Ulrich dragged his knit scarf back over his nose for maybe the forth time since he and Phineas had boarded the last bus out of town; no heating, driven by a pale man who couldn't stop coughing. There were only a few others on this sad route; an assortment of individuals in various flavors of trying very hard to go about their business and ignore the fact that it was Christmas Day. Ulrich would have counted himself among them, three years ago, but since he'd fallen in with Phineas (largely against his own better judgement) he'd found himself bundled up and hauled to the outskirts of town to Jocasta's shack for dinner and a meager but heartfelt attempt at gifts. He'd been caught unaware the first year, and the second year he felt a bit silly for bringing Jo a fancy little candle and some scented handsoap. Generic junk for someone he didn't know very well. This year he was feeling much more prepared, a smallish ornately wrapped box settled between his knees on the bus seat.
On his left was empty space, and on his right Phineas was snoozing, sweating in her hoodie and vest even against the chilly air in the bus, cold enough Ulrich could see his breath. She ran hot in all seasons it seemed. She was slumped against his shoulder, slouching down a bit further every time the vehicle ran over a rough patch. They stopped once or twice to let other passengers off and as they got further out of the city the road got worse. Eventually Phineas was jolted awake as the bus drove over a particularly drastic lapse in municipal infrastructure.
"Buh," she said.
"We should be there soon," Ulrich responded softly. Phineas settled in against him again. The four or five layers of cloth between them mitigated most of the unpleasantness of touch in Ulrich's mind, and he rested his head on hers in a rare gesture. He was feeling bizarrely sentimental today. Her hair was softer than it had any right to be, and the scent of 98-cent pomegranate conditioner assaulted his senses. The rumbling of the tires over the road was loud, and they rode in silence the rest of the way.
A flurry had started in the last twenty minute stretch of the ride, and by the time Phineas and Ulrich were crunching up the gravel driveway a dusting of snow was forming in the grooves of Jocasta's tin awning. Regardless, she was standing on the porch in shorts and a tank top, her long dreadlocks piled up high behind her head and her silk gloves glowing in the orange light from the open doorway. The sun had begun its descent somewhere among the trees and the air was painted an eerie blue; Jo's dirty white apron seemed to float against her darker colors. Ulrich shivered at the sight of her silhouette against the warm light radiating from her house, like hot water dripping down his back. Beside him, Phineas picked up her pace and reached the porch first. Jo took the pipe from her mouth.
"The busses running late?" she asked, her breath tumbling out in red blossoms. Phineas stopped short of going inside while Ulrich caught up.
"No, Ulrich overslept. He was up too late last night." Jo eyed Ulrich as he made it to the stairs. Intensely, but not unkindly. He nodded, his face still mostly obscured by blue and white garterstitches.
"See your scarf's holding up okay." Jocasta mused, tapping her pipe on the porch railing to shake the tobacco loose. A cascade of pink petals fell into the row of bushes below. Ulrich nodded and unwrapped said scarf.
"It is in perfect condition, thank you." He responded politely. Jo's severe features curved into a smile, attractive but not a tic less intimidating. Ulrich pretended his goosebumps came from the cold.
"You just let me know when it needs keepin' up." she winked. Ulrich smiled, then ducked into the warmth of the shack as inconspicuously as he could.
Phineas had already kicked off her flipflops and shucked her layers of jacket haphazardly by the door, and now she was poking around the hot dishes thickening the air in the kitchen. She had produced a wooden spoon from somewhere and was eating straight from a big pot of stew that completely smothered the potholders unlucky enough to be caught underneath. Jo shut the door behind Ulrich, and after calmly taking off her boots she stalked over, took the spoon from Phineas and swatted the back of her head.
"OW-UHH" Phineas howled. Jo jerked the spoon towards the living room doorway.
"OUT." Ulrich suppressed the shake that snaked up his spine, the faint taste of burnt herbs in his mouth at her demand. Phineas whined like a child. Ulrich, just finishing hanging his things and squaring away his damp boots, turned to watch.
"I'm hungry!" Phineas whined.
"You can wait another fifteen minutes until it's all done." While Jo spoke, Phineas stuck her finger into a bowl of watergate salad, popping it in her mouth before Jo could stop her.
"GIT." Jo roared. Phineas hollered a laugh and dove for the doorway, dodging another utensil assault. Ulrich was still rooted by the stove, uncomfortable as ever but grinning appreciatively at the chaos. He got the distinct feeling this had happened many times, it was comfortably habitual chaos. It was. Nice. Jocasta turned towards him, still wearing a scowl, and shook her head incredulously.
"I swear to christ." she stated. She came closer to stir some sweet carrots and Ulrich had to suppress a wild instinct to bolt out the front door. He cleared his throat and gave her a couple steps' worth of space instead. Satisfied with bullying the vegetables, Jo reached into her apron and produced a universal remote, which she aimed behind her in the general direction of the flatscreen over the kitchen table. A moment later the inevitable awkward silence in the kitchen was banished by the blessed drone of cable television. Jo had been watching the 24-hour A Christmas Story marathon. She got distracted for a second watching a kid stumble down the street in a coat too big for him.
"This okay?" she asked amicably. Ulrich nodded, of course, anything was better than silence.
"Perfectly fine." He replied. He realized he was still hovering on the edge of the kitchen and wandered across the hardwood to lean against the counter instead. To his intense embarrassment, it took a concentrated effort to keep his eyes from drifting back towards the stove.
Ulrich had never found himself attracted to older women, in fact felt little attraction to anyone of any age, but he always got the strangest, most nonsensical feeling that he would find himself in Jocasta's bed at some point during his tenure with Phineas. And it would be her bed, largely because he couldn't bear the thought of Phineas finding out but also because he knew instinctively that that was just how it worked with Jo. It might have been the way her eyes quickly ghosted over him sometimes after she spoke to him, or the odd way she seemed to revel in making Ulrich nervous. He found himself wondering occasionally how often she found a partner for herself, which was also completely irregular for him and, frankly, unwanted. In any case, watching Jocasta do something as domestic as toss vegetables around a pot was making him much more nervous than the action should warrant, and he tried to stare at his shoes instead.
"You wanna take that in the living room?" What? Oh, Ulrich was still gripping the gift he'd brought for Jo. He had been rubbing his thumb against a piece of tape. "Dinner's about done, go make yourself comfortable."
"Sure, yeah." He stammered, then fled.
The living room was densely decorated with pine and holly trimmings, but other than a little tree on a table in one corner it could have been any other time of year in Jocasta's house; the air was always thick with plantlife. Phineas was lying out on the ugly flower print couch texting someone. Ulrich, the tension loosening in his shoulders slightly with only Phineas in the room, crossed to stand beside the tree. It was mostly bare, just a few beaded ribbons and an odd stone perched near the top that glowed a gentle yellow. Jocasta and Phineas celebrating Christmas for any sort of religious reason was laughable to say the least, but when he had asked, Jo had explained that few of its traditions were actually exclusive to Christianity to begin with. Additionally: she just liked the atmosphere. That said, Ulrich got the impression the beads and the stone on the witchdoctor's tree might serve more purpose than aesthetic, and he very carefully avoided touching anything as he deposited his present next to three others underneath. None of them were marked. There weren't enough people for it.
Phineas moved to sit up and let him on the couch, but Ulrich tapped her absently on the head and settled into one of the armchairs instead. They sat quietly, Phineas finishing her texts and Ulrich occupied as one is when they're feeling horribly out of place; no other idle activities necessary. From the kitchen, the raspy narrator of a brutally enforced Christmas tradition droned on.
"Are we doing anything for New Year's?" Phineas asked suddenly, dropping her phone on her chest and looking at Ulrich through her propped up feet. He thought. He shrugged.
"Staying in to avoid crazy people." he offered. Phineas looked back at her phone as it buzzed.
"Could we have Agatha over?" Ulrich scratched at his scruff, running the scenario through his head. Agatha seemed a reasonable sort, it would probably be fine.
"Sure, it would probably be fine." He could always bail out and go to bed early if they decided to drink too much. Phineas stuck her tongue between her teeth and tapped out another response, pausing before making an adjustment and sending it off. She threw the phone facedown against her chest again, like she was afraid to see what came back.
"Is this like a date?" Ulrich asked lightly.
"Mmmmaybe," Phineas said, sounding genuinely unsure. "It's...it's hard to tell."
Their eyes met and Phineas huffed through her nose, jutting out her lower lip.
"She's so weird! I can't tell what she wants!"
"You got her number," Ulrich said gently. "that's something." Phineas tapped her heels against the armrest as she looked reflexively at her phone again.
"Don't feel like nothin'." She grumped. But she didn't complain again. The cat meandered into the room and curled up on Phineas' belly.
Jocasta's rough voice called them in to the table a few minutes later. Phineas leapt up like the couch had caught fire and ran past Ulrich through the doorway, unnecessarily heavy footfalls rattling knickknacks in their cabinets. Ulrich moved more slowly, smiling at the cat before he left. The cozy warmth of the shack was doing a lot to unwind his tension; he was almost getting sleepy. When he got to the kitchen doorway, Phin and Jo were already sitting down with full plates pulled from the family-style spread on the ancient wooden table.
"Pull up a chair kiddo." Jocasta chirped. Ulrich did, where they'd set out a place for him. There was a glass set here for him to match the others', clear with one of those old brown and yellow patterns done up in simple leaves and vines in a ring around the top half, the paint chipped with age. The sight of the outdated dishwear, part of a matched set and sitting there for him, made him suddenly emotional about the whole thing like he had been on the bus. He was so startled he froze with the chair half under the table. That's weird. He shoved the feeling aside, unwilling to deal with it right now and ruin dinner, and sat down.
Phineas was inhaling mashed potatoes at an alarming rate. She started to reach for another helping and Jocasta leaned up to bat her hand away.
"Finish your plate first!"
Phineas sank back in her seat, her mouth too full to argue. Jo stared at her.
"What's gotten into you?" she asked apprehensively. Phineas swallowed.
"I didn't eat all day!"
"What for?" Ulrich finally decided on some vegetables, the green beans looked good. He ladled some onto his plate, then reached for a roll while the other two were still distracted. There, enough for now; a polite amount he could nibble on without drawing attention. He felt the cat's tails curling around his legs under the table.
"I knew we was havin' dinner!" Ulrich smirked at her accent; hers and Jocasta's both got thicker when they were around each other. The television cut to a commercial for soap while they bickered and Ulrich munched on the dinner roll, one of the cheap hawaiian ones from Walmart. But it was nice, Jo had warmed them just enough in the oven until they were flakey and buttery and there were some crispy bits that melted between his teeth, and Jocasta batted Phineas' hand from the carrots but she looked too blurry,
"Are you okay?" Phineas' voice directed at him startled him.
"You're, uh," Phineas handed him a napkin and Ulrich realized with a start his eyes were wet behind his glasses.
"o-oh, uh," he quickly took the napkin and wiped at his face, sniffling and again immeasurably grateful that Jocasta had had the foresight to leave the television running. "I'm fine, my allergies are bad today." He missed the look that passed between the women, then Phineas asked what was for dessert and they were lost again to arguing.
"You're gettin' better at this, boy." Jo reached out and scrubbed through Ulrich's hair briefly, which he came dangerously close to enjoying.
"I do what I can." Jocasta held the pestle up to the cozy light from the Christmas tree, the only thing lighting the living room. The crystal shone back a rich bloody red, threaded with gold. She set it back into its matching mortar and nudged it around a bit.
"They said it was good for stone things, it would make it easier to grind gold or gems." Jocasta nodded. She spread out on the couch, taking up all the room she liked since Phineas seemed determined to sit on the floor near the tree. Ulrich looked on, again in the armchair he usually gravitated towards.
"Seems legit, I'll try it out tomorrow." Ulrich shrugged sheepishly.
"I admit I don't know enough to tell if I was conned, I figured it is pretty at least."
"That it is. Y'all know y'all don't gotta get me nothin' but I do appreciate it." she smiled, and Ulrich smiled at her for approximately two seconds before his gaze fell to his own bare feet sticking out of his pajamas. The roar of the dishwasher droned in from the dark kitchen.
Phineas had already opened her things and was wearing a new ring and a pendant, a bottle with a spell inside Jo had been oddly cagey about explaining. She simply handed Phineas a folded piece of notebook paper and told her to check it out later. Ulrich's present from Jo was the last one.
Ulrich picked up a package the size of a large matchbox, covered in dollar store santa-print paper and a bow he could swear he'd seen last year. The cheapness of the materials hardly registered, however; like every other time she had wrapped anything for him, Ulrich was taken aback by how perfect and neat Jocasta's wrapping was. He almost felt bad for tearing the paper. Jo seemed to just be good at everything.
The package turned out to be an actual matchbox. Ulrich slid it apart and inside, nestled among some hay was a round, flat grey stone. He picked it up gently, unsure, and found it had a wonderful texture under his fingertips.
"What is it?" he asked, hoping it wouldn't sound rude.
"It's a worry stone." Jo responded, still idly examining Ulrich's gift to her. "It's like a fidget thing. You carry it around and rub it between your fingers when you're nervous."
"I mean is it...does it have any other properties I should know about?" Jo shrugged.
"Nah it's just a rock, I took it out the crick. But it feels nice huh?" Ulrich pinched the stone between his thumb and one knuckle. The stone had been worn smooth by the water but the mineral was sort of spongy, and dragged just enough under his fingertip. He thought of Jocasta up to her knees in creekwater, picking this stone from the bed and thinking of him.
"It does." he agreed. He meant it. He smiled politely. "Thank you."
"It ain't much. Y'all are hard to shop for." Phineas scoffed.
"You're like a billion years old, what are WE supposed to get YOU." Jocasta crossed her feet, careful not to claw the couch with her talons.
"Find me a goddamn foot spa that fits my feet."
"You don't buy footspas for people you give a shit about." Phineas mumbled. The cat's tails caught Ulrich's eye. He was curled under the tree, two eyes on Phineas' shiny new things and one eye on Jocasta's shiny new thing, his tails weaving fitfully among the tree lights. He must have felt Ulrich looking because his extra eye shifted to stare in his direction instead, and a creeping sensation swept over the back of his head. Sensing his discomfort, like always, the cat stood, stretched, padded his way over to Ulrich and climbed into his lap. He purred like an animal considerably larger than he actually was.