Merlin couldn’t know how her gifts had been received and, she told herself, she might never know. It wasn’t for her to demand anything. She stood in the foyer and listened. The house was silent, still asleep and dreaming. Just over thirty seconds had not been enough to drive sleep away and bring them down, one at a time, to seek solace in the kitchen. As for her, when Aquila returned, Merlin had felt the spiritual exhaustion hit her like a sledgehammer and she’d instantly succumbed.
But, now, Christmas Eve was over and Christmas Day was here, even if it had not yet dawned. And that meant, for her, it was business as usual.
She’d already turned off the alarm and now she headed toward the door for her morning run. As she opened it, Alopex came downstairs.
“Want some company?” he asked.
Once outside, they set off at a brisk walk then quickened into a jog, moving easily and silently, yet she sensed he wanted to make some remark.
“Ye of little faith … I told you it’d go okay. Next time, believe me,” Merlin began, making it easier for him.
“There won’t be a next time,” Alopex countered, his dark eyes flashing a warning. He had only been able to sleep once one o’clock had dragged round and there had been no emergency for him to cope with. “You’ve done it and their question has been answered. Next time is unnecessary.”
Merlin shrugged. “True,” she conceded. “Just believe me in principle.”
They came to a halt, breath pluming in clouds around their heads in the chill air. It had never been a fight, or even a disagreement, but they both felt peace had just been declared.
“What about Kat?” he asked.
“I told you already. She hasn’t, yet, asked the question so – ”
He shook his head. “The other four have had their special gift. I assume they have regular gifts too, including Kat.”
“So .. what about her special gift?” He watched her eyes narrow. “Something only you can give.” Alopex smiled. “You don’t have much time. They’ll be waking soon, especially the child. She may be fourteen but, on this day, age is immaterial.”
Merlin smiled too. “I remember. A small matter of a wish. But .. you can do that too.”
“Yes, but, when it comes to special gifts, yesterday was my day off. This is down solely to you.”
She looked up at the sky. It was clear; stars still sparkled in the west but, in the east, there was just the first hint that the deep night was ending. Alopex looked up as well as a tiny cloud bubbled into existence and began to grow.
“Race you to the beach,” Merlin said and took off at a fast sprint.
He spurred himself into motion and, overhead, the stars slowly disappeared behind the thickening cloud. By the time they raced, shoulder to shoulder, onto the thin strand of gritty sand, the first flecks were drifting down. Merlin laughed, catching one on her finger.
“Merry Christmas, Jon,” she said.
“Merry Christmas, Merlin,” he returned.
Derek poured a cup of coffee and set the pot down quickly because his hand was trembling and he thought he might drop it. Then he went to the table and sat down.
What had he thought only yesterday as he prepared to sleep? Now we must see if we have an eventful night. He laughed silently and with only a small amount of humor.
Was someone or something listening to my thoughts? Did I tempt fate? If so, next year, I will be careful what I think.
Derek had only woken briefly at just gone midnight. His mind had been awash with sensation more than true memory and he had slept again very rapidly and he had not woken once during the remainder of the night. His first thought when he did wake was that he’d missed Christmas and he was surprised to find it was only the next morning. Then he had wondered why he’d thought that .. and it had all crashed back into his head, shaking him to his soul and yet filling him with gratitude.
He had pulled on his robe and pushed his feet into slippers, and, shivering slightly, had gone down to the kitchen to put on a pot of coffee. He needed to pull himself together before he faced the others.
Nick padded in, his feet still bare, his hair still mussed up. His shoulders were slumped and his face looked just a little depressed. He started when he saw Derek.
“Morning,” he greeted.
“Merry Christmas,” Derek replied.
Nick flinched very slightly. “Oh .. yeah, right. Merry Christmas.”
Now it was Derek’s turn to wince. He glanced up. “Didn’t sleep well?” His voice was sympathetic.
“Actually, I slept fine. It … ” Nick shook his head. “It’s tough to explain.”
Derek nodded, knowing just how Nick felt.
Upstairs, Kat stretched and opened her eyes, and then remembered what day it was. Instantly, all traces of sleep fled and she sat up.
Down in the kitchen, both men sat at the table in silence. Both wanted to say something, both were ignorant of the other’s need to talk, both were unsure how to start.
Alex came in, her eyes haunted, and halted when she saw she wasn’t alone.
“Merry Christmas,” Nick said, rising. “Coffee?”
“Thanks. Merry Christmas to you too.” She seemed to have a moment’s difficulty in getting those words out.
Finally, Rachel entered. Her eyes flashed to Derek, she blushed and looked away quickly.
“Merry Christmas,” Alex greeted.
“Merry Christmas,” Rachel responded and managed a quick smile.
“Tea?” Nick offered.
“Yeah. That’d be good,” Rachel sighed as she sat down, hugging her robe tightly around her body like a shield.
Alex belatedly noticed Nick was on his own. “Where’s Peri?”
“She wasn’t there when I came round. I guess she’s out running.”
“Today?” Rachel queried knowing that even Nick didn’t go running on this particular morning. This exchange was normal and she needed normal, just for a while, just long enough to get her head together, and try to forget that, in a dream at least, she and Derek had been lovers.
“Her one night off in the year is over,” Nick pointed out.
They all had their suspicions about who had sent the three ghosts to them in the night, even if they all believed they were the only one to have been visited. At Nick’s statement, they all paused for a second, even Nick. If yesterday had been Merlin’s night off, a night when she didn’t go training, didn’t have to fight evil, didn’t, in fact, do anything, she couldn’t have been the one behind the incredibly vivid dream they’d experienced. Someone or something else had given them the very special gift.
Kat paused for a moment, wondering. It was strange. Christmas Eve was the magical night yet .. Kat could have sworn she still felt a sense of that magic lingering in the air.
It was Derek who noticed not that they were particularly quiet but that no one was meeting anyone’s eyes. Only people who were terminally grumpy in the morning still suffered from that on Christmas Day. He took a chance.
“A strange thing happened to me last night,” he said, deliberately studying his coffee mug.
“You too?” Alex gasped.
“A really .. intense dream?” Rachel queried, half relieved and half alarmed. What if it had been the same dream ..?
“Like .. you got to see another life?” Nick ventured.
“Yes,” the other three whispered.
Alex closed her fingers around her coffee mug to warm them. “I … It began when I was twenty two in Baton Rouge. I chose – ”
“Not to join the Legacy,” Derek cut in.
“That’s right,” Nick agreed. “I’d just left the Teams and I chose not to come here.”
“Mine wasn’t quite like that,” Rachel said, staring at the table. “In mine .. Patrick an’ Connor didn’t die in the accident.”
“So you never went to Ireland, never discovered the .. the sepulcher, never became the subject of a Legacy investigation,” Derek commented, thinking about his own dream and reminding himself that, while it was only a dream, it had also been a special gift. “It was because of that chain of events that you were invited to join. If the chain never formed, the invitation wouldn’t be given .. so you never joined.”
“Four of us, on one night, the same deal?” Nick remarked, leaning back. “That was deliberate. No way is it coincidence.”
Alex eased forward. Now the ice had been broken and she knew she wasn’t alone, she felt she could open up and talk about it. And she wanted to talk about it.
“Did anyone else have three ghosts?”
“The Phantom of Past Decisions,” Rachel agreed.
“The Shade of Present Times,” Derek nodded.
“The Specter of Things to Come,” Nick concluded.
“The ghosts of past, present and future,” Alex breathed. “Just like in A Christmas Carol .. and yet it was more than that. There were definite overtones of It’s A Wonderful Life as well. I was told it was gift.”
“So was I,” the other three chorused.
“And the gift was to answer the question I’d asked.”
“Right. What would my life have been like if I’d never joined the Legacy,” Nick said.
“Did I make the right choice in coming here … ” Alex shivered suddenly. “I don’t know about you guys but I won’t ever ask that again. I know I made the right choice.”
“I kept on telling the ghost that but she wouldn’t listen,” Nick related. “I had to see it for myself. Y’know, I always expected that, with my background, I’d .. go out in a blaze of glory but I ended up really sad, scared to take a risk. I got married, had a son, got divorced, never saw either of ’em again … Most of the time, I was on the run from the law but then I got it together .. an’ got scared.” He shook his head in disgust. “I did meet up with the Legacy but from the wrong side.”
They all nodded, their expressions disturbed.
“Get this – I was a con man,” Nick announced. “Alex, you came to see me. Jeffrey Starr had nothing on me an’ my friend Eddie. I did a whole lotta things I am too ashamed to repeat. And then .. you an’ Philip had to save me when I got possessed by a real nasty ghost. Peri was there, at the end .. saved me putting a bullet thru my own head.”
“You were lucky,” Alex commented. “I was a real bitch. I just .. wanted revenge an’ I didn’t care who I hurt to get it. And money. And power. Those three things were the mainstays in my life. I was … ” She blushed. “Victor Arkadi and I were .. involved but I double-crossed him and took over his operation. You and Rachel came to see me twice, then you, Derek. I used the Legacy to get Victor put in jail. And then .. I had a visit from Peri as well but she didn’t save me.”
Derek drew in a breath. “I died.”
Rachel stared at him.
“So did I,” Alex murmured. “Peri did it and .. I deserved it too.”
Kat reached for her robe and thrust her arms into the sleeves, then rose from her bed to go to the window. Drawing back the drapes to let in the crisp gray light of early morning, Kat’s eyes widened.
“I died as well,” Rachel said quickly. “Patrick .. had an affair an’ I wanted to keep my family together so I got into witchcraft cos my aunt Rebecca’s book had been passed on to me .. and I did some terrible things. You, Derek, came to free him from the spell and then .. I enchanted you and .. the whole Legacy was threatened so Peri came to see me an’ took away the ability to cast any more spells. Patrick and I divorced, I lost custody of the children .. and I’d had another little girl – Casey; she was so beautiful – and I went to pieces.” She closed her eyes. “I gave my soul away just so Patrick would love me again. Peri … ” She shook her head, unable to put it into words. “I watched myself die. It was .. extremely vivid.”
“Most of my dream was .. wonderful,” Derek related. “I married, had children. I was a businessman here in the city. I ran three stores. And yet .. I, too, wanted revenge so, when Reed Horton asked me to look after one of the sepulchers, I agreed. In the end … ” He swallowed. “In the end, I joined the Darkside and I paid for it.” He shuddered. “I don’t know how I managed to sleep after that but I did. Deeply and peacefully.”
“You knew you’d made the right choice,” Rachel commented, relieved to learn that Derek’s dream had been different from her own.
“Like you, it was more that .. the chain never formed so the situation never arose,” he responded. “My father didn’t die in Peru.”
“Despite what I saw, it was a gift,” Alex said. “It was incredibly real while it lasted and I felt .. helpless to stop what was going on, but I woke this morning so grateful that I chose to be here, to be with all of you, to do what I do.”
“The Legacy saved my life twice over,” Rachel agreed. “I woke grateful to be alive and to be here with all of you. I hated what I did .. but I learned so much from watching me do it.”
“Well, I woke thankful I’m one of the good guys,” Nick commented. “The life of a con artist and a hit man, and then running a tourist attraction .. just isn’t for me. I like what I do here.”
They looked to Derek. “Do you agree we’ve all been given a gift?” Rachel asked.
Slowly, he nodded. “I have never truly regretted joining the Legacy, although there have been many times I have resented the burden it placed upon me. Now I have seen how my life would have evolved without that burden .. and, on balance, I would rather have it than be free of it. The experience of last night .. wasn’t so much a vindication of my father’s death than it was a confirmation that I made the right choices when I did, and that has to include inviting you to be here with me. Yes, I got to see my father grow to be an old man and I very much loved having a wife and children, but .. knowing that you are all meant to be here as well, knowing that you are my family, and a family I can touch and hold .. yes, it is a very rare and precious gift we have been given. I woke grateful to have some beautiful memories which will last me the rest of this lifetime .. and more than pleased that Peri is my friend, not my enemy.”
There was a moment of silence, then Alex raised her eyebrows.
“So .. who gave us this gift?”
“Mom! Mom! Have you seen?” Kat exclaimed, bursting in. “Look! Outside!”
Alopex was laughing as they tried to run back up the drive. Merlin was skidding and sliding on the snow. He wasn’t doing much better. Their eyes were sparkling, cheeks flushed with the exercise in the cold. Legacy Enforcers didn’t have easy lives and they were accustomed to finding simple pleasure in simple things. This was wonderful to them.
The trees glimmered white in the early dawn. The lawns were smothered in a pristine blanket. The house looked like something from a fairy tale.
“How long are you going to keep this up?” Alopex asked breathlessly as they reached the front door.
“Till noon,” she answered. “It won’t stay long once it stops snowing. Too much salt in the air. But, for now, it looks very festive.”
“And it will make Kat very happy.”
“I sure hope so,” Merlin agreed.
His eyes grew serious. “Will you confess?”
“You don’t confess to giving gifts, Jon. Nor do you own up.”
Alopex folded his arms. “You don’t know yet if they saw it as a gift. They could easily view it as a gross invasion into their private lives. Or, they could be so impressed with what they saw, they could be packing their bags to leave in an attempt to make dreams come true.”
Merlin didn’t respond to that and he smiled thinly, knowing he’d hit a home run.
“If nothing else, you learned a new skill,” he continued.
“Yeah. I can do multiple strikes so long as they’re over fast. It took a lot outta me, last night. A thirty second burst is pushing it. Twenty seconds is just about the safe limit if it’s combat. If I’m physically active at the same time .. I don’t think it’d be possible.”
“Did you learn anything else? Did Aquila share what she saw?”
“We have the same mind but I didn’t eavesdrop. It was too chaotic, seeing glimpses of four different lives being lived. I shut it out and I haven’t asked Aquila to tell how each dream ended. All I know is that .. Aquila was exhausted and she got the job done.”
“If you knew, would you tell me?”
“No. That would be an invasion of privacy. C’mon, shower then breakfast, then the big ceremonial gift unwrapping in the lounge. Then snowball fights on the lawn, followed by a big blow out dinner an’ a slow descent into party mode .. before training at the Gorge tonight.”
“What have you gotten me?” he asked.
“It’s a surprise. Wait an’ see.”
They opened the door and met the others on their way out. Merlin and Alopex halted, studying the faces.
“Merry Christmas,” Merlin ventured.
“Peri, did you do it?” Kat exclaimed. “Did you make my wish come true?”
winked. “Snowball fights on the lawn at
ten thirty, okay?”
“For sure!” Kat hugged her. “Thank you!”
“You did it?” Nick asked.
Merlin shrugged as Kat, Rachel and Derek went outside. Alex hovered in the doorway, peering with astonished eyes at the snow.
“Kat had to have a special gift,” she said. “Alopex reminded me of the wish she’d made. Least I could do to make the day a memorable one for her.” She looked into his eyes but saw nothing there to worry her. “I gotta go shower.”
“Merry Christmas, babe,” Nick said, kissing her.
He watched them climb the stairs, then, his eyes narrowing thoughtfully, went to stand next to Alex.
“This is amazing,” she murmured. “It really makes it feel like Christmas.”
“What?” She turned to him.
“If Kat had to have a special gift .. what does that say to you?” Nick asked quietly.
She considered. “Maybe nothing. Kat’s younger so .. we always make more of an effort for the kids.”
“Sure but .. if I said Kat deserved a special gift, that’d fit your idea, wouldn’t it?”
“Oh .. I see. She had to have a special gift. That says .. she isn’t the only one.” Alex straightened abruptly and stared at him.
“Last night, I went to the kitchen an’ Peri an’ Alopex were talking. She said it wasn’t important but he looked disturbed, really uncomfortable,” Nick recalled.
“It was her one night off, Nick. Are you saying Peri gave us those dreams as a gift?”
“If you’d asked me that a half hour ago, I would’ve said no. She doesn’t do anything except chill on Christmas Eve. Now .. there’s another way of looking at it. Her one night off in the whole year. Every other night, she goes training. Last night was the only night she was free to do something else. Kat’s never joined the Legacy so she had to have a special gift too. That’s what was missing when she said it just now. Too. Something only Peri could give.”
“All four of us, on the same night?” Alex queried.
Nick shivered. “I think it’s even more than that. Did you wake when it was over?”
“Yeah,” Alex confirmed.
“I heard the clock strike the last chime of midnight. It faded as I listened.”
“Me too,” she nodded.
Derek returned to the house, shivering briskly.
“Derek, did you wake at the end of your dream?” Nick asked.
“Yes, briefly. I heard my clock striking the last chime at midnight.”
Nick looked at Alex. “That’s three. Who wants to bet Rachel heard it too?”
“I lived an entire life while the clock was chiming midnight?” Alex ventured.
“I think we all did,” Nick replied. “All four of us, one hit. An entire life .. in thirty seconds.”
“Aquila was all three ghosts … But that’s invasion of privacy,” Alex pointed out. “It’s .. messing with our memories.”
“Is it?” Derek inquired. “The only thing which was the same was the original event. From the second that ended differently, it was all new.” He glanced at Nick. “Is Peri responsible?”
“I think it was her way of giving us all a gift only she could.”
“The answer to the question we have all asked at one time or another, even if in jest or half-heartedly.” Derek shook his head as he smiled. “She is a remarkable woman.”
Rachel came into the kitchen and halted. Merlin turned from the stove and Rachel thought, for just a second, the Enforcer’s eyes were wary.
“I wanted to say thank you,” Rachel began.
“You’ve made Kat very happy an’ that means so much to me.”
“You’re welcome. It’s a little thing but .. if I can do it an’ it makes someone’s day, why shouldn’t I do it?” She turned back to the stove.
“You’re on the breakfast run, I see. Need some help?”
“Sure,” Merlin agreed.
Rachel came to stand beside her. “Peri, can I ask you something?”
“You can ask.”
“This isn’t .. trade secrets,” Rachel laughed. “Do you dream?”
“Doesn’t everyone?” Merlin frowned.
“Yeah, every normal, regular person in the world. You’re not normal. You train every night .. except one, so when do you get time to dream?”
“You could say training is a type of dream. There are two kinds, right? The .. er, housekeeping dream is one, an the exploration carried out by the astral body is the other. But I do both. The really weird dreams, I tend to get those just before I wake up. Why’d you ask?”
It was a lightly voiced question but Rachel faintly heard an undertone of caution.
“Last night .. I had a really incredible, profoundly vivid experience. It was in the form of a dream but it was much more than that. It was a gift. And I woke up at the end, too. I thought .. days must have gone by but no. Thirty-odd seconds, an’ that was all. When I came down this morning, I learned I wasn’t the only one to be given this gift. Derek, Alex an’ Nick had dreamed similar things. Did you?”
Merlin laughed softly. “There you go again. You guys get to do the neat stuff. Me .. I just slept thru.”
Rachel nodded slowly. “There again, you’ve never had the choice to make, have you? You were born to it. And the things you have to learn are about others, not yourself. You’re a very centered, balanced woman.” She smiled. “Thank you.”
“Making my day so special and .. for teaching me something I’ll remember the rest of my life. You seem to be almost done here. I’ll go set the table.”
Merlin waited till the door closed then she smiled to herself. “You’re welcome. Merry Christmas, Rachel.”
“Slow down,” Rachel murmured.
“But, Mom – ”
“Indigestion, Katherine. I know you’re excited, we all are, but – ”
“But, Mom, it’s Christmas,” Kat interrupted. “Please?”
Rachel looked around the breakfast table. Kat wasn’t the only one trying to get breakfast finished quickly. She sighed. “Okay.”
When it was done, Alopex said he’d clear the table and Merlin added she’d fetch the coffee into the lounge. Nick said he’d go on thru to get the fire lit. Alex lingered behind while Derek announced he would, very rapidly, check the control room for urgent messages.
“Peri,” Alex said and Merlin halted in the doorway to look back. “I learned a lot. Thank you.” Alex smiled and put a hand on Merlin’s shoulder as she went out.
Derek, leaving the control room, saw one solitary book, one solitary novel, on the steps leading to the upper level. He paused to pick it up and open the cover. There was a handwritten note inside.
‘To Merlin, with best wishes for a Merry Christmas, Jon.’
It was A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Derek smiled to himself. If he hadn’t been totally sure before, he was now.
He met Merlin carrying the coffee toward the lounge. “Peri, do you have a moment?”
“Yeah, sure. What’s up?”
Derek leaned closer and kissed her forehead. “You gave me a lifetime of memories. Thank you.” He took the tray from her. “Go find Alopex and hurry, or we’ll start without you.”
Merlin returned to the kitchen. “You nearly done?”
“They’re waiting to start an’ Kat’s fit to burst anyway. C’mon, or we’ll miss it.”
Nick came in. “Here you are. What’s the hold up?”
“Y’see?” Merlin invited.
Alopex hurried out and she went to follow but Nick caught her arm. “Destiny has a lot to answer for. Thank you.”
“Showing me what all this really means.” He kissed her. “And what I’d be without it. Now, c’mon!”
Merlin had to admit she was as excited as everyone else as she entered the lounge.
“As Precept of this house,” Derek began, “it is my privilege, my honor and my right to go first. So … ” He picked up a gift. “Rachel, this is for you. Alex … Nick … Kat, you’re at a very awkward age. I hope this is to your liking. Peri .. I know this will go down well.”
“Derek!” Rachel exclaimed, staring at a new medical bag.
“These are beautiful, thank you so much,” Alex said warmly, admiring the turquoise and silver Navajo jewelry.
“Look, Mom! Fifty dollars’ worth of vouchers for clothes!” Kat said, her eyes alight with plans. “Thanks, Derek!”
“Wow … ” Nick breathed, unwrapping an antique firearm for his collection. “I know where this is going. Thanks, boss.”
“A case of wine. Thank you, Derek. You’re right,” Merlin grinned. “It’ll go down very well.”
Alex, as the next longest serving member, decided to go next. “Rachel … Nick, this is an in-joke but I know you’ll appreciate it. Peri … And, last but never least, Derek.”
Rachel opened her favorite perfume. Derek tore the paper off a case of vintage port. Nick laughed at the sweater he’d received. And Merlin immediately twisted up her hair and secured it with the silver comb Alex had given her.
“Me next,” Kat begged. “Mom … Alex … Nick … Derek, this’ll be useful. And Peri,” she said, holding out a small, flat oblong with a shy smile.
“Katherine .. it’s beautiful. Thank you, sweetie,” Rachel said, hugging her, then fastening the silver decorated leather belt around her hips.
“Oh, this is great, thanks, kiddo,” Nick grinned as he opened the cover of a book on classic Mustangs.
Derek lifted the lid of a box. “An engraved crystal glass. You’re right, it will be useful when I drink Alex’s port. Thank you.”
“This is going by my bed,” Alex declared, holding up a silver photo frame. “And I know just the picture I want to put in it.”
Merlin burst out laughing. “Oh, wow … Thank you! That day was a blast, wasn’t it?” She showed Nick the photo in the silver frame. Kat in a silver blonde wig and Merlin in a blue and purple wig, full make up on both, striking an outrageous pose for the camera. “Okay, my turn now. Kat, I checked with your Mom an’ she agreed.”
Kat ripped open the paper. “Mom .. thanks. Peri, these are great,” she said, gazing at the set of make-up brushes.
“But .. your Mom doesn’t know about these,” Merlin winked.
Kat’s eyes widened and her mouth dropped open. The first gift was the silver blonde wig she was wearing in the photograph. And the second was her own laptop computer.
“Oh … ” She looked up. “Thank you isn’t enough.”
“It’s enough,” Merlin grinned. “Okay, Alopex, before you bust a gut, this is for you. Alex … Rachel … ”
“It’s lovely,” Alex said, smoothing the cloth before wrapping the pashmina around her shoulders. “Thank you so much.”
“A laptop?” Alopex queried. “Of my own?”
“Unless you wanna share it with someone, yeah,” Merlin responded.
“Are these ..? They are antique!” Rachel exclaimed. “Peri, you don’t read minds, do you?”
“They are perfect. Thank you.”
“Derek, this is for you an’, please, take your time,” Merlin said.
He frowned and tore off the paper to reveal an old book. Carefully, he opened it and his eyes widened. “Mind puzzles thru history .. from Roman times up to the seventeenth century. Thank you. This will keep me occupied for .. at least several months.”
“And, finally, Nick.” She held out the package but wouldn’t let him take it. “Before you open it, I want a promise that you will not disappear for the rest of the day.”
“Promise,” he said and eagerly tore open the gift. He stared then looked up. “Thanks.” He showed the weapon to Derek. “I figure I’m okay to disappear for a couple of hours to check it out, don’t you?”
“If you’re one second longer, I wouldn’t like to be in your shoes,” Derek commented.
Rachel went next. “Kat, you’re growing up so fast.”
Kat mentally crossed her fingers but discovered she had no need. “New boots! Oh, thanks, Mom!”
“Alex … Nick, you’re a difficult guy to buy for.”
“It’s gorgeous, Rachel. Thank you,” Alex said, admiring the jacket.
“It’s okay, Rachel,” Nick said. “I can always use another sweater, the way they get borrowed around here.”
“Peri .. please use this,” Rachel smiled. “And .. Derek.”
“Wow .. a day at a health spa,” Merlin said. “I could use some pampering. Thanks, Rachel.”
Derek opened his gift and stared. Rachel held her breath. “Don’t you like it?”
It was paints and brushes, a sketch pad and two small blank canvasses. He looked up. “I was thinking of .. taking up painting as a hobby. I think I’d be fairly good at it. Thank you, Rachel.”
“Okay, last to go,” Nick said. “Rachel, this is for you. Derek .. hope you like it. Kat … And, Alex.”
“Nick, this is great, thank you,” Rachel responded. “Music CDs and a personal player. Kat, you ask if you wanna borrow, okay?”
Derek laughed softly. “Thank you. Now .. where shall I hang this that visitors won’t think I’m big headed?” He showed them the portrait of himself which Nick had commissioned from a photo.
“Oh, Nick, it’s great! Thank you!” Kat exclaimed. “Look, Mom, my very own jewelry box with a necklace inside.”
“Return tickets to Vancouver?” Alex queried.
“You said you were going back to Gretna for a working vacation,” Nick pointed out. “This is to make sure you take it.”
“Bless you,” she smiled.
Kat noticed the time. “Snowball fights! C’mon!”
They all scrambled up and half ran, half walked to the front door, grabbing coats and jackets on the way. Once out in the drive, Nick caught Merlin’s arm.
“Think I’d forgotten you?” he asked.
“Of course not,” she said.
He dug in a pocket. “First .. I want a promise. You’ll let me borrow from time to time.”
“Merry Christmas, Merli,” Nick grinned and handed over a tiny package.
Frowning, wondering what could be in here that he might want to borrow, Merlin opened it. Inside was a key.
“Nick? Peri? Are you coming to fight?” Derek called.
“In a few minutes,” Nick called back.
“It’s a key,” she pointed out. “ A key to what?”
“Couldn’t wrap it. Couldn’t get it in the house,” he replied, putting his arm around her shoulders and steering her away from the sound of wet thuds and the shrieks of laughter.
Nick couldn’t have wrapped it but he had put a big shiny red bow on it. Merlin gazed at the brand new Mustang in the garage, parked next to his classic Ragtop.
“You’re worth it,” he said, taking her in his arms and kissing her. “It goes like a dream. Zero to sixty in six point seven seconds.”
“Well .. I had to make sure it was exactly right,” he added, shrugging. “That everything worked just as it should.”
“Sure you did.”
They turned and, hand in hand, headed back down the drive. The shrieks had gone ominously quiet but Nick, the owner of a brand new SIG Sauer – the SEALs’ handgun of choice – was enjoying his Christmas too much to notice. As he rounded the corner of the house, he got five big wet snowballs in the face and upper chest.
Merlin giggled into the breathless silence as Nick slowly wiped the wetness from his eyes and mouth. Those eyes regarded the others with the so familiar steady stare then they slowly narrowed.
“O-kay,” Nick said softly. “You just made a big mistake. You messed with the wrong guy.” The others began to back away. “Let me warn you right now – I do not take prisoners. This .. is .. war!”
Poltergeist: The Legacy
The Chimes At Midnight
© Jay Brown, 2001
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