Brandon froze and all air escaped his lungs when he caught sight of his girlfriend descending the stairs. Her hair was pulled back halfway while the other half cascaded down her shoulders in loose waves. She wore a burgundy, off the shoulder dress that hugged her curves until it flowed out at the waist where it fell lower in the back and shorter in the front.
"You look beautiful." He breathed as his gaze remained glued to her.
A smile sprouted upon her face and Brandon felt his knees go weak. "Thank you."
"Woah, look at you all dressed up." Jude peeled his eyes away from his video game to glance at his sister. "You look nice."
"Thanks." Callie smiled. "You just hanging out here tonight?"
"Noah and Taylor are coming over in a little bit," Jude replied, his eyes returning to the action game on the tv.
Callie opened her mouth to respond, but Stef's squeal interrupted her. "Look at you two! Get together! Let me take a picture!"
"Mom." Brandon groaned as Callie laughed. "This isn't prom."
"Oh stop it." Stef scolded, motioning for the couple to get together as she lifted her phone. "You two should take as many pictures as you can together. You'll want to look back on these someday."
Brandon rolled his eyes, earning a gentle nudge from Callie. He wrapped his arm around Callie's waist. "I mean capturing how stunning Callie is, is fine."
Callie's heart swelled and her smile widened as Stef captured the photo of the young couple. Brandon never failed at making her feel beautiful.
Stef's own lips curved up at her son's words and the exchanged glances between the two teenagers. The doubt she and Lena had in this relationship was proven wrong every day. "Alright you two, I'll let you go. The twins are already there. Have fun."
"Thanks," Callie said before she and Brandon left.
Anxiety erupted in Callie's stomach as she glanced over the sea of people in the building. She inhaled deeply as Brandon reached for her hand, intertwining their fingers. When his eyes met hers, she knew he was asking if she was okay. She nodded, swallowing down the uneasiness. "I'm good."
"You want to dance?"
"Sure." Callie nodded. Maybe dancing would distract her from the angst. She followed Brandon to the dance floor, blinking back images of last year; of passing her unknowingly drunk peers claiming they voted for her for winter queen. Her heart galloped wildly in her chest as Vico's smug grin flashed behind her lids. She tried to focus on Brandon as they claimed a spot on the dance floor and his hands found her waist.
Callie grimaced when she saw Talia approaching with Dean, who often played her male counterpart in the school's plays. She sneered at the couple. "Who are you accusing this year, Callie?"
Callie watched Brandon's jaw clench as he turned to face the blonde. "What's your deal? Why can't you ever just leave her alone?"
"Hey, don't talk to her that way," Dean spoke up, narrowing his eyes at Brandon.
"She's the one who came over to insult my girlfriend." Brandon spat.
"I'd say it's because you're girlfriend is a whore, but then she may accuse me of rape."
A growl escaped Brandon's lips, but before he had a chance to lunge towards Dean, Callie tugged on his arm. "Brandon, it's not worth it."
It was worth it to Brandon. Dean voiced hurtful words at Callie and Brandon wanted justice for it. Despite his desire to pummel his fist into Dean's face, the fight wasn't worth risking Callie's displeasure. After physically fighting Tommy Walker and Wyatt- both a result of their insults towards Callie- Brandon learned that Callie reacted negatively to relying on his fists for revenge. He understood it, but rational thoughts seemed to bolt from his mind when someone insulted Callie, and it seemed to happen too often.
"Get lost or I'll make your life hell." Brandon's nostrils flared as he spoke through gritted teeth. He watched Dean and Talia roll their eyes before they took off to another spot on the dance floor. He turned back to Callie to ask if she was okay, but she unintentionally gave him the answer before he had the chance to ask.
"I...I need to go outside. I need a break." Callie barely finished her sentence before she was starting for the exit.
"I'll come with you," Brandon shouted over the music as he took off after the brunette. The warm breeze greeted his face as he followed Callie down the stairs and towards the parking lot. "Hey, you okay?"
"I'm sorry. I thought I could do this but I can't." She whispered as she turned to face him. There were too many memories, too many emotions being triggered.
"Don't apologize," Brandon said softly. The anxiety swimming in her eyes was unmistakable. "Is it what Talia and Dean said? You know she's just jealous of you."
Callie shook her head. "No. I mean that didn't help, but it's just being here. It's too much."
He gave her arm a gentle tug and started in the direction of his car. "Come with me."
"Where are we going?" Callie asked as she walked beside her boyfriend.
"We'll have our own night." Brandon led them to the car. "You'll see when we get there."
Callie groaned as she slipped into the passenger side. "You know I hate surprises."
"Have I ever given you a bad surprise?" Brandon cocked an eyebrow at her before he pushed the car into reverse.
"No." Callie sighed.
Brandon flipped through the radio stations as he pulled onto the road, stopping when he heard the cheerful Christmas tunes. "Something to get us in the spirit."
Callie couldn't help but laugh as he bobbed his head to the beat of the song. The anxiety was finally dissipating and of course, it was Brandon she had to thank for that. They both began to sing along as Mariah Carey's All I Want For Christmas Is You came on. It was soon after the song ended that Brandon pulled up to a park decorated in Christmas lights. The young couple stopped at the concession stand to buy ice cream before they began down the walk-through Christmas light show.
"How are you doing?" Brandon asked.
"A lot better now." She offered him a small smile. "I just...being there was bringing up too many memories."
"If I'm being honest, I was feeling kind of anxious there too," Brandon admitted, earning a curious look from his girlfriend.
"You were?" Her voice raised an octave.
Brandon nodded. "Being there just kept making me replay last year in my mind. Selling the IDs and getting involved with him. The whole alcohol debacle. Getting home after being scolded by my parents and finding out you were missing. And you falling on the sidewalk and the awful hours that followed in the hospital, waiting, wondering if you were okay and then seeing you so hurt."
Callie was quiet for a moment as she slipped a spoonful of ice cream into her mouth. "The whole ball and every second I was in those woods are so vivid, but after that is such a blur."
"You passed out when the ambulance got there." Brandon grimaced slightly as he recalled placing her on the stretcher.
"I think it was for the better so I didn't have to be conscious for the exam," Callie whispered. "If only I'd been unconscious in the woods."
Brandon frowned as he adjusted the napkin in his hand around the cup to protect it from the cold radiating off the ice cream. "I should have convinced you not to go to the winter ball tonight."
Callie immediately shook her head. "No. Don't put this on you. I needed to see for myself. I'm just trying to rush everything even though I know it doesn't work like that."
"No, unfortunately, it doesn't. But you're doing really well." Brandon met Callie's eyes and the corners on both their lips curved.
"These lights are beautiful," Callie commented as they continued to stroll along that path. "My mom used to take us driving at night every December to look at Christmas lights."
Brandon studied Callie for a moment as her face lit up at the dazzling display they passed. "We used to do that when we were younger too. We still do sometimes. Jesus likes to see what other people are doing to get more ideas for our house."
Callie let out a small laugh before her face contorted with sadness. "I wonder if Jude even remembers any of that. My mom loved Christmas. We used to have so many traditions. But in foster care, it was just another reminder of the awful place we were in. I used to try to make it special for Jude, but it sucked."
"You did everything you possibly could and more for him," Brandon said. "What other holiday traditions did you have with your mom?"
"We always made a gingerbread house. One year we tried to bake our own from scratch and it was a disaster." Callie's voice grew bubbly as she recalled the house collapsing and breaking. "We used to bake so many cookies too. She used to do an advent calendar with us where she'd give us little treats every day leading up to Christmas. Every year we'd do a Christmas movie night too. We'd choose a day to stay in, make hot chocolate, and snuggle under a blanket while we watched Christmas movies for hours. And we had so many decorations. The house looked like a winter wonderland."
Brandon observed Callie's face again, watching her eyes twinkle as she reminisced about her mother. "What happened to all those decorations?"
Callie pressed her lips together as she shrugged. "I don't know. It became the state's I guess along with everything else."
"I'm sorry." Brandon frowned. "I can't imagine what it's like to just have all your belongings taken like that."
"It sucked." Callie nodded before she slipped another spoonful of ice cream into her mouth. "But Jude was more important than any belonging. And now I have you and the Fosters."
Brandon scraped out the last bit of melted ice cream in his cup. "I wish I could have met your mom."
"Me too." Callie smiled sadly. "She would have loved you. She loved music."
Brandon took Callie's empty cup and tossed his and hers in a nearby garbage. "I definitely love her for the amazing daughter she raised."
Callie reached for his hand as they continued down the path. "Thank you. For taking me out of the winter ball and bringing me here."
"You don't have to thank me." Brandon gave her hand a gentle squeeze. A life-sized gingerbread house decorated in sparkling lights caught his eye. "We are totally making a gingerbread house this year."
Callie met his eyes and couldn't help the grin that found her lips. "I like that idea."
"Although mark my words, when Mom finds out we're making one, she's going to make it into a competition."
A chuckle left Callie's lips. Stef was competitive; they all knew that. Adams Foster family game nights were always intense. And Stef always found ways to make noncompetitive activities competitive. Callie would not be surprised if Stef did make gingerbread houses into a competition.
"I just want to say that these teams aren't very fair." Brandon feigned anger as he waved his hand over the multiple gingerbread house kits on the table. He was paired with Callie, Stef and Lena were together, and the third team consisted of Mariana, Jesus, and Jude. "Why do they have three people on a team when we each have two?"
"Um, believe me, we don't have an advantage. With Jesus's creativity skills we might as well have two people." Mariana pursed her lips as she looked over at her twin whose eyes were glued to his phone.
"Hey!" Jesus yelled as he peeled his eyes off his phone to glare at his sister.
"And you guys have the advantage of romantic love." Mariana pointed out matter-of-factly.
Callie furrowed her eyebrows at the younger brunette. "Being in a relationship gives you an advantage in making a gingerbread house?"
"And if we're going by that, you and Jesus are twins so there's that," Brandon added.
Mariana paused for a moment before huffing dramatically. "Whatever."
"Alright, alright." Stef smiled as she placed plastic knives in the middle of the table. "We're an uneven amount of people unless you would like to pair someone up with Frankie."
Lena laughed as she glanced at the baby sleeping in her seat beside the table. "I think she'd contribute many ideas."
"Alright, let the Adams-Foster Gingerbread House Contest officially begin!" Stef announced before she claimed the seat next to her wife.
They all began to assemble their houses while Christmas music played in the background. Brandon took Callie's lead in carefully assembling the house. Stef and Lena worked together in icing their pieces together. Jesus and Mariana bickered gently as Jesus continued to glob icing onto the sides of the house while Jude made suggestions.
"Wow, Callie. I had no idea how skilled you were at making gingerbread houses." Brandon watched in awe as his girlfriend neatly piped a door and windows on the front of their house.
Jesus peeked over at Callie and Brandon's house before looking back at his team's crooked house with the roof that was currently collapsing. "So theirs is starting to look like it belongs in a bakery and we can't even get our roof to stay on?"
Mariana huffed as she slid the roof back into its correct spot, erasing the gap that had been widening on the top. "That's because you put too much icing on and now it won't dry!"
"Maybe we can have an open roof," Jude suggested, earning a disapproving look from Mariana. "Or maybe we can hot glue gun it on."
"Oh no." Stef halted lining the top of the roof with gumdrops. "That would be cheating. Nobody else needed a glue gun."
Lena laughed as she placed a round, green candy on the door as a doorknob. She glanced at their house, then Brandon and Callie's. Both of their houses were close to being complete while the twins and Jude had yet to even begin decorating. "We may need to add time limits too."
"Oh no." Mariana shook her head as she slowly removed her hands from the house and studied the roof for any signs of it slipping again. "Any time limits needed to be established prior to starting."
"We are the only family who argues about rules when decorating gingerbread houses." Brandon stuck a peppermint above the door and held it there for a moment to ensure it's placement. He glanced at Callie, who was intently placing red and green sprinkles on the frosted path in front of the door. "I told you this was going to turn into a competition."
Callie chuckled as she nodded her head. "This is great though. These are great memories."
Brandon shifted towards his girlfriend to place a kiss on the side of her head. "I'm glad you're my partner in this competition."
"So not fair." Mariana sang. "Those two need to be separated next year."
"Yeah and I request Mariana to not be on my team," Jesus said, producing a glare from his sister.
"You all made fun of me, but now you want to do this every year." Stef laughed.
The Adams-Foster clan finished their gingerbread houses with many more laughs. Callie and Brandon's did indeed look as though it was on display in a bakery. Stef and Lena's was cute and colorful, while Jesus, Mariana, and Jude's appeared as though a young child created it; it was crooked and splotched with icing in random patches. Once they were finished, Callie took photos of each house and Mariana posted them on her Instagram story to allow people to vote- her idea to create a non-biased voting system. They allotted a certain amount of time for voting before the winner was decided. While they waited, they drank hot cocoa and talked.
"Okay, the votes are in!" Mariana shouted giddily as she tapped on her phone. "Wow, we got over a hundred votes."
"Guess there's a lot of lame people looking at your Instagram." Jesus teased.
Mariana narrowed her eyes at her brother before she looked back at her phone. "Uh, we came in last. We got only got one vote!"
Brandon snorted out a laugh. "That was definitely a pity vote. Who voted for you?"
Mariana hesitated. "Mat."
"Oh come on! That doesn't even count!" Brandon threw his hands in the air dramatically. "Did you tell him to vote for you?"
"No. He just knew which one was mine. But he's the only one, I swear. Not that it even matters." Mariana huffed. "Moms, you came in second with thirteen votes, and Brandon and Callie won with a whopping 94 votes."
"Woo!" Callie threw her hands in the air victoriously before she and Brandon exchanged high fives.
"Doesn't sound like it was really much of a competition," Brandon smirked.
Stef wagged her finger at her son but grinned. "Hey, you watch it."
"Alright, rematch next year. Especially now that we know what we're up against." Lena stood and placed her empty mug in the kitchen sink.
"Thank you," Callie said to Brandon, placing her own mug in the sink after everyone dispersed from the kitchen. "For making Christmas feel like Christmas again. I forgot how much I loved the holidays and you reminded me this year."
Brandon pulled her in his arms and planted a kiss on her lips. "You're very welcome."
Thanks for reading! I tried to get this out before Christmas, but I ended up so busy. Anyway, here it is, hope you enjoyed it! A little more happiness in this chapter. Still more to come!
Just want to give a shout out to my reviewers, especially Boris Yeltsin, who reviews every chapter! It's nice to know I have some people still reading!
Hope everyone had a wonderful holiday!