*Blows dust away* Whew, it's been a little while! Working 97* different jobs (*probably closer to 4) has taken its toll on my writing time. This is a Christmas story, so depending on how you look at it, it's either outrageously late, or crazily early! Regardless, I hope you enjoy it :)
Dedicated to the memory of the real Lily Moonlight, my beautiful little cat, who passed away last month at the great age of 17. Missed very, very much but her name lives on.
Her gift on Christmas Eve was a crime scene contaminated by falling snow. Stella sighed, surveyed the body in front of her and sighed again. She loved snow, really she did; just not all over her work in such quantities.
'Real Christmassy, huh?' Flack appeared, grinning despite the lung-burning cold and blinking snowflakes from his eyelashes.
'Clearly not for this guy.'
She listened as Flack briefed her and then got down to the task in front of her. Flack lingered, looking as if he was about to add something, until a shout from one of his officers drew him away, reluctantly. Stella frowned, but focused her mind on her work, eager to get as much as she could before the snow damaged her evidence even more.
It took until she was almost done before Flack reappeared
'Any more I need to know?' she asked him.
'Not much.' He peeled open his notebook and told her what he had. Nodding, Stella was about to crouch down to finish up before she noticed Flack was still hovering, grinning.
She looked up at him. 'Is there something else? Because I'd like to get this back to the lab and go home before I turn into a Popsicle.'
His grin broadened and Stella noted the glint in his oh-so-blue eyes, as he asked, 'Still got Holly's gifts to wrap, huh?'
'Some of them. Why?' she asked, narrowing her eyes at him; Flack never being one to ask an unnecessary question.
Flack shrugged. 'Nothing, was only thinking about a gift for her.' If possible, his grin got even bigger and Stella frowned in confusion.
'You already got her a gift, Don. It's in pride of place under the tree, alongside her other presents, also under the tree and beginning to take over the living room,' she added, thinking with slight anxiety about all the other gifts for Holly that were hidden in her and Mac's closet, still waiting to be wrapped. Although, given Holly's stunt yesterday, there was an argument for her not deserving quite as many presents as she'd been given…
'Guess an extra one wouldn't hurt, though?'
Suspicion of the innocence in Flack's eyes, made Stella pause before she answered.
Yanking off her latex gloves, she asked, 'What exactly did you have in mind?'
An over-exaggerated look of consideration stretched his features. 'Oh, I don't know… Maybe something… science-y. Likely she'd appreciate that kind of thing, being the daughter of two CSIs and all.' He smiled, broadly, at her.
And it clicked: Flack knew. Somehow, Stella had no idea how, he must have found out. Why else would he be goading her like this?
Not letting her features betray her, Stella cocked her head to the side and quirked her eyebrows, playing ignorant. 'Science-y? Huh. You mean like a book on kitchen chemistry, that kind of thing? It's a nice idea, but Lindsay already got her that for her birthday.' She bent down again to open her kit, but Flack persisted.
Folding his arms across his chest, he smirked. 'Nah, I was thinking more forensic… something for a kid who wants to be just like her mom and dad when she grows up.'
'Uh huh.' Stella concentrated hard on making sure all her evidence was bagged and organised.
'Yeah. You know, kids' crime scene kit, fingerprint kit, something like that?' The slight question hung in the snowy air.
Carefully and deliberately slotting an envelope in place, Stella balanced on her heels and fixed him with a hard stare.
'Why would she need something like that? She's four years old.'
Despite the obvious effort, Flack could not keep his face straight. 'Never too early to start kids on a career path, know what I'm saying?'
Maintaining an expression of polite disinterest, Stella replied, 'No, I don't.'
Still smirking, he waggled his eyebrows. 'You sure you don't, Stell?'
'Yes, I'm sure I don't, so if that's all you got to say, let me get on with what I got to do.' Stella crouched down, hoping, probably futilely, that Flack would drop the matter.
'Oh no. No, you ain't getting away that easily.' Flack loomed over her.
Stella gave an exasperated sigh. 'Fine. You want to get Holly a kids' crime scene kit, then fine. You do that.'
'I could always toss in a few sharpies as an extra,' he mused, giving her an even more pointed look and grin.
It was a struggle, but Stella stayed neutral-faced. 'If you want to.'
She looked up at him. Flack looked down at her.
Both of them waited for the other to speak.
'That it?' he said finally, crestfallen. 'That all the reaction I'm going to get? You don't even want to know how I know?'
She did, she really did… equally she did not want to give Flack the satisfaction of being asked how he knew…
But curiosity got the better of her. She rolled her eyes. 'All right, fine. How do you know and how much do you know?'
Flack puckered his lips. 'Mmm, not much. Only that your daughter's been showing a lot of interest in her mom and dad's job.'
Stella snapped her kit closed. 'That's one way to put it.'
'And decided she wanted to share her interest with all her lil' buddies at pre-school.' A snigger broke from him and Stella groaned.
'So who talked? If it was Danny, he's...'
'Whoa, whoa.' Flack held up his hands. 'Danny's innocent.'
'That's got to be a first,' Stella said dryly.
'In this case he actually is.' Still Flack grinned, irritatingly. 'Basically, I know a guy, who knows a guy, who knows another guy…'
Stella rubbed her hand across her forehead and stood up, shivering as melted snow slithered down her back. 'I get it. So if it wasn't Danny, who was it?'
Flack feigned a look of shock. 'You want me to reveal my CI?'
'Yes, I do, and quickly. If I come down with pneumonia from standing here, you'll have Mac to deal with. You know how protective he gets.'
At least that had something of an effect on him, Stella was pleased to note. Flack lifted his shoulders. 'What can I say? Word travels fast in the precinct, and the crime lab…' He rubbed some snow off his hair and paused to stare at her. 'Come on, Stell, it surely isn't that hard to figure out who it was?' The grin was back in place.
Thinking rapidly as to who might have talked, Stella drew a blank. Certainly not Mac; neither Lindsay nor Adam had not been told; as far as she knew Flack knew no one from Holly's pre-school, which only left…
Oh, but surely not…
'Sid?! But I swore him to secrecy!' When the call from the pre-school had come through, she had been in the morgue; naturally Sid had overheard the conversation, and Stella, trusting him almost as much as she trusted Mac, had entrusted him with the details… which was going to be the last time she ever did that.
Looking thoroughly pleased with himself, Flack beamed. 'What can I say? Guy's a proud uncle.'
'What did you threaten him with?' Stella demanded and Flack feigned hurt.
'That's cold, Stell. There were no threats, simply happened to run into him when I was in the lab this morning, asked him why he was looking so cheerful, and, well, didn't take too many more questions before he told me everything. I swear, Hammerback couldn't wait to tell me all about how Holly chased a kid who'd damaged one of the dolls; tackled him to the ground, all without back-up - wonder where she got that idea from, huh?' He winked at Stella, who felt a flush creeping over her skin. 'Yeah, then how she climbed up on a chair to, uh, borrow some sharpies, interrogated the perp, took fingerprints,' he broke off to snigger, 'and the best bit, how you and Mac got summoned by the principal to discuss appropriate behaviour. Man, wish I'd been a fly on the wall to see you two getting a lecture 'bout that.' With an exaggerated sigh, Flack flipped his notebook shut and gave a smug smile. 'Anyways, much as I'd love to stay and talk, I got paperwork to do. Catch you later. Give Holly a hug from me. Merry Christmas!'
Before she could even think of a cutting riposte, Flack had strolled away, laughing to himself.
Groaning as she picked up her kit, Stella trudged back to her car.
Which meant it would be no time at all before the whole of the NYPD knew and would be familiar with every last detail of Holly Taylor's attempt to mete out justice to a 'bad boy' in her pre-school, right down to fingerprinting the unfortunate boy with permanent marker ink. And the interview with the principal… an unwelcome insight into how the suspects she and Mac had interviewed over the years must feel. Sighing in resignation, Stella started the car, clinging to the hope that at least she, Mac and Holly could have a quiet, drama-free Christmas Day tomorrow.
Still hazy with mixed-up dreams of being smothered by wrapping paper, tied up with tape and tangled with ribbons, Stella heard a voice. Drowsily, she blinked and forced open her eyes. Another pair of eyes, less than an inch from hers, stared right back at her.
'Mommy are you awake?' A hand reached out and attempted to stretch her eyelids wide. Stella batted it away.
'No, mommy's not awake,' she muttered. 'Even daddy's not awake yet.' The heaviness of Mac's arm round her waist told her that. She had had to give in and go to bed sometime around 2am, while he had bravely stayed awake to finish the lengthy process of wrapping the last of Holly's presents. She had been vaguely aware of Holly sneaking into the bed shortly after that (a habit they were trying to break her of), and then Mac tugging some of the comforter over himself a little while later.
Holly heaved a profound sigh and wriggled even closer to Stella, so that their noses touched. Her hand patted Stella's cheek, her voice full of reproach as she complained, 'But mommy, it's Christmas Day.'
'Barely,' Stella mumbled, catching sight of the clock. 'And that still doesn't mean we're gonna get up at 4am. Go back to sleep, sweetie,' she added more firmly.
Holly pressed her nose (the tip adorned with a scratch of pride from her suspect-tackling) against Stella's. 'I can't sleep any more. Not for another second. Nuh uh.'
'Uh huh. Yes you can.' Stella propped herself up on her elbow and regarded her stubborn-faced daughter. 'Here's the deal - you can either go back to your own bed and sleep, or you can go back to sleep here. No one is getting up yet.'
The pout on Holly's face got bigger and her eyebrows crunched together. 'But I've been in bed for hours and hours and hours!' She sat upright and folded her arms across her chest.
Amused despite her weariness, Stella nonetheless gave her daughter a stern look. 'You've been in bed for seven hours, that's all. You had a very late night and that's nowhere near long enough for a little girl who's got a busy day ahead of her.'
'Not little, I'm four.' Four fingers held up emphasised this great age and Stella's lips twitched.
'Four is still little,' rumbled Mac's voice, gravelly with sleep. Stella turned her head to give him a look of exasperated relief.
'Thought you were never going to wake up,' she murmured.
'I tried my best not to,' he replied dryly.
Holly, seizing her opportunity, clambered over Stella (who yelped as a small knee caught her ribs) and plopped onto Mac's chest with a squeal.
After making a sound somewhere between a groan and a balloon being deflated, Mac managed to wheeze, 'Hey, baby girl,' and was promptly cut off by Holly wrapping her arms round his neck.
Smirking as she rolled over onto her side, Stella tickled Holly. 'Hey, no strangling daddy, 'kay? He won't be able to help you open your presents if you do.'
Holly released Mac, a bit, and he groaned again, breathing deeply while Holly spread herself on top of him. It did not take him long to recover enough to seize their daughter and lift her up above his chest while she shrieked.
Watching them – Mac pretending to roar with the effort of lifting Holly, while she screamed with excitement – Stella smiled; her cup of happiness overflowing. Right now, this moment, there was nothing more in the world she would ask for.
After lowering a breathless with laughter Holly, Mac turned his head and caught Stella's eye. Their shared smile proof of his thoughts in harmony with hers. Leaning over, Stella kissed him her lips lingering for a tender moment on his before she laid her head on his shoulder.
'I think,' she said, stroking Holly's back as she lay face-down on her father, her head tucked under his chin, arms draped either side of his chest, 'I think two, maybe three, more hours in bed then we can go see if Santa's visited you.'
'But I want to see now,' Holly whined, lifting her head and dropping it again on her bunched fists.
'Not right now, baby,' Stella murmured, soothing her fingers through the little girl's tousled curls. 'But very soon, I promise.'
'Want to see Santa,' Holly insisted even as a huge yawn enveloped her.
'I know, sweetie. And if you go to sleep, you'll see him even sooner,' Stella crooned, stroking Holly's back in an even rhythm.
'Want to see the reindeer,' the small girl mumbled, her eyelids fluttering.
'Them, too,' Stella promised. After another tremendous yawn, Holly flopped and within a few minutes, was breathing deeply and evenly. Only when she was certain that Holly was sleeping did Stella, almost asleep herself by then, press a gentle kiss to her head. A little wriggle and she made herself comfortable against Mac, who carefully moved the comforter so it covered all three of them.
'Love you,' Stella whispered and he responded with the same and a kiss to her temple.
All of them together, safe and warm, Stella closed her eyes and let herself sink into sleep with a blissful smile on her face.
A blink of time later, she woke to the sound of giggles outside the room. For a few more precious seconds, she lay with her eyes closed until an aroma of pancakes enticed her to open them. She was alone in the bed. It was a few minutes after 7am – early, but more civilised than 4am. Someone had pulled the comforter over her, leaving her undisturbed and she smiled and stretched, as the bedroom door opened a sliver.
Holly's beaming face peeped round it. 'Hi, mommy!' she whispered so loudly the neighbours must have heard it.
'Hi, baby.' Stella sat up and moved the comforter aside, preparing to get out of bed.
'No! You gotta stay in bed, me and daddy said so,' Holly ordered, so with a hidden smirk, Stella did as she was told, meekly, and resisted her impulse to correct Holly's grammar.
As Mac's hand opened the door fully, it revealed that Holly carried a small tray holding a bottle of maple syrup, a napkin and cutlery. Proud and serious, she marched to the side of the bed, followed by Mac who carried a larger tray bearing what looked like a mountain of pancakes, and best of all, coffee.
Stella exclaimed in surprise, much to Holly's delight as she handed over the tray with tremendous care.
'Me and daddy made you Christmas breakfast in bed, so you gotta stay in bed to eat it,' Holly instructed, and Stella nodded gravely, and told her daughter she would not move until every crumb was eaten.
Wide awake now, and hungry, Stella settled herself against the pillows and made room for Holly to scramble up next to her. 'Wow you guys, this looks super good,'
'Pancakes and syrup, with a Christmas twist,' Mac said as he perched himself on the end of the bed after laying his tray across Stella's knees and bending down for a kiss.
'Twist?' Stella gave him a curious look.
Bouncing on her knees, Holly shouted, 'They got chocolate chips, and sprinkles, and cinnamon! 'Cause it's Christmas,' she added with an extra bounce that almost upset the trays.
'It's Christmas?' Stella looked wide-eyed at her daughter, who was not fooled.
'Silly mommy,' Holly sighed. 'It's Christmas 'cause Santa's been!' With a whoop, she flung herself backwards and lay like a starfish on the bed, panting with excitement.
'Oh? He has, has he?' Stella looked up at Mac with raised, communicative eyebrows. He grinned.
'Someone found a stocking at the end of their bed, and is very impatient to open it,' Mac said, looking at his daughter with a twinkling eye.
'Santa's been! Santa's been! Santa, Santa, Santa!' Holly sang, kicking her legs wildly, her parents catching the breakfast trays just in time.
'Exactly how much sugar has she had?' Stella muttered in an aside to Mac, who looked sheepish. Before any more upset could happen, Stella suggested that Holly go and fetch her stocking so she could open some gifts while they ate breakfast. Holly tumbled off the bed, dashing out of the door before Stella had even finished the sentence.
After shaking her head with a smile, Stella turned her attention to Mac and pointed her fork at him. 'You should have woken me.'
Calmly, he stole the fork and helped himself to a large mouthful before answering. 'You looked too peaceful.' He grinned, adding, 'Lying there, snoring ever so gently… hey!' He rubbed his side where she had just nudged him with her elbow before he took another forkful of pancakes, remarking, 'Hmm, surprisingly good… sweet, but good… Anyway, after you caught that scene yesterday, it seemed only fair we let you sleep in. Besides, we had a lot of fun making breakfast.'
'I can see that.' Stella smirked, and reached up to wipe a drop of syrup from the corner of Mac's mouth with her finger, keeping her gaze on him as she licked the syrup off. A crooked smile broke across his lips as he speared another forkful of pancakes, this time offering it to her.
It was an explosion of sugar on her tongue. 'Wow.' Her eyebrows shot up. 'That is… possibly the sweetest breakfast I've ever had.' Stella grimaced and took a gulp of coffee to try and dilute the combination of syrup, chocolate and spices that clung to her tongue.
Mac grinned. 'I'm starting as I mean to go on. There's going to be a lot of candy around today.'
'Which is going to be strictly rationed,' Stella vowed, well aware of the sweet tooth Holly had inherited from Mac.
'Rationed?' Mac looked disappointed. 'But it's Christmas. It wouldn't be Christmas without candy.'
There was no time for Stella to retort as a Holly-shaped tornado blew into the room, clutching an armful of favourite stuffed toys, and an even more stuffed stocking. Only Mac's reflexes saved the breakfast tray as she flung herself onto the bed, toys and small parcels scattering.
'You were saying about candy?' Stella said sweetly.
Chapter 2 will be here soon, in the meantime, please let me know what you think :)