In December, even in a small city like Hereford, the streets were spread with shiny festive decoration included wreaths, baubles and mistletoes. Not just the city, even in the base, the atmosphere of holidays was getting strong. However, two newest Rainbow operatives from Morocco might be an exception.
As a woman who travelled to different countries around the world and experienced their cultures, Nomad, the younger one was relatively open to spending the holidays with her new companies. But her elder GIGR colleague, Kaid was precisely the opposite. In his 58 years of lifetime, he barely travelled far from his hometown in the middle of Atlas Mountains, especially after he became the commander of Fortress. As a devout Muslim who did salah five times a day, Kaid believed that to defend the Fortress was the sacred mission under the guidance of Allah. Therefore, he turned down Rainbow’s offer several times for years, until recently Rainbow proposed the improvement of the equipment and training of the Fortress, under NATO and the Mediterranean Dialogue’s authority. This time, he decided to accept it under Nomad – one of his best pupils and other subordinates’ encouragement. He spent a little more time to hand over his tasks to his deputy before leaving.
And here he was, waking up in a small room in his quarter in Hereford. It felt strange with nothing familiar around except for his Nimcha and the pendant his mother gave him before he left home to join the GIGR at 18. He held the locket in consist of this silver necklace with a black onyx he valued for his whole lifetime, laying on his chests lightly and began to miss his Fortress, his home and his country.
He was born in a small Berber village named Aroumd in the mountains, where Mount Toubkal, the highest peak in North Africa in a close view. He remembered the last Eid Sghir took place on the first day of the tenth month in Islamic calendar, Kaid and his siblings all gathered at the village to visit their parents (and Kaid’s oldest brother who inherited his father’s farmland and took care of them), then celebrate the day together. To him, Eid Sghir was the only day he allowed himself for a little relaxed but not on the pagan holiday named Christmas. He guessed that he would instead just take training on that day like usual if there was not any mission for him to be deployed, which he low-key desired. Anyway, he travelled here for contributing Rainbow with his experiences and skills to stop terrorism, not caring about those craps.
For some reasons he couldn’t clearly tell, he privately preferred to stay with a distance with his only Moroccan fellow in Rainbow. Therefore, the team arranged for him to live with a SAS operator called Thatcher in the same quarter. Well, at least he could say Thatcher was a pretty okay flatmate as the two veterans quickly found out many common points, like the rich experience of mentoring, the distrust of new technology, and the love of good stories. Like last night, Kaid shared a war story about a mission in Sahara desert in his young age with the Englishman over some wines before sleeping; therefore, he still felt a bit of dizzy when getting out of the bed. He immediately decided to take a quick shower before dressing up in his uniform with his precious Nimcha hanged on his waist, then he did his Fajr -- morning prayer before going out his room to greet Thatcher and go to grab their breakfast.
They arrived the canteen and chose a table, which already seated Maestro who greeted the fellow old men passionately holding a plate containing a square-shaped flatbread topped with tomato slices, basil and mozzarella cheese, “Buongiorno! You guys want to try my pizza al taglio ?”
“Pizza, for breakfast?” Kaid frowned confusedly.
“Many people in Roma enjoy this in the morning.” Chuckled Maestro. “I made a lot, enough to feed the whole base! But well, if you want something else, go to Timur then, he’s making kasha and blinis.” He continued, “Or how about Olivier’s croissants? They taste gorgeous, too!”
“No! Can’t we have something more normal? You know that – a plate of bacon, sausage, egg, tomato and bean.” Thatcher sighed, “El Fassi, you can go around and pick anything you like. As we’re an International team, the tastes can be…varied.”
“Well…” Kaid scratched his head, “I’m fine with just bread, fried egg and some pickled olives…” He added, “Oh, and orange juice. I can’t live a morning without it.”
“You’re my type. Orange juice and black tea are my usual choices of morning drinks.” Thatcher glanced at Maestro with a smirk, “Let those bloody coffee addicts go to hell.” They then went to get their food, left Maestro who quickly drank up his espresso with a peeved face.
To be honest, the English breakfast was appealing to the Moroccan man. For Kaid’s Muslim diet, the bacon and sausage were replaced with some corned beef, and other adjustments like the grounded cumin gracefully flavoured the sunny-side egg, and a small jar of green olives Thatcher got from the kitchen made him feel a little closer to home. Other things like baked beans, pan-fried mushrooms and roasted tomato were the same as what the Englishman enjoyed every morning, and they were all pleasing to Kaid’s taste. From the Englishman’s satisfied expression, Kaid figured out he must like -- or could say having pride in his own breakfast tradition.
“Baker, I guess there’s semolina in this base’s kitchen, right?” Kaid asked.
“I think we have. I can’t tell who was the first one smuggling it into the base. Could be those Yankees.”
“How about let me do some Baghrir next morning? It’s a traditional pancake in my country. With honey and apricot jam would do wonderfully in breakfast for me.”
“Well, at least sounds a lot better than the pizza thing.” Thatcher nodded, “I’m looking forward to it.”
Kaid made a strong impression during the first training with Rainbow -- despite not on the leading role here, his imposing presence could still make others in awe. He could even feel respectful eyes from Sledge – the actual “leading sheep” in the team as if found another perfect example of leader he could learn from. He knew Thatcher remarked his Scottish fellow highly and trusted him to be the future commander of SAS, had similar physique (they were, in fact, the two highest men in the team), and his gadget was something Kaid did like – a large sledgehammer, which fit his callsign as well as his bustling muscles. If Kaid needed to breach the wall in any mission, he knew the Scotsman’s method was the one he would take. Kaid’s “Rtila” electroclaws caught others attention as well, especially Bandit, the German who also used electrifying gadgets, showed strong curiosity and even began to inquire him how such the thing had been made, before being dragged back by Jäger and Blitz.
At dinner, Thatcher sat with Kaid again, and the same table seated Nomad, Sledge, Maverick and Capitão. The Moroccan “girl” (she was already 39, but as her senior, it was hard to Kaid to restraint his old habit to treat her like a little sister) seemed like she had quickly befriended Maverick as they were sharing their adventures in different countries, while others had their own casual discussion.
“Kaid, would you tell us how’s your impression of the base?” Capitão asked politely.
“The intensity of training was not enough. Who’s the one did the training plan? Mine in the Fortress was at least three times harder than here, and no drone nor phone to help. Their arms and brain were all my men had, and they did excellently.” Kaid snorted.
“We’re already informed with your experience in coaching, and it’s why we need you.” Thatcher said, “I understand you don’t trust new technology, just like me. But the truth is, in this century, many people rely on technology in their daily life. Terrorists also apply many kinds of high techs to launch attacks. White Masks are no exception.”
“Yeah, they can even do violent acts on the Internet, like cybercrime.” Sledge interrupted, “Mute spends a lot of time to deal with it, so we can keep our intel safe.”
“Well, I never use the thing called the Internet, after all. It’s out of my grasp.”
When Kaid just finished saying, Sledge’s phone rang. He stood up and talked a while then went back. “Hey, Sweeney – our deputy commander had an extra-work for us!”
“Can I join?” Like a thirsty traveller wandering in desert discovered an oasis, Kaid expressed his strong desire for the work with no second thought.
As soon as they got the details of the extra-work, Kaid immediately regretted it. As if to visit a children’s home sounded not silly to him enough, there was even a man would be selected by drawing to act Father Christmas to entrain the Children. And unfortunately, Kaid was the one got the role. After Kaid returned to his quarter, he collapsed on the couch with a sigh.
“El Fassi, listen,” Thatcher came to sit by his side and suggested, “I can request Six and Sweeney to revoke the decision. You’re a Muslim, so I’m sure it’s not right to you to participate in such the event based on Christian custom.”
“You tell me to quit?” Kaid snorted, “Do you really think I’m such the kind of person?”
“It’s a respect of diversity, you idiot!” Thatcher retorted.
“I know that,” Kaid explained, “But I don’t want to be treated specially here.” He stood up and patted Thatcher’s shoulder, “Don’t have a concern about me. I will try my best to handle it.”
On the day, the operatives who were selected for the extra work departed from the base and arrived a Children's Home in Birmingham after one and half hour of drive.
“Here, your Babbo Natale costume!” Maestro displayed an outfit which consisted of a red robe with golden ornaments, white fur collar and cuffs, wide black leather belts, and the brown, comfy-looking leather boots with jingle bells tied on the top. Of course, how could the iconic red hat be forgotten? “We’ve finally managed to find a correct costume and modify it for you!”
“If you have so much time, you should focus on improving your skills.” Kaid sighed while taking the hems of the robe to observe. “Well, at least it looks better than my imagination.”
“Wait, Maestro, I think you forget something,” Thermite passed by and made a reminder, “Where are the fake beard and wig?”
“Silly, didn’t you see?” Maestro pointed at Kaid’s face, “He already has a perfect beard.” He stretched his hand to Kaid’s grey, long beard before suddenly slapped off by Kaid.
“Keep your hands off. I won’t say it twice.” Kaid glared at the Italian, his sound filled with anger.
“…Maybe it’s not a proper question,” Thermite inquired with more carefulness, “But I still wonder that, won’t the children be scared away by this kind of Santa ?”
“Are you questioning my capability?” Kaid snorted, “We will see.” He took the costume away and strode to the changing room without any hesitation, leaving the other feeling confused.
After he changed into the costume, Kaid found Thatcher waiting outside. “Wear these,” Thatcher handed Kaid a pair of spectacles, “May make your eyes look gentler.”
“Uh, thanks,” Kaid accepted it then checked himself in the mirror again and found out the Englishman was correct. The black rim concealed the sharpness and solemnity from his eyes and made him look more like a benevolent old man.
“You look perfect.” Thatcher patted Kaid’s chest, “I’m sure you’re those children’s favourite. And you’re not doing this alone.”
“Can I know who will accompany me?”
“Well, we have Frederick playing some graceful music, and others as elves to gift some sweets and entertain children.” Thatcher answered, “Oh, and Adriano will be your reindeer.”
“What?” Exclaimed Kaid, “Say again?”
The children’s home was just like others, filled with the country’s most vulnerable and uncared children who barely suffered a merciful destiny, or had difficulty in either physical or mental. To be honest, after Kaid knew the situation of the children, he had determined to take this job well. The children assembled in the hall to wait for Santa’s coming, and there were only a piano and a pianist in a black suit on stage.
Following the piano music Jolly Old St. Nicolas , Santa Claus entered the hall along with his ‘reindeer company’. Even though they practised it several times before, they might still look a little awkward as no one seemed amused. “Ho, ho, ho, lovely kids! Santa Claus here!” Santa Claus introduced himself, “Normally, I should still prepare the gifts at my home in Greenland now, but I know that you are all special to me; therefore, I’m here to listen to your wishes!”
“Really?” A girl responded, “You’re here to listen what we want?”
“Yes! Just ensure that you’re a good kid, and I’ll give you whatever you want! Ho, ho, ho!” Laughed Santa loudly, but unexpectedly, his husky voice frightened some children.
“Hey, don’t be afraid!” The ‘reindeer’ tried to comfort the children in a hilariously high tone, “Santa laughs like that when he’s happy!”
“Maestro, remember, you’re a reindeer now.” Kaid pulled Maestro’s sleeve of his reindeer costume and whispered to him, “You shouldn’t speak.”
“I’m helping you!” Maestro tossed his arm off from Kaid.
“Hey, the reindeer is speaking!” A boy exclaimed and followed by others hysterical laughter.
“Okay,” Santa Claus continued, “So, who wants to be the first one to tell me their wish?” A wave of raising hands appeared in his sight, and it confused him, “Uh, how should I choose?”
In the meantime, Capitão, who wore an elf kit included green hat, tunic, black belt and red trousers, came to a girl who rose her arm straight and took over her hand, “Girl, would you like to be the first one to tell Santa your wish?”
“Really?” The girl nodded rapidly, “Of course!”
Despite feeling Capitão’s unpredicted presence and ridiculous elf’s dress-up questionable (even though the children seemed quite convinced); however, as Kaid still needed to keep the image of ‘Santa Claus’, he decided to hold this issue later.
“Girl, what do you wish for the gift?” Santa Claus took out his notebook and listened to the girl carefully.
“Hello Santa! My name is Julie. Well, I want a storybook,” The girl answered, “In the last and last-last year I got a doll. It’s silly! I don’t want it anymore.”
“What kind of storybook you want?” Santa inquired.
“I don’t know. Maybe the one features animals?”
“Like Miffy, or Peter Rabbit?”
“You choose it for me! You’re Santa, so you should know my liking!” The girl jumped off in a flash and left, “Thanks!”
“Choose me! Choose me!” The yelling echoed in the hall again, and just seconds later Capitão brought another child on the stage.
After Santa almost finished listening to all children’s wishes, Capitão brought the last child to Santa. The slender red-haired boy seemed like around 10 years old, wore glasses and walked awkwardly.
“One of the staff just told me he has ASD.” Capitão whispered to Kaid as an instruction, “When others were competing for being chosen, he didn’t have any reaction but sat aside.”
“You’re silent, aren’t you?” Santa immediately greeted the boy, “But your wish will be valued as well! Can you tell me your wish?”
The boy didn’t answer but pull Santa’s beard with inquisitive eyes like examining for anything wrong within it. “Ouch!” Even it was just a little boy’s hand, it still made Kaid yelp in pain when his beard was being pulled like this.
“Yo-your beard is real.” The boy’s voice got a bit interested, “Then you’re really Santa. Can you listen to my wish?”
“Sure!” Santa Claus stoked his chin and tried to get back from the painful expression a second ago.
“In fa-fact, I do-don’t want any present.” The boy stammered, “I just wa-want… to become a no-normal boy. The boy who is good at sp-sports, doesn’t walk funny, doesn’t say eve-everything in st-stutter, and wouldn’t get bu-bullied in school…” He continued after paused for a few seconds, “Th-therefore, my dad and mom… would love me, wouldn’t argue on my pro-problem, and end up se-separated…” He lowered his head and teared up while speaking in half.
“What a pity.” Santa Claus hugged him and took him to sit on his thighs, “Listen, boy, you’re perfect just like this way. You don’t need to change to anyone else. Just remember me – Santa Claus always love you and care of you, if you keep behaving kindly!”
“Ev-even after I grow up?”
“Yes! You know where the coals gift to those naughty children come from?” Santa Claus smirked, “They are all dug out by grown-ups who did mean things to others! I’m sure anybody bullying you will be one of them, too.”
“Wow, I’ve ne-never,” The boy exclaimed with the wide-opened mouth, “heard this.”
“This is a secret I wouldn’t tell anyone but you.” Santa Claus comforted, “And I will prepare the best, valuable gift for you, I promise.”
“Re…Really?” The boy’s eye glittered, “Th-then how ab-about… an Xbox one?”
“Ugh…” Kaid looked at Capitão and Maestro confusedly, “Anyone can tell me what’s Xbox one?"
Suddenly, the pianist’s hands stopped along with the vanish of music. “It’s a game console, my dear Santa,” He turned to his elder colleagues, “I think you already understand what it is because I still remember you gave me a Super Nintendo when I was nine."
“Forgive his forgetfulness, Fred,” Capitão chuckled, “After all, he has to deliver millions of gifts to children around the world once per year, doesn’t he?"
“Bell, bell,” Maestro added, “Gah, I mean, three million boxes of Nintendo were so heavy! Please, save my arse from them this time!"
By another considerable wave of bustling mirth from other children, Kaid just realised it was an improvisation to amuse them as well as save him from embarrassment. While the moment inspired him the true meaning of Christmas for a little, his face formed a sincere smile and shared the joy together with his buddies.
“Well done,” After Kaid went back to the changing room, Thatcher was waiting inside and commented positively, “I don’t know you can handle those children so smoothly. I wouldn't do so well like you if it were me.”
“Having some extra-work like this sometimes feels not bad.” Kaid quickly sat down on the bench, took off the hat and glasses, unbuttoned the robe then take it off, leaving just a white undershirt on his upper body, “How wonderful it is to see those children’s happy faces.”
“I’ve spent so many years in the military to understand,” Thatcher leaned on the wall and looked at the Moroccan, “Even though we’re soldiers of an elite force, have trained to kill hostiles, live up with high stakes and tensions... Nevertheless, we mustn’t forget to smile and do some relaxing, happy things if we can… So that we can keep looking forward to future goals.”
“But I barely see you smile.” Kaid felt confused.
“You’re right, it’s my weak point, and I need to learn from Adriano and Alex’s examples.” Thatcher’s mouth corners lifted up, “And one last thing. From your past experience as ‘Kaid’ of the Fortress, you might be used to act as a perfect leader, but the truth is no one can be perfect, and you can rely on others sometimes. If you feel unwell, like homesickness, just tell us, and we can help.”
“You’ve seen that? I never said it, but--” Kaid scratched his head, “You’re right. I do miss my home sometimes, my Fortress – I have a concern that if everything goes well without me. I know I must trust my men, but I can’t stop worrying.”
“In this team, we’re equals,” Thatcher nodded, “It also signifies that we make decisions together, and support each other when they’re in need. So that we can form a strong team without putting too much pressure on somebody.”
“Your perspective of leadership is so different from mine,” Kaid commented, “But I can see its good points. I appreciate the words.”
“Alright, that’s all.” Thatcher fist-bumped with Kaid before leaving, “Shouldn’t keep disturbing you from changing.”
“What do you think I am, a young girl?” Kaid chuckled while beginning rolling up his undershirt, “I don’t have a problem getting naked in front of another old man.”
“I’m not someone to concern,” Thatcher murmured while extending his hands to the doorknob, “But I wonder others—” The door suddenly opened, and not to his surprise, Maestro and Capitão were there.
“Just went to gift sweets to children, so we’re a little late.” Capitão asked politely, “Is Kaid still changing?”
“Oof, our Moroccan guy has got a buon fisico! ” Maestro glanced at shirtless Kaid, who was about to take his trousers off, with a thumb up. Kaid stopped his hand movement and frowned at them in annoyance.
“You two, go away!” Thatcher shouted at Maestro and Capitão and pushed them out the room. “You’re scaring him!”