Chapter 154: Shahin
Not to take this lightly
So do not underestimate
A token of affection

Shahin couldn't ignore the small rock of dismay in her stomach, feeling more than a bit ill at ease as she walked through the halls, hand in hand with Emrys - with her fiancé. She refused to think of him as anything else; it made no sense, after all this time. He was her love, and that was what mattered.

He had told her that gift-giving was done like this here, a few days early, the whole process taking perhaps a week as small gatherings got together to exchange their presents. That assurance hadn't settled her thoughts, however; perhaps because they were visiting his crew, and despite the fact that she got on well enough, now, with Tolly and Dysmas, Agatha wasn't an easy person to be comfortable around. She had never stopped treating Shahin as a pet, a possession.

Emrys squeezed her hand gently, as if sensing her thoughts, and perhaps, with the bond, he did. "It's Christmastime; no one's totally immune to the holiday spirit. Besides, they'll have presents for us, too."

"Wonderful," she answered dryly. Knives in the back, perhaps, or just barbed words? "Will they like ours?"

"Probably? You never know, with presents, but I'd expect so. Why, having second thoughts on any?"

"Of course." She chewed on her lip. Having friends made everything more complicated. "More Ayla and Yngvi's…. and Io's."

"They'll all be happy, I'm sure. Besides, it's the thought that counts."

"Platitudes? From you?" She smirked. "Be sure to remember that when you see Xaviera's present to you."

He sighed as they walked up to the door. "Do I want to know?"

"That would ruin the surprise," she teased, beginning to feel better already. What was the worst that could happen? Agatha managed to dislike her a little bit more?

Emrys chuckled, shaking his head, and knocked on the door. A moment later Bowen opened it. "C'mon in guys," Tolly's voice called from somewhere within.

"Merry Christmas, Bowen," Shahin greeted the boy. She knew as she said it, she was being contrary as well as friendly, but no matter how much the upperclassmen scowled about it, Kai and Jaya had had a point.

"Merry Christmas," he stammered, before retreating back into the room. She hoped she hadn't gotten him in trouble; to move attention away from the boy, she looked for Tolly - not that he was hard to find. "Anatoliy," she smiled. "Merry Christmas."

"Merry Christmas!," he boomed, walking up to them and opening his arms for what looked like a great big bear hug. Oh God. She braced herself and kept the smile bright and believable.

It actually wasn't bad; Tolly was surprisingly gentle, and he set them both back down after a moment. "Have a seat, have a drink."

"Eggnog?" she asked hopefully, as she settled onto the couch next to Emrys.

"Coming right up," Tolly said, heading for the kitchen and thus leaving them with Dysmas and Nydia, who were curled up in the big chair.

"Merry Christmas," Shahin greeted them. The slender girl had a little color in her cheeks and looked happy; Dysmas, as usual, looked just-a-little-smug. It was no wonder he and Emrys got along.

"Merry Christmas," Dysmas nodded, acknowledging them with a smile. She looked around the room, trying not to mind the small lump of homesickness in her stomach. There should be a big tree, and the ornaments she and her aunts, and their aunts, had made; there should be her mother and all her family there, and the smell of cider and ham. There shouldn't be Agatha, and waiting tensely for the back-stab. At least there was still a small pile of wrapped presents lurking on the side table, the bright paper lending a bit of atmosphere.

And Anatoliy, returning from the kitchen with two mugs of egg-nog. He handed them over with clear deliberation as to whose was whose; the whiff of rum she could catch from Emrys' glass explained the difference. She smiled up at the giant. "Thank you," she murmured. "And the baby thanks you, as well." Still the baby, though they'd have to come up with a name soon enough. Ambrus, Emrys… Arthurian seemed right, didn't it?

Tolly sat, taking the chair on the other side of the couch. "So, how's your Christmas break? Nice to have some time off from classes, yeah?"

"Nice to have some quiet time," she agreed, squeezing Emrys' hand. "Time to… process."

"And to plan, I suppose," Dysmas put in. "Lot of work in a wedding, I hear."

The brief, rapidly-suppressed expression on Nydia's face was heartbreaking. Shahin shook her head, wishing she could do more for the girl, who was clearly in love with her Keeper. "It's quite a bit," she admits, "made even more complicated by the timetable and, well, the locale. And mothers, of course." And father.

Further inquiries along those lines were forestalled by Agatha's emergence from her room, wearing a cute red sweater, tight jeans, and a small Santa hat at a jaunty angle. It was almost festive.

"Well hel-lo, dears," she said as she approached, taking the empty seat on the couch beside them. "How are you?"

She was smiling. She was friendly. She was a pod person, clearly.

Who are you and what have you done with Agatha? The word "who" actually got past her lips before she turned it into a "Whole and healthy… and happy. And yourself, Agatha?"

"The holidays always put me in a cheerful mood," she explained. "There's just so much to see and do."

"Are you going on vacation, then?" she asked politely.

"Oh no, no. It's all right here - the people, and the things they do, you know."

"It's my first year," she reminded her, wishing Emrys would step in before this got nasty. "Does it get interesting, then?"

"No different than anywhere else," Emrys cut in. "Aggie's a bit of a people-watcher, though. Emotions tend to be on display this season."

"Aaah." People-watcher, emotional sadist… close. "I can see it being a high-emotion time," she agreed, and threw herself to the wolves . "I know I'm a bit homesick."

"Miss your family?" Tolly asked.

I'm living with my family. "I miss my mother and aunts," she agreed. "Mostly my aunts." The others were nodding - clearly, everyone had someone they'd left behind. Except Agatha, she realized, looking around the room. What had her home life been like? "Does anyone ever go home for the holidays?" She aimed the question at the older girl to see what she'd say, and tried to ignore the hopeful cant of Bowen's ears.

"Some of them, occasionally," she shrugged. "It's not typical."

"You'd think people would want a chance to stretch their legs." Never mind that she wasn't going home - she wasn't, quite, ready to introduce her mother to Emrys - much less Xaviera - and didn't want to be away from them again quite this soon.

"I wouldn't know," Agatha replied casually; curious, but it didn't seem like she intended to expound on it. Shahin let the subject naturally drift to other things, wondering about Emrys' strange crew-mate, until the girl declared it was gift-exchanging time. Bowen, of course, was sent to the table to look through the pile of wrapped gifts for the ones bearing their names. Shahin hid her concern, and leaned into Emrys' arm, taking comfort in his presence. She set aside hers to open the joint one first, thanking Bowen quietly.

It was from Dysmas, and upon unwrapping it she found a slender box containing a stylish carving set. It was very nice, although the decidedly domestic note gave her pause; that's right, though, she was about to be married. On the other hand, that knife was downright intimidating, as well.

"That's quite a knife," Emrys grinned. "You expect us to be making dragon steak?"

They would, she knew, with passing clarity. Not the right dragon, sadly… Shahin blinked and shook her head as Dysmas answered.

"I expect you to invite your Crew along if you try… and wait until after the honeymoon."

"We will," he chuckled, setting it aside to pick up his next present, and hand Shahin hers. She waited, watching him open his, too curious to let herself be distracted.

It was a bottle; she didn't quite catch the label, but Emrys's expression was clear enough. "Thanks, man." There was enough appreciation in the tone; she hoped her present, when they were alone together, would get half that tone.

"Open yours," Tolly suggested, and she turned her attention to the small box in her lap. It was Anatoliy; the present wasn't going to bite her.

Indeed, the soft, fuzzy black arm-warmers were the farthest thing from biting she could imagine. "Thank you, Tolly," she murmured, every bit as warmly as Emrys had.

That left only the small box Emrys held. From Agatha. He unwrapped it, as quickly as he had Tolly's.

Inside the box was a piece of linen, about the size of a handkerchief. Emrys unfolded it to reveal an embroidered design; a heraldic crest, Shahin realized, a token. Argent; on a saltire azure a Chinese lion, passant, or; in chief a brisure of three-pointed label, sable, across a heart gules, with cadency heart sinister, gules. Emrys was speechless for a second as he apparently tried to make sense of it.

She couldn't translate the heraldry, but she could recognize the token for what it was - something to give a knight as he was going off to battle, something given by a lover, or, in the absence of a lover, by an unmarried sister. She looked up across the room to meet Agatha's eyes.

Agatha's words were for Emrys, but her cryptic smile was for Shahin. "May it bring you good fortune. You just might need it - all three of you."


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