I'll Be Home for Christmas
by Sue Meyer

Kermit stood outside the Blaisdell front door, and leaned again on the doorbell. "Odd," he muttered to himself. "Annie never waits this long to answer the door." Visions of an unconscious figure sprawled at the foot of the stairs sprang to his mind. He was about to let himself in with the tools he always carried in his coat pocket, when a familiar voice spoke from the intercom.

"Who is it?"

"Just a poor unfortunate, trying to keep warm in the cold. Lady, would you be willing to share a cup of hot coffee with a tired old man?" Kermit frowned even as he joked. {Annie's been crying. I can hear it.}

The door unlocked, and Annie cracked it open. "Let me see some ID, first."

"Which would you like? CIA, FBI, or plain old city police?"

The door opened wider. "Still carry them all, do you, Kermit?" The smile on Annie Blaisdell's face was bright and cheery, but her nose was pink, and the Kleenex wadded up in her hand was mute evidence of earlier distress.

"You never know when one of them will come in handy, Pretty Lady. Now, how about that cup of coffee?" He gently touched Annie's face before planting a kiss on her cheek.

She stood aside and let him enter, closing the door behind him. She reached out her hand for his. "Kermit, it's so nice of you to drop by. It's been ages."

"Peace on earth, good will to men, and all that jazz, you know? Thought I'd pop in and see how my favorite lady was doing this holiday season." Kermit looked around the house, surprised at the lack of holiday trimmings. Normally, there were abundant amounts Christmas lights, greenery, candles, mistletoe, and anything else one could think of in the way of decorations at the Blaisdell home, a scene right out of "House Beautiful". This year, there wasn't even a tree in evidence.

"Why don't you go on into the den and make yourself comfortable, Kermit? I'll fetch us some coffee from the kitchen. And, no, I don't need any help. You, of all people, should know better than to ask."

Kermit chuckled and shook his head, even though Annie could not see the motion. "Someday you have to tell me how you do this mind reading thing, my love." He sniffed at the odor of burning logs. "Who laid the fire for you?"

"Mrs. Teel, my lovely next door neighbor. She's always dropping in to say 'Hi, do you need anything?'" Annie's smile was a little more tremulous now. "Paul always loved a fire in the wintertime."

Kermit took her hand in both of his. "He still does, Annie. Take my word for it; he still does."

Annie sniffed once. "And that's all you can say…isn't it, Kermit?"

"I'm afraid so, Pretty Lady." He sighed. "You know the rules."

"I know. But aren't I allowed to whine about them once in awhile?" A slow tear trickled down her cheek, and she quickly rubbed it away. "I'll go get that coffee now."

She moved down the hallway with sure, even steps, and Kermit followed her progress with his eyes. When she disappeared into the kitchen, he strolled into the den, noting how nothing had changed even while everything had changed in the time that Paul had been 'clearing the decks'. {A year. It's been over a year that Paul's been gone. We've all managed to keep going. Annie's done a hell of a job without him. I'm damn glad Peter's father has been here to help hold things together in that department.}

He sat on the couch and sighed wearily. {Mercenaries have no business having families,} he thought. {The price they have to pay is just too high.} He looked around at the many pictures on the mantel over the fireplace. Carolyn's wedding. Peter's graduation from the police academy. Kelly's high school graduation picture, soon to be followed by her college graduation. {Then again, Paul did well for himself. For a long time, he was able to have it all.} Closing his eyes, he shook his head. {God, I’m not a praying man, but couldn't he please have it all again?}

Kermit was shaken out of his reverie when Annie announced cheerily, "Here we are. You haven't moved anything, have you Kermit?"

"Hell, no. I remember house rules, even if it's been awhile, Annie." He smiled as he watched her set down the tray bearing a coffeepot and two cups, and slowly but surely pour coffee in both cups, leaving the index finger of one hand inside the cup to feel how full each container was getting.

She held out a cup to Kermit, and he took it from her gratefully. "Thank you, Pretty Lady. You always did make the best coffee in the free world."

Annie sat beside him on the couch. "Enough of the flattery, you old warhorse, you. Now tell me why you're really here." The smile was still on her face, but her brow furrowed worriedly. "Nothing's the matter with Peter, is there?"

Kermit laughed. "For once in his life, the kid is staying out of trouble, Annie. It's almost unnerving the way he's behaving himself. I asked him today if he was trying to make it on Santa's 'nice' list, or if he was just setting us all up for some great big fiasco after he had lulled us into a false sense of well-being."

Annie's smile faded. "He has to work both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day."

Kermit watched her face carefully. "I know, and he's not very happy about it. He threw a Peter-sized hissy fit when he saw the schedule, but he's locked in, I'm afraid."

The smile faded even more. "Carolyn and Todd and the baby are going to Todd's family this year. They're leaving Christmas Eve for New York." She took a deep breath and forced the smile to brighten once more. "They'll be back for New Year's, though. They said they'd spend a few days here then, all three of them." She nodded, and continued as if talking to herself. "I was really looking forward to having a baby in the house for Christmas…"

Kermit opened his mouth to ask, but once again, Annie seemed to read his mind.

"Kelly has this really great opportunity to go to Switzerland skiing with her college roommate. They're going to Anna's home and spend a week there with her family. Kelly's never been to Europe, and Anna's family is paying for everything, and…and…and…" Annie's hand began to shake, and Kermit quickly took her coffee cup and set it down on the glass-covered table.

"And here you are, all alone for Christmas." He pulled her into his arms and held her. "Is that why there's no tree? No lights? No decorations?"

She sniffled and nodded against his chest. "What would be the point? It's not as if I can see them. Why bother with Christmas at all if there's no one to share it with?"

Patting her back, he muttered resentfully. "I can't believe they all are going to be gone. What are they thinking of? For two cents I'd…"

"They don't know. They all think the others are going to be here, and I didn't have the heart to tell them any differently. They're all adults. They have their own lives, and it's not as if…"

"Don't you say it!" Kermit snapped angrily. "Don't you even think it! Those three kids couldn't love you more as their mother if you WERE their birth mother. So don't you give them an excuse for not being here with you."

She pushed away from his embrace to face him, as if she were really able to look into his eyes. "You have to promise me you won't say anything, Kermit."

"But, Annie, they have a right to know that…"

"Not one word, Kermit Griffin. Promise me. This is one of those times when their plans have to come first. That's the way I want it. Now, do I have your word you won't say anything?"

Kermit scowled and then snorted. "I never could deny you anything, Annie. All right. I promise that I will not say anything to any of them about what's happening."

"Not one word?"

"Not one. My lips are sealed. You want me to swear a blood oath?"

Annie's smile was back. "No, you've shed enough of your blood for other reasons. Just your word will be enough." She sighed and shook herself. "All right, enough of Annie Blaisdell feeling sorry for herself. Tell me what's up with you, Kermit."

***("I'll Be Home For Christmas" - words and music by Kim Gannon, Walter Kent, and Buck Ram, copyright 1943.)

Christmas Eve Day at the precinct was very little different from any other work day, the only noticeable difference some Christmas decorations scattered here and there, and the break room replete with Christmas cookies instead of stale doughnuts.

Peter sat at his desk, absently raking a hand through his hair as he scrawled some notes to himself after making his fifth phone call in the last half-hour. Throwing down his pencil, he shoved his chair away from his desk and slumped in it as he kicked shut a half-opened drawer.

"Feel better?" Skalany called from her side of the room.

"Yes, I do!" he snarled. "Does that make YOU feel better?"

Giggling, she retorted, "Well, actually, it does. I watch you throw a tantrum, and I realize how completely stupid it looks, and it keeps me from making an ass out of myself. Thank you, Partner."

He glared at her balefully. "I hope you get a piece of coal in your stocking."

She quipped, "I hope I get a piece of something better than that…"

Peter's scowl deepened. "Oh-h-h…don't you even go there, Skalany." The fierce look left his face and he smiled. "On second thought, my father isn't even in the city this week, so…"

Skalany pretended to look shocked. "Peter, I was talking about having a piece of my mother's world famous fruit cake. What did you think I was talking about?"

Peter's mouth dropped open as he blushed a deep crimson. {Damn it, how does she always manage to do this to me?}. "I…uh…I mean…you…"

He was saved from having to explain himself when Detective Morgan sauntered up to his desk and propped one hip on the corner of it. "Hey, Peter, looking good. Whatcha got planned for tonight and tomorrow?"

Peter slumped lower in his chair and sulked. "Work."

"How would you like to trade with me? I'll take your Christmas duty, if you take my New Year's."

Peter looked at her suspiciously. "Why?"

She shrugged nonchalantly. "I got nowhere to go. My family is one of those dysfunctional types, and if I tell my ma I gotta work, it gets me off the hook and keeps me from getting into a knockdown drag-out with the clan. So what do you say?"

Peter nearly fell out of his chair, trying to sit up straight again, and stared at Morgan is disbelief. "Is this for real? What kind of scam are you trying to pull here?"

Morgan bristled at his comment. "Look, Caine, I know that you happen to have a regular thing at the Blaisdell house for Christmas, and I was just trying to help you out here. If you're not interested, I'm sure there's half a dozen other guys who would jump at the chance to…"

"No! I'll take it! I'll take it!" Peter hastened to assure her, reaching out his hand to shake on the deal. "No strings attached, right? Even trade, holiday for holiday?"

"Whatsa matter, Caine. Doncha trust me?" Morgan grinned at him cheekily.

"In a word, no. But as long as we understand one another from the start here."

He rolled his chair back to his desk and quickly picked up the phone. Punching in the familiar number, he waited as his call rang through. "Mom?…This is Peter…Yeah, Merry Christmas to you, too…Hey, Mom?…I know this is really last minute, but how do you feel about an extra guest tonight and tomorrow?…I know I told you I had to work…One of the other detectives just offered to trade holidays with me…Kermit?…No, he's not even here today…What's that, Mom?…Sure, no problem…I can pick up a tree…Mom? You OK?…You sound like you're crying…" He laughed at her answer. "Yeah, that movie always gets to me, too…I'll see you in a couple of hours, OK, Mom?…I love you, too."

Peter pulled into the Blaisdell driveway, noting that his was the only vehicle there. {Hmm. Kelly and Carolyn must be running late tonight.} He slipped a little in the snow as he walked to the rear of the Stealth to remove the large tree that had more or less fit into the trunk. {Good thing the guy had plenty of rope,} Peter thought. {Good thing I hit his 'clearance sale', too. Holy shit, I didn't remember a tree costing this much last year!}

He dragged his prize up the front walk, but before he could ring the bell, Annie opened the door. Her face shone, and she flung herself into his arms, causing him to drop the tree to keep from losing his footing. "Wow, Mom. What a greeting! You've never attacked me before."

Her voice was muffled against his chest. "I'm just really happy to see you, Peter. You have no idea what a wonderful surprise your being able to come tonight was."

"I'm glad I could be here, too, Mom. This would have been the first Christmas I missed since you took my sorry ass in fifteen years ago. Hey, where are the girls? I thought they'd be here by now."

Annie rubbed her cheek against his shoulder. "I'm afraid that the girls aren't…"

A navy blue minivan pulled up in the driveway, horn honking loudly. The passenger side window rolled down, and Carolyn stuck out her head, calling, "Merry Christmas, Mom. Merry Christmas, Peter!" The window rolled back up again, and the front doors opened. Todd and Carolyn tumbled out to greet Annie and Peter with hugs and handshakes.

Carolyn immediately started giving orders. "Todd, you bring in the baby. Peter? What's the tree still doing outside? Mo-om, get back inside where it's warm. Where's the eggnog? Where's Kelly?" Without waiting for any answers, she swept her mother into her arms for a quick hug. Linking their arms, she and Annie walked into the house together.

Once everyone bustled inside, Todd and Peter struggled to put the tree in its stand. Carolyn marched upstairs to the attic to get the tree trimmings, while Annie sat on the couch and happily played with the baby.

Holiday lights were unnecessary; Annie's smile alone lit up the room. Nevertheless, in keeping with holiday tradition, Carolyn, Peter, and Todd argued loudly as they untangled the tree lights and tested the bulbs to make sure they all would light up.

Carolyn paused a moment and directed a question to Annie, "Mom, where's Kelly? She's always the first one to show up for this, and she's probably the one who got these lights all tangled up, too."

"Kelly won't be…"

"Kelly won't be what?" The younger Blaisdell daughter breezed into the room, laden with packages and a few small pieces of luggage.

Annie stopped short and turned her head in the direction of the voice. "I thought you were on your way to Europe? That you were leaving with Anna this afternoon?"

Kelly laughed and shrugged indifferently. "Problem with my passport at the airport. They wouldn't let me on the plane."

"Oh, Sweetie, I'm sorry. I know how you were looking forward to this trip," Annie sympathized.

"I'm not." Kelly laughed again. "Funny, the closer it got to Christmas, the less fun this trip sounded. I kept trying to think of a way to get out of it without hurting Anna's feelings or seeming ungrateful to her parents. I was never so glad for a computer glitch in my life. Now that I'm here, I can't imagine spending Christmas anywhere else."

"We're glad you're glad," Carolyn sniped at her sister. "Now get your butt over here and help fix this mess you made when you took the tree down last year."

"Me? Why is it always my fault? Just because I'm the youngest doesn't mean…"

Annie listened with half an ear to the familiar sisterly squabbling. {Computer glitch, hmm? I think I smell a rat, or should I say, frog?}

Todd called out, "Hey, Annie, you got any beer in the fridge? If Peter and I are going to put up with all this female bickering, we need a little something to help us out here."

Annie grinned. "Should be a few bottles of your brand in there. If I had known you were coming, I would have stocked up."

Peter stopped his motions and stared at Annie. "What do you mean, if you had known they were coming? Where else would they be?"

Todd answered for his mother-in-law. "We were going to spend Christmas at my folks' place, but when we got to the airport, we found out our reservations were screwed up. We weren't listed on a flight to New York until tomorrow night. I don't get it. We made those reservations last summer when the airlines were having their price wars. How the hell could they screw up something that was confirmed months ago?"

Carolyn giggled and chimed in, "Tell them the rest of the story, Todd."

He grinned. "Turns out the folks won a free trip to the Bahamas from one of those dumb contests they're always entering. They're leaving tonight for a week in the sun, and they were so excited about winning, they forgot to call us. When I called them to say we'd been delayed, they said that was good, because there wouldn't have been anyone home anyway."

He dropped the length of lights in his hand. "I need a beer if I'm supposed to make heads or tails out of this strand of lights. You want one, Peter?"

"Huh, what, Todd?" Peter looked at his brother-in-law blankly. "Oh, yeah, sure. I'll take a beer."

He turned his attention back to Annie, who was sitting with a thoughtful frown on her face. "Mom, you mean to tell me that nobody was going to be here for Christmas?"

The girls had stopped their preparations and were waiting for their mother's response.

She smiled as her chin quivered. "It looked that way for awhile," she answered softly.

"Mom, why didn't you say anything?" Carolyn demanded indignantly. "When I told you about Todd's and my plans, you said…"

"Mom, you never told me that when I told you about Anna's offer…"

"Mom…" Peter was about to add his money's worth to the familial attack, when Annie brought the sleeping baby up close to her face and kissed her, breathing in the special scent of baby oil, talcum, and love.

"It doesn't matter now, does it?" she gently scolded. "You're all here now, and we're all…" She swallowed the sudden lump in her throat. "…Almost all here. Why don't we just enjoy that?"

Peter and his sisters exchanged looks, all blinking back tears. Peter cleared his throat and accused his foster sister, "Carolyn, now that I think about it, only you could make this big a mess out of these lights."

"I did not! It was Kelly. She's always the one…"

They busied themselves about the tree, squabbling over every light and every ornament, reminiscing about past Christmas trees and arguing over what year had been the best.

Todd reentered the room and handed Peter a beer. "Anything I can get for you, Mom?" he asked.

Annie smiled and requested softly, "Play the Christmas CD in the machine. Song number four. It has always been Paul's and my favorite."

Todd obediently went over to the stereo and pushed the appropriate buttons, and a mellow baritone started to sing.

*** "I'll be home for Christmas, You can plan on me. Please have snow and mistletoe, and presents on the tree. Christmas Eve will find me, where the love light gleams. I'll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams."

Annie's face took on a faraway expression, and she murmured, "Merry Christmas, Paul."

Half a world away, on a remote mountainside, two men sat drinking glasses of wine and warming themselves before a blazing fire.

Shadows flickered across a craggy face, and Paul Blaisdell took a sip from his glass to ease the ache in his throat. "So they all made it home for Christmas? You're sure?"

"Oh, yeah-h," his companion replied comfortably. "Piece of cake."

Paul laughed. "A trip to the Bahamas? How'd you come up with that one?"

"What better way to get an elderly couple from New York away from home for Christmas than to dangle visions of suntans before their eyes instead of frostbite?"

"What did you have to bribe Morgan with to get her to trade shifts with Peter?"

"Didn't have to. She really does come from a screwed-up family. Her offer was legit. The only part that bothered me at all was throwing a wrench into Kelly's plans for Europe."

"Don't worry about it, Kermit. I see a trip to Europe as a college graduation present in my baby's future." He sipped his wine again. "Speaking of baby, did you bring…?"

"Got all the pictures right here, Paul." Kermit handed his friend a thick package. "Of everyone. The guy does nice work."

Paul opened the bundle and started to sort through the packets of photographs. He held up a close-up shot of Annie and spoke hoarsely. "Turn on the tape player, would you, Kermit? There's something I want to listen to right now."

Kermit rolled over onto his side and hit the play button on the machine before relaxing back into his former position. He listened along with his friend.

**** "I'll be home for Christmas, You can plan on me. Please have snow and mistletoe, and presents on the tree.

Paul shifted his gaze from the photograph to the dancing flames in the fireplace. Eyes wet and shiny, he sang along with the tape, his voice thin and wavering. "Christmas Eve will find me, where the love light gleams. I'll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams."

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