Sunday, December 25, 2016

BONUS STORY: "Herne's Four Hundredth Christmas" Part 3

And so we come to the end of our little holiday treat. We both hope you enjoy what we came up with, and that you and yours have a wonderful holiday and a happy New Year!

And get ready for Valentine's Day 2017 when we release our third book, Five Boys!

* * *

"Good morning."


Herne felt a gentle kiss against his temple. "Merry Christmas."

"Mrr... Chrm?" He rolled over onto his side, ending up nose-to-nose with Iris. Her eyes were bright and wide-awake, shining with excitement.

"So I'm guessing I won't need to make coffee," Herne commented.

Iris giggled, sitting up and pulling Herne up after her by the arm. "Come on. Let's go downstairs and see what's under the tree."

Herne stumbled after Iris, confused. "But don't we already know what's under the tree? It's just us."

"You don't know what I got you. And you don't know what else is under there from everyone else."

"Everyone... else?"

The two descended the stairs, Iris dashing ahead of Herne to plug in the lights on the tree. The living room, lit only by the thin, pale light of morning coming through the window, was soon bright with the tiny warm fairy lights of the Christmas tree.

Iris looked up at Herne, holding up a small wrapped box. "Come on. Time to open presents."

"Presents under a tree," Herne muttered, following Iris into the living room and sitting down on the floor next to her. "What else is knew?"

"Oh, shush." Iris batted him gently, but noticed he was smiling sleepily. "Do you want some coffee?"

Herne shook his head. "I'm fine."

"Good, because I'm getting started." She pulled out a flat, thin box wrapped in the same paper as the small one she was already holding. "These are from the Nakabitos."

"Stormy got me a gift?"

Iris was already tearing into hers. "I don't see why not." She opened the box, revealing a small, cut-crystal owl ornament. "Oh, Herne, look!" She held it up on its delicate gold cord.

"Is that meant to be me?"

"Not unless you've been telling Stormy things behind my back." She grinned, hanging the ornament on the tree. "There we go..." She looked over her shoulder at him. "How about that? Our first ornament together."

Herne smiled; his eyes glowed warm gold. Usually that only happened when he had trouble keeping himself in check -- was he overwhelmed with emotion?

"Don't cry, dear, it's just an ornament."

"Not crying." Herne smiled, but Iris noticed him covertly wiping his eyes. "Okay, let's see... huh." He pulled a pair of jeans out of the box. "I got... jeans."

Iris looked at them. "They're really nice. Huh."

"They're probably also a subtle hint that your drifter boyfriend doesn't have many clothes." Herne folded the jeans neatly back into their box. "And probably why she was asking me awkward questions over the last few weeks."

"Oh, I thought she was just messing with you." Iris reached farther back under the tree and pulled out a gift bag. "From Ms. Waters." At Herne's confused expression, she explained. "The lady I cat-sit for?"

"Oh, right."

Inside the bag were his and hers hand towels embroidered with little owls.

"She's not subtle, is she?" Herne said with a smirk.

"I think she ships us."

"She... what?"

Iris bit her lip. "I... erm... I'll try to explain later. Here." She made one last reach under the tree and came back with something soft and fluffy wrapped carefully in red paper sprinkled with a white snowflake pattern. "And this is from me."

"I didn't see you buy me anything."

"I know." Iris beamed. "The magic of Christmas."

Herne pulled the paper open gently, revealing a forest-green knitted scarf. "Oh... this is..." He ran a hand over it. "It's soft."

"And warm. Which I know doesn't matter much to you, but it's still nice to have something cozy to wear in the winter." She looped the scarf around his neck, tucking it tight at the front. "What do you think?"

"I don't think it matches my boxers."

Iris giggled, pulling him closer by the scarf and planting a kiss on his nose. "But you like it?"

"I love it." And he smiled genuinely.

"Excellent. Then I think it's time for breakfast."

"Wait." Herne watched her get up and stroll into the kitchen. "What about your present?"

Iris looked back, genuinely surprised. "I... wasn't expecting you to get me anything. I told you that already."

"But what if I did?"

"Then that's very sweet." Iris smiled.

Herne got up, taking the scarf off. "Breakfast first. Then you can have it."

* * *

"You've hidden it in the forest?"

The two walked across the now-familiar bridge, Iris in a long coat over her pajamas, Herne in a T-shirt, his new jeans, and the scarf. The scarf looked a little odd without other cold-weather accouterments, but Iris was glad he liked it enough to go on wearing it.

"Had to make sure you wouldn't find it."

They came to the live oak, which had a few Christmas-y items scattered around the base from the preceding weeks. Herne jumped up, grabbing the lowest limb, and pulled himself up into the tree. He scrambled up a few more branches and began rooting around in the hollow of the trunk.

"Don't rip your new jeans," Iris shouted up. "Stormy will never let me hear the end of it."


A small leather bag dropped down from the branches. Iris dashed forward and caught it in her hands.

"Don't open it until I get down," Herne's voice called down, and a few moments later his sneakers hit the forest floor. Iris stood still, waiting expectantly with the leather bag in her hands.

"All right." Herne smiled, breathless from the leap down. "You can open it now."

Iris raised her eyebrows, looking down at the bag, and pulled the little drawstring open. Inside was... something shiny. Shiny and old. She took it out. A pocket watch?

"This..." She opened it up. The inside was adorned with Roman numerals and delicately filigreed hands, which -- unsurprisingly -- weren't moving. "This is an antique."

"Not as antique as me," he said with a grin. "I got it when I was... two hundred and... seventy... something. Around then."

"Someone gave it to you."

Herne nodded. "And now I'm giving it to you."

Iris shook her head. "I can't... I... it's too nice. And if this was a present from someone else..."

Herne cupped Iris's hands in his, the watch between them. "Then it's mine to give. What it is, and what it means... are for you now."


"You don't like it?"

"I do, but..."

Herne smiled. "Then it's yours. And I want you to have it."

"If you're sure..."

"Oh, no, still waffling. Just hid it in my tree for two hundred years and didn't let anyone near it but just figured I'd drop it on you today..."

Iris rolled her eyes. "Okay, okay. I get it." She got up on tiptoe to kiss him on the cheek. "Thank you. So much. It's beautiful."

Herne beamed. "So..."


"Now what?"

"Now we do whatever we want."

Herne glanced back in the direction of the house. "Wrap up in blankets and have coffee and cookies for the rest of the day?"

"Perfect." Iris tucked the watch back in its bag, and the bag in her coat pocket. "Race you back!" She dashed off toward the house.

Herne was about to follow, but stopped. Something under the tree caught his eye: a small wooden box. He knelt down and picked it up. It opened easily. Inside, wrapped in a handkerchief that smelled slightly of herbs and dust, was a piece of jade carved in the shape of a stylized owl. Next to it was a note:

I'm so happy for you, Herne. Look after each other.

"Ne..." Herne covered his mouth. He closed the box gently, then jumped up into the tree and tucked it safely away.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

BONUS STORY: "Herne's Four Hundredth Christmas" Part 2

We hope you're enjoying our little Christmas present to you this year! Here today is the second part of our three-part bonus installment... last one is next Sunday!


“So what do you think of when you think of Christmas?“

Yukon – the larger of the two guinea pigs – stretched himself up tall, his front paws on his food dish. Shiny things.

“Oh, yeah?”

Shiny things Mom won’t let us eat.

Russet poked his nose out of the hutch. Loud paper. Loud paper we can’t eat.

Herne shifted in his seat. “Anything else?”

Do you food?


Both pigs ran to the front of the cage, reaching their noses over the bars as far as they could. Food? Food?

“Ah… just a minute.” Herne got up from the chair he’d been sitting backwards in, dragging it back to the kitchen as the pigs shouted after him.

“That was a waste.”

“What was?” Iris had her sleeves rolled up past her elbows, washing her hands with a level of care generally only reserved for surgeons.

“Ah. Consultation.” Herne looked around the kitchen. Baking supplies and cookware were strewn across the counters and kitchen table; it looked almost like Iris was preparing for one of her long baking nights, holing herself up in the kitchen and experimenting with recipes for the shop. “Asking the guinea pigs for some perspective.”

Iris chuckled. “You won’t get much out of them but requests to be fed.”

Herne looked up suddenly. “I thought you couldn’t understand—”

“No translation necessary with them.” She took an apron from a hook on the wall and threw it around Herne’s neck. “All right, put this on and we’ll get started.”

“Started on what?”

“Christmas cookies.” Iris gestured to the table. “We talked about this last night, remember?”

Herne nodded slowly. “Right… I think… I don’t remember much after you started doing that thing with your fingers in my hair.”

"Ah. Right. Well. That would explain why you were monosyllabic."

Herne and Iris had baked together before, so he wasn't quite sure why there was a special Christmas Sort of Baking to be done. But she insisted there was.

"There are just, you know, certain things you make this time of year."

"Like the special things you make for the shop?"

"Well... yeah. But it's more... the principle of the thing. It's the doing rather than the result." She shook a bottle of green sprinkles idly. "Not that there's anything wrong with the result."

Herne still didn't quite understand... but he didn't mind spending a Sunday morning in the warm kitch with Iris, baking and talking and occasionally getting distracted. By the middle of the day, they were sitting down and decorating cookies.

"Your hand is so steady."

"Years of practice," Iris said casually. She had put tidy white stripes on a bell-shaped sugar cookie, and was now filling the spaces in between with equally tidy stripes of green. Herne looked down at his Christmas tree. It was drowning in green frosting, with his attempts at red garlands and baubles sunk blurrily into the background.

"Not sure I've quite got it," he muttered.

Iris took a look at his cookie. "Ah, it's just a matter of technique. Here, we'll do one together."

* * *

The afternoon passed quietly, Herne's cookies becoming progressively nicer looking as time went on. Iris's all still looked like the sort of thing he saw in those sped-up instructional videos she liked to watch online, but he took at least some pride in his later results.

Once they were all done, Iris put aside two and put the rest on a large covered plate on the kitchen counter. "Think we can make these last 'til the big day?"

She turned to see Herne already brushing crumbs from the corners of his mouth. He shook his head sagely. "Mm-mm," he observed around a mouthful of cookie.

Iris giggled. "Once a dumb baby, always a dumb baby." She dropped a kiss on his nose before taking a bite of her own cookie.

"So, what now?" Herne asked.

"What do you mean?"

"Well, we've done the tree, we've done baking..."

"It's..." Iris flattened her lips together. "It's not a checklist." She paused. "Well, okay, I do have a Christmas checklist, but enjoying Christmas is not about filling out a checklist. It's... there are things to do, of course, but it's not like you have to check everything off or else."

Herne walked over to the covered plate and reached for another cookie. "Unless it's business."

"Unless it's business." Iris hopped up and slapped his hand away playfully. "Leave some for later, would you?"

The rest of the evening was calm... at least for Herne. Iris was hunched over her laptop, clicking away at various sites in away that indicated to Herne that something was awfully important.

"What's the rush?"

"Christmas presents."

"Oh." Herne glanced at the door. "We could... shop for them?"

Iris laughed -- not a mocking laugh, but a good-natured one. "I wish. For Stormy and Ms. Waters and a couple other locals, sure. But for, you know, out-of-town families, gift baskets for business partners..."


"You know. To show you like them. And keep them liking you. That's the bit I'm doing now... trying to figure out a nice gift basket for the company I buy all my coffee from."

Herne put on the most serious thinking face he could muster. "I recommend... not coffee. As they'll have a lot already."

Iris snorted. "Excellent call. Look, why don't we go shopping tomorrow? You and me. We can pick out a gift for Stormy from both of us, and you can help me find something for a lady with lots of cats."

"I recommend not a cat."

Herne grinned as he dodged Iris's hand.

* * *

Iris fell asleep almost as soon as she hit the pillow that night. Or rather, almost as soon as she hit Herne's shoulder. She cuddled up to him and he wrapped his arms around her.

Unusually, though, he was having trouble sleeping for the first time since he'd started sleeping. He looked down at Iris, stroking her hair gently as she murmured in her sleep.

Christmas presents.

She talked so easily about them. But...

What in the world was he meant to do for her?

Sunday, December 11, 2016

BONUS STORY: "Herne's Four Hundredth Christmas" Part 1

As a little thank you to our fans, and a way to kill time before the release of the second book, we're putting out a mini-installment for you. It'll be in three parts, leading up to Christmas. Here's part one. Look forward to part two next week!
* * *
"I'm sorry your parents had to cancel their trip this Christmas."
"I'm not," Iris muttered. At Herne's shocked look from the other side of the bed, she hurriedly explained: "No, I love seeing them... It's just it's a lot of work to get the house cleaned to their standards, and I'm just not feeling up for it this year. I can Skype with them on the day."
Iris shrugged. "It's a thing. I'll teach you." She ruffled his hair. "Besides, this gives us more time to focus on making your first Christmas extra special."
"Well, it's not my first..." He grinned awkwardly. "It's my four-hundred and-"
"I mean your first time celebrating. You know." Iris looked up from her book inquisitively. "Or is it?"
Herne shook his head. "I know what it is. And I know it's a thing that people like. But I've never really..." He rolled a hand a bit, looking for the words. "... kept up with the Middle Eastern deities. Not enough to know how they celebrate their birthdays."
"Oh." The wording threw Iris a bit. "Well, it's... I mean, that is a thing, but most people just sort of do the seasonal gift-giving and decorating part."
"While forgetting about whose birthday it is?"
Iris winced. "That's a... touchy subject."
At Herne's confused expression, Iris shrugged the conversation off, closing her book and sliding down to put her head on her pillow. "I'll explain later. For now, just... don't think too hard about it. We'll give you a nice, basic Christmas to start. Just to see how it goes."
Herne screwed up his mouth thoughtfully as he slid down next to Iris, putting an arm around her. "Right. If you say so."
"It's a holiday. You're not getting a flu shot."
"A what?"
"Good night."
* * *
“Where are we going?” he asked, looking out the passenger-side window expectantly as the neighborhood rolled past them.
“We’re getting a tree.”
Herne scratched his cheek. “I have a tree.”
“A Christmas tree, silly.” Iris reached a hand across to poke him lightly on the arm.
“What’s the difference?”
“Ahh… Christmas trees are usually fir trees of some sort. And you cut them down and bring them inside and put them in your living room and decorate them.” She nodded toward her phone, which was charging on a cable leading from the cigarette lighter. “Look them up if you like.”
Herne was versed enough in smart phones by now to poke out an image search for Christmas trees. “Oh. I’ve seen these before, I think.”
“Well, they’re sort of a staple.”
“Why are there boxes underneath?”
“Oh, that’s where you put your Christmas presents.” A light bulb went off in her mind. “You know, like how people leave you things at your tree, except they’re presents instead of offerings. And we wrap the presents up and open them on Christmas morning instead of just having them sitting out.”
Iris couldn’t tell what sort of “hmm” that was meant to be, so she looked over and smiled encouragingly. “It’ll be fun.”
“All right.”
“It will.”
“I believe you.” Herne returned the smile and settled back in to watch the scenery go by.
Before long, they were at the farmer’s market that – at least last Iris had checked – always had the nicest trees. Iris hopped out as Herne unfolded himself from his seat and ducked out of the car, looking at the small parade of fir trees stretched out in front of them. A few strings of lights crisscrossed overhead between poles, and a handful of families milled about between the trees as Christmas music played faintly from a radio somewhere nearby.
Iris shivered.
“You all right?”
She nodded, noting that Herne seemed unaffected. Here she was, bundled up from head to foot with hat and scarf and gloves and heavy coat, and Herne’s idea of cold-weather prep had been a light jacket over his usual T-shirt and finding a pair of jeans with no holes in them. She knew he was generally unaffected by the elements – nature deities wouldn’t get far if they succumbed to a chill, granted – but it made her feel even colder just to see him that way.
“C'mere.” He unzipped his jacket and wrapped it and his arms around her, rubbing his hands over her back to generate some heat. She leaned against him gratefully.
“My portable space heater,” she mumbled into his shirt. He snorted, but continued to hold her. “Wings would be warmer.”
“Wings would also rip up this nice jacket and get people staring.”
Herne kissed the top of her head. The top of her hat, rather. “Later. What are we looking for?”
Iris closed her eyes, wrapping her arms around his middle under the jacket. “Mmm. No brown needles, just under eight feet tall since that’s how high our ceiling is, not leaning too much in any one direction, kinda full. As few gaps between the branches as possible.”
“Trust me, it makes a difference.” She pulled away, pulling her scarf back up over her face and clapping her gloved hands together. “Okay. I’m good.”
“Right.” He rubbed her shoulders, then strode off purposefully between the trees. She took off after him at a jog, but lost sight of him amidst the fragrant branches after a few moments.
“Over here.”
From her left. She pushed between two short, especially wide trees and moved toward the sound of Herne’s voice. He was standing next to a tree, hands clasped behind his back expectantly, as though waiting proudly to have his choice evaluated.
“This one?”
“This one.”
Iris circled the tree, prodding at the branches. No needles fell out. It wasn’t leaning. No huge gaps. She looked up. It was even the right height, best she could tell.
“Advantages of going tree-shopping with a literal forest god.” She giggled.
“Is it good?”
“Yes. It’s… well, it’s the fastest I’ve ever gotten done picking one.”
She couldn’t help noticing how pleased Herne looked on hearing this. “Now what?”
“Now we tie it up and take it home and decorate it.”
* * *
Technically, the first thing they did upon getting the tree home was go inside and warm up. Or, rather, get Iris warmed up. Herne pulled off his jacket before they were even all the way inside, but Iris hesitated to remove her outerwear as she could still feel the cold clinging to her.
“It’s all right,” she heard Herne say behind her as she finally began taking off her coat and scarf and the rest. “Come here, I’ll get you warmed up.”
She turned around to respond, catching him in the middle of pulling his shirt off over his head. She blushed, choking a bit.
“Ah… no, you just-”
A moment later he’d unfurled his wings and sat on the couch.
"Oh, that’s what you meant.”
Herne blinked, then blushed, then narrowed his eyes, all in quick succession. “Get over here, you.”
“Right.” She rushed over to huddle up in his lap, and he wrapped his wings around the two of them tightly. She closed her eyes, resting her head against his bare shoulder.
“So decorating that thing.” His voice rumbled close to her ear.
“What with?”
Iris would much have preferred just snuggling against him wordlessly, but there was the matter at hand. “Strings of lights. Some decorations my family gave me when I moved out. Usually every family’s tree is a little different because it has things from everyone’s own lives that they’ve collected over the years.”
She felt Herne shift a bit. “What if… you don’t have anything?”
“Well, ah…” Iris suddenly felt extremely uncomfortable. “I mean, you must have something. Under that big tree of yours. Something that could be an ornament.”
Herne went quiet for a few moments. “I don’t think so.”
Iris raised her head. Herne’s brows were furrowed as he stared straight ahead. He didn’t look sad so much as unsure whether he ought to be sad.
“Hey.” Iris reached up and ran her fingers through his hair gently. “Hey, then we start this year. You know? Everyone has to start somewhere.”
“Really.” She grinned, tugging gently on one of his antlers to turn his face down toward hers. “Come on. You bring the tree in, and I’ll bring down the lights and ornaments from the attic.”
* * *
Iris was stringing lights carefully as Herne sat on the living room floor unboxing ornaments. He’d lifted her up to reach the top branches at first, but she was now contentedly wrapping them around the lower branches of the tree.
“Nearly done. Then we start with the ornaments.” She looked over her shoulder to see Herne – once again shirtless and winged and antlered after having brought the tree in incognito – inspecting his reflection in a large red bauble her parents had brought her back from a theme park.
“Like what you see?” Iris teased.
Herne looked up suddenly. “What?”
She laughed. “Come here with that.”
“Actually, I was thinking…” He put down the ornament as he walked up to the tree. Iris tucked the last bit of light cord out of the way, then stepped aside.
“Yes, it happens sometimes.” He threw her a wink and turned back to to the tree, touching a finger to one branch. Almost immediately, a small vine wrapped itself around the branch, budding and bursting into a red and white flower at one end.
Iris had seen him do this before – both intentionally and unintentionally – but it hadn’t even remotely lost its novelty. She giggled. Herne turned back toward her again, smiling: a small, shy smile, a boy who’d just impressed his crush. “What do you think?”
“I love it. It won’t hurt the tree, will it?”
“Iris, I’m hurt.” Only mock hurt, though, judging from the look on his face. “They’re not parasites. They’re just pretty.”
“Yes. Yes, they are.” Iris hopped up on her toes to kiss him on the cheek. “How about you do a few of those while I handle the ornaments?”
Between them, with Iris hanging glass baubles and Herne scattering flowering vines here and there, they finished the tree before dark. (It would have been sooner were it not for a coffee break and a brief derailing when Herne began weaving flowers into Iris’s hair.)
At the end of it all, Herne dug a large angel out of the box of ornaments. “And where does she go?”
“Oh.” Iris pointed to the top of the tree, combing flowers out of her hair and letting them fall to the floor. “Up top. I can’t reach. Could you-”
Before she’d even finished speaking…
Stumbling out of his clothes, the little screech owl that Iris still couldn’t quite remind herself was her boyfriend grabbed the angel in his beak and flapped to the top of the tree. The upper branches quivered a bit as he landed, dropping the angel safely in its place.
“I was going to say you could probably reach up there on your own,” Iris said, folding her arms. “But I suppose this works, too.”
The owl burbled, flapping his wings crossly, and settled himself down in the upper branches.
“Don’t get comfortable up there. That’s for ornaments, not for owls.”
She didn’t even need to speak owl to translate the hoot and narrowed eyes. I’m not an owl, I’m a forest king.
“And it’s not for forest kings, either. Come down and put your pants on.”
An even more cross burble.
“Right, well, I was going to suggest we light the fireplace and have a cuddle, but you enjoy yourself up there.” She picked up Herne’s clothes and folded them over her arm, making to leave.
The owl rocketed down, and a moment later Herne was grabbing his clothes off Iris’s arm and pulling them back on.
* * *
The living room was lit only by the tree and the (artificial) fireplace. Back on the couch, Herne pressed a lazy kiss against Iris’s temple.
“It’s pretty.”
“Hm?” Iris looked up at Herne, then at the tree. “Oh. Um. I think it was a German thing. And then Queen Victoria did it because her husband was German and then everyone else did it because she did.”
Herne’s gold eyes shone in the dim light of the Christmas tree. “Queen Victoria. So I’ve only been missing out on this for a couple hundred years instead of my entire life.”
“If you like,” Iris giggled.
“And presents go under it?”
Herne slipped into a thoughtful silence. Iris propped herself up on his chest to look at him. “What do you want for Christmas?”
“Who, me?” Herne’s eyes darted around the room, as though she’d asked him something genuinely uncomfortable. “I… I get presents all the time. People just sort of give me things. I don’t need anything.”
“Those are offerings, not presents. I told you, it’s different. What do you want for an actual Christmas present?”
Herne still looked baffled. “I don’t… know. I’ve never actually gotten a Christmas present before, I don’t think.”
Iris’s heart sank a little at hearing this, but she did her best not to let it show. He didn’t understand. He wouldn’t understand why it made her sad.
“Mm. Well, think about it, because I’m getting you something.”
“I… all right.” Herne plucked a stray flower from Iris’s hair. “Does that mean I get you something, too?”
“You don’t have to. I don’t need anything.”
Herne raised an eyebrow. “Aha.”
“It’s different,” Iris protested, tapping him on the nose. “You don’t have much by way of money. And it’s your first real Christmas. I don’t want you stressing out over finding me something.”
The two lapsed back into silence. Iris eventually scooted up a bit and traced her fingers gently over Herne’s cheek. He moved in for a kiss, and she twined her arms around his neck, cocooned by his wings.
“So,” Herne whispered between kisses, “what’s next after putting up the tree?”
“Ugh… so impatient.”
“This was your idea.”
Iris silenced him with her tongue. "Tomorrow,” she said at last. “Just enjoy what we have so far tonight.”