David sits on a tree root and looks up at the house they're staying in.
It's not like any other house he's ever lived in. There are no planks, no floorboards, no rebar or concrete. Instead, the roots and branches of the surrounding forest have grown together to weave four wooden walls. In a concession to civilization, a big slab of rock serves as a floor, and a few glass windows peek out of the intertwined branches.
It's not a big house, but it's his , in a way none of the houses or apartments or hospitals he's lived in before ever were. He made it, reaching his powers into the veins and leaves of the trees to shape them to his will.
It feels . . . right.
Something falls out of the sky and brushes past David's cheek to land on his shirt. He looks down in surprise, and sees a snowflake.
More snowflakes start to come down, and now they're swirling around his feet, and it's snowing properly. David realizes how cold it is, and that he's dressed in nothing but a t-shirt and jeans. He only has a few sets of clothes here - he left his old clothes behind at Division Three, and he has no desire to go back to the commune for his guru outfit.
When did it become winter?
He climbs up the dirt-and-stone stairs to the doorway of their little house and brushes past the worn quilt that serves as their door.
The inside is bright and warm. David could've lit it with his powers - he's done it before - but Syd insisted on a generator. She's still afraid, he thinks, that he and Farouk are going to vanish one day, and she's going to have to fend for herself. She let him build the house, but she doesn't want to need his help to live in it.
Right now, she's sitting on the couch - Farouk procured that, he didn't ask how - and sketching. David glances at her drawing pad; it shows a half-finished sketch of the house from the outside.
"It's snowing," he says. "Is it winter? When did it start being winter?"
They've been living here, cut off from the outside world, leaving only occasionally in their attempts to be better people. It's going well, David thinks. But then again, these days he's not sure he's qualified to tell good from bad. But they've all lost track of time.
Syd looks up, blinking. "Hasn't it been winter for awhile now? What day is it?"
"December 17th, the 26th of Azar, the 24th of Kislev," says Farouk's voice, and they look up to see him exiting his room and shrugging on a long black winter coat. "I can't say I enjoy the climate here."
David blinks. "24th of Kislev? Wow, it's - almost Hanukkah," he says. He thinks back to winters with his family, back when he was a kid, before everything went wrong. Playing dreidel with Amy, eating chocolate coins, lighting the candles . . .
"It's almost Christmas, too," Syd says, thoughtfully.
"We should do something,” David says, impulsively. “For the holidays. I can - I can teleport us into town and I can buy a menorah and you can buy a tree.”
“The 21st is Shab-e Yalda,” Farouk says. “The darkest night of the year, when the powers of darkness are afoot . . .” He smiles, slightly. “A good night for me, I suppose.”
“Let’s go, all of us,” David says. “We’ve - all of us have been so busy, trying to - ” He swallows. “To make up for everything. We’ve got to have something to celebrate. Don’t we?”
“It could be good for us,” Syd says, slowly. “I haven’t celebrated Christmas in a long time. Not since Clockworks.”
“What is the point of striving for redemption if we have nothing to look forward to at the end?” Farouk says.
“Then it’s settled,” David says, nodding. “This December is gonna be for us.”
They teleport behind a dumpster, in an alley next to the big department store in town, and David leads the way out into the snowy parking lot. He blinks, looking around at the cars, the stores, the people laughing and arguing and getting in and out of their cars. It feels so strange to be standing here, in a regular street on a regular day among regular people. Like the three of them are just - people, not monsters.
He hesitates, takes a step back. Maybe they don’t belong here.
Syd steps past him, looking up into the night sky, with the snow swirling down, and then across the parking lot to where the Christmas trees stand. Her eyes go distant. She leads the way across the parking lot, with Farouk following her. David hesitates, and then he follows too, a few feet behind the two of them.
They file into the lot. The attendant gives them a curious look. Farouk is clad in an elegant, double-breasted black wool coat that goes down to his mid-calf over slacks, with a silk cravat and dark brown leather driving gloves. Syd is wearing a short orange coat over black leggings and black suede boots, with long, buckled black gloves, a dark grey scarf wrapped around her neck, and a black beanie covering her hair. And David, next to them, is in a worn-out Pink Floyd t-shirt and jeans with holes in the knees. He wonders what the three of them must look like, together.
“So, uh, how do we choose?” David asks. “I can always . . . you know, make the roof taller or . . . smaller or . . .”
“No brown branches. No . . . falling over and losing all its needles. No bulges in weird places,” Syd says. That distant look came into her eyes again. “My mom would always go through, look at all of the trees. One by one. Take off the netting, see how they shook out . . . if the branches were symmetrical, if the trunk was straight. It had to be small enough to fit into our apartment, but not too small . . . Have to impress the guests. She could be at it for hours. It used to drive her men, whichever one she had this year, it used to drive them crazy that she couldn’t make a decision. I used to just sit in the corner until she was done . . .”
“So . . . do you want to . . . do that?” David says, very uncertainly.
“No,” Syd says, slowly, and then again, “No. No, let’s . . .” She turned away from the trees and faced David. “Shut your eyes.”
“What?” David says, nervously.
“Shut your eyes,” she orders.
David blinks, and then does as he’s told. He holds very still as he feels Syd’s gloved hands on his bare, chilled arm, pulling it up, guiding his fingers to point off into the distance.
“Now spin,” Syd’s voice says.
“Spin?” David asks. He hears Farouk chuckle.
“Spin around in a circle. Go.” Syd pushes him slightly.
David spins around, and around, and around again, until his head is spinning and Farouk and Syd are laughing, and Syd’s hands stop him. “There.”
David opens his eyes. His hand is pointing at a mid-sized white fir, just to the left of the lot entrance.
Farouk reaches out and brushes his finger over the needles of the tree, and plucks one in two fingers. “More than a few brown needles,” he observes.
“I don’t care,” Syd says. “That’s our tree.”
“As you say,” Farouk says, with a mock bow.
David lugs the tree back to the attendant, who wraps it up and equips it with a stand. “We’ll pick it up later,” Syd says, authoritatively. “We have some more shopping to do.”
Farouk leads the way into the store. David looks around him again, at the chintzy decorations, at the busy shoppers. He always liked Christmas, as a child. His family never celebrated, of course, but in a way, that made it better - he’d only ever seen the holiday through the lens of idyllic movie marathons on TV, unmarred by the actual experiences of mothers debating over trees and family members clashing over dinner. But right now, it all feels - alien. Like the whole business of holidays - Jewish or Christian or Persian - belongs to another world from his, now.
Farouk ignores the “Holiday” section prominently displayed at the front of the store - and, David can’t help but notice, decorated in suspiciously sectarian colors - and leads them to the produce section. David watches the Shadow King pick up a watermelon in his hands and weigh it, and then knock on the rind and listen intently to the sound.
“I kind of figured you had cooks to do all of that for you,” David says.
“Mmm . . . if I wanted to do that, I could simply materialize the fruit, I suppose,” Farouk says. “But what would be the point in that?” He picks up another watermelon, checks it, and shakes his head despairingly. “These are terrible. Not worth the effort.”
“It’s December,” Syd points out.
Farouk shakes his head, as if to say that the inexorable march of the seasons is no excuse for mildly inconveniencing the King of Shadows. He takes the watermelon, and goes to investigate a pile of pomegranates.
“Why pomegranates?” David asks.
“It’s traditional,” Farouk explains, examining a pomegranate. “They say the color of the fruit is like the color of the sky at dawn. Red is the color of Yalda.” His lips curl in an ironic smirk. “Dawn is supposed to symbolize the triumph of light over darkness, truth over lies, good over evil.”
David and Syd look at each other. “Doesn’t sound like your kind of holiday,” David points out.
Farouk laughs. “Perhaps. But I like pomegranates. And wine - yes, there should be wine.”
He selects a few more fruits and other snacks. David grabs potatoes and onions - he’s not sure exactly how he plans to convert them to latkes, given that he’s not much of a cook, but he’s sure they’ll find a way. They move on, deeper into the store, and he finds an aisle with some Hanukkah candles and assorted other festive stuff, and stops there. He grabs some candles - more than necessary, just in case - and, on a whim, a few bags of chocolate coins and a dreidel. None of them are children - but it’s what he remembers. There are a few menorahs on sale, more than he expected, and he pauses to consider.
There’s an LED one, but that seems wrong to him. He wants to see the candle flames dance. He moves on to a chintzy silver-colored menorah with a hexagonal base, and picks it up to examine the engravings on it. His parents had had an old one, worn brass, with vines engraved on each branch. He can still remember the weight of it, the smell of metal on his hands. This one isn’t right. He sets it down and picks up another one. This one is simpler, shiny brass branches curving up from a Star of David at the base. He shakes his head. The metal is too shiny, too new. There’s no wax on the branches or dripping down onto the base. He remembers the way the colors mixed on his parents’, years of wax melting together to make strange patterns.
Amy probably had that menorah, when she died. Where is it now? he wonders. He supposes he should have inherited Amy’s belongings. There was never any time for that, for a funeral or inheritance or real mourning. He had been too busy looking for revenge, and where had that got him?
He looks up, his eyes finding Syd. Their gazes meet, and just that is a little bit of comfort. He hasn’t ruined everything yet. He’s not alone.
“We can go somewhere else, if they don’t have what you want,” Syd says.
“Yeah,” David says, without conviction. The selection here isn’t great, but he’s not sure another store would be any different. He wants - something else. Something of his own. “Let’s go,” he says, putting the gelt and candles into their basket. “It’s getting late.”
It’s December 18th, and the three of them are eating latkes.
Admittedly, they’re a little crispier than they ought to be. About half of them have burned bits, and more than a few are so charcoalized that not even David is willing to eat them. He expected a snide comment from at least one of them, but so far, their mouths have been too full to make any sort of comments. It’s been awhile since any of them had hot, home-cooked food.
“It’s getting kind of late,” Syd says, swallowing a mouthful of potato. “Hanukkah starts in the evening, right? Didn’t you say you were going to get a menorah?”
David looks up at her and grins. “Yeah,” he says. “I’ve got a plan for that. I’m gonna be ready. Are you going to eat that?” He points at the last potato pancake on her plate.
“Not sure I have the space,” Syd says, wiping her mouth fastidiously with a blue and white patterned napkin David bought at the store.
David snags it with greasy fingers and moves it to his plate, digging in with an eagerness that belies the dozen or so latkes he’s already eaten.
“They taste different,” Farouk says, thoughtfully, inspecting his last latke, “Than they did when I was you. Is it your cooking, I wonder, or my tongue?” He picks the pancake up on his fork, investigating it. “Same recipe, I think.” He shrugs, and eats it.
Together they gather up the dishes and clear the table. David grins to himself. “Come on,” he says. “I’m gonna show you.”
Syd and Farouk exchange a curious glance, and follow him out into the snowy forest, shrugging on winter coats. David lets his excitement warm the air around him instead. He’s more comfortable with his powers now than ever before, and it’s a relief, in a way, feeling like he’s in control of himself and his powers for the first time.
“So what is this that you have to show us?” Farouk asks, lifting his eyebrows.
“This,” David says, and lifts his hands into the air, palms up. He feels the power spread out of him, reaching through the earth into the roots, up through the veins of the trees into their branches and leaves, taking control. The branches reach out for each other, closing the small distance between one another, and grow together, each twig twining around another. They shape themselves into a base and nine branches, slowly taking on the shape of a menorah. David grins, his eyes glowing with power, and the tips of the menorah begin to glow too. With a shake of his head, the glow vanishes, and where it had been, the wooden branches become metal. He lifts his hands like an orchestra conductor, and then lets them fall, and the menorah separates itself from the trees and falls to the ground at David’s feet.
David turns around, grinning proudly, and looks back at Syd and Farouk for approval.
“Not bad,” Syd says, raising an eyebrow, and David knows she’s impressed but too proud to say it.
Farouk smiles at him. “Beautiful,” he says.
David smiles back at the two of them, for a moment lost in the experience of not being alone.
Farouk walks past him to the menorah, and bends down to pick it up. He holds it up to the light, admiring the craftsmanship. “Impressive,” he says. “And fitting, in a way, for the house it will be in.”
“It’s mine,” David says, firmly, although he doesn’t move to take it from Farouk. “That’s what we need. The ones at the store weren’t right.”
He leads the way back inside, and Farouk settles the menorah on the kitchen counter. David fishes in the drawers - which are somewhat irregularly shaped because, like the rest of the house, he grew them himself - and pulls out the pack of cheap blue and white candles from the store, along with a lighter. He inserts the candles into the branches of the menorah, and sets it back down, pleased with how they fit.
He looks around at Syd and Farouk, and then shuts his eyes, reaching back in memory to his last Hanukkah with his family, with Amy, with his father. He clears his throat, and starts reciting the prayer: “Baruch Atah Adonai Elohenu Melech ha'olam asher . . . kideshanu - ” His voice stumbles over the words, it’s been so long, he’s forgotten (just like he forgets everything, sick, he’s sick ) -
And then Farouk’s voice picks up the words from him, barely missing a beat. “Bemitzvotav vetzivanu lehadlik ner Chanukah.”
David looks over at him, startled, and Farouk smiles. “I was there too,” he says, quietly.
David swallows, feeling warm inside, and he finds the words for the second prayer. “Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech Haolam sheasa - ” And he hesitates again, but this time he finds the words - “Nissim laavotenu bayamim hahem bizman hazeh.”
Farouk takes over for the last prayer, and David speaks along with him, reciting the Hebrew words together. “Baruch Atah Adonai Elohenu Melech Haolam shehecheyanu vekiyimanu vehigianu lizman hazeh.”
His hand shaking with emotion, David reaches out and lights the shamash, the candle on the tallest center branch. Then he takes the lit candle in his hand, and uses it to light the first candle, before setting it back on its branch.
His hand drops to the counter beside the menorah, and Syd’s gloved hand comes to rest next to it, a few scant inches away. Farouk reaches out to put a hand on David’s shoulder, and they watch the candles burn together.
The fifth day of Hanukkah is the winter solstice - the night of Yalda, according to Farouk. David watches the sun set outside their woodland home, and it’s . . . peaceful. It’s been a long time since anything was peaceful.
He turns around as Syd and Amahl walk into the kitchen with him. “Time for the candles?” he asks them.
“Oui,” Farouk says. David reaches for the lighter, and Farouk stops him. “Come with me,” the older man says. “Bring the menorah and the candles.”
David blinks, but he picks up the menorah and pockets the box of candles. He and Syd follow Farouk into his bedroom.
David hasn’t spent a lot of time in Farouk’s room, but he knows it doesn’t usually look like this. The bed has vanished, replaced by a low, round table covered with a red and gold blanket. The table is filled with little dishes, nuts, candy, fruit, with an empty brass tray sitting in the very center, and there’s a book with Arabic characters on the cover sitting on the edge of the table. The whole tableau is surrounded by soft velvet cushions, piled up around the edges to create a sort of nest. David blinks at it. “When did all this get here?” he asks.
“When I willed it,” Farouk says, as if that should be answer enough. “Put the menorah on the korsi, the table. I left space.” He indicates the brass tray, and David sets it down.
“Is this all traditional?” Syd asks. “For Yalda?”
“More or less,” Farouk says. “Not the menorah so much.” He sat down amid the cushions, leaning against the wall with his legs under the table. “Sit with me, my friends.”
Syd slips under the table, pulling the blanket up over herself, and David follows suit, making sure to leave enough space on either side that he’s not at risk of accidentally touching Syd - or Farouk, for that matter. He’s surprised to find it warmer under the table than outside; there’s a heater concealed under the blankets. He can’t help but smile; the total effect is very cozy. Even Farouk looks relaxed, his sunglasses gone, enjoying the warmth without - as far as David can tell - any edge of supercilious smugness.
“So,” Syd says. “What do we do for this holiday?”
“Candles first, I think,” Farouk says, nodding to David.
David closes his eyes, soaking in the warmth and their company, and recites the prayer - from memory this time, without needing help. He settles the candles in place and carefully lights the shamash, and then five of the other candles. The light from the candles casts the room into soft golden shadows.
Farouk takes a handful of nuts from one of the dishes, which David takes as his cue to dive in. He’s a little suspicious of some of the pastries - they look good, but on the other hand, they did come from Farouk, which makes them inherently suspect. But he recognizes the fruits and nuts, and helps himself to some pomegranate seeds to munch on. He’s always liked pomegranates, but he never has the energy to cut open the fruit and pick the seeds out, one by one, laboriously, so he rarely has them. But these ones are conveniently pre-plucked, and delicious.
Syd is munching on a baklava, and David eyes it hungrily. Farouk looks at him and smiles. He reaches out to take one, and takes a bite of it himself. “Don’t worry, joonam. No poison.”
David gives in. Syd’s eating it, and Farouk is too, so it must be fine. He snags a baklava and bites in with a sigh of satisfaction. Honey and nuts and pastry. Can’t go wrong with that.
Farouk swallows his baklava, and says, “Yalda Night is a time for food and warmth and, most importantly, poetry.” He wipes the honey off his fingers, fastidiously, and picks up the book. “This is Hafez. Do you know him?”
David shakes his head, but Syd shrugs. “I know of him,” she says. “My mom was really into Goethe . . . and Goethe was really into Hafez.”
“They say he is the greatest Persian poet,” Farouk says, neutrally. “I prefer Khayyam, myself . . . but it is traditional, on this night.” He pages through the book, and his eyes go distant and soft. David watches his face intently. It’s strange to see Farouk lost in thought, not looking back at him, unaware of his gaze.
“I celebrated this holiday, from time to time, with my followers, my thralls, my latest - what’s the word? - fling,” Farouk says. “It was a divertissement, a distraction, a game.” He pages through the book, idly. “This is not like that.”
“How do we know?” Syd says, before David can say anything. “How do we know you’re not just playing us, too?”
It’s something David’s been wondering, this entire time. This truce they’ve got - is it really peace? Or just another one of Farouk’s tricks, like the false Clockworks?
Farouk studies first Syd’s face, and then David’s. “You don’t,” he admits. “That is the difficulty with such power, is it not? We - ” And here he nods to David - “Know the strength of illusions. I used to wonder if it all was an illusion, a dream of my own. Nothing seemed real.” He looks at David, his eyes sharp, and David shivers under the intensity of the gaze. “And then you happened.” Farouk looks away, into the flickering flames of the menorah. “I want this to be real. I want to believe I am in earnest. Is that enough?”
“I don’t need words,” Syd says. “I need action.”
“Then this is my action,” Farouk says. “Let me prove, by inaction, that I will not harm you. Either of you. Let me be here as I have been, day after day, with the two of you.”
“Is that enough?” Syd asks, holding his gaze.
Farouk meets her gaze. “I have to hope that it will be.”
The room is silent for a few moments, and David can feel the tension buzzing in the air. He waits a moment to see if it dissipates on its own, and when it doesn’t, he leans across the table to grab three baklava and shoves two in his mouth at once. He might as well make the most of the food if they’re gonna be fighting anyway.
Syd’s eyes stray to him, and then she starts laughing. “You look like a chipmunk,” she says.
David starts to laugh too, and then almost chokes on baklava, and has to force it down his throat before he can laugh, and by that time, Farouk is laughing too.
“You and your sweet tooth,” Farouk says at last, shaking his head. He picks up a baklava and lifts it in David’s direction, as if in a toast. “To your health!”
Syd grabs a baklava and nudges it against Farouk’s, like they’re clinking wine glasses. “To David’s health,” she says, her lips curling in a little, suppressed smile. She takes a bite, swallows, and then says, “So. About that poetry . . .”
“Yes, of course,” Farouk says. He picks up the book again, and pages through it. “Khosha Shiraz-o vaz-e bi mesalash,” he reads out, “Khodavanda negah dar az zəvaləsh / Ze Rokn Abad-e ma sad lohash allah / Ke Omr-e Khezr mibakhshad zolaləsh.”
David listens to the poetry. He doesn’t understand the words, but the rhythm shows through the language barrier, and Farouk’s voice is both powerful and soothing. Hypnotic, Oliver said. David’s eyes slip shut, and for a moment, he sees a city of low buildings and pine trees, and through it, a river that runs sometimes dry and sometimes full and shining -
“What does that mean?” Syd asks, and David opens his eyes.
“How beautiful is Shiraz's unparalleled state / God save it from harm and the hands of fate / May God keep its flowing Roknabad river / Its waters with freshness, always equate,” Farouk says, softly.
“That’s the city,” David says, surprised. “And the river . . . are those your memories?”
Farouk quirks his eyebrows at him. “Reading my mind, my dear?” He doesn’t seem offended. “Yes. I travelled there once, just before the war with Russia. I was a young man, then . . . twenty-five, and ready to see the world. It’s a glorious city; even a heretic like myself was impressed with the beauty of the Nasir al-Mulk Mosque.”
“Mosque?” Syd says, frowning. “You told me you were two thousand years old. Over two thousand years old. What mosques were around when you were twenty-five?”
David’s eyebrows went up. “Two thousand years?” He tried to make the number fit in his head. He found he could make it fit with the shapeless monster who had tormented him his whole life, or with the philosophical, regretful man who sat across the table from him - but not both.
“Did I say that?” Farouk says, vaguely. He takes a handful of almonds and pops one into his mouth. “Ahh, we all have our stories we tell about ourselves, don’t we?”
Syd reaches out, snags the container of almonds, and slides it over to her side of the table, out of Farouk’s reach. “You’re supposed to be working on being a better person. Just like us. That means you owe us honesty.”
“Do I?” Farouk asks, but Syd holds his gaze.
“How are we supposed to trust you, if you know everything about us and we don’t know anything about you?” she asks.
Farouk studies Syd’s eyes, and for a moment, David holds his breath, not sure what he’s afraid is going to happen. And then Farouk blinks.
“I was born some time in 1803 . . . or perhaps it was 1804,” he says. “A long time ago, now . . . My father went to war when I was young, like the fool he was, and our fortunes took a turn for the worse. I survived.” He shuts his eyes. “This poem, about Shiraz, I remember my mother read it to me the year after the war, that Yalda Night. I imagined what Shiraz must be like, such a distant city, to the far south . . . it was just us, then. My father was gone, and I was their only child. An accident of fate.”
David tries to imagine that, tries to imagine Farouk as a kid. It’s hard to imagine him any other way than how he is, somehow. As if he’s some immutable fact of reality. “What were you like, as a kid?” David asks.
Farouk tilts his head, and considers it. “I was not yet myself,” he says, eventually. “I was khashmgin , filled with anger . . . I was powerless, the world beyond my control, and I hated it for that.” He opens his eyes, his eyes thoughtful. “And, perhaps, I was afraid of it. I was a helpless child in a world torn apart by forces beyond my control.”
Syd snorts. “And you couldn’t stand that, could you. Not being in control.”
“No,” Farouk agrees, quietly, “I couldn’t. I was weak.”
David looks up at Farouk. He sees the way the candlelight is reflected in Farouk’s eyes, turning them a warm, pale brown that’s somehow familiar, even though he never saw Farouk’s face before Division Three. “What happened to ‘nothing matters but power’?” he asks, cocking his head in a challenge.
“You happened,” Farouk says, softly. He reaches out, and touches the base of the menorah. “I lived your life, and it changed me. And now . . . I don’t wish to go back to my old life. Who did I have there? No one who was not disposable, was not fungible. You fear I am lying to you . . . I’ve given you reason, but the truth is that I would not dare. I have too much to lose now.”
Despite himself, David finds he believes Farouk. He shuts his eyes, and reaches out to brush Farouk’s mind with his own. For a moment, the three of them rest together, watching the candles flicker and enjoying the silence.
“Read another,” David says, and Farouk obeys.
Christmas morning dawns, bright and early, and finds David in his bedroom, putting the finishing touches on his Christmas presents. Farouk’s is a bit of an odd shape, the present slightly deforming the cardboard box it’s in, but David shrugs and just tapes a bow on the top. He picks up Syd’s present, and levitates Farouk’s along behind him as he walks out into the common area.
The Christmas tree is in the center of the room, lit up with lights and decorations. (“Are you sure the lights are supposed to be orange?” David had asked, and Syd had folded her arms and said, “I like orange,” and that had been that.) There are four presents already under the tree, two of them addressed to David, and he adds his two to the pile.
Syd is perched on the couch - an old striped thing that David found on a street corner somewhere - and drawing. David peers over her shoulder, and sees she’s sketching the Christmas tree, idly.
“Morning,” he says to her, grinning. “Where’s Farouk?”
“In the kitchen,” Syd answers, just as Farouk emerges, a mug in hand. It’s an old thrifted mug with the words I’m gonna need more coffee emblazoned on it, along with a picture of a sleepy cat. David bought it himself, but the image of Farouk, clad in his expensive shirtsleeves and slacks, holding the mug makes him grin to himself.
“Bonjour, mes amis,” Farouk says, smiling. He raises his cup in a mock toast to the two of them. “ Oh, and Eid Milad majid.” Merry Christmas, David hears, his mind automatically translating the Arabic through his telepathy.
“Merry Christmas to you too,” Syd says. She sets her drawing pad down, and crosses her arms. “Are we gonna do this? I got you two something.”
Farouk lifts his mug again. “Let us begin.”
David slides down to sit on the floor next to the tree, cross-legged. Syd joins him on the opposite side, and Farouk sits between them.
“Open mine first,” David says to Farouk, his lips quivering with suppressed mirth.
Farouk takes the box, raising an eyebrow at David’s expression, and unwraps it carefully, sliding a fingernail under the tape to pull it off without damaging the paper. Inside is a plain cardboard box, slightly domed in the center as if stretched by something inside. Farouk pulls open the top to reveal -
David snickers. “Since you were whining about the watermelons at the store, I thought I’d get you one.” He grins. “I teleported all the way to Australia to get a ripe one.”
Farouk blinks and raises an eyebrow at him, slowly. Syd snickers at his expression, and then starts laughing outright, leaning back against the wall to laugh helplessly. At first Farouk looks offended, but then his lips twist, unwillingly, with mirth, and then he’s laughing too.
“You better not have gotten me a watermelon,” Syd says.
“Watermelons for everyone,” David says, grinning.
Farouk reaches for the second present with his name on it, from Syd, and pulls off the wrapping to reveal a framed portrait. Farouk holds it up to the light, and David sees Farouk’s likeness, outlined in delicate pencil strokes.
Farouk studies it. “Your own work?” he says, softly.
“Yeah,” Syd says, her eyes hard, practically daring him to criticize it, to say it’s not good enough.
“Thank you,” Farouk says, and, for once, there’s no snide irony in his voice. “It’s a good likeness.” And he smiles. “And handsome, as well.”
Syd rolls her eyes at him. “David, open yours.”
David grabs a gift at random, and sees that it’s from Farouk. While Syd and David both chose neutral, non-specific wrapping paper, Farouk has apparently chosen the most garish Christmas wrapping paper he could find. It consists of dancing Santas, trees, and presents, all on a bright green background. David doesn’t know where he got it and he isn’t going to ask.
He rips the paper off, with a certain amount of satisfaction, and opens the box inside. His eyes widen slightly.
Inside the box is a tape emblazoned with the Pink Floyd logo, and an old, scratched-up Walkman, still plugged into a pair of headphones.
David pulls the Walkman out slowly, and turns it over. There is the place where he got red paint on it during a 4th grade art project, there is the crack where he dropped it down the stairs when he was 13, there’s the scratch from when he tripped over Amy’s bike when he was 17. This is his. He left it at his parent’s house, all those years ago when he left for Clockworks, and he never thought he’d see it again.
His eyes fill with tears.
“Thanks,” he says, his voice rough, and pockets the Walkman. He averts his eyes from Farouk, and gestures to Syd. “Open - open mine next.”
Syd glances between the two of them, and picks up David’s present to her, identifiable by the loud plaid wrapping. She unwraps it slowly and carefully, and pulls out a pair of gloves. She raises an eyebrow. “Thanks. You know I get like ten of these every Christmas, right?”
“I know, I know,” David says, quickly. “But I thought you’d - you want to know that - that you don’t have to . . . to touch anyone. That you can, that your gloves are fine. That you’re - fine.”
Syd looks first the gloves, and then David himself up and down with a raised eyebrow, and then gives a little nod, as if to say they’ve passed muster. She reaches out and grabs a rectangular present in blue wrapping paper, tossing it to David. “Here. Open this.”
David catches it, and pulls away the plain wrapping to reveal a book. He blinks at the cover. The Ring of Brightest Angels Around Heaven: A Novella and Stories.
“This is . . .” he says.
“Yes,” Syd says.
He opens the book, and pages through to the end. “‘None of us seemed to know the nature of the coincidences that bound us together, as I know now,’” he read out loud, “‘or that junkies and masochists and hookers and those who have squandered everything are the ring of brightest angels around heaven.’” He looks up at her, his eyes bright with tears. He remembers the words, all of the stories in the book, that he read over and over when he was in her mind. “Thank - thank you,” he says.
Syd looks away and crosses her arms. “Don’t read too much into it. I thought - I thought you’d like it.”
“I do,” David says. He wraps his arms around the book, and holds it close, as if it were her he was hugging. Farouk puts a hand on his shoulder, steadying him.
Syd reaches out and grabs Farouk’s present. It’s a small cube-shaped box, slightly too big to fit comfortably in one hand. Under the wrapping is a small note, written in elegant cursive and signed in Arabic letters. It reads, To Sydney, in the hope that you will never have cause to use it. Syd frowns.
“David was kind enough to help me make it,” Farouk says. “Handmade, of course.”
Syd opens the box and pulls out a small metal object that looks like a tuning fork, with a little loop on the base like a pendant. She frowns. “What is it?”
“The Choke,” Farouk says, softly. “In a version convenient to carry around.”
Syd turns it over in her hands, running her thumb over the polished metal. “Does it work?” she says, flatly.
“Yes,” Farouk says.
“You’re sure?” she asks.
“Yes,” Farouk says, with that implacable certainty he brings to everything.
“You can test it out, if you want,” David says, meeting her eyes.
Syd reaches under the collar of her shirt, and pulls out the chain from which the compass hangs. Wordlessly, she clips the Choke onto the chain, next to the compass. She looks down at herself, the chain concealed under her shirt, and nods in satisfaction.
“Good?” David asks, hesitantly.
“Good,” Syd says, flatly.
“Merry Christmas, Syd,” he says.
“Merry Christmas, David,” Syd says, quietly, and her lips curve into a tiny smile.