Then there was the sound of
Octavia coming through the house, hollering as she came, though I was
sure shed 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! Im 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, maam! 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; were
in the winter cycle and I cant 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 hadnt 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 kids
game or surprise from her, if I hadnt seen the somewhat unhappy
look on Octavias 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 Heeros.
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 shed recognized Relena on my last visit
too, though we hadnt 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 wasnt
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 didnt 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.
Shes fine, Octavia told me, reaching to pat my cheek.
But... she doesnt want to see you. Shes afraid youll
think shes ugly now and wont 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 youre 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 wasnt 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... Ill be fine.
Octavia smiled at me and it was like all her cares just melted away. I
realized that she wouldnt have asked me to go try talking to our
little runaway, but had been hoping like hell that Id volunteer.
Dont 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
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,
Maam, to whatever shed 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.
Im sure this trip was not at all what hed imagined it would
Hey pixie, I said to the closet door and heard a faint stirring
from within, but got no reply. Arent you even going to come
out and say hello?
I knew it wasnt going to be that darn easy, but I didnt know
where else to start. I was at something of a loss here. I really was.
I didnt think I was going to make it this year, I told
nobody in particular. Its been a pretty rough couple of months.
Did Octavia tell you I had to sell my ship? Im not a pilot anymore,
so I dont get around as much as I used to. Im 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.
Im not real sure just what I thought I would accomplish with my
stupid monologue, but I just wasnt sure how one addressed a closet.
I felt eyes on me and glanced Heeros way, but it wasnt him.
In fact, I didnt see anybody looking my way. I decided I should
I hope everybody likes what I got them, I told the watching
presence conspiratorially. I wasnt sure what to get the new
kid. Marks his name, right? It felt kind of funny getting presents
for a kid Id never met. I chuckled softly in remembrance.
But then... I guess I bought for you that first year before we met.
I dont 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 didnt
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, youd 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 wasnt sure.
Im kind of mad at Mrs. Octavia, I dared, sounding unhappy
even to my own ears. She didnt 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 didnt 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 didnt want you
to see me.
I went for the shocked gasp and deliberately misunderstood. You
didnt want to see me? But why; dont you like me anymore?
The sniffle resolved itself into a little gulp and she was quick to tell
me, I like you! I dont 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 Im 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 youre ugly? I queried, doing my best
to keep my voice steady.
Ive mentioned how much trouble I have with kids in pain, havent
I? Im sure its come up. I... apparently have this nurturing
instinct a mile wide when it comes to little kids. I blame it on Solo,
though Im sure hed 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 werent quite there yet.
The bad doggie bit me, she told me, disembodied voice managing
to hold a world of hurt and betrayal.
That wouldnt 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 wasnt getting it. The closet door opened another half
inch and she blurted in an almost angry voice, I got scars, Mr.
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 didnt 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 didnt 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.
Ive got scars too, I informed her in a low voice, as
though I didnt want anybody to hear me. Lots of them.
You do? she asked, voice finally holding a hint of her normal
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?
Shes a tender-hearted little thing. Always has been, and I hoped
this incident wouldnt steal that from her. She couldnt 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 wasnt lost on
me that she put her face out of my line of sight.
Oh no, Mr. Duo! she blurted. Youre 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 dont understand why your scar makes you ugly, but mine doesnt
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 Im
a girl. Girls arent supposed to have scars.
I think youre pretty, I told her gently.
You havent seen it, she said, voice making it just a
bit past petulant.
Well, why dont 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 dont like me anymore?
I snorted. I think Id be a pretty not nice person if I didnt
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 Im ugly? I asked softly.
She studied them, Ill 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 youre 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. Doesnt
make you ugly at all.
I got a tiny little grin, tinged with a bit of doubt and I grinned back.
Now theres my pretty girl! I beamed at her. I
dont 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 dont think Im 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 Id visited. I
had to wonder if it didnt have something to do with the attack as
well. She had loved her hair, and I felt a pang of sympathy for her over
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 shed 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 someones regard and opened my eyes to meet
Heeros 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 wouldnt
have to go into the sitting room by herself and when she did, I threw
out an arm and groaned theatrically, Im 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
I give! I cried as they swarmed over me, making me feel like
Id 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.
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
Davey and Mark were sitting together, guarding the gifts and
Sarah was still planted firmly at Heeros side. The poor guy looked
like he just didnt 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 didnt 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 hed never spent this much time in the
company of a child before. And I was even surer that hed never had
one get so fixated on him.
You dont 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 mes 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
There were a couple of giggles, though some of them didnt sound
all that sure of themselves. But thats the idea, I suppose, to make
them sweat a little. Heightens the anticipation. Works just fine as long
as theres always a follow through. Doesnt 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 theres 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 Sarahs
first, since shes the youngest.
Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Mark counting the packages and
coming up with a number he obviously hadnt 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 hed been wearing since Id first laid eyes
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
Shes 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
I poked at Allisons 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 hadnt led me astray twice, Sarah
really did like dolls. I certainly hoped so, because the one in the box
she was opening hadnt been cheap.
Allison, by the way, hadnt wanted a doll, shed wanted one
of those artists mannequins. And before you ask, yes, I got her
one for her birthday. Darn thing hadnt cost a quarter what the doll
had, but shed been thrilled no end. The doll had ended up in the
community toy chest and Id never seen it again.
From the look on Sarahs face, Id done all right, and Allison
poked me on the arm to get my attention, nodding vigorously to confirm
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
Sarah can really be a somber little thing, bright as a new penny, but
sometimes just a bit too serious. Not that she doesnt have a mischievous
side... its just not as pronounced as Zinias or the boys.
Shes very careful with her things and she didnt 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
But it was Heeros 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 Sarahs obvious
infatuation. I laughed out loud and elbowed him in the ribs, the kids
looking at me like I was nuts.
Whats 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 didnt 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 wasnt 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, Maam, 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 dont 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 didnt 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 shed never get to the one Id spent
a month hunting for. She laughed in delight when the first notes of the
song shed sung for me the last time Id 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 wasnt in any huge trouble. Zinia
actually has a decent singing voice, which is good, because she does it
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 everybodys 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. Shes not as
painstaking about it as Sarah, but not near as wild as Zinia. Id
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 couldnt 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 Id 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 didnt 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 didnt throw.
I only hoped that his circus fixation was still in place, hed 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 wasnt
disappointed in the first half before he got to the second half. But I
neednt 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 hadnt 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 wasnt 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. Theyll 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.
Youd have thought Id given him the Hope diamond; the kid could
not have been more impressed. He looked like Id just told him I
personally knew the Vice Foreign minister or something. Id 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 hadnt
gotten from Devon in over a year, ever since hed decided he was
too old for girly stuff like that.
The ladys name is Catherine, I informed him, when he
let go of my neck. And you monsters be nice to her. Shes a
They looked suitably impressed. I heard a sigh and glanced up to find
Octavia looking at me like Id lost my mind. I only grinned at her,
totally unrepentant. She was afraid I was feeding an obsession that wasnt
the best thing the kid could decide to do with his life. What she didnt
know, is that Catherine Bloom wouldnt pull the punches. Shed
see to it the kids had one hell of a good time. Something theyd
probably never forget, but shed 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 kids 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 Sarahs 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 didnt 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, its 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 youre 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 wasnt sure he liked the
direction this conversation was taking, but he held his tongue, only nodding
Ok, I sighed, hoping for the best. Heres the deal,
kiddo. You got the biggest present of all, so Im going to have to
ask you to share, if thats 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. Thats
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 isnt a paper saver, though hes 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 hed 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, Id
give him something relatively safe to climb on, instead of a tree or the
damn house. When Octavia didnt 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
youre 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 hed 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. Octavias
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 hed gotten rather good with the kids. He understood Marks
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 kids 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 Marks 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 nobodys 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 hed 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 couldnt convince the kid he wasnt 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 Daveys 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 Octavias patented gesture. Ive 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. Id 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 Id told
Ethan that his was the biggest, despite everything, it wasnt the
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 kids
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 couldnt believe
what hed 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 didnt care, leaning
over to throw an arm around my neck. Thank you, Duo, he whispered.
I promise I wont 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
hed 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 didnt
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 Id ever
helped decorate, but I pushed those memories aside, just as I always did
in this place. They could be too overwhelming if you didnt. 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 Octavias
feet and grinned up at her. What do you have for me, Mrs. Octavia,
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 isnt broken?
Language, Mister Duo, she admonished sternly and I
grinned up at her.
No way Im going to get through half of this, I had to
tell her. You want to prioritize?
She snorted, looking at me rather disdainfully. Its written
in order of priority, she said, her tone only implying the of
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 Im
here. You dont mind, do you?
He only shrugged. Its 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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