(“Once upon a time, there lived a pretty princess in a small village.”
“Did the princess have long flowing hair and red lips?”
“No. Her hair was done in cornrows and her lips were brown. Shush, listen to the story.”)
Ichabod is tangled in the lights again. Abbie purses her lips as she sits at the table watching him, trying to hide her smile. Jenny doesn’t try; she sits perched atop a strongbox sipping her beer and chuckles openly at their friend as he wrestles with the Christmas decorations. She gets a huffy glare for her trouble.
“Are you quite sure,” Ichabod asks for maybe the seventeenth time, “that this bundle of lights isn’t supposed to be deposited atop the tree as is?” He tosses his hair out of his eyes as he fights against a particularly stubborn knot in the tangles. “It would look quite fetching, don’t you think?”
“No,” Abbie drawls, folding her arms and leaning back. The low light cradles around the little cabin, illuminating Ichabod at his work. “I’m pretty sure they’re supposed to be strung out around the tree, like every other normal human being does at Christmas.”
“Like we know anything about normal Christmases,” Jenny snorts. Abbie glances at her; then, deciding that she’s not in the mood for it, she gives a shrug that’s halfway between ‘so what’ and ‘true enough’ before continuing.
“Besides Crane, I’m pretty sure both of us offered to help you with that.” She waves a lazy hand at the ‘that’. Ichabod is crouched before a half-assembled faux-fir tree, with a small box of bells and orbs on his right, and tinsel on his left. The lights that he’s attempting to wrangle are sort of everywhere, but mostly they’re making ridiculous sleeves up and down his arms.
“Absolutely not,” he insists. He looks like he might be contemplating biting through the wires. “You were both kind enough to bring all of the traditional accoutrements of a twenty-first century Christmas to my humble home, and make ready my hearth with cheer. The very least that I can do is help bring in the season by braving these—” Ichabod checks the packaging. “—Battery Operated Festive Lights, and mounting this… tree.”
He had been appalled to find that it was fake, but it hadn’t decreased his determined holiday verve in the slightest. Abbie’s pretty sure she’s going to have to go over there and take over pretty soon, but for now, she’s content to watch. Entertainment is hard to come by, up here at the cabin.
Out of the corner of her eye, she sees Jenny tip back the rest of her beer, then get up to head to the kitchenette. On her way there, she stops to squint at the fireplace.
“Is there a stocking with my name embroidered on it tacked up there?”
This is apparently interesting enough for Ichabod to look up again. “I am glad to see that I am not the only one confused by gigantic hosiery.”
Abbie shakes her head, leaning back in her chair. Jenny’s brows are drawn in that intense way she has, and her hair falls in curls around her shoulders like a shield.
“Don’t call in the emergency services yet,” Abbie says, arms folded across her stomach. “I was getting Ichabod one, and there was this deal where I could get three for the price of one. Seemed Scroogey to pass up on it. And since we agreed we’d be keeping Crane company for the holiday, this seemed like the place to put them.”
Jenny’s eyebrows dip further down, and Abbie feels her lips thinning out.
“It’s more than a week until Christmas, you’ve got plenty of time to take it down if you want,” she says.
“Nah… it’s fine.”
For a moment, Abbie think she’s about to say more, but she doesn’t, and only walks out of the room on soft-soled feet, her hair catching and tossing the light.
(“The princess lived in a sun-soaked land in a time of plenty. Her village was small, and she knew all the people in it: the farmers pulling up cassava and potatoes, the seamstresses making dresses out of bright patterns, the priests and priestesses in their wooden huts with their oils and incenses, and the midnight crusaders most of all, holding great gatherings every night to pass on the stories of their land, to make sure that they were kept within the hearts and hands of every person. Especially the princess, who loved and was loved by all, and held all stories dear.”
“I think it’s some kinda root, you can eat it. Were you listening to everything else?”
“Want me to read it again anyway?”
They don’t talk about the fact that it’s their first Christmas together in years.
Instead, Abbie spies Jenny at the supermarket, staring down a selection of canned goods. Her hoodie’s down, her hair’s in a tangled pony and her shoulders are squared out in the defiance she usually saves for authority figures. It reminds Abbie of a teenaged Jenny, chin up and oozing desperation and contempt at the sceptical detective in the interrogation room. The thought is like a small fist, striking at the cage of her ribs; the memory is not a good one.
She rolls her cart up and hip-checks her sister.
Jenny looks surprised for a moment, then resigned. She cocks her hip like a gun.
“So much for giving you a surprise assist with your Christmas grocery shopping.” Decision apparently made, she scoops several tins of ravioli into her basket. Abbie peers in. There’s nothing much else in there other than a ham, a bottle of cheap wine and some granola bars. Jenny catches her watching, and shrugs as she continues down the aisle. Abbie raises her brows, and her ‘thank you’ gets lodged somewhere in her throat. Unexpected doesn’t even begin to cover this.
“Well,” she says, catching up, “there’s still all that cooking to help me with.” She tries to shrug her brows, and she’s pretty sure she ends up looking like an idiot more than anything, but Jenny laughs anyway, waving a hand.
“Oh no, don’t even try…”
“Ah, come on, don’t be a baby.” On impulse, Abbie bumps her with her hip again. Despite being a year younger, Abbie had always been the bigger one when they were growing up; a little chubbier, a little taller. That all changed when Jenny hit her last growth spurt in their teens, and Abbie has been looking up at her ever since. The little hip-check doesn’t even make her budge, and her little smile encourages Abbie to try one as well. “I’m a decent cook, you’re a decent cook, Crane can probably manage a stove without setting himself on fire… together we could probably put together an okay meal. Like, you know…”
She doesn’t finish that sentence, though Jenny’s eyes tell that she knows what it was going to be. Most of the last several Christmases she’d either spent with Luke or with Corbin and his family. She’d never thought about what Jenny had done with hers, but now that her relationship with Corbin is out in the open, it could have been anything. Artefact hunting in Jamaica, freedom fighting in Serbia, dinner at his house. There are so many missing years between them, and an entire half left to be told.
Jenny blinks down at her. She lets out a breath like a little hurricane, smiling just so.
“Look at both of us, would you?” she says. “Putting in effort and everything.”
“Best place to start, seems like,” Abbie replies carefully.
Jenny is silent for a moment before she nods and begins walking again, moving and taking the sphere of her world with her. Abbie jogs a little to catch up once again, and they fall in step.
(“…and held all stories dear.
“One night, the princess dreamt. She dreamt a lot, about the stories she had heard and the histories that she had been told, but this dream was different. The princess dreamt in red. She saw great drought and destruction coming to her land, a famine wherein many people died, and a strange coldness that made all the life drain from the countryside. That was the scariest part. It was never cold, where they lived.”
“You’re not even reading from the book anymore!”
“Because I know it by heart already. And I gotta tell you the short version anyway. C’mon, you’re the one who wanted the story, stop butting in.”
“Okay. When she woke up, the princess tried to tell all of her friends and subjects what she had dreamt, but none of them believed that it could really come true. They sympathised with her and soothed her, but no one would take any precautions. Even the priests and priestesses, who were always careful and suspicious, always heedful of signs, didn’t think much of it.
“The princess, saddened by their disbelief and depressed by the future that she saw coming, began to withdraw from the community and her friends. She no longer went out among the people, no longer told their stories and spread happiness amongst them.
And then one day, a prince came.”
“Don’t burn a hole in the ground.”
Abbie’s clocking a pretty good speed, and almost skids on her heels as she stops and backtracks to stick her head into the precinct’s break room. Jenny is sitting on top of the counter, sipping from what looks like a hot cup of cocoa. Abbie makes sure they’re alone before stepping in and closing the door. Seeing her sister in the police station fills her with a vague discomfort, like she needs to protect Jenny. She leans against the door, her body and the wood making a two-fold barrier.
“Irving wanted these files ‘post-haste’,” she finds herself explaining, “and as much as I hate that word, he’s been pretty good about accepting the whole ‘monsters and demons and time-travel are all real’ deal, so I’m trying to keep him on our side. Jenny, what are you doing here?”
“Well, you just missed him,” her sister replies instead of answering the question. “He left to go pick up Macey and bring her back here.”
Abbie folds the files to her stomach, relaxes a little against the oak. Someone stuck a slightly tacky wreath up on it, but it’s high enough that it barely grazes the top of her head.
“Macey… isn’t that—”
“His daughter? Yeah. Her mom’s got a thing and Irving’s working, so I volunteered to make sure that she doesn’t go comatose with boredom.” When Abbie raises her brows, Jenny wrinkles hers. “What?”
“No… no it’s nothing.” Abbie shakes her head. “I guess it’s a little surprising, I guess. You. A kid. The equivalent of babysitting. In a police station. You’re kinda throwing me, here.”
“Hey, last week a snowman animated by an evil witch tried to decapitate you,” Jenny reminds her, hiding her smirk behind her mug. “Stranger things, and all, baby sis.”
“God, don’t remind me,” Abbie begs, already grinning. “I’ve been trying to forget; no way there’s room in my memory banks for the trauma of Frosty coming at me with a machete.”
Their laughter curls together like heat and smoke. Abbie feels warm, comfortable.
“Anyway,” Jenny continues. “I like the kid; it’ll be nice hanging out with her.” She pauses for a moment before she digs into the pocket of her hoodie, and pulls out a worn paperback that she tosses to Abbie. “Happen to have this on me; maybe she’ll like it.”
Abbie doesn’t have to look at the book to know what it is; she catches and tosses it back without reading the cover. Her grin quietens to a smile. Jenny is almost an enigma to her, a stranger that gives her rooted feelings of déjà vu; to know that she can still know her in little ways is a comfort.
“I can’t say I know her, but I think she will.”
She waves and turns to go, but doesn’t manage to do so before Jenny calls her back, and pushes a fresh mug of cocoa into her hands.
“Might as well be warm while you fight that good fight,” she says, nudging her out of the break room, ‘mhmm’-ing loudly over her thanks.
Back at her desk, Abbie finds Ichabod using her stapler to make patterns on a sheet of paper, which he immediately stows away when he sees her coming. She doesn’t even take the time to chuckle at him; she deposits the files on her desk, sits opposite him, and takes a swallow of her drink. It’s hot, and the homey taste bursts on her tongue on the way down. It’s really good. She stares down at the marshmallows bobbing in it.
“Lieutenant?” Ichabod asks. He rolls his chair closer. “Is aught amiss?”
“Nah.” Her reply is met with a look teeming with scepticism, and it’s a little weird, honestly, how quickly they’ve gotten so good at reading each other. She takes another sip of her drink, and offers it to her friend, meeting his eyes. “Nothing, really. It’s just… Jenny. I’ve known her longer than I’ve known anyone else alive, and she still manages to surprise me.”
Ichabod looks at her fondly.
“It is in the nature of all human beings, I have found. This was a good surprise, I hope?”
“Yeah.” Abbie leans back into the arms of her chair. The nature of human beings. “A good one.”
(“The prince came from a faraway land, and was very handsome. He was immediately liked by all, but especially by the princess. He cheered her up with tales of his homeland, and the wonderful things to see and do there. It was all majestic and modern and new. Most of all, the prince believed the princess’ dream of the slow death by spiritual starvation that would come to her land. He tried to help her convince her people, but they would believe him no more than they would her.
“Finally, when no other road seemed open to them, the prince asked for the princess’ hand in marriage. He loved her, and if he could not save her entire village, then he would save her. She accepted immediately, and expected to leave for his homeland at once. However, he told her, there was a price. To pay for her passage across the seas to his land, she would have to give up her voice.
“This was a very serious price to pay. But the princess was so sad, and so desperate to be with someone who believed her, she thought little of it, and consulted no one when she made her final choice.
“She said yes.”)
As it turns out, the evil witch has a friend, as witches are wont to have.
“That,” Jenny grinds out, tying the last knot on the bandage, “was incredibly dumb, Abbie.” The slice and swoop of dozens of thin wings beat in the air, and Abbie keeps her firearm cocked and loaded, even as she grits her teeth through the pain. The gash that she’d gotten on her leg isn’t deep, but it’s enough to make walking a huge problem. A problem that can go on their ever growing list, just beneath ‘running out of magic ammo’ and ‘vengeful warlock and his minions closing in’ and ‘arrival of cavalry looking doubtful’.
Abbie doesn’t look at her sister; she keeps her eyes locked on the sky as she pulls off another shot. Another one of the flying creatures goes down, not twenty feet away from the headstone behind which they’ve found cover, blue light spidering through its black twitching body. Steam hisses and rises from the light dusting of snow on the ground.
“Thanks for the reminder,” Abbie snaps calmly, “I didn’t quite catch it the first twenty seven times. What was I supposed to do; let the ugly demon-spawn get the drop on you?”
“You were supposed to not get hurt,” Jenny retorts. “And maybe trust that I could handle myself.”
“Jenny, please.” Abbie readies her weapon again; she can hear the warlock yelling out taunts in the distance, and more of his underlings approach by air. They’re huge, with pointed teeth and ears, and have the benefit of a keen sense of smell to make up for their blindness. Abbie’s not sure how long the stuff Jenny slathered them with will work to mask their scent, but she’s pretty sure it won’t be long enough. “Can we maybe do this another time? Maybe when we’re not literally fighting back hell?”
“I’m just saying.” Jenny checks her work on the bandage, seems to think it satisfactory, and then draws her weapons closer. “Maybe this would go a little easier if you had a little more faith in me.”
“Of course I have faith in you, Jenny.” It’s a hiss, barely a whisper, and Abbie’s eyes are marking the sky but she can tell that Jenny heard her, from the way she pauses in reloading her guns. “I realise I’ve done a crap job of showing that in the past, but this is now.” She glances across, just a flick of her eyes, at Jenny’s dirty profile and hard expression. I’m going to do better, she wants to say, but somehow, the words metamorphose on their way to the flat of her tongue. “You’re my sister.”
The silence holds for a minute; their breathing marks the time.
Then Jenny slams in a magazine.
“Hell of a way to spend a Christmas Eve Eve,” she says, not making eye contact, “but at least we’ve got the family thing down, right?”
A little lightness pervades her voice, and Abbie’s smile is wry. That was pretty much an apology. “Right.”
Jenny takes aim, and another of the bat-like monsters goes down. The suppressors on their guns take care of muffling the noise of their shots, but still, it’s not going to be long before they’re found, even in this labyrinth of a cemetery.
“I’ve definitely had worse Christmas Eve Eves,” Abbie says, not wanting to stop talking.
“Like that time a robbery went wrong and put you in the hospital until Boxing Day?”
Abbie blinks, then laughs softly. “Corbin, huh?”
“Corbin,” Jenny confirms. She’s smiling gently as well. “I was away when it happened, but it was on the news, and he sent me some pictures of that great medal you got.”
“God,” Abbie laughs, feeling fond. “Kept up with me, huh?”
“Yeah, I kept up with you.”
Abbie looks away from the sky to give her sister a grin, and at that moment, the roar of an engine cuts across the stone-studded field. Abbie tries to crane her neck to see, but it’s Jenny who looks over the headstone and gives a sigh of relief. The creatures in the air give a resounding shriek as one, as if they too know that something is happening.
“Okay, good news,” Jenny says, holstering one of her guns and sliding into action with the ease of training and calm. “It’s everyone’s favourite stitch in time. Bad news, it looks like he’s bringing company with him. We got five minutes, maybe less.”
Before Abbie can comment or protest, Jenny is stooping in front of her and scooping her into her arms. She sees it coming, and knows there’s no time to object, but she can’t help but roll her eyes, just a little.
“What? We’ve been here before.”
As Jenny stands, the truck rumbles wildly to a stop a few feet away. The creatures are still circling in the air, their master’s cries not far off, but some of them have started to swoop in and out with the scent of new blood.
“I do think I’m getting a knack for this,” Ichabod says as he exits the front seat and opens up the back. He has a shotgun in one hand and looks like he’s been through just about as much hell as they have been. Abbie has never been gladder to see him. “My sincerest apologies, Lieutenant, Ms. Mills.”
“We can hug it out later, Crane,” she says wryly, one arm hooked around her sister’s neck, the other holding on to her gun.
“Do you need any…”
“Nah, no worries,” Jenny interrupts him before he can finish, sliding Abbie into the backseat. “She ain’t heavy, she’s—”
“Don’t you dare,” Abbie mock growls as she looks out of the window, checking on their enemies’ progress. She can hear Jenny laughing as she gets in at the driver’s side, and as Ichabod quickly darts round the truck to the passenger seat.
“Something I should know?” he asks, glancing between them both as Jenny lurches the truck to a start. They’re both still grinning.
“We’ll explain later.”
(“The journey was long and hard and took them over land and sea, but then at last, they came to the prince’s kingdom.
“The princess could not speak, but she was welcomed with joy and fascination, and she did her best to show how much she appreciated being there. The wedding was to take place in a few weeks, and in the meantime, many came from all over the kingdom to marvel at her.
“She enjoyed this, but also… she couldn’t respond to any of their praise, and her prince had to do so in her place. Everything that she might have had to say, he said for her. New food, new clothes, and new friends; he saw that she had them all. When people wanted to hear stories of her homeland, her prince told them… only he changed details constantly, told lies big and small, and made her little sunny faraway village seem like a joke, a simple culture full of simple people. She had not just given up her voice; she had given it to him. The princess was devastated; she never imagined he would do something like that!”
“That’s good, Abbie. The princess could not correct him or confront him or convince others that he was not telling the truth. Her voice was not her own. She had to watch him spread lies about her homeland and her people, and with each passing day, she felt herself becoming sicker and sicker inside, and somehow knew that the destruction she had seen in her village was also coming to pass, and knew that it was because of her. The new land that had at first enchanted her seemed to be poisoning her more and more every day. The prince barely spoke to her anymore, and the wedding was postponed.
“The princess looked high and low for a healer from her part of the world, and when she found one, the results were sombre, but enlightening. The old woman held her hands, linking them as if they were kin. When she let go, her words were simple but fell with the weight of an entire world.
“‘The half has never been told,’ she said.”)
Jenny has been fully moved in for weeks now, but Abbie’s apartment still looks as if it only houses one person. She limps out of the kitchen and sinks into her favourite chair, reminding herself to pester Jenny into opening up that box of mementos that she keeps in her room, and scatter bits of herself along the walls. It’s where she belongs.
Her apartment smells… she supposes Christmas-y is the only word for it. Ichabod is puttering about in the kitchen, brewing a pot of what he swears is an actually traditional Christmas drink. Abbie’s not sure what it is, but the scent of cinnamon and clove and allspice is on the air. Nat King Cole is seeping from her stereo, and Ichabod is humming an old song that goes surprisingly well with the melody.
Abbie sips her eggnog. She actually doesn’t like it very much, but it’s Christmas Eve, and she figures she has to have a glass.
The front door opens and shuts just as she’s contemplating how to get the ottoman within leg-distance without actually having to get up. Jenny calls out a greeting to Ichabod, and then stomps into the living room, bringing in a lingering gust of cold air. She nods hello to Abbie, but the first thing she does is head over to the mantelpiece. There, she takes three stockings out of her knapsack, and hangs them up one by one. Abbie’s eyes widen briefly, and she feels a little ball of warmth and amusement curling to life in her stomach.
Jenny catches her eye.
“I figured, you know, since we’ll be here for the holiday instead, I shouldn’t let your goodwill go to waste. What?”
Abbie raises a palm.
“I didn’t say anything!”
Jenny squints at her, but makes no further reply at she adjusts the placement of the stockings. On her way over to the chair next to Abbie’s, she kicks the ottoman closer to her sister. Abbie grins, and balances her eggnog on the armrest of chair so that she can lift her leg onto the ottoman.
Jenny nods, and steals her mug to take a sip. She makes a face.
“This really doesn’t taste that great.”
“It doesn’t, but, you know. It’s a regular thing. One of those traditions.”
“Well,” Jenny gives, handing the mug back over, “we don’t do regular that well, and we can make our own traditions. Right?”
Abbie smiles. Jenny’s face looks pinched and a little redder for the cold, but it’s slowly thawing into the lines and angles that she’s been looking at ever since she was a little girl.
Jenny rests a hand briefly on her back, and gets up to go to the kitchen. When she returns, it’s with a can of beer, and a promise from Ichabod that he’ll be done within the next few minutes.
“Hey, I’ve been meaning to ask you…” Abbie begins as Jenny settles into her chair again.
Abbie cups her chin in the palm of one of her hands. “You’ve never really talked about it. All that time you spent abroad, I mean, doing stuff for Corbin, for yourself… I don’t know anything about it.”
Jenny swallows her mouthful, slowly lowering her hand. She looks thoughtful.
“I guess I haven’t. I didn’t really think you’d be interested.”
“Well, I am,” Abbie insists, and as she says it, she hears how the truth of it stretches silver and gold between them. They’re family; what they have should be whole. “I want to hear you tell it.”
“Really?” Jenny looks surprised and pleased, and for a moment, the harshness of her face eases out with warmth. Abbie feels good, to know that she made it so.
“Yeah, you’re a good storyteller. You’ve always been.”
Jenny leans back in her chair, smiling. Sitting in the armchairs, they’re almost level with each other, but in her mind’s eye, Abbie sees herself sitting on a dusty floor, chubby face cupped in her hands, looking up at her big sister. She grins.
“Okay,” Jenny says. “I guess I can tell you a story.”
“Haha, you ask too many questions! It’s late… I should probably finish this up tomorrow…”
“No, c’mon! I really wanna know.”
“Okay, I’ll tell you what; see if you can guess. What do you think the princess has to do?”
“Um… um… oh, her country! I bet she has to go back home.”
“Wow, you got it on the first try. But that’s right kiddo. Leaving home taught her a lot of stuff, but her home is where she had her real friends, where she told and heard her first stories, and that’s where she’ll get the real healing. She has to hear a lot of tales and sing a lot of songs, but that’s the first thing she’s got to do.
“Find a way to get back home.”)