A/N: Dear Fading Butterfly Wings,
This is my entry in the Village Square's 2012 Secret Santa exchange, and it's for you! This is my first year taking part and I found my time constrictions for everything Christmassy this year to be well...constricting! Go figure! I must therefore apologize for this indcredibly rushed result. This is far from my best, and I'm actually quite embarrassed but I wasn't about to leave you without a pressie! As my apology I will complete the other fic draft I came up with earlier one while considering my options: Raguna/Mist friendmance! Yes, that too was about 1000 words in the making but simply not CHRISTMASSY ENOUGH. Nevertheless, it's two for the price of one. Please enjoy the first half of your gift on time and primed for the reading... and also:
I'M WISHING YOU A VERY MERRY CHRISTMAS!
On a silent winter's day in the peaceful archipelago of Sunshine Islands, one humble home was awash with noise. Nets were tangled, pots and pans clattered, teetering dangerously from their hooks on the wall, and fishing rods were knocked over unceremoniously until they resembled little more than a pile of mismatched sticks. The perpetrator behind such excellent feats of pandemonium was none other than Kuu, the bird. He bounced through the modest fishing shack like a black ball of fury, hell-bent on making as much racket as possible as though it were his last rites.
Denny, the human proprietor of the shack was little better. In his mission to apprehend the bird he'd run circles around the room, upsetting everything his feet touched upon and scrabbling to keep his balance.
"Kuu!" he cried hoarsely, and although it was aimed like a demand- especially after his fourth time passing the hideous display of mistreated rods- his tone carried little weight. Instead his cries fell back into decidedly nonaggressive territory; his naturally relaxed disposition good at soothing a friend but never at admonishing their behaviour.
"Settle down now! It's really not that bad!"
But the bird's eyes shot daggers at him and in one swift kick-flip he dislodged Denny's oldest and most precious trophy from its dusty spot atop a high shelf. Denny gasped and dove, managing to catch the award a hairbreadth away from shattering, and only at the cost of a few pesky splinters.
He groaned resentfully, "You win, Kuu... You win."
The bird chirruped and flew to rest on Denny's shoulder, rubbing his soft feathered head behind Denny's ear in a show of affection. That was that: their home was in ruins, Denny was radically aware of his role in the relationship, and the decision was made.
Kuu would not be wearing the little Santa hat for Christmas. Natalie's insistence that it would be so cute simply wasn't enough to be worth all this.
Days later, Kuu would insist on something himself- on burning the hat instead. He would be seen nudging the thing towards the irori with distracting sweetness and bird-like innocence when what lurked underneath was a much deeper understanding.
No, Kuu would not be wearing the hat. He would attend the festivities respectfully as one of them and demand the same respect in return. That Natalie would just have to get used to it.
Denny had always been friends with Elliot. When he had first come to the island he had little more than the clothes on the back and his busted-up fishing rod; and Kuu's company of course. Elliot had seen him arrive at the docks from behind big round glasses that magnified his eyes to distracting hugeness and he'd run straight for Taro. Taro in return had given Denny a home.
Back in those days there weren't many residents in town at all and Elliot was one of the only other boy's his age, but their friendship was honest and fast even despite this. Elliot was sweet and bumbling, and Denny was daring and a little bit rough around the edges. They had just enough between the two of them to keep themselves entertained but never end up in any real trouble.
Along came Natalie. Once she was old enough to play she was like their shadow- and a mischievous and opinionated one at that. Elliot would often bow under the pressure of his darling little sister and concede to her every wish and Denny wasn't one to argue. After a few close scrapes the ferocity of her mischief naturally lessened; Natalie grew up, found more in common with the other girls, and the trio ceased to perform.
Christmas was the only exception. It'd been Elliot and Natalie's mother Felicia who had maintained the tradition at first, obviously worried for the orphan boy alone on the most sacred of nights. Once the children became adults the idea just seemed to stick. Taro wanted an old fashioned family meal complete with a turkey and all the fixings and it was as natural as night and day that Denny would be there.
And so it was with no sense of false security that the fisherman loped along the beaches with an armful of carefully chosen gifts. Natalie had been visiting a lot in the last month to check up on him and cook the occasional meal that wasn't fish or fish-based. Too much of a good thing could be bad for you, she'd lectured- vegetables or death! Elliot was still the same gentle presence, as unassuming as the summer breeze when he wasn't wanted and as welcome as the jump tide when he was. He'd been especially quiet as of late, but Denny put it down to the season. Some folk just weren't good with short days and cold snaps.
"Ugh, I hate this weather."
Natalie snuffled from under a woollen mitten. Her nose was red from the persistent sting of the sea. Denny cast his line out again smiling silently to himself. "Can you believe the sun's gone in already? I cannot wait for summer." The dock rocked with the soothing swell of the tide. While Natalie gripped the sides to keep herself from swaying Denny simply moved with the ebb and flow of the waves, as natural as if he'd been born on the ocean.
"You don't have to stay, you know, I might be another hour yet."
Natalie blew her nose, "Don't be silly, I'm cooking tonight remember?" A shopping bag rustled at her side, heavy with ingredients, "Leak and potatoes."
Denny merely snickered, "Yummy."
"I sense your sarcasm but I do not acknowledge it."
He feigned a blow to the chest, "I'm always looking forward to another day of your home cooking."
Natalie's cheeks grew to match the redness of her nose, "I hope you can drop the attitude in time for dinner."
There was a nibble, faint but there, and Denny gently turned the spool to entice it further. Natalie sneezed and the movement drifted away. High tide, empty shore; nothing biting. "Should we go in? You'll catch cold at this rate."
"Yeah, thanks," she beamed, wrapping her scarf tighter and making to move.
He was surprised with himself when he collected his gear and tackle and found that he wasn't the least bit disappointed with that day's measly catch.
"Leek and potato," he sang, breaking into a whistle until Natalie punched his arm lightly.
"All right, all right. Don't ham it up; you can have a side of kipper too."
At the door to Taro's, Denny barely had time to knock before Natalie had swung it open, rattling the festive wreath, and pulled him inside quickly. Her eyes were sharp and her face was drawn.
"What's going on?"He asked brightly, Kuu following up with a chirp in a similar tone.
Natalie sucked in a breath, "It's horrible," her hand squeezed over his wrist as she cast a suspicious glance into the other room, "It's Julia, my Julia!"
"What's wrong with Julia?" He returned edgily but Natalie waved him off, her eyebrows furrowing.
"No, no, nothing's wrong with Julia- it's Elliot!"
Flustered now, Denny set his gifts aside and grabbed both of Natalie's hands. He spoke evenly, commanding her gaze with his own, "Natalie, what's wrong with Elliot and Julia?"
Finally she gave pause, and with a deep breath explained, "Elliot and Julia are engaged."
In the other room the sound of Taro and Felicia's combined laughter reached their ears, the tinkling sound of Julia's charming giggle mixed in unmistakably.
Denny blinked, "Oh."
Natalie shot him a look and huffed, "No not 'Oh,' it's been really, really awkward! I don't even know when or how that stupid brother managed to propose but what's worse is that Julia said yes. And now she's here-for Christmas! This basically cements the entire debacle. That's it! Julia will be my mother's new favourite and I'll be the spinster daughter that they can't manage to marry off."
Kuu made a noise that was unnecessarily rude, but thankfully Denny's timely laugh drowned it out. "Kind of an over-reaction don't you think?" He squeezed her hands in an effort to pacify her. "You want Elliot to be happy right?"
"Yes," she admitted reluctantly.
"Of course," she sighed.
"You won't be an old maid," he curbed, "I'd marry you first."
Natalie froze; the hands that were tucked neatly inside of his went rigid. All at once her face turned a lovely shade of crimson and her soft brown eyes were as wide as saucers. "D-don't say such ridiculous things," she bleated, pulling away. "A desperate woman might believe you..."
At the continued sound of their conversation, Felicia had floated in. "What are you two standing on ceremony out here for?" To Natalie she said, "It's Denny, honey, he's as good as family."
"Mom," she growled huskily.
Felicia simply smiled that fox's smile; all-knowing and a little bit cunning. She ushered them into the next room and towards the fireplace, but she didn't leave until she'd administered a warm motherly kiss to each of Denny's cheeks.
"So good to have you here," she beamed, "Sit, drink!" without warning a cup of mulled wine was thrust into his hands, the scintillating aroma from the simmering pot on the table hitting his nostrils first. From around the table bright and merry faces watched him take his first sip.
"Thanks," Denny swallowed, grinning. He greeted Julia and Elliot who were blushing from more than the festive tipple and Taro nodded to him in private acknowledgement. Once that was out of the way the old farmer quickly engaged the new bride in a deep conversation of animal care and times long ago, and Elliot shrugged sheepishly in Denny's direction.
"Ugh," Natalie murmured near his ear, seating herself next to him. "If they continue to be this cute I may have to move out."
Denny snorted around another sip of his wine, "This again. Well there's always room at the inn. I'm pretty sure the leaky room upstairs where old mister Jack died is still available." He wheezed affectedly when an elbow found his side with a sharp jab.
"Don't I deserve even a little sympathy?" she chided. Kuu clucked and Denny pinched his beak silent.
When he recovered he returned the jab softly, "You can always cry on my shoulder."
The mulled wine was bitter, then sour, then sweet, but the warmth lit his belly from the inside.
From the kitchen Felicia could be heard hard at work. The oven bellowed heavy waves of hot air every time she peeked inside to baste the turkey. The smells that wafted into the rest of the house were positively mouth-watering. Kuu seemed to be the only creature present who managed to remain aloof when the anticipation of dinner was heightened. He gave a perceptible shudder every time Taro smacked his lips.
The elderly farmer eventually coaxed Julia into pulling a cracker, and when it snapped on his side declaring the winner he crooked his spine backwards and swore, creating enough uproar that the cracker fell aside discarded. Denny was laughing at the noisy display, entertained by Elliot's frantic back and forth between the yowling Taro and the warmly apologetic Julia, when a soft heaviness thudded onto his shoulder.
Natalie watched the scene with a sweet sadness, smiling lightly. Her strawberry hair was fanned out across the dark blue of his shirt, and her cheek was rounded where it pressed against his collarbone. When their eyes met again she blushed and her lips gently pouted. "Hey, you said..."
"Yeah, I did," he agreed quickly, settling more comfortably under the weight. His heart gave an unnatural lurch and began to beat in staccato sessions of hurried jazz. He wondered fleetingly if she could hear it; he'd never been so thankful for Taro's unashamed intensity. The moment he thought to put an arm around her in a squeeze of reassurance her warmth disappeared and the space next to him emptied. She'd run to Julia and linked their arms intimately, dragging the other girl deeper into the house.
"Come and get your present," Natalie urged, her voice quiet and receding and meant only for Julia. Denny felt strangely bereft until Elliot came to him.
"Sorry I didn't tell you…" he began. He pushed his glasses further up his nose in a gesture that was clearly more of a comfort than a necessity. "I had the ring and the moment was right… I wasn't sure I'd get another chance. B-but I wanted to tell you first."
"A ring?" Denny echoed, and Kuu cocked his head. "What about the blue feather?"
Elliot smiled, and in smiling seemed to shrink two sizes. He pointed to his finger with all the strength of a daisy bowing in the breeze, "It's inside the ring."
Denny gawked, "Whoa. You have been thinking about this." Elliot shrugged as though attempting to maintain some nonchalance, and so Denny gave him an encouraging whack on the back. "I'm proud of you!"
"Thanks…" his smile grew.
Taro slurped loudly from his cup, in an instant the room's focus was drawn back to him. It was a funny old thing really, the sense that he always had some wisdom to impart even when he was an incessant source of silliness. For the second time that day Denny lapsed into fond memories of his younger days. Taro had always taken the time to offer him stern but genuine counsel, not once attempting to quell his spirit as some of the other adults had tried, but never allowing the naivety get the better of him. Life was hard but you had to live it right. In this way Taro was something of a fatherly figure to most youngsters that crossed his path.
The elderly farmer coughed, ascertaining he'd lost the room's attention again, and Denny sat straighter.
"Now that that's settled, when do we get to see our young freelancer married away?" His eyebrows quirked like two long-haired caterpillars and beneath them his eyes sparkled merrily. Denny caught all the signs that there was something more to this than Taro had offered to give away but he played along.
"Maybe never," he laughed appropriately, "a bachelor to the death so to speak."
Elliot grimaced and Taro spat, "Don't be so sure, my boy!" He winked to his grandson although Elliot remained outside of its meaning. "Our Natalie has her eye on you methinks."
"Grandpa," Elliot gasped, but Taro merely rattled his cane alongside the armchair that seemed to swallow his skeletal figure.
"What, kid's got a right to know his prospects."
"But you can't speak on Natalie's behalf…" Elliot continued, "She'll disown you."
"Hah," the old man cawed, "let her try."
At that Denny couldn't help but interject, "I think you've got it wrong, Taro. We're just friends."
Taro harrumphed and rubbed his old knees, "Well if that's all you can say then maybe you don't deserve her neither."
The girls returned, grinning and hand-holding like they'd just shared their best secrets, and Felicia called out for everyone to seat themselves at the table before anything more could be said. Denny felt sincerely baffled after the short exchange with Taro and that distracted him from his appetite. It was only when Natalie spooned an extra serving of carrots and peas onto his plate that he came back to himself. She simpered wickedly in response to his silent protest.
"Eat up, Denny. It's the guest's obligation to leave nothing on his plate. It's rude to the chef otherwise."
After dinner and a generous helping of trifle for dessert, most of the family fell into naps as deep as bedtime sleeps. Taro had even begun to hum with a rather musical snore, and it matched the cheery tunes that still spilled from the radio set high on the mantle. Julia and Elliot were curled up in the loveseat sofa like two hamsters, wrapped together for warmth and naturally Natalie faced the other direction in stubborn disgust. Denny prodded her, finding the warm full belly tucked neatly beneath her apron and poking it again playfully. In the haze of the post-dinner lethargy she could do little more than squirm, groaning sorely and shooting him a dark look.
"Want to get some air," he whispered, thinking not to disturb anyone else before the next session of merriment began in full and in return she nodded serenely.
They made it to the front porch before anyone had even disturbed so much as a muscle.
Outside bundled under layers of jacket and scarf, they huddled together under the stars.
"Funny little life it is," she said carefully once they were safely away from the others, "I'm not exactly happy but I am. I guess I wanted everything to stay the same forever but now that we're here somehow the change doesn't seem so bad."
Denny discovered the incentive to wrap that arm around her now; reassuring, a friendly comfort, and something else he didn't quite have the courage to define just yet. It didn't really matter that he couldn't grasp her meaning right now, only that he wanted to be there to listen as she sounded it out. He swallowed hard and gave her a squeeze, feeling that familiar warmth at his side that he knew he wasn't ready to lose.
Snow had begun to fall, blanketing the island with a fresh newness that held so much promise and possibility.
"Tomorrow," he said softly, unwilling to disturb the blissful silence any more than he had to, "I'd like to cook for you."
Her head rested on his shoulder, "I guess fish isn't so bad once and a while."
"Fish and all your favourites," he assured her swiftly.
"Merry Christmas, Denny," she affirmed heartily.