Disclaimer: Still not mine :(
Notes: A new story! This was intended to be a short Christmas story, but it grew... So, it's still a Christmas story, just a little bit late! I hope you enjoy it and please let me know what you think :)
Dedicated to Crowded Angels and Ballettmaus - thank you very much for helping with the summary!
Tinsel coiled and spilled out of boxes and bags; glitter from the Christmas card making drifted in the air, gaudy dust motes, catching the light and creating little twinkles in unexpected places – on a torn piece of newspaper; on someone's nose, in a glass of lemonade...
And on Stella. She was drenched in glitter. It coated her sweater and skirt and lay thick in her hair, and she grinned as sparkles flew when she shook her curls over her shoulder before standing on tiptoes to add another length of tinsel to the Christmas tree.
Standing back, she stood with her head tilted on one side, admiring her work so far.
Bedecked with a myriad of baubles, strings of beads, tinsel, handmade decorations and donated ornaments, the tree was a dazzling show of colour. It didn't matter that it was a tree of the haphazard and hand-me-down; the mis-matched, and careworn: Stella loved it, dearly. Loved the ceremony of helping unpack the old toys and ornaments from their tissue paper and boxes, the challenge of finding just the right place for each ornament and the moment when it was all done, and they would stand back while the star at the top, saved until last, was added to shine gold and brilliant.
Every year someone was chosen to put it in place. It had never been her, but maybe this year...
As she picked up another piece of tinsel, she felt a tug on her sleeve, spun round and saw her best friend looking like she was holding her breath – her cheeks swollen and pink, and her eyes huge.
'I got to tell you something!' Kirsty squeaked. 'Something really, really important.'
Torn between wanting to continue decorating the tree and to know what her friend – her best friend since Mindy had gone - had to tell her, Stella grimaced, wavered and finally allowed herself to be pulled away from the throng of children round the tree after looping the tinsel she was holding round her neck. At least she'd been able to put her two special toys on the tree, safely among the branches and out of sight of the big boys.
'What is it?' she asked as Kirsty led her away to a quiet corner of the dining room, and pulled her down underneath a table.
'A secret,' Kirsty breathed. At the word 'secret', Stella's ears pricked up and she shuffled back further under the table.
'What?' she demanded and Kirsty clutched her hands.
'It's the best ever secret I ever heard, Stella!' she whispered and Stella felt her insides prickle with excitement. Kirsty drew in a big breath, her eyes popping and then it gushed out, 'I know how we can meet Santa!'
Stella's mouth dropped open. Santa? They could meet Santa?
'Really? Really, truly, cross your heart and hope to die, you really know?'
Kirsty nodded, jigging up and down in glee. 'Really truly, cross my heart and hope to die. Bonnie and Shirley were talking and I listened and you know they know almost everything...'
They did, Stella had to admit that. They were almost twelve and knew nearly as much as Mindy had done. She hoped she would know as much as they did when she got to be twelve in four years' time.
'What did they say? How can we meet him?' She knew already what she would ask him for; she'd heard the whispers when adults thought she wasn't listening about her future in foster care.
Kirsty leaned forward; cupping her hand round Stella's ear and tickling it as she breathed heavily. 'They said you got to wish on the star on top of the tree, tonight, at exactly midnight! Then...'
A hand snatching at one of her braids cut her off.
'Hey!' Stella grabbed angrily at the hand, digging her nails into it, but another hand swiped at her and then yanked at the tinsel round her neck, overbalancing her. 'Get off!' she yelled, scrambling out from under the table, red-faced to see Clark and Jay, the two meanest boys in the home, sniggering at her. Kirsty crawled out after her and stood next to her, holding her hand, panting as they both glared at the boys.
'What are you two babies talking about?' Clark jeered, pulling Kirsty's braid hard.
'Nothing!' she cried, twisting out of his grasp as he laughed at her. Stella scowled.
'Mind your own business,' she snapped.
The two boys laughed, annoying her even more. 'Whatever, babies. We heard you talkin' about Santy Claus. Huh, you think he's gonna come and see you two dumb babies?'
'Yeah, babies,' Jay snickered, his round, heavy face shiny with sweat.
'We're not babies.' Stella clenched her fists and stood closer to Kirsty who was fighting back tears as she sniffed and rubbed at her scalp.
'Yeah you are, babies,' Clark crowed. 'And Santy Claus don't come to babies...'
'He is going to come to us and he's not going to come to you, 'cause you're mean and he doesn't bring presents to stupid, mean boys,' Stella stormed.
Clark just smirked and folded his arms. 'Bet you ten bucks you don't get any presents this year and me and Jay get a whole heap of stuff.'
Stella gave him a scornful look and tossed her curls back. 'Bet you don't, and I bet you I get exactly what I want this year, so there!'
'Bet you don't,' Clark sneered and shoved her in the chest. She staggered backwards, recovered herself and pushed him back, but he grabbed a handful of her hair and tugged it spitefully. Stella yelled, Kirsty screamed, and there was their foster mother wading into the muddle and pulling them apart to scold them all and banish each of them into a separate corner of the room until the tree was decorated.
In her corner, arms wrapped round her knees, Stella was defiant. Missing the rest of the decorating and losing her chance of placing the star was tough but she consoled herself with the thought that tonight, Kirsty and she would prove those stupid, mean boys wrong. They'd make their wish, meet Santa, and then she could ask him for what she wanted most of all in the whole world – her own, her very own family.
With the other children clustered round the tree their foster mother turned a switch on with a flourish and the fairy lights burst into life - glittering, sprinkling the star at its very top with little light snowflakes. At the sight of it, Stella smiled, hugging herself in excitement at the thought of what was to come.
Hours later, fighting her way out of dreams of being covered by snow and dazzled by lights, Stella woke with a gasp. Even though she'd tried to stay awake until midnight, sleep had overcome her and panic filled her at the realisation that she might have overslept and missed the magic hour.
Fumbling in the dark, she managed to lay her hands on the tiny box of matches and nightlight that she'd smuggled up to her room to replace her broken flashlight. Quietly as possible, she lit the candle and squinted at her watch... and breathed a sigh of relief. It was almost a quarter to midnight, she had fifteen minutes to spare.
Stella swung her legs out of bed, dragged on her dressing gown and stuffed her watch into her pocket, wanting to keep it with her. The watch wasn't new, but it was almost and Mickey Mouse's smiling face and his white-gloved hands pointing to the time amused her.
Next was waking Kirsty...
Stella padded over to her bed and shook her shoulder.
'Kirsty!' she hissed, gaining no response. Her friend was deeply asleep and gentle - and then not so gentle - shaking failed to wake her; she snored on stubbornly. Aware of the time, Stella decided with regret, and a bit of guilt, that she'd have to leave her. With a last glance back at her, she eased open the door and set off into the December night alone.
The room she shared with Kirsty was at the back of the house and it would be a long walk to the dining room, but worth it. Barefoot, Stella crept along the landing through the velvety dark. Draughts stirred the curtains and she was glad of her candle warming her fingers, even if it did cast odd shapes on the walls and make the shadows loom large and lowering... They were only shadows, she reminded herself; harmless, and useful if she needed to hide.
As she passed a window, she saw its curtain was only half-closed and despite her hurry, she couldn't help pausing to glance out. It was still snowing; unique, glittering flakes that fell and landed and vanished into the mass of sparkling, dazzling white. Heaped up, rumpled blankets of snow, looking like the city had thrown off its bedclothes all at once, leaving the buildings shining in the moonlight. The skyscrapers in the distance seemed almost to be made of diamonds in the silver snow-light and entranced, Stella gazed at them before the artful frost patterns etched onto the glass caught her attention. She reached out to trace her finger over them and stopped reluctantly. There wasn't time.
Stella continued, filled with the nervous glee that came with an illicit expedition. Each door she passed made her heart thump a little louder. But none opened. The large house was silent. Wrapped deep in the heavy, dreaming silence of all its occupants; everyone as swaddled in their dreams as New York was in snow.
Everyone except her.
She was alone in the dark. Her pace slowed as she looked over her shoulder at the corridor behind her, swallowed up in murky, muddling gloom. The little flame in her hand wavered and she lifted her other hand to shield the light. Slowly, it strengthened and stood straighter, banishing her momentary fear. With a sigh, she kept going and passed her foster parents' room, hearing a bassoon-like snore issuing from it.
Trying to smother a giggle, she missed the wrinkle in the linoleum. When her foot caught on it, she gasped, stumbling, almost falling headlong, only just in time grabbing for the handle on a closet. With hot wax spilling from the candle all over her, Stella crashed to her knees, ending up crumpled against the closet door.
She stayed motionless, fighting the tears that threatened, straining her ears for the sound of anyone waking. In her hand, the candle trembled. Horribly loud, her heart thudded. A mumble and creak made her freeze, holding her breath. Another creak, and then what sounded like someone rolling over, followed by silence. After another few moments, Stella dared to exhale.
Slowly, cautiously, she got to her feet, dusted herself down and rubbed her sore knees. At the sight of the wax rivulets down her dressing gown, she frowned, then gave a resigned shrug and carried on. She would decide tomorrow how to explain that. More importantly, it was now five minutes to midnight and she gave a little gulp of anticipation and hurried on, keeping a closer eye on the floor.
Her wild curls bounced on her shoulders as she pattered down the stairs. The excitement took over again, all traces of bruised knees and shadows flying from her mind. The scent of pine needles and a faint aroma of spices – ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg – drifted through the cold air and she snuffed them up blissfully. The tiny flame wobbling, she ran to the door of the dining room. Another glance around, and she pressed down the handle and pulled the door open just enough for her to slip through.
A gasp tore from her. The Christmas tree stood at the far end of the room in illuminated glory. The fairy lights entwined in its branches glowed and twinkled; tiny stars pricked out among the deep, moss green. In the unlit room it was more magnificent, more majestic, than she had ever seen it. Transfixed with delight, she stood where she was simply staring in awe.
Still in wide-eyed reverence of the tree's beauty, she tip-toed towards it, wending her way between the furniture; the chairs upended on the long dining table, looking in the otherworldly light like grey and white striped candy canes. She glanced at them, but her attention was all on the Christmas tree. As she drew closer, she breathed a sigh of relief when she saw that the plate of cookies and the glass of milk left out for Santa were still untouched – for a moment, she had been worried that he might have called early.
After setting down her candle by the plate of cookies, Stella began to search through the branches. Her first Christmas at the foster home, she had been allowed to hang two toys on the tree on the very lowest branches. Even then she had realised something of the wonder of the occasion and had placed them on the tree with tremendous care. And it was those same toys – a soldier and a fairy – that she hunted for. She knew her friends, the two dolls would help her. Maybe, Stella considered hopefully, her own name might even bring her a little extra wishing power...
After some rummaging among the branches, she spotted the fairy in the depths of the foliage - out of sight, but where she could see everything going on. She reached in and drew her out, cradling her in her cupped hands, checking her over, pleased to see that the rampant curls, so similar to her own, were undamaged as were her tiny green glass eyes, her wide smile and the gold foil star on her gauzy dress. Clark and Jay had not found her.
'Hello,' Stella whispered, smoothing the little doll's curls as she set her down next to her candle. 'Keep warm there while I find your friend.'
She located the other toy within moments – the small jointed soldier doll with dark painted hair, a serious expression and a uniform scarred with a burn. A glower crossed Stella's face when she saw that, remembering last Christmas when Clark had snatched the soldier from her, grinning as he waved the doll high over his head before holding him over a candle. A rage unlike anything Stella had felt before had flared in her, consuming every trace of civility. She'd shoved him, sending him crashing to the ground, allowing her to snatch the soldier from him and run away, heedless of the mayhem around her, to tend to his injuries.
'Don't worry', she murmured touching the scorch mark on his chest. 'Me and fairy doll won't never, ever, ever let you get hurt again.'
She sat him next to his friend before settling herself down on the floor cross-legged facing them and taking her watch out of her pocket.
'You got to help me wish,' she told them as Mickey's white-gloved hands moved closer to midnight. As she looked at the dolls, she was seized with a wish to help them, to bring them to life so they could talk properly to each other, and to her. Surely it would be okay if she made a little extra wish for them to be able to do that? With Mickey's hands hovering over the 12 on her watch, Stella made up her mind; she would wish for the dolls, too.
And as she decided, within the depths of the building, and from around the city, the chimes of clocks large and small, faint and chirruping, stentorian and clanging, rang out through the night. Closing her eyes tightly, screwing up her face and fists in concentration, Stella wished with all her might on the Christmas star.
Midnight's peals died away. Christmas morning had arrived. Everywhere was silent, muffled by the snow. Half-fearfully, Stella opened her eyes and gazed around, suddenly overwhelmed at the enormity of seeing Santa - Santa...
There was no one there. She was alone with the dolls, the plate of cookies and the tree. All was as it had been and the cold of the floor was starting to seep through her thin dressing gown and pyjamas.
Stella sat very still, only a shiver passing through her every few moments, waiting for Santa to arrive, and the dolls to move. Maybe he'd been held up delivering all those presents, or perhaps he'd had an especially heavy present for someone which had taken him longer than usual to deliver – that was probably it, there was no need to worry. She guessed that she'd probably hear the reindeer first, then his boots tramping along the roof. Or perhaps he'd use the front door...
And maybe the dolls were shy, not sure what to say to each other and to her. So she wrapped her arms round herself, smiled encouragingly at the dolls, prepared to be patient.
Fairy doll's eternal smile stayed on her face; the soldier's blue-eyed gaze stayed fixed. From somewhere, a chilly breath of wind made the candle flame wobble.
The minutes ticked by and frustration tightened in Stella's chest: there was no sound of reindeer or boots and the dolls had not moved.
Determination set in her and she rested her elbows on her knees and dropped her chin into her upturned palms. She hoped that when the dolls did move, they would want to talk to her, as there were so many questions she wanted to ask them, including if they knew Santa themselves. Being patient was very difficult and tiring, but Stella persevered and thought about what else she would ask the dolls – whether they ever got bored or hungry when they were packed in their box; had it hurt Soldier when Clark held him over the flame; did they like cookies...
Even when a yawn overtook her, she continued to stare at the dolls, certain they would move.
Maybe, though, if she looked away for a second and then back again...
That didn't work either, so she continued to watch and listen, her ears strained for the faintest sound of hooves or footsteps.
The lights on the tree quivered in her vision as she kept her eyes wide open, refusing to blink. Another yawn stretched her face. She felt her eyelids droop and forced them open. But her eyelids were even more stubborn than she was and closed again for longer. With a valiant struggle, she forced them open, finding her surroundings blurry and light-spattered, her vision all mixed up. When her head tipped forwards and slid off her palms, she decided she could just as easily wait for Santa lying down as sitting up.
Curled up on the floor, staring sideways now, Stella blinked owlishly at the two tiny figures. They stared back, eyes fixed, limbs rigid. Unmoving. Hesitant, almost afraid, she stretched a finger towards them, touching the star on the fairy's dress, brushing the soldier's uniform jacket. A trembling sigh heaved from her and she tucked her knees up to her chest, before scrubbing the back of her hand across her eyes, hoping she wouldn't have to wait much longer.
Another yawn overtook her and this time it was even harder to open her eyes again. She managed to drag them half open, before her eyelids fell shut, her lashes swept across her cheeks and she breathed deeply, drifting away into snowflake and star-filled dreams, and just out of sight, the family of her very own she wanted to ask Santa for.
As she slept, a wink of light shone in the blue and green eyes in front of her. Two little heads turned and the dolls looked at each other, smiling as their hands joined and in the distance sounded the faint jingle of bells.
Many thanks to Ballettmaus and Suallenparker for all their help, and to Suallen for the cover art. Thanks also to Smuffly for an early read through. Finally, happy St Piran's Day from Cornwall!