Christmas Present

 

home / season six / episode nine / act IV

   

Boston
Webster Apartments

The redhead unlocked the door to her temporary lodgings, glanced up and down the hallway to make sure there was no one nearby, and went in. Kim threw the deadbolts before setting her suitcase down, shrugged out of her coat and hung it on the peg on the back of the front door. Taking up the suitcase again, she carried it through the empty living room and set it on the floor beside the closet door.

With a sigh, she headed back to the lobby to pick up her mail. Inside her box was a small gift wrapped in gold paper. It was addressed in handwriting she recognized immediately, the same bold lettering that had sent her off to the Twin Cities. She smiled, shaking her head at the Pretender’s audacity, and took the assortment of bills and cards with her to her flat.

Once bolted safely back inside, she retreated to the bedroom, swiveled down into a cross-legged position on the sleeping bag, and proceeded to open her mail. Intentionally, she saved the gold package for last. With a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth, she unwrapped the present and discovered a small silver picture frame. Inside it was a black and white photograph of a man and woman in a romantic pose, though the second glass of the twin-frame was empty.

They looked happy. They looked like lovers, and the woman’s face she recognized instantly. After a moment, she knew who the man was also, and her fingertips touched the cold glass fondly.

“Mom and dad,” she whispered aloud.

Tucked into the corner of the frame was a small note card. She opened it and read Jarod’s message.

No more Christmases alone, Kim. You have family now. Cherish them while you can. Love, J.

She knew whose picture needed to go in the empty frame. That would be for her Uncle Sydney, and she was going to have to take that photograph herself. Jarod had given her the empty place to fill, and it was going to bother her until she did it.

Blinking away the blur as tears filled her eyes, she smiled. “Okay, Jarod. It’s the least I can do for you.”

She pulled out the piece of paper that Sydney had written his address on, and decided it was time to finally see the place where Horror lived for herself. She’d get that photo, all right. And she’d see for herself if there was room for one more light in the Centre’s darkness.

* * * * * * * * *

Barrow, Alaska
Room 1978B

The room was dark, but sounds of movement, of clothing rustling and heavy breathing told Jarod who was in there, and what was happening. He stood in the doorway, not daring to turn on the lights, not needing illumination to know what the teenagers were doing. A feminine gasp told him that he had been spotted, and a moment later Merritt pushed past him, pulling her sweater down as she ran from the room.

He waited a minute longer before hitting the light switch.

Jordan knelt on the bed, pulling his sweater over his head and yanking it quickly back into place. He kept his back to the doorway, glancing guiltily over his shoulder. “Dad, I can explain…”

“You don’t have to,” Jarod shot back. “I know what you were doing. Or almost doing.”

The boy stood up, straightening his clothes and finger-combing his hair back into place before turning to confront his progenitor. He glanced around the room, at the mussed covers on the bed, and then looked up at Jarod. “You and Miss Parker were here, weren’t you?”

“Yes,” Jarod admitted. “But we’re adults. You’re not.”

“And that makes it right?” the boy asked with a glare. His cheeks were reddened with guilt and embarrassment. “How can it be right for you and not for us?”

For a moment, Jarod was silent. He hadn’t expected to have this talk with Jordan. He assumed the Major had already broached the subject, but maybe this was something his father saved for him to take care of himself.

He cocked his head, clasped his hands behind himself, aware that his body blocked the doorway and that Jordan was cornered. “Are you ready to be a father, Jordan?”

Shock settled into the boy’s features. “No, of course not.”

“Are you in love with Merritt? Are you ready to commit yourself to her for the rest of your life?”

Jordan’s mouth opened to reply, then closed again wordlessly. He glanced down at the bed, then turned hot eyes back to the man in the doorway. “Are you in love with Miss Parker? Are you ready to marry her?”

Jarod looked at the floor for a moment, aware of the game the boy was playing, of the test being given him. “You know I can’t marry her, Jordan. Not now. But maybe someday…” He smiled softly, remembering Prom Night with her. “She has always been the center of my universe, son. Can you say the same for Merritt? For any girl? You’ve barely started living. You don’t know yet what the future holds. I don’t think you can make any sort of commitment to any girl just yet, and it would be unfair to her to pretend that you would, solely for the sake of sexual gratification.”

“If we both wanted it…” the boy rationalized, "what harm could it do?”

“She could get pregnant,” answered the man gently. “Then you’d be a father. And I’d expect you to answer that responsibility with honor. There aren’t any birth control devices here, you know.”

Jordan bowed his head and stuck his fingers into his jeans pockets. He shrugged. “Okay, so I wasn’t thinking. Maybe later on, I could get some protection…”

“And would it be fair to Merritt? I’ll bet she’s never done this before, either. It hurts girls the first time, you know. Are you prepared for that? Do you want to hurt her in that way, and not have it mean something special to both of you?”

“Well… no. But I’ve seen enough TV and movies and stuff, and I-“

“Can easily get inferior programming about sexual mores and techniques from the media,” Jarod cut in. He stepped fully into the room and sat down on the bed, memories of his beautiful lover making it difficult to think. “Sex is a tremendous responsibility, son. You’ve got your whole life ahead of you, but you’ve also got some maturing to do. Even someone as smart as you are can make mistakes out of ignorance. Study human nature. Study popular culture. Map out the human heart, and when you feel confident you know your way around well enough, maybe then you’ll be ready to take this step.” He smiled, remembering another lover, long ago and far away. “I was in my thirties when I finally found out how it felt.” He raised his eyes to his son. “Surely you can wait a few more years, till you’re really ready.”

He rose and put his hands on Jordan’s shoulders. The boy would be as tall as he was in another year or two, and soon enough he’d be a man. “Be fair to Merritt, first of all. Put her needs above your own. She’s embarrassed now, and hurt. She’s confused and scared. You need to apologize, and to promise her that you won’t let things get out of hand again. Show her that you respect her, that she’s important to you, more than just for this. And I need to have a talk with her, too.”

Fear glimmered in Jordan’s dark eyes. “About what?”

Jarod shook his head and sighed. “I have to find out if her parents had this talk with her before they died, and if not, then I get to treat her like my daughter and tell her to slap you down if you try this again.” He grinned. “I have to be fair, you know. You’re the one who brought her here. I have to be chaperone.”

“I couldn’t let her spend another Christmas alone,” Jordan insisted. “She hates it.”

Jarod ruffled the boy’s hair with his hand and stepped away. “I’m glad she’s here. We’ll all treat her like she’s part of the family, so remember that… While she’s here, she’s your sister. Okay?”

“I don’t think I can do that, Dad. She’s just sooo… hot!”

“Yes, she is. And she’s also a vulnerable teenage girl who needs to be treated with respect. See that you do, or you’ll answer to me. And l promise you, the consequences will be permanent.”

Jordan swallowed hard, nodded in acquiescence, and watched his father leave the room.

Jarod poked his head back into the doorway briefly for emphasis. “And you can start off by dismantling this room. You don’t need the temptation.”

The only answer was a heavy sigh, and the rustling of bed linens as Jordan began to strip the mattress on his father’s orders.

* * * * * * * * *

The Centre
SIS
Balcony office #2

The digital trail was difficult to crack, but Broots diligently traced the worm that had so recently delved into Centre files. It had taken weeks to trace, but the clever penetration of the Centre’s Asian Operations Headquarters did not go unnoticed. The program that activated the alert was Broots’ own creation and he undertook the exploration personally, backtracking the hacker’s path through the electronic maze that was the Internet with dogged determination. And now, nearly two weeks later, he had a result.

“Gotcha!” he whispered aloud to his otherwise empty office. “It’s Jarod, I know it! Now, let’s see what you were after.”

He pulled up the files that had been compromised and read them, took note of the exchange of addressees, and put it all together into a report. What Sun-Chai wanted with the Seraphim wasn’t important to him, nor was Cox’s refusal to allow her to be part of the training program. Why Sun-Chai would then send those cryptic photos of dolls to Jarod seemed to be some kind of message through imagery, but Broots didn’t particularly care what it was all about.

There was Christmas shopping to do, and as soon as he delivered the information to his boss, he was going to be off to the city with Debbie to play Santa for her, even though she was too old for all that nonsense now. She was indulging him, and he knew it, but he didn’t care. That was a Daddy thing, and as long as she played along, he’d keep up their traditions.

He printed out the report and carried it next door. Humming Silver Bells to himself, he laid the paper on her desk and started back for the door. She looked busy, so he had chosen not to interrupt her as she worked.

“Broots, what’s this?” she demanded curtly.

He stumbled to a stop, his mind already out the door. “Uh, we can talk about it later. I’m going out with Debbie. Christmas shopping, you know. Ho ho ho, and all that.”

But as her eyes scanned the page, they widened and her free hand covered her mouth. “Where did you get this?” she demanded in a strangled whisper.

He started trying to explain about his brilliant sentry program, but she cut him off. He simplified, cutting directly to the end result, and she said nothing, just stared at him for a moment before turning horrified eyes back to the paper in her hand. That was enough to get his full attention. It was also enough to make what hair he had stand on end.

“What’s the matter, Miss Parker? What’s so important about that trace, except that it’s another lead on Jarod?”

She stood, stepped out from behind her desk and came toward him, shoving the paper back into his hand. She grasped the front of his shirt with the other hand and pulled him right into her face, eyes flashing with fear. “Destroy this,” she ordered him. “Wipe every trace of those memos off your computer. Don’t leave any way that anyone can ever know you read it. Are we clear?”

He could hardly catch his breath now, he was so scared. “Wh-what’s so important about those memos?”

She let him go and backed off a space, but did not raise her voice above a whisper. “Sun-Chai found out one of those kids was hers. That’s why they killed her, Broots. That’s what the sanction was for.”

He swallowed as some of the ramifications came home to him. “You mean, just knowing where those kids came from could get me killed?”

She just glared at him. “If one of them belonged to you, yes.” She turned away then and strolled slowly back to her desk, head down in thought.

Broots felt suddenly grateful that he wasn’t part of that. He didn’t even see Centre doctors when he was sick, because he didn’t want them having any of his body fluids or genetic material on hand to monkey with. But as he watched his boss sit back into her chair, he saw that the fear in her eyes was still there.

And he wondered why she should be afraid.

He crumbled up the paper and shoved it into his pants pocket. “I’ll wipe those files off my sentry program, and make sure I take this to the Burn Room personally.”

She nodded, sighed and returned to work.

Still reeling from her terrified revelation, he sat down at his computer in his own office and initiated the wipe of his trace into the Asia files. And as he watched the screens cascaded across his monitor disappear in reverse order, he remembered Miss Parker’s eyes. No one had to tell him why the Seraphim sanction frightened her so much. After thinking about it for a moment, he knew. And he would never tell anyone that he did, not even Miss Parker herself.

* * * * * * * * *

Parker Bedroom
Barrow, Alaska

The girl turned around as soon as he came into the room. Jarod could tell she had been crying, and wanted to comfort her, but was sure that touching her would be the wrong move at that moment.

“It’s okay, Merritt,” he assured her. “I’m not angry with you for what happened.”

She sniffed and wiped at her eyes, but did not turn around. “Nothing happened,” she snapped. “We were just kissing.”

He decided not to correct her. “Has Jordan talked with you yet?”

She shook her head. “I wouldn’t let him in. I was too…”

“Embarrassed, I know. I sent him to apologize.” Jarod crossed his arms over his chest and wandered over to the bureau to look at the Parker family photos he had copied to make Morgan feel at home there. “You’re a smart, pretty girl, Merritt. He’s an attractive young man. It’s only natural that you’d be attracted to each other. And as strong as that attraction is at the moment, it’s not enough. You both need to wait till you’ve grown up a little more before you carry it much further.”

Merritt whirled to face him. “We weren’t going to… You didn’t think I’d let him… Omigosh, no! I swear, Jarod. We were just kissing. That’s all that was going to happen!”

He smiled at her. “Good. I don’t want either of you to get hurt.” He cleared his throat nervously. “But I also need to ask you whether or not your parents had a chance to talk with you about adult sexual behavior. If they haven’t, then I’ll-“

She held up both hands to stop him. “Fifth grade health class started it, and my dad finished it, Jarod. Thanks, but no thanks. I know what I need to know about boys.”

He sighed and relaxed. “That’s a load off my mind.” He turned to leave.

“Jarod, I wanted to ask you-“ Merritt froze when he faced her again. She looked at the floor rather than at him.

“Yes?”

She huddled into herself, crossed her arms over her chest as if she felt naked. “When we… Jordan and I… were, you know, kissing… Could you feel it? Is that why you came in?”

He grinned, and shook his head. “No, Merritt. The connection between us doesn’t work like that. I was just looking for you both, and discovered you there by accident. This is a big station, but there aren’t any places to hide.” He winked at her, certain she understood what he meant.

She looked distinctly relieved. “That’s good to know.” She sighed, and smoothed her hair back from her face in a gesture that reminded him of Miss Parker. “I just don’t understand how this twin thing works, and why I don’t feel it for her, you know?”

“Maybe nothing serious enough has happened to either of you that touched that bond yet,” he offered warmly. “Give it time.”

The girl met his eyes steadily. “Tell me about her, Jarod. You grew up with her, didn’t you? I want to know what she’s like, what sort of person she is. I get the feeling that she’s angry about something all the time. I want to help her if I can. And maybe, if I knew more about her, I’d know how to act with her. Right now, I just feel…”

“Like she doesn’t want you around?” Jarod filled in after a long pause.

Merritt nodded sadly.

“She does. She wants very much to get to know you, but your safety comes first with her. When she can, she’ll be spending time with you. Right now, it just isn’t safe.”

“Yeah. I know.” She sighed. “Everything I’ve learned about the Centre scares me. And sometimes I get these feelings, like I know something needs to be done, but I can’t… It’s just frustrating.” She crossed her arms over her chest again, her body stiffening with bottled-up tension. A tear rolled down her cheek. “I feel like such a freak! I’m a clone, for God’s sake, a Xerox copy of somebody else. Somebody I can’t even talk to when I want.”

He felt her anguish from across the room, and opened his arms as he strode toward her. “Merritt,” he breathed. She ran to him, buried her face against his shirt and began to sob as he held her. “You’re not a freak. You’re a twin. That’s all. Just a twin.”

Jarod kissed her hair, closed his eyes and walked in her shoes in his mind. Jordan’s situation was different, in that he had a relationship with the man whose DNA he shared. Merritt was isolated, with hardly any connection to her roots, other than a few glimpses. Her pain went deep, her sense of identity fractured by the events of the past year that had left her orphaned in more ways than one. She desperately needed a family, and he was willing to provide it.

And if things went well with Morgan, once they had a future free of the Centre, he could certainly be a father to this girl. Perhaps what should have been between himself and Miss Parker might be fulfilled through Merritt and Jordan instead. He could dream on that, possibly even watch their relationship develop and blossom into something meaningful and deep. Giving them a happy ending would be sweet.

But as long as the Centre existed, it would never be anything more than a dream.

* * * * * * * * *

The Centre
SIS

Miss Parker watched Angelo and Gabriel open their presents, appreciating the delight in their eyes as they took their toys out and began to play with them on the floor of her office. She fed them a gourmet turkey dinner followed by cookies and pumpkin pie, apple juice for Gabriel and spiced apple cider, hot and fragrant with cinnamon and cloves for herself and Angelo. She talked to them until she saw the baby’s eyelids begin to droop with fatigue, then sent for Pennywhistle to carry him back to his bed. She put Angelo down on her sofa when he grew tired, and covered him with a chenille throw rather than have him sent back to his new rooms.

The tree in her office corner was small, but when she plugged it in, the lights were festive and the decorations a strange mix of designer perfect and childish homemade, the result of several recent projects she shared with Angelo and Gabriel. Broots had attempted to tease her about getting sentimental, but she had shot him a look that made whatever he had intended to say wither on his tongue. It wasn’t for herself, she had assured him, and he had said nothing more about it. The tree had been for her twin and her son, and she had blocked off time on Christmas Eve specifically for Gabriel to come up to her office and celebrate with her.

Her trip to Barrow had been lengthy and she was tired, but she promised herself she would not let another Christmas go by without sharing it with her family. This time it had been her excuses that kept her out of the Chairman’s presence for the holiday, and she was grateful.

But she was exhausted as well, and went to her cabinet for a second thermal throw. Curling up into one of the chairs, she drew the blanket across her and closed her eyes. Santa had already given her the best present ever, and tomorrow morning she would share the holiday with them, and the others she cared about.

* * * * * * * * *

Pacific Northwest

Faith marked off the date on her pocket calendar. It was Christmas Eve, and she hadn’t witnessed this particular holiday in action since she was almost too young to remember. The mercantile spirit bothered her, because it was so out of synch with the underlying message of sacrifice and love.

For a while, she walked the streets of the little rural town, watching the people hurry on last-minute errands, arguing with one another, exchanging unpleasantries as tensions rose. Now and then she would see a parent smiling with their children, playing in the snow and enjoying the holiday, which eased her disquiet somewhat, but not completely. At some of the stores were Salvation Army volunteers ringing bells and offering kind words to people as they passed by with closed pocketbooks. She watched one woman, obviously suffering from some kind of pain, but smiling into the faces of those who dropped their meager coins into her donation kettle, and thanking them for their generosity.

From across the street she observed the old lady, stocking cap squashed down over a mop of gray hair, tattered coat barely holding closed against the gusty wind. She wondered what made the woman stay there, when she was obviously in no shape to be doing the job. Curiosity got the better of her.

Holding a Styrofoam cup of hot cocoa from the diner across the street, Faith opened herself to the stranger’s emotions. She blinked, stunned by the depth of the old woman’s love. There was darkness in her as there was in everyone, but it lay quietly in the shadows beneath the blinding light of her compassion. For such a long time, Faith had not believed such people existed.

She picked up her hot cocoa, went to the counter and bought another, and took it to the woman across the street.

“God bless you, dear,” the woman said cheerfully, accepting the warm cocoa gratefully.

“God doesn’t even know I’m alive,” Faith returned flatly. She started to turn away.

The woman touched her coat sleeve. “Oh, yes, He does,” she argued gently with a gleam of merriment in her blue eyes.

Faith didn’t know why she stayed. Moments after she arrived, another bell ringer relieved the old woman, who introduced herself as Mamie. Faith walked with her to the woman’s tiny house one street over, and soon found herself sitting at her kitchen table while she baked up some cornbread with blueberries and honey for them to share. Faith started talking, and Mamie listened, believing every word. Faith couldn’t believe the secrets she told this stranger, but couldn’t seem to keep them buried any longer. The glow of Mamie’s understanding took away her resistance, and she was left weary and empty, too weak to return to her cabin in the woods.

Mamie let her sleep on the sofa, and the next morning, she found a gift under the woman’s tiny Norfolk Island pine tree, neatly potted and decorated with miniature lights and tiny ornaments, complete with a small angel on the top. The package had her name on it, but she didn’t open it. Instead, she left the house, hoping to find a store still open somewhere.

Everything was closed. Faith drove out to her cabin, searching for something she could give to her new friend, but all of her possessions were so basic and meager that there was nothing suitable for a gift. She reached for her recently purchased coat to return empty-handed, and smiled as an idea came to mind.

Straight into the kitchen she went, packaging up the ingredients for a meal for two. Once the groceries were in her car, she drove back to Mamie’s house and knocked on the door. The two women cooked and talked for hours, enjoyed their simple meal together, and in the evening Mamie read the Christmas story to her and prayed. When the old woman retired for the night, Faith went to the hook on the back of the door and reached for Mamie’s tattered old coat.

It fit. She glanced back at the sofa in the warm little house, and walked out into the snow. Her fingertips touched the locket Mamie had given her, and she blinked back tears before they could freeze to her eyelashes. The note she had left in her coat pocket would serve as a Christmas card, thanking Mamie for her hospitality and generosity. Faith had been restored somewhat by a gentle stranger, and she knew it was time to move on.

“Merry Christmas, Mamie,” she whispered to the night as she climbed into her car. She would not forget Mamie, she knew. And Mamie would remember her as well, every night, in her prayers.

* * * * * * * * *

Christmas Morning
Nursery, SL-17
Common Playroom

The tree was bright with lights and unbreakable plastic ornaments. Though small, it was the focal point of the room, sitting on a pedestal in the back corner. Around the base were brightly colored packages with each child’s name written on them.

The Seraphim came quietly into the room, their eyes wide with awe at the display. For a moment, they were quiet, just looking at the pretty objects stacked up neatly under the tree. Then, all eyes went to Miss Parker, who stood to one side with a wide smile on her face.

“Merry Christmas, children,” she said brightly. “Find the packages with your name, and carry them to your special play area.”

She watched patiently as the little ones raced to the tree and began to read each label.

Nancy strolled up to Miss Parker and stood by her, watching the excited children sorting through the treasure trove. “You know the bigwigs are going to have your head for this,” she said softly. “Penfield’s already gone to call the Chairman.”

“That’s okay, Nancy. I’m ready.” She clapped her hands when she saw that all the children had separated the presents into individual piles. “Okay, now that you’ve done that, we’re going to have story time. I’m going to tell you about a holiday called Christmas…”

An hour later, the room was littered with shredded paper and discarded ribbons, except for the ones now being worn as personal decorations. The children were singing Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and having a wonderful time playing with their new books and toys. Parker sat on the floor with Gabriel in her lap, pushing the colored flashing buttons on an electronic game that tested memory. Gabriel never missed, but laughed with her when she did.

Just as he got up to show his toy to Kayla, Parker heard the door open and smiled up in the face of the glower the Chairman aimed in her direction.

“What’s the meaning of this?” he demanded hotly, eyes darting about the room.

“It’s Christmas, Daddy,” she answered smoothly, and rose gracefully to her feet. She strolled closer. “Or did you forget? I didn’t see any presents for my little brother from you yet.”

His face reddened. “These children are not supposed to be distracted by such nonsense.”

All trace of levity left her face as she stared hard at him. “Gabriel is your son, remember? He’s not a project.” She swept a hand out over the room to draw his eyes to the other toddlers dashing madly about. “You were the one who said Gabriel needed to be integrated into their group. And they’d pick up on the fact that he enjoyed the phenomenon of Christmas, and they didn’t. That would set him apart from them, and that’s not part of the scheme of things, is it, Daddy? You want him to be accepted as one of them. If Gabriel gets Christmas, so do they.”

She stepped closer, watching the color of his face darken as he struggled to find an argument against her logic. “Or is Gabriel one of your projects, too, Daddy?” she added softly. Without another word, she turned away and started picking up the trash, ignoring the man while she let her attention return to the happy children.

Carrying the paper to the waste can near the door, she breezed close enough to jab him with one more line. “And besides, they’re all educational toys.”

The Chairman’s eyes narrowed at her, but he had nothing to say. After a few moments of clenching his fists, he pivoted on his heel and stormed back out the way he had come.

With a broad smile, she resumed her seat in Gabriel’s play area. “That felt really good,” she said to no one in particular. The toddler came up to her and sat down in her lap again, clinging to her sweater briefly until she gave him a hug and began to rock him gently in her arms.

Gabriel sighed. “I miss Jawid,” he whispered. He pushed back enough to look up at her, and she made eye contact. “Jawid is happy now? Mine make Jawid happy?”

Guiltily, she glanced around them. The other children were busy and not listening, and the caregivers had removed themselves to benches on the far end of the room where they could oversee without interfering in the play. They were out of earshot of that quiet little voice, and the noise from the other children would obscure his questions from anyone listening from the observation room.

“Yes, honey. He’s fine now. But we mustn’t talk about him, remember? None of the children should tell any of the grownups about Jarod.”

“Not empty man, too?”

Her brows twitched together. “The empty man? Who is that?” Gabriel’s speech was improving by leaps and bounds, but he didn’t have the skills to describe whoever he meant. “Never mind, honey. Whoever the empty man is, he shouldn’t be told either. You tell your friends, okay? Nobody talks about Jarod. Okay? You’ll see him again, I promise.”

“Okay.”

“Merry Christmas, Gabriel,” she whispered, and kissed his dark hair, cupping his soft baby cheek with one hand.

“Mewwy Kwismas, Mine,” he returned with a dimpled smile.

A moment later, he wriggled out of her lap to play with Gideon and his new water pistols, screaming with delight as he got sprayed with a small jet of water.

That wasn’t exactly an educational toy, but for a little fire-starter, she thought they just might come in handy.

* * * * * * * * *

Barrow, Alaska

The two men stood in the doorway to the greenhouse, rigged up with banks of full spectrum lights and water sprinkler pipes. The scent of rich earth filled their nostrils, and pots filled with plants of all sizes, types and colors sat in neat rows on the shelves. To one side was a table on which sat a variety of measuring instruments, a large microscope and attendant supplies. It was a botanist’s paradise, and Jordan was personally inspecting every plant, reeling off the Latin names of the ones he found most interesting to his teenage companion.

“He’ll enjoy this,” observed the major. “It’s a great gift.” He turned to face his oldest son with a knowing look. “I suppose that, by setting this up for him here, you intend for us to stay.”

Jarod nodded. “You’ll both be safe here. At least, for a while. I need that security right now.”

“So you won’t be staying with us?”

“I’ll take Merritt back to the convent school when the holidays are over, but I’ve got things to do.”

”Don’t you always?” He sighed. “When will it be time to settle down, Jarod? When can you come home?”

“When my family is safe. All of them.”

”You can’t go back to the Centre for Gabriel.” Charles laid his hand on his son’s shoulder, and gave it a fond squeeze. “How can you get him out of that place?”

Jarod crossed his arms. “I’m working on it. It’s just going to take me a little longer to figure out a plan. Every time I come up with something that I think will work, I look at it from another angle and it’s full of holes. I have to wait till I have a plan that accounts for all the contingencies.”

“That could be years, son.” Charles turned his gaze back to the beaming teenager in the greenhouse. “Meantime, you have Jordan. He needs you.”

“That’s another reason for this place,” Jarod assured him. “I can stay in contact with video conferencing, using a satellite feed and firewalls to keep the signal secure. And when the weather permits, I can come back here every so often for a week’s visit. This will be home, until it’s compromised. After that…”

“I know the drill, son. Jordan needs the stability, but not the isolation.”

“I’m working on that, too.” He eyed Merritt, knowing how much the teens needed each other. He wanted them together for more than a brief visit. They needed to grow up together… but Merritt needed parenting that Major Charles couldn’t offer her at the moment. The teens were at a very vulnerable age, and things could get quickly out of hand right under his nose without help, as it almost had already. A woman’s touch was what was needed, and Jarod was fresh out of those.

Emily would be ideal for an ally, but she had told him she couldn’t come. That bothered Jarod. He wondered what she was so involved in that she would choose to miss Christmas with their family, and promised himself to check into it as soon as he got back. He needed to have a long talk with her anyway, and this gave him a good excuse.

“Jordan told me what happened,” Charles confessed. He grinned at his son. “That was a talk I missed having with you. But I think you turned out all right without it. Must be Sydney’s doing.”

Jarod met his frank gaze. “Sydney gave me a lot, Dad. He taught me to care, to be compassionate. But he didn’t teach me about women. Even when I called him for help, he still didn’t give me what I needed. I got that from a woman who knew without being told.”

Charles nodded. “Women are the best teachers, if a man’s willing to listen.” He sighed and turned back to the teens. “I learned everything I know about love from your mother. She’s the only woman who ever owned my heart. I miss her.”

Jarod put his arm around his father’s shoulders. “I’ll find her, Dad. I promise.”

“Your sister knows where she is, but she won’t tell me.” He shook his head. “I can’t help wondering what’s so wrong that she’d keep that secret from me. Talk to her, son. Find your mother.”

“I will, Dad.” Jarod wondered about that, too. His mind went in all sorts of directions, contemplating possibilities that frightened him. He wasn’t sure he really wanted to know the answer yet, but he did need to talk to Emily. As long as one of them knew, it was a secret that would keep. As long as his mother was safe, that was what mattered.

He turned his attention to the teens flirting with each other among the potted plants, and went to make preparations for their special Christmas dinner.

* * * * * * * * *

Miss Parker's house

The table was set, the candles were lit and the scent of food and spices filled the rooms. Miss Parker had spent the afternoon in the kitchen, humming to herself while she worked. Her morning had been beautiful - the Seraphim enjoyed their presents, and when it was time to say goodbye, she had phoned in an invitation to those she held closest in her heart to share dinner at her home.

This was a first. She was good in the kitchen, though she hated cooking for herself and never indulged in that habit. But today she had dragged out her mother’s old cookbooks, reimbursed the Centre for the foodstuffs she appropriated and carried them home with her, since there were no stores open in town that day. Preparing the meal had been a sort of pleasant meditation, busying her hands with something tangible, something she could see come into being from a multitude of separate parts into a fragrant, beautiful whole.

She answered the door with a smile, dusting off her hands as she gestured Sydney into the living room.

He looked startled, and sniffed the air. “Merry Christmas, Miss Parker,” he greeted her, and handed her a silver-wrapped box. “My goodness, it smells marvelous. Who catered?”

“I did.” She winked at him. “Betcha didn’t know I could cook. Please, come in.” She took the box and set it under her tree, all but bare of decorations, since Jarod had stolen hers for use in Barrow. All he had left her was the angel for the top and the bulb she had made for her mother as a child, now hanging by itself on a branch near the middle of the tree.

She gestured him toward the sofa and offered him a drink. By the time she had it poured, the rest of her guests had arrived, and she ushered Broots and his daughter into the room. Their gifts went under the tree with her presents for them, and she invited Debbie into the kitchen to help her with some last minute preparations.

When her mother had been alive, it was a tradition that the women who made the meal would share a fun secret in the kitchen before Christmas dinner was served, followed by a special, sweet drink topped with whipped cream and cinnamon. She still had the recipe, and after fulfilling the tradition with Debbie, they began to carry serving dishes to the table as their laughter drew the men to the dining room.

“What’s so funny?” asked Broots hesitantly, trying not to smile.

Parker winked at him and said, “Cook’s secret,” as she set the small golden roasted turkey on the table. “Please, take your seats, gentlemen. Sydney, will you sit at the head of the table?”

With a look of surprise, he moved toward the indicated chair, but did not sit down. “Isn’t your father going to join us?”

Her good humor evaporated instantly. Her face stiffened, eyebrow cocked and ready to fire. Then she relaxed again. “I told Daddy I’d be meeting with members of my team today,” she informed them. “I did not tell him we wouldn’t be discussing business, which, by the way, is the order of the day. Nothing regarding the Centre crosses anyone’s lips in this house today. It’s Christmas, after all.” She sighed, and looked at them one by one. “And Christmas is for families.”

She poured a little wine into the adults’ glasses and milk into Debbie’s, lifted her own goblet in a toast as she took the chair at the other end of the table and said, “To families. By blood or by common bond, may they always look out for each other.”

Sydney smiled and nodded, raising his glass in answer. “To love, and the ties that bind.”

Broots thought for a moment. “To trust. May we always have it for each other.”

Debbie responded with a little girl grin and musical chuckle. “To presents! Merry Christmas, everybody!”

Glasses clinked all around to the tune of soft laughter, and the family settled down to eat and share an evening of joy and peace.

* * * * * * * * *

End of Episode
Christmas Present

Happy Holidays to all, from the VS Staff!

 
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