~A Purity Short~
.:December 24, 2074:.
Sebastian Zelig strode into the living room with the small red toolbox—Sydnie's toolbox, actually—in hand, only to stop short when his golden gaze lit on his brother. Sure, he was used to Evan Zelig's penchant for wearing the weirdest clothes at the most inopportune times. That didn't mean that Bas wasn't caught off guard by the little miscreant every so often, just the same . . . "What the hell are you wearing?" he asked in what could only be described as a bald tone of voice.
Evan blinked and glanced down for a moment, as though he couldn't rightfully ascertain exactly what Bas was referring to. With a wide, rather stupid grin, he lifted his gaze to meet Bas' once more and shrugged. "Oh, this?" he asked, shifting his eyes downward once more before laughing outright at the raised eyebrow-ed look he was garnering from his sibling. "Awesome, right?"
Bas snorted without changing his expression. "If you say so, you twisted little monkey," he replied without changing expression.
"Yeah, but did you see V's shirt?" Evan pressed, slipping an arm around Valerie's shoulders and tugging her coat open with his free hand.
Bas snapped his mouth closed and slowly shook his head, figuring that there really just wasn't much he could say about that, all things considered.
Beside him, Evan's ever-embattled wife heaved a sigh and slowly shook her head. "He whined until I agreed to wear it," she stated in an almost apologetic kind of way as she gestured at the bright pink shirt that said, "One in the Oven," along with an arrow that pointed down where her baby belly was just slightly showing.
But it wasn't Valerie's shirt that made Bas question his younger brother's sanity, no. It was Evan's that proudly proclaimed, "I Put It In There," along with an arrow that pointed at Valerie that did . . .
Evan's already wide grin widened even more. "I know, right?" Suddenly, he snapped his fingers, eyes flaring as he waved a hand at his brother. "Totally cool, eh?" he exclaimed.
"That's just proof that there's something wrong with you," Bas muttered. "I thought she was better at curbing your astounding lack of impulse control."
Evan laughed gleefully while Valerie snorted and wrinkled her nose. "I did mention that he was whining, right? Do you have any idea how annoying it is when he starts whining?" She seemed to consider what she'd just said and held up a hand to stop Bas before he could answer. "Well, that was a dumb question. You've been his brother a hell of a lot longer than I've been his wife, so of course you do."
"Yeah, but you love me," Evan countered, looking more and more like a completely besotted monkey by the second.
"Do I?" she countered dryly, arching an eyebrow as she gave one token shrug in a pathetic attempt to shake Evan's arm off her shoulders.
Somehow, it just didn't surprise Bas at all when Evan whipped out his cell phone and hit a button that started a looped recording of Valerie. "I love you, Evan . . . I love you, Evan . . . I love you, Evan . . ."
"Give me that," she grumbled, making a mad swipe in a vain effort to get the device out of Evan's hands.
He cackled and held it up out of her reach. "Forget it, woman! It's mine!"
She sighed and shot Bas a very droll look.
"We tried to warn you, Valerie," he muttered with a shake of his head.
Evan laughed outright as he leaned in to smack a loud, obnoxious kiss on Valerie's cheek while she planted one palm in the middle of his face to shove him away while trying to grab the phone out of his hand at the same time. "I swear to God, Roka, I'm going to erase that—and I'm never saying it again," she warned.
"You don't have to, baby. I know you love me," he replied in a magnanimous tone of voice. "Besides, I have the soundbite saved on hard disc, too."
For a moment, she looked a bit exasperated. Then she smiled and leaned over to kiss Evan on the cheek. "You're such a weird-o; did you know?"
"I know," Evan quipped, returning the favor, only much louder and much more obnoxiously. "I can't help it. I just like for everyone to know that I get to fu—"
"Finish that and die, Evan," Bas growled, smacking Evan upside the head as he glanced rather pointedly at the two giggling girls peering around the corner of the archway that led into the living room. When Olivia caught her father's glance, she giggled louder and dashed out of view again. Takara— Bas, Evan, and Jillian's two-and-a-half year-old aunt—followed suit, and Bas wasn't entirely surprised to hear a very loud grunt a few minutes later as the children hurled their little bodies onto the nearest target—Takara's father, InuYasha, judging from the sound of it . . .
Evan laughed, but suddenly, he grimaced as he nodded at the small toolbox in Bas' hand. "Some assembly required?" he asked with a slow shake of his head.
Bas chuckled. "Yeah, something like that," he allowed with a good-natured shrug.
Evan didn't look quite as amused. "Yeah, well, don't let Cain anywhere near it," he warned.
Bas snorted but nodded. "I know," he agreed. "Don't worry about it."
"Why not?" Valerie asked innocently.
Both men turned to stare at her for a long moment. She honestly looked like she didn't have a clue, why anyone would say something like that. Still, it was hard to believe that Evan hadn't told her The Story, but if he hadn't . . . well, Bas wasn't about to be the one to do that, either . . .
"Are you tired, baby? You want to lie down for a little while?" Evan asked abruptly, casting his wife a bright smile in the hopes that he could cover up his desire to change the subject.
"I feel fine," she insisted, waving off his concern with a flick of her wrist. "So tell me why you'd say that your brother needs to keep your father away from whatever Bas is going to put together?"
Evan's grin widened as he slipped an arm around Valerie's waist and paused long enough to plant a loud, obnoxious kiss on her cheek. "Because Cain and tools don't get along together very well," he replied simply.
"What? Are you kidding?" Valerie scoffed with a snort. "Your dad's good with his hands—he's a sculptor, for God's sake!"
It was Bas' turn to make a face as he quickly shook his head. "There's a huge difference between using his claws and using a screwdriver," he pointed out mildly. "Anyway, if I don't get moving, I'll be up half the night putting this stuff together, so as much fun as it's been, Evan . . ."
Valerie sighed but let it drop as Evan tugged her off toward the archway that led into the bright and airy living room, and with that, Bas took to the stairs, two at a time, fully prepared to do battle with the small mountain of toys in the guest room where he and Sydnie had been stashing them for weeks.
"Damn, you look good with a baby in your arms, V," Evan mused as he sank down on the sofa beside her. Valerie giggled but didn't take her eyes off the tiny infant.
"She is so sweet," Valerie commented instead with a contented little sigh. "But I can't get over the idea that she doesn't look at all like your mother or your father."
Evan laughed. "That's because Mama got it on with the milkman," he leered as he leaned in to kiss the baby's head.
Valerie rolled her eyes and smacked Evan's shoulder with the back of her hand. "She looks like your grandma, right?"
This time, Evan sighed, his usually ebullient demeanor dimming by degrees as he sat back and pulled Valerie close against his side. "So they say," he remarked with an offhanded shrug. "Grandma . . . She died when Cain was a pup."
Valerie nodded slowly and carefully shifted the infant so that she was between them. "Your dad doesn't remember her, does he?"
"He remembers some stuff," Evan said, scratching his chin almost thoughtfully. Then he shrugged. "He remembers the important shit, anyway."
He glanced around, as though he were afraid of being overheard, before he answered. "Stuff like the way she sounded when she laughed—important, you know?"
Nodding slowly, Valerie smiled. "That's a good memory," she allowed.
Sparing a moment to plant a loud, obnoxious kiss on her cheek, Evan shot her a cheesy grin. "But the milkman thing sounds way better, and Cain ha-a-a-ates it, so double score, if you ask me."
She rolled her eyes, but remained silent. Gin and Cain had both been baffled when this baby was born, complete with fuzzy tufts of reddish-brown hair and vibrant lavender eyes—eyes almost as pale as Jillian's but without the hint of aqua—a cool, crisp, clear winter-ish color that brought to mind the haze of the thinnest layer of ice. They'd discussed naming her Heather, but when Ben Philips, Cain's best friend as well as head general, had seen the girl, he'd fallen strangely silent, and then, to everyone's surprise, he'd cleared his throat gruffly a few times, wiped at his eye in an entirely suspect sort of way, and had quietly said that she was the spitting image of Cain's mother.
Valerie figured that made sense since it had been said that Cain took after his father in looks—as did the twin boys that were born shortly after their sister made her grand entrance into the world. Hayden and Connor were a bit smaller than their sister and had to stay in the hospital for a week after they were born, and Cain had been shocked enough when he was told that she was carrying twins. The boys, they'd known about. The girl had been a complete surprise to everyone.
Anyway, the boys were actually identical twins—identical to Cain, as well, who, she had been told, looked like his father, right down to the bright blue eyes, even if Bas had actually gained more of his grandfather's looks in build and stature.
It somehow seemed poetic, in a way. Gin had sniffled as she stared at her daughter, and then she'd quietly said that the girl's name was Akinako Daniella, named after Cain's mother. Cain had just hugged his wife with one arm while his new daughter held tight to his thumb, as he'd cuddled one of his sons in his free arm while Gin managed to hold the other as well as the newborn girl. Then he'd kissed Gin on the forehead in an infinitely gentle sort of way and smiled.
The triplets were easily the tiniest babies that Valerie had ever seen. At birth, Daniella weight five and a half pounds while the boys were a bit smaller at just over five pounds each. Now, almost a month later, they had each gained at least a pound, but the thing that had surprised Valerie was when Gin had said that, triplets aside, Evan was the smallest of her children at birth. Apparently, he'd weighed a whole six pounds, two ounces at birth, not that anyone would know that by looking at him now. Well over six-and-a-half feet tall with the build to go along with it, it was hard enough to try to imagine him as an infant, let alone as a tiny one, at that.
Gin hurried into the room with a fluffy pink blanket tossed over one arm and one of the boys—Valerie wasn't sure which one—and when she spotted her daughter, her already friendly smile widened. "Oh, she's sleeping! I guess she doesn't need me at the moment, after all," she said in a hushed stage whisper, then she sighed happily. "I love having the whole family here," she remarked idly and to no one in particular, "and next year, there'll be another sweet face, too!"
Evan chuckled and wrapped his arms securely around his mate before landing a very loud, very obnoxious kiss on her cheek. "That's right!" he agreed happily. "Bo Diddley Zelig!"
Valerie rolled her eyes again and reached up to tug on a long lock of Evan's hair. It was currently a lovely shade of bronze—something that she figured he'd done expressly to irritate his father. "You're so much cuter when you don't speak," she informed him dryly.
His answer was a quick squeeze and a nuzzle against her neck. "You gotta admit, it's better than Jimi Hendricks Zelig."
"I'm not naming my child after a dead rock star, Roka, no matter what you or my father might suggest."
"Oh, that reminds me," Gin cut in suddenly as she sank down on the edge of the coffee table in front of them. "You're father . . . He's doing better, right?"
Valerie nodded and ignored Evan's antics in favor of talking to Gin, instead. "He's doing all right since he's been seeing that specialist," she said with a wan smile. "I mean, he's not really getting better, but they have managed to slow down the deterioration of his condition."
Gin's friendly smile dimmed as she bit her lip and slowly shook her head. "I'm so sorry that there isn't more that we can do," she said quietly, very obviously distressed by the fact that the best they had been able to offer was in getting her father in to the highly sought-out Dr. Yatstone.
"You've done more than enough," she insisted, leaning forward to pat Gin's hand gently. "He never would have gotten in to see Dr. Yatstone if you hadn't called him for us."
Gin still didn't look like she was convinced, but she tried to smile, pathetic as the attempt was. "Even so . . ." Trailing off for a moment, she looked like she was considering what she was about to say, but finally, she sighed and shrugged her thin shoulders. "I really wouldn't have been offended if you had chosen to be with them this year," she finally said. "I mean, they're your family, Valerie, and family is important . . ."
Valerie laughed and quickly shook her head. "Oh, no, not this year," she assured Gin. "To tell the truth, Evan and I had thought about driving down to Kentucky, but Mom and Daddy decided that they'd rather go on a little vacation of their own—their first, really . . . Daddy said it was more of a very belated honeymoon, and apparently—his words, not mine—'kids' weren't invited."
Evan chuckled and rolled his eyes at the dryness that had entered Valerie's tone. "And would you want to drag your pups along on a honeymoon?" he drawled, quirking an eyebrow pointedly.
"No, I suppose I wouldn't," she allowed grudgingly.
That seemed to perk Gin right up, though, and her smile reflected her emotions. "Is that right? Oh, where did they go?"
"They're borrowing Evan's beach house," Valerie admitted.
"That sounds so nice! But what about your father? Does he know how to sail?"
"Don't worry, Mama," Evan interrupted. "I hired someone to stay out there on the yacht in case they should need anything at all."
Gin considered that and must have approved because she finally nodded resolutely. "You always think of everything! So thoughtful, just like your father!"
Evan snorted loudly, likely at the comparison and just as likely out of pure habit. "About as alike as daylight and dark," he muttered under his breath.
Gin wrinkled her nose but ignored Evan's assessment as she leaned toward Valerie once more. "What about your brother and sister?" she went on. "Are they staying alone?"
"Well, not exactly," Valerie said. "They went with Mom and Daddy, but they're staying on the main island."
"And having a fantastic time, I'm sure," Evan helpfully added as he scooped his brother out of Gin's arms.
Valerie nodded slowly. "Even if Kaci Lea is spending the whole time in her room, studying."
"Do you really think she's doing that, V?" Evan countered mildly.
Valerie shrugged. "That's what she said, and I wouldn't really put it past her, no . . . That girl takes school even more seriously than I did after I straightened up—and that's saying a lot, if you ask me."
"It's unnatural to take school so seriously. If you do, your brain turns to mush." Evan sat up a little straighter and grinned. "So is that what happened to Bubby?"
"Your brother takes everything seriously," Gin said.
Evan nodded. "Yeah, I know," he told her.
"That reminds me . . . Speaking of Sebastian, Evan, have you seen him lately?"
Evan shifted his eyes away long enough to grin at his mother. "Not since we got here. Said he had some assembly work to do."
A very pronounced snort cut off Gin's response as InuYasha Izayoi stomped into the room and straight past his daughter, stopping only when he'd reached Evan and Valerie—and his apparent target, Daniella. "As long as he don't ask that damned Zelig to help him," he grumbled, the tone of his voice completely at odds with the gentleness with which he took the infant from them and lifted her to his shoulder.
"Now, Papa," Gin said soothingly, "Cain's good at a lot of things. Putting together toys just doesn't seem to be his forte, that's all."
InuYasha snorted again. "That's putting it mildly," he scoffed as he retrieved Hayden and headed out of the living room.
Gin giggled. "Where are you going?" she called after him. "I was going to feed her soon."
"Take it up with the wench," he tossed back without stopping. "Sent me on a baby run . . ."
"Is that where Connor is?" she asked, raising her voice to follow her father.
InuYasha snorted, which, in Valerie's estimation, meant 'yes'. Gin's giggles escalated as she watched her father disappear through the archway with her children in his arms.
Valerie frowned. "That's the second time that someone's alluded to the idea that Cain shouldn't help with putting toys together," she pointed out bluntly. "Why is that?"
Gin blinked and snapped her mouth closed as a tell-tale blush dusted her cheeks. "W-We-e-e-e-ell," she drawled, folding her hands together and slipping them over her knees as she scrunched up her shoulders in a decidedly nervous, almost apologetic kind of way. "We're not really allowed to talk about it."
Valerie's frown deepened into a scowl of concentration. "But that's—"
"Sorry, baby," Evan cut in, sounding anything but contrite. "That's how it is."
"Don't be silly," Valerie scoffed. "Surely you can just tell me the gist of it, can't you?"
"In a word? Nope. According to Cain, it never happened."
Gin tapped her chin thoughtfully. "What is it he calls it again?"
Evan chuckled. "The Un-Christmas, Mama."
"That's right," she said, her eyes widening as she pointed a finger at her son. "The Un-Christmas."
"The Un-Christmas?" Valerie echoed, shaking her head slowly. "What does that mean?"
Final Thought from Valerie:
The Un-Christmas …?
The Christmas That Never Was
"Oh, come on, Roka! You can't say something like that and expect me to drop it, now can you?" Valerie complained as she followed Evan into the kitchen with her arms crossed over her chest and a petulant scowl on her face.
Evan chuckled as he retrieved a bottle of water out of the refrigerator and popped the seal around the plastic cap. "Sorry, V, baby."
She snorted indelicately as her frown deepened, obviously unwilling to let the subject drop. "Can't you at least give me a hint?"
"You can do that sexy little pout all you want, but that doesn't mean I'm going to give in—not this time, anyway," Evan pointed out, leaning back against the pristine marble counter and crossing his ankles casually as he sipped the water and shook his head in a blatantly fake show of feigned remorse.
Valerie snorted in response, but didn't press the issue. "Hmph."
Evan laughed as Gin slipped into the kitchen with a heavy sigh. She smiled at Evan, reaching into the refrigerator and reaching for a bottle of water, only to grimace when Cain's voice called out from somewhere in the living room. "Milk, baby girl—you're still nursing, you know."
Gin made a face and shifted her hand up and over toward the container of the much-hated drink. "That's what I was getting, Zelig-sensei," she called back, bumping the door closed with her hip before retrieving a glass out of the cupboard beside the fridge. "Not a word!" she hissed in a stage whisper at Evan as she poured a full glass, her face registering her disdain for the milk.
Evan raised his eyebrows, protesting his innocence, and set down his water bottle to take the milk carton from Gin instead. "I didn't see a thing," he assured Gin with a wink and a kiss on the cheek before filling another glass for Valerie.
Gin heaved a sigh in protest but quickly drained the glass of milk in a series of large gulps and without coming up for air in the process. "Ugh . . . can't they do something to make this stuff taste better?"
"Why don't you get some chocolate syrup?" Evan suggested as he handed Valerie the glass of milk and slipped the carton back into the refrigerator. "You like chocolate, don't you?"
Gin snorted—a rather uncharacteristic kind of sound from her. "Oh, but chocolate isn't really good for the babies," she pointed out with a longsuffering sigh. "That means no Reese's peanut butter cups, either."
Evan chuckled again since Gin really did look upset at that statement. "It's just for a little while, Mama," he reassured her. "When they're older, I swear I'll buy you all the peanut butter cups you can eat."
That promise seemed to cheer Gin up considerably, and she positively beamed at her youngest son. "You're such a sweet boy!" she gushed, reaching up to pat his cheek lovingly. "You're just the most thoughtful man in the world, like your father!"
"Cain's not that thoughtful," Evan quipped, only half-teasing.
Gin just laughed, as though Evan had just told the best joke, ever. "Of course he is, and you are, too!" she insisted. "Valerie's such a lucky woman!"
"I know," he agreed, probably figuring that it wouldn't do any good to argue with his mother about his father, in any case. He caught Gin's hand and brought her knuckles to his lips. "She really is, isn't she?"
Valerie snorted and rolled her eyes. "You forgot 'modest'," she muttered, her voice muffled by the glass that she still held to her lips.
Gin giggled and crossed the kitchen to refill the dwindling cookies in the tiered server on the counter. "So were you two going to go to bed soon? You must be tired, aren't you, Valerie? It's a long drive up from the city."
"Oh, I'm fine," Valerie insisted with a wave of her hand. She rinsed the glass and stuck it in the dishwasher.
"Are you sure? Your room's all ready," Gin went on, carefully arranging cookies on the shining levels of plates.
"I made sure she took a nap on the drive up," Evan confessed. "Besides, it's Christmas Eve! Who the hell sleeps on Christmas Eve?"
Gin smiled. "Oh, in that case, I guess I should let the two of you get back to your conversation. You looked pretty serious when I came in."
"Eh, it's all right, Mama," Evan assured her with a flick of his wrist. "V was just trying to get me to spill the beans."
Gin blinked and shook her head in confusion. "Spill the beans? What beans?"
Valerie wrinkled her nose. "I was just curious as to why you'd all refer to that year as the Un-Christmas; that's all."
Gin's mouth dropped open for a moment, then she snapped it closed. "O-O-Oh . . ." she breathed, looking decidedly uncomfortable as her gaze shifted from Valerie to Evan and back again. Definitely nervous . . .
"I mean, really, could anything that bad have happened? You're all here, and no one has been permanently scarred or maimed, so is what happened back then really so bad that you can never talk about it, ever again?" Valerie went on, her tone carefully controlled, light.
Evan chuckled while Gin shifted from one foot to the other in a pained effort to keep her expression as blank as she possibly could.
"W-Well," Gin hedged slowly, still shifting her glance from Valerie to Evan in quick succession. "It's not really that anyone was permanently maimed, and . . . and it was an accident, but . . ."
"An accident?" Valerie echoed, unable to hide the heightened glint in her eyes as she took on the expression of a lawyer, getting ready to swoop in for the kill.
Evan slipped an arm around her shoulders. "Easy, Councilor," he crooned, giving her a gentle squeeze. "This isn't a courtroom, remember? Take it easy on my mama."
She snorted and shot him a look that stated plainly that she already knew that, but she did seem to relax just a little, even as she heaved a sigh and settled into the crook of his arm.
"Why does everyone look so serious?"
Valerie blinked and shifted her gaze to the doorway when Sydnie Zelig casually sauntered into the room. Clad in a cute little red velvet Santa dress trimmed in luxurious white fur, she looked every bit the diminutive elf, right down to the plush red cap perched atop her fiery hair. "The Un-Christmas," Valerie said simply in answer to Sydnie's question.
That got the cat-youkai's attention easily enough, and her green eyes sparkled mischievously as she slowly broke into a very feline grin. "The Un-Christmas? Is that right?"
"We weren't really talking about it," Evan supplied helpfully.
"How about some eggnog?" Gin suddenly blurted.
"You know, every time I ask my puppy about it, he gets this little smile on his face and says that he cannot talk about it—that he's been sworn to secrecy," Sydnie went on as though she hadn't heard Evan or Gin at all.
"It's got lots of cream in it, Sydnie—you love that, don't you?" Gin tried again, her pitch escalating into a decidedly nervous twitter.
"Why doesn't it surprise me that Bubby thinks it's funny?" Evan mused to himself.
Sydnie crossed her arms over her chest as she slowly regarded Evan. "So, why don't you tell us, hmm? After all, you've never been big on rules, have you, Evan?"
Valerie bit her lip and tried not to smile at the silky quality that had entered Sydnie's already sing-song voice.
Evan chuckled. "Sorry, pussums, but I can't break the solemn oath of the Zeligs."
"I can add extra cream, Sydnie—you'd like it even more then, right?" Gin chimed in as she yanked open the refrigerator and started rummaging around.
"Your eggnog is always wonderful, Gin, though I wouldn't say no to extra cream," Sydnie stated with a bright smile at her mother-in-law.
Gin giggled and looked decidedly relieved, apparently thinking that the subject was dropped, though Valerie wasn't as sure. After all, Sydnie was nothing if not stubborn, and somehow, Valerie just didn't think that the cat would be satisfied to give up.
"So what is it about that year that no one wants to talk about?" Sydnie went on as Gin hurried to gather the things to make the eggnog.
"Nothing, really," Gin hedged as she made quick work of measuring ingredients for the drink.
"Come to think of it," Sydnie went on, almost more to herself than to anyone in particular, "all the pictures and videos of that year are missing, aren't they?"
"A-Are they?" Gin's conversational tone was definitely wearing thin.
"It's almost like it never happened," Sydnie deduced with a simplistic shrug.
"That's right," Gin murmured, frowning in concentration as she reached for the small bottle of rum extract. "Now, don't worry, Valerie, this is non-alcoholic extract, so you can drink some, too."
"Thank you," Valerie replied with a warm smile. "You know, Sydnie, I never noticed that before, but now that I think about it, you're right. There is a year missing from Evan's scrapbooks and photo albums, too . . ."
"The Un-Christmas," Sydnie stated. "Gin . . ."
"Now, come on, ladies. It's not Mama's fault. Cain's the one who decided that Christmas never happened," Evan pointed out, "and since it never happened, then I guess you'll never get to hear the story."
Valerie frowned thoughtfully, but Sydnie wasn't done arguing. "But we're a part of this family now, too. Do you really want to keep such a secret from your wife—your mate—and me, your wonderful sister-in-law?"
"There isn't really much to tell," Gin hurried on to say, her overly bright smile solidly back in place. "It . . . It's like it just never happened, right?"
Valerie nodded slowly. "But," she began in a cautious tone of voice, "if it never happened, then . . ."
Evan grinned. "That's kind of true," he allowed philosophically. "If it never happened, then there isn't really a story to tell, after all."
Valerie stared at him for a moment then slowly shook her head. "Well, that's not really what I was thinking, no," she replied.
"Oh? Then what were you thinking, V?" he parried.
Valerie smiled sweetly. "I was thinking that you could just tell us a story then, Roka: a story about what could have happened that year—if something had happened, after all."
Gin bit her lip and shook her head. "Oh, I don't think that's a good idea. Cain said—"
"What could have happened if something had happened, after all," Evan repeated, rubbing his chin thoughtfully.
Sydnie's eyes positively sparkled at the idea being presented. "Cain never said you couldn't tell us a story based upon what might have happened—a theoretical story—did he?"
"Well, no," Evan drawled. "Right, Mama?"
"No, he never said anything about telling a story . . ." Gin mused though she still didn't look entirely convinced. "But . . ."
Evan leaned over to kiss Gin's cheek loudly. "Aw, c'mon, Mama! It'll be fun! It's just a story, right? I mean, a story can be about anything, can't it? And any similarities to anyone, living or implied, will be purely coincidental."
Biting her lip, Gin frowned at her son thoughtfully for several long moments before finally sighing and slowly, slowly giving one nod. "Oh . . . okay," she relented. "After all, it's just a story—and Cain never said we couldn't tell stories, did he?"
Evan chuckled and took Valerie's hand to lead her back toward the living room once more. "That's right, Mama," he called over his shoulder. "Gather 'round, and I'll tell you ladies a story about a Christmas that never was."
Final Thought from Valerie:
A story, huh …?
It Was a Dark and Dreary Night …
"It was a dark and dreary night, that Christmas Eve of Yore, as lighting flashed through the long, narrow windows, casting spidery veins of light across the frigid stone floor of the cold, dank corridor that young Evan Zelig—already an intrepid explorer, even at the tender age of four—had to—"
"Lightning?" Valerie interrupted with a snort of disbelief. "Since when do you have lightning storms in Maine in the middle of December?"
Crossing his arms over his chest, Evan slowly shook his head, affecting a stern expression as he gazed upon his wife. "It was a freak storm," he replied haughtily. "Besides, it's my story, right? So if I want it to rain, it'll rain."
"I thought you were going to tell a story about what might have happened had anything happened at all," she pointed out, taking the glass of eggnog that Sydnie slipped into her hand.
"I'm just setting the mood, woman," he informed her, planting his hands on his hips. "Now, do you want to hear this or not?"
Valerie giggled and settled back against the fluffy pillows on the sofa. "All right, Roka," she said with a flutter of her hand. "A dark and dreary night. Gotcha."
"Actually, it was daytime."
"Daytime?" she echoed dubiously. "But you just said—"
Wrinkling his nose, he shifted his gaze upward as his brow furrowed in thoughtful lines. "Yeah, you're right. Night sounds better. We'll go with that."
Rolling her eyes, she grinned despite herself. "Okay, okay, Roka. Get on with it."
Evan slowly shook his head, but must have been satisfied that she was going to listen, because he straightened his shoulders and strode over to shut off the overhead lights before taking his place in front of the happily burning fire on the hearth, his outline glowing warmly in the dancing, flickering light. Then he made a show of clearing his throat before he resumed his story . . .
Creeping down the silent corridor as the heels of his shiny boots echoed off the unforgiving stone floor, Evan Zelig tried to hurry past the hulking suits of armor that stood, silent guardians, along the way. Weak, thin light seemed to make the dark voids—hollows where eyes could be staring at him from the shadows—somehow more sinister, much more menacing, and he quickened his step, his heartbeat sounding in his ears as he scuttled down the hallway toward the wavering light that fought to push back the gloom where it spilled into the dusk; shadows cast by the huge fire in the chamber at the end.
"Mummy! Mummy, are you in here?"
Gin Izayoi Zelig stepped out of the small powder room just off to the left. She was a diminutive woman, as delicate as the morning sun, as fragile as the quivering winds of early spring, wrapped in the folds of satin and lace and the finest silk—a confection of beauty, untouched by age—the brightest star in young Evan's world.
When she spotted her son, lingering in the doorway, she smiled, lifting a demure hand to draw him in closer, the intricate crochet lace spilling from the bell sleeves like a waterfall. "There's my precious boy!"
Despite his advanced age, Evan allowed his mother to draw him close, to give him a little hug and muss his hair affectionately. "Mummy, have you seen Papa?" he asked, his eyebrows drawing together in a marked frown of concentration.
Straightening up, Gin smoothed the yards of silk that was her skirt. "Your papa," she repeated thoughtfully, tapping a delicate fingertip against her lips as she carefully glided across the floor to the row of frosted windows, the gray light siphoning through the weathered panes. They fell on the thick tapestry rug—rugs that his mother had so painstakingly sewed during endless nights by the great hearth—in blotches of half-formed light, slowing creeping, creeping to intercept the shiny toes of Evan's black boots. "Your papa is in his study, I should think," she finally said, turning swiftly to smile upon her son. "Best you should leave him be for now. He's hard at work."
"But it's almost Christmas," Evan protested. "Surely Papa can't work all day!"
"Now, Evan, your father works hard to make sure that we have this beautiful home," Gin replied in a soothing tone: the same tone she used whenever Evan would wake in the midst of the fell night, victim of the nightmarish dreamscapes that ran rampant through a young child's mind. "Why don't you come help me? I was just getting ready to make candles."
Letting out a tumultuous sigh—a dejected, sad sort of sigh—young Evan shrugged, then turned on his heel to slip out of the room once more. Making candles was women's work, and surely nothing worthy of the second son of the North American tai-youkai!
Even so, the pervasive darkness of the hallway sought to envelop him once more, and he couldn't quite help the way his feet quickened their pace, taking extra care to tread a little more heavily, as though the dull cadence of his heels hitting the floor—slightly muffled by the carpet below his feet—might chase away the pressing gloom.
He came to the crossroads: the stairs that descended to the right, down to the main floor below, where he could see the dim and wobbly light that greedily clung to the bottom of the door: his father's study. The steps to the left rose at an unforgivable incline, the murkiness touched by the oily haze of light that refused to venture far into the darkness.
Biting his lip, mustering his courage—remember, if you will, our intrepid hero was only four years old—just a baby, albeit an extremely and awesomely cute baby, but back to the tale—Evan ran up the staircase, his heart thundering in his ears as he prayed that he could make it before the inky shadows reached out to grab him, to drag him down into that empty void under the steps where the evil entity—Evan called him 'Bubby'—maintained that the monster lived: the one who loved to eat small boys, especially extremely and awesomely cute ones like Evan: the most dreaded and feared Monster Under the Stairs.
He made it to the top of the stairs without being dragged to his death, only to barrel straight into his father's legs. Cain caught him and arched an eyebrow at the boy as he hunkered down to look him in the eyes. "Evan? Be ye all right?"
"Be ye . . . what?"
Evan turned to frown as Bas stepped into the living room, a rather blank expression on his face. "Hush, Bubby. You're interrupting my story."
"He's telling us a medieval version of the Un-Christmas," Valerie said.
Bas slowly shook his head. "A medieval version of—Oh, God . . ."
"Why haven't you told me this story already, puppy?" Sydnie piped up from her place, curled up in a thickly overstuffed chair near the hearth.
Bas grunted. "Because we're not supposed to talk about it," he told her, shifting his gaze from his mate to his mother. "So, Mom, why are we?"
Gin giggled half nervously and waved a hand at her eldest son. "It's not the real thing, Sebastian. It's just a theoretical story of what might have happened . . . and I kind of like my big, fancy dress."
Bas didn't look impressed with his mother's assertions, and he slowly shook his head. "This can't be good," he muttered. All the same, he wandered over to Sydnie and picked her up, only to settle her in his lap against his chest when he sat down, instead.
"Tell me, puppy, did you really scare poor Evan with the Monster Under the Stairs?"
"Poor Evan, nothing," Bas muttered then chuckled. "Yeah, that part's accurate, even if the rest of it is utter bullshit."
Evan heaved a longsuffering sigh. "Can we get back to it now?" he asked, pointedly giving his brother a very droll look.
Valerie nodded and held out a hand. "By all means, Roka. You'd just run into your dad's legs."
So, back to our young hero. Having just eluded the dreaded monster under the stairs, Evan hopped around his father's feet, reveling in his perceived victory. "Mummy said you were busy working," he pointed out between happy bounces.
"Aye, but I cannot work through this, the most holy of days, now can I?" Cain said.
Evan laughed and clapped his hands. "Can you play with me then, Papa? Can you?"
A vague shadow seemed to creep over Cain's features—a darkness that young Evan did not understand. "Well," he drawled, digging his hands deep into the pockets of his velvet knee breeches, "There are a few other things that I must see to, Evan. Why don't you go look for Sebastian? I am sure he will play with you."
Face screwing up into a marked frown, Evan shuffled his feet and gave a little shrug. "Bubby won't play with me. He tries to feed me to the Monster Under the Stairs. He wants me to die!"
Clearing his throat, Cain lifted a hand to cover his mouth for a moment. "'Die' is a harsh claim," Cain finally said at length, as though he had to consider what he was going to say before he said it. "'Tis better to say that perchance he might feed your cousin, Morio to the Monster Under the Stairs, but Sebastian realizes full well that your mother would miss you and would, doubtless, begin asking questions, were you to suddenly disappear."
"Because Mummy loves me!" Evan concluded happily.
Cain nodded slowly. "Quite so, son. Quite so."
"So, can you play with me, Papa? Ple-e-e-e-e-ease?"
Scratching the side of his head, Cain let out a deep breath. Then he smiled at Evan and spared a moment to ruffle his hair. "Sebastian! Sebastian, come hither!"
A distant rumble erupted in the stillness of the great castle. Borne of the moans and groans of the quiet places, the unspoken shadows, 'twas as though the very bowels of hell had been loosened upon them, growing louder, more sinister, and far more cloying with every passing moment. Evan ducked behind his father's legs when Cain turned to face the fourth floor stairs.
"Aye, Father?" Sebastian said as he skidded to a halt on the landing before them. Behind him, Gunnar, Morio, and, later, Mikio fell into place.
"Grant me a boon, and entertain your brother, can't you?"
Sebastian eyed his father, his face shifting into a thoughtful scowl. "Must I?"
Cain nodded once. "Aye, you must. I am certain, betwixt the four of you, that you can keep one little boy out of mischief."
Rolling his eyes, Sebastian quirked his hand at Evan, as though to beckon him to come forward. "Come, ye runt."
"But, Papa," Evan insisted, tugging hard on Cain's hand, "Bubby will try to feed me to the Monster Under the Stairs!"
"I told you, he won't," Cain insisted. "Right, Sebastian?"
"Of course not," Sebastian agreed with a slow shake of his head. "He's to scrawny to make a decent meal, anyway, but the Moat Monster might think he's tasty enough."
"Papa!" Evan squealed, letting go of Cain's hand in favor of using his claws to scramble up his father's clothing instead. "Papa!"
Grimacing as he carefully dug his fingers under Evan's quaking hand, Cain shot Sebastian a quelling glance. "No feeding your brother to any of the castle pets, Sebastian," he reiterated.
Heaving a longsuffering sigh, Sebastian reached over to drag Evan off of Cain. "Come along, fellows," he grumbled, heading for the stairs that led back down to the second floor. "Perchance we can bury him under a few feet of snow . . ."
Wiggling around as he pushed himself up higher on Sebastian's shoulder, Evan peered back at his father just in time to catch the calculating frown that had stolen over Cain's features. Then he turned and strode down the hallway. A moment later, the unmistakable sound of a closing door left the house once more in silence, save for the footfalls of impending doom as Bubby and his three henchmen bore Evan off to what had to be the lad's imminent demise.
Final Thought from Cain:
… I have never, in my life, ever used the word, 'hither' ...