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Between Family

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It was hot. Not your normal summer breezes and beach weather; it was Christmas-in-Australia-hot. I knew walking down the street that I was gunna have to take a shower when I got home even though I’d only had one that morning. Jin Yeong, on the other hand, still looked cool as a cucumber. Cheeky little bugger. It was just rude to be so suave and—swanky—when everyone else was miserable and sticking to themselves. The fact that he was having to walk home from the grocery store with me probably off-set his usual charm, but he didn’t seem to mind and that made me hate him just that little bit more. The bloke has no decency.

When we got home, even Athelas had taken off his woolen waistcoat and rolled up the sleeves of his button-up, the top button of which was unbuttoned—scandal!—but he was not in the mood to admit of any change in the weather. I mean, what would it have done to his pride?

The whole rolled-up sleeves getup made him look like a reporter in a black and white movie about gangsters. It sort of suited him, though, you know?

“Hiya, boss. Ya want I should make ya cuppa joe?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Nothing. Brought you something special instead of biscuits to have with your tea. And it can’t be an exchange, because it is Christmas.”

“Sometimes it seems you exist purely to spite any peace of mind I may have left.”

“True.” I sighed and put the kettle on. But then, I hadn’t felt like celebrating Christmas in a long time. And they were fae, anyway, so it didn’t have to be a big party or anything.

It could just be us, at home, like it was when I was a kid. Something caught in my throat and I had to stand very still to not cry. Jin Yeong was putting things away in the wrong places but he would have stopped helping if I’d told him off so I just stood their and stared at the backsplash above the sink, with the little cracked tile.

“Pet?”

“We are celebrating Christmas. I’m putting my foot down on this one. You’re just gunna have to like it or lump it.”

“Very well. Have you spoken to Zero about this?”

“Nah, but he’ll be okay. He’s part human, he’s got to be.” I could feel Athelas raise his eyebrows even if I didn’t see it actually happen. “Christmas is for everyone. And it’s about family. It’s not rocket science so don’t argue with me!”

And with that, I could move again. Jin Yeong ruffled my hair and dodged out of the way before my blow landed on his shoulder. He gave me an indignant, holier-than-thou look as he retreated upstairs.

*****

Zero didn’t come home until dinnertime anyway, and he went straight upstairs. I was tired of waiting so I banged an empty pot with a wooden spoon and shouted for everyone. Athelas was in my line of sight. He winced visibly but brought his china cup to the counter and sat down at the kitchen table. The mince pies I’d put on the larger china plate were untouched but I pretended not to see.

Jin Yeong sauntered into the room in a haze of scent and Athelas was standing in front of the fan with his eyes closed when Zero came downstairs pulling a shirt over his head. I caught a glimpse of his abs and felt a sudden resentment about having to train so hard. My stomach would never look like that and it was cosmically unfair because I was still aching from yesterday’s session. At least Between was becoming easier to grab stuff out of at a moment’s notice.

It was simple, as Christmas dinners go; we had cold meats and a cheese plate (I had an extra one in the icebox in case Jin Yeong was a pig about it) and crackers. I even found some prawn salad at the grocery store. One day I would learn how to properly barbecue something without burning the house down.

When I set everything out I put out a jar of mustard that had been the same kind dad had liked. I don’t know why but it seemed important, somehow. Just… a jar of mustard. Yes, I know I’m slowly going mad. If you ask Jin Yeong he’d tell you I had it coming.

I sort of had to give them a school lecture about how to share a Christmas cracker but I did finally get everybody wearing crowns and reading off stupid jokes. Athelas tried to explain one of them to Jin Yeong but they both got it wrong and it made me laugh so hard Zero glanced up from his plate in alarm.

My blokes were super patient about the whole gift-giving thing. I kind of expected more from Jin Yeong because he had actually been human and like, he should have known what Christmas was. Isn’t that sort of information that gets around to people if they live till they’re past their first century?

“How do you say ‘Merry Christmas’ in Korean?”

“Meri krismas.”

“No, I mean, in Korea.”

“Meri krismas.” He shrugged.

So much for trying to learn from different cultures! Jin Yeong is sometimes just determined to make things difficult.

But that was fine, because when he unwrapped my gift I actually crowed with delight. I had been trying to teach myself to knit, just like I was trying to teach myself Korean—it was hard to stop wanting to learn everything, especially now that we had internet in the house and it was safe for me to go to the library whenever I wanted. I hadn’t gotten very far and the effort had been half-hearted at best, but I did find a half-finished Christmas jumper in a bag with a lot of tangled yarn the Red Cross shop—well, actually, in their dumpster—and I knitted until the yarn ran out. It really was the most hideous thing ever. It rolled up at the bottom edge and the sleeves were much too long. I couldn’t even tell what animals were supposed to be around the top of it.

He put it on over his shirt in one smooth movement, and took his place back on the lounge like he was trying to hide his disappointment. The hem rolled up past his midriff. Athelas’ shoulders were shaking and I’m pretty sure he did a spit take. I have to say that was what made my head swell the most.

Athelas was drinking out of his new china cup—only after going into his secret stash for a bag of those mysterious not-from-the-shop biscuits I couldn’t figure out how to make. I knew they were precious to him and putting them on the plate with a quiet “Merry Christmas, Pet” made my heart all warm and fuzzy on the inside.

Zero stayed kind of aloof in his yellow paper crown, watching the proceedings with a certain amount of concentration. He stared at Jin Yeong’s awful monstrosity of a jumper but not with as much disgust as fascination. Morbid fascination, probably. He was holding a book in an awkward way, like he was using it as a shield? Anyway, it was weird.

There wasn’t really a Christmas tree and I couldn’t afford one of the fancy fake ones, but I did find the old nativity set and put it up on the coffee table. The tiny blue figure of Mary, the reddish-brown one of Joseph, and the empty manger (it was tradition that I kept the baby Jesus figurine in my pocket all Christmas Day and put him there before bedtime). There were sheep and cows and camels and some ambiguous human figures that could have been shepherds or kings.

The circle of figurines sat in the place of honor amongst the teacups and saucers and books, tiny and incomplete. I reached into my pocket just to make sure the little infant figure was there.

On my way back from the kitchen for more tea (and cheese, alright, fine, I like cheese too), I looked back at my little family. Jin Yeong was snoring softly. Athelas had turned his favorite chair towards the fan and was reading. Zero was still balancing on the balls of his feet, staring at the coffee table. I think it startled him when I elbowed him in the ribs and handed him another cup.

“Yes. Tea. Thank you, Pet.”

For a split second he looked like a kid who got lost and couldn’t work up the nerve to ask for help. It was weird to see him like that, all abs and leather jacket and knives and stuff. I opened my hand and gave him the tiny figure of the infant.

“This is the last and… most important bit of Christmas.” I don’t know why I started crying. I know it was my first Christmas in a long time but it wasn’t like I hadn’t lived through all those other, empty years.

He took it out of my hand and placed it in the manger, then came back to stand next to me. He gave a deep sigh that I couldn’t share. I sort of felt like I would burst. Everything hurt. I put my hands in my pockets but he tugged the arm out nearest him and clasped my hand. I don’t know how long we stood there.

“I’m not emotionally constipated.”

“Nope.”