“If you are referring to the literary character, I do not think the reference is apt.”
Ben set down the sports section and rolled his eyes. “I was referring to the popular concept of someone who refuses to celebrate a holiday.”
“For the last time, I am not a Christian. This is a holiday to celebrate the incarnation of the Christian god and his human journey.” Tenzin shrugged and continued to fiddle with whatever she was making on the stove. “An admirable celebration, but not one that I choose to take part in.”
“It’s about more than the religious celebration, Tiny.”
“I really dislike that nickname.”
“And yet,” Ben grinned and took a sip of coffee. “I will call you that anyway.”
“And I will hit you even harder the next time we fight.” She looked up from the stove where a delicious aroma was starting to drift to Ben’s nose. Tenzin didn’t cook often, but when she did, everyone showed up and he barely got any. She wasn’t very good at estimating portion sizes. When Tenzin cooked, she got out one of the old cooking pots she kept in Caspar’s kitchen, threw random things in, and in short order, the house smelled amazing.
That night, Caspar and Isadora were gone, spending the weekend with Ernesto on the yacht, Giovanni and Beatrice were out hunting, and Ben was stuck at home. It was winter break, so his college classes were out, and he was bored. Luckily, he had Tenzin to pick on and no one to share the food with. All in all, not a bad night.
“Why are you here?” she asked, stirring whatever spicy, delicious thing she was making. “Shouldn’t you be out with your friends making Gio worry?”
“I’m installing that voice recognition software on the computers tonight.” And eating your food.
“And eating my dapanji.”
Am I old enough to know what that means? Ben stifled a smile and finished his coffee before he stood and walked to the kitchen. “What’s dapanji?”
“This dish I’m making.” She looked up at him, then scowled at the coffee cup in his hand. “No more coffee. Drink tea. You drink too much coffee.”
Ben put his coffee cup in the sink and reached for the small pot of fragrant tea next to the stove. She’d set out two mugs. “Yes, all that coffee has obviously stunted my growth.”
“So, so proud of sheer verticality, Benjamin.” She whipped a small foot back, aiming a quick kick at his back of his leg that almost caused him to fall over. “Makes you easier to take down.”
“Hey, no fighting in the kitchen.” Ben caught himself on the edge of the counter. Hot tea splashed his hand. “Caspar will get mad.”
“He gets mad at you, too. He just can’t do anything about it.” Ben decided to abandon the newspaper and keep her company, so he hopped up on the counter to irritate her about his favorite subject of the moment.
“You know…” he started again as she lifted the edge of the pot. He caught a glimpse of some spicy looking red broth before it fell. “There are all sorts of winter holidays you could choose from. Christmas, Yule, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa. What did you celebrate as a human?”
“I’m serious, Tenzin.”
“So am I.” She turned and poured herself a cup of tea. “Fine, we celebrated agricultural holidays. Harvest. Spring. The summer solstice. Things like that.”
He grinned at her unexpected answer. “Were there gifts?”
“No, there was food.” She gave Ben a reluctant smile. “That was gift enough.”
“Well, I think you should celebrate Christmas with us. Just to fit in.”
“But I do not fit in.” She shrugged and sipped her tea, the curling fangs evident behind her lips. Unlike most vampires, Tenzin’s fangs never retracted. They were frozen in vicious readiness at all times. And instead of the long straight canines that most immortals had, Tenzin’s had a distinctive curve that reminded Ben of the saber she usually fought with. It was one of the reasons she rarely smiled in public. Anything more than a murmur in front of humans made hiding what she was very difficult.
“You fit in here,” he said, his voice suddenly soft.
She looked up at him. Those eyes. He had to force himself to meet them. Those eerie grey eyes saw… everything.
“Fine. I’ll celebrate Christmas with all of you. But I’m not singing.”
Ben grinned. “Cool. So what are you getting me?”
Her mouth dropped. “I never agreed to gifts!”
“Yes, you did. That’s half of what Christmas is about.” He snickered and poured himself another cup of tea. “I know what I’m getting you.”
She cocked her head to the side. “You’re getting me a gift?”
“Yep. Already have it picked out.”
“So this whole insistence that I celebrate a Christian holiday was so you could give me a gift?”
“Kind of. But not entirely.” He reached over and patted the top of her head. “Come on, you’ll have fun. There’s food and drink and presents under the tree. Everyone will be here. We’ll watch Christmas movies later.”
“Which movies? There are very few action movies set on Christmas. I’m not watching anything with talking animals.”
He shrugged. “Home Alone?”
“I do like the resourcefulness of that child. Kevin would make an excellent vampire.”
Just then, he heard two sets of footsteps outside. “Aw man, are Gio and B back?”
Tenzin nodded. She would have heard them long before Ben did. “Yes, but they smell like they’ve both just eaten, so they shouldn’t pig too much of your food.”
“‘Hog,’ Tiny. ‘Hog’ the food.”
“It’s a stupid expression.”
The door opened and a rush of cool air wafted in. Winter in Southern California was never all that cold, but they’d had a few storms come through in the past week, so the air was crisp and surprisingly chilly.
Giovanni said, “What’s a stupid expression?”
“‘Hogging’ food,” Tenzin said. “It’s a stupid expression.”
Giovanni shrugged. “Have you seen pigs eat? Not all that different from Ben.”
Beatrice slipped through the kitchen door. “Tenzin, that smells amazing. What is it?”
“Dapanji. It’s a kind of stew with chicken and garlic and chiles.”
“It smells divine. I’d love a taste.”
Ben shook his head. “No. I had plans! You were all supposed to be gone. The Tenzin food is mine.”
Giovanni sniffed the air, which was suddenly alive with the energy of three powerful vampires crowded into a small space. “Did you make naan?”
“You don’t get the naan!”
Tenzin nodded. “It’s in the oven. It’s the kind with the sesame seeds on it.”
Beatrice came over and patted Ben’s cheek. Her fingers were ice-cold. “Don’t worry. We won’t eat much. We’re pretty full.”
He didn’t shiver. Not much, anyway, but her fangs were still down and her eyes were bright and his favorite aunt was looking particularly vampire-like dressed completely in black. Ben swallowed the instinctive lump in his throat that often came when you were the only one with an active pulse in a room full of creatures who drank blood for dinner.
“It’s fine. I can share.”
Beatrice grinned. There was slight smear of blood at the corner of her mouth.
“Uh, B… you might want to…” Ben mimed wiping the corner of his mouth.
“Oh!” She caught on and grabbed a napkin from a drawer. “That’s embarrassing.”
Giovanni bent down and whispered something in her ear that made Beatrice laugh and suddenly, it was just home again. Giovanni and Tenzin started chatting in Chinese and Beatrice began teasing Ben about two of the girls he was dating from school.
“Oh hey,” he finally interrupted her. “I got Tenzin to agree to celebrate Christmas with us.”
“Yay!” Beatrice clapped her hands. “I know what I’m getting her already.”
“If you just wanted to buy me things—” Tenzin piped up as she took the steaming dish to the table, where Giovanni was putting out four large bowls. “—you don’t have to make up an excuse. I accept gifts at all times.”
Ben said, “But it’s more fun when they’re wrapped up under the Christmas tree, and you know they’re there, but you can’t open them.”
She curled her lip. “I have to wait?”
Ben and Beatrice nodded in tandem. “Yep,” he said. “For weeks.”
She growled a little. “I do not like that.”
Beatrice grabbed the warm bread from the oven. “Why do I think that’s part of the appeal for the boy?”
‘The boy’ watched her take the bread to the table and stand on her toes to give her husband a kiss as he poured four small glasses of golden beer.
She looks the same.
She always would. Though Ben was growing and changing, losing the softer angles of childhood and growing stronger and sharper every day, Beatrice stayed the same. Tenzin stayed the same. They all did. It wasn’t something he’d thought about much as a child, when being a grown-up seemed so very far away, but the older he got, the more evident it became.
Sometimes, he would go to Dez and Matt’s house for a few days. He’d eat breakfast out on their patio in the sun and play with little Carina, who chattered in her adorable toddler-speak and seemed to change every day. Once, after Caspar had an unexpected problem with his heart, Ben had stayed with Matt and Dez for almost a month. They hadn’t asked why, and neither had Giovanni or Beatrice.
But he came back. He imagined he always would.
“So, Ben, what are you getting me for Christmas?” Giovanni asked as he spooned an entirely too generous portion of the savory stew into his bowl. Ben watched him carefully before he grabbed the ladle and served himself.
“I don’t know. I was thinking about an iPad.”
“Haha.” Ben was still sore that his uncle had shorted out his last two electronic devices when he’d forgotten them in the library. “Don’t leave them lying around, and they’ll survive longer. Or stick with paper books.”
“E-books are the wave of the future, old man.” Ben grabbed two large pieces of naan.
Giovanni shuddered visibly, then turned to his wife. “What about you? What are you getting me?”
“Do you really want me to say at the table?”
Giovanni grinned as Ben groaned, “No. None of us want that.”
Tenzin muttered, “Like rabbits, those two.”
“I know. Tiny, this is amazing, as usual.”
“Thank you. Don’t call me ‘Tiny.’ What are you getting me for this holiday you convinced me to celebrate for purely selfish purposes?”
“I’m not telling you. Trust me, you’ll like it.”
“Is it sharp or poisonous? Because I like things like that.”
Ben grinned. “I know. And I’m not even giving you a hint.” The twin daggers Baojia had found for him would be perfect. They were ceremonial pieces that had drained much of his substantial bank account, but he knew exactly where she would hang them in her studio. “You will have to be patient. B, I’m still stuck on what to get the old man here.”
“What do you get for the five hundred year old fire vampire who has everything? I struggle with that one myself.” Beatrice shrugged. “Books. If all else fails, books.”
Giovanni smiled. “I don’t mind being predictable. And I already have your present, Tesoro.”
“You mean the Kimber Solo Nine millimeter?”
His spoon dropped to the bowl. “How—”
“You wouldn’t let me buy it at the shop. You insisted I’d like the Sig Sauer more, even though you know I like Kimbers.” She tore off a piece of her naan. “It was kind of obvious, Gio.”
Giovanni scowled and took another piece of bread. “You don’t know about the other thing, though.”
“Is it a first edition of some book I love?”
He cleared his throat. “Maybe.”
“You really are predictable,” Tenzin muttered. “This food is excellent. I am still a very good cook.”
“Yes, you are,” Beatrice said. “Thanks, Tenzin.”
“You should cook something for Christmas dinner,” Ben said. “What do they eat in China for Christmas?”
“Noodles. Or dumplings. Or whatever you eat on Tuesday, because they don’t celebrate Christmas.”
Beatrice said, “Some people might now. Young people?”
“It’s ironic, when you think about it,” Giovanni mused. “Most Christmas decorations are probably made in China.”
“All those tinsel trees?” Ben said. “They must think Americans are seriously weird people.”
“Americans are seriously weird people.” Tenzin suddenly brightened. “If I’m celebrating Christmas, can we have fireworks?”
Giovanni said, “I’m fairly sure that’s illegal.”
“I don’t even know where we’d find them,” Beatrice added.
“Yes.” Every eye turned to Ben. “I’ll find them somewhere, and Gio—” He turned to his uncle. “If the cops show up, you can make them think all they heard was champagne bottles popping. Tiny wants fireworks; she gets fireworks.”
Tenzin clapped as Beatrice smiled at Ben. He just shrugged, like it was no big deal. “But you have to cook.”
“I will make the noodles you like.”
Ben tried to act cool. “Score one for me. I’m not sharing.”
He glanced up at Tenzin, who was smiling like a little kid, her fangs sparkling in the light from the kitchen and her eyes lit up. She totally didn’t have to make the noodles; her expression alone was enough. Still, he wasn’t going to turn them down.
“Merry Christmas, Tenzin.”