Traditions (cont)

Then there was the sound of Octavia coming through the house, hollering as she came, though I was sure she’d hung back and waited until the greeting part was over before she interrupted. The woman may be big, but there is nothing about her that is slow. ‘Zinia Lynn Spencer, you get yourself on this porch this instant and shut this door! I’m not raising a pack of wild animals, though the good Lord knows sometimes it seems that way! And get down off that poor man before you throw his back out!’

I traded a look with the child in question and we murmured, ‘busted’ together. She giggled some more, not all that worried about the ranting and I set her on her feet.

‘Yes, ma’am!’ she called and raced back up on the porch to shut the door despite the fact that Octavia was standing in it.

‘Do not encourage that child, Mister Duo,’ she scolded me, hands on hips and glare in place. ‘And come in the house; we’re in the winter cycle and I can’t afford to heat all of L2!’

The kids scrambled for the house and I frowned, noticing suddenly, a certain MIA. I glanced around, just to make sure I hadn’t missed her, and then turned to look up at Octavia. I was just opening my mouth to ask after Allison when I got a quick shake of her head. I subsided, though my curiosity was killing me. I would have expected some sort of kid’s game or surprise from her, if I hadn’t seen the somewhat unhappy look on Octavia’s face.

When I turned to take one of the bags from Heero, I was surprised as hell to find Sarah had abandoned my side and was now attached to Heero’s. Holding the handle of one of the shopping bags with him, and looking up with such a look of open adoration, that I had to grin at him. He caught my eye with a slightly confused look and I had to resist the urge to tell him she had his scent and knew he was afraid.

I tapped her on the head with a knuckle just to get her attention, grinning down at her broadly. ‘You going to stand there all day, munchkin, or are you going to show us into the house?’

She grinned back and bounced off up the steps. ‘I think she likes you,’ I whispered to Heero, and then led him up to the porch. I introduced him a little more formally to Octavia and she greeted him warmly, as always, but I could tell from the look in her eye that she knew exactly who he was. I rather suspected she’d recognized Relena on my last visit too, though we hadn’t ever spoken of it.

After Heero had been politely greeted, I got my bear hug, and Octavia opined that I might finally have enough meat on my bones to survive a bad head cold. I thought I heard Heero snort softly, but I wasn’t sure.

The kids were still clustered around us and I was just starting to wonder how in the world I was going to find out what was going on, when Octavia turned on them with that long-suffering heavenward roll of her eyes. ‘This door will not close itself with the lot of you standing in it! Take these sacks for these kindly gentlemen and take them into the front room.’

There was a moment where it looked like they might be thinking about climbing all over Heero to get at the sacks, so I quickly divested him of them, handing them off to Davey and the new kid before the mobbing could happen. Heero looked relieved.

I noticed the new kid puff up a little bit with a touch of importance, then they all crowded through the doorway, still not quite having that single file thing down.

‘So what gives, Octavia?’ I asked, keeping my voice low, once all the kids were gone.

I expected her to roll her eyes and tell me some story about children, and God not having enough patience for them. I didn’t expect her to get a look like she was going to cry.

‘Octavia?’ I prompted, suddenly afraid that something truly dire had happened. I felt Heero step in a little closer and I glanced to him, sharing a confused look.

‘I probably should have e-mailed you,’ Octavia finally said, sighing heavily and looking tired of a sudden. ‘We had a new neighbor move in up the block about two months ago. He has dogs. You know how Allison is about animals.’ She sighed again, and I knew how upset she was when her hand came out of her apron pocket with the little handkerchief she always carries but never uses.

I thought my damn heart was going to stop in my chest. It was all I could do not to grab the woman and shake her. ‘Octavia! What the hell happened?’

I felt Heero touch the small of my back and I tried to calm down.

‘One of the misbegotten beasts got out and attacked her,’ she told me, voice grim and angry. ‘Thank the Lord Mr. Henry from across the street was out and he pulled the animal off.’

‘Is she... all right?’ I asked, barely able to get my voice above a whisper.

‘She’s fine,’ Octavia told me, reaching to pat my cheek. ‘But... she doesn’t want to see you. She’s afraid you’ll think she’s ugly now and won’t like her any more.’

‘What?’ I blurted, totally flabbergasted. ‘Why on Earth...’ And then it kind of dawned on me what she had to be saying. ‘How... bad is it?’

‘Bad enough when you’re seven years old,’ Octavia said, not unkindly. ‘But... all things considered, it could be a lot worse.’

I nodded, finding my fingers running through my bangs. ‘Where is she?’ I finally asked.

‘Hiding in the hall closet,’ was the reply, and I had to shake my head. Not so far away that anything might be missed, but in the safe cover of darkness. It made me think of my own closet at home and some of the urges it gave me on solitary evenings, when Heero wasn’t home.

I turned to look at Heero, doing my best to impart to him how sorry I was for my imminent abandonment. ‘Heero, I have to...’

But he just smiled, the touch of his fingers on my back becoming a nudge. ‘Of course you do. Go on... I’ll be fine.’

Octavia smiled at me and it was like all her cares just melted away. I realized that she wouldn’t have asked me to go try talking to our little runaway, but had been hoping like hell that I’d volunteer.

‘Don’t let them eat him alive, Mrs. Octavia,’ I warned her and she laughed good naturedly. I was a little taken aback by her obvious faith in my ability to get through to a heart-broken seven year old.

We went into the house, Octavia leading Heero off to the sitting room while I wandered in the general direction of the closet door. I could see it cracked open just a tiny bit and I imagined the poor kid sitting in there in the dark, trying to see without being seen.

I went over and threw myself down on the floor, sitting to lean against the wall beside the door. From where I sat, I could see Heero settling himself on the couch in the sitting room. His butt no more than touched the cushion than Sarah had plopped herself down beside him, looking up expectantly. Heero gave her a nervous glance before turning his attention to something Octavia was saying. He nodded and I could see him say, ‘Yes, Ma’am,’ to whatever she’d said. He felt my gaze and glanced my way, giving me a reassuring smile before he turned to listen to something Sarah said to him.

I’m sure this trip was not at all what he’d imagined it would be.

‘Hey pixie,’ I said to the closet door and heard a faint stirring from within, but got no reply. ‘Aren’t you even going to come out and say hello?’

I knew it wasn’t going to be that darn easy, but I didn’t know where else to start. I was at something of a loss here. I really was.

‘I didn’t think I was going to make it this year,’ I told nobody in particular. ‘It’s been a pretty rough couple of months. Did Octavia tell you I had to sell my ship? I’m not a pilot anymore, so I don’t get around as much as I used to. I’m a mechanic now, so I had to buy shuttle tickets. It was kind of weird coming all this way with somebody else doing the flying.’

I’m not real sure just what I thought I would accomplish with my stupid monologue, but I just wasn’t sure how one addressed a closet. I felt eyes on me and glanced Heero’s way, but it wasn’t him. In fact, I didn’t see anybody looking my way. I decided I should keep talking.

‘I hope everybody likes what I got them,’ I told the watching presence conspiratorially. ‘I wasn’t sure what to get the new kid. Mark’s his name, right? It felt kind of funny getting presents for a kid I’d never met.’ I chuckled softly in remembrance. ‘But then... I guess I bought for you that first year before we met. I don’t think I did very well... Octavia told me you liked dolls.’ I put a faint sneer into that last word, but even that old joke didn’t get me a response.

I sighed softly and just sat for a second watching Heero. He was obviously relating some story to Octavia at her prompting, but he somehow seemed to have the rapt attention of the kids as well. I put forth the effort to pick out enough words to realize he was telling them what he did for a living. I almost laughed at him. Sarah was on a down-hill ride headed straight for a severe case of hero worship, and he had Ethan and Devon at his feet already. Though, looking at him, you’d have almost never guessed from the expression on his face that there was even a kid in the same room with him.

‘You know,’ I blurted to the closet door. ‘I have a house now. Of my very own, and I have a refrigerator and I was kinda hoping I might get a picture from you before I had to leave today. The kitchen really needs brightening up.’

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the door shift just a tiny fraction of an inch, and I might have seen the light glint off a wide, bright eye, but I wasn’t sure.

‘I’m kind of mad at Mrs. Octavia,’ I dared, sounding unhappy even to my own ears. ‘She didn’t even e-mail me about what happened. Not a single word.’

I let that hang there for a minute, and was just about ready to try a different tact, when I heard a tiny little hiccough. ‘I told her not to,’ came to me so soft, I almost didn’t hear it.

‘Why not?’ I asked, just as softly, leaning a little toward that cracked open door.

It took a minute, but she finally sniffled. ‘I didn’t want you to see me.’

I went for the shocked gasp and deliberately misunderstood. ‘You didn’t want to see me? But why; don’t you like me anymore?’

The sniffle resolved itself into a little gulp and she was quick to tell me, ‘I like you! I don’t want you to see me!’

‘But why not, munchkin?’ I asked her gently, almost holding my breath. It took her a long couple of minutes and I waited her out. Not prompting, not moving past the question, just waiting. I looked and found Heero watching me, his eyes offering sympathy.

‘Cause I’m ugly now,’ the answer finally came, and it was such a mournful little sound that I felt tears pricking at the back of my eyes. I squeezed my eyes shut.

‘Why do you think you’re ugly?’ I queried, doing my best to keep my voice steady.

I’ve mentioned how much trouble I have with kids in pain, haven’t I? I’m sure it’s come up. I... apparently have this nurturing instinct a mile wide when it comes to little kids. I blame it on Solo, though I’m sure he’d laugh at me for the notion. I wanted nothing in the world as much as I wanted to gather that little girl into my arms, but knew we weren’t quite there yet.

‘The bad doggie bit me,’ she told me, disembodied voice managing to hold a world of hurt and betrayal.

‘That wouldn’t make you ugly, sweetie,’ I told her in open confusion. ‘That would just make you hurt.’

I heard a funny little sound that might have been exasperation, or might have been disbelief. It took her a long time to answer again, but she finally whispered, ‘He bit my face.’

I thought my heart was breaking right freakin’ in half. ‘Ouch,’ I managed. ‘Bet that hurt! Did you get stitches?’

She was losing a bit of the hesitation and giving in to some of her frustration that I just wasn’t getting it. The closet door opened another half inch and she blurted in an almost angry voice, ‘I got scars, Mr. Duo!’

I gave it a second to sink in, and then directed wide eyes on the dark opening her voice was emanating from. ‘You mean... scars make you ugly?’ I asked in all innocence and some dawning horror.

She didn’t answer me, though I suspect she was nodding vigorously; I thought I detected movement. I looked down at my own hands and simply said, ‘Oh... I didn’t know.’ Then I balled my fingers up and shoved my hands up under my arms. ‘Oh,’ I said again and turned a somewhat upset look in her direction. ‘Maybe you better make room in there for me.’

I could see the shine of her eyes now, and she blinked owlishly at me. ‘What?’ she asked, her turn to be confused.

‘I’ve got scars too,’ I informed her in a low voice, as though I didn’t want anybody to hear me. ‘Lots of them.’

‘You do?’ she asked, voice finally holding a hint of her normal curiosity.

I nodded and pulled my hands back out, opening them a bit and peering down at them. ‘Yeah... pretty bad ones.’ I looked back into the dark. ‘Does... that make me ugly?’

She’s a tender-hearted little thing. Always has been, and I hoped this incident wouldn’t steal that from her. She couldn’t handle the sad little twist I put in my voice and finally launched herself out of the dark and wrapped her arms around my neck. It wasn’t lost on me that she put her face out of my line of sight.

‘Oh no, Mr. Duo!’ she blurted. ‘You’re handsome!’

I got to do that gathering thing then, feeling a little bit of the hurt receding. ‘Well,’ I pressed, doing my best to sound confused. ‘I don’t understand why your scar makes you ugly, but mine doesn’t make me ugly.’

She gave out with another one of those little hiccoughs and eased off the hug, sitting back some, but keeping her head down. ‘Cause I’m a girl. Girls aren’t supposed to have scars.’

‘I think you’re pretty,’ I told her gently.

‘You haven’t seen it,’ she said, voice making it just a bit past petulant.

‘Well, why don’t you show it to me and let me decide,’ I asked, all reasonableness.

She bit her lip and worried at that one, finally asking, ‘But what if you don’t like me anymore?’

I snorted. ‘I think I’d be a pretty not nice person if I didn’t like you just because of what you looked like.’ I held my hand out, palm up and let her see. They looked fairly bad at that time with the still faintly pink stripes from the cookout fiasco on top of the old scars. ‘Do you think I’m ugly?’ I asked softly.

She studied them, I’ll give her that. Even reached to touch once. I think it was stalling more than anything, and then she finally raised her head and looked right at me. The hope in her eyes was enough to make a serial killer repent and find God.

It was, as Octavia had said, not good. Especially when you’re a little seven year old girl with your whole life ahead of you. I studied her in turn, looking closely before reaching to push her hair around. ‘Where is it?’ I asked in all innocence and got to see her blink at me. She turned her head to the light and I gave a little ‘Oh,’ that reeked of ‘now I see!’

‘Nope,’ I declared, after a second of looking. ‘Doesn’t make you ugly at all.’

I got a tiny little grin, tinged with a bit of doubt and I grinned back.

‘Now there’s my pretty girl!’ I beamed at her. ‘I don’t even see it when you smile!’

She snorted in a very unlady-like manner and then burst into tears.

So I gathered again, settled her on my lap and let her cry it out until the shoulder of my t-shirt was a sodden mess.

After a bit, she sat up, rubbing at her nose and had to ask, ‘You really don’t think I’m ugly, Mr. Duo?’

‘Of course not,’ I told her firmly, looking her over again. Her blond hair, that had hung to the middle of her back, had been cut off to just below her jaw line since the last time I’d visited. I had to wonder if it didn’t have something to do with the attack as well. She had loved her hair, and I felt a pang of sympathy for her over its loss.

‘You know,’ I told her, turning her head this way and that as I looked at her. ‘With that new hair-cut, you look a little bit like a cat.’ The child loves animals, ok? I knew she’d like the comparison. I grinned at her. ‘Guess that makes you my little Allie-cat!’

She giggled and gave me another hug.

‘Now, how about you go blow your nose and we go in the other room before Zinia has a cow wanting her Christmas present?’

She nodded and climbed almost reluctantly off my lap to run off to the kitchen. I heaved a sigh and let my head fall back against the wall, then reached out and gently pushed the closet door closed.

After a moment, I felt someone’s regard and opened my eyes to meet Heero’s gaze. I gave him a wan little smile of reassurance and he gave me a look that told me he wished he could come and do his own gathering. I smiled wider at the notion, and it seemed to ease his mind a bit.

I waited for Allison to come back from the kitchen, so she wouldn’t have to go into the sitting room by herself and when she did, I threw out an arm and groaned theatrically, ‘I’m an old man, Allie-cat; help me off the floor!’

She grinned and grabbed my arm, pulling for all she was worth, and of course only managing to pull me over sideways. Her snickering brought Ethan and Devon running and they were quick to join in the game, pulling and shoving until their laughter brought Zinia and I surrendered to their greater number.

‘I give!’ I cried as they swarmed over me, making me feel like I’d been mobbed by a pack of ferocious ferrets. ‘Mercy!’

‘No rough-housing in the house!’ Octavia hollered at us from the other room and I joined in the chorus of contrite voices.

‘Yes, Ma’am!’

The kids snickered at me gleefully. Then I let them pull me to my feet and we went in to join the others. Though I noticed Allison stuck close beside me.

Davey and Mark were sitting together, ‘guarding’ the gifts and Sarah was still planted firmly at Heero’s side. The poor guy looked like he just didn’t know what in the hell to do with her. The kids scattered to the floor as we went into the room and I scooped Sarah up to hang her upside down while she squealed at me. ‘Traitor!’ I accused. ‘You didn’t come and rescue me! They mobbed me! They wallowed me! And where were you?’

She squirmed until I put her down, but then she promptly climbed back on the couch next to Heero. He gave me a look that held a hint of pleading in it. I had no doubt that he’d never spent this much time in the company of a child before. And I was even surer that he’d never had one get so fixated on him.

‘You don’t love me anymore,’ I sniffled at her and she giggled hysterically. ‘Threw me over for the first pretty face you saw!’ The child just would not be swayed. It took two ‘woe is me’s’ and an ‘I am crushed’, before she finally came and gave me a hug.

‘God only knows why these children think they rate any Christmas presents,’ Octavia intoned with one of those long-suffering sighs, never looking up from her knitting. ‘Been telling them all month all they were going to get was coal and they should be darn happy to get it, too!’

There were a couple of giggles, though some of them didn’t sound all that sure of themselves. But that’s the idea, I suppose, to make them sweat a little. Heightens the anticipation. Works just fine as long as there’s always a follow through. Doesn’t work so good when the lump of coal thing was the actual truth.

I sat myself down on the couch beside Heero, relinquishing his right side to Sarah simply because there’s no fighting some things. Allison came to sit on the floor at the end of the couch, kind of out of the way, but still close beside me. I decided that getting her in the same room with everyone else was good enough for now and let it go.

Then it was time to hand around the gifts and I delegated it to Davey, who took the job very seriously, carefully unpacking everything from the sacks and setting them in a pile before sorting through to find Sarah’s first, since she’s the youngest.

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Mark counting the packages and coming up with a number he obviously hadn’t expected. He glanced our way and then carefully counted again. Something like an uncertain smile dancing across his face before being replaced with the slightly guarded expression he’d been wearing since I’d first laid eyes on him.

Sarah slid off the couch, finally getting more than two feet away from Heero, to take the traditional spot in the center of the floor to open her gift.

She’s a meticulous little thing and carefully peeled back each piece of tape, unsealing every seam until she could lift the gold paper away in one piece. Then she took a moment to fold it up before going further. The boys were about ready to scream by the time she got to the actual gift.

I poked at Allison’s arm and made her sit up to lean over where I could whisper in her ear, ‘Tell me if I did good, ok?’

She nodded solemnly, and turned back to watch as Sarah finally lifted the lid off the box. If Octavia hadn’t led me astray twice, Sarah really did like dolls. I certainly hoped so, because the one in the box she was opening hadn’t been cheap.

Allison, by the way, hadn’t wanted a doll, she’d wanted one of those artist’s mannequins. And before you ask, yes, I got her one for her birthday. Darn thing hadn’t cost a quarter what the doll had, but she’d been thrilled no end. The doll had ended up in the ‘community toy chest’ and I’d never seen it again.

From the look on Sarah’s face, I’d done all right, and Allison poked me on the arm to get my attention, nodding vigorously to confirm it.

It was a Japanese doll, complete with a kimono, plus a set of ‘play clothes’ to change it into. It was one of those historical things that came with a set of books about the exploits of said doll, and a bunch of accessories.

Sarah can really be a somber little thing, bright as a new penny, but sometimes just a bit too serious. Not that she doesn’t have a mischievous side... it’s just not as pronounced as Zinia’s or the boys. She’s very careful with her things and she didn’t disappoint me when she carefully tucked the doll back in the box before running over give me a big hug and a ‘thank you.’

‘Well,’ I grinned at her. ‘Maybe I am still your favorite.’

But it was Heero’s lap she climbed into with the first of her ‘Kohana’ books. Heero gave me a look that spoke to me of guilt and I realized that he was worried I was going to get my feelings hurt over Sarah’s obvious infatuation. I laughed out loud and elbowed him in the ribs, the kids looking at me like I was nuts.

‘What’s so funny Mr. Duo?’ Ethan asked in confusion.

‘Watching you monsters squirm, waiting your turn,’ I told him without missing a beat and that served to make Davey start hunting for the next present, but Zinia already had it found and didn’t wait for him to give it to her, snatching it out of the pile and retreating to the center of the old, worn rug.

There wasn’t any meticulousness or neatness or patience to her unwrapping. The paper flew in great handfuls in all directions and I thought the kid was going to rip the box open with her teeth.

There was a squeal from Zinia, a ‘Cool!’ from Devon, and a stone-cold ‘What have you done?’ from Octavia. I ducked my head.

‘Forgive me, Ma’am,’ I murmured as Zinia pulled out the little recorder/karaoke machine. What can I say? The child likes to sing. I figure I should encourage whatever talents they have how ever I can. Besides... I don’t have to live with it.

She hauled it over and threw herself in my lap, demanding to be shown how it worked. The thing was little more than a MP3 player with a microphone, though you could record as well. The music was all contained in the box, so you didn’t have tons of CDs lying around, though it had over a hundred selections. She was enthralled with punching through the song titles, listening to about two seconds worth of music before flipping to the next one. I thought she’d never get to the one I’d spent a month hunting for. She laughed in delight when the first notes of the song she’d sung for me the last time I’d been to visit, began to play. She had to hop off the couch and sing along and listening to her, I had no doubt that if the child really did find a dragon while out walking; she would not hesitate to bring it home any more than the kid in the song.

Even Heero chuckled a little at the chorus.

I spared Octavia a glance, but she only gave me a faint little smile over her reading glasses and I knew I wasn’t in any huge trouble. Zinia actually has a decent singing voice, which is good, because she does it with gusto.

Octavia let her finish the song before insisting that she stop ‘hogging the spotlight’ and let some other ‘poor child’ have their turn at gift unwrapping.

Davey was ready this time, not that Allison would have run over to snatch her gift up, but he already had it located and was holding it in his lap when she made her quiet way over to fetch it.

I could see she was not altogether comfortable in the center of the room, under everybody’s watchful eye, and it tugged at my heart watching her keep her head tilted so her hair covered the side of her face. Six months ago, she would not have thought a thing about taking the traditional spot. I slid off the couch and stretched out on the floor on my belly. It drew first Devon and then Ethan to come and sit on my back and make jokes about me making a good couch. It took some of the focus away from Allison though and she bent to opening her present. She’s not as painstaking about it as Sarah, but not near as wild as Zinia. I’d picked the paper I wrapped her gift in, knowing that pieces of it would become something else someday.

If there is an art box out there more complete, I couldn’t find it. It was a huge thing, made out of wood, that hinged open with tray after tray of water colors and acrylic paints. Colored pencils, markers and paint brushes of every imaginable type. The bottom of the box was made to hold sketchpads and I’d made sure it was full of real ones, not those cheap kiddy ones that were nothing more than newsprint.

Allison is not a squealer. Not really. I guess all kids are on some level, but when you really get it right with Allison, you get more of this kind of watery, wide eyed look that tells you everything you need to know.

‘Better than a doll?’ I grinned at her and all she could do was nod until I thought her head was going to come off her shoulders. After she finally tore her eyes off it and gave me one of those break-your-neck hugs, she hauled it back to her spot by the end of the couch and seemed to forget the rest of the world was even there.

Devon took that as his cue, and scrambled over to Davey, looking expectant. I saw that Davey had delegated some of the handing-out chores to the new kid, and it was Mark who handed the bright red package up to Devon.

Devon didn’t have any problems with being the center of attention, throwing himself down bonelessly on the rug and tearing into his package with relish. Though he is a little older than Zinia and seemed to understand that throwing the paper around the room was only going to result in his having to clean it up later. So, while he tore... he didn’t throw.

I only hoped that his circus fixation was still in place, he’d already been through archeology, fire-fighting, the marines and gardening as his chosen future professions. Most of his decisions along those lines only lasted for a couple of months.

His present was two-fold and I gnawed my lip, hoping that he wasn’t disappointed in the first half before he got to the second half. But I needn’t have feared, he was thrilled with the set of action figures that came complete with circus cars and animals. You could assemble the set into a traveling train, or tear it down and reform it into a three ring circus. It was actually kind of cool. I rather liked the set of lions, myself. It had taken me forever to chase down all the individual pieces, but damned if I hadn’t gotten the complete set.

Then he got to the envelope in the bottom of the box and looked at me quizzically. I only grinned, waiting for him to open it. I could tell he wasn’t all that sure what he was looking at, so I unseated Ethan to sit up and scoot closer to explain it.

‘I happen to know a guy who has connections,’ I winked at him. ‘He used to belong to a circus that just so happens to tour the colonies every year. They’ll be on L2 next month.’ I could see from the sparkle in his eyes that he was starting to see where this might be leading, but he waited patiently for me to finish explaining. ‘These,’ I told him, pulling out the first set of tickets. ‘Are gate passes for you and... oh, seven of your closest friends.’ Then I pulled out the other piece of paper that Trowa and I had made ourselves, unfolded it and showed it to Devon. It really did look quite impressive. ‘This is your private tour pass to the behind the scenes stuff.’

You’d have thought I’d given him the Hope diamond; the kid could not have been more impressed. He looked like I’d just told him I personally knew the Vice Foreign minister or something. I’d have to remember to tell Trowa that knowing an ex-tight rope walker was better than knowing the rich and famous in some circles.

‘Wow,’ he managed and then he gave me a hug, something I hadn’t gotten from Devon in over a year, ever since he’d decided he was ‘too old for girly stuff like that’.

‘The lady’s name is Catherine,’ I informed him, when he let go of my neck. ‘And you monsters be nice to her. She’s a knife thrower.’

They looked suitably impressed. I heard a sigh and glanced up to find Octavia looking at me like I’d lost my mind. I only grinned at her, totally unrepentant. She was afraid I was feeding an obsession that wasn’t the best thing the kid could decide to do with his life. What she didn’t know, is that Catherine Bloom wouldn’t pull the punches. She’d see to it the kids had one hell of a good time. Something they’d probably never forget, but she’d also see that they saw some of the... less attractive aspects of circus life. You never see the fact that all those fancy, glittery, beautiful performers have to take their turns at the scut jobs right next to everybody else. Sure, Catherine got to wear the pretty outfits and stand in center ring, but after all the crowds were gone, she was out back with everyone else, hauling water to the animals and tearing down tents.

And, well, if after that Devon still wanted to join the circus... who am I to decide on a kid’s dream for them?

I think Devon embarrassed himself a little, with the hug, and he retreated with his prize to Davey and Mark, wanting to reestablish himself as one of the ‘big boys’. He showed them his tickets and again, I got that strange look from Mark as the things were counted.

With the boys off my back, I climbed back up to the couch beside Heero, feeling a little bit guilty about ignoring him, but when I looked that way, he had his head bent over Sarah’s new book with her, and they were talking softly together. I glanced at what they were reading and found that the back of the book had a couple of pages of kanji characters and Heero was reading them to her. I smiled at the picture they made, but he didn’t see.

Ethan looked like he was going to bust a gut waiting for some sort of sign from me that it was ok for him to go fetch his present, and I kind of sighed, hoping this was going to work out all right. ‘Get your package and come here, Ethan-buddy,’ I told him and he dutifully darted over to take the green and silver box from Davey. It rattled alarmingly as he turned with it, and he looked up at me with wide-eyes. I only grinned. ‘Nothing broken, kid, it’s supposed to sound like that.’

He came to stand in front of me, looking just a tiny bit confused and I settled my hands on his shoulders, looking him in the eye. ‘How old are you now?’ I asked.

‘Eight,’ was the reply and I nodded sagely.

‘So you’re a pretty big kid now,’ I observed, looking him over. ‘You know a thing or two about patience?’

He got a look on his face that told me he wasn’t sure he liked the direction this conversation was taking, but he held his tongue, only nodding a little.

‘Ok,’ I sighed, hoping for the best. ‘Here’s the deal, kiddo. You got the biggest present of all, so I’m going to have to ask you to share, if that’s all right?’

He looked dubiously at the box in his hands, obviously not the biggest box by a long damn shot, but managed not to point that out. He gave me another little nod and it made my heart swell with pride. ‘That’s my boy,’ I murmured and let him sit down to open the package. I found myself gnawing my lip again; it had taken me quite a while to decide just how to present this. An elbow found its way into my ribs and I glanced at Heero to get a little smile and a reassuring nod.

Ethan isn’t a paper saver, though he’s not a thrower either. He tears with precision, balling it up as he goes and he quickly had the cobbled together box uncovered. He gave me a quick glance, as though wondering if he could trust me, and then pulled the lid off. He blinked in surprise at the pile of chain that greeted him. He looked even more confused, but dug his hands into it, pulling it out until it was spread across his lap and he found the swing seat attached to the other end. He kind of giggled, thinking God only knows what, and then found the envelope. I watched his eyes go wide as he read the ‘certificate’ inside that entitled one ‘Ethan James Callahan’ to a jungle gym of his choice, erected to his specifications in the back yard (within reason).

‘You need to give the little envelope to Mrs. Octavia,’ I told him when he’d stopped gapping a little bit. He ran it and his certificate over to show the woman and I wondered if she was going to throttle me before the day was over.

‘Lord have mercy,’ was all she said, giving Ethan his certificate back before pulling out the work order papers and receipts. It was all there, bought and paid for, installation arrangements made. I grinned at her. She rolled her eyes. I figured if the kid wanted to climb, I’d give him something relatively safe to climb on, instead of a tree or the damn house. When Octavia didn’t think I was looking, I thought I saw a pleased little smile.

Ethan almost went straight to sit with Devon, but then detoured long enough to give me a hug and tell me ‘thanks.’ Devon looked a little more at ease, since the slightly older Ethan had hugged me too.

I noticed Davey and Mark talking softly and looked that way to see Davey trying to give Mark his present. But Mark seemed unsure about the whole thing, not quite reaching to take it.

‘We do it by age,’ Devon informed him in a stage whisper. ‘And you’re next oldest.’

The poor new kid looked nervous as hell, his blush looking blotchy on his pale skin. He was nine, according to what Octavia had told me, and I had to wonder how he’d come to be here. A recent thing, or was this just another stop in a long line of foster homes?

He made my chest hurt with his guarded expression and his hesitation. He reminded me too much of kids from my past, kids with that same distrustful look. That same tendency to duck their heads and look at you out of the corners of their eyes.

I climbed back down on the floor, stretching out near the boys. Devon and Ethan were putting the circus train together and I picked up a lion to put it in the cage car.

‘Hope you like it,’ I told Mark without looking his way. ‘Octavia’s been known to steer me wrong before.’

Devon handed me the other lion and I settled it next to its cage-mate.

‘Like the time she told you I wanted a stuffed dragon,’ Davey snickered and I cast him a small wink. The kid was my little den-mother; and he’d gotten rather good with the kids. He understood Mark’s discomfort and was trying to help me.

‘How was I supposed to know that ‘Dragon’ is a line of clothing?’ grumbled Octavia from behind her knitting. ‘And am I never going to hear the end of that?’

Davey and I shared a look and then chorused, ‘Nope.’

The kids all snickered at the old joke. I dug though the pile of train parts until I found the top to the lion car and told Mark, ‘You have to be pretty specific when you tell Mrs. Octavia things.’

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Davey just set the brightly wrapped package in the kid’s lap. His hands came up reflexively to hold it, but he still seemed unsure of himself. He stole a glance at me, and I saw his hand rise to his mouth as he gnawed absently on a fingernail. Across the room Octavia cleared her throat meaningfully. The hand dropped away from Mark’s teeth like a stone.

Looked like nail biting was a real bad habit for him; most of his nails where clear back into the quick.

‘If you want,’ I told him quietly, finally looking straight at him. ‘You can open it later, when nobody’s around.’

He looked relieved, clutched the blue and silver box to his chest and kind of scooted backward, nodding his liking of that idea.

I turned my attention to Davey and grinned. ‘Guess that makes it your turn, unless you want to wait too.’

He just quirked me a cock-eyed grin and reached for the last package in the pile. I was nervous again, hoping he’d like it. You never know with kids, how deep their obsessions really run. A year ago, Devon was getting grounded every other weekend for digging holes in the backyard, but you couldn’t convince the kid he wasn’t going to excavate the next ‘big find’ and become famous in the archeological circle. Never mind he was on a colony. Then one day he woke up and started doing cartwheels and talking about clowns. I was pretty sure Davey’s music obsession was going to last, but you just never knew.

He opened the package carefully, though he wadded the paper up, not saving it. I watched his face as he lifted the lid off the box and found the stack of music books. Every one I could find for violin. He grinned, glancing my way, his look asking if he should dig further and I rolled my eyes in Octavia’s patented gesture. ‘I’ve spoiled the lot of you,’ I intoned, and he pulled the books out of the box. The envelope fell out when he did.

I had a sudden pang, thinking about next year and how I was going to live up to this kind of Christmas again. I’d saved back a good chunk of the money from selling my personal vacuum suit, with this day in mind. Though I would never have believed just how said day was going to end up. There were a lot of expensive presents here, and though I’d told Ethan that his was the biggest, despite everything, it wasn’t the most expensive.

I watched Davey slip the paper out of the envelope and his eyes go a little wide in shock. He looked up at me and I watched him tear up. The kid’s fourteen now; I expected him to find an excuse to leave the room or something, but he just sat there, clutching the receipt for his new violin with the tears standing in his eyes. Staring at me like he couldn’t believe what he’d read. As if to confirm that notion, he looked back down to reread what was in his hands.

‘One of my very own?’ he breathed.

‘Yep,’ I confirmed, grinning at the poor kid. ‘I had my personal violin expert review your performance and he said you were darn near flawless. I figure that rates your own instrument instead of a rental.’

The tears spilled over then, but he just flat didn’t care, leaning over to throw an arm around my neck. ‘Thank you, Duo,’ he whispered. ‘I promise I won’t let you down.’

‘You earned it,’ I told him, feeling a little choked up myself. Kid was really growing up so damn fast. He was my war baby, one of the only kids old enough to remember much of anything about that time, and he’d always hold a special place in my heart because of that. He was becoming quite the little man.

We dug out the candy then, a bag full of little red and white candy canes. I got a disapproving grunt from Octavia, but I noticed she didn’t turn it down when Ethan took her one. We spent a little bit of time putting hooks through the wrappers and hanging them on the tree. Sarah even abandoned Heero for that task, and I was a little surprised when he joined us by the tree for a moment, lifting Sarah so she could hang one up near the top of the tree, where the ‘Angel could have it if she got hungry’.

He and I shared a chuckle and a look that made me feel kind of funny, but then he went back to the couch and left me to my kids.

Decorating, even in this half-assed way, gave me a twinge of melancholy for a moment, as I remembered the only other Christmas tree I’d ever helped decorate, but I pushed those memories aside, just as I always did in this place. They could be too overwhelming if you didn’t. Too many land-mines in a house full of orphans the day before Christmas eve.

Somewhere in there, I noticed that Mark disappeared completely. I noticed his package disappeared with him.

The rush of gift giving past, the kids sat down to play with their new toys and it was time for the next part of my visit.

‘So,’ I said as I plopped myself down on the floor at Octavia’s feet and grinned up at her. ‘What do you have for me, Mrs. Octavia, Ma’am?’

She gave me a look that bordered on sly and murmured, ‘Quite a bit, since you were so worn out last time from your alien abduction that you were no good to anybody.’

I grinned and ignored her fishing for further information. ‘So where is this lengthy list?’

She, of course, had it handy and pulled it out to hand over. I whistled softly, reading down its length. ‘Damn; is there anything around here that isn’t broken?’

‘Language, Mister Duo,’ she admonished sternly and I grinned up at her.

‘No way I’m going to get through half of this,’ I had to tell her. ‘You want to prioritize?’

She snorted, looking at me rather disdainfully. ‘It’s written in order of priority,’ she said, her tone only implying the ‘of course’.

I felt a presence over my right shoulder and looked up to find Heero standing there, leaning down to see what I was looking at. I felt a twinge of unease and had to tell him, ‘I usually do a couple of odd jobs while I’m here. You don’t mind, do you?’

He only shrugged. ‘It’s your trip,’ he reassured, then smiled. ‘Want some help?’

I grinned widely and had to resist the sudden urge to give him a kiss. ‘That would be great.’

So we spent the next three hours doing jobs that should only have taken about half that time, but we had help of our own. Sarah was back to tailing Heero around, her new doll tucked under one arm, and Devon and Ethan seemed to be glued to my hip.

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