The hours at Santini Air had been hectic as of late. Christmas wasn't traditionally the busy season, but a promotion Cait had orchestrated along with the traditional once a year "Santa Flight" that Dom'd put together years ago for St. Catherine's school kept him busy.
Ten years later, String still felt funny playing Dom's role of Santa as he gave the kids the ride of their life in the red, white and blue star-spangled helicopter. Dom, with his ebullient personality had been a natural – String with his lanky build and one syllable vocabulary, well... not so much so.
Still, it'd seemed like the thing to do. He knew Dom would've been disappointed had he let it go.
Tightening the tail rotor nut he was working on, String's eyes crinkled in remembrance. This year, one little boy had eyed him concernedly most of the afternoon - before voicing his worries.
"How come Santa was so skinny? How come was he wearing a pillow? Was he the real Santa? Had he been sick? He wasn't going to die was he? He'd had an aunt once who'd died. Christmas would be over if Santa died. Why wasn't he eating the hamburger Sister Josephine had fixed for him?"
Flustered, he'd told the kid yeah, he really was Santa and he'd just been on a diet.
Somehow, he doubted Dom would've had these problems...
From there it'd all been downhill – something like his and Nicky's one attempt at snowboarding, that'd landed them both at the foot of a hill covered in ice. He'd nearly broken a rib when they'd hit a tree.
His lips quirked. So much for reading kids. He still wasn't sure what the kid's mom was going to say when she found out Santa was a vegetarian.
And here, he'd thought the kid was merely scared about going flying for the first time...
Instead, he'd found out Michael and his bevy of 'angels' had nothing on a five year old. Little had he known he'd be flying a pint-size Mata Hari.
He chuckled, tightening the bolt. There hadn't been much the kid hadn't known about Stringfellow Hawke aka jolly old St. Nicholas by the time he was done.
String was sure he'd never spent so much time explaining to anyone what a vegetarian was. Finally, he'd just told the kid he didn't eat meat.
"Why?" had been the instantaneous response.
Exasperated, he'd snapped because there wasn't much meat up where he came from and he doubted Rudolph would appreciate him eating Dancer or the other reindeer.
Eyes wide, the kid had nodded, agreeing that'd be a bad idea. There'd been no more mention of Sister Josephine and her hamburger after that.
And String had never been more relieved to fly a job than he'd been to shuttle two dozen kids around for the next hour and a half in a helicopter. He'd quickly lost track of the brown-haired, brown-eyed imp who'd been well on his way to giving him an ulcer.
No, he definitely doubted Dom'd had these problems. He could almost picture the old man in the threadbare, ratty Santa suit slapping him on the shoulder and laughing with that gap-toothed grin.
As you give, so shall you receive...
Humph, yeah, except in his case it was probably a stockingful of coal.
He gave a rueful smile, missing his old friend, knowing he did a poor job of filling his Santa boots. The wrench slipped, rapping him hard across the knuckles, and he snatched his hand back, blaming the pain in his hand for the haze in his eyes. Hissing a sigh of irritation, he shook it out, the stinging sensation ebbing away as he wiped grease on his jeans.
Still, when it'd been time to go and he'd waved at the crowd of kids one last time - it'd been the dark haired, ulcer inducing imp he'd found himself unconsciously searching the kids for, hoping he hadn't screwed things up too much.
He hadn't been there.
He sighed, going back to work on the jet ranger.
Even as he did so, a ruckus at the door kicked up, and he looked up in time to see Caitlin and the kids bustling in the open hangar door. Nicky was bundled up in a green sweater at least two sizes too big for him, reddish brown hair sticking out at all angles, looking for all the world like an elf escaped from the North Pole, and Amelia was jingling.
Wait a minute, Amelia was jingling?
He did a double take, finding himself relieved to note it was only the furry bell-bedecked Santa hat she wore, bouncing as she jumped up and down beside Caitlin, excitement flushing her cheeks.
Caitlin brought up the rear, her beautiful blue-green eyes bemused as she fought to close the door against a cold gust of wind, her arms full of packages and something precariously balanced in her hands. The kids raced off towards the front office.
String rushed across the hangar to help her. Even as he did so, the cream-colored scarf she wore whipped into her face and the packages tottered. Shoving the door closed with one booted foot, he caught the cake with his hand before it could hit the ground.
Blue-green eyes met blue and she flashed him a thankful smile.
"What's this?" he queried, sniffing appreciatively. The rich, sweet smell of warm vanilla and sugar wafted past his nostrils, and his stomach rumbled in response.
Unwinding the suddenly rebellious scarf, Cait laughed. "I haven't the slightest, but I ran into this really cute kid with his mom, I guess, wanting to know if this was where Santa parked his helicopters."
Puzzled, String stared at her, until he realized the red, white and blue Santini jet ranger still sat on the tarmac outside. He'd been so busy working on the other helicopter, he hadn't yet pulled it in.
"The kid," he breathed, shoving past her and out the door.
There wasn't a soul in sight. Craning his neck, he looked in both directions. Wind rattled over the wings of a nearby Cessna.
"String?" Shivering, Caitlin edged up next to him, placing her hand on his arm. "Is everything okay?"
Cake still in hand, String looked left, then right, before glancing down at his wife beside him. Coppery strands of red whipped around her, the wind teasing her hair loose from the short braid she wore.
Hawke swallowed, biting back a sudden jolt of disappointment; he wasn't even sure where it'd come from. "I don't suppose it came with a card by any chance, did it?"
She nudged him back into the slightly warmer hangar and out of the wind. "Actually," she said, puzzlement wrinkling her forehead, "It did." She reached into her jeans pocket.
Plunking the cake down on the edge of the battered metal desk, String snagged the card from her.
Lean fingers tore the card open.
"Sting?" The Texas twang was quite pronounced now. Worriedly, Cait wondered if there was something more she should've noticed about the boy and his mother.
Well, she assumed the woman was his mother, around here though, who could tell?
Dark head bowed, minkish brown strands falling forward as he read the letter. A rare grin flashed.
Peering over his shoulder, Caitlin caught sight of a childish hand-drawn picture of what appeared to be the red, white and blue Santini Air helicopter. It was surrounded by what appeared to be...reindeer? A thin, stick-like figure dressed as Santa stood beside it.
Nope, not exactly your usual Christmas card. She had the niggling feeling once again that she was missing something.
"Hawke?" she queried.
He was laughing openly now, his shoulders shaking. He handed her the card.
Bemused, she read the carefully printed note aloud -
Dear Santa -Thanks for not eating the reindeer. I figured you must get awfully hungry up where you live, so I asked my mom to bake you a carrot cake. I hope you like it.
P.S. - Maybe you could share a piece with Rudolph? I know he likes carrots, the ones I set out for him at Christmas with your cookies are always gone.
P.P.S. - You didn't eat them too, did you? Those are only for the reindeer!
Cait's slender eyebrow had climbed nearly to her hairline by now. Undoubtedly, there'd been more going on at St. Catherine's the other day than she'd known.
She cast a suspicious glance at her husband. "I don't suppose you'd like to explain?" she questioned.
"Nope," he grinned, sniffing appreciatively at the cake in his hands. The saran wrap was off now and stuck to the desk with little bits of white frosting.
He continued to rummage around in the drawer, finally coming up with a good sized pocket knife. "We are doing St. Catherine's again next year, right?" he asked, as he sawed off a lop-sided piece of cake - roughly the size of New York.
This was her husband? she wondered. The one who always grumbled about the party, and she was sure only did it because it'd been important to Dom? She wasn't even sure he even noticed the Christmas cards she posted all around the office.
"Sure," she said faintly, as she took the slab of the cake he offered. "If you want."
He looked up, a grin still tugging at his lips. "Wouldn't be Christmas without it."