“1-800-SPANK ME. I know that number.” Catherine raised an eyebrow in Sara’s direction, her smile wicked as her blue eyes twinkled in delight. Sara blushed and shook her head. “Not for that reason!”
Catherine held up her hands. “Not my place to judge, Sara. You’re a big girl.”
“Grown woman!” Sara growled as she cut Catherine a look and huffed impatiently. She held out one of Lady Heather’s business cards. “The old man we ran into this morning – Kris something... you remember?” waiting for Catherine to nod. She flipped it over. “He passed this to me before he left the scene. ‘He will give the desires of your heart’,” she read aloud. “I thought he was being a freak or something, but maybe....”
Catherine’s expression went serious and she studied the card Sara handed her. “You think he knows something he wasn’t willing to share with the police?”
“I think we should probably pursue it as a lead. It’s as good as anything else we have at the moment.”
“You think he’s at Heather’s? It’s the only contact information on the card.”
“Let’s go talk to her. Even if he’s not there, she might know where to find him. There has to be some reason he had her card in his pocket. I wonder what he meant by what he wrote on the back, though.”
“We’ll ask him when we find him.”
Lady Heather wasn’t at all surprised to see them when she opened the door and she directed them into her study and offered them tea before taking a seat behind her desk. “How can I help you ladies?”
Sara explained the situation, showing Heather the card the old man had given her. Heather glanced at it and nodded as she stood. “He left something for you. I’ll be back.”
“All I want is what’s coming to me,” the redhead whined. The brunette looking down at her just smirked.
“Whatever happened to the old adage, ‘it is more blessed to give than to receive’?”
“They weren’t waiting for Lindsay Boxer to let them out of a holding cell... again!” Cindy stomped her foot and crossed her arms over her chest, glowering at the tall woman with just a hint of a pout.
Before Lindsay could reply, Jill walked into the room, eyes widening at what met her gaze. She schooled her features carefully, then turned to Lindsay. “I hate to break up your little rendezvous, but Claire called. She’s been trying to reach you. She said there’s something we need to see downstairs.”
Lindsay nodded and grabbed her phone from the nearby desk and scrolled through her box, noticing among other things, three missed calls from Claire. “All right. She tell you anything? Give you any ideas what this is all about?” Jill shook her head, holding Lindsay’s eyes. Lindsay sighed. “Well, let’s go see what’s going on. It’s gotta be important if Claire sent you up here to find me.” They turned and headed out the door, a disgruntled shout causing them to pause in the doorway.
“Hey!” Cindy bellowed, drawing every eye in the room to her. “What about me?? You can’t just leave me here, Boxer!!”
Lindsay turned around slowly, watching the room clear as personnel skittered out the door in an effort to be anywhere else. She moseyed back towards Cindy who instinctively backed into the wall behind her. Then Lindsay leaned forward and gave Cindy a smile. “Surprisingly,” she drawled slowly, “I can. I’ll be back shortly and fill you in. Maybe then you’ll be reasonable about things.”
“Not another word, Thomas. Show me the money.”
“Faith is believing when common sense tells you not to,” Sam read softly to herself as her fingers traced over the raised words. It was a plaque Janet had given her after her return to Earth, and at this time of year especially it brought a smile to Sam’s face. She’d just gotten off the phone with Mac, glad they were in touch again after reconnecting at the convention in Orlando. And who knew better than Sam Carter about miracles, but this one...? She furrowed her brow in thought. Could it be possible?
“Could what be possible, Sam?” Janet asked as she closed the door to Sam’s study. She didn’t know what Sam was working on, and since Cassie had made them grandparents, Sam’s study had become the one place in the house the baby wasn’t allowed. So it had become an ingrained habit to keep the door closed whether she was working or not. “Was that Mac on the phone?” Janet continued, circling up behind Sam and wrapping her in a hug from behind. “Is everything okay?”
“Don’t be afraid; just believe,” Sam chanted softly to herself, then turned in Janet’s arms to meet wide brown eyes.
“Believe what, Sam?”
“How would you like to go to New York for the holidays? We could bring Cassie and the baby and....”
“Sam, what’s going on?”
“It seems that Santa has gone missing,” Sam said softly, closing her eyes to avoid seeing the disbelief in Janet’s eyes. Janet waited patiently, knowing Sam would relent if only to get an answer to her question. She smiled into cautious blue eyes when they fluttered open.
“I’d love to go to New York with you... for any reason. I’ll talk to Cassie.” Sam grinned.
“I’ve got a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
“God bless us everyone!” Olivia exclaimed as she dodged into the farmhouse kitchen, scattering raindrops as she entered. Natalia and Emma both screeched as the cold water hit them, but Olivia laughed, brushing a kiss over Emma’s head before turning to catch Natalia’s lips for a long, passionate moment.
“Mush... mush... mush,” Emma complained, snagging another cookie while her parents’ attention was otherwise engaged.
“Man shall not live by bread alone, kiddo – or woman either for that matter,” Olivia murmured as she captured Natalia’s willing mouth once more.
“Or by cookies,” Natalia scolded when they separated again, the look in her eyes keeping Emma from indulging another time. “You’ll ruin your dinner, young lady.”
“You heard your mama,” Olivia instructed quietly. Emma stared at Olivia for a moment, then nodded her agreement. “Okay. Why don’t you go wash up and then you can set the table?”
“All right, but don’t be telling secrets without me!” scrambling off to run upstairs.
She was down again in a jiffy and soon all three were seated at the table sharing the repast Natalia had prepared. When they were done with the first rush, Olivia leaned back in her seat. “How would you like to go to New York for Christmas?” Natalia’s eyes lit up, but Emma frowned and Olivia continued on quickly. “Some of the women from the conference are getting together, and I thought it might be fun for us to go. Do some shopping... see some shows....”
“Will Santa be able to find us there?”
“Santa can always find the little ones – big girls, however, can find him. And New York is the perfect place to look.”
Emma looked between her parents and saw the hopeful looks on their faces and smiled. “Guess it’s a good thing I am big!”
Xena rolled over and glared at Gabrielle from narrowed eyelids, just able to make out her grin. Xena huffed in annoyance and turned her back to Gabrielle, covering her head with her pillow. “Please don’t remind me. Besides... you’re early.”
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. Xena had been getting touchier about her age recently, and Gabrielle was determined to change that immediately. She pulled the pillow from Xena’s head and tugged on her shoulder until she was lying flat on her back.
“Xena – chill out, okay? I know it’s early, but....” Gabrielle snatched something from the bedside table and handed it to Xena. “Ask and it shall be given to you.”
Xena glowered but took the paper and sat up enough to read it – only to shoot fully upright when the meaning of the words settled into her consciousness. “Is this for real? We’re really going to go and just...?”
“Yep. And Kris said he’d do his best to make things interesting – for us and for them.”
“When did you talk to Kris?” Xena asked, flinging the covers from her body and rising from the bed as if she’d never been in a snit to begin with. She smiled when she felt Gabrielle embrace her from behind, then shivered when hands started tracing absent patterns on her bare skin.
“Does it really matter?” Gabrielle asked, kissing Xena’s shoulder through a smile.
“No buts. I know how it feels, Xena. This is for me too.”
“I love you – you know that too, right?”
“I do,” Gabrielle replied, coming to stand in front of Xena at her urging. She shifted her arms to wrap around Xena’s neck as Xena removed the robe she wore.
“Thank you, Gabrielle.” Gabrielle kissed her gently.
“Here’s looking at you, Kid.”
He got an idea... an awful idea – then Kris got a wonderful, AWFUL idea. The words roiled around Diana’s mind and she closed her eyes, pinching the bridge of her nose as she sighed. How did I let myself be conscripted into this ridiculous...?
“I can hear you, ya know, Princess,” Kris said with a smirk. Diana looked over at him and glared, but he just chuckled at her.
Diana sighed in aggravation. “Kris, I’m not a princess here in man’s world – I’m just Diana.”
“And I’m not the Grinch – kindly stop comparing me to him. I’m just doing as your Queen asked.” He studied her a moment, his voice softening. “Have I done something to offend you in some way, Prin... Diana?”
Diana made an effort to smile at him, but to Kris it was more of a grimace. He waited patiently for her to speak. Finally she seemed to come to a decision and relaxed just slightly. “No, Kris – I’m sorry. I’m just not sure I understand why all this is necessary.”
He grinned, his eyes crinkling in delight. “Oh, Princess – it’s not necessary at all. It’s all in good fun. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.” He frowned when her expression didn’t change. “You do remember fun, don’t you?”
She moved away from him to look out the window that overlooked the City That Never Sleeps. They were high enough up that she had an excellent view without being able to hear any of the commotion from the streets below. But her focus remained on something beyond the panorama laid out below her, and her shoulders sagged in realization.
“I don’t think I do, Kris. I haven’t for a while now.”
Thank you Gabrielle, Kris thought. It’s another fine mess you’ve gotten me into.
“Hey, what do you say we be independent together huh?” Nikki turned around at the whispered words and gave Nora her best rakish smile.
“Why sugar – is that a proposal?” She swaggered over to where Nora was sitting and dropped into her lap, wrapping her arms around Nora’s neck. Nikki watched Nora flush the shade of a beet and her grin became tender, though her brown eyes twinkled in delight. Nora cleared her throat, willing the blush on her face to fade to something resembling its natural color.
“Heard that, did you?” Nora asked, hands clenching.
“Um hmm,” Nikki drawled. “I can do all things better when you’re involved than I can do them alone. So what’s going on, Nora?” Her face became serious as she felt the tension ratchet up in Nora’s body. “Baby, I was just teasing you. I’m just happy that we’re finally out together. We don’t need to get married.”
“But you’d like to, wouldn’t you?”
“I wouldn’t say no if you asked,” Nikki replied giving Nora a coy smile. “Are you asking?”
“I’ll admit I expected something more traditional, but I kinda like the thought of being independent together with you. So do you wanna take it back or...?”
“No! Um... Nikki, will you marry me this weekend in New York?”
“Seriously?” brown eyes wide with amazement and hope and overflowing with love and happiness. “You’ve been planning this,” she accused.
“I have – since the law passed. I thought it would just be us, you know... something simple. But since our friends are all coming in anyway, I thought we could invite them as our witnesses.”
“There’s only one little thing wrong with that idea.”
“Your mama will kill us if we get married without her and the rest of the family.”
“Houston, we have a problem.”
“I almost wish there wasn’t a holiday season,” Olivia grumbled as she moved more paperwork around her desk. “It just makes the crazies crazier. And now they wanna have a Santa hunt?”
“Wait - what?” Elliot asked from his desk. “Who’s having a Santa hunt?”
Olivia shook her head. “You remember the convention we went to in Orlando?” seeing Elliot’s eyes narrow in annoyance. She still caught grief from the guys in the squad for getting a ‘work assignment’ at Disney World. “Right, so I get a call today asking me to be on the lookout for Santa. Apparently, he’s headed this way and the women we met there are headed this way to find him.”
Elliot’s brows headed for his hairline. “Why?”
“Dunno – I’m still waiting for clarification on that point.”
“Be joyful in hope, Detective,” Alex instructed from the doorway. “I have the answers you seek – some of them anyway,” meeting Olivia’s expression with a laugh, happy to see Olivia’s corresponding smile. “Santa is missing, and Gabrielle has requested our help – all of our help – in finding him before Christmas. What I got on the down low, however, is this an excuse to get us all together to celebrate Xena’s birthday.”
“Why not just invite everyone then? Why go to all the trouble of cooking up a Santa hoax?”
Alex shrugged. “Because it wouldn’t be as fun? I don’t know, Liv – maybe you can ask when we see them. In the meantime, think of it as another poker run. The difference is this time our objective is on the move and can actually stay a step ahead of us. And we don’t have to find him in the next three hours or even today.”
“I suppose,” Olivia replied with a sigh. “After all, tomorrow is another day.”
“I prefer to blame Congress,” Abbie complained, accepting the drink from Mac and leaning back into Casey’s warmth. Casey kept her response to a smile Abbie couldn’t see, but Mac had no such restraint and laughed aloud.
“You live in DC, Carmichael – of course you do. You have a ringside seat for the circus that is our government in action. But in this case, I don’t think they’re actually at fault.”
“So why are we on a train to New York to take part in a Santa hunt?”
“Because it sounds like good fun?” Casey replied, nudging Abbie with her shoulder. “C’mon, Abbie – what are you afraid of?”
“I will fear no evil,” Abbie declared dramatically, garnering her the laughter she was looking for and a shove from Casey that she wasn’t. “Hey!” she complained, scrambling to keep from spilling her drink.
“You’re such a goof,” Casey said affectionately and Mac nodded her agreement. “Why would you think Santa Claus is evil?”
“Have you ever seen him in the mall?? He makes kids scream bloody murder for God’s sake!”
“So do clowns,” Mac stipulated, watching Abbie shudder in disgust. “That doesn’t make them evil.”
Abbie leveled a glare at her. “You’ve never seen IT, have you?” Mac laughed and Casey hugged Abbie a little tighter. “Pennywise was pure EVIL.”
“Well, I don’t think we’re going to run into Pennywise in New York. I think we’re going to see some old friends; meet up with some new ones; and generally have a good weekend together. Hunting for Santa’s just a bonus. I figure he’ll be at Macy’s and we’ll get a good shopping opportunity too.”
Abbie tilted her head back to catch Casey’s adoring eye, then studied Mac for a long moment. “All right, but if I see a clown....”
“Go ahead,” Mac growled with a smile. “Make my day.”
“I’m over here, you big horse’s ass – come and get me before I call the police!” Jo ranted, doing her best to keep the idiot with the gun from noticing anyone else in the room... especially Blair. Blair was wisely staying put and out of sight, knowing any sort of distraction could mean bad things for her Joey.
“No,” the gunman screamed. “This is my kingdom, and I shall not be moved from it! You can’t make me!”
Before Jo could speak again, an old man brushed by her with a light touch to indicate she should wait, and she hesitated long enough for him to reach the lunatic still waving his gun. In moments, however, the gunman was disarmed and cuffed, then Blair was in Jo’s arms. Uniforms led the suspect to a waiting vehicle while others gathered witness statements. Jo hugged Blair tightly to her. She was used to being in the line of fire, but having Blair there even accidentally....
“I’m all right, Joey. But I’d like to thank the old man who stepped in.” She glanced around. “Where did he go?”
Jo frowned. He should have been somewhere nearby. After all, he’d foiled a crazy man’s attack on innocent people. But no matter where she turned there was no sign of an old man with a white beard and red suspenders. “I dunno, Babe,” motioning a uniform over. “Where’d the old man go?”
The beat cop gave her a funny look. “What old man, Detective?”
“Nevermind,” Jo said as she led Blair from the pagoda. “Tell me I’m not going crazy,” Jo said when they stepped away from the mayhem.
“If you are, then so am I. I would have sworn he was Santa Claus. You don’t suppose....”
“I think if we’re cruisin’ to the land of crazy, you’re gonna need a bigger boat.”
“It came without ribbons! It came without tags! It came without packages, boxes or bags! And in this case, it came without our luggage!” Myka huffed as she stood at the baggage carousel that continued to remain empty despite her glare. Helena cocked her head at Myka and raised a brow.
“Why do I have the distinct impression that those words have a completely different meaning than you expressing your frustration over our lost luggage, Darling?” The twinkle in her eyes was calming to Myka, and the Agent let a small smile escape as the tension drained from her shoulders.
“Sorry. I just.... Do you really think an artifact is bringing all these women to New York convinced they’re going to find Santa Claus?”
“I think that any excuse to visit the City at this time of year is a welcome one. Now tell me about the verse you just quoted – did you write it?”
Myka’s laugh brought a smile to Helena’s face. “Oh no, Helena. Remind me when we get back to Leena’s and I’ll introduce you to the wonders of Seuss.”
“You will teach me your way, Darling? I’ll look forward to it.” Myka blushed and Helena’s smile grew. “So what do we do now, Darling? I know we still have the Farnsworths’ in the carryall,” indicating Myka’s backpack, “and you have your gun, but the Teslas and all our clothing seems to be lost in limbo somewhere.”
Myka reached into her purse, pulling out her wallet and withdrawing a credit card. She waved it at Helena. “Now my dear Helena, we go shopping. Say hello to my little friend.”
“Not too hot – extra chocolate. Shaken, not stirred,” Sam pronounced as she placed the cup in Brooke’s hand. Brooke patted the space in front of her and Sam slid into her spot. She relaxed with a sigh and Brooke leaned forward, wrapping her arms tighter around Sam’s middle.
“Everything okay?” she asked, letting her fingers slide under the heavy sweater to rub light circles on Sam’s belly.
“Yeah,” Sam replied softly. “This time of year always makes me think of my dad. He was big into Christmas – the meaning, you know... not just the retail part of it. ‘Keep it holy, Sam’ he’d tell me, and remind me that it was more about giving than getting. We always chose our year’s volunteer project on Christmas.”
“That sounds lovely, Sam. Do you wanna do something like that with me?”
“Would you? I’ve missed it since....”
“We’ll find something we can do together, and you can tell me how it works as a year-long project.”
“I’d like that,” Sam replied, then shifted the topic to something a little lighter. “So what so you think of this whole Santa hunt idea? Have you seen him yet?”
Brooke grinned. “You know, I’m not sure. I thought I did when I was exiting the subway this morning, but when I turned to see if he was real....” She trailed off, a frown creasing her brow.
“What?” Sam asked, altering her position so she could wipe the wrinkles off Brooke’s forehead before brushing a kiss there.
“He was just gone... like he hadn’t even been there in the first place.”
Sam bit her lip. “Maybe we’re not supposed to find him until everyone is here?”
“Maybe, but then why is he roaming around now?”
Sam shrugged and took Brooke’s cup from her hand, setting them carefully on the table. “I dunno, but right now, I don’t wanna think about missing Santas or volunteering or anything else but us,” giving Brooke a leer. “Fasten your seatbelts – it’s gonna be a bumpy night.”
“Of course, sir – a fine night for spirits of one form or another sir!” Helena mocked softly as she raced across the rooftops of New York City. It wasn’t New Gotham of course, but she needed some sort of stress relief after hours spent working at the Dark Horse recently especially in light of all the weirdness surrounding her. It seemed that was all she did lately – work or run sweeps. But even that gave her little satisfaction in easing the frustration she felt. So as soon as they’d arrived in the City, she’d kissed Barbara’s cheek and headed out on her run.
Now over an hour later, she stood atop the Empire State Building, looking down at the myriad of human beings below her. The sound of a soft landing just out of her periphery caused Helena to smile slightly, knowing if she turned her head, Dinah would be standing behind her silently.
“Be strong and courageous, Kid. I know you’ve been behind me since I left Times Square.”
“Is everything all right, Hel?” You took off so fast – we were worried.”
Helena sighed. “I’m just tired, but I needed to burn off some steam, ya know?”
“I know. But you’ve been that way a lot lately. Can I help?”
Helena squatted down without turning her head, ever mindful of the throng of humanity spread out around her. “I don’t think so, Kid. I think this is something I need to figure out for myself.” She hesitated. “But thanks.”
Dinah nodded. “Talk to Barbara, Hel. She needs you to.”
“I don’t think she can help with this either, D.”
“Maybe not. But she can be there for you... like you were for her.” She blinked and moved forward until she was standing next to Helena overlooking the Observation Deck. “Hel, does that look like...?”
“Santa Claus? Yeah, it kinds does. So I guess Gabrielle wasn’t kidding. At least I don’t need to add that to my list of weird shit happening lately.”
“What weird shit?”
“Lately when I serve spirits, I see them,” Helena replied softly. “Dinah, I see dead people.”
“One of us is going to jail – well, it’s not gonna be me,” Diana said as she forcefully grasped Kris by the elbow and led him towards the nearest elevator. “I mean, have you even vaguely considered the consequences of your actions?”
Kris removed her hand from his elbow and pulled it through the crook of his arm until he was simply escorting her through the crowd of people watching the nightly fireworks being launched from the Jersey shore. “Of course I have, my dear. So why don’t you tell me what is really bothering you, hmm? The truth shall set you free, you know, and who knows? Maybe I can even help.”
His words made her stop short and she regarded him for a long moment before her tone softened. “You would, wouldn’t you? Even though I’ve been nothing but a bitch since we arrived.”
Kris chuckled and his laugh drew some attention, though most dismissed it as a vivid imagination tied in to the time of year. “Of course,” he conceded. “I’ve known you a long time, Princess and your Queen even longer. Surely you realize she brought us together for a purpose greater than the one expressed. Gabrielle has never been one to do things without reason.”
“And you think her reason for this hunt is me?”
“Oh no,” Kris answered with a smile, conscious of the number of people in the elevator with them. “I think the reason for the hunt is to give a little fun to the women willing to make the trip here during the holidays to celebrate Xena’s birthday. But making you my chaperone? I think there is more motive there than meets the eye.”
She tilted her head to study him thoughtfully, then smiled slightly. “You could be right,” she agreed. Then the doors of the elevator opened and they stepped out, only to be stopped as they exited. Diana stood up straight and looked the nearest cop in the eye. “Is there a problem officers?”
“The six senses – to see, to hear, to taste, to smell, to feel... to be. Helena, if you can see beyond the mortal realm, then your meta-powers are evolving. Sweetheart, why didn’t you tell me?”
“Because it creeps me the hell out, Barbara! If this is evolution, I’d like to devolve back to my normal self now. Or at least evolve in a way that relates to the meta I already am.”
“But the greatest of these is love,” Barbara murmured to herself as her brow creased into a frown and she pinched the bridge of her nose. Then she looked back at Helena and held blue eyes with green. “If it’s not your meta-abilities, evolving, maybe you can see them because of your heart – maybe they need you to see them. When did it start?”
Helena shrugged. “Just in the last few weeks – since Gabrielle called you about the whole Santa hunt thing for Xena’s party.”
“And do you recognize any of the spirits you’ve seen?”
“Are you crazy?! Don’t you think...?” Helena stopped speaking when she saw the look of hurt flash across Barbara’s expression before she could school it into one of neutrality. “I’m sorry, Red. It’s just unnerving, you know. The whole thing has me on edge.”
“I know Sweetheart. I’m just trying to help.”
“I know, Red. I’m sorry,” Helena repeated. “I haven’t really studied them much, ya know? I close my eyes and when I open them again, they’re generally gone.”
“Have you seen them since we arrived in the City?”
“No. I’ve seen Santa Claus but no spirits.”
“I guess the saying is true then – there’s no place like home.”
“They’re obviously jealous of my nose. Anybody would be,” Rachel said haughtily, crossing her arms tightly over her chest... only to relax into the body behind her as pale arms wrapped around her middle. A blonde head leaned forward and brushed a kiss over an olive-skinned cheek, chuckling lightly in the diva’s ear.
“Baby, why are you getting so defensive? We’ve talked about this. C’mon – it’s a command performance! They requested you specifically! Do you not realize how awesome that is??” Rachel turned in Quinn’s embrace, wrapping her arms around the slim neck and holding on with surprising strength. Quinn returned the hug and waited; in a moment she felt Rachel take a deep breath and find her composure. Rachel leaned back to look up into hazel eyes.
“Of course I do, Quinn! I just - in all my dreams of coming to New York; of starring on Broadway; of winning the EGOT - I never once considered I might be called upon to give a command performance for THE Patrons of Broadway. I mean, have you... do you... Quinn, this could be a game-changer for me! It could advance my career far ahead of its charting!”
“In everything give thanks, right?” Quinn offered with a smile. “Maybe they’ll like you so much they’ll write something just for you to perform.”
Rachel’s eyes lit up. “An original role! Quinn... that would be so amazing! Do you know the talent...?” giggling when one perfect brow arched in amusement. “Of course you do!” Rachel squealed and Quinn just laughed, pulling her into another hug. “This is so exciting!”
“There’s my girl,” Quinn pronounced when Rachel pulled back to stare at her, eyes shining and lips creased in a huge grin. She brushed the back of her fingers along the smooth cheekbone, sighing when Rachel leaned into her touch. Quinn leaned forward and kissed the nose that had caused such upset in the first place, waiting for Rachel’s eyes to meet hers before she spoke. “Hello, Gorgeous.”
“This is Christmas – the season of perpetual hope. And you know how I live for it,” Andy said to Emily as the waiter set down their second round of drinks.
“You do realize you sound uncannily like....”
“Miranda? Yeah but I’m beginning to understand her point. Every year it’s the same thing. They have such lofty goals... promise that they shall soar with wings like eagles; instead, inevitably they crash to earth like rocks. And every year we hope for better results. I’m hoping this year....” She broke off unexpectedly. “Isn’t that Caroline and Cassidy?” nodding her head towards the door of the restaurant. “Please tell me we didn’t manage to choose the one restaurant in the entirety of Manhattan where Miranda and her family will be eating tonight.”
Emily’s eyes widened. “Nigel didn’t say anything about it when he came down to the art department today. Surely he would have if he’d known.” Her eyes grew impossibly rounder and she set down her drink hurriedly. “However, they seem to be making a beeline for you,” red brows going into her hairline briefly before she smirked. Andy scowled before plastering a smile on her countenance just as the twins arrived at the table.
They nodded at Emily before focusing their attention on Andy. “Mother said you would help us, Andy. We’re searching for Santa Claus.” Andy blinked but before she could respond, Cassidy continued. “Not literally, of course. We’re taking her place until she can join the hunt.”
Andy blinked again, then exchanged confused glances with Emily who shrugged. She turned back to the twins. “The hunt?”
“For Santa? You haven’t checked your phone today, have you?” Caroline asked with a smirk when Andy shook her head. She pulled over a chair and dropped into it while Cassidy circled around to do the same on the other side. With four people now seated at a table for two, she motioned the waiter over and leaned forward in delight. “Oh Andy – you ain’t heard nothing yet.”
“We’ll have to outwit the fiend with our superior intelligence!”
“LUCY! Santa’s not a fiend!” Janet said, aghast. Amy face-palmed while Max and Dom smirked at one another. Scud wisely remained silent and kept his eyes on his laptop, trying to account for all the variables in the search for the elusive Mr. Claus. He could find a number of sightings, of course; in this City at this time of year, how could he not? It was narrowing them down to something useable that was taking so much time.
“Well, he’s certainly no hero,” Lucy countered, though her tone was less vehement than it had been. “Otherwise, we wouldn’t be out hunting for his sorry ass in the cold just days before Christmas.”
“Well we know he’s been spotted all over the City – of course, there must be five thousand guys dressed like Santa this time of year. We just have to figure out which one is ours.”
“Lean not into thine own understanding, Grasshopper,” Lucy retorted and Amy’s eyes narrowed. Lucy held up her hands to explain. “If I was planning this, I’d want him to blend. But he’d have to blend both ways – he’d have to look right in a Santa suit, of course, but he’d need to be able to go out among people in regular clothes.”
“So you think the beard and the belly is fake?” Max asked.
“No – I think it’s real. At this time of year, people would double take without thinking too much about it, you know. Thinking that he’s just a store Santa off work.”
Max’s glared a little bit. “You do know that Gabrielle is a very evil woman, right?”
“I know she loves Xena a lot to go to all this trouble for her,” Amy said softly. “I think it’s pretty awesome, actually.”
“It will only be awesome if we win this time,” Max instructed. “So let’s get to work.” Lucy smirked.
“You talkin’ to me?”
“You know what the imagination is?” ignoring the look her words got. “Then let me say that he’s not a figment of our imagination. There is enough scientific evidence out there to prove the probability of a real Santa Claus. However,” Dana Scully added with a thoughtful pause, “most of humanity isn’t ready to accept or believe those facts as more than a child’s fantasy. So making a hunt for a supposedly mythical icon gives us the chance to be kids again and just believe.”
Mary pinched the bridge of her nose. “It just seems like much ado about very little. How did we end up part of this whole...?” She swirled her hands around in a circle in an effort to convey her thoughts.
“Because Gabrielle asked? Because it’s Xena’s birthday? Because we both missed out the last time she did something like this? Pick your reason. But just like everyone else that is participating, some tiny part of us wants it to be real for just a little while. Then maybe we can ask Santa for our heart’s desire.”
“Excuse me?” Mary asked, looking up from her hand. “What the hell is that supposed to mean? And what does that have to do with me?”
“I’m here because I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine – but right now, he’s inaccessible to me. And maybe this will let me be with him again.” She paused. “Isn’t there something or someone beyond your reach that you’d like to exercise a little bit of Christmas magic on?”
“I s’pose,” Mary agreed grudgingly. “I also wanted the chance to see Alex again and meet all the women she’s been raving over since that convention.”
“See,” Dana pointed out. “Reason enough for now. The rest? It is what it is. So let’s go see if we can find jolly old St. Nick before the rest,” waiting for Mary to rise and grab her bag.
“Hasta la vista, baby!”
“You used up all the glue on purpose.”
“Well, yeah. I used up all the glue so I could put on the whole armor – you know... on the mannequin,” motioning to the plastic model currently sporting a chain mail suit. “I need to get this done.”
“Abby, if we do not leave soon, we will not make it to New York before the hunt is over,” Ziva said. “And I believe Kate was looking forward to participating.” Kate raised both eyebrows, knowing how much Ziva wanted to attend, but she merely nodded her agreement.
“That’s true, Abby. Can’t this wait til we get back?”
Abby shook her head. “I promised Ducky. I only have a few more pieces to attach.” She glanced in Ziva’s direction. “Why don’t you call Temperance and see if she and her friends will be ready in about an hour? I’ll be done by then and we can leave right from here.”
Ziva sighed. “Very well, Abby. But do not take too long. We do not want to miss anything.” Then she turned and left before Abby could say a word. They watched her go and Kate smirked.
“I never thought I’d see the day Ziva was excited about something beyond work.”
“Don’t scoff, Kate. I think it’s pretty awesome myself,” Abby said as she carefully placed another piece. “It’s good to see her loosening up a little – even if it’s for something as ridiculous as a Santa Hunt. At least she’s opening up and making friends outside of work,” reaching behind her for the last plate and smiling when Kate put it in her hands. “Thanks.”
“You think the Santa Hunt is ridiculous?” Kate asked after a moment of silence.
“I think an invitation to a birthday party would have been easier, but....” She shrugged.
“Maybe they just wanted to have a little fun.”
“I guess. Whaddya think?” Abby asked as she stepped back from the plastic model. Kate smiled.
“It’s alive! It’s alive!”
“You wanna ticket, wiseguy?”
“I am persuaded that would probably not be in my best interests,” the old man replied.
“Then I suggest you shut it and move along before I do worse than that. You got it?”
“I got it... officer?” JJ didn’t deign to answer him, choosing instead to simply level a stare in his direction. He took the hint and scurried back into the crowd swirling around them on the sidewalk. JJ watched until he disappeared, then turned her glare on the women staring at her in amazement. “What?? He was trying to start something. I just put a stop to it.”
“Can you do that?” Kris asked. “I mean you’re not that kind of law enforcement officer.”
“Did you ever consider that he might have been our man?” Kelly asked. “You know... Santa Claus?”
JJ blinked and looked at Emily. “You don’t think...?”
Emily shrugged. “I don’t know. It’s not like we got a description to go on.”
“I think it’s a possibility,” Garcia piped up. “He had the right look anyway.”
JJ blew out a breath and rubbed her forehead, trying to stave off a headache. Sabrina stepped forward and put gentle hands on her shoulders. “What did he say that set you off so badly, Jennifer?”
“Something that makes no sense... especially if he is the Santa we’re looking for.” She turned her gaze to Emily. “He said, ‘It was beauty that killed the beast.”
“You’ll shoot your eye out, kid.” Frankie rolled his eyes and gave Jane an exasperated look.
“Jane, you do remember I’m a cop, right? I’ve been qualified to shoot guns for a while now.”
“Not the same thing, Frankie. Maura, tell him.”
“She’s right, Frankie. It really isn’t the same thing. However, the fact does remain, Jane, that he does have some experience in this arena.”
Jane sighed. “Still not bringing him, Maura. Jordan said this was just for the girls. And I’d like to meet all the women she’s been going on about since that trip to Disney. Still kinda pissed we missed that.”
“All right, Janie,” Frankie relented. “Let me get you to the airport so you can go do your girly thing. Then I can lie down and sleep in peace. But I want you to know something – I coulda found Santa Claus if I’d been invited to this thing. I coulda been a contender.”
“You’ve been given a great gift... a chance to see what the world would be like without you,” the television droned in the background. Tracey beckoned the bartender and placed her order, then turned around to study the women currently occupying a majority of the bar they’d chosen to gather at. Xena and Gabrielle had yet to arrive but as far as she could see, everyone who had been in Orlando was present... and a few others besides.
“Everything okay?” Kelly asked as she stepped up beside her boss. Tracey nodded her head but didn’t stop surveying the room. “You tired? I will give you rest if you need a break, Tracey. I can take care of the drinks.”
Tracey smiled and shook her head. “No, I’m good. Trying to figure out where they dumped the kid for the night though,” tilting her head in Olivia’s and Natalia’s direction.
“Why?” Liz laughed as she approached. “You afraid you might get snookered again?” Tracey growled but Liz remained unaffected by her reaction and simply cocked an eyebrow at her. Tracey rolled her eyes in disgust.
“Maybe a little,” she complained. “But mostly I was curious to know if she was going to tell any stories this trip. She did a good job at the talent show.”
“She did,” Liz conceded, frowning when her phone vibrated. “Excuse me,” she said when she realized who was calling. “I have to take this. So help me, I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse.”
“You’ve obviously never been neck deep in nuns.”
Xena gave Gabrielle a droll look. “Surely they are not comparing themselves to a room full of nuns. I’ve been in a room full of nuns – I’ve been in a room full of gods. This is so not even close to the same thing!”
“Xena, be nice! They’re having a good time tonight – let them enjoy it. Besides, aren’t you having fun?”
Xena couldn’t stop the smile that rested on her countenance. “More than you know, my bard. I needed this. Thank you,” wrapping Gabrielle up in a hug.
“And the real fun hasn’t even started yet,” Gabrielle replied, returning the embrace completely.
“Depends on who you ask,” Xena said with a smirk. “According to Diana, plans fail for lack of counsel. She thinks you should have counseled Kris a little more about how this was supposed to work. He’s already been all over the City being seen by everyone.”
“Good. He should be having a little fun too. Tomorrow they will hunt in earnest, and he will lead them to where they need to be in time to celebrate your birthday in fine style.”
“I still can’t believe you requested a command performance from the newest sensation to hit Broadway.”
“Hey! Don’t knock it!” causing Xena to raise her hands in surrender.
“Not knocking. Just surprised. You usually don’t utilize your resources like that.”
“I know. But you’re worth it. Now c’mon,” extending a hand and waiting for Xena to accept it. “It’s time to mingle. Let’s go join the friends that have come to celebrate with us. I’m sure they’re all waiting to have a bit of dialogue with you.”
“Ah, for the old days. We didn’t need dialogue – we had faces.”
“I’m pretty sure we spotted him at Columbus Circle,” Brooke commented and Sam nodded her agreement.
“That makes sense,” Sara concurred. “We saw him near Bethesda Fountain.”
“Yeah, but we noticed him in the Library,” Lindsay mentioned.
“And we picked him up at the Washington Square Arch,” spoke up Bones.
“Battery Park for us,” Janet contributed.
“We were in Times Square,” from Emma.
“I think we toured most of the City... including Macy’s,” Nora commented. “I thought for sure he was gonna be there.”
“Not possible – knowing what we do of Xena and Gabrielle, it couldn’t be nearly that simple,” Alex stated without hesitation. “Although looking there did give us a chance to shop.”
Olivia Benson scrubbed her hands through her hair. “Yeah – remind me to have a word with them about that planning,” her resigned tone garnering chuckles throughout the gathered assembly. “If I’d known that was gonna be part of the extracirriculars, I’d have planned better.”
“Aw, c’mon, Liv,” Jo said as she laughed. “You should be used to it by now.”
“Yes, Detective,” Miranda’s quiet tone cut into the hilarity. “I have it on good authority that you have plenty of practice,” smiling at the blushes that crossed more than one countenance.
Helena Wells cleared her throat delicately. “It doesn’t change the fact that we have yet to actually catch up with the elusive Mr. Kringle, though it does appear he’s led us quite a merry little chase through the entirety of the metropolis. Are we certain he’s not here?” motioning around the exquisite lobby of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.
“He’s not in any of the public areas,” Barbara said. “We’ve been through all of them. And I don’t think the employees will appreciate if we start looking through the guest rooms.”
“So why don’t you join us in the Grand Ballroom?” Xena invited from the staircase. Every head turned in her direction and a cheer rang out across the vast floor. The employees looked more than a little startled at the outburst, but knowing Xena was the cause, most just shook their heads with a smile and went back to their work. The rest moved forward to help Xena shepherd the women to the Grand Ballroom where a party awaited them.
The room was decked out in beautiful holiday decorations – classically decorated Christmas trees; garland and wreaths; holly and poinsettias. And on the stage, a winter scene complete with a chair for Santa Claus, though as yet there was no jolly old elf.
Without preamble, Gabrielle stepped onto the stage and stood in front of the chair, waiting for the women in the room to quiet. Xena stood confidently beside her, and it only took a moment for all eyes to turn their way. Gabrielle smiled. “Hi everyone – thank you for coming. I hope you had a good time hunting for Kris. He promised to make it fun and interesting, and judging from some of the bags many of you are carrying, I’d say he delivered.” She smiled when everyone cheered again... even the shopping-reluctant spousal units. “Now as you can see, the food is out and the music is playing, so please enjoy yourselves. I’m sure Kris will be here before the evening ends.” She gestured behind her. “We have his place all set up, and we expect each of you to talk to him. We want pictures!” garnering more laughter at her declaration. “Until then, bar’s open!”
This time, the cheer was loud enough to echo off the high ceiling and the women dispersed to claim tables and shed jackets and begin their merriment. Slowly, one by one and as couples, they made their way over to where Xena sat in Santa’s chair, watching the melee with a smile on her face. She had missed this – the camaraderie she had found with these women, and to know they were willing to put aside their own holiday plans to celebrate with her and Gabrielle....
She greeted each of them, spending time talking and catching up without ever losing sight of Gabrielle who was slowly working her way through the throng playing hostess. During a brief lull in the crowd surrounding her, Xena felt a light touch on her shoulder and looked up to find Kris smiling down at her.
“She’s in her element, isn’t she?”
Xena grinned. “Born to rule,” she agreed, then looked around. “What are you doing out here? No one’s supposed to see you until after Rachel sings.”
Kris chuckled. “No one can see me but you, Xena. I’m giving you a brief respite between well-wishers. I need you to share something with Gabrielle for me,” waiting for Xena to nod. “Tell her I’d like to talk to you both after the holidays.” Xena cocked an eyebrow, but nodded her acceptance of his words. He smiled again and patted her back. “Good. I’ll let you get back to it.” And without another word, he disappeared again.
The party continued on – with Xena accepting gifts and birthday wishes; Rachel performing a medley of Xena’s favorite Broadway songs, then leading the group in a rousing chorus of ‘Happy Birthday’; the opening of the buffet; and Gabrielle taking Xena’s hand and leading them to the makeshift dance floor in the middle of the room. Halfway through their first dance, Emma’s eager voice rang out above the music.
Laughter rolled from Kris and all heads swiveled in the direction of the stage as excitement swelled at the appearance of the individual they had been searching for all weekend. They surged forward, hoping to talk to the man who had given them chase throughout the whole of Manhattan. If there was even the slightest possibility that this man was the real Santa Claus, no one wanted to miss the chance to talk to him if only for a minute.
Xena pulled Gabrielle closer to her, ignoring the enthusiasm of the crowd. She brushed a kiss over the top of Gabrielle’s head, capturing her lips when Gabrielle looked up to meet her eyes. They only pulled away when Diana placed a light touch on the small of their backs. They looked at her unembarrassed and she smiled.
“Thank you... both,” smiling when they nodded. “It wasn’t what I expected, but it was what I needed. I have a feeling he may be able to do the same for some of the others,” looking at Helena who was hanging at the back of the crush. “Besides, I didn’t think you’d want to miss Emma,” gesturing towards the little girl currently ensconced on Santa’s lap. “Happy Birthday, Consort.”
“Thank you, Princess. It’s been something.”
When everyone had been given the opportunity to speak to Santa, he rose and cleared his throat causing silence to fall across the room. “Ladies, it’s been an interesting weekend for me – one of the most fun I’ve had in a very long time. I hope you all enjoyed yourselves as well,” smiling when they applauded. “However,” he continued when it grew quiet once more, “it’s time for me to go.” He held up a hand to stop the groan that rose. “I still have a job to do. But I wanted to wish my good friend Xena a very happy birthday.”
The women cheered and hollered loudly, and they didn’t hear Kris whistle. But you could have heard a pin drop when a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer pulled up in front of the stage. Kris stepped into the sleigh and grabbed the reins in his hands, slapping them lightly and laughing as the reindeer moved without further prompting.
And they heard him exclaim ‘ere her drove out of sight – “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.”