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Secret Santa

Chapter 1

 

               My breath escaped in a whoosh as something large and heavy landed on my abdomen. I slept deeply when I stayed at Alec and Quinn’s, secure in the pair’s ability to defend their home. So, this attack caught me completely unaware.

               The object squishing my gut squirmed. “Uncle Lucan. Get up, get up, get up. It’s Christmas!” shrieked an excited female voice. Groans echoed from the next room and I smiled. If Grace was here with me, I bet Keenan had gone to wake up Connor. The boy was quick, and he would need every ounce of his speed because Connor didn’t always rise calmly when startled.

              “Uncle Lucaaaan.” Grace planted her small palms on my chest and bounced a bit more. Reaching out, I grabbed the small child by her middle and wiggled my fingers against her side.

Squealing, she tried to escape.

              “Do you know what time it is?” I snarled, my tone playful. “You were supposed to wait to drag us all from our beds.” Tears started to stream from the little girl’s eyes as she laughed uncontrollably.

              Unexpectedly, she was able to halt her giggles long enough to say, “Papa said we had to wait until six. It’s six-o-one.” She squirmed. “We waited. Pinky swear.”

Rising into a seated position, I tipped the child upside down by her ankle.

              The faded t-shirt and soft cotton pants I slept in were soft and comfortable. I made sure to sleep clothed after Grace had decided to crawl in with me after a nightmare one time. Thankfully, she hadn’t noticed my state of undress, but the incident embarrassed me enough that I went beet red whenever I saw her for days afterward.  

              Glancing at the clock, I conceded, “So you did, you rascal.” Righting the child, I gently set her on the floor. She wasted no time dashing out of the room.

I shook my head, amused. I wonder who her next victim is. I didn’t have to wait long for a shout to sound. This one was higher in tone. I chuckled. Brooke liked mornings, but this was early, even for her.  

              Out in the hall, I ran into a bleary-eyed Connor leaning in his door frame. The young man looked as if he was about to go back to sleep standing up.

              “You’re going to hurt something if you nod off and fall to the floor.” I took my ward by the arm and led him toward the kitchen.

I planned to get a pot of coffee going… we were all going to need it.

              “Worth it,” Connor slurred and leaned more heavily against me. I grunted as the tall man’s weight bore down on my shoulder.

              Depositing him in a seat, I went over and put water in the kettle. While I waited for it to boil, I went to the cupboard and got the coffee out. Soon, the rich aroma of morning goodness saturated the air.

              Other adults began to wander in. Tyr had slept on the couch and was the first one through the door, closely followed by Brooke, Alec, Quinn, and Tollas. No one had wanted to miss the children’s first Christmas, so we’d all crowded into Alec’s home and found rooms for ourselves wherever we may.

              “Bless you,” Tollas said when I handed him a mug of tea. Quinn’s father was a healer and used to odd hours. But he’d stayed up late reading to the hooligans, telling them tales of before the Resurgence.

              He’d only gotten to bed in the wee hours after stacking presents under the tree.

              Saber pushed in from outside. Is it time? he asked—eagerness lacing his tone.

              “Saber! It’s Christmas,” Grace and Keenan chorused together as they rushed the big cat. The monster beast purred in delight when they threw their arms around his neck.

              Good, I worried that sleeping outside, I would not hear you rousing. The children gave him stern looks.

              “Never!” Kennan started.

              “You are family. We would have come to get you,” Grace finished. Saber ducked his head in admonishment and then licked the children’s faces in thanks.

              I could totally relate to Saber’s plight. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d celebrated the holidays. Let alone with people who felt like family.

              Turning from the cat, the kids faced their fathers. “Presents now?” They looked at the adults with wide liquid eyes that were too adorable to refuse. Alec was trying stoically to harden himself to the pair. Wanting to allow the rest of us time to get at least one cup of morning nectar into us.

              He failed, and because Quinn didn’t have near Alec’s resolve, he too crumbled like a house of cards.

              The pair nodded, sporting identical smitten looks on their faces. The giant gryphon rumbled, “Go ahead.”

              Sounds of delight echoed as the children ran from the kitchen to the living room. The rest of us following behind. When we’d all found spots, Grace and Keenan began the very important duty of handing out the presents.

              The Green family knew the importance of people over property. So, they’d adopted the tradition of a Secret Santa. All adult family members pulled a name out of a hat, and they then had to find a present for that person within the budget of thirty dollars. No one knew who the others had, and apparently, guessing and thanking random family members was part of the fun.  

              Grace and Keenan were exempt this year. They deserved new things, and we’d all pitched in to ensure the two orphans had plenty to open. Tolas had also opted out. He was old enough that material gifts didn’t excite him anymore. He was far more interested in memorizing everyone else’s joy.

              Keenan came over and plunked a large square package on my lap. I lifted the gift and shook it lightly. There was a rustling of paper but whatever was inside was a large solid mass.

              We all watched as the children tore into their gifts. Clothing from Tollas—good sturdy stuff that would stand up to an active child’s adventures. Grace cooed when she opened a gift from Santa. It was a stuffed dragon, dark blue with silver streaks running through its hide. She hugged it close and came to give me a big hug.

              “Thank you, Santa,” she whispered before heading back to her pile. The toy clutched tightly in her hand.

              My niece, Skye, loved her dragon stuffie, and I was happy to see that Grace liked the gift. Keenan crowed when he opened his gift from Santa. It was a set of wooden daggers, the same style Quinn used.

              The large gryphon moved over to the boy, whispered something in his ear, and helped him buckle the belt in place. Keenan touched the scarred leather with tentative fingers. I would bet my last paycheck that those tiny weapons once belonged to Quinn.

              The children opened the rest of their gifts and made sure to thank each person in the room. Then they sat on the floor with a bowl between them.

              “You go first,” Keenan chirped as Grace reached into the bowl to retrieve the first name.

              The girl held the paper with a solemn reverence and said, “Papa!” Quinn turned the gift in his hands over a few times.

              “Get to it already!” Brooke called from across the room. Her brothers snorted and heckling ensued until, finally, Quinn relented.

              “All right!” he barked, and the room went quiet with anticipation. He peeled back the paper with slowness and care, and I felt myself getting anxious on his behalf. I wanted to know what was in the box, and it wasn’t even my gift.

              When the paper was put aside and folded—after many groans from Connor at the snail’s pace—he lifted the lid and pulled out the contents. Shaking out the material, a shirt unfolded. It looked like a well-tailored dress shirt in midnight blue. 

              It was not something to wear every day, but a shirt that one wore when one wanted to feel special.

              “Why, Tyr?” the gryphon grumbled, and the room groaned. Of course, he would be able to tell who’d given him the gift.

              “Because Brooke noted a lack of nice things in your closet, and my brother deserves to be wined and dined on occasion.” There was a stern brotherly look in Tyr’s eyes, hinting that Alec may have made a comment. The healer blushed crimson and tried to sink into the couch next to his mate.

              “Tyr!” he hissed, but the fire mage paid him no attention. Keeping all his focus on Quinn.

              The gryphon cocked his head to one side and returned the stare. Then he nodded, folded the shirt neatly, and placed it back in the box. Alec moved to cover his face with a hand, but Quinn stopped the motion and leaned in to kiss him.

              Tyr looked pleased with the exchange and settled back down.

              Grace and Keenan looked at each other and shrugged. Then Keenan reached in to pull another name from the hat. Saber chuffed quietly from where he lounged beside the fire.

              “Next, we have Saber,” Keenan called after flourishing the slip of paper as if it was a bunny some magician plucked from a hat. The cat’s ears perked up and his tails twitched in anticipation.

              Is there a protocol I need to observe when removing the covering? he asked the awaiting crowd.

              “Nah,” Connor drawled. “Quinn’s just anal. You do you.”

               Saber nodded his massive head and peered at the package like it was prey. His nose twitched and he inhaled deeply, trying to figure out the giver’s identity. Then proceeded to lapse into a sneezing fit.

              Curse you, Saber snarled as the sneezing continued. You will receive coal for coating the paper in foul-smelling herbs.    

              The rest of the adults chuckled, and more than one glanced at Alec. Being a healer, he would have an in-depth knowledge of herbs and their side effects. But I wasn’t convinced the gentle healer was behind the prank. His heart was too gentle to put Saber through even temporary discomfort.

              I glanced at the man sitting next to him. Quinn’s face was a blank mask as the other siblings teased their brother. However, when his eyes met mine and I raised an eyebrow in question, a tiny smirk tugged at the corner of his lips.

              Laughter built in my chest and I swallowed it down. The stoic gryphon would have been the last person I expected, and I had a feeling that was the point. This was a side to the man I bet few were privy to. The sense of belonging that had begun to bloom in my heart grew, and it was much easier to lean back against the sofa and simply enjoy the moment.    

              Bypassing the paper using his claws. Saber got the package unwrapped without dousing himself a second time. A purr started when he tipped the metal tool out. Keenan came over and plucked the implement from the ground.

              How did you know? the cat asked no one in particular. Then stretched out as Keenan used the oversized brush to begin combing his coat. It is better than the images suggest.           

              Saber had seen a poster in a pet store for a brush owners could use on their cats. Of course, in the image, the felines all had a look of absolute bliss on their faces. But when he’d enquired about the objects, he was disappointed at their small size. Quinn had gotten him a modified version that was five times larger and fit the giant kitty well.  

              We all watched as Keenan gave Saber a good brushing, then turned to Grace to see who went next.

              Grace drew another name. “Uncle Tyr, it’s your turn.” I leaned forward a bit in anticipation. It had taken me weeks to figure out what to get the reserved young man.

              Initially, I debated long and hard about whether I should get him something to help with Guardian’s erratic behavior. But then I realized that the holiday was about joy, so I should get the man something that would make him happy.

              Tyr stared at the package. I had tried to disguise the rectangular box with odd shapes. His lips twitched and he tore open the paper. His face went slack, his mouth parted, and his eyes went wide. Crowing inside, I thought, I’ve done something right.

              Carefully, he plucked the bits and bobs off the package, then ran a finger over the surface. Brooke leaned in to see what he was cradling so carefully. A grin stretched her face and she clamped her hands over her mouth to keep her giggles in.

              “What did you get?” Alec asked his brother, and Tyr looked up, raising the box for him to see.

              The box itself was dingy and covered in scuff marks. But I’d personally leafed through all the pages to make sure the books themselves were intact.

              “Who is Johanna Lindsay?” Alec asked. The pictures were too faded to get a sense of the books’ contents.

              “She was a pre-Resurgence author, one of my favorites. Wrote lots of good books,” Tyr said quietly. He pulled one of the five volumes from the box set and leafed to the front page. He froze a second time, and I couldn’t help the proud smile that overtook my face.

              “Cheater!” Connor pointed his finger at me when he looked over Tyr’s shoulder. “There’s no way you stayed on budget for this.” Saber sniffed at the books, but unimpressed, went to lay back down.

              Tyr looked at me. “This is too much,” he said, putting the signed copy of Love Only Once back in the box with its fellows.

              “I didn’t cheat,” I replied. “The rest of you just don’t look hard enough.” I found the series at a used goods market in the Warren. No one cared that the writer had signed her name, and I’d gotten the lot for only twenty bucks.

              Boos sounded until Quinn said, “He’s not lying.”

              “You lost a lot recently. You deserve to have something again.” The fire mage nodded and looked away, not wanting to draw attention to his emotional state, I said, “Who’s next, Kennan?”

              Brooke moved closer to me and leaned in as Keenan ruffled around in the hat for the next name.

              “How did you know he liked that author?” All their books had burned with the warehouse when Mackenzie was taken, and everyone had been so busy, the topic hadn’t really come up.

              “Alec mentioned it in passing a few weeks ago. He lamented that Tyr’s collection was destroyed and that he was searching for replacements. I started looking then.” She gave me a hug and I patted her on the back.

              “You’re not so bad, Lucan. I’m glad you became a part of the family.” Her eyes crinkled in a cheeky smile. “Even if you are an arrogant dragon.”

              I chuckled. “Best decision ever.”

 

 

 

Chapter 2

             

                       Keenan drew another name from the hat. “Auntie Brooke’s turn!” he shouted.

              Brooke took out the ring-sized box and looked at it with what I would term dread. She might have shed her dresses in favor of pants, but her clothing was still made of fine material, and they coordinated well. I couldn’t imagine what sort of costume jewelry lay within, but it was more than likely not up to her standards.

              The box wasn’t wrapped, so she slowly opened the case. Her brow furrowed and she pulled out a slip of paper. Turning it over, she read, “Find its mate in the tree.” The rest of us sat at the edge of our seats as she walked over to the tree and searched its branches.

              Reaching into the core, she pulled out another tiny ring box. Opening it, she pulled out the paper and read, “Look under the sofa.”

              I flung myself off the couch, and Tyr moved to the other end. Together, we lifted, and Brooke pulled out the long slender package from underneath. We put the piece of furniture back down and hastily took our seats.

              Brooke sat down and started to slowly peel the paper off. I wanted to shout at her to hurry, and if the looks her brothers were giving her were any indication, they wanted to do the same. But somehow, we all found a tiny shred of patience and waited for her to finish.

              Murmurs of appreciation rose around the room as we finally got a glimpse of what Brooke had received. Lovingly, the girl ran her hand down the wood of the staff. It was a simple piece but made for function.

              “Cam suggested the bo staff might suit my small frame. She can teach me to wrap it in my magic to make it better.” She looked around the room.

              I looked at the others, but they all looked at each other. The only one who wasn’t perplexed was the cat, who lay in front of the fire with his eyes closed.

              Brooke noticed his apathy as well and went to hug the beast. “Thank you, Saber, but this must have cost way more than thirty dollars.”

              Leave it to a cat to make you hunt before getting the prize.

              I only gave the man thirty dollars. The rules never stated that I could not do other things to cover the balance. Only that I do not spend more than that. Next year, we should make better rules.

              Quinn barked a laugh, and the rest of us joined in at the dry retort.

              Brooke buried her face in Saber’s pelt and gave him another fierce hug.

              Grace dipped her hand into the hat to draw the next name. “Uncle Connor!”

              The present in my lap shifted and I found I desperately wanted to know what it contained. I couldn’t remember ever being this excited for Christmas. Growing up, it wasn’t a holiday my family put a lot of stock in. We’d get a small present, play some games, and have a good meal. But it was never with the comradery I found in this warm home.

              Connor took the small square package off the table in front of him and shook it. A thud sounded inside and he frowned. Then he made a show of hefting it in one hand. “Hum, light but solid. A tool perhaps.” His siblings sighed. Connor, it seemed, wanted to make a few guesses before opening his gift.

              The young man’s eyes sparked for a moment. “It’s made of copper, brass, and aluminum.” He hefted the package again. “An unusual combination.”

              Alec put a hand to his mouth, his eyes crinkling. He was as bad as I was at keeping secrets.

              Finally, Connor unwrapped the box. He lifted the lid and pulled out a wad of paper that surrounded the item. Slowly, he exposed his present.

              Tears pooled in the big man’s eyes as he stared down at the lump of metal in his hand. Heat had warped the figurine, but if you squinted, you could see the original soldier it had been.

              Connor ran a finger down the metal and it became liquid at his touch. The molten metal flowed like water and settled into its proper form. A brass cowboy with a copper hat and silver-colored lasso. His eyes hardened and he stood. Marching over to Alec, he stuck a finger in his face.

              “You could have hurt yourself rummaging through that wreckage.” He seethed. Though I noted he held the figurine with the utmost care.

              Alec’s smile was so full of compassion, it undid the metal mage. Tears coursed down his cheeks. Alec stood and hugged his brother.

              “It was the only thing you ever treasured,” he said quietly to his younger sibling. “I would not let them take it from you.”

              Connor crushed Alec to him and buried his face in his brother’s shoulder. Beside me, Brooke sighed. “Alec wins again.”

              I looked at Tyr in confusion. He smiled at me as he explained, “Mackenzie smuggled that figure in for Connor for his eighth birthday. He’s carried it around ever since. It’s the only personal item he cared about. The only thing he lamented losing when the warehouse exploded. How Alec found it in the rubble, I will never know.”

              Brooke took over from him. “Each year, we try to find the perfect gift that matches our person. You were close with the books. I thought for sure you had him. But like always, Alec goes above and beyond.” She sighed. “This is the third year in a row that he’s found the best gift.”

              “There are still two of us to go,” I said, pointing at the box in my lap. Brooke gave me an exasperated side-eye.

              “I highly doubt whatever is left can trump that.” She waved a hand at where Connor was disentangling himself from his older brother. The man wiped his eyes on the back of his hand and pulled his brother into another hug.

              Alec chuckled, slapped Connors back a couple of times, and pushed him away.

              Once things had settled down again, Grace pulled the second to last name from the hat. “Daddy! Your turn.”

              Alec pulled the massive box towards himself. The thing must have been at least a foot square. When he finally got it opened, he sighed, “Connor.”

              The metal mage looked at his brother with pure innocence in his gaze. “What? Why do you automatically suspect me?”

              Tyr chimed in. “Because you have done this every year since we started. How many layers are in that damn thing?” he growled.

              Connor smiled. “Guess you will have to open them all to find out.” Alec laughed and began to open layers of boxes as if he was peeling an onion.

              Turns out there were ten. The last one Alec pulled out was not much bigger than the ring box Brooke had started with.

              We all waited with bated breath as Alec flipped the lid. He gasped. Then offered the box to Quinn. The gryphon sat stunned for a moment before turning to the metal mage.

              “Thank you,” was all he said.

              Brooke bounced beside me. Losing patience, she blurted, “Well, show the rest of us. I can’t stand the suspense.”

              Alec turned the box to the room, and I had to admit, Connor had done good. Nestled in the box were two rings. One obviously sized for Quinn, the other for Alec. The metal looked like steel. But it was polished to a shine.

              The smaller band was covered in etched gryphons. Some with their wings open, others closed, one was even curled up as if asleep.

              Alec stroked the band lovingly. Quinn plucked it from the case and slipped it on the third finger of Alec’s left hand. Perfect fit.

              Alec removed the other band from the box. Stylized waves created an intricate geometric pattern down the middle. It was much less intricate but fit the reserved gryphon better. After Quinn wore the piece on his left hand, he stood and pulled Connor into a hug.

              Connor put a hand behind his head and sheepishly stared at the pair. “Master Arel set me a project. He wanted me to create something that required precision. I decided to kill two birds with one stone. If I hadn’t gotten you or Quinn for the Secret Santa, I was going to give it to you for your birthday next week.”

              “They’re perfect, Connor. Thank you.” Alec laced his hand with Quinn’s, the metal band standing out against the gryphon’s dark skin. 

              Brooke cooed from across the room, which broke the tension. Then, everyone turned to me. I was the last to go and anticipation had butterflies dancing in my stomach. If I’d done my math right, Brooke had chosen my present, and I had no idea what a teenage girl would think I’d want.

              I opened the box, not having the patience to unwrap it slowly or guess its contents. A bundle lay wrapped inside, covered in paper. I pushed the paper aside and a knit fabric of blues and greens became visible. I stared at the thing, afraid to remove it as rustling sounded around me.

              Carefully, I lifted it out. A sweater, knit with an intricate but masculine pattern, unfolded. I ran a hand over the soft wool. It would be so warm on chilly days. I looked up to thank Brooke for the thoughtful gift, but the words caught on my tongue. Every member of the family had changed. They all sported a knit sweater of different shades, but they all had a shade of green woven into the design.

              “Welcome to the family, Lucan,” Brooke said, an uncertain look in her eye. She expected me to find the gesture corny. I didn’t.

              Donning my gift, I let the warmth wrap around me.

              Fingering the small box nestled in my pocket, I though about the one person who wasn’t here to open a gift. And while her name hadn’t been spoken, we had all acknowledged her absence. Determined to give her the gift when the time was right, I let a wide smile stretch my lips and said, “The honor is all mine.”

 

Thank you for reading Secret Santa, I hope you enjoyed this short story. It was too long to add to the main book and stagnated the flow. But after the beta read, I knew I would have to tell it. Too many people asked, ‘What did Lucan get Tyr?” not to mention everyone else. 

Don’t be afraid to reach out and request a scene. I may not be able to do them all, but I would love to know what you want to see.

 

May the blessing of the holiday season be with you all!

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