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The Present's Advent


by battlesunn

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There was a bang, and a metallic clink as the door clicked to, followed by a rhythmic shuffling and the sound of wet feet squelching across the carpet. A drop of melted snow flicked on to Ezanna's reading lamp and dribbled down the shade and plinked upon his nose. The skunk Krawk snorted, sneezed, and glanced up to see Shelley, his sister, standing in a state of disarray in the foyer of their Neohome. The Island Gelert, without even bothering to remove her sodden garments or relieve herself of her packages, eyed the tree and remarked, "Did somebody change it?"

     Ezanna lowered his book. Shelley was panting, her fur wet and plastered slickly to her cold-pebbled skin. Clumps of snow clung to her scarf, dissolving in the sudden warmth, and her paws were muddied and covered in a sheen of ice. The Krawk raised an eyebrow.

     "Did you run through a mud puddle?" he snorted. The Gelert tossed her head in response, spraying droplets all over the living room, and padded wordlessly across the carpet to the faded red couch. Ezanna watched as she tore off her scarf, flopped on to the cushions, and rested her head upon the armrest, releasing a soft sigh. She looked like a jar of ochre sand dashed across the cushions, every limb lapsing into a state of disregard, every cell, it seemed, unwinding in her long-tensed muscles.

     "Tough day in the Marketplace?" he jibed. The Gelert raised her head.

     "Fifty Usuls. Crowded around the Potions shop. Each of them wanted the same thing--Krawk Morphing Potion. Krawk Morphing Potion. You'd think that they had the plague, or something." She gave another bitter snort and set her head on the armrest. "Honestly. You Krawks."

     Ezanna leaned back and grinned, his hand nestled between the pages of his book to mark his place. "Everybody wants to be a Krawk," he remarked, and heaved his feet upon the coffee table. Shelley wrinkled her nose and edged farther down the couch.

     "I don't see why. You're just a spiky Techo. If you weren't rare, they wouldn't care." She flicked her tail over Ezanna's feet and he quickly returned them to the floor. The Krawk frowned and slid his fingers out from his book, allowing the cover to fall into place. He leaned forward and set it on the coffee table, then rose, switching off the reading lamp, and paced to the door.

     "That rhymed. You ought to be a poet." The doorway was clogged with shopping bags, bulging like bloated Skeiths, some overturned with distended paper and tinsel organs spilling over the carpet. The Krawk nudged a bag with his foot and smirked as a multitude of colorful trappings spurted out and sprawled at his claws. He bent to retrieve a stuffed Lupe, his smirk widening.

     "A Plushie, Shelley?" he goaded. "Who's this for? Zarrelian? Not Mordegan, I hope-"

     "Yes, Mordegan," Shelley interrupted. Ezanna couldn't see her for the couch; only her ears poked over the rim, stiff with sudden strain. He chuckled under his breath--he could imagine the Gelert tensing, her claws digging into the upholstery.

     "We aren't supposed to encourage him, remember?" he remarked, tossing the Plushie from hand to hand, his tone growing ever more strident as he continued. "Sunny said nothing but practical, adult items. Furniture and food. Or books, for Fyora's sake, the Lupe's as dull as the Snow Faerie."

     "That's rich, coming from someone who uses the simile, as dull as the Snow Faerie," Shelley retorted. Ezanna shrugged, noting the weak crackly pitch of her voice, and tossed the Plushie to the floor.

     "Whatever. Hey, what's this?" Another object, a shiny, cardboard-ensconced tube, had caught his attention. It poked out from an upright brown-paper bag, looking as though it were waving, the warm light of the fireplace flickering on its metal rim. He inclined his head and narrowed his eyes, then slid the tube from its cardboard sleeve and held it up to the light.

     "What is this?" he asked, his tone switching from casually wry to genuinely interested. "It looks like it's from the Space Station. Is it some sort of weapon?" He turned the teardrop-shaped tube in his claws and marveled at its metallic smoothness, the sleek design and the perfectly molded edges that tapered into an ocular hole at one end and shone with a circular window at the other.

     Shelley grunted, and her ears disappeared from view as she slid off the couch and reappeared at its side. The Gelert raised her hackles and advanced upon the Krawk.

     "Put it down, Ez," she snarled. "That isn't for you."

     The Krawk ran his claws over the tube and clicked them against the little window. He smiled. "Oh? Who is it for, then?" He gave the tube a shake and the tapered end collapsed into the larger, glassy one, each rim lining up like a folded accordion. Ezanna uttered a small exclamation.

     "It's collapsible? A collapsible weapon? Is that what it is?" He gave it a little shake and the tube slid to its former length. Ezanna cackled. "It is collapsible!"

     Shelley shook her head. "It isn't a weapon, and it isn't for you. Put it back."

     Ezanna narrowed his eyes and peered at the tube, holding it at an arm's length directly in a spill of orange firelight. The lambent flames slipped over the tube and gilded the exposed section, while the end which Ezanna grasped, kept in the shadows, retained its silver coloring.

     "An incredible weapon, I'm sure," he murmured. He could see his snout reflected in the metal, distorted by the curved plane and the mercurial firelight. "You're the only one who fights. Did you buy it for yourself?"

     Shelley bristled at the accusatory note. Her legs stiffened and her tail resembled a quivering violin chord.

     "No," she growled, "I did not. Now put it back."

     Ezanna chuckled and whipped the tube behind his back. His eyes shone yellow and his teeth gleamed. "Not until you tell me what I got."

     Shelley made a noise of contempt and relaxed her tightened muscles. "It'll spoil the surprise," she said, almost indulgently.

     Ezanna nodded slowly and ran his thumbs over the cool metallic tube. "I don't like surprises," he replied, just as facetiously.

     Shelley lowered herself to her haunches and straightened her shoulders. "Christmas is only fun when we have surprises."

     "Says who?"

     "Me."

     Ezanna's face darkened. "And you get to decide?" he shot.

     The Gelert's lips curled and her brow furrowed. "Stop being an idiot, Ezanna, just put the tube back."

     "Tell me what it is."

     "No."

     The Krawk popped the tube into the air and caught it deftly on its descent, just before it clattered to the ground, just as Shelley was about to lunge to prevent its collision. Ezanna sniggered at his sister's suddenly ashen complexion and widened eyes.

     "You care that much? It must be for you, then. You certainly don't care this much about their," he jerked his head to the toys and appliances on the floor, "presents. How selfish of you, to spend all the money that Sunny gave you, to buy everybody's presents, on yourself."

     Shelley mouth was opened slightly and she was visibly quivering. She let out a sigh and rested her eyes on the tube. "Do you want to do the shopping, Ezanna?" she asked softly.

     The Krawk shrugged. "I don't know. Do I get to lord it over the presents and dictate the holidays? Establish the time of present opening? What is it this year, Shelley, exactly seven AM on the twenty-fifth?" He wrinkled his nose and glared in the direction of the Christmas tree. "Are you sure that the ornaments are exactly to your taste?"

     Shelley straightened; she looked Ezanna in the eye and bared her teeth, rising from her haunches to stand with legs stiff and widely spread, in the manner of a Lupe defending a Chocolate Chia. "Nobody else volunteered to decorate the tree, Ezanna! I wouldn't have done it by myself if somebody else had offered to help!"

     "It suited you, though. Nobody offered to help because last year you forced everybody to do exactly as you said--the red bulb goes on the upper third branch, glass icicle on that one on the end--of course nobody else volunteered!"

     He snorted, and then gave the tube a slight shake. There was no rattling of parts, no promise of candy--he held it up and peered into the glass-plated end.

     "Is it a kaleidoscope?" he asked suddenly. Shelley narrowed her eyes.

     "No. And even if it were, you're looking through the wrong end," she snapped.

     The Krawk flipped it around, nearly dropping it again, and pressed his squinted eye to the tapered end. Shelley sighed, and lowered her nose, a little dampened patch of carpet having arrested her attention. Ezanna's eyebrow rose over the metal rim as his lips cracked into a silent laugh, and he squiggled his toes in delight.

     "A telescope! You bought a telescope?" He pulled the tube from his eye and grinned at his sister, whose face was still directed towards the floor. "Where did you-"

     Ezanna paused. He had shifted his grip and beneath his claws was a small scrap of half-peeled sticker clinging to the telescope. He stepped into the lit patch and furrowed his brow as the firelight lapped over the sticker.

     "What does it say... I, oh wow." The Krawk raised his brows and whistled through his teeth. "How much did Sunny give you this year? This thing cost--that's five zeroes!"

     Shelley rumbled in her throat and snapped her head from the carpet. She jumped forwards, nearly knocking her brother to the ground, and grabbed the tube from his claws. She clutched it to her chest and scrabbled at the sticker, her claws scraping on the slick metal and leaving faint marks across the tube, as Ezanna, bewildered, clapped his hands to his sides.

     "Stupid idiot," she mumbled through clenched teeth. "It doesn't matter." Her claws screeched on the metal and Ezanna winced, turning his head into his shoulder.

     "Well Sunny must have given you-" he persisted. "I mean, with everybody else's presents, too, how much did she give you?" Ezanna shoved his claws into his ears and turned to his sister. "How much did Sunny give you?" he demanded.

     Shelley stopped scratching, and gripped the tube so hard that her paws shook. She glared at Ezanna. "Sunny gave me three thousand, the same as she always does. I supplied the rest."

     Ezanna relaxed. His shoulders hung down his torso and he smiled, crossing his arms over his chest. "Ah. So this was just a little self-indulgence then, eh?" He quirked an eyebrow. "I wouldn't thought that you were into astronomy, but then, you probably would like another set of trivia to-"

     "Shut up," she ground out, and tightened her grip on the tube. Ezanna snorted and continued, his tone growing loftier as he gained momentum, his snout tilting incrementally higher.

     "Oh, come on, Shelley, it's fine to buy stuff for yourself. I'm sure that you do it all the time. I'm just surprised that you would get something so expensive for-"

     "Quiet!" she snapped, and stomped her hind paw on the floor. Ezanna quieted. The Gelert took in a deep breath, and relaxed her paws. "I didn't get it for myself. Now just--go away. Finish your book."

     Ezanna wrinkled his snout and slunk back into the living room, pausing by the couch to toss his sister an incensed glare over his shoulder. He sunk back into the armchair, but dug his claws into the armrests. The light played oddly over his scales--he was ensconced in shadow, save for a limpid patch of glossy black upon his right knee that wavered with the flames.

     "I'll hang the stockings," he announced. Shelley rolled her eyes, stooped over the shopping bags with one paw shoving the tube back into its cardboard sleeve.

     "No, you won't," she replied. "You can't even reach that high."

     "I'll hang them lower."

     "It'll ruin the aesthetic."

     Ezanna laughed bitterly and sunk lower into the armchair. "Don't you have some presents to wrap?"

     Shelly finished stuffing the sleeved tube into the bag and slung it over her shoulder, then hunched to gather the remaining packages. She grunted, her back heavily weighted, and rose shakily to her paws.

     "You could make me some Borovan," she suggested, not disingenuously. One of the bags slipped across her shoulder and thumped to the ground, spilling its contents over the floor. Shelley growled and kicked the dislodged toys back into the bag. Ezanna watched from the armchair, lips curling into a smile and claws reclining from the fabric.

     "I'll think on it," he said.

     Shelley finished reloading herself and, tottering like a tower of water balloons, staggered down the hallway.

     Ezanna sniggered and allowed a little sigh to hiss through his teeth. He closed his eyes, feeling the warmth of the fireplace on his scales, then snapped his eyes open again. He stared across the room and his heart quickened as he registered the flat, rectangular boxes propped upon the mantelpiece.

     Four advent calendars were lined against the wall, each one displaying a different festive scene. Shelley had picked them out--she always bought the same ones. Ezanna's had a picture of a Snow Chia hiding from a sinisterly jolly green Lupe. The image had already been distorted; four, square-shaped holes gaped like little mouths, flaps of cardboard poking from their chocolate-scented cavities. Door five was scheduled to open tomorrow, at precisely seven O'clock, NST, possibly seven and one minute, depending on whether or not Mordegan burned the porridge. The doors never opened ahead of time. Shelley wouldn't have allowed it.

     Ezanna stared at his advent calendar, at the four black squares that were scattered about the picture, and frowned. His stomach gave a slight squeeze and he thought how nice a little piece of chocolate would taste, even the stale, whitening chocolate entombed within the cardboard.

     He half-rose, then hesitated, his body tensing at the sound of Shelley tearing sheets of wrapping paper from the rolls in the hall closet. The heat trickled down his scales and his heart pounded over the grumbling fire. Just one, he thought.

     Ezanna jumped up and scurried to the mantelpiece. He stood before the fireplace, heat pressing against his stomach, and placed his claws around the edges of the calendar. The Krawk bit his lower lip and glanced over his shoulder, but the room was bare; Shelley was far too occupied with the presents to pay him any attention, and she could likely hear nothing over the crinkling paper.

     Ezanna yanked the calendar to his chest and stared at the glossy cardboard, gilded white by the firelight save for the four square, shadowed cavities. He looked for door five, but it was impossible to distinguish any numbers in that light, so he shook his head, ran his claws over the picture until his detected a faint furrow--a door hinge. He carefully wedged his claw into the furrow and pried open the door.

     "Ezanna?"

     Ezanna gasped and the calendar slipped from his hands. The door opened and a little brown mound--the chocolate--tumbled out. The Krawk hardly noticed; he had jumped atop the couch, sitting upright to block the fireplace from view.

     "Yes?" he replied.

     Shelley was standing inside the doorway that led into the hall, a neatly wrapped box beneath her arm. The paper was red and decorated with little white snowflakes, and tied with a thin silver ribbon that had the words, To Ezanna, from Scorchy Claws scrawled across in black marker.

     Ezanna glanced at the package and buried his claws into the upholstery. "Do you need it under the tree? I'll put it there for you. You don't have to move or anything, I'll get it," he jabbered.

     Shelley shook her head, grinning. "No, no. You don't need to do that. Here, take it." The Gelert loped to Ezanna and passed him the box.

     Ezanna grabbed it, his claws shaking, and he shifted to better obstruct the calendar from Shelley's view. He kept her in eye contact and hardly registered the package in his hands.

     "Cool. I'll take care of this. Are you going to go and wrap more? I'll make Borovan."

     Shelley snorted. "Open it, stupid. It's your Christmas present."

     Ezanna faltered, and at last looked at the present, his eyes flicking over the message on the ribbon. "Now?" he asked. "It's only the fourth."

     The Gelert shrugged. "Well, you'll still get something from Uncle Lucas, and probably one of Mordegan's painted rocks, so you won't be completely shortchanged on Christmas. Come on, open it." She swatted his hand with her ear.

     Ezanna paused, the package in his hands, the delicate wrapping paper snaring in his claws, and ran his thumb over the ribbon. He could see the tree out of the corner of his eye, its branches spreading over a vacant floor, and the ornaments glistening in the dwindling firelight.

     "I'll wait until Christmas," he uttered. "It's only fun if you have something to open." The Krawk tucked the present behind the couch, beside his foot. "I'll put it beneath the tree."

     Shelley's nostrils flared, just a bit, and her eyebrows rose. "Really. I figured you'd have opened it now. You may as well; then you'd have a much longer time to use it."

     Ezanna leaned against the back of the couch. "I can wait."

     "Should I tell you what it is?" Shelley coaxed.

     "I'd rather it be a surprise," Ezanna replied.

     The Gelert smirked, lowered her snout to Ezanna's, and her face darkened. "It's a telescope," she hissed, and, with a deft twist of her paw snapped around, tail cracking over her brother's nose, and marched from the room.

The End

 
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