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  • Writer's picturecoralrivera

a bit of SHIFT Christmas magic

A little holiday interlude because we all need some cheer. Mild spoilers for SHIFT (if you haven't read it yet, what are you waiting for?) :)





i wish you could see you through my eyes, then you would know

A Shift holiday interlude


“I didn’t think I’d be doing this on Christmas Eve,” Nikolai muttered to himself, ducking another laser pistol shot behind the corner of a brick alleyway. “Fucking hell.” He took out his own pistol. He only ever carried it out of necessity; knives were always his first choice in a fight and far more trustworthy. He blew out a breath and turned, pointing the pistol at the large man on the opposite street. The shot rang true, hitting the man square in the shoulder and knocking him straight onto his back. Nikolai smiled, nearly whooping in victory. Whether it was a dagger or a pistol, his shots almost always hit their mark. He strode out from the alley then, feelling the slight warmth of the sun on his cheeks.

The air was crisp around him, and he could smell the peppermint chip cakes baking on the corner of the street. They were Val’s favorite, and he had just purchased one and set it in his cruiser when an attempted robbery at the nearby jewelry store had taken place. The assailant was someone Nikolai unfortunately had run-ins with somewhat frequently; he had been a notorious presence in the Elixir scene and no matter how many times Nikolai and Val had arrested him for petty things or possession, he always wanted to revert back to his ways. He walked towards the brute of a man, now smelling the burning skin of the hole he had placed in his shoulder. The man was groaning and clutching his hand to his arm, blood dripping between his fingers. Nikolai picked up the man’s pistol on the asphalt and aimed both at him with relaxed hands. “Are you quite done?”

The man, oddly enough, looked like a generic store brand version of Santa Claus–a thick, gray beard that matched his surly expression, a stocky build and round features, and hair so slick Nikolai had to wonder if it was from not bathing in a while or if it was actually intentional. Judging from the smell coming off of him, he’d wager on the former. The man lifted his hands in surrender, one of them coming away crimson stained. “It was a trap! It wasn’t me, Detective, I swear on my mother.”

Nikolai scoffed. “Your mother’s dead, Saunders, and I literally just pulled the camera footage on my comm and saw you. Also, I don’t think assaulting an officer is helping your case, or fleeing the scene, or…”

"Yeah, yeah, I get it.”

"So, are you coming willingly or not?”

Saunders grumbled, thinking about his decision before giving a small nod.

"Atta boy. Cruiser is on the corner, let’s go.” When Saunders stood, Nikolai took both of his hands and grabbed the cuff ball in his pocket. He pressed the switch to release the metal cuffs and clicked them into place around the man’s wrists. He clicked another button to activate the laser trigger which would shock him if he succeeded in trying to pull them apart. Without another word, he tugged on his arm towards the car parked a few yards up on the street. “It’s not right for a man to spend Christmas in a cell, Saunders. One would think you’d know better by now.”

Saunders huffed a loud breath which almost sounded like a laugh. “Your presence is the best gift of all, Brax.”

"I wish I could say the same for you. Now, I’m going to have to deal with all the paperwork I specifically didn’t want today.”

"You could let me go. No one would know the wiser.”

Nikolai opened the gull wing door to the cruiser and ducked Saunders’ head in as he sat. “Just consider yourself lucky it was me who found you and not Edison.” The man was absurdly scared of cats. Nikolai’s eyes twinkled just a bit at the brief look of horror on Saunders’s face before composing himself.

"You’ll do just fine, Detective.”

"Uh huh, that’s what I thought.” He closed the door and walked around to his side. He heard his comm beep at him and looked down at the message.

8pm - don’t be late.

Nikolai rolled his eyes but couldn’t help the smile escaping from his lips. “The biggest hypocrite known to man,” he whispered to himself. Val’s mind must have been eerily melding with his, as if she absolutely knew he’d get caught up in something before her family’s Christmas Eve dinner. But coming from the detective who was as notoriously late as she was temperamental, the irony had not escaped him. He shot Val a quick message back.

Just dropping off Saunders at the precinct. I’ll record my notes and leave the paperwork with an officer on duty. I’ll be there as soon as I can.

He got in the cruiser and started the engine, feeling the roar beneath his feet. He pulled up immediately, driving into an entrance to the aerial highway. Saunders knew the drill all too well at that point–keeping silent while Nikolai recited his notes into his comm, but occasionally scoffing at any detail he found not flattering to his name. Nikolai never embellished, only ever spoke the truth, but it did not stop him from teasing the hell out of someone who had it coming. He was parking at the precinct when Val’s response finally came in.

Don’t forget the cake or I will smite you.

I won’t.

If you do, consider yourself banned from future dinners.

I won’t forget, Val. I promise.

Another couple of minutes passed; Nikolai passed off Saunders to the officer at the desk and transferred his notes to him on site for processing before he heard the ding of Val’s response again.

Dress accordingly.

At this, he felt a thrill slowly caterpillar up his spine. Val was nothing if not particular about what one wore to an occasion. Nikolai knew, quite early on to their partnership, that nothing quite sparked Val Edison like a good suit.

Men like lingerie, women love a good suit. You want to get lucky? Find a suit that makes you feel confident and the rest will happen naturally.

It wasn’t exactly science, but Val was rarely ever wrong (and often liked to brag about that fact). She proved it to him at the first black tie event they went to together. They hadn’t left his bedroom for the remainder of the full moon.

He got back into his cruiser and sped home. He rifled through his meager closet, flipping through the rolodex of long sleeved shirts until he finally found one he had forgotten about. It was the same one he had worn the first time he had met Val in her human form, in the middle of The Brighton club. It had been almost two years now. He grabbed the blue button-up and velvet suit that still had the tags on. It had been an impulse buy that he immediately disregarded when his confidence had taken a nosedive.

Now, though? Now was as good a time as any.


-/-


Val turned and inspected herself in the mirror. At the sight of her dress, she immediately reached for the wine glass on her old dresser and took a long swig of the sangría. Red was typically such a cliche holiday color, but it was the color she looked best in, and it was rare that a full moon happened to land right on Christmas. It was a form fitting satin dress, with thick, off-the-shoulder straps embellished with small bows. It made her shoulders and cleavage look amazing, and the length ended right at her knees. She didn’t quite know what to do with her hair, so she ended up slicking it back in a high ponytail. She felt good in it, but her nerves for the night had made a turn into self-doubt, and a part of her just wanted to throw on some long pajamas and watch a Christmas movie until her family retired for the night.

But Noche Buena was good vibes only, so she pushed the negative thoughts into a mental drawer and took another swig from her glass. A knock on her door made her jolt, and her mother popped her head into her childhood room. She had never really had a need to get her own place–renting an entire space when she was mostly a cat seemed nonsensical–and her mom never saw fit to change it too much. The posters of boy bands she loved had been taken down, and most of the photos from high school had been put in boxes, but the rest of the room looked almost the same. Seeing her mother in it made her feel like a teenager all over again. “Ay, mi gatita, que bella.”

"You’re supposed to say I’m beautiful, you’re my mother,” she teased.

Margarita Moreno-Edison, a stubborn person in her own right, smacked her in the hip with the dish towel she had in her hand. “Que graciosita,” she mocked.

"I’m not being funny, I’m just acknowledging the obvious bias in the room.”

Margarita rolled her eyes–an expression Val often made herself. It made her both self-conscious and proud. Her mother gave her another once over before giving her a smile, which usually signaled she was up to no good. “Is Nikky still coming tonight?”

"Ay Dios, Mama,” Val groaned.

Her mother raised her hands up in surrender. “What? I didn’t say anything.”

"You said everything in your tone.”

"Mira, you inherited that tone, don’t forget.”

"Yeah, yeah. And if you must know, the answer to your question is yes, pending any work distractions.”

"Does he know what he’s in for?”

Val picked at invisible fuzz along her neckline. She looked at her mother from underneath her long lashes. She made a pinching motion with her hand. “Un poquito, but it’s always better when it’s a surprise.”

"I need help in the kitchen quando tienes un momento.”

Val motioned to her dress. “Mama, you tell me this now?”

"The arroz wasn’t in the pot yet, mija.”

Val was halfway through the hall when she could hear Nikolai’s cruiser making the descent to the front of her house. Her stomach dipped, turning to stone and keeping her suspended in heavy gravity. She felt him, even outside, the pull of her body towards his. She walked past the kitchen, much to the knowing look of her mother, and stood in front of the door. She shook her hands by her side and looked down, realizing she didn’t slip into her shoes. She cursed under her breath, telling herself he had seen her in less. But she was rarely ever in this form and had wanted to look…well, perfect. She placed her hand on the bronze knob, letting the cool metal soothe her skin. When the pressure was nearly unsustainable, she turned and clicked it open.

She almost didn’t notice him. She had expected the emerald green of his coat to blend in with the trees surrounding them, molding himself to his surroundings as he often did. He had paused, hand mid-air, when she had opened the door, the surprise still locked on his face. His hair was a bit more mussed than usual–the way he did it for special occasions through the precinct or undercover fancy affairs. The cowlick above his left eye made that particular strand of hair curl out across his forehead.

But his suit.

If Val had been stone before, she was molten now. His suit was pressed velvet, the color of burnt caramel, making his hazel eyes a glowing amber. His shirt was a navy blue, with the first two buttons left open to leave his neck exposed. She not-so-subtly gave him a long look, her gaze going from his face, to his body, then shoes, then back up again. "You’ve been holding out on me, Brax.”

It wasn’t until then she realized his face had gone completely pale, his eyes roving her just as obvious. “Val.”

His voice had gone deep and low, weighted heavily with intention. He said her name like a promise, like he wanted it to be the last word on his dying breath and no other one could be worthy. Val quirked up her lip. “Yes?” He gulped, and she noticed him spinning the signet ring around his pinky with his thumb. “Cat got your tongue?”

He chuckled at that, his cheeks turning the color of fresh peaches. “You certainly could say that.”

She crossed her arms underneath her chest, very conscious of how it flattered her assets. She could feel his eyes straining to betray her face and dip lower. In the end, he succumbed and it dissolved her nerves.

"Valaria? Quien es?” She heard her mother call out from the kitchen, and suddenly the anxiety came back. She wasn’t sure why; Nikolai had visited her home for family dinners dozens of times over the course of the year, but this was his first Christmas Eve, his first Noche Buena. And no one took Noche Buena as seriously as her family. There were small periods of depression during the holiday season, her soul longing to go back to her island and properly celebrate amongst sea blown palms and salt water. Most Christmases, her father wouldn’t even show; he had been stuck on the island for some development project or another. But even if it was just them, and her mother’s sister and her cousins, they still managed to make it Val’s favorite day of the year.

"It’s Nikolai, Mama.” She heard a pan clang softly and her mother’s flats tapping against the tile as she sped to the door.

“Hola, Nikky,” she gushed as she practically pushed past Val to get to him.

The smile on Nikolai’s face sparked a flame in her core; he rarely ever smiled so openly and honest except in her presence and especially around her mother. For him, her mother somehow salved wounds she did not yet know about but ached to learn. “Hi, Mrs. Moreno.” He knelt down to greet her mother with a kiss on the cheek. “Thank you for the invitation.” He handed her a small packaged cake with a singular red bow. Val hadn’t even noticed it, had completely forgotten to ask.

She waved him off with a dismissive hand and turned back towards the inside of the house. “Nonsense. We can’t have you spending the holiday on your own. Plus, Corocovis is the place to be for Noche Buena.”


-/-


They started with the coquito.

Val placed her hand on Nikolai’s before he could pour the entire glass down his throat. “It’s meant to be savored,” she told him, and her voice came out a bit more husky than she had intended. He arched his eyebrow, then took a small first sip, never leaving her gaze as he drank. They were in her small kitchen, huddled in the corner. Val leaned her weight on the counter, forking a sweet plaintain in her mouth. When his eyebrows shot up even further, she grinned mid-chew. “You get it now?”

"Wow,” he muttered, taking another sip. Then another. “Fuck, that’s good.”

"Your stout could never,” she beamed. She straightened and turned her head to loud laughter coming from the back porch. Someone had started up the music, the bomba rhythm pulsating around them. “Have enough in you to dance?”

Nikolai inclined his head and took another long swig of his drink. “I’m going to need a lot more rum.”

He wasn’t completely without rhythm, but he would never keep up with Val’s family. They spun and clung and twisted with one another, ribbons encircling but never entangling. He was a spectator at first, now sitting with a glass of sangría, watching as Val and her mother weaved through the crowd exchanging kisses and embraces. Their house was small, but it never felt crowded despite how many bodies currently occupied it. It was always a place of warmth and connection. His biggest mistake was tapping his toes. At the realization, Val walked over to him and pulled him up out of his chair. “Val, no—"

"Come on, Brax, give me this. I’ll make it worth your while.”

He only groaned as she dragged him to a more spacious corner on the porch. “What do I even—"

She took his hands, unafraid and driven, and skimmed hers up the inside of his arm. She gripped his palm, and brought his hand around her ribcage and flat in the middle of her back. Her hand came back around and down his arm again, and he suddenly was wishing they weren’t in the heavy populated room. She laced her fingers with his other hand. She looked at him through the tops of her eyelashes, and Nikolai felt as if his entire body went numb. The rum and wine was starting to hit him now, the buzz loosening his tense muscles just enough to not remain frozen in place. His lungs tightened, and the look she was giving him…stars, the stress alone had him struggling to breathe, but her? In this dress? With that look she only reserved for him on nights when the moon was full? He may as well have drifted into space, lost of all air and hope for seeing something equally as beautiful. “Brax?”

"What? Sorry. What did you say?”

She snickered at him, wiggling her body just slightly towards him but leaving enough space to remain appropriate. “I said, just follow my lead.” She took a deep breath, signaling him to do the same. It came out a bit shaky, and he told himself it was the alcohol. “Feel the music in your chest and your arms, all the way down to your hips.” She started swaying in place and it was hard for him to concentrate. “Focus,” she warned.

"I’m trying,” he retorted through his teeth, and she seemed to understand his distraction. “You’re doing it on purpose.”

Val snickered at him. “Me? Never. Now, step back with your left and just do what I do. Ready?”

"No.”

"Too bad. Three, two, one.” She took a step toward him with her right foot, signaling him to step back with his left. She swayed her hips in tandem, and he could feel the muscles in her back flex underneath his hand. They repeated the steps, back and forth, until he loosened up and Val seemed satisfied. “Now, we incorporate the left and the right. Throw in a spin in there if you’re feeling confident enough.”

"Well now you’re just being a glutton for punishment.”

"I would say a joke right now, but this is a family affair.” Instead she pulled his arm up and spun herself out and back into him, her hand softly landing on his chest before snaking back up to his neck. Her fingers started to play with the hairs at the nape, and he gave a shiver. They continued in that position for the entirety of the song, to a chorus of teasing wepas and remarks–all made in familial jest. When the song ended and a faster song struck immediately after, they stopped in place. Nikolai gazed at her, the moonlight filtering in beneath the large pergola. It accented her eyes; the haunting blue of the left, and the gold one of the right, both piercing his with equal measure. He opened his mouth to speak first, when she squeezed his arms softly, breaking the spell. “Should we eat something?”


-/-


The best thing about Noche Buena was it could be as informal or formal as one wanted, but the best ones were always where you just sat wherever there was an empty space–at counters, on end stands, in hammocks, huddled to maximum capacity at tables, in laps, and on the steps of porches. Val had filled up her plate, watched to make sure Nikolai filled his, and led him outside to the front yard. “Best seat in the house,” she told him as she sat on one corner of the trunk that was once a large poinciana tree. The long stems of the morivivi plants surrounding it tickled her bare legs. Nikolai sat beside her, keeping her warm in the cool night, even though she had a knit blanket wrapped around her shoulders.

They both set their cups precariously in the grass and glanced at each other with grins. They dug in, their plates filled to the brim with rice, spit-roasted pork and tostones. The last was one of Nikolai’s favorites. Val watched him take the salty, smashed plaintain and dip it in the mayoketchup her mother had dutifully made. She watched his mouth work, the angles of his jaw sharpening and smoothing back and forth. She swallowed her large mouth full of rice, and took a long swig of sangría like it was water. She didn’t know why she felt nervous; they had crossed the line of partners to friends to friends with benefits for almost a year and a half now, but she couldn’t rock this feeling of unease, of constant need around him. When she was in her feline form, it was comfort, in her human form it was a primal desire. She didn’t know when it had started to feel like more. There were days when she barely thought about him. It wasn’t often, but the days existed. She counted on those days to sate her sanity. Yet, she still missed how his presence infiltrated her senses completely, how he smelled like home and tasted bittersweet and felt like a blanket on a snowy morning. As much as she tried to push these thoughts away, it was even harder to consider them anything but as natural as the blood in her veins. All she knew was that she hadn’t wanted to jinx it, didn’t want to ruin what they had. They worked well together, better than any other partner she had had, and she thrived on being the best at her job. At one point, she weighed with the notion that the job was no longer as important as the man sitting next to her–a man with secrets as deep as the ocean, but with compassion and silent ferocity to match. The thought scared her and so she retreated whenever she could, back into the abyss of restless denial.

But Noche Buena was the time for magic, and something different had sparked between them tonight, she could feel it in every inch of skin, in every microscopic fire in her nerve endings.

"Captain called before I got here. Says the Waterfront is a go.”

Just like Nikolai to not stop thinking about work. She admired it about him…most of the time. Now was not one of those times. She swallowed a bite from her dinner roll. “After Christmas, I’m assuming?”

He inclined his head to look at her and even in the cool night it caused her to sweat. “If the stars and our boss are gracious enough,” he said with a smirk. She wanted nothing more than to kiss him right then and there, under the winter night and to the sound of her island echoing behind them. He looked back down at his plate, and her stomach dropped with disappointment. She was expecting him to continue on, to bring up details of some other case they had worked on. Instead, the words were quiet and tipped in something akin to…shyness. “In case I didn’t communicate it well enough before, you look…amazing tonight.”

Val couldn’t help the rush of blood to her cheeks. The sangría flowing through her made them tingle even more. Ordinarily, she’d say something coy or flirtatious, but she couldn’t find it in her to do it this time. “Thank you, so do you.” He smiled, shaking his head as he chewed. “What? You do.”

He was always way too humble, more than hard on himself. It surprised her then when he said, “Oh, I know.” She couldn’t help it; she let out a loud laugh that strained against the corset lines in her dress. When she looked back at him, he had placed his plate on the ground and was leaning his arm back on the rim of the trunk behind him. “Val?”

She tucked a flyaway strand of hair behind her ear and watched him. He was studying her, weighing something on his mind. She knew him enough now to know when he was thinking critically about something, deducing and rationalizing all possible outcomes before he said anything. “Say what you want to say, Brax.”

He was stock-still, and she realized he had been holding his breath. He finally let it go, the words a bit rocky. "I…I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

She put her plate down too, never leaving his gaze. She turned her body towards him and mirrored his pose, their chests touching and his breath causing beads of perspiration on her collarbone. “Try me.”

He leaned in then, slow and unsure, and she could smell the cinnamon of coquito on his breath. He brushed his nose with hers and his bottom lip with her top, sending a shock down her spine. She fluttered her lashes before closing her lids completely, waiting for the inevitable crash. Instead a bright light flashed across their faces and she opened her eyes in confusion. They were headlights of an ancient, remodeled Cadillac and they parked a few cars away from the yard. Val kept her eyes focused on the car, her body stiffening with a sudden realization. In her periphery, she could sense Nikolai’s tension, following her gaze. “Val, what is it?”

"I–" She stood and froze, watching as the silhouette coming near them slowly walked out from the moon-dappled shadow and under the porch lights. She clenched her fists by her sides, as the rush of anxiety filled every muscle in her frame.

"Val. Who is that?”

She gulped, her mind reverting back to when she was young and full of equal parts wonder and disappointment. The man coming out was lankier than when she last saw him. The Caribbean sun had turned his skin to a golden brown, and he had that same stubble on his chin he always wore. His eyes, just like hers, practically glowed in the darkness, pupils flashing back and forth between her and Nikolai. She hadn’t expected him. She had long stopped expecting him, but here he was, as if nothing had happened. Nikolai took a step forward, but Val managed to hold out her arm to block him. “Stand down, tiger. It’s…it’s my dad.”


-/-


Nikolai had known Val Edison for the better part of two years now, and she had rarely ever mentioned her father. It was always a random thought, a mention in passing, or a remark in angry Spanglish between her and her mother which she quickly tried to brush away. All he had known was that he was an engineer and spent the majority of Val’s life in Puerto Rico, helping to redevelop the island after a disastrous hurricane had torn it up. She had mentioned him as if he was more of a figment of her imagination, an apparition seldom ever viewed in their home except at the most inopportune moments. Nikolai guessed just by Val’s reaction that this was one of those times.

"Your…dad?”

Montague Edison stopped in front of them, arms already outstretched toward Val. She absentmindedly closed the gap, and it tore at Nikolai how much she wasn’t Val. He was familiar with the feeling–the random moment when something happens or something is said, seemingly insignificant but dark enough for the clouds to descend, for the body to turn and become a husk of itself. He watched as her arms nervously twitched, finally bringing them half way up her father’s back in a cordial greeting. “Aye, mi niña, you look so grown up.”

Val pulled away, her eyebrows furrowed. Seeing them in profile haunted Nikolai; while her left eye was blue and her right was gold, her father’s were reversed and Nikolai saw both colors staring at each other. He didn’t think she would say anything until he saw her jaw twitch. “It’s been a long time, Papi.”

"It’s Christmas, gatita. Of course I’d be here.” He noticed her bristle at the nickname. It was then he turned toward Nikolai. He had angled cheekbones and a straight nose, and Nikolai could see the resounding resemblance as they stood next to each other. “And who is this?”

Nikolai immediately held out a hand. “Nikolai Brax, sir.”

"He’s my partner, Papi.”

Realization hit Montague’s face, his mouth opening in surprise. “Ahh, so you’re the one looking out for my daughter, eh?”

His accent was thick, with only just a tinge of Helian. He hadn’t been around long enough for anything to settle. Before Val could interject, Nikolai took the opportunity. “I would argue the opposite is true, Mr. Edison. She is often the one defending me.”

"Monty, please,” he corrected.

"Mami won’t be expecting you,” Val suddenly said. Her arms were crossed with the blanket firmly wrapped around her, and Nikolai had never seen her that closed off before.

Monty only embraced her again and put a kiss on her forehead before walking past her and heading towards the house. Val stood there in silence, watching him, wincing as the crowd inside cheered upon Monty’s arrival. She turned back to Nikolai and her features were hard. Her walls, as thick as they already were, had fortified even more. “Are you okay, Val?”

She only let out a long breath, the cool air transforming it into a white cloud from her lips. “Just peachy, Nikky. I feel like I’m going to retch up all of this pernil, but otherwise, just peachy.”

He walked in front of her and softly placed his hands on her arms. The action immediately seemed to soothe her, the crease between her eyebrows loosening just enough. “Hey, I got you, okay?” They looked at each other for a long moment, Val’s eyes flitting back and forth, her red lips worrying just slightly. He pressed his hand on her chin and grazed his thumb in the space underneath her bottom lip. He felt her shiver and he released her, sliding his hand down to cradle her neck. He wanted her more than ever, but not like this, not a half version of herself. He resolved to bring the magic back. “Him being here is outside of your control, but you can control how you react to it.”

Her lip twitched at the advice. “Don’t talk wisdom to me, Brax. You know that turns me on.” He felt his cheeks warm, but he latched on to her humor, inching his way past another layer of wall.

"That’s what I’m counting on.”

She sighed, leaning into him more and pressing her hand on his chest. “Let’s get this over with.”

"Are you sure?”

Her hand snaked down to his and she intertwined their fingers. She pulled him back toward the house. “Yes. The faster we get through this night, the faster I rip that suit off you.”


-/-


Val watched her father commiserate with her family members and friends, all the while she sipped on a too-potent glass of coquito, her gaze as sharp as Nikolai’s daggers. They had foregone dancing–much to Nikolai’s obvious dismay–and sat by one another, talking shop on cases in between anxious sips.

"Why don’t you go talk to him?” Nikolai finally suggested with resignation. Maybe it was going over the Elixir case for over an hour now, or her attitude overall, but her legs had begun fidgeting and she could tell it was getting on his nerves. Val just eyed him with an icy look.

"And ruin this night? I don’t think so.”

Nikolai bent forward, holding a glass tumbler between his legs. “I hate to break it to you Edison. but you’ve already done that for yourself.” She narrowed her eyes at him, but he raised his hand to placate her. “All I’m saying is that you’re choosing to sit in this corner with me, and while I support you, you don’t have to let him get to you like this.”

"I can’t exactly ignore this, Nik.”

"No, but put it this way–wouldn’t it be better if you can show him that he doesn’t affect you at all? That you and your mom are doing just fine without him?”

Val thought on this, catching her father now clapping her uncle’s back in raucous laughter. Someone had doled out the instruments, and he immediately grabbed the guirra. The rattling sound of the metal comb on the polished wood flooded Val of the first memories living in Corocovis. Block parties were common on summer nights, watching the lights through the forested mountains blink through the trees like fireflies. He had been around then and there wasn’t a night when he hadn’t sung her to sleep. She let out a long sigh at the thought of how much had changed and how many years had passed with bitterness between them. “I hate it when you’re right, Brax.” She looked at him and he smirked at her, knocking his eyebrows up to his hairline. "Don’t get used to it,” she joked. She stood up, brushing away tostones crumbs from her dress. She bent down to grab Nikolai’s hand. “I want one more dance from you, and then we can get out of here.”

He only nodded, following her into the living room. This dance was slow, and Val took the opportunity to get as close to him as possible. She could smell him through his suit–honeycomb and rain and leather–and it calmed every stiffened muscle in her body. She rested her head on his chest, content to finish off this moon cycle in this position alone. She had just shut her eyes, when she heard a deep clearing of a throat next to them.

She looked over, cursing the interruption, and came face to face with her father. “Nena, may I have this dance?” She felt Nikolai step back and her stomach dropped at his absence. He winked at her as he walked into the kitchen across the room–staying close enough to intervene if she needed him. They had taken just a few steps together when he spoke up to break the silence. “I’m sorry, Valaria.”

"Please, don’t call me that.”

"It is the name we gave you, why wouldn’t you be proud of it?”

Val didn’t want to tell him it was because he liked it so much, but she kept that locked away to simmer in its angst. “It’s just easier, Papi.” She shook her head, eager to change the subject. “What are you sorry for?”

"I think you know why.”

"Please, enlighten me.”

He winced, his eyes crinkling in the corners just enough to show his age. His irises, mirroring her own, were a shade duller than the last time she saw him. It broke something apart in her, the sadness trickling in where there had been nothing before. He leaned forward, resting his chin on her head. She crumbled then, tears spilling down onto the apples of her cheeks. “I know it’s hard, with just you and Mami,” he began, the muscles in his jaw moving along her scalp as he talked. “I know I haven’t been around, and I promise to do better, nena. I want nothing but to make you proud.”

She inhaled through a shaky sob. “Shouldn’t I be saying that to you?”

"No, mija, I’ve always been proud of you. Even if this career is…not what we wanted for you, I know it makes you happy, and that’s all I want.”

Her tears had turned into a full-fledged cry, feeling his linen shirt dampen beneath her cheek. “You’re ruining my make-up, Papi.” He gripped her tighter until she composed herself, all the while cognizant of Nikolai close by. She had missed this–the feeling of him being close, of just being around. The work had always come first, and the more she gripped onto his shirt, the more she realized how much she took after him. The thought unsettled her so much she pulled away. He had missed so much, and it was time she was never going to get back. It was something she couldn’t continue to mirror, and all the while she was the one supporting her mother, consoling her, and giving advice in place of him. The tension between them had always been present–hers accusatory and her mother’s defensive–but at the end of the day they were all each other had. She shook her head, pinching her eyes shut. “This…it doesn’t excuse you not being here.”

Her father hmmphed–hmmphed! –before giving her a patronizing glare. “Your mother was happy to see me, at least.”

"Mami is tired of being alone. Complacency and adapting doesn’t mean agreement.”

"I do this for you, mija! So you and your mother live comfortably, so you can have a future.”

"I’m not twelve years old anymore Papi!” She yelled it out louder than she meant to, her voice carrying over the salsa music. Val pointed to her own chest with shaky fingers. “I made my own future. I took jobs, I finished school, I went to the Academy to make a better life for all of us. I made myself happy. We were happy for each other. Where were you?”

"Baja la voz, por favor,” he ground out through set teeth.

"I will not lower my voice, not until you answer the question. Where were you? Where were you on my birthdays and other Christmases, and where the fuck were you when I got shot and almost died four years ago?”

It was something she had never brought up to him after it happened. It had been a stake out gone wrong, and Val had been caught in the crossfire. Her mother had been there, even her cousins…he had been nowhere to be found. She felt a hand on her arm, the touch featherlight. She knew it was Nikolai just from his scent. She was breathing hard now, bracing herself for the argument with her father. But she knew it would never come. He didn’t have an answer, he never did. Cowardice had overtaken any of his rationale. As if proving her point, he only lowered his hard glare and hung his head. He stuffed his pockets nervously, looking behind her. Val turned with Nikolai beside her and faced her mother. She had a hard line set upon her mouth and worried eyes darting between Val and her father. There was a flush to her cheeks, and the crowd of family members behind her were looking on. Her mother was…embarrassed.

"It…is…Noche…Buena.” She took a step closer to them. “How dare you bring this mierda in this house, tonight of all nights?!”

Val and her father immediately started to mutter things, half in English and half in Spanish, but she silenced them both with her hand.

"I will have none of it. You fix this and don’t come back in until you do.” She stormed off with only that, her words echoing in the warm space. Val felt stifled, the heat overbearing and choking every inch of skin. She stared after her mother and felt each shaky breath rattle in her lungs.

"Val,” Nikolai started, his voice barely above a whisper. It was a question. She had taken inventory of the ways he said her name over the past two years; this one was asking if she was okay. She gave an obligatory nod despite her true feelings, and walked into the kitchen. She looked around for a brief moment before grabbing a small repurposed wine bottle full of coquito. She stopped in front of the two men again, her eyes already focused on the door behind them. Her feet seemed unsteady, her thoughts running rampant across her synapses. Before she could even give it a second thought, she went up to her father and cupped his cheek with her hand.

"I love you, Papi. I always will. But this pain is too much. All I ask is for you do what you need for Mami and come around for her as much as you can.” She exhaled through her nose, holding back another sob. “But I don’t want to see you again unless you’re here to stay.” She reached behind her and took Nikolai’s hand, walking right out the front door– the notes of music and scent of burnt rice all afterthoughts on the winter wind.


-/-


It wasn’t until Val had downed half the bottle of coquito that Nikolai finally spoke up. “I would have done the same thing,” he said in his attempt at comfort. They were in the backseat of his cruiser, parked on top of a forested peak in The Den overlooking the lights of the houses below. He had opened the sunroof cover to attempt to look at stars, but they had been blanketed by a spattering of darkened clouds, making the night even colder. He had kept his green coat in the car, and it was now wrapped around Val’s shoulders.

She pulled away the bottle from her lips, giving him a doubting look. Instead of saying anything, she closed the distance in the seat and pressed the side of her body to his. He gulped but reveled in her presence. “Some Noche Buena, huh? Didn’t seem very magical, did it?”

"Are you kidding me? Do you know how much I ate tonight?”

She snorted a laugh, and it brought a full smile to his face. He found her looking at him, searching his face for something he almost hoped she didn’t see. She closed the cap on the bottle tightly and placed it on the vehicle floor. She brought her cool fingers up to his chin and traced the outline of his jaw up and down. “I always seem to make a mess of things.”

He shook his head slightly, not wanting her to pull away. “Never.”

A small, sad smile ghosted across her face, shorter than a heartbeat, before her hand lay flat on the lapel of his velvet jacket. “I’ve missed you, cariño,” she whispered. The sound of his nickname, as aloof as she seemed to use it, made his stomach flip regardless. It was always a different tone, different timbre to him. It was spoken with something other.

He had missed her immensely; the lunar cycle always seemed to drag to this very moment. Forty eight hours was never enough and went by way too quickly. The universe was both giving and cruel. He didn’t want to waste anymore time. He leaned down then to kiss her, her mouth meeting his eagerly. It was soft and slow at first, but Val was quick to grip his lapel and pull him closer. It turned ferocious then; her tongue opened his mouth and invited him in. His hands gripped her around the waist, pulling her onto his lap, the movement practically reflexive despite the amount of times they had actually been together. She smelled of cocoa and tasted of cinnamon and rum. He went for the zipper along her spine but broke away before moving it. Val gasped at the sudden release, looking at him with urgency. She nodded her consent before meeting his mouth again. He pushed her zipper down, feeling every inch of the skin of her back along his fingertips. The curls along the edges of her ponytail brushed the back of his hands and it sent a shock up his own spine. She ground against his hips with her own, eliciting a groan from him.

"This velvet,” she growled,"is a godsend.”

"Should I keep it on?”

"I’m aroused, not crazy.”

He laughed into her mouth then, her voice echoing the sound. They continued on, her dress sliding off like a rose petal to the ground, his suit–properly folded by Val, ‘Take care of that one.’ –now laying beside it. They sought each other’s warmth, perspiration covering their appendages, filling each other with a month’s worth of wait. They had wrapped around one another, cramped in the unforgiving space, a dance of limbs and positions. When the car had buckled until almost ruin, and they both had released with each other’s names on their lips, they laid along the back seat still entangled.

"Look,” Val whispered, and Nikolai took a reprieve of watching her to glance through the roof. White flecks began appearing on the glass, elongating tendrils reaching until they had dissolved into droplets. As the minutes ticked by, the ice crystals turned into a powder and they watched in gratified silence. “At least this moon ended on a high note,” she said as she brushed her hand up and down his chest. He had covered them with his coat in a vain attempt to thwart the inevitable chill. Her statement had sucked the heat from his chest, bringing the reality of their situation back to the surface. Their arrangement was such that they had no strings tying to one another, a means to decompress, to satisfy their want for one another without work getting in the way. But over time, it had become more–inching its way through his mind and evolving despite his attempts at pushing it all back. Work had always come first for her, feelings second, and they agreed that neither of them would risk the partnership they had. Both of them were not well adapted to partners previously, so having it go well was too good to pass on.

But Nikolai continued to hope, wishing on the dim stars hiding away above them, cloaked with secrets of their own. He kept it to himself, used to the smothering feeling by now, and tried to concentrate on this moment. He concentrated on her hands on his body, the edge of her lips grazing his arm, and the overwhelming need to make this Noche Buena last forever.


-/-


Val swallowed the lump in her throat, kicking at herself for getting them back into the hole they had put themselves in. She battled that feeling with the gut one of just wanting more. She clutched the jacket closer to her chest, watching the last of the glass sunroof disappear under the patch of snow. She wondered if there was a power to stop time. She wondered even more if there was even a small spark of possibility he felt the same way, if his body was just as betraying as hers. “Not too late for a little magic,” she whispered, burrowing her head in the crook of his arm again. She meant to say it to herself, but Nikolai only responded by pulling her in even closer and pressing a kiss to her temple. Val was never one to pray, but she made a whisper of one silently, hoping whatever god did exist would answer—


To make her stop falling in love with Nikolai Brax, because she would surely not survive it.

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