The First Christmas
Hair tumbling out of a ponytail long past its expiration date and holly-printed slippers on the wrong feet, Az staggered into the dimly lit kitchen. She filled a red mug with fresh coffee and liquid creamer before collapsing onto the empty barstool next to Rick. She wrapped her hands around the mug and bent her head to inhale the combined aromas of peppermint and French roast.
Even with her nose practically touching her coffee, she could feel Rick's eyes on her head. She could almost hear him thinking. He'd gruffly order her to skip their meetings at the 'dome and stay home. The terseness was his way of showing concern. Her big, tough Alpha with the hard outer shell covering a marshmallowy center.
"You look like hell."
Okay, so it was a very hard outer shell.
"Seriously. Are you sick? I told you to wear your hat and your gloves the other morning. You better not give this to the kids. They can't afford to miss finals."
"Not an idiot."
"Says the woman now sick because she was afraid of a little hat hair."
Az lifted her head just high enough to glare at the man beside her. "I'm not sick."
"You look like hell."
Az groaned. She was too tired to hit him. She settled for a half-hearted kick at his shins. Her arms trembled as she carried the mug to her lips for a long sip. She needed a gallon of caffeine to get her through the day. She mentally ran through her to-do list. A list that seemed to grow exponentially overnight. She needed to run to the music store off Kirby and then the used bookstore on Westheimer. She had to call the motorcycle place in Tomball to see if her order was ready, and then she needed to spend some time online searching for antique architecture tools. She also needed to find time to sneak away from Jose to find…
The sharp bark of her name was accompanied by a gentle shake. Az's thoughts scattered like leaves on yard day. She met Rick's worried gaze. "Huh? What did you say?"
"When did you last sleep?"
She frowned as she counted days. "Tuesday?"
"Oh. Monday, then."
"Astraea," Rick growled.
"Aldric," she countered, though hers was more chuckle than growl. "I'm fine."
"Normally I'd agree, but you look like hell."
"So smooth, Ricky. Is this why you had to resort to an unregistered succubus?"
She tuned out his furious rant and continued running through her list. Not only did she have hours' worth of shopping left to do, but she needed to wrap presents and bake cookies. She'd save the baking for when the boys were home, though. They'd enjoy tossing flour about and cutting out shapes. No reindeer, though. She'd learned her lesson at Thanksgiving.
The tree was up in the living room, a large real fir she'd coerced Rick into purchasing the day after Thanksgiving. Ike and Tommy had put on the lights. Everyone had contributed an ornament or two. It had been fun listening to old Christmas memories. She hadn't even minded when Rick had handed her a Disney princess ornament to put on the tree. It gave her something to contribute, and it had felt like a welcoming of sorts.
"I don't know how to make fruitcake," she blurted, interrupting Rick's scathing commentary on the current state of Paranormal registration.
He muttered something under his breath that sounded suspiciously like an accusation of being a fruitcake, but she was too preoccupied to be offended. Wasn't fruitcake a Christmas staple? Or was that a gingerbread house? What was gingerbread, anyway? Could she use the bread maker? What if she used icing and gingersnaps? Would that be an adequate substitute? Would Ike want input on the design and construction of a gingerbread house?
"No one eats fruitcake, Princess. We don't need it."
She slumped in relief. One less thing to have to worry about. She swallowed the last bit of coffee and eyed the bottom of her mug longingly. The pot was too far away. She just didn't have the energy to get off the stool. How did anyone survive the holidays? She'd been working around the clock since Thanksgiving to make everything absolutely perfect, and it still felt like she was months behind schedule.
"Caroling. We need to go caroling," she said, though she didn't know how to synchronize twelve different schedules enough for a free night. Everyone had office holiday parties and there was the big bash at the 'dome with the Paranormal Community. She and Rick were invited to the Houston Police Department holiday party as well as the Harris County Sherriff's Department Christmas Bash. Which meant that she needed two new fancy holiday-ish dresses.
Great. More shopping.
"Mark and Oscar are going to help me put the lights up outside tonight," she said, resting her head on Rick's shoulder. "Greta was going to pick up the wreath and garland I ordered on her way home."
"I remember," she said, smothering a smile. "Though that seems to take some of the fun out of things."
"Do I need an excuse to kiss you, Princess?"
The heat in his tone sent a rush of warmth through her blood. "Never."
"That's what I thought."
And then right back to wanting to stab him with a candy cane.
Candy canes. Christmas goodies. Stocking stuffers. Stockings!
"Where are everyone's stockings?" she asked, sliding his mug towards her. He drank his coffee black, but she didn't care. She needed the caffeine.
"In a box in the attic. Jose will get it down for you."
She wasn't sure what the etiquette was for stockings. Did she buy her own? Did she buy just a generic stocking? She'd have to see how the others' were decorated and then find something to match. Or would that be too presumptuous? Should she sit out a year on stockings? Was there going to be anything to fill it? Did she need to buy that, too?
"Az," Rick said, the seriousness of his voice stopping her whirlwind of thoughts. A finger under her chin tilted her head back so that he could see her face. "No bullshit. What's wrong?"
"This," she said, waving her hand at the undecorated kitchen. She hadn't had time to put out the new holiday mat or the matching towels and pot holders. "Christmas is in seventeen days and I'm not ready yet."
"You have time."
"No, I don't. I need to buy presents, wrap them, get out the rest of the decorations, bake cookies, build a gingerbread estate, and write Christmas cards. Everyone has parties so I don't know when we're going to go caroling or take a pack photo or -."
Rick slapped a hand across her mouth. His shoulders shook with silent laughter. "Breathe, Princess. It's just a holiday. We don't need something out of Southern Living. The tree and the lights outside are enough for us. We don't mind store-bought cookies and screw Christmas cards. The only family we care about lives under this roof."
Az fought the urge to lick his palm. He'd met with the Sprite Council the previous evening and there was no telling what magic lingered. After a moment, he lifted his hand.
"But, it's my first Christmas with the pack, and I wanted it to be perfect."
"Perfect's a myth, Princess." Rick kissed her forehead. "Christmas is about family. It's the Dr. Pepper and Oreos the boys leave for Santa, refereeing the wrapping paper fight, and spending the day together playing games. The rest of it is just the bow on the present."
"I like bows," she huffed. She'd been driving herself into exhaustion for nothing?
Rick kissed her again. He tucked a curl behind her ear and stroked a thumb across her cheekbone. "I know, but we like you. Relax and enjoy the season. There's another cold front coming tonight. We'll build a fire in the living room and watch the old Claymation Christmas specials. I'll talk Greta into making her awesome hot chocolate and grab brownies from that bakery near the 'dome."
"Stay home today. Take a nap. Eat a real meal. Soak in the bath." He waggled his eyebrows. "Call me for that one."
She laughed, relaxed for the first time in days. One thought niggled, though. She couldn't completely abandon her list, though. She would need to buy presents for everyone.
"How did you do it before?" she asked. "The gifts, I mean. You aren't a shopper. Did you just Amazon everything?"
"Nope." Rick patted the top of her head as he slid off his stool.
"I can't see you running all over town. You hate going to more than one grocery store. How did you get presents for so many different people without driving all over the city?"
He tossed a grin over his shoulder as he sauntered out of the kitchen. "Petsmart."
Two holly-printed slippers and a candy cane followed him into the hallway.