“And you’re telling me you’ve never celebrated Christmas?”
“I don’t know why that’s such a surprise to you.”
“I guess I just assumed you would have celebrated some sort of holiday with your family.”
“And I assume that is an ignorant assumption.”
Sarayna and Jared walked hand and hand through the snow- covered pathways within Central Park. The Crown Princess hadn’t expected to remain within the Otherrealm for as long as she already had, but only a month had passed since she found her King Emperor, or at least she thought she had, and she decided she was in no hurry to rush him back to the Empire that was waiting for them.
Waiting for him.
An Empire that was currently being threatened by an opposing land, whose armies could potentially attack her family at any time.
No, she was in no rush to return. She trusted her family would have everything under control until she did. She knew they would- they were the ones who sent her to this Otherrealm without even a notion of who she was looking for in the first place.
And, in truth, she was selfishly enjoying being normal for a bit.
Which was one of the reasons why she was delaying the inevitable in telling Jared the truth about who she was, who he was, where she came from, and what the Prophecy of Fire and Light had in store for them.
If the Prophecy even mattered any longer.
If the dream magic that had determined the coming of the Emperor was even working correctly this time around.
For all Sarayna knew, it all could have been one gigantic farce.
There had never been a Crown Princess before, so how would the Annals know to predestine a King Emperor?
What if she was wrong, and she tried to use the Key, and it didn’t work?
She would never be able to return home.
Another reason she was content not to hurry back…
Not to mention, these holidays she had heard so much about since her arrival within the foreign city were soon coming upon them, and even her grandmother, a former Queen Empress herself, seemed to be in the spirit to celebrate- her grandmother, who had risked so much just by taking her in, after her survival remained a secret to everyone for so long.
So Sarayna decided she would humor both of them for the time being and see what this strange Otherrealm could show her.
“Tell me about it, then,” she coaxed, leaning into Jared’s arm a little closer, partially out of affection, but mostly because she was freezing.
Sara had grown too accustomed to the constant, balmy comfort of the Empire that her arrival to the Otherrealm had been somewhat of a shock to her system, especially as the days began to grow colder over the last couple of months. And unfortunately for her, part of the cover story supplied by her grandmother surrounding her sudden appearance in New York was that her family lived in Boston, so confessing to Jared that she had never seen nor touched snow before was harder than it should have been.
Jared glanced at her out of the corner of his silver eyes, his glasses remaining at home as they seemed to do every evening they were out together. She didn’t mind them, but she found herself enjoying being able to look directly into his eyes a little bit more. A smirk played on his lips as he sighed, relenting. “Well, what do you want to know?”
Sara shrugged her shoulders, the down jacked bulky around her slender form. “Everything? Talk to me like I’m two years old.”
“How is that different than any other day?”
Sarayna jabbed him in the ribs with her elbow.
He let out a chuckle. “So you want me to tell you about Santa Claus and the elves that build toys in his workshop?”
“Santa who?” she inquired with a raised brow.
Jared literally blinked at her. “You really have no idea, do you?”
She glared at him and looked away – she hated feeling like an ignoramus when it came to topics she, as a supposedly twenty- two year old female, should know about easily, but she wasn’t about to explain to him about the untimely and somewhat magical aging process she endured upon her initial arrival to the Empire either.
No, because aging twenty- two years, mentally and physically, is not something one could ever easily explain to the twenty- five year old male destined to be your soul-bound partner. Even after she brought him back to the Empire.
Sara was quickly realizing she was having a hard time trusting anyone with truly knowing anything about her. Even Jared.
Which was unfortunate, because she was truly beginning to like him, and enjoying his constant company.
A lot, she discovered.
“Okay, I’m sorry,” Jared apologized, running a gloved hand through his dark brown hair, dislodging a few of the snowflakes that had landed on his head. Sarayna hadn’t even realized it started snowing.
“Just forget it,” she conceded, keeping her head down. She felt foolish enough as it was- there was no reason to give him a reason to make her feel even more so. Even if he didn’t intend it, Sara was finding she was extremely sensitive to how he viewed her. She had implemented emotional walls around herself for some time, but they were slowly crumbling whenever Jared was around, much to her dismay.
“No, I will not,” he insisted, pulling on her hand and stopping their walk. Sara realized they were on a snowy bridge over an icy river, and it would have been a beautiful sight if she wasn’t feeling so foolish.
She gave him a glare as he took both of her hands in his, but his face remained neutral, his eyes on hers.
“You are now going to stand here and listen to me tell you about Christmas, and you are going to enjoy it, otherwise I will need to return the presents I got for you.” His eyes seemed to dazzle in the lamplight reflecting from the snow.
“What presents?” Though the thought of him buying her a gift had her heart both flutter and sink into her stomach as she realized she would have nothing for him in return.
“The ones you’re supposed to receive from Santa, but since you apparently have absolutely no idea who he is, I’ll have to take his place.”
There was such joy in Jared’s voice as he explained the story of Christmas to Sarayna, as if explaining to her the origins of Santa Claus, of his workshop in the North Pole where he and his elf- like minions made toys of all shapes and sizes for the children of the world, ignited a childlike flame within his heart. She heard the legends of this Santa’s unrealistic trek across the Otherrealm within the span of only one night, and his ability to remain omniscient even when the holiday season was over and done with. He talked of trees and ornaments, stockings over fireplaces and carols sung by choirs.
A thought came upon her then.
A distant memory.
She remembered a room. A warm room with a fireplace. A tree decorated with lights and littered with presents underneath.
And she – Sarayna- was sitting on her father’s lap, and he was reading to her.
But she was young – too young to have possibly remembered, but…
“Tha rduscailrr wasa hilr firr dha shainlairr waidh sesa Il hufar dhed Sd. Naishurer ruul wuirn fa dhasa.”
“What was that?” Jared asked her, and she didn’t realize she had spoken out loud.
She smiled shy, but shook her head. “It’s nothing… just something I remembered my father reading to me once. A long time ago.”
“What does it mean? I mean- it sounds familiar but I didn’t recognize the dialect.”
Sara blinked at him. “You’re telling me you understood what I said?”
Jared nodded. “It almost sounded as though you were quoting ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas…”
“… and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.”
He smirked playfully. “And here I thought you knew nothing about Christmas.”
“I… I guess I don’t. Not really. I was young…” she trailed off, not waiting to bring up the memories of her father while they were supposed to be enjoying their time together.
He cocked his head to the side, as if trying to read her. “Tell me about them.”
“About who, my family?” She shook her head slightly. “There’s not much to tell.”
“You miss them.” It was a statement more than a question.
A loaded question.
How could she tell him that it wasn’t hours or miles that separated her from them now, but complete realms?
Instead, she shrugged slightly. “I’m sure they’re getting along well enough without me.”
“I suppose… especially if you’re not returning home to them for the holidays. You truly must not have celebrated much. Are you parents atheists?”
She snorted. If he only knew. “No.. no, it was my mother, I think, who celebrated. My father -he liked to appease her. He was foreign…” But Sara quickly found herself at a loss for words.
As if sensing her despair, Jared wrapped a comforting arm around her shoulder, pulling her close and placing a kiss on her temple. “I think I already know the perfect Christmas gift to give you first,” he offered, quickly changing the subject.
“And what would that be?” she purred, her mood lightening as she leaned against the warmth of his body.
The gleam in his eye and the smile upon his lips should have been enough of a warning, but before Sarayna could move out of his grasp, he had wrapped his arms around her waist, and in one fluid motion, threw her sideways into a nearby snowbank.
Sarayna was too shocked by the cold surrounding her unsuspecting body to even scream. It was falling down the back of her jacket, soaking into her shirt, damp against her jeans and invading her boots.
And all Jared could do was laugh.
“My god, the look on your face!” he barely got out between fits.
He was quickly silenced by a rather large snowball colliding with the side of his face.
Now it was Sara’s turn to cackle.
Which, in turn, was cut off by a pile of snow being unceremoniously dumped on her head.
She was uncertain how much time passed as they continued to hurl balls and piles of snow at each other, their laughter resounding through the ambiance of the park at nighttime as it surrounded them.
But it was in that moment, as she sat there in the freezing cold, with the snow covering her, that she finally realized the change in her – the change in them.
She was no longer the uncertain Princess lost in a strange world. And he was no longer the stranger who seemed to know everything about her without even having to ask.
She didn’t want to scream or cry – she wanted to laugh.
Regardless of the hardships she had endured before her arrival to this Otherrealm, Jared made everything right. Being with him, she realized that, perhaps, returning home and facing whatever it was Fate had waiting for them would be worth it.
Because they would be facing it together.
And as she reached her hand up for him to grab it, instead of allowing him to help her into a standing position, she instead pulled him down to join her in the snow, causing him to fall on top of her, both bodies sprawled in the snow.
But she didn’t mind that she was lying in a pile of snow, with flakes falling down the back of her shirt or into her boots.
Not as she looked up at her Emperor and he looked down at her.
No, he did not know yet. But he would. And something within Sarayna eased and allowed her to trust that he would not run away; that he would believe her, and stay with her, and follow her back from where she came.
With a smile on her face, she only gave him a moment to gather his bearings before her snow-covered glove met his face and she brought her lips to his, wrapping him in a kiss so warm it was bound to melt the snow around them.
And then some.
And he returned that kiss with as much warmth as Sara offered him, his arms coming around her as best as they could with all of the snow in the way, and that was when Sara saw it.
She wasn’t sure if it was a spark, or a pulse, or a tug.
But it was something.
Maybe it was love.
Or maybe it was the Prophecy telling her to stop being such a fool and allow her Fate to pull her back to where she belonged.
Whatever it was, she realized then, and only then, that she was ready.
Smiling against his lips, she leaned back just enough to look into those silver eyes that she now knew she would be content to look into forever.
“What is it?” Jared asked, looking down at her, his smile matching hers as he perched above her.
She let out a breathy chuckle, considering their precarious position. “First, I think it’s time you let me up.”
“Are you sure?” he teased, placing another kiss on her lips, but eventually conceded to moving, assisting her to a standing position with a cautious hand that did not pull him back into the snow this time around.
They stood there in comfortable silence, the snow fall of the winter night the only ambiance they needed while they brushed themselves off for the few minutes it took to dislodge the snow from their jackets and hair. Once Jared was done, and brushed a few more flakes from Sara’s hair, he smiled at her and offered her his arm one more time, which she took happily as he led them through the silent park in comfortable silence, as though both were pondering the true meaning behind the evening’s events.
At least that’s what Sarayna was considering.
“You know what I think?” she finally asked him as they emerged from the park onto the snow- covered sidewalk of the main city street.
“What do you think?” he asked her gently, a smile on his face.
She looked at him, truly looked at him, and found herself smiling in return.
“I think I’m liking this whole Christmas thing after all.”