I love the holidays. Pretty much all of them. And this time of year is just packed with some of my favorites.
The holidays surrounding the Winter solstice have always had a special place in my heart. It’s the darkest time of year, but the days are about to start growing longer. It’s always been a time of reflection and hope for me, a time to gather my loved ones—family by blood or by deep love and respect (and sometimes even both!).
No matter the name of the holiday, the family traditions, or customs we’re accustomed to, this is a time of year when people come together and remember their bonds. We find the common threads among the diverse experiences among us. We seek light amid the darkest time of the year. It is a time to give gifts and share warmth.
Here is my holiday gift for all my lovely readers.
A Homeworld Holiday
Copyright © 2016 Cassandra Chandler
“Who in their right mind spends two hours tracking down a fruitcake on Christmas Eve?” Henry spoke under his breath, even though no one was nearby. “Oh yeah. I forgot. I’m not in my right mind.”
He ran his hand through his hair, knowing it would make his brown curls stand on end and not caring. Finding an open store was something of a miracle. Now if only it had what he needed to fulfill his family’s tradition—even though his family didn’t exist anymore.
He shook his head, as if the movement could keep the dark thoughts from taking root in his mind.
There were beautiful lights all around him. He focused on the colorful strands, looking at the lavishly decorated holiday aisle. His gaze landed on a single brick of fruitcake sitting in a large display basket.
He practically leapt at it, his fingers closing over the prize just as another hand reached for it. Reflexively, he pulled back, cradling the fruitcake against his chest.
His heart beat fast, his hindbrain reminding him of close calls he’d had with rattlesnakes and other bitey animals in the woods. But it was winter, and the snakes were all hibernating. Plus, he was back in civilization surrounded by people. One of whom he’d probably just offended.
“Sorry, I…” His words stuck in his throat.
He was staring into the biggest, deepest blue eyes he’d ever seen. They were open wide, the woman’s lips parted and her dark eyebrows hitched up her forehead. The red and green stocking cap she wore couldn’t quite hide the blonde hair that stuck out from underneath it, barely brushing her shoulders.
She was almost as tall as him, which put her at nearly six feet. With the impossibly perfect symmetry of her features, she could easily be some sort of supermodel. Except for her quirky, definitely not mainstream fashion-sense.
She was wearing jeans and an incredibly ugly sweater under an overstuffed coat. He could make out antlers on what was probably supposed to be a moose. It was hard to look at the pattern of her sweater with all the different colors on it fighting for his attention—or maybe trying to blind him.
“Wow,” he said. “I mean, ‘hi’. And this is the last fruitcake. You should have it. Here.”
Her lips curved into a huge smile as he offered it to her. Her front two teeth stuck out just the tiniest bit more than the others. It was adorable.
She shook her head. “No, it’s yours.”
“But there aren’t any more.” He looked back in the basket, as if he might have missed one in the obviously empty container.
She laughed. Henry felt color flood his cheeks at the sound.
“I’ll survive,” she said.
“Coffee can help with that.” He would absolutely need some to make the drive back to his parents’ cabin. His cabin now.
“Coffee?” One eyebrow arced and her smile turned into a smirk.
“It’s a hot beverage that helps you stay awake. Or so I’ve heard.”
She laughed again, even though his joke was utterly lame. Her smile broadened.
“Let me get you a cup. Since you’re being so gracious about the fruitcake.”
What was he doing? It had been a while since he’d spoken to anyone…other than himself. And here he was asking out a total stranger. An absolutely gorgeous stranger.
Plus, it was Christmas Eve. She had to have better things to do than hang out with an itinerant, aspiring cryptozoologist.
But she shrugged and said, “Okay.”
“Okay?” His forehead nearly cramped from his eyebrows spiking up. He cleared his throat and forced his expression into the closest thing to neutrality he could manage. “Okay.”
They walked to the cashier together, and she watched with open curiosity as he paid. Strangely, it reminded him of his biology classes—how they’d been taught to observe wildlife. He shook away the thought as absurd, and vowed to never be away from civilization for that many weeks again.
“Shall we?” He gestured to the door.
He laughed as he followed her into the snowy night.
The sidewalks were clear, but drifts lined the street and hugged the walls where the snow had been pushed away. Wreaths and bright snowflake decorations made of lights alternated on the streetlamps over their heads.
“I’m Henry, by the way.”
“Henry.” She nodded, then held out her hand to him. “I’m Vay.”
He slipped the fruitcake into his coat pocket and shook her hand. “Vay? That’s an unusual name.”
She shrugged, still pumping his hand up and down. “You’re the first ‘Henry’ I’ve met.”
“Really? I always thought it was a ridiculously common name.”
“Depends on where you’re from.”
“Do they shake hands this long on your homeworld?”
She gasped and pulled her hand back like he’d stung her.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “That was just my pathetic attempt at humor.”
“Oh. A joke.”
He tried to recover and figure out what had set her off. If nerd humor wasn’t her thing, getting coffee with him was going to be an ordeal for her.
“I guess I should also mention that I’m kind of a huge nerd. I make obscure science fiction references and tell weird jokes that probably only I find funny.” Although, she’d laughed at a couple already. That was part of why he’d had the courage to ask her for coffee.
“I see. I have a friend like that. Do you also make puns?”
“’Make puns’?” He laughed at her odd word choice. “Yes, I do make Earth human puns.”
She snorted and stuck her hands in her pockets, her smile returning. “Well, where do you get this Earth human coffee of which you speak?”
“That would be at the all night diner. We have many on our planet.” He started walking again, his pace picking up as she fell in step beside him. When they reached the door, he held it open for her and said, “Welcome.”
She ducked into the warmth and light of the restaurant, still smiling at him. Another Christmas miracle.
Her eyes broadened as she looked around, taking in the ceiling tiles, grubby carpet, booths, and long bar that ran along the side of the space. A bedraggled Christmas tree stood nearby, covered in lights and ornaments that looked like they were homemade. Vay walked over to it with a rapt expression on her face.
“Would you like to sit here?” He gestured to the booth next to the tree—specifically to the seat that would let her stare at it while they had their coffee.
“Is it okay?”
They slid into their booths, staring at each other. He wasn’t sure how such a beautiful woman managed a goofy smile, but he was pretty sure his matched.
A waitress showed up with two cups of coffee and a carafe. “You want something from the kitchen?”
“I’m good,” Henry said. He looked over at Vay. “You?”
“This is fine, thank you.” She smiled at the waitress as the woman walked away, then leaned over her coffee and inhaled deeply, her eyes closing briefly. “This smells amazing.”
“Diners often have the best coffee.”
He picked up some sugar packets and flicked them back and forth to get all the granules in the bottom, then tore them open. Vay watched with that same keen interest as she’d had at the store, then followed his example. She waited for him to pour them in his coffee before doing the same, and even picked up her spoon after he did. It was like watching a time-delay alternate reality mirror.
Why was she mimicking him, though? It was almost as if she’d never made herself a cup of coffee before. He tested the thought, watching her as he picked up some creamers and poured them into his coffee. Sure enough, she did the same.
There were several types of hot sauce on the table. He picked one up and shook it, pretending to prepare it for his drink.
She looked at the bottles, then grabbed one that resembled his.
“Okay, hold on a minute.” He put the hot sauce back in place. “You’ve had coffee before, right?”
Her eyes grew wide again and her mouth dropped open. “Uh…”
“You’ve never had coffee?”
She set down the bottle and wiped her hands on her jeans. “Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.”
She slid toward the edge of the booth seat, setting her hand on the table as she prepared to leave. Henry reached out and grabbed it. She stared at his hand on hers, as if that was yet another thing that was new to her.
“Wait.” His heart was pounding.
He didn’t want to be alone. Not tonight. And even though Vay was turning out to be…really weird company, he liked her. She laughed at his jokes, and had a kind of vulnerability about her that made him want to help her, even though she didn’t seem to need it.
“Please stay,” he said.
She took a deep breath, then nodded and slid back onto the seat. She turned her hand over in his and held on.
“Thank you,” he said.
Her smile was more hesitant. “I don’t really know much about this area. I saw the lights and…I just had to stop by and see what it was all about.”
“You’re from someplace that doesn’t have Christmas?”
The drawn expression returned to her face, and her fingers tightened on his hand. It wasn’t too strange to think of her not celebrating the holiday, but she seemed completely ignorant about it. He squeezed back, trying to find a way to put her at ease.
“Right,” he said. “I forgot for a moment that the ways of my homeworld are alien to you.”
She cast another suspicious look at him. He smiled, hoping to draw on the common sense of humor they seemed to share.
“I mean, even on Earth, Christmas is one holiday among many,” he said. “There are tons of holidays around this time of year that I know nothing about. I’m just following my family’s traditions.”
A sharp stab of pain passed through his heart and his vision blurred for a moment. Vay tightened her grip on his hand again. She must have noticed.
“My friend who plays with words like you do is visiting her family. I thought she was celebrating someone’s…’birthday’?” Vay said the word as if she was unsure of herself—or uncertain of its meaning. “Now I wonder if I misunderstood her.”
“Why?” His heart felt tight. He was getting better at reining in his emotions, even if his imagination was playing tricks on him. It had to be. Who didn’t know about birthdays?
Vay smiled and shook her head. “She spoke of celebrating Hana…something. Hana is a common name where I’m from.”
“Hanukkah,” Henry said. “She was probably talking about Hanukkah. It’s another holiday celebrated around this time of year. We Earthlings are a diverse bunch.”
Vay smiled at him, as if she really enjoyed playing along with his joke. “The commonalities are stronger, from what I’ve observed. Otherwise, you would have destroyed each other long ago.”
“Oh, really?” He took a sip of his coffee, daring to rub his thumb over the backs of her fingers.
A flush rose to her cheeks and she stared at their entwined hands. She cleared her throat and glanced at him briefly, then turned to look out the window.
“You join together with your families in the darkest, coldest part of the year. You celebrate with lights and…proximity.” She looked back at their hands. “Lights in darkness. Togetherness in the cold. As a…space-faring wanderer, that is something I can understand.”
Her smile broadened again. Henry’s stomach was full of butterflies.
Not just playing along—she was expanding on the game.
“Where have you been all my life?” The words slipped out before he could stop himself.
“Lots of places. Too many.” She shook her head and said, “And unfortunately, I need to get back.”
“My ride is waiting for me.”
“But thank you for the coffee.” She pulled her hand from his, picking up the mug and taking a sip. Her eyes widened and she made a terrible face, sticking out her tongue and scrunching her eyes shut. “Cygnus-X, this is terrible!”
Henry busted out laughing. Vay kept shaking her head and even wiped her tongue on her coat sleeve. That only made him laugh harder.
“Sorry,” he managed, though tears were streaming down his face. “I know I shouldn’t laugh.”
“How do you drink this vile substance?”
“It’s an acquired taste, I guess. Some people don’t like it.”
“I’m among their number.” She gave her head one last shake, wiping her tongue on the roof of her mouth. “I do appreciate you procuring it for me.”
He wiped his eyes dry, regaining control. “Any time. In fact, I would love to do this again. Only with a substance less vile.”
She grinned at him. “I would like that, too.”
Henry pulled out a pen and wrote his number on a napkin, then handed it to her. “Next time your travels bring you near, give me a call.”
She picked up the paper and stared at the numbers, then folded it and tucked it inside her coat. “If it is at all in my power, I will.”
Henry downed his coffee while Vay made yuck noises and smiled at him. He managed not to choke laughing. He put enough money on the table to cover their drinks and give the waitress a really nice tip.
They slid from the booth and stood. Wherever Vay was from, they had differing ideas of personal space. She was only inches away, smiling up at him.
“I know you’re new to the ways of our Earthling holidays, but there’s another fairly common thread that runs through most of them this time of year,” Henry said.
“Gifts.” He picked up one of her hands, then pulled out the fruitcake and placed it in her grasp.
“But you wanted this.”
“Honestly, I don’t even like fruitcake. I was just trying to hold on to…” He shook his head. “Something that’s passed. I want you to have it.”
“I have nothing to give you in return.”
“You gave me your company. Your time. And at this moment, that is worth more to me than I can say.”
If he kept thinking about that, he was going to tear up again. It was time to start moving on. Somehow, he felt that would be a little easier after this chance encounter.
“Thank you.” She held the fruitcake against her chest, staring at it as if it was something precious.
He put his arm around her as they headed for the door. He hadn’t meant to do it, but it felt natural and she didn’t object.
“You should know that a lot of people don’t like fruitcake, either,” he said. “But it could be a great paperweight or doorstop.”
“It’s heavy and solid. It could make a good projectile weapon.” She grinned up at him.
“Well, don’t go throwing it around on your spaceship. It’d probably go right through your windows.”
She paused at the door and laughed. “Our viewports are a bit stronger than that.”
“Good. Because I don’t want anything getting in the way of our second date.”
“Date?” She cocked her head to the side.
“It’s a custom among our people. We tend to pair off when we like each other to spend time and…”
She leaned in a bit closer. “Enjoy proximity?”
His mouth went dry. “Sometimes.”
He cleared his throat, not knowing what to do. She had to leave, she had his number. If anything was going to happen between them, it was up to her now.
Well, maybe not entirely.
“There is one more Earth holiday tradition I could introduce you to,” he said. “If you’re interested.”
He pointed above the door, to the mistletoe hanging over their heads. “Mistletoe. When you’re standing beneath it with someone you like, it’s customary to…kiss them.”
“Oh.” She smiled. “That sounds pleasant.”
“Wow.” He couldn’t hide his surprise. But before either of them could think themselves out of it, he pressed his lips against hers.
She leaned into him, her lips moving softly in response to his, almost tentatively. When he pulled back, her eyes were wide with wonder.
Never having tasted coffee he could believe. Never hearing of Christmas… Okay, that was harder. But this being her first kiss… That was impossible. Right?
She blinked a few times, then looked away and laughed.
“I like this tradition,” she said.
As much as he wanted to hold on to the moment, he couldn’t think of another reason to keep her. He opened the door and walked into the night, feeling a warmth in his chest that the chill air couldn’t touch.
* * *
“I expected you back before now.”
Ari’s booming voice rumbled through the small shuttle as Vay strapped herself into the seat next to him at the pilot’s console.
“My expedition was more fruitful than anticipated.” She held up the gift Henry had given her and beamed at her pun. Vay would have to tell Evelyn about it when she returned from celebrating with her family.
Ari arched an eyebrow at the treasure in Vay’s hands. “What is that?”
“It looks like a nutrient brick.”
Vay nodded. “That’s what drew my attention. Its form and shape are like the food we’re used to from the Arbiter. But look at all the colors within it. Like the lights these Earthlings have used to decorate their town. We should share it with the others when we arrive at Homeworld Security headquarters.”
“If you wish.”
“I hear it’s an acquired taste, though.”
“You hear? From who?”
“I met a helpful Earthling.”
“Most of them seem to be,” Ari said. “It’s an extraordinary planet on many levels.”
He engaged the cloak that would obscure the vessel from the eyes of any curious Earthlings. Like Henry.
Ari paused in his launch preparations. “With you being our cultural programmer, I can justify stopping here to let you explore this town. But it was still unscheduled and we’ll have to answer for it.”
“I know,” Vay said.
Ari was silent for a moment, then said, “Did you find what you were looking for?”
The lights had drawn her to the small town as they flew overhead. There was something…almost magical about them. She’d had no idea what she was looking for when she asked Ari to make his stop. But she was absolutely sure she’d found it.
“Yes.” Vay hadn’t stopped smiling since she’d left Henry. Since he’d kissed her.
Ari smiled as well. “I’m glad. Then let’s go.”
Vay looked at the gift in her lap, then out the viewport. Her reflection beamed back at her in the transparent material, the bright, colorful lights illuminating the town below shining through.