Christmas Party: Day 4

“Holy shit -“

“Shh! You’ll wake it up!”

Tari cracked one eye open, listening to the two older boys bickering at the top of the attic steps. Smiling inwardly, she yawned and rolled over onto her back, pretending she was still asleep while giving them a good view of her fur-clad body.

“Quick, get the picture before she wakes up -“

“How do you know it’s a ‘she’?”

“I’ve got eyes, idiot! Give me that!”

The sound of a camera shutter went off, followed quickly by the footsteps of the two boys retreating from the attic. Tari waited until the door had shut before poking Lenard in the ribs.

“They’re gone.”

“You sure this is a good idea?”

She nodded, sitting up and letting her human appearance take over. “Some lessons are hard.”

“Damnit, the batteries went dead.” Jacob smacked the side of the camera, somehow hoping brute force would coax the last vestiges of electricity out.

“There’s another set in our room - eep!” Roland backpedaled as Tari towered over him, snatching the camera out of Jacob’s hand.

“Camera troubles?” she asked, popping the batteries out and replacing them with a fresh pair. “There we go. What have you been taking pictures of at this time of day, anyway? Did you see Santa?”

“No, it’s nothing…!” Jacob defended, trying to snag the camera out of her hands. “Give it back!”

“Well now… Isn’t this interesting… Len?”

“Hm?” Lenard came down the attic steps, looking over her shoulder with surprise. “What the hell? Jon, you awake in there?”

“I am now.” Jonathan cracked open his bedroom door, rubbing his eyes. “It’s five in the morning and I don’t need to go do the feeding run for another hour… What’s up?”

“Your boys seem to have a taste for taking pictures of sleeping women.”

“To be entirely specific, pictures of naked sleeping women.” Tari handed over the camera. “It would be nice if they’d refrain from doing that, ever again.”

Jon squinted at the camera’s back, his eyes going wide. “What the hell were you two doing up there?”

“But dad -“

“No. Go back to your room and stay put until breakfast. Now!” The man shook his head, setting the camera inside his room. “I’m really sorry, Tari. I don’t know what’s gotten into them lately.”

“Boys with toys. I’m not offended… I’ve done modeling, so it really doesn’t bother me. I’d just hate to see this sort of thing become a habit that got them in real trouble. Len, coffee?”

“Yeah.” Lenard followed her down the steps as Jonathan retreated back into the relative safety of his room. “How did you do that? Can you actually swap faster than the shutter?”

“No. Very young kitsune who have grown up foxen instead of in a human form tend to start with illusions instead of shapeshifting. It’s a little easier to master if they don’t have a basis to concentrate on for the shift. The problem is, very basic illusions are created solely by sensory influence. There’s three specific things they don’t affect that can easily give them away as lies. Shadows, mirrors… And cameras.”

“So… Instead of actually wearing your fur…”

“Right. I was lying there in human form, using my natural appearance as a weak illusion on top of that. All they got on the camera was a picture of a naked woman sleeping on top of the sheets.” Tari wandered to the coffee maker, discovering that it’d been all set up the night before, and clicked the switch to ‘on.’ “Weird. Think this is the first time we’ve been up before your dad or Jon.”

“Like he said, it’s still earlier than the first feeding trip.” Lenard peered through the doorway to the living room. “I should do something about the fire, get it going before everyone wakes up.”

“We should start breakfast, too. Need some more wood brought in?”

“Should be enough here for the morning.” Lenard hesitated at the kitchen door. “I really would have thought a wood fireplace would have bothered you. Either from your attunement, or a little post-traumatic stress.”

“I couldn’t handle being around an open fire for a long time after mother burnt the barn down… Which, in an age without electricity, made things a wee bit difficult. Burning wood, though… It’s just the cycle of life. The trees know that better than anyone I’ve met. Everything dies, and the living clean up the resulting mess. If it’s not us getting heat out of it, it’s microbes breaking down the wood fibers for the next generation of plants and other microbes.”

“I suppose so. Well, I’ll get it going.”

Tari sighed as Lenard stepped out of the kitchen, sneaking the small jewelry box out of her pajama’s pocket. Turning the innocuous package over in her fingers, she cupped her hands around it and concentrated. Faintly glowing strands of energy passed from her hands, soaking into the package.

“Merry Christmas, Auntie Tari!”

“Good morning, Cameron. Merry Christmas.” Tari relaxed, smiling at the delicate aura she could sense radiating from Lenard’s gift. “You’re up early.”

“I wanted to see Santa,” he proclaimed.

“Oh, I’m sorry… You just missed him. He was in a hurry. He said to tell you and the other kids ‘thank you’ for the delicious cookies you left out.”

“You met Santa?”

“We’re good friends. He and I go way back.”

“What’s that?” Cameron asked, pointing at the black box.

“It’s Santa’s present for Uncle Lenny.” Tari slid off her chair, kneeling down in front of the young boy. “Can you do me a huge favor?”


“Take this in to your Uncle Len and tell him Merry Christmas. Don’t tell him who it’s from, okay?”

“Okay!” Cameron took the felt-covered box, running into the next room. “Merry Christmas, Unca Lenny!”

“What’s this?”

“It’s from Santa!”

Tari grinned, standing up and easing to the doorway. Lenard shot her a curious look as he moved to his feet, holding the small box in his hand.

“Santa thinks you should open it now,” Tari whispered, padding over and giving him a kiss on the cheek.

“I’d better not make his ‘naughty’ list by delaying.” Lenard cracked open the box. “Oh my god…”

Laying within the silk lining of the box was a necklace and charm, hand-carved and polished to a glowing shine from a piece of tagua. A small fox had been etched into the face, sitting on its haunches; two small emeralds stood in for eyes. A trio of tails curled around its body. The whole carving wasn’t more than an inch across.

Lenard extracted the necklace from its box, letting it dangle on its silver chain in the first vestiges of firelight. “Tari… I… Did you make this?”

“No. I did carefully alter it, added two missing tails.” Tari gently took the necklace from him, helping place it around his neck. “There we go. Now I feel like I’ve properly marked you as mine.”

“I… I really don’t know what to say. I didn’t… I couldn’t afford anything like this for you…”

“Len… For one, don’t beat yourself up over that. This isn’t nearly as expensive as it might look. Don’t tell your sister, though.” Her fingers traced across the small charm. “It’s a vegetable ivory. Tagua. Since it comes from a plant, I managed to press a little of myself into it. As long as you have that you’ll always be able to track me down, no matter where I go or what I might look like. Works in reverse, too.”

“Can I see?” Cameron asked. Lenard knelt down, showing the necklace to the child. “Neat! Can I have one too?”

“Maybe someday, kiddo.” Tari ruffled his hair. “Why don’t you see what Santa left in your stocking? He seemed really happy as he stuffed it for you.”

“‘Kay.” The young boy wandered to the hearth, carefully retrieving the Christmas stocking labeled for him and rifling through the contents.

“I’m a little hesitant to give you what I got for you, after this…” Lenard whispered, looking at the charm. “It’s completely campy by comparison…”

“This isn’t a game of ‘I got you this, so now I’m expecting blank.’ I saw something I knew I had to get for you, so I did. You don’t have to get me a thing, ever. Not for a birthday, or an anniversary, Valentine’s day, any of it. Just being able to spend time with you is gift enough for me. But, if you already went to the trouble… Gimme?”

“Well…” He grimaced, pointing under the small fir tree. “I set it there, with the stuff for everyone else.”

“You want me to wait until everyone is awake?”

“No, you can open it now. Just.. If you don’t like them, I’ll find something else -“

“Now I’m really curious.” Tari snagged the small package with her name, carefully removing the gift wrap. Inside, she discovered a new set of light yellow flannel pajamas, covered in stylized little pine trees and white foxes. “Oh, this is choice.

“So I did okay?”

“I love it. Where’d you find these?”

“Special order from a place in California… They barely got delivered in time before we came down here.”

“I’ve gotta go change.” Tari dashed off for the bathroom, giving Jolene a wave as she came in the door. “Morning! Coffee’s close to done. Be right back!”

“Merry Christmas to you too -“

“Mooooom!” Cameron squealed, holding up a beastly action figure. “Look what Santa brought me!”

“Wow! I wonder how he knew you’d like that.”

“Rawr!” he cried, making its little plastic arms flail.

“You totally should use it to wake up your sisters.” Jolene grinned as Cameron raced up the steps. “How’d it go this morning with Jake and Rollie?”

“Jon confiscated the camera when it was discovered they’d taken pictures of my girlfriend sleeping commando-style. They thought they’d captured something entirely different.”

“Man… You’d better not get on her bad side, Lenny. Hate to see what she’d put you through. Oh, nice! Is that what he got you?”

“Yep. I couldn’t have done better myself.” Tari grinned as she came back down the steps in the new pajamas. “I suppose if I can’t be the fox, I can certainly wear a few dozen of them. You should see the necklace now that it’s been properly mounted.”

“Oh, you changed it… Even better. The eyes look a little different… Is that just the light in here, or are those emeralds actually glowing?”

“Must just be the light,” Lenard lied, shooting Tari a wink. Grinning back, her focus suddenly turned to the ceiling.

“I think your dad’s feet just hit the floor… Let’s see if we can’t whip together breakfast so it’s ready when they get back in? Jon did say the boys had to stay put until it was ready. I think I owe them a slight apology that I can never actually give them, since they haven’t even seen the shot that got them in trouble.”

Inside of an hour, the table was heaped with food. Sausage, bacon, ham, biscuits, toast, hashbrowns, eggs - scrambled and otherwise. By seven o’clock, though the sun wasn’t even up yet, every member of the family had eaten and moved on to the living room. The adults looked on with amusement as the kids gleefully tore through the gifts under the tree, occasionally getting some for themselves passed around. The fire crackled happily as it ate bushels of discarded wrappings.

Tari did her best to ignore the angry glances she got from the two oldest boys every time they looked in her direction. Cameron, however, insisted on sitting beside her as he tromped his little wolfman toy back and forth along the arm of the sofa.

“Is this the kind of gathering you all do every year?” she asked, watching another bit of wrapper go up in flame.

“Oh, no.” Linda smiled gently. “Last year we only had Lenard and Dave for Christmas.”

“We came up for Thanksgiving instead,” Jolene pointed out. “Greg’s parents got the pleasure of letting us be boarders for Christmas. It’s odd, though. Decorating a palm tree in shorts makes me miss the snow.”

“We try to divide it up,” Greg confirmed. “Give all the grandparents a chance to spoil the kids rotten every year.”

Ron grinned and tossed another stick of wood in the fireplace. “What about your family, Tari? I’m sure they’ll miss not having you at home for the holidays.”

“I told you already,” Linda scolded. “They’ve got to leave tomorrow so she can be home for her sister’s birthday.”

“You did? I don’t remember that.”

“Memory of a goldfinch,” she muttered. “It’s really a pity you both can’t stay through New Years. You too, Jolene.”

“Sorry. Work had other plans. Greg and the kids get to stay, at least.”

“I’m sure they could survive without you.”

“They could if it was just me, but my partner’s already arranged to spend New Years Eve with his family since he’s working today. We can’t both be gone.”

“Why not? It’s a holiday. You should have the day off.”

“It’s… complicated.”

“Don’t tell me they can’t just go sit up in their flying saucers and take a day off, too. I swear, they show up out of the blue and just work you all to death… It’s not right.”

Tari grimaced as the conversation steadily drove closer to the edge of a steep embankment. Quickly scanning the room, she tried to spot something to use for a distraction. Jolene had said it’d be best to avoid the topic of the Commonwealth - and now she was getting a feeling as to why.

“It’s not like that! We’ve been planning this event for a month and a half. Hell, I spent the last two weeks making sure the security arrangements all around D.C. are in place.”

“I say they all should just go back wherever they came from and leave us be,” Ron spoke. “We were doing just fine before they showed up.”

Nothing easy… Come on, something’s got to do the trick… Her eyes made another pass over everything, trying to work out anything that could remotely work to change the subject. I don’t want to hurt anyone and I’d rather not break anything they might actually miss… I could set the tree on fire, but I’ve no idea where they keep an extinguisher… I suppose if it’s just a little flame like a wire shorted, they might be able to put it out fast enough - but what if the kids -

Lenard’s hand fell on her wrist and gently held it down, as though he knew she was planning something and wanted her to wait.

“We really weren’t doing fine,” he spoke, to the apparent surprise of most of his family. “I mean, yes, sure, we were. Mom, dad, Jon, Dave, Jo… Look at us! It’s Christmas, we’re here together as a family with our own families - and a couple possible future family members,” he added, indicating both Tari and Dave’s girlfriend Amanda. “You’ve all pushed to get the farm running well again, Dave’s got his business in Portland beaten well back into the black, Jo’s got a job she absolutely loves, and I’m almost done with my Baccalaureate. We’re doing all right, and I think we’re all happy where we are in the world. Right?”

Several nods dipped around the room.

“So we’re fine. Other places aren’t so lucky. Even other people around the States aren’t so privileged as to have a roof, and heat, and food to eat. Sure, a few things might change in the world with the Commonwealth around. Maybe they need to, maybe they don’t. At this point it doesn’t even matter if they stay or go - we already know they’re out there. If we kicked them out now we’d eventually just meet them again and it’d be all awkward. Isn’t it better if they stick around for now so we can figure out what kind of people we’re actually dealing with? They rescued the Ares crew, they’ve helped provide food and water for people all around the world, they’ve even managed to notice a plane with problems before anyone else did and save all the passengers and crew -“

“Twice,” Jolene added.

“Twice… Wow. Maybe it’s all just a show, lulling us into false security for whatever they’re actually planning. What if it’s not? They really could be here with total goodwill in mind, and we’d be turning up our nose at the biggest opportunity anyone’s ever had to learn what’s really out there.”

“Lenard?” Jon questioned, giving a little chuckle. “That’s the most you’ve ever said about anything.”

“I didn’t know he actually talked,” Sarah added, eliciting a laugh from everyone else. As the jokes about his communication skills snowballed, he leaned close to Tari and whispered.

“And that’s the way you distract my family.”

“Noted,” she whispered back with a grin.

All the way into the afternoon, the happy sounds in the house still hadn’t abated. Jolene had managed to sneak in a quickly whispered ‘thank you’ to Lenard for his diversion before towing Tari to the kitchen to help prepare dinner with Sarah, Amanda, and Linda. The vast selection of breakfast was re-enacted using different actors - turkey, ham, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, cornbread stuffing…

“I take it there’s no vegans in the family,” Tari quipped off-handedly, working the potatoes with an old hand-mashing tool as Sarah dropped in enough real butter to last any sane person a full year.

“We’re dedicated carnivores,” Linda confirmed.

And so it went through Christmas dinner, happy and pleasant talking and jesting, and not even so much as a whisper of anything that’d set anyone off on a tirade. As everyone wandered their own directions after the grand meal, Tari felt a tug at her pantleg and looked down to find Cameron staring up at her.

“You promised,” he voiced.

“So I did.” She took a deep breath, nodding to herself. “Okay. Just for a little while, though. Right?”


“See if you can’t find a ball or something instead of a stick. And get some warm clothes on.”

Jolene shook her head, snickering as the young boy ran off to dress for outside. “You really don’t have to.”

“Well, he did fulfill the criteria. He listened to you all evening yesterday and was generally a good little trooper. You want to come and supervise?”

“No, I’m sure he’ll be fine with you. Thanks for not doing anything abrupt, this morning. I saw one of Umeko’s old ‘time to party’ looks in your eye before Lenny’s little rant.”

“He picked up on it, too… Which is probably a good thing. He really didn’t do too bad. I think arguing with my sister has opened him up a little.”

“Don’t they get along?”

“They’re damn near best friends now. He’s not as well versed in some of the topics she busts out, but he doesn’t back down in their little mock debates.”

“Auntie Tari, come on!”

“Coming!” Tari gave Jo a wink. “Back in a little while.”

“Have fun.”

Kid’s got an arm, she thought to herself, jogging back to Cameron’s side and dropping a green rubber ball at his feet. The house was just out of sight, a solid quarter-mile away behind a small rise in the land. Nicely flat for the game of fetch, the snow-covered pasture was only briefly interrupted by a man-made pile of rock collected from the very same grazing land.

She’d lost count of exactly how many times she’d retrieved the small squishy orb. The ball was just light enough to not break through the crust of the wind-blown snow, but dense enough to roll and bounce quite a distance before coming to a stop. The most taxing was digging it out of the rock pile when it went errant.

The ball took off yet again; swallowing through her panting, she ran off after it once more. He couldn’t possibly have much more in him for this game. Didn’t kids have a super-short attention span? Maybe he’d start to get cold if she delayed a little more each time. Taking her time sauntering up to the ball, she gently collected it in her teeth and turned around.

That’s when she spied Roland leveling a pellet rifle at her head from just behind Cameron.

She dodged sideways even before she heard the shot, still too late; adrenaline masked the pain in her side as she dashed for cover in the pile of rock. The older boys’ footsteps were almost immediately at the pile, yelling as they tried to spot her; she scooted further into the middle, doing her best to ensure they didn’t have a clear shot. Whether or not they knew who or what they were really shooting at was irrelevant - if she hadn’t seen him taking aim, she’d definitely not have seen anything else, ever.

Cameron’s own yelling cut through the pile, quickly transforming into heaving sobs as he called her name. Laughter and teasing came in just underneath, fading away with the sound of snow crunching under boots, the elder boys heading back toward the farmhouse. Tari waited several minutes before trying to move, ignoring the pain shooting through her foreleg and chest as she picked her way carefully back outside.

The sun was just dipping below the horizon, a touch after five o’clock if her memory was right. Cameron was still sitting there in the snow, alone and crying, the dropped ball in front of him. As she limped up to him she nosed at his hand; the look of joy on his face would have been comical under other circumstances.

Great, she thought, wincing as he hugged her neck. Until I know how bad I’m hurt, I can’t chance changing forms… Damn pellet might still be inside my chest somewhere. Can’t exactly go back to the house like this, either.

“Bracelet,” she barked. While Cameron definitely couldn’t understand a word of her speech in quadruped form, there was an outside chance her little piece of the Serin might. “Text message to Jolene Wolf and Lenard Evanson… Help.”

2 Responses

  1. Tsunari says:

    Jadyn to the rescue?

  2. Tsunari says:

    Hmmmm, all of a sudden i wonder if there is a reason Umeko became so upstanding and if Jolene is on their side as it were.

    p.s. lax-tieductible oong

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