Diego Sandoval, sometimes author, ex-Consul for the Fae Collective, now human liaison to the wild fae, dropped his head in his hands with a weary sigh. “It’s all right. You tried. Damn thing isn’t even that old.”
“Thermostats go sometimes.” Theo took the chair opposite. “I can fix it, but I don’t have the parts here.”
The pair of turkeys sat on the counter, staring at him in morose accusation. “Today of all days. This is a disaster.”
“Maybe it’s a stupid question, but couldn’t you magically fix it?”
“I’m not Cinderella’s fairy godmother.” Diego pressed his hands to his eyes. “I’d have to understand mechanical things the way you do to be able to feel my way through fixing it.”
Theo blew out a breath. “Wish I could manage it. Could we use the microwave?”
“Not for a turkey, mijo. Besides, Limpet broke the microwave yesterday.”
“Of course he did,” Theo said at his driest. “How did he manage that?”
“Apparently, Finn showed him how to cook an egg in the microwave. Our selkie reasoned that if you could cook one, you could cook several.”
“Oh, no.” Theo cringed.
“And he put a whole dozen eggs in my good aluminum pot and crammed the whole thing inside.”
“I’m so sorry.”
Diego patted his shoulder. “You didn’t do it. And before you say it, you can’t watch him every moment. He’s agreed never to cook unsupervised again.”
“Good idea. For everyone’s safety.” Theo’s head shot up, nostrils flared. Then he relaxed again. “Mr. Morrison’s up.”
Diego hid a smile in a sip of coffee. At least the coffeemaker still worked. Theo’s knee-jerk vampire reaction to werewolf presence would probably never die out entirely, but he worshiped Zack with the hero-glasses reserved for the young.
“Morning.” Zack yawned as he rounded the corner, scrubbing a hand back through short, blond hair. “Aren’t we starting the turkeys yet?”
“Oven’s broken, sir,” Theo answered with his gaze on the floor.
“Well. Crap.” Zack poured himself a mug and leaned against the counter. “Guess we could pop over to the mainland and pick up some takeout?”
“We could.” Diego wanted to be reasonable about this. Grown up and flexible. He failed. “It’s just not the same.”
His unrealistic expectations for the day, Theo’s unrealistic shame at not being able to fix things—realistic wasn’t always an option when one lived with fae, but Diego normally tried to stay on an even keel. So many people were coming today, though. He’d wanted things to be perfect.
“Jefe,” Theo began softly. “When I was little, we used to go visit my uncle’s farm in Chihuahua.”
His dark eyes were unfocused, obviously traveling through memory.
“They would cook outdoors sometimes. In a fire pit.”
Diego suppressed a sigh. “That would work well for steaks or fish, I’d think. But a whole turkey can’t—”
“Hold on there, Mr. S.,” Zack pointed to the waiting turkeys. “Nobody ever said you had to cook the damn things whole.”
Theo got up, the beginnings of excitement thrumming through him. “And we have jars of Tia Carmen’s mole in the freezer. The fae love that.”
Zack shot him an approving grin. “Attaboy. You and me, I think we have some digging to do. Diego, you all right butchering turkeys?”
“What are we butchering?” Finn interrupted from the doorway. He leaned against the frame, rubbing his sleep-heavy eyes.
“People who interrupt me,” Diego said in exasperation. “Mi vida, you look terrible.”
“If you’re just going to dismember me, I don’t see how that’s relevant,” Finn grumbled and half-collapsed at a place at the kitchen table.
Diego pointed to the cabinet above the stove. “Zack, there’s an emergency stash of chocolate in there in an old candy tin. Thank you. We’re getting out your sun lamp today. No arguments.”
Finn grumbled something that certainly sounded like an argument, but he nibbled on his chocolate happily enough. November had been darker and colder than usual, kicking off Finn’s hibernation issues to an early start. Lovely way to start the holidays. Busted oven, grumpy pooka.
“This will work, lo juro.” Theo offered a little smile, one that made him look five years younger. “We brush on the mole, wrap the pieces up in foil. They cook in the coals.”
“Could even put the stuffing in the foil packets,” Zack suggested. “Not traditional, but what the hell.”
“Stop being so cheerful, both of you. I was trying so hard to be irritated and depressed,” Diego said on a snorted laugh. He waved his hands at Zack and Theo. “Go, go. Get it started. I’ll keep things moving in here. Don’t go crazy with the wood and be safe, damn it.”
A few minutes later, Finn felt alive enough to help, his predator’s knowledge of anatomy and his greater strength allowing him to carve through the joints and crack bones more easily than Diego could have.
“Good morning! What are you doing? Is this the cooking part? Are there pies? Theo said there are usually pies. Though he didn’t say what went in the pies. I thought fish pies would be lovely, but he laughed at me. Where’s Theo? Can I help?”
“Yes. Go away,” Finn growled.
We’re getting that sunlamp out. Before the hour’s up. “Good morning. Actually, you can help.” Diego squeezed between them. “You can go outside and help with the fire pit.”
“No, I meant help in here. You said I couldn’t cook without someone else watching me, but you’re both here and—”
Diego had pointed outside and Limpet leaning forward and peering out the window had the desired effect. One, because people were digging, and digging, to a selkie, was rather fun, and two, because Theo. It wasn’t quite a squeal, but it came close enough to make Finn wince.
“There’s my handsome Theo!” Help in the kitchen forgotten, Limpet bounded out the kitchen door, letting it slam behind him. Finn’s snarl gained a feral edge.
“Corazón, sit.” Diego nudged Finn toward a chair. “You’ve done the turkey demolition beautifully. Just rest a bit.”
He raced upstairs and dug the sunlamp out of the closet with its stand. Seasonal affective disorder was a very real thing for humans, far more serious for pookas. Before Finn could end up in a curled, miserable ball on the floor or before he went after someone in a headache-induced moment of anger, there had to be some more concentrated intervention.
Finn had his head in his arms on the table when Diego returned and only grunted acknowledgment when Diego kissed him and set up the lamp.
“You stay there. Sleep if you can. I’m right here if you need anything. We can’t have pie without the oven, but we could have pudding. Would you like that?”
“Can you make it like hot chocolate?” Finn asked plaintively. “With the cinnamon and the hot peppers?”
“Anything for you. We may even tempt Theo to take a bite.”
“Has he eaten?”
“He had a pair of féileacán volunteer yesterday. Didn’t sleep well, though. Too edgy and twitchy. I don’t think he’ll be snacking on the little ones again.”
Finn only grunted in reply. Half an hour later, Diego had finished all the turkey foil bundles and he realized Finn had fallen asleep. Better for him. My poor pooka. He stopped a moment to plan. Since most things would have to be done on the stovetop now, and he only had four burners, he had to think what could be done ahead of time. Cranberry relish was made and in the fridge. Various vegetables would have to wait. Sweet potatoes…he sighed. He’d always made them in the oven, but maybe mashed sweet potatoes would work.
“Pudding next, then,” Diego murmured to himself, since everyone else seemed to have gone out to help with the fire pit. Prince Lugh appeared every few minutes lugging another huge load of firewood, a distraction for Zack, who was struggling to light the damp wood, every time that gorgeous, kilt-covered ass walked away again. Diego waved when Lugh spotted him in the window and while the sidhe prince was waving back, a flash of gold caught Diego’s eye over the nearby garden trees.
Eagle? Glider? Dios…dragon.
Of course he had invited the dragons, as well as the selkie pods, a djinn he was certain wouldn’t come, the sidhe and Fomorian courts, and all the wild fae he knew. Limpet’s family had arrived the day before, unexpectedly, and now Hssetassk, lord of dragons, was winging into the garden.
“How am I going to feed all these people and a dragon?” Diego murmured in despair.
Long, bare arms wrapped around his neck from behind, green forest scents suddenly filling the kitchen. “You seem a bit set upon, my Taliesin.”
Diego leaned back into the familiar embrace, Danu’s green hair spilling around him. “Things aren’t going well, majestad. This is going to be a lean sort of feast, I’m afraid.”
The sidhe queen hummed against him and kissed his cheek. “Know that we love you.” With that supportive and yet supremely unhelpful statement, she turned to the table and knocked on the wood beside Finn’s head. “Up, Fionnachd. The sun of the Otherworld will help more than human devices.”
Without another word, she swept out, back down the stairs to the fae caverns, dragging poor Finn by the arm. Diego stared after her in shock, feeling bereft and abandoned. He wanted to run after her and demand his husband’s return, but he couldn’t leave the stove now. If he stopped stirring, the pudding was doomed. A bright flash ripped his attention back to the window. A huge fireball blinded him. In his panic, he threw open the window, certain that everyone standing in the garden had been incinerated. But the fire quickly settled, licking happily away at Zack’s recalcitrant stack of wood. Hssetassk reclined beside the fire, looking altogether too smug. Everyone else stood behind him, safe and sound.
“My lord dragon! Welcome!” Diego shouted to him. “Please be careful with the flames around the building!”
“Good morning, Light Wielder.” Hssetassk had no need to shout. His deep voice would carry over a thunderstorm. “I forget that your dwelling is not entirely of stone. There may be a bit of singeing around the steps. My apologies.”
“Quite all right! Theo, come inside! I know it’s cloudy, but if humans can burn on a cloudy day, vampires can get sunstroke!” Diego closed the window, shivering from the cold and delayed shock. At least the fire was blazing now. Not that he had enough to cook under it when it settled to coals, but it would be something.
Outside, Theo appeared to be having a quick conference with Limpet that ended with the selkie pushing his lover toward the kitchen door and Limpet running out of the garden.
“Hey, Mr. S.! In my family, we usually wait till dinner’s served before the yelling starts.” The soft southern drawl preceded a cheerful face with a mop of red hair popping around the door. “Is it safe to enter your domain?”
“Jasper.” Diego dredged up a smile for the other vampire of his acquaintance. “Finally, someone competent in the kitchen. I’d hug you, but the pudding’s just started to simmer.”
“Ah. Eyes on the pot, then.” Jasper set a huge covered pan on the table. The wonderful warm scent floating from it almost brought Diego to his knees.
“What gave it away?” Jasper winked as the rest of the staff from the Institute trooped in behind him—bless them—all carrying a pan of something. “The rolls are for now. But we’ve got meat stuffing and pineapple stuffing and three kinds of pie…what’s wrong, Mr. S.?”
“I can’t heat anything up for you. Limpet’s microwave experiments killed it and my oven broke this morning.”
Nate strode around Jasper to peer out the window. “And what’s going on out there?”
“Theo thought we should try a fire pit. At least for the turkey.”
“Oh, well. Everything’s fine then. We’ll just leave the pastries in here and carry the stuff to heat up outside.” Nate clapped him on the shoulder and the other humans in the group, Minky, Will, Brandon, and Kara, all trooped outside after him, passing Theo on his way in.
Theo nodded to Jasper, clearly happy to leave greetings polite but distant, but Jasper pounced and seized Theo in a crushing hug. “Good to see you, Aguilar. You were smiling out there. Don’t pretend you weren’t.”
“I try not to make a habit of it.”
Jasper reared back in mock dismay. “That might’ve even been a joke.”
“You have to listen carefully for them,” Diego agreed. “Gentlemen, if you could start passing those turkey packets outside to the fire brigade. Let’s get the things started that we can.”
The twin yes, sirs gave Diego an odd chill, a second’s terrible relocation to another time, but it passed quickly as Jasper and Theo gently needled each other and bantered with the growing crowd of helpers outside. They might have been his monsters once, in another, darker life, but they were both independent young men now, happy with their occupations, settled with males who loved them.
A rumbling of heavy footsteps echoed from the stairs to the fae caverns in the back hallway just as Diego was spooning the pudding into a glass serving bowl.
“Move aside, pups,” King Balor growled as he and his Fomorian Champion, the wolf-headed Faolchú stomped into the kitchen, each with a deer carcass slung over his shoulder and a brace of hares in hand.
Before Diego could say something sensible such as, where are you going with those? or what the hell? Balor had stomped his enormous, tusked self out into the garden with Faolchú half a step behind. They set up between the fire and the garden fountain, knives and claws flashing as they dressed their kills. Asif, the half-slattenpatte joined them to help, showing a rather astonishing affinity for the curved fae blades.
“I don’t think that’s all going to fit,” Theo said as he watched out the window with Diego. “Fire pit’s not big enough.”
“Oh, they won’t cook it all, bucko.” Finn sailed back through the kitchen, cheerful, nearly bouncing. He probably would have been if he hadn’t been weighted down with baskets of fruit. “They’ll leave most of it raw for those of us who like it that way.”
“Where did all that come from?” Diego called after him as Finn bounded out the back door.
“Nathair’s cave gardens! He’s right behind me!”
For once, Finn didn’t exaggerate as the little garden snake Fomorian huffed up the steps not thirty seconds later. He carried a huge basket of greens, just his eyes showing behind the pile. Behind him, an astonishing line of fae stretched out, a seemingly endless parade of sidhe and Fomorians, all carrying something to add to the feast—edible flowers, soups and stews, the delicate honey cakes Finn loved to distraction, nuts and berries, mushrooms and trays of tiny fish.
“They take host gifts seriously, don’t they?” Jasper said with an appreciative whistle.
Theo watched the parade without a crack in his stoic expression. “Stone soup.”
“Pardon?” Diego ducked under the counter to retrieve the sweet potatoes.
“I know it’s not really like the story. Stone soup. But this reminds me of it. The communal feast.”
“Ah. I can see that.”
Jasper elbowed Theo in the ribs. “He smiled. Did you see it?”
“I did not. Get over here and scrub these clean, you two.” Diego dumped the bag out on the counter. “Still as grouchy as ever. Damn fae. Taking over Thanksgiving.”
“The nerve of some people,” Jasper exclaimed in his best elderly church lady voice and Diego gave up trying to keep the scowl in place as he laughed.
It wasn’t the dinner he had planned, but it was a feast to remember, raucous and full of joy. Sionnach and Angus sang a lovely fae blessing over the food as everyone settled in to devour. Hssetassk finally took his two-legged form so he would take up less space among the revelers. Finn was more himself, talking and making certain to snag the best morsels of everything for Diego’s plate. His only disappointment was in having to share his chocolate and chili pepper pudding, but he handled it with grace.
When Finn went inside to play a game of checkers with Minky, Diego gathered a modest plate and a beer and wandered toward the back of the garden. Behind the wisteria arbor, behind some of the more manicured garden paths, lay a grove of ancient, gnarled pines. They blocked much of the constant breeze from the ocean on the island, creating a quiet, meditative sanctuary. Under the boughs of the largest pine, a stone statue gazed out over the grove. One hand was raised, one foot slightly in front of the other, his eyes wide in an attitude of surprise.
Diego brought his offerings to the statue and settled beside him. “Hola, Mr. Werewolf Banker. I brought you something. I know you can’t eat it—”
“Jefe, I wondered if you ended up here.” Theo stood at the edge of the grove, his footsteps silent on the pine needles as he came to Diego. He shook his head with an odd smile as he set the plate he had brought next to Diego’s. “And we had the same thought.”
“It didn’t seem right. Leaving him out.”
Theo nodded. “I understand. Not so different than ofrendas, right?”
For a few moments, they sat in silence, until Theo asked softly, “Are you all right?”
“Yes. Oh, mostly. I still wish we could’ve saved him.”
“Hmm. I know.” Theo let out a wisp of a sigh. “You and me, jefe. We do a lot of ‘if onlys’ in our heads. But unless you can do time travel now, too, we can’t change it.”
“It doesn’t stop me from it. You know that. There are so many things I wish I could’ve done differently.”
Theo petted the pine needles with his palm, his gaze somewhere far away. “You did the best you could with the reactions and the knowledge you had at the time. It’s not as if you refused to help, or told him everyone else could leave that prison except him. He made a mistake. Nusair made a mistake. The basilisk was frightened. It happened.”
“How do you do that, Theo? Sound so old sometimes?”
“I’m a vampire. We’re ageless.” He chuckled when Diego smacked his arm. “And Limpet keeps reminding me that I’ll never be able to save everyone. No matter how hard I try.” He waved a hand at the grove. “It’s a beautiful place he has. I’d be happy here.”
“Thank you. For coming after me. For being a good friend despite everything.”
After they said goodbye to the stone werewolf and strolled back together, the garden still teemed with people in all shapes and sizes, pelts, scales, feathers, and skin. The place hadn’t seen such a crowd since Diego and Finn’s wedding. Despite the persistent, heavy clouds, the day had brightened. This was family, this bizarre assortment of beings who often had little in common except the consulate.
My family. My husband and adopted…assortments. They always came when he needed them, through gunfire and peril, for rescues, searches, and even broken appliances. And really, what better sort of family could a man ask for?