Christmas is All in the Heart
by Sue Meyer

Peter slipped away from the merriment and chaos in the living room and quietly entered the deserted den. Kacie, Todd, Carolyn, and Kelly were engaged in a spirited game of Jenga, and Paul and Annie were trying to interest Katie Ann in playing with her Christmas gifts and not the wrapping papers and boxes the toys had come in.

Setting down his mug of coffee, he tossed a few more sticks of firewood onto the glowing embers in the fireplace, and the blaze began to burn more cheerily. Settling himself in front of the fire, he stared steadily into the flames, listening to the gales of laughter coming from the other room and wondering, {What's the matter with me? Why don't I feel like being a part of things in there? Why don't I feel like Christmas?} Absently lifting the mug to his lips, he took a sip of the brew.

He smiled when a familiar baritone sounded behind him.

"What's the matter, Son? Post-holiday letdown hitting you already?" Paul briefly rested his hand on the top of Peter's head before joining his foster son in the examination of the flickering tongues of fire.

"Funny you should ask, Paul. I was just trying to figure that out myself."

"Mind if I join you, or would you rather be alone?"

Peter gestured at the rug in front of the hearth with a nod of his head. "Help yourself." Holding his coffee mug in both hands, he took another drink.

Knees creaking, Paul grunted softly as he sat on the floor. "This floor gets lower every time I sit on it," he complained.

Peter smiled and kept his gaze on the hypnotic flames. Foster father and son sat without speaking for some time, the crackling fire and the good-natured arguing and laughter from the other room the only sounds reaching the quiet sanctuary.

"Paul?" Peter began hesitantly.

"Yes, Son?"

"How is it possible to be depressed when you have everything?"

"I'm not sure I know what you mean, Peter."

Peter took a deep breath and then turned his head to look directly at Paul, his expressive hazel eyes filled with a haunted, questioning look. "I mean, what's the matter with me today? The past three years I dreamed of this, of having you back with us. I-I-I never imagined I'd be married to someone like Kacie -- but I am -- and she loves me beyond anything I thought possible. My father is back in my life, and we're getting a second chance at a relationship." He frowned and shook his head. "I should be out dancing in the streets, but here I am, instead, doing...I don't know what."

Paul smiled at him and nodded in understanding. "Introspection."


Paul chuckled and quoted as if he were reading a dictionary aloud. "Introspection: a looking into one's own mind and feelings; self-analysis."

Peter made a face and laughed ruefully. "Maybe analysis is what I need. I'm sure if you'd ask my captain, she'd agree."

Paul reached out his hand and slapped Peter's knee. "Nothing wrong with taking a look at yourself from time to time, Peter."

"My father would say that a man must examine the trail he has left in order to determine the path he must follow."

"Is that part of it, Son? That your father didn't come today?"

Peter's head dropped and he set down his coffee mug. Tracing the grouting around the brick tile in front of the hearth with his fingers, he replied dispiritedly, "I don't know. Maybe." He looked at Paul and asked earnestly, "Am I wrong to feel like he could spare an hour or two from his priestly duties to spend a national holiday with his only son?"

Paul raised his eyebrows at the question and chewed on his lip briefly before choosing his words. "You're asking the wrong man, here, Peter. I don't feel comfortable making a comment about what your father does or doesn't do, after I dropped out of sight for over two years."

"Oh, Jeez, Paul, I didn't mean..."

"I know you didn't, son." Paul met Peter's direct gaze. "I had my reasons for what I did, even though I look back now with a lot of regret for losing all that precious time with my family. I did what I had to do, and then I came back. I know it sounds simplified, and maybe it is. I think you should give your father the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he's just doing what he thinks he needs to do."

"I know."

"That doesn't mean he doesn't love you or isn't thinking of you."

"I know that, too."

"You and Kacie can always stop by Chinatown on your way home and track him down for an evening meal or something."

"I know. I's just that..." He paused, a crooked grin on his face, when he heard Kacie's loud debate with Todd ending with the music of her laughter.

"Yes, Son?" Paul softly encouraged.

"It's Christmas, and I want to be with everyone I love. I know I'm being a selfish bastard about this. And-and I'm wondering, too, if Pop felt he would have been intruding if he'd have come here today."

"I don't know, Peter. It's possible. You father is a hard man to read."

"Tell me about it."

"You know that both Annie and I were sincere when we issued the invitation."

Peter looked startled. "I never doubted that, Paul. It never occurred to me to think otherwise." He sighed and shrugged. "I think that maybe sometimes I think too much."

"I think you could be right, Peter."

Kacie's voice called out from the hallway. "Hey! Anybody seen a husband around here? I seem to have misplaced one." She yelped and squealed, "Get away from me, Todd! I don't care if we are under the mistletoe, you are not the husband I had in mind. Peter-r-r! Save me!"

Peter reached out to plant a kiss on Paul's forehead. "I love you, Dad." Leaping to his feet, he announced loudly, "Todd McCall, this is the police! Release that hostage immediately before I am forced to shoot you!" Earlier cares forgotten, he vaulted over the couch, and dashed out of the den.

Paul sat a moment longer, firelight reflecting off the tears that had suddenly welled up and pooled. {Dad. He hardly ever calls me 'Dad'.} "Merry Christmas, Son," he choked in a tight voice. "Merry Christmas."

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