Jack stared annoyed at his splintered leg. If it hadn’t been for those damn Christmas lights, he wouldn’t be stuck to his bed in the workshop, staring into a lonely Christmas. Why couldn’t he have stepped down from the ladder and moved it to the side rather than being dumb enough to stretch out just a little further to get the end of the line of Christmas lights onto the last hook? In anger he threw his little ball against the wall, catching it in his hand when it came back. Again, and then he missed. The ball flew across the floor and landed out of his reach. In frustration he slammed his head into the wall behind him. Not a smart move.
‘Great, Jack. First you go and injure your leg, and now you’re giving yourself a concussion. Brilliant plan. Maybe I can go for cutting off a limb next.’ He mumbled angrily to himself.
He forced himself to calm down, closing his eyes and breathing deeply. In and out. In and out. He could see the ball, hiding under a table. Mocking him. His eyes narrowed. His one source of entertainment while practically chained to his bed (five full days now) and it had to roll away. And of course it had to happen the one time Trudy wasn’t on the alert to any sound he made. She really could get on his nerves the way she was fussing over him. Although he had to admit he enjoyed it a bit to, all the attention she was giving and her company, especially the cup of cocoa she would bring him just before bedtime. Which should have been right about now, shouldn’t it? He wasn’t sure anymore, time seemed to move incredibly slowly when you could barely move on your own. He did miss her company, at least time moved quicker when he had someone to talk to. Everyone else seemed too busy to give him much attention.
He had too much time to think, being stuck here like this. To think about the last time a leg injury chained him to this very bed. His eyes were drawn to the cut out in the wall between his room and the Magazine shop. He wondered how long it would hurt to sleep here and not be able to talk to Dal through the hole in the wall. They had made many enough plans like that, so many things they wanted to do. It still hit him hard sometimes, and when he had so little to occupy his mind with it only got worse. He could feel his eyes getting teary. Annoyed he wiped the tears away. Just then he heard footsteps coming towards his room. They were familiar ones, light and determined. Soon Trudy was in the doorway, a bright smile on her face.
‘Hello, Jack. Here’s your cocoa,’ she stepped into the room, placing the cup on the nightstand. Her smile faded when she looked at his face. ‘What’s wrong, Jack?’
Great, he sighed to himself. Now she could tell he’d been crying like a kid. ‘Nothing,’ he mumbled in reply, turning his face away. That didn’t deter Trudy. She found his favorite chair and pulled it up. ‘Don’t give me that, you can talk to me, Jack.’ She sat down, hands folded in her lap as she leaned forward.
‘It’s nothing, Trudy.’ If anything, she was the last person to talk to. How could he talk about Dal with her? He remembered the last time that happened vividly, it had been right in this very room. He glanced over at her. She had changed a lot since then. Not just clothes or her hair, but everything about her. She had been genuine back then, when she first returned. She had asked forgiveness from everyone and tried to make things right. He had thrown it back in her face. Now she walked around with a painted on smile and tried to be Miss Perfect Housewife or something. It annoyed him. And bothered him, but he couldn’t really determine why that was. He liked it better when she relaxed, like when she would sit down and talk to him without the overly cheery outlook on everything under the sun, or like before he got injured when he helped her fix one of Brady?s toys or something and she seemed genuinely grateful.
‘Jack?’ she paused, the smile completely gone now and replaced with a look of sympathy. ‘Is it Ellie? I know you were hoping she would change her mind and come back after all. It must be lonely now that you’re injured.’
Ellie. There was still a hint of a sting there when he thought of her. They had worked well together in the camp, but he had kept his distance from her, afraid of being hurt again. Then when the camp broke down after Ram’s defeat, she had found out news about Luke from another prisoner. Jack had told her to go after him. He had felt really noble in that moment. And then she was gone and he felt like crap. It had passed though, since he came back to the mall. He thought about her a lot less, and even hoped she had found Luke and that she was happy. He still cared about her enough to want that for her.
‘It’s not about Ellie.’ He replied, and he really believed that wasn’t a lie. There were other ghosts around the mall to deal with.
‘Then what is it? It’s not good to hold things in, Jack. Even geniuses are allowed to have feelings, you know.’
He gave her an annoyed glare, getting only a smile in return. A genuine one. She looked very different when she smiled like that. It took him aback for a moment, before he looked away. Once again his eyes landing on the hole in the wall. He looked away again quickly, to see Trudy’s eyes had been led in the same direction. Then their eyes met, her face only showed sadness now.
‘It’s Dal, isn’t it?’
Jack simply nodded. Trudy sighed, her head down as her hands began to pick on the hem of her skirt. She didn’t say another word, but he could see tears in her eyes, starting to drift down her cheeks. Great, she was crying. He knew this would happen. Why did she have to push the subject? She should have just let it be. Now what did he do? Carefully he reached out his hand, awkwardly patting her on the arm. Somehow this only made things worse, she broke down sobbing, leaning even more forward and now covering her face with her hand. Jack glanced helplessly towards the door, hoping Salene or Amber would hear it and come rushing in to take care of it. They seemed to know how to handle these things. He tried to sit up, a bit more, to get closer to her, but then stopped in his movements. What was he supposed to do? Pat her on the head? He had tried something similar but that only made things worse. Maybe he should try saying something?
‘Trudy?’ he stopped. Say what exactly? Please stop, your pain is making me uncomfortable wouldn’t be very comforting, he felt. In the end he settled for awkwardly rubbing her on the back. Or rather, due to his lacking ability to move much in his state, he was more rubbing her shoulder as it was what he managed to reach. Eventually she started to calm down, finally managing to sit up again as she carefully tried to dry her eyes without messing up the make-up. It was already too late for that, but Jack didn’t tell her. It might set her off again.
‘I-I’m sorry,’ she said once she was capable of speaking again. ‘I was trying to make you feel better and I end up sobbing like a baby. I’m so sorry.’ She stood up, straightening her skirt and taking a deep breath. ‘I’ll leave you to it. Enjoy your cocoa.’
She was gone before Jack managed to think of something to say, leaving him with the feeling that there was so much he should have said. And he forgot to ask her to pick up the ball for him. With a sigh he fell back against his pillow. Could nothing go right this Christmas?
Trudy went straight to Salene’s room, emptying out everything on her mind to her friend. Pride sat mostly in silence, busying himself with fixing his left boot, but listening intently to Trudy’s complaints of the ghosts hanging around the mall.
‘I thought I could help, you know. That he was moody because he missed Ellie, and maybe he needed to talk about it. You know Jack, he always keeps that stuff to himself and it’s just not good for him. And then I realized way too late that it wasn’t about Ellie, it was about Dal. No wonder he’s been so moody with me lately, if that?s what he?s been thinking about stuck down there. If it wasn’t for me, Dal would still be alive. And I just keep bothering him constantly, reminding him of it over and over again. I’m such an idiot!’
‘I’m sure he doesn’t blame you for that, Trudy.’ Salene said soothingly, her arm placed around her friend’s shoulders.
‘Why wouldn’t he?’ Trudy snapped. ‘And I know he does. He never forgave me back then, you know. And we’ve barely seen each other since then, and now that he’s home I just assumed like an idiot that I could make it right by bringing him cocoa every night. He has probably been wanting to tell me to get lost since he got back, he’s just too nice to say it.’
There was nothing Salene could say to silence Trudy’s worries, but she finally managed to convince her to go to bed and sleep.
When Salene returned to her room after making sure Trudy really did go to bed, she sank down on her own bed, resting her head on the pillow. A loud sigh escaped her. Pride looked up from his boot, finally dropping it to the floor and getting up from the chair. He moved over to the bed, sitting down next to her.
‘It never even occurred to me there would be issues there. Jack always seems so easy going, but I suppose Trudy might be at least partly right. It’s so easy to forget what he’s been through.’
Pride made a sound that could mean just about anything, so Salene raised her eyebrows at him. ‘I think there might be other things involved to make this all the more complicated,’ he said, raising his eyebrows back at her, a playful smile on his face.
‘Like what?’ Salene asked, now narrowing her eyes and sitting up slightly.
‘Come on, Sal. You must have noticed. At first it was innocent enough, Trudy fussing over him and I think he just enjoyed the attention. But it has turned into something more. Trudy going to him get anything fixed, stuff she could have easily managed herself. Jack gladly giving up on any project he’s working on to help her first. Didn’t you notice last week the way he looked at Jay when he was sitting with Trudy and Brady at breakfast? And why was Jack even putting up the Christmas lights in the first place? Because he heard Trudy saying she wanted to give Brady a real Christmas this year. An hour later he’s suddenly up on the ladder. It seems obvious to me.’
Salene frowned. ‘When you put it like that… it’s just weird though, I’ve known them both so long. And the thought of Jack being Brady’s stepdad?’ Salene gave a small laugh at that.
‘Don’t underestimate him.’ Pride said, smiling at her. ‘I admit I would have said the same thing before, but he seems a lot more grown up this time around. The kids seem to adore him, haven’t you noticed?’
Salene’s smile disappeared again, replaced by the frown as she thought that through. Pride did have a point. He had fixed some old toys, making him an eternal hero for the youngest ones. Up until he got injured he had even let Sammy work with him on a project or two, and it seemed to have done a world of good for Sammy after his Paradise addiction. Pride was right, Jack had very much grown up. Unfortunately, he was still nearly as clueless about girls as he had always been, and Trudy was way too insecure about herself to make the first move.
‘If those two are left to work it out, nothing will ever happen.’
Pride simply smiled at her. ‘Unfortunately, I think you;re right about that. Maybe they need a helping hand. It is Christmas after all.’
They put their plan in motion already the next morning. Trudy was being quiet and subdued, her cheery mood vanished. Amber kept looking at her with a worried frown, while feeding her son and herself. But Trudy was in no mood to talk. Salene had a feeling she hadn’t slept much, the dark rings under her eyes being evidence of that. Amber wanted to be able to sit down and talk to Trudy about what was wrong, but as usual she had to run off to the hotel with Jay, to keep working on the paradise headsets and tracking down prisoners. It was hard work, not made any easier now that Jack was unable to help them, but they managed. She rushed off just as Pride offered to bring Jack his breakfast, giving her son a kiss before leaving him in Salene’s care, a familiar twinge of guilt hitting her as she did. She would make up for it later. Salene gave Pride a smile as she sat down next to baby Bray to finish feeding him, and Pride returned the smile before heading out of the cafe with a tray of food in his hands.
Jack looked up as he entered. Pride tried to read his face, sensing a mix of relief and disappointment that it wasn’t Trudy. Just about what he expected. He placed the tray on Jack’s nightstand, seating himself in the chair. Jack glanced up in between taking bites of his food.
‘So, Trudy busy today, or? She’s usually the one who brings breakfast.’
Pride smiled slightly, as Jack was unable to look straight at him while asking.
‘Amber had to work, Trudy and Salene are watching the kids today.’ Pride told him. Jack simply nodded, stuffing his mouth with food. ‘She’s been very helpful, hasn’t she? Since you got injured I mean.’
Jack nodded, his chewing slowing down.
‘I was just thinking, it’s Christmas soon. What are you getting her?’
‘Trudy?’ Jack asked, a look of surprise on his face.
‘Yeah, Trudy. Since she’s been so kind, I’d say she deserves a nice present from you.’
Jack had stopped chewing completely, a look of contemplation on his face. ‘Maybe you’re right.’ Then he sighed. ‘But what would I give her?’ he glared at his bandaged ankle. ‘It’s not as if I can go anywhere to find something.’
‘You’re in luck,’ Pride said quickly. ‘I’m going out to look for some presents to give myself, I can look for something you can give to Trudy.’
‘Oh, okay. That would be great.’ Jack’s face lit up for a moment, then he blushed slightly. ‘I mean, it might cheer her up I guess. Presents do that.’
‘Yeah, do you have anything to trade with?’
Jack directed Pride to a drawer full of batteries, and Pride picked out a few to put into his bag.
‘You need that many?’ Jack asked, a little concerned as his battery supply was dramatically decreasing right in front of him.
‘It’s Christmas, the traders are getting greedy with so many people looking for great Christmas presents to give and there’s so little to trade with.’
Jack was a little doubtful, but he knew Pride wasn’t the type to try and steal from him, so he would just have to trust him. As Pride got up to leave, Jack stopped him.
‘One more favour?’ He asked, smiling slightly. ‘Could you give me that ball over there?’
Pride picked up the little ball, throwing it over to him with a smile. ‘See you later, Jack.’
Salene and Trudy kept the kids occupied in the cafe. Baby Bray crawled around on the floor, while the rest ran around decorating. Brady found a plant on the table, twigs tied together with a red ribbon. She picked it up and turned towards Salene, who was the person closest to her.
‘Salene? What is this?’
‘Oh, that’s mistletoe.’ Salene answered, with a smile as she glanced towards Pride who approached them.
‘What’s that?’ Mouse asked, scrunching her nose in confusion. Pride took it from her, holding it over Mouse’s head.
‘You hang them up, and then if a person is standing or passing under it, someone has to give them a kiss.’
Then he leaned in, giving Mouse a kiss on the cheek.
‘Eww!’ She scrunched up her face, but still laughed. ‘That’s weird.’
‘You go hang that up somewhere, Mouse.’ Salene instructed, and for once the girl obeyed.
‘I’m off to trade,’ Pride said when they were alone. He glanced towards Trudy to make sure she was out of earshot. ‘I think I’ll need to find something very special to make those two wake up.’
‘Good luck.’ Salene said, giving him a quick kiss.
‘And I didn’t even need a mistletoe for that,’ he said with a grin. Salene watched him as he walked away, her focus turning back to the chaos in the cafe once he was out of sight. Her eyes lingered on Trudy for a moment, as she was busy showing Sammy how to make paper hearts. She had a feeling this would be a great Christmas for Trudy.
When Pride returned a few hours later, Jack was still in the same place he had been left. Obviously. Where would he go? Pride threw a small paper bag down at his lap. Jack looked into it, taking out a silver necklace with a large purple stone shaped like a heart. Jack looked up at Pride with a doubtful look, the necklace swaying from his hand as he held it up between them.
‘Isn’t that a bit much?’
‘Wouldn’t it send the wrong message?’
‘What message do you want to send?’
Jack sighed, only barely refraining from rolling his eyes. Pride could be so unhelpful at times.
‘Well, it’s supposed to be a gift to say thanks for being helpful when I’ve been injured, but this would say more than that, wouldn’t it? I’m not an expert on these things, Pride. You know more about girls than I do! If a guy gives something like this to a girl, doesn’t that say a lot more than just 'thanks??’
Pride smiled. ‘Is that a bad thing’
Jack stared dumbfounded at him, as Pride only continued to smile. ‘I think it’s the perfect present, Jack, and it will give the message you want it to give.’ With that he turned around and walked out of the room.
Salene left Brady with Mouse and Sammy at another table, after Pride had been sitting in silence for nearly fifteen minutes at another table. Amber and Jay were still out working, and Trudy was trying to put baby Bray to sleep. Salene walked over to her boyfriend, sitting down opposite him.
‘What’s on your mind?’
‘Trudy and Jack,’ he replied, biting his lower lip. ‘I’m not sure the necklace is enough.’
‘Oh? It would be enough to win me over,’ she said with a smile, raising her eyebrows slightly in his direction. He gave a slight smile in return.
‘Jack is worried about it sending the wrong message. I don’t think he’s quite owning up to his feelings yet, and if he doesn’t then it doesn’t really matter what Trudy reads into it. I almost want to lock them in a room together.’
Salene laughed. ‘I know, me to. But I think we’ve done what we can, Pride. It’s up to them now.’
‘Let nature take its course, I know. I don’t know why I care so much, anyway. It’s just that there’s been so much bad going around, with the Technos and all the paradise addiction they left behind. Jack has been working so hard up until that fall, day and night, and Trudy has worn herself out helping with all the kids and everything needed to be done around the mall so the rest of us could focus on what needed to be done for the city. I think if they could make each other happy it would be good for the whole tribe, and they deserve it. But I still think they might need another small push or two.’
Unnoticed by Pride and Salene, Mouse had crawled under the tables to find a toy Brady had thrown away. She overheard most of the conversation, a smile on her face as a plan started forming in her head. She snuck back over to where Brady and Sammy were sitting, a smug grin on her face as she looked from one to the other.
‘I have a plan,’ she said.
‘Not again,’ Sammy groaned. ‘This can’t be good.’
Mouse only continued to smile. ‘Yes, it will be. We are gonna get Brady a daddy.’
Brady looked up at the mention of her name, the rest of the sentence making little sense to her. But she smiled at Mouse, cause she liked Mouse.
It was Christmas Eve already, late in the day when Jack woke up after another nap. His leg was feeling better though, and Pride had promised that he would help Jack to the cafe for dinner. It couldn’t be far away, although time did move incredibly slowly these days. At least he had the ball now. He stuck to simply throwing it up in the air or from hand to hand though, he didn’t want to lose it again. When he heard footsteps outside, he was surprised to recognize them as Trudy’s. Sure enough, soon she was in the doorway, slightly hesitant as she approached with a plate of Christmas cookies. He hadn’t expected to see her, he had a feeling she was avoiding him. He had been completely useless when she needed someone to comfort her, and he had failed to say any of the things he should have said about it all. She placed the cookies on the nightstand, taking the chair that had been standing in the same position since she had hurried crying out of there.
‘The kids and I were baking, Mouse insisted I should bring you some. Can we talk, Jack? About the other night.’
Jack nodded, feeling a lump in his throat. He opened his mouth to talk, just as Trudy did the same.
‘I wanted to say…’
‘I didn’t mean to…’
They both stopped mid sentence. Jack held out his hand, signalling for Trudy to go first.
'I didn’t mean to break down like that. I was trying to be a friend to you, because I know you’re going through a difficult time. A-and, maybe you don?t see me as a friend, with everything I’ve done to you in the past I wouldn’t blame you, but I am still your friend. When you came back from the Chosen, I came to ask your forgiveness. You turned me away, I don’t know if you still feel that way, but I hope you know that I’m not the same person anymore. And I never meant to hurt you or anyone else. I never wanted Dal to die…" She stopped, a small sob escaping her. ‘I promised not to do this.’ She said, annoyed with herself. She wiped the tears from her eyes.
‘It’s okay,’ Jack managed to find something to say this time. 'I know. And I don’t, um, feel that way anymore. I was just angry back then, I had only like minutes before found out that Dal was dead, and Patsy and Cloe had been taken away. It was just the wrong moment for you to be there.?
‘Okay,’ Trudy said after taking a few deep breaths to calm herself down. Jack could tell she wasn’t convinced though. He glanced towards the little gift box next to him on the bed. It was supposed to wait to morning, but maybe it was better to give it when they were alone.
‘I actually wanted to thank you for taking care of me after?’ he simply motioned towards his leg. He picked up the little box, holding it out to her. ‘Merry Christmas.’
‘Oh, Jack! You really shouldn’t have! I didn’t get you anything!’
Jack waved his hand. ‘That’s okay. Just open it.’
Trudy didn’t have to be asked twice. She opened it up, taking the necklace in her hand. She stared at it for a moment, suddenly her eyes were getting teary again.‘It’s beautiful.’ She said finally.
Jack felt a little guilty that he hadn’t actually picked it out himself, but still he was enjoying her reaction. ‘I think it suits you,’ he said, then blushing slightly.
‘Could you help me put it on?’ Trudy asked, moving over to sit next to him on the bed, holding up her hair. Jack leaned forward, struggling to get the small lock to work, overly aware that his fingers kept touching her skin.
Once the necklace was on, she turned slightly to face him again.
‘Thanks,’ she began, when her eyes suddenly spotted something above his bed. She frowned, a slight smile remaining on her face.
‘Jack, when did you put mistletoe over your bed?’
‘What?’ Jack looked up, spotting it hanging over him from a hook on the wall. Suddenly they heard a short burst of laughter that quickly silenced, followed by an annoyed voice whispering ‘Sammy! They’ll hear you!’
Trudy shook her head, though unable to hide an amused smile on her face. ‘Mouse! Sammy! Where are you? Come on out.’
Soon enough the two kids came crawling out from under a desk, Sammy looking ashamed while Mouse mostly glared angrily at him. Trudy crossed her arms over her chest, trying to give them her most stern look.
‘What are you two doing?’
‘It was her idea!’ Sammy said quickly. Mouse stamped her foot to the ground.
‘I just wanted to make everyone happy!’
‘With mistletoe?’ Jack asked.
‘Yes. Cause you’re supposed to kiss under the mistletoe, Pride told me. And I heard him tell Salene you two would be happy together, and…’
Trudy and Jack both blushed, while Sammy nudged Mouse with his elbow. ‘We’ll go now,’ he said grabbing her arm and dragging her out of the room. Trudy turned around slightly, daring to glance over at Jack again.
‘Kids, huh?’ he said quietly, eyes darting upwards towards the mistletoe.
‘Yeah…’ Trudy took a deep breath. This was one of those now or never moments, and judging from what Mouse had said she wasn’t the only one who had suspected something was happening between them.
?But you are supposed to kiss under the mistletoe. It’s Christmas law. It can’t be broken.’ She smiled slightly. Jack’s face grew slightly more red, but he did smile back.
‘Well, I suppose if it’s that serious?’
He didn’t get to finish the sentence, as Trudy leaned in and kissed him. She lingered with her lips against his, before pulling away slightly. She looked straight into his eyes, sure she was seeing the same thing there that she was feeling herself. She kissed him again, deepening the kiss this time. Jack was responding, even getting daring enough to touch her and pull her closer.
The kiss was interrupted by the sound of someone clearing their throat. They both looked up, eyes slightly dazed, to find Pride and Salene standing just inside the room. They were both wearing Santa hats, Pride carrying an extra one in his hand.
‘We just came to help Jack into the cafe for dinner.’ Salene said, looking over at Pride. They both wore smug grins on their faces. Trudy narrowed her eyes as she looked at Salene, though finding she was unable to smile she gave up the attempt to fake anger.
Pride looked from Trudy to Jack, his smile growing wider as he threw the Santa hat over to Jack. ‘Merry Christmas.’