Caren

“Nochebuena”

story by Mabel Harper & Emrys Webb
written by Emrys Webb

Soren raised an eyebrow. “The creature was immune to Vernon’s maleficium?”

Caren and Ash sat with Soren’s inner circle in the drawing room of Soren’s penthouse, in pretty much the same arrangement they’d occupied the night before. Soren, Ishaan, and Miles were already dressed for bed in silk pajamas and velvet smoking jackets. Sicko Mode had changed out of his shredded, bloodstained suit into an oversized Pokémon hoodie. Nathaniel had swapped out his own bloodied clothes for an Adidas tracksuit and was nursing a cup of healing panchrest instead of a nightcap like the others.

“Not immune, exactly,” said Ash. “But it sure as hell didn’t kill her, and she recovered fully from serious injuries in less than ten seconds.”

“She’s got some kind of mind control powers,” Nathaniel added, frowning into his cup.

“Yeah,” Caren agreed. “Whether it was full-on cogimancy or just mesmerism or something like that, hard to say. But at the very least she’s really damn persuasive…and good at reading people.” She scowled to herself.

“Super speed—maybe even chronomancy,” Ash went on. At the mention of time magic, Ishaan raised an eyebrow. “Super strength. Possibly teleportation—able to vanish without a trace. Defy gravity on a whim. I’d say we had the questionable luck of meeting a very ancient vampire—except she didn’t come off as anachronistic as I would have expected, based on my research.”

Nathaniel nodded agreement. “She blended right in at the teahouse.”

“We all mistook the victim for the vampire,” said Caren. “But I guess he was just some kind of fuckin’ steampunk dork. Uh, may he rest in peace.”

Nathaniel crossed himself.

“The vampire knew Auctoritas Magicae law, too,” said Ash. “She knew I had no legal authority to interfere with her basically doing whatever she wanted with the rest of you.”

“Yet she didn’t kill or feed from any of you,” observed Soren.

“She, uh…tasted Vernon…I guess is how I’d put it.” Ash glanced in the direction of Sicko Mode, who was on the floor next to the harpsichord spooning the cat, his back to the rest of them, and hadn’t said a word since they’d arrived. “It…struck me as a kind of cat-and-mouse thing. Like she was…toying with her prey.”

“Kinda felt like she was toying with all of us,” muttered Caren.

“When she cut Vernon open,” Ash went on, “it wasn’t so she could feed. She’d noticed his regeneration ability, I think…and wanted to test its limits.”

Soren gazed at Sicko Mode in silence for several seconds. “It seems I sent the four of you on a far more perilous mission than I’d realized,” he said at last, with a note of regret. “But I must say—I hadn’t expected you’d engage a vampire on first sighting. This was very reckless of you indeed, Maréchal. You needlessly endangered your own life and the lives of your companions as well. In future, I expect more circumspection from the man I’ve entrusted with command of my foot soldiers.”

Nathaniel got to his feet, eyes downcast, and bowed low from the waist. “I showed very poor judgment, mon Capitaine. I promise I’ll work harder in the future to deserve the responsibilities you’ve given me.”

“Don’t trouble yourself with guilt, Nathaniel,” said Soren. “Just take the lesson to heart, as I know you will.”

“Sir, yes, Sir.”

Soren waved a hand at him. “At ease, my boy.”

Nathaniel sank back down on the sofa. He looked smaller now somehow, and his eyes were wearing a right-left-right groove in the rug in front of him. Caren could almost hear the self-castigating diatribe running in his head.

“Thank our stars no lasting harm was done,” said Soren. “We’ll endeavor to be better-prepared when dealing with these creatures in the future. None of you are to play the hero, do I make myself clear? The lives of my Boys concern me, not those of random mundanes.”

“If I may, Soren,” said Ash.

“By all means.”

“If the one we met is anything to go by, the Leeches will make volatile allies at best. If I were you—assuming they do in fact contact you—I’d call on them only as a last resort.”

“I value your candor, Ashton,” said Soren. “Nathaniel, Caren, Vernon—would you agree?”

“Ayup,” said Caren.

“Yeah…we’re probably out of our depth here,” mumbled Nathaniel.

Soren looked over at Sicko Mode. “Vernon?”

After a few seconds of silence, Sicko Mode gave a grunt.

“Perhaps, then, I’ll review other options,” said Soren. “Thank you all for your input. Unless anyone has anything further, this meeting is adjourned—you’re all free to go but welcome to stay as long as you’d like. Ashton, please feel free to avail yourself of the Begonia Room if you’d prefer not to make the drive back to Arcadia so late.”

“I’m grateful for the offer,” said Ash, “but I’m afraid I have business in Arcadia early tomorrow morning, and…I’ll be missed if I’m out overnight.”

Soren surveyed him with what Caren thought to be a kind of knowing look. “You know best, my boy. Please know you’ll always be welcome under my roof. We’ve an alchemy lab here in the penthouse that hasn’t seen good use in quite some time…”

Ishaan and Miles wandered off while Soren and Ash remained chatting.

Nathaniel turned to Caren. “Crazy night, huh.”

“Oh, you know that Philly nightlife.”

“Are you still, uh…I mean. If you’re not, uh, feeling our plans after all that…I totally understand.”

“Oh. I mean. If you need to get some rest, dude, I get it.” Caren mentally rifled through bars she could hit up at this hour, then wondered how many of them would be closed because of stupid Christmas Eve.

“Well, I’m not saying I don’t… I mean…I’d, uh…I’d actually still be down for it if you are.”

Caren raised an eyebrow. “You, uh…you sure? You made a pretty big dent in that dumpster.”

Nathaniel held up his three-quarters-drained cup of panchrest. “This eau de turpentine is mending my battered bones; my plan now is to go to the kitchen and wash down the putrid aftertaste with a strong crema de vie. And uh, honestly…I’m hoping you’ll join me.”

“I…have no idea what crema de vie is, but if it’s strong, I’m here for it.”

Nathaniel grinned. “That’s what I’m talkin’ about.” He glanced over at Sicko Mode, and his smile faded a little. “Gimme just a sec.”

Caren watched as he went and sat down next to the grown man curled up in the fetal position on the rug. The two of them exchanged words, and Nathaniel touched Sicko Mode’s face. After a moment, Sicko Mode got up holding Puck to his chest, his nose buried in the cat’s fur, and left the room.

Nathaniel followed him a few steps, stood gazing down the hall after him a moment before returning to Caren.

“What’s up with him?” asked Caren.

“He thinks it’s his fault I got hurt. It’s not, I told him—if anything it’s me who got him hurt. Soren’s right, I shouldn’t’ve gone barging in with all of you like that. But if I know Vern, he’s gonna beat himself up for a while.” Nathaniel sighed, gently scratched Caren’s shoulder. “Come on.” He started toward the hall.

Caren frowned for a moment at the spot where he’d touched her, then got up and followed. “You’re, uh…pretty special to Sick—Vernon, I guess.”

“I’m his favorite.” Nathaniel grinned back at her over his shoulder. “Next to Puck, that is.”

Caren caught up, walked with him down the wainscoted hall in silence for several seconds, her eyes trained on the Persian-style runner. “You two aren’t…I mean. Were you ever…? You know.”

Nathaniel looked at her blankly. “Were we…?”

“Uh…never mind.”

He shot her a puzzled frown, then his eyes went wide. “You’re asking if me and Vern ever dated?”

“Not necessarily dated. Just if you…Iunno.”

“Jesus Christ…”

“I guess that’s a no.”

“Yeah…no.” Nathaniel let out a weird laugh. “I guess I’d think he was cute if I didn’t know him, but…you know? Christ, I can’t even… I really love him a lot, but he’s like a brother to me.” He eyed her sidelong. “Why do you ask?”

Caren shrugged. “No reason…just thought you two seem close.”

“Yeah, I mean, we are. Just not like that.” Nathaniel sobered. “He’s… I dunno. Vernon’s an unusual guy…as I’m sure you’ve noticed. In some ways that are kinda endearing. Others…not so much.”

“Just sayin’, you almost got your squishy ass killed trying to save a guy who seems almost impossible to kill…and who didn’t really seem to want saving.”

“Yo, that bloodsucker had mind control powers,” said Nathaniel. “The second she looked in my eyes, it was head fucking empty.”

“Yeah, but like…Sicko Mode didn’t seem head empty. He was actually being pretty on brand.”

“Yeah, well. Vernon doesn’t always make choices that are good for him.”

“Oh, so you’re like his mom.”

“Ha. Yeah. That might actually be closer to the mark. Anyway…if there’s a limit to what Vern can bounce back from, I don’t want to find it. And even if he can’t be killed, he can still feel pain.”

Caren quirked an eyebrow. “I’m…not sure he feels pain the same way the rest of us do.”

“Just because you block out pain or even learn to crave it doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt,” said Nathaniel.

Caren shot him an appraising look.

He hesitated. “It’s…not really my story to tell. But the way Soren found Vern is Vern wandered out in front of Soren’s car on 76 near Kensington in the middle of the night…would be very, very dead if he didn’t have that crazy self-healing power of his. Fuckin’ totaled Soren’s Maybach Landaulet.”

“Jesus,” mumbled Caren.

“Soren also tells me Vern’s…weirder when I’m not around.”

“Weirder?” echoed Caren. “…How?”

“Talks to himself. Or more like to people who aren’t there. We know it’s not daemons. Soren’s Bolmul would be able to see them.”

They arrived at the kitchen.

“What the fuck.” Caren gazed around in awe. “This is like, an industrial fucking kitchen.” 

“Right? Just like a fancy restaurant. Check it out, we’ve got a walk-in freezer…”

“Yo, if I had a kitchen like this, I’d actually get into cooking.”

“Hey, if you hang around here enough…”

“Dude, don’t tempt me.”

Nathaniel wiggled his eyebrows.

Caren hefted herself onto the nearest countertop. “So tell me more about this crème de la crème thing.”

Nathaniel snorted. “Crema de vie?”

“Yeah. That.”

“Oh, girl. You’re in for a treat.” He disappeared into the pantry, emerged holding a pair of cans.

“You had me at sweetened condensed milk,” said Caren. “Need any help?”

Nathaniel put Caren to work stirring sugar and water in a saucepan while he dug out a blender and gathered the rest of the ingredients: eggs, vanilla, Bacardi.

“I give you,” he said a short while later, as he handed Caren a thick, creamy beverage in a shot glass, “Cuban eggnog.”

“Oh, fuck yes.”

Nathaniel raised his own shot glass. “To not suffering the same fate as Steampunk Dork—God rest his soul.”

They both drank.

“Fuck me, that’s delicious.” Caren wiped away a crema de vie mustache with the back of her hand.

“Glad you like,” said Nathaniel. “So, what are your must-have Christmas Eve dishes?”

Caren thought about it. “Lechón and pancit.”

“Nice. Mine are lechón and tostones—twice-fried plantains.”

“Twice-fried plantains? Dude.”

“Oh, and flan.”

“Yesssss.”

“I…don’t think Soren’s got a whole pig on hand,” said Nathaniel.

“I kinda figured not.”

“We have hams in the freezer, but thawing and cooking a ham would take like a whole day.”

“You got pork belly or butt? What if I made pork adobo?”

Nathaniel raised his eyebrows. “Yooo, that sounds good. And hey, it’s pig. I’ve never had Filipino adobo.”

“It’s like the only thing I know how to cook, but I’m really good at it.”

“Then you’re officially in charge of the entrée, Chef de Cuisine Navarrete. What all do you need?”

They fell into a rhythm quickly, Caren calling out ingredients and cooking implements and Nathaniel hastening to provide. He put on Christmas music over the kitchen’s state-of-the-art sound system, which he and Caren tolerated for about thirty seconds before spontaneously agreeing to switch to his emo playlist. Soon they were both headbanging and belting along to “Fake I.D.” by Joyce Manor while they worked.

Nathaniel took charge of all the side dishes, including pancit (which Caren didn’t know how to make, so he googled a recipe on his phone). He also got started on the flan, which he warned her would take at least three hours to prep, bake, and chill in a water bath before it was ready to eat. (“Dude, just do it. It’s not Christmas Eve without flan,” said Caren; to which Nathaniel responded, “I’m on it.”)

Caren helped out with the pancit, flan, tostones, black beans and rice in little intervals of downtime during her adobo-cooking process—but Nathaniel hardly seemed to need the help. He was clearly in the zone while cooking, moving fluidly and efficiently between tasks, juggling several dishes at once without missing a beat.

“You don’t look like you do this often or anything,” Caren remarked.

Nathaniel stirred the beans, checked the fryer, smiled to himself. “When things are quiet around the penthouse, sometimes I give the kitchen staff the day off. Cooking relaxes me.”

About an hour and a half later, a complete holiday feast was spread out in front of them.

Caren emptied her pot of juicy pork adobo onto a big china serving plate, set to work arranging the hot chunks of meat with her bare hands.

Nathaniel stopped, watched her. “Whatcha doin’?”

“Plating.”

He gave a small, bemused chuckle. “We have disposable gloves, you know.”

Caren ignored him: an artist absorbed in her craft.

“Oh my God,” said Nathaniel, a few seconds later. “…Are you trying to make it shaped like a pig?”

Caren gestured presentationally, with sauce-stained hands, to her finished creation: “I give you ‘lechobo.’”

Nathaniel doubled over laughing. “‘Lechobo’?”

“Are you not amazed?” cried Caren.

Nathaniel wiped tears from his eyes. “That is the one of the most disgusting things I’ve ever seen. I’m gonna have nightmares about it.”

“You dare insult my lechobo!”

Nathaniel once more clutched his stomach laughing.

“Yo, shut up and try it.” Caren picked the “ear” off the makeshift animal, held it to his lips.

…Stood there tapping her foot mock-impatiently while he gradually got the last of the giggles out of his system and finally took a bite. “Oh, damn,” he said through his mouthful. His eyebrows shot straight up into his curtain bangs. “That’sh really good!”

“You’re damn right it’s good. Family recipe learned in childhood, perfected over a lifetime of cooking literally nothing else except the very occasional fried egg.”

Nathaniel convulsed, covered his mouth. “You’re gonna make me choke.” Caren watched him go through an extended ordeal of trying to swallow while stifling laughter.

Finally—“Oh, God, whew, okay. Thought you were gonna hafta do the Heimlich. So, ready to load it all up and go to my suite?” He grinned at her, wiped his nose.

Caren blinked at him. “Your suite?”

“Yeah. Oh, hey, check this out.” Nathaniel made a gesture, spoke a word of command. A large tray lifted off the nearby counter, floated over to them.

They loaded all the food onto the tray, and Nathaniel led the way down the hall while it drifted behind them. Caren heard Soren and Ash still engaged in lively conversation as they passed the drawing room.

At the end of the hallway, Nathaniel stopped in front of a door that read, in gold-plated lettering, VERNON.

“Uhhh, why are we going in Sicko Mode’s room?” Caren whispered.

Nathaniel lifted his hand, swiped left in the air in front of him. The door scrolled with the motion of his hand, to another that read, ISHAAN.

“…Word?” said Caren.

MILES scrolled past next, followed by NATHANIEL.

Nathaniel traced a rune on the door, light trailing the rapid motions of his fingers. More light licked around the edges of the door, and then it swung open in front of them.

“Dude,” said Caren. “What happens if someone comes out their room while you’re—?”

As if on cue, Ishaan suddenly materialized right smack in front of Nathaniel, bleary-eyed, bespectacled, and bedheaded in his pajamas, clutching an empty drink glass. He and Nathaniel both recoiled from the near-collision, looking mildly startled.

“Sorry, dude,” said Nathaniel.

“No worries,” mumbled Ishaan. “Ms. Navarrete.” He nodded politely to Caren, shuffled on down the hall.

“That,” said Nathaniel, in answer to Caren’s question. “We’re all used to it.” He led the way inside.

Beyond the door with Nathaniel’s name on it was what could have been a whole different penthouse apartment, decorated in a more modern style than Soren’s, all red and black, with hanging pots overflowing with small white blossoms. The lights came on—soft, relaxing, moody—as they entered. Framed pictures of sports cars decorated the walls. There was a fireplace—which crackled to life as Nathaniel spoke the word ha’iru—an upright piano, a few guitars on racks on the wall.

“You play guitar too?” said Caren.

“Barely,” said Nathaniel. “I’m mostly a keys guy.”

Caren took down an acoustic guitar, strummed the first few chords of “Wonderwall.” Grinned at Nathaniel. “Just kidding.”

He snorted.

She played a few riffs of Marietta’s “Cinco De Mayo Shit Show.”

“Oh, shit, you can really play,” said Nathaniel.

“Barely.” Caren winked, returned the guitar to its rack.

“We should jam later,” said Nathaniel.

“Hell yeah.”

Caren took in more contents of the room. A gigantic TV that looked like it probably retracted into the ceiling. A PS4 Pro and PS VR, an antique turntable. Some shelves with books, movies, records, games.

She peeked into an adjacent room. “Dude—is that a fuckin’ recording studio?”

“Yep.”

“Yo, soundproofed and everything. Fuck. Have you released any music?”

“I…may or may not have a SoundCloud.”

“Oh, word? What is it?”

Nathaniel looked off, mumbled something out the side of his mouth.

Caren leaned toward him. “One more time. Didn’t catch that.”

“‘EMPTYxWRISTS,’” he muttered.

“…Empty-X-wrists?” Caren echoed.

“…All caps except for the X.”

She stared at him. “You’re fucking shitting me.”

“I was sixteen when I made it, okay?”

Caren doubled over cackling.

“Yeah, yeah, laugh it up. I was an emo gay teen.”

“Yo, join the club. I’m totally gonna peep your SoundCloud later.”

“Ahhhh, what have I done?” Nathaniel clawed dramatically at his hair.

Caren went in for a closer look at the contents of the shelves. “This is a pretty sick movie collection.”

“Thanks.”

She scanned the titles of the Blu-rays: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Alien, Memento, The Fifth Element, Edward Scissorhands, Romeo + Juliet, Reservoir Dogs. Nathaniel’s vinyl collection included Clarity by Jimmy Eat World, Tell All Your Friends by Taking Back Sunday, some Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, The Flowers of Romance by mouse on the keys, a few Bach piano and harpsichord recordings.

Caren turned her attention finally to the shelves of books. There were a couple of worn cookbooks, some tomes on enchantment, a bunch of music theory and history textbooks, alongside the full box set of His Dark Materials, a pair of Anne Rice novels, a small manga collection. Caren picked up Volume One of Fullmetal Alchemist. “Dude, I fucking loved this shit as a kid. Do you watch anime too?”

“Yeah. Brotherhood rules.”

“Hell yeah. The other adaptation is meh.” Caren flipped through the book, returned it to the shelf.

She turned to find Nathaniel dragging over a stepstool, clutching a small clay pot and a tiny detail brush.

“You need help?” Caren asked.

“I got it. I do this all the time.” He positioned the stepstool under one of the hanging pots and climbed up, dipped the brush gingerly in the pot and began to etch tiny, delicate runes in gold rune paint on the bottom of the pot. His face looked like it had while he was cooking, except maybe even more relaxed, with a bright kind of faraway look in his eyes. She could hear him whispering—or maybe actually singing—very quietly under his breath.

The flowers started to shimmer like a mirage, then to change shape, as a flush of scarlet washed over them. The small, pale blossoms gave way to ostentatious red ones with big pointy petals.

Nathaniel grinned at Caren. “Gotta have poinsettias for Christmas Eve.”

“Oh, yeah? We never did.”

“Really? Y’all have a different kind of flower?”

“Not that I remember. Those are festive, though. I like them.”

“Ah, well, good. They can stay, then.”

While Nathaniel applied glamors to the other flowerpots, Caren wandered over to the solid wall of floor-to-ceiling glass doors that led onto the balcony, beyond whose railing spanned a stunning cityscape.

She stood there taking in the sights for a moment, then turned to Nathaniel, who was putting away the stepstool, having just finished enchanting the last pot of faux poinsettias. “Dude. Incredible view.”

“Yeah, thanks. I love it.”

“Mind if I…?” Caren wagged her pack of Marlboro Reds.

“Not at all. I’ll join you.”

Nathaniel got a pair of thick robes out of his walk-in coat closet, handed one to Caren.

“You’re super prepared to have guests in here,” Caren observed as she shrugged hers on.

Nathaniel visibly reddened. “It’s…been a minute, TBH. Uh…listen, you go on ahead. I’ll be right out.”

Caren stepped out on the balcony, and was immediately glad for the robe. Her teeth started chattering.

She lit up, took a drag, leaned on the railing. Wondered when was the last time she’d seen Philly from this high up. Soren’s, she realized, must be the tallest building in Old City. From here, she could have almost mistaken the city for peaceful—especially this late on Christmas Eve, when its streets were much quieter than usual.

It wasn’t long before the door slid open behind her. She glanced back, did a double-take. “Oh, holy shit.”

Nathaniel walked toward her, hands in the pockets of his robe; glanced over his shoulder at what she was reacting to. “Another glamor,” he explained in a low voice, as he joined her at the railing.

“I see that,” said Caren. The apartment she saw through the windows looked nothing like Nathaniel’s, or Soren’s, for that matter. “A security thing, I guess.”

“Yep.”

“So…wait. You can’t all have your own private balcony.”

“Sure we can.”

Caren puzzled this over for a moment. “…How?”

“The same way you make big insides out of little outsides.”

“Big insides…?”

“Like how Soren’s penthouse is so much bigger on the inside than the outside. And Baby’s roomy new backseat. And how a mundane can walk straight from one end of Arcadia to the other in like two seconds. It’s a spacetime offset.”

“Wait. Are you saying…?”

“Little branches of reality, that converge back to a shared reality when you move out of them.”

“Dude. I’ve never heard anyone explain it like that. When I was at Arcanus Academy, they just taught us all this old-fashionedy mumbo jumbo.”

“So-called ‘mundane’ science helps make it way easier to understand.” Nathaniel chuckled. “But, you know, that’s blasphemy to the Old-Worlders.”

Caren pondered. “So are you saying, like…Sicko Mode might be out here right now, standing in this exact same spot?”

“Not exact same. A parallel branch.”

“Yeah, fine, pick nits. But what would a mundane in a helicopter hovering right in front of us see if they looked at this balcony right now?”

“An empty balcony.”

“Dude. So like—hold up—was it you who did all the enchantments around here?”

“Yep. I’m Soren’s resident enchanter. Whoa, check out that moon.”

Caren followed Nathaniel’s pointing finger to the orb in the sky—felt herself scowl. “Doesn’t look so full anymore,” she muttered.

“Still all big and round and moony.” Nathaniel gazed at it soft-eyed. A gust of breeze stirred his hair.

Christ he’s pretty, Caren thought.

“You smoke?” she offered her pack.

He eyed it, shook his head. “Used to.” Patted his left shoulder, grinned. “I’ve been on the patch now for like eight years straight.”

“…Is that any better for you?”

“God, I hope so!”

When they went back inside, Caren saw the food had found a home on a big coffee table in front of the fireplace. She and Nathaniel doffed their robes, settled on the rug side-by-side at the table facing the fire, and chowed down.

A few bites in, Nathaniel started wiggling in place.

“Are you wagging your tail?” Caren asked.

He nodded.

“Are you a happy puppy?”

He nodded again, chewed and swallowed a tostone. “Arf.”

Caren grinned.

“What’s your favorite memory of family Christmas Eve?” Nathaniel forked a chunk of adobo.

“Karaoke,” said Caren. “So goddamn loud.”

“Nice.” Nathaniel grinned. “We’ll commemorate that by jamming.”

“What about you?”

Nathaniel chewed thoughtfully, looked off, smiled. “Just the whole house, the whole yard, full of fucking people. Not even just family. My aunt would invite the whole neighborhood.” He smiled at Caren, once more wiggled. “But this is good too. A more intimate gathering.” He hesitated. “I…didn’t mean that in a creepy way.”

Caren snorted. “Did y’all do Midnight Mass?”

“Nah. We just partied.”

“Same.”

“Christmas was fun time,” said Nathaniel. “It was Easter that was not-fun time.”

“A-yup.”

“Christmas is when everybody parties. Easter’s when your mom cries and watches Passion of the Christ.”

“Oh, no. Your mom too?”

Nathaniel made a pained face, nodded.

“My favorite part of that movie is when Jesus invented the modern dining table.”

“Oh, yeah. I kinda liked that part too.”

After second helpings of everything and another round of crema de vie, Nathaniel brought his electronic keyboard out of his studio, plugged an electric guitar into an amp for Caren, and the two of them jammed—Caren playing driving chord progressions, Nathaniel laying intricate melodies on top of them.

“Shit,” said Caren. “I haven’t played in so long. Actually can’t remember the last time I played with somebody else.”

“Me too, other than Baroque stuff with Soren. Which is cool too, but, you know, different.”

“Yeah. This is fun.”

“We should start a band.”

“Hell, yeah. We’ll call ourselves Mulch.”

“Mulch?” Nathaniel snorted.

Caren started playing a grungy chord progression à la Alice in Chains. Nathaniel immediately launched into a Jerry Cantrell impression, with improvised lyrics:

Sew my eyes to my butt
Stick a needle in my brain
I fucked your girlfriend so you know I’m not gay
Bleed blood bones… I’m a pile of…bloody…pain…
Ahhhhhhh

Caren fell out on the floor laughing. Nathaniel joined her.

He then sat up suddenly. “Oh, shit. What time is it?” Scurried over to the table, where he’d left his phone. “Agh! We missed midnight!”

“Nooo!” Caren jumped up, hung up the guitar. Yelled in a panicked tone of voice: “Merry Christmas!”

“Agh! Merry Christmas!” Nathaniel yelled back. “Hey, c’mere. Sit down.”

“Why?”

Nathaniel darted into another room. Caren wandered back to the table, plopped down as instructed.

Nathaniel returned holding a wrapped gift.

“What? No!” Caren stomped her foot.

“Yes! Merry Christmas!” Nathaniel thrust the gift at her.

“Nooo, we didn’t agree to do gifts!”

“Merry Christmas! Agh!” He dropped it in her lap.

“Fuck you.”

“Open it.”

Caren picked up the gift—was so taken aback by the way it felt in her hands she almost dropped it again. “This doesn’t—what the—?”

“It’s not real wrapping paper. I didn’t have any. It’s a glamor.”

“Oookay, that explains why this just feels like…a book. How the hell do I ‘open’ it?”

“Rub off the runes. There.”

“I was wondering how the fuck you got wrapping paper with Jack Skellington, Robot Santa and Krampus on it.” Almost reluctantly, Caren smeared the rune. The glamor dissolved with a shimmer. “Fullmetal Alchemist…? Dude.”

“I was pressed for time! You said you liked it.”

“I am not keeping this.”

“Come on, gifts at midnight is tradition.”

“Dude.”

“I’m a sentimental boy. Just let me have this.” He clasped his hands, batted his eyelashes, tilted his head so far to one side he almost tipped over.

“Ugghhh, fucking fine. But just know that you’re a huge fucking asshole.”

“Yay! Look inside the cover.”

“What?” Caren did as instructed, found scrawled in the white space:

Thanks for spending Christmas 2018 with me —Nat

Caren felt a sharp twinge in her chest. “Seriously, you’re a fucking idiot, you know.”

He smiled at her with his eyes, mid-gulp of crema de vie, over the rim of his cup.

Caren turned the book over in her hands, thumbed absently through its pages…put it down on the table, suddenly feeling weird. “So…Jesus’s born day, am I right?”

“Yep.” Nathaniel gazed contentedly into the fire. “So fucked up he has to die less than four months later.”

Caren snorted in spite of herself. “What?”

“Good Friday.” Nathaniel gave a solemn nod.

“True, true. The circle of life.”

Nathaniel cracked a smile. Then stretched loudly, luxuriously, eyed his empty plate. “Ahhhh…Caren. The adobo was perfect. Most disgusting, most delicious thing I’ve ever eaten.”

“Yeah, well, I think I need more tostones in my life. Oh, hey, dude—when do you think we can eat the flan?”

“Ooh. Hmm. It’s supposed to chill for…” Nathaniel checked his phone. “…at least another hour.”

Caren threw her head back, let out a RAWRGHH.

“I know, I know. But it’ll be so worth it!”

“Yeah, yeah, you’re right, you’re right.”

Nathaniel poured them both fresh cups of crema de vie. Put on a Christmas jazz playlist over his suite’s sound system.

Caren eyed him. “Yo, how do you even use that in here? This place is crawling with enchantments.”

“Containment fields. Same with Baby. Prevents mana bleed from enchanted materials so digital signals can travel uninterrupted.”

“What the fuck…I didn’t know that was a thing.”

“It’s a pretty cutting-edge technique. Old-Worlders don’t know about it, seeing as they don’t fuck with tech.”

Caren studied him a moment. “So you said you ran away from home to Philly.”

“Yep.”

“…From where?”

Nathaniel touched a finger to his lips, looked off coyly. “Mmm…why do you ask?”

“The accent.”

He grinned, slumped in defeat. “Dammit! I don’t have an accent.”

“Yes you do.”

“No I don’t. I talk like a radio announcer.”

“There is a slight but definite twang.”

“Ughhh.” He squirmed.

Caren hugged her legs to her chest, leaned her cheek on her knee, smiled at him innocently. “Sooooo…where ya from?”

Nathaniel let out a dramatic sigh and pronounced, in an exaggerated drawl, “Atlanta.”

Caren squeed.

“Oh, you’re a fan of the accent?” He arched an eyebrow.

Caren avoided his eye. “Mmmmaybe.”

“Well then, maybe Ah’ll just lean right on into it,” Nathaniel drawled—then cringed. “Ew. I sound like my dad.”

Caren shook her head vigorously. “You don’t sound like anyone’s dad.”

“Hmm…good.” He smiled.

“So as a kid you ran away all the way from Atlanta to Philly?”

“I wanted to get the fuck out of the South.” Nathaniel stared off. “Atlanta’s probably not even the worst city ever, just…wanted to be far away from him.”

Caren, too, found herself staring off. “Bruh. I feel that.”

“You said your old man’s in a nursing home?”

“Dude. What the fuck are we doing talking about dads? Tonight’s supposed to be fun.”

“Hmmmm, good point.”

Caren raised her glass of crema de vie. “Fuck dads!”

“Fuck dads!” Nathaniel echoed, and clinked his glass against hers. “Unless you count Soren. He’s pretty good as dads go. Gay dads for the win.” He once more raised his glass, then drank.

“Yeah, gay dads, probably a very different deal.” Caren realized Nathaniel was staring off again. “Where’d you go?”

He returned to his body. “Sorry. We just said we’re supposed to be having fun.”

“Eh, whatever, dude. Out with it.”

“Iiii…just…” He zoned out on his empty plate. “I really fucked up tonight.”

“…You mean with the vampire?”

“Yeah.”

“Dude. It turned out okay. Everybody’s fully intact. Live and learn.”

“I guess. I just hate that I got Vernon hurt. And I hate that I disappointed Soren. He’s going through the unimaginable right now, and he’s put a lot of faith in me, and I just…fuck. I have got to get my shit together.”

The unimaginable? Caren thought. “That Murakami guy…?” she guessed.

“Tak…yeah.” Nathaniel smiled sadly. “Soren’s husband. And best friend. They were kinda the dream…you know what I mean?”

“Husband?” Caren raised her eyebrows. “Dude. I had no idea Soren was married.”

“He kept it secret from everyone but the inner circle, ’cause he was afraid of…well, exactly what fucking happened. I mean, I don’t think that shitstain Megyesi knew Tak was Soren’s husband. I think he was just targeting all of us…and Tak happened to be one of the unlucky ones.”

“Jesus.”

“If Soren is Dad, Tak was Mom.” Nathaniel smiled wanly. “Kind of distant, but gentle. Good listener. Great counselor. I still can’t believe he’s gone.”

Caren didn’t know what to say.

“Not sure if I told you this,” Nathaniel continued, “but me and Vern were the only ones not there when it happened. I think Vern especially feels bad about it, ’cause if he was there he could have fucking stopped them. Me…not sure I would have been much help, but it still feels…weird…that I just completely dodged the whole thing. It was all offscreen for me. Just, suddenly, Tak and Wyatt aren’t here anymore, and everybody’s different. Soren tries to act like he’s not, and sometimes maybe he’s really not, sometimes I think he actually forgets, like he just can’t keep it in his head. But he is, he’s different, like half of him’s…” Nathaniel gave a listless shrug. “…gone.” He dropped his forehead into his hands. “And he’s fucking depending on me right now, Caren, and I’m completely fucking dropping the ball.”

“You’re being hard on yourself,” said Caren, awkwardly.

Nathaniel raised his head, looked at her wide-eyed. “I can actually handle a gun, you know.”

She eyed him dubiously.

“I practice at the range every day,” he went on. “I have for years. I’m a good fucking shot. I just lost my motherfucking shit tonight.”

“It…takes time, learning to keep your cool around fucked-up shit like that. It took a while for me too.”

“I really don’t know why Soren made me Maréchal.” Nathaniel heaved a sigh, stared into the fire. “Well…yeah. I do. ’Cause when you’re someone he loves, he can’t see your fucking flaws.” He raked his hands through his hair. “Ahhh…fuck. If I let him down, Caren, I swear to God I’ll fucking shoot myself.” A bitter laugh escaped him; a helpless shrug. “I’ll probably miss.”

Caren stared at the table. Hesitated. “Maybe that bullet will hit the vampire.”

To her relief, Nathaniel burst out laughing. Kept laughing for a full fifteen seconds, like a pressure valve had opened. “Ohhh…I like you.” He beamed at her with tears in his eyes.

She felt a sharp pang in her chest.

He sat there gazing at her for a moment, then put his glass down on the table, gently pried hers out of her hand and put it down too. Scooted closer. 

Caren’s chest agimat gave another angry throb.

He traced her hair back off her forehead, laid his palm on the side of her face. Studied her features with a warmth she felt would burn her. “Thanks for hanging out with me tonight, Caren,” he said softly. Grinned. “Reminding me how to smile…”

Who kissed who first, Caren wasn’t sure. She just knew that her chest was aching, her dick was already half-hard, and Nathaniel’s body was warm, slim, strong, and she wasn’t thinking at all right now, because at times like this thinking was dangerous.

He made sounds when she kissed his face and neck like a soft animal, like a bundle of nerves on fire. Everything, absolutely everything got a response. Some people were bulldozers, pushing, pushing, pushing, some people were walls, opaque. Nathaniel was a living thing. You told a stupid joke, he laughed his ass off. You touched him feather-lightly, he shivered. You yanked him close and held him, he gasped.

Caren hit pause, pulled her shirt over her head, threw it on the floor, started to dive back in. But Nathaniel caught her shoulders in his hands, sat looking her over, panting softly. “Fuck…you’re so pretty,” he murmured, and smiled, his fingertips tracing her arms. On a second scan, his gaze settled on her chest agimat, and his expression softened as his fingers drifted toward the scar: “Hey. What’s…?”

Caren ignored the sudden sharp pain in her chest, grabbed him and plunged her tongue into his ear. He gave a loud moan. Her fingers scrabbled at the knotted cord on the front of his track pants.

“Wow…ohhh…w-whoa.” Nathaniel grabbed her hand, held it gently. Pulled back, ducked to catch her eye, his chest heaving. “N-no rush, right?”

Caren recoiled like he’d burned her. “Sorry.” She covered her face with her hands, wrapped her arms tightly around her bare chest. “Fuck.”

“No, no, no, no, come back.” Nathaniel gave a breathless chuckle, folded her into his arms, where she huddled stiffly. “I definitely like having you right here. I just…think we don’t have to hurry into sex. You know?”

Caren fought an urge to shove him. Hard.

“I’m very, very attracted to you,” he went on. “I definitely don’t want to leave you wondering about that. It just…can be complicated for people like us. I’d rather take it slow…you know? Try to get it right.”

“‘People like us’?” mumbled Caren.

“Y’know…queer trauma babies.” Nathaniel’s mouth twisted in a small, wry smile.

Caren sat stock-still for a moment.

Then,

“I think you’re overthinking it,” she blurted. “It’s just sex. Not that I want to push you into anything you don’t want. I definitely, definitely don’t. When I wanna fuck, I have about a million people I can call.”

He frowned, pulled back from her.

Caren suddenly punched her thigh, hard. Why the fuck did I say that? “You say ‘people like us,’” she went on, despite the voice in her head screaming at her to shut up. “But I’m really not so sure we’re the same kind.”

Nathaniel kept his eyes downcast. His mouth curled in a small, sad smile. “Maybe you’re right. You’re probably a lot tougher than me.”

“‘Get it right’—what’s that even mean?” Caren’s leg jiggled furiously. She kept punching her thigh, over and over. “There’s no ‘getting it right.’ We’re just fucking animals with fucking animal needs.”

“Hey…I can tell I said something wrong,” said Nathaniel, in a careful tone of voice, which Caren hated with every fiber of her being. “I’m really sorry.”

“Jesus Christ, shut up. You didn’t say anything wrong. You’re just a different kind of animal.”

“Maybe. I just kind of thought…”

“Thought what?” Punch. Punch. Punch.

“I don’t know. I don’t know.” He looked contracted now. Anxious.

Punch. Punch. Punch. You fucked this up already, you dumb bitch. What the fuck is wrong with you?

Nathaniel got up, paced away, rubbed the bridge of his nose. He looked like he might be trying not to cry.

Caren stopped punching herself, stared at him—found herself trying to resolve a split image:

…A pathetic prey animal.

…A superior asshole.

…An actually good person who’s gonna end up hating me…just like I deserve.

She watched his chest rise and fall a couple of times slowly, the worry lines in his forehead relax a bit.

When he looked at her again, his transparent little smile was back. It was a kind of trademark of his, she realized—this close-lipped, bright-eyed smile that made it feel like you were looking in a mirror and saw yourself sad.

“I’m sorry,” he said again. “Caren…I have seriously had the most fucked-up week.”

“Me too,” Caren heard herself say.

Nathaniel took a deep breath. “Would you…wanna take it from the top?”

“Okay…”

He shuffled over, sat next to her.

Turned to her, extended his right hand. “Nathaniel Betancourt. Nice to meet you.”

Caren threw her arms around his neck and kissed him.

He melted, slipped his arms around her, snugly but not too tight.

Sighed, leaned his forehead against hers. “Wow…thank you for that, kind stranger.”

“Your week looking better now?” Caren asked meekly.

“Yes, considerably. You?”

She didn’t answer. Just cuddled up to him, nestled her head in the curve of his neck.

Tried to ignore the excruciating pain in her chest.

NEXT EPISODE: ASH – “CAUDA PAVONIS”
PREVIOUS EPISODE: CAREN – “PET PLAY”
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