,” I whisper.