Defining Us (Book 2 of Discovering Me Series)

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Chapter 44: Civilian - Wye Oak

$Ryan$

My sister got into a car accident on her way back to college after Thanksgiving break. Her friend drove and his girlfriend was in the front seat. Rae was asleep in the back. It was a head-on collision. He died on impact. His girlfriend passed shortly after the ambulance arrived. My sister was admitted to the hospital in critical condition. Both of her legs, one of her arms and her back were broken. Three of her ribs were cracked and her shoulder was dislocated.

They said if she hadn’t been asleep, she would have died too. Her body being limp allowed it to handle being moved in ways it shouldn’t have. She somehow managed not to be paralyzed by her back injury, but she had a long road of recovery ahead of her.

Doctors put her in a medically induced coma to keep the pain from putting stress on her fragile major organs. I was at school when I found out. I wanted to go home, but my parents insisted that I stay and remain committed to the academic obligations of my scholarship.


“You look tired.” The fingers of Misha’s right hand were interlocked with my left one and she leaned onto me was we walked to the dining hall for breakfast.

“Ouch.” I chuckled and smiled down at her.

“Still handsome. Just sleepy.” She kissed me.

“Someone had to finish our life skills powerpoint.”

“I offered to help you with that. Don’t make me feel bad.”

“I’m kidding.” I kissed the top of her head.

“Did you make our family look good?”

“It would be impossible to do otherwise.”

“I am going to miss Aiden a little.”

“That makes one of us. He sucked up all our time and couldn’t reciprocate affection. I hated him.”

“You better not say that during our presentation.”

“If it slips, it happens.”

“It won’t happen.”

“I guess we’ll see.”

She nudged me with a smile.

I counted it as an accomplishment each time I made it through one of our conversations without her seeing past my defenses. Openness was not a skill I had perfected with everyone.

“I told you not to come to school today.” Milo was at my side the moment Misha left it.

“I guess I ignored you.” I checked my phone for updates.

“Your ability to do so says something. I am not sure what.”

There was a close up picture of my sister’s hand firmly grasping my mother’s waiting for me on my phone’s screen. Swiping right allowed me to see the accompanying message – She’s getting stronger. We love you.

“She’s still stable.” I showed him the picture.

“She is taking your spot. –“ He pointed to it. “It is good to see you are willing to give her a free pass.”

“It is about time I learned to share.” I started typing a reply to my mom as we waited in line to be swiped into the dining room.

Misha was sitting at a table with my friends before I arrived. Elle and Izzie were suspiciously missing.

“Where is the misses?” I sat down in the empty seat across from Milo and beside Misha.

“You are hysterical.” He pointed to me with his cereal spoon.

“So I have been told. Answer?”

“Home. She is having a moment with the lady of the hour. I was dismissed the moment she emerged from their bathroom.”

“What is it like for you in Listonenia? I have always been curious.” Misha offered him a kind smile.

“I have desires and obligations; sometimes they clash and sometimes they coincide with theirs. Privacy is a myth. University, marriage, children, and ruling are inevitable, the logistics and all that happens before and in between are mine to decide.” He dictated the response he developed shortly after arriving back at school.

I checked out of the conversation when my phone vibrated in my pocket.

Elle: Skipping acting block. Tell me what I miss

Me: Will do

“Can I borrow your phone? I need to look up something for next period and I am almost out of data for the month.” Misha held out her hand.

“There’s WiFi in –“

“Please.” She poked out her bottom lip.

“Give it back if I get anything.” I surrendered it.

“Thank you.” She kissed me.

I went back to my breakfast.

I sat in a secluded area of the auditorium during acting class. I slouched in my seat and put my feet on top of the seats in front of me. I sparked up an active text conversation with my mom. She reiterated that everything was going well on their end. I fell asleep during a lecture after hearing what I needed to in order to relax.

“Mr. Stephens, am I boring you?”

I jolted awake at the sound of Dr. Jarvis’s booming voice.

“Long night. Sorry.” I sat up straight and rubbed my eye.

“See me after class.” He commanded before resuming his lesson.

I sighed and ruffled my hair to give myself something to do. I was unable to focus on what he was saying, but I was able to pretend I was. That was when the sadness truly set in. I was not okay. Pretending to be for just about everyone was finally making me feel alone, just as Elle predicted. I wanted to ask her what to do next, but I did not want to make my situation more difficult than it already was.

I approached the front of the stage with my hands in my pockets as the other students were leaving.

“Usually you have a more crowd-pleasing response to my accusations.” He packed his briefcase.

“Are you issuing me a punishment?” I glanced at the exit.

“Is there anything I should be made aware of?”

“No.” I voided my emotions and made direct eye contact with him.

“A great actor knows when to turn it off.”

“I am on the road to greatness. I would not be here if I was already there.”

He shook his head. He pulled a script out of his leather messenger bag. “ Have this memorized by our last class.”

“What is your reasoning?” I accepted it.

“You will perform this monologue instead of one of your choosing, partially because you chose to doze off today and partially because I am tired of watching you breeze through this course. You are talented. Prove it by pushing yourself. Would you like to protest this assignment?”

Yes, I am exhausted and have nothing left to give you.

“Nope. My lesson will be learned come finals week.” I tucked the script beneath my arm. “Later, Dr. J.” I strode off with a calm smile and an ease that I had not naturally felt in a long time.

“I will be in my office if you run into trouble.”

“I’ll manage.”

I traded lunch and English class for a two hour nap and a cup of coffee. I went to Life Skills class in order to do my presentation.

I heard her high heels before I saw her; her powerful and rhythmic strides were suited for a runway show. Misha picked up my hand the moment Elle stood before me.

“Hey, stranger, what did I miss?” She crouched down as to not tower over us.

“Nothing much. Mostly talked about final monologues. Did I miss anything in English?”

“Yes. I can email you my notes. They’ll come in handy on the final exam.”

“Please and thank you.”

“Simply repaying the favor.”

“Are you doing okay? You don’t --” She lowered her voice.

Misha was resting her head on my shoulder and holding my bicep by that point.

“I’m fine.” I interrupted her to lie through my teeth.“Wanna wager on who got a higher parenting score?”

“You’re asking the wrong person and the interested party cheated the system. But you should know, Nick and I got a 98% the old fashioned way.”

“99.” I retorted.

“No, you didn’t.” She maintained strong eye contact.

“Yes, we did.”

“I have it on good authority that you used Aiden as a cupholder on more than one occasion. If you think you can do something like that and get a higher score than me, you are sadly mistaken. Even the anti-parents know better than that. ” She rapidly whispered, tapped my desk, and strolled away.

I chuckled lightly and shook my head.

“You did what with Aiden?” Misha let go of me and sat back in her seat with her arms crossed.

“I -”

“A cupholder. How - why would you do that?” She cried in outrage.

“I was kicking his ass in a video game. His competitive nature got the best of him and he used Aiden’s hard plastic arms and legs to hold his cup of soda.” Sami rotated in her chair to explain, getting a kick out of our argument.

“You have referred to Magneto and the rest of the babies as ‘it’ and ‘things’ for the past two weeks, but suddenly he’s ‘Aiden’?”

“It’s more fun this way.”

“Thank you for telling me the truth. He’s either joking or non-disclosing.” Misha side-eyed me.

“The real magic is in both at the same time.”

“Hey, does Finn have English notes?”

“Doubt it--” She reached back and pushed him. “Watson, --”

He removed the earbud he had in. “Hm?”

“English class.”

“It happened. I remember. Nothing to write about. Suffice?”

“Yep, carry on.” Sami drummed on the back of her seat. “We’re rarely helpful, sorry.”

“You’re highly helpful in the unconventional sense.” Misha smiled at her.

“We try.” Sami placed her hand on her chest. She faced front with a smooth maneuver.

I was only partially paying attention when the parenthood presentations began. Milo and Izzie’s was the first one that captured it entirely.

“Our baby’s name was Fitzgerald. We always called him Fitz.” Izzie gestured to the slide that contained a photograph of Fitz, Milo, and her seated on the couch in her suite.

“His best friends were Shea, Neal, Aiden and Magneto. He enjoyed playing video games with his father and going to the petting zoo with me– “ The accompanying photographs were of all our babies together, Milo in front of the television with Fitz, and Izzie petting a lamb with tears streaming down her cheeks and the robot child situated on her hip.

“We also went to the park. ” She displayed a picture of Fitz in her lap as Milo pushed her on the swing.

“There were difficult elements too. He didn’t sleep through the night most of the time; he was slippery. –“ Milo continued their presentation.

“I caught him. He was safe and sound at the end of the day. The adrenaline rushes built character.” Iz validated, touching her hand to his back for comfort.

He grinned in her direction, taken with her. “And it was hard to know what he wanted. We never really got the hang of it. Finding things to do with it was the best part.”

“We’d like to make it very clear that a real child is not in our immediate futures. Fake babies are excuses to do fun things and are durable. Real babies are fragile and require far more effort than we’re able to give at this time. Lessons learned. Any questions?” Iz concluded.

I raised my hand.

“Yes?” She called on me.

“Did you really use Fitz as an excuse to go to a petting zoo?” I teased.

“You’re jealous. You should be. It is only natural. There were bunnies there too.”

“It sounds as though you truly made the most of this experience. Your parenting score was 85. Way to go. You may have a seat.” Mrs. Brodsky encouraged as she started a round of applause. .

Finn and Sami were next. They went up there with bored expressions.

“So our kid’s name was Magneto.” The first picture was of Finn with a baby Bjorn strapped to his chest and Sami standing beside him. The three of them were wearing matching sunglasses.

“It did baby things like cry, demand food, and sleep. We’ve come to the conclusion that babies are the worst and we’ll pass when it comes to having them.” Sami finished, the one and only slide still up on the screen.

“What activities do you do with your child?” Mrs. Brodsky attempted to engage them.

“I played cello around it. Watson coded with it strapped to his chest. It liked chilling with its buds. We went about our lives with the thing around.”

“No bonding took place?”

“Nope. We’re not people people. We wanted to do an open adoption thing with Morgan, but that fell through when we figured she’d want committed partners.”

“The name is the only part we found enjoyable.” Finn added.

“It did have a sweet name.” Sami nodded slowly in agreement.

“You gave it more effort than expected. I feared you would strap it to a rocket or perform experiments on it.”

“What gives you that impression?” Sami batted her eyelashes with a subtle smile.

“We’re not monsters.” Finn pretended to be insulted.

“I apologize for my assumptions. Your parenting score of 90 proves just that. You may have a seat.”

Nick and Elle went up several groups later.

“We made video chronicling our adventure in parenthood. Nick did a wonderful job directing, editing, and scoring. The film was his second child. I couldn’t have asked for a better partner. I hope you enjoy.” Elle introduced as he dimmed the lights.

It was a happy family montage starring the three of them. Elle shined in her role as a mother – caring for and smiling at the robot as if it were real. She’d motion Nick into the shot, home video style. It was very her –theatrical and committed.

Everyone clapped when the short film concluded. The lights were brought up. Elle took Nick’s hand and the two of them bowed.

“I would like to use this relevant platform to boldly dispute the claim that Izzie is pregnant.—“ Elle cued up a powerpoint Mrs. Brodsky didn’t know she had.

“There are obvious signs like her continuance to dance and train, --“ She presented time stamped photographs of Izzie in the studio, in most of which she was being lifted.

“Caffeine intake—“ Pictures of energy drinks in their fridge labeled “Iz” graced the screen. There were a couple of shots of her drinking coffee as well.

“And lack of symptoms. If you want to know why she left that day, go to www.goingonlife.com . It’ll explain it and more. I repeat: she is not having a baby.” She moved on to a link to Izzie’s website.

“Anymore.” Was the pessimistic response her argument earned.

“Would you like to repeat that a little louder?” Sami hopped out of her seat.

“Is medical documentation what you vultures want? I can get it! I can –“ Elle was more than fired up.

“No. I’ve got nothing to hide, but that’s a bit much.” Iz shot down her spirited rant with reason.

“And sit down.” Morgan ordered Sami.

Sami dragged her seat where it needed to be with her foot and plopped down with her arms crossed.

“I will repeat what Morgan said by saying that everyone should sit down.” Mrs. Brodsky regained control of the room. “Your parenting score was 98, Nick and Elle.”

I subtly texted Elle as the next group made their way to the front.

‘Me: That’s why you skipped acting’

‘Elle: We survive by living by the musketeer code’

‘Me: All for one and one for all?’

‘Elle: We’re a family. If one of us is down, all of us are. Remember that’

‘Me: Whom are you referring to?’

‘Elle: You know. You wouldn’t have asked otherwise’

I looked over my shoulder. She offered me a smile that read as sad.

“It’s almost our turn.” Misha whispered to me.

I rotated my neck back in her direction.

She rubbed my arm. “We’re going to do great, even if you’re tired.”

I nodded with a forced smile.

Turning on the charm to gain laughs from the class bordered on painful, but I somehow managed to do it. Our parenting score was 89.

I went to my suite alone once classes were over. I was watching television and eating cereal on the couch when Milo and Adam entered.

“You should be asleep if you plan to stay awake tonight.” Milo suggested. Adam went back to their room as Miles sat down beside me.

“I could take your advice OR I could finish watching this show about a zombie apocalypse. I’ve got to choose the apocalypse. Sorry, man.” I returned to my cereal.

“What did you get Elle?”

“Pumpkin spice wine and pieces of carved turkey.”

It was an inside joke between the two of us. My birthday was right before fall break and hers was right before winter break. We bought food and drinks that pertained to our birthdays and gave it to each other.

“Is that why you baked a turkey yesterday and got upset when I tried to eat some of it?”

“Yes. I wanted to make sure I gave her the best pieces of my masterpiece. It’s my mom’s recipe.”

“Of course it is. Do you think putting in that much effort is still appropriate?”

“She gave me peppermint schnapps and homemade gingerbread people decorated like our gang for my birthday. I can’t let her out do me.”

“Misha was upset about that gift.”

“She got over it. I gave her the ‘we’re just friends’ speech. She apologized and said she trusted me.”

“Here’s to hoping she meant that.”

“I’m not in the mood to fight. You better intervene if it happens.”

“I will be sure to do that.”

“Where’s Iz?”

“Home decorating.”

“I’m sure you miss her. You should go there.”

“You’re not getting me to go away that quickly.”

“But it’s true. You miss her.”

“How is Rae?” He ignored me.

“She passed her movement tests. All of her limbs are functional.”

“That’s fantastic.”

His elation made me smile. “It is.”

I was not looking forward to wading through a sea of people to support Elle, but I was more than willing to brave through it for her. I knew she’d do it and more for me.

I donned my nutcracker sweater, bundled up with a coat and scarf, and left my suite with Elle’s wrapped gift. I had to pass Elle’s party to get to Misha’s place. Not doing so would have resulted in dire consequences.

“Ready to go?” I asked when she answered.

“Was I supposed to buy her a gift?” Misha walked out of her front door.

“No, they are optional.” I offered her my arm.

She wrapped hers around it. “So, what did you get her?”

“Wine and turkey.”

“Interesting choices.” She sent me a genuine smirk.

“They were all out of diamond rings.”

“You’re terrible.” She kissed my cheek.

Iz answered the door of their suite. She was wearing a brown sweater with a white circle for a stomach and black cuffs on the sleeves for hooves. Reindeer antlers and a red nose rounded out her costume.

“Welcome to Winter Wonderland.” She gestured us inside. Their living room was draped with twinkle lights. Fake snow lined the floorboards. Glitter snowflakes were strung from the ceiling.

We stepped inside.

“It is so beautiful.” Misha complimented.

Iz held my gift as I removed my coat.

“Thanks! I put my heart and soul into it for my girl.” She smiled at her.

“Please say you made Miles wear antlers too.” I took back my gift and Iz took my coat and scarf.

“He dressed himself.” She nodded to him as she left to put the jacket in her room. It was already pretty crowded. Sami serving as the DJ kept everyone on the floor and moving. I had to weave through groups of people to get to him.

He was laughing and high-fiving Nick in a gaudy Santa coat sweater and a simple Santa hat.

I walked up to them. “You chose to wear this?” I pointed to his shirt.

“Rudolph is his favorite. The connection and effort made her smile. I don’t care what you have to say about it.”

“I think it’s cute in a silly sort of way.” Misha told him.

“We don’t take ourselves too seriously.” He brought is mug to his lips.

“Is that a customized mug?” I noticed his name was scripted on it in blue calligraphy.

“Party favors. Morgan spent three weeks painting snowflakes and everyone’s names onto mugs. They are in the kitchen next to the cocoa station.” Nick answered.

“Who came up with the cocoa station?”

“Izzie will take any excuse to surround herself with sugar. It is a candy store in there.”

“I can’t wait to see it. Come on, Babe.” Misha took my hand and led me away.

I could see through the archway. Elle was removing cookies from the oven, her back to us.

“They smell delicious.” Art complimented from his stance beside her.

“They better taste it too or I am remaking them.”

“You won’t need to.” He put his arm around her waist and kissed the top of her head.

“You don’t know that.” She kissed him on the lips.

“They have you working your own party?” I walked into the kitchen.

“It was one of Izzie’s additional presents to me. I GET to host my guests.” She corrected as she removed her oven mitts.

“I’m glad you were able to make it.” She approached me with out stretched arms.

“I wouldn’t miss this for the world.” I hugged her without hesitation.

“Your gift, as promised.” I made a show of presenting it to her.

She accepted it with a bright smile.

“Hey, Art.” I waved to him over her shoulder. “I see she dressed you.”

His sweater featured a large gingerbread man. It had actual buttons for eyes and pom-pom balls for its buttons. The red and green checkered shirt layered beneath it was her attempt at compromising.

“Thank you for volunteering your peppermint schnapps to the cause.” He raised his mug to me as he leaned on the counter.

“He thinks it’s funny when he pretends that’s the only reason he’s wearing it.” She reminded him by pretending to talk to me.

“She’s not wrong about me loving her.”

“I’m right.” She corrected.

“You know that phrase is used sparingly in this relationship.”

She sighed and rolled her eyes with a smile. It told me plainly that she loved him too. It brought a smile to my face to see her so happy.

“Turkey and pumpkin spice wine?” She revealed them.

“The turkey is my mom’s recipe. You have to tell me how you like it. She told me to wish you a happy birthday.”

“I’m sure it’ll be great. Tell her that I love her to pieces. The wine, however, is questionable. “ She examined the label. “There’s a strong possibility it will taste like perfume.”

“There is.”

She looked up from it and into my eyes. “That’s why you bought it.”

“I didn’t buy it.”

“Fine, had Rae buy it.”

My chest constricted. “Yeah.”

“Tell her I love her too, even if her brother is the worst.”

“I will. Happy birthday.” I smiled through the pain. It didn’t work to it’s full capacity. I looked down when I grew teary-eyed.

She put down her gift and hugged me as though she saw through everything.

“Elle, are the cookies ready?” Morgan joined us in the kitchen.

She pulled away from me. “Yeah. Just let me scoop them off the tray –“

“Already did.” Art told her.

“Thanks, Hon. I’ll put them out.”

She touched her hand to my shoulder and left with a plate of cookies.

Art was fine with our embrace. He offered me a calm smile as he raised his mug once more and followed the girls out.

“She’s met your mom?” Misha asked as she looked for her mug.

“Yes.”

“And who is Rae?”

“My older sister.” I stirred my drink with a spoon. I sprinkled marshmallows on top.

I silently drank as she made herself a plate of appetizers.

“Are there gum drops left?” Izzie’s upbeat energy changed the cold nature of the room.

“Of course there are. They are disgusting.” I pointed to the glass bowl of them.

“All candy has merit. These are for gingerbread man/house decoration, not your commentation. “ She picked it up.

“We’re happy to have you, Misha.” She side hugged her on the way out.

“They all try so hard to be nice to me.” Mi spoke to me once she was gone.

“Yes, which proves you are important to me.”

“Or that they are helping you hide something. You will go to the moon and back for each other. Look at what happened in life skills.” She accused.

I rolled my eyes. “I didn’t --”

“There is a slushy drinking contest currently underway. The person that can drink the whole cup, surviving the accompanying brain freeze, gets a prize.” Milo interrupted.

“That sounds fun. We’ll join you.” I accepted his intervention.

The crowd atmosphere kept us from needing to talk. I grew cuddlier as the alcohol set in. I put my arm around her. She cozied up to my side. My phone vibrated in my pocket during Elle’s thank you speech. I excused myself from the suite with hast.

“Hello?” I answered as soon as I was in the hall. I pinned my finger to my free ear and proceeded outside.

“Rae—“ My mother began.

“What’s going on?”

“Her blood pressure started dropping. They found internal bleeding. She is in surgery now.”

“You couldn’t have called me before she went in?”

“It was an emergency. It all happened so fast.”

I closed my eyes. “She’s always been there for me. Always. She’s my best friend and I love her more than anything. I wanted to tell her!”

“ I know, Baby. You will have the opportunity to do it once you get home. She is not going anywhere.”

“Please stop lying to me!”

“She is strong. She has been defying odds the entire time. She can do this.” She reassured calmly.

I buried my face in my hand. “I love you.” I sniffled.

“I love you too. I will keep you updated on everything. I am sorry I was unable to do a better job of it earlier.”

“Your head was where it should be because you’re the best mom in the world.” I dried my eyes as I wandered aimlessly out on the front lawn.

“I need to call the rest of the family. Will you be okay?”

“Yeah, I’ll be fine.”

“I’m going call Milo or Elle just in case.”

“I said I’m fine, Mom. I love you. Tell everyone else I love them too.”

“I will talk to you later. Love you too, Baby.” She hung up the phone.

I inserted mine into my pocket.

“I KNEW IT!” Misha screamed.

I took a deep breath and turned around slowly. “Please not now.” I stated calmly.

“WHY NOT NOW? BECAUSE IT’S HER STUPID BIRTHDAY?!”

“This has nothing to do with Elle.”

“YOU JUST TOLD YOUR MOM THAT SHE’S YOUR BEST FRIEND AND YOU LOVE HER MORE THAN ANYTHING – THAT YOU WANTED TO TELL HER!” She threw my words back at me out of context.

“My older sister was in a car accident last week. We are very close. She’s undergoing emergency surgery tonight. My mom didn’t call me before she went in.” I pushed away the tear that was falling as I spoke of her.

“I am so sorry. I –“

I stepped back as she tried to approach me. “No.”

“Ry, I –“

“You don’t trust me. I have told you the truth the entire time. You have tried so hard to make a liar out of me.”

“I didn’t kn—“

“I don’t haven’t it in me to fight you.”

“You’re so close and I can’t compete with her. No one can. I was just trying to--”

“I can’t do this anymore.”

“You’re breaking up with me?” She teared up.

“It wouldn’t be fair to you to keep this going.”

“But I love you.” Her lip trembled.

I tore my eyes from her instead of lying to her and saying it back.

She scoffed. “I should’ve known.”

“You mean a lot to me, but love is a strong word.”

“Sure.” She wiped away the tears that were falling from her eyes.

“I’m sorry.”

“You’re not.” She sniffled. “They all said you would do this, but I thought you really cared. I thought--”

I walked away midsentence. I was too tired to fight.

I didn’t feel the cold as I walked across campus to get to my suite. I sat down on the floor at the foot of my bed with the family photo album I always took to school with me. I paused on each photograph that featured Rae and I together, doing my best to recall the corresponding memories.

I didn’t full register the fact that I was crying until there was a knock on the door. I quickly dried my eyes and cleared my throat.

“Go away.” I returned my eyes to my book.

I felt the presence of several people enter the room.

“Are you hungry? I packed party food.” Morgan was the first to say something.

“I want you to leave me alone.” I flipped the page.

“You can’t make us.” Elle knelt down in front of me. She put her hands on top of mine and forced me to lower my scrapbook.

“It’s your birthday.” My vision clouded as my eyes met hers.

“I know and a part of me isn’t doing very well, so I’m tending to it.”

“We all are.” Milo added.

“We brought things. There are many different routes we can go with this – distraction, comforting, -- you name it, we can do it.” Izzie dropped a dense duffle bag on my bed.

“Most of that is candy.” Finn remarked.

“Not all of it.” She rebutted.

“We’re not judging or patronizing. This is scary. We’re all scared…right here with you.” Sami was surprisingly the one to return the emotion.

“What would we do?” I looked around at them.

“Yay! You’re letting us stay.” Elle shifted to sit beside me.

“Elle has kept the party alive by putting some of the acting kids in charge. She made me set up a party cam. For my own amusement, it is hidden. We can see the things people do when they think no one is watching” Finn set up his laptop.

“It is illegal, but he insisted and I did not have time to print out waivers.” Nick helped Morgan and Adam set up a spread of food on the floor.

“I think I am allergic to this sweater.” Milo stripped off his Santa shirt, leaving on a plain white tee.

“I told you it was terrible.”

He sat down on the other side of me. “You’re not right.”

Iz put his Santa hat back on him. He pulled her into his arms when she tried to walk away on her hands.

Elle nudged me with her arm. “Do you need a relationship debriefing?”

“How do you know --” I sighed. “No. I haven’t been truly invested in a while. You might be right about me.”

“I’m not. I was harsh with you that day because my feelings were hurt.”

“What?” I narrowed my eyes and lowered my voice.

“I know your attention span when it comes to women is not as short as is assumed. It’s not your time and that’s okay.” She sidehugged me.

“I’m glad I didn’t mess everything up.” I hugged her back.

“I wouldn’t let you do that. I need you. No one is willing to argue with me like you do.” She leaned forward and picked up a chip.

We ate from the buffet that laid before us and watched the party cam. It was as amusing as Finn had hoped. There were trips, falls, terrible dancing, and regrettable pick up lines. Predicting what would happen next added a new layer of fun.

Everything ceased when my phone started ringing.

“Hello?” I answered despite my fear.

“She hasn’t woken up yet, but she is expected to. It went smoothly. She is in the recovery room.”

“She did it?”

“She did. Just like I told you.” Her voice was low. I heard a heart monitor in the background.

“Are you in the room with her?”

“Yes, I am not letting her out of my sight for a long while.”

“Can you put the phone on speaker? I want to talk to her.”

“Give me a moment to set it up.” It took her three times the amount of time it would have taken me. Rae and I always needed to help her with her phone.

“Hello” My dad served as my cue that it was on speaker.

“Hey, Dad.” I cleared my throat. “I love you, Rae. You’re an amazing older sister. You’re always taking care of me. I’ll be returning the favor when I get home. Thanks for holding on.” I was doing well in terms of enunciation until my voice broke. Elle picked up my free hand.

“Get your rest. I will see you soon. I –“

“Rae, Honey –?” My mother called out.

“What is she doing?” I started to panic.

“She’s trying to open her eyes. Rae, your brother’s on the phone.“ She switched to a musical and louder voice as she addressed her.

“I am. I called to say that I love you more than anything and you’re so much more than my big sister. You’re one of my best friends. The others are here keeping me company. They wish you well. We’re all hoping you’ll have a speedy and full recovery. You need to get your rest and take it easy. I love you.”

“Her eyes are still closed but she squeezed my hand. That’s I love you too right now.” My mom took me off of speakerphone.

I was able to breathe again knowing my sister was out of the woods for the moment. I was treated with hugs once I hung up the phone.

“Shall we break open the perfume?” Elle removed the wine from her bag.

“You brought it?” I took the bottle from her.

“I’m not tasting that by myself.”

“I’m willing to brave it. Do you have an opener?” I held out my hand.

She gave it to me. I accidently elbowed Miles trying to get it open.

“Oww.” He whined.

“Sorry.” I winced.

“Scale.” Iz requested, touching her hand to the spot I hit.

“6.”

“Ice?”

“No. I’ll be okay.” He tried to kiss the top of her head, but her antlers made it awkward. “These are –“ He tried to push them out the way.

“Incredible.” She pushed them back to where they were and kissed him on the lips.

“Your birthday. Enjoy.” I offered Elle the first sip.

“Hm. Not bad. I think it’ll grow on me.” She gave it back to me once she was done.

“You are right. I’m disappointed.” I frowned as I passed it along to Sami, who was motioning me over.

“It’s like a spiced tea. I’m into it.” She remarked.

It was passed around as we talked and watched the party cam, Miles and Iz the only ones not partaking.

“I never would’ve asked, but I wanted you here.” Tipsiness and the comfort I felt surrounded by them allowed me to speak my mind.

“We know.” Milo replied with a smirk.

I pushed him with one of my own.

“We’re your family too.” Elle rested her head on my shoulder.

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