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saving candlenights and other extreme sports

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December arrives in Kepler with a storm. Snow falls for a solid three days, trapping them all inside by wrecking the roads with ice and slush. Barclay had seen Aubrey drive exactly one time and promptly declared that she wasn’t allowed to steal Mama’s truck anymore, at least not until he’d given her lessons on how to drive 1) in the snow, 2) in the country. Aubrey feels like her brains are about to start oozing out of her ears from boredom. She can’t go anywhere. The Lodge typically is full of things to do, but there’s only so many times one can mop the floors before they lose their minds, despite whatever Barclay might claim.

Also, she wants to go down to the Cryptonomica and mooch off of Ned’s WiFi so she can order Yule gifts for everyone. She likes to get presents early, otherwise she forgets.

Aubrey looks up from the notebook she’s using to list all her gift ideas and stares at her bedroom wall blankly. She doesn’t know what holidays - if any - that Sylphs celebrate.

She slaps her notebook shut and hides it under her mattress, away from prying eyes. Which might be a moot point if there’s no gift giving, but it matters to her that it’s a surprise. She’s going to go find Mama and ask.

 

Mama is exiting a large outbuilding behind Amnesty Lodge when Aubrey finds her. She has on a old yellow and blue Columbia jacket that Aubrey recognizes as Barclay’s, from sometime in the early 2000’s. Between Mama and Barclay’s shared early aughts wardrobe and Jake’s 90’s kid aesthetic she’s stuck in a constant state of nostalgia. The entirety of Kepler is caught in some strange time warp back to her childhood. Mama had shoveled the path whenever she had come out here, probably hours ago, and there’s a good three inches of snow on the previously cleared ground. Aubrey is using magic to melt it down so it doesn't get in her docs. Barclay has been threatening to get her actual snow boots and he’ll do it if she complains about cold and/or wet feet one more time.

Mama waves, and quickly shuts and locks the door behind her. Aubrey melts the snow the rest of the way to the door.

“Holidays!” Aubrey says. “Yes? No? Also, is that gonna be another Thacker situation?” She wiggles her fingers at the building, which looks like a mini Lodge, only without the guest wings.

Mama raises one thick eyebrow. “It’s just my workshop, nothin’ secret about it,” she says, stuffing her hands into her pockets. “And I’m Jewish. What about you?”

Aubrey makes a mental note to look up when Hanukkah is this year. Probably earlier than Yule. She has no clue what to get Mama. “Cool!” She says. “I do Yule, kind of. I’m bad at it. What about, like, Dani and Jake and everybody else? Sylvain doesn’t strike me as a very Christmas-y place.”

Mama laughs and wraps an arm around her shoulder as they turn and walk back towards the lodge. “They’ve got Candlenights,” She says, “Usually we celebrate it on New Years Eve, but we’re not doin’ anythin’ this year really. Not with our own personal FBI agent breathin’ down our necks, too risky. But I’m sure if you wanted to hand out Yule gifts you’d make folks pretty happy.”

Aubrey frowns. “They’re skipping Candlenights?” She knows nothing about it, but she’s already pretty attached to the idea. She can’t imagine skipping a holiday like that. With Stern taking up residence and the water monster freaking everyone out, the inhabitants of Lodge have been on edge. They deserve to relax and celebrate.

“Well -,” Mama starts, then falls silent as they round the corner to find Agent Stern clearing off his car with his bare hands, a look of exasperation on his face. While she’d been clearing off the pathway, she had also done the residents cars - there’s only three, including Mama’s truck, because forging enough documents for a driver's license is apparently a lot of work - and she might have ‘accidentally’ forgotten Stern’s. She bites back a chuckle, but Mama gives her a look anyways.

“Sorry Stern!” Aubrey says. “I got distracted. There’s scrapers in the shed over there.” She points.

Stern looks at her for a long moment in a way that makes Aubrey think he knows she skipped his car on purpose, but then he thanks her with an unfortunate earnestness that makes her feel a little bit guilty.

Once they’re safely inside, Mama continues. “Typically they celebrate it without the disguises, we would put out the no vacancy sign, lock the doors, draw the blinds, you know. But with Stern around it ain’t really possible, and folks just don’t think it’d be the same to celebrate this time around.”

Barclay materializes in front of them, drying off his hands with a dish towel. “Talking about Candlenights?” He asks, smiling ruefully. At Mama’s nod, he continues, “Yeah, shame about this year. Any clue when the snow’s gonna let up? Jake has kindly alerted me to the fact that if we have pasta one more night he’s going to die.”

 

After the change in conversational topics, Aubrey’s ADHD brain makes her forget about the whole thing until shortly after Hanukkah, when she’s flipping over her mattress looking for her phone, which has vanished, and finds a notebook. Confused, she opens it, reads the words Barclay: novelty apron, and thinks oh, Candlenights! And then she thinks, oh no, Candlenights, and runs off to find Ned and Duck to discuss exactly what she should do about this particular problem.

 

“So they’re just… not doin’ their holiday?” Duck asks. He’s standing up, leaning against a glass display in the Cryptonomica that contains a “real life severed alien head!” according to the plaque on the side. It looks suspiciously like Ned ripped off the head of an American Girl doll and slathered it in prosthetics and fake gore. Aubrey used to have some when she was growing up, and it kind of hurts her in her dumb childhood feelings to see one roughed up so bad.

“Ned, which American Girl did you mutilate to make your dumb display?” Aubrey asks. Kirby was shooed out by Ned when she’d shown up with Duck in tow, so she’s sitting in his little metal padded folding chair. There’s a butt-imprint in it that isn’t hers and it’s very uncomfortable.

Mutilate?” Ned says, incredulous.

Duck turns around and squints at it. “Rebecca,” He says, sounding absolutely certain, which just about knocks Aubrey sideways.

“What would you know about American Girl dolls?” Aubrey says, standing up and marching over to the display. “Fuck off, that’s Josefina.”

Duck scowls at her. “I had a little sister who had them and a mother who made damn sure I played with her so she wouldn’t have to drive her to a friend’s. I was free babysittin’.”

“Okay, so I had about ten of them, so I know everything about them, basically.” Aubrey says. She actually owned eight - Josefina herself, Kit Kittredge, Samantha, Felicity, Kirsten, and three of the other ones who she had named Rosalina, Elena, and Marisol. She was extremely attached to them up until she was fourteen and officially way too old to play with dolls.

“Oh, so you were rich rich, yeah?” Duck replies. “It’s fuckin’ Rebecca! I’ll bet you a dollar it’s Rebecca, look it up right now. I think I know more about American Girl dolls than you do, genius.”

“What are you two talking about?” Ned asks. “Who’s Rebecca?”

Aubrey, who had learned the first time that she had proclaimed that sure, her parents had money, but they weren’t that rich, that the moment you had to defend how much money you had meant you were, in fact, that rich, ignores Duck’s first comment and pats her pockets for her phone. “I will! It’s Josefina!”

“They’re dolls for rich girls. Jane had one growin’ up. She had to ask for it for two years before our parents caved. And you’ve got a beheaded one in your case.” Duck tells Ned as Aubrey, with increasing futility, shoves her hands in all of her many pockets. “You wouldn’t know about them, they were after your childhood. Also, nobody thought you were a girl when you were growin’ up. No offense.”

“Oh,” Ned says. “None taken. And they have… Names?”

Aubrey runs out of pockets and finally realizes that she’d been in the middle of looking for her phone when she’d run off to find them both. “Okay, so I might have lost my phone and can’t look it up, but I’m right, okay? That’s Josefina.”

Duck squints harder at Josefina, not Rebecca, damn it Duck, trapped in her case. “What did you even do to her?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, friend Duck,” Ned says loftily, “That’s a real, bonafide alien head. Everything in the shop is an artifact of the natural world that I have discovered in my many travels, which is why I would appreciate you not leaning on the display cases. That head is one of a kind.”

Both Duck and Aubrey raise their eyebrows at him.

“Museum,” Ned says, “My museum.”

“Back to… Candlenights,” Duck says, “Is there any way we could chase Stern out of the Lodge?”

Aubrey sits back down, and they all look pensively at each other for a moment.

“I have an idea,” Ned says.

“Is it killing him?” Duck replies. “Because we can’t do that.”

“I have another idea!” Ned says. “I have some Ambien left over from… something I did one time. And I’ll slip it to Stern in his coffee, and he’ll be out for the count. We’ll lock him in his room and they can celebrate as normal.”

“Ned,” Aubrey says, “You do understand why we can’t just… Drug a federal agent, right? Like, you get why that is not a thing that we can do.”

“Well, why not?” Ned splutters. Beside him, Duck looks like he’s on the verge of a breakdown. “I don’t see what’s wrong with my plan beyond the possibility of a bad reaction, but we can just check on him from time to time!”

Duck puts his face in his hands. “Because it’s illegal?” he says, muffled. “You know, against the law? That we would go to jail for breaking? And Ned, what is wrong with you? We can’t go ‘round drugging people!”

Aubrey slumps down in the chair until she can rest her head against the backrest, listening to them going round and round on how drugging is both illegal and morally wrong. “Guys,” she says, finally, staring at the ceiling. “What if we just… asked him to leave?”

The Cryptonomica goes quiet.

Aubrey lifts her head and finds them both staring at her. “What?” she asks.

“D’you think that would work?” Duck asks, rubbing his chin. He needs a shave, she can hear the dry scrape of skin over stubble, the sound making her shudder. “I mean, would he not be… suspicious?”

“He’s an FBI agent investigating bigfoot in a small town where half the population have bumper stickers on their pickups saying ‘I eat reporters’. And he’s renting a room in a hotel where all of the residents seem to live there full time, for free, and hate him for no reason. He’s suspicious of everything and everybody,” Aubrey says. If she unfocuses her eyes, she can see a face in the popcorn ceiling.

“Huh,” Duck says.

“Huh,” Ned says.

“Ned, you should remodel this place. Nobody has popcorn ceilings anymore,” Aubrey says.

“If you can find the money for that, I’ll do it.” Ned tells her.

 

But then the abomination comes, and the plan falls on the wayside until the 28th of December, when Aubrey wakes up, looks at her (poorly) wrapped pile of presents for everyone in the Lodge, and panics, because she hasn’t asked Stern yet

Aubrey finds Stern on his way down to breakfast, his hair perfectly slicked back and his tie in place. Aubrey, who is well aware that she has problems sometimes with obsessions , had googled the FBI dress code regulations and discovered that there was no reason for Stern to wear suits all the time, beyond having a stick up his ass. He’s just supposed to look respectable and move unhindered. Suits don’t even come into the equation.

Granted, she couldn’t find anything on UP’s specific regulations. It could be completely different for him, but honestly, she’s beginning to think that the department might not even exist.

“Hey, Agent Stern?” Aubrey says, walking up behind him as if she totally hasn’t been waiting for him to come out of his room at the end of the hall like a creep. He stops and turns around to face her, looking a little puzzled. “Can I talk to you?” She asks.

There’s a brief moment where Stern looks excited, but it’s quickly smoothed away into a professional mask. “Of course, Miss Little. Is this a private conversation or -,”

Aubrey shakes her head. “No, no, it’s okay,” she says, not missing the very brief flash of disappointment on his face. “I was just wondering - uh,” Now that the moment is actually here, she really doesn’t know what to say. It had sounded easy enough in her head when she formulated this plan in exactly two seconds earlier on in the month. Executing it is making her want to go lie down on the ground somewhere or spray paint ‘fuck cops’ on a bridge or never listen to an authority figure ever again.

Stern alerts her to the fact that she’s zoned out by softly clearing his throat. “You were wondering…?” He asks.

“Yes!” Aubrey says. “So like, Kepler is a small town, and the people here… dislike strangers.”

“Really? I couldn’t tell,” Stern says dryly, “I’ve received such a warm welcome.”

“The Lodge typically does a big New Years Eve party, and I would invite you, but your presence as, you know, an FBI agent, kinda puts everyone out of the partyin -,”

“You want me to leave,” Stern interrupts, nodding like she hadn’t been rude and suspicious as all hell.

“I want you to leave,” Aubrey says, “So I can chill with my friends and make weed jokes without being murdered by an FBI death squad for making fun of that good good nuzleaf.”

“We don’t have those,” Stern says, “And that’s a Pokèmon.”

“I’m pretty sure you do,” Aubrey replies.

“We don’t. Regardless, I can probably find a bar somewhere to spend some time in,” Stern says, sounding a little lost in thought. Aubrey has started to mentally high five herself when he suddenly looks at her, shrewd in an uncomfortable way. “But… I think I’d like you to give me some information first. Fair’s fair after all, you ask me to do something, I ask you something.”

Cold sweat breaks out on the back of Aubrey’s neck. “Sure,” She says, “That totally makes sense.”

Stern looks around them briefly, then makes some fierce eye contact that Aubrey would very much like not to be having. “Are Barclay and… Mama,” he says, looking like her name leaves a bad taste in his mouth, “Dating?”

Aubrey, valiantly, does not burst into laughter or tears. “You know what?” She says. “I have absolutely no idea. You wait here. I’ll go ask them.”

Days prior she had asked that very same question to Indrid Cold, of all people, in his biohazardous stanky-ass camper in the middle of the woods. The thought of asking Mama and Barclay themselves had, quite frankly, never crossed her mind.

Honestly, she should have done that in the first place.

Aubrey slides down the banister and hops off just as Barclay points at her from the kitchen and yells, “Hey!”

Aubrey flashes him a peace sign as Jake calls, “Hell yes, rule breaking!” in the background. Barclay sighs and continues putting his hair into a little man bun as Aubrey bounds up to him in a few long strides.

“Aubrey, don’t slide down the banister. You’re gonna break your neck.” He says. He picks up the pot of coffee he has resting on the counter and starts pouring it into Mama’s oversized mug.

“Yeah, yeah, okay,” Aubrey says. “So Stern - oh my God,” She says, a realization hitting her like lightning. “Barclay, I think Stern wants to bone down with you.”

Barclay stares at her, mouth open, the coffee pot slowly drifting away from the mug to pour down over the counter.

“I think he might be down to clown,” Aubrey babbles, a little hysterical. “Oh my God, he’s down to do it.” She can feel her face flushing as she chokes down her laughter. Barclay realizes the coffee is spilling when it splashes down to the floor, onto his shoes, and he jumps back, setting the pot down.

“Get busy with bigfoot,” Aubrey continues, watching as Barclay, avoiding the puddle of hot coffee, lies down on the floor and covers his face with his hands. “Sex it up with the sasquatch.”

Mama comes in from outside right as Aubrey, now between fits of giggles, says, “Gonna play hide the salami with Stern, Barclay?” and looks at them both with concern and confusion.

“What’s goin’ on out here?” She asks, putting a hand on her hip and leaning against her cane.

“Nothing!” Aubrey gasps. She’s shaking so hard thinks she might have to sit down. Her face hurts from smiling. Today is the best day of her life.

Mama walks over to Barclay and nudges him in the ribs with the toe of her boot. “You good?” She asks.

“I’m having some me time,” Barclay replies. He’s thrown both his arms over his face, muffling his voice. What Aubrey can see of his forehead is bright red.

“Well, get up,” Mama says. “Let's turn that me time into we time -,” Aubrey wheezes with laughter again, “- I need you to critique somethin’ in the workshop real quick.”

Aubrey sits down on the floor.

“I’ll be there. Soon. Probably.” Barclay says.

Mama nudges him with her boot again. “Up and at ‘em.”

Barclay peels himself up off the floor and walks outside with Mama, who slips her hand into his back pocket as they walk. Aubrey cleans up the spilled coffee and hustles back to Stern once she’s calmed down enough to look at him without screaming.

“So?” Stern says when she knocks on his door, having correctly assumed that was where he went off to.

“No idea!” Aubrey says. “Mama said something about having we time and they both left and I wasn’t about to follow them and find out!” She peels his hand off the doorframe and slaps a twenty dollar bill into it. “That’s all I got for you. Buy some cheap shots, I dunno.”

Stern, eyebrows raised, looks at her, down at the cash, and then back up at her again. “Well,” He says, flicking his suit jacket out and tucking it into the inner pocket, “That will just remain a mystery for now, I suppose.” Then he looks at her, searching for something. Aubrey stops herself from taking a step back.

“Huh,” Stern says. “You - unless I’m mistaken, you didn’t used to have heterochromia, did you?”

Aubrey swallows, fighting back nervous laughter and the urge to touch her eye. “Nope! Contacts!” She says. “I’m, you know, a stage magician?” She winces at the way her voice makes the statement into a question. “I’m trying something new. To. You know. Increase the mystique.”

Stern hums in response and squints at her for a moment longer before he visibly lets it drop. “I see,” he says, “It’s very convincing.”

“Thank you,” Aubrey says, chucking a little nervously. “So, are you gonna… leave?” There’s no point in even pretending not to be suspicious.

“Oh, I was heading home today anyways.” Stern says airily, adjusting his jacket. “My family has a New Years party at my mother's house in Alexandria every year. She’d disown me if I missed it. Have a great day, Miss Little. I’ll be out of your hair by noon.”

He shuts the door in her face.

Aubrey stands outside his room for several long moments, processing what exactly Stern had told her. She shrieks, once, loudly, feeling overwhelmingly like she’s about to devolve back into a fucking hippo or something and smash Stern’s door in to throw him around like he’s a particularly stupid lion who got too close to her watery territory, then throws her hands in the air and runs away.

She sits in her room and explains, in great detail, to Dr. Harris Bonkers how Agent Stern, upholder of the laws , had just stolen twenty dollars from her - stolen! Twenty dollars! Twenty of them! - and how she’d just made herself look like an absolute criminal for no reason! All of this could have been avoided if they had just asked about holiday plans first! She does this until she runs out of steam and flops back on her bed with a sigh. Dr. Bonkers, ever patient with her moods, walks up from her lap to sit on her stomach, which is both cute and painful. He’s a big boy.

She looks at her watch - a Yule gift from Ned - and discovers that it’s 11:55. She should probably go find Barclay and break the good news.

He’s behind the front desk as Aubrey walks down the stairs. Stern is there, and by the looks of it, stealing her thunder as well as her money.

“And when will you be back?” Barclay asks, doing his best to sound politely interested and succeeding for the most part. His eyes are wide like he’s just seen a ghost - or not. He sees Moira every day. A particularly shocking snake?

“On the third,” Stern says, leaning on the desk in a way that Aubrey is choosing to read as flirty, even though it probably isn’t. “If you wouldn’t mind keeping that room reserved for me until then, that would be great. I’m not quite done with my investigation yet.”

“Of course.” Barclay says. Stern leans down to grab his suitcase. Barclay mouths HOLY SHIT to Aubrey over his back. She grins smugly and gives him two thumbs up.

Stern wishes him a happy New Year and stalks out of the Lodge. Aubrey gives him her best rabid ferret eyeballs as he leaves, which he returns. Thief, she thinks at him aggressively, I’ll kill you. She doesn’t know what he thinks back at her, but it’s probably something unpleasant.

The door shuts behind him quietly. Outside, she can hear his car turn over and then drive away, crunching down the gravel path to the road.

Barclay turns to look at her, his mouth opening and shutting without any sounds coming out. The rest of the Lodge is still and silent, holding their breath in anticipation.

“The Candlenights party is back on,” Barclay says, and the Lodge erupts into cheers. Aubrey looks around as Barclay continues with “Oh my God, I haven’t even started preparing, there’s so much to do,” and realizes that there’s someone missing. She smiles.

She turns and runs back up the stairs and finds Dani as she starts to come out of her room, still holding her soil probe. She’s wearing one of Aubrey’s oversized shirts - well, oversized on Aubrey, it fits Dani perfectly. Aubrey tries to have reasonable feelings towards it. Her heart jiggles.

“Aubrey?” Dani asks, eyebrows furrowed in concern. “What’s with all the yelling? What’s going on?”

“Well,” Aubrey says, and she very briefly considers being coy before her excitement flings the thought out of her head like an over enthusiastic pancake flip. “So, Stern’s left the Lodge. He’ll be gone until the third.”

Dani’s face breaks into a huge smile. “The Candlenights party is back on?” She asks, excited. Aubrey nods, grinning right back, and the next second Dani’s picked her up and swings her around, laughing with delight. “Aubrey, did you do that?” She asks. She doesn’t really put Aubrey down, but Aubrey is much taller than her, so her feet touch the ground anyways.

“I mean,” Aubrey says, “Yes, but also no, but like yeah can we just say that I did? I think I deserve that much because Stern stole my money and I was the one to ask if he was leaving -,” And then Dani pulls her face down and is kissing her, and, well. That’s very nice. Aubrey will more than take that, thank you very much. She tangles her fingers in Dani’s soft hair, cupping the back of her head, and kisses her back, smiling into Dani’s mouth.

 

Over the next two days, Aubrey learns a lot about Candlenights. Namely that they’ve already done most of the celebration and the lack of the party wasn’t as big of a loss as Aubrey thought it was going to be - the holiday is mostly based around charity and community. They’d spent the past week trucking down to the middle of town to help the rebuilding efforts with Leo’s general store and the sinkhole, Aubrey had driven around with Jake and Barclay and a few other Lodge members to shovel their neighbors driveways and repair shutters and fences. There’s been an effort to pool cash that they’re donating to the local Toys for Tots drive, and Barclay’s been donating meals to the food bank. Gifts were going to be handed out regardless, just quieter. (Aubrey discovered that most of them are handmade and/or utilitarian in nature and looks over her presents a little guiltily, because she’d ordered most of it off Amazon, but she’ll do better next year.)

For the most part the only thing they were going to miss was the disguise-free party (supposed to be a potluck with all your neighbors, but there’s only one kitchen and Barclay is protective of it) and the Sylvan bush that Mama drags in with Barclay the night Stern leaves. It’s huge, almost perfectly spherical, about as tall as she is, and so obviously not from Earth that Aubrey spends a good ten minutes just staring at it. The teardrop shaped leaves are a soft, pure white, edged with a thin band of gold, the veins and stems a lush green. They feel waxy in her hands, and smell of a warm, strange sweetness that she can’t quite place but makes her feel very at home. Barclay puts it in a corner far away from the heaters and fireplace, like it might melt. They decorate it with a large golden ribbon, weaving between the branches, which Moira tells her isn’t traditional but they do it because Dani and Jake saw it in an Earth movie and loved it. Then Moira tells her not to do fire magic around the tree, which is alarming, but fine.

Aubrey calls Duck on the Lodge landline on the 29th. It’s another kick in her nostalgia, memories of calling her best friends in elementary school and pacing around the room with the headset pressed between her ear and shoulder flicker through her head, just a little too fast for her to focus on. He picks up on the second ring.

“Go for Duck,” He says.

“Hi Duck!” Aubrey replies. “I got rid of Stern!”

“Well hey!” Duck says, “Great job! Is uh, what was it -,”

“Candlenights,” Aubrey fills in.

“Yeah, thanks. Is Candlenights back on?” Aubrey hears the click of him putting the phone on speaker and setting it down. She finds that she can picture him with perfect clarity, bent in concentration over a model boat in his study, holding a paintbrush delicately in his fingers. She smiles.

“Yep! Starts at six. It’s kind of like a potluck apparently? Only because it’s just them it’s not a real potluck, ‘cause there’s no extra kitchen and no one wants to rub elbows with Barclay.”

Duck hums. “Should I bring somethin’ over?” He asks. “I can’t cook much for shit but I have a few recipes I can fall back on and not mess up.”

“I’ll ask,” Aubrey says, then covers the receiver and leans away from the phone. “Hey Barclay?” She calls. “Should Duck bring any food for Candlenights?”

She receives a garbled sounding noise that she thinks is probably an affirmative, like Barclay has something in his mouth. Then, clearer, she hears, “Why don’t these taste right? Moira - no, Dani, come eat this!”

“Go for it,” She tells Duck.

“Well alright then,” He says, “The 31st right? Lemme write that on down in my planner.” Aubrey can hear the smile in his voice and the shuffling of pages as he pulls out the planner she got him, made of recycled paper and covered in small cartoon wild animals, trees, and plants. She had squealed with delight upon seeing it for the first time. “I’ll call and tell Ned, you go help Barclay set up.”

 

About three months into Aubrey’s stay, Mama seemingly decided that Aubrey was a permanent addition to the residents. She immediately set about to rabbit proofing every room in the Lodge, in direct defiance of Barclays pleas that she rest, to his endless exasperation. Cords got taped up onto the walls or otherwise hidden, trash bins moved into cupboards, carpets placed strategically to give him traction, and an assortment of cat trees and rabbit approved toys were installed throughout the Lodge, to give Dr. Bonkers plenty of hiding spots and stimulation. She even made a sign that hangs in one of the front windows of the Lodge that says Beware The Rabbit. She'd brought Aubrey down to the nearest Home Depot, had her pick out what color she wanted to paint her room. Aubrey might have had a good cry about it all while sitting fully clothed in her dry bathtub, the curtain pulled all the way around, so much kindness becoming a bit overwhelming, but nobody other than Dr. Bonkers himself knows about that.

These boltholes and the sheer size of the Lodge make it so finding Dr. Bonkers on the day of the party to put him in his official holiday sweater is a three hour, multi person mission.

“I’m so sorry,” Aubrey tells Dani, who is currently on her knees trying to peer under her bed, “He has a sixth sense for when I’m gonna make him wear clothes. He’s fine once it’s on, but he hates the whole process.”

Dani grunts and stands up, brushing off her hands. “You can’t hide from your problems forever, Doctor!” She calls. Aubrey wonders if she could call the cops on her rabbit. Dani’s already dressed for the party, her ring off and tucked away into a drawer in her jewelry box. Her eyes are a luminescent orange, teeth sharp. The non-vampiric Sylphs haven’t removed their items yet, they’re too obviously nonhuman, they’re waiting for the party to get in full swing, blinds drawn and doors locked.

They work their way through the rooms, down the hall, and into main room right as Mama is getting down to check under the corner couch.

“Oh, let me do that -,” both Aubrey and Dani say at the same time, just as Mama’s arm moves like a rattlesnake and hauls out a resigned Dr. Bonkers.

“Stop being a brat,” She tells him sternly, squishing him into a football hold, “Clothes ain’t that bad. I even wear ‘em sometimes.” She struggles to her feet, shaking off their attempts to help her. “Take your boy back.”

Aubrey does. They put him in his sweater.

In the kitchen, Barclay drops something that clatters to the ground with a loud WOM-WOM-WOM, and then yells, “Mama! We forgot to invite Indrid!”

Aubrey hears an engine outside and pulls up the edge of the nearest curtain. A familiar Winnebago is pulling into the parking lot.

“Fuck,” Mama says.

Chapter Text

The front door of Amnesty Lodge swings open slowly, leaving Indrid Cold standing in the doorway, framed by the yellow porch lights. He cuts… a notable figure, if not a particularly striking one. Aubrey hears the hacking whine of the Crepes By Monica van pulling up the driveway.

Indrid steps inside. He’s wearing - Aubrey blinks.

“Is that Gucci?!” she asks.

He doesn’t answer her, scanning - she presumes, she can’t see his eyes behind his new Gucci shades - the room, then sweeping off his bathrobe-like jacket and throwing it up onto the nearest coat rack. The sleeves, pockets, and lapels are a soft lavender floral pattern, the rest is beige and printed with the Gucci logo. It is, of course, Indrid’s clothing, so it sports multiple stains. The shirt he wears underneath is collared, a faded cherry red, oversized, with large Gucci-logo buttons. He’s holding a bag of frozen tater-tots.

“Hi Indrid!” Dani says, a little nervously. “Long time no see!”

“Hello Dani,” Indrid replies. He looks cooly over at Mama, who gives him a sheepish wave. “I hope I’m not late, I didn’t know the right time. I think my invite got lost in the mail.” He crosses his arms, and the burst of teal feathers that adorn the ends of his sleeves wave through the air. Aubrey gets the urge to pull the feathers off one by one, so she clutches Dr. Bonkers tighter to her chest.

“Yeah, sorry ‘bout that,” Mama says, rubbing the back of her neck and leaning further onto her cane. “We had a real busy couple of days, didn’t think the par-”

Didn’t think the par -,” Indrid says, on top of Mama, and cutting off just when she does. She stares at him with an irked twist to her mouth. He stares back, neutrally. His chalky, pallid chicken legs seem to leer at Aubrey from where they’re sticking out from his red and blue silk shorts, mocking her with their ashiness.

“Is Duck here yet?” Indrid asks, pleasant. “There were a few futures where he was early.”

His slippers - he’s not even wearing proper shoes - are the most shocking, vivid acid green leather she’s ever seen, the insides sweaty looking brown wool, with gleaming gold horse bit decals along the top. Indrid himself looks moderately showered, his white hair toeing the line of fluffy, which is a big step up from the last time she saw it, wherein it had reminded Aubrey of grated cheese left out in the sun for three days.

Mama narrows her eyes at him, suspicious. “Not yet,” she says.

“Is there anything cheesy on the menu tonight?” Aubrey asks. Dr. Bonkers decides he’s had enough of being held, beginning to wriggle out of her grasp, so she sets him down. He scampers off and under another couch.

“Why do you bring up cheese?” Indrid asks, then stares at her (she thinks, she can’t see his eyes) for a few seconds. “Ah,” he says, frowning.

“I’ll go check for you, Aubrey,” Dani says, quickly turning and running towards the kitchen.

“You got new shades!” Aubrey says, assuming that there’s some future wherein she had immediately blurted out something insulting and blowing past it. “But what about your aesthetic?”

The door of the Lodge opens behind him, and in walk Ned and Duck, the former holding a huge tupperware container.

“Oh, it was time for a change anyways,” Indrid says. “I figured I should mix things up. Hi Duck, Ned.”

“So you robbed a Gucci store?” Aubrey asks. Mama starts to laugh, then quickly tries to smother it.

“Aubrey!” Duck says, putting his hands on his hips. “Don’t be rude! Just because Indrid lives in a camper doesn’t mean he robs places -,”

“Oh no, I did,” Indrid interrupts.

“What?” Duck asks, his brow furrowing.

“Rob a Gucci store. I did do that for these.” He taps his sunglasses, then gestures at his whole outfit with the hand not holding the bag of tater-tots. He also pronounces the word as gucky. Mama is making little wheezing noises, trying to hold back her laughter. Ned is biting his lip to keep a straight face, his hands visibly trembling as he unwinds his scarf from around his neck.

Duck sucks in a breath through his teeth. “Ah,” he says lightly, then takes off his coat and turns to go hang it on the coat rack.

“How did you think I got money?” Indrid asks politely, then hands Mama the bag of tater-tots. “For the dinner,” he tells her, then, back to Duck, “Future vision makes shoplifting very easy. It’s not like they need or even deserve my business. These shoes were almost a thousand dollars.” He sticks his leg out to allow them to admire the violently green leather. Aubrey wonders if she could send a precise enough fireball to burn the shoes off of Indrid without hurting him, which makes Indrid give her a sharp, warning look. Probably not, then.

“I’ll go… give this to Barclay,” Mama says, and hustles off to the kitchen.

She passes Dani, who is at the bar pouring herself a shot of vodka with the intense, manic focus of a woman on the brink. “Do you think Indrid has some kind of communicable disease that makes people put their foot in their mouth?” she asks Mama, then screws the cap back onto the bottle of Titos, and downs it straight. She immediately starts hacking, screwing up her face. “That’s the worst!” she says. “Why did I do that?! My mouth is numb! How do you and Barclay drink this?!”

Mama pats her on the back, Indrid’s tater-tots tucked under the arm with her cane. “We’re old, and we burned off all of our taste buds in our mid twenties binge drinkin’ like wild animals,” she says. “Bourbon is better. Don’t get hammered too early, you’ll regret it.”

“Is that also why you can’t smell anything?” Dani asks, then makes a sound like a cat trying to get up a hairball. “I want one of those horse sweat scrapers for my tongue!” Dani says, putting the shot glass into the sink.

“Naw, baby, that was the cocaine I did in college,” Mama replies. Dani looks at her, mouth agape. “It was a different time,” she says, by way of explanation, then pushes through the swinging doors.

In the kitchen, Barclay is stirring a huge pot of soup, wearing a pale pink apron, the front of his hair wet from the steam and a little sweat. He smiles at her automatically, a little with the mouth, but mostly a fond eye crinkle, and then he spots the bright red bag she’s holding and zeros in on it like a barracuda to a bleeding herring. “Mama, what is that?” he asks, although it sounds like he already knows.

Mama shakes the bag. It’s open, being held shut with a binder clip, and sounds half empty. “Indrid’s contribution,” she says. “For the potluck.”

Barclay puts his head in his hands. “How did we forget to invite him?” he asks, muffled. “We all remember what happened last time we forgot to ask him to something.”

Mama shrugs, setting the tater-tots down on the island. “‘Cause he doesn’t live here?” she suggests. “‘Cause he can see into the future and can invite himself to whatever he wants? Ain’t like he’s a helpless babe in the woods. He does whatever he likes.”

Barclay groans. “I know, but -,”

“We also didn’t think we were goin’ to have the party ‘til three days ago,” Mama reminds him, pulling his hands away from his face and tapping him on the bridge of his nose. Barclay grabs her hand and kisses her on the palm. “What needs to get done?” she asks.

“Well, I guess now these…” Barclay picks up the bag, grimacing. “Need to get cooked. And the mac and cheese needs to come out of the oven.”

Mama swipes a pair of oven mitts off the counter. “We could just throw them away,” she suggests, opening the oven and pulling the first pan out.

Barclay rubs his temples. “That’s even ruder than not inviting him. I don’t want him to spend the night telling me all the futures within the next week that I die in.”

Mama grunts. “You made so much of this, holy shit. I can’t wait to eat all of it.” She pulls out another pan, sliding it onto the stovetop. “Can I taste the soup?” she asks.

“No,” Barclay says, pulling out a baking sheet and shaking the tater-tots out onto it. There are probably enough for everyone in the Lodge to have half of one. “I know you, a taste is going to turn into a full meal before anybody else gets any.”

Mama laughs. “What else can I do?” she asks.

“The tables need to get pushed together,” he replies. “And I have to start the mashed potatoes over again.” He looks over at the metal bowl - presumably the one he dropped - sitting freshly washed next to the sink.

“Well, hold off on that for a bit,” Mama says. “Lemme get you your gift.”

Barclay wrinkles his nose at her. “I told you -,” he starts, but she’s already gone.

Moments later, Ned slips into the kitchen, holding a tupperware. “Greetings!” he says, depositing the container into Barclay’s arms. “Garlic knots. Duck’s recipe, but I made them. Soup smells wonderful.”

Barclay cracks the tupperware open, and the smell that wafts out is heavenly - garlic, lemon, fresh bread, herbs. The knots are edging towards amber and glistening with some sort of glaze, still warm. It takes most of Barclay’s willpower not to immediately pop one in his mouth.

“Thanks, Ned,” he says, depositing the garlic knots on the part of the counter with the finished foods. He turns to check over the mac and cheese. The breadcrumbs have browned nicely, and it smells perfect. He thought that’d be the end of it, but Ned doesn’t leave. Barclay looks back up at him. He hasn’t moved, but he has the general aura of someone who is vibrating at a very high rate of speed.

“...Yes?” Barclay asks.

Ned pulls a small framed photo out of his coat pocket and hands it to him. “Happy Candlenights,” he says.

Barclay turns the frame over. It’s a professionally taken headshot of Ned, grinning at the camera, signed with a sparkling flourish of gold ink.

“You know?” Barclay says, “This is pretty funny.”

Ned nods. “The back opens. Just so you know.” With that, he sweeps off, out of the kitchen.

Barclay takes the hint, opening the backing. Inside, he finds a 15% off coupon for any Bigfoot related purchase at the Cryptonomica, a 20 dollar bill, and a folded hot pink post-it note.

Barclay -

Sorry I made you go viral and, as Aubrey puts it, ‘blew up your spot’. It was an accident. I hope these items make up for it.

Sincerely,

Ned “Apologetic” Chicane

They most definitely do not, but they do make Barclay chuckle until Mama walks back into the kitchen. He holds the frame out to her, and she looks it over.

“Damn,” she says. “He won’t even spring for a half off coupon?”

“He’s a businessman,” Barclay says, shutting the back of the frame with a shrug and setting it up on the kitchen’s windowsill so it can look out across the room. “Give me my gift already so you can go set up the tables.”

“So, you know when I said I had to go to the Home Depot a few weeks ago?” Mama asks.

“The time you told me that for weeks in a row?” Barclay replies. “And were gone all day?”

Mama huffs, taps the end of her cane on the top of his foot. “Will you just pretend that I can lie to you for a few seconds?”

“Oh, sorry,” Barclay says, arranging his face into a look of surprise. “Yes, I faintly remember your completely legitimate Home Depot trips, why do you ask?”

“Ass,” she snorts. “I may have been goin’ to my metalsmith friend’s workshop instead.” She pulls an object wrapped in canvas out from behind her back and presses it into his hands. Barclay carefully unwraps it.

It’s a Santoku knife - beautifully forged, glinting in the warm light of the kitchen, with a polished box elder wood handle that slips between his fingers like it belongs there. The pin is copper, with thin bars of it and enamel looped around the top and bottom of the grip. He knew Mama had done metalwork before - it’s all up on her website - but he hadn’t realized exactly how accomplished she was. Her precision shines through in the groves of the metal and the shimmering edge of the blade.

“Wow,” Barclay says. “I - wow.”

She smiles at him. “Blade is Damascus steel. My friend had to help me a lot - it's been a good long while since I last made a kitchen knife, but the handle’s all me.”

Barclay turns it over in his hands a few times, tests the sharpness on his thumbnail even though he knows it’s honed better than he could ever get a knife, just to see.

“Mama,” he says, looking up. “This is so beautiful.”

She smiles at him, her beautiful lopsided grin, a bit more pull in one cheek, the other dimpling. She tilts his chin down slightly to kiss him, a brief press of lips, then pulls back. “I’ll go move the tables,” she says.

“I love you,” Barclay says.

Mama pauses by the doors, looking back over her shoulder at him. “I know,” she says, and winks.

“Ugh, don’t quote Star Wars!” he calls after her, and gets a muffled love you too in response. “And get Jake and Dani to help set the tables! And Aubrey!”

 

Dani, having been totally unprepared for straight vodka, hustles up to her room to recuperate and grab gifts. She doesn’t mind Indrid, he’s not the worst, but in every interaction she’s had with him she’s blundered into some conversational hole or another with her foot in her mouth and egg on her face. Sometimes, it happens without her even saying anything. More than once she’d thought something - typically rude - and Indrid had replied as if she’d said it out loud. Watching the same thing happen to Aubrey had kicked on her fight/flight response.

She digs through her art chest for presents - Jake likes to try and find things beforehand, and Aubrey’s always in her room for one reason or another - so she had to hide them. There’s a barrette for Moira (it spells out FUCK in shining silver wire to match her hairpin, Dani had shaped it herself). She’d made a small watercolor painting for Barclay (it’s the view out the kitchen window, a faint figure of herself and Mama in the back garden), and a pencil sketch for Mama (of the front of Amnesty Lodge, Barclay and Jake chatting on the front porch). Finally she has a card that says FINE I’ll paint your skateboard for free just stop asking and tell me what you want for Jake.

She smooths her hand over Aubrey’s present and bundles all the gifts up under her arms or into her pockets.

She runs into Moira first, on her way down the stairs, who accepts the gift with barely contained glee, sliding it into her semi-translucent hair, making it the brightest thing about her body. She hands the drawing to Mama next, who hugs her tightly and ceases her rearrangements of the tables to put it in her room, and pops in on Barclay with the watercolor - he traces over the figures with a smile and puts it on the sill next to a photo of Ned, which she would ask about, only she’s got other things to do.

She more or less chucks the card at Jake’s head, because she can see Aubrey, talking to Duck, Ned, and Indrid - although Indrid is less talking and more conspicuously lounging on the couch next to Duck, occasionally shifting closer to him. Jake laughs, and hands her a card that says I’ll stop asking you to paint on my skateboard, sorry. Dani rubs her temples.

“Aubrey!” she calls, waving, not wanting to walk over to where Indrid is sitting and interact with him - or smell him - in any way, shape, or form. There must not be any future in which she does so, because Indrid doesn’t even glance over at her. That, or he’s too focused on Duck to care.

Aubrey waves, going back to the conversation, then it seems to actually compute that she was calling her over, not being friendly, because she looks up and mouths, Oh!

Dani smiles at her, holding up the present a little.

“What’s up?” Aubrey asks a moment later, having leapt up from her chair and crossed the room in far fewer strides than it would normally take her. “What’s that?”

“Your gift!” Dani says, and unfurls the coat she’s carrying, that she may or may not have slaved over for hours on end, putting much, much more effort into than any other gift she thinks she’s ever given. She can practically hear Mama chuckling about it already.

Aubrey reaches out and gingerly picks it up off of her arm, like she’s afraid she might break it, and Dani’s heart feels like it’s doing a dance to Mambo No. 5.

“Did you make this?” She asks, her voice full of awestruck wonder, and Dani has to shove both her hands into her skirt pockets to physically restrain herself from pressing her palm to her chest.

“Yeah!” Dani replies, in a way that she means to come off as within the same zip code as cool, but misses the mark by several states and is continuing onward at a breakneck pace. “I, uh, know that you’re probably gonna spend a lot of time outside - being in the Pineguard and all, so I wanted to make you something that’ll be warm but won’t make that jacket noise in case you need to be sneaky!”

The coat is gunmetal grey corduroy and lined with black fleece, for maximum warmth and maximum stealth - Dani remembered Mama telling her once that dark grey was better for hiding than black, and chose accordingly. None of it was fabric she would have chosen for herself, she doesn’t wear black or dark grey as a rule, so she’d bought it special for Aubrey. Dani had stuffed the inside with as much extra insulation as she could fit before her sewing machine started to complain about it, hoping to stave off any chill Aubrey might catch. Of course, she’d then ruined the whole sneak effect by embroidering flames onto the pockets, but she’d thought Aubrey wouldn’t mind.

From the look of pure delight on Aubrey’s face, she’d say she doesn’t. Aubrey looks it over, grinning, then swings it on. “Oh my god,” she says, “It fits perfectly, Dani, oh my god!”

“I may have stolen your other jacket for your measurements,” Dani admits, “Sorry for being a creep.”

“You made me a coat,” Aubrey says, “A whole coat, and you’re worried about being creepy? Dani, this is the best present anyone has ever given me in my life! I - you -,” Aubrey starts, then leans down and kisses her, her hands on Dani’s waist and lower back. Dani throws her arms around her neck and rises up onto her tip-toes, and Mama must have come back from her room, because she wolf whistles from somewhere to the left of them, clapping.

Dani flips her off and Aubrey laughs, their teeth clacking together briefly.

“We were having a moment!” Dani says. She means for it to sound cross, but it’s hard to keep that tone while she’s looking at Aubrey, still chest to chest, close enough to feel her breath.

“Have your moment after you help me set the tables,” Mama replies. “I can’t do this by myself, I’m old. Might put my back out.”

“You’re not old, Mama,” Aubrey replies. She’s still looking at Dani, her smile so wide and soft it makes Dani’s chest ache.

“Oh, yes I am,” Mama replies. “Blissfully, happily old. You couldn’t pay me to be young again. Come help me.”

“We will,” Aubrey promises, then pulls back, much to Dani’s displeasure.

“My present isn’t nearly this good,” Aubrey says, digging through the inside pocket of her jean vest and pulling out a CD case.

“It’s - um,” she says, handing it over to Dani. “It’s a mixtape? I don’t know if you have those on Sylvain, but it’s basically a - a playlist. Of songs. That remind me of you.”

The front of the case has a piece of paper slipped through it that says Aubrey’s Very Cool Dani Mixtape in red pen. Aubrey has drawn little cartoon versions of herself and Dani’s heads, smiling out at her. Aubrey’s is holding the bisexual pride flag in one tiny hand, and Dani’s holds the lesbian and transgender ones. Little hearts drawn in red ballpoint float around them. Dani feels the way she did when someone had brought ducklings to the farmers market and let her hold one - hotly possessive, nearly enraged with love, like if she doesn’t put it in her mouth and eat it somebody will take it from her. She tucks it into the waistband of her skirt instead, just like how she’d gently placed the duckling back into the pen with its friends.

“This is the perfect gift,” she says firmly. Aubrey’s cheeks darken and she rubs the back of her neck. “Can we listen to it?” she asks. “Together?”

After you help me set up the tables!” Mama calls. “Barclay worked very hard on this dinner and you’re both damn well gonna eat it!”

“Of course we can,” Aubrey says. She kisses Dani again. “Did you end up asking Barclay what we’re having tonight?”

“Oh, no!” Dani replies. “I got distracted - I had some vodka and it was just so bad -,”

“Oh, cool, so this is a drinking sort of party!” Aubrey says, and she’s looking at Dani’s mouth like it’s the last doughnut in the box, so Dani goes back to kissing her.

“Not until after dinner it’s not!” Mama calls, then says, “Oh, what the hell, neither of you are listenin’ to me anyways. Duck! Jake! Ned! Come help me move the damn tables!”

“Why didn’t she ask you?” Ned grumbles at Indrid, getting up from the couch.

Indrid laughs. “Oh, I don’t lift things,” he says, waving a hand airily. “She knows that. I can direct you, though.”

They don’t need directing, so he just watches Duck instead, the curve of his shoulders, the twist of muscles in his arms as he lifts a table with Ned on the other end, the flash of teeth when he’s focusing, the tip of his tongue poking out. Duck doesn’t notice.

Nobody gets hammered at dinner. The atmosphere of the Lodge - though jovial, and certainly more lively than Aubrey’s seen it since even before Stern showed up - isn’t quite there. Aubrey’s got a very pleasant buzz going with one and a half rum and cokes down and a stomach full of some of the best food she’s ever eaten. She’s had to take off the coat - both it and the room are far too warm to be wearing it, so she’s tied it around her waist.

Dani is much drunker than she is. She’s currently sitting on the end of the bench next to the Candlenights bush, her warm thigh pressed against Aubrey’s, gently patting the leaves. Aubrey is valiantly fighting back saying something dumb and cheesy like you’re the most beautiful woman I’ve seen in my life and your eyes are my favorite shade of orange, or something sad like I wish my mom could have met you. The latter is because, well, it’s sad, and she doesn’t want to be sad or make someone else sad tonight, and the former because Moira is sitting across from them in a chair, helping Dani give Aubrey a crash course in the history of Candlenights.

“- after it broke there was mass panic, so all of us ended up more or less treating some of the larger houses as, well, I believe bomb shelters would be what you call them here,” Moira is saying as Aubrey tries valiantly to tune back into the conversation and out of mentally composing odes to the golden light coming out from Dani’s soft skin. It peeks out a little brighter from under the collar of her hunter green sweater when she leans forward.

“Bomb shelters, yeah,” Aubrey says, knowing she’s being rude by not making eye contact in favor of studying Dani’s face, but not particularly caring. Dani’s eyelashes are short and straight but thick, deep black even without mascara.

“So the potluck tradition was born from there,” Moira says, “Because we all banded together to make sure no one went without.”

“It was kind of an accident that it became a tradition, right?” Dani asks. Her fingertips trace along the veins of one of the leaves. “Like, everyone just had the same idea to thank the hosts by showing up the next year and - and giving back. And then it just continued!”

Moira nods. “That’s also why all the volunteer work happens beforehand. There was much to be done on Sylvain, after the shattering. This was all… much more solemn when I was growing up. We honored the dead,” she says, quiet, and her gaze flickers down to the ground. “And mourned what had happened to our world. There was very little in the way of partying. But!” she says, louder, “Someone had the wonderful - and I do not say that sarcastically - idea to turn it into a holiday, rather than a day of mourning. We already have plenty of those, and the date for Candlenights itself was chosen rather arbitrarily anyways. A real holiday brightened the atmosphere considerably. It was a party for quite a while by the time most everyone here was born.

“Who else would remember?” Dani asks, looking around. She has a mole under her eye that Aubrey likes to plant little kisses on, and another one under her ear that Aubrey takes note of for later.

“Indrid,” Moira says. “He’s much older than I am.”

Dani grits her teeth. Aubrey loves the softness of her thick waist, her full cheeks, the sweep of her blond hair pulled back into a loose Dutch braid. She's like like the renaissance women Aubrey saw that one time she went to the MET, only better, breathing, real. She's not an artist like Dani is, but she can understand the appeal, suddenly, of sitting and staring at someone for hours, creating their likeness on a page to keep them forever in time. She thinks Dani should be preserved like that.

“Ah, so he’s… old, huh?” Aubrey says. Indrid, who is for whatever reason still in his disguise, is thankfully out of earshot, watching Duck as he and Barclay carry mason jars out of the kitchen. Duck isn’t noticing the, well, leering, if she’s being honest, which is either a purposeful thing or he is the most oblivious man alive. “Indrid looks like he’s about to bring Duck back to his camper and kill him to wear his skin.”

“He does that,” Moira replies, seemingly unconcerned.

Dani squints over at them. Duck finally notices Indrid’s unwavering stare as he puts the jars down on the table and straightens up. He gives Indrid a friendly smile. Indrid takes a sip of his eggnog and does what is probably the most sensual finger wave to ever grace the planet with its presence.

“He looks like he could be some boytoy honeypot for the mafia about to lure Duck outside a bar so that the enforcers can beat him up,” Dani observes. “If he wasn’t so greasy, and dirty.”

“It’s all the Gucci he’s wearing,” Aubrey says, just as Duck comes hustling over.

“How do I apologize to Indrid for punchin’ him in the face the last time I saw him?” Duck asks. “I meant to when I first came in, but it went and slipped my mind. I think he’s mad at me.”

“That’s what you think being mad at you looks like?” Dani asks, incredulous.

“I didn’t fully think through what was gonna happen,” Duck continues. He looks stressed. He’s dressed up in a rust colored henley with the sleeves rolled up and light wash jeans, black belt and black shoes to match. Aubrey doesn’t think she’s ever seen him in jeans, or a non-Beacon belt. His hair was styled when he came in, but he’s run his hands through it many times since and has thoroughly mussed it up. “I just kinda reacted. And now he’s had to go and get new glasses and I prob’ly hurt his face real bad.”

“Oh goodness, he thoroughly enjoys robbing Gucci,” Moira tells him, hand waving away his concerns, “You did not cause him any hardship on the glasses front. His heists are the highlights of his year.”

“I punched him in the face,” Duck stresses. “Moira, I feel terrible.”

“He’s clearly better than ever -,” Dani starts, and then Aubrey puts a hand on her thigh, a bit above her knee. She means to convey something like hold on, I have an idea , but mostly what happens is Dani’s face glowing brighter, her words ending abruptly.

“Duck,” Aubrey says, “Why don’t you just go over now and ask to talk to him outside? He’s still in his disguise, it shouldn’t be a problem.”

“My mother always told me a good apology doesn’t happen in public,” Moira tells him lightly, studying her nails. “Public apologies are for other people, but private ones are for the recipients.”

“Just… Go over there,” Dani says. “Say you’re sorry. You don’t need roses or anything. He’s not classy.” She’s looking at Aubrey’s hand on her thigh in a way that both isn’t quite warranted given its rather chaste placement, and also is making Aubrey want to say goodnight and goodbye to this party early.

“You’re right,” Duck sighs. “Thanks, y’all. I’ll go do that.”

“Good luck,” Aubrey says. She takes her hand off of Dani’s thigh and entwines their fingers instead.

 

“So how do your powers work, exactly?” Ned asks as Duck walks up. He’s nursing a scotch out of a whiskey snifter, because he’s an elegant man. “I know you said the whole many televisions metaphor, but how do you know which is the right one?”

How do you know which is the right one?” Indrid says overtop of Ned. He’s drinking spiked eggnog out of an ancient chipped ceramic mug with Mickey Mouse on it, because he wouldn’t know elegant if it started doing a waltz in front of him. “Well, the short answer is probability,” he says. “If something is in all but one vision it’s most likely going to happen. It gets easier the closer I get - five to seven seconds in the future I can be accurate with a miss rate that is completely negligible, and one to two I’ve only been wrong once in my lifetime - but further out there’s so many branches…” He waves a hand. “It’s all math, Ned, it’s terribly boring. It’s one of those powers that folks think are much more interesting than they actually are. I use the five to seven second window when I am, as Miss Little put it, robbing Gucci stores. There’s only so many choices a person can make in that span of time. Hello again, Duck. Those pants look nice on you.”

Duck blinks. “Oh - uh - thanks!” He takes his hands out of his pockets nervously, then puts them back in again. “Thought I’d dress up. They’re a bit tighter than anything I’d usually buy.”

“Oh, I’m aware,” Indrid says.

The brief look of confusion that crosses Duck’s face makes Ned look down into his scotch and exhale heavily, then toss back the rest. “I’m gonna go talk to - yeah,” he says, walking away.

Could we talk outside for a second?” Duck and Indrid say at the same time.

“Of course,” Indrid says, setting his mug down. The scraped, faded face of Mickey Mouse peers out at them, mouth open in an unending smile. “Lead the way.”

 

It’s bracingly cold on the front porch of Amnesty lodge, but Duck can’t fully feel it, warmed inside and out by the mudslide Mama had made him when she’d bartended briefly after dinner. Indrid, who is in short shorts for some god forsaken reason, shivers under his silk coat, so Duck takes his park ranger jacket off and drapes it over his narrow shoulders.

“What a gentleman,” Indrid says, smiling at him. He leans a hip against the railing, folding his arms across his chest. “So? What did you need from me all the way out here?” The yellow of the porch lights give his hair a golden hue, and the occasional snowflake flickers through the darkness beyond them on its descent to the ground. He looks pretty, almost, with his sharp nose and high forehead, all lines and odd angles, the circles of his sunglasses creating gulfs of black in his face, the only roundness to be seen. He's like a painting, one leaning towards abstraction. Duck could look at him for hours.

“I’d like to apologize,” Duck says.

“For what?” Indrid asks.

“Well, last time I saw ya, I did punch you in the face -,”

Did punch you in the face, yes, that,” Indrid says. “And?”

I wasn’t thinkin’,” Duck says, Indrid layered overtop him, “I just reacted, and I hurt you, and I’m real sorry ‘bout that - Indrid, I’m tryin to -,”

“Apologize,” Indrid finishes by himself. “Yes, sorry. I’m being quite rude, aren’t I. I’ll get my head out of the future.”

Duck runs the hand he’s not holding onto the railing with across his jaw, rubs the back of his neck. “Yeah. Just - I’m sorry. I wish I had made that situation play out different.”

“Duck,” Indrid says simply. “You saved my life then. I am not regretful about what happened, and you should not be either.” He reaches out and puts a hand on top of Ducks. “I’ve already forgiven you.”

Duck feels his face flush, and he glances down at his shoes. “Alright,” he says. “Glad you’re not mad at me, then.”

Indrid’s brow furrows behind his glasses. “Why would I be mad at you?”

Duck shrugs. “I did punch you in the face. Let me know if I can make that up to you.”

Indrid smiles then. “Oh, you want to make it up to me?” he asks. “I mean… I can think of a few ways, if you wanted,” he says. He slides his glasses down the bridge of his nose with one finger and winks.

“What?” Duck asks, and then it clicks. “Oh!” he says.

“What do you mean what?” Indrid asks, and then something seems to click for him too. “Oh, so this is the timeline where you - you didn’t realize.”

“You’ve been - oh,” Duck says. “Oh, wow.” He chuckles, puts his head in his hands.

“What did you think I doing, Duck?” Indrid asks, a little wildly.

“I thought you were mad at me!” Duck replies. “I thought you were glarin’ at me! It ain’t like I can tell what expression you’re makin’, you wear sunglasses!”

“You thought I was glaring -,” Indrid says, “You think that’s what glaring looks like?”

You wear sunglasses!” Duck and Indrid say at the same time.

“You are,” Indrid says, putting a finger on Duck’s chest, “Incredibly oblivious.”

Duck reaches up and grabs Indrids hand. “I’ve been told, yes.”

Now I’m angry at you,” Indrid says. “I don’t think I want you to make anything up to me anymore.”

“Are you sure?” Duck asks.

Indrid sucks on his teeth. “No,” he says, and then he kisses Duck.

They’re both definitely out of practice, Indrid more so than he is, Duck thinks, but it’s nowhere near the worst kiss he’s ever had. It’s been a long time since he’s made out with someone like a teenager at a party - in fact, the last time that happened, he was a teenager at a party, 17 with newly short hair, having yet to come out to even himself. His tongue was numb from the truly terrible alcohol he’d been drinking and when the boy, whose name Duck no longer remembers, had called him beautiful, Duck had leaned over the kitchen sink they’d been making out against and thrown up into it.

No one throws up this time, thankfully, but when the lively music from inside shuts off a few minutes later, Indrid groans and pulls back.

“We have to go back in,” Indrid says, untangling his fingers from Duck’s hair. “There’s a whole candle ceremony thing. We have to be there for it.”

“Alright,” Duck says reluctantly, extracting his hands from under both of Indrid’s coats.

“I am very much happy to continue this after,” Indrid tells him. “And I did come here in my camper, so.” He slides down his sunglasses and winks again. “In case you’re not getting my invitation, I am saying I would like to have sex with you.”

Duck laughs. “Yeah, Indrid, I got it this time, thank you. I did not, however, bring any condoms.”

“I did,” Indrid says.

“I also didn’t bring my dick,” Duck says.

“You -?” Indrid starts, then clearly looks into the future for several seconds, which is good, because the only thing Duck hates about being trans is the constant coming out and the explanations. “Oh! Yes, that makes sense I suppose. Next time?” he asks.

“Next time,” Duck promises, holding open the door.

 

Duck and Indrid come slinking back inside a good few minutes after they both left, thoroughly disheveled and pink in the face. Aubrey notes this with no small amount of smugness, but doesn’t point it out to anybody because she’s got Dani sitting warm in her lap, quietly explaining the difference between the words Sylvan and Sylph with her lips pressed close to Aubrey’s neck. 

“So, like, I guess it doesn’t matter?” she says. “I’m a Sylvan, Barclay’s a Sylvan, we’re all Sylphs, but like, some assholes would say that Barclay’s only a Sylph which is -” she says, and then Mama finger whistles so loud the entire Lodge jumps and freezes.

“Pay attention!” Mama yells, even though they all already were.

“Come get a jar,” Barclay says, in a normal, polite voice. “It’s time to make candles.”

As it turns out, the bush does melt. Barclay enlists Aubrey to light the largest fireplace, and a few of the Sylphs put their disguises back on - Moira, so she can touch the jars, Barclay, to do the delicate work of gathering the leaves, and a few of the Sylphs without proper hands slide back on rings and tie on bracelets.

“It’s tradition to tell it good things, and good wishes,” Barclay tells her, handing her a jar filled with leaves and a single stick poking up out of it like a wick. “So when it burns it’ll release your good intentions.” Aubrey looks around - a few of the Sylphs are murmuring into their jars, or just holding it with their eyes shut. “You don’t have to,” Barclay says. He’s smiling gently, and he looks more relaxed than she’s ever seen him. The slope of his shoulders is loose and the ever-present tension around the corners of his eyes has vanished, his forehead relaxed. “But I think it’s just nice to do.”

Aubrey tries it, putting her mouth just over the lip of the jar. “I want the new year to be happy,” she whispers. She looks up to see Dani with her eyes squeezed closed, clutching her jar like a lifeline. “I want the people I love to be happy.” She thinks for a moment, about the golden glow of Dani’s skin, Ned’s booming laugh, Duck’s easy voice, Mama’s dry wit, and the joy on Barclay’s face when he nails a recipe. She thinks about Dr. Bonkers’ gentle tooth click purr, her mother’s soft hands, and her father's smile.

She ends up melting the wax leaves in her hands, rather than putting it next to the fireplace, which makes Moira laugh.

“Cutie,” Dani tells her, hip checking her on her way to the fireplace.

“Takes one to know one,” Aubrey says back.