- Because Christmas is one of the most magical times of the year and I cannot let it go to waste.
- But it’s Christmas!
- Toudou, did you hear a single word I said?
Toudou crosses his arms and pouts from the wooden chair beside the fireplace he’s been sitting on for the last hour.
- Nobody in this country knew what Christmas was before the Azuchi-Momoyama period, and nobody really celebrated it until after the war; winter solstice with all its archaic powers is a few days before; New Year’s the following week and I know for sure that December 24th and 25th are not a full moon nor a new moon this year. Now explain to me how a festivity that doesn’t belong to our tradition and that is celebrated mundanely eating sponge-cake and fried chicken has ties with ancestral magic and the natural flow of energy that here in Japan peaks on understandably more meaningful occasions.
Makishima hates apprentices that do their homework.
- You really don’t understand magic, do you?
Toudou pushes himself forward, looking abit like an affronted, ruffled owl.
- What do you mean?! Why!?
But Makishima is already ignoring him, adding dust of unknown origin to a simmering cauldron on a small stove near the window. There is a bigger one bubbling merrily on the fire beside Toudou – one of them contains dinner, but he’s not able to tell which one, which is quite an unsettling truth in itself, all things considered.
- You should probably go: it’s getting dark outside, the road is dangerous.
It sounds like a cold dismissal (and it probably is, up to a point), but Toudou is in no position to argue and has to concede that the drop that temperatures have suffered lately has made it a bit trickier to bike up and down Makishima’s mountain. He gets up and slips on his jacket, picks up his helmet and plays with it while reaching the door.
- So… where are we going for Christmas?
- Leave me alone, Toudou!
- Witches don’t celebrate Christmas.
- Right?! That’s what I told him!
There’s the rustling sound of cardboard boxes being moved around, and then Kanzaki’s familiar figure comes into view from the door leading to Crescent Healing’s storage room.
- Aw, say it like it is, Tadokoro: that’s not always true.
Tadokoro turns towards him while Toudou greets Kanzaki with a nod and a smile that Kanzaki returns.
- How come? They do solstice, – Toudou agrees enthusiastically – and they have all sort of plans for New Year’s rituals and potions and moon phases, – Toudou beams a victorious smile and baths in the glory of rightfulness – they do winter, but I’ve never heard they do Christmas.
Kanzaki takes a sit beside him and retrieves a dry squid from the dedicated box he keeps under the counter, popping it into his mouth.
- European witches do, though.
Tadokoro raises a brow.
- European witches have good reason to.
Kanzaki gives him that.
- Yeah, it’s a pretty big thing over there: the whole season, actually. You know they start at the end of October and just… carry on from there - their land is full of ancient magic that feels so different from ours, we should go there, once, travel around a bit.
- I would like to see their creatures, I’ve heard that Hungarian dragons are extremely fierce, and their scales very valuable.
- I knew a man from Egypt who had the most beautiful phoenixes, if I remember correctly he had a friend in the Middle East who had actually managed to breed black unicorns… I should have kept in touch; perhaps I still have his contact somewhere…
Toudou knows they’re digressing, as it always happens when Kanzaki and Tadokoro start discussing magical plants and creatures: on a normal day he would be happy to hear them talk about fairy dust and fungi, but today he has bigger problems, therefore he clears his throat and brings their attention back to himself. They catch his drift.
- So, you can confirm me that there is nothing inherently magical here about Christmas, and that it is not believable to presume that a witch might not want to miss it for anything in the whole world?
They look at him in a funny way, but also manage to put back on a sombre expression before it becomes suspicious. Tadokoro scratches his chin and looks at Kanzaki, who ponders the matter thoughtfully:
- It’s not that easy to give you a straight answer, Toudou-kun.
- Maki-chan said I don’t understand magic.
Tadokoro bursts into a cackle and Kanzaki snorts too.
- Always the diplomat, that guy! …he’s not completely wrong, though. It’s a bit more complicated than turning some sort of Magic switch on and off. But I think I have understood what your point is, Toudou-kun, and I believe I can safely tell you that no, our witches have no ancestral reason to pick the night between December 24th and December 25th to perform a specific, important ritual.
The bell above the door jingles happily and Onoda comes in while Tadokoro says:
- They’re much more eager to dress-up and go play Yuki-onna in the snow, anyway.
Onoda reaches them and puts a large basket of brightly coloured eggs on the counter, patting them lovingly.
- I wish they didn’t do that, though. It’s scary. And when their snow-babies try to follow their magical trails always end up knocking on our door. But I can’t let them in! They’ll melt!
- Wait, you mean yuki warashi exist?!
- Well, it doesn’t take much to a witch to animate a couple of snowballs for giggles, does it? You know how legends go: harmless fun blown out of proportion.
- Yes, well, some of those snow things are pretty frightening.
Kanzaki sighs, aggravated.
- Yeah, people should learn to be careful with what they wish for, and to stick to regular shapes when they make snowmen and decide to play with fire. Onoda, did you get some news from the other apothecaries?
Onoda shakes his head.
- No yukinbo spotted so far. Perhaps it’s still too soon, they like to come out to play with deeper snow.
- Tadokoro, do you think we could take out the traps and get one, when it’s time? Or even a couple, if we’re lucky?
Tadokoro accepts the challenge eagerly and Toudou knows they are done for the day. He stands up with the others and retrieves his coat and scarf. As he’s putting on his hat and gloves, thinking about the few and useless information he has gathered, he feels a tap on his shoulder and sees Tadokoro towering over him, Onoda at his heel.
- That stubborn goat might like to play the ancient, traditional one, but trust me on this: he would pick sponge-cake and strawberries over any kind of mochi, any time. And he has a considerable sweet tooth, so the more whipped cream, the better.
Toudou wants to ask what the heck he is supposed to do with that knowledge, but Tadokoro walks out of the small shop without even wearing a jacket, while Onoda just wishes him good luck with shining eyes and bolts away to cater to his coloured eggs who are undoubtedly moving and blowing smoke. Toudou runs out and closes the door of Crescent Healing behind himself as soon as he hears them whistle.
One thing, he has noticed, pleases Makishima very much – and it is to see him apply himself and train his abilities, to see him improve: it must be a mentor thing, some kind of second-hand self-affirmation, but it makes Makishima –if not happy– content, or less grouchy, at least, and every step in that direction counts as a victory to Toudou, so he will take what he can get.
He shamelessly begs Makishima for extra lessons, pesters him every time he has a few hours to spare, puts so much effort into his practice sittings that he just wrestles the good results out of his own fingertips and finally, finally bargains with Makishima a special training session on Christmas night.
- Come ooooon, Maki-chan! I’ve been a perfect student these days, and a perfect assistant too! I will bring you all the bat spleens and all your midnight blossoms especially harvested for you in North America or wherever – oh, and let’s not forget the provision of European mistletoe that just arrived: do you need that much, anyway?
- Fine, I’ll bring a backpack and retrieve everything from Kanzaki and carry it up here on your doorstep on the 24th, but I’ll get to stay here with you and spend the night.
Makishima rolls his eyes, exasperated.
- Why are you so bent on Christmas anyway?!
- Because it’s Christmas! And if it’s indeed so magical I want to be here! I want to see the magic, I want to feel the magic! Or are you telling me it’s really no big deal, in which case we can just go out and have an ice time down the hill, in the city?
Makishima knows when he’s being cornered, and he never likes it, not one bit – especially when it’s coupled with being outsmarted by the likes of Toudou. And really, if this isn’t the proof that he can’t allow himself to lower his guards in front of Toudou and underestimate the power that Toudou has over him, he doesn’t know what else he needs. Still, what he hates just as much is making a fool of himself and he can still spare himself that, at least.
- Fine! You can come and you can stay. But you’re making dinner.
Toudou beams with the force of a thousand stars and really, Makishima needs to do something against this weakness of his and toughen up, because he’s far too easily swayed by that row of perfectly straight, perfectly white teeth. And the way they make Toudou’s whole face glow, when they come out.
- Sure thing, Maki-chan! I’ll cook you the best dinner you’ve ever had! Plus, it’s not like you don’t need more vegetables in your diet and a balanced meal every now and th-
- Get out of my house, Toudou.
On December 24th, he leaves Crescent Healing for last, and makes a trip around the city first. He tells himself it is only to breath in some holiday vibes and get a glimpse of the decorations, but the sparkling windows of the stores wink at him seductively, and he conveniently remembers that he has uncharacteristically been saving more money than usual, lately.
The precious wooden box of high-quality tea is a practical gift that he knows will be appreciated – he hopes it will also be enough of an apology for the last time he attempted something like this, and screwed up big time. But the small shop he bought this tea from has no magical connections whatsoever – unless you consider the unquestionably prodigious powers of impeccably brewed, fine tea. The old and kind lady at the counter suggests him a couple of traditional pastry shops nearby, where he could buy a tray of sweets to go with the tea, an advice he takes to heart. When he does indeed walk into one of said shops, though, and starts wondering if Makishima would prefer seasonal wagashi, or maybe the most refined ones, his eyes are caught, instead, by a display of small cakes, glistening under the lights. They are tiny and round, whipped cream skilfully and artistically draped over the surface in perfect curls, immaculate strawberries glistening and decorating the top along with red, white and silver confectionery. A shop assistant comes to his aid and tells him they are sponge-cakes, and that they are sized for two people. Tadokoro’s words from a few days earlier make much more sense now, and Toudou takes them as a sign. He picks a cheerful cake and pays for it quickly, questioning how much of that old conversation at Crescent Healing was indeed coincidental. Or how many of his current actions are.
He fixes the box with the cake to the small front basket that he has attached to his bike for the occasion, to avoid ruining it, and pedals away with a light headache. All this overthinking about magic and magical people will surely be detrimental to his health, at some point.
The scarf is completely unplanned and maybe even a little uncalled for, but it’s displayed so prettily on a front window he passes-by that it is impossible not to notice it. It’s long and wide, light enough –at first glance – but with a hint of rustic sturdiness that makes it look less binding and uptight. And it’s iridescent under the lights, colours running after each other in an infinite number of unpredictable combinations. He buys it on a whim, knowing it will probably be too much and that if he back out of it the scarf will finish its days at the very bottom of his closet – because he would never wear such an item.
He concludes his deals at Crescent Healing quickly and efficiently, filling his backpack and paying with Makishima’s money. There is only Onoda at the counter, but Toudou left the other packages outside all the same: he doesn’t want to deal with Tadokoro’s taunts at the moment, nor Kanzaki’s knowing smirks. He wishes Onoda a happy Christmas, that the boy returns, and leaves the shop with a bag full of groceries and neatly stacked ingredients for Makishima’s potions. Or soups. Whatever.
The cold is fierce and while he pedals up the icy road it starts snowing again; he goes uphill and it gets harder to stay on the bike, and more dangerous, so at some point Toudou just hops down and proceeds on foot, pushing his road racer and counting the metres that separate him from Makishima’s house. Surprisingly, he finds the witch at the door, scanning their surroundings and the road.
- Where you worried for me, Maki-chan?!
- You could break your neck, biking in this weather…
- …and you have a month’s worth of my supplies on your person, it would be inconvenient.
- Come inside. I’m freezing.
Makishima makes up for the mean jokes by allowing him to bring the bike inside and shelter it from the freezing temperatures. It’s still too early to worry about dinner, but there is indeed a lot to do: the fire is already crackling in the kitchen, and for a while they busy themselves sorting out all the items Toudou bought from Crescent Healing, measuring them, storing them away properly, replenishing Makishima’s stocks. Toudou learns a lot about the magical properties of all of them: it’s a fascinating subject, but he really can’t go beyond the fact that to get some of those ingredients, you have to disembowel stuff. Josephine looks more or less of the same opinion, at least as long as spider’s eyes are concerned.
There is also time for training, and both of them marvel at the progress Toudou has made, at how easy it is for him to perform exercises tonight: it fills him with pride, and it puts Makishima in a considerably good mood.
Toudou honours his promise to make dinner, and when it’s time to get to work he does so with focus and purpose. He puts effort into it, wanting to show off and trying hard to make Makishima recognize him – hoping there’s some truth in those statements that say that the way to a man’s heart passes through his stomach. His dedication doesn’t go amiss, and neither do the fruits of his labour. The smell of stewed vegetables fills the house, and it is so inviting that soon enough Makishima abandons his books and comes to gravitate around him. He tries to steal a piece of carrot, Toudou bats his wrist away.
- Go wash your hands!
Makishima throws him a look that could have probably petrified braver men, but Toudou is immune to it, especially when he is cooking. Makishima does wash his hands, but makes a point of re-establishing the hierarchy of the house by making the table set itself with a snap of his fingers. Toudou tries to look affronted and pout, but it is far more enjoyable to laugh in wonder as the cutlery floats through the air and the tablecloth rolls over the wooden surface on its own accord. Josephine tries to tackle some items to the ground, spider instincts taking over, but she only manages to successfully capture a teaspoon before getting irremediably tangled in a napkin. Makishima cuts her free from her own web and lets her blow some steam and frustration in his hair, where she nestles as they dine.
The mood is surprisingly light, so much that Makishima is the one exhorting Toudou to try moving objects himself: they make it through the meal with only one broken bowl (quickly sealed back to its original self with a twirl of Makishima’s index finger and a few muttered words) and a minor accident involving a heavier than expected pitch of water. All in all, Toudou thinks he can count it as a victory, because not only the broth and food were terrific, but Makishima is laughing with him, too. He stares at the emptied table and glances at the sink where, to his great amusement, a brush is cleansing the dishes as if moved by invisible hands.
- Uh… what is it, Maki-chan?
- It could have been the right night for a proper dessert.
Toudou swallows and looks away, slightly self-conscious, all of a sudden.
- A-ctually, about that…
Makishima stares at the cake with an expression that quickly turns wary and closed-off, which is exactly what Toudou wanted to avoid; but its’ done now, although it burns him more than the flames behind his back, to have ruined everything.
- It’s just a cake, Maki-chan.
- It’s a Christmas cake – he points out, as if someone, Toudou, had tried to trick him.
- It’s a sponge-cake with whipped cream and strawberries. It’s… good, and it’s seasonal. Don’t… don’t read too much into it. It’s just a cake that looks cute.
It’s not just a cake that looks cute, it wasn’t meant to be, but if it helps to get Makishima to eat a slice of it, Toudou is willing to withdraw and step back. He doesn’t really have to, though, because Josephine breaks the tension again by rolling out of Makishima’s hair and heading straight for the cake. Toudou shouts and marvels at Makishima’s quick reflexes as the latter catches his pet spider’s body in mid-air: he doesn’t know when his mind has become so twisted that he finds a creepy witch scolding a spider as big as a plate (that also manages to look contrite) a cute scene, but he does, now. He picks up a big, ripe strawberry and holds it up so that Maksihima can see it and look at him questioningly.
- Can I give this to her?
Josephine knows he’s talking about her and moves her legs around wildly. It’s the kind of image that haunts people’s worst nightmares, but Toudou only chuckles at it. Makishima rolls his eyes.
- Fine. But please, stop spoiling her.
He lets the spider on the table and Toudou has to repress a shudder as she scatters at top speed across the table and crawls on his forearm, latching onto his wrist and devouring the strawberry directly from his hand, chirping happily. Afterwards, she lets him pet her, and he gives in to her friendliness allowing her to climb up his arm and crouch on his shoulder. Makishima is too enthralled by the show they’re putting on (and too worried about his pet’s safety) to overthink the cake: he eats two slices and makes no other remark on the matter, except for his sincere compliments to the pastry chef.
- What is it?
- It’s a present for you. Because it’s Christmas, but mostly because I wanted to say thank you. For, you know, being my teacher, and everything else.
So much for being a smooth talker.
- Jinpachi, this is expensive…
- It’s good tea, Maki-chan. You enjoy your brews, I thought you could appreciate quality leaves, for once.
- I do. I… thank you.
If Toudou wasn’t so driven by anxiety it would almost be comical, because a flustered Maksihima is always a recipe for hilarious disasters, and right now he looks very flustered. Perhaps flustered is good, Toudou thinks – perhaps it is as good as he can get tonight. It gives him a boost of confidence. Kind of.
- There is more.
- There is, ehr… another thing. I’m sorry if I overstepped, but I saw it just before I hit the road, and it made me think of you, so I…
- Jinpachi, I didn’t get you anything…
- It’s okay! It’s… okay. I just want you to have it, if you like it.
He hides behind his palms as Makishima unwraps the scarf, and for log seconds Toudou believes he has messed up again, but then he hears a soft gasp, and when he finds the courage to peek from between his fingers, he sees Makishima holding the cloth close to his face, almost reverently, turned towards the light – eyes wide and unmistakably full of wonder.
- D-Do you like it?
It’s incredibly anti-climatic, to have tamed a grumpy witch with a piece of iridescent fabric, but apparently that’s how it is, and when Toudou re-opens his eyes after having rubbed them, he does to the image of Makishima wrapping the scarf around his neck and partially around himself as well, in a twirl of sparkling colours. Maybe it’s just Toudou’s impression, but it almost seems like Makishima lost ten years (or fifty) in the span of minutes: in this moment, he really looks like the teenager he presents himself as.
- It’s beautiful, I…
- It suits you.
- Thank you, Jinpachi. You shouldn’t have.
- Nah, I think I did. It looks good on you. And you kind of deserve it, for putting up with me and everything.
Makishima looks at a loss and Toudou doesn’t understand.
- What is it that upsets you so much, Maki-chan?
The witch grimaces.
- I… actually, I… oh, screw it: it’s not true that I don’t have anything for you. Wait here!
Toudou considers dying on the spot.
When he comes back, Makishima is holding a basket full of clearly handmade products: Toudou recognizes candles, soap bars and creams of various thickness. The scent is amazing.
- These are…
- I might have learned a thing or two during our da-… our day off. And… I do know a couple of things about essential oils, plants and all their properties. These will help you stay focused and in tune with your mind, And they’ll help you sleep better which, as you very well know, is the most basic requirement for any activity. Now close your eyes, there is one last thing.
Toudou does as he’s told and feels something cold around his neck, and something heavy dangling from it too. He opens his eyes to see a discreet but finely crafted pendant hanging on a thin gold chain. There are symbols carved on it, and stones mounted on its surface.
- Runes. And crystals. To help you channel the energy.
Much like those amulets he studied. Much like the one that Makishima wears around his own neck when he needs an extra push.
- You gave me a matching one.
- You have one that looks exactly like this one, you gave me a matching one.
- K-Kanzaki isn’t big on differentiating designs, it’s a flaw I’ve always pointed out-
He hugs him tight, expecting a push that doesn’t come, because Makishima allows him the outburst of affection and pats him lightly on his back, leaning a little into the embrace.
- Thank you! It’s perfect.
- You have been a good pupil. And assistant. Besides, all of that stuff should make you less inept. It’s in my interest that you have it.
Everything after that is slightly blurred in his memory.
If Toudou had known that it would have only taken him some sugar and a shiny scarf to convince Makishima to share a sofa with him and huddle together under a blanket in front of the fire, he would have done it way sooner. Oh, there’s the tea as well – which is indeed extremely good. And Josephine too, curled on top of the blanket in between the two of them, savouring the warmth.
- Why don’t you try conjuring a flame again?
It’s a trick he can’t seem to master, because fire tends to be extremely unstable and bends more willingly to personalities very different from Toudou’s, and he doesn’t want to jeopardize a special night like this one with a test gone wrong; but there’s a certainty in Makishima’s tone (and a resolve, a strength that comes in hot waves from the point where their bodies are touching) that Toudou can’t ignore. So he extends his hand and focus – and to his bewilderment, when he opens his palm there is a bouncing yellow flame dancing above it. He shouts, surprised and thrilled, and sees Makishima smiling at his side.
Toudou closes his fist and shakes it, throws it up in the air and opens it again as he reaches the highest point. Tiny balls of light disperse across the room like fireflies. There’s so many of them that for a while it looks like they’ve been caught in the middle of a snowstorm, but one where the snowflakes keep floating and glow. Makishima melts against him with a sigh and Toudou can’t keep this much happiness bottled inside him.
- I was wrong, Maki-chan! This is one of the most magical nights of the year!
Makishima chuckles, but doesn’t move away from him.
- I told you that you don’t understand magic at all…
Makishima adjust himself to look at Toudou, and Toudou marvels at his mentor’s sudden lack of boundaries, although he doesn’t complain. Never complain. How could he, if it means having the chance to stare at Makishima with fairy lights bathing them in amber tones, to feel Makishima’s breath over his face.
- You wanted it to be special. You wanted so hard for this night to be special… so you made it so. Christmas is important to you, Jinpachi – you took your energy, your drive and your concentration from that idea – so the energy flow bent to answer your call. December 24th isn’t a more magical night in itself, but it is a night in which you feel things differently and in which you want to expand more, to reach out more. So you do, and magic accommodates that. It’s not that Christmas has a magic of its own, it’s that your magic is stronger on this day, because you make it so, by investing so many emotions into it and turning it into something meaningful to you.
They look at each other clearly, without shadows in between them. Toudou can feel the pull of Makishima’s lips.
- What is your special day, then, Maki-chan?
The day you were born.
- This is another story, for another occasion. Enjoy your special night, Jinpachi.
- But Maki-chan, I-
A touch of thin, dry lips. A fleeting moment. Nothing else.
- I’m dreaming. I mean, this is a dream, isn’t it. I am dream-
- Of course you are dreaming,- Makishima says, cuddling close and resting his head on Toudou’s shoulder. His hair is soft. – You fell asleep on the couch after conjuring the fairy lights, and this is all in your head.
Which doesn’t necessarily make it not real, though.
Toudou focuses on their linked fingers, on the feel of Makishima’s body pressed against his, on the scent of his hair.
- Will I remember anything at all, tomorrow? Will you?
Makishima thinks about it, seriously, and Toudou somehow knows he’s sincere.
- I wouldn’t know. Maybe. Dreams are a kind of magic too, aren’t they.
Toudou trails his lips over the top of his head.
- Yeah. I guess you could say that.