The fourth and final installment in Jak and Torrin’s holiday novelette, in which we find out exactly how big a mushball Torrin is.
The happiest of holidays to all my readers! I know 2016 was a rough year, but I’m thankful for each and every one of you. May 2017 be a far better year than the last one!
Torrin was having second thoughts, which she didn’t care for at all. Jak already had one, hells she had two and access to others on the base. The gift idea that had seemed so genius to Torrin at the time ate away at her. Though from the way Jak kept eying the large brightly-wrapped package in the back seat of the car, she was intrigued. Covered as it was in traditional wrappings of yellow and orange, the box looked even bigger. There were other gifts piled back there, but Jak’s eyes had homed right in on her name on the tag.
Jak held a small pile of packages on her lap. She’d refused to let Torrin handle them, for which Torrin really couldn’t blame her, not after the way she’d tried to find out what she was getting the other day, not the number of times Jak had caught Torrin snooping about their flat. She hadn’t managed to discover Jak’s stash. Where had she been hiding them? Her smuggler’s sensibilities were highly offended. Torrin excelled at hiding loot, and uncovering it, but somehow Jak had managed to foil her highly developed instincts.
They arrived at her mothers’ house, the little bungalow nestled among sandy hills. Brown grasses showing only the occasional clump of green were all that was left of Irenya’s lawn during the dry season. It was a hot day, even for Nadi. The car’s interior had been nice and cool, but as soon as they opened the door, the heat enveloped them. It was so dry, any sweat evaporated off her skin immediately without cooling her anywhere near enough.
Irenya peered out the front door, then came out to meet them. The heat didn’t seem to bother her at all.
“Pass me some of those boxes,” she said to Torrin. “Let’s get you two inside as soon as possible.”
Jak had acclimated well enough to many things on Nadierzda, but the dry heat wasn’t one of them. She smiled gratefully and hurried up the walk. Torrin passed her mother enough boxes to be able to handle the rest. She made sure to hold on to Jak’s gift.
“Thanks,” Torrin said to Irenya.
“Don’t mention it,” Irenya replied. “I need your help to finish our present to Raisa.”
“Of course. How did you keep her away from the room?”
“It was easy enough. I claimed it as a place I could use to change out of my work clothes. I’ve been using it for months since you and I started talking about the project.”
“We’ll see about that when she realizes I’ll be changing in the bedroom again.”
They were at the front door, so Torrin didn’t have to respond further. As soon as she stepped inside the tidy little house, she was swept into a hug by Raisa.
“Safe Landing, Torrin,” Raisa said.
“And to you, Raisa.” She shrugged to indicate her arms full of boxes. “Let me put these by the fountain and I’ll greet you properly.”
“When you get the chance.” Raisa gave her a final squeeze then let her go. “I’ve been told you’ll be helping your mother with a mysterious project. I’m to keep out of your way.” Her eyes sparkled with excitement.
They’d set up the fountain in the living room, in the same place it had been placed for as long as Torrin could remember. The fountain had been handed down to her mama from Tamra’s mama. It was one of the few reminders of her first wife that Irenya had kept, and all the more precious to her for it.
She took her time putting out the presents, while searching for her gift from Jak. There was nothing.
“You’re taking your time,” Jak said from the doorway. “Is everything all right?”
“She probably threw her back out.” Nat joined Jak by the door. She leaned against the frame. “I hear that happens a lot when you get older.”
“Very funny.” Torrin deliberately arranged a package just so, then stood up.
Jak watched her with wide-eyed innocence. Nat made no attempt to hide a wide grin.
“I need to help Mother with some things,” Torrin said with as much dignity as she could muster.
Nat stepped into the room. “Maybe we should open one present now.” Her eyes raked the pile of gaily-wrapped packages with poorly-concealed avarice. It was a line she used every year. She squatted in front of the presents.
“Not a chance,” Irenya said.
“But Mother, look at all that.” Nat’s outstretched arms took in the substantial pile. “How can you expect me to wait until after dinner?”
“It builds character.”
“They have this argument every year.” Torrin’s loud whisper to Jak was ignored by Nat and Irenya.
“I have more than enough character,” Nat said.
The words were the same as they’d been in previous years, but Irenya’s reaction was vastly different. She hesitated, her eyebrows knit together for a moment.
“One present then.”
Nat rocked back on her heels and turned to give Irenya a shocked glare. “I’m going to see if Mom needs help with the baking.” She brushed between Jak and Irenya in the doorway.
Jak and Torrin shared a look while Irenya reached toward Nat. She let her arm drop back to her side.
“I’ll check on her,” Jak said quietly.
Torrin nodded, and Jak followed in Nat’s wake. Nat didn’t take offense at what Jak said. She probably thought the sniper was the only one who understood.
“I can’t talk to her anymore,” Irenya said.
“She’s not mad at you, try to remember that.”
“I try, but it’s hard.” Torrin’s mother smiled bitterly. “It’s hard for me not to give it back to her when she gets angry.”
“I know.” Torrin reached around and draped an arm across Irenya’s shoulders. “I remember.” She squeezed gently to show she wasn’t trying to get in a dig. “You’re doing better this time.”
“Raisa’s a big help.” She straightened her back and dusted her hands off on her thighs. “We have work to do.” Irenya strode from the room, leaving Torrin to follow along in her wake.
There was much more work to do than Irenya had implied. To listen to her talk, it had sounded like she was almost finished. If the loom was even halfway assembled, Torrin would have been surprised. They had a lot of work to do if they were to be done by dinner. Torrin picked up a spanner and stepped into the fray.
As they worked, Torrin became uncomfortably aware that her mother was getting old. The sturdy muscles she’d developed over a lifetime of physical labor were still there, but they’d become ropey. Things simply took longer, which explained why there was so much to do on the loom. Torrin doubted Irenya had even noticed the decline. She’d put aside as much time as she’d normally needed for the project and was coming up short. Not that Torrin minded helping out. She liked to work with her hands, but if she’d known this was in the offing, she’d have brought her work gloves and coveralls.
The time passed quickly enough. Irenya responded with her typical monosyllabic answers when Torrin tried to engage her in conversation. Eventually, Torrin stopped trying, but she couldn’t take the refusal to chat personally. Irenya didn’t shut down conversation because she didn’t like Torrin, she simply didn’t like to talk. Torrin wished she’d realized that a couple decades ago. It would have saved her years of hurt feelings. Was this what growing up felt like? The ability to look at her parents’ actions and realize how little they had to do with her. For the first time, the silence between them didn’t feel awkward. Torrin hummed as she worked, a smile on her face.
By the time they finished, the sun had swung around to the back of the house and was barely kissing the horizon.
“Just in time for dinner,” Irenya said. She stretched broadly and rotated her neck until the joints popped loudly.
Torrin winced, she hated that sound. “I need a shower.”
“We both do. You take the one in the house, I’ll clean up quick in the outbuilding.”
When Torrin opened the door, the combined scents of goat and machinery lubricant in which they’d been laboring were wiped out by the smells of dinner. The top notes were savory, but she thought she could detect freshly-baked cookies and pudding beneath. She stood in the doorway, transported back to a time when she’d been young, when Landing Day had been the most anticipated time of the year, better even than the rodeo.
“Smells good, doesn’t it.” Irenya elbowed Torrin lightly in the side.
“Well, hurry up and shower so we can dig in. Sooner dinner’s done, sooner presents’ll be opened.” She looked behind her into the room. Irenya was as excited to give Raisa their gift as Torrin was to give Jak hers. Maybe. They shared a look of anticipation. “Go on.” Irenya pushed her out the door.
Torrin showered and changed in record time. The sonic shower made dealing with her hair a breeze, though it lacked the hedonistic pleasure of the water one she’d installed in their flat at Jak’s request. She had to borrow some of her mother’s clothes. They were a little short through the wrists and ankles and much more rustic than she preferred. No one would accuse Irenya of being fashion-forward. Still, the clothing would do for family. Torrin had nothing to prove here.
She made her way back to the kitchen. Jak and Nat sat chatting on one side of the counter while Raisa puttered about on the other, putting the finishing touches on dinner. Completely unaware of Torrin’s arrival, their discussion continued unabated,.
“How are the nightmares, then?” Raisa asked as she ladled gravy into a shallow dish.
“Getting better,” Nat said. “I sometimes get a full night’s sleep. My therapist is very pleased. The cats don’t like the nightmares at all, though. I wake up and they’re hiding under the bed. They don’t come out until I call for them.”
“Poor things.” Raise tutted sympathetically. “What about you, Jak?”
“It’s not so bad. Having Torrin there helps. I don’t feel like I’m so trapped in them.”
What Jak wasn’t saying was that she didn’t really want the dreams to go away altogether. They’d talked about it when the frequency of her nightmares had actually increased upon their return to Nadi. As terrible as the dreams were, they were Jak’s strongest tie to Bron.
Torrin crept a few steps back from the doorway, then entered the kitchen, making sure to scuff her feet. It was no mean feat in socks, but she managed.
“Oh wonderful, you two are finally done with your mystery project in Irenya’s mud room.” A small smile curled at the edge of Raisa’s mouth. If Torrin’s mother thought she was fooling her wife, she was sadly mistaken. Clearly, Raisa knew what was going on, she was simply much less of a snoop than the rest of her family.
“Yep. Mother should be in soon, she’s getting cleaned up.”
“Then we can start setting the table.” Raisa shooed Nat and Jak from their comfortable perches through the simple expedient of handing them dishes. They disappeared into the next room while Torrin accepted the first of the sides.
Irenya managed to time her entrance perfectly. They had just finished bringing out the last of the dishes and placing the cutlery when she walked in through the back door, accompanied by a blast of heat and sand.
They sat around the table. Irenya took her place at the head and carved the roast as everyone passed around the sides. Traditionally, the youngest members of the family would tell the story of how Zana Krikorian and her women discovered Nadierzda and settled on it. There were no children now, but someday soon there would be. Torrin smiled to herself as she looked around.
Nat had been the last one to tell that story, though she’d been prone to embellishment. When Nat told the story, the settlers were forced to fight off all sorts of beasts, each more ferocious than the last until Irenya had to tell her to knock it off and tell the story properly.
Conversation was quiet but animated. From the way Nat’s eyes kept straying toward the next room, she was distracted by the surprises waiting there. Torrin knew Nat would love her present. The time was right, though the idea still made her throat tighten.
Irenya seemed content to linger over her mug of bitrian after the meal while Nat’s fidgets grew more and more pronounced. Torrin caught the tiny smirk hovering around Irenya’s lips when she took another leisurely sip of the steaming beverage. Their mother was messing with Nat, and with no sign of remorse. Beyond that, Torrin also though it was time. Her palms were sweaty with excitement and worry. Would Jak like her present? Surely she would, but what if she didn’t?
“I think it’s time for presents,” Torrin announced, pushing her chair away from the table.
“Didn’t think you’d be the one to crack,” Irenya murmured as they all moved to the next room.
The first person to mention opening presents after dinner was the last to open theirs. It was a cunning strategy her parents had developed to deal with Nat’s over-enthusiasm. In fact, Torrin couldn’t recall a year when Nat hadn’t been the last one to open her gifts. From the slightly stunned look in Nat’s eyes, she wasn’t sure what to make of the situation.
Torrin claimed one corner of the couch and pulled Jak against her. A sharp object poked into her ribcage.
With an evil smirk, Jak pulled a small box from her coat pocket. Torrin’s name was clearly visible on the tag.
“So that’s where you’ve been hiding it, you saucy wench!” She shook her head. “I’ve been trying to get a better look at that for days.”
“I know.” Jak looked so pleased with herself that Torrin stuck out her tongue at her. “You can open it now.” Jak tried to hand it to her, but Torrin held up her hands.
“Oh no, she can’t,” Irenya said. “Torrin knows the rules. She has to hand out the gifts and wait quietly until it’s her turn to open them.” She turned out the lights in the room, leaving only those from the fountain. The glow through the fountain’s water shone a shifting pattern of light onto the ceiling.
“Fine, but you’re getting your gift second to last,” Torrin said. “I think it’s only fitting that Nat gets the first present, since she’s never had the experience before.”
She made a show of perusing the small pile of gifts before picking out her present to Nat. It was a small package, easily among the least impressive on the pile, but it was heavy. “Here you go.”
“Thanks,” Nat said dryly. “Glad to see you’re starting with a bang.” For all her grousing, Nat tore into the package, showing no regard for the layers of thin paper Torrin had used to wrap it. She pulled a metal cylinder about the width of her hand from the box and held it up. “This is great! What on Nadi is it?”
“It’s the locking mechanism for the Calamity Jane’s airlock.” Torrin’s lower lip wobbled a bit as she smiled. “Do you know how hard it is to find something concrete to symbolize giving a ship to someone?”
“Hilarious, Torrin. Now where’s my real gift?” She craned her neck to look around Torrin at the remaining packages.
“That is your real gift. The Jane is yours.”
“It’s true, Nat,” Jak said from the couch.
“You’re shitting me.” Nat looked from Torrin to Jak and back again.
“Language, Natalya,” Irenya said.
“Yes, Mother.” The reply was automatic. Nat looked down at the cylinder and back up at Torrin. Her eyes shimmered wetly. She engulfed Torrin in a hug, squeezing so hard Torrin was certain she heard her ribs creak.
“You’re welcome,” Torrin said, laughing. If the laugh was a bit snuffly, no one commented. “I think we should give Raisa her gift now.”
Irenya leaped from her perch on the arm of Raisa’s chair and tugged her wife up to join her. She practically dragged Raisa down the hall. Nat and Jak followed along behind them while Torrin took a moment to wipe her eyes. She would miss piloting the Calamity Jane, but Nat had more use for her now. Torrin wouldn’t need her, not if she was staying on Nadi to have babies with Jak.
Raisa’s excited voice echoed down the hall when she saw the huge automated loom Torrin and Irenya had assembled. She joined the small group in time to see Raisa giving her mother the most thorough kiss she’d ever seen. It went on for quite some time. She exchanged awkward glances with Nat and Jak, who then looked anywhere but at each other and the spectacle in front of them. Jak leaned forward to examine part of the mechanism. Torrin studied the frayed edge of her shirt’s too-short wrist.
“Should we wait for you in the living room?” Nat finally asked.
“No need,” Raisa said. She gave Irenya a smoldering look that promised things Torrin never wanted to contemplate her mothers doing.
“All right, back to the gifts,” Torrin said, shooing Nat and Jak before her. The knowing chuckles of her parents chased them down the hall.
They must have indulged themselves in another kiss. By the time Raisa and Irenya rejoined them, not only were they quite mussed, but Torrin had sorted everyone’s gifts out.
What followed were a string of thoughtful presents that took much too long to open. To Torrin’s way of looking at things, there was far too much discussion over how lovely this gift was, or the usefulness of that one. She had to admit that the blanket Raisa had woven for her and Jak was beautiful.
When all the gifts had been opened, Jak tried again to give her the package from her pocket.
“Not quite yet,” Torrin said. She pulled her and Jak’s gifts to her mothers out from behind the fountain and passed them over.
Both women were entirely too composed about opening them. Torrin kept herself from snapping at them to move faster, but it was a close thing. Irenya and Raisa pulled the tiniest socks Torrin could find out of their respective packages at almost the same moment. They traded identical expressions of befuddlement.
“This is very nice, Torrin, but they’re not my size,” Irenya said.
“Oh, they’re not for you,” Torrin assured her. She bounced up and down a bit in her chair. “But you’ll want to hold on to them for later.”
“I don’t understand,” Irenya said.
“Oh, Torrin!” Raisa said over top of her wife. “Which one of you is it?” She looked back and forth between her and Jak.
“Both of us, actually.”
Jak put a hand on Torrin’s thigh. “Or it will be. I told her it was too soon to tell you, but she couldn’t help herself. We’ve been to see Kiera. They’ll extract our eggs in a couple weeks, then use the genetic material to fertilize us a few weeks after that.”
“Eggs?” Irenya’s eyes were ready to bug out of her head.
“That’s right,” Torrin said. “You’re going to be a grandmother, and before a year has gone by. Kiera foresees no issues for us. We’re genetically compatible and biologically fit.” When the expected dig about her age didn’t materialize, Torrin looked around. “Where’s Nat?”
There was no sign of her sister. No one else had seen her slip out.
“I’ll go find her,” Jak said. She scooted off the couch before Torrin could say anything, leaving Torrin to contend with her beaming parents.
They had all sorts of questions she couldn’t answer, reluctantly leading her to admit Jak might have been right about their announcement being a little premature.
Irenya launched into a history of the family, detailing what each illustrious ancestor had accomplished. Torrin assumed it was to help her with name choices.
“Then there was your great-great Aunt Hildie. She invented the opalescent glaze that’s still one of the most popular colors on Nadi porcelain today.”
“We already know one name,” Torrin said, gently but firmly cutting into her mother’s litany. “We’re calling one Brona.” Where was Jak? And Nat for that matter. She wanted to give Jak her gift.
“Of course.” Raisa nodded. “It’s a lovely name, and it makes so much sense.”
Jak finally reappeared. “Nat needed some air. She’ll be back. She said we should keep on without her.”
“All right.” Torrin rubbed her hands together.
“Just a moment, Torrin.” Irenya held a hand out toward her. “Maybe we should wait.”
“Nat thought you might say that. She doesn’t know how long she’ll be.”
“Very well.” Irenya lowered her hand.
“Here’s your present from me, Jak.” Torrin slid the long box out from behind the couch. “Don’t worry about the paper.”
Jak had methodically unwrapped each present so far as if she might give offense if she didn’t take her time. She flashed Torrin an excited grin and tore off the paper in a flurry of scraps, quickly revealing the metal box beneath. She thumbed open the catches and opened the lid.
Torrin slid to the side to get a better look at Jak’s face. It lit up with delight. There no question as to whether or not she liked it. Torrin exulted silently inside.
“It’s beautiful, sweetie!” Jak exclaimed.
“What did she give you?” Raisa asked. She and her wife craned their necks to get a view of was bringing Jak so much joy.
Wordlessly, she turned the case around on her lap.
“That’s very nice, but what is it?” Irenya asked when confronted with a case full of components.
“It’s a sniper rifle,” Jak said. “A really nice one.”
“That’s very…romantic.” Irenya might like Jak better than she’d thought she would, but she still wasn’t thrilled about her vocation. Her smile was wooden and not terribly convincing, but at least she’d tried.
“It’s custom-made,” Torrin said. “I had it built to your measurements. Everyone I talked to agreed those are the finest gas-propulsion rifles in the galaxy. You’ll be able assemble it to your own preferences. I made sure they included all the options.”
“I love it, baby. It’s perfect.” Jak turned the case back around and stroked the pieces reverently. “I can’t wait to try it out.” She looked over at Torrin and her face fell.
“What’s the matter?”
“This must have cost you a fortune. My gift for you is silly.”
“Nothing you could ever give me would be silly.”
Jak looked away, but Torrin placed a finger under her chin and gently turned her head back around.
“I mean it. I treasure everything you’ve ever given me. If you gave me pocket link and told me it was special, I would keep it always because it came from you.”
As Torrin hoped, Jak smiled. She fished the small package out of her pocket and handed it to Torrin. “For you, my love.”
Torrin accepted the box with a kiss. She weighed it in her hands. It was light. She turned it over in her hands and tried to find the tape Jak had used to fasten the paper together. There was no tape. Her clever love had figured out how to fold the paper so it stayed put.
The wrapping unfolded like a flower, revealing a simple wooden box. Torrin opened the lid and stopped, staring down at its contents. She didn’t know what she’d expected, but it hadn’t been this.
“You didn’t,” she whispered.
“Of course I did,” Jak replied as softly.
Torrin blinked rapidly to clear the tears from her eyes. They spilled over onto her cheeks in front of everyone, but now she could see the beautiful blue comb cradled in satin.
“What is it, Torrin?” Raisa asked softly.
She tried to tell them, but couldn’t get the words past the lump filling her throat. Torrin swallowed once, then again, but couldn’t force out more than a whisper.
“A comb?” Irenya said when she showed them.
She coughed once then cleared her throat. “Jak made me one after she rescued me. She saw how much trouble I was having with my hair. I had to leave it behind when we left, but I loved it. It was the first thing she ever gave me.”
“It’s not the original, of course,” Jak said. “That’s long gone. But Audra had the last Troika expedition to Haefen bring back various samples of wood. I was able to make another one. It’s even better than the first one. I was able to sand the wood this time.”
“It’s perfect.” Torrin cradled Jak’s cheeks gently between her hands and placed their lips together. Jak’s lips moved against hers for the softest, sweetest kiss they’d ever shared. “You’re perfect,” she said. “We’re perfect.”