Seth had learned about twenty minutes ago to keep out of the kitchen, when he had gone to grab a snack and gotten smacked in the head by Vanessa's sneaker. Even though the blix wasn't doing too much cooking herself (the only stuff she could make was Spanish food and microwave dinners), it was her job to make sure no one bothered the actual cooks, and apparently she was convinced Seth would try to.
Christmas had the Sorenson house in full swing. Grandma, Kendra, and Tanu were all sprinting full tilt around the kitchen, putting the meals together and getting Vanessa to grab different ingredients for them. Warren and Dale were outside, hanging lights from the house and setting up preparations for that night's winter solstice festival. Stan was instructing Hugo and Mendigo on what to do that night, as they would both be staying in the barn to protect Viola, and telling the satyrs not to leave hoof prints on the roof like they had last year. Elise, Mara, Trask, and Bracken had all crashed in the living room, some sleeping (Mara) and some yelling at the football game (Elise).
And Seth, of course, had no idea what to do with himself.
He had already wrapped the presents he was going to give, he had already helped decorate the tree, he had already explained to Bracken that although Christmas was actually a few days away, they celebrated on the solstice so all the creatures who had a holiday then could also enjoy. Although Bracken had apparently been around when Christmas first developed, he still didn't look impressed.
"It's turned into a corporate scheme," the unicorn complained. "All anyone wants to do now is get you to buy stuff."
Seth couldn't argue with that, but he still assured Bracken that their family celebrated the better parts of the holiday.
Seth had hung out with him a bit, but then the unicorn got invested in a conversation with Trask about something-something new layout of the fairy kingdom and Seth lost interest. He had talked to Newel and Doren, but the two of them were preparing for the festival night themselves—though instead of with jack-o-lanterns and enchanted salt, with a bottle of moonshine and a half-baked plan to ambush the centaurs. Seth backed out before he got in trouble, though he made sure to wish them luck on getting the centaurs.
So now Seth was sprawled out on his bed in the attic, his drawing book open on his lap. Artblock was keeping him from drawing even a single doodle.
"This is stupid," he groaned aloud. He wasn't even sure if he was talking about the boredom, the artblock, or just Christmas in general, but the frustration was enough to make him blindly chuck his pencil across the room.
He expected to hear it bounce of the wall and roll to a stop on the floor. Instead there was a moment of silence that went on for far too long.
Seth shot up. Kendra's window was open, and his pencil had gone flying out.
"Crud," Seth muttered, and quickly pulled on his boots. Grandpa wouldn't like it if he was throwing pencils out the window and leaving them in the yard.
He jumped down the stairs and dashed out the door, shouting a quick hi to Warren and Dale, who were just coming inside. Seth's boots crunched in the snow as he paced the white-coated yard, looking for his pencil.
"C'mon, it's a bright yellow pencil, how hard can it be to find?" he muttered. Then again, with the multicolored fairies dancing across the yard, color was skewed on Fablehaven preserve.
Finally he noticed a small congregation of fairies hovering near the ground, bickering over his pencil. One fairy was sitting on a snow pile, pouting and rubbing her legs.
"Ah—hi," Seth greeted carefully. The fairies had always hated him ever since he turned one of them into an imp, though once he became friends with Bracken, Seth had been upgraded from most hated person to tolerable in their books.
Several of the fairies yelled in their language at him, and Seth stepped back. He didn't have to be fairykind to tell they were mad.
"Listen, I'm really sorry about my pencil," he said. "That was an accident."
"Oh, no, it's not the pencil they're upset about."
Seth jumped, and Shiara, who was hovering by his ear, dashed backwards to avoid getting headbutted.
"I am so sorry," he gasped.
Shiara blinked a bit, but she managed to settle down on the snow. "No, no, I apologize, I didn't mean to scare you like that."
"Hm." Shiara brushed her dress off, trying to pull herself together. Of all the fairies, she tended to be the nicest to Seth due to his friendship with Raxtus. The fairies still hated Seth. Considering how many times he had complimented them in an effort to repair their opinion of him, that was a real shocker.
Seth decided to wait a moment to let Shiara pull herself together, and glanced over at the fairies that were gathered together. Now that he looked more carefully, he could see that it wasn't the pencil that they were stressing about, it was the scratches in their dresses. The one on the ground had a long, shallow scratch on her leg, and she was wrapping it in a tiny strip of gauze.
"Shiara, what happened?" Seth asked.
Shiara straightened up and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. "There's a monster under the porch," she stated. "It tried to eat us, and scratched Meoni. But it hasn't used magic against us, and our physical strength is... questionable, so we can't fight it effectively."
Seth frowned. "A monster? Wouldn't the register keep it out of the yard?"
Shiara gave a sigh and rubbed her forehead. "I'm unsure. Perhaps it was brought in by one of you mortals for research. It does seem rather small."
"If it's small, then maybe I can take care of it," suggested Seth. "It's under the porch?"
"Right over there." Shiara pointed to a seemingly average section of planks. "It went into hiding."
Seth rubbed his gloved hands together. "I'll take care of it," he promised.
He stomped through the snow with Shiara fluttering behind him and laid down next to the porch. A piece of ice snuck underneath his jacket, stinging against his neck, but he ignored it and stared into the shadows under the wooden planks.
"Shiara, are you sure it's here?" Seth called.
"A little to the left, I think," the fairy answered. "It moved very far back."
"I don't see—"
A pair of yellow eyes flashed open in the darkness, and a bundle of claws launched itself at Seth's face.
When Vanessa was stressed out, the whole house felt it, either in her words or just in her general aura. Right now, Warren was feeling it in his shin, which he had banged on Vanessa's doorframe.
"It's not here." Vanessa chucked a dirty shirt across the room. "It got out—oh god, it got out."
Warren got a terrible flashback to last summer, when, even after Vanessa had been put in the Quiet Box, the drumants had still been running around biting people. On top of that, Seth had let out several sleep-inducing salamanders when distracting Errol and Vanessa, and all the escaped whirligigs had left the household with dozens of itchy bites and a few spontaneous faintings.
"That's not good," Warren said.
"No kidding!" Vanessa hurled a bundled pair of socks at Warren. He ducked. It hit him anyways, but her throw was surprisingly weak. "That thing's the devil, I swear. I should've gotten a different one."
"Okay, maybe it left your room," Warren said soothingly. "We can shut the door in case it's still in here and look somewhere else."
Vanessa flopped on the floor and peered under her bed, stifling a yawn as she did. "Maybe you're right," she mumbled. "We can look downstairs, I guess." She hauled herself off the floor and actually took a look around her room. Just about anything under ten pounds had been picked up and thrown around in some way.
"Damn it," she muttered. "This is gonna be a major cleanup."
"Hey, hey, you can think about that later." Warren took her arm and gently steered her out into the hallway, closing the bedroom door behind him. "You're gonna blow a fuse if you stress about too many things at once."
Vanessa rubbed her face. There were slight bags under her eyes and she lacked her usual eyeliner, but Warren still felt like his stomach was doing jumping jacks.
"Yeah, I know," she sighed, and looked around the hallway. "So... this little bugger likes closed spaces."
"Right. Maybe the living room?"
"Sure, why not."
The two of them walked slowly towards the living room, with Warren purposely giving Vanessa a moment to slow down and breathe. She had been stressed ever since Zzyzx, and Warren could see why—one side of her was desperate to prove to the Sorenson household that she had reformed, and the other half was saying do whatever and don't pay attention to what they think. Any minor blunder launched her into a mess of jumpiness, panic, and cold apathy.
Tanu was bustling around the living room, stringing up lights and tying bows on the lamps. The potion master wasn't even Catholic, but he still seemed to throw his whole heart into the holiday.
"Hey, Tanu," Warren greeted. Vanessa gave a little wave.
"Hey guys!" Tanu spun around with his arms full of decorations, his eyes as bright as his Christmas lights. "Do you want to help out?"
"Sorry, but we're sort of busy right now," said Vanessa. "Wasn't Kendra going to help you?"
"She's still in the kitchen. Her pumpkin cupcakes didn't come out the way she wanted them to." Tanu set down his decorations. "What's up? You look tired."
"It got out," Vanessa said vaguely, and yawned before she got the chance to elaborate. Tanu glanced at Warren for clarification, but Warren could only shrug.
"Alright... do you know where it went?" Tanu asked. Judging by the look on his face, he was remembering last summer.
"No idea." Vanessa sat down heavily on the couch and glared at one of the wreaths. "I don't think it can cause too much damage, but I still don't… still…" She rubs her eye.
"Okay, I hate to be the one to put my foot down, but you need a nap." Warren grabbed one of the couch blankets and shook it out. "You look dead tired."
"Warren's right. How much sleep did you get last night?" Tanu asked.
Vanessa thought for a moment. "Uh... ten?"
Tanu blinked. "Well, I guess ten hours is pretty good—"
"Okay, it's nap time!" Warren pulled the blanket over Vanessa. "Please sleep."
"We'll find it for you." Before he even realized what he was doing, Warren leaned down and gave her a peck on the forehead. He was so reflexively used to kissing his cousins goodnight, it came as instinct, but now it brought a flush to his cheeks. With Vanessa, it seemed to take on a whole different nature. He quickly backed up in case she got mad, but she didn't seem to mind. Instead, she just curled up and closed her eyes.
"Warren." It took Warren a second to realize Tanu had pulled him into the entry hall and was waving a hand in front of his face. "Earth to Warren, come in, Warren."
"Right!" Warren straightened up, slamming his hands on his hips. "I have no idea what escaped!"
"Firstly, that's not helpful or inspiring, so I sure hope Vanessa was right to say it doesn't cause much damage," Tanu said. "Secondly, please, if you're ready for a relationship, just ask her out. Or get her to ask you out. This is just getting painful to watch."
"Dude!" Warren waved his hands. "You don't just ask someone out, you gotta make it count! Something they'll remember. Something funny or romantic or—" Warren stopped himself when he saw Tanu's expression. "... I kinda already asked her out."
"Really? What—oh. Oh—oh. I, I am so sorry for asking." Tanu awkwardly patted Warren on the shoulder.
"Relax, man. It wasn't a flat out no."
Tanu paused. "Do you want to talk about it?" he asked softly.
Warren glanced over towards the living room. "I asked her a few weeks ago, but... you know how stressed she's been. She told me that she'd love to be in a relationship with me, but not now, not when she's too busy to be a full-time girlfriend. In a little while. When stuff settles down. She said if I wait a bit, she'd be more than happy, but she's not going to bind me to that. I can still go off and do whatever. But if I want her, I'll wait."
Tanu nodded. "What are you going to do?" His voice was soft—maybe to keep from waking Vanessa up, maybe to calm Warren.
"Dude." Warren grinned. "I'd wait a million years for her."
"Oh, thank god." Tanu clapped Warren on the back, a smile crossing his own face. "I honestly don't want to see you two go down. You seem like the type to make it work."
"Please tell me you don't have money on us."
"I don't, but I think Kendra and Seth do."
"I swear, I'm gonna—"
"I'm gonna stop you right there." Tanu snorted. "Listen, let's just find the... uh... thing? The thing that got out. Do we even know what it is?"
Warren shrugged. "All I've got is that it likes enclosed spaces and is the literal devil."
"Not very reassuring. Let's do this."
It took a half hour to (quietly) scour the living room, and then another twenty minutes to hastily scramble around the kitchen without getting in Kendra's way (they did anyways), and ten seconds to wordlessly agree that they were dead tired and flop on the stairs.
"We don't even know what we're looking for," Tanu reiterated for the millionth time.
"I bet it's got invisibility stuff," groaned Warren. "Ness is gonna laugh at us when she wakes up."
"It hasn't hurt anyone, I'm pretty sure. Maybe it's not even that dangerous." Tanu leaned back on the steps, seemingly uncaring about the discomfort. "Maybe it's just taking a nap somewhere and we'll find it once the holidays are over—"
"Hey guys look what I found!"
Tanu shot up like a rocket, and Warren nearly tumbled down the stairs. Seth had burst through the front door in a swirl of winter snow and heavy jacket, with a small bundle of hissing black fur nestled in his arms.
"Oh, you've gotta be kidding me!" groaned Warren.
Seth froze, his smile turning a bit awkward. "I... uh... sorry?"
"What—no, no—oh, god, Seth, not you!" Warren jumped down the stairs, waving his arms. "I'm sorry—it's just we've been looking for that cruddy—thing—for the past hour, and..." He squinted. "Dude, what happened to you?"
Seth's face had several long scratches on it, and his jacket has been shredded and was spilling fluff like a torn-up teddy bear. Despite that, he still smiled.
"Aw, this little buddy was a bit cranky." Seth cuddled the creature in his arms, which Warren now realized was a cat—a very angry, very disheveled-looking cat. "It took me forever to catch her, but I did, and now she loves me."
"Um." Warren decided not to point out that the cat was still hissing, and probably would've been clawing if her paws weren't trapped against Seth's chest. "That's great. Also, I think that thing is Vanessa's."
"Wait, really?" Seth looked up. "Do you think Vanessa will let me spend time with the cat? I really like her."
"Um... maybe you should ask Vanessa."
"Vanessa!" Seth bolted into the living room, the cat in his arms starting to yowl. "Hey Vanessa, is this your cat?"
Tanu slowly dragged himself down the stairs and stood next to Warren. "Didn't Vanessa say that thing is awful?"
"Seth loves that thing."
"Yeah. Come on."
The two trudged into the living room, where Vanessa was just sitting up and rubbing her eyes, trying to pay attention to what Seth was saying despite her grogginess. Seth was holding out the cat like a scraggly rag doll, and Vanessa didn't look thrilled to have the cat so close to her face.
"She's really cute, Vanessa," Seth was saying. "She really likes me. Is she yours? Can I help take care of her? I'll feed her and clean her and everything." The cat lashed out and tried to scratch Seth again, but he pulled his head back, unfazed. "Haha, she's feisty."
"She sure is," groaned Vanessa. The blix tried to get up, accidentally tangled her legs up in her blanket, and just flopped back onto the couch. "Hey Seth," she said, "if you could get me a pair of oven mitts, that would be great."
"I got it." Tanu turned for the kitchen.
"Hm. Thanks." Vanessa tried to get up again, with as much luck as the first time. She didn't seem to be putting any actual effort into it all.
"Here, let me help—" Warren went to pull her up, pulled too hard, and accidentally toppled her into his chest.
"Well hello," Vanessa said tiredly into Warren's shirt.
"Ew, guys, no PDA," scoffed Seth. "Vanessa, does she have a name? Do you think I could name her?"
Vanessa hauled herself up, casually ignoring the fact that Warren's face was slowly turning pink. "She doesn't have a name, and please, put her down before she scratches you—again?" Vanessa squinted at the red lines on Seth's face. "Yeah, again."
Tanu came in with a pair of oven mitts and froze when he saw Warren still with his arm around Vanessa's shoulder. The two guys briefly made eye contact before Tanu shoved the oven mitts into Vanessa's hands. "Don't want to know," he said.
"Yeah, yeah." Vanessa pulled on the mitts and reached out to Seth. "Gimme the cat."
"Why do you need—" The cat clamped her teeth down on Vanessa's gloved finger. "Ah, never mind." Seth quickly shut his mouth.
"Listen, I… I think she's going to be going with a friend of mine, okay? She can't stay here," Vanessa said. Seth's head shot up, his eyes wide and mournful. "I did ask Stan about keeping a cat around, and he said as long as the cat behaved. But this thing isn't going to behave, y'know? She's been like this ever since we left the shelter. I've got a few friends who would be okay with looking after her, but she wouldn't be here."
"Somewhere else?" Seth cried. "But—I could help take care of her! To make sure she doesn't do anything bad."
Vanessa went to say something back, but the cat lashed out and she had to quickly shift her hold. "Seth, I really don't think she'll make a good house pet," said Vanessa. "I'm sure she'll be fine."
Seth pouted like a little kid, but he didn't say anything. After a moment of silence, he turned around and quietly drudged up the stairs.
Several beats passed, the quiet only broken by violent hissing.
"Maybe Seth could help you out," Warren finally said from his spot on the floor. He was nervous about breaking the odd silence with the sound of him getting up. "I mean, it's just a cat. Uh, I think."
"It is just a cat," sighed Vanessa, and slid down to sit next to Warren, "but the thing is, this cat was meant to be a Christmas gift. A scratchy, violent cat isn't a good gift. And Stan did want the cat to be well behaved."
Tanu sat down next to Vanessa. "A gift... for Seth?"
"He needs something to cheer him up whenever the rest of us are busy," she muttered. "and some responsibility in his life. And animals are great for helping issues with trauma, and he was so interested in my collection back when I had it… and yeah, it's a big responsibility, but I think he can handle it—but this thing is awful. And now that Seth's seen her, if he gets a different one, he'll know and he'll be upset. Ugh." Vanessa held the cat out at arm's length and gave it a death glare. The cat just nibbled at her oven mitt, unfazed. "This sucks."
Warren wanted to do something for her—to reach out and make her feel better—but he wasn't sure what to do. He reached up and gently patted her shoulder, but it didn't feel like enough.
"It'll be okay," he said, but it felt weak. "I'm sure this'll work itself out."
"Pff, yeah." Vanessa flopped over onto Warren's stomach, still holding the cat away from any damageable body parts.
Warren looked up at the Christmas lights dangling on the walls, and started mentally piecing together something to say. "Yeah, this doesn't look great," he said slowly. "But all in all, everyone in this family really loves you. Seth isn't going to base all his opinions off this one thing. He's resilient, and he still is going to think highly of you. I doubt this'll change anything. The important thing is to just keep going and remember that we all care for you."
Warren stopped and silently waited for something to tell him he had said something helpful. He couldn't see Vanessa's face, but he could hear her exhale deeply. "Thank you," she said softly. "I needed that. I'm going to go figure this out." She slowly got up and walked up the stairs.
Warren swallowed and looked at Tanu. "Did she mean that, or did I just royally screw up?" he asked.
"She definitely meant that." Tanu pulled himself up and then dragged Warren to his feet. "Let's give her some space. Do you want to help out in the kitchen? It might be good to get your mind off this."
Warren stretched, but he still felt as tense as a rubber band. "Sounds good," he said. "Though I'm taking a few cookies."
The holidays always brought good food and cheer to the household, and this was no exception. Ruth, Kendra, and Tanu had put together a variety of entrées and enough desserts to feed the satyrs for a week. The table was overflowing with both food and people—along with all those who lived full time at the house, Bracken, Trask, Mara, and Elise had all come to the house for the holiday. The table buzzed with conversation and the clink of silverware.
Warren had gotten sucked into an apple juice chugging contest with Seth. No one was sure what had given Seth and his sister their love of apple juice, but between the two of them, the stuff was picked up weekly at the grocery store.
Seth slammed his empty glass down and whooped. "I win!"
Warren choked on his drink, still struggling to get it down, but Elise just laughed and patted Warren on the back. "Dude, you just got crushed again. That was the what, third time?" she giggled.
Warren finally swallowed the last of it and dropped his glass. "No more," he gasped. "I'm too out of practice. Find someone else. I'm not drinking apple juice for another year."
"Elise, let's go!" Before the woman could speak up, Seth had already filled her glass and was chugging his own.
"That looks like cruel and unusual torture," noted Tanu. He had been chatting with Kendra about different potion ingredients, but his and Kendra's attention had been caught by the noisy contests.
Even with all the commotion, Warren tried to catch Vanessa's eye for what felt like the millionth time, but to no avail. She was deep in conversation with Mara all the way across the table. She had come down the stairs at practically the last minute, and Warren hadn't gotten the chance to at least ask her if she was feeling a bit better.
"Attention, everyone!" Stan stood up and tapped his glass with his spoon. He waved an arm towards the living room. "For the sake of none of you getting steamrolled by Ruth while she sets up for dessert—I'm joking, honey, I'm joking—I say we move to the living room."
"Are we opening the presents now?" asked Kendra. "I've got to grab some stuff from upstairs, I didn't get the chance to put everyone's presents under the tree."
"Go, go get it!" Dale waved Kendra off. "I want that trowel—I mean, whatever you got me."
"You cheater, you looked!" yelled Kendra as she ran up the stairs.
"Doesn't make a difference!" Dale quickly ducked into the living room to avoid her yelling at him again, and the rest of the family trickled after him.
"Hey." As they all moved into the living room, Warren caught Vanessa's arm. "You feeling alright?"
"Yeah, actually." Vanessa smiled. "I figured it out. Thanks for asking, though."
"No problem." Warren took a slight breath, and then took Vanessa's hand. "I'm here for you."
Vanessa squeezed his hand. She seemed much more relaxed now, even the bags under her eyes seemed to have lessened.
"C'mon, c'mon!" Seth was just about bouncing off the walls. "Can we open presents now?"
"Go ahead," sighed Stan, waving at his impatient grandson.
"Perfect!" A box slammed Warren in the gut, and he dropped Vanessa's hand to double over. "That one's yours!" Seth grabbed a bunch of presents from under the tree and began chucking them at people like an overexcited elf. "Me and Kendra worked hard to get these for you, so open them!"
Warren straightened himself up, snatched his box from a snickering Vanessa, and carefully shook it. It was long and wrapped in ridiculously patterned paper, and scribbled on the side was To Warren, From Seth and Kendra.
"I'm scared," Warren said bluntly. He shook it, but when nothing burst out or made any noise other than a quiet rattle, he tore off the paper, revealing a long white box. Inside was a leather scabbard with gold trim.
"Seth, this is really nice, thank you!" Warren said.
"You're welcome! Me and Kenny got it online!"
"With my help," Ruth said with a smile.
"With Gramma's help!"
"Aw, that's nice," snorted Vanessa. She walked over to the tree and started looking through the presents before Seth could grab them. "Lemme see... this one's mine. No way am I just letting this get thrown at my head." She shot Seth a look.
Seth just stuck out his tongue and threw another box at Dale.
"Ooh, what is it?" Warren playfully dropped his head on her shoulder.
Vanessa laughed and tried to brush him off, but it didn't seem like she really wanted him to move. "Let's find out, how about it?" She started carefully peeling off the wrapping paper.
"Oh my god, Ness. That's not how you unwrap a present."
"What—Warren. There is no specific way to do it."
"You gotta rip it! It's yours! Go on and open it!"
"I'm not ruining the nice wrapping—don't touch it, I'm opening it!"
In a flurry of playful argument and wrapping paper, the two of them finally managed to open the gift.
"What is it?" Warren asked. Vanessa had hunched over and was carefully examining what was in her hands. "Ness, come on!"
"Eee!" Vanessa shoved a water-filled jar in Warren's face, a huge grin on her face. "Look at this!"
"Yay!" Warren clapped his hands. "...what is it?"
Vanessa pointed at several small, blue orbs at the bottom. "These," she said excitedly, "are Pygmy Water Salamander Eggs. They're not much on their own, but placing them in a body of water is essential for preparing a habitat for other species. They purify the water through their digestive systems, and they actually use minimal magic to do it—" She stopped herself mid-ramble to catch her breath. "But anyways, having these means I can restart my collection a lot faster!" She carefully set the jar on the coffee table, sprinted over to where Seth and Kendra were exchanging presents, and scooped them up in a hug. "Thank you so much!"
"You're welcome," Kendra said from her place in Vanessa's shirt. Seth tried to give a thumbs up, but his hands were caught against his sides.
"I'll get your presents!" Vanessa ran up the stairs.
"She's very happy," noted Kendra. She gave a guilty smile. "Tanu was actually the one who suggested we get those for her. He kept saying something about prepping a habitat?"
"Hey, I'm no creature collector, but that made her happy," Warren shrugged. "I think that's all you really need."
"Good." Seth gave a cheeky grin. "At least it made her happy enough to want to give us presents."
"Christmas isn't just about presents!" The siblings promptly dissolved into bickering, until Vanessa came running back down the stairs with two boxes in her hands.
"This one's yours, and—here, angelita, this one's yours." Vanessa smiled. "Merry Christmas."
Warren glanced at Seth's box. It was pretty small—no way could it hold a kitten.
"Thank you!" Kendra said cheerfully, and Seth grinned and carefully shook his box.
"Is it jewelry?" Seth asked. "Or a little potion vial? Or new pencils? I do need new pencils."
"I already got you those."
"Oh yeah, sorry Kendra. Is it—" Seth pulled off the top of the box, and a puff of glitter exploded in his face.
Vanessa promptly covered her mouth and started laughing, and Kendra nearly dropped the new necklace Vanessa had gotten her. Seth's eyes were squeezed shut, and his expression was screwed up in disgust.
"How dare you," he said flatly.
"This is what you get for your cruddy make-up April Fool's Day pranks," Vanessa laughed. She pulled a piece of paper out of her pocket. "This is your actual present. Merry Christmas."
Seth brushed at his face, snatched the paper from Vanessa, and stuck out his tongue. He narrowed his eyes at the paper. "This is... a map?" he asked.
"Yeah. Go look. It starts at the Christmas tree."
"Awesome! Kendra, come on. I want backup." Seth dragged his sister over to the tree and started carefully counting his steps towards the kitchen.
"A map?" Warren asked.
"I'm not putting it in a box."
"Could you follow those two? Make sure they'll end up back by the tree. I've got to take care of something."
"You got it." Warren gave her a dorky grin. "Also, here, this is for you." Warren handed her a box.
"Hair clips?" guessed Vanessa.
Warren gasped. "You cheated!"
"I asked for these! If you got me something else, I'd be pissed!"
"You still cheated!"
"Pff—thank you anyways," Vanessa said with a smile. "I'll give you your present once the kids are done with their scavenger hunt."
"Oh no, but that's such a wait!" Warren laughed, backing up to catch up with the kids. "I'll be waiting for you."
"I will be too." Vanessa folded her hands into a heart shape and winked.
Warren blew her a kiss and ducked into the kitchen, where Seth was trying to count his steps again and was close to slamming into the fridge.
"Turn this way." Kendra took Seth by the shoulders and turned him a bit to the left.
"These instructions are crappy. Her steps are longer than mine!"
"You'll figure it out. Think of it as an adventure," Kendra suggested.
"An adventure? I guess that's cool. We've done pretty great on our adventures—" Seth took another step and whammed his foot on the table. "Shi—shoot!"
"Don't let Grandma hear you," chided Warren. "She'll probably blame me."
"She should point fingers at Dale," Kendra scoffed. "He's a sailor, practically. It's twenty more steps towards the stairs, right?"
"Hold up a second," Seth scanned the paper. "Y'know, if we just..." Seth traced his hand down the paper and grinned. "The last step is twenty steps toward the Christmas tree. I bet that's where we're supposed to end up!"
"Whoa, whoa, that's cheating—"
"Shush, Warren! Come on!" Seth ran back into the living room with Kendra in tow, an indifferent look on her face.
Warren trudged after them. Vanessa was sitting at the base of the tree, trying to work the hair clips that Warren had gotten her into her long black hair. She looked up in surprise when the kids came back in.
"Pretty sure you're supposed to be upstairs right now," she stated.
Seth sat cross legged from her and grinned. "I still got here."
Vanessa snorted. "Maybe it's better this way. I kind of estimated on the number of steps. The numbers were probably off."
"There was definitely something funky about those," agreed Seth. "So...?"
"Yeah, yeah, give me a second. I made that so I'd actually have the time to go grab it." Vanessa hauled herself up and walked around to the back of the tree. "Here—ack, c'mon. Knock it off, you little brat." She came back with a squirming ball of black fluff in her arms. "I tried putting a bow on her, but geez, she shredded it. Stan said it's fine you keep her as long as you take responsibility—"
"Look-at-her-she's-so-CUTE!" Seth rushed out in one breath, and scooped the cat up in his arms. "Oh my god, she's mine? She's mine! Oh my god! I'm gonna take super good care of her, and feed her, and brush her, and everything, I promise! Thank you so much!"
"You're welcome, angelito." Vanessa ruffled Seth's hair. "I got you some pet supplies, too, I left them up in the attic."
"Thank you!" Seth went to hug Vanessa, but the cat bit his arm and he realized giving the cat more targets was probably a bad idea. He settled for bouncing around again like an excited kid. "Thank you so much!"
"She's... adorable?" Kendra went to pet the cat and pulled her hand away from the claws. "Geez. Keep that thing on your side of the attic."
"As long as you keep Bracken off my side," Seth retorted with a smirk. Kendra just rolled her eyes.
"You need to name her," Warren piped in. He had been happy to just watch, but now he shot Vanessa a subtle thumbs-up. I knew you got this, he mouthed.
"Please don't name her something awful. I'm not going to yell at you because 'Fluffybuns' or something chewed up my blankets," pleaded Kendra.
"Hm." Seth held up the cat and looked her over. The cat seemed to finally begin to tolerate Seth—rather than scratching, she just relaxed peacefully as dead weight. "I think... Dragon."
Kendra pondered for a moment. "I guess it's fitting."
"Adorable," laughed Vanessa. "A testament to what a beast that freaking cat is."
"Have fun cleaning the litter box." Warren clapped Seth on the back.
"Oh boy, what fun," Seth said sarcastically. He hugged the cat again, and Dragon clambered up to drop into Seth's hood. "Oh man. Oh man, I really love this cat. I really love her. She's so good. I'm gonna go set up her bed and stuff!" He dashed off.
Kendra looked at where her brother had run and laughed. "It is pretty cute," she said. "Hey Vanessa—I think you hit the nail on the head with that one. He loves it... though I should probably make sure she keeps to Seth's side. I'll see you guys later!" With that, she headed out too, leaving Vanessa and Warren alone.
"I knew you could figure it out," Warren said. He grasped Vanessa's hands.
"Thank you," she said gently. "I didn't think it would be a very merry Christmas if a cat someone adored went somewhere else."
"Would be even worse if Seth actually followed the map and fell down the stairs," joked Warren.
Vanessa laughed. Her eyes seemed to catch the gleam from the Christmas lights.
"So you got me hair clips, but you didn't tell me what you wanted," Vanessa said. "So..." She backed up and went to grab something from the coffee table, but her hand stopped, and her eyes darted around. "I—uh—well, shit," she muttered.
"It escaped! Oh no!" Warren waved his hands in mock terror.
"Pff, no, I... ah, whatever. Tanu wouldn't let me take any mistletoe from him—apparently it's a really good potion ingredient?—so I stole a piece when he wasn't looking. I guess he took it back," explained Vanessa, anxiously rubbing her hands together. "And... the romantic moment is totally wrecked. Sorry."
"Wait, wait, I got this!" Warren dashed into the kitchen.
"Warren, what are you—" She stopped herself when he ran back into the living room, grinning like an idiot. With a flourish, he whipped out something green and held it over their heads.
"Mistletoe," he said smugly.
"Warren, that's a piece of lettuce."
"I don't know what you're talking about," Warren said with false pomp. "Clearly, it's mistletoe."
Vanessa looked at Warren for a moment, then scoffed and wrapped her hands around his neck. "Yeah, whatever. Just kiss me, will you?"
"Whatever you wish."