Counting the Stars
Christmas day with Ruby’s extended family was... something. Even her mother’s side, with thirty-seven first cousins and God knows how many aunts, uncles, second-cousins, etc.—even that wasn’t as chaotic as Christmas with her dad’s family.
The turkey her grandmother was cooking caught on fire. The younger cousins started a game of capture the flag by splitting the first and second floor into two separate sides, and anyone who got caught in the crosshairs of their Nerf guns were met with no mercy. One of her aunts realized she hadn’t labeled any of the gifts she’d wrapped, so she took all the presents to the master bedroom and proceeded to tear the wrapping off of every single one. Three different ornaments fell to the floor, only when Ruby helped to clean them up she found the shattered remains of five.
“To my crazy, chaotic family!” Ruby’s grandmother announced when everyone finally sat down for dinner. “And to this crazy, chaotic holiday!”
“Still not as bad as the year when Mary went into labor!” Lexa called. The table erupted into laughter. Mary shook her head fondly, bouncing a toddler in her lap.
Everyone dug into the burritos they’d ordered as a backup plan. Ruby groaned in ecstasy: sure, her grandmother’s cooking was pretty good, but the burrito place down the street made the best chicken burritos she’d ever had in her life.
“Dude,” Lexa said, flicking a nacho across the table to get Ruby’s attention. “I want you to meet Theo, my boyfriend. Theo, this is my favorite cousin, Ruby.”
“Nice to meet you,” Theo said politely. “Lexa’s told me a lot about you.”
Ruby scanned her cousin’s boyfriend with a keen eye. He was... well. He was hot, in the way college boys often are but high school boys could never dream to be. Nobody in Ruby’s school had a jawline like that, not to mention the stubble.
Ruby responded with a nod and a brief, “Hey.”
Theo leaned slightly over the table to say, “Hey, so, do you have any embarrassing stories about Lexa you’d like to share? Because I’ve known this girl for years and let me tell you, it’s so hard being the only one making a fool out of themselves.”
Lexa rolled her eyes and flicked her boyfriend’s shoulder. “Nice try, buttface. You should know that I’m a very one-dimensional character and I have no hidden depths whatsoever.”
“When Mary went into labor we spent more time getting Lexa to stop hyperventilating than worrying about the woman giving birth,” Ruby said.
Theo’s eyes widened with glee. “Really?”
“Ruby!” Lexa cried.
Ruby shrugged. “There was also the time when she was eight and she got her hair stuck in a vacuum.”
“You are the worst cousin I’ve ever had!”
“This is the best day of my life,” Theo said, grinning. “Tell me more, please, I’m begging you. I will give you my firstborn.”
“You are the worst boyfriend I’ve ever had!”
“I know, I love how you put up with me.”
Theo and Lexa both froze.
Ruby’s burrito paused in the middle of its journey to her mouth. Lexa and Theo stared at each other like deer in the headlights, mouths opening and closing as they both scrambled for something to say. Slowly, as to not disrupt the tense silence between the couple (never mind that the rest of the table was roaring with conversation), Ruby took a bite of her burrito. Dinner and a show? Yes please.
“I–uh, I’m–”
“I didn’t–I mean–”
“It’s not—I wasn’t–”
Ruby figured this could go on for centuries, so she decided to take pity on the two.
“Well isn’t this just a wonderful occasion!” she blurted.
Lexa and Theo glanced at her before bursting into nervous laughter, the tension leaking slightly from their shoulders. Ruby waited until the two of them met eyes again before saying, “I don’t know what you guys are laughing about, I was talking about Christmas burritos.”
Lexa snorted, sighed, and turned to Theo. “Look, Theo, I get it. It was just a passing comment, you didn’t mean it to be–”
“What?” Theo asked incredulously, his brows coming together in confusion. “Lexa, what do you mean—“
“You’ve had tons of girlfriends!” Lexa said. “And I know for some of those relationships you were going farther at two weeks than we’ve gotten in almost a year, so I get it if you’re not–”
“I love you,” Theo blurted.
Lexa made a sound that was somewhere between a choke and a whine.
“I love you,” Theo repeated. “I don’t care about those other girls, they’re—Alexa Scott, what have I said to you a million times over? You’re the coolest girl I’ve ever met. You’re smart, you’re funny, you don’t put up with my sh–”
“Alright, alright, I get it,” Lexa interrupted, flushing a deep red. “I’m great, blah blah blah, you love me.”
“I love you,” Theo said.
“You love me!” Lexa laughed. “Thank God, I was starting to worry that I was the only one.”
Theo blinked. “Wait, do you mean–”
“I love you too, moron.” Lexa smiled, eyes warm. “I’ve loved you for years.”
“Oh.” Theo sounded like he’d ascended into another plane of existence. “Neat.”
“Let’s see if we can sneak out of here, huh?” Lexa said, eyes sparkling. “I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty full.”
“I could go for a walk.” Theo stood up, holding a hand out for his girlfriend. “Shall we?”
Lexa rolled her eyes, but she took his hand and followed him out of the room.
Ruby, meanwhile, took a long sip of her soda and sighed. Turning to the person sitting on her left, she said, “Can you believe they just ditched me like that?”
The person next to her was a seven-year-old boy with a finger up his nose—and not his finger, either. The finger belonged to his identical twin, who sat on his left.
“I like Star Wars,” the kid to the left of Ruby said.
“Great,” Ruby grumbled. “Another nerd.”
Christmas day with Jacob’s extended family was... boring.
The presents he got each year were the same: clothes from his parents, clothes from his grandparents—and now, thanks to Ruby’s new makeover, Jacob knew better than to wear any of his gifts in public. The only good present he got was a video game from his brother.
It was like this every year: Jacob and Mike sat through some slow, dull stories from their grandparents, opened their boring, ugly gifts from all the adults, and then gave each other a video game and fought over which one they played first. Aside from waving their grandparents goodbye, Jacob and Mike don’t leave their basement once their video game is plugged in. This year, it’s Overwatch that won, and it only took three hours for them to decide which characters they like the best.
“So, I gotta ask,” Mike said as his generic soldier-type character tried (and failed) to hit Jacob’s character. “Is there really nothing going on with you and Ruby?”
Jacob couldn’t even summon the energy to roll his eyes. “Dude, a better question would be why did you pick the most boring character to main as?”
“Soldier 76 is not a boring character,” Mike sniffed. “And I’m not trying to be annoying right now, I swear. It just seems like you’re hanging out with her a lot.”
Jacob peered at his brother from the corner of his eyes. Mike didn’t look like he was teasing him.
“Nothing’s happening,” Jacob said. “She’s my friend, and I’m tutoring her.”
“But you want it to be more.” It wasn’t a question.
Jacob didn’t hesitate. “Duh.” His character leapt of a building and jetpacked over to the next, firing down at the other players.
“Wait, stop—I can’t focus on this conversation if you’re beating me!” Mike complained.
“I’ve been beating you from the start, man,” Jacob pointed out.
“Look, I just—I don’t want my little brother getting his heart broken, okay?” Mike said. “No offense, man, but... you don’t have a chance.”
“I know that,” Jacob said. “I’m not delusional.”
Mike paused. “Then... why are you still hanging out with her?”
Now Jacob paused. “Because... we’re... friends?”
“But...” Mike’s face contorted in confusion. “But you’re not gonna get together with her.”
“Yeah. I know.” Jacob spoke slowly, as if teaching a concept to a kindergartener. “I’m not trying to get anything out of this friendship, dude. I like being her friend. I’m not gonna ruin that by forcing my feelings onto her.”
“Uh.” Mike still looked like he didn’t understand. “O...okay, I guess? But if it’s just friendship and tutoring, don’t you think she’ll... be done with you when she doesn’t need your help anymore? Like, this is Ruby Scott. She doesn’t really hang out with losers.”
Jacob’s ice turned cold. That... wasn’t a completely unreasonable point. Jacob was a rational person, and this rationality had kept him from harboring the delusional belief that Ruby could ever have feelings for him. But he also knew, rationally, who Ruby was. She was a troublemaker, a rule-breaker, a cool kid. Jacob was none of those things. Jacob, for all his cool clothes and new hair, was still just a nerd. And as soon as Ruby was done using him as a tutor, she’d probably forget who Jacob Whitman was.
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