Saturday had finished with Mercedes complaining about most of the holes, Sebastian beating her terribly and the two sharing lunch together on the patio of the country club. They toasted together a cheap bottle of champagne (that was delivered without any confirmation of their age) and made fun of expensive food. Sebastian's French was conversational, and he laughed while Mercedes tried and butchered the name of most of the dishes.

"Cream duh brew-lee-on,' she had attempted, encouraging a large frown of disgust from Sebastian.

"Crème de bouillon?' he corrected in the form of a question. He read the menu from upside down. "De champignons au céleri et coriandre,' he finished.

"I don't know what that means,' Mercedes huffed, flipping the page.

"Were you even going to try to guess? Use context clues."

She shook her head. "Not if you're gonna just make fun of me, Sebastian. I'll straight up order french fries. Try me."

He rolled his eyes and pointed at something on the next page. "You can order that."

"Poulet en… crout,' Mercedes attempted.

"En croûte,' Sebastian reaffirmed. Mercedes repeated accurately, and the boy awarded her a short round of applause. "Poulet en croûte de persil et d'ail,' he finished.

"What's that mean? Something with sauerkraut, right?"

Sebastian shook his head, furrowing his eyebrows. "Chicken with parsley crust and something else… probably an herb or something… let's not get you something you're not going to eat."

Mercedes rolled her eyes. "Why don't they have menus in English?"

Sebastian shrugged. "They do."

Staring at the boy, Mercedes picked the menu up and threw it at Sebastian with an attitude. "You just love to make me look stupid."

He shrugged, taking the menu and placing it on top of his own. "I don't make you do anything. You do a perfect job of that on your own."

Punch in the arm— and then the waiter.

He'd taken her home after lunch but promised to hang out soon, but that soon wasn't until the next weekend. Sebastian had spent Saturday with a few friends from school; he hadn't hung out with them in a week or two (not since he'd stopped smoking, at least), and he missed the camaraderie of just being with the boys. Finn was back in town, and he'd had a bonfire where almost all of Sebastian's friends, both graduated and from school, had attended. While Quinn had been there, she'd spent too much of her time eavesdropping near all of Finn's conversations to give Sebastian much attention (much to his delight). He, Hunter and all of their mutual, relatively straight-edge friends had sat around the bonfire, drinking beer and talking about the various sports they were all engaging in for the winter. Hockey and wrestling were big at that time of the year, so Sebastian didn't dare mention anything about tennis or really about anything. He was mainly happy to be at a relatively neutral place with all his friends and away from most, if not all, the stresses that had plagued him recently.

He was, for the first time in a while, in a good spot in school and all his relationships. He'd spent enough time with his friends during his stint as a pothead that there were no fears of allegiance and alliance to the group. After talking on the phone with Savannah about finding a dealer, he'd felt that he'd done his brotherly duty to her and wouldn't need to loop back to that relationship for a few months (he liked to keep the slate clean). Sebastian's relationship with Mercedes, which he lumped into another category, completely of its own, was usually a tentative worry regardless of any condition but almost perpetually solvable, if only time consuming. They were fine (for now). His relationship with his dad had been relatively mild if not friendly since tennis began to look more promising in the coming year, and, to be frank, Sebastian hadn't seen much of his mother in weeks — which was odd, but he wasn't motivated to implore her on her whereabouts. He wasn't sure he'd even care.

But it was a week until Christmas, and Sebastian knew that soon he'd be seeing more of his family than he could stomach. He agreed with Mercedes to go Christmas shopping together, and by what he convinced himself was mutual accord, they ended up in Toledo. They hit a couple of thrift stores (her suggestion) before he bit the bullet and dragged her to a department store.

"This is out of my budget, Sebastian,' Mercedes whined.

"Good thing we're here to buy my Christmas gifts then, right,' he asked, turning around in the middle of an aisle to give a condescending smirk. "We could have gone to a thrift store in Lima."

He could feel the girl rolling her eyes when he turned back around. "No, you won't be caught dead with me, remember? Dead, deceased, in a coffin, six feet under, pushing up daisies, gone to meet our Lord and savior—,'

"Here we go,' Sebastian moaned.

"I can keep going!"

They walked between aisles of men's clothing and then faux leather before getting to a voluminous selection of purses. Sebastian stood beside Mercedes with his arms crossed; she mirrored his posture, but their dispositions varied greatly. Her eyes were wide with delight while he looked smug enough to sell an underage child a gram with no measure of shame nor worry. He shuddered.

"What do you think my lonely, twenty-something sister would like? It's got to fit a bottle of wine, a flask, a bottle opener, an eighth and a carton of cigarettes."

Mercedes cut her eyes over at Sebastian. "That's one of the first things you've ever said to me about her, and that's it."

"I just told you a lot."

Mercedes, again, rolled her eyes and moved to touch some of the purses. "Nudes are classic, but…' she trailed. "Your sister has very rosy cheeks, so I think a pink would be good."

Sebastian furrowed his eyebrows.

Mercedes answered for him. "There are pictures of you guys around your house, remember?"

He shook his head. "You remember that?"

She shrugged. "Finding out about your real life is like taking gold from a leprechaun, so it's not hard to remember everything you tell me."

Sebastian bit his lip."Believe it or not, I'm just full of myself, not a narcissist… Here: we can talk about whatever you want, as long as it isn't what we're not supposed to talk about."

They walked together down the collection of bags. "Which is,' Mercedes asked.

He bit his nail and said through his teeth: "Our friends."

"Oh,' Mercedes said with a lengthy drawl. "Your friends!"

Sebastian shrugged. "I'm feeling some judgment right now."

"Judgment? From me?"

Sebastian's eyes widened. "Was that self-aware deprecation?' He patted her on the back. "She's learning."

Mercedes rolled her eyes, picked up a bag and showed it to Sebastian for approval. He shrugged. She matched his demeanor, not entirely impressed with the purse herself, but interested in how engaged Sebastian actually was in the process of choosing. It was evident that he wasn't.

"So,' Mercedes pushed. "I can ask you anything, and you'll answer."

"Anything, and I'll answer. I'm going to forewarn you: you're not going to like most of what I have to say, but I doubt I'd be the person you'd come to if you wanted to be lied to in the first place."

Mercedes shook her head. "Thanks for the heads up."

Sebastian shrugged graciously. "It's a favor."

They looked at more purses for a while before Mercedes crossed her arms, stumped. "What's your budget?"

Sebastian cut his eyes over to the girl. He raised his hands in faux-confusion. "Do I look like someone who has a spending limit?"

She rolled her eyes (and Sebastian was nearly tired of noting this as it was her immediate response to three-quarters of what came from his mouth). "D'you ever get tired of being so cocky?"

He walked ahead of her. "D'you ever get tired of asking stupid questions?"

Mercedes began: "I'm guessing the forever-bad-attitude is from your dad, right? You never, ever talk about your mom."

He turned around and furrowed his eyebrows. "I think I'm rather positive— a realist, if nothing else."


Sebastian found a chair and sat in it, leaving Mercedes to trifle through another rack of bags. They had hardly been looking with intent; it wasn't Mercedes's money to spend, and it wasn't Sebastian's idea of a 'great time', and as neither were particularly happy to be a mile deep into a department store during Christmas season, they gladly abdicated from the task at hand and aligned themselves with chitter-chatter.

"My mom, my mom…' he trailed in thought. "Nice lady, I guess. Kind of an ice queen,' he shrugged. "I don't know her too well,' Sebastian scratched his chin. "That's a weird feeling, because I have lived with her my entire life, and I, like, came out of her, but I couldn't tell ya' much, that's for sure. Pretty vapid, capitalist type."

Mercedes gave a face. "Do you not have, like, abundant memories of her? Going to the beach as a kid or her taking you to your first day of school?"

He sucked his teeth. "Sure, it doesn't mean anything she said or did during any of those moments impressed themselves on me. She can be pretty pragmatic; very business minded."

Mercedes frowned. "Sorry… Do you feel like you prefer one over the other?"

"Making me choose between parents, Mercedes?' Sebastian began with a laugh, he pulled himself up in his seat. The mood had gotten suddenly downtrodden, but he eased himself back into his usual face-value as some distant employee cranked up the Christmas music. He stood up and walked a few steps, the girl on his heels.

"My mother is more likely to let me exist and give me the hope that that existence won't be some level of miserable forever. As far as my father,' Sebastian rolled his eyes. "He's one of those people that you never feel completely at ease around; like you're on thin ice all the time, but it's the middle of the summer in some slum in Mexico City. You're drowning, obviously, and the last person on the fucking planet you'd ever want to ask for help is the one on a boat holding out an oar."

"It shouldn't be like that,' Mercedes lamented.

"You're right,' he shrugged, pretending to be interested in a salmon purse. "But it is."

They walked around for a bit more before entering into what was evidently the high-end area of the store. Mercedes, who seemed to be taking an adventure into window shopping more than anything else, happened upon a pink purse, branding a gold 'Dolce & Gabbana' plate. She held it up for Sebastian's inspection, and the boy nodded in approval. It did look sleek (much nicer than some of the clunky bags from previous aisles), and he had seen Savannah in a shade of lipstick that matched the bright pink of the purse exactly.

Mercedes trifled with the price tag for a second before covering her mouth in shock and taking a step back. Following after her, Sebastian flipped the tag open between his fingers and gave a look of admonishment to the girl.

"It's fine,' he said, plainly. He picked the bag up and handed it to the girl. "Can you hold it for me?"

They continued around the store, this time, looking for something for the rest of Sebastian's family. They still had his mother and father, as well as Hunter's mother and little sister. Mercedes suggested shoes for Tierney, but being that Sebastian had no hint of Tierney's shoe size, they ended up in the jewelry section (wherein Mercedes refused to even begin to look at even a single price tag).

"So, tell me about your sister,' Mercedes began as they scoured over brooches.

Sebastian snickered. "I already did."

"No,' Mercedes began, elbowing the boy. "You insulted her while she wasn't here to defend herself. Actually tell me about her. I don't even know her name."

He looked at the girl. "I've never talked to you about Savannah?"

"No,' Mercedes replied, and suddenly, it washed over him— at first it was nausea, and then he felt a twinge of pain.

Sebastian hadn't thought about it in a while, but suddenly he remembered the medicinal smell of the hospital and the pan of throw up on the floor at the end of the hospital bed. Her eyes had been red and her hair a fury. He'd never seen Savannah so small, and he'd never felt so insignificant. She was on the bed and everyone, including herself, had thought (even if for just a second) that she was going to die. Even then they couldn't say anything that really mattered, just scratch at what they thought was an appropriate reaction— both siblings knew that Savannah dying would probably be a relief.

Of course, the Smythes would have to finally admit that they weren't invincible and real, tangible, human things could happen to them, but the silver lining would be that Savannah's death might be the last of those real, tangible, human things. She would go and with her, her insurmountable shame and guilt and the unquenchable anger; and Sebastian would be released from the game of tug-of-war between her and his parents that had begun years before he could prevent any impressionability from either party. He'd no longer be so confused— he would no longer have an older sister to look up to— Tierney and Emmett could, once again, be the archetype, and he would have no choice but the inevitable. Tierney would be the same stoic mother she had been, and Sebastian figured that Emmett might cry— and then introduce a platform of ending substance abuse to his next year's running agenda.

So, maybe, that's why Savannah had cried to the point of dry heaving on the bed that day: because try as she might to get away from all her ghosts, they just lingered, wouldn't let her go and got uglier and uglier. No one ever forgot about the time Savannah Smythe showed up drunk to her father's first campaign celebration and no one forgot her wardrobe malfunction at Sebastian's confirmation. No one forgot about her faking an Irish accent when she first transferred to Trinity and no one forgot about how she spent an entire day of work with throw up on her shirt from that morning— of course, perhaps they forgot, but she'd never let herself believe that they did. She'd sit for hours, days even, playing over and over in her head every embarrassing thing she'd ever done. One might even call it self-harm. When the embarrassing things ended, she'd begin to think about all the reasons she hated herself, and that blade was sharp. When that ended, she'd begin to think about all the wrongs done to her by the people she knew, but more importantly, the people she loved. That took the longest, so rarely she ended here: thinking about why her mother had been so concerned about her weighing less than one hundred and twenty pounds at all times or why her father had let his colleagues make comments about her body in front of her and her mother. What had they possibly said to ensure that Sebastian never called or visited— or why he was always systematically out of the house anytime she called and asked after him? And by this time, the tears had worn themselves out or the liquor had run itself down or it was Monday morning and she had to go back to pretending everything was alright.

The day she overdosed, saw black finally, she'd turned around to see the ugly world once again, her personal hell, the constant loop. There was her brother with the same expression of worn disappointment that Emmett had delivered for decades. She'd shuddered under Sebastian's gaze and knew, immediately, that there was no one on earth that loved her without compromise. It was always 'We love Savannah, but,', and it was hardly ever that.

Sebastian couldn't remember what he was thinking when he sat in that chair and stared at her. He regretted not touching her, just running his hands through her hair, at least, but instead he sat apart, hidden behind judgment that wasn't truly his. He wasn't sure why he loved Savannah suddenly, wildly, like he'd never loved her before— he did remember how his parents went to dinner that night and had failed to invite him— then never discussed the overdose again. They were so smug, and Savannah was so frivolous to them. She had only wanted to be loved for who she truly was, and she had acted out in neglect. He imagined they cast her out for many reasons, one being that if they ever allowed her to truly speak, they'd have to face some criticism that neither would bear to hear. They were irreproachable— wore it like a seal.

Perhaps, he was mad at Emmett, and being heady, but Sebastian realized that Savannah might be the only Smythe worth mentioning.

"She,' he began, scrunching his eyebrows. It was worth crying about. He stopped and shook his head. He gave a fake smile. "She's worth an entire conversation outside of the one we're having right now. You'd probably just have to meet her."

Mercedes shrugged. "I go from not even knowing her name to getting to meet her? Score,' she said jokingly. She continued to finger through brooches. "Didn't you say your mom owned a yoga studio?"

Sebastian shrugged. "Kind of."

Mercedes held up a silver pin with a woman in a warrior pose in bright colors plastered on the front to Sebastian's amusement. He smiled and took it from her.


The duo continued on, settling on a wallet for Emmett and an American Girl doll for Abigail. The two ended up in a section of fur coats for Sarah, Hunter's mother.

"My mother is going to be putting peas underneath my bed every night until the day I move out if I show up on Christmas with an actual fucking twenty dollar brooche for her and a Japanese spa monkey coat and glove combo for my aunt… We cannot get this."

Mercedes shrugged, running her hands over the coats. "I just wanted to see what chinchilla felt like."

This brought out a scoff from Sebastian before it became a genuinely hearty laugh (rare from him). He dragged his hands over his face. "We've been in this mall for way too long, I'm about to start hallucinating."

"Sebastian,' Mercedes droned. "We have to get something for Hunter's mom."

He shrugged, walking away. "Get the coat. I like Sarah."

Mercedes pulled a mozzarella stick off of Sebastian's plate as they sat together in the food court, a couple of bags in a chair beside them. He took a long sip of Coke before focusing his attention on the girl.

"I asked you if you wanted anything else."

"I didn't."

He pushed the small basket of mozzarella sticks over to Mercedes, who promptly pushed them back. Rolling his eyes, Sebastian crossed his arms and thought for a second.

"I get to ask you questions now, right?"

"Uhn, uhn,' she mumbled, shaking her head.

"What do you mean 'uhn, uhn'? You've had me on the hot seat all day."

Mercedes shrugged. "So, what? I know practically nothing about you, so it was fair."

Sebastian shook his head. "You know ten times more about me than I know about you."

"Your life is just a lot more… fantastical than mine, but by comparison, you know pretty much everything about me… You don't even seem real to me sometimes."

He put his hand on the table, palm facing up.

"What?" Mercedes asked.

He motioned for her hand, and she placed it gently in his palm. Giving her a gentle squeeze, he asked: "Feel like the real thing?"

Again— her eyes took a roll. She pulled away before she could convince herself it meant anything. "You're so corny."

Sebastian cocked his head. "Always worth a try,' he began, winking at the girl. "So… since I know everything about you…"

"Right,' she trailed.

"When do I get to properly meet mom?"

"Properly? Oh— you mean since the last time, you were running out of my house, and I told you not to say anything to her, and you did anyway,' she batted at his arm.

"I guess that'll put me on the naughty list this year, what can I say?"

"Yeah? You're probably on the naughty list every year."

"Well, don't talk to me like that unless you're going to bend me over and give me a spanking too, my little helper."

Mercedes rolled her eyes and blushed, but this quickly became bashful laughter. She covered her face in pseudo-embarrassment.

Sebastian pulled himself up in his seat and leaned over the table, his elbows planted firmly beneath him. Whispering, as if though the mall Santa might hear, he began: "I always tell you, Mercedes. Don't flirt with me, because you can't keep up,' he leaned back into his seat. "It's cute when you try though."

Mercedes took her hands away from her face. "Each time I go home after hanging out with you, I feel like I need to pray. We should pray together."

Sebastian took a sip of his drink. "It wouldn't be the worst thing we could do together."

"Really,' she said, crossing her arms. He wasn't usually so forward, at least not since their clash in her bedroom a few months ago. She wanted to push to see just how far he would go, as she had only just recently let herself think that maybe the Casanova-routine had worn itself out. "And what would that be?"

Sebastian smirked at the girl but stayed silent. He pushed himself away from the table and stood up, preparing to leave.

"What? So, now you don't have anything to say?"

Sebastian shook his head, looking over the food court mindlessly. "No. This game isn't worth playing with you,' he eventually looked down, towering over the still seated girl. "When am I meeting mom?"