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Merry and Bright
A Shifter Agents Christmas story
“Hey man, you gotta help me.”
Avery Hollen blinked at the computer screen sliding in and out of focus in front of him, and turned his bleary, sleep-deprived gaze on the rangy figure that had leaned a hip on the corner of his desk. Jack Ross was wearing his usual beat-up leather jacket and jeans, but under the jacket he had on a festive sweater with snowflakes on it. He also had a plastic holly sprig pinned to his collar and was holding a steaming mug shaped like the lower half of Santa: belt, boots, and red-clad buttocks. His wire-frame glasses gave him a deceptively mild demeanor; right now, with the sweater and the mug, he looked like an unusually ripped professor at a faculty holiday party.
As Avery stared at him blankly, Jack frowned. “Are you awake?”
“I’m totally awake; why wouldn’t I be?” Avery tried to push himself upright in his chair, rather than slumping over his keyboard.
“Because,” Jack said, leaning around to see the screen, “you just typed a whole row of the letter D.”
Avery rubbed at his gritty eyes and deleted the last line of text. “Okay, so I’m tired. Keeping up with four toddlers is no picnic, believe me, even with as much help as we’ve got. I see you’ve broken out the world’s classiest holiday mug.”
“It’s a tradition,” Jack said. “No, seriously, I need your help.”
“Whatever you did, I’m not giving you an alibi.”
“I haven’t done anything. Yet.” Jack rested one booted foot on the spare chair beside Avery’s desk. He glanced across the room—where his girlfriend, trainee agent Casey MacLaren, was engrossed in conversation with intern Rivkah Rosen—and lowered his voice, leaning closer. “I have no idea what to get Casey for Christmas. Give me some ideas.”
Avery rolled his eyes. “Really? You know Christmas is the day after tomorrow, right? Better figure it out in a hurry.”
“You’re a lot of help. Come on, man.”
“Why are you asking me? You’re the one who lives with her. You know her better than any of us.”
“Yeah, but—you’re sensitive. And stuff.”
Avery gave him an incredulous stare. “Jack, do you happen to remember how many dates I’ve been on in the last five years, before Nicole? One. One. And that was the time Cho made me pretend to date her to get her mother off her back about being unmarried at the ripe old age of twenty-seven.”
“… Right. I forgot about that.”
“So how many dates have you been on, Mr. Charming Handsome Mercenary with Interesting Conversation-Fodder Tattoos? Why on earth are you asking me for advice on how to handle women?”
“None of my relationships ever lasted this long, though. I don’t want to scare her off.”
“You’ve been dating for almost six months. And she came after you when you did your patented Jack Ross intimacy-avoiding shuffle. At this point, I think she’s probably un-scare-offable. You could give her mittens for Christmas and she’d probably think it was adorable.”
“See, this is what I’m talking about! Why are mittens a bad gift? They’re practical.”
“Maybe if you knitted them yourself, out of your bear’s underfur.”
Jack opened his mouth to object, then frowned thoughtfully. “I’d have to learn to knit …”
“Do not knit her anything out of your own fur; are you crazy?”
“It would be unique. And sentimental. And all those other Christmas gift things.”
“Yes, Jack, but it would also be made out of you.”
“You’re the one who suggested it.”
“Not seriously! Besides, do you really want a bald patch?”
“You’ve seen how much fur I have as a bear, right? Nobody’s going to notice a few missing handfuls. Except it’s hard to hold a pair of scissors without hands. If you could be a pal and help me cut it off—”
“Jack, for the love of God, I’m not shaving your bear for you.”
“I love coming into the middle of a conversation,” Jen Cho announced cheerily. She plopped herself on the other side of Avery’s desk, swinging her legs. “Nice mug, Ross.”
“Nice sweater,” Jack returned. She was wearing a fluffy white one with reindeer on it; Rudolph’s nose was lit up with a blinking LED light. “I think my grandma has one just like it.”
“Thanks so much for that. I can’t believe I’m asking this after that remark, but do you and Casey have plans for Christmas?”
“I haven’t even bought her a gift yet. You think we have plans?”
“Really? It’s two days,” Jen said. “You better hurry up.”
“Thanks for the useful advice. I certainly haven’t heard anything similar in the last five minutes.”
Jen poked Avery with her toe. “How about you and Nicole?”
Avery sighed and pushed his keyboard away; this report obviously wasn’t getting written anytime soon. “I assume we’re doing Christmas with her family, since we’re living with them.”
“Yeah, how’s the house-hunting going, anyway?” Jack asked.
“We’ve found a few likely places, but prices around Seattle are out of control, and with four kids, we can’t really get away with something small. Tim and Erin have been great about having us stay with them, but I know they’ll be glad when we find a place. Heck, I’ll be glad.”
“You’ll lose the live-in babysitters, though,” Jen said.
“Yeah, I’m trying not to think about that.” They were fostering to adopt four kids under the age of three, and since he and Nicole both worked, the daycare cost was going to suck down whatever part of their income didn’t get spent on a mortgage. He had no idea how they were going to handle it. However, dwelling on it didn’t help, so he shook it off and tried to tear his eyes away from the blinking red Rudolph nose in the upper left quadrant of her sweater. “Uh, what are you doing for Christmas?”
“Crying myself into a lonely puddle of tears, it sounds like, since the Lonelyhearts Christmas Club doesn’t seem to be happening.”
“Shit,” Jack said. “I forgot.”
They had been doing it for several years now. Avery couldn’t remember how it had started or whose idea it had been, but the single people in the office, including Avery, Jack, and Jen, had gotten in the habit of getting together on Christmas to drink eggnog, exchange gifts, and generally pretend they weren’t lonely and single at Christmas with no close family nearby. Or, in Avery’s case, no close family at all.
It had soothed his lonesome werewolf soul, being surrounded by his chosen pack on the holiday, and the idea of not doing it anymore was a startling and unwelcome one. Still, it wasn’t like he could invite a bunch of co-workers to Nicole’s sister’s house.
“Avery?” Jen prompted.
“Uh,” he said, intelligently. It was hard to do any kind of thinking on three hours’ sleep. The kids seemed to have gotten themselves on a rotating sleep schedule: if one of them was sleeping, two more were awake, at all hours of the day and night.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought.” Jen folded her arms. “You guys got hitched. You abandoned me.”
“C’mon, there are still plenty of singles in the office,” Jack said. “What about the rest of the usual suspects?”
“They’ve all got other plans. Noah’s flying back to DC to spend the holidays with his family, Eva’s with her pod, I guess Vic and his ex are having some kind of family thing with their kid. Dev said he’d go if other people were going, but since Christmas isn’t one of his holidays, he doesn’t really care. Same for Rivkah. Nope, it’s just going to be me and a bottle of Wild Turkey, in my lonely, empty apartment.”
“For pete’s sake, your family’s only down in California,” Avery said. “Go spend Christmas with them. You can drive if last-minute tickets are too expensive.”
“And spend the holidays with my mother shoving me in the direction of every unwed Asian-American male between the ages of twenty and fifty in Oxnard? And trust me, there are a lot of them. I should know, she keeps sending me bios.”
“Tell her you’re gay,” Jack suggested. “You can get Rivkah to go as your date this time, instead of Avery.”
“I should know better than to confide anything in you guys. Besides, she’d just switch to the unwed female population. A little thing like that isn’t going to stop her.”
Avery gave her a light poke in the fluffy-sweater-covered arm. “Hey, I’m sure we could squeeze in another person at the Leung-Yates residence. I don’t want to invite the entire office, but I can tell Tim and Erin that I’m bringing a guest.”
“Or you could come over to my and Casey’s place,” Jack said. “I have no idea how to do Christmas as a couple, and I don’t think Casey does either. So it’s not like you’d be interrupting anything.”
“You aren’t taking her home to meet the folks?” Avery asked. “Or do bear shifters not do big family Christmases?”
“Depends on the bear,” Jack said dryly. “She’s already met Mom—they get along great, by the way—and Mom’s spending the holidays at my grandparents’ place in Maine, like she usually does. Casey was a little nervous at the idea of dropping into the middle of the entire extended clan, so we figured we’d stay here instead, and I’ll take her out to Maine with me sometime next year, when every bear shifter on the North Atlantic coast hasn’t converged on the ancestral homestead.” Turning to Jen, he appealed, “We’ll just spend the whole day in our PJs sitting around and marathoning the Die Hard movies. Drop in and save us from ourselves.”
Jen brightened. “Die Hard marathon? I’ll bring the snacks. You’re on, Ross.”
She pumped a fist in the air and wandered off, looking a lot more cheerful.
“You look like you just turned into a puppy and someone kicked you,” Jack told Avery. “You’re invited too, you know. You and Nicole. Die Hard is the ultimate Christmas movie; you can’t not watch it.”
“Somehow I don’t think turning up with four two-year-olds is conducive to setting the proper action-movie-marathon mood. And no,” he said as Jack opened his mouth. “I’m not going to ask Erin and Tim to spend their Christmas babysitting my kids.”
Jack closed his mouth and looked thoughtful. “This insta-family thing is so weird.”
“If you think it’s weird, try being me.”
Jack smiled. “But it’s good though, right?”
“I wouldn’t trade any of it for the world. But there are times …” He rubbed his temple, where a fatigue headache was setting in. “Times when I miss how it used to be. I know I was lonely as hell, and I wouldn’t give up Nicole and the kids for anything. But I also miss being able to go out for drinks after work, rather than running home to the kids. Or things like the Lonelyhearts Club Christmas parties.”
“There’s got to be something similar we can still do. I miss hanging out with you too, man. And Nicole’s really great. We could start doing, I dunno, double date night or something—”
“Kids,” Avery reminded him.
Avery laughed softly. “I keep forgetting too. You’re right, it’s weird. And different. But not bad different.”
Jack punched him lightly in the shoulder. “I’m happy for you, man. Even though you still haven’t helped me out on Casey’s present. What’d you get Nicole?”
“A necklace and matching earrings.” He could feel his face heating. “It’s amber. She loves warm colors, and I couldn’t help thinking how it would look against her skin, bringing out those light honey tones—”
Jack held up both hands. “Okay, steering awfully close to TMI territory here. I thought about that, but the thing is, Casey’s not really a jewelry person. She has a few pieces, but she just doesn’t wear it.”
“Get her a custom gun holster of hand-tooled leather or something. She’d probably love that.”
Jack’s eyes went suddenly distant. “Huh.”
“I was joking. Sort of.”
“No … but … I think I know what to get her now.” Jack grinned, a quick flash of the brilliant smile that used to charm every woman he met, back when he was single. “Thanks, man.”
“You’re welcome, I think.” Avery grinned back. “Still not gonna help you shave your bear.”
“No, no. No shaving needed.”
As he turned away, Avery said abruptly, “Hey, Jack?”
Jack glanced back. “Yeah?”
“You and Casey should come over for Christmas dinner. And Jen, too. I’ll check with Erin and Tim, but I really don’t think it’d be a problem to have a few extra people.” He shrugged, feeling suddenly awkward and shy. “It wouldn’t really be the holidays without you guys.”
The thing he couldn’t quite say was that you didn’t forget about your friends, your family, just because another family had fallen into your lap. Especially when you were a werewolf, and pack-bonding was what you did. Jack and Cho were pack. Would always be. And his lupine instincts had readily expanded the feeling to include Casey as well.
Jack didn’t have the same set of instincts—bear shifters tended to be independent and solitary—but he seemed to sense the drift of Avery’s thoughts, because he said seriously, “We’d love to.”
“You might want to ask Casey before accepting an invitation on behalf of the both of you,” Avery pointed out. “A bit of wisdom from the newly paired off … And I haven’t asked Erin and Tim yet.”
“Well, text me if plans change. Right now …” Jack checked his watch. “I’m off. Errands to run, gifts to buy, et cetera.”
Casey surfed over on the wake of Jack’s abrupt departure from the SCB bullpen. “Where is he off to?”
“Beats me,” Avery said in semi-honesty. “He just said he had something to do and made his getaway. Hey, you guys want to come over on Christmas?”
“For what?” Casey asked, her shoulders lifting in an automatic defensive reaction. Even after several months of dating Jack, she hardly seemed to know how to react to people being nice to her.
“For Christmas. You know, eat some food, watch some sappy holiday movies while the kids play with their new presents.”
“I’m not very good at that kind of thing. I’m an orphan, you know; my grandmother raised me. I haven’t ever done the big family Christmas deal.”
“Me neither.” Avery saw her flinch; she knew he’d grown up in the foster system, even more isolated as a child than she had been. “So give me an ally to commiserate with. We can figure it out together.”
After a pause, her quicksilver smile broke through. Casey wasn’t an easy person to get to know, but at times like this Avery could see her as Jack did—resilient and beautiful. “Okay,” she said. “But you know, we’re going to be missing Die Hard for this.”
“Bring it along. We could probably all use a break from It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Now all he needed to do was talk Nicole’s sister and her husband into it. He didn’t think Erin and Tim would say no, but it was starting to feel like he’d hijacked their family Christmas somewhat.
Next year, he hoped he and Nicole would be in their own place, no longer dependent upon the sufferance of her relatives. Avery hadn’t bothered keeping his apartment, since he had moved in with Nicole, so there was nowhere else to go.
I guess we’ll all have to work with what we’ve got.
Through a soft mist of falling rain, the Leungs’ Christmas lights were mantled with blue and white haloes as Nicole and Avery came up the walk on Christmas Eve, laden with grocery bags—one-handed in Avery’s case, since he had a cane in the other. He didn’t normally use the cane to get around indoors, but for any kind of long-distance walking, it was a necessity unless he wanted to spend the whole evening paying for it.
The Leung house wasn’t the most vividly decorated residence on the block—in particular, one neighbor had synced their extensive lights to music; they were currently rocking and rolling to the strains of Mannheim Steamroller. But there was a herd of light-up reindeer on the lawn, strands of lights draped around the porch, and a giant wreath on the front door. The Leungs had two children, ages nine and twelve, and therefore the house had achieved what Nicole jokingly called “peak Christmas”: Forrest and Hannah were old enough to help out with the decorations, but not too old to have lost interest in Christmas yet.
“I shouldn’t have waited so long to ask,” Avery lamented while Nicole fumbled in her purse for her key. “I just couldn’t think of what to say, and time got away from me; now I feel like an idiot. What if they’re angry about changing plans at the last minute? What if they say no?”
“They’re not going to say no. Erin and Tim love to adopt strays who don’t have anywhere to go for the holidays. Last year, Tim brought home two of his fellow faculty from the U-Dub campus. And your friends are great, Avery, I promise. Tim and Erin will like them.”
She silenced him with a kiss. “No buts. If you don’t ask them, I’ll do it for you.”
The door opened to fragrant smells of cinnamon, brown sugar, and baking bread. Laughter and high-pitched children’s voices came from the living room, along with Christmas music playing softly. Garlands sparkled on the walls of the front hallway.
It was still disconcerting for Avery to contrast this warm, cheery, festively decorated house with the one-bedroom apartment, sparsely furnished with thrift-store furniture, in which he’d woken up on Christmas morning last year.
“You know, I can’t get over how weird it is for Christmas to be cold,” Nicole said as she folded her umbrella and hung it up in the hall. Her soft Australian accent was still noticeable despite nearly a decade in the U.S. “Back home, of course, it’s the middle of summer. Christmas for me, growing up in Brisbane, meant beaches and barbecues. I wish we lived somewhere that gets snow at Christmastime. I’d love to see a white Christmas, just once.”
“It’s not impossible. I’ve seen it snow in Seattle in December.”
“I know, but I mean a real blanket of snow, like you see in Christmas cards. I’ve never seen anything like that. I heard there’s a big snowstorm sweeping the East Coast right now. I wish we could get some of that here.”
Avery had a sudden, vivid image of Nicole in the snow, her cheeks pink with cold, wearing a fluffy knit hat in her favorite sunshine yellow. Nicole laughing as she ducked a snowball …
He’d never realized how much he wanted to show Nicole snow. The words tumbled out: “We should go up to the mountains next year.”
Nicole raised her eyebrows. “With four toddlers?”
Avery winced. “Okay, one of these years. When the kids are older.”
“Ha. It’s a date.” Nicole grinned. Her chestnut curls were jeweled with raindrops, and Avery was unable to resist reaching out to stroke them. Nicole leaned into his hand.
“No PDAs in the hallway!” Hannah, the Leungs’ nine-year-old, shrilled down the hall at them.
“Nicky, Avery! Wonderful!” Erin Leung, Nicole’s pretty and stylish big sister, hurried down the hallway, wiping her floury hands on her apron, to give them both a quick hug. “Did you get the eggnog? We’re all out.”
“Regular and non-dairy, yep.” Nicole and her sister were biracial, of Asian-Australian and European heritage, and Tim was Asian-American, so the majority of the household were lactose intolerant.
“What’s cooking?” Avery asked. “It smells great.”
They followed Nicole into the cheerful chaos of the living room. The Leung house had an open plan layout with a combined kitchen/living room, high ceilings with skylights, and three steps down to a sunken indoor patio and attached greenhouse. In addition to a variety of subtropical flowers, the greenhouse contained potted eucalyptus trees rising nearly all the way to the high glass ceiling. Nicole, Erin, and Hannah were koala shifters, so the eucalyptus trees made them feel more at home in the damp, gray Pacific Northwest. In the spirit of the holiday, the trees were draped in gold and silver fairy lights, sparkling off the glass enclosure as night fell outside.
The house had been babyproofed with the addition of a baby gate across the steps leading down to the indoor patio, keeping Nicole and Avery’s foster children away from the moderately toxic tropical foliage in the greenhouse. Since Tim and Erin had raised their children in this house, it was a solution they’d employed themselves with Forrest and Hannah were very small. The rest of the railing along the raised part of the carpeted living-room floor was baby-safe. The Christmas tree, with its shiny, tempting ornaments, had been set up down on the patio to make sure the kids couldn’t get to it.
Right now the quadruplets, all four of them, were in the living room, sprawled around with blankets and toys. Forrest, the Leungs’ twelve-year-old son, was down on the floor in the middle of their active little playgroup. At the moment, two of them were wolf cubs and the other two were human toddlers. The little werewolves had spent most of their infancy as puppies, and still shifted freely back and forth, which made it challenging to keep clothes and diapers on them.
Catching Nicole and Avery’s scents, especially Avery’s werewolf smell, the puppies produced a chorus of happy squeals and eager little whines. Avery laughed, leaned his cane against the wall, and scooped up Gael, a fat brown and gray puppy who wriggled with delight and licked his chin.
Nicole picked up little Ginger, who was girl-shaped and miraculously still wearing both her clothes and her diaper, and carried her into the kitchen, where she and Avery dutifully oohed and ahhed over the pies cooling on the kitchen island. Tim, Erin’s quiet, bespectacled husband, had moved the pies aside to make room for a laptop, where he was working on some emails; he gave them a distracted smile.
Nicole deftly pulled Ginger away when the child tried to stick her hands into the nearest pie, and nudged Avery pointedly. “Ask them,” she whispered. “They’re not going to bite.”
“Ask us what?” Erin wanted to know. “Forrest, pass me the eggs, please.”
Avery was distracted by Gael shifting suddenly from a wolf cub to a plump, naked, brown-haired toddler, infinitely squirmier and harder to hold. “Wolf,” Avery told him sternly, and Gael stared into his eyes for a stubborn minute before dutifully shifting back.
All of them seemed to have accepted Avery as their pack leader. They adored Nicole, but Avery they actually obeyed. It was an odd feeling, a sort of power he wasn’t used to having.
“Do you mind if I invite a couple of friends for Christmas dinner?” he asked, adjusting Gael so that he was holding him one-armed like a furry football. “I’m sorry to drop this on you last-minute. I’ve been, you know …” He waved his free hand. “Putting it off. I felt like, as a guest in your house, I shouldn’t be inviting more people …”
Erin reached over to pat his arm, leaving a light dusting of flour behind. Gael gave her a quick puppy-lick with his small pink tongue. “You’re not a guest, you’re family. And of course we don’t mind. Do we, hon? We’d love to meet your friends.”
Avery turned away to hide his blush. Nicole’s hand slipped into his free one, lightly squeezing.
“I don’t want to cause more work for you,” he said. “Just tell me what you want me to do to help out.”
Tim looked up from his laptop screen. “Tell you what, why not make it a potluck? That glazed ham in the ‘fridge is big enough to feed an army, and if everyone brings a dish, food will be absolutely no problem. We’re going to be eating leftovers for a week anyway.”
“I think that’s a wonderful idea,” Nicole said. “Oh, hold on …” Her phone was vibrating in her pocket. She set down Ginger by Avery’s feet and stepped away to take the call.
“What is it?” Avery asked, seeing her serious expression as she listened to whoever was talking on the other end.
Nicole held up a finger, signaling Just a minute. “Yes, I can hear you. Just a minute, there’s a lot of noise in here …”
She stepped further away, out of range of even Avery’s sharp werewolf hearing.
“So, the family tradition is, on Christmas Eve we don’t really have dinner as such,” Erin told Avery, and he wrenched his worried attention away from Nicole. “We just snack and eat pie, and the kids get to open one present apiece later on. If you want something healthier than pie, I was going to throw together a salad.”
“Sounds great. You want me to chop something?”
He was cutting up carrots, with Gael and Ginger wrestling around his feet, when Nicole came back to the kitchen, frowning.
“Are things okay?” Avery asked her.
“Oh yes. Basically. That was Ashley—remember her?”
“Dr. Evans’ daughter?” He recalled the thin, haunted young woman who had first helped capture them and then helped them escape when they were imprisoned for experimentation. He hadn’t seen much of Ashley Evans-Lopez since they’d gotten out of the lab, but he knew that Nicole, a social worker by both inclination and occupation, had been trying to help Ashley adjust to life on the outside of the lab. While not a lab experiment herself in the same way as the puppies, Ashley had been under the thumb of her domineering mother for her entire life; she’d never been out on her own before.
“Yes, that Ashley. She’s been evicted. She doesn’t have anyone to stay with, so she’s at a women’s shelter right now.” Nicole pressed her lips together, her wide brown eyes soft with sympathetic concern. “She’s technically an adult, but she’s just not good at navigating the adult world. Her mother never let her make any decisions on her own, and now she’s lost everything and has been thrown into the deep end. She can’t find a job, and she feels as if she’s barely managing to keep her head above water. And now this.” She kissed Avery lightly on the cheek. “I’m sorry. I have to go talk to her. She could use the emotional support.”
Tim raised his mild gaze from his laptop. “Bring her over here.”
“He’s right,” Erin chimed in. “No one should be alone on Christmas if they have anywhere to go.”
“Erin, Tim, you guys are wonderful, but the house is already about as full as it can get,” Nicole protested.
“Don’t be ridiculous. I can make up the couch for her, as long as she doesn’t mind waking up at the crack of dawn to a houseful of Christmas-crazy kids.”
Avery’s eyes met Nicole’s, and he saw the suppressed smile dancing in them.
“You want to drive?” he asked. “Or should I?”
The shelter’s small waiting area was decorated brightly with wreaths and bows. “Visitors aren’t allowed in the residential area,” the shelter staffer at the front desk told them, “but I can go back and ask her if she’d like to come out and see you.”
While they waited, holding hands, a woman came out of the back with two small children. She pinged Avery’s shifter senses, which wasn’t that unusual. Shifters often had trouble integrating into regular human society; most of them had to cope with heightened senses, difficulty with strong smells and crowds, animal instincts, and often the unique requirements of their individual shifter-type subcultures, such as werewolves’ strong pack urges and xenophobia. All of this made it hard for them to find and hold jobs, which meant they were disproportionately represented among the homeless population.
The woman looked away without meeting Avery’s eyes.
“Excuse me, ma’am?” He reached in his wallet and pulled out all the cash inside. The kids stared at him silently with wide eyes. It could sometimes be hard to tell with small children whose shifts might not have fully kicked in yet, but he was fairly sure that one of them was a shifter and one wasn’t. They must have had a human father, or maybe different fathers.
“I don’t want your charity, sir,” the woman said tightly. “Or your pity.”
“That’s not what this is, and it isn’t for you. It’s for them.” Avery held out his hand, offering the crumpled bills. “I grew up in the foster system. Buy something nice for your kids. They could use it.”
She gazed at him for a moment longer, then took the money quietly and left without speaking, children in tow.
Nicole’s hand traced a gentle path down his arm.
“What’s it like back there?” he asked her quietly, sitting down again, with a nod toward the door where the shelter worker had vanished. He’d never been inside a place like this, except in the lobby when it was necessary to deal with a disturbance in the course of his duties. But as a social worker, Nicole probably spent a lot of time in this kind of place.
“It’s not a bad place,” she said, just as softly. “It’s clean and quiet, and they supply basic toiletries and meals. It’s infinitely better than where most of these women started out.”
Before he could ask anything else, Ashley came out, toting a backpack. She stopped short and stood looking at them nervously, fidgeting as if she wasn’t sure what to do with her hands.
The last time Avery had seen her, she’d had her hair chopped off just below her ears; it had looked as if she’d cut it herself with a pair of kitchen scissors. Now it had grown out somewhat and had been dyed a dark auburn instead of her usual mousy hue, but that only drew attention to the unhealthy pallor of her face. She was wearing an oversized University of Washington sweatshirt, draped on her thin body, with a winter coat over the top.
Nicole greeted her with a hug, and Avery offered her a smile. Nicole had warmed to her much more quickly than Avery had been able to. He couldn’t quite forget that she’d abetted in the experiments that had claimed the lives of the quadruplets’ parents, and had come very near to helping her mother conduct similar experiments on Avery and Nicole.
But she was little more than a kid herself, and she’d done the right thing in the end. Also, the puppies adored her, which Avery supposed was worth something.
“Come on,” Nicole told her, giving her a gentle push toward the door.
Ashley’s hesitant smile dropped away, replaced by a baffled expression. “Where are we going?”
“My sister’s place. You can crash on our couch tonight.”
“Don’t argue with her when she’s made up her mind,” Avery told her. “There’s no use.”
“Miss,” the shelter worker said, “if you don’t want to go with these people, you don’t have to.”
Ashley smiled shyly, not quite meeting their eyes. “I—I think I want to.”
She was very quiet in the car, huddling in the back with her backpack on the seat beside her. She perked up visibly when Nicole pulled into the driveway outside the Leung house, with its dazzling lights glowing through the darkness and the rain.
“This is pretty,” Ashley said quietly. “We used to have family Christmases like this a long time ago, before I got sick.”
Which was what had originally set into motion a chain of events that led to werewolves being kidnapped and used as part of Dr. Evans’ experiments to unlock the secrets of their healing abilities and save her daughter’s life. Avery realized for the first time that Ashley Evans-Lopez must be carrying a tremendous burden of guilt about the whole thing. It had not only been done in her name, but she’d had to watch while it happened.
With that thought, he managed to let go of most of his lingering resentment against her. He wished that she’d had her crisis of conscience earlier, in time to save the lives of the children’s parents—but she had, in the end, saved the children’s lives by smuggling them out of the lab. And while Dr. Evans was recovering in the hospital from injuries sustained during her standoff with the SCB, Ashley had been cooperating fully, helping the SCB put together a solid case against her own family.
When it came down to it, she did the right thing. How many people can really say that?
“How is your health right now?” Nicole asked as they got out of the car.
“It’s okay. I’m on a new treatment Dr. Lafitte is working on, and it seems to be helping with the rejection issues a little. I have more energy now.” She smiled slightly. “Not that it seems to be able to help me find a job.”
“We’ll work on that,” Nicole told her. “One thing at a time, okay?”
Ashley nodded solemnly and shouldered her backpack.
The cheerful hubbub in the house seemed to have calmed considerably when they came in. The living room was dark except for the gleaming, shifting lights of the Christmas tree and the flickering of the big-screen TV against the far wall, on which a children’s Christmas movie was playing. The kids were all sprawled on the floor, the older ones clutching pillows, the younger turned puppy-shaped and lying in sleepy heaps. As soon as Ashley came in, four tiny tails began to wag, and they scrambled to their paws and came to greet her with little yelping cries of delight.
At the lab, Ashley had taken care of them after the death of their mother Helena, and they remembered her. In some ways she was a second mother to them, and it was clear from the delight in her thin face as she knelt to hold out her arms to them that they still had a place in her heart, too.
With Ashley distracted, Nicole crooked a finger at Avery and hustled him off to the room they shared, which was off the hallway just inside the door. It had been Nicole’s room before he’d moved in with her, and still reflected her sunshine-bright personality, although now it was strewn with toys and so crowded with newly added shelves, to accommodate Avery’s things along with Nicole’s, that it was barely possible to move around without knocking something off.
It didn’t help that the closet was no longer available for closet purposes, having been converted into a sort of combination mini-bedroom and playpen with the addition of a child gate and heaps of blankets and pillows inside. It would never have passed muster as a bedroom for human children, especially for four of them, but the children generally slept in their puppy shapes and they liked to be piled together. What even the other adults in the house didn’t know was that Avery usually shifted into his wolf shape and joined them there.
“Did you lose something?” Avery asked, as Nicole closed the bedroom door and then began hunting through drawers in the bureau.
“No; I’ve realized we don’t have any gifts for Ashley. If she spends Christmas with us, I have to find something to give her. She can’t sit there and watch us open our gifts while receiving nothing.”
It was on the tip of his tongue to say “We don’t have to,” but Nicole, he knew, was right. If they were going to have Ashley with them for Christmas, it wasn’t fair to exclude her from the present-opening.
Nicole came up with a bracelet, and Avery donated a book of Sherlock Holmes stories from the clutter of paperbacks on “his” section of the shelves. Nicole also took down a framed photo of the children from the mess on top of the bureau. It was a simple cell-phone snap they’d had printed at Walmart; Erin had put it in a puppy-themed frame for them. “She probably doesn’t have any,” Nicole pointed out, “and we can always print off some more.”
Avery left her wrapping the gifts with odds and ends of wrapping paper on the bed—which she assured him was a one-person job—and went out to the light-spangled dimness of the living room. Ashley was down on the floor with the puppies and the kids, lying stretched full-length to watch the stop-motion antics on the screen. Erin was moving quietly around in the kitchen, putting things away. She smiled at Avery. “I left out a slice of pie for you. I’m hoping pecan is all right, but if you don’t like it, there’s also pumpkin and apple.”
“Pecan is just fine.” She’d left him an enormous slice, with a can of non-dairy spray topping beside it. Avery took it into the living room and accepted the spot on the end of the couch that Tim offered him.
So this is what a family Christmas Eve is like, he thought, and he knew that he’d hold this moment in his heart forever: the lights of the tree winking and dancing, reflected in the glass behind them; the movie playing on the screen, with the kids sprawled in front of it; the sweet richness of the pie on his tongue. There was only one thing missing, and this deficiency soon resolved itself when Nicole arrived to slide onto the couch next to him with a pie slice of her own. Her warm body curled against his as if she had been made for it, and every once in awhile, with everyone else’s attention fixed on the screen, she turned her head to press a sweet pie-flavored kiss against his lips.
He’d never imagined life could be this good.
Jack and Casey rang the doorbell in early afternoon on Christmas Day.
By that point, the pile of gifts under the tree had been turned into drifts of wrapping paper scattered across the patio in front of the rain-streaked windows. The older children were off in their rooms to enjoy their fresh spoils, and the younger kids were asleep in a literal puppy-pile on the couch, worn out by the morning’s flurry of activity. Ashley was upstairs in Erin and Tim’s bedroom taking a nap. Nicole curled on the end of the couch, half-napping with a book on her chest, and Avery sat on the floor with his back to the couch, resting against her, where she could play sleepily with his hair. A brand new murder mystery was in his hands; both of them had been given books for Christmas.
Occasionally Avery looked up to see the amber necklace resting against Nicole’s collarbone like drops of honey. She kept raising a hand to touch it.
When the doorbell rang, the puppies’ heads went up as one. Erin appeared out of her favorite home-office workspace under the eucalyptus trees, and darted light-footed up the steps and through the baby gate. “Don’t get up,” she told Avery and Nicole, who were struggling up off the couch. “I’m on it.”
A moment later she reappeared from the front hallway with Jack and Casey in tow. “Hi, all,” Jack said cheerily. He bore a bottle of wine with a bow on it; Casey was carrying a shopping bag. “Happy Christmas and all of that.”
Nicole got up on her knees on the couch to give him a quick hug over the back of it. “I’m glad you guys could come.”
“Wouldn’t miss it. Oh, here.” As if it was an afterthought, Jack passed a small, wrapped package into her hands, and tossed another over the back of the couch to Avery.
“Sneaky jerk,” Avery remarked. “Good thing we’ve got something for you two as well, which I’m too lazy to get up and fetch at the moment.”
“We also brought Die Hard,” Casey said, holding up a DVD. “And a fruit salad, on the general principle that we could probably all use something healthy at this stage of the holiday season.”
She set down the bag in the kitchen and peeled off her coat to reveal a holiday sweater covered in glittery ice-skating penguins. It was so completely unlike her that for a moment Avery could only stare.
“Did you lose a bet?”
Casey blushed faintly. “No, we’re twins today. It was his idea.” She pointed at Jack, who opened his leather jacket to reveal the same sweater in a larger size.
“That’s your brilliant Christmas present?” Avery said to Jack. “Why does she put up with you, again?”
“This was the pre-Christmas present, thank you very much,” Jack said. “The actual present is something else.”
“He’s taking me to the gun store to pick out a better sidearm for my field agent work,” Casey confided.
“They’re made for each other,” Nicole said, grinning at Avery.
Erin popped the cork out of the wine bottle. “I know it’s only one p.m., but it’s a holiday and we’ve all been up since six anyway. If this doesn’t appeal, check out the liquor cabinet. We’ve got several different fruit wines, a couple of whites, and the makings for rum toddies. Or just spiked coffee, if you prefer.”
“Ohhhh man, on a day like today, coffee with a shot of rum sounds amazing.” Casey rubbed a hand across her damp, dark hair. Outside the tall windows behind the Christmas tree, rain was still lightly falling, as it had been all day.
“Hang on, I’ll make a fresh pot.”
“You need any help with dinner prep?” Jack asked.
Erin shook her head as she filled the coffeepot under the tap. “No, the ham’s in the oven, everything else is ready, and as soon as I get the coffeepot perking, I plan to come in there and watch Die Hard with you guys.”
“Is it too violent for the kids, do you think?” Nicole asked. Two of the puppies had crawled into her lap, while the others bounded over to greet Jack and Casey.
“When ours were this age, we didn’t really worry about it,” Erin said. She turned on the coffeemaker and then poured herself a glass of wine. “They can’t follow the plot yet. Hannah’s still a bit young for R-rated stuff, so we might revisit this if she comes downstairs, but right now I think I need to clear my palate of fluffy cartoon reindeer with some good old-fashioned explosions.”
They’d just started the movie when the doorbell rang again. Avery was already on his feet, topping off two cups of coffee for himself and Nicole with rum from the bottle on the counter. “On it,” he called, and limped down the hall to open the door.
“Oh God, why didn’t I go to California,” Jen Cho lamented, crowding inside as soon as the door opened. “It hasn’t stopped raining all day. I want a sunlamp and a terrarium, stat.”
“You brought a date,” Avery remarked, discovering that she wasn’t alone. Agent Noah Easton gave a little wave and a grin from behind her. His sleek red Camaro gleamed at the curb, glistening in the rain. “Hey, Easton, I thought you were going home for the holidays.”
“I was, but there’s a huge snowstorm all over the East Coast. My flight was delayed, my connecting flight was cancelled, and I figured I’d give up and spend the holidays here.” Noah brushed jewels of rainwater off his close-cropped hair and the shoulders of his leather jacket. “Hope you guys don’t mind one extra. I come bearing gifts—Uncle Tolya’s pirozhki.” He held up a covered dish.
“Food is good. We like food around here.” Avery took the plate and peeked under the foil to snag one of the golden-brown pastries. “You have a Russian side of your family? I didn’t know that.”
“He’s an honorary uncle. Long story, tell you later.”
“Well, I hope you like booze too, because I brought some,” Jen put in. “Have you ever had a chocolate peppermint stick cocktail? Creme de cacao and peppermint schnapps—with a candy cane in the glass, of course.”
“Sounds like a great recipe for a hangover.”
She punched him in the arm. “It’s not the holidays without hangovers, Hollen.”
“I’m starting to remember why inviting you to parties is a mistake.”
“And you must be the rest of Avery and Nicole’s friends,” Erin greeted them cheerfully in the kitchen, and looked with interest into the large paper bag Jen handed her. “Oh Lord, creme de cacao. I haven’t had this since uni.”
“Do not let Jen mix the drinks,” Noah said. “Just a warning.” He held out a hand. “Noah Easton.”
Introductions went around between the Leungs and the newcomers, and they settled in with their drinks and lapfuls of sleeping puppies to watch Bruce Willis rescue people from terrorists. Ashley drifted down a bit later, and stopped, looking startled, at the sight of a lot more people than she’d been expecting. She smiled shyly at the newcomers’ friendly waves of greeting, and settled in at one corner of the big couch, next to Tim and Erin.
They made it through half the movie before the kids came downstairs. “Fooooood,” Hannah moaned, draping herself over the back of the couch to wrap her arms around her mom’s neck.
“Go tell me what the oven timer says.” Erin pushed her daughter in the direction of the kitchen. “The ham should be about ready to come out, and then I just need to heat up the rolls.”
“Avery!” Nicole gasped, sitting up abruptly and smacking the back of her hand against his chest to get his attention.
“Nggghhh.” He’d just been drifting off, with his head in her lap.
But Nicole dumped him ingloriously out of her lap as she hopped off the loveseat. She had everyone’s attention now. She unhooked the baby gate and descended to the patio, where she stood looking up at the tall windows. Avery sat up, yawning.
“You guys,” Nicole said, “it’s snowing.”
She was right; the rain that had been lightly falling all day had shifted to fat, wet flakes, settling on the Leungs’ fence, the skylights, and the small part of the backyard that wasn’t taken up by Erin’s indoor eucalyptus forest.
Jen Cho put a pillow over her head. “First rain, now snow. Wake me up when it’s spring.”
But the others drifted down the stairs, most of them carrying puppies, to gaze out at the white sheen collecting on top of fences and garden tools.
“It’ll never last,” Erin said quietly, with a sleeping Gael draped over her arm like a brown and gray fur muff. “Not at these temperatures. It’ll be gone by morning.”
“Then I’m getting mittens right now,” Hannah declared, and dashed off.
“How do you get out into the backyard?” Casey asked, looking around for a door.
“There’s a door in the greenhouse.” Nicole grinned. “I’m getting mittens too. And a coat.”
One by one, in a ragtag assortment of winter gear hastily flung over their lounging-around clothes, they trooped out into the Leungs’ backyard. There was a narrow strip of lawn just behind the greenhouse, bounded by a head-high wooden fence, and a wider swath of yard alongside the greenhouse, with the lights of the Christmas tree twinkling at them from behind the glassed-in patio area.
The excitement and the cold, damp air woke the sleeping puppies, whose handlers set them down on the snow-covered grass. Avery watched them closely to make sure they weren’t going to shift, but they seemed too fascinated with the snow to bother. This was probably the first time they’d ever seen it. Ginger, the boldest of the kids, stood on her hind legs to snap at snowflakes. Gael and Sophie rolled around on the grass, worked into a frenzy of excited energy by all this new input, while Hunter, the smallest and shyest of the kids, hid behind Avery’s legs.
At first Ashley stayed by the door, hunched into her coat, but Hannah and Forrest began scraping together snow for a tiny, misshapen snowman, and their enticements managed to lure her out into the yard, where she was soon crouched with them and smiling as she helped them push together snow.
“Anyone up for a snowman-building contest?” Jack wanted to know. Casey giggled as he half-dragged her over to the fence, and then began helping him collect up the snow. It hadn’t changed back to rain yet; the fluffy flakes were still sifting down from a low gray sky.
“I haven’t built a snowman in years,” Tim said to his wife, with an arm snugged around her.
“I never have; there wasn’t much opportunity in—oh no, the ham!” Erin extricated herself from Tim’s arm and dashed off.
“Need help?” Noah asked, following her inside. Their voices faded to an indistinct murmur as the door to the eucalyptus solarium closed behind them.
Nicole leaned against Avery, sliding a hand around his waist, under the edge of his sweater. “Do you want to build a snowman?” she asked, with suppressed laughter in her tone.
“You didn’t just.”
“I can’t help it; I work with kids for a living. I know every song from Frozen by heart now.”
“I’ll let you handle the singalongs, then. I have no singing voice at all.”
“You’re a wolf; can’t you howl?”
“As a wolf,” Avery said. “You don’t want to hear me sing as a human.”
“I think I’d like anything you do.” She leaned into him and kissed the side of his neck, then murmured, “You know, I just had the craziest idea.”
“What’s that?” Avery asked, snugging her close against his side.
Nicole turned her attention back to Ashley playing on the snow-covered lawn with the puppies. “She needs a place to stay and something to do with herself. And we’re going to need someone to watch the kids. Having an au pair would really come in handy. And we know she loves the kids, and they love her …”
“Huh.” At first thought, Nicole was right, the idea was crazy. Who would open their home and entrust their children to someone who’d helped try to kill them?
But Ashley hadn’t wanted to. The first chance she got, she tried to do the right thing.
And what were the holidays about, if not redemption and second chances?
Over at the fence, Jack and Casey were arguing, in a friendly kind of way, over the best way to shore up their wet, collapsing snowman. Through the huge picture windows of the Leungs’ house, Avery saw Jen, hands wrapped around a cup of something that had a candy cane hooked over the edge, with a blanket tucked around her. Noah descended the steps and sat down beside her with a steaming mug of his own.
Nicole made broad “come out here!” gestures. They both shook their heads.
“Wimps,” she muttered, and crouched on the grass, collecting snow in her gloved hands. “Avery, come on. We’re falling behind here.”
But Avery was barely listening; he tilted his head up to the sky, letting snowflakes settle on his face. Last year, he’d woke up alone, curled up by himself in his usual closet. This year he was with his mate, surrounded by his pack, his people, his family.
Merry Christmas, he thought, and closed his eyes, as the snow settled in a soft blanket over the world.
Thank you for reading; I hope you enjoyed it! Happy Holidays!
The adventures of the Shifter Agents continue in:
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