SICK AS A DOG
“I’m dying, I know it,” Ember said to nobody in particular. “I can’t believe this is how it ends. I survived druids and zombies only to be taken out by a tiny germ infested infant who has yet to inherit his super impenetrable wolfy immune system.”
Who would have thought that RJ and his snotty nose would become the biological weapon the reapers and witches couldn’t fight? Ember coughed weakly into her tissue. It just wasn’t fair. Quinn swore it wasn’t RJ’s fault. He said all babies—even werewolf babies—were basically carrier monkeys. They were little walking petri-dishes full of germs just waiting to attack.
Kai sneezed hard before saying, “And people say I’m a drama queen.”
“You are,” Wren and Isa said in chorus.
The alpha stood at the center island, surrounded by her cake decorating tools, and she was holding a pastry bag filled with orange frosting. Wren stood just behind her at the other counter, mixing batter.
“Rude,” Kai muttered.
Ember would laugh, but it hurt too much. Everything hurt—her eyes, her teeth, her skin. She was definitely dying. Her only solace was at least Mace wouldn’t be the only ghost wandering the house.
Isa glanced up at Ember, looking at her still full cup. “Ember, drink your tea.”
Ember made a face. “I don’t want to. It tastes like dirty gym socks.”
Isa used her forearm to wipe at her brow, giving Ember an exhausted look. Isa and Wren had been baking since before sunrise. They were still in the clothes they slept in. Isa’s hair was tangled on her head, and she had a streak of batter on her cheek; a gift from Wren.
Ember wasn’t one to judge. She’d been in her same Hufflepuff pajama pants and tank top for two days. She wouldn’t be winning any beauty pageants.
“It really does taste like dirty gym socks,” Kai snickered, but then moaned, dropping his head on Ember’s shoulder.
Ember patted his head dutifully before pushing him off her. “Get off. You’re all sweaty, and you smell really bad.”
“You’re mean,” Kai whined. To Isa, he said, “You promised you’d make me chicken soup.”
“Yay, chicken soup,” came a muffled voice from the lump beside Kai. Quinn lay across the bench seat, cocooned in his fuzzy grey blanket. The only part visible was his bare feet. He’d been like that for three hours.
Isa pointed her bag of frosting at Kai. “No, you promised I’d make you chicken soup. I have to finish the cupcakes for the animal shelter’s charity event tonight so I can get to the restaurant and start setting up.” She glanced at Wren, who was now filling the cupcake cups with fresh batter. “Wren! Stop, you’re overfilling them.”
Wren didn’t even look up. “Pipe down, woman. I got this. I’ve been filling your cupcake tins for years.”
Isa snorted, attempting to snatch the tin from Wren, who lifted it over his head, far out of reach. Isa jumped for the tin. “Hey. I’m your alpha. This is insubordination.”
Wren laughed. “Insubordination? Never. This is me teaching you patience, darlin.’”
He smacked her butt playfully. “But nothing. I got this. Promise.” Isa looked torn until he looked down at whatever she had been decorating. “Your cat’s ear is lopsided.”
“What?” Isa looked down to check, and Wren dipped his finger in the black icing, painting it on her nose.
The others laughed, but Isa narrowed her eyes, waving the pastry bag threateningly in his direction. “You are so going to pay for that later,” she said in a sing-song voice.
Wren’s laugh was dirty enough to make Ember blush. “That’s the plan,” he said. Sometimes, Ember longed for death. People had no concept of propriety. She missed Mace. She hoped he came back soon.
“Ember, your tea,” Isa said again pointedly. “It will help, I promise.”
Quinn sat up with great effort. “It’s a trap. She’s lying. It won’t help. Nothing will help. A plague has fallen upon this house, a plague in a onesie”—he glared at Kai—“all because you decided to be a teen mom.”
Kai glowered back. “Hey, it’s not RJ’s fault you have a defective immune system.”
“You have a defective immune system,” Quinn mocked childishly.
Rhys walked in with RJ—or patient zero, as Ember now called him—swaddled in his yellow blanket, snuggled against the wolf’s neck. When Isa saw him, she held up a hand, narrowing her eyes at her brother. “Uh-uh. Step away from the cupcakes. This is a no germ zone, buddy.” She pointed towards the breakfast nook. “Take the baby and go over there to the sick zone. I won’t infect half of Wolf Creek with your germs.”
Rhys shot a nasty look at his sister. “Uh, how do you suppose I should heat up his bottle if I’m not allowed in the kitchen?”
There was the sound of rapid footsteps on the back stairs, and then Tristin appeared, a little sweaty from her workout but otherwise in perfect health. “I’ll do it.”
Ember was trying not to be mad that Tristin was the only non-shifter to have survived the culling. Because being mad about that would make Ember a horrible person ...right? A totally horrible human being. Ember watched as Tristin flitted around the kitchen. Seriously, not so much as a sniffle? What kind of karma was that? Ember continued to glare at Tristin’s back as she went about fixing RJ’s bottle.
“Isaaaa,” Kai whined, thunking his head on table. “Please, make us soup. Soup cures colds. It’s science.”
Isa snorted. “You are seventeen years old. Make your own soup. Or, better yet, ask your boyfriend to make you soup.”
Rhys stopped short. “Wait, why do I have to make him soup?”
Wren frowned. “Because he’s your boyfriend?”
Rhys continued to stare at his sister. "Because you are left hand to the alpha,” she said.
Rhys gave her his most frowniest of faces. “And?”
Isa sighed warily. “The left hand of the pack does the things that the alpha cannot or will not do for the good of the pack.”
Rhys’s frowning intensified to the point Ember worried his face might actually flip inside out. “And?”
Isa shrugged. “And I don’t wanna make soup, so now it’s your job.”
Rhys’s mouth fell open. “One, that is a blatant abuse of your position, and two, I’m already taking care of an actual sick baby,”—he looked at Kai— “not just a sick person acting like a baby.”
Kai lifted his head just enough to stick his tongue out, and Ember shuddered. “Dude, don’t do that again. Your breath is rancid.”
“In a minute, I’ll be dead from starvation, and you’ll regret those being your last words to me.”
“Oh, for the love of ...” Tristin stomped her way to the pantry and snagged a box, shoving it in front of Kai. “There you go. Breakfast is served. Bon Appetit.”
Kai glanced up, expression hopeful, only to look crushed when he saw the box. “You want me to eat those?”
Tristin rolled her eyes. “Don’t look so offended, bro. They’re Pop Tarts, not cyanide capsules.”
Kai pulled a face. “But they’re blueberry Pop Tarts. Those are disgusting.”
Quinn’s eyes were closed, but he still managed to fist bump Kai. “Blueberry sucks,” he croaked in agreement.
Tristin sneered at the duo. “You are both such drama queens. Blueberry Pop Tarts are a classic and totally delicious. You just like all those ridiculous flavors like Red Velvet and Pumpkin Spice. You’re so ...basic.”
Ember grunted as Kai shoved into her. “Forget it. I’ll get my own Pop Tarts.”
Ember stood, feeling woozy as Kai pushed her out of the way. She sank back into her seat and laid her head on her folded arms.
Wren glanced up from where he was filling another tin of cupcake cups. “Just keep your hands off the smores ones. Those are mine.”
Kai shuddered. “Smores are gross, too. I’d rather eat cyanide.”
“One can dream,” Wren muttered under his breath.
Kai’s face fell. “Dude, that’s just hurtful. You are my parental figure. You’re supposed to love and care for me.”
Wren snickered but didn’t answer, instead turning to grandly present his latest filled muffin tin to Isa. “Is this to your liking, my queen?” he intoned with a flourish.
She pretended to inspect them before sighing. “I suppose they’ll do.”
When he turned away, she slapped his butt, and he wiggled it as he walked to the oven. They are so weird, Ember decided.
Tristin snagged the bottle from the bottle warmer and snatched RJ from Rhys, reclining the baby and popping the bottle into his mouth. RJ’s tiny hands grasped the bottle, and Tristin pushed a sweaty curl off his forehead. Rhys looked like he wanted to protest, but Tristin just shook her head.
“I got him,” she promised, sliding into the breakfast nook by Quinn, pushing against his bare feet until he relinquished some of his territory. “You take care of the other baby.” She pointed to Kai, who was attempting to open the pastry wrapper and failing miserably. Rhys took the wrapper from him and opened it before handing it back to him, expression fond.
As soon as Tristin was settled, Quinn made a show of lying back down, nestling his head in Tristin’s lap.
“Really?” Tristin said, annoyance seeping into her tone, even as she combed her hands through his hair.
“Mm,” was Quinn’s only response.
Rhys wrapped his arms around Kai from behind. “Seriously, how are you feeling?”
Kai leaned back, staring at his breakfast like it had wronged him. Rhys laughed until Kai looked up, giving the wolf his saddest puppy eyes. “I don’t feel good.”
Rhys reeled back. “Oh, baby, you need a shower.”
“I’m too weak. I need help.” Kai grinned then. “Wanna help?”
Rhys grinned. “Yes.”
“No!” Wren and Isa shouted at the same time.
“Why are you the only people who get to have any sex around here?” Kai grumbled.
Wren grinned. “Because we’re the only ones old enough to vote, drink, and pay taxes.”
Ember picked up her cup and sniffed at the contents before gagging. “Nope. I can’t do it. I’m going to take a nap.”
The trek to her bedroom seemed to take forever, like the staircase kept getting longer as she walked. When she finally made it, she curled up on the mattress, knees to her chest, hoping the room would stop spinning.
“How are you feeling, luv?”
Ember gasped, setting off a coughing fit that lasted until her ribs hurt and her throat felt like she’d been drinking broken glass.
Mace’s apparition shimmered before her, concern etched on his face. “That good, hmm?” He winced when she gave another pitiful cough. “My apologies. I didn’t mean to scare you. You look terrible.”
“Flatterer,” she mumbled, shivering.
“I mean it, luv. You’re even paler than usual. Which of us is the ghost in this relationship?”
“You’re not funny.”
He looked affronted. “Please, I’m hilarious. You’re just too crabby to appreciate it.” She wanted to fire off a good comeback, but she didn’t have the energy. So, instead, she looked at him, hoping he could see she was too miserable for his witty banter.
His gaze went soft. “I’m sorry, luv.”
Ember hated this. She could talk to him and see him, but she couldn’t touch him. Their magic wasn’t compatible while they existed on separate planes. She reached out her hand, resting it next to his but not touching it. “Where’d you go?”
“I went to see Shelby.”
Ember couldn’t hide the sour expression on her face. “The cat goddess who used to deal my dad his magical herbs? Nice.” She tried not to let it hurt her feelings. She had the flu, she wasn’t dying. What was Mace going to do to help her when he couldn’t even touch her? “What did you need from Shelby?”
“What kind of spell?” Ember asked, eyes drifting closed as her pulse pounded in her temples.
Her eyes flew open as a hand covered hers. Mace grinned at her. “How?” she asked. He was still a ghost; she could see through him. How could she feel his touch?
He tilted his head, smile fond. “Did you think I was really going to let you suffer without being able to take care of you?”
She frowned. “What do you mean?”
“I traded some very valuable information for a spell that would let me affect things on your side of the veil ...but only for about seventy-two hours. So, tell me luv, how can I help speed up your healing process? Soup? Tea? Sponge bath?”
Ember ignored his sponge bath comment. “No, no more tea. It tastes like sadness and sweaty feet.”
“What then?” he asked, voice so low and silky she wanted to wrap herself in it.
“Cuddle me,” she whispered, cheeks flushing even more.
The feeling of his hand disappeared, and then the mattress dipped behind her. Mace’s arms wrapped around her, and she sighed at the coolness of his embrace. “You’re so cold,” she mumbled, turning over to burrow her head against his chest.
“Yet another perk of being dead,” he snarked.
After a few minutes, Ember asked, “You really went all the way to Georgia just so you could take care of me?”
“I’m a ghost, luv. It’s not quite the hike it used to be. But yes.” He kissed her hair and then her forehead.
She put a finger over his lips. “Stop there, I don’t want to kiss you with sick mouth.”
He chuckled. “I don’t mind. What’s the worst that could happen?”
Ember looked horrified. “Never say that around here.”
Mace chuckled. “Very well. Get some rest.”
Ember sighed as Mace stroked his hands through her hair. “Thanks for taking care of me.”
“Anything for you, luv.”