Christmas music was playing over the loudspeakers as Suki looked at the mall directory without much hope. Guthrie didn't have anything like the huge malls she'd shopped at with her aunt, but she remembered the type well enough. What had possessed her to think she could find a gift for Nathan in someplace like this? The mall was full of last minute shoppers, enough so that she was surprised to find she could breathe easily. Surely so many people should steal the air, make it stale and hard to breathe. Not for the first time she wondered why she couldn't just pick something. She'd always know exactly what to get her aunt and uncle, even as her shadow self. Being her whole self should make it easier to pick gifts, not harder. She'd even enjoyed picking out gifts for Edmund and Matt, Lia and Dee and the twins and especially Beth, who was as much home to her as Nathan was. Why was Nathan so difficult?
Nothing on the list of stores looked particularly promising, so Suki picked a direction at random and started walking. She scorned the big department stores, where she'd gotten Terry's gift, a wispy silk scarf in shades of blue and gold. Nathan had no need of clothes. She paused at a store that sold music boxes. She'd gotten a music box for Lia, cherry wood stained dark and gorgeously carved, a working antique. Nathan liked music, but though Nathan liked music, it wasn't the right gift. Edmund and Matt had gotten the same gift - tickets to an outdoor play that spring that Matt had mentioned several times back in November. Suki had hesitated briefly before buying the tickets, knowing her friend's wandering habits and not wanting to make Matt feel as though she had to make an appearance. She'd finally appended a note to the gift saying that she could exchange the tickets for different ones if Matt decided she couldn't (or didn't want to) make it. Nathan liked plays, and Suki had briefly considered arranging for the upscale version of dinner and a movie, but eventually decided against it. She was sure Nathan would like it, but it was too normal. Nathan's gift had to be special. Dee had gotten an oil painting of a coyote done by a local artist, young but gifted. The coyote seemed to stare right through you, something more than merely oil on canvas. Yet for all its beauty, it was not right either. Nathan didn't need to own art anymore than he needed to own clothes. Suki had picked out a kit for making gingerbread houses for Beth because she knew it would make Beth laugh, and wind chimes for Tasha because they would make her smile, but she wanted more than a gift that would amuse briefly and be used up or left behind in a few days or weeks. She'd even thought of trying to make something, or using gold, because handmade gifts were supposed to be the best kind, but had been unable to decide what she should make - which put her right back on square one. If she could just pick something - anything - and have it be over, she could go home to Nathan. But nothing was right.
Suki stayed until the mall closed, looking but not buying, and then drove home. Not to the apartment, but to the ground where the new house was being built. Nathan was there when she arrived, having stayed away all day out of respect for her desire that his gift remain a surprise. Nathan kissed her when she got out of the car, and it was so good it almost hurt to stop. She wrapped her arms around Nathan, just breathing in his presence. Since the night they'd changed House into Beth and Nathan had taken his bones back into his spirit, he was warm in a way he'd never been, not even when she'd used gold to make him solid.
"I couldn't find anything," she finally muttered into his chest, breath steaming in the chill night air.
He laughed, and Suki was close enough that she felt as much as heard it. "I think that this is the part where I tell you it doesn't matter what you get me. Or if you get me anything at all."
"I want to get you something, Nathan." What Suki didn't say was I can't remember ever giving real gifts. When I was young, my father picked whatever he thought was appropriate. When he was gone I spent years not caring about anything, gifts least of all. "It's gloriously sweet of you to say that, but admit it, you'd be just the least little bit disappointed if I didn't get you anything."
"Well, maybe just a little," Nathan said. "I promise I would try not to be. I truly believe in the saying `It's the thought that counts.' That you are here and you want to give a gift to me means more than any material object you could give me. Besides, I haven't gotten anything for you yet, either."
It was her turn to laugh. "This is where I tell you that it doesn't matter if you get me anything."
"Wouldn't you be disappointed if I didn't get you anything?"
"No." Nathan was her best gift ever. He was the one thing that almost let her believe in God. She already had the only gifts that she really wanted - Nathan and friends who were the best kind of family because she chose them herself. She remembered her mother, who had tried to make excuses for her father, pointing out all the good things he had given her mother. A beautiful home, fine clothes, pretty possessions that had meant nothing to Suki next to the bruises on her mother's skin. "Things don't matter. People matter."
"So why are you worried?" Nathan asked.
"I don't really know," Suki admitted. "Why don't you just tell me something you'd like, and I'll get it for you?"
"I thought you wanted it to be a surprise," Nathan said.
"I guess it doesn't really matter. It's the thought that counts, right?"