Here’s a Christmas story for this year, set in the future of the Last Solist series, after the fourth story in the series, Solist At The Fall.
There’s something oddly cathartic about sitting on the ledge of a skyscraper on Christmas Day.
Namely, just after midnight, I’m sitting on one of the gargoyles for the Chrysler Building and I’m not cold. Not at all. My Regalia is keeping me comfortably warm, and the wind here just makes things feel brisk. But it’s still cold inside. It’s lonely.
I should be at home.
Sayuri isn’t here. Her father pretty much went from the Lycée to the airport without stopping after the last day of classes. Because Sayuri has to do as many miai as she can before she has to come back for classes. Because he needs to marry her off as soon as possible. Because that’s the only way he can control her.
Deborah isn’t here. I made sure of that, as this is the first Christmas-the first real Christmas-she had with her mother. Thirteen years is a long time when you never had your father and your mother…was an illusion, a role played by something that wasn’t human. But even if I had to get out and push, Deborah would have a Christmas with her actual mother this year.
Aretta isn’t here. Her family and I…have managed to come to an understanding about what happened to her. What followed them from Kenya and what was trying to kill her line for decades. We rarely have a corpse to mount on the wall, proof that a monster has been overcome. But this is a time that I wished there was. She’s spending the first Christmas ever somewhere that is warm, away from New York, away from Kenya, and away from her nightmares.
My real family, the family that birthed and raised me…their only remaining son isn’t at home anymore and they decided to take a trip for Christmas. The first time they ever did it for Christmas in almost fifty years. They’re being watched, in a positive way, by my Servants. Somehow, there will always be at least a shape-changed two cat-ferret field team in range to bail them out and shoot anything that could threaten them in less than a minute and that’s the best I can do for them.
My…family of concealment, the horde of Servants that I’ve had for the last eighteen months, are waiting in Long Island. Most of them are asleep, or the nearest possible thing. There’s a team sitting in a warehouse in Hell’s Kitchen, in case I need them. But otherwise…they’re waiting for the sun to come up, for me to come down the stairs to open Christmas presents. To celebrate my second Christmas in our “first real home” for a girl that didn’t even exist eighteen months ago. The whiplash of everything that has happened…still gets to me, more often than not.
I know why I’m sitting here. Last night on Christmas Eve, my family of concealment went to see the holiday windows and something tickled my senses. A faint whiff of corruption, a sense that there is something that is evil and inhuman trying to get into our world. We walked around long enough for me to figure that it was close by, but no other details. Not an immediate threat, but one that somebody should deal with soon.
I’m a Dawn Empire Solist. My job is to be the “somebody” that “deals with it soon.”
Adelaide, I can hear in my head-not my thoughts because it doesn’t work that way-from the stabbing spear I’m holding in my hand. Whisper is his name, a Sapient Device and as much a person as any of us are. You don’t have to do this alone.
“No,” I replied softly, barely louder than the wind noise up here, “I don’t. But I will.”
You can have Deborah here, Whisper continues, she will…
“Her first Christmas with her mother, her real mother,” I half-hiss, my anger instant and almost instinctive. “She will not miss that experience if I can help it. If something sets me off, I’ll back up and call for help. But not until then.”
Whisper is silent after this and I suddenly feel awful, embarrassed by my reaction. “I can’t let her,” and I half-hiccup over my own draining rage, “I can’t let them lose this first time, if I can help it. Let me try first, please.”
Whisper gently turns in my hand, a hug that if he had arms, he’d give me. I know, Adelaide. Just…be careful.
“I will,” and I stand up from my perch and let my sense of magical energy, the ability to detect prana, reach my eyes. This is Midtown East in New York, some of the most exclusive and privileged dirt and buildings in the world. To my sense of magic, there are all sorts of glows and marks and there is history here. But somewhere nearby, I can feel it. A wrongness of power that will show up purple-green and squirming like meth-fueled maggots to my sight if I look too hard at it.
An intrusion from realms that shouldn’t ever reach our world. The places of gasping hunger that Lovecraft could see in his nightmares, the empty voids where monsters hide in the Mandelbrot sets. What the Dawn Empire called the Darkness in the nearest translation from High Imperial-to-English that didn’t take over five hundred words to render and would still be incomplete.
Some instinct, a sense of right and wrong rubs against my body. It’s an instinct that I know all too well, and it is suggesting that I head north/north-east. I can feel my prana flow change, lifting me off my feet and wrapping a veil of concealment around me as I begin to fly, hidden from just about every sense.
I can feel my pulse begin to rise, excitement running up and down my body. I’m built for this hunt, and the hunt has begun.
The wind blows past my ears as I’m flying, keeping the forward shielding to a minimum to lower my magical signature. I let the instinct pull me, senses open and looking for whatever threat I found last night. On my wrist, I can see the numbers change as it nears 1 AM. Fully and officially Christmas, if you want to think about it that way. I want to think about it that way, but…I can’t right now.
If I had to make a guess, we’re dealing with some wannabe necromancer, who got ahold of enough information to start messing with things that they shouldn’t have. Probably a teenage boy with murdered cats and dogs, because that’s where most of the statistical range falls for starting, wannabe necromancers. But one of the things I’ve been taught is never assume, because assumption is the mother of most mistakes. That’s why I’m searching as high as I can above the streets and as covertly as possible. If there’s going to be any surprises, let them be in my favor and to my advantage.
My eyes pick up the first traces of the necromancer’s power just slightly north of 3rd Avenue, more shadows than actual sight. I begin to search and a faint sense of something wrong, the tickle of a smell in the back of my head, leads me towards an alley. A basement, I think, looking at the closed office building. I’m almost sighing at how cliche this is-I’m here for this?
Then, I realize that it’s bigger than I thought. Crude wards have been scratched into the walls of the alley, hidden by a layer of fresh graffiti. They were also careful to make sure to add a layer of warding over the alleyway, using the secondary effects of necromantic prana to power them. Just outside the alley I can see the mistake in the ward, like water soaking through a saturated towel. The wards are crude…but it’s a skilled sort of crude, done by someone that would have done better if they had known more.
I can hear Whisper clear his metaphysical throat, almost to ask if I should call Deborah in for backup. “Not yet,” I reply softly, before he can even form the words. “Not yet.”
If this is what I think it is, Dear God, not yet.
It takes me a few moments to examine the wards, and they are all concealment wards-no alarm or trap wards of any kind, nothing that would allow the necromancer to know if someone like me went past them. I lower myself onto a nearby fire escape and shut down the flight spell, examining the alleyway. This isn’t random or just somebody who is playing with magic, thinking it’s a game. This is an actual, no-joke necromancer. But that means I have to stop them now.
The door is easy to find, and the same skilled-if-crude ward construction is on that door. All designed to keep me from using any remote-viewing tricks or trying to look into what is nothing but a solid barrier of disquieting purple-green. I had to give the necromancer credit-he even warded the ceiling and floor, and there were some hints that he had even done some work on the pipes and ductwork as well. The door even had an alarm spell on it, supplementing the purely physical alarm system I suspected was there. I’m looking around carefully, and I have to smile. Our necromancer was through, but there only appears to be two doors to the basement. And the hallway connected to the outside door splits the largest space from the smallest.
I power the flight spell back up and lower myself through the wards and down to the ground. There’s a cool, acidic prickling on my skin as I pass through the area covered by the wards, but nothing else happens. I land softly on my feet, after checking to make sure there aren’t any wards or spells of any kind to warn people of my approach. Before I drop my veil, I do a quick check for cameras and don’t find any that are looking my way. When I drop the veil, I pull out of Elsewhere my equipment and change my Regalia.
I’m not sure why I’m still doing this, but when I got started, I decided to do the whole “let’s have a secret identity” thing and that secret identity is Serenity Rose. Upper-class Scottish expat in New York with red hair, clothing covered in Celtic symbology and wearing a plain white face mask to protect her identity. My Regalia also is more ornate, rather than the plain Grey Lensman-style that is the default and I still like what Charles did with the design.
Charles’ obsession with roses-and lilies if I let them out-worries me at times. Fortunately, I got him to tone down the number of roses in this version of my Regalia, by about fifteen, twenty percent. The rest of my gear is all modern and all from Charles as well. I quietly trot behind a dumpster to check it before I go in, after making sure nothing is following me.
Tradition and style states that I should go in with Whisper, bow, and magic. This isn’t a traditional set of circumstances. Not a complaint about my bow-a proper recurve bow with a two-hundred-and-fifty-pound draw and spell arrows in variety-but a complaint about what works and what doesn’t in hard-core CQB environments. Especially in places like enclosed hallways, where throwing large quantities of fire will cause things like fires. I pull from the back holster my rifle and do a function check.
Once again, Charles is invoking his mad scientist heritage and the rifle is small, compact, black, and looking like something that Masamune Shirow would have drawn for a cyberpunk manga. It’s my MN-19 assault rifle-twenty inches of 5.56mm NATO caseless bullpup action, with a barrel length equal to a classic M-16. It fires so fast that in a three round burst that the third bullet is out of the barrel before the weapon fully recoils from the first round, and there’s no forensic evidence other than the bullets. Slip a “mixed breakfast” magazine-jacketed hollow points, pure silver in a discarding sabot, and a ward-cracking round-in the magazine well at the top, pull and turn the spring-retracted key that fits in the butt of the rifle a half-rotation to cock and load the weapon, and I’m ready to go. Laser pointer on the rifle and the holographic sight is set for UV vision mode, and I tap the side of my face mask to bring up the various image overlay modes.
I should have laughed at this-the necromancer was so complete in warding his hideout that he gave me a rough map to his location. There’s just enough of an emphasis on the larger room, enough that it has to be where he’s doing his casting and ritual work. I’m careful to make sure Whisper is in an easy place for me to grasp as needed. Make sure the spare rifle magazines on my harness clear the pouches smoothly, double-check that the combat sling for the rifle swings smoothly, do a quick press-check to make sure the Glock holstered on my right leg is loaded. “Breach, bang, and clear,” I half-chant under my breath, and if I have to use the door, I’ll use it my way.
I’m pulling back up the veil and I walk invisibly to about six steps away from the door, taking a deep breath. Adjust the grip of my boots to maximum so that I don’t slip on the ice, build up the spellwork, and lay down a few trap spells and wards of my own, to make sure nobody escapes when I come in. I let the breath out that I didn’t know I was holding in slow, smooth five count. But on the end of the exhale, I let the spell fly and start running towards the door. Before I’ve even made it three steps, the door explodes inwards, the blasting spell I used was designed to drive it into the hallway in a hail of wooden shards. An instant later, the flash-bulb strobes of the light spell I sent in with the splinters goes off, hopefully blinding anyone inside for one critical moment or two.
I’m just behind the splinters, and the rifle goes from port-arms to fully raised to my shoulder as I enter, and I can sense the motion to my left. Human, male, late teens or early twenties and he’s holding a knife of some kind. He’s also got a ward on, designed to protect him against low-level spell effects and that makes him into a target. Three rounds blow his jaw and most of the area below his neck off, the sound of the suppressed rifle sounding like a small jackhammer in the hallway. His body collapses and there isn’t anyone immediately behind him. I pivot right and sweep into what has to be a small kitchen or preparation area for the larger room. Ignore the body on the table-young female, maybe, ribs and abdomen cracked open as part of a ghoul’s feast of some kind. She’s dead and won’t be coming back if someone stuck something nasty to use her prepared nervous system as a mount. Ignore the sounds coming from a locked pantry with a reinforced door and continue my sweep.
Around the corner comes another man-cult robes, knife, late twenties, and far too close. I can’t get the rifle around in time before he tries to take a swing at me with the knife. I have to let go of the rifle with my right hand to block the blow, his wrist sliding down my forearm and the blade twitching as it hits against my barrier. He’s warded, but there’s no other signs of enchantments, and the ward is weak in comparison to my magic. A quick spell macro slams him in the chest, a rod of pure force that has to feel like he’s been hit by a medicine ball thrown hard enough to crack if not shatter his rib cage. It doesn’t matter, because that blow forced him away enough for me to put three precisely placed rounds into his chest, 5.56mm rounds blowing out his heart and grouped so tightly you could put a quarter over the penetration holes in his chest.
Sweep back around-no live targets here-and confirm that nobody has tried to use the alley door to escape as I finish the sweep of the smaller area. I cross over into the hallway again and use my left hand to pull down a curtain that is blocking off the larger area, shoving the barrel of the rifle through at the same time. Which is a good thing, because something tries to bite the barrel off as I do, damn near yanking the rifle out of my hand.
I let go of the rifle, the combat sling automatically detaching, and Whisper snapped instantly to my open hand. Somewhere over the shrieking anger of the head necromancer in what has to either be Latin or very drunken Greek and the screams of his interrupted sacrifice is a sound I never wanted to hear again. It is a growl from a throat made from glass and rusted iron nails, something in the German Shephard range, jaws around the barrel shroud of the rifle as it throws the gun away and comes at me. Its eyes are full of luminous green worms, full of fury and anger. A Hound, I hissed at myself in my thoughts. The fuckers summoned a Hound?
It leaps at me, terrifyingly gaunt and made up entirely of straight lines, the bones breaking and healing instantly as it moves. The body, if I had time to really look, would be a mass of broken glass and metal filings, animated by a thing that should never be here. It’s angry howling would be causing me to panic if I had time to panic. Instead, I take Whisper and slam it up into the Hound’s body, carving out one of its legs in an arc of glass dust and rust filings. It rolls on the ground, screaming in sounds that should sound like an angry dog-if you can imagine those sounds coming from a scrapyard in a hurricane. The Hound snaps around on its three legs and I drive Whisper as hard into the monster’s body as I can.
There’s a brilliant flash, a pricking of skin even through my barriers and wards, and the air would smell full of ozone if I wasn’t wearing my mask. The Hound collapses into a messy pile of half-molten glass and metal, having zapped the animating spirit with enough lightning to jump-start half the cars at JFK. Give something like that a good zap or hit on the form it’s animating, that’ll cause it to lose its grip on our world and leave the body behind. My eyes look up and there’s the necromancer, trying to carve something with his knife on the sacrifice’s body…maybe a summoning, I don’t know.
But I don’t care, as I fly across the room on thrust and drive Whisper into his chest so hard the tip of the blade comes out through his spine. He drops to his knees, and his hands flail for a few moments before he falls to the floor. The moment his body hits the ground, I slam down my boot onto the side of his neck and I can hear it break like green wood. His eyes flutter and his lips try to move, but he’s already dead. Quickly check to make sure there aren’t any dead-man spells on the necromancer-nothing there-and I turn around to see the girl.
She’s tied to the table with heavy-duty zip ties, the skin on her chest partially peeled off from the necromancer’s summoning efforts. Blood is welling out, and I hiss to Whisper, “Keep us safe,” and I pull the multi-tool off my belt and snap out the wire cutters. It takes only a few seconds to pop off the dozen or so separate zip ties holding her down, and the girl writhes in pain. I push my hands down on her shoulders and say as calmly as I can, “Stop moving! You are going to hurt yourself more!”
She keeps moving, babbling something that almost sounds like a mixture of school-learned Mandarin Chinese and something else. I finally get a good look at her and she’s almost…elfin in the candlelight and weak light bulbs that had lit this room and I know I don’t want to smell what the fat of the candles are made of. I switch to Mandarin and say as slowly as I can, “Please…stop moving. You are going to hurt yourself more if you do.”
Her breathing slows down, and I’m hoping that she’s calming down and not going into shock. The words are a jumbled mess that I can barely make one word out of three. I start to use my magic to heal up the wounds, watching as the skin flows back together. Her injuries are a methodical sort of torture, but I can heal them. Whisper points something out as I’m doing so. Book on the table, the handwriting looks familiar. I take a look at it and…I want there to be a spell that makes time travel possible. Fury is making the corners of my vision waver, as it’s another one of Kevin Fucking Lambert’s spell books, probably one of his earlier ones. Some teenager found it and decided to get into necromancy for fun and…I have to stop thinking about this. Anger won’t help anyone right now. I close the book, pull a shield bag out of Elsewhere, and stuff the book in and secure the top.
A few minutes later, the girl’s sobbing in remembered pain and not bleeding anymore. She’s also eaten half of my supply of emergency food bars and gone through two bottles of water. There aren’t any sirens yet-the wards outside must have been dampening the sounds from here-and I walk over to the locked pantry door. I already suspect what is in the pantry, and I find something to throw over the body on the table, covering it completely.
These three idiots added a cross-bar and two padlocks to the door, and it only takes me a moment and some magic to rip them all out in a shower of splinters. Inside the room, blinking at the light and clutching each other tightly were three other girls, all looking like they came from the same place. “You are safe,” I say in Mandarin Chinese, and pull off my mask. I can see their expressions relax as they realize that I’m a girl. “Please, follow me and do not look around.”
I lead them by the hand to the room with their friend and they’re all crying together, holding each other and babbling in what sounds like Mandarin and the other language they all seem to know. I can tell that the wards are starting to collapse, the death of the necromancer causing them to fail. Whatever you can say about Kevin fucking Lambert, even his crude stuff is better that most people’s polished work. I pull my current burner phone out of a pouch and discover that it’s connecting to the network here in the basement. Pull up a saved phone number, and my phone connects to the supervisor’s desk at Police dispatch. “NYPD Dispatch, this is…,” a male voice begins.
“Dispatch, open your secure document storage. File is Quantum Indigo Echo, absolute priority,” I interrupt calmly, emphasizing my words.
Even if you’re doing short-strokes on the prettiest girl in the world, stop and listen. Please.
“One moment,” and the man’s voice goes away, and he comes back. “I have the file, I need…”
“Authentication is Whiskey, Victor, Tango, Echo, Gamma, Kilo,” I interrupted him again, giving the one-time code to confirm who I am. “Location is as follows,” and I gave him the location and identifying marks, hearing a pen scribbling in the background. “Site is currently HOT, I repeat, a HOT Yellow. I am securing the location now, three hostile and one innocent down. Will need at least two uniforms, a bus, a hearse, and social workers for four females of unknown Asian origin, possibly northern Chinese or Tibetian or Mongolian. Call and alert everyone on the ‘A’ phone list, will be on this number for the next six hours. Confirm, please.”
“Got your location, and I’ve got at least one patrol car on the way,” he reads off his notes. “Hopefully two and the duty sergeant soon. Location is a HOT Yellow, uniforms will contact you when they are close to confirm status. Three hostile and one innocent down. Four females, of northern Chinese origin, don’t speak English. Need a bus,” the slang term for an ambulance, “and help when they get to the hospital. You’ll be on this number for the next six hours, minimum.”
“Thank you,” I replied, catching my breath that I didn’t know I was holding. “I will be here.”
“Putting the calls in now,” the supervisor says. “And…good luck.”
The phone disconnects, and I make sure the phone has the ring-tone volume set to maximum as I walk over to the girls and try to communicate with them.
I look at my watch as I come over. Barely 1:35 AM. Merry Christmas.
After I finish disarming the last of the wards, after the uniforms come in, after they take the girls away in an ambulance and the coroner is going in with respirators because yes, the grease they were using for the candles was rendered human fat, Detective Craigmore shows up as part of the last steps in this story. Classic NYPD Irish detective, one each, I know that I’ve dragged him away from his family on Christmas morning and I’m about to apologize profusely when he holds his hand up and says, “Good morning to you too, Serenity. But I know you’re sorry.”
“Am I that predictable?” I ask with a half-hearted smile. I’m sipping some of the worst coffee I’ve ever had, cop coffee in all respects, the sugar and “dairy creamer” killing the worst of the burnt taste. “Report is here,” and I hand him about fifteen hand-written pages of half-truths and accurate statements about what happened. “A necromancer with one of Kevin Lambert’s early notebooks. They had five girls in there, used one as a binding sacrifice for a Hound. Could have been preparing for a second summoning, they had a girl ready to go when I came in. Necromancer, two Renfields, and a girl dead. Three girls locked away, might have been bought from someone.” I stop for a moment, and with a single solid chuck, toss the empty coffee cup into a nearby dumpster. “Disarmed all the traps and secured the book. Not good police work, I am afraid, but I did sanitize any magical signatures in there.”
Craigmore sighs and rubs the bridge of his nose with his fingertips. “I’d like to avoid another meeting with Manticore,” he agrees with my unspoken statement. “Boss can make this a little flatter; straightforward cult crap and girls being used for sex work. Shitty way to have a Christmas morning.”
“Very shitty,” I agreed with him, and half-yawned. “Tired, coming down from the combat high. I did a second walk-through to be sure. I can stay here…”
“Go home, Serenity,” Craigmore interrupts me. “You wouldn’t have left any problems behind, and somebody should be home for Christmas with their family.” He gently shoves me on the shoulder, and his smile under the police lights is as happy as you can hope. “I’ll call if there’s a problem, promise.”
I nodded, sighed theatrically, and looked around. “I hate to hug and run,” and I gave him a good, hard hug-not so hard as to break something, but enough to know how much I cared. “Give your wife and kids an extra hug for me, please?”
Craigmore hugged me back, and I slipped my mask and wig back on, heading for the end of the alleyway and powered up the spells I needed to fly back to the safehouse. Twenty minutes later, I’m waiting in the safehouse with my Regalia shut down, nibbling on a food bar. The portal opens up like clockwork-it’s on an hour timer-and three steps brings me to the train station, then back to the warehouse in Hell’s Kitchen. “Mission done,” I said, with a tired sigh. “Wannabe necromancer with one of Kevin Lambert’s books,” I hand the warded, bagged book to Ian, and he takes it. “One of the early ones, I think. Five girls, one sacrificed.” I yawn again, a good solid one that opens my mouth fully. “Tired, rough fight.”
Ian nods, and says, “We’ll get you home ASAP. Checkup first, of course.”
I don’t sigh, roll my eyes, or complain, but I am so very tempted. Kiokyo is there, wearing nurse scrubs, and she sweeps me with her magic and one of Charles’ gadgets to make sure that I’m not hiding something or had something planted on me. Two minutes later, she pulls off her face mask and smiles. “No problems, but you need some rest. Time to cheat.”
But without any warning at all, Kiokyo comes up and around me, hugs me from behind, firmly tucks my head between her neck and shoulder, carefully sweeps me off my feet, and takes me like a naughty kitten to our portal area. “I can walk,” I complained, and very carefully squirmed to get more Kiokyo hug-time and body contact in.
“I know you can,” Kiokyo purred, and I could feel the full-body blush beginning as a new portal was opened and she stepped through, still carrying me…
…into the basement of the house in Long Island. “Charles set this up,” Kiokyo keeps me from trying to say anything in complaint. “Very low signature, almost impossible to detect, and he built a couple of tricks that if someone was able to find it, it would be after they found the house and everything.”
“We can’t use it very often,” I whispered softly. “I can’t…”
“You needed to be home,” Kiokyo nuzzled my cheek and carried me upstairs to my bedroom. In less than thirty seconds, I’m out of my clothes, in my nightgown, and tucked solidly under my sheets. “Sleep as long as you need, we’ll be there for Christmas when you wake up.”
“I want…,” I mutter something, and before I can say anything else, I’m out like a light.
I don’t get PTSD.
Being a member of the Dawn Empire warrior caste-along with the various other augmentations and modifications-means that a lot of the things that cause PTSD can’t happen to me. My brain doesn’t carve permanent grooves into the deep lizard portions from trauma. My frontal cortex was put together by experts and not unskilled labor. My brain chemistry and hormonal levels don’t go crazy or massively out of sync-or they don’t stay that way for long. My basic thought patterns do not default to pessimism and fear, but instead a calm optimism that has few illusions.
I’ve been trained in the warning signs of various issues, things I need to watch for and things that I should ask one of my Servants questions about.
My memory is eidetic, to a terrifying degree. I can describe everything that I have experienced with detail and nuance. But if I am not careful, that same memory will insist on replaying itself with terrifying detail. Such as just falling directly asleep after a fight, and for some reason tonight it is all about smell. I know the differences between various kinds of burning human fat, and my brain is demanding that I categorize the smell from the candles in the necromancer’s lair. There is this warm feeling that I’m scared for a moment is wrong…but it becomes right…
…and I wake up.
I’m in my bed, which is right. It’s now Christmas morning, which is right as well.
The girl curled up against me isn’t right.
Something about how I’m moving causes her head to move and my brain finally slips into gear and I realize that it is Deborah looking up at me in the bed. “Good morning, Adelaide,” she says sleepily, trying to curl a bit closer.
“Um…why are you here?” I ask as I try to not let my body stiffen up, realizing that the question is stupid but somehow very important.
Deborah pouts-an expression that she’s still learning to use to its full heart-melting effect on me-and tilts her head slightly to the side to get a better view through brown hair over her eyes. “Adelaide, you needed me here, so I came over last night.”
“Your mother…,” I try to say, but she pouts again.
“You needed me last night, when you were out hunting. I knew it, and you should have known it.” She has gotten far too good at reading fractional motions in my body and followed up on that logic. “You knew, but you didn’t call because you wouldn’t want to ruin my Christmas. Sayuri made me promise that I’d keep an eye on you, and I know I should have watched you a lot closer,” she interrupts me. “I asked Mom if we could come and celebrate Christmas here, and she said yes. Brought all our presents, Servants and everything else.”
“I didn’t want…,” and Deborah put a fingertip on my lips to stop me speaking.
“You didn’t want to interrupt my first Christmas with my mother in nearly twelve years,” she pointed out. “You didn’t want to drag me in, because you felt that it was wrong. You gave a human answer to a Solist problem. I’m your Companion, Adelaide. I have to be dragged in, because that’s what I am. That’s why we’re here.”
“I hate thinking like that,” I say a moment later, after she takes her finger off my lips. “It feels greedy and arrogant.”
“Which is your answer, because it feels like Adelaide,” she agrees with me, and snuggles in even closer. “So very much an Adelaide answer. Which is what makes you so adorable as our Solist. Few more minutes, then breakfast downstairs?”
I curl up with her and rest my chin in her hair. “Few more minutes. Merry Christmas, Deborah.”
“Merry Christmas, Adelaide.”
A few more minutes later…
We were coming downstairs, and…it did feel like home.
Decorated Christmas tree, with every ornament that my biological parents had given me there, as well as several new ones I had picked out. Kristen, Deborah’s mother, was still using her cane as Etaine, one of Deborah’s Servants, helped her to finish laying out the presents. Father and Mother were there in their respective PJs, Charlotte and Kiokyo and Viola were in full “Downton Abbey” maid uniforms-because, of course they were-and were trying to outdo Etaine in their Victorian-era recreation of a happy household.
I can hear movement everywhere-not hypersensitivity but how my senses are. If I concentrate slightly, I can feel the flow of prana of every other Servant in the house. I can tell you how the various wards and barriers and enchantments are built, from the anti-vermin spells on the fence line to shielding spells that make the house resistant to anything short of many tactical nukes or equivalent magic. I know breakfast will be made in a few moments as someone-probably Benjamin or Ian-tells the kitchen team to start making something spectacular. A suspicious smell that suggests apple cinnamon pancakes.
But there’s this sense of overlay, the feeling that this isn’t right. I should be in a house which could fit comfortably in the first floor of this mansion-and still have space for the garage as well. The living room should be smaller. My Dad should be making pancakes from the kit he got from his sister, her annual Christmas present every year. Mom is still trying to figure out how to put down the stockings without things falling out.
My brothers…should be here. They can’t be here ever again, three years dead at this point.
I should still be a boy.
I should still be an adult man.
I shouldn’t be this teenage girl, surrounded by people that sincerely love me. My hand shouldn’t be held by Deborah, who cares about me. Who doesn’t know all my history, who I have been very careful not to tell her, or Sayuri, or Aretta everything. I haven’t lied-not by commission-but I have been very careful to let assumptions not be corrected.
Deborah’s hand tightens up on mine, and I know she is telling me I won’t let go of you.
I want to go home so badly it hurts, like razor blades taken to my heart.
No, that’s not correct. I want to rewind, to go back to where I was before. To fall into the past, where I know how everything was.
But the past can never be returned to. We can never go home, because that is just the memories. Making a home…making a life is the process of going from yesterday to tomorrow.
This…is my life now. But God help me…I don’t think I would go back even if I could. I’ve seen the monsters hiding out beyond the edges of the world. Some of them aren’t even human. But I’m one of the people that can fight the monsters.
My hand tightens on Deborah’s, and I can feel tears running down my cheeks. I should stop crying, I know how to do it. But I can’t.
Deborah lets go of my hand and hugs me as close as possible, and I can’t help but smile through my tears as I hug her back. “Merry Christmas, Deborah.”
“Merry Christmas, Adelaide,” she tells me as she lets me go, and we head downstairs to applause, to a world full of love.
To a world full of the people I love.
It might be only for this moment…but it’s a moment I will always treasure.