"…we'll have to negotiate next year, next year"
Brigadier General Henry J. Wilson slid from the back seat of the Army sedan, acknowledging the corporal holding the door for him with a nod.
"If I were you, son, I'd go see if Sergeant Derriman and his people are willing to part with some of Mrs. Pennyworth's gingerbread," the officer suggested. "I'll be leaving after dinner."
"Yes, sir!" the young man responded, fully aware of the primary perk available to Wilson's drivers – Mrs. Pennyworth's pastry.
"Dismissed, Corporal," the general said with an only half- suppressed smile.
The young man saluted, about-faced, and headed for the coach house at a brisk walk. In fact, the General would almost call it double-time. The woman was a master craftswoman in the kitchen.
Wilson watched the soldier disappear inside the smaller house before heading for the Cottage's rear entrance. Given that it was December 23rd, he suspected that any major activity occurring inside would be in the kitchen.
He was right.
Stepping into the small rear foyer, he found the Blackwood Project busily at 'work.'
Mrs. Pennyworth was removing cookies from the oven. His niece, Suzanne, transferred the priceless creations from the sheet to metal racks where her daughter, Debi, took over, sprinkling cinnamon sugar over the tops.
At the counter Colonel Paul Ironhorse measured dry ingredients into large bowls that then were pushed to Harrison Blackwood, who added the appropriate ablution, and passed the bowl to Norton Drake, who stirred merrily. That done, the bowl was passed to Mrs. P, who rolled the dough out and cut the cookies.
All in all, it was an inspiring production line, and he had every intention of sampling each and every one of their products.
Suzanne turned. "Uncle Hank!" she said, surprised. "When did you get here?"
"Oh, just now, honey," he white-lied, adding, "and it certainly looks like you're all very busy." Wilson enjoyed the scandalized blush that passed over Ironhorse's face. "Don't let me interrupt."
"Why don't you come into the living room, sir," Paul suggested, grabbing a towel and quickly wiping his hands.
"I'll bring in some coffee and cookies," Mrs. Pennyworth assured the general.
"Now, that sounds like an offer I can't refuse."
"You're staying for supper?" Suzanne asked hopefully.
"Of course. I want to spend as much of Christmas with you and Debi as I can; unfortunately, it won't be much as much as I'd like. I have a meeting back in Washington tomorrow."
"But I did remember to bring some presents with me," he reassured her.
The teen smiled. "A better present would be if you could stay until tomorrow."
Wilson smiled. "I know, sweetheart. And I'd like nothing better than to be here on Christmas Day, but the President and the Joint Chiefs have other plans for me."
The general looked to Ironhorse. "Still have some of the brandy left, Colonel?"
"Yes, sir," Paul replied, leading the way out of the room.
"Hey," Blackwood called. "Who's going to measure?"
"Anyone but you, Doctor," was the reply.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Watching the Blackwood Project as they interacted around the dinner table, Wilson was struck by how close the individuals had grown over the many months they had been together. They had certainly become something more than a highly successful response team. They had become a family.
And it seemed to be doing all of them some good.
Debi took a long swallow of her milk and grinned at Wilson from across the table. "I really do wish you could stay, Uncle Hank. We're doing a special Christmas this year."
Her eyes flickered to Ironhorse and Wilson wondered what was up. "Oh?" he prompted.
"Yeah," Debi explained. "Harrison made us all pick a Christmas song from a hat."
Wilson's eyebrows rose in curiosity. Blackwood was an odd duck, but...
"And someone's name," Suzanne added.
"We had to buy gifts for the person based on the song title," Norton finished, wagging his eyebrows at Suzanne.
"I see," Wilson said, wondering what the hacker had found for his niece. "That sounds... different."
"It's weird," Ironhorse muttered under his breath. "But that's Blackwood."
Wilson tried not to grin as the astrophysicist shot the colonel a disapproving scowl. "Well, after we're done, I'll go get my presents and you can open them tonight."
"Cool!" Debi enthused, attacking her meal with gusto.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Wilson carried a large decorative shopping bag full of presents into the living room where the Project had relocated, along with trays of pastry, hot spiced wine, and cinnamon coco for Debi. Mrs. Pennyworth distributed the treats while the general handed out boxes.
Debi and Suzanne tore into the presents while the others watched, enjoying their excitement.
"Oh, wow! This is the coolest!" Debi squealed.
Blackwood leaned forward. "Well, what is it?"
"My passport to Space Camp this summer!"
Suzanne's eyes widened, and she looked to Paul. "Is that safe?"
"It will be," Ironhorse reassured her.
Debi bolted out of her chair and gave Wilson a huge hug. "Thank you," she said, adding a squeeze.
"Yes, thank you," Suzanne said, holding up a delicate gold bracelet set at regular intervals with garnets. "It's beautiful!"
"Guess I should see what I have, huh?" Norton said, rubbing his hands together and then tearing off the paper from his present. Black eyes flew wide. "How'd you get this? It's not on the market yet!"
Wilson chuckled. "Mr. Drake, the Pentagon can work miracles... occasionally."
"What is it, Norton?" Debi asked.
"It's the newest video game by Murray Bozinsky."
"The Boz?" the teen asked, a smile springing onto her lips.
"Yep," Norton said, wagging his eyebrows at the girl. "We'll break in it later, okay?"
"All right! He's the best!" she enthused, adding quickly, "After you."
Ironhorse and Harrison exchanged glances, agreeing silently to open their presents at the same time.
Harrison's was a thick circle of wool, stuffed with fluff. The astrophysicist looked to the general for an explanation.
"I'm sorry, Doctor," Wilson started. "I'll admit I was at a loss. But, I did find that."
"What is it?" Suzanne asked, giving the item a dubious look.
"I remembered about Dr. Blackwood's habit of... ah, standing on his head. It's a crown pillow, or it is according to the owner of the shop where I saw it."
"Oh!" Harrison said, smiling. "I can use this."
Ironhorse shook his head, muttering something about encouragement, but smiled at his present. A small hand-made basket. "Cherokee?"
"Thank you, sir. I'm afraid your gift was sent to Washington."
"Yes, I know. Thank you. I haven't found saki like that since I was in Japan; you'll have to tell me your source."
"Glad to, sir... for a price."
"I'm sure it'll be worth it. And," Wilson said, removing the largest box in the bag and handing it to Mrs. Pennyworth, "this is for you."
"My goodness, it's so large," the older woman said. "I'm sure this must be Debi's."
"No, it's for you," Wilson said. "As I recall, you have a talent on the piano."
She nodded. "My one regret with the Cottage. It just cries for a baby Grand."
She opened the box, and gasped. "It's perfect!" Pulling the small keyboard out, she set it on the coffee table and turned it on. Running her fingers over the keys produced a melodious response. "Hank, it's lovely."
"I thought that might hold you until we can get that piano in here."
"Oh, you don't have to do that," Greta said quickly.
"Can you teach me to play?" Debi asked.
"Well, I suppose I could..."
"See, you will need that baby Grand," the general slipped in. "I'd like my grand-niece to learn to play piano."
"Can you play Christmas carols?" Debi asked? "Like we did last year?"
"Well, yes, I suppose I could."
"Will you sing a song again, Colonel?" Debi begged.
The general's eyes widened, and he watched the scandalized expression that passed over the colonel's face. He smiled. "Entertaining the troops, Paul?"
Ironhorse blushed. "Something like that, sir."
"Like I remember?"
"I think there's a story here," Norton said, his eyes twinkling.
"Yes, Norton, it certainly does sound that way," Blackwood agreed. "Care to tell us, General?"
"No, there is not a story here," Ironhorse tried to interrupt.
"Now, that's a matter of opinion, Colonel," Wilson said, then looked back at the rest of the Project members. "I was referring to a certain West Point cadet who put on quite a performance at the Christmas program during his plebe year. In fact, it was so memorable that his classmates asked him to sing the same song again during the Christmas program his senior year."
"Paul, you never mentioned that," Suzanne admonished.
"It wasn't worth mentioning," the soldier hedged uncomfortably.
"Will you sing that song, Colonel?" Debi asked. "Please?"
"I did it with a choir, Debi. It was... well, different. I don't even have any music—"
"What song was it?" Mrs. Pennyworth asked, her fingers running over the small keyboard again.
"Ahhh, it's not a Christmas song, it's a... religious song."
"Just tell me the title, Paul," the older woman instructed.
"Morning Has Broken," Paul replied, his expression stating clearly that he was sure she'd know the piece.
"Oh, that's such a lovely song." She played the first few bars.
"You sang that?" Suzanne asked.
"With a few… modifications," Wilson responded for Ironhorse. "Making it a little closer to home, right, Paul?"
Ironhorse nodded glumly.
"Will you sing it?" Debi asked. "Please, Colonel?"
Ironhorse's eyes slid closed for a moment, then sprang open. "Only if I don't have to do any more solos this year."
"Okay," Suzanne agreed. "But we'll have to negotiate next year, next year."
A heavy sigh, and Ironhorse agreed with a nod.
Mrs. Pennyworth took a moment to warm up on the keyboard, then nodded that she was ready. Ironhorse stood and walked over to the fireplace, his cheeks an endearing shade of red.
The older woman played an opening and the colonel picked up the song.
Wilson listened to the clear, strong voice, marveling at the fact that Paul sounded better now than he had at the Point. His voice had matured, and the depth of his experiences added richness to the words and feelings. The others sat in rapt awe.
Paul finished, and quickly sat back down. "That's it."
"That was great!" Debi breathed.
"Yeah," Suzanne agreed.
"Way to go, Big Guy."
"Paul," Harrison said. "You have surprised me... yet again."
Wilson enjoyed the colonel's deep blush. As odd as it might seem to some, Ironhorse could do that, and he himself should know – the younger man had been surprising him on a regular basis ever since West Point.
The general leaned forward, picking up his cup of wine. "Merry Christmas, everyone."
"Merry Christmas," they chorused back.
And it was.