15:15 – 00:00
“Carl! Good of you to come. Lynda, you’re looking as beautiful as ever,” Derek complimented with a charming smile, reinforced with a slight bow. “Please, help yourself to some wine and .. I think you know everybody.”
“Derek, there is no way I’d miss out on the Luna Foundation’s Christmas Eve party,” Carl announced. “It is the best way to start the holiday.”
“Plus it’s the only time I know I can drag him away from his work without him complaining at all,” Lynda Chang added with a fond smile at her husband.
In the music room, Alex softly asked, “Andrew, any problems?”
“Not at all, Miss Alex.”
“We will be done by seven, I promise. We do all have homes to go to and families to be with.” Even if ours are right here, she silently added.
“Or friends,” Andrew agreed.
“And don’t worry about the clearing up.”
“I’ll do what I can before I leave,” he promised. “Excuse me, I have to keep an eye on the caterers.”
“Of course,” Alex smiled.
Rachel was chatting with an eminent surgeon from the Children’s Hospital while Kat, allowed to wear cosmetics in public for the first time, was feeling very grownup as she drifted thru the crowd.
“Hi, kiddo .. though I don’t think I’ll be able to call you that for much longer,” Nick greeted.
Kat blushed. “I don’t mind, not when you say it.”
“Even so .. it won’t be the truth, will it? I’ll have to think of something else,” Nick winked.
“Where’s Peri?” she asked.
“Up in the library,” Nick replied. “Last I saw, she was having a heart to heart with her guest.”
Even the library was festive. In tribute to the holiday, a small holly ring with four cinnamon scented candles had been placed in the middle of the table. There were no other decorations in the library because it was essentially a workroom. Because there were so many books, the rule was that the candles were not to be lit and left unsupervised. The threat of fire was simply too great.
A few guests had wandered in to look at the thousands of volumes. A few more had climbed the stairs to examine the display cases. Soon they had left again, rejoining the gathering down in the foyer where the fire in the huge hearth roared merrily, sending sparks flying up the chimney. No one had bothered the two people sitting in one of the upper alcoves of the library, facing each other, heads bent together and talking in an absorbed murmur.
If it had been any other guy, Nick would have checked in every so often. The reason he didn’t was because the guy with Merlin was Alopex.
Right now, he was looking slightly exasperated. “It was supposed to be a Christmas gift.”
“I know an’ I’m very grateful – ”
“But you’ve already opened it!”
“I know, an’ I’m very grateful – ”
“You’re not supposed to open Christmas gifts until tomorrow morning.”
Merlin angled her head. “I’m not stupid, Jon. I know that. It’s just … ” She paused to look around, then inched closer and dropped her voice. “The people in this house have just about everything they need or could want. I’ve been hunting everywhere to try to find them gifts .. an’ I struck out. Then, cos I was feeling a little cranky at my total lack of success, I opened the gift you’d gotten me an’ I read it. It’s great!”
He eased back. “You’ve never read Dickens’ A Christmas Carol before?”
Merlin shrugged. “Seen the movie. But it gave me an idea what I can give these people for Christmas.”
Alopex glanced around, his eyebrows rising. “More books?”
“There are no novels here,” she remarked. “It’s all business.”
“So,” he asked because he knew she wanted him to, “what idea did you have?”
“Peri! There you are.”
Merlin swung round. “Hi, Carl! Enjoying the party?” she asked brightly.
Carl Chang looked at her, then at her companion. “Yeah, I am. I always do.”
She waited for him to say something more, then slapped a hand to her head. “What am I thinking? Carl, this is Jon. Jon, this is Dr Carl Chang. I work for him occasionally over at the university.”
Alopex rose and extended a hand. “Pleased to meet you, Dr Chang.”
“Likewise.” Carl tilted his head. “Are you two related?”
“Very distantly,” Merlin replied.
“You’re in the Antiquities Department of the History Faculty,” Alopex remarked.
“That’s right. And you’re ..?”
“Between jobs right now,” Alopex replied. “I flew in for the holiday. I’m based in London. When I am working, I guess you could say I .. dabble on the fringes.”
Carl nodded. “My brother does the same. Loses more on the stock market than he ever makes. You seem to be good at it though. Peri, I’m interrupting you, I am sorry. In the new year, call me? Some interesting things are in the pipeline. I may need your help.”
“Sure, no problem,” she nodded.
“Nice to meet you, Jon. Maybe you can give me a few tips to pass on sometime,” Carl winked, then waved and wandered off to find his wife.
“Between jobs,” Merlin echoed. “Nice. This is the one night of the year guaranteed to be free of evil. Oh, they may think they stand a good chance of making some serious inroads but all that love, peace an’ goodwill to all men .. hamstrung before they can even start.” She smiled happily. “And we get a night off.”
“Shame it doesn’t last,” Alopex commented in a flat voice.
“An’ spoil their fun? You know how much they enjoy taking a pop at us.”
He sat down again. “Okay, what idea did you have?”
“Hi, Peri,” Kat said shyly.
“Hi yourself, Kat. My, but you are looking fabulous!”
Kat glanced at Merlin’s companion and saw the white streak in his hair. Instantly, she knew what he was. Her eyes grew round.
“Kat, this is Alopex. The Fox. Alopex, this is Katherine Corrigan, known to her friends as Kat, and she is the daughter of Dr Rachel Corrigan, a member of this house."
Alopex stood again and held out his hand. Kat took it and he bowed over it. Kat blushed.
“A pleasure, Miss Corrigan.”
“You can call me Kat,” she said quickly.
“I’m honored to be counted among your friends,” Alopex responded with a smile. Kat’s blush deepened.
“You wanted me for something, kiddo?” Merlin asked. “Or did Nick send you to find me?”
“No, he’s circulating downstairs. I think he’s glad this isn’t a tuxedo occasion.”
“For sure,” Merlin agreed, rolling her eyes and laughing. “Still, it’s an excuse for the ladies to dress up an’ strut their stuff, right?”
“Absolutely,” Kat nodded.
“Is that a new dress?”
“Looks great on you. You do know you’re breaking your Mom’s heart an’ making her feel ancient, don’t you? What kind of Christmas gift is that to give your mother?”
Kat’s face fell and Merlin bent in closer.
“She only feels like that for a second or two. Then she looks at you .. an’ she feels so proud at the way you’re growing up. And that has to be the best gift in the world.”
Kat’s smile returned and her eyes sparkled again.
“It’s a real shame that Derek never thought to invite any boys,” Merlin said, shaking her head.
Alopex cleared his throat. “You should circulate with Nick. I’d be honored to be Kat’s escort for a while, if she will have me?”
Kat was struck dumb with surprise.
Alopex offered her his elbow and she slid her arm thru his. He glanced back.
Merlin nodded and remembered to extinguish the candles before she left.
Alex passed Nick and she offered him a quick grin of support. Traditions had to be upheld, especially ones like this. The Luna Foundation’s Christmas Eve party wasn’t a fundraiser but it was a goodwill function. Many of the people here this afternoon also came to the fundraisers and gave generously. This party was a way of saying thank you.
But it was still an official function so no one could plead urgent business elsewhere, even if that was to shut themselves in their room with a six pack of beer and slowly let their brains turn to mush in front of the TV watching sentimental movies. They couldn’t plead it even if it was genuinely urgent business.
It meant there could be no last minute Christmas shopping. It meant Nick had to make sure all the exterior lights were up – and that was no insignificant feat – and working. Alex and Rachel, with Kat’s help, had decorated a forest of trees in all the ‘public’ rooms – except the library, organized the caterers, chosen menus, wines, ordered it all, handed Andrew his instructions and briefed him on his duties ... There was an end to it but, at times, it had seemed endless. Derek and Nick, with Merlin’s help, had run the background checks, just in case.
It meant that everything had to be finished and ready by three o’clock in the afternoon of Christmas Eve because that’s when the bell signaling the arrival of the first guest had rung. It was extra pressure at an already pressured time of year.
But there were plus points – it was a party. No one had to drive anywhere so they could afford to indulge a little. Because it was an afternoon, early evening function, it wasn’t black tie. Nick could wear an ordinary suit and not a tux. The ladies could dress up but the guys didn’t have to. Definitely a plus point in Nick’s book. It was only until seven that evening. After that, a quick hour tidying up and the rest of the day was their own. Nick could go change into his denim jeans, T-shirt and sweater. Derek could change into something a little more casual. The ladies might, or might not, depending on their mood. But the atmosphere would become more intimate, more cozy. He could lock the doors and relax.
Nick resisted looking at his watch. It would have appeared rude, and it was. Therefore, he guessed he had about three and a quarter hours to go before he could close the door on the last guest and the world in general.
Christmas for him hadn’t always been easy. For a fractured family, Christmas was just extra stress. His parents had always tried hard but their efforts hadn’t always paid off. The holiday, to him, had been .. just an interruption in the routine of existence. Even after he’d joined the Legacy, he was the nearest to ‘bah, humbug’. He helped decorate the house, he joined in, but, deep inside, he’d always felt it was a waste of time. Julia hadn’t really changed that opinion although, for a while, he’d lightened up. It had been Merlin who’d shown him the joy of Christmas.
“My one day off a year, Nicky. You be a miserable bastard if you want but don’t expect me to be miserable with you. I intend to have a great time.”
So, faced with the choice of sharing with her or being alone, he’d learned to have a great time. Two years ago, on this day, Nick and Merlin had exchanged vows in the garden. And that Christmas had been wonderful. Last Christmas, just as great. This year .. so far, it was okay.
He felt an arm slide around his waist. “That isn’t a miserable bastard expression on your face, is it?”
Nick grinned. “No, it’s an I’m lonely without you expression. You finished your business with the Fox?”
“Actually, it isn’t business. Day off, remember?”
He shrugged. “Might not be work but it could still be business. Training week locations. Strategic discussions. What?” he asked as he saw her face.
“That’s work. This is a day off. I don’t think it, I don’t talk about it, I don’t do it.”
He watched her, his eyes narrowing. “And what if Armageddon takes place?”
“It’d be a damned miracle. Will you relax?”
Nick put his arms around her waist. Her mouth was begging to be kissed and he could never resist her. The kiss was very close to igniting a scorching heat so they both backed off from going too far along that road.
“Am I relaxed enough now?”
“No, you’re all tense for another reason. Later, tough guy,” she promised. “We should mingle .. with the guests,” Merlin added, her eyes wicked.
“Ah .. Nick.”
He turned. “Mrs Forrester. This is my wife Peri.”
“So charmed to meet you at last,” Emily Forrester smiled. “This is Eric Camberwell, my escort.”
“Mr Camberwell,” Nick nodded. At last, she’d finally gotten the idea that he wasn’t available.
“Mrs Boyle,” Eric began, “I hear there’s a wonderful collection of artifacts on display in the library. Could you, I wonder, show them to me?”
“Of course,” Merlin agreed.
Nick watched in dismay as his wife and Emily’s escort strolled away. He swallowed. Emily hadn’t gotten the idea at all – she’d just brought someone, primed and prepped, to run interference for her.
“Derek … ”
He glanced round. “Rachel, have I told you yet that you are looking quite stunning?”
She hesitated for a moment. “No, you haven’t,” she laughed. “And, as you’re a little flushed, I think I’ll take the compliment with the spirit of the season .. an’ just a tiny grain of salt.”
“Nevertheless, it is the truth.”
A blush tinged her cheeks. “Who’s that guy with Kat?” Rachel inquired, changing the subject.
Derek looked over his shoulder. “No one for you to worry about. That is Peri’s guest. Alopex. The Fox.”
“Ah .. I thought he had to be someone like that. The hair.”
“No, the Fox,” Derek corrected, grinning.
Rachel laughed. “You are definitely getting into the party spirit, I can tell.”
“If they can have one night off each year, Rachel, I think it safe for us to do the same, don’t you? Especially this year. Not even the Darkside would attempt any moves against us with two Enforcers in the house.”
“I guess that’s one way of looking at it,” she agreed. “Is he staying?”
“Overnight, I believe. He has a room in the guest wing.”
Rachel nodded, then her face fell. “Uh oh.”
Derek frowned. “What is it?”
“Emily Forrester has Nick alone .. and our resident tough guy is looking just a little panicked. I’ll go extricate him.” She smiled and set off into the fray.
Derek watched for a moment and saw the relief break over Nick’s face as Rachel gently but firmly steered Emily toward another group, then he switched his attention to Kat and Alopex. The Enforcer was being a perfect escort, listening to Kat as she talked, making responses, answering her questions. They instinctively blended into any situation. Derek wondered idly what they were talking about.
“But I told her fourteen was way too young to be thinking about stuff like that,” Kat confided.
Alopex nodded. “Life does have a way of intruding.”
Kat looked up at him. “I’m sorry. I forgot you don’t get to be fourteen.”
“We do but it’s only a number to us. It doesn’t mean very much.”
“Peri says she likes to hang with me because we get to do things she never did.”
He smiled. “She’s lucky. And she’s wise. You may not think so, to look at her and to listen to her, but she has a very sharp mind and a lot of experience with life as well as death. She is the youngest and yet, in so many ways, the oldest of us all.”
“My Mom thinks I have Peri on some kinda pedestal – ”
Kat frowned. “Not exactly. I mean, I think she’s great. She does all this really neat stuff an’ I know there’s a lotta responsibility tied to it .. but she makes it look so easy, y’know? She never shows that she’s scared. She’s always so calm. It’s those kinda qualities I admire. And, when we do get time together, Peri’s so much fun. She bends the rules an’ never gets into trouble … I guess I’m envious of that cos, whenever I bend the rules, even a little bit, someone always finds out an’ I get into a lot of trouble.”
“That’s most likely because you are fourteen and Peri is older, plus she’s used to dealing with big rules and major trouble. Petty rules and minor trouble are nothing. If I may give you some advice, Kat?”
“Sure,” Kat agreed.
“Peri is a very good friend to have. Learn what she teaches by listening to what she says more than what she does. You cannot emulate her, physically. However, you can cultivate wisdom by following her example. Peri knows what it is like to grow up too soon. We all do. You can be a friend to her, and she, in turn, will teach me and all the others.”
“You’re most welcome.” He smiled. “You’re already very wise for fourteen.”
Alopex nodded slowly. “You’ve decided not to want to be an Enforcer.”
Kat smiled at him. “Thank you.”
“Not laughing at me.”
“Ambition is not evil,” he commented. “It is good to have goals, but they should be achievable, yes? If you aim at the moon and get there, you feel successful. If you aim at the stars, you may succeed and, even if you fail, at least you tried. But if you aim at a distant galaxy on the other side of the universe .. you’ll only ever know disappointment. Far better to realize it now than when you’re old.”
“How come I can talk to you but I can’t talk to my Mom about stuff like this?
“I think you’ve answered your own question.”
“Because she’s my Mom.”
He bent a little closer. “Better too much love and caring in a relationship than too little, Kat.”
“That woman is a predator. A man-eater,” Nick muttered, taking a glass of wine from a passing waiter. “What will it take to get her to realize I’m not for sale? That I’m not even on the market?”
“A midnight raid with C4,” Derek suggested and Nick almost choked. “It’s all right. I’m joking.”
“You sure?” Nick queried, watching him doubtfully.
“Yes. I’d have to find a replacement for her, to run the Hall of Antiquities. Don’t look so worried, Nick,” he coaxed. “I’m taking the night off. It feels .. rather refreshing to not carry the burden for once.” Derek looked around the foyer at everyone having a great time. “To .. not have to worry about something going wrong. That one of these people may harbor a grudge against us. That somewhere, someone is plotting with malice aforethought. Tonight, I simply do not care. I will worry again tomorrow.”
“At this rate, you’ll be too busy nursing a hangover to worry about anything.”
“And I’ll deal with that tomorrow too. For now, I intend to eat, drink and be merry.”
Derek smiled and headed away.
“Problems?” Alex inquired as she drifted to a halt.
“I’m not sure,” Nick replied, sounding bemused. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen Derek in full blown party mood before. He’s getting a little high.”
“Oh, those kinda problems,” she laughed. “Well, it is Christmas Eve.”
Alopex finally tracked Merlin down in the study. It was nearing five thirty by this time and he was getting intrigued about her idea which, as yet, remained unknown.
“Hi,” he said, sinking onto the sofa next to her. “What’s this idea you’ve had?”
“What have you done with Kat?” she asked.
“She’s with her mother. Both very nice people. Charming.”
Merlin eased back, crossing one leg over the other. “When I invited you, I didn’t think you’d accept.”
“Because this is a Legacy house, because it’s a lot of people, because we tend to be loners. Rogue wolves hunting in the night … I’m glad you did accept, Jon. We need time out, time to be normal, just as much as the next guy.”
“I’m glad I came too. Now, what’s this idea you’ve had?”
Merlin bit at her lip. “We never had the choice. You an’ me, all the others, we’re all born to this life. We’ve never had to ask ourselves the question. The people here, though – Nick an’ Derek, Rachel, Alex … They chose. And, while they may not admit it openly, they have asked the question.”
Alopex frowned. “What question?”
“Y’see? It’s so alien to us that you don’t even know what I’m talking about.”
“No,” he confessed, “I don’t. What question?”
“What if I’d never joined the Legacy? What would my life be like now? In the future? Did I make the right choice?”
“I read the book you gave me,” she went on. “Those three ghosts – Past, Present an’ Future?”
He blinked again, stared at her and sat up. “You don’t mean it.”
“Yeah, I do. Tonight, I’m going to take them on a journey. And I’ll let them answer the question which haunts them by taking them down another road.”
“You can’t do that!” Alopex softly exclaimed.
“I can do it. I’ve learned certain things about memory control – ”
“It’s … It’s manipulation is what I mean! It’s invading their privacy!”
“It isn’t manipulation. Not really. It’ll be like a dream. Just like in the book.”
“And what will you show them?”
“I won’t show them anything, Jon. It won’t be up to me to develop their lives. I’ll just nudge them down the other road. How they build it from there is their responsibility.”
“And what if they discover they made the wrong choice?”
Merlin frowned. “You think that’s likely?”
“It’s a real possibility,” Alopex pointed out.
“Well .. either way, it’ll answer their question.”
“I can’t talk you out of this?”
She shook her head. “Nope. If all goes well, they’ll wake up tomorrow knowing they’re in the right place doing the right thing. It’ll take away those doubts which creep in during the long hours of the night.” Merlin shrugged slightly. “Aquila’s up for it. C’mon, it’s our one night off in the year. Every other night, if we’re not out training, we’re working. This is the only night I can do this. And it’s the right night.”
“The good night?”
“I really believe so,” Merlin said.
“How will you do it?” he asked.
“Something I’ve not tried before,” she grinned.
“Then what if something goes wrong?” Alopex demanded.
She looked at him. “Why d’you think I invited you to come stay?”
At seven o’clock, Derek, Alex, Rachel and Nick stood by the front door to bid safe journey and happy holiday to their departing guests. Merlin, Kat and Alopex stood farther back, watching. They weren’t members of the Luna Foundation and this wasn’t their party. The caterers had already gone, leaving Andrew to see to any last pangs of hunger or dry throats.
Derek finally closed the door and leaned against it. “Now the holiday has truly begun,” he announced.
“Not for all of us, not yet,” Alex reminded him.
“Let me get outta this suit, an’ I’ll give you a hand,” Nick offered, heading for the stairs.
“Good idea,” Merlin agreed, following him.
“C’mon, Kat, let’s go help Andrew,” Rachel said. “Sooner we get this place cleaned up. sooner he can get away home.”
“Before you all disappear,” Derek called. Nick and Merlin paused halfway up the stairs. Rachel, Alex and Kat turned to look at him. “I wanted to say thank you for all your efforts. The house looks wonderful. Magical. Here’s to a .. calm and peaceful Christmas.”
“I’d drink to that if I had a drink in my hand,” Nick said.
“Hold the thought,” Derek smiled.
They separated. Andrew was already briskly tidying the music room and, within ten minutes, all traces of visitors had gone. Nick and Merlin made a start upstairs in the study, and Kat and Rachel went thru the lounge. Derek and Alopex straightened the library. Forty five minutes later, Andrew was wrapped up against the cold and heading for his car, his arms laden with gifts he had never expected.
“I’ll be back the day after tomorrow, Dr Rayne,” Andrew said. “I’ve done as much preparation as I can for you and left it in the cold store. Have a very merry Christmas, sir.”
“And you too, Andrew. We’ll see you soon.”
Then the door was closed and bolted, and they were on their own. The time to midnight was counting down …
Alopex had changed out of his suit into jeans and a sweater. Merlin was in sweats. Derek had exchanged his suit for pants, shirt and cardigan. Rachel and Alex had decided to stay as they were. Kat was undecided.
Alex brought eggnog and savory nibbles into the lounge and took a box from under her arm.
“My grandmother had a kind of semi-tradition on Christmas Eve, especially when Tanya and I were younger. We’d be waiting for Santa Claus to come visit us and we wouldn’t sit still. We’d drive her crazy. So, we played a game to help pass the time.”
Alex opened the box and put the board on the table.
“The game of life,” she said. “Snakes an’ ladders.”
“I think I’ll go get changed,” Kat said. “Can you wait for me?”
“Sure,” Alex smiled.
“Ill go check the security an’ set the exterior alarms,” Nick added. “While I’m in a fit state.”
“I haven’t played this since I was a child,” Derek remarked, sounding almost wistful.
“I’ve never played it,” Merlin commented and Alopex nodded. “What’s it about?”
“If you land on a square with a ladder,” Alex explained, “you climb it. And if you land on a square with a snake’s head, you slide down to the bottom of its tail an’ start over. First one to a hundred wins.”
Merlin nodded. “Sounds easy enough.”
Alex glanced at her. Both Merlin and Alopex were studying the board with narrowed eyes. “Peri .. it’s just a game. The world won’t end or spiral into disaster if you lose. It’s just a little fun, okay?”
Merlin looked up. “I’ll try.”
“Why a snake?” Alopex asked suspiciously.
“Because snakes are .. treacherous, or a symbol of treachery,” Rachel replied. “They hide, ready to ambush you an’ send you back to the start.”
“You play with a die,” Derek went on. “It’s a game of chance.”
“No cheating,” Rachel added. “No manipulation of the die to get the right number.”
Merlin frowned. Alopex seemed uneasy.
“How about you two watch the first game?” Alex suggested. “See how it works.”
“Good idea,” Alopex agreed gravely.
The time crept closer to midnight. When Merlin went to get more eggnog to fuel an increasingly riotous game, Alopex went with her.
“What about Kat?” he asked, getting straight to the point.
“She has no part in it, Jon. She isn’t a member of the Legacy, not yet anyway. She hasn’t had to face that choice. I’ll let her sleep the night thru undisturbed.”
“But you will disturb the others. You admit it.”
Merlin turned. “Jon, your interaction with the Legacy is very limited. You don’t really know what it’s like to live among them, to be a part of their everyday work. This isn’t supposed to be a torture for them. It’s a gift. A very personal gift that only I can give. Don’t spoil it.”
“I’m just concerned, that’s all,” he stated.
“Look, we both know the mind is a fabulous thing. It isn’t contained within boundaries and it isn’t hampered by time. Really vivid dreams last forever in the mind and are over in seconds. That’s what will happen tonight. When the clock strikes the hour, it’ll start an’, by the time the chimes at midnight have faded into silence, it’ll be over. They can sleep the rest of the night, their questions answered.”
“How will you do it?”
“Aquila doesn’t need to be strong for this. We’re talking .. thirty five seconds at most? She’ll split into four equal parts an’ tweak their memories.”
“And if it goes wrong, what must I do?”
“Come find me an’ put me back together again. Jon, relax, it’ll be fine.”
The door opened and Nick looked around the gap. “Am I disturbing something important?”
“No, course not,” Merlin replied with a smile. Nick glanced quickly at Alopex and Merlin’s words weren’t reflected in his face. For a moment, there was serious discomfort in the Fox’s eyes.
“Here, take some of this stuff,” she requested. “How’s the game going?”
“Y’know that really long one that’s right by the end an’ takes you back almost to the start? Bit me, twice,” Nick replied. “I folded.”
They carried the eggnog back to the lounge where Kat was yawning hugely and locked in a battle to the death with Derek. She needed a four to win. He needed to throw a six. It was his turn. People were holding their breath. Derek rolled a four. A five would have been a disaster. Kat picked up the cup, shook it, closed her eyes and rolled. She heard a rush of expelled breath and Derek groaning. Kat peeked and grinned.
“Nice move, kiddo,” Merlin congratulated. “What’s the prize?”
“The prize is that Kat gets to open one gift, her choice, tonight,” Derek replied, magnanimous in defeat.
“And to make one wish,” Alex added.
Rachel watched her daughter. During the party, she had felt very old and very proud, just like Merlin had said she would. Kat was growing so fast now. She was almost as tall as Rachel’s shoulder and she was developing a woman’s shape. And she had looked older than fourteen during the party. Right now, however, in jeans and a sweater, sitting on the floor and amongst the people she saw as both family and friends, she looked younger.
“Okay, I wish,” Kat began, “that .. it’d snow here tonight an’ everything will be white in the morning. As for my gift … ”
She got up and went to the huge tree. Brightly colored packages were heaped around the base. Slowly, curiously, Kat sorted thru them.
“Who’s it from?” Rachel wondered, remembering another Christmas, another gift.
Kat turned over the tag. “It’s from Alex.” Carefully, she unwrapped the paper and her eyes widened. “Oh, it’s beautiful, thank you so much! Look, Mom!”
“Is that silk?” Rachel breathed. “Alex, it’s fabulous. An’ the color .. it’s just perfect for you, Kat.”
Kat held the shimmering copper bronze silk sweater to her body. “Thank you. I’ll wear it tomorrow.”
“It’s getting late,” Derek said as Kat went to hug Alex and thank her again. “Santa won’t visit those who are still awake, you know. It was a rule when I was a child that everyone had to be asleep by midnight. A game from my childhood .. a rule from the same time. Why not? But, first, a toast.”
They picked up their glasses and waited expectantly.
“May we all sleep peacefully this night and wake to find our wishes fulfilled. Merry Christmas, everyone.”
“Merry Christmas,” they cheered and drank.
“And, so, to bed,” Derek announced, smiling.
It was eleven thirty when the tree lights were switched off and the house became quiet. Kat went to her room and laid the silk sweater on the chair. She loved it already. Rachel, just along the hall, paused by the door to her own room.
“Goodnight, Derek. Sleep well,” she smiled.
He paused too. “There’s something magical about this night, Rachel. I can almost believe I hear the sound of sleigh bells on the air. Once, I remember, we kissed.” He smiled ruefully. “And then we had an eventful night, not much sleep, we fought, and .. I have spent the Christmas Eves since wondering what I did wrong.”
Rachel laughed softly. “Bad timing,” she responded. She put a hand to his cheek. “Maybe you should try another night of the year instead. One .. not so magical. See if the same thing happens.”
“Or maybe not,” he said and bent his head slightly.
Rachel felt his lips brush hers and pull away. Her eyes searched his and she saw warmth, an abiding affection and a quiet patience.
“Goodnight, Rachel. Sleep well,” Derek murmured.
“Merry Christmas,” she whispered and retreated into her room.
Derek went on to his room and closed the door. “And now we must wait and see if we have another eventful night,” he remarked to himself.
Alopex went to his room and lay down on the bed, fully clothed. His one night off in the year, and he wasn’t sleepy at all.
“Night, Alex,” Nick called.
“Merry Christmas, Nick,” she called back, closing the door firmly on him.
“You’re a little high,” Merlin commented as she steered him toward their room.
“That last glass of eggnog,” he defended. “But I’m okay to party for a while.”
“So long as we’re all asleep by midnight,” Merlin responded. “House rule.”
“I can do that, “Nick agreed, nodding slowly as he opened the door and pushed her inside.
At five before midnight, Nick was snoring. Aquila stood at the end of the bed watching him.
You know what we planned, Merlin told her. This is a gift. Nothing violent, nothing too heavy. Just .. take ’em back to the start, whenever that is, and then .. nudge ’em. Okay?
Okay. Let’s do it.
Aquila split into four. Each was recognizable but they were transparent, a ghost. And rightly so for what lay ahead. Three went thru the door and one remained. At one minute before twelve, Aquila sank into four sleeping bodies.
As the chimes at midnight began to strike, Nick, Rachel, Alex and Derek were visited by the Phantom of Past Decisions.