*Hi hi hi! I am so sorry for being inactive for so long- I won't bore you with excuses, but know that I am back in action and raring to update!

In the meantime, here's a little something I scribbled down over Christmas. Enjoy!

((The title is two lines from the song 'Home' by Kate Rusby, which I adore, and you should certainly take the time to listen to, if you have the chance))*

The lead up to Christmas was... odd. Or- perhaps it wasn't by the rest of the neighbourhood's standards; nothing much in their routines changed. Pete had spent enough years in their company to recognise their traditions- Nina and Sonny's far-too-aggressive snowball fights in Bennet park, the free homemade hot chocolate Usnavi gave out to his customers- Abuela had started that one- and Carla's hand-knitted Christmas sweaters, which she handed out to everyone on the 15th. This was the first year he'd been given one. It was red, with neat little reindeer stitched along the bottom, and he couldn't really explain the strange, tight feeling he got in his chest when she passed it to him- with her usual sunny smile, and a comment that she thought the colour brought out his eyes. It was just a sweater. But he felt... odd.

Benny sang carols- surprisingly well- under his breath at almost all times, and Pete found them getting stuck in his head- though he stopped immediately if he caught himself singing along. Being completely tone deaf wasn't generally a welcome trait in a carol singer, he'd found.

On the icy streets, he kept up his usual artwork, even if his fingers went numb on the cans after a while and his smoggy breath half clouded his vision. It was a living, after all. One evening, he was joined by- of all people- Daniela, in a thick winter coat and holding a jacket for him as well.

"Get this on, or you'll freeze." she said. "And I brought coffee for both of us." Pete felt oddly warm before he even pulled the jacket on.

Really, the "lead up to Christmas" started on November 1st if you happened to be aquainted with one Sonny de la Vega, who insisted on the holiday spirit being drawn out for as long as humanly possible. He wore a rotating sequence of Carla Christmas sweaters starting on the first- some of which barely fitted him any more- and decked out the bodega in tinsel and lights at the first opportunity, much to Usnavi's despair. It was hard not to get into the festive spirit with him around. Something tugged in Pete's chest at the sight of him, standing in the snow and gazing with wide, starry eyes at the Christmas lights lining the streets- though that in itself wasn't odd, come to think of it. He was getting used to that feeling- and getting used to letting himself feel it, instead of shoving it down. The mistletoe hung on the bodega awning- by Carla, he was pretty sure- was a good excuse for a few numb-lipped, mostly-grin kisses between Sonny's shifts- but what was odd was getting only an eye-roll and a swat at his head from Usnavi for it, instead of the yelling and scorn he'd have expected.

Yes, the last few weeks had been... odd. Not unpleasant, by any means, but strange. This, however, was the icing on the cake.

"What?"

"Christmas dinner, at the Rosario's- everyone'll be there. It's a sort of tradition, you know? That is, unless you've... got other plans?" Vanessa was leaning on the counter at the salon in her own Christmas jumper, barely looking up from her phone as she waited for his answer.

"Huh? I- No, no... no plans." Pete's plans for Christmas had been sleeping, mostly. Maybe watching something festive. Dropping round to see Sonny and the both of them pretending the reason his present was 'a kiss' was because he was a cute goofy boyfriend, and not that he couldn't afford more than that without being evicted. Trying to stop himself getting frostbite. This was... unexpected.

"Well then, you'll be there?"

"I..." Pete scratched the back of his neck, hesitating. "You're- uh- you're sure you want me there?" Vanessa snorted.

"What do you mean?"

"I mean, I've never got the impression that the Rosarios like me all that much..." At that, she looked up, and met his eyes with a frown. Both of them knew that by 'the Rosarios', Pete meant 'Kevin''- the guy had never exactly taken a shine to Pete, given his less-than-admirable occupation and shaky relationship with the law- and Pete had a sneaking suspicion that the fact that he and Sonny were now dating wasn't exactly going to help his situation. He'd never actually said anything, but... well, you learned to pick up on the signs.

Vanessa had taken a few steps towards him, her expression reassuring, sincere. That wasn't a look he was used to being on the receiving end of. It felt odd.

"Look, Pete, it's totally fine." she said. "You and Sonny are kind of a package deal now, right? Of course we want you there."

A package deal. So he was invited by association. Maybe that should have been hurtful but, honestly, Pete felt himself relax. That was... easier to deal with. He looked down at his fingers, picking at the paint under his nails.

"Right. Yeah- I'll be there." Though he couldn't see her, Pete could hear the smile in Vanessa's voice as she replied.

"Great! I'd wear your Christmas sweater, if I were you- everyone does."

"Sure."

"And Pete?" He looked up. She was looking at him directly, searching for words. "If... If anyone's... less than welcoming- you come and tell me, alright? You don't deserve the shit you get." Pete blinked at her for a few seconds, a little taken aback. She didn't look like she was joking.

"I... Right. Thanks." He swallowed, trying to think of something to do with his hands. Vanessa smiled again and picked up her bag, tucking her phone into her pocket.

"I'm off- going to see the Christmas lights with Usnavi." Grateful for the familiar territory, Pete shot her a wink.

"Well, I'm sure you'll have fun..."

"Oh, shut up, we're just going to see the display downtown. Which means..." she gave a wink of her own. "Sonny's by himself at the bodega..." Rolling his eyes, Pete swatted at her with his hat as she ducked out of the door, laughing as she flipped him off from through the window. This was better. This was easy. Still grinning, he pulled on his own jacket and made to leave, calling a goodbye to Carla, who was sorting supplies in the back room. She ran out, beaming, and hugged him tightly- something else he was getting used to. He hardly flinched at all.

The walk to the bodega was freezing, but thankfully dry- biting wind was replacing the unwelcome sleet they'd been experiencing for the last few days. By the time he got there, his nose was going numb and his fingers ached, and he hurried inside, grateful for the warmth. Sonny beamed and waved from behind the counter, bundled up in his own hat and gloves even inside- he always was awful in the cold. Pete grinned as he walked over to him and leaned over the counter and kissing him softly- fighting off a goofy grin as he leaned back. Sonny tasted like peppermint.

"How many candy canes have you eaten today?" he asked. His boyfriend put on a haughty expression.

"Not enough." he declared. The facade slipped off into a bright smile as he handed him the dregs of his own hot chocolate, though- hardly warm any more, but he didn't really care. Usnavi had forbidden Sonny from giving Pete his own for free.

"Thanks." he took a sip- but stalled as he lowered the cup and caught Sonny's ear-to-ear smile. "What's that face for?" Sonny poked at the side of his jaw.

"Your cheeks are all red, man. You look like an elf."

"Oh, shut up." Pete muttered, hiding his own grin in his cup.

"Nah, it's cute." Sonny was still beaming at him, and Pete gave up on pretence and pulled him in for a kiss again, glad his cheeks couldn't get much redder than they were. His lips were still a little numb with cold, but they warmed up quickly against Sonny's, and the fur of his hat was pleasantly soft against Pete's forehead- and this was certainly becoming familiar. What a thought. He'd never have allowed himself to even entertain it six months ago- becoming familiar with Sonny's warm lips against his own. His growing smile was making it difficult to kiss him properly, but he couldn't bring himself to care. Sonny was smiling too, after all, moving to grip the front of his jacket and lean even closer to him, and he slid a hand behind his waist to hold him up- yes, this was familiar. This was as natural as breathing.

"Oh god, my eyes!" They broke apart to see Benny standing in the doorway with an arm thrown dramatically over the top part of his face- and a thick scarf masking the rest of it. Pete pulled a face at him, one arm still around Sonny's waist.

"Aw, fuck off, man."

"Language!" Benny scolded him, pointing an accusing finger. "I'll not have you corrupting this innocent child." Sonny folded his arms.

"Fuck off, or I won't give you any hot chocolate." Benny gasped.

"See? It's happening already. You should be ashamed."

"You taught me most of the swear words I know when I was twelve, Benny." Benny paused for a second, then sighed.

"Touche."

He came fully into the shop and pulled off his scarf, shoving it into the pocket of his sweater as he grinned at the pair of them.

"You two seen Usnavi? I gotta talk Christmas plans with him."

"Him and Van went to see the Christmas lights downtown." Pete told him. "They'll probably be gone a little while."

"Aaw, cute."

"Trust me, it gets old." Sonny muttered. Benny chuckled and accepted the hot chocolate he passed him.

"Yeah, I can imagine. You two got any plans for Sunday?"

"Not really," Sonny said, shrugging. "There's dinner with the Rosarios, but nothing much other than that. I think Usnavi's taking Vanessa out somewhere, so we'll probably crash at our place then- maybe download some movie illegally and then complain about the quality. You know, the usual."

"Sounds good." Benny nodded, sipping his hot chocolate. "Well, if Usnavi's not here, I'll head off. I might as well get on with my last minute shopping. Thanks for the cocoa, by the way."

"Anytime." Sonny grinned. "Good luck with the shopping!" Nodding and raising a hand in farewell, Benny backed through the door again, wincing at the sudden cold, and they watched until he had passed out of sight.

"He'll never survive."

"I'm sorry?" Pete looked round at him, alarmed for a second.

"The shops'll be murder now. We're never gonna see him again." His expression was almost dead-eyed, watching the retreating figure sadly. Pete snorted and rested his head on his shoulder, smiling at his ever-dramatic nature.

"Nah, Benny's tough. I'm sure he'll be fine. Now…" he put a light hand on his jaw to guide his head back around, and raised an eyebrow, smirking. "Where were we?" Sonny rolled his eyes, but kissed him anyway.

"You're ridiculous."

"You love me."

Christmas morning arrived quietly- heralded by a 'Merry Christmas' text from Sonny at thirty three seconds past midnight, while he was walking home from a commission he'd been doing for a school nearby. After collapsing on his bed for a few hours and waking well before the sunrise as he always did, he sat on his rickety fire escape and gazed up at the stars. It was bitterly cold, and the stars were sharp. It was calming, though, the feeling of the wind rushing through him and the constant drone of the traffic below. The prospect of the Rosarios Christmas dinner was making him far more nervous than he wanted to admit. It was just a dinner, right? Just eating a meal with a few people he knew well- what could be frightening about that? But still, his stomach seized at the thought of it.

They were all so close. He told himself that was what bothered him. All of them- Usnavi, the Rosarios, Daniela and Carla- they knew each other so well, and he knew he had to prepare himself for feeling like Sonny's plus-one and nothing more. That, clearly, was what he was worried about.

If he let himself be honest, though, that was a far less intimidating prospect than the alternative. He shook those thoughts off as soon as they started to creep up on him, however, and managed to catch half an hour more of fitful sleep before giving up on that and heading out to paint over a crude message someone had sprayed across one of his recent murals.

He met Sonny and Usnavi outside the bodega at noon, and walked up to the Rosarios with them with an arm around Sonny's shoulders and their cheerful singing in his ears. The cousins' Christmas sweaters matched- a starry pattern and the words "Ho Ho Ho" written across their chests- they looked like a picture on a Christmas card, if he was honest. The rain picked up just as they were turning the corner onto their street, and they broke into a run and banged quickly on the door- launching themselves inside as Nina swung the door wide for them.

"Hey guys!" she said, grinning as they pulled off their hats and scarves. "Good timing." They were greeted by Benny, waving from the kitchen along with Camilla and Kevin, and Daniela called a greeting from the living room. Pete looked around the house with interest, never having been inside it before. It reminded him forcefully of Abuela's- if a little cleaner, a little more polished. Camilla came into the hall to greet them- patted Sonny and Usnavi's cheeks in turn and nodded kindly to Pete before ushering them through to join Dani and returning to her work.

After the initial greetings and negotiation of seats (Pete ended up with Sonny mostly on his lap on the tiny couch- not that he was complaining) they simply sat and talked, and Pete found himself far more involved than he would have expected- or liked. Daniela wanted to know what kinds of commissions he was taking- if he was being paid enough, if he was getting enough rest in between. Nina, when she came through to talk, was fascinated by his accounts of other artists he'd been in touch with, with how he was attempting to build on and develop his style, and how he was trying to use his work to promote protest and change. It wasn't that Pete wasn't happy to talk about it, but this much talking- especially about himself- was draining to say the least, and he was more than thankful when Vanessa and Carla arrived and steered the topic of conversation away from him.

They sat down to eat not long after, with Pete knocking elbows with Sonny and Carla at the table built for less than half this number of people, and feeling a little out of place as conversations sprang up around him. Camilla's cooking was as good as he'd been told- and gave him something to do rather than talk, which he was grateful for. It didn't seem to dissuade the others, though. Opposite him, Nina was talking animatedly through spoonfuls of sweet potato about something he didn't understand at all, while Vanessa and Dani listened to varying degrees- butting in with questions and comments every now and then. Carla and Camilla were laughing a little way to his right, while Kevin made stiff but polite conversation with Benny, and Sonny and Usnavi had taken up their usual dispute about the younger boy's pay and working hours. Pete chewed his potatoes in silence, listening to the conversations shift and change- trying not to engage in any of them.

He would never have said he was a people person- if perhaps only by lack of practise. People didn't usually take an interest in him, so suddenly being surrounded by a large group that did was a shock to the system to say the least. It was so much easier to let it happen around him.

"Pete, pass the peas, would you?"

"Huh? Oh, sure." Pete pulled himself out of his thoughts and handed the bowl to Carla, who smiled brightly as she took it.

"Thanks." To his dismay, she didn't simply go back to her own conversation, but shifted a little closer to talk to him. "How are you?" she asked. "I feel like I haven't seen you much lately." Pete braced himself and started to rattle off the spiel he'd given Nina and Dani about commissions and such- but she cut him off. "No, no- how are you? You look tired, are you getting enough sleep?"

"What? Uh- yeah, of course."

"Are you sure." Her expression was worried and kind, and he felt his chest catch at that- at the unfamiliarity of it. There was no scorn there, no derision. She genuinely cared.

"Well, I mean, no less than usual- but I guess I don't usually get all that much." he admitted. Carla looked more worried still.

"Is there anything I can do to help?" Pete stared, non-plussed. Is there anything I can do to help? Such a simple question, and yet he stared at her in disbelief.

"I… No, no, not really." he said. "I'm fine, really, though- it's nothing you need to be worried about." She still looked concerned, but he brushed her off and turned to listen to the argument Benny was having with Sonny from the other end of the table.

"Twinkies are disgusting, Sonny." he was saying. "I hate to burst your little bubble, but it's the truth." Sonny was indignant.

"They're not! They're good!"

"Oh my god- Pete, back me up here, they're literally gross, right?" Pete stuttered for a couple of seconds under their sudden gazes.

"I… uh- I've never had a Twinkie?" he admitted. They both stared at him, open mouthed.

"You've never had a Twinkie?" Benny asked, disbelieving.

"How? Just- you've literally never had one?"

"That's an outrage!"

"Uh… sorry?"

"Okay, that settles it." Sonny declared. "I'm getting you a box for Christmas."

"It's a bit late for that, Sonny."

"Nope- there are twelve days of Christmas, might I remind you, and a present given within those twelve days is not late. You are going to experience the wonders of the Twinkie before the festive season is over, Pete, I will personally see to it." Benny had put his hands over his mouth in mock-horror.

"Don't let him do it, Pete! You'll regret it, I swear, those things taste like pureed cockroaches in a mouldy bun- "

"They do not!" Sonny protested. "They're really good!" The pair resumed their bickering, and Pete, happy to sink back into the background, set about cleaning the last of his food from his plate. He'd almost finished when a voice distracted him again.

"Peter, have another helping, won't you? You're thin as a rake." Camilla Rosario had fixed kind eyes on him from the other end of the table, and was holding out her hand for his plate.

"Oh- I'm really alright, Mrs Rosario-" Pete began, but Camilla was insistent.

"Don't give me that- here, pass that up. You need to put some meat on those bones, no arguing." Her expression made it clear that she meant it, and Pete passed up his plate, which she piled with generous second helpings of everything they had, before giving it back with a smile. "There you are." she said. "Eat up, young man, you need the energy- you've seemed dead on your feet lately." Unable to find a reply, Pete just nodded dumbly and picked up his fork again.

Before he started eating again, though, he found his eyes drawn to the faces surrounding him. All of them so cheerful. These people, laughing and talking with him as though he belonged with them- as though they really wanted him there. As if he was no different than the rest of them. He felt… wanted, sitting here, surrounded by these people- by this little family.

His little family?

"Pete, are you alright?" He looked up from where his knuckles had gone white on the tablecloth, blinking hard. Nina was watching him across the table. Her eyes were soft with concern- worry, worry over him. He opened his mouth, but his throat was burning and the words wouldn't come. He felt dizzy.

"Pete?"

Pete bit his lip so hard he tasted iron. His blood was rushing in his ears- What was wrong with him? His eyes felt hot, the beginnings of tears forming at the corners, and he blinked them back and tried to force down the fluttering in his throat.

"Pete, what's- "

Without letting her finish, Pete pushed his chair back and walked out, one hand clapped over his mouth and his eyes on the ground. He heard the conversations die as he ducked through the door and slammed a fist into the wall, letting the tears that had been stinging the backs of his eyes spill out over his cheeks. What was wrong with him? He was being ridiculous. He was being stupid- there was nothing for him to be crying about, nothing at all- what on earth was-

"Pete?" It was Sonny. "Babe, are you- Oh shit, what's wrong?" He put a hand on his arm. Pete didn't look round.

"Nothing." he muttered.

"Bullshit."

He stood, breathing heavy, for a few more seconds as he struggled with his conscience. He knew from experience that Sonny wasn't going to let up, but how could he reassure him when he wasn't even sure himself what the problem was?

"Pete…" Sonny's voice was softer this time. "What is it? Has something happened?"

"I…" His throat throbbed with the words, with the effort of keeping his voice steady. He swallowed and tried again. "I- I don't know. I just…" He cast around for words to explain it- to make Sonny understand what this coiling, bursting feeling was- what it felt like to have people care, to really care after a lifetime of…

Oh.

There it was.

That was it.

Sonny was speaking, but it sounded far away through his ringing ears. He stopped as Pete let go of the wall and stood up a little straighter, taking a steadying breath.

"I've just- I've never had this, okay?" he started. There. That was something. Sonny was frowning, confused, so he pressed on. "Not the dinner and stuff- just- this- with people- I- it's… It's a lot, all right? I've never had a- a mom, making me eat second helpings or…" he heard his voice crack a little, "-a sister looking out for me. I've always just been by myself, ever since I was a kid. And then I'm here, with you guys, and you're- you're all so close- and I can't…"

"You feel left out? Cause we never meant to make you feel that way, dude, I swear- "

"No, no, it's not that!" Pete cut Sonny off before he could go too far down the wrong track- willing his words to form right, to explain. He had never been all that good with words. "It's- It's the opposite. I feel… You're all just- You made me feel welcome. And I'm not… I'm not used to that."

"Pete?" They both looked around. Usnavi was in the doorway, worried and wide-eyed. The man had twisted his cap between his hands, and was making his way hesitantly down the hall to him. "I know I've never been all that… welcoming to you." he said. "I didn't used to trust you, and I shouldn't have been so biased in the beginning, and I am so, so sorry for that. I wasn't fair to you at all. And I want to make it up to you, Pete. I really do. Can you let me try?"

Yet again, Pete found himself completely lost for words. He stared at Usnavi- the man who'd warned his cousin, Pete's only real friend, to stay away from him because he was a bad influence, who'd threatened to get the police involved to keep him away from his store, who had outright hated him for years- apologising. Asking Pete to give him a chance. The apology wasn't unwelcome in the least- but that wasn't what Pete had been talking about at all. He shook his head, a little numbly, watching worry and then confusion grow on the man's face.

"No- no, that's- That's not what I'm saying, Usnavi, it's not. It's not you, it's… It's just how it is. People don't like… They don't like people like me- that's just the way of the world, you can't change it. I'm a layabout vandal, aren't I? I don't belong with anyone." It was Usnavi's turn to stare, gaping almost comically as he searched for a response. He never gave one, so Pete tried to continue with his explanation- though his voice was shaking more with every word. He licked his lips, fighting the tears that were gathering more surely in his eyes.

"And then… you guys are… You've been so…"

He swallowed hard and stared at the ground.

"I feel like I've got a family. And that's just… a lot."

Silence rang for a few moments. The three of them stood immobile in the hallway, Pete's confession hanging between them heavily, the air thick. Their breathing was far too loud.

And then there were arms around him. Two pairs- Sonny's, familiar and warm around his waist, and Usnavi's, a little hesitant, a little too tight, but he found himself shaking with sobs against the man's shoulder, overwhelmed by the sheer fact that these people cared. Usnavi gripped his arms and held him, murmuring reassurances and rocking the three of them slightly back and forth.

Pete felt… oddly weightless, and oddly heavy.

After a minute or so, he pulled back, covering his eyes with his arm and trying to steady his breathing. He screwed up his eyes and swallowed. Usnavi still had two bracing hands on his arms, and he spoke softly as Pete dried his eyes.

"You said we feel like family?" Pete nodded, swallowed again, fought of the tears.

"I mean- y- you're the closest thing I've got. I'm sorry, it probably sounds so- "

"Don't apologise." Usnavi cut him off. "Of course you're family, Pete, don't you doubt that for a second. And not just because you're dating Sonny- though that probably got you into a few good books, I'll admit." At that, Pete managed a weak, watery smile, and Usnavi beamed at him. "Don't ever think you're not family to us, alright?" he said. He managed to nod. Sonny squeezed his arm.

Giving him another smile, Usnavi turned to head back into the dining room. "Come back in when you're ready, alright? No pressure." he said. Another nod. He had almost passed back through the door when Pete called out to him.

"Usnavi?"

"Yeah?"

"Thank you. For what you said before. It means a lot." Usnavi grinned and shrugged one shoulder.

"Hey, Sonny wouldn't shut up about how great you are, I had to at least give you a shot or he'd have driven me insane." Sonny snorted at Pete's side, and Usnavi looked from one of them to the other, his expression softening. "For what it's worth, you're good for him. You're a good kid, Pete. We're happy to have you here." Pete couldn't hold back his own tear-stained smile.

"Thank you."

At the table, Daniela was toasting mistletoe and eggnog, and the end of the season of big, ugly sweaters. Vanessa was laughing. Benny was singing.

All was well.

*I hope you liked this! If so, please leave a review, if you can possibly spare the time. They are what motivates me to keep writing! Thank you for reading, either way! 3*