When Christmas morning came, Gail decided to stay in her room for as long as possible so as not to have to interact with anyone else. She and Axel used to do that every time relatives would come over for holidays, but now all she had was a cat to keep her company.
Eventually Gail’s mother came in to tell her breakfast was ready and as soon as their other relatives arrived they were going to open presents. Her mother made it quite clear that Gail was to get up and join them all right away, so Gail no longer was able to lie in bed and snuggle with her cat.
It took some time but Gail finally managed to get up and and dress before heading down the stairs. She sighed groggily as everyone greeted her with cheery expressions, expecting her to do the same.
“You could at least try to look like you’re having a good time,” her mother said to her with a mild glare. “Don’t ruin everyone else’s Christmas with your sour mood.”
“Well if I’m ruining it for them by not talking, they just need to get over themselves,” Gail retorted. Her mother looked as if she wanted to continue the argument, but she simply huffed and walked away. Gail sighed and leaned back in her chair, sipping her morning coffee. The day had only just started and already she was wishing it to be over.
The rest of the family finally arrived around eleven. They exchanged hugs and pleasantries that Gail could only take so much of before she retreated back to her cozy armchair. When at last they decided to exchange gifts, Gail kept mostly to herself as she hadn’t gotten anyone anything which she refused to feel guilty about.
When everyone had finished giving their gifts, Gail got up and went back to her room to get something out of her bag. She came back downstairs and found her mom going into the kitchen. “Hey,” she said, “I didn’t want to give this to you in front of everyone else. Here.”
Gail handed her mother a little photo album. Her mother took it and slowly began flipping through it, pressing a hand to her mouth and looking as if she were going to cry. “Gail, where did you-”
“I took most of those,” Gail said. “I’ve been building this album up since the start of the school year, actually. I thought you might want something to remember him by.”
“Oh, Gail…” Her mother pulled her into a tight embrace and did begin to cry. Gail bit her lip and breathed a little deeper, trying to hold back tears herself. Her mother stepped back and held her at arm’s length. “I’m so sorry. I’ve been trying so hard to make sure everything was perfect and normal. This has been really hard on you, hasn’t it?”
Gail let out a deep breath and stepped back. “Yeah, it is, but it’s alright, Mom. I didn’t really expect anything different. There’s no reason for Christmas to be ruined just because Axel isn’t here.”
Her mother wiped away a few tears and managed to smile at her. “No, I suppose not. Still…” She sighed a little sadly and looked down at the photo album again. “Thank you for making this. You don’t know how much it means to me.”
“I do, believe me.” Gail turned away and noticed her aunt was making her way toward the kitchen. “It was the best thing I could think of to get you.”
She headed back upstairs to her room and sat on the bed, petting the cat who was still curled up there. He began to purr and stretched out his front legs as far as he could across the bed. Gail sighed and laid her head down next to him as she pet him.
“I can’t wait for this to be over,” she murmured. “You know, this will probably be my last Christmas to spend with all of them, at least for awhile. I’m moving far away as soon as college is done. Maybe to New York, who knows.”
“Ambitious,” a soft voice said. Gail sat up and turned toward the voice. Cecil was in the corner of the room leaning against the wall. He smiled and waved a little. “Hey, Gail. Have you missed me?”
She stared at him for a long moment before breathing out, “And just where have you been, anyway?”
Cecil pushed himself away from the wall and made his way over to her. “I did tell you I needed to do some thinking, didn’t I? Well, I have been, but you seemed to need someone, so I came back.”
“Does that mean you’re going to be leaving again after this?” she asked with a huff.
“I’m not sure about that yet,” he said with a soft sigh. “I’m still working things out. It’s been difficult. My garrison commander, the one I usually go to for counsel and advice, hasn’t been around recently and I don’t quite know how to reach him.” He frowned and turned his face away. “I’m just trying to figure out what I should do at this point.”
“Are you still against going to see your brother?” Gail asked.
He shook his head slowly. “I’ll be honest, I really don’t want to see him, but I think the time has come that I should. I still need a little bit of time though, if that’s alright. I need to get my bearings and make sure I’m ready.”
Gail nodded her head and laid it back down on the bed next to the cat as she stroked him. “Alright, I get it, but he’s been waiting for quite awhile, you know. It’d probably be better to do it sooner than later.”
“I suppose you’re right,” he murmured. “Of course, time works a little differently for us than it does for you, but yes, you have a point.”
A knock sounded on the door and Gail glanced up to see her mother peering in. “Lunch is ready,” she said. “We’re all eating together, so please come down.”
Gail sighed and nodded her head, pushing herself up to her feet. She glanced toward Cecil who waved his hand. “You go,” he said. “I’ll be here when you get back, I promise.”
She went downstairs to the dining room where the whole family was seated and took her place beside her mother. A quick prayer was spoken and then everyone began digging into the food and talking to each other all at once. Gail found she wasn’t all that hungry, but even if she didn’t eat she knew she had to stay at the table at least awhile before excusing herself. It was the polite thing to do.
“So, Abigail,” her grandma said with an all too large smile on her face. “Do you have a boyfriend yet? Surely you’ve met someone at school, haven’t you?”
Gail grunted a little. “No, I don’t have a boyfriend, and I don’t plan on getting one either.”
“Oh, why not? Every girl dreams about romance and getting married, don’t they?”
“Yeah, well not me,” Gail muttered as she took a sip of wine from her glass. “I’d actually like to focus on having a life rather than looking for some guy to hook up with. Besides, all the guys at my college are dicks.”
“You sure it’s that?” her grandpa said, a little too loudly for her comfort. “Maybe it’s something else. Maybe she’s hiding something?”
“What are you talking about?” Gail said with a frown.
“It’d make sense,” he went on. “Your brother turned out to be one, after all.”
Gail curled her hand into a fist and could feel herself starting to shake. “One what?”
“A homo,” her grandpa said with a derisive snort. “Wouldn’t surprise me if you were one, too, especially going to that school you’re at.”
Gail stood up abruptly, nearly knocking her chair over as she did, and scowled at her grandpa. “Shut up,” she hissed. “Don’t talk about my brother that way. He’s dead because of people like you, got that? You treated him like shit and he felt worthless because of that. It’s your fault!”
Before anyone had time to say anything, Gail turned and stormed out of the room. She grabbed her coat and went out the back door and started running back toward the hill with the pond and the woods. She didn’t stop running and just went faster the longer she ran, going around the pond until she reached the woods.
Once she hidden in the trees she slowed considerably, picking carefully through the hanging and fallen branches that blocked her path. She soon came to a full stop and exhaled as she leaned against a large tree. Tears stung at her eyes and she scrubbed at her face.
“Abbey? Are you okay?”
Gail turned to see Cecil standing there, a worried look on his face. She sniffed and rubbed her arm across her face, shaking her head. “No, I’m not.”
“I saw what happened,” he said as he stepped closer to her. “I didn’t realize that was the reason your brother…”
“Yeah,” she whispered, hugging her arms close around herself. “He didn’t… leave a note or anything, but that was probably it. We’d talked about it before.”
“I’m sorry,” Cecil whispered. “And I’m sorry your grandfather said that to you. That was a horrible thing to say.”
She huffed and turned her face away. “Wonder if anyone yelled at him for that. Probably not. Maybe Mom did.”
Cecil hesitated for a moment before murmuring, “Do you want to talk about it? Your brother, I mean.”
She sighed and shook her head. “I… not right now, no. I’d rather not think about it at the moment, if it’s all the same to you.”
“Fair enough,” he said with a nod as he peered around the patch of woods they were in. “Could we talk about something else then?”
Cecil turned and looked around for a moment longer, then he stepped away from her, walking a couple feet before stopping. He let out a deep sigh and tilted his head up toward the sky. “I believe this is the exact spot I was standing when we first met.”
Gail blinked at him and took a step toward him. “Wait, you mean back when I was a kid?”
He nodded his head and looked back at her. “Well, I mean you had seen me a couple times before that, I believe, but… it was Christmas Eve, actually. You came out here because you wanted to see me again after catching a glimpse of me before. We talked a little. It wasn’t until much later that I became your guardian.”
Gail stared at him for a long moment and then shook her head. “I met you out here? Just how old was I, anyway?”
“I think you were around six or seven years old.”
She snorted and shook her head. “Well no wonder I can’t remember. That was forever ago. I barely remember anything from back then.” She paused and watched him for a moment, then murmured, “What were you doing out here in the first place?”
“Praying,” Cecil murmured. “Soul searching, I guess you could call it. Things were happening back then, and I-” He stopped himself and turned away, smiling faintly. “It doesn’t matter. I came out here because it felt like the right place to be at the time. It was quiet and secluded. I had no idea there would be children wandering through these woods, or that one of them would find me. I am glad that you did, though.”
Gail gazed at him for a moment before whispering, “Cecil, what happened? Cynder told me that there was an incident with that demon, and that was the reason you left me all those years ago and didn’t come back. Tell me what happened.”
Cecil breathed in deeply and turned his face away from her, taking a moment before responding. “Are you aware that you almost drowned in that pond when you were young?”
She stared at him with wide eyes and nodded her head. “Yeah, though I don’t remember much about it. I… have dreams about drowning sometimes, though.”
“Well, it wasn’t an accident. That demon came after me once when the two of us were out here together. I told you to run. It wounded me and went after you. It caught you. It threw you into the pond and you almost drowned, but I managed to pull you out before it was too late. And then I left.”
Gail let out a soft breath and slowly took a step toward him. “Cecil…”
“I did try to come back, actually,” he said with a heavy sigh. “But you didn’t seem to remember any of it happened, other than the drowning. You didn’t remember the demon and you didn’t remember me. And I decided it was better that way.”
“Then… then why did you come back this time?” she asked in a hushed voice.
“Because when I saw you, I recognized you,” Cecil said. “And I missed you. Some part of me hoped that you would recognize me, but it was obvious you weren’t going to.” He gazed up at the sky and rubbed his hand over the back of his head. “If I’m going to be honest, I came back because I needed someone familiar, and I saw you needed someone, too. So I became your guardian once more.”
She watched him for a moment before taking a step toward him, reaching her hand out to rest it on his shoulder. “I’m glad you did. I know I wasn’t exactly accepting of you in the beginning, but I’m really glad you stuck around this long.”
He turned to her and smiled faintly. “I’m glad, too.” He glanced around for a moment before looking back at her. “Hey, it’s a little cold out here, don’t you think?”
“Yeah, I guess it is.” She pressed her hands into the pockets of her coat and shivered a little. “Maybe I should go back.”
“Well, I was going to suggest something else, actually,” he said. He held his hand out to her and when Gail took it, his wings unfurled from his back. She gazed at them with wide eyes, forgetting how magnificent and beautiful they were. He pulled her closer against him and wrapped his wings around her. They felt like a warm, soft blanket, radiating with heat.
Gail smiled a little and closed her eyes, resting her head against him. “Thanks, Cecil. This is nice.”
“It is,” he murmured, hugging her tight against his chest. “Let’s just stay here for awhile.”